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Can a man touch pitch and not be defiled?, 11 September 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Hollywood has been making films about itself almost as long as there has been a Hollywood to make films about, but there were three very fine examples in the early fifties, "Sunset Boulevard" from 1950 and "The Bad and the Beautiful" and "Singin' in the Rain" from two years later. It has been suggested that both "Singin' in the Rain" and "Sunset Boulevard" were based upon the career of Norma Talmadge, a major star of the silent era in the twenties who (like Lina Lamont in "Singin' in the Rain") found it difficult to adapt to the coming of sound because of a strong working-class accent. Talmadge was still alive in the early fifties, and I often wonder what she must have made of these two films.

Unlike "Singin' in the Rain", a Technicolor period piece set in the twenties, "Sunset Boulevard" has a contemporary setting and was shot in an expressionistic black-and-white reminiscent of film noir. (Director Billy Wilder had earlier made one of the great classic noirs, "Double Indemnity"). During the early fifties many of the stars of the silent era were still alive and living in the Hollywood and Beverly Hills area, and were still fondly remembered by the older generation, but were no longer the celebrities they had been at the height of their fame and were little-known to younger people. The film deals with one of these, Norma Desmond, a faded silent diva whose career, like Talmadge's, came to an abrupt end with the coming of the "talkies". Norma has retained considerable wealth from her days as a star but has become a lonely recluse, living in her vast mansion with no company but her German servant Max. She still receives quantities of fan mail, and harbours dreams of making a triumphant comeback; she is writing a screenplay based upon the story of Salome and John the Baptist and hopes that it will be made into a film by her old friend Cecil B. DeMille with herself as the star.

The other main character in the film is Joe Gillis, an aspiring Hollywood screenwriter. When we first meet Joe he is floating face down, quite dead, in Norma's swimming pool. We then discover in an extended flashback how he met Norma by chance, was recruited to assist with her "Salome" screenplay, became her lover and eventually ended up in that swimming pool. A subplot deals with Joe's relationship with his friend Artie Green and Artie's girlfriend Betty Schaefer, a studio script reader with ambitions to become a script writer.

The script for "Sunset Boulevard" was co-written by Wilder and his producer Charles Brackett, and it is a fine one. There is a streak of sardonic humour running through it, although it is not really a comedy (unless, perhaps, a very black one). The main themes are self-delusion and the traps of fame. Norma, in the teeth of all the evidence, persuades herself that she is still a star, that the "talkies" are just a passing fad and that the public are longing for the great Norma Desmond to make her comeback in a silent film. She also convinces herself that Joe is in love with her, while it is clear that he is just using her for her money.

Although Joe sees the truth about Norma all too clearly, he has fallen prey to a delusion of a different kind, namely that he can touch pitch and not be defiled. He thinks that he can exploit Norma shamelessly, that he can carry on an underhand affair with Betty while remaining friends with Artie, and that in spite of everything he can still retain his spiritual and artistic integrity. He thinks that he can succeed in the Hollywood system without needing to make the necessary compromises with reality. Norma never wakes from her dreams, eventually spiralling downhill into madness, but Joe eventually realises that he cannot have it all, that he cannot have Norma, and Betty, and his writing career. Shortly before his death he resolves to renounce them all and to return to his old job as a journalist in Ohio. His moment of lucidity costs him his life, but it enables him to regain his self-respect.

This was an ambitious theme for a movie, but Wilder found two actors equal to the task in Gloria Swanson and William Holden. Swanson herself had been a major silent star whose career had waned with the coming of sound and who saw in "Sunset Boulevard" her chance of making a return to the screen. (Her last feature film had been nine years earlier). Today this is probably the role for which she is best remembered. As for the much younger Holden, this was the film which made him a major star. There is another good performance from Erich von Stroheim as Max, who at first seems a sinister figure but is later shown to be a devoted servant with a secret of his own.

When the film came out, it was popular with the public and acclaimed by the critics, but Louis B Mayer publicly berated Wilder for biting the hand that fed him by satirising the industry that had made him famous. These sentiments were by no means universal in the film world; several figures from the industry, notably DeMille, agreed to appear in cameos as themselves. I do wonder, however, if feelings similar to Meyer's were responsible for the film's relatively poor showing at the Oscars compared to its main rival, "All about Eve". That film, of course, is also about an ageing actress, but is set in the world of the theatre, not the cinema. Far safer to satirise Broadway than Hollywood. Today, however, both films have taken their rightful place among the classics of the cinema. 9/10

Doctor Who and Trouble at t'Pit, 9 September 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Doctor Who loses control of his TARDIS yet again, and ends up in the early 19th century. And there's trouble at t'mill. Or rather at t'pit. The peace of the Northumberland mining village of Killingworth is being disturbed by a series of Luddite riots. Those with knowledge of social history might point out that Ludditism was much more widespread in the textile industry than in coal mining, but this is not a goof by the scriptwriters. These particular riots have been fomented- for their own nefarious purposes- by two renegade Time Lords who have arrived in Killingworth, quite independently of one another. (Exactly what their nefarious purposes are would take too long to explain).

One is the Doctor's old enemy, The Master who, like the Doctor, possesses the power to regenerate himself. All The Doctor's many incarnations have been quite different, both in appearance and in personality, from their predecessors, but Anthony Ainley's Master is, with his goatee beard, deliberately similar in appearance to the character played by Roger Delgado in the early seventies, and in personality is just as villainous.

The other renegade is a new character making her first appearance, the female Time Lord (or Time Lady?) known as The Rani. Although both renegades are evil and join forces to fight The Doctor and his companion Peri, their alliance is an uneasy one because of their differing personalities. Unlike The Master, The Rani is not obsessed with power for its own sake, but is a gifted scientist obsessed with scientific knowledge who will do anything, however immoral, to attain it. It was originally intended that Kate O'Mara's character should, like The Master, be a recurring character in the series, but she only appeared in one more serial, "Time and the Rani", before the series temporarily came to an end in 1989.

Although a number of adventures over the years had been set in the Earth's past, this was the first story since the days of the First Doctor to feature genuine historical characters, in this case the engineer and inventor George Stephenson and Lord Ravensworth, a landowner, industrialist and politician and a patron of science and learning. Part of the Master's scheme involves kidnapping Stephenson and other leading scientists and engineers of the time, such as Michael Faraday and Thomas Telford, who have been invited by Ravensworth to a scientific conference. (His ultimate ambition is to force them to work for him, thus giving The Master the power to control Earth's Industrial Revolution from its inception).

Colin Baker's mop of blond hair gave him a youthful appearance, but his Doctor did not really have the same boyish enthusiasm and manner as his predecessor, Peter Davidson. (I always assumed the two actors were around the same age, but in fact Baker was older by several years). His Sixth Doctor could be rather grumpy and irascible and could have something of a superior air about him, lacking the Fifth Doctor's often refreshing humility. One thing that connected the Sixth Doctor with most of his predecessors was an eccentric dress sense; he always wore a brightly coloured coat which made him look like a refugee from a production of "Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat". Nicola Bryant's Peri was probably the best companion of the eighties, certainly better than her predecessor Nyssa, with a feisty and determined personality which recalled Louise Jameson's Leela from the seventies, although the two women were supposed to come from very different backgrounds. Although Nicola was British, she always played Peri as an American. (Was this a deliberate attempt by the producers to increase the series' popularity in America?)

This serial was originally broadcast in February 1985, during the 1984- 85 British miners' strike, so its theme of industrial unrest in the mining industry must have seemed very topical at the time. It is sometimes said that during the late eighties the "Doctor Who" scriptwriters tried to smuggle left-wing, anti-Thatcherite messages into their scripts, but "The Mark of The Rani" seems to have, if anything, a conservative political slant, with its sympathetic portrayal of Ravensworth as a benevolent, enlightened employer, its enthusiastic advocacy of new technology and its critical assessment of the Luddite movement. (The only miners in the story who support machine-breaking are those who have fallen under The Rani's evil influence). During this period "Luddite" was often used as a term of abuse by the political right, especially against trade unionists, although Left-wing historians sometimes tried to rehabilitate the original Luddites, whom they saw as hard-working men driven to desperation by grasping employers.

One commonly quoted received idea about "Doctor Who" is that the series went sharply downhill in the eighties after Tom Baker left the role in 1981. Although there certainly were some feeble episodes during this period, the decade was by no means a period of continuous decline and there were some good adventures, of which "The Mark of The Rani" was one. Certainly, it has its weaknesses, regardless of what one may think of its politics. The idea of a land-mine which turns people into trees rather than blowing them up is more like something from a surreal fantasy than from serious sci-fi, and there is a massive plot hole in the Master's grand scheme. (Why would a Time Lord, a member of a race whose technology far exceeds even that of twentieth century humans, want to kidnap a group of nineteenth-century engineers for their scientific knowledge?) Overall, however, the story is a good one. The early industrial setting (shot on location at the Ironbridge Gorge museum) gives the serial a very distinctive visual look, and O'Mara's Rani was a brilliant addition to the series. It is a pity that more use could not have been made of her.

The film Ansel Adams might have made had he been a film director, 5 September 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"High Sierra" is an early example of film noir and is sometimes cited as the film which made a major star of Humphrey Bogart. It was co-written by Bogart's friend John Huston, who later in the same year (1941) would direct him in "The Maltese Falcon". In most of Bogart's films noirs, including "The Maltese Falcon", "Dead Reckoning" and "The Big Sleep" he played the hero, albeit often a flawed hero, but here he plays the villain.

The film opens with Bogart's character, a convicted bank robber named Roy Earle, being released from jail after being pardoned by the State Governor. This does not mean, however. that Roy has been the victim of a miscarriage of justice or that he is now a reformed character. Far from it. His release has been engineered by a gangster named Big Mac, to whom the corrupt Governor owes a political favour. Big Mac (a name which in the forties presumably did not carry the associations with hamburgers which it would today) wants Roy to carry out a robbery for him at an exclusive holiday resort in the Sierra Nevada of California. (Hence the title).

In form the film is a "heist movie" comparable to something like "The Concrete Jungle". It shows how Roy and his associates go about planning and carrying out the crime, concentrating more on the villains than it does on the police pursuing them. These being the days of the Production Code, however, when film-makers were forbidden from showing criminals succeeding in their enterprises, it also tells the story of how the robbery goes wrong and how Roy is forced to take refuge in the mountains.

Film noir was a genre often noted for its tone of moral ambiguity, and I said earlier that some of Bogart's other roles involved him playing flawed heroes. Here, there is another sort of moral ambiguity about his character. On the one hand Roy is a dangerous criminal; he has no compunction about shooting dead a security guard who attempts to foil the robbery, displaying the ruthlessness which is to earn him the nickname "Mad Dog". , On the other hand, he also has certain qualities which, in another context, could have been admirable ones. He has a professional pride which leads him to be meticulous about planning his crimes, whereas his partners can be careless and slapdash. (He loathes the "Mad Dog" nickname, believing that it denotes someone wild and out of control). He has a code of ethics which leads him to turn down an opportunity to double-cross his associates. (But woe betide anyone who tries to double-cross Roy!) At one point in the film he pretends to be a successful businessman, and it is easy to imagine that, under different circumstances, this is what he could have become.

The strangest side of Roy's nature is shown in his relationship with Velma, a young woman with a deformed foot whom he meets while planning the robbery. Taking pity on the girl, and knowing that her family are too poor to pay for corrective surgery, Roy pays for it himself. He does so in the hope that the otherwise attractive Velma will marry him afterwards, but never makes this a condition of paying for her surgery. (In the event, Velma turns him down, but for reasons unconnected with his criminal career, of which she remains ignorant). It is easy to see why this film made Bogart a star, as he gives one of the finest performances of his career, bringing out all sides of Roy's complicated personality, not only his ruthlessness, but also his better qualities, to such an extent that, even during the climactic final scenes of the manhunt on Mount Whitney, we can feel a certain sympathy with him. There are also good supporting performances from the two main female players, Joan Leslie as Velma and Ida Lupino as Marie, the sluttish moll who becomes Roy's lover after his rejection by Velma. The personalities of the two women are sharply contrasted. Velma can be seen as representing the respectable life of domesticity which Roy hopes to retire to after pulling off one last big job which will keep him for the rest of his life, while Marie represents Roy's actual life as it is at present.

The film is also notable for its extensive location shooting, especially as it was made in the early forties, a period when most films were shot indoors in a studio. Raoul Walsh's black-and-white photography of the California sierras is very different to the gritty, urban look of most films noirs, but it lends the film a certain epic grandeur. It is the sort of film Ansel Adams might have made had he taken up film-making as well as landscape photography.

Huston's script, co-written with William Burnett, is a powerful and intelligent one. This combination of acting, direction and writing makes "High Sierra" one of the great classic noirs, worthy to tank alongside the likes of "White Heat" (also made by Walsh), "Double Indemnity" and "Pickup on South Street". 9/10

The Old School of Horror, 5 September 2014

The Haunting" is a rare example of a British film shot in the UK but ostensibly set in the USA; others include Chaplin's "A King in New York" (which could not be made in America where Chaplin was persona non grata) and the more recent "The House of Mirth". (There are far more American films ostensibly set in Britain but actually shot in America). The film did, however, have an American director, Robert Wise, and two American stars, Julie Harris and Russ Tamblyn.

Hill House, an isolated New England mansion, was built around 1870 by the wealthy Hugh Crain for his young wife. She, however, was killed in a freak accident before she could set foot in it, and a subsequent series of tragic deaths have left the house with the reputation of being haunted. The current owner, an elderly lady, refuses to live there and it is left empty, although it is kept in good repair.

Dr. John Markway, a British-born academic specialising in anthropology but with a sideline as a paranormal investigator, invites a small group of volunteers to stay in the house. Scientists in horror films are often portrayed as initially sceptical about supernatural phenomena, only to be proved wrong by events. (For obvious reasons: nobody wants to see a film about a "haunted" house that turns out not to be haunted after all). Markway, however, takes the opposite position; he believes in the paranormal and hopes to gather objective evidence of its existence.

Markway's companions in the house are two young women with psychic abilities, Theodora and Eleanor, and Luke Sanderson, the nephew and heir of the owner. Luke, who does not believe in the supernatural, fulfils the role of resident sceptic. Eleanor, a shy, mentally fragile individual, is clearly nervous. Theodora is, outwardly at least, more relaxed, although may be hiding something. A curious three-way relationship develops between Markway, Eleanor and Theodora. Unusually for the early sixties, this film contains a strong lesbian subtext; the dreaded "L-word" is never used and nothing is made explicit, but it is implied that Theodora is sexually attracted to Eleanor and jealous of Eleanor's growing attraction to the handsome Markway. The film subverts the normal stereotypes about female homosexuality by casting the glamorous Claire Bloom as Theodora and portraying the heterosexual Eleanor as plain and dowdy.

Wise made the film as a psychological horror film in the style of "Cat People" from some twenty years earlier. He did not work on the original "Cat People", which was made by Jacques Tourneur, but directed its sequel, "Curse of the Cat People", and had a high regard for Tourneur's film. Like "Cat People", "The Haunting" is an "understated" horror film, relying more on suggestion and inference than on what we are shown directly. There is no blood or gore and no stomach-churning special effects. Throughout the film we never actually see a ghost. Wise nevertheless manages to conjure up an atmosphere of terror by the use of "spooky" music, unexplained noises, oblique or unsettling camera angles and tracking shots and the design of the sets.

Today Gothic architecture in the cinema is generally used to convey a sense of luxury and opulence, especially in films about the Victorian or Edwardian upper classes. In much of the twentieth century, however, particularly between about 1940 and 1980, it was used produce a sinister atmosphere in horror films, thrillers and melodramas; other examples include "Rebecca", "Caught", "The House on Telegraph Hill" (also made by Wise), "Dragonwyck", "Psycho" and "The Spiral Staircase". (In what may be a reference to the last-named film, a spiral staircase plays an important role in the plot here). Indeed, in some cases it was used where it was historically inappropriate. The British horror film "And Now the Screaming Starts" was filmed in a Victorian Gothic house even though the action was supposed to take place around 1790, more than sixty years before the house was built. Here the exterior of Hill House is represented by Ettington Hall, Warwickshire, and the interior scenes were filmed on sets deliberately designed to look oppressive and claustrophobic.

Shirley Jackson, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, always insisted that it was a tale of the supernatural, but in the film the question of whether the paranormal phenomena are real or imagined is left open. The supposed psychic disturbances centre upon Eleanor, but it is possible that they may simply be symptoms of her overwrought imagination. Susan Hayward, who had worked with Wise on "I Want to Live!" five years earlier, was originally intended for the role, but I doubt if she would have been as brilliant as Julie Harris in conveying the psychologically fragile Eleanor's mental state, a mixture of nervous energy and terror. There is an effective contrast with Richard Johnson as Markway, outwardly a calm, phlegmatic British intellectual, but possibly too prone to believing what he wants to believe and blind to the effect his experiments are having on others, especially Eleanor. The weak link, as far as the acting is concerned, is Tamblyn's Luke, an inappropriately clownish and childish individual.

The film was remade in 1999, starring Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta- Jones, but the remake is not a patch on the original. The horror genre had undergone a fundamental change between the early sixties and the late nineties, following the success of films like "The Exorcist" and "The Omen", and it seems that modern audiences will only accept a horror film if it is full of gore and gruesome special effects. More recent haunted house films like "The Haunting in Connecticut" show that this is even truer today than it was in 1999. The original "Haunting", however, shows just how effective the old school of horror could be at its best. 8/10

The Best Cinematic Version of the Wyatt Earp Story, 3 September 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

There are at least five films I am aware of based upon the notorious Gunfight at the OK Corral; the others are "My Darling Clementine", "Hour of the Gun", "Wyatt Earp" and "Tombstone". This film and "Hour of the Gun" from ten years later were both directed by John Sturges. The later film can be seen as a sort of sequel to this one, although it does not star the same actors. "Gunfight at the OK Corral" starts with the earlier history of Wyatt Earp, his brothers and Doc Holliday, and then moves on to events in Tombstone, with the Gunfight as the climax of the film. "Hour of the Gun" starts off with the Gunfight and then moves on to the subsequent feud between the Earps and the surviving members of the Clanton gang.

"Gunfight at the OK Corral" takes a number of liberties with history, although not as many as the notoriously inaccurate "My Darling Clementine". Some of these seem to be derived from the earlier film. As in "My Darling Clementine" the Earps are intent on revenge for the death of their younger brother James, murdered by the Clantons. In reality James was the eldest of the Earp brothers and was not murdered; he lived to die of natural causes at the age of 85. As in the earlier movie, the Gunfight is shown as taking place at dawn rather than in the afternoon. Johnny Ringo is shown here taking part in the Gunfight, in reality he was not present, although he was an associate of the Clantons. A fictitious character is introduced in the form of Laura Denbow, a lady gambler who serves as Wyatt's love interest. All the Earp brothers had bushy moustaches, but here they are portrayed as clean-shaven. (Male stars of the forties and fifties were often reluctant to wear facial hair, even when it would have been historically appropriate. The commercial failure of "The Gunfighter", a biopic of Johnny Ringo from 1950, was sometimes blamed upon the moustache worn by Gregory Peck).

Historical accuracy, however, is not always a reliable guide to the quality of a film; there are plenty of excellent movies which bear little relationship to the historical events they purportedly depict. Often departures from historical fact can be justified on good dramatic grounds. The actual Gunfight itself, for example, probably lasted for less than a minute and was fought at close range. Any attempt at an accurate depiction of this even would doubtless have resulted in the film ending in a disappointing anti-climax; the full-scale shootout lasting several minutes shown here is far more dramatically satisfying.

And this is a large-scale dramatic film that needs a large-scale dramatic ending. Apart from Kevin Costner's "Wyatt Earp" this is the most epic treatment of this particular story, certainly far more so than "Clementine". It is a Western of the wide-open spaces; the tone is set by that opening scene in which a wagon drives across the prairies to the accompaniment of that muscular but at the same time mournful theme song, the work of that greatest of all Western film composers, Dimitri Tiomkin. (Remarkably, Tiomkin was not a Westerner or even American by birth; he was originally from Kremenchug in the Ukraine). There is plenty of attractive photography of the Western landscapes and, unlike "Clementine" where John Ford relocated Tombstone from Arizona to Utah in order to pander to his love of shooting in Monument Valley, this is generally appropriate to the location- prairies around Dodge City, desert around Tombstone.

There are two impressive, and contrasting, performances from Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, close friends who appeared together in several movies. Lancaster portrays Wyatt Earp as a courageous and incorruptible lawman whose one weakness seems to be his friendship with Doc Holliday, a man who has earned a reputation as a gambler and gunslinger. This leads to a disagreement between Wyatt and his brothers, especially Morgan, who distrust Holliday, but this distrust is eventually overcome and Doc joins the Earps in the final shootout with the Clantons. Douglas's interpretation of his role, however, does bring out his character's moral ambiguity, far more than Victor Mature did in "My Darling Clementine"; his Holliday is certainly a potentially dangerous character, but also one who is capable of restraint, as when he resists Ringo's attempts to provoke him to a fight. In my view Lancaster is the best cinema Wyatt and Douglas the best Doc with the possible exception of Val Kilmer in "Tombstone". There is another good contribution from Jo Van Fleet as Doc's mistress Kate Fisher.

Overall, I would regard this as the best movie version of the story. The film is well paced and the action sequences well handled, with the final firefight coming as a stunning climax. John Sturges might not today attract quite the same adulation as Ford; at his worst he could churn out some dreadful stuff, such as that misfiring "comic" Western "The Hallelujah Trail", which also starred Lancaster, but at his best he was capable of some sublime work. "The Great Escape" is one of the greatest war films ever made, and "Bad Day at Black Rock" one of the greatest modern-day Westerns. "Gunfight at the OK Corral" is not quite in the same class as those two masterpieces, but it is not far behind. 8/10

The bastard offspring of a romantic comedy crossed with that ugly beast, the sex comedy., 3 September 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"There's a Girl in My Soup" was originally a highly successful stage play before it became a film. I have never seen the theatrical version; although it ran for six years in London's West End, from 1966 to 1972, becoming what was then Britain's longest-ever running comedy, it never seems to be revived these days. The cinematic version is a mixture of the traditional romantic comedy and the sex comedy, a genre which had become popular in the sixties.

In real life Peter Sellers was never, except in his own imagination, and possibly also in Britt Ekland's imagination, a major sex symbol. Here, however, he gives a surprisingly convincing impression of one. His character, Robert Danvers, is a popular and highly successful television chef. (He was apparently based on Graham Kerr, a real-life popular and highly successful television chef). The elegantly dressed, forty- something Danvers is an incorrigible womaniser; when we first meet him he is seducing an old flame on the day of her wedding. (Mind you, given that the lady's intended is a prime example of the upper-class English chinless wonder, we can probably forgive her).

Danvers is not interested on love or romance; all he wants is uncomplicated, no-strings-attached sex with as many women (preferably much younger than him) as possible. He rather looks down upon his happily married friend Andrew. He meets his match, however, when he meets Marion, a nineteen-year-old American hippie living in London. (Marion is supposed to be American, but at times it sounded as though Goldie Hawn was trying to put on a British accent). She has just split up with her Neanderthal rock musician boyfriend Jimmy, who wanted a ménage a trois with her and another girl, and Danvers assumes she will be easy pickings. To his surprise, however, she initially turns him down, but he is nothing if not persistent, and eventually succeeds in getting her into bed.

Anyone familiar with the conventions of the romantic comedy will know what is coming next. For the first time in his life Robert Danvers, the Don Juan of the cooking show, falls in love with someone other than himself. Marion becomes his steady girlfriend, moves in with him, and accompanies him on a trip to a wine festival France. Even though she sometimes embarrasses him with her gauche behaviour, Robert learns to treat her as a person in her own right, not merely a vehicle for his own sexual pleasure.

At this point, familiarity with the conventions of the romantic comedy ceases to be a reliable guide. We all know that, according to all the rules, the film should end with the wedding of Marion and Robert, especially as a misunderstanding has led to everyone concluding that they are married already. As I said, however, this is not a pure-bred romantic comedy but the bastard offspring of a romantic comedy crossed with that ugly beast, the sex comedy. The classical romantic comedy rule book contained no prohibition against an ending in which a lovely young woman became the bride of a man old enough to be her father. Indeed, at one time such endings were positively encouraged in Hollywood, but by 1970 they were starting to look just a bit too nineteen-fifties and out of place in the brave new world of the seventies. So an ending was contrived in which Marion returns to the ghastly Jimmy while Robert slips back into his bad old ways. When we last see him he is seducing Andrew's pretty young au pair girl.

There is no real logic or motivation behind Marion's decision to abandon Robert for Jimmy, who, despite being a generation younger, is even more male chauvinist in his attitudes than the older man. This was presumably done simply to make the movie look trendier; after all, in 1970 rock musicians were the wave of the future, TV cooks a blast from the past. (Today, of course, it is the other way round; celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver and Delia Smith are among the most popular figures on British television, whereas heavy rock looks nearly as dated as ragtime or Gregorian plainchant).

This bungled ending is unfortunate as in other respects this is quite a good film. There is an attractive musical score, based around Mike d'Abo's catchy theme song "Miss Me in the Morning". There is an amusing credits sequence which credits not only an "Assistant Director" but also an "Assistant to the Assistant Director" and an "Assistant to the Assistant's Assistant". (Was this inspired by a similar jest in the film "April in Paris"?) Sellers is not quite as good here as he was in, say, "Dr Strangelove" or the better entries in the "Pink Panther" franchise, but his is nevertheless a reasonable performance and Hawn is as lovable as ever. The script, written by Terence Frisby who also wrote the stage play, is a witty one and the action, until the disappointing denouement, is well handled. 6/10, a mark which would have been higher with a better ending

Give me some good old-fashioned enemies like the Daleks!, 28 August 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Snakedance" features one of the more curious of Doctor Who's adversaries, the Mara, an entity which normally only exists in the minds of its victims but which can also manifest itself in the physical world in the form of a snake-like creature. The action takes place on the planet Manussa which, it would appear, was once dominated by the Mara in its snake form, but the creature was banished from the planet five hundred years earlier. As the Doctor and his companions Nyssa and Tegan arrive on Manussa preparations are underway for a festival in celebration of the anniversary of this event. There is, however, a prophecy that the Mara will return five hundred years after its banishment, and the evil entity is indeed attempting a comeback, starting by taking possession of Tegan's mind.

Peter Davidson's Fifth Doctor continued the tradition of eccentric dress started by his predecessors, especially Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor, wearing a long fawn coat, a cricket sweater and what looks like a stick of celery in his buttonhole. In other respects, however, he represented a break with the past. All four previous Doctors had been elderly or middle-aged men who projected an air of authority, even omniscience. The Fifth Doctor, by contrast, is youthful, seemingly little older than his companions. (Davidson was, indeed, only two years older than Janet Fielding who played Tegan). He is energetic and enthusiastic, but not afraid to admit to his fallibility and weaknesses.

The Doctor's companion Nyssa is supposedly from an alien planet, but Sarah Sutton tends to play her more as a "pretty-girl-on-the-Clapham- omnibus" type, quite different from her more feisty predecessors Leela and Romana. Nyssa, however, tends to show markedly less emotion than most Clapham omnibus girls, although she does scream at one point. Martin Clunes, later to become a familiar figure on British television, makes an early appearance as Lon, a bored, idle member of the Manussan Royal Family, although this is unlikely ever to be counted as one of his greatest roles. There are, however, some decent acting contributions, from Davidson and from John Carson as the archaeologist Ambril. Ambril, who dismisses all talk of the Mara's return as superstitious nonsense, is that stock figure from horror films, the contemptuous sceptic whose scepticism is invariably proved wrong by events. It is a nice touch that when the villains want Ambril to cooperate with them they influence him not by direct bribes or threats but by holding out the prospect of academic kudos; he is shown a hoard of archaeological treasures and promised that he will be allowed to pose as their discoverer.

I liked Davidson's interpretation of the role of the Doctor, but it must be admitted that some of the serials in which he appeared were not the greatest in the history of the series, "Snakedance" being a case in point. It has two main drawbacks. The first is one identified by another reviewer, namely the inability to create a convincing alien culture. Manussan culture would appear from what we see here to be a hodge-podge of various terrestrial cultures- Indian, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Russian- with a dash of 1920s Art Deco. It is difficult to accept the authenticity of an alien civilisation whose principal recreations include watching Punch-and-Judy shows. The series' limited budget didn't really help in this respect; one would have expected the anniversary celebrations, a major festival organised by the ruling family of a powerful Empire, to be rather more elaborate and grandiose than the tuppeny-ha'penny effort depicted here.

The second main drawback is that the Mara is really too nebulous an entity to seem threatening. Those who have not previously seen "Kinda", the first serial in which the Mara appeared, may well find the first two episodes difficult to follow. As others have pointed out, there is a subtext of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy lurking below the surface, indicated by some of the language "Mara", for example, is the personification of evil in Buddhism, equivalent to the Christian Satan, and one character has the name "Tanha", literally "thirst" in Pali, but also used to mean a sinful attachment to earthly desires.

Unfortunately, the scriptwriters seem to have allowed their philosophical enthusiasms to get the better of them. The concept of a being which only exists in the minds of others, and yet is not imaginary, is a difficult one to express in dramatic form, and the problem is never really overcome here, especially as the Mara is supposedly the embodiment of negative human emotions and can only be overcome by a meditation-type mental exercise which the Doctor learns from a wise old guru-figure. When the Mara eventually does take on corporeal existence the resulting snake-creature more closely resembles a child's toy than a fearsome monster. Give me some good old-fashioned enemies like the Daleks or the Cybermen who could be fought using more physical methods!

A Metaphor for War, 28 August 2014

"Only Angels Have Wings" tells the story of a small airline based in a fictitious South American country in the days when aviation was a much riskier pursuit than it is today. It starts out like a romantic comedy. An attractive female entertainer named Bonnie Lee arrives in the port town of Barranca where the airline is based and two young pilots compete to take her out to dinner. It quickly, however, takes a darker turn and we realise that this is going to be a serious drama. The job is a dangerous one, as the airline's main function is carrying mail from Barranca to the interior of the country through a high pass in the surrounding mountains. Soon after Bonnie's arrival one of the two young men who greeted her is killed while attempting a difficult landing in fog.

The main story revolves around the interrelationship of four characters. Bonnie falls in love with Geoff Carter, the manager of the airline, but the situation is complicated by the arrival of a new pilot, Bat MacPherson, and his wife Judy, an old flame of Carter who is still in love with him as her marriage is an unhappy one. It turns out that MacPherson is using a false name and is recognised as Bat Kilgallen, a pilot loathed by other fliers because he was once responsible for the death of his mechanic in a crash. To make matters worse the dead man's brother, Kid Dabb, is working for the airline. (Kid's nickname is presumably an ironic one as he not a young man- indeed, he is older than most of his colleagues).

The film was written and directed by Howard Hawks, who had earlier made "The Dawn Patrol", a film about flying aces in World War One. (Richard Barthelmess, who plays MacPherson here, had also starred in the earlier film). It was released in 1939, only a few months before the outbreak of World War Two. (Although it is ostensibly about pilots in peacetime, it seems to look forward to the coming conflict. The fatalistic attitude of the pilots recalls that of wartime fliers; they accept the risk of death as an occupational hazard, and consider it bad form to mention the name of a dead colleague and rank bad form to express any grief at his passing.

If one takes the film's peacetime setting literally, this fatalism seems suspect. In war, when servicemen are duty-bound to risk their lives fighting the enemy, a fatalistic acceptance of death can seem like admirable stoicism. In peace it merely seems like a reprehensible way of avoiding thinking about how their job might be made safer. (What wrecked Carter's relationship with Judy, and threatens to wreck his relationship with Bonnie, is that both women worry far more about his safety than he is prepared to worry himself). It seems to me, however, that Hawks was using flying as a metaphor for war, realising that before long Americans would find themselves at war again and hoping to prepare them for the necessary sacrifice. The character of MacPherson is that classic figure from war films, the one-time coward who tries to redeem himself by actively seeking danger and volunteering for the most dangerous missions.

The love-triangle (or quadrangle) is not the most interesting aspect of the film; we always know that Geoff will end up with Bonnie, if only because of the unwritten rule that the bigger-name star always gets her man. Bonnie was played by Jean Arthur, an established star, and Judy by a then little-known young actress called Rita Hayworth. (I wonder what happened to her!) Although Rita's part here is not a very large one, this proved to be her big breakthrough and paved the way for her successful career. Bonnie is an example of what was to become known as the "Hawksian woman", the strong, determined female character who is a feature of so many of Hawks's films. (Other examples include Lauren Bacall in "To Have and Have Not", Rosalind Russell in "His Girl Friday" and Joan Collins in "Land of the Pharaohs").

There are some good acting performances but no particularly outstanding ones. What makes the film stand out is the realism of the flying sequences (excellent for the 1930s) and the dramatic tension which Hawks is able to evoke. The pilots in "Only Angels Have Wings" may be fighting for nothing more elevated than a lucrative mail contract, yet we experience as much concern on their behalf as if they were fighting for their country. 8/10

Quo Vadis (1951)
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Spectacle, and Plenty of It, 26 August 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Quo Vadis?", based upon a novel by the Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, might not be the film which launched the epic revival of the fifties and early sixties; that was probably DeMille's "Samson and Delilah" made two years earlier. It was, however, responsible for the popularity of epics dealing with the early history of Christianity and its persecution by the Roman Emperors; others include "The Robe", its sequel "Demetrius and the Gladiators", "The Silver Chalice", "Barabbas" and, of course, "Ben-Hur".

The title (Latin for "Where are you going?") refers to an incident in which Saint Peter, fleeing from the persecutions of the Emperor Nero, was persuaded to return to Rome and face martyrdom by a vision of Christ. Although the only source for this non-Biblical story is the apocryphal "Acts of Peter", it has become part of Christian tradition, and is re-enacted in this film, in which both Peter and Nero are important characters. The main story, set against the background of the anti-Christian persecutions and the Great Fire of Rome, deals with the love of Marcus Vinicius, a Roman military commander, and the Christian girl Lygia. (Lygia is named after her native land, corresponding roughly to southern Poland. As it lay a long way outside the boundaries of the Roman Empire, it is unlikely a native of the region would have made her way to Rome, but the patriotic Sienkiewicz presumably wanted to make his heroine a fellow-countrywoman).

As with most epics, the film often departs radically from historical truth. In the film the fire is started by Nero himself, encouraged by his wife Poppaea, an act which leads directly to his overthrow when the Roman populace realise that he, not the Christians whom he has falsely blamed, was responsible. Nero kills Poppaea shortly before his own suicide. In reality the Great Fire took place in 64 AD, four years before Nero's downfall. Poppaea died of unknown causes in 65; many historians now doubt contemporary reports that Nero was responsible for her death. At the time of his own death Nero was married to Statilia Messalina, who survived him. In reality the philosopher Seneca also died in 65 and the courtier Petronius in 66; here Seneca survives Nero and Petronius dies shortly before him. Lygia is made the adopted daughter of a retired general, Aulus Plautius, a real historical figure here presented as a devout Christian, .although there is no historical evidence for this. (His wife Pomponia was accused of following a "foreign superstition", which may or may not have been Christianity).

These discrepancies, however, mostly derive from the original novel and cannot simply be dismissed as "Hollywood goofs". Like any good novelist, Sienkiewicz realised the importance of a good story, and the film-makers were right to follow his example. Any attempt to "correct" his "errors" and to make the film follow history more faithfully would merely have weakened the power of his story.

One thing that might strike a modern viewer is a certain note of misogyny running through the film. Poppaea is a venomous shrew and the other main female characters all fall hopelessly in love with men who have mistreated them- Lygia with Marcus, who effectively kidnaps her, the slave-girl Eunice with Petronius, who has had her whipped, and Nero's former mistress Acte remains infatuated with him despite his treatment of her and his obvious villainy. The movie is dominated by the male characters; the only outstanding female contribution comes from Patricia Laffan as the evil Poppaea. Deborah Kerr, makes a weak, milk- and-water Lygia, more plaster saint than Christian heroine. The original intention was to cast the teenage Elizabeth Taylor in the role, and she might well have made Lygia more spirited.

Robert Taylor, however, is fine as Marcus. Although officially the hero he is not, in the early part of the film, altogether sympathetic, and Taylor brings out the hardness and arrogance which have been inculcated in him by his pagan upbringing and which gradually soften under the influence of Lygia's Christian beliefs. Other good contributions come from Finlay Currie as Saint Peter and Buddy Baer as Lygia's gigantic bodyguard Ursus. (Coincidentally "Ursus" means "bear" in Latin and "Baer" has the same meaning in German). Leo Genn is also good as Petronius, a man who initially seems like a shameless flatterer of Nero, yet whose flattery hides some sage advice and who proves himself capable of courage when he realises that he can no longer restrain the Emperor's evil nature.

I suspect that Peter Ustinov's Nero will divide viewers, even though at the time he was nominated for a "Best Supporting Actor" Oscar. (Genn was nominated for the same award). When I first saw the film I disliked his performance, thinking him too comical, effete and unthreatening. Having recently seen it again I have changed my mind; the historical Nero was probably much closer to the camp, childish, petulant, conceited and self-pitying wimp portrayed by Ustinov than to the ranting Hitler-style dictator which is how I had previously envisioned him. Ustinov makes us realise, as Chaplin did in "The Great Dictator", that tyrants can be ridiculous even at their most frightening.

The one thing every epic needs to succeed is spectacle, and plenty of it. (One reason "The Silver Chalice" was such a flop is that its producers tried to dispense with this essential ingredient and make an epic on the cheap). And "Quo Vadis" has spectacle in spades. Even more than "Samson and Delilah", it started the trend for film-making on a grand scale which was to culminate in "Spartacus", "Ben-Hur" and "Cleopatra". The scenes of the Great Fire and of the games in the arena are particularly well done. I would not rate it quite as high as what I regard as the "Big Four" epics ("The Ten Commandments", "Ben-Hur", "Spartacus" and "El Cid"), but it is not far behind. 8/10

Something of an Acquired Taste, 24 August 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"April in Paris" was originally a song from a 1932 Broadway musical revue entitled "Walk a Little Faster". Although the show was not a great success, the song proved highly popular and was recorded by a number of artists. The story goes that a friend of the lyricist E Y Harburg was inspired by its romantic picture of Paris in springtime to visit the French capital during that month but his holiday was ruined by bad weather. Upon his return to America he complained loudly to Harburg who replied "I wouldn't know. I've never been to Paris in April. I was there in June but I needed two syllables to fit the music".

Some twenty years later the title came to the attention of someone in Hollywood who decided (as Hollywood producers sometimes do) that it was too good to waste on a mere song and that should also be a film entitled "April in Paris", and this is the result. "Pretty Woman" and "Sweet Home Alabama" are more recent examples of the same phenomenon. Despite the title, only the last few scenes actually take place in Paris; most of the action takes place in Washington, New York or on a transatlantic liner.

Samuel Winthrop Putnam is a junior official with the US State Department. (His official title is Assistant Secretary to the Assistant to the Undersecretary of State). He has been tasked with organising American participation in an International Festival of the Arts in Paris. He intends to invite Ethel Barrymore to represent American theatre, but owing to a mix-up the invitation is sent to a Broadway chorus girl named Ethel Jackson. (It is never explained how this happens. It might have been more plausible if the heroine had a surname like "Barrington" or "Barrowman" rather than "Jackson"). This being a romantic comedy, Ethel and Winthrop have to meet on the way to Paris and fall in love.

This being a romantic comedy, however, there also have to be a couple of obstacles to their love. The first is that Winthrop (or Sam, as Ethel prefers to call him) is engaged to Marcia, the pushy, snobbish daughter of his boss. The second is that Ethel seems to have a second admirer in the shape of French singer Philippe Fouquet, although it is eventually revealed that Philippe is actually a happily married family man. (He needs to keep this embarrassing secret hidden from the French public who like to believe that all French public figures, especially entertainers, are successful skirt-chasing lotharios).

Doris Day can be something of an acquired taste and. I must admit, one I have never really been able to acquire, particularly in romantic comedy where she could come across as being just too sugary sweet to be true, as she does here. Ethel may be nicknamed "Dynamite", but she gives little hint of anything explosive hidden beneath her placid exterior. Ray Bolger seemed miscast as Winthrop; he would have been 48 in 1952, old enough to be Doris Day's father. This may not always have mattered in the fifties, when older man/younger woman love stories were the rule rather than the exception in the cinema, but in this particular film the age difference seems inappropriate. Winthrop, who has been with the State Department for ten years and still has hopes of promotion followed by a political career, is probably supposed to be in his early thirties, not his late forties. Bolger, moreover, did not have a particularly good singing voice, although on the evidence of this film he was clearly a talented dancer.

Quite apart from the casting, the main problem with this film (which is, after all, supposed to be a musical) lies with the music. About the only songs which remain in the memory are the title song (written twenty years earlier) and "Auprès de ma Blonde", a traditional French folksong. The original songs written for the film itself are all very bland and forgettable. The film is also supposed to be a comedy, but much of the humour seems tame and contrived. (When the action finally moves to Paris, there is a running gag about the April weather not living up to Ethel's expectations; the scriptwriter must have heard that same anecdote about Harburg and his friend). "April in Paris" seems to have been popular when it first appeared in 1952, but it is one of those films which has lost much of its appeal over the years. 5/10

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