Holiday Inn (1942)

When it’s on: Thursday, 28 December (5.40 am)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

There are several reasons why they don’t make films like Holiday Inn anymore. First, let’s get this out of the way – the Abraham song, performed on Lincoln’s Birthday (a Bank Holiday in Connecticut, where the film’s largely set) by Bing Crosby and his band in blackface, adding a ‘comedy’ black intonation to his lyrics. I don’t want to dwell on it because of the time when the film was made, but it’s there and unavoidable. Second, consider the big musical movie hit of the last twelve months, La La Land, its plot focusing on the rather chaste and sweet-natured romance and relationship between two characters, who then suffer the strain of their professions taking them in separate directions. Now, here’s a summary of Holiday Inn’s story:

Bing Crosby is engaged to Virginia Dale, his singing partner. However, the third member of the act, Fred Astaire, steals her away, leaving Bing to move to his farm in Connecticut alone. Recovering from his broken heart and turning the farm he’s unsuited to running into the eponymous Holiday Inn (so called because it’s only open on public holidays), Bing begins experiencing success again and sparks a cautious romance with Marjorie Reynolds, who he employs to sing with him. But then Fred turns up, having lost Virginia to a millionaire, likes the look of the winsome Marjorie and spends the rest of the film trying to snatch her away for marriage and the formation of a new dancing partnership…

That Fred Astaire – what a bastard, right? Some pal he turned out to be! Of course, in a plot that serves to link the songs together it’s all portrayed as innocent, knockabout fun, all’s fair in love and war, etc, and while Astaire essentially destroyed Crosby’s life in the opening act the pair remain friends. With the focus more on the talents involved in the picture, it’s up there with the best of them. Irving Berlin’s songs, 14 of which are used, are exquisite. Crosby and Astaire are both in top form, their abilities as the pinnacle of their individual crafts shown off to stunning effect, and there’s a chocolate box sheen to it that’s never less than warm and fuzzy. Holiday Inn itself, frequently shown wreathed in pristine, virgin snow, is the sort of venue you dream of staying at, and indeed inspired Kemmons Wilson to start his own chain of ‘Holiday Inn’ hotels – there are now over 1,000 of them worldwide. There’s even an oblique breaking of the fourth wall, when Crosby goes to Hollywood to see the production of the film based on his little hotel being shot, and discovers in a studio the perfect replica of it. It’s a wink to the audience, an acknowledgement of Holiday Inn’s sense of artifice, but without overstating the point it’s a nice little touch that’s only there if you want it to be.

Holiday Inn was directed by Mark Sandrich, best remembered for the hit movies he made with Astaire for RKO in the previous decade. Sandrich knew how to work with a supreme talent like Mr ‘Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little‘ and how to create the confectionery worlds of their films, which ever projected untroubled fantasies and emphasised the showcasing of Astaire’s act over the drama. Consider Top Hat, their best known and probably best collaboration, and its aim to dazzle viewers with Astaire’s dancing genius and make them forget about the Depression era taking place outside the cinema, and you get why these films were such a hit and changed the face of the Hollywood musical. Sandrich insisted on hiring Astaire for Holiday Inn, despite Paramount’s misgivings over the film’s rising production costs, though the director appreciated the obvious – that having Astaire and Crosby performing Berlin’s musical waxings was a direct translation into beautiful cinema. Watching it now, it’s near impossible to argue against this.

The studio saved a little money on using a relative unknown like Reynolds as its female lead. The ‘Saddle Cinderella’ was little known outside Westerns produced by Poverty Row studios and represented a cheap hire over Sandrich’s casting suggestions of Rita Hayworth and even Ginger Rogers, both of course prior on-screen dance partners for Astaire. Reynolds never used her appearance in Holiday Inn as a springboard to real stardom, but she’s perfectly sweet and charming in the film, holding her own against her male partners. One sequence really shows off her abilities. Performing a dance number with Astaire, the pair’s brief is to minuet romantically for Washington’s Birthday. But Crosby, aware and fearful of the spark of romance between them, sabotages the moments when they pause to kiss by changing the tempo to a frenetic jazz number, prompting the pair to switch to a faster paced dance routine, before reverting to the original music. It’s a complicated scene that must have been hell to film, and your eyes are on Astaire as he has to both switch seamlessly between dancing style while scowling his rising exasperation to Crosby, but Reynolds has to perform it also and never falters.

Astaire’s work was designed to stretch his talent, the product of an admirable work ethic that insisted he pulled off multi-layered turns that had never been seen before, when of course he could have produced more of the same to earn his money. This is displayed to best effect in the firecracker dance. Reynolds has failed to show for a number the pair are meant to perform for the Independence Day celebration, so Astaire is told to ‘improvise’ a solo routine, which he does with an energetic number that features him setting off firecrackers exploding in time with the beat. It took two days and multiple takes to get the sequence right, which makes it a real salute to Astaire’s sheer dedication to his craft.

Next to it, the best known moment is almost certainly Crosby’s performance of the song White Christmas, as a trivial side note written for this film rather than the more obvious White Christmas. Crosby plays it with absolute simplicity, sat at his piano within the snowbound confines of his charming hotel, and that combination of the setting, the lovely sentiments of the lyrics and naturally the star’s velvet vocals are more than enough to transform it into a classic, indeed the song has gone on to join an exclusive club of the 13 singles that have sold 15 million or more copies worldwide.

As cinema, Holiday Inn is the equivalent of comfort food, the dramatic tensions suggested by its plot never amounting to more than the next song and dance number, the inimitable winning qualities of Louise Beavers’s house servant, the many screwball comic moments, the warm hug of Berlin’s music. Certain elements ensure that it’s utterly of its time, such as the tribute Crosby performs to America’s armed forces as the country entered World War Two. Ultimately Holiday Inn is rooted in a more innocent and less knowing cinematic era, but even now there’s little here that isn’t simply enjoyable. The two main stars are at the height of their powers, and the talent they bring to the film make it a real joy to watch.

Holiday Inn: ****

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

When it’s on: Sunday, 3 September (9.00 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

I love history. This stems in a large part from poring through Bible stories when I was a child. The New Testament was fine enough, but it was the tales of the Old Testament – with its endless wars, suffering on a mass scale, fire and brimstone – that entranced me. God as a character was envious and unforgiving. Entire races of people were enslaved and treated like dirt. Heroes, born to beat insurmountable odds, emerged, and they dealt out death and judgement rather than sacrificed themselves for the sake of others’ sins. None of this led to a belief in Christianity, but it did ferment my supreme desire for a good yarn, and the early books from the Bible were the pages to refer to for exactly that.

It’s no surprise that people have tried to bring Biblical stories to the screen for almost as long as cinema has existed. This stuff is gold. Great tales, and for a long time the sort of fare that audiences just lapped up. Cecil B DeMille adapted the book of Exodus twice, first in 1923 that was much a fable of The Ten Commandments in contemporary life as much as it was about Moses. In 1956, he went for a more straight retelling, pitting Charlton Heston’s Moses against the Pharoah, played by Yul Brynner, to wildly profitable box office returns. I admit it’s probably one of my all time favourite movies, partly thanks to my respect for the vaulting ambition and ego of the director in bringing such a story to the screen in so emphatic a fashion. It’s incredibly powerful. DeMille had the smouldering intensity and mutual resentment between Heston and Brynner, but also storytelling on an enormous scale, and the best special effects of their day, which have of course dated over time but still look impressive now. One scene in particular stays with me. Having suffered a series of plagues, Pharoah is implored once more by Moses to free the slaves, but he’s implacable and orders nothing less than the killing of each Jewish first born son as the ultimate punishment. Unwittingly, it’s a course that rebounds. One terrible night, God takes away each Egyptian first born, his wrath personified by an eerie green mist in the sky, which develops tendrils gliding with ominous silence to earth and stealing the boys’ souls. It’s haunting stuff, a trick repeated in Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt in 1998, where the mist becomes a deadly whirlwind.

Given the above, I’m likely to view Exodus: Gods and Kings with a subjectively kind eye, looking forward to the spectacle and human drama whereas many critics have shown only scorn. Finding reasons for the latter isn’t difficult. The production was dogged with controversy, notably for its ‘whitewashing’ of the main characters. Ramses, Moses and the rest of the cast would simply not be Caucasian, it was argued, so why in a modern movie fall for the classic tradition of casting the likes of Christian Bale and Joel Egerton when more ethnically realistic casting would do? Furthermore, it’s difficult to tell the tale without turning the Egyptians into villains, greedy slavers, and sure enough the film was banned in that country upon its release. Its director, Ridley Scott, retorted that the film would never have been funded without Hollywood stars, and besides it’s only loosely a historical tale. How much truth lies in the book of Exodus is open to extreme interpretation and translating the events as dramatic representations of what actually happened. There’s some evidence that the Egyptian Empire kept the Hebrews as slaves, but nothing is confirmed. The story is wrapped in mystery, and was committed to writing only after centuries of being handed down in the oral tradition. As such it’s as faithful a source as Homer’s The Iliad – no doubt there’s a kernel of truth in there, but it’s blended with mythology and the contemporary audiences for whom it was written in the first place.

Perhaps more pertinent is to question whether the world needed another Biblical epic at all. Noah, released earlier in 2014, had not been received rapturously, more like quizzically, suggesting the clamour for Bible stories was just not there, and Exodus: Gods and Kings was already gaining an infamous reputation for the reasons mentioned above. Hardly the basis for a box office smash, which indeed it would not turn into, though the reality was it had been in the planning for several years and was something of a passion project for Scott. As expected, the devil was in the detail, the crew building sets and using computer effects to create an ancient Egyptian world that is probably as close to the real thing as you will ever see. The word here is scale. Massive statues, glorious decorations, those different coloured tribal banners billowing behind the war chariots, the juxtaposition between Ramses’s palaces and the Hebrew ghetto; it’s all there, on the screen, and it looks fantastic. And yet the concern was never about how the film looked. Scott’s 2010 entry, Robin Hood, reimagined ‘merrie England’ in fleshy, realistic tones, for all intents and purposes travelling back in time for the sake of absolute authenticity,  and yet the movie was a boring clunker, overly serious and its stars uninspiring. Not a lot of fun. Would this fare any better?

One of the biggest issues with Robin Hood was its script, written by Brian Helgeland. For this one, Scott employed Steven Zaillian, the Oscar winner (for Schindler’s List) who was faced with the obstacle of adapting Exodus for a twenty first century audience. How to bring the Pharoanic court of Ancient Egypt to life, to make it feel like a working reality and avoiding polemics? The result is a Seti (John Turturro), the old ruler who oversees the affection between Ramses (Egerton) and his adopted son, Moses (Bale) while recognising the potential for a future rivalry, emphasising their need to protect each other. Made explicit is the throne room as a nest of vipers, high ranking officials who protect their own interests, in the classical style seeing Ramses as their best bet for maintaining the status quo while Moses has a dangerously radical side to his nature. The latter has grounded views about prophecies (they’re hokum), the nation of slaves (they deserve to be treated better), and the prospect that he believes in very little. A portent about the kingdom’s future hints at Moses becoming its ruler, something that results in Ramses discovering his Hebrew heritage and casting him into exile. Moses wanders the desert for a time, before coming upon a remote shepherds’ village and marrying.

Adapting to a simple life in the wilderness, it’s clear Moses’s spirit is restless. He then meets God, personified as a small boy, who tells him to go back to Egypt and accept a mission to free the slaves. Scott made a decision to tell the story of the resulting plagues and Moses’s interactions with God in as realistic terms as he could, suggesting that the former might have been the result of natural causes and the rest exists in the main character’s head, that ‘God’ might simply be the directions of his subconsciousness. When Moses first returns to Egypt he naturally sees his role as that of a military general, harking back to the position he held before his exile. Hebrews are trained to be freedom fighters, a rather clever allusion to the state of affairs in more recently occupied countries within the region. But progress is slow. Ramses responds to the acts of ‘terrorism’ committed by Moses’s underground army by publicly hanging slaves on a daily basis, his brutality increasing with the sedition. This in turn prompts ‘God’ to intervene, via the plagues that might very well have happened without any divine assistance, though it suits the narrative to explain these as more than acts of natural disaster.

Bale committed mountains of personal research into the life of Moses as part of his preparation for the role. His is a very human performance, from the wise leader he plays in the early acts, when his position in the hierarchy is more or less cemented, to the constant doubts he’s plagued with later in the film. When I talked about Kingdom of Heaven elsewhere on these pages, I mentioned the vacuum at the centre of the film that is Orlando Bloom; Bale is far more capable of commanding the screen and forces his character’s human drama to shine through the massive scope of the picture. Egerton and Turturro, while looking nothing like Egyptians, are fine as the two Pharoahs, and there’s capable support in relatively small roles from Sigourney Weaver and Tara Fitzgerald. Ben Kingsley plays the Hebrew elder with typical stoic resolve, and Ewan Bremner provides the film with a slim, much needed sliver of humour.

As with much of Scott’s work, there isn’t much comedy in Exodus: Gods and Kings, though that seems appropriate given the subject matter. What it does have is spectacle, artistry and weighty drama. It looks incredible, with the technical departments firing on all cylinders, and while that’s normally true of films with Ridley Scott’s name attached the narrative and performances are not ignored in favour of the visuals. It’s probably as good as a modern retelling of Exodus could ever hope to be, even if the demand for it just wasn’t there, and that was reflected in its losses at the box office.

Exodus: Gods and Kings: ****

The Woman in Black (2012)

When it’s on: Saturday, 30 May (9.00 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

Fans of classic British horror – like me – must have raised a cheer when Hammer Films was sold to a consortium in 2007 with the promise that $50 million was going to be invested in new productions. While this ensured that much of the company’s vast back catalogue was due to be rereleased, the big draw was the upcoming output, and the relative sigh when this turned out to be largely underwhelming. Let Me In was good, but it was an English language remake of the Swedish film, Let the Right One In, with the original secure in its superiority. The Northern Irish based Wake Wood suffered from a very limited release (it’s far from terrible, though), and worse came with The Resident, a thriller featuring a fan-pleasing cameo from Christopher Lee that seemed a tired retread of a theme that had been done before, and better. And the less said about Beyond the Rave then the happier we’ll all be.

A bit like old Hammer, the revitalised studio was churning out a very mixed bag, but then came The Woman in Black and all that latent promise seemed to blossom. Fortunate to recruit one of the best known young faces in the acting world, Daniel Radcliffe, as its star, and in James Watkins having a director who in Eden Lake had made one of the more tense and visceral thrillers in recent years, it promised much, not least in its choice of much loved source material. The novella, The Woman in Black, feels like a chiller from another era, as though a long lost manuscript by Henry James had been discovered, though in reality it was a Susan Hill book that was first published in 1983. Hill set out to write a full length ghost story in the classic style, and indeed it reads like a great slice of Gothic Victoriana, stuffed with florid prose. But it also sets a gloomy, desolate atmosphere, which worked really well, and it went on to become not only a bestseller but a set text on GCSE and A-Level Literature curricula. The stage play, which was another enormous success followed, assiduously adapting the text with its play-within-a-play structure and telling the entire story using just two actors (plus a woman in black).

Arguably, the film follows the play as closely as it does the book, copying many of the former’s jump scares as well as replicating the creeping sense of dread about which Hill wrote. Radcliffe, who appears in every scene, plays Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer who is sent by his firm to North Yorkshire in order to arrange the sale of Eel Marsh House following the death of its owner. Kipps is in trouble. He’s failing at work and his boss (Roger Allam) makes it clear that the prosecution of his task is to be seen as a last chance. Four years before, Kipps’s wife died in childbirth, something that still haunts him, with even the presence of his young son doing little to soften the blow. Arriving in the little town, he finds himself in a largely hostile environment, one where many children have perished, inexplicably at their own hands, and no one taking kindly to the arrival of this outsider. His only friend here is Sam Daily (Ciaran Hinds), who refuses to believe the local superstitions that cite a mysterious woman in black as being responsible for all the deaths. Kipps goes to Eel Marsh House, a crumbling mansion that is built on a spit of land, the road to which is regularly submerged by the sea. He gets to work, realising that the documents he has to trawl through are innumerable, but of more concern is the house itself, with its faded grandeur, dark corners, creaking floorboards and the possibility of ethereal presences haunting its corridors.

More than Radcliffe, Eel Marsh is the star of the show. It’s the classic haunted house, filled with dusty memories and unhappy secrets, solemn children’s playrooms decorated with toys and dolls that take on sinister lives of their own thanks to the clever, shadowy way they’re shot. The gloomy atmosphere is instant, the best scenes when Marco Beltrami’s score gives way to creeping silence, the creak as Kipps moves in his chair, the sounds off-camera of someone/thing else in there with him. It’s the sort of place built for Janet Fielding, Derek Acorah and the Most Haunted gang to be running around in the middle of the night, lit by night cameras and jolted by random noises.

As for the main star, the film lives or dies depending on your acceptance of him as a mature, grown-up character. Is he credible as a young father, or has he not yet shaken off the Harry Potter robes? I think he acquits himself superbly, convincing as a man haunted by his own tragedy and determined to deal with the one unfolding before him as the revelations he discovers at Eel Marsh compel him to take positive action. The best part of his performance is the degree of stillness he manifests, all that grief bottled up inside and yet clear on his face, particularly in the scenes where he imagines he sees his wife.

If The Woman in Black strikes any false notes, it’s in the number of jump scares it goes for. There’s a sense, especially when Kipps tramps around Eel Marsh, chasing – or being chased by – sounds, of Watkins throwing everything at the screen in the hope something will stick, for example the moment he’s jolted by the cawing of a crow that’s entered one of the rooms, and it all feels a bit unnecessary. The atmosphere is palpable and should have been allowed to carry the first half, building an air of unease and oncoming dread, which certainly takes place when the gloomy house turns the dial to eleven in its terrorising of the lawyer.

All the same, it’s a very effective frightener, a cut above the films being put out by the likes of James Wan and many times worthier than those relying on gore instead of a careful development of suspense. Its commercial success made the sequel, The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death, an inevitability, which I went to see on New Year’s Day. Sadly, whilst the atmosphere from the original remained, the powerful central performance was missing and the script ran out of steam and fresh ideas long before the finish. The future for Hammer remains uncertain.

The Woman in Black: ****

24 Hour Party People (2002)

When it’s on: Saturday, 11 April (12.25 am, Sunday)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

I’ve watched a few films over the years but I have never been in one. The closest I got was in the early 2000s. I was working at a university in Manchester and one day a film crew arrived holding auditions for extras in a production that would be shot locally. Along with a colleague, I decided to go along and found the film required people to be revellers in a mocked up Hacienda, the legendary Manchester nightclub. Despite my claim that I’d been to the real life Hacienda I didn’t hear from them again, a result I think of pushing 30 at the time, not to mention the fact I can’t really dance. At least I got to see the film, a retelling of the musical life of one Anthony H Wilson that is 24 Hour Party People.

The title comes from one of the earliest hits by the Happy Mondays and is also the name of Wilson’s biographical account of the period, from which the film is a loose adaptation. It helps that I love much of the music churned out by Factory Records, Wilson’s label. Factory’s willingness to give its artists free expression was legendary, leading to some real messes that were nevertheless released, along with the sublime Joy Division/New Order, the label’s one real spark of sublimity. The Mondays were something else entirely. Shambolic and loose fitting, they were the unlikeliest band imaginable, virtually incapable of avoiding trouble and occasionally putting out records that were like nothing I’d ever heard. I am playing one of their albums whilst typing these words and can’t really decide why I like it as much as I do.

In 24 Hour Party People, Wilson is played by Steve Coogan. He looks nothing like the Granada TV presenter cum would-be mogul, but his impersonation is flawless, getting across Wilson’s blend of pretentiousness and musical rapture perfectly, portraying him as a more solidly Mancunian Alan Partridge. Wilson breaks the fourth wall all the time, stepping away from the action to narrate his own story direct to the audience, at one stage advising us we’re entering the story’s second act when he doesn’t think we can grasp it for ourselves. As a real life figure, I never engaged with Wilson all that much, feeling he was essentially up himself, and I still think that’s true, but what the film really suggests is a dreamer, turning up to the Sex Pistols gig at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1976, attended by forty people, and having an epiphany, seeing the band’s attitude as the future of rock music. That the Sex Pistols didn’t become as big as they might have isn’t the point, he argues; it’s all in the posturing, the anger, the willingness to just get on stage and have a go, a complete antidote to the saccharine chart hits of the time. It’s a philosophy he develops, first by booking bands for a night at the Russell Club in Moss Side and later creating his own label to produce their records. His aim is to showcase Manchester bands, both good and bad, and success or failure isn’t what matters so much as enjoying the ride and sharing the love.

Soon enough, he’s signed Joy Division, or at least written a contract in his own blood to seal the deal. It turns out to be the perfect group for Factory, capable of producing music that reflects the despair and desperation of existence allied with strange, minimal soundscapes, all teased out by the production values of Martin Hannett. As played by Andy Serkis, Hannett is an experimental producer who’ll do things like walk up a hill and attempt to record silence. Whilst Wilson describes him as a genius, he’s hard work, demanding and meticulous in his effort to get the sound just right. Sean Harris, for me one of the best screen actors of his generation, portrays the band’s singer, Ian Curtis, as a tortured soul destined for suicide, but also capable of having fun. I prefer his take on Curtis to the character played by Sam Riley in Control, which honed in on in his personal life more to try and depict his misery as brought on by illness, an extra marital affair and struggling to cope with being a father. The other band members include John Simm and Ralf Little and both, in their limited screen time, get their characters across flawlessly.

Following Curtis’s death, the action moves to the early eighties when Wilson opened the Hacienda, which from the start is depicted as an eternal drain on Factory’s resources, the last word in artistic hubris. Wilson doesn’t care because the club looks good and mirrors his vision as the place the city deserves, but even when it becomes successful it loses money because its clients take Ecstasy rather than visit the bar. By the end, the dealers have taken over and guns talk loudest outside and ultimately inside, which adds levels of unwanted controversy.

In the meantime, Factory takes on the Happy Mondays, led by Shaun Ryder (Danny Cunningham), a ramshackle collective that Wilson insists is creative gold. He sees Ryder as the new W.B. Yeats, whilst the singer subsists on endless narcotics and is clearly out of control. As the label struggles on towards its own doom, the Mondays play at being a band, fail to record any meaningful music and play a significant role in ruining their own paymasters. All this is watched on with something approaching horror by Wilson’s ‘business’ partners, Alan Erasmus (Lennie James) and Rob Gretton (Paddy Considine), the latter a particular delight as his soft spoken veneer gradually gives way to violence when it all collapses around him. Factory’s philosophy is both undermined and defined by the final piece in the jigsaw, designer Peter Saville (Enzo Cilenti), who produces great artwork that Wilson loves, but always too late or at insane cost levels. His signature moment comes when he designs a record sleeve for New Order’s 12″ single Blue Monday, which has holes cut into the sleeve to represent a floppy disc. It’s so expensive to produce that the only saving grace is Wilson’s argument that no one will buy it; Blue Monday goes on to become the bestselling 12″ of all time.

That’s one of the many true, though from a business perspective almost unbelievable, stories that are replayed in the film. But there’s also fantasy, as in the scene where Wilson’s wife, Lindsey (Shirley Henderson) screws Howard Devoto (Martin Hancock) in revenge for his own indiscretions. As the episode ends with Wilson getting his car keys from the very toilet cubicle in which they’re shagging, the camera cuts to the real Devoto, who claims he has no recollection of this incident ever taking place. Wilson justifies the story by quoting John Ford, arguing when legend becomes fact, print the legend.

24 Hour Party People features a string of guest appearances from British, mainly northern, actors, including Peter Kaye, John Thompson, Simon Pegg and Christopher Eccleston, the latter shining very briefly as a philosophy spouting street beggar. It’s directed by Michael Winterbottom, who often filmed using a handheld camera, shifting in and out of focus to reflect the near chaos taking place on the screen. It only settles down when it cuts to the vignettes of Wilson working for Granada, usually on location and covering some banal event, the sort of ‘And finally’ news broadcast that finds him discussing working the Rochdale Ship Canal with its oldest operator, a man who can barely speak. Wilson can barely contain his boredom during these moments, almost unable to juxtapose internally between the day job and his efforts to shape Manchester as an artistically vibrant city that deserves to be on the map. It’s all headed for failure, of course it is, but what failure. It’s a great film.

24 Hour Party People: ****

PS. A bit of quiet time for the site now as I’m away for a week, in fact by the time this piece is published I’ll be on my way home. Normal service to be resumed shortly.

Earthquake (1974)

When it’s on: Saturday, 7 February (1.20 am, Sunday)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

Ah, the 1970s disaster movie. Whilst films based around catastrophes have always been around, there was something about those made in the seventies that set them apart – the style, the big budgets, all-star casts, the gleeful willingness to kill off heroes and villains alike. They focused on anything that played on viewers’ real fears – air travel (the Airport films, which kicked off the whole sub-genre), skyscrapers (The Towering Inferno), ocean liners (The Poseidon Adventure). I have the guilty pleasure of rather liking The Swarm, the Michael Caine starrer from 1978 about pissed off killer bees from Africa (obviously) that terrorise America. Looking back at them now, these films may appear laughable, with their special effects that have dated as badly as the fashions, but they were big deals, especially during the first half of the decade. From a sociological perspective, it’s possible to argue they did well due to the sensibilities of audiences, rocked by the political catastrophe that was Watergate and uncertain of their country’s future, though I think that’s hogwash and the films just made a lot of money.

The king of the 1970s disaster flick was of course Irwin Allen, responsible for some of the era’s biggest apocalyptic treats, and Earthquake was Universal’s riposte to his antics. The ante was upped as Allen could very well produce tales of tall buildings or ships running into peril, but what if calamity was to befall an entire city, and not just any city but Los Angeles? That was the premise of 1974’s Earthquake, which promised to lay waste to LA courtesy of the San Andreas fault. The notoriously angry faultline last produced a ‘mega-quake’ in 1680 and is apparently overdue a repeat performance (there’s a film due out this year, San Andreas, which will tell precisely that story). The story goes that the film was conceived as a consequence of LA experiencing the tremors from the San Fernando earthquake of 1971, the delicious premise being of a disaster movie on a far larger scale than those conjured by Allen.

Canadian director-producer Mark Robson was the creative force behind Earthquake, the culmination of three decades within the business that had seen him learn his trade from the likes of Orson Welles and Val Lewton. Robson approached no less a figure than Mario Puzo to write the screenplay, though the script was too character driven and large in scope for the film’s $7 million budget; magazine writer George Fox helped Robson to tone down its level of ambition. Big name stars like Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Lorne Greene and disaster mainstay, George Kennedy were attached to the project.

The story follows a number of ‘ordinary’ Los Angelistas as they go about their business, oblivious of the impending doom beneath their feet. Now and then, cutaways to workers at the Hollywood dam looking a bit concerned show exactly where the film is headed towards, but we open with Stewart Graff (Heston) and his wife, Remy (Gardner). Theirs is an unhappy marriage. He’s seeing the young widow of a dead work colleague, played by Genevieve Bujold, and she has long since turned to booze and pills to cushion the pain. A subplot written by Puzo made more sense of this, going on to explain that Remy at some point in the past had an abortion, which undermined the couple’s relationship terminally; however this was cut out by the time the script made it to the screen, meaning she just comes across as an old soak and he an adulterer (and he’s the film’s main hero). Meanwhile, Kennedy plays a grizzled cop who’s insubordinate ways have just earned him a suspension. He does the obvious thing and hits a bar, which is playing funky 70s tunes, where he shares space with an uncredited Walter Matthau as a permanently sozzled denizen in a pimp hat. He’s joined by Richard Roundtree’s stunt rider, along with Victoria Principal as, well, eye candy really. She’s lusted after by Jody (Marjoe Gortner), a convenience store manager, who also happens to be a fascistic National Guard volunteer.

Of course all this is preamble, slightly unnecessary preamble as surely no one turns up to watch a film called Earthquake in order to follow character development, let alone a motley crew of largely unlikeable people and besides, the narrative of introducing the cast and then letting them handle disaster was, by 1974, entirely routine. That said, when the quake hits it’s a doozy, dealing out death and judgement to the good and bad in a ten minute sequence of spiralling destruction. Some of the effects deployed are great, such as the collapse of the freeway; others, most notably the plummeting lift with its cartoon blood splashed onto the screen in order to preserve the film’s PG rating, are terrible. To jaded twenty first century eyes, much of it looks like the clever use of models, matte paintings and simply shaking the camera that it obviously was, though a note of admiration goes to an era of film making when they couldn’t just spit this stuff out of a computer. Sure, the shots of buildings spewing masonry onto antlike people below doesn’t compare with the CGI-induced Armageddon of something like 2012, but Robson and his crew didn’t have access to anything like the current technology forty years ago, had to resort to every trick up their sleeves and did a creditable job most of the time.

What works well is the random selection of who lives and who dies. Too often, these films worked on a moral selection process, allowing the heroes to make it whilst the villains suffer a terrible death, but the quake makes surprisingly nonjudicial choices over who cops it. It builds to a surprisingly bleak conclusion, in which there are no real winners, just those left to speculate over the ruins that were once a sprawling metropolis. Heston is a solid enough lead, as always, and the corrosive spark between his and the Gardner character work better than his wooing of Bujold, perhaps because the pair had memories of a difficult working relationship on the previous decade’s 55 Days at Peking, when she spent much of her time on set drinking and subsequently earning his ‘professional’ ire. No such problems here, with Gardner (looking much older than Heston, despite the year’s difference in age between them) working hard to create a character who elicits some sympathy.

Missing from televised versions of Earthquake is the Sensurround process that came as part of the film’s box office draw. In cinemas, Sensurround used various sound devices to boost the effect of the quakes, making it feel as though the audience was experiencing tremors along with the stars. It must have been a lot of fun, certainly adding to the events taking place on the screen.

Earthquake: **

North to Alaska (1960)

When it’s on: Thursday, 5 July (12.45 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

This week’s second Stewart Granger film finds our man playing George Pratt, a prospector at the turn of the twentieth century who’s struck lucky in Alaska. Along with his young brother Billy (Fabian) and business partner Sam McCord (John Wayne), George settles down to a life of gold mining and defending the vein against ‘claim jumpers.’ Sam is dispatched to Seattle in order to collect supplies and bring back George’s fiancé. She turns out to have given up on George and married another in the intervening years, so Sam does what any man would and visits a burlesque house to pick up a substitute for his friend. Enter Michelle (Capucine), an exotic French prostitute who, to no one’s real surprise, is quite happy to drop everything and follow Sam north. But here the complications arise. Michelle takes a quick shine to Sam. Once in Alaska, Billy falls for Michelle. Sam has underlying feelings for her too, but these are mixed in with loyalty to George, and it’s anyone’s guess what he’ll do about this turns of events…

None of these issues are quickly resolved in North to Alaska, a light-hearted adventure flick switching from farce to slapstick to romantic comedy with the kind of overlapping that suggests it wasn’t an easy film to make. A writers’ strike was underway, which left the project without a completed script and ended the association of Richard Fleischer, its original director. Fox instead turned to Henry Hathaway, who had to move things along on a day-by-day basis, sometimes working on bits of script for that day’s shooting before a camera rolled. It must have been a frustrating experience, and the seven screenwriting credits imply a chaotic process of turning John H Kafka’s idea into anything approaching a polished script. The film’s around half an hour too long, bloated to a running time of just over two hours – economy appears to have been a victim of the production difficulties.

Wayne needed a hit. His personal losses from investing heavily in The Alamo took their toll on his fortune and prompted him to take any project that offered an easy buck. By now a bona fide screen icon, Wayne was beginning to look like the pentagenarian that he was, but this didn’t stop him from accepting a role that had him playing the romantic lead with a French actress young enough to be his daughter, and the comic elements just about overcome any discomfort. Besides, Wayne developed on his skills of comedy timing, putting in a winning performance that subverted and parodied his usual screen persona. His easy chemistry with Granger, a similarly aged veteran, shone with the pair emerging on screen as natural pals, which just leaves teen idol Fabian as the odd one out. Movies of the time appeared to demand a young, proto-Elvis heartthrob to make a play for the teenage dollar, and Fabian is never bad, perfectly willing to make a tit of himself for Capucine and only really striking a bum note when he hopelessly serenades her.

The film is bookended with two fight scenes that take place in Nome, Alaska’s harbour town on the chilly Bering coast. These brawls are filmed as mass, slapstick affairs, and it’s no surprise to note that Richard Tamladge, whose career stretched back into the silent era, was involved in shooting them. A range of comedy sound effects used in these scenes are either irritating or add to the charm, depending on your tolerance. The studio backlot that doubles as Nome looks suitably muddy, the streets churned into medieval levels of sodden muck, but the gold mine appears to have come straight from a picture postcard. In reality filmed in California (naturally), the panoramic shots of Alaskan mountain ranges are quite lovely, particularly when an animated Aurora Borealis puts in an appearance.

Despite its length and the slowing of any progress in the mid-section, North to Alaska is entertaining enough, carrying just about enough charm to sustain it. Wayne at his most charismatic certainly helps, and I enjoyed him more here than in that other comedy Western, McLintock!, which seemed to me to really labour for its few laughs. Ernie Kovacs shows up in the film as a grifter and the tangled web of his history with Capucine’s character is only teased at, though guessing their past story isn’t difficult. Guess you must, as the focus here is on good clean fun, with even the cut-throat business of claim jumping playing second fiddle to the pratfalls and innocent romance.

North to Alaska: **

The Thirty Nine Steps (1978)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 4 July (1.10 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

For me, debates over the best screen adaptation of John Buchan’s The Thirty Nine Steps begin and end with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 classic. Slavish fans of the text may be disappointed with the Master of Suspense’s fast and loose treatment of the source material, but the end product is cracking, an exercise in mounting tension and memorable scenes that retains its power nearly eighty years later. It’s these qualities that are more likely to be missing in Don Sharp’s 1978 version, which promises a more faithful version of the novel but loses the thrills. Nowhere to be found is anything as quietly riveting as the scene with the missing finger, as stylish as the scream dissolving into a train leaving the station, or as much fun as the sparks flying between Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll.

Not that this edition of The Thirty Nine Steps is a bad film. It simply wasn’t put together by a genius and thereby lacks the flair and panache he brought to the table. Instead, what we get is a perfectly serviceable thriller, the sort of post-lunch, Bank Holiday ninety minutes that pass amiably enough. The cast is a who’s who of British stalwarts, headed by Robert Powell as a slightly distant Richard Hannay. There’s nothing wrong with him as such, neither is there anything especially engaging. Perhaps it’s the sensation that he’s going through the motions without ever really connecting with his work, that despite spending much of the film on the run he never appears to be in a great deal of peril. The rather blank-faced Karen Dotrice as the love interest doesn’t help. There’s a slightly unsettling moment when her fiancé is killed and she doesn’t bat an eyelid, possibly a cutting room oversight but it reduces our level of investment when supporting characters are disposed of so ruthlessly just to make certain pieces fit together.

Fortunately, there are some great turns from John Mills as an ageing spy, and David Warner playing the double agent aligned against him. Warner makes a brilliant baddie. Overused in this role as the years dragged on and lazy casting found him playing the same villainous blackguard (the same recurring limbo Charles Dance would later find himself trapped in), it’s easy to see why he became the go-to man for embodying screen nastiness. Looming and sombre looking, he barely moves in the film, an interesting contrast to the animated Hannay, and leaves all the chasing to his rifle toting henchmen.

Sharp doesn’t let The Thirty Nine Steps slow down, which is good as there isn’t a lot going on beneath the surface. Why Hannay simply doesn’t hand himself into the police after Mills’s character is knifed beats me. Instead, he heads up to Scotland, following both the book and key moments of the 1935 film in traversing endless miles of rugged countryside and frequently being pursued along the way. The Scottish highlands have a bleak, foreboding feel about them, which chimes nicely with Hannay’s plight. There are also some fine action scenes to take in, including the famous Big Ben finale, which was borrowed from an old Will Hay film, My Learned Friend, and does a great job of actually suggesting Hannay’s bitten off more than he can chew for once.

By this point, viewers should have spotted the obvious – comparisons with Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps may be a blind alley, but doing the same with North by Northwest most certainly is not. The murder scene in the train station – check. The aeroplane chase – it’s there. The set piece climax involving a famous landmark – got it. Hardly a bad film to borrow from, but it only really highlights the lesser talents behind this one.

The Thirty Nine Steps: **

Scaramouche (1952)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 3 July (12.55 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

The first half hour of Scaramouche buckles no swashes. Instead, there’s talking. Exposition, and talking. Stewart Granger plays Andre Moreau, a libertine who laughs and loves in France on the cusp of revolution. He has an on-off relationship with Lenore (Eleanor Parker), a blousey actress, and lives off donations provided by an unnamed noble father of whom he’s the illegitimate offspring. The first segment of the film focuses on Moreau’s flighty existence, swanning through life while his best friend, Philippe (Richard Anderson) doubles as pamphleteer Marcus Brutus, responsible for the revolutionary phrase Liberté, égalité, fraternité that so rallies the common people and angers the aristocracy. Such a noble is Noel, Marquis de Maynes (Mel Ferrer), the finest swordsman in France who is diverted from his killing machine ways by Marie Antoinette and instead charged with uncovering Marcus Brutus. The Queen also introduces him to one of her wards, Aline de Gavrillac (Janet Leigh), who ultimately becomes the love interest for both Moreau and Noel.

Once de Maynes happens upon and indeed kills Philippe, the film suddenly starts to become very good. Moreau’s now in danger. Having fought Noel for himself, only to be contemptuously dismissed and escaping with his life, he joins a band of Commedia dell’Arte players and takes the role of Scaramouche, a comic character who ever wears a mask to hide his ugliness. This has the lucky side-effect of landing him back in the arms of the feisty Lenore, whilst in his spare time Moreau trains in the art of fencing, tutored by great masters with revolutionary sympathies.

Two further duels between Moreau and de Maynes take place before the end of the film. The second is only a little less embarrassing than the first for our hero, but the final has them meeting as equals, with a theatre as the fighting ground and an entire audience on hand to spectate. This last fight is worth waiting for. Including a series of stunts, rope tricks, balletic pirouettes, furniture and props destroyed and Moreau every bit as deadly as his opponent, the duel lasts for eight minutes of pure choreographed brilliance. At the time, it was the longest fight sequence committed to celluloid, and the actors spent eight weeks training for it. Ferrer brought all his experience as a dancer to bear in his graceful movements, whilst Granger’s was more a performance of physical domination, his powerful 6′ 3″ frame dwarfing both the needle rapier and fellow duellist. It’s this quality that makes his on-screen improvement as a swordfighter so credible. Bludgeoning and crude in his early attempts at the art, Ferrer has to do little but shift his body out of the way, smiling all the time, as Granger thrusts futilely.

Most of Scaramouche is covered with Victor Young’s florid score, but this is absent from the fight scenes. It’s one of the best decisions made by director, George Sidney, who lets the soundtrack ring with the clash of hot metal rather than be clouded with orchestrals. One can very easily imagine a young George Lucas being in thrall to the duels, especially the climactic one, and resolving to end his Star Wars prequel trilogy with something that matched it. Only it doesn’t. Granger and Ferrer may cling from balconies, vault over sedans and fence across the rows of seats, but the impression they leave is of an epic fight that just happens to take place in a theatre rather than the CGI-driven videogame sequence that comes at the end of Star Wars III: The Revenge of the Sith. The photography is generally excellent, in particular the contrast between the colourful stage life of Scaramouche’s troupe and the mist enshrouded, earthy duelling scenes.

When he made Scaramouche, Granger was still in the early years of his contract with MGM. Destined to take over Errol Flynn’s swashbuckling mantle, this was the ideal project for him, and one he demanded as a stipulation of his agreement with the studio, having watched the 1923 silent as a youngster. A new version of the film had been in the pipelines for some years and appeared to be heading into musical territory, with Gene Kelly in the title role. This all changed with Granger’s involvement, and perhaps for the best. Once the dialogue-heavy first acts are over and Moreau’s on the run, Scaramouche just gets better and better. The only downside of the main cast is Janet Leigh, who takes the thankless, callow young lady’s role and is wiped off the screen by Eleanor Parker’s fiery redhead, indeed one wonders why Moreau’s affection remained when he had the gorgeous hellcat Lenore to grapple with.

Scaramouche: ***

Saboteur (1942)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 27 June (1.00 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

This house experienced a brief burst of excitement when Channel 4 teased at screening an unofficial Hitchcock season in its early afternoon slot. Sadly, it turned out to be nothing more than a coincidence of scheduling that two of his films appear on consecutive days. Tomorrow, we get the masterly Shadow of a Doubt. Today, it’s Saboteur, a relatively minor entry that explores similar narrative territory  to The 39 Steps, and would later be polished to perfection for North by Northwest. The story of the ‘wrong man’ having to go on the run both to prove his innocence and catch the real culprit was retold various times by Hitchcock. Saboteur isn’t as good as the two films mentioned above, rather it rubs shoulders with Young and Innocent and Frenzy, which essentially covered the same ground.

Over time, I think I’ve come to prefer Young and Innocent to Saboteur and, in lieu of a critically sound, academic reason I’d suggest it’s because I like the characters more in his light-hearted, British escape thriller. Similarly, the shock value and jet black humour of Frenzy make it, for me, superior. If that makes it sound like I think Saboteur is a poor film, then I don’t. It’s fine. Viewers demanding welters of suspense won’t be disappointed. There are some lovely technical bits of business, fine plot twists and excellent cameo performances. The whole thing moves at breakneck pace, anticipating North by Northwest, and the scale of the trial faced by its hero at times at times feels impossible.

Yet perhaps it’s the identity of the actor playing ‘the wrong man’ who’s the problem. Hitchcock didn’t want Robert Cummings for the role. Gene Kelly, Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda were amongst his preferred choices, whereas Cummings was dismissed as having ‘an amusing face, so that even when he’s in desperate straits, his features don’t convey any anguish.’ It’s a fair point. The actor puts in a reasonable performance, but his natural place was in the realm of light entertainment and, whilst the camera stays with him throughout Saboteur, he gets lost in the thick of the detail and his fellow actors. Priscilla Lane as the girl who first loathes then joins him in his flight fares altogether better. Again, she wasn’t the perfect bit of casting in Hitchcock’s eyes; he wanted Barbara Stanwyck, who may never have come across as credible once the character teams up with Cummings and softens. Otto Kruger plays the main villain, whereas the role of the actual saboteur went to unknown Norman Lloyd, who gets across really well the lazy evil of his ill-intentioned character.

Saboteur could be dismissed as a propaganda piece, and it’s doubtless the film was part fuelled by Hitchcock’s own feelings about the war. Whilst no one refers to the people who are really behind the sabotage as Nazis, it’s clear they’re fascist sympathisers, not to mention a patrician lot with little but disdain for the common man. The traditional American value of freedom is instead writ large in the various diverse characters who help Cummings along his way. There’s the kindly blind uncle of Ms Lane, who offers Cummings some respite and claims, despite his lack of sight that he can see further than she, alluding to Cummings’s innocence. They’re also helped by a troupe of circus performers, adding weight to the sense of America’s less privileged elements believing in freedom and being prepared to uphold it.

It’s nicely done, but the identities of the villains (upper class) and heroes (working class) suggest an obvious liberal sentiment, and Hitchcock’s better than that. The limited budget doesn’t help either. With its wide canvas, Saboteur should have an epic feel, but it was treated from the start as a second rate project by David O Selznick, who doled both the film and its director to Universal in order to get it made. The studio trimmed costs by not allowing Hitchcock to hire the first rate actors he wanted and, whilst letting the production go over its modest $700k budget, wound up with a picture that looks like it has the bottom line in mind.

Still, the eye on cost produces some cool effects, such as the early sabotage scene, for which Hitchcock simply filmed the front of a factory and let black smoke steadily fill the frame from the bottom right, not only effective on a stylistic level but suggesting strongly the looming menace that faced the ‘Free World.’ There are also dialogue-heavy scenes to replace costly moments of action, such as Cummings’s encounters with the blind uncle and the circus performers, which feature the parts of the screenplay penned by Dorothy Parker.

The result is a decent potboiler, and nothing more than that. Saboteur includes some signature moments – the Statue of Liberty climax, for one – but a weightless whole that places it firmly beyond the front row of Hitchcock’s films.

Saboteur: ***

Robin and Marian (1976)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 26 June (1.10 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

Hammer’s faltering Sword of Sherwood Forest was screened on Sunday, but two Robin Hood yarns in one week is certainly one too many, and Robin and Marian is without doubt the stronger choice.

The film started life as a concept handed to Richard Lester, one of many scrawled on a series of index cards. Flushed with success from The Three Musketeers and given his pick of projects, the director plumped eagerly for the idea of an ageing Robin Hood returning home after years soldiering in the Holy Land and France for King Richard. James Goldman, who penned The Lion in Winter, was duly commissioned to produce a script, rooted firmly in the same medieval England as his Henry II play. Imagining Robin as a bit of a grumpy old man, the casting of Sean Connery was an absolute masterstroke, whilst Audrey Hepburn was persuaded out of her lengthy sojourn raising her family to play Marian. The world of Robin and Marian reintroduced many characters from the legend, only now they were middle-aged and wiser, or at least more cynical. The ‘merrie men’ now comprised Nicol Williamson (Little John), Denholm Elliott (Will Scarlett) and Ronnie Barker as Friar Tuck. Robert Shaw was called on to provide an altogether darker-minded and more serious Sheriff than audiences were used to.

The action opens in France. Robin and John are twenty years in ‘Good’ King Richard’s service, only he isn’t quite so virtuous. The Lionheart (Richard Harris) has abandoned the Crusade and now campaigns closer to home, ever seeking riches. He’s dispatched our heroes to a castle that they’re to take, after hearing it contains a gold statue. It turns out there’s just a one-eyed old man left to protect the women and children. Robin’s ready to leave it, but the king insists on the attack, which compels the old man to throw an arrow into his neck. The wound’s mortal. Richard, dying, relieves Robin and forgives him for his disobedience. Thoroughly disillusioned, the former Hood and John head for Sherwood Forest (actually Pamplona) to find things changed yet strangely the same. Will and Tuck continue to live in the trees, though they’re the only ones left from the original gang. The Sheriff lurks inside Nottingham Castle as though waiting for the moment of Robin’s return. And Marian has been the abbess of a nearby priory for 18 years.

Seemingly within minutes of his return, Robin’s turned back the clock. Rescuing Marian from the clutches of the Sheriff, who is supposed to arrest her on religious grounds, they’re in their old forest hideout once more and planning further antics. The Sheriff, along with King John’s man, Sir Ranulf (Kenneth Haigh), plots his downfall, delivering the chilling lines ‘I know him. He’s a little bit in love with death. He flirts. He teases. I can wait.’ In the meantime, Robin and Marian fall in love all over again. It becomes clear that she was always his, the departure he made to follow King Richard all those years ago prompting her to attempt suicide before giving herself to God.

The depiction of Robin is entirely pleasing. After watching Connery go through the motions recently in his Bond films, it’s a real treat to see him putting his all into a character in which he truly appeared to believe. Best of all, Connery makes no attempt to mask Robin’s advancing years. Balding and grey, every effort he makes comes with a grunt or a grimace. In one scene, he and John are cornered by the Sheriff and compelled to climb a keep wall in order to escape, and there’s a lovely yet horrible moment when both outlaws realise a physical feat they may once have completed with ease is now sapping their energy. Shaw’s playing of the Sheriff gives him an opportunity to reprise the duel he once partook with Connery in From Russia with Love. Thirteen years on and Shaw’s cut form from the earlier film has given way to middle-aged spread and turned their swordfight into a tussle between exhausted men who can give no quarter. Despite the actor’s charisma and apparent affection over coming across Robin once again, there’s a terrible undercurrent of loathing about his Sheriff. It seems he’s stayed alive for the chance to best Robin, just once. In the end, nothing else matters to him. The almost casual way Robin clearly overcame him in the past (we’re supposed to imagine a more mythic, lyrical era, perhaps the Hood as depicted in the Errol Flynn starring The Adventures of Robin Hood) obviously rankles, leaving unfinished business.

But maybe better than both – and that’s saying something – is Audrey Hepburn. I’ve read elsewhere that she delivers a subdued performance, but for me it’s all about the eyes, the efforts she makes to dismiss the ageing but no wiser Robin who clearly still fancies himself as he once was, yet the longing in those enormous eyes betrays her true feelings. It’s a fantastically written role and delivered with real heart. She recalls with the feeling of someone haunted by memories their old dwelling in the roots of a tree, the way his body was in the old days and the many battle scars that have destroyed his perfection. It’s the role of someone who wholly welcomed playing a mature woman, one with an almost tangible passion.

Lester reins in his usual comic shtick. Though there are funny moments in the film, it’s an altogether tightly told affair, stuffed with fine performances from a starry cast in a dirty Middle Ages England. The attention to detail is just wonderful. At one point, the outlaws make their way to Nottingham and pass a man working the field who has just one arm. Is he supposed to be a war veteran or has he at some point incurred the wrath of the authorities? In a speech that doubles as his mission statement, Robin tells Sir Ranulf that he’ll always defend England from nobles like him who do what they want without consequence, which suggests the one-armed man was punished with mutilation, perhaps for thieving in desperate times. Who knows? It’s one tiny moment within a film set in a dangerous realm where people fear God but have more cause to be terrified of the Sheriff, a land, in other words, that has missed its Robin Hood.

Robin and Marian: ****