Jubal (1956)

When it’s on: Saturday, 9 January (7.00 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Whilst I’m a relative novice in covering the Westerns of Delmer Daves, one of the things that strikes me about his style are the relatively few action scenes. When they happen, as they do infrequently in Jubal, they’re devastating and they matter, but the focus seems to be more on the human drama, the tensions built through interactions between characters. This means that when someone dies in the film at a pivotal moment and as the culmination of all the carefully mounting suspense, it’s a shock because the people involved are those you’ve come to care about. The death has dramatic ripples that shape the rest of the story. I suppose the method adds an element of ‘noir’ to Daves’s Westerns – because the emphasis is on flawed people and the consequences of those flaws, there’s weight to the drama. Not for Jubal a crowd pleasing shootout; these are films made for adult audiences.

Glenn Ford plays the eponymous Jubal. At the start of the film he’s at his lowest ebb, weak and without a horse. The prospects of survival for this unknown man are bleak, but fortunately he’s discovered by Shep Horgan (Ernest Borgnine) who takes him back to his home and brings him back to health. Shep’s a good guy, artless but big hearted, and he offers Jubal a job working on his ranch, something in which the stranger begins to excel. The pair quickly come to like each other, Jubal appreciating the chance for redemption from whatever past sins he’s run away from, Shep admiring Jubal’s work ethic and raising him to foreman, in charge of the other farmhands. But naturally this creates problems, the biggest of which is Pinky (Rod Steiger), another employee who resents Jubal’s arrival and his growing influence. When Pinky, put out and spiteful, tries to evict a group of religious travellers who have stopped temporarily on the ranch to care for their sick, Jubal turns up and overrules him, creating further discord.

And then there’s Mae (Valerie French), Shep’s pretty young wife. More complications. Mae makes it clear very early that she’s bored, unhappy with being married to the unrounded Shep, dissatisfied by the attentions of the other ranch hands, notably Pinky with whom she’s clearly had some ‘previous’. From the moment Jubal arrives, she attempts to seduce him and is knocked back, but her desire hasn’t gone unnoticed by the petty-minded Pinky, who sees her feelings as having the potential for trouble. In the meantime, Jubal starts falling for Naomi (Felicia Farr), a girl with the travelling party to whom he opens up about his past. He also employs Reb (Charles Bronson), a young drifter who turned up on the ranch with the travellers and becomes a loyal friend.

Jubal has been described as Othello on the Range, and it’s easy enough to see why. Shakespearian plots have often lent themselves well to other genres and the themes are definitely present here, Shep taking the Othello role and Iago’s jealousies and plotting reflected in Pinky. But I see this as merely a jumping off point. Mae, the Desdemona of the piece, is no victim and charts her own downfall. She’s possibly the most interesting character in the film, a femme fatale whose motivation is boredom and wanting less and less to do with her husband. Just look at her expression when Shep talks about her as a ‘heifer’; it’s the language of the cowherder, and she’s appalled at the description. She isn’t a villain. Daves gives the character enough shades of grey to make her morally compromised rather than truly bad; escape from her lot is all she’s after, and French – a British actor who brings a beauty and sultriness to the role that is rightly out of kilter with Borgnine’s simple, rustic set-up – conveys that side of the character really well.

Steiger’s troublemaking performance is terrific. Daves photographs him well, often in semi-darkness or behind a fence to show the distance and barriers between himself and Jubal, but the actor – using the method style of acting – does the rest, tonally different to the rest of the cast, speaking in a southern drawl and dripping with venom. He’s violent towards Mae, openly malicious to Jubal and willing to deceive his own boss in order to achieve his ends. There’s a lot to like about Borgnine and it’s easy to see why he thinks he’s won the lottery in marrying Mae, and why she would see it quite differently.

At the heart of it all is Glenn Ford, at this time a regular name among the most popular stars in American cinema and brilliant at turning his character into an identifiable ‘everyman’ who just wants to be able to get on with his life. The decision to make Jubal a blank canvas for much of the film is an inspired one, allowing viewers to essentially paint themselves onto his part – wouldn’t we all like to see ourselves as a Jubal type, good hearted and committed to doing the right thing? Unlike Steiger, there’s nothing mannered about his playing of the title character, as though the actor is basically playing himself as Jubal, though of course that isn’t really true. It took skill to make it look as easy as that.

With some smashing photography of untamed American landscapes, Jubal is a very handsome looking film. The focus is ever on the melodrama, the riveting tensions that mount up and you leave realise how absorbing it’s been despite the lack of action. That’s good art for you; Jubal’s recommended

Jubal: ****

Dracula (1958)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 2 December (10.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

BBC Four are screening Dracula today, and The Curse of Frankenstein at 11.00 pm tomorrow, and while they are exhibited with reasonable frequency it’s always a pleasure to revisit these old Hammer classics, both responsible to a large extent for the studio’s success and a revolutionising of the entire horror genre. They may look old and slow now (someone I know who teaches A-Level Film Studies told me that her students groaned throughout Dracula), but at the time they were very big deals, cutting edge cinema, and they deserve our respect.

Despite the BBC’s scheduling, it’s worth pointing out that The Curse of Frankenstein came first of the pair, its quick success giving Hammer licence and funding to follow up with their adaptation of Dracula. On the sort of budget that must have made even contemporary producers weep with frustration, they nevertheless turned out a profitable picture, one that looked good and sustained Frankenstein’s use of colour, blood and cleavages. These were innovations within horror cinema at the time; compare Dracula with something like Night of the Demon, which came out the year before, and note the latter’s black and white photography, buttoned down characters and largely gore free thrills. Of course, Jacques Tourneur’s entry has since been hailed as a classic, and rightly so, but it’s important to see that at the time, Dracula looked like a real step forward.

For modern viewers, the good news is that this film plays like a reasonably close adaptation from Bram Stoker’s original novel. I don’t suppose any screen version has stayed entirely true, and this I believe is correct given the book can be a rather stuffy experience in places and never quite gets across the Count’s demonic power; in other words he’s a character made for the screen. Hammer chose Christopher Lee for their vampire, one of those casting decisions that goes down in history as a no-brainer, and yet it was a bit of a leap given the main use of Lee previously as taking advantage of his height to give him the ‘monster’ roles. Made up heavily as the creation in The Curse of Frankenstein, what Dracula brought out was his good looks, dark charisma and presence. His is a Count you can imagine seducing women with a stare, all those suggestive leers that verged on the scandalous in 1958 but from Lee seemed wholly credible. The actor famously attempted to distance himself from the role in later years, understandable as Hammer were churning out sequels of varying quality to order and Dracula became increasingly a classic screen bogeyman rather than a character with motivation, but in truth he was a victim of his own success. As soon as he appears in this film, shaded in subdued colours at the top of the castle staircase, hopelessly eclipsing John Van Eyssen’s Jonathan Harker who can do naught but stare up at him, he kills it. A legend was born.

Speaking of legends, Dracula’s main opponent in this version is Doctor Van Helsing, played by Peter Cushing. I’ve made little secret of my admiration for ‘the Cush’ on these pages, and this performance is a very good reason why I feel that way. Bear in mind that Dracula cost £81,000 to make; it was a relatively small scale production, so it would have been understandable to watch actors going through the motions. Nothing of the kind. Cushing threw himself fully into the part, already capable of exuding great intelligence and authority from his work as Baron Frankenstein, but here adding a physical dimension that makes the climactic scenes between Van Helsing and the Count such an action-packed thrill. Requiring a crucifix to help him in the sequence, it was the actor himself who suggested forming a cross from two candlesticks, which the props department quickly whipped out of storage and onto the set for use in the film.

Cushing had nothing but praise for the professional spirit that turned Dracula into a success, belying its slim budget to produce a slick and racy horror experience. In charge was Terence Fisher, establishing himself as Hammer’s go-to director for its horror releases. The challenge was to make something that played differently to the 1931 Universal film, which Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster did in various ways. One was to transform the main characters, Dracula and Van Helsing, removing the latter’s stuffy, professorial air as essayed by Edward Van Sloan in the earlier movie, whilst having the Count put in a more physical and sensuous performance than Bela Lugosi’s cape swishing antics. Whereas Universal’s production owed much to Dracula’s run as a Broadway hit, actually filmed in many places as a stage play, this version is far more obviously cinematic, with its heavier emphasis on action and the sight of Lee shown biting his victims, a real shock at the time. The colour is used brilliantly, even if the blood is obviously fake, yet there’s still room for the castle’s gloomy shadows and dark corridors, adding to the place’s claustrophobic sense of foreboding. When Harker is the only human in Castle Dracula, aware that its other occupants are the Count and Valerie Gaunt’s sexy bride, both after what flows in his veins, the cloying air of doom that surrounds him is palpable.

It would be wrong to try and claim that this is the best version of Dracula out there. These days, it looks its age; try watching it after more recent vampire flicks like 30 Days of Night or A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (I’m halfway through this one, it’s good!) and it plays like what it is, a mild horror made for prior generations. Arguably there have even been better Dracula offerings. I’m a fan of the John Badham adaptation from 1979, an altogether glossier affair, though for the sight of a cadaverous Jan Francis stumbling through the sewers rather than Frank Langella’s eponymous Count, who looks and acts like a Dracula for the Dynasty crowd. His vampire retains Lee’s smooth sexuality but fails to bring out the more dangerous side of his character. Gary Oldman tried both in his playing for the 1992 version, and modern effects made him appear as both the old man we first come across in Stoker’s novel and the powerful, apparently younger model when he arrives in England. Another film with lots of money spent on it, and sadly spoiled by an endless cavalcade of visual metaphors, along with heavily nuanced performances as though the actors are begging for attention in the middle of all those expensive special effects.

So whilst this might not be the best Dracula adaptation, something that’s surely up to each viewer to decide, it’s certainly my favourite and I would argue that it marks a milestone within horror cinema.

Dracula: ****

Halls of Montezuma (1950)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 6 October (4.20 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

From the Halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli,
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea.

We tend to think of films illustrating the pity of war as a very modern invention. One is drawn to the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, with its slick editing and lives cheaply thrown away on the Normandy beaches as the ultimate statement. Or how about the Oliver Stone directed Vietnam movies and their visceral, angry message making? But it’s not the case, of course. Hollywood has been making features carrying an anti-war message for as long as it’s been in business. The director of Halls of Montezuma, Lewis Milestone, scored a considerable hit and won Oscars for his 1930 entry, All Quiet on the Western Front, a powerful piece of work about the horrors of the western European trenches during World War One, told from the perspective of ordinary German soldiers. Perhaps the message of these films got a little lost when the cinema of war became all about the action adventure, the sight of Clint Eastwood joyously gunning down countless oncoming Nazis in Where Eagles Dare that drowned out the pacifist message told elsewhere.

Halls of Montezuma was billed as a paean to the glory and endeavour of American marines, fighting in the Pacific Theatre during the Second World War, but it’s a far more complicated work than that. True, there are successes as the Japanese (in a sign of the times, they’re referred to constantly as ‘nips’) are pushed back, the film showing an example of how that happened. But there’s also a toll, an ever present price to pay, as the men commanded by Lieutenant Carl Anderson (Richard Widmark) are decimated, and not for the first time. The routine story of the marines’ efforts to take a Pacific island from their enemies becomes a highly personal tale, vignettes that explore their lives away from the front giving us a precious insight into their characters, their hopes and fears. Anderson was a Science teacher before enlisting, and helped a student (Richard Hylton) to overcome his debilitating stutter. Years later the kid, Conroy, is in Anderson’s platoon, but struggles with panic attacks about going into battle, forcing the pair to remember their previous encounter. To his men, the Lieutenant might appear to be a stolid commander, yet he suffers from terrible migraines, and ‘Doc’ (Karl Malden) holds the tablets that will help him, which makes him recall when he first took on the job of dispensing them.

The difficulty of each mission is made clear to the men as they disembark from their ships and make for the beaches in their landing crafts. They look ruefully back at the relative safety of the ships receding into the distance, before the guns open up to clear their passage onto the shores. Everyone knows the Japanese are tough fighters. What they don’t know is whether they’ll make it back off the island, and the film shows their acknowledgement of this horrible reality. Once on land, the job takes on extra levels of impossibility as the marines come under attack from a hidden missile silo. Their only chance of success is to discover the location of the base and order the aircraft to destroy it; otherwise their attack will be halted.

The plot takes in the interrogation of captured Japanese soldiers, daring incursions into enemy territory and the deaths of much of Anderson’s platoon. That he survives and indeed prevails is presented as a bittersweet notion, not only for him but also Jack Palance’s cynical Pigeon Lane, who’s faced up to death many times and despite protecting the redneck private, Pretty Boy (Skip Homeier), is unable to save him. In Halls of Montezuma, war is hell, a necessary hell but always a struggle against the conditions, enemy soldiers and internalised stresses. It foreshadows the HBO mini-series, The Pacific, with its sobering look at what life at the front was really like, and serves as a neat counterpoint to the number of Film Noir entries being made at the time. It’s very easy to imagine Widmark’s emotionally wrecked Anderson as a Noir character once he returns home, wrestling with the guilt of all those dead comrades that he’s doomed to bear for the rest of his life.

Halls of Montezuma was a lavish production, utilising the co-operation of the United States Marine Corps and filmed in and around Camp Pendleton, which remains the USMC base just outside San Diego. The filming of battle scenes was compiled with stock footage of actual landings, which jars a little now as the ‘joins’ are obvious but was standard practice at the time. Its focus on the people rather than the action makes for refreshing viewing, its message of real lives being spent on strategically important spits of land coming across very powerfully, its values writ large. Amidst a good cast, I was impressed strongly with Widmark’s performance. Here playing the film’s hero, he nevertheless managed to develop a complex, multi-dimensional character rather than a straight, square jawed lead, clearly feeling every casualty for which he feels responsible.

Halls of Montezuma: ***

Rio Bravo (1959)

When it’s on: Saturday, 26 August (3.10 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

I suppose there’s a sense of inevitability that at some point I would cover Rio Bravo on this site. It features in the schedules fairly regularly, always brushed over by me because I’m a bit nervous about discussing it. My worry is that I don’t like it as much as I ought to. The film’s seen as a classic of the Western genre, one of its finest entries in fact, and the first time I saw it I just wasn’t overwhelmed. Sure, it was a fine piece of work, technically very good and featuring some classic genre actors doing exactly what they were paid to do and doing it well. But around my initial viewing of this one, I was exploring many Westerns, often for the first time, and whilst I was really gripped by the likes of The Ox Bow Incident, 3:10 to Yuma and Shane, this one just felt like a good old-fashioned Oater. Nothing special.

The one Rio Bravo is most often compared with is Fred Zinneman’s High Noon, something I guess we should get out of the way early. As my comments on the earlier picture show, I love it to the extent that I think it’s about as good as cinematic entertainment tends to get. So no pressure on any challenger, then. I should add that what I like most about High Noon isn’t the political subtext at all, rather it’s the way Zinneman uses all elements of his craft to increase the story’s suspense. It’s a sublime exercise in mounting tension, one of the very finest for me, and entertainment doesn’t get much better than that. The socio-political climate in which it was made adds a neat contemporary spice to the mix, but if that’s all there was to it then High Noon would have little relevance to a viewer from the twenty first century, and I think it effortlessly transcends all that. It gets mentioned here because Rio Bravo was made in part as a riposte to its success. Director Howard Hawks and actor John Wayne were unhappy that High Noon’s hero was abandoned by all his friends and left to face destiny alone (the word ‘phony’ was dropped in there somewhere), and wanted to tell a similar story in which the villains are faced by people who happily band together to overcome them, in other words emphasising the qualities of comradeship and brotherhood.

It’s a nice message, and Rio Bravo focuses on the strength of the sum rather than the parts of its heroes by carefully showing how they are better together than apart. Alone, Dean Martin’s character is a pathetic drunk, a hollow shell of the man he once was, but it’s the stolid friendship of Wayne and Walter Brennan’s cackling Stumpy that gives him purpose. The alcoholic spiral of self-destruction into which he enters gifts Sheriff Chance (Wayne) with a cause, one he never shirks from. The relationship between the two is brilliantly played and shows what a generous performer Wayne was. In the scenes together, your eyes are drawn to Duke (Martin), who sweats, shakes and remonstrates, almost jumping across the screen as a consequence of being in deep with his personal demons. But watch Wayne. He stands and looks on, never judging, only getting involved when something’s to be done. The message should be clear enough – for Duke, he’s the rock, the one steady thing left in his life. Greater poignancy is lent when Duke realises that the guns and clothing he’s hawked years before for booze have all been bought by Chance and stored, ready and waiting for him to slip them back on.

Rio Bravo’s plot is simple enough. A man shoots someone in cold blood during the first act and is incarcerated by Chance, ready for the Marshal to deal with when he arrives in several days’ time. The prisoner happens to be the brother of Nathan Burdette (John Russell), the town’s Mr Big, who spends the rest of the film trying to get him out. Only Chance, Stumpy and Duke stand in his way, and they know it, facing Burdette’s legions of gunslingers in a small community that suddenly feels small and claustrophobic. There are people watching them on every corner, just waiting for the moment when they drop their guard. And so they don’t.

It’s the sort of story that underpins a thousand Westerns, and it’s perhaps this that made me under-value the film that first time. What I didn’t appreciate back then is that Rio Bravo is probably the quintessential classic Western, the culmination of talents pulling together for one great, last epic showpiece. Hawks directing. Dimitri Tiomkin’s thrilling score. Wayne and Brennan teaming up for the umpteenth time and bringing their A-Game, genuine affection between the pair punctuating their interactions and good natured barbs. Russell on reliable form as the baddie. Ward Bond putting in his customary support appearance, one year before he died from a heart attack, aged 57 and with nearly 300 screen credits to his name (god knows how many he’d have put in otherwise).

If the film has false notes, it’s in two further appearances. Ricky Nelson plays a young gunslinger, Colorado, who joins Chance’s team, and while there’s nothing especially wrong with him he strikes a callow note within a production of sure hands that plays very comfortably together. He was in the film to encourage teenage ticket sales, already gaining number one status in the American Billboard charts, and in a celebrated scene that actually strikes me as a little cloying he leads the gang in a sing along, watched over by a smiling, fatherly Wayne. The other problem arrives in the comely shape of Angie Dickinson, in her mid-twenties and in the script to provide a love interest for romantic lead Wayne. The trouble is that Dickinson’s a bit too good for the role, injecting real character and interest in her thinly drawn part, and distracting from the main plot. Leigh Brackett was a regular screenwriter for Hawks and added sizzling lines to Dickinson’s good time girl. She comes to dominate her scenes with Wayne, whilst as with his moments alongside Martin the Duke has little to do, perhaps another instance of him yielding the stage to his fellow actor.

The action scenes in Rio Bravo are few, but they’re good. In one of the best, Chance and Duke hit a saloon that’s filled with hostile Burdette men. They’re there to chase down a shootist who’s hiding there after he killed a man, and Chance lets his deputy take the lead, despite the worries that persist over his alcoholism. But this is the start of Duke’s redemptive arc. Eschewing the offer of a drink that comes several times, the effort of the villains to nullify him, refusing to remove the coin from the spittoon that he’s clearly done many times before to his own humiliation and everyone else’s ridicule, Duke instead learns the location of the shooter from a glass on the bar counter slowly filling with blood. He takes the guy out with a single shot. Wayne shows off his action chops also, pirouetting to club a man to the ground, good light footwork from the big man.

Perhaps my favourite bit arises from a piece of music. The 1950s was a great decade for the Western, the home of many classic entries before the genre started slowly waning. 1959’s Rio Bravo marks a late high point, but there’s an emphasis on the ‘late’ with the likes of Wayne clearly ageing. Holed up in the jailhouse with his friends, he hears a haunting instrumental drift across the town, Degeullo, also known as The Cutthroat song, a sign that no mercy will be given when Burdette – who’s ordered its playing – and his men come to get his brother back. The tune is very different tonally from Tiomkin’s orchestral overture and, with its heavy horn section, sounds more like something from a Spaghetti Western featuring the stylings of Ennio Morricone. In hindsight, it’s a little like the baton being passed, a sign of the things that would follow for the Western feature film.

Rio Bravo: ****

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 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 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 duelling 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 its 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 Scheherazade’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 Parisa 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-eyed 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 once more 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, although 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: *****

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: ****

Operation Petticoat (1959)

When it’s on: Friday, 12 June (4.05 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Here’s the first of a Cary Grant double bill, celebrating one of the most famous and best loved Hollywood movie stars of all time by looking at two quite difference pictures. Today’s is Operation Petticoat, a 1959 comedy made when Archibald Alexander Leach’s attachment to a project pretty much guaranteed box office and audiences knew just what they were getting from him.

Operation Petticoat is classic Saturday afternoon matinee fare; it’s likely that viewers of my generation caught it on a BBC2 weekend slot. The film’s good natured, amiable and never outstays its welcome. Despite being longer than two hours, it doesn’t feel like it; I could have handled more. Perhaps the comic potential of a premise that pairs Grant with Tony Curtis was just too good; add into the mix an early directorial outing for Blake Edwards, to whom I’ll always be grateful for the Pink Panther films, but whose work took on a definite ‘coasting’ quality in later years. There’s little of that here. It isn’t that Operation Petticoat is in any way brilliant, profound or has much to say about the human condition, more that there’s nothing wrong with whiling away a pleasant two hours in good company and that’s what this film amounts to. It was a big hit with the public, third only to Ben-Hur and Psycho at that year’s box office, which isn’t bad company to keep.

Grant plays Lieutenant Commander Sherman, captain of the US submarine, the Sea Tiger. It’s December 1941; a Japanese air raid damages the Sea Tiger, leaving it ready for scrapping and the Commodore transferring Sherman’s crew elsewhere. Feeling sorry for the already discarded submarine, Sherman asks to make an effort to repair it with the help of any available crew he can find, and is also assigned Lieutenant Nick Holden (Curtis). Whereas Grant’s character is more or less a straightforward navy man, Holden is a grifter. Given the wide-encompassing title of Supply Officer, Holden scrounges, borrows and steals items in order to patch the submarine together (and keep himself in a certain style), and then they’re off, making for the nearest dockyard with an interesting array of smoke belches and noises accompanying every knot achieved. At a nearby island, Holden picks up a bevvy of female military nurses to catch a lift with the crew, causing mayhem among the all-male complement and consternation to Sherman, who finds his ordered world beginning to crash around his ears. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Attempting to give the Sea Tiger a fresh coat of paint, the crew are forced to improvise with the undercoat and turn it pink, and then a fresh Japanese attack forces it to flee before the regulation grey can be applied. At one point, Sherman spies an enemy tanker he can torpedo, a first sinking for his sub, only one of the ladies accidentally knocks the trigger as it’s being positioned and all they hit is a truck on the shore.

There’s a certain ‘old world’ mentality to the film, especially when it comes to the objectification of women. Their presence on the Sea Tiger is seen by most of the crew as giving them something to ogle, whilst Sherman is compelled to make a new rule about how they carry themselves when walking down the submarine’s narrow corridors in case they find themselves in close proximity to Dolores Crandall’s (Joan O’Brien) generous assets.

But mostly, it’s just good fun, the slight sense of peril that comes with being a lonely (pink) submarine traversing mainly enemy waters watered down in place of comic moments, which Edwards mines to frequently delightful effect. Grant plays down his usual leading role to portray the largely straight man to Curtis’s loveable rogue, all crumpled dignity and world weariness, whilst the younger actor plunders the impish repertoire of Grant’s own early performances in producing his own. Operation Petticoat was a big earner for the leading man. Its budget was escalated and colour film preferred once he came on board, and his decision to take a share of the profits landed him something around the $3 million mark once it became a success.

Though some of the action scenes made good use of models, real US Navy submarines were used in the filming, including the USS Balao, which bore the Sea Tiger’s pink paint job. The plot took in a number of real life incidents; the torpedoing of the truck was based on an actual attack on Minami Daito in which a bus was swept into a harbour when the dock it stood on was hit.

Operation Petticoat gets by on a good deal of charm, a couple of great performances and some genuinely funny moments. It also bypasses any sense of reality by finishing with the now Admiral Sherman offering Holden the command of a brand new atomic submarine, presumably a reward for his quick thinking and ingenuity. Honestly though, would you trust your nuclear missiles with this man?

Operation Petticoat: ***

The Thing from Another World (1951)

When it’s on: Monday, 8 June (9.30 am)
Channel: Movies4Men
IMDb Link

‘Watch the skies, everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!’

BBC2 has a lot to answer for when it comes to my love of classic science fiction. Back in 1983, when I was eleven years old and a mere cineasteling, the channel screened a series of flicks over thirteen weeks in its early evening slot. I was hooked, my family no doubt grateful as hell for my insistence that the household’s single television set was taken over by paranoia-fuelled thrills from years ago. Alongside newer entries like Silent Running and the rarely scheduled The Forbin Project (the latter’s a really interesting story about two supercomputers, one American and the other Soviet, which insist on being linked and then together take charge of the world), the bulk of the schedule was 1950s Sci-Fi. It was a golden age for the genre, these films playing on the public’s real life fears of invasion from a largely unknown enemy by replacing the forces of the USSR with alien attackers. From those set on the straight destruction of humanity (The War of the Worlds), to invasion by more insidious means (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and those that were more interested in teaching us a lesson about our troublesome ways than killing us (The Day the Earth Stood Still), these films were a brilliant formative experience, and I try to cover them here whenever they put in a reappearance.

I’m entirely unapologetic about the pleasure I receive from watching these movies. They’re real documents of the contemporary mood, and very entertaining to boot. I should add that feelings weren’t so very different in the 1980s, as Reagan’s USA administration jacked up the level of antagonism against the Russians, albeit artificially as all the intelligence was suggesting that the superpower behind its iron curtain was by now crumbling. That didn’t stop a new slew of entertainments from chilling us all over again, though the focus then was more on the terrors of a nuclear strike, as seen in such films as When the Wind Blows and the terrifying TV movie, Threads. Both are recommended, especially the animated former, with its lovely old couple voiced by John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft, trying to prepare themselves against the horrors of the bomb. Great title track also by David Bowie.

The Thing from Another World wasn’t shown as part of the BBC series, but it might well have been, and by 1983 it had already been remade by John Carpenter. The updated version diversified from the original in a number of fascinating ways, indeed it’s probably in my personal list of top horror movies, but its basic premise remains the same. A group of people are stuck in a research base near the North Pole and find themselves coming into contact with an alien visitor that is far from friendly. It was made by Howard Hawks’s production company, Winchester Pictures, which added genuine credibility to the title as science fiction was seen by many at the time as a childish, derided genre, one not to be taken seriously. The Thing from Another World is an intelligent piece of work. Its focus is on air force crew and scientists collaborating (most of the time) against the threat; there’s humour, banter and good-natured teasing going on, but mostly practical discussion about the decisions they need to make in resolving the crisis they face.

The military is led by Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), who’s dispatched from Anchorage to the Arctic in order to help uncover a mysterious crash landing in the ice. He’s joined by a news reporter, Scotty (Douglas Spencer), who’s there to cover the story. At the base, Hendry comes across Nikki (Margaret Sheridan), a former love interest who is on hand to assist the scientists, led by Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite). They arrive at the crash site and realise a saucer-shaped object is buried in the ice. Their efforts to blast it out result in the vessel being destroyed, but not its pilot (James Arness), an eight foot tall humanoid that is returned to the base trapped in ice. With communications with Anchorage disrupted, the idea is to keep the being contained until they can receive advice, but thanks to the ill-judged use of an electric blanket it’s thawed out, comes to life and begins making attacks against the people. Carrington, coming to the conclusion that the ‘Thing’ is an intelligent life form, indeed far cleverer than human beings, believes it can and must be reasoned with. Hendry sees it differently. As the assaults continue, the Thing apparently using its victims’ blood to create offspring, he decides that they must fight back, even though bullets appear to have little effect and fire causes no lasting damage. Then the Thing destroys the base’s generator, robbing it of heat, and the fight becomes a ‘do or die’ situation.

This being the 1950s, the Thing isn’t the shape shifting, obviously alien being that rampaged through the Carpenter remake, but rather a tall man wearing make-up that leaves him looking a bit like Frankenstein’s next monster. Arness, who played it, would go on to be better known as the strong-jawed hero in countless episodes of Gunsmoke, yet here he’s certainly imposing, very strong and undeniably dangerous. A good impression of its strength comes early, when an early tussle with the team of dogs leaves it with a severed arm, a grisly souvenir for the scientists to investigate. Not only does the arm grow back, but Carrington finds that the body part has no nerve endings, making it more like a plant sample than a humanoid appendage. At that point, a collective ‘what the hell?’ is the untold question on everyone in the room’s lips.

Despite the credited director being Christian Nyby, rumour had it that Hawks did a lot of the daily work himself and indeed the film bears many Hawks trademarks, notably the scenes with characters working under considerable pressure. There are things happening here that you don’t normally see in a film from 1951, mundane things like characters speaking over each other, the spark of chemistry between Hendry and Nikki that ensures the talk of their ‘previous’ makes sense. The tension, of which there is plenty, comes as this group of natural professionals begins to break down into sides, one led by Hendry, which is all for destruction, the other Carrington, who thinks the Thing can be reasoned with. No prizes for guessing which of the two factions is correct. Commendable is the systematic, trial and error method they have of working out how to kill it, after bullets, axes and fire don’t work. The solution is reached in a logical and intelligent way, and crucially at a point when all looks doomed. A word on the North Pole setting, which is great, RKO’s soundstage and Ranch with fake snow creating an authentic looking set. It’s very claustrophobic, this feeling of being cut off from the world, miles from anywhere and needing to work together in order to survive.

The story is told more or less from the perspective of journalist, Scotty, who is on hand to make a string of pithy remarks as the team go about their business. At the end of the film, contact with Anchorage is restored and Scotty takes to the mic in order to tell the world about the exploits he’s witnessed and increasingly become a part of, ending with the iconic lines that form the quote at the top of this piece.

The Thing from Another World is now very old and has been remade a couple of times (I’m yet to see the most recent version, from 2011). The 1982 update ramps up the paranoia as the largely co-operative team of people from the original film is overhauled with a dissolute group of selfish losers for the most part, ready to turn on each other at a moment’s notice regardless of the Thing’s presence among them. It’s uncomfortable to watch and very frightening, based more closely on the source material (John W Campbell’s short novel, Who Goes There?) by turning the Thing into a shape shifter that can blend in by taking on the identity of a dog or one of the people. But that isn’t to say this 1951 film isn’t worth it. At less than 90 minutes’ running time, the story moves fast and keeps piling on the tension, and its influence on later genre entries is transparent. It’s difficult to watch a modern classic like Alien and not see many shades from this film, particularly its emphasis on people in an isolated setting as they attempt to deal with a malevolent presence.

I like The Thing from Another World a great deal, mostly its optimistic message about humanity banding together when it needs to. Even Carrington – who almost dooms everyone due to his efforts to understand the Thing and ensure its survival – is cast ultimately not as a villain but as a valid scientific mind. He doesn’t get his comeuppance by paying for his errors with his life, neither is he derided as an idiot, which is a nice way of making sure that all opinions among the team matter. It’s a great film.

The Thing from Another World: ****