Friday 30 January 2015

The Blob (1958)

The Blob is perhaps the most famous of all the science fiction monster movies of the 1950s. It has spawned sequels and remakes and on more than one occasion a television series was even contemplated. It’s one of those movies that crosses the line and becomes a pop culture phenomenon rather than just a mere movie. Does it live up to the hype? In my view, not entirely but it’s still a good deal of fun.

The plot is standard 50s sci-fi fare. A meteorite lands, an old man investigates the meteorite and finds some horrible sticky substance adhering to his arm. A couple of teenagers find him and take to the local doctor who is mystified and alarmed. The sticky goop keeps growing and pretty soon it’s obvious it lives by devouring living creatures and it seems to have a preference for people. It seems unstoppable and the whole town is threatened, in fact if it can’t be stopped the whole world will be menaced. One of the teenagers, Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen in his first major film role), tries to warn the townsfolk of the danger but no-one will listen to one of those crazy teenagers.

The Blob was shot at Valley Forge Studios in Pennsylvania, a small studio specialising in religious films. Director Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr was in fact an ordained Christian minister which caused some slight problems during shooting since he was naturally enough unavailable to work on Sundays due to the demands of his day job. Apart from making enormous numbers of religious films Yeaworth made a couple of other notable science fiction movies including The 4D Man.

For cult movie fans one of the interesting aspects of The Blob is that it’s possibly the first movie to make reference to the “midnight movie” phenomenon. The town’s teenagers are attending a midnight “spook show” at the local movie house. Hardcore cult movie fans will be even more delighted that the movie that’s playing is Daughter of Horror, a bona fide midnight movie classic.

This reference is interesting because The Blob itself is of course part of the same phenomenon, made outside the Hollywood studio system. Producer Jack Harris started his career distributing movies under the states rights system which was a distribution system  completely outside Hollywood and the the MPAA which was used by exploitation film-makers. Harris had tried to interest all the studios, major and minor, in The Blob but eventually decided to go it alone with financing although it was later picked up for distribution by Paramount. The late 1950s saw the majors finally starting to take a reluctance interest in the sci-fi and juvenile delinquent movies made by small studios and independent producers that were making huge amounts of money on the drive-in circuit.

Although The Blob was a very cheap movie compared to mainstream Hollywood fare it was not an ultra-low budget movie. Harris’s idea was that the movie should be made in colour and with reasonably high production values so that it would be able to compete with major studio productions. It was a good strategy and the movie is reputed to have made back its production costs a hundred times over.

One unusual feature of The Blob is that there are no scientists on hand to explain where the blob comes from or to offer suggestions for combating the menace. In fact there are no scientists at all in the movie. This was deliberate - it was felt that to maximise the terror it was desirable to have the townspeople left to deal with the threat without any outside help. This is why there are no air force jets to bomb the blob or army units to offer the usual ineffectual help.

Harris’s idea for the movie was that science fiction and juvenile delinquents were proving to be box-office winners on the drive-in circuit so the obvious thing was to combine the two genres. But with a difference. The juvenile delinquents would turn out to be basically nice kids and would in fact pitch in enthusiastically to help combat the alien menace. Since the movie was going to be aimed to a large degree at teenage audiences it seemed sensible to portray the film’s teenagers in a positive light.

At the time the movie was released Steve McQueen had just landed the lead role in the popular TV western series Wanted: Dead or Alive and his star was very much in the ascendent. This certainly did the movie no harm and helped to contribute to its growing cult status. McQueen was apparently very difficult to work with and had mixed feelings about the movie, sometimes seeming to be quite embarrassed by it although he remained on good terms with producer Harris and director Yeaworth and at times he was driven to admit that the movie had played a large part in launching his career.

The special effects suffer from the inherent goofiness of the monster although some scenes, especially of the Blob oozing through cracks and under doors, are quite effective. This is a movie monster that even at the time was probably going to provoke laughter as often as terror but that of course has been part of the movie’s appeal over the years - it has very high camp value.

The Region 4 DVD release looks terrific with the colours being incredibly bright - at times even perhaps over-bright! It includes not one but two commentary tracks, one featuring producer Jack Harris and the other featuring director Yeaworth and one of the supporting actors. Both commentaries are quite interesting.

The Blob suffers from uneven pacing and it’s really not especially scary. It is however highly entertaining and it has a more polished feel than many of the other 50s sci-fi monster movies. Recommended.

Sunday 25 January 2015

The Cassandra Crossing (1976)

The Cassandra Crossing is a somewhat surprising movie in more ways than one. It’s not the movie that the title and the posters would lead you to suppose and then having led you to believe that it’s a certain type of movie it switches gears dramatically and becomes a whole different movie.

It’s an action adventure movie that is also a classic 1970s disaster movie, and it’s also a classic 70s paranoia movie.

It starts with a well-executed action scene but you need have no fear that director George P. Cosmatos has shot his bolt early. He has a whole bag of other action scenes up his sleeve. 

Swedish peace activists have raided the headquarters of the International Health Organisation in Geneva. Presumably they were hoping for a few headlines but they ended up getting much more than they intended. Running about a medical facility with automatic weapons is not the greatest of ideas at the best of times (and is possibly not the best way to promote world peace) but it’s a seriously bad idea when the lab areas of that facility house very very dangerous stuff. Dangerous stuff like bacteria and viruses of some particularly nasty varieties, and even worse bacteria and viruses that no-one knows how to control. That’s why they were housed in an ultra-secure facility to begin with.

One of the peace activists is now lying desperately ill in an isolation bed while the other has decamped into the night. The one in the hospital bed seems to be suffering from some form of pneumonic plague, a nasty enough proposition in any circumstances but this strain may not be the regular pneumonic plague. Some of the stuff housed in the International Health Organisation’s facility is rather problematic, to say the least. Stuff like military viruses developed by the US that they were very anxious to destroy. The only problem is, they hadn’t figured out how to destroy them. So why were they housed in Geneva? For the very simple reason that it was supposed to be the safest place where they could only be stored in safety but where scientists could figure out how to get rid of them. 

Now things have obviously gone badly wrong. The US has sent in Colonel MacKenzie (Burt Lancaster), a man whose job it is to work out how to being uncontrollable situations like this back under control. He has the reputation of being very very good at his job, although he also has the reputation of being a man who will do whatever needs to be done, with the emphasis on whatever.

The Swedish peace activist who escaped is now on board the Geneva-Stockholm train. That’s about the only thing that is certainly known, other than the fact that he is almost certainly now the world’s deadliest plague carrier. On board a train with a thousand other passengers.

Among the passengers is Dr Jonathan Chamberlain (Richard Harris), a renowned neurosurgeon on his way to Strasbourg to collect an international prize. Dr Chamberlain’s presence on the train may be the first lucky break for the authorities. Although not necessarily such a lucky break for Dr Chamberlain who is travelling by train because he’s afraid to fly.

Also on board is his ex-wife twice over, Jennifer Rispoli (Sophia Loren). They’ve been married twice and divorced twice but that flame is still burning and they may yet be headed for marriage number three. If they live long enough.

Needless to say the authorities in every single country through which the train is scheduled to pass have categorically refused to allow the train to stop. That would seem to leave Colonel MacKenzie with no options, but there is in fact an option. Poland, despite being behind the Iron Curtain, has agreed to allow the train into Polish territory where it can can be unloaded and the passengers quarantined at a very secure facility. All the train has to do is cross the bridge at a place called the Cassandra Crossing and they’ll be just about home and hosed. In theory. At this point you might be thinking that the film’s title has some significance and that there’s something unusual about that bridge. Bingo.

For the first hour that’s how the movie progresses with the tension slowly being ratcheted up as one by one the passengers start to fall ill with disturbingly pneumonic plague-like symptoms. 

It’s at this point that the movie switches gears. Forget everything I’ve told you so far. That’s not what is going on. Or rather, it’s only a very small and misleading part of what is really going on. I’d only seen one George P. Cosmatos movie prior to this, Escape to Athenawhich is an outrageous and delightfully silly WW2 action adventure romp. At first The Cassandra Crossing seems to be a very different type of movie, more of a taut but realistic suspense thriller. Don’t worry, Cosmatos has saved up lots of outrageousness and delightful silliness for the second half of the movie. This train still has a long way to go before it reaches the Cassandra Crossing. There’s time for plenty of mayhem. And mayhem is what we certainly get.

OK, it has to be admitted up front that this is a remarkably silly movie. But then in general silliness is a major asset in a disaster movie. It’s almost embarrassingly easy to poke fun at the gaping plot holes. For starters, the ultra-secure facility in Geneva housing bioweapons has less security than the average neighbourhood convenience store. A team of reasonably motivated pre-schoolers could knock over this facility. And then there’s the major Plot Revelation halfway through. I can’t tell you what it is, but it involves the nature of the infection and it’s a doozy. And these people think they’re scientists?

It’s also one of the most hysterically anti-American movies I’ve ever seen, although allowance has to be made for the fact that it was the 70s and even American movies in the 70s were hysterically anti-American. But this one really goes overboard. In fact the paranoia in general is hopelessly overdone. If you keep increasing the paranoia level eventually it all just seems silly and that’s what happens here. As the paranoia level rises the movie’s credibility sinks.

The cast is what you expect in a mid-70s British-Italian-German big budget co-production. Some biggish international stars (Sophia Loren and Richard Harris), some European stars (Ingrid Thulin and Alida Valli), and (being a disaster movie) it has to have at least one superannuated Hollywood great. In this case it’s Ava Gardner, doing her best but hampered by being teamed up with Martin Sheen in cinema’s all-time unlikeliest romantic coupling. There’s also O. J. Simpson as a priest. Of course we know he’s not really a priest, but what he actually is will give viewers a few giggles. Plus Method Acting guru Lee Strasberg, demonstrating once again that Method Acting is pretty much indistinguishable from old-fashioned hamminess.

Co-producer Sir Lew Grade probably understood television better than any man who’s ever lived. Unfortunately he didn’t understand movies at all and his involvement in this project is convincing proof that he should have stuck to television. 

So all in all The Cassandra Crossing is very silly indeed. It’s also undeniably fast-moving and it has plenty of action although the one mistake you don’t want to make is to think about anything you’re seeing. Once you do this the spell is broken and it’s just completely unbelievable. It lacks the delightful insanity of Airport 1975 or the even crazier Airport '77. Either way it’s kind of fun, in that manner peculiar to spectacularly bad 70s disaster movies.

Monday 19 January 2015

Night of the Seagulls (1975)

Night of the Seagulls was the fourth and final installment in Spanish director Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead cycle with began with Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971) and continued with Return of the Evil Dead (1973) and The Ghost Galleon (1974).

The cycle deals with a chapter of the Knights Templar, suppressed and destroyed during the Middle Ages for its evil practices, whose members rise from the dead as blind zombies.  They spread terror centuries ago and they continue to spread terror even in the modern world.

These movies follow a template that was extremely popular in European horror in the 70s, and especially in Spanish horror. They open with a prologue set in medieval times and then jump forward to the present day. In the case of Night of the Seagulls we have a young doctor taking over a practice in a remote and very backward village near the sea. Dr Henry Stein (Víctor Petit) arrives in the village with his young wife Joan (María Kosty) and it is immediately apparent that the villagers don’t want them there. It is also clear that something frightening and wrong is going on in the village. Dr Stein picks up a few clues from the village idiot Teddy but he fails to put the pieces of the jigsaw together. He also fails to realise that the young village girls who are taken each night to play a part in some mysterious ritual are in fact being offered up as human sacrifices by the dead Templars to the demon god they worship. The villagers deliver the girls up to the Templars in return for being allowed to survive.

The first hint of something badly wrong comes when Dr Stein and his wife hear the seagulls crying at night. Seagulls do not call at night. We will later discover why these particular seagulls do in fact call at night and it provides one of the movie’s better moments.

Dr Stein’s attempts to intervene to protect a village girl named Lucy seem doomed to failure. There appears to be no way to stop the blind knights, unless somehow he can discover the secret of their power.

Although the village seems to be in Spain the villagers have Irish names! Although this might possibly only be the case in the English dubbed version.

There’s a fair amount of gore but it doesn’t overdone to the extent that was (unfortunately) becoming common in European horror. The film is at its best when de Ossorio concentrates on creepiness and old-fashioned terror rather than gore and he’s quite good at being creepy. The screenplay (also by de Ossorio) is quite well thought-out and while it’s not startlingly original it’s effective and the ending works well.

The great strength of the Blind Dead films is the idea of the zombie Templars. It’s an inherently creepy idea and de Ossorio knows how to make it effectively terrifying. The knights are scary not just because they’re blind and remorseless but also because they’re silent. Some of the tricks the director uses were ones he devised in the earlier films in the series, such as shooting the knights in slow motion. This technique can often be crude and irritating but it works superbly in these movies, emphasising the fact that the blind knights are slow but inexorable and unstoppable.

You might think that being the fourth and last of the Blind Dead movies this would be the weakest but actually it’s one of the best of the series. It’s very heavy on atmosphere and the visuals are impressive. The climax makes sense and provides a fitting ending to the series.

Zombie movies had become all the rage in the 1970s but the Blind Dead movies have more going for them than the average zombie movie. These zombies are both more interesting and more genuinely scary and the mood of oppressive dread is achieved very effectively.

Blue Underground’s DVD is not one of their best efforts, the image being excessively grainy. There’s also very little in the way of extras, just an image gallery and a trailer.

Amando de Ossorio was not one of the great European horror directors but he was very good at creating an atmosphere of evil and dread. In my view he was at his best when he was at his most outrageous, particularly in the deliciously crazy Night of the Sorcerers. His best horror film was the superb The Loreley’s Grasp.

Night of the Seagulls should satisfy eurohorror and eurosleaze fans. Recommended.

Thursday 15 January 2015

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

The Poseidon Adventure represents the 1970s disaster movie at its most popular, and at its most typical. To a large extent it follows the template established by Airport but it develops the formula to its fullest extent. Airport made the audience wait a long while for the disaster plot to kick in, while The Poseidon Adventure wastes little time in getting to the main action.

The plot will be familiar to most people. The passenger liner S.S. Poseidon, on its final voyage, runs into a gigantic tidal wave and capsizes. The surviving passengers have to make their way up towards the bottom of the ship to have a chance of being rescued.

To add as much tension as possible director Ronald Neame has the water constantly rising with the survivors just barely managing to keep ahead of it. And of course they encounter a series of deadly obstacles on their way.

In keeping with the Airport formula The Poseidon Adventure spends its first 25 minutes introducing us to the passengers who will comprise the small group of survivors so that they have at least a little depth as characters.

Of course the movie’s main selling points was the spectacle and in that respect it is quite impressive. The capsizing scene is fairly brief but quite stunning and was accomplished by the use of a set that actually tilted. There was clearly some very serious money spent on this movie and in general it was well spent. The sight of passengers hanging from the floor which has now become the ceiling is an extraordinarily effective and terrifying image.

Neame paces the movie pretty effectively. It’s a fairly long movie but it never becomes dull.

As to his desire to make the survivors come across as real people, it has to be said that the movie has mixed success in this department. Some of the key characters, such as Manny Rosen (Jack Albertson) and his wife Belle (Shelley Winters), never really come alive despite the unquestioned acting ability of the players. Those two characters are also treated in an excessively sentimentalised manner which makes them less believable.

Gene Hackman as the Reverend Scott, who assumes the leadership of the survivors, is not entirely successful. On the audio commentary Neame make the point that Hackman felt that the movie was beneath him and unfortunately it shows in his performance. Both Hackman and Ernest Borgnine indulge in some serious scenery-chewing which at times is perhaps taken a little too far.

On the other hand the relationship between tough New York cop Rogo (Borgnine) and his ex-hooker wife Linda (Stella Stevens) is portrayed with surprising sensitivity and subtlety. They never stop quarreling but it’s obvious they’re deeply in love and devoted to one another. They’re both fiery characters and they probably thoroughly enjoy their arguments, and it’s noticeable that the quarrels never become spiteful. The audience is left in no doubt  that in spite of appearances they have a successful marriage. Borgnine and Stevens certainly have the right chemistry and Stevens gives a very fine performance.

Equally successful is the movie’s portrayal of the odd relationship between ageing bachelor Martin (Red Buttons) and young songstress Nonnie (Carol Lynley). They’re both lonely and vulnerable and although they have appear to have zero in common they do have one bond - Martin desperately needs somebody to care about, and Nonnie desperately needs someone to care about her. Their emotional bond is never made explicitly romantic, which was a wise choice. It’s more interesting not knowing if there might be a romantic element involved. Red Buttons gives his usual fine performance while Lynley is pretty good as well. Her performance was helped by the fact that she was apparently genuinely terrified by some of the stunts she had to do.

Pamela Sue Martin also impresses as Susan, a teenager who develops a fairly major crush on Reverend Scott. She was at this time a very inexperienced actress indeed but she handles her rôle with considerable subtlety. 

On his audio commentary director Ronald Neame points out that the movie was aimed very specifically at a young audience. It was a strategy that succeeded magnificently at the box office despite the vituperative reviews by many critics. 

As with all 70s disaster movies the enduing appeal of this movie has much to do with its considerable camp value, although it is genuinely exciting and visually impressive (and the upside down sets work very well). The premise might be ludicrously far-fetched but that’s no disadvantage for a disaster movie.

The Australian Blu-Ray release looks marvellous. The commentary track is the only extra.

The Poseidon Adventure is silly fun and if you like silly fun you’ll almost certainly like it. Recommended.

Sunday 11 January 2015

Carry On Screaming (1966)

Carry On Screaming! was the twelfth of the Carry On movies and the last to be made by Anglo-Amalgamated (after which Rank took over the franchise). While it’s often described as a spoof of the Hammer horror films it’s really a spoof of horror movies in general, and also to some extent of the Sherlock Holmes-type gaslight mysteries.

Carry On Screaming! actually has a more coherent plot than many of the Carry On films and it has a genuine horror movie plot although obviously played purely for laughs.

Harry H. Corbett, in his only appearance in a Carry On movie, plays Detective-Sergeant Sidney Bung. The role was originally intended for Sid James but Corbett is so good it’s hard to imagine that even James could have bettered his performance. Sergeant Bung is investigating a series of disappearances of young women and the trail leads him to the Bide-a-Wee Rest Home. The home is run by Doctor Orlando Watt (Kenneth Williams) and his sister Valeria (Fenella Fielding). Dr Watt has been dead for fifteen years but that doesn’t stop him from carrying on his work. His work consists of vitrifying corpses, regenerating the dead and creating monsters like Oddbod. Sergeant Bung is soon under Valeria’s spell and finds it increasingly difficult to remember his police duties.

The setup offers ample opportunities for classic Carry On humour and Talbot Rothwell’s script makes the most of it.

The production values are surprisingly high and there are some quite effective sets. Cinematographer Alan Hume worked on a number of excellent British horror movies in the 60s and 70s including Hammer’s Kiss of the Vampire and he gives Carry On Screaming! an authentic gothic atmosphere. There are scenes in this movie that would not look out of place in a horror movie. It’s a low-budget movie but it never looks cheap.

Fenella Fielding proved to be ideal casting. She vamps it up outrageously (her slinky red dress is a highlight) and she works particularly well with Harry H. Corbett and Kenneth Williams. Those three, along with Peter Butterworth as Detective-Constable Slowbottom, are the mainstays of the film. Charles Hawtrey is relegated to a minor role but makes the most of it. Jon Pertwee (later to become a major TV star in Doctor Who) goes gloriously over-the-top as a dotty forensic scientist.

The Carry On movies were, in my opinion, really starting to hit their stride in the mid-60s. They were starting to use historical settings (Carry On Jack being one of the first to do this) and the Carry On brand of comedy seems to work particularly well in period costume.

The Carry On movies were very much a phenomenon of their times. After the ill-fated Carry On Columbus in 1992 producer Peter Rogers made several further attempts to revive the series. It’s fortunate that he did not succeed. Screen comedy has changed radically since the heyday of the Carry On movies (and not for the better). The Carry On movies succeed so well because they don’t (unlike so much modern comedy) have a political  agenda to push and because they have a good-natured and cheerful but oddly innocent naughtiness to them in contrast to the crudity and the cruelty of modern comedy. The Carry On comedies don’t try to be edgy. They’re content to be funny. It’s the fact that they are somewhat dated that makes them so delightful and so refreshing today.

The extras include an audio commentary featuring Fenella Fielding and Angela Douglas (who plays a small role as Jim Dale’s luckless gilrfriend Doris). Both actresses have vivid (and happy) memories of the making of the movie and contribute plenty of amusing anecdotes.

ITV Studios Home Entertainment have released this movie in their 16-disc Carry On Collection which includes every Carry On movie as well as all thirteen episodes of the short-lived Carry On television series. Every movie comes with an audio commentary and there are contemporary interviews with many of the key cast members. The transfer of Carry On Screaming! is anamorphic and it looks superb.

Carry On Screaming! was one of the best movies of the long-running series. It’s clever and it’s funny. What more could you want? Highly recommended.

Sunday 4 January 2015

Girl in Trouble (1963)

Girl in Trouble is one of three films included in Something Weird Video’s Teen Turmoil DVD triple-feature. Girl in Trouble is fairly typical of the American sexploitation movie of its era (although it’s better made than most). It presents us with a story that is a stern warning of the dangers faced by young women who are foolish enough to head for the bright lights of the big city. They will find only sin and depravity. Like most movies in this genre the movie gleefully exploits the very dangers it warns us about.

Judy Collins (Tammy Clarke) is a small town girl who dreams of an exciting life in the big city. She’s been dating a nice small town boy who wants to marry her but she wants some excitement first. So she packs her suitcase and sets off for New Orleans. Not having much money she decides to hitchhike, a decision that turns out to be disastrous. Her attempts to defend herself turn out to be more drastic than she’d intended and now she’s convinced she’s a wanted woman and her only option is to run. She runs to New Orleans.

She finds employment difficult to obtain but then her luck seems to change when she lands a job as a model for a lingerie store. Things go well until she is given a “special” assignment - a wealthy male client wants a private showing of the store’s latest lingerie, in his hotel room. Judy Collins is a nice girl but she’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer and she agrees to accept the assignment. On the other hand she’s not entirely stupid and she does have a feeling that this might be an awkward situation, to say the least. Especially taking into consideration the fact that some of the store’s lingerie is very revealing indeed. When it comes time to model a very flimsy and very see-through nightie she does start to get rather worried, but apparently not worried enough to keep her bra on (a precaution I would have strongly advised her to take). 

Eventually the inevitable happens. And after that of course there’s only way a girl can go - down. She becomes a strip-tease artiste. Then something even worse happens and she realises that all is lost.

The first thing that will strike the viewer of this movie, especially one with some experience of this genre, is that it’s quite professionally made. It doesn’t have the slapdash quality so common in these types of films. As far as the technical side is concerned director Brandon Chase seems quite comfortable. His shot compositions are mostly conventional but they’re  competent and on occasions he even tries something slightly imaginative and manages to do so quite successfully. He’s prepared to move the camera and there are even a couple of professionally executed tracking shots.

The director of photography was Leo J. Hebert and this appears to be his one and only film credit. This is rather surprising since he seems to be quite competent. Scenes are generally lit in a perfectly professional way, the camera is always in focus even when it’s moving. These are not assumptions that can be made of every American sexploitation movie of this era. Girl in Trouble looks like a low-budget film, but it still looks like a proper feature film.

The acting is usually the big problem in ultra-low budget movies such as this. Tammy Clarke is the star and she’s in just about every scene. This movie marked both the beginning and the end of her film career. To be fair the script (by Anthony Naylor and Brandon Chase) doesn’t give her much to work with. One assumes that she got the part because she was willing to take her clothes off and it has to be admitted that she’s very attractive (both with and without clothing). And given that Judy Collins is supposed to be incredibly naïve and inexperienced and to be nervous and awkward in the situations she finds herself in then it has to be said that Tammy Clarke conveys these qualities quite effectively.

Charles Murphy is effectively creepy in a minor role as a leering hotel clerk. The other supporting players are surprisingly fairly competent.

Tammy Clarke provides the voiceover narration, just in case the viewer misses the lessons of the film.

This was 1963 when producers of films like this were still treading cautiously where nudity was concerned. Topless scenes were considered to be safe. Anything more daring could be risky. This movie opts for safety so we see bare breasts but nothing more. We do certain see plenty of Tammy Clarke’s breasts and we see a great deal of her in some delightful early 1960s-style sexy lingerie, these scenes being actually more sexy than the much more explicit scenes in many later movies. It does help that Tammy Clarke is very pretty and has  a remarkably good body. She also sports some truly wondrous 60s hair styles. I suspect that much of the budget of this movie went on hair spray.

This is an odd sexploitation movie, not quite a nudie-cutie but not quite a roughie. It just doesn’t have the edge of nastiness that characterises the roughie sub-genre. It also doesn’t have the craziness and the delightful silliness that characterised so many of the non-roughie sexploitation movies of the early 60s.

The transfer is quite reasonable. The picture is quite grainy but that’s not uncommon with this type of movie many of which were shot on 16mm. Contrast is quite good and print damage is minimal. Given the nature of the source material and the fact that most exploitation movies of this vintage are lucky to survive at all it can be said that the presentation here is more than acceptable. It’s letterboxed but at least it’s in its correct aspect ratio. The three movies in this triple-feature are presented on a single DVD and there are the kinds of extras you expect from Something Weird.

Girl in Trouble gives the impression that the people responsible for it thought they were making a real movie. Unfortunately they didn’t have the budget or the script to do so although they did have the technical skills. The result is a movie that doesn’t quite make it but it’s still oddly appealing and oddly entertaining, partly because it’s surprisingly good-natured in a slightly goofy way. If you’re a fan of the genre it’s worth a look.

Thursday 1 January 2015

Airport (1970)

Airport was one of Universal’s biggest ever hits and it certainly played a role in setting off the disaster movie craze of the 70s. Airport though differs from the classic 1970s disaster movies (such as the sequels Airport 1975, Airport '77 and The Concorde...Airport '79) in several important respects which we’ll get to later.

The blockbuster movie (and it does have some claims to being the first bona fide blockbuster of the 70s) was based on Arthur Hailey’s blockbuster novel. The novel is pure melodrama (with definite soap opera tendencies) and it was just the sort of material that would appeal to producer Ross Hunter. The movie follows the same formula as the book, mixing melodrama with a thrilling story of terror in the skies.

Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) is the general manager of Chicago’s Lincoln International Airport and he’s having a bad day. That’s nothing unusual. Bakersfeld has to keep the airport’s budget under control, keep the airlines happy, keep the passengers happy and he has to keep the politicians happy as well. That last bit is the biggest nightmare, especially with constant complaints about airport noise from nearby residents. The only chance of keeping the noise within vaguely acceptable limits is by having as many flights as possible take off from the airport’s main runway. And now Chicago has been hit by its worst snow storm for years and a Trans Global Airlines Boeing 707 has managed to get itself hopelessly bogged right slap bang in the middle of that vital main runway, thus closing the runway. That’s quite enough to wreck Mel Bakersfeld’s day but before the night is out the lives of over a hundred passengers will depend on Bakersfeld’s ability to do the impossible and get the blocked runway back into service.

On top of that there are the usual headaches associated with running an airport, including the activities of serial stowaway Ada Quonsett (Helen Hayes). Mrs Quonsett is a nice old lady but she knows every trick in the book when it comes to stowing away on airliners and she’s utterly shameless about it. Mrs Quonsett is really more a problem for Tanya Livingston (Jean Seberg) to deal with, Mrs Livingston being the local representative of Trans Global Airlines. But since Mrs Livingston is Mel Bakersfeld’s mistress he finds himself having to help her out with the ageing but indefatigable stowaway.

Mel Bakersfeld has problems with his personal life as well and they’re going to come to a head on the very night when he really does not need more things to worry about. He devotes so much time to his job that his marriage has started to crumble and his wife Cindy (Dana Wynter) is fed up.

Trans Global’s chief pilot Vernon Demerest (Dean Martin) has problems as well. He’s been having an affair with beautiful stewardess Gwen Meighen (Jacqueline Bisset) and now she’s pregnant. And Vernon has discovered something far more disturbing than that - he’s fallen in love with her.

Another man with problems is Trans Global’s chief engineer Joe Patroni (George Kennedy). He has to find a way to move that 707 blocking the main runway.

It was going to be a difficult night anyway but sad loser D. O. Guerrero (Van Heflin) is about to make it a potentially disastrous night. He’s decided that the only way he can provide for his family is to blow himself (and a hundred or so passengers) to bits on board Trans Global’s evening flight to Rome so that his family can collect his flight insurance.

The main difference between this and later disaster movies is that the melodrama is as important as the disaster subplot. This means that the film is quite lengthy and it takes a long time for that disaster subplot to kick in. This could have been a major flaw but fortunately the very strong cast means that the characters are well fleshed out and become a bit more than just disaster movie stereotypes.

If Burt Lancaster had a fault as an actor it was a tendency to be overly intense but he keep that tendency in check here. He knows that he has to make Bakersfeld a sympathetic character and he succeeds in doing so. Mel Bakersfeld is a difficult man whose devotion to his job has wrecked his marriage but he is aware of this flaw in his character, and he’d like to do something bout it. He just can’t figure out what he can do.

For the most part Dean Martin regarded his acting career as an amusing hobby and he loved nothing better than to ham it up as outrageously as possible (as he did in the delightful Matt Helm spy spoof movies such as The Wrecking Crew). That does not however mean that he couldn’t act. When serious acting was required he could turn in a remarkably effective performance, as he did so memorably in the brilliant Howard Hawks western Rio Bravo. Martin takes his role in Airport quite seriously and he makes Vernon Demerest an interestingly complex character. He can be quite an abrasive character and he has an ego as big as all outdoors. Underneath this not entirely attractive exterior he is however a man of genuine substance. He’s a dedicated professional and as the movie progresses he finds (somewhat to his own surprise) that he’s a man of substance when it comes to his emotional life. Whatever the cost he is determined not to let Gwen down. It’s a nicely judged performance by Martin.

The fateful Trans Global flight to Rome has not just one senior pilot but two. Demerest is doing a routine evaluation of Captain Anson Harris (Barry Nelson), a pilot with as much experience as Demerest. The relationship between the two men is played quite cleverly. The temptation either to make the two pilots buddies, or to make them antagonists, is resisted. The two men know each other reasonably well professionally but being polar opposites in temperament they have never become close friends nor are they ever likely to. Nonetheless they get on quite well and have no difficulty working together in a crisis.

Ada Quonsett is the sort of character who could have been extremely irritating but Helen Hayes avoids the twin temptations of making her merely ridiculous or sentimentalising her performance. She’s there to provide some comic relief and she does it very effectively. Jean Seberg is equally impressive and is able to make Tanya Livingston a three-dimensional character. Jacqueline Bisset proves to be perfectly competent as Gwen. Dana Wynter is also good as Bakersfeld’s shrewish wife.

This movie has producer Ross Hunter’s fingerprints all over it. Hunter liked big glossy glamorous movies with plenty of star power, very high production values and packed with entertainment. His philosophy was simple - people go to the movies for entertainment so that’s what you give them. Hunter had used the split-screen technique in his 1959 hit Pillow Talk and that technique is used also in Airport. And it’s used in exactly the same way - whenever two characters are talking by telephone (or radio or whatever) the split-screen is used. It’s used very extensively indeed in Airport but it works. If this movie has a theme it’s the importance of effective communication and this technique conveys that quite nicely.

Airport is in some ways an old-fashioned movies, even by the standards of 1970. All Ross Hunter’s movies are rather old-fashioned, but old-fashioned in a good way. It really is pure entertainment and it delivers the goods. It has melodrama but it’s done extremely well and when the disaster subplot kicks in it’s handled with consummate skill. The special effects are in general exceptionally good.

If old-fashioned entertainment appeals to you then there’s no reason not to love Airport. Highly recommended.