Monday 31 August 2009

Mad Dog Coll (1961)

Director: Burt Balaban
Stars: John Chandler, Kay Doubleday and Brooke Hayward

Sometimes films leap out of the schedules for reasons entirely unrelated to their quality or subject matter. Here's a 1961 biopic about a 1930s gangster with the title character played by John Davis Chandler, an interesting actor but nothing special to posterity. But what a cast! While it was Chandler's first film (and the only film in which he led the credits), it was also the debut of a minor little name called Gene Hackman and another one called Telly Savalas (discounting one other film made the same year in which he was credited as Telli Savales). There's also Jerry Orbach from TV's Law and Order.

It leaps out from the screen from moment one too. In a graveyard scene that could have been in a zombie flick, Vincent 'Mad Dog' Coll fires his tommy gun at his father's tombstone. Then, as the credits run we're get a theme tune that wouldn't have been out of place opening up a Bond movie. It even sounds like Shirley Bassey but it's really a guy called Hal Waters. Then we meet a burlesque dancer called Clio LaPatra who tells us our story in flashback. We watch the little Vincent get abused by his dad, who really wasn't a nice guy, though it would seem a little excessive to suggest that he's a valid excuse for what Coll becomes. He's just no good.

Fast forward a little way and he's a young thug getting into trouble and not even being too careful about it. Chandler makes a memorable gangster, somewhat like Steve Buscemi playing Peter Lorre, if you can imagine someone that freaky. Nicolas Cage played the same role in The Cotton Club in 1984 but I bet he has nothing on Chandler who revels in the role as much as his character revels in being tough. Only Lt Darro, a decent but hopeful cop, thinks there's hope for the small scale hoods like Coll who haven't been caught yet, but that hope isn't met in the slightest with him. Coll has a destiny of violence ahead of him that reeks of inevitability.

Five years later Coll is a wannabe gangster getting ready to take on Dutch Schultz and leap on into the big time. 'I'm gonna be number one right off the bat,' he says, and he isn't kidding. He has a taste for cruelty and by the time he interrupts the unloading of a boat by machine gunning the entire crew it's become orgasmic for him. Even when Schultz sends an assassin to take him down and gets one of his best friends instead, he just takes it as confirmation that he's got to Schultz. Never mind the corpse: it isn't Ralphie, it's just a stiff.

The style definitely outweighs the substance here. There's a jazzy score underlying everything and some of the characters play more like cartoons than real people. Chandler himself plays Coll like acting is going out of style and scenestealing has come in. He's the lead character, the title character, the character that the whole film is about, but he spends half the time stealing scenes from anyone around him and the other half trying even harder to steal them from himself. He's fascinating to watch and I'm not going to say he's not magnetic but he's utterly over the top.

Coll was a tough hombre back in the depression and screenwriters Leo Lieberman and Edward Schreiber show it here, but while the spirit is true the details don't match up to real life. In truth, Coll was Irish born and grew up working for Schultz rather than just targetting him later. His court appearances aren't mentioned at all. In real life he killed a five year old kid during an attempted kidnapping, but here it's a couple of bystanders while escaping from an attempted hit. It was the Mayor of New York Jimmy Walker who dubbed him a mad dog, rather than a lowly police lieutenant. He's killed in the right place but by the wrong people.

Yet for all the discrepancies and the fact that his powerful underworld gang apparently has a sum total of five people in it, the 88 minutes zip by like lightning. It's low budget but it's more than capable filmmaking, and there's that cast that can't be ignored. Orbach is a little too nice to really hang out with someone like Coll, but he's decent, like the rest of Coll's mob. He has a lot of screen time, much more than the two biggest names in the film. Savalas and Hackman even share the screen at one point: they're two cops watching a girl get out of a yellow cab coming to see Vincent. They're unmistakeable but in 1961 they were just two new guys who nobody knew.

What's interesting is that Savalas looks like he was the most experienced actor in the cast, the only thing that dates him being the fact that he has a little hair, but Hackman just stands there. To be fair, he doesn't even get to speak and there's precisely nothing for him to do, but it's amazing to see an actor as great as Hackman do as much for a film as a lamppost. He wouldn't make his second film for another three years. Three more after that and he was Buck Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde.

Waxwork II: Lost in Time (1992)

Director: Anthony Hickox
Stars: Zack Galligan, Monika Schnarre, Martin Kemp, Bruce Campbell and Michael Des Barres

Beginning literally as the original Waxwork ends, Mark and Sarah escape from the burning ruins of David Warner's evil house of wax, not realising that they missed the severed zombie hand that followed them off the lot. What we find here is that it followed Sarah all the way home, perhaps wondering why she's being played by a different actress. At least it has the decency to kill off her evil stepfather, Buck Flower, with a hammer. It's a real slapstick hand, one that coats her in mustard, throws buns at her and then as she stuffs it down the garbage disposal coats her with blood to finish the whole effect. No wonder they hired Bruce Campbell for this sequel.

They hired a lot of other people too. Patrick Macnee returns as Sir Wilfred but only to leave a convenient message via a prerecorded film on the projector at his house. Apparently he's left his entire estate to Mark, along with his collection of strange artifacts, Mark's grandfather's too. I wonder how that gets written up in a will: 'I leave all my strange artifacts to...' This is a pretty awesome collection too, as they discover when they go through the looking glass like Alice: silver bullets, Jason's mask, even what looks suspiciously like the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark. There's even a Cantagrian Time Door Opener or some such thing that allows them to follow the paths of the angels through time.

If writer/director Anthony Hickox had fun with the first Waxwork film, he had a riot with the second. He rips off everything he can possibly think of. Somehow he throwns us 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien and Star Trek in twenty seconds flat, and all this as we're recovering from the Frankenstein set. Apparently these angels that travelled through time to Frankenstein's castle because that's where Mark ends up, wondering how Martin Kemp, the bass player from Spandau Ballet, could be hired to play Baron Victor von Frankenstein. Actually he does a pretty good job but then he did leave his pop music career pretty emphatically by starting out in film as Reggie Kray. This is definitely one of those movies where you have to constantly readjust to work out which way is up. Blink and you'll miss a movie reference.

Meanwhile back on the planet Earth, Mark's back in black and white following paranormal investigators Bruce Campbell, Marina Sirtis and Sophie Ward into Hell House. Did I mention that there's a serious cast here? We haven't even met David Carradine, Alexander Godunov and Michael Des Barres yet, not to mention Godzilla, the king of the monsters himself (well, sort of), and even Drew Barrymore for good measure. The most bizarre thing here is that the film's greatest success is also its greatest failure. It's very cleverly done because the camera angles, sound effects, music and the pace are tailored towards whichever homage we happen to be in at the time.

This approach is admirable and makes us admire Hickox's skill, attention to detail and his personal viewing history, but the constant changes in pace don't help. The sheer speed of the Frankenstein and Alien segments renders The Haunting/The Legend of Hell House section a little sedate, though we have no problem adapting from colour to black and white. It survives mostly through the Three Stooges skits with Bruce Campbell, but they in turn make the Arthurian section even slower, regardless of how much fun Michael Des Barres is and how awesomely Patrick Macnee breaks the fourth wall. Luckily the finale is there to speed it all back up again.

Given that there's actually nothing to connect these sections, they could technically go on for ever and be shuffled around into any order you like. It would make a great TV series, chopped up into 45 minute chunks that ran for years. The finale of this film, which eschews the monster battle royale idea from the first Waxwork and instead tries to spoof as many movies as it can as fast as it can, with Mark fighting the evil Scarabis through all of them like a genre equivalent to the end of Blazing Saddles. If a TV series just played like this it could become a great Friday night drinking game to identify them all. I think Anthony Hickox would approve.

Sunday 30 August 2009

Waxwork (1988)

Director: Anthony Hickox
Stars: Zack Galligan, Deborah Foreman, Michelle Johnson, Dana Ashbrook, Miles O'Keeffe, Charles McCaughan, J Kenneth Campbell, John Rhys Davies, Patrick Macnee, David Warner

You can't go wrong with a film that begins with a man being set on fire during a robbery, but it's such a short scene that we're told nothing about it and it merely looks cool. Instead we get introduced to Mark, played by Zach Galligan, four years after Gremlins but amazingly with only one film in between them, Nothing Lasts Forever. Mark is privileged but apparently doesn't enjoy it all the time. Mom won't let him drink with the help or have coffee in the morning. Luckily the maid does his homework and the butler's really there for him, with his caffeine and nicotine and even his wheels when he heads off to college.

He has friends there, Sarah and China, who pass a new house of wax on their way to class, one that apparently appeared out of nowhere. The owner appears out of nowhere too, right in front of them, and given that he's played by David Warner that can't be a good thing. He invites them to a special private screening that night at midnight, for them and four friends. Two of them wuss out but that leaves four of them to experience the dwarf butler and the giant and the very quiet show. And while it's quiet it's a great show, full of actors who do a pretty good but not a perfect job at not moving. It doesn't look it but it's interactive.

Tony finds that out first. The exhibits have some sort of weird portals in front of them that transport the unwary visitors into a different dimension, ones that mirror their exhibit. Tony ends up in a forest but all he can find there is a hut containing a were-rabbit played by John Rhys-Davies. I think he's suppose to be a werewolf but he looks more like the cover of Donnie Darko, which does decrease the impact a little but Tony gets the impact, full in the neck. Soon he's dead by the gun of the local werewolf hunter, only for him to end up in the waxwork exhibit.

It's a campy scene and obviously not meant to be anything else, but Waxwork really shows its aim in the next one. The delectable China finds herself in a vampire fantasy scene, which is about as amazingly over the top as could comfortably be imagined. It doesn't remotely attempt to play either seriously or consistently and just blisters through an excess of fun. In a flamboyant white dress, China meets the dashing Count Dracula, played to dashing romance novel cover excess by Miles O'Keeffe, who has her feed unwittingly on her fiance's leg. Eventually she discovers the truth in the basement, after discovering her fiance chained down with his leg carved off and the vampires attacking. It's glorious nonsense that revels in being glorious nonsense.

The other success this film has is the sheer number of horror worlds it runs through. Starting with a waxworks, it progresses through werewolves and vampires, threatens scenes with the Phantom of the Opera and the Marquis de Sade, but really follows up with an Egyptian mummy. Mark and Sarah escape, highlighting how terminally cute Deborah Foreman is after we failed to notice while she was in the shadow of the more flamboyant and traditionally beautiful Michelle Johnson as China. Going to the cops doesn't help so Mark figures it all out from artifacts his strange murdered grandfather had left in the attic.

If you think that's a leap, try this follow up. Mark and Sarah go to visit Sir Wilfred, though I blinked and so lost the reason why they even know him. In the joyous form of Patrick Macnee, he conjures up an explanation that encompasses so much and unfolds so fast that it's nigh on impossible to keep track. Basically Mark's grandfather was murdered by a man who sold his soul to the devil then collected occult artifacts to place in his waxworks so that through dubious numerology can resurrect evil sorcerers to bring about the voodoo end of the world. I'm breathless just thinking about it.

Anyone believing in a serious film after that must be out of their mind, but writer/director Anthony Hickox plays it out with style, giving us that Marquis de Sade scene after all, as well as trip into the black and white world of Night of the Living Dead. This was Hickox's first film, as both an actor and director, with the single exception of an uncredited role at the age of six in The Adventurers. He's still making films today, but after a string of horror movies with long and unwieldy names (Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat, Waxwork II: Lost in Time, Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth and Warlock: The Armageddon) he progressed on to more traditional thrillers and action movies. Every now and again he ventures back into the horror genre.

I wonder how he remembers this. It's utterly silly but just as utterly jam packed full of fun, right down to Sir Wilfred's armoured wheelchair. The props bend, the walls bend, the effects vary from pretty awesome to pretty terrible. Hickox wrote the screenplay in three days and it shows, but it's unsurprising that it spawned a sequel and no wonder they hired Bruce Campbell to appear in it. That's obviously who Zach Galligan was trying to be here, only one of many cinematic homages that veer from Dirty Harry to The Little Shop of Horrors in mere seconds. This is one of the most awesomely wild and riotous horror movies ever, especially when we hit the mad monster party of a finale. Does it make the remotest bit of sense? Nope. Do we care? Not a sausage.

Whirlpool (1934)

Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Jack Holt, Jean Arthur and Donald Cook

The Greater Rankin Show of 1910 is a carnival with all the usual attractions, but along with the half man, half woman and the ventroloquist there's also Jack Holt and Allen Jenkins so I'd buy a ticket. Holt is Buck Rankin and it's his show, but he's finally fallen for one of his local girls, Helen Morrison, and for the first time he doesn't want to move on. So they get hitched. As she can't live with him on the road he sells the show, but as he tells his right hand man Mac the score the locals start a fight and he promptly gets sent up for twenty years in the state pen for manslaughter.

Eight months later he finds out that his wife is almost due and they're going to be three. He was going to persuade her to divorce him so that she can be free from life as wife of a jailbird and live the best life she can, but she won't do it. So when his cellmate Farley tries to escape by diving into the whirlpool outside the prison, only to die in the effort like the fifteen men who tried it before him, he uses his brain. He's doing clerical work in the warden's office so writes his own suicide note and forges a cover letter from the warden to commiserate in her loss. With Helen believing him dead, she gets on with her own life.

Now Allen Jenkins was always the stalwart right hand man, so Mac shows up twenty years later to pick up his former boss when he finally gets released. They move quickly up in the world, as Rankin has high aims and he achieves them too, becoming Duke Sheldon, the big shot owner of the Flamingo Club. He keeps himself to himself, so as to ensure that his face stays out of the paper, but that's about to change as he's the surprise alibi in the Kelly case, that the whole defense is resting on. It's a huge deal in New York and one that the papers are very eager to investigate.

Anyone paying attention will have noticed that there was a baby about twenty years ago. Of all people, the journalist that the paper sends to find out about Sheldon turns out is his daughter, now Sandy Morrison, daughter of a Superior Court judge, Helen having remarried and done very well for herself in the process. She recognises his ring, the one he's never taken off and which matches the one his wife has never taken off, and causes an introduction. Unfortunately while this sparks a perfect reunion, it also sparks a lot more. Now he can't fly to New York and that means that the Kelly gang will be after him.

This is a surprising film because it never goes where we expect it to. Beginning as a carnival yarn, it becomes a romance, then a prison break movie, then a melodrama and finally a gangster flick. Somehow though it fails to be the incoherent mess it probably should have been, instead unfolding across three decades and multiple genres with panache. At more than point the years fly by in so many rapid fire clips of stock footage or in more creative ways. The length of Sheldon's rise to power is shown through a set of number plates, one per year, always on bigger and better cars.

Jack Holt is excellent here. His career began back in 1914 and it would go on until his death in 1951 but his time to shine was in the late silents and early talkies. He was there at the beginning of Hollywood, as a founder of the the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and he still lives on today, perhaps not as a name but as an image. Chester Gould based Dick Tracy on him and Al Capp based Fearless Fosdick on him. I've seen a number of his precodes, a few of which were made for Frank Capra, and he's always appeared as a solid and reliable actor. That said, he's perhaps better here than I've seen him elsewhere, the aging make up helping him to look somewhat like The Godfather era Brando.

Jenkins isn't aged as well, because it's mostly done through hair rather than facial makeup. That mostly works for Holt, but Jenkins spends most of the film with a hat on that covers all his hair. When it's off he looks fine, when it's on he looks precisely the same over the entire three decade span of the film. Fortunately he's such a charismatic supporting actor that he can't help but succeed. Jean Arthur has a harder task on her hands because she was 34 but having to play 22. She's far older than her years, in all the right ways for a newly found daughter but all the wrong ways for someone we're supposed to believe is 22 years of age. She's a good foil for Holt, helping the story to race along like lightning. The three decades are over in eighty minutes.

The Silver Horde (1930)

Director: George Archainbaud
Stars: Evelyn Brent, Louis Wolheim, Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea

Even in 1930, not far into the sound era, Hollywood was remaking older films and people were retiring from the screen. The Silver Horde was first made in 1920, but the only name attached to it that I even recognise is its director, Frank Lloyd, who would go on to win two Oscars, though not one for his biggest achievement, Mutiny on the Bounty. The stars were people like Myrtle Stedman, Curtis Cooksey and Fred R Stanton, hardly names remembered today. Stedman, 'the girl with the pearly eyes', was something of a star in the late teens and early twenties, including a leading role in Hypocrites, an elusive silent film of legend, made by a female director, Lois Moran. This version, made with sound a decade later, was the last credit for Blanche Sweet, after 21 years in the business and 160 films to her name.

We're in Alaska, still a far flung land in 1930, where Boyd Emerson is struggling into Kalvik after a long trek with his companion Fraser, who he picked up a few days out. They find a pretty poor welcome though, nobody wanting to have anything to do with them so he's all ready for fighting when he gets to the last house, only to find that it belongs to Louis Wolheim, hardly anyone you'd want to face off against in a scrap. It turns out that Kalvik, which is a salmon fishing town, is fighting a sort of civil war between the salmon syndicate and the folks who want to stay free of it. Wolheim is George Balt, who's on the side of the free folks, led by a mysterious lady by the name of Cherry Malotte.

Malotte falls for Emerson, not that she tells him, but trusting him absolutely she sets an ambitious plan in motion. She sends Emerson to Seattle, to arrange a loan to finance a free fishing fleet to take on the syndicate head to head. She knows a bank manager there who will put up the money on her word, but if it were that simple we wouldn't have a story. While in Seattle, Emerson falls for Mildred Wayland, who provides a whole bunch of complexity. She's the daughter of Wayne Wayland, who owns the syndicate and who's trying to marry her off to Freddie March, who runs it.

The Silver Horde, named for the shoals of salmon that are the MacGuffin of the film, has its share of kludgy acting that at times turns it into pulp action melodrama. As Freddie Marsh, Gavin Gordon is a quintessentially pulp serial villain unable to escape that stereotype and apparently unwilling to even try. Wolheim is not much less of a stereotype himself, though his unmistakable ugly mug didn't ever help to avoid that, but he provides a lot of the colour in this film and embues his character with a lot more depth than a mere stereotype would have. Simply put, Balt belongs in Kalvik and nowhere else, while Emerson belongs in a lot of places but is trying to belong here.

Wolheim is unjustly forgotten today, mostly because he died a year after this film was made. He could overact on occasion but could also be magnificent, dominating no less a film than All Quiet on the Western Front and shining in other films like Two Arabian Knights and The Racket. His best scenes here are silent ones but he'd have succeeded as a sound actor had he lived. Raymond Hatton, who plays Fraser, was never forgotten but never really arrived either as a star, playing in over 350 films as a character actor, finding his way to B movie westerns where he played the hero's sidekick in dozens of them.

The two big names to posterity are Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea. McCrea, one of the great western stars of the cinema started out at the end of the silent era, making this very early in his career. He's fine as Emerson, the tough romantic lead, because he's adroit both at romancing society girl Jean Arthur and literally fighting his own battles out in the Alaskan woods. There are scenes here that just don't seem right for him though, such as the one where he rains verbal abuse down on Cherry once he realises what class she is.

The Silver Horde was the first film to pair him with Jean Arthur, who he'd also play opposite in Adventure in Manhattan and The More the Merrier. Arthur was already well established in Hollywood, having debuted in 1923 in a John Ford/John Gilbert movie called Cameo Kirby, but she hadn't yet become a star, partly because the asset that truly made her unique was her memorable voice. As Mildred Mayland, she wasn't yet what she'd become but it's still fascinating to watch her talent this early.

And that leaves the star of the show, Evelyn Brent, playing the deep character of Cherry Malotte. We're never told precisely what Malotte is though it's unmistakeable from context that she's a prostitute who made it big. There's no way this could have been made once the code was being enforced, but it's a great part for the precode era. This prostitute gets to occupy the higher ground in this film, unashamed of what she has been and able to hold her own against a society girl who loves the same man. All the characters here have flaws and virtues, except Marsh who doesn't have that depth, but Cherry Malotte is the most real and decent of them all.

Brent, incidentally no relation to George Brent, had been acting on screen since 1915 and would continue on until 1950 but while she was a recognisable name throughout never really found the stardom that she deserved. She was at her best in the precode era because she shone at doing precisely what she does here: be at once the heroine and the most morally delinquent character. She reminds of a cross between Norma Shearer and Barbara Stanwyck, in style more akin to the former but in the roles she played more like the latter.

As a film it plays out quickly, the story being solid but the direction occasionally weak. It feels like George Archinbaud didn't do a lot of retakes, because some scenes feel more like rehearsals. Some shots are wonderful though, including the one where the camera pans along the production line at Emerson's salmon factory neatly showing us the whole process from the fish coming in to the traps to the cans being moved on out. He was a prolific and capable director but not a great one. The only other films I've seen of his are other precodes, The Lost Squadron, Thirteen Women and Penguin Pool Murder, all as different from each other as they are from this film.

The Wrong Box (1966)

Director: Bryan Forbes
Stars: John Mills, Ralph Richardson, Michael Caine, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Nanette Newman, Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers

The names don't quit in this hand drawn psychedelic title sequence, which may explain why it's so long. It does seem like every comedian in England was hired to back up serious actors John Mills and Ralph Richardson but because of their sheer numbers they don't all get much screen time, some of them very little indeed. Firstly though we find out what a tontine is, because it's crucial to our plot. Twenty children enter the tontine, or rather are entered into it by their parents or guardians, who put in five thousand British pounds a piece. A tontine is like a lottery, so will be paid in full to the last survivor. Of course, as they're all children, it's not likely to be paid out for a long time, and so will increase in value considerably until the time that it's needed.

In short vignettes, we see them die off, at advancing ages: in war, hunting, exploration or pure idiocy. One is shot in a duel, even though he was only officiating, and one is even beheaded by accident by Queen Victoria who was trying to knight him at the time. In short shrift, there are only two of the twenty left, the brothers Masterman and Joseph Finsbury, in the more than able forms of John Mills and Ralph Richardson respectively. These brothers haven't spoken to each other for forty years even though they live next door. They're old men now but they're both going strong, even though Masterman seems to have been dying for years and affects a bedridden status that isn't remotely needed.

Masterman is more than eager to hasten his brother's demise by any means necessary and has him summoned home from Bournemouth to that end, but in true slapstick fashion fails at every step. By this time, though, other wheels are in motion. Joseph has three orphans in his charge, two of which are with him in Bournemouth, trying to keep him alive in any way they can while putting up with his hobby of collecting facts and boring everyone else to death with them. They're Morris and John, played by Pete and Dude or Peter Cook and Dudley Moore for anyone of the more recent couple of generations. John spends most of his time seducing everyone he meets, but Morris is a plotter and he's determined to win that tontine for himself through his 'uncle' Joseph.

Meanwhile back in London, Masterman's 'grandson' Michael is a decent fellow who lusts after Joseph's 'niece' Julia from afar and she after him, though both are really orphans. This incident enables the pair of them to finally meet and they fall madly in love through a slew of slow motion romance scenes that fit Nanette Newman perfectly as Julia but would seem a little stranger for Michael Caine as Michael. He's a joyously calm medical student, even when he's flustered. She's paranoid of being molested by criminals, but seems rather eager to be molested by Michael.

What follows is a joyous romp of slapstick farce. While Masterman is trying to kill his brother, Morris and John believe he's already died in a train collision and so are trying to hang on until Masterman dies so that they can claim the tontine through a fake death certificate. From this point both Masterman and Joseph both apparently dying a number of times, both through accidental identification and by deliberate subterfuge. We get what appears to be every permutation of confusion possible until it takes Tony Hancock to untangle it all at the graveside.

The Wrong Box was written back in 1889 by no less a literary figure than Robert Louis Stevenson, author of many famous novels including Treasure Island, Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, all of which have been adapted many times for the screen. One of three collaborations with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, The Wrong Box was only filmed once, though the cast chosen includes enough major names to fill three versions. Perhaps the age of the story is what prompted Bryan Forbes to employ the occasional title card like a chapter heading here and there.

Mills and Richardson are both outstanding. Both were known as serious actors, among the greatest England has ever produced, but here they both show deft comedic talent in the most esteemed company. Pete and Dud were already stars of the stage through Beyond the Fringe and so it's hardly surprising to find them playing off each other so well. Michael Caine, playing the straight man here, was at a huge point of his career, coming off Zulu, The Ipcress File and Alfie, this being a pleasant change of pace, I'd imagine. Nanette Newman was eminently qualified for the film merely by virtue of being married to its director, but she happens also to be spot on as Miss Julie.

So many other names deserve mention, even excluding names like Nicholas Parsons, Valentine Dyall and Leonard Rossiter who are among the first batch of nine names crossed off the tontine and so get about five seconds of screen time each. Wilfred Lawson is a riot as Masterman's butler who hasn't been paid for five years but continues working nonetheless. He manages to steal almost every scene he's in, regardless of who he's playing opposite. There's also Tony Hancock as a detective, Irene Handl, John Le Mesurier and others. Wherever you look, there's a face recognisable from British film or television.

Truly unable to be ignored is Peter Sellers, as a senile and unscrupulous doctor with a wild collection of cats. Even if you haven't seen him in any one of his other hilarious roles, you couldn't fail to see how well he played Dr Pratt here, given how his performance affected Peter Cook, the only actor he appears on screen with. Sellers obviously made Cook laugh, to the degree that Forbes apparently couldn't get a cut without him doing so. Given that Cook has been described by no less a comedian as Stephen Fry as 'the funniest man who ever drew breath,' that's some achievement.

Saturday 29 August 2009

The Children (1980)

Director: Max Kalmanowicz
Stars: Martin Shakar, Gil Rogers, Gale Garnett

There's been a pressure drop at the Yankee Power Co, a nuclear plant that has lots of really old pipes. The techs completely fail to notice the corroded pipe that caused it, even though it's right under the word 'Inlet', which apparently they checked. Then again, if techs at nuclear plants actually did their jobs, we couldn't have films like The Children, which is a freaky little picture that I really enjoyed. No, it isn't very good, but it is different and that's a big plus point in my book. In fact, it's hard to compare it to anything else. It's sort of a zombie movie but it doesn't really have zombies, it's sort of an evil children flick but it doesn't really have any evil children. It occupies its own space in the annals of low budget horror.

We join the children of Ravensback in their school bus heading home. Fred, the driver, is astoundingly good at his job because he manages to time his driving so well that the kids run out of bottles on the wall to sing about precisely as he stops to drop someone off. Maybe that's why the next song is about how awesome the bus driver is. But then, three miles from Ravensback, they drive straight through a radioactive yellow cloud and run off the road. Sheriff Hart finds the bus empty but running, by the old graveyard no less. Talk about an omen. Nobody answers his shouts, so he heads off to fetch the doc who's a cute but sassy young lady who apparently doesn't like him, so presumably he's not too unhappy when she becomes the first victim of the children.

You see, the sheriff decides that the best course of action is to set up a roadblock on the interstate and let his deputy know, then travel round to all the parents to warn them individually. That's so much more obvious a thing to do than to actually look around the bus to find the children hanging around in the graveyard where they've killed Fred and soon kill Doc Gould too. The way they do it is thoroughly unique: they dish out radioactive hugs of death that turn their victims into instant pizza. They do it with a smile, which was presumably intended to be the innocent smile of a child but which really suggests that the actors playing the children were having an awesome time frying all the adults and couldn't stop grinning.

If there's a social comment behind the horror, it isn't about nuclear power because that isn't mentioned once after the title credits roll, it would be about the parents deserving it because of their lifestyle choices. This could almost be seen as a religious film, where the innocents purify their town of all sort of moral degenerates, but it's not quite that consistent. Doc Gould may or may not be living in a lesbian relationship with a blind girl, depending on how you read that situation and she believes pills are the solution for everything.

Miss Shore bathes topless with her pet muscleman and smokes dope in front of the sheriff, while suggesting that having a kidnapping in Ravensback is exciting, even though her daughter is one of the victims. Deputy Timmons is messing around with someone's underage daughter. Cathy Freemont smokes while pregnant, though she does apologise to her unborn child as if that absolves her from any responsibility. Everyone suggests that Fred the driver is a little simple, but that never stopped them letting him drive their children around before and apparently him stopping off somewhere for an impromptu picnic instead of bringing them home is a believable reason for them all being late.

I learned a few things about Ravensback that must mean something. Firstly, almost everyone has a name that ends in the syllable 'y' or 'ie', even the ones that don't seem to make a lot of sense. The cops are Billy and Harry, the shopkeeper is Molly and then there's Cathy and Suzie and Jenny and Tommy and even Clarkie. Who names their kid Clarkie, even if he has a poster of Superman on his wall? Amusingly, Clarkie is played by Jessie. Secondly, Ravensback follows its own laws of nature that mean that time doesn't pass quite as expected. Suzie runs a little fruit stall outside her house, but she tells Deputy Harry that it's still a little early for customers even though the kids are already coming home from school. Sheriff Billy stops off with the Freemonts for a couple of minutes, but that's enough time for night to fall with a vengeance.

And the most important thing of all is that you should never trust those goth kids with black fingernails. Marilyn Manson was obviously behind this radioactive leak because all the children in this film have a mysterious supply of black nail polish that prompts them to kill. If I didn't know better, I'd have suggested that this film contains the ultimate cinematic irony, with its concept of setting up a bunch of kids as monster zombie killers who fry their parents with their radioactive hugs, would have achieved undying fame if only protestors had marched up and down outside the theatre proclaiming, 'Won't someone think of the children?' I'd have painted my fingernails black and marched up and down next to them with a placard reading 'Free hugs.'

There's a whole new logic built in here for these monsters, which is fair enough, and helps to build their uniqueness. After all we have rulebooks built in for everyone else. Vampires get to drink blood, cringe from crosses and die in sunlight; zombies get to eat brains and get up from anything except a head shot; even Freddy and Jason and the rest of the icons have their rules to follow. Here, the children are only dangerous when they have black fingernails, because otherwise they're just recharging; they walk like zombies but aim at their parents first before any other victims; and they can be killed by chopping their hands off. They don't bleed but they die, just like that.

The cast are interesting, not least because Shannon Bolin has a ball as Molly the store owner. Martin Shakar is top credited as John Freemont, probably more because his last film was Saturday Night Fever than the fact that he looks like Griffin Dunne. Most of them appear to be enthusiastic amateurs who still seem to have made a bunch of films, and the children, who have the best time of all, never did anything else. It would be fascinating to get this cast, especially the now grown-up children, together for a Q&A session to find out what they really felt making this movie. It looks like it was a party and beyond many dumb decisions by the sheriff, holds together pretty well. In a world apparently full of different takes on zombie movies, this one has them all beat on that front.

Friday 28 August 2009

Hell High (1989)

Director: Douglas Grossman
Star: Christopher Stryker
Wandering in late, I still apparently picked the right moment because a couple of high school students are spying on their sexy biology teacher soaping up her breasts in the shower, which in true 1980s movie style means that she's thoroughly visible through direct line of sight from the window. Bizarrely the rock song about fantasy doesn't kick until after they leave, when Jon-Jon drives around an estate to meet his girlfriend. Jon-Jon was one of the two high school students, but he's the follower. The leader is named Dickens though it would appear there are three too many letters in his name.

Dickens is the freaky one, who seems to revel in inappropriate behaviour. Jon-Jon is the coward, apparently because he left the football team not for any particular action he did or didn't do. Add to the mix Queenie, who seems to have fallen for Jon-Jon but likes teasing Dickens, and Smiler, a fat kid with a perpetual inane grin and a penchant for speaking the obvious, and we have a rather strange bunch of central characters to watch. The object of their attentions is Miss Brooke Storm, that sexy biology teacher, apparently because in the early scenes that I missed she told off Dickens, who was acting like the class clown. If we got to abuse teachers for doing as little as she did, then there wouldn't be any left. Maybe that's why American education is in the state it is today: the current crop of teachers grew up watching Hell High.

At this point I couldn't help wondering if the film was called Hell High because, gratutious shower scenes aside, it seemed to centre entirely around American football. Jon-Jon used to play on the team until everyone decided he was a coward; Miss Storm turns up at the high school game because the coach asked her too, even though she's utterly not interested in him; and the awesome idea Dickens has for a good time is to turn up too, then drive across the field during the game and steal the ball, thus proving yet again the inherent inferiority of the sport. If Americans played real rugby instead of strapping on forty pounds of protective padding to flounce around in their own version of it, this scene couldn't have happened because in rugby you can't throw forward. Look how many people could have been saved just by saying no, folks...

Anyway, Dickens and his motley crew drive off down to the train tracks just so that he can tell them that he has a plan. There's something in his head that he has to get out and it begins with going to the swamp to collect slime. Now the swamp is an important place in Hell High, because there's a terror of the swamp, who killed a couple of teenagers a decade or two earlier by impaling them on iron spikes, and if I'd turned up on time, I'd have known that it was Miss Storm as a young girl. I was late though, so I was wondering more about how you can find a girl like Queenie, who is far better looking than the cheerleaders but chooses to hang out with losers, show Jon-Jon her breasts without even being asked and then doesn't balk at loading slime into sacks at the swamp even though her pretty purple ribbon is going to get messed up. What a girl!

Now, I'm sure you're asking what all this slime could be for. Well, in the scenes I didn't see the young Miss Storm caused those teenage impalements by flinging mud at them as they rode towards her on their bikes, because they broke her doll, so irony dictates that our four morons unwittingly turn the tables on her by putting on masks, jumping up and down on her roof and flinging slime down at her windows. She's having a bad enough day already, having had to fend off the coach and spend her evening marking biology tests, but this sends her back in her mind to her time as the terror of the swamp. Help arrives in the form of some other teacher but she leaves after giving her a quaalude, even though it had been made a Schedule I drug two years before this film was made.

Hell High really doesn't know what it wanted to be. Beginning apparently like a teen horror flick, it had become a sexploitation comedy by the time I turned up, albeit not a very funny one. Now it attempts to turn into something that it doesn't even have the guts to be: a rape revenge movie. Three of the four kids run back to their car when the help arrives, but Dickens has the keys and he stayed behind. He waits for Miss Storm to be alone once more, and then breaks into the house to molest her in her sedated stupor.

If this wasn't perverse enough, in walks Queenie who promptly jumps on the teacher herself to show him how it's done. This is the real shocker in the movie because it comes utterly out of the blue, way more shocking than when the other pair arrive and start fighting, only for the now unencumbered Miss Storm to leap out of the window to her death. Adding the fact that Maureen Mooney, who plays the teacher, was apparently pregnant throughout the production, and Christopher Stryker, who plays Dickens, died of AIDS a year after the film was completed but two years before it was released adds a little more spice to that shocker.

Naturally you can't have a rape revenge flick without some revenge, though Hell High does attempt to persuade us that you can have a rape revenge flick without a rape. Then again having a exploitation genre called revenge for inappropriate molestation just doesn't work and isn't even alliterative, though it could be funny to watch extras trying to get a RIM job. So the dead woman eventually wakes up and gets her revenge, while our four morons try to outdo each other in the moron stakes and trust me, they all give it a really good shot, this being by far the best part of the film for all the wrong reasons.

These guys are not bright. They decide that the cops won't notice their fingerprints, footprints, tyre tracks or any of that stuff, and naturally wouldn't follow up on the slime factor, all four of them being covered in it. So they decide to sic it all on the quarterback, because well he's the quarterback and so obviously a good target even though nobody seems to know his name. It doesn't matter that they know full well that he has an alibi because when Jon-Jon goes to steal his shirt to plant at the crime scene, he's at the cafe where he always is after a game, with about a bazillion witnesses. Those cops wouldn't check time of death either, naturally.

The other three go back to the house to chill out and wait for Jon-Jon to bring that shirt back because none of the neighbours would have heard the screams or the breaking glass or wondered why there was a corpse on Miss Storm's lawn or anything like that. And when that corpse magically vanishes, they run around shouting each other's name aloud just so there could be no mistaking whodunit. Smiler finally remembers that fingerprints convict crooks, so starts wiping off surfaces, only to put his hand right back on them when he's finished. These kids really ought to be up for Darwin awards because they seriously improved the collective gene pool by removing themselves from it.

Smiler truly comes into his own at this point because he churns out in quick succession what seems like every cliche in the book. 'We never should have gone to the swamp,' he says. 'My mother told me there would be days like this.' I couldn't write all these down quickly enough, so the rest may not be word perfect but how about a dead pan, 'I'm really not enjoying myself. Now you know.' My favourite was, 'I should have stayed home. Now it's crying time again.' This really should have been the title of the film, instead of the utterly generic and pointless Hell High or the original title, What Do You Want to Do Tonight? Choosing It's Crying Time Again instead would have been a much better call and would have helped the film stand out to posterity.

Thursday 27 August 2009

Futureworld (1976)

Director: Richard T Heffron
Stars: Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner

Two years after the events of Westworld, the Delos executives have apparently fixed all the problems that caused the robot population of the futuristic theme park to start killing its customers. They've funnelled a billion and a half dollars into the new improved version, replacing everything and the newly reopened Delos is three times the size of the old one. They're so keen to get over their previous aberration that they're setting up an all expenses paid trip to the resort as a game show prize on The Big Bundle, hosted by Allen Ludden, who in real life hosted Password on American TV. Response has been good but not good enough and the Delos executives really want to mitigate the reaction of the press, so they invite a TV journalist along for the positive publicity she can provide too.

Old fashioned print journalist Chuck Browning remembers the troubles at Westworld well as he wrote an important story on it. Now he's wondering if there's a new story beyond the publicity job, given that a man called Frenchy LaPorte wants to tell him things about it but is killed before he can. His last word? 'Delos.' So Browning gets himself added to the publicity trip, along with the TV journalist who he knows well, Tracy Ballard. Perhaps the folks who run Delos haven't quite fixed everything that they think they'd fixed when they replaced everything. After all, they've kept the utterly ludicrous closing line for their presentations, 'Nothing can go wrong,' and they've even added Pompeii as an attraction. Look how well that one turned out in real life!

As the title of the film suggests, we have new worlds to play in, including FutureWorld, which begins with a rocket launch and includes such delights as spacewalks and skiing on Mars, not to mention the cool futuristic games like holographic chess and a great surrogate boxing match. It also looks really good given that they shot portions of it at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport and the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX. The futuristic outlook extends to the cast as the Delos executives apparently thought the best thing they could do to avoid robot failure is to have more robots and less humans, so now the techs are all robots too. I guess that means that less actual people die when things go horribly and inevitably wrong.

We also have a thoroughly international cast of characters, all of which are apparently also thoroughly important, except for Ron Thurlow who's just an everyday Joe who won a game show. Russian General Karnovsky and his wife are here to experience the illusion of youth in SpaWorld. Japanese businessman Mr Takaguchi and his aide are there to cross swords with the best of MedievalWorld. Of course how they're attracting such important clients when response to the reopening hasn't been that good doesn't make a lot of sense, but this is a B movie after all, made by American International Pictures, and the plot would be meaningless without them.

At least they're adding some of the things into the mix that should have been there in the original, like the conspiracy theory angle, though it's done with a highly derivative edge and it plays well to me, it wasn't popular at the time. This takes a lot from The Stepford Wives, made a year earlier, and throws it all into the concept of The Manchurian Candidate. The only thing left from Westworld itself is the theme park, which is hardly used, and the return of Yul Brynner in a fantasy dream sequence as a romantic version of his gunfighter character. Sadly, especially as this is Brynner's final film role, with the exception of the narration he did for a short film called Lost to the Revolution in 1980, he has precisely nothing to do except be the sole cast link to the original film.

Peter Fonda fits the story well as Chuck Browning and Blythe Danner does a good job as Tracy Ballard, though at points she becomes the damsel into distress a little too easily. I thought women had burned their bras before 1976. Best of the supporting actors is Stuart Margolin as a Delos tech named Harry who helps them out, Margolin being best known for his recurring supporting slot as Angel on The Rockford Files. I felt George Schenck and Mayo Simon wrote a more interesting story than Michael Crichton did in the first film, though it's one that feels like it was forced onto the Westworld concept rather than written to fit inside it.

The Lion Has Wings (1939)

Directors: Michael Powell, Brian Desmond Hurst and Adrian Brunel
Stars: Merle Oberon and Ralph Richardson

Rushed into production by Alexander Korda to aid the British war effort, using three directors working simultaneously, this is unmistakably a British propaganda picture and as such, becomes a real slice of the era. For the longest time it's made as a documentary in the style of the newsreel footage of the day, using EVH Emmett of Gaumont British News to narrate it. Korda wasn't British by birth, being born Sándor László Kellner in Pusztatúrpásztó, Austria-Hungary, and he wandered around the nations making films before settling in Britain, which he fell in love with, thus prompting films like this that he financed out of his own pocket. It succeeded in showing the government the power of film in such a conflict and played a large part in keeping that industry alive for the duration.

We watch Britain at peace, improving itself, enjoying itself, free and happy. There's even room for internal joking, as the healthy English sports of rugby, swimming and athletics are compared with a Scots propensity for throwing large heavy things about. Even King George is having fun, walking around in public singing songs with his people. Then we see the real comparison, Nazi Germany, where it would seem that nobody does anything except march and listen to Hitler. It even takes a leaf out of Leni Riefenstahl's book by including some of her footage from Triumph of the Will and some of the healthy pursuits we English pride ourselves on could easily have been used in a German propaganda film.

With traditional English reserve, it's polite even when talking about the enemy and modest when talking about ourselves. When tearing holes in Hitler's hollow promises, he's still called Herr Hitler and we prove his real motives by naming the pages of Mein Kampf and reading the appropriate quotes, like page 315 explaining why the supreme race should conquer and subdued the world. At Hendon, Ralph Richardson, as Wing Commander Richardson, looks at the great display of aviation skill and points out to Merle Oberon as his screen wife that 'they're quite good.' When war is declared and she asks him if we're ready, he answers, 'We've never been better prepared,' and if that single statement isn't the entire point of the film, I don't know what is.

What it gets right is the focus on the air, which would soon be proved in the Battle of Britain when we defeated the German Luftwaffe, who had the benefit of bigger numbers and better machinery. It got the matter of fact nature of the Brits down too. As a bombing squadron sets off for the Kiel Canal, one airman asks another about the party that night. 'Better make tomorrow,' he replies. This tone is the greatest success here. It speaks to confidence, preparation, capability, things to settle the butterflies in the collective stomachs of much of the country.

What Leni Riefenstahl did with propaganda was inspire awe, what Korda gives here is quiet belief that we don't need to inspire awe to get the job done, because getting the job done is what we do best. Even though pains are taken to point out that this war wasn't of our doing and we really didn't want any part of it, if it has to be fought we'll fight it and we'll do so with the best of our ability. Whether we're in the headquarters of fighter command or with the watches on the coast, or even back in the days of the Spanish Armada, the impression is business as usual, which in many ways it was, given that this is recycled footage from Fire Over England.

It gets things wrong, as it was bound to do given that it was the very beginning of the war. In explaining that we're ready even for a long war, that worst case scenario is given as three years, or about half what it turned out to be. There's a proclamation that we wouldn't bomb civilians, but the people of Dresden found out the worst way that we wouldn't live up to that claim. In fact the politeness that pervades here isn't just about the general nature of the English, it speaks to a different era, one before the real horrors of what World War II would bring. It suggests that what we'd discover soon wasn't even something we could conceive beforehand.

Westworld (1973)

Director: Michael Crichton
Stars: Yul Brynner and Richard Benjamin

Back in 1973, Michael Crichton, already a well established writer, directed his first feature
film. He was already a name on film, as he'd directed a TV movie called Pursuit a year earlier and Robert Wise had turned his highly successful novel The Andromeda Strain into a movie the year before that. Wherever you count the point at which he really arrived, he'd become a major name in Hollywood that stayed major for the next few decades. Next time you watch Jurassic Park, watch this film first because it's where it came from.

Intriguingly we're told about Delos, the vacation of the future today, through advertising and orientation videos. It's all deliciously seventies and it's nicely done. Delos is a high tech theme park with three separate worlds to choose from. There's MedievalWorld, with its castles and banquets; RomanWorld, full of lust and debauchery; and WesternWorld, a wild west town from the 1880s, all places that you'd expect to see a TM after their names. It all seems very familiar, from the colour coded trams to the calm voice over the PA system. Adding a final line of 'Nothing can go wrong,' to the spiel is just asking for trouble in a notably theatrical way, but that's what Crichton did.

Even if we haven't seen Westworld before, we know what it's about. Like many Crichton stories, it's about technology giving us something very cool and then going horribly wrong. This is a perfect example of that, with our three worlds full of clever technology. They're all populated by robots that are only distinguishable from humans through their hands, which the techs haven't quite perfected yet. The guns in WesternWorld have sensors in them so they don't fire at anything warm blooded, like people. And of course all this great tech starts to fail with deadly consequences.

John Blane and Peter Martin are going to WesternWorld. Blane has been there before and knows precisely what to expect though his friend has a little trouble getting used to the concept. Martin is surprised that the room in the so-called Grand Hotel isn't more comfortable, he orders a vodka martini with a twist at the saloon and he really isn't too ready for Yul Brynner, the ultimate gunfighter in black (based on his character in The Magnificent Seven), who walks in to the bar and insults him. Only after he bucks up his courage and kills him in a gunfight does he really start getting the point. By the next day he's happy about his tin bath and he's hell bent for leather, just like everyone else.

Luckily by the time that the robots start going haywire and refusing to spend their operative lives losing every single time, he's ready for almost anything, even being chased by a gunfighter who won't give up all the way to RomanWorld. There's a pseudo-scientific explanation, as there tends to be with Crichton stories. Apparently the robots initially met their design specs of 0.3 failures per 24 hour period, mostly peripheral failures, but now those failures are rising fast, changing from peripheral failures to central failures and spreading across the three worlds. One of the techs likens it to a disease and points out that they really don't understand what these creatures they've created really are because some of the robots are programmed by robots.

Westworld succeeds in a very seventies way, being a vision of the future that still rings true as a basic extrapolation. It's the same logic that Jurassic Park was built out of, incidentally another Michael Crichton novel. The Japanese would love to make a real Westworld full of real robots, and once they do, Disney would buy them to populate their theme parks. The biggest omission here is the lack of a gift shop. The underlying fears being manipulated are universal ones and there's simply no way that Yul Brynner's gunfighter didn't influence the concept of both the predator and the terminator in the films of those names. 'It's what he does, it's all he does,' and he does it by following your heat signatures.

There are holes everywhere, of course, this hardly being serious science fiction. Why so few guests, for a start? This is a business, after all. We have an explanation for how guests can't kill other guests by accident, but what about stray bullets? Even if we're ignoring Asimov's laws of robotics why give the robots real guns? What if someone hurts themself leaping over the bar to get out of the way of a gunfight or have a heart attack during a sword fight? Nobody mentioned accident waivers here.

What about the extrapolations of not ever being sure who's a guest and who's a robot? If you can't tell the difference, how do you know you're not about to knock up a real guest living out her fantasy of being a saloon girl? If you're adopting the morality of a different time for the duration of your vacation, how does the real world trump that? Who settles the paternity suits? Can guests indulge in rape because it was OK in the time? After all, how would they know that the reactions weren't all programming? How would they handle STDs transmitted via robot?

What about the privacy concerns given that the techs monitor the whole thing via closed circuit hookups but the resort provides sex robots in all three worlds? There's nothing here that really speaks to the legal side of things, or politics or ethics or morals. It's really a thriller run off a scifi concept and it refuses on the grounds of simplicity to go down any one of a hundred roads that it opens up. Even keeping it just a thriller, what about adding a conspiracy theory aspect? Instead of having the robots programmed by robots, how about having a human being with undetermined motivations mess with the programming for his own ends?

This really fails as a science fiction story for anyone who's read or seen anything of note, though geeks will enjoy the first 2D CGI, but it succeeds as a thriller and as a cinematic reference point. It's a very seventies film and it feels it, even without the potential for the fashions of the day to make it obvious. It's certainly iconic and it's going to be remembered for a long time to come for Yul Brynner's gunfighter and what he led to. What else the film led to was a sequel, 1976's Futureworld, and a short lived TV series in 1980 called Beyond Westworld, of which only three out of five episodes were broadcast, due to poor ratings. Surprisingly it was a CBS show but maybe CBS were the Fox of their day.

The Lodger (1944)

Director: John Brahm
Stars: Merle Oberon, George Sanders and Laird Cregar

Back in 1926, Alfred Hitchcock's first foray into the thriller genre that he would make his own was a film called The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, an adaptation of a 1913 novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, the sister of poet Hilaire Belloc. It's an intriguing story and it resonated with filmmakers, having now reached its fifth version, this being the third and the last made during the author's lifetime. The previous was a return to the role for Ivor Novello, who had been Hitchcock's star too, the next was Man in the Attic with Jack Palance in 1953 and the latest was made this year with Alfred Molina. All but Man in the Attic took the title of the novel, The Lodger.

We're in Whitechapel in London in the late 19th century and there's a serial killer on the loose, one of the most famous of them all but also one that predated the term that came to define his profession. In case you hadn't guessed, he's Jack the Ripper. The police are apparently inadequate, or so say the posters, but there are plenty of them out on the streets. They even check up on the latest victim as she walks home from the Weavers Arms but she only lives around the corner so they let her on her way, a bad call as thirty seconds later she's dead, the latest victim of the Ripper.

That night a man calling himself Slade books rooms with the Bontings and he appears to be rather suspicious from moment one. He takes the attic space because it's large and he needs plentiful supplies of heat, being a pathologist, and he pays a hefty sum in advance to secure it. He's a big man whose suit is too tight but he's well spoken, with a soft voice that often sounds suspiciously like Vincent Price's but before Price ever played in a horror movie, and he has strange attitudes that can't help but raise suspicion. He walks around at night because the empty streets are peaceful to him, just like holding his head to the waters of the river. He prefers the back door and never uses the front.

He also turns all the pictures on the walls around to face the wall as he says that the eyes of the women seem to follow him about. All the pictures are of actresses or former actresses, the Ripper's taste in victims and a profession that Slade seems to abhor. Of course the reason that the pictures are of actresses is that he's taken lodging in a theatrical household. Also in residence is Mrs Bonting's niece Kitty Langley, who is appearing at the Piccadilly Theatre to do her saucy French dance, brought direct to London from the Alcazar in Paris. Needless to say, Slade is both fascinated by her and leary of actually going to see her perform, even at her specific request.

As with any story that's been filmed five times, let alone one based on the story of Jack the Ripper story, this has little to surprise us. The biggest surprise is the performance of Laird Cregar, surely the most unknown face to audiences in 1944, given that his co-stars here include Sir Cedric Hardwicke, George Sanders and Merle Oberon, who at this time was Lady Korda through her marriage to film mogul Alexander Korda. It's a subtle performance, not just obviously suspicious and sinister but also full of nuance and even sympathy, this being the only version I've seen that really carries that amount of depth. Most of that depth is in Cregar's performance.

Cregar was unfortunately unable to live up to the massive promise he exhibited here as he died a year later of a heart attack after only one more film, Hangover Square, a film with many similarities to this one, not least the theme, the director (John Brahm), the writer (Barré Lyndon) and the co-star (George Sanders). Merle Oberon's part as the object of Cregar's obsession was taken by Linda Darnell. I'll have to track that one down soon, because the suggestion this outing gives is that he could have become to the horror genre what Vincent Price became with a hint of Dwight Frye, hardly a bad combination. Sadly we'll never know.

What brought him down was a dangerously rapid crash diet which knocked a full hundred pounds off his weight in less than a year. He died of complications at the young age of 31, leaving a career of only 16 films to posterity. They include Hudson's Bay, one of the few Paul Muni films I haven't managed to see yet, the Tyrone Power swashbuckler The Black Swan and the Ernst Lubitsch comedy Heaven Can Wait. For now, I believe the only other film I've seen him in was 1940's Granny Get Your Gun in an uncredited role.

Wednesday 26 August 2009

Death on the Nile (1978)

Director: John Guillermin
Stars: Peter Ustinov, Jane Birkin, Lois Chiles, Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, Jon Finch, Olivia Hussey, George Kennedy, Angela Lansbury, Simon MacCorkindale, David Niven, Maggie Smith and Jack Warden

Agatha Christie's great Belgian detective Hercule Poirot made it to the big screen pretty early on with Austin Trevor playing the role in three films in the early thirties. Then there was nothing until the highly ill advised 1965 supposed comedy The Alphabet Murders with Tony Randall, but when the star studded Murder on the Orient Express was such a success, both critically and commercially, there was no doubt that the character would return to the big screen soon. It returned with an actor who would stamp his ownership on the part, the multi-talented Peter Ustinov.

Though Christie's daughter Rosalind Hicks said, 'That's not Poirot,' when she first saw him, to this day he's what most people visualise when they think of the character. He would go on to play Poirot in five further films, following this up with Guy Hamilton's Evil Under the Sun and ending with Michael Winner's Appointment with Death in 1988. Ian Holm also played the role in Murder By the Book and Alfred Molina would take on the part for the 2001 remake of Murder on the Orient Express. The closest challenger to Ustinov though may well be David Suchet, who played the role for many years on BBC television.

He may be top billed as Poirot, but Ustinov was far from the only star here. Death on the Nile may not have as many great names as its predecessor but it has some real catches and the names are thrown out there on the screen before anything else. How about this for a cast list: Jane Birkin, Lois Chiles, Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, Jon Finch, Olivia Hussey, George Kennedy, Angela Lansbury, Simon MacCorkindale, David Niven, Maggie Smith and Jack Warden?

Any Poirot mystery needs a murder victim and a whole slew of suspects. The victim is an American heiress by the name of Linnet Ridgeway, who is to come into her inheritance when she marries. She soon does just that, to the fiance of a close friend, Jacqueline de Bellefort. He's Simon Doyle, who Jacqui was pushing to run Linnet's English estates, and Jacqui, in the able form of Mia Farrow, is more than a little upset about it. In fact she follows them on their honeymoon to Egypt, bitter and twisted to no small degree, dogging their every footstep in an attempt to piss them off, something she does admirably and very publicly.

Of course such behaviour makes her the perfect frame. When Poirot asks her politely to cease and desist, she suggests to him that not only won't she leave them alone, she could happily kill her former friend. She even waves a gun under his nose to show that she has the means. Later on the Karnak, a paddle steamer cruising down the Nile with a full compliment of notable tourists, she gets flamboyantly drunk and shoots her former lover in the leg. The pistol goes mysteriously missing from the saloon but is promptly used again by person or persons unknown: Mrs Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is shot dead in her cabin.

Naturally almost everyone on the boat has a believable reason to want her dead, something she has a knack of exacerbating. As Poirot observes, 'Mon Dieu, how she makes enemies of them all.' As in all the best Agatha Christie novels, it could be anyone, anyone that is except for the one woman who would seem to be the most obvious suspect as Jacqui was sedated at the time and couldn't possibly have done it. Luckily, of course, Poirot is on board too to investigate, and he has the assistance of Col Johnny Race, who he knows and trusts and who is representing Mrs Doyle's English lawyers. Bizarrely this means that David Niven plays the assistant to Peter Ustinov, who had served as Niven's batman during the Second World War.

It could be Linnet's American lawyer, Pennington, who has been swindling the company and wants to preserve his source of dubious income. He's George Kennedy, a gruff and believable swindler. Linnet's maid Louise, played by delectable Jane Birkin, wants her to meet her promise to provide a dowry for her when she marries an Egyptian. Flamboyant romance novelist Salome Otterbourne is being sued by Linnet for basing a character in one her books on her, and Angela Lansbury overplays the part with joyous abandon. Her daughter Rosalie, played by the delectable Olivia Hussey, wants to save her mother from financial ruin.

Jack Warden plays Dr Ludwig Bessner who wants to sue her for public comments she's made about his clinic but can't because of reputation. Jon Finch as Jim Ferguson is a devout Marxist who is sickened by the rich. Marie van Schuyler, in the blistering form of Bette Davis, merely lusts after the Potsdam pearls that Linnet wears around her neck. Her servant, Miss Bowers, is just as blistering in return, courtesy of Maggie Smith, a fine foil for Bette, and her father was ruined by Linnet's father. All of these stars are more than up to the task, but the story is the thing in an Agatha Christie mystery.

This isn't Murder on the Orient Express by any means. Technically there's no comparison. It's capably told and capably shot, but it's not particularly subtle at all. The director was John Guillermin, who wasn't in the same class as Sidney Lumet, who had made the previous film. He had some hits, such as The Towering Inferno and The Blue Max, but was also responsible for not just the 1976 remake of King Kong but also its sequel, King Kong Lives. At least there was Sheena in there too and anything with Tanya Roberts naked can't be all bad. In the end this is a fun couple of hours and an introduction to Ustinov as Poirot.

Tuesday 25 August 2009

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)

Life was always a blast in classic musicals set in the Europe of the 19th century, most of which were based on European operettas. It's no different in this Ernst Lubitsch precode for Lt Nikolaus von Preyn, better known as Niki, is living the high life for sure. He sleeps in, even when the bugle calls; he has a valet who understands the vocalising that passes for speech when he's half asleep; and best of all beautiful young ladies eagerly turn up at his apartment, knock their coded knocks to be let in, then leave later apparently highly satisfied with their visit.

He's played by French singer/actor Maurice Chevalier, who seemed to always end up in uniform in these old days. He was used to it though, having been an infantryman for two years during the war. He wasn't the prettiest leading man of the day but he was the personification of what Americans saw as European charm and daring. The fact that his eyes and mouth never stopped smiling could never hurt, making it almost impossible not to have your heart lightened by watching him, whether you appreciate his style or not.

Of course what Americans saw as European charm and daring translates to what Europeans would call a sly rogue. When his friend and fellow soldier Max, played by Charlie Ruggles, wants his help, he's happy to lend it, even if it's to help this married man seduce the leader of a girls band in a biergarten, later to be elevated to be the world famous ladies orchestra, the Viennese Swallows. Of course he means from moment one to steal her for himself, even before seeing her but especially afterwards, and he does so. She's Franzi, in the delightful form of Claudette Colbert, French born herself, and always a pleasure to watch. Lt Niki thinks so too and falls hard for her, as we find in the songs that they sing. She puts magic in the muffins and passion in the prunes, and there's dynamite in all her kisses. These lyrics are fun even to me.

And here's where we find the Lubitsch touch that sparks our real story. As a member of the Austrian royal guard, he's on duty in the street presenting arms to the passing royal family of the small neighbouring country of Flausenthurm, but being the rogue he is he winks at his lovely Franzi on the other side of the road right when the royal coach passes. Princess Anna sees him and so begins a royal outcry at such unforgiveable temerity, while she's privately thrilled at his forward behaviour. He's summoned to apologise and explain and in doing so merely cements her decision to marry him. Her father, King Adolf XV, is a little harder to convince but the fact that Niki can spell Flausenthurm and Anna threatens to marry an American if she can't have her lieutenant is more than enough.

The Smiling Lieutenant is as bubbly and infectious as the title character, even as he's thrust into a bizarre love triangle. Princess Anna loves Lt Niki, but Lt Niki loves Franzi the violinist. Even after he's forced into marrying her, he sneaks out to be with his girl who has followed him to Flausenthurm, telling the the King that marriage is as far as he'll go. 'You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink,' he says. As a precode, and this entire film couldn't have been made under the code, there's plenty of opportunity to dance around with morals.

It is delightfully naughty, perhaps epitomised by the first dialogue Niki and Franzi share after his marriage to the princess. He elicits the assistance of the Flausenthurm police to whisk her away to him where they quickly fall into each other's arms. She says, 'I shouldn't do this,' and he replies, 'No, you shouldn't,' all with a wink at the Hays Office. Naturally, it doesn't stop them doing this in the slightest and we're very happy for the freedom of the precodes to do things like that, and for our two leading ladies to meet, slap each other and fall about crying; and for Franzi to offer advice to her competitor in song: Jazz Up Your Lingerie.

Operettas were designed to be fluff, a lighter alternative to the more serious opera form, and they were very successful at that. Perhaps this film explains something important about my own taste in musicals that I've been trying to fathom for a long time. I don't tend to like the things, generally wishing that they either stay musical throughout or quit the singing and get on with the story. Perhaps what this boils down to is that I like musicals that are really operettas, playing fast and loose, staying fluffy and using comedic song to progress their stories; but don't like musicals that put on pretensions of grandeur and thus fail in their true comparison, to opera.

This is a peach, which I enjoyed far more than Lubitsch's more successful and far more frequently quoted The Merry Widow, partly because its so utterly infectious and partly because of the charm of the stars. Chevalier is a rogue and while I don't buy into the Gallic charm I buy utterly into him being an unmitigated skirtchaser. He plays well here with both Claudette Colbert, early in her career a full two years before It Happened One Night, which was until now the earliest I'd seen her, and Miriam Hopkins in only her second feature length film.

Apparently while everything on screen is bubbly, life on the set wasn't as everyone had their own troubles at the time. Lubitsch was going through a divorce, as his wife had been having an affair with a friend and colleague; Chevalier was mourning the death of his mother; and Colbert and Hopkins were making demands as to how they should be photographed. Thankfully all involved were professional enough that none of this shows on screen, and indeed all three of them also made a French language version, Hopkins being fluent in French through her privileged southern upbringing and both her co-stars actually being French.

Friday 21 August 2009

The Seniors (1978)

Director: Rodney Amateau
Stars: Jeffrey Byron, Gary Imhoff, Dennis Quaid and Lou Richards

As the animated professor tells us during the opening credits, this is a movie about how college kids can not graduate. They love it there! Our four heroes (all American boys called Larry, Ben, Alan and Steve) don't want to work, they want to stay in college and be with the lovely Sylvia, who takes care of them all even though she's engaged to a minister back in Iowa. Sylvia is perhaps the closest thing I've ever seen to a dream woman on screen, and there have been a lot of attempts. She's beautiful, in the form of Priscilla Barnes, who had replaced Suzanne Somers on Three's Company; she's awesome in bed, something that all four of them can attest to; and she cooks and cleans and does all the womanly things around the house. What's more, she doesn't speak a word through the entire film.

So, they work out a plan to stay with her. A three times Nobel prize winner is a recluse on campus and he only trusts his assistant Arnold, a dweeb who lusts after Sylvia. Arnold reminds this scientist, Prof Heigner, of an insect, which in this instance is a good thing. The professor likes insects, though he doesn't like people and so he's happily attempting to breed a super mosquito to replace mankind as the dominant species on the planet. He's a deliciously contrary character, ably played by Alan Reed, who doesn't trust anyone or anything except Arnold and he trusts him to do everything. And Arnold is easily bought, merely by turning Sylvia into his sex slave.

Here's what our four heroes do, bearing in mind that this is an early 1978 precursor to the outrageous genre of the 1980s teen sex comedy so naturally it all works like a charm. They type up a grant proposal, suggesting that the professor has completed his work on the sex life of the insect and is about to start new research into the sex life of the liberated college girl. They ask for $50,000 from the board offering grants and set up a phantom company called Phantom Research Corp to run the show. And so while Sylvia and Arnold are busy in bed, the four boys have eager college girls leaping into theirs for $20 an hour, living out all the girls' fantasies from shower sex to bondage to being ravished by King Kong.

What this film teaches us more than anything is that anything can scale, without any mathematical limit. So when the money starts running a litle low, they start up their own cathouse, erm I mean they extend the study to 'selected executive businessmen' who don't pay but make 'tax deductible contributions', by leasing an entire motel and bussing the girls in school buses. The boys keep the difference and turn the study into the first such thing to ever have turned a profit. And they keep scale up... after all they can double the amount they earn by doubling the girls or doubling the centres. There are no limits, not even of eager liberated college girls. Which town is this again and how much are the flights?

Of course this all sounds like plenty of sex but not necessarily a lot of comedy, which is what The Seniors is supposed to be. Well there's plenty of comedy here, perhaps not as much from the boys themselves but from the many supporting characters, not lest Arnold who ends up taking the chemicals the professor has designed to turn his mosquitos into super studs so that he can keep up with Sylvia. Soon he's on crutches but he never quits. Miss Creighton, the old maid who servers as head of the board donating the grant turns up herself and misunderstanding everything the professor says as being about women not insects, for obvious reasons wants to volunteer, turning into a stalker with an inevitable letdown due.

The Phantom Research Corp enters into partnership with a bank manager, a bishop, a judge and a police commissioner. These jokes almost write themselves, including plenty of opportunity for cracks at sex, age and religion, especially when Ben the Jew converts and the bishop is delighted. You can just tell how sensitively this is handled from the tone of this review. Next thing you know they'll have nuns running the cathouses. Check. Best of all is Ian Wolfe, who plays a very old and very deaf businessman called Mr Bleiffer who wants to take them over. He steals every scene he's in, regardless who he's sharing the screen with, but then again he's had plenty of practice. This is my 41st Ian Wolfe, the earliest being Mad Love in 1935, and the only real surprise is that his last film wouldn't be for nother 12 years, that being Warren Beatty's 1990 version of Dick Tracy.

The Seniors is fun though it's pretty inconsequential in most other regards. The leads are capable but none of them shine, not even the young Dennis Quaid, who is easily recognisable here given that he gets plenty of opportunity to show us his unique grin. He'd appeared in four films before this one, three of them credited. It took him a couple more years to really arrive with a prominent role in 1979's Breaking Away and a supporting slot in Walter Hill's The Long Riders in 1980, the Jesse James story that cast a lot of brothers to play a lot of brothers, not just the Quaids but the Guests, Keaches and Carradines too.

There is one serious point that I'm sure wasn't in the minds of the filmmakers when they made this, but I couldn't fail to notice and that's the big lie propaganda technique expounded by Josef Goebbels. He said, 'If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it,' a concept he mastered as the propaganda minister for the Nazis. It's precisely what happens here. When our four heroes begin their lie, they're constantly in danger of being caught. As it gets bigger, they need to grease the palms of the local police to keep it moving. But once it reaches a certain size, they don't need to worry at all; they're now respectable businessmen and they make the cover of Time. What a uniquely American take on Nazi propaganda!

Thursday 20 August 2009

The Richest Girl in the World (1934)

Director: William A Seiter
Stars: Miriam Hopkins, Joel McCrea, Fay Wray and Henry Stephenson

Dorothy Hunter is an intriguing character. As the title suggests, she's the richest girl in the world, in her early twenties and the sole inheritor of the Hunter estate after her relatives went down with the Titanic when she was two years old. However she's kept herself to herself ever since, or rather her caretaker John Connors has, and even the papers don't have a picture of her taken any newer than that. Of the businessmen running her empire, only one has ever met her and that was in her nursery twenty years earlier, which is why she can get away with sending an imposter to their board meeting at the beginning of our film.

She's played by Miriam Hopkins, five years before The Old Maid and infinitely more desirable, with or without all that money, even though not many could compare in 1934 to her co-star Fay Wray, who was thoroughly and refreshingly real. She's as well adjusted to her wealth as modern equivalents like Paris Hilton aren't, but that doesn't mean it doesn't affect her life; her fiance has to break off their engagement because he can't deal with the pressure of marrying the richest girl in the world. And Dorothy Hunter is a romantic at heart, as much as she wouldn't want to admit it to anyone.

The imposter is Wray, of course, playing her secretary Sylvia Lockwood, who is about to be married too, to an Englishman. After the successful run to the annual general meeting, the pair of them end up running with it. At a party she gives, she hides away in the billiard room as Sylvia while Sylvia lives it up as Dorothy, and she meets and falls for Tony Travers. She keeps up the pretence, and Sylvia plays along, because she wants to know if he would pick her even if he could have the richest girl in the world.

The story is a little rushed, but then it's only 76 minutes long and given the level of fluff involved is hardly unpredictable, the Moses story being a truly obvious and convenient parallel. What keeps it alive is the quality of the cast. Miriam Hopkins is a decent romantic lead, who gets a little more depth than usual to play with, though not too much, mind you. She plays well off Joel McCrea, who has the unenviable task of having to be thrown in every direction all at once while being confuddled by her games throughout. He never gets an even keel to ride on but he does as well as can be expected.

Unfortunately the rest of the cast don't get enough to do. Reginald Denny doesn't get much opportunity at all as Sylvia's Englishman, Phil Lockwood. Henry Stephenson makes much more of his chances to shine as Connors, with plenty of subtle laughs and giggles. Most of all though, I wish there had been more Fay Wray. She wasn't the greatest actress in the world and she'd be the first to admit that, but she had a natural charm that shone through in every part she played. She doesn't disappoint here in the slightest, and if I'd been stuck in the situation Tony Travers finds himself in here, just the other way round, I'd have won out. Fay Wray without money or Miriam Hopkins with? Fay Wray any day.

The Old Maid (1939)

Director: Edmund Goulding
Stars: Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins

Another 1939 movie, just to prove that I haven't seen them all yet, this one was overshadowed by other films, not just because it was released in 1939 but because of what else everyone was doing. The star is Bette Davis, but she was Oscar nominated for Dark Victory instead; and even if she hadn't, there would be her performances in Juarez and especially The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex to fall back on. Donald Crisp was in both those too, along with the Olivier version of Wuthering Heights. George Brent was the doctor in Dark Victory, along with The Rains Came. Jane Bryan was the leading lady in Cagney's Each Dawn I Die. Director Edmund Goulding directed Dark Victory, which was also nominated as the Best Picture of the year. Only Miriam Hopkins, who shares the title card with Davis, didn't do anything else important on screen in 1939.

This is one is a glorious maelstrom of melodrama, set back in the days of the War Between the States. To detract from the war, Delia Lovell is marrying into society, to Jim Ralston. Jim is a great catch but there's a third wheel, as Delia had promised to marry Clem Spender instead, her childhood love. As Lt Spender, Clem has been off fighting the war for two long years but it's a girl's duty to be married, apparently, so she takes her opportunity. Conveniently though and apparently through utter coincidence, Clem arrives back in town right on the day of his fiancee's wedding to someone else. Hollywood has always loved coincidences like that.

Now while Clem loved Delia, Delia's cousin Charlotte loved Clem, quietly of course. But now circumstances have changed and Charlotte has her chance, but Clem only has a day before heading back to the battlefield and sure enough, he dies at Vicksburg without ever coming back to her. Even in the 1860s one night is enough and we soon discover why Charlotte spent most of a year out west and came back to run the Charlotte Lovell Nursery for War Orphans: one of them is hers, young Clementina. No, it doesn't take a conspiracy theorist to put those clues together.

And here's where things escalate. Delia doesn't know but she finds out on Charlotte's own wedding day to Jim's brother Joe. Through jealousy and spite she plays her little games and causes Joe to break it all off on the day of the wedding. To make it worse, when Jim dies and leaves her alone in the lap of luxury with her children, she has Charlotte and Clementina move in with her, bringing little Tina up as her own. Oh what a tangled web we weave, a web that gives Bette Davis plenty of room to exercise her considerable talents and Miriam Hopkins the opportunity to try to be worthy of sharing the screen.

This film is a war between two women, every bit as much as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, merely tempered by southern manners. It belongs utterly to Bette Davis, who doesn't just dominate the screen when she's on it, she dominates it when she's hanging around in the corner and she even manages the stunning achievement of dominating it when she's off screen, because we know precisely where she is, what she can hear and what it means to her. It's a stunning performance, at times soft and vulnerable, at times ripping with vitriol with her back as ramrod straight as any soldier could dream of. It's a performance any actress would be proud of and yet the most telling thing is that it's probably the least of the four Davis gave that year.

Miriam Hopkins can't keep up but she does give a good showing as Delia. George Brent gets too short a part and Donald Crisp isn't given the aging everyone else gets. Jane Bryan, who plays the grown up Tina, flounces around admirably but doesn't quite get at the depth that her role could have given her, even in the unfortunate version we have. I couldn't help but picture this as a precode, which but for five short years it could have been, because it could have been handled properly without the copouts needed under the code. The biggest problem with this film is that the wrong people win. The people who should win are left with mild victories that are really inconsequential in the long run and both they and we are supposed to be happy about that. I'm sorry, but I couldn't buy into the morals of the piece.

Sunday 16 August 2009

Ballad of a Soldier (1959)

Director: Grigori Chukhrai
Stars: Vladimir Ivashov and Zhanna Prokhorenko

Unusually, we're drawn in to this Russian war movie not by sound but by silence. A woman dressed in black walks through the village of Sosnovka to the only road that runs in and out of it, not because she's waiting for someone to return but because it's the last place she saw him. He's Pvt Alyosha Skvortsov, her son, and he was rushed off to the war without even having the chance to say goodbye. Now he's dead, buried as a hero in a town that she's never seen where strangers leave flowers at his grave.

He's regarded as a hero because he took out two Nazi tanks on the Eastern front, after they chased him off an observation post. He's a signalman, not even a front line fighter, and the weapon he used is one left by a fallen comrade that he stumbles upon by accident while a tank chases him. Nonetheless he's summoned to see the general who wants to commend him for a medal. Pvt Skvortsov asks instead for a day off to repair his mother's roof and presumably touched by his youthful charm and naivete, the general gives him six: two to get there, two to do the work and two to get back. These six days comprise our story and are a lifetime to him.

The whole point of this film is not to tell us the story of the Second World War or even the Eastern front where over ten million Russians gave their lives in the fight against the Nazis, but to tell us a very human story about one of those ten million, with the unspoken suggestion of course that it could and should be extrapolated up. We learn a lot about Russia through this process of extrapolation, by first learning about Alyosha and those he runs into on his journey home.

We also can't help but learn about how hard the war hit the Russians through the scenery he passes through. The trains run and run but everything around them is either damaged or destroyed. People do what they feel they must to survive, which isn't always the right thing, but there's a sense of cameraderie throughout. This is no overt propaganda film, but it does paint the Russians mostly in an idealistic light. Most of these actors could have been poster material and even those negative characters have mitigating factors. This was made in 1959 when Khrushchev had eased the restrictions on filmmakers imposed by his predecessors, but that doesn't mean they were free to make just anything.

Because we know that Skvortsov doesn't survive, there's an air of inevitability that pervades the entire film but we don't know how or when he dies so the inevitability is suspenseful, more and more tense as the film progresses as we try to work out how far he's going to get. This also reaches a level of heartbreak that many films try to reach but rarely achieve. He's a young man, only nineteen, but a model soldier: level headed, modest and decent, utterly willing to do his part to fight back the enemy from Mother Russia. He's a model citizen and as such a perfect encapsulation of what Russia gave up in the war, doing the right thing by all the various people he meets on his journey home, even though he doesn't know any of them.

Some depict different sides of the same coin. There's Vasya, who he meets at a train station and helps with his luggage. Vasya was invalided out of the war through losing a leg and almost doesn't return to his wife because of his injury. He remembers that things weren't going that well with them before the war so doesn't think she will want him now that he's a cripple. Of course she's waiting with open arms for him, overjoyed that he's alive. Then there's Sergei, who is heading towards the front as he leaves it. Sergei spends all his time thinking of his wife Liza, so much so that he persuades his sergeant to give both the division's bars of soap to Alyosha to take back to her with news that he's doing well. Liza is surviving the war by means that don't involve her being faithful, so Alyosha gives them to Sergei's father instead.

Most obviously there's Shura, a young girl who sneaks into the same carriage of hay that he's bribed his way onto. Initially they distrust each other but become friends and fall firmly in love in the few days they spend travelling together. Both Vladimir Ivashov and Zhanna Prokhorenko were first time actors when they played Alyosha and Shura here, but they give stunning performances. This is a war movie but it's also one of the most powerful romances I've ever seen on film, utterly devoid of the usual stereotypical situations. Prokhorenko has large and expressive eyes, almost like a live action anime character, and her bonnie countenance helps the silent scenes no end.

And here's where I return to that opening scene of silence. There are three amazingly powerful scenes here that are utterly silent and all the more powerful because of it. They are entirely visual, with no accompanying sound effects or soundtrack, though the film has a marvellous and very Russian classical score. The first shows Alyosha's mother and the last is her reunitement with her son. The middle one is the truest love scene I may ever have been privileged to see, with Alyosha and Shura stuck in the gap between carriages on an overpacked and moving train, so noisy that they can't hear each other's voices, but utterly lost in each other so that it really doesn't matter. It's stunning that this powerful romance doesn't just avoid a sex scene, it doesn't even involve a kiss.

In telling the story of Pvt Alyosha Skvortsov, writer/director Grigori Chukrai tells a universal story. It's nothing short of the story of war distilled down into one person. There's certainly a Russian flavour to it, what one IMDb reviewer calls 'Slavic soul', but that's just the flavour. Even more so than another great Russian war film, The Cranes are Flying, this could be any war or any country, because the human story remains the same, hence the generic title.

This is surprising and there are a number of surprises here. There is no mention of Communism or the Soviet Union, Pvt Skvortsov being called merely 'a Russian soldier' and this film being thankfully free of unneeded rhetoric or politics. There's also no overt anti-war sentiment. This is certainly not a pro-war film, but it's not wrapped up in being an anti-war film either, however much it speaks to what war does to people. Chukrai was a decorated veteran of World War II himself as a paratrooper and infantry officer. He knew what he wrote about.

Really, Ballad of a Soldier surpasses any such labels, such as war movie, romance movie or even road movie and becomes pure cinema, in the way that so few films manage. The Russians always had a highly cinematic eye, from the days of Sergei Eisenstein who defined many of the techniques the world is still mastering today all the way to what I hear about Andrei Tarkovsky but haven't yet seen for myself. They also have a strong sense for classical music, the Russian composers always being my favourites over the less weighty western Europeans. Bizarrely this film is so visual that it could be watched with the sound turned off entirely while the soundtrack could easily be listened to separate to the film, yet the two pair together with panache.

The more I watch Russian cinema, the more I want to watch more, but much of it is hard to find. Grigori Chukhrai directed nine films, this being the second after another war/romance film, The Forty-First. Reading up on the others suggests that his is a highly underrated and underexposed name. His co-writer here, Valentin Ezhov, wrote 34 films. Our inexperienced yet stunning lead actors went on to long careers: Vladimir Ivashov died in 1995 with 41 films behind him as an actor and one more, 1967's Iron Flood, as a director. Zhanna Prokhorenko is still alive at 67 but seems to have retired from the big screen in 1989 after 30 films. Her last credit is a TV series called Drongo. Yet reading through these lists, I don't recognise a single title except this one. That's a situation that I need to remedy.