Jurassic Park (1993)

When it’s on: Sunday, 14 June (1.35 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

It’s almost certain that we will be visiting the cinema this weekend to watch Jurassic World, so I thought it might be timely to talk about Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg’s 1993 behemoth of a movie that kicked it all off. Everyone else is discussing it, after all, and I am rather enjoying the number of podcasts I listen to at the moment, often managed by people who would have first seen it when they were children, where the critical faculties have given way to gushing and memories of younger years, the sheer joy of the first time they caught it. I was 21 when Jurassic Park came out and, whilst suitably enchanted, it seems to be regarded as something really special by those who were around the age I was when I first saw something like The Empire Strikes Back and knew, innately, that I’d experienced greatness at exactly the right age to experience it.

For the record, my trip to watch Jurassic Park at the Showcase Cinema in Stockton with a group of friends was one of my first times at a multiplex. Several screens were showing it; at one point I nipped to the loo and returned, sat down, and then carried on watching for several minutes before I realised the film wasn’t at the right point, I was sat next to complete strangers and, eventually, that I’d walked back into the wrong theatre. D’oh!

It’s worth remembering that, before this one, Spielberg was undergoing a bit of a lull. His previous films, Always and Hook, whilst not exactly bad, were widely viewed as below par works from him (I’ve no particular desire to see either again, which says it all for my feelings), so there was something ‘make or break’ about Jurassic Park. 1993 would turn out to be an annus mirablis of sorts for Spielberg. With his pet project, Schindler’s List, also released that year, the two films formed the consummate home run of home runs, instantly conferring on him both the commercial and critical crowns, the latter building to Academy Award glory with Oscars showered on his story of another Oskar. Over the years, my views on both movies has changed somewhat. I can’t watch Schindler’s List without getting the sense that my feelings are being manipulated, when the subject matter is surely powerful enough to stand on its own without the need to deploy such cinematic tricks (the girl in the red coat, good grief). I should save my comments on that particular work for another day, suffice it to say here that, as far as I’m concerned, all the praise seems to be for the devastating subject and the film’s success in bringing it to peoples’ minds, rather than its greatness as a piece of cinema.

As for Jurassic Park, I’ve grown to love it, even now – numerous viewings down the line – soaking up the tension, the special effects, the brilliant design work, the very fine acting, the masterly way it conveys swathes of exposition and scientific background to viewers without collapsing under its own weight. That last point is important. We’re asked to take in a lot of information about (i) how the dinosaurs were artificially created (ii) the reasons for doing so (iii) what dinosaurs actually were (iv) how the park works (v) the man who would steal its secrets, and yet it never really slows down. That’s some damn fine storytelling. We’re kept waiting for the first full shot of a dinosaur, and it’s worth the wait, the little jeep carrying Sam Neill and Laura Dern stopping long enough for them to gawp in helpless wonder at the sight of Brachiosaurs eating. It works for two reasons. One is the reactions of the actors, which only adds to the moment’s sense of authenticity and gravitas. The second is the use of CGI. Jurassic Park was like a great leap forward in special effects technology. Before this, the only way to see dinosaurs on film was the stop-motion animated models shot painstakingly by Ray Harryhausen and his peers. Suddenly, all that was consigned to cinema history thanks to digital effects, work that holds up today because Spielberg knew how to use CGI judiciously rather than too often, also when to deploy animatronics instead for the more interactive scenes.

Naturally, the film’s story of a theme park housing real-life dinosaurs reaches its point when the security breaks down and its denizens start running amok, looking for food. Jurassic Park is careful to describe the creatures as animals rather than monsters, which makes them feel more real. In the meantime, Jeff Goldblum’s character is a chaos theorist who argues that the park’s creator, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has shown a critical lack of judgement in reviving beasts that are extinct for a reason, which comes to pass when things start going horribly wrong. All this makes the attack by a Tyrannousaurus Rex the perfect exercise in tension. Announced by the now famous water ripples formed by its approaching footsteps, the king of carnivores sees two young children as lunch and goes to work, systematically destroying their oh so fragile car in its efforts to reach them. The combination of CGI and puppetry to create the dinosaur looks seamless, and whilst it must have been painstaking to develop and film there’s no doubt it’s great to watch, not to mention listen to with the Rex’s roar filling the screen every bit as much as its body.

The Tyrannosaur is the main star from a dinosaur perspective, but its impact is overshadowed by the smaller Velociraptors, those pack hunting hyenas of the reptile age. A little larger than human height (though in reality, they were about the size of chickens) and working together in order to attack from all directions, the raptors make for fantastic pursuers as the human characters try to run and hide. The scene in the park kitchen is much celebrated and rightly so. John Williams’s score is absent – as it is for the Tyrannosaur attack – to allow the natural noises of the dinosaurs and the panicked movements of their prey to take over. Whether you’re hearing a talon tapping on metallic work surfaces or a raptor snorting into the air, it all leads to a gripping chase that’s a masterclass in tension and classy editing. A quick further word on the sound design, which is truly excellent, adding an iconic and quite unique soundtrack of animal life that sounds completely alien because it’s been extinct for 65 million years.

For all their brilliant realisation, the dinosaurs actually occupy little screen time overall, harking back to Spielberg’s earlier Jaws, in which the shark was rarely seen. Investment therefore has to be made in the actors, both for their reactions to what’s happening and their overall characterisation. Spielberg went for a cast devoid of A-list stars, going instead for reliable character actors to tremendous effect. Sam Neill leads as Alan Grant, a serious minded fossil hunter who has no time for children (so naturally, he ends up caring for Hammond’s grandchildren) but an innate knowledge of dinosaurs, so that he can provide the survival tips when faced with carnivores. His partner, Ellie Sattler, is played by Laura Dern. She’s more an expert on extinct plant life, is practical enough to dig with her hands through a pile of droppings to investigate the ailments of a sickly Triceratops, and fends off the attentions of Jeff Goldblum’s suave Ian Malcolm with wry amusement. The latter provides the film with its questions of philosophy and morality, having some great sparring conversations with Hammond, who in Attenborough’s hands is a well meaning, grandfatherly figure (with a Scottish accent that, ahem, comes and goes) rather than the heartless businessman as presented in Michael Crichton’s source novel. Of the supporting players, Samuel L Jackson puts in a pre-Pulp Fiction appearance as a chain smoking site engineer, Bob Peck is on hand as the big game hunter who finds himself ultimately out of his depth, and Wayne Knight plays the treacherous Dennis Nedry who kicks off the story of the park turning to hell before meeting his own ‘sticky’ end.

If Jurassic Park’s effect has dimmed a little over time, then there are those lesser sequels to take into consideration, the second one a further Spielberg helmer that has some good moments but little of the original’s sense of majesty (it’s a monster movie, pure and simple) and the rather tired third instalment, which largely replaces suspense with CGI. But this first episode is really good. There’s a lovely sense of characters being genuinely awestruck by the returning to the world of long dead creatures, helped along by Williams’s music, which gives the whole thing an air of respect and legitimacy.

Jurassic Park: *****

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10 Rillington Place (1971)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 31 March (10.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

– I don’t know, Mr Christie.
– Well Tim, if you haven’t got complete confidence in my abilities…
– I trust you, Mr Christie, of course I do.

I think I was seven when we went on a family holiday to London. One of the attractions we visited was Madame Tussaud’s with its Chamber of Horrors, and inside, amidst the medieval torture devices was a gallery of notorious serial killers. One of these was a rather unassuming middle-aged, balding man, alone in a room, paste brush in hand whilst behind him one of the walls was covered with freshly laid wallpaper. This turned out to be John Reginald Christie. The surface over which he’d so recently papered was a covered up alcove, and inside were the bodies of three murdered women.

It was this alcove that ultimately did for Christie. Shortly after concealing his crime, he sub-let his flat and left, living rough and sleeping in doss houses. In the meantime, the new tenants arrived, complained about the smell and discovered the makeshift tomb. When the police turned up, a further corpse, that of Christie’s wife Ethel, was found beneath the floorboards, along with the remains of two further women buried in the garden, a femur bone being used to prop up a fence. Later, Christie would be accused of killing Beryl and Geraldine Evans, the wife and baby daughter of Timothy Evans, who himself had been hanged for the crimes several years earlier whilst occupying the same building. Three years on from Evans’s death, Christie faced the noose.

What struck me about the waxwork model was the apparent ordinariness of the murderer. In films and on television, there’s often some obvious sign that marks someone out as a serial killer, some indefinable thing that marks them out as psychologically unbalanced enough to commit such heinous crimes, but Christie looked so normal, which of course made the whole affair so much more chilling, the idea that you can’t tell, you really can’t tell.

It’s this quality that Richard Attenborough brought to sinister life when he played Christie in 10 Rillington Place, the address of the residence where the murders happened. I’ve always admired Attenborough more as an actor than for his directing. The films he’s helmed too often appear to me to move at a pace slightly slower than stately, whereas on the other side of the camera he can produce really haunting performances across a wide variety of roles. Christie’s one of his best, something he also acknowledged, the murderer who projects a veneer of outward genteel respectability so convincingly that he can get murderously close to women whilst shifting the suspicion onto others. On the surface, his Christie appears to be just another man on the street, nothing to see here, but it’s all in the restless shifting of his eyes, his habit of peering out of a gap in the drapes as though sensing the knot of suspicion closing around him, the soft spoken Yorkshire dialect that comes across as warm and genial.

The story focuses on the murders of Beryl and Geraldine, and the implication of Timothy as their killer, a fabrication weaved by Christie. At the time 10 Rilington Place was made, Evans had already been pardoned for the killing of his wife though not his daughter, the crime for which he had actually been convicted in the first instance. Whilst the matter of police misconduct during the investigation was still undecided, the film based itself on Ludovic Kennedy’s book, Ten Rillington Place, which argued that the investigation had been flawed and Evans innocent. In the film, Evans is played by the BAFTA nominated John Hurt as a working class Welshman with a seriously low IQ, meaning he can be easily influenced by Christie. Judy Geeson plays Beryl, Evans’s pretty young wife, who becomes pregnant for a second time. This is a worry for the couple. They can barely afford to make ends meet and their flat in 10 Rillington Place is small and squalid enough to begin with. Christie, who was able to meet many women during the war as a backstreet abortionist, offers his services to the Evans couple and they agree. What they don’t realise is that it’s an excuse to gas Beryl into a state of unconsciousness and then rape and strangle her, which is exactly what he does. The tools of his trade, the pipes that hook up to the gas supply, supposedly benign medicinal mixture, and rope, are kept under lock and key in a little medicine cabinet, and his retrieval of these items is a sure precursor to murder.

Evans goes to work, comes home and Christie tells him there’s been a complication in the abortion and Beryl’s dead. By simple persuasion, he argues they’re both guilty and offers to get rid of the body if Evans will leave for a while. He even says he knows a couple who’ll take Geraldine in, which seems to solve all the young man’s problems at once. Of course that’s a lie and Evans is no sooner on the train to Merthyr than Christie’s taking his tie upstairs in order to deal with the baby. Back in Wales and racked with guilt, Evans hands himself in to the police. Events start to spiral out of control as the investigation and the ease with which they wring a confession out of him turn the case into a fait accompli. Crucially, Christie distances himself completely from the murders. Ethel (Pat Heywood) backs him up, though there’s a sense she suspects something isn’t right. Evans, unable to read the confession he’s signed, hopelessly out of his depth and only realising at the end that he’s been stitched up, begins repeating ‘Christie’s done it’ but it’s all too late and he has an appointment to keep with the hangman.

It’s a brilliant study by Hurt, the youthful bravado he shows whilst drinking with his mates at the pub falling away once he realises he’s in desperate trouble and relying on entirely the wrong man to help him. It becomes apparent quickly that he’s just the wrong man, in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he doesn’t come close to appreciating the man into whom he’s placed his trust is the wrongest of all the elements. Geeson’s great as the innocent and hopeful Beryl, and there’s a small part for Isobel Black as her best friend, who for her own sake is probably fortunate to vanish from the picture when she does.

10 Rillington Place was directed by Richard Fleischer, a flexible filmmaker whose previous work covered on these pages are a far cry from the subject matter here. Fleischer had made films about real-life serial killers before, notably The Boston Strangler, starring Tony Curtis, but he brought a real documentary sensibility to this project, feeling rightly that the subject matter was horrific enough without the need for added melodrama. As far as it was possible to do so, the script by Clive Exton copied real, recorded speeches from the characters. The scenes at Rillington Place were filmed in Rillington Place (which has since been knocked down and completely remodelled as part of Notting Hill’s subsequent gentrification – this YouTube video speculates on the most likely location); the residents at number 10 wouldn’t allow their home to be used, so the crew worked across the street in number 7 instead, capturing starkly the slum conditions that framed the ghastly events, the poverty of the intransigent residents, the relative ‘four to a room’ destitution within which Christie operated. The murders, when they take place, are shown graphically, and whilst little is made of the killer’s motives, the signs are there in Attenborough’s performance. Most chillingly of all, it’s the ease with which he commits his crimes that are the most shocking element, the absence of guilt as though it’s all a normal part of his working day.

It’s a difficult film to recommend as entertainment, though it’s certainly worth seeing not least as a study into the machinations of a real life killer, told largely without embellishment, also the shaky police work that led to Evans’s hanging. In 1965, several years before 10 Rillington Place was released, the death penalty in the UK was suspended, largely because of the horrible potential of wrongful convictions. There was a large swell of support for its return, before people saw the film and appreciated the consequences of getting it wrong.

10 Rillington Place: ****

Dunkirk (1958)

When it’s on: Sunday, 22 February (2.25 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

Dunkirk tells the story of the evacuation of stranded British soldiers off the eponymous beleaguered beach from two points of view. In one, an earthy corporal, John Mills, leads a group of squaddies to Dunkirk after they’ve been cut off from their unit in embattled northern France. Pursued by Nazis, fired upon by swarming Stukas and sometimes having to cross enemy lines as the Blitzkrieg advance is often quicker than their own movements, theirs is a desperate scramble for safety with no guarantee that reaching their comrades will make any difference. Meanwhile, back in England Bernard Lee’s journalist tries in vain to persuade the public that the so-called phoney war is exactly that, convinced this is a prelude to all-out attack and yet finding complacency among his friends, not least businessman Richard Attenborough who would rather focus on his company and new baby than anything happening across the English Channel.

I’ve discussed before on this site how well the British war films of the 1950s did at deglamourising many of the events that took place. Dunkirk was seen at the time as something of a victory, a morale boosting pulling together of resources when in reality it was the tail-end of a total debacle, and it’s this the film conveys. Whilst there are no heroes, it tells us, ordinary people were capable of heroic acts, from Mills’s ‘Tubby’ Binns, forced by rank to push his exhausted troops to the coast, to Holden (Attenborough) steadily becoming more involved in the rescue by a mixture of conscience and circumstance. At more than two hours it’s overlong, too many scenes that involve Charles (Lee) cynically telling anyone he meets that the Dunkirk rescues have needed to take place through basic incompetence, generals trying to apply World War One principles to the new conflict, when the action itself should convey this message on its own. Once the film reaches the beach, thousands of soldiers waiting around for rescue whilst the German planes attack ruthlessly, the pointlessness of it all resonates to shattering effect. Some boats make it safely out of the harbour. Others are bombed, everyone on board having to leap into the sea or die. Quickly, it becomes apparent that they’re relying increasingly on the intervention of smaller boats, like those piloted by Charles and Holden (Attenborough). Their very presence at Dunkirk is as much an indictment of outmoded military strategy in a time of lightning attacks as it is a pooling of British pluck and resolve, and of course it did make all the difference.

As a bit of added research for this piece, I rewatched Atonement, the 2007 film by Joe Wright that features some pivotal action on the beaches of Dunkirk (interestingly, these scenes were filmed in my home town, Redcar, and even takes in the facade of the old fleapit, the Regent Cinema, which I frequented often as a young ‘un). Atonement does a really impressive job at conveying the chaos and despair of Dunkirk, particularly as it’s introduced in a dazzling single take that must have been technically exhausting to produce. Yet even with the standards of 2007 allowing for a grittier and more visceral scene, it’s no more harrowing than the sights confronted by Mills and Company in the 1958 film. Worst for them is the constant harrowing from the air, the random selection of victims as the planes take their victims from so many thousands of bodies on the beach, but there’s also the collapsing line over which to worry, the awful possibility that the Nazis will break through and capture or kill everyone before they have a chance to be lifted. It’s effortlessly tense because it must have been exactly that.

Director Leslie Norman (father of film critic, Barry) had been involved in the British film industry since 1930, when as a nineteen year old he was helping out with the editing process. By the early fifties he was a producer, with The Cruel Sea standing out among his credits, and Dunkirk was a directorial effort for Ealing that showed similarly the best and worst of the studio. The latter comes in the form of bulging the content, all those superfluous moments that emphasise the contrast between attitudes at home and what’s happening abroad, not to mention the budgetary limits leading to obvious use of stock footage and models.

At the same time, my admiration for John Mills grows with every film I watch. A winner at the British box office throughout this era, his ability to convincingly portray a normal man forced by circumstance into committing exceptional acts comes across really well, his frantic efforts to get his men to safety, his rising gall upon realising that Dunkirk is little better than a death trap. Great work from a fine actor. Attenborough puts in an equally good performance, wholly convincing as a coward who hopes that the war will just happen elsewhere, away from his watch, but over time pulled in to become about as heroic as anybody. The effect is helped by the actor looking older than his years, aiming to look the comfortable English gentleman at a time of extreme distress.

Sadly, Dunkirk was a late flourish for Ealing, which had expired as an independent production company after producing a series of films that made only losses. The BBC had already bought the studio in 1955 and the production team was working under MGM by this stage, still able to bear the old Ealing logo on its films but depending on the money of Hollywood distributors. An ignominious end to the Ealing career of producer Michael Balcon, who perhaps appreciated better than most that its day in the sun was ended.

Dunkirk: ***

Brighton Rock (1947)

When it’s on: Friday, 6 July (11.40 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

A bit of a rush job for this one, I’m afraid, as I had to concentrate on writing a job application (love new jobs, hate the application process) and risked running out of time. It’s doubly a shame because today’s entry is so good, the Boulting Brothers’ 1947 production of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock.

It’s a film I’ve watched many times, having also worked my way through the book on a number of occasions. Though the former is hardly obscure, it seems to fall off the radar where British noir is concerned, though in fairness the list stops after anything made by Carol Reed. Yet this is pure noir. It was released at absolutely the right time, capturing the cynical, post-War mood of a world waking up to the reality that it wasn’t filled with heroes, just people making choices and often the wrong ones. Such a person is Rose Brown (Carol Marsh), the naive young waitress who, through vicious circumstance, winds up marrying teenage mobster, Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough). It’s a disaster waiting to happen. Pinkie’s already proved to be a psychopath, utterly insensitive to human life, yet through the most rose-tinted (sorry) glasses and the triumph of hope over reason, the girl convinces herself that she’s found true love.

As for Attenborough, he’s riveting from his first appearance in Brighton Rock, which just happens to be a shot of his hands playing with and tightening a yarn of string menacingly. It’s nearly impossible to square the genial old luvvy of his later years with the monster he plays here. Attenborough makes the character achieve ever deeper levels of malice in the way his face barely seems to move. He’s a mask, similarly hiding the thoughts going on in that dark recess of a skull. And capable of such awfulness. One of the film’s scariest scenes has doomed Fred Hale (Alan Wheatley) board a ghost train in his attempt to escape Pinkie’s gang. He sits next to a boy waiting for his girlfriend, but then the camera moves away, and when it returns the boy has been replaced with the impassive Pinkie. Hale’s dead, and he – and, for that matter, we – knows it.

Brighton Rock is a tale of the town’s back alleys during the years between the World Wars. While visitors make the best of the pier and seaside attractions, a whole underbelly of crime take place within the shadows, and it’s here that Pinkie’s gang operates. Greene wrote the novel after spending long enough in Brighton to realise, simply from reading his local newspapers, what was happening from the number of reports concerning knife fights between rival crews. Pinkie’s gang, its leader aside, seem quite a jovial lot, with William Hartnell as a worldly Dallow featuring strongly. Aligned against them is local salt of the earth type, Ida Arnold (Hermione Baddeley), who spends long enough with Hale to realise his disappearance is worth investigating. The trail leads her to Rose, who can implicate the gang in the murder, which forces Pinkie to marry her and turns Ida’s snooping into a moral quest to save the waitress. Also worth watching is Harry Ross as Pinkie’s crooked lawyer; his revelation to Ida of his past idealism and hopes tells us everything we need to know about the corruption at the film’s heart.

With a number of frightening, sinister touches (the disorientating ghost train ride) to look out for, a magnetic turn from Attenborough, and viewers’ sympathies ever with Rose, Brighton Rock is a fine piece of work, and it effortlessly outdoes the 2010 update in terms of quality and effect. At first glance, it’s possible to believe the film’s ending stops short of replicating the full horror of the book’s final reveal (Rose playing a record of Pinkie’s voice, in which he reveals his true feelings about her), but it’s a false hope. The record’s scratched in such a way that Pinkie saying ‘I love you’ is repeated over and over, and the camera focuses on a crucifix to imply divine intervention in sparing Rose’s feelings. And yet everyone apart from the girl knows his true nature; you end up hoping she moves the needle over the scratch and gets her wake-up call…

Brighton Rock: ****