The Killers (1946)

the killersTwo hitmen arrive in a small town under cover of darkness, their shadows stretching out before them like spectral fingers of Doom. Investigating a gas station to find it closed, they go across to a lonely Diner looking for their quarry within. They harass the staff and its lone customer there, looking for a man nicknamed the “Swede” (Burt Lancaster) before finally leaving, frustrated. The customer is Nick Adams, who works at the gas station, and as soon as its safe to leave he rushes out, dashing over backyards to a nearby hotel to warn his friend the Swede. But the Swede refuses to flee or call the police, as if he’s been expecting the hitmen and is resigned to his fate. Nick leaves, confused, and soon after hears a blaze of gunfire from behind him- his friend is dead…

So begins Robert Siodmak’s The Killers, an absolutely first-rate noir that totally lives up to its reputation as being one of the very best of its kind. I’m gradually working my way through the genre and its wonderful just gradually coming across its greats. There really isn’t much I can say about the film, except that its one of those rare films that feels quite perfect: cast, direction, story, cinematography, it all just comes together. Yeah, all for intents and purposes, quite utterly perfect. As a film lover, I just watch this kind of film and soak it up- its why I love movies.

Although highlighted as “Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers,” that’s possibly misleading, as the films grim prologue is essentially the entire content of the author’s original short story upon which the film is based; an eight-page story that describes the killers coming to a town and killing their quarry. It sets up a question in the readers mind that its film adaptation tries to answer. Curiously, a subsequent film adaptation from Don Siegel in 1964, starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson and Clu Gulager, had a quite different tale to unwrap (allegedly, as I haven’t seen the later film yet).

In Siodmak’s film, which none other than John Huston had a hand in writing, the Swede’s last words: “I did something wrong once…” are as intriguing as Kane’s “Rosebud”, and the film goes off into a series of dark, Citizen Kane-like flashbacks and stories, gradually revealing through the memories of those that remember him the truth about the Swede and why he accepted his fate. Its a fascinating tale with some fine twists and turns and memorable characters (and a particularly impressive heist filmed in one crane shot that is really quite ambitious and comes off brilliantly). The Swede is ultimately revealed to be one of the great doomed losers of all noir; another guy who loved the wrong woman and never stood a chance- but there is a real depth to both the character and Burt Lancaster’s performance (in his first movie, no less). His screen chemistry with Ava Gardner is sizzling; yet again here is an actress of whom I am rather unfamiliar, no matter her reputation (just like I am of Rita Hayworth; yeah I have plenty of catching-up to do). Gardner’s Kitty Collins is wonderful; stunningly beautiful and terribly dangerous to any man who can’t resist her. From the moment Lancaster’s character sees her and instantly forgets the woman he walked in with, his fate is sealed. Gotta love these noir.

This is a fantastic film, one of those genuine classics and really anyone who loves film needs to see it (just don’t take as long as I did).

Some connections:

Robert Siodmak next made The Dark Mirror.

Burt Lancaster also appeared in noir I Walk Alone and later one of my favourite films, The Swimmer. Not to mention, of course, his role in the sublime Field of Dreams.

Don Siegel also made the cracking noir film The Lineup.

Edmond O’Brien also appeared in noir 711 Ocean Drive.

Jack Lambert also appeared in noir Kiss Me Deadly.

Apocalypse Now 4K UHD

apocI finally -FINALLY- got round to watching my 4K UHD copy of Apocalypse Now last night. Although my copy is the six-disc set with the Final Cut and Redux versions I went with the theatrical, as I think less is more for Apocalypse Now. I know Coppola seems as endlessly fascinated (frustrated?) with this film as his buddy George Lucas was with his Star Wars films, but this film is pretty much perfect as it is. I tried to enjoy the Redux version -I’ve watched it twice and always walk away hating it, so I didn’t even consider watching the Final Cut. Maybe one day, as I guess it’d be a shame for the disc to just sit there, but is there any film out there with two alternate cuts as superfluous as those for Apocalypse Now?

This is such a damned extraordinary film. I think every time I watch it, I get more out of it, and enjoy it all the more, and it just seems more and more remarkable that something like this could even get made (I guess you just had to be the guy behind two Godfather films in order to get a pass for a film like this). Its a work of madness. Of mind-boggling crazy ambition. Its an Hollywood epic in the guise of an Arthouse movie, or maybe its the reverse.

It has, without any doubt, the best voiceover narration of any film, ever. Maybe there is some other film to compete, but if there is I’ve never seen/heard it (closest I can imagine is maybe the voiceover narration for  Taxi Driver, although that example feels too obvious).

Some damn fool went and made a sci-fi reboot and called it Ad Astra. Which does make me think, why can’t someone make a sci-film as important and strange and huge and crazy as Apocalypse Now? Maybe Kubrick already did it with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both films seem as equally important as regards being landmarks in Cinema, although so wildly different.

The 4K disc is pretty much as gorgeous as everyone has said it is in reviews etc. The HDR really does increase the sense of depth and verisimilitude: the Playboy bunnies scene pops out of the jungle darkness and the Do Lung Bridge sequence pops so bright it feels like being stabbed in the eyes. Which does make me wonder about some of these 4K releases, in the case of Apocalypse Now, how it looks with its HDR pass likely surpasses anything cinematographer Vittorio Storaro originally intended or could have hoped for back in its original projection era. Should the film in 4K be considered authentic?

I have one more question if someone could answer it: Apocalypse Now has no title card, no credits at the start and none at the end (the film fades to black and that’s it). I was just wondering how Coppola got away with that or if the film originally had credits during its theatrical release. I wouldn’t have thought the film unions would allow a film to be released without the cast or crew being credited anywhere (didn’t George Lucas get into trouble for leaving Irvin Kershner’s card until the end of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980?).

Last Week

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                                              Great Scott! Those Mattes!

Well there goes another week in the mad tumble towards what some people are still hoping will turn out to be Christmas. Regular readers may have noticed a wee drop in the number of reviews being posted lately- its partly because I’ve been turning my attention to watching television shows this month, which obviously take more time to watch than a movie does. This week, though, much of my time has been taken up with other distractions, including watching Back to the Future and its sequel, the imaginatively titled Back to the Future Part II which have just been released on 4K UHD (I’ll likely get around to the third entry sometime today). Visually these films are rather more problematic than some catalogue releases on 4K UHD, which I gather is partly down to the filmstock used at the time and the optical effects, which is a particular problem with the second entry. I remember watching the film at the cinema and being wowed by those visual effects, particularly the flying cars (at the time seeming much more sophisticated than the flying car sequences in Blade Runner) and the clever split screen techniques. Watching them on this 4K presentation, some shots still impress but goodness some are pretty terrible, really: in some places the optical effects leave the flying cars looking like smudgy animation and at other moments almost pasted on like cut-outs. I don’t know if its a degradation of the original elements, or an inevitable consequence of 4K resolution and HDR making mattes etc much more problematic, but some of that once so impressive stuff looks fairly dire now and quite distracting. If anything, it makes those flying car sequences in Blade Runner all the more impressive as they seem to hold up much better (probably a case of the more simple shots being easier to realise back then, or the digital trickery that was applied to the restoration for the Final Cut).

I do have to wonder though about how this film originally looked in the cinema, my memories of it- were we so much more forgiving? Or is it something to do with how we watch films now on these 4K panels. Back when I saw the film it was blown up on a huge cinema screen, and yet still seemed to hold up better than now on my unforgiving OLED- or is it really just how I’m remembering it? Was my old VHS copy, say, simply much more low-resolution, low-contrast and therefore much more forgiving itself, too?

Fortunately the films themselves remain quite fun and endearingly old-fashioned- once all blockbusters were made this way; there’s a sense of innocence to them that was possibly cynically calculated for all I know, but nostalgia certainly clouds over some of the bad points. In some ways Part Two seems eerily prescient- the middle section looking rather uncannily Trumpworld- I’ll never see those alternate 1985 sequences the same way as I used to.

But thinking of how the films effects turned out some thirty years later on 4K UHD, and how problematic these BTTF films have been on home video over the years (some purists reckon the Blu-rays were unwatchable), made me think about home video and owning films. I remember a time when owning a film was impossible, frankly, and a time when expensive early VHS tapes were sold (I recall seeing a copy of Jaws in a cardboard slipcase for sale for something like £76 in a posh department store in 1982). Eventually films could be found more cheaply, early examples being the Cinema Club range I remember seeing in Woolworths. One of the latter included 2001: A Space Odyssey, a copy of which I had for Christmas one year.

But of course it wasn’t really a case of owning the movie, not properly. That copy of 2001 I had was on a pan and scan, horribly fuzzy VHS- if Kubrick himself ever had the misfortune to watch a copy I’m sure he would have been mortified. Which makes me wonder how film-makers re-watch their films and what they really think of some of the home video editions over the years, but that’s really another conversation entirely.

So anyway, it wasn’t really owning a copy of the film properly- more like owning a second-rate approximation of 2001. One could argue that of all the formats, the only version where I came really close to owning a genuine proper copy of Kubrick’s epic is the 4K UHD released late last year, which looks utterly gorgeous and certainly far superior to how those Back to the Future films look in 4K. Which is where filmstocks used over the years, and how certain prestige films were shot over the decades, complicate matters (Vertigo, for instance, is a revelation in 4K UHD).

Some great, classic films, some of which are my favourites, have been released on 4K UHD over the past few years, surely the last home video format we’ll ever be asked to buy, and which some of us are fortunate to watch on pretty large, sophisticated 4K panels. Returning to that £76 copy of Jaws I looked at in that department store so many years ago, I’m pretty confident it looked bloody horrible compared to the excellent 4K UHD disc of the film that came out earlier this year. Are we REALLY owning definitive copies of our favourite films now, ironically at the end of physical media?

May the 4K be with you: The Empire Strikes Back

esb4kSome twenty years ago, I was on holiday in America, on the West Coast, and it was late at night. We were somewhere near Santa Barbara I think, stopping in a motel overnight, and we went across the road to a supermarket- I think it may have been a Walmart, I’m not sure. We’d gone away with Claire’s folks, and she was with them, looking around, and I’d gone off looking at the electronics/home entertainment section by myself. I walked past some televisions and heard John Williams music for Cloud City. The televisions were showing The Empire Strikes Back (possibly another boxset just recently released on VHS) and it was the scene with Han Solo calling to the pesky Cloud City security that he was looking for Lando Calrissian, and the music swept up as the Falcon flew through those beautiful skies of Bespin and landed. I could have wept. I suddenly had an overwhelming feeling of homesickness. It was so strange. I was in a strange town in a rather odd country on the other side of the world, and while I was enjoying myself greatly, suddenly I was in the midst of the familiar, the comforting- Empire the film felt like home. Nowadays whenever I see/hear that scene, it always throws me into that oddly lonely ‘space’ on holiday in America, go figure.

40 years. Its been 40 years, pretty much, since I first saw The Empire Strikes Back in the summer of 1980. I can so vividly recall the various previews in Starburst etc, the paperback novelisation, the Marvel comics adaptation, the soundtrack album, the Meco album, the poster magazines….

To be clear, my post has as much chance of not being biased as I have of bumping into Ridley Scott in Sainsburys tonight.

So full disclosure: I adore this movie, and consider it the best of the Star Wars franchise. Indeed, to me its more than just a movie, its more an audiovisual experience, amazing imagery with an incredible John Williams score (in my mind the best soundtrack score ever written) and those glorious Ben Burtt sound effects that somehow define the saga to me. Seriously, remove the dialogue track and just play the picture with the music and I’d be a happy camper. John Williams was at the very height of his powers here and this score, from start to finish, is just an extraordinary work. Empire has also got that great, incredibly young-looking cast (some of whom no longer with us, sadly) and that gorgeous cinematography (prettiest Star Wars movie, certainly) and yes, those breathtaking ILM effects. I’m confident the film has plenty of flaws but I can’t see them, don’t think I ever will; I think its perfect.

It also looks pretty amazing on this 4K UHD disc. Sure, I know there are plenty criticising it on forums, but really, I date from an era of b&w mono televisions and VHS and I think that allows a certain reality check; this 4K presentation is absolutely marvellous to me, the best I have ever seen the film, including those first cinema presentations, probably. I wasn’t going to buy this edition, until I caught a review online from someone that stated it was actually very good and nailed the colour grading of the original 70mm showings. Yeah, that got my attention,and I have to say, the author of that review/forum post, whoever he was, was damn right in my book. The Empire Strikes Back looks gorgeous here, the colours all de-saturated and no longer ‘blooming’ crazily as they used to do, even on the Blu-ray edition several years ago: the colour scheme here is much cooler, and looks much more authentic to me. Likewise the detail afforded by the additional resolution (I confess to picking up things I don’t recall ever seeing before) is a pleasure, and the restrained use of HDR very welcome.  I know some will analyse it frame by frame, bemoan things like DNR or crush or grain, but to me its a great film that’s never looked greater. There’s something weird going on in one shot with the Falcon on the landing pad at Cloud City when there’s a flash of light on the platform as the camera pans down, as if catching a flash of reflection that shouldn’t be there, but I don’t care. I had to put up with drop-outs and dodgy tracking and all sorts back in the VHS days and I adored that too. This is better. Its also on a 55″ panel, the biggest I’ve ever owned and possibly ever will (I watched and enjoyed Empire on a 28″ 4.3 CRT years ago so its all relative).

40 years though. I believe I’m getting to that age where some films are just unimpeachable. Its true that contrary to what media claims, Empire isn’t universally lauded as the best of the franchise (some very suspicious individuals somehow prefer Return of the Jedi), and I’m sure someone has written posts raising very good points ripping it apart, but to hell with any of that. To me its… well, I guess nostalgia rears its dangerous head here, but yeah, the film represents a bubble of spacetime, a sense of time and place and mood, the way things used to be, flavoured with that unique period of growing up and all that goes in with that. We identify with certain movies, especially those we grow up with, and yeah, as I found out on holiday back in 2001, they can even feel like home.

Jaws 4K UHD

jaws4kYou never know until you actually sit down to watch it, but every fan can relax, this is great. Another substantial 4K edition of a classic movie: Jaws looks fabulous in this new 4K release. Details are amazing, right down to the fabric on the clothes and textures on objects, and the HDR adds a vibrancy and depth to the image that is almost startling. Best of all, while grain is evident, it doesn’t degenerate into mosquito noise on my OLED as it tends to at times during other 4K editions of some classic films. I doubt the film looked anything near as good as this as when I saw it at the ABC in town back in 1976, or over the years since on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray etc… yeah, this is one of THOSE films that we just crave in whatever new format comes along. Well, I’m certain this is the last time.

Fantastic movie, mind. In my opinion its Spielberg’s best, by some margin. Maybe it was the adversity of the nightmarish shoot he had, filming this back in 1974 (well documented over the years in documentaries that appear on this disc- indeed, special features ported onto the actual 4K disc, we’re truly spoilt with this one). There does seem some pattern in film history with directors producing their best work in the face of great trial, which makes me wonder if they unconsciously coast somewhat when everything goes swimmingly (sic). Not that any of them would admit to that, but maybe some thrive under pressure, and its certainly true that Spielberg, forced to look at other ways of approaching the shark attacks when Bruce proved to be a troublesome star, improved the film no end by adopting a rather Hitchcock-like method. At the same time, it allowed the character actors to do their best and truly shine, avoiding them being overshadowed by any monster effects. There’s a sense of reality to the film that grounds it, regardless of the rather ridiculous premise.

Happy Empire Day!

esb40Apparently The Empire Strikes Back, the Best Star Wars Movie Ever, turns 40 today. Happy Birthday, Empire.

The less said about it being 40 years since I read that old Sphere novelisation in paperback, listened to the soundtrack on vinyl album repeatedly, pored over articles in Starburst and sat aghast at John Brosnan’s dismissive review, possibly the better… Those were very, very good times. The best of times, really. 1980 was some year. Excuse me while I wipe my eyes with a tissue … no, just dust in my eyes, really…

November, 2019

br2019Well, its here- November 2019, Blade Runner‘s unofficial birthday.

Sometime this month I’ll be watching the Ridley Scott classic again, something I’ve intended to do since way back in 1983 when I first had the film on VHS (and likely thought that format would last forever- was I ever so young and stupid?). I remember chatting to friends back then, saying wouldn’t it be great to watch the film in November 2019? Decades and several home video formats later, I’ll be watching it in glorious 4K UHD, in a Final Cut that was undreamed of way back then.

So this being the ‘Month of Blade Runner, I may drop several Blade Runner-related posts. Or maybe I won’t, I scatter-bomb this blog with enough Blade Runner references and name-checks as it is, and I guess every geek web-site will be throwing Blade Runner posts out there like so much Brexit Clickbait. I should be above all that nonsense.

Who am I kidding? This is like Christmas.

An Unnecessary Cut

br4k2Hey, I’m offering no new insights here, but there’s another release of Blade Runner coming up and I just…  Well, there’s no-one a bigger fan of this film than I, but I’m just fine with my 4K Blu-ray of Blade Runner. I imagine most every fan, like me, who has got a 4K set-up has already bought the standard 4K disc of Blade Runner: The Final Cut, to accompany our Blu-rays and HD-DVDs (remember them?) and DVDs. But that won’t stop some from buying this upcoming re-release in glossier packaging.

But I mean, come on, double-dipping in 4K already? That’s just nuts.This is some kind of steelbook packaging the standard 4K disc with some other swag (I’ve heard a pin badge and two drinks coasters, and that’s not the discs, although they might as well be coasters for anyone double-dipping with this) to part fans with another £30. All’s fair in business I guess.

They call it a Titans of Cult steelbook, and I think its the first of a series of such specially designed and marketed steelbook releases. I suppose a re-release of BR2049 in a Titans of Cult steelbook edition is inevitable at some point next year. I don’t really understand people buying films again and again in fancy new packaging like steelbooks. Some films have had multiple steelbooks even (there’s a special circle of Hell for those that keep on releasing those damn things). Whatever makes people happy I guess. I suppose some folks are really passionate about this stuff, or maybe really passionate about certain movies and have to have every edition going.

Me, I feel guilty enough  re-buying films even when they have new extras. Buying the exact same discs in a new shiny box? Nah. Don’t get it. Even in the case of Blade Runner. And believe me, I’m passionate about this film, but everything has its limit.

Last week: Once Upon a Time

onceThis last week I’ve been contemplating re-watching Sergio Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon A Time In America. I say ‘contemplating’ because its a formidable work to really take in- the restored cut released a few years ago on Blu-ray totals 251 minutes, which is just over four hours. That’s not four hours of big CGI action and stunts that can pass by without any effort regards actually thinking about what you’re watching- this is four hours of complex, bravura film-making at a sometimes glacial pace that shifts backwards and forwards in time across decades, between reality and opium dream. This is four hours that requires attention and respect. You don’t put Once Upon A Time In America on just to pass the time with a favourite movie. This film is an experience, and a sometimes demanding and daunting one. I’m sure some people hate it. I love it.

But I don’t watch it very often. Some films you can watch and rewatch quite regularly but America isn’t one of them- its just not that kind of film. I think its a film that should be savoured, and every time I do watch it, its a wonder to behold. As I grow older I find myself increasingly wondering how on Earth it even got made. America could never get made today. It just wouldn’t get done. I don’t think something, anything like this film, could ever get made now. Maybe it was the last of its kind.

Louise Fletcher. The first film I ever saw her in was Brainstorm. I loved the film but it was largely dismissed even at the time it came out, remembered now mostly for the tragic real-life story behind the scenes, a film practically disowned by the studio that made it and had to be forced to release it. Louise Fletcher was brilliant in Brainstorm, a revelatory performance for me; I thought she was wonderful. A few years later, having been familiar with Once Upon A Time In America for awhile through a VHS rental and later buying a VHS copy on a trip to London, I became confused by reports that she was in the film. I couldn’t remember her being in it, surely I would have noticed her. I put it down to bad information/poor journalism, but her name kept on coming up related to the film.  Eventually I learned that she actually had been involved, but that her role had been completely cut out. A film that was already 226 minutes long in the versions I had seen (I have always had a morbid fascination with one day seeing the infamous 139-minute cut but never have) somehow managed to cut her part out of it, an Oscar-winning actress? America is that kind of movie. Huge, monumental, astonishing, ridiculous.

The cast that is in the film is remarkable, but the stories about what the film might have been are equally remarkable, really- the film took so many years to make,  and over its lengthy gestation all sorts of names were connected for a time. Once upon a time, America featured Gerard Depardieu as Maz, and Richard Dreyfuss as Noodles (and James Cagney as the old Noodles? Crazy). Once upon a time, Tom Berenger was Noodles (and Paul Newman the old Noodles, even crazier!). Once upon a time, Brooke Shields was Deborah.

America always had Ennio Morricone scoring its music. Indeed, the music existed before the film was even made- Morricone wrote much of the score’s themes before it was shot and Leone filmed scenes to match the music. Once upon a time, films were made that way. Its why the score is as important as any cast member of the film; the score is the films soul.

I want someone to write a book about Once Upon A Time In America, a huge definitive book that delves into its long pre-production, its filming, its reception, its failure,  the death of the genius behind it, and its long road to reappraisal. Maybe that book would be as daunting to write (and read) as the film can be to watch.

The longest current version of the film is 251 minutes long, but it could yet be even longer. Leone’s initial cut was 269 minutes long, and I understand the missing 24 minutes exists, but cannot be incorporated into the film because of rights issues. Rights issues. Even the behind the scenes of the film is ridiculous. 35 years and Leone’s original vision is yet incomplete. Its like the plot of a movie, larger than life. Fitting enough I guess, as the film is always larger than life, more an ode to American myth, and Cinematic myth, than any reality. In just the same way as his Westerns are bigger than any real West.

I wish Leone had lived longer, and had been given opportunity to have made more films. Cinema is the lesser for his loss. But the irony of course is that America is the price of that loss, because the film and the troubles behind it are what is widely accepted as contributing to his untimely passing.

I’m sitting here writing this. I should be watching America.

The Shining 4K

shiny.jpgUnlike the 4K disc of Apocalypse Now, which came, what, a fortnight ago now but which I still haven’t watched, there was no way that I was delaying watching this Kubrick classic, remastered from a new scan (direct from the negative, I believe). As is surely expected, this new edition crushes any that came before it- it looks utterly gorgeous, with lovely detail and colour and perfectly judged, subdued application of HDR. Its a perfect presentation and is surely top of most any Kubrick fan’s shopping list. In some ways I actually preferred it to the 4K disc of 2001; possibly because this edition is so improved in quality from earlier editions of this film.

As I’ve gotten older, Kubrick’s films seem to get better, and this is very true of The Shining. There is something about the glacial pace of much of Kubrick’s writing and editing, how scenes all seem to feel just a little uncomfortably too long, and how it subconsciously seems to put the viewer on edge. Its mostly a stylistic thing he had through all his films but it works particularly well with The Shining, ably abetted by its unnerving sound design and use of music. I never read the original Stephen King novel, which is possibly a good thing as King didn’t think much of this film, by all accounts, and likely the film shines (sic) brighter without familiarity with the differences between film and novel.