Category Archives: 1960s

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

curseofthewerewolf1

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

curseofthewerewolf2

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

curseofthewerewolf4

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

curseofthewerewolf3

If …. (1968)

if1

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

if2

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

if4

if9

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

if5

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

if3

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

if7

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

if6

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

if8

Le Samouraï  (1967)

samurai1

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

samurai4

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

samurai3

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

samurai2

Bloodlust! (1961)

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

Nightmare (1964)

nightmare2

*. Nightmare is a typical “modern” thriller from Hammer. It’s representative of their work in this field — very much of a piece with Paranoiac and Maniac (both of which were released the previous year) — but it’s far from their best in the genre.
*. The credits tell you most of what you need to know. Written and produced by Jimmy Sangster (who also wrote Paranoiac and Maniac) and directed by Freddie Francis (who directed Paranoiac). So you know the drill. A Boileau-Narcejac plot involving mental manipulation and people who might not be dead, atmospherically shot at Oakley Court.
*. I can’t really explain what’s going on. I have a hunch it doesn’t really make any sense. I don’t just mean the improbability of the old latex-mask trick, or the larger game being played by the downstairs staff, but questions like what was up with Janet’s mother, and why Janet’s murder of Baxter’s wife seems to surprise and upset no one at the time and is written off so lightly.

nightmare1

*. There just seems to be more plot here than the movie can digest. The film also awkwardly splits in two, with the character of Janet disappearing into an asylum at the half-way mark, never to be seen or heard from again.
*. On our first sight of Janet at boarding school I thought she was too old. In fact, Jennie Linden was 25 and was brought in to replace Julie Christie, who would have been 30.
*. Was Freddie Francis a great director? He was a great cinematographer, but there’s a difference. He does the deep, gothic noir looks nicely here, but he had little feel for building a narrative or working a scene.
*. In short, it’s a lovely little picture to look at, but not one you want to spend any time thinking about. You may go mad.

nightmare3

Paranoiac (1963)

paranoiac1

*. The title is obviously just a throwaway, but it still bugs me. There are lots of crazy people, but who in the film is paranoid?
*. I’ve always had a special fondness for this film and think it’s perhaps the best of Hammer’s “contemporary” efforts. Why do I enjoy it so much? I think just because it’s such silly fun.
*. In most respects it’s very much of a piece with other films that Hammer was making at the time. Directed by Freddie Francis and written by Jimmy Sangster, it has a plot that I’ve elsewhere described as Boileau-Narcejac. I call it that because the French authors of the source material for Les Diaboliques and Vertigo basically trademarked this kind of story involving people who may or may not be dead and schemes to drive other people insane. Other Hammer films of this same period, like Maniac and Nightmare, stuck to the same script.
*. Paranoiac is actually based, very loosely, on a Josephine Tey novel, Brat Farrar (which was in turn loosely based on the real-life Tichborne case). And the basic plot involving possible ghosts and driving people over the edge can be traced back even further (Rebecca comes to mind). But I think the French influence is the most direct. The scene where “Tony” rescues Eleanor from drowning herself is a direct steal from Vertigo.

paranoiac3

*. But Paranoiac gives us another turn of the screw. In the first place there’s Oliver Reed, driving his Jag through the flower bed and generally doing everything but chewing the furniture. I thought I remembered him actually chewing the drapes in one scene, but on re-watching it I guess he only lifts them to his mouth. And the way he goes into spasms and babbles incoherently when making his final descent of the staircase is still there to be amazed by.
*. Then there’s Aunt Harriet. She really is quite obliging, dressing up like a little choir boy for Simon’s mad organ playing, isn’t she? Is everyone in this family bonkers? There’s also a suggestion of something more than family loyalty in her affection for Simon (“Simon belongs to me!”), which is echoed in the faux-incest between Eleanor and the fake Tony. This movie is demented.
*. I wonder if Reed’s fascination with the nurse’s shoulders is one of those stand-ins for a kinkier obsession they couldn’t show directly. It has that feel to it.
*. The story is hard to credit. Just how the hell does fake Tony figure out what happened to the real Tony? It’s beyond intuition. And it’s hard to credit anyone being fooled by the pretender anyway (or him passing the far more thorough legal investigation that must  be pending).
*. It’s all nutty as hell, but it’s nicely turned out and wraps up quickly. Like all of the best Hammer films, it’s a piece well played in a minor key.

paranoiac2

Maniac (1963)

maniac1

*. How good was Hammer, really? It’s a question I often ask myself. They did quite a bit with not very much, but they also have a reputation that I think exceeds their actual production. Some of their movies are quite interesting, and in various ways, but overall I think their work was mostly derivative.
*. A lot of their failings come down to direction. They had a good stable of actors, and the value they got out of their productions was usually pretty good. The writing could be hit and miss, but frequently showed intelligence and effort, with more depth than you’d expect to find in the genre ghetto they mined.
*. But the direction of their films is almost always flat. “Professional” is about the most I’d say for it. It rarely if ever adds anything to the material. Aside from the art direction, it’s hard to identify a Hammer style, or indeed much of a sense of style at all.
*. This is a long way of introducing Maniac. It’s one of Hammer’s contemporary (as opposed to gothic) thrillers, which means it derives more from Hitchcock than Universal. The screenplay, by Hammer stalwart Jimmy Sangster, is pure Boileau-Narcejac, spinning a tale of fake deaths and scheming lovers in the Camargue.
*. The locations are pretty. The climax, shot in the quarries of the Val-d’Enfer, is nice and there’s also a delightful (and utterly pointless) trip to the Arles Amphitheatre. But the rest of the film is studio city, and has a TV-set feel to it.
*. The cast is disappointing as well, with only Nadia Gray as the Lady Eve distinguishing herself. Kerwin Matthews is an empty vessel, and his voice is recorded in such a way that he always sounds like he’s whispering in your ear. It’s so bad, the fact that Donald Houston was dubbed doesn’t even stand out.
*. This brings us back to the script and the direction. Bosley Crowther praised Sangster for devising “a plot of extraordinary cunning . . . [It] takes on a twitching suspense that simmers, sizzles and explodes in a neat backflip.”
*. On the page this might have been a fair assessment, but none of that simmering and sizzling suspense comes through on the screen. In fact, I can’t think of a single sequence in this film where Michael Carreras even tries to build suspense. Even that old suspense stand-by, the disposal of the body, is dealt with in a perfunctory way.
*. Because you know you can’t trust Eve from her first appearance as a Camargue cowboy, complete with riding crop, there’s no “backflip” or twist at the end either. The game is given away too soon.
*. The one curve in the script is the odd love triangle, but this remains more confusing than creepy. Is Jeff really drawn to Annette? Eve is sexy as hell, but Annette is eighteen. Decisions, decisions. Eventually he’s locking lips with the hotter-than-her-daughter mom (in fact, Gray was 14 years older than Liliane Brouse, who was 26), but one suspects he was just looking for another sugar mommy to support him. We never see him actually painting anything.
*. Yes, the blowtorch-killer is kind of neat. But aside from that, and a bit of touristy scenery, if you enjoy such stories I think you’ll have more fun watching Les Diaboliques again.

maniac2

Bullitt (1968)

bullitt5

*. Does anyone understand the plot of this movie on a first, or even a second or third viewing? Not because it’s so complex mind you, but just because nothing is explained.
*. Do you care? Peter Yates didn’t. On the DVD commentary he mentions how he is always being asked why the marked man unlocks the door to let his killers in. “My answer to that is that if he hadn’t then there wouldn’t have been a movie.” In other words, it’s not worth thinking about.
*. “Don’t worry,” David Thomson writes. “If you can’t follow the plot, the cars will soon be coming over the hills like seabirds looking for fish.”
*. There’s a lot more to Bullitt than the car chase, but the car chase is what it’s best known for and it is the film’s highlight. Originally, however, there was no chase in the script (and the story was set in Los Angeles). But both Yates and McQueen were really in to cars, so . . .
*. As an aside here, it’s worth noting that everyone (or at least the actors, and director Yates) knew going in that the script was junk. The movie was going to sink or swim based on the “car chase” (which is all the description it received).

bullitt3

*. I love how the chase begins. After turning the tables on the bad guys and then appearing like a wraith in their rear-view mirror, McQueen closely tails them through traffic at slow speed. McQueen knows they’re going to make a break for it at some point, and we know it too. We’ve seen them buckle up. So the preliminary game of cat-and-mouse is a pregnant moment. The music ratchets up the tension (music that will abruptly stop when the chase begins). And then — in a squeal of smoking tires — it is on!
*. Surprisingly, much of it stands up pretty well. It didn’t hold the “greatest car chase” ever title for long, as only a couple of years later the chase in The French Connection challenged and (I think) outdid it, but you can still feel your stomach drop as we go bouncing down the hills of San Francisco, and the freeway jousting is Mad Max level.
*. Continuity, however, is another matter. I don’t mind that the geography is wrong (since I don’t know San Francisco), but that the same cars keep appearing (the green Volkswagen beetle, for example) is annoying. And there is also a problem with matching the weather. The scene was filmed over a two-week period and in one shot it’s bright and sunny and in the next it’s heavily overcast and looking like rain. So there’s no denying it’s a choppy bit of work.

bullitt4

*. Yates has two predilections in making crime films that really define the kind of movie Bullitt is.
*. In the first place, he wanted verisimilitude. Bullitt is a pure police procedural, as Yates was aiming “for a documentary” look and feel so people would believe in what was happening. It’s a movie full of professional interest: in the business of offices, or the hospital, or the place Bissett works. Today we associate so much of police procedural work with CSI-style forensics that it’s actually kind of fun to spend a long scene with Bullitt and Del taking apart the luggage looking for clues.
*. Yates’s other predilection was for keeping the action muted and low key. “I have always liked ‘less is more’,” he declares on the commentary, and he even praises Lalo Schifrin’s score for its economy, for knowing not to exaggerate things or push the drama.
*. In keeping with this “less is more” aesthetic Yates found perfect leads in the cool McQueen and (later) the somnambulistic Robert Mitchum in The Friends of Eddie Coyle. These are two men not known for overacting.
*. McQueen, who had asked for Yates to direct after seeing Robbery, was very much sympathetic to this approach. He claimed to be not an actor but a reactor, hated dialogue, and thought the camera should do most of the work. It’s an ultra-minimalist method and really defined the nature of “cool” for a generation and set the standard for an action hero. Dirty Harry is very much a film beholden to Bullitt (both were self-consciously thought of as modern Westerns, for example), and perhaps nowhere more so than in the grim taciturnity of their eponymous heroes.
*. The supporting cast either fell into line (Bullitt’s fellow officers) or fell into an unhappy wasteland.

bullitt7

*. Robert Vaughn is hopeless as the oily politician Chalmers. Pauline Kael found him “a slimy Mr. Big whose technique of bribery is so blatantly insulting he couldn’t give away a lollipop.” True, but the thing is Vaughn has nothing to do. Without any function he is left impotent, making quiet threats that are routinely ignored and which begin to seem silly after a while. Perhaps under Yates’s direction he is also drawn into a battle of understated cool with McQueen, which he is doomed to lose.
*. As shocking as it seems, Jaqueline Bisset is in an even worse position. She is, quite simply, the entirely irrelevant love interest. According to Yates nobody was sure what to do with her character or how to fit her into the story. According to Yates they were puzzled as to “what one can get the girl to do that doesn’t hold up the action.”
*. I guess they couldn’t think of anything, as she has nothing to do, or say, and apparently she was just supposed to be a foil for Bullitt, to show his “sympathetic side and his reality” (whatever that means). I think they just needed to give the stud star a babe to go to bed with. I mean, Frank Bullitt can’t sleep alone, can he?
*. Trivia challenge: Do you know what the name of Bisset’s character was? I didn’t, even right after re-watching the movie, and had to look it up. I wasn’t even sure if it was ever mentioned, or if she’d just be credited as “The Girl.” Well, the correct answer is “Cathy.”

bullitt6

*. You can hear how desperate things had become with Cathy by listening to her big speech to Bullitt after the discovery of the murdered woman at the hotel. Poor Jacqueline. What could she have been thinking when she read this: “Do you let anything reach you? I mean, really reach you? . . . With you living with violence is a way of life. Living with violence and death. . . . Your world is so far from the one I know. What will happen to us in time?”
*. On the commentary track Yates (who liked dialogue about as much as McQueen did) says that in this “scene I wish we had no dialogue.” He thought that if it had just been done visually it would have said everything. As it was they had a lot of trouble writing it because no one could think of anything for Cathy to say.
*. About the only thing to like about Bisset’s character are her outfits, which are designed to make you guess if she’s wearing any underwear.
*. Speaking of clothes, what’s not to like about McQueen’s wardrobe? Those pyjamas! That turtleneck! That sweater jacket! Some styles are timeless.

bullitt1

*. The “professional” mafia hit men don’t do a very good job do they? Shooting the cop in the leg (we’re told he’ll be fine) and then hitting their main victim in the shoulder, at point blank range, with a shotgun?
*. Part of the problem may have been because squibs were new and they couldn’t really show the guy’s head exploding. When we see his body later his head is all covered in blood so I think we’re meant to think it was a better shot.

bullitt2

*. I really like the credits, but they seem a little out of place in a movie like this. Then again, that opening sequence is out of place as well, and you’re left guessing for most of the movie as to what was even going on.
*. “Bullitt” is a pretty weird last name, isn’t it? I couldn’t find any listed in my local phone book.
*. I guess bobblehead dolls have been around for a long time, but I was still surprised to see one in the back of Robert Duvall’s cab.
*. They wouldn’t let McQueen do that jump from the plane onto the tarmac at the end “because of his legs.” And can you blame them? That really was a “hell of a jump” (in Yates’s words). Just looking at the first guy do it made me wince. That would destroy your knees.
*. We often think of stunts as being spectacular things, like bursting into flame or falling from the top of a tall building, but the airplane jump is a good example of something that may not seem special but which is really very difficult. They let McQueen do his own driving (he insisted on that), and duck under taxiing jets, but that leap from the plane was going too far.

bullitt8

*. The business at the airport is OK, but I couldn’t understand why Ross was giving himself away by taking such a long shot with a pistol at McQueen.
*. When he is gunned down later, I like how his death gets absorbed into the random voices of the crowd and the routine business of the police (and a priest) wrapping things up. There really is nothing to see here any more folks. Move along.

bullitt9

*. This sense of routine feeds into the ending, which I love. It’s perfectly fitting that we get to see Bullitt return to his apartment in silence and proceed through a series of still-life studies: Bisset in bed (to be enjoyed later); McQueen staring into the mirror; his gun and holster lying on the table. There’s both a sense of closure as well as an affirmation of routine. How many times has Bullitt come home like this? And tomorrow he’ll get up and do it all over again.

bullitt12

bullitt10

bullitt11

Night Creatures (1962)

nightcreatures2

*. Chances are you’ve never heard of the Reverend Doctor Christopher Syn, but he was a minor fiction franchise a century ago. In 1962 you might still expect a British audience to recognize the name.
*. There were, I believe, seven Dr. Syn novels, written by Russell Thorndike. This film is based on the first (which was chronologically the last): Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh (1915). That’s the book this movie is based on.
*. So why is Dr. Syn now Dr. Blyss? And why is this movie called Night Creatures (its U.S. title, in the U.K. it was known as Captain Clegg)? Because Disney had the rights to the Dr. Syn novels and the next year they would come out with a film based on the same book, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (1963).
*. I mention all this because knowing the story behind the character of Dr. Syn would have helped audiences in the ’60s. Without that background it’s a hard movie to square morally. Surely the gang of smugglers are a bad bunch. They’re criminals. They cut out the Mulatto’s tongue and leave him to die on a desert island. They kill snitches and dump their bodies in the marsh. Not nice people at all.
*. But Dr. Syn/Dr. Blyss/Captain Clegg (the U.K. title gives the game away) is a sympathetic figure. He wants to help the poor people of the town of Dymchurch and provide for his ravishing daughter. So is he alright?
*. I don’t think so, but he’s Peter Cushing and you always sort of like Peter Cushing. It’s the fact that he’s providing for his daughter by marrying her off to Oliver Reed that is probably the worst thing about him. As if that’s going to work out.
*. How good was Peter Cushing? I find him impossible to judge since he was in so many sub-standard, low-budget Hammer movies, directed by journeymen and working with potboiler scripts. He always seems to stand above the material, but that may be due to his natural air of dignity and refinement. You can’t help feeling he’s slumming it in these flicks, but on the other hand, they’re mostly what he did.
*. That’s not Oddjob, by the way, playing the Mulatto. It’s Milton Reid, who actually appeared in three Bond movies as a heavy (Dr. No, the first Casino Royale, and The Spy Who Loved Me). Reid wanted the role of Oddjob, and challenged Harold Sakata to a wrestling match to see who would get the part, but the producers wanted somebody different. Reid has a fascinating biography that’s worth checking out if you get the chance.
*. There’s a lot of stuff to like here. It’s a strong story, well-plotted and with some interesting characters. And the night riders look much better than they should in their glow-in-the-dark Hallowe’en skeleton costumes, apparently smeared with the same pitch the villains used to light up the hound of the Baskervilles (I don’t know what else they’d be using in the eighteenth century).
*. But aside from those riders there isn’t enough here that stands out. Like a lot of Hammer productions it’s a workmanlike (or, less charitably, unimaginative) production of a decent script. I don’t think anyone remembers the Syn novels today, and after the passage of another century I doubt anyone will remember this adaptation. But I guess both were fun at the time.

nightcreatures1

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

robinsoncrusoeonmars1

*. I’ve had occasion to mention the Criterion effect before: how a release from the prestige DVD label lends an air of respectability to what may be marginal or mediocre title. I think Criterion does a great job kitting out classic, and even some marginal, titles with nice restorations and extras, but there have been a number of times when I’ve raised my eyebrow at some new addition to their catalogue.
*. One such movie is Robinson Crusoe on Mars, a largely forgotten Sci-Fi flick from the 1960s that might have remained forgotten without any great loss.
*. The critical voices have to work very hard selling this one. To take one example, much is made of how accurate a vision of Mars this was, at a time when the planet had yet to be explored. This echoes the lobby cards, that in typically breathless manner proclaimed the film to be “scientifically authentic!” I don’t think it does more than nod in this direction. Yes, Mars is a dusty, red planet. But why, as Ib Melchior notes with some disgust on the DVD commentary, does Draper have to blow oxygen on his dried paper to start a fire when the entire surface of the planet is alive with flames and fireballs? And why does Draper take the oxygen tank from the monkey Mona, saying he could sure use it, without any concern for the fact that she might need it too? Did someone really think it would be an effective compensation for Draper to blow air into Mona’s face?

robinsoncrusoeonmars2

*. I can’t believe that Mona (actually a male woolly monkey named Barney wearing a diaper) had a fun time on this shoot. No animal likes people blowing in their face. And I felt sorry for him being dragged around with a string tied around his neck.
*. I mentioned Ib Melchior, the screenwriter. He had quite a bizarre list of credits. Among other things, he co-wrote Reptilicus (shudder), did the screenplay for Bava’s Planet of the Vampires(which was the inspiration for Alien), and wrote the short story “The Racer” that Death Race 2000 was based on.
*. The critical voices on the commentary play up how good it looks. Again, I disagree. The matte paintings are often poor (the one of the polar ice cap strikes me as particularly bad), and the special effects shoddy. In addition, much of the look of the film was borrowed, quite literally. The alien spaceships are just leftovers from The War of the Worlds, which was also directed (at least nominally) by Byron Haskin, but over ten years earlier. The aliens themselves were midgets dressed in the spacesuits from Destination Moon. The red or orange sky is nice, but it’s a simple effect and not very interesting. I don’t think there’s anything here that breaks new ground. Indeed, with that final shot of the lander descending I was reminded of nothing more than the fantasies of George Méliès, like A Trip to the Moon and The Impossible Voyage. That’s not progress.

robinsoncrusoeonmars3

*. On the commentary Robert Skotak mentions how the shots of the alien ships appearing and blasting away at the surface of the planet over and over are “quite menacing in their relentless quality.” Really? The repetition just strikes me as cheap. And they repeat these shots a lot.
*. Isn’t it odd that we begin with Colonel McReady (Adam “Batman” West) and are only later introduced to his subordinate Draper, almost incidentally? Immediately after this Draper will become the lead and McReady will disappear.
*. Paul Mantee refers to his pool scene as a nude scene but he’s clearly wearing a tan swimsuit. The only shot where he may be nude is the one distant shot where we see him climbing out, but the camera is so far away it’s hard to tell.
*. Given how fast the sand is pouring out of that clock, Draper’s alarm must be going off every five minutes.
*. It’s curious that nobody liked the awful title. How did they get stuck with it then?
*. At first Draper feels like he’s Columbus, not Crusoe. A real American. Hey, he even hangs the flag outside his cave and whistles “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

robinsoncrusoeonmars4

*. What a noisy movie. And when I say “noisy” I mean filled with loud, irritating noises. Starting with that spaceship shrieking past us (over and over again), to the alien ships bombing the planet (over and over again), the alarm clock going off (over and over again), Draper playing his jerry-rigged bagpipes, and Mona the monkey squawking and chattering non-stop. At what point does a sound person clue in to this and tell the director or producers that all of this racket is really going to piss people off?
*. I can’t figure the aliens out. Though that’s not surprising. They weren’t in the original draft of the script and Haskin just added them because he still had the model spaceships from War of the Worlds hanging around. Are they trying to kill Friday at the end? Why? And why is it so hard to do? He’s wearing a tracking bracelet, but all the aliens seem able to do is randomly bomb hell out of some cliffs in the general vicinity.
*. The various voices on the DVD commentary are actually kind of sad to listen to. Mantee and Victor Lundin both thought this film was going to be their big break. Instead it bombed.
*. The film’s defenders blame poor promotion and distribution, pointing to how it was released on a double bill with a Jerry Lewis film. But I think it just isn’t very good.
*. As noted, for an SF film it feels ten years behind the time. It’s very much a product of a mid-50’s sensibility.
*. Then there’s the story, which just wanders from one challenge to another without building to any kind of conclusion. Draper makes oxygen. Finds water. Finds Friday. Hikes to the pole (for no clear reason, since he’s not getting away from the aliens). Then the aliens simply leave, without any further explanation. A voice comes over the radio and a new lander descends to save them, literally deus ex machina. That just doesn’t add up to a very interesting story. I’m not surprised people stayed away.

robinsoncrusoeonmars5