The essence of Pleasence

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

Today is October 5th, 2019.  Donald Pleasence, one of my all-time favourite actors, was born on this day exactly 100 years ago

 

The distinctive Pleasence, with his domed and usually hairless head, his popping eyes and unsettling stare, and his alternatively smooth and sepulchral voice, was a peerless character actor.  Though he’s mainly remembered for his sinister roles, he could effortlessly inhabit a range of personas – characters who were pathetic, tragic, eccentric, obsequious and, occasionally, virtuous.

 

In celebration of the great man’s 100th birthday, here are 15 of the performances that for me most memorably capture the essence of Pleasence.

 

1984 (1954)

Controversial in its day, with questions raised about it in Parliament, the BBC’s mid-1950s version of George Orwell’s 1984 still has impact.  That’s largely due to its performances, most notably that of Peter Cushing playing Winston Smith.  But Pleasence is good too as Syme, the lexicographer enthusiastically working on Newspeak.  (“I’ve reached the adjectives at last!”)  Despite – or perhaps because of – his zeal for the Party, Syme ends up becoming an ‘unperson’.

 

The Flesh and the Fiends (1960)

John Gilling’s The Flesh and the Fiends is the cinema’s best take on the notorious Edinburgh duo of Burke and Hare, who in the early 19th century started selling cadavers to the dissection rooms of Edinburgh Medical School.  The problem was, Burke and Hare’s cadavers had had some assistance in dying.  Pleasence is loathsome as Hare, with atypically long, lank tresses, a battered stovepipe hat, a smirk and a maniacal gleam that shows he gets a perverse thrill out of murdering people.  As with the real-life Hare, following his arrest, he turns King’s evidence against his partner and gets released, though director Gilling adds an apocryphal scene where he’s blinded by torch-wielding vigilantes the moment he leaves the jail.

 

© Triad Productions

 

Hell is a City (1960)

For someone who made a lot of horror movies, Pleasence had surprisingly little to do with Britain’s Hammer Films, the studio most associated with the horror genre at the time.  Hell is a City is a Hammer movie, but ironically isn’t a horror one but a crime one – and by the standards of British cinema then, is surprisingly gritty.  Pleasence plays Gus Hawkins, a shady but sympathetic bookmaker whose wife gives him the run-around while she attends to the spiritual and physical needs of the film’s villain, a murderous criminal fleeing the law.  In the role of the duplicitous Mrs Hawkins is Billie Whitelaw, whom Pleasence killed in The Flesh and the Fiends, so I suppose there’s justice in that.

 

The Great Escape (1963)

Pleasence’s performance in The Great Escape culminates in one of the saddest scenes in cinema history.  He plays Colin Blythe, a genteel but unfortunate prisoner-of-war in the high-security Stalag Luft III who goes blind just before the inmates stage the mass break-out of the title.  However, Blythe has been befriended by an American pilot called Hendley, played by James Garner, who agrees to take him along when it’s his turn to escape from the camp.  All goes well and Hendley and Blythe manage to steal a German airplane and fly it towards Switzerland and freedom.  They get to within yards of the Swiss border when the plane suffers engine trouble and crashes.  Then, while the bloodied Hendley tries to gather his wits amid the plane wreckage, the sightless and disorientated Blythe stumbles off in the direction of an approaching German patrol.  One of the German soldiers raises his rifle…  I get a tear in my eye even thinking about what happens next.

 

Cul-de-sac (1966)

The Roman Polanski-directed Cul-de-sac has a surprisingly svelte Pleasance playing an artist shacked up with his gorgeous young wife (Francoise Dorleac, who was the sister of Catherine Deneuve and who died in a car accident in 1967) on an island off the English coast, which is actually Lindisfarne off Northumbria.  Their idyll ends one day when two criminals-on-the-run (Lionel Stander and Jack MacGowran) show up.  Things then become positively Beckettian as the villains wait, futilely, for their superiors to appear and rescue them.  Cul-de-sac is overlong, but is a haunting experience thanks to the gorgeous bleakness of its location and its black-and-white photography.  It also contains the bloodcurdling sight of Pleasence, whilst involved in some kinky horseplay with Dorleac, hurtling around in lipstick and a frock.

 

© Compton Films / Tekli British Productions

 

Fantastic Voyage (1966)

Your IQ must be lower than your shoe-size if you haven’t worked out within ten minutes that Pleasence is the foreign-agent saboteur among the crew in this colourful sci-fi epic about a submarine of medical experts being miniaturised and injected into the body of a dying scientist so that they can perform internal surgery on him.  Still it features a delightful scene near the end where Pleasence is devoured by a hungry white blood cell.  (Other great Donald death-scenes: getting mauled to death by a bear that’s obviously a stuntman wrapped up in a shaggy rug in 1960’s Circus of Horrors, and being ingested by a monster that’s half-human and half-Venus flytrap in 1974’s startlingly tacky The Mutations.)

 

You Only Live Twice (1967)

The James Bond film where we get to see Bond’s arch-nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld for the first time, You Only Live Twice has Pleasence playing him with all the accoutrements that popular culture associates with Blofeld – bald head, white jumpsuit, white cat, pool of piranhas for dropping incompetent minions into.  Mind you, the filmmakers immediately abandoned the template and cast two actors with very different appearances and personas, Telly Savalas and Charles Gray, as Blofeld in the next two Bond movies.  That, of course, didn’t stop Mike Myers from using the original Pleasence / Blofeld blueprint for his Dr Evil character in the later Austen Powers movies (1997-2002).

 

Wake in Fright (1971)

Nick Cave reckons Wake in Fright is the greatest Australian movie ever and I wholeheartedly agree.  It’s the tale of a young, bright and ambitious teacher (Gary Bond) who becomes increasingly desensitised and degenerate the longer he’s stranded in the macho outback town of Bundanyabba.  Pleasence plays Doc Tydon, an educated man who’s already plumbed the depths of ‘the Yabba’ and who becomes Virgil to Bond’s Dante, guiding him through the town’s various levels of hell.  The scene where a drunken Tydon sits on the porch of an outback pub and raves about “Socrates, affectability, progress” being “vanities spawned by fear”, before going berserk and smashing up the place, shows the mighty Donald at his most unhinged.

 

© American International Pictures

 

Deathline (1972)

Gary Sherman’s grisly and ahead-of-its-time horror movie Deathline has Pleasence playing Inspector Calhoun, a working-class copper investigating the disappearances of late-night travellers on the London Underground.  (Clue: it’s something to do with the last-surviving, cannibalistic descendent of a group of workers who were entombed by a cave-in while the Underground was being built in the 19th century.)  Calhoun isn’t really a nice character.  He’s sly, cynical, irascible and, as a boozy scene involving his only friend (Norman Rossington) shows, a nightmare to get out of the pub at closing time.  However, when he finally discovers the cannibal’s hideous subterranean lair, his exclamation – “What a way to live!” – suggests a feeling of empathy, even of kinship with the lonely creature.

 

The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water (1973)

1970s children’s television in Britain featured many short public-information films that used harrowing and graphic images to convince kids that it was not a good idea to play on railway tracks, inside electrical sub-stations, next to farm slurry pits, etc.  Pleasence lent his doomy tones to The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, which warns the little ‘uns to keep away from rivers, canals and ponds and is the most harrowing film of the lot.  He voices the titular spirit, a black, cowled figure who lurks in the misty background while a succession of stupid children – “the unwary, the show-off, the fool” – are lured to watery graves.  So memorably ghoulish is Pleasence’s narration that, 45 years on, I can still recite every word of it.  (“Sensible children!” he spits.  “I have no power over them!”)  And to make it even creepier, when he dematerialises at the end and leaves his cowl floating on some murky water, we hear his voice echoing out of the cowl: “I’ll be back… back… back!”

 

© Amicus Productions / Warner Bros.

 

From Beyond the Grave (1974)

The best of the horror anthology movies produced by Amicus Films, Hammer’s biggest rival during the 1960s and 1970s, this features Pleasence in one story as an old soldier called Underwood, reduced to selling matchsticks and shoelaces on the street.  Underwood is adopted by a mediocre, frustrated man called Lowe (Ian Bannon), who’s trying to win respect for himself by lying about imaginary heroics he performed during the war.  Despite having a wife and child, Lowe gradually becomes enamoured with Underwood’s weird daughter – and we realise that it’s Underwood, not Lowe, who’s doing the manipulating.  In a neat piece of stunt casting, the daughter is played by Pleasence’s real-life daughter, Angela.  Meanwhile, wonderfully, in the role of Lowe’s ten-year-old son is the future comic writer and Labour Party activist John O’Farrell.

 

Telefon (1977)

Pleasence plays a Soviet scientist who, during the darkest days of the Cold War, helped to ‘seed’ the USA with deep-cover Soviet agents.  These brainwashed agents don’t know they’re agents, but when they hear a ‘trigger’, which is a stanza by poet Robert Frost, they become zombie-like, grab some explosives and carry out kamikaze-style attacks on nearby military installations.  Pleasence goes rogue and travels to America, where he tries to start World War III singlehandedly by activating the brainwashed agents.  Thereafter, there are many explosions and much reciting of poetry by Pleasance: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep / But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep…”

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / United Artists

 

Halloween (1978)

In 1978, planning a horror movie called Halloween about a murderous psychopath on the loose on October 31st, director John Carpenter decided he wanted ‘an old British horror guy’ to play Dr Sam Loomis, head of the psychiatric hospital from which the psychopath escapes.  After offering the part of Loomis to Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, without success, Carpenter approached Pleasence and the great man bagged his second most-famous role (after Blofeld).  I have mixed feelings about the massively influential Halloween.  It has a hackneyed script, but benefits from Carpenter’s masterly direction, an endearing turn by Jamie Lee Curtis as the resourceful ‘last girl’ and, obviously, Pleasence’s gravitas.  That said, I’m sure when Pleasence signed up for this, he didn’t expect to appear in four of the film’s five, increasingly ropy, direct sequels.

 

Blade on the Feather (1980)

A TV movie written by the brilliant Dennis Potter, Blade on the Feather has Pleasance playing a wealthy and stuck-up novelist who’s discombobulated when a young stranger, played by Tom Conti, arrives one day, ingratiates himself into his household and starts asking awkward questions – questions to do with some long-ago espionage skulduggery, which resulted in the death of Conti’s secret-agent father.  Stylishly directed by Richard Loncraine and excellently acted by Pleasence, Conti and Denholm Elliot, Blade on the Feather was no doubt Potter’s disgruntled response to events of the previous year – when Anthony Blunt had finally been unmasked as the ‘fourth man’ in the Guy Burgess / Donald Maclean / Kim Philby spy scandal that rocked Britain in the 1950s and 1960s.  Despite confessing to treason in 1964, Blunt’s crime was kept secret for the next 15 years and he was allowed to enjoy a respectable and privileged life at the heart of the British establishment, working as curator of the Queen’s art collection.

 

Escape from New York (1981)

Working again with director John Carpenter, Pleasence plays in Escape from New York a future US president who’s trapped in a hellish version of New York after his plane crashes there.  The city has become so anarchically crime-ridden that the authorities have simply sealed it off, left it to its own devices and turned it into a huge, unstaffed prison into which they dump all their felons.  An ultra-violent, dystopian United States with a president called Donald?  Thank heavens that prediction didn’t come true.

 

Anyway, a century on…  Happy birthday, Mr P.

 

© Central Office of Information

 

Deighton classified

 

© Harper Collins

 

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a James Bond buff.  Because of this, I’d wanted for a long time to get my hands on a copy of Len Deighton’s 1962 spy novel The Ipcress File – my interest in it being that it’s often touted as the anti-Bond.

 

Whereas 007 is a posh ex-public schoolboy with oodles of money and charm at his disposal, Harry Palmer, spy hero of The Ipcress File, is an unprivileged and ordinary-seeming bloke with only his working-class wits to help him negotiate the hazardous, occasionally dangerous world of espionage.  Whereas Bond swans around in glamorous international locations enjoying the finest in cuisine, liquor and cars, Palmer trudges the lugubrious streets of London peering at the rain and the pigeons through an oversized pair of glasses.  Whereas Bond wins ladies’ hearts with his unflappable insouciance, Palmer gets dumped on by his superiors for his insolence, which to them signifies that he’s a troublesome oik who doesn’t know his place.

 

That, at least, was the impression I always had of Deighton’s character thanks to seeing the 1965 film version of The Ipcress File, which featured in its lead role that impeccably deadpan man of the people Michael Caine.  (At least, he was a man of the people until the 1970s, when he started moaning about his tax bill.)  It was a surprise, then, to finally open the original novel a few weeks ago and discover that it wasn’t what the film version had led me to believe.  It wasn’t quite as different from the Bond novels as I’d expected.

 

I should qualify that by saying I’m talking in terms of characterisation, not in terms of plot.  For unlike the straightforward, action-adventure plot dynamics of the average Bond novel, the narrative of The Ipcress File is a twisty, at times head-scratching thing that produces plenty of surprises about who’s working for and spying on whom.

 

Anyway, firstly, forget about Harry Palmer.  The hero of Deighton’s novel goes through its 250-odd pages without ever revealing his name.  Early on, somebody calls him ‘Harry’, but he immediately muses: “Now my name isn’t Harry, but in this business it’s hard to remember whether it ever has been.”  All we have is an anonymous narrator recounting events with a laconic turn of phrase whilst giving few clues about his personality and background.  In other words, the main character in The Ipcress File is a cypher, an empty space into which readers can project their own personalities and so imagine themselves at the centre of the intrigue.

 

A cypher was pretty much what James Bond was too – not so much a properly-rounded character as a device for drawing in the reader.  His creator Ian Fleming was careful not to give him too much individuality.  This policy extended from his bland name (famously borrowed from the ornithologist who wrote the book Birds of the West Indies) to his lack of a life-history – it was only in You Only Live Twice (1964), the last novel published in Fleming’s lifetime, that we learn much about him and even then it turns out that Bond was orphaned at an early age, i.e. denied anything as character-forming as a family background.

 

Being a blank canvas isn’t the only thing that Deighton’s protagonist has in common with Bond.  Both their jobs involve some globe-trotting.  Now this came as a shock to me after seeing the film The Ipcress File, which determinedly confines its action to the British capital.  However, the book sees him pursue a kidnapped scientist to Lebanon – resulting in a deadly blunder that the film has happening in a London car-park – and later being posted to a Pacific atoll that the American military have commandeered in order to observe and measure the explosion of a neutron bomb.  The Pacific episode, set in a remote and inhospitable fragment of the tropics that the Americans have converted into a base containing “two athletic fields, two movie theatres, a chapel, a clothing store, beach clubs for officers and enlisted men, a library, hobby shops, vast quarters for the Commanding General, a maintenance hangar, personnel landing pier, mess hall, dispensary, a PX, post office, a wonderful modern laundry and a power plant”, is at times so odd and surreal it doesn’t so much resemble a spy story as something by J.G. Ballard.

 

© Lowndes Productions / Rank Organisation

 

And like Bond, the hero of the literary Ipcress File has refined taste buds.  We variously see him tucking into ‘Russian tea and apple strudel’, ‘Dgaj Muhshy (chicken stuffed with nutmeg, thyme, pine nuts, lamb and rice and cooked with celery)’, ‘totem poles of lamb, aubergine, onion and green pepper’, ‘iced Israeli melon’ and ‘fine lobster salad and carefully-made mayonnaise’.  Even his sandwiches seem classy by 1962 standards, consisting of ‘cream cheese with pineapple, and ham with mango chutney… with rye bread’.  Admittedly, this appears too in the film, which has a scene where Caine’s Harry Palmer bumps into a superior in a shop and is chided for paying “ten pence more for a fancy French label” of button mushrooms.  The disdainful superior adds: “You’re quite a gourmet, aren’t you, Palmer?”

 

However, where Deighton’s hero and Fleming’s hero part ways is in their relationships with their employers.  Whereas Bond seems at ease in the secret service, Deighton’s character lacks the wealthy and privileged background that most of his colleagues and superiors have.  And he isn’t impressed by what that background has produced.  He begins the novel working for Military Intelligence under a man called Ross, “a regular officer, that is to say he didn’t drink gin after 7.30 P.M. or hit ladies without first removing his hat.”  Ross, we hear, has given him plenty of ‘toffee-nosed dressing downs’ and at one point he rambles at inordinate length about his huge and lavish garden.  “Ross,” the perplexed narrator breaks in, “Mrs Laing and Dorothy Perkins are roses, aren’t they?”

 

Early in The Ipcress File, though, he’s transferred from Ross’s unit to a civilian intelligence department of the Home Office called the WOOC(P).  Not that he’s much happier with the person in charge there, a character called Dalby who’s “an elegant languid public-school Englishman of a type that can usually reconcile his duty with comfort and luxury.”  When Dalby asks him if he “can handle a tricky little special assignment,” he retorts, “If it doesn’t demand a classical education I might be able to grope around it.”

 

Having to work with people from moneyed backgrounds presents him with another problem.  His superiors don’t seem to appreciate the fact that he needs a steady income and regular payment of expenses to survive.  When he switches from Ross’s outfit to Dalby’s, he wonders how long he “would have to make the remnants of this month’s pay last before the new scale began.”  Later, he complains that he’s “still two months behind with pay and three with allowances” and that “a claim for £35 in overseas special pay” was “overdue by ten and a half months.”

 

This also surfaces in the film, with Ross and Dalby (played by Guy Doleman and Nigel Green) depicted as a pair of condescending bowler-hatted toffs who view Palmer as an irritant with ideas above his station.  But the unflattering commentary about Britain’s class system is diluted slightly by the addition of a military theme.  Ross and Dalby are both of upright army-officer stock while Palmer, we hear, had an inglorious time in uniform.  (I assume that as an ordinary soldier he was caught up in illegal black-market activities in Germany, though I could be wrong.)  Anyway, he’s spent time in a military prison and might be thrown into one again if he gets on the wrong side of his employers.

 

Thus, Palmer’s insolence isn’t just the result of a general social resentment – it comes too from a particular resentment against an institution, the army, that’s blighted his past and could potentially blight his future.  Meanwhile, the film plays down his financial frustrations and shows him protesting instead against the needless bureaucracy of his work.  Dalby, for instance, insists on a lengthy report being written after every excursion he makes ‘into the field’.

 

Incidentally, James Bond gets the best of both worlds.  He’s well-bred enough to know his way around a flashy casino or exclusive golf club, and is choosy about what he eats, drinks and drives, but he knows how to avoid coming across as an arse when mingling with ordinary working folk.  Note how easily he gets into conversation with a pub landlord in Moonraker (1955), say, or with Tiffy, the bargirl at the bordello in The Man with the Golden Gun (1965).  As Henry Chancellor puts it, he’s a ‘snob about things’ but not ‘about people’.

 

To sum up then, I found the hero of Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File rather more Bondian than I’d anticipated.  But what distinguishes him from Ian Fleming’s master-spy is class.  One has an ample supply of it.  For the other, it’s the bane of his bloody life.

 

© Lowndes Productions / Rank Organisation

 

Clipping Pinochet’s wings

 

© Debasers Filums

 

I’d like to say a few nice things about Nae Pasaran, a 2018 documentary written and directed by Felipe Bustos Sierra that recounts how some workers in the Scottish town of East Kilbride in 1974 made a gesture of defiance towards fascist Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.  It was a gesture that ultimately had more consequences than they’d imagined.

 

The workers – Bob Fulton, Stuart Barrie, Robert Somerville and John Keenan – were employed by Rolls Royce and tasked with servicing and repairing engines from Hawker Hunter airplanes.  Their East Kilbride plant was the only place in the world where such work could be done.  One day they noticed that some engines they’d been assigned belonged to the Chilean Air Force and made sure, via their trade union, that the none of the workforce touched them.  Instead, the engines ended up rusting in crates in the plant’s back yard.

 

This was because the previous year had seen the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile overthrown by the military, who then set up a dictatorship under Pinochet and during the next 17 years, according to official figures from the Chilean government in 2011, engineered the murders and disappearances of 3,095 people and the torture and political imprisonment of 36,948 more – although other estimates are much higher.  The Chilean Air Force got the coup going by bombing La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago, on September 11th, 1973.

 

The first part of the documentary – which I was lucky enough to see the other day as part of the Jaffna Film Festival in northern Sri Lanka – is amiable enough, with the now retired Fulton, Barrie, Somerville and Keenan meeting up with Sierra in a Scottish pub (“Don’t start with they war stories,” someone tells the venerable Fulton, a veteran of World War II, “we gottae be hame before eight o’clock!”) and recalling events in East Kilbride back in 1974.

 

But later Sierra travels to Santiago and speaks to people who were on the sharp end of the 1973 coup and, with stories of executions, torture and seemingly boundless cruelty, Nae Pasaran delivers a stark reminder of what the Scottish workers were protesting against.  A senior civil servant whom troops dragged out of the just-bombed La Moneda, for example, remembers how he and fifty others were made to lie in a line on the street.  A tank would have then driven over the top of them if there hadn’t been so many civilians on the street yelling at the troops to stop.

 

One prisoner, later exiled to Britain, claims to have been told by an official that the reason he hadn’t been executed was because the British government had offered to get the Hawker Hunter engines back to the Chilean Air Force – his life and the lives of six others constituted the Chilean side of the bargain.  Nobly, Sierra doesn’t accept this as gospel truth, even though it would have provided the documentary with a stirring feel-good moment.  He qualifies it by also quoting representatives of Amnesty International and the UK government at the time, who are unsure or dismissive of such a deal being made.  But the possibility remains that the actions in East Kilbride did save seven lives.

 

More tangibly, being deprived of those engines took its toll on the Chilean Air Force, as is admitted by its former commander Fernando Rojas Vender.  Although the engines were eventually, and very mysteriously, spirited away from the factory in 1978, and although it was rumoured that future repairs and servicing were carried out in Israel and India, the planes and their engines clearly suffered from the lack of Scottish expertise and there were multiple groundings and crashes.

 

While obviously a considerable tosser, Vender was at least game enough to let himself be interviewed by Sierra.  He dismisses Fulton, the original instigator of the engine boycott, as being like a radical ‘Islamist’.  In his view, Fulton – who’s a Christian as well as a World War II combatant – couldn’t possibly have acted of his own accord, but had been brainwashed by leftist agitators.

 

The film’s finale, where Fulton, Barrie and Keenan are brought south to a grand, plush building in London in 2015 – a world away from the Scottish boozer we saw them in at the beginning – and in front of an admiring audience are awarded the Order of Bernardo O’Higgins, the highest order that Chile’s government can bestow on foreigners, is both touching and uplifting.

 

© Debasers Filums

 

Incidentally, the men make one or two comments about how their actions, facilitated by a powerful trade union, probably wouldn’t have happened today.  Nae Pasaran doesn’t mention it, but there’s a brutal irony in how the person who later on did most to emasculate the unions in Britain, Margaret Thatcher, was also a great admirer of and buddy to the fascist Pinochet.  Thatcher’s actions against the unions, admittedly, had a lot of public support at the time – support fuelled by the disastrous, strike-ridden Winter of Discontent in 1978-79, when the British trade union movement and the then Labour government didn’t so much shoot themselves in the foot as blow both their feet away with a sawn-off shotgun.

 

Still, I wish that British working-class people who voted for Brexit in 2016 on the grounds that they were ‘better off’ in the 1970s before Britain joined the European Union, or the European Economic Community as it was then, would realise that the real reason why they were better off was because they had things like a functioning welfare state and proper trade unions to support and defend them.

 

From globalresearch.ca

 

The dark mastery of Stephen Volk

 

© PS Publishing

 

Constructing a work of art around a real and well-known person who existed within living memory is a hazardous business.  You’re immediately open to criticism from those who disagree with your portrayal of that person or, indeed, who think it wrong to attempt a portrayal in the first place.  To give a recent example, I’ve seen both an author and an academic slam Quentin Tarantino’s new movie Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood on social media because, supposedly, (1) it depicts Bruce Lee unflatteringly, and (2) it depicts Charles Manson, who shouldn’t be depicted at all.  Neither author nor academic had actually seen the film so that they could make proper, evidence-based judgements about it.  But in true Mary Whitehouse fashion (i.e. acting on hearsay) they were happy to denounce it anyway.

 

Come to think of it, it isn’t just hazardous writing books or plays or making films about real people within living memory.  There’s plenty of folk in Scotland who’ll happily bend your ear about how William Shakespeare got it all wrong about Macbeth.

 

Someone who lately plunged into these dangerous waters is novelist and scriptwriter Stephen Volk, whose credits include the screenplay of the ground-breaking supernatural TV movie / pretend documentary-investigation Ghostwatch (1992), which according to IMDb “earned the dubious honour of being the first TV programme to be cited in the British Medical Journal as having caused Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome in children.”  Volk’s 2018 collection The Dark Masters Trilogy contains three novellas and features no less than four real-life figures who, in the 20th century, loomed large in the cultures of film, fiction and the esoteric.

 

The first novella, Whitstable, concerns the English horror-movie star Peter Cushing.  Although he passed away a quarter-century ago, and despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that his trademark gentlemanliness, good manners and charm seem utterly extinct in the bad-tempered, Brexit-coarsened Britain of 2019, Cushing still commands much affection among film-buffs of a certain age.  Indeed, he made the headlines in 2016 when the makers of the Star Wars spin-off Rogue One controversially used CGI technology to resurrect his Grand Moff Tarkin character from 1977’s original Star Wars movie.  (Objectors claimed it was disrespectful to Cushing’s memory and set worrying precedents, but I have to say I was just delighted to see the old boy back on the screen, even if it wasn’t really him being him.)

 

© Hammer Films / Warner Bros

 

The second novella in The Dark Masters Trilogy is called Leytonstone and describes a (mostly) imaginary episode from the London childhood of that great director of suspense movies, Alfred Hitchcock.  Incidentally, I recently read a 1967 interview with Orson Welles (conducted by Kenneth Tynan), where the stout bearded one said confidently of Hitchcock: “I honestly don’t believe that Hitchcock is a director whose pictures will be of any interest a hundred years from now.”  Well, Orson, we’re now in 2019 and people seem as fascinated by ‘Hitch’ as ever.  So you have 48 years left for your prediction to be proven right.

 

The final novella, Netherwood, offers an unlikely team-up.  It has the occultist Aleister Crowley, the notorious self-styled ‘Great Beast’ and ‘Wickedest Man in the World’ whose antics in the early 20th century terrified clean-living, God-fearing people who believed everything they read in the British popular press, joining forces with Dennis Wheatley, the one-time bestselling author of adventure and thriller novels, most notably black-magic potboilers such as 1934’s The Devil Rides Out, whose villain was supposedly inspired by Crowley.

 

All three are splendid, but the Cushing one is my favourite.  It’s set in 1971 during the darkest period of the actor’s life.  His beloved wife of 28 years, Helen, has just died of emphysema.  Devastated, he shuts himself away from the world in his home in Whitstable, the Kent seaside town of the title.  One day, however, he forces himself out for a walk along the beach and encounters a boy who’s daft about horror films but still slightly too young to distinguish fantasy from reality.  Having seen the 1958 Hammer version of Dracula, where Cushing plays the learned vampire-slayer Van Helsing, the boy assumes Cushing is Van Helsing and asks him for help.  He believes his mother’s boyfriend is a vampire because the boyfriend enters his bedroom at night and does things to him that leave him feeling physically and spiritually drained. “Afterwards, I feel bad,” he explains, “like I’m dead inside.”  Horrified by what he’s discovered, Cushing has to set his own emotional turmoil aside and figure out how to help the boy.

 

A story that pits someone like Cushing, a monster-hunter in the comfortable world of old gothic horror films, against a genuine monster who sexually abuses children could have been a disaster if it hadn’t been done properly.  But Volk achieves the appropriate tone, writes with delicacy and pulls the trick off.  Particularly good is the finale, where Cushing confronts the mother’s boyfriend in Whitstable’s cinema during a matinee showing of one of his recent horror epics, 1970’s The Vampire Lovers.  What’s happening on the screen contrasts ironically and memorably with what’s happening in the stalls.

 

Clearly, Volk has been meticulous in his research and doesn’t put a foot wrong in his portrayal of Cushing – his habits, idiosyncrasies and speech patterns, his deeply-felt Christianity and his love for his wife, whose death cast a shadow he never escaped from afterwards.  And there are enough knowledgeable references to his movies to keep fans happy.  Also spot-on are Volk’s descriptions of Whitstable and his evocation of the sights and sounds of a typical south-east England seaside town – pleasant (waves, seagulls, boats and the ramshackle, antiquated charm of the seafront) and unpleasant (small-town gossip, nosiness and parochialism, tourist tat and the often-neglected neighbourhoods set back from the areas frequented by holidaymakers).

 

From tvtropes.org    

 

Leytonstone begins with an incident from Alfred Hitchcock’s boyhood that the director himself mentioned in later life.  One day his father sent him to the local police station with a note instructing the policemen to lock him in a cell.  The policemen obliged, much to the lad’s horror and bewilderment since he didn’t know what he’d done wrong.  It transpired that his father merely  wanted to show him what happened ‘to naughty boys’.  As I remember the story, Hitchcock’s incarceration lasted only a few minutes.  In Leytonstone, however, it goes on for a whole night.

 

I’d assumed that the police-cell ordeal would form the bulk of Leytonstone, so I was surprised when it finished early on in the story.  Volk is more interested in what happens afterwards and spins a tale whereby the now screwed-up little Alfred does something horrible to a schoolgirl he’s become obsessed with (a blonde, obviously).  In turn, the consequences of his misdeed rebound on his doting mother and involve the scheming policeman who’d originally locked him up.

 

Leytonstone skilfully manipulates the readers’ emotions.  We feel sorry for the hapless, juvenile Hitchcock when he’s the victim of his father’s perverse ideas about instilling discipline.  Later, he becomes a little monster who deserves our contempt, but we still find ourselves rooting for him when his schoolmasters and the police start to close in on him.  This manipulation, of course, was characteristic of Hitchcock himself as a filmmaker.  Witness, for example, 1973’s Frenzy, where we start off believing that Jon Finch is an unpleasant loner and possibly a serial killer while Barry Foster is a likeable chirpy Cockney chappie who loves his mum; but then have to radically rearrange our sympathies when we discover that Finch is really the hero and Foster is the villain.

 

Lastly, Netherwood is set in post-World War II England and has the ailing Aleister Crowley enlisting Dennis Wheatley’s help to fight what he claims is a monstrously evil scheme involving the sacrifice of a child and the coming of a new demagogue on par with Hitler.  The pair invoke occult forces in an effort to thwart this and there’s an ambiguous conclusion that leaves Wheatley wondering just what’s happened.  Has the infamously slippery Crowley pulled a massive joke on him?  The story is engrossing and the interplay between the two men is delightful.  In lesser hands, Wheatley could have become a figure of fun, reacting priggishly to Crowley’s constant, gleeful provocations, but Volk makes him surprisingly sympathetic.  He’s tortured by feelings of class inferiority – he thinks he’s married ‘above himself’ – and by guilt that, middle-aged, he couldn’t physically fight for his country during the war.  (But I’ll say more about Wheatley’s sympathetic-ness in a minute.)  Crowley is engaging too.  Scoundrel though he is, he seems to be trying to do the right thing here.

 

From  en.wikipedia.org  

 

Quibbles?  Well, I felt the epilogue to Leytonstone, where we see the elderly Hitchcock looking back on a life of fame and fortune, was a tad unnecessary – the story made all the points it needed to make while Hitchcock was still a child.  And I suspect some readers will find the conclusion of Netherwood slightly disappointing after all the build-up.  I suppose Volk had to pull his punches.  If what Wheatley went through in the story had had more tangible results, I imagine he’d have written books very different from the ones he did write during the next three decades till his death in 1977.

 

Meanwhile, those familiar with Wheatley may raise an eyebrow at how Volk generally avoids referring to the man’s unpleasantly right-wing politics – which in 1947, with Clement Attlee’s Labour government busy setting up a cradle-to-grave welfare state, he’d have been spouting at every opportunity.  Indeed, according to his Wikipedia entry, he penned at this time a ‘letter to posterity’ wherein he denounced the government’s reforms as something ‘bound to undermine the vigour of the race’ and advocated the ‘ambushing and killing of unjust tyrannous officials.’  His reactionary views increasingly surfaced in his occult works, where the forces of Satan were found to be in league with things that Wheatley disapproved of, like trade unions, feminists, pop music and – least forgivably, in 1973’s Gateway to Hell – the black civil rights movement.

 

To be fair to Volk, today Wheatley is the least well-remembered of his ‘Dark Masters’.  He and his books seemed to disappear off the public’s radar the moment he died (something that’s cleverly foreshadowed at one point in Netherwood) and his persona is the least well-known.  Presumably Volk had to work on his character to make it sympathetic and interesting enough to draw the readers through the story, which meant smoothing off some rough edges.

 

Because of its focus, The Dark Masters Trilogy is somewhat restricted in its appeal.  You probably need to be my age or older to fully appreciate it.  I remember my boyhood as being an era when BBC1 showed Hitchcock seasons on Friday nights and BBC2 showed horror-movie double bills (often featuring Cushing) on Saturday nights; when buying Wheatley’s black-magic epics was something you did furtively because their 1970s covers, courtesy of Arrow Books, were illustrated with pictures of topless, big-breasted ladies dancing around flames; and when the bookshops where you bought your Wheatleys were crammed too with sensationalist books about the occult, esoteric and supernatural, cashing in on a fad for such subjects that’d been created in part by Crowley (who by 1967 had garnered enough street credibility to appear on the cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album).  I doubt if Volk’s heroes and anti-heroes figure much in the memories of people younger than me.

 

But if you’re in the target demographic and remember the above things fondly… Then you’ll love this book.

 

© Allan Warren / Creative Commons

 

Great British crime movies of the 1970s

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer

 

If you’d lived in the United Kingdom in the 1970s but your only contact with the outside world had been through the medium of television, you may well have believed you were surrounded by a dystopian society.  One where every bank and security van was in constant danger of being attacked by beefy men with sawn-off shotguns and stockings pulled down over their heads.  One where every street was the potential scene of a violent punch-up and every road was the potential scene of a destructive car chase.  One where the only bulwark against the tide of lawlessness and anarchy was a police-force composed entirely of hard-boozing, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed thugs who wore kipper ties with their shirt-collar buttons undone.  Really, you’d have been too afraid to leave your house.

 

This is because 1970s British television was awash with crime and cop shows – often violent and often populated by revolting low-life criminals and heroes who weren’t much better in their morality: for example, Special Branch (1969-74), Villains (1972), New Scotland Yard (1972-74), The Sweeney (1975-78), Gangsters (1975-78), The XYY Man (1976-77), Target (1977-78), Out (1978), Hazell (1978-79) and Strangers (1978-82).

 

Needless to say, these shows had a big impact on impressible kids like me.  My school playground at breaktimes reverberated with the sound of me and my mates acting out things we’d seen on TV the night before, shouting, “You’re nicked, sunshine!” and “You grassed me off, you slag!” and “No bastard copper’s gonna take me alive!” and “We’re the Sweeney, son, and we haven’t had any dinner!”  My parents were happy to let me watch such programmes – as long as I wasn’t watching that horror rubbish, which had been scientifically proven to be bad for you.

 

Admittedly, 1970s American television was riddled with cop shows too, and British TV producers were probably just working on the supposition that what worked for American audiences would work for British ones.  But the Yank shows just didn’t seem to compare with their Limey counterparts in terms of bad attitude and grubby, sweaty, bad-breathed and greasy-haired authenticity.

 

I suspect a prime reason for this was because the 1970s saw the British film industry die on its arse and British directors, writers and actors who might have expected to ply their trade on the big screen found themselves plying it on the small screen instead.  This helped inject some uncompromising cinematic rawness into the domestic telly crime genre.  Meanwhile, alas, the cinematic counterpart of that genre seemed non-existent.

 

Well, it was almost non-existent.  A few crime movies got made in 1970s Britain too and, though they’re as rare as hen’s teeth, these exert a fascination for me today.  Only two of them ever achieved a degree of fame and the rest are virtually forgotten – but I find all of them cherish-able.  Here are my favourites.

 

© MGM EMI

 

Get Carter (1970)

This is one 1970s British crime film that everyone knows, although I don’t recall it getting much attention until the mid-1990s, when thanks to Britpop, Damien Hirst, etc., the ‘cool Britannia’ scene took off and Get Carter’s star Michael Caine suddenly became a retro-style icon.  Ironically, Caine’s nattily dressed Jack Carter and Roy Budd’s edgy jazz score aside, there isn’t much in Get Carter that feels stylish.  The drab, monochrome terraced streets of Newcastle-upon-Tyne – if the film’s premise is that Michael Caine has returned to his hometown to sort out trouble, whatever happened to Caine’s Geordie accent? – the shabby pubs, the seedy racecourses, the shit clothes and haircuts, the Neanderthal attitudes…  It’s bloody depressing, actually.  If 1970s Britain really had been like this, I can almost understand why when Maggie Thatcher came to power, she bulldozered the place and cleared the way for the 1980s.

 

One thing about Get Carter that’s often overlooked is the performance of the late, great Ian Hendry as the film’s scuzzball villain, Eric Paice.  “Do you know,” Carter tells him at Newcastle Racecourse in High Gosforth Park, “I’d almost forgotten what your eyes look like.  They’re still the same.  Piss-holes in the snow.”  Hendry was originally meant to play the virile Carter, but by 1970 heavy drinking had taken its toll and instead he was given the supporting role of the memorably weasley Paice.  Hendry resented losing the lead role to Caine and things didn’t go well the night before the filming of the racecourse scene when director Mike Hodges and his cast attempted to give it a read-through – Hendry, supposedly, was three-sheets-to-the-wind.  Despite Hendry’s drunken provocations, Caine is said to have kept his professional cool, although he may have enjoyed the irony of the film’s climax, which sees Carter force-feed Paice a bottle of whisky before clubbing him to death with a shotgun.

 

Villain (1971)

Inspired by the real-life exploits of 1960s London crime-lords Reggie and Ronnie Kray, Villain has Richard Burton, no less, in the role of a gay, mother-fixated and paranoidly violent gang-boss who, against the counsel of wiser heads, gets himself involved in a raid on a factory’s wages van that ultimately causes his downfall.  Meanwhile, trying to stay in one piece through all of this is Ian McShane, playing a smooth but unimportant pimp who has the unenviable job of being both the object of Burton’s affections and the victim of his sadistic rages.

 

© MGM EMI

 

Villain has a wonderful supporting cast – T.P. McKenna and Joss Ackland as fellow gang-bosses, Del Henney and Tony Selby as henchmen, and Nigel Davenport and Colin Welland as the coppers doggedly trying to bring Burton to justice.  (Interestingly, McKenna, Henney and Welland all turned up in the cast of Sam Peckinpah’s troubling Straw Dogs, made the following year.)  The film suffers from having too many sub-plots, though the one where McShane helps Burton escape the law by getting a sleazy Member of Parliament who’s been using his pimping services to testify for him is memorably believable and nauseating.  Played by Donald Sinden, you never hear which political party the MP belongs to.  But you can guess.

 

Sitting Target (1972)

Ian McShane had to suffer some dysfunctional relationships in early 1970s British crime movies.  No sooner had he finished being Richard Burton’s lover / punchbag in Villain than he had to cope with being best friend to a psychotic Oliver Reed in Sitting Target, directed by the underrated Douglas Hickox.  With McShane in tow, Reed escapes from prison early in the film, determined to catch up with his wife Jill St John and give her what’s coming to her.  Reed doesn’t want revenge on St John, as you might expect, for her terrible performance as Tiffany Case in Diamonds are Forever (1971).  No, it’s because he’s discovered she’s betrayed him for another man.  The film’s big twist, when we find out who that other man is, isn’t altogether a surprise.

 

Sitting Target has many pleasures, including Edward Woodward playing a policeman assigned to protect St John against the marauding Ollie.  But nothing quite matches the thrilling early sequence where our two anti-heroes, plus a third convict played by the wonderful (and recently departed) character actor Freddie Jones, bust out of prison in desperate, skin-of-the-teeth fashion.

 

© American International Pictures

 

Hennessy (1975)

I wasn’t going to include Don Sharpe’s Hennessy on this list because it’s about terrorism rather than crime.  Indeed, its story of a former IRA explosive expert (Rod Steiger) who decides to destroy the British government and the Queen by blowing up the state opening of parliament, after his wife and child are killed by the British Army, makes it the first movie to tackle the issue of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.  However, as the final film on the list is choc-a-bloc with IRA men, and as Richard Johnson gives a lovely performance as the weary, dishevelled, cynical copper – is there any other type in British crime movies? – trying to thwart Steiger’s plan, I thought I’d give it a mention.

 

The film is admittedly patchy but it has a top-notch cast that also includes Lee Remick, Trevor Howard, Eric Porter, Patrick Stewart (bald as a coot even then) and a super-young Patsy Kensit playing Steiger’s ill-fated daughter.  The climactic scenes set in the House of Commons, involving the Queen, landed the filmmakers in hot water because they used real footage that Buckingham Palace had approved without knowing it was going to end up in a film.  Also, the film’s subject, an incredibly touchy one at the time, meant that Hennessy scarcely saw the light of day in British cinemas.

 

Brannigan (1975)

Okay, Brannigan – also directed by Douglas Hickox – is the joker in this pack.  It features John Wayne as a tough American cop who arrives in a London of bowler hats, brollies and historic landmarks that exists only in the imagination of Hollywood scriptwriters, and who then causes mayhem as he behaves like a Wild West sheriff dealing with an unruly frontier town.  This involves such memorable sequences as Wayne doing an Evel Knievel-style car stunt where he hops across Tower Bridge while it parts to let  a ship pass below.  And Wayne triggering a cowboy-style brawl in a pub near Leadenhall Market.  And Wayne roughing up a minor villain played by the cinema’s greatest Yorkshireman, Brian Glover.  (“Now would you like to try for England’s free dental care or answer my question?”)  If you’re in the wrong mood, Brannigan is the worst film ever made.  If you’re in the right mood, it’s the best one.

 

© United Artists

 

The Squeeze (1977)

Barely had John Wayne swaggered through the London underworld than another Hollywood star did the same in Michael Apted’s The Squeeze – Stacy Keach, playing a London private eye with an industrial-strength drink problem. During occasional moments of sobriety, Keach investigates the kidnapping of his ex-wife (Carol White, who played the title role in Ken Loach’s ground-breaking 1966 drama Cathy Come Home).  She’s remarried a posh security officer (Edward Fox) tasked with overseeing the delivery of large sums of money.  Keach finds himself tangling with a kidnap gang who intend to enlist Fox’s unwilling help in mounting an armed robbery.

 

The Squeeze suffers from being overlong, with too much time spent wallowing in Keach’s booze-soaked misery. But this is outweighed by its good points.  I like its depiction of late 1970s multicultural London and its sympathetic portrayal of Keach’s Jamaican neighbours.  Also, Stephen Boyd (who died soon after the film’s completion aged just 45) and David Hemmings give good turns as the villains.  Allowed to use his native Northern Irish accent in a movie for a change, Boyd disturbingly plays a well-heeled crime-lord who dotes over his own family whilst having zero empathy for the family he’s threatening to destroy with his kidnapping scheme.  Meanwhile, Hemmings is a delight as a pragmatic career criminal who doesn’t share his boss’s sunny optimism about things and gets increasingly disgruntled as Keach closes in.

 

© Warner Bros. Pictures

 

And connoisseurs of 1970s British popular culture will be fascinated to see anarchic comedian Freddie Starr in the cast too.  Starr is endearing as Keach’s best mate, a reformed petty criminal trying to make a living as a taxi driver. Indeed, such is Starr’s loyalty to Keach that he saves his neck three times towards and during the film’s climax, most memorably by running the villains off the road in his taxi.  Starr, who died in May this year, was from all accounts an unreconstructed arsehole in real life.  So remember him this way.

 

Sweeney II (1978)

The greatest of all 1970s British cop shows, The Sweeney got two movie spin-offs, Sweeney! In 1977 and Sweeney II a year later.  I don’t think Sweeney!, which attempted to involve Flying Squad heroes Jack Regan (John Thaw) and George Carter (Dennis Waterman) in an espionage plot, is much cop, but Sweeney II captures the spirit of the TV series.  With Regan and Carter on the trail of a gang who spend most of their time living it up in Malta as wealthy British ex-pats but who return to Britain from time to time to stage vicious bank robberies, the films marries bloody, sawn-off-shotgun-powered violence with some scabrous humour.  As one of Regan’s sidekicks, Derek O’Connor gets the funniest lines: “It’s a combination of nerves and smoking too much,” he says when explaining his libido.  “I get a hard-on like a milk bottle.”

 

© Euston Films / EMI

 

Sweeney II is good, loutish fun, then, but it manages to be topical too.  London’s real Metropolitan Police force was investigated for corruption in the late 1970s and the film reflects this with the character of Regan’s commanding officer, played by the excellent Denholm Elliott, who’s facing a long stretch in prison on account of being “so bent it’s been impossible to hang his pictures straight on the office wall for the past twelve months.”

 

The Long Good Friday (1980)

Although it was released at the start of the 1980s, John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday was made in 1979, so I’m classifying it as a 1970s film.  And it definitely feels like it’s drawing the curtain on a particular era with its tale of an old school London gangster (Bob Hoskins) convinced he’s about to make a mint in the brave new world of Thatcherite London, where everything is up for sale to the corporations and developers – until one day when he suddenly finds himself tangling with a ruthless foe, the IRA, that shows him to be hopelessly out of his depth.

 

The final scene sees Hoskins become a prisoner in his own, hijacked car and get driven to his doom – an IRA man played by a youthful Pierce Brosnan snakes up from behind the front passenger seat to hold him at gunpoint.  Although Hoskins doesn’t speak, the succession of emotions that flit across his face as it dawns on him that he had it all, but now he’s blown it all, make this the most powerful moment in British crime-movie history.

 

© Black Lion Films / Handmade Films / Paramount British Pictures

 

Time and tide wait for no man and no replicant

 

© Warner Bros / The Ladd Company / Shaw Brothers

 

July 2019 has been a cursed month for my favourite actors.  On this blog I occasionally post instalments in a series with the self-explanatory title Cinematic Heroes and in the past few weeks two people whom I’ve featured in the series have gone to meet their maker.  On July 9th veteran English actor Freddie Jones (Cinematic Heroes 12) passed away.  And it was recently announced that on July 19th the great Dutch actor Rutger Hauer (Cinematic Heroes 6) died after a short illness.

 

Shit.  I’m almost afraid to write any more Cinematic Heroes posts about living actors, in case I jinx them and they die too.  Maybe I should just stick to writing about actors who are already dead.

 

Freddie Jones was a marvellously eccentric and sonorous actor who seemed to exist on several different planes of cinematic reality at once.  He was simultaneously a regular in David Lynch movies (1980’s The Elephant Man, 1984’s Dune, 1989’s Wild at Heart); a star of Hammer horror films (1969’s Frankenstein must be Destroyed, 1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula); a fixture of kids’ teatime TV programmes in the 1970s (1976-78’s The Ghosts of Motley Hall, 1976’s Children of the Stones); and a familiar face in dumb Hollywood blockbusters with one-word titles in the 1980s (1982’s Firefox, 1983’s Krull, 1984’s Firestarter).

 

He also showed up in a trio of great but overlooked British movies that are close to my heart: Basil Deardon’s The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970), in which he’s a hoot as the wonky Scottish psychiatrist giving advice to a troubled Roger Moore; Douglas Hickox’s Sitting Target (1972), in which he, Oliver Reed and Ian McShane are three convicts staging a memorably nail-biting prison breakout; and Richard Lester’s Juggernaut (1974), in which he’s a retired bomb disposal expert suspected by Anthony Hopkins of planting six explosive devices on board a luxury liner.  (Figuring out if the mad bomber really is Freddie Jones is not the most difficult conundrum in cinematic history.)

 

He was also, latterly, a soap opera star, which meant when news came of his passing, social media was gummed up with soap-opera fans lamenting that the lovely old guy who’d played Sandy Thomas in Emmerdale from 2005 to 2018 was no more – which did scant justice to Jones’s tremendous acting CV.  Still, I like the fact that he was in Emmerdale because it kept him on our screens until last year, by which time he was in his nineties.

 

We can also draw comfort from the fact that Freddie Jones’s son Toby, who’s every bit as versatile and quirky as his old man, is nowadays ubiquitous in films and television.  This means that the Jones character-acting DNA should continue to entertain us well into the 21st century.  Indeed, my dream movie would be a remake of Juggernaut with Toby Jones in it, along with Jared Harris and Rory Kinnear, whose dads Richard and Roy starred alongside Freddie in the original.

 

© Brooksfilms / Paramount Pictures

 

Freddie Jones was 91 when he died, so his passing wasn’t a huge surprise.  However, Rutger Hauer’s death definitely was a surprise.  He was 75 and so had passed the allotted three-score-and-ten.  But as he’d specialised in playing Nietzschean supermen, such as in Blade Runner (1982) and The Hitcher (1986), it was easy to assume he wouldn’t die.

 

Mind you, at 75, Hauer’s lifespan was almost 19 times longer than that of Roy Batty, the artificially-created humanoid ‘replicant’ he played in Blade Runner, who was programmed to expire after four years.  And by a spooky coincidence, Hauer has died in 2019 – the year in which the events of Blade Runner, including Batty’s death, took place.

 

Conventional wisdom has it that Hauer reached iconic status in Hollywood in the early-to-mid-1980s with Blade Runner and The Hitcher but thereafter suffered a decline as he made increasing numbers of straight-to-video exploitation movies.  But even if you buy into this theory, you can’t deny that Hauer appeared in a large number of truly enjoyable films.  Although some of the later ones are in the so-bad-they’re-good category and / or are mainly enjoyable because he’s in them.

 

On one side of the quality divide, there’s Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka (1983), Richard Donner’s elegiac and criminally underrated Ladyhawke (1985) and Paul Verhoeven’s delicious medieval gore-and-tits epic Flesh + Blood (1985).  He also turned up in Sam Peckinpah’s final movie The Osterman Weekend (1983) which, while a mishmash of themes and styles, is still a blast because it features Peckinpah’s much-loved scenes of slo-mo carnage, and Rutger Hauer, and John Hurt, and Dennis Hopper.

 

Among the later entries in Hauer’s filmography, I defy anyone to say a seriously bad word against Philip Noyce’s Blind Fury (1989), which has Hauer as a blind Vietnam veteran who’s still capable of slicing flying apples in half with his samurai sword.  Or Lewis Teague’s Wedlock (1991), which has Hauer escaping from a futuristic prison with an explosive collar around his neck and grappling with the splendidly villainous Joan Chen and Stephen Tobolowsky (who as the prison governor gets to utter the movie’s best line: “You nonconformists are all alike!”).

 

Or Tony Maylam’s barking-mad Split Second (1992), which has Hauer investigating a serial-killing alien predator in a globally warmed London alongside Alun Armstrong, Pete Postlethwaite, Ian Dury, Michael J. Pollard and – ahem – Kim Cattrall.  Or Ernest Dickerson’s Surviving the Game (1994), which has Hauer as a late-era capitalism scumbag who organises adventure holidays in the mountains for rich bastards who get to hunt homeless people, and which has another sublime cast including Ice-T, Charles Dutton, F. Murray Abraham and Gary Busey.

 

And let’s not forget Jason Eisner’s fascinatingly terrible / brilliant Hobo with a Shotgun (2011).  Here, Hauer is a kindly but tough old vagrant who arrives in a city wanting to buy a second-hand lawnmower and start a grass-cutting business, but ends up, amid welters of extreme violence, taking on the family of murderous psychotic gangsters who run and terrorise the place.  Well, if you get between Rutger Hauer and his dreams of a lawnmower, you deserve to die.

 

One other reason I have for loving Hauer is that in the early 1990s he was the face of the advertising campaign for my favourite alcoholic brew, Guinness.   (Dressed in black, and sporting a shock of fair hair, Hauer did subliminally resemble a pint of Guinness.)  Unfortunately, Guinness is well-nigh impossible to obtain in Sri Lanka, where I live now, so I can’t down a glass of the black stuff to the great man’s memory.  But as soon as I arrive in a Guinness-friendly country, my first pint will have Rutger Hauer’s name on it.

 

© Guinness

 

Great unappreciated films: Licence to Kill

 

© Eon Productions

 

Few events depress me more than when a film critic like the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw or Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers, who knows nothing about James Bond and whose general opinions I don’t think much of either, decides it’s time to pen a feature ranking the Bond films from ‘best’ to ‘worst’.  That invariably means that the 1989 movie Licence to Kill with Timothy Dalton playing Bond ends up near the bottom, held off the ‘worst’ spot only by 1985’s A View to a Kill.  (For the record, I think the worst movie is 1979’s Moonraker, followed closely by 1982’s Octopussy and 2002’s Die Another Day.)  Bradshaw, Travers or whoever the know-nothing critic is will invariably damn Licence to Kill with such adjectives as ‘humourless’, ‘dour’, ‘violent’ and ‘misjudged’.

 

This was the film where Timothy Dalton and the Bond production team decided it was time to shake up the tried-and-tested formula of fantasy plots, over-the-top villains and unlikely action set-pieces by trying something more authentic.  In fact, Licence to Kill is a trailblazer for the Bond films of the 21st century, when the series was rebooted into a darker, grittier (and critically acclaimed) form with Daniel Craig.  But it rarely gets any credit for that.

 

Well, today, the thirtieth anniversary of when Licence to Kill was released in cinemas, it’s time for Blood and Porridge to stand up and be counted.  I think Licence to Kill is a great Bond movie.  When it appeared, I believed it was the best instalment in the series since the 1960s and I still regard it as being among the best half-dozen in the series’ 57-year history.  That its critical reputation is tarnished is down to bad luck.  It was unlucky in the reaction it got from fickle film critics who’d spent the previous two decades complaining that the Bond movies, during the tenure of Roger Moore, had become ‘too silly’ and had lost the ‘serious’ tone of the Ian Fleming books on which they were based.  But the moment that Licence to Kill appeared, they wailed that it was ‘too serious’ and lamented the loss of the glorious silliness of good old Roger Moore.

 

Licence to Kill was unlucky too because, although it made a respectable profit outside the USA, the American takings were the lowest ever for a Bond movie.  Despite what many think, this wasn’t a reflection of its quality, but the result of it being released at an inopportune time when cinemas were already crowded with Lethal Weapon 2, Batman and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (a film that coincidentally was choc-a-bloc with Bond alumni like John Rhys-Davies, Alison Doody, Julian Glover and the original 007 himself Sean Connery).

 

And it was unlucky to be the last movie before the great Bond hiatus of 1989 to 1995, during which no new Bond films were made due to a legal dispute between Danjaq, the franchise’s holding company, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / United Artists.  This gave people the false impression that Licence to Kill, and Timothy Dalton, had crocked the series for half-a-dozen years.

 

When I saw Licence to Kill 30 years ago, what impressed me first was that it had a plot.  Not a jungle-like mesh of subplots and tangents created because producer Cubby Broccoli and his writers wanted to fit in action and special-effects set-pieces involving Viennese gondolas that turn into speedboats, and Amazonian speedboats that turn into hang-gliders, and crashing cable cars, and Bond falling out of a plane without a parachute, and laser-gun shootouts in outer space, but a plot that moves smoothly from A to B and to C.

 

© Eon Productions

 

Licence to Kill begins with Bond being best man at the wedding of his CIA buddy Felix Leiter (David Hedison, who’d already played Leiter in 1974’s Live and Let Die).  Leiter’s big day proves even more eventful than expected because he has to interrupt his nuptials to seize Latin American drug baron Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi).  Sanchez has suddenly turned up on American soil in pursuit of his errant mistress Lupe (Talisa Soto) and her boyfriend – whose heart Sanchez cuts out before Leiter and the Feds clamp the cuffs on him.

 

Felix gets married as planned, but things take a dark turn indeed when Sanchez escapes from captivity, with the aid of crooked DEA agent Ed Killifer (Everett McGill).  Like the monster on Victor and Elizabeth Frankenstein’s wedding night, he and his henchmen turn up at the Leiters’ home to get revenge.  Leiter’s new wife Della (Priscilla Barnes) is murdered – Sanchez’s number-one scumbag minion Dario, played by a very young Benicio Del Toro, crows at Leiter, “Don’t worry, we gave her a nice honeymoo-oon!”  Leiter is dunked in a shark tank in a marine research centre in Key West, which is one of the fronts for Sanchez’s US drugs-smuggling operation.  Later, Bond discovers Della’s dead body and Leiter’s just-about-alive one (minus a couple of limbs) and vows his own revenge.

 

He picks up the trail in Key West, first investigating the marine research centre and then Sanchez’s yacht / research vessel the Wavekrest – by this time Sanchez himself has returned to his home turf, which is a fictitious Latin American country called Isthmus.  Bond tangles violently with Dario and Sanchez’s sleazy American lieutenant Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe) and, gratifyingly, he drops Killifer and his suitcase of blood money into the shark tank where Leiter was maimed.  (“You earned it!  You keep it!”)  Along the way, he finds an unexpected ally in the form of Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), an airplane pilot who’s been working for Leiter in some mysterious capacity.  And he incurs the wrath of his boss M (Robert Brown), who thinks he’s getting involved in matters that don’t concern him (“We’re not a country club, 007!”) and revokes his licence to kill.  This was why the film had provisionally been titled Licence Revoked until, the story goes, research in the USA suggested that many Americans didn’t know what the word ‘revoked’ meant.

 

© Eon Productions

 

Now a rogue agent, Bond steals a fortune in drugs money from the Wavekrest and uses it to fund a trip to Isthmus for him and Bouvier.  There, he tries to assassinate Sanchez but fails and, in the process, unwittingly exposes a secret operation being run against Sanchez by narcotics officers from Hong Kong.  This leaves Sanchez with the impression that the Hong Kong officers were the ones trying to assassinate him and Bond, by exposing them, is actually on his side.  An unlikely bromance ensues and Sanchez, enamoured with Bond, tries to recruit him into his organisation.

 

Aware that Sanchez is obsessed with loyalty, Bond starts planting doubts in Sanchez’s mind about the fidelity of his many henchmen who, in addition to those already mentioned, include his head of security Heller (Don Stroud) and his whizz-kid accountant Truman-Lodge (Anthony Starke).  Time, though, is running short for Bond because the two members of Sanchez’s organisation who know his true identity are returning to Isthmus: Krest, on board the Wavekrest, and Dario, who’s coming by way of El Salvador, where he’s managed to procure some stinger missiles.  Sanchez intends to use these to shoot down American aircraft in revenge for his recent incarceration.

 

What follows involves much mayhem and gruesome death – death by being doused in gasoline and set alight, death by being blown apart in a decompression chamber, death by being impaled on forklift blades, death by being fed into a cocaine-grinding machine – a lot of it inflicted by a now-paranoid Sanchez on the people who work for him.  Yes, Licence to Kill seems a million miles removed from the Roger Moore Bonds, where the most gruesome things were the innuendo-laden jokes cracked while Moore got intimate with ladies about half his age.  (“He’s attempting re-entry!” someone remarks as Moore gets it on with Lois Chiles on board an earthbound space shuttle in Moonraker.)  But while the brutality here may shock someone accustomed to the escapist fantasises of the 1970s and 1980s Bond movies, I loved it.

 

This was the sort of Bond imagined by Ian Fleming, most of whose books I’d read before I saw any of the films.  Not, of course, that Fleming ever wrote about 1980s Latin American drug dealers – his gangsters were of the James Cagney variety, with names like ‘Jack Spang’, ‘Sluggsy Morant’, ‘Sol Horowitz’, ‘Sam Binion’ and ‘Louie Paradise’.  But Dalton nails it as the screen Bond who was closest to the character described by Fleming.  Smooth and confident on the surface, but subtly troubled underneath, he does some bad stuff in the line of duty and hates having to do it.  Though even more, he hates the evil deeds, like the atrocities perpetrated against Leiter, that necessitate him having to do it.

 

© Eon Productions

 

Not that the film is as dark as many have made out.  It has some amusing lines and likeable performances.  One thing that brings a smile to the face is the entry into the plot, halfway through, of Bond’s secret-service armourer Q, played by the venerable Desmond Llewellyn.  Q takes some leave and nips over to Isthmus to help Bond and Bouvier out, bringing with him a cache of his famous gadgets.  (“Everything for a man on holiday.  Explosive alarm clock…  Guaranteed never to wake up anyone who uses it.  Dentonite toothpaste…  To be used sparingly.  The latest in plastic explosive!”)  After the Moore films, where Q’s main function was to be the butt of Bond’s jokes, it’s nice to see him with an expanded role and enjoying a different dynamic with Bond.  In Licence to Kill, the two men actually respect, like and care about each other.

 

Llewellyn, though, is just one player in a generally delightful cast.  A 1980s / 1990s action-movie character actor, and nowadays a Sinatra-esque crooner, Robert Davi is excellent as Sanchez.  He tempers sufficient quantities of rottenness with some unexpected integrity – for instance, he insists on honouring the deal he’s made with Killifer, even though his sidekicks urge him to take the easier option of whacking the guy.  Similarly distinguished character actors play the other villains: Zerbe, Stroud, McGill and, of course, Del Toro.  Plus you get some familiar and welcome faces  in smaller roles, including Frank McRae from 48 Hrs (1982) and The Last Action Hero (1993) and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa from the Mortal Combat franchise.

 

Also deserving praise is Carey Lowell.  Just as Davi is the great overlooked Bond villain, Lowell is the great overlooked Bond girl.  From the very beginning, when she shuts up the odious Dario by shoving a pump-action shotgun into his crotch, her Pam Bouvier character means business.  Her gutsiness is immensely refreshing after so many Bond actresses in the 1970s and 1980s were given roles that were wooden (Carole Bouquet), insipid (Jane Seymour) or just plain dumb (Jill St John, Britt Ekland, Tanya Roberts).  It’s good too that she doesn’t merely follow Bond but has her own separate agenda – retrieving the stinger missiles before Sanchez does serious damage with them, a scheme for which she’s enlisted the help of the duplicitous Heller.

 

© Eon Productions

 

What else do I like about Licence to Kill?  I like its references to Ian Fleming’s fiction – Milton Krest, the Wavekrest and Sanchez’s fondness for whipping Lupe with a stingray’s tail come from the 1960 short story The Hildebrand Rarity, while Leiter’s encounter with the shark is lifted from the 1954 novel Live and Let Die.  I like how the secondary Bond girl, Talisa Soto’s Lupe, survives the film – in many films the secondary Bond girl, from Lana Wood’s Plenty O’Toole in Diamonds are Forever (1971) to Berenice Marlohe’s Severine in Skyfall (2012), ends up as a sacrificial lamb, killed to show how beastly the villains are.  And I like the theme song by Gladys Knight.  While it’s not in the premiere division of Bond themes, it has a stateliness that’s welcome after the filmmakers’ previous flirtations with pop groups and pop songs, i.e. Aha’s The Living Daylights (1987), a song that I hated at the time but quite like now, and Duran Duran’s A View to a Kill (1985), a song that I hated at the time and hate even more now.

 

And I like how the film is a spiritual sequel to perhaps the best-ever Bond movie, 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which ends with Bond getting married and then seeing his new wife Tracy murdered by his nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  This is referenced in Licence to Kill by a moment when Bond becomes melancholic during Leiter’s wedding – “He was married once,” Leiter tells Della, “but that was a long time ago.”  (When I saw the film in 1989 in a cinema in Aberdeen, someone in the row behind me declared: “Aye, an’ he looked like George Lazenby at the time!”)  This suggests that later in the film Bond isn’t just avenging Leiter and Della, but Tracy too.

 

And faults?  Well, Licence to Kill suffers from a couple of character inconsistencies.  For a man who’s recently lost  wife and limbs, David Hedison’s Leiter seems unfathomably cheerful when he reappears at the end – maybe it’s the drugs they were feeding him at the hospital.   Meanwhile, Carey Lowell’s Bouvier is ill-served by a scene where she encounters Lupe, finds out that she’s spent the night with Bond and reacts like a sulky, jealous schoolgirl.  (“Bullshit!” she exclaims when Q diplomatically suggests that Bond only did it for the sake of the mission.)  She’s entitled to be upset, but being upset like this is out-of-character for her.

 

Licence to Kill, alas, marked Timothy Dalton’s last appearance as Bond.  When the franchise finally got going again with 1995’s Goldeneye, it was with the cuddlier Pierce Brosnan in the role.  (I like Brosnan, but always found his attempts to combine the physicality of Sean Connery with the smoothness of Roger Moore a little unconvincing.)  As I’ve said, Dalton strikes me as the actor who came closest to portraying Bond in the way Fleming had envisioned him and, for me, there’s no higher accolade.  He’s the connoisseur’s Bond.

 

© Eon Productions

 

Grab a Pugh

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Film 4

 

When I hear the term ‘feel-good British comedy movie’, I usually want to hide inside a coal bin.  This is especially so when the film credits contain the words ‘Richard’ and ‘Curtis’.  Curtis’s cinematic oeuvre doesn’t leave me feeling good, but leaves me feeling sick: for example, Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1998), the first two Bridget Jones films (2001 and 2004) and the absolutely vomit-inducing Love Actually (2003).

 

I have no intention of ever watching the new Curtis-scripted, Beatles-themed movie Yesterday (2019), even though it’s directed by Danny Boyle.  I suspect exposure to it would cause me to develop spewing, frothing, screaming, running-around symptoms similar to those of the people infected by the virus in Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002).

 

That said, I did enjoy the recent British comedy-drama Fighting with my Family, which tells the story of Norwich-born World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) female wrestler Saraya ‘Paige’ Bevis, played by the currently ubiquitous Florence Pugh.  Curtis has no connection with the film but it’s written and directed by another long-term member of Britain’s comedy establishment, Stephen Merchant, the former writing partner of Ricky Gervais.

 

Now Fighting with my Family is no masterpiece and its rags-to-riches tale is a very familiar one.  At the start, when Paige isn’t hurtling, bouncing and thudding around the ring in her family’s wrestling gym / independent wrestling-circuit venue, she’s mooching about the streets of Norwich in black eyeliner, facial piercings and unsunny goth-metal gear.  Then she gets a once-in-a-lifetime break at a WWE try-out at the O2 Arena, is selected and flown to the USA by wrestling promoter / coach Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughan), is trained in the flashy and razzmatazz-y ways of the WWE and finally wins the WWE Divas Championship.  During the process she encounters hardships: like having to withstand the tough-love training of Morgan, who forces his charges to upend monster-truck tyres all the way along a beach; and the bitchiness of her fellow lady wrestler-trainees, who are ex-models, ex-dancers and ex-cheerleaders, are glammed up to 11 even at moments when they should be shedding sweat like garden sprinklers, and regard poor Paige as a refugee from a Halloween party.

 

The positive, life-affirming ending is never in doubt, though.  It couldn’t be – for Paige is a real wrestler, her remarkable story is well known and it’s already been chronicled in a 2012 Channel 4 documentary.

 

From www.j4jacket.com

 

But Fighting with My Family has some good things going for it, especially when you compare it with the lame British movies I ranted about in the opening paragraph.  For a start, it isn’t populated by poshos who, though they’re disgustingly wealthy – Hugh Grant’s character in Four Weddings hangs out with ‘the eighth richest man in England’ while Bridget Jones owns a massive studio flat in London while flitting off at weekends to her parents’ mansion in the Home Counties – we’re expected to feel sorry for because they can’t get laid and can’t get hitched.  Paige’s wrestling-fixated family – rumbustious multi-tattooed dad Patrick / Rowdy Richard (Nick Frost), rumbustious crimson-haired mum Julia / Sweet Saraya (Lena Headey), and more reflective brother Zac / Zodiac (Jack Lowther) – are a million miles removed from that.  They’re hardly what you’d call ordinary, but they’re definitely non-privileged.  They also interact and behave as a believable family unit.  Compare them with the characters in Four Weddings, who seem to have been thrown together purely for comic effect.  I’m sure that in real life the Hugh Grant character would have run a hundred miles rather than associate with a grizzled old ham like the one played by Simon Callow.

 

It’s nice too to have the British part of the film set outside London and the Home Counties, and set in a provincial centre like Norwich – where, incidentally, I lived in 2008 and 2009.  There’s some scenic shots of the town from Mousehold Heath and Norwich Market is shown in all its variegated glory.  Indeed, while I was watching the film with my better half and during a scene set in the market, I pointed excitedly at a particular market stall and exclaimed: “Look!  That’s where I bought my George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead T-shirt!”

 

And I like the fact that even by the end of the film, when Paige enjoys her moment of triumph, she doesn’t renounce her outsider status – she still embraces it.  Admittedly, there was a part earlier on where, in response to the jibes of her more glamorous American wrestling compadres, she dyes her hair blonde and tries to lighten her wardrobe.  I was worried that she was going to be like Ally Sheedy at the end of The Breakfast Club (1985), but thankfully this makeover is only temporary.  Paige’s cultural inclinations also mean that we get some decent music on the film’s soundtrack, including Motorhead’s Born to Raise Hell and Iron Maiden’s Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter.  (If there’s anything I hate more than a Richard Curtis movie, it’s a Richard Curtis movie musical soundtrack, which consists of artists whom the filmmakers calculatingly consider ‘cool’ and ‘cutting edge’ at the time, like, er, Wet Wet Wet, Robbie Williams and Geri Halliwell, doing cover versions of famous songs by the Troggs, Frank Sinatra and the Weather Girls.  And even though Yesterday is about the Beatles, they’ve somehow managed to shoehorn Ed Sheerin into it.)

 

For all its feel-good fuzziness, there’s also some genuine emotional heft in Fighting with the Family’s storyline.  Paige’s brother Zac wrestles at the O2 Arena try-out too but, unlike her, fails to make the grade, returns to Norwich with his dreams of WWE stardom in flitters and faces an unplanned-for life of fatherhood, domesticity and drudgery.  This will strike a cord with anyone who has a talent and longs to make it big with that talent – but through not having enough talent, or just being unlucky, has to eventually resign themselves to a life of ordinariness.  What makes Zac’s dejection worse is the fact (obvious to everyone but himself) that he’s achieving as much, if not more than Paige, just by being his day-to-day self.  He runs his parents’ gym and gives wrestling lessons to a bunch of local kids who’d otherwise be getting mixed up with drugs and getting into trouble with the law.

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Film 4

 

One thing that stopped me being too cynical whilst watching Fighting with the Family is my inability to resist – try as I might – the crazed showmanship of the professional wrestling world.  When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the old British pro-wrestlers like Giant Haystacks, Mick McManus and Kendo Nagasaki.  Later, when I worked as a teacher in Japan, I discovered that all the Japanese kids were obsessed with Japanese pro-wrestlers – and it didn’t surprise me in the noughties that my nephews, when they were wee lads, were totally into the WWE.  Even today, when I’m in a pub and someone puts the WWE channel on the big TV screen, I try to ignore it but after a few minutes find myself watching it avidly.  It might seem a bombastic, over-the-top joke, but you can understand how Paige and her family are so infatuated by it and why her participation in the WWE is such a big deal for them.

 

Inevitably, Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson (who also co-produced the movie) gets a walk-on part playing himself.  I have no objection to pro-wrestlers like the Rock turning up in films and acting, though I have to say that when it comes to wrestler-actors he (and indeed, Dave Bautista, Hulk Hogan, Jesse Ventura and the rest) isn’t fit to kiss the laced-up boots of the mighty Pat Roach or, indeed, Blood and Porridge-favourite Brian Glover.

 

One other thing – as far as I can determine, this is the second British comedy-sports movie that has featured Vince Vaughan as a hardnosed American promoter who comes to Britain and shakes up a cosy little sporting cottage industry.  He’s already played this type in the forgotten Mel Smith-directed Blackball (2003), also starring Paul Kaye, James Cromwell, Johnny Vegas and Bernard Cribbins, in which he tries to turn the sleepy British sport of lawn bowls into one of WWE-style loudness and brashness whilst repackaging Kaye’s character as ‘the bad boy of bowls’.

 

What next?  Will Vaughan make one more film in this vein and complete the trilogy?  I’d like to see him in a film where he travels to Scotland and tries to turn curling into a brutal and combative sport along the lines of rollerball.

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Film 4

 

The Ken and Ollie show

 

© Russo Productions / Warner Bros.

 

Twenty years ago this month, Oliver Reed – possibly the most rambunctious and unpredictable actor in British film history, and surely the thirstiest – breathed his last.

 

He’d been in Malta filming Gladiator (1999) for Ridley Scott and, incidentally, quietly stealing the show from Russell Crowe.  (“I wasn’t the best because I killed quickly…  I was the best because the crowd loved me.”)  One afternoon, he accompanied his wife to a Chinese restaurant in Valetta only to find that the restaurant was closed and they ended up instead in a nearby pub.  Here, the 61-year-old Reed proceeded to knock back rums at an industrial rate and engage sailors just off a Royal Navy warship in arm-wrestling bouts until, suddenly, his heart packed in.  So I thought I would mark May 2019, twentieth anniversary of the great man’s death, by writing about one of his classic films.  And there’s no more classic an Ollie Reed movie than 1971’s ultra-controversial The Devils, scripted and directed by his friend, and some would say partner-in-crime, Ken Russell.

 

By the way, the following comments are based on the version of The Devils I own, an 111-minute DVD from the British Film Institute with an introduction by Mark Kermode.  I’ve heard, though, that since 2004 there’s been a 117-minute version with restored footage on the go.  If you’ve never seen the movie, don’t read on – there will be spoilers galore.

 

Based on historical events in 17th century France, and on two works inspired by those events, Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils of Loudon (1952) and John Whiting’s play The Devils (1961), the film deals with skulduggery at national and local levels.  The power-hungry Cardinal Richelieu (played by Christopher Logue, who was best known as a poet) encourages Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) to create a centralised and authoritarian France, with the Catholic Church entrenched as keeper of the national faith.  This means taking action against certain French cities that have become laws onto themselves and function like city-states.

 

© Russo Productions / Warner Bros.

 

Particularly irksome to Richelieu is the city of Loudon, which has kept its autonomy thanks to its huge fortified city walls and which has a dismaying tendency to treat its Protestant citizens as equals to the Catholic ones.  Richelieu sends his agent, Baron Jean de Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton), with orders to demolish Loudon’s walls and bring the city to heel.  However, de Laubardemont is thwarted when confronted by Urbain Grandier (Reed), an eloquent and powerful city priest who’s able to bring the citizenry onto the streets to resist him and his soldiers.

 

Grandier’s political principles might be high-minded but his personal ones are anything but.  A philanderer and predator, he’s already impregnated and abandoned one woman (Georgina Hale) and is busy wooing another (Gemma Jones), whom he marries in a secret ceremony after claiming to have found theological justification that priests can become husbands.

 

Meanwhile, de Laubardemont joins forces with members of the local clergy, judiciary and trades whom Grandier has offended for personal or professional reasons and they conspire to destroy him.  Their means of doing so comes from an unexpected source – the scoliosis-stricken Sister Jeanne des Anges (Vanessa Redgrave), abbess of a Loudon convent.  Although she’s never met Grandier, Sister Jeanne has worshipped him from afar, first in a spiritual way and then – through a series of increasingly graphic and disturbing visions – in an ungodly, sensual one.  Eventually she becomes deranged, her hysteria infects the nuns under her governance, and she accuses Grandier of using witchcraft to possess and corrupt her and her convent.  De Laubardemont and his allies promptly summon the witch-hunting Father Barre (Michael Gothard) to investigate.  When they’ve gathered enough ‘evidence’, they have Grandier charged with witchcraft and put him on trial for his life.

 

© Russo Productions / Warner Bros.

 

With its brew of politics, sex, violence and religion, which in turn are depicted cynically, explicitly, unflinchingly and sacrilegiously, The Devils was and still is a provocative watch.  It had an ‘X’ certificate slapped on it in the USA, which meant few Americans got to see it – X-certificate movies were assumed to be pornographic ones and got few theatre-bookings.  In addition, both the studio, Warner Brothers, and the censors took scissors to its more inflammatory scenes.  And Britain’s establishment critics were aghast.  The prissy and grumpy Leslie Halliwell, whose Filmgoers’ Companion books were for many years the only film-reference books British people read, dismissed it as ‘outrageously sick’ and ‘in howling bad taste from beginning to end’, while the hostility shown by the Evening Standard’s Alexander Walker culminated in a bust-up in a TV studio where Russell smacked the critic over the head with a rolled-up copy of his own newspaper.

 

These days, predictably, all that condemnatory water has passed well under the bridge.  Younger critics and filmmakers recognise Russell as a flamboyant auteur who added welcome dashes of flair, colour, imagination and daringness to a British film industry that was long accustomed to making stodgy historical costume dramas and dreary kitchen-sink dramas and seemed unaware that cinema is supposed to be, you know, cinematic.  And The Devils is acknowledged as his masterpiece.  For instance, Ben Wheatley, director of Kill List (2011) and High Rise (2016), has said, “The Devils to me stands alone in Ken Russell’s work.  It has all the fierceness and craziness of his movies, but it also has a seriousness and an intensity that isn’t in his other movies.”

 

Anyway, what’s my assessment of The Devils?  Well, I’ll start with what I see as the movie’s weakness.  Although it’s intended to be over the top, it goes a bit too over the top during the lengthy sequences where Father Barre and his lackeys invade the convent searching for proof of Grandier’s demonic influence.  Barre has already, secretly, threatened the nuns with execution unless they agree to behave hysterically.  And on cue, those nuns put on a hell of a show – a chaotic fracas of nudity, licentiousness, writhing, screaming, eye-goggling, tongue-waggling, attempted copulation with candlesticks and some carry-on with a giant effigy of Christ on the cross that the Vatican probably wouldn’t approve of.  At this point, you feel you’re watching not so much a Ken Russell film as a parody of a Ken Russell film – which come to think of it, was what his later Lair of the White Worm (1988) was.

 

© Russo Productions / Warner Bros.

 

Otherwise, I think The Devils is magnificent.  Its highlights include the stylised sets by a young Derek Jarman, which eschew the grime, grubbiness and gloom you associate with life four centuries ago and instead are dazzlingly white and clean but also disturbingly clinical.  These include Sister’s Jeanne’s convent, whose warren of chambers and passageways have the look of some germ-free medical institution, and Richelieu’s headquarters, which resemble a cross between a giant bank-vault and a well-scrubbed prison and are disconcertingly staffed by priests and nuns.  The Devils’ policy of telling a historical story but not with historically accurate backdrops would appear in later British movies, most notably those made by Jarman himself when he became a director, such as Caravaggio (1986) and Edward II (1991).  And I suspect that an also-young Peter Greenaway was making notes because The Devils contains sequences reminiscent of his later films – for example, one where Russell’s camera closes in on the figure of de Laubardemont while he stands against a painting-like tableau.

 

The performances are another highlight.  The band of conspirators set on eliminating Grandier are played by a glorious rogue’s gallery of British character actors.  Dudley Sutton makes a credibly villainous de Laubardemont, his rottenness tempered with a soldierly practicality and matter-of-factness.  Northern Irish actor Max Adrian and British sitcom stalwart Brian Murphy – yes, that’s George from George and Mildred (1976-1980) – are fabulously contemptible as the pair of quack medical practitioners who fall out with Grandier when he catches them trying to treat a plague victim with glass globes containing bees placed over the buboes and also, bizarrely, with a stuffed crocodile.  “What fresh lunacy is this?” Grandier bellows at them, a line that became the title of Robert Sellars’ biography of Oliver Reed, published in 2013.

 

There are excellent turns too from the impish Georgina Hale, embittered but endearing as the woman Grandier has wronged, and John Woodvine – Doctor Hirsch in the 1981 classic An American Werewolf in London – as her magistrate father, whose enmity for Grandier helps seal his fate.  Meanwhile, decked out in hippy-esque hair and John Lennon specs, Michael Gothard gives a barnstorming performance as the witch-hunting Father Barre.  Indeed, his volubility will surprise viewers who remember him chiefly as Locque, Roger Moore’s silent, expressionless foe in 1981’s For Your Eyes Only.  More nuanced is Murray Melvin, playing Father Mignon, a priest suspicious of Grandier who first alerts the conspirators to what’s happening in the convent.  Later – but too late – he realises that Grandier is innocent of the charges against him.

 

© Russo Productions / Warner Bros.

 

Gemma Jones is sympathetic and convincing as Madeleine, the woman whom Grandier covertly marries and the film’s only properly virtuous character.  Abandoning his philandering ways, he comes to regard her as his soulmate.  It’s difficult to imagine that Jones in The Devils is the same actress who plays the title character’s mother in the Bridget Jones trilogy – three movies that are the extreme opposite of everything that Russell stood for in the British film industry.

 

Ultimately, though, The Devils belongs to its two stars.  Vanessa Redgrave’s portrayal of Sister Jeanne ranges from the unhinged and monstrous to the pitiful and pathetic, often within the same scene.  The war in her soul between sensuous yearning and stultifying piety is symbolised externally by the contrast between her comely face and the grotesque hump protruding from her back.

 

Then there’s Reed, at the height of his physical and acting powers – powers that, alas, would wane as he grew evermore fond of the bottle, his drunken antics on chat-shows like Aspel, The Word and After Dark became the stuff of legend and his career went through the floor.  Here, though, he dominates the film.  He makes Grandier absolutely believable as, simultaneously, a heroic leader of men, a cerebral theologian and a sensation-hungry scoundrel.   His performance reaches a peak of intensity during the trial scenes.  Reed stuck to films and avoided the theatre, lacking the patience to go out and parrot the same lines night after night, but when you see him in verbal combat with Sutton before a row of judges (fearsomely clad in Ku Klux Klan-like white robes), you feel this would have been a brilliant piece of acting to watch live on a stage.

 

There follows the film’s cruel and despairing finale.  Grandier is found guilty and tortured by Barre, who uses a hammer to smash his feet to a pulp.  Then he’s burned alive in the middle of a city square, in front of a nightmarishly drunken and jeering crowd – no longer does Grandier command the loyalty and affection of Loudon’s citizens.  (Unlike Gladiator, this is an Oliver Reed film where the crowd doesn’t love him.)  Particularly horrible are the moments when Grandier continues to pontificate in a half-defiant, half-pleading voice while his face blackens and blisters in the flames.  The scene was filmed long before the advent of CGI and its impact comes from the skills of the actors, make-up artists and practical special-effects team.  I can’t imagine it was a comfortable one for Reed to shoot.

 

The Devils certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.  My partner, who’s no prude, doesn’t like it especially.  She admires the performances and set design, but the dearth of sympathetic characters and the glut of totally unsympathetic ones, and the unrelenting venality, hypocrisy and superstitious stupidity on display, prevent her from enjoying it much.  However, if you can stomach the film’s bleak view of humanity, and you value Ken Russell’s operatic directing style, The Devils is second to none.

 

Or indeed, second to nun…  Well, I’m sure Ken and Ollie would have appreciated the pun.

 

© Russo Productions / Warner Bros.

 

The importance of being Ernst

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(c) Eon Productions
(c) Eon Productions

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Details of the forthcoming 25th official James Bond movie were announced via a media rollout on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook on April 25th, 2019.  This came after a series of delays, script rewrites and changes of director that, depending on your point of view, is a sign that the long-running James Bond franchise is in trouble or is just part-and-parcel of the cumbersome business of getting a Bond epic to the screen.  Anyway, two important questions remain unanswered.  Firstly, what is the new Bond movie actually going to be called?  And secondly, will Bond’s archenemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who made his long-awaited comeback in the previous instalment Spectre (2015), return for this new one? 

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It’s been reported that Christoph Waltz, who played Blofeld in Spectre, won’t be in the new film.  However, previous films and the Ian Fleming books that inspired them have depicted Blofeld as someone with a penchant for radically altering his appearance.  So it’s still possible that he’ll be back in Bond 25, played by a different actor – perhaps Rami Malik, who’s been unveiled as the film’s main ‘villain’.

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Ernst Stavro Blofeld, super-intelligent and super-nasty leader of the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion organisation (SPECTRE for short), is a paradoxical figure.  On one hand, in popular consciousness, he’s as much a part of Bond tradition as Q’s gadgets, shaken-not-stirred dry martinis and the Aston Martin DB5.  Mention of him conjures up images of a sinister foreigner sporting a shaven head, wearing a white Mao-suit, stroking a white cat and feeding minions to piranha fish when they fail to carry out his orders.  It’s no surprise that when Mike Myers lovingly spoofed the Bond movies with his Austen Powers ones (1997-2002), he made sure he spoofed Blofeld too with the character of the bald-headed, Mao-suit-wearing, cat-stroking, piranha-feeding Dr Evil.

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But on the other hand, Blofeld isn’t really in the Bond books and movies that much.  He appears in only three of Ian Fleming’s 14 Bond novels and short-story collections, and in one of those, 1961’s Thunderball, Bond and Blofeld never meet – Bond spends the novel tangling with Blofeld’s lieutenant, Emilio Largo.  Meanwhile, Blofeld is featured in seven of the 24 Bond movies made over the past six decades by Eon Productions, but makes only fleeting appearances in three of them.  And three of the four films where Blofeld is a substantial character were made during the first decade of the franchise.  Before Waltz stepped into Blofeld’s shoes in Spectre, we’d hardly seen anything of the old rogue since 1971’s Diamonds are Forever

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(Still, in terms of presence in popular mythology versus lack-of-presence in the original source material, Blofeld has nothing on Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis Professor Moriarty, who doesn’t figure in 58 of the 60 Holmes stories.  He only properly appears in one story and lurks offstage in one other.)

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(c) Jonathan Cape

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Thunderball, the novel in which Blofeld made his debut, was really a collaborative effort.  It was written by Fleming but based on a script he’d put together with Irish writer-director Kevin McClory and British playwright and screenwriter Jack Whittingham for a Bond film in the late 1950s.  The film came to nothing and Fleming’s publication of the novel a few years later resulted in legal action from McClory and Whittingham.  Although who came up with which ideas in Thunderball has been a matter of dispute, I’m inclined to believe Blofeld was the product of Fleming’s imagination rather than McClory or Whittingham’s.  For one thing, Fleming had attended Eton in the company of one Thomas Blofeld and he probably borrowed his old schoolmate’s surname for the character.  (This real Blofeld was the father of the famous cricket commentator Henry Blofeld.)  

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Meanwhile, Blofeld’s Wikipedia entry suggests that Fleming took inspiration for his personality from the infamous Greek arms dealer Basil Zaharoff.  After escapades in his youth as a confidence man, bigamist, possible arsonist, dodgy goods exporter and general manipulator and social climber, Zaharoff came to specialise in selling weaponry – weaponry that sometimes didn’t work, as with the Nordenfelt 1 submarine that he flogged off to Greece, Turkey and Russia.  Zaharoff also had no qualms about supplying arms to countries that were fighting on either side of a conflict, which is a very Blofeld-ish thing to do.

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(c) Jonathan Cape

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Over the course of three novels – Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963) and You Only Live Twice (1964) – Blofeld is quite a shapeshifter.  In Thunderball, he’s a whale of a man, some 20 stones in weight.  In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he’s slimmed down to 12 stones, wears green-tinted contact lenses and, disconcertingly, has a syphilitic gumma on his nose.  And in You Only Live Twice, he’s bulked out again, though with muscle rather than fat.  His mouth flashes a gold-capped tooth and his nose has been fixed. 

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More interesting, though, is how Fleming charts Blofeld’s mental development (or degeneration).  The Blofeld of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has succumbed to that most bourgeois of diseases, snobbery, and is pestering the College of Arms in London to acknowledge him as a reigning aristocrat, the Comte Balthazar de Bleuville.   (A genealogy expert tells Bond how respectable people lose all dignity when they’re angling for a title or a coat of arms: “they dwindle and dwindle in front of you… until they’re no more than homunculi.”)  By You Only Live Twice, Blofeld’s state-of-mind has gone from snobbery to insanity.  He lives in a castle on the Japanese island of Kyushu and has installed a bizarre ‘garden of death’, teeming with deadly flora and fauna and riddled with sulphurous fumaroles, which has become a popular visiting spot for people wanting to commit suicide.  To be fair, by this point Bond isn’t much saner than Blofeld, due to Blofeld having murdered his wife Tracy at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

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(c) Eon Productions

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The films, in tune with the escapist mood of the 1960s, were happy to use Blofeld and SPECTRE as their fantasy baddies from the start – unlike the earliest novels, which were set in the Cold War and had the Russians providing the villainy.  Blofeld makes his first appearance in 1963’s From Russia with Love.  “Let his death be a particularly unpleasant and humiliating one!” he decrees of Bond.  However, he has only a minor role and remains hidden within a large chair, and we only see his hands stroking the glossy white fur of a Persian cat.  (The white cat was a detail added by the filmmakers, although in Fleming’s books Auric Goldfinger did own a ginger cat – a rather unfortunate one, for he ends up being given as dinner to Goldfinger’s sidekick, Oddjob.)  Blofeld was played physically by the Scottish actor Anthony Dawson, while his mellifluous voice was supplied by the Austrian actor Eric Pohlmann.  Two years later, Dawson and Pohlmann reteamed to play Blofeld bodily and vocally in the film version of Thunderball, but again it was a minor, away-from-the-action role. 

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It wasn’t until the 1967 movie You Only Live Twice – which confusingly preceded the movie version of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1968), even though they appeared the other way around as books – that we get to see Blofeld’s face for the first time, as does Bond.  And he’s played by the sublimely sinister Donald Pleasence with all the classic Blofeld accoutrements (bald head, Mao-suit, cat, piranhas).  Interestingly, though, as soon as the filmmakers had created the definite Blofeld template with the goblin-like Pleasence, they immediately chose not to continue with that version of the character.  For when Blofeld reappears in 1968 in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he’s played very differently by the celebrated Greek-American actor Telly Savalas.

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(c) Eon Productions

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Savalas’s Blofeld is physical, macho and, when we see him flirting with heroine Diana Rigg, brutishly charming.  To be honest, he’s a shade too physical and macho for the role and you can’t help feeling he’d have made a better henchman than the Big Villain.  But Savalas is certainly believable when doing the strenuous outdoors things required by the script, such as leading a ski-group in pursuit of Bond and wrestling with him during a breakneck bobsleigh ride.  Much as I like Donald Pleasance, I couldn’t imagine the creepy, pop-eyed English character actor hurtling down a mountainside on a bobsleigh.

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Incidentally, when Bond and Blofeld meet up in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the script glaringly contradicts the continuity established by its predecessor.  Despite coming face-to-face at the climax of You Only Live Twice, in the new film Blofeld doesn’t recognise Bond at all.  (Admittedly, Bond does look different all of a sudden because producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Salzman had just replaced Sean Connery with George Lazenby, but let’s not go into that.) 

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Like its literary equivalent, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service ends with Blofeld murdering Bond’s wife Tracey.  As Blofeld also features in the next Bond movie, 1971’s Diamonds are Forever, you’d expect it to be a tough and intense affair.  But Diamonds are Forever is nothing of the sort.  Sean Connery (enticed back into 007’s shoes by a 1.25-million-pound paycheque after George Lazenby jumped ship) is given five minutes at the beginning to look vengeful and that’s it.  Then the film becomes the epitome of cinematic Bond laziness, its plot meandering nonsensically from one action set-piece to another, its visuals packed with easy-on-the-eye spectacle and lavishness.  No doubt this was because the melancholic On Her Majesty’s Secret Service hadn’t been a big success and producers Broccoli and Saltzman wanted to play it safe and return to a formula that audiences were comfortable with. 

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Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever is played acerbically and amusingly by English character actor Charles Gray.  While he’s wreaking havoc with a deadly laser gun mounted on a satellite, he sneers: “The satellite is now over Kansas.   Well, if we destroy Kansas, the world may not hear about it for years.”  Indeed, Gray and the bemused, past-caring Connery make quite the double act.  “What do you intend to do with those diamonds?” demands Bond at one point.  Blofeld retorts, “An excellent question, and one which will be hanging on the lips of the world quite soon.  If I were to break the news to anyone, it would be to you first, Mr Bond.  You know that.”

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(c) Eon Productions

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Diamonds are Forever was the last Bond film for a long time in which Blofeld (and SPECTRE) are prominent.  This was due to ongoing legal issues with Kevin McClory, which stemmed from the controversy over the novel and original film script of Thunderball.  However, a villain who’s obviously Blofeld – though he isn’t named for the aforementioned legal reasons – does turn up at the beginning of the fifth Bond movie starring Roger Moore, For Your Eyes Only (1981).  He’s bald, has a white cat, is now in a wheelchair and neck-brace and, returning to the policy of From Russia with Love and Thunderball, he’s physically played by one actor, John Hollis, and voiced by another, Robert Rietti.  In the film’s pre-credits sequence, Blofeld traps Bond above London in a remote-controlled helicopter.  Alas, what begins as an exciting action set-piece descends into typical Moore-era silliness when Bond gains manual control of the helicopter, and somehow scoops Blofeld and his wheelchair up on one of the helicopter’s landing skids, and drops him into a factory chimney. 

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Having won the right to remake Thunderball, Kevin McClory did so in 1983.  His production company brought out Never Say Never Again, a rogue Bond film unconnected with the Eon series – although it did have Sean Connery, no doubt keen to thumb his nose at his former employers, reprising the role of Bond.  Since McClory had the rights to Blofeld too, it was inevitable that Bond’s old nemesis should feature in the plot. This time he’s played by the mighty Swedish actor Max von Sydow but, like in the original Thunderball, he doesn’t have much to do.  Now I admire von Sydow, but all I remember about him in this film is my surprise at seeing Blofeld with a beard and in a grey business suit.  And from the way von Sydow clutches the little fellow to his chest, this Blofeld really loves his white cat.

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(c) Taliafilm / Warner Bros.

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In 2013 the legal row was finally settled with Kevin McClory’s estate and Eon Productions were free to use Blofeld and SPECTRE again – and they did in their very next film, the emphatically titled Spectre.  In the role of the 21st century Blofeld is Christoph Waltz, who plays him as a charismatic but psychotic Euro-scumbag.  Unlike most Blofelds of old, he sports a full head of hair and commits crimes against fashion as well as against humanity by wearing his loafers without socks.  But he still has the cat. 

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The new Blofeld also goes by another name, Franz Oberhauser, and we learn eventually that he’s connected to Bond through his father, Hannes Oberhauser, who brought up the young James Bond after his parents were killed in a climbing accident.  This backstory involving Blofeld and Bond brought hoots of derision from many movie critics, though I didn’t have much of a problem with it – the adoptive father-figure of Hannes Oberhauser existed in Ian Fleming’s original, literary Bond-universe and Bond talked about him in the short story Octopussy, published in 1966.  It’s just unfortunate that the third Austen Powers film, Goldmember (2002), has a similar revelation linking Powers and Dr Evil.

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And so the million-dollar question now is, with Waltz seemingly departed, will Rami Malik be playing yet another incarnation of Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Bond 25?  And if so, what will the latest Blofeld be like?  One thing I’m fairly sure about, though.  If Blofeld is returning, I reckon the theatrical agent of a certain fluffy, white Persian will be getting a telephone call very soon.     

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(c) Eon Productions

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