Posted in: Film Reviews

Out of the Past: King of Kings

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

Seek and thou shalt find … or not, as the case may be. There is by now a good deal of useful critical writing available in English on the work of every film buff’s favourite genius maudit, Nicholas Ray. But Ray experts fall curiously taciturn on the topic of King of Kings, the longest of the director’s films, his second-most-costly, and arguably his worst-received. The Time reviewer even accused the film of blasphemy; in Europe, critics were content to suggest that any film casting a drippy jeune premier like Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus Christ would have to be at best risible. Time revealed that the film’s trade nickname was I Was a Teenage Jesus, something Leslie Halliwell’s smug and deeply reactionary reference book The Filmgoer’s Companion reminds us of with each new edition.

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Posted in: Film Reviews

Review: Death on the Nile

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

If your friendly neighbourhood TV station or film society is tonight showing an uncut print of  Clair’s And Then There Were None or Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, you need not miss such delights in favour of Death on the Nile. But if not, you could do worse than attend. Made by the same producers as Sidney Lumet’s  1974 Murder on the Orient Express, it has, however, a different screenwriter, a different director and a different Hercule Poirot; and the difference shows. Although Jack Cardiff – who seems finally to have realized that it’s better to be a good cameraman than a bad director – gives us plenty of tourist-spot imagery up and down the banks of the Nile, with romance at the Sphinx, romantic torment at Abu Simbel and derring-do elsewhere, the film as a whole doesn’t slam gloss into the viewer’s eye the way Orient Express did, and if the starpower on display is of a marginally lower voltage than previously, the leading lights certainly give off enough energy to keep us all bright. Above all, Peter Ustinov as Hercule P. floats along in the Agatha Christie mystery soup quite serenely, whereas Albert Finney, padded and beeswaxed to the nines, felt obliged to attack the material with a funambulistic gusto.

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Review: Firepower

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Having ripped off just about every other kind of commercial movie, Michael Winner has inevitably turned his attention to the Bond-style action thriller. Since the Bond films have been ripping themselves off for the past dozen or so years, the pilferings involved in Firepower don’t seem too outrageous. It’s not a good movie by any stretch of goodwill, but it’s not as unutterably crummy as, say, The Man with the Golden Gun either. At least Winner has some decent leads – not that they have a hell of a lot worth doing. I have been infatuated with Sophia Loren most of my life, and hope  always to be,  so I am pleased to report that, at 45, she still looks fabulous; but cast as a routinely enigmatic widow out to avenge (or is she?) the slaughter of her chemist husband by the world’s richest crook, she has no chance to display any acting ability. James Coburn is cast principally, one supposes, because he was a Bond surrogate in the Flint films; here he’s a sort of bounty hunter with a fondness for flora and fauna (cf. Robert Mitchum in The Yakuza) and, you guessed it, his own peculiar code of honour. The flowers-buff bit is just about the only characterisation the script attempts. There’s a token black buddy (O.J. Simpson), as per Dr. No and Live And Let Die, plus the suave millionaire villain tossing off hopefully aphoristic witticisms (any of the Bonds, although the character is also a Howard Hughes-type recluse, like an heroic character in Diamonds Are Forever). This chap has a sadistic aide – don’t they all? There are gadgets galore, a helicopter explodes in mid-air (v. From Russia with Love), people catch fire and so does the sea at one point (FRWL again). The film also comes equipped with casino and the standard exotic sun-drenched backdrops, in this instance Antigua and Curaçao.

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Review: The Corn is Green

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Emlyn Williams’s play The Corn Is Green is nothing if not aptly titled. Williams has always been a minor writer, and when writing about his homeland, Wales, which is also my homeland, he has been particularly unimpressive. He writes for tourists – coy jokes, local colour, stereotypes, and carefully transposed cliches from melodrama. People outside Wales, knowing little or nothing about the place, are inevitably caught by the curiosity value of it all, not realising that what they are really responding to is the familiarity of all this Celtic strangeness. Williams’s cliches are commonplace ones, it’s just that the setting he finds for them seems strange. Viewing a production of The Corn Is Green, the uninformed will ask, Are the Welsh really like that? Answering yes, they can then add: How quaint! And how frightfully sweet! What the play chiefly offers on top of this topographical spice is a thundering leading role for any actress d’un certain age. Miss Moffat, the schoolmarm who discovers a genius amidst the unlettered and uncouth populace of a mining community, is a lady to outgrabe the meanest mome-roth who ever breathed, and Bette Davis did nobly by her in the 1945 movie. No less of a natural for the role is Katharine Hepburn, and I’ll bet she was the prime mover in getting this present made-for-TV movie version of the old warhorse onto the assembly line. Thank God, they roped in George Cukor to direct her. The whole of the enterprise is in the work of these two: had either failed, then surely the whole would have crumbled.

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Review: The Great Train Robbery

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

It’s fairly hard, and also somewhat presumptuous and pointless, to try and get a fix on the directing career of the prolific writer Michael Crichton after only three films. Westworld would seem as different from Coma as Coma is from The Great Train Robbery (called The First Great Train Robbery in Britain, where it was made), which is a jolly period caper romp set in 1855. If all three films can be boiled down to a common core, it’s simply that Crichton believes people are better than machines, and have to be, because if they’re not, then machines are what they will themselves become.

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Review: The Medusa Touch

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

The Medusa Touch has had a most curious history. Richard Burton went into it hot on the heels of Exorcist II and Equus, but it took about a year to follow them into the cinemas, opening in London in June of 1978. Despite lots of names, a big budget and good notices, it then did what every film of above-average interest is likely to do in Britain: it disappeared totally from sight. (The remarks of RTJ in MTN 60-61 suggest the film got oblivion treatment in the U.S., too.) Nearly another year went by and then, blammo!, it was all over the place. Double-billed with an even older Paul Bartel movie, it got saturation bookings all over the country, and was even advertised on TV – very rare in Britain. One hopes that all this adds up to making it a hit at last.

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Review: The Thirty-Nine Steps

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Remaking a Hitchcock classic would appear to be prime foolishness (unless you’re Hitchcock himself), and remaking one a second time seems like evidence of a death-wish. However, the makers of this new version of The Thirty-Nine Steps do have a get-out clause of sorts: Hitchcock used almost none of John Buchan’s novel, and updated it from 1914 to the then-contemporary mid-Thirties. Ralph Thomas, for his vomitworthy 1959 version, pinched almost everything wholesale from the 1935 marvel (except such intangibles as wit, pace, charm, eroticism, ingenuity and suspense) and reduced the whole enterprise to a faded Xerox of the earlier film. Don Sharp and his team have made a great show of “going back to the original”, and the design department has gorged itself on Edwardian costumes, period automobiles, monocles, the whole eve-of-World-War-I razzmatazz. So it should look like a brand-new film, right?

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Out of the Past: The Illustrated Man

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Before anything happens in The Illustrated Man, a voice (Claire Bloom’s) warns us that those who try to see beyond their own times find themselves facing problems that cannot be explained in present-day terms. This gets reprised at the very end of the movie, by which time just about nothing actually has been explained. The Illustrated Man is a very odd movie indeed, and here and there a thoroughly frustrating one. I can’t decide how much of the obfuscation is genuine poetic mystery and how much a sheer cop-out on the part of screenwriter-producer Howard Kreitsek (not very active since this 1969 movie) and director Jack Smight. But the film, for all its many faults, stays with me and I fancy its inner workings are worth teasing out.

Time is of the essence. When and where are we? Ms. Bloom’s opening voiceover accompanies an image of a tranquil countryside lake. We hold on this and at long last the old Warner-Seven Arts logo inscribes itself on the screen. An old-fashioned automobile parks a naive-looking youth (Robert Drivas) by the lake and moves on; we never see its driver again. Willie, the youth, is soon joined by a surly fellow carrying a bag with a dog in it. The stranger, Carl (Rod Steiger), middle-aged, needing a shave, broken-nosed, seems to come from nowhere and is plainly needing funds. “You hoboing?” he asks Willie. The 1930s? Of course. But what’s a Depression bum doing with a Pekinese, of all dogs? And why is it cooped up in a bag all the while? “He likes it hot,” snarls Carl: “Like me!” He kids us not. Though the midday sun blazes and the sweat pours off Willie, Carl is begloved and booted, and covered in an enormous coat. Why? This question, at least, gets an answer, and swiftly.

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Review: The Europeans

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

With the likes of Grease and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre packin’ ’em in, people keep saying the cinema is going to hell and only the most crass hold sway. However, if the Seventies gave the world porno and John Travolta, the decade also saw a revival, on a fairly grand scale, of interest in Henry James. Of all authors! What could so fastidious an artist have to say to our vulgarian’s age? Well, quite a lot, it would seem, for there have been more ventures into Jamesiana in the Seventies than in the entire previous history of film – several TV movies (two by Claude Chabrol), announced projects (Chabrol’s proposed film of The Wings of the Dove was called off, not for want of backing, but because he changed his mind about it), two wildly unJamesian but nevertheless James-inspired movies (The Nightcomers and Celine et Julie vont en bateau), and three major adaptations: Daisy Miller, La Chambre verte (from The Altar of the Dead), and now The Europeans. This last seems to me the best James movie to date, in terms of catching the author’s essence, and it’s an exquisite entertainment, immensely worth seeing.

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“Everything happens at its appointed time” – Picnic at Hanging Rock

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

This is the second feature film from director Peter Weir, the first being the uneven but fitfully brilliant The Cars That Ate Paris in 1973. Though that movie was too scrappy to make Weir seem more than extremely promising, Picnic at Hanging Rock is something else: an absolute beauty, a movie entirely worthy of cult-classic status at the very least, and a major step forward for its director and, as far as I am able to tell from my very limited experience of it, for the Australian cinema.

That so delicate and subtle a movie could be made at all in Australia, a land much associated with crass behaviour and cultural gaucherie, may surprise some. It’s not, after all, a film made there by outsiders, like Walkabout. That so beautiful-looking and technically fastidious a film could emerge from Australia certainly surprised me: all the (few) other indigenous Antipodean movies that I’ve seen, including The Cars That Ate Paris, were very rough-edged, tending towards muddy colour and threshing-machine cutting, the hallmarks of cheapo filmmaking. Picnic at Hanging Rock is gorgeous, richly textured, full of pellucid colours and images that tremble between tableau and hallucination. It draws us into its web of mysteries, not urgently, not insistently, but seductively.

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"Picnic at Hanging Rock" draws us into its web of mysteries, not urgently, not insistently, but seductively.

It draws us, in fact, the way that Hanging Rock, the “geological miracle” that is literally as well as figuratively at the film’s centre, draws its own victims (if that’s the word for them) to … what? where? Once we are into this film, we are also into another world, where we in the audience tread only on the outskirts. Certain of the film’s inhabitants – a trio of schoolgirls and the most senior of their teachers, all visitors to the rock on the dazzlingly bright St. Valentine’s Day of 1900 – penetrate the very core of this other world. Others stay on the periphery but seem to become more aware of it, more knowing of its secrets, than we ever do. Unarguably, no one in the film who comes into contact with Hanging Rock is unchanged by it – not the fat girl who can’t keep up with her three friends and so returns to the rest of the party, at the Rock’s base, screaming and bleeding without knowing why; not the French assistante who muses that the leader of the Rock-climbing expedition has “the face of a Botticelli angel” immediately before losing sight of her forever; not the young Englishman who ventures onto the Rock in search of the missing and himself faces the unacknowledgeable. (He, incidentally, is played by Dominic Guard, the go-between of The Go-Between, now on the brink of adulthood and as baffled here by children as he was in the earlier film by adults.)

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