Category Archives: 1970s

Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972)

*. Was a sequel to The Abominable Dr. Phibes always planned? I’ve read different stories. On the one hand, the first film left off with the doctor tucking himself away in his sarcophagus, awaiting an eclipse to effect his resurrection. And some sources say a trilogy had been in the works. But this film was rushed into production to capitalize on the success of The Abominable Dr. Phibes and they didn’t have much to go on, even recycling the same basic set of Dr. Phibes’s dancehall and relocating it to Egypt. This makes me think they weren’t planning on another movie, or at least didn’t think one was likely.
*. Ah, the mysterious Vulnavia. She was killed at the end of the first film after being showered with acid but she’s back here, though played by a different actress (Virginia North was pregnant so Valli Kemp got the nod). Apparently she was originally going to be a new character but the studio wanted Vulnavia back because they liked the name. But is she even a person? Or just another one of Phibes’s automatons? And if she can’t speak, how does she arrange all of her master’s business and travel affairs for him? Ah, the mysterious Vulnavia.
*. Sticking with this, why doesn’t Phibes just give up on the long-dead Victoria and take Vulnavia as his eternal dance partner? They seem happy together.
*. Peter Cushing was going to play Dr. Vesalius in the previous film but had to back out. He has a walk-on cameo here, but why? It’s a scene that doesn’t have any purpose at all. Perhaps they just thought he needed the work.

*. You may notice (I did) that Phibes seems to be a narrator at times, giving voiceover even when it’s clear he’s not jacked into a speaker. This was because scenes were cut and they had to add dialogue explaining some plot points. Which gives you some further idea of how slapdash an effort this was.
*. Peter Jeffrey is back as Inspector Trout, and Terry-Thomas plays an entirely different character. Also returning, and even more endearing, are the Clockwork Musicians, here renamed The Alexandrian Quartet (a joke that I imagine few people will get today) and pressed into service as the Royal Scottish Fusiliers at one point. If the series had continued to a third instalment one wonders if they’d’ve gotten into the killing as well.
*. Robert Quarry plays Darius Biederbeck. Rumours were that Quarry was being groomed to replace Price at AIP and that the two didn’t get along while filming. Whatever truth there is to that story, I have to say I found Biederbeck’s character a puzzle. He starts off being a villain but at the end becomes the hero, even sacrificing himself to save his lady love. Something about that arc just didn’t work for me. Especially when, as Phibes himself points out, they’re similar characters and thus one of them is redundant.
*. For some reason this movie is regarded by many as being almost on a par with the first. I find it a big step down. There’s less sense of fun, the murders cross the line from the bizarre to the preposterous, and most of the good stuff is just carryover from what worked in The Abominable Dr. Phibes.
*. Still, it remains on brand and the character might have been kept going with other actors but for the fact that I suspect Phibes had become too closely associated with Price. In any event, other franchises have carried the same concept with even greater success into the twenty-first century. Though I wouldn’t bet against the good doctor rising again.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

*. The Abominable Dr. Phibes didn’t get a lot of love when it came out. Critics saw it as camp trash, though some enjoyed it, and the initial box office was disappointing because AIP, who also didn’t think it was anything special, took a while to figure out how to market such an oddity.
*. But audiences did eventually catch on, and today this is a much loved cult favourite. In several ways it was ahead of its time, setting up such later blockbusters as Se7en and even more obviously Saw. Yes, the serial killer who works by way of a theme might be taken all the way back to And Then There Were None, but that was a mystery and not a horror film and there’s a difference. It’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes that has the most to answer for.
*. Also ahead of its time was the mix of brutal and shocking violence (at least as brutal and shocking as budget and censors would allow) with comedy. One gets the sense that everyone was having a good time and laughing away as they made it.
*. There are so many little jokes I love. Ending with a jazzy version of “Over the Rainbow.” The way the Moon and Earth are labeled on the lid of the sarcophagus. The painted screens in the car windows. Terry-Thomas’s porn-loving doctor winding the crank of his projector so hard it breaks off.
*. I could keep going. I get a kick out of the shrine Dr. Phibes has set up to his wife, dominated by her vapid stare (the late Mrs. Phibes represented by Vincent Price’s real wife, the model Caroline Munro). And how about the wonderful dialogue? “A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen.” When Phibes accuses Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten) of killing his wife the good doctor exclaims that he tried to save her. To which Phibes replies “With a knife in your hands?!” Well, he was doing surgery . . .
*. The glory of the sets is another big plus. Not just Dr. Phibes’s rocking pad, with its Art Deco-Aubrey Beardsley dance floor and mechanical orchestra of Clockwork Musicians, but also Dr. Versalius’s amazing digs, and the mint-green hospital. We’re in another world here, a sort of English giallo nearly every bit as ripe as the Italian.
*. Vulnavia (Virginia North) has no lines but takes over with such a striking presence she doesn’t need any. And that name! I mean, why didn’t they call her Vulvania just to see if they could get away with it? (Price does distinctly call her Vulvania once in Dr. Phibes Rises Again, in what could hardly be called a slip of the tongue.)

*. Alas, they were limited in what they could achieve in the way of gore effects. Basically all they could manage was some scary heads. Half or fully eaten. Frozen. Exsanguinated. And finally a big reveal of Dr. Phibes’s own mutilated face, which is just a rubber mask. There’s been no end of talk of more sequels, or a remake, and you know revisiting the effects has to be one of the main attractions. Not that I think they should remake it. Leave well enough alone.

*. The script is pure fantasy. Some random questions: How on earth does Dr. Phibes get those rats on the plane without anyone noticing, and fix it so they come out at just the right time? Why does Terry-Thomas not say anything while his blood is being stolen? Many of Phibes’s victims are excessively passive. The man in the back of the car doesn’t seem perturbed much either. And why does the nurse not wake up when her face is covered by green goo? I know she has (perhaps) taken a sleeping pill, but even so you’d wake up once your airways were covered, or when a handful of locusts starting eating your face off. How was the unicorn impalement managed? A catapult? From across the street? And what or who is Vulnavia? What’s with the violin playing? Or the dancing figurine she places in the back of the car? Or the contrived musical numbers she does with Phibes? Originally she was meant to be another automaton, and maybe she still is, which would explain some of this. But then why not say so, or reveal this when she has her acid shower at the end? And why the Biblical plagues? Just because Phibes is a doctor of theology as well as a concert organist?
*. Director Robert Fuest (who also apparently wrote most of the screenplay) doesn’t get much credit, but I think this is a well-turned out little movie, especially for AIP. There are even some odd style points scored. Also, kicking things off with over ten minutes of film without any dialogue was pretty bold. It’s a truism of the horror genre though that your villains shouldn’t talk too much, even if they’re played by Vincent Price. Here the fact that Phibes is hooked up to a squawk box that he has to keep plugging in to whatever outlet’s available (“I have used my knowledge of music and acoustics to re-create my voice!”) is a bit awkward, but it’s fun too.
*. I was pleasantly surprised coming back to this movie and enjoying it as much as I did. I’d re-watched it about five years ago and taken some notes and looking over them it seemed as though I was less impressed then. Today it struck me as far more entertaining. Total nonsense, and cheap, but it’s also a groundbreaking and inventive work that repays repeated viewing. I wouldn’t quite rate it a classic, but it’s a must-see flick for genre fans and even fifty years later has a crazy transgressive attitude about it that makes up for a lot of failings.

Slap Shot (1977)

*. Slap Shot is a movie that holds a mythic place in the imagination of any Canadian of a certain age. So much so that I’d always thought it was a Canadian production. It isn’t, though the French-Canadian cast members spoke colloquial Québécois French, which made it an even bigger cult favourite in Quebec than it was among Anglos.
*. The setting though is the fictional New England mill-town of Charlestown (actually Johnstown, Pennsylvania). It’s a hardscrabble, working-class sort of place that would have been familiar to moviegoers at the time. The year before, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to Rocky, another sports story set in blue-collar Pennsylvania. There are scenes here that have the same lunch-pail look to them as Rocky. They also recall the streets of Clairmont, Pennsylvania in the 1978 Academy Award Best Picture winner The Deer Hunter. Instead of making it to the big leagues in that movie, the boys went to Vietnam.
*. I don’t think these comparisons are superficial either. I really feel a shared sensibility in all three movies. It’s more than just a kitchen-sink look. And the next year, while Michael Cimino would become Hollywood’s biggest new star with The Deer Hunter, Coming Home would be the other big Vietnam pic. And Nancy Dowd, who wrote Slap Shot, had written the original script for Coming Home. I feel like there are deeper cultural connections here.

*. That might seem a weird thing to say about a movie whose very title suggests slapstick comedy, a sort of Bad News Bears (1976) except with man-boys on ice. And there are parts of it that play like that. Most obviously there are the brutal (and mentally challenged?) Hanson brothers who take blood-and-guts hockey to ridiculous lengths. All without seeming to draw a penalty. But the ending, with Ned (Michael Ontkean) doing his striptease in the midst of a bench-clearing brawl is very much in the slapstick vein. That is, building everything up to a big laugh. You see: all the blood and bad language was just good fun.
*. But the tone throughout is mixed. It’s sad what’s happening to Charlestown, and we feel that the redemption offered by the championship run of the Chiefs is a fantasy that everyone will wake up from the next morning, after the parade, nursing yet another hammering hangover. Same as for Rocky Balboa, except he had a franchise beckoning. Not that the Chiefs didn’t too, but nobody saw any of the other movies in the series, and anyway Paul Newman was gone.
*. Paul Newman really was a good-looking guy. He can even pull off the ’70s threads here with style. Few other men could do that. Or, for that matter, would be able to get away with playing such a loveable heel. Because that’s what Reggie Dunlop is. Ned is the more conventional hero, with a girl-next-door girlfriend who is tragically glamourized at the end.
*. I have to say that despite its following I don’t think Slap Shot is any good. It’s a comedy but never very funny. It seems to be engaged in some kind of social commentary but never aims to be realistic. It’s a sports movie, but has a fanciful notion of minor-league professional sports. Newman enjoyed making it (he liked working with director George Roy Hill, for one thing), but he was one and done. What lasted into the sequels, and still lasts, are the Hanson brothers. This is remembered today as their movie, and fairly so. Newman, however, would get a heck of a consolation prize with his wonderful furry bedmate.

The Tempest (1979)

*. Every production of Shakespeare, and especially every instance of Shakespeare on film, can be plotted on a continuum of faithfulness to the text. Sometimes they’re little more than a camera making a recording of a theatrical performance, as in Olivier’s Othello (1965). At other times you have a pretty complete re-imagining of the play in a different context: Romeo and Juliet as West Side Story, Hamlet as The Bad Sleep Well, and The Tempest as a Western (Yellow Sky) or set in outer space (Forbidden Planet).
*. The Tempest has always been more open than most of the canon for a free interpretation. After all the time I’ve spent with it I’m still not sure what it’s about, or what to think of it. It’s a problem, or matter of personal taste, that I have with all the romances. And it leaves a director pretty free to go in any direction.
*. Derek Jarman obviously doesn’t feel wedded to Shakespeare’s Tempest in this adaptation. I say that despite the fact that he does keep most of the basic story intact. But the text is mangled badly, with a lot of cuts and rearrangements. Right from the opening, where we see a rather youthful Prospero (Heathcote Williams, who was only 38) writhing in bed muttering lines that I couldn’t make out at all I had the sense that Jarman really didn’t care much what was being said. As things went on that’s a feeling that would only deepen.

*. To my eyes and ears there are two problems with this Tempest. The way it looks and the way it sounds.
*. I would like to say that it’s poorly lit and has badly recorded sound, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. The look and the sound were conscious decisions. But the look is dark to the point where it’s hard to see very much and the sound, while there are some nice effects (like the breathing to accompany the working of magic), is frustrating and annoying. There’s a lot of loud laughter that made me cringe, but at the same time I could barely hear half of the lines.
*. I say this was a conscious decision, and it’s clear that Jarman had a vision here. But what was it? What is the point of going in this direction? And what direction is it anyway?
*. It’s often described as “punk” or “camp.” I don’t see much evidence of the former aside from the tatty atmosphere that hangs around Stoneleigh Abbey (and which made me wonder why they wanted to shoot in such a location when all they did was throw hay and trash around until they made it look like an abandoned tenement building or shooting alley). I don’t see much evidence for the latter aside from the musical number at the end with its dancing sailors and Elizabeth Welch singing “Stormy Weather.”
*. From Jarman’s handwritten notes: “I hope to capture something of the mystery and atmosphere of the original without descending to theatrics.” So . . . mystery and atmosphere. He also stresses the importance of magic quite a bit, but it seems to me that the magic in this film is really downplayed. As, aside from the final number, is the music. And what is The Tempest without magic and music?
*. Jarman also apparently said that he was drawn to the play because of the way it dealt with the theme of forgiveness. Which it does. But which this film doesn’t, since it leaves all of that stuff out.

*. It’s also not a particularly political Tempest. There was even some criticism from Shakespeare scholars because the post-colonial presentation of the play that was peaking at around this time (the island as the New World, Caliban as Black or Aboriginal) wasn’t pursued. Jarman thought that such an approach would be too limiting, “make it more specific than general,” and while I don’t agree with that I do agree with his exercising his freedom to make whatever kind of Tempest he wanted to. But again, what kind of a Tempest is it?
*. About the only thing I can say with some confidence is that this version really belongs to Ferdinand and Miranda. They are the stars of the show, despite being relatively minor parts in the play. We are a third of the way into the film before the court party are even introduced, and they are shortchanged the rest of the way as well. But we spend a lot of time with the young lovers, even when they’re just goofing around. But having said that, I’m not sure that’s a good thing. The two of them have few important lines and really aren’t that interesting, apart or together.
*. I hope this doesn’t make me sound like a stick in the mud. Like Vincent Canby, say, whose New York Times review was a full-on rant, worth quoting just for the fun of it: Jarman’s Tempest “would be funny if it weren’t very nearly unbearable. It’s a fingernail scratched along a blackboard, sand in spinach, a 33-r.p.m. recording of ‘Don Giovanni’ played at 78 r.p.m. Watching it is like driving a car whose windshield has shattered but not broken. You can barely see through the production to Shakespeare, so you must rely on memory. . . There are no poetry, no ideas, no characterizations, no narrative, no fun.”
*. Actually, I think I probably do agree with Canby here. But I don’t think that makes me a stick. I like Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991), and went along with Julie Taymor’s slightly more traditional 2010 version. I just didn’t enjoy this at all. Indeed, when I was watching it I was thinking it might be as bad as another “punk” Shakespeare, Troma’s Tromeo and Juliet. Then I began to wonder if Tromeo and Juliet might even be a bit better. In the end I couldn’t make up my mind. I sort of hate them both.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)

*. The idea was inspired: why not team up Sherlock Holmes with Sigmund Freud, two rough contemporaries, in a new adventure that has Holmes traveling to Vienna to get treatment for his cocaine addiction while solving the mystery of an abducted singer.
*. Nicholas Meyer had written the source novel and also did the screenplay, which got an Oscar nomination. Stephen Sondheim wrote a delightful song for the Madame at a brothel to sing (“I Never Do Anything Twice”). Ken Adam was in charge of production design and his Victorian interiors look great, showing he was a master of more than just those giganto-sized villain’s lairs in the Bond movies or the war room in Dr. Strangelove. And the cast is first rate, with Nicol Williamson and Alan Arkin in the leads and Robert Duvall surprisingly solid as Watson, Joel Grey as a creepy villain, and Laurence Olivier as the world’s most distinguished red herring. Vanessa Redgrave looks as though she doesn’t want to be here, but then she may have read the script and been wondering what exactly her role amounted to.
*. About that script. I’m afraid it’s part of the reason the movie dies. Meyer really wanted to do something quite different from the book, while director Herbert Ross kept pulling him back. This suggests they weren’t on the same page, and the results show. The story never comes together, feeling in the end like a couple of different movies pulling in different directions and never settling on a clear tone. A review in The Daily Telegraph opined that “the tale drags on for reel after reel before we cotton on to the fact that it is meant to be funny.” But is it meant to be funny? I’m not sure.
*. Meyer wanted it to be “not a Sherlock Holmes movie, [but] a movie about Sherlock Holmes. That’s different.” One thing this meant was rehabilitating Watson, who Meyer thought had been too much the buffoon made famous by Nigel Bruce in the Basil Rathbone Holmes movies. But enlarging Watson means diminishing Holmes, not to the extent here as would be done in Without a Clue to be sure, but this Holmes is still a wreck. Freud is very much the greater man, and the hero.
*. This is reflected even in the nuts-and-bolts of the crime story. I’m afraid there isn’t much in the way of clever detective work going on. Holmes’s deducing that Lola Deveraux (Redgrave) had been abducted is kind of obvious from the nature of her injuries, and following a trail of dropped lilies (really?) to where she’d been taken is very sub-Conan Doyle. Meanwhile, Freud is way ahead of the legendary detective. If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes you’re probably going to be disappointed at your hero’s performance.
*. Ross was probably a bad choice to direct as well. There’s no excitement on tap, even with a train chase and a sword fight to finish things off. This climax is then followed by a long and cringey denouement, as we learn the historical source of Holmes’s addiction problems and Moriarty fixation, which is both clichéd and wildly over-the-top. An epilogue then reintroduces Holmes to Ms. Deveraux, an even more cringe-inducing scene where the chanteuse seems anything but thrilled to be going on a cruise with the famous detective. But then he seems discomfited as well. Are we supposed to imagine this as a budding romance? Because there’d been little hint of that in the movie we’ve just seen. Which is just another way the pieces don’t come together.
*. In the brief interview featurette included with the DVD one gets the sense that Meyer himself didn’t think much of the film, and that’s understandable. Because of the credits this is a movie that still has a bit of a reputation today, and even some admirers, but despite all the talent assembled and the good use of locations it really is a stuffy and stiff piece with a stupid story that doesn’t make anything out of the intriguing pairing at its heart.

Macbeth (1979)

*. At university I had a professor who, dismayed at the way Shakespeare was being updated and made modern in so many new adaptations, said that he just wanted to see the actors coming out in barrels and reading the lines. With this production of Macbeth he would have got his wish. Or something close to it.
*. It’s directed by Philip Casson and produced by Trevor Nunn, based on a production Nunn did at The Other Place theatre in 1976. The Other Place is what’s known as a “black box” theatre, and is described by Ian McKellen (playing Macbeth here) in a video intro to the DVD as a “tin hut” that seated around 100. So this became known as “the minimalist Macbeth,” and apparently had the cast sitting around in a circle (as this film version begins) with no costume changes or scenery. McKellen says the whole thing only cost £250 to produce. Nunn’s objective was to just “photograph the text.”
*. I doubt Casson’s movie, shot on videotape (and looking it!) for British television, cost much more than that. No music. Just unaccommodated actors moving about a black space, with lots of close-ups and soliloquies presented without any sense of naturalism.
*. So . . . actors reading the lines then. You can forget about seeing Banquo’s ghost, or any of Macbeth’s visions. Which does make you wonder about how pure such an approach really is. Shakespeare’s audience would have been expecting more of a show, I’m sure.
*. There’s some of the intimacy you might expect in a little theatre production of the play, and the killing of Macduff’s son is chilling in its way, but that’s all I can say for it. Minimalism is fine up to a point, but then starts to work in reverse. You don’t even get some leafy branches to stand in for Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, and as for Macbeth’s noggin being brought in at the end you can forget it. The daggers are obvious props. The costumes seem like a rag-bag of whatever happened to be lying around. I couldn’t put a date to them. Leather jerkins, nineteenth-century court uniforms, black stockings over the heads of the killers. None of it adds up, and the sense I had was that nobody really cared.
*. Judi Dench is fine as Lady M., and lets loose with one hell of a wail in her nightwalking scene. I should have timed it. McKellen I did not care for, though I don’t think it was his fault. He’d done some TV work before this but I don’t think any movies yet, and I think his performance would have worked very well on stage. I don’t think it works on film, at least by today’s standards. He spends a lot of time staring, wide-eyed and unblinking, into the camera. He doesn’t give a very strong sense of a tortured mind though, or express the full depth of Macbeth’s doubts and hesitancies. Overall, I found it a mannered performance, and not in a good way.
*. Despite Macbeth being one of Shakespeare’s shorter plays, and tightly paced, this one drags on for nearly two-and-a-half hours. They may have been trying for a full text version, at least of the parts we think Shakespeare actually wrote. Act 2 Scene 4 is rarely played, and I was so surprised to see it here I had to go to the bookshelf to find out what was going on. So it has that going for it too. But students of Shakespeare will want to look elsewhere for their study notes, and even drama majors will just want to take some quick notes on how a black box production works, and why you might not want to bother filming one.

Macbeth (1971)

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*. I think it’s easy to miss how bold an interpretation of Shakespeare this was at the time. You see the medieval muckery, and the armies massing before Macbeth’s castle with their banners and funny helmets, and you automatically think of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). But that movie hadn’t changed our view of the Middle Ages forever yet.
*. Macbeth has a reputation as Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, but even so a lot of people were shocked by the violence in this film. You get your nose rubbed in it right from the beginning, with that severed hand the witches bury, and the (literally) gratuitous macing of the dying man on the beach. There will be more blood to come, and it’s brought home with some impressive effects throughout. Macbeth’s decapitated head strikes me as particularly well done.

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*. In addition to the violence, the nudity of Lady Macbeth also raised some eyebrows, especially from people who attributed it to Playboy‘s funding of the project. They were wrong to do so (nudity had already been written into the script), but all the same I’m not sure it’s necessary. I guess it emphasizes Lady M’s ripening vulnerability, but it seems distracting to me. On the other hand, her body makes an effective contrast with those of the shaggy, saggy witches.
*. The real creative change-up Polanski (and screenwriter Kenneth Tynan) threw at the play was to make the Macbeths into a young power couple. I think this was a terrific idea, as a way both to liven things up and introduce a new wrinkle to these characters. Of course the Macbeths are ambitious, but it makes sense that they’re hungry young people on the make. The story could still make sense with an older couple playing this game (think of Francis Underwood and his wife in House of Cards, or Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood in the 2010 Macbeth), but I think it makes more sense that they’re young.

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*. It helps tremendously that Jon Finch and Francesca Annis come through with such great performances. Their characters’ arcs perfectly intersect (as they should), with Finch becoming weary and cynical while Annis goes from calculation to fragility. But in each case you can see the seeds of their later fall in their first appearances, perhaps not their tragic flaws so much as their inherent weakness. Macbeth is too easily led, his wife too good at fooling herself.
*. How many children has Lady Macbeth? None. She’s too young, or perhaps she’s too much a career woman. Her line about knowing what it’s like to give suck has been taken out.

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*. It’s all a giant pissing match. Having to pour Malcolm a drink is what turns Macbeth back to his plan to kill Duncan, and Ross being slighted for promotion is what turns that climber against Macbeth. None of this is in the play, but it works marvelously here.
*. There were other changes in emphasis as well. Chief among these is the centrality of Ross, a minor figure in the play who becomes the necessary man here. Not everyone can be top dog, but there are rewards enough for those who can run with the pack.

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*. In his Criterion essay, Terrence Rafferty mentions how the soliloquies are presented as interior monologues was a nod to Olivier’s Hamlet, but that doesn’t catch all of it. Olivier’s interior monologues are still soliloquies in the sense of being delivered on stage (or screen) alone. Here we see Macbeth still part of the action, but withdrawn into himself, mentally removed.
*. False seeming is the essence of Shakespeare, his sense that everyone is acting. There are nods to this theme in Macbeth (“There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face”), but Polanski really makes it front and center. This is a Macbeth where everybody seems to know what’s going on. It’s built out of knowing looks. When Macduff takes his leave of Ross you know what they’re both thinking, just as we know what passes between Banquo and Ross when Macbeth is elevated, and between Macbeth and Malcolm when Macbeth fills the prince’s glass. Nothing needs to be said.
*. When Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V came out much was made of its realistic look, which mainly meant the muddy, bloody field of Agincourt. Polanski had done it all before. And I think this was a creative decision, though the mud was at least partially the result of all the rain they had to endure during filming.
*. Given the downscale look of so much of the movie (I really like the witches’ stone hovel), I thought making Macbeth’s eyrie a rather romantically situated and decorated version of Lindisfarne Castle was one of the few mistakes in the film. It looks like Camelot.
*. The swordfight between Macbeth and Macduff is wonderful because it captures how awkwardly people moved in all that gear and how clumsy an affair it could be. Dropping one’s weapon and just wrestling was as good a tactic as any. Macduff doesn’t even take a weapon when one is offered him. And I also like how Macbeth has to just sit down at one point because he’s out of breath. That armour is heavy!

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*. I have no problem with the epilogue that has Donalbain off to see the witches. The will to power is eternal. There will be new pretenders to the throne. And presumably Ross will be there with an eye to the main chance.
*. Pauline Kael thought Polanski reduced “Shakespeare’s meanings to the banal ‘life is a jungle.'” Perhaps, but every production of Shakespeare has to settle on some interpretation, has to choose from among Shakespeare’s many meanings. And I think Polanski made a prescient choice.
*. It’s often said that Hamlet was a nineteenth-century play. And I think it was Northrop Frye who thought King Lear belonged to the twentieth. It seems to me that Macbeth, for all its limitations, may best fit our own time.
*. It’s precisely that “life is a jungle” banality that captures the social Darwinist spirit of our age, one that embraces the ruthless and destructive struggle for primacy in the corporate and political worlds and declares that this is it: that’s all there is. And when we get to the end, and look at the wreckage of our lives, our civilization, our world, there’s nothing to do but shrug at the pointlessness of it all and go out guns blazing. Like Scarface‘s Tony Montana, Macbeth has no children. What marks our age isn’t so much our resignation to the law of the jungle but our giving up on posterity.

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Westworld (1973)

*. For Michael Crichton, next-generation amusement parks were an abiding source of fascination. One of his early novels, Drug of Choice (written under the pen name John Lange), is about people taking vacations that are really just drug-induced hallucinations. Probably his most famous creation was Jurassic Park, a novel that went on to spawn a blockbuster movie and an entire franchise of dinosaurs-on-the-loose movies. In-between he wrote Westworld, an original screenplay that he also directed. The idea here not being drugs or genetically restored dinosaurs but robots providing the thrills.
*. Of course all of these amusement-park rides go terribly wrong. It’s not quite clear what happens with the robots. One explanation is something like a computer virus, which none of the scientists sitting around the conference room seems able to understand. A “disease of machines”? What the heck is that? It doesn’t make any sense. Innocent days.
*. Speaking of the innocent days of computers, this was the first feature film to use digital image processing. It shows up in the thermal-imaging shots representing the Gunslinger’s point of view. Not very impressive, but you have to cut them slack for being pioneers. The process work has held up better than those cheesy screensavers that are on the control room monitors and which I suppose are meant to represent some kind of complicated work being done.
*. Among the general public at the time I think it was unclear just what computers did. They had lots of flashing lights and banks of reel-to-reel tapes spinning away like a laundromat, but who knew what kind of work all this was meant to represent? One imagines a vault of punchcards filed away somewhere containing the programs used to control the robots. Crude, but where there’s a desire for such an experience as Delos is offering, science will always find a way to make it happen.

*. That notion of desire is key. Westworld (and its neighbouring theme parks set in ancient Rome and Medieval times) are adult fantasies. You don’t take your kids with you on these getaways! As the trailer puts it, this is a place where “frustrations find release, [and] desire ends in satisfaction.” You go there to fuck and kill. It’s not a coincidence that The Stepford Wives is only a year away now too. Both films took their robots from the animatronic models at Disneyland, which is a family park. Crichton and Ira Levin obviously saw more mature possibilities in the technology.
*. And so we get some leering nods and winks as to what’s really going on here. Even the woman interviewed for the Delos promo spot at the beginning of the movie is obviously feeling hot and flustered just thinking about what life was like back in decadent Roman times. When they arrive, guests are told to “please feel free to indulge your every whim.” We might also think of the way sexual fantasies are peddled, to men and women, in Total Recall. Like it or not, libido drives a lot of what we think of as progress. Porn built the Internet, after all.
*. It’s no surprise that such a story has never gone out of style, turning up again as an HBO series in 2016. We’re used to the idea now of robots taking over. There’d been rumours of a remake earlier starring Arnold Schwarzenegger but it had never worked out. I’m guessing Arnold would have been the Gunslinger. Apparently he modeled his portrayal of the Terminator on Yul Brynner’s bad guy (John Carpenter was similarly influenced, basing Michael Myers in Halloween on the same relentless, stalking killer). Such casting would also make sense because Yul Brynner was the only big name in this movie, and got star billing. Richard Benjamin and James Brolin were both unknowns cast at the last minute.
*. I like the role reversal between Peter (Benjamin) and John (Brolin). Peter is the city slicker, a lawyer out of Chicago who has never picked up a gun. John exudes an almost smarmy confidence. But in the end this is Peter’s fantasy, even down to rescuing the princess out of the dungeon. He really has lived the vacation of his dreams. I like to think that’s something he understands at the end. This is Movieworld, after all. As Pauline Kael pointed out, these are “movie-fed fantasies” all the way through, with the Westworld environment being a pastiche of Western clichés only slightly tethered to historical accuracy.
*. As an aside, I wonder why the greeting voice refers to Western World. I feel like that should be an artefact left over from an earlier version of the script, which seems unlikely since I’m pretty sure Westworld was always going to be the name.

*. Another part of the abiding interest in the concept is the political and philosophical meaning. In the former case, the peasants (robots) are revolting! This is what the fall of empire looks like. Our pleasure palaces aren’t built to last.
*. In the latter case (the philosophical interpretation) we have a very early foreshadowing of the simulacrum. This is something I’ve written about before with regard to the Year of the Simulacrum (that would be 1998, and The Truman Show et al). As John says to Pete just before the snake attack, “this is as real as it gets.” And sure that’s ironic, but not as much as you might think. Just a few years later Brolin would be killing that snake and eating it after having escaped the simulacrum of Capricorn One. This is a theme that the movies just love, and that we love them for. Neal Gabler even wrote a book about it (Life: the Movie — How Entertainment Conquered Reality, also 1998).
*. Is it a subtle joke then that Benjamin wakes up along with all the rest of the park when they are activated? Note how his yawn echoes that of the guard at Medieval world. The point being that the guests are just as much automatons as the cyborgs, programmed for sex and violence and then needing to recover after a long night of fucking and fighting before getting up to do it all over again.
*. Well, yes, men did have moustaches like Benjamin’s back in the 1970s. I had a moustache too for a while. One of several regrets. Or too many to mention.
*. I think Crichton had it as a maxim to eschew dialogue at the end of a movie. When the shit hits the fan (the robots or dinosaurs running amok), then there’s no time for chat or exposition. In general, this is a pretty safe principle to adhere to. Crichton’s instincts were gold when it came to popular entertainment.

*. The greatest full-body burn in movie history? It’s certainly spectacular when the Gunslinger goes up like a human torch (not that even that is likely to slow him down much). The only competition I can think of is when the monster gets torched in The Thing from Another World, which I might give the prize to just because it was earlier and was performed with less safety protocols in place.
*. Brynner is cool and iconic, decked out in the same outfit he wore in The Magnificent Seven. And even behind those silver contact lenses I feel a sort of sympathy for his confusion at the end. After all, just like Frankenstein’s monster, he didn’t make himself. He’s akin to an early prototype of Roy Batty in Blade Runner, if less given to poetry. You sense a flicker of independent intelligence at work. Of course, in the HBO series this would be taken a lot further, but this movie was planting seeds.
*. I always marvel at the theatrical trailers from the 1970s where they show you all the highlights of the movie and reveal the entire plot. I wonder why they did that, and when it changed.
*. I think Kael got it right: “The idea is ingenious, and the film might have been marvelous: it isn’t, quite (it has the skimped TV-movie look of a too-tight budget), but it’s reasonably entertaining, and the leads (Richard Benjamin and Yul Brynner) are far superior to the actors in the usual sci-fi films.”
*. Bang-on, but it couldn’t really have been otherwise. This was Crichton’s debut directing a feature, after doing a made-for-TV movie the year before, and MGM really wanted it done on the cheap. So it’s no surprise the production is a bit of a let-down. But I think it succeeds as well as it could have, and the idea was so strong it went on to be a box office smash. Meanwhile, Crichton was so far ahead of his time he could go back to the the amusement park twenty years later with an even bigger hit, and forty years later the idea would still work. It’s good stuff.

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

*. I’ll begin with a confession. Every time I bring this movie up in discussion I have to check somewhere to see just how many Days of the Condor it is. And I don’t think that’s because it’s based on a novel by James Grady called Six Days of the Condor, the plot of which they condensed in going from page to screen. Three Days just doesn’t sound right. I don’t know why. It’s one of those things.
*. A fairly typical entry in the great run of ’70s conspiracy thrillers. And by typical I don’t mean to diminish it. These movies, at least the ones we remember, are all classics and still play well today. The Parallax View (1974) Marathon Man (1976), All the President’s Men (1976), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Capricorn One (1977), Coma (1978), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978).
*. Robert Redford plays Joe Turner, who has a sort of clerical job working at a CIA house. Basically he just reads books and provides executive summaries of them or highlights items of interest. Then one day assassins kill everyone in his office while he’s out getting lunch. What’s going on?
*. The answers to that question remains murky. It has something to do with oil. Or rather “this whole damn thing was about oil.” But I’m not sure how. Nor was I clear on how far up the chain of command the shadow agency went. But then, even the icy Joubert (Max von Sydow) doesn’t know, or concern himself much, with these matters. It’s enough that he gets paid. “I don’t interest myself in ‘why.’ I think more often in terms of ‘when.’ sometimes ‘where’; always ‘how much.'”
*. It’s a low-key film, as Pauline Kael recognized, attributing its being a thriller with few thrills mainly to the hand of Sydney Pollack: “The director, Sydney Pollack, doesn’t have a knack for action pulp; he gets some tension going in this expensive spy thriller (and it was a box-office success), but there’s no real fun in it. It may leave you feeling depressed or angry.”
*. It didn’t leave me feeling depressed or angry, and indeed I’m not even sure who or what Kael thought I was supposed to feel depressed or angry at. But it is a movie that focuses on little things, and these are things I think it does well.

*. Here’s just a few items. I like the way the scratching-and-thumping sound of the printer provides a kind of score throughout the scene where Turner discovers the bodies in the station office. I like the way Turner has to hold something he’s reading at a distance in order to make it out. This is a guy who reads “everything” for a living, after all, and he wears glasses. Of course his eyes are shot! I also like the way his stubble grows over the course of the three days. There aren’t a lot of movies that pay attention to things like that, or they’d probably try to excuse it by saying he might have had a shower at Kathy’s place. But that wouldn’t make sense so he just goes unshaved. And perhaps best of all, I like how Turner goes into the kitchen to turn off the stove when he’s hustling Mae out of her apartment to safety. When she said she was cooking dinner I was thinking the same thing!
*. It’s also nice that Turner is a bookworm and only manages to get by most of the time by luck and his wits. He’s a communications expert before the Internet though and he makes good use of that particular set of skills as well.
*. They get one big item wrong. That’s Faye Dunaway as Kathy. This is a clichéd character who has to be kidnapped and then fall in love with her kidnapper all in an evening. Call it accelerated Stockholm Syndrome. “Have I raped you?” he shouts at her, defensively. “The night is still young!” she retorts. But of course no rape is in the cards, only some mellow jazz sax on the soundtrack and artful cutaways to Kate’s photography as she clutches the bedsheets. Then some minor plot functions to perform before Turner can pack her off to the bus station. The ’70s cinema version of smash and dash.

*. Once again with Dunaway’s slightly stuttering delivery. Her acting really only has one gauge. But she was a star. How do you know? When you get separate credits for Ms. Dunaway’s hair, wardrobe, and make-up.
*. The supporting cast are great players. Von Sydow is an uncanny mix of warm and cold, both delivered in his avuncular manner. Cliff Robertson’s hair, if it is his hair, is almost too unbearable to look at. John Houseman is also on board as the old hand Wabash. When did Houseman stop being an actor and become a cameo? After The Paper Chase? Is he still better known for those Smith Barney commercials than anything else?
*. The mysteries of screenwriting. A lot of the time the big speeches we remember the most are only a couple of lines long. There’s more to them than just the words on the page. Because who can forget this: “It will happen this way. You may be walking. Maybe the first sunny day of the spring. And a car will slow beside you, and a door will open, and someone you know, maybe even trust, will get out of the car. And he will smile, a becoming smile. But he will leave open the door of the car and offer to give you a lift.” Now if you just read those lines in the script they wouldn’t jump out at you as anything special. Context and delivery are everything. A great screenplay sees all of this, something I’ve heard the best screenwriters point out in interviews. I think it was William Goldman who said that a screenwriter’s most essential attribute was their eye.
*. So it’s a lot like its paranoid peers of the time, which is good company to keep. A movie I’ve come back to quite a few times over the years, always seeing something more in it. A little something, but little somethings I enjoy.

Carry On at Your Convenience (1971)

*. Ugh. I’ve said before that the historical Carry On movies tend to be better than those with contemporary settings, and that’s certainly the case here. But by 1971 the series was feeling really played out anyway, and I don’t think they could have visited Cleopatra or gone up the Khyber and had a better movie. The previous film, Carry On Henry VIII, had been a period piece and it was lousy in its own way. Still, this is an especially terrible entry, mainly because of its tone-deaf topicality.
*. Right from the opening credits, which appear on a roll of toilet paper, we lower our expectations. The setting is a toilet manufacturer, so is this just going to be a movie full of bog jokes? Luckily, no. Or maybe they would have been better off if it had been.
*. The owner of the plant is named W. C. Boggs. Other family names include Plummer and Spanner. Despite all the forced larfs, things are not happy at the factory, with the union striking every week or so over some petty grievance. And here we have the place where the movie really goes off the rails.
*. Apparently the idea here was to do a Carry On version of I’m All Right Jack, a movie about similar union shenanigans that came out in 1959. In 1971 labour issues hadn’t reached the level they would during the so-called Winter of Discontent (1978-79) but they were heading in a bad direction. I remarked in my notes on Hoffa how that movie was a real throwback in its depiction of the early Teamster movement as a heroic struggle for workers’ rights. In England things had been going downhill for years before Thatcher took over.
*. As an aside, I’m not sure why this is. I’ve been a member of several unions, and while they certainly have their downside I think it’s better to be in one than not. But for whatever reason, and corporate propaganda would be near the top of the list, people and political parties turned against them in a big way. Today, outside of the public sector, they are vanishingly rare.
*. Carry On at Your Convenience very much picks a side in this struggle, and does so in a ham-handed and unfunny manner (or, in the measured understatement of Richard O’Callaghan on the DVD commentary, “they did seem a little bit biased”). Vic Spanner (Kenneth Cope), the union shop steward, is an arrogant (read: Bolshie) loser who just wants to go on strike so he can watch football. He’s lazy and carries around a little book of union rules that the boss likens to toilet paper and, when followed literally, shut the plant down. Meanwhile, everyone else just “wants to do an honest day’s work”! Sure enough, Spanner will get his comeuppance, losing his girlfriend to the son of the factory owner (O’Callaghan) and getting beaten up multiple times before finally being thrown over his mother’s lap and given a good spanking. Now carry on working! (the film’s original title). Yay!
*. O’Callaghan mentions on the commentary that the Carry On movies he did (I think he was only in two) “lasted longer than anything else I’ve made.” And it’s true that these films have had a cultish afterlife — a cult O’Callaghan attributes not to a specific film but to the series or genre. Still, by this point they were burnt out. I don’t think Carry On at Your Convenience has lasted.
*. This was the first of the Carry On movies to lose money on its theatrical run, only breaking even years later after selling television rights. Some of this was attributed to its being Conservative propaganda when the Carry On audience was predominantly working class and pro-union. Even more of it though can be put down to the fact that it just isn’t funny.
*. Near the beginning there’s a union meeting where Cope, Sid James, and Joan Sims engage in the usual ribald innuendo and everyone else roars with laughter at every line. It’s like a laugh track, which isn’t something they’d relied on a lot in earlier films. Indeed, throughout the movie many lines are delivered with cackles and laughter. Nothing says tired desperation in comedy so much as laughing at your own jokes, and in this movie they do it a lot.
*. So: poor material and bad politics. Crudity that hasn’t aged well (these were the day when slapping a bird on the ass would only get you a playful look and the admonition “Saucy!”). One oddly melancholy scene between James and Sims as they go back to their lives of monogamous suburban misery after an outing at Brighton. Even, or especially, for fans this is one you should miss.