Category Archives: 1970s

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.

The Stepford Wives (1975)

*. This should have been great. Ira Levin had come up with a nifty little story with the kind of iconic force as social and political commentary that would help make the term “Stepford wife” a part of the language. Even if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie you know what a Stepford wife is. Then William Goldman did a great job on the screenplay and the players were well cast and all perform well.
*. And yet this is still an unimpressive movie that feels like it left a lot on the table, with only a few hints at what might have been. Where did it go wrong? I can think of two main problems.
*. In the first place there’s the direction by Bryan Forbes. I made a note while watching it that it looked like a made-for-TV movie from back in the day when made-for-TV movies had a distinctive look. And I don’t mean a good look either. I mean cheap and uninteresting. Imagine my surprise on finding out, per his obit in The Guardian, that Forbes had been “one of the most important figures in the British film industry.” I think this is because he wore a number of different hats. I don’t think they meant he was all that great a creative force, especially as this is his best known turn as director. David Thomson: “His films tend to run together, without dominant themes or personal style.” None here, anyway.
*. Forbes thought it odd that they’d ask a British director to handle such “an American subject,” but guessed that it was thought he’d give it a new perspective. Producer Edgar Scherik wanted Brian De Palma originally, and that would have been special but Goldman nixed the idea (I don’t know why). So as a result they got Forbes, who rewrote the script, much to Goldman’s displeasure.
*. The other reason it went wrong has to do with the tricky matter of tone. How do you play such material? Just what sort of approach did they want to take? Was it a horror film? The slow build of suspense and the finale in the gloomy haunted house of the Men’s Association (with a thunderstorm lighting up the windows) would suggest this reading. A social satire? Yes, obviously. Comedy? There are some very funny scenes — I particularly like the doomed first meeting of the women’s group — but there’s nothing like the turn to laughs that the 2004 movie would take. Science fiction? That part is downplayed here, as in the novel, but Frankenstein is always playing in the background.
*. One divergence in tone that set Goldman against Forbes had to do with the sexuality of the wives. Goldman thought, I think reasonably, that they should be more overtly sexy, appearing like Playboy bunnies. Forbes went for a more up-scale domestic look with those long sundresses, hats, and gloves. I can see where both are coming from and just think they needed to give the sexy its due. There is some overheard sex talk, and reference to bigger, firmer boobs, but I think seeing the new Charmaine (Tina Louise) in her rubber outfit was necessary to underline the fact that these upgraded versions didn’t just keep the house clean but also performed as sexbots. Let’s face it, if these wealthy men just wanted cleaner homes they could hire a maid.
*. No, these are horny guys. Making me all the more curious as to what it is they do at the Men’s Association every night. Eat nachos and watch blue movies? And how many members of the Association are there to require a mansion that size to meet in?
*. I mentioned that Goldman did a great job adapting Levin’s book. The addition of the dog works really well. The short-circuiting of Bobbie (Paula Prentiss) is neat. I like the way we feel a bit more of Walter’s corruption, nicely realized by a hang-dog Peter Masterson. The women’s meeting is hilarious. But Forbes just kills whatever potential energy or drama the script gives him. I was particularly puzzled at why they changed it so that we never see Joanna (Katharine Ross) twigging to what’s going on. That’s always a great moment in any movie, when you see a character suddenly becoming aware of something. It’s there clearly in the novel when Joanna realizes the significance of Coba having worked at Disney, where he helped create their robots. In the movie the trigger line is kept, but we never see the penny dropping.
*. Another example is the ending, when Joanna confronts her eyeless but enhanced replacement. I can’t help thinking that this should have been one of the great reveals in film history, up there with Michel rising from the tub at the end of Les Diaboliques. And to be sure it is at least memorable, but it’s not at all as shocking and effective as it should be. It just plays flat.
*. Perhaps the most damning thing to say about all of this is how badly it’s dated. Maybe it’s all the women walking around without bras. Maybe it’s the car of choice for Stepford families: a station wagon with fake wood paneling. But the thing is, the subjects this movie addresses haven’t gone away. If anything the men here with their robot lovers are very much the precursors to the widows of Internet porn. And gender politics is as hot button a topic as ever. But this movie seems rooted in a particular time and it’s not our own. We still talk about Stepford wives, but who are they? The “real” wives of reality TV?

The Food of the Gods (1976)

*. You’re welcome to ask “How did it come to this?”
*. H. G. Wells’ novel The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth had been published in 1904, and while not considered one of his major works it’s nevertheless an entertaining, thoughtful, and provocative book that addresses a number of big social questions in a manner by turns comic and mystical. Earlier film adaptations of Wells had been groundbreaking classics, especially in terms of their effects: Island of Lost Souls (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), Things to Come (1936), The War of the Worlds (1953). So why was The Food of the Gods fated to become a punchline in the annals of cinematic crap and winner of a Golden Turkey Award for Worst Rodent Movie?
*. Ida Lupino is a really interesting figure in the history of Hollywood. Bored with acting, she took up directing in the 1950s (she may have got her start filling in for Nicholas Ray in On Dangerous Ground when he was ill). She’s credited as being the first woman to direct a film noir (The Hitch-Hiker in 1953) and would go on to direct more than 100 television productions. She had her own independent production company — The Filmakers [sic] Inc. — and wrote and produced social-interest films. And here’s where it ended up (this would be her penultimate film role). Being eaten by giant grubs and finally killed by a giant rat that breaks into her kitchen. A mercy given the kind of lines the script had saddled her with.
*. Ralph Meeker wasn’t as big a star, but after Kiss Me Deadly he was at least a name. He’d be getting near the end of the line here too. As for the leading man, I felt sure I’d seen him before but couldn’t place him. The name — Marjoe Gortner — gave it away though. That’s the child evangelist who was the subject of the Academy Award-winning 1972 documentary Marjoe. His first name is a combination of Mary and Joseph. I liked Marjoe (the movie) and always wondered what he’d gone on to do. Well, it came to this.
*. This was actually producer, writer, director Bert I. Gordon’s second kick at the Wells canon, and indeed at The Food of the Gods. He’d also produced (and written, and directed) Village of the Giants, which was just as loosely based on the same story. You’d think that after doing this kind of movie for so long — The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), Attack of the Puppet People (1958), and Earth vs. the Spider (1958) are among his other credits — he would have maybe gotten better with practice. But . . . it came to this.
*. So to wrap-up, for Wells, Lupino, Meeker, Gortner, and Gordon, it had indeed come to this. What exactly is this? Of course a terrible movie, but, I’m happy to report, one that’s so bad it’s good.

*. The plot has Gortner, a pro football player, going to an island to get in some hunting with a couple of his pals and running into various creatures who have had a freakish growth spurt triggered by some goo that’s come bubbling out of the ground on homesteader Lupino’s farm.
*. Nothing about it adds up. It is, for example, usually considered to be an example of the then-popular genre of eco-horror. Eco-horror was big in the 1970s, but today, when our environmental problems have only compounded, you don’t hear so much about it (Barry Levinson’s The Bay being one exception). So things begin with Gortner’s voiceover: “My father used to say, ‘Morgan, one of these days the Earth will get even with man for messing her up with his garbage. Just let man continue to pollute the Earth the way he is and nature will rebel. It’s gonna be one hell of a rebellion.'”
*. With the filming taking place on B.C.’s picturesque Bowen Island there was plenty of room to make such an argument, but the strange thing here is that the Food appears to be natural, literally a gift from God, as Lupino’s character reckons it. In the novel it is produced in a lab. So what does any of this have to do with nature rebelling against man’s pollution?
*. Leaving the environmental message aside, The Food of the Gods is clearly an effects picture. It’s about supersized critters, after all. And here is where it really earns its “so bad it’s good stripes.” Gordon throws everything at us, from animation to mechanical dummies, to split screen effects, to creatures crawling over model homes and toy vehicles. Almost all of it is hilariously bad. The wasps look like scribbles on the film. The rats look like lab mice or refugees from Tales from the Riverbank. And the chickens! Is there any way giant chickens can be made to look scary? I couldn’t help but think of Woody Allen seeing the giant chicken in Sleeper and saying to himself “That’s a big chicken.” It’s funny because it’s true!
*. The chicken scene is also remarkable because after Gortner fights off the giant chicken (it is bigger than he is!) and kills it, he leaves the island and seems content not to bother thinking about it much anymore. Only his friend was also stung to death by giant wasps on the island too. So maybe he should go back and check things out. I mean, a six-foot chicken. That was weird, no?
*. The effects culminate in the final attack of the rats on Lupino’s farmhouse, where the survivors have barricaded themselves. Things look bleak until Gortner gets the bright idea to blow up a dam (with the gunpowder from a handful of shotgun shells!) and flood everything.
*. A dam? On an island? By that point, who cares? We’ve already had the eligible young lady bacteriologist tell the football-player stud she has just met that “This may sound crazy to you, but I want you to make love to me.” In a house surrounded by giant, man-eating rats? Why the heck not?
*. As with most so-bad-they’re-good movies this one can drag any time it slows down, but luckily that’s not very often. I think if you saw this as a kid it’s the kind of thing that would stay with you, but if you’re watching it today it’s only for its trash value. Now there’s a pollution rebellion to sit up and take notice of!

Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972)

*. I think I’ve said enough over the years about movies that are so bad they’re good but which are really just bad, and also about cult movies underserving of that status. I won’t repeat any of that here. Suffice it to say that Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things is now regarded by many as a cult movie, and even a cult classic, and it isn’t any good at all.
*. The basic idea looks back to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, with a small group of people in an isolated house surrounded by zombies. Star and co-writer Alan Ormsby later joked how they “basically ripped it [Night of the Living Dead] off.” But it’s a movie that also looks forward to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, as it’s a cabin-in-the-woods horror flick and the zombies are awakened by a reading from some sort of Necronomicon. A grimoire, to give it its correct name, which is pronounced “grimorey” here.
*. The story is bizarre to the point where it really makes you wonder. The characters are members of an acting troupe who have come to an island off the coast of Florida so that the group’s tyrannical director (Ormsby) can do his raising-the-dead shtick. Why a group of actors? I don’t know. And why is Ormsby such a nut? Again, it’s not clear. Apparently the rest of the troupe are so desperate for work (well, they are actors) that they’re willing to put up with some seriously psychopathic behaviour, including digging up corpses so that Ormsby can drag them around and play with them.

*. This part of the story, and it takes us up to the one-hour mark in an 87-minute movie, is almost unendurable. I’m not sure how much of it was even meant to be taken seriously. The cast are just terrible, and the dialogue and direction the pits. The only thing that holds one’s attention are the fashion statements being made by the troupe, highlighted by Ormsby’s thrilling striped pants. I suppose nothing dates like fashion, and we all know how awful the ’70s were, but still it’s remarkable watching a movie like this and thinking that these people honestly thought they looked good in these clothes. They’re all different shades of dreadful.

*. I’m pretty sure that people who say they do like this movie are only talking about the last twenty minutes. But even this part isn’t great. Basically there are only a couple of good shots. A hand coming out of the ground (look, I didn’t say they were original), and a pan across the graveyard as the zombies assemble. Aside from that . . .
*. Well, aside from that I can say that the zombie make-up (which Ormsby did) is actually pretty darn good. Alas, there’s very little gore. I guess they just hadn’t figured out how to do that yet. Suspense and scary stuff is thin on the ground. You know the drill, and in 1972 you probably knew it just as well. They try to board up the windows and doors. Hands come crashing through. Then there’s a big breakthrough and it’s all over, with Ormsby being fittingly taken down by his pet zombie Orville. That’s something Romero introduced in Night of the Living Dead and would return to many times. People: the dead are not your friends.

*. One of the film’s biggest claims to fame today is that it was one of director Bob Clark’s first movies. He’d go on to have a career filled with odd, and often very successful, titles. Black Christmas. Murder by Decree. Porky’s. A Christmas Story. I think he had real talent. But even in hindsight I can’t see anything here that would make me think he was going to go on to anything of any value. His next movie would be another zombie flick written by Ormsby, Dead of Night (a.k.a. Deathdream), and it would show a marked improvement.
*. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that Ormsby would go on to write and co-direct Deranged, an Ed Gein-inspired exploitation horror flick that is actually quite good, allowing for its obvious budget limitations.
*. All of this, though, is by the way. This is one of those movies that’s fun to read about, but you don’t want to actually sit through it. If you’re a big fan of the zombie genre I’d say you should at least be aware of it, but for anyone else it’s only going to look like a piece of crap. Because that’s what it is.

Doomwatch (1972)

*. As a general rule, British TV has never been very popular in North America. There are still some people who enjoy classic Britcoms and can endure Coronation Street, but they are dying out. Even Doctor Who is a niche taste over here.
*. Doomwatch was a program that ran on the BBC from 1970 to 1972 about a government agency set up to deal with the unanticipated consequences of scientific research. Apparently it was quite popular but I’ve never seen it, and given the BBC’s policy of wiping master tapes after transmission I’m not sure all the episodes even survive. I think it was a bit like the X-Files of its day, and like that show it led to a big-screen spin-off.
*. Anyway, the story here has it that a chemical company dumped a bunch of experimental growth hormone with Food of the Gods properties off the shore of a remote island. The barrels sprang leaks and contaminated the fish, which, when eaten by the local fishermen, led them to develop a form of acromegaly and drove them mad. A doctor from the Doomwatch patrol (Ian Bannen, not a regular on the show) is sent to the island to investigate an unrelated oil spill and slowly twigs to what’s going on.
*. That’s all there is. About as much plot as you’d get in an hour television show. As a timely ecohorror thriller it’s not very scary, especially when you figure out that the “monsters” are only to be pitied. Nor is there anything terribly interesting going on. The only highlights are the locations, with the picturesque town of Polkerris in Cornwall standing in for the island.
*. The lowlights are another matter. I’d list the wardrobe here, though there may be some out there who will groove to Dr. Quist’s odd belted sweater-jacket or Dr. Shaw’s mauve turtleneck. More distressing is the appearance of George Sanders as the Admiral. Doomwatch was one of his last films, with only Endless Night and Psychomania to come, which lets you know that he had a lot to be depressed about on a professional level. On first seeing him my mouth fell open and I had to say to myself “This man is not well.” He wasn’t. He was suffering from dementia as well as depression, had perhaps experienced a stroke, and apparently had very basic mobility issues. His appearance is just sad.
*. So I’d pass on this one. The next year there’d be a much better British horror movie about an authority figure visiting a strange island where the locals guard a deadly secret. But this would be the end of the line for Doomwatch.