Category Archives: 1960s

Othello (1965)

*. You know your Shakespeare and you know what you want your Shakespeare to look and sound like. You want the straight text, without any cuts or rearrangements. You want period dress, not some reimagining of the story in Victorian or contemporary costume. You don’t want a Shakespeare movie to look like a movie, you want a production shot on stage, with lots of long takes and no fancy camera tricks. Maybe the odd close-up, but that’s it.
*. Well, even if that isn’t what you want it’s what you get here, as Laurence Olivier no longer had the clout to get the budget to make a proper movie out of Othello. So instead they shot the currently-running National Theatre Company production, using the same sets and not so much as bothering to add a musical score. I’m not sure if anyone even thought they were making a movie. People shout their lines and their gestures all remain exaggerated and oversize, which is right for the stage but looks hammy on a big screen.
*. It’s a production today that will appeal to the purist, being a barely altered text that even includes most of the lines that are almost always cut. The cast is stage royalty, and snagged Academy Award nominations in all four acting categories. It also marks the screen debut of Derek Jacobi.

*. That said, and without wanting to be contrary, I don’t care much for the performances. To each their own, but here are my reasons.
*. Olivier plays Othello in blackface, which, while not something we need be offended by today, does look ridiculous by modern standards. They also didn’t get it right for the lighting, as his skin has a sickly greyish tinge that recalls the shopping-mall zombies from Dawn of the Dead.
*. Aside from his appearance, I didn’t like his portrayal of the Moor. He was aiming for something exotic with his voice and mannerisms, and got it, but I don’t know how well any of it works or fits with the play. His gait makes him look like he’s injured, and from his first appearance smelling a flower he comes across as conceited, even foppish. There’s little of Othello’s requisite gravitas and more of a smirking, cocksureness in the early scenes. Pauline Kael: “As a lord, this Othello is a bit vulgar — too ingratiating, a boaster, an arrogant man.” A bit like I imagine Cassio should be played. Then, after being emotionally poisoned by Iago, he turns into a gibbering wreck, unbalanced but not dignified.
*. Maggie Smith is miscast. For starters, she looks too old. She was thirty at the time, but she’s one of those actors who has always looked older or more mature than her age (Angela Lansbury is another, someone who could have played a grandmother in her twenties). My reading of Othello is that Desdemona is young and naive, drawn to a much older man (Olivier was in his late 50s so that part is right). Desdemona is also a head-turner of a beauty. She is a major prize that Othello has won, and she’s the kind of beauty that other men notice and that makes their husbands jealous. That’s not Maggie Smith. She does do pathetic well at the end though.
*. Even if you don’t agree with this reading of Smith, it’s hard not to feel that she fails to express any sort of passion for her husband. In the early scenes she seems almost repelled by him. It’s so glaring it makes me wonder what she was thinking. I can only imagine a director yelling out “Come on, Maggie! You’re supposed to be head over heels in love with this guy!”

*. Frank Finlay would be OK as Othello in most productions, but here he feels out of place, as the only serious character in the film. He is surrounded by fops and fools. Kael calls him “pale, parched little Iago,” but he looks like he could beat the tar out of the rest of the cast with one hand. He also doesn’t have any of Iago’s charm and charisma. Who would be sucked in by such an obviously nasty piece of work?
*. Derek Jacobi as Cassio is a lightweight, foppish character. I doubt anyone could have pulled the part off while labouring under that wig, but he still overplays it (that is, indulges in stage acting). This is especially noticeable in the big scene where he gets drunk. I also didn’t like this scene because it’s quite obvious that there’s nothing in their flagons and cups. Of course there wouldn’t be in a stage production, but as I’ve already said, didn’t they know they were making a movie?
*. Joyce Redman does her best with Emilia, a minor role that is hard to get right because it’s not that coherent in the play. Unfortunately, her one big scene in Act 4 is cut completely. She does get to play the lines in the previous scene that show her awareness of her husband’s perfidy though.
*. I don’t usually call out those places in movies where you can see a dead person still breathing if you look really hard, but at the end here, after Othello has killed himself and fallen on top of Desdemona’s corpse, you can see a corner of his bright white tunic lying against his black skin and it’s obviously moving in and out with his breath. It’s near the center of the screen and the contrast makes it unmissable. Indeed, it’s hard to take your eye off it as it moves in and out. I can’t understand why someone didn’t see that. Did they not know they were making a movie?

*. I don’t care much for this film, because it’s not much of a film. It’s the opposite of Orson Welles’s 1951 version, which scrambled and even ignored the text at times in order to overwhelm us with a startling visual rhythm and style. Welles’s Othello was also the result of working with limited resources, though in his case it made the production of the film paradoxically more expansive, shooting in various locations over a period of years. But Welles took these limitations and made something fresh and totally cinematic out of them. This Othello is so visually dull, and so determinedly un-cinematic, you want to look away.
*. Stuart Bruge was mostly a stage and TV director. The only other major Shakespeare film of his that I know of was the 1970 Julius Caesar, which was awful. He doesn’t seem to have been much interested in what film could do, and to be honest I found myself just wanting to have this movie on in the background while I made dinner, so that I could listen to it as I would to a radio play.
*. To all of this the usual defence is that it’s the film of a staged play and so you have to judge it as such. True, but that’s not the kind of thing I go to the movies to see. I think I might have liked this Othello on stage, but I’d have been happy if it had stayed there too.

The 10th Victim (1965)

*. Futuristic satire sometimes fails because it’s too far ahead of its time. That’s the sort of feeling I had watching The 10th Victim, though less because of the themes it addresses than for an aesthetic sensibility that hadn’t arrived yet.
*. The idea itself wasn’t new in 1965. The movie’s based on a short story by the wonderfully inventive author Robert Sheckley that was published in 1953. I’ve read the story, but not the later novel he expanded it into (which came out right after this movie), or either of the two sequels. In any event, the original story introduces the basic premise: people agree to hunt each other to the death, alternating as hunters and prey chosen by lottery, as a form of televised mass entertainment that allows society to blow off some steam.

*. That sense of the Big Hunt (as it’s called) being “mankind’s safety valve,” is drawn directly from Sheckley’s story, where the hunt is run by the Emotional Catharsis Bureau and is referred to as a purge. A name that would be picked up on in our own time for a dystopic murdertopia franchise.
*. In presenting a state-sponsored death sport that’s broadcast as entertainment, The 10th Victim is often credited with being the first of many similarly themed films, from The Running Man through Battle Royale to The Hunger Games (most recently, the popularity of Squid Game. shows it’s an idea with some life in it yet).
*. Being first counts for something, and it wasn’t just the first, but preceded the mass popularity of this sort of entertainment by several decades. Which gets to the point I started off raising: that The 10th Victim was actually too far ahead of its time.

*. What I mean is that it’s too much a product of the swinging Sixties, without the edge needed to give its satire more bite. I couldn’t stop thinking how much better a job Paul Verhoeven would have made of it, set alongside violent futuristic satires like RoboCop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers. Director Elio Petri was certainly interested in political satire with an edge, but we’re too much in Austin Powers-land here. I’m even pretty sure the bullet-firing bra Ursula Andress wears in the opening scene was the inspiration for the fembots. Zany Bond spoofs were all the rage at the time, and that’s what Petri was really plugging into.
*. Andress plays Caroline, a hunter. She’s a statuesque Nordic stunner (spawned in a Hoboken insemination clinic) who is also a bit of an “iceberg.” Sure to melt her is a Mr. Sexy named Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni). He’s Caroline’s prey, but may turn the tables on the former Honey Ryder. Even with his hair cut short and dyed blonde this is a guy who could “teach a course in Latin erotics.” Fire and ice are about to meet!

*. Unfortunately, the two leads have no chemistry and the plot is too stupid to bother with. The whole thing could have, and probably should have, been presented as more of a satire on media bloodlust, with the hitmen being pitchmen selling mint tea, but this angle remains secondary to random jokes on the decline of civilization. Things like Marcello’s mistress having a collection of classic literature that is just old comic books. Or Marcello keeping his parents hidden away in a secret room. Or the California-style cult of the sun worshippers. Or any of the fashionable pads the characters lounge around in, including the yellow yurt at the end that goes on a trip to Rome’s Temple of Venus.

*. So while sending up the media is on the menu here, it’s not given a lot of play, and Caroline and Marcello just aren’t interesting enough for us to care about. It’s all too silly, and the shootout at the end, with Marcello being chased by his wife and mistress, seems a conscious parody of 8 ½ more than social commentary. Somewhere along the way Petri appears to have lost sight of what the movie was about, and never found the proper tone for it. It’s still entertaining nearly sixty years later, but the stakes for this kind of satire have been raised.

Hamlet at Elsinore (1964)

*. It’s a shame that this Hamlet, a joint production of the BBC and Danish Radio that aired in 1964, isn’t better known. But I don’t think the BBC has ever promoted itself all that well. There wasn’t even a DVD version released until 2011, and even then it wasn’t a very clean print.
*. Then there is the title. Well of course Hamlet is at Elsinore. That’s where the play is set. The point of interest here though is that it was actually filmed entirely on location at the castle of Kronborg in the Danish city of Helsingør (in English, Elsinor). But then so what? Shakespeare had certainly never been to Elsinore, so his Elsinore was already a wholly made-up place. There’s little use of exteriors, and the interiors might have been just as convincingly rendered in a studio, without all the attendant difficulties of getting good sound while shooting on location. Meanwhile, does this look more authentic for being shot at Kronborg Castle than at Ivangorod, Dover Castle, or Blenheim Palace?
*. The producers wanted to cast actors who weren’t well known because it was thought that major stars would be a distraction. So they ended up with a cast of soon-to-be-stars, most of whom are terrific.

*. Christopher Plummer is Hamlet, a year before The Sound of Music. He’s a distinctive melancholy type here, seeming distracted most of the time. Then there’s a curious decision made not to show the Ghost, which makes him seem even more distracted, if not unhinged. I say curious because the play makes it clear that the Ghost has an objective existence. This production, however, works hard to suggest it is at least in part a mental projection. The Ghost’s speech on the ramparts is all delivered with the camera on Plummer’s face, and as he nods and grins at the Ghost’s revelations the impression we have is that he’s only being told what he already believed. There’s something more going on here than just his having a prophetic soul.

*. Robert Shaw is here a year after playing Aston in The Caretaker and Red Grant in From Russia with Love, two very different but equally chilling roles. He’s a personal favourite of mine, but even allowing for bias I still think his Claudius one of the best I’ve seen. He has a shifty look and casts a mean side eye. He walks around Elsinore bare-chested, and has more virility than is normally associated with the part (in fact, he was only two years older than Plummer, with June Tobin, who plays Gertrude, being the same age). But he’s also a bully, and like all bullies he goes to pieces at the end when Hamlet finally stands up to him.
*. Michael Caine, in his only turn at Shakespeare, is Horatio, and does a fine job playing second (or third) fiddle. Apparently he wanted to project a possible homosexual attachment to Hamlet, but even when I was looking for this I didn’t pick up much of it. What I did wonder about was Osric and Laertes. Was there something going on there?
*. Donald Sutherland is Fortinbras and he’s the only flop. And I mean flop. I don’t think I ever figured out what accent he was trying to affect. Surely not Norwegian? Listen to him say “Where is this sight?” when he comes striding on the stage at the end and try to place how he says “sight.” It’s just weird.

*. The women didn’t do as well. I think June Tobin as Gertrude and Jo Maxwell Muller as Ophelia are both very good, but they never went on to do much. Not the same opportunities? Or just different career choices?
*. Alec Clunes plays Polonius as a harmless, doddering fool. I think it was only in later productions that Polonius started to develop a bit of an edge. Here he’s still a comic type.

*. With such a cast, and some interesting creative decisions, it’s too bad this wasn’t filmed. Instead it was shot in videotape, and it shows. Director Philip Saville worked mainly in television and you really feel the limits of the small screen. As noted, the sound is awful, but also the editing is choppy and there is a repeated attempt to create depth of field that they just can’t achieve on any level. Figures even in the middle distance disappear in the haze.
*. Overall: a lot more than what you might expect, but still something less than what might have been. A good Hamlet and a standout Claudius. And the real Elsinore, if that makes a difference.

The Bad Sleep Well (1960)


*. Victory is one of my favourite Joseph Conrad novels, though it’s not very well known. It’s the kind of book that makes people say of it that it has some of Conrad’s best writing and some of his worst.
*. And so with The Bad Sleep Well. This is a movie I really love . . . most of. There are passages, especially the opening wedding ceremony, that I think are among the best things Kurosawa ever did. But at the same time, this has never been one of his most popular films.
*. Why? I think the far-fetched story alienates some people. It was the result of a collaboration among five screenwriters (Kurosawa being one), and apparently a lot of rewrites were done on the fly. As it stands, it’s two and a half hours of a grotesque revenge plot involving secret illegitimate children, identity swapping, and scaring people insane with ghosts.


*. Does it have much to do with Hamlet? Not to my eye, though the business with the wedding cake can be seen as a version of the Mouse Trap (only it can hardly be a tool for getting the guilty board members to expose themselves, since Nishi is clearly already convinced of their culpability in his father’s death). Aside from that, the only thing it really borrows is the notion of a son avenging his father’s murder.
*. Admittedly, this is a storyline that isn’t all that common. Usually we have heroes avenging the murder of their spouses or children. Not often a father. And it’s even a bit of a stretch here, as Nishi wasn’t very close to his dad.


*. Kurosawa was going contemporary after several films set back in samurai days. But how feudal is his contemporary Japan? The Public Corporation is like a fiefdom, demanding a superhuman level of loyalty.


*. This, in turn, leads us to a bureaucratized evil. You even get the exclamation/excuse that in doing such bad things the men in suits were “just following orders.” It’s a murderously corrupt system, and the Corporation is clearly a quasi-criminal enterprise (it could have been called the Syndicate or the Organization), so in the end who’s responsible?
*. It’s beautifully photographed, with brilliant framing that is perhaps only a bit overly formal. It’s hard to say though as this was very much the custom in what we think of now as the art house cinema of the day, and the layout of Japanese homes, with all their screens and grids, exaggerates the effect even more.


*. Even a location like the ruins of the munitions factory is invested with a kind of cinema vérité poetry. And it’s crammed with symbolism too, from the bunker to the smokestack to the beam that separates Nishi from Yoshiko.


*. To what extent is this a black comedy or satire? I honestly don’t know, figuring that I’m probably losing a lot in translation. But the score seems to strike a comic note at several points where I didn’t expect it.
*. I didn’t even recognize Toshiro Mifune. Did he gain a lot of extra weight for this role? And he’s hiding behind that blank corporate façade perfectly.
*, Kurosawa thought it was too far ahead of its time, that he made it too soon. That may have been true in Japan. I think it would have worked for an American audience in 1960, and it holds up very well today.
*. The ending is particularly ambiguous given the title. Will Iwabuchi sleep well, given he didn’t sleep at all the night before? Or has he murdered sleep? You could argue that the alienation of his children is a form of punishment, but does he care? Or does he care about the corporation’s welfare more? I take this latter position, which makes the ending particularly dark. His kids are gone, but he has to answer that phone, literally bowing to head office’s authority.
*. As for his kids, Yoshiko and Tatsuo, what exactly are they going to do? He’s a drunk and she’s a cripple. They’re both adults but don’t seem to have jobs while still living with their dad. So where are they going?


*. But to return to a point I raised earlier, who is head office? In the Kurosawa documentary included with the Criterion DVD the caller is referred to simply as a “great evil.” So somebody higher up the corporate ladder? The government? Whatever it is, I like it that we’re not told, and that we never hear the voice on the other end of the line.


*. When I was a kid I had one of those Weird Tales-style comic books that told the story of a corporate climber who kept moving up the ranks, but always being put off from seeing the big boss by a secretary posted outside the boss’s office. When the man on the rise finally takes over the company and is allowed to enter that office he finds it’s only a black void that he will now presumably be trapped in for eternity. You could think of it as a corner tomb, or a portal to hell. But all it really was, was a perfectly black frame.
*. I was reminded of that comic at the end of this movie. Is the great evil just the fact that there’s no directing intelligence at all? That the bureaucracy, the corporation, the system, is all there is?


Hamlet (1964)

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

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

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

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

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

Matango (1963)

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

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

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

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

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

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

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

The Apartment (1960)

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

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

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

Secret Ceremony (1968)

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

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

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

Tower of London (1962)


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