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

So un-macho

 

© Library of Congress / From unsplash.com

 

An extremely right-wing author and essayist recently caused an uproar by saying something offensive on social media.  That’s hardly news these days.  Anyway, impelled by morbid curiosity, I checked out said author and essayist’s blog.  No, I’m not going to provide a link to it because the dribbling jackanapes has already received enough free publicity.  One remark on that blog caught my eye and made me think, though.  It was a description of President, soon-to-be ex-President, Donald Trump as  ‘the alpha-male of alpha-males’.

 

Let me get this straight.  Donald Trump is not only an alpha-male, but is the most alpha-male going?  You’ve got to be kidding.

 

The last four years and, indeed, most of the past 74 years that Trump has been on the planet are peppered with instances that show him to be not so much an alpha-male as an alpha-wuss.  Indeed, the past month-and-a-half since the US presidential election, when Joe Biden handed Trump his arse on a plate by massively winning both the popular vote and the electoral college, has shown him to be even more pathetic than normal.

 

Seeing Trump react to defeat with a display of whiny, shrieky, stamping-his-little-feet, waving-his-little-fists, chucking-his-toys-out-of-the-pram petulance doesn’t make me think of some muscled, lantern-jawed, bare-chested, testosterone-oozing specimen of maleness swaggering his way through a Hollywood action movie.  Rather, it makes me think of the obnoxious Violet Elizabeth Bott, the lisping little girl in Richmal Crompton’s William books (1922-70) who, when anyone refused to let her have her way, would threaten: “I’ll thcream and thcream and thcream till I’m thick!”  Or of Veruca Salt, the monstrously spoilt little girl in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), who proved so unbearable that Willie Wonka’s squirrels ended up throwing her down a garbage chute to the factory’s incinerator.

 

Ironically, the right-wing dingbats who support Trump often lament the decline of good old-fashioned masculine values, thanks to, as they see it, assaults in recent decades by feminists, liberals, socialists, gay rights activists, trans activists, etc.  In fact, if you look at the best-known embodiments of traditional masculine values, as portrayed on the cinema screen, you’ll see that their hero Trump displays none of those values himself.  He falls laughably short in comparison.  Imagine how he’d react and behave if he were in the shoes of Hollywood’s most famous macho-men during their most famous movies.

 

© Gordon Company / Silver Pictures / 20th Century Fox

 

Take Bruce Willis, for example – an actor who’s well-known for his conservative leanings but who hasn’t, despite scurrilous rumours, shown much enthusiasm for Trump.  As Detective John McClane in Die Hard (1988), Willis attends a Christmas party being held in a skyscraper by the company that employs his estranged wife.  There’s an unwanted festive surprise when a gang of German terrorists show up, seize the building and hold the partygoers hostage.  McClane, who blames the company for his marriage’s break-up and wasn’t feeling comfortable at the party, nonetheless ducks into the nearest ventilation shaft and spends the film crawling around and picking off the terrorists one by one until order has been restored.  You couldn’t imagine Trump selflessly doing any of that.  Actually, someone of his orange bulk would manage to crawl about two inches along the ventilation shaft before getting stuck.

 

No, Trump, the self-proclaimed master of ‘the art of the deal’, would be more like the character of Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner).  Ellis is a sleazy company executive who thinks he can bargain with the terrorists and get them to agree to a plan to lure McClane out of hiding.  “Hey babe, I negotiate million dollar deals for breakfast!” he brags in Trumpian fashion.  “I think I can handle this Eurotrash!”  Too late does the hapless Ellis realise that the terrorists have been stringing him along and don’t intend to honour their side of the bargain.  Inevitably, their leader, Vladimir Putin… sorry, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) puts a bullet through his head.

 

Or take Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who’s publicly dissed Trump for his appalling record on the environment.  In Schwarzenegger’s most famous role, as the reprogrammed-to-be-good Terminator in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), Schwarzenegger realises at the movie’s finale that the central processing unit in his head is the last remaining piece of technology that might enable the machines to take over the world.  So, nobly, he decides he has to be destroyed for the good of humanity and asks Sarah and John Connor (Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong) to lower him into a vat of molten metal.  Could you imagine Trump being so self-sacrificing?  “I am NOT going in that vat of molten metal!  There’s no CPU in my head!  That’s fake news!  This is the most corrupt decision in the history of my country!  This never happened to Obama…!”  And so on.

 

Probably Trump would prefer to model himself on the bad Terminator played by Schwarzenegger in the first Terminator movie (1984), since that character has traits that the Gross Orange One admires: zero empathy, total ruthlessness, no qualms about using its arsenal of heavy-duty weaponry to blow away anything that defies it.  However, with Trump as the Terminator, the movie would last five minutes.  The Trump-Terminator arrives in 1984 Los Angeles…  Naked, it approaches a group of street-punks (including good old Bill Paxton, who exclaims, “This guy’s a couple of cans short of a six-pack!”)…  Then the street-punks beat it to death.

 

© The Malpaso Company / Warner Bros

 

Who else?  Clint Eastwood, yet another Hollywood Republican who’s been muted about Trump (and in 2020 promised to support Mike Bloomberg if he became the Democrats’ presidential candidate)?  Eastwood built up his iconic macho persona during Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy in the 1960s.  Not only was he The Man with No Name, but he was a man of few words.  He’d squint, keep his jaws clamped around a cigar and unnerve his opponents with a contemptuous silence.  You couldn’t imagine a brash, loud gobshite like Trump, someone whose mouth is five minutes ahead of his brain, doing that.

 

In fact, Eastwood in his other most famous role, as Detective Harry Callaghan, aka Dirty Harry,  offers advice in Magnum Force (1973) that Trump would have been wise to heed: “Man’s got to know his limitations.”

 

John Wayne?  In Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) and El Dorado (1966), Wayne plays a town sheriff who’s loyal to and protective of his staff – Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan in the earlier film, Robert Mitchum, James Caan and Arthur Hunicutt in the later.  Even when Mitchum develops a severe alcohol problem in El Dorado, Wayne puts up with his drunken bullshit and does his best to straighten the guy out.  It’s impossible to imagine the same of Trump, whose four-year tenure in the White House has seen a parade of cringing and crooked underlings being recruited and then, the moment they displease their master, being dumped again.  The loyal-only-to-himself Trump would have pointed a finger at Mitchum and sneered, “You’re fired!”

 

© Armada Productions / Warner Bros

 

Steve McQueen?  McQueen’s most famous role was as the prisoner of war Hilts in The Great Escape (1963), which would have earned him Trump’s disgust immediately.  As he once notoriously declared of John McCain, “He’s a war hero because he was captured.  I like heroes who weren’t captured!”  In fact, McQueen breaks out of the POW camp in Escape but then gets recaptured when his motorbike fails to clear a barbed wire fence on the Swiss border, which I suppose makes him a double loser in Trump’s eyes.

 

In fact, Trump is devoid of the qualities I recognised in the masculine icons with whom I grew up: being loyal, being selfless, doing the right thing, playing fair, saying only things that are worth saying, sticking up for the underdog, being magnanimous in victory, being graceful in defeat.  Then again, this is unsurprising when you see the Neanderthals who support him signalling their masculinity by gathering in mobs outside state legislative buildings, clad in combat fatigues and totting automatic rifles, to protest the implementation of safety measures against Covid-19.  These would-be warriors are too wimpy to countenance wearing small pieces of cloth over their mouths and nostrils to protect their fellow citizens.  Clearly, their notions of masculinity have nothing to do with the qualities I’ve listed above.  Rather, they’re all to do with intimidating, bullying and hurting people.

 

If that’s what masculinity is about, I’ll be glad to see the back of it.  And I’ll be especially glad to see the back of its biggest proponent, the one in the White House – who on January 20th goes from being the alpha-male to being the alpha-fail.

 

© Stewart Bremner

Gun me kangaroo down, sport

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

We’re now in December and, as usual, people are talking about what Christmas movies they’ll be watching on and around December 25th.  So here’s a piece – originally posted on this blog back in 2017 – about my all-time favourite Christmas movie.  It definitely qualifies as a Christmas movie since its events take place during the festive season and against a background of Christmas trees, decorations and carols.  Though if you’re accustomed to the cosy festive cheer of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) or The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), you might not be ready for the squalor, drunkenness, brawling, vandalism, vomit, sweat-stains, flies, kangaroo-slaughter and Donald-Pleasence-going-bananas that constitute the Wake in Fright Christmas experience… 

 

It took a while for the 1971 Australian epic Wake in Fright to win some respect, but it finally got there in the end.  It flopped on its initial release, despite being nominated for the grand prize at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, and for a long time afterwards it only existed in heavily cut and low-quality versions.  However, following restoration and remastering work during the noughties, a new version of Wake in Fright was shown at Cannes in 2009 and now, belatedly, the film is seen as an important precursor to the New Wave of Australian Cinema that produced the likes of The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), Mad Max (1979), My Brilliant Career (1979) and Breaker Morant (1980).

 

Directed by Ted Kotcheff, Wake in Fright tells the story of John Grant (Gary Bond), a young Australian schoolteacher beset by frustration and a sense of injustice.  He dreams of moving to England, something that many young Australians were doing in real life at the time, most famously Barry Humphries, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes.  There, he muses, he’ll become ‘a journalist’.  It has to be said that for someone wanting to write as a career, he spends suspiciously little of the film, none of it in fact, doing any writing.

 

For now, though, John’s stuck in a school in a tiny Outback settlement surrounded by vast expanses of nothingness.  Kotcheff highlights this at the film’s start with a 360-degree panning shot that still looks mightily impressive today.  John’s exile here shows no likelihood of ending soon, because to leave his job he needs to pay off a bond signed with the Australian government to cover the costs of his teacher-training.

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

Wake in Fright begins with John finishing his final lesson before the Christmas vacation and taking a train to a mining town called Bundanyabba, where he plans to catch a plane to Sydney for a few weeks in the company of his glamorous city-based girlfriend.  But his plans go askew when he arrives in Bundanyabba, ‘the Yabba’ as it’s known to its inhabitants, and he spends a night there before the plane flies.  In succession, John enters a drinking establishment that isn’t so much a pub as a pumping station, supplying the Yabba’s thirsty male citizens with industrial volumes of beer; befriends a hulking policeman called Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty), who takes him to a late-night eatery; discovers a gambling den at the back of the eatery where money is bet, won and lost on the tossing of pairs of coins; gets involved in a game; impulsively bets everything he has in the hope of winning enough to pay off his bond; and loses everything.  Thus, the next day, John wakes up penniless, unable to pay for his flight and marooned in the Yabba.

 

By this time, he’s also met local eccentric ‘Doc’ Tydon, who’s played by none other than the great English actor Donald Pleasence.  When you see the crazed, drunken Pleasence tossing the pair of coins on which John’s fortunes depend, you know it’s going to end badly.

 

After losing all his money, John, who was initially disdainful of the macho, swaggering, hard-drinking, hard-gambling mindset that possesses most of the Yabba’s male inhabitants, gradually sinks to the point where the same mindset possesses him.  He’s befriended by a well-to-do man called Tim Hynes (Al Thomas) who brings him home and introduces him to his daughter Janette (Sylvia Kay).  Hynes, obviously seen as a soft touch by his Yabba neighbours, soon has a crowd in his living room drinking his beer and leering after Janette, including the ubiquitous Doc Tydon and a pair of young bogans called Joe (Peter Whittle) and Dick (future Australian movie star Jack Thompson).

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

After a severe all-night drinking session, John, now stained, grubby and worse-for-wear, comes to in Tydon’s shack.  This is a hellhole with kangaroo meat heaped in greasy pans and clusters of dead flies stuck to dangling flypaper strips.  We don’t get to see the outdoor toilet – the Donald Pleasence dunny – but from what we hear it’s even more hideous than the shack.  It transpires that John drunkenly arranged to go on a kangaroo shoot with Joe and Dick, who soon show up at the shack in a vehicle loaded with guns and booze.  All four head into the Outback to hunt ’roo and what follows is Wake in Fright’s most notorious sequence, wherein the quartet blast away a pack of kangaroos and wrestle with and stab to death the wounded ones.  Such is the carnage that even in 2009, during the film’s re-screening in Cannes, a dozen people walked out of it.

 

Now completely deranged, John included, they wreck an Outback pub on their way home.  The next day, after waking up in Tydon’s shack in an even worse condition, John manages to stagger off.  Appalled by his own degradation, he attempts to hitchhike out of the Yabba and the whole way to Sydney, but again things don’t go according to plan.  Finally, despairing and practically psychotic, John hits on another way of escaping from the Yabba, the most drastic way possible…

 

It’s easy to see why, when Wake in Fright was released in 1971, Australian audiences stayed away in droves.  With its scenes of heavy-duty and illicit drinking (“Close the door, mate,” someone shouts when John walks into a pub and finds the entire male population of the Yabba boozing inside, “we’re closed!”) and incessant gambling (men standing robotically at rows of bar ‘pokies’ or acting as a baying mob in a backroom den), and with its depictions of violence, sexism and general macho bullshit, it doesn’t portray Australian culture of the time in a flattering light.

 

One scene sure to bait 1970s Australian viewers takes place in a pub.  The boozers and gamblers suddenly fall silent, stand to attention and face an ANZAC memorial wall-mural while a radio announcer exhorts them to ‘remember the fallen’.  When the silence ends a moment later, they dive back to their beer and slot machines.

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

Then there’s the gruelling kangaroo shoot where bullets tear bloodily through what are clearly real animals.  That must have traumatised international audiences whose images of Australia in 1971 probably mostly came from the popular, cuddly kids’ TV show Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1968-70).   A statement in the film’s end-credits assures us that the kangaroos weren’t slaughtered for the film.  Rather, Kotcheff and his crew shadowed a group of professional ’roo hunters one night and filmed the shootings, which would have taken place whether Wake in Fright was made or not.  Then this documentary footage was spliced into the film.

 

What the filmmakers did isn’t above criticism, though.  It’s been pointed out that the powerful spotlight they used to film the hunt also enabled the hunters to blind and target their prey.  Kotcheff later described the experience as a ‘nightmare’ because, as the night continued, the hunters became drunk, their shooting grew less accurate and kangaroos ended up horribly maimed.  Things got so bad that the film crew pretended there’d been a power cut so that the spotlight no longer worked and the shooting had to stop.  Most of the footage proved to be so upsetting that Kotcheff decided he couldn’t use it, though what is shown is bad enough.

 

The footage was also shown to the Royal Australian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals.  They actually urged the filmmakers to include it in Wake in Fright, hoping it’d spark an outcry and help such madcap hunting to be banned.

 

Wake in Fright is a grim watch, then, but its cast is a pleasure.  Gary Bond, with his finely sculpted features, blond hair and sonorous, cultivated voice, achieves a perfect balance between arrogance and vulnerability.  He’s priggish but we still worry about him as his situation goes from bad to worse.  Also effective are Chips Rafferty as the lugubrious policeman Crawford, who partakes of the roughneck culture around him without overdoing it and views John’s gradual succumbing to it with mixed disdain and concern; Al Thomas as Hynes, good-hearted but, wandering around the Yabba in a costume of fedora, shirt and bowtie, baggy shorts and knee-length white socks, sadly pathetic too; and Sylvia Kay as Hynes’s daughter Janette, whom John discovers is less repressed than she first appears.

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

But the true star of Wake in Fright is Donald Pleasence.  As Doc Tydon, he explains himself thus: “I’m a doctor of medicine and a tramp by temperament.  I’m also an alcoholic.  My disease prevented me from practising in Sydney but out here it’s scarcely noticeable.  Certainly doesn’t stop people from coming to see me.”   I wondered how convincingly the man who played Ernst Stavros Blofeld in You Only Live Twice (1967) would appear in the milieu of Wake in Fright but Pleasence nails it.  He’s perfect whether he’s sober and observing icily how John flinched at the touch of Crawford’s ‘hairy hand’; or drinking beer whilst standing on his head to demonstrate how the oesophagus muscles are stronger than gravity; or slyly taunting John about the ‘open’ relationship he enjoys with Janette; or drunkenly raving on a pub-porch about ‘Socrates, affectability, progress’ being ‘vanities spawned by fear’ while Joe and Dick punch lumps out of each other behind him.

 

Wake in Fright could be dismissed as an expression of middle-class disdain for the lower-brow culture and less-mannered behaviour of the proletariat, but I feel that’s a misinterpretation.  When John complains to Tydon about “the aggressive hospitality” of the Yabba, and “the arrogance of stupid people who insist you should be as stupid as they are,” Tydon retorts: “It’s death to farm out here.  It’s worse than death in the mines.  You want them to sing opera as well?”  And when John slips down the slippery slope, a slope Tydon has already descended, it’s not because he’s had to become a brute to fight off other brutes around him (like in another 1971 movie, Straw Dogs).  In John’s case, he’s entered an environment so harsh and thankless it can turn anyone into a brute.

 

It’s worth noting too that some people whom John encounters on his dark odyssey, like Crawford and Hynes, exhibit more kindness than he does himself.  Even Tydon, who at times seems beyond all help, reveals some decency at the end.

 

Wake in Fright will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, but it’s a film that hasn’t acquired any middle-aged flab or stodginess.  It still seems as lean, mean, raw and unsettling as it did to audiences back in 1971.  And it’s fitting that Nick Cave, the Victoria-born singer-songwriter and God-like genius whose work has frequently shared Wake in Fright’s bleak, brutal worldview, calls it ‘the best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence’.

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

Cinema Peebles-diso

 

 

I recently noticed a discussion about the Playhouse Cinema on the Facebook page Auld Peebles, which is a site devoted to pictures, information and simple nostalgic reminiscing about past times in Peebles, my hometown in the Scottish Borders.  This inspired me to dig out the following entry, which I’d originally posted on this blog back in 2013.  In it, I indulge in some nostalgic reminiscing of my own about my town’s old Art Deco cinema…

 

The photograph above this entry shows the Art Deco building at number 60 of the High Street in Peebles, my Scottish hometown.  The building opened in 1932 as the Playhouse Cinema.  Its architect was Alister G. MacDonald, a son of Ramsay MacDonald, who was Britain’s first Labour Party prime minister and served in office in 1924 and from 1929 to 1935.  MacDonald Junior designed the cinema with a particularly wide auditorium and with stalls and a balcony that held a total of 802 seats.  The name Playhouse was spelt out in a squiggle of neon along the top of its façade, although the roof behind was less glamorous, being made of corrugated iron.

 

The Playhouse showed films for the next 45 years and for a time, in modest-sized Peebles, it wasn’t even the only cinema.  It had to compete against the Empire Cinema on the Bridgegate and the Burgh Hall, further up the High Street, which also showed films.  By the 1970s, however, with just about every home in Peebles possessing a television set, only the Playhouse was left and it was struggling, to the point where it’d introduced bingo a couple of nights a week as a way of attracting extra custom.

 

I became acquainted with the Playhouse at a very late stage in its life.  In 1977, when I was eleven, my family moved to a new home just beyond the outskirts of Peebles.  The town centre was only 30 minutes’ walk away.  Previously we’d lived in a rural part of Northern Ireland and if I wanted to visit a cinema there, I had to talk my parents into driving me several miles to the nearest one and then returning to collect me afterwards.  I was movie-crazy and having a cinema on my doorstep, as it seemed at the time, was a wonderful new luxury.

 

© Universal Pictures

 

I didn’t see any masterpieces in the Playhouse, but every film I did see seems to be engraved on my memory just because I’d seen it there.  For example, there was Earthquake (1974), the big, rumbly disaster movie starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Lorne Greene and George Kennedy.  George Kennedy was a portent of doom in 1970s movies, having already appeared in two of the Airport movies (1970 and 75).  If his craggy face appeared onscreen, you just knew a destructive earth tremor was going to strike the city or a Boeing 747 was going to fall out of the sky.

 

It was also in the Playhouse that I had my most disappointing cinematic experience ever, which was seeing Dino De Laurentiis’s 1976 remake of King Kong.  I’d really been looking forward to this, as I’d watched the original movie on TV and was desperate to see how they’d update all the fights that King Kong had with the dinosaurs on Skull Island.  To my horror, there weren’t any dinosaurs on the 1976 Skull Island, so Kong didn’t have any fights with them.  The only battle was an altercation between Kong (played by Rick Baker in a gorilla-costume) and a crap-looking rubbery giant snake.  I’d like to think that a young Peter Jackson saw the same movie and shared my feelings of profound disappointment.  For that reason, when he remade King Kong in 2005, he made sure his film was choc-a-bloc with dinosaurs.

 

Sometimes at the Playhouse you got to see a familiar feature of 1970s movie-going, which was a cinematic double bill.  Among the two-for-the-price-of-one marvels I was treated to were Carquake (1976) combined with The Giant Spider Invasion (1975).  Carquake was little more than a montage of car chases and car crashes and I suspect that the filmmakers had cast David Carradine in the lead role only because his surname started with the word ‘car’.  Nonetheless, it seemed like a masterpiece compared with its partner.  In The Giant Spider Invasion, the invading giant spiders were played by real-life tarantulas when they were babies, and played by giant wobbly-legged blobs of paper-maché mounted on top of cars when they were adults.  One scene showed a tarantula clamber unnoticed into a kitchen blender.  Then a character unwittingly blended it with some fruit and took a massive swig from the resulting Vitamin C / pulped-hairy-spider concoction.  That was about the most revolting thing I saw in a film until Hugh Grant started making romantic comedies.

 

© New World Pictures

 

But I had barely seven months to enjoy the Playhouse, for on September 10th, 1977, it went out of business.  It would’ve been fitting if the final end-credits to scroll up the Playhouse’s screen had belonged to a film that was memorable – Star Wars (1977), say, which was breaking box-office records at the time.  However, the last film shown there was another one about cars, an unremarkable horror film simply entitled The Car (1977).  This starred James Brolin and was about a rural American community being terrorised by a deadly, driver-less and demonically possessed automobile.  In his non-fiction book Danse Macabre (1981), Stephen King described it as “the sort of movie where you can safely go out for a popcorn refill at certain intervals because you know the car isn’t going to strike again for 10 minutes or so”.

 

Thereafter the Playhouse was derelict for a time.  I seem to remember a report in the local newspaper at one point about it being broken into and vandalised.  Then its foyer was converted into a shopping area and it became another High Street retailer.  For a while, it served as the premises for Visionhire, a TV shop, which meant that films were being shown on its premises again (at least, when one of the televisions on display was switched on and tuned into a channel broadcasting a film).  These days it houses an outlet for the cut-price chemist’s chain, Semi-Chem.  Thanks to Alister MacDonald’s Art Deco design, it’s now a listed building and has been given a Grade C status by Historic Scotland.  Incidentally, I’m only talking about the building’s front part.  As far as I know, most of its back part, containing the 802-seat auditorium, was demolished to make way for a housing development.

 

Losing the Playhouse in 1977 was a blow for Peebles film-lovers because video cassettes and VCRs were still things of the future.  If you didn’t have transport to get to a cinema in another town to see a film on its first release, your only option was to wait a couple of years until it turned up on TV.  However, you still had a chance to see films, old and not so old, on a big screen if you were a pupil at Peebles High School.  In the wake of the Playhouse’s demise, a teacher there, Dr Mike Kellaway, started up a Film Club and showed movies one evening each week with the school’s assembly hall acting as an auditorium.  But Peebles High School’s Film Club is a story for another blog-entry.

 

© Auld Peebles / David Brunton

Seriously Sean – ‘The Hill’

 

© Seven Arts Productions / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer   

 

Social media quickly filled with tributes to Sean Connery when the venerable Scottish superstar died on October 31st.  Much, of course, was made of the fact that he’d been the cinema’s first and best James Bond.  However, I found it interesting that many people also talked about the post-Bond movies that Connery made in the 1980s and 1990s.  These were big budget, escapist and sometimes shonky, though lovable, action or fantasy films like The Time Bandits (1981), Highlander (1986), The Name of the Rose (1986), The Untouchables (1987), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), The Hunt for Red October (1990) and The Rock (1996).

 

Which is all fine and good, but I was disappointed that more attention wasn’t paid to what Connery achieved back in the 1960s and 1970s, in between his assignments as Bond, when he clearly had ambitions to be not just a movie star but a serious actor.  He made several movies back then that were critically acclaimed but generally didn’t make much money.  Perhaps it was disillusionment at their lack of success that made Connery later take the easy route and appear in the simpler, cosier fare that people reminisced about after his death.

 

Anyway, by a coincidence, a few weeks before Connery passed on, I’d felt an urge to check out some of those older, more serious movies of his. A few I hadn’t seen before. Others I’d watched at a young age and failed to appreciate at the time, probably because I’d been perplexed by Connery’s failure to breenge onscreen in a Saville Row suit and introduce himself as ‘a shhhort of lishhhensed trouble-shhhoooter’. So now, as a tribute to him, I thought I’d post my thoughts on the Connery films that I’ve recently watched or re-watched.  I’ll start with 1965’s The Hill.

 

Directed by Sidney Lumet, The Hill is a war movie.  But it’s a very different beast from the previous war movie on Connery’s CV, 1962’s star-spangled blockbuster about the D-Day landings The Longest Day, which featured Connery briefly as a comic Irishman called Private Flannagan.  (It had him sporting the unconvincing – I’m being kind here – Irish accent that he’d already trotted out in 1959’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People and would trot out again for his Oscar-winning turn as Malone in The Untouchables).

 

The Hill eschews the action, spectacle and heroism of conventional war movies because its setting is a prison for recalcitrant British soldiers – thieves, spivs, drunkards, deserters and those guilty of insubordination – in the Libyan desert during World War II.  Lumet and his cast and crew actually shot the film on the other side of the Mediterranean, in Almeria and Malaga in southern Spain.

 

Connery plays Joe Roberts, one of five new arrivals at the prison, or ‘glasshouse’ as it’s nicknamed.  Also in this batch of new inmates is young, timid George Stevens (Alfred Lynch), spiv Monty Bartlett (Roy Kinnear), gruff northerner Jock McGrath (Jack Watson) and rebellious West Indian Jacko King (Ossie Davis).  The fivesome find themselves in the custody of the hardnosed Regimental Sergeant Major Bert Wilson (Harry Andrews), who effectively runs the place.  Its Commandant is a rarely-seen and weak-willed figure, of whom Wilson says contemptuously: “The Commandant signs bits of paper.  He’d sign his own death warrant if I gave it to him.”

 

© Seven Arts Productions / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer   

 

The prison staff also include the essentially decent if somewhat effete Staff Sergeant Charlie Harris (Ian Bannon) and the weary but also decent Medical Officer (Michael Redgrave).  Unfortunately, any goodness projected by those two officers is cancelled out by the viciousness of another staff sergeant, Williams (Ian Hendry).  Williams has recently been posted to the prison and sees it as a potential step up the promotional ladder.  He intends to make this ascent by impressing Wilson and treating his charges as brutally as possible.  “Don’t talk back, you different-coloured bastard!” he screams at King.

 

And that’s basically it.  The film is an ensemble piece with nine characters, five prisoners and four staff, stuck in the sweltering confines of the prison.  “We’re all doing time,” Roberts observes of the situation.  “Even the screws.”  We can believe this when we see how Wilson and Williams spend their evening hours, which is by getting as joylessly, pointlessly and paralytically drunk as possible.

 

However, there’s a tenth character too. This is the titular hill, a fearsome, steep-sided mass of sand that’s been assembled in the prison’s yard as a punishment for inmates who chaff against Wilson and Williams’ regime.

 

Williams instinctively homes in on the new arrivals and takes a particular dislike to Roberts, perhaps because of the offence that landed him here – Roberts punched an officer who’d condemned his men to death by ordering them to carry out a suicidal attack.  Stevens’ weak temperament also attracts Williams’ ire.  “One of those shy lads, are you, Stevens…?” he demands.  “One of those cads who can’t make up his mind whether he’s a boy or a girl?”  Predictably, Roberts, Stevens and the others are soon being forced to march up and down the hill, endlessly, in the blistering heat.  This has fatal consequences for one of them, which enrages Roberts and sets him on a collision course with Williams and Wilson.  Towards the end, the film’s suspense hinges on whether or not Harris and the Medical Officer will find the courage to intervene before Roberts receives a fatal punishment as well – by this point he’s already been crippled by a beating from Williams and his goons.

 

A situation rather than a story, The Hill is driven not by plot twists but by its performances, which are excellent.  Among the prisoners, Lynch is worryingly vulnerable as the hapless Stevens, while craggy character actor Jack Watson imbues his character McGrath with a fierce but not intransigent stubbornness.  He spends most of the film wanting to keep his head down and get his incarceration over and done with and he’s unimpressed by Roberts’ attempts to stir things up.  “You’re a clever bag of tricks, you are, Roberts,” he rages. “Not inside glasshouse half an hour and you use your bloody influence to get us a ride on the hill.  Oh I bet there’s one Saturday night booze-up your father’s always regretted.”  Yet later, sickened by what’s happening, McGrath gives Roberts his support.

 

The roly-poly Roy Kinnear, better known as a comic actor, plays the least sympathetic of the inmates, the cowardly and self-serving Bartlett.  But he wins our pity at one moment when he collapses while being made to run a strenuous assault course.  “I’m fat!” he cries pathetically.

 

And Ossie Davis, who was a writer and civil rights activist as well as a distinguished actor, is wonderful as Jacko King, the prisoner most immediately sympathetic to Roberts’ cause.  As a West Indian, a citizen of the British Empire and one of His Majesty’s subjects, he’s supposedly on an equal footing with the other soldiers – but of course, because of his skin colour, he isn’t.  He’s exposed to constant racism from both the screws and the other prisoners, though the quick-witted King gives as good as he gets.  When Bartlett has a go at him (“You’ve got it downstairs, mate, but we’ve got it upstairs.  Live up trees, you blokes do.”), King casually and accurately responds by describing Bartlett as ‘white trash’.

 

Later, when things come to a head, he defies Wilson and Williams by tearing off his uniform, renouncing his British citizenship and declaring that they don’t have the jurisdiction to keep him in the prison.  Actually, watching this in 2020, I was reminded of the Windrush scandal, engineered by then-Home Secretary Theresa May, wherein the British government showed elderly and long-term UK citizens of Caribbean descent what it thought of them by stripping them of their citizenship and deporting them without support to the West Indies.

 

© Seven Arts Productions / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer   

 

Among the screws, Ian Bannon and Sir Michael Redgrave give strong performances, but they’re not as memorably forceful as those given by Ian Hendry and Harry Andrews.  Which is as it should be, because what gives The Hill its grimness is the audience’s sense that the bad outweighs the good in the penal system depicted.  Hendry essays an out-and-out bastard whose moral compass was long ago destroyed by his ambition.  It’s a little sad, retrospectively, to note how lean and mean he looks here – for as the 1960s progressed, Hendry’s well-documented alcoholism took its toll and left him increasingly frail and gaunt.  (In 1970, he lost out on the title role of the crime classic Get Carter, which of course went to Michael Caine, because the filmmakers felt he no longer had the physicality for it and cast him as the film’s weaselly villain instead.)

 

But even Hendry is outshone by Harry Andrews as Wilson.  I’ve seen Andrews in countless films playing crusty old buffers or authority figures, but I wasn’t prepared for his performance in this.  Wilson is a ruthlessly hard man, driven by his determination to repair the British Army’s errant and broken soldiers and build them back into fighting men (with tough love obviously), but he’s also intelligent.  He’s aware – as Williams isn’t – that there’s a line that they can’t be seen to cross.  After an inmate dies of exhaustion on the hill and Wilson manages to hush it up, he tells Williams angrily: “We’re not celebrating our glorious victory…  We’re patching up a bloody disaster.”  And when the death triggers a full-scale riot, Wilson defuses it with a masterclass in underhand, calculating diplomacy.  He faces down a whole prison’s worth of inmates with a mixture of threats, bribes, dark charisma and pure bloody-mindedness.

 

As for Connery, it’s impossible not to think of Bond when he first appears.  He had, after all, just played 007 in the previous year’s Goldfinger (1964).  And there’s something Bondian about how he manages to get under his enemies’ skin in The Hill, although this isn’t done with the superspy’s famous insouciance but with Roberts’ righteous perceptiveness.  He senses that Williams, despite his brutal exterior, is a coward and observes that by getting posted to a Libyan prison camp he’s managed to avoid both the front line and the Blitz in London.  Meanwhile, he neatly sums up Wilson when he shouts at him: “Oh, you crazy bastard!  You’d prop up dead men and inspect them if you was ordered to!”

 

But any suggestion of Bond’s alpha maleness in Roberts is gone by the final reel, after Williams has had him beaten to a pulp and he’s confined to a bed.  And the film’s final image, of Roberts crawling piteously across the floor and pleading with a couple of his fellow inmates to stop what they’re doing – what they’re doing, in fact, is snatching defeat from the jaws of a hard-won victory – ends the film on a note of chilling, though tonally appropriate, bleakness.

 

The Hill is a stripped-down cinematic experience.  There’s no background music and it’s shot in black and white, which gives the sand an unsettling bone-like gleam.  But its sparseness isn’t a problem because it’s so engrossing, which is due to the excellence of its cast and the unfussy but confident direction by Sidney Lumet.  It was the first, but thankfully not the last collaboration between Lumet and Connery.  Indeed, their third film together, 1972’s The Offence, would be as memorably gruelling as this one.

 

© Seven Arts Productions / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer   

Jim Mountfield is horrified

 

© Horrified Magazine

 

There have been many movies that break the fourth wall, i.e. that have characters turn towards the camera and address the audience directly.  However, I’ve always had a fondness for a rarer breed of movie that breaks the fourth wall the other way, that has people from the real world enter a movie.  The most famous examples of this are probably Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr (1924), in which a projectionist, played by Keaton, falls asleep and dreams that he’s a character in the crime movie he’s in the middle of showing; and Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), in which Depression-era movie fan Mia Farrow and movie character Jeff Daniels have a romance both in the real 1930s on one side of the screen and in the black-and-white Hollywood fabrication on the other side of it; and John McTiernan’s bold but ill-fated The Last Action Hero (1993), in which an action-movie-loving kid gets sucked into the larger and louder-than-life world of an Arnold Schwarzenegger film.

 

With advances in technology, especially that of virtual reality, I suspect that sooner or later it will be possible for people to take part in scenes from movies that are simulated around them.  This would be great for bona fide film fans.  Wow, imagine being on that rooftop near the end of Blade Runner (1982), beside Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) when he delivers his heart-breaking ‘tears in rain’ monologue, or being at the airport for the climax of Casablanca (1942), when Rick (Humphrey Bogart) says goodbye to Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman)!  Mind you, Woody Allen (him again) has already created a simulation of that Casablanca scene, sort of, in 1972’s Play It Again, Sam.

 

However, human nature being what it is, such wondrous technology would probably end up being used for trivial, if not downright sordid, purposes.

 

And that idea, that in the near-future an app will allow people to take part in virtual-reality simulations of scenes from certain movies, but then will be exploited by lowlifes, sociopaths and perverts in pursuit of their own, base pleasures, is what drives a new story I’ve had published called Don’t Hook Now.  This is currently accessible in the fiction section of Horrified Magazine, which is an online publication featuring articles, reviews and short stories in ‘celebration of British horror’.

 

Don’t Hook Now is attributed to Jim Mountfield, the pseudonym I often use for macabre fiction, and its subject matter is such that Horrified has decided to give it a trigger warning and recommend it only for ‘mature audiences’.   In my opinion, though, the main reason for recommending it to mature readers is because only people of a certain age will be familiar with the masterly 1970s British horror movie that gives the story its grim turn later on…

 

The home page of Horrified is accessible here and Don’t Hook Now itself can be read here.

All the time in the whirled

 

© Warner Bros. Pictures / Syncopy

 

A  few weeks ago Christopher Nolan’s new blockbuster movie Tenet (2020) arrived in Sri Lanka.

 

Tenet must have been welcomed by Sri Lankan cinema owners, because for months after the easing of the country’s strict Covid-19 lockdown they were able to show only a meagre selection of movies.  For example, once the Savoy Cinema in our neighbourhood in Wellawatta had reopened, it was limited to showing the Sri Lankan / Sinhala comedy drama The Newspaper (2020); and Frozen II (2019) from the previous year’s Christmas season; and something called Primal (2019), starring Nicholas Cage as a big game hunter, of which orcasound.com noted: “All you need to know is that the best scenes in the film are those between Cage and a red parrot.  They have the best on screen chemistry of any of the actors.”

 

Yet when my partner and I went to see Tenet a few afternoons ago, we had the cinema almost to ourselves.  Only one other couple was present, and they walked out two-thirds of the way through, presumably for reasons I’ll talk about in a minute.  Admittedly, we’d decided to treat ourselves for this, our first visit to the cinema in absolute ages, and booked seats in the high-end Gold Standard Theatre in the cinema complex above the swanky Colombo City Centre shopping mall.  The Gold Standard Theatre contains only a small number of seats, so that those seats can be as big and comfortable as possible.  But despite the fact that the place was designed for a small audience and despite the high price (by Sri Lankan standards) of the tickets, I’d expected to see a few more folk there.

 

The fact is, for all its spectacle and entertainment value, Tenet is not a movie with obvious mass appeal.  It’s challenging – at times, bloody bewildering.  I can imagine Hollywood bigwigs experiencing an initial burst of excitement that someone had had the balls to deliver a big-budget sci-fi movie part of the way through the Covid-19 pandemic, one that would hopefully encourage the pandemic-cowed public to venture into cinemas again – but then gnashing their teeth when they realised that Christopher Nolan had created something as likely to exhaust the viewers’ braincells as it was to get their adrenalin flowing.  No doubt those afore-mentioned Sri Lankan cinema owners have felt the same emotions recently.

 

Just how mentally taxing is Tenet, then?  Well, you need to keep your wits about you from the start.  There’s a lot going on even in the first few minutes.  An unnamed CIA agent (John David Washington) barely manages to survive a hostage-siege-rescue operation in Ukraine and then finds himself opted into a top-secret organisation called Tenet, which is grappling with the phenomenon of mysterious materials that can travel backwards through time, for example, bullets that shoot back into their guns before you fire them.  These materials are traced to arms-dealing Russian oligarch scumbag Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who seems to have established a link with unseen forces in the future, who for some nefarious reason are sending the stuff back to him in the here-and-now.

 

There follows a series of adventures in India, Britain, Italy, Norway, Estonia and Russia where Washington tries to close in on Branagh, discover what he and his futuristic allies are up to and – when it transpires that they’re up to something very bad indeed – stop them from doing it.  To this end, he has to win the trust of Branagh’s abused and disillusioned wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), and enlist her to his cause.  Also, he encounters several giant whirligig-type devices that can change the orientation by which you’re moving through time, switching you from moving forward through it to moving backwards through it, and vice versa.  And that’s when things start to get truly complicated…

 

I’ll confess that there was a period of 15 or 20 minutes (which coincidentally was when the other people in the cinema threw in the towel and left) when I hadn’t a clue what was going on.  But I kept watching and eventually, towards the movie’s end, I figured the plot out.  Well, I think I figured it out.  Though afterwards, I have to say, I tried not to discuss the intricacies of Tenet too much with my partner, for fear that she’d point out something to me that made me realise I hadn’t understood it at all.

 

Some critics have blamed the film’s sound mixing, claiming that it’s difficult to follow what’s happening because you can’t hear all the dialogue clearly.  But to be honest I don’t think there’s much exposition in the dialogue anyway.  Nolan bravely forces his audience to concentrate on events on the screen and, from those, gradually pick up the gist of things.

 

So that’s the challenging part of Tenet described.  What about the rest of it?  I’m pleased to say that it’s generally really good.  For a start, it looks magnificent, at least on a big screen.  Leave out the time-travelling element and what you have is Christopher Nolan doing his version of a James Bond movie.  Like the average Bond, Tenet features a string of glamorous locations, speeding from one to the other so that you never have time to get bored.  Ensconced on his luxury yacht and simmering with a mixture of 60% pure evilness and 40% teeth-grinding jealousy as 007, sorry, John David Washington, wins the affections of his missus, Branagh is a pure Bond villain – most closely modelled, I’d say, on Emilio Largo in 1965’s Thunderball.

 

© Warner Bros. Pictures / Syncopy

 

Several of the action set-pieces resemble turbo-powered versions of set-pieces from old Bond films too.  The bit where Washington and his accomplice Neil (Robert Pattinson) infiltrate the multi-storey stronghold of an Indian arms dealer put me in mind of the bungee-jumping sequence at the start of 1995’s Goldeneye, although here Washington and Pattinson somehow manage to bungee-jump upwards rather than downwards.  The London section sees a brief but pleasingly nasty fight in a restaurant kitchen that’s reminiscent of the kitchen fight in 1987’s The Living Daylights.  And a vehicle-chase scene has Washington trying to board a hurtling armoured truck by swinging across to it using the ladders on top of a similarly hurtling fire engine, which calls to mind a sequence in 1985’s A View to a Kill.  All right, in the 1985 movie, the person on the ladders was a 57-year-old Roger Moore and the driver of the fire engine was Tanya Roberts from TV’s Charlie’s Angels (1980), so Tenet’s version of this is rather less cheesy.

 

The new official Bond movie No Time to Die – the trailer for which was actually shown in the cinema before Tenet started – will have its work cut out to match the spectacle that Nolan offers here.  Indeed, it’s just been announced that the release of No Time to Die has been pushed back from November 2020 to April 2021, supposedly because of fears about how the pandemic will impact on box office takings.  I can’t help having a sneaking suspicion, though, that after seeing Tenet Bond producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli took fright and decided they needed more time to beef up their movie’s action sequences.

 

Tenet’s cast is also a pleasure.  Washington has received some flak from critics for playing his character as a ‘cypher’, which I can’t understand.  I find him a very personable actor, with as much charisma as his dad, and besides his character does display some humanity, largely in relation to Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat, whom he tries to protect from her oligarch husband even as he reluctantly encourages her to conspire against him.  The elegant Debicki gives a good performance too, one combining vulnerability with resilience.  I particularly like the fact that Nolan cast a tall actress here.  190 centimetres in height, Debicki looms some 15 centimetres above both Washington and Branagh, but this isn’t allowed to be an issue.  (I can think of certain temperamental, short-ass actors of yesteryear who’d probably have refused to work with her.)

 

And Robert Pattinson gives an endearing turn as the bemused, raffish Neil, shaking off memories of how he once had to play a spangly adolescent vampire in the limp Twilight movies (2008-12).  Mind you, at times, it feels like he’s channelling the Eames character played by Tom Hardy in 2010’s Inception, the movie in Nolan’s back catalogue that Tenet most resembles.

 

In conclusion, then, Tenet is an unlikely mixture, simultaneously a blockbuster homage to the James Bond movies and an enigma that’s completely unafraid to baffle its audience.  It’s half Goldfinger (1964) and half ‘go figure’.  I enjoyed both halves, although I’m glad there was plenty of action and spectacle to soothe my eyes even when my brain felt beleaguered.

 

© Warner Bros. Pictures / Syncopy

The real Princess Diana

 

© ITV / ABC / Thames

 

2020 has been a rotten year and I suspect it still has more rottenness in store.  One of the many reasons why I’ve found it so godawful has been because it’s seen the deaths of two actresses who meant a lot to me, firstly because they both had leading roles in James Bond movies and I’m a big James Bond fan, and secondly because they both starred in one of my favourite TV shows, The Avengers (1961-69).  I’m talking, of course, about Honor Blackman, who died in April, and now Diana Rigg, who died last week.

 

I never got to see Diana Rigg perform on stage, where she appeared in plays by Edward Albee, Bertolt Brecht, Anton Chekov, Noel Coward, Henrik Ibsen, Molière, Jean Racine, George Bernard Shaw, Tom Stoppard, Tennessee Williams and, obviously, William Shakespeare.  Nor did I catch her when, after becoming a Dame in the mid-1990s and being recognised as a national treasure, she appeared in prestigious TV productions like Rebecca (1997) or Victoria & Albert (2001), both of which resulted in her winning or being nominated for Emmy Awards.  I was living abroad and didn’t have access to English-language TV at the time.

 

I didn’t even watch her much-praised performance as Olenna Tyrell in the TV show Game of Thrones from 2013 to 2017, since I thought I should first read the George R.R. Martin books on which the show was based – something I’ve yet to get around to doing.

 

Despite what I’ve missed, however, I offer here a collection of Diana Rigg performances that I have seen and remember fondly.

 

Playing Tracy di Vincenzo in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is ostensibly about James Bond (George Lazenby in his one-and-only shot at the role) tangling with his arch-enemy Ernst Stavros Blofeld (Telly Savalas).  However, it also explores Bond’s emotional side and highlights his vulnerability.  Key to this is OHMSS’s sub-plot about the romance between Bond and Contessa Theresa ‘Tracy’ di Vicenzo (Rigg), daughter of the boss of the crime syndicate the Unione Corse of Corsica.  At the film’s end, Blofeld is seemingly vanquished and Bond and Tracy get married.  Then Blofeld makes a sudden reappearance in the final scene, sprays their honeymoon car with bullets, kills Tracy and leaves Bond as a babbling wreck.

 

Fascinatingly, for a film franchise that’s often accused of de-humanising the Ian Fleming novels that inspired it and emphasising big, dumb spectacle at the expense of characterisation, Tracy is a more fleshed-out character in OHMSS-the film than in OHMSS-the-novel.  She’s given more to do and, played by Rigg, has a sparkle that’s missing in the rather aloof, ambiguous character that Fleming sketches.

 

© Eon Productions

 

Particularly memorable is her appearance after Bond escapes from Blofeld’s Alpine headquarters.  Hunted by Blofeld’s henchmen, exhausted, frightened even – something that Lazenby, despite or perhaps because of his acting inexperience, conveys well – he takes refuge in a crowded Christmas market / ice rink in the local town.  Just as he thinks he not going to make it, Rigg comes to his rescue, unexpectedly skating into view in front of him like some heaven-sent angel of mercy.

 

Playing Sonya Winter in The Assassination Bureau (1969)

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service wasn’t the only instance in 1969 of Diana Rigg rubbing shoulders with Telly Savalas.  In Basil Deardon’s black comedy The Assassination Bureau (based on an unfinished Jack London novel), she plays an aspiring female journalist in Edwardian London sent by Savalas’s unscrupulous newspaper proprietor to investigate a secret criminal organisation offering assassins for hire.  Armed with a bagful of money that Savalas has provided, Rigg brazenly hires this Assassination Bureau to assassinate its own chairman, Ivan Dragomiloff, who’s played by Oliver Reed.  Admiring Rigg’s audacity, Reed accepts the commission and, with her in tow, spends the movie zigzagging around Europe dodging the efforts of his own board of directors to kill him.

 

It’s a pleasantly silly film and, admirably, doesn’t waste any time in setting up its convoluted premise and getting into the action.  Rigg is delightful as the uppity Sonya Winter, determinedly doing her job and flying the flag for women’s rights amid a world of starchy, patronising male chauvinists.  Meanwhile, Reed had only just played the brutish Bill Sikes in Oliver! (1968) and at the time was in contention to play James Bond, although his reputation for drunken offscreen hi-jinks put 007 producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman off the idea.  His pairing with Rigg in The Assassination Bureau is no beauty-and-the-beast affair, however.  He dials down the roughness and dials up the charm so that their chemistry together is actually very pleasing.

 

© Paramount Pictures

 

Playing Edwina Lionheart in Theatre of Blood (1973)

Douglas Hickox’s brilliant comedy-horror movie Theatre of Blood has Vincent Price as an insane and hammily over-the-top Shakespearean actor who starts killing the snobbish London theatre critics who’ve bad-mouthed his performances, using murders methods borrowed from the Bard’s plays.  “They’re not going to start killing critics for giving bad notices, are they?” exclaims the campest critic Meredith Merridew, played by Robert Morley, who eventually meets a grisly fate modelled on events in Titus Andronicus.  As the corpses pile up, murdered in ways suggested by Julius Caesar, Troilus and Cressida, Cymbeline, Richard III, Henry VI: Part One and even The Merchant of Venice (Price rewrites it so that he can extract a pound of flesh from Harry Andrews), the youngest and least obnoxious critic, played by Ian Hendry, and the investigating police officers, played by Milo O’Shea and Eric Sykes, turn to Lionheart’s supposedly normal daughter, Edwina (Rigg), for help.

 

Distraught about what her father is doing, yet repulsed by the critics who destroyed his career, Edwina is initially a troubled and conflicted character.  Yet as the film progresses, it transpires that Rigg is having as much fun in her role as the Bard-quoting, soliloquizing Price is in his.

 

Taking the mickey out of herself in The Morecambe and Wise Show (1975), The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and Extras (2006)

Rigg never took herself too seriously.  She teamed up with Britain’s most famous comic double-act Morecambe and Wise for their 1975 Christmas TV special, where she appeared in the inevitable Ernie Wise-penned play.  This featured Rigg as Nell Gwynne, Eric Morecambe as Charles II and Wise as Samuel Pepys.  (“Have you read Ernie’s play?” demands Morecambe.  “Yes, I have,” replies Rigg.  “And you’re still here?”)  Better still is her appearance in The Great Muppet Caper, the second movie starring Jim Henson’s much-loved puppets, in which she plays the snooty fashion designer Lady Holiday, who’s robbed of her jewellery by a gang led by her devious brother (Charles Grodin).  Predictably, Miss Piggy approaches Rigg in the hope of securing a job as a fashion model and insists on showing Rigg her portfolio: “This is me reeking grandeur!”

 

And then there’s a 2006 episode of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s comedy show Extras, which is about a struggling actor (Gervais) trying to make ends meet with bit-parts and uncredited roles in films and on television.  This scenario enables the show’s gimmick of having real, famous actors and actresses play versions of themselves – usually twisted, unpleasant versions.  In this particular episode, Gervais gets a three-day job in a new fantasy film starring the then-17-year-old Daniel Radcliffe and Dame Diana Rigg.  The joke is that Radcliffe is a randy, boorish and clueless teenager.  Whilst eating with him in the studio canteen, Radcliffe tries to convince Gervais that he’s a man of the world by whipping a condom out of his pocket – he’s unravelled it but seems to think he can still put it on – and then accidentally pings it through the air to a nearby table, where it lands on the unamused Rigg’s head.  Radcliffe asks her for his ‘johnny back’ and gets a schoolmistress-ly reply: “May I have my prophylactic back, please?”

 

Later, Radcliffe sidles up to her and inquires, “You still got that catsuit from The Avengers?”  Rigg retorts: “Go away, Daniel.”

 

© BBC / HBO

 

And that brings me nicely to…

 

Playing Emma Peel in The Avengers (1965-67)

By the time Rigg joined The Avengers in the mid-1960s, the show, under the guidance of creator Brian Clemens, had gradually mutated from being a conventional action / thriller show with Patrick Macnee’s John Steed and Ian Hendry’s Dr David Keel as a pair of crime-fighters to being a television phenomenon that did everything on its own terms, both determinedly non-realistic and restlessly inventive.

 

Rigg’s tenure on The Avengers was surely its golden era.  With her Emma Peel character partnering Macnee’s now surreally debonair Steed, and the show being broadcast in colour for the first time, it was a self-confident cocktail of the funny, the silly, the fantastical, the baroque and, occasionally, the gothic and the kinky.  (The kinkiness factor came to the fore in an episode called A Touch of Brimstone, wherein Rigg dons a costume comprising a spiked collar, whalebone corset, black leather boots and a snake.  Funnily enough, this attracted the highest viewing figures of any episode in The Avengers’ eight-year history.)

 

Rigg brought to the show a bemused, unruffled quirkiness that was the equal of Macnee’s majestic imperturbability.  She was also his equal in being proactive, having no qualms about wading into fights to show off her martial arts prowess or hurtling around in a Lotus Elan.  As a villain in one episode remarked, “She’s well and truly emancipated, is that one.”

 

Rigg wasn’t comfortable about the fact, but Emma Peel also became a sex symbol.  She couldn’t well avoid it, being ephemerally gorgeous and clad in a succession of leather catsuits, mini-skirts and mod-inspired outfits that, inevitably, ended up being sold in the ladies’ fashion shops of the real Britain.  Wisely, though, sex was off the agenda in her character’s onscreen relationship with Macnee’s Steed.  The two indulged in a relaxed, platonic flirtatiousness and left it at that.  Macnee did get a kiss from her at the end of her final episode on the show, when she left him with the parting advice: “Always keep your bowler on in times of stress, and watch out for diabolical masterminds.”

 

Appearing at the height of the swinging 1960s, but tongue-in-cheek and light-hearted rather than smug, which is how I find many productions from the time, The Avengers, and especially the Emma Peel-era Avengers, projects a charming and not-taking-itself-seriously notion of Britishness that seems light-years removed from the discredited, embittered, clapped-out Britain of 2020.  The death of Diana Rigg, who’d been one of the last links with the show, just seems to emphasise that it’s now all in the past.

 

© ITV / ABC / Thames