Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Golden Era of the Good Script: Some Notes on "Isle of the Dead"

We will never know if Val Lewton was being self-referential or not, when he referred to Isle of the Dead as being “an unholy mess of a film”. The phrase ‘unholy mess’ was originally presumed to refer to a number of detrimental incidents connected to the  making of the film. The worst of these was that Boris Karloff had a serious back condition and was forced to have an operation, which held up production for a considerable time. According to most sources it was not an easy film to make for all persons concerned, hence Lewton’s (apparently)  dismissive remark. But I think that it needs a little more elucidation than that.  

The phrase “unholy mess” I think tells us more about the artistic pre-occupations of Val Lewton himself, than it does about Isle of the Dead’s troubled gestation. This seemingly off-the-cuff remark could also reflect Lewton’s sense of frustration at his status as a B-picture producer, with the concurrent pressures of getting a picture made on time with very little rehearsal, and even less money to spend on making it look (and sound) respectable.

Maybe Lewton  was (unconsciously) acknowledging a  primary theme of his movie by his use of the word ‘unholy’,  and the particular theme I am refering to is  the seeming incompatibility  between folk belief and organised religion in primitive cultures.  Isle of the Dead, whilst not exactly in the same league as Cat People  or I Walked With a Zombie  is a doom-laden saga about the inevitability of death, with a few effective scares thrown in for good measure. As a counterpoint to the 'action', there is also some interesting and somewhat provocative discussion between the characters about the nature of religion, and the decline of superstitious belief that, will certainly enthrall you if you find these issues to be important.

A bizarre publicity still for "Isle of the Dead"

 Keeping  in mind that Lewton may have said it was "unholy mess of a film" at a time when he was obviously unhappy with the finished product, we should also remember the number of  artists who have ever, in history, denigrated their work as being unfinished, unsatisfactory or just plain bad, ie ‘an unholy mess’ (I haven’t sat down to make a list, but I’m sure there’s lot).  I’d like to made the case that the power of the phrase ‘unholy mess’ is unfortunate, in that it turns potential viewers away from sitting down to watch the film to judge for themselves, and makes it more difficult for those of us who actually like Isle of the Dead, from explaining exactly why it is we do like it.

Recently I sat down to  watch Isle of the Dead for the umpteenth time, in order to nail down exactly why it was that I liked it on first viewing, and still do. I can think of no other way to do this, than  basically ignore all aspersions against it, and concentrate instead on giving the reader some kind of idea as to why it works for me, personally. To do this, I sat down to make a Cliff’s Note analysis of the plot, made out of all due respect, and hopefully without any spoilers. What I love most about the film is that it’s a fine example of the kind of literate script that most movie moguls of the golden era would kill for.  Or for that matter, move moguls of any era, including our own. If this gives the readers of this blog an indication of the quality of Isle of the Dead, then I should be very glad and not a little grateful. I include stills and posters in order to illustrate the main points, and to break the monotony for the reader.

The screenplay is credited to Ardell Wray, but was most likely unofficially revised by Lewton. This was Lewton’s approach to the screenplay, as with all of the films he made at RKO. Whilst some performances are of varying quality, I think that Boris Karloff acquits himself better than the supporting players. I can only discern two  of Lewton’s stock company  Skelton Knaggs  and Alan Napier in minor roles. Director Mark Robson seems to have concentrated on keeping Karloff’s character if not on-camera constantly, then at least being talked about by the other characters. 

The cinematography by Jack Mackenzie is atmospheric and striking, and the music by Leigh Harline is apparently taken from the Rachmaninoff Symphony of the same name. It is stunningly suitable for such lugubrious subject matter. Both film and symphony were suggested by the painting ‘Isle of the Dead’ by Austrian artist Arnold Boecklin. There’s an interesting web page about the artist here.  Despite what I’ve read elsewhere, I think that Boris Karloff gives a good performance as General Pherides, a handsome and distinguished Greek officer obviously troubled as a direct result of his experiences in the Balkan war of 1912 .


Boris Karloff (General Pherides) orders one of his men to commit a self-destructive act over a minor infraction. Marc Cramer (Oliver Davis) is a journalist who looks on as the harsh judgment of the General is carried out. 


The General takes Davis to visit  a cemetery on an island away from the fighting of the Balkan war of 1912. A mysterious voice emanates  from far away.  Afterwards they take refuge at an inn on the island. Other people staying at the inn include Mr St. Aubyn (Alan Napier), his invalid wife (Katherine Emery) and her housemaid Thea (Ellen Drew). Thea is introduced to the General but is aware of his reputation for cruelty. 


Thea attends to her mistress and asks Mr St Aubyn for his wife's medicine. She runs into the General and they exchange angry words. Thea accuses the General of being a cruel martinet and not a true Greek nationalist.


Staying at the inn also is Londoner Mr Robbins (Skelton Knaggs). He is mysteriously found dead and the General suspects an outbreak of  plague. The General declares martial law, and allows nobody to leave the island, as he holds grave concerns about the health of his troops and what will happen if they are infected and unable to fight.


A vorvolaka is an evil spirit. Madame Kera (Helene Themig) is an old woman who believes the ancient superstitious folk beliefs of her people. Kera accuses Thea for being an evil spirit reincarnated,  whose presence is the cause of the outbreak of  plague. It appears that Mrs St Aubyn's husband has been infected but Mrs St Aubyn refuses to believe that he will die.


Mrs St Aubyn explains her fear of premature burial, as an invalid who often goes into a trance-like state where it appears she is no longer alive. 


The Doctor (Ernst Dorian) surrenders his belief in science in deference to the Greek god Hermes,  He fears he is infected by the plague.

Cerberus, the three headed dog guarding the gates to Hell

Mrs St Aubyn nurses the doctor. Other characters pray to Hermes but the General does not. The General explains he is an atheist. Oliver believes the General is a good man who is attempting to protect them.


Kera explains her beliefs in evil spirits to the General. During sleep, the spirit spends its time with demons.


Oliver sympathises with the General, realising he is fighting something bigger than the plague. Thea calls Kera's superstitions 'stupid'. The General threatens Thea with his knowledge of evil spirits and accuses her of causing the decline of Mrs St Aubun who is becoming weaker.


Mrs St Aubyn explains that she trusts Thea. The General confronts Thea and Oliver. Oliver defends Thea from the General's accusations. The General becomes unhinged and plots so that Oliver and Thea will not be able to leave the island. 


Thea informs Mrs St Aubyn of the General's threats. Mrs St Aubyn accuses the General of persecution and tyranny. Oliver tells the General he has no rights over any of them.


Mrs St Aubyn collapses and Thea fears she will be blamed for being a vorvolaka. The General forces his way into Mrs St Aubyn's room, and the General accuses Thea. Oliver tells Thea to avoid the General. 


The General fears he has been infected with the plague. A slow  drip of water in an empty tomb suggests that maybe a vorvolaka exists amongst them after all. 


The General hallucinates on his deathbed about Thea. Thea hears a singing bird and looks for it in the forest, but fears for her safety and seeks refuge in a stone tomb, She escapes from an apparition who is hardly seen. The General recovers to find out he has been unable to protect Kira. 


Thea makes her peace with the General who thinks he saws the vorvolaka. Oliver and Thea are free to leave the island. 

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Breaking News: The Internet Makes You More Literate:

Last week I made the not-so-momentous decision to buy an eReader. Since I'm not exactly rich at the moment, my choice was made simple: a device not linked to any book store or retail outlet. A straight-out vanilla reader where I wasn't expected to link up to any outlet which requested me to buy anything. Very luckily for me,  I received 40 free text files already on the device, along with a carry case and a memory card, which seems kind of useless because it doesn't seem to fit anywhere. But with a massive 4 gigabytes of space to download whatever I want including music and videos, I'm not complaining.

I'm trying to imagine what it would be like if I was sixteen years old, and on the verge of  discovering great works of literature. I'm certain I could be a big threat to the status quo. Just think, some of the greatest writers in the history of civilisation all on my personal eReader for free!  Shakespeare, Dickens, and  the great  Russian novelists and short-story writers like Dostoyevsky, Tolstsoy and Turgenev. Not to mention the paragons of American social realism like Upton Sinclair and Jack London to name just two off the top of my head.

Many of these writers works are available as public domain files at the Project Gutenberg site and other sites specialising in free e-books, which, at the moment, are probably too numerous to mention. Pardon my cynicism, but I don't believe that the elites who think  they are running things, would like to have it be known, that reading is actually  beneficial in that it greatly assists individual thought. It's hardly a novel concept after all.  Reading can be a downright incendiary act, especially if you are young, open-minded and eager to know and understand the world. At least that's what I was taught, and I think that the people who taught me were right.

 If the internet is allowed to follow its natural course, and become the free, open  and world-wide source of  information we all would like it to be,I think the world is going to be in for a big shake-up, something like what happened when Martin Luther nailed his theses on the door of a German church in 1517. And books like "The Iron Heel", "The Jungle" and "Crime and Punishment" for example, will not be merely the privilege of the few who believe they possess the intellect to understand what the authors intended. Canonised books such as these will be reinvented by the public imagination, away from the musty halls of university libraries and into the hearts and minds of those of us who believe in equality of information and access for every person on the globe no mater who they may be.

 I believe that the copyright laws we have at the moment are antiquated and need to be reformed if the internet is permitted by new and more enlightened statutes to progress further down the road of accessibility and inclusiveness.

With nothing to divide us, we can accomplish anything.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Manufacturing the West: Some Interesting Revisionist Westerns

Monument Valley, where many John Ford westerns were filmed

The western was once a popular genre, and reached its apotheosis at a time when the United States could claim to be the most powerful country in the world. For Americans, the western personified what they themselves claimed to be, a country of heroic and rugged individuals who  had successfully conquered the wilderness by using the virtues of European civilisation they believed their ancestors had left long behind. This is supposedly what made the settlers of the frontier so unique.  The importance of the frontier in the American mind is attributable to the work of Frederick Jackson Turner, a nineteenth century historian. Enlightenment thinking was fused with a restless psychological reading of American character that emphasised the  Victorian virtues of hard work, economic prosperity and the rigid outlinings of class and gender.  In the guise of entertainment, Hollywood presented to the  world a genre which purported to celebrate the rise of America  and her economic domination of the world stage, especially in the decades leading up to 1939. 

Historian Frederick Jackson Turner
 By August 1945 however, the war seemed to be a hollow victory, and the prospect of another breaking out a distinct possibility.  American confidence took a turn for the worse, and the western became more of an elegy to past glories, rather than an acclamation of what was current, or possible.

Political correctness assisted in the decline of the western as an instrument of, if not propaganda, then at least a respectable way for Hollywood to make a profit. The sparse scenery of the west was populated only by white males; Indians were the enemy and women kept house whilst they waited for their cowboy husbands to return home from the range. In post-Vietnam America for example, audiences were disturbed by images of heroism that seemed to be no longer heroic. Instead, they seemed bullying, misogynistic and a blatant attack on the rights of other people. 

There is that moment for every viewer in “The Searchers”, when it dawns that what John Wayne wants to do when he finds his lost niece, is not to rescue her from her Indian captives, but instead to kill her as  punishment for betraying her race. Our hearts sink. We become concerned, but finally resigned and then relieved, as  Wayne relents, and decides to spare her. It’s a moment that transmogrifies the entire genre and sends it off into another direction. Manifest destiny is only achieved at the expense of others not defined as ‘us.’ The frontier is no longer boundless when there are others who were there first, and define themselves as part of that land, and how that land belongs to ‘them’ and not to ‘us’. The  notion of purity of race, most prevalent in nineteenth century European thought, begins to smack of repressed Freudian sexuality as  the white man attempts to tame nature by pre-supposing that other races and peoples are too weak to  stand in his way.

The most famous western star of them all, John  Wayne
Ironically, the ethos of the western frontier embraces certain beliefs that  political correctness professes to denounce: a deeply embedded embrace of conformity, alongside the hope that a certain belief system will hopefully make people treat each other with something vaguely labelled as ‘respect’. This is actually a brand of fatalistic populism which shuns difference, and encourages outsiderism toward those not included in a narrow-minded definition of who exactly is meant to be part of the status quo. A deep distrust and intolerance of others who do not appear to share the beliefs of the majority. A so-called tolerance of rogue opinion and unconventional behaviour so long as it is demonised, and labelled as anything from merely anti-social and unhelpful,  to bordering on pathological or psychotic. The purpose is to encourage hostility  towards enlightenment, or deliberate attempts at intellectual life or thought within the confines of an untutored empathy with order. (1)

The “wild” west, as it was known was filled with iconic characters and outlaws who thumbed their noses at authority, like Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill. Alongside this championing of the underdog there is also a parallel sub-text of the urge for revenge,  and the forcible retention of civil order by the acceptance of violence as a mandatory form of justice. How close this may be  to historical reality is open to question, and in the words of director John Ford, “when there’s a choice between reality and legend,  always print the legend”.  Despite its decline in popularity in recent times, the western in popular imagination still retains its power to nostalgically (and mistakenly) bring to mind a time when there was no indecisiveness.  That is, how the period of the rise of the American frontier was a simpler era, when moral imperatives and calls to action were easier to implement than they seem to be in the every-day  present of modern ideas of civilised negotiation and compromise.

Alan Ladd was the idol of kids in the fifties as Shane
Another irony seems to be how the western in its decline as a cultural imperative, actually increased in power when it turned in on itself and questioned the nature and purpose of the American frontier. How in the complex character studies within the work of Sam Peckinpah for instance, the idealism of the west as a unifying idea becomes corrupted by its dependence upon opportunism and an unrelenting oppression, leading to irrational outbreaks of violence. But Peckinpah comes after the four films I would like to discuss, which act unifyingly as a transitional instance of the western beginning to lost confidence in itself as either a narrative of relevance or device of truth-telling.

Gary Cooper man of the west
In Man of the West, Gary Cooper stars as an ex-gun-slinger forced to confront his past.  He is travelling on a train that is robbed. He gets left behind in the wilderness with two other passengers, but is actually in familiar territory, and falls back in with the leader of his former gang, killer Doc Tobin, played by Lee J Cobb. Tobin is a Lear-like patriarch who has seen better days. He attempts to reinstate Cooper back into the gang, but Cooper will not abide by his rules any longer and after five years of living an upright life, secretly despises Tobin, but has to consider the situation of the other two people who have accompanied him.  Cooper’s innate goodness is used to perfection as he is  cast as almost an innocent man who refuses to succumb to the evil of his previous existence. His reticence to commit any kind of violence is contrasted to the cut-throat Tobin and his gang who systematically kill anything and anyone who stand in their way, which they rationalise as purely a matter of survival. In this film, the use of violence as a means of justice in the old west is scrutinised and found wanting. As in High Noon, Cooper is the hero precisely because he hardly appears to be the gun-slinging type. The film appears to be brutal, but it’s not so much what the viewer sees, as to what he is put through by director Anthony Mann. The violence is not shattering but only feels that way because of the tension that the director creates between the characters. Mann seems to be critical of the notion that violence should be seen an acceptable fact of the wild west, especially when it is primarily directed at the weak who are unable to stand up for themselves.

In The Unforgiven Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn and Lillian Gish star as a family living in the west, eking out a living as farmers. Gish, as their mother knows the secret of her daughter’s race, since she adopted her as a baby. When Lancaster leaves the homestead on business, Hepburn comes across an itinerant crazy man on a horse who seems to know who she is and where she came from.  Indian raids are common and the family’s neighbours fear the Indians and show them no mercy.  When it’s revealed that Hepburn is not in fact Gish’s natural-born daughter, the family is reviled by their neighbours and left to defend themselves against a deadly Kiowa raid.  As directed by John Huston, The Unforgiven attempts to make a statement against racial prejudice as it must have been practised by the ‘folks’ of the new frontier. The family’s fellow homesteaders are transformed from loveable yokels into dangerous, hate-spewing racists when Hepburn’s true identity is revealed.  The fact that it’s been kept a secret for so long further exacerbates problems between family members as Hepburn and Lancaster heave a sigh of relief they are no longer related. This is not one of Huston’s better known films,  and apparently it was not one he was at all satisfied with, citing interference from the producers. But like Man of the West it attempts to redress certain issues like rogue justice and racial intolerance that the idealisation of the frontier left open to question.

Burt Lancaster again stars in Vera Cruz, a western directed by Robert Aldrich, which also stars Gary Cooper in another of his reluctant hero roles.  Both ride to Mexico as the Mexicans are attempting to rid themselves of the Habsburg emperor Maximilian, who hires both men to take a cache of gold to the port of Vera Cruz. This is a gun-toting action adventure that could collapse if put under too much scrutiny. However, it is interesting in that it takes on the issue, if obliquely, of European imperialism in the Americas. The American heroes, whilst not exactly idealistic freedom-fighters come to sympathise with the plight of the Mexicans and by the conclusion of the film, are somewhat less myopic about American exceptionalism and the myth of the new frontier.

Whilst The Magnificent Seven may not immediately come to mind when discussing revisionist westerns, I think that it is a good example. It presents itself as a straightforward action adventure, which I guess it is. But in its portrayal of the hopelessness of the Mexican villagers who desperately need the Seven to defend them, director John Sturges is definitely wearing his heart on his sleeve, whatever the colour of his heart may be. The heroism and idealism The Magnificent Seven portrays does not come from some rote recitation of the virtues of the new frontier. Rather it seems very heartfelt, that Americans can come riding to assistance over the border when it is most needed. In that respect whilst not overly critical of anything in particular, the film seems to have an honest regard for its Mexican characters and is not patronising toward them. Whilst the notion of America coming to the rescue seems almost child-like today, this does not detract from the entertainment value of the film, nor its efforts to maybe put to rest the more morally unsettling notions about American imperialism, and settler mentality. The Seven can leave with a clear conscience: their mission is accomplished and their honour is untarnished by anything resembling compromise. Whilst hardly intellectually challenging, the film is an honest and heartfelt testament to the pure idea of the virtues of the American frontier, frozen in time before it turned ugly, and had to be revised in the first place.  

(1) See David Thomson's essay on  cracker barrel philosopher Will Rogers, who helped define what the West meant to Americans in the Great Depression, Biographical Dictionary of Film, London, 2002, p. 751.

Monday, 9 July 2012

The Power of the Commentary: Some Excellent DVD Audio Commentaries

As the title suggests, this is a list of my favourite audio commentaries. It's the quality of the DVD package that I'm refering to, rather than the overall quality of the film concerned and whether I like it or not. If you're interested in criticism, or just a casual observer, the special features that DVDs provide are invaluable. You can listen to a commentary as often as you want, or only  just once and never again if  you've got a good memory. It's there on the disc for the asking, and whilst the films themselves are certainly good, the commentaries were terribly important to my understanding and enjoyment of them.  Of course this is all highly subjective.

 I should add with a certain amount of frustration, that a number of titles available in Region 4 are released without their special features, but  I don't know why this is so. Instead of opining about what I've missed, the purpose of this post is to alert people to an almost endless stream of high-quality commentaries that are out there. Sadly, it's impossible to say how much longer this will last, with the upheaval caused by digital technology and the film industry's struggle to keep a hold on Hollywood's preponderance, which appears to be precarious at best. But that's  just my humble opinion. Anyway, here's the list with my favourite title The Magnificent Seven,  coming in at last position:

There's always a catch
10. Catch-22 (1970), directed by Mike Nichols; audio commentary by Mike Nichols and Steven Soderbergh, Paramount.  This isn't one of my favourite movies, but what I understand of it is mainly due to the informative commentary by director Nichols with assistance from Steven Soderbergh. Being in the minority for not having read Joseph Heller's book, I thought it would be convenient for me to watch the film. I was 20 minutes into the film on first sitting,  but honestly, did not have a clue what it was about. So, I started to watch the DVD over again with the commentary track turned on. It can be a schizoid experience dividing your concentration between the commentary and the movie but I was determined to know what was happening. Nichols is known for his erudition and he takes the viewer on an informative and entertaining ride explaining the difficulties of film making and casting (with some good vignettes about Orson Welles), and how difficult in today's Hollywood it would be to make a film of this kind.   For viewers either familiar with the book or not, the commentary is a superior and informative experience, but I leave it up to you if you are as silly as me, and  you need to listen to the commentary before you see the film.

9. Ryan's Daughter (1970) directed by David Lean; audio commentary by Lady Sandra Lean, Petrine Day Mitchum, Sarah Miles, Michael Stevens, Roy Stevens and a number of others; Warner Home Video. This is one of those films that's been re-appraised down the years. It was badly treated by the critics who attacked David Lean to the extent that he only  made one other, "A Passage to India" which was sadly his last. Some commentaries that are cobbled together with a lot of participants can be confusing when it seems they have no idea what the person before or after them is going to say, but this is seamless. All the participants worked on "Ryan's Daughter" and they are quick to point out its virtues, and the technicians who worked  behind the camera are touching in their obvious affection for David Lean.  Sarah Miles is funny, and loyal to her late husband Robert Bolt, Lean's long-time collaborator and has some good stories about working with Robert Mitchum in a role in which he seemed to be miscast. Leans' widow Lady Sandra Lean is respectful and informative throughout. This commentary is a real pleasure and enhances the movie greatly. I think it's really a beautiful film, and the commentary assists no end in convincing me of that opinion.

8.Blackboard Jungle (1955) directed by Richard Brooks; audio commentary by Peter Ford, Paul Mazursky, Jamie Farr and Joel Freeman; Warner Home Video. I discovered this recently, the movie itself which I had briefly seen years ago on television. The commentary is neat, informal and very entertaining. Peter Ford is the son of Glenn Ford who had a successful career in Hollywood playing parts like this, a teacher in a deprived neighbourhood trying to make a difference to the lives of his students. The film is frank for the period in its depiction of juvenile delinquency and it seems that racial issues were as much of a problem then as they ever have been. Peter Ford speaks with affection about his father, and Mazursky who became a reasonably famous director has some anecdotes about his  friends and acquaintances from New York and their efforts to break into the movies. Jamie Farr had an on-going role in the MASH TV series and seems grateful for "Blackboard Jungle" and how it helped his career. Also note Peter Ford's modest attribution concerning "Rock Around the Clock"  the film's signature tune, as well as numerous other insights into the careers of other cast members and director Richard Brooks.

"those glorious people out there in the dark..."
7. Sunset Boulevarde (1950) directed by Billy Wilder; audio commentary by Ed Sikov; Paramount. This is probably my favourite film on the list, and I'm glad the commentary chores were given to Ed Sikov, the  author of a brilliant book on the career of Billy Wilder, called, appropriately enough, On Sunset Boulevarde. Mr Sikov turns out to be a brilliant  raconteur as well as analyst, as he discusses the making of the film, the genesis of the script (as Wilder was a stickler for the written word) and the tone of the film itself, which one could only describe as ironic and bizarre. Most of the iconic stories about the film are for the taking on this wonderful commentary, as well as some others you may not be familiar with, including the (original) bizarre opening sequence that flopped with  preview audiences. Suffice to say, the replacement sequence, with William Holden face down in a swimming pool was a hit, as Wilder skillfully manipulates us into a world of Hollywood shysters and has-beens. The commentary is almost as essential as the movie.

Baby! Baby!
6. The Hills Have Eyes (1977) directed by Wes Craven; audio commentary by West Craven and Peter Locke. Umbrella Entertainment. Better known today for his 'Scream' franchise, director Wes Craven is responsible for some touchstone horror films that have become vastly popular on DVD. This is one of those, which I first found on ex-rental video. Waiting for a DVD release was worth it, and the special features are awesome including a chatty and informative commentary by Craven and producer Peter Locke, as well as an enteraining look-back documentary with many members of the cast. As the film was shot on location in the desert, there are many funny and interesting stories about the gruelling conditions the cast and crew had to endure in their efforts to make it big in Hollywood, as most were young and unknown. Craven's other films including 'Scream' and 'Nightmare on Elm Street' also have excellent commentaries, but this package stands out as being the last word on the subject, packed as it is, the advertising states, 'with a bounty of bloody extras.' No truer words were never spoken.

5. Days of Wine and Roses (1962) directed by Blake Edwards; audio commentary by Blake Edwards. Warner Video. This is one of the most off-the-cuff commentaries you are likely to hear, but this only enhances Edwards' sincerity and lack of affectation. Based on a successful television play, Days of Wine and Roses is a harrowing portrayal of a married couple trapped in a loving but dysfunctional relationship that unfortunately includes alcohol as a third party. Edwards candidly discusses his own problems, and what you get is a riveting dialogue about Hollywood and its possible dangers. As well, Edwards has stories about stars Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick and what it was like to make movies in a  Hollywood that no longer exists. The beautiful title song written by long-time collaborator Henry Mancini also gets a nod. I have to say this is a terribly sad, but ultimately touching commentary that should not be missed. There's nothing self-aggrandising about it, Edwards just talks, and you have to listen. But it is great talk, and gives you an enormous amount of appreciation for the film you may not have had before.

watch Harper like girls
4. Harper (1966) directed by Jack Smight; audio commentary by William Goldman; Warner Home Video. William Goldman is a legendary Hollywood screenwriter and 'Harper' was one of his early writing successes. Based upon the Ross McDonald novel 'The Moving Target', the script caught the attention of Paul Newman as he was riding a wave of success in the mid-sixties, when it seemed he could do no wrong in the eyes of the audience. Goldman's audio commentary is fascinating as he alerts the audience to any number of difficulties that had to be overcome to getting Harper onto the screen, as cheaply and in as little time as possible, which apparently was the way they did things in Hollywood in the sixties. I also like William Goldman's audio commentary for 'Misery', directed by Rob Reiner in which he possesses the same amused irony of an ordinary bloke who wouldn't  dare dream of being accepted into Hollywood's inner sanctum. Goldman doesn't have a bad word to say about anyone, but he still seems baffled by the process of making a film and this is what makes this audio commentary so insightful and amusing for any attentive listener.

3. The Conversation (1974) directed by Francis Ford Coppola; audio commentary by Francis Ford Coppola; Universal Studios. This is the film Coppola made between the two Godfather movies, and it's indicative of the director's desire to make more personal films without pressure from any studio to make it their way. The Conversation is one of a kind, and the audio commentary brings this home to the listener. Shot on location  in San Francisco, The Conversation is a frightening look at a paranoid wire-tapper who overhears (and tapes), a  benign conversation between two people. The fact that the conversation has been overheard has tragic ramifications, despite the wire-tappers efforts to withdraw himself from the consequences of his actions. Like a lot of great films when you attempt to encapsulate the plot, this hardly seems riveting, but it is. And the commentary is obviously the product of a talented filmmaker who knows exactly what he wants and how to achieve it. A lot of exciting extrapolation of plot and character, Coppola sounds like a born writer, and his stories of some grappling with the studio in order to make this film to the best of his ability, make for great listening. This is a fantastic film, and Coppola has done himself proud by contributing a fantastic commentary.

She's alive!
2. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) directed by James Whale; audio commentary by Scott MacQueen. Universal Studios. The work put into making the Classic Monster Collection is awesome  (and still is), and it was difficult to decide which title deserved to be on my list. I was a hold-out of the Bride, despite its reputation as the best Universal horror film. But after several watches and listening to the audio commentary, I was finally convinced. Scott MacQueen's commentary is thorough and exhaustive, especially relating to the censorship problems the film had in 1935. The means in which film makers got round the prohibitive censorship laws make for some informative commentary, and MacQueen explains with great clarity and interest how James Whale thumbed his nose at the censors by being outrageous in ways that were undetectable, and irreversible once the film had been released. I should also note the excellent documentary with  contributions from notables who regularly pop up in the special features of other titles in the Classic Monster Collection such as Greg Mank and Rudy Behlmer.

The 7 in action
1. The Magnificent Seven (1960) directed by John Sturges; audio commentary by James Coburn, Eli Wallach, Walter Mirisch and Robert Reylea. MGM DVD. I first saw this film on television and was taken in  by its confidence in its ability to entertain an audience, as deliberately naive as that may sound today.  Gun-slingers from north of the border defend a small Mexican town from a corrupt bandit and his bloodthirsty gang. A rousing adventure, the audio commentary of The Magnificent Seven reflects the film's sense of fun and adventure. James Coburn explains how the actors were cast, and basically how much fun they all had. There was a famous feud between Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen which involved the entire set whilst they were shooting in Mexico. Director John Sturges championed a young unknown German actor that nobody liked, but he stood his ground and made a mark for himself. There's a swag of information in this commentary with a lot of laughter and good times thrown in, explaining what The Magnificent Seven meant to those who made it, as well as to those who are its fans, with an excellent documentary thrown in for good measure. Enjoy!

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Body Count of "Prometheus" Not High Enough? Try "Alien" Instead

I was  pleased yesterday to get the chance to see Prometheus, the Ridley Scott film that has been much anticipated as the prequel to Alien. There was a lot of hype involved on the net concerning its development and eventual production, and with good reason. If "Alien" is not Scott's best known film, then at least it's the one that is thought of as some kind of a benchmark of his collected work to date. "Alien" was a monster hit when it was released in 1978-79, and I'm not trying to be funny; its's just a fact. (Also, I confess to becoming vague about release dates. So I will include both years, to bow to such things as confusion over when it was exactly released in Australia, when I actually saw it myself, and any possible time lag between when it was released in other parts of the world. That is if there was one. Which I don't remember).

In space no one can hear you scream. But not so the audience.

 Audiences were enthralled by the story of a alien life-form running rampant and killing off members of the crew of a space ship.  It possessed a primordial desire to survive, alongside an evolutionary resistance to all  man-made efforts to have it destroyed. Audiences and critics alike praised what seemed to be Scott's originality, and his unique approach to the material which was less interested in the metaphysics of space travel as was the case of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and more interested in scaring the viewer out of his comfort zone, as well as his seat. Not that I knew much about Hitchcock back then, but this kind of approach may very well  have been used by Hitchcock if he had ever gotten around to making a science fiction film, which we all know sadly that he never did.

Veronica Cartwright, John Hurt, and Tom Skerritt in "Alien".

Scott's collaborators on the project included artists and designers such as H.R. Geiger, Moebius as well as many others who contributed to the interpretation of a straight-forward story of  a horror in deep space too dreadful to contemplate. Horror was piled upon horror as every member of the crew was harrassed by the alien, hunted down, and then slaughtered in all manner of horrific and terrifying ways. Three crew members are eventually left, but only one survives, the heroine Ellen Ripley.  Sigourney Weaver made this part her own, and it's her best known role. The story goes she initially turned the part down when it was offered to her, because she thought that being in a science fiction movie was a tad beneath her abilties as a serious performer.

Detail of interior of spaceship with Veronica Cartwright and John  Hurt

Thanks to these talents involved, "Alien" had a distinctive look, a unique kind of production design (if you like), that nobody had really seen before. The compelling interior of the space-ship Nostromo, an oil refinery ship in which the travellers were trapped and seemed to have no way of escaping; a mysterious and uninhabitable planet enshrouded in perpetual fog, that wakes the travelers out of their sleep in order to investigate a possible SOS; an alien spaceship that somehow exists for the precise reason of sealing the traveller's doom, and a dripping-acid monster that once seen, is never forgotten and was the stuff that nightmares are made of. "Alien" was an instant triumph for director Ridley Scott, who had previously worked in advertising and had only made one other movie, The Duellists which had only received a limited release in the United States.  Despite some rumblings about the lack of a plot, a controversy concerning the soundtrack, and a group of actors taking part in an ensemble cast who were not widely known, "Alien" became immediately iconic and I think it's fair to say will always have its pride of place in the pantheon of great science fiction movies.

Publicity shot of the cast of "Alien". The gang's all here

Now we cut to the chase, 34 years down the track. (My God, has it been that long?)  When the original was released, there was no such thing as the internet; video tapes began to be marketed domestically; there were no such things as CDs. As I said, it was a long time ago -- the world has changed, and, I must admit, so have I.

 There have been a number of sequels to "Alien", but I have only seen one of them, Alien Resurrection. Frankly, the other two were of no interest to me, which doesn't mean they didn't make money. By 1982, I had discovered The Thing, John Carpenter's own interpretation of an unfriendly alien. "The Thing"'s box office was indifferent when first released, but I loved it almost as much, if not more, than "Alien".  Fans howled about more sequels, and Hollywood provided the necessary finance and a number of directors to keep a profitable franchise going. About twelve months ago it was announced that there was a 'prequel' underway -- that is a 'backstory' which would be an illumination of the original, as well as a narrative that would stand on its own. I had no idea how it would turn out, but knew that I would go see it which I did.

I was taken to see this when I was 12 years old.

I have to say, that I liked "Prometheus", and quite a bit at that. It is entertaining in a totally undemanding way, and that's not a bad thing. Nor I am attempting to be patronising. This is not to report I didn't notice its shortcomings, only that I was prepared to forgive them. With the fullness of time between my loyalty to the original and the release of its prequel, I was not prepared to have my expectations rise to such an extent that I would suffer disappointment. I had too many fond memories of the original to expect that "Prometheus" would exceed them, and in hindsight I am glad to have attained such sage wisdom at least in my movie-going habits. For example,  I wouldn't say that "Prometheus" is dreary -- it is instead "workmanlike"; I wouldn't call it visionary -- it is "conventional"; nor would I call it thrilling because it is "philosophical",  or at least tries to be. It doesn't hit the mark of something like Soderbergh's "Solaris", but it isn't for lack of trying and this should be acknowledged out of respect for the original which was about as unphilosophical as you can get. And since we were all grateful enough not to have noticed, we didn't care.

 What is saddest about "Prometheus" and what makes it pale in my estimation in comparison to the original, is what I would call the "bad faith" inherent in its conception. Everything about it seems to point to Scott's insecurities about the original, how he may have made it differently, and the things he would have changed if he'd been given the chance.  I find this a puzzling undertaking for an esteemed director (in his middle years), who has piled success upon success with most if not all of his ventures, an  artist who has the respect of the public and his peers for his flair, and the tackling of material that may be off-beat, but is always entertaining. I am refering to my (other) favourite Ridley Scott movies, namely Thelma and Louise, Blade Runner, Someone To Watch Over Me and "The Duellists".

Scene from "Prometheus" with Charlize Theron

The most glaring shortcomings of "Prometheus", at least to me, are the following:

*We are introduced to another crew. Fair enough, but they seem to bicker with each other for no particular reason and do the silliest things. Like not co-operate when they're supposed to be running a space-ship. Nobody much stands out, unlike the crew in the original "Alien", who seemed to be authentic human beings, where the ensemble cast works superbly.  Nobody emerges as a leader, and they all run backwards and forwards from the mother ship to the alien's site and back again in an effort to keep audience interest because there is no alien per se, and therefore the danger has to be coming from some other source.

*Any kind of suspense appears to be disposed of, and is replaced instead with a large amount of philosophical rumination about the nature of mans' origins. Unfortunately it compares unfavourably with something like Steven Soderbergh's Solaris, which is a re-make of Andrei Tarkovsky's  Russian film of the same name. If you've read  Dostoyevsky, you would know that the Russians are big on religious philosophy and probably do it better than anyone else.  This is juxtaposed with  lots of pointless action, presumably in order to satisfy the audience demographic of 18-25 years old males who go to the movies on Friday and Saturday nights and who Scott and the producers hope will turn their movie into blockbuster fodder.  (Something, that in any director's early hunger days would send him into fits of fury concerning his artistic integrity and purity of vision. Not to say disbelief)
*Some have praised the production design. I found it haphazard and unimaginative.

*The opening sequence seemed tacked on, and does nothing much to explain the subsequent events in the movie, but I admit the ending instead, does a lot to explain what has been going on, and is designed I am sure for further sequels, which depending on your opinion of "Prometheus" may be either a good, or not so good thing.

*There are a couple of thrill set-pieces, in so-called homage to the original, but these come off as a bit tepid and unconvincing. What could ever live up to the 'chest burster scene'? Or the death of Ash the android? Or the other memorable scenes from the original? To me the chest burster scene is better than the shower scene in Psycho.  Sadly nothing comes close to this, but if it did, this would be an entirely different movie, in other words, something  that Scott would be making in good faith and not in an attempt to re-think the first movie for a new audience who hadn't been born yet when it was originally released.

*The character of the  'Old Man' seems to have been stolen directly from the last section of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But here, he's being taken along for the ride, rather than being tacked onto the end of the movie. And his make-up reminded me of Andy Garcia's shrivelled facial features as a dying man who refuses to give up smoking in Dead Again (1990), a homage to Hollywood film noir directed by Kenneth Branagh,   but other than this has no obvious connection to either "Prometheus" or "Alien".

*And finally, there isn't any ship's cat, especially one as adorable as Jonesy who has a lot to do in "Alien" as an extra character in the original film. Jonesy is a fellow traveller, who helplessly watches as his friends are picked off one by one. But he is wise and doesn't say anything, going about his own business instead. But  I suppose this point is nitpicking, and goes too far in exhibiting my one-sided and perhaps unfair preference for "Alien".

Despite these reservations, and after all is said and done, I still found "Prometheus" to be a perfectly acceptable entertainment. What raises it above a certain pedestrian quality is the ending, which no doubt is meant to spawn a sequel or two. There's nothing wrong with that -- George Lucas had great success with his prequels to "Star Wars:" -- which I usually refer to 'star bores'. But enough of my humour at the expense of the great unwashed. He's entitled to his glory, and the movie business is just that, a business. Comparing one thing, to something else that you have always loved is probably a silly activity in any case. It's like asking a man whether he loves his girlfriend, or the woman he's been married to for the past fifty years. What could he possibly say, without at least having a good word for them both? This is exactly how I feel. I have no right to feel disappointed, as I can always go back to the original.

I have my memories.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The 40th anniversary of the Watergate scandal

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Saturday, 26 May 2012

Television Made Them: Iconic Performers of A Bygone Era

This is a post devoted to my favourite performers who became known for their roles in successful television series of the 60s and 70s. Even today, though they may have been working steadily for years after their shows were cancelled, the roles in these particular shows are still what they may be best known for. (But this is not always the case.)  Some were so  famous, it was difficult to avoid typecasting,  they may have wondered if fame was a double-edged sword for their careers. But. we loved them, and sat riveted in our living rooms, as if this one-sided love affair would never end. 

The ratings wars were treacherous and if  shows didn't make money for their American advertisers they faced the axe and our favourites would have to look for employment elsewhere. As far as I'm concerned, even after all this time, John Travolta is still Vinnie Barbarino; and Farrah Fawcett will always be one of the Angels. They had their ups and downs but will always be remembered for the shows that gave them, if not a start, then at least their requisite ten minutes of fame in the spotlight. 

Mary Tyler Moore  played Laura Petrie in the comedy series that originally aired  from 1961-1966. I was just a slip of a girl, but was enchanted by the graceful Mary and her more er, angular partner Dick Van Dyke as they manouvered their way around their new suburban house, and the post-war opportunities offered them by a booming American economy. Like the Beatles, it was a class act that made everybody happy. A running gag I've never forgotten is how in the opening sequence in the first series, Dick opens the front door, walks into the couple's living room and promptly trips over a foot couch that he doesn't see and falls over. The self-referential gag in later series is that Dick walks through the door and sees the foot couch. He laughs, and promptly walks around it without tripping. It's really very funny. When I saw Mary Tyler Moore playing a dramatic part in 'Ordinary People', I was lost. She played a woman who was cold, ungiving and thoughtless, and she did it perfectly. But to me, she'll always be Laura.


Barbara Feldon played the part of '99' --  partner of bumbling secret agent Maxwell Smart (Don Adams) in the comedy series "Get Smart" which was first aired 1965-1970. After being cancelled, the show had numerous re-runs and I remember it best when it was shown in Sydney in an afternoon time slot, so I could see it between coming home from school and having my dinner where I had to be at the table and not in front of a television set. Agent 99 is level headed, attractive and competent at her job, while Max is a failure and entirely out of his depth as a secret agent. Everyone is in on the joke, but 99 protects Max from the consequences of his own silliness in a way that is supportive and obviously the cause of 99 being in love with Max. Max, however, fails to notice 99, at least for the first couple of series. 99 plays it straight but Max mugs a lot. They work perfectly together, and looking back on it, I didn't realise that the Cold War was as funny as this.



This show is the dark horse of the group. "The Invaders" was beaten in the ratings by "Mission Impossible" and only lasted two seasons before being cancelled by its network. It never received a subsequent re-screening in the United States, but has achieved cult status in many other countries such as France, where it was shown on cable television for many years. I first came across "The Invaders" as an inquisitive little girl but was not allowed to watch much of it because of a scheduling difficulty with the elders of my household who wanted to watch something else. I got to see all of the first series and the second series is just waiting for me, so I guess all is forgiven. 

This show is so intelligently written and its concept was so original at the time, that after retirement, writer/producer Alan Armer was awarded a university post in English at a southern California university for his trouble. I don't really know if the show had anything to do with it. But the  concept of an alien invasion  is adhered to in one episode after another, and  it builds audience interest as the concept becomes the cornerstone of the show itself. Roy Thinnes is wonderful, as a man on the run with forbidden information only he possesses. A virtual swag of well-know guest stars are in the offing, as David Vincent attempts to alert the world that aliens have arrived in secret and are making their plans to take us over. If only we will believe him! I did. Long before X-Files. I did. 

Does anybody believe me? Paranoia, as David Vincent sees no way of escaping "The Invaders".

And's sock-it-to-me time! But Goldie didn't say that...

While our parents were getting a nightly dose of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war on the six o'clock news, we were watching this hilarious TV show that was scheduled after the news, and that mirrored the anarchy and liberalism of the sixties counter-culture which those events spawned. Rowan and Martin's Laugh In was phenomenally popular for no particular reason, other than it was funny. Goldie Hawn got her start on this show and became an overnight sensation. She fluffed her lines all the time and made everyone laugh, but somehow we also detected a brain that was only trying to fool us into thinking she was silly. Not long after, Goldie won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress in "Cactus Flower' but no one remembers that much. Goldie Hawn will always be remembered instead, for "Laugh In".


"I find that highly illogical, Captain". So sayeth Mr Spock, in the original 'Star Trek' that captured our imaginations as the Starship Enterprise made its way across the universe. With his pointy ears and inscrutable demeanour, Mr Spock was always a good foil for other members of the Enterprise crew, if they became too fanciful in their celestial imaginings. Spock was the voice of reason, as the Enterprise was venturing where no man had gone before and therefore celestial imaginings became a necessity if they were to understand the different beings and planets that crossed  their path. The subsequent big-screen movies lost my interest, as well as the later series. I missed the original members of the crew like Scotty and Mr Sulu, and didn't fancy following them into old age. Leonard Nimoy remained active after Mr Spock, but I've never seen him in anything else, which may not sound like I'm the greatest fan, but I wouldn't want it any other way. 


It's a terrible thing to have to admit, but girls do notice other girls' hair-dos. And when I was growing up, my friends and I wanted to have a hair flip just like Farrah Fawcett in 'Charlie's Angels'.. Charlie's Angels made Farrah famous, the kind of 'famous' where we thought we knew her personally, by nature of the fact that we were watching her in our living rooms. After a few lacklustre movies like 'Sunburn' and 'Saturn 3',  Farrah eventually won the respect of her peers with parts in excellent television movies like 'The Burning Bed' and 'Small Sacrifices.'  She recently passed on, but will always be remembered.


I recently had a neighbour who shared my interest in 'Columbo' and she generously lent me some discs to watch of later series which I hadn't been aware of. They were surprisingly good, and when she moved I was kind of ashamed to admit that I was sad because now I wouldn't have her available if I wanted to re-watch the episodes. The loveable guy in the trenchcoat who, incidentally, has a mind like a steel trap, made us all think twice about venturing into a life of crime. With marvellous writing, and many interesting guest stars, 'Columbo' still keeps me on the edge of my seat no matter how many times I watch it. 

Actually my favourite episode is 'A Stitch in Crime' which features Leonard Nimoy in a prominent guest role as a very crafty doctor who has committed a crime. But his even tempered demeanour  infuriates Columbo because he knows that the doctor is too smart to slip up and be discovered. It says everything about Peter Falk's expert characterisation which made him a household name in the seventies, after acting on the stage in New York and adding some films to his list of credits. Columbo is unfailingly courteous, a bit of a slob, but has a mind that doesn't miss a thing in his quest to catch a criminal. There's also a very strong class element in the show, with most of the perpetrators being rich, cunning and deserving of punishment. Which is probably why so many people liked it. 


'Welcome Back Kotter' was our introduction to John Travolta in the mid seventies. A series about an idealistic teacher (Gabriel Kaplan) who returns to his native borough in New York, attempting to educate a foursome of misfits and keep his marriage together, this was a reasonably droll comedy that catapulted Travolta to fame, as well as his three friends played by Robert Hegyes, Laurence-Hilton Jacobs and Ron Palillo. The show captured a working class New York milieu, and whilst the humour was not that easily  translatable, Travolta was a magnetic presence who held the show together and made it the success that it was, of course with help from the supporting players and the writing. He had an initial splash on the big screen with 'Grease' and 'Saturday Night Fever' but fell into a decline until he was rediscovered by Tarantino for 'Pulp Fiction' and has been going strong ever since. I guess you just can't hold a good talent down.