Thursday, 29 October 2020

THE GARBO SILENTS

Martin Slidel’s reviews of Greta Garbo’s silent movies.
With an original poem commissioned from Brighton-based playwright Yassin Zelestine. 

Gerda Lundequist and Greta Garbo

THE STORY OF GOSTA BERLING (1924)
«««««
AB Svensk Filmindustri / Dir. Mauritz Stiller

The Swedish Film Institute 1975 restoration is a beautiful print. It is perfectly matched with Matti Bye’s 2008 score in the folk tradition, exquisite and jaunty in turn. The film in its entirety lasts three hours although it is pleasingly split into two equal parts. Lars Hanson who like Garbo also made the transition to Hollywood (where he would again star with her) is a charismatic lead, and part of an exceptionally strong cast. The film is extremely well edited, excellently paced, with carefully placed touches of humour to balance its pathos. 

The ‘story’ concerns the trials of an unfortunate preacher afflicted by booze. A sorry but poignant tale with a layered narrative mirrored in its stunning visual representation. Berling, thrown out of church, stumbles upon a new role as tutor to a clan of compromised aristos whose matriarch plots his union with her daughter. Her goal, to deflect the inheritance to her ill-gotten son Henrik. It is quite something to see Garbo, as Henrik’s Italian wife, in her first major film role. Stiller and she cast their spell and weave the viewer, like the intertwining plotlines, in. The fracas comes when the daughter discovers who and what is behind it all. Garbo’s performance is that of a pro. Equally so, Lars Hanson whose despair, when down on his luck once more, is heart-breaking. An initially slower and more reflective phase is led by the phenomenal Gerda Lundequist who rebuffs Gösta with her own tale of woe. A tumultuous dinner party in which the mayor turns out his wife (Lundequist) is riotous and ultimately soul-destroying.

It is remarkable how Stiller has mastered the art of motion image in its infancy. A pity, then, that he did not survive Hollywood. Any melodrama in this masterpiece is played-out minus the sentimentality ingrained in Tinsel Town. Part Two follows the immediate fates of the victims, sorrowful but poetic and aesthetically rich. The visual storytelling remains incredibly strong. It is slowly cranked-up to a fiery terror amid the snow. And from fire to ice… Garbo, in quiet panic, driven at speed across a frozen lake, no ‘silence’ in her dramatic range. The second half seems to speed by indeed. This never feels like the three-hour epic it is. Not in terms of entertainment value, too often lost these days. Part Two makes a satisfying conclusion not as a separate film but as part of a whole. Following darkness there is hope and renewal, making way for a refreshingly happy ending. It befits a wonderful film which more than merits it.




THE JOYLESS STREET (1925)
««««
Sofar-Film / Dir. G W Pabst

Set in a depressive pocket of post-WWI Vienna, ‘The Joyless Street’ makes contrast with the wealthier social stratum as a parable of the divisions between rich and poor. Joyless it certainly is. Quite different in tone from ‘Gösta Berling’. Garbo is different too – shedding her slight teenage dumpiness, now every inch the star, albeit in a less-than-glamourous role. When life recedes to its lowest ebb, a twist of fate marks a crossover between the two worlds. And, in its hour-long version, it is a tale which seems to simplify and refine itself towards its end. As much as two people able to connect are, in so doing, also able to resolve something of the trials of life.

The sadly common 60-minute edit is the outcome of different versions cobbled-together over the decades. Due the censors whose initial cuts were bloodier than any on (or off) screen. The challenge now is to view the original, fuller, if sorrier tale – wholly lacking from a scant hour. It was restored some seventy years later to a 150-minute running time. Of which, there are tantalising glimpses on YouTube. These alone add literal and emotional colour, depth and clarity. As joyless as times are in 2020, you will need a spare £30 to get your hands on the DVD via Edition Film Museum. (Maybe, like Greta, once I get a job...) It seems potent: the cost of art mirroring the ethos of Pabst’s intent. Not affording Garbo and Pabst the freer recognition so richly deserved. 




TORRENT (1926)
«««
MGM / Dir. Monta Bell 

‘Torrent’ is Garbo’s first Hollywood film in which she appears slightly different again. If anything, with a noticeably healthier glow befitting her role as the Spanish farm girl Leonora. She pulls it off, owing (and owning) its silence. The part surprisingly suits her. It in turn demonstrates her versatility, as does the evolution of the role within the film. Being Hollywood, there is a noticeably improved level of production alongside an effective rationale to entertain. This is supported by a strong narrative, very competently directed by Monta Bell. The screenplay by Dorothy Farnum is based on Ibáñez’ novel minus the definitive article. The adaptation leans towards a generic big-studio melodrama, reliant upon recognisable and somewhat hackneyed themes of class divide and maternal interference.

From humble roots, Leonora rather astonishingly finds fame and fortune in Paris. Slipping effortlessly into dripping glamour and relishing it. On returning home, she faces down her former beau (a subtle and convincing portrayal by Ricardo Cortez). It is perfectly timed for the raging titular torrent metaphoric of the overpouring of inner ardour. The special effects are superb. These burst through the confines of the era, remaining legitimately contemporary as does – as ever – Garbo herself. Alack, the homely love of youth is not to be. No thanks to the shrewish matriarch, played in glorious appalling-ness by the excellent Martha Mattox. Rejected once more, Leonora makes tracks to the alternate world she has made her own. 

Arthur Barrow’s narrative musical score is commendable. Again, a great film, honest and poignant. As good as Garbo’s previous efforts but in a quite different manner. Nearly four stars! I already feel stingy. For, through the lens of a century past, it remains obviously apparent why it was such a huge hit.




THE TEMPTRESS (1926)
«««½
MGM / Dir. Fred Niblo

Her second Hollywood film and top billing already. But at what cost. A wise face in a juvenile role, a mystery in itself. However, the lavish production is a feast for the eyes. The leading lady sparkles opposite the charismatic and personable Antonio Moreno. A clear print benefits from a terrific score by Michael Picton. The opening masquerade is a joy, poetry onscreen, the editing imaginative and artistic. Its exquisite cinematography (typically William Daniels but coupled with Tony Gaudio) includes intriguing shots of Paris in the 1920s. However, the plot, though involving enough, threads themes of tangential experience extrapolated at a distance of light years. It is high-octane Soap.

A dramatic dinner party with its characterisation of legs beneath the table is outstanding. The entire film is expertly choreographed: each actor’s movement, their placement onscreen, the mime and gesture of the central figures and all those around them. Worth watching as an example of the best craft-person-ship on offer by Old Hollywood. Its former art: silent film far from silent. A transfer of action to ‘The Argentine’ is apt excitement in itself, lent gravitas by the ever-wonderful Lionel Barrymore. There Greta/Elena predictably attracts the worst kind of attention.

By its latter half, it does seem to lose the plot altogether – if ever there was one. Various suitors, sometimes en masse, squabble over Elena or die like her spouse at her overly polished heels. Another dam break, another ominous storm, another Ibáñez adaptation by Farnum. It is easy to envisage Mauritz Stiller’s thunderous fury at the studio. His successor Fred Niblo did a worthy job on this notable and enjoyable epic, more dazzling than ‘Torrent’ if not as affecting. Again, even via an historic mist it is clear to perceive its box office success. Suitably tragic closing scenes mark Garbo’s return to Paris years later where she depicts, in stark contrast, a drunken down-and-out. She alone claims the poignant, memorable, and provocative ending. 




FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1926)
««««
MGM / Dir. Clarence Brown 

A top-billing John Gilbert flick and rightly so, alongside the superb Lars Hanson. On one level, yes, another melodrama… albeit expertly executed and infused with realism and wit. Like its processor, beautifully shot and choreographed, a treat for the eyes. The fabulous 1988 score by Carl Davis, uncompromisingly thematic, is its perfect match. I had the pleasure of seeing him introduce the film at the BFI some thirty years ago. The film is, pleasingly, better than I remember. Gilbert appears every inch as attractive as his leading lady, and you find yourself needing to believe that their off-screen romance was real.

Brown manages with masterful ease to cut through the schmaltz, same as Garbo. William Daniel’s stunning camerawork cements it. Greta appears more astonishingly beautiful than ever. Despite of or because of her slightly wide shoulders (which I am so envious of) and her slightly heavy nose. It only seems to complement the ungainliness of youth, of which there is something innately appealing. She hasn’t completely learned to carry-off an already defining uniqueness. Impossible to accept how any sentient being could not fall instantaneously in love with her.

The film captures the lost days of first love, precious both in the history of cinema and of human experience. Barbara Kent’s portrayal of Hertha is very moving; you cannot help but be touched by her puppy love for Leo (Gilbert’s central role). These are top-notch performances. Eugenie Besserer, as Leo’s mother, offers a genuinely affectionate portrayal. George Fawcett as the beer-addled pastor is a delight. Brown wrings every last drop of emotion from the tale, and you don’t notice until it hits the floor. Unlike ‘The Temptress’ this keeps you gripped throughout, to its dark and bitter close.



‘Garbo Dans Ma Chambre’ by Yassin Zelestine, set as text art by Martin



LOVE (1927)
«««
MGM / Dir. Edmund Goulding

Garbo’s hopes of serious fare were marred by the studio’s decision to change the ending of Tolstoy. This provided an alternative ‘happy ending’ for American audiences whilst Anna’s fate remained a mystery in the original edit (possibly the better option). Another alternative for the European market granted her fatalism. I have only seen the happy’ version and feel unhappier for it. A rightful adaptation for its times? Why not, to keep an audience satisfied, it is all fiction to begin. Gilbo are quite the pair and it is easy to imagine the fans whipped into a frenzy, in the days of silver-screen idols enshrined in cinematic palaces. Likewise, the studio used the title to capitalise upon their supposed romance, with the publicity reading ‘Gilbert and Garbo in Love’. However, in bumping-off Karenin instead of Anna, to reunite the lovers in the very final shot, a classic is butchered.

I was lucky enough to see Arnold Brostoff introduce and conduct his orchestral score at The Barbican in London, in the early 1990s. His music offers affecting, gentle and sensitive motifs. A pity that the current print runs alongside a live recording, as you can hear the idiots in the audience retching their guts up throughout.

Easily noted, that Garbo has reached a new level of maturity and ease. Confident, calm, and stunning in every sense. Despite all, it is a more substantial platform for a nuanced performance captured as beautifully as ever by Daniels. English thespian Brandon Hurst is excellent as Karenin, his cold sternness in dichotomy with his wife’s passion. George Fawcett, terrific as the Grand Duke, quickly establishes a lively if silent repartee with Vronsky. The film has a definite lustre. Particularly touching are the scenes with Philippe De Lacy as the Karenins’ son. Though not destined for motherhood (or indeed love) in real life, Greta’s portrayal as a mother is affectionate and absorbing. As a dress rehearsal for greater things, for her unsurpassed 1935 talkie version, this first effort cannot be regretted.




THE MYSTERIOUS LADY (1928)
««««
MGM / Dir. Fred Niblo

In ‘The Mysterious Lady’, Garbo appears, in progression, more beautiful than ever. I feel as if I have written that before. She is astonishingly contemporary and, as with all classics, timeless. This is regardless that she finds herself playing another of MGM’s “bad womens” embroiled in another affair guaranteed to sour. This time, due the revelation that she is, no less, a Russian spy. And blindingly good she is at it. This is Very Hollywood and extremely far removed from her early European films: now trapped in the bubble of superstardom, every trapping of which she would forever be in denial of. 

Forgivably, though, this is stirring stuff; its visual narrative quite wonderous. Conrad Nagel, as the lover ageing alongside the arc of his fate, plays his part to perfection. Prison scenes in which he depicts a degraded officer’s torment are particularly affecting. The production maintains our attention, as does the fullness of character to which Garbo and Nagel are able to commit. Near close comes a cleverly played (and filmed) tension, descending, like the sweep of Greta on the sweeping stairs, towards something Hitchcockian. Death spliced with shots of Cossacks, alongside Garbo’s measure of realism, sparks brilliance.

The original film ran alongside music with sound effects, so that it was never purely ‘silent’. I viewed a version with a top-drawer score by Vivek Maddala which made for a highly enjoyable experience. It does ‘underscore’ that ‘Mata Hari’ has a ‘silent’ soundtrack being dialogue only. Its lack of score, to my mind, forever lacking. ‘The Mysterious Lady’ belies the simplicity of its title. It is, like ‘Love’ a bit of a run-through for its successor. However, of Garbo’s two spy films, it definitely has the edge.




A WOMAN OF AFFAIRS (1928)
«««
MGM / Dir. Clarence Brown

‘A Woman of Affairs’ was another huge hit for MGM. Its screenplay by Michael Arlen and Bess Meredyth is based on Arlen’s book ‘The Green Hat’ if significantly compromised to appease the censors. The studio again capitalised upon the Garbo-Gilbert coupling as the main leads of Diana and Neville. What initially appears as a fairly average love triangle is knocked out of kilter half an hour in, with the suicide of Diana’s husband. Garbo retains a magical ability to quietly dominate the scene as the grieving widow; her emotional control superb. Everything is laid bare and yet never overplayed. Thus rescued from borderline schmaltz, at times with near-devastating effect.

Proceedings do though, at stages, dip close to melodrama if of the more scandalous brand. Again saved by the mere presence of Garbo plus the emotional lynchpin of the great Lewis Stone. There comes another tragedy with the death of Diana’s brother, a desperate and agitated alcoholic very effectively played by an eighteen-year-old Douglas Fairbanks Jr. It is enough to land Diana in a nursing home. Here, affecting scenes are played-out with underlying desperation by a skilled quartet including the sensitive Dorothy Sebastian. I last viewed a print sadly depleted in sections, held together by William Axt’s original and attractive music. I also enjoyed a London screening with Carl Davis memorable 1984 score.




WILD ORCHIDS (1929)
«««
MGM / Dir. Sidney Franklin

Garbo offers an innocence to the character of Lillie. Despite or because of lavish locations the film meanders along, often diminishing to travelogue. You question why Garbo gave herself up so entirely to Hollywood, instead of returning home to weightier concerns. Granted, though, scenes of her flirting with herself in Javanese costume, prior the approaching shadow of Nils Aster’s prince, are quite something. Harder these days to accord sympathy to the privileged white elite, indulging in a tiger hunt and bossing-about indigenous servants, however appealing the coupling of Greta and Lewis Stone. 

It is a good enough film, with a good enough script by John Colton. The original score or ‘musical synchronisation’ by William Axt with its layered sound effects lends itself well to the visual narrative. But one finds oneself, in spite of oneself, yearning for the grit and drama of ‘The Temptress’. In its time it garnered favourable reviews and why not, with the star at the height of her power and influence. But time like stars fade. It now feels slightly over-drawn. A remaster and re-edit could offer something more deserving of its meritable qualities remaining. And yet... of all of the Garbo silents it, for some mysterious reason (perhaps as mysteriousness as its star) remains one of the most memorable.




THE SINGLE STANDARD
 (1929)
«««
MGM / Dir. John S Robertson

A second film with fellow Swede Nils Asther proves livelier fare than the first and a box office smash to boot. Again, different in tone. And, again, though Garbo is the centre of the eternal love triangle she pulls it off brilliantly. It does slip, however, into the by-now-familiar routine of The Divine One elevating (an above-average) melodrama light years beyond its origin. However, this feisty pre-Feminist parable, skilfully adapted by Josephine Lovett from the novel by Adela Rogers St. Johns, offers something a little different. Together with tantalising glimpses of the vestige of 1920s architecture and fashion. Unlike ‘Wild Orchids’ it is consistently well-paced with rarely a dull moment; John S Robertson makes fine work of direction. Johnny Mack Brown is perfect as the devoted husband. Whilst Asther, on return as the lovelorn lover, develops a more sensitive portrayal than before – ‘The Male Garbo’ as effective as his counterpart. Missing though, the poetry of Daniel’s camerawork if no criticism of Oliver T Marsh.




THE KISS (1929)
««««
MGM / Dir. Jacques Feyder

Another albeit above-par melodrama would be tedious if not for its speedy metamorphosis to a mystery-romance demi-thriller. A welcome return to Daniels on camera falls under the expert direction of Jacques Feyder (who went on to direct the outstanding German-language version of ‘Anna Christie’) and is further complimented by the stunning Art Deco sets of Cedric Gibbons. Not to mention the ultimate architectural feature of Garbo’s face.

A fine ensemble features Conrad Nagel and Lew Ayers. But Greta steals the show. Others appear as bit-part actors around her. Of course, it works. Sensationally so. The picture represents the height of the craft of the silents, the final effort of MGM and its greatest star. Never overdrawn, at an hour’s duration, it is pacey and entertaining. Just when the final court scenes seem to drag, there comes another startling flashback. ‘Garbo Smiles’ as the chapter closes with refreshing whimsy. A smash hit, both relieving and agonising for the studio.



These reviews do not include the 1928 film ‘The Divine Woman’ which was lost in the 1965 MGM vault fire.



GARBO DANS MA CHAMBRE

Azure dreamtime
In a ruptured evening
Go-to-bed / Make-up on
Like ‘Greta Garbo’ I drift drift…
Somnambulant ocean…

Snap! Acute Awake Alert
A white silhouette
At the edge of the bed
Some spectre goes there
Beware beware
A familiar visage / Regardez
La mademoiselle, white-veiled
Queen of Subterranea

Voile in layer’d transparence
Her stare fixed at me
Cannot move a muscle until
Lifted at last:
“With wisdom to impart
‘I put on my mask
‘Took life by instinct.
‘You must not be afraid
‘To do the same…”

Before I could answer her
She vanished:
Half Mata Hari / Half curious cat
Spun woven dreams into corporeality
I walked to the window
The night irresistible
Violet intoxication
My blood fecund, alive
Fixed myself up in a vintage look

She did not intend to be alone
But let alone / To chase shadows
And exits of alleyways
As well as the tread of the carpet, red
She didn’t look back / Neither shall I
Toute de suite!
Around the next corner I meet
Sid Vicious singing
“I did it my way…”

Spirit of the present
Phantom of the future
The dead are not threat
It’s the living to watch out for!
Fare thee well
The night remains ours, as
‘I put on my mask…’

TO NEW BEGINNINGS!
MAY THEY NEVER END!



– Yassin Zelestine



Wednesday, 15 July 2020

THE REMAINS OF THE DAY

THE REMAINS OF THE DAY (1993)
«««««
Merchant Ivory Productions

Some films you can watch again and again. More than a ‘familiar friend’ they have new things to offer dependent on any shift of your point of reference. For me, The Remains of the Day, one of the best from the Merchant Ivory stable, and directed by James Ivory, is an example. Based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s prize-winning novel; its hauntological screenplay a tightly cohesive effort by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

Maintaining a façade often plays out as a farce. The game of trying to pretend that everything’s fine when it isn’t. The humour in the film is overridden by the sadness that its two protagonists possess nothing but the time they have together and are unable to sustain it. Lost within the English countryside, lost within a stately pile, it is Head Butler Mr Stevens’ desire to manage a prim and proper existence. This is, of course, constantly felled by the truths which disrupt our peace. On the greater scheme, it plays out via the desperately misguided desire to not disrupt a falsely constructed world peace.

Parallel narratives reflect and mirror the other. In not wishing to accommodate let alone acknowledge reality, Stevens renders himself as pompous and supercilious as the gentry he mindlessly serves. There is nevertheless dark hilarity, including His Lordship’s desire to communicate the facts of life to his nephew. Then asking the butler to do so. As if you’d expect an answerphone not to play muzak.

Another example is when an American congressman seeks consultation with his French counterpart. The latter is only ever concerned with his swollen and aching feet. It is the loud note of truth from the American, aptly portrayed by Christopher Reeve, that rings like a bell. Stevens appears more concerned with the self-pitying ambassador’s feet than his own father’s mortality. His attitude equals that towards his besotted housekeeper. A chilling psychological deflection, wholly embodied by Antony Hopkins. The dying father’s revelation of his wife’s infidelities (Stevens’ mother) hints at his son’s self-induced confinement. This is a strikingly affecting moment portrayed by Peter Vaughan.

Miss Kenton, the housekeeper, an unforgettable characterisation by Emma Thompson, is also unable to deal with her truth. However, she is honest and open enough to admit it. A pity she is not proven wrong. From the safety of his private quarters, it is to her future husband that Stevens confides “I’d be lost without her.” Outward humiliation follows when the Lord of the Manor’s cronies reveal themselves as deluded as anyone. They believe that a Head Butler of a stately home is representative of the working masses. This scene, as with much of the film, represents a world changed forever by war.


Stevens prises his father’s fingers from a work trolley. Miss Kenton prises Stephen’s fingers from a tome of romantic fiction. These are equally quietened moments of horror. The denial of life; the denial of love; the denial of all that makes us human. It is the servants not the masters who are more connected, who see beyond the fake constructs of tradition and propriety.

Hugh Grant as Lord Darlington’s nephew offers one of his best performances attempting to talk sense to the stoic butler. It opposes their previous discourse in every sense. It also matches its lack of sense and discourse. Darlington, in a subtle and nuanced personification by James Fox, although held in affection by his associates, embroils himself in the most ignoble appeasement negotiations. The ‘faction’ is strikingly real: the passions and desires and repressions are real.

For me, the unforgettable image is the housekeeper’s face diminishing into the cast of a doorway. It nears the close of the film which throws-up memorable scenes within post-war provincial tearooms. The careworn housekeeper reunites with the eternally middle-aged Stevens, in as human a manner as ever they are able. Distance and time form a buffer. Sentiment remains like an onion skin peeling layers of loss. The loss of time, most of all. Everything different but everything the same. It is in this sense that ugly neon lights illuminating the sleepy-town pier are magical yet tragic.

The beautiful camerawork of Tony Pierce-Roberts supports the balance of the narrative which is further complimented by Richard Robbins' deceptively simple and hypnotic score. The editing by Andrew Marcus, alongside the underplayed and clever use of cross-fades, nears perfection.

At times in life we waste ourselves attempting to find what was never there. Attempting to know a person when there never was anyone home. Stevens is a clean page upon which we write ourselves. We recognise it is not who we want to be. His only contentment, to raise his hat to the woman who loves him; her face, again fading, crushed by tears and rain. Both are lost to their fates. The deluge cascades against his car and its headlights glare.

We close the doors of the cages we create for ourselves.




Monday, 9 September 2019

00 MOORE


LIVE AND LET DIE (1973)
«««
Eon Productions

In setting-up the preposition for a new 007, Live and Let Die opens with a series of intriguing tableaux prior its phenomenal title sequence. Still with a remaining flush of youth, Roger Moore makes his debut not in the office but in flagrante with a fellow secret agent. Roles are further reversed, with his superior M not waiting for but calling upon him. Thus, we are afforded a tantalising glimpse into James’ private apartment.

Oozing charm, Moore quickly establishes himself as something of an everyman – the screen on which others project. As a geeky, skinny child, even I could dream of escaping every dastardly scheme armed not only with Q’s magnetic watch but also with my wits. Throughout this well-paced adventure, Moore glides through each twist and turn of the plot as if he’s been doing it for years. Which, previously, as The Saint, he had.

The cinematic series takes on a life of its own, separate from the books. Extraordinary, to consider that I’ve never read one of Fleming’s novels although I am fascinated by his life and work. Live and Let Die is packed with iconic moments (at least for aficionados) such as the upper deck of a bus sawn-off by a low bridge. Or 007 stepping-stoning across alligators to escape yet another ingenious but unsuccessful death-sentence.

Meanwhile, the stereotypically ‘American’ sheriff (alas not the only stereotype) JW Pepper who appeared hilarious in my youth seems at best a slight strain and at worst over-played. These days, I’d rather his overly drawn-out scenes were severely edited. What was once – as with so much else – ‘amusing’ in the 1970s now intrudes on what could be a more intensely stylish thriller. What remains is its oddly soothing familiarity... A story played over and over, with which to escape when we can.





THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974)
«««
Eon Productions

One of my favourites although one of the least popular, apparently. And Heaven knows why. With Christopher Lee as the villain, Hervé Villechaize as his sidekick, the sultry Maud Adams, and the ballsy Britt Ekland, who could ask for ‘Moore’? Granted, there’s not much of a story to go on. Other than the tables being turned: 007 is not the assassin but the target. Who needs a plot when you can immerse yourself in the glamour and accoutrements of espionage?

One of the highlights, for me, is the temporal Headquarters housed in the lopsided wreck of the Queen Elizabeth. It’s all so terribly British. No detail missed, its furniture slotted into diagonal walls and its occupants acting as if nothing’s amiss. The film is all angles, disguise, smoke-and-mirrors, circusry. A crossover between reality and artifice seem much like Moore’s constant reliance on The Charm Offensive. Situations and outcomes are layered as first one thing and then as another. A too-subtle mismatch against the vulgarity of the genre? A vulgarity syphoned, repeatedly, via the charisma of Sir Roger. The masquerade somewhat predictably, though satisfyingly, leads back to where it started. With (like the mindlessly absent Martini) one of many deliciously sharp twists.




THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977)
««««
Eon Productions

The Spy Who Loved Me benefits in no small measure from the sultry, slinky presence of Barbara Bach who was born to play 007’s Russian counterpart. Moore is on top form and as such it’s almost difficult to perceive anyone else playing Bond. The film kicks off with a magnificent ski chase alongside the superb Bond 77 theme performed by Marvin Hamlisch. It culminates in a deathly and prolonged silence, until a Union Jack parachute opens and descends into the silhouetted hands of Maurice Binder’s title sequence – draw a breath! – accompanied by Carly Simon’s classic rendition of Nobody Does It Better. Worth the price of admission alone.

One of the best super-villains ever is the stoically insane Karl Stromberg, as admirably portrayed, with an inner glow of delight, by Curt Jürgens. His undercurrent seething evil is perfectly placed in his eye-bogglingly stupendous underwater lair. The producers shared a subversive (submerged?) thrill in parodying the cinema hits of the era. Thus, not only do man-eating sharks abound but the most memorable and dominant henchman is none too blatantly monikered Jaws. Enter Richard Kiel, replete with steel-daggered teeth, standing at a modest 7’ 2”. A rambling narrative careens along, above and below sea level, across desert plains, and ‘delving into the treasures’ of a beautifully photographed Cairo. Peppered with flashes of drama and essential touches of violence. Throughout which, Bach retains her cool and Moore his effortless suavity.

What makes Moore’s Bond are all that should work against him (slightly too old, slightly too comfy in his own skin, slightly too nonchalant). Despite his looks, he is the conduit through which the viewer can live-out their fantasy. The Spy Who Loved Me marks a period when the alpha-male begins, out of necessity, to send itself up. The wincing moments of sexism seem incredibly old hat but are overplayed by gracious nods to female empowerment. Bach is presented as Bond’s equal, often his better, sniping not with bullets but with as many quips as his. She shares nearly as much screen time, plays him at his own game, and exposes his ingrained sexism redundant.

The film hits the spots that later entries miss. Never mind exploding pens. Who doesn’t want a car that drives into the ocean and transmogrifies into a submersible? Who doesn’t want to sneak behind the ramparts, lifted on giant spider-legs out of the waves? OK, this is not the greatest movie ever made nor by (citing self-deprecating admission) the greatest actors. But it is surely the greatest fun. Pure escapism, as essential as ever. What is ‘great’ for this writer is its capacity to be watched enjoyably again and again. An increasing delight ensues from every familiar scene or snippet of dialogue. That is, ultimately, some measure of greatness despite of or because of its genre.




MOONRAKER (1979)
««
Eon Productions

Moonraker is somewhat misaligned by fans. Especially serious fans of which I am not. James Bond in space. Bring it on. Pour that Martini. Granted, it is not in the same league as its predecessor. A bit of a rehash, in fact, guaranteed to fall flat. Yet another psychopath attempting to restart the world, less in his image but with an Aryan race...

Then again, how to follow The Spy Who Loved Me? Who can blame the producers for blasting 007 into the heavens? In parody, though, it swings all over the place. Its main swerve, unsettlingly, between Death In Venice and Star Wars. Its best aspect is Shirley Bassey’s third and, sadly, final theme song written by John Barry and Hal David. Exquisite in a quite different manner from her earlier, brassier efforts.

Apart from being stunningly photographed and expertly directed (by Lewis Gilbert) there’s little more to write of. To write off? To switch off to? Unless you desire, like me, mindless escape. But, alas, it can only merit two stars in comparison with its betters. Moore’s the pity, as Roger is as terrific as always whilst Lois Chiles, if never quite on fire, is feisty and intelligent. However, Drax (the villain, if you can’t guess) cannot touch the menace of Stromberg. There is scant chemistry in opposition for Bond to play off against.

A diversion to Rio does something to up its gain. The carnival sours to a grim masque, alongside Jaws’ re-emergence from under a grotesque clown outfit. Circusry is recurrent in these films, to lend a note of potency. What serves well are generous dollops of wry humour and unabashed glee. Unfortunately, though, a two-hour epic it ain’t. And, mid-way, it certainly sags. A shoot-me-up in space is unconvincing. The imagination can only stretch so far. A nail-biter ending works well but comes not a moment too soon. Over the moon? Just, over.




FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (1981)
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Eon Productions

For Your Eyes Only is marginally akin to the reboot of Casino Royale which in turn followed the critical disaster of Die Another Day. To a greater degree, it works very well. I’d joyfully award it four stars in James Bond Land if anything within that mythical realm was truly great filmmaking. Great entertainment? Definitely.

Despite its comic-book opening, the film gets serious from the start. With the sinking of a spy ship, its premise is soon established. We’re not expecting a power-crazed psychopath missioning a drowned piece of tech. It’s matched by a parallel plotline concerning a daughter avenging her parents’ murder. Carole Bouquet is an erudite and sophisticated ‘Bond Girl’ never reliant on beauty alone. She is one of an ensemble of excellent actors, each lending a sought-after clout to proceedings.

Moore’s trademark humour persists but is newly placed as a natural coping mechanism in peril. No more spaceships. Feet on dusty ground, propelled by force of will. Nevertheless, the too-often-tiresome sidekick reappears: manifest as professional figure-skater-turned-actor Lynn-Holly Johnson. But, unlike other stooges, she is able to add a touch of depth to her role.

The set action pieces are genuinely thrilling, if ever these were wholly convincing – with Moore settling comfortably and attractively into middle-age. However, the narrative keeps strong. As much as James relies on his wits, Roger relies on his mystique. It comes into its own opposite Topol who offers a solid performance as a characterful Greek smuggler.


The film cumulates in a series of ‘cliff-hangers’ at a mountaintop monastery. And why not. Sheer implausibility is bypassed via its stark contrast to Moonraker. It is a balance carefully and pleasingly maintained. For Your Eyes Only satisfies to The End. Rounded off with a typically schoolboyish guffaw but much deserved.




OCTOPUSSY (1983)
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Eon Productions

Critics miss the point that a Roger Moore ‘Bond’ is great fun. And a damn good adventure. Moore precisely recognises the difference between entertainment and art, and it is this which endures. He was so well-established as Bond that in The Cannonball Run his screen persona self-identifies as his alter-ego. Appearing fresher and trimmer than previously, and a tad more convincing on returning to active duty, this goes part way to holding the ridiculousness together. Bracketed as it is with the rusty one-liners, the very measure of self-depreciation lacking from the steel-girdered critics.

The clown makes its macabre entrance, its visual effect as stunning as the film’s overall visuality. Steven Berkoff is stupendous, hamming it up as a crackpot Russian general. Another contrast with For Your Eyes Only but as if it’s never been done before. Louis Jordan is Berkoff’s perfect counterfoil, as icy as 007’s Martini. The viewer like the protagonist is lured to lavish settings in India and to the floating palace of Octopussy herself: leader of an all-female cult. Only in Bond! This time around, as in The Spy Who Loved Me, the fantasies are played out coolly enough to seem ‘real’. The recasting of Maud Adams (mistress of The Man With the Golden Gun) is a gamble paying dividends. Obvious, why Mr Moore admitted she was his favourite.

The slapstick returns with a few cringey moments, attracting said criticism. Following criticism, what else, of a lack of humour in its predecessor. You can’t win. But Moore doesn’t care. He can relate a joke with an eyebrow. It is, in fact, a rare blessing of subtlety which couples with an intuitive ability to mime. The action takes darker turns, not least under the gauche façade of the circus. Potent, when Moore, jester of the series, dons the clown suit himself, it’s not played for laughs. The ending is barnstorming joy. A double whammy, returning to the aeronautical gymnastics of the spectacular opening. All boxes ticked. But who am I to say.




A VIEW TO A KILL (1985)
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Eon Productions

In only a couple of years, Moore seems to calmly ‘return’ to middle age. Affording a disconcerting aura of comfy-old-armchair rather than live-on-the-edge secret agent. For me, though, it seems part of the appeal. Moore himself admitted “I was only about four hundred years too old for the part.” Then again, what’s wrong with an older Bond? As much as we enjoy Helen Mirren in Red for example.

Predictably slated and a pity because in itself it’s rather a good film. A greater pity that Moore couldn’t have made the same when ten years younger. A Bond fan cannot refute affection for the final exchange of repartee between 007 and Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny. Meanwhile, Moore and Patrick Macnee, faint touches of Laurel and Hardy, make quite the double act. Christopher Walken is perfectly cast as the villain. Yet another deranged psychopath, granted, but as expertly played as Berkoff before him. Grace Jones as his love interest affords her mesmeric presence.

For a while, nothing much happens. A slow build of intrigue has no comparison in the series. Its consequence allows Moore wider scope in which to tread those well-worn shoes. His relentless likeability seems a fitting contrast to the unmitigated evil of Zorin (Walken) and May Day (Jones). A View to a Kill is generally slower-paced and a slow-burner. The in-your-face slapstick is noticeably lessened. Its lighter relief in opposition enhances the serious side to Roger’s most famous role.

Tanya Roberts, the nicest of ‘Bond Girls’, adheres brains and beauty as unconvincingly as a 57-year-old spy. Which is what the Eastern-Bloc ‘Dynasty’ styled Fiona Fullerton might say. As if any of this is based in reality. The finale is a superb fight sequence on top of the Golden Gate Bridge no less. A highly memorable Bond moment indeed. On balance, Roger could have trusted his own judgement and called it. As a close to his tenure, it does offer something different.



Monday, 13 May 2019

HITCHCOCK: THE BRITISH CLASSICS


THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934)
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Gaumont British Picture Corporation

It’s difficult to write an honest review in retrospect of the outstanding Stewart/Day remake some two decades later. But these are uniquely different films. Each stand, likewise, for different reasons: both as great as the other. I cannot choose and why would I want to. In this version, for one monochrome reason, there seems greater reliance on the artistry of the lens and its varied effects. 

And so, this remains dark, creepy, intense… and quite horrifying in places. Yet daubed with the director’s rich sense of irony. As if applying pan-stick to the grin of a clown which in turn becomes something macabre. Edna Best is superb as the distraught mother. Hitchcock allows her full-rein and she takes hold skilfully. If (again, in retrospect) this disallows her quite the same level of emotional intensity as her successor.

There is terrific acting all round. No one overdoes it under the master’s guiding hand. The unforgettable Peter Lorre remains eerily sadistic; he can still sneak under your skin; as if not acting at all but holding a mirror to the psyche. This seems to further reflect in the pewter-grey of London: every building, every space, every grimy cobblestone street and dusky streetlamp appear packed with character. Thus, the viewer is submersed into intrigue via this interplay between a carefully visualised story and the puppets it populates.




THE 39 STEPS Photo: mubi.com/lists/mubi-s-top-50-films-of-1935

THE 39 STEPS (1935) 
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Gaumont British Picture Corporation

What to write about perfection? Or that hasn’t been written before? Other than to attempt to convey its often quite literal filmic brilliance: an unmissable item on every movie fan’s Must-See List.

There is something very special conveyed at this level of film-making. Self-assured and confident, and always in control, the visual dialogue and its often-majestic beauty is again played against the twists and turns of every other form of dialogue and filmic choreography. This film would have secured Hitchcock’s reputation if he had never made another. 

An espionage thriller with Bond-esque moments including a moving-train chase, elements of mistaken identity (as later explored in ‘North by North West’) and windswept Scottish moors... it would make an excellent double-bill with ‘Skyfall’. 




SECRET AGENT (1936) 
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Gaumont British Picture Corporation

How to follow ‘The 39 Steps’? You can’t. And you don’t. This is a different beast which has seemed to have become somewhat overlooked. Again, focused on a central quartet of actors – all of whom give magnificent performances. However, it is, unsurprisingly Gielgud, Carroll and Lorre who dominate the screen. Lorre is an exceptionally versatile actor. Carroll gives a highly affecting performance, particularly when her ship is set adrift.

Likewise, the filmography astounds. Particularly the sharp-cuts between the central murder scene and the wailing of the victim’s dog. Other interplays of sound and vision extend the director’s craft. Simple touches, such as the heroine packing her bag whilst sobbing off-screen are most effective.

The film is a slow-burner which ultimately ignites, and is well-worth the journey. A beautiful movie rendered with pathos and humour which belie the literalness of its title. A match for its predecessor, if underrated, and very cleverly nuanced. Hitchcock at his best.




SABOTAGE Photo: criterion.com/current/posts/4347-graham-greene-on-sabotage

SABOTAGE (1936) 
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Gaumont British Picture Corporation

One of Hitchcock’s darkest films. Never more sinister than its great close-up moment of almost impossible tension. Hitch’s compositional eye, and flair for sharp-cuts, create an indelible visual narrative. Within which, once again, the nastiest side of human nature is laid bare.

It’s difficult to believe that Sylvia Sidney did not win an award for her role. Her screen husband, a Picture-House proprietor, is portrayed by the superb Oskar Homolka. He expertly negotiates a paralleled false respectability, integral as a construct of his twisted psychosis. 

Child star Desmond Tester is perfect as the ill-fated little brother. Both he and the director diminish any over-sentimentality which the appearance of youth may bring. It is achieved with brutality as well as restraint. The same method heightens the conflicted emotions running crossing Sidney’s brow – as her story transmutes to a Disney cartoon. The cruellest of jokes is the laughter of the inner audience of the cinema-inside-a-cinema.

Thus, skewering his deeply-felt irony, Hitchcock unhooks the macabre from the comic, the mind reeling like the film reel… By close, Hitch has taken the entirety of Sidney’s world apart. Only to loosely stitch it back together on whatever hope remains. It is simply another means of undermining the viewer’s wavering sense of stability. Arguably his greatest work thus far. 




YOUNG AND INNOCENT (1937) 
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Gaumont British Picture Corporation

I had a problem with blackface since childhood, exposed to endless repeats of ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’ on TV. Here, it mars an otherwise wonderful film. Even though so-called ‘minstrel’ acts were part of a long-ago musical landscape. It’s key because it transposes the final scene where a mask is stripped away.

What remains, however, is a great film that demonstrates Hitchcock’s confidence anew. A top-drawer murder-mystery, well-paced and entertaining, in which an albeit gentler aspect of suspense is maintained. The story runs as smoothly as the wide-angled shots from one scene to the next. Hitchcock again goes for a pivotal close-up in which the viewer’s breath is held. Plus, a final sweeping crane-shot; also breath-taking.

It must have been challenging to keep the momentum going; following the incredible ‘Sabotage’. It could seem that having the action transferred to the countryside (i.e. away from the ‘Noir’ aspects of the city) somewhat lessens the tension. Then again, neon is no match for former child star Nova Pilbeam's radiance. She carries the narrative superbly, almost as if alone. Leading man Derrick De Marney is a great match: their slow burn endearing, heart-wrenching and ultimately life-affirming. 

It’s impossible to mentally place oneself some 80 years back to a society with hardly any racial integration. Blackface represents racism. Does that make Hitchcock a racist? No. It is a narrative device. An offensive one. 




THE LADY VANISHES Photo: talkfilmsociety.com/columns/beginners-guide-to-alfred-hitchcock-the-lady-vanishes

THE LADY VANISHES (1938) 

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Gaumont British Picture Corporation

“This is a long preamble of a tale!” but thoroughly enjoyable – and necessary – both setting-up and deflecting every preposition of what follows… which is, once more, something of a masterpiece. So good you’d give it 6 stars out of 5 if you could. Further ‘proof’ of the genius of Hitchcock. Especially considering the transfer from humorous debacles in a Swiss hotel to the tense psychological conflicts within the confinement of a moving train.

A very strong cast is headed by the formidable Margaret Lockwood coupled with the personable Michael Redgrave. Alongside the redoubtable Dame May Whitty, you can’t go wrong. An interplay of smoke-and-mirrors is referenced via a literal circus carriage upon which the story takes another twist. To keep us guessing until the end... As worth the watch now as on initial release, it’s easy to see how the pull of Hollywood was imminent. 




JAMAICA INN (1939) 
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Mayflower Pictures Corporation

Consider this a B-movie pantomime and you’ll be fine. But as a progressive part of Hitchcock’s oeuvre? With hardly a trace of his genius evident, fans scratch their heads in befuddlement. Excepting the brief heart-stopping flourish of the final scene, the only comfort is the knowledge that even a master can produce a dud. 

The overall problem is its routine-ness. Laughton is great, yes, but not at his greatest – and dominates proceedings a little too much. Maureen O’Hara is wonderful on screen too – but surprisingly unconvincing as the desperate Irish orphan. Just as Laughton is a little too much, she comes across as a little too nice. The two aspects counterbalance but thus there is no fissure. It is as unconvincing as each plot ‘twist’ rolled-out with turgid doggedness. Likewise, there is no sexual fissure between O’Hara and her leading man. Again: Robert Newton is just too damn ‘nice’.

It’s a jolt, with expectations so high. Not even a score by Eric Fenby or dialogue by JB Priestley can save it. One of the problems being that it’s, like everything else, a little too overstuffed with dialogue. A little too this, a little too that... never straight down the line. There seems no room to manoeuvre Hitch’s visual craft. Gone: silent shots, fast-cuts, suggestion, montage, camera effects. As if he wiped the palette clean. Perhaps it was necessary.

Possibly, the pressure was too much; the artistic freedom overpowered. Perhaps Hitch was constrained by production demands or by the reach of Laughton’s star – instead of the more pliable ‘cattle’ whom he could mould to his needs. A stuffy historic drama, it would appear, was the last thing he needed. Although ‘Waltzes from Vienna’ sparkles in comparison. 

No surprise that Du Maurier hesitated before conferring the film rights to ‘Rebecca’. A pity that ‘Jamaica Inn’ makes a sorry end to a run of classics. And yet… in retrospect, even with some quarters considering it one of the worst of British films, its camp atmospherics render it still in the ‘classic’ mould. Which finally allows it some trace of lingering mystery... if only, as first stated, it is best regarded (though far from low budget) as a B-movie panto.