Elstree 1976 (2015)

elstree1This kind of Doc should be right up my street; I remember both the summer of 1976 and of course the media hysterics surrounding Star Wars‘ release the following summer (and Winter here in the UK). Sometimes it feels rather like yesterday, and Star Wars still something new and relevant and exciting, but that was 44 years ago- its like looking back from the perspective of 1977 and thinking about films made in 1933. That’s a little like comparing Star Wars to the 1933 King Kong, which makes me feel older than I feel and depresses me. Thinking like that can depress anyone.

Sometimes I think I’ll always be ten or eleven deep inside, like 1976 etc is locked away in there, all those Marvel comics I was reading, or paperbacks like Logans Run and the Making of book about the 1976 King Kong, with Star Wars and Close Encounters and Superman: The Movie  just around the corner…

Alas Elstree 1976 finds it too difficult to really capture the feeling of 1976: I think it should have shown some news footage or home movies, maybe, of that summer and how people dressed and what music we listened to (ABBA, for one thing). Yeah, the soundtrack missed a trick there; it should have played songs from 1976 to emphasis the sense of the ‘now’, the fashions (hideous as they may be now). Capture the moment and how this country was back then. A sense of the place, too, as I really didn’t get any feeling for what Elstree was like that summer.

I did enjoy the reminiscences of some of those involved in the making of the film: maybe it should have been opened up more to talk with some of the craftsmen and technicians as well as those actors. Some of the stories and observations were fine, but it seemed to only briefly actually talk about making Star Wars at Elstree before going off to talk about later careers and movies and convention appearances. Much of that was padding out the running time- as it is, the film could have been half-hour shorter and lose very little. Indeed, had it been edited to 60 minutes it would make an excellent extra on a home release of Star Wars.

Still, at least it offered some perspective away from the stars of the film who usually take all the attention, and I really did appreciate some of the observations, sense of perspective some of them had regards this strange little movie that refuses to go away like most others did.

Elstree 1976 is currently streaming on Amazon Prime

The 4K Adventure is Just Beginning- ST:TMP 4K?

sttmp1Coincidences can be… well, curious. Sunday before last, I spent an idle afternoon re-watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture on Blu-ray. It’s easily my favourite Star Trek film and still holds up pretty well; indeed, Robert Wise’s 1979 film is one of those odd films that seems to get better with age. Partly I think that’s due to the slow pace of the film, something that was a major criticism at the time of its release but seems a boon these days, as the rapid cutting of films only increased over the decades afterwards, particularly in action sequences, and I much prefer slower pacing in films. Also, the slow pace in ST:TMP‘s case tends to add a sense of the ‘epic’, of gravitas to the story, a hallmark of ‘old’ science fiction movies in which ideas took precedence over action.

The film certainly isn’t perfect, but the Directors Cut that was released on DVD way back in 2002 was definitely stronger than the theatrical. Unfortunately it was rendered strictly within the limitations of the SD age and is wholly unacceptable for HD, which was why we are stuck with the 1979 theatrical  in recent years. What is getting people excited are rumours that the film is being readied for a 4K release and that Paramount seem to have gotten serious about re-building the Directors Cut (overseen by the late Robert Wise back in the day, and hopefully still respectful of his intentions). The first rumours surfaced at the end of last year, and this week Bruce Botnick announced he has been remastering the original music masters for a Dolby Atmos mix for the film– presumably for the rumoured 4K edition.

Naturally they could be just intending a 4K release of the theatrical version, but if they are going to the trouble of a Dolby Atmos mix, that suggests additional work being done which would seem to make an updated Directors Cut (with effects rendered in 2K, most probably) more likely. Well, fingers crossed. Some people seem to be expecting it before the end of the year -which would be great, no doubt- but I think early next year more likely; I just hope if they are doing it, they do it right. Really improve those CGI effects, maybe push things a little more. Perfect the damned thing- after all, it’s surely the films Last Chance Saloon.

stbookIncidentally, what got  me re-watching the film in the first place was the news that Preston Neal Jones’ well-regarded book Return to Tomorrow: The Filming of Star Trek  –  The Motion Picture has been released as an ebook (just £8 on Kindle). The book is an oral history of the making of the film, based on interviews Jones made for an in-depth Cinefantastique article that was commissioned but never published (I remember reading hints/promises about them printing that article for years in that mag). I could never afford to order the paperback edition for fear of import duties etc so its great to finally have the opportunity. The book doesn’t have any illustrations/images from the film so is ideal for porting to an ebook, I  haven’t finished it yet, but its a fantastic summer read.

I don’t know, is it wrong to think that the omens seem to be in the air? We have Titan Book’s Art of ST:TMP tome still due later this year (currently September I think), Preston Neal Jones’ book finally being affordable over here in the UK, and now rumours of the 4K release. Who knows? Its been a great year for 4K releases of catalogue films, and a really good 4K edition of the Directors Cut of ST:TMP would be fantastic, albeit yes, highly surprising. I dearly hope its coming-  my copy of the ST:TMP Directors Cut DVD is a R1 copy that I can’t watch anymore, which has been a sour Romulan Ale in my gut for a few years now.

The Big Combo (1955)

big1Another lapse on my disc buying- a sale on the Arrow website for a budget re-release of their previously OOP Four Film Noir Classics Blu-ray set was like Kryptonite straight to my current weak spot (£25 for four noir in HD with plenty of extras seemed a steal). So we start with what seems to be the highest-regarded film of the set: The Big Combo (a no-doubt inebriated Time Out reviewer during a 1970s revival gushed that it was the greatest film of all time, or something along those lines).

The Big Combo clearly isn’t the greatest film of all time, or the greatest noir film, either, but it is a very solid and beautifully photographed piece of work (the great cinematographer John Alton truly painting with light in this- its an exquisite-looking film, one of the most beautiful noir’s I’ve yet seen and a wonder to behold on Arrow’s disc). The music score is also particularly memorable, a moody, jazzy score typical of the genre but definitely one of the better ones I’ve heard. The film is very inventive in places- it features a truly bizarre torture scene and a later on a murder scene that plays out in complete silence: I can easily understand why the film is so highly regarded.

big2Its also, having watched Kiss Me Deadly the night before, a refreshingly subtle film (although to be honest, compared to that film, what film wouldn’t seem subtle?).

Sure, this film was quite dark and violent, full of typical noir tropes but it didn’t feel the need to bash me over the head every few minutes, and strangely enough, in the end this film was possibly even more subversive and daring in many ways. Gangster boss Mr Brown (a smooth but threatening Richard Conte) has two henchmen- Fante (an impossibly-young looking Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Hoffman) – who are homosexual lovers, something not made explicit but clearly signposted for anyone paying attention. Beautiful blonde Susan (Jean Wallace) is Mr Brown’s girl, but she’s captive lover, a trophy for the big tough boss (she’s already tried suicide as a way out). One evening during an argument when they are alone in his apartment, Mr Brown grasps at her and she tries to push him away, but he persists, lowering his head behind her out of camera view, and she eventually lets out a near-orgasmic sigh of guilty pleasure at whatever he’s doing to her (I’m not sure how this got past the censors at the time). This film seems to be confirming what other film’s good guys always suspected- the bad guys are better lovers.

Certainly the hero of the film, Police Lieutenant Diamond (Cornel Wilde) who is himself unhealthily obsessed with Susan, seems a rather impotent individual (his ill-fated girlfriend is a nightclub dancer who hints its been six months since she last saw him). Diamond is wound up too tight, obsessed with bringing down Mr Brown and rescuing Susan -indeed  its suggested that he is so focused on Mr Brown simply because of Susan, the object of an unrequited love. As usual with these roles, Mr Brown is obviously the more interesting of the two- dynamic, strong and bold, while Diamond is very square, repressed and frustrated. Its interesting that at the close of the film (and I hope I’m not crossing too far into spoiler territory with a film 65 years old), that Susan and Diamond don’t fall into a typical clinch at the end- suggesting that Diamond may have saved the girl, but he won’t necessarily get the girl. This was really very refreshing, frankly, and typical of the restraint and sophistication of the film and how it bucks trends with impressive grace. This film is definitely one of the greats, and that Time Out reviewer wasn’t far wrong.

 

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

kiss1“I don’t care what you do to me, Mike – just do it fast!”

An absolutely insane movie this, even considering social standards of the era, its astonishingly non-PC and perhaps a guilty pleasure because of it (even if one feels the need for a shower afterwards, as if the film makes a viewer unclean just watching it). A gutsy film noir that has been bred with a Cold War science fiction flick: welcome to the hi-octane Apocalypse, Mickey Spillane-style.

A terrified woman in just a trenchcoat staggers onto a deserted road at night, futilely tries to call out to passing traffic for help until a speeding motor approaches, almost losing control and wildly screeching off the road in an attempt to avoid her. The driver is tough-guy detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker, who repeatedly reminded me of the late, great Bill Paxton), who is less concerned by a near-naked woman abandoned in the road at night than he is restarting his car: indeed, he allows her a ride almost as a reluctant afterthought once he has the motor running. He drives her away, and over a breathless soundtrack of a woman’s panting breaths, likely deliberately sexually suggestive, the films titles work backwards down the screen, a puzzling almost arthouse choice that disorientates. Before Hammer can drop the woman, Christina (Cloris Leachman) off at the next bus station as she requests, they are run off the road by assailants unknown, Hammer incapacitated and knocked unconscious. The next scene is particularly grisly, with a naked Christina tortured to death only slightly off-screen (we see her flailing legs and hear her terrible screams- as usual, audience imagination filling in the horrible blanks). Its genuinely disturbing.

Soon after, Hammer’s car, with unconscious hero and dead victim back onboard, is pushed over the brink of a cliff-like ridge simulating a terrible crash. Somehow Hammer survives. We’re just ten minutes and a few scenes in and this film is clearly going to be a nasty and ugly piece of work. More than that, its actually something like genius- I was absolutely blown away by the sheer affront on my sensibilities that this film repeatedly took.

kiss3Even the nominal hero is a horrible, sadistic jerk. Hammer is a detective who does little detecting- instead he lets his associates, one of them his secretary, the other his car mechanic (!), risk their lives detecting for him. Hammer grins manically as he threatens an old man by smashing one of the old man’s priceless vinyl records,  and later gleefully slams a drawer shut on an informers fingers, but is pretty much all instinct, no thought. A police confidant trying to warn Hammer whispers the words “Manhattan Project” revealing whats really going on, but Hammer only mutely, dumbly, stares back.

Hammer is a thug, and a predatory one where women are concerned (that said, they do have an odd predilection to throw themselves at him- through much of the film I had been genuinely curious regards what they saw in him, until I realised its all some kind of adolescent male fantasy from the books that is possibly, hopefully, being ridiculed here). One might shudder at how Connery’s Bond treats his women; Hammer is worse. One has to wonder what the noisy Youtube Warriors would make of it if they troubled to watch pre-millennium films.

Director Robert Aldrich and screenwriter AI Bezzerides clearly didn’t like Spillane, his books or his characters- in many ways this film is intent on destroying it all, ridiculing it, undermining it, twisting it into doom-laden satire. They cannily shift the location from New York to sunny Los Angeles but yet maintain many of noir’s visual tropes; some of the imagery is striking and locations impressively gritty and bleak. The drugs of the original book are replaced by a scientific mystery box that could destroy us all, and barring the doomed Christina, the women are sexual objects that objectify and lust over the sadistic Hammer, offering themselves as casually as offering a drink. The plot races by so quickly, throwing names and places and violence and death so relentlessly that it can leave us as confused and lost as Hammer (I really wonder if even a second viewing would make more sense of it for me, but on first viewing it frankly seemed an unfathomable riddle, almost exhausting).

kiss2The genuinely apocalyptic finale is an astonishing nightmare, in which Lily (Gaby Rodgers), a woman who dares cheat and defy Hammer meets a particularly horrible fiery end. The soundtrack becomes a frenzy of her screams accompanied by  an air raid-like siren from the gates of Hell-  literally, all Hell breaks loose as if we’re suddenly watching a Quatermass movie. And we’re pretty confident that Hammer still doesn’t know whats going on- indeed, having been shot by Lily and likely suffering a deadly radiation burn, he is dragged from the conflagration by his Secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) who he was supposed to save but who ends up saving him. Its a bit like the end of a Bond caper showing Bond being saved by Miss Moneypenny.

Its an ugly film, the irony is that it is so beautifully shot and crafted, with some brilliant imagery, but nonetheless an amoral and astonishing ride. Its such a strange thing, in that very little ever makes sense, but it is quite horribly brilliant for it. Its a film of chaos and confusion, a wild and crazy ride, and I’m sure utterly unforgettable.

“Kiss me, Mike. I want you to kiss me. Kiss me. The liar’s kiss that says I love you, and means something else.”

Detour: A Bad-Luck Odyssey

detour1Edgar G.Ulmer’s 1945 noir nightmare Detour is a delirium of ill-Fate. Anybody who has felt their life is spiralling out of control at the whim of unseen forces will see much that is familiar in Detour– as will anybody who feels they never got an even break or fulfilled their early promise and dreams. Protagonist Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is a perennial loser; a gifted musician whose dreams of success and Carnegie Hall lie in tatters, reduced to playing piano in a threadbare dead-end New York nightclub. The only good thing in his life is his beautiful singer girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake), but then even she disappoints him when she decides to leave and seek fame in Hollywood.  Al can’t see the point- after a lifetime of disappointments, he knows he’s beat and only more bitter failure awaits in that city of broken dreams. Eventually his loneliness gets the better of his depression and he decides to hitchhike across the county to Sue and try convince her that they get married. But Al doesn’t realise his bad luck is only going to take several turns for the worse (at the film’s close Al will ruefully note “…fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me, for no good reason at all”).

detour4Detour is a fascinating film, as much for things off-screen as on. There is a seductive parallel in  the career of Al and that of the films director, whose film-making career was sidelined to Hollywood Poverty Row after a scandalous romance with the married niece of the head of Universal. It saw Ulmer kicked out of the major studios forever, after just one movie (the well-regarded Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi Horror The Black Cat (1934)). Always on the outside, looking in, Ulmer was forced to make no-budget b-movies for the rest of a frustrated career and possibly felt some kinship and sympathy for the frankly unlikable dead-end losers of Detour: indeed, is part of the films fascination down to the sympathy it has for its monsters and victims of fate?

In Arizona, Al is picked up by gambler Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald) and Al’s luck seems to have changed (Haskell buys penniless Al a meal and is going to the West Coast himself) but while they take turns driving to make good time, and Al is at the wheel, it starts to rain – when Al pulls up to raise the car’s hard-top he struggles to wake Haskell up. When Al opens the passenger door, Haskell falls out of the car and smashes his head on a rock on the ground. Haskell is dead -has died in his sleep, inferred by medication he repeatedly took earlier and Al’s inability to wake him- but it looks suspicious with his head smashed in. Al panics and hides Haskell’s body in a ditch off the road, and changes into Haskell’s clothes so he can continue his journey in Haskell’s car, posing as Haskell.

But is what we have been told by Al, and seen onscreen, what really happened? Is the narrative that Al fears the cops may come to after seeing the body etc what actually happened? Part of the hypnotic quality of Detour is the unreliability of its narrator: Al continuously professes his innocence, caught up in events out of his control, but what we ‘see’ doesn’t always gel with what Al says in his narration, or it feels somehow dubious. Possibly this is down to the film’s meagre budget- shot on just three sets, some drenched in fog to hide how bad they are, with lots of unconvincing rear projection, little in the film itself actually convinces; it looks ‘wrong’. In some sections the film has been flipped, leaving drivers at the wheel on the wrong side of the car and the cars on the wrong side of the road. Its all likely a result of working so cheap, but it does work in the films favour in adding particular doubts on Al’s veracity.

Regards unreliable narratives, in later years director Ulmer made claims that when a young man still in Germany, he worked on Metropolis (1926) and “M” (1931) as well as other classics, claims that have never been substantiated but air a certain mystique to his career and thoughts of what might have been had he not been relegated to Hollywood’s Poverty Row (Detour was made for PRC – the Producers Releasing Corporation, often described as the ‘skid row’ of Hollywood’s Poverty Row).

detour2Al, now posing as Haskell, resumes his journey West. He notices a lone woman at the roadside, thumbing for a ride near a garage. Al calls her over and allows her to join him. This is Vera (Ann Savage), an attractive but world-beaten woman “Man, she looked as if she’d just been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world!” Al’s narration tells us. Vera is a monster, a witch, a harpy, a bitter vengeful woman angry at the world and everything in it, and woe anyone that gets caught in her path. To make matters worse for Al, she hitched with Heskell a few days before, so knows that this isn’t Al’s car, and that he isn’t Haskell. One has to consider if the film should almost have a glum Humphrey Bogart voice-over here: “of all the hitch-hikers in all the world, I had to pick up this one!” Vera immediately blackmails Al, spitting threats to turn him in to the police unless he does as she says, which first involves selling Haskell’s car for a fast buck and later Al continuing to pose as Haskell when she learns from a newspaper that Haskell’s rich father is dying and leaving his son an inheritance. Al has a sudden flash of insight, realising they can never get away with it, but Vera is adamant; she is dying of consumption and has nothing to lose and will drag Al down to Hell with her.

detour3Another detour: Tom Neal, who stars as the luckless Al, was for several years in an on/off relationship with rising-star actress Barbara Payton.  A noted amateur boxer, Neal was in a fight with love-rival and actor Franchot Tone in Payton’s front yard that left Tone in hospital. Possibly out of guilt, Payton subsequently married Tone, the rabid news coverage leaving Neal essentially blacklisted from working in Hollywood. However, Tone and Payton’s marriage only lasted weeks before Payton went back to Neal, and Payton and Neal’s relationship became gossip-tabloid fodder for years until they themselves split up. Payton’s promising career was long over and her life spiralled downwards into alcoholism, drugs, prostitution and and an early death in 1967 at just 39. Neal, meanwhile, became a landscape gardener and later remarried. His wife died and he later married again, but after a few years he killed this wife by shooting her in the back of her head, which he claimed was an accident. Convicted of manslaughter, he served six years until released in 1971, soon after which he died in his sleep of heart failure. Just 59 years old.

Yes, I appear to have taken a detour.

But isn’t it strangely hypnotic and fascinating, how the sleazy underbelly of Hollywood arises from stories surrounding this film, or, when watching it, one can get distracted from its unreliable narrative with considerations of the real-life stories of those on and off the screen. I suppose this is a special trick of old movies: as I have remarked before, one can look up cast names on the internet and learn their real stories, lifetimes summarised in pithy paragraphs.

detour6Ann Savage, who plays Vera with such consummate, horrifying scariness: a character decades ahead of her time, almost out of time, as if the character of a Quentin Tarantino crime flick fell through past decades into another movie. Possibly the scariest femme fatalle I have ever seen. Pretty. Earthy. Brutal. Desperate. Despicable. Once ensnared by her, Al doesn’t have a chance. Not long after making Detour, Ann Savage left pictures, got married, and later worked as a secretary at a law firm. Our loss. She’s clearly a b-movie actress at work here but my goodness, her Vera is something else: not evil incarnate as much as a monster created by the world, a victim herself, really, lashing out at the world with genuine venom. Poor Al.

If we believe him. As Al tells it, the two have a fight, and Vera storms off in a drunken rage to her room, becoming entangled by the phone cord around her neck as she threatens to finally inform the police on Al. Desperate, Al pulls on the cord that runs under the door, unknowingly throttling Vera to death…

But how much of any of Al’s version of the events in this movie is true? Should we believe anything of what we have seen? Is Al’s self-pity and sense of impending doom from the vagaries of fate just him trying to absolve himself of responsibility for his own actions? Has his mind taken a detour from his reality, telling an alternative version of events? Is it something of a synchronicity that I watched Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder so recently, a film itself full of moral ambiguity, lies and untruths?

Detour is a brutal, hypnotically fascinating masterpiece from the gutter of Hollywood, and I have to wonder if any of its narrative is true, where the lies begin and end, how the celluloid fantasy frozen forever bleeds out into the realities of those that made it.

Rambo: Last Blood (2019)

ramboHopefully that title is a promise, unless some twit decides we deserve Rambo: Last Blood Part Two.

I can’t figure out, for the life of me, how they messed up something as simple as this movie. I say ‘messed up’ but what I’m really referring to is… well, if ever a film betrayed signs of re-shoots and hasty confused editing trying to keep all of its eighteen executive producers, plus its additional five co-executive producers, plus its additional four producers content with what all their hard ‘producing’ finally produced onto the screen… well, I guess my answer is all there. A Rambo film is the simplest thing in the world, or should be, and it certainly doesn’t need twenty-seven possibly conflicting voices in the mix (I didn’t bother counting the ‘line producers’ I was getting dizzy enough as it is). I mean, this is Rambo; you put him into conflict with bad guys and  raise the stakes/tension until releasing it in an orgy of cathartic violence as Rambo destroys and mutilates scum who totally deserve it. I could write it over a weekend.

After the frankly amazingly surprisingly good Rambo from 2008 (how on Earth it has taken so many years to follow that success with a fifth film is remarkable in itself) this film is a terrible disappointment. Its not a complete disaster, but it too cynically, I think, copies everything from that fourth film and wastes a promising premise that pits Rambo against a Mexican crime syndicate/private army past due a visit from the Grim Reaper. I mean these bad guys are Scum with a very definite capital ‘S’ and, well, I was hardly expecting a blood-soaked Sicario but this was a pretty incredibly dumb movie. Any teenage niece who is forbidden to drive across the border to her estranged father but who then drives off  ‘to my  freinds house, promise’ the next morning is… well, Rambo is actually somehow shocked but nobody watching the film is. Irresponsible parenting, Rambo, that’s what I call it. You ground her her and let her sulk awhile. You just let her drive off, well, you only got yourself to blame for what happens.

Oh well. At least the action when it comes is graphic and shocking enough to keep us awake and cheer Rambo up (he’s never really happier than when he’s disembowelling someone or tearing his heart out or snapping bones or blowing scum up and he can turn it into art, clearly). Its just a shame that somehow such a simple premise gets so confused (why does Rambo just walk unprepared into a stronghold of over 40 bad guys if its isn’t just an excuse to beat the shit out of Rambo yet again and make things even more personal?).

Not a complete disaster I suppose and with ever further reduced expectations it might get better a second and third time. I mean, its Rambo, ‘innit?

The Hunter (1980)

hunterSteve McQueen’s last movie.

Fate made it that- I believe that McQueen discovered he was seriously ill only after finishing shooting The Hunter, and sadly passed away in November 1980, at the age of just 50 years old; far too young, and a huge loss to American film. Not, perhaps, that you could tell that from the quality -or lack of- demonstrated in this mediocre action film, but anyone who knew of McQueen and was aware of his filmography, the roles that he had played, so many of them iconic, anyone could appreciate the loss. Most actors make good films, great films -if they are lucky- but most actors also make bad films, lousy films. Its just a bitter turn of fate that Steve McQueen, once the biggest star on the planet, made a pretty dire film for his last film.

The most shocking thing about The Hunter, to me, is just how much it looks like a tv movie, or the pilot of a tv series. Seriously, I wouldn’t have been surprised had I looked it up afterwards and learned that McQueen was dabbling with making a tv series and that this was a prospective pilot. And believe me, back in 1980, there was nothing good about that- the scale and ambition of HBO and Netflix etc were decades away, and television was really looked down upon as cheap and inferior, so a movie looking like an episode of The Fall Guy or Starsky and Hutch?  Featuring someone who was once the biggest male superstar in film? And it turns out to be his swansong, his last film, his farewell picture? Shocking, perhaps, is not strong enough a word.

True, The Hunter has its moments -very few of them, anyway- but mostly they are moments of nostalgia, from seeing familiar faces like Eli Wallach, Ben Johnson, and realising that yes, that’s Levar Burton (Star Trek :The Next Generation‘s Geordi La Forge) sharing scenes with Steve McQueen, by God! And sure, maybe there is some appeal in its simplistic, daft, easy going sense of very gentle fun. The film has an almost archaic, sweet sense of humour, and perhaps there are hints, in self-deprecating moments, of the approach and films that McQueen would have possibly made in later years, reflecting his age. But as a whole, it really doesn’t work, the screenplay appallingly predictable,  shamefully low-ambition, the film cheap and almost amateur in production, barring a few nice stunts/chase sequences in an era before green screen and CGI wire-removal made everything so safe and easy.

Had Steve McQueen not been involved, I am sure The Hunter would have been long forgotten. Maybe it has been, to a degree, other than being a pub-quiz question regarding what was McQueen’s last movie. There are far better films to remember Steve McQueen, the Hollywood icon, than what turned out to be his lamentable last film.

 

Ennio Morricone

If I were a dreamer and one for fantasies, I’d like to imagine Sergio Leone is up there, somewhere, making more of his great movies and his Heaven is even more perfect, now, because now Sergio’s buddy Ennio Morricone is up there to make those great movies even greater.

The passing of Ennio Morricone today is… well, how does one put into words the sense of loss when someone as great as this musical genius, is lost to us, especially after so many years- that’s oddly why the news earlier felt so unreal, it really felt like he would be around forever.

So Ennio Morricone then: all those great Western scores (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, Guns For San Sebastian, so many its impossible to list them), and Once Upon A Time in America, The Mission, so many others. Of course I’ve been listening to his chilling classic The Thing recently thanks to its remaster/re-release. Occasionally I’d have spells buying Morricone scores for films I could never see, Veruschka, Maddalena, The Red Tent… wonderful music, sometimes strange, always crazily inventive. That’s the thing about Morricone- he had a fantastic gift for melody, almost unparalleled, but didn’t rest at that; he was so incredibly inventive and creative and trying all sorts of crazy things with his music. Well, its hopelessly prosaic to say it, but we will always have that music, and the films he wrote that music for. But yeah, another one gone.

Klute (1971)

klute2Its rare that I watch a film these days and just think, wow, I’ve just seen one of my favourite films, ever. That’s what happened watching Alan Pakula’s 1971 thriller Klute. It was just… brilliant. Almost faultless. The script, the acting, the cinematography, the understated direction, the subtle, unnerving music score… wonderful stuff. To think I stumbled into buying this Criterion edition on Blu-ray pretty much by accident.

Its a comforting thought that there are lots of excellent films out there that I just simply haven’t stumbled across yet. Its then a scary realisation that, following that flow of logic, that there are lots of excellent films that I never will. Well, at least Klute didn’t escape me.

Its a curiosity that the subject of the films title, detective John Klute (Donald Sutherland) isn’t really the focus of the film: he’s secondary throughout to the drama and ensuing character study surrounding call-girl/aspiring actress Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda), a breathtaking turn that rightfully won Fonda an Academy Award. I’m not a fan of Fonda -it was really Sutherland’s involvement that turned me onto this film- but she blew me away with this one, causing me to reconsider my appraisal of her as an actress. The film follows a missing-persons investigation that brings John Klute to New York, his only lead to finding missing businessman and friend Tom Gruneman bringing him to the door of Bree Daniels, and a subsequent tour of the low-rent, low-life worst of 1970s New York.

klute3The setting is everything: there is a gritty, nightmare reality to New York depicted in this film, far removed from the post-bankruptcy Disneyland that the city has since become. These are streets not far from those of Taxi Driver. There is something so simple and direct about it: Pakula isn’t trying to shock, he’s simply showing us how things are (were). Likewise none of the cast really draws any attention to themselves- this is the era of 1970s American Cinema and an understated realism to performances and appearances: these are not remarkable-looking, beautiful people populating this film, just ordinary-looking Joes, and indeed the scariest thing about the killer that stalks Bree is that he appears to be an Everyman, nothing remarkable about him at all. I think modern Hollywood would be hard-pressed to cast this film now; the whole point of actors now is to draw attention to themselves, engender individuality to justify their multi-million dollar pay-cheques. Sutherland seems to blend with the wallpaper and brickwork in some scenes, as if he’s trying top convince us he isn’t even there. Fonda, of course, only benefits from the vacumn he leaves in his wake: the film is really her story, and everyone else -Klute, her clients, her psychiatrist, the killer- orbit around her like satellites caught in her gravity.

The cinematography by Gordon Willis (described as the “prince of darkness” because of his skills with light and dark in his films) is draw-droppingly beautiful. Several times I was reminded of Blade Runner, and its clear to me that Klute was likely an influence on how that film looked (compare much of Klute to, say, the lighting of Deckard’s apartment), but while Blade Runner‘s cinematography always drew attention to itself, becoming a character all its own in that film, there is a subtlety to the photography here. And yet the atmosphere, the claustrophobia that fills Klute is all from that cinematography: Bree has an heart of darkness that we can see in every scene, and the delicious (oh so 1970s!) ending has an ambiguity enough to suggest she never escapes from it.

Fantastic film. I absolutely loved it. If by some slim chance you were like me and have never seen it, rectify that as soon as you can.

 

The Invisible Man (2020)

invisThe opening of The Invisible Man shows it to be a taut, tense and efficient thriller, a promise that is fulfilled through most of its running time. Unfortunately, the script becomes so forced as it relentlessly ramps up the twists and tension that it starts to run foul of its internal logic (neither of the brothers notices that one of the Invisibility suits has gone missing from the lab?) until it rather fizzles out in the the end, which is unfortunate. It reminds me of John Carpenters early films like The Fog and Escape From New York, which demonstrated wonderful premises but had scripts that failed to stick the landing, so the speak, with endings that failed to be worthy of their set-ups.

So its a little sad that when The Invisible Man reaches its finale, it splutters rather than soars and left me a little deflated as it stumbled over one too many contrivances and plot holes. On the whole though, it remains a very good thriller and a welcome change from the typical problematic reboot (the 2017 reboot of The Mummy, for instance). The overwhelming saving grace of the film is of course the star turn by Elisabeth Moss, which is mightily impressive and commanding. Moss carries the film all by herself, with a performance that raises the film to some other level, and promises that her career may finally be moving up from television to the silver screen (not that this carries the acting career kudos it used to, really- these days possibly the opposite is true).