Saturday, 23 September 2017

Beat The Devil (1953)

"Time . . . time. What is time? Swiss manufacture it. French hoard it. Italians squander it. Americans say it is money. Hindus say it does not exist. Do you know what I say? I say time is a crook."

~ Peter Lorre as Julius O'Hara


How much you enjoy Beat The Devil depends on your tolerance for a film with its tongue stuffed so firmly in cheek. John Huston's 1953 film is loosely based on a novel by Claud Cockburn (under the alias of James Helvick) from a script by Truman Capote that was written day-by-day during the shoot - a process that was hidden from both the cast, including the film's star and financier Humphrey Bogart, and the studio who, in all likelihood and initially at least, expected to be making a thriller noir in the style of The Maltese Falcon. It's fair to say that the audience expected that too, but what they actually got was a camp comedy masquerading as a noir thriller. Or is it the other way around?


The film's plot is like trying to pin down smoke and, in the end, it doesn't really add up or matter anyway. Essentially the story concerns Bogart, Lorre, Robert Morley, Gina Lollabrigida, Marco Tulli and Ivor Bernard as a disparate bunch of crooks (who could give The Ladykillers a run for their money in the motley crew stakes) stranded on Italy's glorious Amalfi Coast waiting to board a ship bound for Africa where their plan is to get rich from the country's uranium deposits. They become distracted by a British touring couple, the Chelms (Jennifer Jones and Edward Underdown) who may or may not be landed gentry from Gloucestershire. Sporting blonde hair, a sometimes wavering cut glass English accent and the kind of fitness techniques that would have earned her a cash-in workout video if the film were made a couple of decades later, Jones has the measure of the gang at first sight - "They're desperate characters," she warns Underdown. "Not one of them looked at my legs" - but quickly proves to be as dangerous thanks to her wild imagination and penchant for storytelling. Capote's script is a delight here, pre-facing all of her outlandish porkies with the key phrase "In point of fact..." that it becomes a comic catchphrase the audience grows familiar with. His irreverent humour, and desire to place it specifically on the lips of Jones, reaches its critical point in a scene where Bogart actually creases up right there on camera - it's during the gangplank scene, and the offending line is that Jones is something of a witch and "could have been a professional". It's not the only incident of corpsing captured on camera either; look out for the scene in which the run-soaked and long suffering ship's captain (Saro Urzi) finally breaks down into frenzied histrionics at his passengers and you'll see the purser (Mario Perrone - a restaurant pianist cast on a whim in Rome despite not knowing a word of English and yet given the most eloquent pieces of dialogue!) unable to stifle his laughter. Meanwhile Capote tests the audience's own breaking point when he has Lollabrigida, the archetypal Italian sexpot second only to Loren, claim that "Emotionally, I am English", before winsomely daydreaming of high teas and Country Life magazine. And then there's the fact that the Lorre has an Irish name! And that his partner, Tulli, can't ever pronounce it: "Ohurra", he says to Lorre's increasing frustration. Beat The Devil is a film therefore less concerned with its own nefarious plot and more concerned with eccentric behaviour and campy one liners. Pity poor Jones though, she had clearly signed up with something else in mind and petitioned Huston and Capote with the concerns she felt regarding her character's continuity whilst at the opposite extreme, Morley and Lorre, who clearly got it - and Morley in particular getting his Sydney Greenstreet moment, were encouraged to come up with their own dialogue and happily did so. 




Beat The Devil is the kind of film that looks like it was made by a cast and crew having a lot of fun. Indeed, the actual nature of the film seems like an imposition on what was essentially a group holiday to Italy! Tales of high stakes poker games, feats of machismo, and marathon drinking sessions litter the legends of this production, as indeed do tales of illness and injury: an impacted wisdom tooth laid Capote low, and on another occasion he left Rome to check on the health and wellbeing his pet raven Lola! The writer made a habit of speaking to Lola on the phone each day and when the bird fell silent, he feared the worst and would not be settled until he was by its side.  But perhaps the most famous injury was to the star itself; on a drive from Rome to Naples, Bogart was involved in a car crash which smashed his bridge, requiring a replica set of dentures to be sent from his dentist in California. The production cannot disguise this event - not only does Bogart look pretty ill and run down in some scenes (more so than from the hangovers we imagine much of the personnel endured) he was also unable to deliver some dialogue and the then unknown comedian and mimic Peter Sellers was hired to dub some of Bogie's lines. The fun is trying to spot them; there are a few moments when Bogie's bourbon burr is replaced with something altogether more youthful, but it's a credit to Sellers' talent that overall it's really very hard to see the join. 




Despite the fun had by all, it's clear that everyone involved had a strong work ethic and optimism for Beat The Devil and were disappointed when it was given the thumbs down by critics at the time. Bogart in particular was disappointed with it's outcome, which is to be expected when you consider he ploughed his own money into it. His opinion of the film and its reception was that "only phonies like it" suggesting the trend for post-ironic pleasures that has only grown in the sixty odd years since its release was not something he would care for.

Friday, 22 September 2017

A Countess From Hong Kong (1967)


A Countess From Hong Kong, the final film of Charlie Chaplin, was almost universally derided upon its release in 1967. 'Time to retire' was the verdict from Time Magazine, whilst Bosley Crowther of the New York Times sniffed that we should 'draw the curtain fast on this embarrassment and pretend it never occurred'. Over at The New Yorker, Brendan Gill said that A Countess from Hong Kong was 'the nadir of one of the greatest figures in movie history'. In its corner, voices of support included poet laureate Sir John Betjaman, Francois Truffaut and Jack Nicholson, but these are unmistakably lone voices.




Chaplin had toyed with the idea of A Countess From Hong Kong for many years. In his 1922 book My Trip Abroad he recalls meeting Moussia Sodskaya, a Russian woman in exile after the revolution and stranded without papers in France. Along with his experiences of similar Russian emigres in Shanghai in a 1931 visit, this would go on to be the inspiration for his storyline here. The project, initially entitled Stowaway, was slated for production in the late 1930s with his wife Paulette Goddard but it never came about. It wasn't until 1965 that he announced to the press that this long held idea would become his first film since 1957's A King In New York, and one in which he would appear in a small cameo role only. Chaplin had recently seen Vittorio de Sica's Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and believed Sophia Loren to be perfect for his refugee aristocrat, but he struggled to find his leading man. Both Rex Harrison and Cary Grant were considered before the unlikely Marlon Brando, then under contract with Universal, signed on the dotted line. Neither Loren or Brando read a script before agreeing to star; Loren leapt at the chance of working with Chaplin, whilst Brando - despite his reservations regarding his own comic abilities - said that he "agreed to be a marionette in his hands"




Loren is excellent in her role, and clearly delighted to embrace the comic slapstick potential in the character of Natascha (so much so that her initial appearance, which offers little more than the opportunity to look gorgeous and graceful, seems phoned in). As Chaplin's biographer Jeffrey Vance attests "Natascha is the proxy for the Tramp in the film, searching for a better life, while always understanding that both happiness and beauty are fleeting" It's hard to imagine comparing the Tramp with the glamourous Loren, but it really does work here. Don't get me wrong, we're not talking Audrey Hepburn level of cuteness and comic chops, but we are close in the many scenes which require here to bedhop in oversized male pyjamas, scurrying in and out of slamming doors. 



The same cannot be said of Brando. The Method actor's initial suspicions that he wasn't right for the role prove correct. Deeply unhappy (and battling both the flu and appendicitis, ironic considering Brando's character, Ogden, suffers from some ill health in the film - a case of taking the Method too far?) Brando found working with Chaplin impossible and stated he was "a fearsomely cruel man", whilst Chaplin for his part found Brando deeply uncooperative and hadn't lost the weight they had agreed upon before filming started. In a most ungentlemanly fashion, Brando took his dissatisfaction out on his co-star, remarking that she had 'little black hairs in her nose' during their onscreen embrace. Loren's recent autobiography suggests this vulgar behaviour may have stemmed from her spurning his predatory advances earlier on in the production; "All of a sudden he put his hands on me. I turned in all tranquillity and blew his face, like a cat stroked the wrong way and said, ‘Don’t you ever dare to do that again. Never again!’ As I pulverised him with my eyes he seemed small, defenceless, almost a victim of his own notoriety. He never did it again, but it was very difficult working with him after that.”



It's hard to defend Brando's somnambulistic performance here but, if he did indeed voice his reservations regarding his own abilities from the outset, then Chaplin only had himself to blame. Brando's inability to accurately play comedy means that he is just totally wrong for the part and gags simply fall flat around him. The role really required an actor with a light comic touch, a Grant, Niven or Rock Hudson, maybe even Tony Curtis at a push. It's easy to see why A Countess from Hong Kong got a mauling from the critics, because it's hard to see past Brando's performance.



But to place all the blame at Brando's door isn't fair. Chaplin does himself no favours with some truly appalling direction. In the midst of the swinging sixties, the 76 year old filmmaker had turned in a static, cheap looking, poor farce that belied his illustrious career. This film 'written, directed and with music by Charles Chaplin' (as the title card states) feels perversely amateur, especially in the use of his score; in several scenes the music is simply dropped in and then curtailed after a few bars seemingly to signify the resumption of dialogue or action fro his stars, who seem to be doing their best to ignore this alarmingly clumsy intrusion, rather like they're trying not to acknowledge the bad fart that has been left to linger there. And yet Chaplin seems really pleased with his score, using it wherever he can. Maybe he should have just concentrated on making music rather than movies at this point? Perhaps most damning of all is the fact that Chaplin skimps the rom to this com as we see nothing of the moment in which Brando and Loren develop feelings for one another; the film moves from one scene in which they are at odds with each other, to another scene set some days later in which its explained that Loren nursed Brando through a bout of malaria (!) which proved the clincher.




It's not all bad though and you can see glimpses of something that would be quite fine if the cast and director were as one, firing on all cylinders. There are some delightful comic performances from the likes of Patrick Cargill as Brando's valet Hudson who becomes infatuated with Loren when the plot requires him to marry her to ensure she can enter the US legally, and Angela Scoular as a vapid English society girl. There's even a very brief appearance from Margaret Rutherford as a seasick old lady confined to her cabin. Elsewhere, Tippi Hedren appears as Brando's cold wife in the film's latter stages. Having made the break from her allegedly abusive relationship with Alfred Hitchcock, Hedren was keen to explore the opportunities working with Chaplin would afford her but was dismayed to learn that her role was a slight one. It's a real shame that someone so eager to do her best for the film was given such a limited opportunity in comparison to a coasting, miserable Brando. The rest of the film's cast seems largely made up of Chaplin's family; there's Sydney Chaplin as Brando's pal, along with Geraldine, Victoria and Josephine as girls at the dance in the ship's ballroom.



Chaplin would never act or direct again, the experience of making the film and the frosty reception it received possibly proving to him that he was not only an old man, but a man out of his time. Discussing the competition around him at the time, he decreed Antonioni's Blow Up to be boring, and The Beatles movies passe; "We did all this stop-action business in 1914" he grumbled, appalled at the idea that his own mid sixties offering was deemed a flop.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Louder Than Words


For me, this goal celebration on Tuesday night - the first of 6 goals against Russia in the first World Cup qualifier from Prenton Park - led by goalscorer Nikita Parris and taken up by the whole team speaks louder than any words. At the risk of alienating some people and appearing controversial, I am deeply saddened and frustrated that the FA chose to sack Mark Sampson.

Let's look at the facts and admittedly this can be hard to do with such murky half statements, hints and suggestions that are swirling around this whole incident. Chelsea striker Eni Aluko made allegations of bullying and discrimination against Sampson, suggesting that she had not been picked for the squad because he is racist. Evidence flagged up to suggest a bullying practice within the team's coaching included a recorded commentary in which a coach said she is 'lazy as f*ck'. I see nothing racist in that comment. In fact what I see is a coach who has concerns over her commitment or capability to play for her country. In a TV interview Aluko stated that the first time she wasn't picked in eleven years occurred after such an incident. Surely the clue here is in her own words? Aluko is now thirty years of age and in two years time when it comes to the World Cup she will be 32/33. A manager must consider the long term benefits to the squad and unfortunately for Aluko that may mean not being selected and allowing younger players a chance to shine. The vibe I get from Eni Aluko is that she is someone who believes that playing for her country is a right not a privilege that she must work for.  

Aluko subsequently claimed that Sampson made a remark regarding her Nigerian family and the Ebola virus, a remark he strenuously denies. Now if this remark did actually occur then Sampson is an idiot. Is he a racist? I don't think so. To me this is just an example of ill advised banter in a culture that places 'bants' highly; the kind of stereotyping comment that he, as a Welshman, has probably born the brunt of many times with the old 'sheep shagging' gag. If he did say that, I don't for one moment think race or the colour of Aluko's skin entered into his mind. 

Sampson was cleared by two inquiries over Aluko's allegations, and it's clear from that photo that the team have the upmost faith in him as a manager and as a person. Aluko's sour grapes spilled over onto Twitter with a near incoherent ramble that effectively alienated her even further from her former Lioness teammates, proving once again that she simply isn't team orientated. This came not long after she called everyone who attested to having positive experiences of Sampson's coaching 'enablers' for racism - an unfair comment given that her desire for a further inquiry was based on hearing all views...all views except perhaps those that do not support her own experience perhaps?

The tipping point to this whole saga came yesterday when fresh allegations came to light regarding Sampson's previous role as the coach of Bristol Academy. This is where things get complicated as, beyond a mention of a 'safeguarding issue', we haven't been told what this complaint amounts to. However what we do now is that he was cleared in this inquiry too. So why is it that a man who has been proved innocent three times in a row has been sacked for misconduct?

And why is it the FA paid Aluko £80,000 compensation? The FA come out of this terribly it must be said; they claim not to have known about the Bristol allegation when they came to hire Sampson for the prestigious England job in 2013. The news only came to light, they say, in 2014 whereupon the inquiry commences that subsequently cleared Sampson's name. What makes things very murky indeed is the fact that this wasn't raised during these fresh allegations from Aluko.

In summary, it's a terrible mess and one which I feel the Lionesses will struggle to overcome. Losing a skilled, talented and passionate coach like Sampson will not help a team who have, under his tutelage, become one of the strongest international sides in the game and this has immediately seen them start the road to the World Cup on the back foot. Equally, should any new manager reinstate Aluko to the squad (which I feel they will inevitably do, for fear of being branded racist themselves) it will make for a decidedly fractious team given the comments that Aluko has made regarding what she perceives to be miss-placed faith and trust in Sampson. 

I don't know, you ever get the feeling that we're not allowed successes in this country? It seems we as a nation delight in building people up only to knock them down. I know I won't be in step with everyone's opinion when I say this, but speaking as a long term fan of women's football, I fear a good manager's career has been ruined here.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

The Chairman (1969)

I really dig the poster for this film...



Unfortunately the film itself is a load of old bin juice.

The Chairman (also known, here in the UK at least, as The Most Dangerous Man In The World - for fear cinemagoers would presume a film titled The Chairman would be about big business and not the leader of Red China, Chairman Mao Tse-tung) is a ludicrous 1969 spy thriller from director J. Lee Thompson and adapted from a novel by Jay Richard Kennedy. It stars Gregory Peck as a Nobel-prize winning, London based scientist Dr John Hathaway, a man who has, in his time, done a spot of espionage on the side. When American intelligence learn of a new agricultural enzyme being developed in Communist China that allows crops to grow in previously inhospitable regions, they naturally want to steal it for themselves and so they turn to Hathaway to undertake the mission. Unfortunately, since the death of his wife in a car crash three years previously, Hathaway has learnt that life is sacred and must be cherished and therefore is reluctant to undertake any mission that may involve violence, preferring instead the quiet academic life. However, after one quick phone call from the President his reservations are immediately forgotten and off he goes behind enemy lines, via Hong Kong. There's just the small matter of the tracking device Hathaway needs to take along so as to allow the military in England (Arthur Hill's eyepatch wearing sceptic representing the US, Alan Dobie flying the flag for Great Britain, and Ori Levy completing the uneasy alliance as a representative of Russia) to keep a check on his progress...

A tracking device that has been implanted in Hathaway's skull.

Yup, you've read that right. The device works as a one way radio transmitter which allows them to hear all of Hathaway's conversations as well as allow him the opportunity to provide a running commentary on the mission. It's also capable of providing an up to the minute progress report on Hathaway's pulse, heartbeat, blood pressure and overall peace of mind! But wait, here's the best bit...

The device is also packed with explosive just in case the mission fails and Hathaway needs to be terminated!



I mean c'mon, not even Ian Fleming came up with anything that fantastically dumb! Unfortunately The Chairman seems to be determined to completely ignore how stupid it is and instead delivers its silly story not with its tongue in its cheek but with a po-faced sincerity that makes the film a real, plodding chore. Poor old Gregory Peck (continuing that tradition of aging Hollywood leading men fronting British shot spy productions around this time) may have the ability to appear completely earnest whilst talking to himself... ahem, I mean talking to his superiors back at base...but it fails to acknowledge that its audience may find these scenes rather laughable. After an arduous slog that is at least enlivened by the location shooting in Hong Kong, the film manages to ratchet up some much needed tension in the traditional down-to-the-wire climax which sees Peck's Hathaway struggle across China's barbed wire border with Russia whilst the Red Army give chase and his superiors consider detonating the device. Though quite why he elects to crawl under this electrified fence rather than shoot through it with his gun was frankly beyond me. These scenes were actually filmed not in China, but in the rugged Welsh mountains of Snowdonia.


Ultimately, The Chairman's caught on a cusp; in 1969 it was far too late for the Bond-influenced, colourful gadget-strewn spy boom of the swinging sixties, but also too early for the more complex, dour and cynical plots of conspiracy and political intrigue that New Hollywood so enjoyed in the 1970s. The film wants to be in the latter's camp with its serious intent and its message of cold war piracy in Hathaway's discomfort at stealing China's scientific advancements for the West, but is chained to the former with its central conceit. J. Lee Thompson made some really good films in his time, but this isn't one of them and, it's easy to see this as being on the cusp of his own career too; the good stuff was perhaps behind him and what was mostly left from here on in were the many, many Charles Bronson action flicks he chose to helm. 


But hey, you do get to see some bloke purporting to be Chairman Mao playing table tennis whilst discussing political theory with Peck and admittedly that's not something you see everyday.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Dunkirk (1958)



Given that Dunkirk played to audiences in 1958 it’s undeniable that many of the real men who had found themselves tiptoeing through Nazi infested France with dwindling resources and diminishing hopes of survival, holding their breath at what lay behind every field and hedgerow or what lurked in the skies above their heads,  will have taken their seats at the local cinema, whilst the men and women who had at least known someone (and potentially even lost someone; 3,500 British soldiers were killed during the operation) who had endured such an experience, will no doubt have sat beside them. It’s hard for us modern viewers to contemplate what emotions and memories the film stirred within them, but it’s irrefutable that this film had much more punch and impact for an audience than Christopher Nolan’s recent retelling had, by sheer virtue of being made eighteen years after the event and just thirteen years after ceasefire.

Read my full review at The Geek Show

Saturday, 16 September 2017

RIP Harry Dean Stanton

David Lynch once asked Harry Dean Stanton how he'd like to be remembered. His response? 

'Doesn't matter'




I'd always hoped that meant that it didn't matter because he planned on living forever, but it was not to be. The news came today that Harry Dean Stanton, the greatest American character actor, has died at the age of 91. So let's raise a glass to him, as he takes himself down that last big, empty highway


RIP



Friday, 15 September 2017

Gig Review: Stewart Lee - Content Provider @ Liverpool Philharmonic 14/9/17

Stewart Lee returned to Liverpool this week with his latest tour, Content Provider, for a two night residency at the Phil. I had previously reviewed an early version of this latest show when Stew showcased it almost a year ago and which you can read both here and, astonishingly, on Stewart Lee's own website here - I am flabbergasted to think that Stew has seen/read my little rambling about that gig and decided to use it in the review section of his site and yes, this post is essentially my shameless attempt at getting noticed once again!


Having seen an embryonic version of the show, I was intrigued to see what changes had been made along with just generally being unable to resist the opportunity to see Stew live once again. This time around I potentially incurred Stew's wrath by not only bringing a friend along, but a friend who has only recently got into Stew's comedy! Thankfully, despite such noob credentials said friend has already become a massive and confirmed Stew fan. As a result, it felt safe to take our front row seats!

There was actually very little difference between the show tonight and the show I last saw in November 2016, and that's fine - because the humour is of such a high standard that it bears repeated dividends. It's perhaps in the first half, amidst the familiar routines of merchandise, tax and touring, that the show has had some reworking applied; there's a little bit more on Brexit (inevitably), an energetic routine about mythical charity shop home deliveries that left me exhausted just from watching, as well as an absolutely hilarious piss-take of twentysomething comedians who may baulk at Stew's criticism of Russell Howard, and a joyously destructive attack of the set which is, once again, made up of the second hand DVDs of lesser stand ups. Some of the most amusing new bits here where, I suspect, those that were unique to the night itself and were, in the comedian's own words 'self indulgent digressions'; these included Stew momentarily losing his way in his routine and requiring some help from the audience when he was unable to read his own writing of the prompts he scrawls on the back of his hand, an amusing insight into how his career is viewed by his own family and his reactions to some restless audience members who were perhaps itching for their interval drink or toilet break. One throwaway line about audience reactions to his fondness for Turkish funk (which was the interval music) especially amused, as Stew claims in Liverpool this remark gets a laugh whereas in Manchester, the home of Factory Records, it receives the encouraging recommendation to start a club night. Coming from St Helens, a small town between those two North Western behemoths and being neither one nor the other, I can see both sides.

Aside from a few very good bits of business, the second half seemed, as far as my recollection goes, to be virtually unchanged from the previous November. I'm really happy to report this actually as it means that my favourite bits remain intact. These include the amusing little aside about the odd, seemingly unworkable bedfellows of jazz and folk being reminiscent of his own partnership with Richard Herring, the difference between modern day Tinder and late '80s Dateline, Game of Thrones digs ("Peter Stringfellow's Lord of the Rings") the tear-streamingly funny impression of someone under 40 addictively using their iPhone and, best of all, that wonderfully surreal and utterly deliriously hilarious routine about Stew's grandparents practicing a sort of make do and mend S&M in '30s Kidderminster. One new thing I did learn from the second half however was that Stewart Lee buys his boxer shorts from the same place as I do! I didn't expect Stew to drop his trews as a reply to someone tweeting that he had got fat but it was another laugh out loud moment to a very entertaining night.  

Unfortunately, despite Stew manning a particularly enticing merch stand immediately after the show I was unable to stick around this time to buy anything or get anything signed due to the massive queue that had formed and the pressing need to catch a train home, but I'm determined to catch Stewart Lee when he's in town again (hopefully with a show entitled 'Managed Decline', the term used to describe Thatcher's abhorrent policy towards Liverpool in the '80s, and one which he wryly referred to as being how he viewed his own career now) and I recommend all fans of good, intelligent comedy to do the same.

PS: A small note to anyone booking for an event at the Liverpool Phil who may receive as I did an email offering you the opportunity of securing a spot and a free drink in their 'VIP bar', the 1840 room. for just £7. It's not worth it. For a start, 'room' is totally the wrong way to describe the corridor with a bloke at a table at the end serving drinks that the 1840 actually is. Granted you can dodge the queues at the main bar here, but you can also dodge the queues by crossing the road and enjoying a drink at The Phil pub.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

The Great Silence (1968)



Hey Tarantino, I haven't seen The Hateful Eight but I'm guessing that even with a Morricone score, a snowbound landscape, characters of dubious morality, and plenty of bloodshed, you've still made a film that is nowhere near as good as this, probably because you simply don't have the personal politics that Sergio Corbucci had - and that's a key ingredient in The Great Silence. As Donato Totaro said of the film, and in particular the meaning to be found in its title, it is "suggestive not only of the great white expansive snow, the lead character's muteness, but the late 1960s political defeats that impacted Corbucci's mood that led him to make one of the grimmest Westerns ever made". Whereas Tarantino is led to make films simply because he wants to replicate something of those he has seen and admired, in the same way that a kid with his toys might set out to recreate what he has seen for his own amusement.


In setting his film during a severe blizzard in Utah (in reality the snowcapped Italian Dolomites) Corbucci delivers a bleak and unforgiving setting that compliments the tone of his tale. An Italian left wing radical, he was inspired by the deaths of Che Guevara and Malcolm X to tell a story that condemns corrupt and authoritarian capitalism, using the bounty hunters of the old West as a means of exploring our unequal society. As personified by Klaus Kinski's cold hearted Loco, bounty hunters are greedy, ruthless murderers for the state, who use the flimsy excuse of the law to sate their natural bloodlust and monetary avarice. The banker Pollicutt (Luigi Pistilli) is also a clear example of the wholly amoral nature of authority figures who may otherwise be sainted in several Hollywood productions. 


The sympathy here is for the outlaws, those disenfranchised people who turn to crime because society is simply too far stacked against them to allow them a fair deal, and turn to a mute gunslinger known as Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) to fight their corner. Equally, Corbucci must be praised for his use of strong female protagonists among his heroic and sympathetic outlaws, in particular black actress Vonetta McGee's memorable turn as the vengeful Pauline, who is depicted as someone whose pain and loneliness is on a par with our central male hero with whom she shares an love scene which is progressive for the time given its interracial status. Tellingly, it was the only love scene Corbucci ever included in his work in the genre. 


The Great Silence may be deeply nihilistic but the film's closing title card suggests what occurred brought about a change in society. The great Alex Cox argues that the film's moral coda is that there's a great nobility in doing the right thing, even though you know you will personally fail, and therefore, pay the highest price for the cause. Whilst Corbucci ends his tale on such a small crumb of comfort we perhaps only need to look at the world we live in today to see, as Stewart Lee (who I'm off to see in Liverpool again tomorrow night, woohoo!) is often want to remind us in his columns for The Guardian, that parallels can be drawn between the divisive here and now and the moral repugnance at the heart of many politically charged spaghetti westerns. Our society hasn't received that change hinted at as the credits roll here; capitalism still exists, sadly.


Tuesday, 12 September 2017

RIP Sir Peter Hall

The great Sir Peter Hall has died at the age of 86. The giant of theatre had been suffering with dementia since 2011.


The son of a railwayman, Hall founded the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960 at the age of just twenty-nine and left the company in 1968 to take up the role of director of The National Theatre from Olivier in 1973, where he was responsible for moving the theatre from the Old Vic to the purpose-built complex on London's South Bank where it still stands to this day.

A hugely influential figure, may he rest in peace.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

The Pride and the Passion (1957)



The Pride and the Passion is a 1957 film from Stanley Kramer. It is set in French-occupied Spain during the Napoleonic Wars and concerns an enormous siege canon left abandoned by the Spanish army in their defeat. Locating its whereabouts, a group of Spanish guerrillas and a British naval officer commit to trekking 1,000km across Spain to use it to recapture the fortified town of Avila before handing it over to the British to continue the fight against Napoleon's forces. 


Anyone who may have initially missed the Freudian implication of watching Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra lug an enormous canon in Sophia Loren's wake will have almost certainly have cottoned on to it by the time Loren performs a very sexy flamenco dance - because by that stage any red blooded male in the audience will have developed a giant canon of their own. I know I did.


Based on Hornblower author CS Forester's 1933 novel The Gun (an undeniably bland title but really is The Pride and the Passion any better? It sounds less like an actual film title and more like a strap line. The implication is, I guess, that Grant's British naval officer is proud whereas Sinatra and Loren's Spanish guerrillas are passionate, being Latin and all) Stanley Kramer's 1957 epic is about as thrilling as you would expect from a two hour six minute film which concerns one hour fifty five of its run time with the logistics of getting a canon across Spain. For the audience, much like the protagonists, it's a bit of a dry and thankless slog. However, I found the rich colour palette, the use of literally thousands of extras, and its three stars appealing enough to forgive The Pride and the Passion it's mistakes. 


Whether you enjoy it or not I guess depends on if you can accept Cary Grant as a British naval hero (yes, Grant was a British, and not only that, but he hailed from Bristol which has a fine naval tradition, but by this stage in his career he was just too Americanised to truly convince and he seems less comfortable in period swashbuckling romps than he does in urbane contemporary settings) and Frank Sinatra as a Spanish freedom fighter. Adopting a Spanish 'accent', Sinatra isn't that bad really, but every time he has to say the word 'you' (which is a heck of a lot by the way) I did keep thinking of that perceived slight Woody Allen had in Annie Hall, when he felt sure someone said to him 'No, Jew?' instead of 'No, d'you?'

Thursday, 7 September 2017

If You Value Free Speech, Help Craig Murray

I wish to draw everyone's attention to the plight of Craig Murray. The former diplomat turned human rights activist and author of Murder in Samarkand is currently being sued for libel by the associate editor of the Daily Fail Online, Jake Wallis Simons, a journalist who claims to have 'exposed' Labour's anti-Semitism.

You can read the details (or rather as much as he can currently say) on Craig's blog here - which is also where you can pledge via paypal, visa, direct debit, maestro or mastercard a donation to a fighting fund which will allow him to defend his case from 7th November. Please, please, please give Craig's blog a read and do as I did - give what you can. I can only repeat what the man himself has said;

"If you have ever enjoyed this blog - join the fight. If you dislike this blog but support freedom of speech - join the fight. If you support the right to defend Palestine without being labelled anti-Semitic - join the fight. If you despised the anti-Corbyn media campaign - join the fight. If the Daily Mail sickens you - join the fight"

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Out On Blue Six: Royal Blood

A piece of music that's currently being discovered by anyone who has gone 'ooh what's that song?' every time the trailer for the second series of Doctor Foster is shown on the BBC, it's Royal Blood and Figure it Out


Series two of Doctor Foster starts on BBC1 tonight at 9pm.


End Transmission




Monday, 4 September 2017

The Day of the Jackal



Just a heads up/plug to say that the new Blu-ray release of The Day of the Jackal from Arrow Films is released today, with a booklet featuring a new critical essay entitled Making the Hit: The Making of The Day of The Jackal written by yours truly.

Out On Blue Six: Nena/Ultravox/Frankie Goes To Hollywood

Watching the Top of the Pops repeats on BBC4 can sometimes feel very strange. We're in 1984 now, which means Nena's 99 Red Balloons, Ultravox's Dancing With Tears In My Eyes and Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Two Tribes are all big hits. Of course they are, they were responding to the fact that 1984 was a very scary time to be alive as the threat of nuclear war seemed increasingly imminent. But they seem prescient now, almost like these transmissions from 1984 are tapping into and reflecting the present world in some strange semi-conscious way, because these tracks feel just as timely now in the frightening current world climate.






End Transmission


Saturday, 2 September 2017

The Millionairess (1960)


'Talking Pictures TV has advised that the following film contains scenes of outdated racial representation that some viewers may find offensive'

This advisory note headed up the Talking Pictures broadcast of Anthony Asquith's 1960 romcom The Millionairess and refers to Peter Sellers, who 'blacked up' to portray Ahmed el Kabir, a socialist Indian doctor working in London's East End. To be fair to Sellers though, he delivers a sensitive performance that doesn't set out to poke fun at the character or indeed, perhaps most crucially, his ethnicity; this is far from the comic stereotype of Indian and Pakistani characters that populated much of British comedy at the time, such as his Goons co-star Spike Milligan's portrayal of an Indian in Johnny Speight's somewhat ill advised sitcom Curry and Chips. In short, whilst the very act of 'blacking up' to portray a different ethnicity may be offensive, Sellers' intentions in his performance do not seem to be.


The story is a loose and modern day update of George Bernard Shaw's 1936 play of the same name which would later receive a more faithful adaptation from the BBC in a 1972 Play of the Month production starring Maggie Smith, alongside future Doctor Who star Tom Baker who donned the 'blacking up' make-up alongside a fez ("I wear a fez now. Fezzes are cool") to play the good doctor. This version stars bombshell Sophia Loren as Epifania Parerga, the richest woman in the world and a wilful and arrogant heiress whose fortune derives from her late father. 


Following an unhappy, ill-suited marriage, Epifania contemplates suicide by drowning herself in the Thames. There she meets Sellers' doctor and falls immediately in love. The doctor however is impervious to her charms, so she sets out to win him by purchasing the rundown East End neighbourhood surrounding his clinic and building a modern, cutting edge facility for him to run instead. Intimidated, Kabir refuses to be bought or return her affections and manufactures a challenge for his bride-to-be laid out by his mother on her deathbed. This challenge states that he can only marry a girl who can take a dowry of 35 shillings and earn her own living from it for three months. Undeterred, Epifania accepts the challenge whilst revealing her own late father's challenge for any potential husband she intends to wed; a dowry of £500 is given to Kabir which he must then turn into £15,00 within the same three month period. 



It's quite apt that The Millionairess was made in 1960 as I think it's a production that is caught bang in the middle of two periods in British cinema, specifically in the comedy genre. As a film, it conjures up both something of the previous decade and the immediate post-war years as well as the swinging decade that was to come. The general storyline, tapping into the still relatively new NHS and the social make-up of the UK, along with casting of Alistair Sim, Alfie Bass and Dennis Price in supporting roles speaks of the Ealing-esque traditions, whilst the casting coup of the unbelievably glam and beautiful Eurocutie Sophia Loren, sweeping through sets that are bold and colourful and infatuated with gadgets and technology (automatic electronic doors that swish open like Epifania lives on the Starship Enterprise) point the way forward to later glitzy, zany and star-studded Sellers vehicles like Casino Royale and What's New, Pussycat. As such, The Millionairess falls between two stools and is never truly satisfying. The ingredients are there, but in its presentation it is both out of fashion and before its time.


The film itself is perhaps now best known for the off screen relationship between Sellers and Loren. Sellers claimed to all and sundry that he was in the midst of a mad, passionate love affair with Loren which subsequently led to the break up of his marriage to first wife Anne Howe, the mother of his two children Michael and Sarah. Loren however claims that their relationship was never more than strongly platonic, a claim that has been backed up by many insiders and close friends of Sellers who believe that the chameleon immersed himself too deeply in the character of Kabir, deluding himself that the on screen love affair was also happening in reality. 



Both performers possess a natural chemistry together that help to enliven proceedings when its needed the most, but the best chemistry in the film is perhaps on display when Loren performs opposite her mentor, the director Vittorio de Sica who has a small cameo role as the employer of a pasta sweat shop Epifania arrives at to comply with Kabir's late mother's test. Elsewhere, Alistair Sim quietly steals the film as Epifania's lawyer and it's a delight to see: but then, as a sleeve note to an Ian Dury album once said, 'everyone loves Alistair Sim'.


Speaking of music, The Beatles producer George Martin, who was at that time the producer of Peter Sellers' comedy recordings, came up with the idea of an in-character comic duet between Sellers and Loren entitled 'Goodness Gracious Me', with the intention of it being incorporated in the soundtrack of the film. 


The film's producers however did not agree and so the song appeared as a stand-alone single. It instantly became a chart hit in and succeeded in publicising the film and is still somewhat fondly recalled to this day. In short, the film producers were idiots.


Baby Driver

My dog is such a poser...


Friday, 1 September 2017

The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger



He is a man both energised by ideas and intelligent discourse, and eager to learn from the perspectives and experiences of others even at his advanced age. Indeed, the years fall away from him during this segment as he paints illustrative pictures with his ever-moving hands,  speaks economically yet eloquently on the notion that heaven and hell have been supplanted by capitalism and communism (it is only in hell, he posits, where solidarity still means something) and passes his hipflask round the table. Watching him here I was suddenly struck by the amusing idea that he suddenly appeared a curious hybrid between Samuel Beckett  and Trevor Peacock in The Vicar of Dibley; the former because of his craggy, well lined features and thick snow-white hair, and the latter because of his soft ‘r’s’, the glee he clearly possesses from social communication, and the fact that this artificial round table talk seems to be taking place in a room not unlike a village hall!


See my full review at The Geek Show