Sunday 31 January 2010

Five Came Back (1939)

Director: John Farrow
Stars: Chester Morris, Lucille Ball, Wendy Barrie, John Carradine, Allen Jenkins, Joseph Calleia, C Aubrey Smith, Kent Taylor, Patric Knowles, Elisabeth Risdon and Casey Johnson
What a bizarre cast list for an RKO adventure yarn! A dozen highly varied characters played by a dozen highly varied actors board the Silver Queen for Panama, even though there are prominent Guatemala signs everywhere. It's a plane, the pride of the Air Coast Lines, but it still flounders off course during a storm and crashes into jungle country that's riddled with headhunters. The airline sends reconnaissance flights to track it down but they're looking in the wrong place, so this bunch are effectively on their own to find a solution. As I'm sure you can extrapolate from the title, after a good deal of drama they manage to get the plane back in the air to return safely home, but because of technical limitations only five of the twelve can be on board.

Wendy Barrie and Patric Knowles are a young couple, Alice Melbourne and Judson Ellis, who are apparently boss and secretary but also obviously much more than that. During the stopover in Mexico, we discover that they're eloping, much to the displeasure of their parents. Lucille Ball, who always looked better in black and white to my eyes, is a dreamy sort of sad here, some sort of disreputable young woman called Peggy Nolan. We're not sure initially why she's there but she's wished 'good luck and thanks a million for what you're doing,' by special delivery right before the flight. C Aubrey Smith and Elisabeth Risdon are Henry and Martha Spengler, a botany professor on vacation with his wife. Prof Spengler delights in explaining to the passengers the techniques the local headhunters use in shrinking the heads of their enemies.

John Carradine is a bounty hunter, Mr Crimp, who's tasked with escorting Joseph Calleia to the proper authorities in Panama City. He's an anarchist called Vasquez and he'll net $5,000 for delivering him to the hangman. As Pete and Tommy, Allen Jenkins and young 'nephew' Casey Johnson turn up to the plane in a Rolls Royce. Tommy's dad will follow later, or so he says. He's a mob boss and the reports of his death by violence are soon reported over the radio on the plane. Chester Morris is top credited (there really isn't a star per se) but we don't see him for quite a while. He's Bill Brooks, the pilot of the plane, assisted by Kent Taylor and Dick Hogan as Joe the co-pilot and Larry the steward, respectively. Hogan can't have been too happy given that this is a story told by twelve actors, eleven of whom get credits and one of whom didn't. Guess which one he was. Then again he's the first to die, not even making it to the jungle, let alone back from it, leaving the plane in a heroic nature during the storm.

As you might expect from such an ensemble cast, the character development is the key here, and fortunately there's a talented set of writers to provide that, not least Dalton Trumbo. It takes more than the material though, it takes the actors to bring it to life and this film fortunately has a decent amount of both. Almost all the characters change given their new and rather unwelcome surroundings, as you might expect they would, and of course we're left to work out how they're going to change, because the big question comes down to which five are going to make it out and which six are going to be left behind. For the longest time it isn't particularly clear, as each revelation changes how we comprise our list, though by the time it gets down to really calling it, a couple of deaths and a change of circumstances make it reasonably obvious.

We're given a lot of opportunity to think before we get that far. Excluding the child who would always be a given, even the most obvious candidate for not wanting to leave might not have a choice about it. While everyone else wants to leave to get back to their lives, Vasquez would be leaving to get back to his death, something he'd hardly want to do. As a prisoner in custody though, he may not have a choice. It's a truism that times of trouble always bring out the real characters within people, and here's a time of trouble for everyone involved. To get out of it alive, they have to team up and work together, something that's easier for some than others. Sure enough some are great assets, and you'd be an idiot to assume that good old reliable C Aubrey Smith isn't one of that number. Others are more of a hindrance and some exhibit true heroism or villainy.

I won't spoil the outcome, of course, but I don't want to spoil the progression either. It's well written and well acted, though there are a number of things holding it back from beyond its control. For a start it had to struggle along with a budget of $225,000, apparently rather low even by the standards of RKO at the time, but it looks more expensive than it was. It had a mere 75 minutes to unfold, though it could easily have been a three hour epic that concentrated even more on the subtleties of character, but everyone involved did what they could with the inherent limitations, and the end result is much better than I ever expected it would be.

Most obviously it was released in 1939 and just look at what it had to compete with at the ticket booth! This was the year where undying classics couldn't even get Oscar nominations because there were too many to cram in there, even though these were the days when there were ten choices for Best Picture. In full cognizance of its inherent limitations, I'd call it a greater success and far more powerful entertainment in my eyes that the film that the Academy awarded the Best Picture of the year. I'd even dare to suggest that it jerked more tears at Chaos Central.

In fact it plays better to me than a number of other major films that members of this cast were involved with, and of course there are many to choose from. Even little Casey Johnson made three films in 1939 and this was his debut. Chester Morris made four and I've only seen Blind Alley, but this is certainly superior. Lucille Ball made five and I haven't seen any of the others, highlighting yet again that however many films I see from Hollywood's greatest year there are always many more to find. This is my first Kent Taylor of 1939, even though he made seven films that year. At least I've seen three of the five Joseph Calleia made, including Juarez and The Gorilla.

John Carradine was always prolific, meaning that this is only one of nine films he made that year, including at least one other classic that throws a bunch of disparate characters together in close proximity for an extended journey, John Ford's Stagecoach. Other notable films he made in 1939 include The Three Musketeers, Drums Along the Mohawk and The Hound of the Baskervilles, the latter of which also featured Wendy Barrie. Barrie made six films that year, including another with Chester Morris, Pacific Liner. Those sorts of connections are rampant if you look for them.

C Aubrey Smith's most prominent film of the year was The Four Feathers but he had eight to choose from, including the third Thin Man movie, which also featured Patric Knowles. Knowles made six films that year, including Torchy Blane in Chinatown. This was the era of movie series, so Allen Jenkins got to appear in a different Torchy Blane movie, Torchy Blane... Playing with Dynamite, along with one of my favourite classic westerns, Destry Rides Again. Most prolific of all was Elisabeth Risdon, who managed to land ten parts in 1939, though this is only my second, after the highly underrated Cagney gangster flick, The Roaring Twenties. Whew.

As fits a film that seems to be a popular memory to many, the simple yet powerful concept behind the story resonating to viewers the way I fully expect it to resonate with me, it was remade twice. The first was a Mexican film in 1948 called Los que volvieron, but that looks to be rather obscure. More obvious was a Hollywood production in 1956 made by the same director as this original, John Farrow, called Back from Eternity, which was apparently pretty good even though it added a chick fight that may not have made a lot of sense. It would be interesting to see it, especially given some of the names involved. I'm rather fond of people like Chester Morris, C Aubrey Smith and Allen Jenkins and I'm hardly likely to prefer their replacements, but having Rod Steiger play the Joseph Calleia role could be fascinating to see.

A Study in Terror (1965)

Director: James Hill
Stars: John Neville, Donald Houston and John Fraser
Given that my last visits with Sherlock Holmes were the John Barrymore silent version from 1922 and the fourteen films with Basil Rathbone in the thirties and forties, a colour version was always going to look a little different, but this is vibrant Eastmancolor. That's clear from moment one as we watch Jack the Ripper follow a prostitute with very red shoes and stab her through the neck, literally. This version came out in 1965 with John Neville in the lead, a long while before I first came across him as Baron Munchausen in the Terry Gilliam version of that story. He's pretty good, all things told, and he's blessed with a Watson who isn't a complete idiot, courtesy of actor Donald Houston.

Given that were dealing with Jack the Ripper, there are more murders to come, of course. Three days later Polly Nichols is stabbed to death in a water trough with copious amounts of red paint to indicate just how dead she is. She's played by Christiane Maybach, a German actress in a rare English language film role, but after her comes a bastion of the British cinema, no less a bubbly blonde than Barbara Windsor. Having her murdered in a Whitechapel street is bad enough, without the wicked laugh of Sid James to accompany the deed, but she'd also just failed to even give her body away for free in return for a bed for the night. The last person to see her alive, the Ripper excepted, was another prostitute in red played by another major British actress, Kay Walsh, who had played Nancy to Alec Guinness's Fagin a couple of decades earlier.

Enter Sherlock Holmes, who is precisely the sort of character we might expect, thank goodness, after my last experience with the character. John Barrymore may have been a great actor but his 1922 version was heresy to the Holmes afficionado. Neville plays him with a heavy nod to Basil Rathbone, full of the classic deductions and memorable lines we might expect. Most of the old Holmes chestnuts are wheeled out in the first five minutes he's on screen, as if to get them out of the way early so the real fun can begin. Hardly surprising for a great British stage actor, Neville also proves adept in the art of disguise, conjuring up a false identity that's good enough to convince everyone in the film, Watson included, but not quite enough to stop us seeing through it.
The trail leads them to a number of characters played by faces I recognise, but of course the underlying question throughout is which one is Jack the Ripper. Given that the obvious suspect is Michael Osborne, eldest son and heir to the Duchy of Shires, who went to study surgery in the Sorbonnes two years earlier only to leave mid-term and promptly disappear, it presumably can't be him. He does appear in the film but not much more than the third name with lofty billing alongside John Neville and Donald Houston. He's John Fraser, playing Michael Osborne's younger brother, Lord Carfax, and he's suspiciously absent for much of the film. It isn't difficult to work out who the real alternative suspect is and why, but I'll let you work that out for yourselves.

The supporting actor we probably see the most of is Anthony Quayle, who as Dr Murray runs a soup kitchen in Whitechapel and protests the poverty that runs rampant through the district. Working for him in his soup kitchen, the Montague Street Hostel, is his niece, Sally Young, in the amazingly young form of Judi Dench. This was only her third film, though she was already an established actress on television and the stage. It would be another thirty years before she'd become M for the first time, a part that is starting to take over her filmography. Insp Lestrade is played by Frank Finlay, who was Oscar nominated for a different 1965 film, having played Iago to Laurence Olivier's Othello. There's even Robert Morley as a surprisingly emotional Mycroft Holmes, rather easily flustered by his younger and supposedly not so smart brother.

The film is an intriguing piece, well played and well progressed, with a dependable script. It's set in the appropriate era, unlike most of the Rathbone films, and the sets and costumes back it up well. Neville is a decent Holmes and Houston a capable Watson. I particularly liked the garish Eastmancolor, which often put me in mind of a Hammer horror, especially with German actor Peter Carsten so prominent in the film as the landlord of the Rose and Crown. I was surprised to find that Carsten never appeared in a Hammer, because I could have sworn I remembered him from films like Twins of Evil, but perhaps my faulty memory just highlights how much he looks like the epitome of one frequently cast sort of Hammer horror actor.

Somehow though it all fails to ignite. All the component parts are there but it doesn't quite know how to put them all together in the right order to stun us. Perhaps some people realised that at the time. John Neville returned to Holmes on Broadway in the seventies, for one. For another, Frank Finlay returned to Lestrade in 1979 in another film that once again merged the Holmes and Jack the Ripper mythos into one story, a film that also saw Anthony Quayle return but in a diferent part. That film is Murder By Decree, and from what I read it's more successful than this one, perhaps benefitting from even greater names than here. Holmes and Watson are Christopher Plummer and James Mason, and backing them up are David Hemmings, John Gielgud, Donald Sutherland and Geneviève Bujold, among others. Now I guess I'll need to track that one down too. It'll be the Arthur Wontner Holmes films first though.

Saturday 30 January 2010

Girls on the Loose (1958)

Director: Paul Henreid
Stars: Mary Corday, Lita Milan and Barbara Bostock
Paul Henreid was a notable actor back in the golden age. Born in Trieste in 1905, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he left for England in 1935 and of course ended up in Hollywood, courtesy of a supporting role in Goodbye, Mr Chips. You've seen him, of course, given that he was Victor Laszlo in Casablanca, but film fans know him well from other memorable performances too in films such as Now, Voyager, Between Two Worlds and The Conspirators. His acting career dried up after being blacklisted during the witch hunts, but somehow he managed to become a director instead, working mostly in television (28 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents alone) but with a handful of B movies to his name too.

Made the same year he made Live Fast, Die Young, this one's a B movie about a bank heist, but as the title suggests, there's a notable exploitation twist. When the Jamestown Laundry truck drops off three men in hats and trenchcoats with the collars pulled up, we can tell that they're not men at all. As we find out when they get inside they're wearing masks too, but it's impossible not to notice the way they walk, the hint of curly blonde hair that we see behind one of those collars and, most obviously of all, an ample bosom. Did I hear high heels too? Yep, I think I did. All these bank robbers have short hair, but they're all still obviously women.

Vera Parkinson is the ringleader and her friends Marie Williams and Joyce Johanneson are in on the job too. They've planned well and they're apparently good at what they do: the heist is over in minutes, they're in and out quickly and efficiently and they leave with a solid haul. No less than $200,000, say the papers. They even demonstrate restraint during the heat of the moment, given that Vera has every opportunity to kill Tom, the bank employee who reaches for the alarm, but she slugs him unconscious instead of shooting him dead. Of course however good a bank robber she is, she sucks royally at digging a hole in the woods to bury the money, not least because of those inappropriate high heels.

The real mistake appears to be Vera's bringing in her younger sister Helen on the deed too, given that while they're sisters the pair are utterly different in character. Initially Helen only believes she's picking her sister up after a 'late night business appointment', but Vera does explain it to her afterwards, at least to the degree that she's earned $40,000 for fifteen minutes work, doing something dubious. She doesn't want to know the rest. The catch is that she soon falls for a homicide detective, Lt Bill Hanley, and having cops hanging around when there's a couple of hundred grand dangling between bickering crooks is never a good thing.

Yes, this is the old story about there being no honour between thieves, and they're an unlikely trio. Vera runs a nightclub, modestly named the Club Vera, and she's a cool as ice criminal mastermind in high heels. In the form of Mara Corday, born Marilyn Watts, she's precisely what this sort of film should be about: tough, capable and intelligent, but always ready for a catfight when it counts. Girls on the Loose was released the year she became a Playboy Playmate of the Month, but it was also the last film she made before retiring from the screen to concentrate on being a wife and mother. She left behind her a string of B movies, many genre related, like Tarantula, The Giant Claw and The Black Scorpion. She returned to film later in life but only to play supporting roles in films featuring her friend, Clint Eastwood.
Her cohorts in crime are utterly unlike her. Joyce is a masseuse, apparently a real one not the usual euphemism, though actress Joyce Barker plays her with a tone of such sleaziness that we could believe anything of her. Surprisingly this was her only film appearance. Marie is a beautician, but she's hardly a pillar of reliability, given that she's also a drunk, a pickpocket and an inveterate shoplifter. She has a vaguely continental air to her, hardly surprising given that she's played by an actress called Lita Milan, but she's really just from Brooklyn. Her real continental flavour came later the same year, when she married the son of a Latin American dictator, who seized power of the Dominican Republic in 1961, yet another inevitably short lived dictatorship whose failure prompted Lita and her husband to flee to Spain.

Marie's a thinker as well as a drinker, and the more she drinks the more she thinks. That would lead her down dangerous paths as it is, even if Vera didn't promptly give her even more to think about by bumping off the other character involved in the heist, Agnes Clark. Agnes is the inside man at the bank, or the inside girl, I guess, as well as the getaway driver. She knew Tom, that bank employee who Vera hit, which act is played up by the radio as a brutal assault that left him in a coma, and she's as shook up by the whole thing as Vera isn't, unable to even go to work the next day. Flouncing around in a tizzy, Vera gives her a sedative only for her to begin spilling all in her sleep. There's just no way they're going to stay free with Agnes on the loose.

So Vera takes care of her, cleverly setting it all up like a suicide, locking the door from the inside and even sending her a $200 money order to arrive late but divert attention nonetheless. While this establishes Vera well as being both intelligent and ruthless, it also removes Abby Dalton from the rest of the movie. Probably best known to the world for her television work in comedy shows of the sixties and Falcon Crest in the eighties, I know her best as an actress for Roger Corman in the fifties. She was Desir, the lead character in the awesomely titled The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent and the leading lady behind Dick Miller in Rock All Night, one of my guilty pleasures.

It's the death of Agnes that brings Lt Hanley to Club Vera and you can pretty much write the rest of the story yourself from there. He falls for Helen's performance on stage, given that she's not just Vera's sister, she's her entertainment too, and pursues her with a passion. Hanley is played by Mark Richman, better known nowadays as Peter Mark Richman, one of those faces that you'll know that carries a name you won't. Helen is the delightful Barbara Bostock, who didn't make enough movies. The immediate comparison that leaps to mind is to Liza Minnelli, but that's mostly because of the short hair and the material she's given. The more we see her the more she seems much more like Maggie Gyllenhaal, especially when she quits the virginal younger sister act and starts dancing on stage. Lt Hanley is hooked and so are we.

This is a routine movie, not a patch on the sort of thing that saw Paul Henreid's name as an actor rather than as a director, but it's a fun diversion nonetheless. Everything about it is surprisingly capable, the material suggesting something a lot worse. There's some bad acting going on, but it's generally not that bad. The worst comes courtesy of Ronald Green, who is credited as a gigolo but is really the new delivery guy who couldn't act to save his life. He made seven movies but this was only one of two that saw him actually credited. How he impresses Vera enough for her to fall into his arms, I really don't know. Compared to his acting, the few prominent plot conveniences are forgiveable. Sure, people can come out of comas just at the right time, just as guns can jam just at the wrong time and knives are always left out in the open just in case.

The best work here is on the dialogue, presumably courtesy of writer Alan Friedman. While some of it is the usual forced B movie tough banter, there are more than a few gems that sparkle out to be noticed, mostly from Vera given that Mara Corday is perfect for them. She could have been a great film noir lead in her day, had she been given the right material. 'Thinking takes brains,' she tells Agnes. 'Just forget you've got them.' Everyone else seems to be on the end of one of her cracks too. After a spat, Joyce gets, 'Have a good nightmare,' after suggesting that, 'I'll see you in my dreams.' Even Lt Hanley receives a great snub in 'This is our business. Why don't you mind yours.' He begins the best one though. 'Don't you ever hate yourself in the morning for what you do to that girl?' he asks Vera, only to receive the dry reply, 'I never get up in the morning.' The dialogue is great, the girls are good and the rest you won't tend to mind too much.

Thursday 28 January 2010

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

Director: Edward D Wood Jr
Stars: Tor Johnson, Vampira, Tom Keene and Gregory Walcott
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

I couldn't resist watching Plan 9 from Outer Space after Manos: The Hands of Fate. It's the film most usually regarded as the worst ever made, but there's really no comparison. Harold P Warren didn't know how to make a movie in the slightest, but Ed Wood did. Sure, he chose to do so in his own very outsider way but he was capable nonetheless, hardly the no talent hack movie history tries to make him out to be. Outsider art is an acquired taste that surely isn't for everyone, and Wood can only be fairly contextualised as an outsider, especially given that his films, which like Tarantino's movies are patchwork quilts of everything he had seen and thought was awesomely cool, are undeniably his. You simply can't mistake an Ed Wood movie for anything else, just as you can't mistake a Russ Meyer movie for anything else.

What made Ed Wood happy isn't what would make most people happy. His taste is so different to that of the mainstream audience that they often couldn't help but laugh at him, but what really matters is that he knew how to make movies and he made some really fun ones, however inept they often are. Along with its legendary wobbly flying saucers, Plan 9 from Outer Space has cardboard sets, redundant dialogue and terrible acting, make no mistake about it, and it plays out like a textbook of things not to do when making a movie. It breaks all the rules and doesn't even attempt to make excuses for doing so. To a film school professor this is Cinematic Hell.

However there's a flip side that really can't be ignored. It also has crisp visuals, synchronised sound and capable tracking shots. There are some decent special effects along with the bad ones, professional make up work and an appropriate soundtrack. It even has opening credits, cool ones with names carved into tombstones to boot, and not one of these things could Warren even dream about. Then again Wood had three times the budget to work with, even a decade earlier and working as cheaply as he possibly could. That meant $60,000 to ensure that he had real film to shoot with, real sound stages to shoot on and real studio lights so that whatever happens in the film, at least we're able to see it. Bill Thompson, the cameraman, even knew how to put them to decent effect.

In many ways, while Manos is an utter failure, successful only at winning a bet, Plan 9 is a true American success story. It's a real film, made like one, released like one and one that found its audience. Manos was rescued from obscurity by Mystery Science Theater 3000, Plan 9 was never obscure in the first place because of the magic of television and a growing cult audience even in those first few years after release. And at the end of the day, it's a film that rightly carries those magic words, 'Made in Hollywood'. It's a success, it merely isn't the success that most people would want. Just so long as you can tune into Wood's wavelength they don't get any more fun than this but, as Manos proved, they get a hell of a lot more inept.

Wood also had a whole smorgasbord of cult actors that would have made this film famous even if there were no other reason. There's Vampira, the original TV horror host with her delightful cleavage and her tiny waist, and Tor Johnson, the wrestler with a thick Swedish accent who became The Beast of Yucca Flats. There's the Amazing Criswell, a phony psychic famed for his stunningly inaccurate predictions, and the flamboyantly gay but rich and influential drag queen Bunny Breckinridge. Most famously of all, Ed Wood cast legendary horror icon Bela Lugosi, even though he was already dead before shooting began. That's certainly some sort of genius, even if he padded out Lugosi's scenes by casting his wife's chiropractor with a cape held over his face to attempt to hide that he looked nothing like him.

The story is laughable but it's a real story at least. There are flying saucers over Hollywood, wobbly flying saucers that the stock footage army can't shoot down. They're here because mankind has developed explosive technology far too quickly for its own good and we're apparently on the verge of destroying the universe. We know this because we watched The Day the Earth Stood Still too, the characters in the film know it because they've secretly managed to build a language computer that can translate every language into American, except perhaps English. What's more the aliens know that we've done it, so broadcast their plea to us in an attempt to get us to pay attention. They actually speak fluent American anyway but we're not supposed to notice that. We're not supposed to notice a lot in this film. As we apparently ignore the aliens' message like every other attempt to communicate with us, presumably the much discussed plans one to eight, they promptly mount plan nine. They're persevering souls, these aliens.
What's plan nine, you ask? Bunny lets us in on the secret: 'Ah, yes. Plan 9 deals with the resurrection of the dead. Long distance electrodes shot into the pineal and pituitary glands of the recently dead.' In other words they want to scare us by having zombies march on the nations' capitals, just like Ozymandias wanted to scare us in Watchmen by materialising aliens into those capitals. And I thought Night of the Living Dead was really about communism! Apparently it was a wake up call from aliens to stop building bombs. How naive I was! At least I'm not naive enough to know that plan nine will succeed where the others failed, because if anything's been drummed into us by these old movies it's that pesky aliens with electrode guns and nifty space age costumes never win out in the end over superior human intellect.

Fortunately they have a good try at it first, shooting their long distance electrodes into the pineal and pituitary glands of our cult cast and turning them into the coolest zombies that cinema ever saw. The first is Vampira, playing an unnamed character who was fortunately buried in a glorious gown, stylishly ripped so as to expose a tantalising amount of cleavage. She's the wife of the old man, the character Bela Lugosi is playing, even though Vampira was 35 and Lugosi over 73 and dead to boot, and even though his few minutes here are really from a movie Ed Wood never finished called Tomb of the Vampire.

I should add that Wood doesn't attempt to explain why these two characters would be married or even why Lugosi is playing a vampire when he's supposed to just be an old man. He does explain the old man's death at least, screening footage of Lugosi walking out of Tor Johnson's house and down his path, apparently tortured by the death of his wife. We can believe it, given that Vampira never looked better than here, even though her character spends the entire film dead. So he walks off screen to be mowed down by a car, one that is courteous enough to leave his shadow untouched. Of course Eros and Tanna, who comprise the entire army that alien ruler Bunny Breckinridge sends to save the universe, resurrect him too. They had taste, you have to give them that, even if they wear bejewelled corsets or tunics with medieval axes on them.

The victim in between the old man and his wife is Tor Johnson, who plays Inspector Daniel Clay with a vitality that doesn't even hint at what terrible shape he would be in five years later for The Beast of Yucca Flats. He joins the film because Vampira rises so quickly from the grave that she can even kill the gravediggers that are throwing earth on her coffin, even though she's magically somewhere else and interacting with them through some bizarre bending of the laws of physics given that they're in daylight and she's surrounded by darkness. Anyway Clay comes to investigate the murders of the gravediggers, only to become another zombie with cool make up, be promptly buried and then rise from the grave in a truly great resurrection scene that could only have been improved if Tor Johnson could stand up without making it seem like he had broken legs.

There are subplots that we're supposed to pay attention to but really don't care about. There's an airline pilot called Jeff Trent who gets hassled by a flying saucer, hanging outside his plane's window on a string, and he conveniently lives right next to the graveyard that it decides to park in and glow at us from. There's a general at the Pentagon, played by Lyle Talbot, who is investigating the aliens and he sends a colonel to California to investigate. There are cops everywhere, almost as many as there are Baptists, who all got bit parts because they financed the movie, but none of them are any use whatsoever. These aren't Keystone Kops but still if they'd stayed around about thirty years until Rodney King's day, given that it's precisely the same neighbourhood, he'd have kicked their collective asses and consequently saved Los Angeles from '53 deaths, 2,383 injuries, more than 7,000 fires, damages to 3,100 businesses, and nearly $1 billion in financial losses.' Let's hear it for idiot Hollywood cops.

What we really do is sit back and watch our favourite zombies lurch around the cardboard graveyard, obviously not the one that the real Bela Lugosi wanders around, and pick out all the best continuity errors. This sort of thing is really why Plan 9 became such a classic cult film and it's one good reason why it's so often regarded as the worst film of all time, being voted as such by the Golden Turkey Awards. Even if you don't pay attention you'll find mistakes because they'll leap out of the screen and slap you silly. Day becomes night and night becomes day, often during the same scene. Tombstones fall over. Flying saucers are described as cigar shaped but are really shaped like saucers. If you do pay attention, you'll have trouble keeping up with them. Flying saucers leave shadows on the space station they visit, just as soldiers leave shadows on backdrops that are supposed to be sky. Pilots have to fly their planes without controls. Zombies walk back and forth through the same graveyard because that's all Wood had built.

Yet this isn't about the ineptness of the filmmaking, it's the fact that Ed Wood just didn't care about such things. Sure, he wrote redundant dialogue, he ignored flagrant continuity errors and he built sets that would only really pass muster in a school play. He cast friends and financiers because it was the only way he could get the movie made, even going so far as to get baptised to secure that funding. It takes some mental gymnastics to really see what Ed Wood saw when he made this, but that's what turns this film into an immersive and interactive experience. That's why Fox Mulder on The X-Files watches it whenever he has to focus because it shuts down the logic centres of his brain and allows him to make the sort of intuitive leaps of logic that he needs. It's why people love it so much. As Wood once said, 'If you want to know me, see Glen or Glenda, that's me, that's my story, no question. But Plan 9 is my pride and joy.' And as Criswell asks us at the end, 'Can you prove that it didn't happen?'

Taxi Driver (1976)

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

It took me a long while to get Martin Scorsese, probably longer than any other director and I'm still not quite there. I think it took me four tries to even get through Mean Streets, the film that broke him as a major name, as well as two of the future stars here, Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel. It took another couple of viewings to really understand what Scorsese was doing, and even then I needed to read up to find out about the metaphors he was using. It seemed unfocused and sloppy and pointless. I found that about a lot of his films, though bizarrely I seemed to really enjoy the ones that nobody else raved about, things like After Hours. I've persevered though and I'm starting to get just why he's regarded as one of the most powerful filmmakers working in the industry today. I'm still no fanboy but the more I see, and perhaps more importantly, the more I re-see, the better it all gets.

Taxi Driver opens with music as smoky as the exhaust from the cars that are everywhere in this film. It's soft saxophone music, courtesy of Bernard Herrmann's excellent last score, and it lulls us into a false sense of calm, very unlike anything he did for Alfred Hitchcock. There's a lot of calm here, as the film unfolds quietly and subtly for quite some time, something that feels more than a little surprising given that we know full well that it isn't going to end up that way. This is the movie where Robert De Niro goes full on batshit crazy, right? 'You talking to me? You talking to me? Well I'm the only one here.' We watch his eyes as the credits roll and as he applies for a job as a taxi driver and we wonder how he's going to get to where he's going.

He's Travis Bickle, a former marine with an honourable discharge, only 26 years old. He can't sleep nights, and it looks like it, given that he has a perpetual five o'clock shadow. He has a clean driving record and he'll work any time, anywhere. He wants long hours because he has nothing else to do, nothing at all and he has eight hours a day more than the rest of us to fill because he can't sleep. So he works the night shift, six till six, six days a week, sometimes more. It pays pretty well, especially given that he doesn't seem to ever spend anything except on pie and porn movies. When he's home he lies in bed or writes in his diary. It's this diary that provides the most overt direction, narrated in a poetry of sorts, but not delivered as such. Then again it's all coming from a taxi driver with mere education here and there.

Writer Mark Schrader plays along with the sax and keeps it calm, but it grows slowly but surely. Bickle is a driven man, and whatever is driving him builds as we watch. He needs a place to go, a destiny to fulfil, but he doesn't seem to have a clue what that will be. He just drives around all night until it manifests itself, all the while gradually tightening up like a coiled spring. He has headaches, bad headaches, perhaps associated with the fact tht he sees all the bad things in the city, the whores and the pimps and the muggers and a whole bunch of other subsets of city lowlife that get referred to by names I can't list in this review without having to set an adult rating on the blog. The profanity here is extreme but it's reserved for the right moments and so has all the more impact for not being used throughout.
He thinks he finds his destiny in the angel in white that he sees one day walking into the presidential campaign HQ for Senator Charles Palantine. She's Betsy and she's played by Cybill Shepherd, so she's good looking in a wholesome sort of way, very believable as a city dweller who would stand out among the usual sort of people Bickle meets in his cab. After all, he has to clean the semen off the back seat every night and sometimes the blood too. He tries to chat her up but he doesn't have much luck. He persuades her to go out to eat with him but while he throws out some lines about how great her eyes are, he mostly talks about how sucky her co-worker is, the one he thinks is competition. When he takes her out to a movie, he picks a porno called The Swedish Marriage Manual and that's the end of that.

Then he thinks he finds it in a twelve and a half year old prostitute who gets into his cab, apparently wanting out of her life, only to be hauled right back out by her pimp who throws Bickle twenty bucks to leave. He keeps looking at that twenty dollar bill and it rankles. He's already thinking, because his previous fare was Emperor Palpatine, I mean Senator Palantine, who seems to be interested in what the people have to say. He is standing for President, after all. Maybe he has to be interested. Palantine asks him what concerns him most and he explains that the city needs to be cleaned up because it's like an open sewer. So he can't fail to think about young Iris and that twenty dollar bill.

Perhaps what really does it is the Martin Scorsese cameo. He's another fare, a jealous husband who asks him to pull over to the curb and leave the meter running. He has a stream of consciousness monologue to run through, full of contradictions and obscenities, while he watches his wife's silhouette through some nigger's apartment window. It's all to validate the spiel he runs through about how he's going to kill her. It's an amazing monologue, even Bickle unable to turn it into dialogue. Maybe this is when he starts to think about real violence, and once he's there it escalates quickly and surely and everything begins to click into place.

We're almost ready for 'You talking to me?' and we have plenty of guns ready to back it up. We're also almost ready for the other two major stars of the film, not that they were that in 1976. The twelve and a half year old prostitute is twelve and a half year old Jodie Foster, already four years into her career, in a huge year for her that saw not just this but Bugsy Malone, Freaky Friday and The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane too. She is so much older than her years when she's coming onto De Niro, unzipping his fly and asking him if he wants to make it, yet she's every bit her age when she meets him for breakfast the next afternoon.

There have always been child actors in Hollywood and some were a lot younger than Foster when they started out. Only recently I saw It's a Gift, featuring Baby LeRoy becoming the youngest actor ever to earn a co-starring credit in a Hollywood movie, at age two. Compared to him Jodie Foster was an old woman when she started, at ten years old no less than five times his age. Yet she's always seemed the epitome of what a child actor should be, because she was never there just to be the token kid. She was an actress from moment one, every bit as capable as the more experienced adults she appeared opposite, apparently completely aware of what she was doing and what it meant. In many of these films she was the lead or the title character, including her first picture, Napoleon and Samantha in 1972, when she was the latter.

Her pimp is Harvey Keitel, playing a character best known as Sport. Amazingly he was less experienced on screen than Foster was, even though he was almost three times her age. He'd only made five films before this one, one of which was merely an uncredited role as a soldier. He presumably knew Jodie Foster as he'd beaten up her screen mother two years earlier in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. That was a Martin Scorsese film too, as were most of the films he'd made, really debuting in Scorsese's feature debut, I Call First aka Who's That Knocking at My Door, and then graduating from the Mean Streets that firmly established them both. After this one he was off and running and he hasn't looked back since. He has a penchant for unlikeable roles, but this one is up there with anything he's played, though even this hardly compares to Bad Lieutenant.
Really though it's hard to concentrate on anyone in this film except the two real lead characters: Travis Bickle and New York City. Robert De Niro was Oscar nominated, but he lost out to Peter Finch for Network, whose character's most memorable line, 'I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this any more!' could easily have been given to Bickle. We never know precisely what triggers him to act but it may not be anything in particular. It could just be the endless nights of insomniac driving through the worst parts of the Big Apple, witnessing every depravity known to man and trying to find a way to deal with it. He comes very close to the edge indeed and nearly falls off it. De Niro is almost never off screen and he's utterly magnetic, almost but not quite connecting with reality at any point in time. Whether he's making a Secret Service agent very nervous, failing to understand anything his date is talking about or firing empty guns at the TV and empty fingers at the porn movies, you just can't stop watching him.

The violence, when it comes, is a real shocker. It's the antithesis of every Hollywood gun battle you've ever seen, not even remotely slick and with apparently no planning whatsoever. There's no beauty to be found and no glorification either. It isn't pretty, it's just raw, visceral, inept violence, reminding of nothing less than a crime scene photo, not the safe staged sort of stuff you see on CSI but an unholy mess of out of control blood and gore and death. The understated follow up that speaks to his heroic stature is thoughtful. Sure, Bickle takes down some truly sick individuals, but the way in which he does so is nowhere near how we expect a hero to act, especially when we see what he was about to get up to beforehand. If not for circumstance it and he would have been something utterly different. The two parts to this, the noise and devastation followed by the quiet broken narration, combine to provide some of the best shocking and powerful scenes cinema has given us.

It's hard to say what Scorsese was trying to tell us here. Was this merely a character study? Is it really just speaking to loneliness, and Bickle's status as a 'walking contradiction', tormented by the loneliness but embracing it nonetheless. Was Taxi Driver speaking to the inevitability of a violent response when someone is effectively submerged in depravity without any opportunity to escape it, not even though sleep? Perhaps the most telling message is that sometimes there's a fine line between heroes and villains, a very fine line indeed.

I have a feeling that I'm vague about the meaning simply because there isn't one, at least not one in particular. Maybe with Taxi Driver Schrader and Scorsese merely asked questions and we come up with own our answers, just as Bickle answered his questions about the human condition and the legacy of Vietnam by doing what he did. If this is the case it makes the story subtle and intriguing, certainly not a bad thing. I think I'm getting it.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

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

Back in the nineties I was a silent movie novice. I hadn't really seen much silent cinema and I didn't know much at all about it, but even so I was massively shocked to find that an estimated 80% to 85% of silent films are completely lost. They don't exist any more. They're gone. And that's not just a few here and there, it's almost all of them! Any serious journey into silent film is therefore inherently doomed to being something of a scraping of the surface, with the abiding hope that at least the best and most important titles are what's left but the sad underlying surety that that isn't going to be entirely true. Some great stars are almost completely lost to us today except in photographs, to the degree of Theda Bara, who made forty films of which only three still exist.

The Passion of Joan of Arc isn't a lost film, but it was thought to be for many years. It was censored before its release in 1928 and the original negative was destroyed by fire. A second negative was reedited from alternative takes but this was also lost to fire. All seemed lost until 1981, when a complete Danish copy in very good condition was discovered in the closet of a Norwegian mental hospital, of all places. It has been professionally restored to what must be something very close to the original, and made available to the audiences of today along with a new soundtrack, Voices of Light. This composition by Richard Einhorn is a highly appropriate accompaniment, the choral grandeur fitting the religious subject magnificently.

I don't know exactly what I expected from The Passion of Joan of Arc. Knowing that what little experience I had with silent film was with slapstick shorts or Lon Chaney horror movies, this was always going to be a little different from anything I'd ever watched before. It's a French film by a Danish director at the end of the silent era about the trial and execution of Joan of Arc, made a mere eight years after she was canonised. All I knew about it was what I gleaned from watching a long and fascinating documentary on director Carl Theodor Dreyer immediately beforehand, which pointed out that it's based closely on the record of her trial that exists to this day in the Bibliothèque de la Chambre des Députés in Paris, and the script provides both exact transcriptions of the questions given to Joan and her answers. The tantalising glimpses of the film promised something very special indeed and those promises were soon fulfilled.

What Renee Falconetti does in this film could just be the greatest single acting performance I've ever seen, and while I watched it first in 2004 near the beginning of my voyage of discovery into classic film, I'll stick to that statement today, over 3,600 films later. She took the part of Joan of Arc after all the major French actresses of the time refused it, due to Dreyer's insistence that part of the role involved being shaved. She was a stage actress who never appeared again in film, and that choice helped lead to the role being identified with her forever. After seeing her stunning performance, I can understand why. Even restricted into performing without a voice, she is still mesmerising from the first moment we see her.

Her eyes are huge pools that shine brightly and shed frequent tears, though these tears never alter her demeanour. She never weeps. The tears merely trickle and she ignores them as if they are of no consequence. She is also frequently still, her head tilted piously, looking intently at something only she can see, while the judges and elder priests are far more dynamic and obviously unsure of how to proceed. Lips quiver, eyes wander, gestures are hurled and exhortations made, nervous tics and a variety of indignant reactions make themselves apparent, while Joan remains still and kneeling. She has to put up with plenty, both as a character and as an actress, yet she always manages to be something above everyone around her.

She looks holy, pure and simple, and never loses that look regardless what happens to her. Holiness is a characteristic that is nigh on impossible to act, being something that inherently comes from within. I grew up active in the Church of England, meeting and working with many church leaders and authorities who were often good men, but I only ever met one who I could truly call holy: David Hope, at the time the Bishop of Wakefield but later Archbishop of York. Somehow Falconetti taps into that holiness, radiating it as she is bled, with stark realism, to alleviate fever; prodded with a stick; ridiculed; humiliated; forced into a false confession; shaved bald; and, of course, after she recants her confession, eventually burned at the stake as a relapsed heretic.
If there was anything more to want in this film beyond Falconetti's tour de force performance as Joan, there's still much more to experience. Dreyer put together a film that still looks unique today, over eighty years after it was made, and that puts it into a very select company indeed. I added a caveat in 2004 that I didn't then have enough background to suggest that The Passion of Joan of Arc is something apart from everything else cinema has ever given us, and to be frank I still don't. Since that first viewing I have found a number of other reference points, more in some of Sergei Eisenstein's films than much of the rest of Dreyer's filmography which I've been happily working through, but this still seems like something out there on its own and benefitting to no small degree from that fact.

For a start, Dreyer concentrates almost exclusively on close-ups, so we experience the story through individual expressions. It's immediately obvious that Dreyer chose his cast for their looks, something obvious not only because this is a silent film that relies entirely on visuals, but because these characters are so easily distinguishable. We see the faces of so many of those judging her, but never in one mass. They are consistently separate from each other, or only in small groups, as if they were disconnected jigsaw pieces. It's up to our minds to put the puzzle together. The camera pans across these small groups, zooming quickly in and out. We remember prominent warts and long beards that turn faces into triangles. One judge is wizened like Boris Karloff in The Mummy, another has eyes that bug like Peter Lorre's, yet another is bald but for a tuft of hair on either side of his scalp like demonic horns. The wizened judge is superb: while others rage he remains constantly calm and collected, yet calculating like an evil wizard.

These faces occupy sets as distinctive as they are. They were designed by a man called Hermann Warm, who had also made the stunning avant garde sets for one of the great expressionistic silent horror films, 1920's The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, which I had seen shortly before this film in 2004. These are highly minimalist and starkly white, so as not to distract from the close-ups of features. They don't resemble anything I've seen elsewhere and really belong in the era, yet another sad reason to lament its passing.

The camerawork is simply incredible and must have been highly innovative in 1928. The cinematographer was Rudolph Maté, who I knew even in 2004 as the director of one of my favourite films noir, the original DOA. What he does is so artful that it's impossible not to find serious depths beyond something that on the surface looks so impeccably cool. I didn't even need to force myself to look for meaning, the camerawork just drew me into it. One notable shot shows us a barred window entirely in silhouette so that it looks like a flag. We watch the spears above a bunch of marching helmets, pan across a bunch of raised hands, follow a stool carried aloft. Are these looks upward telling us where Joan will soon be?

Maté's camera is rarely still and each shot is short and sweet, as minimalist as Warm's sets. The close-ups are occasionally so close up that the camera has to pan down them for us to see faces in their entirety. Even the torture implements are shown in close-up, sometimes so much so that they become abstract puzzles. We see revolving spikes but not what they belong to, pan down links of chain but don't know what they connect to. One man turns a wheeled torture device so fast that we see him only stroboscopically. As you might expect from a film with expressionistic influence, shadow is well used, the shadows of swinging hooks at expressionistic angles and a helmet and pike reflected against a pillar are particularly impressive.

It's incredible to realise that all of this stunning work was done over eighty years ago, including amazing shots where the camera is suspended from an arch and rotated 180 degrees vertically to follow soldiers through an archway from outside to inside. When I grabbed a copy of the IMDb Top 250 in 2004, The Passion of Joan of Arc was the newest of its seven movies from the twenties, made only six years after Nosferatu, the oldest of them all. It's a silent film that came out at the very end of the silent era, a full year after The Jazz Singer had ushered in sound. In fact the next movie Dreyer made, the inferior but highly stylish horror film Vampyr, is about as close as I've ever seen to a silent film with sound.
And while Maté, Warm and especially Falconetti excelled themselves, the whole thing was put together by Carl Theodor Dreyer, one of the most utterly uncompromising directors that cinema has ever seen. He made no panderings to commerciality whatsoever, something of course almost impossible nowadays without becoming an inherently obscure underground filmmaker, but that uncompromising nature led to a masterpiece like this. If Dreyer couldn't make a film his way he wouldn't make the film at all; and that's why his career of over forty years only left us thirteen films, just like that of Stanley Kubrick, in this way his closest equivalent in recent times.

Dreyer also broke many cardinal rules of direction, long before any modern equivalents followed suit. He often deliberately hired actors who were not professionals and he frequently forbade them to use make up. I can't help but wonder what he would do were he to be starting out today, in a world where blockbusters have to advertise themselves on talk shows and cereal boxes and Happy Meals. Would he be able to find financing to make his films? Would the festival circuit keep such a vision as his alive or would it exclude him because he wouldn't play their games?

The Passion of Joan of Arc profoundly affected me as a work of art but it touched me in another way too. If not for that unexpected copy in that Norwegian mental asylum closet, this masterpiece would have been lost from our culture. Now I've seen it, that's a loss I don't want to think about, yet I have to think about it. If it was only saved by chance, which other masterpieces have already been lost to us and which are in danger of being lost? Most importantly, what can we do about the situation? Films are often inspirational, providing us with opportunities to reevaluate our perspectives on life and make conscious decisions on how to change. This one and its close brush with non-existence made me very interested indeed in the fight to keep culture alive.

After I was shocked by the extent of how much of that culture has already been lost, I investigated on a much wider scale and didn't like much of what I found out. The preservation of culture, whether film, book or music, is an expensive and time consuming task and, while there are many individuals and organisations dedicating much effort, there's so much more that needs to be done. What's most upsetting is that it isn't just a case of finding enough people to do a job and enough money to pay them, as the current state of copyright legislation means that there are many legal obstacles thrown into the path of those who already have technological obstacles to cope with.

It's bad enough to know that I won't ever be able to see every Hitchcock, every Chaney, every Chaplin, because some, or sometimes most, of their output are lost films, but it's somehow worse to know that there are many examples of films that exist but are withheld from release for some reason or other. When writing this review in 2004 I singled out films like the Mr Moto and Charlie Chan series as good examples, but fortunately times have changed even since then and these have now been released onto DVD in box sets that I happily snapped up. So there's definitely a lot of good being done, but there are other examples out there that are still suppressed, withheld or banned.

It can't be a good state of affairs when the public is unable to experience its own culture. We live in a technological age where there is no valid reason for this culture to disappear, but political correctness and bad legislation is causing exactly that. Especially through the gnarled mess that is the state of modern copyright, we're losing more films, more music and more literature every day and frankly that sucks, as does the fact that it takes pirates working outside the bounds of law to preserve it, the modern day equivalents of Henri Langlois and his compatriots in France during the Second World War who risked their lives to save films from destruction by the Nazis. The Passion of Joan of Arc was almost lost to us. Let's work to make sure that nothing else is.

The Seven Samurai (1954)

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

I'd waited for so long to see this movie, possibly more so than any other film in the entire IMDb Top 250 list and I caught up with it in 2004 courtesy of the Independent Film Channel. I'd seen so many clips from Kurosawa films, but only a couple of complete movies, Yojimbo many years earlier and its sequel Sanjuro much more recently. Even those who have only dipped into classic film tend to have at least heard of Kurosawa and realise how important he and his films are. This one tends to stand above all of them in the regard of critics, one of the most influential films ever made, most obviously but not restricted to the American remake, The Magnificent Seven. It's the first place to go to begin to understand why Kurosawa is so important and the taiko drums that back the rakishly angled kanji credits are only the beginning.

We're in the late 16th century, when Japan was torn by almost constant civil war, known as the Warring States Period, and as the introduction tells us, farmers were frequently crushed by cruel bandits. We soon see a pack of the latter about to crush a village of the former, riding up like a whirlwind to charge down on it from the mountains, only to surprisingly leave it alone. They realise that they looted this particular village the year before so decide to wait a few months until the harvest is in before doing so again. That leaves the villagers, who notice their arrival and prompt departure, at least a little while to work out what to do about it. They're a pitiful bunch to say the least, suggesting everything from outright capitulation to mass suicide. Where's God, they ask. Land tax, forced labour, war, drought and now bandits. Where's God, indeed.

Only one man seems to want to fight, the rest merely lamenting that it's the lot of farmers to suffer. To highlight his importance, he's the only one we see in real close-up, amongst an expansive village population. Watching the number of people in frame here is a real eye opener. Kurosawa finding innovative ways to move and position crowds into and within the frame. The choreography here is magnificent and it's impossible to ignore, especially as Kurosawa only had a 4:3 aspect ratio to work with, an epic of this scale screaming for widescreen. Fortunately for this lone villager, the patriarch of the village backs him, decreeing that they'll fight but to do so they'll need help. They'll need to hire samurai, but hungry ones who will work for what they have to offer in payment, nothing but three square meals a day. Gisaku, this grandfather of the village, is old and infirm but he's a savvy soul.

The four men that head out to find these hungry samurai don't have any luck and end up crouching in a building to shelter from the rain. They're out of rice, out of hope and aware of their failure to the point of tears. It's only when they argue about going home empty handed that they luck into being in the right place at the right time, to witness what Roger Ebert has suggested may well be the origin of the sequence now routine in action movies to establish the credentials of the hero through a feat unrelated to the main story at large. This one establishes an aging ronin called Kambei Shimada, who shaves off his topknot, symbolic of the honour of a samurai, and dresses as a priest in an effort to save a boy who is being held hostage by a thief who has taken refuge in a barn.

Of course it works, because he's played by no less a name than Takashi Shimura, already on his eleventh Kurosawa movie, with Stray Dog, Rashomon and an astounding performance in Ikiru behind him, all three films undeniable classics. The same year he made this film, the largest production ever mounted in Japan up until that time, he made no less than eight other films too including another massively influential movie, the original Gojira. Incidentally filming these two movies in the same year nearly bankrupted Toho Studios, but in the end both films made them famous far beyond Japanese borders. Naturally our four villagers promptly beg his favour and he accepts, to lead what will become the seven samurai of the title. The second gets to him before even the villagers do, an idealistic young samurai from an aristocratic family called Katsushiro Okamoto who is so impressed by his act that he begs to be his disciple. Actor Isao Kimura had debuted five years earlier in Kurosawa's Stray Dog and also appeared in Ikiru, but this was perhaps his most prominent and memorable role.
Just as we got the potential origin of the establishing sequence for the hero with Kambei's saving of the child hostage, we also get what may be the origin of the team recruitment sequences so reminiscent of American action movies of the seventies like The Dirty Dozen and The Guns of Navarone, as Kambei recruits another five ronin to meet the quota he feels is required. Okamoto has already been counted, though he doesn't become official until later, and the rest arrive gradually. They're a varied bunch, highly memorable and distinctive. We certainly spend more time with some than others but each of them gets his moment in the spotlight and the opportunity to develop his character within a wider story.

Gorobei Katayama is a careful cherub of a man, looking more like a Buddha than a samurai, who finds Kambei himself even more interesting than the concept of the work. He's seeking in friendship morethan anything else and his loyalty is fierce. A skilled archer, he backs up Kambei in building the team and in planning the defence of the village. He finds the next recruit, Heihachi Hayashida, in a back yard chopping firewood because he's hungry and has no money. Then comes Kyuzo, the unflappable epitome of the samurai spirit, a master swordsman who they witness winning a duel almost like it's a textbook. He's played by Seiji Miyaguchi, who is highly recognisable to anyone with a background in Japanese films, not least because of his highly distinctive face. The sixth samurai is Shimada's former right hand man Shichiroji, found completely by accident.

The last of the group is Kikuchiyo, not really a samurai at all, who arrives drunk as a skunk with false credentials which if they were to be trusted suggest that he's thirteen years old. He's a wonder to behold, a bundle of energy fighting everyone and everything including the instinct to fall asleep and sober up. We've already met him, as he was hanging around during the hostage incident, and so we already know that he's played by Toshiro Mifune in full on wild man mode. He's a monkey, a pirate and a jester all wrapped up in one package and he has a sword taller than my wife in an obvious statement of machismo, possibly because his name translates roughly to One Thousand Generations of Chrysanthemums. I can't quite bring myself to call this okatana a penis extension given that this is Toshiro Mifune we're talking about but that's basically what it is.

He joins them but only in a way, initially rejected as a member of the group but following them anyway, initially apart from the others not just figuratively but literally. He's the wildcard for sure, but he proves his worth on a number of occasions, not least immediately after arriving in the village, as they're welcomed rather akin to the plague, due to the fear of the farmers. It's Kikuchiyo who comes up with an imaginative solution to the problem and breaks the ice in no uncertain terms. He's good at that, certainly the comedic element in the story, and I get the impression that the laughter he tended to elicit, especially from the children of the village, wasn't acting in the slightest. Certainly he was allowed a lot of freedom to improvise.

Like many of Kurosawa's films, The Seven Samurai is at heart a western, only where westerns tend to feature gunslingers in the Wild West, Kurosawa's easterns feature men with swords in feudal Japan. The story comes straight from the western tradition, but it's full of quintessential Japanese history and culture, reevaluating to a wide audience just what being a samurai meant. Many of these ronin exhibit strange behaviour to anyone used to merely the traditional viewpoint of their code but that's very deliberate on Kurosawa's part. The film is also so much more than just a western (or eastern). One of the reasons it's such a powerful success is that it really is many things, all fully formed and explored in the nearly three and a half hour running time. Despite such length and the fact that it's a black and white film in a foreign language, it isn't boring in the slightest, from the initial scenes with the pitiful villagers to the full fledged battle in the rain.
There are so many story arcs involved here that it's impossible to really explore them all in a single viewing. Even twice through I'm sure that there's plenty more depth for me to find in the future. As a friend and Kurosawa fan has suggested, it's a film to grow with. I don't know how many times you've worked through it thus far, Robert, but I know there are more to come. Most obviously it's an action film, a samurai movie, but that's merely scratching at the surface. While there are no armies involved, it has enough military strategy to effectively count as a war film. It's even a romance, between young Katsushiro and a paranoid villager's daughter called Shino, the one whose father cut her hair and disguised her as a boy just so he can keep her safe from the samurai who he fears are about to ravage his village.

Most of all though it's a character study. What seems like every character here learns and grows and evolves, not just the seven samurai of the title. Most obviously Katsuhiro comes of age, as a warrior and a man, experiencing both love and death at around the same time, but he's far from the only one. Gorobei seeks friendship, Kikuchiyo action and Katsuhiro learning. Kyuzo merely seeks a closer perfection of his art. Yet all of them seek something and all of them find something in the time they share in the village, though not always what they expected. They learn a good deal about what farmers are and why they are why they are. Their eyes are opened.

The villagers evolve too, even more palpably than the samurai, both as individuals and as a group. These farmers, who had previously killed fleeing samurai and saved their armour and weapons, find a respect for these seven men who put their lives on the line to save their village. They learn through association as much as through direct training, the whole timbre of the place altering completely as they come to trust their saviours and then themselves. Kikuchiyo is the link between the two, helping each side to gain insight and to come to terms with each other. It's heavily suggested that he's a former farmer's son who escaped the death of his family to become who he is.

The Seven Samurai is undoubtedly the most characterful and well defined jidaigeki or Japanese period movie ever made, not to mention the most influential. While spaghetti westerns most obviously sprung from another Kurosawa film, Yojimbo, this had an influence too. It could be seen as the first Japanese blockbuster but there are too many negative connotations to that word to really allow it. As I've already mentioned, it did a good deal to define the format of action movies generally. Most obviously it's been remade in what seems like every other genre. The Magnificent Seven took it to the west, Battle Beyond the Stars took it into space and Sholay took to to India, apparently the highest grossing Indian film of all time. A fresh American remake is in the planning stages, set in the modern day with paramilitary mercenaries defending a Thai village.

As soon as I saw one Kurosawa I wanted to see another. When I first saw this in 2004 it was the second I could remember and it left me eager to see more. It overwhelmed me to quite some degree but left me in no doubt of its importance and I certainly felt enriched for the privilege of having seen it. Now, watching again, I have much more of a background in jidaigeki and in Kurosawa's films too, with a even dozen under my belt from Sanshiro Sugata in 1943 to Rhapsody in August in 1991. Kurosawa is justly known for his samurai films but he made much more, including notable films noir like Stray Dog and The Bad Sleep Well.

It's hard to argue against this as his masterpiece, but with so many masterpieces to choose from there's room for a few others too. There were four others in the IMDb Top 250 when I grabbed it in late 2004: Ikiru, Yojimbo, Ran and 1950's Rashomon, which might just be as influential a film as this one. Three more have made the list since: Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress and High and Low. I could make a solid claim for a few others too and compared to many other directors, Kurosawa wasn't that prolific, especially late on in his career. He's a director of world cinema who can simply not be ignored. What George Lucas has stolen from him, albeit with much acknowledgement, is only the top of the barrel. Everyone else has copied him too and they're still doing it. That's patently obvious when watching The Seven Samurai.

The Princess Bride (1987)

Director: Rob Reiner
Stars: Cary Elwes and Robin Wright
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

William Goldman's novel, The Princess Bride, is an astounding piece of modern fantasy, not to mention adventure, comedy, romance and whatever else he managed to cram into the book. It took the old hackneyed fairy tale concept that's been gradually done to death over the last few centuries and reinvented it along precisely the same lines it ran in the first place. I'm still not entirely sure as to why this works. Maybe the process of distilling the entire fairy tale genre down to its essence and brewing it back up again makes it both entirely familiar but somehow still fresh at the same time. Rob Reiner's film version, based on Goldman's own screenplay, does exactly the same thing. There's absolutely nothing new here in the slightest but somehow the nothing new in the slightest still seems awesomely fresh.

We start with a book, being read by Peter Falk to his grandson, Fred Savage, who play such archetypal characters that they don't even have names. They merely serve as the framework for the story and pop back every once in a while to ensure that we're paying attention to the rules of the game. All that's really important is the book, naturally called The Princess Bride, and written by a fictional writer called S Morgenstern, a pseudonym Goldman adopted for at least one other book too, The Silent Gondoliers. It tells of the True Love that arises between Princess Buttercup and her farm boy, Westley and it should be noted that this isn't just everyday run of the mill true love, hence the capitals; it's more, well, the sort of thing that books are written about.

The problem is that Buttercup believes that Westley is dead, slain by the dread pirate Roberts who never leaves captives alive. As it happens he has merely become the dread pirate Roberts, just the latest in a long line of them, and he comes to Buttercup's rescue five years later when she has been kidnapped for ransom. It's the 500th anniversary of the kingdom of Florin and the evil prince of the realm is taking her for his bride, though amazingly enough it isn't the prince who's behind the kidnapping. It's really another villainous character by the name of Vizzini who wants to blame it all on the next country along, called Guilder, and start a war. He's the leader of a fascinating trio, as different in character as they are in height.
Vizzini is the brains of the operation, played by an actor who for years I've recognised and enjoyed in bizarre films like Nice Girls Don't Explode, made the same year as this. However I've only recently broken my long running inability to ever remember his name: he's Wallace Shawn. He's a highly regarded actor known far more for serious films made for French director Louis Malle, such as My Dinner with Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street, or at the other end of the art film scale, for voicing Rex the Dinosaur in Toy Story, but I think it'll always be Nice Girls Don't Explode and The Princess Bride for me. He brings such a sense of arrogance to proceedings that it's difficult to imagine it equalled, let alone bettered by anyone else. 'Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates?' he asks. 'Morons.' I don't know anyone who could make that sound more dismissive without overacting and he doesn't overact here in the slightest.

Being a rather diminutive character, he's backed up by two much more physically able fellows: a Spanish swordsman called Inigo Montoya and a giant called Fezzik. The Spaniard is played by Mandy Patinkin, who has long hair and looks stunningly different to anyone who has got used to him on TV shows like Chicago Hope, Dead Like Me or Criminal Minds, this being perhaps his most obvious film role and certainly his favourite. He tries to outdo every romantic swashbuckler in the book, from Douglas Fairbanks Sr onwards, in his twenty year quest to find the man with six fingers on his right hand who killed his father. He even has his speech memorably prepared: 'I am Inigo Montoya,' he'll say. 'You killed my father. Prepare to die.'

Fezzik the giant is played by the huge professional wrestler Andre the Giant, so natural a candidate that he was understandably the one and only choice for director Rob Reiner. However it took so long to get the film off the ground that the character was almost played back in the seventies by a then unknown Arnold Schwarzenegger, who of course had become such a huge star by 1987 that he was way beyond the film's budget. Andre looks perfect as Fezzik and it's easy to believe that the feats of physical strength he performs are real, though as it turns out he was actually one of the least able members of the cast physically at the time.

Andre was a real giant, in the medical sense, as opposed to his closest modern wrestling equivalent, The Big Show, who is merely very big indeed, and by 1987 his back problems were such that he couldn't even walk up the hills unaided, let alone catch princesses leaping out of windows. Even Andre's thick French accent is completely forgiveable, given that the country names point to a Dutch setting, and the Netherlands are only a stone's throw away from France. Then again, the entire film was shot in England and Ireland. Hey, it's the old country. Fairy tales are older than the United States. Get used to it.
That's not the only serious truth here. The young boy at the beginning of the film is bored by the entire concept of having a book read aloud to him before it's even opened. He's obviously part of the ADD generation and in the person of Fred Savage, star of TV's The Wonder Years, he could almost be described as a spokesman for his entire age group. Yet by the time Princess Buttercup is about to get eaten alive by the shrieking eels he's become engrossed despite himself. By the last page he's so caught up in the story that he even admits to be open to listening to the kissing bits, an uncomfortable truth for young boys everywhere, I'm sure. I'm reminded very much of my youngest stepson, who as a young teenager struggling with ADHD was always trying to avoid things that he'd end up thoroughly enjoying.

In fact it's the script that is the most magic thing of all here, hardly surprising really given that Goldman wrote the book in the first place, which like every source novel is inevitably better than the resulting movie. What the book doesn't have, though, is this incredible cast. The bit parts are moments to shine for comedians like Carol Kane, Mel Smith, Peter Cook and especially Billy Crystal, who made Rob Reiner laugh so much he had to keep leaving the set. In fact Mandy Patinkin, who learned fencing with lead star Cary Elwes to lend authenticity to their epic fighting scene which they fought without doubles, later claimed that the only injury he sustained during filming came through stifling his laughter when playing opposite Crystal.

The principal roles have about as much depth as the bit parts but then again, that's entirely the point. The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad and that's how fairy tales work. So Princess Buttercup is unfailing in her belief that her Westley will save her; Westley himself is indestructible, even when dead; and the evil six fingered Count is evil to the core. Actors Robin Wright Penn, Cary Elwes and Christopher Guest are perfectly fine, but for my money, the best roles are the ones in between the leads and the bit parts, people like Vizzini, Inigo Montoya and Fezzik the Giant; and so it's always that guy from Nice Girls Don't Explode, Mandy Patinkin and Andre the Giant that I'll remember.

In short, Rob Reiner's The Princess Bride is a small slice of the magic you'll find within the pages of S Morgenstern's The Princess Bride, which you'll find within William Goldman's The Princess Bride. Reiner has a mere hour and a half of screen time to attempt to transfer that magic over to celluloid, and he naturally fails at the completely impossible task. Maybe if he'd have been filming in this new century, he could have pitched it as a trilogy of three hour movies, but that's idle conjecture. It may be an impossible job under any circumstances, but Reiner does come about as close as anyone could hope to get.

Chinatown (1974)

Director: Roman Polanski
Stars: Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Smoky music by Jerry Goldsmith that Mike Hammer would have loved sets the timeframe wonderfully as Chinatown begins, even though we're merely watching a long list of credits that includes John Huston, who provides a notable acting performance here, and ends with director Roman Polanski, the last such credit he would earn in the US. Given that we're looking at an elegant font on a dark and faded sepia background, it's not difficult to realise that we're not in 1974, when Chinatown was made. Sure enough we're a lot further back, so far back that the cars come in any colour we like as long as it's black and Seabiscuit is still on the front page of the Racing Record without the benefit of a biopic to advertise the name.

It's 1937 and it looks precisely like 1937, as well it should, given that notable critics have cited Chinatown as having the best design ever seen in a American film, courtesy of production designer Richard Sylbert and his team. It's hard for me to buy into that accolade, having seen both Blade Runner and Brazil, but it's definitely something to experience in its original anamorphic widescreen glory, full of sumptuous visuals, skilful and deliberate composition and with plenty to look at, whether it's the focus of the frame or not. Do not watch this the way I first saw it, in fullscreen on television, under any circumstances. While it's always going to be a powerful film noir, quite possibly the best such ever made in colour, in fullscreen it's a shadow of its former self, literally half a movie.

We're watching Jake Gittes, who is a Marlowe-esque private eye of the old school, with an abundance of cynical sarcasm, a receding hairline and a stock of whiskey bottles in his office ready for any occasion. He's played to everyday perfection by Jack Nicholson, way before he let the Joker get into his blood and started overacting for a living. He should have been good because writer Robert Towne wrote the part specifically with his way of speaking in mind, but it's more than that: both Nicholson and Towne thankfully resist the temptation to turn it into a star vehicle. Private eyes should be completely inconspicuous because by definition they don't want to be seen, especially when they're the sort of private eyes who look into the personal lives of people having affairs and take pictures of them.

Gittes is hired to look into the personal life of the chief engineer of the Department of Water and Power in Los Angeles, Hollis Mulwray. He's apparently cheating on his wife who wants to know for sure and so almost browbeats the detective into investigating. Of course he quickly discovers that there's a lot more to the story, film noir never being about transparent storytelling. Mulwray is indeed seeing a beautiful young woman on the side, but it turns out that the wife doing the hiring isn't the real wife after all and that real wife sues Gittes. To make it even stranger, she quickly drops the lawsuit but Gittes refuses to accept it. His thinking is that whoever has made a fool out of Mulwray has also made a fool out of him, so he perseveres regardless of circumstances.

He discovers that Mulwray, who is a big fish in a big pond, has stumbled onto something much bigger than he is, something to do with bringing water to the deserts around Los Angeles. There's a drought on and tempers are flaring with the heat. There are city meetings to propose dams, through which farmers drive their herds of sheep in protest and there are threats to blow up the city reservoirs. Strangest of all, while water is still in very short supply, it's also being dumped out of these reservoirs into the ocean each night and people are turning up drowned in dry river beds. It doesn't take long for Mulwray to be included in that company and this story promptly becomes a murder investigation, among many other things. There are webs of corruption, layers of fraud and even seedier revelations to come.
Much of this has a solid basis in history, being what historian Margaret Leslie Davis has called a metaphor for the rape of the Owens Valley, part of the California Water Wars. Mulwray is a thinly disguised version of William Mulholland, a self taught Irish engineer who had arrived in Los Angeles when it only contained 9,000 people and effectively masterminded the construction of its entire water supply up until 1928, when the St Francis Dam collapsed mere hours after he had personally inspected it, an event that is specifically referenced during a city meeting in Chinatown. This was the worst civil engineering disaster in 20th century America, the resulting hundred foot torrent swamping much of Ventura County and burying utterly the town of Santa Paula, leaving 450 people dead, including 42 schoolchildren. The California Water Wars were hardly a minor event, ripe for fictionalisation.

Given the superb cinematography, the admirable production design and the wonderful script, it seems strange to focus on something as basic as Jack Nicholson's nose, but Chinatown, as befits what is really an old black and white film noir that just happens to be a little newer and in colour, doesn't try to make its characters look pretty. The gritty reality of the story really hits home through the device of having Nicholson's nose bandaged or at least notably damaged for at least two thirds of the film, as a reward for, well, being nosy. Nicholson knows well that Gittes is a vaguely decent man making a living in a vaguely indecent way, who becomes notably more damaged as the film goes on, both on a metaphorical and a literal level, and if a star of his stature is happy to put his art before his vanity for the sake of the movie, then it must be something special. He wasn't the major name back then that he is today but he certainly wasn't nobody either.

Towne's script is a peach, one which brought the film its only Academy Award from eleven nominations. The Writers Guild of America West named it the greatest original screenplay of all time, even more notable because it was Towne's first, as he had previously only adapted other work. In fact he was initially hired to adapt The Great Gatsby but as he felt he couldn't improve on it, took less money to write a script of his own. I'm sure he never regretted that decision. He does nothing less than reinvent film noir here, both in the sweep of the thing and in the details, but he reserves the right to leave his own stamp on the genre. It's rare to see noir done both traditionally and well in latter years, LA Confidential being possibly the best other great example of the colour era.

There are genre traditions here, not least that the story is told through the lead character's perception of events. Gittes is in every scene of the film and when at one point he's knocked unconscious the film fades to black until he recovers. The tone is uniformly dark. Anyone truly innocent is little more than a victim, there for the talented and more morally flexible people to exploit. The only really good looking character is Mulwray's wife Evelyn, played by the ever-sensual Faye Dunaway, but of course she's firmly in the role of the femme fatale so good looking comes with the territory. Towne wrote this character with plenty of depth and Dunaway develops it notably over the course of the film, so it's impossible to pigeonhole her. In the end she's possibly the only selfless character there is. Everyone else fits somewhere on the bad scale from two bit thug to evil mastermind, and of course somewhere in there is the director of the film, Roman Polanski.
He was never afraid to turn to the dark side, which of course is a prerequisite for anyone making a film noir, but he takes Towne's script and runs with it, taking it into some truly dubious territory, so much so that the movie certainly couldn't have been made while the Production Code was still in effect and it probably couldn't be made today, at least by a major studio. Polanski, of course, is rather notably associated with the dark side, having already been embroiled in more controversy than most directors or most people will ever be. Polanski was involved in controversy even before he was old enough to know what the word meant, so a modern film noir that touches on taboo subjects seems like a natural choice for him.

He's a good parallel to the title, which at once has nothing to do with the story and everything to do with it. Hardly any of the film takes place in Chinatown, but it's always being referred to, because when you ask questions in Chinatown you find answers to questions that shouldn't be asked. As writer Robert Towne later explained, he based the concept on an experienced vice cop who pointed out that in Chinatown with its maze of different accents, gangs and cultures you never really know what's actually going on: by doing anything at all you could find yourself either stopping a crime or unwittingly assisting in one. The only way to avoid doing the wrong thing is to do nothing at all, thus leading to the memorable line, 'Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.'

Polanski was born in Paris but moved at the age of three with his parents from France to Poland, a really unwise choice of destination for a Jewish family in 1936. It's hardly surprising that his parents were soon moved again, to Nazi concentration camps where his mother was killed, no doubt one of the major influences to his other film in the IMDb Top 250, The Pianist. Some time later in 1969, his pregnant wife, the actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by followers of Charles Manson at their Los Angeles home, an event that surely flavoured his next few films including a violent version of Macbeth as well as this one. Had his life been freer from tragedy, I'm sure Chinatown would have been a very different film with a very different ending. Certainly writer Robert Towne and producer Robert Evans wanted something very different, but I'm happy that Polanski got his way on it. Towne even admitted he'd been wrong when the film was rereleased in 1999.

Towne intended for the story to be the first part in a trilogy, each about the manipulation of a different critical and finite municipal resource and focused around detective Jake Gittes. Jack Nicholson believed so much in Towne's vision that he has conspiciously refused to play a detective again, so that this one remain the only one associated with him. He returned to the role in 1990 for the second part in the trilogy, The Two Jakes, which he also directed, which Towne wrote and which included a number of other returning cast members. It centred on oil and was not a success, never mind the wild success that Chinatown was, so the third and final part, Gittes vs Gittes, about land and the LA freeway system, has never been made.

When I first saw Chinatown, Polanski was living in Europe, unable even to enter the United States for fear of a fresh arrest for the statutory rape and drugging of a thirteen year old girl at Jack Nicholson's house. As I post this review, he's in house arrest in Gstaad, having been taken into custody by Swiss police on an international arrest warrant while travelling to accept a lifetime achievement award at the Zurich Film Festival. Maybe one day, if Polanski gets out of jail, he'll have enough dark left in him to make a real successor to Chinatown.