A Blu Days of Heaven at last

Days-of-Heaven bluOne of the films I always wanted on Blu-ray that I was never able to get was Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, released on Blu-ray by Criterion in the States way back in 2010. As usual with Criterion, the disc was region-locked and I’ve never owned a multi-region player during what was the Blu-ray generation, so that was that. Recently Paramount released an extras-free edition in the States; I’m not sure if it’s the same Criterion master, or if it was region-locked too- I think this edition was also released in France, which was region-friendly but not ideal language-wise (‘Les Moissons du Ciel’ would not look ideal on the shelf). 

By sheer chance though I stumbled upon news that Imprint, an Australian boutique label (a sort-of Down Under Indicator, by the look of it) has released Days of Heaven using the Criterion master and adding some new extra features of their own rather than try license any from Criterion (a new audio commentary, featurettes on the editing and score etc). Australia is UK-friendly Region B (I have a few Australian discs; I think Dagon was the last one I bought earlier this year), and even better, Amazon here in the UK even has it in stock. It costs rather more than most films -more than most 4K titles, even- but not a hell of a lot more than some recent boutique releases that are on the £25 mark- though to be honest, after waiting so long, I didn’t hesitate (had the Criterion it been region-free it would have cost me about the same anyway).

Cue Arrow or Eureka or MOC announcing their own UK release for half the price in the next week or two. 

Anyway, the disc arrived yesterday and it looks really nice- the first 2000 copies have a high-quality, thick-cardboard slipcover, the art on the slip and amaray case are both lovely (the only odd omission is the lack of any kind of booklet): what matters most though is what’s on the disc, and what a pleasure it will be watching this film again, on Blu-ray at last (I have a copy on DVD somewhere which is pretty horrible and can be consigned to the bin immediately). 

Days of Heaven is not my favourite Malick film -currently The Thin Red Line is, but my view may be revised once I watch this again, as I haven’t seen it in years and never really in very good quality. To be honest, Days of Heaven always kind of creeped me out, before. I think it was the haunting music getting under my skin (particularly its use of the “Aquarium” movement from Camille Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals). The main titles with that music playing over actual photographs from the turn of the century, setting the tone for the film and its  period setting, always just set my nerves on edge somehow like I’m watching a horror movie. I have the 2-disc FSM edition of the Morricone soundtrack and that often creeps me out too, weirdly. There is a strange, disturbing quality to the rather dreamlike film in general, the majority being shot in the magical ‘golden hour’ ensuring a particular atmosphere to the visuals to accompany that soundtrack. We’ll see how I find it this time around. 

But hell yeah- I have Days of Heaven on Blu-ray at long last. Maybe I could even find time for a double-bill of Malick’s Badlands (which I also have not seen in years) with Days of Heaven

The 2021 List: August

I don’t know how, but I’ve managed to reach the magic 100 by the end of this month. The irony is that its not really been a target this year, as I’d intended to try keep the quality up (watch less, watch better) this year, so I’m not really sure how well I’ve kept to that maxim. That said, this wasn’t a bad month quality-wise. Babylon Berlin, which I haven’t gotten around to reviewing yet was a particularly fine series and I look forward to catching up with the third season sometime. Film-wise I didn’t really see an absolute stinker (The Blood Beast Terror possibly qualifies but I hadn’t expected much of it anyhow) and the film noir films I watched were very good. So August wasn’t a bad month at all, I even managed to fit in some quality re-watches thanks to some 4K releases and a lack of new/interesting stuff handed me opportunity to pick discs off the shelf that I haven’t seen in awhile.

Real-life problems are increasingly impinging my time for viewing films and writing posts, and I can’t see that getting any better for awhile yet. Ain’t getting older and all the resultant responsibilities grand? It may be that my posts may have to get a little shorter and there may be a few spells of slim updates but I’ll see how it goes, I enjoy the writing etc and would hate to see things slide too far. 

September will see a few notable releases – I should have Arrow’s 4K edition of Dune in a few days, the new 4K edition of The Thing is due in a few weeks and there’s that Star Trek 4K set of the first four films coming out. Towards the end of the month Indicator should have some discs coming my way too (yay, another Columbia Noir set as well as what is said to be the film Peter Cushing most regretted being involved in- how intriguing is that?). I’m certain there’s going to be a few surprises I’m not even aware of yet; Amazon of course has the Eva rebuild films including the finale. Its all just a matter of finding the time, and I’m certain if I can manage that it will be a very interesting month ahead indeed. 


92) Babylon Berlin Season One

93) Babylon Berlin Season Two


94) Gilda (1946)

95) Enemy (2013)

96) The Blood Beast Terror (1968)

97) Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed (2021)

98) On Dangerous Ground (1951)

99) Gun Crazy (1949)

100) Memory: The Origins of Alien (2019)

Gun Crazy (1949)

gun1Bart (Russ Tamblyn) is first seen as a young man smashing a gun store window in order to steal a gun, and its then revealed that he has had an unhealthy fascination with guns ever since he was given a bb-rifle when a child (the reasoning that buying a child a bb gun is a good idea is uniquely American, I guess). Bart is caught during the theft and subsequently sent to reform school. Several years later when he returns home as a young man (at this point played by John Dall) fresh from a stint in the army, it’s clear he hasn’t grown out of his obsession with guns.

A trip to a carnival soon changes his life when he attends a demonstration by beautiful sharpshooter Annie Laurie Starr and enters a shooting match against her – each becomes attracted by the other’s skill with guns; the chemistry between them is immediate, gunplay as foreplay in a very daring sequence. Soon after Bart joins the carnival to be with Laurie, the two run foul of the jealous carnival owner, Packett (Berry Kroeger), and they run away, soon falling into a life of crime robbing gas stations and banks in order to get the life of luxury that Annie craves. On the run from the law, their crimes escalate and it can only end one way once the FBI get involved.

Joseph H Lewis’ Gun Crazy feels a mixture of surprisingly modern (it could have been made yesterday, and probably has been when one considers Badlands, True Romance, Natural Born Killers etc), and wildly profane (I find the gun fetish displayed within the film quite abhorrent but I suppose across the pond individual mileage may differ). Both lovers seem as aroused by their gunplay as in each other, and the early scene where they meet and compete in a shooting contest has such brazenly sexual undertones that it makes me wonder how it got past censors in 1949 – I can only imagine they were side-tracked by the films stylised direction/photography and the pseudo-psychotherapy used as some vague explanation/justification of Bart’s actions.

The film features possibly the most quintessential femme fatale that I have ever seen; Bart’s lover Annie (Peggy Cummins) a beautiful blonde temptress who uses her wiles to coerce well-meaning (albeit gun-obsessed) Bart to criminality. After Annie declares that  “I want things, a lot of things, big things,” she threatens Bart that “You better kiss me goodbye, Bart, because I won’t be here when you get back.” After Bart backs down, she huskily announces “next time you wake up, Bart, look over at me lying there beside you. I’m yours and I’m real,” the sexual heat that Annie oozes is almost tactile and Bart can forbid her nothing. Once Bart sees her and falls for her, there’s no escape for him, nor for her either, funnily enough. If they had never met they may have had fairly ordinary lives but together triggered a fetish-driven plunge into violent crime and grim ends. Very noir.

Some connections-

Joseph H Lewis also made the impressive noir The Big Combo and The Undercover Man.

John Dall, so memorable as the ice-cold killer in Hitchcock’s Rope before making Gun Crazy, would later appear in Spartacus but all told was in just eight films before dying in 1971 at the age of just 51. I thought Dall was brilliant in Gun Crazy but while both Rope and Gun Crazy are quite highly respected now, they failed at the box-office at the time, likely explaining his limited film career. Irish actress Peggy Cummins passed in 2017 at the grand age of 92; of her 29 film roles, nothing seems to have been like her role here as hot-tempered Annie, and other than Gun Crazy, her most notable appearance is probably in the 1957 horror classic Night of the Demon – she seems to have retired from acting in the mid-sixties.

On Dangerous Ground (1951)

dangerous1While Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground in some respects betrays its age with some of its melodrama, settings and fashions (sometimes period films can seem like so much science fiction, its so alien) and certainly isn’t quite the film that Ray intended it to be (the film was shelved for two years and altered in post-production against his wishes) it is nonetheless a massively impressive, fascinating picture. In a clever usurping of the ‘wholesome good cop/authority figure’ characters of Between Midnight to Dawn (1950), a more routine crime drama in which clean-cut cops remain untarnished by the dirt they are working in, this film feels much more honest and real. For the first thirty minutes its a distinctly brutal noir showing how a good hard-working cop has been dehumanised by the relentless grimness of his job, genuinely traumatised by the lowlife underbelly of society he has to work in and the negative public perception of cops (a pretty woman confesses she’d never date a cop). Then when he is tasked with investigating a sex-murder out in the high mountains away from the city the film becomes a romantic melodrama and study of redemption. Would anyone believe a happy ending in a film noir? On Dangerous Ground‘s ending, if it doesn’t entirely convince, at least suggests that a ‘happy ever after’ and redemption can be possible, however fleeting.

As our frustrated honest cop Jim Wilson, Robert Ryan is some kind of revelation with a fantastic performance- his rage is evident in his chiselled jawline and stark eyes, but there’s a subtle fragility there too. His job is gradually destroying him, that much is clear; his worried partners and boss Captain Brawley (Ed Begley) know that Jim is a good man teetering on the edge, and that’s why Brawley sends him out of the city to cool down. The city sequences in which Jim lashes out at anyone who opposes him (viciously beating a suspect and allowing a woman to fall foul of the criminals she snitched on) are gritty and convincing, with an occasional hand-held camera really intensifying the you-are-there feeling. Accompanied by moody driving sequences and a brilliant Bernard Herrmann score, the film prefigures Taxi Driver by some twenty years and is surely an inspiration for Scorsese’s film, from the rain-swept city streets at night to the alienation felt by Jim: one could almost imagine Jim ruminating “one day a real rain will wash away these streets.”

But then Jim is sent to the mountain wilderness of snow and bitter cold, the landscapes suddenly devoid of humanity, barren and stark and beautiful (the location photography in these sequences is exquisite and really impressive- magnificent desolation indeed). The tonal shift is immediate, particularly in Jim- tasked with accompanying the child victim’s father Walter Brent (Ward Bond) who is incandescent with rage and desperate for bloody revenge, wildly brandishing his shotgun- he’s everything Jim was back in the city, and Jim is suddenly faced with seeing himself in Walter and appreciating the folly of his own violent madness. Tracking the child’s killer in deep snow, Jim and Walter reach an isolated farmstead and meet Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), a blind woman who assures them she lives alone and has no knowledge of anyone else being there, despite the tracks saying different. Why would Mary, a decent honest woman who ultimately offers Jim some kind of redemption from his past, hide the killer? 

dangerous 4On Dangerous Ground is quite remarkable. It shouldn’t really work, and I guess some noir aficionado’s would claim it doesn’t, citing its ending and the romantic interludes that lead up to it, but that’s just part of what makes it so memorable and unique. The wilderness scenes were shot in Colorado and are amazing, really- the snow and the blizzards are real and the filming must have been something of a nightmare, but its totally effective, barring what look like a very few front-projection shots (reshoots setting-up the happy ending?). The cast is excellent and Herrmann’s music just sublime, shades of what we would hear in Vertigo several years later. The miracle of so many old films such as these is how timeless they seem to be, and how perfect they are. Script, direction, acting, production values, everything seems to click into place in spite of or perhaps because of low budgets (necessity the mother of all invention, a lesson so many bloated modern films should heed). 

So ultimately we come back to that earlier question I raised- would anyone believe a happy ending in a film noir? Or maybe we are supposed to take it on face value, and then only afterwards start to doubt it, realise its only the promise of a happy ending, and that maybe the noir wins out after all, maybe a missing reel onwards that we never see. Endings in movies are funny things after all, and quite arbitrary. We often see couples walk off together into the sunset, films ending well before we see them divorcing months/years later, or characters dying- well, that’s how everybody’s story ends eventually; films just tie things up and cut us loose before Time wreaks its inevitable revenge. But I digress (I’ve seen perhaps too many noir movies this year), so I’ll choose my own ending here.

Another Murder By Contract

murder2Its becoming clear to me that August has been a largely a month of re-watching movies, whether it be because of new 4K editions (True Romance), revisiting films that perplexed me first time around (Tenet), or just revisiting old favourites, as in the case of this film, the noir classic Murder By Contract, which came out as part of the second of Indicator’s Columbia Noir boxsets and which I first watched back in March. The fact that I have returned to it within the space of six months hopefully indicates the high regard in which I hold this film. Its really quite extraordinary. There probably isn’t anything more I can say about the film that I didn’t when I first reviewed it, but it is a remarkably cool film, from the catchy guitar score by Perry Botkin (which so good its unfathomable that Tarantino hasn’t used it in one of his films somewhere), to the deadpan performances of its cast, particularly that of Vince Edwards as psychopath assassin/amateur philosopher Claude, a character who will haunt me for years. Part genius, part idiot, a handsome dude who is horribly detached and casual in his violence until he finally, incredibly comes undone by his final target. It’d be a bit akin to casting a young Harrison Ford as Jack the Ripper or Scorpio; you want to be with Claude as he seems so cool but you know you’d be much safer in another country.

Released in 1958 (with such a low budget it was allegedly shot in just eight days), Murder By Contract was made at the tail end of the ‘classic’ American noir period, nodding towards the stylistic changes that the 1960s would bring (and the eventual advent of neo-noir). As much as it is a richly bleak noir it is a very, very black comedy. In some moments, its a little like the Wile E Coyote/Road Runner cartoon hijinks transported into a noir movie and really quite unlike any other film I have seen, other than Kiss Me Deadly and Taxi Driver, two examples which hopefully indicate just how odd a film this really is. Its a work of some crazy genius, one of the best films I will have watched this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I give it another watch before the end of the year. Some films really make a connection and this one did with me.

The Return of Captain Clegg

inham6Quite how a film like Captain Clegg becomes subject of a double-dip is rather bizarre- its a wonderful little gem of a Hammer film but two copies on Blu-ray seems as financially irresponsible as NHS spending on PPE during the heights (depths?) of a pandemic. But who could have guessed back in 2014 when I bought the disc from Final Cut Entertainment that it would be part of a sixth Hammer boxset in 2021? Crikey, Indicator wasn’t a even a thing back then, and here it is rivalling Criterion in the boutique label arms race (if there was such a thing).

So anyhow, this is the fourth and last film in this sixth Hammer boxset that I’ve watched- last only because its the one that I’d seen before. Have to confess, re-watching the film after several years, I was surprised to realise just how good a film it is: certainly its a ravishing-looking film by Hammer standards, with some fine location photography boasting lovely golden light in some landscape shots that suggests considerable care and attention was made and the sets etc are really good too. Best of all, Peter Cushing is clearly relishing his role here and the result is one of his best performances in any Hammer- and he’s not alone, even Michael Ripper, a frequent Hammer veteran who can irritate sometimes, is possibly never any better than he is in this.

cleggI have often remarked that Peter Cushing would have been the perfect actor to play Robert E Howard’s puritanical anti-hero Solomon Kane, and its never clearer than here, when he was possibly the right age and eminently looks the part with his character’s own puritanical stylings (he plays village priest Reverend Blyss). There are moments that are uncanny; that jawline, those steely eyes… how ironic that Cushing himself probably never even heard of the character during his lifetime, totally ignorant of a role he seems born to have played. A trick of fate and  unfair timing, I guess, and certainly our loss- another one of those movie ‘what-ifs’ to haunt us film fans.

Captain Clegg (‘Night Creatures’ in the US) really is the little Hammer film that surpasses expectations, and clearly deserves the extra attention re: supplements that it gets in this Indicator release (which also ports across the extras from the earlier Final Cut edition). They even fixed the colour-timing issues that plagued the day-for-night shooting that  troubled that earlier release. Its a whole lot of fun and its such a pleasure to witness Peter Cushing in such fine form. I don’t think I’ll be waiting seven years for my next re-watch…

Enemy (2013)

enemypostrrThe final shot of Denis Villeneuve’s surreal Enemy had me jumping out of my chair- its absolutely shocking and terrifying. I’m not certain what that shot actually means, because the film is something of an enigma, reminding me throughout of early Cronenberg movies. There is the weird sense of not knowing what is reality, and of a character having the fabric of reality pulled from under him: in Videodrome (1982), this is caused by a signal in a pirate video feed affecting the characters brain, while in Enemy it seems to be a video rental recommendation that triggers the main characters crisis. And of course the idea of twins/dominant personalities etc reminds of Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988). Enemy is a relentlessly dark, fascinating film and another example of just how impressive a film-maker Villeneuve is.

However, if you don’t like spiders, it might be best to give this film a wide berth, because it uses spiders as a major part of its surrealist imagery. The film opens at a clandestine sex show being witnessed by a group of men: after a woman apparently masturbates to orgasm in front of them, a second woman stands naked but for high heels, a menacing-looking tarantula spider then unveiled at her feet. One of the attendees, Anthony (Jake Gyllenhaal) can only look through his fingers, evidently more scared of the spider than aroused by the woman or sense of danger. The scene ends with the woman apparently about to crush the spider under her heel. Spiders will become a regular motif during the film, usually haunting dream imagery- we see a giant spider over the city, a naked woman walking down a corridor with a spider’s head, and that final shot where I nearly lost my lunch. Spiders mean something. There also seems to be a visual motif for webs- whether it be the fractured glass of a window in a car accident, or in the street cables/telephone wires in the sky. 

enemy2If you have not seen this film, it might be best not to read the remainder of this post if you intend to give it a go, because I’m going to spend much of the rest of this trying to decipher the film and unravel what it might mean (albeit having only seeing it once, I’m likely wide of the mark). As well as certain Cronenberg movies, this film also reminds me of David Lynch movies, particularly my favourite, Mulholland Drive. Enemy is a mystery, a masterfully obtuse film that only suggests that it can make sense, that there is an internal code that can be used to decipher any meaning. For all I know, there may not be any solution.

Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a college professor living in a quiet, rather monotonous, uneventful life in Toronto. He doesn’t seem to have any freinds or much of a social life, and he seems unable to really connect with his girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent) other than on a basic physical level- they don’t seem to talk and he seems more attentive to marking his course work: they have an argument and she leaves. He seems so emasculated he doesn’t go after her. 

(Adam’s lectures concern “bread and circuses”, how totalitarian states placate the masses through diversions of entertainment, such as the coliseum of Rome: does this also reference diversions such as the sex show frequented by groups of men we see at the start of the film? Or indeed the virtual escape of films and cinema?)

A colleague at the college recommends a film, Where There’s a Will There’s a Way, and while Adam replies “I don’t like movies” (which may have further implications later on), when Adam passes a video store he rents the film out. He watches it, and then during the night wakes up from a strange dream and goes back to his laptop and plays part of the film again, upon which he realises one of the extras playing a hotel bellhop looks just like him (albeit minus Adam’s beard). Its not clear if he missed this when first watching the film, or if the film has changed- or perhaps if Adam is now imagining the likeness, ‘seeing’ this face in the background of a scene (triggered by the nightmare?) and a sign that he’s beginning to lose his grip of reality. Or perhaps he’s remembering?

Looking up the films credits, he investigates the actor who looks like him- discovering that this apparent twin is Anthony Claire, stage name Daniel Saint Claire, an actor whose talent agency is (conveniently/suspiciously/alarmingly) nearby. Clearly beginning to obsess over this strange doppelganger, Adam gets into the talent agency, is mistaken for being Anthony, who hasn’t been seen there for awhile, and is given a package marked for Anthony’s attention which reveals Anthony’s address (we will later discover that the package also contains a key, which likely links directly to the opening scene at the sex show, which possibly infers the whole film is some elaborate loop or one that holds multiple loops within one greater loop). From the address on the packet Adam divulges Anthony’s phone number and calls it, but Anthony’s pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) answers- she mistakes Adam’s voice for that of Anthony, and believes he is playing a prank call on her. At first amused she becomes frightened by Adam’s refusal to ‘fess up to the prank and abruptly ends the call. When Adam marshals the courage to ring again, Anthony answers, angry at who he believes is a stalker.

Neither man seems aware the other even existed, and they are indeed quite identical (Anthony now sporting the beard too) and each gets mistaken for the other: actually, however, the men’s personalities are quite tellingly different, Adam quiet and introverted, Anthony confident and assertive. Perhaps they are two facets of one personality, broken.

Now, strange things seem to be happening with Time in this film- in this respect it feels rather like a Christopher Nolan movie. I may be wrong about this, and having only seen the film this one time I cannot be certain, but I think the film is actually some strange loop, or loops within loops. And clearly, I’m not at all certain we have a reliable narrator, and that things we are seeing can be relied upon as ‘real’. Although the film seems to suggest the two men are two separate individuals, each living in seperate, quite distinct apartments with different women, I have to wonder. Helen berates Anthony for an affair, claiming that he is seeing ‘her’ again- I think she is referring to Mary.  Also, Adam searches a box of photos at home and discovers one of him in which half the photo has been cut out, hiding the second person in the photograph: later when he gets in Anthony’s apartment, he sees the same photo, now whole, on display in a frame, with the photo revealing the second person to be Helen. Are we witnessing two time periods, with Adam/Anthony losing his mind and slipping between the two? Anthony pursues, and has sex with, Mary; Adam sneaks into Anthony’s apartment and has sex with Helen (the latter suspecting who he really is but being attracted to him).

Anthony goes to visit his mother (Isabella Rossellini!) who congratulates him on having a proper job and no longer wasting his time trying be a successful actor. So was Anthony an actor who gave it all up to be a history professor, when he ‘becomes’ Adam, if that’s the case, which of them ‘belongs’ in the past and which in the future? I began to think my seperate timelines/multiple personalities theory had some weight, but its doesn’t completely hold true.

A complication is that Helen is as mystified/horrified by the implications of her husbands doppelganger as the men are themselves- Helen visits the college and chances upon Adam, who does not recognise her, they have a conversation in which Adam thinks he is simply making small talk with a stranger, and he leaves, upon which she calls Anthony on her mobile and he answers, wondering where she is, apparently elsewhere- but of course we cannot see Adam as he has gone into the building and may have answered the phone himself, now adopting Anthony’s personality. Helen is upset, can’t understand what is going on- unless of course she KNOWS what is going on, and that she knows that he is suffering from a multiple personality disorder or some kind of schizophrenia, fearing perhaps he is not taking medication and he is slipping back into twin personalities/getting confused. 

The cast is uniformly excellent. Its possibly the finest performance I’ve seen from Gyllenhaal, and the women are brilliant (although Rossellini basically has just a cameo, its a very pleasant one). An intrusive, yet ambient score grates as it gets under your skin sonically; the visual effects are convincing (and at times horrifying). The ending suggests Villeneuve could make one hell of a horror film someday.  

It is a confusing, fascinating, quite disturbing film. Its some kind of genius. It again demonstrates that Villeneuve is without any doubt one of the most exciting and interesting directors working today: his filmography is really quite remarkable. Enemy displays some familiar fascinations of Villeneuve- the lingering shots of the city skyline, of buildings and location, remind of Polytechnique and Blade Runner 2049. The dark mood and slow pace reminds of most every film of his; but of all his films, Enemy feels unusual in its absolute morbid darkness, its Cronenbergian sense of unreliable reality. Maybe its an alien spider invasion movie, an arachnoid Invasion of the Body Snatchers and our protagonist is the only one who realises what is really going on. Maybe its a nod to Lovecraft’s From Beyond or Philip K Dick’s Valis, and Adam is glimpsing (through the spider images) reality pushing in on the ‘bubble’ of our perceived reality. Who knows? All I know is that the film creeped me out and really got under my skin.  

The Lady From Shanghai (1947)

lady2I first watched this film back in 2017, when I bought the Indicator Blu-ray- I didn’t write a review about it at the time because I honestly didn’t know what to make of the film. I decided to wait for a second viewing, not realising that it would take as long as it has, but having just seen Rita Hayworth in the brilliant Gilda it seemed its time had come at last.

Second time around then, what did I think? Well, I think I’m in about the same frame of mind as I was first time around: there’s something very wrong with Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai, a film that continuously veers from melodrama to farce, is peppered by brilliance but seems to waste all its promise as it routinely slips from jittery noir to black comedy to unconvincing romance to weak drama, as if there’s four different films fighting for dominance and none of them wins.

The thing I love, and find endlessly fascinating, regards film noir is that for the most part, however stylised they may be with expressionistic, nightmarish lighting etc, they are gritty, down-to-earth, realistic tales with believable, albeit flawed characters. Very often the worlds of the 1940s and 1950s may look and sound very different from our own but they are always convincing, there is always a sense of truth to them. The Lady of Shanghai deliberately bucks this approach, as if Welles was deliberately usurping Hollywood tropes, to the point at which the courtroom sequence towards the end is practically a mockery of Hollywood courtroom scenes (really, it almost seems disrespectful). The main characters, too, are far from realistic- quirky, camp, irreverent and often annoying, they don’t feel ‘real’ at all (what in the world is going on with Glenn Anders monstrously misjudged George Grisby, a central character to the plot who grates throughout?). Its hard to empathise with what is essentially a freakshow, and harder still to believe anything they do or say.

The central problem I have with the film, and its a fundamental one that it can never really recover from, is the frankly bizarre performance by Orson Welles in the role of the central protagonist, Michael O’Hara. I’m not exactly sure what Welles was trying for, and believe that as he was the writer, producer and (the oddly uncredited) director of the film, perhaps he should have hired another actor better suited for the role. He’s really pretty awful as the Irish adventurer, utterly unconvincing and painful to watch: I just didn’t ‘get’ him at all: perhaps individual mileage varies, but its hard for a film to recover when central casting derails everything. I suspect that Welles was being deliberately contrary, an intellectual approach to the role perhaps that doesn’t at all come off. Chiefly its the odd accent but to be honest, there is something wrong with the character in general: aloof, noncommittal, he doesn’t feel convincing, and most  damning of all, there seems little if any chemistry between Welles and Hayworth, who were married at the time (albeit estranged, I understand) – perhaps the state of their failing marriage surfaced in their performances. As it is, the lack of chemistry is like a black hole at the heart of the film, for all the pouting and panting Hayworth attempts here (compared to the sexual fireworks between Hayworth and Ford demonstrated in Gilda, its a bleak chasm that the film can’t climb out of).

Hayworth, of course, was ‘the Love Goddess’ of 1940s Hollywood, and her transformation from Gilda to how she appears here as femme fatale Elsa Bannister is quite astonishing, and indeed caused some consternation at the time. Gone were Hayworth’s long red locks, replaced with a short platinum-blonde hairstyle – she looks like the archetype for Kim Novak’s Madeleine from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Considering that this film came out just a year after Hayworth’s seminal role as Gilda in Charles Vidor’s classic noir, the change is breathtakingly brave (or recklessly foolish as studio head Harry Cohn believed, horrified by what Welles had done to his star performer).

Alas, Elsa isn’t nearly as fascinating as Madeleine would be a decade or so later. Certainly Hayworth is as beautiful as ever, but the character is underwritten and I suspect this too was deliberate by Welles, bucking the traditional femme fatale role. Hayworth isn’t given anything with which to chew up the noir scenery as the scheming temptress the film needs her to be. Partly this issue is down to enabling the ‘twist’ that it doesn’t want us to see coming, but this scuppers what could have been a memorable and even iconic role – Hayworth looks the part but has to play a trapped wife and insipid, romantically frustrated victim for most of it. If she’d been more of a traditional femme fatale it might have helped Welles’ Irishman to have been more convincing, too, his role then more of a traditional luckless noir hero seduced by a beautiful woman- but again, Welles isn’t making that kind of noir here. 

Welles, perhaps true to his own nature rather than as professionally workmanlike as he should have been, wasn’t looking to be traditional, and this is hardly traditional noir (brave indeed perhaps but when it undermines a film working as well as it should, perhaps actually pretty foolish). The fact that this film even IS noir is mostly down to its remarkable, visually audacious ending in a hall of mirrors (if you haven’t seen it, you’ve certainly seen some film mimicking it). After the failure of Citizen Kane and Welles subsequent loss of final cut and his troubled films after, its unfortunate that Welles couldn’t just make a more traditional, ordinary, moody noir. I’m sure it would have been spectacular (Kane itself is proof enough of that). But for some reason -likely sheer ego, it was Welles, after all- Welles seemingly couldn’t be a director for hire and play by the rules, he had to do his own thing like some crazy maverick in the studio system. Inevitably, he wouldn’t be able to find work in that studio system for long; this, the man who made Citizen Kane, arguably the finest (certainly most influential) film of all time. Turns out Welles was probably his own noir hero; how ironic is that, on the evidence of the horribly flawed The Lady From Shanghai?  



Gilda (1946)


Crikey, I’m sure nobody forgets Gilda.

I actually think my expectations were skewed somewhat by having watched Affair in Trinidad a few months ago – a film that was made several years after Gilda, reuniting its stars Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford in a film with a very similar plot in a blatant attempt to recapture the earlier film’s success. So I came to Charles Vidor’s Gilda rather expecting more of the same- a similar romantic drama set in exotic climes, but instead GIlda turned out to be much more. A growing sense of unease settles in when all sorts of subtext becomes apparent, the film gradually revealing itself to be a very subversive noir with all manner of sexual tension and homoerotic intrigue (I’m endlessly surprised by just how much homoerotic tensions are often hidden under the surface in noir films- the two killers in The Big Combo the most obvious example). 

“Pardon me, but your husband is showing.”

Presumably on the run in Buenos Aires from some past he’d sooner forget crooked gambler Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is almost undone by his slick tricks when he is saved from a dockside gunman by mysterious German sophisticate Ballin Mundson (George Macready). Mundson is a rich but crooked businessman whose illicit gambling casino across town is actually a front for something darker, and he takes Farrell under his wing, over time making the young American his right-hand man and confidante. Naturally one might wonder what Mundson was doing across town wandering the docks alone at night, but that’s one of the mysteries that simmers under the surface, unspoken. I didn’t catch onto it at first, but lines of dialogue that hint that they live together, and Farrell’s intense loyalty to Mundson which borders on psychopathic once Gilda is on the scene, begins to suggest all sorts of possible hidden meanings.

“You’re out of practice aren’t you – dancing I mean. I can help you get in practice again Johnny – dancing I mean.”

I’ve seen Glenn Ford in several noir of late, and in most all of them he is a calm, confident, quietly righteous man- he was generally cast as the handsome, clean American hero he tends to look like. Farrell, however, is a younger, rougher character than I have seen him play before, and I wonder how much he was aware of some of the subtext running under the surface: part of me thinks he must have done, but if so he was very brave accepting the role. Certainly his sexual chemistry with Hayworth is undeniable (indeed it slipped over into real-life) but his relationship with his mentor is perhaps the most interesting in the film.

“I can never get a zipper to close. Maybe that stands for something, what do you think?”

Following a business trip Mundson returns with a surprise package- a wife, Gilda, who is, of course, the woman who Farrell is trying to forget, and all sorts of jealous tensions arise – albeit from interesting quarters and unusual directions. Indeed, what we see of Mundson’s marriage to Gilda makes one wonder what kind of marriage it is, and whether Gilda is simply a trophy wife that serves one purpose, while his young protégé serves another.

“Quite a surprise to hear a woman sing in my house, eh Johnny?”

Gilda was, essentially, a Rita Hayworth vehicle, Hayworth being a major sex-symbol at the time (famously coined ‘The Love Goddess’ during the 1940s)-  the title character being a provocative, wildly sensual woman caught between two men: Gilda‘s particular twist being the two men. Gilda remains a powerful cinematic icon, perhaps indeed a scandalous one when the film originally came out, that perhaps overshadowed Hayworth for the rest of her life. Hayworth claimed to be a naturally shy, insecure woman, quite unlike her screen character, but one has to wonder- she was married five times and had an on/off affair with Glenn Ford that lasted some forty years, and was reported to have ruefully stated that “Men go to bed with Gilda, but wake up with me.” Gilda is the kind of role that actresses die for, the role of a lifetime, and Hayworth’s remarkable performance, fiery and tender, angry and wounded, is really quite haunting with an undercurrent of truth to it which suggests that perhaps Hayworth was more like Gilda than she cared to admit. She certainly has a raw beauty and sensual charisma that smoulders on the screen, a genuine force of nature, convincingly passionate and wanton and yet also tortured and insecure.

“Any psychiatrist would tell you that means something, Johnny.”

As usual with the best 1940s noir, the script is as sharp as a knife, with some wonderful quotable dialogue (which I’ve naturally sampled during this post). Gilda is an amazing film, and while one naturally has to wonder if someone watching the film from the perspective of the 21st Century is perhaps seeing too much under the films surface, I think as usual the rewards of some of these classic movies is that there really is more to them than meets the eye. We are too used, these days, of films that telegraph the plot, and in which characters and arcs are blatant and obvious, but suggestion can be far more powerful, I think. It gets under your skin more.

Sure, one can watch Gilda as just a darker riff on Casablanca, an escapist romantic drama set in an exotic location with colourful characters, but scratch under the surface and there’s another film in there. One darker and more seductive and mysterious. Certainly the differences between Gilda and the later Affair in Trinidad are pronounced and telling, and Gilda is ultimately a far more uncomfortable viewing experience for all sorts of surprising ways. 

And of course, one can simply re-watch the film to enjoy Rita Hayworth in a role and performance for the Ages: her Gilda is quite magnificent.  I’m sure nobody forgets Gilda.

A 4K Inception and the Old Soul problem

inc4kLast night I re-watched Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Yeah, another re-watch – I’ve so many discs in my collection that I haven’t watched/re-watched and are just sitting on the shelf, I think I’m coming to the point at which I finally have to put them to some use. That being said, it actually wasn’t my old Blu-ray that I watched this time around- I’d noticed the 4K release of Inception being reduced recently (its been in several offers over the past few months) and gave it a punt; yes the 4K format and double/triple-dipping really does seem to be the Devils work. So what finally got me around to watching the film again was it being the 4K edition, would I have ever re-watched that Blu-ray? 

Regards that 4K… well the HDR as usual proves to be the winner here, adding some considerable depth to the picture, but details etc didn’t seem a pronounced improvement on the Blu-ray, albeit I haven’t actually watched that disc in several years. A curious thing I have noticed is that sometimes 4K discs don’t immediately seem to be much of a difference, until I play the Blu-ray edition out of curiosity and suddenly the improvements become quite surprising (this 4K disc comes with the film and extras on two Blu-ray discs making my old copy absolutely irrelevant). I do like the new/revised cover art over the Blu-ray edition- the slipcase looks really nice (the revised artwork for some 4K releases of catalogue films often seem to improve on earlier editions).

Did I just extol the virtues of a slipcase?

As for Inception, I hadn’t seen the film in several years (it is so strange how time races by, and no that’s not some meta-commentary on Time in Nolan’s films). I was coming back to it assuming I’d remember it and follow it easily, but no, I was floundering for the first thirty minutes or so. I think that’s more to do with Nolan’s obtuse style of storytelling and audio design than any early signs of dementia on my part, at least I hope so. Part of Nolan’s appeal is the complicated, labyrinthine plots of his films; critics love Nolan’s ‘clever’ filmmaking, but its something which has become increasingly tiresome for me, so much so that I keep on wanting to re-watch Tenet if only to try work out what the fudge that thing is actually about: first time around, it made no sense at all, and I suspect I’ll feel the same after watching it again. Interstellar was more silly nonsense than anything profound (but it looks nice), and Dunkirk ruined what could have been a definitive and classic retelling of important British history with three storylines confusingly jumping around in time (but it looks nice). I have the growing suspicion that Nolan’s labyrinthine plotting is just a subterfuge to disguise how silly and empty they really are.

What all Nolan’s films actually do well is the technical side, the production aspects; what he puts up on screen is always impressive and at times jaw-dropping, but they also seem to get bogged down by that – the intellectual and technical aspects of making each project increasingly losing the narrative and characters. He particularly seems fascinated with Time; toying with it in all his films in often novel ways but also at odds with basic storytelling. 2001: A Space Odyssey is probably his favourite movie, he seems to aspire to that film in every film he makes.

I think Inception may remain his best film if only because it better balances his intellectual and technical strengths and validates their excess within its premise. In this case, the dream-worlds the characters go into better excuses all the sophisticated stunts, layers of time and plot-twists without it all distracting from the narrative and collapsing into confusion. God knows Inception confuses but at least there seems a valid reason for it, it feels naturally part of the film and not distracting.

Except really for the ‘Old Souls’ sequence and the whole subplot about Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) trying to get back to his children. This is what largely breaks the film for me. Cobb reveals that he and his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) experimented in ‘deep dives’; going deep into dreams where time passes by more slowly than in the real world- in this case, during an afternoon forty years would go by for them within their dream-world ‘paradise’ where they could be alone and grow old together. But at the same time, this would mean that they would spend forty years away from the same children that Cobb is so obsessed with returning to. I appreciate that, in reality only a few hours would pass, but intellectually and experience-wise, they would live forty years away from their children, family and loved ones. Now, two things spring to mind. First, nobody would ever do that, its selfish and crazy and ridiculous. Secondly, ‘living’ forty years would change someone, as you ‘aged’ in the dream world and time passed, you’d change as a person (and possibly lose your mind living in an essentially empty cage). Cobb didn’t need to plant an idea (an ‘Inception’) into Mal’s mind to drive her crazy about what is Reality, the experience would do that all by itself. At one point, I began to wonder if Cobb’s children were ever ‘real’, that maybe their existence was an Inception of its own, perhaps placed by Mal, but seeing memories of her on the beach with their children would seem to infer they were indeed real, and just make that whole deep dive/grow old together as silly and irresponsible as I stated before. Its an intriguing idea on the surface but like so many Nolan sub-plots that crowd his films, one that doesn’t hold up when examined.

Now, it would make a fascinating movie, just all of its own, to see the two characters spend forty years together and grow old and slowly ‘forget’ the real world (it would essentially become like a distant dream) and then when they woke see them suddenly having to re-adjust to Reality and being young again with their children not seen for forty years. There is, intellectually, a fascinating film in just that idea. Deep-dives into the dream-state essentially is a door to immortality, living tens, hundreds, thousands of years in the virtual worlds of constructed dreams. Or maybe I’m just over-thinking it; its hard to tell when considering Nolan’s films.

Some connections:

Christopher Nolan also directed Tenet and Interstellar.

Leonardo DiCarprio starred in The Revenant, (a sobering reminder that I bought it on 4K and haven’t watched the disc yet).