The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

*. A pre-title credit announces “A film by Wes Craven.” And yes, he was the writer-director. But wasn’t “A film by Wes Craven” four-flushing it? All that Craven had previously done was The Last House on the Left.
*. He must have known he was going somewhere. Or else maybe this was a movie that he was particularly proud of (even if he hadn’t been keen on making another horror picture, and only did it for the money). If so, that pride hasn’t taken a check. On the DVD commentary he remarks “I have not watched this for years and years and I’m struck by how strong it is. It’s pretty damn good.”
*. I think the only way it counts as pretty damn good is by taking into account how it was made on a shoestring. Thematically it’s very similar to Last House on the Left: the terribly decent family (they even get together for group-prayer sessions) that has to descend to savagery in order to defend itself. For some reason this idea fascinated Craven, and whatever else you want to say about it, it does register on a primal level. It pushes buttons.
*. Like a lot of very simple and not very original concepts though it allows for a great deal of further interpretation. Tracking its sources, it draws on various folk motifs, with Craven saying that the Sawney Bean story was the main inspiration. More than that though I think it’s basically riding on the coattails of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The group of normal people who, after stopping for gas (this would become an obligatory scene for many imitators, to the point where Roger Ebert would dub a whole sub-genre Wrong Gas Station movies), end up in a bad neck of the woods. The warning “Y’all stay on the main road now, you hear! Stay on the main road!” goes unheeded, as it would in horror films for decades to come. They are then hunted by a cannibalistic family of murderous degenerates.
*. Craven admitted to being influenced by Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and indeed wanted Gunnar Hansen, the actor who played Leatherface in that film, to be in this one. Hansen turned him down. But Robert Burns, production designer of Texas Chain Saw Massacre, signed on and apparently re-used some of the props he’d made for Tobe Hooper’s film. I also think the use of the broom may have been another nod or homage.
*. Aside from these sources of inspiration, near and far, I’m not sure there’s a whole lot more worth flagging. Some critics see the conflict between the two families as representing a kind of class struggle. Well, obviously the Carters are “bourgeois” in the sense that they own a nice trailer, go to school, and have jobs. And the feral family have none of these things. So when Jupiter snarls at the head of Big Bob Carter “You come out here and you stick your life in my face,” it’s a great line, reeking of semi-articulate class resentment. But there’s nothing else in the movie like it. Nor do the Carters seem much like colonial settlers, wiping out Native Americans or the Vietnamese. I’m not opposed to these kinds of readings, but I just don’t feel like there’s much basis for them here.
*. Here’s another critical point of view, from Kim Newman: “Craven’s obsessive theme is the depiction of antagonistic groups, usually parallel families . . . more or less representing the forces of destructive anarchy and normative repression. The only possible contact between the two is psychopathic violence, and Craven wittily has the carnage stem from each group’s desire to emulate its mortal enemy.” This is nicely expressed, but is it true? How are the Carters or the Collingwoods (the family in Last House on the Left) repressed? How does the violence result from the evil families wanting to emulate normal people, rather than just preying on them? Newman is a great critic, but he seems typical here of people wanting to read more into Craven than there is there.

*. The religious angle is also only slightly touched on. The aforementioned family prayer goes unanswered, and Bob ends up being crucified before becoming part of a communion dinner. It’s hard not to read that as some pretty serious sacrilege. But what of it? Craven getting back at his Baptist upbringing?
*. The marketing was effective. Craven didn’t like the title, which I’ll admit is a bit obscure, but out of the hundred possible titles lined up it tested well with audiences. Oddly enough, Craven also thought The Last House on the Left was a terrible title, but it tested well too, despite not having much to do with the movie. And he also preferred Scary Movie to Scream.
*. Sticking with the marketing front, more misleading was the glowering face of actor Michael Berryman (Pluto) on the film poster. Definitely iconic, but Pluto is not the main villain in the movie and indeed is played as a bit of a goofball. But Jupiter and Mars didn’t have such great faces.
*. You have to feel for Berryman. Along with a long list of other health issues he was born without sweat glands, so filming in 49-degree Celsius temperatures was a real trial. But it paid off, as he’s probably the one character in the movie everyone remembers.
*. Who else is here? Dee Wallace is Brenda. At the time she was on her way to becoming a scream queen (she’d go on to appear in The Howling, Critters, and the belated sequel Critters Attack!). Probably best known for her turn in E.T. All I can say is that I’m glad we were spared more screaming. Brenda’s screaming fit at the end of this movie is hard to endure. This was only Wallace’s second movie and I wonder if anyone would have seen her in it and thought she’d go on to have such a long, productive career.
*. I don’t think it’s a good movie at all. It isn’t scary. It has a cheap, made-for-TV look to it that I hated (which is weird given how much I like the work Burns did on Texas Chain Saw Massacre). It’s surprisingly tame when it comes to showing any actual violence. The threatened baby is kind of edgy, but it’s only threatened (Craven had wanted to kill it until the cast rebelled). There’s a basic idiot plot. The dog is actually a lot smarter than the Carters, at least until we get to the ridiculous Wile E. Coyote trick that Brenda and Bobby MacGyver-up to catch Jupiter.
*. That said, looking over the notes I made on this movie a few years ago, I think I liked it a bit better this time. I still find it raw and dumb and not well turned out, though the grounding in primal fears and folktales pays off. But when the great wave of twenty-first century resets or remakes of the horror classics of this period hit, I have to say that Alexandre Aja’s 2006 Hills Have Eyes (produced by Craven) was one of the few that I found to be an improvement on the original. This movie may be a landmark, but it’s not one that you need to visit very often.

The Taming of the Shrew (1967)

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*. “A motion picture for every man who ever gave the back of his hand to his beloved . . . and for every woman who deserved it. Which takes in a lot of people!” You won’t see an ad line like that on many movie posters these days. But in 1967 it wasn’t too extreme.
*. But that’s just the ad line. More disturbing is the way the movie presents Petruchio’s taming tactics. He’s really quite rough, and the movie plays up the humiliation and degrading of Katherina more than the source requires. Since its first production people have argued over just how sexist a play this is, with various sides being taken. That said, this seems to me to be a pretty sexist film version.
*. The Taming of the Shrew has always held the stage, in various forms, because it plays well as a blunt and bawdy comedy. It also helps that it can be taken apart quite easily without losing anything that makes the core story less enjoyable. Getting rid of the Christopher Sly “Induction,” for example, is an obvious first step.
*. That said, Zeffirelli jettisons a lot. Hortensio is diminished both in terms of his lines and his standing. It’s hard to see how, in this film, he and Petruchio could have ever become friends. There is also no explanation given for the sudden appearance of the widow he marries at the end.
*. Lucentio, played by Michael York, also gets short shrift. But then this was a star vehicle, with Burton and Taylor both investing in the production. It was Michael York’s first film.
*. The credits read: Screenplay by Paul Dehn / Suso Cecchi D’Amico / Franco Zeffirelli With Acknowledgements to William Shakespeare, Without Whom They Would Have Been At a Loss for Words.
*. If you’re a purist, you’re allowed to be upset. Shakespeare’s language is sacrificed in order to get more rousing, physical humour in, and the big lines are repeated. Indeed, one big line that gets repeated — “Of all things living a man’s the worst” — isn’t in Shakespeare at all.
*. But what are you going to do? Shakespeare has always been adapted to contemporary tastes. You have to play to your audience. The badinage about the sting in the wasp’s tail (“What, with my tongue in your tail?”) would have been raunchy on the boards of the Globe, but probably goes over most heads today.

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*. I’ve never thought that much of Elizabeth Taylor as an actress. But she was a great star, and she brings enough of that quality to this role to make it work. Her eyes have a real fire and fertility in them and she looks quite zaftig and heaving even buried under all that drapery.
*. Richard Burton, on the other hand, appears to be slumming it. I don’t get the sense that he was trying very hard (despite the fact that he sank a lot of his own money into the film). His Petruchio is one of the least sympathetic I’ve seen, and it’s worth saying that he is not an unsympathetic character, at least necessarily, in Shakespeare. Was this Burton’s fault? Or was it the ’60s?
*. I first saw this movie in an edited form when we studied the play in high school. I enjoyed it and thought it really brought Shakespeare to life. Perhaps it’s because of that association, however, that I find it juvenile and inadequate today.

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Holy Hell (2016)

*. It’s the same question outsiders always ask about a cult, or indeed any story of a con man: How did people fall for this? Or, as one of the interviewees in Holy Hell tearfully puts it, “What is the scientific, rational explanation for this madness?” Yes, they were young men and women looking for a personal Jesus and there are always plenty of them around. But when you see people taken in by the likes of Marshall Applewhite of the Heaven’s Gate cult you feel like Carl Sandburg when he responded to the preacher Billy Sunday in his poem “To a Contemporary Bunkshooter.” “I like to watch a good four-flusher work . . . I like a man that’s got nerve and can pull off a great original performance, but you — you’re only a bug-house peddler of second-hand gospel.”
*. Applewhite is an extreme example, but Michel/Andreas/The Teacher/Reyji (born Jaime Gomez), leader of the Buddhafield movement wasn’t far off that same mark. A failed actor and dancer turned guru of a vaguely New Age cult (as if “New Age” theology wasn’t vague enough already), Michel seemed to live in bikini Speedo swimsuits and sunglasses. A narcissist who took his self-obsession beyond parody, Michel was obsessed with his own image. There’s a scene here where he gazes at a peacock fanning its tail that captures this perfectly. Meanwhile, as the years of Californian and then Texan sun took their inevitable toll, cosmetics and surgery would attempt to make up for the damage done, turning him into something grotesque. And yet still no one twigged to his scam. Personally, I would have been alarmed at his not liking dogs. That’s always a bad sign.
*. Ultimately he would be (partially) undone by reports of his sexual predations among a group known as “body workers.” The beautiful young men he had entranced weren’t just literally fucked, but had to pay for the privilege. One of them being Will Allen, who put together this documentary out of the hours of footage he shot while a member of the Buddhafield group for over a period of twenty-plus years.
*. The structure of the story follows a predictable arc, which further underlines how obvious a scam it all was. We know without any hints even being dropped what the “body workers” were really being used for. The brief clips from Michel’s gay porn appearances barely register as a shock. Indeed, the only surprise is how laid-back Allen seems to be about all that happened. When he finally meets up with Michel on the beach some time after leaving the group it’s not a confrontation at all. Indeed, even after the final credits roll it’s hard to read just how Allen now feels about Michel. Of course he (Michel) objected to the film, but overall I think he escapes from it far better than I would have expected.
*. What do we learn? By coincidence the same week I saw this I was watching The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler where the following is said: “Charisma does not exist on its own in anyone. It exists only in an interaction between an individual and an audience. An individual like Hitler who’s telling an audience what they wanted to hear.” This is drawing from the work of Max Weber, and a similar point is made in Holy Hell by one of the former cultists: “You can’t have a leader without followers.” The difference between the two Leaders (Hitler and Michel) is that Michel was more self-absorbed. Buddhafield was a cult of the self, worshipping beauty and the body. Allen’s film speaks in a language that didn’t have a clear analogy in Germany in the 1920s and ’30s, that of narcissists and codependents.
*. The cult members here were not stupid. Nor were they exceptional in wanting something more out of life than material rewards. Instead, something good in them, the desire to help others and perform service, was taken advantage of by someone who saw this as a weakness he could exploit. There are few moments in Holy Hell that are really scary, but one comes at the very end when Allen tracks Michel (now Reyji) to Hawaii where he is shown being followed about by people who might be zombies. It’s not remarkable how people fall into this pattern of self-destructive behaviour, but the results are still so tragic and depressing. For a while some of Michel’s followers found, or said they found happiness. That’s not how anyone looks at the end. They look like they’re already walking circles in hell.

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

*. “Based on the immortal classic by Edgar Allan Poe.” Well, I guess. Though I’d have gone for “inspired by” or “suggested by” ahead of “based on.” There isn’t much Poe here. Even the character of Dupin (Leon Ames) isn’t a detective but only a medical student.
*. Poe has received indifferent treatment at the hands of filmmakers. This was to be the first of a trilogy of Poe-inspired horrors by Universal, the next two being The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935). Neither of them had much to do with Poe. Nor did Roger Corman’s Poe cycle. Or the P.O.E. movies. He was really just a name to conjure an audience with. Much like Lovecraft.
*. This is a movie with an interesting back story. Originally Robert Florey was to direct Frankenstein, with Lugosi as the star. That fell through for various reasons and this movie became a kind of consolation prize. It was not as big a hit with audiences or critics, and today is far less well known. Nevertheless it does have some admirable qualities.

*. These come courtesy mainly of cinematographer Karl Freund. Freund was a pioneer of the moving camera, and that opening dolly shot taking us into the carnival is quite impressive. More than that, however, the movie ha a rich visual atmosphere that makes heavy use of strange sets, lighting, fog, and shadow. Strange, but not as exaggerated as in parts of Frankenstein, or, more obviously, that landmark of German expressionism The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
*. In his book The Monster Show film historian David J. Skal calls this movie “the purest homage to the Caligari style that Hollywood would ever produce.” Yes, and it’s more than just style, which is expressionist but restrained. The story here is also far more Caligari than it is Poe, with a weirdo sideshow barker named Dr. Mirakle (Lugosi) being the master not of a homicidal somnambulist but an ape named Erik. This ape can be sent, like Cesare, off to kidnap women and carry them back to Dr. Mirakle to perform his experiments on.

*. The nature of these experiments is hard to figure out. As I understand it he wants to inject the kidnapped women with ape blood, which will then allow him to breed them (the women) with Erik as a way of demonstrating the truth of the theory of evolution. Strange, and more than a little sick. Though while censors objected to a lot of what was going on (this was pre-Code), I’m not sure they flagged this. Perhaps they didn’t understand any more of it than I did.
*. The absurdity of the plot should just be ignored though, as I think everyone ignores the plot of Caligari. This is a great movie to look at, much more so than Dracula or even Frankenstein. And the effects are up to snuff as well. The monkey business, for example, is rendered by mixing in close-ups of a chimp’s face with full-body shots of a man in a gorilla suit. I know it sounds silly, but it’s surprisingly effective. And the process work on the rooftop at the end is first-rate as well. Just as good as stuff being done decades later.

*. Bela Lugosi. I’m sorry, but I’m not a fan. I’ve read a lot of praise for his performance here but he only seems to me to be hamming it up as he usually does, this time behind a truly remarkable unibrow. (He’d have a similar brow as Murder Legendre in White Zombie, which came out the same year. I don’t know if he just kept it on.) Not that Dr. Mirakle is a character with any depth anyway.
*. Some interesting side notes. John Huston is credited with “added dialogue” but he later confessed that he only tried to give the script more of a period feel and that Florey rejected most of what he wrote as being too stilted. Bette Davis auditioned for the part of Camille but was rejected by Carl Laemmle Jr. due to her “lack of sex appeal.” So much for those Bette Davis eyes. The role would go to Sidney Fox, who is very good.
*. There have long been rumours that it was heavily cut but the AFI apparently looked into this and couldn’t find any proof that it ever ran any longer than 62 minutes, which is the version we have now. I found it quite a lot of fun, but as I’ve said it’s a movie to be looked at rather than followed for any kind of story or because any of the characters hold our interest. Definitely worth checking out, but you can see why it missed becoming a classic.

 

The Insider (1999)

*. I was looking forward to this one. It had received a lot of critical accolades, and I’m a fan of the heroic-journos genre. But then the credits began to roll and we get to the part where it says it was co-written and directed by Michael Mann . . .
*. It’s not that I really dislike Mann’s work. It’s more that I think he’s one of the most overrated directors going. Time and again I’ve been directed to examples of his genius only to come away shaking my head. What do people see in him?
*. As for this movie, like I say, I’m a fan of the genre. The intrepid reporters who uncover a scandal/conspiracy and who have to fight the establishment in order to reveal the Truth to the People. It’s a story that’s worked from All the President’s Men to Spotlight. You really can’t go wrong with it.
*. Unless, like this movie, you stretch things out to an appalling 2 hours and 37 minutes. I have nothing against long, or even slow-moving movies. But a full hour should have been chopped from this one. The pacing is leaden. What’s with all the operatic musical interludes? Why does Mann feel the need to underline how important a particular moment is by stretching it out interminably? That’s just not efficient or effective filmmaking.
*. The real genre being worked here, I think, is that of award bait. This is why it’s so damn long and why everything (the script, the performances, the music, the direction) is so damn serious.

*. You know you’re watching award bait when every big scene is telegraphed far in advance, with our cast delivering set-piece speeches, or the director presenting set-piece displays of his art that have the look of being looked at. Like the bit at the driving range, for example, which isn’t suspenseful or unnerving at all precisely because it’s presented in such an obvious look-at-me kind of way. And don’t even get me started with Wigand’s crisis of conscience as he stares alone out at the ocean (or the Gulf, as the case may be).
*. Despite feeling so much like a shop-window display, I didn’t think there was much worth looking at here. Pacino does his usual thing. I thought Russell Crowe’s performance affected. Christopher Plummer is a good actor but he’s totally miscast here as Mike Wallace. I didn’t buy him for a second in the part.
*. There isn’t even a strong central narrative driving things along. At the end the movie just loses interest in Wigand completely. He gets an approving look from his daughter and that’s it. The people watching 60 Minutes are us, the People, and we are the real winners in this battle for the soul of America. This is so even if we’re not watching, or are bored with what’s going on. A good point, but one that comes far too late to be fully appreciated.

The Last Winter (2006)

*. Set in Alaska but filmed in Iceland. I wonder why. Is it that cheap to film in Iceland? Cheaper than staying at home? I suspect there were tax breaks involved. I mean, North Dakota could have stood in for the generic winter landscape here. It’s not like they were using Iceland’s spectacular natural features for a backdrop, as in Prometheus, Oblivion, and Interstellar.
*. It must have been a hard movie to bring to market, not fitting in any genre basket. It seems to have been promoted as a horror film, with the DVD box announcing “the scariest film of the year.” This it is not. As creator (producer, co-writer, director, editor) Larry Fessenden admits on the commentary track, the death of Maxwell is “the only scare in the movie.” “I guess it’s in the horror genre,” he later adds. “Call it what you will this is what interests me”
*. As much as the setting invites the comparison, this isn’t a film that riffs on Carpenter’s The Thing as much as Black Mountain Side, a later movie very similar to The Last Winter, would. So what is it then that interests Fessenden?
*. The most obvious analog is Peter Weir’s The Last Wave (1977). The title alone is all the hint you need, though Fessenden doesn’t mention Weir’s film once on the commentary. The connection is there in the ecological message, the role of native mythology, and the ambiguously (and curiously anticlimactic) apocalypse suggested in the final shot. Will the world end in fire (melting permafrost and ice caps), or ice?
*. But is this eco-horror? Global warming seems to have been Fessenden’s theme, but I don’t think it’s clearly developed. The ecowarrior Hoffman, for example, is the one who goes nuts, and as Fessenden makes clear what he sees as happening (the revenge of chtonic forces) is a totally subjective vision. So can we say that this is nature fighting back? It’s not like the caribou creatures are mutant bears or a plague of frogs brought about by dumping toxic waste.
*. I liked The Last Winter, but in ways like this I just found it to be not all that well thought out. Take the question of how objective the threat to the station is. Don’t both Maxwell and Hoffman see the same strange ghosts? Could it be sour gas that causes the plane to crash?

*. But then maybe these aren’t important questions. Maybe, like Weir’s movie, it’s meant to be a puzzle without a solution, only an attempt at suggesting a mood of dread or anxiety in the face of forces we can’t understand. If so, I can get behind it. Though I still don’t think it’s fully realized. I mean, paranoia is far more palpable in The Thing, a movie that is also a lot less subtle.
*. Another big theme Fessenden flags is that of nostalgia and homecoming. This is another example, at least for me, of the movie straying off target. Because the base, being so remote, clearly isn’t home to any of the people there, even the natives. And Hoffman’s final moment of vision, reminiscent of the end of Tarkovsky’s Solaris for me, is something we haven’t been prepared for. Has Hoffman seemed like that much of a homebody?
*. It is different. How effective it is, and especially what you think of the ending, will depend on what you decide it was trying to do. That’s the sort of mystery that endears a movie to critics and leaves audiences out in the cold. I don’t think it had much of a release as it seems to have grossed next to nothing. Personally, I thought it needed to be a bit creepier to work. Ron Perlman’s earring really damaged the mood for me. I prefer the atmosphere of Black Mountain Side. But for a movie that presents a personal vision, an exercise in what Fessenden calls his “brand of melancholy horror,” it’s hard to shake.

The iMom (2014)

*. Not an entirely new idea. If you read much science fiction you’ll know that the adoption of AI robots into our lives as part of the increasingly complicated “Internet of things” became something of a staple in the 2010s. So here we have a company that delivers live-in robot nannies to couples who have no interest in being parents. What could go wrong?
*. You can be sure things do go wrong, and this is tagged as a horror short though its horror all comes with the twist at the end. Up to that final reveal it’s more like a techno-satire, with the infomercial testimonials playing like the funny ads from the future in movies like Robocop. But there’s a darker undertow in the news programming that’s filled with nothing but war, monster storms, and terrorist attacks. With the world out there such a scary place, who wouldn’t want their home to be a little oasis of peace and calm? Or do the networks who own the news stations also make iMoms? Come to think of it, just what is news and what is advertising?
*. Another note of darkness comes by way of the Biblical-mythic notes that are struck. We will know false prophets by their fruit. Wolves wear sheep’s clothing. Which is referring to . . . iMom? She represents the sinister way technology creeps into our lives, seemingly making our lives better but then exacting a terrible (or Biblical) price. Indeed, is iMom one of the of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, a domestic catastrophe on par with the war and plague that suffuses the news feeds?
*. It’s hard to read her that way, since what happens is the result of a random accident, what seems to be a power surge caused by the storm. This complicates any interpretation. Einstein’s line about how technology has “exceeded our humanity” is provided as an epigraph, but iMom doesn’t represent AI taking over. She hasn’t exceeded humanity so much as moved in to provide a humanity that the parents now lack, and she doesn’t take over so much as break down. Even she knows that she’s neither wolf nor sheep but just a device programmed to perform certain tasks, her “fruits,” without thought or feeling. She isn’t good or bad. The problem is that she’s been left in charge of too much, humans having abdicated responsibility for everything that’s most important. Even the son’s sexual coming of age, we sense, is going to be taken care of by the fetching figure of iMom. Meanwhile, you think those security cameras are going to help keep tabs on things? The killer is inside the house!
*. Not an anti-tech parable then, but an anti-human one. The glossy look of the film plays well against the sketchier television clips, suggesting again that blurring of the line between advertising and content (iMom is even better than the real thing!). I was led to wonder if there was any limit to the kid’s “screen time” when the house itself was so pervaded by screeniness. Come to think of it, why wasn’t realMom working from home? Why would she even want to go outside? It’s scary out there.

King John (1899)

*. Filters. Somewhere, now lost in the mists of time, there was a real King John. Then there was the mythical King John, a cultural construction (we typically think of him today as “bad King John”). Then there’s the historical King John, or more accurately the King John of the historians. Then Shakespeare’s King John, which may have been largely derived from an earlier play by someone else.
*. Shakespeare’s King John isn’t a historical figure or even the King John of myth. We don’t see him, for example, signing Magna Carta (indeed it isn’t even mentioned in the play), or losing all of his continental properties to the King of France. All in all, he’s an odd duck, and a bit of a marginal figure in his own drama, taking a back seat to figures like the pathetic Arthur and Arthur’s raging mother Constance.
*. Then there’s this film, or what’s left of this film. Time and the frailty of celluloid have proven to be another filter. This King John is a fragment, running only a little over a minute. It’s one of four short films, each of which was a heavily edited scene from the play. They were meant to be shown together but this is the only one that survives.
*. It depicts a passage from Act 5 Scene 7, which is the last scene in the play. In it we get King John dying after having been poisoned, dying on his throne.
*. It’s not even a terribly representative fragment, as the character with the largest speaking part in the play (Philip Faulconbridge, or the Bastard) isn’t here. Actually, he only appears in the last of the four films. Nothing of the play’s major theme, which has to do with the legitimacy of power, is touched on. And finally the biggest filter is the fact that it’s a silent so we don’t actually hear any of the lines. We are left to imagine John saying things like “There is so hot a summer in my bosom that all my bowels crumble up to dust!”
*. Perhaps its biggest claim to fame today is that it is the earliest surviving film based on a play by Shakespeare. It also captures a wonderful bit of stage business by the famous Shakespearean actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree who plays King John (and who was, for all you trivia fans, the father of Carol and grandfather of Oliver Reed).
*. By “business” I mean something extra to the plain text that an actor or director adds to a performance and that goes on to become a kind of trademark or part of their repertoire. Here we have Tree expiring in a wonderful manner, rolling his eyes and spreading his legs at what seem to be painful if not impossible angles. The evolution of different methods and styles of acting is another filter, and by the end of his career Tree was apparently seen as a bit of an old-fashioned ham for overselling moments like these. Still, I find it enjoyable. He might have made a great silent film star.
*. It’s interesting to see what changes and what stays the same, what is lost and what remains, when it comes to cultural artefacts. I don’t think there’s anything of interest here aside from Tree’s writhing in place. That’s enough, however, to make me wish we had more. The business might have seemed out of fashion at the time, but these things have a way of being rediscovered as the wheel turns.

Hopscotch (1980)

*. In his Criterion essay on Hopscotch Bruce Eder calls it “the only ‘feel-good’ realistic spy film ever made.” I’d quibble with this. For starters, I have a hard time seeing it as being in any way realistic. The basic premise is far-fetched and the way it plays out goes even further. While more down-to-earth than the zanier spy spoofs of the 1960s, it’s not that far removed, at least to my eye, from Charade and Arabesque.
*. For Eder’s “feel-good” I might also substitute genteel, mature, or cozy. As screenwriter Brian Garfield (adapting his own novel) put it, “I wrote it with a very specific aim in mind and that was to show that it’s possible to do an exciting story with lots of suspense and adventure in which nobody gets scratched let alone killed.” So sort of like a Disney spy movie for grown-ups. But grown-ups who are young at heart. Barrels of oil tipped out of the back of a truck, making the cars in pursuit slip and slide into a ditch? Good fun!
*. I haven’t read Garfield’s novel but apparently it is not comic. Nor was the less-than-cozy novel he’s best known for writing, Death Wish. So this really was a change of pace. Efficient but unglamorous field agent Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) doesn’t even carry a gun, and wouldn’t use one if he did. He gets his kicks above the waistline, sunshine.
*. As for the maturity, what can we say about a spy movie where the spy in question wears argyle sweaters, listens to Mozart, and has prostate issues? And one where his main motivation is, according to Garfield, mere boredom.

*. It’s hard to be negative about a movie that, in the estimation of director Ronald Neame, “never pretended to be anything except a lighthearted comedy.” The presence of Matthau made me think of Charade, and the way Isobel (Glenda Jackson) uses the word “charade” a couple of times can’t have been a coincidence. But even Charade, which was a bit of fluff, was a darker movie than this.
*. Eder talks a bit about how against the grain this was for the time. Spy movies had been taken over by violent, cynical, and paranoia-laced thrillers in the manner of Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974), Sidney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975), and John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man (1976). I guess by the time the decade turned over to the ’80s we’d become more optimistic. Credit Reagan. And so, Eder again, Hopscotch was not “a simplistic anti-establishment movie — a close look at the plot reveals it as not so much against the concept of the CIA as against what the CIA was perceived as having become, in the hands of bureaucrats like Myerson (Ned Beatty).”
*. The way I would put it is that the CIA isn’t presented as evil so much as incompetent. They are bumbling bureaucrats and Keystone Cops. Sam Waterston seems a decent enough guy, but in being so he is totally out of place. Now the question of whether stupidity and incompetence may be a greater threat than corruption and conspiracy is still a live one, but I don’t think it’s one that Hopscotch addresses.
*. Not that I can complain about that. As Neame says, it’s a nothing more than a lighthearted comedy. Looking for any deeper message or meaning to it is pointless. It’s still enjoyable forty years later. But if I’m being honest, totally forgettable too. Roger Ebert: “Hopscotch is a shaggy-dog thriller that never really thrills us very much, but leaves a nice feeling when it’s over. . . . It’s a strange thing to say about a thriller, but Hopscotch is . . . pleasant.”