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Posts Tagged ‘Oliver Reed’

Rumours were rife a few years ago that the revered Canadian auteur David Cronenberg was considering retiring from film-making, simply because trying to find financing for his projects had become too much of a grind. Whether or not this is true (the current rumours are of a possible film noir-ish movie, shooting this year with Cronenberg’s regular collaborator Viggo Mortensen), there has been a bit of a gap, and Cronenberg seems to have filled his time by writing a novel, Consumed.  Some might be surprised that the acclaimed director of such historical dramas and psychological thrillers as Spider, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method should choose to go into print with what’s essentially a horror novel about cannibalism and techno-fetishism, but there is a reason why Cronenberg is still routinely referred to as a cult horror director and the high priest of body-horror in particular.

This is a label Cronenberg picked up back in the 1970s and early 80s, off the back of a string of films with titles like Shivers, Rabid, and Scanners. I think it’s fair to say that early Cronenberg has a very strong and distinctive taste, and one which still lingers in certain aspects of his later work: it might not be going too far to suggest the main theme of the Cronenberg canon is a fascination with all things psycho-sexual, an interest which initially manifested in a string of no-foolin’ horror movies.

The psycho-sexual element is present front-and-centre right from the start of Cronenberg’s 1979 film The Brood, which opens with unorthodox mental health professional Dr Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) deep in a therapy session with a clearly troubled man. Raglan’s favoured method is something known as psychoplasmics, in which the patient’s repressed emotions manifest through physiological changes in their body: tiny lesions erupt all over the skin of Raglan’s subject as the psychoplasmic demonstration continues.

Watching this is architect Frank Carveth (Art Hindle), whose estranged wife Nola (Samantha Eggar) is currently receiving intensive treatment from Raglan. The relationship between Frank and Nola is acrimonious, to say the least, and much of the trouble centres around the question of who gets custody of their five-year-old daughter Candy. When Candy returns from a visit to see her mother with scratches and bruising, Carveth is naturally concerned and starts looking for legal grounds to block Nola’s access to her, or at least keep Candy away from Raglan’s clinic.

Meanwhile, Raglan continues Nola’s therapy, encouraging her to work through her repressed anger and resentment towards various people in her life, including her mother. It is quite clearly not coincidental, then, when Nola’s mother is brutally bludgeoned to death by someone or something (Cronenberg makes it quite clear the killer is not a normal human being) while baby-sitting Candy.

The tragedy repeats itself when Nola’s father, visiting the house while drunk and grieving, meets a similar fate. Carveth himself confronts the killer, who expires in front of him: a deformed, sexless midget, with no digestive system or umbilicus. But what is the connection to Nola and Raglan, and why does the creature bear a slight but disturbing resemblance to Candy herself…?

Well, and needless to say spoiler alert, it seems that Nola has proven an exceptional subject for psychoplasmic therapy, and her body has been sprouting cysts or sacs, each of which produces one of these homuncular creatures: born of a deeply troubled psyche, they act upon Nola’s subconscious desires without her being aware of it. Raglan, who despite his serious and urbane demeanour is clearly a lunatic mad scientist of the classic type, has getting on for a dozen of these things locked up at his clinic, but they have started breaking out and articulating Nola’s repressed emotions in an actually physical way…

A response of ‘Ewwww,’ is entirely acceptable, and may in fact be obligatory for the scene where Eggar produces yet another of her psychoplasmic spawn, tearing open the birthing pouch with her teeth. (Cronenberg complained that a lengthy shot of Eggar licking the newborn creature was edited by the censors with the result it gave the impression she was actually eating it, ‘much worse than I was suggesting.’) To be fair, though, apart from a little bit of bloody violence, this is a relatively restrained film prior to the climax: indeed, until the first murder, the focus is almost domestic, with Carveth and Nola more concerned about their family situation than anything else.

Bearing this in mind perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Cronenberg himself had recently been through fraught divorce proceedings, to which this film formed a response: the director suggested it was a variation on the same theme as Kramer Vs Kramer, ‘only more realistic’. Perhaps it says something about the essentially cerebral nature of Cronenberg’s work that this never really feels like a personal story, the director working out an issue of his own – indeed, the characters are quite thinly presented, just adding to the sense this is on some level an allegory or fable. There is perhaps something problematic in this interpretation: Carveth is the loving, misunderstood father; Nola a vindictive loon.

Cronenberg himself has suggested this is the closest of all his films to being a ‘classic’ horror movie, and if I was going to be harsh I would suggest The Brood certainly features a lot of horror movie acting as it is stereotypically (and perhaps unfairly) understood, by which I mean that Hindle is a bit wooden and Eggar is over the top, and the best performance comes from the mad scientist. At this point in his career Oliver Reed was just transitioning from (ahem) brooding, saturnine leading man to brooding, silver-fox, borderline-unemployable character actor, and he is unusually restrained but as effective as ever as Raglan. You kind of wish he was in the movie a bit more; if nothing else he provides serious gravitas.

The classic-horror-movie-ish-ness of The Brood extends beyond the presence of a mad scientist doing weird experiments; the homicidal midgets inevitably recall the killer from Don’t Look Now, and there is something of the slasher movie in the way the creatures sneak into their victims’ home or place of work before suddenly unleashing bloody slaughter upon them (though ‘basher movie’ might be more apropos given their clear fondness for blunt force trauma). There is inevitably some tonal unevenness when it comes to the combination of schlocky, slightly camp horror and intense psychological drama, but on the whole this just gives the film a distinct identity of its own. This may not be one of Cronenberg’s most ambitious or visually striking films, but it’s satisfyingly intelligent and repulsive in a way he manages uniquely well.

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Basil Dearden’s 1969 film The Assassination Bureau (with the additional word Limited added in some territories) opens with a jolly music-hall-style tune and a montage of attempted Edwardian-era killings going wrong in various amusing ways. Contract killing, it is suggested, was always rather more miss than hit, at least until the closing years of the nineteenth century, at which point a new and rather more efficient organisation of assassins appeared on the scene – the titular bureau, various of whose more creative exploits (lifts with the floor sawn out, etc) are illustrated throughout the opening titles.

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Despite all this mayhem, it seems like the only person onto the existence of the Bureau is feisty young reporter Sonia Winter (Diana Rigg), who promises to bring the details of the organisation to a major newspaper if it will oblige her by furthering the course of female emancipation by giving her a job. The proprietor, Lord Bostwick (Telly Savalas) agrees to sponsor her investigations.

Miss Winter has already figured out how to contact the Assassination Bureau and arranges an interview with its chairman (this entails various unlikely security arrangements). The leader of the gang is one Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed) – who, despite his name, has been raised as a very proper English gentleman – who enquires as to who it is that Miss Winter would like bumped off. It turns out the gentleman she has in mind to be killed is Dragomiloff himself. He initially laughs it off, saying she couldn’t afford the fee, but the money provided by Bostwick gives him pause, and he accepts the contract on himself.

Why on earth would he do this? Convening a meeting of the senior assassins, Ivan reveals his reasons: the Bureau was founded with moral notions at its core, the idea being that they would never assassinate someone who did not, on some level, really deserve to die. However, Ivan has come to suspect his associates have lost their moral compass somewhat and are simply killing people for money, which is abhorrent in his eyes. By orchestrating this conflict between them and him, Ivan will be able to purge the Assassination Bureau of its unworthy members, dealing with them one-by-one as they move against him. (Yes, this doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but it’s the notion that the whole movie is predicated on, so you just have to go with it.)

So Ivan sets out across Europe, Miss Winters reluctantly in tow, engaging and despatching his colleagues in France, Switzerland, and other well-known and photogenic locations. What Miss Winters doesn’t know is that Lord Bostwick is a member of the Bureau and set to take over if Ivan is killed, and what Ivan doesn’t know is Bostwick’s plan to use the Bureau as an instrument to incite a major war and redraw the map of Europe…

The Assassination Bureau is one of those movies which probably looked good on paper (it was based on a story by Jack London): the premise has a certain appeal, Basil Dearden is a notable name in the annals of British cinema, and it has an impressive cast – apart from Rigg, Reed, and Savalas, the supporting players include Curt Jurgens (or however you want to spell his name), Warren Mitchell, and many other familiar faces from British films and TV. It’s almost remarkable, in fact, that a film with so much talent attached to it should end up so extremely undistinguished.

It’s easy to see the film’s place in the lineage of zany and tongue-in-cheek comedies of the 1960s – it often plays very much like an Edwardian-dress version of one of the Bond pastiches that were ubiquitous at the time – but, as ever, the main problem is that it just isn’t very funny, and this is probably due to the tonal uncertainty of the film. As you might expect from the title and the subject matter, this is a film with a very significant body-count – there are various shootings, stabbings, poisonings and a lot of deaths by bombing – and the film neither treats these seriously enough to work as a proper thriller, nor floats them past the camera archly enough for it all to work on a tongue-in-cheek level. Much of it is so cartoony that when a character sticks his fork into a bomb disguised as a German sausage and the screen fills with the flash of an explosion, you expect them to emerge with ragged clothes and a blackened face. But they don’t. They just die. It’s almost like a Tom and Jerry cartoon where a horribly mutilated cat has to be taken to the vet at the end.

The murderousness of the script also sits oddly with the various scenes where Rigg and Reed debate the morality of murder and especially of paying someone to kill. This isn’t really done in earnest, but is a pretext for the romance which inevitably develops between the duo. I think both Oliver Reed and Diana Rigg are tremendous actors, neither of whom had the big-screen career their talents deserved, and so I can only assume the lack of chemistry between them is down to the script: Rigg is almost playing a slightly more vulnerable variation on her Mrs Peel character, while Reed is stuck with the dashing male lead, the kind of role which doesn’t require the intensity and suggestion of inner darkness which were his real strengths. (It has to be said that by the end of the film Diana Rigg is very much playing a subordinate role to Reed, in plot terms.)

Of course, if we’re going to talk about 1969 films about suave, saturnine assassins taking on an international conspiracy, with Diana Rigg as the love interest and Telly Savalas as the villain, then the temptation is almost to look at The Assassination Bureau in order to get an idea of what a certain other film might have looked like if Eon had made better casting choices and George Lazenby had remained a vanishingly obscure figure in cultural history. I sort of hope this is misguided, because it’s not a great movie by any chalk – the actors do their best, but the script is poor, the direction not especially impressive, and some of the special effects are absolutely awful.

One is tempted to say that films like The Assassination Bureau illustrate why the British film industry went into such a steep decline, but that might be excessively harsh on the movie. Perhaps if Reed and Rigg had gone on to have the kinds of film careers their talent deserved, this film would just be a curious historical oddity and a reminder that even a film that sounds promising can turn out to be a bit duff. As things stand, though, it gives what’s honestly a slightly poor film a really melancholy edge.

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It is with some relief that I turn away from the rise of Nazism, the horrors of the trenches, and anti-semitic pogroms in the last days of Tsarist Russia, and instead apply my attention to musical which is – everyone agrees – almost completely charming and lovely, provided you overlook a few minor elements of the story, such as widescale exploitation of children, violent crime, and an abusive relationship ending in someone being battered to death. At least the anti-semitism this time around is fairly low-key, probably because the gentleman who wrote all the music and lyrics was himself Jewish.

I speak of course of Carol Reed’s 1968 film Oliver!, the last musical for nearly 35 years to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and the last British film to do so until Chariots of Fire in 1981. Despite this, and the fact it has a British cast and director, it still feels like an oddly Americanised version of Charles Dickens, on whose novel Oliver Twist it is obviously based.

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The film admits to being a ‘free adaptation’ of Dickens, but most of the bits you probably know from the book are still here (yes, both of them). Oliver Twist (Mark Lester, consistently moist throughout and frequently downright wet) has grown up in a workhouse in Dunstable, but is thrown out when he dares to ask for second helpings after dinner one day. After a brief interval working for an undertaker, he hitch-hikes down to London.

Here he falls into arguably very bad company, primarily that of Fagin (Ron Moody) and his gang of child pickpockets, including the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild). Amongst Fagin’s connections is the rather more brutal criminal Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed), whose devoted girlfriend Nancy (Shani Wallis) nevertheless takes a shine to the small damp waif. When Oliver falls back into the hands of the authorities, Sikes and Fagin are deeply concerned he may be about to snitch on the lot of them, and their scheme to get him back results in tragedy, as well as a few top-rate song and dance numbers…

Mmm, yes, about those song and dance numbers – there is surely the argument to be made that when it comes to musical films, the overall quality of the actual piece is fundamentally linked to how good the songs are – the tunes are, essentially, the sine qua non of a musical, right? If this is the case, then Oliver! is surely one of the greatest musicals of all time, for the killer-to-filler ratio is so good as to lend credence to the suggestion that Lionel Bart (writer of same) was some kind of musical genius. The problem, such as it is, is really that the film-makers know how good the songs are and possibly milk them just a bit too much. The film’s huge set-piece numbers, primarily ‘Consider Yourself’ and ‘Who Will Buy?’, seem to go on forever, with more and more dancers turning up as the choruses repeat. And I find it just a bit draining, not to mention the fact that it’s a Disney-picture-book-ish portrait of Victorian London (I can’t quite shake the suspicion everyone involved was sneakily looking at Mary Poppins and working out how to go one bigger and better).

It’s all a bit at odds with the main thrust of the tale, which (as noted) is an essentially dark one (the climactic chase puts me rather in mind of how some Hammer movies conclude, although this may be down to Reed’s long-standing connection to the House of Horror). The most engaging characters in the film, Fagin and the Dodger, are at best amoral rogues, and the scenes in the criminal netherworld are a good deal more interesting than the ones in ‘respectable’ London. But the songs aren’t really about this world, apart from perhaps ‘You Got To Pick A Pocket or Two’, and even this is another cheery little number. Cut from the film, quite possibly because Oliver Reed couldn’t sing, was Bill Sikes’ song ‘My Name’, and as a result Reed has to rely on sheer charisma to make an impression (needless to say, he manages it effortlessly).

The odd tension at the heart of Oliver! is that the theme of what’s quite a dark story is one of belonging and camaraderie – most of the songs are either about the pleasure and comfort of being part of a gang, or part of a world (most obviously ‘Consider Yourself’), or the other side of the coin, feeling lonely and abandoned (‘Where is Love’, ‘As Long As He Needs Me’). Even the utterly brilliant comic character song, ‘Reviewing the Situation’ (which, as performed by Moody, is just about as perfect a marriage of actor and material as anything in the history of musical cinema) has a brief moment of pathos as Fagin contemplates his own mortality and lonely old age.

In the end, though, this is ultimately cinema as grand entertainment, mounted on a lavish scale (complete with overture, entr’acte, and exit music on its original release), and the songs from the original much more intimate stage version of the show thrive here surprisingly well, helped by a very strong cast and great performances (even if, these days, you can’t really watch Jack Wild here without being reminded of everything else that came later in his life). For me there just a bit too much emphasis on jolly spectacle at the expense of the story for Oliver! to qualify as a movie absolutely of the first rank, but it’s still a great piece of entertainment.

 

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