Columbia Noir: Pushover (1954)

pushoverWatching old films for the first time from the vantage point of, in this case 2021, is that the perspective cannot be anything like watching a film when it first came out. In the case of Richard Quine’s 1954 noir Pushover, I suppose my viewing was skewed from having seen Fred MacMurray so many times in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, and Kim Novak being, in my eyes, forever the doomed fantasy of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

In MacMurray’s case, he will always be the slimy cheat Mr Sheldrake that I despised so much whenever I re-watched The Apartment growing up, so I had no problem at all with Pushover‘s greedy detective Sheridan, smitten by Kim Novak’s Lona McLane and tempted by the chance of what he thinks is easy, life-changing money. Far as I was concerned, its perfect casting – I seem to recall reading of people actually being shocked by his turn in The Apartment as they had previously watched him in his run of wholesome Disney family titles, but on the evidence of films like Pushover, it seems to me he was almost lazily cast to type in Wilder’s dark comedy. There’s a nervous edge to him that’s fascinating to watch and I’m almost surprised he didn’t have a career typecast as a Hollywood bad guy. There’s something wrong about him, and he’s perfect here; I believed in his fall from grace absolutely. Of course, he’d done much the same in Billy Wilder’s earlier noir classic, Double Indemnity.

As for Kim Novak, I’m beginning to think my film education needs some revision. Novak didn’t make very many films, really, considering how famous/infamous she is, and I’ve actually seen almost none of them. I grew up seeing her late in life in the frankly awful television series Falcon Crest in the 1980s, and nothing else until I caught up with Vertigo and was totally blown away. But that’s it, until I saw her in the very average thriller 5 Against the House  early last year (part of Indicator’s first Columbia Noir set), a film which did her few favours, really, but in Pushover she’s quite incandescent. In this she has star written all over her, and I believe this was her Hollywood debut, no less. There’s always some kind of tag line about someone being the hottest thing to hit film since whatever, but in this case it would have been very true- Novak is hot, hot, hot. Just twenty-one, I understand, when she made this film, her turn is at times daring (her dress in her first scene that is practically see-through), at times sympathetic, at times over the top… its a tour de force and frankly totally distracting. I couldn’t take my eyes of her and she really makes MacMurray’s fall not just believable, but actually inevitable.

After the pretty mundane Walk A Crooked Mile, this film is a real return to form for this fourth Indicator noir box- Pushover is totally noir, totally cool and totally dark and fascinating. I loved it. There is something wonderful watching a guy’s increasing desperation as his scheme continues to unravel and the clear futility of him trying to get things back on track. Novak’s character is surprisingly sympathetic, and I think its quite a pity she was never (as far as I know) cast as a genuine, scheming femme-fatale in some dark noir. You’d believe she could turn a man to anything and I suspect, on the strength of this film, that Hollywood missed a trick. Or maybe not: its actually curious how much her Lona McLane is like her Madeleine Elster/Judy Barton character in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. For a woman who seems so naturally gifted with an ability to bewitch and control men, she always seems so fragile and easily manipulated by them: almost a sweet girl in a body built for sin, quite a combination, and perhaps an indication of her real persona?

In any case, Pushover is a simply terrific noir: it looks ravishing at times, mostly shot at night in streets hammered by rain, and it has all the usual tropes of lots of smoking and drinking, with a rather disturbing dash of voyeurism when a cop spies upon McLane’s pretty neighbour who doesn’t realise she’s being watched and really shouldn’t be, especially by a guy who creepily has the hots for her while he should be watching her neighbour. There’s shades of the more uncomfortable moments of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, which curiously was released the very same year so while I thought, when watching Pushover, that it was simply mimicking Hitchcock’s classic, I should have given it more credit- I imagine both films were shooting pretty much concurrently and its just a case of Hollywood coincidence. 

Very often watching these ‘old’ movies, I see familiar names in the credits, catching my eye- in this case, that of Arthur Morton, who composed this films effective score but is much more famous to me for his later career as a Hollywood orchestrator, chiefly for the scores of Jerry Goldsmith, particularly Alien, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Poltergeist, First Blood, Innerspace… you name it, practically  every soundtrack by Goldsmith I ever bought has Morton’s name in the credits. I didn’t actually appreciate he worked as a film composer in his own right, so hey, you learn something new every day. 

Director Richard Quine had earlier directed the excellent noir Drive a Crooked Road and would later direct one of my favourite comedies, How to Murder Your Wife, which I have on Blu-ray and really need to watch again sometime soon. He also made two more films that starred Kim Novak which I have on my watchlist already: Bell Book and Candle and Strangers When We Meet, which like too many older movies are just very hard to get hold of, certainly on Blu-ray. If only Indicator could turn their attention to them and treat them to that magical Indicator TLC.

 

Columbia Noir: City of Fear (1959)

cn3cCity of Fear proves less of a revelation than director Irving Lerner’s earlier Murder By Contract, which featured in Indicator’s previous Columbia Noir set. That film blew me away and I’m sure will be one of my favourites of this year. While City of Fear proves more melodramatic and ‘ordinary’ than the extraordinarily ‘cool’ and hip Murder By Contract, it does benefit from some unfortunate timing- its tale of a city under threat of an unseen, insidious and deadly menace resonates strongly with our contemporary experience of living in the time of a pandemic. Indeed, what we are living through now can only intensify the experience of this film and leaves one with a question- is this film really very good or is it just proving a mirror for our current fears and tensions?

Vince Edwards again proves himself a very good performer, albeit a bad guy more routine than the cold enigmatic assassin he played in the earlier film. He does a lot with very little, frankly, but then again that’s true for most everyone in the film. Shot with a very low budget and over the space of, allegedly seven days, this is b-movie film-making that clearly struggles to even make do, desperately padding the already slim running time of 75 minutes with repeated shots of cars in traffic, city exteriors and characters repeatedly scrutinising charts and maps; the film could easily lose fifteen-twenty minutes and you wouldn’t miss it. This is something of a shame as, on the strength of Murder By Contract alone, the creative talent deserved and would have benefited from more time and money. There are moments when it seems they have gone with the first take and moved on, with little evidence of any rehearsal.

That said, the film does have, of all things considering its meagre budget etc, a score by none other than Jerry Goldsmith (his second film score after working in radio and television during the 1950s, which is evidently how they got him). Its a nice, jazzy score that serves the film well, albeit obviously not even hinting at Goldsmith’s later epic soundtracks.

Like Murder By Contract, City of Fear is clearly a late-period noir on the cusp of the 1960s, and unsurprisingly, perhaps, feels very ‘modern’ and seperate from conventional ‘classic’ noir of the 1940s and early-1950s. It also has a curious television feel, in how its shot, how it ‘looks’- to me its more serviceable, obviously constrained by budget and schedule in just the same way as television shows were, lacking the time for the visual sophistication typical of superior noir with its visual styling. Maybe this actually works to the films benefit, with a distinctly hand-held, gritty, you-are-there feel to its location shooting. This latter element is possibly what I found most engaging- its like a glimpse of a lost world, the film almost an historical document with its late-1950s Californian streets, traffic and décor, images from a 1950s-set Philip K Dick novel like Voices From the Street or In Milton Lumky Territory.

Stories from the shelf (Part One)

shelfoneEvery shelf tells a story. Here’s the top shelf of a corner unit that contains many of my film soundtracks collected over the years (mostly the ‘premium’ limited expansions that I largely had to import from America). It possibly says more about how my brain works than anything else, as I clearly tried to make it alphabetical, or something, starting therefore with John Barry and a few titles beginning with ‘A’ then going somewhat astray. Lower shelves in future instalments will be all Goldsmith and Horner and Williams and more, but I’m going to start from the top and work my way down, so we begin with John Barry.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Barry, but I know many film soundtrack lovers are absolutely convinced he’s brilliant and top of the pile. One soundtrack I didn’t squeeze in here and probably should have is his soundtrack for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which is probably my favourite of his (and my favourite Bond film, too). I suspect the reason why that expanded CD isn’t on this shelf is because I’m not actually sure where it is…

You may find a recurrent theme going on, where notable absences come to my mind for the same reason.  I’ve been buying too many CDs for so many years, and part of the reason why I put up some more shelving last summer was to put my favourite and most treasured discs in one place so I know where to find them (this years project is to do the same with my books but hey-ho we’ll see how THAT goes). Part of the problem is that, once a disc is ripped onto my laptop/external hard drive, I can then listen to it often but without going back to the CD, so that disc actually gets untouched for months, years…

Anyway, back to this shelf. And Barry. My issue with Barry is likely the same reason his devotees are so devoted. Barry had a knack of finding a ‘killer’ theme and therefore compilation albums of his soundtracks are often very successful, but unfortunately (from my point of view) this would also prove to be Barry’s weakness in his actual full scores, and certainly score expansions on CD. Barry would write a wonderful theme for a film and then he would use that for most of the score, reworking it and re-orchestrating it endlessly. His fans adore this, I’m sure. My personal mileage varies so I only have select albums, and one or two even then only because I bought them in sales.

lion1This criticism, by the way, is possibly actually unfair, certainly in the case of the first disc here, The Lion in Winter, a film I haven’t even seen but I was recommended the score and yeah, its a wonderful piece of work. Some people refer to it as Barry’s Christmas album and that rather fits: its in a medieval mode, with choir and pomp and majesty. It features, typical of Barry, some simply magnificent themes (‘Eleanor’s Arrival’ is quite gorgeous, the kind of music that as soon as you hear it you stop what you are doing and purely listen, enrapt, and frustratingly this is one of those times where Barry doesn’t then reuse the theme continuously so my argument regards Barry comes undone). This is possibly my second-favourite Barry score. It dates from 1968, so its almost as old as I am (its aged considerably better).

dances1Second on the shelf is his immensely popular Dances With Wolves soundtrack, here the two-disc expanded edition from La La Land Records (a label you’ll see plenty of here, alongside Intrada and the late, lamented FSM) which was released in 2015. Soundtracks are often like Blu-rays, they seem to get released on anniversaries, something marketing boys seem to be fascinated by which endlessly irritates me. Disc releases of films seem to be delayed years in order to tie into some 15th or 20th or 25th Anniversary (the higher that number goes the more scared I become when its one I recall seeing it at the cinema). An interesting piece of trivia: Dances With Wolves was originally supposed to be scored by Basil Poledouris (of Conan the Barbarian and most pertinently, Lonesome Dove fame), but he backed out of it in order to fulfil obligations to his friend John Milius regards his delayed Flight of the Intruder film. Wolves would have been Poledouris’ break-out score, conceivably changing his career completely and fans of Lonesome Dove can only wonder at what Poledouris might have conceived recording the score for Kevin Costner’s hit Western. Poledouris’ career slid downhill after that, and the bittersweet sting in the tale is that Intruder got pushed back six months so Poledouris could have scored both after all. Life can be cruel. But then again, I guess Barry’s fans hear that story and grit their teeth thinking that they almost missed out on one of Barry’s most popular scores. Its certainly got some wonderful emotive themes and was a big part of the films success. 

Barry’s smouldering, evocative score for Body Heat follows: Lawrence Kasdan’s wonderful neo-noir is a fantastic film truly elevated by Barry’s moody score. Its possibly too repetitive (this is FSMs 2-disc expansion with full score on disc one and Barry’s original album on disc two with an added near-thirty minutes of theme demos that wears thin) but its so atmospheric, its almost like a sultry, smoky score of summer heat, which is exactly what Barry was aiming at. 

kongAnother FSM disc follows- Barry’s score for the 1976 King Kong. Back in the early 1980s, the vinyl album of this was in the bargain bins of record stores and I picked up a copy (as I recall it came with a poster): I was always seduced by that films poster art that was actually promising some other movie entirely (not the poster which FSM used, by the way, as they obviously intended their 2-disc edition to stand out from the original which FSM had actually reissued on CD a few years earlier). I didn’t see the 1976 film until several years later, when much of the music would make more sense, but the film always fascinated me because a paperback of the making of the film was one of the first books I ever read and one that really fired my imagination about movies and the stories about the making of them. So while this King Kong was really a disaster movie for all the wrong reasons, I’ll always have some affection for it. This Kong has something so typically Barry- an absolute belter of a love theme, and it sounds fantastic in some of its variations here in expanded form. Some of the action music is quite jarring and atonal but the romantic sweep of the love theme is quite timeless, Barry just had a gift for melodies like that (see also Somewhere in Time, Raise the Titanic and so many others). I will also just say that the track Kong Hits the Big Apple was a big-band number that was much derided by my freinds and I back in the day when we listened to the vinyl album, and it hasn’t really aged well since, but hey, it was 1976.  

Then we come to Barry’s The Black Hole score. Again, this was one I had on vinyl and it really suffers from Barry’s habit of just repeating ad nauseam a theme over and over. The Black Hole was an ill-fit for Barry; I don’t think this kind of space adventure flick was really suited to him, it was really John Williams domain and to be fair, even a great like Jerry Goldsmith possibly struggled at that kind of thing (although Star Trek: The Motion Picture is absolutely magnificent, but more on that later, as that’s a story for another shelf). I recall that The Black Hole was one of, if not THE, first digital recordings of a major film score., because they made a big deal of it on the cover of the album and in adverts I read in Starlog at the time (1979). In that respect, it seemed more something of the future than the actual music did. Its no disaster but I remember buying this expanded CD edition more out of a sense of nostalgia than a love of the music, although it is a pretty cool main theme (the heroic action theme is diabolical though, that REALLY didn’t suit Barry- Star Wars theme it isn’t). In hindsight the case of The Black Hole, and Disney so clearly trying to mimic the appeal/success of Star Wars, is really kind of funny when you consider that they spent over $4 billion buying the thing from George Lucas decades later- if you can’t beat ’em, er, buy ’em, seems to be the lesson of that story).

abyssThis post is getting too long already so we’ll skip on past a few Barry discs I bought in sales in order to instead dwell on Alan Silvestri’s score for The Abyss, here the expanded Varese two-disc edition that was something of a Grail of mine. I’m not a big fan of Silvestri’s scores, but I always loved The Abyss, score and movie. 1989: summer of Batman, soundtracks like Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade, Pet Semetary… soundtracks that were coming out on CD then, vinyl being a thing of the distant past. The Abyss was a suspenseful, dramatic and strange score, even if its Main Title owed an awful lot to the opening of James Horner’s Brainstorm. Temp music rearing its ugly head again, I suspect (I mean, that thing is a blatant rip).  

Back then I still bought soundtracks from shops, even though that seems something so long ago. I remember the Saturday I went into town and bought both The Abyss CD and Laurie Anderson’s Strange Angels CD, listening to both of them late that night on headphones (Strange Angels has always been a personal favourite album, by the way, which is possibly why I remember that day so clearly- oh and two girls in the town who I think were trying to pick me and my mate Andy up, but I was too distracted (okay, ignorant) to pick up on it at the time, foolishly batting them off. I had odd priorities for a teenager back then and I placed nerdy concerns somewhere higher than girls).  

Varese’s original The Abyss album on CD was typical of the time, limited to about 40 or 50 minutes or so (which was pretty good, as many hovered around the 30-minute mark due to music union issues), certainly far from complete and missing some of the music I enjoyed in the film- so the deluxe version released in 2014 really was something special, so much so that I posted about it here at the time. A limited edition, as so many of these score expansions on disc are, I recently noticed this edition being up for sale at £150 on Amazon. Yikes. I dare say quite a few CDs on my shelves might be worth something now, or at least for as long as people have CD drives/players. 

how2Here’s where my filing of my CDs becomes a little eccentric. What follows on the shelf are a number of discs linked by the actor who stars in the particular films, rather than by the composer: Avanti!, The Apartment/The Fortune Cookie, Irma La Douce How To Murder Your Wife/Lord Love A Duck and Barefoot in the Park/The Odd Couple (regards those last two, the films in question are definitely NOT Lord Love A Duck or Barefoot in the Park, its just that those each feature scores for two films by Neal Hefti). The actor in question is of course Jack Lemmon, and these are films I absolutely adore, and they date from a period when film music was really quite wonderful, melodic and memorable: scores that are great, for great movies that star a great actor. The actual music is quite varied and the composers quite different in style, but generally seem to have great romantic themes that really soar: Carlo Rustichelli’s Avanti! is beautiful and timeless, and Neal Hefti’s How To Murder Your Wife has a love theme that just.. well, I fell in love with THAT theme back when I first saw the film many years ago, and it never ceases to amaze me that it ever came out on CD one day, and one that actually featured the full score as well as the original album on a second disc.  I think I was buying film soundtracks at a particularly fortuitous time: the last score for a Jack Lemmon film that I’m really holding out for is Prisoner of Second Avenue, another personal favourite film whose Blu-ray I can endlessly re-watch. Maybe one day.

silentNext disc on this shelf is Peter Schickele’s Silent Running. This is another CD that is pretty special to me. Douglas Trumbull’s film Silent Running has always been a particular favourite of mine and its ecological themes have only gotten more prescient as time has moved on, and Schickele’s score is one that sounds really quite unique: its very 1970s, featuring small orchestration with folk songs from Joan Baez that should really date it (maybe they do, but that only adds to the films strange charm). It was one of the films from which I recorded the music via tape deck and holding a microphone to the tinny tv speaker, and listened to the cassette with the music mixed with some dialogue and sound effects.

Many, many moons ago back in the 1980s I used to see the vinyl album in stores but I never bought it (pocket money never stretched that far), and when it went out of print I just thought it would turn up on CD someday (everything seemed to eventually), but it didn’t. I think the reason was that the master-tapes were lost or destroyed, so when Intrada finally released it on disc in 2016, it was actually a recording sourced from a pristine vinyl copy, and surprisingly, it sounds pretty damn fine.  Plenty good enough to me, considering I’d been pining for a release for decades at that point. Whenever I see this CD on the shelf I have a bit of a ‘pinch-me’ moment. 

doorostFinally, Marcelo Zarvos’ The Door in the Floor soundtrack: I love this music. Its one of those deeply emotional, rather dark and reflective scores… the film is a pretty bleak drama, really quite sad, being about the break-up of a marriage that being destroyed by the unbearable grief over the loss of two children in an accident (it stars Jeff Bridges, Kim Basinger and Mimi Rogers and is really quite good). Its one of those cases where the music is as integral and important as any other part of the picture. In this respect its like Vangelis’ Blade Runner: the score is the soul of the movie. Zarvos’ score is such a powerful work of longing and regret; to me it works completely seperate from the film the music it was written for. I suspect many will have never heard it or seen the film (it dates back to 2004, incredibly).

Crikey, this one went on a bit. Might have to pause awhile before I get around to the next shelf: Horner!

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Yes I know, ‘G’ (for Goldsmith) comes before Horner but there is a method to my madness…

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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….

Five lessons from Deep Impact

deepLesson One: Someone should take Hollywood to task for its depictions of Presidents. They keep putting the likes of Harrison Ford or (in this case) Morgan Freeman up as idealistic Presidents and its as far from cynical corrupt politicians, liars and Orange Men as its possible to get. Freeman comes across as so earnestly honourable in this, its excruciating. Imagine what 2020 would have been like with a President like this in charge. But yeah, Hollywood needs to get Real, this kind of unrealistic portrayal of what a President could and should be does nobody any favours. Donald Pleasance still remains my favourite and most realistic President in any movie, I don’t think anybody comes close (but if you can think of one, enlighten me in the comments).

Lesson Two: You never appreciate what you’ve got until its gone, and yeah, hearing a James Horner score in a film these days is just really sad. Sure, this wasn’t one of his best scores, although its certainly no slouch (which reminds me, I have it on a CD somewhere). Its just perhaps too sentimental and overpowering, as if Horner knew the film was lacking some level of energy that he thought his score could provide, but instead teeters on the brink of melodrama. That said, I repeat its just so sad to hear a Horner score in a film – its just a bitter reminder of what we’ve lost. While so many Horner scores sounded so alike at times (and yeah, with Deep Impact you hear the routine Horner-isms that haunted his later career), now that he’s gone, even those familiar motifs and sounds suddenly seem all the rarer. I felt just the same way about Jerry Goldsmiths score for Gremlins when I watched it in 4K a week or so ago (Gremlins is a GREAT Christmas movie)- movies aren’t what they used to be now that we’ve lost such great film composers.

Lesson Three: Well its definitely Christmas, because with this I’ve watched a film on commercial television, and wow, its so Old School. Its like I’ve flashed back twenty- thirty years. It seems every 15 – 20 mins the film just stops (and at the oddest places, too) for a commercial break, just killing any involvement in the film. What a bizarre way to watch movies, but yeah, thirty years or more (okay, its more, I’m older than I like to think) ago this was the way we used to watch movies, unless we were lucky enough to catch it on the Beeb. Mind, back then everything was pan and scan, at least these days they broadcast films in widescreen, even if they are ripped to pieces by deodorant, car, washing powder and perfume commercials.

Lesson Four: For about twenty minutes I thought it was Dr Zhivago playing Tea Leoni’s father until it dawned on me that it was that crazy scientist from The Black Hole. Sometimes I’m some kind of idiot.

Lesson Five: Deep Impact‘s credentials as an Apocalypse movie are utterly undermined by the fact that it at no point portrays scumbags hoarding toilet rolls. 2020 has taught us a lot about how Joe Public behaves facing the End of the World and all these Apocalypse movies have been totally found wanting. I look forward to the next Apocalypse Movie coming out (well just as soon as any Studio has the nerve) and putting it to the 2020 Covid test of authenticity.

Pet Sematary (2019)

PET SEMATARYI’m not one of those that believe the 1989 Pet Sematary is a great horror movie; I wrote a post last year when I rewatched it that expressed my mixed feelings about it. So it may not seem too a great surprise to anyone that I actually quite liked this, considering that when it came out it was blasted by those that ranked the original highly. To be frank, although I enjoyed the original book when I read it many, many moons ago, having mixed feelings regards the 1989 version I really didn’t expect very much of this film- well, chalk it up to another case of diminished expectations and all that.

I would imagine that the reasons I was pleasantly surprised by this film are the same reasons why champions of the original disliked it. I thought the cast was better in this version, particularly Jason Clarke, John Lithgow and Jete Laurence (I wasn’t enamoured by the 1989 cast who seemed pretty wooden to me), and I quite liked how it diverted from both the 1989 film and indeed the book in its latter stages (why remake a film and slavishly regurgitate the same old events/tropes?), at least offering something ‘new’ (for better or worse) to give some purpose for its existence. I would imagine fans of the original were quite appalled by some of the changes, but to me it felt like the directors (Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer) were using them as cheeky nods to audience  expectations and. yeah, whats the point of a remake if you don’t do something different?

In fact, the only thing I really, really missed in this version was the originals evocative Elliot Goldenthal score, which ranks as one of my very favourite horror soundtracks (Christopher Young’s score here is no disaster but it doesn’t really imbue the film with its own character, it feels more generic- although I have to confess Goldenthal’s score shares a lot with Goldsmiths Poltergeist). I also think this film was a little short, even though it ran a little over two hours, as I think while it maintained most of the beats of the original story I think it needed more character moments, to help cement the mood and effectiveness of the scares. Empathy, afterall, is everything in a horror movie- its no good being assailed with jump scares and gore if you don’t really care very much for the protagonists. Another twenty to thirty minutes, I think, would possibly have improved the film no end. For one thing, the last third of the film feels so rushed it unfortunately seems to lose some impact, even though I welcomed how it diverted from what I expected. ironically, its almost as if the film-makers lost confidence the more they moved away from what happened in the original book and film.

So anyway. I think there were many positives in this film. Sure its not perfect (maybe a third attempt in another twenty years will finally get it done right) but on the whole I thought it was an atmospheric, good old-fashioned horror yarn and really enjoyed it. Hmm, diminished expectations and all that might be the answer to anyone considering watching this film- give it a shot and you might be as pleasantly surprised as I was.

 

The Efficient Martian

THE MARTIANThere is something almost brutally efficient regards Ridley Scott’s The Martian. Its a mean, lean machine- I think Scott says in his commentary that the film was shot in just 74 days, which is formidable indeed for a film of its scale, of its visual complexity. I would not suggest its a great film- like Interstellar, its a film I can enjoy and quite admire but its far from a personal favourite or a film I love. Which is, considering its subject, like that of Interstellar, rather strange- you’d think this kind of film would be right up my street. Maybe its the lack of tension, which may have something to do with the film’s particularly laid-back, relaxed score. I’d read the book beforehand so I knew how the film would play out the first time I ever saw it, but I don’t think anyone unfamiliar with that book has any doubt how it will turn out. At any rate, I do think that had this film got a moody, tense Jerry Goldsmith score, it would be a different experience entirely.

So anyway, The Martian certainly looks gorgeous (I watched it this time in 4K UHD, and in its slightly extended cut), with brilliant art direction, it has a fine cast, and a great story and screenplay, and no matter my misgivings is clearly superior to Apollo 13, the film it obviously is most similar to. Its just misfiring a little, and I’m beginning to think its because of its brutal efficiency- there’s little chaos to it, its all… not mundane exactly, but it just feels so calculated. Every shot, every line, its all like a machine with a particular purpose, to tell its story.  Its possibly a film via a committee, rather than a passionate and involving film from a single visionary director. Its quite true that there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but somethings missing, and whenever I watch this film,  I’m never sure quite what.

Some great film Main Titles

Well, let’s have a little fun. I was listening to Jerry Goldsmith’s Total Recall soundtrack over the weekend (another Soundtrack Shelf post someday soon maybe) and was absolutely loving it, it’s the expanded edition from a year or so back, and it’s wonderful. But I was marveling at its main title cue, and it just got me thinking about great film main titles. So here’s a few-

alientitle.jpeg1) Alien (Jerry Goldsmith) – Not the actual music he prepared, oddly enough, but this piece from later in the film’s score is just absolutely perfect over the mysterious starfield/planetoid background, setting a sense of foreboding in the audience as the title slowly forms across the upper screen. I’ve sometimes mentioned having to be in the ‘right mood’ for some films, but this main title always sets me up for Alien. It never fails to draw me in. Brilliant. For my money, possibly the best main title sequence ever.

totaltitle2) Total Recall (Jerry Goldsmith) -A thrilling, pulse-pounding piece reminiscent of Basil Poledouris’ Conan the Barbarian main title (a cheeky nod from Jerry or request from director Paul Verhoeven?). It perfectly sets the audience up for the thrill-ride to follow. I’ll never forget the preview screening I attended of this film, it was electric, the room full of Arnie fans in a frenzy of anticipation, and this music just raised everything up to another level. Its a good job the film lived up to the promise of the music, else there would have been a riot.

vertigotitle3) Vertigo (Bernard Herrmann) – Another great piece of music, a mysterious twisting piece that mirrors the Saul Bass graphics that twist and turn onscreen. Its clear from the first few seconds that this is a special film experience, something really quite unique. Herrmann was a master at setting up such moody atmospheres and really sets this film up, priming the audience for the dark and twisted tale that follows.  See also Obsession, a late film scored by Herrmann that performs the exact same trick (partly because its almost the same movie).

ahafttitle4) Shaft (Isaac Hayes) – Music so of its time, it perfectly encapsulates the movie it accompanies and introduces the film, its tone, its era, so uncannily that whenever I hear this music I’m yanked back like a time machine has returned me to my childhood when it used to play on the radio. In the film, a distant aerial shot of the New York City skyline and the noise of the city is followed by a slow pull-down towards the streets and as soon as our hero is seen walking up out of the subway Haye’s music replaces the street noise. We follow Richard Roundtree along the wintry, steamy, dirty, gritty, funky streets of the real New York of old. Can you dig it?

taxititle5) Taxi Driver (Bernard Herrmann) – Staying with New York,  another Herrmann piece, in a jazzy mood-setter that really sums up the tone of the film to follow, part dream, part nightmare, part social document of a city, its a short sequence of Herrmann music over dreamy, slow-motion imagery, steam and neon and crowded filthy streets waiting for a real rain.

spheretitle6) Sphere (Elliot Goldenthal) – This is one of those examples of a main title that bests the film that follows it. A typically atmospheric piece from Goldenthal with onscreen strange illustrations of oceanic horrors of old, promises all sorts of unspeakable things that the film can’t possibly deliver on. Beautiful main title sequence though, a real mood-setter. I quite like the film, but it’s all downhill from that main title.

201title7) 2001: A Space Odyssey (Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra) – The granddaddy of them all, in some ways. The perfect visual and musical summation of the epic film that’s to follow. What else does a main title have to do?

Anyway, anybody out there got some other favourite main titles they care to mention?

 

Terry Rawlings has died

Just a few words to note the passing of film editor Terry Rawlings yesterday. He edited several films that have been amongst my favourites- Alien and Blade Runner are possibly the two classics he’ll be most remembered for (other than Chariots of Fire) but I’ll also remember him for two flawed films that could be listed under ‘what might have been’- Legend and Alien 3, two films that never really clicked but could have been amazing in better circumstances. Both are a reminder that with all the best will in the world, films are a collaborative work and always subject to outside forces, ill will and ill luck.

freudostOf course, if you’ve been reading this blog recently you’ll know I only rewatched Alien on Sunday, which was the first film Rawlings edited, I believe, on his own. Having had a background working as a sound editor before, Rawlings brought with him an understanding of the importance of sound (and music) in the editing process, and his work, and films, benefited from this. Mind, it could also be a subject of some contention. Rawlings was a lover of music (and I suspect had a huge collection) and his temp music track for Alien caused him some troubles with the composer Jerry Goldsmith. Some sections of Goldsmiths Alien score were replaced by some of Goldsmith’s earlier score for the film Freud – noticeably the section of Dallas in the shaft or the the acid dripping scene when Ash tried to cut the facehugger from Kane.  They are very effective scenes with the Freud music (it’s a fantastic score, I bought the album a few years back and it’s brilliant, and its quite uncanny how well it works in a film made so many years later). Nothing Goldsmith did for Alien could shake Rawlings and Scott’s love of the temp track and it stayed, much to the composers chagrin – likewise even the main title music was dropped in favour of some other Alien music Goldsmith wrote for the scenes on the planetoid. Goldsmith was horrified by this second-guessing and manipulation of his score for different scenes, but I have to admit, Rawlings was right. The title sequence with its drone-like, moody music never fails to pull me into the mood of dread that pervades the film (I think the Alien title sequence is one of the very best of all time).

Only the Brave (2017)

brave1Sometimes, expectations are everything: Only the Brave is a frustrating film. Oh, its sincere enough, and a noble attempt at telling its true story with respect and surprising restraint- this isn’t the huge Hollywood effects spectacle that might be expected. It just doesn’t, sadly, ignite (sic). Its such a strange thing- competently staged and with a really great cast (Josh Brolin, Jeff Bridges, Jennifer Connelly)… actually, maybe that cast is the problem, maybe its just too good a cast, with too much cinematic baggage behind them that carries all sorts of expectations in itself.

I was surprised to see that it was directed by Joseph Kosinski,  of Tron: Legacy and Oblivion fame, as that in itself would suggest a big, spectacular and horrifying canvas would be put up on the screen but Kosinski seems to deliberately play against those expectations. Its just a different sort of movie than his previous films might suggest. Yeah, there’s those confounded expectations again.

But it isn’t an intimate character-driven piece either, possibly because those big-name actors, or that visually-adept director, aren’t exactly an arthouse cinema bunch. Its therefore caught somewhere in-between, and so intent on treating the real events and people caught up in them with proper due respect that the film just… exists, without really saying anything.

It reminds me rather a great deal of The 33, another film based on true events that impacted on a reasonably large group. While Only the Brave mostly centers upon Josh Brolin’s character, it also tries to flesh out the rest of  the Granite Mountain Hotshots that he leads in the firefighting, and like The 33, the film suffers from not having enough time, or perhaps the script isn’t finely honed enough, to do so many characters justice.

I don’t know, its really a strange one. Its a good film, but it just lacks that essential spark, if you’ll forgive one more fire metaphor. I’m tempted to suggest the issue may lie with the score, funnily enough. I just find myself thinking of the film Glory, and James Horner’s magnificent score. Sure the music and the film were perhaps overly manipulative but the combination of film and music involved me, made me feel something.  I didn’t really feel anything with Only the Brave; I enjoyed it and found it very worthwhile but it didn’t engage me emotionally. It might seem odd to suggest blame lies with the music score but film music isn’t what it used to be, and the industry has lost something of the genius of the likes of Goldsmith and Horner and that kind of film music, no longer in vogue, certainly worked back in the day.

So a missed opportunity then, unfortunately, but certainly a sincere enough effort.