Alternative Hurt

 

© Recorded Picture Company / Pandora Film

 

And so another prominent feature of the cinematic and televisual landscape that’s surrounded me since I was a kid has gone.  I’m referring to the legendary English actor John Hurt who died late last month.

 

Hurt had many famous roles and managed for six decades to keep his profile high among the film and TV-viewing public.  He played the flamboyant Quentin Crisp in Jack Gold’s TV comedy-drama The Naked Civil Servant (1975); the luckless Max in Alan Parker’s Midnight Express (1978); the even more luckless Kane, who becomes an unwilling incubator for the nightmarish H.R. Giger-designed beastie in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979); the noble but deformed John Merrick in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980); and that great everyman of dystopian fiction, Winston Smith, in Michael Radford’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 (1984 – yes!).

 

Later, while the highbrow performances kept coming – as scabrous Tory politician Alan Clark in the TV mini-series The Alan Clark Diaries (2004-2006), Quentin Crisp again in Brian Laxton’s An Englishman in New York (2009), Corkery in Rowan Jaffe’s Brighton Rock (2010), Control in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy (2011) – he also appeared in several internationally-popular franchises: as Ollivander in the Harry Potter movies; Bruttenholm in the Hellboy movies (2004 and 2008); Oxley in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008); and the War Doctor, the militarised black sheep of the Doctor’s many incarnations, in the fiftieth-anniversary special of Doctor Who (2013).

 

The role that made the biggest impression on me, though, was the very first one I saw Hurt playing – in Jack Gold’s TV mini-series I Claudius (1976), based on the novels by Robert Graves, where he was the simultaneously deranged, ludicrous and terrifying Roman emperor Caligula.  Actually, thinking now of the scenes where Hurt harasses the limping, stuttering future-emperor Claudius (Derek Jacobi), I can’t help but think of another demented tyrant who likes to mock the physically afflicted.

 

© BBC

© BBC

 

But for this tribute, I thought I’d write about some items on John Hurt’s CV that have received less attention – films he appeared in that have vanished off the radar and / or ones in which he had supporting roles.  Here’s my pick of the Alternative Hurt.

 

10 Rillington Place (1971)

Based on the case of real-life 1940s / 1950s serial killer John Christie, Richard Fleischer’s 10 Rillington Place remains a gruelling watch today.  This is largely due to a performance by the normally cuddly and loveable Richard Attenborough, who brings Christie to life in a balding, pot-bellied, cardigan-wearing, tea-sipping, lisping, ingratiating, manipulative, quietly lecherous and homicidally perverted fashion that makes your skin crawl.  What’s even worse is the knowledge that Christie evaded capture for several years by having his third and fourth murders, of neighbour Beryl Evans (Judy Geeson) and her infant daughter Geraldine, wrongly pinned on Beryl’s husband and Geraldine’s father Timothy (Hurt).  After Timothy Evans was hung for the crimes, Christie killed four more times.

 

As the thickly Welsh-accented Timothy Evans, Hurt manages an impressive balancing act.  His character is slow-witted, boastful, occasionally violent and generally unlikeable; but nonetheless he elicits enough sympathy for the audience to be shocked when he gets condemned to death through Christie’s duplicity and the police’s stupidity.  (Attenborough, it’s said, agreed to do the film because he felt it justified his abhorrence of capital punishment.)

 

The Osterman Weekend (1983)

In the final movie made by maverick director Sam Peckinpah, Hurt plays a CIA man who enlists the help of investigative reporter Rutger Hauer to bust an alleged spy ring.  Mainly, this involves rigging Hauer’s house up with surveillance equipment before the conspirators are invited over for the weekend.  The reality, though, is not what Hauer thinks it is…  A collision between a twisty, hi-tech espionage thriller and Peckinpah’s signature crash-bang-wallop, slow-motion, blood-spurting action set-pieces, The Osterman Weekend doesn’t always work.  But its cast (Hurt, Hauer, Meg Foster, Craig T. Nelson and Dennis Hopper) keeps it entertaining.

 

And a scene where Hurt, speaking to Hauer via a two-way video / audio link, suddenly has to pretend to be a TV weatherman when the wrong person appears in Hauer’s proximity, is very funny.

 

© Recorded Picture Company / Palace Films

 

The Hit (1984)

Stephen Frears’s The Hit features John Hurt as an assassin and a young Tim Roth as his apprentice.  They capture a retired gangster, played by Terence Stamp, and transport him across Spain.  Long before, it transpires, Stamp turned Queen’s evidence against some criminal associates and now it’s payback time.  What lifts this crime-drama-cum-road-movie out of the ordinary is its characterisation.  Stamp is surprising philosophical about his impending fate, Roth is endearingly gormless and Hurt gives a glorious study in world-weariness.

 

The Field (1990)

A tragic drama about an obsessed Irish farmer (Richard Harris) who gradually loses his mind when a precious piece of land slips through his fingers and into those of a rich American property developer (Tom Berenger), Jim Sheridan’s The Field ends up in King Lear territory – with Harris as the diminished monarch and Hurt as his loyal Fool.  In fact, Hurt’s performance as Bird, Harris’s daft, cackling and excitable side-kick, adds a few slivers of comedy to what is overall a powerful but grim film.

 

Rob Roy (1995)

Having played a Welshman in 10 Rillington Place and an Irishman in The Field, Hurt completed his Celtic hat-trick with his performance as an evil Scottish nobleman in Michael Caton-Jones’s Rob Roy.  The film suffers from the fact that its star, Liam Neeson, fails to convince as the Scottish Highlander Rob Roy MacGregor – every time he opens his mouth, a Ballymena accent comes out.  And excitement-wise it never quite sets the heather alight, especially compared to the same year’s barnstorming, crowd-pleasing Braveheart.  Its strongest feature is its outstanding trio of villains: Tim Roth (again) as the bastardly dandy Archibald Cunningham, Brian Cox as the venal factor Killearn and Hurt himself as the purringly malevolent Duke of Montrose.

 

© United Artists

 

Dead Man (1995)

Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man is a demented psychedelic western about an innocuous accountant who becomes the quarry of bounty hunters.  It also boasts an astonishing cult-movie cast headed by Johnny Depp.  Hurt appears as a vinegary aide to the great Robert Mitchum who, in one of his last film roles, plays the rich, powerful and barking-mad businessman who sets the bounty hunters on Depp’s trail.

 

At one point, Hurt also shares a scene with Lance Henrikson and Michael Wincott, who between them have appeared in four other Alien movies – which makes this quite an Alien-actors convention.

 

The Proposition (2005)

While Alien contains the ultimate John Hurt death scene, John Hillcoat’s violent, grubby Australian western The Proposition gives him a pretty memorable way of shuffling off the mortal coil too.  As the raddled but eloquent bounty hunter Jellon Lamb, he expires quoting some lines by the Victorian author George Borrow: “There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon and stars, all sweet things; there’s likewise a wind on a heath…”  That’s just before he gets a knife the size of a shovel-blade rammed through his chest and a bullet in the head.  Well, Nick Cave wrote the script, so what did you expect?

 

© Zentropa / Memfis Film

 

Melancholia (2011)

The Lars Von Trier-directed Melancholia is both a study of clinical depression and an account of the last days of earth before it has an apocalyptic collision with another planet.  But the mood is thankfully lightened when John Hurt makes a cameo appearance as the gregarious, party-loving old reprobate who’s father to Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

 

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

An arty, languid but likeable vampire movie, Only Lovers Left Alive sees Hurt working again with Jim Jarmusch.  While most of the film focuses on vampire lovers Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, Hurt provides good support as the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, who didn’t actually die in 1593 but – surprise! – got vampirised instead.  Four centuries later, he lives as Swinton’s avuncular and quietly blood-drinking neighbour in Tangiers.

 

Snowpiercer (2013)

Bong Joon-ho’s sci-fi epic Snowpiercer has an imaginative premise.  The earth has been decimated by a new ice age and the last human survivors live in an oppressively hierarchical society on board a super-long train, which is in perpetual movement around the snowbound globe.  Unfortunately, the film is all over the place in terms of tone, unsure whether it wants to be a gritty sci-fi actioner, a slice of Terry Gilliam-esque surrealism or a darkly humorous Roald Dahl-type fantasy.  Hurt at least brings some levity to the proceedings, playing the leader of the train’s rebellious proles.  Unsubtly, his character is called ‘Gilliam’.

 

Incidentally, one John Hurt movie I haven’t mentioned here because I’ve never seen it in its entirety is 1978’s The Shout, also starring Alan Bates, Susannah York and Robert Stephens and based on a short story by I Claudius author Robert Graves.  People whose opinion I respect say it’s very good; and from the opening minutes, which are up on Youtube, it certainly looks intriguing.

 

© First Look Pictures

 

Digging Graves: book review / Collected Short Stories by Robert Graves

 

(c) Penguin

 

My copy of The Collected Short Stories of Robert Graves is a 1971 reprint of an edition first published by Cassell in 1965 and then by Penguin in 1968.  Its front cover — not the one featured above — is one of the worst I’ve ever seen on a book.  There’s no picture, photograph, pattern or design.  Featured against a white background are the author’s name, the book’s title and a few lines of blurb: “Thirty stories – written between 1924 and 1962 English, Roman and Majorcan – selected by the author.  ‘Most of them, including the more improbable ones, are true…’”  The burb is badly punctuated and should’ve been printed on the book’s back cover.  Also, it’s printed in large green italics, so that it looks like it was written in snot.  Yummy.  No wonder I couldn’t find it on Google Images today.

 

Anyway, onto the book’s contents.  It contains 16 short stories set in England, three set in ancient Rome and 11 set in Majorca, where Graves lived from 1929 and before the largest of the Balearic Isles became famous as a Mediterranean tourist resort.  The English, Roman and Majorcan stories are grouped together in their own sections, so that sometimes the book feels like three collections in one.

 

I’d known that Graves had mystical tendencies.  These were demonstrated in his 1948 non-fiction book The White Goddess, in which he speculates that the poetic impulse comes from a Mother Goddess-like deity that’s embedded in European mythology.  This idea, incidentally, led to him being name-checked recently in Paul Murray’s acclaimed novel Skippy Dies.  I’d also read his memoir, Goodbye to All That, whose account of his service as a captain in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers during World War I is particularly vivid and famous.  And I’d known him as the author of I, Claudius, which purported to be the story of Emperor Claudius, penned by Claudius himself, and which in the 1970s was turned into a barnstorming BBC TV production by Jack Pulman.  (I, Claudius-the-series, in fact, was one of the best things the BBC has ever done.  In it, each of the performers who played the early Roman emperors subsequently became an acting legend: Brian Blessed as Augustus, George Baker as Tiberius, John Hurt as Caligula, Derek Jacobi as Claudius himself and, erm, Christopher Biggins as Nero.)

 

(c) Rank Organisation

 

I approached these stories curious if they’d introduce me to some new sides of Robert Graves that I wasn’t yet aware of.  The collection certainly begins strongly, with the 1924 tale The Shout.  I’d known The Shout had been filmed in 1978 with Alan Bates and John Hurt and it was about Bates acquiring from some Australian Aborigines the ability to wreak havoc and kill people by emitting a terrifying sound from his vocal chords – but I wasn’t prepared for just how freaky this story is.  Not only does it feature that supernatural shout, but it features much Jungian speculation about dreams and premonitions.  Also, there’s a sub-plot about human souls being contained within pebbles, which sounds like – indeed, is – a lot of guff but somehow fits in with the story’s mad logic.  And it has a wonderful framing device, whereby the narrator is told the story by an inmate of a lunatic asylum while the two keep the score at a cricket match being played between the asylum’s cricket team and a ‘normal’ one.

 

The other English-set stories are more conventional.  They’re entertaining efforts, blacker and more poisonous than the short fiction of Somerset Maugham whilst more idiosyncratic than that of Roald Dahl.  Combining the morbid and the amusing particularly well are Earth to Earth, a story about garden-composters gone mad; and Week-end at Cwm Tatws, in which a fisherman visiting a remote Welsh town gets stricken with an agonising toothache – which proves to be only the first and least of his troubles.  None of them make quite the same impact as The Shout, however.

 

However, the last two stories in this section, which draw on Graves’s memories of World War I, are fascinating.  The Christmas Truce is narrated from the 1960s and is about a veteran trying to set his grandson, a CND supporter, straight about what really happened during the famous festive truce on the Western Front in 1914.  You Win, Houdini, meanwhile, is about a group of officers in the trenches who get saddled with a confidence trickster and shirker called Cashman, who’s determined to preserve his skin at all costs: “Most of us felt some sympathy for true-blue Bible-punching Conchies, who quoted the Sixth Commandment at the tribunals, and damn well meant it – what we couldn’t stand were dirty yellow-bellied column-dodgers of the Cashman type, who banked on being safer in the Army than out, if they played their cards properly – and Houdini Cashman had his tunic sleeves stuffed with aces.”

 

Also excellent are the three Ancient Rome-set stories that feature in the middle of this volume: Epics are Out of Fashion, The Tenement: A Vision of Imperial Rome and The Myconian.  These are stuffed with intriguing little details about life in the capital of the ancient world’s greatest empire and with crafty little digs at its corruptness and decadence.  They also contain cameo appearances by Emperors Claudius and Nero – such is the spell that the TV I, Claudius has over my imagination that I immediately visualised them as the great Derek Jacobi and the great, erm, Christopher Biggins.

 

The Majorcan stories are written in the voice of an expatriate observing the peculiarities of life in a new home that he’s bemused by but fond of.  They’re set in a comfortable world where men spend their working days drinking coffee and anis on café terraces, bullfighters take superstitious fright when they meet a posse of nuns on the way to the bull-ring, Civil Guards doze all day because “Majorcans seldom commit crimes (unless smuggling be so regarded, which must remain an open question)”, the Church has turned every second day into a public holiday to honour some saint or other, and the wives and mothers of the male characters – when not bickering and gesticulating – run the whole show from the sidelines.  Little mention is made, though, of the fact that Spain was a fascist dictatorship at the time and Franco was busy persecuting the local Catalan language and culture.  These stories are perfectly pleasant and at least one – The Viscountess and the Short-Haired Girl – is very funny, but their gently mocking tone gets a little excessive when you read 11 of them in a row.

 

The entertainment value of The Collected Short Stories of Robert Graves is high overall, but the stand-out stories are the mystical The Shout, the First World War ones and the Roman ones.  Which means I didn’t learn anything about the strengths of Robert Graves, mystic, war veteran and chronicler of Ancient Rome, which I hadn’t known already.