Thursday, 11 June 2015

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

A remake of a film that he first attempted 20 years earlier, the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much has a bigger budget, bigger stars and a much more experienced Alfred Hitchcock behind the camera. It also has some emotional depth to the characters, giving some substance to the style.

Dr Ben McKenna (James Stewart) is holidaying in Marrakesh with his wife Jo (Doris Day) and young son Hank. They have an accidental meeting on a bus with a mysterious Frenchman, Louis Bernard, who is later murdered in front of the family. With his dying words, he reveals details of an assassination attempt on a foreign statesman. This plunges the McKenna family into a nightmare that see Hank kidnapped, and Ben and Jo in a desperate race against time to save two lives.

In many ways, The Man Who Knew Too Much fits in well with much of Hitchcock’s work. The story is an unlikely one, but no more so than many of his other films which share the trope of the ordinary man thrown into an extraordinary situation. It also has Hitchcock regular James Stewart who, as always, brings a real likeability and vulnerability to the character of Ben, as well as the complexity and glimpses of a darker side that Hitchcock was so good at bringing out of him.

Hitchcock also indulges in his love of what call “Pure Cinema”, using techniques and tools unique to the medium, such as editing or juxtaposition of sound and images, to manipulate the viewer and tell the story. This works brilliantly in the climactic scene at the Albert Hall in London, a bravura sequence, nearly 10 minutes long with no dialogue, only the sound of the orchestra (conducted in person by legendary Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Hermann). The tension mounts as the gunman lines up his target in his sights and Ben frantically tries to convince the police that he is telling the truth – and the whole thing is told through images and editing.

However, in some ways this is an atypical Hitchcock film. The ordinary man is often accompanied by a blonde woman, and The Man Who Knew Too Much is no exception in that respect. However, instead of the usual sub-plot that sees them playing cat-and-mouse love games, here the couple are already in love, happily married with a child, which we see in the opening sequences of the McKenna's holiday (including some great physical comedy from Stewart as he tries to get his longs legs into the awkward seating at a Moroccan restaurant). This makes the dynamic different, making them equal partners, with an equal stake in the outcome, and, as things become more desperate, superb acting from Day and Stewart makes the film less arch and knowing and much more heartfelt than the Hitchcock reputation as a master manipulator might lead you to expect.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Black Cobra (1987)

Fred “The Hammer” Williamson is a mainstay of 70s and 80s European exploitation films, and Black Cobra is a largely competent but unremarkable example of the Italian crime or Poliziotteschi genre.

The plot is lifted from Sylvester Stallone’s action thriller Cobra (so no surprises as to where the name came from) with Williamson playing Bob Malone, a maverick cop (is there any other kind in these films?) assigned to protect a fashion photographer who holds the key to identifying the head of a vicious biker gang

The other debt the film has is to Dirty Harry (as do many Italian cop films) with Malone sorting a hostage situation with a shotgun, and delivering a rip off of the famous “44 Magnum” speech. Williamson can act these macho roles in his sleep, so is not asked to do anything that he is not more than capable of.

There is little in the way of characterisation, other than a scene where Malone shows an unexpected tender side, feeding and fussing over his pet cat and the action set pieces, while lacking a real sense of threat or suspense are competently handled and exciting.

Things only really fall apart in the final 15 minutes, with a preposterous resurrection and interminably dull chase scene in a warehouse. Other than that, Black Cobra is worth a look for fans of action films, Poliziotteschi or The Hammer.


Friday, 5 June 2015

The Lodger (1927)

Coming before the droll British chase films of the 1930s, the glamorous Hollywood psychodramas of the 1940s and 50s and the controlled cruelty of his later work, the silent films of Alfred Hitchcock can get overlooked. Despite lacking the budget, resources and superstars of the later work, there is still much to enjoy as well as some pointers as to where the career of Mr Hitchcock was going to go, most particularly in The Lodger.

The plot sees a sinister Jack the Ripper style killer called The Avenger on the loose on the foggy streets of London, a killer who only targets blonde women. A mysterious man (Ivor Novello) arrives at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Bunting, looking for a room to rent. The Buntings have a daughter, Daisy, who is a fashion model, and has a police detective boyfriend, Joe  - and blonde hair. As Joe investigates the murders, he begins to suspect the Bunting's new lodger - just as Daisy starts to find herself attracted to him. Does Joe have the right man? Moreover, is he about to lose his woman to him?

The Lodger was Hitchcock's third completed film but already we can see many of the themes and tropes that would crop up time and time again in his work over the next 50 years. The plot revolves not just around murder, but the murder of women, and blonde women at that. There is also a man wrongly accused of a crime, a slightly buffoonish police officer, a streak of black humour, and a twist ending. We also see in Ivor Novello, a leading man cast in a different light to how the public were used to seeing him – think of James Stewart as a neurotic weirdo in Vertigo.

In addition, Hitchcock is already starting to not just hint at sex and violence in his films, but draw a link between the two. This is most explicitly shown here, not just by the killer, but by Joe the detective, who gleefully talks of putting a ring on Daisy's finger after he has put a rope around the neck of the Avenger, implying that the perfect climax to a violent death is consummating his marriage.

However, the Lodger is more than just a dry run for Hitchcock's career, and is a great thriller in its own right. The cinematic style is at wonderfully audacious, with some brilliantly designed shots and scenes that show Hitchcock had grasped the unique power of the medium, and was also paying attention to and learning from some of his contemporaries, particularly the German Expressionists, such as Robert Wiene and his silent classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

As always with a silent film, the soundtrack that accompanies your screening will be a definite factor. While previous viewings have been on DVD with soundtrack from (?) played by the London Symphony Orchestra, a recent watch on the big screen for me had music by drums/bass/guitar trio Minima. This was in itself an eclectic affair, moving seamlessly between jazzy noire, eerie atmosphere psychedelic noodling and loud, dramatic rhythm and may initially feel somewhat anachronistic, compared to the large ensemble or organ score of the time of the films release, However, it actually gives the film a completely different feel, one that is to my mind somewhat closer to the Giallo genre, and given that one of the progenitors of Giallo, Dario Argento, made his name with visually stunning films about sexually charged murder (with great soundtracks) this actually makes sense.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

The Producers (1967)

A classic piece of 1960s madness, The Producers also kick-started the film-directing career of Mel Brooks. Viewed nowadays, it has two perfect lead actors, and a frantic neurotic energy that helps smooth over the bumps in the script.

After a string of Broadway flops, producer Max Bialystock (the incomparable Zero Mostel) is as desperate as he is broke. Just when all hope seems lost, his timid accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) inadvertently comes up with a fool proof money making scheme: find the worst show in the world, raise a huge budget by fraudulently overselling it to your investors, watch it close on first night, then flee to Rio with the leftover cash. However, even with a high kicking, seig heiling, musical about the life of Hitler, they forgot to take into account the questionable taste of the theatre-going public.

Brooks came into movies from a career writing skits for the likes of the legendary Sid Ceaser, and this shows in the script structure. Much of the first 20 minutes takes place in the office of Bialystok, and, consequently, feels a little stagey. In fairness to Brooks, this may be due to budgetary restrictions as much as anything, and after this he does try to expand the feel of the piece into something more cinematic, with montage trip around some of the sights of New York.

The characters and the writing are what really make The Producers work, rather than flashy filmmaking. Based on Brooks’ own experiences of working with Broadway producers, Max is one of the great monstrous comic creations, utterly devoted to nobody but himself, yet, thanks to the writing and Mostel's performance, we can actually begin to understand his desperation at how far he has fallen, to the extent where it is very easy to want him to succeed in his fraudulent endeavours. His charisma is such that it is also possible to see how an innocent yet perfectly intelligent man like Bloom can be corrupted and tempted into a life of crime.

Wilder more than holds his own as Bloom, playing him with enough vulnerability to make him likeable and sympathetic, rather than a one-dimensional shrieking bore, but with a nervous energy and the look of a trapped animal that makes this a hysterical film in both senses of the word. Elsewhere stand-up comedian Dick Shawn almost steals every scene he is in as Lorenzo St Dubois (L.S.D) the perpetually stoned hippy star of the musical, and his scenes have a loose improvised feel, a good contrast to the uptight feel of Bialystock and Bloom.

The rest of the supporting cast of characters are very much a snapshot of the cartoonish comedy caricatures of the era, from groovy flower power hippies, extremely camp gay men, to go-go dancing Swedish blonde secretaries. The Producers also paints a particular picture of New York, a city with a mix of the fancy and funky, a loud vibrant city, full of energy, and full of people of many different shapes, sizes, creeds, colours and persuasions, rich and poor, young and old, many of whom who don't give a damn about other people's sensibilities.

The highlight of the film is the jaw dropping musical set piece that is the opening of Springtime for Hitler. In style, structure and arrangement, the title song is a pitch perfect pastiche of the cheery upbeat Broadway musical, and if nothing else, perfectly illustrates the pitfalls of trying to discuss sensitive, complex subjects with rhyming couplets and chorus lines.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Sword of Sherwood Forest (1961)

A lesser-known entry in the Hammer studios back catalogue, Sword of Sherwood Forest is a slight and only sporadically entertaining take on the Robin Hood legend. The plot sees the Sheriff of Nottingham (Peter Cushing) trying to get control of the estate of a nobleman who has been killed fight in the Crusades. When the Archbishop of Canterbury intervenes, the Sheriff plots to have him assassinated. Meanwhile Robin finds himself falling for the mysterious Marion - despite her links to the Sheriff.

Unfortunately, the story is part of the problem, not being substantial enough to sustain a whole film, instead feeling more suited to an episode of the Robin Hood TV show of which Green was the star. Green himself is another part of the problem, seeming a little long in the tooth, lacking the exuberant energy of Errol Flynn.

Thankfully his co-stars pick up some of the slack, with Peter Cushing oily but charismatic as the evil Sheriff and Niall MacGinnis (who played the creepy Julian Karswell in Night of the Demon) as a fun and funny Friar Tuck. Look fast for Desmond “Q” Llewelyn and a virtually unrecognizable Oliver Reed, although as the former has no lines and the latter is dubbed, neither of them make much of an impact

The other asset the film has is legendary Hammer director Terence Fisher who makes the most of the beautiful Irish countryside locations and ensures the sword fights and horse chases are fast and exciting, even if the script is not. Sword of Sherwood Forest was not the only time Hammer adapted a TV show, but unlike with the other examples such as the Quatermass series, here they failed to develop it into something cinematic.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Calvaire (2004)

A Belgian take on well-worn horror clichés, Calvaire is a slick but empty affair which brings us little new, instead getting bogged down in pretentiousness.

Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas) is a travelling singer, scraping by, driving around Belgium performing at small venues such as retirement homes. While on route to a Christmas special, his van breaks down in a storm, but fortunately, an innkeeper, Bartel (a charming and disturbing turn by Jackie Berroyer), rescues him. Unfortunately, the innkeeper seems to associate Marc with his now departed wife, and is extremely reluctant for him to leave.

Director Fabrice Du Welz is clearly familiar with the horror genre, both classic and modern, with unconscious and self-conscious nods to the likes of Psycho, Don’t Look Now, and Deliverance. Given the backwoods setting (with animal loving locals) and the gruesome fate that awaits the main character, Calvaire can also be linked to so-called “Torture porn” films such as Hostel.

The most interesting aspect of the character of Marc is that he essentially fills the role that would normally be a woman. Indeed, there is little masculine about him, either before things turn nasty, or afterwards when he is being tortured, sexually assaulted and dehumanised, in the way females often are in this genre.

There is a nagging feeling that Du Welz is trying to inject the film with some depth, but the religious imagery and themes are simply frustrating and vague. The most obvious one comes from the film’s title, which, as well as being the place where Jesus was crucified, translates from the French as suffering or ordeal.  Quite why we are supposed to equate the events of the film with the events in the life of Christ is never made clear.

Calvaire is beautifully shot, with bleak cinematography making the beautiful Belgian countryside seem brutal and unfriendly, and there are a couple of dizzying 360-degree pans accompanying particularly unpleasant on screen events, adding to the nauseous feeling. For all of the cleverness, gruesomeness and torture, there is little genuine dread or terror, aside from one bar-room scene which ends in the locals doing a demented waltz, a scene made disturbing by its inexplicable randomness.       

The poorly defined religious imagery has already been mentioned, and the rather reactionary idea of the countryside and its bizarre inhabitants who pick on the innocent from the big city has already been explored far more effectively in the likes of Deliverance. However, there is a third theme suggested by the events in the film – that of the unintended influence of art on an audience. Marc's singing has such an effect on both an elderly resident and an employee of the retirement home that they both throw themselves at him afterwards, to his obvious discomfort and embarrassment, and it is his singing that triggers the events with Bartel. Films, especially horror films have long faced calls from naysayers with their tales of the terrible effect the medium has on innocent minds. However, if this film is saying anything, perhaps it is that the trigger factors are so random (Marc’s singing is as competent and uninspiring as this film) it is pointless to censor yourself.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Midnight (2014)

Equal parts brilliant and exasperating, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Midnight borrows liberally from lots of clichés and tropes in vampire and indie cinema, and puts them into a new context. Ultimately, though, it fails to develop them any further, and ultimately feels like a short film overstretched to feature length.

The emphasis is more on mood than plot, but what story there is revolves around a fictional Iranian town, where a female vampire is stalking the residents – the difference here is that the vampire wears a chador (a traditional Iranian cloak) and rides on a skateboard.

Director Ana Lily Amirpour has a great eye for visuals and the film looks and sound great, steeped in creepy and off beat atmosphre. It owes much to the eccentric and indie side of 80s American cinema, directors such as Lynch, and Jarmusch especially, and stylish vampire films like The Hunger. It is shot in black and white and looks, everybody smokes, characters meet at a run down power plant and the vampire lives in a bedsit festooned with posters, listening to vinyl.
However, the style overwhelms the substance too often and for too long and too many scenes drag on with people staring at themselves or each other while whole songs play, and it begins to feels at times like a music video or commercial. 
The vampire is interesting, as she is not presented in the clichéd overtly sexual way. There is sexual imagery and a metaphorical castration involving a finger – but perhaps ultimately she represents something heterosexual men find threatening – a woman who is indifferent to and uninterested in them.