Category Archives: 1970s

More American Graffiti (1979)

*. In my notes on American Graffiti I mentioned how it might be thought of as the real inflection point in American cinema in the 1970s, turning away from independent, anti-establishment films toward more commercial properties. American Graffiti certainly was commercial, being a surprising box office hit. It was also about as American as mom and apple pie and hot rods.
*. Given that success, the lag time for a follow up (six years) may be thought surprising. There are two reasons for it. In the first place, franchise filmmaking hadn’t taken hold yet, where a sequel is often being planned even before a film is released. Second: a couple of other, even more lucrative blockbusters had changed the game. What with Jaws and Star Wars setting the bar there was little demand for more American Graffiti.
*. This could have been seen as liberating, and I think to some extent it was. The producers here were free to go in a new direction and they did. More American Graffiti, to its credit, is something different. Not a good movie, but different.
*. Two things stand out. In the first place it’s more of a broad comedy than the first film. American Graffiti was going for gentle nostalgia. More American Graffiti goes for laughs. The second change-up is the intriguing way the story is presented. There are basically four stories interwoven, taking place at different times and shot in different styles (a smaller frame for one, split screens for another). Sure it’s a gimmick, but were you expecting a gimmick? I wasn’t.
*. As with any gimmick movie, the gimmick raises a question: But for the gimmick, would the movie be interesting or worth watching? Sometimes I don’t think this question is fair. I don’t, for example, think it’s fair to ask whether Memento would be worth watching if it was played forward instead of backward. It’s a movie that was designed to play in reverse. In other films, however, the question of the added value of the gimmick can fairly be raised. And it was here.
*. David Ansen in Newsweek put it this way: “This [the film’s composite structure] is all very film-school fancy, but what does it mean? Alas, precious little. ‘More’ in this case is decidedly less. Once you get used to the cross-cutting — which is rather like switching channels between four different TV shows — the realization dawns that none of the segments is particularly interesting.”
*. In other words, the film-school stunts are just there to make up for the fact that nothing much is going on. But this makes one pause. Could anything less be going on than in American Graffiti? And isn’t there in fact a lot going on here? Steve and Cindy (now married with children) break up and then have to get back together again after various adventures, Debbie becomes a roadie for a hippie band, John Milner has to win a big race (again), and Toad is trying to think up some scheme for getting out of Vietnam.
*. Well, we might say, there are different ways of being interesting. There is a lot going on here, but I agree with Ansen that it does little to hold one’s attention, even with the scattered narrative. It’s just that I wasn’t much interested in American Graffiti either.
*. More American Graffiti also seems kind of pointless. There is an anti-establishment message playing throughout. Steve has to learn to let Cindy go her own way, and ends up fighting against the Man. Milner resists being co-opted by corporate interests. Toad bucks authority in ‘Nam. Bob Falfa, the villain of American Graffiti, has a cameo as a jackbooted thug (motorcycle cop). Again one has the sense of a sequel coming too late. In 1979 such a message could almost play as nostalgically as the cruising lifestyle of the first film.
*. It’s a movie that let a lot of people down, mainly because it was not, in fact, “more” American Graffiti. But I respect the direction taken. They took chances. They came up with something different. And what they came up with wasn’t all bad. Personally, I’d just as soon watch this movie again as American Graffiti. But I’m not a fan of either. In both cases I think maybe you had to be there.

American Graffiti (1973)

*. It’s a commonplace to see Star Wars and Jaws as marking the end of an era, meaning the end of the New Hollywood chronicled by Peter Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. But maybe the end came earlier. American Graffiti was a huge box office success and it categorically rejects the darkness and seriousness of the creative golden age of American film in the early ’70s. In fact, I think you could even argue that it rejects the darkness and seriousness of Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
*. Friend and mentor Francis Ford Coppola, brought in to be a “name” producer, had advised George Lucas, who had been disappointed in the reception given THX 1138, to do something “warm and fuzzy.” That is to say, commercial. Lucas did not think this would be difficult.
*. This may make American Graffiti out to be a cynical production, but the shoe fits. This is, at least in some ways, how everyone saw the project at the time: as a turn against the New Hollywood and its late-Vietnam pessimism. So, pushing the setting back to 1962 (before the watershed moment of the Kennedy assassination) was a return to a state of innocence. The kids never get into any trouble (from the law, scary gangs, gun-wielding store owners, or even fiery car crashes) that they can’t walk away from. The only clouds in that otherwise brilliantly blue sky at the end would take the form of the gang’s yearbook notices.
*. It’s a movie that looks in two directions. It’s an ode to nostalgia, which is what audiences have always appreciated in it. But it also looks ahead in lots of obvious ways. The talent would all go on to gaudier things, and shortly. And other new directions were being marked out as well.
*. This was a groundbreaking film. Its use of a playlist soundtrack to create a sort of musical montage, and the presentation of a milieu rather than a story, was in advance of Altman’s Nashville. It’s just that Altman had characters and here we only have stereotypes: the muscled rocker who is king of the strip, the cool kid (Richard Howard as the Big Man on Campus), the nerd, the dreamer, the good girl and the slutty girl with a heart of a gold. We’re not too far advanced from the pages of Archie comics here, or the soon-to-debut Happy Days.
*. Apparently the budget for the music was $80,000, which strikes me as very low. It would be inconceivable for a low-budget film to get together a soundtrack like this today. And even though I’m not a big fan, I think it sounds great.
*. But you’ll have probably guessed by now that I don’t like the movie much. Perhaps it’s just because the milieu in question is so alien to my own childhood. I didn’t grow up near anyplace like Modesto, and I’ve never cared about cars. I never engaged in the kind of mating rituals that so fascinated Lucas. So the nostalgia factor doesn’t work for me.
*. More than that, the movie looks muddy and seems almost randomly assembled. On a few occasions I had the feeling that important connecting scenes had been lost when Lucas cut it down from its original 3 hours. Worse, I find the reaching for some more profound or mythic significance a bit lame. Suzanne Somers in a white T-Bird is the unattainable blonde idealized by the romantic hero who is about to begin his journey, while “the the “solemn endnotes about the destiny of the four young men are superficial and pompous, and filled with the wish to keep pain at arm’s length” (David Thomson, who considered this to be the best film Lucas ever made).
*. The endnotes and the blonde in the T-Bird also have another meaning. Lucas has often been taken to task for not really understanding women or relationships. He’s not misogynist (or at least I don’t know of that charge being made) but he just isn’t interested in women very much. So the blonde will remain unattainable and another page of endnotes telling us whatever happened to the female leads was cut because Lucas thought it just made the movie too long.
*. Though I think American Graffiti overrated it’s easy to understand what its many fans see in it. It’s a movie that was designed to charm and not to offend. There’s lots of terrific music and likeable young actors who embody the freedom of youth, a time when one’s actions hold no consequences and there’s nothing much to do but drive up and down the strip all night long.
*. A good time, and a favourite of many, but a great movie? Its mythic evocation of a time and place has by now replaced the reality, or has become more important than the reality, but despite all the talent involved on both sides of the camera I have a hard time pointing to anything about the film that impresses me, or that strikes me as particularly well done. Lucas, like a lot of super-popular entertainers, had the same need as the public apparently did for this kind of story, and so was able to make popular culture over in his own mental image of what it should be. We’re still living with the consequences of that.

Nightwing (1979)

*. You’ll often see Nightwing described as one of a sub-genre of horror films about nature biting back. What got the ball really rolling for these “when animals attack” movies was the success of Jaws, which came out in 1975. Martin Ransohoff, producer of Nightwing, said he wanted it to be “Jaws with wings.” That’s not quite what he got.
*. I’d like to say it’s at least an interesting idea, poorly executed, but in fact it’s a really stupid idea. The basic premise, that there’s this giant colony of vampire bats living in a cave out in the deserts of New Mexico, is so far-fetched that even scientist Phillip Payne (David Warner) has trouble selling anyone on it. The way the bats attack also seems sketchy. As I understand it, vampire bats usually just sidle up to sleeping animals and drink some of their blood surreptitiously.
*. Making matters even whackier is the way that the bats, who are also infected with bubonic plague, have apparently been summoned by a Native medicine man to protect his tribe’s sacred places. So in order to defeat the bats our hero Youngman Duran (Nick Mancuso) has to consume the root of a psychotropic plant and receive visions from his ancestors. So yes, it is a stupid idea.
*. Actually, Nightwing can be further pigeonholed as a particular type of angry animal movie, mixing ecological concerns (an oil company is trying to develop the sacred lands) with Indigenous mysticism. Other films we might lump it together with include Prophecy and Wolfen. They are all very silly.
*. Still, it might have worked. It might have been good, stupid fun. Or at least given us a memorable moment like the exploding sleeping bag in Prophecy, or an interesting hook like the wolfvision stuff in Wolfen. Unfortunately, Nightwing is mostly just dull.

*. A lot of the blame lies on the odd choice of director. As Channel 4 remarked, putting Arthur Hiller in charge “is the most interesting thing about the project. A filmmaker who has made a speciality of showing reverence for platitudes has no jurisdiction over a piece of schlock nonsense about bat-killers in the Arizona desert.”
*. This was Hiller’s only horror movie and he clearly had no feel for the material. Oddly enough, this is something else Nightwing shares with the other movies I mentioned, as Prophecy was directed by John Frankenheimer and Wolfen by Michael Wadleigh. Frankenheimer I can sort of see, but even he was slumming it. The others were real stretches.
*. The bat attacks (and there is really only the one attack scene, along with some shots of the bats flying around at the end) have dated badly. Today we’d do such work with CGI, and it would look better. But even in 1979 I think the effects here would have been considered primitive. To make the obvious comparison, they’re nowhere near what Hitchcock did in The Birds.
*. The movie’s lone bright spot is David Warner as the Ahab/Quint figure, “one of the five acknowledged experts in the world” in tracking and exterminating vampire bats. You don’t even have to pay him to go after the colony. It’s just what he does. I was expecting him to give some speech at the end where he’d say how vampire bats killed his family and he’s been on a quest for vengeance ever since, but it’s actually simpler than that. “I kill them because they’re the quintessence of evil,” he says. “For me nothing else exists! The destruction of vampire bats is what I live for. ”
*. Given how loony the plot starts to get, the cheesy special effects, and Warner’s turn as a baticidal zealot, Nightwing should be a lot more enjoyable. Instead it’s been largely forgotten, and for good reason. It still has some moments of charm, like Mancuso turning up his truck’s car radio when Crystal Gayle’s “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” comes on, but in the end it’s mainly just a silly and uninteresting mess.

Suspiria (1977)

*. I suspect I was like most other people in being blown away by Suspiria the first time I saw it. I still love it — though I’ll stick with Deep Red as Dario Argento’s masterpiece — but today I find it less raw and more overcooked.
*. I remember how genuinely scary it was the first time. Just the hissing sound of the sliding door as Suzy (Jessica Harper) exits the airport made me jump. Now all of that seems incredibly silly. Loveable, but silly. I mean, I always thought the bat that’s the size of a football was silly, but now everything seems like that.
*. Just by the way: despite being standard props in horror films since forever, probably even before Dracula, has there ever been a scary movie bat? Or even a whole flock of bats, as in Nightwing?

*. It’s very much a picture of its time and place, and I’m not just talking about the snazzy decor. The colour, for example, is straight out of Bava, but takes that master of the primary palette even further. Do the colours in this film make any sense at all? Sometimes whole rooms are alternatively washed in reds and blues and greens without any source for these colours in sight. I mean, it’s one thing to ask “Why is this room all red?” and another to ask “How did this red room turn green all of a sudden?”

*. Then there is the sound, which, as was common for Italian films like this at the time, was mostly done post-production. Along with the dramatic colour shifts, stagey set design, and other random elements (the dog attack clearly done by a puppet dog’s head, for example), this gives the proceedings an extra sense of artificiality.
*. The results are profoundly disorienting. Watching the film again I had completely forgotten that Udo Kier was in it. But appearing in a bit part, wearing a wig and with a dubbed voice, he isn’t as recognizable as he usually is. To be honest, and this is the disorienting part, I thought for a moment that he was playing Ms. Tanner (actually Alida Valli) in drag. She’s one scary instructor, all flashing eyes and grinning teeth, but she doesn’t seem out of place in the School of Freaks. Just look at how spooky the caretaker Lurch and little Albert are, and they don’t even have any lines.

*. It’s not much of a story. Apparently it drew inspiration from Thomas De Quincy, but the connection there may have only existed in Argento’s mind. I think it holds together though as being much more than just a series of scary sequences, as much as these stand out. You can’t look to the plot for coherence, or any explanation of what those glowing eyes are, or why the school has a room full of razor wire. What unites it is that bizarre visual and aural texture. The wallpaper that looks like fabric and the windows that seem to be all stained glass, with the crazy music of Goblin not so much providing cues as just keeping us on our toes throughout. I know some people who don’t like the score, but I have a hard time imagining Suspiria without it.
*. I’ve tried to think of some clever way of describing Goblin’s soundtrack but I couldn’t come up with anything. They’re hard to pin down. I’ve often heard them described as a “prog rock” group, but prog (or progressive) rock is a label I’ve never seen defined in any meaningful way. A lot of different bands have been called prog rock but I’m not sure what it refers to.

*. It’s weird. It’s silly. It’s brilliant. I love it. I don’t know how influential it’s been though. Despite being remade forty years later I don’t see it as having had many imitators. Even the rest of Argento’s work — some of which I like very much and rate even higher than I do Suspiria — pales alongside it. I’ll call it a classic as it fits one of my chief criteria for that label, being a movie I can watch over and over and enjoy every time.

Shampoo (1975)

*. Shampoo came out the same year as Altman’s Nashville. What made the connection, for me, is the soundtrack. Not the music, but the layering of voices and other aural cues.
*. This layering is introduced right at the start, as we face a mostly black screen and hear the overlapping sounds of two people making love in bed, a radio broadcast, and a phone ringing. There’s nothing to look at, so your ears are put to work trying to sort this out.
*. Another link to Nashville can be seen in the film’s glancing look at politics. As in Nashville, Shampoo is anchored in a political moment. It’s the eve of the 1968 presidential election. We see (and hear) of this, but it’s something that plays in the background, like the roving speaker van of Hal Phillip Walker.
*. But is Shampoo a political movie? That angle is something that critics try their hardest to play up, but for me it remains mostly background noise, the equivalent of those posters of Nixon (and, in one shot, Reagan) that we occasionally see.
*. Beatty has lent a hand, trying his best to help people find a political message in the proceedings, but I find his efforts entirely unconvincing. Apparently he saw some kind of connection between the hypocrisy of politicians and the hypocrisy of George’s relationships and our attitudes toward sex generally. Which really doesn’t take you very far.
*. Frank Rich: “The movie’s characters — not just Lester’s crowd but also the less affluent George and his harem — are laughably insulated from and oblivious to the violence and political tumult ripping America apart in 1968. They care about the election only to the extent that it may affect their bottom line. Even when the party at the Bistro, in the film’s most mysterious moment, is suddenly aborted by a loudspeaker announcement instructing everyone to evacuate the restaurant ‘as quietly and quickly as possible,’ no one clamors for an explanation (which is never forthcoming) — they simply head on to the next party.”
*. So is it a political film? Is the personal political? Or is the very idea that politics really aren’t that important itself a political stand to take?

*. A final link to Nashville is in the interweaving of different stories. At first this might seem like I’m trying too hard to make a connection, since Shampoo is focused solely on a day in the frantic life of George Roundy, which is very different from what Altman gives us. But how can any movie be more than just vaguely entered on Roundy? He’s such an empty vessel it’s hard to see him as any kind of narrative baseline. The various threads of the story pass through him while he only runs in place. “You never stop moving and you never go anywhere” Jill (Goldie Hawn) tells him, a judgment nicely reflected in the scene at the party where he keeps running back and forth, always just missing getting where he wants to be.

*. Roundy is a himbo. I’ve even heard him referred to a couple of times as the film’s “dumb blonde.” Pauline Kael was clearly smitten by him, calling him “almost a sexual saint,” but one could expect the same salvation from a dildo. Even Carrie Fisher’s teenage Lorna possesses a maturity far in advance of where George is at. He learns nothing, though he does manage to teach others. He doesn’t grow up (despite Jill’s encouragement), but all the women around him do. And I feel at the end as though he never will grow up. Shampoo is the anti-Graduate: we feel sure that Jackie has made the right choice by marrying a square (Lester must be invested in plastics), and getting on with her life. She’s not going to blow this chance. Whereas it’s obvious that Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross have made a big mistake.
*. This isn’t to say that Shampoo is without a tragic dimension. But George’s tragedy isn’t expressed in his tears but in the lines on his face. He’s getting old. And isn’t that the real tragedy of all our lives? We’re always losing something. George won’t be beautiful forever. Hell, he may even start to go bald some day.
*. I wonder how much it would cost to buy the music that’s on the soundtrack here if you were to make this film today. Probably more than the cost of the rest of the movie.
*. Another sign of the times is George riding around on his motorbike without a helmet. But then, if you had hair like that (and the movie was originally going to be called Hair) would you wear a helmet? You’d rather die.
*. Given how we view these things today, would we say that George rapes Jackie? She does say No. Back in 1975 audiences would understand that she didn’t mean it. Maybe this is an answer to David Thomson’s question about why sex was never like this again.

*. The presentation of George as gay is something borrowed from Restoration comedy, with the steam-room scene clearly meant as an homage to the china scene in Wycherley’s The Country Wife. But if you go see The Country Wife today (at least based on the productions I’ve seen) they really play up the gay angle a lot more than it is here. In fact, George doesn’t really give anyone reason to suspect he’s gay. It seems as though Lester is the only person who thinks he might be. So that angle is nicely underplayed.
*. But this brings us back to what I think is the key point, and something else Shampoo shares not only with Nashville but with many of the great American films of this period. In its layering, visual and aural, understatement becomes everything. We’re meant to consider the ways that unimportant things, even things that are hard to notice, may be in some way significant. George doesn’t notice Nixon’s election, so we’re left to wonder how important that was, if at all. On the other hand, while it does seem as though losing Jackie is a blow, can we doubt that he’ll get over it, probably later this afternoon?
*. Is the superficial, finally, only superficial? Here’s a verse from Morrissey’s “Hairdresser on Fire” (1987): “Can you squeeze me into an empty page of your diary and psychologically save me? I’ve got faith in you. I sense the power within the fingers, within an hour the power could totally destroy me, or, it could save my life.” That’s an observation that seems important to me watching Shampoo, and one that is not, in my experience anyway, hyperbole.

The Boys from Brazil (1978)

*. Author Ira Levin had a macabre sense of humour. His horror fantasies are all a bit ridiculous, balancing on the edge of camp and absurdity. Great adaptations of his work (like Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby) find the sweet spot. Bad ones (any of the Stepford Wives movies) flounder trying to find the right tone.
*. And The Boys from Brazil? It may be his wildest premise of all, which is clearing a high bar indeed. The science of cloning I can get on board with — and in the last forty years it’s become even more believable — but why would a cabal of Nazis want to clone Hitler anyway? Sentimental reasons? Even Hitler didn’t see himself as some perfect genetic speciment of the master race.
*. But while the science of cloning may pass muster, the idea that the clones need to be brought up in the same way as young Adolf is a leap too far. A boy growing up in the U.S. in the 1970s will have nothing experientially in common with a boy growing up in Austria in the early 1900s, no matter what age his father dies. Then should they be encouraging young Adolf in any artistic aspirations he might have? Or discouraging him? How about higher education? Nothing post-secondary, surely. You can see how crazy this all is. But Mengele is crazy isn’t he?
*. Then there is the globe-spanning conspiracy of ex- and neo-Nazis who seem to have not only evaded justice but have reconstituted an incredibly powerful alternative state that reaches everywhere while barely trying to conceal its existence. Where did they get all the money to fund this operation? Selling stolen art?
*. I’m not even sure how the logistics of Lieberman tracking down the families of every 65-year-old man in the world who has died recently is supposed to work. But somehow he’s up to the task.

*. So the basic premise is bonkers. And it gets a further nudge from the heavyweight cast, who seem to have gleefully tossed decorum and their own reputations to the wind in hamming things up. Though apparently that’s not what they thought they were doing. In an interview he did when the film came out, James Mason said that, while he had not read Levin’s book, “one could hardly be alive and employed in the acting profession and not know that The Boys from Brazil had two stupendous leading roles in it. Oscar material. And of course, always trying to improve my position, I was hoping one of them would fall in my lap.”
*. Neither of the stupendous leading roles fell into Mason’s lap so he became a largely superfluous Nazi functionary who tries to put the brakes on Mengele’s scheme. He was right, however, in seeing the leads as Oscar bait, as Olivier would go on to get a nomination for Best Actor.
*. Olivier’s performance usually gets a lot of praise (Kael thought him “the only reason to see this movie”), while Gregory Peck is just as often ridiculed for his Mengele. I think they are both ridiculous but captivating caricatures. They go with the whacky plot, which even climaxes with the best geezer fight until Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee went at it in The Fellowship of the Ring.

*. Peck’s Mengele in particular just misses out on being one of the great screen villains of all time. With his thin eyebrows and equally silly moustache, blackened hair and whitened face, his mask-like appearance reminds me of nothing so much as Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. Throw in a brilliant white suit, preposterous accent, over-the-top emoting, a few classic lines (“I am a doctor, idiot!”), and you have one of the most unforgettable camp grotesques ever.
*. Like a lot of great bad movies everything is dialed up to 11. Jerry Goldsmith’s waltzy score blares out even when nothing is happening. When the Nazis discover that their meeting is being bugged they trash the entire place looking for it, even smashing the dishes! Why? And when you want to kill someone, you could just garrotte them in their home (does Michael Gough even have any lines?) or you can throw them from the top of the brand-new Kölnbrein Dam in Austria (standing in for Sweden). Absolutely ridiculous, but who’ll deny that’s one of the most spectacular movie kills you’ve ever witnessed? I feel like I’ve missed something never seeing it on a big screen.

*. So it’s a great bad movie. Is Jeremy Black terrible? Hell, yes. And yet I find I can’t help but be fascinated by him. Only Franklin Schaffner’s direction, which is without any sense of style or imagination, holds The Boys from Brazil back from being a true cult/camp/trash classic. As it is, however, it’s still something special.

Soylent Green (1973)

*. Author Harry Harrison had no input into the screenplay developed out of his novel Make Room! Make Room! but later said he was “fifty percent” pleased with the film.
*. I wonder which fifty percent he meant. The movie doesn’t take much from the book aside from the general setting — an overpopulated NYC, now pushed back to 2022 instead of 1999 — and the central character being a police investigator. The plot starts off kind of similar with a murder in a rich estate, but from there is spins off in an entirely different direction. Note how in the end credits it’s just said to be based on “a novel” by Harry Harrison. They don’t even give the title.
*. None of the most memorable parts of the movie appear in the book. In the book: (1) there are no “scoops” clearing the streets of people; (2) Sol doesn’t kill himself by checking into a euthanasia clinic; (3) Shirl is a kept woman, but not “furniture,” and (4) Soylent Green isn’t people. Indeed, in the novel the product is only mentioned once as I recall.
*. The priest is a new addition too. I guess he’s had a breakdown, as he doesn’t seem to be all there.
*. One interesting continuity is that while the book was written as a monitory tale of global overpopulation, its particular vision of dystopia seems more inflected by climate change (the insufferable heat) and resource depletion. That’s also the case in the movie, where much of the time we’re in what appears to be an almost entirely depopulated cityscape. Yes there are curfews at night, but aside from the crowds rioting in one location for food (MGM’s back lot, just before it was turned into condos) and the bodies cluttered on stairways (not, one wold think, the best place to sleep), there’s little sign of overpopulation here. Thorn’s apartment is a good size and the city seems to have a lot of empty space elsewhere. They even have a library with stacks of books!

*. Thorn’s final warning that “They’re making our food out of people. Next thing they’ll be breeding us like cattle for food!” doesn’t make sense in terms of overpopulation. Why would you breed more mouths to feed? Surely it would be better to breed more cattle for food than to breed more humans.
*. What makes that composite crowbar so special? It doesn’t seem very high tech to me. From Richard Fleischer’s commentary: “These tools are in very rare existence at this time, they consider them like jewels.” Why?
*. Shirl is playing a very early video game called Computer Space. I’ve heard that this may be the first video game ever seen in a movie, and since Computer Space actually predated Pong (!) I can believe it.
*. Edward G. Robinson’s final film, and it’s a great performance in a not great but memorable part. On the other hand, I found I’d completely forgotten that Joseph Cotten was in this.
*. You’d think you’d get to request your own playlist for your death. Just asking for “classical . . . light classical” seems beneath a man of Sol’s refined taste.

*. Even contemporary reviews found “the mystery of Soylent Green” (as it’s called in the trailer) to be oversold. It’s pretty obvious what is going on long before we get to Thorn’s anguished cry at the end. There’s actually a lesson in this. It’s not that the big secret is so obvious. They could have got away with that. The problem is that they build it up too much, and conceal it far too awkwardly (like having the audio cutting out during Sol’s death scene). It’s OK to have a secret, but you can’t keep saying you’ve got a secret while being cute in not telling us. This just becomes irritating.
*. I wonder how ambiguous they wanted the ending to be. Is the police chief (Brock Peters) really going to tell the world? He seems pretty compromised to me.
*. Over the years this is a movie that has achieved a certain cultural status. Everybody knows the line about “Soylent Green is people!” And certain other aspects, like the “scoops,” are almost as indelible. And I guess it works well enough, even with its late-psychedelic (“more than ultra-modern” according to Fleischer) vision of the future. Thorn’s apartment looks more inviting than the ritzy disco lounge Shirl furnishes.
*. If it never becomes a great movie I’m inclined to blame Richard Fleischer. I’m in agreement with David Thomson’s judgment that “In the late sixties and early seventies, Fleischer aimed at being the most prolific and least identifiable director in America.” It’s not that there aren’t any imaginative and creative design elements, but it feels dull and the whole winds up being less than the sum of its parts.
*. So it’s an iconic movie that should be seen at least once. A second time? I think the last time I saw it was more than thirty years ago so I thought seeing it again was worth it, but I think three decades for a re-viewing is about right.

Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971)

*. I’ve made notes on several mummy films, most of them dreadful, but with this one it might be worth taking a step back and looking at one of the earliest instances of mummy horror in the literature: Bram Stoker’s widely unread 1903 novel The Jewel of Seven Stars.
*. I can honestly say I have read The Jewel of Seven Stars, and it wasn’t easy. Not quite as tough a slog as Dracula (which is a truly terrible book), but difficult in its own way. That way being an incredibly awkward plot involving a bunch of different characters falling asleep or into trances or under hypnotic spells. It doesn’t take long before you start wondering what is going on, which is a mystery that is never entirely explained.
*. The reason I bring the Stoker novel up here is because Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb is loosely based on it and also because the novel makes a big deal out of a strange element that, for reasons I can’t explain, mummy movies have had a tendency to retain. This is the way the female lead is usually seen as the reincarnation of the mummy’s ancient love, with the same actress usually playing both roles.
*. I say I can’t explain why this is a plot point so regularly adopted from The Jewel of Seven Stars because when you think of it (1) it’s a huge stretch that usually makes no sense at all, and (2) there’s no particular need for it. I mean, the cast could just accidentally wake a mummy up and defile his tomb and become victims of his curse without all of the trappings of an ancient romance and the transmigration of souls being roped into it. But instead, mummy movies keep going back to this same stupid idea.
*. The Jewel of Seven Stars is, as I’ve said, a tough read. It’s also unfilmable, which is yet another reason I wonder why studios have bothered going back to it. They could have a scary mummy come to life and not bother with a jewel that somehow contains within it an astrological map. But here we are.
*. As a title, The Jewel of Seven Stars was never going to fly, and it was jettisoned here and in subsequent treatments of the same material (The Awakening and Bram Stoker’s The Legend of the Mummy). Screenwriter Christoper Wicking explains the process used to come up with Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb as a title: “we just took all the words associated with the mummy genre . . . and that combination came up.”
*. This is later Hammer so it’s set in the present day and it’s a little sleazier and has more blood. The first shot after the credits run is of Valerie Leon’s heaving bosom as she writhes in bed. Then we go back in time and we’re introduced to her in her guise as Tera, wearing another very revealing top. As she describes her role: “I used to show an enormous cleavage, everything but the nipple, but I was never ever nude.” She had a body double in the scene where she gets out of bed naked and we see her bum.
*. Also typical of a Hammer production is the solid cast of veterans with a young couple thrown in as the love interest. What’s interesting this time out is the way Margaret’s young man is killed off, leaving her alone with her father and the last surviving archaeologist. This is especially odd given that her young man (named “Tod Browning” here) is the sole survivor who lives to tell the tale at the end of the first edition of the novel (a subsequent edition has Margaret surviving as well so that she can marry her beau).
*. It’s a talky film, and no easier to follow for all of its talk. They did what they could to make the novel comprehensible but could only get so far. The idea of there being three relics that have to be acquired from the other tomb raiders makes for a good storyline, even if the scenes where the relics come to life and tear the throats out of their victims have to be rendered through crazy editing and camera tilts and wild reaction shots that do nothing to disguise how ridiculous it all is.
*. I wonder why they introduce the ambiguously gendered fellow at the end for the death of the female archaeologist. He doesn’t seem to have any purpose in the story at all except to surprise us with his fingernails before disappearing.
*. In the end I find this a hard movie to rate. It’s a mess, but not nearly as big a mess as the novel it’s based on. The blood-and-tits sleaziness gives it a cheap and tawdry flavour. It’s fun to see the old guys chew the scenery and emote for the ages but in the end none of it adds up to much. I imagine Hammer fans will enjoy its retro Brit-horror vibe, but for me it was only another underwhelming chapter in a genre (the mummy film) that rarely fails to disappoint.

Sleuth (1972)

*. Sleuth is a classic two-hander, meaning a play with only two main characters. In fact, despite the necessary subterfuge here in the credits there are only ever the two characters on stage (or screen) period.
*. Being a filmed play already puts the movie into a bit of a box. Most filmed plays look like filmed plays. They are stuck with certain limitations put on them by their origins on stage. But in the case of Sleuth this is compounded by the fact that there are only the two parts and the action takes place on a single set with one scene break.
*. With all that said, I was surprised how little this movie made me think I was watching a play. Yes, we go outside on a couple of occasions, and move about different rooms, but I think what really opens things up is the use of all the closeups on the menagerie of automatons. By focusing so much on these smaller things, and the tiny dioramas of Andrew’s novels, it makes the rest of the film look bigger.
*. Another point in the film’s favour is its pacing. This is a long movie. Two hours and 18 minutes. Why? I’ve seen stage productions that ran well under two hours. Kenneth Branagh’s Sleuth (admittedly a very free adaptation) came in at a tight 88 minutes. But it doesn’t seem like this version dawdles.
*. Still, I think it’s fair to ask why this movie is so long I’m not sure. There are some visual elements that are added, but they mostly take the form of quick cutaways. The main thing, I think, is that the film gives Olivier and Caine a lot of room to move about and use the physical space of the set. Which is, in turn, another way the film is made to feel bigger.

*. The two players get a lot of credit, and I think it’s mostly deserved. The first time I saw it I thought Olivier was hamming it up a bit much, but then I thought that Andrew is a ham. Indeed what I think makes the play so much fun is that both characters are: they love putting on a show. Milo, however, realizes that a show is all it is. Andrew has gone over to the other side and it’s all he has. Writers lead lonely lives. And chances are he’s in the closet too.
*. I don’t think there’s anything wrong in pointing out Andrew’s attraction to Milo. It’s there in the play, as he hates Milo for his very attractiveness and then is drawn to him as “my sort of person.” That is, they are both performers and both love playing games. Indeed they are almost (in Andrew’s eyes) soul mates. It’s cut from the film, but in the play he even calls out to Milo as he leaves to get Marguerite’s coat: “Don’t go. Don’t waste it all on Marguerite. She doesn’t appreciate you like I do.”
*. The movie doesn’t play this angle up (I mentioned how that line has been cut), but it’s still there in Olivier’s performance (and will be made explicit in Deathtrap and the 2007 Sleuth). Andrew is a dandy, and his movements are at times effeminate, especially as he almost dances with himself to his show tunes. Most noticeable of all, however, is that admiring glance he gives Milo as he forces him to strip to his “smalls.” It’s hard to mistake that. Is Andrew really impotent then? Or is it just a matter of orientation? Is he in denial? Each man kills the thing he loves.

*. Shaffer’s play was first produced in 1970, so this film is nearly contemporary. But already inflation has set in. The £90,000 Milo was going to get for selling the necklace has almost doubled to £170,000 (in 2007, if you’re keeping score, it will become £800,000). I wonder how much of that is due not to real inflation in the broader economy but rather to the inflation of making a movie vs. putting on a play.
*. There are a couple of other minor changes that have been made. Milo’s Jewish grandmother is quietly elided. They could get away with calling him a wop but that’s as far as they’d go. He also runs a hairdressing salon now instead of a travel agency. That makes his skill at disguise easier to credit and I guess makes him more of a ladies man, perhaps someone a bit like George Roundy in Shampoo.
*. English country-house murder stories enjoyed a golden age and today seem very much a product of their time, but they also have an eternal appeal. I think the film draws on this, while cutting almost all of Anthony Shaffer’s more direct, classist critique of the genre (“It’s a world of coldness and class hatred” being another line that’s dropped from the script). As a result, it feels a little safer, a point I feel is underlined by the change in the play’s final line. Yes, it’s all been a bloody game. But don’t we think Andrew will have a good lawyer? That he’ll be able to come up with a new narrative? It’s not game, set and match. He’s still playing.

The Stone Tape (1972)

*. The Stone Tape, which was a TV-movie that ran on the BBC as their seasonal “Christmas ghost story,” and which was originally planned as being part of its Dead of Night program before being eventually presented independently, has two main claims to fame. Or, to put it a bit more precisely, two entry points for talking about it today.
*. In the first place, it stands at the head of a sub-genre of horror films that deal with the scientific investigation of paranormal phenomena. At least Kim Newman gives it pride of place in this regard and I don’t think I can argue with his appraisal. I call these the Ghostbuster films, as they usually involve researchers, a sort of secular team of exorcists, called in to explain weird or scary goings-on. Other Ghostbuster type films include Poltergeist, The Entity, Prince of Darkness, and, in a comic vein, Ghostbusters.
*. The Stone Tape was so influential in this regard that it even gave its name to something called the Stone Tape theory, which has it that supernatural occurrences leave behind psychic records in physical material. This is not just something that gets picked up in other movies. People really believe it. Anyway, it’s what is supposedly happening here, with the damp stone of the haunted room capturing mysterious events from centuries in the past.
*. The other point to note about The Stone Tape is that the teleplay was written by Nigel Kneale, the man who invented Professor Bernard Quatermass and someone who now has an almost legendary status among fans of this sort of dark fantasy material.
*. Because it’s a Kneale vehicle the emphasis is very much on the script, which is quite technical and talky. One gets the sense the idea could have, and probably should have, been expanded into a miniseries. There’s a lot of information thrown at you, or yelled at you, as Michael Bryant is pretty loud.
*. I’ll admit I had trouble following the plot very closely. I get the basic premise about the haunted stones, but I wasn’t sure why Ryan Electrics should be that interested in them, or what the scientists were really trying to establish, or what was going on between Peter and Jill. All of which are major plot points.
*. Is Jill (Jane Asher) a case of stereotyping because she’s the most receptive to the ghostly presences? I don’t think so. She is some kind of a scientist or computer programmer herself, for one thing. She’s not a secretary. It’s also the case that among the rest of the team (all men) there is a range of sensitivity to the sounds in the stones. So I don’t think she’s singled out as the weak link because she’s a woman. And in fact she’s even allowed a bit of revenge at the end for the fact that the men never seem to take her very seriously.
*. It’s a bare-bones production, looking like it was mostly shot in a shoebox, and I have to say I don’t find it very scary. But it was an original premise and something about the idea stuck. I still don’t think the conflict between science and the supernatural has been fairly represented on film, with most of the science in these movies being pseudo-science of very limited utility in fighting ghosts and demons. But, given our all-too real anxieties about technology, I suspect many will see that as a relief.