The Last Seduction and the Shelf of Shame

seductWell, here’s a return to the Shelf of Shame, a series of posts in which I finally turn to a disc I bought but never watched (of which there are more than a few). This time around, its the neo-noir The Last Seduction, which I bought on Blu-ray back in 2015.

As a lover of film noir, its inevitable that any neo noir (a sub-genre which refers to films made after the traditionally accepted film noir period of the 1940s and 1950s, which share the noir sensibilities of those classic b&w thrillers like Double Indemnity, The Big Heat and Out of the Past) is usually right up my street, although inevitably neo-noir is a pretty wide-ranging term. An excellent example of neo-noir would be Lawrence Kasdan’s magnificent Body Heat from 1981.

I raise Body Heat as an example because its the film I thought of as I watched The Last Seduction– there is something so modern about each film’s femme fatale, in Body Heat‘s Kathleen Turner and The Last Seduction‘s Linda Fiorentino, who here portrays possibly one of films consummate screen bitches. Both films homage the noir of the past but also inform them with modern perspectives. I’m not sure those perspectives undermine anything, really they reinforce them in ways that the 1940s/1950s films could never get away with, whether it be the graphic sexuality of Body Heat or the sheer gender-baiting switchery of The Last Seduction. There was likely something quite revolutionary and scandalous  about The Last Seduction when it was released in 1994, because even now in 2020 it took me aback. 

To be clear, there is something quite astonishing regards Fiorentino’s performance, and something itself darkly noir about the fact that because the low-budget independent film was aired on HBO prior to that years Oscars, the actress was ineligible for Academy Award recognition (foreshadowing, oddly, recent concerns with films going straight to Netflix, etc). Fiorentino really is that good, an incandescent and fearless performance that burns the screen with its intensity. Basically, the central conceit of the film is that it switches what is traditionally accepted gender roles, Fiorentino’s Bridget Gregory cynically using and abusing her men as casually as Sean Connery’s Bond ever did in those 60s spy capers (which will likely inevitably lead with cautionary audience warnings on television airings anytime now). Bond was a bastard who casually used women, and Bridget is a bitch who casually uses her men, enabling her body as her keenest weapon and totally emasculating  poor small-town nice guy Mike Swale (Peter Berg).  “You’re my designated fuck” she tells him, clearly stating the depths of his value to her. Later he moans “I’m starting to feel like a…” “Sex object?” she finishes. Poor Mike. He’s doomed from the start.

I’m sure that plenty of essays and possibly books have been written about the female empowerment personified by Bridget in The Last Seduction, how she subverts traditional gender roles with an attitude which was ahead of its time even as late as 1994. Hell, I thought Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct was a bitch- she’s got very little on Bridget other than a talent with an ice-pick.

So impressive is the actress in the film that its really quite remarkable that, as far as I can tell, Fiorentino’s career afterwards went down the tubes incredibly quickly- other than a turn in the first Men in Black movie, her list of screen roles is fairly ignominious, and she hasn’t acted in anything since 2009. Considering comparison, say, with Sharon Stone’s career, and that Fiorentino’s turn here remains one of the most iconic screen bitches/femme fatales in the history of Hollywood, that takes some doing. I gather she has upset too many people in Hollywood, perhaps suggesting that she’s far closer to the fiery character she played in The Last Seduction after all, or simply that maybe Sharon Stone was smarter playing the Hollywood game.

Maybe she stepped away from it, deciding she was better off away from movies and Hollywood. Who knows? Her career is almost like one of those “what-if?” movies that never happened but which excites film buff imaginations, and it lends The Last Seduction with an additional meta-story. In any case, in The Last Seduction, its always 1994, and Fiorentino the greatest bitch Hollywood ever had.

Betty Blue and the Shelf of Shame

bettyI never knew a girl like Betty. I suppose young men can only dream of ever meeting a girl like Betty- gorgeous and sexy and wild and adventurous. I’m sure some lucky guys in their youth actually do meet girls like Betty, and some might even survive it, but I’m not sure my tender young self back then would, and I think I knew it, even then. I think I’d have been like a fragile butterfly caught in a storm; someone like Betty would have just destroyed me. Betty is a force of nature, untameable, vivacious and sexy and crazy and self-destructive, a sex-siren turned Black Hole pulling everyone around her into her orbit and dragging them down to her Event Horizon. If Betty Blue was a film noir it’d end with a world-weary detective shaking his head stating that “no man can ever tame a woman like her.” As it is, the film ends on a crushingly sad, but somehow life-affirming note – the latter a surprising touch. What did I write a few days ago, about The Cranes Are Flying? That the best love stories seldom end well? 

So I finally -finally!- got around to watching Betty Blue. I’ve had that film on the shelf since I bought it back in November 2013. It’s the Second Sight edition, a two-disc set in a neat cardboard slipcase. Betraying its age, the film is on a Blu-ray (theatrical and Directors cuts) and the second disc with the extras is a DVD. Admittedly, I bought it on a whim, but its been sitting there close on seven years. The toughest disc on the Shelf of Shame, starring back at me all this time, teasing me, taunting me.

I think part of the reason it has taken so long is that, having never seen the theatrical cut, I’d heard the Directors Cut from 2005 was the preferred version, and its just over three hours long, so its not as easy to schedule as most. Even my favourite films that I absolutely adore, if they run that long or longer (I’m thinking Once Upon a Time in America, mostly, but you know, there’s others like Spartacus or Ben Hur and many others) I rarely get around to re-watching them, certainly not as often as I’d like.

My mate Andy had a copy of Betty Blue on VHS back in the late ‘eighties. He had the soundtrack on cassette. God, just mentioning those old formats is like some kind of history lesson. Watching Betty Blue last night, I kept hearing moments of the lovely, evocative Gabriel Yared score suddenly remembering it from Andy’s cassette that he’d sometimes play. It was like years -decades!- slipping away. You can tell Betty Blue is a film of the 1980s. There is just something about it. Something in the cinematography, that music score… Its a VHS movie.

betty2Betty Blue is a (very) erotic love story/psychological drama, from 1986. Its original French title is 37° 2 le matin, meaning “37.2°C in the morning” but I guess it was inevitable that it would get a simpler, easier-to-market title for foreign markets. It was certainly rarer back then, I think, for foreign films to get seen over here. You have to remember, it was still the era of pan and scan, of VHS rentals and zero importing of films that people do today (DVD really changed everything in that regard). At the time Betty Blue I remember was all the rage, a fairly iconic film in its visuals, its unforgettable main character, its graphic sex etc. I seem to recall the poster seemed to be everywhere, a fashion statement in itself.

Zorg  (Jean-Hughes Anglade) is an aspiring-but-failed writer eking out some kind of lowlife living as a handyman for a community of beach properties (wooden bungalows/shacks) at a low-rent seaside resort. He has met Betty (Beatrice Dalle, in, incredibly, her debut) and the film tells the story of their wildly passionate, all-consuming love affair. Tellingly, we don’t actually see the moment when they meet, or how they met. The film opens with them making love in Zorg’s shack on the beach. Its soon clear that there is something wild about Betty, something of a force of nature- they have a row and she behaves like a child having a tantrum, and a later argument with Zorg’s sleazy boss ends with her emptying the shacks contents on the beach and then burning the shack down. 

The film has an episodic nature, which surprised me (don’t know why exactly; maybe the idyllic beach scenes were so lovely I just expected to stay there soaking it in for all the three-hour movie). With Zorg’s shack burned down its obvious they have to move on, this time to a Paris suburb where one of Betty’s freinds, a widow, Lisa (Consuelo de Haviland), runs a slowly disintegrating hotel. I don’t know if its deliberate, but everywhere that Zorg and Betty go to live, is a dump. Their surroundings are always dusty and rusty and falling apart. Maybe that’s a deliberate choice- well, everything in a film is, really- to contrast their passionate affair and sexual freedom with their old surroundings, youth against age, life against entropy. Betty’s burning so bright against all of that, so bright she can’t help but burn herself out.  

So Zorg and Betty meet different people, we witness the relationships that play out. There are some wonderful strange and kooky and endearing characters. Its very European. There’s no English reserve on display here.

The common thread throughout all this is Betty’s wild moodswings. Its not clear what in particular triggers her off, sometimes it just seems that she can’t adapt to life or the world not going along with what she wants or expects. In that respect, she’s a lot like a child. Moments of friction or disappointment seem to throw her into a dark rage, at first externalising on things like Zorg’s possessions or his shack, but later becoming turned upon herself. From the start people warn Zorg that she’s crazy, and maybe Zorg knows it, but he’s in love. Its easy for people on the outside to see it and be dispassionate about it, but Zorg is inside it, inside her storm, caught up in her breathless ecstasies and terrible funks. While we share their passionate affair we can be detached as viewers enough to realise its not going to end well.

Betty Blue is a glorious MOVIE. Its this hugely passionate, intoxicating adventure with an inevitable gloomy finale. Its one of those films that you experience. Quite a ride. 

Family Plot (1976)

family1This is from the Shelf of Shame, right? Yep, this is one of those titles that I’ve had sitting un-watched on the shelf for years- in this case, its included in a Hitchcock Blu-ray boxset that I bought back in Sept 2013, which is, gasp, almost seven years ago, now. Family Plot was Hitchcock’s final film and is generally regarded as one of his lesser films so I never had much incentive to watch it (there’s still two other films in that box I haven’t seen yet, so as Darth once said “The shame is strong with this box!” (or something like that). 

So why now? Well, funnily enough it was watching A Severed Head the night before that got me thinking about Family Plot. Now, this is something about going into films utterly blind, in particular. With A Severed Head I expected a horror film or a murder mystery and got neither, and for some reason I also thought Family Plot was a murder mystery, maybe something like Knives Out, and as its from the same era as A Severed Head I just thought it might be timely or fitting… Films of a certain period, whether it be 1960s, 1970s or 1980s etc, they all seem to share a certain commonality in fashions and casting, even if they are wildly different in subject. I think you can get into a certain mood or frame of mind- witness in my case how I’ll have a spell watching Film Noir or Hammer films, sometimes. 

So whats it about? Well,  Family Plot is a comedy thriller, a far cry from the suspenseful nail-biting thriller’s of Hitchcock’s heyday, which is possibly why it has been so ill-regarded. In a way this is really an indication of him being a victim of his own success, as what could really measure up to North By Northwest or Rear Window or Psycho or Vertigo (my personal favourite of his films)? What likely really damns Family Plot is how much it looks like a TV movie, really. There’s no sense of scale or real ambition; its a relatively simple story albeit with the usual Hitchcock twists, but I think this possibly works in the films favour, as it enables some of the characters to actually shine. Blanche (Barbara Harris, who is lovely in this) is a phoney psychic who cons gullible old people out of money, assisted by her cab-driver boyfriend Frank (Bruce Dern, brilliant as always). They hit paydirt with a $10,000 reward (well, this was 1976, remember) if they can track down a rich old woman’s illegitimate nephew who was hidden away to avoid family shame four decades ago. This nephew stands to inherit the Rainbird  family estate worth millions, and while Blanche tells the old woman she will use spirit-world contacts to help her track the nephew down, in reality it will be her boyfriend cab-driver posing as a lawyer doing the decidedly amateur detective work between his cab-driving shifts.

Hey, that sounds pretty fun. Yes it does, doesn’t it, especially when its Bruce Dern doing the sleuthing, that guy is so great in everything. It actually gets better, because the nephew they are after has changed his name to Arthur Adamson (William Devane in fine form) who is a reputable city jeweller by day and a devious kidnapper by night, or something like that. With his girlfriend Fran (Karen Black) he kidnaps wealthy people who he ransoms for diamonds. Adamson actually killed his foster-parents decades ago in a house fire (thus having to change his identity) so when he gets wind of Frank asking questions about him and tracking him down, he thinks its someone chasing down that old murder and decides that Frank and Blanche need to be done away with, especially as he has one last big kidnap in progress involving a Bishop (no, really).

Hmm, not bad. I know, right? Its really quite fun, and while it sits uncomfortably close to ‘TV-movie of the week’ territory in execution its really saved by the great cast. The supporting cast is pretty cool too, lots of familiar faces from TV cop shows of the period (which okay, only exacerbates the TV-movie feel of it, really, but you know, its certainly something of a nostalgic factor to it all). The film is quite witty too, and features a great sequence of Frank and Blanche’s car hurtling down a winding mountain road with no brakes and a stuck accelerator (the car having been tampered by one of Adamson’s goons). Going back to that ‘going into films blind’ I mentioned before, I think I’ll actually enjoy this one much more on second viewing, when I’m in the proper mindset of what to expect. Its a far better film than the frankly interminable Torn Curtain, another film from this Hitchcock box that I caught up with a while ago. 

Legends of the Fall and the Shelf of Shame

legends7Well, another post in the Shelf of Shame series, this time concerning my Blu-ray edition of Legends of the Fall, a film I thoroughly enjoyed at the cinema back in 1995, and subsequently watched several times on DVD, but which I hadn’t seen since, even upon upgrading to the Blu-ray edition, which remained unwatched since I bought it (near as I can tell, sometime in 2013). One of the most sobering things about this Shelf of Shame series is the realisation of how many discs I have that I have watched only once, if at all,  and also regards just how much time is flying past and how much of a waste of money that collection on the shelves might possibly be, in hindsight.

Can we judge the worth of a DVD or Blu-ray or 4K UHD by how many times we have watched it? Is that fair or misguided? Does £20 spent on Alien on UHD suddenly become more palatable had the disc been watched five times? Should the monetary expenditure be more reason to watch less ‘new’ stuff and instead return more often to rewatching old favourites? Of course its not just films on disc, I could just as easily be remarking upon CDs and books, all the objects we accumulate.

I’m horrified that its been several years since I bought Legends of the Fall on Blu-ray and that I hadn’t watched it: for one thing, where indeed have all those years gone? On the other hand, one has to consider the worth of spending as much money as I have on discs if they are going to just sit there unwatched. I suppose a related inquiry would be, those films we enjoy and even love, how many times can we, and should we, return to them? I always feel its rather strange when someone says they only ever watch films once, but maybe they have a point. For my part though, I cannot imagine that: films are things I cannot help but return to, if I enjoy them. Even if this Shelf of Shame series would suggest some failure at that.

Its also very true that the only reason why I finally reached for this Blu-ray disc and actually watched it, was the release of the complete score on Intrada’s recent CD that arrived a few days ago. Listening to the score was a reminder of just how much I loved the film when I first saw it and of course that wonderful period from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s when James Horner’s scores were such a soundtrack to my life. I know there are many naysayers regarding Horner’s music in film-music circles, but for fans such as myself who were there pretty much at the beginning of his career, that period of Horner’s career is akin to people looking back to when The Beatles were making music.

legends2It is often true that rewatching films can offer a sense of perspective, looking at it from the vantage point of someone in 2020, older and (possibly) wiser, and naturally offering an inevitable giddy rush of nostalgia. Watching Legends of the Fall last night was a bewitching experience of impressions: the sense of tumultuous David Lean epic, huge breathtaking landscapes dwarfing the humans in nearly every frame. The great cast: a young Brad Pitt in one of his first leading roles, Anthony Hopkins, Aidan Quinn, Karin Lombard, who I recall appeared in a few films at the time (its funny how faces seem to appear in a number of films at a certain time that seem to then disappear- in her case, rather than disappear she simply moved to a successful series of tv roles I never saw). Of course there is the hauntingly beautiful Julia Ormond stealing the film from everyone around her with a wonderful performance. While watching the film I couldn’t help but imagine what a more ‘adult’ Star Wars prequel trilogy could have been, had it centred Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side around some Legends of the Fall-like doomed love story with Ormond as the object of his ill-fated affection (I could certainly more easily imagine a passionate and feisty Ormond as the mother of Leia and Luke than Natalie Portman). Above all else in the film, there is also that sweeping, overwhelming James Horner score that dominates the film in a way that scores really don’t anymore.

The funny thing was, even though it may have been ten or fifteen years or more since I last saw the film, I could still remember some of the lines just before they were spoken, and yet other moments came as quite a surprise, elements that I had quite forgotten. The film remains something of an oddity; even in 1995 when I first saw it, it seemed a film at odds with contemporary Hollywood; this is a film about myth, and legend. Its clearly not intended to be a true tale, its so larger than life its more a piece of modern myth-making, a tale of the early-20th century more in line with Sergio Leone’s filmography (as much a late-period Western as Once Upon A Time in America is a realistic gangster movie).

legends3That thought suggests a tantalising what-if: imagine what Sergio Leone could have done fashioning Legends of the Fall into one of his typical three or four-hour epics. It has all the elements of his films; a male-dominated list of characters with a chiefly male-dominated worldview, epic landscapes, huge battles scenes with hundreds of extras, a sense of larger-than-life fantasy, of Pure Cinema. With Leone at the helm, it would have certainly benefited from a better climactic gunfight- Leone was a master of them, turning them into operatic ballets of violence, whereas the one Legends of the Fall has ultimately feels clumsy, overwrought, relying on slow-motion to add gravitas and James Horner’s dramatic scoring.

legends1The story of Legends of the Fall is quite simple but unrelentingly dark when one considers it: I’ve always thought of the film as an overwhelmingly depressing piece (depressing in a good way, if that’s possible, like the grim denouements of so many Film Noir). At its very simplest, a beautiful young woman, Susannah (Julia Ormond), enters the lives of the Ludlow family living in the Montana wilderness, and destroys them, before finally blowing her own brains out from the guilt and sense of unfulfilment.

The film describes Tristan as the rock against which all the others broke themselves against, but that’s missing the point that Susannah is almost like a snake entering the Ludlow Eden in the films beginning. Admittedly she intends none of this, she’s just being true to her nature- beautiful and kind, but she’s finding her place in the world where she becomes an unhappy catalyst of doom. Its funny how Tristan later considers that he may be damned, and has pulled everyone he knows into this damnation, but that could just as easily have been a monologue of guilt spoken by Susannah.

But isn’t Legends of the Fall great? Sure, its not perfect, and it rushes things (a conscious decision of director Edward Zwick, who preferred to pace it as a stream-of-consciousness, of a tale spoken to someone over a campfire and consequently sweeping the narrative forwards with little reflection). But its a hell of a movie- that’s MOVIE in great big capital letters, full of passion and epic moments- yeah, Pure Cinema in the Sergio Leone vein, a win-win in my book.

Curious fact I hadn’t realised before: the novella the film was based on was written by Jim Harrison, who was also the author of the short story Revenge that was turned into a Tony Scott film from 1990 that I later discovered on VHS rental and seems largely forgotten now but which I really liked. It featured a beautifully haunting score by Jack Nitzche which is one of my most treasured CDs. In retrospect, both films share common themes so the connection is not surprising, but I hadn’t been aware of it before. You learn something new all the time (really must read that Jim Harrison novella that inspired Legends of the Fall).

Kingdom of Heaven and the Shelf of Shame

kohWatched the Roadshow Directors Cut of Kingdom of Heaven last night; what a bloody brilliant movie that is. I think Kingdom of Heaven is possibly the best example of the transformative power of the Directors Cut- sure, the DCs of Watchmen and The Abyss are much better than their original cuts, too, but they remain flawed films in many ways, but the DC of Kingdom of Heaven is just, well, to put not too fine a point on it, a bloody brilliant movie, and is one of Ridley Scotts best films. His last truly great film, too, I suspect (I guess its only competition would be The Martian, but, well, I like The Martian but clearly Kingdom of Heaven is the better movie). This is the same guy who brought us Prometheus and Alien: Covenant? I find it so hard to believe; incredible. I make no apologies for stating that this film is one of my favourite all-time movies, which makes it a little odd to confess that I gave not seen it in several years….

Of course, I’ve watched the DC of Kingdom of Heaven several times before- first on a sumptuous R1 DVD edition many years back, and later when it arrived on a lacklustre Blu-ray edition (here in the UK, anyway). The reason why this post features in my Shelf of Shame series is that this copy is the Ultimate Edition steelbook, that contains the three cuts of the film via seamless branching (theatrical, DC and Roadshow cuts) with a second disc containing the exhaustive special features from that old DVD edition. To my frank disbelief I bought this edition back in 2015 and its been sitting on the shelf ever since, which is some kind of madness considering that, as I have mentioned, this is one of my favourite movies. Maybe its the length of the film. The Roadshow version, which features an Overture and an Intermission, runs well over three hours (as I adore the score for this film, I find that Roadshow version by some margin the best version to watch), and like Once Upon a Time in America, the longest films may be the greatest, but they do demand more time and consideration when scheduling.

Oh well, this lockdown and isolation we’re living during Covid19 has to be good for something, right? We have the time, I guess, to enjoy some of these longer films now.  And, er, I really need to rewatch Once Upon a Time in America, too, now that I think about it…

I hate double and triple-dipping but I’ll say here and now, this film desperately needs a 4K UHD edition. Please, someone, by all that’s Picard, make it so. This is one of Ridley’s greatest movies- they put that damned Robin Hood flick of his on 4K UHD, and those Alien prequels, but not this? Kingdom of Heaven looks fine in HD, but there is noticeable banding and blocking in some sections of this film, particularly during fade ins and fade outs, which I suspect is down to the sampling rate limited by the length of the film and the multiple branching over the single disc. Its hard to believe I’m berating a Blu-ray disc when it used to be the pinnacle of home viewing (I wonder how bad the DVD looks like?) but its clear to me that a 4K UHD would handle a lot of such sections, as well as the dark interior scenes, much better than a Blu-ray encode can manage.

I was really buzzing, though, after watching this. As its been a few years since last watching it, some of it surprised me, regards what I had actually forgotten, such as the layers of the storytelling, the different character arcs and moments, particularly in this extended version. Its quite complex and nuanced and features a great cast in great form, with brilliant direction and some really fine editing. Naturally its a beautiful-looking film, but some of the pacing and composition work… really, its the director at the absolute peak of his game, here. I can’t really understand why people talk about Ridley and mention Gladiator etc but not this, but I can only assume that’s because they saw the original version and not the DC. I recall watching that theatrical release back in, crikey, 2005, and being disappointed by it; sure it looked beautiful (as one would expect of Ridley, especially with period pieces) but the whole thing felt simplistic and formulaic. Which is why I rate this edition so highly as an example of just how good extended or directors cuts of some films can really be.

Torn Curtain and the Shelf of Shame

torn1

So here we are with another riveting instalment of the Shelf of Shame, an irregular series of posts about me finally getting around to watching discs that have stood gathering dust on the shelf for far too long. Something tells me that over the coming weeks/months I may be making ever-deeper incursions into this particular territory.

Hey, I’m trying to take something positive from this Covid-19 thing…

So today’s post is regards a disc I bought back in 2013- Torn Curtain, one of a number of unwatched flicks in a Hitchcock box (one of which is Family Plot, a film whose reputation has not escaped me and will linger on that shelf of shame somewhat longer still….).  Torn Curtain dates from 1966 (hey, its as old as me (but I like to think I’ve aged better)) and is regarded, perhaps wisely as latter-day, lesser Hitchcock. Its like comparing the Ridley Scott of Alien or Blade Runner fame to the Ridley Scott of Alien Covenant, er, fame, or the Steven Spielberg of Jaws or Raiders fame to the Spielberg of, er, The Post, er, fame. I mean, no-one can be expected to churn out classics forever, Billy Wilder didn’t manage it so its hardly surprising that Hitchcock couldn’t, either. Partly it would seem to be a case of the changing times finally leaving Hitchcock behind- Torn Curtain really feels like it would seem an old film even back in 1966 when it first came out, and the fifty-odd years since haven’t helped, either. Which is a little odd when one considers that Pyscho, which really was something of a shocker and a game-changer, dates just six years before, which might suggest HItchcock still had greatness in him, but Torn Curtain certainly doesn’t prove it.

If anything, the film suggests that perhaps Hitchcock was tired of such thrillers (it was his fiftieth film): the staging of sequences (barring one long murder scene that clearly intrigued him) seems perfunctory and uninspired, the characters don’t really engage and the music score feels ill-judged. The latter point is interesting, because this was the last time Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann would work together, the two allegedly falling out with each other over Hermann’s rejected score, and it cannot be over-stated how important Hermann’s scores were to some of Hitchcock’s best movies. Ironically, Hitchcock dropping Hermann’s score suggests he was looking for something different, as if he knew he had to break the mould, so to speak, of what his films were supposed to look and sound like; concious, perhaps, that the times were indeed a changing and he had to try change with them. Or maybe it was just their personalities finally winning out over their professional relationship.

torn2While I suppose I enjoyed the film, its weaknesses are all too evident and I really can’t imagine me ever really returning to it. Paul Newman is quite good as the American scientist Michael Armstrong defecting to the Iron Curtain, but the film undermines him throughout, as the script never really convinces that he’s a despicable cad betraying his country.  Julie Andrews suffers from a terribly under-written part as his assistant and fiancée, Sarah Sherman, torn between the love for her man and her love for her country, coming across as rather weak and vapid with little to really do. Maybe its me looking at this from a modern-day perspective, but a bit more anger and fire from her once she realises he is defecting would have helped raise the tension no end; instead when she realises what he is really doing (pretending to defect in order to contact a Russian scientist who has info he needs) her blind faith in her lover is limply rewarded. It just doesn’t, any of it, feel real, something absolutely damaged by the lack of chemistry between Newman and Andrews. Newman lacks any of the charm of Hitchcock’s past leading men and Andrews is perhaps oddly too pure, lacking any of the fire and passion her character needs. With such ill-judged (some might suggest disastrous) casting the film was doomed from the start, and likely Hitchcock knew it, explaining how the film seems an example of directorial boredom (other than, again, that lengthy murder scene).

Considering James Bond was all the rage when this film came out only exemplifies how dated it likely seemed, even in 1966. Newman is handsome, Andrews is beautiful, but its hard to raise tension from a bus route when Sean Connery has been battling the agents of SPECTRE in Dr No’s lair or escaping Goldfinger’s fiendish laser device. Instead Torn Curtain feels like a film clearly lost and out of time even when it came out over half a century ago.

Fedora and the Shelf of Shame

fedora1Welcome to the first (and hopefully not last) instalment of the Shelf of Shame, a series of posts where I finally get around to watching discs that have been sitting on the shelf for far too long. I’m starting with the Billy Wilder film Fedora, released on Blu-ray/DVD here in the UK by Eureka, a disc I bought several months ago and hadn’t gotten around to watching. There’s films that have been sitting on that shelf of shame for much longer than that, several years some of them (Betty Blue is one that springs to mind, which I bought back in 2013, shudder), but as a keen admirer of Billy Wilder’s filmography it didn’t seem right for this film to be on the shelf of shame for any longer.

That being said, I bought this one knowing very well that Fedora is not one of the best Wilder films, but even one of Wilder’s lesser films is better than those of most other directors. Wilder is rightfully a legend in cinema history- with films like Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Ace in the Hole to his name…. even one of his ‘lesser’ films, Avanti!, qualifies as a personal favourite, so Fedora had to be worth a shot, no?

At the beginning of Fedora, we witness a frantic-looking woman throw herself from a station platform into the path of an approaching train, instantly killing herself.  The woman is legendary film actress Fedora (Marthe Keller), an icon of Hollywood of old, and as crowds of adoring fans visit her body which is lying in state prior to a lavish funeral, waiting in the line is down-on-his-luck film producer Barry ‘Dutch’ Detweller (William Holden). Through the device of a voice-over and flashbacks, Dutch tells us his story, of events just two weeks prior, when he had tracked down the reclusive movie star to a remote island in the Mediterranean. Dutch had written a script based on Anna Karenina, and was trying to get a deal to make it into a film, one of the conditions of his backers being that he should get Fedora out of retirement to take the starring role in the romantic tragedy.

Dutch knew Fedora from many years prior, having met her on a movie set in his youth back when Fedora was at her Hollywood prime, a huge movie star, and she and Dutch had shared a one-night liaison. Having tracked her down to a remote island in the Med, Dutch hoped his past liaison with her might enable him to convince her out of retirement. The Fedora he found hiding away from the public eye on the remote island was as beautiful and ageless as he remembered from all those years ago, but acted furtive and nervous, finally claiming she was being held captive on the island by the Polish Countess Sobryanski (Hildegard Krief) that owns it. Before Dutch could free her from the clutches of the countess and her associates, Fedora was taken from the island hideaway to France, where she would commit suicide just several days later, as we saw at the beginning of the film.

In many ways, Fedora as a film really doesn’t work. Its sequences on the romantic Mediterranean lack the wistful romance of Wilder’s superior Avanti!, and most viewers will quickly deduce the films central ‘twist’ long before it is revealed. But there is something else going on in Fedora, and part of it is no doubt a shared theme with Wilder’s early classic Sunset Boulevard, another film about a reclusive Hollywood legend that also starred William Holden, and also was told through flashbacks and Holden’s narration. It all combines into a curious symmetry and a suspicion that there are layers of meaning that escape us (indeed, most likely not even there) but yet still tantalise.

fedora2Fedora dates from 1978, and is Wilder’s second from last film, and yet feels older than it is, clearly old-fashioned even in 1978. This is deliberate, as the film is a somewhat bitter love letter (how typical of Wilder) to Hollywood of old, the director far removed from the Coppolas and Spielbergs and Scorceses and other young turks that were taking over. “It’s a whole different business now! The kids with beards have taken over! They don’t need scripts, just give ’em a hand-held camera with a zoom lens!” cries Dutch forlornly at one point, and you wonder if its Wilder wailing through him. The new corporate studio system in place when this film was made was already far different to Old Hollywood (it is to Hollywood’s shame that Wilder could not get this film made in Hollywood, instead relying on European investors).

Through its love/hate eulogy for Old Hollywood, and the power of film to immortalise and at the same time destroy, the film weaves quite a spell. While it is far from Wilder’s best work, there remains something utterly bewitching about it. Its not a great movie, but remains quite a good one. Fedora isn’t really about that ‘twist’ and is really more about its atmosphere, its languid pace, its performances (albeit two of them undermined by some very dodgy dubbing, unfortunately). For me I think its greatest asset is its central terror of growing old and being utterly defeated by the past- its likely unintentional, but Fedora’s nightmare in this film was possibly the same that could have haunted Wilder himself in the twilight of his career, his importance and worth in Hollywood in the era of Star Wars quite unfair.