Dune (2021): First Impressions

dune2021Well, I’ve not long come back from watching Dune at the cinema- yes my first trip to the cinema since watching 1917 back in January 2020, a pandemic ago that seems so long ago now (hard to believe that in another world, I would have seen Dune a year ago already, and we’d be hearing reports of Part Two gearing up by now).

So what did I think? I really liked it, very much so. But I didn’t love it. Maybe my affair with Villeneuve’s Dune will be one of those gradual courtships, a friendship that deepens into full-blown love, but this certainly wasn’t an experience like watching his BR2049 back in 2017. Watching that film was like falling head over heels in love instantly, a passion that hasn’t diminished any since. I adore that film. Dune was different. It was amazing and impressive and it seemed to do most everything right, but there was something that just kept me at arms length from it.

Maybe its familiarity with the book, objectively noting creative decisions whilst watching the film, and maybe it was familiarity with David Lynch’s 1984 film, objectively noting moments with the same dialogue or doing the same scene in a different way or omitting something Lynch did, or doing something Lynch didn’t (or technologically couldn’t). Sometimes it was difficult to seperate it as a new adaptation of the book rather than a remake of the Lynch film, some of it was so close. Oddly, I could feel myself really enjoying the film more when it was showing stuff not in the Lynch film, like Paul and Jessica’s escape from the abandoned terraforming station, that sequence galvanised my attention or freed me from all the mental comparisons in the back of my head. It was a complex, oddly unique experience watching this film, its carrying all sorts of baggage that isn’t fair or deserved.  At least BR2049 was just in the shadow of a thirty-five year old movie (albeit it managed to also be a sequel to Blade Runner‘s source novel -arguably more faithfully than the 1982 film was). 

So what did I think? Is it ridiculous of me to suggest – no, seriously- that it wasn’t long enough? That maybe criticism of Villeneuve’s slow burn of BR2049 resulted in him too mindful of audience patience and resulted in him consciously keeping Dune moving at a steady pace that perhaps lost some character beats? I can imagine readers at this point rolling their eyes in horror. Yes, maybe I’m being ridiculous to suggest I’d have preferred three hours of Dune over the two hours and thirty-five minutes we got. Would the extra twenty-five minutes have added anything? Maybe not. But I would have enjoyed more of Thufir Hawat and perhaps explanation of why we have Mentats and not iPads or AI supercomputers, or why we have shields and knives and not guns and blasters etc., some of the subtlety of world-building that makes the Dune novel so enticing and wonderful. Maybe I’m missing the Emperor and all those machinations that are clearly being left for Part Two. Lynch’s film struggled with exposition dumps in its first twenty minutes but in hindsight, the 1984 film’s opening scene with the Navigator interrogating the Emperor was a brilliant move and something I missed here. 

Really, that’s my only real fault with the film; that it wasn’t long enough (maybe I’m just greedy). The cast are largely excellent, bringing all the characters to life, and the imagery is just, well, pretty phenomenal, the yardstick for what any future sci-fi epic will be measured against for decades, surely. I’m not entirely convinced Zimmer was the right choice for composer, the film sounded like so many others whereas Johann Johannsson would have made it sound like nothing else we’d ever heard, but Fate has resulted in that being stolen from us (but surely there’s an alternative to Zimmer in this world?). The visual effects were as extraordinary as might be expected: given the time and budget these film wizards can conjure anything onscreen, it seems. Dune is absolutely a really impressive film and everything I’d hoped for. Its a film largely -painfully- without an ending but that’s just part of the deal of getting a part one and a part two and Dune finally -hopefully- being considered as one, five-hour long epic in a few years time. I wouldn’t put it past the producers to give us an extended cut before Part Two lands in cinemas in, what will it be, 2024? If only Villeneuve could have shot the two back-to-back in the manner Peter Jackson shot his Lord of the Rings

Well of course all this is the elephant in the back of the room – will we get a Part Two? Critical response seems largely positive, fans of the book seem to like it, and audiences seem to be going to the cinema to watch it, so it looks promising. But who knows? I’m not at all certain that as a single entity, Part One really works. It lacks closure. Intellectually I think they closed the film at the best place they could, given Villeneuve wasn’t going to repeat Lynch’s folly of trying to encompass the entirety of Dune in a single film, but emotionally when the credits rolled it felt rather anti-climatic. Even though I knew it was coming, it still hurt the film. The Part One moniker is really important, because this Dune is only half a  film, really, half the experience, and the best stuff is really yet to come. Maybe that’s the root of my coolness toward the film- its not the whole film.

I dearly hope we get to see it, because if Villeneuve gets to make Part Two and he nails it, well folks we’ve possibly got the definitive sci-fi epic we all dreamed of when reading Herbert’s novel. If we’ve still got physical disc formats and 4K UHD when Part Two joins Part One on my shelf, all the better, because boy, that double-bill will be a frequent and hugely enjoyable pleasure that I can only imagine right now. Yeah, I can dream about it, but as Duncan says in the film, “Dreams make good stories, but everything important happens when we’re awake” and boy, I want to be awake watching a five-hour Dune someday.


Strangers When We Meet (1960)

strangers1I must confess, I was greatly surprised by just how sad Richard Quine’s Strangers When We Meet turned out to be. There’s a melancholy that runs through it, much of it surrounding Kim Novak’s character, Maggie. I’ve read that there was a possible intention by the director and writer Evan Hunter (who wrote the screenplay from his own novel) for the film to be a positive, albeit bittersweet story (better to have loved and lost, that kind of thing) but while I can understand that, I think the balance falls more towards the tragic. Maybe I’m just more of a glass half-empty guy; its interesting that the films ending may reflect something of the viewer regards what one gets out of it. Anyway, as the credits came up they did so accompanied by a typical-of-the-era song, the tone and lyrics suggesting some positivity to put a bounce in the audience’s step but it felt ill-judged to me, as the way it ended really felt pretty bleak leaving me with rather a sour taste in my mouth.

The film is essentially a doomed romance, with a midlife crisis twist to it. Both main characters, Novak’s Maggie Gault and Kirk Douglas’ Larry Coe are suffering midlife angst: suddenly feeling reflective of unfulfilled lives, questioning earlier life choices; Larry is feeling trapped in an unrewarding job, his early-career ambitions unrealised, and Maggie feels trapped in a marriage lacking passion, without a sex life worth speaking of – a husband, Ken (John Bryant) who is physically distant and withdrawn (and married to Kim Novak? Go figure). On an early-morning school run, Larry drops off his son at the school bus stop and sees Maggie there with her own son; instantly attracted to her, his lingering stare is subtly returned by Maggie but that’s about it- maybe usually that’s all it would ever be, but Larry is restless both at work and at home and is soon chasing Maggie, who is naturally given her own situation quite susceptible to a man’s advances. We later learn that this isn’t her first extra-marital encounter, and its to the films credit that it doesn’t condemn her as being some kind of wanton, scarlet hussy, but rather more sympathetic. I think much of this is due to Novak’s typically fragile performance; clearly from the four films I’ve now seen her in, much of her personal character was shining through in her roles- at least the roles I’ve seen her in. Maggie here isn’t very far removed from Madeleine of Vertigo or Lona of Pushover, all her characters seem subject to the predatory male gaze and trapped by it. I’ve read before of actresses being uncomfortable with being sexual objects in film no matter how bewitched the camera is with them, and that seems the case with Novak from what I’ve seen. There is a complexity to her that belies the simple category of Hollywood sex siren. 

strangers2Clearly, the film is a product of its time. I don’t believe any of the wives seen in the film have careers of their own, or lives away from the home unit (raising the children, doing housework and taking care of their husbands), so the sexual politics at the heart of it are quite dated – you couldn’t make this same film today. Similarly the film seems to excuse, in a roundabout way, adultery, in that Larry’s misery at home and work seems to excuse his affair with Maggie. Their affair is instigated by him (as if Maggie is available just because she’s miserable) and also ended by him (opting for fresh start with an exciting career opportunity whisking him and his family off to lovely Hawaii) leaving Maggie high and dry back in the situation she started in, immediately afterwards being lecherously eyed by a construction worker which almost broke my heart. Its possibly the one thing that betrays the films age- the man gets his life changing for the better and the woman is left behind in the same mess she was in before (there’s certainly no indication that the affair has convinced Maggie to finally leave her husband and try make a better life for herself elsewhere). Maybe I would have enjoyed the film a little more if Larry was as miserable as Maggie when their affair is finally ended, as if they each return to their quiet lives of suburban midlife misery for the sake of their marriages, their children and the status quo, but its certainly a better outcome for Larry than Maggie.

But despite all this I absolutely loved this film. Novak as always is a treasure, okay I’ve not seen her in many productions so I have no idea if her performances are always what some may consider one-note (I believe she came from a modelling background with no formal dramatic training?) and that seeing her in more films might become a somewhat repetitive experience, but like with Vertigo, this film seems to fit her like a glove. As an actor I always enjoyed Douglas –Spartacus, Ace in the Hole, The Vikings, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea…)  although I’ve become rather uncomfortable with tales of his private life- its just one for those situations where one has to seperate the man and his considerable ego from the performances he left onscreen, and I rather think this is one of his better ones. Can one possibly imagine the life Douglas led at the time, a major star and producer in Hollywood? Perhaps his personal life infers something in the film- if half of what I’ve heard and read regards Douglas is true, he seems eminently qualified for the role and he’s definitely pretty convincing as Larry. I don’t think, say, someone like Jack Lemmon would convince as much, as great an ‘ordinary Joe’ character actor as he was (curiously, Lemmon’s own The Apartment was released that same year, itself a commentary on American lives and sexual politics (albeit regards the workplace rather than Californian suburbia)). No, while Novak suits Maggie its clear that Douglas absolutely fits the part of Larry: consummate casting for both.

strangers3The supporting cast is very good, particularly Walter Matthau as the lecherous and frankly despicable neighbour Felix Anders who learns about Larry’s affair and uses it as an excuse to make a worrying advance on Larry’s wife Eve (Barbara Rush, whose underwritten character is one of the films possible weak points) in a really edgy scene in which the film almost transforms into something else entirely. I thought John Bryant as Maggie’s passionless husband was very good in what could have been a very tricky role- my own suspicion that he was secretly gay, but just assuming the role of married man with children in order to fit in society and have a successful career, proved unconfirmed in the film but it would certainly explain his character. Bryant manages to play Ken as fairly warm and loving, albeit at too much of a distance for Maggie, when the role could have been simply cold and one-dimensional, less convincing. He’s not a bad husband, he’s just not the husband that Maggie needs.

A game I sometimes play after film narratives end is imagining what might happen next, if, say, sequels were as prevalent back then as they are today- would a sequel/spin-off continuing Maggie’s story further investigate her marriage and perhaps confirm my suspicions of Ken hiding his true sexuality? What a daring and controversial film that might have been back then (its a little like imagining what happens after the end of The Apartment, say, mindful of the seductive possibility  running through Glengarry Glen Ross that Jack Lemmon is secretly playing The Apartment‘s CC Baxter at the wrong end of the American Dream).  Or maybe -lets be romantic- that Larry’s problems run deeper than his career and is just not happy in Hawaii, and flies back to be with Maggie after all.

Thanks again to Colin for his recommendation regards this film: one of the many pleasures of this blog are the comments from people I have the pleasure to consider freinds who I would never otherwise meet, and their tips and recommendations for films and television shows I often have never even heard of. Colin’s own review of Strangers When We Meet can be found here. As is usual with very good films, my life is all the richer for the pleasure of having seen this little gem from 1960 and I shall return to it again. Mind, this really isn’t an easy film to see, but I was fortunate to be able to cheaply buy a second-hand DVD copy from CEX of all places (well, there’s another first, and I’ve had to create a new ‘DVD’ category for this blog, yikes never saw that coming). I can only hope that, as its a Columbia picture, that Indicator might be able to restore and release the film on Blu-ray someday. It certainly deserves to be, its a lovely-looking film that deserves a HD release, the DVD is fine as an opportunity to actually see the film but it really deserves better. 


The Devil’s Men (1976)

Could this possibly be the worst film I have ever seen featuring Peter Cushing? Indeed I think it is. While Cushing himself disowned Corruption, which I saw just a few weeks back, I think that film is far better than this terrifyingly horrible effort (Cushing’s view was apparently more to to do with the graphic nature of Corruption, part of a new wave of tougher, nastier horror quite removed from the more gentle horrors he was used to making, than regards the actual quality of film-making). While The Devil’s Men is clearly more akin to Hammer horrors of old it is appallingly executed, doubly disappointing because it features genre greats Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasance onscreen together and for added trivia value, features a score by Brian Eno, no less, and that woman from one of the better Fawlty Towers episodes/gags, Luan Peters. Its a cheap and nasty European effort filmed in Greece with atrocious dubbing, extremely wooden acting (even Cushing and Pleasance being guilty, clearly signing-up for a nice ‘seventies Greek hol rather than actual thespian work), a quite nonsensical script enlivened only by a little gore and surprisingly frequent nudity (possibly just to ensure male viewers stay awake after the women in the audience have all left in despair). About the only thing that enlivens the film is Father Ted starring as the particularly useless male hero. Well, okay its not actually Father Ted, its New York-based Private Eye Milo Kaye (Kostas Karagiorgis) but the likeness is so remarkable its distracting throughout, albeit it just makes things even more funny and bearable.

Its actually a struggle to nail what this film is about, the clue’s in the title but even that’s misleading because the Devil turns out to be a big plastic Minotaur (the American edition of the film sporting the alternate title The Land of the Minotaur which is possibly more apt). Cushing plays Baron Corofax, an exile from Carpathia slumming in Greece having bought a castle near the ruins of an ancient Temple which is a bit of an unlikely tourist hotspot in the remote backwoods area. The Baron and his Menacing Chauffeur, Max are leading a Devil-worshipping cult that have been killing the tourists at the behest of the giant Minotaur statue in the temple. A local priest, Father Roche (Donald Pleasance sporting a particularly odd Irish accent) frustrated at the police being ineffective at working out why the tourists seem to be disappearing contacts his old friend Milo Kaye in New York. Milo seems to spend all his time in bed with a young beauty so is reticent to heed the call, but eventually (after a few more tourists go missing) catches a flight over. Also flying over is Laurie Gordon (Luan Peters), fiancé of recently-missing Tom from the latest tourist group to go AWOL. Roche, Milo and Laurie join up to get to the bottom of the mystery and discover that the entire village seems to be in on the Devil-worship gig (yep, even the police, wouldn’t you know it).

Its a pretty lamentable effort with some quite bizarre moments; unintentionally funny ones like Laurie being pursued by villagers wearing hysterical devil-worship togs and a finale in which Father Roche wields a crucifix and explodes the devil worshippers heads (its not as interesting as it sounds and is typically poorly executed, but one has to wonder if Roche’s God-given powers are so kickass, why did he recruit a particularly inept Milo who muddles his way through the film achieving nothing?).

The only thing that kept me going was the delightfully amusing sight of Father Ted fudging everything he did and wondering where I’d seen that woman before (that’s Luan Peters and the Fawlty Towers connection). Oh, and marvelling at the terribly 1970’s analogue synth-doodlings/cliche horror-movie stings by Eno, a rather poor-man’s Goblin I guess. I’m used to Cushing appearing in bad b-movies, and Pleasance was just a few years away from Halloween and Escape From New York so better genre offerings awaited him, but seeing the two of them in such a bad film made me realise both were at career low points at the time. Its very 1970s, which might add a bit of curio Euro appeal if that rocks your boat, but frankly its such inept late-night cable TV-fodder its really only for Cushing-completists such as me (and even we’d sooner watch once and forget).

Footsteps in the Fog (1955)

Funny how movie connections happen; within days of watching Jean Simmons in A Bullet is Waiting, a film which baffled me as to regards how it merited inclusion as a noir in Indicator’s most recent Columbia Noir box, I noticed Footsteps in the Fog in the TV schedule: this was most likely Jean Simmons’ very next film. I seem to recall when looking up some A Bullet is Waiting details for my review that upon production wrapping on that film her then-husband Stewart Granger whisked her off to England to make his next movie, the third and last film they would make together (I’ve since looked for where in the world I read about them sailing to England for another film together, but can’t find it at all so take that for what its worth- in anycase, its quite likely as the film was released the following year).

footsOstensibly a thriller, I had an absolute hoot with Footsteps in the Fog: it seemed more a dark comedy than a genuine dramatic thriller, and in that sense, it had a surprising sophistication, and felt remarkably modern, really. There just seemed something tongue-in-cheek about it, a self-knowing, rather like a comic spin on what might otherwise have been a serious Hitchcockian twister. Heaven forbid it was supposed to be a genuinely tense, edgy entertainment, in which case I’m damning it with faint praise, but the films director Arthur Lubin just seemed to find this lovely quality of actor performance and direction that gave it the feel of a delicious dark comedy. 

The film begins like the Gothic mystery/drama one expects it to be- Stephen Lowry (Granger) is mourning his recently deceased wife; the funeral is a grim, moody affair under grey skies and rain but when Lowry returns home wishing to be alone for awhile, he retires to his lounge and gazes at the painting of his wife above the fireplace, pours a drink and grins like a Cheshire cat, or indeed the cat that got the cream. It transpires he in fact killed his wife -poisoned her- and has gotten away with it: except that his quiet housemaid Lily Watkins (Simmons) knows what he has done and is canny enough to realise she can blackmail him for her personal gain. What follows is a delightful battle of wits between the two- Lily seems quite attracted to Lowry and ultimately wishes to replace his dead wife and enjoy living a life of luxury, but Lowry has his mind set on moving upwards socially through marriage to a wealthy business partner’s daughter and needs to be quietly rid of Lily…another murder then? If only it were that easy.

There are a surprising number of twists in this film that keeps the viewer alert and guessing, and Lowry is such a cad you can’t help but root for Lily, but they are both fairly disreputable characters who will cheat and scheme for their own ends- I think its this that makes it feel modern, they seem unlikely characters for a film from 1955 when we’re used to better moral codes (well, unless we’re watching a noir). Granger seems eminently suited for a role such as this; he often seemed aloof and self-reverential in films and so there is a genuine pleasure in seeing him squirm when things don’t go his way. Simmons of course seems to always have such a lovely sweet personality leaking through her roles that its just too easy to try to excuse her misdeeds and hope she succeeds in outwitting the despicable cad. Both actors are supported by a wonderful cast-  Bill Travers, Belinda Lee, Finlay Currie (who I remember well from Ben Hur, no less), and William Hartnell are all excellent, and the production design is lovely, the film looks gorgeous; the sets, the costumes…

I can only repeat that I had a fine old time with this- I’d expected a staid, Victorian Gothic murder mystery but instead it was a deliciously quirky black comedy which was such a surprise – maybe it was a surprise to the film-makers, I don’t know, but I’d like to think it was deliberate. The finale is wonderfully dark, redolent of an Edgar Allen Poe story perhaps and quite perfect. I honestly think there is some repeat value to this film and I look at Indicator’s Blu-ray with a suddenly curious eye…

Kiss of Death (1947)

kissofdVictor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Richard Widmark and Coleen Gray star in this well-regarded film noir thriller in which lifetime criminal Nick Bianco (Mature) is caught by police during a botched jewellery heist and refuses to squeal on his three accomplices who get away. Instead he takes the rap, assured by his lawyer Earl Howser (Taylor Holmes) that Nick’s wife and two children will be looked after until he gets parole. Three years later however, Howser’s definition of ‘looked after’ seems to take some double-meaning. Nick learns that his wife has committed suicide following an affair with one of his jewellery heist buddies, Pete Rizzo, and his daughters subsequently placed into an orphanage, so he decides to give evidence to the District Attorney Louis D’Angelo (Donlevy) in order to get an early release and take care of his children. Later remarrying, getting a job and leading a better a life away from crime, he is warned that a psychopathic killer that he informed on, Tommy Udo (Widmark) has been released on a technicality and is out for revenge.

I must confess, I had a few problems with Kiss of Death. Its without doubt a classic film noir and one of the better crime thrillers of its era, but my reservations stem mostly from the plot’s forced romance between Nick and his much younger ex-babysitter Nettie (Gray), a woman who frankly creeped me out due to her wildly passionate, nonsensical obsession over Nick, turning up at his prison declaring that she has always loved him ever since she was babysitting his kids years before, rushing into a marriage with him as soon as he is out of jail and playing dutiful mother to his children. She’s purely a function of the plot to speedily (instantly, basically) get him settled down living an honest life by the last third of the film so that he has something to lose when Udo comes after him (and of course so that we can root for him as the good guy, or at least a bad guy gone good).

The romance is never given sufficient time to convince at all. Nettie is painfully underwritten and Gray hopelessly over the top because of it (another example of what I call an actresses enforced romantic hysterics covering up for an ill-judged plot mechanic), and it proves the weakest element of the film. I guess audiences just accepted bizarre sudden romances back then, but it felt so awkwardly engineered that it actually had me a mite suspicious and unfortunately distracted. Maybe I’ve seen too many noir, but the vague description that Nick’s wife (unseen throughout the film) had killed herself by putting her head in the gas oven just didn’t wholly convince. Had she been actually killed, her death staged as a suicide? Had Howser organised it to get out of his debt to Nick? I thought the film had missed a trick, with me at one point believing that Howser had hired Udo to do it, bringing things full circle for the final showdown and a revelation that of course never came, but I was even at one point suspecting dear besotted Nettie, that she had done it so that she could get to Nick at last. Yeah I’ve seen too many noir lately; they’ve got me suspecting that nobody is what they purport to be, especially an over-dramatic character whose parents should be consulting a doctor.

Of course, that’s partly the beauty of noir and the natural depth of these films thanks to their endless shades of grey. Just because it doesn’t state that Howser got Udo to stage the death as a suicide, doesn’t mean it didn’t turn out that way (Howzer is clearly a sleazy lawyer with Udo his right arm man enforcing Howser’s schemes amongst the criminal fraternity, because Howser later sets Udo after Rizzo when he thinks its Rizzo who’s turned snitch). Maybe there is more to Nettie than meets the eye.

But of course all my angst regards the unconvincing romance and Nick’s conveniently deceased wife is purely incidental to the real plus of the film, and why it is so well-regarded as a classic noir: and that’s the brilliant, chilling performance of Richard Widmark as the psycho killer Tommy Udo. This film was actually Widmark’s debut, and perhaps it was the nervous energy of appearing in his first feature that the actor channelled into the twitchy, horribly deranged killer. Just shy of over-the-top, its a performance that has clearly rattled down the decades informing many an actor’s portrayal of murderers and crazies, from the Joker in the Batman films to Dirty Harry‘s Scorpio to Joe Pesci’s turn as Tommy Devito in Goodfellas, or just about any other that one might mention. Widmark is just THAT good, and no doubt proved a shocking sensation at the time. The moment when, thwarted by his quarry Rizzo having evaded him, Udo by way of consolation throws Rizzo’s aged mother -in a wheelchair no less- down a flight of stairs to her death is jaw dropping and I can only imagine how audiences back at the time reacted to it. Something akin to Psycho‘s shower scene I suspect.

The fact that the film manages to hold its own elsewhere as a crime noir is testament to just how strong most of the other performances are as a whole and how solid and convincing the script largely is. Indeed, it could well be argued that Widmark’s high-energy performance only works as well as it does because it is counter-balanced by more grounded performances elsewhere.

I never really took to Victor Mature in the (admittedly few) films I saw him in before (The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators, Hannibal, that’s about it) but he is very good indeed here and its really a shame for him that he would be inevitably overshadowed by Widmark, who was fourth-billed but stole the show from everyone. Its one of the definitive film moments where you can feel films changing forever just from one stand-out performance, but as I say, I think Widmark owed his fellow actors some credit to his own success here. In any case, Kiss of Death is absolutely a great noir movie.


Columbia Noir: A Bullet is Waiting (1954)

abulletOh this was cheeky, Indicator slipping this modern-day (well, modern in the 1950s) Western into a film noir boxset. Okay, there is some excuse for some noir undertones but really, its just spectacularly flimsy nonsense that doesn’t really validate its inclusion here: noir is a notoriously debatable style that can be seen in all sorts of widely different films, but this film… noir? Naughty, Indicator. That said, I suppose I’m thankful that it was included in this noir box, because there’s simply no way I’d probably encounter this film otherwise, and I’m always glad of experiencing something I might otherwise have never seen. I mean, when is this film ever next going to get shown on television, and when indeed was it ever aired on any network here in the UK in the past? This is a film that simply screams obscure.

My chief interest in the film is seeing a young Jean Simmons in an unlikely and rewarding role (I think she was a very good actress generally denied the roles she really deserved) and the way the film weaves the general plot of Shakespeare’s The Tempest into a 1950s-set Western. It was something done, albeit with a science-fiction bent, not long after by MGMs Forbidden Planet (1956). To be honest, Forbidden Planet did it much more successfully- the unhealthy dynamic of a daughter on the brink of sexual maturity having lived too close to her father and remote from other people, when young males come upon the scene threatening to break up the status quo, is one that is clearly ripe for drama. Heaven only knows what either David Lynch or Lars von Trier could make of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in a film, set either in some dim period or present-day. Obviously you couldn’t expect something like that from a studio film in the 1950s, but oddly enough some of the social mores of the day can be decidedly troubling. There is a scene in which Rory Calhoun and Jean Simmons get caught in a romantic clinch that’s uncomfortably more akin to rape than anything particularly romantic, but I guess audiences didn’t mind their heroes getting a little rough with their romantic interests back then? It certainly felt an uncomfortable watch from the vantage point of 2021.

Its clearly not a noir, no matter what tenuous claim some might make about one character’s actions/motivations in particular, and really, its also not a film I’ll rush to return to, but I’m glad I own it and that I can return to it someday. I’m not familiar with Rory Calhoun but he’s very good here with considerable screen presence, and I understand he had a long career particularly in Westerns, so I figure he might become a familiar face if I watch a few Westerns over on TNT. The disc’s commentary, and a short featurette, both cast some light on Jean Simmons’ life and career that I was quite ignorant of- its actually rather alarming how the studio system and its old contract system (Simmons running foul of a contract with Howard Hughes’ RKO Pictures) harmed some careers, and Simmons’ marriage with Stewart Granger seems to have been shockingly dysfunctional, frankly. Likely my view on the latter is unfair but goodness me, in some ways it reflects the subject of A Bullet is Waiting in some curious way, as Simmons apparent tendency to look for something of a father figure in her love life (both Granger and her second husband Richard Brooks were rather older than she) seems to mirror an uncomfortable subtext of Shakespeare’s tale, dimly as it may have been transferred to a Western and a science fiction film over sixty years ago.  It adds a certain element to whenever I do return to the film, anyway.

No One Gets Out Alive (2021)

noonegetsoutGood lord. Well the title rather gives the game away, but its dubious (does she? doesn’t she?) finale only exacerbates a thoroughly reprehensible and pointless film. Maybe its a trendsetter of some new horror genre called the Horror Panto, because about the only fun watching this film is giggling “its behind you!” every time a ghostly apparition appears behind the witless and unknowing heroine. 

This is one of those horrors that proves the genre is well past its sell-by date but like every undead corpse its a genre that just doesn’t know that its done. A title sequence throws visual clues in the background- several decades ago some excavations in Southern America unearth remains of an ancient city and artefacts are unearthed, in particular an odd-looking box. That’s about the only explanation/excuse that we’re going to get for everything that then occurs.

A young Mexican immigrant, a pretty young woman named Ambar (Cristina Rodlo, much better than the film really deserves), who has smuggled herself across the border and is trying in vain to buy papers with which she can get a ‘proper’ job and place to live, is forced to work in a sweatshop and take lodging in a terribly run-down boarding house, where the shady owners turn a blind eye to legality and take anyone in in order to get some cash. Well, its not just cash they’re after, because it transpires that their clientele don’t usually get to leave while still breathing. Its a thirty-minute plot stretched to just shy of ninety so as you might imagine, there’s plenty of padding by way of moody atmospheres and sly jumps and pointless b-plots. 

And most of those moody atmospheres are of those “its behind you!” moments where we can see spooky apparitions which our heroine is quite oblivious to. My wife Claire laps this stuff up, hiding behind her  fingers thoroughly creeped out, so who knows, maybe there is an audience indeed for such low-rent horror trash as this. But really, its pretty dire and further evidence that the Netflix quality-bar is set pretty low. Like some damn fool who should know better (but never learns) I was expecting some explanation or narrative twist to explain exactly what was going on and why, but the film seemed more concerned with busting the majority of its budget and effort in realising some patently CGI monster in the basement which, again, is not explained or anything. The film was based on a book (by Adam Nevil, who’s no Stephen King on this evidence), so I expect there is some internal logic that explains things in the book that the screenplay couldn’t quite wrangle- probably the producers assumed the title sequence would be enough. Well, lets be honest, they probably didn’t really care. Its really not very good and deserves to be absolutely forgotten, which I’m sure it will be.


Columbia Noir: Chicago Syndicate (1955)

chicagosynThere’s a few stories behind Chicago Syndicate possibly more interesting than anything in the film itself. Twenty-three-year-old singer/dancer Abbe Lane plays Connie Peters, the mistress of the criminal syndicate overlord Arnold ‘Arnie’ Valent (Paul Stewart). Connie is a nightclub performer fronting Benny Chico’s band, and she oozes sensual allure- these nightclub song/dance routines are a frequent staple of noir of this period – nightclubs for criminals were like what football clubs are for millionaires now- and Lane’s is one of the finest I’ve seen. The curious thing is that in real life, Abbe Lane was married to the guy playing the bandleader –  Xavier ‘Cugie’ Cugat, thirty-two years her senior. Cugat’s Benny Chico, hopelessly smitten by his singer, looks an unlikely partner for Abbe in the film but there you go- truth proving stranger than fiction. The two would divorce years later, whereupon Cugat went and married a twenty-year-old singer, then forty-five years his junior. That guy had a gift for charming the ladies and a few tales he could tell, I’m sure. Next time I watch the film I’ll keep my eye on him; no wonder he had a swagger and a twinkle in his eye. 

According to the excellent Indicator book that accompanies this set, the other female lead in the film, Allison Hayes, suffered horse-riding accidents while making two seperate Westerns subsequent to this film, and suffered ill-health afterwards, eventually dying in 1977 at the far too-young age of 46. She really quite impresses in Chicago Syndicate, playing a woman with a surprise motivation who is much more than she initially seems – a twist that actually caught me by surprise, so it was masked quite well and I won’t divulge it here. In any case, she makes a solid leading lady and romantic interest.

Chicago Syndicate is a pretty good film; the opening narration over the first reel or so, and the preachy script setting things up regards the general plot (a criminal syndicate needs taking down by the good old boys of law and order), proved rather underwhelming, but thankfully things settled down and the film proved quite fun with, yes, some genuine surprises. Interesting characters with some fine acting helped to lift things up too, and its one of those films that just gets better as it goes along. That real-world trivia I noted earlier is really just the icing on the cake which adds a certain spice and pathos to the film.

Dennis O’Keefe (who I’d just seen in Walk A Crooked Mile) makes for a decent, if unremarkable hero, rather overshadowed by Paul Stewart’s villain but he’s hardly the first good guy to have his film stolen by the bad guy: its curious how so many bad guys have meatier background stories and arcs in these movies, something not exclusive to noir but its certainly very common in noir. Somehow I can’t help but feel a tinge of disappointment whenever the villain comes unstuck in noir movies, they tend to blur our allegiances, and wouldn’t you know it, he’s undone by a woman, another typical noir trope. These guys never learn.

Unbreakable Glass?

unbreakableglassSomething of a strange night, this. I started with the newly-arrived 4K UHD edition of M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, a film I haven’t seen in many years – not since back in the DVD days, to be honest, as I’d bought it on a R1 disc back in my multi-region/importing days. I’d seen the film at the cinema and loved it and rated it highly, even if, as I’ve noted, I’ve not put that to the test with a re-watch in a long time. This new 4K edition served the best opportunity, and I’m pleased to note that the film really held up very well indeed. As the end credits rolled, Claire noted that we still had Glass -the final film in a trilogy of Unbreakable, Split and Glass– on the Tivo, recorded last Winter and still unseen. Remembering that Split (which I’d only watched once, a good while ago itself) only teased its Unbreakable link at the very end in a geek-friendly coda, the temptation to just go ahead and see what Glass was all about, even though the evening was growing late, proved irresistible. A late night then with an unforeseen movie double bill.

So let’s start with Unbreakable. What a culture shock that film proved to be, mainly because of the fact that its – shockingly – more than twenty years old now. It came out pretty much before Marvel made superhero movies so de rigueur that they almost seem boringly popular and routine now, and before Zack Snyder’s slo-mo action sequences became cinematic shorthand in 300, Watchmen and a DC Snyderverse that still shows signs of an HBO resurrection. Unbreakable posited putting superhumans into our real world and explaining comicbook mythology as something more meaningful than one might expect: perhaps not something new to comicbooks themselves but certainly perhaps to the wider movie-going populace at the time, predating the film of Watchmen, and shows like The Boys etc. 

Also, what a shock to see Bruce Willis in his prime actually acting again, you know, making an effort, in what is actually one of his most understated, rewarding roles where he actually plays a character working away from his comfort zone- no smirks or wisecracks here, here he plays someone rather introverted, emotionally compromised and maybe even a little dim. Reminded me of his turn in Terry Gilliam’s brilliant Twelve Monkeys that came out a few years prior, another great performance in a decent movie… whatever happened to Bruce Willis? And when is that Twelve Monkeys 4K UHD coming out? 

Unbreakable is full of that kind of stuff, coming back to it so may years later- how young Samuel L.  Jackson is, and my goodness, Robin Wright (then Robin Wright Penn) looks so young too. Wright is great in this, and Glass, which I’ll be coming to shortly, sorely suffers for lacking her presence. But of course, Unbreakable is over twenty years old now, these things are inevitable, and become part of a fascination of their own. Just watching Bruce giving a shit proved fascinating enough. I think one of the most rewarding things regards Unbreakable is just the fact that it reflects a time before costumed heroes in spandex took over blockbuster cinema, and when superhero films could actually be subtle.

The 4K disc of Unbreakable looks pretty great too- conforming to the films muted tones, the HDR is subtle but when it works, it really elevates the film and of course the lift in detail is really marked. Overall its a great filmic presentation and another example of just how 4K discs can prove their worth, its really quite gorgeous (alas, all extras are relegated to the Blu-ray disc, and its a shame nobody deemed it worthwhile making anything new- this is one of those times when a commentary track or featurette offering some perspective could have been interesting). 

So anyway, a fast forward of almost twenty years (and maybe twenty comicbook issues) brings us to Glass, a film that I gather has been fairly widely maligned by fans of the first film. The differences between the two feel so distinct its almost as if the films had different directors, but of course, its M. Night Shyamalan at the helm again for a film that serves as a sequel to both Unbreakable and Split but really feels more akin to the second than the first. The tonal shift between Unbreakable and Glass is marked, particularly for me as a viewer having just re-watched Unbreakable only minutes before. Is it the influence of the Marvel and DC comicbook films, perhaps, sneaking in? Glass feels more pulpish, less grounded than Unbreakable, certainly. It lacks the focus of the first film, this one feeling like it slips all over the place and leaves its cast with little to do other than serve a plot seemingly hellbent on closing it all down, albeit it actually ends positing a possibility of new spin-offs in the grand Marvel/DC tradition, which feels like the film peculiarly negating its own raison d’etrere.

I enjoyed Glass, although it is clearly inferior to the first film -and possibly Split, too, although I haven’t seen that more than once and that was awhile go- but I can certainly sympathise with fans who feel, like with Alien and Prometheus, that they rather wished they could pretend Glass never happened at all and that Unbreakable exists on its own terms seperate from anything else. Maybe its another example of ‘we should be wary of what we wish for’. Its not that Glass does anything quite as radical as turning Space Jockey’s into tall bald men, and I can understand M. Night Shyamalan reaching for closure, but all the same it feels so pulpish in comparison to the tense reality of the first film. Mind, the first twenty minutes or so work very well, giving us a glimpse of how David Dunn has spent the intervening years using his powers to help people as some kind of hooded vigilante, and there must be more than a few fans wishing that Shyamalan had just continued that- its perhaps the Unbreakable sequel most fans wanted, and its true that Shyamalan should perhaps be commended for instead trying to go somewhere different, but where he went…

Its not that he went all One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, but isn’t it peculiar chance that it features Sarah Paulson as a psychiatrist when she soon after played Nurse Mildred Ratched in Ratched, the prequel show to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest set in another asylum with her treating crazy patients? I just think that the central conceit of the film, that the three individuals from Unbreakable and Split are placed into a psychiatric facility to prove they are crazy rather than actual super beings, is just a step too far. We have seen what they are capable of, and the world has, too, if only it is clips on social media etc. and the revelation at the end, that she is trying to do them a mercy rather than otherwise simply terminating them (because she works for a Higher Agency that knows such beings exist and seeks to destroy them) falls rather flat. The central flaw of the film for me is how it wastes such a fine actress as Paulson, with a character that is woefully underwritten and one-dimensional: the film needed a character with more fire and vigour and presence. I’m certain the flaw is because Shyamalan can’t resist the twist, that he thinks all his films need one final twist to surprise viewers, when he should have forgone that late twist and revealed it earlier to better serve the film and overall plot. Let the film tell its natural tale rather than hamper it for the sake of a mediocre surprise. Establish the HIgher Agency and its cause, and what Paulson’s Dr Staple is trying to do, maybe give her some personal agency to that too, and then portray the battle of wits. If The Beast (James McAvoy, remarkable as ever as he switches personalities) is David Dunn’s nemesis, then surely Dr Staple is Mr Glass’ nemesis, ironically becoming a super villain (or heroine) character herself for good measure (becoming the very thing she and her masters are trying to undo). 

Glass frustrates then with a sense that it should have been much better. Its difficult to criticise Willis, because even though he’s clearly not in the same league as he used to be, he could well argue he is underserved by the script which, as per Paulson’s character, leaves him with little to do or much to work off. We get a brief explanation of why Robin Wright is missing but it doesn’t really serve Dunn’s character arc at all and the explanation feels almost pointless (indeed better left unsaid, perhaps). Maybe his wife’s death could have driven Dunn to a mental breakdown and that might have put him into the mental hospital, you know, a narrative more elegant than what we got. Jackson is very good and has the best arc (hence why the film bears his name, perhaps) but again, much of the fire and brimstone he could have brought to it is rather nullified by keeping that twist on the side-lines. 

Shyamalan proves to be his own nemesis, then, perhaps.


Columbia Noir: Pushover (1954)

pushoverWatching old films for the first time from the vantage point of, in this case 2021, is that the perspective cannot be anything like watching a film when it first came out. In the case of Richard Quine’s 1954 noir Pushover, I suppose my viewing was skewed from having seen Fred MacMurray so many times in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, and Kim Novak being, in my eyes, forever the doomed fantasy of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

In MacMurray’s case, he will always be the slimy cheat Mr Sheldrake that I despised so much whenever I re-watched The Apartment growing up, so I had no problem at all with Pushover‘s greedy detective Sheridan, smitten by Kim Novak’s Lona McLane and tempted by the chance of what he thinks is easy, life-changing money. Far as I was concerned, its perfect casting – I seem to recall reading of people actually being shocked by his turn in The Apartment as they had previously watched him in his run of wholesome Disney family titles, but on the evidence of films like Pushover, it seems to me he was almost lazily cast to type in Wilder’s dark comedy. There’s a nervous edge to him that’s fascinating to watch and I’m almost surprised he didn’t have a career typecast as a Hollywood bad guy. There’s something wrong about him, and he’s perfect here; I believed in his fall from grace absolutely. Of course, he’d done much the same in Billy Wilder’s earlier noir classic, Double Indemnity.

As for Kim Novak, I’m beginning to think my film education needs some revision. Novak didn’t make very many films, really, considering how famous/infamous she is, and I’ve actually seen almost none of them. I grew up seeing her late in life in the frankly awful television series Falcon Crest in the 1980s, and nothing else until I caught up with Vertigo and was totally blown away. But that’s it, until I saw her in the very average thriller 5 Against the House  early last year (part of Indicator’s first Columbia Noir set), a film which did her few favours, really, but in Pushover she’s quite incandescent. In this she has star written all over her, and I believe this was her Hollywood debut, no less. There’s always some kind of tag line about someone being the hottest thing to hit film since whatever, but in this case it would have been very true- Novak is hot, hot, hot. Just twenty-one, I understand, when she made this film, her turn is at times daring (her dress in her first scene that is practically see-through), at times sympathetic, at times over the top… its a tour de force and frankly totally distracting. I couldn’t take my eyes of her and she really makes MacMurray’s fall not just believable, but actually inevitable.

After the pretty mundane Walk A Crooked Mile, this film is a real return to form for this fourth Indicator noir box- Pushover is totally noir, totally cool and totally dark and fascinating. I loved it. There is something wonderful watching a guy’s increasing desperation as his scheme continues to unravel and the clear futility of him trying to get things back on track. Novak’s character is surprisingly sympathetic, and I think its quite a pity she was never (as far as I know) cast as a genuine, scheming femme-fatale in some dark noir. You’d believe she could turn a man to anything and I suspect, on the strength of this film, that Hollywood missed a trick. Or maybe not: its actually curious how much her Lona McLane is like her Madeleine Elster/Judy Barton character in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. For a woman who seems so naturally gifted with an ability to bewitch and control men, she always seems so fragile and easily manipulated by them: almost a sweet girl in a body built for sin, quite a combination, and perhaps an indication of her real persona?

In any case, Pushover is a simply terrific noir: it looks ravishing at times, mostly shot at night in streets hammered by rain, and it has all the usual tropes of lots of smoking and drinking, with a rather disturbing dash of voyeurism when a cop spies upon McLane’s pretty neighbour who doesn’t realise she’s being watched and really shouldn’t be, especially by a guy who creepily has the hots for her while he should be watching her neighbour. There’s shades of the more uncomfortable moments of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, which curiously was released the very same year so while I thought, when watching Pushover, that it was simply mimicking Hitchcock’s classic, I should have given it more credit- I imagine both films were shooting pretty much concurrently and its just a case of Hollywood coincidence. 

Very often watching these ‘old’ movies, I see familiar names in the credits, catching my eye- in this case, that of Arthur Morton, who composed this films effective score but is much more famous to me for his later career as a Hollywood orchestrator, chiefly for the scores of Jerry Goldsmith, particularly Alien, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Poltergeist, First Blood, Innerspace… you name it, practically  every soundtrack by Goldsmith I ever bought has Morton’s name in the credits. I didn’t actually appreciate he worked as a film composer in his own right, so hey, you learn something new every day. 

Director Richard Quine had earlier directed the excellent noir Drive a Crooked Road and would later direct one of my favourite comedies, How to Murder Your Wife, which I have on Blu-ray and really need to watch again sometime soon. He also made two more films that starred Kim Novak which I have on my watchlist already: Bell Book and Candle and Strangers When We Meet, which like too many older movies are just very hard to get hold of, certainly on Blu-ray. If only Indicator could turn their attention to them and treat them to that magical Indicator TLC.