Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Saint Strikes Back (1939)

Before Roger Moore made the part of Simon Templar his own in the 1960s TV series, the smooth talking gentleman thief and amateur sleuth appeared in a series of B pictures made by RKO. After putting Louis Hayward in the title role for The Saint In New York, the studio switched for the effortlessly debonair George Sanders for the follow up, The Saint Strikes Back.

Loosely based on the novel Angels of Doom, by Saint creator Leslie Charteris, the plot sees Templar come to the aid of the daughter of a San Francisco police officer, a man who committed suicide after being framed by a mysterious gangster. Can our hero clear the name of the innocent party, and unmask the crook?

George Sanders is one of those actors who nearly always plays a variation on the "George Sanders" character, someone who is charming, witty, and impervious to the doubts and emotions that plague us mere mortals. Unlike later films such as The Picture of Dorian Gray or All About Eve, the "George Sanders" here lacks the malevolent edge of Lord Henry or Addison DeWitt, which is in keeping with the roguish but basically decent character of Simon Templar, but is slightly less fun to watch.

I have seen The Saint described as a "Robin Hood-like" character, but if anything he seems like a precursor to Dr Who, someone whose motives are vague and wanders into situations seemingly by accident, solving problems, charming the authorities, then disappearing off into the sunset with no material reward.

The rest of the cast are competent enough, with significant roles given to Jerome Cowan, who would be immortalised as Miles Archer, the doomed partner of Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, and Neil Hamilton, later to play Commissioner Gordon on the Batman TV show.

The direction from John Farrow is also competent and workmanlike, with no expressionistic or artistic flourishes, apart from one brief and unexpected scene of a policeman having a nightmare about lobsters on trapezes. Farrow works hard to convince us we are in the City by the Bay, with some nicely foggy ambience. Screenwriter John Twist moves the action here from the original novel's English setting, and packs the dense screenplay with plenty of twists and turns, and some witty dialogue.

An enjoyable bit of fun, The Saint Strikes Back ends on a slightly downbeat note. For all Templar's cool, detached persona, at the end we are left with the impression of a lonely man and the final scene sees him quoting Kipling (“he travels fastest who travels alone”) before the camera tracks back, leaving a solitary Templar, leaning on a lamppost in the fog, whistling in a slightly resigned, almost melancholy fashion.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Seytan (1974)

Taking pity on Turkish cinemagoers in the 1970s that wanted to see William Friedkins's The Exorcist, but were unable, due to the unavailability of any prints, some enterprising producers dashed off a largely identical work to fill the gap. Unfortunately, Seytan dilutes the elements that make the original work, while adding little new, leaving an end product that is not horrifying, thought provoking, disgusting, or even that much fun to watch certainly compared to other rip-offs from that country.

The filmmakers stick rigidly to the plot and characters of the original, giving us not just a scene-for-scene remake, but in places shot-for-shot and word-for-word (and note for note, as Tubular Bells crops up several times, albeit wonky and badly dubbed). However, as 99.8% of the Turkish population identifies as Muslim it is perhaps not surprising that the major change is that the Catholic imagery and rituals have been removed and replaced largely, although not entirely, with Islamic equivalents.

However, the one major change to one of the lead characters comes from removing not replacing the religious element. In The Exorcist, Father Damian Karrass is both a psychiatrist and a priest, losing his faith and wracked with guilt over his inability to do anything to help his mother and her deteriorating health. In Seytan, the Karrass character, Tugrul Bilge, although also guilt ridden over his senile mother (a lifetime of poorly paid academia, rather than a lucrative career in medicine, has left him unable to afford decent health care) is a completely secular person, and without the spiritual crisis, he just comes across as a bit of a loser.

The other major change is that most of the obscene and blasphemous language and imagery has also been removed or altered (the infamous scene with the crucifix is replaced with one involving some sort of Devil shaped knife). This strips out another layer of interest from the source material, where the foul-mouthed demon contrasted with the quiet dignity of the priest.

Beyond the changes, the main problem is that is simply not as well made as the original. It was churned out in a cheap and hurried fashion and it shows, with the flat cinematography lacking the atmospheric touches of The Exorcist. The acting is melodramatic, hammy, scenery chewing stuff, with some, presumably, unintended comedy, such as the scene where the Doctor is hit in the groin being reminiscent of a Benny Hill sketch.

The terrible special effects do not help either, although it is hard to pick a low point with so many to choose. There is the papier-mâché demon, or the bouncing bed, where it is blatantly obvious that it is a group of people underneath the bed pushing it up and down. There are the scenes where the girl is supposed to be having electro shock therapy, which consists of what appear to be mini jack hammers pounding into either side of her skull while she gurns, mugs and rolls her eyes. There is also their take on the 180-degree head spin too, but in fairness, that looked pretty silly in the original, and the one here is not much worse.

These provide some cheap laughs, and much needed sparks of energy, but are too few and far between to save Seytan from being a largely grim and dull watch.

Friday, 28 March 2014

The Tenant (1976)

The third in a loose trilogy (along with Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby) linked by themes of urban living, paranoia, and mental decay, The Tenant is one of Roman Polanski’s most personal works. Although bearing some stylistic and thematic similarities to those other two films, it is strikingly different, not least because, by casting himself in the lead, Polanski offers us a troubling journey into his mind.

Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski), a shy man who works as a bureaucrat, takes an apartment in Paris, not knowing the previous tenant, a lady called Simone Choule, tried to commit suicide by throwing herself out the window. Although he is happy at first, the concierge (Shelley Winters), the tough landlord Mr Zy, and the oddly behaved neighbours, all start to get to him. Is he slowly losing his mind? Or, do they want him to go the same way as Simone?

Coming after Chinatown, an American film with American stars, The Tenant feels like a deliberate decision by Polanski to get back to his lower budget, European roots. Pretty much the whole film is seen through the eyes of Trelkovsky, using the classic device of the “unreliable narrator”, and starts in a fairly straightforward, even low key fashion, playing many of the scenes for laughs, albeit sometimes uncomfortable ones (and showcasing Polanski’s skill as a comic actor). However, as the tone gradually turns increasingly dark, surreal and paranoid, the plot twists and camera angles grow ever more disorientating.  The bleak world created is one where the weak will always be harassed and bullied by those stronger than them, or worse, those just as weak as they are, and the other characters are largely grotesque caricatures, in keeping with the nightmarish and darkly comic feel.

The casting by Polanski of himself in the lead role is one of the most interesting aspects of The Tenant, and there are a few reasons that I can think of as to why would have done this. First, is narcissism, and why not, as at the time he certainly had a reputation as an egomaniac. Secondly it may have been for practical reasons, as, working without Hollywood dollars, why not save some cash on stars salaries? Thirdly, as well as an egomaniac, he also had a reputation as a control freak, and after his well-publicised run-ins with Faye Dunaway on Chinatown, perhaps he wants a lead actor he can easily exert some control over.

However, what if it was done as a deliberate artistic decision?  This would make the film an intensely personal vision of his own paranoia and persecution complex, inviting us in to share it, as opposed to Repulsion, where he is inviting us to watch someone else, from a distance. It comes from the period after the murder of his wife Sharon Tate and their unborn baby at the hands of the Manson Family, and just before fleeing the US and possible jail time for sexually assaulting a 13 year old girl, so there would be no shortage of dark things going on in his head.

The "twist" ending is the only real disappointment in The Tenant, and anyone who has seen a few episodes of The Twilight Zone or Tales of The Unexpected will see it coming. Aside from that, this is a disturbing vision of hell, a hell created by oneself as much as by other people.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

The Devil Rides Out (1968)

Although not a big commercial success on its release, The Devil Rides Out is one of the best horror films produced by the Hammer studio. This is despite it being in many ways the antithesis of everything that Hammer was supposed to represent, in that there were no gloomy castles or other Gothic trappings, no vampires or other such monsters, and Christopher Lee was playing the good guy. The reactionary undertones of the source material remain intact, something quite fascinating to consider, given the year in which the film was released.

In 1920s England, the Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee) is concerned that Simon Aron (Patrick Mower), the son of a late friend has been brainwashed by a satanic cult. The leader of the cult, Mocata, (Charles Gray) wants to induct Simon and his friend Tanith Carlisle into a satanic baptism - and he has some powerful allies, including the Angel of Death and the Devil himself

The punchy well-structured script by Richard Matheson sticks to the plot of the original Dennis Wheatley novel. We are plunged straight into the action from the beginning, and there is barely a wasted line or scene as the action drives relentlessly forward, through manor houses, countryside car chases, and frenzied Black Magic rituals. The 1920s setting also means that in many respects it does not look dated – although the effects do

Unsurprisingly, the main star of the film is Lee, who manages to be an almost mirror image of the villains he is perhaps more well known for. His Richleau is every inch the aristocratic charmer that his Dracula is, but this is now mixed with elements of Van Helsing, particularly the arcane knowledge, which he can handily explain to the audience, and the traditional Christian moral view. When Richleau is admonishing Simon at the beginning, he sounds like a concerned parent horrified at what their children are getting into. It is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to picture a real life parent in 1968 similarly horrified at their offspring and their long hair and interest in the occult, something that would be crystallised in the mainstream with the release the following year of the hit single Age of Aquarius.

There is often a reactionary or Puritan streak underpinning the horror genre, such as in the sight of sexually active teens being knifed by masked killers. This is often paired with situations that show or imply a pro-Christian message, such as the crucifix dispatching the vampire, or the Roman Catholic exorcism rituals succeeding where medicine and science fails.

On the surface, The Devil Rides Out is no exception, with the crosses, the depiction of Satanists as evil, (with no real discussion as to why), and the subtext of the Christian (and in this case, sexually and emotionally repressed) way of life is good, while the Satanic (and, again, as represented in the film, uninhibited) life is bad. There is a small hint of irony in this, given that a film could not have been made without the rise of more permissive attitudes in cinema goers, and perhaps this is the key as to why there is no heavy handed lecturing in the film, which would have turned audiences off. Instead, the two sides are presented as no more than opposing forces for dramatic purposes for us to cheer or boo as appropriate.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Plein Soleil (1960)

Sometimes the most disturbing films are not those that are obviously shocking but those that slowly creep under your skin and Plein Soleil (aka Purple Noon) is a classic example of this. The first on-screen appearance of Patricia Highsmith’s supremely cold-hearted villain Tom Ripley, director René Clément brilliantly mixes elements of Hitchcock with a decidedly French New Wave approach, and Alain Delon gives a charismatic, star-making performance as Ripley.
Based on Highsmith’s novel “The Talented Ripley” (filmed again in 1999 with Matt Damon as Ripley), the plot sees Tom Ripley in Italy, living it up on a boat with his wealthy friend, Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet). Greenleaf’s father has employed Ripley to persuade his son to return to the US. However, Greenleaf Jr., ensconced on a boat, travelling the Italian coast with his girlfriend Marge, has no such plans – and Ripley may have more sinister intentions than Philippe realises.

The relationship between Ripley and Greenleaf drives the first part of the story, but even that is never entirely straightforward. Ripley starts as a clumsy, slightly dim, subservient "little brother" to Greenleaf, going along with his behaviour, as Greenleaf throws his father's money away like confetti.  Eventually the whole film starts to revolve purely around Ripley, and he remains a fascinating, enigmatic character throughout. His motives are ambiguous, never as simply explainable as, for example, greed, envy, coveting Marge or even the need to "possess" or become Greenleaf, even though they may be all or none of those things.

Alain Delon is magnetic, looking a mixture of baby faced innocence and ridiculously handsome movie star. He is completely convincing as Ripley, and the switch in dynamic and behaviour, from charmer to amoral psychopath is creepy and chilling.

Plein Soleil has a number parallels with the work of Alfred Hitchcock. Most obviously is the fact that Hitch made a big screen version of another Highsmith novel, Strangers on a Train. There are other thematic similarities to the work of Hitchcock, such as murder, loss of identity, and relationships.

However, in some ways, in this film at least, Clement is the opposite of Hitchcock. He employs a number of techniques that are synonymous with the French New Wave of filmmaking, particularly the way the film is grounded very much in real life. Therefore, instead of filming the sequences on Greenleaf’s ship in a studio with an obviously projected backdrop, they are filmed out at sea, with a handheld camera, on an actual boat. This makes the actual scenes of them struggling to regain control of the ship in choppy waters, especially when being thrown overboard, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, almost unbearably tense, as there are clearly no special effects or stuntmen in use here.

The only real disappointment is the ending, which deviates from the novel. It feels like a needless concession to morality and jars noticeably with the amoral tone of the rest of the film. Nevertheless, there is still an air of ambiguity to the conclusion, and given the situations, Ripley has previously extricated himself from, maybe things are not as clear-cut as they might appear.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Under The Skin (2014)

Under the Skin is one of the creepiest and most unique films I have seen in a long time. Despite the originality and thoroughly modern trappings, however, the success is down to a mix of some old fashioned tricks and techniques, and a brilliant lead actress.

Scarlett Johansson plays an extra-terrestrial, on earth, specifically Scotland, for reasons left unspecified in the film, whose life revolves around luring men into a van, taking them back to her flat and killing them. However, the longer she stays on Earth and the more men die at her hands, the more she starts to understand human beings - is she starting to turn into one?

Although the bare bones of the plot may make it sound like a rip-off of something like Species (or even Devil Girl from Mars, which also has a female alien hunting Scottish men) the key to the film’s success is in the highly original execution. The style flits between extreme realism and highly stylised (and gore free) murder sequences, where victims slowly disrobe and walk into an inky black lake before realising too late that they are literally and figuratively, out of their depth with this woman.

However enticing the idea of Scarlett Johansson stripping and seducing men may sound on paper, this is not a titillating or even erotic film. The seduction is a means to an (admittedly unclear) end, and her character seems to take no obvious pleasure in what she is doing, seemingly locked into an emotionless, joyless, stoical struggle to survive, a sharp contrast with the men she picks up, who are after sensual, physical pleasure.

The scenes of her interacting with the real world become all the more startling with the realisation that many of the people she mixes with, both in and out of her van, are not actors, with director Jonathan Glazer using hidden cameras to capture the footage of unsuspecting participants, who don't seem to recognise they are being chatted up by a Hollywood star. The blend of real people and actors is so seamless that when a group of feral teens attack her van I honestly could not tell if it was staged or not. Hidden camera TV shows, capturing genuine reactions from the public, have been around for decades, as have guerrilla filmmaking techniques, but to see the two blended together so seamlessly is quite disconcerting and disorientating. Johansson stays totally in character throughout, and seems unfazed by anything thrown at her, including some very thick Glaswegian accents, but as with so many aspects of this film, it is tough to know what is “real” (i.e. spontaneous) or “fake” (rehearsed).

For all the contemporary themes and techniques however, the storytelling is done almost entirely through the images, and editing, techniques and anything we learn about the alien, we learn through watching her actions, with dialogue irrelevant or non-existent.

All this is backed by Mica Levi's eerie discordant score, mixing high pitched strings, ominous rumbling noises and percussion, lush synthesizers, and, during the seduction scenes, a pulsing hypnotic rhythm. This mix of live instruments with treated sounds and electronics is entirely in keeping with the mix of new ideas and old techniques in the film.

There are a few laughs to be had to amongst the death and chills, laughs which mostly come from unexpected details in a scene, such as one victim who, in the middle of his slow motion seduction dance, whips off his trousers to reveal a particularly revolting pair of underpants, or simply the sight of Scarlett Johansson sitting in a council house living room, eating beans on toast, watching Tommy Cooper repeats.

Ultimately, what may derail enjoyment for some, as much as the disturbing subject matter and glacial tone is the stubborn refusal to explain every detail, but what that does mean is that Under the Skin is wide open to personal interpretation. My favourite way of looking at the film is as a symbolic representation of the filming process itself, with Scarlett Johansson, the being from another planet (Planet Hollywood), landing in the real world and having to assimilate to a strange people and a new way of life. This gets an extra layer of interest thanks to one recurring character, a mysterious man on a motorcycle, who sources the alien’s clothes and is always one step behind her, clearing up the mess and aftermath of her activities, in much the same way as minders and PR people smooth things over for Hollywood celebrities.

Under The Skin is not a film for anyone after uplifting, transcendent art, or easy shocks or titillation, but a work this distinctive and provocative deserves a look. With cinemas as full of loud empty spectacle as they have ever been, it is a pleasant surprise to see something that speaks so much by often saying and doing so little.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Man Made Monster (1941)

Although not a classic with the gravitas and influence of the Dracula or Frankenstein films, Man-Made Monster is both a fun entry in the Universal monster canon, and significant as the film that gave Lon Chaney Jr. his horror debut and big commercial break.

When a crowded bus ploughs into a power line, gentle giant Dan McCormick (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is the only survivor. McCormick, who does a sideshow act as Dynamo Dan the Electric Man, seems to be immune to electricity, and agrees to be tested by electro-biologist Dr John Lawrence and his colleague, Dr Paul Rigas (Lionel Atwill). However, Rigas is a mad scientist who wants to create an army of electric zombies to rule the world – and thinks Dan might be the perfect guinea pig for his experiments. 

Although completely different in tone, Man-Made Monster does share some themes with Frankenstein, particularly the out-of-control science and a doomed monster who is actually an unwitting victim of it. Chaney does a good job of creating sympathy for Dan, a character is partly reminiscent of Lenny from Of Mice and Men, a role Chaney had played in the 1939 film adaption, being physically strong but good natured and with a soft spot for small animals, especially Dr Lawrence’s dog Corky.

The only other contender for screen presence in this film is Lionel Attwill, who gives Rigas a sleazy edge and some oily charm to go with his lust for power, traits that stop the character becoming monotonous.

As his partner in science Dr Lawrence, is Samuel S. Hinds, perhaps best known for playing Peter Bailey, father of George in It’s a Wonderful Life, and he brings a similar sort of warm decency to the part, which makes his willingness to perform potentially dangerous experiments on someone who does not seem to fully understand the implications a bit disconcerting. However, there is no denying the quality of his laboratory, filled as it is with the requisite, beakers, test tubes, and glowing sparking coils, as well a large table to shackle your test subject to. Although this sort of thing might look clichéd now, it is worth remembering that it is films such as this where these tropes were first created.

One thing that definitely ties this to the time period that it was made in is that the experiments involve electricity. Just four years after the release of the film, the first atomic bomb would be detonated, and the world’s mad scientists would switch to radiation to develop their armies of supermen.

Aside from being fast paced and entertaining in its own right, Man-Made Monster has a fairly significant place in the history of the Universal Horror cycle, as it was the success of the film that led to Lon Chaney Jr. getting the offer to play his most, iconic role, The Wolf Man.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Celebrity (1998)

With the rate at which he churns them out, it is no surprise that the back catalogue of Woody Allen is going to be a mix of hits and misses. Although I find more hits than some critics or moviegoers, Celebrity is not one of them, lumbered as it is with a rambling and largely dull screenplay, unlikeable characters, and an annoying Woody Allen impersonation from Kenneth Branagh.
Lee (played by Branagh) is a failed novelist turned travel writer and celebrity journalist, going through a midlife crisis and a divorce from his wife, Robin (Judy Davis), a neurotic and insecure English teacher. While a chance encounter at a plastic surgery clinic sets Robin on the path to a new life and a new career as a TV presenter, Lee sees his relationships flounder, along with his dreams of getting his screenplay filmed.

I am not of the opinion that Allen has lost it, as recent efforts like Blue Jasmine have shown that with the right premise, and some time spent constructing the script he can still more than cut it. However, Celebrity feels like he got a bunch of ideas that had been lying around, and tried to string them together in one rushed draft. For a film packed with neurotics the finished product feels lifeless. It is hard to give a damn about the characters, and their world is too insular, with nothing about them, either on the surface or in broader characteristics or situations that gives us a way in with anything to sympathise or identify with.

As any Allen aficionado knows, a film of his that does not star him will often have one character doing an impersonation of “The Woody Allen Character”, and here we have Kenneth Branagh doing his attempt. Unfortunately, while he captures the surface traits, the tics, the stuttering, the hand gestures, he never manages to get beyond that and turn Lee into a believable character.

Judy Davis does a better job of bringing Robin to life, imbuing her with some likeable vulnerability. The events that happen to her may seem improbable, but in a way, that is kind of the point, in the context of the character arc.

The film is not totally without merit, and, aside from some good quality one-liners ("What's your next project?" "Birth of a Nation, an all-black version") there is one genuinely hilarious sequence, with Lee inadvertently taking a trip to Atlantic City with a vain, violent movie star (a cameo from Leonardo di Caprio) and trying to discuss rewrites to his script with in the middle of a hooker and drugs orgy.
That alone might make be enough to make it worth watching for Woody Allen completists, but anyone else may struggle to find a reason.