A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Hard Day’s Night: *****

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The Three Musketeers (1973)

When it’s on: Sunday, 14 February (8.05 am)
Channel: ITV3
IMDb Link

I’ve tried to be better at reading the classics than I am, but one title I had no trouble with was Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. Fast paced, witty and fun, the novel never runs out of steam and its spirit was never better captured than in Richard Lester’s 1973 adaptation. It remains easily my favourite attempt at bringing the text to the screen, and does raise the question – given the material how can any film maker really go wrong?

It’s a film I have watched many times – in the early days of VCR, when I was a kid I saw it over and over – and in preparation for this piece catching it again was largely unnecessary. I still did it though, more out of pure pleasure than necessity, indeed a few happy hours were spent indulging in a double bill of this one and its immediate sequel, The Four Musketeers, which essentially gives us more of the same. It’s a well-known fact that Lester shot both movies at the same time, ostensibly deciding late in the process to split the story into two and in the process pissing off his entire cast, who would of course have earned more for appearing in separate works. Lester’s argument, that he learned part way through he had enough material to justify the split and thought the two films would work better than a more heavily edited single, held little water with his performers, who duly sued and increased their salaries. And yet, years later with all the legal wrangling long in the past and the two films remaining, it clearly stands as the right thing to do. There’s simply no bloat in either entry. Just like in Dumas’s novel, the action moves quickly and the characters are given time to become more than plot devices. George MacDonald Fraser scripted both, following the text closely and inserting moments of great comedy to augment the swashbuckling antics. Whilst two of the musketeers are less well developed than their fellows, it takes some screen writing genius to take so many persons and add flesh to their bones, where even a minor character like Spike Milligan’s cowardly husband gets to show off his chops and become a memorable presence.

One of The Three Musketeers’ more remarkable elements is its massive ensemble cast, a seventies trend in line with the star-filled disaster movies of the time. Originally, Lester conceived his adaptation as a vehicle for the Beatles, with whom he’d famously collaborated during the previous decade, but this was obviously not an option now. The first choice for d’Artagnan was Malcolm McDowell, who would go on to demonstrate he was a match for this sort of material in Lester’s later Royal Flash, but instead the role went to Michael York, who was already a star and a perfect match for the part. York was perhaps ten years older than d’Artagnan, yet brought a great athletic dimension to bear and conveyed beautifully the character’s youthful and sometimes too hasty sense of bravado. The other Musketeers called for older heads, and they were played by Oliver Reed as Athos, Rhichard Chamberlain (Aramis) and the late Frank Finlay (Porthos). They’re introduced to the story when d’Artagnan contrives to arrange duels with all three of them, though they become friends when they find themselves engaging in swordplay with the Cardinal’s guards instead. Again, great casting. Of the trio, Chamberlain’s Aramis is left a little in the background, though he brings suitable levels of dash to his performance. Finlay is mainly on hand to play the comic and pompous relief, and he’s very, very funny (he also turns up briefly as the Duke of Buckingham’s jeweller; there’s no mistaking that voice). The real revelation comes from Reed, derided too often for his heavy drinking lifestyle but beyond that was a superb, towering and gifted performer with whom the camera was clearly in love. The pathos of Athos’s previous with Faye Dunaway’s Milady comes in the second film, but here Reed plays beautifully the tangled mess of honour, drunkenness and his fatherly relationship with d’Artagnan that defines Athos. He also brings great physicality to his fighting. Whereas York duels with an almost balletic grace, Reed plays Athos as a bullish whirlwind, using his bulk and sheer power to overcome opponents. A story from the set has Christopher Lee (having great fun as the eye-patch wearing villain, Rochefort) begging Reed to calm down during a fight sequence – it’s only a movie, after all!

Eager to extend his range after being so typecast during his Hammer era, Lee is fine as Rochefort, deadly whilst being an effete snob. He’s an unlikely partner for Milady (Dunaway), whose character becomes higher profile in the follow-up but here still gets to tease out her villain’s combination of beauty and rotten core. They both provide unsavoury service to Cardinal Richelieu, who in a rare instance of miscasting is played by Charlton Heston. He does nothing wrong in playing France’s arch-manipulator and schemer, but there’s the sense of a performer of Heston’s stature being a little subdued and underplayed. The plot works on the Cardinal’s plan to provoke war between France and England by exposing Queen Anne’s (Geraldine Chaplin) love affair with the Duke of Buckingham (Simon Ward). Once the foppish King Louis (Jean-Pierre Cassel, dubbed by Richard Briers) discovers that his wife has been unfaithful with a leading light of England’s aristocracy then conflict will surely follow. Milady travels to England to steal a couple of diamond studs from the necklace given to Buckingham by Anne, and d’Artagnan, who’s involved via assocation thanks to his burgeoning romance with the Queen’s dressmaker (Raquel Welch, showing good comic timing and adorability as a haplessly clumsy heroine), follows to resolve the situation.

That’s the story, and it’s one deftly told, but what remains in the mind are the fun performances, moments of good natured humour (the likes of Milligan, Roy Kinnear and Bob Todd are on hand to raise the film’s comedy levels) and sword fights. The latter are nicely done, deftly edited, Lester filming simultaneously from long shots and in close-ups and handing real swords to his actors to add to the authenticity. This led naturally to a variety of injuries suffered by the cast; few escaped from the shoot unscathed, and Reed took a rapier point in his wrist at one stage. With all this going on, it’s easy to ignore the attention to detail that’s going on all the time. The characters in The Three Musketeers might come with modern sensibilities and dialogue, but they’re dressed very well, and the locations – it was filmed in a variety of places across Spain – look suitably ravishing. Michael Legrand’s sumptuous score is a further bonus. This wasn’t among the many Oscar nominated pieces of work he submitted over the course of a highly successful career, but it’s a lovely musical accompaniment and does well to keep pace with the tenor of the action.

The Three Musketeers put in regular appearances across the TV schedules, and I’m surprised if there’s anyone who hasn’t seen it at least once. All the same it’s ever a welcome presence, and it effortlessly bounds over the films released in 1993 and 2014 that both squandered the richness of the source material they were working from.

The Three Musketeers: *****

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: ****

The Four Musketeers (1974)

When it’s on: Friday, 25 May (2.55 am, Saturday)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

It’s not very often that I feel like walking out of a film before it’s finished. Normally, there’s something – and it doesn’t have to be much – that keeps me interested, but the last time I could happily have hit the ‘Off’ switch halfway through was when Lovefilm delivered Paul WS Anderson’s 2011 version of The Three Musketeers. For me, Dumas’s yarn provides the kind of source material you shouldn’t be able to mess up (it’s a rollicking good read also), but Anderson’s decision to excise much of the plot for his ham-fisted alternative was deplorable. The 1993 release, directed by Stephen Herek as a vehicle for the ageing Brat Pack, is also eminently missable.

Trying to pinpoint exactly where both films failed is the subject for an article in itself, but as a starter I submit the performers in the pivotal role of D’Artagnan. In the 1990s, Chris O’Donnell carved out a niche as the bland, boyishly good looking actor who always seemed to orbit these kinds of parts. At best, he was hopelessly forgettable, yet the role is a pivotal one, being the glue that holds the entire narrative together. It requires a combination of callow youth and charisma, which isn’t easy to find* and a brilliant example of how to get it right is Michael York, who played the Gascon swordsman in Richard Lester’s The Four Musketeers. York was in his early 30s and already a star, which made him ideal for the ensemble cast being assembled for Lester’s multi-national production. Handsome, athletic, able to convey his character’s eternal sense of irritating enthusiasm and possessing a knack for comic acting, York’s one of the best things about a film that never takes itself entirely seriously and delivers on the premise of adventure romps.

The Four Musketeers was filmed at the same time as its prequel and both films straddle the plot of Dumas’s novel. Originally, the idea was to make one picture, but it was realised there was enough material to split it, which meant two releases in as many years (there was a further year’s delay in releasing the film in the USA and UK), and indeed Lester’s The Three Musketeers was screened yesterday. York’s name was just one on a staggering roll call of big names. His fellow Musketeers were all respected character actors – Frank Finlay, Richard Chamberlain and, most impressively, Oliver Reed. ‘Mr England’ is just brilliant here, playing a booze-soaked Athos (no doubt acted via ‘the method’) who has a lifetime of regrets behind him, many of which are linked to Milady De Winter, played by Faye Dunaway. There’s also Raquel Welch as D’Artagnan’s love interest, Roy Kinnear (the comic relief Planchet), Charlton Heston (a shadowy Cardinal Richlieu), Christopher Lee (Rochefort, with Lee making a noble attempt to once again escape his Dracula image), Geraldine Chaplin (Queen Anne) and Simon Ward (a foppish Duke of Buckingham). Phew! Sybil Danning makes an appearance, whilst the voice of Jean-Pierre Cassel’s King Louis is that of Richard Briers. Double-phew!

The film turns out to be no less fun than The Three Musketeers, but whereas the earlier release was played as much for laughs as adventure, Four takes a much darker twist. This is thanks to Dunaway’s femme fatale, De Winter, a consummate survivor who turns out to have been the former wife of Athos. Now in the employ of  the Cardinal and having nearly exposed Queen Anne’s affair with Buckingham in the first film, she’s imprisoned by the Duke and put in the care of his Puritan gaoler, Felton (Michael Gothard). Supposedly incorruptible, he’s eventually won over by Milady’s charms and helps her to escape, from where she vows to wreak her vengeance on D’Artagnan. The film builds to a surprisingly sad climax, which gives Dunaway (as one of D’Artagnan’s lovers; the other being Welch) much to chew on within one of the story’s most interesting roles. She’s roundly more watchable than the rather vapid Welch and, I think, far more ravishing, especially in the scenes where she’s led to her ultimate fate.

As in The Three Musketeers, the costumes and attention to period detail are absolutely marvellous. The script, by historian and Flashman author, George MacDonald Fraser, is fast paced and witty, and correctly shoehorns in the narrative flashpoints concerning the authorities’ battles with Hugenots. There’s also room for the good-natured thrills of The Three Musketeers. This is evidenced best in the heroes’ efforts to have breakfast in a castle that’s under attack, but there’s much room also for Lester’s trademark use of extras making comments about the main characters, adding to the entertainment value.

It’s an altogether cracking film, possibly best viewed in tandem with its prequel (both were released last year on a Blu Ray double-set) and on an afternoon to capture the matinee thrills it was made to provide. The only real downside is ITV’s decision to schedule it in the early hours, which seems utterly bizarre.

The Four Musketeers: ****

*The perfect embodiment for me is, naturally, Mark Hammill as Luke Skywalker. Think of some of the awful, dumb things he’s called on to say and do (he certainly doesn’t have the rogueish gift of a part offered to Harrison Ford) in Star Wars, and yet somehow he carries it off.