The Woman in the Window (2021)

womwindwIf you’re going to steal, steal from the best. Well, maybe that’s not fair. Its possibly not this film that was doing the stealing (one has to point a suspicious finger towards the original novel written by A.J. Finn that this film is based on) but that being the case, visually this film is so wholly indebted to a certain directors filmography its almost brutal; there is no subtlety at all. They even have clips of some Hitchcock films playing on the in-movie television screens as if there’s some knowing in-joke that might escape us. Don’t worry, we get it.

There’s also something sad about A-list Hollywood talent, in front of and behind the camera, slumming in a C-list movie (I write that with all due respect to Liam Neeson). It generally results in a very pretty, stylish, visually sophisticated film with high production values with very good actors in very underwritten roles uttering banal dialogue from  a derivative, seen-it-all-before-in-better-movies script. Which so entirely sums up The Woman in the Window that I really don’t need to write anything more. Amy Adams tries, I guess, although her better roles seem to threaten to fade into obscurity considering some of her later role choices, and Julianne Moore is really good, but the rest, most notably Gary Oldman who clearly seems to be wishing he was someplace else (we’re with you on that, Gary), well, its pretty dire stuff on the thespian front. 

Most damning of all… well, if you’re going to steal, come up to the bat and offer at least one reason why you think you’re worthy of stealing from a classic like Rear Window, some modern twist other than changing the sex of the protagonist. You don’t just put Amy Adams in the Jimmy Stewart role with agoraphobia instead of a broken leg and think that’s twist enough, in a film as redundant as the Christopher Reeve 1998 Rear Window tv-movie remake (albeit I’ll always give Reeve his a pass), and think that your modern production tricks can supplant Hitchcock. Because it can’t and you won’t. 

Goddess in the Rear Window

rear1It struck me, re-watching Rear Window last night (thanks to The ‘Burbs, but to explain that you’re best reading my prior post), that a great appeal of that movie is just re-experiencing it, wallowing in it, as if the screen was an actual place, in just the same way as watching Blade Runner is always a little like visiting LA 2019 (a place just as impossible now as the 1950s setting of Rear Window seems to be). Regardless of the plot, for almost two hours one can feel oneself transported to this other world, soaking up the visuals and the sounds (I think the audio track of Rear Window, utilising mostly ‘source’ or ‘diegetic’ music, is one of its greatest achievements). Certainly, never has the Greenwich Village courtyard of Rear Window seemed as captivating and tangible as it does on this 4K UHD release- the film looks quite ravishing: the fabrics and textures are so detailed, the colours so vibrant, the sense of time and place so dreamy and evocative (partly because its actually all a set, something that just intensifies the strange dreamlike feel of the setting). And then of course there is Grace Kelly, possibly the most beautiful actress to ever appear onscreen, the definitive Hitchcock Blonde: beautiful, intelligent, sexy… she is so fascinating to just watch, she seems to light up the screen with her presence. It is astonishing to think her acting career only lasted barely six years, as she retired from acting at just 26 years old upon marrying Prince Rainier of Monaco, becoming Princess of Monaco, never returning to acting (despite overtures from Hitchcock, for one). Her life had suddenly become a real-life fairy-tale, I suppose, so returning to Hollywood likely seemed pointless. Kelly’s entrance in Rear Window, a slow close-up culminating in a long, slow sensual kiss, and then literally lighting up the room as she steps from light to light, switching each lamp on in turn, is one of the most astonishing entrances in all cinema, in my book; there is something intensely magical and quite timeless about it.

 

The ‘Burbs again

burbsLast night I returned to Joe Dante country, that cinematic landscape that shines so brightly from decades past. More specifically, I returned to The ‘Burbs, his 1989 movie that landed (and disappeared) to little fanfare. I remember going to the cinema one afternoon and quite loving it- especially, as I remember, the Jerry Goldsmith score that took a few years to eventually get released (and I got the revised Deluxe Varese edition a few years after that). I can understand why the film didn’t find an audience- its a little too arch, perhaps too subversive, to find traction with general audiences, although I’m certain its stock has raised and it has found an increasingly positive reception over the years since. Its certainly not perfect but all the same, I find so much good in it that I find myself retuning to it often. The cast is terrific, littered with geek favourites with nods to genre trivia. Its actually peculiar how some of this stuff just gets weirder with age- even the innocent casting of Tom Hanks, as when the moment lands in the film of Tom’s character waking up to the opening of preschool tv show  Mister Roger’s Neighbourhood – Hanks having starred in a biopic of Fred Rogers (A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood) some thirty years later. Carrie Fisher, rest her soul, looks so incredibly young and beautiful – still close to how she looked in the original Star Wars films, its like watching Princess Leia in a bedroom and like her appearance in The Blues Brothers a reminder of when her appearance in any film could get men of a certain age ridiculously excited. Living with Carrie Fisher in the ‘burbs sounds a little like heaven to some of us (I know the reality was likely a hell of a lot different to the picture Dante paints here, but hey, that’s the magic of movies).

I was reminded, watching the documentary that is included with Arrow’s excellent Blu-ray edition, that The ‘Burbs was originally envisaged as a spoof of Hitchcock films, particularly Rear Window. That’s one of those weird movie factoids that can instantly surprise but also make perfect sense when you consider it. Anyway, I see that as the perfect nudge to get me watching the 4K UHD  of Rear Window that came out in last year’s Hitchcock 4K boxset tonight. Sometimes one film just leads to another….

Columbia Noir: 5 Against the House (1955)

cnoir5Ronnie (Kerwin Mathews), the smartest of four college students who have spent a night at a Reno casino, is excited by the challenge of robbing it. Its the intellectual challenge that inspires him, seeing it as a prank, intending to inform the police of where the money is once he’s stolen it- but one of the four friends, traumatised by his experiences in the Korean war, has no intention of returning any money.

I didn’t really click with this one. The premise is very promising, but its not really the tense thriller that the title or the synopsis would suggest: indeed, the tension really doesn’t come from the heist (which takes most of the film’s running time to even get to), rather coming from Brick going off the rails. For some reason -presumably the source novel by Jack Finney- the focus is largely on Brick, with an awkward aside to Kim Novak’s sexy dame who seems shoehorned in (the film crunching to a halt for her to sing a romantic song or two). Its really a very odd feature, and hardly much of a traditional noir- instead it feels like a genre mash-up, stuck in-between the dark heist thriller I expected and the light-hearted caper film that harkens more towards Oceans 11 (that would arrive five years later). It has its moments, particularly its genius finale set in what I can only describe as an automated parking garage in which cars are parked vertically in columns above each other – absently predating the finale of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Its an early feature for Mathews, a familiar face from films I watched in my childhood (particularly his Harryhausen films, which possibly did his career more harm than good as he’d later become rather typecast with those matinee swashbuckler adventures that quickly slipped out of fashion). Curiously, Matthews will also turn up in the next film of this Indicator noir set, The Garment Jungle, in a superior role that would indeed suggest better things should have lay ahead of him.

I quite like this kind of thing, the links between films, connections of sorts: Nina Foch of course appeared in the first two films of this set, another is that this film’s screenplay was co-written by Stirling Silliphant, who would later write the sixth film in this set, The Lineup. It was an early feature for Kim Novak (her second credited role, I believe), who, unlikely as it might seem from this film, would go on to appear in one of the greatest films ever made, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, just a few years after. Both are Matthews and Novak fine, as is Brian Keith who plays Brick, the war-vet student who goes off the rails in rather melodramatic fashion. One curious piece of trivia for viewers of a certain age is the appearance of William Conrad in a minor role, who would later star as Cannon in the hugely popular tv series of 1971-1976, and notable to geeks like me as the narrator of the 1977 Making of Star Wars tv-documentary and the voice that opened every episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1980). Those were the days.

Columbia Noir: Escape in the Fog (1945)

escIndicator really seems to be the benchmark for Blu-ray boxsets: its Hammer sets have been outstanding and the label’s attention to quality continues with this first box in a series of Noir collections (Columbia Noir#2 is due in February). I’ve been loving this box as I’m something of a noir nut, but anyway, we’ll start this series of posts with the first in the set and, er, possibly the worst of the bunch.

First up in Indicator’s Columbia Noir #1 boxset is Budd Boetticher’s 1945 noir Escape in the Fog, which is a fine example, for both good and ill, of the old ‘supporting feature’ or ‘b-movie’: short low-budget films that were attached to proper feature films to form a double-bill presentation: I suppose a night at the pictures was genuinely a night at the pictures back then.

Barely an hour long, its telling that Escape in the Fog‘s pretty preposterous plot struggles to fill even that paltry running-time. Eileen Carr (Nina Foch) is staying in a wartime convalescent home just outside San Francisco, recovering from some nervous breakdown – she has a terrifyingly vivid dream of being on the Golden Gate Bridge late on a very foggy night,  witnessing a man being set upon by some thugs that bundle him out of a taxi cab; as the man is about to be murdered she wakes with a scream that attracts people rushing from the other rooms checking that she is okay. One of these people who she never met before is the very man she was dreaming about being murdered. Blind coincidence or spooky premonition? 

Actually if it had been neither of those things but instead an elaborate sting operation to pull the man of her ‘dream’, Barry Malcolm (William Wright) into some web of intrigue of her own design then this film would have been much more interesting. In the typical illogic of these b’s, her sudden talent for premonition is never explained and no-one really remarks about how incredible it is. This seems indicative of the films lack of ambition to be anything more than what it is: a low-budget, low-effort ‘b’; that only exists to be a cheap support for a main feature. This is the point at which I have to confess my complaints feel unfair even as I write them down- this film was never intended to be anything more than what it is. I suppose that, had it been by some twist of fate something that Hitchcock deemed worthy of attention, had he spun the premise into one of his own creations, it could have been much more than it is. It could have been something in the vein of Vertigo, an intense thriller that supposes some kind of witchcraft or psychic twist, or perhaps conclude more mundanely with some elaborate scheme to outwit a special agent and steal his secret plans?

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My failing seems to have been, that was just what I was doing, watching it- conceiving some more complex yarn half-expecting some diabolical twist but no such twist comes; it really is a very silly little effort. It seems frankly inevitable that the night of her dream is going to come to pass, and likewise that rather than be creeped out, the two of them fall into a relationship (he is after all, the ‘man of her dreams’). There’s the further leap of coincidence when we learn that Barry is a secret agent and that Hollywood Nazi’s are tailing him for secret papers: I mean, psychic wartime nurse recovering from a nervous breakdown, dashing secret agent, sneaky Nazi menace (a precursor for future decades of fascination with the enemy within, whether it be Nazis, Commies, Union provocateurs, Alien pod people, you name it, Americans seem to have plenty to be paranoid about) its hardly down-to-earth, gritty noir. More pulp wartime melodrama really than what I would consider ‘proper’ noir, but then again, that very definition of noir is a hoary old chestnut so I won’t question this films inclusion in this set too much.

I didn’t really find too much here worthy of praise. The acting is fairly pedestrian but that’s mostly down to the simple, formulaic script that piles coincidence upon coincidence: maybe there is a ‘reading’ of the film that the whole thing, start to finish is really just a dream (the premonition actually a dream within a dream) but that’s really just making excuses for it. Its clear that the film is hardly high-art, and it never pretends to be- its a b-movie, barely an hour long, not the place for intense characterisation or cohesive internal logic. Its wartime entertainment, good guys vs bad guys with some typical noirish visual tropes if not wholly noir sensibilities. It may well be that an eventual re-watch will possibly improve my opinion, and that at present I’m being rather unfair. Thankfully there are much better films in this Columbia Noir set.

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. 

Bunny Lake is Missing

bunny1This was a strange, weird film – vaguely like Hitchcock, or certainly more Vertigo-like Hitchcock, in that on the surface it seems a psychological thriller but there’s always a feeling (for me, at least) of some murkier subtext underneath, in this case the vaguely incestuous implications of the brother/sister relationship that proves the centre-point of the film. Maybe I’m ‘seeing’ too much into it, can’t tell if the 1960s were more daring or more innocent than now (I suspect the former, it certainly seems of late that you could oddly ‘get away’ with more years ago now than today).

Its the first film I have seen directed by Otto Preminger, whose name is familiar to me from reading about Blu-ray releases over the years. While I don’t expect his other films to be similar to this odd movie, its certainly made me rather curious about seeking some of them out. I was quite impressed by much of the location photography in Bunny Lake is Missing, some of the camera moves were surprisingly mobile and kinetic- not that they took me out of the movie, but quite a few times I noticed a clever camera set-up or framing (albeit I watched the film recorded from the Sony Movies channel on Freeview and it was unfortunately cropped/zoomed in, a practice that I thought had been abolished in these wiser  times). Its a very well-made film, done a disservice by its treatment here (Indicator released the film on Blu-ray awhile ago, I expect it looks much better on that disc).

An American single-mother, Ann Lake (Carol Lynley),  recently settled in England is busy moving house when she hurriedly drops off her daughter, Bunny, for her first day at school. When she returns later that afternoon to pick her up, Bunny can’t be found, and nobody at the school has any recollection of her or record of Bunny being registered there.  The police are called in (a frankly magnificent understated performance by Lawrence Olivier here as the leader of the investigation, Superintendent Newhouse) but their investigations reveal no trace of the girl- indeed, upon further inquiries they find no sign the girl even existed, with no trace of her (clothes etc) at her home, and no photographs of her. Suspicion arises that the girl is only a fantasy of Ann’s, something hinted at by her brother Steven (Keir Dullea, rather removed from the 2001 role of his that I’m most familiar with) seemingly by accident. Is Anne indeed mentally disturbed or is something else going on?

bunny2In what is clearly the genius positioning of the film, the opening sequences are framed and edited so that when Anne is at the school dropping off her daughter, we never actually see her daughter (and to be honest, dumping a girl at a new school without finally saying a goodbye prior to leaving did seem odd) so that when suggestions arise that she ever existed, as a viewer it does seem to become a growing possibility. A few Hitchcockian misdirection’s are scattered through the film- Noel Coward’s mesmerising performance as the frankly unhinged landlord Horacio Wilson offers a few tantalising possibilities, from the supernatural (the spooky African masks on the apartment walls) to the frankly obscene (his frequent touching of Anne, overtures to her and his own flat with objects referencing the Marquis de Sade and torture fetishes etc) and the knowledge that its his apartment that Anne is renting so he has access to it makes him an area of suspicion. Comments from forensic scientists going through Anne’s flat remind us of the grislier possibilities of what happened to Bunny, and there is a frankly batty old lady living above the school full of odd possibilities herself.

It is indeed a very odd and rather fascinating film. When the final twist comes and we realise what is really going on… well, I find the need to be obtuse here, oddly enough, considering that this film is well over fifty years old so unlikely spoiler-territory fodder. But I think its here, when the film falters into traditional genre thriller mode, that it also becomes possibly more interesting, certainly even darker into Vertigo-like territory. Some of it is quite disturbing (there is a scene midway thought he film when Steven is in the bath and Anne walks into the bathroom, casually chatting to him while he’s naked in the bath and she lights him a cigarette, that felt odd to me and foreshadowed the twist).

A nod to Clive Revell here, who would later turn up in one of my favourite films, Billy Wilder’s Avanti!. Actually, overall I’d say the film features a great cast. I haven’t seen much of Carol Lynley before other than her role in The Poseidon Adventure of all things, and appearances in tv show guest spots in the 1970s  but she is very good here- and Keir Dullea really does feel far removed from the cold robot of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. All round a very interesting, even mildly disturbing, film.

 

Torn Curtain and the Shelf of Shame

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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.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

witnessOh, this was a sheer joy; a ‘new’ Billy Wilder film (well, one I hadn’t seen before) is like an early Christmas present. What a genuine pleasure this film was- the sparkling dialogue, the great cast, the perfect character beats, the effortless, consummate direction. As entertainments go, while this could be argued to be a ‘lesser’ Billy Wilder film, if only because some of his best were genuine classics, this film is nonetheless an absolute riot and is a prime case for the argument that they simply don’t make ’em like they used to.

Recently released on Blu-ray by Eureka, this edition boasts a very strong HD image and a raft of very interesting extras, but I’m sure even on fuzzy VHS this film would be great.

Based on an Agatha Christie play, the film demonstrates the advantages of stagecraft; the tight plotting, clearly defined characters and the drama generated by those characters (although Wilder actually made a few changes, they improved the on the play and made the film superior, by all accounts). Its a tense thriller/courtroom about an innocent man being tried for murder in a case that seems hopeless for the defence, and yet its also very funny and it has twists you genuinely don’t see coming. I mean, really, how do they do that- tense drama and yet so very funny? Brilliant acting that feels natural and effortless?

Really, it’s the sophistication of it that took my breath away- it looks so simple but you know such a lot of work must have gone into it, starting with the script. You see this so often with Billy Wilder films, the precision of the screenplay and getting it absolutely right before going to the shoot. Like a Hitchcock film, I suppose, the secret seems to be the preparation, and of course the casting is no small part of that. Charles Laughton chews up the scenery and proves the heart and soul of the film, a thoroughly entertaining performance of considerable merit, but the magic of the film is the whole ensemble.

The mystery of it all, as usual, is how it took so long for me to finally see this film- indeed, until this Blu-ray was released I didn’t even know the film existed- I must have seen the title on Billy Wilder’s filmography but it couldn’t have really registered. Like The Lost Weekend, this was a discovery I only made thanks to its Blu-ray release and thinking it worth a punt on the strength of Wilder’s involvement. Well, another very welcome surprise, anyway. I’m certainly hoping there’s plenty left ahead of me.

 

 

Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1960)

neverThe title tells it all really- indeed,even today, giving a film a title like that feels progressive, audacious, almost subversive. It treads across a line somehow, some kind of moral/social taboo that really the film itself does too. Indeed, I was so very surprised by this film, expecting some kind of exploitation b-movie about child endangerment/molestation (as deplorable an approach as the subject itself) but instead this film turned out to be intelligent and restrained and, sadly, as relevant today as it was over fifty years ago. Indeed, perhaps even more so. When one considers some of the news headlines from the last few decades, all those scandals etc, then this film feels more provocative, more ahead-of-its-time and just plain brave, than it likely did back in 1960. I suppose audiences back in 1960 could fool themselves into thinking child molestation and murder were rare incidents in their modern society and the uncomfortable message of the film somewhat redundant in a modern, sane and responsible world. Unfortunately recent history would suggest otherwise.

Of course you cannot possibly seperate this film from the period in which it was made and it does regrettably feel a little dated in some respects, but in a way I guess that adds a sort of David Lynchian-otherness to the whole thing. Thinking about it, that feels rather fitting, considering that his Twin Peaks series shared some of this films themes regards the dark underbelly of modern society and child abuse etc.  But how odd to consider that Hammer did this film so many decades earlier! I wonder if Mark Frost/David Lynch were familiar with this film back when they started Twin Peaks.

At its heart, Never Take Sweets from a Stranger is a film about small-town politics and abuse of power as much as it is about child sex abuse, and also has a courtroom section as rivetting as any courtroom drama you will remember. Its quite a sophisticated film carefully dealing with the uncomfortable issues it raises, somewhat distancing itself from the more sensationalist Gothic horrors that Hammer is more famous for. Watching this so soon after being amazed by the excellent Cash on Demand (this Indicator Hammer boset is proving quite a revelation), makes me wonder that perhaps the box office successes of those Gothic horrors did Hammer something of a disservice, and lost British film of a voice and channel for important, thought-provoking quality films.

The chilling and quite gruesome denouement of this film is possibly one of the best of any Hammer horror, in fact, and this film has lingered in my head somewhat uncomfortably over the last few days since I saw it. Its quite an important British film, I think, and one terribly overlooked and criminally forgotten. Had Hitchcock, for instance, directed this, then yes in execution it would likely have been a better film, but also I think it might well have been as famous and notorious today as his own Psycho. Instead it seems to have been consigned to an obscure footnote in the history of Hammer, rather lost in the shadow of its glossier and more sensational horrors, but hopefully the wonderful treatment that the film has been given by Indicator here will raise the film’s standing somewhat and give its place in British film history some reconsideration.