Fear in the Night (1947)

I have wanted to watch Fear in the Night since I first spotted it on the They Shoot Pictures Don’t They list of the best Film Noirs. The draw was a chance to catch an early film role for DeForest Kelley, of course one of the principal actors in Star Trek and someone who I didn’t think I had ever seen outside the Trek universe. Unlike the series’ other stars, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, who had notable careers beyond the Starship Enterprise, Kelley seemed tied to his outwardly grumpy, heart of gold healer, though as usual the joke was on me as Kelley came with an enormous CV before he went anywhere near the show. For the most part he’d appeared in Westerns, some that I had indeed watched before, yet there was something especially appealing about this entry. To my mind Kelley has the sort of face that fits Noir like a glove – that haunted expression, those pale blue eyes that to me seemed to have seen so many bad things…

As for the film itself, it’s very near the perfect Noir plot. I have a particular love for stories that fall within the ‘fatalistic nightmare’ sub-genre, the likes of D.O.A. and Scarlet Street where the main character – often someone defined by nothing more than their ordinariness – gets into a heap of trouble, often through no fault of his own and without any easy route of escape. It’s the kind of awful twist of fate that is implied could happen to any of us, though gratefully it’s something we can see being played out on a screen rather than actually taking place, so it comes with an innate sense of relief.

Fear in the Night is adapted from a Cornell Woolrich short story, and follows the misfortunes of Vince Grayson (Kelley), a young man haunted by his vicious dream in which he is killing a man. He’s unable to dismiss it as a nightmare due to being in possession of a strange key and button, along with the mysterious bruises on his throat that suggest he struggled with the man he murdered. Unsettled, Grayson talks to his brother in law, police officer Cliff Herlihy (Paul Kelly), who does all his doubting for him, however a chance visit some days later to a mansion to which the former oddly seems to know the direction turns up evidence of an unsolved dead person. By now, Grayson’s convinced of his own guilt and Herlihy feels the same way. The poor fella turns suicidal, only to be saved by the officer, who then starts piecing together a possible case of hypnosis as the trigger for Grayson’s deed…

From here the film turns into an unravelling of the plot, but it’s at its most interesting when it’s peering into Grayson’s tortured mind, his feelings of culpability and bewilderment over a murder that he seems to have committed, but can’t remember how or why. We glean his thoughts via voiceover, Kelley talking through his sensations as he stares at himself in the mirror or into a middle distance that leads nowhere and provides no answers, and his narration is the stuff of Noir wet dreams. ‘There was danger here,’ he says in a flat voice that only teases at his rising sense of panic. ‘I wanted to turn and run, but I couldn’t. It seemed as if my brain was handcuffed and I had to do what I’d come to do.’ There’s some great, impressionistic filming too. As Grayson’s recalling the tangle of memories and dreams, the camera zooms into his eyes, which are then superimposed with the details of his ‘crime.’

Fear in the Night packs a lot into its 71 minute running time, which makes for a taut and pacily told thriller. Funding was clearly an issue, most of the action taking place across few locations, so it’s pleasing that director Maxwell Shane, his cast and crew, try to make up for the low budget with a narrative that’s designed to disorientate the viewer along with Grayson until the film’s mystery is revealed. The murderous act takes place in a room fit for claustrophobic nightmares, an octagonal-shaped enclosed space in which each panel contains a full-sized mirror. Grayson’s flat, in which he spends much of the film, is small, disconcertingly featureless, helping to give the impression that he’s trapped and there’s nowhere for him to run to.

This was Kelley’s debut appearance on the big screen, and he’s absolutely equal to the demands of the role, appearing passive and helpless to escape the terrible fate that’s apparently in store for him. His job as a bank clerk emphasises his humdrum life, the utter inchangeability of his position that means when he calls in sick he can be replaced instantly. Betty Winters (Kay Scott) takes over his counter, the arrangement she makes of putting  her and Grayson’s name plates together hinting at the future she envisages for them both. It’s left to Kelly’s detective, Herlihy, to play the part of the audience, oscillating between not believing Grayson, to suspecting him and finally resolving to help him out of his predicament. Chain smoking and capable, Herlihy is every inch the redoubtable protagonist. A veteran of Film Noir, Kelly’s wife in the film is played by the even more prolific Ann Doran, another reliable character actor who is notable for putting in more than 500 appaearances on cinema and television.

Shane was a dependable writer of B-movies who occasionally got the opportunity to direct. He remade Fear in the Night nine years later, as Nightmare starring Edward G Robinson. In addition there’s an episode of the radio serial Suspense that adapts the story. Critically, time has been kind to it. Viewed at the time as wholly forgettable, a slightly ridiculous quota quickie, it’s gone on to be appreciated as an artfully told and innovatively filmed exercise in tension. Unfortunately little effort has been taken in restoring the film. It’s now in the public domain. I watched it on Amazon Prime, and had to bear with the poor quality both visually and in terms of sound. It deserves better. Allowing for the patience of the viewer, it’s a rewarding Noir that doesn’t outstay its welcome and weaves a fine mystery.

This post was written as part of the 2019 Noirathon, hosted by the excellent Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. I should visit Maddy’s pages more ofen and I definitely ought to be adding to the collection of entries here on a (much!) more regular basis, so it’s with some gratitude that I have been compelled into taking part.

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Trader Horn (1931)

It’s Academy Awards time, and the usual jamboree of films you like that have been ignored and others you consider average that are lauded by the process. I have seen fewer of the Best Picture nominations than normal, however I believe anything would have to be pretty damn good to beat Roma, which I found utterly outstanding, and in some places genuinely very moving. On the flipside there’s Bohemian Rhapsody, a title that appears to have been damned by many as a poor entry in this year’s consideration. For my part, it was one of those rare occasions of being enchanted by a movie I didn’t necessarily think was very good – whether the chance to relive some damn fine tunes, enjoying Rami Malek’s performance, or being cast back in time to a mythologised Live Aid, I had a great experience and am kind of looking forward to catching it again.

Naturally, this is hardly the only year to contain nominated films that are largely considered sub-par. Let’s cast our minds back to 1931, when the Oscars were in their infancy and a really quite ordinary Oater like Cimarron could come out on top. Wesley Ruggles’s Western at least has a sense of epic sweep; other nominees were just a bit poor, like the (then child star) Jackie Coogan vehicle Skippy, and the film I’m talking about in this piece, Trader Horn. There’s a lot that isn’t good about Trader Horn, some of which I’m not even going to try and address here. It was a product of its time, reflecting contemporary social values, so its dim view of the native Africans, the status of the white visitors as always being on top, the perception of the animals as, at best, things to look at and, at worst, things to be shot, are all rendered more or less moot in a piece written nearly ninety years down the line.

Beyond those elements, it still isn’t a very good piece of work. The intention was to make an African adventure, filmed by director W. S. Van Dyke and his crew in various African countries, with all the pitfalls and setbacks you can imagine taking place as a consequence.  Crew and cast members went down with disease, one was eaten by a crocodile, Van Dyke himself contracted malaria and star Edwina Booth took a full six years to recover from her maladies suffered on location. The resulting film is a mixture of stock footage of the wildlife, reshoots in California, and further work done in Mexico to bypass American rulings on the ethical treatment of animals. If this sounds like a mess, then by some wonder the finished effort just about holds together, though there are many moments when the action just stops for the characters to admire the African wildlife, presumably to get in those all-important money shots. Unedifying reports emerged from the production of the mistreatment of animals, for instance stories of lions being starved in order to entice them to really go for their prey in one of the film’s scenes.

The story follows the antics of real-life explorer and trader, Alfred Aloysius Horn, the eponymous Trader Horn, here played by Harry Carey. Horn is on safari with Peru (Duncan Renaldo), the son of an old friend. The pair learn that a girl who was lost some twenty years ago as a baby might still be alive somewhere in the jungle. Sure enough, they find a village, and the girl has become a beautiful young blonde woman (Booth) who, being white, is naturally worshipped as goddess by the people. Horn, Peru, and the former’s native retainer Rencharo (Mutia Omoolu) are about to be killed in a typically grisly fashion, fastened to wooden crosses, mounted upside down, and then burned to death. But then Peru catches the girl’s eye and his smouldering, longing look is enough to persuade her to make her people stop the sacrifice. Shortly after, she escapes with the trio, pursued by the angry villagers and attempting various stunts and adventures to stave off their new enemies, starvation, thirst and the bevy of wild animals they come across.

A film made firmly in the pre-Code era, Trader Horn comes with its fair share of risque material. Booth is forced to spend the film nearly topless, though at least she gets some skimpy material to cover her breasts in a move that is not offered to the native women. Of far greater interest is the footage presented of the animals. Though there’s little here to trouble the makers of Planet Earth this stuff must have been impressive at the time, however Carey delivers strings of ‘facts’ about every creature the characters come across in what seem like endless stops on their safari, sometimes when they are supposed to be running from their pursuers. This gets in the way of any real attempt at characterisation. We don’t learn much about Horn, let alone the other cast members, and any attempts to get an inkling of the girl’s back story are stymied by the fact she speaks the same language as the natives and not a word of English.

Ultimately the film’s a surprising bore, given the possibilities presented by the material, the mine of rich stories Horn must have brought to the table. This was a man who fought against slavery and once rescued a princess, the latter presumably very loosely providing the basis for the film’s plot. Watched now, there’s some interest to be gained from seeing something with twenty first century eyes that must have absorbed viewers at the time, considering the vast human effort that went into making a talking picture with the resources available in a part of the world that didn’t easily support such an endeavour. I’d love to see Trader Horn: The Journey Back, a 2009 documentary about the making of the film that calls to mind the risks, indignities and ailments incurred during the notorious filming of Apocalypse Now, and I suppose there’s something about the vision behind it that should be applauded, even if the methods were often inhumane and downright barbaric. Certainly it’s little more than a title for Oscar nomination completists, a reminder that the recognition of very ordinary films by the Academy is by no means a recent innovation.

Solomon and Sheba (1959)

This post exists because I was toying with the idea of doing a series about the British actor David Farrar. That might still happen – one put-off is the lack of availability of certain titles – because he remains one of my favourite Golden Age stars, the kind of actor who at least lent an air of authority to whatever role he took and at his best really elevated a movie. Added to that is the undeniable pleasure of covering a fun epic like this one, to many a terrible movie, absolutely not without its delights and coming with not a little luridity, albeit by tame, 1950s standards. Enjoy…

Some historical epics are rightly celebrated still, earning replays on television and made available on the best formats to be enjoyed by viewers hungry for fat slices of Hollywood film making on its grandest scale. Others have fallen by the wayside. Sometimes this is unfair. I would argue the case forever that The Fall of the Roman Empire is among the very finest the genre has to offer, which at least seems to be in tandem with a slowly developing, more favourable retrospective of the film that was once damned as the last word in vanity projects. And then there’s something like Solomon and Sheba, another vastly budgeted entry that is perceived by some to be among the worst films ever made, a bloated and boring effort that suffers from poor writing, bad casting, and a checklist of historical inaccuracies.

The film takes as its starting point the tale of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon in the ancient and recently founded state of Israel. In the Old Testament and Quran sources, she turns up bearing gifts, gets some wisdom in return, returns to Sheba, and that’s it. Historians have suggested that Sheba was a kingdom in what is now Yemen, or possibly Ethiopia, or perhaps an island in the Nile river. No one seems certain, and it is of course perfectly plausible that the whole thing was made up. The sources go on to outline Solomon’s reign in Israel as a time of plenty. The famous temple in Jerusalem is constructed. The king gains a ‘wise heart’ from God and in return sacrifices in his honour, only for the whole show to be brought down by his fateful love for the pleasures of the flesh. Solomon’s libido leads to the introduction of foreign wives to Israel, who bring their false idols with them, and this causes his ultimate downfall.

I mention all this because the film snatches at bits of Solomon’s story to craft something almost entirely contrived for its plot. The king’s women are largely condensed into the Queen of Sheba, and his lust for her brings about his near ruin. Before her visit, Solomon’s partnership with God transforms Israel from a dusty backwater into the earthly paradise that had been promised. It prospers. The king has no desire to maintain hostilities with Egypt, so peace and a golden future looks like a distant possibility. But threats come from within and without. His older brother, Adonijah, has always seen himself as the rightful heir to David, and is horrified at being passed over for the younger and less warlike Solomon. In Egypt, the Pharoah continues to plot Israel’s destruction. His plan to build massive armies for this purpose is put on hold when Sheba suggests she can conquer the king by seduction. Once she has her claws in Solomon and introduced her pagan idols, she will have affected the undermining of his rule and left the country open to conquest.

Sheba is played by Gina Lollobrigida, and every effort is made to portray her as the most desirable woman of her age. Once she appears in Jerusalem the queen’s costumes become smaller, sheerer, showing everything while revealing nothing, pushing the boundaries of what could be put on screen, exhibiting all the reasons why Howard Hughes invited her to leave Italy and work with him in Hollywood nearly a decade previously. Lollobrigida is at her best in these scenes, the ‘seduction’ phase of the narrative, knowing exactly how to play Sheba as an endlessly exotic siren. Solomon is rightly helpless to resist, ignoring the pleas from the heads of the twelve tribes as desire takes over everything he has worked to build.

Yul Brynner takes the part of Solomon in the film, and there’s some novelty value in seeing him with a full head of hair. He’s fine, achieving similar levels of command to that he held in The Ten Commandments, depicting clearly enough the moments when he can no longer resist Sheba. It is, however, a sad footnote of Solomon and Sheba that he wasn’t the original choice for the role at all. According to its director, King Vidor, audiences were shortchanged by Brynner, who brought none of the nuance to Solomon that had already been captured – but not completed – on film by Tyrone Power. By all accounts Power conveyed the duality of his character, the moral choice tearing him apart, and we’ll never see it apart from a handful of scenes that are available. Also a producer and driving force behind the picture’s making, Power saw this as his push into mature roles, though anyone who’s seen Nightmare Alley and his last credited appearance in Witness for the Prosecution will be aware he could kill it as well as anyone. Power was filming the climactic fight scene with George Sanders’s Adonijah before having to stop, and shortly after dying from a massive heart attack. He was 44 years old, younger than me in fact, though our paths differ in the fact I don’t work through four packs of cigarettes a day. Alas the lack of adequate health warnings, or alternatives, back then.

In his mid-fifties at this stage, Sanders looks too long in tooth for Adonijah – the following year’s The Village of the Damned is a far better use of his talents – but brings his usual gusto to the proceedings. The rest of the cast is filled out with mostly British actors, with roles of varied screen time for the likes of Laurence Naismith, Harry Andrews, Jean Anderson and Finlay Currie, the latter making his customary ‘wise old man’ turn in historical epics as the dying King David. As for Farrar, he plays the power broker behind it all, the Egyptian Pharoah. While that might suggest a meaty part, he’s restricted to two scenes in which he has to set in motion schemes that will be enacted by other people. Farrar easily has the air of authority to play Pharoah, but it’s a shame to see so little of him.

I find it difficult to criticise the film for its inaccuracies when I consider the source material to be the written versions of oral storytelling, as much allegorical as they are records of fact. That leaves nitpicking over, for example, the Israeli state’s heavy use of the Star of David on its iconography, its armour (Solomon has it blandished proudly on his shield), whereas in reality it first appeared anywhere in medieval times. But does that mean it’s any good? Well, I would recommend it as an entertaining picture for completists rather than essential to the genre. Try as they might to take the material seriously, the cast can’t stop the plot from being a bit on the silly side. The word of God makes a cameo appearance, complete with the same ethereal smoke that once smote the Egyptian first born in the The Ten Commandments. A climactic battle, while impressively mounted, pivots on a chance bit of inspired wisdom by Solomon/advice from God that compels the entire Egyptian army to plunge itself into a crevasse. And how about the film’s notorious orgy scene, no doubt daring for its time but one that now verges on the laughable.

One thing that Solomon and Sheba ain’t is boring. At 141 minutes it isn’t overlong and packs in a lot of action, though things slow down during Sheba’s efforts to seduce Solomon. In the turgid stakes it can’t compete with Cleopatra, which no doubt saw its enormous profits (despite middling criticism it was a box office hit) as justification for inserting scene after scene where very little happens. Talking of which, the latter production aped this one in depicting a Queen’s entrance into the home of her (would be) lover, one-upping it with the staggering scene that sees Elizabeth Taylor sitting atop an enormous Sphinx.

Production levels are high throughout, with the usual impressive efforts by costume departments to kit out literal armies of extras in contemporary uniforms. Freddie Young was on hand as Director of Photography, and used the vast possibilities of the Technirama screen process to produce a visually beautiful piece of work, Israel presented as a lush oasis surrounded by desert wilderness. This was director Vidor’s last feature. Having been involved in Hollywood cinema since its earliest days, it seems clear that the long and difficult production, the loss of Power, the filming in other countries (it was shot mainly in Spain) and the need to direct a cast of thousands took their toll. Having done his best work way back in the Silent Era, Vidor finally called time on a lengthy and distinguished career, and left an impressive cache of films that dated back incredibly to 1913.

Anyone seeking the less celebrated Ben-Hur should be advised that Solomon and Sheba isn’t it. There are many better examples of epic cinema, but I will confess to enjoying it as a fun spectacle. A limited run of Blu-Ray editions was released in 2015; I have the Studio Canal Region 2 DVD and am very happy with the restoration effort that went into it, certainly enough not to hunt down the HD upgrade. As with many basically average titles from the time, there’s still a lot of pleasure to be had from this one, though signs the genre was running out of steam are clear. It was all very well to pump millions into productions so long as they were reclaimed with ticket sales, but once that stopped the expensive gamble of historical epics was nigh, and that moment would come, with devastating force, in the following decade.

A Voyage through the Star Trek Movies

Merry Christmas all! The usual apologies about the lack of activity on these pages, something I never intended but as ever real life has a manner of getting in the way. I’m about ten films short of covering the Alfred Hitchcock filmography, so that series of articles should be available before too long (and it will be a series – thousands of words already committed, so it can only ever be published over instalments), though my hope was to have it ready by now. Alas not.

In the meantime, I’ve been working my way through the Star Trek films boxset. They look lovely in HD, and for the most part – though not always – the achievements in effects and cinematography have not aged very badly at all. The series has always been a part of my life. I went to see a lot of the movies at the cinema, I think from the second episode onwards, while the rich body of TV work means that the universe conceived by Gene Roddenberry is never very far away. But are they any good? To date there have been thirteen cinematic entries, and in 2019 it will be forty years since the original motion picture was released. The results, as we will see, are mixed. Some are great, some okay, a couple rotten. For the record I don’t hold entirely with the notion that the even numbered titles are better than their odd numbered siblings. Most are worth something. So here are some thoughts on each film, with once again the wish that anyone reading these words has a very happy holiday, and all my best wishes for (a better) 2019 go to you all!

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Star Trek: the Motion Picture

My oath of celibacy is on record, Captain.

Over the years, my opinion of Star Trek: The Motion Picture has shifted considerably. Upon first viewing I was bored, really nullified, that said I was seven years old and the marketing had given the false impression of this one as an action adventure as opposed to the philosophical piece they were actually going for. Still, for some time I thought of this one as ‘The Slow-Motion Picture‘ and it took subsequent showings for my feelings about it to soften. It’s worth warning through that it remains rather glacial in terms of its pacing. There’s a thee-hour(ish) scene that simply shows a shuttle performing a fly-by of the Enterprise and it feels indulgent and designed to showcase the effects work, which is admittedly superb. If you like that element of reverence then fine, otherwise the film can sometimes drop to torturous slowness.

I did mention my changing opinion though, and in truth this is a film I’ve come to love. I’ve thought about why and it comes down to this – if a project is made with real love, a sincere effort to create something great via its production values, a plot that aims for some degree of profundity and the sheer abilities of the talent involved then I’m more than fine with that. You don’t hire Robert Wise to direct if you don’t care. Ditto Alan Dean Foster on writing duties, and a score by Jerry Goldsmith that really touches the heavens – it’s gorgeous. The Motion Picture looks great (the effects have been ‘touched up’ to make it look more 21st century, though in an unobtrusive way rather than garishly), and credit goes to the acting, especially William Shatner, who conveys his character’s human fallibility so well and completely looks the part.

I don’t think the film can ever be thought of as a blast, as a fast-paced adventure yarn, but taken on its own merits it’s a brilliant work all told, and worthy of re-appraisal. I think there are better entries in the series, but many try to capture a degree of fun and dramatic weightlessness that this one bypasses, aiming instead for thoughtful science fiction, living up to the story’s remit of space exploration and discovering new life forms, which it ends up pulling off to fine effect.

Read the full review

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Stark Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

To the last, I will grapple with thee! From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee! For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee!

The second entry in the series is now considered such a success that it’s hard to remember the tough times involved in getting the thing made. First the budget, with Khan having less than a quarter of The Motion Picture’s money invested in it. You can see that on the screen occasionally, from some of the effects work to shots from the first film that have simply been recycled. Gene Roddenberry, blamed for The Motion Picture’s relative lack of success, was kicked off having any direct involvement in this project, Khan being handed to producer Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer (the young director who at the time was best known for Time After Time, one of those forgotten movies that really deserves better). The pair was hired to deliver a film that could be made on a fraction of the original’s budget, and between them came up with perhaps the best and certainly the most exhilarating entry in the entire series.

Khan’s a lot of fun, and if you want to judge its impact on the franchise, let alone its wild profitability, then consider there might not have been future films nor The Next Generation without it, while the recent, rebooted movies have been made with this one’s spirit in mind. It achieves a very fine balance between action adventure and a story carrying some heft, ruminating on the theme of Kirk’s advancing age and casting Ricardo Montalban’s revenge obsessed Khan as a future Captain Ahab, locked in his own version of Moby Dick (he even quotes passages from Melville’s text) with Kirk his whale. Considering the combatants never meet in person, their duel taking place entirely over ship to ship communication, their enmity produces pure electricity. Throw in a sub-plot involving Genesis, the sci-fi device that can somehow create new Earths from lifeless planets, and you have an outright winner. Leonard Nimoy famously wanted to make this film his swansong as Spock, part of what feels like a perpetual struggle to move beyond the pointy ears. As it happened, he had such a good time making the film that he agreed to stay on, not only helping to dictate the future plotline of the series but relegating Saavik to a lesser role. Kirstie Alley’s feisty Vulcan cadet was initially intended to replace Spock and enjoyed enhanced screen time, killing off most of the cast in the opening scene’s teaser that turns out to be a training exercise, but Nimoy’s decision to return put paid to her future development.

Khan remains a real blast of a picture, even more than 35 years down the line. It’s certainly good enough to make any update of it redundant, a fact that would be unfortunately ignored in the future.

Read the full review

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)

All systems automated and ready. A chimpanzee and two trainees could run her.

The base rule about Star Trek movies is that the even numbered ones are good, the odd numbered poor. I would argue this entry provides an exception to the rule (which was completely thrown out by the time the Next Generation crew took over). Leonard Nimoy, excited about his time on The Wrath of Khan decided he wished to return and took over directorial duties after Nicholas Meyer left the project. Harve Bennett turned in a script that padded out the film’s fairly rudimentary plot (I mean come on, they were always going to find Spock!) by taking the ultimate fan servicing step of destroying the Enterprise itself. There’s a great Klingon villain, played by a pre-Doc Brown Christopher Lloyd, and the Federation are outed as overly bureaucratic and short-sighted.

The theme for Kirk is one of giving up everything for the sake of saving his best friend. The Captain’s son dies. His career is ruined, his ship in pieces over the equally devastated Genesis world. It’s a heavy price to pay and thank goodness it’s worth it as he goes through the wringer in achieving his goal. The Enterprise’s theft and escape from space dock, involving the old crew foiling the pursuit of the allegedly superior Excelsior, is staged with bravura, while the tussle against Kruge’s (Lloyd) Bird of Prey is impressive and echoes some of the previous film’s best moments. The script also has space for an injection of humour, which Nimoy directs well, along with giving everyone in the crew something to do. On the downside, the film’s budgetary limitations are shown up from time to time, visual reminders of the fact it cost less than half of the year before’s Return of the Jedi to make. The stuff in space is fine enough with ILM producing the goods and conjuring a dramatic detonating Enterprise, but the footage on the Genesis planet very clearly takes place on a sound stage, matte paintings to give a sense of depth looking like exactly what they are.

For all its limitations, The Search for Spock is a worthy entry, confidently helmed by Nimoy (no mean feat for a debut turn behind the camera) and showcasing a rather beautiful score by James Horner. Recommended.

Read the full review

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

They like you very much, but they are not the hell your whales

The premise for the crew’s fourth outing wasn’t especially promising. An intergalactic Swiss Roll turns up to threaten the Earth’s atmosphere, its message unidentifiable and making the planet’s destruction an inevitability. The only ones who can help are the Enterprise crew, by now flying a Klingon Bird of Prey and returning to Earth to face justice for their transgressions during the previous movie. Working out that the Roll’s noises are in fact whale calls, said mammals being extinct in their time, the only course of action they can take is to fly back into the past, find two humpbacked whales, and somehow return them to the future. Sounds silly, right? Not to mention overly polemical about environmental issues (which were emerging globally as the big deal back in the mid-eighties), and that’s before we explore the practicalities. Apparently, time travel can be achieved by sling-shotting around the sun at warp speed, and you can imagine the writers’ meeting where that one was pitched – yeah, it’ll do…

And yet it works, it works really well, largely because the film plays up to its comic potential with a cast that’s prepared to take itself not at all seriously. One of the main criticisms of the ‘lazier’ Trek movies is that beyond the Holy Trinity of Kirk, Spock and McCoy the rest of the crew just kind of stands around and watches, and that doesn’t happen here as everyone gets a significant sub-plot of their own. There’s the delicious sight of Chekov asking passing San Franciscans where the ‘nuclear wessels‘ are in a thick Russian accent. Scottie loses it with a computer that he has to operate using the keyboard rather than talking to it. Best of all is Bones’s visit to a hospital, emitting a series of complaints about primitive techniques – ‘My God man, drilling holes in his head is not the answer!‘ Amidst all this the potentially heavy handed message about humanity’s folly in not protecting the environment is managed carefully and touched upon as lightly as possible. The whales are for the most part animatronic models, and I couldn’t tell, and I’ve watched this entry many times. It’s all directed with great confidence and aplomb by Leonard Nimony, who gives his own character some of the best lines (Spock discovers swearing on 20th century Earth – ‘The hell they did‘) while ensuring the whole crew gets more or less equal billing.

Star Trek IV was a box office hit, well received by the critics, and ensured the series’ longevity. What could have been a dull tubthumper turns out to be one of the most entertaining entries in the franchise, a genuinely fun and wholesome attempt to show the possibilities inherent within the Trek universe.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

What does God need with a starship?

By some distance the least appreciated of the ‘Original Series’ films, Star Trek V reads like an extended ego massage for its star and on this occasion director, William Shatner. The premise is that Kirk defeats God, which leads to some very easy criticisms of the Captain, by all accounts no stranger to arrogance and hubris (though it’s worth arguing that many of his appearances, especially on the likes of Boston Legal, play up to his image and suggest a level of self-awareness for which he has not always been credited). And that’s only the start of the film’s problems. Limited budgets were ever a problem during the 1980s run, but it’s only here that Star Trek actually looks cheap, much of the effects work struggling to match the movie’s ambition. And certain scenes just jar. There’s the jaw-dropping moment when Uhura performs a feather dance to distract some guards, which spits in the face of narrative logic, the feline bar dancer with three breasts, the Klingon captain pursuing the Enterprise who’s ultimately dealt with as a very naughty boy…

For all that, it isn’t without worth. The film spends some time taking a deep breath as its characters go on vacation, and the campfire scenes between Kirk, Spock and McCoy are warmly handled, just three dudes chilling out. The main story, in which Spock’s half-brother – who’s ruled by his emotions – methodically takes over the Enterprise via a combination of mind control and faith techniques, provides some good material and effectively alienates the main cast members from the rest of the crew. We get to explore some of the reasons why McCoy is as jaded and cynical as he’s become, which is really well directed, nicely acted by DeForest Kelley and carries emotional weight. But these moments are distractions from a plot that largely disappoints, especially at the climax, and too often the film relies on weak humour, as though Shatner wanted to reprise the comic tone of The Voyage Home but didn’t have the material nor the ‘fish out of water’ basis that made that previous instalment such a winner. Worst of all perhaps is the decision to relegate the Klingons to secondary characters, a sideline threat, a mistake that would not be repeated in the series’ next instalment.

These problems were reflected in a relatively poor (though not disastrous) return at the box office, and it remains the worst reviewed of the entire franchise, according to Rotten Tomatoes. Fair? Personally I’m not sure, though there’s little arguing with the episode’s status as the weak link within a very strong field.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Must have been your lifelong ambition

The existence of a sixth big screen outing hung in the balance for a time, concerns over the poor returns for The Final Frontier and the now rapidly advancing age of the cast suggesting the original crew had enjoyed their last star trek. But the increasing success on television of The Next Generation made the project feasible, and once Nicholas Meyer was installed as director there was a growing sense of all becoming right with the world again. Scouring the known universe for a plot, they did what any good Western used to do and turned real-life events into the backdrop for a story, this time the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, translated here into the end of the Klingon Empire as a military threat after the destruction of their main energy source. Against the better wishes of anyone with peace on their mind, Kirk and his crew are dispatched to escort the Klingon Chancellor to Earth in order to begin talks about ending hostilities. Disaster ensues when the Chancellor is murdered and his ship fired upon, apparently by the Enterprise, which leads to Kirk and McCoy being tried and found guilty of murder. They know they didn’t do it and so do we, and so a desperate bid for escape takes place before further assassinations can take place and war is resumed.

The Undiscovered Country turns out to be a fine end to the crew from the Original Series, packed with wit and adventure and ever poking fun at the players’ ages, their status as defunct warriors in a new era of intergalactic Glasnost. It has a good pace, especially when the film focuses on Kirk and McCoy’s stay at a dismal frozen prison camp and their action packed efforts to get away. The Enterprise plays host to a compelling Whodunnit mystery, Spock leading the investigation, alongside Kim Cattrall as a young Vulcan officer. David Warner features briefly as the slain Ambassador, but the most fun is to be had from Christopher Plummer, almost unrecognisable as a Shakespeare quoting Klingon war veteran, ever with a thin smile on his face as he deals happily in death and destruction.

The costs for this one were trimmed considerably as Paramount ruminated over the film’s potential box office. An original budget of $41 million was cut back to $27 million over the course of production, the cast taking pay cuts and lavishly developed scenes being simply excised from the script. That makes The Undiscovered Country one of the series’ cheaper entries, far less costly than The Motion Picture from thirteen years beforehand, and yet it never really matters. Meyer uses humour, pace and characterisation in place of expensive special effects, building to a good natured ending point that places a nice seal on the old crew’s antics.

Star Trek: Generations (1994)

It was… fun. Oh my…

If there’s an entry in the series that has me disagreeing with the general consensus, then it’s Generations. I think it’s fascinating. The Nexus ribbon that forms the film’s object is a really interesting idea and it’s very nicely played out, giving Patrick Stewart the kind of emotive material to work with that he so rarely got and in any event being the kind of entity you can imagine people fighting to enter, hence Malcolm McDowell’s scientist, obsessed to the point of psychosis in returning there. The movie exists as a handing over of the baton from Kirk to Picard and the Next Generation crew, and it almost entirely works, from the former’s unease over the ceremonial duties he has to perform through to the fateful decision he makes to work alongside his successor in stopping McDowell’s mad scientist. For Kirk it’s a fitting send-off, letting him go down as a man of action, as having made a difference, even if for fans it felt like a death happening too easily. All this can make me overlook the film’s plot holes, of which there are many. If you were Jean-Luc and you could have returned to any time in reality, would you have chosen the moment he did…?

In other places, Generations doesn’t work quite so well and perhaps it’s here that the film’s troubled production comes into sharper focus. Fighting budgetary restraints and relying often on the TV production crew, the film sometimes looks like an expanded episode of the series rather than a big screen feature, with several scenes thrown in – notably the crash landing of the Enterprise’s saucer section on a forested world – to lend a little cinematic gloss to the proceedings. Worse still is the forced humour deriving from Data’s decision to have his emotion chip fitted, the shtick relying on the viewer’s willingness to find hilarity in the character’s tics and cheap gags. I wasn’t willing. It stunk.

Whether through the novelty of seeing two Trek captains in the same film, goodwill from audiences or the fact it’s actually not a bad film (the effects too look to have taken an upward shift, thanks to improved technology and despite the limited costs), Generations was a box office success and ensured further entries for the series. Personally, it’s one I’ve always rather liked.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

You broke your little ships

The Borg, huh? Sound Swedish, and they remain one of my favourite villains in Science Fiction, I think because their hive mind and lack of emotional involvement make them the stuff of sweaty nightmares. I remember watching the old Next Generation two-parter, The Best of Both Worlds, the delirious anticipation between the the third series’ close and the start of the next – how could they leave things the way they did at the end of Season 3? What a cliffhanger! In many ways, the decision to give the Borg an individual ruler in First Contact comes across as a shame. Despite a fine turn from Alice Krige, the Queen’s existence flies into the face of the species’ many ranks of anonymous servers somewhat, the idea you could kill millions of them and they would just keep on coming.

The film was a big success and it stands for me as a high point in the series, easily the best of the Next Generation movies with a fast-paced plot designed for the big screen and never fails to entertain. It’s also a two-hander, Stewart’s beleaguered Captain tussling with the Borg on board the Enterprise while Ryker leads a team on Earth of the past aiding James Cromwell’s grizzled Zefram Cochran to achieve ‘first contact’, the legendary moment of humanity’s future history when warp speed is first achieved. The latter serves up some choice moments as Cochran, this revered historical figure, turns out to be a drunk who sees only profit in his advancements, but the film wholly belongs to Patrick Stewart. Burdened with memories of his past encounter with the Borg, Picard transforms their efforts to take over the Enterprise as a personal crusade, the script offering clever allusions between his battle and that of Captain Ahab, not the first time Star Trek would refer to Moby Dick but very effectively done. Data gets a decent slice of the action as the crew member who spends his time with Krige’s unnaturally sexy Queen, giving him more to do than react to stuff happening as in Generations.

It’s a confident directorial outing for Jonathan Frakes, who prior to this had helmed a number of TV episodes but was given his debut cinematic job on First Contact. He opts for an action adventure playing at breakneck pace, which is good because the sheer speed at which things happen obscure the film’s various illogical twists and turns, the plotholes that can occur when a story messes around with timelines. More than one viewing ensures these are exposed, but they don’t detract from what is a cracking couple of hours’ entertainment, arguably drilling down the ‘science’ of some Star Trek entries but optimising instead on fun and spectacle, which is no bad thing.

Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)

I kiss you and you say “yuck”?

Insurrection stands as one of those great missed opportunities for me. After First Contact goodwill in the franchise was high. The series could have gone anywhere, done anything. A direct sequel might have been in order, but instead it was decided to make something in the vein of the fourth outing, an episode light in tone that could find favour with audiences in the same way that the ‘one with the whales’ had done. Jonathan Frakes’s services as director were retained, and Michael Piller, responsible in part for creating Deep Space Nine as well as many of the Next Generation’s highest regarded scripts, wrote the screenplay.

The result is a film that, while never really bad, plays like an extended TV episode rather than a bold cinematic outing. The story, about a planet with rings that contain some life rejuvenating properties and is contested over, is quite a decent one, leading to the crew members regaining elements of their youth. These range from the nice – La Forge no longer requiring his visor – to the rather less edifying sight of Riker getting some sex scenes with Troi. Just put it away, Number One! The early plotline during which Data appears to turn rogue is good, largely because it shows the potential for the series’ ubiquitous android as a villain, albeit temporarily. And the film offers roles for two fine actors – Anthony Zerbe plays a Federation Admiral who has dubious morals, while no less a figure than F Murray Abraham is on hand as a bad guy who is more or less unrecognisable thanks to his character undergoing perpetual face stretching operations in order to stay alive.

As an episode in the TV series, Insurrection would have been fine. It isn’t boring and the scenes in space – by now, CGI was used entirely for these bits and offered up some rather ravishing spacescapes – are fluid and exciting. But it just doesn’t have the dramatic heft and scope of a feature film. The humour doesn’t really work for anyone not overtly familiar with the characters and perhaps, in the end, unlike their original series counterparts the Next Generation was unable to transfer so successfully to the big screen.

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

You’re too slow, old man

There comes a point watching Star Trek movies, specifically those that transfer a crew seen on TV onto the big screen, where you have to wonder what the point of it all is. What do they do to make the adventures more cinematic? Where in the film is the justification for making fans part with their money to see their heroes at a multiplex? The movies featuring the original cast got that, I think, whether serving up visuals that TV budgets could never aspire to creating or using directors and crews with skills honed in producing for the cinema. Even The Final Frontier, for all its deep flaws, and they’re deep indeed, had a level of scale and ambition that made it appropriate for movie audiences. Contrast that with an entry like Nemesis, and the previous Insurrection, and all that goes away. As does much in terms of characterisation here. There’s about a third of the film’s footage that was excised from it as they focused on moments of character interaction, the aim being to present a trim, lean action movie that captured the spirit of The Wrath of Khan with its opposing captains being the driving force.

The result is a largely incoherent mess, one that wastes the potential of a riveting plot that pits Picard against a clone of himself, played here by a young Tom Hardy. Hardy plays Shinzon, created by the Romulans as a version of Picard to be used as a spy but is instead confined to slavery, before he emerges in adulthood as the leader of the Remans (the second class subordinates to Romulus). Instigating a coup over the Romulan Empire, Shinzon lures the Enterprise to meet him as part of a plot to capture Picard and use his blood in an effort to stop his own rapid ageing. But things don’t go to plan; the Captain smells a rat, especially when he learns that Shinzon’s real intention is to invade the Federation using a new super weapon. Sounds well enough, yet it’s wasted due to a staggering level of indifference from all concerned. Action scenes are inserted for no good reason, such as the exploration of a planet using dune buggies, which doesn’t make any sense and is just done to insert an artificial sense of urgency. A prototype version of Data is discovered seemingly for comic effect (it isn’t funny), and to give the character an ‘out’ when he sacrifices himself at the end of the film. There’s a subplot involving the marriage of Riker and Troi, which only works at all because of the actors’ chemistry, while the space scenes feature some gorgeous CGI but have no dramatic heft. They’re there to make us go ‘ooh pretty‘ rather than mattering. Even the scene when the Enterprise rams Shinzon’s ship lacks weight; we’ve seen worse happen and the moment doesn’t have any real consequences for where the story’s heading towards. Jerry Goldsmith, hired once again the provide the music, doesn’t really offer anything new. Like everyone else, he isn’t trying. As for the cut footage, we’re talking potentially about some of the series’ best bits, the little interactions that make us care for these characters. Without them, why should we be interested?

Sad then, to see the franchise go out – as indeed it was about to on TV schedules as Enterprise disappointed towards cancellation – with such a tired sigh. At its best, Star Trek could be both thrilling and smart, was capable of depicting a crew presented with problems with which they dealt intelligently, just as you imagine a group of humans given the best and most optimistic vision of the future doing, but here it just feels like everyone had had enough. Nemesis should have been a final hurrah to the franchise; instead it’s a death knell.

Star Trek (2009)

Green-blooded hobgoblin

Sometimes you just have to judge a film based on how much fun you had watching it at the cinema, and I admit I had a blast with the rebooted Star Trek. As a long-term sort of fan (having seen all the films, many of the TV shows, not having a clue about the Klingon language and missing half the fan-servicing references) I was sceptical about this one. Given the semi-successful nature of cinematic relaunches, the spate of which we’re undergoing still, I was worried that Star Trek would turn out to be a quick buck-making bit of nonsense, and so it was pleasing to enjoy it as much as I did.

J J Abrams has his fans and detractors, but he knows how to inject pace and generate excitement. There’s a great Red Letter Media video that goes on at some length about everything that’s wrong with the Star Wars prequels. Lots of walking and talking, no sense of urgency, and the contrast is made with this one, characters who seem to spend their lives running around in blind panic, everything cut to enhance the frantic action, and not only does it play splendidly it can make viewers overlook the nonsensical plot, how fragile it all holds together. It’s certainly a lot of fun. The young cast bring a great deal of energy to their roles, and apart from Karl Urban’s hysterical impression of DeForest Kelley do a lot to enhance their famous characters. A note on Chris Pine’s Kirk, played here as a wisecracking superhero and displaying none of the vulnerability Shatner went for in his big screen outings. It’s fascinating to watch Kirk’s rise from cheeky outcast to ship’s captain, while the fan servicing scene in which he beats Spock’s Kobayashi Maru simulation is bravura storytelling, telling you everything you need to know about both characters.

The question remains whether it’s actually Star Trek at all. I guess it’s a reboot for people who got a ride out of the Transformers movies, mixing high velocity action with nods and allusions to its sources. It’s better than those films too because Abrams has enough respect for the material to make it worthwhile. Is it up to the standard of the original series of movies? Not sure about that, and there’s an element of pointlessness about trying to compare films made in the 1980s with those for twenty first century audiences – different films for different viewers – but, as mentioned above, I had a great deal of fun watching it, and that counts for a lot.

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

I’m going to make this very simple for you

Given the success of the 2009 relaunched Star Trek, was it the best idea to recycle a much loved character and storyline from earlier in the series for the sequel? For the first half of Into Darkness it all works well enough. Kirk and the Enterprise wilfully break the Prime Directive in rescuing Spock (seasoned viewers will be smiling at the sheer number of times this impossible rule has been shattered previously), and they’re then tasked with getting rid of a mysterious figure who’s been sabotaging the Federation. It’s only when this man is revealed to be none other than Khan Noonien Singh that the plot unravels into a retread of The Wrath of Khan, even rehashing the death of a major character in saving the ship and the frustrated bellow of ‘KHAAAAANNNNN!’.

There’s an extent to which all this is very nice, multiple winks to long term viewers – hey look kids, it’s just like before but a bit different – and entertaining action adventure for the casuals. Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan is about as good as Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan is likely to be, in fact he’s great – composed, cold and brilliant where Montalban was all bombast and spat out curses. The plotline that has a Starfleet Admiral (played, in a great bit of casting, by Peter Weller) using both Khan and Kirk as pawns within a scheme to spark off a war against the Klingons, is pretty good stuff. And the movie runs at a suitably frantic pace, as before packed with sufficient action to stop all but the most jaded audience members unpicking the nonsensical logic and plot-holes.

On the downside, in a universe that could have gone anywhere the decision to supply a rebooted franchise with a rebooted plot smacks of laziness and feels a bit unnecessary. Was there any need for any of it? Did Cumberbatch’s Khan do a number on Montalban? Did you burn your copy of Wrath of Khan because it was simply done better and ‘right’ this time around? Of course not. Where Kirk’s anger over Khan’s actions in the earlier film held real weight, the culmination of mounting frustration, when Spock does the same here it just feels contrived, present as a nod for the fans. Similarly the sacrifice Kirk makes in his one, echoing Spock’s actions earlier in the series, carries little heft because the film has already posited an ‘out’ for his character, a means to bring him back to life, whereas Spock’s death way back in the early 1980s was emotionally devastating due to its (apparent) finality. No amount of Simon Pegg’s Scotty cheering up the screen or Alice Eve appearing solely for the scene where she strips off (for virtually no reason) can mask the emptiness at the heart of this film, the fact it was made because it could be, for the money, and that’s a shame.

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

In Loving Memory of Leonard Nimoy

The most recent Trek movie has been tinged with tragedy. First there was the passing of Leonard Nimoy, the legendary actor without whom the series just feels a bit less, indeed it was his cameo appearances in the two previous entries that lent them an indefinable amount of credibility and continuity. And then there was the tragic loss of Anton Yelchin, just 27 years old and already with a fine catalogue of appearances hinting at a great screen acting career in prospect. For this film, J J Abrams had jumped over to some other relaunched science fiction epic, staying on as producer only, and the reins were handed over to Justin Lin, the genius behind those loud, brash and disposable Fast and Furious movies. The signs were ominous. Would Beyond turn into a sequence of elaborate set piece action sequences linked with superfluous plot points?

The answer, happily, is no, and I would argue that for the first time in the rebooted series there’s a sense of these films having the conviction to go their own way rather than endlessly reference their own past (though it’s filled with nods all the same, with special mention for allusions to Star Trek: Enterprise). The worst thing I can say about Beyond is that Idris Elba makes for a surprisingly weak villain, but that’s more or less okay because the rest clicks into place really well. The entire crew gets significant parts to play, including Simon Pegg’s Scotty (surely just a coincidence that Pegg co-wrote the screenplay), and Sofia Bouletta’s alien warrior makes for an agreeable addition to the cast. It moves along at the usual breakneck pace and some of the visuals are astonishing, in particular Starbase Yorktown, which shows a level of care and attention to stretching the limits of the human imagination in a science fiction setting.

On the downside, the entire effort seems to be on offering spectacle at the expense of anything close to science; it’s fine enough as a pure fantasy, yet when you think of what they aimed to make with The Motion Picture all those years ago you realise that the premise’s initial intentions have been pretty much trodden underfoot. Does Beyond, therefore, do anything that you can’t get with the rebooted Star Wars series, for example, or perhaps more pertinently Guardians of the Galaxy, which was already stealing this franchise’s thunder. Once those elements linking the Star Trek universe with scientific possibilities have been expunged, does anything remain that’s special or unique, or is this just another blockbuster property swimming to keep up with the rest?

Who knows? More instalments are promised, with no less a figure than Quentin Tarantino linked at some point in the future, and in the meantime a new series has been commissioned by CBS, which has attracted mixed reviews but, speaking personally, I rather enjoyed it. The existing movies pretty much span my lifetime, with the original series released beforehand and many additional Star Trek shows on television occurring in the intervening years. All told I find it a mixed bag, some genuinely great ideas colliding with the occasional plodding storytelling and dull characters. And yet its central thesis, of a future in which the world has combined its collective powers and set out to explore the universe, is a very encouraging, fascinating and ultimately optimistic one. As I write these words it seems a very long way away, whether the last gasp of old, deep rooted values or something fundamentally unsavoury at the heart of the human condition, but for me the vision of mankind’s destiny that Star Trek posits is about as hopeful as these things can ever get, and there’s nothing very wrong in watching that.

(Obsessed with) Vertigo (1958)

As a family we’ve got into the habit of watching a ‘quality’ film on Saturday nights. It can be new, old, critically acclaimed, a cult classic or something we have watched and enjoyed in the past. The broad idea is to give The Boy a sort of education in cinema, and on most occasions titles he might ordinarily have scorned instead become sources of delight. A great success recently was Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, the sort of film in which things are happening all the time, often at a rapid fire pace, and it’s good fun throughout. 12 Angry Men – loved it. Who doesn’t? Of the more recent offerings, we tried Point Break, which is showing its age a bit now but still holds up as an action spectacular.

This weekend it was the turn of Vertigo, my son’s choice having sampled two previous Hitchcock winners in Strangers on a Train and Psycho (the latter, once we got past that scene, which everyone has seen often out of context, ramps up the tension afterwards and found him helplessly caught in the suspenseful mastery). Vertigo is a tougher nut, of course. It divides this house. I adore it. Mrs Mike finds it a bit boring, and it’s quite permissible to have that kind of reaction. On this occasion, the magic didn’t happen. The Boy lasted for about half the film before conceding defeat and walking away, a reaction I thought could happen as it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

Vertigo is saddled with the tag of being in many quarters the greatest film of all time. Personally I’m not even sure it’s Hitchcock’s best, though it’s certainly one of a select number of titles that could qualify, but all said whilst a masterpiece it is of the slightly flawed vintage. There are moments, notably the film’s climax, which for me come across as a little on the clunky side, and remain reasons why some critics think it doesn’t quite deserve the exalted status it’s achieved. And yet, when The Boy announced last week that he was selecting Vertigo for our Saturday night movie I admit that I looked forward very much to seeing it again. In the build-up, I listened to Bernard Herrmann’s astonishing score several times. It’s possibly my favourite of them all, of any film soundtrack. Watching it, on my own for the film’s second half, I wallowed in it, the colours brought to vibrant life in its HD transfer. The restoration was so good that it looked as though it could have been released a month ago, rather than sixty years in the past. When I was done I was tempted to go back to the start and catch it all over again, and I can easily picture myself not finishing this piece without another viewing.

It’s a film that I have often wanted to talk about on these pages but at the same time am apprehensive. I would like to find the words that do it justice, capturing what it is about Vertigo that holds an endless fascination for me, and it’s possible I’m not up to the task. It holds the sort of allure that tempts me into booking a ticket to San Francisco so that I can do a pilgrimage of the city, wander in the footsteps of Scotty and Madeleine around its old haunts, like the former do it at five in the morning in the hope of capturing some of its lonely, dreamlike quality, and obviously there would be little point. It’s a different city to the one shown in the film, and many of the locations simply don’t exist now. But I don’t need to do any of that to appreciate and love the picture, one that has every bit as troubled a history as the events it depicts. As bizarre as it seems for such a critically acclaimed work, it’s  worth bearing in mind that contemporary minds did not feel the same way about it, citing Vertigo as indulgent, all over the place, carrying an elusive message that was not realised successfully. Too long. Too slow. Critics had a problem with the film’s twist being explained with a third of it still to run, apparently not ‘getting it’ that its murder mystery elements weren’t really the point. For some years, it wasn’t possible to see Vertigo at all. While not a commercial failure it wasn’t a success, and along with several other titles it was held by the Hitchcock estate until after his death, and even then it was another chunk of time before the film was restored to its present glory.

For my part, I had a similar reaction to The Boy upon my first experience of Vertigo. Screened by Channel 4 in the 1980s as part of a lengthy season of Hitchcock films, back when they still had seasons, it lacked the obvious qualities of other entries that came loaded and taut with sweet suspense. It has since risen to become one of those movies I dust off broadly once per year, and oddly enough I enjoy it more with each watch. Explaining why is a tougher prospect. There are of course the traditional elements, the happy coincidence of director, cast and crew all working at the top of their respective games, and when you’re talking about the Hollywood gold that contributed to Vertigo that’s some game. You can start with thinking that the music makes it, especially because Herrmann’s prelude and the musical accompaniment to the rooftop scene are so strong. The photography is ravishing, another Hitchcock regular Robert Burks on top form and utterly eclipsing the Oscar winning work he put in for To Catch a Thief. He wasn’t nominated for Vertigo, which in hindsight seems like a criminal act because it really doesn’t get any better than this. Whether shooting James Stewart in centre frame sat in his car, then switching to the actor’s perspective as he tracks the languorous progress of Kim Novak’s iconic green Jaguar, or the riot of colour that explodes with the visit to the flower store, it’s a thing of staggering beauty. I would love to visit the Palace of Fine Arts, but I fully expect that seeing it in real life wouldn’t capture the otherworldly romanticism with which Burks shot it in the film.

Hitchcock felt that Stewart’s advancing years made him a less than convincing love interest for the much younger Novak, yet it’s in retrospect that we can appreciate it’s exactly this quality that makes his character’s story so tragic – all those wasted years, the ‘make do’ option of Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), the chance of happiness with Novak’s Madeleine that’s snatched, brief and elusive, and will haunt him forever, the startling ice blue in his eyes that adds a maniacal aspect to his obsessive, doomed pursuit. As for Novak, I remember writing a piece some time ago about Strangers When We Meet (that I have since lost, because I’m good like that), which turned into something of a worship at her feet. No doubt a hard hitting title by 1960 standards, Novak stood out amidst a distinguished cast as the woman trapped by her own beauty, doomed to be hit upon and defined by her sexuality forever. The actor and director Richard Quine were frequent collaborators, so you would imagine he knew how to use her to best effect by this stage, but Hitchcock had one attempt and coaxed this performance out of her. While you can interpret the Hitchcockian motive behind Stewart’s efforts to reproduce his lost bleached blonde love before he will love her however you want, the truth is she’s every bit as transfixing as Scottie finds her. The camera loves watching Novak, with her (apparently not feigned) physical awkwardness, the inner turmoil, her vulnerability. And she wasn’t even the first choice, Vera Miles having dropped out when she became pregnant. What a break. I’m genuinely not sure if I have ever seen a better job of acting than the one Novak produced here. It seems so natural, perhaps an innate quality that Hitchcock was able to tap into.

As I mentioned earlier I don’t think it’s a perfect movie. The standard’s so high that the false notes tend to stick out, though they’re few and far between. I do happen to believe it’s almost as good as the moving image ever tends to get, however. Sure there are pacier films, where stuff happens more quickly so that you don’t get bored, but for me there are few things better than watching beautifully constructed sequences of shots, dependably transferred from the storyboard to the screen, Scottie trailing Madeleine as Herrmann’s melancholic score drifts lazily along, an unsettling undertone to suggest the trap he’s falling into, the luxuriant quality heightening the sense of romance, the cossetted world this pair enter where there’s just each other. The music even keeps on playing when Madeleine drops into the San Francisco Bay, suddenly chaotic as if the score, like Scottie, can’t quite believe what it’s seeing.

A very famous Hitchcock quote goes ‘What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out?‘ and I don’t think it was ever more apt than in the case of Vertigo.  Just about every frame contains some visual clue about where the story’s going, showing the sheer level of care and attention that went into the film. Unlike many films that are considered up there with the best, it’s all very accessible and easy enough to follow, even if it takes a few viewings to get everything that’s happening. And best of all, and I can’t emphasise this enough, it’s just so rapturously gorgeous, from its actors to the production values, among the very highest of their time. It’s all so good that you end up wanting these tortured souls to find a morsel of happiness, even though the note of impending doom, the spiral towards destruction that featured on much of Vertigo’s artwork, informs you at every stage that it’s heading in the opposite direction. For little over two hours, Vertigo holds you in a kind of grip, I think a trancelike state, where you’re in something close to a dream, and at the very end real life – with all its troubled history – comes crashing in, as if calling time. But getting there is one of cinema’s greatest joys, and I can’t think of a better recommendation than that.

Ramble through the 2018 Oscars

It’s that time again, just a year since the previous Academy Awards and a guarantee that they’ll read the name of the correct winner this time around. Last year, I made a point of seeing all the Best Picture nominees, or at least all but the eventual victor obviously (something I soon redressed); on this occasion through a combination of laziness and lack of accessibility I haven’t been able to do the same. I could have caught The Phantom Thread, for example, but I would have had to travel to do so and in all honesty I couldn’t be bothered. There were just things that I wanted to watch more, and I hope at this stage you aren’t all going to click off as I reveal that I find Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies to be a bit of a chore sometimes.

At the time of writing, I’ve covered five of the nine finalists. Of these, the best for me is clearly Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a haunting and rather droll drama about death and its fallout. The curiousity is that Martin McDonagh’s sudden prominence has come as any sort of surprise. In Bruges was an utter blast, both very funny and quite moving, and at the time who knew Ralph Fiennes had such a gift for comedy? I would place Dunkirk in second place, if for nothing else then for Nolan’s willingness and skill in finding new ways to tell a well-trodden story, also because it’s such a tense watch. I liked but wasn’t blown away by The Shape of Water. A residual love for Guillermo del Toro saw it across the line, but I couldn’t escape the nagging feeling that I’ve seen it all before – the director made a better fist of his off-kilter fairy tale oeuvre with Pan’s Labyrinth, and despite doing little wrong – the period detail was especially well observed – this one felt kind of thin and stretched, like there wasn’t really enough going on for a full-length feature. I liked Get Out a lot and am pleased to see it get this kind of recognition, but I don’t see it as a potential best film of the year and suspect there’s an agenda by the Academy to its positioning. Finally, and by some distance, is Darkest Hour. I’m a sucker for (i) Gary Oldman (ii) films about wartime (iii) prods against the Establishment, but every bit of love for this entry drives from a first rate performance by its lead actor because much of the rest seemed cliched and set in the usual fictionalised England that didn’t exist outside a Hollywood writer’s room.  Besides which, anyone who’s watched Netflix’s The Crown knows that it’s possible to coax a striking Churchillian turn from a left-field casting choice…

The film I thought was the best of the previous year didn’t get anywhere save for the technical categories, and that was Blade Runner 2049. I was enraptured enough to have watched it three times now, and increasingly it strikes me as a five star piece of work. Just think how easy it would have been to have given us more of the same, and instead we get an entirely new plot set within the world of Deckard and Replicants, a tale that answers a stack of questions set by the original film and poses new ones, all with a thread of topicality and what it means to be human. Wonderful stuff, and that’s without a word on the frankly incredible job of world building, Deakins’s cinematography and the sound design. I would shower it with honours, and along the way I’d find time to praise the actors also.

Of course, disagreeing with the Academy is nothing new. I indulged a week off work catching up on some old unseen titles, particularly previous Oscar winners, and what a mixed bag it is. Take the first ever Awards, ninety years ago, and the honours going to Wings. On the night Sunrise was given what appeared to be an equally weighted trophy, but it’s Wellman’s World War One epic that’s considered the outright Best Picture. Having seen both, I feel Sunrise has aged far better, and retains an elegiac, haunting quality that’s as powerful now as it was when Murnau first shot it, whereas Wings… Well, it’s fine. Notable for its aerial photography, the film explodes into life when depicting dog-fights between the primitive planes waging war miles above the trenches, even serving up some colour via the machine gun fire. Elsewhere, the opening comedy of errors leads to a largely tension-free love rivalry between the two male leads, while Clara Bow – effortlessly worthy of more attention than she receives – watches on longingly. Both films are available in restored, HD editions, and are well worth seeing, but for me there’s little contest between which of the two deserves the higher praise.

Years later, there’s the Oscar for Gentleman’s Agreement, a film that promised to life the lid on anti-Semitism in post-war America. Gregory Peck is always a star I’d pay to see, but the real draw was John Garfield, that great ‘what if’ of an actor who tragically didn’t get the lasting career and plaudits his talent warranted. Sadly, it all turned out to be sanitised and safe, even resorting to some jarring exposition when Peck explains the point of it all to his son, played by a very young Dean Stockwell. At around the same time, I happened to catch Odds Against Tomorrow on Blu-Ray, a late-period classic Noir, which did a much better job of exploring themes of racism as part of a wider narrative. The film’s about a bank heist, focusing on the lengthy build-up by following the fortunes of its protagonists, Harry Bellafonte’s debt-ridden gambler and Robert Ryan. the robbery is doomed to fail before it even takes place, we learn, largely because the two men are so diametrically opposed. Ryan plays pretty much the same character he essayed in Crossfire, an unremitting racist with some casual misogyny thrown in, all in all a complete arsehole who deserves nothing less than his fate in the film. I thought it was riveting, a smashing work from Robert Wise during his richest period as a director, but despite dealing so eloquently with issues surrounding bigotry didn’t even trouble that year’s Oscars. I guess it’s easy to dismiss this one as a heist movie, however there’s so much more bubbling beneath the surface and it deserves to be better known.

For the record then, here are my ten favourites of the Best Picture winners, in date order…

1. All Quiet on the Western Front (1929/30)
2. Rebecca (1940)
3. Casablanca (1943)
4. The Lost Weekend (1945)
5. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
6. The Apartment (1960)
7. The Godfather (1972)
8. The Godfather Part II (1974)
9. Amadeus (1984)
10. The Artist (2011)

Jut goes to show there’s no accounting for taste, huh?

Whistle down the Wind (1961)

When it’s on: Thursday, 4 January (6.30 pm)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

We’re heading towards the end of this two week blitz of seasonal postings on the site, and what better film to cover than a charming slice of northern whimsy like Whistle down the Wind? Bryan Mills might be better known as a director for some of his later works, but this debut in the chair, produced by Richard Attenborough, showcasing child star Hayley Mills, and offering an early major screen role for Alan Bates, takes some beating.

The funny thing about Whistle down the Wind is that it isn’t incredibly well known, but those who have seen it tend to fall under its spell, perhaps enchanted by a film set in the shadow of Pendle Hill, Lancashire. The landmark is famous for its seventeenth century witch trials and is difficult to miss – I don’t have to travel far to see its iconic whaleback outline, isolated from the Pennines so that it stands out on the horizon. I climbed its 557 metres a few years ago, so I know what it’s like to risk a heart attack thanks to a reckless, punishing act! In any event, for a mere hill it holds a mysterious, romantic allure for visitors, while presenting a stark jab of nature into a region that grew during the Industrial Revolution. Burnley is the nearest town, once a centre for cotton production, while the hamlets that were built in the shadow of Pendle are slightly remote farming communities. It’s in the latter that the film is set.

Bernard Lee plays Bostock, a middle aged farmer whose wife died several years ago and now lives with Auntie Dorothy (Elsie Wagstaff). When irresponsible farmhand Eddie (Norman Bird) tosses a sack containing kittens into the river, they’re saved from a watery death by Bostock’s three children, Kathie (Mills), her younger sister Nan (Diane Holgate) and little brother Charles (Alan Barnes). The kids then try to find a new home for the cats, offering them to a Salvation Army official who says she can’t take them but that Jesus will make sure they’re looked after. Resigned to keeping the kittens for the present, they set up a temporary shelter in their barn, and it’s here they come across an injured and delirious man (Bates), who exclaims ‘Jesus Christ!’ when Kathie asks him who he is. He falls unconscious, and the children make the obvious leap of imagination that the stranger is none other than Jesus himself.

Over the next few days, the children bring ‘Jesus’ things to eat and slowly help him to regain his strength, letting slip their discovery to other local children so that the legend begins to spread. In the meantime, the little community is rocked by the news that an escaped wife murderer might be somewhere in the area. Police are combing the region, and Bostock tells his children not to get involved with strange men.

The story is about the formation of a myth, more specifically the ability of children to develop their own lore and in the film applying the history of Jesus – they’re taught about his miracles in Sunday School classes, led by Diane Clare’s patient teacher – that takes them out of their tough, agricultural lives to the mythology of the man in the barn. The disconnect between reality and Clare’s fantastical yarns is clear, and makes it equally obvious whether Bates is really Jesus or not, but there’s an earnest yearning among Kathie, her siblings and their friends that turns the film into an optimistic fable. For a time, imagination and the longing for something ‘bigger’ and more meaningful than themselves and their world takes precedent. The man neither confirms or denies their assertions over his identity, which adds to the mystery and allure surrounding him.

Forbes adds to the fable by linking the childrens’ meetings with the stranger to Bible tales. Their first encounter involves the three siblings, an allusion to the three wise men, and when their group extends to twelve you get the same number as the apostles. One of the kids, Jackie (Roy Holder) is picked on by a school bully to whom he claims he knows Jesus. Held in an arm lock he’s forced to deny this three times, before a train whistle sounds in the distance – the imagery should be clear enough. It’s at its most obvious in the scene where the stranger is finally arrested. Standing outside the barn where he’s been hiding and forced to stretch for a search, his silhouette against the stark white background of the sky forms the shape of the cross. All the while, the children start attributing every day acts to the power of Jesus. It starts raining and then it stops. They wonder whether he’s responsible.

Bates puts in a real star-making performance as the stranger, often communicating in little more than grunts approximating dialogue and doing the rest of the acting with his eyes, not quite believing what’s happening and having no choice but to play along with the delusion. Though a killer, there’s little suggestion that the children are in any danger from him, and the threat he represents is more implied by their blind trust rather than anything he does. Hayley Mills, the daughter of John Mills and Mary Hayley Bell (the latter wrote the novel upon which the film is based, with her daughter ever in mind for the role of Kathie), was already a star when she made Whistle down the Wind. She was Disney’s child actor of choice, but affected a note perfect northern accent and fit the part with ease, though she’s upstaged by Barnes as her little brother. Worldly wise and nasal, Barnes steals all the scenes he appears in. His catchphrase, the withering ‘It isn’t Jesus, it’s just a fella‘ could be the film’s tagline, delivered most significantly after the stranger has failed to look after his stray cat and allowed it to die. Holgate adds good value as the middle child, the focus of all those shots that depict her looking hopefully at ‘Jesus’ as though everything depends on him being the real thing. As for the other adults, Lee is fine and understated, gruff with his children yet kindly, and there isn’t a bad performance elsewhere.

Shot in crisp black and white photography, adding to the bleakness of the location while making it appear more evocative and less dirty than it deserves, and a wistful score from Malcolm Arnold that weaves in hymns and Christmas Carols, there’s a lot to cherish here. I think it’s a delightful piece of work, all about that hinterland between childhood and growing up, when you let yourself dream and hope against hope that some of it will stick. Some interpretations of the final scene suggest Kathie is left devastated by the film’s final twist, but my impression is it ends on an optimistic note, that there’s enough in what she saw and experienced to make her suspect she’ll have those feelings again some day.

Whistle down the Wind: ****

The First of the Few (1942)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 3 January (12.30 pm)
Channel: Spike
IMDb Link

The First of the Few was retitled as Spitfire for its release in some territories outside Britain, notably America. The suggestion is that US viewers knew of the British fighter plane well enough, but were less familiar with the film’s original name, a play on Winston Churchill’s famous ‘Never has so much been owed by so many to so few‘ comment about the RAF pilots who fought and won the Battle of Britain. The ‘first’ of the title refers to R. J. Mitchell, the aeronautical engineer who designed racing seaplanes and was ultimately responsible for developing the Spitfire itself.

Returning to Britain after World War Two erupted, Leslie Howard shrugged off the matinee image that had been crafted for him in Hollywood to become quite the emotional figurehead. The diffident figure he cut in Gone with the Wind, by some distance the least memorable of the principal players in that epic, was suddenly an active participant in propagandist and morale-boosting efforts. He appeared in movies, made many public appearances, all to defy the Nazis and defend his realm. Howard became so prominent that no less a figure than Lord Haw-Haw denounced him over the airwaves. Increasingly the actor was taking fuller roles in his productions. He shared directorial duties on 1938’s Pygmalion and made Pimpernel Smith in 1941. The First of the Few followed in 1942.

The film was supported by no less a figure than Churchill, who asked the RAF to give the production unprecedented access to its planes and airfields. This seal of approval ensured The First of the Few would fulfil its positive image of both Mitchell and his cause, albeit in romanticising his story. Howard played Mitchell as a softly spoken English gentleman, really a stylised version of himself, whereas in reality the engineer was a tough, working class Potteries man, given to bouts of barely controlled rage and torrents of abusive language. This might not have suited the image Howard wanted to project, though he did seize on Mitchell’s work ethic, the fact he’d driven himself into an early grave when he continued to work on the Spitfire despite the ravages of rectal cancer. In the film, the nature of Mitchell’s illness is never disclosed, but his determination to get the Spitfire finished rather than take a long break for his own health is shown, and adds a suitable heroic note to the man’s efforts. More importantly, the film gave this then rather obscure figure a platform, bringing him to public acclaim as an unsung champion, which given the success of the fighter plane was no less than he deserved.

Mitchell’s story is told in flashback. A squadron of pilots is taking a short break in between shooting down German attackers. They’re met by David Niven’s Geoffrey Crisp, who begins telling them Mitchell’s story, the implication being that it’s one few people knew. Crisp was an invention of the film, an amalgamation of a number of test pilots who worked alongside him during the years, most notably Jeffrey Quill who made an uncredited cameo as the pilot performing those acrobatic leaps and daring dives in the test of the Spitfire. Crisp, a ‘lifelong friend’ of Mitchell’s, works as his pilot during the 1920s, a period of growing success in the development of seaplanes that came to regularly win competitions and break speed records. Taking a holiday to Germany in the early 1930s, the pair meet Nazis, who unsubtly prophesise that the Fatherland will one day dominate Europe. Mitchell and Crisp see the obvious danger, and return home to work flat out on a fighter plane that will eventually be capable of defending the island. As his bouts of sickness increase, Mitchell sacrifices himself for the cause. Told by his doctor that he can last no longer than eight months without a significant rest, Mitchell declares that it’s time enough and carries on.

Though embellished, the story manages to take in Mitchell’s struggle to get his plane worked on in spite of a government more focused on appeasement and saving money, which strikes a true note about the period. He’s supported financially by Lady Houston (Toni Edgar-Bruce), an aristocratic patriot who like Mitchell can see the threat posed by the fascists, and believes in his dream. The film’s dig at the ostrich-like government of the pre-war years reflects Britain’s own withering attitude towards its officials, who only come to appreciate where things are heading at the last minute, when it’s almost too late to make effective plans to counter Germany, along with the vision of people like Mitchell, who ‘got it’ early enough.

There’s a temptation with films like this to mock it, in particular the perception it creates of some misty-eyed, half remembered past when pipe-smoking Professorial types could be heroes, imbued with the traditional ‘make do and mend’ mentality that is exhorted as a uniquely British virtue.  In contrast the Germans, depicted in the film’s entirely fictionalised episode, are shown as megalomaniac villains, determined to break the Treaty of Versailles and make their country great again, no matter who suffers in the process. It’s a cartoonish representation and a bit of a false step, as elsewhere the film attempts to strike an authentic note in recounting Mitchell’s story, and rather carefully builds his image as a dedicated and quietly resolute engineer. He’s shown as possessing that vanguard British virtue, getting to where he does thanks to years of hard work and an inventive mind. The concept that will eventually blossom into the Spitfire is inspired by birds, Mitchell’s aim to develop planes that are based on their natural, physical ‘engineering’ at a time when everyone else was a long way behind technically.

The First of the Few is directed in semi-documentary style, opening with a narration about Germany before depicting Mitchell’s life, his achievements and pitfalls, in episodic snapshots. Crisp appears to have been created as a more easily digestible cinematic character and Niven plays him just right, giving him personality and a winning charm as he makes to woo a succession of ladies, most of whom turn out to be already married.

But it’s Howard’s film, even if he plays Mitchell as a rather typically British one-noter of determination and bluff. It’s an encapsulation of the English ideal, the sort celebrated by the Daily Mail and efficiently performed, Howard’s traditional ‘under playing’ transforming him into the embodiment of pluck and virtue.

It’s easy enough, watching this, to see the reasons for his success during this period, and his status as someone Germany might want to see out of the way. Less than a year after its release and several days before it debuted in American theatres, Howard was dead, most likely shot down by Nazi Junkers while on a flight from Portugal to Britain. Rumours about this persisted. One conspiracy theory suggested he was sacrificed as Churchill was on a plane at the same time and British Intelligence deliberately leaked that Howard’s flight was carrying a VIP. Another speculated that Enigma messages intercepted by code-breakers revealed the Nazi plan to take Howard down, and the difficult decision was taken to let it happen so that Britain’s ability to decode the machine would not be revealed to the enemy. Most likely it was down to an error of judgement, a fateful act that would normally have involved Howard’s plane being escorted to France and its occupants taken as prisoners.

The First of the Few: ***

Richard III (1955)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 2 January (12.00 midnight)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

Laurence Olivier directed and starred in three big screen adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays – there were halted preparations to film a version of Macbeth, featuring his wife Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth, which sounds like it has the potential to be delicious viewing, but the legacy remains Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III. The best known of these is probably his Oscar winning Prince of Denmark, and you can sort of see why it was acclaimed at the time – must of the fat cut away, all those sweeping, portentous shots of castle staircases and corridors, but of the trio it’s my least favourite and without doubt it’s been done better elsewhere. Henry V is an astonishing technical achievement. Beginning as a contemporary troupe of actors performing it on the boards at the Stratford Globe, at some stage the ‘filmed play’ transforms into Hal and his fellow soldiers crossing medieval France and building to a genuinely breathless and superbly mounted Agincourt. It was made as a propaganda exercise, a rabble rouser for the troops, and it’s great viewing, a virtuous attempt to show how such old material can have relevance and entertainment value in more modern times. Perhaps the Branagh update, with its heavy emphasis on the sweat, grime and blood of battle, carries more resonance, but there’s a lot to be said for Olivier’s romantic and patriotic interpretation.

Then there’s Richard III, quite a different character on whom to focus and a moderate success compared with Olivier’s two previous adaptations, and yet in hindsight perhaps the best one. It’s undoubtedly my choice. Fans of the political drama series House of Cards, with its fourth wall breaking of Francis Urquhart/Underwood sharing his plans and feelings with the audience, need look no further than this one for its inspiration. Olivier’s impish Duke of Gloucester waits for the other characters to leave the scene, before turning to the camera and outlining what’s on his mind with the viewer, sometimes making to take us by the arm as he talks, as though we’re a silent witness at the court, knee deep in his machinations and sworn to keep his dark secrets. I think it’s great fun, and Olivier seems to be having fun also, playing Richard as a smiling villain, utterly without scruples in his wiping out of anyone who stands betwixt himself and the crown. Those seeking a more cinematic comparison might see Richard as akin to the charming yet murderous Louis in Kind Hearts and Coronets, narrating his schemes throughout with little feeling of remorse.

As with his two previous adaptations, Olivier cut and amended scenes from the text to produce a more cinematic and muscular movie, and to increase Richard’s Machiavellian villainy. The early scene where he courts Anne (Claire Bloom) becomes more diabolical as he tells her he plans to marry her, having disturbed her procession into the church with the coffin containing her Lancashire supporting husband, killed in battle by none other than Richard himself. As disgusted as she is by his proposal, she capitulates when he makes her choose to either run him through or marry him, knowing she’s too faint-hearted to do the former. He expedites the death of his own brother Clarence (John Gielgud), and plays a more direct role in bringing about the death of the king and his oldest brother, Edward IV (Cedric Hardwicke).

In one of the film’s most powerful moments, the young Duke of York (Andy Shine) makes a joke about Richard’s hunchback, and suddenly the feigned jollity falls away; Olivier turns and fixes the child with such a malevolent glare that he physically backs away, terrified by the monster that was always there, beneath his uncle’s exterior, and now unmasked. This bit of stage direction was invented by Olivier for the film, adding layers to the character’s evil for, as we know, the Duke  and his brother are fated to be the Princes in the Tower.

For all Olivier’s cuts Richard III remains more than two and a half hours in length. It’s a meaty play, a lot to take in, and yet it’s completely compelling thanks in part to the star’s performance, the amazing way he has of making Richard a charismatic protagonist, to such an extent that you almost come to wish he won’t suffer the end that’s coming to him. He’s by some distance the most interesting character in the story, funny and engaging, despite the stoop of his disabilities someone who towers over the court, a sharp contrast with and leagues ahead of its stiff manners and bland gallantry.

Production levels were high, as London Films supported Richard III with a £6 million budget following the commercial success of Henry V and Hamlet. Most of it was filmed at Shepperton, Olivier making painstaking efforts to create as authentic a late medieval environment as possible, going so far as to change a piece of heraldry on the set when it was pointed out to him that the original decoration was incorrect. Olivier didn’t want to direct, aware of how debilitating it was to have to do two key jobs on set, and initially offered the job to Carol Reed. His misgivings proved justified as Richard III developed into an arduous shoot, particularly when the production moved to Spain to film the Battle of Bosworth scenes. Along with sitting on a horse that was suddenly mounted by another, he took an arrow in the leg (fortunately for the shoot it was Richard’s lame leg) and was so ‘in the moment’ that he checked how well the accident would hold up on film before seeing the doctor.

Richard III’s almost ridiculously classy cast was not the group of players Olivier intended to assemble. He wanted Richard Burton, Richard Attenborough and John Mills. Orson Welles was his preference for the role of the duplicitous Duke of Buckingham. Instead, he worked with the actors routinely considered the stage titans of their century – Gielgud, Hardwicke and Ralph Richardson, not to mention Olivier himself. Helen Haye, who had been acting on film for as long as there’d been a British industry, made her screen swansong as the Duchess of York. There were roles for not inconsiderable presences like Andrew Cruikshank, Laurence Naismith, Douglas Wilmer, and Stanley Baker played the future Henry VII, while Hammer staples Michael Gough and Michael Ripper took small parts as Richard’s hired executioners, getting the ghoulish delight of drowning Gielgud’s Clarence inside a barrel of wine.

Olivier’s performance earned him a BAFTA and an Oscar nomination, yet perhaps the film would have done better but for producer Alexander Korda’s fateful agreement with NBC. For a fee of $500,000, Richard III made its American premiere on the small screen as well as being theatrically exhibited. This no doubt had an effect on its box office takings, and dismayed Olivier who felt that the film’s widescreen production would not be showcased to best effect on television. Korda might have argued that Richard III wasn’t Olivier’s most cinematic offering. Until the climactic Bosworth scenes, it’s filmed as though shooting a play, the focus on the characters and their dialogue rather than interpreting the action with a screen audience in mind, as in Henry V. It’s justified because the material is so good and Olivier’s adaptation crackles, but the 1995 version starring Ian McKellen takes a more imaginative approach to the text.

For all his attempts at accuracy, Olivier ignore the revisionist approach that makes it clear this Richard III is almost entirely fictional. The play was written by Shakespeare for a Tudor audience and ties in with the propaganda following Henry VII’s ascendance that Richard had been a murderous usurper. Shakespeare toed the line, turning his minor physical defects into outright deformities and his circuitous route to the throne a consequence of ruthless scheming against family members. None of it is actually true, or at least it’s unsubstantiated. though at least its presentation of the villainous king as a reader of The Prince, Machiavelli’s guide book for rulers that was in circulation at the time, sounds about right. Personally, I would love to see an interpretation of the play that hints at the string of deaths as being ambiguous rather than pointing the finger squarely at Richard. There’s no doubt, however, that Olivier’s playing of him as a blood-soaked monster allows him to let rip on the character, performing Richard with twinkle-eyed glee and remaining true to his potential as the Bard’s most thoroughly entertaining baddie, leaving viewers to feel somewhat unsettled by their enjoyment while following his mounting crimes.

As a footnote, I am happy to refer to the BFI’s comment that in being screened on American network television and watched by audiences of up to 40 million, Olivier became responsible for Richard III being seen by more people than the total of its entire theatrical run since 1592. It’s a little sad that they didn’t get to enjoy the full Vistavision presentation, which we can thanks to recent restorations. I own the Network Blu-Ray, which contains a glorious print, and includes as an extra The Trial of King Richard the Third, a BBC production from 1984 that determined Richard’s guilt or innocence via the means of a courtroom trial.

Richard III: ****

Dances with Wolves (1990)

When it’s on: Monday, 1 January (1.30 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

The received wisdom is that Goodfellas was the best film of 1990 but it lost out to Dances with Wolves, Kevin Costner’s directorial debut that told an all-too worthy story about the Frontier and helped to conceive one of the most infamous snubs in the history of the Academy Awards, up there with the time How Green was my Valley triumphed over Citizen Kane.

In the history of Oscar controversies, this is up there with the most notorious. While I’m not about to argue the merits of the two films involved, what I will say is that I love Dances with Wolves. I loved it when I first caught it at the cinema (with a very bored girlfriend – she didn’t last), and I feel the same way now. The version I own is the extended cut on Blu-Ray, which doesn’t add a lot in terms of plot development but does flesh the characters out a little more and, best of all, gives me more time to spend with this fascinating and lovingly made picture.

One of the contemporary notes I would like to make is that when it was made, the Western was to all intents and purposes extinct. There was the usual scattering of B movies, but mainly the genre was used as comic reference (Back to the Future Part III) or to indulge the young stars of the day (Young Guns II). It was a gamble, not least because Costner was untried and had given little impression he was ready to step up to the chair, only taking the job when established directors turned down the assignment. Handed a $10 million budget by Orion, he crowd-sourced a further five million from foreign investors and paid for the three mill overspend out of his own pocket. The story, based on writer Michael Blake’s research into Native Americans, chimed with Hollywood sensibilities of the time, the revisionist attitude to Vietnam that had produced the likes of Platoon and now took in the pushing back of the American frontier, and the inglorious fate of the people who were indigenous to it. While Western movies had long since abandoned the treatment of Indians as mindless savages, telling stories as far back as Broken Arrow that showed them in a sympathetic light, Dances with Wolves offered more, entering the homes of Sioux tribes and exploring in some depth their culture and language. The effort was to depict Indians as decent, honourable, and without the technology of the expansionists every bit as sophisticated and in fact better at protecting their environment.

The story follows John Dunbar (Costner), a Lieutenant in the Union Army during the Civil War. Injured in battle and then performing an act of heroism in order to save his leg from being amputated, Dunbar is given his choice of postings and volunteers to join a frontier regiment. Turning up at the remote and abandoned Fort Sedgwick, he takes to the task of rebuilding it and holding on until the arrival of relief soldiers. Alone, he battles the solitude by exploring his new environment, keeping a diary of what he discovers. All the while the neighbouring Sioux tribe is watching him, attempting at one point to steal his horse in an effort to intimidate him, before eventually visiting him. An uneasy friendship starts. Dunbar finds himself respecting his neighbours, fascinated by them and their customs, making efforts to learn their language, and when he discovers the arrival of a buffalo herd he takes it as an opportunity to improve relations. The Sioux have problems of their own. As well as depending on the declining buffalo population for sustenance, they face attacks from the warlike Pawnee tribe, and are aware of the long-term threat of settlers moving west.

If Dances with Wolves has issues, then they begin with the stately pace at which all this takes place. Costner takes his good time in soaking up the natural wonders of the frontier (filmed largely on private ranches in South Dakota), while the critical development of his relations with the Sioux happen organically, over time and highlights all the barriers as well as the benefits to their friendship. This is either great or interminably slow, and while I’m happily of the former opinion I can understand that the film’s leisurely narrative has the potential to frustrate some viewers. Added to this is Costner’s performance. I have no problem with it and think he carries the film well enough, however in a story that aches for authenticity it’s possibly tough to watch this native Californian with his neat, modern West Coast dialect and wonder how he could be there at all. Dunbar’s mission as an open-minded adventurer who falls for the Sioux way of life also becomes difficult to take. Practically every white man apart from Dunbar is evil, morally corrupt against the implacable nobility of the Sioux, which is intended to generate an air of tragedy, the sure knowledge that ultimately the latter will vanish in their native form, but a bit more balance would surely have worked in its favour.

For all those elements, it’s still a film I really enjoy, and I’m happy enough to sit through more than three hours of it and even prepared to lump on the extra hour of director’s cut material. Whatever my issues with the ‘black and white’ treatment of its characters, I find the steady build-up of Dunbar’s understanding of the Sioux to be quite fascinating, intended to educate us at the same time as he learns things and doing it successfully. Graham Greene’s performance as the tribe’s medicine man, Kicking Bird, is superb, rounded as the character’s conservatism is balanced with his wish for friendship with Dunbar. As Stands with a Fist, a white woman adopted by the tribe and eventually Dunbar’s wife, Mary McDonnell produces some fine work, reluctant to endear herself to the Sioux’s ‘alien’ visitor and yet drawn to him. Rodney A. Grant plays Wind in his Hair, a young warrior who takes more time to get over his mistrustful instincts of Dunbar, and is also very good. The film has to convince us of the reality of these people, and does it very well thanks to casting Native American actors and breathing life into their customs and attitude. In one of the film’s more poignant moments, tribe elder Ten Bears (Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman) shows Dunbar the helmet of a Spanish Conquistador, a symbol of the invaders who will eventually pass into history and leave them alone, but thinking this is going to happen again with the Americans is a fantasy, one of which Dunbar is only too aware.

Beyond the story, a sympathetic treatment of Native Americans that for its time was relatively fresh, the film’s technical elements are superb. I have been playing the John Barry score while writing these comments, and it feels like a perfect fit. The music offers all the epic sweep of the frontier, but with heavy melancholic notes, like it knows as well as the viewer that despite Dunbar’s romanticism and the tribe’s nobility none of it will endure. The pushing back of the frontier is inevitable, and an entire way of life will be lost. Barry won the Oscar for his score, as did Dean Semler, the cinematographer who had the job of bringing the virgin frontier to life. Quite simply it’s a gorgeous effort, all untamed landscapes and endless skies, in every frame the big country that the Midwest was for its explorers. Added to that are the logistics of putting more than 3,000 buffalo on the screen and getting them to ‘act’ the role of being a herd that’s pursued by the Sioux. In an era when digital effects were too new to recreate the animals with any semblance of reality, those really are thousands of animals being made to stampede, which they would do for miles and represented a danger to the actors working with them, and anybody unfortunate enough to be standing in their path. And yet the effect is worth it; the sight is something you don’t see in real life anymore and was recreated brilliantly for the film.

So, a movie that perhaps isn’t perfect. Its sympathies are clear, bordering on hand-wringing, and when Roger Ebert described it as a ‘sentimental fantasy’ you know exactly what he meant. Though a fictional character, it’s possible that someone like Dunbar really did exist, enchanted by the Indian tribe to the extent of integrating himself as one of them, but the stark reality is that western expansion just swallowed up everything and everyone in its path, which ensures the film carries an air of sadness. And yet it’s also a great adventure yarn, made with care and attention to detail, its attempts at accuracy so painstaking that the occasional fault can be overlooked within the overall effort. Dances with Wolves can also be credited with breathing life back into the Western genre. As mentioned elsewhere on these pages, Westerns were at their best when reflecting contemporary American sensibilities, using the setting to hold a mirror up the values, beliefs and concerns of the time. During the genre’s Golden Age of the 1950s, the movies were a perfect counterpoint to attitudes in the USA, and Dances with Wolves continues that grand tradition.

Dances with Wolves: ****