Wednesday 30 June 2010

Test Tube Babies (1948)

Director: W Merle Connell
Stars: Dorothy Duke, William Thomason and Timothy Farrell
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.

There's just something at once magic and awful about the old exploitation movies of the thirties and forties that offered up tantalising titillation under the pretense of educating the masses. The fake education angle had little to do with censorship, as these films weren't shown at reputable cinemas who were restricted to screening films with an official censor's seal of approval, and more about suckering in the widest possible audience. Mostly they were distributed roadshow style across the nation, an entourage breezing into town like a carnival or revival meeting to a blaze of lurid publicity, blitzing a local rented theatre and quickly moving on before the arbiters of morality in the area descended. Films were often the least important part of the show, given that they rarely delivered on their outrageous promises and the barkers made more money off the pamplets or overpriced Bibles that they hawked than they did from actual ticket sales.

This tarnished little gem, the debut feature from Screen Classics, who also made Racket Girls and Glen or Glenda, Ed Wood's notorious tranny flick, is a textbook example of what these films had to offer. Unfortunately the version available on DVD runs a mere 53 minutes, suggesting that a full 17 minutes has been cut or lost since its release in 1948, probably some of the more risqué material on offer. It opens with two and a half minutes of credits and introductory text to explain that 'unsung heroes and unhonored pioneers, in the face of man-made prejudices and doubts, have performed miracles.' If you haven't seen such a film before, you might assume that this is a pro-science movie, especially as one credit reads, 'Medical and Technical Data approved and supervised by The National Research Foundation for Fertility Incorporated'. The initiated will not be surprised to find that this doesn't exist, not in Nesconset, NY or anywhere else.

Soon the real hints arrive. It's a film about artificial insemination, 'the Miracle of Life', where the child is assured to be 'free of all taint of heredity' but somehow, 'astounding as it may sound, it even resembles the parents.' I love that phrase, 'taint of heredity', as if test tube babies are so much better than regular babies because they're somehow not related to anyone. And yet they can look just like you, the flesh and blood equivalent of an avatar you can customise into being a wish fulfilment version of yourself. This isn't pro-science, it isn't even pro-pseudoscience, it's pro-exploitation and you don't have to wait too long to discover that in no uncertain terms. Trust me, there's a topless catfight coming and I'm still racking my brain as to how that fits into a story all about test tube babies. First we meet the Bennetts, Cathy and George, who are apparently an all American couple going through the all American life cycle. They're us, ladies and gentlemen.

For a little while we watch them live out in short vignettes exactly what we've just read in the opening text, all accompanied by a creepy windscreen wiper technique to switch scenes that suggests that we're following their every move like a stalker hiding in his van with blacked out windows. With the amount of skin Cathy likes to show us, that's understandable too. They're a young couple who know each other well enough that he can lay his head in her lap at a picnic by the lake. He's an architect who doesn't make the big money but does make enough to maintain a family. And just like that, he proposes and we're thrown into fast forward. They buy a house. She wears a big hat. They frolic together on the beach. He finds a white suit. He carries her over the threshold. Wow, this first year ends so quickly. How do we know it's a year? There's a clumsy attempt to mark time by having anniversary strawberries and cream for breakfast.

Now, you may read into this that Cathy and George are blissfully happy, but you'd be sorely mistaken. They're falling apart at the seams and the opening text explains why. 'Some unseen driving force is slowly and surely destroying their lifetime of Heaven on Earth... Neither realizes Motherhood is the only link necessary to sustain their love...' Yeah, George should just knock her up! That'll fix everything as love flourishes when you're woken up every two hours to change junior's nappies. I bet writer Richard S McMahan never had kids. Somehow Cathy understands the reason for their apparent unhappiness because she drops a lot of hints to her husband. All their friends are having babies and throwing baby showers. They don't hang out any more as they're busy with their families and so don't have time for the old gang. They all drink a lot too. Have kids, stay home, drink a lot. Awesome. No wonder the Bennetts are so unhappy!

If you pay attention you'll see that the real reason they're unhappy is that they don't have a life. Cathy stays at home all day and does precisely nothing. George works all day and all night too so they rarely see each other. When they're in the same scene, they just talk about other people like Frank Grover, who's a bad example for everyone. He drinks far too much 'lemonade' and yes, there are quotes around that in the dialogue. He chases around after anyone who wears a skirt. He's exactly who they don't want to hang around with any more and they both agree on that absolutely. So naturally five minutes later, George gets picked up for work by... you guessed it, Frank Grover. He looks Cathy up and down and asks George, 'How do you keep that beautiful wife of yours entertained?' He knows how he'd do it so suggests they go to a party together. Of course George is working on his month end reports, so he asks Frank to take Cathy instead.

How this couple survive with such amazing consistency, I really don't know, but it's all a trick. Cathy knows Frank wants to jump her bones but she just wants George to do it instead so she gets him all riled up to the point that he rings home to threaten to kick out the gigolo. He doesn't even know that Frank called her sugar and gave her a long and passionate kiss goodnight but Cathy's not going to kiss and tell. She's just going to strip off for bed with the camera running. She's spent a good deal of the film in a varying state of undress, from skimpy beach wear in the fast forward scenes to short shorts and off the shoulder dresses at the breakfast table, which may explain just why Frank was raping her with his eyes. Now she strips topless for the camera, though she faces away from it so we're only gifted with subtle glimpses. The actress is Dorothy Duke who never acted again. I can't help but wonder how she got the part.

And suddenly, as if by magic, we're at a party at George and Cathy's place. I can only hope that we're missing some scenes here because the editing is truly atrocious, but given how debauched the party gets we can forgive the editor. He probably had something else to do with his hands. At this party we presumably meet the old gang, because we're never introduced. We just pick up who they are as we go along. There's drunken Don Williams trying his lines on Dolores LaFleur, who has no business being prissy with a name like that. She's Frank the wolf's date but he's busy cuddling up to Don's wife Betty instead of her, so maybe she has an excuse to be as cold as ice, though she's so cold she could freeze you at fifty paces. 'I haven't the slightest interest in your prestidigitation,' Dolores tells Don, who persists in calling her Babe and wants to show her his card tricks. He can pull the two of clubs out of the cleavage of young ladies. I should try that.

While Dolores pretends to be an ice sculpture, everyone else is stunningly uninhibited: drinking, dancing, smooching on couches. Frank even persuades Betty Williams to do a burlesque dance in front of everyone. They just sit there while she strips down to her underwear and Don joins in, except Dolores who walks out. I get the impression that the full version shows us much more of Betty than just her underwear. We certainly get to see more of Dolores, when Betty recognises her as a stripper and they stage a topless catfight on the floor. Betty is Georgie Barton, Dolores is Mary Lou Reckow and neither of them acted again. You can see the trend already, right? Jerry gets to strip off too, because she does her parlour trick of holding a full glass of gin upside down on her forehead but some idiot called Phil lifts it up and drenches her in rotgut. She only strips underneath Don's discarded shirt but still shows a lot of leg. It's a hell of a party!

Cathy doesn't think it's a hell of a party, even though it takes her quite a while to actually notice what's going on. She's so naive that she keeps innocently explaining to Dolores just why Frank keeps taking Betty out of the room. Of course he's just helping her to find something. Of course your date isn't continuing a public necking session with a friend's wife in a more private setting. Why would anyone think that? Why would anyone think this was a movie about test tube babies? We're halfway through the film and all we've seen thus far is drunken debauchery and plenty of Dorothy Duke's skin. Only when George comes home to break it all up and kick everyone out do we start thinking about the actual subject matter, all filtered through the morality and rampant sexism of the time and here's where the real joy of these films manifests itself. Everything is so agonisingly politically incorrect yet they speak to us from the high ground of moral superiority.

The dialogue is like something out of The Room, the sort of conversation you'd expect six year old girls to gift their Barbie and Ken dolls. 'We seem to be breaking up,' says George. 'Do you want a divorce?' 'No,' says Cathy. 'I want a family.' It'll magically fix everything to have a bawling brat hanging around the place, apparently. Anyway, they've been married a year and her mom asked when she'd have a grandbaby and she just didn't know. Mom told her that if she's really worried she should go to a doctor. What sort of doctor? How about Dr Wright, obstetrician and gynaecologist, played by Timothy Farrell, who should really have been Dr Wrong. His 1951 film, Paris After Midnight, was busted in a vice raid even though he was a bailiff for the LA Sheriff's Department at the time. He eventually rose as high as County Marshal but was convicted for corruption and fired. Narrating Glen or Glenda may be his highest achievement.

What may have leapt out of the last paragraph but I'll highlight anyway is that obviously it's the woman's fault. It's like an equation: Man + Woman = Pregnancy. The only time the equation falls down is when the woman isn't up to it, so that's why they go to the gin-and-college-ist. It either has to be brand new science or the Bennetts are idiots because she can't even get the G word out and he can't pronounce it. What do gin-and-college-ists do? Why, they persuade women to strip naked! It's taken us half an hour to get this far but about ten seconds more for Dr Wright to get Cathy to strip down to the altogether for an examination and yes, she does precisely that. Nurse Mason holds a gown for her about a foot away from the edge of the screen that hides her body and she walks from the one to the other, far enough for us to be sure that while we don't really see anything she is completely naked. That's what these films are for, folks: tantalisation.

It's when we find that Cathy is perfectly healthy that the dialogue goes utterly insane. Cathy just assumes they must be unlucky. 'But surely you're not suggesting that there's something wrong with George?' she asks. The man? How could it be the man's fault? Cathy has no conception of how stunningly sexist she really is and Dorothy Duke carries that well. William Thomason, who plays George, isn't actually that bad at being sincere, as long as he looks down and avoids the camera which from here on out he gets to do a lot. It's Dr Wright who steals these scenes though the most amazing bedside manner of any doctor on film, something that Farrell manages to carry with ease. Every word Dr Wright utters just rubs in how abnormal George is and Farrell is deadpan throughout, as if he doesn't realise what the words that come out of his mouth actually mean or what impact they might have. He's the epitome of clinical insensitivity.

'I might explain that of each drop of male reproductive fluid known as semen there are as many as 15 million tiny sperms, each in itself capable of inducing pregnancy,' he tells George. 'Enough of them could be housed in a thimble to father the entire world ten times over.' But hey, you just don't have any. 'In some cases of temporary sterility the sperm count may drop as low as 20 or 30,000 sperms to the drop of semen. In these cases treatment may be effective.' Ah, possibility. 'Isn't there a treatment I can take?' asks George. 'No, Mr Bennett.' Shut up, child. 'According to this report your sperms are all completely inactive, or to put it bluntly, dead.' Give me your man card now, bitch. 'Oh I see. Well I guess that's that.' After being told he's utterly worthless, George decides that Dr Wright should break the news to Cathy. Can he outdo his previous subtlety? Why, yes, he can. 'What Mr Bennett is trying to say is that he is incapable of fatherhood.' Ouch!

Dr Wright does provide some hope, through the marvel of artificial insemination. He brings out a letter from a couple that are celebrating the first birthday of their artificially inseminated child. But when they ask for explanations, he gets all blatant again. What do they need? 'It consists in effect of removing semen from a normal healthy man...' Unlike you, in other words. You're not normal. The doctors know who's normal. They vet the donors so they can determine the right hair colour, eye colour and general physicality. It doesn't look like Dr Wright is a Nazi, but then this is 1948 and the folks from the eugenics program had to find new jobs. George and Cathy talk about it, of course. I was waiting for them to call Frank the gigolo, thinking of a correlation between the fact that he's doing everyone except Cathy and everyone's getting pregnant except Cathy. Maybe this town is a little close to the Nevada Test Site and Frank the wolf moved in later.

But no, George just turns emo now that he's lost his man card. He's all for artificial insemination because Cathy is unhappy, she's lonely at home and he's running the risk of losing her. Babies exist to keep mom company, apparently. He's even, get this, happy for her to talk to her mother about it. 'Your mother's an intelligent woman,' he says with a straight face, 'and having her tell us what she thinks might help us decide.' How many takes did Thomason need here? OK, they're not Jewish but evil mother-in-laws transcend national and cultural boundaries. We get to meet mom and she's so sensitive. 'Naturally it wouldn't be George's baby but he understands that.' she says. 'You know that George loves you now if only from the fact that he's willing to let you have a baby through this artificial insemination.' Best of all: 'It's obvious that you not only want a baby, you need one. You're getting neurotic about this business.' Yes, babies trump neuroses!

Oh, and that's it, apparently. The story's over. Go home. We just have a few more grainy shots we dug out of the stock footage archives that really don't have anything to do with the price of fish in Denmark. Women breastfeed in the park. There are hospitals. Religious quotes. Babies. The end. Anyone watching today is going to be either stunned into silence at this point or is so racked with laughter that they may have to go see a gin-and-college-ist or some other new type of doctor to see if they have a groundbreaking medical procedure just for you. I just wonder if there's someone, perhaps in Japan, that took the film seriously and set up a theme park around the concepts invoked like the reminder at the end of the film. 'We hope this story has convinced you that a fruitless marriage, caused by the lack of children, can be saved.' Magic. And awful.

Wednesday 23 June 2010

Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (1966)

Director: William Beaudine
Star: John Lupton
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.

Back in the silent era William Beaudine was a name to be reckoned with. His acting career took off in 1909 but he soon became far better known behind the camera, beginning as an assistant director in 1911 at a mere nineteen years of age and progressing quickly up to full director four years and 55 films later. He made it as high as Mary Pickford movies like Little Annie Rooney and Sparrows before making four films in England and somehow alienating Hollywood. So he became 'One Shot' William Beaudine, churning out movies at a rapid pace for Poverty Row studios like Monogram and PRC, often without retakes. He racked up hundreds of these, some shot in less than a week, and while they were often capable, even astounding if you consider the budgets and the shooting schedules, they still weren't very good. This eight day shoot was his last film, shot back to back with another weird western, Billy the Kid Versus Dracula, which is even worse than this.

Strangely he hadn't made too many crossover movies before, with the stunning exception of Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla in 1952, but he seems to have taken the genre clash as a ideal setup for dry comedy and so played it straight but outrageous. This approach leaves it akin to a TV sitcom with the laugh track removed, unashamedly camp and ripe to be converted into yet another stage musical like Reefer Madness and The Evil Dead. You can imagine what's going to come from the title alone but the standard western town being emptied of inhabitants while the credits roll underlines the atmosphere of fear. Just in case you've been living under a rock for the rest of your life, there's a frickin' huge painted mission sitting atop the frickin' huge painted hill that looms behind the town like the frickin' huge painted backdrop it is. One Shot hadn't had a budget since the advent of sound. Anyway, take a wild stab as to where the Frankensteins live.

Guess why everyone's getting the hell out of Dodge. Yes, they're Frankensteins. C'mon, work with me here. They're Dr Maria Frankenstein, who is the granddaughter of the Count, because even the title of this film is wrong, and her rather elderly brother, Dr Rudolph Frankenstein. She's actually not too bad, because she's played by Narda Onyx, with bright eyes, rosy cheeks and a perfect accent for a Frankenstein. Onyx was Estonian but was born in 1931 so soon became a refugee bouncing around during the war looking for a home. Her accent is exotic because it's a potent combination of Estonian, German, English, Swedish and Canadian, with an emphasis on rolling Rs. The influences are obvious: she's the Bela Lugosi to Stephen Geray's Peter Lorre. Geray was born in Austria-Hungary in a town that is now in the Ukraine, but as Rudolph he's 27 years older than his screen sister, almost double her age but still dominated by her character.

The inevitable question is, 'What are they doing in some western town?' The inevitable answer is more of the usual. 'Another wonderful storm!' cries Dr Maria Frankenstein as we first meet her, for that's what the deserts of the American southwest have in common with the old gothic tales of old Europe: electrical storms. Other than the location, the Frankensteins look the part. They have white lab coats and an anatomic chart on the wall. They have a laboratory full of scientific gadgets that spark and light up. They have a young man strapped to a table with a steel helmet on his head painted in the colours of the Jamaican flag. For this, there is no explanation. I was waiting for the film to become Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter and Her Sidekick, Bob Marley, but it never manifested, mon. Maria is following in the footsteps of her grandfather (we discover that her father was just a weakling) in trying to resuscitate brains and animate corpses.

Unfortunately she's not too good at it. Francisco Lopez promptly proves to be yet another failure by rudely dying on her table, though we see what Maria doesn't and realise that he dies because Rudolph deliberately substitutes poison from a bottle with a huge skull and crossbones on it for the digitalis that his sister needed to save his life. He obviously wasn't kidding when he said he really wants to go back to Vienna. Maybe a little child murder will help make his dreams come true. Maria is too busy to notice though, so she thrusts her fist into her palm and goes back to the encyclopaedia, I mean to grandfather's notes. 'What a fool I've been!' she cries. She's made fundamental errors with the duothermic impulsator, the fool, by only attaching it to the corpse at hand, rather than the brain of a living body too. Bizarrely she can turn to her well bookmarked 'Precisely What You're Doing Wrong' chapter to find out precisely what she's doing wrong.
Rudolph may have known all along because he points out that it might kill the living brain, but that's just a cue for Maria to glow insanely. She's magnanimous about it: 'That's a chance I am willing to take,' she cries. She needs a powerful giant not a child, then she's bound to succeed. 'But what good will it be to succeed?' cues Rudolph. 'Imagine!' she replies. 'We'd have someone to do our bidding who can't be put to death. Just as we have given it life, only we can take its life away.' In other words, she's an even crazier loon than the rest of her family and we can't help but wonder how these Frankensteins keep surviving long enough to breed and who they keep finding to help. Maybe Rudolph is really the same age as his sister but inbreeding took its toll. Maybe he doesn't have teeth and that explains why he has so much trouble saying simple things like 'three children'. That's how many have died thus far from the next door village.

Francisco Lopez makes four, but he's special because he has an annoying sister who can happily remain annoying throughout the film as its other leading lady. It's because of her that the Lopez family is the last one left in the village, getting drunk on orange juice while they wait for Juanita to return from the house. She's played by Estelita Rodriguez, credited as usual simply as Estelita and who may just be the biggest star of the film, given that she came to it from the classic John Ford western Rio Bravo. Star or not, she's still annoying. She's the stereotypical spitfire senorita with her bright red shirt and bright blue dress, full of piss and vinegar and lathered with far too much make up. She's at the house to ask questions about Francisco, who is apparently suffering from a contagious disease, the very one that apparently caused the death of the previous three children and which apparently required them to be buried at night with nobody around.

Perhaps she was happy to play stereotypical Mexicans because she wasn't one: she was born in Cuba, at least a decade before the year of birth listed on her tombstone. If she was only 35 when she made this film, she'd been doing a lot of hard living, though that may also explain why she died before it could be released, officially of influenza but more probably of something a little more suspicious. She was far from the only person to end her career here, this film being something of a jinx for the cast and crew. Beyond being the last film for William Beaudine and Estelita, Narda Onyx never acted again, going on to write a biography of Johnny Weissmuller instead. Stephen Geray had only a single further credit, a minor one in 1966 as Man with Fish in The Swinger. Cal Bolder switched to TV and retired a couple of years later. Of the main stars, only John Lupton and Jim Davis went on to long careers.

Lupton, Bolder and Davis belong to the other half of this film, and the two halves haven't met thus far. Lupton is the suitably black clad and moustachioed Jesse James, who has mysteriously survived the Northridge raid but has found himself on the run ever since. Bolder plays his one remaining sidekick, a musclebound but apparently mildly retarded character called Hank Tracy. The pair have fallen as low as to have Hank boxing in impromptu prizefights in each town they find themselves in just to put food on the table, girlie ones too if this one is anything to go by, with a Tracy on one side, a Stacy on the other, and a Jesse collecting the bet money after the fact. At least One Shot Beaudine manages to sneak some interesting shots in, such as the one where Stacy punches Tracy into a horse so that its rider falls off. Are we clutching at straws so much that such a setup is a highlight? You betcha.

Jesse James is in town to meet up with the Wild Bunch, which has been similarly depleted down from a dozen to three because Circle Productions couldn't afford a large cast. Butch Curry is their leader and all he has left to lead is his brother Lonny and Pete Ketchum, yet they're still at each other's throats. Butch wants to pull a daring heist, to capture $100,000 of bank money from a stagecoach in a pass outside of Bisbee, but he doesn't think three members of the Wild Bunch is enough to take this much money from the one man who will apparently be on the stage with it, so calls in a notorious outlaw with a price on his head. That's a phrase that's continually used throughout the movie, by the way, like it's his actual name. Jesse James, Notorious Outlaw With a Price on His Head. Maybe he went native and the local tribe were feeling verbose. Lonny turns traitor when he can't get a third of the take and runs to Marshal MacPhee, played by J R Ewing's father, the reliable Jim Davis.
Bizarrely, Rayford Barnes, who plays Lonny and inadvertently causes the entire Wild Bunch to be shot dead by the law, would follow this role up with one in The Wild Bunch, the renowned one directed by Sam Peckinpah, albeit not in a major role. I wonder if Peckinpah was exhibiting a subtle sense of humour in the casting choice. Six years earlier Barnes had also appeared in a movie called Young Jesse James, but then everyone working in Hollywood seemed to make at least one Jesse James picture during their career. The stagecoach heist doesn't go well, but Jesse and Hank get away, with a bullet in Hank's shoulder. The sheer acting inability of this man is amazing to behold. I'm certainly no actor but every now and again I see a performance that I could outdo and Cal Bolder's here is one. I have more charisma in my sleep. Then again Bolder wasn't hired for his acting chops, he was hired because even his muscles have muscles.

He was discovered while working as a California Highway Patrolman under his real name of Earl G Craver, the agent impressed by his physique. He was 6' 4" tall, 260 pounds, with a 52" chest and a 32" waist. He isn't as dumb as he appears in this film, as he wrote a couple of novels after retiring from acting. Here he's as dumb as a post and he's destined to be Maria Frankenstein's new Igor, the giant she's been craving. Yes the two sides of this story do connect in the end, as Juanita bizarrely recommends the Frankensteins as the best hope of saving Hank's life. Quite why she would do this, I really don't know. 'Since they came here there has been nothing but death and sorrow,' she spits. They've murdered her brother and emptied her town. Yet a day or two on the road, one meeting with Jesse James, who saves her from being kidnapped by a wild Injun, and she takes them both to the painted backdrop. 'There they are', she says.

Fortunately from now on we get to see more Maria than we do Juanita. The senorita is the sort of girl who torments her beau into carrying her home on his shoulder and ravish her into shutting up, bitching all the way. Maria is a challenge. Sure, she'll kill you while you're sleeping and hook you up to a Jamaican mind transferrence device but at least she's gloriously old school in her antics. 'Wonderful,' she repeats as she salivates over her new Igor in his sickbed. We're entirely with her when she gets all uppity about being denied by Jesse James, Notorious Outlaw With a Price on His Head. 'To think that this outlaw with a price on his head refuse me for that girl,' she spits, forgetting her command of the English language and sounding more and more like Bela Lugosi as the film runs on. By the time Hank's head is shaved and the Frankensteins plot above his sleeping body, he obviously has his jaws clamped together in an attempt not to laugh.

It's here that the pulp horror antics reach their peak and we almost forget entirely about the western component. John Lupton is entirely too subdued for us to pay attention and he doesn't warrant any of the magnetism he seems to command over every lady in the film. Juanita and Maria have the choice of boring old Jesse James and young dumb hunk Hank Tracy, hardly a difficult choice for any red blooded young lady, yet both pick the notorious outlaw. Perhaps even in the nineteenth century, the ladies can't resist the draw of a bad boy celebrity. It's the only explanation I can come up with. I'm sure you can choreograph the rest of the film yourselves given that it hardly breaks new ground, except through the bizarre introduction of a brain that pulses like a heart. The dialogue descends to the level of 'Our village is free once more, thanks to you,' but should have been, 'I've just lost the last eighty some minutes of my life, thanks to you.'

I remember enjoying this movie years ago, though despising its partner in crime, Billy the Kid Meets Dracula. Revisiting it again now I can't imagine why. It's utterly unworthy of the memories I have of it, being capably shot but otherwise utterly ludicrous. Maybe it plays better on a tiny screen. Maybe it plays better if you're half asleep. Maybe it plays better if you've just watched something even worse right before it. Really it only has one thing going for it and that's the very concept of setting a gothic horror movie in the old west, not really a new idea but one that had never been used with such blatancy before. The weird western has grown in popularity over the last half century, mostly due to the work of Joe R Lansdale, and it's surely only a matter of time before he or another writer brings a great weird western script to life on the big screen in the same sort of crossover style that Bubba Ho-Tep represented. All we know is that it isn't this.

Wednesday 16 June 2010

Hercules Against the Moon Men (1964)

Director: Giacomo Gentilomo
Star: Alan Steel
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.

Carlo Franci's score leaps out here first for attention, a cacophony of sinister crescendos that may have been distilled from every monster movie ever made, which is highly appropriate given the material. This is generic pulp peplum at it's best, or worst, depending on your perspective. Peplum is an Italian genre usually referred to as sword and sandal, historical or mythological epics that turn out to be a little less epic than you might initially expect and which often featured bodybuilders or slumming American actors in the lead roles. They are roughly to Hollywood epics what spaghetti westerns were to the American originals: low budget attempts to capture a style that perhaps inevitably ended up creating a whole new style of their own. Their heyday was the late fifties and early sixties, after the 1958 version of Hercules with Steve Reeves, during which time they were churned out in numbers that cannot comfortably be imagined.

Most of them appeared in the west in dubbed form, if at all, and the lead character was usually a mythological hero such as Hercules, Samson or Colossus. Hercules was the most frequent, but not just because the Italians made so many Hercules movies. They had their own series that featured a similar character named Maciste and because the Americans hadn't a clue who he was, he promptly became Hercules too whenever dubbed into English. He debuted in Giovanni Pastrone's groundbreaking Cabiria as far back as 1914, where he was played by Bartolomeo Pagano, who went on to reprise the role in another 26 silent movies. By the time of the peplum revival, anyone with muscles seemed to get an opportunity to play Maciste. Mark Forest was the most frequent with seven outings but he was savvy enough to spend his time studying opera and promptly moved back to the States to become an opera teacher. Here Maciste is Alan Steel.

I'm not sure how Mark Forest can be a real name but Alan Steel just a pseudonym, but that's what it is. He's really Sergio Ciani who started out as a double for Steve Reeves but soon rose to lead roles as the peplum craze took hold, playing Hercules, Maciste and Samson, among others. He's actually quite fun, but not much of his success is due to his acting ability. He breathes a lot and effortlessly takes on outlandish numbers of opponents, but mostly by simply pushing them aside as they run towards him. He doesn't act as much as act as an immobile object for the rest of the cast to bounce off. Of course he looks great because he's constantly coated in olive oil so he can glisten magnificently in the dark. He also has a habit of losing the top half of his costume, only for it to miraculously reappear a little later on, so he spends most of the time with his pecs on view. Unfortunately he's not too bright because he walks into every trap the film has to offer.

These traps are mostly set by Queen Samara, the queen of Samar, which is a wasteland with a neverending supply of young children to sacrifice to the Moon Men of the title who live in the Mountain of Death. Wow, a little too much at once, huh? OK, let me backtrack. Initially the land of Samar is a cheesy model onto which falls a fiery mass, some sort of asteroid that Bruce Willis didn't manage to deflect. After the Moon Men presumably come out and turn the local mountain into the subtly named Mountain of Death, the people of Samar obviously decide that moving is too much of a hassle so they'll just sacrifice their children to the aliens instead. Perhaps, given that this is a movie from Italy, the land of lovers, they saw this as a sort of birth control device, handy in that it meant they could spend their time rutting like rabbits and yet not have to take care of the inevitable consequences for too long. There must be a reason somewhere.

It also gives us plenty of opportunity to hear the moans of the tormented as they're dragged in chains to be thrown into the conveniently huge doorway that opens vertically into the mountain. In ancient Samar, walking into the light is apparently a bad thing, which would have caused no end of trouble for Jennifer Love Hewitt and her magic eyelashes. While we never see anyone actually eaten by these aliens, we do get plenty of shots of the sacrificial offerings on their way up the mountain, so many that the film often has as much of a moantrack as a soundtrack. It's like they caught on to Conan's 'lamentation of the women' quote and decided to turn it into an entire movie. These children are all a little old to warrant that description too, making us wonder if the translator needs to be added to their number. The queen is all for keeping up the sacrifices because the Moon Men are her best buds but her people are getting a little pissed off about it.

And here's where we come in. Claudius is the queen's chief advisor who has served the family for a long time. He looks precisely as he should except he has an unfortunate cowlick that looks like a huge extra ear stuck on the side of his head. Queen Samara looks severely beautiful, all dressed in shimmering blue, reminding a little of Sarah Douglas in Superman II. She's just as dismissive too. 'Silence, you old fool!' she tells him when he comes up with the idea of sending for Maciste to free them from the oppression of the Mountain of Death. Like, what ruler of a long tormented kingdom would want something like that? Unfortunately for her Maciste is already on his way, as her secret advisor secretly advises her, and sure enough we watch him ride on his white horse through what seems like every abandoned quarry in Samar. One of them is full of men who try to seize him but he disposes of them all before someone finally says, 'Seize him!'

Meanwhile back at the ranch, a strange man materialises in a strange mask that makes him look like a cross between a Mexican wrestler and the Spanish Inquisition. Inevitably he has a voice that aches to be like James Earl Jones. 'Samara, you have failed,' rumbles Redolphis, for that's his name. 'Maciste is alive. He escaped from the trap you set for him.' The queen is truly shocked. 'Alive? But how could he avoid death at the hands of my best soldiers?' Best soldiers? These were the best soldiers? If this is the standard of the Samar army, it explains why they're still sacrificing their children. The Moon Men must have looked at them until they cried uncle. 'You underestimated that man,' Redolphis continues. 'Remember as long as he stays alive he remains a threat to that destiny bred from the stars. We will not be able to leave the mountain and dominate the world and you will not become the most powerful woman on Earth.'

Ah, it all becomes clear! The queen has ambition to rule the world but she's stuck with useless soldiers who are perpetually a day late and a fistful of dollars short. No wonder she needs the help of the lunar invaders. 'I promise you he will die,' she offers, but she finds that she has to do it by the full moon, so Princess Billis can be delivered to the aliens and Queen Selene can return to life. Both are played by Delia d'Alberti, who has a fine bosom and a shock of long blonde hair. She's the queen's sister, though they don't share the same mother, and apparently the queen hasn't twigged yet that she's only going to be tolerated by the Moon Men until their own queen can be revived. Then again, the arrogance of leaders who can't be contented with just one land is precisely why there are so many peplum movies. They rely on such things. Adding Moon Men into the mix is just a bonus because they don't need as much effects work as real monsters.
Eventually Queen Samara gets invited into the Moon Men's cavern to see how identical Billis is to Queen Selene and we see some real monsters, stone men who look like they stepped out of a cubist painting. They're the coolest thing in the film, like an army of slow rockwork soldiers and in their company Redolphis gives the queen another eloquent hint that she's a moron. 'When the planet Saturn comes into conjunction with Mars,' he orates, 'and under the evil influence of Uranus then will occur unimaginable disasters.' Yes, the evil influence of Uranus. Will cause unimaginable disasters. Sometimes these films are so bad that whatever I conjure up to deride them is doomed to be less funny as the actual dialogue. 'The oceans will rise, the mountains crumble, and inexorably our moon will draw near the Earth. Through this cataclysm only our form of life can survive. After the long night of sleep we shall become the masters of the Earth.'

Back in reality, Maciste will soon arrive in Samar but we have other characters to get acquainted with first. Princess Billis has a boyfriend called Darix, who aims to wipe out the 'mysterious power of the monsters.' Darix is the cousin of the queen, which means that they're all keeping it in the family. Claudius has a daughter called Agar, though she's more like his granddaughter, and he sends her to meet Maciste. Darix is tough, as we'll soon find out when he gets shot through the heart with an arrow. Even mortally wounded he can still fend off his attackers long enough for Maciste to turn up and save him, and then he can recover with amazing speed. Agar is an idiot, though she seems to magically stay alive long enough to get everyone else in the story into danger, if not killed outright. Nobody mentions that she's a jinx but Samar would surely have been freed from lunar oppression decades ago if only she hadn't have been born.

And so to Maciste. He soon gets the opportunity to strut his stuff because he's the man of the hour; he stands for truth, justice and the Samar way; and he's a dab hand at walking into traps. Agar fetches him to Claudius, Claudius tells him that the queen is full of 'arrogance and limitless pride' and off they go into the vast maze of secret tunnels under the palace to find some traps, possibly the first actually interesting thing we've seen thus far. Claudius gets skewered to death by a set of spikes that emerge from a wall. Agar's right there, of course, to jinx him into dying in her arms while she promises to save Maciste, not that she can see him. Maciste has fallen into what appears to be a really relaxing shower that opened up below him with a trapdoor to hide him from sight. He escapes through a wall only to be attacked by a hairy monster with a great flapping jaw and lose the top half of his costume for the first time. It'll be back, trust me.

Conveniently he runs right into Agar, who knows more ways out of the palace than I can count. She takes him to a tavern to meet up with Darix and his colleagues who are planning rebellion, then leaves him to head straight back to the palace where she knows full well the queen has her number. Did I mention Agar isn't bright? In the form of Anna Maria Polani she is at least worth looking at but I'm not sure that makes up for how utterly worthless she is as a character. At least we can be distracted by the queen's guards stumbling upon Maciste because the tavernkeeper has a daughter they want to sacrifice. 'Don't attempt to resist,' they tell him. 'We're here to take your daughter.' And they resist! Even though they were told not to. What a bad influence Maciste is on these subservient peasants! He even teaches them how to grin inanely while throwing soldiers into a barrel. He likes that and keeps doing it, even though there's only one barrel.

Soon all the guards in town are distracted away from their task of stealing away unwilling victims for this month's sacrifice to fight Maciste, who never loses his inane grin. The few that survive go back for even more reinforcements but by then Agar is back with more bad news. She never has any good news, it's either bad or worse. This time it's that Billis has been added to the front of the line of moaning sacrifices. Of course given that this news has arrived with Agar we just know it has to be a trap and sure enough, that's what it is. Maciste is great on his own at finding traps to walk into, without needing Agar's help, but at least this one ends up with him in an exotic torture device, a spiked jaws of death contraption which looks great but doesn't do too much. His technique to fight it is to stand in it and get tired. There are ominous drums, whips and moans but mostly from the folks working it while Maciste breathes hard and waits for the ropes to snap.

As there's nothing hotter to a villainous queen than a hot sweaty muscleman, instead of having him instantly killed she summons him into her bedchamber. 'I know you're strong enough to crush me,' she whispers, 'but it's worth the risk.' She even puts his hand round her neck and he volunteers to be her slave. This is before she slips an aphrodisiac into his drink, that he pours all over the floor for her to not notice even while walking through it. Jany Clair is the actress playing Queen Samara and she's great at regal poutiness. She also looks rather hot with her hair down, making me wonder why she doesn't leave it that way. Unfortunately she's stuck in a movie of bad clichés and can't get out. We get sped up fights. We get characters surreptitiously moving out of the way so someone runs head first into a gong. We get secret passageways at every opportune spot. We get an army leader who suddenly decides to change sides. Why now?

We also get a sandstorm. I have to point out the sandstorm because it goes on and on. And on. People run around, fall over, get up, run around some more, snap cardboard trees. At least the soundtrack has roaring winds which is about the only appropriate sound anywhere in the film except the frequent moantrack. For instance when one character gets crushed to death by the rockwork soldiers, the soundtrack starts imitating a rattlesnake for no apparent reason. In the sandstorm, we get sand noises and storm noises, which is so surprising we're almost stunned into forgetting just how pointless this scene is. Every now and again someone has to give up. We can't see too much so we get gifted with clever dialogue like 'I can't go on!' or 'Where are you?' or 'Help me!' This is the cinematic equivalent of the famous endless corridors in early episodes of Doctor Who but at least the BBC was working within the confines of television.

We also get a truly awful set of scenes comprised of stock footage of natural disasters while the Moon is summoned towards the Earth. There are torrential waves and cloud formations, but there's an earthquake too and rivers of magma, even a twister. It's like every disaster movie ever made with Agar as almost the only cast member. That's a truly scary thought and one that puts us firmly on the side of the disasters. We could cast bets as to which one will get her and argue about which one would have been most satisfying. It's all to help resurrect Queen Selene, of course, while we can't help but wonder why she's entirely human looking while Redolphis looks like a gay version of Bender. Is this what living in the Mountain of Death does for people? I'll let you work out the finalé in your head but it's comprised of at least half a dozen clichés so that must count for something. Maciste gets Agar too but by Crom, he's welcome to her.

Ed Wood (1994)

Director: Tim Burton
Star: Johnny Depp
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.

Ed Wood was always going to be a favourite of mine. I'm a confirmed Tim Burton fan, however much I wish he'd add an edge of danger to his stylised creations. I'm a Johnny Depp fan and was long before the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise made that fashionable. Most importantly I'm an Ed Wood fan, just as I'm a fan of much outsider art, whether the medium be writing, painting, music or film. He was certainly an artist, in his way, merely one who saw something else on the screen when he was done than most of the rest of us did. When Rob Zombie kicked off the TCM Underground series of cult films on Turner Classic Movies with a double bill of Ed Wood movies, he said that however inept his movies get, they have a sincerity about them that shines above everything else. That sincerity is often the key factor that turns a bad movie into a so bad it's good movie, and it's the key factor that sets Wood above most of his competitors.

There's no getting away from the fact that a film like Plan 9 from Outer Space is utterly inept. It's hard to understand how such a film could be begun, let alone finished, and how nobody seemed to care about the glaring inconsistencies that pervade it. Yet it's still magnetic viewing. I've seen it many times, on TV, DVD and even in a colorised 35mm version on the big screen. I'm sure that I'll see it again and again and I'll enjoy it just as much next time and the time after that. However I can't say the same for anything made by people like Coleman Francis, Larry Buchanan or Jerry Warren. Without sincerity, their films become merely bad movies and it's just not as much fun to sit through them. When I watch Francis's The Beast of Yucca Flats, another science fiction/horror movie released two years after Plan 9 from Outer Space, with Wood regular Tor Johnson in the lead role, I'm not enjoying the cheese, I'm trying to fathom just how inept Coleman Francis was.

Another reason that Ed Wood movies are generally so much fun (and Coleman Francis movies generally aren't) is the cast of characters who populated them. Wood may have hired hasbeens, though that's a terribly unfair and subjectively inaccurate term to use, but Francis usually hired people who had never been anybody to begin with, like his family. Many of the characters that congregated around Wood could accurately be described as outsider artists too and they're often fascinating in themselves: psychics, transvestites, wrestlers, horror hosts, former stars. Their dynamic nature also provides the reason why producing a biopic about Ed Wood makes sense where a biopic about Coleman Francis would be an utter waste of time. Wood's clique of regulars are unmatched in their cult appeal until perhaps the era of John Waters, and indeed some of them have been the recipients of the biopic treatment themselves.

Burton's film concentrates entirely on the period when Wood made three films with Bela Lugosi, even though Wood led a fascinating life both before and after this period. The timeframe makes sense when you consider the similarities between two relationships: the one between Wood and Lugosi that is focused on here and the one between Tim Burton and Vincent Price, who at the time they met was also an elderly screen legend known mostly for his horror features. 'Meeting Vincent had an incredible impact on me,' Burton has said, 'the same impact Ed must have felt meeting and working with his idol.' As this film bombed at the box office and recouped less than a third of its costs, any thought of a prequel or sequel would be insane from the perspective of a major studio, but perhaps one day someone might make them nonetheless, someone working with the same sort of budget and the same sort of infectious zeal Wood had.

The story kicks in at the point Wood gets his big break as a film director, due to a confluence of circumstances: the idea that he could make an entire movie from stock footage, his meeting and befriending Bela Lugosi and a small studio's inability to get the film rights to make the story of Christine Jorgensen. He makes Glen or Glenda instead, a intensely autobiographical story in which he also starred, under the pseudonym of Daniel Davis, alongside his girlfriend at the time, Dolores Fuller, who was unaware of his transvestism. Even though this was a low budget mess of a movie that was subsequently 'enhanced' by the producer with additional softcore porn scenes, Wood was intensely proud of writing, directing and starring in it, just as his idol, Orson Welles, had done with Citizen Kane. Needless to say, Glen or Glenda was hardly the picture Citizen Kane was but it set Wood on the track to future fame at the other end of the scale to his idol.
He proceeds on anyway, because, regardless of the quality of the work he produces, he proves that an infectious energy and a blind optimism are sometimes all that's needed. Jim Morton later suggested that, 'Lesser men, if forced to make movies under the conditions Wood faced, would have thrown up their hands in defeat,' and we watch this in action through the characterisation of Johnny Depp, who is impossible not to watch. He presumably nailed the spirit of the man, given that Wood's wife Kathy visited the set and gave her approval. 'That's my Eddie,' she said. Depp has Wood always smiling through sheer optimism, believing things like Warner Brothers would be interested in his work. He mouths the lines of his actors as they act because he's so into the moment. He cuts everything on the first take because it's all perfect and if it isn't, then nobody would notice anyway, or it all makes sense on some level of reality only he can see.

Depp is well known for his inspirations and this time round he constructed his characterisation out of 'the blind optimism of Ronald Reagan, the enthusiasm of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz and Casey Kasem.' Beyond Reagan's optimism and Kasem's confidence, he also studied the acting of Mickey Rooney to pick up that unbridled energy, and Wood certainly needed it. For Bride of the Atom, he gets stuck with a colourblind cinematographer, a non-actress who gets the female lead role because he believes she's going to finance the picture and a non-actor who's 'a little slow' who gets the male lead because his father actually does. Offscreen, merely living his life is just as traumatic as trying to get his film made, because the drama never ends. Fuller breaks up with him because she can't deal with his fetishes and his friends, and Lugosi, who has a serious addiction to morphine, attempts to enlist him in a double suicide attempt.

Eventually, of course, he makes it through to the legendary Plan 9 from Outer Space, a film with a history so outlandish that the documentary about it is half an hour longer than the film itself. Shot in 1956 as Grave Robbers from Outer Space, but not released for three years because of distribution problems, it stars Bela Lugosi, even though he had died before production began. He appears through a bizarre mix of existing footage shot for a movie that never happened and through the introduction of Dr Tom Mason, Wood's girlfriend's chiropractor, as a double, with a cape conveniently draped over his face to hide the fact that he had very little resemblance to Lugosi. The cast all had to be baptised, because the film was financed by the Baptist Church of Beverly Hills, eager to raise money to make a set of pictures about the twelve apostles. Driven to distraction by the changes they require, Wood shoots some scenes in drag to keep him calm.

Watching all this unfold is surreal, but it's fascinating to watch because it's shot straight rather than with Burton's usual quirky stylisations. Because the film only progresses up to 1959, Burton chose to shoot in black and white, even though Columbia were very wary of such a move and so he switched to Disney, who released what would become Burton's first R rated movie through their Touchstone brand. Depp is magnetic throughout, not just because he's playing the title role and so gets far more screen time than anyone else but largely because he was depressed about the process of filmmaking at the time and saw the part of Ed Wood as a 'chance to stretch out and have some fun.' It turned out to be the right film for him as he later explained that working with Martin Landau 'rejuvenated my love for acting'. Amazingly Landau is one of the less obvious choices for a part here, but he deservedly won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Lugosi.

Most of the actors are obvious casting choices. Jeffrey Jones looks and sounds like Criswell, the television psychic who introduced Ed Wood's movies with so much confidence and redundancy. Professional wrestler George 'The Animal' Steele is really the the only possible choice to play professional wrestler Tor Johnson, even though he isn't quite big enough to fill the big Swede's boots. Bill Murray is the spitting image of Bunny Breckinridge and his campiness is a thing of genius, conjured up with subtle movements and rolls of the eyes. Others are inspired choices. Vincent d'Onofrio, one of the most underrated actors of today, is unforgettable as Orson Welles, to whom of course Ed Wood frequently compared himself, even though he appears in only one single scene to inspire Wood to complete Plan 9 from Outer Space and his voice is dubbed by voice actor Maurice LaMarche, who had based the Brain in Pinky and the Brain on Welles.
Landau shines above all these, even above Depp, though I wouldn't go so far as to suggest he steals the film from him. Bela Lugosi would always be a great opportunity for any actor to play, but the old Bela is a dream part. He kickstarted the horror boom of the thirties with his defining take on Dracula, but then turned down the follow up role of Frankenstein's Monster because it wasn't sexy enough. After all, he'd already got married to his third wife and divorced after three days because he'd been having an affair with Clara Bow. How sexy could you get? After that his career sped into rapid decline because he proved to have the worst business sense of any actor except perhaps George Raft or John Travolta who turned down enough great parts to enable Humphrey Bogart and Richard Gere respectively to build entire careers out of. Lugosi, however, didn't turn down films he should have taken; instead he took the ones he shouldn't.

When he appeared in Glen or Glenda he was over seventy and had been a morphine addict for twenty years, soon becoming the first Hollywood star to be admitted to rehab. It had been eight years since he'd made a decent movie, The Body Snatcher, and even then his rival Boris Karloff had by far the better part. All this makes Bela exactly the sort of role that a good actor could make something of and Martin Landau makes it emphatically his own. He was of course a major actor long before Ed Wood, not least for the Mission: Impossible TV series, but I much prefer the older Landau, whether he's in a regular supporting slot in shows like The Evidence or Without a Trace, or in more recent movies like Lovely, Still. I've seen every performance he was up against in 1995 and, while Chazz Palminteri was notable in Bullets Over Broadway, nobody was real competition. His win was the first time any actor won an Oscar for playing another real life actor.

The only real downpoint to the movie is the fact that the script takes so many liberties with the truth, especially as pertains to Lugosi. He was not as antagonistic towards his frequent co-star Boris Karloff as scriptwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski would have us believe. He didn't swear, own a small dog or sleep in a coffin. He recovered fully from his morphine addiction and left the hospital under his own steam. His fourth wife did leave him in 1953, but he married again in 1955 and remained so until his death. He had a son who is notably absent from the film. His funeral was well attended by family and colleagues, Boris Karloff included. Peter Lorre is said to have looked down at Lugosi in his coffin, clad in one of his Dracula capes, and asked Vincent Price, 'Do you think we should put a stake through his heart, just in case?' Inaccuracies aside, Bela Lugosi Jr became friends with Landau after seeing his portrayal of his father.

Other notable departures from the truth include the well received premiere of Plan 9 from Outer Space and the meeting between Wood and Welles, neither of which ever happened; the mass baptism required by the church financing the film; and Wood's discovery of Tor Johnson, who was a much experienced actor who had appeared in a string of movies over a couple of decades. Often these departures from the truth end up less as slight inaccuracies and more as outright fabrications to unashamedly distort the truth for the sake of a more cinematic script, but Ed Wood is a strange subject to raise this sort of concern over, because he was notorious for doing precisely the same thing. He was always all about the spirit of a piece, never the detail, so his films are full of glaring errors and plot inconsistencies that nobody except Wood can ignore, the biggest reason that Plan 9 from Outer Space became known as the worst film of all time.

After the premiere of Yankee Doodle Dandy, an Oscar-winning biopic about impresario George M Cohan, Cohan himself said, 'Great film. Who's it about?' Like Yankee Doodle Dandy, Ed Wood really isn't a biopic, it's an impressionistic take on a point in time in a man's career. Much of Burton's work (and Depp's, for that matter), looks sympathetically at outsiders and this film may be, even more than Edward Scissorhands, his masterpiece on that front. Almost singlehandedly it led to a far more sympathetic reevaluation of Ed Wood and his work, after the Golden Turkey Awards had in 1980 consigned him with the dubious title of the 'Worst Director of All Time'. Now we can enjoy the irony of Ed Wood finally winning an Oscar and appearing in the IMDb Top 250 and speculate on whether it really is true that the title credits cost more to make than every single one of Wood's films put together.

The 39 Steps (1935)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll
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.

Alfred Hitchcock's name appeared on no less than nine films in this Top 250, as I grabbed it in 2004, making him the most represented director of all, and three more have popped in and out since. When I started this project I'd seen only two of those nine films, Rear Window and Psycho, but two years later this one completed the set. I've also managed to improve my background in Hitch generally from a pitiful total of four films to a far more acceptable forty one, including all the acknowledged classics, a whole bunch more that easily deserve to be regarded in the same breath and some that are merely, well, pretty darn good. I'm happy to report that there really aren't many below that standard and that working through the career of the master of suspense is an education that every avid film fan should really consider taking on. Don't just stop with the big ones from the fifties and sixties, because you'll miss out on things like this.

In fact, while his best films may be the ones caught up in his stunning decade of work that ran from Strangers on a Train in 1951 to Psycho in 1960, my personal favourites tend to appear somewhat earlier in his filmography, namely his later English films such as Sabotage, The Lady Vanishes and this film, perhaps his first true classic. It was based on The Thirty-Nine Steps, a 1915 novel by John Buchan, which introduced the character of Richard Hannay, something of a gentleman cliffhanger, a sort of secret agent of the English school who helped set the stage for a new generation of spies and action thriller heroes. He starred in five novels and appeared in a couple more and has been represented on screen by actors of the calibre of Kenneth More, Robert Powell and, in this film, Robert Donat, an actor so highly regarded that he was able to remain in England throughout his career and let Hollywood come to him when it wanted him.

Here Hannay is Canadian, just one indicator that this isn't a particularly close adaptation of the source novel, but given that the author apparently enjoyed it very much we shouldn't be too upset at that. We meet our hero in a London music hall where he does a pretty good impression of an English gentleman after a couple of gunshots interrupt the performance of Mr Memory, a man with an eidetic memory whose act is to answer trivia questions the audience throw at him. Hannay keeps his calm while all around are losing theirs, but he continues to keep it throughout the evening, which becomes more and more admirable. He rescues a young lady, even though she doesn't particularly seem to need rescuing and even though she claims to be called Smith but patently isn't, given the notable European accent. She's cute but she's sinister, not least because she knows his name and that the phone ringing in his furnished apartment is for her.

He plays along like a gentleman, as she admits both to being a spy without a country, in the game for the money, and to firing those shots herself to create a diversion. There's a secret vital to England's air defence and it's about to be spilled, but the bad guys are on her trail and she's in serious danger, something that now inherently extends to him, her unwitting accomplice in escape. She drops hints at things but doesn't fully explain. She warns him about a man with the tip of his little finger missing. She mentions that her next step is to travel to Scotland to talk to someone. She even asks him if he's heard of the 39 steps but she won't explain why. 'Is that a pub?' he asks. She might tell him tomorrow but she doesn't get the chance because tomorrow never comes for her. She stumbles into his room during the night with a knife in her back, to live long enough only to hand him a map of Scotland with the town of Alt-na-Shellach circled.
And so the race is on, with Hannay something of a precursor to Roger Thornhill in Hitchcock's even more lauded North By Northwest, both men regular joes caught up in a wild ride into spy country. Fortunately my biggest problem with North By Northwest fails to appear here, Robert Donat being far more believable than Cary Grant because Richard Hannay is far more believable than Roger Thornhill. Thornhill was an everyday advertising executive who gets caught up in events way beyond his control and suddenly morphs into James Bond or something close to it. Maybe that's empowering to the viewers as a fantasy, but it hardly makes for a realistic story. We don't really know what Hannay is but he's obviously a nice guy who gets caught up in events way beyond his control but he makes it through without ever turning into James Bond. He falls prey to massively dangerous errors and wins out through a combination of luck and judgement.

There are points where he feels confident and points where he doesn't, but he never has an air of invulnerability floating around him. Initially he's calm and collected, as conspiracy nuts were presumably thin on the ground in 1935, but when Smith is murdered it ceases to be a game and he runs, albeit north to Scotland because, with a dead body in his apartment, he feels that the only way to really clear his name is to uncover the truth. What we see is a bright man out of his depth, who flounders around trying to stay ahead of both the good guys and the bad guys, while trying to work out what he's got himself into. He can certainly think on his feet, but then he has to because he doesn't know who else is involved and so he often cleverly escapes one situation only to blunder right into another one. Much of how he succeeds or fails also rests on the actions of other people who, acting on their own best intentions, unknowingly frustrate everyone's plans.

All this makes the action engrossing, believable and grounded, far more so than in Hitch's later 'technicolor bauble'. I loved the social comment in Hannay's first escape that we believe what we want to believe. He tries but fails to persuade the milkman that the men outside are murderers and he's in mortal danger, only succeeding in eliciting his help by lying about playing around with a married woman. What's really clever is that Hannay is also believing what he wants to believe, assuming he's a target even though he's probably not really in danger from the killers, who only let him live to take the rap for Smith's murder and so he heads north to Scotland to begin his adventure. In a magnificent piece of editing, a charwoman finds the body as the Flying Scotsman sets off but because the news travels faster than the train, he soon finds he has to get more and more imaginative with his escapes to keep that one step ahead of his pursuers.

There are so many pointers here to future Hitchcock films. With the police searching the train he finds himself in the hands of a beautiful young lady travelling alone. In North By Northwest, that turned out to be a glamorous spy played by Eva Marie Saint, prompting Hollywood romance and intrigue. In The 39 Steps, it's merely a passenger played by Madeleine Carroll who promptly turns him in. This forces him to stop the train and jump, only to find himself on the Forth Railway Bridge, perhaps the first of many landmarks that Hitch would find a suspenseful place for in his films. Sometimes I wonder if a landmark is truly a landmark if it wasn't in a Hitchcock movie. He was always ahead of the technological curve too, so when Hannay is chased across the moors of Scotland, one of his pursuers is an early form of the helicopter called an autogyro, previously only seen in two other movies, It Happened One Night and W C Fields's International House.
The film is less than an hour and a half long, and Donat as Hannay is the focal point throughout, the rest of the characters appearing and disappearing as the story requires. Yet there doesn't seem to be a wasted shot, except perhaps the odd last long lingering glimpse at some of the set locations, and every character is admirably fleshed out, even if they don't have a lot of screen time. The two commercial travellers who sit opposite Hannay on the train are there only to aid with the suspense, but great writing means that we learn exactly who they are in a few short scenes of limericks, ladies' underwear and risqué dialogue. We learn all about who an innkeeper and his wife are, entirely through how they choose to treat the pair of newlyweds who arrive late one night. We even learn plenty about Smith, through a combination of what she tells Hannay and what she doesn't. You aren't paranoid if they're really all out to get you.

Best of all are a crofter and his wife, who Hannay stays a night with outside Ard-na-Shelloch, in scenes that take up mere minutes but which in other hands could have been the entire movie. John is a strict religious man, though as tight and traiterous as any stereotypical Scot in the wild eyed form of John Laurie, later to find fame as Private Frazer on Dad's Army. His wife Margaret is well out of her depth, even though she's played by one of England's foremost stage actresses, the future Dame Peggy Ashcroft in only her second film. John is utterly in charge and so Margaret is doomed to an austere existence far from Sauchiehall St and the lights of the big city that she misses so much. Hannay immediately becomes threat to one and lifeline to the other, realising he can trust her but not him, but with Margaret's actions to help her guest only deepening her husband's fears that she's being seduced. John gets to be traitor and saviour all at once.

There's so much depth in these mere few minutes that it's amazing to realise how short they really are. It's masterful cinema, stripped down to its bare essentials by the director, writer and the actors involved. The breadth of the emotions that Peggy Ashcroft embues into the last shot of her character amply demonstrates why she must have been so great on the stage. I didn't recognise her at all here, though that's hardly surprising as this is almost fifty years before she would win an Oscar for A Passage to India and she was never known as a screen actress. I didn't recognise John Laurie either because Dad's Army was over three decades away and I came to his film roles later. I didn't even recognise Robert Donat, though he was so magnificent only four years later to win his own Oscar for Goodbye, Mr Chips. Perhaps that's because he was hardly prolific himself and he spent much of that film in progressively serious aging make up.

Leading lady Madeleine Carroll ought to be the most recognisable member of the cast as she retired from acting early in her career after a burst of prolificity, averaging two films a year over two decades. After her sister was killed in a Nazi bombing raid in London she devoted the rest of the war to working in field hospitals for the Red Cross, which earned her the Legion d'Honneur for valour, and after the war she only made three further films. Yet I didn't recognise her either as I believe I've only seen a couple of her other movies, 1937's The Prisoner of Zenda and Hitchcock's next film, Secret Agent, both of which were dominated by male characters played by amazing sets of actors. She's understated here too but makes herself more obvious through only having to share the screen with one actor, who is more than happy to give her an opportunity to shine. And they really share the screen, as they're handcuffed together for much of the time.

She's Pamela, the young lady Hannay stole a kiss from on the Flying Scotsman in an attempt to avoid capture, but she disappears from the film for a while, just an inconsequential character at that point. When she returns to the story, she turns him in yet again, after he escapes from the police and stumbles into a political meeting, only to fall foul of a case of mistaken identity and be promptly hustled up on stage as a speaker. He impresses the audience with an astoundingly generic speech that says everything and nothing all at once, but he's far too obvious to get away and so gets driven off in handcuffs by the villains of the piece who are posing as policemen. They take Pamela too, ostensibly so she can identify Hannay but really just to keep her quiet, and as suspicion quickly rises about who they are and where they're taking them, she ends up cuffed to him when they're held up on the road by a flock of sheep and flight becomes possible.
This is all more social and personal comment from Charles Bennett, who adapted Buchan's novel for the screen. His association with Hitch dated back to Blackmail in 1929, a film adaptation of Bennett's play, and from there he wrote many of Hitchcock's English films, as well as his second American picture, Foreign Correspondent. It's impossible not to see both humour and comment in Hannay's political speech, but there's another level. Hitchcock had a phobia about policemen, apparently triggered as a child when his father sent him to the local station with a letter. After reading it, the desk sergeant locked up the young Alfred for ten minutes before setting him free with the explanation that, 'This is what happens to people who do bad things.' With typical black humour, he extended his wrong man paranoia to his cast, cuffing Donat and Carroll together on the set one day and pretending for a few hours to have lost the key.

It's these scenes with the leading characters on the run together, literally inseparable because of the handcuffs, that turn out to be the funniest, as Hannay attempts once more to convince her of the reality of the situation and when he fails yet again, turns the tables on her and plays up his imaginary life of crime. 'All right,' he says. 'Then, I'm just a plain common murderer who stabbed an innocent, defenseless woman in the back not four days ago. How do you come out over that? I don't know how innocent you may be, but you're a woman and you're defenseless, and you're alone on a desolate moor in the dark manacled to a murderer who would stop at nothing to get you off his hands. And if that's the situation you prefer, have it, my lovely, and welcome.' Of course, after finding a pub for the night, he proves such an amateur that he tries and fails to saw off the cuffs while she just waits for him to fall asleep and slips her tiny hand out herself.

There are so many reasons why this film works, but this is the most palpable. Richard Hannay is a great wish fulfilment hero, one who we can truly watch and believably picture ourselves in his place. He's daring, imaginative and intelligent, as I'm sure we all would like to believe we are, but he's far from a superhero. He's quintessentially human so makes mistakes, bad choices and decisions and he's rarely in control of any situation for long. In short he's refreshingly grounded. Another reason is that the film never lets up, as wild a ride in black and white as North By Northwest ever was in colour, and it's tighter and more focused. Perhaps the biggest reason though is that all human life is here. Yes, it's a Hitchcock suspense picture, but more than any of his later work it's full of so much else. It's not a romance or a comedy but it's full of both of those things. It's an adventure, a cliffhanger, a set of thrills, but always deliciously old school.

Above all it's a real statement on human nature, from the insights I've already mentioned to the finalé which speaks to routines, behaviour patterns and the fundamental relief that accompanies getting something off our chest. Perhaps my favourite moment in the film is an easily overlooked one. Eventually Pamela learns the truth about Hannay as she tries to escape from him, sneaking out of their room at the inn while he sleeps, only to discover the reality of their situation from other mouths. Forced to quickly reevaluate all his actions and all her own, she sneaks back into the room, tucks him in and turns in herself on the couch at the foot of the bed, then realises that she's cold so promptly steals back the blanket. Like the scenes at the crofter's there's so much depth here in such a short timeframe that it's wondrous to behold and it's this sort of mastery that may may lead to this fighting off The Lady Vanishes to become my favourite Hitchcock.

Sunday 13 June 2010

Route 666 (2001)

Director: William Wesley
Star: Lou Diamond Phillips, Lori Petty, Steven Williams and L Q Jones

This is the sort of film that has my name written all over it: a defiantly low budget affair full of recognisable faces that delights both in not trying to be a big budget Hollywood movie and in hopping from one genre to another at the slightest provocation. It starts up with Lou Diamond Phillips and Lori Petty flouncing into an Arizona roadside bar like drunken newlyweds to order screaming orgasms from Dick Miller. Phillips and Petty are undercover cops, Jack and Steph by name, who are there to pick up Rabbit, played by a delightfully sassy Steven Williams. Rabbit is a mob informer in the witness protection scheme, but he's on the run because he's changed his mind about testifying against a character called Benny the Buzz Saw. Maybe he has a point because Benny is tied up with the Russian mob and they've sent very large, very imposing hitmen to take him down, played by very large, very imposing actors like Sven-Ole Thorsen.

So initially it's a crime drama with a substantial amount of comedy from Williams. Phillips is Jack La Roca, a highly decorated former Navy Seal and CIA operative, apparently, but still one who hasn't worked out that it's a good idea to shoot bad guys in the head, especially when they're wearing bullet proof vests. However if the title wasn't suggestion enough that we're not going to stick with a plot about a couple of federal agents transporting a witness to an LA courtroom, we get hints at the supernatural during the gunfight because Jack keeps having flashbacks to a chain gang scene he isn't even in. Something is definitely up and we find out what soon enough, when this turns into a zombie flick. These feds make the bad decision to take Route 666 to California, a road that Rabbit's guide book explains was condemned in 1969 after a chain gang accident. Yes, that's the connection but it isn't quite as simple as that, thank goodness.

The first thing they see driving down the empty Route 666 is a graveyard in which Jack finds his father's grave. We've only just been let in on the secret that he was born around here but moved out before he was six. Frankly we don't really care about such blatant revelations, we just enjoy the fact that Lou Diamond Phillips can pose far better with his sunglasses than David Caruso. Anyway, bank robber John La Roca is buried alongside Miles Hackman, Steve Pikowski and Frank Slater, three notorious murderers, and the grave markers show they all died on the same day. PT, one of the federal marshals, is conveniently an authority on this sort of thing, so fills out the back story before the inevitable fight starts as Jack really doesn't appreciate his father being called slime. It's interrupted by the four dead men appearing out of the ether to mash another fed to bloody pulp with their weapons of choice: sledgehammer, chain, pickaxe and jackhammer.

Well, mash one of them to pulp. The rest have to be able to escape so that we can continue as a zombie comedy for the rest of the film. I liked this movie and I offer no apologies for that, but I can't pretend it's a good one. It really doesn't know what it wants to be, and I'm not just talking about the always welcome appearance of Gary Farmer as a shaman living in a cave. 'You must walk among those spirits and bring peace back to this land,' he tells Jack, hardly your standard approach to a zombie flick. I'm mostly talking about the comedy because there isn't any of it at all outside the dialogue, but almost every line of that dialogue could be regarded as a one liner, mostly benefitting Steven Williams but also liberally distributed amongst the rest of the cast. If this was a radio broadcast we'd be splitting our sides, but it's not, so we end up watching a horror movie while listening to a comedy and that's more than a little strange.

There's also a bizarre disconnect between the approach taken to the film and what we end up with. This is actually a really interesting take on a tired genre, or at least it could have been. It's a zombie movie that works with a very limited cast, for a start. Instead of being set in a shopping mall or the middle of a big city, so pitting infrastructure against apocalypse, it's set in the middle of nowhere, out in the Arizona desert. We see precisely four, count 'em, four locals: a bartender and three cops. The situation is automatically self contained because the zombies are tied to the road and can't stumble off it without ceasing to be. There's a spiritual approach to the story too, not just through Gary Farmer's presence but because these zombies are there to mete out some sort of karmic vengeance not because science has gone horrible wrong. In better hands this could have become a zombie movie that stands alone from its peers in a very good way indeed.

Unfortunately while the ideas are great, the execution is more than a little slipshod, only some of which can be blamed on budget limitations. I can forgive the effects, which seem to consist of some viable zombie makeup and a camera that begins shaking annoyingly every time there's a need for some action. What I can't forgive are the atrocious conveniences taken to string the story together. Perhaps the cheese of Jack La Roca emoting with his zombie father was inherent to the plot and perhaps there's a rule that states that nobody in a zombie film can know from moment one that you're supposed to shoot the frickin' things in the head, but the rest of it is far less forgivable. What sort of idiot federal marshals are these anyway, who chase down a suspect in the Arizona desert without either food, water or a reliable means of communication? Which rule allows feds to go make out in their SUV while they're supposed to be guarding a prisoner?

Beyond the high level idiocies, there are so many consistency errors its unreal and I'm not just talking about sunglasses, car keys and bumper stickers that magically appear and disappear between shots. I can forgive that stuff because it can't have been a long shoot. The budget may not have allowed them to reshoot scenes in the middle of nowhere where cars annoyingly pass in the distance. Apparently they got the year of Rabbit's Catalina wrong too, even though they write dialogue about it, but I don't know what a Catalina is so I'm not arguing. I'm talking more about bigger things. Jack and PT quit fighting because they hear a shot down on the road, but why didn't they hear the rest of the skirmish? How come the make out feds didn't hear a full fledged zombie attack a couple of dozen yards away from them? Did the obviously over-qualified Jack get assigned to this case through the sheer power of coincidence?

This even extends to the names involved, which are one of the main drawing points of the film. Was the entire point of Lori Petty's character covered by the first minute of screen time or was she there only to be a name on the DVD cover that might sell copies? She's a talented actress but she gets precisely nothing to do except lounge in the passenger seat of the Catalina and trade one liners with Rabbit. Gary Farmer gets one scene. Dick Miller gets a mere couple of lines. Reliable old Sven-Ole Thorsen disappears far too soon along with his entire subplot, even though there was plenty of potential to revisit it. We don't even see Anne Lockhart (daughter of June, granddaughter of Gene), who somehow slipped from being John Carpenter's first choice to play Laurie Strode in Halloween to playing uncredited voice roles in things like this. Only Phillips and L Q Jones as Sheriff Conaway really get any depth but they're still not well defined characters.

There are always arguments about why there have to be so many remakes in the horror genre and I'm almost entirely on the side of not having them, mostly because they rarely do anything that the originals didn't already do. However in this case, it may well be warranted. Against all reason, I was thoroughly entertained by this film and I'm firmly of the opinion that there's a good movie in there struggling to get out. In more capable hands, this could be something pretty substantial. Unfortunately the crew was hampered by the budget, a mere $2.3m, and a script that plays more like a gag routine. William Wesley directed, co-produced and co-wrote, as he did for a movie called Scarecrows in 1988, but that's all he's done. His co-writers were Scott Fivelson and Thomas Weber, neither of which have prior credits. All are obviously talented but that isn't too apparent in this unpolished rock that could have become a gem.

The Star (1952)

Director: Stuart Heisler
Star: Bette Davis

Bette Davis was somewhat wasted in June Bride, effectively playing the love interest for Robert Montgomery, as a woman who has to wait until the end of the film to quit playing career woman for her husband and follow him around the world to do his every bidding. Yeah, Bette Davis. You read that right. This is vaguely similar but the character she plays and the angle the film takes are vastly different because here she has a role that she she can sink her teeth into. She's the star of the title, Margaret Elliot, who has faded from glory but aches to return to the lofty heights she once occupied. It's impossible not to compare Davis with Elliot because the two have much in common but Davis managed to do what Elliot couldn't: succeed when 'the fresh dewy quality' has gone. 'If you're a star, you don't stop being a star,' she tells her daughter but she knows that's it isn't true. The movie industry is a tough one but it's toughest on its leading ladies.

This story is tough from moment one as the attractive but hardly fresh and dewy Maggie walks past her own estate sale, held to raise money for her creditors rather than her. She even pulls down her sunglasses to look at her younger and far more glamorous self on the advert outside and we can't help but see the difference. She knows there's a difference too but she doesn't think it matters, as she soon explains to Harry Stone, her agent, who's there to buy some of her stuff. 'One good picture is all I need,' she tells him and she even knows which one: The Fatal Window, based on a book she loves and which she once had an option on. He can't get through to her that she's just not being realistic but he buys her a coffee anyway. He's polite and he's patient but he knows full well that he can't get her this role because Maggie is 40 (or more) and the character is 18 so that means his new ingenue Barbara Lawrence instead.

The story is melodramatic but it has a grounding that continually fascinates because we know some of this is real and we can't help but wonder about the rest. Sure, we run through all the expected stuff as Maggie hits rock bottom. Her daughter Gretchen lives with her ex-husband and his new wife and children in their mansion, even though she'd prefer to live with her mother. However her mother doesn't even have an apartment any more as she's down to her last few bucks and can't pay her rent even though it's apparently to her family. She'd set them up in business and in life but they don't want anything except her money, hardly a new story but still a biting one. She even takes a drunken drive through Hollywood, alternating swigs from a bottle with the sort of commentary you normally hear bus drivers telling tourists. She's talking to her Academy Award though as she drives on to the mansion he bought for her.

She's locked up for the night, of course, prompting lurid headlines the following day, but she's gone by then, bailed out by a mechanic named Jim Johannsen because she'd done him a favour once and because he loves her. It turns out that the favour wasn't really a favour, because he only became her leading man in Faithless because she wanted to piss off the actor who turned it down and make the next person she met a bigger star than him, but he doesn't care. He loves her anyway and promptly takes her in when she discovers that the locks have been changed on her apartment and has nowhere else to go. Johannsen is believably played by Sterling Hayden, even though he was eight years younger than Bette Davis. Its only a supporting part because this film is all about The Star, but it's an important one that's needed to provide the grounding that she isn't even aware she needs. 'Listen to your ego. It's all you have left,' he tells her.
It would be easy to compare this with Sunset Boulevard, made only two years earlier and also centered around a fallen star aching for a comeback. 'I hate that word,' says Norma Desmond at one point. 'It's a return, a return to the millions of people who have never forgiven me for deserting the screen.' Margaret Elliot doesn't have anywhere near that disconnect from reality, but she's just as blind to the likelihood of a comeback. Eventually she gets an opportunity, in The Fatal Window no less, though she has to take a screen test and finds herself cast as the much older sister. 'I've been managing directors for years,' she tells Jim as he helps her practice the scene and sure enough she promptly changes everything. She makes the older sister a lot younger, plays with her wardrobe, redoes her makeup. She even has them move the key light. She honestly believes that she can use this test reel to land the part of the younger sister.

In fact she's so sure, or needs to convince herself so much, that after shooting the reel she goes on a shopping spree, starts looking at houses and begins planning the publicity. She notifies the papers. Of course it backfires horribly. The real turning point of the film comes when she views her test reel and realises that she just isn't the young coquette any more and attempting to play one is simply grotesque. We watch her watching herself in a very powerful scene and it all hits home hard. As Joe Gillis says in Sunset Boulevard, 'There's nothing tragic about being fifty. Not unless you try to be twenty-five.' To hammer the point home, she ends up at a party, where a writer explains why he'd like her as the lead in a film he's written. She would play herself, more or less, a star who can't look down for fear that she'd fall from the pinnacle. She asks him where the sympathy for the character is and he replies that the emotion is pity not sympathy.

Yet again we can't help but compare Bette Davis with Margaret Elliot. At this point Bette was 44 years old, certainly not the young ingenue she once was, and so was in much the same situation that her character was in. It isn't much of a stretch to suggest that the film the writer wants Elliot for is this one, The Star. Maggie runs almost screaming from the reality, but Bette embraced it and extended her career another four decades, picking up her tenth Oscar nod in the process. Maggie couldn't even play herself, Bette could go a number of steps further and go on to play the startling lead role in another film about a faded star, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? It's also notable that Maggie's replacement is Barbara Lawrence, who plays herself. She made a couple of dozen films in just over a decade before retiring from acting to go into real estate, ironically a suggestion Jim has for Maggie here. So really, she's more Maggie than Bette was.
I lost track of the real life references that husband and wife screenwriting team Dale Eunson and Katherine Albert slipped into the script but beyond Bette herself, they're the biggest reason that the film works. I wonder how many Miss Davis improvised. One single conversation references many real situations. 'I was sick of the tripe they were forcing me to play,' she tells Jim, similar to comments Davis made herself about her time at Warner Brothers. Her fortune was lost because she put it into three wonderful pictures that didn't get played, a reference to her regular co-star James Cagney's three indies for Cagney Productions, Johnny Come Lately, Blood on the Sun and The Time of Your Life. 'They said I was box office poison,' she spits, an epithet slapped on many stars, not least Katharine Hepburn. The whole thing is preceded by a comment about a perennial second lead called Ralph Bellows, obviously Ralph Bellamy who famously always lost the girl.

There are more direct similarities between Davis and Elliot, not least that the Oscar she takes for a ride wasn't a prop, it was one of the two she'd won herself. One scene in particular almost epitomises the real Bette Davis for me. It begins innocently as Jim works on an engine outside his house and asks Maggie for a wrench. She turns with a swell of arrogance as if she's about to lash out at him for the sheer effrontery of asking such a thing of a Star, but calms herself and helps out. I've always pictured Bette Davis as that bizarre combination of the diva consumed by her own importance and the everyday girl who is utterly willing to get down and dirty when the need arises that I believe that this scene is going to stay with me, minor though it is in the grand scheme of this film. It may be just another masterclass moment from a great actress but trying to work out whether we're watching Bette Davis or Margaret Elliot is a fascinating game.

There are other people in the film, not that you'd assume that reading this review, because it really does revolve utterly around Bette Davis, just as the world revolves utterly around The Star. Sterling Hayden is the most obvious, but he's just grounding. Barbara Lawrence is obvious too, far beyond her brief appearance at the party because she's been present in at least half a dozen scenes before that, on billboards or doors or in dialogue. This 'introduction' came over halfway through her career so I wonder if the studio felt she needed the push. The biggest name behind Bette is the one playing her screen daughter Gretchen. She's Natalie Wood, three years before Rebel without a Cause and four before The Searchers and while she doesn't get much to do here, she does get a bizarrely prophetic scene on a yacht where her screen mother cautions her not to fall in and drown. That wouldn't happen until Santa Catalina Island 29 years later.