Category Archives: 1960s

Tales of Terror (1962)

*. Wherein Vincent Price really finds a home with American International and, more than anything else, with Poe. Because he looks like he belongs in the nineteenth century, and that creepy voice . . .
*. Price is fine here, but I think most of the credit actually should go to Roger Corman. You can argue over whether he was a great director, or could have been a great director had he chosen to go a less commercial route. But the fact is he was always a good director. He wasn’t averse to trying different things and adding a few notes of style, and while these weren’t always successful there’s rarely anything in one of his movies that doesn’t work. He knew how to put a movie together.
*. As examples here I’d note little things like the slight zoom into Peter Lorre’s Montresor as he spies on his wife making love (in the old-fashioned sense) with Fortunato, or the composition of the death-bed formation in the final story, going from a theatrical presentation to a shot through the headboard of the bed.

 *. I also like how the stories are arranged. You usually want to begin and end these omnibus films with your strongest material, but in this case, with only three stories (P.O.E.: Poetry of Eerie would give us 15!) that rule of thumb doesn’t hold. Instead Corman places the strongest, and longest, story in the middle. This is where it belongs because it also has a different tone from the other two stories, being the only one with a clear comic bent.
*. So all-in-all, a solid job of direction by Corman. The only place where I had to cringe a bit was with the shots of M. Valdemar approaching Basil Rathbone appearing totally out of focus. I take it this was to disguise some really lousy make-up effects of the rotting face, which would have made showing the face a loser no matter how Corman chose to do it. Still, I think he should have trusted with whatever effects he had. It would have been better than just blurring the shot.
*. Holy May/December! I thought for sure that Joyce Jameson was playing Peter Lorre’s daughter, not his wife (she was 27 years younger). Ditto for Debra Paget and Vincent Price (she was 22 years younger). Then in the first story, “Morella,” the dead wife literally replaces the daughter. Is this a problem? It’s not unfaithful to Poe, who married his own child bride.
*. I wonder if it’s possible for spider webs to cover as much interior as we see them on in the first story. The dining table looks like it came from Miss Havisham’s house in Great Expectations. I have some experience with cobwebs, having lived for a long time in an old house that I never cleaned. And, well, I think there are limits to how much webbing you can have.
*. Most accounts of the horror-anthology genre refer back to Dead of Night (1945), which is a great movie but is in many ways atypical. What I mainly mean here is the extent to which it foregrounds the frame narrative that introduces the different stories. That was never done as well, and in many later efforts it was almost entirely disposed of. Here we get Price doing a bit of voiceover and some animation, but there’s no attempt made at providing a framing story. In retrospect, that seems to have been more of a British thing, though it was revived by the V/H/S franchise.
*. It’s a good script by Richard Matheson, interpreting the sources with intelligence and economy. Sure it’s a very free-spirited mangling of Poe. But the cross-hatching of “A Cask of Amontillado” with “The Black Cat” makes sense and is done well. And why not? I’m not one of those people who believe that classic texts have to be religiously adhered to. If the changes work, then filmmakers should feel free to interpret and re-interpret. I might not like what Altman did to Raymond Carver in Short Cuts, but it was an Altman movie. This is an AIP production. It isn’t Poe.
*. I’ve always wondered about the exchange in “The Cask of Amontillado” where Fortunato cries out “For the love of God, Montresor!” and Montresor answers “Yes, for the love of God!” What does this mean? Is it just madness? In the film version, when the police discover the walled-up bodies it’s due to the howling of the entombed cat, which leads one of the cops to say “What in the name of God . . . ?” I wonder if the echo was intentional, and if Matheson was puzzling over the original exchange as well.
*. At the time it was easy to sniff at fare like this. The New York Times review, for example: “a dull, absurd and trashy adaptation of three Edgar Allan Poe stories, broadly draped around the shoulders of such people as Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone (who at least bothers to act). Skip it, if possible.” This isn’t even strictly accurate, because it’s actually an adaptation of four stories condensed into three. But while it’s clearly a Corman quickie, I found it to be a good-looking production where everyone seems to have done their part. Price, Corman, and Matheson were nothing if not professionals. Quite a lot of success in art as well as life consists in just doing your job.

The Immortal Story (1968)

*. It may be immortal, but it’s not a very well known story. I mean film. Thanks to Criterion for putting this one out in such a nice release (with a commentary and lots of extras), because I’d never managed to see it before now.
*. I’ll also confess that I’ve never read the Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) story it’s based on. I think I should, since it’s the story here that I find to be the movie’s biggest flaw. What Welles saw in Blixen (who he apparently rated only just below Shakespeare) is a mystery to me.
*. I get that the story is meant to be a kind of parable, but of what exactly? Isn’t a parable, especially one presented, as here, in such a bare, minimalist manner, supposed to have at least a surface meaning that is easy to grasp? But what is The Immortal Story about?
*. Take the title. In his commentary, Adrian Martin asks the question of what the immortal story is. He figures it just refers to a man and a woman having sex, which is the most ordinary and natural thing in the world. It is this story that the dried-up Clay wants to (re?)connect himself to.
*. That doesn’t seem right to me. Clay’s purpose is more obscure, having something to do with making a mere story (a fiction) into something true. Does he really care what the particular story is about? Wouldn’t any story do?
*. Then there is the story itself. It’s treated as a running gag that everybody knows it. I think even modern audiences will find it has a familiar ring. An old man pays a young sailor to sleep with his wife.

*. Is that an immortal story? As I understand it, what’s meant by “immortal story” here is one without any known author or original source that re-occurs in different forms in different cultural contexts. Basically it’s an archetype: one of the mythic building blocks of narrative, a part of the collective unconscious.
*. If we allow that the sailor-gigolo story is such an archetype, it seems odd to me that Clay wants to make it true by re-creating a fictional version. I mean, Virginie (Jeanne Moreau) is not his wife. Indeed, it’s not clear to me if he ever even sees her except through the curtain, briefly, in the bedroom scene. So the story isn’t being made true, it’s only being dramatized.

*. Welles rejected the interpretation put to him by Peter Bogdanovich of Clay being the director. I think he was just playing with Bogdanovich. This is obviously the role Clay has in the film: he has the script, he hires the actors, gives them their lines, and oversees the production in every regard.
*. If Clay is not the director then he’s God. Levinsky makes such a parallel explicit in the way he describes Clay as the prime mover in the universe. It’s also suggested by the various thrones Clay occupies. Welles seems to have had a thing for thrones. He might have just thought he looked good in one. Or he might have got tired of standing up for long periods of time.

*. Martin calls Welles “the best commentator on his own work.” It’s hard to agree. In general, I think artists (authors, filmmakers, whatever) are some of the least reliable commentators on their own work. And among unreliable artists, wouldn’t you put Orson Welles in one of the top spots?
*. In sum, I really don’t care for the story. It just seems to be trying too hard to be suggestive of something, but it’s not clear what, and the characters remain merely symbolic. Clay is God the director. Virginie is the fallen woman. Elishama Levinsky (Roger Coggio) is the facilitator. Paul the sailor is . . . what? Everyman I suppose.
*. Are we really supposed to believe that Paul was stranded on a desert island? That sounds like just another immortal story. Though I’ll admit that he does seem like a stranger from another planet.
*. Does that mean Norman Eshley was miscast? I’m inclined to think so. Martin likens him to a gay icon I guess because he seems a bit passive or feminine and his bleached hair looks silly. Plus he’s a sailor. Does that change the story though?
*. If Paul doesn’t look much like a real sailor, he sounds even less like one. What he sounds like is a British stage actor being asked to speak very slowly. And he is not helped by his lines, which make him sound even more like an alien.
*. Apparently the lines were hard to hear as well. As usual the sound was all added postproduction and the synchronization wasn’t right on the English version. Manny Farber found only four of the lines to be audible. He wasn’t missing anything. If not for the music and the nice effects (like the crickets) I honestly think you might enjoy this movie more if you just turn the sound off.

*. If Paul was too grimy and covered in tar to get into Clay’s carriage, don’t you think he might have taken a shower or washed up before he went to bed with Virginie? I mean, you do have to at least try, man.
*. There is, however, no faulting the look of the film. Welles hadn’t done a feature in colour before, and had made comments about how he didn’t like it because it emphasized visual elements over actors (as I think it does here), but he took to the new medium like Michelangelo took to fresco.
*. Cinematographer Willy Kurant praised the framing and composition in particular. He called Welles “very, very rigorous” when it came to such matters, and it shows in nearly every shot. And I have to wonder if this is a dying art. For all the expense and accomplishment that goes into art direction and production design today, who really does framing as good as this? I’m trying to think of recent films that struck me as really accomplished in this regard and not coming up with much. Yet Welles apparently did it on the fly.

*. Speaking of on the fly, damn that fly on the doorjamb in the scene between Virginie and Levinsky at the bedroom door! Or should we see it as a bit of serendipity? I don’t think there’s any way it could have been intentional (you can’t wrangle flies), but is it a flaw? Perhaps we can see it as foreshadowing Clay’s attempt to later be a fly on the wall, observing the bedroom re-enactment.
*. In addition to the framing there is an exotic sense of design (the bedroom as jungle, complete with cricket sounds) and a striking and unorthodox use of colour and lighting. That dining scene made me think of the Red Room on Twin Peaks so much that I think Lynch must have had it in mind, even subconsciously.

*. Colour and lighting are also an integral part of the framing, which is used throughout to create depth of field and a strong sense of space. Zones of colour, light and shade, demark different areas as much as physical boundaries and shapes. A yellow spotlight or a band of shadow are as material as the bend in a tree, a doorway, or the frame of a mirror.
*. I’ve never made a secret of my feeling that Orson Welles was the greatest genius in the history of film, and I think The Immortal Story only underlines this by showing how much he could make out of such unpromising material. It certainly has its flaws, but it’s so smooth, gorgeous, and accomplished in all aspects of the filmmaker’s art that it still invites being studied and enjoyed.

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

*. Last Year at Marienbad is a puzzle film, of the kind that does not allow for a solution. Its meaning can be argued over, but never finally determined. For some people that is its weakness, for others its strength.
*. This obscurity was intentional. Screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet thought it “a pure construction, an object without reference to anything outside itself.” That’s of course impossible for any image or use of language, but it does help explain the film’s sense of presenting a time and place hermetically sealed off from rest of the world. It’s only when the camera settles on these figures that they come briefly to life. When the camera dollies or pans away we can be sure they all go right back to their version of the mannequin challenge.

*. Obscurity, however, doesn’t mean that interpretation can run free. Resnais didn’t think of the film as a total enigma, only one whose reading would be unique to each viewer. But I think there are still limits. On the Criterion DVD Ginette Vincendeau presents us with the possibility that it may be a post-nuclear war movie, or that “A” (Delphine Seyrig) takes over the narrative at the end. I find the first suggestion to be crazy and the second not based on any evidence. I prefer Roger Ebert’s reading of “X” (Giogrio Albertazzi) as the author/director (or auteur). “Isn’t this how writers work? Creating characters out of thin air and then ordering them around?” Yes, I can see this. But then Ebert has to enter caveats and we know we can’t take this line of thinking too far.
*. It’s a movie that has always divided opinion. Where some find it difficult others find it empty. The Medved brothers, for example, included it in their volume of The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. I wouldn’t go that far, perhaps because I don’t find it as frustrating so much as simply odd. Once you realize and accept its difference then you won’t get so angry.
*. For example, the most interesting part of the documentary on the making of the film  that’s included in the Criterion DVD (Unraveling the Enigma: The Making of Marienbad) has the script girl Sylvette Baudrot showing a chart she had made breaking the film down into separate time threads, with some left “indeterminate.” Of course, once you allow for the existence of an “indeterminate” time or narrative thread then the whole scheme falls apart. How many times does “A” die? Or does she die? Drawing up such a chart strikes me as a pointless exercise, though I’m sure lots of people have given it a try.
*. Nor do I think that looking for sources or later signs of influence helps very much. With regard to the first, it’s often said that Adolfo Bioy Casares’s novel The Invention of Morel provided some of the inspiration, but I don’t see that as being of much assistance. Apparently Casares based the character of Faustine on Louise Brooks, and “A” in Marienbad (the Faustine figure) had the same model. But I’m not sure what any of that means. Meanwhile, would “X” be the fugitive narrator from Casares’s novel? Are these characters only holograms? I suppose it’s possible, but then a lot of things are possible.

*. Looking to movies it might be thought of as having influenced, I find the link to horror films most suggestive: from Carnival of Souls with its haunting organ music and protagonist who doesn’t know she’s dead, through Daughters of Darkness (Delphine Seyrig returning to a classy hotel, an “edifice of a bygone era,” as a decadent vampire), to Kubrick’s The Shining. Pauline Kael, who was not a fan, thought the characters (“or rather figures”) to be “a tony variant of the undead of vampire movies” (and “M”‘s likeness to a vampire was noted by many other critics as well). But in going down this road I know I’m just pursuing my own subjective reading, being someone who spends a lot of time watching horror films. I’m sure anyone could find similar connections to other genres, like romance.
*. So if everything is so indeterminate, what can we say about Last Year at Marienbad? I guess the thing that stands out the most is the look. By this I mean the excessively stilted, formal arrangement of the pieces and the players. The sense of refined stasis that reinforces the notion of a closed world from which there is no escape or release. Even emotion seems out of place. When “M” shoots “A,” does he do it in a fit of passion? It doesn’t look that way to me. Even the “rape” scene (if that was what it is) seems almost ridiculously out of place.
*. As Mark Polizzotti says in this Criterion essay, “though Marienbad is generally considered a love story, it is perhaps the most rigidly codified seduction ever filmed, with nary a hair out of place. X pursues A with B-movie persistence, but his ardor seems more focused on winning her over than on satisfying his passion: one can barely imagine them kissing, let alone making love.” So how can we imagine a rape and a murder?
*. Nor do I have the sense of passion being repressed or sublimated in some way. Instead, emotion seems to have drained from Marienbad, or wherever they are, along with all the colour. “X”‘s pursuit of “A” is just a routine, like playing all those games against “M” that he doesn’t seem to mind losing. But then he appears to be the only one who knows that he’s been through all this before.
*. My own take on it, for what it may be worth, is less that the characters are caught in an endless loop (as in The Invention of Morel) as they inhabit slightly different threads of time in alternate universes. At times these threads seem very close indeed, as when we get the series of shots of “A” in her death pose, which are all slightly different. But in other threads she hasn’t been murdered at all. Then, at other points, the threads seem to cross. Perhaps the “A” who “X” is talking to at some particular moment doesn’t remember seeing him at Marienbad last year because she really wasn’t there. Then, later, he meets up with an “A” who has.

*. At one point, following this reading, we actually get to see a number of threads simultaneously, a rare moment of temporal conjunction. This is in the shot of the three images of “A” as though being reflected in a pair of mirrors. Except these are not reflections, as “A” makes different movements in each. It’s like three different Marienbads cross over at once, at which point they will begin to diverge again.

*. It’s a magic moment, but among the few I can point to. I won’t deny that I don’t love this movie. It’s the kind of film that has to be watched over and over, but one does so at least partially out of a sense of duty. It lures us with a meaning that I don’t think it has, but I’ll still grant it’s a work of art that teases us out of thought. I don’t think it’s an empty experience, but I do find it to be a modest one and probably not worth that much thinking about.

Nightmare in Wax (1969)

*. The premise of a murderer who makes wax effigies of his victims apparently goes back to a short story by Charles S. Belden titled “The Wax Works.” The story remained unpublished however, and I’ve never been able to track a copy down. So these are obscure beginnings.
*. For all intents and purposes, however, things really got started with Mystery of the Wax Museum, a 1933 film that seems to have been a kind of afterthought following up a similar production the year before (Doctor X). Nevertheless, the hook was set in the popular imagination, especially with the success of the 1953 remake House of Wax starring Vincent Price. But I think the movies were only tapping into something deeper. We are used to seeing mannequins in store windows that we might initially mistake for real people. Well, what if they were real people?
*. The story also draws on another horror archetype: that of the deranged artist obsessed with his muse. It’s the direct offspring of Phantom of the Opera, and has had nearly as long a life. The artist-muse connection would continue in minor variations on the waxworks theme such as this film and Crucible of Terror, but would oddly disappear from the 2005 production of House of Wax, which opted for the rustic psychotic-family plot.
*. Now let’s turn to a consideration of Nightmare in Wax. We won’t be long. This is an ultra-cheap Crown International flick that makes for an ugly and poorly constructed retelling of the myth.
*. The idea had promise. It’s not just a remake of the earlier House of Wax movies. In particular there are two big differences.
*. (1) It’s a Hollywood movie. Evil genius Vincent Rinard (Cameron Mitchell) is a make-up man and his nemesis Max Black is the mogul in charge of Paragon Pictures. The museum is the Movieland Wax Museum, a real place in Buena Park, California, acknowledged in the end credits as “the authentic Hall of Fame in wax of the world’s great stars.” I think a lot more could have been done with this angle (aren’t Hollywood stars all plastic people in the first place?), but as it stands at least it’s an interesting update on the original story.
*. (2) The figures aren’t in fact waxen corpses but rather living models injected with a hypnotic paralyzing agent. This is as creepy as it is ridiculous, though in the end it tends to come down heavier on the ridiculous side. Just for starters, since the victims can’t even blink how do their eyes not dry out?
*. One other positive worth noting is the way Vincent is disfigured. Max throws a glass of wine at him while he’s lighting a cigarette and this ignites his face. Would this work? Probably not, but it is kind of weird and surprising.

*. Outweighing all of this, however, is the lack of talent involved. At the top of the list are those two banes of most low-budget film productions: poor lighting and dismal sound. You can’t see anything in all the dark. Or in all the sunlight. Check out the scene of the two cops driving around during the day where the car’s interior is like a black hole. Then you can barely hear a damn thing given the gummy sound. There are some howlers of bad lines in this movie but you have to really strain to make them out.
*. The effects are predictably bad as well. Vincent’s melted face consists of an eyepatch and a bit of plaster on his cheek. That’s it.
*. Despite the interesting new wrinkles added to the traditional story everything moves at an awkward pace. There’s a lot of talk where nothing important is said. We get the point of what’s going on, but further elaboration just makes things less clear.
*. Then there’s the ending. Spoiler alert! But how can you spoil an ending this bad? Basically Vincent wakes up and we find out that the whole movie was a bad dream. Pre-marital jitters. Why they went with this when they had a decent enough ending available — Vincent falling into the vat of boiling wax, much as his predecessors Lionel Atwill and Vincent Price had done — is beyond me. It turns the whole movie into a joke, albeit one that isn’t funny at all.

The Killers (1964)

*. The title was sometimes given out as Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, which was highly misleading. Director Don Siegel (who had actually been considered to direct the 1946 version) thought keeping Papa’s name in the title didn’t make any sense, didn’t want to use any of Hemingway’s dialogue, and indeed didn’t want to keep anything at all from Hemingway’s story but the initial idea of the guy who doesn’t want to escape his fate. A fate which is now finalized not in a diner but a home for the blind. Which might be a metaphor. Or something.
*. I don’t care for this movie at all. It has a few nice elements, but a lot more bad than good in it.
*. The thing that stands out the most is its look. Yes it’s flat and bright and sunny where noir was dark and shadowy and textured. This is in part due to the setting (California and Florida mainly), but perhaps more to the fact that it was originally shot as a TV movie. It couldn’t air on TV because it was too violent, but the damage had been done. Paul Schrader, referencing this film: “Technically, television, with its demand for full lighting and close-ups, gradually undercut the German influence, and color cinematography was, of course, the final blow to the ‘noir‘ look.”
*. Post-Tarantino I guess we can’t say that such a look is a poor match for this material, but in this film I still feel the disjunction. Everything about it has a meretricious feel. Critics have tried to salvage it by tying their praise into counterintuitive knots, as in Geoffrey O’Brien’s very good Criterion essay: “”when the film came out, the fakeness and mismatches made it seem not less but more real: movies like this helped confirm the notion that a recent era of authentic luxury and nuance (reflected in the exquisite textures of forties Hollywood) had given way to a cheap, mass-produced simulacrum. What was up on the screen had a new tackiness that in many ways very much resembled the world outside the movie theater.” But this seems like being too clever by half.
*. More than the look, however, I think it’s the casting that really undoes it. Not Lee Marvin. He’s great here, warming up for a similar role in Point Blank. But the rest of the cast is pretty awful.

*. It’s not fair to blame Angie Dickinson for being no Ava Gardner, but she isn’t. What’s frustrating though is that her character isn’t filled in any more than Gardner’s Kitty. Who is Sheila? Is she just a vacuous moll who likes pretty things? Is she a scheming mastermind? We never know. And she’s even killed offscreen, without any of Kitty’s final ambiguous hysterics.
*. I really love Charlie’s line to her just before he kills her. She’s trying to exculpate herself and he cuts her short. “Lady, I don’t have the time.” I think that must have been a steal from Out of the Past, where Mitchum tells a similarly plaintive (and duplicitous) moll “Baby, I don’t care” when she asks if he believes her.
*. Ronald Reagan. Here’s the obligatory note that this was his last theatrical film and the only movie where he played a villain. He doesn’t look like he’s enjoying himself one bit, and apparently he wasn’t. I don’t buy him for a minute as a heavy, which is actually kind of weird. I say that not as a knock against his politics, but just because playing an operator like Jack Browning should have been natural for him. So why does he seem so totally out of place?
*. Not quite as out of place, however, as Clu Gulager. I think his health-obsessed hit-man could have worked, but there’s just something about his performance that makes him seem too lightweight to be taken seriously. I think he was just wrong for the part. Really wrong.

*. Ditto for Norman Fell. Come to think of it, aside from Marvin this may be the most unthreatening collection of gangsters ever. And John Cassavetes, who might have been believable as a hood, is instead turned into a somewhat naive gearhead who I couldn’t understand turning to a life of crime (in the 1946 version Lancaster’s Ole had a long criminal history before being recruited for the heist).
*. Manny Farber, of all people, said that this “scummy Siegel remake of The Killers . . . far outclasses the Siodmak epic.” I have no idea what he was talking about. Outclasses?
*. When Johnny North says he has “calluses on my rump,” do you think he’s referring to hemorrhoids?
*. Wow. In 1964 even racecar drives didn’t wear seatbelts. And apparently Cassavetes barely knew how to drive.

*. I’ve never seen a hood in a gangster film stick his gun into his back pocket. In this movie Marvin has his whole holster stuck into his back pocket. Isn’t that weird?
*. It’s really neat how Johnny, lying in his hospital bed with his eyes wrapped in bandages, lunges wildly at his garage partner but never loses the cigarette from his mouth! Neat, or ridiculous.
*. I can’t think of any way this movie improves on the Siodmak version. In particular, it seems much bulkier. Compare the interminable scenes at the racetrack with the boxing scenes in the original. And there’s no comparison at all between the brilliant and economical heist in the original (all one crane shot, perfectly choreographed), and the highway robbery here. Why do we have to see them driving down the same roads three different times?
*. I’ve mentioned before how good Siegel filmed chase scenes (see my notes on The Big Steal and The Lineup). But the driving scenes here are ridiculous in their use of back projection (the go-kart scene is the worst offender), and boring in their use of overhead shots (the aforementioned rehearsals for the heist). It’s like Siegel had forgotten everything he ever knew. On the other hand, he was starting to really show a liking for pointing guns at the camera.

*. Well, I think this is a pretty lousy movie. It’s slack, miscast, not that well written, downright silly in places (the killers in all three versions — I’m including Tarkovsky’s — are almost comic figures), and it just plain looks weird. But . . .
*. But I have to recommend it for one of my all-time favourite pieces of (what I’m sure must have been) dramatic improvisation. There stand Ronald Reagan and John Cassavetes in their highway patrol outfits and sunglasses, getting ready to stop the mail truck. Reagan is tall, commanding, and looks born to wear the uniform. Cassavetes looks the opposite. As the mail truck approaches Reagan curtly dismisses Cassavetes, saying “I’ll do all the talking.” Cassavetes leans away and nods his head, pointing at Reagan. You’re the man, Ronnie. This is hilarious. I laugh every time I see it. So you should definitely watch The Killers just to see it. But in the end, it’s only a meme moment. It does not the movie make.

Casino Royale (1967)

*. The one word you’ll see used in almost every review of this movie, both contemporary and appearing more recently online, is “waste.” I’ll just quote Leslie Halliwell, who called it “One of the most shameless wastes of time and talent in screen history.”
*. It was certainly a waste of money, going over double its original budget, and indeed coming in as more costly than the “serious” James Bond films being made at the same time. Money was just being thrown around. Woody Allen was amazed that he was put up in an expensive hotel for weeks before they even got around to shooting his scenes. It was that kind of thing.
*. More than money, however, it was a waste of talent. I mean Peter Sellers, Orson Welles, David Niven, Woody Allen, Deborah Kerr, a really nice performance by Joanna Pettet, the beauty of Ursula Andress . . . plus at least five directors (the final sequence was co-directed by the stunt coordinator), and maybe twice as many screenwriters. Included among the latter group were names like Ben Hecht and Billy Wilder, whose early drafts were tossed. Waste, waste, waste.

*. The other word that gets used, only slightly less than “waste,” is “mess.” Those five directors and dozen screenwriters should give you some idea of what is meant by this. Everybody here was just doing their own thing, and nobody seemed to know what anyone else’s thing was. Roger Ebert thought it “a definitive example of what can happen when everybody working on a film goes simultaneously berserk.” An opinion shared, I think, by everyone who has ever seen it.
*. Ebert’s review though helpfully reminds us that there were actually quite a lot of comedies in this vein coming out at the time. Chaotic zaniness was part of the zeitgeist.
*. That said, it’s really hard to overstate just how big a mess this movie is. The plot is completely incoherent, with none of the big or little pieces connecting in any way. What’s with that car wash scene? Who are those women? What’s the point of Evelyn’s dream after being drugged, which comes complete with its own theme music? Why present that big floorshow just to introduce the character of Mata Bond? Doing up the spy school to look like the sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was certainly interesting, but what the hell was the point? You can’t make any sense out of this film.

*. The result plays a little, or a lot, like a variety show: a feature-length Laugh-In. Aside from the bits with Woody Allen none of it is very funny. The timing is all wrong for comedy. The cameos become disruptive and alienating, and include in-jokes that I’m not sure many people will get today. The “Born Free” music plays when a lion jumps on top of the sedan in the opening scene, for example. Or Stirling Moss (a race car driver) chases after the bad guys on foot while Sellers gets in a racing car. Or Peter O’Toole shows up playing the bagpipes and asking about Richard Burton. Or George Raft stands at a bar flipping a coin. In the closing credits he is billed as playing “Himself.” I wonder what that means.
*. Having said all this, I have to confess that I really love this crazy piece of crap.
*. I don’t know why. I’ve always been a big Bond fan, so maybe that’s part of it. I like watching such a talented cast tossed into the pool without a clue about what’s going on and responding in different ways (Sellers actually thought the movie was going to be played straight and not as parody). The sheer incoherence of the proceedings makes the whole thing into something like a psychedelic Rorschach test, letting us make what we will out of the shifting shapes and patterns that appear on the screen.

*. Most of all, however, I love the “Casino Royale Theme” written by Burt Bacharach. Ever since I first heard it some thirty or thirty-five years ago I’ve had it pop up in my head at all different times. The other big hit from the movie, “The Look of Love,” is better known (and a nice enough song in its own right, with vocals by Dusty Springfield), but Bacharach’s nutty theme is so good it even makes you forget about the (missing) canonical Bond themes. If there is a golden thread holding all of this mess together, it’s coming out of Herb Alpert’s trumpet. Great stuff.
*. Obviously this one makes you think of the Austin Powers movies, which only began arriving thirty years later. So if nothing else you have to give it credit for being ahead of the curve. And compared to those movies, I think Casino Royale holds up quite well as a bit of authentic nonsense.

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)


*. There’s a moment in An American Werewolf in London when David asks his British girlfriend Alex (Jenny Agutter) if she’s seen The Wolf Man and she responds “Is that the one with Oliver Reed?” I think it’s a clever bit of dialogue that lets John Landis show off his knowledge of old horror movies while at the same time highlighting the cultural divide between the two characters.
*. Is it realistic? Probably not. I doubt the character of Alex would be more familiar with The Curse of the Werewolf (the one with Oliver Reed) than she would be with the classic Universal film. But it’s still a nice way of acknowledging a little bit of werewolf-film history, one that I think by now is largely forgotten except by hardcore fans of the genre.
*. I don’t like this movie much, but it does have its defenders, and even fans. I think you have to either be unconditionally in love with Hammer horror films or Oliver Reed to find it worth watching. I’m not against either, but there are limits to my appreciation of both.
*. What separates opinions on it the most is the long introductory prologue, which gives us the werewolf’s back story. I applaud Hammer for trying to do something a bit different here, but it doesn’t work. In large part, I think, because they couldn’t go with the original idea, which was to have the beggar be the werewolf. Apparently the censors didn’t want the mute girl being raped by a werewolf. Being raped by a crazy old man in a dungeon was better.
*. Without that rather essential bit of the origin story, the movie is stuck having to provide a rather lame explanation for Leon’s lycanthropy. He’s born on Christmas day with a divided soul. Or something like that. I get the sense that everyone was a bit embarrassed by this part.
*. I’ve read arguments for the importance of the introduction, but it seems to me to waste a lot of time giving us unnecessary information. Unnecessary and uninteresting. It’s also claimed that what we find out here makes Leon a more sympathetic figure, but most werewolves are sympathetically drawn. We felt sympathy for Lawrence Talbot in The Wolf Man, and that movie was only 70 minutes long. We’re over 45 minutes into this one before Oliver Reed even appears.


*. This sense of wasting time is actually present throughout the movie. I’m not against movies that move slowly, but The Curse of the Werewolf really drags its heels. There’s all sorts of talk that goes nowhere. At the tavern an old man in his cups tell us: “It’s the night of the full moon, and you know what that means.” “What?” “It means that things are abroad.” “Things? What sort of things?” “Strange things, that should not be spoken of.” After which pronouncement he empties his glass and leaves.
*. Then, after taking such a long time to get going, there’s not much werewolf on offer, and what there is doesn’t impress. Basically this is just the Jack Pierce Wolf Man with less hair on his face and showing some grey. There is no good transformation scene. He also doesn’t do much in the climax but run around on the rooftops while villagers shake torches at him.
*. The climax does have one bit the impressed me. Throwing that burning hay bale into the crowd was surprising. You never know which way those things are going to bounce when they hit the ground, or how far. That was dangerous!


*. Wow. Is Justin Walters as Young Leon an uncanny younger version of Oliver Reed or what? That must be an interesting side of casting.
*. The subtitles during the baptism scene tell us the priest is “Speaking Spanish.” Obviously it’s Latin. Writing subtitles must be an interesting job too.
*. This was Oliver Reed’s debut (or at least first credited appearance). He’s intense to the point of being over the top. He just has that air of being a dangerous guy. This should have worked better with this material, but the script isn’t interested in werewolf psychology. It’s ultimately more of a spiritual/supernatural thing.
*. Hammer was riding a gravy train resurrecting Universal’s classic monsters, but this was their only werewolf movie. I don’t know if this was because of box office or just lack of interest, but I’m not disappointed. I wouldn’t want more movies like this.


If …. (1968)


*. One response to watching this film today is that without some experience of the English class system and/or English public boarding schools you’re not going to really understand it. But then the school was always meant to be a metaphor or microcosm, and when all hell breaks loose in the final minutes you realize we might still be in Kansas, or Colorado. That explosion of rage is universal.
*. I’m reminded of the second film version of Golding’s Lord of the Flies (released in 1990), where the stranded schoolboys go from being British to being American military cadets. I think every critic who reviewed that film when it came out made the obvious joke that American schoolkids were already murderous savages so that what happened was no surprise.
*. Fair? Probably not, but we’re talking about national mythologies here and in a global culture they all start to bleed into one another anyway. I mean — or at least one of the things I mean — is that the Girl at the end is clearly Patty Hearst years before she joined the SLA. I do think If …. has a resonance that takes it outside its particular time and place, something that was very much Lindsay Anderson’s aim (note the lack of any contemporary “swinging” music on the soundtrack). But I don’t think it takes us far outside a more basic, almost biological ambit.


*. OK, you’re probably wondering what I’m talking about. Let’s start with the obvious: what is the problem at College House? Repression. The authority figures are all closet (or semi-closeted) cases, taking their sadistic frustrations out on the kids. If you’re starting to hum Pink Floyd’s The Wall about now, you know what that was coming out of.
*. Our animal passions need an outlet, in squirts of blood or sperm (or both). Even the few female characters we meet are snarling beasts of fury beneath their matronly facades.



*. Given this rebellion vs. authority, id vs. superego dichotomy, I wonder if something more could have been done with regard to the most-talked about aspect of the filmmaking: the jumps between colour and black-and-white photography. Apparently the initial decision to go with this arose out of problems they were having filming inside the chapel, but from there it was driven by “intuition, pattern, and convenience,” without any heed to thematic relevance. This is much the way Oliver Stone uses it in movies like JFK and Nixon: to set up a visual rhythm. Malcolm McDowell thought it was totally arbitrary, an aspect of Anderson’s anarchism, while Michael Medwin describes it as “purely economic.” My point is that given the movie’s theme it could very easily have been used in a way that worked in combination with that theme. Or would that have been too obvious?
*. It’s interesting how often what seem to be important creative decisions are brought about almost by accident or through improvisation. The changes in film here are a good example, but another is the striking nude wrestling scene in the roadside diner. According to Malcolm McDowell it was just as a suggestion he made to Anderson, so that McDowell could get to roll around naked with Christine Noonan. And it turned out to be one of the most memorable parts of the film.


*. To bleed, or not to bleed. When Mick gets cut during the duel scene it’s obviously meant to be a turning point. He is amazed at the sight of “real blood,” and later he’ll initiate his chums into the plot by making them blood brothers with cuts on their hands. But in the final battle scene the only blood we see is when the headmaster is shot between the eyes by the Girl. To a contemporary audience, used to lots of exploding squibs or CGI geysers of the red stuff, it all looks pretty silly.


*. I don’t think the absence of blood in this scene was a creative decision, though some people have seen it that way. They point to how the climax is all a fantasy, something that is underlined by one particularly bad or at least noticeable edit where the quad is full of people and then miraculously cleared a second later.
*. But blood would have involved all kinds of problems. For one thing, squib technology was still pretty new. I’ve mentioned before in my commentaries on Night of the Living Dead and Bullitt — both released in 1968, the same year as this film — that both those films claim to have been the first to have used them (which is historically incorrect but still a point worth keeping in mind).
*. There might also have been a problem with censors, whom they had already provoked enough to receive an X rating.
*. And finally there is the matter, again, of economy. The crowd was apparently made up of extras who had been told to wear their Sunday best, so it’s doubtful Anderson could have got them to go along with becoming victims of a bloody massacre.
*. But to return to my original line of thought: what does it all mean?


*. School sucks. Even I’ll sign on to that, and I never had it half this bad. But more than that, what we have here is a familiar burst of ’60s anti-establishment violence. Only here we have to ask what it’s all in aid of.
*. In his Criterion essay, critic David Ehrenstein says that “If …. is about both dreaming and mastering, revolting against the status quo and daring to imagine what it might be like to put something else in its place.” I think this goes too far. What is this “something else”? What sort of new society is being born at the end? Even if the rebel forces never run out of ammunition and manage to kill all the screws, so what? Would this usher in the Age of Aquarius? Free love? Anderson was a self-professed anarchist whose only desire was to tear the whole system down. He didn’t have a model (as some anarchists do) for what was going to take its place.
*. The reason the question is worth asking is because we know what Sixties rebelliousness resulted in: not much. If the story of If …. was about anything, Anderson said, it was about freedom. Can we avoid hearing an Austin Powers “baby!” after that? Is this all that freedom means? A chance to run away with our beautiful lovers?
*. No. Sex is secondary. On the commentary track David Robinson says that in 1968 there was still an air of nobility that attached to revolutionary acts, and that this was the film’s true meaning. “Death to the oppressor” and “liberty” are the rebels’ watchwords. Their targets helpfully come in uniforms: the bishop, the general, the headmaster, the fellow in a suit of armour. By all means get rid of these clowns. But then what?
*. Then nothing. Robinson on the commentary gives the last word to Anderson: “While there are still minds to be moved, imaginations to be stirred, a true film may yet perform its explosive, life-enhancing function. We may yet be revenged.” That final note, I think, is key. Revenge is all.


*. All of which suggests that the ending is more Columbine than revolution. The massacre is a total dead end: a revenge fantasy and not a political act. There is no larger meaning.
*. Revenge is a powerful and dangerous emotional force. It’s always been a favourite of drama, back through Elizabethan days all the way to the plays of the Homeric cycle. We want our stories to give us a sense of seeing ultimate justice being served, of scores being settled, of things being set right. So while it would be nice to see our youthful heroes riding off into the sunset with their girl- and boyfriends, that isn’t what’s important. What’s important is bloody vengeance.
*. I like anger in filmmakers. I think it’s a great fuel for art. This, however, strikes me as something different, as just being mean. Maybe that’s what Kubrick saw in McDowell. For all the idealism and “nobility” of the revolutionaries of the 1960s, it wasn’t a big jump from Mick and his fellow crusaders to Alex and his droogs.


Le Samouraï  (1967)


*. I have two responses to films that I don’t like as much as I’m told I should. The first is to think they’ve been overrated. I use this one when I am in no doubt that I’m right and everyone else (or at least the critical consensus) is wrong. The second response is to throw my hands up and confess that I just don’t get it.
*. I just don’t get Le Samouraï. People whose opinion I respect think that it’s great, and it has quite a passionate following, but even though I’ve tried hard to like it . . .
*. It’s most often said to be a film of pure style. This means it gets a pass for telling a very simple, unconvincing, and unoriginal story, with little dialogue, about a character who remains a complete cipher. All of which I can forgive and issue a pass for. What I can’t abide is just how dull a movie it is.
*. The dullness seems to follow from the style, which is both static and a pose. It’s often praised for its suspense, but I don’t feel any of this. There are a number of quiet, set-piece scenes — the men planting the bug in Jef’s apartment, Jef finding it, the pursuit through the subway system — but I didn’t find these very interesting. They seem to me like scenes that other directors had already done before and done better. If I can say it without seeming flip, there’s a difference between suspense and just dragging a scene out. Melville drags a lot of scenes out in this movie, but doesn’t build much suspense.


*. When it comes to the look of the film, its supposedly definitive and unmatched evocation of “cool,” I am, again, unimpressed. Aside from that washed-out apartment (Melville: “My dream is to make a color film in black and white”), I didn’t like any of the jarringly theatrical interiors (jarring because they are juxtaposed with realistic street scenes). The nightclub in particular looks tacky and cheap. That this was by design doesn’t help.
*. I don’t even find Jef particularly well dressed in his retro trench coat and fedora. Then again, I don’t find Alain Delon that handsome either. He’s just pretty and incongruous. That’s not cool. It’s more creepy and weird.
*. Another word that often gets applied to this movie is “beauty.” I see even less evidence for this than style or cool. What is beautiful about this film? Some of it looks nice, but that’s as far as I’d go.
*. Does the style mean anything? I can’t see where it does, except as a costume. The silence is also a red herring. To me it simply represents the fact that Jef has nothing to say, because he’s never really thinking of anything. Except his job. It’s not just that he’s solitary and withdrawn, but that his mind has withdrawn as well. And by that I mean it’s shrunk.
*. The most obvious comparison is to Point Blank, which came out the same year and which is also a dream of a gangster film with accentuated style points. But Point Blank sets the hook in you hard right from the start and doesn’t let you go, driving forward like Walker (Lee Marvin) marching down that long hallway, his heels banging out the drum taps of doom. Le Samouraï has none of that momentum, and (I think) even less style.
*. That’s nothing to be ashamed of — there are few films I like as much as Point Blank — but if I’m being totally honest I even prefer a gangster film like Fernando di Leo’s Caliber 9 (1972) to this. At least in that film the characters had some depth and were relatable. As I’ve already noted, I don’t find anything complicated about Jef.


*. I’m not even sure the movie is coherent thematically. Despite the title and some ersatz epigraph from the Bushido Code (that Melville actually wrote himself), there’s little connection between Jef and a samurai. Roger Ebert: “The quotation and the whole pose of the Costello character are meant to suggest a man who operates according to a rigid code. But as Stanley Kauffmann points out in his review, ‘a samurai did not accept commissions to kill merely for money: honor and ethics were involved.’ Here the honor and ethics seem to be Jef Costello’s loyalty to himself; a samurai was prepared to die for his employer, and Costello is self-employed.”
*. Critics have had to work hard to make the connection, but the best explanations of the title they’ve come up with have to do with Jef being bound for death and the ritualistic nature of his killings. Which, when you think of it, is pretty weak.
*. The main theme is said to be solitude. Jef is the ultimate lone wolf. Only he isn’t. He has a girlfriend (played by Delon’s wife, Nathalie). Or is she his girlfriend? Melville apparently liked the fact that they looked like brother and sister, and we know that she has a boyfriend/lover/john that Jef doesn’t object to. So maybe she’s just a professional alibi. It’s hard to tell.
*. Some, perhaps most, of my inability to get this movie comes down to a matter of temperament. I’m not a fan of the French New Wave. The editing is interesting, but when it’s the most interesting thing about a movie I think there’s a problem. And aside from being interesting, I don’t think there’s much to say about Le Samouraï. It’s not a film I enjoy.


Bloodlust! (1961)

*. I understand why Hollywood keeps recycling the same ideas in remakes, resets, sequels, prequels, and franchises. There are only a limited number of essential stories to be told, and if one of them finds expression in a particularly successful movie then imitation is bound to follow.
*. That said, I’m always disappointed when a movie basically returns to the same material and only offers up a rehash without even showing any intention of doing something original or interesting with it. Like when The Most Dangerous Game was remade as A Game of Death, for example. Which brings us to Bloodlust!
*. The exclamation mark is part of the title, as though attempting to give the proceedings an extra shot of adrenaline. The film needs it. It’s basically another run at The Most Dangerous Game, only without any of the eccentric energy of that film.
*. There’s more to the disappointment than just the cast, though Wilton Graff (as Dr. Albert Balleau) is no Leslie Banks, June Kenney is no Fay Wray (not even close), and Robert Reed isn’t Joel McCrae (who wasn’t setting the bar that high in the first place).
*. There’s also no sense of the exotic or dangerous. The gang of fun-loving kids, looking much like the cast of Scooby-Doo, never seem that perturbed by anything that’s going on. The girls in particular go from somnolent to screaming and back again in a mechanical way.
*. The art direction doesn’t help. The creepy hunting chateau of Count Zaroff has been replaced by a surprisingly domestic, bourgeois-looking home in the jungle. Dig those drapes and wallpaper!
*. The upshot of all this is that we never feel threatened by Dr. Balleau. This despite a shocking scene in the trophy preparation room involving a face that has been skinned, or the trophy room itself, where Balleau’s victims are presented in the moment of their deaths. These human waxworks were cut from The Most Dangerous Game in 1932 because they upset audiences so much. They’re back in here, but they’re not disturbing at all. Further proof that it’s rarely shocking content that makes the biggest impact but how it is presented in context. In a movie like this, such moments have no weight.
*. Balleau isn’t very sporting, is he? Taking the firing pin out of the gun is a dirty trick, then shooting poor Tony at point blank range, in the gut, with his crossbow is just cruel. One gets the sense that he really isn’t much of a hunter.
*. It’s one of those movies that can be enjoyed as crap, and it was an obvious choice for receiving the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment. The dialogue is very stupid and easily mocked, and there are a number of incongruous moments that arise from the sheer incompetence of the filmmaking. The shot of the island at the beginning startles us into laughter because it’s suddenly so close, and I love that Betty knows judo and gets to flip one of the sailor flunkies into an acid bath.
*. The ending is very strange, and bad, in a different way. It may seem odd, at least to contemporary eyes, that one of Balleau’s men has to be resurrected to adminster the coup de grâce to his boss, but this is done in order to maintain the gang’s essential innocence. Their hands remain clean of Balleau’s blood and they are left free to register their shock at his murder.
*. Of course the flunky is impervious to mere bullets after all that he’s been through, but what’s really striking to my eyes is Balleau’s crucifixion. As the MST3K commentators put it: “Why this symbolism? Did Christ hunt people on deserted islands?” It is quite jarring.
*. I’m not sure this movie even rises to the level of a curiosity, but it’s short and it has enough camp value to make it worth a single viewing. Still, even among the many inferior descendants of The Most Dangerous Game it’s barely a footnote.