Category Archives: 1960s

Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)

*. I read the novel Bunny Lake Is Missing (by Merriam Modell, under the pen name Evelyn Piper) before I saw this movie. That might not have been a good move. I liked the book and the movie only borrows the initial premise from it before going its own way entirely. And when I say it goes its own way I mean it goes crazy.
*. Apparently director Otto Preminger liked the book but wanted a different ending because he thought Pyper’s lacked credibility. Really. This is one of those weird things I hear reported but can’t get my head around. Preminger thought the novel’s ending lacked credibility so he ordered up one that would have made Jimmy Sangster blush to take credit for? I mean the ending of the book is convoluted, but it’s nothing like the madness that screenwriters John and Penelope Mortimer came up with. And that’s John Mortimer of Rumpole fame, by the way. Apparently Dalton Trumbo and Ira Levin both wrote earlier drafts but Preminger didn’t like them either. I’d be curious to see what they looked like.
*. I guess before I go any further I should insert a spoiler alert. Basically this is a gaslighting story, where Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) drops her little girl (nicknamed Bunny) off at daycare and when Bunny goes missing there’s no evidence she (Bunny) ever existed in the first place. People begin to question the mother’s sanity. As a footnote, the same plot was tricked out again for the 2005 Jodie Foster vehicle Flightplan, about which more on another day.

*. New to the movie is the character of Ann’s brother Steven (Keir Dullea). Instead of a fairly simple kidnapping plot Steven has abducted Bunny because . . . well, because he’s a lunatic and he’s jealous of Bunny getting all of Ann’s affections so he wants to kill her (Bunny, that is). Somehow Ann has remained oblivious to the fact that her brother is such a nut job, despite the fact that the two are very close. Meanwhile, a police inspector (Laurence Olivier) is looking into things and a creepy landlord (Noël Coward!) is putting the moves on Ann, all of this going on as The Zombies play Top of the Pops in the background.

*. Full credit to Olivier and Coward for recognizing the kind of nonsense this was and riding with it. Olivier is low key, which perfectly suits all the silliness going on around him. It’s the kind of part he could play in his sleep, and he looks as though he decided that would be for the best. Coward takes the opposite approach, hamming his part up to the hilt. Both fit in and are wonderful in their roles.

*. Lynley is just adequate as Ann, though given the circumstances that was itself an accomplishment. Dullea is pretty awful. Kubrick would cast him in 2001 based on this movie and I’m wondering what he saw in him here. Someone who could be robotic? The story has it that Coward walked up to him one day and whispered in his ear “Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow.” Bitchy, and probably a safe bet at the time, but Kubrick saved him from oblivion (if not Black Christmas). In any event, Steven’s meltdown isn’t very convincing. But then, who could have pulled that off?
*. Oh, England. Were you still using oil lamps in the 1960s? My mother collected oil lamps and they were already antiques when she was a kid. Didn’t they have flashlights, or “torches” as they like to say? And what’s this junket stuff? I find from online sources that “junket is a milk-based dessert, made with sweetened milk and rennet, the digestive enzyme that curdles milk. Some older cookery books call the dish curds and whey.” Is this supposed to be a treat? Do people still eat it? Olivier’s Inspector Newhouse thinks it’s yummy. Is it like custard? I want to give it a try but I don’t know where you get it or if it sells here under some other name.
*. According to Dullea, Preminger was no fun to work with. But at least the movie looks nice. The scene of Ann investigating the doll museum is beautiful, as is her escape from the asylum. But these are scenes without any dialogue. They’re meant to be looked at.

*. But it’s not a good movie. Watching Bunny Lake Is Missing is like staring into a room filled with interesting works of art but the lights are all turned off. You keep trying to see something you know must be in there but you can’t make it out. Today it’s a movie with a bit of a cult following, largely due to its credits (I mean the talent, but the credits themselves are arrestingly presented, as always, by Saul Bass) and the general sense of weirdness it has about it. But it really is a tricked-out production running on a Hammer chassis, without any dramatic coherence and an ending so stupid it fails on every level. Maybe the kind of thing everyone should sit through once, just to be aware that it exists. I can’t see any reason for going back to it though.

Pierrot le Fou (1965)

*. Pauline Kael: “It gets to you.” Or else it doesn’t. It hasn’t gotten to me yet. I’ve gone back to some of Jean-Luc Godard’s work recently and developed a greater appreciation for it (and I’ve always liked films like Alphaville and Weekend, at least when I’m in the mood), but Pierrot le Fou still leaves me cold.
*. I’ve never been sure what Godard’s point is here, and (as usual) his own disingenuous and contradictory explanations for what he’s up to are no help at all. There are lots of nouvelle vague stunts but they all seem like empty distractions to me. And I’m not even sure what it was I was being distracted from.
*. There are critics who will tell you what the point is. Which makes me wonder if the point was to enlist the critics. In his Criterion essay on the film Richard Brody refers to Jean-Paul Belmondo as “a handsome, vigorous leading man.” Vigorous maybe, but Belmondo was one ugly fellow. His pairing with stars like Jean Seberg and (here) Anna Karina is a beauty-and-the-beast French specialty. I always thought that was something behind the pairing of Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci (who were married at the time) in Irreversible. Cassel was vigorous too, but not handsome. As David Lee Roth once said, most music critics like Elvis Costello’s music because most music critics look like Elvis Costello. So perhaps Belmondo was Godard’s way of playing film scribes.
*. Within the movie itself we get a cameo by Samuel Fuller at a cocktail party, who tells us that what movies are all about is “in one word: emotion.” An odd invocation of purpose, I would have thought, for a film like this. But in the interview with Karina included with the Criterion DVD she talks of how there’s “a lot of sentiment, there’s a lot of emotions in every scene.” I don’t see any of this, but Brody’s essay suggests I may be looking in the wrong place: “Rather than have actors act out emotions on-screen, Godard wanted to find a way to signify emotion and thus to arouse it in the viewer — so that emotion would go from the filmmaker to the viewer not analogically but in concentrated, sublimated form, by means of style.”
*. I’ve tried, but I have to say I find this explanation by Brody to be even more mystifying than his calling Belmondo handsome. Emotion is not expressed by the actors. I got that. Ferdinand really is a fool, so stuck in his own head that he can’t even see Marianne as a muse, and Marianne is clearly just toying with him. Where the style represents a sublimated emotion, however, escapes me. I didn’t have any emotional response to Pierrot le Fou at all.
*. So what’s it about then? I come back to this because the story is disposable. Godard was writing the script as he went along, and called it “a completely unconscious film.” I couldn’t really follow what was happening. So what does this parade of images and music mean?
*. David Thomson, another sympathetic, even admiring, critic has his own theory. He sees Ferdinand and Marianne as representing the division between words and feeling, which “is not just a weather system for the couple, it’s the storm in Godard’s own head between being a writer or a filmmaker.” Alas, I can’t say I’m feeling much of that either.
*. Thomson also calls this “the last great romantic movie.” This echoes Godard’s own assertion that he wanted “to tell the story of the last romantic couple.” As I’ve said, I don’t see how this applies to Ferdinand and Marianne, neither of whom seem to be in love. And in so far as there’s a masculine-feminine binary being developed I don’t think it’s very illuminating either (as well as being a long way from progressive). Men read Joyce and women read fashion magazines. Welcome to the Age of Ass. And a pop-art movie by a guy who rejected the central tenant of pop — that it’s about liking things — by showing how much he despises all of modern life and culture. Weekend was more honest in its nihilism.
*. I don’t want to pile on the critics here, but Godard really has been a critical darling, and very nearly only a critical darling, throughout his career. In the 2012 Sight & Sound poll Pierrot le Fou ranked as the 42nd-greatest film ever made as chosen by the critics (it actually tied with five other films in that spot). I don’t get it. I don’t find it interesting to think about or even to look at, as devoid of emotion as it is of thought. That may sound like a real put-down, but the thing is I don’t hate Pierrot le Fou. I just don’t think there’s anything to it at all.

Chimes at Midnight (1966)

chimesatmidnight3

*. Only a crazed editor believes in a pure text of anything, much less Shakespeare. And once in production things tend to get even looser. So while this film is a creative mash-up of several plays (but mostly Henry IV Parts 1 and 2) I think it’s as authentically Shakespeare as anything else out there — true in spirit if not always to the words on the page.
*. It’s not that far removed from Shakespeare either. Some people decry how many liberties Welles took, but I thought he followed the plays pretty closely. His most striking changes don’t involve re-writing lines so much as re-interpreting them.
*. The clearest example of this is in his handling of soliloquies. Falstaff has none, and there are no secrets between he and Hal. Even his breath gives him away when Hal finds his body on the battlefield. He knows, at least on some level, what’s coming at the end, and I think this relates to the wonderful expression he has on his face after he’s been rejected, where he seems almost proud of Hal for what he’s done.

chimesatmidnight8

*. Sticking with this point for just a moment, I wonder if we’re supposed to think that Falstaff knows that Hal and Poins are in the loft listening to his pillow talk with Doll Tearsheet. I think most people assume that he doesn’t, but I get the impression he does. He’s looking straight up, for one thing, and we know that other people saw them up there right away.
*. Overall then I found this a defensible interpretation of the play, though in one spot it struck me as wrong. I thought it highly unlikely that Falstaff would openly confess to a royal official that he’d misused the king’s press damnably.

chimesatmidnight1

*. It seems like almost everyone who has written on this film has said something about how Welles was born to play Falstaff. Roger Ebert: “not only because of the physical similarity but because of the rich voice, sonorous and amused, and the shared life experience. Both men lived long and too well, were at odds with the powers at court and were constantly in debt. . . . There was not something Falstaffian about Welles, there was everything. As a young man he conquered all that came before him (at Shrewsbury a knight meekly surrenders to the old man, awed by his leftover reputation). Welles grew fat and in debt, took jobs unworthy of him, was trailed by sycophants and leeches, yet was loved by good women and honored by those who could see him clearly.”
*. In building such an argument it’s also usually pointed out that Welles first played Falstaff at prep school at the age of 15, so even if it wasn’t a role he was born to play it was at the very least one that he had been practicing for most of his life.
*. I’m not sure how much I’d want to lean on the identification though. I also think it’s worth remembering that if Welles was Falstaff then I think he also makes Falstaff Welles. What this means is making him into a man out of his time, a favourite figure in Welles’s oeuvre, from George Amberson to Quinlan. I don’t really see that in Shakespeare, where Falstaff is more just old than old-fashioned.

chimesatmidnight6

*. In any event, it’s a brilliant performance. Welles both sounds and looks the part. By this time he was getting big, but he wore padding here and he absolutely fills the screen. In armour he looks like a metal dirigible, or frantic charity kettle. Today we would suspect that twinkle in his eyes was digitally added post-production. And as for his reading of the lines, I found it remarkable how he muttered so many of them and yet was always perfectly intelligible. That’s an art.
*. Jeanne Moreau got second billing. For what? I guess because she was a star, and a friend of Welles. She’s hardly on screen. What’s worse, her part, Doll Tearsheet, has little function, and I didn’t really buy Moreau in the role. She’s the only character that I found miscast.

chimesatmidnight2

*. Visually, it’s a treat from start to finish. Of course all the familiar elements are there, like the incredible use of depth and height. Welles had the tavern set built to strict specifications, and the way he manages its long perspectives, underlined by all those beams and rafters, is a marvel. In the castle scenes height is more accentuated, with skyscraper verticals (also developed out of doors with the towering gibbets and erect spears).

chimesatmidnight4

*. But there are also other, less familiar strokes. Welles, much like Hitchcock, always thought of himself as an experimenter, and liked to take risks. Except he knew cinema so well, in his bones, that they were hardly risks.

chimesatmidnight5

*. Take the justifiably famous battle scenes. These are brilliant, in particular for the way they render the emotion and chaos. A key decision was to speed up the action in places by cutting frames. I think if most of us had thought of such an idea we would have quickly rejected it for the comic effect that would result, with the movement accelerated so it looked like a comedy from the silent era playing too fast. It should have been ridiculous. But Welles just knew it would work, and it does, creating a perfect subjective experience of time.

chimesatmidnight7

*. In sum, I think it’s a great film, and great Shakespeare. Despite this, it was not great box office and I don’t think would have been even if it had been given proper distribution. There may be a lesson in there about commerce and art. Shakespeare and Welles were both artists of towering genius, and both had the common or popular touch. But they couldn’t make great trash. It may be that there’s not only a limited audience for the good stuff, but a low tolerance for it as well.

chimesatmidnight9

Carry On . . . Up the Khyber (1968)

*. One of the skits in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983) is set during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and it makes fun of British officers remaining imperturbable in the face of calamity. Of course the military were an endless source of fun for the Python gang, but this particular angle had already been played up in the Carry On films, perhaps most notably in Carry On . . . Up the Khyber.
*. In this, the sixteenth Carry On effort, the usual gang (with Roy Castle subbing in for Jim Dale as the romantic lead) once more represent the Empire under siege, this time by angry natives in the Indian province of Kalabar, which is near the Khyber Pass (rhymes with “ass”). The entire final act of the film plays out like a forerunner of that Python skit, with the officers enjoying a black-tie meal inside the Governor’s Residency, indifferent to the battle raging outside. Which is actually a bit odd, since Carry On movies don’t usually play out one joke at such length.
*. The plot here hinges on the discovery by the locals that the local Scottish regiment, the 3rd Foot and Mouth, actually do have underwear on beneath their kilts. This makes the “devils in skirts” seem less invincible, which leads to the rebellion. Even by Carry On standards I think that’s a stretch, and I can’t say it’s terribly funny either.
*. Many fans and critics consider this to be the very best of the Carry On efforts. I think this is for its generally high production values. It looks good, from the Pinewood sets to the Khyber Pass locations (which were actually shot in Snowdonia). At least I can’t think of any other reason to choose it over many of the other films in the series. It’s mainly more of the same, though there’s a minimum of gay jokes, if that’s a plus or minus for you.
*. The jokes are the usual off-colour puns and bawdy innuendos, but I don’t find them to be any funnier than usual. There’s a labored running gag that has Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond (Sid James) enjoying rounds of “tiffin” (sex) with various harem gals. Once again the men have to get all dressed up in drag at one point. There are a bunch of in-jokes or bits of timely humour that I doubt many people will get today. The banging of a gong is derided as “rank stupidity” (a nod to the Rank Organizations’ symbol). The Burpa leader Bungdit Din wants to teach the Brits a lesson for banning turbans on buses, which refers to a recent strike by Sikh bus drivers in England. A final shot of the Union Jack with the words “I’m Backing Britain” flew over my head.
*. Snowdon still looks beautiful, not having dated nearly as badly as these jokes. I visited Wales once as a kid and it was places like this that I have the fondest memories of. Some day I may even get back to hike around them again. I’d forgotten this movie, however, almost completely since I’d first seen it. Still, it has a few smiles, and if not the best in the series it’s far from the worst.

Romeo and Juliet (1968)

*. One of the things I come back to a lot while writing these notes is how movies date. What also dates is the way we talk about them.
*. At the time, Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet was seen as being a part of the counterculture. The young leads (Leonard Whiting was 17 and Olivia Hussey 15) were a part of this, but more than that, as Roger Ebert writes, “The movie opened in the tumultuous year of 1968, a time of political upheaval around the world, and somehow the story of the star-crossed lovers caught the mood of rebellious young people who had wearied of their elders’ wars.” And so when, in her contemporary review, Pauline Kael describes John McEnery “as a freaked-out Mercutio,” this is where she’s coming from. Do we still describe people as freaked-out today?
*. I begin with all this because I doubt many people view this movie with any historical perspective. The Summer of Love and Swinging London are so far behind us now that the ’60s zeitgeist no longer means anything to most of us. And so we just see the youths of Verona as typical young men hanging about downtown when there’s nothing better to do. In much the same way, even Baz Luhrmann’s MTV-style Romeo + Juliet is probably unidentifiable as such to younger audiences today, who can’t remember (as the saying goes) when there was music on MTV. I suspect Luhrmann may be incomprehensible twenty years from now.
*. When Zeffirelli died in 2019 his obits highlighted this film as his signature work, what Ebert called “the magical high point of his career.” Less was said about his directing the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor Taming of the Shrew just the year before, or the Mel Gibson Hamlet a couple of decades later. But I’m not sure this is better than either of those movies.

*. One of the things Zeffirelli claimed he learned from making The Taming of the Shrew was that, when it came to Shakespeare’s lines, less would be more. I’ve heard that only about 35% of Romeo and Juliet is included here. Which is fine. You pretty much have to cut a lot out of Shakespeare to bring him to screen (though Kenneth Branagh would prove that even a full-text Hamlet is possible). What I have more trouble with in the process of adaptation is the rearrangement of scenes (which Zeffirelli went crazy with in Hamlet) and lines (as he does here).
*. The balcony scene offers a good example. It begins with Romeo first catching sight of Juliet and declaring “But soft, what light from yonder window breaks? / It is the east and Juliet is the sun!” I would have thought this was easily comprehensible, especially in 1968. Plus it’s a famous line and you’d expect a good part of the audience to know it. But here the second line jumps us ahead in the text to the flaccid “It is my lady, O it is my love!” This sounds awful.
*. But as with any decent production you’re also reminded at times of lines that never stood out to you before. I like Juliet’s look of shock when Romeo asks if she’ll leave him on the balcony unsatisfied. “What satisfaction canst thou have tonight?” she asks. I’d never thought about what “satisfaction” might mean in that way before, but I guess it’s obvious. Also, Capulet’s ill-tempered shushing of the Nurse — “Utter your gravity o’er a gossip’s bowl” — had never registered with me before. But it’s a great put-down
*. Unfortunately, those are among the few highlights of what’s left of the text. This is where the film really breaks down. I like the location shooting, the laced codpieces, all the running about (though not the swordfights). I also think, with the exception of Pat Heywood’s nurse, that the cast are a good collection of Renaissance faces (Heywood gives a fine performance, but she looks out of place). And while Whiting and Hussey are young, they at least look the part. Hussey in particular has a moist earnestness. But then they open their mouths.
*. Kael: “Heard in isolated fragments, the lines just seem a funny way of talking that is hard to understand.” True, and also true: “The lines are unintelligible because the actors’ faces and bodies aren’t in tune with the words.”
*. The problem here, or so I’ve heard, is that because of the noise of the camera being used the dialogue was all recorded post. It looks and sounds dubbed because it was. Well, you may say, that’s the way a lot of movies are made. Welles’s Othello, for example, was all dubbed. To which I can only respond by saying that Welles’s Othello didn’t make me feel like I was watching a cheap giallo.
*. Still, it could have been worse. If you were of my generation this movie may have been among your first introductions to Shakespeare, as they used it a lot in high school. And it’s not a bad introduction in some ways. It’s boisterous and full of action. The idea of having kids playing kids was the hook, and we were kids watching kids playing kids. So for that reason alone it will probably always have a place in my memory. Maybe not a magical one, but stuck in my head now for the duration.

West Side Story (1961)

 

westsidestory3

*. It seems almost anachronistic. It was 1961, and the glory days of the American musical were, if not over, surely on the wane. For whatever reason, audiences just couldn’t buy characters breaking into song-and-dance at the drop of a hat any more.
*. And it was flagrantly anachronistic. In 1961 urban America clearly had big problems, problems that this movie almost seemed to mock. Surely the producers couldn’t be serious? Racism, violence, inner city crime . . . as ballet?
*. Hence the objection that a lot of people have to it, especially today. It’s unrealistic. And not just unrealistic — since all musicals are unrealistic almost by definition — but a deliberate slap at realism through its packaging of a gritty social “message.” Dancing gangs? Wasn’t this the stuff of camp?
*. And yet, in 1976 an essay by Nik Cohn appeared in New York Magazine, “Tribal Rights of the New Saturday Night,” reporting on New York’s disco-era gang scene. What did these young ethnic gang-bangers do on Saturday night? They danced.
*. The story was pure fiction, but fooled some people. It shouldn’t have. What was the story Cohn told, after all, but a re-warmed version of West Side Story? The hero Vincent meets a girl at a dance, gets involved with guns and violence, etc. “It was just like a movie,” Cohn tells us. Well, obviously. And we’d all seen it. And we’d all watch it again in 1977 when it was made into Saturday Night Fever. And we’d watch it again in 1996 in Romeo + Juliet.
*. So how silly is West Side Story? It seems to me to be pretty silly, mainly because I just can’t see how anyone involved in it could have taken it seriously. In 1961 some people did, though Pauline Kael called it out as “hokum.” But even if you can’t take it seriously, I’m not sure if that’s a problem, either with the film or with me.
*. It’s almost universally agreed that it works much better on stage. In part this may be due to the fact that Sondheim had to pasteurize some of his lyrics, but I think it’s mainly due to the fact that the best parts are so physical. How can you not start snapping your fingers or tapping your feet to numbers like the “Jet Song” and “America.”

westsidestory2

*. But those are both in the early going. This is a very long movie. I think it’s much too long (152 minutes) and the final forty minutes drag. There are no good songs after the intermission. I find most musicals are front loaded in this way, and I’m not sure why. Apparently in this particular case producer-director Robert Wise reordered some of the songs, advancing some of the more upbeat numbers so the movie would get progressively darker. Progressively duller too.
*. The big deal about this film at the time is that some of it was filmed on location. But I emphasize some of it. I don’t think all that much was, relative to the total length. Most of it looks very stagey and artificial to me.
*. That anti-realistic air makes the threatened rape of Anita all the more disturbing. Like the actual locations, it seems jarring. Reality in such a movie appears out of place.
*. I don’t know if Richard Beymer is “a lump” (David Thomson). He wanted to play the role rougher but was overruled by Wise. He’s even prettier than Natalie Wood, and his teeth bother me more than any actor before Tom Cruise. But it’s a horrible part. He’s just such a drip.
*. A story of racial strife. But are there any Black guys in the neighbourhood? Yes, one. He’s at the dance, doing his own thing standing by the entrance. He seems out of place too.
*. It was the first film to win a Best Director Oscar for two directors (Robert Wise and choreographer Jerome Robbins). This would not happen again until 46 years later, when Joel Coen and Ethan Coen shared the award for No Country for Old Men (2007). Neither Wise nor Robbins deserved it. By this point in his career Wise was only picking up a paycheque, and he seemed to have no feeling for the material. Meanwhile, the dance numbers were notoriously grueling, and they are quite well done, but they don’t stand out as great filmmaking.
*. I like the closing titles (by Saul Bass, naturally), but (like everything else in the movie) they roll for too long. Also: why are Bernstein and Sondheim credited twice for music and lyrics? I guess once for the film and then again for the musical, but that seems redundant.
*. I remember we had the LP of the musical in our house when I was growing up. The songs were a part of American culture at the time, and perhaps they still are, but far less so. You have to wonder what the fate of a film like this will be. A historical artefact, or a colourful fantasy like The Wizard of Oz? And what effect will Stephen Spielberg’s 2021 production have on that legacy? One prophecy: the dancing Jets and Sharks will always be with us, or at least remain long after Tony and Maria are forgotten.

westsidestory1

The Ghastly Ones (1968)

*. When going over the Something Weird Video catalogue — and let me say up front that I love the work they do — it’s hard to pick a “worst movie” or “worst filmmaker.” I don’t think anyone, least of all the people responsible for this crap, were under any illusions about it being crap. But of all the “major” titles Something Weird has brought out, surely Andy Milligan’s The Ghastly Ones (also known as Blood Rites), a movie that Stephen King dismissed as being made by “morons with cameras,” would be hard to top (or bottom).
*. That said, I actually liked this movie a little more this latest time around. Given how bad I knew it was, perhaps I was more in the mood for enjoying whatever good there was in it. So, for example, while Milligan’s camerawork is awful, the editing is brutal, the sound inaudible, and the lighting hopeless, he does manage to pull off some interesting compositions with the faces in his cast. It’s not Bergman, but it shows he had an eye.

*. There’s also some camp charm, supplied mainly by the talky and sometimes funny script. I like the nod about living in “sexual harmony” at the estate, and the inexplicable business with Walter (“a man of abnormal tastes” who reminded me of the similar role played by Stefan’s “mother” in Daughters of Darkness). Meanwhile, the costumes and décor (get a load of that wallpaper!), which I think fascinated Milligan, do make it all seem a bit different.
*. As so often (or always?) with the Something Weird DVDs, listening to the movie with the commentary is preferable. Here it’s provided by actor Hal Borske, who plays Colin. He doesn’t actually say much about the movie though, preferring to indulge more general reflections on Milligan. There was an uptick in interest in Milligan after a biography came out, but it seems to me that the best that could be said about him is that he was a character. Most of the time he appears to have been a really miserable shit.
*. The acting is wretched. The leads can’t even seem to kiss properly, looking more like they’re trying to push of against each other. But there is one exception. That would be Maggie Rogers as Hattie, who gets to go full Betsy Palmer at the end quite effectively.

*. What was that stuff coming out of the lawyer Dobbs’ nose? Hair? Boogers? A combination of both, I guess.
*. I like the “head in a pot” gag, but wouldn’t it be obvious to everyone that Hattie had to be the killer seeing as she was the one who brought the pot out and set it on the table? I mean, wouldn’t she be the one putting the lid on in the kitchen?
*. I can’t recommend this, as it really is a piece of garbage. I’m not even sure what the point was. Did these films make money? Were they useful as a calling card to greater things? Still, if you’re a fan of junkhouse cinema of the period you may want to check it out. Otherwise I don’t think there’s any reason to waste your time.

The Taming of the Shrew (1967)

tamingoftheshrew1

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

tamingoftheshrew1

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

tamingoftheshrew3

Curse of the Fly (1965)

*. When is a Fly movie not a Fly movie? The Fly II (1989) didn’t have much to do with a fly getting into one of the transporter pods but simply had the fly DNA passed down to Martin Brundle by way of a genetic inheritance from his dad. So it was a Fly movie of the second generation. Curse of the Fly, however, being the third and final instalment of the original run, goes even further afield. As far as I could tell there weren’t any flies in it at all, or even any reference to them. The earlier movies are sort of shoehorned into the mix, in a very awkward fashion, because we’re dealing with the son and two grandsons of the original scientist, working on the same technology. Except the son in this case isn’t Phillipe Delambre (the little boy in the first film) but rather someone named Henri. And I think the events of Return of the Fly are skipped over completely.
*. The transporter technology has been improving, so that now instead of just beaming across a room you can instantly zap yourself from London to Montreal. Alas, there are still some kinks in the system, as people who go through the process suffer from melting skin and accelerated aging. But nobody turns into a fly.
*. Henri Delambre is just a run-of-the-mill mad scientist. The hero of the story is his son Martin, played by George Baker. In the intro Marin picks up a girl named Patricia (Carole Gray) who is running away (in her underwear, for no apparent reason) from an asylum. The two fall in love, rapidly, and decide to get married. “But you don’t know anything about me,” she says. “You don’t know anything about me either,” he replies, “and I don’t need to know.” So it’s set.
*. They should have spent some more time finding out. At the family manor house the Delambres are keeping a stable full of their failed experiments, including a former wife of Martin’s named Judith (don’t worry, they got a “Mexican divorce”). And Martin is starting to suffer the effects of transportation sickness himself. Meanwhile, Patricia was only locked away in the asylum because she had a breakdown when her mom died. So I guess that makes them kind of even. Then, as the experiments continue and the police search for Patricia the failed experiments start getting restless, leading to some frightening confrontations between Patricia and the first Mrs. Rochester (who only looks like she has a bit of plaster stuck on one side of her face).
*. Also present in the house are an Asian couple who serves as housekeepers. He is Tai, played by Burk Kwouk (the Pink Panther’s Cato). She is Wan, played by Welsh actress Yvette Reese in some unconvincing Oriental make-up. Together they are Tai and Wan. I think that was meant as a joke.
*. If all this sounds terribly overwritten, that’s because it is. It made me think of all the Hammer stuff that was coming out in the ’60s. It looks like a Hammer film too, which probably shouldn’t surprise us given that it was directed by Don Sharp, who was doing a lot of work for Hammer at the time. It was shot at Shepperton Studios and financed in part by the Eady Levy, a tax on box office intended to support British filmmaking. Not a good look for government funding of the arts.
*. I’ve had some fun cracking wise on this one, but the fact is it’s no fun at all. It’s dreadful. The way the Delambres treat the victims of their experiments is disconcertingly cruel, but the two sons don’t seem to object to it much. They only want to “get on with” their lives and stop spending so much time in the lab.
*. You might get your hopes up when you see the opening shot of the window exploding and the glass flying toward the camera. I take it the window was actually above the camera and the glass was just falling down. It looks neat. But from that opening shot it’s all downhill until the final credits, which ask “Is this the end?” Thankfully it was, at least for another twenty years. Then David Cronenberg came along.

Topaz (1969)

*. A lot of people thought Hitchcock was played out after Torn Curtain. Topaz is, in my opinion, much worse. It was also (not coincidentally) the longest movie Hitchcock ever made, his most expensive, and his biggest box office failure.
*. You’d be forgiven for thinking his career was over, but Frenzy, which I think is pretty good, was still in the wings. And in his defence, there’s some truth to the fact that neither Torn Curtain nor Topaz were movies he really wanted to make. He had difficulties with both productions, from which he seems to have finally withdrawn here, either falling asleep while shooting or leaving the set altogether and letting someone else take over. John Forsythe just found him “very sad.”
*. The film was the studio’s idea. Hitchcock wanted to do Frenzy but was meeting resistance. So even after the failure of Torn Curtain he was basically assigned to do another Cold War spy drama, a genre that by now had totally passed him by.
*. Apparently he was interested in making a “realistic Bond picture,” but I’m not sure what he might have meant by this. According to Leon Uris, author of the bestselling novel Topaz was based on, Hitch knew nothing about modern spies and had little interest in politics. His “research” consisted of rewatching The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.
*. You can tell right from the opening credit sequence how little interest and effort was being put into the project. A still photo of a Red Army parade turns into stock footage of the same. We’re a big step down from the sub-Bond credits of Torn Curtain already.
*. “A most unhappy picture to make,” in Hitch’s own words. The script was being written up to the same day of shooting. The process shots don’t just look artificial but laughable. There were no stars (he’d had enough of them after working with Paul Newman and Julie Andrews). Instead there was Frederick Stafford as a sort of EuroBond (not the financial instrument). He’s stiff and uninspiring. Pauline Kael called him an “Arrow-collar-shaving-cream-ad hero.”
*. But then I think perhaps the biggest drawback here, among many, is that we don’t like anyone. The secret agent Devereaux is adulterous without being passionate, and so is his wife. Well, they’re French. But who else can we warm to? Roscoe Lee Browne as a Harlem florist/undercover man possesses the only charm in sight, and John Vernon as mini-Fidel has the only charisma.
*. The one shot, and it’s a shot not a scene, that everyone singles out for praise is the flowering death of Karin Dor. For a movie that runs an unforgiveable two hours and twenty-three minutes this isn’t enough. Sure there are a few other moments of interest, but that’s all.
*. There were three different endings filmed, and indeed it was released in these different versions for different markets. All are included on the DVD. I don’t know which is the worst. I guess the airport scene is the best. But as I’ve said many times before, if your movie has three endings then it really doesn’t have any. You’re just flailing.
*. In his video appreciation included with the DVD Leonard Maltin does his best to salvage what he can for it. “Not first-tier Hitchcock but very solid second-tier Hitchcock, and second-tier Hitchcock is better than almost first-tier everybody else.” I don’t agree with this. It’s bottom-tier Hitchcock, and that is not better than almost anyone else.
*. I do agree with the point he makes that “good is no small achievement” for most movies, but this was a major studio production, and even though Hitchcock was disengaged (Kael: “lazy and out-of-touch”) I still think he might have come up with something better than this. On no level, even the most basic, did I enjoy any part of Topaz. It’s actually worse than just a bad movie. It’s a joke.