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The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

Synopsis:

A small-time club owner must repay his gambling debts to local mobsters, by murdering a bookmaker who’s been causing them trouble.

Review:

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie might sound like a standard
low-level gangster film but it’s really nothing of the sort.
The plot being little else than an excuse to explore the human
relationships and motivations underlying the life of a seedy
club owner.

Cassavetes’ doc-style approach to filmmaking elicits a distinctly grubby atmosphere to Bookie which isn’t for everyone but makes for an inimitable viewing experience. Gazzara’s performance as ‘Cosmo Vitelli’ is one of the best I have ever seen; it’s tricky to recall a part being played so convincingly. Gazzara fits Cosmo like a glove – a well-intentioned dreamer with illusions of grandeur  – and his anguished facial expressions are custom-made for Cassavetes’ idiosyncratic close-ups, here often set against garishly hued on-location lighting and an endless drift of cigarette smoke. The flare of the lights on the screen and the blur of the cinematography add an authenticity rare to find in mainstream film. Cassavetes’ success here is putting you right inside the club, a mere observer of the ‘warts-and-all’ goings on.

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Ben Gazzara as ‘Cosmo’ – illuminated by the red lights of his strip club

The band of players in this film are as awkwardly realistic as the genuine characters that populate our cities off-screen. Whilst aspects of the supporting cast can sometimes come across as wooden – a criticism heavily levied on the director’s independent work – it only adds to the documentary feel.  Other performances are knock-out; Timothy Carey’s turn as ‘Flo’, an enigmatic ‘heavy’ with a penchant for self-reflective philosophical musings, being a personal favourite. Meade Roberts, as ‘Mr Sophistication’ – the MC of the club’s strip show, is a revelation and sufficiently off-beat so as to be more than a trifle ‘trippy’ .

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Timothy Carey’s ‘Flo’

The actual sequence referenced in the title is staged magnificently by Cassavetes, with things going ‘wrong’ en-route to the hit and an air of reluctant but ominous foreboding bearing down on all concerned. The panicked reaction of the mobsters to Cosmo’s success in pulling it off is quite priceless. The film’s uncertain coda is perfect – again, the exact narrative is not what is important in the film, it’s the human reactions to events around them.

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Cosmo approaches the Bookie’s house, armed with burgers to placate the guard-dogs

Cassavetes certainly wasn’t one for auteur-like thematic allegory, but if you want to look for one in this film, then it would have to be based around the colour red. The red rose on Cosmo’s suit, the red filters on the club lights, the red napkin around Flo’s neck etc.

For me, the nub of chinese bookie is Cosmo’s speech in the dressing room, he reasons he’s only happy when he is adopting a persona of who he thinks people want him to be. You can clearly see this in numerous scenes throughout the film and the physical way Gazzara holds himself when he’s front of either his club audience, his peers or the mob. It’s this adopted persona – and the source of his gambling debt – that gets him in trouble with the mob and underlies the reason why he ends up whacking the bookie. Cosmo’s mistake is exactly that he plays his life as who he is *expected* to be and at the end he is actually happy to die in that role. Whereas the mob’s mistake was in their own expectation that Cosmo couldnt pull the hit off – he’s exactly not what *they* expected him to be. A strange, if uncomfortably realistic, dirty noir movie hides a great character study of the motivations behind a small-scale wannabe club kingpin and his own weird slice of the american dream.

You can’t help wondering that Cosmo is also a snide metaphor for Cassavetes – Cosmo’s a director in his own right of the routines in his club and when that club comes under risk he does anything to save it and save his independence. The love and care he gives his performers is similar to the attention paid by Cassavetes to his cherished stock company.

Bookie may be an esoteric film but it’s one I find vexingly alluring; and handsomely robust to repeated viewings. It’s a Cassavetes movie but Gazzara is perhaps the jewel here.

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DJANGO KILL..if you live shoot! (1967)

A notoriously over-the-top Spaghetti/Euro Western which I had surprisingly not seen until very recently. You initially think this is going the way of the usual Western revenge tale but it’s a very unique entry in the genre. It has bags of character including vampire bats, a band of well-tailored homosexual cowboys, a fairytale damsel-in-distress locked in a room in an attic and a finale which includes our villain’s face becoming encased in molten – and naturally, stolen – gold.

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Much of Questi’s film makes overtures to the horror genre, through both characterisations and visuals. Right from the off we get this, with the Stranger literally crawling out of his grave to be rescued by two Native Americans, who give him gold bullets with which to avenge his demise and recover the gold looted from his band of Mexican bandits. Some have gone so far to suggest that the Stranger is actually supernatural but I don’t think so, at least not in the same way as Eastwood’s character in High Plains Drifter (1973) and Pale Rider (1985).
When the Stranger arrives in a nearby town, following the outlaws who murdered his friends and stole from him, he finds they have been already despatched and strung up in the street by the good people of the town who are hiding the gold for themselves. The cattle-baron ‘Sorrow’ runs the town and is suspicious of the inhabitants’ motives for killing the outlaws; he too becomes transfixed on finding the gold at whatever cost. Francisco Sanz’s unscrupulous Preacher and Robert Camardiel’s hedonistic ‘Sorrow’ are the stand-out performances here, whilst Tomas Milan’s Stranger (or Django-like character, as he isn’t named in the film) is an under-played one.
Technically speaking, this is one well-lensed and easy-on-the-eye film. The film is not as packed with shoot-outs and violence as one may suspect from a slavish attempt to capitalise on the Django franchise, but when the vehemence does come it’s choreographed and edited brilliantly.

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The film’s notable for several moments, but the most memorable is probably when original thief ‘Oaks’, whilst still alive, is carelessly torn apart by the doctor and townsfolk looking for the gold bullets that are peppered throughout his body. There’s an offbeat scene in which the Stranger – dressed like Jesus in a loin cloth – is placed on a crucifix (this is where the vampire bats make an appearance) and tortured by Sorrow’s gang with all manner of animals.

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It’s perhaps not a film you’d expect Lee Van Cleef to turn-up in but beneath the unusual charms I’d argue there’s a strong thematic message from director Giulio Questi. The major one is around the dangers of possession and greed, familiar to many horse-operas. As the stolen gold passes from one group to another, their ensuing corruption and greed irrevocably seals their fate. On the outside the townsfolk look like honest law-abiding citizens but even the outlaws can feel something amiss as they ride into town, and once the gold is introduced their blood-lust becomes insatiable. It’s not just the desire to possess wealth that drives these people; we are introduced to numerous sub-plots where the desire to possess people is just as strong. The Preacher locks his wife in a room upstairs to prevent her falling in love with anyone else ; whereas the saloon owner’s son – who ends-up shooting himself after it is heavily implied he is raped by Sorrow’s gang – is possessive of his father and refuses to contemplate him marrying another woman.

Questi has apparently said that the film is something of an allegory for Italian society during fascism. Indeed, Questi’s focus on Sorrow’s cowboys – all dressed in black-uniforms – is undeniably a run on an anti-fascist message and puts the imagery in the scene in which they torture the Stranger on a cross into a peculiarly emotive perspective. The complicity and puppet-mastery of Sanz’s Preacher during the course of the film suggests at Questi’s disdain for the organized church.
Ivan Vandor’s catchy, if repetitive, score is a fitting accompaniment to the bizarre goings-on. It may be as crazy as a monkey but it’s an immortal slice of Spaghetti cinema.

Shindo’s KURONEKO (1968)

Embossed with the same themes as Shindo’s masterful ONIBABA (1964), KURONEKO (1968) is another Japanese horror folktale. The film is staggeringly pretty and unsettling, well-worth seeking out (and a must for any fans of Japanese ghost stories) for the aesthetics alone.

The film starts with an act of savagery as mother and daughter-in-law are raped and murdered by passing samurai on their farm. Close-ups linger on the faces of the samurai as they watch one another in the fiendish acts of violence, leaving the women dead amongst the burnt ruins of their smallholding. The women return as vengeful spirits, taking their human forms to seduce samurai and drink their blood; becoming the famous spectres of ‘Rajo Gate’. This section of the film becomes somewhat repetitive, and it seems needless to loop very similar scenes together in this way. But this is a minor quibble.

Where KURONEKO’s screenplay really excels is when said mother/daughter-in-law’s long-lost son/husband – ‘Hachi’ – returns from battle a samurai and is tasked with finding out whether the rumours of the demons at ‘Rajo Gate’ are true. Shindo’s film then becomes a rather simple, if unquestionably powerful, tragedy as ‘Hachi’ confronts the spirits of his dead wife and mother.

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Carnal desires are a focus of the film, with Hachi’s wife foregoing her life-after-death in order to spend a few days of physical pleasure with the husband she thought dead; whilst Nobuko Otowa’s undead mother character’s lust for revenge against samurai is so great as to force her to consider murdering her own son.

The theatrical visuals and set-design make much of the film seem like an expressionistic stage-play, with key set-pieces looking like symbolic dream (or nightmare sequences). It’s hard to think of many other films which have showcased the stunning contrasts of black and white so effectively. What’s more is that it’s not like Shindo was forced into his choice of black and white photography by technical or budget limitations – it was an explicit choice. It works fabulously, and I seriously couldn’t consider watching the film in colour which would paradoxically wash-out the eerie hue of the film.

The uncanny score, underwritten by a rasping drum, heighten the tempo of the film’s set-pieces to pull together a fantasy film which is as unforgettable as it is visually impressive.

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John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)

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Ennio Morricone may have penned the soundtrack but from the opening titles it’s seething with Carpenter’s pulsating synth-style. So slow is this score that it’s close to crawling, but its sonorous beat is cold, withdrawn and chilling.

Carpenter uses many low-view shots of desolate corridors and darkened shadows whilst Dean Cundey’s cinematography is once again evidenced through the beautifully lensed neon flares, blue-hued snow and the velvet of the polar nights – it’s sublime.

Like Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), and to a lesser extent in Prince of Darkness (1987), the strength lies in the attachment Carpenter draws to our doomed band of men. The scientific research station is initially portrayed as a kind of giant bar; when we get there, its occupants a parade of bar-flies whiling away time playing cards, pool and drinking. That is until the paranoia sets in; Blair is locked up; Clarke innocently gunned down and Bennings and others executed mid-transformation.

 

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The cast are unbelievably strong and welded together with a script epitomising the everyday dialogue of men trapped in moribund isolation. Aside from Kurt Russell’s towering performance as the de-facto leader of the group, Wilfrid Brimley’s character Blair is fantastic; the first to realise the potential for  ”The Thing” to escape, he opts for a scorched-earth policy before being exiled to the tool shed. Garry, played by Donald Moffat, is under perpetual suspicion until after a dose of blood testing provides proof his innocence , he robustly declares ” I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I’d rather not spend the rest of this winter TIED TO THIS FUCKING COUCH!!”.

Keith David’s Childs is hot-tempered and vying for alpha male position with Kurt Russell’s McReady. The much-talked-about final scene as these two sat amongst the ruins of the camp, with temperatures plummeting and no power, staring at one another hoping each isn’t “The Thing”.

One of my favourite scenes is when Stevie Wonder’s superstition plays over the radio as we pan around the barren corridors looking for “The Thing”. Another is the shot of the dog (the original host of the Thing) approaching the shadow of an unknown man sitting on a bed, and we know as the shadow’s head turns back that he’s about to come face to face with “The Thing”.

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Rob Bottin’s special make-up effects still stagger today; these eye-popping visuals won the film some infamy on release but they are terrific set-pieces peppered throughout the film. Watching a head detach from the body, grow spider-legs and run away is a remarkable experience.
There is resolutely nothing that I dislike about this movie. It’s pure Carpenter.

 

It’s oft-stated that Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) is the pinnacle of sci-fi terror, but over the years I have increasingly come round to the notion that this isn’t quite right. Carpenter’s film is the more visceral, the more watchable and the more tense.
For me, whilst Alien’s elegance may ever propel it to the top of various lists, Kurt Russell’s gang of paranoid men isolated in Antarctica will always hold me more than the crew aboard the Nostromo in Ridley’s classic.

The Girl With All The Gifts (2016)

Synopsis:
In the midst of a viral outbreak which has turned much of the world into zombies, a band of British soldiers and scientists use a group of children who are able to resist aspects of the virus to develop a cure.

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Overview:
We’ve not been starved of offerings from the zombie genre over the last decade, either on the small screen or in multiplexes. For me, the best of these efforts have been in the form of the Sang-ho Yeon’s satirical nail-biter Train to Busan (2016) and Balaguero/Plaza’s spanish dreadfest REC (2007). I’d give more than a footnote to the Brian Cox narrated Exit Humanity (2011) too.

Part BFI-funded, “The Girl With All The Gifts” belongs to this special grouping. Director Colm McCarthy takes choice-cuts from the genre; the satirical pulse from Train To Busan as an underlay to the script and REC’s putrid tension in his taut set-pieces; reformulating them into a standalone entry which will be a genre mainstay for some time to come.

Thematically immersive – and not dissimilar in this way to Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985) – the film goes diligently beyond the usual-satire, which can border on parody, endemic in the zombie-apocalypse industry; instead opting to pose some conceptual questions about our role in the biosphere. At its core, the film is another coming-of-age drama but this isn’t exactly Stand By Me (1989). Beginning life as a rather standard ‘survivors-trapped-in-a-bunker-from-the-living-dead’, the plot changes tac and nestles the story of the girl of the film’s title in a ‘lifeboat’ movie. Whilst Chernobyl may double for parts of London – in the aerial photography at least – the airless and desolate city location encloses the audience.

The tight cast spun around our child-lead give strong performances – with Glenn Close’s amoral scientist and Paddy Considine’s soldier (think Hicks from Aliens (1986)) really standing-out. As the film goes on, it’s clearly Sennia Nanua who brings the film together. You wouldn’t think that a ‘zombie-kid’ could be so believable.

The screenplay gets it just right with the dash of humour. In a final scene which splits critics, I’d probably fall on the side of those arguing it’s rather needless and a more thoughtful conclusion might come out of some post-shoot editing to remove this sequence, leaving the visual power of the penultimate scene to sit and smoulder.

Psycho 3 (1986)

Anthony Perkins’ directorial debut represents an unexpectedly stylish take on the Psycho franchise, eschewing the mystery-thriller approach of Richard Franklin’s admirable Psycho 2 (1983) and forging a Giallo-hued entry which has been rather unfairly treated down the years. Psycho 3 is partly Psycho a la mode of course.

The look of the film, and in particular the lighting and European-lensing, is distinctly different to its predecessor. Dean Cundey’s work on Psycho 2 is solid in its own right – and particularly the look of the storm clouds set above Norman as he stands outside the Bates house – but the combination of Bruce Surtees as director of photography and Perkins in the chair this time manages to result in a visual style too interesting and eccentric for a paint-by-numbers slasher film. Primarily, that’s because Psycho 3 is not such a slasher film. Yes, the gore and smut factor has been elevated for the 80s audience but the talent behind the production means this is a different kind of movie.

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You’d never guess that this is Perkins’ baptism of fire in the art of directing given he pulls off some tantalising camera-placing and engineers numerous dutch angle shots. There are two pieces of camerawork which stand-out even today. The first is a seamless fading shot as we switch between the movie on a TV screen in a bar to the same movie on a TV screen in Norman’s parlour as he gazes out of the window, illuminated by a green table lantern – it’s absolutely gorgeous. (There’s also another fading shot in the film as we move directly from a hospital room to Mother’s room, through the simple act of Norman opening and closing a door). The second is a transformation of a shaft of light under a door into a gleaming kitchen knife.

Perkins the actor, perhaps laid bare in all his typecast glory, comes close to japing the audience with that all-knowing smile and blank – nearly icy – stare. As in Psycho 2, Perkins now appears a rather gaunt and unkempt version of the boy-next-door who initially haunted Vera Miles in Hitchcock’s 1960 classic; but the strength of his performance is – as always with his Norman persona – in effortlessly displaying the complete madness and underlying vulnerabilities of the “child-within-a-man”. Jeff Fahey’s character “Duke” is the mirror image of Norman – he’s confident with women, carefree but also a sexual predator – and it’s with Norman where the audience’s sympathy remains. The elemental reason being that at the heart of the Psycho franchise – and particularly the sequels – is tragedy not horror. Perkins’ Bates is no monster but a pitiable antagonist, a key difference between him and the likes of the deliberately faceless slashers who characterised 80s horror cinema.

 Explicit attention is once again given to Norman’s heartfelt desires, this time love and companionship with Diana Scarwid’s “Maureen” – a runaway nun who has turned her back on God (and an uncomfortable doppleganger for shower scene victim Marion Crane) – and at some points in the film you actually begin to believe this is going to work and free him of his tragic split-personality.  Both Norman and Maureen are having a crisis of faith; Maureen in her god and Norman in his sanity. The religious themes of restitution and atonement are heavy (perhaps even too heavy) with frequent symbolism, the best of which being the large window in the Bates house’s hallway resembling a stained-glass window in a church. The similarities between Scarwid’s Maureen and Perkins’ Norman are strongly reminiscent of those between Janet Leigh’s Marion and Norman in the original film. In fact the first half of this film is thematically alike – and intentionally so – to Hitchcock’s film. Fans will notice the route that Janet Leigh took to the Bates Motel; running away from a crime, driving through pouring rain and seeking shelter; is markedly analogous to that taken by Scarwid in this picture. The script also wallows in self-reference with Perkins delivering my favourite line in response to Mauren’s hospital-bedside-apology for her suicide attempt in the shower of Cabin 1:

Maureen: Sorry, I did leave the bathroom a mess.
Norman: I’ve seen it worse.

There are further nods to Hitchcock from the off, beginning with an opener which is nothing short of a gushing tribute to Vertigo’s bell-tower moment. There’s a reworking of the iconic shower scene from the original film, only here it’s a phone box rather than a bathtub. Perkins clearly picked up on Hitchcock’s black humour and memorably stages a police chief unknowingly sucking blood-spattered ice cubs from an ice box as he defends Norman in front of his detractors.

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Carter Burwell’s soundtrack has claim to be one of the most under-rated scores in the genre. The main theme is jealously eerie as it plays over the opening credits of Maureen drudging through the barren wilderness surrounding the Bates motel.  The incidental scores are just as strong, and really add to the picture’s togetherness.

What Perkins doesn’t get quite right is the mood of the picture; certain scenes fly just a little close to self-parody and modern audiences may decide the sight of a cross-dressing killer snarling from the dark is more jocularly camp than anything else.

In a sentence, Psycho 3 is a well-shot sequel that is far superior to anything it *should* have been. Perkins himself later claimed that he didn’t really have the requisite technical skill to do the film justice; how wrong he was. Furthermore, it’s unfortunately now remembered by most as just another slice ‘n’ dice movie from a decade soaked in them. How wrong again.

Hotdog rating: 8/10

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.

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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.
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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.