Category Archives: 1960s

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.

The Mummy’s Shroud (1967)

*. 1967? Too late, far too late, for a movie like this.
*. It’s a Hammer production that came out when the bloom (or blush) was off the rose for that studio. Hammer’s mix of stylized violence and titillation just seemed out of date by the late ’60s, and the British accents didn’t help. Perhaps most damning of all, there seemed to be a lack of energy surrounding these productions.
*. None of these pitfalls was avoided in making yet another mummy movie. Not only are mummies not terribly interesting in themselves — being basically just zombies wrapped in ancient bandages, albeit with a romantic back story — but the plot of a mummy movie doesn’t allow for a lot of variation. The mummy’s tomb is disturbed. He awakes and wreaks vengeance because of some curse, usually while under the control of some priestly handler.
*. The mummy doesn’t even provide interesting kills either, as he usually just strangles his victims. One of the cursed graverobbers in this film gets wrapped up in a sheet and thrown out a window, which was at least different without making sense.
*. It’s a good cast. I particularly enjoyed John Phillips as the authoritarian-coward fiancier, and Michael Ripper as his toadie Longbarrow (Ripper had also appeared in a comic part in Hammer’s The Mummy). Catherine Lacey gets one killer line as the fortune teller. Unfortunately Elizabeth Sellars just looks wan.
*. But in the end this is just another cheap mummy movie. The plot is formulaic and awkward at the same time, with a number of out-of-place elements. Studio bound, with virtually no effects and a lousy-looking mummy to boot. Indeed, he only looks like a guy in a jumpsuit wearing a mask. He does get to crumble into dust quite nicely at the end though, as mummies are wont to do.

Death Curse of Tartu (1966)

*. I like the work Something Weird Video does in keeping drive-in trash in circulation, and I especially like the DVD commentaries their releases come with. In fact, a lot of the time the commentaries are more fun, even a lot more fun, than the movies.
*. This is the case with the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis. Though only a few of his movies repay a second viewing, Lewis’s commentaries are always bright and entertaining. William Grefé is a step down from Lewis both in the directing and the commenting department. There are fun spots when listening to Grefé, like when he remarks during one of his signature booty-shaking dance scenes that “the girls in the ’60s had a little meat on them. If I shot them now they’d be skin and bones.” But overall you get the sense that he’s a bit surprised that anyone should care about any of this.
*. Grefé’s movies are definitely not worth watching twice, so when I came back to this one I just plugged it in and listened to the commentary. I knew I wasn’t missing anything.
*. By the way, in case you’re wondering, if you take another step down from William Grefé you get Andy Milligan, whose movies aren’t worth watching at all. And since he died in 1991 there aren’t any commentaries. But Something Weird have done what they can for them.
*. So, Death Curse of Tartu. Grefé needed to make a movie quick and he had the funding so he took the old story of the mummy’s curse and transplanted it to the Florida Everglades, changing Tutankhamun to a more Native American-sounding Tartu. Though I don’t think Tartu is a Native American name. It’s actually the name of the second-largest city in Estonia and a residence at the University of Toronto (which is named after the city in Estonia). I lived there for a couple of years. The residence, not the city in Estonia.
*. The mummy idea wasn’t bad, and the way the mummy can turn itself into different swamp critters was kind of original. I wonder what the first film to do this was. Not just something like Cat People where you have a character who may be turning into a particular spirit animal or familiar, but one with the power to be all kinds of different animals. I can’t think of an earlier example of this, though I’m sure it had been done before.
*. Grefé wrote the script in 24 hours and then shot the whole thing in a week on a budget of $27,000. So the only response to complaints about how awful it looks is “What did you expect?” Or as Grefé himself puts it on the commentary track: “You know when you read some critics they’ll compare a movie like this with a fifty-million-dollar horror movie and you know my saying is let the guy who directed the fifty-million-dollar film and had six months, let him try to shoot a picture in seven days and see how good he does on $27,000.”
*. This is a strong defence, and up to a point unanswerable. The point being where Grefé no longer gave a damn precisely because of his limitations. Does it make sense to have Tartu take the form of a shark when (1) there’s no way a shark could crawl out of the tomb as we see the snake doing; (2) Grefé could only intercut stock footage of a shark swimming around with a guy flailing madly in the water in order to depict a shark attack; and (3) there are no sharks in the Everglades? No. But as he says, “”When you write a screenplay in 24 hours what the hell do you want?”
*. There have been low-budget auteurs who have done more with less. Death Curse of Tartu is only functional given its budget, and that’s not nearly enough. It’s just painful to watch the actors struggling through the swamp and reacting to animals that aren’t there. As a movie, it feels like we’re stuck with them in a kind of endurance test. Throughout the commentary there’s joking about how characters who are killed off have been set free. Despite its promising premise and the semblance of a structure to its nonsensical script, it was hard for me not to feel a similiar sense of release at the end.

Orgy of the Dead (1965)

*. Universal’s classic monsters were creative milestones and box office hits in their original incarnations, but went into decline throughout the 1940s before finally petering out entirely. Hammer only momentarily revived some of their energy and glory with garish colour and low-cut dresses before they too experienced a steep decline. But if you really want to see the nadir of what happened to Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy you need look no further than Orgy of the Dead.
*. The film’s only claim to fame is that it was based on a screenplay by Edward D. Wood Jr., though there’s little here in the way of a story. (Oddly enough, it was apparently based on a novel Wood had written. I can’t imagine what that was like.) Instead of a well-made plot there’s only a Halloween-themed floor show where the MC Criswell (playing someone called the Emperor) introduces various topless-dancer routines. Apparently they’re all sinners being punished in some way, with a pair of unlucky motorists being forced to watch. But not to belabor the obvious: the audience is in the same position, so are we being tortured as well?
*. The film’s limitations are evident right from Criswell’s introduction. When he is first revealed lying in his coffin I think we all assume the camera is going to zoom or dolly in before he begins speaking. But the camera doesn’t move. Instead there’s simply a cut to a closer shot. One would expect to see little inventive camera work in what’s to come, based on this. Those low expectations are met.
*. The script will sound familiar to fans of Wood’s oeuvre. The opening narration by Criswell is even taken nearly verbatim from Wood’s previous film Night of the Ghouls. Was it worth keeping? Hardly. And Criswell still hadn’t learned the lines, as he clearly has to drop his eyes and read them from cue cards that Wood himself reportedly held up.
*. Wood gets cut a lot of slack because he was true to a such a quirky and intense personal vision. Some might call it an obsession. But how interesting or original were his fetishes and hang-ups really? Not very. And his writing is downright dreadful. It’s not just that his actors can’t deliver the lines with any naturalness; the lines as written are entirely unnatural. Wood had no idea how dialogue worked and everything that comes out of his character’s mouths sounds like some ridiculous speech written by a highschool student for an unmountable play.
*. The upshot of all this is that it’s hard to tell what is worse: the dancing or the play-by-play. As soon as the one starts you want to go back to the other, without ever enjoying what’s happening on screen.
*. So there’s Criswell. And Vampira (or at least a part that was written for Vampira). And a girl who gets painted gold because Goldfinger had just come out a year before. And there’s a mummy and a guy in a werewolf mask and furry gloves to provide some stand-up comic relief. Yes, this is what the classic monsters had been reduced to: the Monster Mash with tits. The whole thing is just a riff on the nudie cuties, and indeed the script’s original title was Nudie Ghoulies. Whatever it’s called, it’s unwatchable.

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

*. The Thomas Crown Affair is a weird movie. Weird, I think, when it came out, and perhaps even stranger now. I don’t think it’s very successful, and there are a lot of things I don’t like about it at all, but somehow it stays in your head.
*. Let’s start with the credits and the song “The Windmills of Your Mind” by Michel Legrand (the composer for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). “Windmills” was a big hit, won an Oscar for Best Song, and went on to be covered several times, including by Sting in the 1999 remake.
*. I hate it. I think it sounds drippy. Norman Jewison thought the lyrics captured something of Thomas Crown’s rootless character, but I found them so banal they could have been referring to anything. As for tone, what do the lyrics suggest? A heist picture? A romance? It’s hard to see the fit.

*. From the credits we move swiftly into the bank job, which is presented through the use of split screen. I’ve nothing against the use of split screen, but I don’t think it serves any purpose here. What the different gang members are doing isn’t important, interesting, or connected in any significant way. But Jewison had just seen the technique used in some experimental films at Montreal’s Expo so at a late date he worked it in. David Thomson thought it “tiresome” in 1968 and “inane and incredible now.” I just find it pointless.
*. Is this important? Well, the chief accusation against The Thomas Crown Affair is that it is an exercise in pure style. Or, as Jewison puts it, “a film of style over content.” The script, a James Bond fantasy by a Boston lawyer who had never written a screenplay before, was considered to be simple and largely expendable (leading to Roger Ebert’s verdict that it was “possibly the most under-plotted, underwritten, over-photographed film of the year”). Jewison only saw in the script a chance to play variations on a theme. The dialogue, for example, he found to be “just kind of dumb” but it was “something you could play with because it’s kind of unreal.”
*. In an experiment of style over substance (or content, or story) matters of style are important. And by style I mean more than the well-dressed, nay, sensationally dressed leads. As an exercise in filmmaking this was for the time state of the art, with delightful camerawork by Haskell Wexler and editing by Hal Ashby. It’s not flashy because that wasn’t the style in 1968. This isn’t an Ocean’s movie. But it is smooth and achieves the glossy but rich texture of a fashion mag (which is not a dig at fashion mags).

*. They tried different titles out but I think settled on the best. The affair is ambiguous, referring both to the case being built against Thomas and the romance between Thomas and Vicki. It is not a heist movie, and in fact has a curious structure in that regard. The climactic action takes place in the first act and the rest of the film is denouement. I think this was part of the problem Jewison recognized in there not being enough story in the script.
*. Is it as much a woman’s picture and fantasy as it is a lawyer’s dream of James Bond? Vicki is . . . what? Classy, self-assured, well turned-out. But surely not a hotshot international insurance investigator. She doesn’t even know what the word “arbitrage” means. She cracks the case because her instincts on seeing a photo of Crown tell her that he’s the one. She then takes out an ad in the newspaper offering a reward for information that leads to her kidnapping the son of the gang’s driver. With the assistance of the police. This really is a fantasy.
*. But to return to my question, just who is she? Instead of answering directly, when confronted with her professional infidelities by Eddy she responds “I know what I am” and defies his insinuated label. So I guess we know what she is.

*. Then again, who is Thomas Crown? A self-made man? The scion of some Boston old money? His character is a puzzle. He has all the money in the world but he’s bored. He wants excitement. So he fights the Man, the system. Presumably the same system that he has cynically manipulated all his professional life. It’s 1968, you see, and he’s no square. Norman Jewison was at the time a self-styled beatnik, while Steve McQueen fought to be in the film because it would let him wear a suit. That’s quite a ball of irony there: McQueen angling to play Cary Grant if Cary Grant were really Steve McQueen. Grant might have played polo and piloted a glider, but take breakfast on his rooftop without a shirt? Never.
*. Is Thomas a rebel? I have trouble with that. What he seems to be more like is one of today’s tech billionaires, cultivating the image of a rebel while all the while being just another arrogant CEO who feels that rules don’t apply to him. Slugging the cop struck me as crazy, that is until you realize that he probably thinks he can do anything and get away with it.
*. So they’re a dream couple. “It’s a love story between two shits is what it really is,” Jewison says on the commentary. Do they deserve each other? Does he deserve to get away? What exactly do they deserve? The ending is just another bit of fantasy. With or without the evidence of the telegram that Vicki seems to think she has destroyed (surely there will be a record of it), isn’t the fact that his driver arrives at the pick-up in Thomas’s car basically incrimination enough? Or is Thomas planning on jetting away someplace where there is no extradition treaty with the U.S.?

*. Then there’s the chess game. Apparently only two lines in the script that Jewison knew he would take two days to film. It plays off the dinner scene in Tom Jones and it’s all kind of silly and obvious and over the top, even by today’s standards. Nicki’s revelation of some side boob, and the way she fingers her bishop is more than just suggestive. But are they really into each other all that much? They seem more like a pair of narcissists sharing their fascination with themselves. Those matching close-ups make it seem as though they’re looking into mirrors.
*. Easy come, easy go. Thomas is on his jet off to . . . somewhere. Vicki has lost the only playboy of the western world but it was fun while it lasted. That torn-up telegram is an apt gesture, signaling the ultimate meaninglessness of it all. Hey, even the banks had insurance. But perhaps its fantasy texture, easy on the eyes and the head, is what has let it stick around. Everybody has a dream, and the dreams of The Thomas Crown Affair are pretty durable. Money, freedom, beautiful lovers, a beach.

Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

*. In Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (a book I can’t recommend enough) he talks about our movement away from a text-based civilization to the new electronic dispensation. This was in 1985, so before the Internet as we know it, but Postman still nailed what would become the essential point: that it was not the dystopic vision of Orwell’s 1984 that we would see realized but that of Huxley’s Brave New World. The state wouldn’t burn books or engage in heavy-handed censorship because we wouldn’t care about books any more. We’d watch the “feelies” on TV and give ourselves over entirely to mindless entertainment. People would “adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
*. This is a point Ray Bradbury had already made in Fahrenheit 451. Yes, there’s a fascistic state police squad and all the other props of the Orwellian dystopia, but as he makes clear at the end of the book, the public “stopped reading of its own accord.” The state didn’t really need any enforcers.
*. This is more like our world. We’ve been told for decades now that people don’t read any more and that print is dead. And while this is an overstatement, it does reflect a general truth. Julie Christie makes the point, albeit a bit awkwardly, during her DVD commentary: “Bradbury must have thought that for books to be a threat what was going to happen in the future is that most people in this story, most people retain free will. In other words, the threat is that if the books are there then the people would choose to read them, to exercise their minds by reading. But in fact, most people have chosen not to read books.”
*. Also on the commentary track editor Thom Noble expresses bafflement at people wanting to remake it since it’s a “period piece” that wouldn’t really make sense today. So much for SF as prophecy.
*. This is not, however, a point that François Truffaut’s film bothers with. Instead we have the firemen as stereotypical jackbooted Nazi thugs and the book people as a bunch of hippie freedom lovers. We can’t even call them a resistance since they’ve really just opted out of society entirely. There is a dark ambiguity to this I’ll come back to, but overall the political message is simpler than it is in the book.

*. Fahrenheit 451 is a movie that both should have been a lot better and at the same time works a lot better than you might expect.
*. When I say it should have been better I’m referring mainly to the talent collected. A classic Ray Bradbury story. Truffaut directing. Nicolas Roeg behind the camera. Oskar Werner when he was a star (that didn’t last long). Julie Christie pulling double duty.
*. On the other hand, there were good reasons for doubting it from the start. Foremost among these being the fact that Truffaut didn’t know English. This is something that critics took the film to task for right from the beginning, and they haven’t stopped since.
*. There’s no denying that the language barrier led to difficulties. In the “making of” featurette it’s said that the cast and crew basically all worked in French, and apparently even the script was originally written in French and then re-written (perhaps meaning more than translated) into English. Given that all the dialogue was dubbed in post, one wonders why they didn’t just shoot it in French as well.
*. But does this make a difference? Sergio Leone knew little English, but still made great movies by compensating with laconic heroes and lots of close-ups. Truffaut had a way of working with the language barrier too: by insisting that the dialogue be uninflected and unemotional. He thought that people who didn’t read would be inarticulate. So if the speech sounds stiff, that’s not just because Truffaut didn’t know English but because he wanted it to sound that way.

*. Beyond the language barrier there were other reasons you might have thought it would go wrong. This was Truffaut’s first colour film, which is a big change. It was also SF, and Truffaut was not a fan of that genre. And finally he was entering into a Hitchcock phase, but was this a good fit as a Hitchcock film?
*. A good fit or not, Truffaut was going to try and make it work. There are various nods to Hitch throughout, from the small and subtle (the reaction shot of Montag’s wife finding a book) to the blatant (Montag’s dream). I suspect there might also be a connection between Christie playing two roles and Kim Novak’s doubling in Vertigo. And of course you’ve got Bernard Herrmann’s score backing it all up.
*. But the question remains as to how appropriate this was. I think it might have worked, as the setting of a police/surveillance state is a good fit for building suspense. But there’s something about the atmosphere that just doesn’t build the appropriate level of threat and dread.
*. At the most basic level: what is Montag threatened with if he gets caught? Not getting his promotion? Being fired? Or perhaps sent to some re-education camp where he’ll be tortured and killed? How repressive a society is this? The commune of the book people doesn’t look so bad.
*. So much of the film seems over the top, from Herrmann’s score to the childlike reds of the fire engine and fire station. This was deliberate, but off-putting.
*. Then there are the bizarre moments that don’t seem to have any explanation. The sinister fireman who appears crossdressed at the school. The antique phones. The fact that Montag can’t use the pole at the fire station. The way half the screen goes black at the park.

*. Or take another example. If you’re a fan of the book perhaps the biggest thing you’ll miss is the Mechanical Hound. I think the reason they had to leave it out is pretty clear. There was just no way they were going to make it look anything other than ridiculous. Hell, forty years later the mechanical hounds in Kingsman: The Golden Circle still looked ridiculous. On the other hand, did they have to replace it with the men in jetpacks? Did they look any less ridiculous, even in 1966. How can you take them seriously?
*. Montag’s escape is also pretty unbelievable. Basically he just walks out of town and crosses a little river in a rowboat. Which is fine if this is all a fantasy, but it doesn’t work as well if you want the audience to buy into the notion of there being anything really at stake.
*. Oh, those classic Penguin Classic covers. They’ve brought them back in recent years. They really were iconic.
*. I mentioned the ambiguity in the depiction of the commune at the end. This arises from the fact that reading is, for the most part, a personal experience. It’s something we do by ourselves, turning the words on the page into the voice in our head. As such, there’s something solipsistic in it. And so, as others have noted, are the book people at the end that different from the people masturbating on the monorail? Or the man in the red sweater making out with himself in the park?
*. Julie Christie says on the commentary that the ending is suggestive of some social communion beyond the sexual or physical, but one that allows for a deeper interpersonal bonding and understanding. I’m not so sure. Don’t those figures pacing back and forth, oblivious to one another, seem like so many of the people we see today plugged into their phones and iPods? SF can be prophetic! Believe!

The Birthday Party (1968)

*. You can come at Pinter from different directions. After some establishing shots of the beach here we go inside to have our noses rubbed in a filthy kitchen sink. As in kitchen sink realism. Even though Stanley refers to the place as a sty in the play, I never thought of the Boles’ boarding-house as looking quite this down-at-the-heels. But the play debuted in 1958 and England then was pretty down-at-the-heels.
*. I won’t argue the realism, but just note the approach. That kitchen sink is meant to set a tone. When we immediately get Meg talking about how “nice” everything is (or should be) the disjunction is striking. Decorum seems out of place in such a blasted environment. We suspect Meg to be only keeping up appearances.
*. A couple of names stand out. In the first place there’s William Friedkin directing. This was a few years before The French Connection and The Exorcist, so well before he was a name, and it was undertaken as a labour of love. As such, it sticks pretty close to the play (the biggest change is dropping Lulu from the third act) and lets the actors do their thing. Note the distance he keeps from Stanley when Meg tells him that two men are coming to visit. There’s only a very subtle cue there that this is not welcome news. Or note the way he keeps his distance from Meg when she channels Mary Tyrone and dreamily remembers being the belle of the ball, before drifting back to the kitchen. Those are both important moments, but Friedkin underplays them for effect.
*. Of course it’s a single-set play, and hard to film as being anything else, but Friedkin only rarely takes us outside the box and instead livens things up with high and low angles, some nice camera movement (turning about in the enclosed space), and slightly jumpy editing. The sound of McCann tearing the newspaper is amplified so that it seems, as it should, like fingernails going down a chalkboard.
*. The only misstep I registered was what Friedkin tries to do when the lights go out. I’m not sure what he was going for but the results just don’t fit with the otherwise drab realism of the presentation. It’s like we’re slipping into the Twilight Zone, and the language already does enough of that.
*. The other name that stands out is Robert Shaw. I’m a big fan of Shaw, but I have to wonder if he was the right choice here. Let’s face it, if you heard Shaw was going to be in one of Pinter’s comedies of menace you’d immediately peg him as one of the menacers. He’s a scary guy. And indeed he had played that role a few years earlier, appearing as Aston in The Caretaker. But as Stanley?
*. Well, it’s an interesting choice. He’s definitely cast against type. But . . . I just can’t buy him as the haunted and hunted Stanley. Especially with Patrick Magee as McCann, an actor who projects more frailty than threat. Even without his glasses it looks as though this Stanley could toss both Goldberg and McCann out the window.
*. My own personal favourite in the cast is Dandy Nichols as Meg. She really does nail the part, at least as I imagine it. She’s someone very aware that life has passed her by, but this hasn’t made her bitter and she’s not above making a bit of a fool of herself to grab some scraps of happiness. She’s a maternal figure in a world that appeals to notions of family but which has no functioning family structure. Instead there are only family parodies, like the boarding-house or the Organization.
*. Goldberg and McCann call to mind Vince and Jules in Pulp Fiction, though I doubt Tarantino, who was admittedly influenced by everything, was drawing on Pinter. The engimatic and menacingly absurd heavies go back at least as far as Max and Al in Siodmak’s The Killers, though I don’t know what their original might have been.
*. My own feelings toward Pinter have gone through stages. I guess I was a bit of a fan when I was a student, but then I got to thinking that there was actually less going on than I had thought. Watching him now I find myself coming around again. The weird or absurd elements have taken on a kind of life of their own, and Stanley’s predicament seems more archetypal and enduring. After some strategic delay Stanley is revealed as a lobotomized zombie not unlike what McMurphy is turned into at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Some of the questions in Goldberg’s badgering and obscure inquisition might prefigure Gene Hackman’s patter about picking one’s feet in Poughkeepsie in The French Connection. I even hear echoes of Goldberg and McCann’s stychomythia patter about how Stanley is going to be improved in the robotic lyrics to Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier.”
*. The final message is timeless too, though less for what it says than for its context. “Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!” Great advice, but coming too late and from a compromised source. Not only has Petey backed down already (Goldberg has told him what to do), but in an added bit of stage business we’ve seen him pocketing Goldberg’s twenty pieces of silver (something not mentioned in the play).
*. So, yes, Pinter is still our contemporary. More than ever? We may be getting there.

The Caretaker (1963)

*. We start off with some interesting credits. The film was basically crowdfunded by a consortium of celebs chipping in £1,000 each. The names included Leslie Caron, Noel Coward, Peter Sellers, Richard Burton, and Elizabeth Taylor. They had to do it this way because financing wasn’t available for projects with no reasonable chance of a commercial screening. With the funding provided, the film was then produced by a partnership (including all three leads and Pinter, who adapted his own play). No one received any payment.
*. And that’s Nicolas Roeg doing the photography. Before he was famous. Just the year previously he’d worked as part of the second unit on Lawrence of Arabia.
*. Is there anything in the way the film is shot that would make you think Roeg was going to be a star? I was looking for clues but didn’t come up with much. Though to be honest I was a bit distracted by the horrible editing. I mean, this movie is really choppy in its cuts. Was this deliberate? If so, it didn’t work for me.
*. I’ve always felt a special connection to this movie because when I first saw it I hadn’t read any Pinter. I was young, and it really turned my head. I also became a lifelong fan of Robert Shaw.
*. I hadn’t seen it in a long while, and was a bit nervous coming back to it. All too often we feel a let-down in such situations. And I did feel a bit of that at the start, until I fell under the strange spell of the play again and ended up enjoying the film as much as ever.

*. The cast works in an odd way. Robert Shaw (who would be cast against type as Stanley in William Friedkin’s 1968 version of The Birthday Party) is the embodiment of menacing threat as Aston. Alan Bates doesn’t strike me as a scary guy, but he’s scary here, while at the same time registering genuine concern for his brother.
*. And then there’s Donald Pleasence. There’s a lovely moment when Aston tells Mac that he couldn’t drink a Guiness out of a thick mug and we (along with Mac) suddenly realize that Mac is the only sane one in this house. This reminded me of David Thomson’s jibe in his essay on Halloween that Pleasance playing the psychiatrist was a bit of a joke since he’s rarely the sanest man on screen. Well . . . he is here! And he seems as surprised about it as anyone.

*. The crowded bric-a-brac in the bedroom is managed in a way that makes us feel that Mac is just another piece of garbage that Aston has picked up off the street and brought back to his room. It’s not claustrophobia but clutter. The characters don’t stand out from the piles of boxes around them.
*. Speaking of that crowded bedroom, the temptation to open the play up a bit because they were making a movie was irresistible. But they should have resisted. The few brief scenes where we get outside the house are all superfluous, and in fact I’m inclined to think they detract from the overall effect. They knew they were shooting a single-set play, and they also knew this was not going to be a commercial project. They should have just bitten the bullet and gone into full isolation mode.
*. It’s a special production, given that it was made so soon after the play’s theatrical debut in 1960, with a lot of the same talent (Pinter doing the screenplay and Bates and Pleasence reprising the roles they played on stage). In other words, it’s as close to an “original” version of The Caretaker as you’ll see. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best Caretaker we’ll ever have, but it does give it a special status.
*. I did think, watching it again, that it’s a play that has stood the test of time and could probably be adapted to a contemporary setting with very few changes. I can tell you for a fact that these three guys are still out there. They’re probably in your neighbourhood too, though you won’t see them very often.