Category Archives: 1960s

The Birthday Party (1968)

*. You can come at Pinter from different directions. After some establishing shots of the beach here we go inside to have our noses rubbed in a filthy kitchen sink. As in kitchen sink realism. Even though Stanley refers to the place as a sty in the play, I never thought of the Boles’ boarding-house as looking quite this down-at-the-heels. But the play debuted in 1958 and England then was pretty down-at-the-heels.
*. I won’t argue the realism then, but just note the approach. That kitchen sink is meant to set a tone. When we immediately then get Meg talking about how “nice” everything is (or should be) the disjunction is striking. Decorum seems out of place in such a blasted environment. We suspect Meg to be only keeping up appearances.
*. A couple of names stand out. In the first place there’s William Friedkin directing. This was a few years before The French Connection and The Exorcist, so well before he was a name, and it was undertaken as a labour of love. As such, it sticks pretty close to the play (the biggest change is dropping Lulu from the third act) and lets the actors do their thing. Note the distance he keeps from Stanley when Meg tells him that two men are coming to visit. There’s only a very subtle cue there that this is not welcome news. Or note the way he keeps his distance from Meg when she channels Mary Tyrone and dreamily remembers being the belle of the ball, before drifting back to the kitchen. Those are both important moments, but Friedkin underplays them for effect.
*. Of course it’s a single-set play, and hard to film as being anything else, but Friedkin only rarely takes us outside the box and instead livens things up with high and low angles, some nice camera movement (turning about in the enclosed space), and slightly jumpy editing. The sound of McCann tearing the newspaper is amplified so that it seems, as it should, like fingernails going down a chalkboard.
*. The only misstep I registered was what Friedkin tries to do when the lights go out. I’m not sure what he was going for there, but the results just don’t fit with the otherwise drab realism of the presentation. It’s like we’re slipping into the Twilight Zone, and the language already does enough of that.
*. The other name that stands out is Robert Shaw. I’m a big fan of Shaw, but I have to wonder if he was the right choice here. Let’s face it, if you heard Shaw was going to be in one of Pinter’s comedies of menace you’d immediately peg him as one of the menacers. He’s a scary guy. And indeed he had played that role a few years earlier, appearing as Aston in The Caretaker. But as Stanley?
*. Well, it’s an interesting choice. He’s definitely cast against type. But . . . I just can’t buy him as the haunted and hunted Stanley. Especially with Patrick Magee as McCann, an actor who projects more frailty than threat. Even without his glasses it looks as though this Stanley could toss both Goldberg and McCann out the window.
*. My own personal favourite in the cast is Dandy Nichols as Meg. She really does nail the part, at least as I imagine it. She’s someone very aware that life has passed her by, but this hasn’t made her bitter and she’s not above making a bit of a fool of herself to grab some scraps of happiness. She’s a maternal figure in a world that appeals to notions of family but which has no functioning family structure. Instead there are only family parodies, like the boarding-house or the Organization.
*. Goldberg and McCann call to mind Vince and Jules in Pulp Fiction, though I doubt Tarantino, who was admittedly influenced by everything, was drawing on Pinter. The engimatic and menacingly absurd heavies go back at least as far as Max and Al in Siodmak’s The Killers, though I don’t know what their original might have been.
*. My own feelings toward Pinter have gone through stages. I guess I was a bit of a fan when I was a student, but then I got to thinking that there was actually less going on than I had thought. Watching him now I find myself coming around again. The weird or absurd elements have taken on a kind of life of their own, and Stanley’s predicament seems more archetypal and enduring. After some strategic delay Stanley is revealed as a lobotomized zombie not unlike what McMurphy is turned into at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Some of the questions in Goldberg’s badgering and obscure inquisition might prefigure Gene Hackman’s patter about picking one’s feet in Poughkeepsie in The French Connection. I even hear echoes of Goldberg and McCann’s stychomythia patter about how Stanley is going to be improved in the robotic lyrics to Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier.”
*. The final message is timeless too, though less for what it says than for its context. “Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!” Great advice, but coming too late and from a compromised source. Not only has Petey backed down already (Goldberg has told him what to do), but in an added bit of stage business we’ve seen him pocketing Goldberg’s twenty pieces of silver (something not mentioned in the play).
*. So, yes, Pinter is still our contemporary. More than ever? We may be getting there.

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The Caretaker (1963)

*. We start off with some interesting credits. The film was basically crowdfunded by a consortium of celebs chipping in £1,000 each. The names included Leslie Caron, Noel Coward, Peter Sellers, Richard Burton, and Elizabeth Taylor. They had to do it this way because financing wasn’t available for projects with no reasonable chance of a commercial screening. With the funding provided, the film was then produced by a partnership (including all three leads and Pinter, who adapted his own play). No one received any payment.
*. And that’s Nicolas Roeg doing the photography. Before he was famous. Just the year previously he’d worked as part of the second unit on Lawrence of Arabia.
*. Is there anything in the way the film is shot that would make you think Roeg was going to be a star? I was looking for clues but didn’t come up with much. Though to be honest I was a bit distracted by the horrible editing. I mean, this movie is really choppy in its cuts. Was this deliberate? If so, it didn’t work for me.
*. I’ve always felt a special connection to this movie because when I first saw it I hadn’t read any Pinter. I was young, and it really turned my head. I also became a lifelong fan of Robert Shaw.
*. I hadn’t seen it in a long while, and was a bit nervous coming back to it. All too often we feel a let-down in such situations. And I did feel a bit of that at the start, until I fell under the strange spell of the play again and ended up enjoying the film as much as ever.

*. The cast works in an odd way. Robert Shaw (who would be cast against type as Stanley in William Friedkin’s 1968 version of The Birthday Party) is the embodiment of menacing threat as Aston. Alan Bates doesn’t strike me as a scary guy, but he’s scary here, while at the same time registering genuine concern for his brother.
*. And then there’s Donald Pleasence. There’s a lovely moment when Aston tells Mac that he couldn’t drink a Guiness out of a thick mug and we (along with Mac) suddenly realize that Mac is the only sane one in this house. This reminded me of David Thomson’s jibe in his essay on Halloween that Pleasance playing the psychiatrist was a bit of a joke since he’s rarely the sanest man on screen. Well . . . he is here! And he seems as surprised about it as anyone.

*. The crowded bric-a-brac in the bedroom is managed in a way that makes us feel that Mac is just another piece of garbage that Aston has picked up off the street and brought back to his room. It’s not claustrophobia but clutter. The characters don’t stand out from the piles of boxes around them.
*. Speaking of that crowded bedroom, the temptation to open the play up a bit because they were making a movie was irresistible. But they should have resisted. The few brief scenes where we get outside the house are all superfluous, and in fact I’m inclined to think they detract from the overall effect. They knew they were shooting a single-set play, and they also knew this was not going to be a commercial project. They should have just bitten the bullet and gone into full isolation mode.
*. It’s a special production, given that it was made so soon after the play’s theatrical debut in 1960, with a lot of the same talent (Pinter doing the screenplay and Bates and Pleasence reprising the roles they played on stage). In other words, it’s as close to an “original” version of The Caretaker as you’ll see. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best Caretaker we’ll ever have, but it does give it a special status.
*. I did think, watching it again, that it’s a play that has stood the test of time and could probably be adapted to a contemporary setting with very few changes. I can tell you for a fact that these three guys are still out there. They’re probably in your neighbourhood too, though you won’t see them very often.

Playtime (1967)

*. Is it a crime not to like Playtime? I think in critical circles it probably is. But I still can’t bring myself to fall in line.
*. Make no mistake: I admire Playtime. I have immense respect for Jacques Tati’s achievement. The meticulousness and painstaking attention to detail he brought to the design is nothing short of amazing, and any lover of film has to acknowledge his heroic personal investment in the project. Yes, it’s true that there’s so much going on in nearly every shot that you really do have to watch Playtime several times to fully appreciate how completely Tati’s vision has been realized. But that said . . .
*. It’s not a funny movie. I don’t just mean there are no laugh-out-loud moments. I mean there’s nothing about it that I would even want to characterize as droll or particularly amusing. There are a handful of cute visual gags, but even calling them gags may be overselling them. A priest stands so that a neon “O” appears above his head like a halo. A glass door shatters but the doorman pretends it is still there by holding on the handle. A man undresses in his apartment and a woman in the apartment next to him appears to be watching him through a wall. A waiter seems to pour champagne into the floral hats of some American women. Another waiter turns into a scarecrow as uniforms at a restaurant fall apart. Various items deflate and inflate.

*. Aside from this, the amusement mainly comes from recognizing the same characters drift through the mise-en-scène. This aspect of the film makes it sort of like watching a widescreen version of Where’s Waldo? Cute, and perhaps expressive of something, but not much.
*. I’ve used the word “cute” a couple of times. Other words often applied to Tati’s humour in this film include detached, distant, subtle, intricate, and austere. If those adjectives fit your taste in movies, then Playtime may be the movie for you. If not you may find it a tough slog.
*. Critics found much to analyse in Playtime. It’s a movie that’s made for analysis, close reading, and the rewards of multiple viewings. Again: it’s a movie that it’s impossible not to appreciate. It demands appreciation. It wants the audience to do a lot of work. It is not a movie to be “passively watched” (as one critic has put it) but to be actively explored.

*. I nod my head at all this, but get impatient with it as well. No matter how well executed it all is, it just seems clever to me. Furthermore, I’m not that interested in the larger point. It’s an exquisite, stylized portrait of the crowded dance of modern life, but is the only point that modern life is drab and mechanical? That it reduces the human element? This was a cliché of the silent era. In his entry on Tati in the Biographical Dictionary David Thomson speaks of this and says “the point was well made, but tritely thought out and endlessly reiterated.” Indeed.
*. Thomson had more praise for Playtime in his essay on it in “Have You Seen . . . ?” but I think his earlier more negative judgment is more accurate. By coincidence, in my edition of the Biographical Dictionary the entry on Tati is on the page following the entry on Andrei Tarkovsky, where Thomson has the following to say about Solaris: “I do not mean to be snide when I say that an episode of Star Trek explored [the same themes] with more wit and ingenuity, less sentimentality, and at a third the length.”
*. Well, maybe. But to adapt that judgment to the present case, I do not mean to be snide when I say that one of the classic Warner Bros. Looney Tunes episodes dealt with the same themes as Playtime (mad modernity, the city as machine) with more wit and ingenuity, less sentimentality, and at a tenth the length.

*. As a personal vision Playtime may be unmatched in film history. This is not always a good thing though (see Pauline Kael’s remarks on filmmakers’ follies). Tati built his own city (dubbed Tativille) on massive sets, and oversaw nearly every aspect of the production to an extreme. The time he lavished on its production and then editing is hard to imagine today. And it was indeed something very new. Its only star is almost a background figure, it has little dialogue that could be made out, there is no story or plot, it’s shot in colour but its entire world is constructed out of glass and a thousand shades of gleaming gunmetal grey. In all of this there is a kind of perfection achieved. And yet again I have to say “And yet . . .”
*. Instead of demanding a more active response my own experience is to find it numbing. I also find parts of it very dull. The entire Royal Garden sequence, which goes on for something like 40 minutes, strikes me as well-intentioned and of course brilliantly choreographed but a total drag until the very end.

*. One of the things you can have fun doing is trying to spot the cut-out figures standing around in the background of shots. I’ve heard it said that Tati just didn’t have the extras but I think it more likely they are there for a purpose: the human crowd being reduced to another kind of mechanical design, sort of like the people at the restaurant with the crown logo stamped onto the back of their suits. I wonder if it might also have been a nod to Last Year at Marienbad. They have that mannequin look to them.
*. Playtime is a work of genius and a great movie but I appreciate all its commendable qualities without enjoying it very much. When it came out it did poorly, seeming to be behind the time. Since then it has certainly been enshrined as a classic by critics but I’m curious to see what audiences will think of it in the future. I suspect it will still have fans, but they won’t be people who see it as prophetic. Conceived as a comic modernist dystopia, it may come to seem a comfortably pleasant vision of things to come.

The Terror (1963)

*. The Terror is a movie that fell into the public domain because the copyright notice was left out of the credits. I doubt at the time that anyone would even have considered that an oversight, but today it has a certain cachet primarily because of those credits and the story of its making, leading it to enjoy a second life on DVD. When I first saw it, however, it was on a really awful print that was almost unwatchable. Did this impact my reaction to it? Probably.
*. Still, going back over my notes from that earlier viewing I seem to have liked The Terror better back then. I just recently saw it again in a restored version that looked much improved but I came away thinking it wasn’t as good as I remembered. Maybe, I thought, it’s like one of those albums that you needed to listen to on vinyl to get all the hiss and pop as part of the experience. Or maybe I was in a grumpier mood the second time. Or maybe it really isn’t a very good movie.
*. Well, it certainly isn’t a very good movie, even though it is kind of interesting. Basically it’s a movie that Roger Corman pulled out of his ass trying to make use of the sets from The Raven before they were torn down. He apparently shot most of it in four days, with a script that he seems to have been partly making up as he went along. Some scenes had to be added later just to try to make sense of what was going on.
*. As far as the interesting credits go, there’s Jack Nicholson looking all of 18 years old and hopelessly miscast as a French cavalry officer. And rumour has it that both Nicholson and credited producer Francis Coppola spent some time behind the camera, along with “half the young filmmakers in Hollywood” in Corman’s own remembering.
*. The story opens with a couple of scenes involving Nicholson’s character falling asleep or passing out, which adds to the dream-like sense of whimsy the whole thing has. There’s also a bit of a literary air to it in the stilted dramatic dialogue, making it feel like it should be an adaptation of Poe (which is what it is usually lumped in with among the other vaguely Poe-derived productions Corman was busy with at the time).
*. Ultimately though the whole thing swallows its own tail. There’s something about it that I don’t think makes sense, but I can’t muster the strength now to unwind the plot to the point where I think it falls apart. Is Ilsa mad at Eric? Is she working together with Katrina, or at cross-purposes? I can’t figure it out.
*. I’ll grant it’s a bit of fun. Say what you will about Corman but he was a competent filmmaker even under the most extreme conditions. I just don’t think he had any upper range. So, sure, this is all kind of silly but at least it’s a decently told joke.

Diary of a Madman (1963)

*. After the titles play we get a quote from the story by Guy de Maupassant that this film was inspired by, “The Horla.” The Horla was actually the movie’s original title, but they probably figured that would confuse people. As it is, the story is changed so completely that if they didn’t actually name the demonic spirit the Horla then I doubt anyone would have got the connection.
*. You might think that with such a literary forebear the script might be pretty good. It isn’t. The dialogue is stiff and expository, to the point of humour. An early example has the police chief angrily saying “Murderers. They’re all the same. Humanity would be much better off without them.” Then there is plot, which is the usual Vincent Price material. Yes, once again he is a man left mooning over the memory of his dead wife. And once again he finds himself trapped in a burning building. Talk about formula.
*. What all this adds up to is a film with a really simple little idea: a man is possessed by some kind of evil spirit that forces him to kill. You might take something like that and make it into one of the entries in a horror anthology, running around 20 minutes. To blow it up into a feature invites a lot of dead air.
*. If it had been a little tighter it might have been scarier as well. As it is, how many times do we have to see Simon Cordier’s French windows blow open? Couldn’t he try fastening them shut?
*. Then there is the voice of the Horla. Director Reginald Le Borg was disappointed by this. He wanted something that sounded more distorted but the studio had trouble understanding what it was saying so they gave it what the New York Times reviewer called “a voice like a toothpaste commercial and a disconcerting giggle.”
*. Actually, you could defend the voice (which was provided by Joseph Ruskin, who went on to have a very long and productive career in Hollywood as both an actor and a producer). If you take the point of view that the Horla is just a figment of Cordier’s imagination then it does have the same kind of smoothness as Price’s own inimitable voice.
*. Did Ozzy Osbourne get the title of his debut album from this film? It’s not a totally idle question. Somewhat idle, I’ll grant you, but not totally. Apparently Black Sabbath (Osbourne’s earlier band) took their name from the Bava film, which was released the same year as Diary of a Madman. So . . . it’s possible.
*. I really didn’t understand the business with the mirror. Cordier looks in a full-length mirror and doesn’t see his reflection. As the invisible Horla puts it, “common sense tells you that the reason you can’t see yourself is that someone stands between you and the mirror.” But if that were the case wouldn’t Cordier notice something else wrong with the image in the mirror? He shouldn’t be able to see anything past the Horla, which is still invisble. Or actually he wouldn’t be able to see the mirror at all because the Horla would be standing in the way.
*. Let’s end with what stuck with me. Nancy Kovack looks gorgeous. The one (yes, there’s really only one) big kill scene is pretty extreme, at least for the time. Vincent really has to stick Kovack with the knife quite a lot. And what he does with her head is pretty darn gruesome. I don’t understand why he does it, but it’s gruesome.
*. And that’s about it. It’s a very typical production of its time, with a story that’s hard to pay attention to once you realize that it’s not going anywhere interesting.

Die, Monster, Die! (1965)

*. I believe this is the first of what would be many films inspired by the H. P. Lovecraft story “The Colour Out of Space.” It’s usually considered to be a very free interpretation, but as far as Lovecraft movies go I think it’s par for the course. Most Lovecraft movies have only the slightest connection to their source, and basically pretend they’re doing Poe, as here. But there would be other adaptations of “The Colour Out of Space” that would go far further afield than this.
*. Of course there had to be some changes. The hardscrabble Massachusetts farm nobody would want to visit is transplanted to a more cinematic Arkham in England, where it has become a ginormous manor house. They kept the meteorite with its curious radioactive properties that lead to mutation, madness, and degeneration, but introduced a pair of young lovers of the kind that the rather repressed H. P. would never countenance.
*. The young male lead is played by Nick Adams. I thought this name had to be a nod to Hemingway but it’s actually derived from his birth name of Nicholas Aloysius Adamschock. He was a friend of James Dean, and starred as Johnny Yuma in the television series The Rebel (a show I never saw and I’m certain I never will). He died of a drug overdose only a few years after this film was made. I don’t know what he was like as Johnny Yuma but he’s awful here.
*. It was given a lot of titles both generic and silly (at the same time). One working title was The House at the End of the World (or even The Monster in the House at the End of the World). In the UK it was released as, drum roll . . . Monster of Terror.
*. As far as Die, Monster, Die! goes, I love the punctuation but it carries a sense of urgency the film itself never rises to, while leaving it unclear who or what the monster is. I suppose they mean the transformed Nahum Witley, but he doesn’t have much screen time and the title suggests to me a greater level of exasperation than is experienced by anyone.
*. The proceedings are even more generic than the title. It was an AIP release, shot at Shepperton, and looks it. Andrew Migliore and John Strysik, in their guide to the cinema of Lovecraft Lurker in the Lobby, call the movie a “textbook example of the walking-around-endlessly-in-a-big-house school of filmmaking.” That just about sums it up for me as well.
*. It’s hard to overstate just how familiar all this is. When our hero gets off the train in Arkham and asks around town to see if he can get a ride to the Witley place everyone cuts him dead. Once he arrives and begins walking around the big house he sees scary portraits of Witley ancestors, encounters decaying women hiding behind veils, spies creepy figures peering into windows, is surprised by skeletons swinging out of closets, and survives killers smashing through locked doors. The monster in the end crashes through a banister and falls to his death, leaving the heroes to barely escape from the burning house. How many times have you seen this movie?
*. There’s just nothing here that’s interesting. Yes, there’s Boris Karloff, but he’s a bore stuck in a wheelchair. The effects are terrible. Lovecraft is scarcely a presence. The only part I enjoyed was the zoo of mutated creatures kept in the (huge) storage closet in the greenhouse. They were amusing. And seeing as they weren’t in the house when it burned down, maybe they survived. That’s all I was left with at the end.

The Trial (1962)

*. Franz Kafka is usually held, I think fairly, as being one of the great mythographers and prophets of the twentieth century. His work is also characterized most often as having the quality of a nightmare vision of bureaucratic hell. This too strikes me as fair.
*. I don’t mean to be perverse then when I say that I also find his novels strangely comforting. There’s something not modern but old-fashioned in his vision of a world dominated by creaky and opaque hierachies, with influence channeled through the mysterious influence of solicitous women. Of course no one would want to actually be Joseph K., but the lawyer Huld (named Hastler here) seems to lead quite the life, lying in bed all day while being tended to by Romy Schneider. It’s not necessarily a bad world, at least if you can find your place in it.
*. I think something of this ambiguity can be seen in the decor and setting of this version of The Trial. One expects to see the curtains rise on an envrionment not unlike the post-WW2 streets of Vienna in The Third Man but we instead find ourselves in a thoroughly modern apartment block, and then a giant open-concept office space filled with clacking typewriters that makes one think Terry Gilliam must have been taking notes for Brazil.
*. Later, however, we will step back into the past, with many of the interiors being shot in the vast and cluttered spaces of the Gare d’Orsay. These locations do have a bombed-out and antique feel to them and they help give the sense of a world so old it’s falling apart.

*. The Trial is a work that has always invited a wide variety of interpretations. Combined with Welles’s belief that film should never be an illustration of a book but an original creation, and that a director has not only the right but the obligation to turn a literary source into something different from what the author intended, we should expect something a bit different from a literal adaptation. And this is what we get.
*. What are the essential elements of Welles’s version? I’ll just mention a few of what I think are the most characteristic.
*. In the first place, it’s a comic Trial. Welles told Anthony Perkins that black comedy was what he was going for and I think that’s clearly what he achieved in several places. Just look at Welles’s own first appearance with a wet towel over his face. Nor is this a particularly revisionist reading of the text, since apparently Kafka himself thought The Trial to be very funny and would laugh out loud while reading the manuscript to friends (it was only published after his death).
*. Does the lightheartedness go too far? I think it does in one instance. What I’m referring to is the ending, which has a laughing and defiant K. blown up with a stick of dynamite instead of being ritually sacrificed with a knife.
*. Now Welles had a serious reason for doing this. He thought it a response to the Holocaust, in that he didn’t want to show K. as masochistically submitting to his death. He thought that that sort of thing “stank of the old Prague ghetto” and wanted instead to show K. making a final defiant gesture, even if it was fruitless. That’s fair enough, but the explosion at the end here — which some have seen as invoking the spectre of nuclear war, though this was not intended — strikes me as being light and cartoonish. One almost expects to see Perkins crawling out of the hole with his face blackened and clothes in tatters, still laughing away.
*. The second interpretive angle taken is to present K. as a social climber. Welles saw him a man on the rise, a pusher trying to make it in the bureaucracy rather than someone fighting against it. Explaining this point of view to some film students, he said K. was not in conflict with society but society was in conflict with him.
*. I like this point of view and think it’s successfully put forward. (I also think it’s something there in the text as well.) One of the interesting ways Welles shows it is by making elevation into a visual motif. Authority is always presented as being on high. K.’s “office” in the typewriter hall, for example, is just a raised platform at one end. The judge in the courtroom/hall is also on an elevated stage, and K. is shown having difficulty climbing onto it. The preacher’s pulpit forces K. to look up at him and even Hastler’s bed is on a kind of dais. These are the kinds of commanding heights that K. wants to climb. Instead, he descends into an open pit.

*. Finally, there is a sexual angle given to the proceedings. Some of this is in Kafka, like the way K. attempts to recruit women to help him in his cause. But there’s also the fact that Welles knew Perkins was homosexual and used that as a way of suggesting another layer of anxiety — the fear of exposure.
*. As a result, the film becomes what David Thomson calls “a homosexual horror story,” with a gay man afraid of being exposed finding himself at the mercy of a gang of “ravenous women.” Well, when you’re paranoid then the whole world is a threat, and I think all of this works really well. And I never really understood Joseph K.’s relation to women in the novel anyway.
*. A big scene (almost nine minutes) involving the computer was cut at the last minute. This would, according to Welles, have said something about man’s slavish relationship to something that was only a tool, a rather prophetic statement in 1962. This is another interpolation that was, of course, not in the book but which still would have fit well with it.

*. I have to say I’m not that happy with Welles’s own appearance as Hastler. Especially his strangely boyish haircut. The lawyer in the novel is an old man and unwell. Here he just seems odd. Welles had originally wanted Jackie Gleason (more comedy) but Gleason turned him down. I think with Welles in the part it’s definitely something different, but I still think it’s a case of miscasting.
*. All the usual comments one has to make about the bravura aspects of a Welles film — the use of space, the lighting, the editing, the long takes — apply here. It’s a visual treat from beginning to end. And the script is one of the most original things about it, full of well-timed diversions and clever bits of Pinteresque dark humour. I don’t think it adds up to one of Welles’s greatest films, but that’s a tough hill to climb. It’s still a truly great movie, and a landmark work of art in its own right.

Becket (1964)

*. I recently found myself watching Becket at the same time as I was preparing notes on Cleopatra, a movie that had been released just the year before. Of course both movies are historical costume dramas made in the grand style, both won Academy Awards (Becket was nominated for twelve!), and both star Richard Burton, but I found another parallel more significant.
*. Despite being widely celebrated (Cleopatra was, among its other benchmarks, surely the most famous, or notorious, movie of its time), both films are almost entirely forgotten today.
*. Time was when even popular history books dealing with either figure would have to address their screen versions, pointing out signifcant inaccuracies or liberties taken with the historical record. Today that’s no longer necessary, as nobody comes to a book about Cleopatra or Thomas Beckett with preconceptions based on their memories of Elizabeth Taylor or Richard Burton needing to be overcome. Indeed, the films aren’t even mentioned in some recent studies.
*. Well, this is one case where I can’t fault the fickle taste of the public. I found Becket to be nearly unwatchable this time out, which was the first time I’d seen it in twenty years. It’s so heavy-handed, so ponderous, so pious, that it makes you feel like you’re visiting a different planet. Did we really think this was great filmmaking sixty years ago?
*. The script gives us lines like “Where honour should be, in me there is only a void.” Such lines are then underscored by musical notations that put the words into bold relief. And they are delivered by Burton in a manner that suggests either (or both) extreme boredom and/or someone already turning to stone. How many movies did Richard Burton ever smile in anyway?
*. I’ve heard that Burton actually wanted to play King Henry. I think that would have worked. He has that air of humourless cruelty I think the real Henry, and the part here, call for. O’Toole as Becket, however, would have been a dicier proposition.
*. Peter O’Toole does try his best to liven things up, but he’s stuck in a ridiculous part that barely makes any sense. Did you not know that he loves Thomas? Then he’ll tell you. Again. And again. But in what sense does he love him? How can such a long, overwritten film dealing with only two characters fail to give us any real sense of who they are, or of their motivations? They’re just voices and costumes.
*. About the only amusing thing is all the homoerotic stuff. I can’t call this a subtext because there’s nothing secondary or hidden about it. It’s so pervasive and explicit it starts to be funny after a while. I think there are even three scenes where Burton and O’Toole are lying or sitting in bed together (a couple of times after throwing a woman out).
*. It’s hard to overstate how blatant this is. The two men are more than just boon companions. As noted, Henry is constantly crying about his love for Thomas. His mother upbraids him for his “unhealthy and unnatural” attachment and his wife complains of his neglecting her.
*. On the DVD commentary O’Toole addresses this by saying that “to put it in terms of homosexual and heterosexual is to miss the point. It was love.” What he means is nothing platonic, but more a laddish, locker-room kind of thing. But then O’Toole says how, in a locker-room, “blokes often give each other a rub, if you follow me.” Then he breaks into laughter. So yes, we get it. We can’t miss it.
*. I wonder where this comes from. I don’t think Jean Anouilh, who wrote the play the film was based on, or screenwriter Edward Anhalt were gay. Homosexuality was still a crime in England at the time, and yet it’s not like they were hiding anything here. Is there a political point being made? I’m not sure what it could be.
*. But, as I say, this is the only thing that I found interesting in the film. A few years later O’Toole would return as Henry II in The Lion in Winter (1968) which at least had a bitchy, soap-opera charm to it I still enjoy. Come to think of it,even Cleopatra is more fun. Becket is only a turgid and fusty historical drama of the kind I’m relieved they don’t make any more.

Children of the Damned (1964)

*. Sequels often disappoint by being just a rehash of the original. Producers can’t be blamed for that, since what audiences usually want is more of the same. It’s a bold move to break with a successful formula.
*. So I’ll give Children of the Damned credit, a lot of credit even, for trying to do something different. This isn’t Village of the Damned 2: The New Batch. Unfortunately, that just makes me feel even more disappointed at how bad it is.
*. The storylines in the two films are so different that it’s sometimes said that this isn’t a sequel. To some extent I agree, but the children are still supernatural offspring (virgin births), still have the same powers (mind reading and mind control, a shared group consciousness), and they did make use of the “Damned” again in the title, so a sequel of sorts it is.
*. I assume they’re the same alien hybrids as in the first movie, though even in Village of the Damned the business of their mothers’ impregnation was left murky, for obvious reasons, and we never really knew who their daddy was. In this film it’s often said that the explanation offered of a sudden evolutionary jump through parthenogenesis means that there is no alien impregnation, but accelerated evolution, a “biological sport,” is just presented as a hypothesis and wouldn’t rule out an alien breeding program anyway.
*. On the DVD commentary track writer John Briley says he thought of the film as essentially “a moral fable about the Cold War” and not a psychological thriller. That seems right to me. The basic idea is that the children represent the best and the brightest of the scientific community being co-opted by the military-industrial complex to create more advanced weapons system. Given what they’re able to put together in the church out of scraps and spare parts one can see the potential.
*. So basically this is an anti-war movie piggy-backing on the premise from Village of the Damned. Even the end is meant to make a point about how easy it would be to accidentally turn a cold war hot. And I credit Briley (who would later win an Academy Award for writing Gandhi) for his political stand. But at the end of the day I don’t think it works.
*. I don’t know if it’s possible to make such a movie without seeming preachy. Children of the Damned is preachy, and was apparently meant to be even preachier. The kids even hole up in a church for heaven’s sake!

*. Briley also wrote a creepy little movie called The Medusa Touch that, when you think about it, is very similar to Children of the Damned. I hadn’t thought about the connection until I found out he wrote The Medusa Touch when researching these notes. (Yes, I do research. Not much, but a bit.)
*. When Doctors Llewellyn and Neville go knocking on Paul’s door and they are greeted by the lovely Barbara Ferris (playing Paul’s aunt) she asks them if she can help them. A leering Doctor Neville chortles “Rather!”
*. This seemed a bit out of character but I didn’t think much of it. Then, listening to Briley’s commentary, I was surprised to hear him say that he had to work hard to keep the audience from thinking of the two doctors as homosexuals. To be honest, I had never thought of this. Then, re-watching it, I guess I could see where people might get that idea. They never seem to hook up with Ferris. On the other hand, they are shown as sleeping in separate bedrooms.
*. I wonder if Black Sabbath were inspired by this movie when they wrote the song “Children of the Grave.” That was released in 1971 and the lyrics talk about children rising up to protest against war. There are lines like “Must the world live in the shadow of atomic fear? Can they win the fight for peace or will they disappear?” It’s not too much of a stretch to think there was some influence. I mean, they got the name of the band from the marquee outside a theatre playing Bava’s Black Sabbath.
*. Well, to sum up, it’s all quite earnest but I didn’t find it very interesting. I like the junior Anacharsis Cloots congress marching about London but they just don’t have the same edge that the cuckoos from the first film had. John Wyndham’s main theme about a competition between incompatible species never gets much of a hearing. These kids are the good guys, not damned at all but sent from above to redeem fallen humanity, and ending up much like that other fellow. This be the verse.

Village of the Damned (1960)

*. What’s in a name? A lot. You sure as hell weren’t goint to call the movie The Midwich Cuckoos, which was the title of the John Wyndham novel it was based on. Steve Haberman actually begins his DVD commentary by telling us what a cuckoo is and how it relates to the story, which is a bit of information that’s probably even more necessary to explain today than it was in 1960. Plus any title with “cuckoo” in it just sounds funny.
*. What’s in a name? Pauline Kael thought the moniker of Wolf Rilla “a terrific name for the director of this particular film.” Remarkably, it was his real name. Habermas calls Village of the Damned “by far his most important film” so despite having a long career in the business, and writing a couple of well-regarded books on filmmaking, he never had a breakthrough. He later remarked “I’ve made 27 films and this is the only one that people remember.” That’s a bit odd, as I think he does a good turn here. But it does happen.
*. Martin Stephens was another disappearing act. At the time he was Britain’s best known child actor, and just the next year would appear in the remarkable horror gem The Innocents. But he didn’t continue with acting and went on to become an architect.

*. Wyndham thought the novel would be unfilmable, and I can understand why. It has an odd structure that doesn’t lend itself to a dramatic adaptation, with a gap of quite a few years between the first part of the story and when we pick it up later on, with the children all of school age. It’s also the case that the children have mental powers that are difficult to show. Only their effects can be seen.
*. Another problem had to do with the subject matter. This was pretty risky stuff for 1960. You’ll note they don’t even say the word “pregnant” out loud. They only refer to the women’s “condition.” And at first the script was rejected because it was thought to represent an anti-Catholic mocking of the virgin birth (which Haberman confuses with the doctrine of the immaculate conception). [Note: A helpful reader provides some more information on this in the comments below.]

*. Overall, I think the script does a good job. The number of children is cut by quite a bit (there are around sixty of them in the novel). The use of their mental powers is signaled by the effect of their glowing eyes, which was a good idea (insisted on by MGM to liven things up a bit) but is undercut by the fact that they have to use what are obvious freeze frames to show it, except for one scene.
*. In the novel the children don’t have the ability to read minds. They can control other people, but can’t see what they’re thinking. This is a pretty major change, and leads to the film’s climax (which John Carpenter would follow in his remake), of Zellaby hiding the presence of the bomb in his satchel behind a mental brick wall. it’s another example of a change that made things more dramatic.
*. Barbara Shelley thought the script mistakenly marginalized the mothers. Carpenter’s remake would try to correct this, though I’m not sure if this was an improvement. For what it’s worth, Wyndham’s novel doesn’t play up this angle at all.
*. I don’t think this is necessarily sexism. Is there anything so depressing as that line-up of gloomy cuckolds at the pub? Nobody has to say anything.

*. The political reading is kind of interesting. On the one hand the kids may be the advance guard of a Nazi master race: little Aryans with a ruthless social Darwinist agenda. Or they may be communist cells, unfeeling apparatchiks with no individual identity looking to disperse and submerge themselves in their host society’s bloodstream.
*. The problem with either of these interpretations is that the children aren’t monsters. Sure they kill people, but they are being threatened with extermination and when they lash out it’s usually because of poor impulse control. I mean, they could behave a lot worse. They’re not as sympathetically drawn as the kids in the sequel, Children of the Damned, but if we were in their shoes would we behave any different?

*. This is a point that could never be resolved. As noted, in the sequel the case is made that the children are potentially forces for good who are destroyed by accident only because they’re misunderstood. In the Carpenter remake one of the children is saved, having learned to achieve a certain level of empathy. Both films pull back from the harsh law of survival advanced by Wyndham’s book: that this world isn’t big enough for our two species and that one of us must be destroyed. Is that a political point though, or a more philosophical one? I guess it depends on how alien you see the children as being.
*. I think it’s this ambiguity that keeps Village of the Damned relevant. It’s also an interesting looking film, and the little blonde kids have become iconic But the suggestion that mankind is something to be surpassed, quickly and violently, is one that still has the power to make us feel uncomfortable. We could probably make our own genetically-engineered cuckoos now, and there may be some people who want to. Are they the enemy? I’m not drinking their Kool-Aid.