Born to Be Bad (1950)

born2bHa, this was kind of fun, if only to imagine the moral outrage of audiences back in 1950 watching Joan Fontaine’s Christabel Caine use her feminine wiles (were men such schmucks back then?) to work her way through wealthy socialites and betray the woman who took her in, and desert the woman who raised her, to get the riches (and man) she feels she deserves. Oh the horrible duplicitous cow. So sly! So rude! And worst of all, even at the end she can’t see how bad she is, doesn’t see the error of her ways and goes onto her next target feeling wholly unrepentant.  What a thoroughly unpleasant little minx. I though bad girls were supposed to get punished by the end of these moral fables?

Nicholas Ray’s 1950 melodrama has dated pretty badly and in reality its really not that good a film- its pretty predictable but its enlivened greatly by a fine cast, particularly Robert Ryan (yeah, him again, he’s becoming quite a regular on my television) as Nick, aspiring writer who’s besotted by Christabel but is just a (lower) rung on the ladder she’s climbing. Ryan has some great one-liners, delivered with great gusto (“I love you so much I wish I liked you”) and has a wonderfully irreverent, somewhat Bohemian outlook that becomes quite endearing as the film goes on. Fontaine is possibly ill-suited for the role, hardly the manipulative femme fatale the character really should be, but in a weird sort of way, the casting rather works- she looks so sweet and nice one can imagine her hoodwinking everyone around her until finally her over-confidence undoes her, although, as I have noted, the film strangely lets her get away with it, seeing her moving onto other victims in the films coda. Its all daft fun, I suppose, and largely inconsequential, but the fact that she apparently goes unpunished gives this harmless melodrama a certain dash of noir.

Reminiscence 4K UHD (2021)

rem1Lisa Joy’s tech-noir thriller Reminiscence is a film which, like a few this year, I unfortunately missed at the cinema, which annoyed me as it seemed right up my street – someone went and made an adult, intelligent sci-fi thriller and I didn’t get to see it, and like BR2049 it bombed spectacularly. So I was really looking forward to seeing it when it came to home video, and naturally I went the full 4K UHD route (with hindsight its a pleasant surprise it has turned up on the format at all), but it proved rather disappointing.  It turns out that, for all it does well -and it does indeed do some things very well- its badly flawed, unfortunately. It’s not bad, exactly- it just doesn’t tie together somehow, it doesn’t really work, overall, which is frustrating because some elements are very good indeed. Its a case of being clumsy where it really needed to soar, and perhaps being overly familiar.

So many films and tv shows one sees these days, if they aren’t actually remakes or reboots, they still often seem to be a combination of the ‘greatest hits’ of someone’s DVD collection. Maybe its the entertainment industry’s sincerest form of flattery, or a reminder that there really is nothing new under the sun.

Reminiscence is hitched upon the central conceit that an invention enables people to re-live some of their past experiences which can be visualised for others to see and record, and this also enables access to forgotten memories or the ability to vividly recall things otherwise only dimly remembered. The law enforcement agencies use this machine to interrogate suspects who can be prosecuted by the evidence their memories reveal – an inversion of the ‘future crime’ of Memory Report, then, but similarly projecting crimes for others to see and record for evidence, criminals being betrayed by their own memories or those of witnesses.   

The seductive aspect of reliving good memories, especially in the distinctly dystopian world which Reminiscence proposes, reminds one of another tech-noir thriller, Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, and its device which enabled the recording of events for others to experience, itself similar to Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm of some years before. Some characters in Reminiscence are doomed to endlessly  return to and re-experience good times in just the same way as Ralph Fiennes’ Lenny in Strange Days, and indeed this is something mirrored by the ultimate fate of this film’s main character, Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman), who can’t let go of his muse, Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) any more than Lenny can shake off his obsession over his own lost love. So Reminiscence seems to come to us now third-hand, almost, rather than be anything actually new, ironically leaking reminiscences of other films-  I don’t really mind that if its done in some new and interesting way, but this is where the film slips up.  While there is some political subtext and a crime to solve, Lisa Joy treats that as secondary to its romance woven through the narrative, and its that which doesn’t entirely convince. Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson are very good actors but they just seem a little too ‘perfect’ to convince as the flawed, haunted characters that Joy wants them to be. There is a feeling that we are always watching beautiful people merely approximating what desperate, hungry and haunted characters might be like were they a little more, well, ordinary like the rest of us. Perhaps this is always true of Hollywood product. 

There is, to be sure, a really great film in here, somewhere. Considering recent world attention on Climate Change and rising sea levels, seeing a film portraying a possible nightmare scenario spun off of that -in this case a half-submerged Miami and days so hot that everyone sleeps in the day and spend the majority of their waking hours during the night-as vividly as this film does is something timely and fascinating. And the reliance of the survivors upon the new technology to re-experience memories and experiences of better times as an avenue of escape is very interesting, and similar to how people during the pandemic have eulogised old pre-COVID traditions and pursuits like, hey, going to the cinema like we used to, or perhaps re-watching films that remind us of better times. There is perhaps a subtext there upon fantasy and escape and what catharsis films themselves provide us, and what a dead-end that may be. 

So what goes wrong exactly? I think its partly the romance that doesn’t wholly convince, and as that’s the central interest for Lisa Joy that’s a pretty fundamental failing. The crime that hangs in the background concerning a wealthy family, an illegitimate child, a bent cop and resultant murders just doesn’t interest either, really. Maybe its just too many balls to juggle in the air; I rather suspect that Lisa Joy has more success with so many narrative threads when she’s spacing them over an eight or ten-episode series on HBO rather than a two-hour movie, and films always tend to need cohesive, satisfying endings, not more mystery boxes. 

As someone who has watched quite a few film noir lately, I also think that Reminiscence could have possibly done without its narration, a noir device that doesn’t, to be honest, really work for me here. I always prefer film-makers to show me, don’t tell me, and the best noir, no matter how complex they may be, can often manage just fine without a voice explaining it all. Maybe I’m wrong and don’t appreciate that post-millennials are lazier. 

Maybe Reminiscence is just another victim of dystopian films just not appealing to audiences right now- maybe we’re swerving back to the days of post-Vietnam 1977 and audiences just want escapist fun. We’re living in a dystopian world as it is, and we know the future increasingly looks bleak; we don’t necessarily need films to remind us, or show us how bad it might get. Or maybe we just want better movies.

Carmilla (2019)

carmillaThe only thing worse than a bad horror film is possibly an arthouse horror film. This new Carmilla, a modern, revisionist take on Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 vampire novella, drops the sexy, exploitation/ titillation of the Hammer cycle of films that it ‘inspired’ in the 1970s (The Vampire Lovers, Lust For a Vampire and Twins of Evil) and replaces it with a more intimate tale of sexual repression. This is less a tale of resisting the temptations of vampirism and more one of the temptations of lesbianism. Which is fine, and this is certainly graced with great performances from a genuinely very good cast, but in losing the vampirism, its rather missing the point and clearly dropping all the horror for something much more intellectual. I’ve been here before with this kind of ‘modern’ horror film- its as if the film-makers are embarrassed by being associated with something as potentially puerile and embarrassing as a horror flick and try to make something else instead. But surely that’s missing the point? 

Certainly, for the first half of this film -pacing issues aside, something I’ll return to later- the film works pretty well and promises much. Lara (Hannah Rae) is a sensitive teenager on the brink of womanhood, living a comfortable, almost idyllic life in the English countryside under the tutelage of her governess, Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine). Here are women of their time, behaving in a world that expects them to behave in a certain way, a formal code of conduct which Miss Fontaine seeks to instil upon her sometimes struggling, wayward pupil. There is a tension running through the film, between Lara’s suppressed emotions and Miss Fontaine’s own buried passions (she seems to enjoy punishing Lara with a caning a little TOO much?). 

Into this awkward status quo is thrust the enigmatic Carmilla (Devrim Lingnau), the sole survivor of a nearby carriage crash who is brought to the house and given shelter and rest. Carmilla says she cannot remember who she is or where she is from, but is clearly a more, ahem, confident and liberated girl than she pretends to be, raising Miss Fontaine’s suspicions while covertly pursuing Lara with furtive glances, suggestions of a Sapphic passion which Lara clearly finds exciting. We hear second-hand testimony of local girls mysteriously falling ill and wasting away, and indeed Lara herself becomes pale and weak as she spends more time with Carmilla. It appears that this film’s vampirism is less blood-letting and more a draining of life energy from proximity (a little like Lifeforce then, but minus that far superior film’s wildly Hammer-like sense of fun).

The film has two problems here- the pace is glacial, and the grace viewers may give it to enable the film to solidify its sense of time and place soon turns to frustration once Carmilla arrives and the viewer is still left waiting for SOMETHING to happen. Indeed, when something does happen, that’s the film’s second problem- it doesn’t know what should happen, or the conviction of its own genre for it to happen, graphically or with a sense of horror. Again, that’s the arthouse movie either forgetting its based on a horror tale or too embarrassed by it. The erotic charge between Lara and Carmilla isn’t fulfilled or realised. Instead, the strict Miss Fontaine enjoys an impromptu tryst with local doctor Renquist (a terribly wasted Tobias Menzies who could/should have been a great Van Helsing-type adversary of Carmilla), which oddly seems to transplant the audience-awaited explosion of Lara/Carmilla’s passions to the supporting cast; a baffling decision. 

I suppose what the film may have been getting at, was telling a tale of two girls finding a forbidden love together, and that being so ‘horrific’ to the ‘normal’ members of the more unenlightened society of the time that it was then turned into some demonic, vampiric legend – so the film shows us the ‘true’ story later bastardised into a camp vampiric horror tall-tale. If that’s the case, its a pity that it had to be so, well, toothless and boring.

Carmilla is currently streaming on Amazon Prime here in the UK

Scandal Sheet (1952)

ScandalshI loved this. Right from the gritty, opening location shoot outside a tenement building to its inevitable, perfect end, I just loved it. A case of watching the right film at the right time, or a film just ticking all the right boxes. The cast- Broderick Crawford (who I’d recently seen in Indicator editions of Convicted and The Mob, but was much better here), the lovely Donna Reed (whoever didn’t have a crush on her from watching It’s A Wonderful Life must be dead inside), Griff Barnett who really impressed in little more than a cameo, and some other familiar faces like John Derek and Harry Morgan – are all great, the script based on Samuel Fuller’s (supposedly semi-autobiographical) novel is full of twists and turns… Phil Karlson’s direction is exemplary… its a great film and one of those great discoveries one sometimes makes, trying a film on a whim (Amazon Prime’s algorithm brought me to it based upon me watching Crossfire a few nights before). Such discoveries tend to give me such a buzz.

Indeed, watching this on the not-so-great stream on Amazon Prime, as the film ended I looked online to see if the film was ever released on DVD or Blu-ray. You know how it is when you see a film you really, really enjoy, so often you just want to own a copy in order to re-experience it, in better quality and possibly (thanks to many DVD/Blu-rays) learn more about it from featurettes etc. Anyway, I was quite surprised to discover that Scandal Sheet had actually been included on Indicator’s Sam Fuller boxset a few years back, since OOP and now available on one of their standard releases in a double-bill with Shockproof, a film that like Scandal Sheet I had never heard of only a week ago. Well I nearly went for the standard release but I managed to find a sealed copy on eBay of the original box-set for a little less than its original retail price (some of the other listed prices were the usual eye-watering ones), and Claire suggested getting it for my Christmas present, so there you go- looks like I’ll be investigating the charms of Sam Fuller’s work in 2021, as a divergence from my noir preoccupation. 

So while I would usually press on with a review of the film here, I’ll just summarise that I really enjoyed it and that I intend to write a proper post about it when I get to re-watch in decent quality on Indicator’s Blu-ray, presumably early next year (where did 2021 go?). Consider this post a teaser for a forthcoming attraction, be still your beating hearts, eh?

Devil’s work…

devils men bluI have the distinct, and very strange feeling, that I’m being trolled by a boutique label- the fine folks at Indicator have announced that in February next year they are releasing on Blu-ray disc The Devil’s Men, a film which regular readers here (or anyone clicking the link in the title) may recall I saw last month and deemed it the worst film featuring Peter Cushing that I have ever had the misfortune to see. When I saw this announcement in my inbox I did such a double-take, I couldn’t believe my eyes: its is such a strange world sometimes.

As usual, Indicator is being generous with attention and quality- a 2K remaster from the original negative, two versions of the film (the ‘uncut’ version I watched and the edited-down American cut carrying the alternate Land of the Minotaur title) and plenty of extras including a commentary track and an archival interview/lecture with Peter Cushing at the National Film Theatre in 1973. Now, their release a few months ago of another horror film, Corruption featuring Cushing  compelled me into a blind-buy because it had an audio recording of a Cushing lecture from 1986 at the NFT (shamefully, I haven’t heard it yet- damn all these distracting noir). Certainly compared to The Devil’s MenCorruption is a far better film no matter Cushing’s own distaste for it, so was a worthy blind-buy and a lovely package with rigid slipbox and substantial softcover book with essays etc. but the idea that Indicator deem The Devil’s Men even worthy of any release at all, never mind one of their bells-and-whistles numbers…

As a Cushing fan, these archival audio pieces are tremendously tempting to me for obvious reasons. the actor unfortunately passed away before any enterprising laserdisc or DVD producer could enlist him into commentaries for some of his films, so any material of him discussing his work at length is priceless. But this time, its like Indicator are just daring me. The Devil’s Men is a horrible film, clumsily directed and poorly scripted, bizarrely carrying a Brian Eno score and also starring fellow horror-movie legend Donald Pleasance. I can read Indicator’s announcement imagining them stifling a guffaw as they write “this offbeat horror film… an eccentric, bloody cult shocker” as if the words ‘offbeat’ and ‘eccentric’ are euphemisms for ‘shite’ and ‘diabolical.’ Ha ha, its like they watched a different movie or are just testing me with some ghastly jest: they know, they KNOW that I’ve credit enough at their shop from past purchases to cash it in and get this film for ‘free’ but really, I’ve got more self-respect than that, haven’t I? Extraordinary move, Indicator- you are the Devil’s Men indeed.

Clearly the decent thing to do if ever someone from Indicator reads this is to respond by sending me a copy gratis..

The Racket (1951)

racketHot on the heels of Crossfire comes another noir thriller starring Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan – Hollywood was a pretty small world back then when actors were signed to studio contracts, and they sure were kept busy. In 1951 alone, Ryan appeared in five movies (including the wonderful On Dangerous Ground), Mitchum in three and co-star Lizabeth Scott appeared in four herself that year; one of the pleasures of watching these noir is seeing familiar faces turning up in all sorts of roles and movies (Scott for instance appeared in Dark City and I Walk Alone, two noir which I saw last year).

I actually first watched The Racket in early September, but although I enjoyed it didn’t write about it at the time  – after having seen Crossfire with Ryan and Mitchum onscreen together again, I decided it might be timely to give The Racket a re-watch, and hey, then opportunity to finally write a post about it. 

The Racket is a crime thriller, in which mobster Nick Scanlon (Ryan) has become increasingly marginalised as his turf has become amalgamated by a high-level organised crime syndicate, more prone to hire corrupt officials and law officers to manage its will rather than resorting to Scanlon’s old-school violence. This is a familiar theme in noir during this period (711 Ocean Drive is an example) – the idea of a nameless criminal syndicate operating across the nation, led by unseen masterminds corrupting the system from within and rendering the law powerless seems to have been perfect for the increasingly paranoid, reds-under-the-bed, enemy-within times. Science fiction films of the time suggested alien menace, while many noir suggested faceless criminal threats and communist espionage, but it all feels very similar and a reflection of the Cold War era. 

racket2Scanlon’s foil in this film is incorruptible police captain Tom McQuigg (Mitchum), who has been repeatedly sidelined to ever-more backwater precincts by corrupt superiors in the pay of the Syndicate in order to undermine him doing his job. Ryan is brilliant as the fiery mobster getting angrier and angrier at being reined back by his Syndicate superiors, bristling and ready to explode, but Mitchum possibly proves to be the films weakest link. To be fair his relentlessly honest police captain is sadly one-dimensional, but Mitchum just seems happy to stride around like a cowboy from one his western flicks transplanted onto the then-modern day streets. His whole demeanour (walk, sneer and drawl) is so much that of a cowboy its a little irritating, but one has to remember Mitchum wasn’t a trained actor (at least that’s what I gather from what I’ve read) but seems confident that he can get by with just his sheer physicality alone. He’s ruggedly handsome, tall and powerfully built: he looks the part of a cinematic hero and it seems that was enough: guys wanted to be him, girls wanted to be with him, its a familiar story in Hollywood. 

Unfortunately while its a competent crime thriller, The Racket has the air of almost comfortable routine- its cinematography doesn’t look as arrestingly imaginative as, say, that of Crossfire did, the script doesn’t surprise too often and the last reel fails to generate the tension it needs to. It certainly isn’t as edgy and dark as the best noir prove to be. This is a police procedural morality tale of an honest police captain inspiring one of his men, and a reminder of the supreme price some lawmen (and their wives) have to pay. A tale of corruption and frustrated lawmen trying to clean the dirty streets, unfortunately for the film those lawmen are awfully plain and unmemorable compared to the bad guys like Ryan and, in a nice sleazy turn William Conrad as an openly corrupt Detective, Turk. Strangely enough, its the latter who struck me as likely inspiration for Tim Burton and one of his films corrupt cops ( Lt. Eckhardt) in the 1989 Batman movie: it seems quite evident that Burton likely looked at films like The Racket for inspiration for the gothic noir look of his comicbook film that enabled its own timeless look. 

I think its safe to say that The Racket is Ryan’s movie though- he seems perfectly suited to playing ruthless, hardboiled bad guys and having seen him in a few films lately, he’s really caught my attention and impressed me. Maybe the reason Mitchum seems so lazy and seemingly uncommitted in this, is that he knows that its a waste of time trying any harder, Ryan is stealing every scene- mind, to be fair, the villains always tend to steal movies, and Mitchum would play some memorable ones himself (The Night of the Hunter, for one).

Crossfire (1947)

crossfire4Well we’re back to noir and the 1947 drama Crossfire starring Robert Mitchum (Out of the Past), Robert Ryan (On Dangerous Ground) and Robert Young. Directed by Edward Dmytryk (The Sniper, Bluebeard) the film also features Gloria Grahame (It’s A Wonderful Life, In a Lonely Place, The Big Heat) in a supporting role. That’s quite a pedigree, and also so many connections to other films I’ve seen; how could it fail?

Well, it can’t fail, really- as far as noir films go, this one looks utterly gorgeous, photographed by J.Roy Hunt, whose work here is simply high-art; its so beautiful (I only wish I had watched this on a Blu-ray, instead of an off-air recording). Although the script and acting are very good, its how the film looks that really struck me. Regular readers of this blog will know I’ve watched plenty of noir, particularly over the last year or so, so I’ve plenty to compare it to, and this film’s visuals compares with the best. Its moody, atmospheric and full of all sorts of creative and imaginative touches, painting with light indeed.

Police investigating the brutal death of Joseph “Sammy” Samuels (Sam Lavene) find that the evidence leads towards a group of demobilized soldiers, “Monty” Montgomery (Ryan), Arthur “Mitch” Mitchell (George Cooper), Floyd Bowers (Steve Brodie), and Floyd’s friend Leroy (William Phipps) who were seen with Samuels in a bar – particularly Mitchell whose wallet is found near the body, and who has gone missing. Capt. Finlay (Young) of the police department is approached by a fifth soldier, Sergeant Keeley (Mitchum) who is convinced his friend Mitchell is incapable of murder and sets out to investigate the crime himself, and try track down Mitchell before the police do.

Crossfire is a very atmospheric and gripping murder mystery telling the tale partially via seperate flashbacks of the events leading to Samuels murder, which we see in the immediate post-titles sequence but in such a way that we cannot identify the assailant. Gradually the film reveals to the audience who the murderer is and how he intends to cover up his guilt, instead pointing the blame upon Mitchell, and from that moment on it becomes a drama regards if the police or Keeley will discover the truth. The film is very good, with plenty of twists and turns, featuring some memorable characters and simply superb acting, particularly from Robert Ryan whose work resulted in him Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Gloria Grahame, whose turn as Ginny, a girl from the wrong side of the street resulted in a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

The film received five Oscar nominations in all, perhaps indicating just how well the film was regarded at the time, and its aged very well, except for when it becomes, for me, a little too preachy towards the end. That last observation really is just a personal viewpoint, films back then, as I have mentioned before concerning films of that period, had an habit of preaching messages at the audience and sometimes its just, well,  a little too forced, as I thought it was here, in the form of a long monologue from one character to another but clearly intended direct to the audience: I half-expected the speaker to directly face the camera. I’m not contesting the moral point that is voiced at all, the film carries a worthy and important  message that’s unfortunately as timely now as it was back then, its just that I would have preferred more subtlety, but as I say that’s a personal view and many will likely have little problem with it.

Other than that, the film is pretty much perfect, and I hope a Blu-ray release arrives over here in the UK so that I can watch it again in better quality. Its funny; noir films have been well represented on Blu-ray over the past few years and its clear I’ve been rather spoiled. It just goes to further prove just how important home video releases on physical media really are for older, classic films such as this, especially HD and 4K.

Red Notice (2021)

rednoteThere’s two ways of considering this film, and its rather like a Rorschach test for film fans. Either you see it as a harmless bit of mindless, leave-your-brain-in-the-kitchen bit of fun to while away a Friday night via Netflix, or you see it as an annoyingly typical, horribly insulting waste of $200 million that only further exemplifies the current state of the entertainment industry and film as an artform. 

Where do you think I sit on either side of that fence? Have a guess.

Somehow this stupid film cost more than Villeneuve’s Dune? How is this even possible? Well, maybe a lot of that has to do with the three stars allegedly each pocketing an absurd $20 million, that’s $60 million gone straight away. Hey, score one for diversity, at least the girl has gotten paid as much as the boys, and as far as screen-time is goes, she’s actually gotten paid more than them as regards a dollar-per-minute ratio is concerned, so hey, go girl. But none of the three is actually making any effort in this- its almost a distressingly cynical effort from all concerned (does effort go out the window whenever one learns that Netflix is footing the bill? Or was this picture actually destined to be a normal theatrical release at one point?). Ryan Reynolds plays Ryan Reynolds, Dwayne Johnson plays Dwayne Johnson and Gal Gadot plays Wonder Woman sorry Gal Gadot. There’s no acting in this. Mind you, in their defence, its possibly true there’s no characterisation actually fleshed out in the script which any of them could have worked with, but all the same, they are phoning all this in in the grandest Bruce Willis tradition. They turn up, look gorgeous, speak their lines, and move on. The attention to craft of someone like, say, Robert De Niro when he appeared in Taxi Driver or Raging Bull etc seems like a lifetime away. 

It exemplifies all the very worse of Netflix. The platform does some good stuff, as does Amazon etc but really, if Netflix finances/buys this kind of rubbish simply to compete with the big boys or pretend its a player like any of the Hollywood major studios, its missing the point of playing the game. Or maybe it isn’t, maybe I’m fooling myself. Netflix’s biggest issue is that it doesn’t really care how good anything it puts up streaming on its service actually is (a second season of Another Life is proof enough of that), it just cares about subscriber numbers. And the brutal truth about subscriber numbers is that, as Disney is possibly learning, they don’t actually have anything to do with the quality of what you are streaming, its more about just having new content streaming and the perception of the service having a steady flow of something new to watch on a Friday night.

In my depressed moments, I’m resigned to the fact that as far as the mass average of Joe Public that is Out There in suburbia, nobody actually cares whether something is any good or not. None of this stuff is even going to be remembered in five or ten years time, and hell, at some point probably the streamers will start pulling content because what is the point having it there hidden away behind all the algorithm’s of the service front end if only two or three people watch any of it, never mind all of it, during January 20th 2027? Films are disposable, just like streaming music and television shows etc. its all a passing distraction for people numbed by the banality/pressures of life in the 21st Century. 

What any of this has to do with Red Notice, I’m not sure. Or maybe it has EVERYTHING to do with Red Notice. In any case, I’ve wasted far too much time writing about this nonsense already. I only wish I’d bought that 4K box of the Indiana Jones films, I’d love to be able to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark tonight in glorious 4K to remind myself of the good old days when even a fairly modest love letter to simple b-movie matinees of old could turn into a classic for the ages. Films like Red Notice may pretend to be ‘homages’ to adventure flicks like Raiders but really, they are kidding themselves, they are nothing like. Raiders is 40 years old now and still a film I love to re-watch; who on Earth will be re-watching Red Notice in 40 years time? Who will even remember it exists?

Major Dundee Part Two

majcvrDuring the American Civil War, an unspecified incident at Gettysburg has resulted in Major Amos Dundee (Charlton Heston) side-lined in charge of a prison in remote Eastern New Mexico. Frustrated and feeling ill-done by the ignominy of his position, he latches onto a series of Apache raids which have culminated in a massacre near the prison as an opportunity to salvage his reputation. Abandoning his charged duty in order to gather a motley force of Union volunteers, Confederate prisoners ‘encouraged’ to volunteer, and local thieves and drunks, to hunt down and kill the Apache Indian chief Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate) and his warriors, while also rescuing three children captured in the latest Apache attack. As he chases the Apache bandits across the border into Mexico, he then also has to contend with being horribly out-numbered by thousands of French troops that are also in Mexico and threaten him as a foreign transgressor. Either Dundee returns as a conquering hero or he will be facing probable court-martial and infamy.

Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee is, as I discussed in Part One of this review, a flawed film that under better circumstances might have been a masterpiece: its premise is a fascinating study of the Old West and the ills of American military intervention and hubris (quite timely bearing in mind the film was made and released as the Vietnam War was escalating). The film is full of interesting characters and blessed by a very strong cast which, as well as Heston, includes Richard Harris, James Coburn, Jim Hutton, Michael Anderson Jr., Brock Peters, Warren Oates, and Ben Johnson. Visually it is very impressive, with the wide-open vistas typical of the best Westerns, and authentic-looking sets and costumes. Its darkly cynical central viewpoint echoes that of Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns but with its American cast and locations it looks rather like a John Ford movie.

Unfortunately, its becomes pretty clear as the film progresses that when it started filming, the script wasn’t actually finished, and as the film goes on, it progressively falls apart. The cast is very large with many characters. Richard Harris’ Confederate Captain Benjamin Tyreen is a perpetual thorn in Dundee’s side- the men have a long history together dating back to their youth at West Point, a friendship broken by the Civil War and Tyreen choosing the ‘other side.’ Dundee’s band of solders includes several negro solders (including Brock Peters as Aesop) that leads to inevitable friction between the Confederate prisoners and black solders in Union uniform. Actress Senta Berger as Teresa joins the film at its midpoint, a supremely unlikely romantic thread suddenly appearing as if from some other movie, quickly dismissed to little narrative point at all. Sub-plots regards an out of his depth rookie officer, a possibly untrustworthy Indian scout, and a Confederate who tries to desert, add to the busy mix.  

With so many characters and narrative arcs being set up, it would have proved difficult for even a fully-realised script to maintain them all into a properly balanced film, but left unfinished, it results in character arcs set up in the first third being left unresolved, and some character decisions in the last third coming out of nowhere and frustratingly undeserved. Its really very frustrating that there is such a great film in here, if only it had been made in better circumstances, and its evident that too much was left unwritten, too much left un-filmed, and the film cobbled together in an editing room from which Peckinpah himself was excluded, with some stunts and violence being excised to appease the studio heads only further damaging its awkward finale. Even more damning, the film was saddled with a terribly ill-judged score with a vocal march/theme that undermines everything Peckinpah likely intended, almost making the film a parody, comical ‘stings’ whenever Apaches turn up onscreen more suited to an episode of the 1960s Batman tv series.

However, a restoration just after the millennium left an extended version (on disc one of this set) being the way to watch and discover the film, restoring ten to fifteen minutes of footage and replacing that horrible music score. It remains far from the roadshow epic the film was originally intended to be, but much superior to the theatrical version that resides on this set’s second disc: I watched some of this and was quite appalled. The extended version is far from perfect, but its clearly much improved from the film audiences saw on its original presentation, and I really enjoyed the film, for all its faults. Sometimes the problems within flawed films only add to their allure, their fascination, and that’s possibly the case with Major Dundee. I suppose much of the interest in the film derides from director Peckinpah’s later films and naturally the films disastrous production, rather than the actual quality of the film itself, but really, in the extended version its not a bad film at all, rather its a flawed one with suggestions of greatness. Regardless of Peckinpah’s part in the proceedings, Heston (who actually had forgone his own salary for the picture, doing it for nothing in order to keep Peckinpah on, at least until filming was finished as best it could) is always worth watching: one of those iconic stars of the screen his casting is both perfect and ironic, considering the flaws in his character. 

Major Dundee Part One

major1I started writing a post about Sam Peckinpah’s oft-maligned and clearly broken 1965 Western, Major Dundee; I’d bought the recent Arrow 2-disc Blu-Ray, swayed into a rare blind-buy simply because of how gorgeous and finely curated the release is, as well my past affinity for and interest in both Peckinpah’s other films (chiefly Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, which itself was a sumptuous Arrow release awhile back) and those of Charlton Heston (for all the many Hollywood icon reasons, but also curiously having seen his Hollywood debut, Dark City not so long ago). My post started with a commentary about broken films and how Major Dundee fits into a particular group of films that includes Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil and it became evident it was bogging-down my actual comments regards Major Dundee, so I’ve decided to split the post into two: so here’s part one, and thoughts about broken films in general (hopefully Part Two will follow shortly).

There is clearly something seductive, for film lovers, regards broken films, or the films that never got made. In a way, its difficult to distinguish between the two because although Major Dundee got made, it clearly isn’t the film that Sam Peckinpah intended it to be. Hardcore fans of the director can no doubt wax lyrical regards what it could have been; the three-hour roadshow epic that would have been a Western intended to rival epics like Lawrence of Arabia, and Peckinpah’s subtle (or maybe not so subtle) inversion of the traditional Western hero and America’s usual rose-tinted myth of the Wild West. With films such as Major Dundee, it is at the heart of their fascination; the endless wondering about what might have been, what should have been, and the why: the latter is where the ranting comes in, and usually becomes a heated discourse about the dichotomy of the art and the business of film-making. 

Peckinpah himself was guilty of this, always bitterly blaming others regards the failure of Major Dundee, a revisionist commentary whenever he mentioned the film in the years after its release, when even the strongest of his apologists would accept he deserved much of the blame himself too, the film a troubled production. Its clear though that Peckinpah had valid reason to feel bitter- taken out of the editing suite, I can only imagine his horror when he only finally saw the finished film at its premiere. I haven’t watched all of the theatrical version, only initially watching the extended version and then later sampling the theatrical, but what I have seen of it with its awful Daniele Amfitheatrof soundtrack music is astonishingly bad. Its a good example of how a film can be ruined by a bad music score, as right from the main titles it turns the film into a bizarre parody of Peckinpah’s intentions. Just how derided and woeful this music score is, can possibly be construed from the fact that it was replaced by a new score by Christopher Caliendo in 2005 when the film was restored to that first assembly: there are likely other examples, but I cannot recall another case of a film getting its score totally replaced during a restoration. 

major3The extended cut that has become how we now watch Major Dundee is no directors cut- I understand from what I have seen/read that its a producers assembly from when Peckinpah was taken off the picture which was then further edited into what then became the theatrical. I’m always fascinated by alternate cuts of films, and how even the slightest alternate edits of scenes can change their meaning and tone and indeed the film itself, and not always for the better.    

A discussion regards broken films can get side-tracked by directors cuts and extended cuts of films- the home video boom of VHS, Laserdisc and DVD allowed for so many versions of films to be released and this actually saved some of the films and possibly damaged others. The assembly cut of Alien 3 is one of the best examples of a broken film being ‘saved’, but I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t like -to the extent I can likely never rewatch it- the Redux version of Apocalypse Now, so its not the case that restorations and extended versions are always such a good thing. In any case, this isn’t what I’m really getting at with regards this post about broken films, and I’m concious not to get pulled into this particular hornets nest. Maybe there should be a distinction between ‘lost’ films, and those broken films which can be ‘fixed’ sometime later via restoration. Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons is gone, lost, and the film the subject of much adoration and grievance from those who appreciate what might have been. 

So getting back to Major Dundee and its status of being a film that ‘might have been/could have been…’ in just the same way as Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and so many other films where troubled production and disagreements/dissatisfaction from studios resulted in films not being everything they might have been. Very often the stories about the making of the films can be more interesting than the films themselves, and I’m confident I’m not alone in saying that the making of Major Dundee is possibly more fascinating than the film we have. Decades of tall-tales, rumours and hearsay only add to the myths surrounding some of these movies, and indeed any film-lover will have interest in the politics and friction surrounding the making of the films that work and are a success, never mind those that fell astray. Films are a uniquely collaborative medium, whatever the auteur theory that persists and is generally accepted. How much the director is author of a film is possibly a tangential discussion when examining broken films, but its a valid one: in the case of Peckinpah, Major Dundee‘s failure is usually attributed to others even by those who hold Peckinpah partly responsible too, but had Major Dundee been a perfect film, likely credit would have mostly, if not wholly, been given to the director. It is always Hitchcock’s Vertigo, or Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, or Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Its curious that very often when films don’t work out as well as hoped, its not the directors total responsibility, there’s plenty of candidates subjected to blame (for my own part, I always feel the central part of what works or undermines a film is its screenplay- everything, the actors performances, the directors visual flair, is dependant on the foundation of a working and concise effective script, but its just as wrong to call it Hampton Fancher’s Blade Runner). I think I’m digressing into authorship of movies and I didn’t intend to.  

There is a tension between the business of making movies- a studio and its backers financing a film hoping to make a profit in return- and the art of making films, the creative team making a film worthy as a piece of entertainment and indeed possibly a work of art in itself. Sometimes both happens, sometimes one and not the other- bad films have made lots of money, great films have failed and made a loss. I have often stated that I don’t think anyone intentionally makes a bad film but I suppose in the real world, every project/film is a pay check and ones personal investment evidently varies. Film lovers generally -maybe rightly, who knows?- cite the creatives a the good guys and the studio brass as the bad guys, the ones who complicate matters citing budget and time overruns in the face of a directors efforts to make the perfect, best film he can. Its out of all this tension though that films flounder and fail, as films if not as products made for a profit. I mentioned in an earlier post the popularity of horror films as a genre when many if not most of the horror films made are very poor, but part of their popularity is how cheap they are to make, how easy they are to market and usually how that translates into something profitable.

major2So again, trying to get back to Major Dundee– its a film that had problems from the start, and its one of those films that was made without a finished script (which, if you consider my own thoughts regards how important a foundation a good screenplay is, speaks volumes), and I’m always surprised and aghast at how often that happens. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was being shot and Robert Wise didn’t have a finished script, the last third of the film was a blank, pretty much, and they made it up on the fly, mostly. Which seems an incredible thing considering the investment into what was such a major motion picture and no small reason why the film turned out as troubled as it did. So it was with Major Dundee in regards how the film starts very well- the first half, at least in the extended version, is a great entertaining film- but slowly fragments into a incoherent mess as it runs into its second half, with a very odd romantic element for Dundee that seems abruptly thrown in from some other movie, and very messy finale with characters suddenly acting very strangely (probably because whole scenes have been cut or never even shot). Cutting the budget and production schedule and shooting it in a very difficult location were only part of the films problems, as was feuding actors and its drunk and antagonistic director but hey, the making of Major Dundee would make a great picture in itself. 

Part Two of this review of Major Dundee will follow…