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: ***

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Psycho (1960)

When it’s on: Friday, 29 June (3.05 am, Saturday)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

Even watched for the first time, it must be almost impossible to get the same shock value as audiences catching Psycho on its initial run in cinemas more than fifty years ago. The film’s been copied so many times, not just literally with Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake, but ripped off in so many ways by so many directors in far too many movies. I guess a more recent contemporary would be The Blair Witch Project, which was also made cheaply and grossed millions from clever marketing and an unsettling narrative, but the comparison ends there. Psycho is just about in a league of its own.

I’ve now seen it on many occasions. My first viewing actually left me a little disappointed, which prompted me to wonder what was wrong with me. What now seems apparent is that I watched it after no doubt seeing other pictures that had plundered its imagery and shocking moments mercilessly and its effect was inevitably diluted.

Later screenings have been far more profitable. These days, I really buy into the contention of Psycho’s maker, Alfred Hitchcock, that it’s ‘a fun picture.’ The whole thing’s a big joke, and the butts are, of course, us – the audience. There’s the gag of spending the first half of the film building up sympathy for the main character, not to mention hiring a star name to play her, only to refute all narrative convention by seeing her meet a violent end. But the even bigger laugh is the switch in empathy from poor, doomed Marion (Janet Leigh) to doomed, deadly Norman (Anthony Perkins). There’s a scene in which Norman’s trying to remove evidence of Marion’s very presence in his motel by submerging her car – which contains her possessions and also her corpse – in the nearby swamp, only for it to pause mid-sink. Admit it, you were willing that car to resume its journey to the bottom, weren’t you?

This isn’t the place to go too deep into the plot, or to dribble and indeed spout drivel over the infamous shower scene. You can read numerous and brilliant dissections of one of cinema’s most famous moments elsewhere, discover a body double was used despite Leigh describing in interviews the horrific process of filming it, take in the debate over whether Hitchcock or Saul Bass directed it and then make up your own mind, review it frame by frame (along with the storyboards), and so on. All that really matters is that it’s a deeply shocking scene, though I’m more disturbed with the shot of the blood seeping into the plughole then dissolving into Marion’s unseeing, dead eye, the camera slowly zooming out to take in more of her vacant head. It’s clever stuff. All that build-up, the exploration of her rather sad love story, her decision to steal the $40,000, the inner monologues that fuel her sense of paranoia, the encounter with the roadside cop, buying the used car, running away, seeing the sign for the Bates Motel just as it seems she may succumb to the relentless rain on her windshield, innocently flirting with Norman, the sandwich, the resolution to take the money back and try to set things straight… Snuffed out in 45 seconds of extreme violence and a carcass is all that remains.

Yet for all Hitchcock described it as effectively a comedy, Psycho is a deeply pessimistic piece of work. None of its characters are happy, or achieve anything close to happiness. If they do, such as the look of peace on Marion’s face after she has decided to return the money and clean her conscience (and her body, in the fateful shower), it’s soon destroyed. Norman’s story is a sad one. In the end, all the lives we are invited to peer into seem wasted and pointless, a tale that sets itself at odds with the dreams offered by the land of opportunity. Little wonder the film made its money back many times over. Not only were audiences enjoying the work of a genius, there was also the genuine sense of identification with characters whose hopes were all for naught.

Psycho: *****

The Fog (1980)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 8 May (11.35 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

John Carpenter made The Fog at the height of his creative powers – Halloween had delivered thrills on a budget and there was some expectation about what he’d come up with next. The horror genre continued to provide inspiration with The Fog, and Carpenter worked again with Halloween’s breakout star, Jamie Lee Curtis, but this was quite a different animal to his slasher flick.

The Fog shouldn’t be confused with the James Herbert novel of the same name. There’s no connection, and if anything the film seems more inspired by Stephen King’s work, with its slow build-up and the time it takes to explore the characters. The story is set in a small Californian fishing town, Antonio Bay, which is about to celebrate its centennial. But weird things start to happen on the eve of the anniversary – car alarms going off, electrical failures, payphones ringing, Curtis sleeping with weary looking older man, Tom Atkins – and these are just a precursor to the main event. It turns out the town’s very existence is a curse. Built on the site of a leper colony, a century earlier six town founders lured a ship onto the rocks, which killed all on board (including the boat’s rich, leprous owner, Blake) whilst its gold was plundered. 100 years later, the restless, angry spirits are back to kill the descendants of the six. Their coming is heralded by the appearance of a thick, glowing fog…

Whether it’s the baleful sound of the foghorn or the sense of inevitability that something horrible will happen and no one knows enough to warn the others (Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) discovers his father’s (one of the original six) journal that recounts the crime), The Fog has a feel of oncoming catastrophe that is almost enough on its own to fill the pre-horror running time. Especially good value is Janet Leigh’s town elder, who’s leading the centennial celebration whilst being assisted sardonically by the long-suffering Nancy Loomis. Adrienne Barbeau plays Stevie Wayne, Antonio Bay’s sole DJ. Her studio is in the town’s old lighthouse, and whilst all she plays are old show tunes and jazz hits, she has the kind of husky voice filled with whispered promises that belongs to late night radio.

The Fog isn’t a perfect horror experience. Carpenter’s original cut omitted any nastiness until late in the film, which sat ill with test audiences and prompted him to up the gore quotient with an early attack by Blake’s crew. This has the result of interrupting the film’s logic, as does the twist ending, which shows an inherent lack of faith in the plot’s slow build-up. A shame. The big finale, when it comes, is fine and unsettling, with the steady hammering on people’s doors by the undead crew providing great chills, especially as those knocks are being made by cutlasses and hooks wielded for their killing powers.

What remains is a fine sense of atmosphere, an impending feeling of doom, which makes The Fog a great, late night viewing experience. It spawned a uniformly terrible remake in 2005, which ought to be avoided at all costs. In the meantime, Carpenter was set for his imperial phase during the 1980s, which would produce Escape from New York and his superior update of The Thing.

The Fog: ***

The Vikings (1958)

When it’s on: Saturday, 21 April 2012 (3.15 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

With a respectful nod to Mad Men, my favourite show on TV at the moment is Game of Thrones, the lavish adaptation of George R R Martin’s historically inspired series of fantasy novels. HBO have done a fantastic job of bringing a complicated, adult narrative to the screen and doing so reverentially whilst introducing elements that weren’t in the text. The casting is almost entirely spot on, producing some top drawer acting. There’s a feeling of authenticity to its sets and locations; real care has been put into its production values, which reach easily the impeccable standards we’ve come to expect of HBO. If I have a small criticism of the show, it is the endless shoehorning in of nudity and sex. I’m no prude and Martin’s books are by nobody’s measure safe for the faint-hearted. Yet an episode can’t pass without a visit to the brothel, or a coupling of some kind, often a sex scene that is only implied as taking place in the text but here made clear and graphic.

It seems a strange thing to have a beef about, but then I’m not 14. Sometimes, I’d prefer it if this kind of thing happened off-screen, insinuated without the need to unfold before my eyes in messy detail. It makes me hark back to a cinema age when this is exactly how sex was dealt with, when the most we saw was a passionate kiss with all the promise it suggested. It makes me reminisce over a matinee classic like The Vikings, sort of a forebear to Game of Thrones with its culling of historical sources for the purpose of entertainment.

The Vikings is now more than fifty years old, and in places it feels like it. Some of the dialogue comes straight from that rotten stable of clichés and stilted hackneyism, the rotten nonsense you imagine the actors having to stifle the giggles whilst quoting. In an almost unbearable courtship scene between Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, the former has to come out with ‘Let’s not question our flesh for wanting to remain flesh’ and keep a straight face. Fortunately, the chemistry is intact thanks to the pair being real-life spouses at the time, but it’s arm-gnawing stuff.

Like all historical epics, there’s a certain obviousness to the plot that was utterly standard for this fare, yet otherwise The Vikings is a definite cut above. For one thing, there’s the trim running time. It sails home at under two hours, ensuring the padding that slowed many of these films down just isn’t there. Perhaps this was because Viking villages weren’t as costly to replicate as Roman sets, so the camera didn’t need to linger on them. The slowest it gets is during the scenes of merriment in Ragnar’s (Ernest Borgnine) mead hall; elsewhere the pace is consistently nifty and dull moments are rare.

The research that went into The Vikings was impressive. Longboats were built to real historical specifications; it was gleaned almost too late that human beings were generally shorter and stockier a thousand years ago, which made being an oarsman on set a cramped experience. Village sets, costumes and weaponry were also designed to comply with what is known of the time. That’s a real Norwegian fjord the longboat’s sailing alongside, etc. The sense of and need for authenticity was practised as well as preached by the film’s star and co-producer, Kirk Douglas, who not only spent the majority of it wearing an enormously painful contact lens but also performed the famous oar run for real, several times, he and the stuntmen who were doing it alongside him.

Veteran action film director Richard Fleischer was drafted to do an economical job of helming the picture (which led to his nomination for Outstanding Direction by the Directors Guild of America), but the real credits belong elsewhere. Jack Cardiff was Director of Photography, churning out those wonderful, evocative shots of longboats cruising home, or disappearing into the mists. In one breathtaking scene,  Douglas’s character hears Ragnar’s ship approaching. He leaves his house to take a look, which just happens to be down a sheer cliff face, the boat a toy in the distance. I also fell in love with Mario Nascimbene’s score, which carried shades of Wagnerian grandeur and sweep but also seemed kind of melancholic. The arrangement as the Vikings leave their home for the Kingdom of Northumbria suggests the reality – not all of them are going to make it back…

After that, the rest of the film’s treats come in a generous shower. The Vikings has one of the loveliest credit sequences I’ve seen in any film, a series of animated scenes inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry as we are treated to a potted history of the people, which is narrated by the appropriately grandiose Orson Welles. That’s just the opening salvo, a promise of adventure, brotherly feuds, brilliantly staged sword fights with the music muted to let the satisfying clang of the blades ring true, Douglas and Curtis at their lusty best, Leigh at her most incredibly beautiful… There’s even a chance it could teach a thing or two to many newer productions.

The Vikings: ****