Travellers at the bar

 

 

As I mentioned in my previous blog-entry, the latest Covid-19 lockdown in Sri Lanka, which was imposed for a good part of May and June, has recently been relaxed.  This relaxation has allowed some eating and drinking places to re-open.

 

However, one place that my partner and I have often retreated to in the past, when we’ve felt the need for calm and a touch of soothing, old-school luxury (to convey the illusion for a few hours that we’ve actually got money), remains off-limits to us.  This is the Traveller’s Bar and its lovely outdoor verandah, which overlooks the Indian Ocean, at Colombo’s Galle Face Hotel.  For now, the bar and verandah are open only for hotel guests, not outside customers.  This is a shame because few things are as good for the soul as sitting there between six and six-thirty on a clear evening and watching the sky segue from one gorgeous colour to another while the sun sinks behind the distant waves.

 

The Galle Face Hotel will soon be a venerable 120 years old and it’s prestigious enough to have featured in Patricia Schultz’s 2003 travel book 1000 Places to See Before You Die.  Predictably, during its long history, it has accommodated some very famous guests.  Many of these are commemorated by a gallery of framed photographs adorning the interior of the Traveller’s Bar, with information about the years, occasionally just the decades, when they stayed there.

 

Among the earliest people featured in the gallery are writers.  You see Anton Chekov (credited with being at the Galle Face in 1890), George Bernard Shaw (in the 1930s), W. Somerset Maugham (the 1920s), Noel Coward (1944) and Evelyn Waugh (the 1950s).  D.H. Lawrence showed up there in 1922, presumably either on his way to or from the 99-day sojourn he had in Australia that gave rise to his novel Kangaroo, published the following year.

 

 

One literary hero of mine, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, stayed at the Galle Face Hotel in 1920 and, unimpressed by its prices, described it as ‘a place where the preposterous charges are partly compensated for by the glorious rollers that break upon the beach outside.”  He was also unimpressed by the equally famous Mount Lavinia Hotel, which in those days stood beyond the southern edge of Colombo.  “There are two robbers’ castles, as the unhappy visitor calls them, facing the glorious sea, the one Galle Face, the other the Mount Lavinia Hotel.” At least he appreciated the journey between the castles: “They are connected by an eight-mile road, which has all the colour and life and variety of the East for every inch of the way.”

 

At this point Doyle was heavily into spiritualism and had been gullible enough to believe that the notoriously faked Cottingley fairies were real.  However, he retained enough of his wits not to be taken in by a display of the famous ‘mango-tree’ trick, which a Sri Lankan magician did for him just outside the hotel.  Doyle praised the magician’s skill, though: “He did it so admirably that I can well understand those who think that it is an occult process.”

 

I’m perplexed by the presence of a portrait of James Joyce, supposedly a guest of the Galle Face in 1904.  (Coincidentally, June 16th, 1904, was the date of ‘Bloomsday’, the day during which all the events of Joyce’s 1922 masterpiece Ulysses take place).  To the best of my knowledge, he never travelled outside Europe, let alone visited southern Asia.  In fact, the only connections I can dig up between Joyce and Sri Lanka are that: (1) he makes mention of the ‘Cinghalese’ in Ulysses; and (2) he was known to own a copy of Henry Olcott’s Buddhist Catechism According to the Sinhalese Canon – Olcott was the American army officer who became the first president of the Theosophical Society and was an important figure in the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, so much so that he’s honoured with a statue in front of Fort Railway Station today.

 

 

Perhaps somebody else with the name ‘James Joyce’ stayed at the hotel in 1904?

 

One writer not displayed in the Traveller’s Bar is legendary science-fiction scribe Sir Arthur C. Clarke, even though it was in the Galle Face that he supposedly wrote the last chapters of the last volume of his Space Odyssey series, 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997).  However, Clarke had lived in Sri Lanka since 1956, so he wasn’t really what you’d call a ‘visitor’ or a ‘guest’.

 

The Traveller’s Bar gallery is mostly a collection of the great and good, but it has at least one rogue in it, namely Richard Nixon.  He stayed at the hotel in the 1950s, sometime before he became the second-most crooked US president in modern history.  Other political dignitaries who were guests there include father and daughter Indian Prime Ministers Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (1950) and Indira Gandhi (1976); and iconic revolutionary Che Guevara, whose portrait says he stayed in 1958, although according to a feature in Sri Lanka’s FT his visit was actually in August 1959.  He’d come to Sri Lanka because it was one of the first countries to recognize Castro’s Cuba.

 

 

From the mid-20th century onwards, Sri Lanka began to appeal as an exotic location to Western filmmakers and so the Galle Face Hotel had Hollywood movie stars stay while on their way to or from film shoots.  These include Sir Alec Guinness (1957), in town for the making of Bridge on the River Kwai and, I have to say, looking a bit shifty in his photograph; Harrison Ford (1983), there to make Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (whose production had switched from India to Sri Lanka after the Indian government objected to the ‘thuggee’ elements in its script); and Ursula Andress, whom I trust enjoyed her stay in Sri Lanka in 1976 even though she probably prefers to forget the film she made there, the Italian horror movie The Mountain of the Cannibal God, directed by Sergio Martini and considered so offensive in Britain that it was classified as a ‘video nasty’ and banned until 2001.

 

Andress, of course, found international fame as the very first Bond girl.  Meanwhile, the man responsible for the third cinematic incarnation of James Bond, Roger Moore, appears in the Traveller’s Bar too.  He’s said to have stayed at the hotel in the 1960s, but he’s depicted in his famous 1970s Bondian bowtie and dinner-suit, so the photo obviously wasn’t taken at the time.

 

 

One star in the Traveller’s Bar who’s rather forgotten nowadays is Lex Barker, who took over the role of Tarzan from Johnny Weissmuller in 1949.  Barker’s picture says he was there in the 1950s, although the only thing I can find in his filmography that was made in Sri Lanka was a 1963 movie called Storm Over Ceylon.  While Barker’s Hollywood Tarzan movies were too low-budget to be filmed on location in a tropical country like Sri Lanka, money was not a problem for Bo Derek and her director-husband John Derek, who used Sri Lanka for the jungle scenes of their notorious, mammary-obsessed Tarzan the Ape Man (1981), while using the Maldives for its beach scenes.  For their salacious take on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Lord of the Jungle, Bo, John and their crew imported some decidedly non-native wildlife into the country.  According to an article in the New York Times, they brought with them a lion (called Dandi), an orangutan (called C.J.), three chimpanzees, two Irish wolfhounds and an 18-foot, 120-pound python.  Thus, Ms Derek is now commemorated by a portrait in the Traveller’s Bar as well.

 

A nice story is attached to Gregory Peck, who stayed in 1954 whilst making a film called The Purple Plain.  Apparently, he came down with a nasty bout of flu, but recovered with the help of a traditional local remedy of plain tea incorporating inguru and kothamalli (ginger and coriander).  In the 1950s Peck was a global heartthrob and his use of this remedy didn’t go unnoticed by his lady admirers in Sri Lanka.  As another article in the Daily FT observes: “It used to be said in lighter vein those days that many upper-class ladies of Colombo 7 began drinking ginger / coriander tea only after Gregory Peck told them about it.”

 

 

Finally, the gallery sports a picture of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, symbolically holding a white dove.  The great Russian cosmonaut came to Sri Lanka in 1961 and among the things done to mark the visit was the planting of a tree in his honour at the botanical gardens in Peradeniya, close to Kandy.  According to a piece published by the Russian Centre for Science and Culture in Colombo, the tree was said to have stopped growing at the time of Gagarin’s death in a jet crash in 1968.  However, mysteriously, it continued to live, so that it’s resembled a young tree for the past half-century.  This is contradicted by an article in Ceylon Today, which claims it merely fell ill at the time of Gagarin’s death, but recovered and kept on growing.  I was at the botanical gardens a few years ago and really wish I’d examined the Yuri Gagarin tree to find out which of these accounts was true.

 

Seven favourite noirs

 

© Producers Releasing Corporation

 

One thing I’ve tried to do lately is watch more old Hollywood film noirs.  When I was a kid, the BBC used to show lots of ones with Humphrey Bogart, so I saw the likes of High Sierra (1941), The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Big Sleep (1946) and Key Largo (1948).  But I’m ashamed to say I never got around to watching the many non-Bogey film noirs, even the most famous ones.

 

Well, with lockdown confining me indoors for a good part of the past year, and with many of these films now in the public domain and available to watch on YouTube or archive.org, there’s been no excuse.  I’ve therefore immersed myself in the monochrome 1940s-1950s world of laconic tough guys, slinky femme fatales, guns, hats, raincoats, vintage cars, shadows, cigarette smoke, venetian blinds, whirring fans, neon signs and general, existentialist seediness.  (The genre’s great trick was to convince audiences that such a dark, downbeat world existed and yet have most of its films set in an American state as sunny and optimistic as California.)

 

Here are seven of my favourites…

 

The Woman in the Window (1944)

This little gem is directed by Fritz Lang and stars Edward G. Robinson, who memorably performed in the same year’s Double Indemnity, perhaps the greatest of all film noirs.  However, whereas in Double Indemnity Robinson plays somebody investigating a suspicious death and gradually ratcheting up the pressure on the two people responsible for it, in The Woman in the Window the roles are reversed.  He plays someone responsible for a death who has the screws tightened on him, first by the police, then by a blackmailer.

 

Not that Robinson’s character in Woman resembles the smooth, handsome and immoral one played by Fred McMurray in Double Indemnity.  He’s a timid college lecturer who sees off his vacationing wife and kids at the film’s start and then retires to his gentlemen’s club, where he’s soon complaining to his buddies (Raymond Massey and Edmund Breon) about being middle-aged, past it and doomed to a life lacking in adventure.  Of course, barely has he uttered those words than he’s having an adventure, but not a pleasant one.  On his way home, he stops to admire a portrait of a beautiful woman in a shop window, then meets the woman (Joan Bennett) who modelled for the portrait.  He gets invited back to her apartment for late-night drinks, unexpectedly meets her jealous and violent admirer (Arthur Loft), and finds himself being throttled.  When he tries to fight his assailant off with a pair of scissors, Robinson and Bennett suddenly have a corpse on their hands.

 

Believing they can avoid involving the police and incriminating themselves, they dump the body out in the countryside.   Unfortunately, it transpires that the dead man was more important than they imagined and the District Attorney is soon overseeing an investigation into his murder.  And the District Attorney happens to be the Raymond Massey character, one of Robinson’s best mates.

 

© RKO Pictures

 

What’s particularly good in this film is Robinson’s mixture of horror and fascination towards Massey’s investigation.  He tries to keep clear of it, but at the same time can’t help prying into it – and inevitably incriminates himself a little bit more each time.  I also like the juxtaposition between the cosiness of the gentleman’s club with its armchairs, book-lined walls and roaring hearth fires, which symbolises Robinson’s cloistered, middle-aged existence, and the mean streets outside, full of darkness, rainstorms, criminality and – eek! – the possibility of extra-marital sex.

 

Alas, Woman is spoiled by a ridiculous twist ending, added to wrap up the film on a positive note that would keep the studio (and the Motion Picture Production Code) happy.  You might want to stop the film a few minutes before the finish, while things are still looking bleak for Robinson.  That way, you’ll have a film noir that’s well-nigh perfect.

 

Detour (1945)

Film noirs don’t come any more existentialist than Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, the story of a pianist hitchhiking from New York to Los Angeles to meet up with his lover, a nightclub singer who’s trying to make it in Hollywood, and getting implicated in a couple of murders.  It’s ultra-low-budget and a very economical 67 minutes long, but it’s memorable for how it drives home its despairing message.  “Fate,” rambles its hapless hero (Tom Neal) in a voice-over, “or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all…”

 

Even more memorable is its leading female character, Vera (Ann Savage), who’s a femme ferocious rather than a femme fatale.  It’s an understatement to say she enters the film halfway through like a force of nature – she’s more like a tornado of rabid dogs.  When Neal, driving a car whose real owner inopportunely died a little way back up the road, stops and gives Vera a lift, she soon figures out what’s happened and starts blackmailing him into helping her in her own nefarious schemes.  Is there a way he can get the malign Vera out of his life again?  There is, but it’s going to make matters even worse…

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

Kiss of Death (1947)

Directed by Henry Hathaway, better known for westerns like 1969’s True Grit, Kiss of Death is a crime melodrama with some suspenseful sequences.  For example, there’s the opening scene when anti-hero Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) tries to escape in a maddeningly slow elevator from a jewellery robbery he’s just carried out in the middle of the Chrysler Building; and the climactic one, when Nick has to walk out onto a night-time street and get shot at by his criminal nemesis Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) because the cops, with whom he’s now colluding, have informed him that they can only arrest Udo if they catch him with a gun in his hand.   Both sequences are enhanced by their use of stillness and silence.  Mature, the Schwarzenegger / Stallone of his day, didn’t have much range as an actor, but his ruminative passivity is appropriate for the tone here.

 

Elsewhere, the story of Nick renouncing his criminal ways and turning informer for the Assistant District Attorney (Brian Donlevy), which is his only chance of ensuring a decent life for his two young daughters, is weakened by too much moralising and sentimentality.  But it’s a young Richard Widmark as the repulsive Tommy Udo who both steals the show and gives the movie a nasty edge.  Pale, irredeemably rotten and cackling like the Joker, he’s put on trial thanks to Nick’s evidence, but gets acquitted and vows revenge on Nick and his kids.  We’ve already seen him kill the wheelchair-bound mother of another antagonist by propelling her down a staircase, so we know he means business.

 

Woman on the Run (1950)

Down-on-his-luck artist Frank (Ross Elliot) is walking his dog one night when he witnesses a murder.  The police inform Frank that he’s seen a gangland killing and he’ll be expected to testify in court, so that a major criminal can be locked away.  Frank realises this makes him a likely target for the gangsters, decides not to cooperate with the cops and goes on the run instead…  And abruptly, the film’s focus shifts to his wife Eleanor (Ann Sheridan).  Although their marriage hasn’t been happy, Eleanor embarks on a quest to track Frank down, a quest complicated by the fact that she’s being followed by the cops, a persistent newspaper reporter (Dennis O’Keefe) and probably the villains.  During her search, she encounters acquaintances of Frank’s she hadn’t known existed and gradually realises that Frank has been a more affectionate and interesting husband than she gave him credit for.

 

© Fidelity Pictures Corporation / Universal Pictures

 

Woman on the Run is a cleverly constructed film that not only wrong-foots the audience by switching attention from its hero to its heroine, but also has a plot containing a personal, emotional journey as well as the usual crime and police shenanigans.  It makes good use of its San Francisco locations and portrays the Asian-American inhabitants of Chinatown with slightly more depth than you’d expect of a film of the time.  However, my better half, who’s Californian, poured cold water over the film’s climax, which takes place in the amusement park at Ocean Park Pier.  This, she pointed out, is actually in Santa Monica, which is a good 340 miles away from San Francisco.

 

Drive a Crooked Road (1954)

I’d never been much of a Mickey Rooney fan, not when he was playing kids and teenagers in the 1930s and 1940s, nor when he was an all-round entertainer doing Broadway, TV and, in Britain, pantomimes in his old age.  However, Drive a Crooked Road offers a fascinating snapshot of Rooney during his career’s low point in the 1950s.  By then he was too old to play a youngster anymore, but he was too short to make a conventional leading man.  In Drive, he ends up playing a misfit called Eddie Shannon, as lacking in social skills as he is in stature.  Eddie’s happier being surrounded by cars than by other human beings and when he isn’t working as a garage mechanic, he drives in small-scale motor races – which, we learn early on, he’s very good at.

 

One day the glamorous Barbara (Dianne Foster) brings her car to Eddie’s garage for repairs and is soon paying the wee man an inordinate amount of attention.  Poor Eddie is astonished – as the film poster puts it: “Why would a dame like her go for a guy like me?” – but can’t help falling for Barbara and daring to dream that their burgeoning relationship is genuine.

 

© Columbia Pictures

 

Of course, this being a film noir, it isn’t genuine.  Barbara is just bait and Eddie is being reeled into the middle of a plot to rob a bank.  Barbara’s real lover, the smug, oily Steve (Kevin McCarthy), plans to use Eddie’s driving skills to transport the stolen money at great speed along a treacherous stretch of road before the police can set up road-blocks.  The script, by a young Blake Edwards before he hit paydirt with the Pink Panther movies in the 1960s and 1970s, contains a surprising subtext about social class.  Raffishly wearing a yachtsman’s cap (and light-years removed from the panic-stricken everyman that McCarthy would play two years later in Don Siegal’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers), Steve is no criminal low-life but a suave, educated sophisticate.  This makes his manipulation of the humble, blue-collar Eddie seem even more loathsome.

 

Witness to Murder (1954)

What a difference a decade makes.  1944’s Double Indemnity established Barbara Stanwyck as the imperious queen of film noir, gorgeous, ruthless, happy to use men and dump them whenever it suited her.  By 1954’s Witness to Murder, though, Stanwyck was pushing 40 and Hollywood had evidently decided she was better suited to playing dotty, slightly hysterical ladies less in control of their circumstances than they think they are.

 

Witness unluckily appeared at the same time as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and shared a plot component with it: someone looks out of a window, and through someone else’s window, and thinks they see a murder.  It was duly dismissed as an interior imitation of the Hitchcock classic, but it’s more interesting than that.  Whereas Rear Window dwells on the voyeuristic aspects of spying on other people’s business, Witness merely uses it as a way to kickstart its plot.  Cheryl (Barbara Stanwyck) believes she’s seen her neighbour across the street, Albert Richter – an author, a fiancé of a wealthy heiress and a one-time Nazi (but he’s ‘reformed’ now, so that makes him perfectly okay) – murder somebody.  The police don’t believe her and when she tries to conduct her own investigations, her sanity is called into question and she even has to spend time in an asylum.  All good news for Richter (George Sanders), of course. If everyone thinks this inconvenient witness to his crime is barmy, it won’t be a surprise if sooner or later she ‘appears’ to commit suicide.

 

Witness to Murder, then, is as much about the unfairness of the era’s gender attitudes as Drive a Crooked Road is about the unfairness of its class attitudes.  Stanwyck is sympathetic and engaging, Sanders is predictably as smooth as silk, and it’s nicely wrapped up with a Hitchcockian chase-sequence across the unfinished rooftop of an under-construction high-rise.

 

Chester Erskine Productions / United Artists

 

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Directed by Robert Aldrich, scripted by A.I. Bezzerides and based on one of Mickey Spillane’s hardboiled pulp novels about private investigator Mike Hammer, Kiss Me Deadly begins with a startling night-time sequence.  Hammer (played by a suitably blunt Ralph Meeker) is out driving, nearly runs over a distraught woman (Cloris Leachman) and reluctantly gives her a lift.  He soon finds himself in trouble when bad guys in pursuit of the woman force him off the road.  So far, so conventionally noirish.  But things get progressively weirder as Aldrich and Bezzerides dump more and more of the Spillane source material and go off and do their own thing.

 

You don’t get a coherent plot where Hammer moves from A to B and then to C while gradually unravelling the mystery of what happened that night.  Rather, names pop up randomly in conversations, names of people who are still alive and who are already dead.  Trying to find a common thread, Hammer plods between seemingly arbitrary locales, shabby and smart, old-worldly and 1950s cutting edge: scuzzy hotel rooms and apartments, fancy beach-houses, a boxing gym, an immigrant’s garage, a bigshot’s mansion, a modern art gallery, an opera singer’s quarters crammed with precious vinyl.  The threat largely remains anonymous and soon becomes omnipotent.  Hammer hears a lot about ‘they’ but can’t identify who ‘they’ are.  At the same time, ‘they’ seem able to kill people with a god-like ease and lack of consequence.

 

Eventually, we learn that the villains are pursuing something contained in a small box, something that’s massively valuable, powerful and potentially destructive, and there ensues an impressively apocalyptic finale.  Tapping into the scientific and political fears of an America already immersed in the Atomic Age and the Cold War, and about to embark on the Space Race, Kiss Me Deadly is one of the last entries from film noir’s 1940s-1950s golden age.  Indeed, it’s appropriate that by its final scenes, the film seems to have transformed into a newer, more adaptable cinematic genre – science fiction.

 

Parklane Pictures / United Artists

Dave of the dead

 

© The Stone Quarry / Netflix

 

I’ve finally caught up with one of the most hyped films to land on Netflix last month, Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead (2021).  I’m not a massive fan of Snyder’s work, though I can’t say either that his films rouse in me the antipathy that they seem to rouse in thousands of other movie-fans, who regularly spray adjectives like ‘bloated’, ‘dour’, ‘humorless’, ‘prolonged’, ‘hollow’, ‘overbearing’ and ‘overstuffed’ at them, while dissing Snyder himself as some sort of dumb-assed filmmaking dude-bro.

 

Mind you, I’d only seen two of his earlier films.  The first was his 2004 remake of George A. Romero’s masterful 1978 zombie epic Dawn of the Dead.  I have mixed feelings about Snyder’s version of Dawn.  Its first 25 minutes are terrific, but thereafter it becomes a routine, if slick, affair, with no attempt to replicate or develop the satire on mindless consumerism that made Romero’s original so enjoyable.  (Incidentally, I recently discovered that Romero shared my opinion of the remake.)

 

The second was his 2013 Superman movie Man of Steel, which I thought was underrated.  I didn’t mind it being darker in tone than the Superman movies of the late 1970s and 1980s and liked how it showed Superman getting a hard time, initially at least, from a suspicious humanity.  Admittedly, Henry Cavill as Superman and Amy Adams as Lois Lane didn’t engage in the way that Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder did in those roles three decades earlier, but the splendid supporting cast – Michael Shannon, Laurence Fishburne, Russell Crowe, Diane Lane and Kevin Costner – more than compensated.  That said, not being a fan of DC Comics overall, I felt no inclination to watch Snyder’s later ventures into the DC Extended Universe, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Justice League (2017).

 

As its title suggests, Army of the Dead sees Snyder return to zombie territory, although this new movie takes place in a different universe from Dawn of the Dead.  Whereas in Dawn, the zombie outbreak happens everywhere and brings civilization to its knees within days, in Army it’s localized and quickly controlled.  It begins with holidaymakers, gamblers, croupiers, showgirls and Elvis impersonators succumbing to a nasty, bite-y zombie virus in the casinos and hotels of Las Vegas, after a top-secret convoy transporting the bug crashes in the nearby Nevada Desert.  The US military responds and manages to contain the virus, plus all the zombies carrying it, by sealing off Las Vegas behind a towering perimeter wall of metal containers.

 

Although it was obvious from the start that I was going to be watching a big, dumb, action-fantasy-horror movie, even at this early point I found myself shaking my head in disbelief.  From where did the military suddenly rustle up all those giant containers?  And how come the Las Vegas they seal off seems to consist only of the downtown area with the casinos and hotels, but with nothing else attached?  Doesn’t the real city sprawl a bit? Doesn’t it have suburbs?  I’ve never visited it, but I had the impression that Las Vegas was more expansive, thanks to reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (2013) and watching David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return (2017).

 

Oh well. Now under zombie-lockdown, Las Vegas is completely inaccessible.  This is frustrating news for casino tycoon Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), who has 200 million dollars in cash sitting in a vault under a casino in the city and would like to retrieve it. The fact that the US government has just announced that it’s going to erase the zombie plague by nuking Las Vegas in a few days’ time gives extra impetus to his desire to retrieve it.  Thus, Tanaka approaches a tough ex-mercenary called Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) and offers him a generous portion of the 200 million in return for putting together a ‘team’, breaking into Vegas, blasting their way through the zombies and liberating the money before everything goes up in a cloud of mushroom-shaped radioactive smoke.  Ward was involved in the original military operation to evacuate non-infected people from the city and seal it off and so is the best man for the job, but he carries psychological baggage.  His wife perished during the operation, which has so traumatized him that he’s been reduced to flipping burgers in the kitchen of an out-of-the-way diner.

 

Indeed, food seems to have become the Bautista character’s way of dealing with post-zombie stress disorder.  He’s still blathering about lobster rolls near the movie’s close, two-and-a-half hours later.  (Yes, two-and-a-half hours – this is a long film.)

 

© AVCO Embassy Pictures

 

The set up reminded me less of past zombie movies than of John Carpenter’s rugged sci-fi actioner Escape from New York (1981), in which tough guy Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is sent into a future version of Manhattan, sealed off and transformed into a giant, hellhole prison run by its own inmates, to rescue the US president whose plane has just crashed there. The president was played by Donald Pleasence, so the film was eerily prophetic in its vision of a dystopian future America run by a president called Donald.

 

The difference is that Carpenter would have established the premise, introduced the protagonists and got them into the zombie-fied Las Vegas within the first quarter-hour.  Snyder, it’s fair to say, is a less economical filmmaker.  While Bautista was in the middle of assembling his team, and no one had got anywhere near Vegas yet, I checked my watch and realized 45 minutes had already passed.  Herein lies Army’s greatest problem.  It takes its time getting going.  And even after it gets going, there are still periods when everything stops going again so that Snyder can shoehorn in ponderous, talky, supposedly character-building stuff.  I can’t help wondering how much better the film would have been if some studio bigwig had told Snyder that Army wasn’t allowed a 150-minute running time.  No, it’d only have 90 minutes maximum in which to tell its story.  I’m sure the result would have had much less flab and far more momentum.

 

Another issue I have with Army is its derivativeness.  I don’t mind films containing little nods and homages to other films, but Snyder not only pinches a major subplot and supporting character from James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) but also rehashes at least two of that film’s legendary action sequences.  As the film progresses, it also increasingly calls to mind the Will Smith sci-fi / horror movie I Am Legend (2007), with Bautista and his crew discovering that there aren’t just ordinary, common-or-garden zombies shambling mindlessly around downtown Las Vegas.  There’s also a more evolved variety that can sprint, climb, communicate, experience emotions, reproduce, organize themselves and even wear metal headgear, making them impervious to that normal zombie-stopping technique, “shoot ’em in the head.”

 

Frustratingly, like the film I Am Legend (and unlike the marvelous 1954 novel by Richard Matheson on which it’s based), nothing is done with these creatures once they’ve been introduced.  They merely become another threat to be blasted away, like a new foe that’s appeared on a new level of a computer game. Considering how it’s clear at this point that both Bautista’s team and the evolved zombies are being shafted by unseen corporate villains, it would have been interesting if the script had had Bautista try to communicate with the creatures and enlist their aid against the common enemy.

 

One other irritant is Snyder’s use of music, which is meant to be ironic but just seems clunkingly obvious: Elvis Presley’s Viva Las Vegas (1964) and Suspicious Minds (1968) to evoke the setting and the Doors’ This is the End (1967) and Credence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Riding (1969) to evoke the apocalyptic mood.  Most of these appear as cover versions by the likes of Richard Cheese and Allison Crowe, Theo Gilmore and the Raveonettes, which suggests Snyder didn’t trust the young audience the film was targeting to be able to handle hearing the songs in their original forms.  Worst of all, though, is his deployment of the Cranberries’ Zombie (1994).  I’m not a fan of that song but it was written to protest the killing of children by the IRA.  Using it on the soundtrack of a Hollywood blockbuster about zombies doesn’t strike me as funny, but as crass.  (Also, when Zombie plays in the background of a scene, it gives away an important, upcoming plot twist.)  Still, I laughed when Culture Club’s Do You Really Want to Hurt Me (1982) made an unexpected appearance.  Musically, Snyder got one thing right, at least.

 

© Island Records

 

Despite everything – the film’s bloated-ness, overlong-ness, derivativeness and unimaginative use of music – I did quite enjoy Army of the Dead.  Largely this is due to the cast.  Even though he’s the size and shape of a muscular Michelin Man, Bautista comes across as a likeable human being, while the other performers do a good job of creating characters you can relate to and root for.  Well, apart from the character who might as well have ‘I’M A SCUMBAG WHO’S GOING TO BETRAY EVERYONE’ written on a signpost above his head. Particularly good are Ana de la Reguera as Bautista’s capable deputy, who quietly carries a torch for the big fellow; Tig Notaro as the helicopter pilot tasked with flying them out the disaster zone before the bomb drops on it, who displays Dr. ‘Bones’ McCoy levels of loveable crankiness; and Omari Hardwick and Matthias Schweighöfer as, respectively, a macho, chainsaw-wielding mercenary and a nerdy, mild-mannered safecracker, who get involved in an unexpected bromance.

 

And the action and suspense scenes, when they come, are exciting.  It’s just a bit disappointing that, as I’ve said, so many of these scenes evoke similar scenes in earlier movies – Aliens or I Am Legend or, say, 1981’s An American Werewolf in London (two blokes crossing some desolate terrain at the film’s start, trying to escape a slavering monster) or the 2013 Brad Pitt vehicle World War Z (Bautista’s team having to make their way through a building that’s crowded with zombies, who are all in a statue-like state of hibernation but will wake up if there’s any sudden sound).  Definitely worth waiting for is a gory sequence featuring the movie’s best original touch, possibly its only original touch, a zombie tiger that’d originally belonged to Vegas magicians / entertainers Siegfried and Roy.

 

To sum up – plot-wise, Army of the Dead is as ragged and hole-ridden as the undead creatures that inhabit its dystopian setting, but it remains entertaining.  Its main problem is its inordinate running time.  If an hour had been chopped off that, you’d have had a thrilling, engaging action-horror movie as fast-moving as its evolved tier of zombies.  Unfortunately, the two-and-a-half-hour-long Army too often resembles its other tier of zombies, the ones that just shamble.

 

© The Stone Quarry / Netflix

Cinematic heroes 2: James Robertson Justice

 

© Rank Organisation

 

This weekend saw the funeral of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who passed away on April 9th at the age of 99.  Anyone who’s read the political entries I’ve put on this blog won’t be surprised to hear that I’m not a monarchist, at least as far as Britain is concerned.  I’ve got nothing against the Queen, who seems boundlessly dutiful and decent as she pushes her 95th birthday.  I’ve even got nothing against the concept of a monarchy itself, if it means having a symbolic head-of-state who deals with all the ceremonial stuff like opening supermarkets and attending banquets while the government gets on with the actual business of running the country.  Elsewhere in Europe, small-scale monarchies like this seem to work perfectly well in the Low countries and Scandinavia. 

 

Unfortunately, I don’t think a country as dysfunctional as Britain, so neurotically obsessed with its past, and where the institution seems to bring out the worst in many people – obsequiousness, snobbery, jingoism, culture-warring and my-patriotism’s-bigger-than-your-patriotism flag-shagging – could cope with having a small-scale monarchy.  So I think in the long run it would be better for Britain to just dispense with the monarchy and become a republic.

 

Anyway, enough of the political talk.  This seems an opportune time to repost this tribute I once wrote about one of Prince Philip’s close friends – the gruff, pompous acting marvel James Robertson Justice, whom the late prince once described as “a large man with a personality to match” who “lived every bit of his life to the full and richly deserves the title ‘eccentric’.”

 

Forgive the pun, but in a brief blog entry it’s impossible to do justice to James Robertson Justice.  By the time he embarked on an acting career – his first screen appearance was in the Charles Crichton-directed wartime propaganda movie For Those in Peril (1943), with his first substantial role coming four years later in Peter Ustinov’s comic fantasy Vice Versa – he’d already amassed a professional CV that would put, say, Jack London’s to shame.

 

In London, he’d worked as a journalist at Reuters (alongside a 20-year-old Ian Fleming).  Then he’d upped and gone to Canada, where he’d tried his hand at selling insurance, teaching English at a boys’ school and being a lumberjack and gold-miner.  He’d worked his passage back to Britain on a Dutch freighter and during the 1930s served as secretary and manager to the British ice-hockey team.  He’d also had a go at being a racing driver, served as a League of Nations policeman and fought for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War.  In World War II he’d been invalided out of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve because of a shrapnel injury.

 

On top of his decidedly varied working experiences, James Robertson Justice was a polyglot.  According to whom you believe, the number of languages he could speak were four, ten or twenty.  He was also a keen birdwatcher and falconer – the latter enthusiasm earning him the friendship of Prince Philip – a raconteur and bon viveur with an eye for the ladies and a penchant for fast and expensive cars, and perhaps most passionately of all, a would-be Scotsman.  Although he’d been born in Lewisham in London in 1907, to a Scottish father, Justice told everyone that he’d been born in the shadow of a distillery on the Isle of Skye.  People believed this and it was only in 2007 that a biographer, James Hogg, discovered his birth certificate and his non-Scottish origins.

 

To cement his Scottish credentials, Justice served as rector of Edinburgh University from 1963 to 1966 and in the 1950 general election he ran unsuccessfully as the Labour candidate for the Scottish constituency of North Angus and Mearns.  Despite his friendship with the Queen’s husband and his taste for fine living, Justice’s politics were firmly of the left.  One of the languages he could speak was Scottish Gaelic.  And he must have been proud that he starred in the most charming of old Scottish comedy movies, 1949’s Whisky Galore.

 

© Rank Organisation

 

A larger-than-life character in reality, it’s unsurprising that fame, when it arrived for Justice, was a result of him playing a larger-than-life movie role.  1954’s Doctor in the House, based on the comic novel by Richard Gordon, follows the mishaps of four medical students (Kenneth More, Donald Sinden, Donald Houston and soon-to-be-a-star Dirk Bogarde) while they bumble, philander and idle their way through their studies at the fictional St Swithin’s Hospital.  Its irreverent tone struck a chord with British cinema audiences, whose patronage made it the biggest grossing film of the year.  That’s ‘irreverent’ in strictly a 1954 sense, however.  Bogarde and co seem a pretty mild bunch of rebels even by the standards of the 1950s, which a couple of years later would see the advent of rock ‘n’ roll.  And as biting and unruly medical satire goes, Doctor in the House isn’t exactly on par with, for instance, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H* (1970).

 

In fact, the film would seem flat and stodgy today if it wasn’t for Justice’s turn as the chief surgeon at St Swithin’s, the hulking, pompous and delightfully ogre-ish Sir Lancelot Spratt.  The scenes involving Spratt are still capable of prompting guffaws – particularly the one with the famous ‘What’s the bleeding time?’ joke.

 

Steamrollering through the hospital wards and corridors and dragging a dazed trail of matrons, nurses and junior doctors in his wake, treating his underlings like dirt and so disdainful of the working-class patients that it’s debatable whether or not he considers them capable of thought, Spratt could be seen as the socialist-leaning Justice’s piss-take of a pompous upper-crust Tory doctor, one who’s been thrust against his wishes into the brave new Labourite world of Britain’s fledgling National Health Service.  The truth is simpler, though.  Justice was simply playing himself, or at least the side of himself who liked fancy cars, caviar and royalty.

 

The success of Doctor in the House and the popularity of Spratt meant that he was immediately typecast.  He’d spend the remainder of the 1950s, and the 1960s, playing variations on the role – comically-blustering aristocrats and authority figures who believed themselves entitled to behave any way they pleased and who didn’t give a tinker’s cuss what other people thought about it.

 

One exception to the rule was the memorable John Huston-directed, Ray Bradbury-scripted film version of Moby Dick in 1956, in which he played Captain Boomer.  Also, in the 1961 adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s The Guns of Navarone, he played the commodore at Allied Command who rounds up Gregory Peck, David Niven and the gang and sends them off to blow up the big German guns of the title.  Otherwise, comedies and pomposity were the order of the day.  Justice played Spratt in six more Doctor movies, where the quality inevitably went down each time, and played many more Spratt clones.  His performances, however, were never less than hugely entertaining.

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

 

One of my favourites is his turn as the unbearably bear-ish aristocrat Luther Ackenthorpe in 1961’s Murder, She Said, an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington, which starred the venerable Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple.  The lady detective takes on a job as a maid in the Ackenthorpe household in order to investigate a possible murder, and predictably she and Justice spend the film getting on each other’s nerves.   Miss Marple receives a shock at the end because Justice, despite the antagonism that’s existed between them, has concluded that she’s just the woman to share his matrimonial bed.  His proposal of marriage hardly sweeps her off her feet, though.  “You’re a fair cook,” he tells her, “and you seem to have your wits about you and, well, I’ve decided to marry you.”  Unsurprisingly, Miss Marple manages to turn down his proposal without much soul-searching.

 

Justice is also good in the 1962 comedy The Fast Lady.  It has a great cast – Julie Christie, making only her second film appearance, the suave Leslie Philips and the legendary Glaswegian comic performer Stanley Baxter.  Mind you, when I saw part of it on YouTube recently I found its humour a lot less sophisticated than how I remembered it from multiple TV viewings when I was a kid.  Justice plays a rich and arrogant sports-car enthusiast, a role that was obviously no leap for him, who runs gormless cyclist Baxter off the road.  When Baxter tracks Justice down to his country manor to complain, he falls in love with Justice’s daughter, Christie, while Robertson, chugging around on a riding lawnmower, mangles Baxter’s bicycle into his lawn.  There follows a romantic comedy of manners, with Baxter trying to win Christie’s hand and earn her father’s respect.  I remembering seeing an interview with Baxter wherein he reminisced about the film and, adding yet another string to Justice’s bow, recalled how his co-star had been an authority on butterflies.

 

Shortly after playing yet another cantankerous and wealthy old bugger, Lord Scrumptious, in 1968’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – based on the children’s book by his old Reuter’s colleague Ian Fleming – Justice suffered the first of several strokes that would hobble and then finish his film career.  By the time of the last Doctor film, 1970’s Doctor in Trouble, his appearance as Sir Lancelot Spratt had been reduced to a cameo.  His final role was an appropriately Scottish-themed one, 1971’s The Massacre of Glencoe.  As the work petered out, so did his money, and in 1975 he died a sick and bankrupt man.  All in all, it was a sad and undignified end for one of the British cinema’s most flamboyant and gloriously imperious figures.

 

From worldoffalconry.co.uk

Bungle in the jungle

 

© Legendary Pictures / Warner Bros.

 

Godzilla versus Kong.  The King of the Monsters versus the Eighth Wonder of the World.  The supreme clash of the titans, the ultimate showdown between the royalty of kaiju cinema.  In the left corner, we have King Kong, the giant simian star of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 classic that created the template for movies wherein prehistoric monsters rampage through human metropolises.  And in the right corner, we have Godzilla, the massive radioactive-breathed lizard who first surfaced in 1954, courtesy of Toho Studios, to flatten Tokyo as a thinly-disguised metaphor for the atomic bombs that’d flattened real Japanese cities a decade earlier – although, while he appeared in dozens of subsequent movies battling against similarly-sized monstrous adversaries, he gradually morphed from being the destroyer of Japan to being the unofficial champion of it.

 

Having this pair square up to one another – an event that’s only happened once before, in the ultra-ropey but endearingly goofy 1962 Toho movie King Kong vs Godzilla – should be an epic cinematic experience, the kaiju equivalent of Muhammed Ali versus Joe Frazer or Ali versus George Foreman, of the Thrilla in Manilla or the Rumble in the Jungle.

 

Alas, the recently released Godzilla vs Kong, the fourth entry in Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse franchise, isn’t so much the Rumble in the Jungle as a Bungle in the Jungle.

 

Of its three predecessors, the first instalment, 2014’s Godzilla, directed by talented Welshman Gareth Edwards, is the one that stands as a quality film.  It had some truly cinematic sequences and a memorably sombre tone, embodied in the apocalyptic clouds of ash and dust that swirled around Godzilla while he went about his city-demolishing business.  However, it wasn’t the big, enjoyably dumb monster-on-the-loose movie that many people expected and in some quarters it was met with disappointment.  And I have to say that while I admired Godzilla, I didn’t massively enjoy it.

 

Edwards’ downbeat film was the antithesis of the second film in the franchise, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island, which arrived three years later.  Set in the early 1970s, this was a brash, colourful rollercoaster of a movie that managed to balance crowd-pleasing action with enough smart touches to engage the more cerebral members of the audience – smart touches ranging from jokes about Richard Nixon to an outrageous sequence where Kong takes on what is basically the fleet of helicopters from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), though to the accompaniment of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid rather than Richard Wagner’s Ride of the ValkyriesKong: Skull Island also benefitted from having a cast of veteran character actors like John C. Reilly, Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman chew up any scenery that Kong wasn’t stomping on.

 

By the third movie, though, Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), the rot had set in.  The kaiju remained magnificent, but too much screen-time was devoted to the human characters, most of whom barely qualified as two-dimensional let alone three-dimensional.  Also, between the film’s set-pieces were sections where screenwriters Dougherty and Zach Shields couldn’t be bothered plotting in any credible or meaningful way.  You got ridiculous sequences like, for example, the bit where 12-year-old kid Madison Russell (Milly Bobby Brown) strolls out of the heavily fortified, heavily guarded lair of master-terrorist Jonah (Charles Dance) carrying a vital piece of technology that can communicate with and summon the monsters.  She then manages to set up the device and operate it in Kenway Park, home-ground of the Boston Red Sox.  Wow.   When I was 12 years old, I was still having problems tying a knot correctly in my school tie.

 

© Toho Studios

 

Brown’s Madison Russell character is, unfortunately, back in Adam Wingard’s Godzilla vs Kong and the chasms in plot logic are as gaping as they were before.  Here, she and a couple of conspiracy-theory-obsessed associates infiltrate, no, wander into the premises of a secretive corporation called Apex, which they suspect is up to no good.  With almost no visible effort, this motley collection of teenagers / conspiracy nuts discovers and breaks into a series of secret subterranean levels that are full of futuristic technology.  Apex might be the bees’ knees when it comes to developing high-tech gizmos, but they are evidently shit at hiring competent security staff.

 

The human characters involved in the film’s other main storyline, played by Alexander Skarsgård and Rebecca Hall (who, by accident or design in this movie, looks a bit like New Zealand premier Jacinda Ahern), fare no better.  They’re saddled with a don’t-even-try-to-think-about-it subplot where they join an expedition, sponsored by that shifty Apex corporation, to travel to the fabled ‘hollow earth’ alluded to by previous movies in the franchise.  To get there, they need to use King Kong to lead them, like a giant homing pigeon or upstream-swimming salmon, through the labyrinthine tunnels that connect it with the earth’s surface.  The hollow earth, which looks like the planet in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) with some gravity-defying upside-down bits, is not only the home of Kong’s ancestors but also the location of a new energy source that Apex are keen to procure.  Once they find the energy source, they promptly download it to a computer in Hong Kong.  Yes, download it.  Don’t ask me how.

 

But I’ll try to be positive.  What did I like about Godzilla vs Kong?  Well, the first battle between the kaiju is a cracker.  Godzilla erupts out of the waves to confront Kong, who’s chained to the deck of one of a fleet of battleships and aircraft carriers, and the two beasties then slug it out while hopping from one beleaguered ship’s deck to another.  The sequence put in mind slightly of the 1974 Bond film Live and Let Die, in which Roger Moore escapes to safety by using some bobbing alligators as stepping stones.

 

Also, I liked the character of the little girl who learns to communicate secretly with Kong via sign language.  Played with a charming simplicity and straightforwardness by Kaylee Hottle, who in real life is a member of the deaf community, she wins more of the audience’s sympathy than all the synthetic, going-through-the-motions adult characters put together.

 

And I liked Milly Bobby Brown’s nerdy friend Josh, who gets unwillingly roped into her scheme to infiltrate Apex.  This is partly because he’s played by Julian Dennison from Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) and partly because when we first meet him he’s listening to Breaking the Law by Judas Priest.

 

And I liked how, two-thirds of the way through, a third classic kaiju, one who made his debut in 1974’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, suddenly shows up to give Kong and Godzilla a common foe.  It’s just a pity that the ensuing stramash, which takes place in Hong Kong, feels a bit second-hand.  Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) has already featured giant organic monsters and giant robotic ones beating the crap out of each other in Hong Kong.  Also, the final denouement, involving a heavily foreshadowed flask of whisky, is stupid even by the recent standards of this franchise.

 

At the end of the day, I can’t say I liked Godzilla vs Kong any more than Godzilla: King of the Monsters.  The earlier film at least treated us to spectacular re-imaginings of some of Toho Studio’s kaiju heavyweights, including the vicious three-headed dragon King Ghidorah, the scaly giant Pteranodon Rodan and the vast gorgeous lepidopteran Mothra.  The new film doesn’t have that level of interest, seeing as we’ve already met Godzilla and Kong in previous films.

 

At least I managed to see Godzilla vs Kong on a big screen, for this was my first outing to a cinema during the Covid-19 pandemic since I saw Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020) in one last summer.  That no doubt made the film appear more spectacular than if I’d seen it, streamed, on a domestic-sized screen.  And I have to say that in this large-sized format the film certainly held the attentions of the Sri Lankan kids and teenagers whom I watched it alongside.

 

I’m not, however, in any rush to see a fifth instalment in the MonsterVerse franchise.  Unless they figure out a way of getting Gamera into Movie Number Five.

 

© Daiei Film / Kadokawa Daiei Studio

The full Fulci

 

From amiddleagedwitch.wordpress.com

 

Today, March 13th, 2021, marks the 25th anniversary of the passing of Italian director Lucio Fulci.  Here’s a reposting of a lengthy treatise I wrote about the mighty Fulci back in 2014.

 

Nowadays, satellite television can beam any subject matter, however adult, into our living rooms.  Thanks to this, the whole family, from grandma and grandpa down to the pre-school infants, can now sit together in front of the TV and enjoy, communally, such splendid sights as the bit in season three of The Walking Dead (2012-13) where Danai Gurira grabs a big jaggy chunk of glass and rams it in extreme close-up into David Morrissey’s eyeball.  Even better, a few minutes later, they can enjoy the sight of David Morrissey, again in extreme close-up, pulling the jaggy glass out of his eyeball.

 

This wasn’t always the case.  Audiences didn’t always have easy access to images of extreme eyeball abuse.  Indeed, three decades ago, a scene where a person got a humongous wooden splint stuck in her eye while being dragged through a hole in a door by a mouldering zombie was enough to cause outrage amongst the powers who decided what British film-fans could and couldn’t watch.  The scene belonged to the 1979 Italian horror movie Zombie Flesh Eaters, directed by the inimitable Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci.  And it was the gory content of this and movies like it that led to Britain’s Video Nasties scare of the early 1980s.

 

By 1983, the Department of Public Prosecutions, cheered on by the likes of public-morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse and the right-wing British tabloid press, had drawn up a list of 72 films deemed liable to ‘deprave and corrupt’ and thus open to prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act.  39 of the 72 were successfully prosecuted.  The remaining 33 weren’t prosecuted or were subject to unsuccessful prosecutions, but at the time you had little chance of seeing them through legitimate means.

 

Now that the hysteria has long passed, the majority of these films are available in uncut versions in Britain.  A couple of them, like Don’t Go into the Woods (1981) and Contamination (1980), have even suffered the ultimate humiliation.  They’ve been awarded wussy ‘15’ certificates.

 

Among the movies Lucio Fulci directed, two, Zombie Flesh Eaters and 1981’s The House by the Cemetery ended up on the list of 39 prosecuted titles; while a third, 1981’s The Beyond, was on the list of 33 that escaped successful prosecution.  A fourth, 1980’s City of the Living Dead, didn’t make the Nasties list, but British police seized videos of it nonetheless.  A fifth, 1982’s The New York Ripper, wasn’t classified as a Nasty either but still got banned from British cinemas.  For this achievement alone, I think Lucio Fulci deserves respect.

 

I have a complicated relationship with Fulci.  I doubt if I’ve ever seen more than one or two things he’s directed that I’d classify as good films, but I have to admit that when I encounter a new Fulci title in a DVD store or see one scheduled for broadcast on the Horror Channel, my pulse speeds up.  I get a prickly, sweaty sense of excitement.  I tell myself, I have to see this.  Although the end result is usually the same.  After the damned thing has finished, I sit back and feel a strange combination of bemusement, queasiness and disappointment, while a voice nags at me: “What the hell was that about?”  Although to be fair to Fulci, there’s usually been at least one sequence in the film that’s made me think: “Wow!”

 

Lucio Fulci didn’t find fame, or infamy, in the English-speaking world until the late 1970s, but he’d been a staple of Italian cinema for a long time before.  He started as a scriptwriter, first of all working on the 1954 comedy Un Giorna in Pretura.  In 1959, a dozen film-scripts later, he began directing.  One of his earliest directorial efforts was Ragazzi del Juke-Box, a musical starring the soon-to-be 1960s pin-up Elke Sommer.  During the 1960s and 1970s, Lucio beavered away making comedies and spaghetti westerns.  He also tried his hand at directing giallo movies, those twisted, kinky, violent and macabre Italian variations on the thriller genre: 1969’s Unna Sull’atra, 1971’s A Woman in a Lizard’s Skin and 1972’s Don’t Torture a Duckling.

 

© Medusa Distribuzione

 

Of Fulci’s giallo films, I’ve only seen Don’t Torture a Duckling and it’s surely one of the best things he did.  It has none of the excess and goofiness of his later horror films and it benefits from its distinctly un-giallo-like setting.  While most examples of this sub-genre take place in an affluent urban world inhabited by high-fliers in the creative industries (photographers and fashion models are common), Duckling is set in a rural and backward south Italian village, its separation from modernity symbolised by the nearby highway where traffic rumbles past oblivious to its existence.  While the setting allows Fulci to take pot-shots at the institutions of conservative, traditional Italy, his cameras film the countryside there sumptuously.

 

That said, viewers today will be troubled by some early scenes, seemingly played for humour, which show heroine Barbara Bouchet teasing the village’s young boys by brazenly exposing herself to them.  Imagine if the film had had hero Tomas Milian exposing himself to the village’s young girls.  It’s a clumsy foreshadowing of the film’s themes, which are the threat posed to childhood innocence by an immoral world, and a serial killer’s determination to preserve that innocence by any means necessary.

 

Some commentators have noted that Fulci’s sudden interest in giallo movies, and hence in darker, bloodier material, coincided with the death of his wife Maria, who in 1969 committed suicide after discovering she had cancer.  But the director himself never mentioned a connection between this personal tragedy and the darkening tone of his films.

 

The release of Zombie Flesh Eaters in 1979 saw Fulci plant his flag both in horror-movie territory and in the consciousness of impressionable, sensation-hungry teenagers, as I was then.  The film was a success despite critics slamming it as an inferior cash-in on George A. Romeo’s seminal zombie movie from the previous year, Dawn of the Dead. 

 

© Variety Film  

 

Well, Zombie Flesh Eaters isn’t as good as Dawn of the Dead, but it has an undeniable something about it.  The story kicks off with an un-crewed boat drifting towards New York Harbour while a ravenous zombie lurks in its hold.  Then it shifts to the Caribbean island from which the boat originated, where a full-scale zombie epidemic, possibly scientifically induced, possibly supernatural, is underway.  And at the very end it returns to New York, which has now succumbed to a zombie onslaught too.  The stuff in New York is ropey but the scenes on the Caribbean island, depicted as a cursed, pestilent and windswept hellhole, are wonderfully atmospheric.  A sequence where the protagonists stumble into a ‘conquistadors’ cemetery’ and the graves start disgorging some ancient cadavers is especially hard to forget.

 

But even that scene is surpassed by an earlier one where a female scuba diver flees from the predations of a large shark and hides behind a coral reef; only to discover that on the other side of the reef there lurks – eek! – a soggy underwater zombie.  The shark and the zombie then proceed to fight, in a slow, balletic way.  It’s typical of Fulci’s best sequences in that it manages to be simultaneously bizarre, haunting and totally bonkers.

 

The film is helped by the presence of two British performers, Ian McCulloch and Richard Johnson, who just ignore the absurdities of the situations and dialogue and get on with some proper acting.  I read an interview with McCulloch a while back and he professed himself bemused by Fulci’s filming techniques in New York. These involved the cast and crew turning up at a spot, filming without any licence, and then clearing off as soon as the police appeared.  This might explain the film’s curiously disjointed final image, which shows an army of zombies shuffling along an elevated bridge whilst below the New York rush-hour traffic trundles back and forth as if it’s just a normal evening.

 

The female lead, played by Tisa Farrow, is bloody awful, though.  Tisa is the younger sister of Mia Farrow, and I’ve often wondered what the pair of them talked about when they met up during this period.  “Oh hi, Tisa.  I’m busy making A Wedding with Robert Altman and Death on the Nile with Peter Ustinov.  What are you up to?”  “Well, I’m fighting off a horde of flesh-eating zombies in a conquistadors’ cemetery with Lucio Fulci.”  Mind you, considering what Mia had to endure with Frank Sinatra and Woody Allen, maybe she thought her kid sister had the better deal.

 

Zombie Flesh Eaters is one of my favourite Lucio Fulci movies because it has a story, one where things move from A to B and then to C.  Unfortunately, for his next horror movies, Fulci decided that there’d be a common theme.  Each would take place in a locality that, unknown to the inhabitants, rests on top of a portal to hell.  And if you’re on top of a portal to hell, the laws of physics, of cause and effect, of A leading to B and to C, will be suspended.  All sorts of crazy things will happen.  The dead will rise, furniture will levitate, dogs will go mad, eyeballs will bleed, the sky will rain maggots, demonic winds will blow in your windows and satanic spiders will chew your face off.  But there won’t be anything like a logically sequenced plot.

 

Many film fans have applauded Fulci for doing away with such outdated, bourgeoisie concepts as ‘plots’ in his films, but I have to say I find it a cop-out.  This ‘portal to hell’ stuff was just an excuse for him to make things up as he went along.

 

© Medusa Distribuzione

 

First in this series was 1980’s City of the Living Dead, which centres on strange goings-on in a remote American town that, by bad luck, is built on one of those afore-mentioned portals to hell.  The townspeople are soon falling victim to various forms of supernatural mayhem, which are orchestrated by a ghostly priest and a clutch of zombies who apparently have the power to teleport from one place to another.  City is a shambolic film.  Well, what else can you expect when there’s teleporting zombies in it?  But as usual with Fulci there are scenes that really stick in the memory.  I particularly like one where the protagonists explore some catacombs under the local graveyard, unaware that the cobwebby old cadavers there are stirring into life the moment they pass by.

 

A sequence that all viewers of City remember is one where a girl sits paralysed in a car while the ghostly priest leers in at her and, under his malevolent influence, she starts to vomit up her own entrails.  Lovingly captured on Fulci’s camera, those entrails ooze from her mouth in a slow, slimy mass.  The actress who had the honour of playing this scene was starlet Daniella Doria.  She had to sit before the camera with her mouth crammed full of sheep’s offal, which she then slobbered down her front.  People go on about the pain that Christian Bale inflicts upon himself in his quest for cinematic perfection, starving himself to a skeletal husk for The Machinist (2004) or making his weight balloon to play the slobby hero of American Hustle (2013); but I bet even Bale would draw the line at spewing mouthfuls of cold sheep-guts over himself in a Lucio Fulci movie.

 

Daniella Doria made three subsequent films with Fulci and she died horribly in all of them, via asphyxiation, stabbing and slashing.  “She was one of my favourite actresses,” Fulci reminisced later.  “I killed her so many times.”

 

Many rate the following year’s The Beyond as Fulci’s masterpiece and, indeed, its champions include Quentin Tarantino.  But I have the same problems with it that I have with City of the Living Dead.  There’s no rhyme or reason to it, because the action takes place on top of another of those pesky portals to hell.  Again, though, there are some striking scenes, notably, one where heroine Catriona McColl encounters a spectral figure standing in the middle of a straight, seemingly endless causeway.  The figure is that of a blind woman, played by Cinzia Monreale, who turns out to be a ghost.  Later, though, the blind woman dies when her throat is torn out.  Predictably, Fulci never explains how a ghost, someone who’s already dead, can be killed.

 

© Medusa Distribuzione

 

The Beyond also contains the barmy ‘spiders from hell’ scene, during which a lightning bolt knocks a character off a ladder.  He breaks his back and then lies helplessly while giant spiders emerge from the ether around him, converge and start munching on his face.  The spiders – real tarantulas – look creepy enough as they approach during the long shots; but for the face-nibbling close-ups they become phoney bundles of pipe cleaners that Fulci’s special-effects team probably threw together during the mid-morning tea-break.

 

Another problem is the ending.  It seems that Fulci had intended The Beyond, which takes place in a dilapidated Louisiana hotel, to be a haunted-house movie.  However, his financial backers expected him to make them another money-spinning zombie movie.  I can imagine Fulci’s producer grabbing him one day on the set, after looking at what was already in the can, and waving his arms and ranting in a stereotypical Italian way: “Lucio!  Hey Lucio!  Where-za hell-za zombies?!”  So, although he didn’t want to, poor old Fulci had to insert an incongruous climax into the film where McColl and hero David Warbeck have a shoot-out with a sudden and unexpected bunch of zombies.

 

The final instalment in Fulci’s ‘portals to hell’ series was 1982’s The House by the Cemetery, which has a young family moving into the titular house by the titular cemetery and discovering that they’re sharing it with, down in the basement, something horrible.  But sadly, the film lacks those moments of demented flamboyance that distinguished its two predecessors.

 

Meanwhile, between City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, Fulci tried to do something different.  This was filming a contemporary update of the Edgar Allan Poe story The Black Cat and setting it in England.  I’d hoped that the subject matter would reign in the director’s excesses and impose a little discipline on him.  The focus, after all, isn’t on a portal to hell that makes all things possible, but on a cat.  A pretty evil cat, right enough, but at the end of the day just a cat.

 

Unfortunately, like Fulci’s other films of the period, The Black Cat (1981) suffers from having everything thrown into it bar the kitchen sink.  The cat has somehow picked up subconscious psychic emanations from its owner, who’s a paranormal investigator obsessed with contacting the dead and who’s played by the distinguished Irish actor Patrick Magee.  Imbued with the hatred Magee feels deep down for the untrustworthy yokels who live around him in a rural English village, the cat starts acting out Magee’s suppressed fantasies and starts killing the villagers.

 

© Silenia Cinematografica / Italian International Film

 

But the cat seems to have picked up some other things, including super-intelligence and super-strength, for it can hypnotise its victims, sabotage ventilation systems, set furniture on fire, come back from the dead and even, like those silly zombies in City of the Living Dead, teleport.  You wonder why with all these talents the cat ever bothers to scratch anyone, but it does that too.  Still, the film has a few impressively eerie sequences, such as when Magee totters down to the village graveyard after dark and tests out his new contacting-the-dead wireless equipment.

 

Fulci is remembered for one more ‘major’ horror film, 1982’s The New York Ripper.  A serial killer / slasher effort with a self-explanatory title, this was controversial to say the least and led to him being accused of misogyny.  Even if Britain hadn’t been so jittery at the time about Video Nasties, the fact that it appeared soon after the real-life Yorkshire Ripper killings in northern England probably meant it was never going to get a British cinematic release.  The New York Ripper is a gruelling film and, frankly, a pretty bad one.  The killer’s quirk of performing Donald Duck impersonations during the murders isn’t so much deeply disturbing as deeply stupid.  If nothing else, the film serves as a record of the sleaze and dodginess associated with New York in the 1970s and 1980s.  This, of course, was before the city was cleaned up in the 1990s by its mayor, the totally non-sleazy, non-dodgy Rudy Giuliani

 

Thereafter, Fulci’s output tailed off in both prominence and quality due to a series of misfortunes that included a fall-out with his long-term scriptwriting collaborator Dardano Sacchetti and some serious health problems like hepatitis, cirrhosis and diabetes.  Although ‘quality’ is a subjective concept when you’re discussing his movies anyway.  He soldiered on into the early 1990s, his last directorial effort being the poorly received psychological thriller Door to Silence in 1991.  I’ve watched a single movie from his later years, a 1987 teen-orientated horror film called Aenigma that was apparently filmed in the then-Yugoslavia and is a weak rip-off of Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) and Richard Franklin’s telekinesis thriller Patrick (1978).  One thing I’ll say about Aenigma is that its death-by-snails sequence has to be seen to be believed.

 

Lucio Fulci died impoverished, sick and alone in Rome in 1996.  At least he had the satisfaction of attending, two months prior to his death, a convention in New York organised by the American horror-movie magazine Fangoria.  Much to his astonishment, since he didn’t appreciate his popularity beyond the shores of Italy, he was mobbed at the convention by thousands of American fans.

 

Funnily enough, Fulci’s films make me think of Gerry Anderson’s sci-fi-puppet TV show from 1964, Stingray.  Each episode of Stingray would open with a voice intoning, “Anything can happen in the next half-hour!”  That line would make a suitable opening for a typical Lucio Fulci movie too: “Anything can happen in the next hour-and-a-half!”  Especially if the film takes place on top of a portal to hell.

 

© Medusa Distribuzione

The holiest relic in Peebles

 

 

I’ve not had time to write much on this blog recently because of my current work commitments.  Unfortunately, in this era of Covid-19-imposed confinement, none of this work involves me moving away from the laptop on the desk in a corner of my bedroom.  Moreover, because I’ve had quite a few short stories published recently under the pseudonyms of Jim Mountfield and Rab Foster, I’m also trying to keep momentum going with those and am devoting additional time to writing, revising and submitting short fiction.

 

In the meantime, in the absence of new blog entries, here’s a reposting of something I wrote for this blog in 2014.  It seemed to get an enthusiastic response at the time and, indeed, I think someone made the entry into a poster that was put on the wall of – where else? – the Pub in Valetta.  Alas, since this was written, Peter Cassidy, the then-owner of the Crown Hotel, has passed away.  Meanwhile, I assume that the chair is still there.

 

Certain towns and cities around the world can boast of having ancient and holy relics.  In the Christian world, for example, Sienna has the mummified head of Saint Catherine in its Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico.  Paris has what is alleged to be the crown of thorns worn by Christ at his crucifixion in its Notre Dame Cathedral.  And in Rome’s Basilica di Santa Croce, you can see part of the index finger of Saint Thomas, the finger that as a sceptical disciple he poked into the wound in the side of the resurrected Christ to check if it was real.  Some places have relics so special that they are said to have healing or protective powers.  Naples, for instance, is lucky enough to have in its city cathedral the dried blood of St Januarius, which protects it from disasters like earthquakes and plagues.

 

However, my hometown of Peebles in the south of Scotland contains surely the most powerful holy relic of all.  Because in the public bar of the Crown Hotel on Peebles High Street you’ll find the armchair of Oliver Reed.

 

This hallowed item of furniture, on which the legendary hell-raising star of movies such as Hannibal Brooks (1969), Women in Love (1969), The Devils (1971), The Three and Four Musketeers (1973-74) and Tommy (1975) once rested his butt, is rumoured to have healing powers too.  A pilgrim who reposes against its upholstery will, with time, be cured of certain pernicious ailments.  He or she will be cured of sobriety, for instance.  And common sense.  And dignity.

 

The story behind the chair is that, in the middle of the 1990s, Oliver Reed found himself staying in Peebles whilst doing some location filming for a Scottish movie called The Bruce (1996), a quick, cheap cash-in on Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995), which had recently been cleaning up at the box office.  I’ve never seen The Bruce, but from all accounts it’s terrible.  Reed being Reed, of course, he soon managed to sniff out the pub in town containing the biggest number of what are euphemistically known as ‘local characters’, which was the Crown’s public bar.  He then set up camp there for several days, much to the joy of the Scottish tabloid press.

 

At one point, the Scottish edition of the Sun published on its front page a photo of an inebriated Reed passed out against the inside of the Crown’s entrance door, while someone outside tried to push his way in.  No doubt he was thinking, “What the hell’s blocking the door…?  Oh…  It’s Oliver Reed.”  For some reason Reed was clutching a toy sheep at the time so the Sun’s headline was, inevitably, SHAME ON EWE.

 

During his sojourn in the Crown, Reed complained to the hotel owner Peter Cassidy about the hardness of his seats and then thrust a bundle of notes into the hand of a regular called Davie Lees and ordered him to go to the local furniture store, the Castle Warehouse, and buy the pub a properly upholstered, properly comfortable armchair.  Davie obliged, and the armchair now resides against a back wall of the public bar, under a framed photo of a well-refreshed Reed posing with Cassidy outside the hotel.

 

Reed departed for the great pub in the sky back in 1999, when he expired during the filming of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (1999) in Malta.  He keeled over and breathed his last in, appropriately enough, a Valetta bar called the Pub, after he’d taken on a squad of British sailors in a series of drinking and arm-wrestling contests.  However, I have a feeling that the great man’s psychic residue lives on in that armchair in the Crown.

 

Just a few days ago, I’d arranged to meet my Dad for a meal in the Crown’s restaurant.  As the Oliver Reed armchair is aligned with the pub’s front door, I sat down in it so that I could watch the door and spot my Dad as soon as he walked in.

 

Immediately after sitting down, I found myself possessed by strange urges – to drink 104 pints in one sitting and then climb up the nearest chimneystack naked whilst roaring, “I’m Santa Claus!”; to indulge in a nude fireside wrestling match with Alan Bates; to vomit over Steve McQueen; to smuggle an elephant over the Alps; to take the local rugby club on a drinking spree and then organise a naked cross-country run with them through the surrounding moonlit fields; to film a Musketeers movie and stab several stunt-swordsmen during the fight scenes; to insult Jack Nicholson about his height, Richard Harris about his toupee and Raquel Welch about the thickness of her ankles; to arrive drunk at Galway Airport lying on the baggage conveyor; to chase ace snooker player Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins around a house with an axe; and to get a bird-claw tattoo done on my willie, which I’d subsequently threaten to whip out and display to the cameras every time I did a TV chat-show interview.

 

But then my Dad came into the hotel, I rose from the seat and the strange spell was broken.  So instead I ordered a half-pint of lager shandy and a plate of supreme-of-chicken with honey-and-mustard sauce, and later washed everything down with a nice cup of coffee.  And then went home to my bed.

 

© 20th Century Fox

Plummer and Plummer

 

© AVCO Embassy Pictures

© Carolco Pictures / EMC Film Corporation

 

One of the least pleasant consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the argument, advanced mainly by right-wingers, that it’d be better for society to steam on without lockdown and its attendant economic damage because most people killed by the virus are elderly and will die soon anyway.  Old folks, in other words, are expendable.  I’m thinking of failed Australian ex-prime minister Tony Abbot, who opined that families should be allowed “to make elderly relatives as comfortable as possible while nature takes its course”; or Daily Telegraph columnist Jeremy Warner, who reflected that “Covid-19 might even provide mildly beneficial in the long run by disproportionately culling elderly dependents”.

 

However, the notion that elderly people are merely past-their-sell-by-date sacks of meat, helplessly sitting around with nothing to do but wait for death, in viral or other forms, to arrive at their doors, was surely refuted by the example of the great Canadian actor Christopher Plummer.

 

Plummer, who sadly bowed out last week at the age of 91, had been acting since the 1950s and had been on my movie radar since I was a kid in the 1970s.  But it wasn’t until well after he’d qualified for his free bus pass that he got the roles that earned him official recognition as acting royalty.  He received his first Oscar nomination when he was 80 years old, for a supporting role in Michael Hoffman’s 2009 film The Last Station.  Though he didn’t win that award, two years later at the Oscars he netted Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Mike Mills’ Beginners (2010).  And a half-dozen years afterwards, to prove he wasn’t yet over the hill, Plummer got another Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World (2017).

 

Indeed, just last year, I was delighted to see him play a tough but kind-hearted patriarch in Rian Johnson’s entertaining murder mystery Knives Out (2019).  In this, Plummer effortlessly held his own not only among a starry ensemble cast that included Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson and Chris Evans, but also against Daniel Craig’s scenery-shredding Southern accent.

 

So the acclaim heaped on the octogenarian Plummer, and his seeming ubiquity on the screen in the last decade, negate the idea that human beings are fit only for the scrapheap when they reach their allotted three-score-and-ten.  With hindsight, at the age of 70, Plummer’s best years were arguably still ahead of him.

 

That said, it’s for two films he made as a younger man, in the late 1970s, that I’ll particularly remember him.

 

© Carolco Pictures / EMC Film Corporation

 

Daryl Duke’s The Silent Partner (1978) is an excellent thriller, though one that’s strangely underrated.  I suspect mainstream critics neglected it because they felt uncomfortable with a couple of scenes of nasty violence in the film, which were included to show what a psychotic, misogynistic scumbag its villain is.  That villain is the criminal Harry Reikle, played by Plummer.  Reikle becomes a formidable opponent for – and, as the film progresses, the title’s sinister ‘silent partner’ to – the film’s hero, Miles Cullen, played by Elliot Gould, a mild-mannered teller working in the bank that Reikle has decided to rob.

 

Despite his violent disposition, Reikle is a criminal with an imagination.  He carries out one crime dressed in drag and another disguised as a shopping-mall Santa Claus.  However, he meets his match in Cullen, who uses Reikle’s botched robbing of his bank as an opportunity to fill his own pockets with supposedly ‘stolen’ money.  Reikle is unsurprisingly displeased at this and a game of cat-and-mouse ensues between them.

 

Besides being a bit nasty, The Silent Partner is suspenseful, twisty, ingenious and, thanks to its droll observations of the inanities, pettiness and officiousness its hero has to endure while working in the bank, very amusing.  You fully understand why the frustrated, put-upon Cullen wants to cheat his workplace out of a fortune and escape from it forever.  Plummer and Gould give the film its yin and yang, its enjoyable balance of tension and humour, shocks and laughs.  (On the laughter side, it’s also helped by the presence in a supporting role of a young John Candy, sporting an alarming 1970s side-parted hairdo.)

 

My other favourite Christopher Plummer performance came the following year when he donned the deerstalker for Bob Clark’s 1979 Sherlock Holmes epic Murder by Decree.  (Plummer had already played Holmes in a 1977 TV film called Silver Blaze).  Inspiring the film, which has Holmes investigating the real-life murder spree of Jack the Ripper, is Stephen Knight’s book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1976), which postulated that the killings were the result of a conspiracy involving the Freemasons and the Royal Family.  The same theory informs Alan Moore’s celebrated graphic novel From Hell (1989-98) and its subsequent 2001 movie adaptation.

 

Murder by Decree is a classy movie with handsome production values and a big-name cast and Plummer essays a correspondingly classy and cultivated Sherlock Holmes.  Also deserving praise is James Mason as Doctor Watson.  Despite the disparity in their ages – Plummer was around 50 at the time, Mason around 70 – the pair make a delightful double-act.  They’re clearly bound by great affection and loyalty for one another, even if there are occasional moments of irritation and sulkiness, and they go about their business like a long-term and mostly loving married couple.  Incidentally, playing Inspector Lestrade in Murder by Decree is actor Frank Finlay, who had already played the same role in another movie where Sherlock Holmes encounters Jack the Ripper, 1965’s A Study in Terror.

 

© Dimension Films / New Art & Logic / Miramax Films

 

Plummer also appeared in a number of bad movies, of course, but like all great actors, he could feature in a godawful piece of guff and make it entertaining nonetheless.  He was, for example, very credible as the vampire hunter Van Helsing in Patrick Lussier’s Dracula 2000 (2000).  The fact that this particular movie has Gerard Butler playing Dracula tells you all you need to know about its quality.

 

Meanwhile, if you look between The Silent Partner and Murder by Decree in Plummer’s filmography, you’ll discover that he was in the less impressive Starcrash (1978).  This was an Italian Star Wars (1977) rip-off, of which the kindest thing that can be said is that the gap between what director-writer Luigi Cozzi imagined would be happening on the screen when he wrote the script, and what he could actually afford to put on the screen with his budget, is painfully obvious.  In Starcrash, Plummer plays the Emperor of the Universe and at one point he sagely tells his son (David Hasselhoff): “You know, my son, I wouldn’t be Emperor of the Universe if I didn’t have some powers at my disposal.”  Plummer later justified his participation in the film by saying it gave him a chance to be in Rome: “Give me Rome any day.  I’ll do porno in Rome, as long as I can get to Rome.”

 

13 years after Starcrash, Plummer had a rather better science-fictional experience playing the Klingon warlord Chang in the 1991 Star Trek movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.  Plummer gives a deliciously no-holds-barred performance as Chang, who’s so badass that the eyepatch he wears isn’t tied around his head on a piece of string or elastic but is rivetted into his face.  In the final scenes, Chang bellows lines from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar while he and his forces launch an attack on the Starship Enterprise: “Cry ‘Havoc!’  And let slip the dog of war!”  (Earlier, the Klingons had informed Captain Kirk that “you have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”)  I suspect the presence in the film of Plummer’s long-term friend and one-time understudy William Shatner, an actor not known for his subtlety, inspired Plummer to play Chang with his brakes off.

 

© Paramount Pictures

 

Plummer’s turns in Star Trek VI and The Silent Partner show his excellence as a screen villain.  Further proof of this is found in Taylor Hackford’s 1995 thriller Dolores Claiborne, perhaps the most underrated of all film adaptations of books by Stephen King.  Plummer plays the vindictive Detective John Mackey, who failed to pin a murder rap on the titular heroine (Kathy Bates) after the death of her abusive, alcoholic husband (David Strathairn) in the 1970s.  Two decades later, he believes he can finally nail her when her employer (Judy Parfitt) dies amid much circumstantial evidence suggesting Dolores has killed her.

 

I also associated Plummer with playing famous historical figures.  These included Rommel in Anatole Litvak’s Night of the Generals (1968), the Duke of Wellington in Sergei Bondarchuk’s  Waterloo (1970) – the epic Dino De Laurentiis production that proved such a financial flop that it helped scupper Stanley Kubrick’s plans to make a film about the life of Napoleon – and Rudyard Kipling in John Houston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975), a film that poignantly lost another of its stars, Sean Connery, just a few months ago.

 

He had a profitable relationship too with director Terry Gilliam.  In 1995 he played Brad Pitt’s dad in Gilliam’s masterful 12 Monkeys, while 14 years later he played the title character in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.  Typical of Gilliam’s 21st century film-work, Parnassus is all over the place and sadly indicates that the director has passed his prime – though it didn’t help that the movie’s star Heath Ledger died during filming and his character also had to be played, through a series of unconvincing phantasmagorical transformations, by Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law.  But the scenes with Plummer and his endearingly ramshackle travelling theatre, the ‘imaginarium’ of the title, are good and recall the director’s glory days.

 

One other movie featuring Plummer that I admire is Terrence Malick’s gorgeous and beguiling 2005 epic The New World.  He plays Captain Newport, leader of an expedition to establish an English colony in Virginia in 1607.  Newport’s party includes Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), destined to fall in love with Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), daughter of the chief of the local Native Americans.  However, Plummer was not enamoured with Malick’s unstructured and improvisational approach to filmmaking.  He was particularly galled when he saw the final cut of The New World and discovered that an important, emotional speech his character had given was now background noise in a scene with a different dramatic focus: “I could hear myself saying it, this long, wonderful, moving speech that I thought I was so fantastic in… way, miles in the distance while something else is going on in the foreground…”  Plummer subsequently voiced his displeasure to Malick in a letter.  “I gave him shit.  I’ll never work with him again, of course.”

 

Plummer’s willingness to speak his mind and slag off any film in his CV he didn’t enjoy making or watching was, of course, demonstrated by his attitude towards his most famous role, that of Captain von Trapp in Robert Wise’s saccharine The Sound of Music (1965).  Marvellously, he dubbed it ‘The Sound of Mucus’.  As well as just not liking the film, he found acting in it hard work: “To do a lousy part like von Trapp, you have to use every trick you know to fill the empty carcass of the role.”

 

No wonder that in a Facebook tribute to Christopher Plummer the other day, Terry Gilliam finished by writing: “I already miss him terribly and I hope to God they don’t play Edelweiss at his funeral.  It would kill him.”

 

© First Foot Films / Sarah Green Film / New Line Cinema

Seriously Sean – ‘The Offence’

 

© Tantallon / United Artists

 

A warning – the following entry contains a lot of spoilers.

 

1973’s The Offence was the result of its star, Sean Connery, believing he could make a deal with the devil and get away with it.  The devil in question was Hollywood, always hungry for money-spinning escapist entertainment.  The deal was that he would, reluctantly, reprise his role as James Bond in Diamonds are Forever (1971).  In return, the distributor, United Artists, would support two film projects of his own choosing, budgeted at less than two million dollars.

 

What could go wrong?  Connery starring in the lazy, by-the-numbers Bondage that was Diamonds are Forever and being rewarded with two modestly budgeted but hopefully classy movies in which he could demonstrate his acting chops?  Well, the problem was that The Offence, the first film to emerge from of the deal, was a commercial flop.  Filmgoers evidently preferred to pay money to see Connery as Bond, even if by 1971 he was visibly middle-aged, wearing a toupee and merely going through the motions, rather than see him give the disturbing performance that he gave in The Offence. 

 

Connery’s second project was to have been an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which he planned to direct himself.  This became problematic when the Roman Polanski-directed Macbeth was released in 1971.  With The Offence a failure and Connery’s Macbeth looking unviable because Polanski had got to the material first, United Artists pulled the plug on the deal.  Connery’s second film didn’t see the light of day and, indeed, he never got to direct a film.  (His sole directing credit was the 1967 TV documentary The Bowler and the Bunnet.)

 

But at least we got The Offence, which features Connery in perhaps his most unsettling and least sympathetic role ever.  Viewed in 2021, it also provides a grim snapshot of life in Britain in the early 1970s.  Its story unfolds against a backdrop of brutalist architecture, anonymous municipal housing and concrete bunker-like interiors, an environment where toxic masculinity, blinkered prejudice and instinctive misogyny seem to flourish.

 

The Offence’s opening sequence takes place inside a police station.   A uniformed copper realises something is amiss in one of the interrogation rooms, raises the alarm and rushes inside with several colleagues.  Director Sidney Lumet, with whom Connery had previously made The Hill (1965) and The Anderson Tapes (1971), stages the sequence with memorable weirdness, having the characters move in slow motion, muting the dialogue, and making the soundtrack a collage of exaggerated, juddering noises and needling instrumental music courtesy of composer Harrison Birtwhistle.  At the sequence’s end, the distorted noises and music give way to the ringing of an alarm bell and we see Connery standing in the middle of the room.  He’s surrounded by the bodies of people, including policemen, whom he’s just clobbered.  What’s happened is a mystery, but Connery’s character is clearly giving off a bad vibe.

 

Then the narrative shifts back in time.  The police are shown to be out in force, keeping a close watch on a school at the edge of a non-descript English housing estate.  They are there because the area has recently seen a series of sexual assaults on young girls.  In the midst of the activity is Connery’s character, Detective Sergeant Johnson.  He struts around in a sheepskin jacket, drop-brim tweed hat and big 1970s moustache and sideburns, whilst being boorish, opinionated and self-consciously macho.

 

But the police mess up.  When the school-day ends and the kids leave, a girl goes missing.  A desperate search for her is launched in the fields and woods beyond the estate.  Lumet films this atmospherically – the daylight fading from a leaden sky, the lights of torches bobbing through the gloaming, the barking of tracker dogs and crackle of police walkie talkies pervading the air.  The girl is eventually found, brutalised and traumatised but still alive.  Johnson is the one who finds her.  As we’re aware of his bad karma from the opening sequence, there’s something disturbing in how he croons platitudes and struggles with the girl as he attempts to calm her.

 

© Tantallon / United Artists

 

Later that evening, a suspect is picked up.  This is Baxter (Ian Bannen), whom the police first spy tottering drunkenly across a serpentine pedestrian bridge in the local town centre.  Unable to give an account of what he was doing that day, he’s taken into custody.  Something about Baxter seems to push all of Johnson’s buttons and Johnson becomes convinced of his guilt.  Baxter is seedy and louche, but also well-spoken and well-educated, and he’s obviously come down in the world for some reason.  Though the script doesn’t make anything of it, there’s a hint that he’s gay, which no doubt enflames Johnson’s alpha maleness too.  This part of The Offence culminates with Johnson sneaking into the interrogation room to speak to Baxter in private.  Lumet shows a little, not all, of the emotional and physical violence that follows.  Johnson beats Baxter to a pulp, presumably the first act in the mayhem that was glimpsed in the film’s prologue.

 

Thereafter, The Offence shifts gears and three long, dialogue-heavy scenes ensue.  These scenes reveal the film’s origins on the stage, for it’s based on a theatrical play called This Story of Yours, which was first performed in 1968 and written by John Hopkins.  The playwright also wrote the film’s script.  Intriguingly, when This Story of Yours was revived in 1987, the role of Johnson went to the actor who was the screen’s finest Hercule Poirot, David Suchet.

 

First comes a scene where, after the violence, a chastened Johnson returns home.  Unsurprisingly, from what we’ve seen of the neighbourhood so far, he lives in an identikit block of flats where for a moment he tries to enter the wrong apartment by mistake.  He talks bitterly with his wife (Vivien Merchant) until two of his colleagues show up to inform him that Baxter has died of his injuries in hospital and he needs to accompany them back to the station.  The second scene takes place the next day and sees Johnson interrogated by a Detective Superintendent (Trevor Howard) who’s been sent to the town to find out what the hell is going on.  The third scene is a flashback to Johnson’s confrontation with Baxter and this time it’s shown in full.

 

The scene between Johnson and his wife, whose relationship has so deteriorated that they torment each other, intentionally and unintentionally, just by being in each other’s presence, is painful enough.  “Why aren’t you beautiful?” he growls at her. “You’re not even pretty.”  It’s made worse by the knowledge that both performers were in ugly domestic situations in real life at the time.  Connery’s marriage to actress Diane Cilento ended the year that The Offence was released and Cilento later alleged that he’d subjected her to physical and emotional abuse. Merchant, meanwhile, died of alcoholism and depression in 1982, aged only 53, following the slow and traumatic breakup of her marriage to the playwright Harold Pinter.

 

© Tantallon / United Artists

 

The scene with Trevor Howard’s Detective Superintendent, rattled by what’s happened but trying to extend some sympathy to Johnson as a fellow copper, is merely tense.  But it’s the flashback to the events in the interrogation room that gives The Offence its devastating punch.  Johnson might be Baxter’s physical superior but, despite his attempts to intimidate him, it’s Baxter who gains the upper hand.  He’s smart enough to realise how screwed up Johnson is and taunts him about his obsession with this case.  Is it because of a deep-rooted fascination with the crimes?  Is he secretly turned on by these sexual assaults on children?  “Nothing I have done,” Baxter tells him, “can be one half as bad as the thoughts in your head.”

 

It’s comes as no surprise that there is bad stuff festering inside Johnson’s head.  During the film, we’ve seen him suffer brief but harrowing recollections of the grisly crimes he’s had to deal with as a policeman – hanging corpses, murdered women tied to beds, people throwing themselves off rooftops, bloodstained children’s toys.  He’s also been haunted by images of the abused schoolgirl he found the previous day, not hysterical, but smiling at him enticingly.

 

Finally, like a penitent sinner before his priest, Johnson confesses to Baxter that what he’s said is true – just before, unhinged, he subjects him to that fatal beating.  Also, in his blind rage, he floors several of his colleagues who burst in and try to intervene.

 

I don’t think Ian Bannen ever gave a better performance than as the perceptive and manipulative Baxter, who gets the last laugh even though it costs him his life.  There are good turns too from Howard, Merchant, future sitcom-star Peter Bowles as the police station’s token posh detective, and Durham-born Ronald Radd as its token gruff, northern one.  Also in the cast is strapping character actor John Hallam, who appeared in two more British crime movies on either side of The Offence, Villain (1971) and Hennessy (1975).

 

But Connery ultimately takes the acting honours, for daring to subvert the macho-ness of Bond and the other heroic roles he’d been associated with.  Here he explores the severely damaged psyche of someone who uses a macho exterior as something to hide behind.  I’ve read speculation that The Offence’s box-office failure persuaded Connery not to play more characters like Johnson, but I wonder if that’s really the case.  Even if the film had made money, having inhabited Johnson’s skin once, did he feel any need to do it again?

 

Though after The Offence he’d stick to more sympathetic and heroic roles, there were, thankfully, several more Connery movies to come that were serious in intent and tried to engage the intellect.  Highlander (1986) and The Rock (1996) were still some way off…

 

© Tantallon / United Artists

Cinematic heroines 1: Barbara Shelley

 

© Hammer Film Productions / Warner-Pathé Distributors

 

During the previous incarnation of this blog, before it had to be rebooted due to hacking issues, I published a series of posts under the title Cinematic heroes.  This was about actors whom I admired, ranging from craggy action men like Rutger Hauer and James Cosmo to beloved old-school character actors like Terry-Thomas and James Robertson-Justice.  Aware of a gender imbalance, I’d also intended to launch a parallel series of posts called Cinematic heroines, dedicated to my favourite actresses.  But I never got around to it.

 

Anyhow, a week ago saw the death of the actress Barbara Shelley following a Covid-19 diagnosis.  When I was a lad of 11 of 12 and a nascent film buff, Shelley was perhaps the first actress I developed a crush on.  Thus, sadly and belatedly, here’s Cinematic heroines 1: Barbara Shelley.

 

As well as being my first movie crush, Shelly starred in the first horror movie I saw that properly horrified me, 1966’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness.  Before I watched it, and before I reached my second decade, I’d seen some quaint old black-and-white horror films made by Universal Studios in the 1940s, including a couple that featured John Carradine as Count Dracula.  Carradine played Dracula as a gentlemanly, well-spoken figure who could change from bat-form into dandified human-form complete with a top hat.  This hardly prepared me for Dracula, Prince of Darkness, made two decades later in colour by Hammer Films.  It was a decidedly more visceral experience…  Almost traumatically so for my young sensibilities.

 

Cloaked in an atmosphere of dread from the word ‘go’, it has four English travellers getting lost whilst holidaying in Transylvania and spending the night at the seemingly empty Castle Dracula.  There, an acolyte of Dracula strings one of them up over a tomb containing the dead vampire’s ashes, slashes his throat and sends blood splashing noisily onto those ashes to bring the monster back to life.  And monster he certainly is.  Played by the great Christopher Lee, Dracula lurches around, hisses and spits, and glowers through red contact lenses like a literal bat out of hell.

 

Barbara Shelley is the second-billed actress in the movie, after Suzan Farmer, but she’s as memorable as Lee is.  She plays Helen Kent, a stereotypically repressed and prudish Victorian housewife who, the traveller least enamoured with the apparent comforts of Castle Dracula, comes out with the prophetic line: “There’ll be no morning for us!”  Later, bitten by the Count, she transforms from Victorian housewife into voluptuous sexpot, tries to seduce the surviving members of the group and bares her fangs animalistically at the sight of their naked throats.  However, Helen’s sexual awakening is shockingly punished near the film’s end when another memorable actor, Lanarkshire-born Andrew Keir, playing a very Scottish Transylvanian monk, re-asserts the puritanical and patriarchal status quo.  He and his fellow monks tie her down and bang a metal stake through her heart in a scene that evokes the cruelty of the Spanish Inquisition.

 

© Hammer Film Productions / Warner-Pathé Distributors

 

After all that, my eleven-year-old self was shaken – but also stirred, into a lifelong fascination with horror movies.  And thanks to Barbara Shelley’s performance as a saucy vampire, I was probably stirred in more ways than one.

 

Born in London in 1932 as Barbara Kowin, Shelley took up modelling in the early 1950s and by 1953 had appeared in her first film, Mantrap, made by Hammer Films, the studio that’d later become her most important employer.  However, she subsequently spent several years in Italy, making films there.  It wasn’t until 1957 that she got a leading role in the genre that’d make her famous.  This was the British-American cheapie Cat Girl, an ‘unofficial remake’ of Val Lewton’s supernatural masterpiece Cat People (1942).  Cat Girl’s director was Alfred Shaughnessy, who’d later develop, write for and serve as script editor on the British television show Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75), essential TV viewing during the 1970s and the Downtown Abbey (2010-15) of its day.

 

Slightly better remembered is 1958’s Blood of the Vampire, a cash-in by Tempean Films on the success that Hammer Films had recently enjoyed with gothic horror movies shot in colour.  Indeed, Hammer’s main scribe Jimmy Sangster moonlighted from the company to write the script for this one.  Shelley isn’t in Blood long enough to make much impact, although her character is allowed to be proactive.  Hired as a servant, she infiltrates the household of the mysterious Dr Callistratus (played by legendary if hammy Shakespearean actor Sir Donald Wolfit), who runs the prison in which her lover (Vincent Ball) has been incarcerated.  Callistratus, it transpires, is harvesting the prisoners’ blood to sustain and perhaps find a cure for his secret medical condition – for he’s actually a vampire.  An uncomfortable blend of mad-doctor movie and vampire movie, Blood at least gets a certain, pulpy energy from its lurid storyline and Wolfit’s OTT performance.

 

The same year, Shelley got her first substantial role in a Hammer movie, although this was a war rather than a horror one, The Camp on Blood Island (1958).  A half-dozen years later, she’d appear in its prequel, The Secret of Blood Island (1964), a film whose policy of casting British character actors like Patrick Wymark and Michael Ripper as Japanese prison-camp guards prompted the critic Kim Newman to write recently: “Even by the standards of yellowface casting – common at the time – these are offensive caricatures, but they’re also so absurd that they break up the prevailing grim tone of the whole thing.”

 

Before making her first Hammer horror film, Shelley appeared in 1960’s sci-fi horror classic Village of the Damned, based on John Wyndham’s 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos.  She plays Anthea Zellaby, while the impeccable George Sanders plays her husband George.  Like all the inhabitants of the village of Midwich, Anthea becomes unconscious when the district is stricken by some inexplicable cosmic phenomenon.  And like every woman of childbearing age there, she discovers that she’s pregnant after she wakes up again.  The result is a tribe of sinister little children with blonde hair, pale skins, plummy accents, super-high IQs, glowing eyes and telepathic powers who resemble a horde of mini-Boris Johnsons (well, without the IQ, eyes or powers).

 

These are cinema’s first truly creepy horror-movie kids.  Child-actor Martin Stephens is particularly creepy as David Zellaby, Anthea’s son and the children’s leader.  Still effective today, the original Village knocks spots off the remake that John Carpenter directed in 1995.  It was also amusingly sent up as The Bloodening (“You’re thinking about hurting us…  Now you’re thinking, how did they know what I was thinking…?  Now you’re thinking, I hope that’s shepherd’s pie in my knickers….”) in a 1999 episode of The Simpsons.

 

© Hammer Film Productions / Columbia

 

After making a horror-thriller called Shadow of the Cat (1961) for Hammer, about the murder of a wealthy old lady (Catherine Lacey), a conspiracy by inheritance-hungry relatives and servants, and a supernaturally vengeful pet cat, Shelley got her meatiest role yet in the same studio’s 1963 horror film The Gorgon.  This was directed by the man who’d make Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Terence Fisher, and also featured that film’s star, Christopher Lee.  In addition, it featured Hammer’s other horror legend, Peter Cushing.  Atypically, Lee plays the good guy here rather than the bad one, and Cushing plays the bad guy rather than the good one.  The Gorgon is about a mid-European village terrorised by an unknown person who’s possessed by the spirit of Megaera, one of the three monstrous Gorgons from Greek mythology.  (In fact, in proper Greek mythology, Megaera was one of the Furies.)  Her victims are regularly found transformed into stone.

 

Since the Gorgon’s female, and since Shelley plays the only prominent female character, it’s hardly a spoiler to say that she turns out to be the possessed villager.  Oddly, Shelley doesn’t get to play the character in Gorgon form.  That honour goes to actress Prudence Hyman, sporting a headful of very unconvincing rubber snakes.  While the monster is a big disappointment, and isn’t a patch on cinema’s scariest representation of a Gorgon, the Ray Harryhausen-animated Medusa in 1981’s Clash of the Titans, The Gorgon makes partial amends by having some wonderfully atmospheric moments.

 

In 1966, besides appearing in Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Shelley appeared in Rasputin, the Mad Monk, which was shot back-to-back with the Dracula film and used many of the same sets and cast, including Christopher Lee as the titular character.  Despite some good performances, I find this film a confused, half-baked affair.  Happily, two years later, Shelley’s final movie for Hammer was also her best one.  This was 1968’s sci-fi horror film Quatermass and the Pit, based on an original 1958 BBC TV serial of the same name.  Both the film and serial were written by the same man, Nigel Kneale.

 

Pit has an ingenious premise.  Workers on a London Underground extension project dig up some skeletons of prehistoric ape-men and what proves to be an alien spacecraft full of dead, horned insect-like creatures.  The insects are identified by the film’s scientist hero Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir again) as inhabitants of the now-lifeless planet Mars.  Five million years ago, they came to earth and staged an invasion by proxy.  Unable to survive themselves in the earth’s atmosphere, the insect-Martians programmed the apes they encountered to become mental Martians.  Since these apes were the ancestors of modern human beings, Quatermass memorably exclaims, “We are the Martians!”

 

© Hammer Film Productions / Seven Arts Productions

 

Unfortunately, it turns out that the Martians, in both insect and surrogate-ape form, conducted occasional culls whereby those with pure Martian genes / programming destroyed their fellows who’d developed mutations and lost their genetic / programmed purity.  When the spacecraft is reactivated by a power surge from the cables of some TV news crews, it triggers a new cull.  London becomes an apocalyptic hellscape where the human inhabitants who retain their Martian conditioning roam around, zombie-like, and use newly awoken telekinetic powers to kill those who no longer have that conditioning.

 

Shelley plays an anthropologist called Barbara Judd, a member of a team headed by Dr Roney (James Donald) studying the apes’ remains.  They join forces with Andrew Keir’s Quatermass – sartorially striking in a beard, bowtie, tweed suit and trilby – who’s a rocket scientist come to examine the spacecraft.  Shelley, Donald and Keir are endearing in their roles.  It’s refreshing to see a film where the scientists aren’t cold-blooded, delusional, self-serving or plain weird.  Instead, they’re decent human beings, working with an eager curiosity, a sense of duty and a very relatable sense of humour.  Indeed, the film has a poignant climax, when the member of the trio who’s least affected by the influence emanating from the spacecraft makes the ultimate sacrifice in order to stop it.

 

Thereafter, Barbara Shelley made only a few more film appearances, most notably with a supporting role in Stephen Weeks’ Ghost Story (1974), a film with an unsettling atmosphere – perhaps because although it’s supposed to be set in the English countryside, it was actually filmed in India.  It’s also interesting because it offered a rare screen credit for Vivian MacKerrell, the actor who was the real-life inspiration for the title character of Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I (1987).  However, she kept busy with appearances on stage, courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and on television.  Fans of British TV science fiction of a certain vintage will know her for her appearances in the final season of Blake’s Seven (1981) and in Peter Davison-era Doctor Who (1983).

 

Barbara Shelley’s death on January 4th led to her being described in the media as a ‘scream queen’ and ‘Hammer horror starlet’, but both labels don’t do her justice.  For one thing, her characters rarely screamed – the impressive scream she produced in Dracula, Prince of Darkness was actually dubbed in by her co-star Suzan Farmer.  Also, the ‘Hammer starlet’ moniker implies she found fame due to her looks and physical attributes rather than her acting abilities.  The moniker is frequently applied to actresses like Ingrid Pitt, Yutte Stensgaard, Madeline Smith and Kate O’Mara who worked with the studio in the 1970s, when relaxed censorship rules allowed more bare flesh to be shown onscreen.  But working in a less permissive time, Shelley projected sexuality when she had to, as in the Dracula film, the same way she projected everything else – through sheer acting talent.  It was a talent that fans of the classic era of British gothic filmmaking, like myself, have much to be thankful for.

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer