24 Hour Party People (2002)

When it’s on: Saturday, 11 April (12.25 am, Sunday)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

I’ve watched a few films over the years but I have never been in one. The closest I got was in the early 2000s. I was working at a university in Manchester and one day a film crew arrived holding auditions for extras in a production that would be shot locally. Along with a colleague, I decided to go along and found the film required people to be revellers in a mocked up Hacienda, the legendary Manchester nightclub. Despite my claim that I’d been to the real life Hacienda I didn’t hear from them again, a result I think of pushing 30 at the time, not to mention the fact I can’t really dance. At least I got to see the film, a retelling of the musical life of one Anthony H Wilson that is 24 Hour Party People.

The title comes from one of the earliest hits by the Happy Mondays and is also the name of Wilson’s biographical account of the period, from which the film is a loose adaptation. It helps that I love much of the music churned out by Factory Records, Wilson’s label. Factory’s willingness to give its artists free expression was legendary, leading to some real messes that were nevertheless released, along with the sublime Joy Division/New Order, the label’s one real spark of sublimity. The Mondays were something else entirely. Shambolic and loose fitting, they were the unlikeliest band imaginable, virtually incapable of avoiding trouble and occasionally putting out records that were like nothing I’d ever heard. I am playing one of their albums whilst typing these words and can’t really decide why I like it as much as I do.

In 24 Hour Party People, Wilson is played by Steve Coogan. He looks nothing like the Granada TV presenter cum would-be mogul, but his impersonation is flawless, getting across Wilson’s blend of pretentiousness and musical rapture perfectly, portraying him as a more solidly Mancunian Alan Partridge. Wilson breaks the fourth wall all the time, stepping away from the action to narrate his own story direct to the audience, at one stage advising us we’re entering the story’s second act when he doesn’t think we can grasp it for ourselves. As a real life figure, I never engaged with Wilson all that much, feeling he was essentially up himself, and I still think that’s true, but what the film really suggests is a dreamer, turning up to the Sex Pistols gig at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1976, attended by forty people, and having an epiphany, seeing the band’s attitude as the future of rock music. That the Sex Pistols didn’t become as big as they might have isn’t the point, he argues; it’s all in the posturing, the anger, the willingness to just get on stage and have a go, a complete antidote to the saccharine chart hits of the time. It’s a philosophy he develops, first by booking bands for a night at the Russell Club in Moss Side and later creating his own label to produce their records. His aim is to showcase Manchester bands, both good and bad, and success or failure isn’t what matters so much as enjoying the ride and sharing the love.

Soon enough, he’s signed Joy Division, or at least written a contract in his own blood to seal the deal. It turns out to be the perfect group for Factory, capable of producing music that reflects the despair and desperation of existence allied with strange, minimal soundscapes, all teased out by the production values of Martin Hannett. As played by Andy Serkis, Hannett is an experimental producer who’ll do things like walk up a hill and attempt to record silence. Whilst Wilson describes him as a genius, he’s hard work, demanding and meticulous in his effort to get the sound just right. Sean Harris, for me one of the best screen actors of his generation, portrays the band’s singer, Ian Curtis, as a tortured soul destined for suicide, but also capable of having fun. I prefer his take on Curtis to the character played by Sam Riley in Control, which honed in on in his personal life more to try and depict his misery as brought on by illness, an extra marital affair and struggling to cope with being a father. The other band members include John Simm and Ralf Little and both, in their limited screen time, get their characters across flawlessly.

Following Curtis’s death, the action moves to the early eighties when Wilson opened the Hacienda, which from the start is depicted as an eternal drain on Factory’s resources, the last word in artistic hubris. Wilson doesn’t care because the club looks good and mirrors his vision as the place the city deserves, but even when it becomes successful it loses money because its clients take Ecstasy rather than visit the bar. By the end, the dealers have taken over and guns talk loudest outside and ultimately inside, which adds levels of unwanted controversy.

In the meantime, Factory takes on the Happy Mondays, led by Shaun Ryder (Danny Cunningham), a ramshackle collective that Wilson insists is creative gold. He sees Ryder as the new W.B. Yeats, whilst the singer subsists on endless narcotics and is clearly out of control. As the label struggles on towards its own doom, the Mondays play at being a band, fail to record any meaningful music and play a significant role in ruining their own paymasters. All this is watched on with something approaching horror by Wilson’s ‘business’ partners, Alan Erasmus (Lennie James) and Rob Gretton (Paddy Considine), the latter a particular delight as his soft spoken veneer gradually gives way to violence when it all collapses around him. Factory’s philosophy is both undermined and defined by the final piece in the jigsaw, designer Peter Saville (Enzo Cilenti), who produces great artwork that Wilson loves, but always too late or at insane cost levels. His signature moment comes when he designs a record sleeve for New Order’s 12″ single Blue Monday, which has holes cut into the sleeve to represent a floppy disc. It’s so expensive to produce that the only saving grace is Wilson’s argument that no one will buy it; Blue Monday goes on to become the bestselling 12″ of all time.

That’s one of the many true, though from a business perspective almost unbelievable, stories that are replayed in the film. But there’s also fantasy, as in the scene where Wilson’s wife, Lindsey (Shirley Henderson) screws Howard Devoto (Martin Hancock) in revenge for his own indiscretions. As the episode ends with Wilson getting his car keys from the very toilet cubicle in which they’re shagging, the camera cuts to the real Devoto, who claims he has no recollection of this incident ever taking place. Wilson justifies the story by quoting John Ford, arguing when legend becomes fact, print the legend.

24 Hour Party People features a string of guest appearances from British, mainly northern, actors, including Peter Kaye, John Thompson, Simon Pegg and Christopher Eccleston, the latter shining very briefly as a philosophy spouting street beggar. It’s directed by Michael Winterbottom, who often filmed using a handheld camera, shifting in and out of focus to reflect the near chaos taking place on the screen. It only settles down when it cuts to the vignettes of Wilson working for Granada, usually on location and covering some banal event, the sort of ‘And finally’ news broadcast that finds him discussing working the Rochdale Ship Canal with its oldest operator, a man who can barely speak. Wilson can barely contain his boredom during these moments, almost unable to juxtapose internally between the day job and his efforts to shape Manchester as an artistically vibrant city that deserves to be on the map. It’s all headed for failure, of course it is, but what failure. It’s a great film.

24 Hour Party People: ****

PS. A bit of quiet time for the site now as I’m away for a week, in fact by the time this piece is published I’ll be on my way home. Normal service to be resumed shortly.

What a Carve Up! (1961)

When it’s on: Sunday, 5 April (6.00 am)
Channel: Movies4Men
IMDb Link

The best novel I’ve ever read is What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe. It’s a tale about the horrible people who benefited most from Thatcher’s Britain, all condensed into one deliciously odious family, and chronicled by the man who’s writing a book about them. The story parallels, to an extent, a film the writer remembers from his childhood, the broad British comedy What a Carve Up! (or No Place Like Homicide! as it was oddly titled in the USA, though it’s nice to see the exclamation mark was retained) and it’s for that reason I tracked down the DVD some years ago and have watched it numerous times since.

The film has none of the book’s depth and meaning and is, as the novel’s narrator understands, nothing more than a light farce. The fact that the events in the book start to echo those in the film just adds to the dramatic irony, and of course have just as much of a mixed fortune at the end. But just because 1961’s What a Carve Up! is an easy sub-ninety minutes of pseudo-Carry On comedy doesn’t make it bad. It turns out to be very good fun, albeit containing absolutely no substance and played entirely for laughs.

It started life as a crime novel by 1928 British pulp fiction writer, Frank King, called The Ghoul, which was filmed five years later in a Boris Karloff feature. Made as a horror feature, when it came to be redone in 1961 it was converted into a broad comedy starring Sidney James and Kenneth Connor, with even less of the source material’s contents retained.

Connor is Ernie Broughton, a proof reader of mystery paperbacks. He finds out from a mysterious solicitor, Everett Sloane (Donald Pleasence), that his rich uncle has died and he’s to go to Yorkshire in order to be present for the reading of the will, so off he travels with his friend Syd (James) in tow. When he arrives, he finds the entire family assembled, and a grotesque, greedy bunch they are. Dennis Price plays his hard drinking cousin, Guy, and Michael Gwynn the demented Malcolm. Esma Cannon is Aunt Emily, whose mind is stuck in 1914. There’s also Shirley Eaton, who takes on the role of Uncle Gabriel’s former nurse, Linda. Hearing the will reading, they learn that they’ve been left precisely nothing, with the exception of Linda who has bequeathed some medical supplies. And then one of them is found dead.

Ernie is warned by the house butler (Michael Gough) that it’s just the beginning, and sure enough further family members are dispatched over the course of a night during which they’re all trapped in the house during a typically stormy night, all methods of communication down and the village unreachable due to all the nearby bogs. Ernie is suspected, then he isn’t. The house is discovered to be riddled with secret passages. Doubts emerge over whether Gabriel is dead at all, and if he isn’t then one of the characters is working with him to perform the murders.

The actors all play up to the stereotypes they developed over the course of their careers. No one did nervousness for comic effect like Kenneth Connor and he brings all his jumpy, gibbering shtick to the film as the anxious Ernie, getting steadily more frantic throughout. As his more hard-headed friend, James gets the best gags and reins in the lewdness that would define him more in later years. Price plays the posh gentleman that he did so well, and then there’s Shirley Eaton, undeniably lovely as Ernie’s unrequited love interest and in the picture for no better reason than to provide one (an uncredited Adam Faith pops up right at the end as her boyfriend). The film’s ominous overtones are provided by Donald Pleasence, of course, leaving me to wonder if there was ever a time when he didn’t come across in his roles as creepy, middle aged and softly spoken. He’s introduced as he walks up the stairs to Ernie and Syd’s flat, moving very slowly, deliberately and in complete silence, staring straight at the camera, which sets the uneasy tone for his character instantly.

What a Carve Up! is an easy film to enjoy, briskly weaving its story and doing a great job of setting up the house as a place of suspense and mystery, filled with dark recesses and bookshelves that can be opened to reveal a passage to surprise locations. The sinister air it generates is subservient always to the laughs, blowing apart the atmosphere in favour of pratfalls and funny likes, which usually hit the mark.

What a Carve Up!: ***

Ben-Hur (1959)

When it’s on: Saturday, 4 April (3.05 pm)
Channel: 5USA
IMDb Link

I did have something different in mind to cover today – Miyazaki’s gorgeous ode to childhood, My Neighbour Totoro, in case you’re wondering – but hey, it’s Easter, and considering this is a site often driven by nostalgia I wanted to look instead at a picture I consider to be quintessential viewing for the season.

Ben-Hur isn’t the only Easter movie, obviously; neither can it claim to be the only Biblical Epic with some link to the season. Staying with the nostalgic note, it takes me back to childhood Easters, when the school break and especially the four-day Bank Holiday weekend was a time for classical epic cinema to dominate the schedules. King of Kings. The Robe. The Greatest Story Ever Told. And then there was the Zefferilli mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth, starring Robert Powell as the eponymous son of God heading inexorably towards Calvary. I used to gorge on this stuff, often I confess devoured with Easter Eggs. These films were invariably long-haul affairs and opened my eyes to a stylised ancient world with all those fabulous sets, costumes and armies of extras. We might have had a mini-revival of epicry with the likes of Gladiator and Troy in more recent years, but the difference back then was in knowing that those colossal Roman scenes were all created to look full scale; the people in contemporary costumes were really there.

Ben-Hur was the biggest of them all. It’s very, very long, leaving the viewer with little change from four hours. It was a serious award winner, holding the record for number of Oscars claimed for many years, until Titanic and The Return of the King came along, and even then only won enough to share the record, nor do I think it’s a coincidence that all three films are fine examples of, in their own way, epic cinema. Spectacle counts, after all. It’s in part what the industry is based on, the opportunity to show audiences things they would never get to see otherwise, and where Ben-Hur is concerned the timing of its release really mattered. Put yourself in the place of a 1959 working class viewer, somewhere colourless, like in northern England perhaps, and then imagine the feast for your eyes that this movie would have been. These films were made to persuade the public to switch off their little black and white television sets and go back to the cinema, watch something made in dazzling Technicolor, on a wide canvas, the stereo sound blasting out, and into which millions of dollars had clearly been plunged. It must have been a deliriously rich experience, the sort of thing we so rarely get these days as the studios basically out-CGI each other and audiences know intrinsically that everything they are watching is produced artificially.

I’ve never read General Lew Wallace’s nineteenth century novel, on which this – and a number of earlier versions of the story – is based, but it was a major bestseller in its day, indeed at one point claimed to be second only to the Bible in terms of units shifted. I think, however, that it sold so well because it’s a glorious concoction of a very personal story told against the biggest backdrop possible. Much of it is a tale of revenge, and the man seeking vengeance has about as good a reason for doing so as any. It’s a yarn many of us can empathise with, though the pay-off for our hero comes when his actions happen to cross his path with that of Jesus and he learns, before the end, from the influence of Christ to quell his hateful thirst and focus on forgiveness, gaining some peace of heart at last. However faithful you happen to be, it’s a good story, simple morality clashing with complicated individuals and their entangled, damaged lives.

In the film, Judah Ben-Hur is played by Charlton Heston, at the height of his fame and working once again with director William Wyler after their collaboration on The Big Country. Heston’s quality as a leading man in the biggest productions had already been evidenced in De Mille’s The Ten Commandments. With sufficient gravitas and presence, he was one of the few actors who could stand tall with plagues and parting seas taking place around him, and he was the perfect choice to take on Ben-Hur. His character is a rich Jewish nobleman in a country that has been conquered and is now ruled by Rome. His childhood friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd), is a Roman Tribune who has risen through the ranks to become the regional army commander. Messala knows from his own experiences that Judea will not be an easy place to control given the troublesome population, and this – mixed in with his own ambition – makes him consider shows of cruelty to be the most effective way of guaranteeing order. However, when he asks Judah to help by identifying the chief troublemakers, his friend sees it as a betrayal of his countrymen and has to refuse, which sets the pair up as mutual enemies. Sure enough, during an armed procession through the streets of Jerusalem, Judah’s family watching from their rooftop terrace, his sister accidentally causes a loose tile to fall to the ground, nearly killing the governor, and Messala uses the incident as a pretext to ruin the family. His mother and sister are imprisoned and Judah himself is sold as a galley slave. His life, they believe, is over.

What Messala doesn’t figure on is Judah’s survival instinct, belying the mortality rate of the average slave and driven by thoughts of revenge into continuing. Rowing in a warship. For four long years. A naval battle takes place and the ship for which he rows is hit, but he manages to get free and save a Consul, the patrician Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) who’s fallen into the sea. Despite the loss of his own boat, Arrius, who was commanding the battle, wants to kill himself as a consequence of what he perceives to be his failure and is only prevented from doing so by Judah, but later finds he’s won a major victory and takes the slave with him for his victory parade, both in thanks for saving his life and in respect for his spirit. Judah’s fortunes have transformed once again. He’s adopted by Arrius and his prestige as a young Roman nobleman begins to rise. But his lust for vengeance remains, and knowing of Messala’s participation in the famous Jerusalem chariot races he plans to confront his old nemesis in the arena. Even a strange experience he had when he was at his lowest ebb can’t quench it. During his initial enslavement, Judah was marched across the desert in chains along with the other captives; in Nazareth he finally collapses through sheer exhaustion, thirst and mainly despair, when a young carpenter offers him water. He’ll meet the man again and gain an important life message from those meetings.

Judah’s final redemption doesn’t happen until very late in Ben-Hur. Until then, he’s a cauldron of hate and Heston plays the part superbly, his face a rictus of revenge, indeed I can’t recall seeing acting that brings out so well the urge to strike back. It’s a performance that adds real bite to the story, one in which Jesus has a small but critical part to play, and for the most part focuses on human rage. Heston, speaking through gritted teeth and narrowed eyes, commands every scene he’s in, though Boyd does well as the villain. There’s an argument for suggesting a hidden complexity to his role, and I’m not referring to the legend that he was told to play Messala as having a past sexual relationship with Judah in order to add nuance to their scenes together. Clearly the character sees himself as having a job to do in Judea, and that his rough justice against Ben-Hur isn’t so much motivated by paying him back for his lack of support but more the simple act of showing the people what happens to those with anti-Roman sentiment. That suggests Messala is a good old-fashioned megalomaniac, though there’s also sufficient levels of pent up anger in his acting to give the impression of a strong personal dimension in the mix also. Essentially, the fractured relationship between the pair boils enough to add levels of tension to the fateful chariot race, turning it into the ultimate personal battle.

There are some cinema scenes that stay with you forever, whether they’re small, personal moments loaded with significance or those on the largest scale possible. The chariot race in Ben-Hur is one of those, certainly in the latter bracket, and I would go so far as to say it’s one of the greatest scenes I am ever likely to see. The entire film has been building up to it, and when it happens it doesn’t disappoint, not just for the suspense but the massive spectacle it produces. There’s that enormous arena, with its racetrack wrapping around two massive statues. The cheering crowds high up in the stands above. The ornamental fish, one of which is dipped with each lap. The chariots with their teams of four horses; obviously Messala’s are black, Judah’s white Arabic. The real sense of danger as the chariots navigate around the hairpin bends, often crashing into one another. The way that Messala’s chariot wheels, in one final sign of his evil nature, are armed with spikes for cutting into anyone who gets too close to his carriage. The rather excellent stunt work, especially when Judah’s chariot has to somehow jump over another that has collapsed directly in his path. The absence of Rosza’s score and instead letting the noise of the hurtling chariots and the spectators dominate the soundtrack. So many elements just to produce this one bravura scene; it’s worth the admission price alone and little wonder, considering it’s a ten minute sequence within a far larger film, that it’s the one dominating all the art work, posters, trailers and peoples’ memories of Ben-Hur.

The final straw for Judah has comes when he discovers that his mother and sister, imprisoned years earlier by Messala, have contracted leprosy, which effectively means their death sentence. This is devastating for the hero, even after he’s had his revenge, leading him to question everything he’s worked towards and if anything builds his levels of internal anger. Yet it’s no accident that the film has dovetailed his story very carefully with that of Jesus. Opening with a beautifully filmed Nativity scene, Ben-Hur shows how the young Christ’s reputation as a prophet has grown. When Messala arrives in Judea, the departing commander, played by André Morell, tells him that he finds Jesus’s teachings to be surprisingly profound, and there’s more as Judah finds himself coming increasingly into the world of those who have listened to his sermons. As the archetypal angry young man, Judah sees nothing for him in the teachings of peace and forgiveness, but the film’s culmination at the crucifixion turns into the final piece in his own redemptive arc.

I’m a confirmed atheist, so a yarn that relies on the power of Christ to deliver hope into someone’s shattered life could be something for an old cynic like me to sneer at. But you know what, I find it to be a rather lovely message. Whether you believe in any of this or not, there’s no denying the power of a man who’s had little to feel happy and at peace about suddenly having an epiphany thanks solely to someone else’s message and self-sacrifice, which at heart is the story of Ben-Hur. The film takes an interesting stylistic choice in never showing Jesus’s face, only filming him from behind or at a distance, and depending on the reactions of other characters towards him in marking him out as someone special. This is never better revealed than in his meeting with a Roman centurion, who is utterly unable to do anything but just stare at him, all his beliefs and conviction temporarily confounded.

If there’s a downside to the Ben-Hur, it’s in that formidable running time. Epic cinema rarely produced the briskest narratives; everything was in the scope, the sense of ‘we paid a lot of money for these sets so we’re going to linger on them for a bit longer, damn it!’ at the expense of pace. Those used to the snappily edited ethic of twenty first century film making are likely to find it rather grandiose and stately. And not all of it works. I find many of the film’s more romantic interludes, the scenes between Heston and Haya Harareet’s Esther to distract from the main story, to an extent shoehorned in to a tale of vengeance. There’s nothing especially wrong with the performances of either actor during these moments, just the level of distraction from the main narrative, the comparative lack of interest that these bits generate.

But the good far outweighs the bad, and Ben-Hur remains the jewel in Wyler’s crown. A meticulous director with an attention for detail and propensity for multiple takes that defined his directorial style, he serves up almost the ultimate visual treat here, a drama that just seems to grow and grow in stature until it culminates in the legendary chariot race, filmed on the largest scale and providing a real pay-off for viewers who have sat through more than two hours of build-up to it in the best way possible. It’s all the more impressive because, amidst the grand scale, it never loses sight of the personal drama at its heart, the magnificent hatred between Judah and Messala. Talking of the latter, whilst the film won all its Academy Awards, the oversight in the case of Boyd stands as one of those historically unfair snubs. The Best Supporting Actor award instead went to Hugh Griffith, who plays a kindly Sheikh, whilst Boyd wasn’t even nominated. Griffith is fine, absolutely fine, but the picture belongs to Heston and Boyd and it’s those two characters that you remember afterwards.

There’s a sparkling recent and restored version of Ben-Hur that’s available to buy, which even has its own glossy website (it’s worth a visit, not just for the way it showcases the chariot scenes but for the gimmick of showing us some of Heston’s on-set diary entries). I still own the 2006 four-disc release, with which I have no complaints. The main feature is spread over two discs, looking as glorious and fresh as I could wish for really. Disc three contains the 1925 film, which was pretty much the, er, Ben-Hur of its day. Made every bit as lavishly as the film discussed here, there’s a clear link between the chariot races in both films, and it matters also that Wyler worked on that production as an Assistant Director and staffed one of the 42 cameras operating on chariot set. The final disc carries some great ‘Making Of’ extras, including a piece that talks about the influence of Ben-Hur over the years, interviewing directors who have since gone on to make epics of their own and cite this as a significant reference point. I think it also comes with a warning. The pod race scene in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace might be the most glaring example of a sequence inspired by Ben-Hur, but it also shows much of what’s wrong, I believe, with modern cinema, the possibilities opened up by CGI that turned the sequence into something from a video game and removing any degree of credibility and identification. Who can possibly ‘feel’ anything for a film where the things that happen couldn’t possibility be endured by a human being?

Ben-Hur: ****

High Noon (1952)

When it’s on: Thursday, 2 April (11.30 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

I’ve said before on these pages that I came pretty late to the Westerns party. In an effort to catch up, I scoured the ‘top’ lists and sought out the greatest offerings from the genre, a pretty tall order because everyone has their own individual favourites, but as far as I’m concerned anyone who puts the effort into writing about films they’ve especially enjoyed deserve to have them seen by others and that’s just what I’ve tried to do. From list to list, certain titles invariably come out on top again and again, and High Noon is one of them. This 1952 offering, directed by Fred Zinneman and starring Gary Cooper, was one of the big winners at the Academy Awards, inexplicably losing the Best Picture accolade to The Greatest Show on Earth, but handing Best Actor to Cooper whilst it also won in the editing and music categories.

So I’ll just put it out there right now – since watching High Noon, it has clearly become my favourite Western, in fact forget the Westerns part, it’s up there with my all-timers. After finishing it the first time, I had the strong urge to play the whole thing over again. Seeing it ahead of this review was just a pleasure, and I’ve no idea how many times I have dug out the disc since buying it. It’s just one of those titles, I guess; I don’t get bored of it and find myself getting caught up in the film’s ratcheting tension with each and every viewing. Irrational aside – there’s a small part of me hoping, this time, that Cooper will forget his obligations to Hadleyville and keep that wagon rolling, enjoy the company of the lovely Grace Kelly in whatever life they choose instead of turning around in order to face Frank Miller. Just keep going, Gary – they don’t deserve you!

In the interests of putting together enough material for a balanced critique, I jotted some bullet points as the film was playing. Here’s what I produced:

I hope you can read that – if not, here’s a larger version that will open in a new tab (I can’t do anything about the bad handwriting, sorry). Don’t worry; I’m not about to go into each and every point here, but I would like to start by eulogising Dimitri Tiomkin’s score, in particular the High Noon ballad that opens the picture, as the credits roll and Miller’s compadres assemble in readiness for their showdown. If there’s one single element that draws me back to High Noon, it’s that simple song, with its melancholic Tex Ritter vocals about Cooper’s character, Marshal Will Kane, begging for his new wife Amy (Kelly) not to forsake him while he meets his destiny against Miller. It’s lovely and haunting, and it follows Kane about for the next eighty five minutes as he prepares for his fate, indeed much of the film’s score is a riff on the ballad.

Stripped back, High Noon is a fairly straightforward and even standard Western story. Kane is the Marshal in a little backwater town named Hadleyville. It’s his last day in the job before standing down, and he’s getting married in a little Quaker ceremony to Amy. As he’s preparing to leave town for good, he learns that a dangerous gunslinger called Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) has been released from gaol and is on his way back; his train will arrive at noon. Years earlier, Marshall was a troubling presence in Hadleyville before Kane apprehended him and oversaw the delivery of the death penalty by Judge Mettrick (Otto Kruger). With Miller gone, Hadleyville grew in peace and prosperity under Kane’s marshalship, but he and the judge both recall the villain’s portentous words of vengeance when he was convicted, and in the meantime his date with the noose was prorogued to a prison sentence. Kane’s torn between skipping and leaving Hadleyville to its fate, or staying and fighting Miller. What he doesn’t count on are the feelings of the town itself, the community of friends that steadily deserts him as the clock ticks down to noon, not to mention Amy’s vehement disagreement with his decision to remain.

Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that. The story opens at around quarter to eleven and the events building up to Miller’s arrival play out in real time, meaning that over the next hour Kane comes to realise that he has to stand up to him alone. The ticking of the clock, revisited often with the minute hands progressing inexorably, generate instant suspense as Kane is refused again and again by people he thought of as friends.

There’s tones of plot getting peeled away as the clock ticks down, and it’s a product of the slick editing by Elmo Williams and Harry W Gerstad that a raft of stories connected to so many individuals are outlined or even hinted at. By the end, High Noon feels like a much longer film than its running time due to the sheer swathes of clever characterisation and plot developments that are being rolled out all the time. One of the principal sub-plots involve Ellen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), owner of Hadleyville’s drinking hole and hotel. It emerges that she was Miller’s girl once upon a time, before turning her affections to Kane and finally to his young Deputy, Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges). Her ‘previous’ is a great source of tension between Kane and Pell, the way she’s a lot wiser than the latter and still harbours feelings for Kane, knowing – and teling Pell – that he isn’t half the man the Marshal is. Moreover, Ellen develops into the town’s heart. She knows exactly what will happen, that Kane will be abandoned by the community, and quickly sells her business and packs to leave as she understands that the day’s events will mark the end of Hadleyville as she knows it. The contrast between her, Kane’s ex, and Amy, his present, is irresistible, even down to the black clothes Ellen wears jarring with the bride’s virginal white dress. For much of High Noon, its emotions are firmly in tune with Jurado’s character, plain speaking, passionate and beautiful, against the callow Amy, who only comes into her own at the end.

And Ellen’s only the highlight. Bridges teases all the resentment and jealousy out of Pell, loathing Kane’s status and wanting his job, whilst knowing deep down that he’ll never measure up the same. Lon Chaney Jr puts in an appearance as Hadleyville’s former Marshal, broken by thankless years of service and seeing nothing but doom in Kane’s sticking around. Mayor Jonas Henderson is played by Thomas Mitchell, who reveals the town’s yellow heart during an impassioned speech to the church congregation, arguing they’re all better off without Kane because they might get left alone by Miller if he isn’t around, in the course of which exposing the tissue-thin extent of his friendship with the Marshal. There’s also the town barber who orders more coffins to be built when he hears Miller is approaching, the weasly hotel clerk who has nothing good to say about the Marshal, Kane’s friend Sam (Tom London) who’s too terrified to help out and gets his wife to make his excuses, the young lad who’s devoted to him and Kruger’s judge who knows exactly when he needs to move on.

You guessed it, Hadleyville is stuffed with a rogues’ gallery of selfish and greedy people, happy to be sheltered by Kane when it suits them but quick to turn their backs when the going gets tough. Towering above them all is Kane himself, wandering the dusty streets with that Tiomkin ballad playing in the background and looking more hopeless and solitary with each passing minute. Gary Cooper wasn’t the first choice for the role. Acting in movies since the early 1920s, Cooper was entering his fifties when High Noon was released and looked more like Grace Kelly’s father than her groom. Other names included Gregory Peck, who was concerned about how it would play against his previous Western The Gunfighter, and would later admit that turning it down was one of the worst career decisions he made. To add to Cooper’s problems, he was ill at the time, suffering from a variety of debilitating ailments, though in the film this all worked to his advantage as he was so convincingly able to convey the physical toll on Kane and needing little in terms of make-up to replicate the character’s hardships.

High Noon’s deeper subtext is a reflection of the time in which it was made, when the House of Un-American Activities Committee was fixing its gaze on Hollywood and blacklisting many of its major players. One such was the film’s writer, Carl Foreman, a former Communist who knew his time in the American industry was up, despite Cooper’s defence of him before the Committee. Foreman turned in a script about one man fighting the forces of ambivalence alone in a way that apparently mirrored his own plight. Zinneman, who won two Academy Awards for direction, was only nominated here, but made his Western as a taut thriller, with some brilliant shots – those close-ups of the town’s faces and of Miller’s gang staring menacingly right into the camera, the railroad filmed from the tracks themselves (which as the train neared almost did for Zinneman and his cameraman as they didn’t realise until the last moment that its brakes were failing), the zoom out from a beleagured Kane as he’s left utterly alone on the deserted streets.

John Wayne, a supporter of blacklisting, disliked the film and made Rio Bravo with Howard Hawks as a riposte from the more conservative perspective. Over the years, it’s become something of a tradition to fall either on one side or the other. The difference is that in the Hawks-Wayne movie the emphasis is on togetherness, the banding of ‘brothers’ (Wayne, Dean Martin, Walter Brennan and Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo) against a common enemy, It’s a warmer message, certainly, and I refer you to Colin’s excellent review for more on this affirmed classic of the genre, but like him I tend to strip away the politics (the benefit of being born much later than the sociological drivers behind both films) and look at the end products, the pictures we’re left to admire today, on their own terms. I like Rio Bravo, but for me High Noon represents something of a pinnacle, a film I enjoy and am gripped by with every viewing. From my point of view, it’s perilously close to perfection.

High Noon: *****

10 Rillington Place (1971)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 31 March (10.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

– I don’t know, Mr Christie.
– Well Tim, if you haven’t got complete confidence in my abilities…
– I trust you, Mr Christie, of course I do.

I think I was seven when we went on a family holiday to London. One of the attractions we visited was Madame Tussaud’s with its Chamber of Horrors, and inside, amidst the medieval torture devices was a gallery of notorious serial killers. One of these was a rather unassuming middle-aged, balding man, alone in a room, paste brush in hand whilst behind him one of the walls was covered with freshly laid wallpaper. This turned out to be John Reginald Christie. The surface over which he’d so recently papered was a covered up alcove, and inside were the bodies of three murdered women.

It was this alcove that ultimately did for Christie. Shortly after concealing his crime, he sub-let his flat and left, living rough and sleeping in doss houses. In the meantime, the new tenants arrived, complained about the smell and discovered the makeshift tomb. When the police turned up, a further corpse, that of Christie’s wife Ethel, was found beneath the floorboards, along with the remains of two further women buried in the garden, a femur bone being used to prop up a fence. Later, Christie would be accused of killing Beryl and Geraldine Evans, the wife and baby daughter of Timothy Evans, who himself had been hanged for the crimes several years earlier whilst occupying the same building. Three years on from Evans’s death, Christie faced the noose.

What struck me about the waxwork model was the apparent ordinariness of the murderer. In films and on television, there’s often some obvious sign that marks someone out as a serial killer, some indefinable thing that marks them out as psychologically unbalanced enough to commit such heinous crimes, but Christie looked so normal, which of course made the whole affair so much more chilling, the idea that you can’t tell, you really can’t tell.

It’s this quality that Richard Attenborough brought to sinister life when he played Christie in 10 Rillington Place, the address of the residence where the murders happened. I’ve always admired Attenborough more as an actor than for his directing. The films he’s helmed too often appear to me to move at a pace slightly slower than stately, whereas on the other side of the camera he can produce really haunting performances across a wide variety of roles. Christie’s one of his best, something he also acknowledged, the murderer who projects a veneer of outward genteel respectability so convincingly that he can get murderously close to women whilst shifting the suspicion onto others. On the surface, his Christie appears to be just another man on the street, nothing to see here, but it’s all in the restless shifting of his eyes, his habit of peering out of a gap in the drapes as though sensing the knot of suspicion closing around him, the soft spoken Yorkshire dialect that comes across as warm and genial.

The story focuses on the murders of Beryl and Geraldine, and the implication of Timothy as their killer, a fabrication weaved by Christie. At the time 10 Rilington Place was made, Evans had already been pardoned for the killing of his wife though not his daughter, the crime for which he had actually been convicted in the first instance. Whilst the matter of police misconduct during the investigation was still undecided, the film based itself on Ludovic Kennedy’s book, Ten Rillington Place, which argued that the investigation had been flawed and Evans innocent. In the film, Evans is played by the BAFTA nominated John Hurt as a working class Welshman with a seriously low IQ, meaning he can be easily influenced by Christie. Judy Geeson plays Beryl, Evans’s pretty young wife, who becomes pregnant for a second time. This is a worry for the couple. They can barely afford to make ends meet and their flat in 10 Rillington Place is small and squalid enough to begin with. Christie, who was able to meet many women during the war as a backstreet abortionist, offers his services to the Evans couple and they agree. What they don’t realise is that it’s an excuse to gas Beryl into a state of unconsciousness and then rape and strangle her, which is exactly what he does. The tools of his trade, the pipes that hook up to the gas supply, supposedly benign medicinal mixture, and rope, are kept under lock and key in a little medicine cabinet, and his retrieval of these items is a sure precursor to murder.

Evans goes to work, comes home and Christie tells him there’s been a complication in the abortion and Beryl’s dead. By simple persuasion, he argues they’re both guilty and offers to get rid of the body if Evans will leave for a while. He even says he knows a couple who’ll take Geraldine in, which seems to solve all the young man’s problems at once. Of course that’s a lie and Evans is no sooner on the train to Merthyr than Christie’s taking his tie upstairs in order to deal with the baby. Back in Wales and racked with guilt, Evans hands himself in to the police. Events start to spiral out of control as the investigation and the ease with which they wring a confession out of him turn the case into a fait accompli. Crucially, Christie distances himself completely from the murders. Ethel (Pat Heywood) backs him up, though there’s a sense she suspects something isn’t right. Evans, unable to read the confession he’s signed, hopelessly out of his depth and only realising at the end that he’s been stitched up, begins repeating ‘Christie’s done it’ but it’s all too late and he has an appointment to keep with the hangman.

It’s a brilliant study by Hurt, the youthful bravado he shows whilst drinking with his mates at the pub falling away once he realises he’s in desperate trouble and relying on entirely the wrong man to help him. It becomes apparent quickly that he’s just the wrong man, in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he doesn’t come close to appreciating the man into whom he’s placed his trust is the wrongest of all the elements. Geeson’s great as the innocent and hopeful Beryl, and there’s a small part for Isobel Black as her best friend, who for her own sake is probably fortunate to vanish from the picture when she does.

10 Rillington Place was directed by Richard Fleischer, a flexible filmmaker whose previous work covered on these pages are a far cry from the subject matter here. Fleischer had made films about real-life serial killers before, notably The Boston Strangler, starring Tony Curtis, but he brought a real documentary sensibility to this project, feeling rightly that the subject matter was horrific enough without the need for added melodrama. As far as it was possible to do so, the script by Clive Exton copied real, recorded speeches from the characters. The scenes at Rillington Place were filmed in Rillington Place (which has since been knocked down and completely remodelled as part of Notting Hill’s subsequent gentrification – this YouTube video speculates on the most likely location); the residents at number 10 wouldn’t allow their home to be used, so the crew worked across the street in number 7 instead, capturing starkly the slum conditions that framed the ghastly events, the poverty of the intransigent residents, the relative ‘four to a room’ destitution within which Christie operated. The murders, when they take place, are shown graphically, and whilst little is made of the killer’s motives, the signs are there in Attenborough’s performance. Most chillingly of all, it’s the ease with which he commits his crimes that are the most shocking element, the absence of guilt as though it’s all a normal part of his working day.

It’s a difficult film to recommend as entertainment, though it’s certainly worth seeing not least as a study into the machinations of a real life killer, told largely without embellishment, also the shaky police work that led to Evans’s hanging. In 1965, several years before 10 Rillington Place was released, the death penalty in the UK was suspended, largely because of the horrible potential of wrongful convictions. There was a large swell of support for its return, before people saw the film and appreciated the consequences of getting it wrong.

10 Rillington Place: ****

Apocalypto (2006)

When it’s on: Saturday, 28 March (10.50 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Recently, I’ve been catching up on History Channel’s Vikings, which isn’t quite as visceral as it might be but is cracking drama all the same. One of the things I like best about it is the interaction between the Vikings and Anglo Saxons. When we’re focusing on either group exclusively, they all speak English, but on the occasions when they communicate with each other then the ancient Nordic and Old English languages come out to illustrate the barrier that separates them. I love hearing those ancient ‘tongues’ brought back to life, even for the sake of screen drama; I’d be lost without the subtitles, obviously, but there’s something ‘earthy’ about the long lost dialects, a connection between the people and the land they inhabit that brings out the harshness of the Vikings’ way of speaking, the Latin and German influences on those old Britons, the occasional word that has made it through the ages and is still in use today.

There’s something of that spirit in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, in which the characters speak Yucatec Mayan throughout. You might see that as a gimmick. The counter-argument is that it adds to the film’s sense of authenticity, the way you can almost picture the language growing from the jungle environment and lack of contact with the outside world. Similarly, the film works hard to build the Mayan ‘world’. Based on existing sights that are still in existence, with a level of imagination thrown in, the aim of the film is to create a place you have never seen before, a civilisation that is now buried in history but once thrived and grew strong.

Much of the film’s point is that even those good times are in the past. The Mayan culture depicted in Apocalypto is dying, suffering from seasons of drought and, unable to explain what’s happened beyond the anger of their gods, they start offering human sacrifices in an attempt to regain divine favour. The film follows Jaguar Paw (Rudy Younglood), a young hunter who’s part of a peaceful Olmec tribe living in the Mesoamerican forests of Mexico. His is presented as an almost paradisaical existence, dependent on hunting tapirs and other jungle animals yet happy in his little tribe, where everything is based on families and the circle of life. One night, his village is raided by Mayan warriors, and Jaguar has just enough time to get his heavily pregnant wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez) and young son, to safety inside a deep vertical pit before he’s captured. Tied to a pole alongside other survivors whom the raiders haven’t killed, he’s led across country to the teeming Mayan city, where they’re all to be sacrificed by having their hearts cut from their bodies and then beheaded. A resigned Jaguar Paw is led to the chopping block, but before he can be killed a solar eclipse occurs, which the Mayan priests interpret as a favourable sign. The remaining Olecs are no longer needed and led to the warriors’ training area to be slaughtered. Jaguar Paw manages to escape and makes it back into the jungles, pursued hotly by a band of fighters, led by the legendary Zero Wolf (Carlos Emilio Baez). As the wounded hero starts a desperate race back to the remains of his village, it starts to rain, and the water levels in Seven’s pit rise.

The attention to detail in Apocalypto is simply outstanding. Considering it’s a film costing a comparatively modest $40 million, they create an entire city featuring thousands of extras, all wearing costumes and hair decorations that make clear their status in society, from the King with his enormous, feathered cape, through to the poor clad in rags. The contrast between the pastoral Olmec village and the city is also stark. Whereas the former depicts a real community in which everyone knows each other and laughs together, the city is a decadent ruin in waiting, overcrowded, motivated by selfish desire and with a pall of sickness surrounding it. The overall effect is astonishing, a riot of colour and endless sights, so vivid that it’s almost possible to smell the food, blood and sweat.

All the more impressive considering that Apocalypto, at heart, is an old-fashioned action adventure, an almighty chase through the jungle that never lets up. It works because the odds against Jaguar Paw seem so high – the calibre of those pursuing him, being in the middle of nowhere, the fact he’s taken an arrow wound before he even starts. Zero Wolf makes for a brilliant warrior; there’s a genuine sense of elation about his pursuit because he actually has something worth chasing for a change, not just rounding up miserable villagers for the sacrificial block. True, Jaguar Paw has killed his son when beginning his escape attempt, but it feels like this is subservient to the sheer thrill of the chase, the opportunity to prove himself as a high calibre hunter at last. And yet it emerges the fleeing hero is just as capable in his environment, using all manner of natural resources to deal with Zero Wolf’s men; at one thrilling, albeit gory stage a Jaguar is involved.

I admit I was thrilled from the start of the chase, overwhelmed by the visual treats beforehand. The heel turned out to be Gibson himself. Involved in a string of discrepancies and saying some very unfortunate things in the build-up to Apocalypto’s release, the director’s character was a divisive element in his own film’s success, ensuring its share of awards and box office were not all they could have been. Arguments have been posited that the film is entirely allegorical, returning to themes that had been explored in his previous The Passion of the Christ and suggesting a unhealthy level of anti-Semitism. I suppose those elements are present if you want them to be; personally, I didn’t get any of that and suspect there’s an element of digging too deeply into the alleged meanings behind what is a reasonably straightforward story. An altogether sad turn of events because Apocalypto, almost unique and at times savage, is a blast.

Apocalypto: ****

The Devil Rides Out (1968)

When it’s on: Thursday, 26 March (9.00 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
IMDb Link

In an effort to properly research The Devil Rides Out, one of the jewels in the crown of Hammer Studios, rightly or wrongly, and a first visitation from this site to the Horror Channel, which is now available on Freeview, I went back to the source and read Dennis Wheatley’s 1934 novel.

I recall seeing rows of Wheatley’s paperbacks on my parents’ bookshelves as a child, usually with the lurid cover art featuring scantily clad women cavorting around a stern looking goat-man. This no doubt is a reflection on the author’s massive popularity, which lasted into the late 1960s, and reading The Devil Rides Out now, I can see why that must have been the case. Essentially, it’s a bit like Agatha Christie, replacing murders for Occultism, but still featuring upper class heroes and villains and presenting the inter-war years as a kind of Home Counties arcadia where society was deferential, everyone knew their place and the only thing wrong was those damned Devil worshippers. I enjoyed it immensely, racing through the novel in a few days thanks to some brisk pacing and a genuine atmosphere of unease created by Wheatley. There’s an argument for saying it’s an updated Dracula, which I get. Critics pointed out the long periods of exposition, endless scenes of two posho’s discussing the history and nature of Satanism; personally I found all this to be quite riveting. I learned, for instance, that World War One didn’t come about as a consequence of the collapsing Great Powers system of diplomacy, but because Grigory Rasputin used an arcane talisman to unleash the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. There was also some love for the Swastika, rightly cited as an ancient good luck charm before it was appropriated by the Nazis. Understandably, the Swastika does not put in an appearance within the film.

It was a most entertaining read, though I could tell that with novels like Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and the subsequent film adaptation, bringing tales of Devil worship firmly into the modern world, time was up for Wheatley’s cognac-quaffing heroes. There’s talk even now of further reworkings for the screen, both large and small, and I wonder how that would work. When I read a book, I try and visualise the action, imagining how it would play; it’s just something I’ve always done, and try as I might there seemed to be too many good reasons to forget revisiting these old adventures and let them fade into memory.

It was a different story in the 1960s, when Wheatley was still a bestselling author and had a good friend in Christopher Lee, one of Hammer’s main stars. The studio had owned the rights to The Devil Rides Out for some time and submitted a draft screenplay to the censors in 1962, only to be told in no uncertain terms that Satanism was not an appropriate subject for the movies. Later in the decade, restrictions were lifting (though nothing like to the extent they would later) and the project was revisited. Hammer put a lot of money behind their adaptation, recruiting the services of their A-list director, Terence Fisher, placing Lee in the starring role and commissioning no less a figure than Richard Matheson to update the script. The legendary writer took the hatchet to Wheatley’s book, chopping much of the Occult-related dialogue but otherwise turning in a treatment that was rather faithful, even keeping certain lines intact – ‘You fool! I’d rather see you dead than meddling with black magic!’ might sound a bit laughable now, but it was powerful stuff back in the day, especially when delivered with Lee’s baritone voice.

The result was a somewhat refreshing change from the endless Dracula, Frankenstein and Mummy sequels, made to order but working as crowd pleasers rather than offering anything new. Even an old Hammer apologist like me can look back with a furtive wince at yet another Dracula flick in which the Count goes through the motions, Lee acting almost from a horizontal position as he found the business of donning the fangs to be increasingly tiresome. There’s none of that here, Lee in lithe, commanding form as the Duc de Richleau, an amateur expert in black magic who realises quickly that one of his best friends has succumbed to a circle of Devil worshippers. Alongside Rex (Leon Greene), de Richleau works hard to keep Simon (Patrick Mower) on the side of good. But he’s made powerful enemies, none more than Mocata (Charles Gray), Satan’s High Priest, who’ll stop at nothing to ‘baptise’ Simon and the willowy Tanith (Niké Arrighi), for whom Rex harbours romantic feelings.

The film, set in the late 1920s and featuring a fine convoy of vintage cars, turns into a cat and mouse effort as the Duc and his friends try and get the better of Mocata, who can command all manner of dark forces to work for him. This culminates in a brilliant scene where the Duc, Simon and two further friends (played by Paul Eddington and Sarah Lawson) are at siege, trapped in the library and protected only by a pentagram chalked on the wooden flooring, as Mocata sends vision after vision to terrorise them into submitting. The special effects of the giant tarantula and later the angel of death riding into the room look tame now, but the build-up to their appearance is taut and terrifying, punctuated by long silences and shadows creeping across the walls. Lee’s character is superb, feeling every ounce of fear that the film is trying to convey and trying to maintain a sense of authority.

Despite Lee’s excellent performance, he’s matched by Gray as Mocata. Many times in his film appearances, particularly in the limp Diamonds are Forever, Gray had a tendency to descend into campness, but here the role is played completely straight, the actor channelling both Mocata’s latent evil and his lazy charm, which works really well, even if he doesn’t look much like the bulbous fallen Priest who appears in the book. When Mocata visits Lawson’s character to demand the return of Simon and is made to leave, he pauses long enough to say ‘I shall not be back – but something will’, the malice dripping with relish from his tongue. Mostly, it comes from the eyes, Fisher doing a great job of emphasising the icy blue in Gray’s eyes to suggest a constant power of hypnosis and persuasion.

Over the years, The Devil Rides Out has dated. Arguably, it already appeared so at the time of its release, coming out in the same year as the contemporary Rosemary’s Baby, the latter holding back none of the nudity or blood where Fisher’s work shows restraint. No question about it, Polanski’s film is better, delivering more effectively on unsettling chills, whilst The Devil Rides Out’s period setting gives it the feel of something more suited to the past. And yet it was a daring move by Hammer, a fine effort and an important change in direction at a time when the studio itself was starting to look out of step with audience tastes, and for that it deserves some appreciation. The only sad postscript is that they didn’t return to Wheatley until eight years later and 1976’s To the Devil a Daughter, too late to save the studio and a mixed, unhappy effort for all concerned.

The Devil Rides Out: ****

Backdraft (1991)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 24 March (11.00 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

At some point in the 2000s, Ron Howard became a darling of the awards industry. Beforehand, he’d directed a string of unpretentious, successful entertainments, the sort of films with one word titles that equally needed a single word to describe exactly what they were about e.g. Splash concerns MERMAIDS!, Cocoon = ALIENS!, Ransom = er, RANSOM! I’m not even being sniffy; they were perfectly fine, diverting efforts, a couple of hours where you could sink into your seat and enjoy what was happening on the screen – nothing wrong with that. It was only with the worthy and rather fine Apollo 13 that Howard starting tackling meatier subjects, and then he came up with A Beautiful Mind, which scooped four Academy Awards, including one for the director. Based on its entertainment value, I didn’t mind the film; as a biopic I loathed it, especially for the way it treated its central subject, the mathematician John Nash, transforming him into a romantic, tortured genius just for the sake of creating a sympathetic hero.

But that’s one for another time. Today’s entry is Backdraft, which is about fire (FIRE!), and indeed fire is the star of the film. Despite assembling a cast that would be the envy of any picture from the early 1990s, the strongest memories come from those scenes that show the inferno in all its forms. Beautifully shot and moving almost seductively across the screen, fire steals the show. At one point, Robert De Niro’s character tells us we have to see fire as something that’s living and that’s exactly what the film tries to do, even adding sound effects to suggest an angry god at work in the background, possibly one with the demanding intonation of Arthur Brown.

Elsewhere, Backdraft is a bit of a mess, somehow running over two hours long thanks to confused plotting and the attempt to wrong-foot viewers. There’s a point when watching it is a spotter’s reference guide to other movies (Top Gun and The Silence of the Lambs spring immediately to mind), and you could almost invent a drinking game around the number of clichés that mount up, starting with the opening scene in which a fireman is killed in an explosion and a charred helmet drops to the feet of his watching son.

One plot strand follows the relationship between fire fighter brothers Stephen (Kurt Russell) and Brian (William Baldwin). It’s their father who died and they’ve followed in his footsteps. The older Stephen has turned into a macho hero, working for the toughest fire fighting unit and being committed enough to the service to alienate his wife (Rebecca De Mornay) into separation. Brian has just entered the service and joins Stephen’s team, much to his chagrin. From the start, he’s belittled by his brother, made to stay by his side and wear protective gear whilst Stephen doesn’t even bother to don his mask. Ultimately, he leaves to join Donald ‘Shadow’ Rimgale (De Niro), who investigates the causes of fires breaking out and is currently looking into a series of similar deaths caused by ‘backdraft’ explosions.

That’s the second strand. Rimgale and Brian’s sleuthing leads them into the orbit of Alderman Swayzak (J.T. Walsh), a Chicago mayoral candidate, along with his glamorous assistant and Brian’s old flame, Jennifer (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The backdraft killings appear awful and planned carefully, victims opening a door to find themselves facing an unstoppable torrent of fire heading in their direction. Who’s responsible? Finding out lands the pair into the company of Ronald Bartel (Donald Sutherland), an insane, convicted arsonist who knows enough about fire to deliver an important clue.

Getting to this stage takes a long time, a long and unnecessary amount of time as Bartel points out the obvious to Brian – connect the victims and work out who benefits. Sutherland is one of many talents in the film that is wasted, forced to channel the spirit of Hannibal Lecter in terms of only giving up what he knows in exchange for details of Brian’s personal life. Similarly, Leigh has little to do apart from have a sex scene with Brian (on top of a fire engine, which of course sets off on a job halfway through their business!) and then deliver some important information to him at a key point. De Niro practically plays himself.

At least Kurt Russell is good value. He’s perfectly cast, effortless in fact as the hero fireman who puts his life on the line with every mission for no better reason than to experience the rush. Few did this kind of thing better, and playing it completely straight so that his character becomes almost fascistic in his dedication, not to mention blinkered to the feelings of his co-workers, led by Scott Glenn’s world weary veteran of the force. Baldwin, who’s kind of slipped off the radar following some major roles in the nineties, isn’t bad either, and there’s some nice interplay between the pair. They’re ideally cast even physically, Baldwin lanky and a little awkward besides Russell’s beefier classic leading man.

A shame that more wasn’t made of this and that some of the less important and jumbled plot contrivances didn’t have to be shoehorned in. There’s a very good ninety-minute movie somewhere in the mix, but amidst all the superfluousness it gets lost. Great fire effects though, and it was for these the film received several Oscar nominations.

Backdraft: **

The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

When it’s on: Saturday, 21 March (5.40 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

When I was a kid, any film featuring the work of Ray Harryhausen was a typically Bank Holiday treat. It didn’t matter that the stop motion animation he perfected to painstaking effect always looked artificial – that was just part of the fun, and besides the creatures he brought to life on the screen were often fantastical to the extent that I, like many others I’m sure, just loved the outburst of imagination they represented. If I have an ultimate favourite among his creations, it’s almost certainly Talos, the giant statue from Jason and the Argonauts that comes to terrifying life, moves with the yell of rusty joints that haven’t needed to be used in untold aeons and threatens the entire ship of heroes. But I was fortunate enough to see the final feature with which he was involved, Clash of the Titans, as it was intended on the big screen, and despite advances in special effects there was nothing more frightening than Perseus trapped in the lair of Medusa, a last hurrah for the brilliance of the man’s art as the breathlessly sublime combination of lighting, sound and animation brought the monster to hideous reality.

Harryhausen was a big fan of dinosaurs, using his technique to put them onto the screen in various movies. Whilst the likes of Jurassic Park pretty much consigned his work into the annals, there’s something undeniably fantastic about his effort to revive these long extinct animals, and besides whilst CGI can serve up photo realistic dinosaurs well enough, it’s a rare film indeed that can inject its monsters with the sense of personality Harryhausen gave to his creations. Compare The Valley of Gwangi with something like the Tyrannosaurs in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. In the latter, there’s a point to which those dinosaurs are there simply because they can be, present for no other reason than to provide a threat to Kong and Naomi Watts. Gwangi, the perpetually irritated lizard that’s forced into the civilised world, with obvious consequences, always has motivation, a reason for being and doing the things it does. No amount of new technology can make that happen; it takes heart.

Released in 1969, The Valley of Gwangi was a flop at a time when Warners felt audiences cared little for this sort of thing and consequently barely promoted it. Taken as a whole, it’s far from the best action-fantasy caper, with its slight plot that is little more than window dressing for the opportunity to bring Westerns and dinosaur flicks on a collision course, the sort of cross-genre nonsense that I can’t imagine fans of either clamouring for. It takes a while for the creatures to appear, but when they do the film suddenly becomes a real thrill ride. The effect of cowboys trying to lasso Gwangi (for the record, it’s sort of a cross between a Jurassic Allosaurus and a Tyrannosaurus Rex from the later Cretaceous period, and I for one love that Harryhausen grab-bagged from both to create Gwangi because, you know what, it’s just fantasy!) looks amazing, human actors and stop motion creature interacting seamlessly, though of course it was a scene that took months to perfect. The actors had to throw their ropes around a pole erected on a jeep, and then Harryhausen overlaid the film with his creature, ensuring the strings around its neck were synchronised with the men’s actions so that the illusion wouldn’t be shattered. Genuinely astonishing work.

Gwangi and his stop motion mates are undoubtedly the stars of the show, which basically means it’s Harryhausen’s film. The director and cast are subservient, and only Jerome Moross’s rabble rousing score, like a rehashing of the brilliant music he produced for The Big Country, really stands out.

Our hero is Tuck Kirby (James Franciscus), a cowboy working for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in Mexico at the turn of the twentieth century. I remember Franciscus best from Beneath the Planet of the Apes, where his role was basically to reprise Charlton Heston from the first film, which he did to largely anonymous effect. Here, he has more upon which to chew; his character, Tuck (named after the friar?), is essentially on the make. Despite breaking the heart of T.J. Breckenridge (Gila Golan) previously, he wants to buy out her struggling show, shrugging off her reticence, not to mention her rather obvious personal dislike. T.J. thinks she’s found the answer to all her problems, a miniature horse that appears to be a throwback to the prehistoric Eohippus, an ancestor of the modern horse when they were the size of small dogs. Its origins are identified by Sir Horace Bromley (Laurence Naismith), a paleontologist who’s digging away in the nearby desert. A group of gypsies, led by the reliably demented Freda Jackson, kidnap the Eohippus and try to return it from whence it came, via a tiny crack in the side of a mountain. But Tuck and crew discover the crack, realising it leads somehow into a hidden place, the Forbidden Valley, and break through into a land where prehistoric animals still roam.

Naturally, as soon as he comes across Gwangi, the opportunistic Kirby sees money, the prospect of exhibiting a dinosaur as part of his show and rake in the millions. So far, so King Kong, which is what The Valley of Gwangi becomes. Unsurprisingly, the film started life as a project by Willis O’Brien, the predecessor in many ways to Harryhausen, who worked on the stop motion effects for the original King Kong and the 1925 version of The Lost World, and saw Gwangi as an amalgamation of both. For Warner’s, it must have felt like a no-brainer to put the money into production, but Harryhausen’s work took a long time to reach fruition, two years in fact, during which time audience tastes had moved on and a lightweight matinee flick, which this is, held dwindling appeal. It doesn’t help that the hero isn’t especially likeable, just coming across as greedy without appearing to gain much in terms of a conscience as his plans for Gwangi naturally turn to disaster. That said, it’s a film that never outstays its welcome, particularly once the dinosaurs turn up, and there’s a cheerful rush towards the climactic scenes that’s missing from more ponderous epics. The end for Gwangi, staged inside a Gothic church, is very impressively done and shows a nice clash between the raw power of the dinosaur and human structures.

The Valley of Gwangi: ***

A shameless plug now for Multitude of Movies, a new film magazine created and edited by two very good friends of mine. I’ve just bought the first issue, which is reminiscent of the legendary We Belong Dead and features articles on Labyrinth, Beach Party flicks, Christopher Walken, Pale Rider, Disaster Movies from the 1970s, Enter the Dragon, John Saxon, Indiana Jones, Margot Kidder, and so much more! I’ll be contributing to the second issue, but even without that dubious pleasure the first is a delicious treat, beautifully put together and deserving of your support. For further details on the magazine, who’s involved, what they cover and how to buy your copy, please visit their website.

The Battle of the River Plate (1956)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 17 March (10.45 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

The account of the German cruiser ship, Admiral Graf Spee, is a genuinely riveting yarn from the early months of World War Two. As a popular story, it hasn’t survived the years, probably because it didn’t lead to enormous levels of human sacrifice and the Germans involved weren’t senseless monsters, but it is good stuff and worth recounting here. For those who haven’t seen The Battle of the River Plate, bear in mind that the film follows the factual events very closely.

Following Germany’s defeat in World War One, the Treaty of Versailles imposed strict limitations on the size of warships it could build, the aim being to deny it the opportunity to compete with Britain in terms of constructing titanic Dreadnought style boats. The Deutschland-class Cruiser, of which Admiral Graf Spee was one, had various innovations designed to keep it within weight restrictions and as a consequence developed a superior vessel. The British dubbing of these ships as ‘pocket battleships’ might suggest some little tub with firepower, but Graf Spree was formidable, armed with powerful guns, fast and highly maneuverable. In short, the perfect ship for attacking merchants carrying supplies to Britain. Shortly before war broke out but with the declaration imminent, Graf Spee slunk out of its German port and into the South Atlantic, from where it could prey on shipping. This it did, racking up an impressive record of sinkings and remaining elusively at large.

Its captain, Hans Langsdorff, was a fascinating figure, a tactical genius who pulled every trick in the book to escape capture and to make the threat of his single ship look as though an entire convoy of warships was out there. In addition he was a humanist, insisting that merchant ships were ordered to send their crews across to the Graf Spee before they were sunk. Langsdorff’s attitude was that the war was on Allied shipping, not the sailors, who would be held as prisoners and treated well.

Graf Spee’s success alerted British ships of war, which made searching and destroying it their highest priority. The ‘hunting group’ that came across and battled it was led by Commodore Henry Harwood, a seaman as tactically astute as Langsdorff and with acute knowledge of the South Atlantic. Harwood guessed the pocket battleship’s movements correctly, a dazzling insight that seems to have emerged wholly from calculated guesswork, and his three ships engaged Graf Spee on the River Plate, the massive estuary leading from South America into the Atlantic Ocean. Despite the German boat’s better guns, it was eventually out-maneuvered and crippled, leaving it with no choice but to head for the nearest port and make repairs.

This happened to be at Montevideo, the picturesque capital of Uruguay. The two remaining British ships waited outside for Graf Spee’s re-emergence, aware that Langsdorff was perfectly capable of escaping somewhere along the estuary because of the size of the area they had to patrol. Engaging the services of British diplomat Eugen Millington-Drake, attempts were made to shorten the time Graf Spee needed to be fixed – Langsdorff wanted two to three weeks; he was given four days. In the meantime, the British Foreign Office, knowing fully that their phones were being tapped by German agents, put it about that further ships were massing in order to deal with it, whereas in reality only one was close enough to help. The overall effect of all this pressure was to compel Langsdorff into scuttling Graf Spee, turning the episode into a major British success story. It was also a big deal in Montevideo itself, locals clamouring to follow the news of what would happen next and reporters covering the story gaining minor celebrity status.

Little wonder that this suggested great cinematic material, and even better that it was made for the screen by the dynamic creative force that was Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The pair hit upon the idea whilst attending a film festival in Argentina and getting the details, seeing it as the ticket to reviving the ailing fortunes of their production company, The Archers. British and American ships were hired and deployed in the Mediterranean in order to give the film some authentic boats to photograph, whilst some of the best models available were built for the scenes where ships are suffering heavy damage.

In order to convey the character of Langsdorff (Peter Finch), many of the film’s early scenes are between him and a captured merchant captain, played by Bernard Lee. As Lee’s Captain Dove is treated with every courtesy by the German, he comes to respect and even admire him, though it doesn’t stop him and his fellow captives from cheering on the British when they open fire. Harwood is a never more charismatic Anthony Quayle. John Gregson plays Captain Bell (and wore a specially made wax nose for the role, in honour of the real life captain, who was affectionately known as ‘Hookie’ by his men), in charge of the Exeter, the British light cruiser that took the heaviest damage and suffered the most casualties. In many ways, Gregson’s is the choice role as he gets to rally his troops, make quick decisions and score a decisive blow on Graf Spee.

However, the moments when Bell is racing around his ship, sometimes literally fighting fires, are by some distance the most exciting scenes in the film. For the most part, it’s a well crafted but ultimately highly ‘talkie’ picture, filled with characters discussing their strategies with a brief reprieve for bits where big ships fire upon each other. The actual battle takes place in the film’s middle; following is the lengthy aftermath in Montevideo, the British efforts to bluff Langsdorff into giving up and ending the fighting. It’s fine, but it isn’t thrilling, though there’s a nice sense of the excitement it causes in the city, including a very young Christopher Lee playing a Uruguayan bar owner who gets increasingly exasperated with all the attention.

Christopher Challis was the Director of Photography responsible for bringing to life those highly impressive battle scenes, the smooth maneuvering of massive ships preparing for conflict. It’s a beautifully shot film, unfortunately it’s one of those rare instances of the actual events being a lot more exciting than those committed to celluloid (there’s a great episode of Timewatch covering the story available on YouTube). The post-battle scenes remain somewhat anti-climactic, even with the closing money shot of Graf Spee on fire and sinking.

All the same, it was Powell and Pressburger’s biggest hit at the box office and a late success for the partnership. A happier ending than that met by Langsdorff himself. In the film, he meets Dove for a final chat that makes clear the respect he’s earned. In reality, having ensured that no further lives were lost (despite the misgivings of Hitler, who wanted him to continue the fight) and overseeing his crew’s transfer to Buenos Aires, he took his own life.

The Battle of the River Plate: ***