Category Archives: 1960s

The Black Torment (1964)

*. Not a Hammer production, but a low-budget (even lower-budget than Hammer!) clone. The production company was Compton Films, managed by Tony Tenser and Michael Klinger. Their first film was Naked as Nature Intended, which I’m guessing was a “nudie cutie,” but they’d actually go on to do some good stuff, including Polanski’s Repulsion and Cul-de-sac. When Tenser (“the Godfather of British Exploitation”) went solo he’d produce Michael Reeves’ The Sorcerers and Witchfinder General.
*. Alas, they didn’t have real talent like Polanski or Reeves helming this one. The director was Robert Hartford-Davis, about whom I know nothing. Apparently he ordered that all prints of his movies be destroyed after his death. That seems a bit strong. I mean, I don’t think there’s anything to be particularly proud about here, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of either.
*. Well, like I say, it’s a Hammer clone. A stately manorial pile (The Vyne, standing in for Fordyke Hall) is home to various sinister happenings in what I think is the early 19th century, based on the army uniforms. As things begin a woman with a heaving bosom is chased through a forest before being strangled. Then the lord of the manor returns home with his new bride. There are whispers in the village that he (the lord of the manor) is actually the strangler, which we might also suspect once the lord starts seeing the ghost of his previous wife stalking the grounds of Fordyke Hall at night. Another woman is killed after a roll in the hay with her swain (“I’ll keep you warrrrrm!” he provocatively tells her). What’s going on? Is Sir Richard Fordyke losing his marbles? Or is he the victim of some dastardly plot?
*. OK, I’ll spoil this for exactly no one and tell you it’s a dastardly plot. This is basically a Gaslight story, which Hammer also, for some reason, grew fond of around this time. A bit different for the gender reversal and Regency setting, but otherwise very dull and predictable. The dialogue and acting are both very bad, feeding off one another. Look at the scene where Sir Richard confronts one of his servants about a mysterious banging window. “Every night the window bangs open . . . wind or no wind. So I come to shut it. It is m’lady’s window, sir. ” Meaning, the previous lady of the house, now deceased. The lines are given a ridiculous gravity, but then they’re so clunky I don’t know what else the actor could have done with them. Meanwhile, the plot throws every cliché in the book at you. We wind up with a swordfight that has the hero taking a swing at a stand of candles and slicing them off. Tally-ho!
*. Not even fun in a campy or exploitative way but just a humdrum bore to sit through. I’m not sure what the title refers to, but it’s the best thing about it. That and the fact that it’s short. I didn’t, and don’t, want to spend any more time on it.

Fail-Safe (1964)

*. Probably the one thing most people know about Fail-Safe is that it was released the same year as Dr. Strangelove. Oddly enough they were based on different books (Fail-Safe and Red Alert), despite the close similarity of their plots. There was a lawsuit but the upshot was that Columbia bought the distribution rights to Fail-Safe so it was in control of the release of both pictures. Dr. Strangelove came out eight months earlier and Fail-Safe didn’t register.
*. Given their similarities it’s impossible not to draw some comparisons. The usual line is that the one is a comedy and the other plays it straight. This is obviously true, but I think they’re also making different points when it comes to the matter of who’s to blame in such a crisis, and the larger state of affairs that gives rise to it.

*. In Dr. Strangelove it’s a human problem: the people in charge are idiots. They even have funny names. In Fail-Safe, however, the same characters are earnest and meant to be taken seriously. The RAND strategist Herman Kahn was, at least partially, the inspiration for both Dr. Strangelove himself and Professor Groeteschele, but the two characters are miles apart.
*. Another way of looking at the same point is that George C. Scott was cast against type to play the blustering buffoon General Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove, while Walter Matthau, then pretty much unknown but subsequently a comic player, plays his part with an air of cold malice (an air that, in one of the film’s darker turns, gets the girl at the party hot). It’s caricature vs. character, but the point is that its the human element in Dr. Strangelove that leads to disaster. With people like this in positions of power, what do you expect?

*. In Fail-Safe the blame is on the machines that run the system. With a couple of (predictable) breakdowns — a false alarm and Soviet radio jamming — the whole thing goes off the rails. From that point everything goes as planned or programmed. It’s a different sort of nightmare.
*. Judging Fail-Safe on its own, I think we can also stick with the obvious. Director Sidney Lumet’s background in live TV drama was clearly at work, as it comes off very much as a teleplay and is stocked with a lot of the talent he worked with there. It was, in fact, done again in 2000 as a live broadcast on CBS, the first such a production in forty year. George Clooney played the pilot, Richard Dreyfuss was the president and Harvey Keitel was General Black.
*. Of course it was made on the cheap and studio bound. On the commentary track there’s a funny part where Lumet mentions the row of apartments in NYC as being the closest thing he could find to what he thought Omaha, Nebraska might look like. “Closest” being the operative word. The location was on 54th Street in New York, literally across the street from the Fox studio they were filming at.

*. I don’t think the low budget hurts too much. The stock footage of jets that keeps being repeated is clunky, but apparently the government tried to stop them from even getting this much. So it was the best they could do.
*. Sometimes the small-screen aesthetic actually helps. All those giant close-ups play better on TV. And along with the black-and-white photography it has even more of a sense of a period piece.
*. There’s no musical score because Lumet thought it would destroy the sense of reality. He thought a score would be Mickey Mouse, just stressing what’s already there, with the general principle being that music should only perform a function that can’t be performed any other way. Even as a general principle I’m not sure how much I agree with this. Sometimes a score can be distracting or take away from the effect a film is intent on making, but its absence here just makes it seem even more like a television drama. Which is something other, more artificial, than a news report.
*. The idea of trading Moscow for New York City strikes me as not fair, and improbable anyway. Couldn’t the president have started by offering Omaha?
*. I think it still rates as a pretty good movie, though it continues to be overshadowed by Dr. Strangelove, and not without reason. I do think it plays as being more a film of its time though. We’ve learned to stop worrying and love the apocalypse, at least if Hollywood blockbusters tell us anything. Things are still in the saddle, perhaps more than ever, but haven’t our idiots gotten even worse?

Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)

*. Well, it’s for those who know what they like. Those who couldn’t get enough of Oscar-bait costume dramas like Becket (1964), A Man for All Seasons (1966), and The Lion in Winter (1968). And I don’t mean snobs. No, this is trash. But it’s trash with great actors delivering high drama in ringing lines full of booming passion and unsubtle wit.
*. You know the stuff I’m talking about. Just listen to what this movie sounds like (and note that the play it’s based on, by Maxwell Anderson, was partially written in blank verse, which the screenwriters had to adapt). Here’s Henry (Richard Burton), who has most of the good lines. “When I pray, God listens!” he bellows. When speaking the language of love he can be earthy with his rough wooing (“I think of nothing but you. Of you and me playing dog and bitch, of you and me playing horse and mare. Of you and me in every way. I want to fill you up night after night. I want to fill you up with sons!”) and grandiloquent (“I will marry Anne if it breaks the Earth in two like an apple and flings the two halves into the void!”)
*. Whew! And Anne (Geneviève Bujold) is no shrinking violet when it comes to emoting for the ages either. “Henry! I do love you! Henry, I love you. I love you with all my heart. I love you. Take me. Take me now. I want to be yours only!” Or here she is making a highly improbable prophecy of her daughter’s future greatness: “Elizabeth shall reign after you! Yes, Elizabeth, child of Anne the whore and Henry the bloodstained lecher, shall be queen! . . . And think of this Henry: Elizabeth shall be a greater queen than any king of yours. She shall rule a greater England than you could ever have built. Yes, My Elizabeth shall be queen, and my blood will have been well spent.”
*. You see what I mean by trash. Throw in some sideline banter and everything is set (“Thomas, this is a man’s world. The seat of power does not lie between a woman’s legs,” are some famous last words from Wolsey). It is, in short, the great Tudor soap opera, what the historian Antonia Fraser, in an essay on this film, called “The Taming of the Shrew meets Gone With the Wind.”

*. As I say, you know if this is your thing. I’ll confess I was laughing throughout the opening scene, what with Burton’s heavy overacting on being told that Anne has been found guilty and faces execution. Everything is done more by the book than with any imagination or creativity, but then it’s a movie produced in a style that is no longer fully accessible today. The acting, direction, and writing are all from another age entirely, closer perhaps to the Renaissance than our own time. We have our own versions of the Tudor story, from biopics of Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots to the series Wolf Hall, but they’re done in an entirely different manner.
*. It was an old play, over twenty years old in 1969, but apparently they hadn’t been able to produce it because it dealt with matters of adultery, illegitimacy, and (clearly fictional) incest and they thought this would get them in trouble with the Code (which was only abandoned around this time). At least that’s what I hear. But I find it hard to credit. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had been staged in 1962, with the film version coming out in 1966. True, that film had been a scandal, but still it was a lot wilder than this when it comes to discussions of adultery and illegitimacy.
*. And yet Anne of the Thousand Days does still work, up to a point. After chuckling through that opening scene I entered into the spirit of the thing. Heaven knows I’m familiar enough with the story and they make it more than easy enough to follow here. The thing is, the Tudors really were one of history’s great real-life soap operas and they never go out of style.

*. Directed by Charles Jarrott, who would follow it up with Mary Queen of Scots right away. Pauline Kael judged he had no sense of style and that he was only “a traffic manager.” I don’t think that’s unfair. He would go on to do the musical Lost Horizon (1973) and, I was surprised to discover, 1981’s Condorman. How bizarre.
*. Burton, as I’ve said, just cruises in full Burton mode here, which is fun for being so awful. Bujold is actually very good in a ridiculous part. Penelope Huston thought Anthony Quale looked “like a querulous crayfish” which is witty and apt. John Colicos plays the scheming Cromwell very nicely, more oily and less sympathetic than the Mantel version. Irene Papas has a memorable turn as Katherine. Apparently Elizabeth Taylor, married to Burton at the time, wanted to play Anne and was concerned Dick might have been fooling around on set. She was too old (remember Virginia Woolf had been a few years previous to this), but I think she might have been fun as Katherine. Why not? With material this trashy, just go for it.
*. Is this a great movie? No. I don’t even think it’s a great Tudor vehicle. But then I can’t watch any of these movies without thinking of SCTV’s “The Man Who Would Be King of the Popes.” A great parody, but from a distance of fifty years we can get nearly the same number of laughs out of the original. As history this paints with a pretty broad brush that misses a lot, but as entertainment it’s fun and doesn’t feel too bulky even at two-and-a-half hours. I can understand if it’s not your thing, but I felt my time if not my blood was well spent.

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

*. A biopic, based on a hit play, on the fall of Thomas More (Sir or Saint), but I want to start with Richard Rich. The twentieth-century historian Hugh-Trevor Roper once said of Rich that he was a man “of whom nobody has ever spoken a good word.” Can I be the first?
*. The real Richard Rich, in so far as we can tell, appears to have been a bad piece of work. But in Robert Bolt’s play, of which this film is a pretty faithful adaptation, he’s something even worse. As played by John Hurt he’s not just treacherous but a wimp and a fool. He’s also stuck dramatically perjuring himself, which is something he may not have been guilty of, and all for what? For Wales! Then to have his name adopted by one of the most revolting comic-book characters of all time. This is a harsh fate, even if his dying peacefully in bed is the ironic coda the film leaves us with.
*. I don’t know how much the real Rich deserves all this. As a character in A Man for All Seasons, however, I felt quite sympathetic toward him. He’s just a guy reduced to begging for a job and he gets openly mocked by a sanctimonious prig (that would be More) for being a scheming climber. Which he actually isn’t at that point — he still wants to do the right thing. Do we despise climbers that much? We shouldn’t. Rich is playing a dirty game, but so is everyone else. A court is a disgusting place, and I use the present tense because they are very much still with us. Think of the circle of flatterers who surround a powerful political figure, or the entourage or posse of a celebrity. So don’t hate the player, hate the game. Or, if you’re like me, hate both equally.
*. I called More a sanctimonious prig, which tells you what I think of him. Look, Paul Scofield is wonderful. But Pauline Kael put her finger on the problem: “The weakness is that though Bolt’s dialogue is crisp, lucid, and well-spoken, his presentation of More’s martyrdom is so one-sided we don’t even get to understand that side. More is the only man of honor in the movie, and he’s got all the good lines; he’s the kind of hero we read about in biographies of great men written for 12-year-olds, and Scofield is so refined, so controlled, so dignified, so obviously ‘subtle’ he’s like a man of conscience in a school play.”
*. As for how much such a character reflects the real Thomas More, my sense is very little. As I’ve said, anyone attached to a court is tainted by it. Was More a defender of freedom of conscience? Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall had a very different take, on both More and Cromwell. And here’s Joanne Paul writing in History Today: “The actual More’s entire intellectual enterprise was aimed at opposing the concept of individual conscience, which he took to be a sign of pride. To advance one’s own ideas against the Church, the community of Christian believers both alive and dead, threatened to rip Christendom apart. God spoke through consensus and this led to unity in the Church. For the historical More, what matters is not that he believes something, but that the Church does.
*. Fred Zinneman’s direction, which he won an Oscar for, is, to my eye, indistinguishable from that of anyone tasked with one of these historical costume dramas. David Thomson: “He had all the disposable qualities: diligence instead of imagination; more care than instinct; solemnity but no wit.” He did make one great movie though, about another morally upright man in a terrible jam, and I thought the “disposable qualities” Thomson mentions worked well in The Day of the Jackal. Isn’t the Jackal a diligent, careful, and solemn workman too?
*. It’s a great cast, but aside from Scofield and Hurt I found them all disappointing. Orson Welles looks like a wheezing fat tomato in his clerical robes. Leo McKern is an evil Rumpole as Thomas Cromwell. Robert Shaw, one of my favourite actors, has little to do as Henry VIII. It’s a role with no depth. Nigel Davenport is given more lines, but nothing more to say. Vanessa Redgrave is Anne Boleyn for a few seconds of screen time. She’d be back in a similar vehicle as Mary, Queen of Scots.
*. I think I first saw this film when I was twelve years old. Meaning, by Kael’s calculation, I was the perfect age for it. This may be why it’s always stuck with me. Today it doesn’t seem like much of anything at all. I think the only one of these royal romps I still really enjoy is The Lion in Winter. But I think this is good for kids, and it does harken back nostalgically today to a time when such moral lessons were taken seriously. We’ve come a long way, living in Richard Rich’s world.

Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)

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

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

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

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

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

Pierrot le Fou (1965)

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

Chimes at Midnight (1966)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Carry On . . . Up the Khyber (1968)

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

Romeo and Juliet (1968)

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

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

West Side Story (1961)

 

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

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

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