’71 (2014)

When it’s on: Thursday, 26 November (9.00 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

A Freeview TV première that’s showing on Film4, ’71 is a very tense drama set during the Troubles in Belfast, a period of almost unbearable unease thanks to the sheer number of political factions involved and the incapability – at least at the time depicted in the film – of the small British army to handle itself within a hostile environment. There’s an element of confusion over who can be trusted, the shifting of allegiances that seems to turn on single events, and this environment adds to the film’s overall tone of disorientation. Into this mix is tossed Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), a young private who gets cut off from his unit and left to fend for himself. As local Nationalists try to find and kill him, and the army just tries to find him, Hook is stuck on the back streets, terrified and bewildered, and much of the story tracks his efforts to get back to base.

Viewers are invited to watch ’71 as either a political drama or a thriller, though it works better as the latter, the events at their dizzying finest as the camera tracks Hook scrambling forlornly for safety. O’Connell, increasingly established as a rising star when he featured in this, is fantastic in the lead role. Early scenes show him larking around with his little brother, who’s in a care home, the antics of the pair suggesting Hook is little more than a child himself, albeit one with a gun as he enlists with the army. His character is never portrayed as a hero, and rightly so. Hook gets lost, panics, has strokes of good and bad luck, is badly hurt, and becomes lucky to survive. His first slice of poor fortune is to be sent to Northern Ireland rather than West Germany. It’s clear the army is out of its depth, pushing raw recruits like Hook and his comrades into the scene of a street riot, the unit led by a typical posh boy (Sam Reid) who has as little clue as anyone about how to handle the situation.

Overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the people closing in on them, the unit departs quickly, leaving Hook and a comrade behind, the latter shot dead simply because he’s confronted by a young man (Martin McCann) with a gun in his hand. Hook bolts. The man, Haggerty, chases, loses him, and takes to the streets with Quinn (Killian Scott) and a boy called Sean (Barry Keoghan) in a car, searching for the lost soldier. They represent a more youthful and militant branch of the IRA, incessantly violent, and in conflict with older heads represented by Boyle (David Wilmot) who’s in contact with the British counter insurgency unit, which has a typically grizzled and jaded Sean Harris at its head. All are looking for Hook, who makes friends with a Loyalist boy, only to find the pub he’s taken to blown up thanks to a makeshift bomb going off. By now seriously injured, he’s picked up by a Catholic ex-army medic, Eamon (Richard Dormer), who does his best to repair the damage and then contacts Boyle to help get him back to his barracks. But Boyle’s being tracked by the younger men, who converge on Hook’s position, forcing him back out into the open.

’71 was directed by Yann Demange, better known for his work in television and relishing the opportunity to make a sharp thriller. Sheffield was chosen for filming as it looks more like the downtrodden Belfast streets of the early 1970s, most of which have since been pulled down. The washed out palette adds to the sense of dourness, a poverty stricken and desperate community that’s at war with itself. Kids play in the streets, mess around with fire. Guns are stored beneath the floorboards of bedrooms. Much of the shooting is done using a handheld camera, as though audience members are running alongside Hook, adding a kinetic and fast-paced energy to the action. It’s as good a chase scene as they get.

The film’s attempt to grasp humanity emphasises the violent showdown between Hook and Haggerty, a sequence that ends with the two holding hands as one of them dies, sharing sympathy even though they’re enemies. There’s no attempt to highlight anyone as a villain or hero, just people with goals and jobs to do. The only ‘good guy’ is Eamon, and even he’s motivated by a mixture of fear and cynicism, the doubts in his mind teased out by Dormer’s great performance. Harris is good also, the man who can see the big picture but with the knowledge that there’s little chance he will be able to influence it. It’s such an authentic performance that you can imagine him walking straight off the actual streets of Belfast and onto the set. And then there’s O’Connell, carrying ’71’s energy as he continually tries to evade danger. There’s a reason he’s so highly regarded. He’s electrifying. As is the film itself, which stuffs swatches of authenticity and action into its running time to produce a mix that is quite intoxicating.

’71: ****

The Gorgon (1964)

When it’s on: Saturday, 7 November (10.50 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
IMDb Link

Whilst the ‘big bad’ in 1981’s Clash of the Titans is the Kraken, the film’s finest and scariest moments come when Perseus faces Medusa. One of the three Gorgon sisters, Medusa has been cursed by the gods into a figure of such ugliness that one direct look into her face and the hapless watcher is turned instantly to stone. To add to the effect, her hair is a throng of living, writing snakes. Even the approach to the ruined temple that is now her dwelling place is fraught with peril and foreboding, from the skeletal boatman who ferries Perseus and his friends to her island to the outskirts of the building, festooned with statues that turn out to be previous victims of Medusa’s stare. Having seen off his companions, Medusa is only foiled when the hero is able to catch her reflection in his shield and uses this advantage to decapitate her. It’s a thrilling and powerful sequence, and the only time in the movie when Perseus is clearly out of his depth.

Sadly, the level of threat, menace and the atmosphere of death is only partly captured in Hammer’s The Gorgon, released some years earlier. It’s a film that’s likely to appeal to ardent fans of the studio rather than those approaching it with fresh eyes. In its credit column, The Gorgon assembles an A-List cast of Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Barbara Shelley, with support from Patrick Troughton, and the element of surehandedness continues with Terence Fisher on directorial duties. Little was left to chance, Hammer reeling from a string of failures at the box office – notably an adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, not a terrible piece of work but absolutely worth a watch for the hilarious singing lines given to the performers – and bringing out the big guns for this entry. With those names behind it, the movie can’t be so bad and it isn’t. The actors bring gravitas and credibility to the table. Fisher wraps everything up in a neat package that last little over eighty minutes, treating us to a plot that takes in some easily solvable murder mystery hokum, setting it in the traditional Central European locale that’s dominated by suspicion and intrigue and of course hooking it all on the presence of a monster.

For this one, writer John Gilling reached back into Greek mythology, introducing Megaera to the Hammer oeuvre. Though long since dead, the Gorgon’s spirit has endured and attached itself to a human, though who precisely plays host to Megaera dominates the story. Someone who might very well have an idea is Dr Namaroff (Cushing), who runs the local clinic and asylum and leads a conspiracy of silence when anyone tries to dig up the truth, one supported by local police chief Inspector Kanof (Troughton). People die, and while their corpses become stone figures Namaroff cites a series of medical reasons; clearly he’s protecting someone, but who? The mad woman who makes continual efforts to escape is one suspect; Namaroff’s assistant Carla (Shelley) is another, especially as the latter suffers from spells of memory loss. When a local artist is found hanged after his lover has turned up dead, he’s quickly blamed for her murder, something his father (Michael Goodliffe) disputes. But later he too is ‘petrified’, which prompts the arrival of his son Paul (Richard Pasco), a student of the eminent Professor Meister (Lee) and the University of Leipzig. When not falling in love with Carla, Paul starts uncovering some facts, and after Meister himself turns up their research starts unravelling the spell under which the entire community appears to suffer.

I find the plot of this one a little on the nonsensical side. Whilst I can understand why Namaroff wants to keep the likely identity of Megaera a secret, the actions of the police in following his lead make no sense to me and on this occasion not even Cushing’s air of authority as the town’s intellectual figure – one he played eternally, the tipping point being the moral side on which his characters fell – can smooth over the cracks. All the story really has to do, of course, is provide a set of hangings for the Gorgon’s appearances, but given the small cast on hand – there are only occasional glimpses of townspeople outside the main cast members – the sense of fear that is supposedly gripping the community struggles to become apparent. Worse comes with Megaera herself. The film uses a different actor (Prudence Hyman) to play her in protecting the creature’s ‘human identity’, but it’s to be appreciated that special effects in the early 1960s weren’t able to capture her repulsiveness effectively, especially when it came to animating the snake hair, and the effect largely fails. Wisely, she’s shown in the shadows and semi-darkness for much of the film, only fully stepping into the light at the conclusion, which shows up all the shortcomings. She just isn’t very frightening, carrying almost none of the stink of impending death you always felt whenever Lee’s Count Dracula, as one celebrated example, strode onto the stage. Ray Harryhausen got around this in Clash of the Titans by transforming Medusa into an animated model, making her appear more fantastical and giving her a bow and arrow to draw opponents into her deadly stare, though the less said about the CGI Medusa in the 2010 remake the better, in my opinion.

Despite all that, the usual Hammer tropes remain in place, and they press all the right buttons. I’ve always enjoyed the setting they chose for their horror films, that fictional proto-Germanic hinterland pressed in on all sides by gloomy forests and Brothers Grimm folklore. It’s a perfect realm for dark fairytales, within which The Gorgon fits rather nicely. You can really imagine these places, virtually cut off from the rest of the world and dominated by some imposing and abandoned castle, having their own legends, where even men of science and reason can’t equate what they have learned with the fantastical things going on around them. Cushing is as good as ever, bringing calm command to his role as the town’s doctor even though he’s abusing it by covering up what’s happening, and he gets to bring the athletic aspects of his acting to bear later in the tale. Lee shared top billing, presumably through sheer virtue of being Christopher Lee, despite only really entering the film fully in its closing acts. To give him a professorial air, he’s made to wear an Einsteinian wig and play Meister as an older man, but as soon as he starts talking you’re sold into his performance as an open-minded intellectual who cuts the crap and knows what’s what. As always, Troughton does a lot with very little material, bringing an underplayed nervousness to his character who’s trying to maintain a failing control over the situation. As the film’s one significant female character, Shelley’s job is to make us understand why people want to protect her, and in this she largely succeeds. Hammer was renowned for picking actresses based on little more than their ability to fill out a low cut dress, but Shelley was a bit special. Undoubtedly beautiful, she more importantly gets across really well Carla’s vulnerability and her ultimately futile hopes for a better future.

In the end, The Gorgon is one for the individual to decide upon. It’s one you are perfectly entitled to find terrible, a hopeless misfire featuring a poor monster and a plot that fails to hold up. Then again, when the performances are as good as this and the direction so reliable, there’s an awful lot to like. A note of appreciation for Terence Fisher. Even with a story as daft as this, he could film these things really well, picking out all those inky recesses and shadows to emphasise the threat closing in. It also features a great score by James Bernard, punctuated by haunting female vocals that run through the film.

The Gorgon: ***

The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 3 November (11.40 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

There have been so many Robin Hood films over the years. None to date have been as good as the 1938 classic The Adventures of Robin Hood, with only Robin and Marian coming anywhere close and for very different reasons. The Bandit of Sherwood Forest, made in 1946, doesn’t make the grade. It’s much cheaper, shorter, narrower in scope and pulls up short in pretty much every aspect. And yet on its own merits it isn’t a bad little swashbuckler. We can only see it in a frankly beautifully restored format thanks to the release in 2010 of Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, which prompted further interest in the mythical leader of the merry men and had Sony scrabbling through the archives to reissue several hoary old efforts. This is one of the better works they dug up.

Intended as a sequel of sorts to The Adventures of Robin Hood, this one finds Robin as a much older man, played by Russell Hicks in his sixth decade and with King Richard’s pardon behind him. Now the Earl of Huntington, Robin is a veteran who’s grown old, but the revolutionary spirit within him flares when England’s Regent, William of Pembroke (Henry Daniell) proposes scrapping the Magna Carta and combining the armies of the nobility into one force to crush any rebellions. Robin disagrees, is stripped of his title and returns to his outlaw ways deep in Sherwood forest, the old gang quickly returning to him. They discover William’s plans are no more than a pretext to his real aim, which is to arrange an accident for the new king, a child, and assume the crown for himself. With the boy in custody and the Queen Mother (Jill Esmond) compelled to escape for her life in the company of Lady Catherine (Anita Louise), Robin calls on the services of his son Robert (Cornel Wilde) to help rescue the king and restore England to justice.

The film was adapted from Paul A Castleton’s novel Son of Robinhood, though due to legal issues over who owned the ‘Robin Hood’ name it was retitled and churned out as a B-movie action adventure. The castle sets were allegedly gathering dust before being brushed off for this, and it was all iced off with a slim cast, a smattering of extras in medieval costumes in order to represent olde England. Continuity with The Adventures was provided by cinematographer Tony Gaudio, who directed photography on both pictures and here helped to show the Technicolor process at its finest, adding lush vibrancy to the finished product. It looks great, though whether set designers were employed on this occasion to paint the leaves so that they would look even greener is unlikely. Cast members don’t even bother to mask their American accents in a film shot on location in California, and lazy script references to silk stockings betray a basic lack of care.

Still, comparing The Bandit of Sherwood Forest with its illustrious forebear from eight years beforehand seems ultimately churlish. It’s clear the earlier entry was a ‘no expenses spared’ affair whereas this had a quite different approach. While the plot is rather plodding, in its favour the film had Cornel Wilde, a lithe and agreeable star who graduated from the USA fencing team to become an athletic leading man in films that took advantage of his talents with a sword. Wilde’s good fun, a ‘Hood’ for lighter times who’s channelling the spirit of Errol Flynn, though bringing less of the Tasmanian’s star quality and charisma to the table – let’s be honest, Flynn as Robin Hood gushed lustful zest from every orifice. The action scenes are nicely played, even if none of Wilde’s opponents have a hope in hell against him. He simply blasts Edgar Buchanan’s Friar Tuck away, in a slightly uncomfortable sequence that proves an old, fat man is simply an old, fat man when facing Robert. Blame the script for this. Eugene Pallette was no mug in The Adventures; here, the good Friar, like the other merry men, is merely a supporting player with no room for more than one-dimensional development.

Henry Daniell makes for a fine villain, just the latest in a string of parts in which he honed a career as evil masterminds – had he been born later, his fate as a bad guy for James Bond to battle would have been sealed. He might very well be the best thing in The Bandit of Sherwood Forest, a real moustache curler of a performance that deserves better than the material he was working with, and I can forgive the wild historical inaccuracy of presenting a major English figure from the age as a self-serving megalomaniac (in reality, Pembroke supported the young king, Henry III’s ascent, all the way) because he does it so well. Daniell will always have a place in the heart of this site for his regular appearances as villains in the Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes series, which culminated him being given the plum role of Moriarty in The Woman in Green.

Of the film’s two credited directors, George Sherman had a long career helming Westerns, especially in this period micro-budgeted Oaters, and it shows in a project that at times feels like a generic Western plot that’s been transferred to Sherwood forest. There are lots of shots of horsemanship, including the old staple of tracking someone who’s riding at breakneck speed, which suggests a rather bland photographic exercise overall. But there’s also pace, the camera never lingering on a scene too long, Wilde slipping from his seduction of Anita Louise to saving peasants who are about to be hanged by firing his arrows with perfect accuracy, to fighting several guards at once with his flashing blade and a smile. It’s all heartily done, makes good use of the limited sets and never outstays its welcome. It’s weightless, matinee adventure from a more innocent age, and I had a lot more fun watching it than with many other Robin Hood capers.

The Bandit of Sherwood Forest: ***

The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)

When it’s on: Saturday, 31 October (3.45 pm)
Channel: Talking Pictures TV
IMDb Link

As with the other titles I’ve picked this week, The Devil and Daniel Webster doesn’t fit easily into the horror genre, but it’s such a good film that I couldn’t resist including it. It’s a Faustian tale of diabolical temptation, earthly desires against doing the right thing, and it really deserves to be up there with the likes of It’s a Wonderful Life as the kind of classic morality fable that has transcended the era in which it was made to be loved and watched to this day. It’s also very good fun, slyly subversive, and has the canniness to features heroes with character flaws that of course only serves to make them far more interesting.

I can’t pretend to know a great deal about the real Daniel Webster, a prominent Massachusetts Senator and lawyer from the first half of the nineteenth century. From his Wikipedia page, the impression I get is of a conservative and elitist figure, far from a man of the people, and someone who resisted upsetting the southern States, which were sliding into Civil War, and that meant compromising on the critical issue of abolishing slavery. Quite a different man, therefore, from the figure presented in the film, one based wholly on the 1937 short story by Stephen Vincent Benet that provided the source for its cinematic adaptation. Benet researched Webster extensively and came across someone whose heart and soul remained in his native New England, essentially one of its great and treasured sons, providing fine material for the sort of great American folk hero who would chance his arm at taking on the Devil himself.

And in the story that’s just what happens. The Devil appears as a smooth operator, appearing to desperate people and offering them a deal to make them prosperous, helping all their wildest dreams come true, all at the piffling price of their souls. Critically the Devil, Mr Scratch, exhorts himself as a fellow American, really the first American, appealing to peoples’ hopes of getting rich and capturing the great American dream for themselves. In other words, he’s one side of a coin; the other, the Webster from the story, is all about fellowship and homegrown values. Natural opponents.

The object of their contest is Jabez Stone, who in the film is played by James Craig. A poor farmer, Stone is in debt to Mister Stevens (John Qualen), to whom he struggles in keeping up his mortgage payments. Living with his Ma (Jane Darwell) and wife, Mary (Anne Shirley), he tries to maintain a moral, upstanding existence, one in which church services and the Sabbath are observed, but against those is his desperation. Things go wrong. A pig he was going to give to Stevens in lieu of money breaks a leg. The crops look like they may fail, and in sheer frustration he declares to himself that he’d sell his soul for two cents. Enter Mr Scratch (Walter Huston), pictured above. In exchange for a pot of Hessian gold coins and seven years of good fortune, Stone agrees to forfeit his soul, and sure enough things start looking up. He pays off his mortgage. A hail storm destroys all the other farmers’ crops, but not his, and pretty soon he has employed everyone to work for him. Before the seven year contract has lapsed, he’s built a mansion and transformed into the sort of oligarch that Stevens could only dream of becoming. But time is ticking. Mr Scratch is willing to agree an extension, but only in exchange for the soul of his son, Daniel, at which point Stone runs to Webster (Edward Arnold) and begs for his help. This sets up the climactic courtroom battle between the legendary lawyer (‘I’d fight ten thousand Devils to save a New Hampshire man‘) and Mr Scratch, presided over by a judge and jury made up of damned Americans.

The Devil and Daniel Webster was directed by William Dieterle, a graduate of the German film industry who brought a welter of experience in the expressionist style. Given more or less carte blanche over the project, in much the same way as fellow RKO contractor Orson Welles was with Citizen Kane, Dieterle turned in a dreamlike piece of work, something along the lines of a dark folk tale. It’s stuffed with disturbing imagery, unorthodox shooting angles, peerless use of lighting and shadows. The film depicts Webster writing a bill in favour of the farmers, whilst in silhouette Mr Scratch whispers to him, explaining that if he uses it he’ll never become President. The Devil first appears to Jabez from a pool of ethereal, unnatural light, the soundtrack punctuated with a strange and high pitched otherworldly sound and the noises of animals in discomfort. As Jabez begins his slide into greedy immorality, he’s covered increasingly in shadows, echoing the darkness consuming his being. It’s no accident either that Jabez’s wife is portrayed in similar tones to Janet Gaynor’s character in Sunrise, nor that the two actresses look alike. Mary represents the good, Christian rural values; when Simone Simon’s Devil-sent temptress turns up, she’s not dissimilar to that film’s Woman from the City, corrupting Jabez with her wiles.

Like Mr Scratch, Belle (Simon) first appears in a pool of light, this time from the Stone’s fire. Though she turns up unannounced, to replace the family nurse who’s looking after Mary and her baby, it’s clear from her sensuousness and flirting with Jabez that she’s there for much more. It’s a great performance, sweet and unsettling at the same time, as she works steadily to undermine Mary’s influence over her husband and their child, Daniel, and is clearly sleeping with Jabez. Her French accent works also, adding layers of mystery and allure to her character. When she’s asked where she’s from, she replies ‘over the mountains‘, and who’s going to argue with that?

Arnold’s good also, employed as a replacement for the original choice of Thomas Mitchell, who had to withdraw when he was thrown from a carriage during filming and fractured his skull. His scenes were refilmed, which was done at great expense as much of it was already in the can. Best known perhaps as a corrupt politician in Mr Smith Goes to Washington, here Arnold is a much kindlier figure, very much a hero to the people and depicted working the fields with his own employees rather than ordering them around. But he isn’t perfect, shown enjoying his rum a little too much, even when he’s preparing to face Mr Scratch in a legal battle for Jabez’s soul.

But of course, the film is owned by Huston’s Mr Scratch, which is just how it should be. I’ve read elsewhere that many people think his is the best portrayal of the Devil ever committed to celluloid, and I’m happy to go with that opinion. In a role that demands scenery chewing joy, Huston is a sheer delight, softly spoken, charismatic and persuasive, nearly always shown with a smile on his face. There’s menace also; when Miser Stevens, who entered into an infernal deal of his own, reaches the end of his contract, Mr Scratch captures his soul, which is now trapped within a moth and goes into his pocket, his for all time. He’s such a winning character that he rightly gets the last laugh, even after his climactic legal battle against Daniel Webster. Shown chewing on the peach pie he’s stolen from Ma, he then gets up and looks around for his next victim, settling inevitably on breaking the fourth wall when he stares out of the screen, straight at the viewer, indicating that we’re next!

The Devil and Daniel Webster works hard to depict the Stone farm as an earthly paradise – even during hard times it looks like the countryside, pastoral idyll of a Constable painting – those similarities to Murnau’s Sunrise again. The meaning should be easy enough to work out. The New Hampshire in which Jabez toils and struggles is in fact the real American dream, the ideals set out by the founding fathers, honest and comradely, whereas the deal offered by Mr Scratch is the avaricious but no less salacious temptation of Capitalism, the other tower on which the country was built. It’s all beautifully worked, its points aided by the Oscar winning score composed by Bernard Herrmann. Every emotion is emphasised by the multi-layered musical accompaniment, never better than when the Devil is playing Pop Goes the Weasel on his fiddle during a barnyard dance, achieving impossible speeds on his violin as the intoxicating prospect of Jabez following Belle around the floor reaches its crescendo.

The film was initially released in America as All that Money Can Buy to avoid similarities with The Devil and Miss Jones, also to calm RKO’s worries that audiences would turn away from a period piece about a historical figure. Their concerns were well founded. Like the studio’s other big release from 1941, Citizen Kane, it was a loser at the box office and prompted savage cuts to its running time for its reissue in 1952. Only a discovery of the full edit that had been retained by Dieterle himself allows us to enjoy the film as it was intended, and I think ‘enjoy’ is the right word. It’s an important work, not to mention wildly entertaining and featuring at least one Oscar-worthy performance (Huston was nominated). I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Devil and Daniel Webster: *****

Witchfinder General (1968)

When it’s on: Friday, 30 October (12.35 am, Saturday)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

There’s an argument that none of the films I’ve chosen to cover during Halloween week are in fact part of the horror genre. They’re all offbeat in some way, and today’s entry, Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General, from 1968, is as much a slice of historical fiction as it is horror. There really was a Matthew Hopkins, who roamed East Anglia and Suffolk during the English Civil War era, rooting out and executing hundreds of women convicted for witchcraft and being paid for every one. Legend has it he was responsible for 300 deaths, all carried out legally and by parliamentary mandate, and since his death in 1647 his reputation as a bogeyman has grown and grown.

All of which said, Witchfinder General is definitely a horror movie, even with its absence of supernatural thrills. Hopkins is portrayed at his worst – an opportunist taking advantage of Britain’s lawlessness during a time of turmoil to move from town to town, killing people for profit. That none of the victims are actually witches is incidental; they’re tortured to the point of confessing, at which stage they’re killed in increasingly gruesome ways, from being hanged to tied up and lowered onto fires. Hopkins then receives guineas for his services and goes on to the next village with accusations to make. At times like these, life is cheap and death a spectator sport. One particularly nasty moment finds a crowd gathered to watch impassively as a ‘witch’ is incinerated, and then children bake potatoes in the fire that contains her burning ashes.

Hopkins is played by Vincent Price, far from Reeves’s choice as the last thing required was a hammy, florid performer; rather he wanted an actor capable of more subtle, reptilian evil and had Donald Pleasance in mind. However, American International Productions, which put up much of the film’s slim £83,000 budget, forced their star name onto the project, seeing it as a continuation of Price’s roles in Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations from earlier in the decade, indeed Witchfinder General was marketed in this vein once it hit the United States, retitled The Conqueror Worm, which linked it directly to a poem by Poe of the same name. Price and Reeves didn’t get along. When Price arrived on the set, he was informed that ‘I didn’t want you and I still don’t want you, but I’m stuck with you.’ Struggling to cope with the director’s expectations of him, at one stage the actor snapped and pulled rank, stating he’d made 87 films and what had the 24 year old director done? ‘I’ve made three good ones,’ came the retort, which ended the argument. Despite the pair’s mutual and ongoing irritation, Reeves coaxed a brilliant performance from Price, drilling back all his excesses to portray Hopkins as an enigmatic and businesslike man, publicly appearing to believe in his own self-appointed mission while mired in spiralling levels of corruption and cynicism.

In the story, Hopkins makes a mistake when he executes the priest father of Sara (Hilary Dwyer), the fiancé to a young Roundhead officer, Richard (Ian Ogilvy). Sara’s attempts to save her dad (Rupert Davies), which extend to offering sexual favours to Hopkins, come to naught. He’s tortured and killed. A distraught and betrayed Sara finds solace in Richard, who marries her and then goes after both Hopkins and his henchman Stearne (Robert Russell). The latter is a more earthly fellow than his boss, and a nasty piece of work, spending his time in local taverns with whores when not torturing poor innocents. Ultimately, Hopkins realises the only way to rid himself of Richard is to implicate him as a witch and subject Sara to more agony in extracting his confession.

Even in its censored form, Witchfinder General makes for strong viewing. My DVD (as part of the coffin-shaped Tigon Collection box set – nice!) comes in two versions, both the original and the extended ‘export cut’. which reinserts some of the grislier scenes excised from the UK censored edit. Whichever version is screened on television (more likely the censored one, as the additional footage is noticeably inferior), the genius of the film in juxtaposing Hopkins’s terrible acts with the beauty of the English countryside is clear. Often, Reeves filmed in locations reputed to be the same as where the actual deeds took place, whereas the moments in which Ogilvy is seen riding at breakneck speed to catch up with Hopkins take on an almost epic quality, only the film’s tiny budget dulling the effect. Ogilvy, incidentally, was a childhood friend of Reeves, and put in a great performance as his character’s world is turned upside down, leaving him a maddened emotional wreck. By the film’s close, he is howling incoherently in frustration and rage, leaving serious doubts over whether he will ever recover mentally.

It’s a great piece of work, one that threatened briefly to transform Reeves into a major league film director before he died the following year from a prescriptions drugs overdose, most likely an accidental one. The film’s reputation has only increased over time. Credited with marking a short-lived revival in the British horror industry, it certainly took an unusual subject and made good use of it. It’s perceived to have sparked a cult of ‘folk horror’, films set in pastoral England and punctuate horrific subjects against a backdrop of largely innocent and idyllic rural life, corrupting it in the process. This found its best expression in Blood on Satan’s Claw, released three years later and an absolutely lurid gem of a picture, but the style continues to this day. Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, released in 2013, owes it an enormous debt.

Witchfinder General: ****

The Prophecy (1995)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 27 October (9.00 pm)
Channel: Movie Mix
IMDb Link

There have been numerous attempts to portray the Devil on screen over the years. Two films in this week’s Halloween run of write-ups feature Old Nick, my favourite coming on Saturday, and personally I prefer my Satan to be a subtle and persuasive presence. You can keep shouty Al Pacino from The Devil’s Advocate. Give me Robert De Niro as a mysterious, sinister Louis Cypher in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart any day, or play him for dark laughs as Peter Cook did in the Faustian Bedazzled.

In The Prophecy, a young, pre-Aragorn Viggo Mortensen essays Lucifer as an almost businesslike fallen angel, turning up on the unlikely side of the humans because the Archangel Gabriel is trying to capture an unmitigatingly evil soul that will create a second Hell, which is one Hell too many. Beautiful and malevolent, there’s an undeniably sinister aura to his Satan. Everyone who comes across him knows who he is on sight because the Devil is an unmistakable character, and he comes out with outrageous lines like ‘I can lay you out and fill your mouth with your mother’s faeces, or we can talk‘ without missing a single beat. Lucifer appears in the film for the last ten minutes, but it’s a brilliant cameo from Mortensen who plays him completely straight and conveys everything that’s both attractive and terrible about the character.

Mortensen is just one member of a finely chosen cast of characters in this movie, a rather silly (but no less compelling) entry about the war between angels spilling over into events on Earth. Eric Stoltz, who always strikes me as one of those perenially ‘under the radar’ actors, plays Simon, a ‘good’ angel who passes on the soul of the cannibalistic General Hawthorne – a veteran of the Korean War who treated the conflict as a personal playground for his atrocities – to a little girl in order to shield it from forces that would use it for evil. Simon might be on the side of right, but he’s also practical and the seedier side to his interactions with the girl have real power. The villain is Gabriel (Christopher Walken), attempting to end his war with God by releasing Hawthorne’s soul into Heaven and allowing the essence of evil in to finish the favouring of humankind. This could be a concept treated with hopeless solemnity, but instead director Gregory Widen and actor Walken have fun with Gabriel and turn the plot into a pulpy thriller, never taking itself too seriously. Walken in particular has a whale of a time, dealing with the recently dead people he’s reanimated as servants to be toyed with, and using his powers with wild abandon. There’s a brilliant scene where he’s chatting with a bunch of schoolkids as he’s checking each one to see if they contain Hawthorne’s soul. He’s actually great company for the children, but with that element of being able to smite them with one wave of his finger if he so chooses.

If any characters come across as lesser presences, then it’s undeniably the human ones, played by Elias Koteas and Virginia Madsen, and it’s unfair on them because the angels get all the best lines and scenes. Koteas, like Stoltz one of those reliable performers who’s never received the plaudits his work deserves, plays a detective who earlier in his life was training to be a priest, only failing to be confirmed when his visions of the war in heaven overtake his faith. His career turn of joining the police is an inevitable development, turning down the priesthood for a job in the most earthly role possible, one where he gets to experience human horrors on a daily basis. When his character interacts with Simon and later the bad angel that tried to destroy him, he finds himself being sucked into the story and becomes opposed to Gabriel, an uneven battle but one in which he’s determined to play a part. Madsen is yet another ‘what if’ actor, here playing a schoolteacher who by association with the luckless young Mary and her encounter with Simon fights alongside Koteas.

The daft, overblown plot runs more like an action/crime thriller with horror overtones, which favours it as the whole thing plays like a knowing wink with the audience, the sort of gesture Gabriel himself would no doubt make. Widen cut his teeth as a screenwriter, coming up with the screenplay for Highlander, which proved his talent for producing high concept drama that has no idea of a ceiling – the story only really unravels with its sequel, which tries unsuccessfully to make more of the characters than the plot can support. A firefighter, he experienced personally a backdraft, which led to his writing work on Ron Howard’s film of the same name.

It’s a shame that Widen didn’t get to do more work in film – The Prophecy is lots of fun and definitely holds together. He uses an actor like Walken exactly as he should, taking advantage of the actor’s unearthly, pallid look to present Gabriel as a white-faced spectre with a shock of black hair. Walken shifts through the film with real grace. Even scenes where he enters a room and looks around are attractive because, with a glance, he can get across his character’s otherworldly quality, and I love the way he and the other angels perch on the edge of chairs and other objects like birdlike, weightless sprites, emphasising their unreal natures that seem impossible to humans, without the need of special effects to make the point. On the whole, it relies on good actors over storytelling with the heavy use of CGI or practical effects. This betrays The Prophecy’s relatively low budget (despite its strong cast, most of the actors were recruited without great cost, a stroke of fortunate timing), but the quality of the performances transcends most shortcomings.

The Prophecy: ***

P.S. Another shout out for Multitude of Movies, the magazine I’m proud to be part of and that has recently published its third and best issue to date. Running over 100 pages and featuring articles on such diverse topics as Sean Connery’s Bond movies, the non-horror work by Mario Bava and spaghetti western Black Jack, there’s something for everyone and as always I’m impressed with the scope of the features and the quality of the original writing and artwork. A lot of heart goes into this publication – you can purchase it from the website, which also features a growing series of original content reviews. I have contributed to this with a look at Alec Guinness in The Scapegoat, a title to which I owe Colin my thanks for introducing me to it.

Maureen O’Hara

We’ve lost one of the last remaining stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age with the passing of Maureen O’Hara, aged 95. Sad times indeed, and I suppose it’s fair to say that just about any fan of classic cinema is also a fan of Maureen’s. I ignore David Thomson’s comment that she came with limited talent; for me she was a fiery presence in every movie she made and very memorable. Her performances always left an impression. It was as though she approached every part with a determination not to be billed as the token female but to stamp her authority all over it. More often than not, she did just that.

Her 65 appearances across a career than spanned from 1938 – back when she was Maureen FitzSimons and carving out a role within the British film industry – to TV work as recently as 2000 often seemed carefully chosen, and it’s incredibly likely you’ve seen her in something. She was in one of the best known Christmas flicks, 1949’s Miracle on 34th Street, and appeared in a number of John Ford productions, often alongside John Wayne, most famously in The Quiet Man. My favourite of her Ford roles, perhaps of them all, was as Angharad in How Green Was My Valley. Initially entering a tragically loveless marriage with the mine owner’s son rather than wait eternally for Walter Pidgeon’s kindly minister to propose, she later shows her mettle when confronting the bullying and cowardly church deacons after they have treated an unwed mother harshly. The part suited O’Hara’s screen persona down to the ground and defined the characters she would come to portray.

It’s impossible to discuss O’Hara without noting her beauty. Her green eyes and red hair were legendary to the point of helping to get the Technicolor process off the ground, all the better to capture her natural colours, it’s said. She was certainly striking, though just as important was her flexibility, her appearances in comedies – her sparring with Wayne in McLintock! is the film’s highlight – and dramas, notably in swashbucklers, to which she brought a level of natural grace, as in The Black Swan.

O’Hara definitely had a good innings, knowing when to retire from acting and restrict her appearances in later years. Her last showing in Hollywood was when she collected her Honourary Oscar in 2014, recognition for a career of no little significance. She’ll be missed, though we have some excellent films to look back on and significantly a series of landmark performances.

From Hell (2001)

When it’s on: Saturday, 24 October (11.10 pm)
Channel: 5*
IMDb Link

It’s Halloween week, something taken very seriously at FOTB Towers as the old fright flicks are dusted off and yours truly tries once again to carve out a pumpkin, with grisly consequences for all concerned. I’m covering four films that can be tagged as ‘horror’ – two good ones, two that in my opinion are great, and we start with From Hell, the 2001 entry based on Alan Moore’s graphic novel that did little business at the box office but over the years has developed something of a cult following.

I’m not the biggest fan of ‘comics’ and so have no opinion of the film’s merits against Moore’s work. Certainly, the writer loathed it, as he has pretty much every subsequent adaptation. He didn’t like Johnny Depp’s take on the story’s hero, Inspector Frederick Abberline, neither was he impressed with the film’s condensing of his book’s labyrinthine plotting into a Victorian whodunnit. By all accounts, the collected material that makes up the graphic novel version of From Hell is a proper tome, nearly 600 pages in length and taking in as many elements of Victoriana as it was possible to shoehorn into the narrative. Little chance that the movie could replicate this to such a slavish extent, and scant wonder that the central storyline, which focused on the Whitechapel murders of Jack the Ripper, makes up the bulk of its content.

Jack, like the Zodiac killer in 1960s San Francisco, has become a historical figure mined by film makers. I suppose it’s something to do with the fact he was never brought to justice that lends some grisly fascination to his exploits. And there have been some quality productions inspired by him, beginning with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1925 film, The Lodger, a celebrated silent that first brought ‘Hitch’ to public attention. Murder by Decree served up the ultimate duel of wits by pitting Christopher Plummer’s Sherlock Holmes against Jack. It’s a really good film that plays on the possibility of the murders being linked to royal involvement. A less remembered treat – but no less a treat – is Time After Time, in which author HG Wells (Malcolm McDowell) uses his time machine to race to the future in order to foil David Warner’s serial killer. Back when I was a student, Michael Caine and Lewis Collins starred in mini-series Jack the Ripper, which promised to reveal the identity of the murderer based on freshly revealed evidence. A fine boast, the show was nonetheless required viewing that had us guessing over the two nights of its screening.

From Hell riffs on the conspiracy theory that Jack’s killing spree was mixed up in royal dalliances with the East End prostitutes and the shadowy Masonic order. The latter comprises much of London’s well heeled classes. Combined with the upper crust family of Queen Victoria, there’s a definite sense of patricians and plebeians to the tale, Joanna Page’s one-time unfortunate being quietly put ‘out of the way’ in an attempt to put an end to her secret marriage with the monarch’s grandson, Albert. The trouble is that her wedding was paid witness to by several of her friends, all prostitutes, and these too must be silenced. Enter Jack, who emerges as a tool to rid the crown of any evidence of Albert’s embarrassment.

Whitechapel is depicted as a suitably dank and gloomy place, full of black alleyways, damp, freezing cobblestones and dark-hearted denizens. Heather Graham affects a Cockney accent as Mary Kelly, one of the group of prostitutes who witnessed the wedding and is therefore a potential victim. One by one, her friends are killed in increasingly gruesome ways, Jack enticing his prey with grapes and liquor laced with laudanum before cutting their throats and removing their body parts, using surgical precision to complete the job quickly and efficiently before his crime can be noticed. Abberline (Depp) is on the trail and has become an opium addict, which helps him to have psychic visions of the murders to follow. Together with his doggedly loyal second in command, Godley (Robbie Coltrane), he steadily pieces together the killings, while his relationship with Mary, which starts professionally, becomes romantic. Abberline comes to realise that there’s more to the murders than random slaughter and recognises Jack as an agent of some higher and secret order, but who is he? There are various candidates, with even his Chief Inspector (Ralph Richardson) coming under suspicion for the evidence he covers up and the people he’s protecting. Only Ian Holm’s retired physician appears to offer any assistance and points Abberline in the right direction, exploding the killings into a much wider conspiracy than he previously imagined.

Depp had previously starred in Sleepy Hollow and was already convincing as a Londoner in a role that was intended to be serious, before he started taking on more comic parts. Graham is less able to convey the awful life experienced by the capital’s unfortunate women, and the romantic subplot between her and Abberline is more distracting than memorable. What you want is more depiction of the East End life and the struggles of the people, though there is a memorable pay-off at the film’s close when the Inspector realises that he and Mary can never be together. There’s little spared in terms of blood and gore, with the murders depicted in all but their goriest detail. It’s made clear this is a hard place, populated by people who’ve become tough as old boots as a consequence of the bleak times, with Jack’s murders turning into a sensation but not calling a halt to the things that happen there. Life, such as it is, goes on.

What From Hell does have is atmosphere, a beautifully shot inky murkiness from directors the Hughes Brothers that suggest Jack the Ripper is just one of a thousand less than salacious stories taking place all the time. The difficult mingling of the classes is well conveyed, the emerging field of surgery viewed with academic fascination rather than as a force for good – the horrific way Dr Ferral (Paul Rhys) has of dealing with people suffering from mental disorders shows how it could be abusive as well as benign, and all to serve the dignity and spare the blushes of the upper classes. The faces of the people tell a stack of stories. Jason Flemyng plays a coachman who’s unlucky enough to ferry Jack to his murder scenes and is crumbling under the emotional and moral toll of assisting a killing machine. Only 25 when From Hell was made, he looks much older, as though his years have seen just too many horrors in this terrible place.

From Hell: ***

The Stranger (1946)

When it’s on: Thursday, 22 October (7.20 pm)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

A real curiousity of an Orson Welles picture, The Stranger is never talked about as one of the great man’s finest pieces of work. Working under severe studio restrictions and and without his usual freedom of expression, Welles turned in a film that was the closest he ever came to a standard production, hence the lack of love from those who talk about him as one of the great auteurs. And in truth it’s far from the best stuff he directed, but a film by Orson Welles is still a film by Orson Welles, with all the interesting camera angles, moody lighting and multi-faceted characters such a work entails. Would anyone else give such depth to a supporting player like Billy House’s wily old shopkeeper?

Just five years on from Citizen Kane, Welles was increasingly being seen as a pariah in Hollywood, wasteful and indulgent, and accepted the job of directing The Stranger – when John Huston left the production – in order to re-establish his reputation. Challenged to make the film in time and within its budgetary limits, he went one better and under-spent whilst taking on board RKO’s demand that he cast Edward G Robinson as the lead actor over his own preference of Agnes Moorehead. The prospect of Moorehead playing a hunter of escaped Nazi war criminals is a tantalising one, whereas Robinson appears to have stepped out of Walter Neff’s office in Double Indemnity and straight into portraying his character in The Stranger in exactly the same way. By all accounts, Robinson was unhappy with Welles’s direction, claiming he was constantly shot on his bad side, though Welles countered by wondering what his best side was exactly.

The resulting film is a fine, taut thriller shot in the Noir style and remains an absorbing watch. Welles plays Franz Kindler, a war criminal who has surfaced in sleepy Connecticut and now poses as History teacher Charles Rankin. Thoroughly absorbed into his new surroundings, Kindler/Rankin quickly establishes himself as part of the little community of Harper, volunteers to repair the damaged 300-year old church clock, and is even marrying Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young). Hiding in plain sight, Rankin thinks he’s safe, but he’s reckoned without the efforts of Nazi hunter, Mr Wilson (Robinson), who releases compatriot Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) knowing full well he’ll lead him straight to his target. Sure enough, the desperate Meinike turns up in Harper, only to be murdered in the woods by Rankin, who buries him then and there. His nuptials with Mary take place; meanwhile Wilson is ingratiating himself within the town’s circles and the noose around Rankin’s neck slowly tightens.

Robinson is far from the most interesting thing about The Stranger. Whilst the audience’s sympathies are with him from the start, there’s something just so linear about his character – he knows what he wants and gets it, with a dogged, almost ‘Columbo’ sense of right on his side and the townspeople steadily coming round to his point of view. Young’s character is a lot more fun. For the most part, she stands by her man despite the evidence that’s growing against him, almost walking into a death trap due to her blind allegiance. Her crumbling resolve in the face of reality is heartbreaking to watch, the developing signs of guilt in everything she does nicely presaging her turn in The Accused, a great Noir flick from 1949. Even better is Welles himself, the veneer of warmth and rationality that surrounds him turning out to be just that as he realises Wilson is onto him, compelling him to take dramatic and increasingly insane steps in order to protect his identity, even if that means killing Mary, the only person who has any kind of solid clue about who he really is. And then there are the supporting characters, principally House’s Mr Potter. Running the local store feels like a front for his efforts to snoop on everything that’s happening in Hadley. His cheating at checkers, whilst mildly charming and roguish, actually gnaws at the town’s respectable and good natured sheen. You feel that if you chip away at it enough, the people are just as devious and self-serving as the Nazi in their midst.

Throw in some great photography, especially the vertiginous ladder climb up to the church clock on which Rankin works, and you have a very good pot-boiler. A long, long way from the best of Welles, yet efficiently made and with questions, not to mention a mean streak of black humour, bubbling under the surface.

The Stranger has been available in the public domain for some years – I watched it on Amazon Prime – though this does come with the usual health warning. It’s certainly worth a viewing.

The Stranger: ****

The Man Who Would be King (1975)

When it’s on: Sunday, 18 October (2.10 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

A fantastic decision from the BBC to schedule a proper matinee flick in its early afternoon BBC2 slot. The Man Who Would be King is proper boys’ own stuff, reminiscent in some ways of the oft-screened North-West Frontier and I think a lot more fun. What elevates it is the genius casting of Michael Caine and Sean Connery in its two starring roles, placing the two great Britons together and constantly sparring off each other verbally. They’re great value, so much so that you end up wondering why more people didn’t do this. It isn’t the only film in which the pair share the bill, but unlike A Bridge Too Far, with its massive ensemble cast, this entry has Connery and Caine partnered as two roguish, former British army men, out for adventure and spoils. It’s an almost effortlessly winning combination.

Of course, it wasn’t without a great deal of effort to put this Rudyard Kipling story onto the screen. John Huston had been sitting on the script for decades, eager to make something along the lines of the 1939 classic, Gunga Din, and originally intending to offer the two leads to Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. The pair passed away within a few years of each other, and Huston kept offering the roles to the great A-listers of their day, ending up with Robert Redford and Paul Newman in an attempt to riff on the chemistry they’d achieved together on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It was Newman who suggested Connery and Caine, using British actors in British parts, which led to the eventual and inspired casting choices.

Caine plays Peachy Carnehan, a former Colour Sergeant based in India, who stays on to seek his fortune and turns to pickpocketing when the need calls for it. A chance encounter puts him face to face with Rudyard Kipling himself (Christopher Plummer), then a journalist with the Northern Star newspaper. Peachy’s friend, Danny Dravot (Connery), is introduced, and the pair explain to Kipling their biggest grift yet – they’re to journey through Afghanistan and cross the Hindu Kush into Kafiristan, a remote land of petty tribes, where they will use their superior technology (rifles) and bluff to set themselves up as kings. Despite Kipling’s misgivings, they set off, encountering bandits on their epic journey as well as the perilous mountain ranges, which nearly claim their lives. Making it into Kafirstan, they find it exactly as they expect to and quickly establish themselves as leaders, winning battle after battle thanks to their military nous. But events take a turn when Danny is shot with an arrow during one skirmish. Unharmed, because the arrow struck a bandolier concealed beneath his uniform, he’s seen as a god by the people and is subsequently hailed as the Son of Sikander, the divine reincarnation of Alexander the Great, the last foreigner to take over these lands. Alexander’s overflowing treasury is made available to the pair, and whilst Peachy views this moment as an opportunity to take their share of the loot and make a run for it, the power goes to Danny’s head and he takes to being worshipped as a deity. The only other person in on the caper is Billy Fish (Saeed Jaffrey), an English speaking Gurkha who made it into Kafiristan when a previous map-making expedition was consumed by an avalanche. It can’t last forever, especially when the populace realises that Danny is in fact a mortal man, and when that happens there’ll be hell to pay.

There’s loads to enjoy here, in Huston’s most purely entertaining film since The African Queen. Whereas his 1951 effort succeeded on the romantic chemistry Bogart and Katharine Hepburn established, this one is more of a Bromance, the friendship between Peachy and Danny the only solid and committed thing they have as everything around them is prey to their immoral gambling. It’s a surprisingly touching relationship. When Danny falls prey to ‘snowblindness’ in the mountains, Peachy refuses to leave him behind, and if they are to die then they resolve it will be together, better that than having to face the future alone. It’s this endearing quality that turns them into unlikely heroes. Their brotherly sense of love aside, they’re both despicable chancers, utterly self-serving, and this aspect becomes more central as the story unfolds and it turns into one of colonial avarice, ignorance of native tradition in foreign lands. In the end it’s this that becomes their undoing. Danny wants to marry a beautiful local girl who just happens to be named Roxanne (the same as Alexander’s Eastern princess) and determines to marry her, even though she’s made it clear she isn’t interested as she fears coupling with a god will kill her. Roxanne’s played by Shakira Caine, the real life wife of Michael Caine.

Caine himself remained a big fan of the film and a great admirer of Huston’s shooting style. He praised the director’s ability to know exactly what he wanted from each shot, which helped to make the time on the set at Pinewood, or on location in France and Morocco, an enjoyable one. There’s certainly something very Kiplingesque about The Man Who Would be King. It rattles along in the grand manner, never dwelling too long on a particular scene or overworking the moral points it wishes to make, so that it can be enjoyed as an adventure tale as well as taking on board the more serious underlying themes. At its heart are the two stars, both at the top of their game, giving every impression of enjoying the time they share on screen and reflecting this in their performances. Trading jokes and laughing heartily at each other’s jokes, it seems a great shame that their natural charisma is undermined by their characters’ greed, but then who doesn’t love a rogue? As for the photography, the film plays like an epic, ravishing matte paintings that fill in for the ancient religious city and thousands of extras giving it a real big screen sweep. It looks amazing.

The Man Who Would be King: ****