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, take-no-prisoners bank robberies, the films marries bloody, sawn-off-shotgun-powered violence with some off-the-wall 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 makes him look 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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Auld Reekie robots

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Anyone who read my previous blog-post won’t be surprised to hear that my opinion of humanity is not terribly high at the moment.  So here’s a post that’s about the opposite of humanity.  It’s about artificial, mechanical and / or synthetic humanity rather than the flesh-and-blood variety.  Robots, in other words.

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Robots is the name of an exhibition that’s been in progress at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.  A few weeks ago I got a chance to visit it.  Containing more than 100 exhibits, it tells the story of, to quote the blurb, ‘our 500-year quest to make machines human’ and it ranges ‘from early mechanised human forms to today’s cutting-edge technology.’  The exhibition runs until May 5th which, come to think of it, is today.  So if you’re in the Edinburgh area, haven’t seen it yet but fancy giving it a try, you’d better grab your coat and hat and run to the museum… now!

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The first sections of the exhibition chart the progress made by human science and technology towards the creation of robots prior to the 20th century.  This progress includes automatons, which were ‘mass-produced for the first time’ during the Industrial Revolution and ‘were not toys, but reflected their owners’ prosperity and fascination with exotic places.’  Among the automatons on display are a mechanical monkey, a mechanical bird in a cage and an eye-rolling, cigar-puffing human face that once adorned the wall of a tobacconist’s.  They’re charming, but I was disappointed that there weren’t more items like these on show.

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There’s also a section about the development of clockwork and it features some antiquated devices running on elaborate systems of springs and gearwheels.  These include a huge, multicoloured time-keeping dial with Roman numerals, the months and the signs of the zodiac on it; an orrery with long, straight, horizontal ‘branches’ and vertical ‘twigs’ supporting various planets and moons; and another orrery consisting of metal balls (the sun, earth, moon) and metal rings (their orbits).  Again, I wished the exhibition had had more space to exhibit more of these because I found them fascinating.

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After walking past some factory machines that helped to make the Industrial Revolution so revolutionary, you arrive at a section devoted to robots of the cinema screen, printed page and comic strip.  No doubt contrary to many visitors’ expectations, this section is quite brief.  There are some display cases with movie posters, pictures, books and toys and two life-sized representations of robots from two classic films, and that’s it.  The life-sized representations are of the utterly iconic Maria from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), who stands in the middle of a circular, segmented, flower-like stage drenched in an unsettling purple light; and, leering across at her from a glass case, the fearsome mechanical endoskeleton of T-800 from the original and best Terminator movie (1984).

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I was pleased to see T-800 on display because he – sorry, it – is a very rare example of the cinema getting robots right.  Too often, filmmakers anthropomorphise robots, i.e. invest them with human traits and emotions, just as we do with animals in children’s books, fables, cartoons and so on.  Hence, you get movie robots fretting like camp English butlers in the Star Wars franchise or acting as gruff, wisecracking sidekicks to Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-81).  And don’t get me started on bloody K9.

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T-800, however, properly behaves like a machine.  It never deviates from its programming, which means it relentlessly pursues Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) with the purpose of destroying her, whilst eliminating anything or anyone else that gets in its way and threatens to impede its mission.  And that’s it.  Like a genuine machine, it does what it’s designed to do.  Other rare but honourable examples of cinematic robots that do only what it says on the tin (or on the packaging case), without any interference from human emotions, include the deadly, self-assembling, self-repairing war-droid M.A.R.K. 13 in Richard Stanley’s Hardware (1990) and Yul Brynner’s android gunslinger in Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1974).  Actually, the Brynner android follows its programming, which is to allow human tourists to shoot it ‘dead’ in mock Wild West gun battles at the Delos amusement park, up to a point.  Then it malfunctions and follows what the malfunction tells it to do, which is to hunt those tourists down and kill them…

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But back to the Robots exhibition.  After the viewing those glamorous movie robots, you get to see some ‘real’ robots from the 1950s and 1960s, which look so clunky they make the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz (1939) seem sleek and elegant.  By ‘real’, I mean they were built by inventors but steered by controls and were incapable of autonomous movement.  Actually, I felt rather sorry for them, with their bucket heads, slit mouths, wedged noses, boiler-shaped torsos, clamp-like hands and massive slabbed feet.  Compared with what’s just ahead of them in the exhibition, they resemble old folk sitting uncomprehending and lost in a corner of a party predominantly attended by youngsters.

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And then it’s into the realm of modern robotry and we get to see the results of how scientists, engineers and technicians have attempted to replicate the skeletal, muscular, nervous, circulatory and other systems of the human body in machine form, using intricate networks of rods, pistons, levers, wires, cables, tubes and so on.  There are some truly odd things on display here.  The designs of a couple of the robots have been so modelled on human anatomy that they – vaguely – resemble flayed or dissected cadavers.

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The exhibition saves its trump card for the end.  Its final stretch is an identity parade composed of some of the 21st century’s most notable robots.  I’ve seen clips of individual ones on TV news reports or online videos, but it’s rather overwhelming to see so many of them together in one place.  They include Robina (‘Robot as Intelligent Assistant’), which was developed by Toyota and from 2007 to 2009 ‘was used as a museum tour-guide’.  It resembles a food-blender base with giant arms and pincer-like hands, topped with what is sometimes called a ‘classic alien face’ (i.e. oval-shaped and having big black eyes).  Also equipped with pincers is the more ominous-looking Baxter, ‘the world’s first two-armed robot designed to work together with people.’  With a part-cylindrical, part-oblong, all-black torso, a TV-shaped head and a pair of powerful red arms, Baxter looks faintly arachnid-like, despite having only two limbs.

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Elsewhere, there’s Kodomoroid, whose name is derived from kodomo – Japanese for ‘child’ – and ‘android’.  Its flexible silicon skin was sculpted ‘from a whole head cast of a female model’, its teeth sculpted ‘from a separate cast of the model’s mouth’ and each of its hairs was inserted ‘on its body by hand’.  In fact, Kodomoroid didn’t strike me as particularly child-like.  Seated on a white cube, it looks like a prim and slightly shrunken Japanese auntie, incongruously dressed in a surgical gown, white ballerina shoes and a microphoned headset.  Japanese technology has also produced the Human Support Robot, which can ‘be operated directly by home users’ and ‘obey simple voice commands, for example, to fetch medication or draw the curtains.’  Basically a long, multi-jointed arm attached to a mobile cylinder with a face-like panel on top, the Human Support Robot is aimed at elderly people who are housebound or bedbound but who feel it’s unbecoming to depend on the services of a human home-help.

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I like the thinking behind Kaspar, a little robot doll designed as a ‘social companion’ for children with autism and other communicative issues.  For example, it can tell the kids if they’re holding it too tightly, thanks to it having pressure-sensors under its skin.   However, the show-stealer when I was there was RoboThespian, who can ‘deliver its lines in over 40 languages, wink, roll its eyes and lock gazes with individuals using facial recognition technology’ and who looks like a somewhat stripped-down C3PO with a dish-shaped face and square eyes.  A couple of kids were leaning towards it over the barrier when suddenly it lurched into motion, pointed at the them and blared, “Here’s looking at you, kid!”  Those kids promptly sprang a yard backwards.

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I’d expected a longer viewing experience at Robots, having paid ten pounds for a ticket, but I guess it was a costly business filling even the relatively-small area of the exhibition with so much hi-tech hardware from so many countries.  Still, it was always absorbing – and occasionally enthralling.   

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Favourite rock biopics

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(c) Momentum Pictures

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Following my previous post about the film Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), which tells the story of the 1970s / 1980s rock band Queen and which I had very mixed feelings about, I thought I’d write about the rock biopics I like best.

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The first one that springs to mind is Control (2007), directed by Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn.  This focuses on Ian Curtis, frontman with the legendary and pioneering post-punk band Joy Division, who committed suicide in 1980.  It has an appealing cast: Sam Riley as Curtis and Samantha Morton as his wife Deborah, plus Joe Anderson as Peter Hook, James Anthony Pearson as Bernard Summer and Harry Treadaway as Stephen Morris, Curtis’s fellow-bandmembers who after his death would regroup as New Order.  But what makes Control special for me is how Corbijn blends the tragedy of Curtis’s life-story, the drabness of 1970s Macclesfield (Curtis’s hometown), the spare, pulsating and somehow beautiful bleakness of Joy Division’s music, and the romanticism that inspired and drove Curtis, and manages to create something that despite the final outcome is actually uplifting.  Corbijn’s decision to film Control in colour but then convert the film-stock into moody black and white helps.

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There’s also humour, a factor that, given the absurdities and excesses of the music industry, needs to be present in every good rock biopic.  This comes largely courtesy of band manager Rob Gretton, played by Toby Kebbell.  “It could be worse,” he tells Curtis in the aftermath of one of his devastating epileptic seizures.  “At least you’re not the lead singer of the Fall.”  Look out too for Salford performance-poet John Cooper Clarke, playing himself as a support act at a Joy Division gig.  Only the enviably pencil-thin Clarke could get away with playing himself when he was thirty years younger.

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(c) PolyGram Filmed Entertainment / Gramercy Pictures

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I’m not a Beatles fan but I really enjoyed Backbeat (1994), the Iain Softley-directed film about the band’s pre-stardom period at the beginning of the 1960s when they spent time in Hamburg performing early rock ‘n’ roll standards.  The Beatles of this era consisted of five members: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, bassist Stuart Sutcliffe and drummer Pete Best, played in Backbeat by Ian Hart, Gary Bakewell, Chris O’Neill, Stephen Dorff and Scot Williams respectively.  The main acting duties fall on Hart – who, incidentally, has also played Lennon in the 1991 movie The Hours and Times and the 2013 Playhouse Presents TV production Snodgrass – and Dorff because the movie focuses on the friendship between Lennon and Sutcliffe.  The latter would die of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1962.

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What sets the film alight is its music.  To recreate the sound of the nascent Beatles kicking ass on stage, the filmmakers smartly gathered together musicians from 1994’s hottest rock bands – Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum, Greg Dulli from the Afghan Whigs, Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth, Don Fleming from Gumball, Mike Mills from REM and Dave Grohl from Nirvana – and got them to knock out renditions of the likes of Long Tall Sally and Good Golly Miss Molly.  Even the muscular Henry Rollins (originally from punk outfit Black Flag but in 1994 doing rather well with his own Rollins Band) got in on in the act, providing the vocals for a sequence when Sutcliffe tries and fails to croon Love Me Tender.  In fact, the film’s only duff note is a brief scene where it gratuitously and unconvincingly grafts Ringo Starr onto the narrative.

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(c) Palace Pictures / The Samuel Goldwyn Company

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The bleakest film on my list is surely Sid and Nancy, Alex Cox’s 1986 re-enactment of the doomed romance between the Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and American groupie Nancy Spungen.  Telling a love story that begins with boy meeting girl against a background of severe heroin abuse, continues with boy and girl in the grip of severe heroin abuse, and ends with boy stabbing girl to death thanks to severe heroin abuse, Sid and Nancy is a grim and at times difficult watch.  But it has the saving grace of humour, even if it’s humour of the cringeworthy variety, such as when Sid is introduced to Nancy’s respectable, middle-class, all-American family and attempts to entertain them with a display of his ‘musicianship’.  The lead actors are good too: Gary Oldman as Vicious and Chloe Webb as Spungen, although these days it’s weird to see David Hayman, regarded in Scotland now as a national treasure, in the role of Malcolm McLaren.  Famously, Courtney Love lobbied hard, but unsuccessfully, to win the role of Nancy Spungen.  A little too hard, some would say, considering what happened subsequently.

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One person who’s not a fan of Sid and Nancy is John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, Vicious’ friend and fellow Sex Pistol.  Lydon hated the way he was portrayed in the film by actor Andrew Schofield, who isn’t a Londoner like Lydon but is from Kirby, north of Liverpool.  And he detested the film generally and Alex Cox in particular, dismissing it as a fantasy put together by ‘some Oxford graduate who missed the punk rock era’.

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Next up is Oliver Stone’s 1991 dramatisation of the story of late 1960s / early 1970s psychedelic-blues-rock band the Doors, simply called The Doors, which in many ways is a warped mirror image of Bohemian Rhapsody.  Like the Queen biopic, it often veers away from the truth.  Unlike that later film, however, it isn’t afraid to present a warts-and-all picture of its subjects, especially of the band’s frontman Jim Morrison, who’s played by Val Kilmer.  So well does Kilmer do in the role, incidentally, that at times you forget it’s him you’re watching onscreen and not Morrison himself. 

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(c) Bill Graham Films / Tri-Star Pictures

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Stone’s unflattering portrayal of Morrison, during his decline from gorgeous, long-haired, rock-music Dionysus to beastly, babbling, booze-befuddled sociopath and finally to bearded, beer-bellied, bathtub cadaver, greatly upset fellow band-members Ray Manzarek, John Densmore and Robbie Krieger (played in the film by Kyle MacLachlan, Kevin Dillon and Frank Whalley) and his lover Patricia Kennealy (played by Kathleen Quinlan).  Indeed, I suspect Kennealy, who married Morrison in a Celtic pagan ceremony and is a pagan high priestess herself, may have eschewed Celtic paganism’s usual benevolence and fired a few spells in Stone’s direction after she saw the film.

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Well, The Doors probably tells a few porkies but I have to say I really enjoyed it.  It’s over-the-top and out-of-control and Stone goes too far by mixing in some guff about Native American shamanism, but its bacchanalian and hallucinogenic excesses feel exhilaratingly true of the era, if not wholly true of the band.  And taken in the right spirit, the film is very funny.  Comic highlights include Kennealy giving Morrison carnal encouragement with, “Come on, rock god.  F**k me, f**k me good!”  Or John Densmore expressing his reluctance  to take acid and Morrison reassuring him, “Relax – it’s peyote.”  Or Andy Warhol (Crispin Glover) offering Morrison a golden telephone with which to ‘talk to God.’ Andy can’t use it himself because, it transpires, he doesn’t ‘have anything to say.’ 

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Finally, my last pick on this list of rock biopics returns to the era of Joy Division, but isn’t about a band or musician.  It’s about a record executive, Tony Wilson of Factory Records, the independent Manchester-based record label, who signed Joy Division in the late 1970s and struck gold again a decade later when he signed the Happy Mondays.  This is 24 Hour Party People (2002), directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Steve Coogan as Tony Wilson.  This time Joy Division are played by Sean Harris (Curtis), John Simm (Summer), Ralf Little (Hook) and Tim Horrocks (Morris), while the Happy Mondays are represented by Danny Cunningham and Paul Popplewell as Shaun and Paul Ryder and Chris Coghill as the band’s freaky-dancin’, maracas-shaking figurehead, Bez

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(c) Film 4 / Pathé / United Artists

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Before his musical successes, Wilson was best-known as a TV reporter for Granada Television and with Coogan in the role, it’s impossible not to be reminded of Coogan’s famous alter-ego, Alan Partridge.  This is especially so at the film’s beginning when we see Wilson filming a report where he attempts to go hang-gliding:  “Is it a bird?  Is it a plane?  No, it’s the latest craze sweeping the Pennines.  I’ve got to be honest with you.  Right now, I’d rather be sweeping the Pennines.” 

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24 Hour Party People cleverly subverts the issue of factual accuracy in music biopics with much post-modernism and breaking of the 4th wall – for example, when we see the fictional Howard Devoto of the Buzzcocks, played by Martin Hancock, do something and then the real Howard Devoto appears in the frame and tells us that he doesn’t remember this happening back then.  There’s a great supporting cast of character actors, comic performers and comedians, including Shirley Henderson, Andy Serkis, Rob Brydon, Dave Gorman, Peter Kay, Simon Pegg and Christopher Eccleston, while several real-life musicians make cameos including, in addition to Devoto, Mark E. Smith, Clint Boon and the Stone Roses’ Gary ‘Mani’ Mounfield.  And the film has many good lines, my favourite being when Wilson introduces the Ryders to Bez with the comment, “Every band needs its own chemistry.  And Bez is a very good chemist.”

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Finally, which band would I like to see a biopic of in the future?  The answer to that question has got to be Hawkwind, the venerable ‘space rock’ band who’ve been slogging away since 1969 and whose ranks have included over the years such personalities, eccentrics and oddballs as Lemmy, ‘manic depressive hypo-maniac’ poet Robert Calvert, statuesque topless dancer Stacia, Ginger Baker, Arthur Brown, sci-fi / fantasy author Michael Moorcock and Dik Mik, operator of the ‘audio generator’ that provided the band with its distinctive whooshing noises.  Properly done, you could end up with a hilarious comedy-drama that does for the characters of alternative English psychedelic rock music what Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) did for the characters of low budget 1950s Californian movie-making.  So what do you think?  Anton Corbijn?  Michael Winterbottom?  Oliver Stone, even?  Anyone interested?

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From rateyourmusic.com

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Is this the real life? No, it’s just fantasy…

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(c) 20th Century Fox

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Beelzebub had a devil set aside for me recently while I spent most of 24 hours travelling with a particular airline from Sri Lanka to Scotland.  The set-aside devil was the airline’s in-flight movie service, which was mostly composed of tired old rubbish like Johnny English Strikes Again (2018), while the only decent offerings were stuff like Black Panther (2018) that I’d already seen. 

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Finally, to take my mind off the tedium of the flight, the cramped-ness of my seat and the occasional unnerving shaking that outside air-turbulence would subject the plane to (“Thunderbolts and lightning / Very, very frightening!”), I gave in and watched Bohemian Rhapsody.  This was last year’s biopic of Queen, the 1970s / 1980s rock band who remain fabulously popular today even though they’ve been creatively inert since 1991 when their singer Freddie Mercury passed away.  I watched the film reluctantly, knowing that the critics had been at best lukewarm and at worst scathing about it. 

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I suppose, I thought, I can’t be too picky…  “Because I’m easy come, easy go / A little high, little low / Any way the wind blows, doesn’t really matter to me / To mee-eee….

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Actually, Bohemian Rhapsody has earned (as of a week ago) 861 million dollars around the world, despite the critics turning up their noses at it.  This is in keeping with the great Queen divide.  Back in the days when they were a properly functioning band, people I knew who considered themselves serious and knowledgeable connoisseurs of music would tell me that though they tried to be broad-minded, they just couldn’t stomach bloody Queen, whom they saw as purveyors of bloated, corny, stomp-along, guitar-twiddling shite.  Meanwhile, other folk, who bought at most three CDs a year and barely knew the difference between Elvis Costello, Elvis Presley and Reg Presley – the majority of the British population in other words – believed Queen were the absolute bees knees and anyone voicing a negative opinion of the band was just “a big disgrace / kicking their can all over the place.”  So this chasm between what the cultural intelligentsia thought of Queen and what the ordinary masses thought of them is nothing new.

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Incidentally, I have to say I found it ironic how popular Queen were in the 1970s and 1980s among guys who styled themselves as straightforward, unpretentious, down-to-earth, laddish, maybe a bit unreconstructed and probably a bit homophobic.  They’d punch you in the face if you suggested they might be into anything involving ‘puffs’.  But after a few seconds of hearing the shamelessly camp Freddie Mercury crooning, “Oooh, you make me live… / Oooh, you’re my best friend!”, they’d be hugging each other, be singing along in cracked-with-emotion voices and have tears rolling down their cheeks. 

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It’s telling that in his memoir The Long Hard Road out of Hell (1998), Marilyn Manson recalls how at his Christian school in Ohio, pupils received regular lectures about the evils of heavy metal and hard rock music – and the band those Christian teachers seemed to fear and hate most all was Queen, due to the effect that Freddie’s sexually-ambiguous prancing and preening might be having on the sons of God-fearing America.

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Anyway, watching Bohemian Rhapsody, I certainly felt there was plenty wrong with it.  The problem with building a dramatic narrative out of Queen’s story is that there’s hardly any drama in it.  They got together in 1970, had a monster hit with Bohemian Rhapsody-the-single in 1975 and then stayed at the top for the next 16 years, their popularity seemingly impervious to the coming and going of musical fads like disco, punk, New Romanticism, goth, ska, the Mod revival, the Madchester scene, rap, techno, hair metal and grunge.  No doubt the late 1980s and early 1990s were traumatic for them when Freddie was diagnosed as HIV positive, became sick and died from AIDS in 1991, but the film doesn’t hang around long enough to chart those final years.  Rather, it ends on the high note of Queen’s famously barnstorming performance at the Live Aid concert at Wembley in July 1985.

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Lacking real historical drama, the film tries to generate some by playing fast and loose with the facts.  It depicts the band as having effectively broken up by 1985 thanks to Freddie’s out-of-control ego and the other band-members’ intransigence and lack of adventurousness, with the Live Aid concert being their last chance to pull themselves together and prove to the public that they’re still relevant.  As a plot device this is lame – and, factually, it’s nonsense because no such schism had appeared in the real band.  I remember them being ubiquitous during the year before Live Aid because of the success of their The Works album and singles like Radio Ga Ga and I Want to Break Free.   Another liberty with the truth (and the film has many of these) is a big emotional moment before they take the Wembley stage when Freddie tells the others he’s HIV positive.  In reality, he didn’t know this until 1987.

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From mentalfloss.com

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Conversely, the stuff that might have generated some drama, i.e. the band’s moral warts and carbuncles, are discretely airbrushed away, which probably has something to do with Queen’s lead guitarist and drummer Brian May and Roger Taylor being the film’s ‘creative consultants’.  So we get nothing about, for instance, their decision to play some lucrative gigs at the Sun City complex in Bophuthatswana, South Africa, during the apartheid era, which landed them on a United Nations blacklist; or the fact that in late 1985 they released a supposedly Live Aid-inspired song called One Vision and then kept all the profits for themselves.  No wonder they used to sing, “I want it all / I want it all… / And I want it now.

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Also doused in a tankerload of whitewash is the issue of Freddie’s promiscuity.  In reality, in 1984, Freddie bragged to the DJ Paul Gambaccini with hedonistic and – considering the times – reckless abandon: “Darling, my attitude is ‘f**k it’.  I’m doing everything with everybody.”  (Later, Gambaccini reflected, “I’d seen enough in New York to know that Freddie was going to die.”)  But in Bohemian Rhapsody he’s presented as a victim.  Insecure about his sexuality, he’s led astray by his personal manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), who lures him into a world of partying, orgy-ing and general dissolution.  In another clumsy move to tie everything in with Live Aid, the film has Mercury firing Prenter shortly before the concert.  But the real Prenter didn’t get his marching orders until 1986, one year afterwards.

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Despite everything, though…  I did enjoy the film.  Sort of. 

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It has an endearing cast: not just Rami Malek as Freddie – who, in a crowd-pleasing move by the Academy, picked up the Oscar for Best Actor the other day – but also Gwilym Lee as May, Ben Hardy as Taylor and Joe Mazello as the band’s quiet but affable bassist John Deacon.  It helps that these young actors actually resemble the band members they’re playing and the physical quirks that made Queen seem a little more human, like Freddie’s oversized incisors and May’s bombed-out buzzard’s nest of a hairdo, are lovingly recreated. 

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Also, Mike Myers has a neat supporting role as a record executive called Ray Foster, who apparently wasn’t a real person but a composite of various real-life executives who tried to put a stick in the band’s creative spokes.  Equipped with frizzy hair, sunglasses, a hideous woollen tank top and yet another provincial accent from the Mike Myers version of Britain, Foster gruffly objects to the idea that Bohemian Rhapsody-the-song be released as a single: “It goes on forever.  Six bloody minutes!”  To which Freddie retorts: “I pity your wife if you think six minutes is forever.”

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(c) 20th Century Fox

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The most enjoyable parts for me, however, were the script’s clunking attempts to foreshadow some of the band’s biggest hits.  It was fun to see how many micro-seconds it took me to work out which song they were talking about.  For example, when Freddie starts rabbiting on about how he wants to do a rock song with opera in it…  It’s Bohemian Rhapsody!  Or when May says he wants to write a song where the crowd can join in by clapping their hands and stamping their feet…  It’s We Will Rock You!  Or when John Deacon horrifies the others by proposing they do a disco tune…  It’s Another One Bites the Dust

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This foreshadowing got to the point where I expected to hear an exchange like: “What, David Bowie wants to record with us?  That makes me nervous.  I feel under pressure already!”  “Wait, I have an idea for a title…”  Or: “Writing film scores can’t be too difficult. In fact, I bet I could write one in a flash.” “Well, funny you should say that, because Dino De Laurentiis happens to be producing a new movie…”     

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To sum up: I found Bohemian Rhapsody dumb, superficial, bombastic and somewhat problematic, but also fun and entertaining and even uplifting in a slightly tacky way.  Which is appropriate, because that’s very much how I find Queen.

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An Albert memorial

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(c) 20th Century Fox

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The death of Albert Finney 12 days ago felt like it marked the end of an era – one whose heyday ran from the late 1950s to the 1970s, when British cinema was heavily populated with brash, brooding leading men largely from working-class backgrounds and often showing disdain for the pretentions and affectations traditionally associated with the acting profession: the likes of Stanley Baker, Alan Bates, Richard Burton, Richard Harris, David Hemmings, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed, all now deceased.  Compare them with the current crop of young British movie stars, who seem to have got where they are today by dint of being posh and / or having longstanding family connections with the stage and screen.  (Reed, the member of that old guard from the wealthiest background, had a family connection – but he made a point of waiting until he’d succeeded on his own before he worked with his famous uncle, the director Sir Carol Reed, in 1968’s Oliver!)

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It feels like the end of an era, but it isn’t quite – for a few actors of Finney’s generation, background and disposition remain on the go, like Sean Connery (now retired), Michael Caine and Anthony Hopkins (both still active, happily).

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By way of paying tribute to Albert Finney, I thought I’d list my favourite cinematic memories of him.  So here, in no particular order, are the Finney performances I’ve enjoyed most.

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Leo O’Bannon in Miller’s Crossing (1990)

Blood Simple (1984) and Raising Arizona (1987) put writing-directing duo Ethan and Joel Coen on the map, but Miller’s Crossing was surely the film that proved they were a moviemaking force to be reckoned with.  As Irish mobster Leo O’Bannon, a character who’s rock-hard yet cursed with a naivete that threatens to provoke a gang-war, Finney is the film’s lynchpin.  It says a lot that he effortlessly holds his own in Miller’s Crossing even though he’s surrounded by actors threatening to steal the show (but never quite doing so): Gabriel Byrne, John Turturro, Jon Polito and J.E. Freeman, all playing the various unscrupulous characters who plot and machinate around O’Bannon. Meanwhile, the Danny Boy sequence, where Finney demonstrates his cigar-chomping, bullet-spraying lethality, is simply a great piece of cinema.

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(c) Woodfall Film Productions / Bryanston Films

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Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

The Karl Reisz-directed, Alan Sillitoe-scripted Saturday Night and Sunday Morning helped usher in the ‘kitchen-sink’ and later the ‘social realism’ school of British filmmaking that – with a few honourable exceptions like Ken Loach’s Kes (1969), Chris Bernard’s Letter to Brezhnev (1985) and Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993) – is far from my favourite genre.  But I like this movie because of Finney’s ferocious performance.  As Arthur Seaton, the defiant young Nottingham factory worker whose motto is “Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” and who damns his family and co-workers as “dead from the neck up” because they’ve succumbed to domestic dreariness and nine-to-five wage-slavery, he’s too blinkered to realise he’s heading that way himself.  Largely responsible for his downfall is his rampant libido, which works several hours ahead of his brain and has him lusting after Rachel Roberts and Shirley Anne Field, the second of whom he ends up marrying.  The final scene, with Field and a sullen Finney approaching a new suburban housing scheme that threatens to be the place of his incarceration, comes as no great surprise. 

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Maurice Allington in The Green Man (1990)

Maurice Allington, the middle-aged bon viveur, raconteur and proprietor of a country restaurant called the Green Man, is a far more refined character than Arthur Seaton.  But he’s no more able to rein in his lechery, here directed at Linda Marlowe (playing his wife) and at Sarah Berger (playing his doctor’s wife) whom he fancies involving in a ménage à trois.  Meanwhile, Allington faces complications on another front besides the domestic one – for the Green Man, it quickly becomes clear, is also a hotbed of paranormal activity.  An offbeat ghostly-comic TV series with an impressive pedigree – it’s scripted by Malcolm Bradbury, based on a novel by Kingsley Amis and directed by Elijah Moshinsky, better known as a director of operas and Shakespearean drama – The Green Man’s strongest point is probably Finney’s splendid performance as Allington, who comes across as an oddly sympathetic cross between Alan Clark and Keith Floyd.

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(c) BBC

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Dewey Wilson in Wolfen (1981)

Unfairly maligned by New York Times critic Vincent Canby as ‘platitudinous mumbo-jumbo’, Wolfen is actually a rare beast (and ‘beast’ is the word), a 1980s horror movie that tries to say intelligent things about ecology, social inequality and urban deprivation and renewal.  Finney’s New York accent, big hair and 1980s-style jogging gear take a little getting used to, but he gives an enjoyable turn as a policeman investigating the brutal and mysterious murder of a property developer.  The culprits, it transpires, are a pack of deadly, super-powerful and super-intelligent wolves lurking in the Big Apple’s more rundown areas, their existence known only to a tribe of Native Americans who now work on the city’s high-rise construction projects but who once existed alongside the creatures in the wilderness.  Finney’s supporting cast here – Gregory Hines, Edward James Olmos and Tom Noonan – is excellent too.

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(c) Orion Pictures / Warner Bros.

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Kincade in Skyfall (2012)

In the 23rd James Bond movie Skyfall, Finney plays Kincade, the elderly gamekeeper at Bond’s ancestral estate in the Scottish Highlands who helps him (Daniel Craig) and M (Judi Dench) when villainous Javier Bardem and his goons lay siege to the place.  Finney’s gruff Lancashire tones, admittedly, aren’t what you’d expect to hear emanating from a bearded ghillie who’s spent a lifetime tramping around the heathery Caledonian mountains.  But it’s gratifying to see him in a Bond movie at last.  His rapport with Dench is particularly good. 

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Skyfall also proved, alas, to be his final cinematic appearance.  But there are definitely worse ways to bow out than standing alongside 007 with all guns blazing – and I love how when Bond tells him, “This isn’t your fight,” Kincade replies with typical Finney-esque defiance, “Try and stop me, you jumped-up little shit.”      

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(c) Eon Productions

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