Dances with Wolves (1990)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dances with Wolves: ****

All About Eve (1950)

When it’s on: Saturday, 30 December (3.20 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Over the holiday period the BBC are screening Feud, the Fox series that dramatises the ‘rivalry’ between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. As a pair of veteran, Golden Age dames, Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon are spectacular in their respective roles, particularly the latter who essentially looks as though Davis herself has somehow walked out of time to appear personally. To tie in with the series, we are getting a short season of films starring the two old greats, and in All About Eve we have an opportunity to see the role that remains perhaps Bette Davis’s best remembered, an acting tour de force that’s so well performed and came at such a perfect time in the actor’s career that it’s possible to believe she was just playing herself.

While the film’s called All About Eve, it isn’t really. Its heart lies with two characters whose wit and cynicism provide the film with its soul – Davis’s ageing Margo, and the Sahara-dry theatre critic Addison DeWitt, who’s brought to sardonic life by George Sanders. Its four female stars were all Oscar nominated, and none of them won, the feeling being that their presence in lead and support categories split the vote, while Sanders ran away with the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. It’s an appropriate merit for someone who gives the impression of having built up to this moment throughout his career. DeWitt is razor sharp, one step ahead and lights up the screen whenever he appears on it. Though his relationship with Eve suggests a marriage of convenience between friendly critic and rising star of the stage, the implication being that both are in fact gay and have united for mutual benefit, several scenes make it clear that he has her number and can always put her in her place, which adds a destructive and rotten note to their partnership.

All About Eve takes place in flashback, as Anne Baxter’s title character is receiving a prestigious honour and the film’s other main players are all present at the ceremony, recalling their memories of Eve. They remember the first time she entered their little company, appearing at the theatre where Margo stars and telling them of her hard luck history, and the hope inspired by seeing the play every night. All are charmed. Karen (Celeste Holm), Margo’s close friend and wife of the play’s writer, Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), takes to Eve immediately and commits to helping her, encouraging the star to employ her as a private secretary. Margo agrees, and over time Eve becomes an essential member of her staff. Then the doubts start creeping in.

Margo’s maid, Birdie (Thelma Ritter), suspects that Eve’s humility and willingness to do anything for her employer is a sham, that she spends all her time studying Margo, as though working ultimately to become her. This is a feeling Margo begins to share as the ‘perfect’ Eve anticipates her every whim a little too well, and her concerns grow when Eve talks Karen into letting her be an understudy to Margo’s new starring role. On the play’s first night, Margo is unable to make it to the theatre in time and can only sit, stranded, as her understudy takes over, arranging for the press to be present and giving a sublime performance, eventually landing the star-making part for herself. Before long, Eve is making moves on Margo’s boyfriend, Bill (Gary Merrill), and then it emerges that she and Karen cooked up a plan to ensure the play’s star was away on its opening night…

One of the film’s main themes is age. Margo, an established star, is 40 and still forced to take roles that are younger than she is, while Bill is eight years her junior. The suggestion is that her resentment of Eve boils down to the latter being just the right age to take over the lead roles she is used to performing, as well as being young, beautiful and ambitious. Before Eve’s duplicitous nature emerges, it’s implied that Margo’s suspicion of her is basic jealousy, something Margo exacerbates through acidic wit and sly put-downs. DeWitt is part of the problem, ever in search for a  new star to write about and promote. In an early scene, he seems to have discovered his muse in Miss Caswell, a young actress he brings along to the party Margo is throwing for Bill, but it transpires her radiance isn’t matched by talent, a vacuum that is waiting to be filled by none other than Eve. Miss Caswell is played by Marilyn Monroe in an early appearance; her scenes highlight her beauty and the way the men fall around her, something else for Margo’s insecurities to fixate upon. The party starts well but turns bitter as Margo drinks heavily and her tongue becomes caustic, lashing out at everyone around her before she retires and everyone else shuffles home. The stars, it turns out, might  be drawn to Miss Carswell and Eve, but they’re in a fixed orbit around Margo.

As Eve, Baxter is not as good as Davis and perhaps that’s entirely the point. The issue isn’t so much her talent as an actor, but her willingness to scheme and plot with no scruples, as part of an industry that in its women prizes youth over experience and ability. She’s worth following however, especially in the film’s earlier scenes when, as Birdy suggests, she does indeed spend her time on screen watching Margo like a hawk, studying her every mannerism. Also very good are Ritter and Holm in their supporting roles, though rightly it’s Davis who the camera loves and indulges, and she is good value in every second she’s on the screen, still a captivating presence despite the perceived diminishing of all those miles on the clock.

Personally, while I have no trouble admiring All About Eve, its acerbic dialogue and finely drawn characters, it isn’t a title I especially enjoy. There’s something about it that’s a bit too clever, too knowing, at the expense of elements like pace, a build of suspense. For me, the same year’s Sunset Boulevard has everything this one lacks. It’s better constructed, like this one telling a complicated story in flashback (and for added value, they’re the memories of a dead man) but building up to its finale in a dizzying, compulsive way that Eve, for all its smartness, never matches. Perhaps the fault lies in the identity of the directors. Sunset Boulevard was a Billy Wilder film, from most points of view a seal of quality, whereas Joseph L Mankiewcz directed All About Eve. With a background in writing and production before he took to ‘the chair’, Mankiewicz had an efficient eye and clearly no problem with bringing written dialogue to life, but the film seems happy moving from scene to scene without ever fully joining the dots.

What remains is a technically fine film, featuring some truly great performances and a haul of awards, indicating that in my mixed reaction I’m most probably wrong about it. Certainly it’s a celebrated piece of work, routinely occupying spots near the top of most lists and remaining an important touchstone in the career of Bette Davis, even if Sanders deserves more praise than he generally receives in a sea of acclaim for its complementary female performances. There’s even a very nice coda to the film that suggests it’s all cyclical, and that Eve will come to suffer the same fate as the one she inflicted on Margo.

All About Eve: ****

The Red Shoes (1948)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 27 December (12.10 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

These days we just get to enjoy the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who seemed to spend their working lives together crafting esoteric, whimsical and often fantastic British movies that were spinning off on tangents all of their own. The rest of the world did its thing while the pair ploughed their own creative furrow, resulting in a unique body of work that includes some of the most interesting films made at the time. There’s the love letter to England that is A Canterbury Tale. Forces from the afterlife debate the future of David Niven’s soul in A Matter of Life and Death. In The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, British attitudes to war are covered, to unsparing and cynical, yet ultimately celebratory, effect.

At the time audience reactions to their films were a mixed bag – some were loved unreservedly, others had an alienating effect on viewers, and it’s only with the passing of time that we have learned to appreciate fully their dreamlike wonders, and to be grateful that they were allowed to get away with it again and again. Churchill famously loathed Blimp. People were baffled by A Canterbury Tale. And The Red Shoes, which was criticised for choosing a topic no one wanted to see on the screen, took some time to really find commercial favour. Once it did then it really did, becoming a major hit and claiming a couple of Oscars, but the initial feeling was less than fulsome, and you can imagine the public wondering what the hell all this was about.

Certainly, there are elements of The Red Shoes that are very daring, especially for the time it was made. Gene Kelly made a success of the in-film sequence where the plot is put to one side in favour of an extended dance sequence, yet it was a fresh idea when Powell and Pressburger inserted a 17 minute ballet sequence into the middle of their movie. Imagine the dream scenes from Hitchcock’s Spellbound being left uncut by the disparaging, controlling hand of Selznick, so that you see the full, disturbing vision instead of a short highlights reel, and you come close to what was committed to the final cut here. Essentially, we get a vision of The Red Shoes as envisioned by ballet impresario Boris Lermontov, and brought to life by Julian Craster’s bewildering score and the dancing of Victoria Page. The ballet is an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale and teases out the nightmarish, psycho-sexual overtones of the girl who gets the red shoes she wants, but can’t control them and the shoes keep dancing long after she’s reached the point of exhaustion. As the shoemaker is portrayed in increasingly Guignolian tones, Page is still dancing as her pretty dress turns into dirty rags and the community turns her away, ignoring her plight. The painted backdrops take on a more sinister edge. The set dressings become elaborate, impossible to really be there on the stage and you realise it’s as much the product of someone’s imagination – Page’s own? The audience’s? – as it is clever stage design, Jack Cardiff’s cinematography and the production design work of Hein Heckroth building a bizarre and unsettling claustrophobia of limited space, through which Page pirouettes in ever more desperate and frantic circles, the need to rid herself of the shoes urgent and yet impossible.

The Red Shoes is the sad tale of Page (Moira Shearer), the dancer who gets her opportunity to shine when the company’s prima ballerina announces her marriage. To impresario Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), there is no room for love in the life of a ballerina. ‘The music is all that matters‘ he tells her, a fateful warning as she beings a romance with the composer, Craster (Marius Goring) and this threatens her dancing future. Page ultimately is forced to choose – a career in Lermontov’s company, which is demanding yet professionally rewarding, or ‘earthly’ happiness with Craster, a dilemma that has tragic consequences.

As the single-minded Lermontov, Walbrook plays a monster. Dismissive of anyone who doesn’t share his vision and enforcing a work ethic that is nothing short of punishing, Lermontov is at his worst when Page’s relationship with Craster means she will never be fully his and his mood spills over into rage, a professional resentment as he found his muse and has had her snatched away. Goring, impressive in A Matter of Life and Death, gets the more straight role as Craster, asserting his musical talents and coming to love Victoria. Much of the cast was filled with real ballet dancers, which is how Moira Shearer came to the role. She had little love for the demands of working on film and would go on to make fleeting future appearances, though there’s little doubting her impact on The Red Shoes, notably in the signature ballet sequence that lays all her talent bare on the screen, the emotion and longing expressed through sheer movement. It took Powell a year to entice Shearer for the part, and she was unimpressed with his efforts to direct her and her fellow dancers, feeling he didn’t ‘get it’ and tried to treat them like any normal actor.

The picture has an overall dreamlike feel. This is partly achieved through some incredible use of Technicolor, lending everything a lush, glossy sheen. Much of the action takes place in Monte Carlo, which adds to its fleshy air of romance. Craster and Page are shown chatting on their hotel veranda; a train passes below, blowing plumes of  smoke that surround them, as though enveloping them in cloud. It’s a mirror held to the conceits of ballet, the artifice and implied sexuality displayed through dance. Shearer might have been right in sensing Powell and Pressburger were not qualified to work with dancers, but they knew how to create a mood, and the ethereal one they generated for The Red Shoes – made, lest we forget, during the difficult, lean years following World War Two – is powerful indeed.

To modern viewers, it’s impossible to ignore parallels with Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 entry about Natalie Portman’s dancer working to earn the lead role in a prestigious production of Swan Lake and the toll it takes on her very sanity. The similarities are easy enough to see. Both films are about the strains made on ballerinas, their efforts to reach the heights of performance clashing with the other demands on their lives, but the newer film has more obvious leanings in the horror genre, the obliquely expressed challenges for Victoria Page made frighteningly stark in Portman’s case. I know which of the two I prefer. The Red Shoes is powerful, beautiful and its sense of longing present yet elusive. In many ways it’s a companion piece to Black Narcissus, one of my favourite Powell and Pressburger productions, another story of earthly pleasures encroaching on a world where they have no place. By the film’s close, Victoria has become the real life wearer of the red shoes, compelled by them to dance, and dance, and dance to destruction, and watching her do so has an absurd and enchanting quality that makes the film hopelessly compelling. By the finish, just like Victoria I have surrendered to the power of the red shoes.

The Red Shoes: *****

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 26 December (11.55 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

“Do you often see your father?”
“No, actually, we’re just good friends.”

Congratulations to BBC2 for screening one of the very best musical comedies starring real-life rock stars – A Hard Day’s Night, which is 89 minutes of riotous fun and great songs. Watch it and you get what the fuss over The Beatles was all about. For any of us too young to have been around when the band was still together, what we’re left with is the music and overly reverential memories from those ‘in the know’, too often focusing on the heritage they left as song writing geniuses. But the film shows us the other side, the energetic, cheeky, charming and winning personalities of the lads, which helped to turn them into enormous stars who were well worth being relentlessly chased by screaming hordes of fans. They’re an irresistible force of nature, something the film captures perfectly.

Director Richard Lester was a rising star himself at the time, and chose to shoot A Hard Day’s Night as a TV documentary, filming in crisp black and white and purporting to depict a typical day in the life of the Fab Four as they were tipping over into outright megastardom. Together with writer Alun Owen and producer Walter Shenson, Lester spent a little time with the group before the script was put together, and the dialogue Owen came up with was inspired very much by these meetings, attempting to reflect their individual personalities and allowing for a certain amount of ad-libbing. In the end, only John Lennon veered off-script to a significant extent, but the ‘freewheeling’ filming style and natural acting talent of the band members suggests successfully that the cameras were switched on in the boys’ presence and simply followed them around.

A Hard Day’s Night was filmed over a six week period in early 1964, shot as though ‘on the run’ and had a budget of less than £200,000 to play with, a slim pot that reflected United Artists’ unwillingness to invest significantly in a band that might have faded as quickly as it rose to prominence. The plot follows the Beatles as they arrive in London to play at a televised concert. Dodging their fans and trying to run away from the demands of their beleaguered manager, played by Norman Rossington, the action follows them at home, and at play in London clubs, at work attending press junkets, and ultimately performing before a theatre of hysterical youngsters. There’s a sub-plot that tracks Paul’s Grandfather, played by Wilfrid Brambell, described by everyone he meets as ‘very clean’ as a play on his famous ‘dirty old man’, Alfred Steptoe, in Steptoe and Son. Later, Ringo walks out on rehearsals for the show to enjoy the sights of the city on his own, an effort that gets him into trouble with the law, which leads to further high jinks.

Mostly however, what makes the film special and unique are the vignettes focusing on the lads’ throwaway humour, their endless reserves of charm and charisma, an intrusive peer into the perceived lives of four young men whose love for life comes across vividly on the screen. The pressures of being pursued by fans, the grind of performing on the road, the sense of rarely being allowed to stop being ‘in character’ as their professional presence took over their lives… All this was in the future when A Hard Day’s Night was filmed. At this stage, they’re very much in thrall with all the attention and happy to indulge, and that comes across in the film to delightful effect. Being a Richard Lester film, the gags come thick and fast, generally filmed as though it’s all off the cuff rather than carefully scripted. The relief after all those ‘rock star’ movies starring the likes of Elvis and Cliff, in which the delicately managed productions were mirrored in movies that lurched into fantasy, is palpable. While A Hard Day’s Night no doubt contains its own levels of artifice – check out the scene where the boys are playing cards on screen, then a song starts (I Should Have Known Better) and they’re next shown playing their instruments – its unconstrained style of filming lends it an air of authenticity that is only broken several times, and it’s all the better for that.

The film’s title and its accompanying track were eleventh hour decisions. A Hard Days’ Night was filmed as simply The Beatles, before the band and Shenson were discussing alternative names and an off-hand remark by Ringo was considered. Lennon wrote the song overnight and the following morning it was performed as a finished piece, the genesis of an iconic work that accompanies the film’s opening scenes. In it, the band are shown running away from their fans. But it’s a happy moment; the lads are laughing. George Harrison falls over and Ringo turns to laugh at him. This moment could have been reshot but Lester kept it in, as he did other gaffes – George knocks over his own amp during a recording session – to depict the Beatles’ sense of childish exuberance and knockabout fun.

Watched now, it’s the kind of film I want to start again as soon as I’ve finished it. With each viewing I pick up fresh gags, little gems like Lennon pretending to sniff from a bottle of Coke while Norm lectures the band about their responsibilities. Its sense of youthful rebellion, while clean and innocent enough, is ever present, a reflection of sniffy ‘adult’ attitudes towards their success and the concerns expressed by Lennon that the project had to essentially be on their side. He needn’t have worried. A Hard Day’s Night is a classic.

A Hard Day’s Night: *****

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

When it’s on: Saturday, 23 December (6.45 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

I posted a comment about The Bishop’s Wife as part of an extended ramble last Christmas on these pages. It was the first time I had seen the film, which felt like an enormous oversight because it came across as almost a perfect seasonal offering, and I was happily swept along with it. That said, in the UK at least there’s one classic slice of Hollywood melodrama that beats all others when it comes to Christmas films, so looking beyond It’s a Wonderful Life can be difficult. The Miracle on 34th Street gets a look in, though the number of people who think the Attenborough remake is the definitive version is a concern, but there’s little attention paid to the likes of The Shop Around the Corner, which is a beautiful piece of work that deserves more love, while the charm of Bing Crosby tends to sidelined into the ‘Musicals’ category rather than celebrated for its seasonal cheer. So then you get the various adaptations of A Christmas Carol, and a gem like The Bishop’s Wife is relegated to the early hours of a Yuletide schedule as opposed to the frequent theatrical exhibitions of It’s a Wonderful Life that show the extent to which it’s celebrated.

The Bishop’s Wife was an RKO picture made on the back of The Best Years of Our Lives, a box office bonanza and Oscar winner for Samuel Goldwyn, who ordered a Christmas movie for 1947. At the time, It’s a Wonderful Life was a commercial failure, so the project was something of a gamble, and things got worse as the A-List cast of David Niven, Loretta Young and Cary Grant clashed on set. Part of the trouble was resolved when its male stars swapped roles, and watching the film it’s tough to picture Niven in any other part than that of the troubled bishop, a soul-troubled character whose personal demons too well reflected the recent real-life bereavement he had suffered. Young and Grant took umbrage against each other all too often, falling out over the latter’s perfectionism that slowed down the filming and the fact both preferred to be shot from the same side, making a challenge of the many scenes when they were facing each other. It’s a credit to both performers that the chemistry between their characters was intact throughout, indeed the sparks possibly helped the jarring, ‘not quite right’ on-screen relationship that depicted his romantic overtures she was unwilling to reciprocate.

In the film, Grant plays Dudley, an angel who gets assigned to help a young bishop, Henry Brougham (Niven). The bishop is striving to have a cathedral built in his town, a task that depends on the patronage of the local matriarch (Gladys Cooper), but her interest depends on his agreement that it will be an edifice to her late husband. This troubles his pure motives for building the cathedral, but the bigger issue for him is the time he’s spending on the planning, which is distancing him from his wife Julia (Young) and their daughter. Dudley reveals himself to Henry, who has natural doubts about his angelic status but nevertheless agrees to take him on as an assistant. This introduces Dudley to Henry’s entire world, not just his project but all the people in it, including his family and house staff, as well as their friends within the community. Increasingly, while the bishop attends endless meetings Dudley’s role becomes that of companion to Julia, and the pair grow closer, much to Henry’s dislike who can see the effect on his wife all this attention is having.

The romantic triangle at he heart of the film isn’t its most interesting dimension. As enchanted as Julia is by Dudley’s attentions, her heart very clearly belongs to Henry, who is portrayed as having lost his way, and then not in a way that leads him to committing any evil. He certainly doesn’t deserve to lose his wife, who gives every impression of understanding his preoccupation with the cathedral, and as a result the hints of Dudley’s efforts being to do more than ease Henry’s soul don’t really amount to much. Of far greater value is the effect his presence has on everybody else. Monty Woolley’s broken History Professor, a kindly man who has for years been devoid of inspiration for writing his book about Ancient Rome, regains his impetus thanks to Dudley’s gentle prodding. Cooper’s status in the film as its potential ‘Mr Potter’ is unmasked when the angel intervenes and gives her a glimpse of the humanity in her life that its been lacking. His interaction with the staff at the bishop’s house, notably Elsa Lanchester’s blousey maid, is quite heartwarming, and in the film’s most touching scene, he persuades cabbie Sylvester (James Gleason) to join Julia and himself in an impromptu ice dancing adventure. The scene is intended to hint at the developing feelings between the stars, but it’s Sylvester, recapturing a joie de vivre through his moment of sheer childlike joy, which leaves the most lasting impression.  It’s lovely, innocent stuff.

Of course, by the movie’s end everyone is in ‘happily ever after mode, just as they should be, and Dudley leaves having completed his mission, albeit after almost undermining it at the climax. For me, it’s a note that jars ever so slightly, the idea that an angel would gain feelings for a ‘mortal’ just because he’s played by classic romantic lead Cary Grant and he has to have that storyline, but it’s not enough to ruin the overall sentiment that’s been created. If The Bishop’s Wife has a core message, it is that everything will turn out all right in the end, and I think a Christmas picture can have no better one. It was directed by Henry Koster, who replaced the original choice and pretty much restarted the shoot from scratch, capturing the whimsical tone that had been missing from its initial filming. Whether this or 1950’s Harvey is the better of his light fantasies is entirely up to the individual viewer, but both have unmistakable charm and never fail to entertain.

The Bishop’s Wife: ****

The Man in the White Suit (1951)

When it’s on: Saturday, 26 April (7.20 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Alexander Mackendrick’s The Man in the White Suit is almost the quintessential Ealing film. It’s very funny. The film was Oscar nominated for its screenplay, which is a supreme example of packing welters of story and characterisation into a script that allows a running time of less than ninety minutes. And it runs breathlessly, introducing its people and mining their nuances for comic effect, which more often than not works. But it’s also a satire, and beneath the fun rather an acerbic one, telling how capitalism pulls rank when faced with the possibility of progress that could halt its drip-feed of money.

Alec Guinness plays Sidney Stratton, a labourer in various textile mills around Greater Manchester who also happens to be a brilliant research chemist. His dream is to create an everlasting fibre, but with each job he ends up being sacked because of the materials bills he runs up. While working at Birnley Mill, he manages to land himself a research role (a dream for him, though he blithely ignores the fact it’s an unpaid position) along with the friendship of the propreitor’s daughter Daphne (Joan Greenwood). It’s she who persuades her father (Cecil Parker) to fund his research, and after several failed attempts – which result in explosions – he hits success. The fibre he invents is not only virtually indestructible, it can also repel any dirt that comes into contact with it.

Sidney, now hailed as a genius and a revolutionary for the textiles industry, has a brilliant white suit tailored especially for him from the fibre. Due to radioactive elements in the material, it has a luminous quality. But then the trouble begins. Other mill owners get wind of what’s happened and work out the obvious – that Sidney’s invention will spell the end of their industry. Over time, the suppressed workers of the mills realise this too can only have an adverse impact on their jobs. As a result they all try to stifle Sidney, first aiming to persuade him to sell his invention and ultimately resorting to keeping him locked up him before he can reach Manchester’s press offices and turn the miraculous fabric into public reality.

The film keeps its narrative light. Its first half covers Sidney’s determined efforts to continue his research, his tendency to fade into the background so that can avoid detection for as long as possible. When he’s funded, put out fellow researchers are herded into tiny, cramped rooms while he carries on, his experiments blowing up so that he can only activate them while hiding behind sandbags and wearing a Home Guard helmet. Later, as he’s kept under lock and key while the mill owners figure out what to do with them, he escapes and sparks a madcap chase through the working class streets, the night time offering no help to him as his suit glows irrepressibly in the dark. As is traditional with Ealing’s material, nobody ever gets hurt and the conclusion, while bittersweet, contains notes of optimism because it’s made clear the story doesn’t necessarily end here.

Despite that, The Man in the White Suit is a tale of complicated morality and the duplicity of big business. Sidney is portrayed largely as an innocent, devoid of any material ambitions, even to be paid for his work, because his goal is the loftier scientific ideal, and so he clashes irrevocably with the industrialists’ capitalist outlook. For their part he’s a threat, in particular when he makes it clear that he can’t be bought. Mr Birnley is the most beneficient of the mill owners, though to an extent that’s because he sees his company as owning Sidney’s contract. Also involved is Michael Gough, Daphne’s fiance and owner of a rival mill. The industrialists are led by Sir John Kierlaw, a decrepit but ghoulish figure played, in a delight of casting, by none other than Ernest Thesiger. It’s Sir John who outlines perhaps the owners’ darkest scheme, to pay Daphne £5,000 in order to make her seduce Sidney and get him to give up his secret formula. It’s a moment that’s subtly outlined in the film and no one says explicitly what they expect Daphne to do, but the underlying message is clear enough. Daphne plays along but is naturally appalled, not least with her fiance who joins the throng in asking her to go with it, putting his business interests ahead of their relationship. And of course it comes to naught. Sidney is unmoved and Daphne, relieved by his force of will, offers to help him escape.

Joan Greenwood could play morally dubious characters as she demonstrated in Ealing’s Kind Hearts and Coronets, but she’s largely straight edged here, though the glamour and especially the silky voice are present and correct. She easily outdoes the labourer, Bertha (Vida Hope), who through the smoke of Trade Union rhetoric and resentment is just as fascinated by Sidney as Daphne is. As for Guinness, in a standout role he remains single-minded throughout the story, as true to his work as he is to making it public, at no point thinking of himself but about the scientific achievement and its benefits. In some ways he’s the classic ‘little man’ battling forces much larger than himself, but Guinness wasn’t interested in playing Sidney as a straightforward hero, and added layers of nuance to his character. That’s why he can almost hide in plain sight, because he’s isn’t too conventionally good looking and – before wearing the suit – never draws attention to himself. And besides, Sidney comes across as a not altogether nice guy. He gives little back to both Daphne and Bertha, despite their interest in him, and his determination comes at the expense of any thought to others. His conscience is only pricked late in the film when Edie Martin, whose living is made from the banality of washing clothes, challenges him about where his invention will leave people like her.

Whether this is Mackendrick’s best film is tougher to answer. As with much of his disappointingly slim list of directorial credits, there’s a lot going on in The Man in the White Suit, yet it’s possible to enjoy it for its dry wit and the affection it has for its richly drawn characters without worrying overly about the darker elements dancing beneath the surface. While Mackendrick was ever at odds with Ealing Studios, especially as its fortunes faded in the mid-1950s, there’s something innately appealing about the work he did for them, the teasing at humanity, even if it’s shown in glimpses. Many argue that his masterpiece was his one significant Hollywood credit, Sweet Smell of Success, and though I’m certainly a big fan of it I think overall I might prefer the delicate balancing act between cynicism and optimism in the kindness of people that he portrayed in his five Ealing films.

And if all that isn’t enough, then consider that The Man in the White Suit was one big nose poke at the venerable Studio itself. Parker, playing Mr Birnley, was made to look like Ealing head, Michael Balcon, and asked to copy his mannerisms and even use some of his pet phrases.

The Man in the White Suit: *****

Grand Prix (1966

When it’s on: Friday, 18 August (2.30 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Many moons ago, I wrote a review of Goal! for Digital Fix. My main issue with it was also my problem with almost every sports film. You get either a rags to riches story, or a peek into the lives of the celebrity sportsperson, in other words a cliché you’ve seen many times or the disconnected experience of following individuals whose lifestyle you could never aspire to, therefore cannot empathise with. There are a few noble exceptions, but for every This Sporting Life there’s a slew of titles that conform to the usual tropes.

I thought about Goal! when watching Grand Prix, John Frankenheimer’s epic about Formula One drivers in their contemporary mid-sixties setting. Goal!’s sequel, an entry no one asked for but everyone was committed to making, was subtitled Living the Dream, which also acts as our entry point into the world of motor racing. The four drivers whose tales are the backbone of the story are impossibly rich playboys, indulging their glamorous habits and apparently living the aforementioned dream. As viewers we have very little sense of connection with them, and it’s a three hour movie that, in its lengthy scenes away from the track, drags horribly. As Yves Montand sparks a romantic relationship with Eva Marie Saint’s journalist, their slow burning interludes feel like an extended sequence of scenes from Dynasty, while his cynical comments about the sport that’s made him rich, famous and successful hopelessly foreshadow where his character is heading. Difficult to care.

And yet, it’s impossible not to be sucked into the film’s race scenes, a track side and intimate depiction of the hype, fever, danger and breakneck speeds that have made the sport such an enduring spectacle. Frankenheimer built relationships with the companies, notably Ferrari, sending them footage of what he’d shot in Monte Carlo and in response gaining levels of access that at the time were unprecedented.

Getting Ferrari’s approval was a coup. The oldest and most iconic constructor of them all, with those signature red racers and commitment to quality, gave the film a real sense of authenticity. Actual drivers substituted for the actors in many of the racing scenes. The performers received training, but only James Garner of the principals turned out to show the prowess that allowed him to be filmed while driving. Formula 3 cars were mocked up to look like they belonged on the Formula 1 circuits, and Frankenheimer oversaw the filming techniques that made the races such breathless experiences, notably the cameras mounted on cars that lent viewers a driver’s eye perspective. It’s disorientating and certainly delirious to watch. Cars appear to be hurtling straight for the hoarding before they turn away on a bend at the last minute, and every time you’re wondering if the steering will fail, whether they will burst straight through. Just as good is the sound direction. During the races Maurice Jarre’s sumptuous score gives way to the noise of engines, ear-splitting in volume and lending perspective to the sense of angry speed they’re achieving. Just to emphasise the point, Frankenheimer also used helicopter footage, the sound kept at a distance and the vehicles looking like toys, before cutting back to the cockpit.

In every way, the races in Grand Prix are a delight for the senses, truly wondrous. The sense of glamour is palpable, the drivers at these moments being transformed into super humans as they drive at fantastic speeds. But it also gets across the peril. Safety was not the primary concern of the race back then, and it shows in a number of crashes that result in various casualties. In the film’s opening race, at Monaco, Garner’s car collides with the Williams of his teammate, played by Brian Bedford. The incident is an accident, the result of a mechanical failure, but it ends in Garner ripping through the barriers and straight into the Mediterranean, while Bedford comes off considerably worse, suffering major injuries and bedridden for some weeks. Garner’s sacked from Williams, and spends time as a commentator before being hired by Toshiro Mifune’s Japanese Yamura team. Their fortunes instantly pick up, Garner’s driver points racking up as he catches up to Montand and Antonio Sabato, the men in Ferrari’s cars. Sabato plays a young, spunky Sicilian, filed with self-confidence, while Montand’s ageing pro is a more jaded figure, increasingly conscious of his own mortality, something exacerbated when he crashes in a later race and kills some children.

This half of the plot is compelling enough, though as with any sports flick it falls short of the thrills of real life as it’s clearly contrived and heading towards a scripted emotional punch at the finish. Away from the circuit, things get worse as the soap opera plotting never comes close to matching the drama taking place on the track. Garner gets close to Bedford’s wife (Jessica Walter), who’s grown sick of her partner’s bouts of nervous tension before each race. Montand starts seeing Saint despite his own nuptials, a relationship that feels very under-cooked as the chemistry between them refuses to come to life. That leaves Sabato and his flighty romance with Francoise Hardy. Despite the latter’s easy charms, it’s clear Sabato is in a much richer love affair with himself, which comes with obvious consequences.

But none of this is what you take away from the film, the affairs and romances serving as padding to the main event. If viewers are anything like me, they’re wiling the action to return to the track, to the film’s bittersweet and all too possible conclusion.

Grand Prix was exhibited in Cinerama exhibitions, which must have made for exhilarating watching at the time. The races are an absolute technical marvel, and Frankenheimer and visual consultant Saul Bass pull out every trick to add to the suspense, with frequent montages, split screens, focusing on rivets being tightened, the drivers shown as pensive and resolved. It’s let down by the rest, but when it gets these bits as right as it does then the overall effort is just about worth it.

Grand Prix: ***

Marnie (1964)

When it’s on: Saturday, 8 October (12.30 am, Sunday)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

By no means all Hitchcock films were box office hits, and some at the time found little critical favour also, though retrospective reviews have often discovered the genius their contemporaries failed to identify. Marnie is something of an oddity in that regard – a decent commercial return upon its 1964 release, a largely positive body of comments, a real Marmite movie for today’s viewers. It’s a title I’ve always had trouble getting to grips with. Perhaps that isn’t a surprise – Marnie followed a string of four outright classics, two of which – Vertigo and North by Northwest – remain perhaps the best film I’ve ever seen and the most entertaining respectively, also Psycho and The Birds, both close to masterpiece territory (and if they aren’t, then that’s only because I don’t want to use that word loosely and they certainly fit the bill where many other people are concerned). But on its own merits it isn’t an easy title to take to readily. Marnie runs for 130 minutes and often very little happens in it. The signature moments of suspense are few and far between, though understated and gripping when they occur. And on the surface it seems a simple premise – Tippi Hedren plays the psychologically damaged Marnie, a serial thief ‘rescued’ by Sean Connery’s beneficent and endlessly patient Philadelphia rich kid who seeks to get to the root of her malaise, to essentially save her from herself. It lives or dies depending on how much you engage with Hedren’s performance. Marnie isn’t a very likeable character, but there are reasons for this – how well is all this conveyed? Do you believe in her? Is any of it compelling?

The major criticism of this film is that with a better female lead it might have been more compelling – you imagine it being made in the 1970s starring Faye Dunaway or Meryl Streep and gaining Oscar approval. Hitchcock wanted Grace Kelly for the part, attempting to coax her out of retirement and finding her reaction to be a positive one before the combination of problems within Monaco and Prince Rainier’s unhappiness with his royal wife taking on such a negative role forced her to withdraw. In the meantime, the director’s ‘groomed’ star, Tippi Hedren, had impressed in The Birds to such an extent that he could turn to her as an off the shelf alternative, though by the time Marnie was being shot Hitchcock and his star were barely on speaking terms anymore.

How much of this was down to the lurid stories concerning Hitch’s personal relationship with Hedren is for you to decide. Personally, I never wanted to believe too much of it – the gifts, the affection, the long, long meetings between the pair, the rumours of his ultimately rebuffed sexual advances towards her. I confess this is entirely down to not wanting it to be true, because I love his work and by extension the man himself, though admittedly over time I’ve come to realise there must have been something to all the tales. Hedren was hardly the first lovely lady he attached himself to but perhaps she was the one in whom he felt he’d invested enough time and effort to feel a sense of almost ownership, as though she was his to do with as he pleased. I don’t know. These are just feelings, impressions based on events no one beyond the two people at the centre of it all can claim to know everything about, although Hedren’s own testimonies and the weight of history do suggest a degree of darkness to Hitchcock’s efforts to find the perfect blonde (for his movies).

The other way of looking at it is to imply that by cold shouldering Hedren on set, Hitchcock put her in the perfect place to coax such a performance of alienation and resentment. Because on the viewing for this write-up I was pretty much hooked on her work; far from seeing weak acting that was unable to cope with the demands of the role, I found her entirely convincing and magnetic. It’s a difficult part to play. Not only do you have to buy into her internal psychological damage, she has to make you believe that she’s worth being pursued by Mark Rutland (Connery), that despite her efforts to brush him off, not to mention her sexual frigidity, he persists until the film ends on a cautiously optimistic note. Fortunately, it’s beautifully done, Hedren’s character going through the emotional wringer until at the end her make-up has run, she looks as though she hasn’t slept properly for weeks and she’s reduced to speaking in a little girl’s voice to explain the childhood incident that scarred her for life. The result, Marnie’s repression and attempts to steal and then move on, all fits together so successfully that the use of the red filter as a psychological trigger whenever she sees the colour (no prizes for guessing what that symbolises) is a redundant gimmick.

The film opens with Marnie up to what we must consider to be her old tricks, having taken a position of employment, wormed her way into the boss’s confidence, breaking into and robbing his safe, and moving on to a new city, to the next trick. By a sorry coincidence, the target of her burglary is an associate of Rutland’s, and he’s the very man she ends up working for next. Again, she steals from her employer and does one, only Rutland’s wise to her ways and catches up with her. He then marries her as a pretext to helping her confront the demons that have forced her into this sad existence, a losing game apparently as Marnie is far from ready to give up her secrets.

The other motive behind Rutland’s decision to wed Marnie is his apparent lust for her, depicted in the infamous ‘rape’ scene, a soft take on the act by any modern filmed standards but clearly depicted all the same. This moment appeared in Winston Graham’s source novel and Hitchcock considered it to be uncuttable, despite the protestations of the original screen writer, Evan Hunter, who believed it would rob Rutland of any audience sympathy. The consequence was Hunter’s instant dismissal from the project and the decision to hire Jay Presson Allen, whose script for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was a draft at this stage. Allen appreciated working with Hitchcock, felt that she was never discriminated against for being a woman and believed he was pleased to have a writer who would give the Marnie character a true female perspective, something he was incapable of providing. As for the scene, it remains relatively hard hitting, especially given Rutland’s careful development as a relatively good man, and it’s possible to feel the rape – or at least, the non-consensual act, if you really insist on softening it – jars with the character’s motivations. I think the aim was to add flesh to Rutland, to show that among the good intentions and willingness to help Marnie he’s still a red-blooded male and can only take the lack of sex during his honeymoon so far. In saying that, I’m not trying to excuse his actions, just looking for reasons why he did it.

Rutland was played by Sean Connery, at the time just beginning his run as James Bond with Dr No finding success and a string of annual 007 outings in the pipeline. Looking for a younger version of his proto-masculine hero, Cary Grant, Hitchcock lucked out in getting Connery, who certainly brings all his charisma and presence to the role, albeit one demanding little of the physical performance that would define his time as Bond. While the complete refusal/inability of the actor to adapt his accent to the character was already in place when he made Marnie, Connery’s is undoubtedly good casting, a strong co-star for Hedren and someone in whom you believe entirely to get to the bottom of his wife’s mysteries once he’s resolved to do so. Of the rest of the cast, Diane Baker excels as Lil, Rutland’s sister-in-law who obviously sees herself as a future Mrs Rutland and makes malevolent efforts to undermine Marnie, sort of a less benevolent take on the Midge character in Vertigo. Marnie’s mother is played by Louise Latham, who deglamourised herself to excellent effect as a rather pathetic woman who both loves her daughter and does all she can to push her away, all because of unfortunate past events.

At the time Marnie was released, it was criticised heavily for ‘old Hollywood’ techniques that just looked out place in the 1960s – rear-screen projection and painted backdrops; check out the exterior set used for Marnie’s mother’s house for a glaring example. But was all this done deliberately? After all, it becomes clear that Marnie lives in a made-up world, so does it not follow to suggest her surroundings have a degree of artifice, that to flood her in harsh reality would only serve to highlight the character’s contrivances and diminish the power of her story? I guess it’s up to the individual viewer to decide, but as the film progressed it made more sense to me to think of it in this way.

Far from seeing this as a relatively weak entry within Hitchcock’s body of work, I’ve now come to really appreciate it, and of course there’s the parting of ways it also represented – the final collaboration between the director and Bernard Herrmann; his last with Robert Burks, the long-time cinematographer of Hitch classics. Truly things would never be the same again, and not in a good way given (largely) what followed. I certainly have no hesitation in recommending Marnie. Like Vertigo, it’s quite unlike anything else he made and if nothing better then it’s certainly an absorbing experiment in the subject matter he chose. I imagine those who psycho-analyse Hitchcock’s films for signs of the man’s profile having a field day with this one, which indeed you can do and often with dark and unpalatable results. That’s there if you’re looking for it, but take his extra-curricular motivations away and what you’re left with is a fine and unique film, one that definitely deserves its retrospective.

Marnie: ****

Becket (1964)

When it’s on: Monday, 4 April (1.15 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

The first of two 1960s films covering the life and times of Henry II and starring Peter O’Toole as one of England’s most important kings, Becket stands as cracking medieval drama. Like its ‘not really, but it could be’ sequel, The Lion in Winter, Becket was adapted from a stage play, actually a French play, and noteworthy was the amount of licence used in pulling away from historical accuracy. The main point of contention was the film’s assertion that Henry was a Norman and Thomas Becket a Saxon, throwing in a key note of tension as William the Conqueror’s successful invasion of England set up an apparently divided country of ruling Normans and downtrodden Saxons that played well in Hollywood versions of the time. In reality, Becket was as Norman as they came whilst Henry was from the Anjou region of France, an Angevin whose territories on the continent added further chunks of what would become the French nation to England.

The Norman-Saxon element is ever present in Becket, but far more important is the personal relationship between Henry and Becket, the deep friendship that turns to enmity once the latter is handed the Archbishopric of Canterbury and sets up a dividing line between the two real powers in England – that of king and church. Henry’s belief that giving Becket the job will put his strongest ally in the most powerful job within the clergy and therefore bend it to his will turns to ruin. Against the odds, Becket finds God. In doing so, he becomes the church’s staunchest defender and aligns himself in political opposition to Henry. Their argument, over the incident of a priest being killed by Lord Gilbert rather than handed over to ecclesiastical justice, boils over into a personal feud as neither side is prepared to back down. Using the full fury of royal power, Henry eventually forces Becket to go on the run, to France and thence to the Pope, all the while lamenting the loss of his best friend and fellow lad and in private cheering Becket’s spirit. The story boils to its well known conclusion, the king drunkenly sanctioning the dispatch of his ‘meddlesome priest’ before really regretting it.

Becket was unavailable for many years before being painstakingly restored and rereleased during the previous decade. Technically it’s a marvel, much of the film’s budget going on a titanic reconstruction of Canterbury Cathedral so well designed that it’s virtually impossible to imagine the action is taking place anywhere other than the actual site. To all intents and purposes the crew transported back in time to thirteenth century England, a shift away from previous visions of the era as a pastoral and rural idyll to show it as austere, dark and dirty. Even the king, who would have enjoyed the highest living standards, is in relative squalor. You imagine a film like Becket, which was very popular, blowing apart forever the chocolate box representation of Ye Olde England as it had been depicted in The Adventures of Robin Hood and copied since, because this version was simply truer.

It really works on the performances of its two leads, Richard Burton’s Becket and Peter O’Toole as Henry. Burton was at the time one of the world’s biggest stars thanks to the previous year’s Cleopatra and his relationship with co-star Elizabeth Taylor. After Lawrence of Arabia O’Toole’s star was also in the ascendancy and it was his complicated, multi-layered performance that made him an ideal choice for the capricious Henry, a role he had in fact previously wanted on the stage before he was offered the part of T.E. Lawrence. Burton, top billed as the eponymous meddlesome priest, has the tough sell of conveying Becket’s spiritual transformation, a difficult thing to convey in the modern, secular age and something the play struggled to depict convincingly. What Burton does, however, is portray his character as a man of conviction from the start, working both as a friend to the king and operating behind the scenes to smooth over his many caprices, as in the scene where he deals with the peasant girl. When told by Henry that he’s going to be the next Archbishop, Becket begs him to reconsider – he knows that doing the job will place him in opposition. Sure enough, no sooner has he donned the robes of office that he starts taking his duties very seriously, defending the church and even discovering his own spirituality. It’s not long before he’s clashing with the monarch, but it’s consistent with Becket’s entire approach to life and it’s something he understands will happen exactly as it does. It’s the essential difference between Henry and Becket. The former, a young king, has been used to getting everything his own way and thinks of the world in terms of bending it to his will. Becket embraces a wider view, sees it from the perspective of the people and realises just what heading the church involves. His is a tragic story, one in which he turns to God because it’s the logical route to turn to a greater power for help and support.

Burton plays his character with complete conviction, a real sense of steel-eyed purpose, and makes it work. That he is ultimately overshadowed by O’Toole is that the king gets all the best lines and despite everything is a likeable and playful monarch. Henry’s struggle against Becket is a dichotomy – he loves him on a personal level and cheers him on even though officially the Archbishop’s struggle is against him. Other moments, his saving of the peasant girl for Becket even after the latter has privately kept her away, show his basic lack of understanding for his friend. He just wants Becket to be his pal, but on his own terms, and when he’s rejected it becomes dangerous because he’s a king and he can call on all manner of earthly forces to manifest his anger. O’Toole plays Henry as a force of nature, using his position to say exactly what he thinks, often to ruinous effect, sparing no one the barb of his tongue. The way he talks to his family, presented as duplicitous and critical, is simultaneously hilarious and horrible. And there’s a lovely consistency in his character from this film to The Lion in Winter, where the older Henry is shown as being prepared to start his dynasty all over again because the current one isn’t working to his liking.

Brilliant, complex work from both actors, beautifully written – Edward Anhalt won an Oscar for his screenplay, though the film’s further eleven nominations did not end in awards – and performed. O’Toole revealed that the tight shooting schedule was beneficial due to the months he’d spent beforehand rehearsing his role, getting the nuances of his character just right, and it helped that he and Burton became good drinking buddies whilst on set together. It’s a very well acted film featuring a string of solid to good supporting performances, notably John Gielgud as a camp and cool-minded French king, and David Weston as the monk who falls wholeheartedly for Becket’s show of faith, sticking with him to the end. Becket is an intelligent and altogether engrossing couple of hours, bookended by marvellous work from its two lead actors.

Becket: ****

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

When it’s on: Monday, 28 March (12.30 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

There’s no use crying. You don’t understand all this, do you? In the old days there was gold from the wars for the legionnaires, but your father… He was a great man, but with this new Rome it’s all changed.

The Fall of the Roman Empire is infamous as the film that bankrupted its producer Samuel Bronston and sounded a death knell for the lavish epic. Making back a mere quarter of its titanic $20 million budget at the box office, it was a complete flush and a warning to the industry never to gamble so recklessly again. Now, with the financial misfire taking place more than fifty years ago we can see it for the brilliant picture it is – large scale, truly epic, absorbing with subtle levels of characterisation and plotting, and with all those high production values placed front and centre. While writing this, I’m listening to Dimitri Tionmkin’s score; it’s a thing of utter melancholic beauty, which kind of sums up the film itself.

Bronston had always thrown the dice when making his features. Before this one, he’d come up trumps with the likes of King of Kings and El Cid, each one outdoing the last for their ensemble casts, massive sets and armies of extras. Today in the CGI age we can really appreciate the effort, the way these films had to employ thousands of people to play the parts that special effects would simply fill in digitally now. The production company was based in Spain, and Bronston would entertain his guests with tours of the films’ sets, indeed there’s a suggestion that these walkabouts were part of the point for the egotistical producer. In any event, the Roman Forum set built for The Fall of the Roman Empire holds the record as the largest ever built outdoors, and a splendour it was, ancient buildings reconstructed with a gorgeous attention to detail and sense of giant scale. I guess if you’re going to fail then you might as well do it on a spectacular level, and few films did that quite so fulsomely.

The film was conceived from director Anthony Mann, fresh from the success of El Cid, reading Edward Gibbons’s massive examination of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a series of works written in the eighteenth century that attempted to tackle one of history’s great questions. Covering Rome from the end of the first century CE to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, it remains a terrific if time consuming analysis, still eminently readable and wholly objective in its outlook. The task facing the production was to condense Gibbon’s central thesis into a single film, selecting a single episode from history in order to illustrate why the ‘decline and fall’ took place, when exactly the rot started to creep in. The ruinous reign of Commodus from 180 to 192 CE was chosen as it came after the rule of Rome’s ‘five good Emperors’ and suggested the fragility of the its vast and sprawling empire when it was mismanaged. Rome lurched on for a few hundred more years before being overwhelmed by ‘barbarians’ and remaining solely in the east, because it was still powerful enough to continue, but Commodus showed how it was vulnerable to corruption and bad decision making.

On a political level, the film plays the start of the fall as a tragedy, suggesting that Marcus Aurelius’s vision for the empire’s future was undone by his death and the subsequent Commodus, who partly through sheer spite against his father took Rome’s policy in the opposite and destructive direction. Both men were actual historical figures, and Marcus Aurelius’s daughter, Lucilla, existed in reality also. The fictional element comes in the shape of Livius, a general on the Danube frontier who shares Marcus Aurelius’s ideas and is also Lucilla’s lover. The ageing Emperor’s plan is for Livius to ascend to the throne after him, marry Lucilla and guide the Empire into a new age of prosperity and inclusiveness, but he dies before he can enact it and Commodus instead takes over, with terrible consequences, what the contemporary historian Cassius Dio described as a descent ‘from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust’.

Whereas the focus is inevitably on Commodus’s folly as Emperor, helped by a performance filled with elan by the then up and coming Christopher Plummer, all playful smiles and mental fixed stares, the film takes its good time to show Rome’s corruption as about more than one man. Marcus Aurelius is killed not by his son but as a consequence of plotting from self-serving Senators who can see in his plans the deaths of their own advancement. Both Emperors are surrounded by would-be assassins, political opportunists on the make, which lends the film a degree of terrifying topicality. It’s worth bearing in mind that it was made during JFK’s assassination, and whether or not you believe the President was murdered by one man or a conspiracy the reality is a lot of people stood to lose much from his continued existence and this film suggests an expediency in Marcus Aurelius’s death that gives it a delicious level of subtlety. Compare it, as we must really, with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, in which Commodus suffocates his father in order to advance to the throne, and the contrast is astonishing. In Gladiator, while the servile Senators are still present and correct the characters are rather one-dimensional, whereas in The Fall of the Roman Empire Commodus is presented as being merely at the apex of a rotten society, a corrupt business that is already eating itself away from within. Decline and fall? You’d better believe it’s happening!

Plummer is one of the better performances delivered by a stunning ensemble cast. These movies employed armies of well known faces as a matter of course but The Fall of the Roman Empire takes this element to its natural summit. At the very top is Alec Guinness’s Marcus Aurelius, trying to hold it together and enact his reforms in a race against his advancing illness. The ‘fall’ of the film’s second half works on his absence. Once he’s gone there’s a vacuum, well minded characters struggling because the man at the top who they believed in is no longer around to support them. Plummer’s Commodus is a study in opposites – younger, more energetic, thrusting forward without any thought of the consequences, far and decisively removed from the carefully considered philosophies of Marcus Aurelius. A marvellous and riveting scene in the debating house, where Senators discuss the merits of settling former enemies to farm on Roman land, illustrates this perfectly. The lickspittles who’ve advanced through Commodus argue against accommodating the ‘barbarians’, and it takes a speech from Finlay Currie’s aged sage (Currie was one of those actors who turned up often in epic films, normally playing wise old characters and putting in minor but significant roles) to turn the matter. Currie’s character can see past the immediate self interests to the future envisaged by the late Emperor, but you can tell his is a dying voice with little place in Commodus’s world and during a later scene in the same location, by now a room of toadies, his absence is telling.

James Mason puts in a fine piece of work as Timonides, the philosopher freedman employed by Marcus Aurelius as his sparring partner in wit and words, and later throws in his lot with the German farmers. A scene in which he attempts to talk beaten foe Ballomar (John Ireland) into surrendering peacefully is brilliant. Ballomar, beaten and trapped in a cave, has little interest in giving up without a fight and would be far happier going down killing Romans. As Timonides tries to persuade the German warrior to give up this end in favour of accepting a farmer’s future, Ballomar tortures him with fire, knowing that a pained scream from the Greek philosopher will alert the guards and bring on his favoured fighter’s death. But Timonides doesn’t give up and refuses to cry out, a beautifully performed scene typical of Mann, who dotted his films with such moments in order to illustrate physical human sacrifice, and in the end it’s Ballomar who submits, so impressed and moved is he by his opponent’s strength of conviction.

The film’s main star was none of these great actors but in fact Sophia Loren, the towering Roman who in 1964 was named the most popular star among British audiences. Earning a cool million for her role and echoing the salary paid to Elizabeth Taylor for Cleopatra, it was Loren’s attachment to the project that turned Mann’s preferred male star, Charlton Heston, away. Having worked together on Mann’s previous Bronston epic, El Cid, Heston had endured enough of Loren’s fussy insistences that she be shot a certain way to capture her nose on camera at its best that he refused to do so again, opting instead for 55 Days at Peking (and as it happened suffering another torrid professional relationship with Ava Gardner). Personally, I’ve never felt Loren to be blessed with outstanding acting talent, but what she did have was presence, poise, grace and those longing, massive eyes, which were capable of conveying complete tragedy and make men melt. Cast against her was Stephen Boyd, best known at the time for playing the villain Messala in Ben-Hur. Over the years it’s become fashionable to blame Boyd for many of The Fall of Roman Empire’s ills, as though the decision to employ him as a substitute for Heston became its fateful tragedy as he simply wasn’t as good. True enough it’s difficult to argue against Heston as the ultimate casting choice for films of this type, but Boyd, given the tough role of playing the blue eyed good guy, the bloke we root for throughout as he battles vainly against massive odds, turns out to be marvellous, personally magnetic and selling wholly his character’s devotion to Loren’s Lucilla. Boyd would later claim that he was enamoured with Loren and it’s certainly the case in the film that the pair have great chemistry. As Commodus uses their love for each other as a lever in trying to get his own way, there’s a real believability about their efforts to make the most of their moments together.

And the stars just keep on coming. As the blind man Cleander, the man of dubious loyalties who performs the subtle, perfectly executed killing of Marcus Aurelius, Mel Ferrer plays him with absolute inscrutability, realising that audiences can tell a lot about a character through their eyes and when those eyes are dead there’s nothing to see. Anthony Quayle plays a gladiatorial confidante of Commodus with great conviction. One of the more decisive yet smaller tragedies of the film is his character’s complete loyalty to the young Emperor, the way he continually steps into harm’s way for him, a fact that has its fateful denouement late in the story. Hammer stalwart Andrew Keir is on hand as one of Livius’s generals, a man who remains steadfastly faithful right to the inevitably bitter end. If one performer gets short changed then it’s Omar Sharif as the Armenian king. Sharif is always watchable but there’s an entire film one could make that focuses on the events of the film purely from his perspective. What a fascinating exercise that would have been, the opportunity to witness ‘the fall’ from the point of view of a supporting character whose own motivations are on the periphery but come to matter. As it is, Sharif gets a handful of lines and a beautifully choreographed fight scene.

Almost 2,000 words into this piece and I’ve mentioned little about the plot, which I leave to you for your enjoyment. It’s a treat, on the surface the stuff of high melodrama but beneath that a mess of broiling machinations and the crushing weight of history. Throwaway bits of dialogue – check out the closing lines from George Murcell’s General, Victorinus – hint at the sweep of Roman policy and how it affects ordinary people, adding so much depth to the action and showing how deeply Mann understood the significance of the tale he was weaving. You don’t have to really swallow this stuff; there’s a great deal going on all the time, but it’s a stirring brew all the same. There’s a weight to the film’s most significant moment, the magnificently mounted funeral of Marcus Aurelius, where Livius hands the torch to Commodus, which effectively gives him the throne. Audiences can be forgiven for crying out at this stage; we all know where the film’s going with a nutjob like Commodus in charge. But it’s all been built up to by the preceding moments, as Timonides tries to find a scrap of paper that makes law the decision to crown Livius and learns that it doesn’t exist. Livius knows that if he seizes power at this point it will never be accepted and lead to civil war and therefore has no choice but to hand the Empire to Commodus, hoping for the best. Which of course, he doesn’t get. Again compare this with Gladiator, in which the hero Maximus loses everything as Commodus attempts to eliminate him. The tale of his bloody rise from the gladiatorial pits is well told, but it’s altogether less complicated than the story being weaved here, in which Livius acts not only from a position of relative strength but knows also he has to work against someone he considers to be a friend, adding dramatic heft to the film’s string of tragedies, both on a giant scale and at a personal level. I know which version I prefer.

It’s easy enough to see why this film failed. It’s gigantic, on any point you choose to consider, whether you’re marvelling at the forum set (which is staggering, no doubt about it) or being pummelled into sheer emotional submission at the sight of thousands of extras dressed in Roman soldiers’ uniforms lamenting the passing of Marcus Aurelius (sorry to return to it again and again, but it remains one of my favourite scenes of all time and makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up with each viewing). Whether you’re as impressed as I am or turned off by the capricious grand scale, you must appreciate the sheer human effort that went into it, the epic vision and scope of the piece. But it could only work if people went to see the thing and that didn’t happen. Perhaps the tastes of movie-goers had simply moved on. The absence of any element of Christianity (it is there, however, if you notice the talisman Timonides wears around his neck, but that’s another of the film’s clever little subtleties and adds quietly to its characterisation) removes an aspect that was writ large in many of the more successful films of this type, suggesting a link between stories that focused on ancient times and the religious sensibilities of viewers, and without it you’re left with a piece about a long dead empire that held little relevance for the majority.

One thing for certain is that The Fall of the Roman Empire is nobody’s idea of a bad film. If you haven’t before seen it, do so if only to make your jaw drop, to take in the last hurrah of a dying genre, a late example of the sort of movie they simply don’t make anymore because the cost if it doesn’t work is far too great. For me it’s a title that gets better each time, a brilliantly filmed labour of love that contains real heart. See for yourself the bit where provincial governors are assembled before Marcus Aurelius. Your focus is on the Emperor, his efforts to remember all their names, and so it should be because it’s funny and Alec Guinness’s face as he becomes more dumbfounded is a treat. But check out the costumes and bear in mind that someone took the time to design them as close as possible to the real garments these people would have been wearing if the scene had happened in reality. That takes some effort and as far as I’m concerned shows the care and attention that was lavished on the film’s production values.

The Fall of the Roman Empire: *****

It’s been a couple of weeks since I lasted posted here and my apologies for that. I’ve no good excuses; I’ve even been busy buying discs of films I intended to cover, watched them and then didn’t get around to doing the writing. It just wasn’t there I guess, the intent, and at times like that the worst thing I could probably do is get something down because the effort of having to do it – as opposed to wanting to – would have been clear. Hope this makes up for it. As you can probably tell I quite like this one…