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Donald Pleasence

Review: Raw Meat

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

I must confess to being one of those horror film addicts who occasionally even resort to the ozoners in search of the one sleeper that will justify all those wasted hours spent in the scurrilous company of Aztec mummies, moth-eaten werewolves, and green slime. Which is how I came to see Raw Meat—despite its title and the American-International imprimatur. Actually, the presence of Donald Pleasence and Christopher Lee, not to mention obvious parallels—in what little I knew of the plot—to the notorious Night of the Living Dead, did nothing to shore up what little resistance I manage to maintain against a seemingly insatiable appetite for the usually tasteless additions to this genre.

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Erasable Bond

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]

Watching the last three James Bond films in close succession, one constantly sees contrasts. Not so with the first two films of the series, Dr. No and From Russia with Love, which frequently play together as a double feature. They invite comparison rather than contrast, their parallels in plot and style having established a “James Bond formula” with which viewers quickly became familiar, expecting its recurrence in subsequent films. Goldfinger, Thunderball and You Only Live Twice fulfilled the expectation.

But the juxtaposition of the next two films, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Diamonds Are Forever, which also have circulated as a double bill, impresses the viewer more with differences than similarities, provoking one to redefine his notion of exactly what a James Bond film is, or is supposed to be. And the most recent offering, Live and Let Die, compared with its two immediate predecessors, comes off decidedly third-best.

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Review: The Black Windmill

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

Drabble would, after all, have been a better title than The Black Windmill. The structure thus designated is not even mentioned till the film is two-thirds finished, whereas the fictional master criminal “Drabble” hovers over the picture almost as decisively as “Juggernaut” in the new Lester movie. Drabble catches the muzzy Englishness that is the film’s most strategic appeal, which comes through via such in-passing pleasantries as Scotland Yard man Clive Revill’s weary exasperation with his partner as they search and bug Michael Caine’s room, MI.5 stick-in-the-mud Donald Pleasence’s loss of sour face as he inadvertently says “Sean Connery” instead of “Sean Kelly” during a top-level security conference, or Pleasence’s desperate endeavor to maintain a blank look as his senescent superior fondles and is fondled by his murderously loving wife (Felicia Farr—of Charley Varrick fame—in an unbilled cameo, if I’m not mistaken). One may safely suppose that the opportunity for such moments had its fond appeal for Siegel, who spent his youth in England. Such suppositions are the only way to find, or posit, traces of the director in the film; for after a decade’s worth of consistently personal cinema, Siegel has simply taken on an average thriller property and given it, overall, little more than slightly above-average treatment.

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Hearts of the West

Hearts of the West will be shown on Turner Classic Movies this coming Friday, Nov. 4, at 9 a.m. West Coast time, 12 noon Eastern. Here’s the program note from the “Marvelous Modern Scripts” screening. —RTJ

There isn’t really a whole lot that needs to be teased out of Hearts of the West. It’s a pleasant film—from its opening 1.33:1 masking of the old monochrome MGM logo, a movie full of affection for the absurdities, inanities, and tacky pleasures of El Cheapo filmmaking and fictionmaking. Its gentle teasing of would-be writers steeped in formulae and short on living experience is readily apparent. Offsetting this is our pleasurable awareness that “The Kid” Lewis Tater writes about and the enthusiastic “kid” that he is probably both reflect aspects of the local kid—Rob Thompson of Bothell—whose first script this was. He took it to Hollywood and a couple of days later he had sold it to producer Tony Bill, who happened to be having an afternoon drink in the same bar where Thompson and a mutual friend were sitting. The rest is history, of a sort: Hearts of the West got made to the satisfaction of those involved, critics and film festival audiences warmed to it, MGM gave it the wrong ad campaign, and mostly people didn’t go to see it. A lost masterpiece it’s not; a nice movie to make the acquaintance of, it remains.

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Review: Telefon

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

Charles Bronson—who plays a Soviet KGB agent in Telefon—is introduced to us in the act of coaching a Russian boys’ hockey team. “How do you make sure you are the first one to hit the puck?” he asks them rhetorically. The answer is, Don’t watch your opponent, and certainly don’t watch the referee (“If you see him drop the puck, you don’t see the puck”), but “Keep your eyes on the ice.” These words to live by are one statement of the code of the Don Siegel independent (and they might do for the maverick director himself), the man at odds with society who has been the central figure of virtually all his films. Whether it be the independent-as-cop (Dirty Harry, Madigan), the independent-as-crook (Charley Varrick, Dirty Harry‘s Scorpio), the independent-as-cop-and-crook (The Verdict), or the independent as social maverick trying simply to assert his identity against the encroachment of enervating social and political forces (The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Hell Is for Heroes, The Beguiled, The Shootist), Siegel’s anti-hero has always commanded our respect as one who walks the middle ground between equally attractive, equally destructive extremes.

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Review: Halloween

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

A thing that bugs me about the vast majority of contemporary films is, they rarely give the feeling anyone cared much about framing them. The movement away from studio (i.e., factory) filmmaking has had a lot to do with this. Advancements in film speed, equipment mobility, and other such factors that ought to have been unqualifiedly liberating have had the counterproductive effect of encouraging slovenliness rather than responsible flexibility. A movie can get made anywhere now, one place is as good (i.e., workable) as another—and somehow that extends to frame-space as a “place” too. Throw in careless labwork (we waved byebye to real Technicolor several years ago) and you’ve got smeary colors and big, fuzzy grain to help reduce definition, and definitiveness of vision. It’s hard to maintain faith that a given movie had to look the way it does, because it could just as well have looked, well, a little different.

People won’t be talking about this as they leave their naborhood moviehouse, but one reason John Carpenter’s Halloween is so successful a marrow-freezer is that Carpenter appears to have set out to reinstate scrupulous, meaningful framing all by himself. In fact, except for its shamelessly (and irresistibly) zingy music score (by the director), Halloween achieves its considerable power almost entirely through visual means. There’s not a lot of scenario—make that screenplay—to deal with; indeed, the least satisfying thing about Halloween is its attempt to arrive at some scriptoral accounting for its ultraweird dispenser of mayhem, an Omen-era, cosmic-evil reading—”He” really can’t be stopped—that rings too familiar. At the same time, the nonending ending Halloweenreaches has a validity missing from more flagrantly copout conclusions where the filmmakers more or less simultaneously ran out of running time and ideas of what to do next. For Carpenter’s direction has undercut the idea of a world with any secure breathing-room, let alone a sanctum for salvation.

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