Failed second chances

Seconds1Seconds, 1966, 107 mins, Blu-Ray

John Frankenheimer’s Seconds is a very odd film- partly its a meditative study of mid-life crisis and the seductive temptation of second chances, but its also rather something more. Its also a drama about not fitting in, of hidden identity and feeling ‘outside,’ something only amplified by the casting of Rock Hudson, who was at the time an homosexual masquerading him as straight in order to maintain his career in Hollywood (albeit I understand it was something of an open secret within Hollywood circles). Its also a cautionary sci-fi parable akin to some (better-made) Twilight Zone episodes. Its also a bonkers sci-fi horror hybrid which makes little sense, predicated on a ridiculous premise (that plastic surgery can transform John Randolph into Rock Hudson). Yet, something about the film resonates, so much so that one can easily forgive the film its flaws. There’s a sense of an underlying ‘truth’ in its feelings of regret, mortality and lost youth.

The overwhelming melancholy of the film is enhanced beautifully by Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score, which is how I came to learn of the films existence in the first place. Its one of those instances of listening to a score first, ignorant of its film; I think I bought the CD in a sale alongside another purchase back when the shipping costs etc didn’t make such blind purchases as prohibitive as they are now. I think cited comparisons to Goldsmith’s Freud score had caught my attention, a score I adore and had itself come upon due to its use in Alien. Connections within connections, one film leading to another, like the spider diagrams you might see in murder mysteries/police procedurals.

But it took a few more years, until now, having finally bought the Eureka Blu-ray, to finally see the film itself.

Seconds3Arthur Hamilton (John Rudolph) is a middle-aged man in a comfortable, affluent life – married, with a good job, a spacious house out in the suburbs, and a daughter… but the marriage is passionless, the daughter has grown up and left home, and the job is empty and unfulfilling. The ennui of this midlife crisis quietly dominates everything, albeit it is unrealised, his ignorance is, while not  bliss, perhaps making things tolerable.

This ignorance is shaken when he is offered, by a secretive, nameless company, the chance of a new life – they will fake his death and give him a new face, a new body and identity, a new life. A second chance, full of all the marvellous opportunities that the company suggest. It begins to dawn upon Arthur that nuisance phone-calls from a stranger claiming to be his friend who died several months ago might be genuine. Arthur’s curiosity is ill-met, however, when he is drugged and later shown footage of him sexually assaulting a young woman – blackmailing him to go through with the procedure despite his reservations. So Arthur signs the contract, his death is faked and he is later ‘reborn’ following months of surgeries, as Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson).

Elements of Corporate machinations, a secret company operating ‘under the grid’ outside of governmental controls selling a faulty product that doesn’t actually work (as it later transpires) likely resonates more profoundly today than it ever did back in 1966. What may have seemed incredible to audiences back then seems almost matter-of-fact today. Where the film really falters is in its proposition that simple surgery might transform John Randolph into Rock Hudson – in hindsight it might have been better to have resorted to some technical device, actually transferring a persons intellect from one physical body to another, i.e. a manufactured clone, which is essentially just as ridiculous for a film set in the mid-sixties but maybe more credible than plastic surgery to us today.

Seconds2But if one can turn a blind eye to the implausibility of the science, and accept the film as some manner of fable (the implausible science just a means to an end) then the film rewards hugely with its considerations of second chances, identity and roots and regrets. Its really quite fascinating although perhaps one of the most depressing films I’ve ever watched, with a genuinely chilling conclusion.  I think the first section of the film possibly works best (Rudolph is brilliant) but that’s not to say that Rock Hudson is not a revelation. I think its fair to say that the name Rock Hudson does not fill film fans with much anticipation but this film is utterly unlike anything else I’ve ever seen Hudson appear in. It seems clear that Hudson recognised something in the role that mirrored his own situation regards his hidden sexuality, and certainly suggests he might have thrived in better, more challenging roles although its probably true that this films failure to garner any critical or public appreciation likely ruined any such opportunity. John Frankenheimer joked that Seconds was the kind of film which if you rang a theatre owner to ask what time the film starts, he’d reply asking what time you could get there.

The rest of the films cast offers notable mentions: Jeff Corey, Will Greer, both disarmingly chilling performances, and Jaws‘ Murray Hamilton and The Six Million Dollar Man‘s Richard Anderson in support.

Considering there is so little music in the film (I think the score is barely over twenty minutes in length minus source cues) its clear that Goldsmith was rather judicial regards the spotting of music, but thats the genius of it, as when it comes in, it really works magnificently. Goldsmith’s score really is like a major character of the film, keying into the mood and sensitivity of the story. Its really one of the composers best film-scores (it must be, because I’m double-dipping with a new CD release featuring newly remastered sound recovering the music from dialogue bleed due to impaired source), and I’m reminded how Goldsmith suffered by how some of the films he worked on either weren’t as good as his music deserved or failed to find an audience (he never scored a Chariots of Fire or Titanic, at any rate, and few would recall films like The Boys From Brazil particularly kindly).

I think the most obvious problem for this film is in regards its length, as unfortunately it has the feel of an overlong episode of The Twilight Zone. Its a good fifteen to twenty minutes too long, floundering somewhat in its middle section, but that being said, with  judicious editing I think it would have benefitted from a longer first section (more focus on Arthur) and a shorter second section (less focus on Tony, if only to tighten up that part to make it function better) but regardless of that, I think Seconds is a good, surprising and contemplative film that deserves more attention: maybe it deserves a second chance of its own? I also think its curious how similar it feels to Frank Perry’s The Swimmer, in its tone, mood and re-evaluation of the American Dream, and as The Swimmer is one of my favourite movies of the 1960s its inevitable that I found Seconds so enthralling. One of those films that few people like, but those that do, rather love, like some guilty cinematic secret.

Maximum Sequel

max1Last night I watched the 1979 Mad Max for the first time, probably one of the strangest examples of films I somehow have never seen (I adore Mad Max 2 aka The Road Warrior, have done since watching it on a a pirate VHS copy back in 1982, which naturally got me into a cinema to watch Thunderdome and, later, Fury Road, but I never bothered with the first film until now).

I thought Mad Max was an entertaining and interesting film, but watching it now, having watched the succeeding films, clearly informed my experience. I can’t ever get in the mindset of people back in the day watching it when it first came out. Inevitably its clearly the prototype of what was to come later, and it was evidently limited by its budget (the film I most thought of whilst watching it was George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, a film that seemed to share its exploitation/indie/1970s vibe). I’ll likely write a post regards Mad Max at a later date, but I just wanted to ask- is The Road Warrior the best sequel ever, as regards improving upon its original in scale and ambition and storytelling? Its surely akin to The Empire Strikes Back compared to Star Wars. I know Godfather Part 2 is considered by many to be better than the first Godfather film, but I wouldn’t think its a better-made film as far as quality of film-making is concerned, its just got a deeper and more interesting narrative, whereas I’d argue that Empire is a classier, better-quality Star Wars and The Road Warrior same in respect to Mad Max. Some films benefit from lessons learned from earlier productions and (possibly, but not necessarily) an improved budget, is The Road Warrior the best example?

Let there be garbage

venom2Venom: Let There Be Carnage, 2021, 97 mins, Digital

There’s about one thing going for Andy Serkis’ Venom: Let There Be Carnage, and that’s its brevity- at just over ninety minutes its over before you know it. Which is something of a mercy. Its interesting, though- its so brisk, reduced to action set-pieces, witty one-liners and without any character beats or drama worth speaking of, its rather a Readers Digest of comicbook movies, an exercise in reducing what makes a Marvel Studios film to its absolute bonkers basics. Spectacle, noise, humour and explosions: the Four Horsemen of the Cinematic Apocalypse.

I can’t understand, really, why it was edited down so much (albeit I’m thankful for the mercy)- it feels overly edited, its so chopped-up and relentlessly paced its reduced to feeling sillier than it should, like a Super 8 version of Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon: did Serkis know it was a turd, and felt the only way to get away with it was to tear it down to its supposed highlights? I do wonder when they write these things, do the stunt and effects guys sketch out the action sequences first, and then the actual writers just link between them, like joining up the dots? There’s no pretension of drama or character arcs, the film simply doesn’t have time for them. There is so much CGI and so little plot, it feels as if the actors, even the nominal stars, are doing cameos, and when they are on the screen, they have alarmingly little to do but spout comicbook dialogue like its important. Mind, that’s likely trickier than it looks.

This film possibly lays bare the cynicism of these superhero films- the film can’t even avoid a tease for a third Venom film, and has the obligatory mid-credits scene to link it to the other superhero films (if you enjoyed this, then may we suggest THIS future presentation/DVD purchase!). But I would imagine most viewers had departed the cinema (or if at home, pressed the ‘stop’ button) as the credits started rolling, if they even made it that far.

Who ya gonna call…?

gbafterlifeGhostbusters: Afterlife, 2021, 124 mins, Digital

I was never a huge Ghostbusters fan. I always seemed rather immune to its charms, considering how popular it was back in 1984/1985 when it originally came out: it was one of those films that seemed to enter the cultural consciousness but whose charms quite escaped me. Maybe it was that pop song in the charts, or all that darn merchandise, it was clearly more than just a movie- and yet was it even that good a movie in the first place? Well, if that was the case time would tell, as it inevitably does. Films get Found Out.

Or at least I’d like to think so.

So here we are decades later,. and we’ve had some pretty fine belated sequels, notably Blade Runner 2049 and Doctor Sleep (and, apparently, Top Gun: Maverick if early word is to be believed). These are films that aren’t remakes or reboots but rather continuations that in some way expand upon their originals: ideally offering something new whilst not alienating fans of the originals, which isn’t a bad trick after so many years have gone by. I think one can add Ghostbusters: Afterlife to that list, as its a pretty good film, carrying the mood and sensibilities of the original film whilst offering something new. I loved the 1980s vibe, from the music score that sounded like 1980s-era John Williams music (by Rob Simonsen, a name I’m not familiar with, and yep, I know John Williams didn’t score the original) and its young cast that reminds one of The Goonies, E.T. and more recently Stranger Things, to how the visual effects cleverly looked like something belonging to the 1980s. I really quite enjoyed it- indeed more than I did the original film back when that came out. What odd sorcery is this?

I mean, after all, as no great fan of the original, the inevitable fan-service was largely wasted on me, even when I recognised it (I’m sure several instances passed me by). Not that fan-service is a bad thing. I appreciate, after all, all the nods in BR:2049 to the original 1982 film- that’s just a sign of film-makers doing their research, and having respect for the original source. I recently had the misfortune to have watched the second season of Star Trek: Picard, and that proved so disrespectful to Star Trek (both the 1960s original show and the 1980s Next Generation), breaking both franchise continuity and genre conventions with utterly mystifying, and ultimately contemptable abandon that I would rate it as likely the worst genre tv show I have ever seen. Seeing it done so badly in that case, makes one appreciate all the more when it is done well.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife isn’t perfect. Its first half is much better than the second half in which the film largely suffers from the same issues as the original film did, with a ‘grand’ climax that never worked in the original mirrored almost exactly in this sequel, albeit this one has an emotional pay-off lacking in the original that favours this edition no end. But on the whole it feels like how a Ghostbusters film should, and maybe that’s the most important thing about it. It leaves us definitely suggesting a positive path for further films to take, and it leaves me actually interested in them.

Taking a 747 for a swim in the Bermuda Triangle?

airport77Airport 77, 1977, 114 mins, Digital

Well, I only watched this because its a Jack Lemmon film I’d never seen before. No doubt if I had a tick sheet of all his films, I could never hope to complete it, but anyway, here’s one more off the list. Turns out its one of the oddest films of his I’ve ever seen, albeit paradoxically very Hollywood, oh so typical of that mainstream Hollywood that Lemmon worked in and was a part of. Airport 77 is from that cycle of  disaster movies so popular in the 1970s that seemed to pull in surprising talent – either an irresistible easy pay-check, or maybe the acting fraternity of the time felt they simply HAD to be in one of these disaster flicks to be considered part of the then-zeitgeist. I can imagine Hollywood parties at the time and thespians exchanging notes, and sneering at those who HADN’T appeared in one yet. Nearest thing we have these days to something like it would be Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express or Death on the Nile, films that don’t really seem to deserve their star-studded cast’s (and surely the most anticipated thing regards the third of those films is when the cast gets revealed).

But considering what a silly little film this is (hijackers trying to steal a fortune of art treasures from a 747 fly it into the Bermuda Triangle, where it collides with an oil rig, crashes into the sea and lies submerged on the sea-bed), what a cast Airport 1977 has! Its got Jack Lemmon, one of my favourite all-time actors in one of his weirdest, most physical roles; he plays Captain Don Gallagher, pilot of a 747 with a talent for scuba-diving who manages to save everyone. Its got Dracula (Christopher Lee), its got Kolchak (Darren McGavin), its got Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard), its got the Seven Million Dollar Man (Monte Markham, that’s the bad bionic man for those who weren’t around back in 1975), its got Apollo 13‘s Marilyn Lovell (Kathleen Quinlan), its got Inspector Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh) –  seriously, its got a cast which itself alone makes the film worthy of a watch.  I haven’t included those cast-members who include such films as Citizen Kane, Vertigo and  Gone With the Wind in their filmography! Its quite extraordinary stuff for a film so inherently daft but which, as I have noted, also makes it just so damned watchable. Production values are pretty good, too, and while some of the visual effects betray the pre-Star Wars quality level that was acceptable at the time (but would get laughed at afterwards and not age well post-ILM/Apogee etc), some of the effects shots are surprisingly fine (as its a Universal picture, it included Albert Whitlock as part of the effects crew).

While The Towering Inferno remains, surely, the best of all those disaster flicks, Airport 1977 is one of the better examples, no doubt, albeit its not really in the ‘so bad its good’ category. I suppose there is something rather endearing about the genre and its  possibly my loss that I’ve never watched Airport, Airport 1975 nor The Concorde-Airport ’79 either (having watched Airplane! I figured they were redundant). Seems there’s a Blu-ray box to fix that.  Something for my film bucket-list maybe, someday.

See you later, Vangelis

The news today regards the passing of Vangelis on Tuesday….

Vangelis’ music was the soundtrack of my life, pretty much, certainly for the past 40+ years. His Nemo era, albums like Heaven and Hell, ChinaSee You Later, Soil Festivities, Mask, Rapsodies... his Jon & Vangelis albums, and of course, his Blade Runner soundtrack. It was so normal, that I was working this afternoon in my back room (yep, still working from home, over two years now) and was listening to Vangelis’ The City album, when I learned the news of his passing. I listen to all kinds of stuff, but I always return to Vangelis eventually.

I can’t help it: if its raining, I tend to listen to Movement One from his Soil Festivities album.

Of all his music, Himalaya, the track from his China album, is my personal favourite; I’ve adored that piece of music since I first heard it during an episode of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos tv series. I had it recorded off-air onto audio cassette and played it so often, while not knowing what the piece was, only that I loved it, and it was unlike anything else I’d heard. In those pre-internet days, it was tricky tracking music down, so you cannot imagine my joy when my friend Andy got a hold of a copy of China and was playing it, and Himalaya came on.

Naturally I’ve listened to his Blade Runner score far too many times to be considered healthy. I sometimes wonder if I would love Blade Runner half as much as I do if it was scored by someone else: the mix between the sound effects and Vangelis’ synths (that glorious Yamaha CS-80!) is so perfect you can’t always tell where the music ends and the sound effects take over. I suppose one could consider the film one long Vangelis pop video, or an arthouse installation for Vangelis’ electronic wizardry. His Blade Runner score, electronica dripping with melancholy, is the soul of the film, no question.

To be fair, there was always a love/hate thing though regards Vangelis. I think most of his fans will understand this. Vangelis was always very private, distant to the extent it often seemed like antipathy towards his fanbase. A musical genius and remarkably prolific, it was said he recorded music constantly, and that the majority of it, perhaps even the best of it, would never be heard (shades of Prince there, another of my favourites lost to us too soon). I’ve heard stories, which may not be true, certainly, of music execs who would never work with him again, that he was impossible to work with, unreliable, a loose cannon.

Following his Chariots of Fire success and the wealth it gave him, the gaps between his studio album releases would sometime stretch into years (compared to years in the 1970s when he would release two albums a year, sometimes more if one counts his producing and collaboration projects). We’d hear his succeeding scores in films and be frustrated by his refusal to release those scores on album (Bitter Moon, The Bounty etc) and indeed even taking twelve years to release his magnum opus, the  Blade Runner soundtrack, a score he sometimes seemed to hold some strange resentment towards: an album was supposed to be released back in 1982 (the film famously had a Polydor album referenced in the end credits which I searched for in record stores for months like some damned fool). I didn’t know until years later, but a cassette bootleg circulated that was rumoured to be a copy of the shelved album. Vangelis had cancelled it as if on a whim, perhaps because of an argument with somebody connected with the films production. We never really found out why, and perhaps will never know, rumours abounded for years- ego, money… hey, the music business he hated but made a fortune from, its a tension and dichotomy that runs throughout his career. The way Vangelis complained later in life, I always wondered why he didn’t just open his vault and give it away, but maybe it was all a tease, a source of amusement to him.

One thing is certain. There was no-one quite like Vangelis. Unless one counts, as I alluded to before, the Minneapolis genius that was Prince- both wildly talented, hugely prolific, incredibly contrary. We will never see their like again, I’m sure. The word ‘genius’ is used too often these days, it should be reserved for those two though.

Vangelis was 79. Same age as my dad. Vangelis passed away on the eve of my dad’s funeral. This has been some week.

Who cares about the Avatar 2 trailer?

avatartooAvatar. That was that glossy sci-fi adventure movie with a paper-thin plot liberally borrowed from other books and movies that was really kind of silly. Technically impressive sure, but… Unobtanium? Unobtanium? Goodness, I’d tried to forget about that; I was SO close, and then this Avatar 2 trailer drops and… yeah, James Cameron pulls me back in.

Avatar. Er, yeah… that’s that James Cameron 3D epic that took the world by storm about twelve years back and was promptly forgotten. A bit like that “3D is the FUTURE!” nonsense- do they even make 3D televisions now, and how much damage did Hollywood’s rush to making 3D films do to blockbusters in general?  Avatar rather represents most everything bad about blockbuster movies today, in which the medium, whether it be 3D or Dolby Atmos or a gigantic Imax screen, is the message, rather than quality of drama or acting. Avatar took eye-candy to some whole new level, as if the setting -the alien world of Pandora- was a place to visit and experience in 3D (admittedly it was the best 3D I ever saw) and the only real reason to see the film. Divorced from the 3D and giant screen, the film has to rely on its script, its acting, and, er, that’s where it was found wanting, clearly. I have a copy of Avatar on Blu-ray… haven’t seen it in years. I haven’t even THOUGHT about Avatar in years. Can’t imagine many people have. I mean, it wasn’t like Star Wars or anything; Star Wars, when it became the biggest film of all time and entered the cultural consciousness, it was on tee-shirts and memorabilia and in books and comics and…  Avatar? That thing came and went, except that it did half of what Star Wars did, albeit the important half: it made lots of money.

In Hollywood, awards and critical plaudits are nice and all, but all they really care about is the money. Money talks, so Avatar is a pretty big deal. Outside of Hollywood, I’m not so sure, but in Hollywood, they care a bit less regards if a film is any good or not, as long as it makes gazillions of dollars, that’s where its at. And Avatar made a lot of money: $2.8 billion worldwide. That’s about as big as it gets until we start talking Marvel movies.

Doesn’t carry as much weight in my neck of the woods, mind; in my back room the Blu-ray is sitting on the shelf unwatched for years. I think that’s true of the collections of many film collectors and geeks and nerds (those two the same thing? I don’t know, maybe) and I don’t really think many people have been thinking about it or wishing to get more of Pandora in their lives, or that Unobtanium. I still can’t believe that Unobtanium nonsense, but I digress. I just don’t think people care.

I know James Cameron has spent the last twelve years or so not making movies. Well, not making movies that weren’t titled Avatar, because I think he has two or three of them coming out (or was it four?). I figured that was kind of sad, especially as it seemed to preclude him from signing-off on Blu-ray releases of The Abyss and True Lies, and derailed him making that Alita movie himself (a film whose failure possibly should have had him a bit worried about future Avatar movie prospects?). I mean, he’s off beavering away on more 3D CGI ‘movies’ (sorry MOVIES). and no-one cares, the darn king of the world doesn’t realise no-one cares about Avatar.

Or maybe not, maybe I’m wrong, because the trailer for Avatar 2 was revealed last week and it has at last count some 17 million views, which means somebody out there remembers Avatar, and is at least curious enough about it to watch the trailer. Who knows, maybe they are curious enough to don those 3D glasses again and pay top money to go watch it at the cinema this December. Maybe its going to be some kind of Second Coming.

But… but…

On the evidence of the new trailer for Avatar 2, the chief selling-point seems, depressingly, to be “look! Pandora is prettier than ever!” It doesn’t reveal much of the plot, but rather a sense of new places to see and ‘experience’ in 3D, i.e. more of the same, well, Avatar (except now some of the aliens are green). And the king of the world has spent the last decade making not one, not two, but three more of them? I may be wrong on that count, I never had much interest in Avatar sequels. I’m just wondering if I’m alone in that, and whether 17 million views of that trailer reveals I’m adrift of the cultural zeitgeist once again.

Casting kills Those That Wish Me Dead

Those That Wish Me Dead, 2021, 100 mins, Digital

Oh dear, I’ve copped another one. What you get out of Taylor Sheridan’s disappointing Those That Wish Me Dead mostly depends upon whether you can suspend your disbelief at the casting of the statuesque Angelina Jolie (and her make-up wizards) in the role of a death-baiting gorgeous wildfire firefighter haunted by a terrible guilt complex straight out of Cliffhanger. If, like me, you appreciate the eye-candy but scoff at what is patently ridiculous casting, then the film is sunk right from the start. Maybe the formidable pout of Angelina’s remarkable lips manages to distract one a little from the woefully generic script and surprisingly lacklustre fiery effects, maybe not, but if you’ve seen The Contract or pretty much any other thriller featuring ill-fated assassins hunting down quarry, you’ll think you’ve seen better films like this before, and you have.

Some kid’s dad has done the right thing and has gotten dangerous evidence that wrong-doers want him dead for, but which is oddly never explained – I mean, really, what’s dad done, what’s he found, what’s the evidence, who are the bad guys, what have they done, none of it is explained at all. So anyway, these faceless bad people hire a pair of mind-bogglingly inept killers – they cheat their way into one household, kill their targets but instead of slyly walking away leaving cops clueless they draw newscaster attention to their act by then immediately blowing the house up, said news items promptly alarming kid’s dad he’s next on the list. So kids dad decides its time his kid bunked off school and join him on a race into wild country and the safety of some freinds at a safety retreat, but our two bad guys have flown ahead and are waiting on the road. The trap goes awry, dad gets killed, but the kid goes on the run having pocketed the evidence and having seen the assassin’s faces, the chase is on. Just as well he bumps into death-daring death-wish-baiting unbalanced firefighter Angelina Jolie who can atone for previous failure (blames herself for the deaths of some kids the year before) by saving her new ward from the bad guys. I mean really, its that generic you’ll be rolling your eyes several times.

Formulaic and poorly staged as it is, its the casting that kills it. Angelina looks gorgeous even in her firefighter workwear which still somehow manages to show off her shapely butt and sports bra (really, don’t objectify her?) but I didn’t buy her in this for even a minute. Like the millionaire actors playing carnie bums in Nightmare Alley, this is casting which convinces no-one, surely and I have to wonder if its ever possible for some actors to function in films etc when their real-life fame eclipses their acting fame. Not that many others fair much better- Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead, The Punisher, Baby Driver), Aiden Gillen (Game of Thrones), alongside Angelina they all suffer from underwritten characters and predictable plotting. Maybe Taylor Sheridan thinks looking good and spouting witty one-liners is enough; well, maybe it is for a Marvel movie. In Sheridan’s defence this film is based on a book, so maybe I should point some blame towards that, but that being said, I can’t believe the book likely contained firecracker dialogue that screams this-might-be-crap-but-its-cool at me all the time, and did I really hear Angelina say “I’m lean, not skinny”? Ugh. I hate all this self-concious movie-cool nonsense (see also Copshop etc). I don’t think film-makers realise that we demand more from our movies than what typifies glossy generic Netflix Originals, and frankly, it may not be one, but Those That Wish Me Dead has Netflix Original all over it.

Why is the Shawshank Redemption so popular?

shawshIs it the nail-biting finale in which the cornered Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) threatens to blow up the prison killing all of its inmates with the tons of explosives he has deviously placed under the prison foundations?

Is it the thrilling final battle on the roof of the prison block between Andy Dufresnse (Tim Robbins) and the dastardly Captain Handley (Clancy Brown) in howling rain amidst flashes of lightning and a vomit-inducing virtual camera spinning around the roof  in circles?

Is it the brilliant cliffhanger ending when Ellis (Morgan Freeman) reaches the beach at the movie’s end only to discover a note that Andy has been captured and incarcerated in another prison, and that cinemagoers now have to go watch another movie in which Ellis breaks his friend out of prison, in SHAWSHANK II: ANOTHER REDEMPTION?

Well no, funnily enough it has become incredibly popular possibly because its none of the above.

The Original Nightmare

NightmareAlley_grabs_0005_Layer 46.jpg

Nightmare Alley, 1947, 110 mins, Blu-ray

Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley (although it feels better calling it Tyrone Power’s Nightmare Alley, as he owns the film, every scene he’s in) is like many films of its era, particularly those that are noir, an exercise in taut, efficient film-making. There is a lovely rhythm to it, the snappy dialogue that informs character and plot at the same time (without telegraphing anything, a neat trick), the brisk pacing, the way the scenes flow. No moment seems wasted. While the film is saddled with an unfortunate (likely studio-mandated) positive ending, it does everything up that last scene so well that its a forgivable cop-out; indeed, just stop the film before that very last scene and you’ve got a nigh-on perfect movie.  In comparison the 2021 version feels lazy, wasteful, padded, self-indulgent. It tells largely the same story but takes forty minutes longer, never earning it.

Sure, Del Toro’s film may be prettier, slicker, bigger, but it is so curiously badly staged compared to the original- I cannot fathom why, except to suspect that Del Toro became too seduced by noir’s visual qualities, losing himself in the image, the lighting, and failing to manage the storytelling, the narrative, becoming a slave of style over content. Sadly typical of so many films now.

Scenes like Stanton handing Pete the wrong, deadly drink by accident, and then his horror the next morning at what he’s done, is oddly confusing in the remake; is it supposed to be deliberate, if so why be so obtuse? It felt like shots were missing, it was so clumsily edited. Later, in the 1947 film, Molly’s appearance as the fake ghost out in the moonlit garden is spine-tingling, you can understand Ezra Grindle being absolutely convinced that its the dead returning to him- its bewitching and creepy, whereas in the remake the same scene is so lazily staged its almost to the level of perfunctory (Molly just walking up the path in the snow, whereas in the original there’s a sense of wonder- she’s walking between the trees, glimpsed for a moment then hidden, then caught in the moonlight, Grindle getting more enraptured at every glimpse).

nightmarealley47bThe most devastating difference between the two, and possibly the most alarming, is the quality of the cast and the acting. I think there is no performance in the 2021 film that is equal to the comparable performance in the 1947 film. Joan Blondell’s Zeena is more lively and motherly than the cardboard Toni Collette, Coleen Gray’s Molly is a far more enchantingly passionate innocent than Rooney Mara’s listless version. Helen Walker is absolutely convincing as Dr Lilith Ritter, an intellectual equal of Stanton Carlisle who outwits him with both smarts and charm, against whom Cate Blanchette suffers terribly in comparison, Blanchette all pose and style and no substance, her face literally becoming a mask.

I think similar things can be said regards all the cast: in the 1947 film, the actors have passion and conviction, in the 2021 film, they bluster and frown, largely lacking any real chemistry. Bradley Cooper invokes ‘Indiana Jones and the fun fair of Doom,’ more than Stanton Gate’s descent into Nightmare: in the 1947 film, Tyrone Power charms first, then horrifies as he becomes a heartless monster, before further descending into -literally- a physical monster when he is undone. His arc is the story of a guy who sees an opportunity but is eaten alive by it, whereas in the 2021 film, I’m not sure what Stanton’s arc is: but maybe its because Cooper can’t really convince as a bad guy, he can only do moody, as if that’s all his range. I’m surprised at this, he’s seemed pretty fine in most previous films I’ve seen him in but he seems out of his depth here, and it looks like Del Toro wasn’t helping.

The 1947 Nightmare Alley is a lean, brutally efficient tragedy of a man’s rise and subsequent fall, and a shining example of a time when films just told stories better. Its the one thing I’ve noticed in many of the noir b-movies I’ve watched this past year or two  their ability to be concise and effective in telling a narrative (and to be fair, Nightmare Alley is surprisingly ‘A’, its not a b-picture at all, its production values are obvious, clearly a sign of Tyrone Power’s clout).

Certainly, Nightmare Alley can seem dated at moments, like other films of its day maybe betrayed to some extent by the limitations of what censors would allow, but one can argue conversely that this is often one of their strengths; suggestion: we hear the geek eat a chicken, the sounds giving us a minds-eye picture more daunting than graphically seeing it as we do in the remake. There’s a lesson there which maybe current film-makers should heed.

How refreshing to see a film in which a man cannot be saved by the love of his woman (barring the films jarring coda). There is something genuinely quite haunting about this film as it gets under your skin; massively impressive for a film that is so obscure its arguable that it was buried by it studio, and one I hadn’t even heard of until the remake was announced. Well, at least some good came from that Del Toro film.