Category Archives: 1960s

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

*. A Fistful of Dollars is Sergio Leone’s Western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and it stays quite close to the original, copying certain scenes and plot elements nearly verbatim. Despite this, upon being sued by Kurosawa Leone tried to argue that he was actually going back to earlier sources (including Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest, a source also touted for Yojimbo, and an 18th-century Italian play called The Servant of Two Masters). He could not have been serious, and the defence was properly rejected.
*. To take just the most obvious example of borrowing, when Eastwood’s Man With No Name asks the coffin maker to prepare three coffins and returns to apologize for his mistake and to make it four, he is only slightly inflating the identical scene in Yojimbo where Sanjuro asks for two coffins and then asks for three.
*. It’s a movie we have to see in hindsight today knowing its importance in introducing the spaghetti Western and what Eastwood would go on to do, not only in rounding out Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy (this movie would be quickly followed by For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) but on his own. Given all that, we have to then note that Eastwood was not Leone’s first or even second choice to play the part (Henry Fonda was tops, followed by Charles Bronson, who didn’t like the script).

*. As fate would have it, Eastwood was perfect. Why? Because like most great action stars he understood the value of minimalism. As another of his iconic characters would put it, a man has to know his limitations, and Eastwood knew his. Meanwhile, Leone (who didn’t know English) wasn’t expecting much. “More than an actor, I needed a mask, and Eastwood, at that time, only had two expressions: with hat and no hat.”
*. For the role, that was enough. Sanjuro would have a shrug and a habit of stroking his chin. Eastwood would squint and chew on a cigar. Neither character would even have a proper name, though the hotelkeeper here does call Eastwood Joe.
*. It’s a performance that also might say something about the evolution of cool. The Man here is borderline autistic, but violent. And also very much alone. Marisol may catch his eye, but because he’s attracted to her? Because he wants to help her? Or just because she’s connected to the gang he wants to take down and he thinks she’ll be useful?
*. Speaking of unconvincing, this movie came out during the pre-squib days of gun battles, which gets us the truly laughable slaughter of the Mexican Federales by the psychopathic Ramón Rojo. I mean, how do they manage to not kill all the horses? In a quick gunfight, like the Man specializes in, we don’t mind not seeing blood. But when you see so many extras all dying in the throes of the same ludicrous ballet gestures it’s ridiculous.
*. Is this some of the most unconvincing day-for-night photography you’ve ever seen? It is for me. Which only really matters in the graveyard shootout, but does matter there. Things are very mixed up. If you accept that they can’t see that the two men are already dead, how can they see well enough to shoot at each other?

*. In some ways it’s an even more fanciful and abstract movie than Yojimbo. In that movie we at least saw some shots of townspeople hiding in their homes. San Miguel, on the other hand, seems truly deserted. How does the hotelkeeper stay in business? There’s literally no one here but him and the coffin maker.
*. Stephen Prince’s DVD commentary sees in Yojimbo an allegory for the decline of a noble old order due to commercial capitalism. This explains Kurosawa’s motives, but leaves Sanjuro’s a blank. In this film business is even more soulless and destructive, but I don’t get the sense that Leone cares much. Meanwhile, the Man doesn’t even have a samurai code to honour. He’s on the side of women and children and old men, which is nice, but as far as it goes. It’s interesting that when this movie was shown on TV they added a prologue giving the Man some back story (he’s been released from prison so he can go clean up San Miguel). Obviously somebody thought audiences needed more to go on. But they didn’t. Less was always more.
*. It’s an important movie, and a good one too. I don’t usually get too excited by restorations, but the 4K version of this film is stunning, with the tracks in the characters faces looking like desert gullies in satellite photographs. Seeing it like this is a revelation, and really drives home how visual a movie it is. That same reliance on visuals, however, also makes it less interesting on repeated viewings. I find there’s just not very much going on here, and I say this as a fan. Leone was building up to greater things though.

Yojimbo (1961)

*. In his commentary for the Criterion release of Yojimbo, Stephen Price presents a particular reading of the film that didn’t immediately suggest itself to me. Basically Price sees Yojimbo as an allegory for the emergence of modern corporate capitalism. The samurai “Sanjuro” (he gives himself the made-up name) represents an older, vaguely feudal code of values. He wants to destroy the new world order, represented by the competition between the silk and sake merchants and their yakuza. This he does in an apocalyptic final battle that leaves the town a smoking ruin littered with corpses. “It’ll be quiet in this town now,” is the laconic epitaph he bestows upon it.
*. Such a reading helps Price explain the character of Sanjuro. In particular, the question of his motivation. As the film makes clear, Sanjuro’s not in the game for money or women. Indeed, he seems to despise both. And despite often being invoked by critics, I don’t really see where he has much of a code, whether that of the samurai or one involving any other moral compass. As Roger Ebert observes, “His amorality is so complete that we are a little startled when he performs a good deed.”
*. For Price this allows us to read him as a vehicle for Kurosawa’s message, his role being to punish the corrupt and greedy politicians and gangsters. Which is a fair reading on one level, but leaves the more basic question of his character unresolved.

*. I can get on board with some of this, as Sanjuro is otherwise an enigmatic figure. On the most literal level what he seems to be driven by is a desire to be entertained. He delights in stage-managing the big showdown between the gangs, and is clearly enjoying things immensely as he looks down from the tower. Then when he’s being carried to safety in the coffin he puts himself at huge risk when he perversely insists on being dropped in the middle of the street so he can see the destruction of Seibei’s clan. If there’s violence happening, he wants to watch.

*. Is there some commentary in this on our own fascination with violence, given that we are watching a violent movie? I think there has to be some of that going on. Though the presentation of violence, while at times quite explicit and even shocking for the time (the severed hands, the arterial spurts), is complicated by a couple of factors.
*. In the first place, it’s quick. Kurosawa here is the anti-Peckinpah, giving us a climactic battle that lasts all of ten seconds. The swift movements of Toshiro Mifune combined with the effect of the telephoto lens and what may have been an undercranked camera in some scenes, make it so that if you blink you’re likely to miss a lot of the action.
*. “An intense scene feels very long,” Kurosawa says in the documentary included in the Criterion package. The final battle “is very short but it feels longer.” Yes, but I think only when we recollect it in tranquility. At the time it has quite an effect, startling in its suddenness and realism. But it doesn’t feel long, at least in the way a short suspenseful scene will.

*. The second factor complicating our appreciation of the film’s violence is its sense of humour. That dog with the hand in its mouth is a funny bit, but it’s shocking as well. What I think grounds that humour in something real is the expression on Sanjuro’s face, which is hard to see now without also thinking of the solid impregnability of Eastwood’s Man With No Name.
*. Does this diminish the violence in some way though? I think it does. As with The Man With No Name, Sanjuro is the only one who experiences real violence. We are made to feel his suffering, especially in his long crawl to freedom. Everybody else is just a mook to be shredded into sashimi.
*. It’s a Western movie. That’s not to pinpoint any particular influence, though you can certainly feel the presence of the Western tradition with its dusty main-street showdown. But there are also references to various gangster films, starting with The Glass Key. All I really mean by calling it a Western is that it’s a movie in the Western film vernacular. This is why its progeny are as well known as its sources. But for all this embeddedness, it also deserves a lot of credit for the way it bent various genre arcs. It not only reinvented the samurai picture but created the spaghetti Western, with its dirty, morally ambiguous antihero.

*. That anti-hero, Sanjuro, is, in my opinion, one of film’s great original creations, a fictional character that can stand alongside Falstaff on stage and Quixote in the novel in terms of his popularity and individual standing in the global canon. These comparisons also underline his mass appeal. Naturally audiences wanted more of him (like they wanted more Falstaff, or a second part of Don Quixote), and would be obliged in a sequel, Sanjuro.
*. The curious thing I find about Yojimbo is that it’s an entertaining movie — deliberately so, and not surprisingly a box office smash — that I wasn’t impressed all that much by the first time I saw it but which grows on me with every re-viewing. The technical expertise and attention to detail really stand out. I’m still not sure it’s a personal favourite — for one thing, I can never get the town politics straight in my head — but I do find I appreciate it now more than ever.

Night of the Big Heat (1967)

*. The gang’s all here. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (the latter credited as only “guest starring,” whatever that means). Directed by Terence Fisher. With a story by the staggeringly prolific (and now largely forgotten) John Lymington about an alien life form that burns people to a crisp. Sure it was put out by a small studio (Planet Film Productions, who had just done the very similar Island of Terror the year previously), and obviously it had no budget to work with, but really: how bad could it be?
*. Night of the Big Heat answers that question.
*. Since they didn’t have any money to spend on the monsters they ditched the idea in the novel of fire spiders from Mars (or wherever) and went with a glowing blob that makes a high-pitched, cicada-like whine. This blob was, however, so disappointing that they decided to conceal the alien’s appearance until the very end. This has two unfortunate consequences: (1) for most of the movie we only see actors reacting to the monster by screaming at the camera and then flaring out in white light; (2) when the big reveal finally does come it’s an even bigger letdown.
*. It’s not just the monster. Night of the Big Heat can’t even sell its basic premise, which is that a small island off the English coast is experiencing an extreme heat wave in the middle of winter. Unfortunately, the only way they had to represent this was to douse the (male) cast with glycerin that is supposed to look like sweat. Except it doesn’t. The shirts are stained in ways that don’t follow any familiar sweat pattern. Meanwhile, Cushing never takes his jacket off (despite it appearing to be soaked as well) and Jane Merrow looks like she’s freezing in her bikini. Which she probably was. The film was shot in February and March! In England!
*. The script was apparently a work in progress that nobody was satisfied with. It’s a talky film and all of the talk is bad. I guess the sexual angle was thought to be a way of turning up the heat further, but it’s just dull. The explanation for the aliens is dumb even by 1967 standards. The characters behave like idiots. Right after warning Cushing not to go near the pit, in which he will be killed, Lee sees something glowing in the pit, complains about how hot it’s getting and decides . . . to go into the pit to check it out. Makes sense. I mean, he’s a scientist. As for Merrow’s character, she’s much too dumb to live but somehow does.
*. Relased in the U.S. as Island of the Burning Damned. I wonder which title is worse. I honestly feel like it’s a toss-up.
*. If you have a sweet tooth for this sort of fare then you’ll get a smile out of some of the terrible dialogue (“I wanted her! I wanted her body!”) and the general air of silliness. But in answer to the question of how bad it could be the only answer is Plenty.

Island of Terror (1966)

*. I wonder how many actors there have been who had careers like that of Peter Cushing. He’s still very well known today, and I think widely admired, but he made a living out of appearing in scores of undistinguished and now quite obscure movies basically playing variations on the same character. Just look over his filmography. What stands out? Turns as Sherlock Holmes and Van Helsing. Of course Grand Moff Tarkin (though that was a bit part). Aside from that it’s mostly a blur. I was surprised to find that he doesn’t even have an entry in David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film.
*. Well, here he is again, performing above his pay grade in a cheap slice of Brit horror from the ’60s. As usual he is an eminent man of science fighting the forces of evil. Island of Terror wasn’t a Hammer production, but it might as well have been. Terence Fisher was behind the camera. The big house isn’t Oakley Court but St. Hubert’s. Cushing’s character exclaims that it looks like Wuthering Heights, but I don’t think Emily Brontë imagined anything half so grand.
*. I thought the plot felt very much like a Doctor Who episode, which seems fitting since Cushing played the Doctor this same year in the feature Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. To recap: A bunch of scientists have set up a research station on a remote island off the east coast of Ireland. While trying to discover a cure for cancer they accidentally create a species of fast-breeding creatures that sort of look like giant turtles with long, tentacle-like necks. Anyway, once one of these “silicates” grabs hold of you they dissolve every bone in your body and then start to duplicate. Given enough of a food supply they’ll soon take over the world.
*. The silicates do not impress. Since they move very slowly and the only way they can attack is by way of their single appendage (or, even more improbably, by falling on people from out of trees) they really aren’t all that threatening. At best they can be disgusting, as when they go through some kind of mitosis and spill out pools of greenish spaghetti. But give credit to the producers for going ahead and showing them in all their low-budget glory early on, in full view and good lighting. Laugh or shake your head if you want, but this is the best they could do and you’re welcome to it.
*. If the silicates underwhelm, they do at least provide the film with its one signature element. The rubberized corpses of the people they have de-boned are actually pretty creepy. I only wish we had seen more of them. But I don’t think Fisher’s heart was in it.
*. Carole Gray plays the scared, helpless, and stupid female who is even more scared, helpless, and stupid than usual. She needs to be held, a lot, and is so lacking in agency she’s nearly euthanized at the end.
*. The idea of injecting strontium-90 into a herd of dairy cattle that the silicates then eat and are poisoned by isn’t bad. But aside from being excessively nerdy it’s also a drawn-out and boring solution. While dynamite and “petrol bombs” (Molotov cocktails) are attempted but found wanting, I think we still want to see the silicates getting destroyed in some more spectacular way than just dying from food poisoning.
*. Well, don’t expect too much. Island of Terror is a bit of fun for fans of British horror from this period. There are a couple of decent jump scares, and some memorably odd shots of herds of silicates wandering through forests and fields. It’s certainly miles ahead of the next production to come from Planet Film Productions, Night of the Big Heat. Which only goes to show that things here could have been a lot worse, even without the contagion spreading to Japan.

Women in Love (1969)

*. A lot of the time, when I’m in the process of preparing these notes, I make an effort to go back and read the source material that a movie is based on. I didn’t do that in this case. I read D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love many years ago and I don’t remember it being a real favourite. As I recall, it went on far too long to make a kind of obvious and obsessive (though not very persuasive) point.
*. At that time — I believe this was in the late ’80s — Lawrence was definitely on the outs. There was a graduate course being offered just on his writing (he wrote a lot) and it was cancelled because it didn’t have a single student sign up. Even high school students I knew would casually disparage him as dull and preachy.

*. It wasn’t always thus. It certainly wasn’t thus in the 1960s. It was only in 1960 that the full text of Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been published in England, after a landmark trial (the same thing happened, at much the same time, in the U.S.). And yet by the 1980s I think most people who made the effort found Lady Chatterley to be almost unreadable.
*. Women in Love (the novel) was controversial too, though not as much so. And the film also stirred some feathers, mainly for the nude wrestling scene. Today, however, the sensational elements seem more silly than anything else. When Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates) gives his discourse on the fig (something not in the novel but drawn from a poem by Lawrence) I think most people cringe or just roll their eyes.

*. How fair is this? Obviously our frankness about sex has changed quite a bit. But I think Lawrence’s diminished reputation is the result of more than this. I think it has more to do with his sermonizing and philosophical crudity.
*. In his paradoxical combination of preachiness and shock value Lawrence probably couldn’t have had a better interpreter for the screen than Ken Russell, a director who shares those same qualities. I think we can see them coming together in the depiction of Hermione.
*. Hermione is apparently based on Lady Ottoline Morell, and is played by Eleanor Bron who looks even more like the original than Alan Bates looks like Lawrence (and Bates really does look a lot like Lawrence). She was a famous society hostess and considered a bluestocking, making her a target of Lawrence’s satire. Russell has also been accused of misogynistic views in this regard, adding to the fit I mentioned.
*. And so we get the interpretive dance scene, something I don’t believe is in the novel, presented just to make Hermione seem even more of a pretentious fool. But is she any more pretentious in her faux Russian ballet than Lawrence/Russell in their condemnation of her? Here is how Birkin breaks up with her immediately after the dance: “You can’t bear for anything to be spontaneous, can you? ‘Cause then it’s no longer in your power. You must clutch things and have them in your power. And why? Because you haven’t got any real body, any dark, sensual body of life! All you’ve got is your will and your lust for power!” That’s not pretentious?
*. The match between Lawrence and Russell works on other levels as well. Both have a tendency to hammer away. With Lawrence this is done through language, with Russell it’s visual. I like the rhyming of the drowned couple with Birkin and Ursula’s post-coital positioning, but it’s a connection that feels dialed up to 10. Subtlety is not Russell’s game. He’s not going to let you miss something like this. Just like he’s not going to let you miss the Matterhorn looming over the skiing parties. It’s remarkable how many shots he manages to shoehorn it into. Why? Because it’s there. It’s big. It’s dramatic. And I guess he couldn’t think of anything else to use as a backdrop.

*. Another memorable visual moment comes in the mirror scene. But again it has the feel of something clever that we’re being asked, or demanded, to notice. Is this sort of look any more mannered than Hermione’s dance?

*. I do like the cast. That Glenda Jackson, who had done very little film work before this, manages to dominate everyone else so much is quite something. I was only left as baffled as Gerald at Gudrun’s fascination with the insect Loerke (Vladek Sheybal). Something just isn’t coming through there.
*. Actually, I think a lot doesn’t come through. It may seem a strange thing to say, but for all its flights of rhetoric and visual bombast, I find this to be a surprisingly passionless affair. Maybe it’s because the only real love we witness is that of Rupert for Gerald. But I think there’s something else that’s missing. Even Gerald’s final hate fuck of Gudrun made me wonder why he was bothering. And his death/suicide is cold but bland as well. He just walks off into a postcard and lies down to go to sleep. What are we supposed to feel about this? I don’t feel anything at all.
*. Listening to the two commentary tracks on the Criterion DVD (by Russell and screenwriter-producer Larry Kramer) I was struck by how uninformative they were. Neither of them had much to say and I came away thinking that was significant.
*. As with the novel, certain set piece scenes stay with you. Gudrun’s dance in front of the cattle. The naked wrestling match. But, again as with the novel, they tend to grow in the mind or memory. Women in Love is a movie (and a novel) I appreciate more after the fact. Watching or reading it I’m not as impressed. The fault, I think, lies not so much in the message as in the manner in which it’s delivered. But then weren’t both Lawrence and Russell a bit suspicious of art? As the great love of their lives, she was a savage mistress.

The Leech Woman (1960)

*. The Leech Woman is a terrible movie. In its own ridiculous way, however, it is kind of interesting.
*. The premise derives from a timeless archetype. Dr. Paul Talbot is sick of his alcoholic, aging wife June (Coleen Gray). While he despises her boozing, one gets the sense that what he really can’t abide is her getting old on him. “Old women give me the creeps!” he explains to his assistant when a withered crone named Malla appears at his endocrinology clinic.
*. Malla, as chance would have it, knows the secret of eternal youth. Intrigued, Dr. Talbot heads off to Africa to check it out, taking June along as a guinea pig. She is appalled, but then figures she will get even with him by using the hormones from his pineal gland to make herself young (this, being mixed with a powder called nipe that comes from the pollen of a rare orchid, is the elixir of youth). Hard cheese for Paul, as he dies in the process of being tapped. But as for June, she “will have beauty and revenge at the same time.”
*. So we have the woman who loses her looks and is scorned then getting her own back thanks to some weird magic before becoming totally undone at the end. As Malla observes, it’s the old double standard at work: “For a man old age has rewards. If he is wise his grey hairs bring dignity and he’s treated with honour and respect. But for the aged woman there is nothing. At best she’s pitied. More often, her lot is of contempt and neglect.”
*. Also archetypal is the idea that June can only rejuvenate herself with the essence of people (men exclusively) whom she kills. This goes back to Elizabeth Bathory bathing in blood, not to mention most vampire stories. Calling June a leech is a little strong (she might have been a black widow or man-eating mantis, and leeches are never mentioned at any point in the film), but I guess it makes the point. Meanwhile, something in the set-up, and the pineal pin on the ring, reminded me of Marilyn Chambers’ appendage in Rabid. So things could have been worse for June.
*. All of this is interesting enough, and I also really like the extra twist in tying June’s alcoholism in with her need to get her next nipe fix later in the film. She’s just an addictive personality. But if we look into the matter a little more closely we can see that what she’s really addicted to is love. She even wants to love Paul. And so it’s hard not have sympathy for her. Especially, I would add, as all the men we meet are heels.
*. So it’s a promising story, and Coleen Gray does what she can with the part. But yes, it’s a terrible movie. Even at only 77 minutes it feels much too long, spending half that time just getting us to Africa, the Land of Stock Footage. So much more might have been done with the premise. But it was 1960 and there were limits on where movies were going to go when dealing with an empowered woman like June. In the end she is destroyed by her own vanity as much as by society’s double standards. But what does the survival of the odious Neil tell us? I guess if all men are jerks then it’s inevitable that a jerk would be left alive at the end.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

*. Is there any point calling a movie like this out for bloat? I mean, that’s the joke isn’t it? It’s there right in the mad, mad, mad, mad title (for which Stanley Kramer initially wanted another “mad”). Adjective overkill. Ha-ha.
*. Next question: do bloat and comedy ever go together? How many “big” comedies have there been? There’s something about trying too hard that undercuts comedy, at least in my opinion. Of course there is a style of loud comedy that plays as broad farce, but in this movie we’re talking about something different. It’s a movie that right from its conception was all about doing more, and more isn’t funny.
*. To take just the most obvious example of more, the Criterion DVD release of this title includes a cobbled-together 197-minute extended version of the film. Even if you found it hilarious, could you really enjoy a three-hour-and-seventeen-minute comedy? Everything has its limits.

*. You’ll have guessed I’m not a fan of the movie. I sat through both versions and I was there for a long time, not a good time. Just as everything else about it is inflated — the bombastic, Oscar-nominated title song, the “all-star” cast, the super-wide screen, the trashing of entire buildings — so was much of the critical praise directed at it. Sure it’s big, but is it a classic? A classic what?
*. I think the gigantism works against it almost every step of the way. It feels laboured as well as loud. Many of the stars were actually television veterans (10 of the 12 principals, according to the commentary) and they look out of place in a 70 mm landscape. Meanwhile, the very few moments that registered with me were the quiet or silent ones. I love the smoothly developing cynicism of the group when you see them deciding to go for it over Jimmy Durante’s body. Or the way you can hear their eyes rolling when Jonathan Winters’s Lennie keeps going on about having to pay taxes.
*. I’m not even sure the whole idea of just having a bunch of stars doing cameos has a point. They cameos are unnecessary and rarely funny. It’s fun to pick their faces out of the crowd but that’s it. I defy anyone to explain what’s funny about the appearances by Jerry Lewis, Jack Benny, and the Three Stooges here. They just show their faces and that’s it.

*. These were talented comedians, but what’s funny about the script? There are only a few lines that raise a smile. Many of the gags are old, and even get repeated within the film (the map in the face while driving comes back with the bug in the cockpit of the plane).
*. The chase comedy wasn’t new. The screenwriters, William and Tania Rose, had even done one themselves with Genevieve. Still, I think this is the movie that defined the genre, both for its size and its profitability. But I don’t see how this is to its credit.

*. Here is Lou Lumenick in his Criterion essay: “Mad World has provided the template for countless other chase comedies in the decades since its release, among them Ken Annakin’s Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), Hal Needham’s The Cannonball Run (1981), Richard Fleischer’s Million Dollar Mystery (1987), and Jerry Zucker’s Rat Race (2001).” Yikes. What kind of legacy is that? And he even leaves Scavenger Hunt off his list.

*. I think a lot of people like this movie for sentimental reasons. They enjoy seeing all the old familiar faces and pristine places. I can’t believe how fresh and clean Los Angeles looks. But it’s a curiously downbeat film in terms of its moral universe. These are people driven by greed, for the most part behaving very badly if not downright cruelly to each other. Even the cop, saintly Spencer Tracy, is corrupt. There’s an attempt made to leave us laughing but it’s forced. The men anyway have been left crippled and in Tracy’s case ruined. But they can still laugh at the old banana-peel gag.
*. I do think it looks good, and I think I might enjoy it more on the big screen. The stunts are impressive and the process shots match up really well. It got Academy Award nominations for editing, sound, and photography and on these counts I wouldn’t slight it. But a great movie? A funny movie? I’d stick with just calling it big.

The Naked Prey (1965)

*. In his entry on Cornel Wilde in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson likens Wilde’s films to the Dordogne cave paintings, saying “there are moments where one has the illusion of watching the first films ever made.”
*. This is a messy judgment, not least because the first films ever made don’t have any of the qualities of Wilde’s work. I also don’t think we can speak of him as a naive or primitive filmmaker, for some reasons I’ll mention in just a bit. What Thomson is getting at, however, is the archetypal nature of Wilde’s storytelling, especially in his films The Naked Prey, Beach Red, and No Blade of Grass.
*. When I say archetypal I mean a couple of things: (1) a story stripped down to its bare essentials, and (2) a story with a large footprint.
*. I don’t think there’s any questioning how stripped down The Naked Prey is. It’s not just that Wilde’s white hunter is run off into the bush without any clothes (though his skin-coloured shorts are pretty obvious). It’s the fact that he has no back story or character or even name. He’s simply credited as “Man.” Not only that, he has scarcely any lines. This is a story of survival that takes everything down to the essentials.
*. While I’m on the point I’ll mention that the screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award. Despite the script being only nine pages long. And let’s face it, they probably could have cut half of that. Dialogue, however, is only part of the screenwriter’s art. A silent movie can have a great script. I do question the quality of the script here, however. Aside from the lack of dialogue, there really isn’t much to it. The concept isn’t terribly original, and it’s basically just a long chase film. I don’t see how this qualifies as a great screenplay.
*. The other archetypal quality the film has can be seen in the way it suggests so many other stories and genres. I guess first among these would be the descendants of The Most Dangerous Game, a movie Wilde said he’d been inspired by that counts as the forefather of the “hunting-humans” genre. It’s also the case that many such films have the prey being a hunter himself, or guide, who experiences the tables being turned. This was the case in The Most Dangerous Game and Run for the Sun, as well as more recent films following the same script such as Beyond the Reach.
*. As well as a hunting-humans story it’s also a Western. The primary source was in fact a (supposedly) true story about a man, John Colter, escaping Blackfoot warriors in 1809 Wyoming. The frontiers have changed here, but it is still a tale of the frontier. It’s just that the nature of the boundary that frontier marks has gotten blurry.
*. Another genre we may think of is the cannibal movies following in the wake of Cannibal Holocaust. Yes, the natives are presented sympathetically for the most part here, but the torture games are shockingly cruel, and even more so given the time. Then there is the nature footage included, which serves some thematic purpose but which mainly just foreshadows the use of similar material in the cannibal films, situating humanity only on a continuum of predatory nature.

*. So it’s a very basic story, presented in its most elemental form. If you want to read more into it, as having something to say about apartheid for example, then that’s fine. But I think you have to work hard to do so. I’ll confess the more I look into it the less I see. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie, but just that I don’t think it’s very deep.
*. It is, however, handled with skill. Wilde isn’t a great director, but he has more than his share of moments. There’s the way the widescreen makes the tilt of his head to show his listening for the sounds of an ambush so expressive. The way the canopy of flowers covers up the murder of the bird man. The way we pan away from Wilde hiding behind a tree to look at his pursuer, only to reveal his disappearance when we pan back. This is all very nice, and it’s complemented with good photography throughout. The only problem being that the borrowed Wild Kingdom footage jars.
*. Wilde’s is a mostly physical performance, not just without words but with little emotion on display. He is not, however, one-dimensional. He can feel respect for his pursuers and become ecstatic at seeing them burn. Also, for a man in his early fifties he really was in remarkable shape. I’m glad Stephen Prince on the Criterion commentary acknowledges that jump he makes down the cliff of the waterfall at the end. How did Wilde’s knees manage that? He was landing on rock!
*. I’m really glad Criterion gave this a release, as I hadn’t seen it before they brought it out. It’s a good movie, and the fact that it has held up as well as it has is impressive. I just don’t think it has another gear to it, like, for example, Walkabout does (Walkabout being a movie I was often reminded of). There’s something archetypal about it, yes, but also something that falls short of great art. It does seem ahead of its time, but it’s very much of its time too. Is it the Technicolor? Wilde’s loincloth? The locations that don’t seem wild enough? It was shot in South African and (what was then) Rhodesia, but there were moments when I didn’t feel that far removed from Gilligan’s Island, which was in the middle of its own initial run when this movie came out. Whether in Africa or a Pacific island, it could still feel like the ’60s.

Belle de Jour (1967)

*. I first saw Belle de Jour at a rep cinema in the early ’90s. It was a full house, but as Catherine Deneuve’s Séverine got taken from the landau for her thrashing (this is the opening scene) a young woman sitting at the front quite conspicuously got up and stalked out of the theatre. I had to laugh. I mean, she knew what was coming and she obviously wanted to make some kind of statement by sitting up front and then heading for the exit in the first few minutes. It was that silly.
*. I don’t think anyone in the theatre that day found that scene, which is the riskiest in the film, shocking or offensive. By the 1990s we’d all grown used to much stronger stuff. Which is maybe why I was quite underwhelmed by the movie. I remember coming out of the theatre and wondering what the fuss was all about.
*. I like it more now, though I still don’t find it transgressive or disturbing and I don’t think I’ll every be fully on board with calling it a great movie. It is, however, a lot of fun to talk about.
*. A lot of this arises from the blankness of Catherine Deneuve’s Séverine. Like any good prostitue (I imagine) she is something that the client (or audience) projects on to. She’s like the Japanese man’s box in that regard. What’s inside? Whatever you want. A fetish is nothing to anyone but the person possessed of it.

*. Séverine, however, is even blanker than most sexual or fetish objects. Called upon to role play she can’t even manage the very minimal requirements demanded for the part. For the necrophiliac duke she is at her most convincing as a corpse. In her own fantasies she is something to be bound and gagged.

*. In an interview included with the Criterion DVD it is suggested that Deneuve is “asexual,” and it is a judgment that Buñuel immediately agrees with. To make use of a distinction that I remember Paris Hilton making once (and that I’ve adverted to before) she is sexy without being sexual. This is, I think, what Roger Ebert is getting at when he talks about the narcissism of Séverine: “For a woman like Séverine, walking into a room to have sex, the erotic charge comes not from who is waiting in the room, but from the fact that she is walking into it. Sex is about herself. Love of course is another matter.”

*. Part of this blankness is a certain generic quality that Séverine has as sexual object. Like most sexual fantasies, she easily fits into various stereotypical roles. When, at the end, Hussot sees her as a schoolgirl it’s just another conventional porn role she’s being seen in. Just as her own fantasies are drawn from Sade, or in one case from a Millet painting. I believe this is what Michael Wood means in his DVD commentary when he says of the dueling dream: “”there’s something horribly predictable about all of this and something horribly borrowed, it’s again as if Séverine has fantasies but she doesn’t quite have first-rate fantasies.”

*. The movie raises a lot of questions. Some of these aren’t meant to be answered, like the matter of what’s in the box. Or rather, their meaning is in the fact that there is no objective answer. Other questions, however, continue to bedevil critics.
*. I suppose the biggest of these has to do with what parts of the film are supposed to be “really” happening. The most notorious example here is the visit to the duke’s mansion to play a corpse. Personally, I feel convinced this is Séverine’s fantasy, but Buñuel was categorical about its reality: “the episode of the necrophiliac really happens; it’s neither a dream nor a daydream.”
*. Perhaps part of the difficulty arises from that same conventionality of fantasy life I mentioned. People’s lives are conventional too. Stereotypes are real. Could anything be sillier in a generic way than the whole gangster subplot? It seems to me that all of that stuff should be one of Séverine’s daydreams, but I guess it isn’t.

*. Then there is the justly famous ending, with its melding of dream and reality. How are we to read it? In the video essay Criterion includes, Susie Bright says that Séverine gets away with her affair unpunished. Does she? Or does the ending smack of Ethan Frome? The thing is, Séverine seems quite happy even before Pierre comes back to life. David Thomson goes as far as to suggest that the crippling of Pierre is what she wanted, perhaps a route to her expiation. Martyrdom is another form of fantasy, and we’ve clearly seen Séverine’s thoughts tending in that direction.
*. I’ve said I don’t think Belle de Jour is a great movie. Like a lot of Luis Buñuel’s stuff, I find most of it overly analytical. There’s something artificial about it, from the sets to the clothes to the fantasies themselves. It’s a passionless tale of passion. I find it fascinating on several levels, but never terribly involving. Then again, maybe Séverine just isn’t my type.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

*. It’s hard to take some movies out of their place in our memories of them. I first saw Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! at a repertory cinema when I was at university. Today it’s hard work even finding repertory cinemas, and the ones there are don’t often show movies like this. But this is what a cult movie was, back in the day.
*. I remember being mightily impressed by it thirty years ago, and while I still think it’s a lot of fun it hasn’t grown on me the way a favourite movie does, and doesn’t reveal any new levels of meaning on repeated viewings. It’s interesting in a lot of different ways, but not complicated.
*. As with all such movies there has been so much written about it now and so many different interpretations of its meaning that I’m pretty sure I can’t add anything original. For what it’s worth, on this latest viewing it put me in mind of two other movies.

*. First, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. This came out only a year later and I find a number of correspondences. Not because I think Faster, Pussycat is a Western, spaghetti or otherwise, but because of the archetypal force its central characters have, the conflict they endure, and the mythic structure of their quest.
*. Like Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes, Varla, Rosie, and Billie are after a fortune in gold (or, as it turns out, some really fake-looking “long green”), but the main thing I’m getting at here is how the central figures in the drama are so much larger than life, representing heroic or anti-heroic essences just as the Good, Bad, and Ugly do. It’s no mistake that there are few other players on screen: the audience at the go-go bar, the gas station attendant, and that hapless loser Tommy. They don’t belong with our triumvirate of Amazons, the Old Man, and the mighty Vegetable. The main players are forces of nature that will in the end cancel one another out, leaving only the all-too-human Linda and Kirk as inheritors of the blasted landscape.
*. It’s hard to speak of Blondie or Angel Eyes, or Varla and her gang, as characters. They are types. Varla is sex-as-death, someone who would just as soon kill you as fuck you. And indeed I’m not sure she’s all that interested in the latter. She is also wedded to her sports car as a cowboy to his horse, a mechanical satyr whose confrontation with the beefcake Veg has an orgasmic intensity. John Henry taking on the steam drill had nothing on this, and it’s just the sort of showdown such figures deserve. I think you could watch it with Morricone’s Ecstasy of Gold playing and enjoy it even more.

*. The other movie I was reminded of was The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). The Old Man, the Hitchhiker, and Leatherface have their analogs in the three men living alone on the ranch: the Old Man, Kirk (the only one who can pass for normal), and the Vegetable.
*. I don’t know how much has been said about Faster, Pussycat as an early example of this kind of horror film, but the classic set-up is already here: a group of young people wind up off the beaten track (the farmhouse doesn’t even have a phone!) where they meet a family of weirdos who seem to have designs on them. Nothing explicit is said, but it seems as though part of the Old Man’s revenge on women is to at least rape and perhaps kill any strays he can collect. The flies have fallen into the spider’s web, with the twist being that the tables have been turned.
*. That strained family dinner is another element found in a lot of the generation of horror that Texas Chain Saw Massacre introduced. A good meal is so often used as foreshadowing. For sex, or death. And in this movie you get both.

*. If you want to make big claims for Faster, Pussycat it may be in the way it preceded these films, each a landmark in its own way. Just as its presentation of buxom, dominating women preceded the fetish artwork of Eric Stanton, who was obviously a soulmate of Meyer. When drawing connections like these a lot of credit goes to the person who did it first, and in this case that palm goes to Meyer.
*. Does that mean we have to take Russ Meyer seriously? I’m not so sure. This is really the only movie of his I’ve seen that I can return to. And to be honest, most of the other movies of his I’ve seen I’ve been bored by. But for whatever reason everything came together for Faster, Pussycat! The title, tossed off almost as a joke, has stuck in the collective consciousness. The dialogue is campy and quotable, the action works, and the whole thing moves along so quickly you don’t have time to mind all the really dull bits. Bestriding all of this like a colossus is Tura Satana, whose performance is lightning in a bottle. In short, I think this was a one-off for everyone involved. But that’s the way it sometimes works.