Point Blank’s unreliable narrator

pointbcPoint Blank, 1967, 92 mins, Blu-ray

There is something very, very odd regards John Boorman’s crime drama Point Blank, mostly because it doesn’t make much sense at all. A (deliberately) disjointed prologue shows anti-hero Walker (Lee Marvin) being double-crossed by Mal Reece (John Vernon), shot at point blank range and  and left for dead in a cell in abandoned Alcatraz. We thereafter see Walker recover, wander as if in a daze around Alcatraz and then step into the waters of the bay to swim over to San Francisco. Its something frankly preposterous, especially for a man critically injured by gunshots.

Later, we see Walker half-undressed and he bears no scars of bullet-wounds at all. I commented to my wife regards this, questioning was it a continuity error, or a lack of attention to detail,  but I suppose all this leads to the question that has concerned viewers of the film for decades: did Walker actually die in that prison cell when he was shot, or perhaps did he drown in the bay? Is everything we witness post-shooting actually the fantasy of a dying man (I’m reminded of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, another film with an unreliable narrator, with many reading most of that film’s narrative as the opium- fuelled dream of Noodles (Robert de Niro)). Or instead is Walker, every time we see him after being shot, literally a vengeful ghost, the film a horror story dressed up as neo-noir? Indeed, a few times we see him advised/courted by Yost (Keenan Wyn) a mysterious character who weirdly drifts in and out of the proceedings; appearing and disappearing – we are led to believe he is a federal agent (at least, that was my first impression, Yost seeking Walker’s help in taking down ‘The Organisation’ protecting Reece) but Yost could perhaps be seen as a guardian Angel (or Demon?) guiding Walker on his path of supernatural revenge, feeding him information.

Its really a very peculiar film, quite disorientating even today- goodness knows what the response was back in 1967 (the film eventually proved a cult hit over the years and highly regarded but its odd structure and narrative concerned the studio and initial audiences). I’m pretty confident I’ll enjoy it more on subsequent viewings but this first time around, I was quite taken aback by its curious, almost Lynchian sense of time out of joint (some scenes are literally edited out of sequence, it seems) and being subject to an unreliable narrator who may be dead, or may be dreaming. I’m still not certain what to think. Its notable also just how, well, European-arthouse it looks, with all sorts of curious angles and camera set-ups that only intensify the sense of unreality that pervades the film.

There is definitely an impression that this is a film distinctly of its time- back when Old Hollywood, under the continuing threat of television, was changing into what would become the American Cinema of the 1970s, the rather auteur, sometimes quite radical movies such as Taxi Driver, Klute, The Exorcist, The Godfather, and Apocalypse Now and so many others, before that itself began to transform into the corporate Hollywood we are living with today. Watching Point Blank‘s rather surreal narrative I found myself thinking of The Swimmer, released just a year later. Both are so strange one cannot imagine them being made the decade before or the decade after.

Point Blank was based on a book “Hunter” by Richard Stark that also served as inspiration for the Mel Gibson-starring Payback from 1999, a film I really enjoyed (especially in its directors Cut version)- Payback has a more routine, dare I say reliable, narrative and I really must get that Blu-ray out for a rewatch sometime soon. It will be fascinating to compare the two very different approaches to the same revenge story. I also find obvious similarities between Point Blank and Get Carter from 1971 that I watched a short time ago, another more routine revenge tale when compared to John Boorman’s film.

Snowy Spaghetti

great3The Great Silence (Il Grande Silenzio), 1968, 105 mins, Blu-ray

It started with Ennio Morricone, as it so often does. He composed music for so many films and television series (over 400) that its probably a familiar tale. Over a decade ago, when I was collecting CD soundtracks during a period when so many expansions and remasters were being released, and I delved into Morricone’s work, I bought many CDs utterly blind, generally based on recommendations online. You could listen to Morricone’s music without any prior knowledge of the films/television shows that it was composed for, and indeed even now, much of Morricone’s music that I know exists for me utterly independent of whatever it was composed for. Haunting music such as his score for The Red Tent/La Tenda Rossa exists for me utterly independent of its film (which reminds me, I really should attend to that).  One of the scores I bought was Il Grande Silenzio/The Great Silence, a Western that I had otherwise never heard of. Its score wasn’t really like any of Morricone’s other Western scores that  I knew- it’s a far cry from his Leone Western scores, for instance, an utterly different beast- it had a strange, haunting quality; somewhat moody, grim and driven.

Well, now I now why. My goodness, The Great Silence is bleak. It’s monstrously bleak. It’s ending -sorry, but we have to discuss its ending- is such a downer that I actually mumbled “what?!” when I realised it was actually the end and that there wouldn’t be another reel to set things right. I mean, that’s how it usually happens in movies –  the hero suffers or fails but he then recovers and makes things right, gives us a satisfying ending. There’s no satisfaction to The Great Silence‘s conclusion.: its frustrating and horrible and yes, its perfect in its way and I guess its the ending that The Great Silence was always relentlessly heading towards but all the same…. is the title of the film a reference to its main character or to the sound of the audience numb with surprise as the end credits roll?

I’ve seen bleak endings to films. That last shot of  Gilliam’s Brazil is utterly perfect but its hardly one to put smiles on audience faces, its intellectually perfect but nonetheless a gut punch to a viewers hopes. The Great Silence‘s conclusion is just like that. But goodness, its as bitter and cold and bleak as the film’s beautifully terrifying snow-swept landscapes. But what a magnificent piece of work.

great4I can’t say that I’m a huge admirer of what we refer to as Spaghetti Westerns, a sub-genre of the Western that references European films, mostly made in Italy hence the ‘spaghetti’ reference and immortalised chiefly by the films of Sergio Leone: A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West and Duck, You Sucker!/A Fistful of Dynamite.  There’s something amateur about many of them, likely stemming from the awful dubbing that often distracts me horribly. Indeed, I watched a few months back director Sergio Corbucci’s Django, which was a film he made a few years prior to The Great Silence. Django was a hugely popular film and quite influential, but it still left me a little cold. Ha, that’s quietly ironic considering the setting and denouement of The Great Silence.

But I will say this- The Great Silence informs Django, looking back on it. The Great Silence is a far better, far more mature work. Back when I saw Django -and hey, how is it possible it was as far back as last September when I watched that?- I noticed that Corbucci was considered with some reverence online and I couldn’t figure out why, but I can now. I can see, watching this later film, possibly what Corbucci was aiming for in Django. Sure, some of it is obvious, the mud (Django may be the dirtiest-looking film ever made) clearly a substitute for the snow he couldn’t afford at the time, but in the graphic violence and bleakness its clearly a precursor to what he achieved in The Great Silence.

greatsilencebluraySo what’s The Great Silence actually about, I hear you wondering. In the bitterly-cold Utahn mountains during the Great Blizzard of 1899, bounty-hunters are running amok, making fortunes by hunting down innocent citizens wrongly brandished as outlaws and criminals by the corrupt banker Henry Pollicut (Luigi Pistilli). A widow hires a mute gunfighter, Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), to revenge her dead husband who has been killed by Tigero (Klaus Kinski) a psychopath who clearly enjoys killing, preferring to shoot his quarry dead rather than take the option of capturing his bounties alive.

From that summary you can likely assume how the plot of the film would usually go, but The Great Silence is instead a very subversive piece of work which counters such expectations. Its dark and frustrating and really rather perfect in how it undermines what you would expect it to be. The landscapes are powerfully used, and beautifully shot, and Morricone’s score is haunting and lyrical and imbued with a sadness that in hindsight should have clued me in to what I was watching. Its far from the operatic ode to American cinema that runs through Leone’s work- this is something else, something clearly European, possibly predating the American westerns revisionism that would follow in the next decade (arguably culminating with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in 1992).

The Great Silence is a mesmerising piece of work and something of a masterpiece indeed. On first viewing I can’t say I appreciated the darkness of its ending but thinking back upon it, it clearly makes the film more interesting than what a more traditional ending of the film would be. It clearly confounds audience expectations, though, and this is obviously why  the film wasn’t well-received back in 1968. Corbucci actually appreciated this would be the likely outcome, shooting alternate, happier endings that are included in Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray disc, but they come out of nowhere, countering everything that comes before and so don’t at all work (they are much worse than the tacked-on ending of the original theatrical cut of Blade Runner). The film is just what it is, and thankfully those alternate endings were never used, and their inclusion on disc just reinforces how wrong they are and how right the film is. I’m sure when I watch the film for a second time it will be much more satisfying.

Masters of Cinema’s lovely-looking Blu-ray has several interesting special features that I’ve been delving into, and three audio commentaries that I really want to listen to sometime if ever I get the chance. Clearly the film has become rightly well-regarded over the years since its first release. There is something beautiful in its darkness.

great1

Riding to the undiscovered country

ca3Ride the High Country, 1962, 92 mins, Blu-ray

I’m not the biggest fan of westerns. Maybe I saw just too much of John Wayne growing up, but the myth of the American West that Hollywood and early television was both fascinated by and creative of, the good guys and bad guys, the nobility of the gun, the racist view of Native Americans, the freshly laundered and pressed shirts and jeans… its the stuff of parody and farce and maybe a little distasteful too. The reality of the West had little if any part in the Hollywood films, whose stories were the stuff of reassuring fables in just the same way, I suppose, as the early cop shows, stories where the cops were righteous and good, and the criminals always got caught ( I well remember the consternation when UK crime series The Sweeney aired in the 1970s and sometimes episodes ended with the criminals escaping justice, leaving the police thwarted and powerless: a far cry from how Kojak, Columbo and Starsky and Hutch were getting along).

What I’m getting at is, I can see the appeal of those Westerns of the 1940s and 1950s, the technicolour vistas, the sense of freedom, the popularity of the simple good versus evil plots… after all, that was the same initial appeal of Star Wars in 1977 to the mass general public, and I recall the wise observation at the time (by who, I cannot remember) that Star Wars was the first Western set in space- because that was what it was. While George Lucas obviously has one eye on the Flash Gordon serials he had the other on the simplistic Westerns that had faded in popularity through the 1960s and largely disappeared by the 1970s. But the Westerns that I gravitated to came after the Old Hollywood variety had largely had their day- I loved the Leone films, the Dollars trilogy, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, and films like The Outlaw Josey Wales. They had a  decidedly shady sense of morality, a tactile sense of dirt and reality, that totally ripped apart the tidy old Hollywood Western tropes (even if the Leone films were actually his love-letters to American Cinema).

Sam Peckinpah was a director whose life is as fascinating as any of his films, and who became famous (or infamous) for his increasingly revisionary and violent Westerns.  It is telling, however, that Ride the High Country is markedly different – and indeed, its quite alarming, almost, to consider the shift in tone between this film and his next – the ill-fated Major Dundee. One can read -and of course many have- Ride the High Country as a clear marker of the shift from the western of Old Hollywood towards those that were coming thereafter.

Indeed, the film almost feels like a pause for breath prior to the era of the Spaghetti Westerns; its a reflective film that considers both the end of an era (we see automobiles starting to replace horse-drawn carriages, and uniformed police walking the streets replacing the law of the gun), and perhaps also the end of a certain kind of Western film/adventure. Aging lawman Steve Judd (Joel McCrea), taking a risky job transporting gold from a mining camp up in the mountains down to the bank in a burgeoning town, bumps into an old pal, Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) and recruits him to help him in the risky enterprise. Westrum has been reduced to featuring in a carnival show that promotes the myth of the West, perhaps a commentary about the fake narrative that popular authors and Hollywood would continue thereafter. Westrum has a young sidekick Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) who he brings along for added security during the perilous trip back with the gold, but unknown to Judd, Westrum actually intends with the help of Longtree to abscond with the gold himself for one final payday. What he feels he is owed having been left with little to mark for his years in the West.

Along the way up to the mining camp, the two old men consider their past and the changing world around them. They feel, as many reaching maturity of middle-age do, a sense of not belonging, of disenfranchisement from the changing world they find themselves in. They share stories of the Old West, and those they knew who have mostly died with that Old West. They might as well be reminiscing about old movies: the two actors McCrea and Scott were Western stars of old, a sense of meta-reality leaking into the film in just the same way as the revisionary Unforgiven acted as a swansong/commentary for both Eastwood the actor of so many Western films as well as its narrative’s lead character William Munny. One almost has to wonder; are McCrea and Scott’s characters recounting tales of their past in-narrative lives or those of characters the actors played in decades-old Western movies-  as someone not at all familiar with those films, it doesn’t make much difference, it could be either and the film still functions the same. All this lends Ride the High Country some added weight, and indeed its general plot is arguably inconsequential to its considerations of integrity and morality and the passing of the West, both the real in-narrative one and and the mythical West of McCrea and Scott’s old films. Its a lovely film, even if it feels like one awkwardly positioned between eras, and McCrea and Scott are both excellent.

Along the way to the mining camp they arrive at a remote farmstead run by Joshua Knudsen (R.G. Armstrong, a veteran of 1960s and 1970s television and even an appearance in Predator) and his frustrated daughter Elsa (Mariette Hartley) who runs away from her strictly religious and disciplinarian father, seeing an opportunity to tag along with the cowboys up to the mining camp where her unlikely fiancé Billy Hammond works. I used to have something of a crush on Hartley when growing up, from her guest appearance in an episode of the ’60s Star Trek show, and she is very good here as a foolish, sheltered young girl on the cusp of womanhood who is destined for a sudden growing-up lesson when she learns her Billy is a disreputable lout whose brothers seem to think they have as much right to bed their new sister-in-law as her husband does, her wedding day quickly turning into a nightmare. Realising her mistake she rushes back to the safety of Judd, whose moral code ensures he will protect her while the more pragmatic Westrum is more concerned with the gold. Pursued by the Hammonds and with Judd inevitably betrayed by Westrum, the film ends in a deadly gunfight in which a reconciled Judd and Westrum battle the Hammonds, who have murdered Elsa’s father and staged a trap at her home.

One of the men is redeemed, and the other embarks on one final journey to an undiscovered country, having vindicated his moral code one last time. Ride the High Country is a very good film, lovingly shot and with a very fine cast in top form. Its story is very entertaining but its the films position in the pantheon of the Western genre, and the meta-narrative of its aging stars of Westerns of old and the director who would soon play his own part in transforming the Western forever, that makes it particularly interesting and rewarding.

Major Dundee Part Two

majcvrDuring the American Civil War, an unspecified incident at Gettysburg has resulted in Major Amos Dundee (Charlton Heston) side-lined in charge of a prison in remote Eastern New Mexico. Frustrated and feeling ill-done by the ignominy of his position, he latches onto a series of Apache raids which have culminated in a massacre near the prison as an opportunity to salvage his reputation. Abandoning his charged duty in order to gather a motley force of Union volunteers, Confederate prisoners ‘encouraged’ to volunteer, and local thieves and drunks, to hunt down and kill the Apache Indian chief Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate) and his warriors, while also rescuing three children captured in the latest Apache attack. As he chases the Apache bandits across the border into Mexico, he then also has to contend with being horribly out-numbered by thousands of French troops that are also in Mexico and threaten him as a foreign transgressor. Either Dundee returns as a conquering hero or he will be facing probable court-martial and infamy.

Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee is, as I discussed in Part One of this review, a flawed film that under better circumstances might have been a masterpiece: its premise is a fascinating study of the Old West and the ills of American military intervention and hubris (quite timely bearing in mind the film was made and released as the Vietnam War was escalating). The film is full of interesting characters and blessed by a very strong cast which, as well as Heston, includes Richard Harris, James Coburn, Jim Hutton, Michael Anderson Jr., Brock Peters, Warren Oates, and Ben Johnson. Visually it is very impressive, with the wide-open vistas typical of the best Westerns, and authentic-looking sets and costumes. Its darkly cynical central viewpoint echoes that of Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns but with its American cast and locations it looks rather like a John Ford movie.

Unfortunately, its becomes pretty clear as the film progresses that when it started filming, the script wasn’t actually finished, and as the film goes on, it progressively falls apart. The cast is very large with many characters. Richard Harris’ Confederate Captain Benjamin Tyreen is a perpetual thorn in Dundee’s side- the men have a long history together dating back to their youth at West Point, a friendship broken by the Civil War and Tyreen choosing the ‘other side.’ Dundee’s band of solders includes several negro solders (including Brock Peters as Aesop) that leads to inevitable friction between the Confederate prisoners and black solders in Union uniform. Actress Senta Berger as Teresa joins the film at its midpoint, a supremely unlikely romantic thread suddenly appearing as if from some other movie, quickly dismissed to little narrative point at all. Sub-plots regards an out of his depth rookie officer, a possibly untrustworthy Indian scout, and a Confederate who tries to desert, add to the busy mix.  

With so many characters and narrative arcs being set up, it would have proved difficult for even a fully-realised script to maintain them all into a properly balanced film, but left unfinished, it results in character arcs set up in the first third being left unresolved, and some character decisions in the last third coming out of nowhere and frustratingly undeserved. Its really very frustrating that there is such a great film in here, if only it had been made in better circumstances, and its evident that too much was left unwritten, too much left un-filmed, and the film cobbled together in an editing room from which Peckinpah himself was excluded, with some stunts and violence being excised to appease the studio heads only further damaging its awkward finale. Even more damning, the film was saddled with a terribly ill-judged score with a vocal march/theme that undermines everything Peckinpah likely intended, almost making the film a parody, comical ‘stings’ whenever Apaches turn up onscreen more suited to an episode of the 1960s Batman tv series.

However, a restoration just after the millennium left an extended version (on disc one of this set) being the way to watch and discover the film, restoring ten to fifteen minutes of footage and replacing that horrible music score. It remains far from the roadshow epic the film was originally intended to be, but much superior to the theatrical version that resides on this set’s second disc: I watched some of this and was quite appalled. The extended version is far from perfect, but its clearly much improved from the film audiences saw on its original presentation, and I really enjoyed the film, for all its faults. Sometimes the problems within flawed films only add to their allure, their fascination, and that’s possibly the case with Major Dundee. I suppose much of the interest in the film derides from director Peckinpah’s later films and naturally the films disastrous production, rather than the actual quality of the film itself, but really, in the extended version its not a bad film at all, rather its a flawed one with suggestions of greatness. Regardless of Peckinpah’s part in the proceedings, Heston (who actually had forgone his own salary for the picture, doing it for nothing in order to keep Peckinpah on, at least until filming was finished as best it could) is always worth watching: one of those iconic stars of the screen his casting is both perfect and ironic, considering the flaws in his character. 

Django (1966)

django1I’m not one for spaghetti westerns- other than this one, I don’t think I’ve seen any that hadn’t been directed by Sergio Leone. The only thing I really knew about Django is that it was presumably the inspiration for Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012). Django apparently was the subject of some notoriety due to its excessive violence, which horrified people at the time, although today its cartoony theatrics seem dated and almost quaint. It was directed by Sergio Corbucci, who would afterwards direct another spaghetti western –The Great Silence (1968) – which was known to me through its Ennio Morricone soundtrack which I bought on CD back when I was having a binge on Morricone albums a few years ago. Curiously I have that film’s Blu-ray release through Master of Cinema on pre-order for a November release, so when I noticed the connection seeing Django pop up on my Amazon Prime recommendations list, I gave it a shot, thinking it might indicate what kind of film The Great Silence might be. 

Well, it was sort-of a pleasant surprise. The dubbing is typically atrocious, the dialogue is dire, the story is so paper-thin it doesn’t really make any sense (its some vague revenge plot) and the acting isn’t any great shakes either: so on that front, the film was no surprise whatsoever. But there was something appealing about it. I thought the production design was impressive; I mean, its clearly cheap but there’s something arresting about the wind-torn, muddy streets of a desolate town that seems to be literally sinking into the mud. Its like the end of the world as much as the end of the West.

Corbucci’s direction is no-nonsense and straight forward with no ambition towards the mythic, operatic qualities of Leone’s work, although Django (Franco Nero) could be seen as an Angel of Death in some corner of Hell. The cartoony violence prefigures that of the Rambo films that followed Stallone’s First Blood (Django despatches dozens of bad guys with a machine-gun hidden in a coffin that he drags around through the film, and hilariously the ammo-belt feeding the gun never moves). I presume it was this body-count that infuriated everyone back in the day, and its quite funny watching the various stuntmen/extras flailing around in exaggerated death throes generally minus any blood squibs going off or anything- for a film decried for its violence its not particularly graphic. Today a film like this would get a pass for its violence but would be roundly condemned for its treatment of women characters, all depicted as whores, subjected to being beaten by male characters (or whipped, even) and an indulgent,  lengthy sequence in which three of them are caught in a mud fight that serves nothing but the pleasure of male viewers. Its literally a film from some other age and makes any of Leone’s excesses seem quite tame (Leone of course came under fire for his own treatment of women in his films, particularly Once Upon A Time in America).

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.

The Cranes Are Flying (1957)

cranes1The best love stories are the sad ones, the ones of unrequited love or tragic love, the ones in which lovers do not skip happily into a rosy dawn or sultry sunset. What makes La La Land such a genuine pleasure (and its not lost on me, the strangeness of referencing La La Land when opening this review of Mikhail Kalatozov’s astonishing 1957 film), is that La La Land‘s ending is so bittersweet and tinged with such sadness, the lovers forever parted, the ending suddenly giving the film some meaning, some resonance, some weight, transforming everything we have seen before, its romantic, Hollywood-musical saccharine-soaked sweetness given sudden counterpoint.  There is no sweetness in The Cranes Are Flying, or if there is, its fleeting. This is a powerful and almost Shakespearean love story (I often thought of the doomed lovers of Romeo and Juliet during the film), and would be memorable if only for that. What makes the film a revelation, however, is in its execution, the sheer bravura on display in a richly cinematic experience.

The camerawork in this film is just breath-taking in its audacity. Sometimes it is breathlessly intimate, extreme close-ups with faces filling the frame, so much so you almost imagine you could feel their breath, and at others the camera lifts up and away, pulling back to reveal vast, crowd-filled scenes that spring to mind the work of Sergio Leone or David Lean. A few moments it almost pulled me out of the movie, mentally considering the difficulty in organising/rehearsing/executing such complex visual choreography. And then there are the other times, when the camera is like a thing alive, wildly kinetic and racing through scenes breathlessly, mirroring the emotional state of the character/s. 

It was a similar experience to first watching Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane so many years ago- the sense of witnessing consummate film-making, bold experimentation in story-telling, Pure Cinema.

It left The Cranes Are Flying feeling very modern, here in 2020. What it must have seemed like when it first came out and in the early 1960s, I cannot really fathom, but I can imagine it seemed quite astonishing.  In a sense, its a film out of time, permanently detached from when it was created: one of those films that we describe as timeless. Most films made today lack the creativity and imagination displayed in this films every frame. Maybe that’s just as well- if every film were made like this, it would be exhausting.

cranes4Even above this amazing film-making stands the intensely impressive performance of Tatiana Samoilova as Veronica, the lover left at home while her fiancé Boris (Alexi Batalov) goes off to war. Samoilova dominates the film, a performance which refuses to be overshadowed by that incredible camera. She is a dark beauty at times aloof and beguiling, at others dark and gloomy, at others a wild fury, but always she is enchanting. Something in her eyes, perhaps. In any case, its remarkable that she holds her own against all the impressive film-making at play throughout this film. I wonder what she was like in her other films.

The Cranes Are Flying is clearly one of my best discoveries of 2020; I am always heartened by making such discoveries, thinking of all those great films out there that I have not yet seen, and perhaps also a little sad realising all those great films I will never see.

So what is The Cranes Are Flying? As readers may have gathered, its a Russian film, made in the post-Stalin era in 1957, when film-makers were enjoying new creative freedom. The film is a romance, a tale of a love affair swept up in Russia’s headlong rush into war. Its well-written, with clearly defined characters and, as I have noted, breath-takingly shot. Nearly every scene is beautiful to look at, exquisitely framed. The two lovers, Veronica and Boris, are seen at the beginning of the film blissfully unaware of the doom fast approaching, and the world events that will tear them apart. After a night out together, morning has come, and as they walk the deserted streets towards home, they notice a flock of cranes flying, high in the sky, and plan another date which never comes. The framing of every shot hints at the care and attention attached to this film.

cranes2Their affair is no secret, but as if guilty of how late it is, they each furtively return to their respective family homes, and in the interactions with their family members the film perfectly establishes the various relationships and dynamics in economical fashion. War is coming, and out of patriotic duty, Boris enlists, much to his fathers horror. Veronica is perhaps last to learn. 

After a remarkably-shot sequence in which Boris and his fellow recruits gather to depart, and Veronica vainly rushes past tanks and through crowds to say goodbye, the film chiefly stays with Veronica and the home-front, only briefly switching across to Boris’ sobering experiences on the front line. It is clear that Veronica and her experiences are the focus of the film, rather than those of her lover. Partly this is to maintain the mystery that Veronica feels, unable to find news regards whether Boris is alive. Two seperate air-raids devastate Veronica; the first costing her her parents, the second her personal dignity at the hands of Boris’ cousin Mark who is obsessed with claiming Veronica for himself (this a particularly expressionist sequence which is one of the most impressive of any film I have ever seen, a purely cinematic representation of almost apocalyptic sexual violence and quite horrifying). Veronica is left broken and lost and yearning for her lover, suffering the many deprivations of the civilians back home as war threatens to ruin everything and everyone. 

cranes3When the end comes, its one that makes perfect sense, and totally works, even if it feels rather brutal and quite devastating. I’d vainly hoped for a positive outcome, and while the film manages to end with a life-affirming sentiment, nonetheless its quite tragic (“well, that was depressing” commented Claire as the last scene faded out). Its not the end that I imagine most viewers are hoping for, but its perfect, really, considering what has come before. One can’t just help wishing for one more scene, one final coda with a happier outcome. I wonder if The Cranes Are Flying is one of those films in which, on subsequent viewings, one always has that vain hope, in spite of the knowledge of how the film really ends, a forlorn wish that lingers against the reality. The best love stories rarely end well.

 

Last week…

Still working from home, close on six months now. As we slip towards Autumn, it looks like there’s little rush getting the team back into the office, at best it may be for just two days each week, and that’s still some time off.  Its not lost on me that after all the fair weather we’ve had, the time I’m going to finally be expected to commute back to work will be when the frosts return/bad weather/possibly snow etc.

Meanwhile Covid 19 numbers are climbing, particularly here in the Midlands, and our Governments latest desperate roll of the dice, the ‘rule of six’ (limiting the number of people at any social gathering to just six people) begins tomorrow. A rule that can’t possibly be policed,  simply dependant on the public happily following the rule… I mean, its not as if its Mega City One and some Judge will be kicking the door down if there’s more than six perps chatting in the lounge or back garden. Mores the pity with some of the idiots out there. Regards Covid, so many people seem to be in denial, or just bored of it, and think everything is back to normal. Hence the numbers rising? All I can see is lots of idiots out there, most of them proving the (ironically old) adage of too young to know better. The next few weeks seem to be crucial. The days are shortening. Winter is Coming. Hang on, that didn’t end well, just ask HBO.

Anyway, last week. You may have noted that I had a busy/productive week regards watching films: i’m thinking of ending things, Under Suspicion, Bumblebee, City That Never Sleeps, The Man Who Finally Died. I didn’t get around to reviewing Under Suspicion– a thriller starring Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Monica Bellucci, Thomas Jane… a great cast, but wasted in a pretty lousy film that almost had me hitting that abort button. Only the great Gene Hackman kept me stuck with it: one of my favourite actors.

ohmssRegards re-watches, I managed two. The first was one that…well, we lost Dame Diana Rigg on Thursday, which was an awful shame, and I’ve been meaning to watch On Her Majesty’s Secret Service again for awhile now. Its an awful reason for doing it, but Dame Diana Rigg’s passing was the push that I needed; I reached for that Bond 50 Blu-ray set. OHMSS is my favourite Bond movie; its the film when the Bond franchise grew up and yes, graced with the best Bond Girl of all, the one that got Bond to the altar. But what a downer at the end. This time I watched it, it just seemed so remarkable, such brass balls of the producers to close out a film -and a Bond film at that- on such a huge emotional downer. And in a film with a new Bond, too. Talk about loading the dice for a serious gamble, like a real-life Casino Royale moment. Dropping George Lazenby and breaking the continuity (OHMSS really needed such a proper sequel with Bond out for revenge) was a terrible error, I think, and it would take Bond decades to grow those brass balls again.

vertigo1The second re-watch was the 4K UHD disc of Vertigo, that graces the four-film Hitchcock 4K set that was released last week. The film looks utterly gorgeous in 4K, really something special. We’ve seen some great 4K releases for classic films this year and this is one of the best, I think. Mind, is it just me, but as I get older, does Vertigo on subsequent viewings just get more disturbing, and James Stewart’s obsessive Scottie more repellent?  As a deeply flawed character who proves difficult to root for, he reminds me of Robert De Niro’s character in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in America. The difficulty in revisiting films with such doomed, self-destructive characters is that you have to re-experience it all over again, with the knowledge of hindsight that the character itself obviously lacks. There seems something deeply personal, of both Leone and Hitchcock, in these two films, and I’m sure that’s part of each films endless fascination. Glimpses of flawed humanity’s darkness. Vertigo is such a powerful film, exquisitely filmed and scored (by the great Bernard Herrmann), and really so daring, its one of my favourite films and it feels a blessing to be able watch it again in this kind of quality. I’m building quite a collection of (hopefully definitive and final) editions of some of my favourite films in 4K, with some great additions this year.

dunetrailrLast week also brought us the first trailer for Villeneuve’s long-anticipated  Dune. Mind, it seems we will have to wait longer for the film itself, as word has it that the film will be delayed to next year now, with Wonder Woman 1984 being moved to the Christmas Day slot (Tenet‘s box-office woes causing much consternation for a troubled film industry struggling to manage the Covid crisis). Of course the Dune trailer looks great and pretty much everything we might have hoped for. I was a bit surprised that it looked, visually at least, like a Blade Runner 2049 sequel set Off World, it seems to share so much of the monochromatic, brutalist ‘look’ of his previous sci-fi epic. I’d hoped for something a bit wilder, more ‘out there’ and unusual, but we’ll see. There’s so much, after all, that we didn’t see.

Speaking of delays, news broke last week that Vangelis’ latest album, Juno to Jupiter, accidentally released on digital by a UK store over a weekend a few weeks back before being hurriedly pulled, has been officially delayed (again?). This is so frustrating, its a great album, one of his best in decades, but it seems so strangely (and unfairly) blighted by mishaps. Possibly its just a Covid thing effecting marketing etc, but I sincerely hope that perhaps this delay will facilitate a simultaneous physical and digital release, rather than the latter first (which was the original plan, and which possibly led to that premature release foul-up).  Its a great piece of work, and I was gearing up to finish my track-by-track review… well, I’ll just join the pack and let my review suffer another delay. Hey, its just so Covid, man.

I just hope that the Super-Deluxe of the Prince classic album Sign o’ the Times isn’t going to get delayed. Its only two weeks away now so seems to be all on track. Certainly review copies are out and some reviews have been released, track breakdowns on forums etc so my only worry is problems with stores getting stock out. Hope springs eternal- I’m actually on leave from work the week it gets released, and naturally I’m going nowhere, so the opportunity to just relax for a few lazy days, chill with that box of peach and black goodies is the nearest thing to Christmas I’m actually likely to see this year.

Legends of the Fall and the Shelf of Shame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Irishman

irish1I’m curious regards how people will remember The Irishman– whether it will be for the quality of the film itself, the remarkable cast laden with all sorts of cinematic baggage, the CGI employed in de-ageing said cast, or the fact that the film ended up pretty much straight onto Netflix as if it were some direct to video flick. I’m pretty sure all that ‘direct-to-video’ nonsense is hardly relevant now, as Netflix have put some pretty substantial films straight onto its servers, all sorts of films, some good (and some bad, its true) with all sorts of high-calibre names attached to them, but there’s still a feeling of shock and wonder that the latest Martin Scorsese film with THAT cast turned up on the telly last week. The times, they are a changin’.

Far as I was concerned, Netflix seems the perfect place for a film well over three hours long without men in capes or women in spandex and explosions going off every twenty minutes- is it wrong of me to suggest that there is no place for films like The Irishman in cinemas anymore but one has to wonder. Certainly watching it at home affords a greater degree of comfort and control over that running time- instead of dashing off to the gents and hoping we don’t miss anything, we can at least pause the stream (ahem, film, not that OTHER stream) for nature’s comforts and perhaps a fresh cup of tea, beer, whatever. And of course some of us have screens that give us a better image quality than some cinema screens anyway, and without distractions of mobile phones or bored chatting etc.

Regards the film itself, I have to confess strangely mixed feelings. Part of this is nothing really to do with the film at all, but rather the inevitable comparisons to old classics in the Scorsese filmography, particularly with the cast he has assembled. Surely its inescapable, particularly with both Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci involved, I mean there’s two huge movies casting their long shadows rights there, and there’s then the odd nostalgia of seeing De Niro and Al Pacino together in a film, harking back to Michael Mann’s classic Heat. Seeing all of them and the clear signs of the passing of years, it can’t help but be distracting. I mean, Harvey Kietel for crying out loud, who also shared the screen with De Niro in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, even manages a (understated) cameo. Its like this is a Greatest Hits package or something. How can a filmbuff not watch this film with equal parts thrills, giggles and horror?

And there’s the rub- there’s the feeling, for me at least, that this is not just a movie. There’s a kind of meta-reality going on here that feels almost as self-knowing as a Quentin Tarantino joint. Its good, but its also uneasy enough to give one pause.

Those comparisons to old classics are valid and telling, too. Goodfellas is the prime one, and its very interesting how much darker and melancholy The Irishman is. To me this new film carries the weight of mortality and time constantly, from the familiar mobster setting, the ghostly young faces of De Niro and company flitting like unworldly shadows of their past cinematic tales, and the relentless perspective of the End of All Things (so many characters appear onscreen alongside text describing the manner and dates of their deaths it almost feels like a running joke).

irishSo where this leaves me regards judging the film, I don’t really know. I did enjoy it, and I think I admired it more than loved it (Goodfellas was an easy thing, it was so much fun, but this film is darker, colder, more KNOWING, somehow). I really do think that, ironically (considering its length and rather morbid mood) that this film needs time. It needs repeat viewings and the benefit of time to digest it, imbue it with a perspective. Taken away from the CGI trickery and the Netflix hoopla, the film may get a reputation for itself, and hopefully one distanced from those echoes of other films. The cast are as one would hope, quite excellent. De Niro hasn’t been this good for years, and am I the only one looking at him in this and comparing it to Once Upon A Time in America? In that classic (and equally morbid and reflective) film, De Niro was young and the passing of in-film decades required that make-up made him look old- here he is old and requires trickery to make him young. Its the inverse of that old classic Leone film and quite fascinating to me. I couldn’t take my eyes of him. Pesci is a real surprise, and is clearly a better actor than I remembered him to be without the wild over-acting of his more excessive roles, he carries real weight in the under-stated performance here. Pacino is clearly having a ball, in what may likely be his last great role- not because he’s not capable of more of them, but that movies with such roles he deserves are so rare. Kietel is possibly wasted in what amounts to a cameo, but the cinematic weight behind him imbues his scenes with a kind of… I don’t really know what it is, but you can feel it, just seeing him and De Niro and Pesci at the table. Legends. Ghosts.

God only knows what this film will be like in ten, twenty years when some of these actors pass on. Already such a dark film and carrying all that weight of nostalgia, I cannot imagine what that future perspective will feel like.