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

He’s not the right-wing messiah, he’s a very naughty boy

 

From headtopics.com

 

I try not to post things on this blog in reaction to every right-wing halfwit who says something stupid in the press or on social media.  Otherwise, I’d be stuck at my laptop and furiously writing blog entries 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  However, I’ll make an exception in the case of actor Laurence Fox.

 

As a graduate of Harrow School and a member of the Fox acting dynasty that also includes his father James, uncle Edward and cousins Emilia and Freddie, Laurence Fox is the epitome of the stereotypically posh and well-connected British thespian.  He’s also now a darling of the Union Jack-waving, Brexit-loving, Boris-adoring, Trump-admiring, climate change-denying, Black Lives Matter-rejecting, coronavirus-doubting fraternity whose members include such charmers as Toby Young, Douglas Murray and Darren Grimes.

 

I’ve never seen the TV show Lewis (2006-2015) that made Fox’s name, and in fact prior to 2020 my only sighting of him had been in the 2001 British horror movie The Hole, made when he was in his early twenties and still able to pass for a teenager.  The Hole tells the story of how a group of wealthy, spoilt and generally unbearable boarding-school brats, who include Fox, Keira Knightly and Desmond Harrington, skive off a study trip by hacking into their school’s computer and removing their names from the trip-records.  Then they steal away to an abandoned underground bunker close to the school grounds, intending to hide there and party for the few days that the trip is in progress.  After they descend into the bunker, they discover that they’ve been locked inside, and of course nobody knows they’re trapped there.  Thereafter, things go clammily and ickily Lord of the Flies.  The hideous youngsters succumb to paranoia and hysteria and eventual, fatal bouts of illness and violence.  It turns out that their ordeal was engineered by the sneakily psychotic Thora Birch.  Three cheers for Thora, I say.

 

The Hole contains a memorable moment where Knightly tells Fox to put his ‘cock away’.  Recently, noting the controversies Fox has generated, the film critic Kim Newman wondered why nobody had made a gif or sound-clip of this available online.

 

Early in 2020 Fox made an appearance on the BBC’s politics / panel show Question Time where he exhibited the same qualities that he’d exhibited in The Hole, i.e., he came across as wealthy, spoilt and unbearable.   He claimed the UK press’s treatment of Megan Markle wasn’t the result of racism because Britain was ‘the most tolerant, lovely country in Europe’, which will be a surprise to asylum seekers currently being accommodated by Serco and harassed by members of Britain First, and bleated at a person of colour in the Question Time audience who took issue with him that “to call me a white privileged male is to be racist.  You’re being racist.”

 

Now calling Fox ‘white’, ‘male’ and ‘privileged’ – for I’m sure his multiple family connections did nothing to hinder his ascendancy in the acting profession – doesn’t strike me as racist so much as truthful.  However, Fox struck a chord with many right-wing malcontents unhappy with prevailing currents of political correctness and wokeness.  People who were nostalgic for the good old days when you were allowed to nod along at Enoch Powell, good old Enoch, warning about how rivers would flow with blood if too many ‘wide-grinning picaninnies’ were allowed into Britain, and allowed to chuckle at Bernard Manning, good old Bernard, telling jokes about ‘darkies’ on the telly, admired the cut of Fox’s jib.

 

Soon he was being hailed as the new messiah of right-wing common sense and telling-it-like-it-is in the pages of the Daily Telegraph, the Spectator and the like.  And soon he was popping up here, there and everywhere in the media as a pundit sounding off about the failings of leftie-dominated Britain.  (Somehow leftie-dominated despite it having a Conservative government for the last decade.)

 

The Rupert Murdoch-owned Sunday Times was quick to do a profile of Fox, in which he self-deprecatingly but possibly accurately described himself as ‘a knobbish dickhead half-educated tw*t’.  Fox also revealed that he’d fallen out with his brother-in-law who, believe it or not, is the half-Nigerian comedian, actor, writer and filmmaker Richard Ayoade.  Apparently, Ayoade said no when Fox asked for his public support after the Question Time appearance caused a furore.  Indeed, Ayoade angrily told him, “You have never encountered racism.”  To which Fox replied, “Yeah, I have.  I’ve encountered racism from black people towards me, when I was working in Kenya for seven months.  It’s the way you’re spoken to – racism can be deferential.”

 

Now I don’t know what ‘deferential racism’ is.  Then again, neither does Fox, for when the Sunday Times interviewer asked him to explain what he meant, he said, “I’m just not smart enough to do it.”

 

Alas, poor Laurence had barely a moment to enjoy his time in the limelight as the new golden boy of all things un-PC and un-woke before he stuck his foot in his mouth.  He criticised Sam Mendes’ World War I movie 1917 (2019) for featuring a Sikh soldier as a minor character.  This, Fox alleged during a podcast with James Delingpole (who, incidentally, is another right-wing bladder-on-a-stick), was ‘forcing diversity on people’.  Fox had to apologise when it was subsequently pointed out to him that some 130,000 Sikhs fought for Britain in World War I.

 

This week, Fox has been busy apologising again, to actress and comic performer (and his co-star in Lewis) Rebecca Front.  Front, a supporter of Black Lives Matter, had had enough of Fox’s constant jabbering that white lives matter too and blocked him on twitter, which Fox claimed was an act of ‘cancellation’.  He and Front then had a private text conversation about it, during which Front pointed out: “Black lives are systematically undervalued.  Their work opportunities are fewer, their health outcomes far worse, the criminal justice system works against them.  I think the least we can do is let them have a f**king slogan.”  Afterwards, Fox tweeted a screenshot of their supposedly private conversation, which of course exposed his former co-star to the possibility of pile-ons and trolling by the demented right-wing dingbats who follow him.

 

No doubt realising that the spat was attracting attention and he wasn’t coming out of it well, he later announced: “…I tweeted a private text message.  It isn’t true to my values to make a private conversation public just to make a point.  I regret it.”

 

Self-pity is a major part of Fox’s schtick.  He wails that nasty snowflake lefties, like Front, are out to cancel him.  He wails that as a well-known, expensively educated, massively well-connected white person he should be getting as much attention as all those disadvantaged, oppressed-for-centuries black folk.  And he wails too that his acting work is drying up because most of the showbiz world doesn’t like him for his untrendy views.  I would have thought that in 2020, the year of Covid-19, a lot of actors’ work has dried up.  Though after the spectacle he’s made of himself recently, would anyone want to spend the entire duration of a film-shoot or the entire run of a theatrical play in his unsufferable presence?

 

I suppose once upon a time I’d have taken comfort in the fact that the best the intolerant right can do for a figurehead is a bumbling, forever-shooting-himself-in-the-foot idiot like Fox.  Surely that would mean they could never constitute a serious threat to society.  However, when you look at who’s occupying Number 10 Downing Street, you realise being a grade-A jackass is absolutely no impediment to power these days.  God help us.  Laurence Fox could have a long and successful political career ahead of him.

 

© Canal + / Pathe / Buena Vista Distribution

Britain’s number-one pub argument answered

 

© Eon Productions

 

A news story printed last week raised a few eyebrows.  It even raised some ultra-stiff, Roger Moore-style eyebrows.  It transpired that the Radio Times magazine had just announced the results of a poll in which its readers were asked to identify the best actor to have played James Bond.

 

While the overall winner of the poll was hardly a surprise, many people were shocked at who ended up in second place – and indeed, at who didn’t manage to get into the top three.  Thus, this seems an opportune time to update and re-post the following meditation, first published on this blog in June 2016, on how I’d rank the six cinematic James Bonds.

 

Sean Connery.

 

There.  That’s conclusively settled the argument that flares up regularly in pubs the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, especially after the participants have sunk a few pints.  (Well, it flares up in pubs whenever they’re allowed to open during the current Covid-19 pandemic.)  It’s Sean Connery.

 

The argument, of course, centres on the question, “Who is the best James Bond?

 

Actually, I’ll go further and offer a ranking of all the actors who’ve played James Bond over the years, from best to worst.  I’ve limited my ranking to the Bonds of the official franchise made by Eon Films, by the way.  I’ve made no mention of Bond actors from ‘rogue’ productions such as Barry Nelson, who played 007 in a 1954 adaptation of Casino Royale for the CBS TV anthology show Climax!, or David Niven, who played him in another adaptation of Casino Royale, the dire, zany, swinging-sixties comedy released by Columbia Pictures in 1967.  Or for that matter, God help us, the endearingly naff TV quiz-show host Bob Holness, who played Bond in a 1956 South African radio adaptation of the third Bond novel Moonraker (1955).

 

So in descending order, we have:

 

  1. Sean Connery
  2. Timothy Dalton
  3. Daniel Craig
  4. Pierce Brosnan
  5. George Lazenby
  6. Roger Moore

 

To be honest, in my opinion, anyone who doesn’t think that Connery is the best Bond needs his or her head examined.  He swaggered in at the start of the film series, dark and Byronic but equipped with that inimitable Scottish burr, and made the role his own.  He invested Bond with a ruthless but suave lethalness, a threatening but graceful physicality, a cruel but entertaining laconicism.  In fact, 58 years ago, Connery was such a revelation in the role that even Bond’s literary creator Ian Fleming, still alive and still writing at the time, was sufficiently inspired to put a bit of the brooding ex-Edinburgh-milkman into his spy-hero.  No doubt Fleming had Connery in mind when he ended his final Bond novel The Man with the Golden Gun, published posthumously in 1965, with Bond turning down the offer of a knighthood.  “I am a Scottish peasant,” he retorts, “and will always feel at home being a Scottish peasant.”

 

It has to be said that at the turn of the century when Connery himself was offered a knighthood, he displayed none of Bond’s reluctance.  He took it and promptly became Sir Sean.  (Or Shirrr Sean.)

 

© Eon Productions

 

Yet having just said that Connery is the best Bond, I must confess that he isn’t quite my favourite Bond.  That accolade goes to number two on my list, the Welsh actor Timothy Dalton, who played him in the movies The Living Daylights (1987) and Licenced to Kill (1989).  Mainly this is because I’d read most of Ian Fleming’s novels at an early age, before I saw any of the films; and Dalton struck me as the actor who came closest to portraying Bond in the way Fleming had imagined him and the way I’d first imagined him from the books.  (While researching the role, Dalton read the original literary canon, so this was to be expected.)  His was an edgier and more troubled 007.  It’s fitting that The Living Daylights begins by using the plot of the Fleming short story of the same name, which has Bond refusing to kill an enemy sniper – a woman – and declaring bitterly that the secret service can sack him for all he cares.

 

Alas, Dalton didn’t capture the imagination of the public, who still seemed in thrall to the jokey tone of the previous Bond movies of the 1970s and early 1980s.  He wasn’t helped either by Britain’s fickle film critics.  They’d spent years moaning that the Bond films had become ‘too silly’.  But as soon as someone tried to toughen up the films, they started moaning that the series had lost its lovable silliness.

 

Ironically, Daniel Craig has approached the role in a similar way – a minimum of silliness, a maximum of seriousness – and won much acclaim in recent years.  Today’s world just happened to more ready for Craig’s approach.  It was less ready when Dalton did the same thing 30-odd years ago.  Anyway, I’d put Craig third in my list of Bonds, while fourth place goes to that genial Irishman Pierce Brosnan.  I like Brosnan as an actor and at his best he brought a believable toughness to the role; but overall his version of Bond was a bit too bland for my tastes.   He also was unlucky with the quality of some of his films.  His swansong in the role, 2002’s Die Another Day, is a particular stinker.

 

© Eon Productions

 

Fifth, and second from the bottom, is Australian George Lazenby, who definitely wasn’t much cop as an actor.  Ironically, his single Bond movie, 1968’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, is perhaps the best one of the lot.  It’s arguable that because it’s very different from the usual entries in the series – wistful in tone and tragic in its ending – the awkward and uncertain Lazenby actually fits the bill nicely.  Here Bond appears vulnerable and wounded and Lazenby is believable in terms of what the character has to go through.  I couldn’t imagine ‘Big Sean’ breenging through the movie in his usual insouciant manner and having the same emotional impact.

 

And in last place…  Well, I’ll say one thing for the late Sir Roger Moore, which is that his Bond movies were massively popular in their day.  (In fact, I’ll say two things – offscreen, he was clearly a good guy.  He did masses of work as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF on behalf of the United Nations Children’s Fund.  He was also involved in the campaign by PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, against the gruesome processes used in the making of foie gras and he helped to persuade the department store Selfridges to stop stocking the stuff.)

 

During his reign as 007 the franchise flourished and made millions.  So even if I didn’t think much of old Roger as James Bond, or of most of the Bond films in which he appeared, vast numbers of other people evidently did.

 

© Eon Productions

 

The above-mentioned Radio Times poll saw Sean Connery secure first place in the battle of the Bonds.  Surprisingly but gratifyingly, Timothy Dalton finished in second place, while Pierce Brosnan finished in third.  (I’d ranked Daniel Craig third, but I shan’t begrudge Brosnan his success.)  So that’s Connery, Dalton and Brosnan: a Scotsman, a Welshman and an Irishman.  For the Radio Times’ readers, the Celtic Bonds are evidently the best ones.

Flash… Ah, feck off

 

© Dino De Laurentiis Company / Universal Pictures

 

Not for the first time, I find myself wondering if I’m the only person who’s still sane in a world that’s gone mad.  And this time what makes me feel that everyone else has lost their marbles is the amount of praise and adulation being heaped on Mike Hodges’ sci-fi / comic-book movie Flash Gordon at the moment – this being both the 40th anniversary of its original release in 1980 and the occasion of its re-release on modern-day streaming platforms.

 

In the Guardian recently Peter Bradshaw awarded it four out five stars, hailed it for its supposed expressionism (its ‘operatic theme’, its ‘bizarre 2D studio sets’ and its ‘eyeball-frazzling colour scheme’) and made a somewhat dubious claim that it’d inspired ‘every 21st-century Marvel movie’.  Meanwhile, the Standard’s Charlotte O’Sullivan also gave it four out of five stars and described it as a ‘marvellously terrible romp’ – well, in my opinion, you could argue that she was half right there.  And the venerable sci-fi / fantasy media magazine Starburst recently published a list of the best 80 sci-fi / fantasy movies of the 1980s, in which Flash Gordon was placed ahead of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead (1986), Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984) and Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1980) and Brazil (1985).

 

The sound you hear is the sound of my teeth grinding.

 

I’ll be blunt.  I thought Flash Gordon was rubbish when it came out in 1980 and 40 years later, despite what often happens when you have both the benefit of hindsight and the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia, I still think it’s rubbish.   The beef I have with the film is that it makes a joke of its two sources of inspiration, the Flash Gordon comic strip created by Alex Raymond in 1934 and the three movie serials based on the strip and starring Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe that were made in 1936, 1938 and 1940.  Tasked with putting Flash Gordon onto the big screen in 1980, the filmmakers took the easy route of playing the character for laughs.

 

This is regrettable because during the same period other filmmakers took their inspiration from similar old comic strips and movie serials but made an effort to adapt them into films that, while poking some knowing fun at their subject matter, did so in an affectionate and proportionate way and were still mightily entertaining at the end of the day.  I’m thinking here of the first two Superman films (1978 and 80) with Christopher Reeve and Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1980).  In fact, those films remind me of something Mark Gatiss once said about Billy Wilder’s mildly tongue-in-cheek 1970 movie The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes: that it gently takes ‘the mickey out of Sherlock Holmes in the way you can only do with something that you really adore.’

 

© Dino De Laurentiis Company / Universal Pictures

 

There wasn’t much evidence that Flash Gordon’s producer, the old-school Italian movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis, adored or, indeed, knew anything about the original comic strip and movie serials.  However, Flash‘s fate was sealed when old Dino – who, thanks to a CV that included Death Wish (1974), King Kong (1976), Orca: Killer Whale (1977), Amityville II and 3-D (1982 and 83), Dune (1984) and Maximum Overdrive (1985), was known in some quarters as ‘Dino Di Horrendous’ – signed scriptwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr onto the project.  Semple Jr was responsible for the 1966-68 TV version of Batman, which had sent up the Caped Crusader in an extremely camp fashion.  Incidentally, I’m not using ‘camp’ here in the 1909 Oxford English Dictionary definition of it, as meaning ‘ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical, effeminate or homosexual’.  No, I’m using ‘camp’ in its simpler meaning of ‘so bad it’s good’.

 

This camp approach meant that the Batman TV show was ridiculous, but with the intention that kids wouldn’t recognise the ridiculousness and would merely enjoy the derring-do, while adults would recognise it and would have a good time laughing at it.  Hence, ‘so bad it’s good’.

 

(Ironically, most films that are regarded as classic entries in the ‘so bad they’re good’ category, from Ed Wood’s oeuvre in the 1950’s to Tommy Wiseau’s epic 2003 clunker The Room, were actually intended to be proper, serious movies.  They were never meant to be bad, but ended up so because of their makers’ entertaining incompetence.)

 

I assume it’s largely because of Lorenzo Semple Jr that Flash Gordon turned out the way it did.  Mind you, Dino already had form in the camp stakes for in 1968 he’d produced sci-fi / fantasy movie Barbarella, directed by Roger Vadim and based on the comic strip by Jean-Claude Forest.  With its baroque sets, garish costumes and lurid skyscapes, it’s obviously a visual influence on the later Flash Gordon, but it also blazes a trail by being intentionally and supposedly-hilariously silly.  I have to say I find Barbarella excruciating.  It’s painfully unfunny in nearly all its parts and also grotesquely sexist, with Vadim’s camera leering over the naked and near-naked flesh of its star (and Vadim’s then wife) Jane Fonda.  Plus it’s imbued with an irritating swinging-sixties smugness that makes me want to punch a hole in the wall.

 

© Dino De Laurentiis Company / Universal Pictures

 

I don’t think Flash Gordon is as bad as Barbarella, but when I saw it as a teenager, and any time I saw bits of it on TV afterwards, I always found it a grim experience.  It’s depressing how scenes that were meant to have the viewer chuckling at the glorious silliness of everything just left me cringing.  The worst moment is when Flash (Sam Jones) takes on a squad of red-armoured goons employed by the villainous Emperor Ming (Max Von Sydow) in a brawl in Ming’s throne-room that morphs into an American football match.  Flash and Professor Zarkov (Topol) pass a ball-sized metal orb between them,  Flash charges into the goons and scatters them like ninepins, and Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) does a cheerleading routine (“Go, Flash, go!”) on the side.  Oh, and any time a goon gets too close to the delegation of Hawkmen led by Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed), Vultan goes, “Ho-ho-ho!” and bonks the goon on the head with his metal staff.  Funny, eh?  Well…

 

I’m not blaming the director Mike Hodges, who was responsible for the gritty British crime classic Get Carter (1970).  I assume that with Flash Gordon, for reasons of his own sanity, Hodges just pointed his cameras in the right direction and didn’t think too much about what was ending up in the can.  However, I wonder what might have happened if the visionary director Nicolas Roeg, who’d originally been signed to make Flash Gordon and had spent a year working on its pre-production, had actually been given a chance to direct it.  The results might have been astonishing…  But on the other hand, considering how another big sci-fi collaboration between Dino De Laurentiis and a visionary director, David Lynch, created the turgid shambles that was Dune (1984), I suppose the Dino-produced, Roeg-directed Flash Gordon could have been shite too.

 

I’ll stop the Dino-bashing for a moment to point out that he did subsequently produce Lynch’s excellent Blue Velvet.  Credit where it’s due and all that.

 

To be fair, Flash Gordon does have a few good scenes, for example, when Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) forces Flash to stick his arm into a hollow tree-stump that’s infested with poisonous alien creepy-crawlies, or when Vultan forces Flash and Barin to fight each other on a platform that has lethal spikes popping out of it at random places and at random moments.  The latter scene was choreographed by the late, legendary fight arranger William Hobbs.  it’s telling, though, that these good bits are ones that are played straight rather than for laughs.

 

And although I can’t say the central performances of Sam Jones, Melody Anderson and Topol made much impression on me, I’ll happily praise the efforts of the supporting cast – Von Sydow, Dalton, Omella Muti as Princess Aura, the splendidly silky Peter Wyngarde as Ming’s sidekick Klytus.  Also, a number of familiar faces make welcome appearances in smaller roles, such as playwright and occasional actor John Osborne (who played the key villain in Get Carter), sinewy character actor John Hallam (who wasn’t in Get Carter but was in a lot of other British crime movies at the time, like 1971’s Villain, 1973’s The Offence and 1975’s Hennessey), and Richard O’Brien, who co-created The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1976).

 

Of course, one performance in Flash Gordon that’s memorable, if not exactly noted for its subtlety, is that of Brian Blessed as the Hawkmen’s leader Prince Vultan.  As portrayed by Blessed, Vultan is half-Viking, half-turkey, and 100% pure ham.  I wonder if Blessed regrets attacking the role with such exuberance.  He must get fed up nowadays, 40 years after the event, when people still approach him and ask him to recite, or more accurately bellow, his most famous line in the film: “GORDON’S ALIVE!”  Indeed, if you’re to believe Blessed, no less a personage than Queen Elizabeth II once asked him to shout the line for her royal pleasure.

 

While I marvel at the unfathomable love people feel for this dire film, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by another thing that Blessed has claimed about the Queen.  Apparently, she’s told him that Flash Gordon is her favourite movie and she makes a point of watching it with her grandchildren every Christmas.  In other words, in Britain at least, the Flash Gordon rot extends right to the top.

 

© Dino De Laurentiis Company / Universal Pictures

An appointment with Willow’s Song

 

© Silva Screen

 

This is a revision of an entry that first appeared on this blog on – appropriately – May 1st, 2014.  Be warned that it’s packed with spoilers about The Wicker Man (1973).

 

The Scottish-American singer and actress Annie Ross died last month at the age of 89.  Even if she hadn’t been a celebrated jazz chanteuse, she could boast of leading a varied life.  She worked as a child actress in the USA, became a jazz artist in Europe as an adult, became a familiar face on British TV in the late 1970s, and finally re-established herself in the USA and got citizenship there in 2001.  She was both the sister of the well-known Scottish comedian and actor Jimmy Logan (whose performance as Archie Rice in John Osborne’s The Entertainer I was lucky enough to see at Aberdeen’s His Majesty’s Theatre in the mid-1980s) and the one-time lover of a rather different type of comedian, Lenny Bruce.  And she acted in films as wildly assorted as Peter Collinson’s Straight On Till Morning (1972), Richard Lester’s Superman III (1983), Danny DeVito’s Throw Momma from the Train (1987), Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) and Short Cuts (1993) and, yes, Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case 2 (1990) and Basket Case 3: The Progeny (1991).

 

She was also tasked with the unusual job of making Britt Ekland sound Scottish in my all-time favourite horror movie, 1973’s The Wicker Man.  Yes, whenever Ekland opens her mouth in the role of Willow Macgregor, the landlord’s daughter at the portentously titled Green Man Hotel on the remote Scottish island of Summer Isle, it’s not actually her Swedish-inflected tones you hear but those of Annie Ross instead.

 

Curiously, despite Ross’s famous singing talent, she didn’t get to voice Ekland during the scene that required her character to break into song.  At that point, supposedly, Ekland was dubbed by another singer, Rachel Verney.  (I’ve heard claims that Annie Ross did perform the song as well, but the weight of evidence seems to be against that.)

 

Anyway, this gives me a chance to talk about the song sung in that scene, Willow’s Song, sometimes known too as How Do.  The luscious Willow Macgregor sings it one night when she’s trying to lure the Green Man’s current guest, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) into her room for some hanky-panky.  Howie, a policeman sent to Summer Isle to investigate the disappearance of a local schoolgirl, is a devout Free Presbyterian and is already unimpressed at finding that everyone on the island is a practising pagan.  His strict Christian principles prevent him from answering Willow’s call.  Just about.

 

© British Lion Films

 

14 years ago, I was working in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, whose small enclave of expatriates, mostly diplomats and aid workers, held a weekly cinema evening.  Noticing that the next such evening fell on October 31st, i.e. Halloween, I dusted down my DVD of The Wicker Man and persuaded Pyongyang’s little cinema society that this would be a good time to watch a classic horror movie.  For most of its running time, the audience seemed pleasantly bemused by the film.  They enjoyed a good chuckle at how the pagan islanders led the stick-up-his-arse Howie on a merry dance around Summer Isle, taunting him with their innuendo-laden folk songs and their unconventional sense of public decency (e.g. organising mass couplings in the local graveyard, dancing naked through flames in the centre of stone circles).  But the people sitting closest to me kept leaning over and whispering, “Isn’t this supposed to be a horror film?”

 

Then the film’s final ten minutes arrived.  Howie discovers what the islanders have planned for him at the climax of their May Day celebrations – it involves ‘an appointment with the wicker man’ – and the room fell silent.  The silence continued for several minutes after the film ended, broken only by the voice of a Scotswoman who worked at the British Embassy.  She kept wailing to everyone around her, “Scotland isn’t really like that!  Scotland isn’t really like that!”

 

Later, a Dutch lady whose husband headed the Red Cross and Crescent’s operations in Pyongyang came over to me with big smile on her face.  “I really liked that,” she said.  “But you know, most of the film felt like a musical to me.”

 

And indeed, one reason why The Wicker Man is so special to me is its music.  Willow’s Song is the centrepiece of its soundtrack but the film is choc-a-bloc with gorgeous and haunting folk tunes.  Meanwhile, the lack of music is a reason why the 2006 American remake directed by Neil Labute and starring Nicholas Cage sucks, although, to be honest, there are many reasons why it sucks.

 

The man responsible for the original Wicker Man’s music was New Yorker Paul Giovanni, who assembled a number of songs, some self-composed, some traditional folk songs, and performed them with the folk-rock band Magnet.  Clearly a renaissance man, Giovanni was also a playwright and actor during his career.  Tragically, in 1990, he died from pneumonia, a complication caused by an HIV/AIDS infection.

 

© British Lion Films

 

As well as showcasing the film’s most famous song, the sequence in which Willow Macgregor sings has some notoriety because it shows her performing a nude dance as well.  (Having withstood Willow’s saucy enticements, Howie discovers later that the episode was arranged by the crafty pagan islanders to determine whether or not he’s a virgin and hence suitable sacrificial material.)  This is probably Britt Ekland’s greatest cinematic moment.  Mind you, her only other well-known major role is in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), so there isn’t much competition.

 

Come to think of it, though, Ekland was pregnant during the shooting of The Wicker Man, so it isn’t her naked body that we see cavorting during the scene.  The filmmakers hired a stripper to act as her ‘body double’ and, in at least one interview with her I’ve read, Ekland has remarked cattily about the size of the double’s bum.  So with Rachel Verney (or possibly Annie Ross) doing her singing, and a stripper doing her dancing, Britt’s greatest cinematic moment doesn’t actually have much Britt in it.

 

It was ignored at the time of its release but, over the years, the prestige of The Wicker Man has grown.  And as I’ve said, much of its mystique is due to its music.  Willow’s Song in particular has received much attention and a number of artists have had a go at covering it.  The most famous version is probably that by cinematically inspired electronica band the Sneaker Pimps.  It appears on their acclaimed 1996 album Becoming X, for which they recruited female singer Kelli Dayton (now Kelli Ali) to do vocals.  Afterwards, the band ungentlemanly gave Dayton the shove, claiming ‘her voice was no longer considered suitable for their new music’.  And has anyone heard anything of the Sneaker Pimps since then?  No.  Thought not.  Incidentally, if you have the right edition of Becoming X you’ll find as a bonus track a version of Gently Johnny, the second-best song that Paul Giovanni / Magnet recorded for The Wicker Man.  The scenes with Gently Johnny were chopped out of the film’s original print but years later were restored to the Director’s Cut of it.

 

The Sneaker Pimps’ version is still recognisably the movie’s Willow’s Song, although it has a lush, synthesised sheen.  Filmmaker Eli Roth liked their take on it so much that he incorporated it into the soundtrack of his notorious 2006 ‘torture porn’ epic Hostel – the Wicker Man reference signifying that Something Bad is going to happen to Roth’s own hapless protagonists.  I don’t find Hostel as objectionable as other people do, but nonetheless I feel that the delicate, pleading tone of Willow’s Song is incongruous in a movie that’s basically about dumb American backpackers getting tortured to death.  Interestingly, both The Wicker Man and Hostel go against the philosophy of conventional, conservative horror movies, like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1980), which holds that only characters who hang onto their virginity escape being victims, while promiscuous characters die horribly.  In The Wicker Man, it’s the only adult virgin on the island who goes up in smoke at the end, while in Hostel, it’s the randiest backpacker who survives the carnage.

 

From genius.com

 

Before the Sneaker Pimps’ version, in 1991, indie band the Mock Turtles did a take on Willow’s Song – I haven’t been able to find an online recording of it to link to – while a dozen years later soulful British rock band the Doves attempted it too.  Both versions are distinctive thanks to the fact that a man, not a woman, does the singing.  The song was also covered in 2006 by Scottish folk singer Isobel Campbell (best known for her collaborations with Mark Lanegan), who unsurprisingly took a more traditional, folky approach to it, and in 2007 by indie-dance-hip-hop group the Go! Team.

 

Definitely worth mentioning is a version of Willow’s Song by the eerie, theremin-loving combo Spacedog, who decided to go for it and deconstructed  it.  They mixed in a sample from another classic British horror film, the ‘power of the will’ monologue delivered by actor Charles Gray while he played the villain in 1968’s The Devil Rides Out, and the results are impressively phantasmagorical.

 

Willow’s Song has a Wikipedia entry that lists a dozen other versions, which isn’t bad for a song that accompanies a scene in which a woman tries to seduce an older, unprepossessing man but is rebuffed, and in a film that baffled its studio, got chopped to pieces before its release and was, initially, financially unsuccessful and critically shunned.  Perhaps it’s the strange juxtaposition of elements that makes the song memorable.  Its sound is gorgeously ethereal and delicate but, when you listen to the lyrics, you realise it’s pretty bawdy too.  Willow promises Howie “a stroke as gentle as a feather,” and later boasts, “How a maid can milk a bull!  And every stroke a bucketful.”

 

Come to think of it, the contrasts in the song are similar to the contrasts in The Wicker Man itself, a film packed with humour, music and cheerful lewdness but ending with a horrific act of cruelty – contrasts that have ensured the movie lives on in Britain’s cinematic consciousness.

 

© British Lion Films

Morricone no more

 

© enniomorricone.org

 

The death of legendary film composer Ennio Morricone a fortnight ago shouldn’t have been a surprise since he was at the big age of 91.  But he’d shown such a cussed approach to life and art, still composing music, going on world tours and quarrelling with young whippersnappers like Quentin Tarantino while he was in his ninth decade, that you assumed he was going to continue living and composing forever.  Anyway, a heavy workload earlier this month prevented me from penning a tribute to the great man at the time of his passing.  Here’s my belated tribute now.

 

Ennio Morricone was the first film composer I knew.  I recognised his work well before I recognised that of John Barry, Bernard Hermann, Leonard Bernstein or Henry Mancini and even before the blockbuster themes of Jaws (1976) and Star Wars (1977) acquainted me with the name of John Williams.  As a boy I was daft about western movies and as soon as Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns started showing up on TV I realised that Morricone’s exhilarating music, soaring and swooping along the soundtracks with twangy acoustic guitars, electric guitars, whistles, chimes, bells, flutes and aah-ing choirs, was as much a character of the films as Clint Eastwood’s cigar-smoking Man with No Name.  Remove Morricone’s music and they wouldn’t be the same.  There’d be a gaping Clint-sized hole in them.

 

Morricone’s music for A Fistful of Dollars (1964), the film that put him, Leone, Eastwood and spaghetti westerns on the map, is great but I think his theme for the sequel For a Few Dollars More (1965), with added Jew’s harp and ocarina, is greater still.  Maybe I’m biased since the film is my favourite of Leone’s Dollars trilogy.  It has Eastwood, the Man with No Name, team up with the splendid Lee Van Cleef, the Man in Black, and take on Gian Maria Volonté as evil scumbag bandit El Indio.  The climax sees Van Cleef facing up to Volonté in a duel whereby the participants can only draw their guns on the final chime of a musical pocket watch, which had belonged to Van Cleef’s murdered sister.  It’s absolutely epic, thanks largely to Morricone’s music, which climbs majestically and drowns out the plaintive tones of the pocket watch, then plunges and dies away again a few palm-sweating seconds before the watch stops and the shooting starts.

 

© Produzioni Europee Associati / United Artists

 

The third and final movie of the trilogy, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), confused me when I saw it as a kid because although Lee Van Cleef starred in it alongside Eastwood again, this time he played a different character from the one in For a Few Dollars More and was as evil as Volonté had been in the previous film.  I assumed he was the same guy and couldn’t figure out why he’d suddenly become so bad.  Morricone’s theme here is perhaps his most famous work – I still hear blokes in the pub, after a few pints too many, going “Na-Na-Na-Na-Naaah….  NA-NA-NAAAH!” for no good reason.  But it’s perhaps the accompaniment he provides for the Ecstasy of Gold sequence, in which an increasingly delirious Eli Wallach spends four minutes running around a cemetery while Leone’s camerawork becomes correspondingly frenzied, that’s the film’s musical highlight.

 

© Paramount Pictures

 

Of course, we hadn’t heard the last of Morricone as far as Leone’s westerns were concerned, because in 1968 he contributed to Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, a movie that regularly gets mentioned in ‘best film of all time’ lists.  (It’s certainly in my top three.)  Morricone’s magnificent score ticks all the boxes.  At times, it does the customary soaring and swooping.  At others, it’s playful and jaunty.  And at other times, it’s marked by a haunting and pained-sounding harmonica.  Like Lee Van Cleef, Gian Maria Volontè and the musical pocket watch in For a Few Dollars More, we discover the tragic significance of that harmonica at the end when hero Charles Bronson has a showdown with villain Henry Fonda.  Ironically, the film’s most breath-taking sequence, the lengthy opening where three gunmen played by Woody Strode, Jack Elam and Al Mulock await, with murderous intent, the arrival of Bronson at a remote, rickety train station, unscrolls without Morricone’s music (and indeed, without any dialogue) until nearly ten minutes in when that melancholy harmonica strikes up.

 

Morricone toiled away on many other Italian, and occasionally American, westerns and his CV surely makes him one of the great figures in the western genre.  His work appears in Duccio Tessari’s The Return of Ringo (1965), Franco Giraldi’s Seven Guns for the MacGregors (1966), Carlo Lizzani’s The Hills Run Red (1966), Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown (1966), Giulio Petroni’s Death Rides a Horse (1967), Don Taylor and Italo Zingarelli’s The 5-Man Army (1969) and Don Siegel’s Two Mules for Sister Sarah (1970).  He also contributed to a few westerns like Navajo Joe (1966),  The Hellbenders (1967), The Mercenary (1968) and The Great Silence (1968) that were directed by another Sergio, Sergio Corbucci, who was honoured in Quentin Tarantino’s recent Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) when Al Pacino described him as “the second best director of spaghetti westerns in the whole wide world!”  Meanwhile, Morricone was reunited with the first best director of spaghetti westerns in the whole wide world with Leone’s late-period western Duck You Sucker (1971), a movie that I like but don’t consider in the same league as Leone’s earlier efforts.  (James Coburn’s Irish accent doesn’t help.)

 

By the early 1970s Leone had shifted from spaghetti westerns to another staple of traditional Italian cinema, the giallo – the horror-thriller hybrid wherein a group of people, usually affluent and beautiful, get despatched by a mysterious killer (whose identity is revealed only in the closing moments) stabbing, slashing and hacking his or her way through them for some unlikely reason.  The results are often Italian films at their most stylish, glamorous, violent, ridiculous and politically incorrect.

 

Morricone’s giallo music is frequently mannered, genteel and dreamy, at odds with the bloody events happening onscreen but matching the well-upholstered lifestyles of the doomed protagonists.  He contributed to Elio Petri’s supernaturally tinged A Quiet Place in the Country (1968), Paolo Cavara’s slick but dodgy Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971), Aldo Ladi’s rather brilliant Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971), Massimo Dallamano’s fairly reprehensible What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) and Umberto Lenzi’s lovably barmy Spasmo (1974).   He also did the music for Lucio Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), but I haven’t seen that one, so I can’t provide it with suitable adjectives.

 

© Seda Spettacoli / Universal

 

He also worked on three movies directed by the man who’s arguably the maestro of the giallo, Dario Argento: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971).  He didn’t, however, supply the music for Argento’s giallo masterpiece Deep Red (1976).  That role went to the German prog-rock band Goblin and I have to say, with apologies to Morricone, that I think their baroque, intense Deep Red score just about pips his work as the best giallo music of all time.

 

By then, of course, Hollywood had discovered Morricone and his scores for such prestigious productions as Terence Mallick’s Days of Heaven (1978) and Rolande Jaffé’s The Mission (1986) won him international acclaim.  A digression here – I remember reading an interview with Will Carling, the nice but dull skipper of the England rugby team in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Carling told the evidently bored interviewer that before games, to settle his nerves, he listened to ‘The Mission’.  The interviewer thought Carling was talking about the 1980s British Goth band the Mission and, believing he’d discovered something interesting about Carling at last, that he was a Goth, asked him if he liked Gene Loves Jezebel too.  “No,” retorted a perplexed Carling, “The film The Mission.  The music from The Mission!”

 

Morricone also enjoyed a final reunion with his old comrade Sergio Leone, creating a majestic but wistful score for Leone’s Hollywood gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

 

Leone didn’t just provide the music for good films.  He also plied his trade with many bad ones and often the music coming out of the cinema speakers and what was happening on the screen seemed to belong to two different aesthetic universes.  I’m thinking of Reagan’s Theme, the haunting guitar-and-choir piece he composed for John Boorman’s much-derided Exorcist II: The Heretic (1978), or the soulful, religious sounding theme he provided for Michael Anderson’s Orca: The Killer Whale (1977), totally at variance with the ridiculous plot that has Richard Harris going Captain Ahab against a vengeful cetacean.

 

© Turman-Foster Company / Universal Pictures

 

Among Leone’s Hollywood scores, I particularly admire the one he did for John Carpenter’s excellent remake of The Thing (1982).  At the time, disdainful mainstream critics (who also hated the film generally) dismissed his work as being like one of Carpenter’s own, pulsating synthesiser scores ‘slowed down’ or ‘played at the wrong speed.’  Heard today, its doomy sound encapsulates the film’s claustrophobic and literally under-the-skin horror, whilst reminding you that, yes, this is a John Carpenter film but it’s a special John Carpenter film.  I also like his subtle, creepy score for Mike Nichol’s underrated Wolf (1994), wherein a tired, middle-aged and downtrodden publisher (Jack Nicholson) gets bitten by a werewolf and discovers that his newly acquired lupine powers actually serve him well in the aggressive, cutthroat world of the 1990s New York publishing industry.

 

© FilmColony / The Weinstein Company

 

One of Morricone’s last major commissions was for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015).  The two men had previously fallen out over Morricone’s contribution, eventually non-contribution, to Tarantino’s 2012 western Django Unchained, but Morricone was back on board for this and contributed an urgent and ominous main theme.  Appropriately, seeing as The Hateful Eight and The Thing feature the same star (Kurt Russell) and a similar scenario (a stranded group trying to identify an enemy hiding among them), Morricone also donated some pieces he’d created for but hadn’t used in the 1982 John Carpenter film.  And as extra icing on the cake, Reagan’s Theme from Exorcist II: The Heretic was borrowed to accompany a brief, arty sequence of coach-horses making their way through the snow.  So it was gratifying that near his life’s end Morricone got an opportunity to show his mastery again of the genre that established his name, the western.

 

From open.spotify.com