Tuesday 29 November 2011

Your Turn Darling (1963)

Before James Bond there was Lemmy Caution. He was the hero of a whole series of French movies in the 50s and early 60s, movies that were the ancestors of both the eurospy and spy spoof movies that boomed during the 1960s. Your Turn Darling (À toi de faire... mignonne) was the seventh such movie to feature Eddie Constantine in the role.

The character was created by British hardboiled crime writer Peter Cheyney (1896-1951) and figured in ten novels between 1936 and 1945. They were hugely successful at the time and built up a major following in France. Lemmy Caution remains something of a pop culture icon there.

Eddie Constantine (1917-1993) was a gravel-voiced American-born singer and actor who spent most of his career in France and Germany. He’s best-known for his role in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville in 1965, where he again played Lemmy Caution but in a very different kind of film.

Cheyney’s novels were pulpy and tongue-in-cheek and the movies captured the same feel. They’re great fun although sadly while English-dubbed versions exist there are no official English-friendly DVD releases and those that can be found are fullframe (which is not a problem with the earlier movies in the series that were shot in 1.33:1 but is a problem with the later entries in the cycle which were filmed in 2.35:1.

Lemmy Caution is an FBI agent whose cases always seem to take him to France. This time scientist Elmer Whittaker has been kidnapped, and this scientist has developed a secret formula for something terribly important and it must not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. Lemmy is hot on the trail and the trail (as always) leads him to an assortment of beautiful but dangerous women. Luckily Lemmy likes beautiful but dangerous women almost as much as he likes Scotch whisky, and he likes Scotch whisky very much indeed.

The beautiful but dangerous women spend almost as much time trying to kill each other as they spend trying to kill Lemmy. The most dangerous of all is the widow of a famous Italian painter who is not what she seems to be.

Lemmy has little trouble figuring out who the kidnappers are but getting Dr Whittaker back is not so simple. The kidnappers are threatening to sell him and the formula to an unfriendly government and Lemmy has to persuade the FBI to come up with a million dollars in ransom money. He has some tricks up his sleeve but so do the kidnappers.

Compared to later spy movies there are very few gadgets and no spectacular sets or action sequences. In that respect the Lemmy Caution movies are more like the spy movies of the 40s and they’re a mix of espionage and hardboiled crime.

This is not the best of the Lemmy Caution movies by any means. The earlier films combined hardboiled dialogue, international intrigue and tongue-in-cheek humour in a balanced mix, a mix very similar to that of the later Bond movies. This time around the comedy completely predominates. You’re certainly better off starting with the earlier movies from the 50s like Poison Ivy or Dames Don't Care (both of which feature the wonderful and very exotic Dominique Wilms).

Having said that, Your Turn Darling is still good-natured fun and Eddie Constantine is always worth watching.

Saturday 26 November 2011

Samson and the Seven Miracles of the World (1961)

Samson and the Seven Miracles of the World (Maciste alla corte del Gran Khan) is a peplum with a difference - it’s set in China during the 13th century.

Making a peplum set in China might seem an odd thing to do but apparently the producers of a relatively lavish movie on Marco Polo felt that it would be silly to use the sets for just one movie so they decided to use them again to make a peplum. They also had quite a few Asian actors and extras available so that made it even easier. Japanese actress Yoko Tani played the female lead in both films.

As the Italian title makes clear the hero of this movie is not in fact Samson but Maciste. Maciste is not a figure from folklore or mythology. He had been the hero of the 1914 Italian movie Cabiria, a movie that has strong claims to being the first movie epic. The character caught on so well that he ended up being the hero of countless sword and sandal movies.

So what is an Italian hero doing in China? The movie solves that problem by simply ignoring it. We just have to accept that he happens to be there. Let’s face it, if you’re going to start worrying about logic in a movie like this you’re watching the wrong type of movie.

China (or most of it) at this time was part of the enormous Mongol Empire. Garak Khan has a problem. He is acting as regent for the young Chinese crown prince and his sister Lei-ling. Of course the reality is that he runs the country and has no intention of allowing a Chinese dynasty to re-establish itself, but the Chinese prince and princess are being used as symbols of resistance by a rebel army dedicated to the overthrow of the Mongols.

Garak decides to do the obvious thing and have them killed, but just as he’s about to feed the prince to a tiger along comes Maciste and ruins everything. Maciste has made contact with the rebels and has offered to help them. The immediate problem is that Garak’s plans to murder the princess having failed he has now decided to marry her instead. To do this he will have to kidnap her.

Garak already has a girlfriend and she is not overly pleased by this new development. She was all set to become the beautiful but evil queen without which no peplum worth its salt is complete but now she’s ready to change sides and fight for goodness and justice. At least until Garak’s marriage plans fall through.

Gordon Scott plays Maciste and he’s a perfectly acceptable muscleman hero. Yoko Tani makes a reasonable princess heroine. Hélène Chanel is a fun would-be beautiful but evil queen and Leonardo Severini as Garak is the smooth but villainous Garak.

There are no supernatural elements or monsters in this movie but there’s plenty of action and mayhem, including an eight-horse scythed chariot used by Garak Khan as a novel method of executing his enemies.

Director Riccardo Freda made some excellent gothic horror films as well as many sword and sandal epics and in fact he had a go at just about every genre going including spaghetti westerns and eurospy thrillers. He was always a very capable director.

The movie itself is a terrific example of its species and is highly recommended.

The same cannot be said for Retromedia’s DVD presentation. The good news is that it’s in the correct Cinemascope aspect ratio and that’s a major plus given the number of Italian genre movies that are only available in terrible pan-and-scan fullframe versions. Unfortunately that’s the only good news. This is an absolutely abysmal print, and even worse it’s cut by about half an hour! Which means the plot is badly rushed and not entirely coherent. Picture quality is lousy.

The English dubbed version is the only soundtrack option but that’s less of a problem since bad dubbing tends to enhance this type of movie.

It’s probably not Retromedia’s fault since it may well be that there are no other surviving English dubbed or subtitled prints, and while image quality is poor it’s watchable and at least it’s not pan-and-scanned. It’s just a pity a better print could not have been found of such a very entertaining peplum.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974)

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell was released in 1974 but was really a throwback to an earlier era of British horror. That’s not intended as a criticism - this is classic Hammer.

This film saw Peter Cushing playing Baron Frankenstein for the last time and it was also director Terence Fisher’s final film. With music by James Bernard and a screenplay by Anthony Hinds this is like a Hammer reunion from the studio’s golden days.

As the movie opens a young doctor named Simon Helder (Shane Briant) is trying to continue the work of the late Baron Frankenstein. Frankenstein had died in a lunatic asylum some years earlier. Dr Helder is too young to have ever met the baron but he has all his books and is an eager disciple. Unfortunately the authorities remain unsympathetic to those at the cutting edge of science and Dr Helder is convicted of sorcery and committed to an asylum for the criminally insane. In fact it’s the same asylum in which Frankenstein passed his final years.

Young Simon has a major surprise in store for him. Not only is Baron Frankenstein still very much alive, he now effectively runs the asylum. He has collected enough damaging evidence against the director of the asylum (a man who is clearly both sexually depraved and mentally unstable) and most of his underlings that no-one will now dare to question his authority.

For Frankenstein it has been a congenial arrangement. He has the necessary privacy in which to continue his experiments and he has a source of human raw material. He also has a faithful assistant, a beautiful young female inmate named Sarah who is known to all as The Angel. Sarah is mute but quite sane. She has been a valuable, intelligent and capable assistant but it would obviously be very useful to have a second assistant with proper medical training. He is therefore extremely pleased to make the acquaintance of Dr Helder, and even more pleased when he discovers that the brilliant young surgeon is an admirer of his own work.

One inmate of this madhouse who had particularly attracted Frankenstein’s interest was a man who had regressed to a more primitive stage of human evolution. When he was killed trying to escape the Baron wasted no time in restoring him to life. He is now the subject of Frankenstein’s latest experiments. As always with his creatures the brain has been a problem but there happens to be another patient who is a genius, albeit an insane genius. His brain would be ideal.

Dr Helder’s enthusiasm for the work is soon tempered by ethical concerns. Frankenstein has no problems in that area. The Frankenstein of this movie is entirely lacking in anything resembling a moral sense. Frankenstein had always been inclined to allow his ambitions to overrule his conscience and this tendency has now reached an extreme. He is also now very close to complete madness.

Cushing is in fine form, giving one of his most chilling performances. Shane Briant is quite adequate, as is Madeleine Smith as Sarah. John Stratton is delightfully creepy as the asylum director while Patrick Troughton contributes an entertaining cameo as a grave robber.

The monster in this final film is more human than in most previous productions. He can speak, and he can understand his horrifying situation. David Prowse had played the monster before, in Hammer’s The Horror of Frankenstein.

Terence Fisher shows that he hadn’t lost his touch. The very low budget (a real problem for Hammer in this period) is evident but art director Scott MacGregor does a pretty good job within those constraints and the movie has a brooding claustrophobic feel that is perfect for the madhouse setting.

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell ends the Hammer Frankenstein cycle on a very satisfying note.

Monday 21 November 2011

Grip of the Strangler (1958)

Grip of the Strangler (AKA The Haunted Strangler) is a very good idea that doesn’t quite come off but it remains an interesting attempt.

American-born producer Richard Gordon rode the British horror boom fairly successfully, being responsible for a good many entertaining low-budget British horror films.

This low-budget 1958 British horror flick stars Boris Karloff as a man investigating a murder that occurred 20 years earlier. The movie opens with the hanging of Edward Styles, the Haymarket Strangler. The time period is not specified exactly but is presumably the mid-19th century. Since it’s the days when public executions were a popular spectator sport it must be some time before 1868.

A novelist named James Rankin has become obsessed with the case. He is convinced that Styles was innocent. He suspects that a young doctor named Tennant, who performed the autopsies on the strangler’s five victims as well as on the convicted man, had some involvement in the murders. Dr Tennant mysteriously disappeared from Guy’s Hospital in London shortly after the execution of Styles.

Dr Tennant had been an habitue of the Judas Hole, a rather low dive that was also the scene of at least one of the murders. One of the dancers there had been a key witness at the trial of Styles but it now becomes clear that her evidence was much less solid that it had appeared at the time.

Rankin has found personal papers belonging to Dr Tennant, papers that do suggest that Tennant was obsessed by the case to a morbid degree. He has also found Tennant’s surgical kit and believes there is some significance to the fact that a surgeon’s knife is missing from the kit. He thinks the missing knife may be in Edward Styles’ coffin

Superintendant Burk at Scotland Yard has been willing to give Rankin every assistance within reason but decides he must draw the line when Rankin insists that Styles’ body must be exhumed. Rankin bribes a prison guard at Newgate to allow him to enter the prison cemetery at night to dig up the coffin himself. He finds the knife, and he finds the answer to the puzzle, but it’s an answer that will drive him to madness.

The premise is a good one and I won’t ruin it by revealing the twist. The problem is that the movie relies a bit too much on excessive and not entirely necessary makeup effects and these tend to make the movie seem silly when it fact it isn’t. They also draw attention to the low budget and give it a cheap feel that is rather unfortunate.

This minus is more than balanced out however by some impressive pluses, the most notable being Karloff. At the age of 70 he could still deliver a powerhouse performance. The other actors are quite adequate.

The screenplay is a clever variation on one of the classic tales of gothic horror but I won’t tell you which one because this would reveal too much of the plot.

Despite the low budget it manages some effectively atmospheric moments and the black-and-white cinematography is competently handled.

Although it has its faults it’s a reasonably entertaining gothic chiller.

The all-region UK PAL DVD release from 2entertain is barebones and it’s fullframe but it looks reasonably good and it can be picked up very very cheaply.

Saturday 19 November 2011

4D Man (1959)

What would happen if a scientist managed to conquer the fourth dimension? Judging by the 1959 sci-fi flick 4D Man the first thing that would happen would be that logic would fly out the window. This is an amazingly silly movie.

But then some of my favourite science fiction movies are amazingly silly. Amazingly silly is something I can live with if it’s combined with fun. 4D Man doesn’t quite make it on this score but it comes close.

Dr Tony Nelson (James Congdon) is a brilliant if erratic scientist who believes he is on the verge of an extraordinary scientific breakthrough. At one stage he managed to get a pencil to penetrate a steel plate by persuading the molecules of the pencil and the steel plate to occupy the same space at the same time. And I use the word persuaded deliberately - he did this by an act of will, aided by a force field.

Unfortunately Tony then managed to burn down his employer’s laboratory and consequently got himself fired. So he set off for another city to join his older brother Scott (Robert Lansing). Dr Scott Nelson is also a brilliant scientist although up till now he’s been more disciplined than his brother.

Scott is working at the laboratories run by Dr Theodore Carson, his current project bring the development of cargonite, a substance so tough that it is for all intents and purposes indestructible. Dr Carson has the unpleasant habit of allowing his staff to do all the work and then taking all the credit himself. Scott hasn’t been too worried by this - he’s dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and besides he’s in love with his glamorous assistant Linda Davis (Lee Meriwether) and she’s going to marry him so really he has everything he wants.

Tony’s arrival upsets all his preconceptions. As he’s done in the past Tony proceeds to steal Scott’s remarkably fickle girlfriend, and just as disturbingly Tony also announces that cargonite is not indestructible after all. Tony’s own research proves that nothing is indestructible. By harnessing the powers of the fourth dimension it is possible to concentrate years of willpower into a few seconds thus allowing any object to be penetrated.

Scott has been suffering from severe headaches and his doctor has advised him that his EEG readings are very abnormal. The shock of discovering Linda’s betrayal pushes him over the edge. He starts to work on Tony’s theories and finds that he doesn’t need the amplifier and force field that Tony has developed - he can pass into the fourth dimension at any time merely by exerting his will. In his increasingly unbalanced mental state this proves to be a dangerous discovery. Scott is out of control.

And there’s a downside to this fourth dimension stuff - it ages you. The only way to keep young is by draining the years from other people and this has the effect of killing them. I warned you that this movie was very silly!

The special effects are reasonable enough - walking through walls and that sort of thing.

Robert Lansing was a fairly competent actor and although Scott’s sudden personality change is a difficult sell he does reasonably well in the role. Tony Nelson ends up the hero but really he’s a thoroughly slimy character and James Congdon fails to make him a sympathetic hero. Lee Meriwether as Scott’s faithless girlfriend is somewhat on the dull side. Look out for a very young Patty Duke showing even then a desire to chew any scenery she can get at.

The movie’s biggest problem is the ending which seems very perfunctory.

But this is not a movie to take even remotely seriously - this is 50s American science fiction and no-one should expect it to make sense. Just settle back and enjoy the campy ridiculous fun.

This DVD release is not one of Image Entertainment’s prouder moments. In fact it’s a thoroughly lousy DVD. It’s full frame and picture quality is very poor. So although the movie is fun the DVD is so awful it can’t possibly be recommended.

Thursday 17 November 2011

Witches' Hammer (1970)

Witch-hunting has always been a popular subject for both art-house and exploitation films in most countries. There are many well-known examples from British, American and European film-makers. Witches' Hammer (Kladivo na carodejnice), made in Czechoslovakia in 1969, is a rare example of such a movie from behind the Iron Curtain.

Writer-director Otakar Vávra already had a long career behind him when he made Witches' Hammer in 1969 (it was released in January 1970). And he had a long career still in front of him - his final film was released in 2003. He died in 2011, aged 100.

He’d lived through countless changes of regime. When he was born his birthplace in Bohemia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By the late 30s it was under the control of the Nazis. By the time he reached middle age the horrors of the Nazi regime had given way to the horrors of communism. He outlived all those regimes. He survived, and managed to go on making movies for more than seventy years.

This is one case where it’s absolutely essential to know the historical background to a film. The tentative moves towards freedom in Czechoslovakia, the so-called Prague Spring, had been brutally crushed by the Soviets in 1968 and hardline communism reinstated. It’s impossible to believe that any Czech film-maker could have chosen witch-hunting and the Inquisition as subject matter in 1969 without there being a political intent to the film. And in later life director Otakar Vávra made it clear that that was indeed his intention, that the movie is really about the oppressiveness of the communist regime.

The plot is your basic witch-hunt plot. The time is the late 17th century. An old woman is spotted stealing a consecrated host from a church. The priest immediately suspects that witch-craft is afoot. After consultations with the local grandees the fateful decision is made to call in the Inquisition.

The problem here being that calling in the Inquisition is relatively easy but getting rid of them is next to impossible. Accusation follows accusation, the number of convicted witches sentenced to burning grows steadily, and soon it is obvious that no-one is safe. A number of local notables are concerned, the priest who stared the ball rolling is sure that most of the victims are in fact innocent, but anyone who questions the activities of the Inquisitor risks being accused of witchcraft himself. If you doubt the guilt of the accused witches then you must be a witch, just as anyone who doubted the guilt of the victims of the Stalinist show trials automatically came under suspicion.

The acting is generally good. Vladimír Smeral as the Inquisitor Boblig is a frightening study in evil and hypocrisy, more interested in enriching himself and cementing his own power than in anything else. He’s the sort of person who would have been equally successful as a Party apparatchik in the mid-20th century. Elo Romancik gives a moving performance as Deacon Lautner, a man with the courage to stand up to the Inquisition but unfortunately also a man with a guilty secret.

The film was shot in black-and-white and looks extraordinarily bleak. The mood of the film is every bit as grim. 1969 being an incredibly grim time in Czech history that’s probably not surprising. There’s not a great deal of hope on offer here.

While the movie’s real subject is what was happening in Czechoslovakia after the suppression of the Prague Spring it’s also an effective indictment of the witch-hunting mentality in general making it as relevant today as it was 40 years ago. That witch-hunting mentality is still alive and well.

It’s not exactly enjoyable but it is a powerful film. This is an art-house rather than an exploitation flick but there’s copious nudity and there are plenty of grisly scenes.

It’s been released on DVD by an outfit called Facets Video. It’s a so-so transfer. The liner notes (by Susan Doll) are informative but that’s the only extra included.

Monday 14 November 2011

Scars of Dracula (1970)

The first time I saw Scars of Dracula I regarded it as one of Hammer’s lesser films. A second viewing conforms that impression, although it’s not without entertainment value.

Taste the Blood of Dracula in 1970 had tried to take the Hammer Dracula cycle in a slightly different direction. Scars of Dracula, which followed later the same year, is by comparison a bit of a step backwards. Plotwise it’s a straightforward by-the-numbers Hammer gothic movie.

Paul Carlson is turned away from the local inn and decides to try his luck at the nearby castle. He finds a bed for the night there but since this is Castle Dracula its not altogether surprising that the young man is not heard from again. His brother Simon (Dennis Waterman) sets off to find him. There’s really not much more to the plot than that.

While the plot is less than inspired there are a few elements that do mark a slight departure from earlier Hammer movies, most notably the gore factor. This was Hammer’s goriest movie to date, and it’s also in general the most brutal of their vampire flicks. Dracula really is a nasty piece of work in this movie with a decided penchant for sadistic violence. One of his chief victims is his loyal servant Klove (Patrick Troughton). As Christopher Lee quite correctly remarks in the accompanying commentary track, Klove’s willing complicity in this treatment makes this the most explicitly sado-masochistic of Hammer’s movies. It also makes Klove one of the more interesting of the various underlings who have served the Count in the course of Hammer’s Dracula series.

There’s also a rather shocking post-massacre scene, once again emphasising the extreme evil of Dracula.

The character of Dracula is much more centre stage than in most of the Hammer Dracula films. There’s even a scene of the Count climbing the walls of the castle, just as in Stoker’s novel.

The supporting cast is a mixed bag. Dennis Waterman is terrible, Jenny Hanley is dull, Anouska Hempel as Dracula’s vampire bride looks exotic enough while Patrick Troughton goes close to stealing the movie. Michael Ripper is as reliable as always, playing yet another innkeeper.

The special effects are reasonable, apart from the bats. They’re among the most embarrassingly bad movie bats you’ll ever see.

More interesting than the movie itself is the commentary track, featuring both director Roy Ward Baker and star Christopher Lee. Christopher Lee is in quite a jovial mood and manages to be remarkably positive about both this particular movie and about Hammer in general. His one serious criticism is that Hammer failed to take advantage of the potentialities of the character of Dracula and he is of course absolutely correct on that score. Aside from that he’s chatty and amusing. Both Lee and Baker offer trenchant (and entirely valid) criticisms of the state of modern horror and of the modern British film industry.

Overall Scars of Dracula is not one of Hammer’s better efforts but in its own way it’s reasonably enjoyable.

Hot Thrills and Warm Chills (1967)

You don’t really expect 1960s sexploitation movies to make a huge amount of sense. Hot Thrills and Warm Chills does have a plot, of sorts, it just happens to be a very silly plot. But silliness and weirdness are all part of the appeal of this particular genre and this movie qualifies on both counts.

Toni (Tita Alexander) used to be the leader of a very successful girl gang. Now she gets together with two of her former gang cohorts to make one last big score. It’s Mardi Gras time and they’re going to steal the crown of King Sex.

Toni has it all planned out so that nothing can possibly go wrong, but of course everything does go wrong and eventually the girls take refuge in a cemetery.

The plot occupies a minority of the movie’s running time. The rest of the movie comprises the girls’ reminiscences of various sexual encounters. That and an extended topless dance sequence that has absolutely no connection with the rest of the movie takes up the rest of the movie.

The soundtrack is indescribably bizarre. Continuity is non-existent. The script is filled with jaw-dropping dialogue.

The acting is terrible, but it’s entertainingly terrible. And as its star it has the amazing Rita Alexander. Among her claims to fame is the ability to balance a champagne glass on her breasts, a feat she demonstrates in the opening sequence. She really is wonderful - she’s totally over-the-top and delightfully larger-than-life.

Director Dale Berry was a Texas-based sexploitation film-maker active in the mid to late 60s and Hot Thrills and Warm Chills is presented as part of a two-movie set from Something Weird Video showcasing his inimitable works. The other featured movie is Hip, Hot and 21 and it’s just as strange.

As usual Something Weird have managed to find pretty decent prints of these bizarre obscurities and there are various shorts and trailers to complete the package.

While it's not one of the great American sexploitation movies this one is still worth a look if you're a fan of the genre.

Saturday 12 November 2011

The Terminal Man (1974)

The 1970s had already seen two smash-hit science fiction thrillers based on the novels of Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain and Westworld, so when The Terminal Man was released in 1974 it must have looked like a sure thing in box-office terms. In fact it bombed quite badly. It’s not difficult to see why.

The premise is mildly interesting but had already been done, and done infinitely better, A Clockwork Orange. Harry Benson (George Segal) has violent seizures that turn him into a homicidal maniac at regular intervals. After the attacks he is left with no memory of the event whatsoever. A team of clever scientist chappies has come up with a sure-fire cure - they will implant a computer in the man’s brain to control the seizures.

Psychiatrist Dr Janet Ross (Joan Hackett) has her doubts. Right from the start the movie makes it clear it’s taking the classic anti-science approach so familiar from countless previous movies.

A potentially interesting element that is left completely unexplored is that Benson is a computer scientist who suffers from paranoid delusions about - computers! He believes they’re going to take over the world.

Predictably the surgery goes horribly wrong and it all turns into a messy disaster.

A Clockwork Orange (both Anthony Burgess’s novel and Stanley Kubrick’s film) make all sorts of provocative points about free will, the rights of the individual compared to the rights of society, the nature of violence and evil and the dangers of forcibly changing human behaviour. Unfortunately the writer-director of The Terminal Man, Mike Hodges, is content with little more than platitudes about technology turning us into machines. The fact that Harry’s violent episodes are presented as being entirely out of his control makes for an uninteresting movie. His personality is therefore irrelevant and he is a mere victim of the wicked capitalist medical-scientific conspiracy to control our minds.

Nothing is too obvious for Hodges. The police are brutal killers. The doctors and scientists are evil, greedy and uncaring. The system will destroy everyone. You can’t win. This is classic 1970s whining adolescent self-pity in full cry and it’s not a pretty sight.

George Segal tries hard but the script gives him nothing to work with. We know nothing about him, his personality remains a blank, and it is almost impossible to care what happens to him. He is further handicapped by having to wear an absurd wig for most of the movie (a disguise he dons to make his escape from the hospital). This has the effect of making the whole movie seem like a crude joke.

Joan Hackett is adequate as Dr Ross although once again the inept script fails to make her anything more than the stereotypical Caring Woman Psychiatrist.

Robert Wise (who directed The Andromeda Strain) and Michael Crichton himself (who directed Westworld) understood that a science fiction thriller
needs a balance of ideas and excitement. Hodges gives us neither.

The visual style of the movie is the one moderately interesting thing about it. The movie has a bleak antiseptic monochromatic feel to it. It’s reasonably effective but it’s scarcely original. Hodges does come up with a few striking images that might have had some impact but they’re wasted on a story that nobody is likely to care about.

This one is available in the made-on-demand Warner Archive DVD-R series and it’s a good quality print.

Thursday 10 November 2011

Our Man Flint (1966)

The enormous success of the first James Bond movies launched an avalanche of copies, clones, rip-offs and spoofs. Among the more successful of the American efforts in this regard were the two Derek Flint movies. The first of these was Our Man Flint, released in 1966.

What I find really surprising about this movie is just how hostile most of the online reviews are. Perhaps it just shows how humourless our world has become. But when I find reviewers comparing it unfavourably to the horrendously laboured Austin Powers movies I really start to fear for the future of our civilisation. Our Man Flint has an easy-going charm and an effortless quality that Austin Powers sadly lacks.

The weak point to Our Man Flint is the premise. Mad scientists aiming at world domination by controlling the weather was a cliché even in 1966. The movie does add an amusing and original twist even here though - these are mad scientists who are also into the whole peace and love vibe. They want world domination so everyone can be happy. They’re diabolical criminal mastermind hippies who promise a world of free love and go-go dancing.

Derek Flint (James Coburn) is a former intelligence agent who has quit the spy game to devote himself to pleasure. He lives a life of luxury in a love nest made for five. Even James Bond never managed four girlfriends at once. Now his former boss, Cramden (Lee J. Cobb), has to try to lure him back for another assignment for ZOWIE (Zonal Organisation for World Intelligence and Espionage). Flint turns him down but changes his mind when someone tries to kill him. Flint is being hunted by a glamorous female agent employed by the mad scientists. Her job is to kill him but she’s too overcome by his manly charms to actually want him dead.

The plot isn’t really the point of the movie. It’s all about the style and the wit, and it has plenty of that. I suspect that a lot of the people who’ve reviewed this movie unfavourably have taken it too seriously. The island headquarters of the bad guys includes a pleasure zone populated by women programmed as love slaves. How anyone could fail to realise that this is not male wish fulfillment, it’s a joke, is beyond me.

Flint is not just a secret agent. He’s a polymath, an art connoisseur, a gourmet, an authority on every conceivable subject and of course he’s irresistible to women. The bad guys really don’t have a chance, but then this is a spoof, and it’s the invulnerable infallible hero that it’s spoofing. James Coburn gets the tone just right and avoids the obvious danger of becoming annoying by being so perfect. He’s so obviously not taking any of this seriously, and he doesn’t overplay it.

Lee J. Cobb is an odd choice for what is essentially a lighthearted comic role but he manages reasonably well.

The sets are a major plus. They’re not just the usual secret laboratory/secret criminal headquarters sets - the mad scientists’ island is like a combination of secret laboratory and discotheque. There’s even a mock drive-in theatre in the pleasure zone where couples can experience the ultimate in sensual delights - necking at the drive-in.

While this is strictly a fun romp it’s also an amusing satire of well-meaning but deluded idealists who want to make the world perfect, as long as it’s their idea of perfection. That’s about as close as this film ever gets to anything even remotely approaching a serious message.

The DVD presentation is adequate. It’s available in a two-movie set along with the second Flint movie, In Like Flint. The transfer is good and it’s in the correct ’scope aspect ratio but there are no extras apart from a trailer.

This movie has submarines, silly gadgets, explosions, a secret headquarters inside a volcano, trained attack eagles and go-go dancing. What’s not to like?

Tuesday 8 November 2011

De Sade (1969)

That De Sade fails is not at all surprising. What is surprising is that it’s a more interesting failure than you might expect.

This 1969 production was a very ambitious undertaking for American International Pictures, with a prestige cast and elaborate sets and costumes. It’s also artistically ambitious.

It suffers from having been an AIP production and having been made in 1969. Much as I love AIP’s movies in general a biopic on the Marquis de Sade was an impossible project for them. It was too self-consciously arty for the drive-in crowd (AIP’s main audience) but at the same time not quite arty enough for the art-house crowd. And in 1969 it was always going to prove impossible to resist the temptation to get all psychedelic with the Divine Marquis. He comes across as being a misunderstood hippie. He just wanted people to be free, man. And to live authentically. But the establishment kept hassling him.

Writer Richard Matheson intended the entire movie to be a kind of dream reminiscence by de Sade on his deathbed but while director Cy Endfield more or less sticks to this plan his approach is a little too linear and too conventional to really capture that dream quality that Matheson was after. The play-within-a-play aspect works reasonably well but might have been more effective had it been pushed a bit further.

Keir Dullea was a bold casting choice as de Sade. It doesn’t quite come off. He’s too young, doesn’t look dissipated enough and doesn’t have the necessary edge. On the other hand it’s an interesting performance, and in some ways I like the fact that he plays de Sade as an ineffectual and really rather harmless and silly intellectual. After all, whatever crimes he may have imagined in his writings the Marquis was in real life mostly harmless. This was a man who was sacked as a judge by the Revolutionary government because he couldn’t bring himself to impose the death sentence.

I also rather like the chaotic feel to the much-criticised orgy sequences. This was after all what the Enlightenment led to - a mindless orgy of violence and chaos that set Europe on the path to Buchenwald and to the gulags and eventually to the greatest horror of all, postmodernism. If you want to understand the failure of western civilisation then reading de Sade is a good start. He was the first of a series of European intellectuals who devoted their lives to trashing their own civilisation, paving the way for Freud, Marx, Foucault and the postmodern rabble in general. Don’t get me wrong, I think that in his own way de Sade is an important writer - he’s important because he represents the dark side to the Enlightenment.

The acting is generally of a very high order. Lilli Palmer is terrific as de Sade’s mother-in-law from Hell. She’s so civilised and yet so monstrous, but then dealing with a son-in-law like de Sade would have been no picnic. Anna Massey is superb as his unfortunate wife while Senta Berger is solid as her sister, the woman de Sade actually loved and wanted to marry. The film could be accused of turning the Marquis’ life into a love story. The film certainly wants us to believe that de Sade’s excesses were at least partly a result of thwarted love.

And then there’s John Huston, gleefuly stealing the picture as de Sade’s wicked lecherous uncle who sets his nephew on the road to depravity.

The philosophical implications of de Sade’s work don’t get a lot of attention in the film and when it does try to tackle such issues it does so in a way that is much too 1960s.

The DVD includes an interview with Matheson. The most interesting part of this is his revelation that John Huston was apparently disappointed he wasn’t asked to direct the picture! Now that might have been an interesting movie. I suspect Huston would have taken a bolder approach than Endfield. I can’t really imagine a Huston-directed de Sade biopic but it’s something to ponder.

Overall this movie is an interesting mess that often misses its target spectacularly but then at other times it unexpectedly comes up with the goods. It at least avoids the mistake of trying to make de Sade a conventional villain or a rebel hero, instead depicting him as a man whose view of the world is a mixture of insight and delusion.

A failure certainly but worth a look.