Category Archives: 1960s

Hamlet (1964)

*. Enter Ghost! And that’s what I call an entrance! He’s wearing what may be the greatest cape in film history. It puts Dracula’s and Superman’s and even the magical cape of Doctor Strange to shame, billowing like a giant black flag in a hurricane and signaling in semaphore of tragedy ahead.
*. Nothing else impressed me quite as much in this version of Hamlet (or “Gamlet” as it apparently translates to in English, for some reason I can’t understand). Though I do think this is an impressive interpretation in a lot of ways, nothing can quite live up to that Ghost.
*. Much of it seems like an odd combination of pieces that don’t always fit together. It has an expansive feel to it, for example, but is a radically pruning of the text. What’s more, the cuts come where you least expect them. And by that I mean not that famous lines are lost (all the lines in Hamlet are famous now), but that the movie builds up toward making you think you’re going to get certain speeches and then you don’t.

*. Just to give some examples of what I mean: (1) I was surprised when the film broke for intermission just when Claudius is praying (or failing to pray) for forgiveness, assuming Hamlet was about to discover him and give his “Now might I do it” speech. But in fact all of this is dropped and Hamlet never sneaks up on him. (2) We get to see Hamlet coming across Fortinbras’s army marching off to fight over a straw, but there’s none of his soliloquy interpreting the meaning of it. (3) Most notably, after being wounded with the bloody rapier Hamlet takes a long walk outside the castle to find a suitably dramatic spot to expire in, then lies down and says merely “The rest is silence.” You had to think he was going to be saying a little more after all that build-up.
*. I guess if you know the play well enough this might not bother you, at least too much. Apparently director Grigori Kozintsev had thought of producing the play as pantomime. There were a few times when I actually turned off the subtitles because I was finding them annoying. I don’t have Hamlet by heart, but I knew the gist of what was being said and that was enough. The translation was done by Boris Pasternak, but the subtitles were given in the original (that is, Shakespeare’s) language anyway.

*. Another example of incongruity: the exteriors, shot mainly around the fortress of Ivangorod, are suitably rugged and imposing, as though Elsinore has been carved out of the cliffs, but they don’t really match with the giant studio interiors. I’m always bothered when the floor of a movie castle looks so clean and smooth you could eat your dinner off of it.
*. Kozintsev: “The general view of the castle must not be filmed. The image will appear only in the unity of the sensations of Elsinore’s various aspects. And its external appearance, in the montage of the sequences filmed in a variety of places.” Even so, I felt like the settings tended to overwhelm the actors and their lines, and the film as a whole seems too intent on showing them off, wrapping as many of them as possible into a single scene through multiple transitions and lots of camera movement.
*. The fragmentation Kozintsev mentions does help him to create the sense of Elsinore being a prison though, as does the motif of shooting through bars and other barriers. This reminded me a lot of the similar effect achieved in Welles’s Othello. Even Ophelia’s hoops and stays are like a cage she’s being put into. Meanwhile, I assume the bird is meant to represent the soul set free. Its most notable appearance comes after the lid has been hammered shut on Ophelia’s coffin.

*. There are some places where the cuts are interesting. I like how they cut the dumbshow before the play, which is something I think every production should do. And Claudius’s response to the play is interesting: he clearly knows what Hamlet is up to, stands and claps a couple of times and then storms off in a rage. That seems to me to be the way it should be played, but it’s rarely done like that.
*. Another interesting cut is the Ghost’s appearance in Gertrude’s bedroom. Not only does he not have any lines, we don’t see him at all. The only thing we see is Hamlet staring at nothing. This puts us in the position of his mother, who cannot see the Ghost in the play, and makes us wonder if Hamlet is beginning to lose his grip.
*. In general, I think it’s a movie that doesn’t handle the big things all that well but does a good job with the little things. As an example of the former I’d point to the fight with Laertes over Ophelia’s grave, which really seems to come out of nowhere.
*. I’ll give a few examples of little touches that I really enjoyed: (1) The way Hamlet taps his fingers on the drum when talking to the players. This nicely represents his distracted state of mind but also how they will all march to his beat. (2) When walking through the castle in one scene Hamlet stops to remove a pebble (or something) from his shoe. That’s a nice, incongruously naturalistic way of grounding him in this stony world. (3) Addressing poor Yorick, sand keeps pouring from the skull. I don’t think a skull needs embellishing as a memento mori, but this does it without feeling like it’s too much.

*. Apparently Kenneth Branagh considered this to be a definitive screen adaptation of the play. I’m not sure what he meant by that. As I’ve already noted, it’s a long way from even being a “greatest hits” version of the text. I think he might have been impressed by its epic qualities, which he adopted for his own version in 1996.
*. I don’t think it’s definitive. It’s too much of a mixed bag. The same director’s King Lear would be a greater triumph. There are a lot of things I really like about this movie, but there are some bad parts as well, especially with regard to what’s missing, like where the cuts just seem too abrupt and awkward. Why does Polonius carp at the Player for going on too long when he’s only delivered a couple of lines? That kind of thing.
*. While it may not be definitive, it is a prominent landmark and compares well with the other great screen Hamlets. A definitive production of Hamlet doesn’t exist anyway. Indeed, we don’t even have a definitive text to work from. This is a long way from perfect, but overall it’s as good as any.

Matango (1963)

*. I came to Matango not as a fan of director Ishiro Honda, the man who created Gojira (and who went on to direct seven more Godzilla movies for Toho). Instead, I’d read William H. Hodgson’s 1907 short story “The Voice in the Night,” which is the somewhat stodgy but nevertheless still quite effective horror tale that Matango was loosely based on.
*. Hodgson’s story has a sailing ship encountering a man who tells of being abandoned on an island with his fiancé where an invasive species of mushrooms infect people and turn them into fungi, a fate that the unhappy couple share. It was first filmed as a standalone episode for the TV show Suspicion in 1958 that you can watch online. It’s more faithful to the original story but not very good. Matango was the second adaptation.

*. I wanted to like it. It’s a movie with a certain reputation that doesn’t quite rise to a cult among monster-movie fans. Apparently Steven Soderbergh wanted to remake it but couldn’t get Toho’s permission, and Guillermo del Toro also ranks it as a favourite. It was controversial in Japan because the make-up effects on the faces of the people turning into mushrooms resembled radiation burns. For many years it was an obscure, shlocky title, having been released directly to television in the U.S. as Attack of the Mushroom People and later on home video in the U.K. as Fungus of Terror.
*. Unfortunately it never lives up to its promise. I’m not sure what direction they were trying to go. The story is genuinely creepy, but the film isn’t scary at all. Of course the full-blown mushroom people look ridiculous in their totally Toho rubber suits, but they’re made to seem even sillier with the oddly giggling soundtrack and the fact that they seem mostly harmless.
*. The real danger the mushrooms present lies in their addictive quality. Once you’ve tasted wild ‘shrooms you can’t get enough. Much as with The Stuff, it soon becomes more a case of it eating you than you eating it.

*. This addiction angle is apparently what drew Honda to the project, who saw the film as a serious comment on youth culture in Japan at the time. Which would be interesting too, but again it’s not a point that’s clearly made. The group stranded on the island are starving so it makes sense they’d eat the mushrooms. And as it is, the ‘shrooms don’t result in cases of reefer madness but basically just make everyone happy and mellow. All the final-stage creatures seem to want is a hug. Nor is it all that effective as a swipe at rebel youth, since the gang stuck on the island are too old.
*. I can understand Soderbergh wanting to take a crack at a remake. There’s potential here throughout. I loved the set of the infected ghost ship, and the mushroom garden might have been something truly original and grotesque instead of the chintzy rubber plantation it looks like. People do get fungal growths and they’re disgusting, so if the effects had been better it could have been a real stomach-turner. The ending that has Akiko going full Betty Driscoll from The Invasion of the Body Snatchers could have been so much more sinister. The group dynamics, especially given the open question of who has eaten the forbidden fungus, might have played out like The Thing. So many might-have-beens.
*. Murai’s expression of loss at the end is nicely ambiguous. “I’d be happier living on that island than in this city.” Which makes sense if you’re turning into a mushroom and that’s where you lost your girlfriend. There may be an evocation here of a demonic fairyland. But what does he mean when he says that the citizens of Tokyo are just the same as the mushroom people? That in a modern, urban society we’re all drugged-out zombies anyway? And why is such a message tacked onto the end? It hasn’t been developed at all or even introduced up to that point, despite the presence of a few flashbacks from the characters.
*. There’s no question this is a lot better than your usual Toho creature feature. But it leaves you with the feeling that it could have been even more. I’d like to think it could still be remade and something salvaged but at this point that ship has probably sailed. For better and for worse this is all the Matango we’ve got.

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

*. Also known as “the one where they get in a fight on top of a cable car.” I imagine that scene was sort of like the car chase in Bullitt (a film that came out the same year). In the script for Bullitt all it apparently said was “car chase.” They would have needed a bit more than that here, to take into account the planting of the bomb, the one bad guy falling to his death, and the jump to the other cable car, but there still might not have been much more than half a page of notes.
*. The cable-car fight grows in the imagination. For one thing, I’d had it stuck in my head that Schaffer, Clint Eastwood’s character, had been the protagonist. That would have made more sense — Richard Burton (age 43, overweight, and reported to be drinking up to four bottles of vodka a day!) was scarcely credible as an action star — but in fact Schaffer had been knocked unconscious and was sleeping back in the castle, leaving the heroism for Major Smith. Or Alf Joint, the stuntman who lost three teeth doing the jump.
*. The other thing that struck me watching the cable-car scene today is that there’s a lot less of it than I remembered. Most of it was done with process shots. For all the daring of the stunt work, which certainly was impressive, it only amounts to a matter of a minute or so on screen.
*. I kept thinking how they’d do it differently today. This is an old-school production which makes wonderful use of locations and physical stunts. In addition to the cable-car jump, Burton knocked himself out at one point (or else he was dead drunk), and the squib that exploded on the Gestapo officer’s face temporarily blinded him (squibs were a new technology in 1968). Sure some of it looks off, like the dummy that falls from the cliff and the ones in the jeep that explodes at the airfield, but overall it holds up well. I prefer practical effects to CGI any day.

*. One place where I think things have improved with today’s movies though is in pacing. I think Where Eagles Dare is sometimes sluggish and that’s not solely attributable to our abbreviated twenty-first century attention spans. Even in the 1980s action films would handle their main sequences in a far livelier way than director Brian G. Hutton does here. I kept thinking of the attack on the guerilla camp in Predator as a comparison. But we could also go with a more contemporary comparison. The assault on Blofeld’s mountain-top fortress in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is far better handled than anything here.
*. We spend a lot of time watching the gang set traps with their inexhaustible supply of dynamite bundles and it seems things should move a little quicker through the final act. I think some of this too might be blamed on the bizarre decision Smith makes to take the three double-agents with them. How was that ever going to work? Come on. And then it just goes from one escape sequence to the next, with the good guys always one step ahead of the explosions.

*. Geoff Dyer wrote a fun little book about this movie called “Broadsword Calling Danny Boy.” He’s pretty dismissive of director Brian G. Hutton: “Hutton’s stylistic signature as director lies in the absence of anything that might permit us to recognize him as an auteur. Apart from the stuntmen — and -woman — no one connected with the film is more undercover than its director.” But is a lack of flash a bad thing? I don’t think it has to be, at least for an action flick. But Hutton’s problem is that he doesn’t really deliver the goods with the action.
*. I grew up on the adventure novels of Alistair MacLean (and Hammond Innes, who I might have thought of as the same guy at one point). But aside from the basic premise I don’t think this is a great story. Eastwood found the script had too much exposition and he had a point. It’s far too complicated and left me wondering at the end just what had really been going on. The big dining-hall scene with Burton droning on only confused me. I wondered what would happen if one of the British double-agents was actually a triple-agent? How would Smith/Schmidt know? It’s not like they could have trusted Smith. And wasn’t this an incredibly complicated (not to mention dangerous) way just to smoke out some moles?
*. The cast manages. Aside from his being drunk I still had trouble buying Burton in his role but I guess he makes out. Eastwood refused to have his hair cut to look slightly more military, but can you blame him? That Sonic the Hedgehog ‘do looks great. Mary Ure had top billing along with the two male leads but I wonder how many people remember her today. She died young from an overdose.
*. Did you know that “radio room” in German is Funkraum? I didn’t know that, but I got a laugh out of seeing the sign on the Funkraum door. I guess radio in German is funk, or rundfunk. This is not, however, where we get the English word funk for a mix of jazz, soul, and rhythm & blues. That goes all the way back to the Latin fumigare for a strong, earth odour.
*. Another laugh came with the German soldier shot at the end of the bridge whose head falls forward so his helmet doinks on the railing. I don’t know if that was meant to be funny, or if it was even intentional, but it’s great.
*. Dyer’s book makes a lot out of how much the movie meant to him as a kid. Like me, he read MacLean as a tween. Going over the names he drops of people who still claim to love this film (Steven Spielberg has called it his favourite war movie) I have to wonder how much of this is nostalgia among men who are now middle-aged or older. While I think it’s still good entertainment, it’s too long, plays slow, and has a ridiculous storyline. Aside from the cable-car stunt there’s not even anything new or interesting in the action department but just the usual clichés like bad guys who can’t hit anything and cars (and planes!) exploding into balls of fire every time they get bumped. And yet it takes me back to better times. Maybe not better movies, but better times.

The Apartment (1960)

*. For younger people living in the third decade of the twenty-first century it may be hard to understand how big a deal television once was. In the 1950s it was conquering the world, much like the Internet would do fifty years later. A switchboard operator in The Apartment doesn’t want a date that will interfere with her watching The Untouchables. That’s how much it meant. Colour broadcasting, however, wouldn’t start taking over until the mid-1960s, which meant that movies were still giving audiences something most people couldn’t see at home. Though this didn’t always mean colour, as it didn’t in this case, or in Psycho, released the same year.
*. Television is both a direct and indirect presence in The Apartment. According to Bruce Block on the DVD commentary Billy Wilder hated television, and once said that the only time he watched it was when they were showing a movie by a director he couldn’t stand, since it would then be the perfect medium. Hence the joke of Jack Lemmon’s C. C. Baxter doing the usual lonely-guy routine of frozen dinner while channel surfing on the couch, but never getting to actually watch Grand Hotel because of all the words from our sponsors. That’s no way to see a movie!
*. But then Baxter and Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) are small-screen types. When she’s recovering at his place Baxter offers to move the TV into the bedroom for her. That’s being a gent. And there’s Fred MacMurray in a very dark turn. David Thomson thought Sheldrake “would shock a new age used to MacMurray’s benevolence on TV in My Three Sons,” but in 1960 he’d already played a heel in Double Indemnity and My Three Sons hadn’t started yet. Also, Block notes how all of the supporting cast here were well-known television actors.

*. I mentioned Psycho for the use of black-and-white, but it was also a movie shot as a TV production, with Hitch using most of his crew from his show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. And both films make something out of the incongruity between the new family hearth and decidedly transgressive subject matter.
*. Nobody gets killed in a shower in The Apartment, but while it’s a step down from Sunset Boulevard (ten years earlier) it was still breaking norms. I think it marks the end of Wilder’s great run of movies that were fresh and shocking then and can still capture an audience today.
*. First and foremost there are the two leads. Sure their work environment is toxic. Wilder even thought of the story primarily as that of two people becoming emancipated from the office, which is full of male predators whose casual cruelty would make one of the Mad Men cringe. But are Baxter and Kubelik any better?
*. They’re both young people on the rise, immoral and unscrupulous. Nor are they much angels outside of the office. Baxter has no qualms about sleeping with the married woman he picks up in a bar. Kubelik does go back to Sheldrake after all (as does Baxter). You could say either that they’re redeemed at the end or that they just suit each other. Will they stay together or are they more likely to bounce at the first opportunity to move up a level?

*. Roger Ebert: “while Baxter and Miss Kubelik may indeed like each other — may feel genuine feelings of the sort that lead to true love — they are both slaves to the company’s value system. He wants to be the boss’ assistant, she wants to be the boss’ wife, and both of them are so blinded by the concept of ‘boss’ that they can’t see Mr. Sheldrake for an untrustworthy rat.”
*. The studio was worried that Baxter might be too unlikeable, and it was suggested that they give him a limp or some kind of disability. I’m glad they kept him as just a weasel, and Lemmon plays the part perfectly. I’ve always thought there was more to Lemmon than just comedy and Wilder was able to bring it out. Meanwhile, MacLaine does a great job of balancing “sexy, funny, and sad” (screenwriter Izzy Diamond). But how dumb is she? She can’t spell well enough to be a secretary and the only job she can get is as an elevator operator. She also can’t see that Sheldrake is playing her. I know nobody is stupid all the time, but that’s pretty thick.
*. Dealing with suicide was tricky, but it’s nicely balanced out with the echoing scenes where they the two lovebirds mistakenly think the other has gone all the way. Overall it’s a beautifully plotted movie (I’m not as fond of the dialogue), with all sorts of cues that have to be stored away to be picked up later. Diamond, who had also written Some Like It Hot, was obviously still on top of his game.
*. Also worth praising is the set design by Alexandre Trauner. The office and apartment sets are perfect complements, and expressive of both theme and character. To return to the movie/television blending I started off talking about, the wide-open spaces of the office are big-screen, the cluttered apartment small.
*. It’s testimony to how ahead of his time Wilder was that while this movie shows some lightening of his darker vision it’s still has twice the bite of today’s rom-coms, whose plots were often derived from the same “wrong guy vs. the right guy” formula. I’m not a fan of rom-coms, but that may be because my favourite examples of the genre all go back half a century or more. Progress in the arts is a mirage.

Secret Ceremony (1968)

*. What the hell did I just see?
*. OK, so Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor) is a prostitute of a certain age and avoirdupois (Liz at the time was comfortably settling into these roles of voluptuous if not rank maturity). Leonora is American, but working in London, which is something that’s never explained. One day she goes to church to lay flowers on her daughter’s grave.
*. Then there’s this rich young woman with extreme mental problems (she thinks she’s a little girl, for one thing) named Cenci (Mia Farrow). Cenci sees Leonora riding the bus to her daughter’s grave, and since Leonora reminds Cenci of her dead mother she starts following her around and calling her “mum.” She even invites Leonora to come live with her in her fabulous mansion. Which is a hard offer to turn down.

*. That’s pretty weird, but it gets weirder still. The reason Cenci is behaving so strangely is because her step-father Albert (Robert Mitchum, because Richard Burton was busy filming Where Eagles Dare) sexually abused her when she was a kid. And guess what? Daddy’s back in town! Meanwhile, Cenci’s two spinster aunts (Peggy Ashcroft and Pamela Brown) are hovering about the mansion like aged ghouls, looking to claim first dibs on any of the good stuff so they can resell it in their shop. They are also buddies with Albert, despite it being pretty clear what a moral degenerate he is.
*. I don’t know what to make of all this. The plot is overwrought in the worst sort of lurid psychodrama manner. It’s also very heavy-handed, from Cenci’s name (Shelley wrote a play on the Cenci which was all about rape and parricide) to the size of the palace Cenci lives in (Debenham House in London). Isn’t that house just a little too big for Cenci to be living in alone (a point is made about how all the staff have been let go)? Well, of course. But this isn’t a realistic movie.
*. Instead, I think they were going after a kind of late-Hammer, neo-Gothic vibe. Or, as Tim Lucas more charitably puts it during the DVD commentary, something better approached as a “tone poem” than a narrative film. Though I’m not sure quite what that means. Lucas gives The Swimmer as an example, and also references Performance, so maybe a bit of that.
*. The story comes from a novella by the now mostly forgotten Argentine writer Marco Denevi. At least I asked a friend of mine who is a specialist in Latin American literature if anyone reads Denevi today and he said no. In any event, the story was dialed up for the big screen. For example, the novella has no incest, and indeed no Albert character in it, so the young woman isn’t named Cenci as there’s no need. And as for the title, I have no idea what the secret ceremony being referenced is. The play-acting that Albert and Cenci indulge in? That’s all I’ve got.
*. That the Albert character is wholly invented ends up leaving him a bit mysterious. Just what does he do? I thought for a moment that his name might have been a nod to Kinsey, since I think he’s meant to be a college professor who’s interested in sex. But Kinsey was an Alfred not an Albert so I really don’t know. And I’m not sure Mitchum knew either. From an interview he did with Roger Ebert: “I never did see Secret Ceremony, to tell you the truth. . . . They did some weird things with that script because contractually they had me for 10 days only. They were in trouble when I got there and I don’t think I improved the situation any.”
*. Directed by Joseph Losey, and let’s stick with that Mitchum interview for a bit more: “We were shooting in that hideous house the whole time. Joe Losey has an architectural fetish. Sometimes you think he’d be happy to clear the actors out altogether and just photograph the rooms. He never says a word. Not one word. He walks into a room and engineers and choreographs and the the actors go through it. Then he prints it, and that’s that.”
*. I can see where this is coming from. Losey really does seem a bit more interested in framing, camera angles, and lush interiors than he does in the actors. This actually helps set a decadent note, but the players seem like fish flopping about on the deck of a boat. What Farrow thought she was doing is totally beyond me. Perhaps she was still in shell shock after giving birth to the devil’s child.

*. Along with the interiors I mentioned — and you really do need to see the blue tilework on the walls of Debenham House — come some horrible wardrobe choices for Taylor. She looks ghastly, in the style that was thought fashionable at the time. I got a chuckle out of Cenci complaining “Where did you get these awful stockings?” because her stockings were the one wardrobe item that I thought actually looked pretty snazzy.
*. One of the strangest things about Secret Ceremony was it’s reception, then and now. Renata Adler, no gentle critic, pulled in her barbs: “although I don’t usually like this colored genre of sick ritual film, I rather liked this one.” David Thomson calls it “interesting, a true penetration of obsession, sadly spoiled by cuts” (I think these were made for television, as it didn’t have much of a shelf life in cinemas). Leonard Maltin’s capsule calls it an “Excellent psychological drama” and awards it three-and-a-half stars.
*. I can’t go along with any of this. The psychology on tap here is laughable, and the whole thing plays as rank and ridiculous. I’m glad I saw it because it is entertaining in a “How did Taylor and Mitchum end up here?” sort of way, but if you’re looking for something aside from camp in it I think you’ve come to the wrong address.

Tower of London (1962)

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*. The origins of this movie are a bit muddy, and the featurette on its production included with the DVD doesn’t help clear things up much.
*. In the first place, it is not a remake of the 1939 Basil Rathbone film, though it deals with the same subject matter and borrows some of that earlier movie’s battle footage for the Bosworth montage. They’re two very different stories.
*. Is it Shakespeare? Or Shakespearean? Well, according to producer Gene Corman that was the idea. But the reasoning doesn’t sound right. According to Corman, he honestly thought Shakespeare meant box office after the success of Olivier’s Hamlet. But that movie came out in 1948, and his Richard III in 1955. So I don’t think that was what was behind it.
*. It is, however, Shakespearean to some extent. I don’t want to sound condescending (because this was a cheap film, and shot on one of Roger Corman’s express schedules), but it does play a bit like Shakespeare for Dummies. There’s no direct quoting from Richard III here, but the characters speak in a kind of ersatz Shakespeare, with Vincent Price as Richard delivering the following soliloquy on the battlements: “Is it what men do that darkens the sky? Or do the skies blacken the souls of men? And do I laugh to myself because I am ambitious and would be a king? Or do I laugh at myself? A misshapen thing that traffics with evil to gain a throne?”
*. According to the documentary on the making of the film, Gene Corman wanted “period language, authentic language” with the template for the script being Hamlet. Hm.
*. Apparently the original plan was to film Macbeth, and there’s still some residual Macbeth material in the way Richard’s Anne is played as Lady Macbeth. So in a way, it’s like a Shakespearean pastiche.
*. Price returns from the Rathbone film, where he played the Duke of Clarence nearly twenty-five years earlier. He was good as Clarence, but better suited for Richard. At least Richard as the hammy villain, the Vice from medieval morality plays who becomes an almost comic figure delighting in playing up his wickedness to the audience. This Richard is a little different in being hag-ridden by a small army of ghosts, but he’s still very much in that B-picture vein. Because this is a B-picture.
*. It’s something I’ve brought up before (see my notes on The Haunted Palace and The Last Man on Earth) but why is it that Price kept playing these roles where he’s a villain mooning over his dead wife? There’s no basis in the source material for it here, but remarkably it’s shoehorned in again, with Richard mourning Anne (who he has unintentionally murdered).
*. The original plan was to shoot it in colour, but the switch was made to black-and-white in order to save a buck or two. This hurt. In the first place, as Gene Corman knew, an essential element to his brother’s garish visual style was lost. It also left the film with the unfortunate bait-and-switch effect of having the studio logo come up in colour and then the rest of the film follow in black-and-white. This is something that can be counted on to piss audiences off, and it did. After decent opening box office things really dropped off because word got out that it wasn’t in colour.
*. The 1939 telling of the story was more a historical costume drama. The Corman sensibility is something different. He likes the costumes and the Gothic sets, but really he can’t wait to get back to one of Poe’s dungeons. The ghosts are pretty humdrum here, but that Room 101 box over the head with the rat in it is the movie’s raison d’être.

Siberian Lady Macbeth (1962)

*. A Siberian Lady Macbeth? The source is an 1865 novella by Nikolai Leskov called Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. I don’t believe the Mtsensk District is anywhere near Siberia. I guess the title refers to Katerina and Sergei being packed off to Siberia at the end, though they never get there.
*. As for this movie, it was shot in Yugoslavia and directed by a Pole (Andrzej Wajda). The score borrows from Shostakovich’s opera, derived from the same source and later filmed by Petr Weigl. There was also a silent film version of the novella in 1927 and an updated English adaptation, Lady Macbeth, in 2016.
*. A popular story then, and I think for obvious reasons. And I don’t mean the Shakespeare tie-in. Despite the title there isn’t a strong connection to Macbeth. Katerina is cunning and murderous, but out of lust rather than social ambition. And Sergei is certainly no Macbeth. Instead of linking up with Macbeth then this is a dive into primordial urges and emotions, set in a bleak landscape with nowhere to hide from God or nosey neighbours.
*. It’s a stark story, but Wajda makes it even more raw. In the novella I believe the husband is buried in the cellar of the house. Here he’s thrown into the pig-yard. We see Sergei doing a bit of digging, but is he really burying his former boss? He’d have to dig pretty deep. I think he may just be feeding the corpse to the hogs.
*. I’ve often seen this described as noir, and I guess Katerina (Olivera Markovic) is a kind of femme fatale. But this strikes me as something earlier than noir, more like a kind of Naturalism in the vein of Zola or Dreiser. Those authors are at least its more obvious literary forebears.
*. I think it’s a wonderfully powerful and atmospheric movie, with two perfectly cast leads. You wonder what someone as beautiful as Markovic is doing in a crumby dustbowl village like this, and no doubt she’s wondering the same thing. Meanwhile, Ljuba Tadic is great as the seedy wimp who only gets to play the stud because he’s the tallest guy in town.
*. It does feel a bit stagey at times, but Wajda makes the village into a big stage and knows how to block out the action. I can’t judge the script, but the story is so elemental I hardly noticed the fact that I didn’t know the language. You don’t need subtitles for material like this. Katerina is still our contemporary, and her world doesn’t even feel that alien, especially for anyone anxious about our own slide into neo-feudalism.
*. If it doesn’t play as well today that may be due to the way we don’t care as much for archetypes in our fictions. But Katerina here is complicated. It’s hard to think of another role so dark that we can still find sympathetic. I think in the 2016 version they had to try harder to make this work, and finally went for something very different, an ironic twist to make us feel even worse. Here it’s more complicated. Katerina is larger than her fate.

The Black Torment (1964)

*. Not a Hammer production, but a low-budget (even lower-budget than Hammer!) clone. The production company was Compton Films, managed by Tony Tenser and Michael Klinger. Their first film was Naked as Nature Intended, which I’m guessing was a “nudie cutie,” but they’d actually go on to do some good stuff, including Polanski’s Repulsion and Cul-de-sac. When Tenser (“the Godfather of British Exploitation”) went solo he’d produce Michael Reeves’ The Sorcerers and Witchfinder General.
*. Alas, they didn’t have real talent like Polanski or Reeves helming this one. The director was Robert Hartford-Davis, about whom I know nothing. Apparently he ordered that all prints of his movies be destroyed after his death. That seems a bit strong. I mean, I don’t think there’s anything to be particularly proud about here, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of either.
*. Well, like I say, it’s a Hammer clone. A stately manorial pile (The Vyne, standing in for Fordyke Hall) is home to various sinister happenings in what I think is the early 19th century, based on the army uniforms. As things begin a woman with a heaving bosom is chased through a forest before being strangled. Then the lord of the manor returns home with his new bride. There are whispers in the village that he (the lord of the manor) is actually the strangler, which we might also suspect once the lord starts seeing the ghost of his previous wife stalking the grounds of Fordyke Hall at night. Another woman is killed after a roll in the hay with her swain (“I’ll keep you warrrrrm!” he provocatively tells her). What’s going on? Is Sir Richard Fordyke losing his marbles? Or is he the victim of some dastardly plot?
*. OK, I’ll spoil this for exactly no one and tell you it’s a dastardly plot. This is basically a Gaslight story, which Hammer also, for some reason, grew fond of around this time. A bit different for the gender reversal and Regency setting, but otherwise very dull and predictable. The dialogue and acting are both very bad, feeding off one another. Look at the scene where Sir Richard confronts one of his servants about a mysterious banging window. “Every night the window bangs open . . . wind or no wind. So I come to shut it. It is m’lady’s window, sir. ” Meaning, the previous lady of the house, now deceased. The lines are given a ridiculous gravity, but then they’re so clunky I don’t know what else the actor could have done with them. Meanwhile, the plot throws every cliché in the book at you. We wind up with a swordfight that has the hero taking a swing at a stand of candles and slicing them off. Tally-ho!
*. Not even fun in a campy or exploitative way but just a humdrum bore to sit through. I’m not sure what the title refers to, but it’s the best thing about it. That and the fact that it’s short. I didn’t, and don’t, want to spend any more time on it.

Fail-Safe (1964)

*. Probably the one thing most people know about Fail-Safe is that it was released the same year as Dr. Strangelove. Oddly enough they were based on different books (Fail-Safe and Red Alert), despite the close similarity of their plots. There was a lawsuit but the upshot was that Columbia bought the distribution rights to Fail-Safe so it was in control of the release of both pictures. Dr. Strangelove came out eight months earlier and Fail-Safe didn’t register.
*. Given their similarities it’s impossible not to draw some comparisons. The usual line is that the one is a comedy and the other plays it straight. This is obviously true, but I think they’re also making different points when it comes to the matter of who’s to blame in such a crisis, and the larger state of affairs that gives rise to it.

*. In Dr. Strangelove it’s a human problem: the people in charge are idiots. They even have funny names. In Fail-Safe, however, the same characters are earnest and meant to be taken seriously. The RAND strategist Herman Kahn was, at least partially, the inspiration for both Dr. Strangelove himself and Professor Groeteschele, but the two characters are miles apart.
*. Another way of looking at the same point is that George C. Scott was cast against type to play the blustering buffoon General Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove, while Walter Matthau, then pretty much unknown but subsequently a comic player, plays his part with an air of cold malice (an air that, in one of the film’s darker turns, gets the girl at the party hot). It’s caricature vs. character, but the point is that its the human element in Dr. Strangelove that leads to disaster. With people like this in positions of power, what do you expect?

*. In Fail-Safe the blame is on the machines that run the system. With a couple of (predictable) breakdowns — a false alarm and Soviet radio jamming — the whole thing goes off the rails. From that point everything goes as planned or programmed. It’s a different sort of nightmare.
*. Judging Fail-Safe on its own, I think we can also stick with the obvious. Director Sidney Lumet’s background in live TV drama was clearly at work, as it comes off very much as a teleplay and is stocked with a lot of the talent he worked with there. It was, in fact, done again in 2000 as a live broadcast on CBS, the first such a production in forty year. George Clooney played the pilot, Richard Dreyfuss was the president and Harvey Keitel was General Black.
*. Of course it was made on the cheap and studio bound. On the commentary track there’s a funny part where Lumet mentions the row of apartments in NYC as being the closest thing he could find to what he thought Omaha, Nebraska might look like. “Closest” being the operative word. The location was on 54th Street in New York, literally across the street from the Fox studio they were filming at.

*. I don’t think the low budget hurts too much. The stock footage of jets that keeps being repeated is clunky, but apparently the government tried to stop them from even getting this much. So it was the best they could do.
*. Sometimes the small-screen aesthetic actually helps. All those giant close-ups play better on TV. And along with the black-and-white photography it has even more of a sense of a period piece.
*. There’s no musical score because Lumet thought it would destroy the sense of reality. He thought a score would be Mickey Mouse, just stressing what’s already there, with the general principle being that music should only perform a function that can’t be performed any other way. Even as a general principle I’m not sure how much I agree with this. Sometimes a score can be distracting or take away from the effect a film is intent on making, but its absence here just makes it seem even more like a television drama. Which is something other, more artificial, than a news report.
*. The idea of trading Moscow for New York City strikes me as not fair, and improbable anyway. Couldn’t the president have started by offering Omaha?
*. I think it still rates as a pretty good movie, though it continues to be overshadowed by Dr. Strangelove, and not without reason. I do think it plays as being more a film of its time though. We’ve learned to stop worrying and love the apocalypse, at least if Hollywood blockbusters tell us anything. Things are still in the saddle, perhaps more than ever, but haven’t our idiots gotten even worse?

Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)

*. Well, it’s for those who know what they like. Those who couldn’t get enough of Oscar-bait costume dramas like Becket (1964), A Man for All Seasons (1966), and The Lion in Winter (1968). And I don’t mean snobs. No, this is trash. But it’s trash with great actors delivering high drama in ringing lines full of booming passion and unsubtle wit.
*. You know the stuff I’m talking about. Just listen to what this movie sounds like (and note that the play it’s based on, by Maxwell Anderson, was partially written in blank verse, which the screenwriters had to adapt). Here’s Henry (Richard Burton), who has most of the good lines. “When I pray, God listens!” he bellows. When speaking the language of love he can be earthy with his rough wooing (“I think of nothing but you. Of you and me playing dog and bitch, of you and me playing horse and mare. Of you and me in every way. I want to fill you up night after night. I want to fill you up with sons!”) and grandiloquent (“I will marry Anne if it breaks the Earth in two like an apple and flings the two halves into the void!”)
*. Whew! And Anne (Geneviève Bujold) is no shrinking violet when it comes to emoting for the ages either. “Henry! I do love you! Henry, I love you. I love you with all my heart. I love you. Take me. Take me now. I want to be yours only!” Or here she is making a highly improbable prophecy of her daughter’s future greatness: “Elizabeth shall reign after you! Yes, Elizabeth, child of Anne the whore and Henry the bloodstained lecher, shall be queen! . . . And think of this Henry: Elizabeth shall be a greater queen than any king of yours. She shall rule a greater England than you could ever have built. Yes, My Elizabeth shall be queen, and my blood will have been well spent.”
*. You see what I mean by trash. Throw in some sideline banter and everything is set (“Thomas, this is a man’s world. The seat of power does not lie between a woman’s legs,” are some famous last words from Wolsey). It is, in short, the great Tudor soap opera, what the historian Antonia Fraser, in an essay on this film, called “The Taming of the Shrew meets Gone With the Wind.”

*. As I say, you know if this is your thing. I’ll confess I was laughing throughout the opening scene, what with Burton’s heavy overacting on being told that Anne has been found guilty and faces execution. Everything is done more by the book than with any imagination or creativity, but then it’s a movie produced in a style that is no longer fully accessible today. The acting, direction, and writing are all from another age entirely, closer perhaps to the Renaissance than our own time. We have our own versions of the Tudor story, from biopics of Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots to the series Wolf Hall, but they’re done in an entirely different manner.
*. It was an old play, over twenty years old in 1969, but apparently they hadn’t been able to produce it because it dealt with matters of adultery, illegitimacy, and (clearly fictional) incest and they thought this would get them in trouble with the Code (which was only abandoned around this time). At least that’s what I hear. But I find it hard to credit. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had been staged in 1962, with the film version coming out in 1966. True, that film had been a scandal, but still it was a lot wilder than this when it comes to discussions of adultery and illegitimacy.
*. And yet Anne of the Thousand Days does still work, up to a point. After chuckling through that opening scene I entered into the spirit of the thing. Heaven knows I’m familiar enough with the story and they make it more than easy enough to follow here. The thing is, the Tudors really were one of history’s great real-life soap operas and they never go out of style.

*. Directed by Charles Jarrott, who would follow it up with Mary Queen of Scots right away. Pauline Kael judged he had no sense of style and that he was only “a traffic manager.” I don’t think that’s unfair. He would go on to do the musical Lost Horizon (1973) and, I was surprised to discover, 1981’s Condorman. How bizarre.
*. Burton, as I’ve said, just cruises in full Burton mode here, which is fun for being so awful. Bujold is actually very good in a ridiculous part. Penelope Huston thought Anthony Quale looked “like a querulous crayfish” which is witty and apt. John Colicos plays the scheming Cromwell very nicely, more oily and less sympathetic than the Mantel version. Irene Papas has a memorable turn as Katherine. Apparently Elizabeth Taylor, married to Burton at the time, wanted to play Anne and was concerned Dick might have been fooling around on set. She was too old (remember Virginia Woolf had been a few years previous to this), but I think she might have been fun as Katherine. Why not? With material this trashy, just go for it.
*. Is this a great movie? No. I don’t even think it’s a great Tudor vehicle. But then I can’t watch any of these movies without thinking of SCTV’s “The Man Who Would Be King of the Popes.” A great parody, but from a distance of fifty years we can get nearly the same number of laughs out of the original. As history this paints with a pretty broad brush that misses a lot, but as entertainment it’s fun and doesn’t feel too bulky even at two-and-a-half hours. I can understand if it’s not your thing, but I felt my time if not my blood was well spent.