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Wednesday, 31 March 2010

The Apartment (1960)

Director: Billy Wilder
Stars: Jack Lemmon, Shirley Maclaine and Fred MacMurray


I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

I've long wondered about the American Dream, but not in the usual way you might expect. I've wondered about how it seems to remain consistent in its goals yet changes over time in its vision of how those goals can or should be achieved. It seems to me that the history of the United States could be written from the perspective of how its people, at any point in time, felt about what the American Dream means. The Apartment, a Billy Wilder comedy that followed close on the heels of his great success with Some Like It Hot in 1959, is all about the American Dream because it speaks to how the central character of C C Baxter achieves success, what that success really is and what it means. He finds what society tells is the American Dream only to find that it's not what was advertised and only in opting out of what society wants does he find true success as a human being.

Watch pre-code movies or read the pulps of the twenties and thirties and you'll find that heroes were always daring people living by their wits. The pre-codes gave us prostitutes and gangsters, the pulps gave us pilots and adventurers. Both gave us hustlers and journalists. Watch classic sitcoms of the fifties and sixties though and all that daring was gone, the new heroes simply being safe. They were advertising executives or military officers, successful and talented people but always people sitting on one rung of a long career ladder. They also stayed there throughout their show's runs, unlike all those pre-code journalists who were constantly being hired and fired on the strength of their latest story with huge opportunity to rise or fall great distances at any point in time. I've always felt that the heroes of the thirties would have despised the heroes of the fifties.

Perhaps this speaks to the economics of the times, as the unsteady days of depression were gone, replaced by sure but steady growth through stability, but I see The Apartment as Billy Wilder's comment on this sort of thinking, especially as he had near complete control over the entire film, as writer, producer and director. Only Jack Lemmon, who had impressed him hugely during the shooting of the previous year's Some Like It Hot, their first of seven films together, was really allowed any individual interpretation. Lemmon plays this new ideal of the American hero, who is doing what he's supposed to be doing, working hard in a massive corporation and hoping to earn his way up the ladder through his own merits, but he finds that the system doesn't play fair. He gets his promotions but only by renting out his bachelor apartment to happily married executives for their extra-marital trysts.

It's 1959 and he's C C Baxter, an insurance clerk in the big city who lives in the details but can't see the humanity or lack of it behind them. He works at the home office of Consolidated Life, as one of 31,259 employees. He works on the 19th floor, Ordinary Policy Department, Premium Accounting Division, Section W, desk number 861. It's the sort of corporate identification that science fiction used to use to ridicule totalitarianism, with characters who were numbers rather than free men. The 19th floor works from 8.50am to 5.20pm, each floor staggered to load balance the elevators. Yet when everyone leaves, Baxter isn't among them. He stays at his desk, the lone worker in a huge and impersonal room whose design came straight out of King Vidor's The Crowd. This isn't because he wants to work unpaid overtime, it's because he's the only one of these wage slaves who can't go home.

Put simply, his apartment is taken, pretty much all the time on an organised basis that he runs out of his desk calendar and rolodex. On the 1st of November as we begin, it's taken by Al Kirkeby, an executive who calls him 'buddy boy' to his face but 'some schnook who works in the office' to his latest girlfriend. He doesn't pay for the liquor he uses, let alone the room, and he stays an hour over schedule, leaving his host outside in the rain. By the time Baxter has cleaned up the place, taken a sleeping pill and settled into bed, he's interrupted by Joe Dobisch in Administration. He calls him 'buddy boy' too and he's met a young lady in a bar who looks like Marilyn Monroe so needs half an hour apartment time urgently. Baxter gets stuck out most of the night this time because his unwelcome guest leaves the key to the executive washroom under his mat instead of his own apartment key, so he catches a cold and has to talk the landlady into letting him in at four in the morning.


What does he get out of it? Well, Kirkeby and Dobisch, along with Mr Vanderhoff in Public Relations and Mr Eichelberger in Mortgage and Loan, all promise to put in a good word with Mr Sheldrake, the Director of Personnel. Promotions are coming up and he's in the top ten. And they deliver too, because before you know it he's a 2nd Administrative Assistant with a pay raise and an office of his own. He's living the American dream and moving on upwards, but hardly the way that it's supposed to happen. Everything is surface, this film deconstructing all the squeaky clean niceties that the Production Code tried to pretend were reality and showing their dark underbellies instead, just as the pre-codes would have done but with less of a dramatic flow and more of a subversive element. The more you think about what this film says, the more it feels surprising that it was even released, let alone won the Best Picture Oscar and four others besides.

The cleverness of the script, an original one by I A L Diamond and director Billy Wilder, becomes more and more apparent over time. The only executives we meet from Consolidated Life would appear to be the epitomes of American family values. They tell us that they're happily married men who wouldn't dream of using the D word. We expect that they all live like we see Jeff Sheldrake live, with a wife and children and a house in White Plains. We can imagine the white picket fences and the dogs and all the other things that you saw on TV commercials from the fifties. Yet every one of them is cheating on their wife, taking advantage of Baxter and turning on him the moment he tries to say no to them. 'Normally it takes years to work your way up to the 27th floor,' Sheldrake tells him, 'but it only takes thirty seconds to be out on the street again. You dig?'

Yes, we dig. In this film everyone who society would see as a paragon of virtue is really a sleazeball underneath and that could easily include Baxter while he's playing the corporate game. He's superbly played by Jack Lemmon, who benefits from having the lead to himself this time out instead of having to share it with Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe, who may technically not have done much in Some Like It Hot, but did so in the most distracting ways possible. Of course he's not hindered by having to perform in drag either. As Baxter, he spends his life saying yes to people he should say no to and he benefits cheerfully from their decadence, accepting two promotions and all the perks that come with them just for playing accomplice in their infidelities. Sure, it all started accidentally but he's the only one who can stop it and he constantly chooses not to do so. Every time he even thinks about putting an end to the whole thing, he just caves in favour of the next perk instead.

There are a string of able supporting actors, ones that I've seen only fleetingly in film but my wife know very well indeed from American television (Ray Walston was My Favorite Martian. David White was Larry Tate in Bewitched and Fred MacMurray was the lead in My Three Sons), but they're all there to support Baxter because the story is all about him and his gradual discovery of how to be what his neighbour Dr Dreyfuss calls a mensch, or a human being. Baxter gradually learns that regardless how high he rises it doesn't mean anything. He can't even get to his own bed in his own apartment on Christmas Eve. At one point he suggests to Miss Kubelik that he's the one taking advantage of them because it's got him to the 27th floor, but he obviously doesn't even believe that himself. In the eyes of society, he's a massive success, but he can't see any of it as being anything other than a failure.

If the people society would approve of are really slime, the opposite applies too. The only people at Consolidated Life who really have value to us today are those who society would have looked down upon at the time the film was made, most obviously Fran Kubelik and Baxter, once he finally works out how to become a mensch. At least these two characters are honest about who they are and the situations they're in, however naive they may be and however much they try to fool themselves. They're three dimensional characters, with strengths and flaws and substantial depth, while everyone else is merely two faced. We may urge them to change but they at least have that potential while nobody else has the depth for it.


Miss Kubelik is a progressive young lady, aptly portrayed by Shirley Maclaine in a blistering performance, even down to the short cropped hair which brings out her elfin features but was hardly conventional. She's an elevator girl who Baxter falls hard for and pursues as best he can, only to eventually discover that she's Mr Sheldrake's mistress. The irony, of course, is that he's unwittingly aiding his boss to see the woman he loves by providing them with his apartment. According to the moral standards of 1960, she's a woman of loose morals, someone who no decent man could introduce to his mother. Today, of course, nobody would make a fuss. 'I just have this talent,' she says, 'for falling in love with the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time.'

What loose morals? Well, she doesn't break off with Sheldrake when she finds out he's married and she doesn't ask him for a divorce. She doesn't see a problem being found in another man's apartment, one to whom she is not married, and in his bathrobe no less. 'Just because I wear a uniform,' she tells Baxter, 'doesn't mean I'm a girl scout.' These choices end up slapping her in the face on Christmas Eve though. At Baxter's apartment, Sheldrake gives her a hundred dollar bill before heading back to celebrate the holidays with his family. You can see the implications of that cold monetary transaction resonate on her face and she remains behind after he leaves to commit suicide through an overdose of sleeping pills. That's such a pre-code thing to do but she doesn't succeed and the motivations behind our real story can kick in at last. What's more they can begin with some serious dramatic weight because of what Shirley Maclaine does during these scenes.

This was still early in her career, having debuted on screen in 1955 in Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry. In fact this is so early that her younger brother Warren Beatty hadn't even made a film yet, but she'd already been nominated for one Oscar, for 1958's Some Came Running, and she was nominated again here. She wouldn't win until 1983's Terms of Endearment but the talent was obvious. As much as she was probably known best at this point for hanging around with the Rat Pack, she was a great actress who shines here above notable competition. She once said, 'Even when I was the leading lady, I was a character actor,' and that rings very true. She doesn't seem to have any need to be the star, something Wilder was no doubt blissfully happy about after two traumatic films with Marilyn Monroe.

The Apartment seems reasonably tame today, though it still tells its story impeccably, but it raised quite some controversy on its initial release. Not only does the entire story revolve around organised adultery, hardly a palatable subject for the moral arbiters of taste, but the actors cast were hardly those expected. In particular Jeff Sheldrake, the highest placed character on the corporate ladder and the most defined as utterly amoral, was played by Fred MacMurray, already known for his generally squeaky clean roles and about to become the epitome of the all American dad during his thirteen year run as Steve Douglas on TV's My Three Sons, which began three months after this film was released. He'd played dark characters before, notably in Wilder's Double Indemnity, but that always seemed against type. After this film was released, he was even attacked by a woman in the street who hit him with her purse for making such a 'dirty, filthy movie'. How times have changed!

Today, Wilder's controversial pictures aren't controversial. In fact they seem both quaint for their attention to the social mores of the times and prescient for their ability to look beyond them. This film was considered dirty by some for even mentioning a toilet, the year one was flushed for the first time on screen in Hitchcock's Psycho, but it won the Oscar for Best Picture nonetheless. It was the last black and white film to win for 33 years, until Schindler's List, yet another reason why the Wilder pictures of this era often feel like the last of the classic Hollywood movies and later Wilder pictures just feel out of time. This is the epitome of old Hollywood, full of clever writing that doesn't need to stoop to profanity, all about sex without ever once showing it, raising laughs by simple misinterpretation of what's going on. Yet at the same time it deconstructs everything that Hollywood was trying to tell society, pointing out that the pre-codes had it right and the Production Code was fake. In many ways it, and other Wilder films of the era, are the true link between what came before the code and what would come after it.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Masterson of Kansas (1954)

Director: William Castle
Star: George Montgomery



I'm watching because this was directed by William Castle, but really it's a George Montgomery movie, one of a string of westerns he made from the thirties to the fifties. I didn't know much about him at all, though I've seen him on occasion, but he seems to have played many of the iconic characters of the old west. In 1950 he was Davy Crockett, Indian Scout as well as Hawkeye in The Iroquois Trail. In 1953 he was one of the Ringo gang trying to go straight under the watchful eyes of Wyatt Earp, Billy Ringo in Gun Belt. In 1958 he was Pat Garrett in Badman's Country. He was even in The Lone Ranger, but that's not the landmark TV series, it's the serial made back in 1938. He also played Harry Quatermain in Watusi and Philip Marlowe in The Brasher Doubloon, following his namesake Robert Montgomery (no relation) who had made Lady in the Lake the same year of 1947.

Here he's Bat Masterson, Masterson of Kansas, because that's where he made his greatest impact. In case you didn't know who Masterson was, you'll see his badge even before the title of the movie. He was the Sheriff of Dodge City at a time when outlaws were trying to take the rip roaring place of the wild Injuns. Yep, this is a pulp western, as is patently obvious from the speed that the narrator races through the opening background to set us up for the story. This is the country of the Comanches, the Kiowas and the Cheyenne, but they've found peace through a treaty. Now Dodge City is the centre of the buffalo trade, the end of the cattle trails and the home to many of those iconic characters I was talking about. They're needed because the place is full of bad men with guns.

'The law was written in bullets from a six gun in the hand of a man named Masterson,' proclaims that narrator, and one hot July afternoon he's wandering down Front Street to tangle with Doc Holliday, even though Virgil Earp tries to talk him into waiting for Wyatt, now a federal marshal and out of town. The rest of the townsfolk leave the streets empty for them, given that they believe only one will come back alive, though given that the film's called Masterson of Kansas it shouldn't be difficult to work out which. Well you'd be wrong, because they both make it. Wyatt Earp turns back up like a ninja during the facedown and breaks it all up because he doesn't want to see one of his friends kill another. You'll have to wait till the finale to see how this all plays out.

Earp wants to pick up a man named Merrick, known as the Peacemaker for his part in negotiating the peace treaty with the Indians and who is camping out with Chief Yellow Hawk on Indian land that the treaty deeded to them. That loss of land didn't make the cattlemen happy and they're powerful folks, enough that they can persuade the soldiers at Fort Dodge that Merrick murdered Col Matthew Dailey, an officer who caused trouble with the tribes to make his own record look good. And sure enough, Merrick stands trial and ends up convicted of murder, sentenced to hang the next day in Hays City (or Hayes City, they spell it both ways). Masterson has 36 hours to prove him innocent and keep him from being lynched, ambushed or hanged in the process. If Merrick dies, the tribes will rise and more than one man's life will be lost.
This is a decent enough drama, though it betrays its budget and expectations. It's certainly a B grade movie but it's in Technicolor and it's capably shot, however much many of the backgrounds are obviously rear projection and how many of the sets are obviously cardboard. In fact sometimes these characters walk down the same streets more than once and zing bullets off the same trees during gunfights. The soldiers taking Merrick to Hays City are really bad escorts, riding their prisoner into a trap without any thought of precautions or any idea of getting out of the mess they find themselves in, and they're far from the only idiots in this picture. The story is pretty complex for a 70 minute B feature but that doesn't mean that there are any real surprises here. It's a fun pulp ride, that's all.

Well, actually that's not quite all. For a start, the punster in me can never resist a film where a character literally instead of merely figuratively has to get the hell out of Dodge. Clay Bennett is that man here, given that he's just lied on oath to provide the fake eye witness testimony that leads Merrick to the noose. There's also Jay Silverheels, Tonto from The Lone Ranger, as Chief Yellow Hawk, but while there's much promised there's not much delivered. The Indians don't get much to do here at all. There's a third gem in here but it's not who you think. It isn't Bruce Cowling as Wyatt Earp because in this film it doesn't matter how fast he is with a gun, he can get taken down by some moron throwing a rock at him. Give me a break! It isn't George Montgomery either as Bat Masterson, even though it's supposed to be. At one point he misses his holster with his gun, hardly reassuring for the Sheriff of Dodge City.

The real gem here, and my real discovery, is an actor by the name of James Griffith. I've seen him in a lot of tiny, even uncredited, roles in a wide variety of movies but he was best known as a western actor, making films like this one. I've seen one of his other William Castle westerns, The Law vs Billy the Kid, in which he played Pat Garrett and he was by far the best thing about that film. He's even better here as Doc Holliday, not just a deep character but the only deep character in the piece, constantly appearing to switch between being the good guy and the bad guy, while really just staying consistent to his own motivations. Whenever there's something complex happening, he's at the heart of it, dying of tuberculosis, gambling everything he has, seeking but losing the girl, taking on the heroes and villains both.

Nobody else seems to be able to work him out, except perhaps Wyatt Earp. From their perspectives he's a tangle of motivations who just confuses them. He's all set to kill Masterson himself, in a fair fight because he's nothing if not a gambler, until Charlie Fry, a rich cattleman, tries to pressure him into doing it. He offers him money, but Doc won't kill for that. He tries to play up to the gambler by phrasing it as a bet but that only raises his eyebrows. Holliday doesn't have much time left to live, so he can play whatever games he likes and he has conspicuous fun doing so because he's delightfully gauche. 'Who could understand the scent of lilac in the stench of Dodge City?' he asks, utterly like John Waters in every way except the one in which he watches the leading lady of the piece wander across the street. Waters was eight when this film was released. I wonder if it, and James Griffith in particular, made a lasting impression on him. It would seem so.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Fist of Fear, Touch of Death (1980)

Director: Matthew Mallinson
Stars: Bruce Lee, Fred Williamson and Ron Van Clief



I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

Bruceploitation is a wild and crazy world, one conjured into existence by filmmakers in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan after the death of Bruce Lee in 1973. Lee had been the breakthrough to whole new markets for them, becoming an international superstar and iconic figure around the globe, especially after Enter the Dragon, which was a Hollywood production shot mostly in English. Everyone knew who Bruce Lee was in the same way everyone knew who Charlie Chaplin was. Yet now he was dead and so couldn't make another movie. So they conjured up a successor. Actually they conjured up a lot of successors. What seemed like everyone in Asian cinema suddenly changed their name to either Bruce or Lee and they suddenly starred in films with portmanteau titles of other Bruce Lee movies.

There was Bronson Lee and Conan Lee and Dragon Lee. There was Bruce Chen and Bruce Liang and Bruce Thai. The really extravagant took both names, merely changing the spelling, like Bruce Le, Bruce Li or Bruce Ly. There may even have a Lee Bruce and a Bluce Ree, though I can't swear to those. They made films like Enter the Game of Death, Return of the Fists of Fury or Re-enter the Dragon. Even a pre-fame Jackie Chan was stuck inheriting the throne in New Fists of Fury but his attempt to wave his arms the way Bruce did was ludicrous. The most unlikely were titles like The Dragon Lives Again and The Clones of Bruce Lee, both of which are perfect candidates for this series of reviews if only I can track them down.

The Clones of Bruce Lee has been described as 'the Mount Rushmore of Bruceploitation films' for its use of a whole slew of these Bruce Lee imitators, including Bruce Le, Bruce Thai, Bruce Lai, Bruce Liang and Dragon Lee, all trained by Bolo Yeung who the real Bruce beat in Enter the Dragon. If that wasn't enough, it also has men made of bronze, poisonous plants and a beach full of naked women. The Dragon Lives Again has the soul of Bruce Lee travel to the Underworld where he teams up with Kwai Chang Caine from Kung Fu and Popeye the Sailor Man to prevent Dracula, Clint Eastwood and James Bond from mounting a coup and deposing the King of the Underworld. Oh, and there's the Godfather, the Exorcist and even Emmanuelle in there for good measure. How did I not know this film existed?

In comparison Fist of Fear, Touch of Death has no such wackiness, it's just really awful. It opens in New York outside the Madison Square Garden for the 1979 World Karate Championships. We know this because TV presenter Adolph Caesar tells us so, regardless of the fact that he's standing underneath a marquee that reads 'The Oriental World of Self Defense'. That's the sort of movie this is, the sort that happily tells us black is white and expects us to believe it. Just to explain how unlikely this all is, the World Karate Championships are apparently fought to find a successor to the title of Bruce Lee and we know it's really serious business because we're shown footage of the previous year when black belt champion Bill Louis plucked out his opponent's eyes and threw them into the crowd to the magical accompaniment of laser sound effects. And you thought UFC was tough? You ain't seen nothin' yet.

Given that this is supposed to be a new Bruce Lee movie but the filmmakers had the slight problem that he had been dead for seven years, they had to conjure up new ways of fitting him into the story. So the fight for his title is one way and another is to have Caesar rattle on about whatever comes to mind in connection with Bruce Lee. Quite why we're supposed to care about Adolph Caesar we really don't know, given that at this point he was best known for having narrated the trailer to Dawn of the Dead, in other words not particularly known for anything. He did get nominated for an Oscar for his next role, as an abusive black sergeant in Norman Jewison's A Soldier's Story, but that was four years away yet. At this point he was nobody so we're supposed to believe he's a TV anchorman.

First off he interviews promoter Aaron Banks about whether he thinks Bruce Lee died of natural causes, because naturally that's the first question that springs to mind when talking about a karate tournament. Banks is convinced that Lee was really murdered through use of the touch of death, also known as the vibrating palm. Apparently the technique is simple, but he can't tell us what it is because it's a martial arts secret and all martial artists have to sign some sort of vow of secrecy like conjurers. So instead of telling us what it is, he tells us what it is, even demonstrating it in video footage. You just hold your fist really close to the target and punch really hard, using all the chi you can muster. Quite what this has to do with a vibrating palm and how it would leave no trace when it can snap inch thick boards we have no idea, but that's the secret of martial arts, ladies and gentlemen. Three weeks later you're dead. I can kill you by looking at you.

Somehow Caesar did a series of interviews with Bruce Lee. How could that be, you ask? Well, given that Caesar is in black and white and Lee is in sepia, they're never shown on screen at the same time and Bruce has obviously been redubbed to say whatever fits remotely with Caesar's questions, I'd say he didn't interview him at all, but that's just me being cynical. Of course he discovered Bruce Lee's talents. How could I doubt him? He's an important man. He even drives a Rolls Royce and we get no less than two lingering close ups of the Spirit of Ecstasy on the front to ram that point home. Why has a Rolls Royce suddenly entered the story? Because he has to randomly drive by the Hotel Mayflower twenty minutes before the match begins so he can give Fred Williamson a lift when he gets cheated out of a cab.

What is Fred Williamson doing in this movie? Well, I think he's still wondering about that too. He plays himself, and apparently signed up for some sort of early reality TV contract because the camera is there at his bedside when he gets a wake up call at 10.00am for Harry Belafonte instead of 8.00am for Fred Williamson. Mistaking the Hammer for Harry Belafonte is a running gag in this film and you can just tell we're all splitting our sides at how hilarious that is. Can you tell? Anyway, good old Fred has spent the night with some cheap ass ugly hooker acting like Marilyn Monroe in pancake makeup. Apparently he hasn't satisfied her, because five times isn't enough, so he gets to take care of business one more time before heading out. Man, he must be quick! 'Whoever heard of fighting for a Bruce Lee title that doesn't even exist!' he tells Caesar and while he's got a point, we can't help but wonder why someone would actually begin poking holes in this movie when they're in this movie.


Everyone is being talked about as the next Bruce Lee, of course. What sort of Bruceploitation film would this be without everyone being touted as Bruce Lee's successor. Bill Louie is the next Bruce Lee because he looks like him, you know, he's Asian and has two arms. Later we'll see him save a girl from being raped while dressed up as Kato from The Green Hornet. That's Louie, not the rape victim. Trust me, the other way round would have been far more interesting. Two cute joggers have unfortunately attracted unwelcome attention. 'Please, somebody!' cries jogger number one turned rape victim one, so Kato number two saunters over at the slowest speed possible to kick everyone's ass and save the day, all while failing dismally at some of Bruce's recognisable animal noises. 'Who was that masked man?' her friend asks. No, I'm not kidding. I wish I was.

Ron Van Clief is the next Bruce Lee too because he works out for five hours a day and is a three time world champion. He can even demonstrate a crucial martial arts technique via videolink, the ability to cut carrots held over his students' throats with a blunt sword but without killing them. Judging from the scars on the throat of one, he's had a lot of practice. He can save girls in the park too, especially cute ones in white who are followed by four foul mouthed thugs. 'How can I ever repay you?' she asks, after he fights them off. He looks at the camera and smiles. I really should be paid to watch this garbage but whatever you can come up with really wouldn't be enough.

If you can bear it, it gets worse. We have a dramatisation of Bruce's life story up next. Apparently Bruce's great-grandfather was Chan Li, a master swordsman in the 19th century, the greatest samurai warrior of his era, and because Bruce was born on the very same day he romanticises his great-grandfather's achievements and so practices karate all the time, even though his parents don't like it. Now, anyone who's made it this far is either an idiot, a masochist or someone who has to review this thing as part of a series on the worst films ever made, perhaps all three, so I'd have to point out to the first two categories that Bruce Lee was of Chinese heritage and karate and samurai are both Japanese. Never the twain and all that.

What's more, we see this story unfold through the redubbing of one of Bruce's old Chinese movies, 1957's The Thunderstorm, a rare dramatic role for him in a film made when he was seventeen years old. I really don't know much about what The Thunderstorm was about, other than it's based on the same play as Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower, but it's patently not about Bruce Lee's early life. Apparently because Bruce is karate crazy his girlfriend is sleeping with the delivery boy and his mother thinks he should grow up. 'I'm not a baby any more,' Bruce tells her. 'I can kill with my bare hands. You don't understand me.' 'All boys go through this stage,' she replies. Personally I don't remember going through the being able to kill with my bare hands stage myself but then I'm not Japanese. Or Chinese. Or whichever we're supposed to be right now. Anyway, wasn't Bruce born in San Francisco?

What I love most about these scenes is that they're all shot in black and white because the footage is stolen from a 1957 movie, but when the characters go into flashbacks, as they frequently do, they find that they're in colour because they're all stolen from a 1971 movie called Invincible Super Chan. The only good thing about Invincible Super Chan is that it looks so insane that I need to watch it outside of this ridiculous framework, especially as it seems to be banned in West Germany. Invincible Super Chan, I mean Bruce Lee's great-grandfather, takes on people with bizarre weapons, throws people into trees and sideswipes people with iron heads into huge rocks. He's so tough that he can withstand a midget poking at him with a stick, while a couple of other guys hit him with an abacus and a sword that's kept in its scabbard. All at once. What a guy!

Anyway, what this is all supposed to teach us is that Bruce runs away from home 'to pursue his dream, never to return again.' He gets into films because it's 'the quickest way to become a samurai soldier of fortune' and sure enough, the promoter tells him that if he doesn't get seriously injured from hitting people, one film could be enough to get him into a supporting role in an American TV series called The Green Hornet. You think I'm making this up, right? Well we even see a clip from this one film. Ah crap, I blinked so I missed it and had to rewind. We see half a second worth of somebody jumping off a roof. I can't be bothered to rewind again to see if it was Bruce because I never believed it was to begin with.

And as we return to Madison Square Garden having learned precisely nothing except that we shouldn't have watched this film, we find that we have a bunch more crap to watch. We still have Fred the Hammer complaining again about the upcoming title fight being pointless because nobody can follow Bruce Lee. Oh, and Fred is fantastic. He tells us so. We still have Teruyuki Higa and his Okinawa Kenpo students strutting their stuff in the Madison Square Garden ring, including a bizarre demonstration of power where Higa gets to have his arm knocked through a stack of boards with a sledgehammer. We still have Richard Barathy kicking someone in the chest and breaking a bunch of boards even though he had a blood disease when he was seventeen. Everyone has to break boards. Didn't they see Enter the Dragon? I saw Enter the Dragon. 'Boards don't hit back,' Bruce taught us. Remember?

Oh and we still have the World Welterweight Karate Championship, full contact over twelve rounds, between Louis Neglia and John 'Cyclone' Flood to determine who will inherit the title of Bruce Lee but frankly, I don't care any more. Someone won. You want to find out who, you watch this piece of trash. I'd watch Manos: The Hands of Fate a dozen times without pause before I'd watch this again. There really is a difference between bad filmmaking and deliberately bad filmmaking. This film isn't just an insult to Bruce, because it was always going to be that and it's hardly alone, but it's also an insult to us. Exploitation mavens have been handing us a heap of crap for years through slick marketing and innovative gimmicks. We know they're likely to be bad films but they're often enjoyable bad films. I don't know how anyone could find enjoyment in this.

The Straight Story (1999)

Director: David Lynch
Stars: Richard Farnsworth and Sissy Spacek



I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

The Straight Story brought me a major shock before the film even started. I knew that it was directed by David Lynch, cult director of such memorable weirdness as Eraserhead, The Grandmother and Lost Highway, not to mention the Twin Peaks TV series, Blue Velvet and Dune. He's represented in the IMDb Top 250 by three films, the other two being The Elephant Man and Mulholland Dr, neither particularly mainstream pictures. Lynch is a quirky director with an individual take on life who sees the dark side of the mundane and fashions his weirdness out of the everyday. Yet the very first credit as this film opens tells us that this is a Walt Disney picture, the most unlikely company in the world ever to produce a David Lynch film. Obviously this was going to be nothing I'm used to seeing from him but what exactly was I in for here?

The good news is that this is not the sort of soporific and soulless sap that the Disney corporation became known for. Like the same year's highly overlooked October Sky, The Straight Story is a touching true story that raises our knowledge of life and enriches us for having experienced it, the sort of description that every biopic made for the Lifetime channel aspires to and almost always fails to achieve. There's a little weirdness on occasion, as befits David Lynch, but while he tends to mix and match normality and absurdity, constantly challenging us to work out which is real in any given situation, it's all pretty clear here. The absurdity is all on the surface with pure humanity underneath, and while that still doesn't bode well for a Lynch movie it's far from a bad thing otherwise. The best way to see this is to not see it as a David Lynch movie at all.

The Straight Story is the story, or part of the story, of a real man named Alvin Straight who died in 1996 at the ripe old age of 76. Born when Coolidge was president, he was a sniper in World War II and his wife gave him fourteen kids, seven of whom made it, and yet she's still been dead for fifteen years. All these details just highlight his age, which is 73 as this stubborn old man falls in his home at the very beginning of the movie. He refuses any medical help, even when his daughter Rose persuades him into going to the doctor. He doesn't want tests and he won't pay for X-rays. He doesn't want a walker but he adds a second walking cane. He smokes cigars, he doesn't eat as he should and he doesn't want to change in the slightest.

In other words he's a stubborn old coot, but he is at least a realistic stubborn old coot because he doesn't expect to live forever doing what he's doing. While he happily tells Rose, 'I'm not dead yet,' he knows it's not far off and so he decides to put his affairs in order. While this involves a few subtle admissions through the film, it chiefly involves going to see his brother Lyle, who has just had a stroke and with whom he hasn't spoken in over ten years. Lyle is played by Harry Dean Stanton, who is a welcome coda to the film if only a brief one. Rose gets more screen time at the beginning and she's superbly portrayed by Sissy Spacek, bringing plenty of depth to a supporting character who suffers from a stutter which makes many feel that she's retarded, including the authorities who took away her four children on account of it.

Alvin's biggest problem is that he's in Laurens and Lyle is in Mount Zion, the former being in Iowa and the latter in Wisconsin a full 260 miles away. Alvin doesn't have a driver's license and can't get one on account of his poor eyesight. There are no buses or trains that can get him there, at least none that he's willing to take, so he thinks it over and decides to hook up a trailer to his old Reds lawnmower and just drive. It makes sense, on a really simplistic level, but that's where Alvin works. He's a simple man with simple pleasures, such as watching lightning storms, listening to grain elevators and mowing the lawn. He even talks simply. 'What d'you need that grabber for, Alvin?' asks one of the old guys at the hardware store. 'Grabbin',' he replies. He only changes when he has to, such as when the Reds won't get him past the local grotto and he has to shoot it dead and buy a 1966 John Deere to replace it, or the now unavoidable fact that he and his brother aren't going to live forever.


This simplicity is heartening and it makes for a lot of contemplative silence, especially as Alvin's way of thinking is that once you make your mind up to do something, you work out how to do it and you stick to it no matter what. Most of this film is a road movie, merely one a little different from most, with no Hell's Angels and not a Trans Am in sight, and everyone involved obviously got into tune with the inherent and unusual slow pace of it. After all, Alvin is stuck on a lawnmower that has a maximum speed of five miles an hour, meaning that he has six weeks of travel ahead of him, so nothing here is even remotely fast. At points it seems truly amazing that this film was released a year before the end of the last century, because nobody with ADD would be able to watch it without twitching and burning to be somewhere else.

The script is by John Roach and Mary Sweeney, who was the real driving force behind the picture, also editing and producing it. She read a story about Alvin in The New York Times and pursued the rights, bringing her frequent collaborator and future husband, David Lynch, in to direct. This was her first script, though she had edited and produced for Lynch before. As highlighted by the fact that this is the only Lynch film that he didn't have a hand in writing, this is really a Mary Sweeney film, something very different from anything Lynch had, would or really could make. I get the feeling that while he did certain things his way, for the most part he let her run with this one, and that means a languid pace that often plays out without dialogue for long stretches at a time. These characters don't talk for the sake of talking, they say what is needed and nothing more. Words are well chosen and well said, and the silences are well said too.

This fits well with long, lingering shots of scenery, the cinematography of Freddie Francis being a delight to watch. Many of his shots of cornfields, sunsets and clouds look like paintings, but ones that move as befits a motion picture. Francis is best known to me as a director, having helmed a number of the classic Hammer horrors and Amicus anthologies but however beloved those are to many of us, it's hardly surprising that he met more mainstream success as a cinematographer, winning two Oscars almost three decades apart for Sons and Lovers and Glory. He shot many notable films up to The Innocents in 1961, then switched to being a director for a couple of decades. Lynch bookends his resurgence in his original trade, coaxing him back in 1980 for The Elephant Man, his first film as a cinematographer in 17 years, with The Straight Story being his last.

Pure in essence, the simplicity of the film as an experience is really highlighted by the way that Lynch directed it. He shot the script entirely in order, hardly a standard approach to filmmaking, following the actual route that the real Alvin took. He balanced it well, the halfway point of Alvin's journey coming halfway through our film; and while Alvin is the focus throughout and indeed is rarely off screen, there are secondary family members appearing at each end of his story, Rose at the beginning and Lyle at the end. Moreover to preserve the experience that Alvin went through, the DVD omits the usual chapter markers so that it has to be a very deliberate decision on the part of the viewer to mess around with the chronology of the piece. It's very possible that this approach is Lynch's main contribution, the rest of the vision coming from Mary Sweeney.

Regardless who put it together, the heart of it all is Richard Farnsworth's performance as Alvin Straight, which is stupendous. It's truly a shame that he didn't win an Oscar for his work, losing to Kevin Spacey in American Beauty, but he did become at 79 the oldest man ever to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, 62 years after his debut on screen as a jockey in the Marx Brothers movie A Day at the Races in 1937. Setting a record that is not likely to be beaten could easily be seen as something of a consolation, but it's very likely that making the film was Farnsworth's own journey in the same way as the lawnmower trip to Wisconsin was his character's. He was terminally ill with bone cancer when he made this film, taking the part out of admiration for Alvin's tenacity. He exhibited the same tenacity in completing it regardless of the pain he was in thoughout. What you see on screen is not entirely acting but it really doesn't matter. He committed suicide a year later.


During The Straight Story, and I've watched it three times in the past seven years, I found myself often fighting back tears, all because of its inherent truth, told simply and subtly but with great power. Without ever preaching, Alvin makes a difference to a number of people on his road trip east, including an underage pregnant hitchhiker running away from home, a fellow World War II veteran and a pair of bickering twins who try to gouge him on the price to fix his mower. He does so through what can only be described as home truths, because they're short and pithy but realistic and memorable. The fact that these work is one of those accomplishments that this film can fairly claim that seems unusual yet really shouldn't be. Home truths can make a big difference and I've never seen them displayed with more honesty and less cliché than here.

Some reviewers have slated these, citing a lack of depth and originality to them which is a fair point, but I'd suggest that it's the delivery not the content that matters most here. Alvin Straight was no philosopher and I seriously doubt he ever thought himself anything other than an old man who had lived a life. As he says here, 'At my age I've seen about all that life has to dish out.' What adds a substantial amount of power is that Farnsworth imbues his little words of wisdom with the knowledge that comes from our realisation that he knew he was dying too. 'The worst part of being old is remembering when you were young,' he tells a couple of bikers and we feel that we're hearing it from Farnsworth and Straight both.

Another unusual success is that it's surprisingly rare to see films that look at the lives of the elderly or the infirm with honesty and without undue sentimentality. When they come along they're very welcome, from Ride the High Country to Driving Miss Daisy, from Space Cowboys to Bubba Ho-Tep, and The Straight Story is a noteworthy addition to this short list. It's a sad truth that lead characters in Hollywood movies tend to fall into a very limited demographic and anyone who falls outside that range has trouble finding work, whether it be on grounds of race, age or sex. Of these three age is probably the least represented, especially at the high end. There are probably more films where the lead is a child than an old man or woman but, as the few examples we're treated to show us, these older actors often shine brighter than their younger compatriots. Only as people with industry clout like Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman grow ever older are we starting to see a change.

A final unusual success is the inherent decency to this film that could be seen as naive but rings true to me in a world where we're conditioned to suffer from what the techs call FUD, or fear, uncertainty and doubt. At one point someone realises that Alvin has been on the road for five weeks sleeping in his trailer and she asks him whether he's been scared being alone. 'I fought in the trenches in World War II,' he replies. 'Why would I be scared of an Iowa cornfield?' We aren't spared from the dark side of life here, as is amply revealed through the people he helps out and by the uncomfortable truths he dredges out of his memories, but there's a freedom that comes from trusting those around us. People in this film are good people in a world where you can talk to strangers and help them out when they need it. Alvin even buys his John Deere from an honest salesman. It's a heartening revelation to realise that this is a true story and so Alvin's world is the one we live in too.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Director: John Huston
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt and Walter Huston



I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

John Huston's first film as a director, The Maltese Falcon, was nominated for three Oscars including one for the screenplay for Huston himself and another for Best Picture. It didn't win a thing, as it turned out, but it did start off the film noir genre with a bang and set Huston's career on the best possible footing. He backed up that promise seven years later, after a set of inspirational wartime shorts for the US forces, with this, his fourth feature, which again features a bunch of odd characters all searching for a grand prize. This time round he won two Oscars, one for his direction and another for his screenplay, and even managed a third for his father Walter as Best Supporting Actor. To make that achievement even more special, he later directed his daughter to an Oscar as well, making three generations of Academy Award winners within the same family. Anjelica Huston's win was as Best Supporting Actress for Prizzi's Honor in 1985.

Huston was certainly ambitious with this production. It was filmed almost entirely on location, which had very rarely been done at that time with Hollywood productions, and in Mexico no less. This ran the bill up to a well over-budget three million dollars but it certainly added to the authenticity, especially as the night scenes that were shot back home in the studio at the request of Warner Brothers are obvious in comparison. Technology has a habit of marching on and looking back from a 21st century viewpoint, it's usually pretty easy to instantly tell when supposedly outdoor scenes were filmed in the studio instead, often very badly. Huston got away from all that fakery here, for the most part, by taking his cameras and crew down to Tampico and Durango and San Jose de Purua, and I'm glad he did. It makes everything look real. Even the Mexicans are played by Mexicans.

It's Valentine's Day in Tampico in 1925 and Fred C Dobbs is an American south of the border and down on his luck. He meets up with someone in precisely the same situation, Bob Curtin, to the degree that they find neighbouring park benches to share stories of how gringos can't get work selling lemonade or shining shoes, but burglary or begging are apparently halfway tolerated. Dobbs has tried the latter but ends up trying it on the same white suited American three times, one ironically played by director John Huston in a small cameo who was paying the bills anyway. They find a job working sixteen hour days for a man named McCormick but he's just a fraudster who has no intentions whatsoever of paying their wages, even stooping low enough to add in bonuses and buy them drinks to keep them on the hook.

Life obviously isn't too good for this pair, even though they're played by Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt respectively. Bogart had come into his own when the forties arrived, with films like The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and The Big Sleep. In fact he could easily be described as the epitome of the forties Hollywood star. He'd also met and married Lauren Bacall, whose four films opposite him sparked legendary screen chemistry. The fourth would be Bogart's next film after this, also made for John Huston, for whom he'd already starred three times. Holt was a pretty substantial name in the forties too, a top ten box office star from 1941 to 1943 and again, following this performance, from 1948 to 1952. He was never the most avid film star though, working mostly in B movies and even though he had followed in the footsteps of his father, who was a huge cowboy star in the silent era and beyond. Jack Holt gets a cameo here too, in the crucial flophouse scene.

This flophouse is where they run across Howard, a grizzled old prospector in the form of the director's father Walter Huston, a man who doesn't look much but as they later find out is half goat and half camel, because he just keeps going whatever the terrain and doesn't seem to need anywhere near the water they do. He's talking about gold, of which there is plenty up in the mountains, but he also warns about what else gold means. 'I know what gold does to men's souls,' he says, but Dobbs and Curtin wax philosophical about it, especially the next day while they're sitting at a fountain. They haven't had much luck in town, after all, so why not take a gamble on the Sierra Madre? As if this idea was meant to be, luck begins to fall on them. They find McCormick and rumble him for the money he owes them. Dobbs also wins a couple of hundred pesos on the lottery, so they hunt down the old man to join forces.


At heart this is a story about greed, perhaps the definitive Hollywood depiction with only Erich von Stroheim's silent epic, titled simply Greed, in the same league, even though the hatchet job done on it by the studio is a thing of legend. Thus far our heroes have been honest as the day is long. When Dobbs and Curtin rumble McCormick they only take what he owes them and throw the rest down on his battered face. Dobbs gives the Mexican kid who sold him the winning lottery ticket (a young Robert Blake) the traditional cut of the winnings, especially as he wouldn't have even known about his win otherwise. Yet even while sitting at the fountain thinking about prospecting, Dobbs shows the beginning of his greed, rubbing his fingers with a gleam in his eye. You can certainly see the hints early if you're looking for them though the longer the film runs on the more unmistakable they become.

Throughout the expertise, wisdom and rationality comes from Howard. Obviously he's the expert prospector, having been such across the globe, so he's something of a wake up call to his new compatriots who half believe that you just pick it up, put it in sacks and carry it home, the difficulty being in the finding. So it's Howard who teaches them about iron pyrites, sluices and trenches and all the rest of it. 'Without me,' he accurately suggests, 'you two would die here, more miserable than rats.' Yet he's also the man to listen to when it comes to human nature as he's seen it all. He knows that the gold is addictive, that loners go mad and partners get murderous. 'Never knew a prospector yet that died rich,' he says. 'Make one fortune, you're sure to blow it in trying to find another.' So much of what he tells them back at the flophouse is prophetic. 'As long as there's no find,' he tells them, 'the noble brotherhood will last, but when the piles of gold begin to grow, that's when the trouble starts.'

And so it does. When they've acquired about five grand's worth, Dobbs begins to show his true colours. He's the one who suggests that they split up the gold now and on an ongoing basis, rather than taking it back to civilisation together and splitting the profits once they've sold it. Of course that means keeping their gold in their own secret place and guarding it, which gets dangerous. When Curtin starts to overturn a rock because a gila monster crawls under it, it turns out to be where Dobbs keeps his treasure and the two tangle over the situation, verbally and physically. When they talk about when to call their haul enough Howard and Curtin are happy to go home when they reach $25,000 each, but Dobbs wants to stick it out, for a year if need be, to make $50,000 or $75,000. Eventually he starts talking to himself like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings.

Just as the greed distorted Smeagal into Gollum, it's notable just how unrecognisable Humphrey Bogart is at points in this film, given that he has one of the most recognisable faces of any actor who ever worked in Hollywood. He sports a beard for much of the film though at one point early on he visits a barber and gets smoothed out to the degree that he just doesn't look right. Hard work prospecting makes him look far more like the Bogart we know but then greed changes him physically. He grows gaunt and eventually descends to the level of the narrator in Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart, mentally torturing himself until he finds his own destruction. What makes this so successful a transition is that it's never a black and white thing. It's always shades of grey that get lighter and darker as the film goes on, the progression always moving towards the dark and inevitable doom for at least someone.

Circumstance did aid this as Bogart began to lose his hair a year earlier and by the time he arrived on location to make this film he was completely bald. The key factor was the hormone shots he was taking at the time to improve his chances of becoming a father, but there were others including a vitamin B deficiency. When he started taking vitamin B shots in Mexico, some of his hair grew back but nonetheless he wore a wig throughout. No actor is going to say no to circumstance but the work he does here is outstanding, providing a powerful lead performance in the face of constant competition from Walter Huston, a natural scene stealer anyway, but who as Howard is the grounding for Dobbs throughout. Amazingly he wasn't recognised by the Academy with even a nomination, though he would eventually win for another John Huston movie shot on location, The African Queen in 1952.


Walter Huston wasn't just nominated, he won, his only win even though his performances of the early thirties were often outstanding, films like The Beast of the City, Kongo and Gabriel Over the White House being variable in quality but with him excellent in each. He had earned three nominations before this, but surprisingly the first didn't come until 1936 for Dodsworth. Here he benefitted from the fact that his son had written the part specifically for him, following small uncredited roles in two of his films, The Maltese Falcon and In This Our Life. He was also persuaded to act without his false teeth for authenticity, learned a few perfect lines of Spanish phonetically and rattles on at the sort of speed Walter Brennan used to get up to. As Bogart once said, after seeing how far Huston had fleshed out his role, 'One Huston is bad enough, but two are murder.'

Huston even gets an intriguing couple of scenes that play out strangely today, seeming to be a prescient nod to what would become the environmental movement. This story was based on a novel published in German in 1927 and began the translation to film in 1941 after John Huston's notable success with The Maltese Falcon, finally being released in 1948. Yet, except for the actors involved and the lack of colour, these scenes feel like they could have come from a nineties movie. 'It'll take another week to break down the mine and put the mountain back in shape, make her appear like she was before we came,' says Howard, after they decide to take what they have and leave. 'We've wounded this mountain and it's our duty to close her wounds. It's the least we can do to show our gratitude for all the wealth she's given us.' He even thanks the mountain when they leave and his bemused compatriots do likewise.

How much of this came from the Hustons and how much from the source material I have no idea, but there's a deeper mystery in the original writer, B Traven. The only thing really known for sure about Traven is that the name is a pseudonym, but nobody has yet proved who the man behind the name really was. The current consensus opinion is that he was a German, possibly named Herman Feige, who later became different people at different points in his life, first Ret Marut, then Traven Torsvan and finally Hal Croves. It was as Croves that it's believed that he was present during the filming of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, pretending to be B Traven's literary agent. There are many books written by Traven scholars proposing theories and evidence but nobody has conclusively told his story yet. John Huston was apparently fascinated by the man and it's a shame he didn't film his own version of the Traven story.

What he did film was this and while not initially particularly successful, it has gone on to much critical acclaim. No less a filmmaker than Stanley Kubrick named it among his favourite films and director Paul Thomas Anderson watched it as preparation for writing his Oscar winning There Will Be Blood. The character of Fred C Dobbs was iconic enough for Sam Peckinpah to pay tribute by writing a character with the same name into his film Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Tribute was also paid by many others, not least Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles, when it came to a particular line of dialogue that began here. 'Badges? We don't need no steenking badges!' isn't what the Mexican bandit known as Gold Hat says here but it's close enough. There's even a site dedicated to pop culture references to stinking badges and if that isn't immortality I'm not sure what is.

This is Spinal Tap (1984)

Director: Rob Reiner
Stars: Rob Reiner, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer



I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

I have a long and enjoyable history with Spinal Tap, the initially fictional English rock band at the centre of this legendary rockumentary, which is one of the most consistently funny films ever made. Rob Reiner plays a documentary filmmaker called Marty diBergi who follows Tap on their 1982 US tour, their first in six years, to promote their new album Smell the Glove, and catches their rise, fall and rise on film in the process. Coincidentally this was Reiner's debut as a director as well as diBergi's and he would go onto great success with films like Stand By Me, The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally..., though his only Oscar nomination was as a producer for A Few Good Men, which he had also directed. Initially this debut was only modestly successful but over time has proved to be a true classic that has taken on a life of its own and simply refuses to die.

Every time I watch this film I think that it would have been just as consistently funny and insightful if it was much longer. Indeed there's a bootleg version of the workprint in circulation that includes not just deleted scenes but hours more footage of other subplots, gags and songs. It apparently runs four and a half hours in length. In many ways This is Spinal Tap is a difficult film to review because the temptation is to simply sit back and enjoy it yet again and say simply, 'Go see the movie!' That four word review may well be twice as good as the two word review of Tap's album Shark Sandwich, but it still doesn't mean a heck of a lot. Really this film is nothing less than the deconstruction not just of Spinal Tap but of heavy metal as a genre, as well as the rock documentary itself.

In 1984 I was thirteen years old and one night I couldn't sleep. I turned on my radio and found myself listening to Tommy Vance's The Friday Rock Show on BBC Radio 1, thus discovering both heavy metal and rock music in general in one fell swoop. I was instantly hooked and explored the genres with abandon, applying the same logic to music that I had already applied to books and would later apply to films here at Apocalypse Later and through my IMDb Top 250 project, namely to take a starting point, then explore backwards and sideways and any other direction that came up, listening, reading and absorbing. I've been a metalhead for 25 years now and what I've learned during that time only helps to understand This is Spinal Tap at ever deeper levels.

This film came out in 1984, the same year I found Tommy Vance, and I saw it maybe a year or two later. The first time round I thought it was hilarious but only grasped some of the more generic references, but with every fresh viewing I find that I have better background knowledge and more revelations leap out of the screen, keeping it fresh. In fact it rings so true that it's a constant battle not to believe it, and that's from someone with a quarter of a century invested in the very subject it lampoons. Some real rock stars, like Eddie Van Halen and Steven Tyler, didn't find any humour in the film when they first saw it and couldn't understand why everyone around them fell about laughing, Van Halen apparently even commenting that, 'Everything in that movie had happened to me'.

The reality is aided by a few strokes of genius in making the film. One was to cast as the three core members of Spinal Tap not just actors but actors who were also comedians and musicians, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Christopher Guest. McKean and Shearer are David St Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel, childhood friends who both play lead guitar and share vocal duties. Tufnel looks rather like Phil Mogg of UFO, who also provide the spandex, poses and controversial sexual innuendo of Spinal Tap, though the name is a parody of Eric Clapton's. St Hubbins looks like Rick Parfitt of Status Quo, who probably provided much of the early history of Tap, their many name changes and early experiments with style before finding their true sound in the seventies which they then stuck to relentlessly for decades. Guest is Derek Smalls, the bass player, whose leather and facial hair reminds of Manowar but whose poses were sourced from Saxon.


All three actors had worked together in the past. McKean and Shearer had performed together as far back as 1970 in a comedy band called the Credibility Gap with David Lander. McKean and Lander went on to fame on US TV in Laverne & Shirley, a successful spinoff of Happy Days, playing Lenny and Squiggy respectively. Never leaving their musical comedy roots, they released an album as Lenny and the Squigtones in 1979, featuring Guest on guitar, credited as Nigel Tufnel, the name he'd later use in Spinal Tap. Further links to this film come through another American sitcom, All in the Family, which won two Emmys for director Rob Reiner for playing the character of Meathead and in which Guest also appeared as a college buddy. Reiner had also been married to Penny Marshall, Laverne in Laverne & Shirley.

Another stroke of genius was to improvise the script, which is credited to all four of them, though they went to the Writers Guild of America in an attempt to obtain credits for the entire cast, given that they had all been involved in the improvisations. The board of the WGA ruled that it should stay as just the four of them as the key contributors, which may be fair as, unlike most of the cast, they had each been involved as far back as 1982 when they made a 20 minute version of the film with a budget of $10,000 to demonstrate what they had planned. That they nailed it to begin with can be highlighted by the fact that several scenes from this demo apparently made it into the final picture but aren't recognisable as having been filmed at a different time. I couldn't even tell you which scenes they are.

This is Spinal Tap has become so much a part of popular culture, especially within the metal genre, that while initially art imitated life, life then proceeded to imitate art. It has fed the genre it lampoons ever since its release so that the lines between what influenced Spinal Tap and what was influenced by Spinal Tap have become so blurred that it would take theses to straighten it all out. When the film was released, some people pointed out to Reiner that his film was great, but he really should have chosen a better known band to make a documentary about. Since then, Spinal Tap have deliberately played up to this misconception and blurred those boundaries between fantasy and reality further by appearing on TV shows, including The Simpsons, releasing real albums and playing real concerts. Their songs are available to download on Guitar Hero and they even provide their own audio commentary on the DVD release of the movie, in character throughout.

Another example of Tap's blurring influence on reality comes through the likely influence on Metallica's self titled 1991 album, one of the best selling albums in history. Generally referred to as The Black Album because of its cover, which is almost entirely black, Tap fans can't help but see it as a homage to Smell the Glove, which was delivered entirely black and without artwork because Tap's record label found the cover offensive. Originally a commentary on censorship and a parody of the Beatles' White Album, we may never know if the influence on Metallica was real or not as the members of Spinal Tap turned up backstage at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert and asked them flat out. Metallica owned up to the homage but they were saying so on film to Spinal Tap themselves while cracking up at the tribute being offered them.

In fact while diBergi labels his film a rockumentary it's still a more accurate depiction of the genre than most genuine documentaries, with the notable exception of The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, which in many ways is this film made with real bands. Even so, there are plenty of real musicians here. Mick Shrimpton, Tap's drummer for most of the film, is played by R J Parnell, a session drummer for bands like Atomic Rooster. A rock star called Duke Fame who Tap run into at a hotel is really Paul Shortino, the lead singer of Rough Cutt. Even a groupie called Cindy that Derek Smalls picks up around the middle of the film is Vicki Blue of the Runaways. No wonder the material went over the heads of some real rock stars. It looked realistic and it felt realistic.


Every gag in the film is all the more funny for being believable, so much so that most, if not all, of them have actually happened. Every band seems to suffer at least at some point in their career horrendous reviews, delayed album releases and incompetent tour promoters; constant changes of drummer, gigs cancelled at the last minute and the unwelcome interference of band members' girlfriends. Spinal Tap suffer through all of these utterly real situations. They get lost trying to find the stage at one venue, something that Robert Plant, Dee Snider and Ozzy Osbourne have all confessed has happened to them. They get booked at an air force base, something that REM have admitted to. They suffer from malfunctioning stage props, something that Metallica dealt with on their 1992 tour with Guns n' Roses, leaving James Hetfield with third degree burns, a tour that drummer Lars Ulrich has even described as 'so Spinal Tap'.

With so many utterly real situations, however comically they're dealt with, it's understandable how some rock stars didn't see the joke in the situations that Tap take that one step further. Their amps all go to eleven because that's one louder than ten, Tufnel has a guitar collection that includes guitars so sacred that we shouldn't even look at them, Smalls gets caught at an airport when the foil wrapped cucumber in his trousers trips the metal detector. Many band members have choked to death on vomit but Tap drummer Stumpy Joe choked to death on someone else's vomit. Jimmy Page often played his guitar with a violin bow but Tufnel uses an entire violin. Of course every rock band in the world seems to end up bigger in Japan, as Tap are during the film's happy ending. Tom Waits, who cried when he saw the film, even wrote a song called Big in Japan.

Sometimes I go a few years without watching This is Spinal Tap but it only gets funnier with each viewing, even though I know most of it by heart already. Jokes that are funny second time round are rare, but jokes that are funny tenth time round are gems, the lasting power of these jokes ranking This is Spinal Tap amongst such exalted company as Blazing Saddles, Dr Strangelove and Monty Python's Life of Brian. Even the look of the film remains spot on, not just the eighties metal fashions but the looks back to earlier incarnations of Spinal Tap on television, which are subtly blurred as befits the time, with plenty of attention given to the costumes and the hair and the style of the shows. The footage of Tap precursor, the Thamesmen, on the 1965 British TV show Pop, Look & Listen looks authentic, as does the early Tap song Listen to the Flower People on Jamboreepop in 1967 on the other side of the pond.

The Thamesmen video features Ed Begley Jr as their drummer at the time, John 'Stumpy' Pepys, only one of many recognisable faces in small roles in this film. Patrick Macnee is Sir Denis Eton-Hogg, head of Polymer Records, who provide artist relations in the form of Fran Drescher as Bobbi Flekman. Billy Crystal and Dana Carvey are mimes at the tour party in New York. Howard Hesseman is Duke Fame's manager. Anjelica Huston is the artist who builds the Stonehenge set to Tufnel's erroneous measurements. Artie Fifkin, the band's ineffective midwest promoter, is played by Paul Schaffer who is now the leader of David Letterman's in-house band. Many of the rest of the actors in the film went on to further mockumentaries made by Christopher Guest, including Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind.

I could write about Spinal Tap for hours, because there's just so much material to try to cram into a single review. I haven't even mentioned important characters like Jeanine Pettibone, St Hubbins's girlfriend who takes over as manager of the band but then proceeds to chart their tour on astrological grounds, or the former manager, Ian Faith, who carries a cricket bat around with him just in case it's needed. Actor Tony Hendra, who plays Faith, wrote in his autobiography that he attempted suicide the night before filming began, but credits the joy experienced making this film as bringing him back from such an extreme of depression. I'd love to know which band inspired Tap's appearance at an amusement park, billed behind a puppet show. I think I have to end though, with one of the quotes that I've tried to avoid throughout in an attempt not to just paste in the entire script. 'There's such a fine line between stupid and clever,' says David St Hubbins. This film walks that line and manages to be both throughout.

M (1931)

Director: Fritz Lang
Star: Peter Lorre



I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Fritz Lang's M was one of the films I most looked forward to from the IMDb Top 250 list. Quite apart from the high reputation of both the film and its director, it marked the first major role for one of my favourite actors, Peter Lorre. I've loved his offbeat style for years in acknowledged classics such as Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, late Roger Cormans like The Comedy of Terrors and The Raven, and lesser known gems like Mad Love and The Beast with Five Fingers. Over the last couple of years I've caught up with many neglected Lorre classics like Stranger on the Third Floor, The Verdict and Three Strangers and now that many of his films, not least the eight Mr Moto movies, are being made available on DVD it's going to be even easier to catch up with the rest. Lorre is always a distinctive and entertaining actor, but here he set the stage for all those offbeat roles by portraying a child murderer and presumably also a paedophile, the most universally despised of all criminals, whom all of Berlin is trying to catch.

His first appearance in M is as a shadow against a poster offering 10,000 marks for his capture, while he picks up his next victim, seducing her with a balloon he buys from a blind street vendor. We soon discover that he has already killed eight other children and young Elsie Beckman will make nine. The people of Berlin are terrified but can do little to help, outside of providing conflicting witnesses and mob hysteria. Driven by Insp Karl Lohmann, a character who would return for Lang's The Testament of Dr Mabuse in 1933, the police almost go without sleep as they expand their manhunt again and again but without success, though their constant raids net them a substantial number of other criminals.

This is ten years before 'Round up the usual suspects,' but that would be a highly appropriate line to have used. As the profitability of the underworld continues to suffer from these more and more frequent raids, the criminal fraternity decides to remove the incentive for them by using their own methods of discovery to find and deal with the murderer themselves before the police do. They have networks at their disposal who can go where the police cannot without ever seeming out of place, such as the Guild of Beggars, borrowed from Bertolt Brecht's The Beggar's Opera, who are as effectively invisible as children, who indeed are used in this vein in many children's detective stories.

It's obvious just how influential this 1931 German language film was on the entire subsequent history of cinema but I'm sure I still missed plenty of prescient reference points. Peter Lorre's character is abhorrent to everyone in the city and we see little of him during the first two thirds of the film, thus transplanting the formula for any good monster movie into a crime picture, this really being both. Rather than just having policemen run up and down aimlessly like Keystone Kops, we are given glimpses of crime scene work, almost seventy years before the CSI franchise. The murderer also writes a letter to the newspapers which the police analyse in various departments, presaging the similar but even more tense sequence in Manhunter.

Also while M starts like a silent film (or a Woody Allen movie) with simple unaccompanied titles and credits, it then proves that it has sound by giving it to us before we see any real visuals, in the form of children's voices singing a grisly song about the murderer, a precursor to the 'One, two, Freddy's coming for you' of the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. There's also an early use of what's known as a leitmotif, the association of a piece of music with a character, something that was borrowed from opera and is now a routine device in cinema, though usually through cues in the soundtrack. We know when the murderer is nearby because we can hear him even though we can't see him. This use of sound stands out in M. It was Fritz Lang's first sound film, though he had already made such silent classics as Dr Mabuse the Gambler and Metropolis, which is also a Top 250 movie. Coming newly to sound, he chose to use it differently to most directors facing the same challenge.


There are similarities but also major differences to the Universal release of Frankenstein, for instance, which was also released in 1931. Neither Fritz Lang nor James Whale chose to use a backing score for their films, but instead Whale used what have become standard sound effects to make his action realistic. In comparison, there is very little of this in M, to the degree that some scenes are entirely silent, even when you'd expect to hear a lot of noise. Instead Lang uses sound either for dialogue or for specific effect. There's an incredible amount of whistling, for example, which has different purposes at different points of the film, but proves fundamental in the capture of the killer. At one point Lang even has the sound turn on and off depending on when a character clamps his hands over his ears.

These are only a couple of innovative techniques that I don't believe had been used before. Another is the way that Fritz Lang parallels discussions, such as when both the police and the underworld leaders, separately but with great similarity debate how to catch the murderer. Their motivations are different and their methods are different but the end result is precisely the same and so Lang alternates between the two discussions seamlessly making them seem as one. Lang even has characters in different places continue the same sentence as a means of segueing from one scene to the next, before passing back again like a game of tag. All this is time honoured comic book technique, as epitomised by Alan Moore in his masterpiece Watchmen, but M came half a century before.

Most impressive though is the role of Hans Beckert, both as created by Fritz Lang and his then wife Thea von Harbou (who co-wrote the script) and as portrayed by Peter Lorre. Unusually for films of any age about criminals, let alone criminals like this, the character carries with him a sense of both horror and pity, this monster being far from one dimensional. Supposedly based on a real serial killer from Germany called Peter Kürten, known as the Vampire of Düsseldorf, who was caught in 1930 and executed in 1931, Lang insisted that he was a fictional construct of many serial killers then or recently plaguing Germany, also including the cannibal killer Carl Großmann and possibly most reminiscent of Beckert, Fritz Haarmann, the Butcher of Hannover.

Beckert is sick, in both common usages of the word. Like Kürten, he preys upon young girls, seducing them with balloons and candy, marking him as a deliberate and dangerous pervert. We are not told so specifically, but we assume that he does far more to his victims than merely killing them. Certainly Kürten was a paedophile rapist as well as a child murderer and even indulged in bestiality and arson for sexual gratification, in fact the sexual component being more important to him than the deaths. Leaving such details to the imagination of the viewers may have been necessary to get past the film the censors but viewers at the time knew what was being suggested from what they read in the newspapers. Yet Beckert, like Haarmann, was also a former inmate of a mental institute, released from care by the authorities as supposedly cured. Haarmann had been indefinitely confined to a mental institution after an 1898 arrest for molesting children but escaped after six months and when rearrested in 1902 passed his psychiatric evaluation and was released.

Lang and von Harbou invented the character and crafted the framework through which he develops, but it's Peter Lorre who brings him to life. Obviously Beckert is still sick mentally, as we see his torment plainly on his face and through his actions, but not all the time as there are points where the dark side completely takes over and others where it fades to different degrees. He is driven to these crimes yet is horrified himself by them, and while we want him caught and stopped, we also find that we want him treated not lynched. He writes to the police not to brag, like Bonnie and Clyde, but in a plea to be stopped. Astoundingly, Lorre puts all this over to us mostly without the benefit of speech. He has a lot of screen time during the second half of the film but very few lines, leaving him free to use body language and sound to help us understand both sides of his character.


One particular masterclass moment shows the change between them. Beckert is innocently windowshopping and eating an apple when he sees the reflection of a young girl in a mirror in the shopfront. His entire body language changes as he internally fights his demons, and when he looks up he is not the man we previously saw. Now everything he does helps to build our insight of his tortured soul: his whistling (admittedly dubbed by Lang), the way he moves his hands or closes his eyes, the tone of his voice. It's truly one of the greatest acting performances I've ever seen and yet he rarely speaks! No wonder Lorre could sneak so much past the Hays Office with little visual tricks when playing gay characters like Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon or Ugarte in Casablanca, because he'd been doing precisely that sort of thing for a decade.

When he does speak it's in German, to be expected of a native German speaker in a German language film but of course I've only heard him speaking English elsewhere as most of his acting life was spent in Hollywood. Born László Löwenstein, he was Austro-Hungarian though his home town of Rózsahegy is now in Slovakia and called Ružomberok. While films like M brought him great success, Germany in the thirties was hardly a safe place for a Hungarian Jew so he emigrated after Hitler's rise to power in 1933, first to Paris, then to London where he learned English and featured in a couple of early Alfred Hitchcock films, the original The Man Who Knew Too Much and Secret Agent. He learned most of his lines phonetically, even bluffing his way through an interview with Hitch by laughing at what he felt were appropriate moments.

Lorre wasn't the only genius working on M. This entire attitude of inviting both horror and pity simultaneously marks M as being not just a masterpiece but a masterpiece well ahead of its time. I'm in awe of the talent of Fritz Lang to have made this film at all, but even more so that he made it in 1931. It isn't really the sort of film about a serial killer that we're used to, it's more a film about what a serial killer means to society. We don't see a single murder and we see more evil in the actions of others than in Beckert's own despicable deeds. Most tellingly, there are chilling similarities to more recent events, especially for me the vigilante incidents that followed the publication in the English tabloid The News of the World, of the names and addresses of all known sex offenders in the country. People and houses were attacked before it was realised that many of the names and addresses were out of date. One woman was even targeted because of a stupid assumption that 'paediatrician' meant 'paedophile'.

Such reactions could have come straight out of the script of this film, especially the powerful final sequence. After being marked with an M for murderer by a beggar, in obvious reference to the A for adulterer carried by Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Beckert changes from predator to prey. He is followed, cornered like a rat and finally captured by the criminal underground. He pours out his tortured soul in front of the kangaroo court that would try him, a very believable scene. Erich von Stroheim used to talk about how the audience always senses whether a prop is genuine or false so went to great lengths to ensure authenticity, even having Billy Wilder equip the 35mm Leica camera his character carried with him in Five Graves to Cairo with film even though it would never be used. Apparently Fritz Lang believed something similar, as this kangaroo court is apparently comprised of real criminals, cast for authenticity.

This confession scene is the powerhouse performance that made Lorre's career in films possible. After this he was in major demand, making eleven further German films by 1933 and was working for Hitchcock in three years and Hollywood in four. Bizarrely, as both Lang and Lorre were Jewish, this memorable scene was later used out of context by the Nazis to denigrate that religion in their notorious propaganda film, The Eternal Jew, Lorre's character even making it onto the film's poster. This choice is especially ironic as Lang originally had trouble obtaining studio space to make his film under its working title The Murderers are Among Us. The story goes that the studio owner was a Nazi and believed that the title referred to the Nazi party itself, probably accurately.

Perhaps that's the greatest power of M, in that while there's so much deliberate depth to be explored, once we start looking we find even more that was never there to begin with. It has the cinematic trifecta: it's a enjoyable film to watch, an amazing film to be stunned by and a deep film that makes us think. Perhaps the greatest film I've reviewed thus far from the IMDb Top 250, it was a serious achievement on the part of Fritz Lang to even make it. Irving Thalberg, the wünderkind of MGM, screened it in Hollywood for his writers and directors and told them that they should be making films of this power. The hilarious caveat is that he also admitted that if anyone had brought such a story to him, with the central figure a paedophile and child murderer, he'd have rejected it out of hand. It took a 1931 German movie to put the history of Hollywood into context.