Wednesday 28 April 2010

Horrors of Spider Island (1960)

Director: Jaime Nolan
Stars: Alex D'Arcy and Barbara Valentin
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.

You may have a picture in your mind of how a 1960 film called Horrors of Spider Island is going to play out, but you'll be wrong. You might be closer to the truth if you mishear the title as Whores of Spider Island but unfortunately not too much closer. Originally a German/Yugoslavian coproduction whose title translates to A Corpse Hangs in the Web, it ran 89 minutes long and contained quite a lot of nudity. Released Stateside in 1962 under the title of It's Hot in Paradise, all that risqué material is supposedly intact as it was an adults only release. Finally in 1967 it was trimmed down into this version, which supposedly runs 77 minutes but by the time it made it to the public domain box sets ended up as a mere 74. And whatever you think it's going to be you're wrong. Trust me. It's so bad that the director apparently took his name off the thing. He was Fritz Böttger but he's credited as Jaime Nolan and he never directed again.

Of all things it begins with a saxophone solo, suggesting that Spider Island is a hip and happening place, backed up by the abundance of fins on the car that pulls up outside Mike Blackwood's agency. Inside are a string of bored looking women. 'Here's Singapore', one reads to another along with a string of facts, because apparently Mike Blackwood leaves the CIA World Factbook in his waiting room instead of Vogue. Another girl just plays with her pantyhose and talks about nightclubs, but then she's blonde and buxom and stereotypes were alive and well in the sixties bad movie world. Into their midst waltzes Gary and his girl Georgia, who are looking for a dozen girls for a dancing troupe in Singapore. Gary promptly takes over Mike's office, putting his feet up on the desk and doing more crossing and uncrossing of legs than Basic Instinct could have dared. He's signalling Georgia. Honest.

You see, we're in the audition part of the film, which is a strange and mysterious thing. May is the finest dancer in town, who used to be with the Coquettes. She has a polka dot dress and she shows her legs, so she's hired. Babs is the sassy blonde who shows her legs without even being asked. She's hired too, as long as she doesn't have any affairs. 'Mr Webster doesn't stand for any fooling around,' points out Georgia. 'I've had all the boys I can take,' she replies. Bitchy. Gladys and Doreen get hired just because they want to stay together and go overseas. To compensate for them not having to show their legs, Linda starts disrobing the moment she walks through the door. She's a stripper with a husky voice so yeah, she's hired. Nelly has the rhythm in her bones so she has Georgia slide some wax on the tracks and jives around in her high heels. She's hired too, but anyone who doesn't trip over doing that routine deserves to be.

But Carolyn? She's just a professional from the National Ballet so actually has to audition and Gary isn't interested. He's after dancers, not people with grace like this. She's obviously just there to twirl around for a little while to bring some class to proceedings then get the heck out of the picture so we can get on with the fantasy. Yet to prove that he's not just after pretty legs, Gary also turns down Rhonda, who isn't a dancer but picks things up real fast. I point all this out to highlight the numbers. He hires six out of eight girls, even though he was looking for twelve. By the time we get to the island there are seven of them, but they don't all match the ones in the auditions. Am I not supposed to notice this sort of thing? What happened to Doreen? Where did Ann come from with her Swedish accent? Well, accents change quite a lot here, so perhaps we're not supposed to worry about such things.

Nine minutes in we're on a plane and ten minutes in we're still there. Well, actually we're outside the plane like a gremlin on the wing because the filmmakers couldn't afford to construct a set so just used some stock footage. At this point we're wondering if they could afford to find an island or build a spider. They certainly couldn't afford a stunt so we watch a World War II bomber burn up and plunge into the sea with a couple of close ups of girls screaming to mildly suggest that there was really only one plane after all. Obviously nobody could survive that crash but back in the States Mike Blackwood is hopeful. After all, the only things they know for sure are that the plane caught fire and they lost contact four days ago. What could possibly be wrong? Well we have an hour to go and we haven't seen a spider or an island yet so we have to assume that he's right and sure enough we soon find everyone floating around in a liferaft.
Beyond one girl moaning about not having enough water, these dancers are pretty solid material for a male fantasy and that's what this film is. They all survive the plane crash without a scratch, while the pesky crew just vanish as if they were never in the same movie to begin with. Their skirts get ripped dangerously up the sides because this is a German film so there's no Production Code to worry about. And yet not one of them loses her high heels. Wow! That's talented stuff, even though they float around for four days going precisely nowhere before they finally notice the two large islands sitting just off the starboard bow. And in case you weren't watching the numbers, this all leaves Gary in a pretty awesome situation. He's the one man stuck with eight lovely young dancing girls in high heels and slit skirts. With my luck I won't remember my dreams tonight but I'm pretty sure I can imagine what they're going to be comprised of.

Gary soon removes his shirt to highlight how much he looks like Clark Gable in Mogambo. Well, this is his fantasy, after all. He really comes off more like a cheesy Stacy Keach, but then again this is a German film. It turns out that actor Alex D'Arcy is really Egyptian and while I don't recognise him in the slightest I've actually seen him in silent films, French films, American films and now a German film. He certainly got around and his filmography is utterly bizarre. After films for Rex Ingram, René Clair and Leo McCarey, he found his way to movies for Roger Corman, Russ Meyer and Al Adamson, all in a mere 40 film career over six decades. If only he'd written an autobiography, I'd be first in line to buy a copy. This is certainly a low point in a career that ran as high as Forbidden Games, The Awful Truth and The St Valentine's Day Massacre, because he gets to play macho for a little while then turn into a werespider and apparently vanish.

I'll let that sink in for a moment and then whisk you back to the survivors of the horrific plane crash who have been dying of thirst for four days and nights. Yep, they're all absolutely fine and dandy now and can happily wander around the island. They find a hammer. 'A hammer! There must be someone on this island,' Gary assumes, which is pretty fair, but he has leaps to make yet. 'A hammer with a long handle. It must be for the purpose of excavating some sort of metal, most probably uranium.' Wow. If hammer then uranium mine. I'll need to remember that. Next thing you know they've found a cabin which contains a dead man leaning against a giant web. The next line of dialogue is stunning. 'A dead man. In a huge web,' cries Georgia. 'Oh Gary!' I should reiterate that the original title of the film translates to A Corpse Hangs in the Web, but that's not much of an image to hang a title on, especially when the corpse keeps twitching.

Having finally found a hint of a spider in this movie, a pretty huge spider at that given the size of the web, we can't help but find a little hope in the movie after all, but it's soon dashed. All the girls flounce away to congregate under a tree, which has some sort of miniature giant spider in it, climbing down behind them. When they leave we get a good look at it, sitting there on the ground with its bug eyes and clawed hands, and it gives them the finger. Let me repeat that for anyone who just fell out of their chair. This claw fingered, bug eyed, miniature giant spider gives the girls the finger. It doesn't talk but if it did, you just know it would say something like, 'Curses! Foiled again!' Well, unless it had a voice like Cartman, which would be utterly believable, in which case it would be something more like, 'Goddamn bitches! I'll get you skanky hoes later! Right now I'll finish off these cheesy puffs.'

Such dialogue would certainly fit in with what's actually in the movie, which is cheesy beyond comparison. Take the next conversation as an example. Georgia opens with a diary and a death: 'The poor professor, when he made the last entry in the diary, he didn't know how horribly he would die.' Gary raises with uranium and riches: 'Well his discovery of the uranium deposits didn't help him any, even if it does represent a tremendous fortune.' Georgia counters with a premonition: 'We must keep it from the girls that Professor Green had a premonition of his fate.' Gary ignores that entirely and counters with precisely the same premonition: 'You see, here in the last paragraph he says he thought something terrible was going to happen. He just felt the danger.' Georgia forgets the giant web entirely: 'I wonder where that peculiar hissing came from that he always heard. Oh Gary, I'm terribly scared. I'm so afraid.' Finally Gary wins by playing the man card: 'Don't worry, Georgia. As long as I'm around nothing will happen to you. I promise!'

This conversation is the epitome of Z grade movie dialogue, every line raising the cheese factor another notch until we can't take it any more and we have to sit back and let the film roll over us for a while. The girls make themselves at home. They take inventory. They talk about setting up smoke signals from the highest cliff. There are catfights over shirts. Well nearly. We should have had some catfights. This film really needed more catfights, but naked catfights are presumably what were stripped out, pun well and truly intended, and now I need to track down the It's Hot in Paradise version to find out what's missing. 'I simply can't stand this frightful heat any longer,' says Linda the stripper. She takes her top off and does her makeup because her purse survived the crash. Most of the girls go to sleep outside, clad rather scantily and draped seductively all over the porch of the cabin. Yes, I definitely need to track down the full version.
Gary finds the professor's revolver, as jovial as ever. He's always jovial, whatever the circumstances, but then he's one guy stuck on a desert island with eight young lady dancers. Wouldn't you be jovial? Unfortunately he's also doomed. 'This damned heat!' he cries as Georgia catches him in a clinch with one of the half dressed dancers. 'I don't know what I'm doing any more!' he exclaims and proves it by wandering off into the storm. Yes, there's a storm now because it's time for him to be attacked by the miniature giant spider. We get a great view of it between a couple of trees, all wizened with nothing but muscle and bug eyes. And hands. It has hands. With claws. It's like Popeye the Sailor Man had too much spinach and turned into an Alien facehugger that leaps onto his neck instead and bites him. Gary does shoot the thing dead but he's been bitten and so turns into a werewolf. Not a miniature giant spider, a werewolf.

So Horrors of Spider Island is a werewolf movie? You might assume that at this point but Gary claims one victim and promptly vanishes. He waits for the girls to go searching for him, leaving only the stripper to sway seductively to saxophone music in front of the cabin and when she goes down to the pond he stands behind her to cast an ominous shadow in the water and then strangles her with his claws. Just in case you think you're hallucinating here, let me recap. The miniature giant spider bites Gary and turns him into a werewolf so he can strangle women with his claws. What planet are we on here? Did they have no biology books in Germany? We're still puzzled by this when we get a real catfight and a little bit of whipping action with a belt, but Gary hovers his claws surreptitiously around Georgia's neck in the doorway so the girls scream and he runs away to be hardly seen again. Perhaps he's ashamed at his technique.

Perhaps Gary's fantasy was just to be shipwrecked with seductive young dancers and then turned into a werewolf, while the two men who replace him on the island want to share the place with seductive young dancers and get drunk. Yes, there are two new guys, Joe and Bobby, the professor's assistants, the ones he never mentioned in his diary and didn't appear in the script until now, who arrive with whiskey and supplies just in time to watch the girls frolicking around and skinny dipping in a lagoon. I should point out that after 28 days they're close to starvation because the food is running out and cruise liners rudely fail to stop when passing, so desperate that Ann tries to jump off a cliff, but when the guys arrive they're skinny dipping in a lagoon having a whale of a time. Oh, and the expedition ship will be here in two days so they're all rescued and they can just spend the rest of the film partying on down. No, I'm not kidding.

Now it's a soft porn movie without any nudity. Here's Joe taking his shirt off. There's Bobby hurling out euphemisms. He'll do anything on legs and he starts working through the dancers, rendezvous after rendezvous. Here's Babs slouched on the ground licking his hand while Bobby poses in a macho stance. It's orgy time, without any sex, and he gets most of the girls because Joe is a little more sensitive and claims Ann for himself, romancing her politely. 'I'm really glad that your aeroplane crashed,' he says and she falls for him in return. Gladys falls for Bobby but he isn't faithful to her, the cad, and suddenly we're in a soap opera for tween girls. Even the guys end up fighting over how Bobby talks about Ann. 'What are dancers?' he slurs after a few bottles. 'Hot goods for cold nights.' Six women aren't enough for him this night so it's fight time, until he remembers he has a date. Oh, how they laughed. Oh, how we wept.

By the time this film was over I was rather confused as to what I'd seen and even more confused as to what the filmmakers thought they'd made. Then I realised that it isn't a horror movie at all. After all this place could hardly be called Spider Island given that there's precisely one spider and it gets killed after two brief appearances. There are only horrors plural because Gary turns into that werewolf spider with claws but he vanishes as soon as he arrives and only turns back up at the end to push Gladys off a cliff and be chased to his death in the quicksand. Suddenly It's Hot in Paradise makes more sense as a title. The horror is just a distraction, this entire film is about getting trapped on a desert island with a bunch of young dancing girls like buxom Barbara Valentin to flesh out a wild orgy. In other words the entire point of the film is what was cut out of it for this version. What that leaves is an Amish porn movie and who wants to watch that?

Fargo (1996)

Director: Joel Coen
Stars: Frances McDormand, William H Macy, Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell and Peter Stormare
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 couldn't help but have doubts about Fargo when I caught up with it in 2005. Wherever I looked, it was consistently rated above all the other Coen Brothers movies which, I should add, include a couple of my favourite films, and it would have to really pull out the stops to warrant its place on top of the Coen pedestal. It isn't just the fans who raved about it as Roger Ebert said, 'Films like Fargo are why I love the movies.' It has the honour of being the most recently made film to reach the AFI's original list of the Top 100 American films of all time. It won two Oscars: Best Actress for Frances McDormand and Best Screenplay for the Coens themselves. It swept the Independent Spirit Awards, winning for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Actress and Cinematography, thus ensuring that three of my favourite modern indies, Dead Man, Lone Star and The Whole Wide World, won nothing between them. Sling Blade had to make do with Best First Feature.

In short, it had acquired a major reputation and I'd been looking forward to seeing it for years, but then I watched Miller's Crossing, the other Coen Brothers movie that gets raved about everywhere I look and to say I was seriously disappointed with that film is an understatement. Not everything they make is a classic but they have a rather enviable track record, with Miller's Crossing standing out as the exception in my book, the least worthy of the many IMDb Top 250 films I've seen to be in that list. Fortunately to my fan's eyes, however, Fargo lived up to all the hype and I understand every one of the accolades heaped upon it. It's joyous even from the start as the minimalistic credits unfold against what looks like a sky or just a pastel background but subtly, oh so subtly, we're let in on the reality. It's really a snowstorm in Fargo, North Dakota, with a complete absence of the horizon that I now watch for in all John Ford movies.

By the time we see anything other than bleak countryside and a car on its way to a remote bar called the King of Clubs, there's ice hockey on the TV, country music on the jukebox and the notable pairing of actors Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare looking very out of place. The driver is Jerry Lundegaard, a car dealer and apparently not a particularly good one. He's just as bad at managing his finances and so he needs a really large sum of money really badly for reasons we are never truly let in on. He doesn't want to talk about it, but his current efforts to conjure up this money are failing miserably. He's borrowing against cars that don't exist and running out of explanations, yet his rich father-in-law refuses to pony up the cash, even for decent real estate ventures that he's otherwise interested in. In fact Lundegaard is doing so badly at raising the money that he decides to take things a step further and hire a couple of thugs to kidnap his wife.

Needless to say, Buscemi and Stormare are playing the thugs, named Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud respectively, to which parts they're admirably suited. Buscemi is a Coen regular and they wrote the part specifically for him, so he gets to bitch about everything just like he did in Reservoir Dogs and indeed most films that he's appeared in, and Stormare gets to look as big and menacing as he usually does when anyone needs a big menacing Russian. One great scene has the pair driving into the Twin Cities so the talkative Showalter can attempt conversation with a rather stubbornly silent Grumsrud. The kidnap is a pretty good idea as Lundegaard's ideas go, as he can put a down payment on the deed with a new car off his lot and follow up with $40,000 of the ransom once his father-in-law coughs it up, but like everything else he touches, it goes horribly wrong and a simple kidnap becomes a triple murder, one of the victims being a state trooper.

They do manage to get away with Jean Lundegaard, though she bites Grimsrud and falls down the stairs trying to escape, while wrapped in a shower curtain no less. What's worse, Showalter doesn't put any tags on the new car and so gets stopped on the road with a noisy kidnap victim in the back seat. The state trooper doesn't even have the common decency to be bribed, so Grimsrud shoots him in the head, then follows up with a young couple who turn up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fortunately Lundegaard is played by William H Macy, who floundered wonderfully in Mystery Men and Pleasantville and he flounders to perfection here too, always trying to conjure up a way out of each mess but failing miserably. After two readings he was so sure that he was the right man for the job that he flew to New York to tell the Coens that, 'Guys, I don't mean to be pushy, but I'm not leaving until I get the role. If I have to kill your pets, I'll do it.'
Needless to say he was kidding, but there's dedication for you. All three of these actors have parts larger than usual supporting roles but smaller than true leads, as befits what is really a superbly selected and managed ensemble cast. The most important character doesn't even appear for over a third of the movie and she comes in when Showalter and Grimsrud make a complete mess out of what should be just a simple job, covering up the kidnapping with murder, and then covering up the murder with more murder. It's almost scary to think about all the good things to say about this film before she first appears, only for it to get even better from there on out. She's Marge Gunderson, the police chief of Brainerd, Minnesota, played by director Joel Coen's real life wife Frances McDormand, and just as Fargo itself could be defined as the anti-CSI: Miami, Marge Gunderson is the anti-Horatio Caine. For that reason alone, this is delicious.

CSI: Miami is the Baywatch of TV crime shows, full of rich and glamorous people spending their fortunes amidst the sun and sand of southern Florida, the only difference being that they also commit gruesome crimes every episode. Every cop drives a Hummer and every suspect is a barely dressed girl with a model's physique. Every camera shot is accompanied by stylish MTV video effects and every investigation has the latest glossy technology to back it up. Every line of dialogue is dripping with coolness and every fundamental law of nature is considered optional. The show is personified by its lead character, Horatio Caine, as played by David Caruso, whose every word is tailored to drive home his coolness and who is favoured so much by the sun that it's conveniently right behind him at the perfect angle for him to pose against in his expensive sunglasses. It's so cheesy that I got embarrassed watching it and gave it up as a bad job.

Fargo is the precise opposite of everything that CSI: Miami stands for. The story unfolds against a bleak white Minnesota landscape, never without snow but almost always without a horizon. Instead of Miami's plethora of überwealthy hip hop stars, playboys and drug dealers, Brainerd is known only for being home to Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, who both appear on the city's police department seal. Everything that's native unfolds at a polite pace, only the crooks full of foul language and barely contained anger. Horatio Caine would explode if he wasn't impeccably dressed and carefully posed for every shot, but Marge Gunderson is seven months pregnant and watching out for morning sickness. She has no space age technology to aid her, just wits and perseverence, both of which she has in down home abundance. Deceptively calm and cheerful, she's the only character in this dance of ineptitude who doesn't seem to be an idiot.

To underline how far away from anything we're used to this is, every native character speaks in a musical midwest accent with its roots in Swedish. While the first instinct of many may be to laugh at what they see as bad Bob & Doug McKenzie impressions, it's ultimately as refreshing as you could comfortably imagine. It's wonderful to hear people speaking in what appears to be a different language though at the same time one so much closer to English than gangland jive that it doesn't seem strange at all. Like Marge, the folk in Brainerd are all optimistically cheerful and eager to help out and the impression is that they'd be just as eager if this wasn't a multiple homicide. However just because everyone exhibits all the tendencies of Minnesota Nice, that doesn't mean they're always entirely helpful. Most of the people in the film are idiots, however well meaning, which makes the policework almost surreal to anyone used to the TV crime shows.

I don't know how many episodes of Cold Case I've seen where witnesses remember that one crucial detail from fifty years earlier that enables the cops to find their killer. Here, Shep Proudfoot, the ex-con who puts Lundegaard in touch with the kidnappers, only seems able to give one word answers. A couple of hookers are eager to help identify their clients from the previous night but can't give any better description of Steve Buscemi than 'kinda funny looking'. When a bartender finds he can add to the description, it's just to say 'in a general kinda way.' Regardless, Marge waddles around like a penguin quietly figuring things out without a single pose or adjustment of her sunglasses. It's thoroughly reassuring to know that even when the police chief is a pregnant woman with a husband whose chief interest is getting one of his duck paintings onto a US stamp, the job still gets done. I don't get that confidence from CSI: Miami.
You can be sure that you're onto a winner when the worst thing about the film is the fact that the title is rather misleading, the story only beginning in the town of Fargo and proceeding quickly onto Brainerd with scenes in Minneapolis and Bismarck. Even the various real life crimes that influenced the script took place elsewhere. The main inspiration was the murder of Helle Crafts by her husband in Connecticut, who disposed of the body through use of a woodchipper, but there are also inspirations from Minnesota crimes, the Coens being natives of St Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis. The Lundegaard story comes from that of Eugene Thompson, a lawyer who hired an inept crook to kill his wife who subcontracted the hit without his knowledge. The kidnapping angle was sourced from Virginia Piper, a banker's wife who was ransomed for a million dollars, but though the crooks were caught and convicted, only $4,000 was recovered.

The other way you know you have a peach of a movie is when you can't think of anything bad to say about it. I've had problems with many classics, admittedly minor problems but ones large enough to drop them a notch in my estimation. I'm sure there are flaws here, but I'm not seeing them. All I'm seeing is more admirable detail every time I watch the film, especially in the depth that's given to the characters, even those who don't get a lot of screen time. McDormand and Macy give masterclass performances but they get plenty of opportunity to shine. Buscemi plays a more regular character for him but does so with panache. Stormare, on the other hand, is saddled with a character whose depth lies mostly in the fact that he doesn't have any, being cold blooded enough to stoop to use of a woodchipper. He manages to reinforce his character through silence, obstinance and stubbornness, even while waiting for his partner to fix the TV.

I've watched the film a few times since 2005 and I'm enjoying the shorter performances more and more. Kristin Rudrüd is a dynamic Jean Lundegaard, always doing something, apparently unable to sit still. She can't stop even when she's been effectively blinded, trying to escape from her kidnappers while wrapped in a shower curtain or when tied up and hooded. Harve Presnell plays Wade Gustafson, her father, who is a self made millionaire and revels in it. When it's his money that Lundegaard wants to pay the ransom on his daughter with, he'll damn well deliver it himself. 'It's my show,' he says and he means it. He's so driven that he watches ice hockey with a stress ball in his hand. There's also a deceptively sinister interlude with a character named Mike Yanagita, who went to school with Marge and reconnects with her after seeing her on TV.

All these and more are little stories within the big story, which rudely intrudes on the peaceful lives of these Minnesota Nice folks with violence and profanity. The impression is that they'e so laid back that the severity and brutality of the situation is so far beyond their frame of reference that they automatically lessen it in their minds. This is no south central LA with a violent crime every five minutes, this is rural Minnesota where we might expect the height of excitement in any random week to be someone breaking down in a snowdrift or getting too drunk and having to be hauled out of a bar some night. The crimes that populate this story are as out of place in such an environment as the film itself is in a busy crime thriller genre on film and TV, and so just as noteworthy. I have a feeling that even if Fargo hadn't been any good, it would have still been a breath of fresh air. The fact that it's a work of cinematic genius is merely icing on the cake.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Director: Charles Laughton
Stars: Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters
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.

Arguably the greatest screen actor of the twentieth century, this was the only film Charles Laughton directed, though he also did uncredited work on Burgess Meredith's The Man on the Eiffel Tower. Much of the reason for this is probably because The Night of the Hunter was a notable flop on initial release, bringing in less than half its budget in ticket revenue. However the more I watch this film the more that failure seemed like an inevitability. This simply wasn't anything that anyone expected to see in 1955 and to be quite frank, still isn't what anyone expects to see today. When I first watched it in 2005 I think I expected a late film noir, black and white, expressionistic, all about the darkness in man's collective soul. I'm not sure what I really got out of that viewing other than more thought, but coming back to it again I realise that it's really a children's story, merely a much darker one than we're used to seeing.

Put simply, it's a fairy tale, one much closer to the original horrific style of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson than to the more usual soporific style we know today of Walt Disney. However it really isn't that simple, because Laughton also turned everything on its head so that the clear cut roles of good and evil are reversed, with more than a few social comments in the details. What's more, it invites and cautions us to work out which is which ourselves. Lillian Gish introduces the concept as the opening credits finish, reminding a host of children of the lessons of the Bible, not least that, 'A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. Neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Wherefore by their fruits, ye shall know them.' In other words, a man is not automatically a saint because he's clothed as a preacher and a woman is not automatically a wicked witch just because she lives alone with a household of children and a shotgun.

We're quickly introduced to the most obvious character of the film, the heroic lead in any other framework. He's Harry Powell and in the memorable form of Robert Mitchum, in possibly the greatest role of his career, he's far from heroic, being a psychotic, ruthless murderer with LOVE tattooed on the knuckles of one hand and HATE on the other. He's one of the false prophets that Gish warned us about, a preacher as full of fake charm as any TV evangelist and as dark in soul as any serial killer, which is what he is. Just like Harry Powers, the Bluebeard of Quiet Dell, the real murderer who provided the inspiration for the character, he preys on widows by marrying, murdering and robbing them, and his latest victim is promptly discovered by a group of children playing hide and seek. Children get thrust into the adult world frequently in this film, forced to grow up and deal with things that they shouldn't have to deal with quite yet.

Powell openly talks to God as he drives down the road in his stolen car in an amazing scene that explains who and what he really is. The more I think about this scene, the more it stuns me that it even exists in a Hollywood film, let alone one from 1955. It's out there with Monsieur Verdoux and Kind Hearts and Coronets, but with none of the black humour, just Mitchum's charm to carry it. 'Well now, what's it to be Lord?' he asks. 'Another widow? How many has it been? Six? Twelve? I disremember.' He believes he's doing God's work, addressing sins that the Lord hates: 'perfumy things, lacy things, things with curly hair.' He visits a burlesque joint to watch Gloria Pall strut her stuff and trigger in him the most overt tie between sex and violence ever seen in a Production Code era film. He clenches his fist, the one with HATE on the knuckles, reaches inside his pocket and triggers his flick-knife, unmistakable phallic symbolism that rips through the cloth.

He even looks up at God and points out in a memorable and melancholy way, 'There are too many of them. You can't kill the world.' It's here that he gets arrested, convicted and locked up, but not for ripping apart a stripper and not for any of those disremembered widows he's murdered. He gets a month in the Moundsville Penitentiary for stealing the Model T we first see him in and it's there that he meets Ben Harper. Harper is a bank thief played by a young Peter Graves, known best for TV but a highly versatile name in film, this coming after Red Planet Mars and Stalag 17 but before It Conquered the World and Poor White Trash. Here he's gone pretty quickly, having made it home just long enough to hide the ten grand he stole before the cops arrive to haul him away in handcuffs and a judge sentences him to death by hanging for the murder of two bank guards. Naturally, Powell and Harper end up sharing a cell.
These early scenes leap around all over the place, with flaky rear projection work, jerky aerial shots and apparently no cohesion whatsoever. Experience in watching film suggests that this is terrible filmmaking, but really it's just telling its story using methods other than the standard ones we're used to seeing in movies. If anything it tells its story more like a piece of classical music, using impressions and themes, and I can't help but wonder if anyone's compared The Night of the Hunter with Peter and the Wolf, Prokofiev's symphony for children that goes as far as to give each character its own instrument and leitmotif. There's certainly some of that here, Powell being given his own prominent theme, but the construction goes deeper than that. To see this film properly, it would appear that we should watch with the innocent eyes of a child but understand with the experienced mind of an adult. That's quite a balancing act.

To make it even more complex we actually need to watch through the eyes of two children, one a little older and a little more aware than the other. These two children are John and Pearl Harper and they were right there when their father Ben arrived home and hid the ten grand inside Pearl's doll. He makes them promise not to tell anyone where the money is and they have every intention of keeping that secret, even from their mother Willa, played by Shelley Winters. We're not given ages but John is obviously quite a few years older than Pearl, and it's constantly reinforced through their actions just how differently they see the world. When Ben is hauled away, Pearl doesn't seem to understand but John holds his gut and cries, 'Don't!' When the kids in town sing Hing, Hang, Hung (See What the Hangman Done) and draw a stick figure in chalk on a wall like a game of Hangman, Pearl hums along with the tune but John tells her not to.

Most obviously when Harry Powell comes calling, targetting Willa Harper as the next widow on his list, Pearl immediately dotes on him, climbing up beside him on the counter at Spoon's Ice Cream Parlor where her mother works, while John is suspicious from the start. And you can be sure that Harry Powell is going to come calling. Every time busybody Icey Spoon tells Willa that she should find herself a husband, we see a hurtling train and we know Powell is on it, because of the skewed angles and the dramatic music. He arrives just at the right moment, his head appearing in silhouette over John as he reaches the point that 'the bad men came back...' in a bedtime story he's telling Pearl that's obviously about them. You see, he's tried everything to learn where Ben hid his money but in vain as Harper took the secret to his grave. The promise of $10,000 is more than enough to make Willa the next widow on his list.

The Night of the Hunter is a twisted nightmare of a film and the more you think about it the more twisted and nightmarish it becomes. The British Film Institute listed it in the top ten of 'the top fifty films you should see by the age of 14' but failed to mention that anyone viewing at that age is going to see something rather traumatic that they'll only be able to really quantify after quite a few more years of experience with life. Effectively it tells children in no uncertain terms that everyone they've been conditioned to see as good guys might be bad guys and vice versa. It tells them that mom might be wrong, absolutely wrong and unwilling to listen to you when you put her straight. It equates maturity with sex, bigotry with vigilantism, stability with violence. All these are complex but none more so than the central message that the Bible is the source of all moral grounding but only through individual intepretation. Trust the Bible not those quoting it.

The story came from a novel by Davis Grubb and was adapted for the screen by noted film critic James Agee, shortly before he died of alcoholism. It was shot in 36 days in the middle of the fifties but it looks three decades older because of the choice to shoot it as expressionism as if it was a silent German movie. The cinematographer was Stanley Cortez, who had shot The Magnificent Ambersons for Orson Welles and also lensed Laughton's other dabble in direction, The Man on the Eiffel Tower. While many films borrowed from expressionism, not least film noir, they tended to focus on obvious aspects like contrast and shadow rather than more obscure elements like surreal angles and dream logic to invoke mood rather than story. In using all these, Cortez brought to film perhaps the closest successor to 1920's The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. It's stylised to depict less of a story and more of a child's reminiscences of one in a nightmare.
Everything is impression here. Laughton, Agee and Cortez set up iconic vignettes, each little scene telling its own little stories, then link them together to tell a bigger story through collage. Some of it is specific dialogue, such as when Powell explains that his wife Willa has run off in the night. 'She'll not be back,' he says. 'I reckon I'm safe in promising you that.' Some of it is visual setpiece, like when we see Willa's corpse, still in her Model T, at the bottom of the lake, hair waving with the seaweed. Often it's just little details, like when John's closest friend, Uncle Birdie, sets his bottle of whiskey on its side and doesn't notice because he's still spooked from seeing Willa underwater. It's here we know that he isn't going to be the help he promised to be. Sometimes it's in the angles, as when John and Pearl finally escape from Powell by heading down the river in their dad's skiff. We watch their journey from the side, like a pursuer, and from above, like God.

Often these clever little touches are not explained, like the creatures who watch their journey. Initially I couldn't fathom why we got to see what appears to be every animal in West Virginia during this boat ride, but this time through I see some meaning. The owl and rabbit are obviously hunter and prey, Powell and the children respectively, but if Powell is the devil then the toad is his minion and the sheep are the faithful followers of Jesus. How much we should read into this I'm not sure but there's obvious meaning. Certainly when the skiff drifts to the bank during the night while the children are asleep, we're watching it from above like God guiding Moses into the reedbeds at precisely the right spot. In the morning they find themselves outside the house of Rachel Cooper, who is God to Powell's Devil, even though she threatens with a switch and carries a shotgun when she needs to. She reads them the Moses story soon thereafter and John tellingly mixes up Bible stories as they parallel his own experiences.

There's so much meaning here that there are layers on layers, most of it implied rather than spoken out loud, though there are markers such as when Rachel explains, 'I'm a strong tree with branches for many birds. I'm good for something in this world and I know it too.' The polarised message helps the story to become timeless, those famous tattoos only one reminder of that. Powell isn't just in black and white because the film was shot in black and white, you know he would still be that way even if the film was in colour because his outward appearance mirrors his inner being. Harry Powell, a deceptively banal name, is one of the screen's most memorable villains and Robert Mitchum brings him blisteringly to life while never trying to be specifically sinister. It doesn't take long for the charm to become sinister all on its own. He isn't just the pointer towards Max Cady in Cape Fear, but also everything Christopher Walken has ever done.

He's balanced here by Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper, perhaps the greatest screen actress of them all who had depicted innocence and holiness so well back in the silent era. She's as powerful as Mitchum here, though in a far more stable and less flamboyant way, but her character has just as much meaning. Almost the epitome of the easy target to moral crusaders of the fifties, she's a single parent who takes in stray children but has the strength to bring them up properly the way their own parents couldn't. She makes money by selling apples just like every decent witch in the cartoons, but she's really the God figure. However God created the Devil and we're reminded of that during the powerful scene where Powell waits outside her house to nab the kids, all the while singing his theme, the hymn Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. She sits inside with her shotgun and joins in, but she means it while he's merely being ironic.

This is a film that shouldn't just be watched by the time you turn fourteen, but every three or four years after that too to accompany the inevitable changes that life brings. Multiple viewings are required, as I've just discovered. How I could have missed the majesty and genius of this film entirely on my first time through, I really can't fathom, but perhaps crystal clarity from one viewing should be expected from bubblegum movies rather than serious art, and art this obviously is. It's a dark fairy tale thirty years before Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton, it's told as a surreal nightmare using the tools of expressionism thirty years after the German silents and it's implied through mood rather than told through plot like a piece of classical music, so Pan's Labyrinth shot like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari but implied like Peter and the Wolf. Now I can't help but wonder that after the revelations of my second viewing, what more can I expect from a third?

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Chris Penn, Steve Buscemi, Lawrence Tierney, Eddie Bunker, Quentin Tarantino and Tim Roth
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.

Opening Quentin Tarantino's rather startling career on film with banality, profanity and obscenity turned out to be rather appropriate. Eight men sit around a table, six of them in identical suits, and they talk about things like the meaning of Madonna's Like a Virgin, the ethics of tipping and how Joe Cabot can't remember names because he's getting old. In 1992 this was as bizarre as the fact that almost everyone was recognisable. OK, nobody had seen Tarantino before and Tim Roth was new to American audiences after making his name in England, but there's Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi, recognisable faces one and all. There's even Lawrence Tierney, though nobody had seen him for a while unless they rented videos from the crappier end of the store. Wizards of the Demon Sword may have been fun but it wasn't close to the same level of quality of Born to Kill or The Devil Thumbs a Ride back in the late forties.

While the credits roll, the George Baker Selection play Little Green Bag and these eight men walk down to the car in slow motion like they own the world. When the credits are done, though, we find out that the world didn't agree in the slightest. They're crooks about to rob a jewellery warehouse but we don't see a moment of the heist. We're thrown right into the aftermath with Tim Roth writhing around in the back seat of a car with his gut shot out and Harvey Keitel trying to keep him calm while he drives back to the rendezvous so Joe can get him a doctor. Needless to say there's blood everywhere and he's hurting bad. The rendezvous is a warehouse and Keitel dumps him down on a ramp to spend most of the rest of the film bleeding. The longer he stays alive, the more blood comes out and the sooner we know he's going to die. In the meantime we piece together what happened by watching these crooks piece together what went wrong.

Put simply, it had to be a setup. They know that, once they have a moment to think about it. One minute the cops weren't there, the next minute they were. There were no sirens, there was no four minute wait to allow for a reasonable response time. It was like the cops were right there waiting for them. So there has to be a rat amongst them and the film's dynamic revolves around nobody agreeing on which one of them it is. What helps the paranoia is the fact that nobody knows anyone else and Joe had gone to lengths to keep it that way, giving them all coloured aliases like the hijackers in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Tim Roth is Mr Orange, Harvey Keitel is Mr White. There's also Mr Blonde, Mr Blue, Mr Pink and Mr Brown, some of whom get much more screen time than others. All of them are working for Joe Cabot and his son, Nice Guy Eddie, confirmed crooks and killers who are the only ones guaranteed not to be cops.

After Mr White gets Mr Orange back to the warehouse, Mr Pink arrives in the form of Steve Buscemi. One of the main reasons I like Reservoir Dogs so much is that Buscemi gets a real part that he can get his teeth into. He's such a quirkily memorable actor that it always seems a shame to watch him only get a few minutes or even just a single scene in a movie. Maybe Miller's Crossing would have been better if he'd had more than a blink of the eyelids on screen. Voice work for animated movies like Monsters Inc excluded, this may be the most I've seen him on screen outside of Ed and His Dead Mother and Ghost World. Mr Pink brings the news that Mr Brown is dead, shot by a cop, appropriately given that Tarantino took this role himself and knew full well that while he had a vision of what he wanted to see, he wasn't up to a lot of extended screen time opposite the sort of actors he had managed to cast.

At this point Tarantino was merely a clerk at a video store called Video Archives in Redondo Beach but one who knew he wanted to make movies. Initially he made waves as a writer, Tony Scott being interested in buying one of two of his scripts, Reservoir Dogs or True Romance. He wanted the former but Tarantino managed to persuade him into the latter so that he could sink $30,000 of the $50,000 he got from selling True Romance into making Reservoir Dogs himself in 16mm. Opportunity knocked again when Harvey Keitel rang him with an offer of starring in the film and co-producing it too. His involvement meant that financiers were interested and the budget swelled to a million and a half, not bad for a debut director making a rather unusual independent film. Keitel had heard about it from the wife of the acting teacher of Tarantino's friend and producer Lawrence Bender. It sure pays to network and get your name out there.
Given these circumstances it's amazing that they managed to put together the ensemble cast that are a huge part of the success of this film. Tarantino and Bender joked about being the most inexperienced people working on the movie, but they were. Putting this cast together today, even just those who are still alive, would cost a lot more than a mere million and a half dollars because even those who weren't big names at the time have become so since. Circumstance and luck certainly seem to be the best friends of a budding filmmaker. Keitel is presumably the key to that, his presence sparking the money and stature that people are drawn to. He's also superb here as an actor, well established in tough gangster films after a string of pictures for Martin Scorsese but beyond that he was perhaps the most fearless actor in Hollywood at the time. As if to highlight this, 1992 also saw him play the lead in Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant.

The only member of the cast more experienced than Keitel was Lawrence Tierney, a handsome young man back in his heyday in the mid to late forties but a bloated bald thug three decades later with a voice of gravel, because he had, by his own admission, 'thrown away about seven careers through drink'. In an appropriate description, Mr Orange describes him as looking like the Thing from the Fantastic Four. He found a brief career rebirth here in an echo of his initial rise to fame in 1945's Dillinger, the characters of Joe Cabot and John Dillinger both being tough roles in low budget pictures. Tierney was a blistering bad guy back then, his continual air of impending menace running contrary to his charming looks, and he's just as dangerous without the charm in Reservoir Dogs. He only looks over the men he hires and sets the rules under which they're to work but even so he proves he's nobody to mess with, as the characters quickly realise.

The actors knew it too, every one of them having run-ins with Tierney, who was as tough and out of control in real life as he was in his movies. Tarantino nearly came to blows with him and tends to explode every time his name comes up in an interview, threatening to kick Norman Mailer's ass for suggesting to him that Tierney would only slow him down 20%. 'He personally challenges the entire concept of filmmaking,' he told critic Josh Becker. 'The man is insane. You can't talk to him. He's that far from having a nervous breakdown.' How much of that is truth and how much Tarantino hyperbole, I can't say, though there's a full half a century of stories to back him up, but Tierney provides the grounding to this entire movie. While he's not on screen for long, partly because he could never remember his lines, he's the man the cops want and the man the crooks don't want to cross. They hurl insults at each other but nobody dares speak ill about Joe Cabot.

The man who appears toughest on screen is Mr Blonde, played by Michael Madsen. Apparently a sensitive man in real life, Madsen had a lot of difficulty filming his notorious torture scene, a watershed moment in cinematic violence which above anything else is what polarises people's opinions of this movie. It's the point at which people have walked out of screenings since the film's first showings on the festival circuit. We've already discovered that Mr Blonde is insane, not just because he apparently went nuts and started shooting everyone when employees at the jewellery warehouse triggered the alarm, but because when he arrives back at the rendezvous, he's all calm and stylish like a French noir character, sipping a drink while he antagonises Mr White. Anyone who can calmly ask, 'Are you going to bark all day, little doggy, or are you going to bite?' of a character played by Harvey Keitel is obviously completely out of his brain.

So after continuing to bludgeon the audience with what I described in paragraph one as 'banality, profanity and obscenity', Tarantino deliberately aimed to disturb them with this scene and he succeeded. Mr Blonde escaped from the heist with a cop as hostage and when left alone with him and the unconscious Mr Orange while his compatriots hide their cars, proceeds to torture him. Already bloodied through the anger and frustration of the crooks trying to find out who the rat is, he finds himself tied to a chair while Mr Blonde dances around him singing along with Stealers Wheel's Stuck in the Middle with You and slicing off his ear before deciding to douse him in gasoline and set him alight. When Kirk Baltz, who played the cop, improvised lines about his child at home. Madsen found that an already difficult scene for him had become too difficult as he had recently become a father himself and so couldn't finish it.
Quentin Tarantino did finish it, perhaps quite an achievement for a debut filmmaker having to deal with Lawrence Tierney, and he set the stage for one of the most notable screen careers in modern film history. All those quintessentially Quentin trademarks are in place here, though at this point they were raw wake up calls to the rest of the industry rather than the sort of finished product that he delivered in polished form with his next film, Pulp Fiction. Reservoir Dogs, which Empire named the greatest independent film of all time, has all the subtlety of a punch in the face, one delivered by Mr Blonde rather than Michael Madsen, but it made its presence known. It disturbed people, it shocked people, it made them pay attention and to a large degree, that sort of thing is still going on almost two decades later. So much of what we've seen in other films over that intervening period of time sprang from what Tarantino set in motion here.

There's his memorable pop culture dialogue, which isn't always believable, slick or realistic but is inherently quotable. 'You shoot me in a dream, you'd better wake up and apologise,' says Mr White. 'Was that as good for you as it was for me?' Mr Blonde asks his prisoner after he slices off his ear. Of course the debate about the lyrics of Like a Virgin presage similar discussions about cheeseburgers or other everyday banalities that pervade Pulp Fiction. The ensemble cast are able to make blisteringly clever but unrealistic dialogue seem easy, the chemistry between them obvious, fortunate given that most of the film is taken up by dialogue. Penn, Keitel, Roth and Buscemi spend a whole scene talking about how black women are tougher than white women and they have each other in stitches. The impression is that even if Tarantino wrote this dialogue, they made it their own in the same way that the undercover cop learns his back story.

Of course there's a hip selection of songs, so impeccably cool that The Big Chill almost a decade earlier seems tame and safe. Tarantino is so effortlessly cool that he can make a fifties gangster movie with a seventies sound, courtesy of the imaginary K-Billy's Super Sound of the Seventies radio station, and make it feel right. Because Tarantino's taste in music is as eclectic as his taste in movies and because he has a knack for picking precisely the right song for precisely the right moment, suddenly teenagers started listening to The George Baker Selection or Dick Dale & His Del-Tones or Dusty Springfield. Ultraviolence and Stealers Wheel just doesn't seem right in the slightest until you watch Michael Madsen shimmy around with his straight razor and suddenly it's the most natural thing in the world. Instead of parents wondering what their kids are listening to, they began wondering why they were listening to their music instead.

There's an extreme edge to the material that comes directly from Tarantino's well known taste for exploitation flicks. Violence and its results are a continual presence, Tim Roth being forced to spend almost the entire movie lying in a pool of fake blood, so much so that more than once he had to be carefully peeled off the floor. Because the film never lets up, merely gets more intense with its torture scene and its Mexican standoffs, critic Jami Bernard has compared the reaction the film received at the Sundance Festival to Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat that had audiences in 1895 scrambling out of their seats in terror. It becomes like a piece of profane poetry, the F word and its derivatives being used 272 times and few swearwords being omitted. It was the racial element to this that prompted most criticism, though hindsight demonstrates that Tarantino was merely bringing elements from blaxploitation into a film with only a single black actor.

His well known cinematic influences are all over this story, not least from Ringo Lam's City on Fire, an influence he can deny all he likes in favour of Kubrick's The Killing but it's obvious to anyone who's seen it that it's there. However he's not a plaguarist, he's a cinematic mashup artist, taking from everywhere but creating something new, again as hindsight has proved. This may end up being the single most fascinating thing about watching Tarantino's films, trying to discover which movies, often highly obscure ones, he's borrowed elements from to build his films around. His memory for cinematic detail is legendary and it's amazing to see a filmmaker take influence from Kurosawa, Melville or Kubrick at the same time he's borrowing from obscure revenge flicks, spaghetti westerns and Japanese monster movies. Of course, after Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, everyone else started borrowing from him instead, though not as well.

Roman Holiday (1953)

Director: William Wyler
Stars: Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn
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 was mildly disappointed with Roman Holiday. I'd seen it long ago and remembered it with a subtle pleasure, but revisiting the film in 2005 I realised that as enjoyable as it is it's really just innocuous fluff and however much director William Wyler dresses it up with historic architecture and Audrey Hepburn's smile, it remains just innocuous fluff. Think of it less as Casablanca and more as The Lizzie McGuire Movie, merely done with a lot more panache, though fortunately a heck of a lot more. Gregory Peck has top billing, in his first romantic comedy, and the potential to lighten up his serious image was the chief reason why he took the role, knowing from moment one that it was clearly inferior to that of his leading lady. While his contract ensured solo star billing, he realised the magic that was being conjured up by that leading lady and asked the producers to give her equal billing. He told his agent, 'If I don't I'm going to make a fool of myself because that girl is going to win the Oscar in her very first performance.'

'That girl' is Audrey Hepburn but Peck was right and wrong at the same time. Yes, she won the Oscar and it's one win I doubt anyone would argue about, but this was not her first appearance. It was her first leading role after lesser credits in seven other films, six if you count the English and French language versions of Monte Carlo Baby as one. It was also her first American film, after five pictures in the UK and the two versions of Monte Carlo Baby in France, though it still feels rather European as it was entirely shot in Rome. She tested for the film and won the part in a rather unusual manner. She demonstrated her dignity in the traditional way, but after she'd finished the cameraman left the camera rolling and captured the sheer joie de vivre of the actress talking to the director. Given that the part called for a good deal of both characteristics, this demonstrated in no uncertain terms why Hepburn was perfect to play Princess Ann.

Princess Ann is the heir to an unnamed European country, who is touring the capitals to much media fanfare and we witness her elegance through faux newsreels without the benefit of sound. We catch up with her at the Embassy Ball in Rome where she greets and dances with ornate people with ornate names, many played by real Italian nobles who donated their salaries to charity. In a single cleverly written scene, she demonstrates her tenacity by standing to greet an apparently endless line of guests, her human side by losing a shoe to discomfort in the process and her dignity in recovering it without performing a social gaffe. Yet when she finally gets to bed and her lady in waiting reads her schedule for the next day, she goes into hysterics at the sheer regimented tedium of it all, eventually needing to be sedated by a doctor. She eventually gives in but we know she really wants out, to see the real Rome and that's just what she does.

If Gregory Peck was playing second fiddle to Audrey Hepburn in this film, both of them were supposed to take backstage to the city of Rome itself, which is really the central character from moment one when the names of the stars are gone and the title appears. The opening credits unfold against a set of shots that count as moving postcards of the city's most prominent tourist attractions. Princess Ann sneaks out of the embassy in the back of a supply truck but while she obviously enjoys her first taste of unchaperoned freedom, waving at people following behind her, she soon falls asleep. She wakes up and climbs down when the vehicle stops but she's still more than a little woozy from the sedative so falls asleep on a wall in the Via del Fori Imperiali. Fortunately for her, American journalist Joe Bradley is on his way home after a late night card game and there aren't too many people more safe to be discovered by than Gregory Peck.

Now, Bradley works for the American News Service ('all the news, all the time') in Rome and he has a personal invitation to the princess's press conference the next morning. However he has no idea what she looks like, so assumes she's just another drunk young lady who's unable to get home on her own and does his best to help her. Unfortunately she doesn't say much except 'so happy' and suggests that she lives at the Colisseum, so Joe ends up taking her home and putting her up for the night, blissfully unaware of who she really is, however many hints she unwittingly drops. She's obviously well dressed to begin with, lets slip that she's just as well read, and in her sedated state acts rather regally for some random drunk. 'Never carry money,' she mumbles as if it's the most natural thing in the world. 'Is this the elevator?' she asks of Joe's apartment. She even suggests that he should help her get undressed, but of course he stops after her tie.
Thus far this has been fun, because we know that any character played by Gregory Peck is not going to take advantage of the princess but we're intrigued as to what he will do in a romantic comedy. When she takes his bed, he rolls her unceremoniously onto the couch. 'So happy,' she mutters. It's only in the morning that Peck shows how miscast he was because he sleeps in and attempts to lie to his boss about what went on at the princess's press conference. Now, when Peck is putting the case for Tom Robinson, commanding the USS Sawfish or hunting Moby Dick, he's utterly believable, possibly the most instinctively trustworthy actor Hollywood ever got their hands on, ahead of people like Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda and Walter Huston. However Peck lying through his teeth to his boss about a press conference that he doesn't know was cancelled, with official pronouncements about a sudden illness, after the princess went missing is not.

Cary Grant, the original choice for the part who turned it down because he felt he was too old to romance Audrey Hepburn, would have carried this scene so much better. No wonder Peck said that when looking for a film to lighten his character he felt that every romantic comedy script he read 'had the fingerprints of Cary Grant on it.' It's hard not to see Grant in almost every scene that follows, as Joe Bradley discovers from the front page of the paper just who the girl in his pyjamas really is and decides to use the opportunity to get a real scoop out of her. The only reason that the film doesn't fall apart with Peck in the role, discreetly following the princess as she leaves his apartment and surreptitiously bumping into her again on the Spanish Steps in an clumsy attempt to persuade her to spend the day with him, is that he knew that this was a departure for him and he was determined to make something of the change.

The film revolves around a double deception. Princess Ann pretends to be a regular young lady called Anya Smith in order to see the city and Joe Bradley pretends to not be a journalist in order to get her story. The worst parts of the film all centre around Peck's inability to be unscrupulous, mercenary or deceptive. His attempts to persuade a schoolgirl out of her camera are almost painful and his pretense at being a fertiliser salesman is not far behind, even though it's true as a euphemism. He phones Irving Radovich, a photographer friend played by Eddie Albert, to ask him to help him out on an important mission but doesn't tell him what it is, so when Radovich arrives and immediately notices the striking resemblance between Anya Smith and Princess Ann, Bradley has to flounder around to avoid spoiling the scoop. He resorts to knocking over his chair and spilling drink over him, unsubtleties better suited to the Marx Brothers than Gregory Peck.

The best parts of the film centre around Audrey Hepburn who merely needs to be on screen to sell us on her character. Unlike Peck, she can effectively bend the truth rather than lie outright, so she believably suggests that she has run away from school and the last time she drank champagne was to celebrate the 40th anniversary of her father getting his job, merely forgetting to mention that the job in question was king. She carries the whole film with her ability to look simultaneously perfect and appropriate wherever she is, calling on elegance or girl next door innocence as appropriate. When she smiles, which she does often, she looks like a mischievous pixie, as her modern equivalent and namesake, Audrey Tautou, did in Amélie, and there's nothing more appropriate for this deceptive voyage of discovery. She didn't just succeed beyond the studio's wildest dreams, she succeeded in an iconic way that everyone wanted to copy.

It seems bizarre to read now about costume designer Edith Head's expectations in costuming the actress who would go on to be voted 'the most beautiful woman of all time' by New Woman magazine and 'the most naturally beautiful woman of all time' by Australian newspaper, The Age. Initially Head believed that her hardest task would be to disguise Hepburn's figure flaws: her long neck, flat chest and dancer's legs, especially once her character was incognito in Rome and apparently entirely uncaring of her appearance. Yet Pamela Clark Keogh wrote in the New York Times that, 'thanks to their first glimpse of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, half a generation of young females stopped stuffing their bras and teetering on stiletto heels.' Beyond the costume changes from elegant gowns to plain blouses with rolled up sleeves, Head had to cater to the fact that Princess Ann's long hair would be chopped off in a memorable scene that turns her into the Audrey Hepburn we recognise, a rare woman who looks better in short hair.
The best and most natural scenes are the ones when Hepburn sets out on the streets of Rome alone around the halfway mark. One reason why they're both utterly charming and utterly believable is that they were actually shot on the streets of Rome rather in some Hollywood set. My favourite little scene is the one where a florist tries to hustle her with flowers, making them initially seem like a gift but then asking for a thousand lire, only to end up giving her one for free when she demonstrates how little money she has left. To me that captures the essence of Rome even better than the iconic Vespa scenes that land the lead characters in court, only to be effectively let off with congratulations as Bradley pretends that they were on their way to get married. It also captures it better than Wyler's apparent attempts to film every ornate fresco, every ruined column and every other bit of ancient architecture that he saw in Rome.

Perhaps there was just a natural exuberance in the air, given that this was the first American picture to be shot entirely on location in Europe since the end of World War II almost a decade earlier. Wyler was eager to take on the film after Frank Capra and George Stevens passed on it, because it was light material compared to his last few films and because he wanted to get as far away as he could from the House Committee on Un-American Activities, especially as the film was written by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Wyler described Hepburn as 'the spirit of youth' and that pervades the picture enough to sell it to the most cynical. Even Peck described making this film as 'probably the happiest experience I ever had making movies', perhaps partly because he met a French journalist called Veronique Passani on his way to Rome and after completing this film returned to Paris to be with her. They married the day after his divorce became final in 1955 and remained together until his death in 2003.

While the Cinderella story in reverse is interesting on its own merits, apparently based on the real life adventures of England's Princess Margaret who had been romantically linked to RAF Group Captain Peter Townsend, it's really what Audrey Hepburn brings to the role that makes it so memorable. There are cleverly crafted scenes, Trumbo being one of the most skilful writers in the business even though he couldn't put his name on the finished product, but in the hands of a less magnetic leading lady the film could easily have ended up as yet another fifties romantic comedy. Where everyone's genius becomes apparent at the same time is at the end of the film when the press conference finally happens. Even Peck is back on safe territory for him as the serious journalist whose priorities have changed utterly and who no longer plans to get the heck out of Rome and 'back to a real newsroom in New York'. This is a Roman holiday for him too.

Of course the title is mostly there for Princess Ann and it's after she returns to the embassy and shows how her experience has grown her character that she becomes a real princess instead of just a girl keeping her many appointments and saying the things she's been told to say. Instead of being almost force fed milk and crackers at bedtime, she lets her lady in waiting know in no uncertain terms but very politely that they will no longer be required. She also runs the press conference rather than just turns up and does her duty, obviously no longer in the invisible cage she felt herself in at the beginning of the film. She has her own mind and she's found a way to use it while still fulfilling her obligations. In this scene the chemistry is palpable, but it's between Hepburn and whoever is on the receiving end of her majestic gaze. The magic that this film has is there in her smile and in the way she can make a simple 'thank you' the greatest gift of all.

Stand By Me (1986)

Director: Rob Reiner
Stars: Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell and Kiefer Sutherland
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

I've been a horror fiction nut ever since I can remember but I always loved the small press stuff and the pulp stuff best. I felt the more obscure names kept it a lot more real and fun than the million selling authors everyone has heard of, who presumably wrote for big money rather than for the joys of telling a story. Stephen King was the biggest of those big money authors so of course I avoided him like the plague. There was also a truism that stated that no matter how good or bad his source material was, the inevitable movie adaptation was going to be awful. With occasional arguable exceptions, this probably stayed in effect all the way up to Misery in 1990 when Kathy Bates broke the jinx. In the meantime I missed out on Stand By Me, partly because of that truism and partly because it wasn't a horror story at all but a coming of age yarn about four small town kids in the fifties who go to find a dead body but find maturity instead.

And yes, in keeping with King's technique of never using a hundred words when a thousand would do, that's about the entire plot. Luckily this particular plot relies to a massive degree on what is probably King's most obvious talent, the way in which he can see through the eyes of children. Somehow he has the knack of capturing the perspectives that kids live by but which most of us almost entirely forget about when we grow up, and that makes him the perfect candidate to write what became Stand By Me. He's the guy who says, 'Remember when...' and everyone else replies, 'Oh yeah!' The other reason that this film works so well is that the child actors who make up most of the cast here are actually better than most adult actors. The level of professionalism that these kids show is nothing short of stunning but they still successfully keep hold of the innocence that is inherently needed for a coming of age story.

It's 1985 and we're in Castle Rock, which for the purposes of this film is transplanted from Maine to Oregon, and we read in the paper along with Gordie LaChance that an attorney called Chris Chambers was stabbed in a restaurant. This prompts him, through the memorable voice of Richard Dreyfuss, to remember back to when he and Chris grew up together back in the fifties. In particular he remembers back to when he was twelve, going on thirteen, and he saw his first human corpse. It was the summer of 1959: 'a long time ago,' he says, 'but only if you measure in terms of years.' He and his three best friends hung out in a beat up tree house with a secret knock and the whole works. There isn't much to do out in the sticks, except smoke and swear and play cards, so when Vern Tessio arrives and asks, 'You guys want to see a dead body?' we're all set for the story. It's notable that it's Vern who brings this up because he's the nervous one.

He's also played by the least known of these four young actors, though Jerry O'Connell became successful enough to not warrant a description of 'the other guy', especially on TV where he's appeared in a few long running hits, not least Sliders and Crossing Jordan. Not really overweight, he's still close enough for bullies to use it as an excuse, not that they need one. Bullies in Castle Rock pick on everyone. This was O'Connell's acting debut, making Wil Wheaton, with four movies under his belt, rather experienced in comparison, even though he wouldn't land his dream part of Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation for another year. He's Gordie, a decent kid who has become, as he describes it, 'the invisible boy'. His elder brother Denny has been dead for four months, courtesy of a jeep accident, and his parents haven't come to terms with it yet, meaning that whenever they notice him it's merely to point out that he's not his brother.

Like O'Connell, Wheaton made his name on TV, but River Phoenix had already moved on from that, after a 1982 show based on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and he was ready to make it big in movies. This was his second film, after Explorers, but it made him very noticeable and he'd quickly move on to The Mosquito Coast, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and My Own Private Idaho. Here he plays Chris, who comes from a bad family and is expected to continue the tradition, even half believing it himself. That leaves Corey Feldman as Teddy Duchamp, a crazy kid whose father had burned most of his ear off by holding it to a hot stove. The Feldmeister defined cool to a generation back in the eighties, long before he lost his marbles and started clamouring for fish rights on The Surreal Life, but here he's more unsure than I've ever seen him. The front is still there but there's a vulnerability underneath that brings depth to his character.
And off they all go to look for Ray Brower, with $2.37 between them and no food. Ray Brower is officially missing, a twelve year old kid who went out to pick blueberries three days earlier and never came back. However Vern knows he's dead because, while under his house looking for his penny jar, he overhears his brother Billy telling Charlie Hogan about having found the body. Billy can't report it because he was in a stolen car at the time, so Vern rushes over to tell his friends. Opportunity is knocking and these kids know it. If they find the body themselves, they're sure to get into the paper, maybe even onto TV and that's the big time. There's a whole subplot about the elder kids, the gang run by Ace Merrill that Billy and Charlie belong to, along with Chris's elder brother Eyeball, but they're just a distraction. We're really here to watch the four younger kids on their quest to find the MacGuffin that provided the title of King's novella, The Body.

In doing so they reach adulthood, the shared experience leading every one of them to come to terms with something in their own lives without any of it ever seeming forced. That's by far the greatest success of this film and it's why it's staying the course while others fall by the wayside. Stand By Me is forty places higher in the IMDb Top 250 than it was when I grabbed the list in 2004 to work through. I'm still not sure where most of the credit is due. Certainly King's talent for telling adult stories through the eyes of children suggests the source material is most likely, but from what I've read about it it's darker and more pessimistic than the movie. Director Rob Reiner brings a far more subtle touch to proceedings than he did a couple of years earlier with This is Spinal Tap and would a year later with The Princess Bride. Raynold Gideon and Bruce Evans wrote the screenplay after collaborating on Starman and this is definitely a notch up from that.

Perhaps it's a combination of the restraint of the filmmakers, the nostalgia of the story and the performances of the child actors that really sells the movie. Each of the four gets plenty of opportunity in the spotlight to define their past through clever vignettes and set up a way to get beyond it. Teddy decides to play chicken with a train, pretending he's storming the beach at Normandy like his hero father, even though the man had tried to kill him. At the junkyard he's forced by the owner through a fence to come to terms with the fact that his dad is insane and some of the wildness is pressured out of him. Vern panics when they all toss coins to see who has to go to the store for provisions and everyone comes up tails. That's a goocher and it's the worst luck imaginable. He panics at everything but when he's forced to face his panic and get over a railway bridge before the train barrelling up behind them knocks them off, he finds he can do it.

Chris is the leader of the gang, almost driven into delinquency by circumstances. Behind the Blue Point Diner he shows Gordie a gun that he stole from his dad but doesn't tell him its loaded. Yet he's really a sensitive kid, the one who tries to talk Gordie into going to college to become a writer rather than just be held back by his friends. Feldman proved he could act in the junkyard scene but Phoenix and Wheaton play so well off each other that their scenes together constitute some of the true highlights of the film. Perhaps most telling in Chris's life is the one where he breaks down to Gordie over some money he stole from school. He only did it because it's what everyone expected him to do and he got three days suspension for his troubles, but the rest of the story is that he gave the money back to the teacher who promptly stole it herself. The lesson is that if she can break expectations then perhaps he can too and it's here that he really begins.

That leaves Gordie. He gets a wake up call at the junkyard too, with his first glimpse of 'the dread Chopper, the most feared and least seen dog in town' whose owner has apparently trained specifically to attack young boys' testicles. After being chased by this fearsome monster, he learns his 'first lesson in the vast difference between myth and reality.' It's Gordie who obsesses about seeing the body, seeing it as a sort of rite of passage, and it's Gordie who seems to leave childhood behind first, walking out of a swamp rather than joining his friends in dunking each other underwater. It's like that stuff just doesn't matter any more. 'Why did you have to die?' Gordie asks the corpse of Ray Brower but he's really asking his brother. He feels that it should have been him, because he believes, perhaps accurately, that his parents see him as worthless. However we know that he finds his way because he's telling this story all along, as The Writer.
Inevitably he gets most of the best lines, but I was impressed at how Gordie's dialogue as a twelve year old was kept realistic. He demonstrates his talent even at this young age through telling stories to his friends around the campfire, but great lines are kept sparse. The best is the pivot to the entire film: 'We're going to see a dead kid,' he explains midway through the journey. 'Maybe it shouldn't be a party.' Later, after becoming established as a writer, he knows just how to say what he wants to say. 'Finding new and preferably disgusting ways to degrade a friend's mother was always held in high regard,' he explains in the sardonic voice of Richard Dreyfuss, who magnificently captures both the joy and the sadness of nostalgia. He describes Castle Rock by saying, 'There were only 1,281 people. But to me, it was the whole world.' Naturally he has a definitive ending too: 'I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?'

My biggest problems with Stand By Me come through not being American. Stephen King is a very American writer, his work being drenched with brand names and pop culture references and little details that no other nationality can relate to. When the Berlin Wall fell and Poland could publish horror novels, Polish readers turned to Guy N Smith, a pulp horror writer whose work was simple and universal. By comparison they just didn't understand what King was talking about, so they made Smith the best selling author in the country for a couple of years instead. With Stand By Me, I get the coming of age and the rite of passage and the character growth, but the details flummox me. I understand intellectually how a pinky swear works, the concept behind mailbox baseball and just what 'two for flinching' means, but I don't grok any of it. Somehow I've never really grasped why Americans feel a need to ritualise dumbness as a condition for growing up.

What else I don't get is just why a story that so obviously revolves around four characters, and indeed is told by one of them from his memories, has to include so many scenes with the older kids, the gang led by Ace Merrill. If it's merely to show just how much these youngsters have grown over the course of the two days of their quest by contrasting their reactions to Ace and his gang of thugs, then it would seem to be overkill. We can buy into how tough they are from Kiefer Sutherland's first appearance as Ace, totally self-assured and Lost Boys tough cool with his hair, his stubble and his toothpick. If it's to highlight just what these kids have to look forward to, then it's a pretty depressing way of doing it. No wonder Chris Chambers wants to leave so bad and find somewhere where nobody knows who he is. I'm sure every kid feels that sometime but Chambers has a serious reason. All these scenes seem merely distracting to me.

In fact every time I watch this film I rediscover the older kids who I'd entirely forgotten. All the things I remember tie to the younger set: the junkyard, the bridge, the swamp and of course the bad language. We expect people like the late eighties Kiefer Sutherland to smoke and swear but we don't expect it from eleven year old Jerry O'Connell, who was impressed that he was being paid to swear. Admittedly his three co-stars ranged up to fifteen, but they all still play with the sort of language that kids this age love but don't tend to use around adults, especially back in the fifties. Every one of them would have had their mouths washed out with soap and water had their screen parents heard them, I'm sure, and the decision to keep it real led to this receiving perhaps the first R rating given for bad language alone. To me it's merely one memorable aspect of a memorable film that perhaps would only become more memorable if I was American.