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Posts Tagged ‘Ursula Andress’

You know, I’ve started to wish I’d planned ahead with this special series of Peter Cushing-related posts – here we are with number three and our hero still hasn’t had a proper leading role yet. Still, at least it’s finally a film, and a Hammer production to boot: from the studio’s heyday, it’s 1965’s She, directed by Robert Day.

she

Based on the (according to the credits) ‘Famous Novel’ by H. Rider Haggard, our story opens in a Palestinian nightclub in the aftermath of the First World War, where we meet three English survivors who are looking for a purpose in life. Holly, a former academic, is played by Cushing, his manservant Job is played by Bernard Cribbins, and Leo, the one with juvenile lead written all over him, is played by perennial Hammer hunk John Richardson. While Holly and Job cavort with some belly dancers (the actors appear to be enjoying this, as you would I suppose), Leo is led astray by a mysterious girl named Ustane (Rosenda Monteros).

I feel obliged to point out that not least of the mysteries surrounding Ustane are her accent and ethnic origin. I think she’s supposed to be of vaguely Arabic descent, or possibly Egyptian, but Monteros is of course Mexican (she famously played Horst Bucholz’s love interest in The Magnificent Seven), and her accent basically defies description. That said, if you’re going to worry about roles being given to people of the wrong national ancestry, then She will almost certainly give you an ulcer, as we shall see.

Anyway, Ustane lures Leo off to an encounter with another mysterious woman, Ayesha, who is played by top-billed Ursula Andress (ancestry and accent: Swiss-German). She seems eerily familiar to Leo, and not because he’s seen Dr No. Ayesha gives Leo directions to a fabled lost city where she is in charge and invites him to come on a visit. This is not particularly to the liking of her high priest, Billali, played by Christopher Lee (ancestry: all over the place, accent: unmistakably English). Such is the scramble for prominence at the top of this film – even Richardson, the male lead, only gets fourth billing after Andress, Cushing, and Cribbins – that Lee has to settle for a dignified ‘and’, though he does have rather more than a cameo. (I still think naming a character ‘Billali’ only ten years after the release of Rock Around the Clock was probably a mistake.)

The fact that this is rather a lavish production by Hammer standards is made clear as the movie goes on location in the desert of southern Israel to show Leo, Holly, and Job’s journey to the lost city. It all looks rather impressive, and suggestively reminiscent of another famous 60s movie, but apparently it was not a comfortable shoot for the cast: in his autobiography, Peter Cushing recalls that Richardson contracted dysentery from drinking contaminated water and Cribbins was shot up the fundament by a misplaced pyro during one of the action sequences.

Anyway, la chica Ustane rescues our hero from the perils of the desert (and the special effects) and takes them home to meet her dad, the slave-master of the lost city, played by Andre Morell (ancestry: ooh, I’m not sure, Dutch from the sound of things, accent: sort of vaguely neutral). Unfortunately the slaves try to eat Leo, but before they can tuck in our heroes are whisked off to the city to meet Ayesha formally and have the plot explained to them.

It transpires that Andress is a three-thousand-year-old Egyptian noblewoman. (I know that sounds far-fetched, but I promise you: she really is supposed to be Egyptian.) She and her followers were banished here in ancient times after she jealously murdered her lover. Luckily, a passing desert hermit showed her the secret of immortality and she has been waiting for the reincarnation of her ex to show up ever since. And Leo is he! But will he surrender himself to the power of a woman who, despite her obvious charms, is clearly a bunny-boiler on an epic scale? How will Ayesha react to the thing that Leo and Ustane clearly have going on? And does anyone seriously expect Christopher Lee to appear in this kind of movie without having a go at being the main villain?

She is really a film of two halves – the first half, which really contains all the location stuff, really does a good job of showing the budget off, and one has to wonder if all this yomping about in the desert is actually Hammer’s attempt at knocking off Lawrence of Arabia: Richardson appears to have been styled to resemble Peter O’Toole, there are various long shots of folk on camels, Montero gets an entrance not entirely unlike Omar Sharif’s, and so on. If so, one can’t fault the ambition of the studio, but an epic panorama and a sweeping soundtrack do not a classic make.

The problem is that the rest of the movie is stringently studio-bound – the sets are mostly pretty good, but nevertheless it’s on soundstages – and really not very much happens beyond a lot of slightly abstract discussion. Despite the Hammer name, this isn’t really a horror movie, there’s a slave revolt at the end but you still couldn’t honestly call it an action film, it’s obviously not a serious drama, and yet the central relationship between Andress and Richardson is so underpowered that it doesn’t work as a torrid romance, either. The whole thing is much too well-behaved to work as an exploitation movie of any kind, if we’re honest – in the end it’s just an odd sort of fantasy adventure, more by default than anything else.

It doesn’t really help that the three most obvious charismatic cast members – by which I mean Cushing, Lee, and Cribbins – all get stuck in what are basically supporting roles, with the main plot concerning Richardson and Andress. Neither of them are brilliant actors, if we’re honest – I suppose we must cut Andress some slack because she is being dubbed, after all (insanely, the person dubbing her lines is also doing a Swiss-German accent) – but the script is much to blame as well. It is rather insipid stuff that never really gets going, and in the end one is left wondering exactly what the idea behind this film is – the danger of obsessive passion? The corrupting effects of beauty, immortality, and absolute power? The cyclical nature of history?

In the end I rather suspect She is more about some well-cinematographed bits of desert and Andress in a series of nice frocks than anything else, with the character actors cunningly deployed around the edges to give it some gravitas and charm, which they obviously do. It’s not a great film, or even a particularly fun one, but it’s pretty to look at and hard to actively dislike, despite some very dated racial politics. There aren’t a huge number of non-horror films that you could honestly say were essential Hammer, but She probably qualifies, despite all its weaknesses.

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Successful fictional creations seem to have a habit of breaking free of their creator’s control – sometimes, anyway. The more fully conceived a character or a setting, the more it seems to exist as a separate entity to the person who actually thought it up. I suppose this reaches its fullest expression when a new author is recruited to continue a popular series whose originator has passed away: the idea apparently being that the creator didn’t actually create somewhere new, but stumbled upon it and brought back stories already existing there, and that in theory anyone else could do the same. This is probably the ultimate backhanded compliment for a storyteller (it also happens to be a pet hate of mine, and I got told off for describing the new non-Douglas Adams Hitch Hiker book as literary grave-robbing).

Possibly the ultimate example of a character busting loose and rampaging off away from their roots is the James Bond phenomenon. I think many people could tell you who created the character, but of the billion-plus people who’ve seen one or more of the movies I suspect only a tiny minority have actually read one of Ian Fleming’s original novels. The essential concept of the character hasn’t changed that much over the years – Bond remains a very smooth blunt instrument at the command of the British government – but when you think of the (generally family-friendly) swagger and humour and over-the-top spectacle of the movies, it’s a world away from the darkness of the books. It’s also telling, I think, that when Timothy Dalton tried to go back to the source to find his characterisation audiences were not impressed – and while audiences liked Daniel Craig’s very Fleming-esque Bond in his first outing, by the time of his second they were showing signs of restlessness at how dark and downbeat the movies he appeared in were.

Ian Fleming’s own preferred choice of actor to bring James Bond to the screen was, as I think is quite well known, Roger Moore. His first choice of actor to play opposite him was his cousin Christopher Lee, which raises the alarming spectre – no pun intended – of his ideal Bond adaptation being the movie version of The Man with the Golden Gun. Then again, as I’ve said before, I think Moore is exactly right for the style of movies he made, and mainly gets stick simply for not being Connery. Going first, the Milkman (who Fleming himself apparently thought was ‘dreadful’) basically got to put up the goalposts himself – there’s a lot of Fleming’s Bond in Connery’s performance, especially at first, but he’s a bit more open emotionally (and, crucially, has more of a sense of humour) – even if he’s about as ruthless here as he’s ever allowed to be on screen.

Hey, what do you know, we’ve surreptitiously segued into an actual review of Dr No! Could this mean another Bond season is running, which will inevitably be followed by a string of Bond-related posts here? Could be. Having done the same for Moore, I think I am obliged to extend the Milkman the same courtesy.

I think it’s fairly doubtful that Eon anticipated the Bond franchise would run for 46 years (and counting) when they started pre-production on Dr No, but it’s very evident that they were playing a long game from the start. The beginning of the film is brilliantly designed to build up to our first sight of Connery’s face, which comes just as he utters one of the Bond catch-phrases and as the theme kicks in in the background. Connery has presence, there’s no denying it, but virtually anybody would come out looking good under these conditions.

In the end they persuaded him that a toupee was a better option.

The rest of the film is pretty low-key by Bond standards, with the weirder elements of the novel largely toned down or cut. (The novel’s centipede is replaced by a tarantula, a more conventional scare for those who don’t know exactly how painful tropical centipede bites can be – did I mention I was scarred for life by one of those buggers?) The omission of the climactic fight between Bond and a giant squid (no, really) one can mainly pit down to budgetary constraints, while alteration in the manner of Dr No’s demise (in the book Bond buries him alive under tons of powdered guano) is probably done for reasons of taste and decency.

What remains is a slick, tough, well-put together thriller – one can just about see the modern action movie coming into existence as the film unholds, but I don’t think anyone watching at the time would have thought the same. It’s slightly structurally odd in that of the three main characters, two of them don’t appear until deep into the second half of the story, but this does allow Bond himself to dominate which was surely the film-makers’ intention. Judging it as a ‘Bond movie’ is slightly odd and possibly unfair, as we’re talking about a set of criteria that didn’t even exist when it was made, but it emerges well anyway – shorter on spectacle than most, but also stronger on character. Almost certainly not the best movie in the series, but a landmark movie as well as a good one.

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