Monday, 23 November 2015

No.104 - Sexual Boundaries - BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE (1969)

BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE (1969)

By the late 1960s, the hippy ethos of creative and sexual freedom had spread through music, art and pop culture, filtering beyond just the very young fringe-dwellers into mainstream society. The psychedelic drug scene had already been dealt with head-on by films such as THE TRIP and PSYCH-OUT. It was only a matter of time before someone in Hollywood felt brave enough to represent the new experimentation occurring within sexual politics – and that was writer Paul Mazursky. He’d been to one of the emerging encounter group weekends in L.A. that offered a fully-immersive journey within one’s ‘real self’; an emotionally confrontational yet supportive experience designed to strip you not just of your clothes but your conventional beliefs and limitations amongst fellow truth-seeking strangers in a group setting. It catered for a slightly older demographic than the Haight-Ashbury hippies, appealing to those who’d already made their money and often settled into married life but felt a deep sense of unfulfillment and cosy suburban repression. These affluent people (you had to be to afford the workshop) had sensed enough of the radical challenging of convention in the zeitgeist to seek more in life and the bedroom, often not knowing exactly what or how.

Mazursky was sincerely interested in exploring this new-found desire for self-examination and expression and wrote a satire, a ‘comedy of manners’ as he called it which was also his first time as a director. His background was in stand-up before writing the screenplay for the Peter Sellers comedy I LOVE YOU, ALICE B TOKLAS, which had previously documented the growing pains of a square person’s embracing of the new ethos, rendering him ultimately absurd and displaced. In BOB & CAROL, Mazursky focused more specifically this time on what happens when traditional bourgeois values of fidelity meet the new pop psychology within established sexual relationships. Columbia studio was scared of the material, judging it ‘too dirty’ to be acceptable. Mazursky seduced them by arguing how palatable it would be if the instigating couple, Bob and Carol, were played by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. The studio accepted that wholesome casting would alleviate the taint of sleaze.

Attractive stars Robert Culp and Natalie Wood were brought on board as Bob and Carol, a secure middle-class couple who attend a weekend therapy group. She is open to the possibilities it offers, whereas he as a documentary-maker is initially more cynical and removed – until his reserve cracks and his vulnerabilities are exposed to her and the others. Such is the profound release they gain that on returning to their normal lives, they begin to evangelise the benefits of being honest at all costs to their conventional best friends Ted and Alice (Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon). This earnest desire for open communication perplexes their friends and even extends to the waiter. Over time though, Ted and Alice are affected by the heady air of freedom without consequences that Bob and Carol espouse and both couples struggle to ‘let it all hang out’.

BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE is very funny in the way it sets up a potentially awkward situation and allows the cast to improvise much of how it is resolved. Even though Mazursky did rehearse the actors, there’s a pleasing sense of risk and intimacy in the playing, often achieving that ‘cringe comedy’ atmosphere later mined in THE OFFICE and CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM.  Whilst Culp and Wood are relaxed and charming even when they negotiate their own inner reactions to his confession of adultery and his inadvertent discovery of hers with her tennis pro, much of the hilarity is courtesy of their opposite numbers. Dyan Cannon and Elliott Gould spark off each other superbly, both deserving their Academy Award nominations as they try to accept what Bob and Carol’s new morality is doing to their own. Gould in particular is a revelation, especially if you’ve only seen him in those rumpled-charm confident anti-hero roles that made him such a signature 70’s star such as M*A*S*H and THE LONG GOODBYE. Here, he channels that offbeat charisma into a ball of confused, uncertain anxiety reminiscent of Woody Allen’s yearning nebbish.  It’s a treat to see him desperately attempting to convert his sudden restless energy into negotiating sex with Cannon the night that their friends oh-so-casually drop the bombshell of Bob’s affair. “I’m going for a walk!” he keeps crying with frustration when she wants him to comfort her instead.

The other stand-out scene of Gould’s is in Las Vegas when they now have to swallow Bob’s revelation of Carol’s own affair. Alice is doing her best to be caring and non-judgemental of this new bitter pill of embarrassment when Ted suddenly chips with his own confession of a business trip fling. Mazursky and the ensemble create a great farcical build-up of tension and his blurting-out from the corner is a sublimely shame-faced school-boy in the headmaster’s office – the antithesis of the groovy sharing that their friends aim to exemplify.

The most satisfying aspect of the film is that ultimately we’re shown the values of constancy and respect; sometimes having the permission to explore is enough in itself. This is nicely conveyed in the climactic scene that the poster alludes to - whereby the aftermath of the Vegas soul-sharing is that the foursome tentatively admit they ‘could’ have sex with each other’s partner and consequently end up in bed. However, presented with the forbidden fruit of wife-swapping, the differences in the couples’ permissive attitudes are gently smoothed like the duvet into a level playing field of shared simple comfortability. The hesitant petting turns into a companionable and welcome silence. They realise they have no real desire to cross this territory into an orgy with one another just because it’s possible. They value each other and their own partner just as they are. This tranquil harmony leads them out of bed and into the hotel forecourt where a kind of gentle flashmob happens, drawing strangers together to stare into each other’s souls as in the opening workshop. It is a sweet and mature conclusion to a warm and humorous film.

Natalie Wood gambled her salary on BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE being a hit, and with it becoming the sixth-highest box office grosser of 1969 she made five million dollars as a result. Happily, it wasn’t just the cast whose belief in the project was validated. For Mazursky this was also a landmark film to start his directing career, winning writing awards and going on to explore the lives of wealthy people in such movies as DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLEY HILLS. His commitment to reflecting sexual mores as openly as the characters was further vindicated when a TV sitcom version was pulled within two months of being broadcast, most likely due to the kind of ruinous sanitising that the studio would like to have applied to his film…

Saturday, 21 November 2015

No. 103 - Sexual Boundaries - THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE (1968)


In 1968 the hit West End play THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE was adapted for the cinema. It contained a subtle lesbian theme rarely dealt with in that early climate of permissiveness and for the film version the Sapphic side was more overt. It also retained its lead actress Beryl Reid in the role of June Buckridge, a TV soap opera actress struggling more with age, vanity and jealousy than her sexuality. The director was Robert Aldrich, who would seem an unlikely choice if you only recognised him from the ‘guys on a mission’ machismo of THE DIRTY DOZEN. He had however already directed strong women to great acclaim in female-centric films: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE and then Ms Davis in HUSH...HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE.

The drama here focuses on Buckridge’s private and professional life crumbling around her. She plays a nurse, a long-running character in the TV series ‘Applehurst’ but her increasingly bad attitude will not go unpunished for much longer. The show is a quaint, rural piece reminiscent of ‘The Archers’, (indeed the axing of Grace Archer in that show is said to be a major satirical inspiration here). In ‘real life’ Buckridge’s nature is far from the sweetness of the nurse she plays. She is a masculine, rude and inconsiderate person, insensitive both to her colleagues and ‘Childie’ (Alice, played by the delectable Susannah York) the simple-minded young woman she lives with in a lesbian relationship. The last straw professionally comes after one of her thoughtless rehearsal exits in a script huff when she has a heavy session in the pub and then drunkenly molests two nuns in the back of a taxi. A complaint from the Mother Superior leads to a reprimand visit at Buckridge’s home by the powerful Mrs Croft (Coral Browne) from the production.  June is on a warning and after ludicrously protesting that the nuns frightened her, resembling “Albino mice”, she is forced to accept a two-week suspension. The pompous Mrs Crofts appears to take a personal interest in Alice and her poetry, who is described by Buckridge just as a flatmate, barely concealing her own jealousy at the attention her concealed lover is receiving.

The relationship between June and Alice is complex and sexually perverse. June is vindictive and sarcastic with her, alternating with mothering her and role-playing a sado-masochistic game where Alice is forced to eat her lover’s cigar-butts, feigning enjoyment. June’s selfish viciousness also spills over into their social life; when they impersonate Laurel and Hardy for a lesbian fancy-dress club night, June inevitably plays Ollie and torments Alice cruelly. Mrs Croft meets them at the party, invited by June on a whim, but after being surprised by the guests has a greater shock in store for June. She is to be written out of ‘Applehurst’ after all, dying when her beloved motorbike is hit by a truck. June’s reaction is ego-driven outrage: “I refuse to die in such a ridiculous manner!” (Her high-handedness echoes another possible influence on SISTER GEORGE, that of Tony Hancock’s hilarious episode ‘The Bowmans’ where he reacts the same way on hearing his radio soap regular will be killed off).

As if this isn’t bad enough, June’s constant paranoid insecurity about Alice having an affair reveals she’s actually been fraternising with Croft behind her back. With nothing to lose, June’s self-destructive side goes into over-drive, showing up drunk for the staged bike crash, trying to make the other actors ‘corpse’ and lashing out at her cast and crew at her farewell dinner. The final indignity is an offer by a producer for her to voice an animated cow for a children’s series. “Why don’t you piss off?” she replies, burning her last bridge.

Back home, Croft vows to protect Alice by taking her away, revealing her own lesbianism in a predatory attempted seduction of Alice in the bedroom. Just as this is about to be consummated, a dark silhouette is ominously framed in the door-way. It is June, looming like a Grand Guignol murderer. “What a perfect little gem for the Sunday press” she spits, her worst jealous fears proved correct. This is the catalyst for a slanging match of hugely enjoyable bile between she and Croft, the latter dropping her earlier smug diplomacy to give June a taste of her own bitter medicine with caustic home truths: “You’re a fat, boring actress and people are sick to death of you!. Look at yourself, you pathetic old dyke!”. Reeling from these unbridled blasts, June still has enough strength for a parting shot to wound both women as they go. She exposes Alice as being far from the little girl that Croft (and hypocritically herself) like to infantilise. Her escaping lover is really aged thirty-two, and has a daughter she abandoned. June tries to softly appeal to Alice, but as always it is a self-serving sensitivity and she is left alone.

Her final futile gesture is to break into the studio, where she knocks over a light and then proceeds to trash the set in disgust at what remains of her legacy: “Even the bloody coffin’s a fake…”. She sits down and then moos, a self-piteous imitation of where her career has led her…

THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE is a raging powerful piece whose battles weren’t just on-screen. Director Aldrich had to fight the censors in the USA and the UK. America’s new MPAA board critically sabotaged its box office by awarding it the kiss-of-death ‘X’ rating in order to keep the seduction scene in, which drastically reduced newspaper advertisements and wide release. In the UK, after a protracted battle with the BBFC over sexual language as much as content, the uncut version was only released nationally in 1970. The struggle for integrity was worth the effort, though. It’s a real pleasure to see a film dominated by a female ensemble that creates gutsy, meaty showcases for York, Browne and especially Beryl Reid who has a ball as the greedy, tyrannical June, allowing her to use multiple character voices and roar foul-mouthed insults at all and sundry as her world implodes. This is truly adult cinema and in dealing with edgy, controversial issues confounds preconceptions male audiences might have.

A cast without testosterone can create a film with balls…

Thursday, 19 November 2015

No. 102. Sam Peckinpah - THE KILLER ELITE (1975)


Arguably, BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA signalled the start of the downward trajectory of Sam Peckinpah’s career. His next film THE KILLER ELITE, based on the novel ‘Monkey in the Middle’ seemed a promising return, involving assassination, ninja martial arts, espionage and the re-teaming of Robert Duvall and James Caan a few years after THE GODFATHER made their names, but it never really delivers on that promising material..

Caan and Duvall have an easy time of it playing on their chemistry, Caan’s macho ladies-man swagger and Duvall’s blue-collar craftiness. They are agents of Comteg, a shadowy CIA-employed organisation involved in the murky world of erasing defectors and those smuggling state secrets to other governments. The opening features a transcript extract of an interview conducted with an evasive senior operative denying their existence. Waggishly, the film offers a disclaimer that for the real CIA to use such tactics “…is, of course, preposterous”. Forty years on, in the era of global Wikileaks document leakage and government-sanctioned surveillance ‘for our security’, this kind of spy-craft suddenly seems a lot less far-fetched.

The plot of THE KILLER ELITE hinges on more personal vendettas though. George (Duvall) critically wounds his partner Mike (Caan) in the elbow and leg during a mission for some inexplicable reason and absconds, leaving him to rehabilitate himself gradually with the aid of a cane and newly-learned martial arts skills. Mike is eager to prove ready for active duty again, driven by a need for revenge. Despite his eastern defence technique with the cane, his superior Weybourne and uber-boss Collis want him to take a desk job.  They are forced to re-hire Mike though when a Japanese politician, Chung (esteemed actor Mako), needs protection and will be the intended target of an international team of ninja assassins plus an American group led by the re-surfaced George.
Caan tools up by recruiting his car-dealer friend Mac (Burt Young, literally spinning his wheels a year before playing the famously dead-beat Pauly in the ROCKY films) and firearms expert Miller (Peckinpah regular Bo Hopkins). They outwit a plastique bomb stuck to their car with the aid of a none-too-bright traffic cop and then do the best they can to shield their valuable ‘package’ whilst he is in America before Mike kills George and shoots Corliss who had secretly been playing both ends by employing the two of them…

THE KILLER ELITE could have been a sure-fire hit but it keeps missing its mark, courtesy of bad choices by Peckinpah throughout. It’s a shame that Weybourne didn’t take his own advice and be pensioned off as once again the director loyally cast his friend Gig Young in the part. The actor’s painfully-obvious terminal alcoholism renders his delivery so laid-back as to be narcoleptic.  This drags the pace of the film which is already mournfully slow at times for an action thriller.

Young’s behaviour could be seen as a barometer for his director who by now was also starting to sleep-walk through his films, rendering action sequences in a by-the-numbers slow motion without any of his former style. Peckinpah’s earlier films were stunningly edited under his watchful supervision; the gun-play in THE WILD BUNCH and the brilliantly cut twenty-minute siege climax of STRAW DOGS were rightfully praised for exciting, kinetic cutting. Here he either settles for formulaic shoot-outs, or more frustratingly tries to impose fast cuts onto martial-arts fights whose choreography needs to be allowed to play out, not irritatingly cut away from so often. It’s as though he’s never seen a Hong Kong film or Robert Clouse’s ENTER THE DRAGON to see how a Westerner can get the most out of the form. Every time Caan gets stuck into an opponent, there is an immediate cut to someone else and then back later, breaking the energy flow and rendering the fights truncated and uninvolving.

Another flaw is that, whilst I’m not advocating slavish screen-writer formula adherence, Peckinpah breaks the valid rule of never taking the plot out of the hands of your protagonist. He stages a final all-too-brief battle between the main ninja assassin and…Chung - not Mike.  It not only renders Caan as the star superfluous, but in exposing Chung to mortal danger, defeats the whole point of why Mike’s team were assigned to him in the first place.

Since Chung finishes off his own problem by the end, it at least allows Caan and his team to walk away at the end - and THE KILLER ELITE fizzles out, an uncommitted ending to a less than committed action movie.

Sam Peckinpah had two more films in him, the belatedly-praised WWII saga CROSS OF IRON and the entertaining THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND (1983) before his body fatally succumbed to the years of substance abuse. His body of work, however, has enough quality films overall to outlive him and many others as an iconoclastic talent.

No. 101 Sam Peckinpah - BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974)


Whilst making his uncharacteristically light but pleasant western THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE, Sam Peckinpah’s friend writer Frank Kowalski gave him the thinnest of premises for a movie: the title, BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, and the idea that the subject be already dead. Sketchy as the concept was, Peckinpah liked it enough to write it with Gordon Dawson during STRAW DOGS and the result is this demented gangster film which centres around a rare lead role for the under-used Warren Oates.

The fleshed-out plot sees a Spanish mafia boss demand to know which man has shamed his daughter by making her pregnant.  Degraded by having her blouse ripped by his henchmen (a sadly frequent example of the director’s misogynism rearing its head again), she reveals the man’s identity as one of the boss’s most favoured employees. The boss orders the titular contract to be carried out. He sends Robert Webber and Gig Young to Mexico City on the trail. (This is unfortunate as by now in real life Young was so in thrall to the alcoholism that would kill him a few years later that he looks and sounds half-asleep in most of his scenes. Until he uses a machine gun near the end he serves no purpose). The hit men meet Benny (Oates), a retired military man now working as a cool-cat bar pianist in shades. No-one in the bar reveals that Garcia is known to them – and is more importantly already dead due to drink-driving. Playing his cards craftily, Benny spies a chance to make easy money by fetching them the corpse’s head for the agreed fee of $10,000, knowing the hoods will be none the wiser.

Benny sets out with his girlfriend Elita, Alfredo’s first love, and while struggling with his jealousy also has to deal with a romantic night under the stars interrupted by two bikers intent on raping his lady and stealing their food. This again needlessly allows another topless blouse-ripping, twice in forty-five minutes, by Kristofferson, who then appears to lose interest in her, suggesting impotence. The other questionable aspect of this scene is the way it tastelessly echoes the rape scenes that could have spoilt STRAW DOGS by having Elita actually encouraging him to try to take her before Oates blows him and his buddy away. It’s dispiriting to defend a director capable of real art when he persisted in sympathising with male rape protagonists instead of their victims.

Benny’s belief that the mobsters won’t know they’re being fooled is proved dreadfully wrong when he is knocked out just before decapitating the body. He awakes, half-buried to find the gangsters have killed Elita in retribution. This sets up the crazy third act where a now-unrestrained Benny makes it his life’s mission to deliver the head in a bag to the boss at all costs as some kind of honour statement mixed with a tragic tribute to his girlfriend: “I’m gonna finish this with him!”. As he drives along, he forms a bizarre attachment to his cargo, talking to the head as though it’s still the living ex-lover of Elita.

Benny shoots dead Webber and Young amongst other hoods for hire, all of whom are given slow-motion deaths in loving detail no matter how inconsequential, before arriving at the home of the mafia boss as they celebrate the girl’s wedding day. He plonks down the head, and demands half-insanely to know what was so important about this man that it cost so many lives. The chief demonstrates he is already over his original blind anger that initiated the contract, but after handing over one million dollars casually as a fee he dismisses the bag’s contents now as meaningless rubbish. This incenses Benny to the point of red rage at such disrespect to his dead lover. He goes on a cathartic gun rampage killing the boss and every employee in the room, masked by the celebratory fireworks outside before leaving. However, unlike Steve McQueen in THE GETAWAY or Dustin Hoffman in STRAW DOGS, he does not get to live another day after purging himself with violence. An army of goons fill him full of lead in his car, leaving us a last lingering image of a gun barrel in close-up.

BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA is a madcap revenge action movie that despite repeated unnecessary abuses of women features an enjoyably warped single-mindedness from Oates that helped it generate a cult appeal in common with other Peckinpah films after an initial failed release. References in TV shows and films from FLETCH to FUTURAMA have since prolonged its shelf-life.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

No. 100 - THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975)


Somewhere in the exotic India of the Raj days, an erudite gentleman sits at his desk writing. He is disturbed by a figure in the shadows who drags himself slowly into the light, revealing a horrifically-scarred face. To the writer’s bemusement, the man rasps: “I’ve come back…” He recalls a contract made in this very office so many years ago – one that would set out the terms before a most incredible undertaking. In shock, the writer suddenly recognises the man. “Carnahan”, he gasps…

In 1975, the release of JAWS changed the movie landscape for ever, ushering in a new wave of blockbusters and creating the phenomenon of the summer ‘tent-pole’ film that would build the studio year around increasingly FX-driven movies. Yet while a new generation took over - dubbed the ‘Movie Brats’ (Spielberg, De Palma, Scorcese, Lucas) - there was still room for a good old-fashioned traditional solid Hollywood epic still driven by story, character and practical effect set-pieces all filmed for real. One such crowd-pleaser was acclaimed old-school director John Huston’s film of Rudyard Kipling’s THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING.

Huston had planned to make this period action-adventure romp far enough back to have starred Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart as the loveable con-men Peachy Carnahan and Daniel Dravot, but their deaths meant the project was shelved. Later, it was to be attempted with two other classic Hollywood real-life friends: Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas and even Burton and O’Toole (Huston being one of the few directors who could have handled the latter two hell-raisers). Finally, his ideal duo was found courtesy of Newman and Redford, another wonderful 1970s buddy-buddy pairing. Newman rightly felt that the old-world Britishness of the material (co-written by Huston and Gladys Hill) could only be done justice by actors from that world. This led to such a perfect combination that it’s hard to think of anyone else in the roles.

Michael Caine as Peachy and Sean Connery as Daniel were both at the height of their box-office appeal and the vital chemistry that the film hinges on came ready-made from their great friendship in real life. THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING is the kind of Boy’s Own tale of derring-do that really captures the imagination. It centres on Peachy and Danny under-taking the ultimate adventure for con artists, that of taking a kingdom and its riches by cunning and, to be fair, not entirely self-serving use of their ex-military skill - but that’s getting ahead of ourselves…

We mustn’t forget the pleasure of the whole story unfolding, beginning with Peachy’s reunion with Kipling as mentioned at the start. It’s a marvellous opening to the confident story-telling throughout, reeling us in with many questions and an immediate desire to hear what brought these men to their present. Christopher Plummer is an ideal Kipling, possessed of warmth and an indulgent twinkle of fondness toward these two scallywags. Caine is introduced to us with a roguish charm. He’s a quick-witted, cheeky chancer who knows how to parlay his Masonic membership “for the sake of a widow’s son” for all it’s worth to link him up with Connery, the more gruff and domineering of the two but lacking Peachy’s guile. These genial con-men are performances of huge charm and brashness AND BOTH Caine and Connery retain their natural accents to increase the snug fit of the parts. A signature famous scene is their entertainingly belligerent defence before the government official on a charge of impersonating Kipling’s credentials. After both men march in military-style, Caine produces the blackmail card they hold then loudly quashes the patronising official’s attempted besmirching of their names: “May I remind you it was ‘detriments’ like us what built the bloody empire!” before drilling themselves triumphantly out.

Peachy and Danny ask Kipling to witness their signed agreement that details the sharing of treasure and abstinence from women and liquor before they venture to far off Kafiristan: “We are not little men so we are going away to be kings”. They plan to offer their mercenary services to warring tribesmen, building selected ones up as puppet leaders, before subverting them so they can install themselves as rulers and loot the kingdoms. Kipling laughs at their grandiose scheming but wishes them well.

Once in the remote Kafiristan, after a dicey snow-bound trek, Peachy and Danny find themselves plunged straight into inter-village skirmishes. They are aided though by the unlikely appearance of an Indian who speaks English. This is the memorable Saeed Jaffrey, the recently-deceased distinguished British/Bollywood actor giving one of his most memorable roles as ‘Billy Fish’, Gurkha and invaluable translator of languages and culture to the boys. He injects an extra enthusiasm and knowledge peppered with quirky Raj-influenced anglicisms such as ‘Alas, by Jove’.

Through Billy, the Englishmen begin their campaign by assisting the cowardly thug leader Ootah with his local tribal conflicts against the neighbouring Bashkai, flattering him with their desire only to serve him. Peachy drills his hopeless rabble into a fighting force in a funny scene of un-coordinated exasperation. The resulting battle gives rise to another striking sequence where the entire battlefield of men abruptly and silently prostrate themselves before a crossing line of priests. They belong to Sikhander Gul, the Holy City and signal a turning point in the boys’ fortunes when a stray arrow caught by Danny’s bandolier is mistaken for him having the immortality of a God. This accelerates their plans when the high priests summon him to be verified in the Holy City, leading to a second stroke of luck courtesy of Masonry when his lodge pendant is judged to be proof that he is the coming of the fabled son of Sikhander(Alexander the Great).

From this point, Danny and Peachy find their wildest dreams have come true – but an ancient horde of priceless treasure and the unquestioning loyalty of a kingdom corrupts weak mortal men. Whereas Peachy is smart enough to want to leave in the spring while their luck holds, Danny gradually becomes fatally seduced by his position. He assumes a Solomon-like pose of wisdom in his dispensing of justice to the villagers and requests that even Peachy bows to him in public. He develops such delusions of grandeur that he views his entire life as fated to lead him here: “You call it luck. I call it destiny”. Despite the protestations of his old friend and the blasphemy accusations of the priests, he decrees he will take an earthly wife. (This turns out to be Michael Caine’s real-life wife, the beautiful Shakira Caine). It not only breaks Danny’s side of their pact, but seals their doom when she resists his advances with a cheek bite in the ceremony that reveals his mortal vulnerability. The men flee for their lives, loyally backed by Billy Fish who bravely sacrifices himself with swashbuckling sword to the vengeful crowd enveloping him.

As the incensed Kafiris descend on them, Peachy and Danny touchingly reaffirm their friendship, the strongest theme in the film. Danny asks his friend sincerely to forgive him “On account of being so bleedin’ high and bloody mighty”. Equally poignantly, Peachy does so instantly and unquestioningly. He is forced to watch his friend walk the rope bridge and have it cut from under him as he lustily sings a brave anthem falling to his death.

When Peachy completes his story in Kipling’s office, by way of proof of their unbelievable adventure, he leaves a memento that he kept with him all the way through his homeward ordeal. It is the crowned skull of his best friend who truly had become King of Kafiristan – an enduring testament not just to vanity and greed but to brotherhood and lives burned brightly…

THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING is a perfect Sunday afternoon escapist thrill-ride, a captivating tale enriched by terrific performances all round and spectacular sets of epic scale in the days before CGI.

Monday, 16 November 2015

No. 99 - Sexual Boundaries - SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY (1971)


After his superb yet bleak MIDNIGHT COWBOY, director John Schlesinger tackled gay characters again, but this time showed them absorbed more into mainstream middle-class society rather than portraying a marginalised seedy subculture as in the previous film. This makes SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY ahead of its time as the film deals not with homosexual relationships as an overt right-on crusade but as simply a part of accepted modernity and is all the more refreshing for it.

The story is a love triangle; at its centre is Bob, a young good-looking free-wheeling conceptual artist of businessmen’s stress relief office toys (Murray Head, notable later also for starring in the musical CHESS). He has simultaneous love affairs with Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson), a frustrated recruitment consultant as well as Daniel Hirsch, a Jewish G.P. For Bob, these affairs are fun stopping-off points in his wind-swept life, whereas to his older lovers, the relationship has more meaning. Both Daniel and Alex want more than he is prepared to give and in their own way demonstrate a poignant yearning for greater substance.

Alex spends a weekend with Bob house-sitting for the children of annoyingly ultra-liberal friends, the kind who call their Rottweiler ‘Kenyatta’ and allow their kids to run amok without traditional barriers. At one point their eldest little girl asks them: “Are you bourgeois?” whilst an even younger son (who can’t be more than six) sits on their bed smoking a doobie he’s pilfered from his dad’s stash. The cut-glass accents make this very middle-class world hard to relate to as well, but Jackson subtly conveys her need in a way that is universal as Bob vanishes to see Daniel. She can’t bring herself to say her competitor’s name. Bob spends the afternoon in a tryst with Daniel, all handled with admirable matter-of-fact ease including a full-mouthed kiss which must still have been rare on screen at this time.

On Bob’s return to fix a power cut, Alex seethes with barely-suppressed jealousy: “Perhaps you’re spreading yourself a little thin”. When the family dog is accidentally run over in the street, his death triggers a burst of remembered separation anxiety in Alex from when her father left the house in war-time without his gas-mask. She is a product of tough love by her parents, a wealthy but remote couple (Peggy Ashcroft and Maurice Denham). Her mother brusquely condemns her for not settling down, pessimistically summing up life as a dull enforced endurance of broken dreams: “There is no ‘whole thing’. You have to make it work”

Daniel also struggles with the knowledge that he is sharing his lover. There is a nice wordless sequence where both he and Alex consecutively drive past Bob’s flat, glancing up longingly at his window before passing by. Daniel has a history of troublesome lovers. There’s a brief sequence reuniting him with Jon Finch (sadly to be under-used in the 1970s) as a badly Glaswegian-accented thieving bit of rough trade. His patients present him with cases that cause him to reflect on the small emotional scraps he subsists on. He attempts to cheer up June Brown, (later to find fame as hard-bitten Dot Cotton in EASTENDERS) as she recounts her life’s sexless quiet desperation. “People can manage on very little” he tells the family of a patient of his at death’s door in hospital. Even civilised dinner parties reveal the cracks of others’ lives when a friend couple argue during a games night about the husband’s attention paid to their au pair. Daniel at least gains solace from the structure (or stricture) of his Jewish faith when he attends a Barmitzvah – a scene featuring some soaringly beautiful canto singing.

Finally, Alex and Daniel meet when Bob inevitably leaves for New York. They not only have their young lover in common – they also realise that each must move on instead of trying to cling to this youthful free spirit.

The three performances give SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY the engaging quality of many of its scenes. Head has the easier time of it but plays a maddening light elusiveness naturally. The heavy lifting is done by Finch and Jackson who both suffer with compelling gravity. Jackson has an unusual sex appeal that’s hard to define but has directness and sensitivity that deservedly helped her Academy Awards either side of this film in both drama and comedy. Finch conveys a subtler storm of anxiety than his riveting Howard Beale in NETWORK (1976) yet earns our sympathy, particularly in a final scene that breaks the fourth wall as a delicate confessional to camera. He echoes the film’s running theme of coping with ‘half a loaf’ of a relationship instead of nothing and is at last honest with himself and resigned about his needs: “All my life I’ve been looking for someone courageous, resourceful. He’s not it…but something”. This sequence has the power of Dysart’s end speech in EQUUS andeven more powerful for its understatement.

SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY is a rare film about permissive sexuality that achieves as much as an angry polemic arguing the case for acceptance by assuming we’re already in a society unsurprised by homosexual relationships, and focuses more on the vulnerabilities that unite us all regardless of orientation...

Saturday, 14 November 2015

No.98 - Sexual Boundaries - THE CELLULOID CLOSET


This fascinating multi Emmy-nominated documentary spans the history of Hollywood’s portrayal of gays and lesbians on screen from the silent era through till the mid-1990s. Based on Vito Russo’s book, it shows how in the early days, homosexual characters were initially suggested (or suggestive)  in their mannerisms or presented as flamboyant caricatures especially before the Hays Code came into force. After this ultra-restrictive censorship was adopted, film-makers were forced to encode gay subtext or even remove gay plot themes altogether in mainstream cinema.

The film includes archive footage from many films as well as interview clips not just with esteemed gay writers and directors such as Harvey Fierstein, Armistaud Maupin and Gore Vidal but also heterosexual actors including Harry Hamlin, (star of MAKING LOVE), Tony Curtis, Tom Hanks and Susan Sarandon who discuss their experiences of the risks and reactions to being involved in ground-breaking films before the more relaxed attitudes of today.

Vidal talks interestingly about the negotiations between himself and William Wyler about enlivening BEN-HUR by introducing a homosexual past history for Messala and Ben-Hur. Amusingly, this was openly broached with Stephen Boyd but seems to have been kept from Charlton Heston at the time for fear of repelling him – but no matter as the one-sided dynamic was still clear enough to audiences. Other films were not so lucky in having creators able to introduce or keep this element even when inherent in the original source material. THE LOST WEEKEND’s protagonist in the novel was an alcoholic tortured by his homosexuality. In the movie, Ray Milland’s writer had the drink problem but now the cause was writer’s block. Similarly, the film of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF suffered from extreme censoring to disguise Brick’s inner torment over his relationship with another man.

Hollywood began to embrace or at least recognise the existence and reflection of gay characters from the early ‘60s in films like VICTIM with its sensational portrayal by a big star, Dirk Bogarde, of a man blatantly admitting to his homesexual yearnings. However, these roles were hampered by a constant coluring of gay figures as confused, tortured and unhappy often with fatal consequences. This still betrayed an air of ‘disapproval’ especially if they died by tragic means, as though this was a price that had to be extracted in return for acknowledgement. Sympathetic versions of this could be seen in Sal Mineo in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE for example or Montgomery Clift in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER.

Possibly the first Hollywood mainstream film to feature positive gay characters who don’t have to die at the end but simply deal with life’s ups and downs like heterosexuals was William Friedkin’s THE BOYS IN THE BAND (1970) written by Mart Crowley based on his stage play.

However, before Tinseltown could congratulate itself, as we moved into the 1970s the new liberality brought an even more offensive angle which was to portray the homosexual as threatening, a villain whose sexuality was perceived as part of their ‘perversion’. The absurd transvestite shot dead by James Caan in FREEBIE AND THE BEAN (1974) and the two menacing gay hitch-hikers in VANISHING POINT from 1971 are shown, as well as brief undiscussed clips of later movies like the cross-dressing serial killer ‘Buffalo Bill’ in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and Sharon Stone’s bisexual killer novelist in BASIC INSTINCT. Even William Friedkin wasn’t immune to damaging the inclusive goodwill of his earlier work by exploiting unenlightened heterosexual fears of the gay scene in the extremely poorly- conceived Al Pacino undercover cop thriller CRUISING.

It does seem that in the last twenty years, gay characters and issues have become absorbed much more into the mainstream on screen. It seems to me that as long as we continue to reflect the diversity of sexual orientation and don’t tokenise or issue-drive homosexual inclusion, everyone will come to fit more easily into the sum total of a rich and truthful mirror of the world we live in.

THE CELLULOID CLOSET is expertly-made, thought-provoking and underscored with a lush orchestral score.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

No.97. Sexual Boundaries - THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT (1975)


“I am an effeminate homosexual…a minority within a majority”

With refreshing candour such as this, Quentin Crisp wafted through life - scarved, hatted and coiffeured, scattering witty and incisive bon mots like elegant flower petals – a latter-day Oscar Wilde for the Ovaltine generation. In this charming TV film from 1975, John Hurt masterfully captured the life of an eccentric aesthete whose flamboyantly effeminate dress and behaviour caused amusement, bemusement and physical persecution yet concealed a brave soul within who became a sought-after and highly quotable style maven.

Based on his autobiography, THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT opens with something of an endorsement by the man himself, the real Quentin speaking to the audience from the bedsit where he spent much of his later years. He’s a unique and contradictory personality; hermet-like in private but an exhibitionist in public. Although he leads an ascetic life of monastic absence of sex, money or music, happy to let dust accumulate for years untouched in his home, he is still seduced by romantic glamour. Upon hearing of a film to be made of his life, he recalls being excited as he’d spent his life trying to escape into the fantasy world of the silver screen. When told the aim is to be a realistic depiction, he stifles disappointment by venturing to suggest an idealised preferred opening scene to temper the intrusive desire for unwanted grittiness. We then segue into Quentin the child lost in a swaying reverie in Edwardian female clothing before the mirror, morphing into the young 1920s adult embodied by John Hurt, setting a tone of elegant bewitching playfulness.

The film spans the period from the ‘20s to 1975, focusing mainly on the more challenging formative years that shaped Quentin’s personality. Born into a typically repressed, suburban middle-class family in High Wycombe as the prosaic ‘Dennis Pratt’, Quentin is shown as the product of an unsympathetic solicitor father and an unassuming but usefully well-connected mother. His private dreams and tentative steps as a gay man are cautious in a society still decades away from the legalisation of homosexuality. One evening, a chance doorway encounter with a similar cross-dressing but far more worldly-wise chap leads him into a nocturnal world of kindred souls. He finds himself accepted into a late-night ‘café society’ of camp and fearless male prostitutes. (The actors in these scenes are clearly having a ball, including a young Roger Lloyd-Pack). Through the security of their camaraderie Quentin grows in confidence and begins to build the beguiling armour that has to deflect violence from men and at one point even a sudden slap from a woman on the street, offended by his appearance. It is here in his twenties that he changes his name to Quentin Crisp, a pseudonym more befitting his demeanour.

Populating the colourful world of Quentin’s friends and lovers are future notable TV and film actors. Operatic Welsh character actor John Rhys-Davies, most famous as Gimli in LORD OF THE RINGS, is a lovable childlike boyfriend, and Patricia Hodge belies the period drama ice-maidens she often played on screen as a fey, effusive dance teacher.

The pre-war period setting of the early scenes is nicely achieved within the obvious limits of a TV drama budget, neatly aided by amusing silent movie-style dialogue cards that frame some of Quentin’s more sensational pronouncements such as “Sexual intercourse is a poor substitute for masturbation” and his defining observation that “Exhibitionism is a drug – you get hooked!” .

Our curiosity as to how such a person would get by in society is answered as we see Quentin move from rent-boy through professional commercial artistry. Before settling into a lucrative career as an artist’s model, or as he calls it: “A naked civil servant. My vocation in life”, his search for how to make a living is interrupted by World War Two. For me, one of the two fascinating key scenes in the film is his interview by the Army Medical Board. Here, we could understand or predict a plot device of attempting to dodge conscription by using his sexual orientation, but no, he earns our sympathy even more by the unexpected desire of actually wanting to enlist, albeit due to the pragmatism of getting three square meals a day. Bravely, he doesn’t deceive them about his sexuality and when asked what such an unlikely soul could contribute to the army, replies with disarming logic: “Well, anyone can get killed…” His steely practicality is admirably at odds with our perceived stereotype of him at this point.

There is no sense of Quentin trying to harangue or embarrass the ‘normal’ people around him with militant shock tactics to extort acceptance. Although his appearance brazenly stands out as a challenge, his code of behaviour toward others is discreet and respectful, a model for how he simply wishes to be treated in return. The other stand-out sequence that beautifully illustrates this is when he is in the dock defending himself on a police fit-up charge of soliciting. With enormously persuasive dignity and feeling, Quentin calmly explains that in order to survive he could not possibly afford to prostitute himself so publicly. Moreover, out of respect (and fear of reprisals): “I do not approach or speak to anyone unless spoken to, or look at anyone unless they demand that I look at them”. It is a greatly affecting scene by Hurt, one of the finest I’ve ever seen him play. Quentin’s subsequent acquittal due to ‘insufficient evidence’ is hardly a consolation for being forced to justify his lifestyle in court so painfully.

Happily, as the decades rolled by, Quentin becomes a kind of icon in demand, a personality that embodies the counter-culture of the 1960s and beyond. His later lease of life is as a quotable and entertaining raconteur who ultimately never moved with the times, but let the times catch up with him. He sums himself up self-deprecatingly amid the flower-power youths: “I am not merely a stopped clock. I am a stopped grandfather clock”.
At the close, he fends off the weak harassment of teenage toughs (spot a very young Phil Daniels here) and intones as narrator: “I am one of the stately homos of England…” - a winningly wry and dignified ending.

Hurt is wonderful in the central role, richly deserving his BAFTA award for it. Externally he fully commits to the feminisation of clothing, hair, make-up and physicality, but without ever seeming a distancing, ‘pantomime dame’ caricature of women. You feel this is a man whose true nature is revealed, not disguised, by assuming a woman’s appearance - and it’s a harmless, utterly likeable one. There is none of that cynical hard edge that male drag queens sometimes give off in their posturing - (maybe that’s why I’ve always found them so irritating?).  Watching source interviews with the real Quentin (such as the engrossing ‘World in Action’ one filmed in his flat in 1968), you can also see how successfully Hurt alters his distinctive gravelly tones to reproduce that gentle velvety voice and upward speech inflection.

I remember Hurt once memorably describing himself as ‘the official victim figure of the British film industry’. It’s an insightful label and amongst his illustrious CV, a direct parallel can be drawn between his playing of Quentin Crisp and another real-world ‘outcast’ – John Merrick in THE ELEPHANT MAN. Both men suffered greatly from the inhuman cruelty of others, persecuted by those who feared as well as underestimated them for the way they looked.  Tragically for Merrick, human understanding came all too late for him, compared to Quentin’s triumph of living long enough for his look and original wit to be celebrated more than discriminated against. In both cases, Hurt’s talent and sensitivity goes to great lengths to represent these people fully on screen.

Hurt also made a welcome return as Quentin in 2009’s AN ENGLISHMAN IN NEW YORK which documented his years living in the more tolerant world of New York.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

No. 96. Klaus Kinski/Werner Herzog: AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD (1972)


When Werner Herzog decided to make his film AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD there was only one actor he had in mind for the main character: Klaus Kinski – a man whose volatile reputation preceded him like the weather warning of an incoming tornado. Herzog had feverishly written a screenplay for his sixth film that pitted man against the elements in a story of all-consuming greed and single-minded madness. He had found the perfect male embodiment of these qualities...if he could survive the filming.

Herzog had some advance idea of what he was letting himself in for; some years before Kinski had rented a room in his family’s apartment and the director had witnessed first-hand the volcanic, inexplicable rages of which the actor was capable. In his entertaining documentary MEIN LIEBSTER FEIND (‘MY BEST FIEND’), Herzog remembers a blistering forty-eight hour rampage by Kinski, decimating the family bathroom to the point where the fixture damage could have been strained through a tennis racquet. Kinski was a gifted self-taught talent, a veteran of many films who channelled colossal passion instinctively, but was also a vessel for its unchecked reign as relentless egomania.

The timing of AGUIRRE had come just as Kinski had left his infamous one-man tour of Jesus uncompleted, the show had little to recommend it except the spectacle of the actor venting his un-Christ like spleen at the audience. This made it a must-see, filling major German arena venues before he suddenly quit. Despite this and his previous experience, Herzog was committed to using Kinski and two days after sending him the script, he received a 3am phone call of intense ranting that turned out to be Kinski’s great excitement at undertaking the main part.

AGUIRRE is set during the Spanish Conquistador conquering of the Incas of South America in 1560. Hearing the subjugated Indians speak of a fabled city of gold, El Dorado, a nobleman Pizarro leads a team of soldiers and nobles along with one hundred Indians along the Amazon to capture the city and its mythical treasure. Their number includes Brother Gaspar de Carvajal, (Del Negro) a priest who sees their mission somewhat naively as a religious one “to spread the Word of God”, though even he is tempted by the lure of enabling hallowed Catholic artefacts to be fashioned from such wealth. The church’s arrogant trampling over the indigenous culture to convert them by force is clearly no more altruistic than the soldiers’ plundering, for all its holy sanctioning.

The reckless men, and their accompanying fair ladies, fall victim to their own corrosive greed for power and money, none more so than Lope de Aguirre (Kinski), a lieutenant smouldering with treacherous cunning.  Pizarro realises the inadequacy of their provisions along the epic journey, and orders two rafts of 40 of the men led by Don Pedro de Ursúa (Ruy Guerra) to go out as a search party seeking food and information about the hidden hostile natives. Aguirre sees his chance to manipulate destiny for his own ends. He arranges a henchman to blow apart a trapped raft with their cannon, and leads a mutiny against Ursúa rather than turn back to their original camp. Aguirre is seized with the pioneering zealot’s confidence of Cortez. Nothing will stand in his way of taking El Dorado. He installs the fat Guzmán, (Peter Berling) from the Royal Spanish lineage, as their puppet Emperor-to-be, flattering the corpulent dimwit whilst biding his time as the power behind the throne. After a kangaroo court presided over by Brother Gaspar declares Ursúa guilty of treason, Guzmán surprisingly offers clemency, but both ‘Emperor’ and the Don’s days are numbered – the former is hanged and the latter strangled. 

Now the way is clear for Aguirre’s true intent – to take power himself as Emperor of El Dorado, severing all ties with Spain.  Like all before him, he foolishly underestimates the prowess of the native Indian tribes along the river. Finally, with the mythical city nowhere in sight, he is monarch of a raft of mortally-wounded followers, the only man standing…

AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD is a powerfully impressive epic about the darker qualities of mankind’s adventurousness: the selfish and self-destructive pursuit of material reward and cultural dominance, as opposed to the heroic taming of unoccupied territory such as the Moon. Kinski, his eyes blazing like hot coals, is perfectly cast as the lightning rod of the film, a terrifyingly driven ogre ferociously bullying the woefully-unprepared soldiers and enslaved Indians, and all too briefly showing a tender concern toward his own daughter. Aguirre sees himself not as the Messiah but as a divine weapon of biblical scale - “I am the wrath of God!” empowered to control all of wildlife and nature. As such, Kinski is electrifying and entirely believable.

The establishing scene of the film, the calm before the gathering storm, is a thing of beauty, a snake-like procession down a mountain of the silent troops and their gear accompanied by a haunting score by the rock group Popol Vuh. It is almost entirely depicted in master shots so we can drink in the splendid landscape that dwarfs these reckless human beings. In shooting this sequence, Herzog recalled feeling a kind of spiritual perfection of purpose. Puncturing this poetic imagery was Kinski’s crude egotism; he was enraged at not being the centre of attention here and could not appreciate that any natural landscape could be as interesting as the human face – more specifically his. Either as punishment or sensitivity, Herzog in fact removed all close-ups of him that were intended later on in the scene.

As filming progressed, director and lead actor gradually battled each other as much as the conditions. Kinski wanted to play Aguirre as a crazed madman. Herzog felt a quieter, contained menace would be more effective. He realised as he got to know Kinski’s behaviour that by inciting one of the actor’s childish tantrums he would then get it out of his system so a calmer state would be left to use in the take.  However, this was immensely debilitating to the production to the point where a threatened leaving by Kinski caused Herzog to seriously threaten to kill them both. The genuine Peruvian Indians used in the film were perplexed by the actor’s outbursts. Their culture was much more serene and gentle in resolving problems, leading the head of their tribe to sincerely offer to kill the troublesome actor if Herzog gave him the word. The director kindly rejected this – owing to the further scenes that needed filming.

Herzog acknowledged that sometimes his leading man’s instincts and skills were valuable. The actor had developed a shrewd understanding of camera technique. He showed Herzog a highly effective improvement on the usual dull way of entering the frame in profile (sideways on) and then facing forward. He perfected a move Herzog nicknamed the ‘Kinski spiral’ where the actor would pivot round the camera fluidly as he entered the shot, an arresting and much more interesting visual trick.

On screen, the trials were worth the demands. AGUIRRE’s exotic imagery, passions and conflicts over power and faith echo in later films such as THE MISSION (1986). A more direct influence though was on APOCALYPSE NOW. Coppola was inspired by Herzog’s epic vision when creating the visuals for his meditation on war (the awful anticipatory silence as the raft sails into hostile enemy territory for example). He similarly found that the making of the film became the material for it. Both directors had begun with a loose script and changed the text organically during production.

There are many memorably staged scenes. The discovery of the enemy camp with evidence of cannibalism is macabre, as is the sequence where predatory tribesmen flit in and out of the jungle calling repeatedly to each other as they watch the Spanish pass them – translated chillingly as “Meat is floating by”. Amidst the awful human degradation of the down-river passage, there is even a moment of black humour as a soldier is pierced by an arrow: “The long arrows are getting fashionable” he deadpans as he keels over.

Herzog had managed to make AGUIRRE for the incredibly low budget of $370,000 (a third of which was spent on Kinski), which had been arduous enough to raise much less eke out on a location picture deep in the Amazon rainforest. The film struggled to find a mainstream audience on release, yet gained a great cult following on the arthouse circuit and is now acclaimed as a masterpiece.
In spite of their tempestuous relationship. Herzog and Kinski went on to collaborate in four more highly-regarded projects that channelled the latter’s undeniable searing intensity well including NOSFERATU, WOYZECK and COBRA VERDE. FITZCARRALDO, their second, is the most reminiscent of AGUIRRE’s cruel obsessive mission of madness, the tale of an industrialist who insanely demands the dragging of a full-sized steamship through the Amazon (actually undertaken for real during filming) to access rubber for the funding of an ‘opera house for the peasants’ dream. The logistical nightmare was an apt metaphor for Herzog’s ongoing artistic personal battles with Kinski. An example of these one-man cyclonic outbursts can be seen in MEIN LIEBSTER FEIND from the set of FITZCARRALDO where Kinski rails against the production manager for perceived poor quality of location catering.

Ultimately Herzog was exhausted by his leading man’s constant rages over the years and they severed all ties, but not before Kinski enlisted the director in a bizarre request of his own. Writing his autobiography, the actor feared the public would find it boring if their working relationship was described in glowing ‘luvvy’ terms, so he asked Herzog to help him create fictitious insults he could level in print at the director.  At least they spent a happy afternoon doing something demented together.

(One final point: Lest we think that Klaus’s clashes were solely a personality mismatch between Herzog and him or circumstantial, there’s an insightful video on Youtube by director David Schmoeller about the making of their horror film CRAWSPACE together in 1986. In ‘Please Kill Mr Kinski’, Schmoeller recounts Kinski’s on-set insanity in even more alarming terms. He mercilessly abused his power, systematically emasculating his poor director’s authority by insisting on removing the calls for ‘Action’ and later ‘Cut’, Kinski haughtily decreeing that he will begin and end only when he is ready. The title plea, considered half-seriously, sounds strangely familiar…)

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

No. 95 - Spike Milligan - THE GREAT McGONAGALL (1974)

                                                 THE GREAT McGONAGALL (1974)

In 1974 director Joseph McGrath reunited Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers in the enjoyably crazy THE GREAT MCGONAGALL. Scripted by McGrath and Milligan, it’s a loose (in more ways than one) biopic about one of the world’s worst poets, the real life Scottish writer William Topaz McGonagall, as infamous to rhyme as Ed Wood is to cinema - which means he may have the last laugh as both men achieved an odd genuine fame eclipsing many of their better contemporaries.

An opening crawl gives a brief background of this eccentric as ‘the greatest bad verse writer of his age”. He lived during the reign of Queen Victoria and as he put it: ‘decided at the age of forty-seven to resign my position as a handloom weaver and give myself completely to the muse’. None are more terrifying to the arts than the untalented who give full force to their delusion of possessing a divine gift – and this makes him ideal source material for the gloriously demented Milligan mind, who drew eccentric parallels between himself and the Scotsman.

McGonagall was regularly condemned during his twenty-five year creative output for his inability to scan or to use any metaphors in a poetic sense. Here’s a sample from his notorious ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’ (available online):

‘The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
Because ninety lives had been taken away,
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.’

Milligan and McGrath take his banality of expression and admirably crackpot self-belief and concoct an indulgent and nutty vehicle for themselves and their friends, but one whose consistent through-line of Goonish surreal humour makes it more amiable fun than the previous year’s GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN.  That’s not to say it’s in any way a polished, coherent piece. It was shot somewhat chaotically in just three weeks (including one week of hard to credit rehearsal) mainly at London’s famous Wilton’s Music Hall in what seems an attempt to maintain a Victoriana setting without many costly period-dressed external scenes. It was also a deliberate choice as Milligan was keen to aid the restoration of the venue, and knew that the location fee from the production would help. This means the plot unfolds mostly as a staged theatre production, an unusual device (and to be fair one used by esteemed director Joe Wright in his recent film of ANNA KARENINA) and allows even more zany stylistic gags – at one point McGonagall ‘forgets’ a line and calls off for a prompt, relayed back by Valentine Dyall in a tin-bath.

If you’re a fan of Spike’s ‘Q’ series like myself, you might enjoy some of the recurring motifs in this film. John Bluthal pops up in numerous roles including a blackfaced John Bull in a bizarre musical number spoofing the British imperialist racism of the time (minstrel make-up was a recurring taste-fee shock tactic in the show). Spike performs in his familiar lunatic expressionist style, complete with copious raspberries and that fiercely declaimed delivery. The stage rep company feel is further enhanced by the aforementioned Dyall using his distinguished forebidding ‘Man in Black’ tones as various parts, as well as Victor Spinetti. Julia Foster does her best to cope as McGonagall’s long-suffering wife.

It’s crafty of the marketing team to claim a co-starring credit for Peter Sellers in the film as he only pops up three times. He gives a Queen Victoria cameo twice of fairly restrained madness, channelling a ‘Hinge and Bracket’ falsetto and a naughty glint in the eye when relating to Prince Albert, wickedly portrayed as a kilted Hitler to mock his Germanic ancestry - another familiar figure to ‘Q’ fans. After Albert brazenly snogs another man in full view of his wife, he asks why she dresses in black. She savours the reply: “You’ll see Albert. All in good time”.

Sellers appears right at the beginning of the film actually as himself in an in-jokey prologue where he begins to work on Spike in the studio make-up chair in modern dress with Milligan helplessly bound and gagged. This is one of a number of odd fourth-wall (illusion) breaking sequences - reminiscent of the police seizing the film at the end of MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL that same year. Another one which takes the viewer by surprise is the leaving in of an outtake which gives an insight into Spike the actor: he suddenly pauses, unsure of whether he should be copying a line of Spinetti’s about his appointment with the Queen. It’s slightly startling coming in mid-scene when we’re so used to such curios being left to the end of a film; doubly so as it isn’t the normal indulgence of ‘corpsing’ (the actor laughing), but a moment of genuine off-guard confusion of Spike’s. It’s interesting as well to hear McGrath off-camera establishing order and Spike having enough performer’s self-awareness amidst the insanity to ask: “I’d like to do the take over again because I was over the top. It’s all over the top...”
We then get a fake intermission with a few quick shots of the cast and crew at lunch if you haven’t had the suspension of disbelief broken enough.

The hit-or-miss gags in the film aren’t just surreal meta-jokes. Fittingly for a music hall, there are some that must have been around when it was being built, such as the old ‘Is there a doctor in the house?’ faithful, with McGonagall adding “Enjoying the show. Doc?” There are also some deliberate anachronisms on display, such as a heckler shouting “Get your hair cut, you hippie!” when McGonagall is in the dock and a burst of a very modern gratuitous female nude gyrating in his jail cell. This was to appease the producer David Grant who’d made his money in porn.

Overall, THE GREAT MCGONAGALL is something of an undisciplined home-movie. McGrath had observed in a later interview that Spike could be temperamental during the shooting, a different person depending on what day you worked with him (which must have echoed his experience with Sellers on CASINO ROYALE). Don’t go looking for a traditional narrative, but if you’re a Spike Milligan fan in the mood for his anarchic Goon-style humour on screen it’s worth seeing…

Monday, 9 November 2015

No. 94 - Spike Milligan - ADOLF HITLER: MY PART IN HIS DOWNFALL (1973)


In 1973 United Artists took Spike Milligan’s hugely successful first volume of war memoirs and brought it to the big screen. Although every effort was made to bolster its chances of success, the film doesn’t quite work but is by no means a failure.

In choosing Norman Cohen as director (and co-writer along with Spike and Johnny Byrne), the studio made use of his WWII comedy expertise in having directed the film transition of DAD’S ARMY. They also drafted in Spike to play his own father, Jim Dale, my favourite member of the CARRY ON team, to play the young Spike (real name ‘Terence’), as well as another alumni from that series, Bill Maynard, as the Drill Sergeant.

The film follows the book’s plot in focusing on Spike’s younger days - from being called up following the outbreak of war through his basic training and closing with his unit train-bound to a foreign battlefield. Somehow the sublimely funny surrealist wit of his writing doesn’t easily translate to the screen. Maybe because in his autobiography Spike almost creates his own slightly off-kilter world. You’re never quite sure how much of it is true, yet where he’s woven in invented one-liners and situations it doesn’t matter - it all blends together into its own hugely entertaining reality. As a movie though, unlike CATCH 22 whose overall tone is consistently surreal and dark allowing the actors to simply play the absurdities of war straight-faced to earn the laughs, ADOLF HITLER is set in a recognisable ordinariness. This backdrop means that Dale’s quick verbal ripostes make him sometimes stand out as a comedian doing shtick rather than being integrated believably into the story. Often, he makes a quip and ends it as if expecting a ‘ba-dum-bah’ response from the band when you’d really like his charm to be a little more relaxed and real to match the setting.

Dale’s infectious energy and comic physical dexterity sit better in the physical scenes, such as in the boxing ring and the exertions of the platoon’s five mile run. Where the film and he also seem more secure is in the serious scenes. Like the book, it manages to shift gears into sombre moments well. This is where the grounded reality works in its favour. Having slipped the boys into the barrack-room life away from home deceptively easily, gradually the uglier side of war rears its head. A crashed German pilot hints at mortality and amid the Sergeant’s order to loot the body before the authorities arrive, Spike’s sense of humour and repartee temporarily desert him. Later, Geoffrey Hughes (later to become a household name in both CORONATION STREET and KEEPING UP APPEARANCES) has a powerful scene shambling into the barracks numb with grief at the news of his whole family being wiped out in a bombing raid.

ADOLF HITLER benefits from another notable connection to DAD’S ARMY with a more benign turn as a commanding officer from Arthur Lowe, who gets to pay tribute as in the previous film to the quality of the British service personnel. He gives the film dignity and gravitas as well. As the soldiers carouse in preparation for shipping out, his second in command remarks hopefully that it could be a good war. Lowe touchingly replies: “It will be, Colin. For some of us”. There is perhaps too much reliance on that much-loved sitcom on discovering that the last act of this film is a copy of that spin-off movie’s plot: an inter-platoon war game between Spike’s 56th Heavy Artillery and the 2nd Scottish Highlanders, botched by his men capturing Lowe instead of the enemy commander.

Spike Milligan and Pat Coombs book-end the film playing his own parents, Spike acting in that stiff, slightly expressionist style which again jars against the naturalism elsewhere, although he has some welcome absurdist moments such as enjoying ‘Terence’s homecoming meal with the wine “at shelter temperature”.

The best thing to be said for ADOLF HITLER ultimately is its legacy of showcasing future stars of other TV military sitcoms. Amongst the rest of the cast is Tony Selby, shortly to make his name in the National Service series GET SOME IN, and a brace of future IT AIN’T HALF HOT MUM names - Donald Hewlett and the roaringly splendid Windsor Davies, here channelling his Celtic apoplexy for the Scottish side.