Strangers When We Meet (1960)

strangers1I must confess, I was greatly surprised by just how sad Richard Quine’s Strangers When We Meet turned out to be. There’s a melancholy that runs through it, much of it surrounding Kim Novak’s character, Maggie. I’ve read that there was a possible intention by the director and writer Evan Hunter (who wrote the screenplay from his own novel) for the film to be a positive, albeit bittersweet story (better to have loved and lost, that kind of thing) but while I can understand that, I think the balance falls more towards the tragic. Maybe I’m just more of a glass half-empty guy; its interesting that the films ending may reflect something of the viewer regards what one gets out of it. Anyway, as the credits came up they did so accompanied by a typical-of-the-era song, the tone and lyrics suggesting some positivity to put a bounce in the audience’s step but it felt ill-judged to me, as the way it ended really felt pretty bleak leaving me with rather a sour taste in my mouth.

The film is essentially a doomed romance, with a midlife crisis twist to it. Both main characters, Novak’s Maggie Gault and Kirk Douglas’ Larry Coe are suffering midlife angst: suddenly feeling reflective of unfulfilled lives, questioning earlier life choices; Larry is feeling trapped in an unrewarding job, his early-career ambitions unrealised, and Maggie feels trapped in a marriage lacking passion, without a sex life worth speaking of – a husband, Ken (John Bryant) who is physically distant and withdrawn (and married to Kim Novak? Go figure). On an early-morning school run, Larry drops off his son at the school bus stop and sees Maggie there with her own son; instantly attracted to her, his lingering stare is subtly returned by Maggie but that’s about it- maybe usually that’s all it would ever be, but Larry is restless both at work and at home and is soon chasing Maggie, who is naturally given her own situation quite susceptible to a man’s advances. We later learn that this isn’t her first extra-marital encounter, and its to the films credit that it doesn’t condemn her as being some kind of wanton, scarlet hussy, but rather more sympathetic. I think much of this is due to Novak’s typically fragile performance; clearly from the four films I’ve now seen her in, much of her personal character was shining through in her roles- at least the roles I’ve seen her in. Maggie here isn’t very far removed from Madeleine of Vertigo or Lona of Pushover, all her characters seem subject to the predatory male gaze and trapped by it. I’ve read before of actresses being uncomfortable with being sexual objects in film no matter how bewitched the camera is with them, and that seems the case with Novak from what I’ve seen. There is a complexity to her that belies the simple category of Hollywood sex siren. 

strangers2Clearly, the film is a product of its time. I don’t believe any of the wives seen in the film have careers of their own, or lives away from the home unit (raising the children, doing housework and taking care of their husbands), so the sexual politics at the heart of it are quite dated – you couldn’t make this same film today. Similarly the film seems to excuse, in a roundabout way, adultery, in that Larry’s misery at home and work seems to excuse his affair with Maggie. Their affair is instigated by him (as if Maggie is available just because she’s miserable) and also ended by him (opting for fresh start with an exciting career opportunity whisking him and his family off to lovely Hawaii) leaving Maggie high and dry back in the situation she started in, immediately afterwards being lecherously eyed by a construction worker which almost broke my heart. Its possibly the one thing that betrays the films age- the man gets his life changing for the better and the woman is left behind in the same mess she was in before (there’s certainly no indication that the affair has convinced Maggie to finally leave her husband and try make a better life for herself elsewhere). Maybe I would have enjoyed the film a little more if Larry was as miserable as Maggie when their affair is finally ended, as if they each return to their quiet lives of suburban midlife misery for the sake of their marriages, their children and the status quo, but its certainly a better outcome for Larry than Maggie.

But despite all this I absolutely loved this film. Novak as always is a treasure, okay I’ve not seen her in many productions so I have no idea if her performances are always what some may consider one-note (I believe she came from a modelling background with no formal dramatic training?) and that seeing her in more films might become a somewhat repetitive experience, but like with Vertigo, this film seems to fit her like a glove. As an actor I always enjoyed Douglas –Spartacus, Ace in the Hole, The Vikings, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea…)  although I’ve become rather uncomfortable with tales of his private life- its just one for those situations where one has to seperate the man and his considerable ego from the performances he left onscreen, and I rather think this is one of his better ones. Can one possibly imagine the life Douglas led at the time, a major star and producer in Hollywood? Perhaps his personal life infers something in the film- if half of what I’ve heard and read regards Douglas is true, he seems eminently qualified for the role and he’s definitely pretty convincing as Larry. I don’t think, say, someone like Jack Lemmon would convince as much, as great an ‘ordinary Joe’ character actor as he was (curiously, Lemmon’s own The Apartment was released that same year, itself a commentary on American lives and sexual politics (albeit regards the workplace rather than Californian suburbia)). No, while Novak suits Maggie its clear that Douglas absolutely fits the part of Larry: consummate casting for both.

strangers3The supporting cast is very good, particularly Walter Matthau as the lecherous and frankly despicable neighbour Felix Anders who learns about Larry’s affair and uses it as an excuse to make a worrying advance on Larry’s wife Eve (Barbara Rush, whose underwritten character is one of the films possible weak points) in a really edgy scene in which the film almost transforms into something else entirely. I thought John Bryant as Maggie’s passionless husband was very good in what could have been a very tricky role- my own suspicion that he was secretly gay, but just assuming the role of married man with children in order to fit in society and have a successful career, proved unconfirmed in the film but it would certainly explain his character. Bryant manages to play Ken as fairly warm and loving, albeit at too much of a distance for Maggie, when the role could have been simply cold and one-dimensional, less convincing. He’s not a bad husband, he’s just not the husband that Maggie needs.

A game I sometimes play after film narratives end is imagining what might happen next, if, say, sequels were as prevalent back then as they are today- would a sequel/spin-off continuing Maggie’s story further investigate her marriage and perhaps confirm my suspicions of Ken hiding his true sexuality? What a daring and controversial film that might have been back then (its a little like imagining what happens after the end of The Apartment, say, mindful of the seductive possibility  running through Glengarry Glen Ross that Jack Lemmon is secretly playing The Apartment‘s CC Baxter at the wrong end of the American Dream).  Or maybe -lets be romantic- that Larry’s problems run deeper than his career and is just not happy in Hawaii, and flies back to be with Maggie after all.

Thanks again to Colin for his recommendation regards this film: one of the many pleasures of this blog are the comments from people I have the pleasure to consider freinds who I would never otherwise meet, and their tips and recommendations for films and television shows I often have never even heard of. Colin’s own review of Strangers When We Meet can be found here. As is usual with very good films, my life is all the richer for the pleasure of having seen this little gem from 1960 and I shall return to it again. Mind, this really isn’t an easy film to see, but I was fortunate to be able to cheaply buy a second-hand DVD copy from CEX of all places (well, there’s another first, and I’ve had to create a new ‘DVD’ category for this blog, yikes never saw that coming). I can only hope that, as its a Columbia picture, that Indicator might be able to restore and release the film on Blu-ray someday. It certainly deserves to be, its a lovely-looking film that deserves a HD release, the DVD is fine as an opportunity to actually see the film but it really deserves better. 

 

And finally, of course I’M Spartacus

spartacusI’ve rather enjoyed this accidental run of ‘Ancient Movies’, and barring Ben-Hur (which I’d re-watched last year) the inevitable end-point had to be the classic Kubrick/Douglas film Spartacus from 1960. I refer to it as a ‘Kubrick/Douglas’ film but its obviously more Kirk Douglas’ film than it is a Kubrick film- there is really very little of this film that screams ‘Kubrick’ at the viewer. In fact, if there’s anything regards Spartacus that proves a little off-putting to me, its that the film very often feels like a Douglas vanity-project: possibly an unfair accusation, because producing and starring in a film as big as Spartacus is no mean feat, but when I watch the film there’s an uncomfortable (to me, anyway) sensation of watching a huge ego onscreen and everything else orbiting around it. I mean, Spartacus as a character has practically no negative features, he’s painted as a heroic, ‘perfect’ figure and not at all, in that sense, realistic. In that respect it does feel like a ‘old’ or ‘very Hollywood’ movie, but most likely its just a feeling that its the star actor/producer calling the shots rather than the director, and its clear that its not a directors ‘vision’ that we are seeing. Some films are like that, Spartacus is hardly unique, and its possibly just a reaction on my part from being used to watching a ‘Billy Wilder Picture’ or an ‘Alfred Hitchcock Picture’ or a ‘Ridley Scott Picture’.

Re-watching classic films can be a surprising experience, most often they of course still hold up remarkably well- they are ‘classic’ for a reason, after all. My surprise this time around was something regards the narrative, and hardly a  surprise at all really but I was take aback this time around by just how black the ending is. Naturally this is inherent in the basic story, as history tells us Spartacus and his buddies don’t walk off into the sunset for a happily ever after, and any film that did would be wholly inappropriate, for some reason this time around I was struck by just how bleak the film is. Maybe its a Covid thing, but I was taken by how much of a grim tone this film ends with: basically, the bad guys win, the good guys die, literally, every last one of them (even Charles Laughtons’ Senator scurries off to dispatch himself after settling his affairs) – its almost like its prefiguring the closing moments of Revenge of the Sith (albeit Lucas could only dream of that film having the gravitas of something like Spartacus).  Indeed, on that last point, while its clear that the Pod Race in The Phantom Menace owes everything to the chariot race of Ben-Hur, it would seem that George Lucas had his eye on other historical epics like Spartacus with how its grim finale is echoed by that of Sith. Its rather a pity that Lucas didn’t really nail that feel with his Prequel Trilogy in general- its possibly too coy a conceit but had that trilogy been like some great Roman spectacle moved into a space fantasy milieu then it would have better existed on its own terms away from the Original Trilogy – it does seem to me that Anakin suggests something of a ‘Messiah’ figure in the Star Wars saga and treating it more like a big biblical epic may have been beyond Lucas (hell, its only about selling toys, after all) but I have to wonder. Instead of some snotty kid in The Phantom Menace, had Anakin been a teenage slave like a slightly-younger Spartacus, later saved from a Hutt’s gladiatorial arena and then rising through the Jedi ranks to eventually fall to the Dark Side… Well I guess my daydream is more of a set of movies aimed at grown-up fans of the Original Trilogy rather than films preoccupied by a new generation of kids and what they want from Santa. 

But anyway, that’s all by the by and ancient history of its own, really. For some reason though I was rather struck by how bleak the ending of Spartacus is. Its authentic of course but I suppose I’m just reminded of how modern Hollywood seems to avoid any films with ‘downer’ endings.

Re-watching the film of course afforded me opportunity to watch my 4K UHD copy of Spartacus that has been waiting for too long. The film looks quite gorgeous, as one would expect – like the 4K UHD of Vertigo (shot in VistaVision) Spartacus benefits hugely from its Super 70 Technirama format, its larger film format affording a much more detailed image than usual that really shines on 4K. Naturally the film sounds gorgeous, too, with its timeless Alex North score that is at times brutal and others sweepingly romantic: Spartacus is one of those films that is much better for its score, the composer doing a lot of the films heavy lifting.

Spartacus is also one of those films more famous for its place in cinematic history, the reaction of the public at the time and its continuing popularity, and historically of course its cast and film-makers, than for its qualities, perhaps, as a film in itself. The film is not as perfect as its reputation perhaps suggests (later generations/s seem to much prefer Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, for instance) but its still a great film. The “I am Spartacus” scene has of course become part of the cultural lexicon of our age and again, part of the film that lives outside of the film itself, referred to an mimicked in all parts of pop culture. It proved to be a film and a role that was completely identified with Kirk Douglas for the remainder of his life, even if Stanley Kubrick largely disassociated himself from it. Kirk Douglas is Spartacus, in every frame as dominant an actor and onscreen personality as he likely was as a Hollywood producer: a little distracting for me this time around watching the film but perhaps symbolic of its place in Hollywood history.

I Walk Alone (1947)

walkI was rather frustrated by this one- a film noir starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas (the first of several films they would appear in together) which also features Lisbeth Scott, who was so good in Dark City, which I saw a little while ago, albeit here in a fairly insipid role that’s unworthy of her. This film on paper promises so much but I don’t think it really worked. It gets bogged down with the frustrations of Frankie Madison (Lancaster) who has returned to his old haunts of New York after 14 years in prison to find he has been betrayed by his bootlegging partner Noll Turner (Douglas). Turner has no intention of honouring their deal to share in the proceeds of the criminal business they partnered in and that Madison did time for. The film seems to get so burdened with it -Madison takes an irritatingly long time for it to dawn upon him that he’s being ditched- and gets further weighed down by the unlikeliest of sudden romances when he seems to make an unlikely connection with Turner’s girl, Kay (Scott), who is getting strung along and ultimately betrayed, too, by Turner.

Yeah Turner’s quite a cad, yet another who seems to think he can go clean and turn his criminal empire into a legit business. Indeed the basic plot is very familiar, a trope of many crime/mobster flicks. In Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America Max looked after Noodles interests while he did time inside but ultimately when his own ambitions turn to going legit he realises he has to cut Noodles loose in similar fashion to how Turner wants to cut Madison out here. In America, Max’s betrayal of Noodles is complete -he even gets Noodles girl- but here Turner proves undone by his overconfidence and his woman scorned.

Douglas is very good as the lousy slime-ball Turner; the actor had a natural bent to such roles and to me his intensity always made him a more convincing villain, or flawed anti hero, than a traditional leading man (see his magnificent performance in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole). I think much of this is just Douglas’ strong personality, his obvious drive and apparent ruthlessness in the real world as an ambitious Hollywood player that leaked into his performances (or maybe I’m reading too much into it).

In any case, its impressive that Douglas manages to hold his own against the man-mountain Lancaster, whose massive physique is quite intimidating when measured against everyone around him. While he snarls and clenches his fists its easy to accept him as a thuggish brute, the brawn against Turner’s brains who realises he’s been wronged and sees violence as his only recourse, but his performance often slips over towards the over-dramatic, lacking the subtlety of Douglas, and as I’ve noted, there seems little convincing about his sudden romance with Kay. It feels tacked-on.

Ultimately the film fails to be the sum of its parts, but maybe my real issue is just that over-familiarity of the plot, which is likely more to do with all the films made in the decades since than a fault in the film itself, which may have seemed quite original back in 1947. I suppose what seems predictable in 2020 can sometimes just be the benefit of  hindsight from all the films between: the cross we film fans just have to bear.

June Thorburn and The Scarlet Blade

scarlet2Here’s the thing with old movies (I hate that term, ‘old’ movies, but I guess we’re stuck with it): they are like time machines; indicators of past social-political viewpoints and behaviour. People smoke too much and in social places, people drink too much, men display disparaging views and treatment of women, women occupy demeaning roles… Mind you, in these current times every movie seems to display reckless abandon of social-distancing measures with almost heartbreaking displays of people shaking hands, hugging, fraternising in public spaces… movies even not-so old proving to be sobering time machines.

Old movies also exist like moments of space-time sealed in celluloid amber; actors and places frozen forever. I think that’s the most haunting thing of old movies, totally seperate from their narrative worth. In movies, Kirk Douglas is forever Spartacus, Christopher Reeve Clark Kent…Part of the ‘magic’ of movies, and part of the horror, too, if I’m honest. Films stand there heedless of change, while we can’t help but carry on.

The Scarlet Blade dates back to 1963 and was a fresh discovery for me, one of the films in Indicator’s most recent Hammer collection on Blu-ray. The film is a period action yarn set during the English Civil War, when Roundhead forces led by Colonel Judd (Lionel Jeffries in an usually serious and dark role) and Captain Tom Sylvester (Oliver Reed) terrorise Royalist locals while hunting down the Scarlet Blade (Jack Hedley) a weird amalgamation of Zorro and Robin Hood. After King Charles I is captured by Judd’s forces the Scarlet Blade is abetted by Judd’s own daughter, Claire, who is secretly a Royalist herself and who puts herself in danger to help the cause.

scarlet3The film is a standard adventure yarn that is benefited by great performances and a strangely downbeat finale that lends the whole thing a suddenly unexpected pathos, almost. What struck me most about the film, however, was the performance of June Thorburn as Judd’s daughter, Claire, who abets the Royalist resistance and secretly betrays her father, thwarting his attempts to trap the Scarlet Blade. Its a great part and despite an unflattering wig, is brilliantly played by Thorburn, striking me as a curious forerunner of Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia over a decade later. Quite a few times whilst watching The Scarlet Blade I remarked that I could imagine a Star Wars movie featuring Leia in something like this; dedicated, fiery and rebellious in secret before revealing herself as a resistance fighter when receiving the Death Star plans. Maybe Disney will spin a ‘young Princess Leia prequel’ someday, it wouldn’t be their worst idea. Which is obviously digressing somewhat, but Thorburns performance was so good, and seemed so ‘modern’, it really left an impression on me. Maybe I was expecting so little in a Hammer romp that it caught me off-guard.

June Thorburn was, as one would expect, a very attractive woman, with features that reminded me of a young Natalie Wood, and I was sure I’d seen her in some film before- actually, I hadn’t, it was likely just her similarity with Wood that put me wrong- and her performance was so good the first thing I headed for in the special features after watching the film was the featurette about her. Which is where the darkside of these old movies takes hold- because its so brutally easy, in just fifteen/twenty minutes, to summarise a whole life and career, affording an almost Godlike perspective that seems especially cruel when that life-story is as harrowingly cut short as Thorburn’s was.

By the time Thorburn lit up the screen in The Scarlet Blade, her middling film career (highlight: playing the Forest Queen in Tom Thumb in 1958) was largely already over, with The Scarlet Blade proving to be her penultimate film, reducing her to occasional television roles on British television until her sudden death in 1967-  five months pregnant with her third child, she was returning to London from Spain when her Iberia Airlines flight crashed at Blackdown, Sussex killing all 37 people on board. She was just 36.

So within minutes, really, of being so enamoured by her part in this Hammer film and looking forward to seeing what else she’d done in film, I’m being crushed at the unfairness of her terrible demise in such tragic circumstances. Such is the power of perspective; a chatty talking heads piece and a subsequent search of the Internet. To be sure, the Internet is the dark power in all this watching of old movies. A simple search can result in a filmography spanning an entire career and a simple two-paragraph bio sum up a life in bullet-points of ‘born/married/died’. It can be depressing enough when a lengthy and rewarding career is involved, only more so in the case of someone like Thorburn. My cursory internet search resulted in ghastly commentary by police officers involved in searching the air crash wreckage for body parts: a sobering return to reality after enjoying the Hammer film’s gentle romp.

Part of the sadness of course is that Thorburn’s film career never really took off in the way it might have, and possibly should have done (on the strength of The Scarlet Blade, anyway). I think its true to say she was a better actress than perhaps The Scarlet Blade deserved. Her bio strikes me as that of a confident and talented, independent woman; she apparently had a reputation for being something of a tomboy growing up (again, how very Princess Leia) and it does seem that the role of Claire perfectly suited her. Maybe she got the right role, at last, but stuck in a Hammer b-movie it was hardly going to light up the film industry.

So anyway, strike this up as another of those sobering experiences of watching old movies. I did enjoy the film very much and will no doubt re-watch it before long (Indicator’s Blu-ray edition is typically excellent) but I’m sure that experience will be laboured somewhat with the knowledge of who June Thorburn was and what became of her just a few years later.

Hail the Vikings!

vik1Anybody who can watch the return home of the Viking longship near the start of The Vikings (1958) without a stirring in their heart has no soul. The exquisite photography of the great Jack Cardiff, the gorgeous location, the soaring music of Mario Nascimbene… its one of the greatest scenes in movie history in my book. It’s a timeless, beautiful scene, harking back to some Golden Age of movies now lost to us. Everytime I watch it, it’s like falling in love again, and I wonder what it must have been like, seeing it on the big screen back in 1958. I don’t know why exactly- it’s some sublime combination of music, photography and age, intangible but undeniable; pure cinema.

I’m pleased to report that this scene, and the film in general, looks brilliant on Blu-ray. Our American cousins (and those here in the UK who are region free) will have known this for years, but it’s wonderful to finally have the film available to those of us in the UK who are region-locked, thanks to the Eureka label.  Indeed, while there are sections where the print shows its age, for the majority of the time it looks simply phenomenal and is the best quality I have ever seen the film. The rich colours of Jack Cardiff’s technicolour cinematography are breathtaking, rich and vibrant and leaping from the screen. For any fan of this film this blu-ray is a real treat.

What might be a surprise for some is just how well the film holds up in general. I suppose it could be argued some of the Boys Own Adventure battle scenes look a little bit cardboard swords and shields, but the star cast and the tight, efficient script sails (sic) above such censor-ridden limitations (I recall the trouble Hammer had back then with censors so can only imagine how The Vikings was limited with what it could manage). At its heart is a rolocking adventure with bold heroes and a dastardly English king, and I suppose it could well be argued that Kirk Douglas is more anti-hero than hero, lending a rather modern sensibility to his role. To be clear, this film is pretty perfect and in no way needs a remake, but I’m surprised one hasn’t been done – a blockbuster, star-ridden remake akin to Braveheart or Gladiator seems a no-brainer.

Thankfully we’ve never seen that remake, though. Not yet, anyway….

Detective Story

detect1.png2017.28: Detective Story (1951)

You know how in detective films and tv shows, they pin up clues on a wall, photos or other items, and use different-coloured pieces of string to connect them together? Like huge complex diagrams or charts, somehow the connections revealed by those webs of string solve the case. But the connections are the thing.

Sometimes it seems a little like that with films. You can watch films at random and suddenly be struck by odd coincidences or connections. As if hidden in the randomness there is some sort of pattern. Maybe there is a meaning to it.

Or maybe not. Why do I mention this?  Well, it was a little curious that only the other week on a whim triggered by TCM’s scheduling that I rewatched The Naked Jungle (1954) and now by sheer chance I was watching William Wyler’s 1951 film noir Detective Story, and it turns out they feature the same lead actress, Eleanor Parker. That coincidence of casting may not be a big deal, but its not the end of it though. The Naked Jungle starred Parker has a mail-order bride initially cast aside as “used goods” when her new husband learns of her previous marriage. In Detective Story, it turns out she again plays a wife with a rather shady past/secret. This time her husband, Det. Jim McLeod (Kirk Douglas) is unaware that her past is linked to a criminal he is chasing; “Dutchman” Karl Schneider, a New Jersey doctor suspected of being an abortionist linked to the deaths of young women. It transpires that she had an affair with a married man a few years before she met her McLeod and went to Schneider for an abortion. The revelation threatens to shatter both their marriage and McLeod’s obsessive worldview/attitude to policing and crime.

Poor Eleanor. Was she being typecast as reputable-looking women with hidden secrets?

Detective Story is a great little film- I say ‘little’ as it’s based on a stage-play and hence has few locations and  pretty much functions as a one-set acting ensemble akin to 12 Angry Men. Its a great, dramatic character piece where action is secondary to the plot and character arcs. Rather the exact opposite of most films that are made today. In that respect, the film is a curio. There are no action scenes, no stunts, no visual effects, just a story, told with characters in a drama set over the course of one evening.

Based on a Broadway play it naturally has the feel of something being performed on a stage. There is a sort of unreality about it that, with its film noir sensibilities, gives the film a curious atmosphere of a police procedural via the Twilight Zone. KIrk Douglas is as intense as ever- perhaps too intense, but that is perhaps because his character is as much damaged goods as anyone else, his character crumbling as he rushes headlong towards his inevitable destruction.

Much like The Naked Jungle, the sexual undertones and sensibilities of the film betray its age and era. The McLeods are happily married, albeit struggling to conceive a baby, but this apparent idyl is on shaky foundations- when his wife admits to having had an abortion in her past, the social stigma and its impact on the detective’s black and white worldview of absolutes cannot cope. Suddenly she is a tramp, as if the knowledge she wasn’t a virgin on their wedding night invalidates the whole marriage- she was used goods, just as Charlton Heston’s character rages in The Naked Jungle. In that film, it is at least inferred that he too is a virgin (as unintentionally funny the idea of Heston playing a virgin might seem to viewers now). Detective Story rather skirts this, as McLeod is clearly a man of the world and hardly subject to the same restrictions/moral limitations as women are in that world. However, the inferred betrayal, and its impact, inevitably lead to Mcleod’s end. Right and wrong, good and evil, are absolutes for McLeod; all criminals must pay for their crimes, regardless of their circumstances- it is something he ‘learned’ from his own terrible father and how he treated McLeods mother.

detect3If McLeod ever ‘sees the light’ it is only in the face of his own destruction. His wife has left him, knowing he cannot shake his moral beliefs or give her a second chance. But seeing the love of a young woman for a young first-time offender that he was previously adamant had to be prosecuted, McLeod tells his colleagues to the criminal go. He gives the man the second chance he refused his own wife, and as he draws his last breath the two lovers flee the Precinct… love conquers all after all, for a precious few at least.

 

 

Happy 36th, Saturn 3

Dedicated to Gregory Moss and all the bad films that some of us love

Sometime back in 1980, or maybe 1981 (its over 30 years ago, anyway) I found a hardback copy of the Saturn 3 novelization in my local library. I knew of the film from reading mags like Fantastic Films and Starburst, and while I hadn’t seen the film, I knew from the reviews the film was pretty dire. Curious, I took the book out and read it, and was surprised to find that I really enjoyed it. It was an interesting piece of science fiction with a Frankenstein theme, about a robot going rogue on a distant science station near Saturn. It even had a surprisingly bleak (well, bittersweet, anyway) ending that I found quite poignant.

Some years later, I caught the film on its first network tv screening. Alas, the book that I remembered  was far better than the film.

sat1

So here we are, decades later, and Saturn 3 has a very minor part in sci-fi film history, I’m sure it’s mostly been forgotten, rarely even turning up on late-night tv. But even films like Saturn 3 have fans; there’s certainly no shame in it- indeed, there are several bad/unpopular films that I really like, although I don’t count Saturn 3 among them. I don’t think anyone consciously makes a bad film, and it’s nice to think that all that effort spent on a bad film somehow gets rewarded by someone somewhere being a fan.

Fellow blogger Gregory Moss, whose opinions I value is a big fan of Saturn 3 and created a website about the film and its troubled history. Even people who love the film have to admit that Saturn 3 is one of those films where the behind the scenes story is actually more interesting and rewarding than the film itself. When a special blu ray edition was being planned in America, the discs producers hired Greg to record a commentary track for the disc. Smart move, really- a knowledgeable and enthusiastic fan can give a better commentary track than a film’s producer or director, particularly if they’d rather forget the film completely than share in how they got everything so very wrong.

Unfortunately for me, the disc would be Region A, and here in the Region B UK I didn’t have a multi-region player.However, a few months ago Greg announced on his blog that a German label had licensed both the film and the American discs special features for a release in Region B-freindly Germany. I immediately ordered it; a handsome steelbook edition with a price that was actually quite reasonable. Saturn 3 is a film I would never ordinarily buy, and I’d rarely if ever have the urge to rewatch it, but I was really curious about Greg’s commentary track. Maybe there is something about a fellow geek’s love of a movie that gets other geeks eager to share in it, I don’t know. Maybe it was the nostalgic pull of a film more than 35 years old, a film from that other age that was my youth, a film as old as my teenage self feels distant.

Here’s a curious fact; Saturn 3 was released on February 15th, 1980. It shares my birthday (the day, not the year, you understand); so this year on the day that Saturn 3 celebrates its 36th birthday, I’m celebrating my 50th (as if anyone ever really celebrates being 50 years old). So happy 36th, Saturn 3.

sat2

Films were different in 1980. Science fiction films especially so. Back in 1980, the shadow of Star Wars loomed large over science fiction films. It is nowhere more obvious that Saturn 3 dates back to 1980 than in its opening shot; a star-field is broken by a giant spaceship (spacestation?) that passes by overhead slowly filling the screen. Its as if the producers thought every sci-fi film had to start like that ionic opening from Star Wars (demonstrated by Alien too, just several months before). Unfortunately the visual effects of Saturn 3 were pretty dire even by 1980 standards- today they are horrible reminders of how truly special the special effects of ILM and Trumbulls EEG were back then.

Looming larger over Saturn 3 than even Star Wars is Ridley Scott’s Alien, released several months earlier in the summer of 1979. It seems that everything that Alien gets right, Saturn 3 gets wrong. Scott struggled himself getting decent effect shots completed for Alien, limited by the technologies available this side of the Atlantic, but got away with it with careful photography, shooting around the limitations set on him (Scott shot many of the effects himself). Saturn 3 fails spectacularly- the miniatures are terrible, they are shot terribly, they are composited terribly (grain is everywhere, mattes fail  and stars bleed through some of the spaceships, there’s all sorts of errors that abound).

More importantly, Scott knew that his film would succeed or fail simply with its title character. Luckily he stumbled upon, by way of Dan O’Bannon, H R Gigers disturbing art and a team was assembled with Giger to create one of, if not the, most successful movie monsters of all time. Even then Scott knew he had to be careful to shoot around the creatures limitations lest it be revealed to be, ultimately, a tall thin guy in a rubber suit.

Hector, the giant humanoid robot of Saturn 3 that goes rather awry, is in fact a  pretty good piece of design. It certainly looks authentic and the fact it lacks anything like a human face (or robotic approximation of one) works in its favour. But even its biggest fans will admit that it suffers from the technology of the day. You can always tell that the film is being edited around whatever workable footage the crew could get, and if rumours are to be believed, it was largely those difficulties shooting the robot that exasperated the actors and got the first director fired.

The story of John Barry’s involvement in Saturn 3 and ultimate exit from the project is a sad one that I won’t go into here (see Greg’s website for more). My own most personal link with Saturn 3 is John Barry and the news of his passing that I read in Starburst at the time. For a teenage geek like me who loved movies, John Barry was something of a minor hero. Its funny thinking back on it now, but back then I knew the names of costume designers and effects guys like my school friends knew and idolised football players. So when I read the news of his passing and what happened to him with Saturn 3, it was very sad, and I cannot think of Saturn 3 without feeling that sadness and remembering him. It’s easy for me to state that John Barry deserved better, that perhaps if Saturn 3 was a smaller film with a cast of unknowns with less egos involved, that he might have stayed with the production and it ended up a better film. But this is the real world in which great production designers don’t necessarily make great directors and where films only get greenlit with ‘name’ actors attached, and time is money in film-making and difficult shoots require difficult decisions.

sat5As it is, Saturn 3 is a pretty bad film that hasn’t aged at all well, but it is an enduring reminder of how beautiful Farrah Fawcett was. She’s actually cast well as Alex and the part suits her- there is an innocence and other-worldliness to her that comes across, but I don’t think she looks particularly comfortable at times with co-star Kirk Douglas as her lover Adam. Her casting as a love interest with the-then-64 year-old Douglas is astonishing really. I don’t think a film would get away with it these days but it isn’t just a casting oddity; the age gap is in the script. I think her character is actually supposed to be younger than Fawcett was at the time (33 I think), she certainly seemed younger to me in the novel, as I remember.

A remarkably fresh-faced Harvey Keitel is in fine form as the snake that enters Eden, but his performance is hampered by being dubbed over throughout the film by English actor Roy Dotrice – although I am tempted to suggest the strangeness of his voice being so ‘off’ actually helps the film in a way. Captain Benson is clearly odd and deranged and his voice not matching the face we know so well just makes him even more untrustworthy and suspicious.

sat4Kirk Douglas is fascinating; there are all sorts of real-world subtexts going on in the background of the films storyline. Here is a once-major star at the tail end of his Hollywood career clearly in denial of (or indeed raging against) his own age/mortality/twilight career. I mean, he’s in love scenes with the pin-up girl of the 1970s who is more than 30 years younger than he is. Funnily enough, Douglas spends more time with less clothes on than Fawcett, which is either very brave or foolhardy considering his age (maybe he still thought he was Spartacus). The dark side of me thinks it was the casting of Fawcett that got Douglas into signing on for the film, which adds another layer to the already rather dark subtext of all the characters in the film lusting over Alex. Adam is in a long-term loving relationship with her, even though their age difference makes it look ill-judged, Keitel’s Captain Benson brazenly and openly admits he wants to have recreational sex with her (and even seems to try to ply her with drugs), and once Benson’s brainwaves are programmed into Hector, the robot wants her too.

It’s bizarre and disturbing; in Alien, the creature simply wants to kill, but here, well, I’m not sure exactly what Hector has planned for Alex but it surely isn’t pleasant and is likely worse than simply just killing her. It’s HAL 9000 with a libido for goodness sake. Makes me wonder if the film-makers knew what they were getting into in the first place. This film really could have gone dark places but it isn’t that kind of film at all, which undermines the entire thing. Replacement director Stanley Donen (the films producer) was more familiar with musicals and lacked the ability to maintain much suspense. Comparisons here between Saturn 3 and Alien are even more striking- Alien is a brutal masterclass in tension but Saturn 3 is very, very weak. Which is odd really, as what Hector has planned for Alex is much worse than what the Alien has planned for Ripley. Imagine what someone like David Fincher could do with this kind of stuff, or Cronenberg.

You see, that’s the damned thing with Saturn 3– there’s a sense that there is, somewhere, a very good film here. With better effects, a more balanced script, a better director, maybe a less star-studded cast, who knows? (Who am I kidding all thats a completely different movie!). The whole twisted sex thing with Alex caught between an old man/father figure, a young creep and a deranged robot is an adult and challenging subject matter that deserved an adult thriller. Maybe even something as dark and adult as Body Heat. Imagine if Saturn 3 turned out like some kind of noir-ish ‘Body Heat in space’. Now there would be an interesting movie, even with the cast it has. Something hotter, darker, psychological.

But mainstream sci-fi films didn’t do that sort of thing in 1980 (indeed I don’t think they would be allowed to do that sort of thing even now), so Saturn 3 certainly isn’t that kind of movie. At the very least it needed to be as thrilling and intense as Alien, even if just a robot-on-the-loose kind of thing, but it falls way, way short. It’s a pretty bad film really, but yeah, it does have its fans. So I’ll join them today in raising a toast to this bad movie- Happy 36th, Saturn 3; you could have been a bloody disturbing movie.  And I’ll spare a thought for John Barry, and the film he actually wanted Saturn 3 to be. Barry’s Saturn 3 wouldn’t have been the dark sexual thriller I think it could have been. It might have been better.

Maybe the remake will be that disturbing movie. I’m thinking of that line at the end of Robocop; “they can fix everything,” only more along the lines of “they can remake everything” Yeah, even the clunkers like Saturn 3. Its only a matter of time, right?

Tell the truth: Ace In The Hole (1951)

aceWell, unlike The Lost Weekend, a blu-ray that languished on a shelf here for well over a year, this disc I watched pretty much as soon as it arrived. I’d been looking forward to it since it came up for pre-order months back. I recall first watching this film many years ago on a late-night showing on BBC2. Not knowing what I was in for, I remember it seemed quite shocking. Back then I think I believed all Billy Wilder films (thanks to having seen The Apartment, Some Like It Hot etc),  were comedies- the joke was on me in this case. The only humour in Ace In The Hole is in its very grim and dark ironies- it is a brutal, cynical film set in a broken America and as far removed from Wilder’s later comedies as one can imagine.

When does news become entertainment, when does it become its own mad circus? While it is true that the world of Ace In The Hole is history now, the importance and dominance of printed newspapers fading away,  its core message is as important as ever- indeed perhaps even more relevant now in this world of 24-hour news channels competing for exclusives and advertising revenue than it was back when it was made. Its hard to believe that Ace In The Hole was released in 1951- it seems quite prophetic and concerned with our own present-day.

ace2Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), a world-weary big-city reporter  whose career is in tatters, finds himself stuck in lonely middle-of-nowhere Albuquerque, where he finds work for a local newspaper. Tatum scoff’s at the embroidered legend ‘Tell the truth‘ on the office wall. Tatum is convinced it is only a matter of time until he finds a big story that can resurrect his career and get him back into the big-leagues again.

A year passes, and the increasingly frustrated Tatum finally stumbles on his big story. A local man has been been trapped in a cave-in while scavenging Indian relics. Tatum works up a scheme to keep the man trapped  longer than truly needed in order heighten the drama and newsworthiness of the rescue attempt. The corrupt local sheriff  assists Tatum’s plot in return for Tatum writing him up as a selfless hero in order to help his winning an upcoming election. Even the man’s wife agrees to help Tatum, as she sees the resultant publicity and money as her way out of her marriage while she plays the dutiful tearful wife of the trapped man.

Ace4Soon the developing story engineered by Tatum becomes a huge National event, people from all over the country arrive to witness it first-hand, radio crews set-up to broadcast regular bulletins and the attention of the big national newspapers falls at last onto Tatum so he can strike his big deal. Unaware that its mostly all a lie, everyone wants the story and cynically there are plenty willing to somehow profit from it. The once remote, dead-end town transforms into a literal carnival. Special trains are put on to get the public there, a music band sells sheets of music describing the poor man’s plight, a circus arrives to entertain the tourists while they await the outcome of the rescue attempt. All the while Tatum is the centre of attention. But the happy ending Tatum is planning (a big job back in New York after the trapped man is rescued) starts to go awry as events start to spiral out of his control.

Douglas has never been better than he is here, possibly the performance of his career. His Chuck Tatum is horribly realistic and convincing whilst utterly repulsive and deplorable. He dominates the film and every scene he is in, his amoral character corrupting everyone around him in order to perpetuate the story he is selling. The film is clearly just as much a film-noir as Wilder’s earlier Double Indemnity. The script is as sharp as you would expect from a Wilder film, with some mouth-watering dialogue and the editing is superb, ratcheting up the tension admirably.  The conclusion is as inevitable as it is perfect, the final shot a classic moment.

Its likely one of Billy Wilder’s greatest films, which is certainly saying something considering the company it keeps. But it was without doubt a film before its time. Too cynical? Too dark and negative about the broken American Dream? Whatever the reason,  it simply didn’t find its audience, proving something of a damaging flop for Paramount at the time (so much so that profits from Wilder’s subsequent film, Stalag 17, had to be used to balance the books for Ace In The Hole). But over the years its reputation has deservedly improved. Its a fascinating and endlessly rewarding film.