Corruption, anyone?

corrHmm, latest announcements from Indicator include this 1968 horror/thriller starring Peter Cushing that I’ve never heard of. Well, they had me sold at Peter Cushing. Is it wrong of me to be more excited about a special feature (“The Guardian Lecture with Peter Cushing (1986): audio recording of an interview with the legendary actor recorded at the National Film Theatre, London”) than I am the film itself? I’m such a film geek sometimes I embarrass myself.

I have no idea what the film is like (if you have, feel free to educate me in the comments), but the fact its one of Indicator’s slipcase editions with an 80-page book of essays etc would suggest its worth watching. But really, they had me at Peter Cushing, anything with that gentleman in is worth watching in my book. Well, it comes out in August so I’ll have to get my pre-order in over the next week or so when my wallet allows (I haven’t yet pre-ordered the sixth Hammer box that Indicator keep teasing me with). Damn it, every time I try to put a hold on disc buying… (“Just when I thought I was out,  they pull me back in!” as Al Pacino once said).

Recent Additions

P1100368 (2)While the crazy disc-buying days of old are over, I’m still prone to buying discs (I just try to be a bit more selective). Here’s my most recent additions to the shelf. Some still in the shrink-wrap, but others actually watched already (!).

Planetes is a brilliant Japanese anime which seems increasingly prescient over the years, concerning a team of astronauts tasked with cleaning up all the debris cluttering Earth-orbit before it causes a calamity (Gravity owes a lot to it). I used to have it on DVD back from the days when we used to have to buy anime shows over time in multi-volume releases (five or six discs released over several months, as I recall) which puts into comparison even the premium costs of these boxsets from All The Anime. Fortunately for my wallet I was able to pre-order this set in an early deal; its a lovely set with a 80+ page book of artwork accompanying the digipack in a sturdy hard slip-box, and on the Blu-ray the show really shines; it looks gorgeous. I only watched the first episode, as I’m biding my time to watch the series throughout properly, but this will be a definite pleasure.

Of course every boxset that Indicator release truly delivers- and Columbia Noir #3 is as beautiful a package as the first two sets. A series of posts reviewing this set’s six noir films will follow over the next few weeks, and hopefully the films, none of which I have seen before, will be equal to the films that preceded in the first two volumes. These are possibly my favourite sets from the last few years. I used to complain about there being so few film noir releases over here in the UK and then we hit the motherload with these. I hope there is another two or three volumes of Columbia Noir to come (no-one seems to be sure how many we’re getting).

I bought Irreversible with Columbia Noir #3 and Someone To Watch Over Me direct from Indicator, justifying it by saving on postage and getting my credit points high enough to get a discount on my next order. Its a notorious film; I have it (somewhere) on DVD and only managed to stomach it for one viewing (probably why the DVD is long-since AWOL) so its hard to fathom exactly why I bought this Blu-ray. The package is enticing, with fine artwork, definitive-looking extras and an 80-page book… its almost as if I bought this intending to learn more ABOUT the film rather than actually get around to watch it. We’ll see. 

Someone To Watch Over Me and Extrablatt (The Front Page) I’ve already mentioned, having watched them together on Saturday

Two Criterions follow, thanks to an offer on Amazon (my previous Criterions were bought last summer in the previous Criterion sale). The Ascent is the most recent release, as it came out on my birthday earlier this year, funnily enough, which felt something of an omen since the film seems to have been given universally positive reviews: a ‘masterpiece’ of Russian cinema released on my birthday? Well, patience has saved me some dosh. Gilda is the Criterion that slipped through the net last year, as I couldn’t pick a film to accompany it, which has been doubly annoying as I kept on seeing/hearing references to it on the Columbia Noir sets from Indicator. I’m really curious about it, as I’ve never seen it, and it will certainly fill a gap in my noir collection.

Lastly, this week has seen the 4K UHD release of The Sting. Here again I have to confess that, despite my affection for 1970s American Cinema, and plenty of opportunities over the years with television screenings, particularly over Christmas’ past, I have somehow never seen this film. Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw? I’m reminded how odd it can be, the films we don’t see, over the years. I think it proves something of a lesson, particularly for a film lover like me who’s seen so many films- so whenever I read a blog and someone hasn’t seen Citizen Kane or some other ‘classic’ I have to cool down my dismay and appreciate I’m guilty of some bad misses too. Its all relative, after all- I mean, I’ve seen less Russian films than I can count with the fingers of my two hands and my experience of European Cinema is pretty slight, so we can all be guilty of being a little myopic in our choice of films. 

 

Secret Behind the Door (1947)

secretdoorAfter what must have been several months or longer, I’ve finally gotten around to watching the fourth and last disc in Arrow’s unimaginatively titled ‘Four Film Noir Classics’ Blu-ray set that I bought last year. This last film was generally regarded as the weakest of the set and I have to agree, although it does have its plus points. 

Secret Behind the Door is a noir from consummate visual stylist Fritz Lang, who was no stranger to the genre and later would direct The Big Heat, the Indicator release of which a few years back blew me away and a film I would count amongst my very favourite noir. Secret Behind the Door is nowhere near as good as that later classic, but it does sport some absolutely top-notch visuals. There are a few shots that are amongst the best of any noir I’ve seen- shots that are framed in a particular way, and so consummately well-photographed with lighting and shadows in selected areas, that tell the story wholly cinematically without any need of narration or dialogue. Visually we see everything regards how characters relate to each other, body language, their positioning relative to each other within the frame, the scaling, lighting… really quite arresting stuff that is sadly let down by a script that borders on the implausible and then jumps off the cliff into the frankly bizarre.

Its perhaps some testament to Lang’s skills as a director and control of the medium that he manages to hold together the film for as long as he does. By the end of the film we’ve somehow passed from dark romantic drama to murderous noir to Roger Corman’s Poe horror territory and somewhere beyond before landing with a terrific thud back into the land of ridiculous romance. I really wasn’t sure what I’d just seen, to be honest. 

Celia Lamphere (Joan Bennett) is a beautiful New York socialite who seems to have finally decided she’s spent too long carefree and single and its time she found the right man: in this case the safe choice of an old friend,  Bob Dwight (James Seay), who works with her wealthy brother. Dwight is besotted by her and is eminently dependable but its clear she doesn’t love him- he’s simply a safe choice. Before she acquiesces to his advances however she goes off on one last vacation/adventure, this time to Mexico where she finds a man who strangely excites her like she’s never experienced before; tall, dark, handsome magazine owner Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave). In just days they marry, but moving to his mansion home near New York she suddenly discovers that not only was Lamphere married, he also has a son and a household full of strange characters including a dominating elder sister and a fire-scarred assistant.

Possibly strangest of all however is her new husband who acts increasingly odd and unhinged, soon revealing his pastime of adding a wing of rooms to his mansion in which famous historical murders of wives by their husbands or lovers took place, a chamber of horrors if you will, but the final room, behind door number seven, remains mysteriously locked and whose contents he refuses to divulge. Something to do with his recently deceased wife, of his new wife perhaps?

Clearly this is a psychological horror dressed up in noir tropes: certainly not an unlikely combination at all and as I have noted, it visually wears its noir stylings spectacularly well. It simply drips noir in most every shot- deep shadows, surreal lighting and framing, exaggerated angles and backlighting accentuating mood and tension. Unfortunately Redgrave doesn’t convince as romantic lead or as twisted, haunted and dangerous male- not that’s he’s really helped by a nutty script that goes dafter with every page. The oddest thing about the film -and likely what saves it at all- is Joan Bennett who seems so intoxicated by the premise that we can almost accept, to our utter bafflement, that she hangs around with her new husband and his deranged family more than a day in his mansion of horrors. I suspect there is a valid reading of the film in which every character is quite insane, including Celia, especially when, at the films end after Lamphere has almost strangled Celia to death and both almost died in a fiery conflagration as the house of horrors burns around them, we finally see them enjoying a second honeymoon back in Mexico. If Celia at this point has not got bountiful reasons to cite for a swift divorce, no-one has. Its like the cinematic definition of jumping the shark, but hey, maybe wives were more forgiving back then.

 

 

Columbia Noir: Framed (1947)

framed1We kick off Indicator’s typically gorgeous Columbia Noir #2 boxset with a really fine effort: Richard Wallace’s Framed, featuring Glenn Ford, a new ‘star’ at the time in his first ‘above the title’ credit, and Janis Carter in a surprisingly nuanced femme fatale role. I’m not entirely sure what I expected – one can never be certain, really, what to expect coming to these features ‘blind’ when they are over half a century old- other than what might be guessed from the stark title, but it actually turned out to be quite subtle. Its relentlessly efficient, telling its story and not getting at all side-tracked with any sub-plots and nor does it divert into back-stories or flashbacks, which could feasibly have been a temptation (we never know much about our lead, Mike Lambert (Ford) even though he seems to be running away from something, and likewise there seems to be more to temptress Paula (Carter) than what meets the eye). This results in a film that intrigues long after it finishes, and I liked it a lot.

Mike Lambert arrives in town in eventful fashion, crashing a freight truck with no-brakes into the back of another. This post-credits sequence is almost like a tease for the later The Wages of Fear; Lambert took the job as a way of getting to the town as its situated in mining country, and he’s a mining engineer looking for work. The trucking company is a shady outfit putting its crews at risk with dodgy trucks, and it refuses to compensate the owner of the vehicle Lambert crashed into. It sums up the efficiency of the film in that it uses this scene to quickly establishes Lambert’s character- once Lambert has eventually managed to extract the wages he is owed from his slimy boss, he hands it over to the guy whose vehicle was damaged, righting the wrong that the trucking company won’t. Clearly Lambert is a man with a moral compass who leans on doing what’s right.

So when Lambert stumbles into the wrong restaurant with the wrong waitress, and comes under her scheming eye, we know that this is a good guy who will be a foil for Paula and her banking executive lover Steve (Barry Sullivan). What we don’t know is if its Lambert’s moral code that will prove to be his undoing as Paula seduces him, nor indeed if Paula has charmed the wrong guy, not appreciating how dangerous it is for her to try seduce a genuine good guy.

framedJanis Carter proves something  of a surprise. Ford at this point is a known commodity (The Big Heat, The Undercover Man etc) but I’d never seen Carter before and she really impresses. In many ways its an underwritten role -scheming temptress caught between two lovers with a $250,000 fortune hanging in the balance- that could have been a typically noir one-dimensional evil femme fatale, but there’s a subtlety to her character,  not ruthless enough to do what needs to be done in order to successfully walk into the sunset with the cash. Her weakness for Lambert (she has an opportunity to poison him but fails to see it through) proves her undoing. I’m not entirely sure if its scripted shades of character or just simply Carter not having the ability to fully convince as the cold-hearted bitch that the best noir bring to screen, but I’d prefer to think the former. Carter is beautiful and engaging and seems to have some depth as an actress- looking her filmography up afterwards I was surprised, and disappointed, to see that she didn’t have as successful a film career as I would have expected, and Framed is possibly her signature role, eventually moving to New York and a television career before retiring from the profession entirely. Hollywood can be a cold and ruthless place I guess and its not the first time that I’ve seen impressive actresses in old films whose careers never reached the heights that they might have done (most recently Gia Scala in The Garment Jungle).

The cast of Framed is entirely excellent, the script sharp and, as I have noted, totally efficient with no waste at all (it totals just a lean and taut 83 minutes). It manages to pull some genuine twists, with a few moments in which I thought I was one step ahead and then undermining my confidence with another surprising turn. There’s possibly one or two ‘conveniences’ that undermine it from being a genuinely great noir but on the whole I thought it was a solid, engaging thriller that I really enjoyed and look forward to returning to someday. One of the most endearing facets of noir is that one can enjoy the films even more the second time around, and I’m confident such will be the case with Framed. Certainly an excellent opener for this Indicator set.

The 2021 List: January

I’m back. Well, I’ve not really been away, just side-lined by work and life. I’m sure anyone reading this appreciates just how strange life is getting, and how we’re getting worn down. Its really quite relentless, and most nights now I’m so tired in the evenings I don’t have energy to concentrate enough to even watch a film, let alone write about it. Maybe I just need a holiday (ha, ha) – ain’t that the truth/sick joke (delete as appropriate). Its been  more than two years since my last holiday anywhere, and my booked holiday in May (which was deferred from May last year, for reasons obvious to everyone) is looking as unlikely as Vangelis releasing an anthology of his unreleased soundtracks headlined by a complete Blade Runner. Or him ever releasing that Juno to Jupiter album.

So what have I been watching? Not included on the list waiting for your perusal below as its not finished until next Wednesday, is Season Five of The Expanse, which has been quite brilliant. As someone who championed this series way back when I had to import the Blu-rays to watch it, its great to see the show having some critical success before it ends next year. Amazon saving The Expanse from its third-season cancellation is the rescue Farscape deserved but never got. Anyway, more on that next week/month/when I get to write about it.

toastJanuary is a hell of a bleak month, and Lockdown is just making it all the bleaker. I’ve been retreating to sitcoms, mostly Toast of London, a show from a few years back that I vaguely recall noticing but never watching. Finally watching it thanks to the Netflix algorithm bringing it back to my attention,  its quite funny and quirky and I enjoyed it enough to binge all three seasons of it, but not enough to write a post about it. There’s that energy-sapping thing again. I don’t know. There was a feeling of biding time watching it; I knew I should be watching something more worthwhile but it was low-effort, making little demand of me. I’ve just moved on to another feast courtesy of the Netflix algorithm, an American sitcom titled Superstore, currently watching season one. There’s five seasons of this show and I never knew it even existed until I started watching it last week. I think this is what’s called Sitcom Hell. I need to find some escape.

Television

Most ill-conceived reboot of the month:

2. Black Narcissus (BBC Miniseries)

Sitcom ‘comfort food of the month’ (lockdown special):

6) Toast of London Season One

7) Toast of London Season Two

11) Toast of London Season Three

Sexed-up Downton Abbey of the month:

15) Bridgerton Season One

Female Space Messiah Award:

9) Star Trek: Discovery Season Three 

Films:

The Good, and the even Better:

3) Proxima (2019)

4. Hidden Figures (2016)

5) The Garment Jungle

8) The Lineup (1958)

16) The Wages of Fear (1953)

The Distinctly Average:

10) The Gentlemen (2019)

12) Sputnik (2020)

14) The Wackiest Ship in the Navy (1961)

The Utterly Woeful:

1) The Midnight Sky (2020)

13) Outside the Wire (2021)

So that’s sixteen titles, split between six seasons of TV shows and ten films. Regards re-watching stuff, apart from the fantastic Millennium Actress that I did actually post about, I did re-watch The Two Towers, the second film of the LOTR trilogy, part of the 4K UHD boxset that came out late last year and which I seem to be struggling to get to actually watch, never mind actually writing about. I watched The Fellowship of the Ring over the Christmas period, and while its proving a struggle, strangely, to get around to watching all three films (possibly its because they are the extended versions which makes it awkward to schedule, in all honesty, with everything else going on) its been very interesting, returning to what is quite possibly the last genuinely great blockbuster trilogy ever made, and seeing how well they have aged (or not).  I intend to possibly expand upon this in a future post once I’ve managed to watch The Return of the King, which, on my apparently monthly schedule will happen in February. Some people managed marathons of the LOTR in a single day, or over three consecutive days- I haven’t even managed it over three weekends.

It has occurred to me that the sheer bravura of shooting all three films back-to-back might be something we never see again, considering the state of theatrical exhibition in this Covid World. We are in a situation now in which traditional blockbusters are not economically viable and are being delayed one or even two years waiting for some kind of stability regards exhibition. Where this leaves Villenueve’s Dune and its ‘will-they-won’t-they’ second film completing its story is anyone’s guess. At some point if things don’t change, more of these films will end up relegated to streaming premieres such as those Warner have announced for HBO Max in America, and what that means for studios cutting their losses and plans for 2023, 2024 etc is really a concern.

So anyway, that’s January. Looking towards February, well, its anyone’s guess how that month will likely turn out. Indicator’s second Columbia Noir set is due out so I look forward to getting into that, having so enjoyed the first set. And I have a pile of unwatched films on the Tivo etc and waiting on Netflix and Amazon, if I can ever muster the enthusiasm to watch any of it. Or indeed the time, due to working at home proving particularly problematic of late. We’ll just have to see. Oh, and its possibly going to include my biggest non-event of a birthday in all my 55 revolutions of the sun. That should be curious, although as a bonus it sees me jump up a group on the Vaccination schedule. Life. Is. So. Strange. Now.

COVID-Vac-priority-tiers

Columbia Noir: The Garment Jungle (1957)

cnoirgarmIts possibly true as far as actors go: you’re only as good as the movie you’re in. Kerwin Mathews, for instance, featured in the previous film in this Indicator Columbia Noir #1 boxset, 5 Against the House, in which he didn’t exactly set the screen on fire, but here in this Vincent Sherman/Robert Aldrich-directed crime/mob racket thriller he really impresses. I thought Mathews was really very good in this, measuring up well against the likes of Lee J.Cobb and a shockingly young Robert Loggia, both of whom are frankly excellent. The more that I think about it, it may be a case of very good casting- Mathews plays fresh-faced Alan Mitchell, son of Walter Mitchell, the owner of  successful garment company Roxton Fashions, who returns to New York after some several years away. Alan is a fish out of water, an outsider looking in, mirroring the audiences point of view as he (and we) learn about the seedy machinations going on in the industry. Alan is a rather thankless character, blank-faced and reactive to everything, so maybe the part worked to his strengths and suited Mathews to a tee. Maybe I’ll adjust my opening line: you’re only as good as the film you are in and the actors you are with. 

So anyway, back to that plot. When Alan arrives it is just after a terrible accident in which his fathers business partner has been killed. While Walter is bitterly saddened by his partners death, he is so distracted by the menace of unions infiltrating his shop that he doesn’t realise that the accident was no accident at all. Walter has for years been paying protection to ruthless mobster Artie Ravidge (Richard Boone) to ensure the unions are kept out of his business. How much of a blind eye he has been keeping regards Ravidge’s methods isn’t at all clear and there is a really nice grey line that suggests Walter accepts a necessary evil and knows more than he lets on, perhaps even to himself. Of course as the film progresses Walter has to come to terms with his own responsibility for Ravidge’s actions, especially when confronted by Alan, who has befriended a union activist, Tulio Renata (Loggia) who is eventually cornered and killed by the mobsters, bringing Alan and Walter to a bitter father/son confrontation.

The Garment Jungle is a very, very good film. Films can surprise, and when they do it can prove so very welcome. Back when I saw the list of films in this set, and knowing nothing of any of them, I reckoned that The Garment Jungle would likely be the weakest of the bunch- I think it was the title and the poster art which had me dismissing it. How wrong I was. This is a film with a superb cast, a genuinely interesting story with real surprises and plenty of opportunity for that cast to display some great performances. Its much more nuanced and complex than the exploitation film that poster suggested it was.

Regards the actors in this film, I can’t think of a bad turn. Cobb is excellent; tough, pressured, worried about losing control of his life’s work building his business into a success and desperate enough to make deals with someone he shouldn’t have, and then having to face the consequences. Cobb is thoroughly convincing and I appreciated the dubiety regards how innocent he is. Robert Loggia of course is as great as ever, a very fine and intense actor, it was something of a shock to see him as young as he is here and clearly displaying the strengths of that intensity at such a young age.

I was quite struck by the leading lady/more-than-slightly-uncomfortable romantic interest in this film, the beautiful Gia Scala playing Theresa Renata. Gia has an intoxicating, quite arresting presence in this, but its not at all a sultry, femme fatale kind of role that might be expected in a noir – I have to wonder what she might have done in a role like that. Here she plays Loggia’s young wife who seems to quickly get the uninvited attention of Alan – there is a certain chemistry between them from the moment they meet that works very well, but it also feels a little uncomfortable that Alan is so attracted to her when she’s married, and the murder of her husband just seems to give Alan even more opportunity to pursue her (this all in spite of her having a baby, I should add). It doesn’t necessarily show Alan in a very gallant light, but like his father, he seems rather in denial regards his methods and motives. How very noir, when even the nominal ‘romance’ of a film has such questionable undercurrents.

I looked up Gia to see what else she had been in, she so impressed me (its a really strong part considering it could have been just a one-dimensional wronged widow/endangered mother) but was horrified to learn that she died at just 38 years old, in 1972. Her career never really took off, film roles drying up to be replaced with television work through the 1960s, a blighted personal life and alcohol problems: it would seem she never recovered from the death of her mother in 1957. As I have noted before, I can often find it so difficult to reconcile the perfection seen on screen with the frailties and human weaknesses of real life. I think it makes such great performances just more incandescent, somehow, and arresting. Maybe its just the sense of promise unrealised.

Its such a shame- on the strength of her role in The Garment Jungle, I have to wonder what she might have achieved had circumstances been different or if she had been given the opportunity. I think she could have chewed up the screen gloriously as a traditional femme fatale role in some searing noir, but that was not to be. Some maintain doubts regards the manner of her death- ruled by the authorities as an accidental overdose of drink and drugs, some thought it a suicide while her sister believed it may even have been murder. Shades of the death of Marilyn Monroe (Gia was discovered nude sprawled on her bed with bruises on her body and blood on her pillow)? It seems to me that Gia’s fate is a grim footnote to The Garment Jungle and another reminder of the dark underbelly of Hollywood- indeed, how Hollywood is so very noir.

 

The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967)

fu manchu boxIndicator are releasing in October a Blu-ray box-set of the Fu Manchu film series starring Christopher Lee as the nefarious super-villain- a huge fan of their Hammer box-sets, I was pretty intrigued they would go to all that effort – its the usual bonanza of restored films, commentary tracks, archive audio recordings and new video interviews – considering that the films are largely frowned upon today in just the same way as similar Hammer material of that era. Discarding all the racial stereotyping issues, I was unimpressed, really, by Hammer’s The Terror of the Tongs (1961) that appeared in Indicator’s third Hammer set last year- I thought it was a very lacklustre effort only enlivened by a typical Christopher Lee performance elevating it to Shakespearean drama. Someone obviously noticed something in Lee’s unofficial Fu Manchu to warrant hiring him for the real thing, because five official Sax Rohmer adaptations followed: The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967), The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and finally The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969).

I’d never seen any of them, but the geek and film-fan in me seems to be instinctively drawn to box-sets such as this, in a similar way as Arrow’s The Complete Dr Phibes Blu-ray set with its gloriously rotten films staring the wonderful Vincent Price. I imagined that the Fu Manchu series were at least as politically incorrect and racially blundering as Hammers The Terror of the Tongs, and marvelled at how ill-timed the release seemed to be, considering everything going on in the world today.

And then, wouldn’t you know it, but I noticed Talking Pictures, yet again proving to be a marvel as they broadcast the third entry in the series just a few days ago. I set the Tivo (Talking Pictures always schedule stuff at exactly the time that its impossible to watch it), and yesterday gave it a go.

fu manchu1I’ll cut to the chase- I’ve ordered the Indicator Fu Manchu box. Yes it was bad, but it was bad in a good way; surprisingly well made (far more ambitious and successful than Hammer’s effort) with a good cast and impressive locations and sets, and I found it a great pulp yarn. Yes its very politically incorrect and you’d never get this kind of thing made today, but that’s exactly part of the films appeal: its all rather insane and feels so wrong but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from it. The Vengeance of Fu Manchu is the third film in the series, which means, in the time-honoured tradition of film cycles, that’s its worse than the first two but better than the last two, and gauging those other films on the merits of this one, I have to say, this series could well prove to be a delirious blast this Autumn. 

fu manchu2There’s a scene in The Vengeance of Fu Manchu set in the super-villains lair in which an American crook perpetually doffed with  a cowboy stetson is torturing a woman stretched out on a rack while her father is forced to look on from a cage suspended above: its decidedly strange and as crazy as it might sound. Considering the sensitivities regards western actors playing Asian characters these days, this film also features the novel spin (I doubt it qualifies as serious social commentary) of a plot-point in which an Asian character is given plastic surgery in order to pose as white man and commit murder.

I should point out my affection for a series of Robert E Howard yarns, Skull-Face in particular, but he did a run of Weird Menace stories for the pulps, which Howard wrote obviously inspired/indebted by the Sax Rohmer tales of Fu Manchu and the Western world under the threat of degenerate Asian menace. Clearly they are of their time and have to be accepted as such, but Howard was a masterful storyteller and wrote incredibly powerful potboilers (Skull-Face just blew my teenage mind back in the day). I can’t speak for the original Rohmer yarns as I never read them but Howard was a brilliant pulp writer. The Vengeance of Fu Manchu rather appealed to that love of mine for those Howard stories.

So I look forward to rewatching this film in high quality- all five films have been remastered in 4K from the original negatives for Indicator’s box-set – and naturally watching all the films in order.  Should be a guilty blast, if nothing else. We can’t get The Abyss on Blu-ray but we can get these Fu Manchu films… its a crazy bloody world, but I figure you just have to go with it.

 

Flee to the Movies… but not The Omega Man (obviously)

omega1Listening to Horner soundtracks in my car, commuting to work. Every day a new score, every day less cars on the roads, less people on the streets, the world slowly becoming more The Omega Man. Its funny how the routine drive to/from work that was once pretty changeless day to day, week to week, month to month, has suddenly been so transformed. It was getting so I could drive to work and judge whether I was running early or late by at which point on my journey I would pass by certain pedestrians walking on their regular routes to work or shop etc. I drive alone in my car but the familiar faces almost seem like partners on my journey. A woman who I have figured out to be a teacher at a nearby infant school (regular as a watch term-time, absent during the holidays), or an old man with a hunched back walking his dog… both gone now, and so many others. Suddenly that whole landscape has changed. Call it Covid-19 Blues, a lonelier car journey than usual.

Has anyone else noticed the horrible feeling of reality come crashing in, when you’ve just watched a good film and then its over and -boom- you’re back to the Real World with all this Covid-19 nightmare going on? I suppose its all a part of the escapist appeal of movies anyway, but its pretty horrible, lately, coming out of a great movie and suddenly realising whats really going on. There’s a moment of ignorant bliss, basking in the ‘reality’ of the film before that glow fades and reality bites. Anybody else pointedly looking at watching more positive/escapist films than stuff, like, say The Omega Man or Soylent Green etc? Its funny how, when life is fine, you don’t mind dipping into something Dystopian or dark, but when everything in the world turns lousy, that stuffs just plain too horrible to bear and you need something rosier, happier.

There was a time, back in 1982, when I remember Blade Runner seeming dark and moody and Dystopian. Its practically a Utopian Ideal now.

I hadn’t listened to Horner’s scores for awhile. I stumbled into it by accident, my USB stick on random suddenly dropping onto the Main Title of Brainstorm, and that was it, I was hooked, the random function deactivated, listening to the whole album. Brainstorm is such a clear, fresh and astonishing work: the first James Horner score I ever bought, on a TER vinyl that I feared I’d wear out (a few years later it would be one of my very first purchases on Compact Disc, an expensive Varese import). Pretty much every day I would be driving to a different score, my USB stick going alphabetically through the ones I’d put onto the stick a few years back: Braveheart, Cocoon, Glory… the latter in particular bringing incredibly vivid memories of distant days, of blasting out Charging Fort Wagner racing through Cannock Chase in my first car (a banged-up old death-trap posing as a Mini Cooper) with my mate Andy: sun-drenched forest and Horner in his prime, glorious indeed. Its funny the things you remember like yesterday, when yesterday can be such a blur.

Mind, the last several yesterdays don’t deserve remembering at all, do they, so I welcome forgetting the details, the general darkness enough to send me scurrying for something pleasantly positive from my shelves of discs. I re-watched Gladiator the other day (albeit a 4K-UHD edition I bought in a sale a little while ago) and it was great, held up pretty well. Oliver Reed is magnificent in that; every time I watch Gladiator I wonder at what the hell happened with that guy, what amazing roles/films we missed out on because of what I assume were his personal demons. I don’t know much about him- its a funny thing, mind, how he seems to turn up in quite a few of the Hammer films in the Indicator box-sets (he even has a turn in The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll that I watched a few nights ago: there was the weird feeling, seeing him in Gladiator, so old worn-out looking, shortly before his death,  while in Jekyll, so young and handsome (I guess the women in the audience adored his angry charms) with his whole life and career ahead of him.

johncAnother film I watched the other night, well a part of it, anyway, as I stumbled on it channel-hopping just prior to going to bed, was John Carter, Andrew Stanton’s wonderfully evocative love-letter to the old sci-fi pulps that Star Wars etc summarily ‘homaged’. Hadn’t seen it for awhile, I really enjoyed  what I saw and really need to find out my Blu-ray copy for a proper re-watch at a more civil time. It still seems mightily impressive,  looking gorgeous and sounding even better, with that fantastic Michael Giacchino score. That was a film from just before Disney purchased Lucasfilm (indeed, John Carter was killed by that particular deal) and you know, it was pretty clear to me from just watching half-hour of it, that the film was better than any of the Disney Star Wars films that replaced it. Whenever I see John Carter I wonder about all those other adventures on Barsoom we were robbed of. There ain’t no justice.

Ugh. I feel my mood slipping darkly. Maybe its time for The Omega Man after all… if you can’t beat it, wallow in it.

The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll

2facesbPart of Indicators fourth Hammer box-set, Faces of Fear, The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll is the last of the set that I have watched, mostly because I thought it was the lesser film of the four (the others being The Revenge of Frankenstein, Taste of Fear and The Damned), and I’ll be honest, I was pleasantly surprised by the film. It actually turned out to be a quite sophisticated retelling of the Robert Louis Stevenson tale: less of the monster movie I expected, and more a tale of decadent excess and sexual politics. Like their 1958 Dracula (also directed by Terence Fisher) the old familiar tale is updated by Hammer for contemporary audiences – Hammer certainly seems to have been more ambitious with these movies than I thought. These Gothic horrors tend to be talked about with some disdain nowadays, considered to be horribly dated by some, and indeed much of my own affection stems from childhood viewings on the old Friday night horror slots on television in the 1970s, but there does seem to be more to them than might initially meet the eye. These Indicator box-sets (a fifth, likely final set, is due next month I think) have really taught me a lesson or two about just how good Hammer films were, proving to be an institution we Brits really should be more proud of (or at least be afforded more respect today).

2facecSo The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll is certainly a very surprising film. Paul Massie stars in the dual role of the ill-fated, foolish Doctor Jekyll and the charming Mr Hyde. Dr Jekyll is an introverted, obsessed scientist rather withdrawn from society- indeed, neglecting his wife Kitty (a fabulous Dawn Addams) so much that she is off having an affair with his best friend Paul Allen (Christopher Lee in, for me, one of the best roles I’ve seen him in), who keeps coming to Jekyll for money as he is always getting into debt from his extravagant excesses.

The main Hammer ‘twist’ on the familiar old tale is that Jekyll is portrayed as a backward, almost monstrous figure in appearance, and middle-aged (something the make-up isn’t really up to, failing to convince and looking odder than intended), and his alter-ego Hyde is a young, dashing, and charismatic socialite. Jekyll is emasculated and unable to satisfy his wife (or moreover apparently unwilling), his eventual overtures towards her awkward and ham-fisted, rendered impotent. Hyde is all confidence and charm, wit and virility, totally shameless and without the self-loathing that Jekyll inflicts upon himself. “I’m free!” Hyde repeatedly announces, the film clearly showing how he feels unchained by the limitations of Jekyll’s own psyche. As Hyde exerts more control, Jekyll begins to visibly age, as if Hyde’s domination is draining him of life.

2facesThe world that Hyde revels in is one of all-night debauchery, pleasures of the flesh (after an argument with Kitty, Paul casually turns to two prostitutes for his diversions) and gambling and drink. Everyone seems bored, eager to find some new thrill and fascination. An exotic dancer Maria (Norma Maria) becomes a particular draw, a raven-haired beauty whose erotic dance with a snake ends with a few shots overloaded with such innuendo that it makes me wonder how it got past the censor. Thwarted by Kitty’s fascination with Paul, Hyde turns to Maria who is bewitched by his unwavering confidence and charm- a woman, of course, who wouldn’t consider Jekyll for an instant.

Of course, the tale does not end well for anyone at all- indeed, there is an almost noir-ish feel to the film as each character seems to hurtle towards oblivion, trapped by their own urges and obsessions. Kitty is doomed by her foolish love for Paul, Paul is doomed by his gambling and debts, Maria is doomed by her fascination in Hyde, and Jekyll doomed by his hubris in pursuing his scientific experiment. . Sure, the pacing betrays the films age somewhat, but on the whole its very well made with great art direction and cinematography. The very good cast actually raises the films quality above what it might otherwise have been, making the very most of the script- Christopher Lee, as I have already mentioned is an absolute joy to watch. I found it a thoroughly enjoyable, richly rewarding film. Bravo, Indicator, yet again- I’m certainly looking forward to that fifth volume in this series of box-sets.

Taste of Fear

tasteThe second film that I’ve watched in Indicator’s fourth Hammer box-set, Taste of Fear is a psychological thriller from 1961 deliberately set up to arose the viewers suspicions and curiosity and at the same time surprise through misdirection and subversion of those viewer suspicions. Its inevitably unnatural and artificial, rather like being played in a cinematic game between film-makers and audience, which unfortunately reinforces a sense of distance from the proceedings- for myself, rather than feeling immersed in the proceedings I felt distanced from them, always aware of film-maker scheming and manipulation. All films are manipulative of course, the skill is in hiding it- murder mysteries etc always seem to excel in manipulation and are less inclined to hide it, aware its all part of their appeal.

Its to Taste of Fear‘s credit then that I missed the films central twist, and unfortunate that as this is its main success I cannot divulge what that twist is- otherwise the film has little to really offer the viewer. I can comment on the cast, which is really pretty excellent. Indeed, one of the things that most interested me in the film prior to seeing it (indeed the only reason I ever knew of it) was the casting of Ronald Lewis in the film. I have mentioned Lewis here before, and in my review of an earlier Hammer film that I saw him in, The Full Treatment. Lewis was an actor of some talent whose career didn’t ever really hit the highs it might have done, and who died, apparently committing suicide, in 1982, shortly after being declared bankrupt. Films are time-capsules, and Taste of Fear is one- Lewis here in his relative prime and when his career was on the up, ignorant of the reality years ahead that our perspective affords us. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that he is better here than in the earlier The Full Treatment, but its clear he could have been something of a star with better material and a little luck in choosing it. People today generally have no idea who Ronald Lewis was, and it might have been so very different.

Old films and our contemporary perspective of them and the people who made them can offer sobering insights of the human condition, something that endlessly fascinates me. I was particularly impressed with Taste of Fear‘s lead, Susan Strasberg, who played the wheelchair-bound Penny Appleby- its a great performance that surpasses the limitations of the role and script, she engenders real empathy and she was the clear highlight of the film for me. I was surprised to later learn that Strasberg would only have limited success in film, instead generally appearing onstage and mostly in guest-spots on various 1960s and 1970s TV shows. Shades of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood there, funnily enough.

Its difficult to refrain from looking up actors names from these old movies, seeing what else they were in and inadvertently the success of their career or lack of it, or indeed reading an entire bio in just a paragraph or so. Marriages, siblings, deaths. Lewis died at the age of just 52, Strasberg passed at just 60. Taste of Fear of course will live forever, the two actors in their youth frozen in time, as is the wont of film. Indicator’s Blu-ray release in this box-set is of typically high standard, with some very interesting and informative supplements that perhaps belie how generally forgotten the film has become over the years. I think its nice to think that actors like Lewis and Strasberg can be seen by more people because of releases such as this, and we can watch them and wonder at what might have been. At the very least, it gets bloggers like me mentioning them, and ensures they might be forgotten a little less.