The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

When it’s on: Monday, 27 July (10.50 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

I always have time for fantasy cinema, in particular the kind of gentle, non-cynical fun made during the 1930s by people who seemed to view the big screen as a repository for all manner of simple treats and visual delights. The classics of this nature that immediately spring to mind are The Wizard of Oz, The Adventures of Robin Hood and today’s entry, 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad. For a time, they stopped making films like this – the Second World War got in the way and left Hollywood reflecting the jaded, gritty realistic mood of the time, without room for the sort of ‘Old World innocence’ represented here.

The aim of the film is good old fashioned fun, and on that note The Thief of Bagdad delivers. Based loosely on stories from One Thousand and One Nights, it tells of some unspecified time long ago in the Middle East. A blind man (John Justin) begs for alms on the streets of Baghdad, his faithful dog at his feet. Recounting the tale of his unhappy life, the man reveals himself to be none other than King Ahmad, tricked into losing his throne by his duplicitous court vizier Jaffar (Conrad Veidt). Believed dead, Ahmad plans to reclaim it and recruits the help of a nimble young thief, Abu (Sabu). Journeying to Basra, he then falls in love with a beautiful young princess (June Duprez), the daughter of the Sultan (Miles Malleson). But she’s been promised to Jaffar, and when the pair confront each other the vizier robs Ahmad of his sight and transforms Abu into a dog, a spell that can only be broken once Jaffar holds the princess in his arms. In overcoming Jaffar, getting the princess and the throne back, Ahmad and Abu will undergo a series of adventures, taking in flying horses, genies in bottles, magic carpets and a famed jewel that’s known as the all-seeing eye.

It’s a confection, with its largely British cast playing Asian characters and matte paintings filling in for the walls of Baghdad and Basra, and it’s beautifully realised. The special effects, whilst primitive by modern standards, are rather wonderful and charming, the ambition to depict a massive genie soaring through the air, the Sultan riding above the heads of his awestruck people on a horse that can somehow fly, Abu dwarfed within a massive Oriental temple. The film has the good sense to pace itself very quickly, swathes of story packed into a running time of 106 minutes so that the action races from one scene to another, keeping viewers entertained with the tos and fros of the unfolding epic. It’s blessed with some great performances, beginning with Veidt as the villainous Jaffar. The German was a titan of silent cinema, playing iconic roles during the Expressionist era and fully capable of packing meaning into simple gestures. The scene where he blinds Ahmad is all slight of hand and malevolent stares, and it’s all the scarier because Veidt looks as though he can do almost anything just by willing it so. His cruelty is juxtaposed by the youthful enthusiasm of Sabu, the Indian actor who was employed again and again in just this kind of role. While Ahmad laments what he’s lost, Abu does most of the work in restoring him, coming across the Genie (Rex Ingram) and fetching the all-seeing eye. The bits where he’s telling the Genie what to do, reminding him that he’s in charge, as the magical spirit towers over him, are great stuff because both actors play it straight, packed with personality as uneasy and temporary allies.

Various names are credited with directing The Thief of Bagdad, the most famous of these being Michael Powell. The real creative force, however, was Alexander Korda, the Hungarian emigre who became one of the biggest noises in the British film industry and took a break from making pictures about colonial heroics with this recreation of the 1924 entry starring Douglas Fairbanks. Along with the use of sound and colour (gorgeous use of colour, incidentally; it’s a beautiful looking piece of work), it chopped away much of the earlier film’s bloated length and split the main character into two to good effect. Malleson, along with his major supporting role, was also responsible for the screenplay, and wrote for himself the part of the Sultan as a foolish man-child obsessed with toys and inventions. At a time in history when the Islamic world was credited with advancing knowledge of science and mathematics, the Sultan is in a unique position to be surrounded by objects that might have been perceived as magic. The sense of rousing fun is complemented perfectly by Miklos Rozsa’s energetic score.

What makes The Thief of Bagdad great is its air of wonder, an effort to bring impossible things to the screen just to entertain audiences mired in the reality of a world cascading into conflict. It’s impossible to knock the film’s joyous escapism, the aim to leave your troubles outside and simply be entertained for a time. It was released in 1940, as Europe was fully engaged in war,. indeed the film had to be completed in Hollywood and used the Grand Canyon for some of its mountain-based sequences. I think it’s marvellous, taking in countless leaps of imagination within a chocolate box fantasy world that never loses its charm.

 The Thief of Bagdad: *****

Cleopatra (1963)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 22 July (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

The sad passing away of Omar Sharif compelled me to rewatch perhaps his most famous film role, his playing of the title character in David Lean’s sprawling Doctor Zhivago. It’s a title that’s had its fair share of adverse criticism over the years, particularly upon its initial release when it was seen as excessive, bloated, meandering and packed with unlikable people, not least the passive Zhivago and Lara. Personally I love it and I’ll defend it to the hilt, even whilst nodding at many of the brickbats. For me, nothing looks quite like Doctor Zhivago. It really is a ravishing picture and its use of colour is almost unmatched. Despite filming in Spain, it makes an excellent stab at recreating Russia during the early twentieth century, both the patrician pre-Revolutionary Saint Petersburg and the less salubrious backwaters of the film’s second half. I also think Sharif’s pretty good as the Doctor. Whilst the censure of his character being pretty much an observer is fair, I would argue that as a poet that’s exactly what he ought to be. Still, there’s no denying that whenever Rod Steiger’s on the screen he owns it entirely.

The point, which I’ll make in more detail when the good Doctor is scheduled, as surely it will be in light of Sharif’s death, is that I think it’s a really great work, far more deserving of praise than it’s received. Here, I want to make the comparison with a film that does actually deserve to be criticised for its excesses. There’s something fascinating about Cleopatra, certainly, and I’ve watched it several times, but in my more recent viewings I admit I’ve been bored to tears. It isn’t the length – Cleopatra runs a little over four exhausting hours – so much as what they do to fill the time. Conversations between characters. Many conversations. Often about nothing. Gorgeously dressed characters, stood in similarly beautiful places that have the look of studio producers tearing their hair out over how much the bloody thing was costing, but on the whole half-assed stuff that hints at the reality of script pages being turned out on the hoof and making the whole thing disjointed and kind of thrown together.

I wrote about this one some years ago for Film Journal and I’m going to turn the rest of this piece over to those words. Basically, I don’t want to watch Cleopatra again, not just yet, maybe not ever. There just aren’t enough hours in the day and too many other things to see, so here goes…

My copy of Cleopatra has been gathering dust for a couple of years. A magnificent, three-disc special edition, I lavished a tenner on it, and have since noticed it on sale for even less. Is it worth the outlay? Certainly, it’s impossible to watch the movie now and not compare it to the HBO series Rome. This is inherently unfair. Certified ‘PG,’ there’s just no way it can accurately recreate the debauchery, depravity and degradations depicted so memorably in the more recent cable production. Additionally, Cleopatra is over 50 years old, and it must be considered that contemporary, working class audiences would have been dazzled by the sheer spectacle of it just as a CGI-friendly 21st century viewer might demand more.

Then again, if the film is a masterpiece, then it’s definitely of the ‘flawed’ variety. It has gained some degree of infamy for reasons that have little to do with the finished product. There was the unholy mess that was its production. Going vastly over budget (it cost $44 million, which when adjusted puts it beyond even the likes of Titanic and Waterworld), and suffering all sorts of disasters, it was a wonder the movie got made at all. Everything that could have gone wrong did exactly that, and by the time it was eventually completed, its director Joseph L Mankiewicz was foiled in his attempt to release it in two three-hour chunks. The result was an edit that reduced it to half its intended length for theatre audiences, a version that was disjointed and difficult to follow. This edition has had an hour’s footage restored, but somewhere in a vault the lost 120 minutes or so that would complete it are waiting to be rediscovered. Some much-needed positive publicity came with the on-set romance of its stars, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. After everything that had gone wrong, the producers no doubt jumped on this sensational spin, and the public duly lapped it up. For a time, Burton and Taylor were the world’s most famous couple, an impossibly glamorous pairing that was on a par with the hype surrounding current celebrity ‘royalty’ of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Indeed, I can’t help thinking that rumours of the pair’s chemistry on the set of the decidedly average Mr and Mrs Smith handed it more exposure than it warranted.

And ‘average’is indeed the word where the subject of this beautifully presented set is concerned. Like the talking points surrounding the movie upon its original release, the things that are good about it have little to do with the quality of the material. It’s not that Cleopatra is a bad film exactly, but it’s far from the best. Even within the epic genre (one it did a lot to kill off), there are more worthwhile pictures, near forgotten classics that deserve the restoration treatment. Personally, I’d happily pay to see a similar job done on The Fall of the Roman Empire, a project that remains distant and unlikely. The reality is that Cleopatra is a bit of a dog’s dinner. It’s given the five-star treatment here, but it isn’t a five-star movie.

The story starts on the battlefield of Phillippi. Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) has emerged victorious against Pompey, handing the former power that is virtually dictatorial, whilst his eminent opponent flees to Egypt. Caesar follows. Along with finding Pompey dead, he argues that the succession issue in Alexandria (practically a Roman vassal, ii is supposed to be ruled jointly between Ptolemy and his sister Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor), but the situation has escalated into an internal conflict for sole control) could be resolved at the same time. Caesar is as good as his word. After a short battle, he ends the squabbling, places Cleopatra singly on the throne, and for good measure marries her. The trouble is he’s so captivated with his ravishing new bride that he spends too long in Egypt. Back in Rome, concerns are growing among those who feel he has too much power and is fashioning himself into a king. Though his deputy, Mark Antony (Richard Burton) sees things differently, and carries some clout, the might Caesar has within the Roman world – along with his taking of a ‘foreign’ wife – is getting to be too much for the hard-headed Republicans, led by the orator Cicero (Michael Hordern) and Brutus (Kenneth Haigh).

Sure enough, Caesar is summarily offed on the Ides of March, falling ironically at the feet of Pompey’s statue in the Senate. Cleopatra, quite literally left holding the baby (their child, Caesarion, a symbol of her ambitions to one day ascend to the pinnacle of Rome) is again in a precarious position, but takes up with Antony, who like his mentor is bewitched. However, Antony has problems of his own. Another power struggle has erupted in Rome, as the spoils of Caesar’s legacy are scrapped over by Antony and his main rival, Octavian (Roddy McDowall). Cleopatra sees this as her opportunity to renew Caesarion’s claims, and backs her man in an all-or-nothing scrap for hegemony.

History lesson over, and on the whole Cleopatra follows the main swing of the Roman Republic’s final days closer than most. Not only does it cover the main events, it also nails the characters of its major protagonists. You can see why Caesar commands the level of authority he does – shrewd and charismatic, he’s one of those rare historical instances of someone deserving the ‘Superman’ epithets lavished upon him. Capable of doing more in a day than you or I might manage in a month, and allowing for bouts of epilepsy, he’s the right man in the right place at the wrong time (though only just). Too brilliant to be held in check by the trappings of a Republican government, his enemies have to go so far as to murder him in cold blood in order to take him out of the picture. Antony, on the other hand, is a fine military commander but a drunken boor of a man. Bereft of Caesar’s subtle touch, it’s obvious he’s no intellectual match for Cleo. Once he’s under her spell, it’s more or less the end for him. As for the other main Roman, Octavian, McDowall plays him to near perfection. Slight, bookish, and without Antony’s massive presence, the man who would become the first Roman Emperor is no warrior. One scene finds him taunted by Antony and left to fester in his tent while the fighting rages on outside. However, Caesar knew what he was doing when he adopted Octavian. His battlefield is the Senate, and he possesses all the guile and political cunning to turn it against Antony. By the time he’s finished speaking, his opponent is public enemy number one. Once, the pair carved up the empire between them as equal partners. Now, not only does Octavian have the political machine under his belt, but he’s turned his personal crusade into that of Rome.

Watching McDowall in Cleopatra is a joy. In the early stages, he’s a bit-part player, under Caesar’s wing and seemingly without a hope of rising much further. It’s only when his adopted father is killed that he takes on a more central role. And yet it’s another minor character in the grand sweep of affairs whom the film elevates into the focus of the entire narrative. By all acounts, Cleopatra was very much a shrewd player, yet her corner was limited and Egypt was carried along with the rest of the Empire as Rome underwent its own transformation. In the movie, she’s far from a political pawn; indeed, her beauty is enough to reduce great men like Caesar and Antony to lapdogs, though you suspect the former has the measure of her. According to those historian spoilsports, the Egyptian queen was by no means a siren, yet Taylor, not plain by anyone’s definition, plays her as the image of almost supernatural loveliness, adding charm to her mystery, and surrounding her with the trappings of opulence and gaudy luxury. It’s in this that the film begins to fail as an historical epic. Fair enough, such movies never painted themselves as slavish records of factual events, but it does undermine the ring of truth that surrounds so much of it.

Cleopatra takes place during one of the most disturbing periods in antiquity, one punctuated by war and strife. A number of spectacular conflicts changed the course of western history decisively, making for a movie rich in battle, involving the de rigeur thousands of extras. However, with the focus on Taylor, we don’t get to see a lot of action. What we have instead is talking. A lot of talking. All the time. I’m no hater of movie dialogue, but for it to work, it has to have some substance, and more importantly be well written. Unfortunately, it rarely sparkles here. Few signs of the vaunted chemistry that was supposed to have lit up the stage between Burton and Taylor exist when they’re churning out line after yawning line of hackneyed words, words that are intended to be worthy of Homer and instead just drag. Caesar and Cleopatra’s initial flirtation, leading to full-blown romance, feels as though it’s played in real time, with scenes lasting far too long and the conversation going precisely nowhere. It’s as if Mankiewicz was so much in love with filming his actors, dressed beautifully amidst superb sets, that he didn’t know when to say cut. Because of this, Cleo is a bore. What makes it worse is that whenever McDowall is on the screen, particularly when he’s exploding at the Senate, you get glimpses of the film at its best. Here’s a master actor barking out lines that deserve to be barked. It happens too infrequently to have any lasting effect.

Mankiewicz seemed to have felt there was little point portraying battles when there were more intimate scenes between his characters to insert. The result is interminable build-ups to conflict, with the actual action taking up little screen time, which is a shame. Epics were called epics for a reason, one of these being the spectacular set pieces that called on armies of people dressed in contemporary costumes going at each other as the trumpets on the score shifted into overdrive. These were scenes that reeked of money, the kind of thing that demanded the likes of Cinemascope technology just to fit in all those wide shots of expensive battles raging across the width of the screen. There isn’t much of that here. When they do occur, they’re dealt with quickly, presumably so they can move on to another lengthy moment involving yet more banter. This is never so much a letdown as during the climactic conflict at Actium. Antony and Octavian have been heading towards this moment since Caesar’s demise, but it’s resolved in minutes, the whole thing turning on the former’s critical error as though that was all it really amounted to. Whilst watching Cleopatra, I longed for a good fight, something to dilute the endless babble. I didn’t get it.

Perhaps there was a good reason for all this. When that year’s Oscars were doled out, Cleopatra was a clear winner in the design categories, and it’s not hard to see why. The costumes are exceptional, especially the variety of dresses, ceremonial get-ups and sometimes not much at all that adorn Taylor. Not only does the camera love her, she also happens to appear in some lovely outfits, reflecting the ornate richness of Hellenic Egypt. The effect is stunning. All this is matched by some stupendous sets, never better than in the harbour of Alexandria. You can almost see where the millions went when you look at the design work and graft that’s gone into it, the effort at creating something that really does look authentic. Aesthetically, Cleopatra is a thing of beauty. This is never better demonstrated than in the Queen’s entry into Rome, a parade that lasts several minutes and includes the appearance of dancers, slaves, masked demons, smoke, thousands of pigeons and a 30-foot high Sphinx that’s pulled by an army of slaves. It’s hard not to get the impression that the film is in love with itself, vainly roaming over the incredible sets, building and clothes in hopeless, self-reflective adoration. The script is the unfortunate loser. Apparently, Mankiewicz set to rewriting the entire screenplay once he was on board the project, redrafting constantly and often producing pages of work whilst on the set itself.

Knowing that two hours of footage were lost, it’s staggering to think of what Cleopatra might have been. The length on display is more than enough, and in the meantime certain other elements seem to have been cut unfairly short. This is certainly the case with Martin Landau, who plays Ruffio, right-hand man to Caesar and later Antony, and appears to have lost an entire character arc. Scenes involving his dealings with Cleopatra have been truncated so we never get to see his dynamic in these instances, whilst the cause of his death is excised altogether. The result is that Ruffio has little to do except stand around following orders, whereas there are suggestions in portions of his screen time that a much more interesting and detailed character lurks underneath.

So what went wrong with Cleopatra? One way to find out is by watching Cleopatra: the Film that changed Hollywood, a two-hour documentary on disc three of the set that achieves the rare feat of being better than the movie it’s talking about. A Fox production, the documentary doesn’t go too far in criticising people, but it’s still a marvellous piece of work, as close as possible to being an honest account of the nightmare that summed up the film’s production. According to it, Cleopatra started as an exercise in churning out a moneyspinner, a cheaply made picture that would plough some millions back into the ailing studio’s coffers. How it went from that to the world’s most expensive film makes for excellent viewing. A mixture of wrong decisions, bad luck and Elizabeth Taylor, the production lurched from one crisis to the next.

Once Fox agreed to finance the film, Taylor was recruited for the title role. Legend has it that after screentesting Joan Collins, the studio contacted Taylor, then one of Hollywood’s brightest stars. Joking, she replied ‘Sure, tell him I’ll do it for a million dollars.’ To her surprise, Fox had a contract drawn up, which was enough to generate some good advance publicity. It was a world record fee, but would to lead a string of unfortunate circumstances. Taylor suffered frequent bouts of illness, effectively halting work as her presence was required for most scenes. Taking enormous amounts of time off the project, the remaining cast and crew had little to do, which eventually saw off prominent members of the original team. Director Rouben Mamoulian resigned, citing work pressure and frustration. Also exiting were Peter Finch, recruited for the part of Caesar, and Stephen Boyd, who was to follow his role in Ben-Hur by playing Antony.

Another major headache was the choice of location. The Rome Olympics got in the way of the crew being accommodated in Italy, so they opted instead for the massive Pinewood Studiosin Buckinghamshire. Having built all the sets, and importing fresh Egyptian trees on a near-daily basis, bad weather put paid to any worthwhile filming, with fog and almost constant rain showers making Britain a predictably poor substitute for Alexandria. Eventually, and at risk of the entire production being shut down, the crew was able to de-camp to Cinecitta Studios (the location, incidentally, for the current Rome series), and with Mankiewicz in place, filming could finally begin. The film was hemorrhaging money already, but things went from bad to worse. Actors’ problems, industrial disputes, set worries and constant pressure from Fox led to more cash outlays, not to mention 24-hour working days for Mankiewicz, who resorted to a diet of injections in order to keep himself going.

All this and more is uncovered in painful detail by the documentary. Cleopatra was the subject of so much investment that it was impossible to stop proceedings after a certain time. Bad luck dogged it even after its release, when a clerical error by the Academy Motion Picture Arts and Sciences stopped McDowall from being nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, an award he stood a very good chance of winning. Ultimately, what the programme depicts is the making of a folly, a fool’s errand. There was little chance of Cleopatra making a profit, certainly in the short term, and the press gleefully depicted it as an unmitigated flop. It wasn’t, but it took Fox several years to break even on the movie, and it was thanks to other releases that the studio survived.

What makes all this so laughable is that the story of how the film was made is infinitely more interesting than the movie itself. Like Hearts of Darkness, the account of the madness that lay behind Apocalypse Now‘s production, this documentary is almost required viewing, and any film maker could do worse than catch this lesson on how NOT to do it before embarking on a new project. Sadly, Cleopatra doesn’t compare with Francis Ford Coppola’s labour of love. It’s not a disaster, rather miraculously given the circumstances, but for the money and sheer human effort that went into it, the end product should have been far superior to the expensive bauble that was released in 1963.

Cleopatra: **

Donkey Punch (2008)

When it’s on: Monday, 20 (11.15 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Urban myths, huh? Gotta love ’em. The ‘Donkey Punch’ describes a sex act that comes straight out of playground banter, the sort of thing that young lads talk about but would never get the opportunity to do. Click here for the Urban Dictionary’s definitions, and then hopefully join me in wondering what’s wrong with showing some good old passion. Needless to say, it’s something I would never, ever engage with and I pity the poor fools who even consider either delivering or receiving such treatment. No one deserves it.

All the same, the term was well enough known to provide the hook for a low budget British thriller, Donkey Punch, made in 2008 by Oliver Blackburn, and looking beyond the title and the promise of sun worshipping, scantily clad Brits getting involved in the sort of business they wouldn’t tell their mums about, it’s surprisingly effective and well made. It reminded me of that other nautical Adrenalin ride, Dead Calm, in using a single location – most of it takes place on a boat – to sustain a mood of claustrophobia, people locked together in cramped quarters where there’s really little running space, where violence is the outcome of sheer desperation and heightened terror.

Sian Breckin, Jaime Winstone and Nichola Burley play three young girls from Leeds, who are on holiday in Mallorca after one of them has suffered a painful break-up. Determined to forget the past and enjoy themselves, they go out on the sort of ‘Club’ style bender that any self respecting travel agent would love to use in its promotional material. Fun, booze and good times ensue. And then they run into a bunch of upper class lads who persuade them to visit the luxury yacht they happen to be crewing. They pilot the boat out to sea. Laughs are had. Drugs are imbibed. And then they start having sex, which leads to one of the men (Julian Morris) at the height of passion delivering the donkey punch and accidentally breaking Breckin’s neck.

An evening of hedonistic fun suddenly becomes tense. The men close ranks, suggest dumping the body overboard and claiming to the authorities that she fell into the sea and could not be recovered. Morris’s character has a slightly sinister knowledge of maritime legislation depending on which part of the sea they choose to lose the corpse. They discuss this without including the two remaining women, who are understandably terrified and take on an increased ‘prisoner’ status whilst the fate of their friend is decided for them. Bluey (Tom Burke) is a paranoid substance abuser. Marcus (Jay Taylor) has a loose leadership of the group and just wants to get the episode over with. Robert Boulter plays Sean, the one member of the male faction who shows any kind of remorse despite not being involved with the sex session, at the time chatting with Tammi (Burley). Josh (Morris) refuses to take any responsibility and just comes across as an odious, sociopathic shit.

Poor Breckin is duly buried at sea, weighed down with an anchor to help her body sink. But by now the men have made enemies of their former guests, who start fighting back, sure that they aren’t going to come out of this situation in any good way. The levels of violence increase. People are locked in rooms. By the end, only one of the characters will get away, though the ultimate fate awaiting them is ambiguous, suggesting a night of debauched fun has led to undoubted tragedy for all.

The other title it reminds me of a little is The Descent, Neil Marshall’s terrifying horror about potholers facing subterranean creatures of nightmare with thousands of tonnes of rock pressing down on them. Donkey Punch isn’t a patch on that clever little shocker, but it has its moments, smartly putting a group of irresponsible young people together and then leaving them to deal with a shocking moment that they have little chance or motivation to resolve responsibly. It does begin to fall apart later in the film, when some of the deaths are a little too contrived just to fit neatly within conventions of the genre rather than staying true to the characters, but there’s some fun to be had from working out who will survive and who has their cards coming to them.

As usual with these things, the more virtuous and virginal characters have a better chance of making it; the wanton likes of Breckin are doomed virtually from the start. More impressive is the attempt to find a downside to all those terrible ‘holiday rep’ shows, the consequences of buying into the sun-kissed, self-gratifying lifestyles advertised so wantonly and without any degree of responsibility. For the most part, there’s something frighteningly plausible about it all, the terror very real, with performances – particularly Burley – that more often than not hit the right notes. It’s a film that has certainly divided the critics, with the Daily Mail going for the obvious jugular in expanding the synopsis into a rant about moral outrage, whilst other, more sensible reviews have picked on the general unlikeability of the characters to ruminate on why they don’t care about their fates. I think it’s slickly made and worth checking out.

Donkey Punch: ***

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

When it’s on: Saturday, 18 July (10.15 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

I once read a Tom Clancy novel, back when his works were seen as the quintessential fiction for men. It was a struggle. I’d never known that it was possible to talk about the features of some military hardware for several pages, but Clancy did it, loads, and the book, Clear and Present Danger, could not be finished too quickly.

It’s therefore fortunate that the film adaptations, all five Jack Ryan stories, have thrown out much of the ‘technoporn’ and focused instead on the thriller element of these tales. The first, 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, may be the best of the bunch, a taut yarn about Cold War politics that drips with tension and handles swathes of plot and characterisation deftly.

The film was directed by John McTiernan, at the time coming off two considerable successes in Predator and Die Hard, the latter considered a high watermark in high concept action cinema. One of the things that made it work so well was that McTiernan took time to develop its story, introducing the characters and giving them motivation, before letting the gun play, stunts and fighting take over, making us care about what was happening and appreciating the stakes involved. It was fine grounding for The Hunt for Red October, a film that depends upon considerable amounts of setting up.

It stars Alec Baldwin as Ryan, a young CIA analyst who, in 1984, unconvers the significance of a newly developed Russian nuclear submarine, that it can move through the oceans more or less silently and therefore has the capacity to ‘sneak up’ on America. Handily, Ryan also knows all about the boat’s captain, Marko Ramius, a longstanding and respected seaman within the Soviet hierarchy who he believes is about to defect rather than attack. He’s right. The plot focus on his efforts to communicate with Ramius before the presence of Red October in a threatening position pre-empts hostilities between the superpowers.

Ramius is played by Sean Connery, by now the Academy Award winning actor who was entering a potentially interesting phase in his career playing older characters. Connery was famous enough to not even attempt a Russian accent, playing the only Scottish Lithuanian in celluloid history whilst the likes of Sam Neill as members of his crew work on their Slavic. Even if he had no time for perfecting dialects, Connery got by on sheer charisma, effortlessly essaying Ramius as a great captain audacious enough to pull off his desperate defection. He even let the Soviet High Command know of his intentions, prompting a sea chase across the North Atlantic in which every available Russian vessel attempts to smoke out the Red October.

Also in the mix is the Dallas, an American submarine commanded by Scott Glenn that realises something is happening and pursues what turns out to Red October, making it the unlikely place for Ryan to join in his efforts to reach out to Ramius. The main threat comes from Stellan Skarsgard’s Russian sub, the Konovalov, which also gives chase and does most of the firing.

The one thing that really lets the film down are the underwater action scenes. Murky shots of submarines floating through the depths appear as gloomy submerged turds, whilst the missiles and countermeasures deployed make use of early CGI, which these days appears to be rather primitive. These scenes are mercifully sparing. More time is spent on the decks, especially Ramius’s, a wonderland of dials and flashing lights that is apparently far more interesting than what these things really look like. At the centre of it all is Connery, spouting the wisdom of his many years in service and outwitting his adversaries. There are a couple of great moments when Red October is being fired upon, the closeness of the torpedoes defined by beeping that gets intermittently more frequent as it approaches, while Ramius uses his experience and wiliness to overcome them.

Both Connery and Baldwin play characters who think laterally, beating those around them in terms of their ingenuity and resourcefulness. For long swathes of red October, Ryan is on the right track about Ramius and nobody believes him, because the way he sees things is completely unprecedented but the idea is that only he and the Russian think so far outside the box and are therefore kindred spirits of a sort. Both are at their best in the cramped surroundings of their submarines, thin corridors and claustrophobia adding to the suspense of their situation. Their story is only marginally better than the fun diplomacy conducted in Washington, Richard Jordan and Joss Ackland’s Russian attache exchanging witty barbs as they attempt to get the better of each other and demonstrating the sort of edgy affection that you’d get from old adversaries. And then there’s James Earl Jones as Ryan’s superior, Admiral Greer. Baldwin only starred in one Jack Ryan film but Jones’s services were retained, that deep sonorous voice matched by a wry, larger than life presence that strikes a note of authenticity within the corridors of supreme military personnel.

A Cold War film made in 1990 might sound like it’s missed the boat somewhat, with Glasnost in the air and the relations between America and Russia changed forever. And really, a movie that features few action scenes and runs for longer than two hours sounds a bit of a stretch. But it’s tense, really tense, the stakes high and escalating all along as everyone involved knows and makes clear what’s involved and the potential consequences if they misstep. I like the bits where Red October is damaged, the consequence of a saboteur being on board; at these moments, the essential fragility of being deep beneath the ocean inside a tin can is palpable.

I don’t really know which of the two great submarine-based thrillers of the 1990s I prefer – this, or Crimson Tide, which came out five years down the line. Both feature great supporting casts and two excellent lead actors. I certainly can’t recall Baldwin being better than he is here, a great star making turn hinting at the sort of future greatness that he never quite realised. I also really like Neill’s character, the very loyal second in command who obeys Ramius slavishly, defends him to other crew members when the captain appears to be defying all logic, and getting a great scene when he reveals to Ramius that he’s looking forward to living in Montana. It features some lovely cinematography from future director Jan de Bont, who keeps his camera tilted to film the characters at askew angles and emphasise the tension, also the sense of being closed in. Good stuff.

The Hunt for Red October: ****

The Fighting Kentuckian (1949)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 15 July (12.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Only 800 miles more to go
Only 800 miles more to go
And if we can just get lucky
We will end up in Kentucky
Only 800 miles more to go

It’s been some time since I last covered a John Wayne picture on these pages. Back in FOTB’s formative weeks, when I was writing an entry per day – my goodness, how?!? – the Duke was kind of its leading man, figuring heavily, and it isn’t difficult to see why. Whilst there remains a tendency to knock him for his conservative politics and the countless films he starred in where he played by and large the same character, the fact remains he was one of the biggest stars of his age, and a very long ‘age’ at that. Millions loved his films, the ‘constancy’ of the characters he played turning them into reliable entertainments that gave the public what they wanted, and it seems that’s just as true now as it was then. Wayne was more than capable of subverting his on-screen image in films like The Searchers and Red River, but more often than the psychological complexities tapped into by the likes of Ford and Hawks were the hundreds of Oaters he churned out, offerings that may not be as well remembered or as critically admired but all the same live up to what the people would have expected when going to see a John Wayne picture.

Wayne produced his own starring role in Republic’s 1949 entry, The Fighting Kentuckian, a fun film that played up to its lead actor’s on screen persona as an easy going and romantic man of action. He plays John Breen, part of a Kentucky militia unit that is marching across the country. Making its way through Alabama, the soldiers find themselves in ‘French’ country, a part of land given to veterans from the Napoleonic Empire after its fall in 1815. Breen quickly finds himself in love with a General’s daughter, Fleurette De Marchand (Vera Ralston) and resolves to stay near her, but she’s promised to another man, wealthy landowner Blake Randolph (John Howard). The wedding is part of a deal to guarantee the Bonapartists’ security. Whilst there however, Breen uncovers a plot to steal land from the French exiles and decides to thwart it, along with stopping the arranged marriage as the feelings between Fleurette and him blossom.

And that would be about it, a far from notable footnote in the lengthy Wayne catalogue, if it wasn’t for the presence of co-star Oliver Hardy, here without his usual sparring partner, Stan Laurel, and playing fellow Kentuckian Willie Paine. It’s a rare non-Lauren and Hardy appearance for the corpulent comedian, casting Ollie in the ‘Walter Brennan’ sidekick role, and he appears to relish the opportunity of climbing out from his regular partner’s shadow. By all accounts, he refused the job of work initially, fearing it signaled a death knell to his famous yet declining double act, before Laurel himself persuaded him to accept it. Hardy brings a delicate sense of comic timing to the part, showing that he most definitely had ‘it’ in his own right. He and Wayne had appeared on the stage together beforehand, to fine effect, and clearly seem to enjoy reprising their double act, the latter trying to avoid corpsing into laughter as Paine uses his sausage fingers to carefully remove a speck of dust from his best hat. A scrap over the prize of a jug of rum provides one of the film’s highlights. To win it, the contender has to floor a champion wrestler. Hardy hauls himself forward as though up for the fight, only to run away with the rum and leave the resultant tussle to Wayne, which he decides with a number of trademark punches; at one moment, he pulls his fist back almost into the camera lens, a wonderful bit of perspective filming.

This is an unusual flourish for director George Waggner, who otherwise puts in a pedestrian body of work. Too many scenes are of the sort you’ve seen in endless Westerns, particularly during the chase scenes, reminiscent of a thousand episodes of Gunsmoke. The presence of Ralston is a further detriment. She’s certainly striking enough, yet there’s little chemistry between her and Wayne and the part she plays demands her to do no more than look pretty. In a much smaller role, Marie Windsor is instantly more commanding. The reality was that Ralston got the part, as she did in many Republic releases, thanks to her being married to studio head Herbert Yates, who then shoehorned her into many of the films he bankrolled. An Olympic Czech figure skater who moved to America in 1943, her thick accent ensured she almost always played exotic foreigners and in The Fighting Kentuckian, other Czechs were given parts as Frenchmen to make her vocals fit in better.

Republic was famous for its outpouring of B movies, but this one, like numerous others released during this period, had more money behind it and the presence of a decent budget becomes clear with the lavish sets and costumes. There’s a nice contrast between the rough and ready but essentially good hearted Kentuckians, and the fine dressing landowning classes. It’s no one’s idea of a great film, but it is entertaining and for fans of Oliver Hardy, or even those curious to see what he was like outside his normal environment, there’s good value to be had from it. George Antheil’s music is also to be recommended. As well as arranging the Kentucky marching song, the lyrics of which are repeated above (it goes to the tune of ‘Comin’ Round the Mountain’), he also worked samples of Le Marseillaise into some of the action scenes, to fine effect.

The Fighting Kentuckian: ***

The Mummy (1959)

When it’s on: Saturday, 11 July (2.05 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Saturday is Christopher Lee day. The great actor who sadly passed away a month ago is remembered on BBC2 with a Talking Pictures special, followed throughout the day by three of his films. Appropriately, they’re three Hammer flicks. Late in the night, the station is screening a fantastic double bill, kicking off with Dracula, which really introduced Lee as a powerful and versatile leading man. Later there’s The Curse of Frankenstein, more a vehicle for that other Hammer stalwart Peter Cushing, but featuring Lee as the hideous monster, utilising the actor’s height to great effect.

It’s easy to imagine Sir Christopher being miffed about having to accept roles that just took advantage of his physical attributes. You take the work that’s available, I guess, and two years after playing the monster he embarked on a similar role, as the eponymous bandage wearer in The Mummy remake.

There have been various Mummy films over the years, but the two that stick in the mind are the Universal entries from 1932 and 1999. The earlier version was made during the Golden Age of the studio’s Gothic horror output and is creepy even now.  The bandaged Imhotep is on the screen for a fraction of the time, and instead the film’s suspense hinges on the performance of Boris Karloff, incarnated as the Egyptian Ardath Bay and intent on reincarnating his long lost love. The actor was at the considerable height of his powers, bringing undoubted presence to his scenes, whilst made up to look as though his face had been weathered by thousands of years in the ancient sand.

When Stephen Sommers revisited the material in 1999, the decision was made to do The Mummy as an action adventure romp, removing much of Imhotep’s fright value in favour of thrills, stunts and lashings of computer generated imagery. The result was either a mess or a delight, depending on the mood of the individual viewer. Certainly, not much of it made sense, but I remember going to see it at the time and enjoying it immensely.

The version that tends to get lost in the mix is Hammer’s take, a 1959 release that was made on the back of the studio’s loose reworking of old Universal classics. They’d given us Frankenstein and Dracula, and The Curse of the Werewolf was a couple of years away, so why not have a go at the Egyptian tale? At the time, it was another success within a sound run of hits, inspiring further entries within a slimly connected franchise, yet it’s less well known now and falls way short of the fond memories fans have for many other Hammers.

In spite of the surefooted Terence Fisher on directorial duties,  Jimmy Sangster’s script, and Messrs Cushing and Lee in the cast, there are several good reasons why it’s less well known than other Mummy movies, let alone the Hammer Gothics. The first is that it’s surprisingly boring. This should be more or less impossible for a sub-90 minutes film from the studio that appeared to have found the formula for delivering well-crafted shocks, yet the Mummy (played by Lee and in the film known as Kharis) takes an incredibly long time to appear, and when he does seems to follow similar territory to that trodden by Frankenstein’s monster. Perhaps the sight of a lumbering figure wrapped in sodden bandages was the height of terror to contemporary audiences, but it seems a bit lame now. There’s some good stuff to be found here. The first sight of Kharis is of him emerging slowly from a swamp in a scene loaded with sweaty atmosphere. He turns out to have almost Golem-like qualities of indomitability, as evidenced in the moment when Cushing’s hero shoots him twice and then impales him through the stomach, and Kharis just keeps on coming, which both hints at the power he possesses and the anger that drives him, and is well acted by two performers who could put great physical work into their work.

But these scenes are rather too few and far between. Much of the running time is taken up with exposition, endless lashings of exposition. It isn’t the only Hammer film guilty of this, but whereas the later The Curse of the Werewolf contains real horrors in its back story, giving us not only the origin of the curse but applying a real sense of hopelessness to Leon, here it just feels like filler, adding extraneous detail to a story that viewers can already follow easily enough.

As Kharis, Lee is physically imposing and adds a neat combination of pathos and anger to what is a fairly one-note character. Using little more than his eyes, as the rest of him is swathed in bandages, Lee breathes more emotional depth in to the mummy than ought to be possible, elsewhere he’s retreading his character in The Curse of Frankenstein. A shame, as he’d proved his chops with his nuanced and menacing portrayal of Count Dracula and deserved better here. Cushing gets his usual ‘man of science’ role, but there’s little of the texture he was able to bring to Frankenstein and Van Helsing in his portrayal of John Bannon. This isn’t the actor’s fault, more a script that fails to suggest a man with anything like the moral ambiguity of Victor Frankenstein or Doctor Van Helsing’s academic background and faith in his methods. Bannon’s there because the tale needs him to emerge as the mummy’s nemesis, and that’s it. Better served is Yvonne Furneaux as Bannon’s wife, a doppelganger for Kharis’s ancient love. She’s a plot point, inserted into the script to give the unstoppable mummy a weakness, yet Furneaux at least adds some humanity to the part, a sense of peril that isn’t apparent elsewhere as the tale goes through its motions.

For a film costing a princely £1250,000, The Mummy looks fantastic, which is nothing less than viewers would have expected. Whilst the scenes in Egypt are rather obviously filmed on a stage, it looks decent enough with gorgeous levels of detail within Ananka’s tomb. But Marcus Hearn had it about right when he described it as ‘little more than a string of picturesque and nice-lit killings’. There are better versions of the story and scant surprise that, in this instance, Hammer’s effort is the one that has faded into obscurity.

The Mummy: **

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

When it’s on: Friday, 10 July (12.30 pm)
Channel: 5USA
IMDb Link

As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, I’m a complete sucker for matinee flicks and today’s entry, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, is about as good as they get. From the start, it reminds me of misspent youthful Bank Holidays, idling in front of the television, letting the simple fantasy and imagination wash over me. There’s just nothing to dislike here, from the winning lead performance of Kerwin Mathews, Torin Thatcher’s villainy, winsome Kathryn Grant, through to Bernard Herrmann’s stirring score and, of course, the special effects work of Ray Harryhausen. I remember catching it many moons ago and being impressed enough to wonder what the other six voyages had been like!

It’s easy to see Harryhausen’s stop motion work as looking hopelessly out of date, which it is obviously. But put yourself into the mind of someone going to see this in 1958, viewing these wonders for the very first time. Harryhausen was by this stage acknowledged as the master of special effects, his work had producing giant gorillas (Mighty Joe Young), an artificially enlarged octopus (It Came from Beneath the Sea) and dinosaurs (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms). Real creatures, transformed into terrifying monsters. Whilst 1957’s 20 Million Miles to Earth toyed with his first creature wholly of the imagination, it was here that he really went to town, tapping into ancient mythology to provide the beasts that Sinbad comes across. The giant cyclops, dragon, roc and, naturally, a sword fighting skeleton, all brought to glorious life and featuring heavily in the story. Of these, I think I like the Roc the best, just for the thought that Harryhausen decided to insert an enormous eagle into his picture and then gave it two heads… just because he could. Then there’s the skeleton, to all intents and purposes dueling seamlessly with Mathews’s Sinbad. To make the scene more effective, the actor trained with an Olympic fencing master in order to look the part, thrusting and parrying with fresh air before his opponent was inserted into the film later.

The film was based on the character Sinbad from One Thousand and One Nights, though that’s about all retained from the account of his seventh voyage. Nevertheless, having read the book several years ago, I think it does a nice job of holding onto the spirit of it’s chance encounters leading to moral decisions that ultimately affect the outcome. Many of the creatures in the film appear at various points in the book, and Sheherazade’s imaginative outpouring of fantastical creatures is certainly present and correct.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was not the first cinematic appearance of the title character, yet it hurls him straight into action as a seaman and adventurer of distinction, charged with transporting the Princess Parisa (Grant) to his home land of Persia. The two are to be married, which will secure peace between his realm and that of her father’s. On the way, they stop at the island of Colossa to pick up supplies, and as a ‘bonus’ find a magician, Sokurah (Thatcher), who’s busy fleeing from a Cyclops, armed only with a lamp. Obviously it’s magic, Sokurah explaining it contains a genie that can be summoned to make his wishes come true. With the genie’s (Richard Eyer) help, they escape the Cyclops, but not before it recaptures the lamp. This scene works well because whilst the genie has erected a kind of invisible force field that separates the Cyclops from Sinbad’s crew, it’s hardly stupid and figures out that it can hurl a rock over the barrier to capsize their rowing boat.

Back in Baghdad, Sokurah’s pleas to return to Colossa with Sinbad’s help and retrieve the lamp are met with refusal, so he uses his magic to miniaturise Parisa and advises the only way she can be restored is via materials that can be found in just one place. And so they return, with a tiny princess on board and a crew that is now augmented with condemned men from the Persian jails. The prisoners revolt, take over the ship, and after further adventures hit Colossa and its various creatures.

It’s obvious that at some stage Sinbad will figure out Sokurah’s treachery, find a way to return Parisia back to her natural form and escape with the genie, which takes the form of a small boy longing to be just that, working a future as the sailor’s cabin boy. But getting there is such fun, thrill after spill crammed into less than ninety minutes of action directed breathlessly by Harryhausen’s regular collaborator, Nathan Juran. Mathews, unlikely ever to be considered an acting great, is fine value as Sinbad, interacting well with the creatures and buckling his swash to suitably dramatic effect. He was no one’s idea of the new Errol Flynn, but he was handsome, lithe and knew how to look good wielding a sword, and that’s what mattered here. The cross-eyes Thatcher is a great villain, affecting a vague Middle Eastern accent and shaving his head, all adding to an inscrutable performance of rather subtle evil that only becomes more explicit later in the story when the stakes are raised.

Mathews and Thatcher played against each other again in 1962’s Jack the Giant Killer, again directed by Juran but this time utilising the effects work of Jim Danforth. Harryhausen struggled to forgive the director and had the last laugh when the film’s stop motion animation wasn’t up to scratch, though the overall effect was somewhat scarier than the family friendly work produced for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. In the meantime, Harryhausen went on to even greater heights with his designs for 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, in which the hero had to fight not one skeleton but seven, though not before encountering the titanic iron colossus, Talos, arguably the greatest creation of them all. What worked well in Jason was just as effective here, the interactions between actors and beasts. The scene with the Roc is brilliant because its attack comes with wings flapping, sending gusts of wind to assault the men. Even better is the skeleton fight, a bonus extra on the disc showing Mathews attacking nothing before it was spliced into the picture, the effect virtually perfect and the action rousing enough to quash any attempt to spot the ‘joins’. It’s a great film that never loses its sense of fun.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad: ****

In a Lonely Place (1950)

When it’s on: Thursday, 9 July (2.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

‘I was born when she kissed me.
I died when she left me.
I lived a few weeks while she loved me.’

In a Lonely Place is a welcome sight on today’s schedules. It’s a quality picture, defined as Film Noir reasonably enough, and whilst one can argue that there’s so much going on beneath the central story and such virtuousity in the direction and cinematography that it transcends any genre labelling, it’s almost the definition of the Noir style. I think it’s Humphrey Bogart’s best performance, which is really saying something.

‘Bogie’ plays Dixon Steele, a jaded Hollywood screenwriter. Perceived to be something of a genius at his craft, Dix hasn’t in fact had a hit since before the war, and during those years served with aplomb, albeit bringing unsaid horrors back with him. These manifest in a violent temperament, sudden outbursts of physical force that keep others at a standoffish distance and himself disconsolate. One night, after being commissioned to write the adaptation for a novel, he takes a hat-check girl (Martha Stewart) back to his Los Angeles home because she’s read the book and can provide a quick synopsis. This done, the book duly dismissed as pulpy crap, he sends her home with money for a taxi. The following morning, he’s visited by police sergeant Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), who reveals that the girl has been murdered in the night and, naturally enough, he’s the chief suspect. Nicolai’s an old friend from the army days, but his boss Captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid) is not and, during questioning, tries to pin the crime on Dix. Another potential witness and Dix’s neighbour, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) turns up and, for reasons unknown supplies him with an alibi, confirming she saw the girl leave alone.

This prompts a romance to blossom between the pair, something that seems to suit them both. Dix suddenly finds his creative juices flowing, and helped by Lauren starts working night and day on his screenplay. we also learn a little more about Lauren, the fact she’s a new tenant in the apartment complex, having recently walked out on a relationship that was clearly abusive. Though Dix appears to be crazy about her, his infamous temper flares up more and more, which frightens Lauren whilst reminding her that no one has yet been caught for the hat girl’s killing.

The title of the film refers to Dix’s mind, a lonely place because his rages steadily alienate those around him, including the woman he loves. Whatever qualities he possesses, and there are many, such as his unlikely friendship with the washed up, drunk actor (Robert Warwick) he refers to as ‘Thespian’, in the end what people remember is his violent mood, something he’s unable to suppress, and it leaves him devoid of hope for a better future. It’s brilliant work from Bogart, the suggestion that he laid his own psyche bare to play the part of a complicated man capable of both great violence and terrible bouts of anger. More than anything Dix is tired, exhausted from wrestling with his own personal demons, the chance he sees in Laurel to escape them, and the awful implications held in the relationship’s breakdown, which is what will surely happen.

As good is Gloria Grahame, an actor who I find just about the sexiest of her era (and that’s really saying something). There were more beautiful women, but what Grahame tapped into within a world of femme fatales was a certain, elusive degree of vulnerability, the way she lays all her hopes on the line by coupling with Dix and then watches them fall apart. Horrible. Grahame was married to the film’s director, Nicholas Ray, a commitment that was collapsing during its making, but they kept their problems quiet to ensure he kept his job and the resulting tension was reflected in her performance, a sad thing who knows exactly where it’s heading with Dix and sees it through all the same.

As for Ray, the director’s own sense of pessimism was transparent on the screen. A genius responsible for such works as Rebel Without a Cause, Bigger than Life and Johnny Guitar, Ray specialised in tales of alienation and isolation, of which this is the perfect representation. In the process of separating from Grahame after he’d reportedly caught her in bed with his son, who was then 13, Ray photographed her as an almost unattainable object, living in the apartment opposite Dix but separated by a courtyard, sleeping naked with a heavy wooden door keeping her from the dangerous outside world. His shooting of Bogart emphasised both the facial lines of a troubled life and the glint in his eyes when he was moved to anger, capturing both the man’s weariness and his volatile temperament.

The book from which In a Lonely Place was adapted, by Dorothy B Hughes, had Dix as a serial killer and rapist who was exposed after trying to divert the authorities away from his crimes offering to help investigate the latest murder. In the film, he’s innocent of the crime yet guilty of failing to beat his personal traumas, leading to a finely wrought downbeat ending. It captures in a sublime way the post-war guilt and estrangement felt by many people, the sense of indefinable loss that kept them somehow separate from society. More than anything, it feels like an honest movie, a tragic and devastating look into real lives that don’t get the Hollywood ending that they crave, and that ironically plays out amidst the workings of the dream factory, but can enjoy a brief respite before the shattering conclusion.

In a Lonely Place: *****

Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)

When it’s on: Thursday, 2 July (10.55 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
IMDb Link

Dracula: Price of Darkness is appearing as part of the Horror Channel’s evening of Christopher Lee films, a nice dedication to the late, great actor who was remembered recently on these pages. Clearly, the channel has the rights to Studio Canal’s Hammer catalogue, with this entry featuring alongside Lee’s two appearances in two Dennis Wheatley adaptations (The Devil Rides Out, To the Devil a Daughter) and a further donning of the Count’s cape in The Scars of Dracula.

Of the quartet, Dracula: Prince of Darkness is possibly the best known and certainly stars Lee in his most famous and iconic recurring role for Hammer. I remember writing about this one for the gone but not forgotten Film Journal network a number of years ago, and at the time being rather sniffy about it. Despite the calibre of the cast and crew involved – the studio brought its A-Team to the table for this one – it just felt lazy, as though the very presence of a new Dracula film was enough without anyone needing to try hard in making it all work. Watching it again, I now realise I was overly harsh, in fact I would go so far as to agree with the most consensual comment made about Dracula: Prince of Darkness and see it for what it is, the quintessential Hammer horror experience.

I should note that isn’t a guarantee of quality. Hammer was capable of making really good films on limited budgets, as well as a number of outright stinkers. This straddles the two opposites. In places it’s fantastic, making you remember what it is you love about these cheap horror flicks from a more innocent time. At other times it misses the mark entirely, a fact encapsulated by the performance of Lee himself. Already bored with the role and refusing to play Dracula again before finally agreeing to this one, Lee puts in a sulky, ‘by the numbers’ body of work, refusing to speak the lines given to him in Jimmy Sangster’s (writing as John Samson) script, describing them as ‘literally unsayable’, and limiting his character to menacing stares and hisses. There’s a point at which it’s still Christopher Lee as Dracula, and all the natural charisma, physical imposition and sinister qualities such a playing implies, but the urbane Count he essayed during the early moments of 1958’s Horror of Dracula is gone, slain for the pantomime villain to which he’s been reduced here.

Lee doesn’t appear until the film is more than halfway through its running time. Everything up to that point is building up to the big reveal, a careful construction of suspense that really works because director Terence Fisher ekes out the tension for all its worth. The story returns to the fictional, mid-European village of Carlsbad, an area of thick woodland, dark secrets and suspicious locals. It’s been ten years since Dracula was smote and life is taking some time to return to normal, the people retaining their superstitions and unwilling to acknowledge the presence of an enormous Gothic castle dominating the skyline. Into this simple world come four unwitting English travellers, eager for adventure and obviously lambs to the slaughter. Before too long, they’re spirited to the castle, where they come across Klove (Philip Latham), the servant of a dead master with instructions to show hospitality to anybody who stumbles across these parts. Wined and dined, they go to their beds in the castle, but strange noises prompt Helen (Barbara Shelley) to wake her husband Alan (Charles Tingwell) and make him investigate. Big mistake. Klove kills poor Alan and dangles his prone body over Dracula’s tomb, opening up his veins so that the blood can revive his diabolical master. Helen then goes to find Alan and instead comes across the reanimated Dracula, who duly claims her as his first victim.

Until this moment, the film has been all about the foreshadowing, Helen’s pleas for the group to leave the castle, which go unheeded, their meeting with Father Sandor (Andrew Weir) who warns them to steer clear of Carlsbad, which naturally is precisely where they’re headed towards. It’s rather brilliantly done, the inevitability of their folly that will lead to Dracula’s reappearance, the complete contrast between Shelley’s prim and timid Helen, and the wanton siren she becomes after falling under the Count’s thrall. Latham’s Klove is exactly as ominous as you would want him to be. His first appearance in the castle is by means of his shadow appearing before he does, the camera taking a gleefully long time in order to transfer from the silhouette to the man himself, tall and gaunt, almost a Nosferatu figure before he’s finally revealed. And then there’s the castle, that superb use of Bray Studios with its dark recesses, stained glass windows casting strange lights and corridors that lead to goodness knows where. It’s just the perfect place for horrible deeds to take place within its walls, which often enough is exactly what happens there.

The two remaining survivors (Francis Matthews, playing the closest thing this film has to a dashing hero, and his pretty, virginal wife, Suzan Farmer) join Sandor at his monastery and plan the overthrow of Dracula. Also present is Ludwig (Thorley Walters), a kind of doddering inmate kept there for his own good and also becoming the film’s take on the Renfield character. Ludwig falls into helping the Count and Helen, as though under a hypnotic spell. Klove puts in the hard yards, protecting the carriage that contains their coffins. After some further encounters, the gang race back to Castle Dracula in order to vanquish him in an ending that feels rather rushed and thought out entirely with economy in mind.

Dracula: Prince of Darkness cost £100,000 to make, a a pittance by the standards of glossy Hollywood productions but a big deal for Hammer. It was made and marketed as a premier attraction, though to save time and money it was filmed at exactly the same time as Rasputin: The Mad Monk, Lee flitting from one eponymous starring role to the other whilst the same locations and studio sets were recycled to resemble either Carlsbad or St Petersburg. Elsewhere on the lot, even less cash was spent on the two films’ support features, The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile, an identical process of sharing everything between the two pictures cutting costs to a minimum. And yet, as though proving that budgets alone can count for little in terms of quality, this film’s twinning with John Gilling’s little zombie flick showed up the latter’s atmospheric thrills against the mixed bag served up here. Sadly, it loses interest with Lee’s appearances, appropriately enough as he displayed little pleasure of his own in the part. But until he arrives, it’s great stuff, the reanimation sequence a complicated series of special effect overlays that shows the Count returning to the world from a mere pile of dust, the ghoulish methods to bring about that moment chilling even now.

It’s a shame that Hammer produced to order, responding to demands and cash from America to make further entries in the series. Five more Dracula films followed, varying in quality, most featuring some memorable moments but ultimately casting a bored beyond belief Lee to do some disinterested terrorising before being dispatched within the customary sub-ninety minutes, in increasingly ridiculous and even easy ways. A pity also that Peter Cushing could not be called back to reprise his role as Van Helsing. Whilst Cushing took the starring role in that other long running Hammer series of Frankenstein features, here we get Andrew Keir, by no means a poor actor and carrying a good deal of authority, yet still something’s missing.

Dracula: Prince of Darkness: ***

Written on the Wind (1956)

When it’s on: Saturday, 27 June (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

I have to confess that during the 1980s I had a bit of a thing for glossy American soap operas (I was young!). There was Dallas, of course, and whilst the controversy over who shot JR was a little before my time, the saga of feuding oil barons remained a weekend staple. Shoulder padding Dallas to one side was Dynasty, Aaron Spelling’s tale of Denver rich folk, their dysfunctional families, Joan Collins being a bitch, and the underlying moral that whilst money might not buy happiness, it does pay for perfectly layered and feathered hair. As a youngster, I wondered why British soaps were working class, whilst America went for lavish, money-soaked tales. The answer, I suppose, is that the likes of Coronation Street was inspired by gritty, kitchen sink dramas of the sixties. In the USA, they had Douglas Sirk.

As with that ill-placed enjoyment of glossy drama from the decade of excess, I admit to liking Sirk’s movies, in particular the series of stylised melodramas he churned out during the 1950s. I could justify my guilty pleasure by highlighting the ‘parody’ element of these incredible films, the sense that beneath those furrowed brows and longing looks was a sneering critique of contemporary American life and values, but the reality is that I just enjoy a good drama. Check out those titles – Magnificent Obsession! All that Heaven Allows! Imitation of Life! Overblown brilliance, no? Many of these titles are collected on the Directed by Douglas Sirk set, which has been available for some time at a very reasonable price, and features beautifully cleaned up films about beautifully cleaned up people with murky morals, minds in torment and a penchant for staring longingly into the middle distance of a studio set lavishly dressed up to look like a location shoot. My favourite on the set, incidentally, is Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, which is more of a comedy and not nearly as sweet natured as the first viewing might suggest.

Sirk’s muse was Rock Hudson, that square-jawed, effortlessly handsome actor who seemed custom built for lead roles in romantic dramas and comedies. He was already a star by the time the pair collaborated on Written on the Wind, so much so that he could turn down the opportunity to play the eponymous Ben-Hur, but this sort of thing fit him perfectly and played on his apparently stolid masculinity. Hudson has a dog of a job in this film. He plays Mitch Wayne (what a name!), the less wealthy, childhood friend of oil patricians Kyle (Robert Stack) and Marylee Hadley (Dorothy Malone), holding everything together whilst the gruesome brother and sister drink and fornicate their way to soulless oblivion. On the Hadley payroll as a geologist, Mitch’s real job is to look after Kyle, like a professional companion, steering him away from his bottle-shaped obsessions. He even finds him a wife, Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall), allowing Kyle to sweep her into marriage whilst secretly loving her himself.

For a time, Lucy Moore is able to steady Kyle’s ship and keep him off the booze, but it’s a temporary reprieve only. Hadley’s a powder keg; the lit fuse is his doctor advising him that he is unlikely to be able to have children, which sends him straight to the bar where clearly all kinds of seediness is par for the course. Meanwhile, Marylee is the classic cat on a hot tin roof. Never standing still, her longing for Mitch is not reciprocated, so she takes on pretty much any man she meets to the evident despair of her father, Jasper (Robert Keith). As she comes to realise that Mitch only has eyes for Lucy Moore, Marylee plays on Kyle’s alcohol-soaked paranoia to suggest there’s something more than friendship going on between them, sending him into a murderous rage.

That’s an entire season’s worth of drama condensed into one 95 minute plot, and it never really lets up. Sirk carefully builds the tension, introducing his characters as bold outlines and then allowing the story to take over, building to the accidental death that ushers in the film’s climactic moment of redemption. It’s incredibly ‘soapy’, the sort of exaggerated crisis that by now we’ve seen a million times, but it’s well acted by people whose personality types can be defined quite universally in the taglines blasting out from the above poster image. Of the four, Bacall is wasted as the good girl, the straight arrow who represents a way out for Kyle and later Mitch. There’s an awful lot more to the actor, yet no less a figure than her husband, Humphrey Bogart, suggested she take the role during a fallow period in her career. Hudson also gets the more thankless part, though unkind critics have suggested that playing Mitch – all background brooding and occasional physicality – was appropriate for his wooden acting talents.

Really, the stage belongs to the terrible Hadley siblings. Despite having everything, there’s an ever present air of resentment within Stack’s Kyle towards Mitch, the sense that his friend is the better man, and everyone – especially Jasper – knows it. The implication that Mitch and Lucy Moore are embarking on a romantic relationship seems to strike him as an inevitability, drink and violence his solutions. Stack was Oscar nominated, but the acting award went to Malone instead as the blousey Marylee. She gets all the best moments, dressing like a vamp and dancing wildly in her room while her father dies outside. Her part, as a nymphomaniac, is emphasised by the sheer number of phallic symbols she possesses and holds, culminating in the model oil derrick she fondles at the film’s end, as she contemplates a future as head of the family business. It’s good stuff. The inquest, where she first accuses Mitch of committing murder before changing her plea, is a sure-footed glimpse of someone growing up before the cameras. She’s bad, but she doesn’t have to stay that way.

Both Hadleys hark back to a single memory of childhood bliss, the pair of them playing in a lake with young Mitch the natural third party. Marylee returns to it and reminisces, the soundtrack of their years old banter returning to her, sighing contentedly as she recalls his words of tenderness. Keen eyed viewers should note the obvious – none of it is real. The lake is a tank, the surroundings stage dressing; it’s all artificial, which is where the deeper meaning of Written on the Wind becomes apparent. Beneath the overdone human drama is a sense that it’s weightless, having no importance in the wider sense. If these are American lives and the story representative of the things that matter to them, then what is there to like, or even desire about any of it? Sirk was a German, leaving his homeland in the 1930s with his Jewish wife and a set of left-leaning politics that could only have landed him in serious trouble. It must have been maddening for him to witness the decadent American lifestyle after he’d seen the way Germany was going and the fragility of human existence, and his 1950s films cast a harsh light on it, all the colour photography, gloss and glamour rendered meaningless against genuine human suffering

The most telling shot in Written on the Wind comes just after Kyle has been told about his low sperm count by the doctor. Crashing angrily out of the surgery, he passes a small child who’s happily riding on a toy horse. The juxtaposition is devastating, and yet Kyle’s still a man with everything, untol reserves of cash and resources. And it adds up to absolutely nothing.

Written on the Wind: ****