Monthly Archives: May 2017

Rehabilitating Arrowhead (1953)

Right, Arrowhead (1953) is a film which is almost universally panned; long subject to vitriolic attacks from critics but it’s resolutely unfair to chastise a film which so accurately attempts to reflect guttural conflict that still characterises the world today.

What I think irks most critics is the utter malice on display from our protagonists, Charlton Heston and Jack Palance. Heston plays an Apache-hating scout and Palance, clad in rather hilarious make-up, an Apache bent on rebelling against the ‘white eyes’. Heston’s character is thoroughly unlikeable: no hero. But his role is not even that of an anti-hero; he’s a full-blown racist  and to blame for igniting the violence in the film by executing Apache go-betweens without question or hesitation.  However, Heston must finish what he starts in the film’s logic, and that’s why he ends up in some people’s eyes as “the hero”. But it’s unanswerable that the screenplay demonstrates the contempt in which he is held by all. The army come to a regrettable conclusion that they need this seething ball of bile in order to prevent massacre, but it’s a wrenchingly difficult choice and the audience is never comfortable with it.

On the other hand, the Apaches whilst brutal are still shown as honourable – governed by their code – but inflexibly beholden to faith and belief which brings about their downfall. Palance – clad in make-up – is a bit theatrical but well-juxtaposed next to his more cautious and peace-seeking father.

The film has two particularly callous scenes. The first is Palance’s shooting of his unarmed – and welcoming – ‘blood brother’ from childhood, a white man who now runs the local stagecoach. The second is the suicide of Heston’s half-Apache scheming mistress; followed up with Heston’s sadistic utterance  “there’s a dead Apache in here….get it out”. It’s hard and uncompromising stuff.

arrowhead

Look at that skyline and hue

Ray Rennahan’s gorgeous photography of the landscapes, and use of colour filters to simulate the coming dawn are evidence of a dichotomy between the topography of a graceful land and the chilling racism that exists on its plains.

It’s high-time Arrowhead was rehabilitated;  and it’s resonance with current affairs is not be sniffed at. This is a dark film – and perhaps so bleak that you think it may have been unintended by the producers – but whatever its motivations, Arrowhead is an unforgettable and misanthropic movie experience with a punchy aesthetic.

Alien: Covenant (2017)

The melancholy of Scott’s film is that its best bits are simulated rehashes of the original 1979 film, but luckily there’s just enough of them to make this another enjoyable adventure in the series – and nothing remotely more.

Aesthetically pleasing – with a visual bonanza at the film’s close – and with some solid blood-letting in the best of fashion, it’ll please the style brigade at least. But Scott critically neglects the character development that made us care so much about the Nostromo’s crew in his 1979 genre-definer; and for all the visual jazz, it feels a cold experience.

Thematically similar to Blade Runner, and with an opening scene which could have come directly from that classic of neo-noir, Scott’s overtly preoccupied and wedded to the artificial intelligence theme for much of the running time. For sure, Fassbender’s synthetic is the realised fulcrum of the picture but the plot twists around his character are far too readily seen, predictability mitigating the film’s shock value. The ‘big reveal’ is nothing of the sort it was in Alien (1979), and it’s as if Scott can’t help but let out the secret way before time.  That said, Fassbender’s performance is totemic in its own right – after this and Prometheus (2012) he’ll surely go down in franchise folk history – but I’d pine that it feels like a role chiselled into the wrong film.

The screenplay involves some ludicrous decision-making by the colonists – even by typical genre standards – which stretches the imagination. I couldn’t help garnering a sly impression that the writers were in fact quite lazy, and couldn’t be bothered to think of ingenious methods for our would-be settlers to become exposed to the alien(s).

Once the alien is on board the spacecraft, we know exactly what is going to happen and then Covenant just re-runs the latter part of the original movie. Of course, with Scott in the director’s chair it’s done very well from a choreography point of view, but you don’t feel as strongly for the cast as you did in Scott’s first effort from nearly 40 years ago. Part of the reason is another missing aspect, down again to the writers, who by making the colonists couples, cheaply extinguish the par-boiled sexual tension which simmered beneath Weaver’s Ripley and Skerritt’s Dallas in Alien (1979). In addition, there is apparently scant logic to the creature’s behaviour in Covenant ; once aboard the ship it just seems to uncaringly tear through things. That isn’t how the alien was portrayed in the original, and the xenomorph’s intelligence and stalking abilities have clearly now been downgraded to being little more than a klutz of a killing machine. 

 

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you don’t need to be Columbo to know what happens next

 

What this film does have is a viciously suspenseful shower scene, harking back to the haunted-house concept in Alien(1979). In spite of its great achievement, that’s really ‘all’ the original film was – a simple haunted-house movie in space. It’s strangely telling that Covenant is strongest when recreating this simplicity and weakest where it tries to carry on the complexity and layering of Prometheus (2012).

All in all, Scott is valiantly attempting to construct a lore and a mythos but it doesn’t feel necessary.  The lacking backstory could and I’d strongly argue should be seen as positive element in these films and not a negative one.  The failure to realise this continues to leave the Alien franchise in an unfavourable place.

But perhaps us fans should shoulder some of the responsibility, after all it’s our crippling desires for a universe all of our own which must have somewhat forced Scott’s treasured hand. It would have been better if the question of where this all comes from had been left as the Alien franchise’s lingering rhetoric, rather than the driver for a intricately networked batch of prequels.

 

Hitchcock’s Young & Innocent (1937) + The 39 Steps (1935)

Hitchcock reworked The 39 Steps (1935) for the first time in Young and Innocent (1937) adding more light-hearted humour than in many of his British films and restricting the action to a smaller geographical region than his UK-trotting seminal 1935 thriller. The grippingly gloomy Sabotage (1936) had immediately preceded Young and Innocent (1937) in Hitchcock’s filmography, so it’s no surprise that he returned to a more playful film.

Young and Innocent is bookended by two grandiose shots, of which the latter is particularly famous. It’s an impressive crane shot meandering over a hotel ballroom to reveal the jazz drummer as our twitching murderer (see previous blog post https://hotdogcinema.wordpress.com/2014/07/13/hitchcocks-best-shot/). The first is the same twitching killer set against a rough sea in a thunderstorm.

Nova Pilbeam excels as the daughter of a chief contestable, falling haplessly for man on the run (and of course, the wrongly accused) Derrick De Marney. Watch out for Basil Redford is an amusing bit-part.

Young and Innocent (1937), Edward Rigby, George Curzon, Nova Pilbeam

Whilst it was made relatively early in the director’s career, this film could be none other a ‘Hitchcock movie’. The theme of an innocent man on the run, romantically involved with a “good standing woman”, is almost his own and there’s many similarities here for those looking to consistency in his cannon. Early on the film, De Marney’s position is that of Henry Fonda’s in the unloved The Wrong Man (1956) and there’s a scene which would be replicated 20 years later with Fonda, where detectives attempt to put words in De Marney’s exasperated mouth. The crane shot is a clear precursor to the rousing “key in the hand” sequence in Notorious. More deviously, throughout Hitchcock’s films, he loved to include scenes of dinner table discussions of murder (Shadow of a Doubt, The Paradine Case, I Confess, Frenzy to name but a few) and we have one here, with Pilbeam’s family chirpily discussing “the murderer” De Marney’s probability of escape. Pilbeam’s reactions are the same as those of Wright’s in Shadow of A doubt when a dinner conversation about her killer of an Uncle begins in his presence. Also note the use of clothing apparel as a murder weapon, which would be vividly revisited over 30 years later in Hitchcock’s penultimate and most savage film, Frenzy (1972).

At its heart, whilst both begin with a murder, the big difference between The 39 Steps and this film is that Young and Innocent is more of a romance thriller – there’s even a scene where de Marney enters Pilbeam’s bedroom via a window in something out of Romeo and Juliet – whereas the 39 Steps is what I frequently call one of Hitchcock’s “athletic” mystery thrillers which would culminate in the never-bettered North by Northwest. These films are defined by their dynamism, pace, romantic leads, use of landmark locations and churning plot twists. Whilst N by NW is the pristine example, there are many in Hitchcock’s filmography (Saboteur (1942)being one of the sadly neglected; and note the handcuffs sequence with the blind man).

On its own merits, the 39 Steps has ground to be Hitchcock’s most enjoyable movie of the British period (although with stiff competition from the original The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)). In some sense, the 39 Steps is the first “bond movie” but is glossed with all the director’s hallmarks. The visual style starts in scene 1 as the words” music hall” are lit up before our eyes as the camera scrolls the screen. The film opens and closes in a music hall, and the finale echoes aspects of The Man Who Knew Too Much conclusion with a balcony-situated killer waiting in the wings.  Whilst Young and Innocent is more about the growing love between two mavericks, The 39 Steps is devoted to the theme of deception – nearly every character is deceiving someone else, and with Donat’s hero going from being the one who is deceived to the one doing the deceiving.
39 steps
There are other cinematic nuggets including the iconic close-ups of the handcuffs that chain Donat and his love-interest together, and the zoom in shot of the identifiable missing knuckle of the villain of the piece. Much of the action takes place in the Scottish Moorland, and there’s some neat atmospherics, rolling fogs and wandering sheep. Thematically, one could argue that the MacGuffin was conceived in this very film (what exactly are the 39 Steps?) and it’s perhaps more than a coincidence that often Hitchcock gave the train-to-Scotland example of what he meant by the MacGuffin.

Both movies showcase the talent of a director who not only managed to make the films which defined his time but also which still today endear themselves to audiences 80+ years later. Their longevity is a testament to the ability of the best filmmaker our little island has produced.

 

Eastwood’s avenging angels

Clint Eastwood seemed fond of a particular Western story in the 70s and 80s – albeit not as keen as Howard Hawks with his own repeated themes in the Rio Bravo / El Dorado/ Rio Lobo trilogy – but keen nonetheless.  Eastwood’s story is that of a perhaps supernatural stranger who comes to town to punish bad people for past deeds, or indeed the wrong they have done to the stranger in particular.

High Plains Drifter (1973) and Pale Rider (1985) are the films in point, and are startlingly similar – even if the latter is the more polished of the two (as expected given Eastwood’s progress in the director’s chair).  It’s frustrating that the second is sometimes accused of being a shoddy copycat version of genre classic Shane (1953), whereas it’s a deeper and more mature reworking of Drifter’s rough diamond. In fact, some of gone so far to say that Eastwood’s preacher in Rider is the same character as the mysterious stranger in Drifter.

Rider is the more cryptic of the two with scant attention given to the backstory of the preacher, and his grudge with sadistic gun-for-hire Stockburn (played wonderfully by a gaunt-looking John Russell, incidentally the villain in Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959)).  I’ve always felt that the main plot in Rider, of the competing interests of tin-pan miners and a ruthless company with technologically advanced methods is just an excuse to generate the showdown between Stockburn and the preacher himself – and the inevitable revelation that Stockburn’s dollar driven sadism cannot go unpunished even in a land as lawless as the West. Drifter offers more in terms of contextual backdrop with elongated flash-back sequences detailing the whole town witness a murder they engineered to save the livelihoods they have built.

Pale Rider 3

 

In Rider and Drifter, concentration is laid on the reactions of the other characters to the arrival of the stranger. In Rider, the reaction of Michael Moriarty and his tin-pan community is one of growing hope – literally seeing Eastwood as a kind of saviour. Stockburn’s reaction is one of cautious foreboding, sensing a confrontation which has long been coming. In Drifter, the response of the townsfolk is similar to the tin-pans initially, but gradually shifts toward a more ominous feeling.

The personalities of the stranger in the two companion pieces are actually rather opposite – in Drifter, our anti-hero is darker and even cruel at times, whereas in Rider the stranger is more ‘just’. Within the first ten minutes of Drifter, our stranger has shot 3 people and raped  a woman in a scene which by today’s standards would be uncomfortable for many. More generally, Rider is less violent and less brutal than the dirtier Drifter which is jammed with unlikeable characters played to the hilt by an awesome patchwork of a cast (Geoffrey Lewis, Anthony James, Mitchell Ryan, Walter Barnes and of course the memorable Billy Curtis as the sole goody guy).  

high-plains-drifter-1973

 

The supernatural nature of the stranger in both films is somewhat disputed, but to me seems indisputable in Rider at least. Stockburn’s weathered reaction to the preacher’s description, and his shock-ridden eyes when he comes face to face with Eastwood in the finale seems to confirm it. The ending of Rider and Drifter both show the stranger disappear into the distance, nearly dissipating into the landscape like the spectres they are implied to be. Both film’s scores have the feel of the supernatural about them too, particularly Drifter’s sloping introductory and closing pieces. The religious symbolism is  overtly obvious in Rider -with Eastwood’s stranger himself being ‘summoned’ onto the screen as Sydney Penny reads out a bible verse about the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse – but also apparent in Drifter. Our stranger here changes the town’s name from Lago to ‘Hell’, forces the townsfolk to paint the buildings blood red and confronts Lago’s gutless and sanctimonious preacher.

Eastwood’s camerawork in Rider is better than in Drifter; and his manipulation of the set-pieces has come on leaps and bounds between 1973 and 1985 with the ending coda to Rider being one of the best Western set-pieces of modern times.  That doesn’t automatically mean the Rider is the superior film, and it admittedly lacks the punch of Drifter and its bluntly revisionist stance built on a pernicious anti-hero. But these are two great movies, which are really extensions of one another.