Wednesday, 20 January 2021

R.I.P.
Todd Stadtman.

Please excuse this brief interruption to our first-viewings countdown, but I need to take a moment to express my great sadness upon learning today (via tribute posts on Teleport City and TarsTarkas.net) that Todd Stadtman – proprietor of the Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill! and Lucha Diaries blogs, amongst many other things - passed away earlier this month.

Unlike the authors of the aforementioned posts, I can’t claim to have known Todd personally (my interactions with him have been limited merely to a few exchanges of blogger comments over the years), but his writing on film, and his relentless enthusiasm for shining a light on the stranger and more culturally distant corners of what we might broadly term ‘international pop cinema’, has always been a great inspiration to me – not to mention a veritable fount of knowledge when it comes to uncovering wondrous realms of world culture which, despite his noble efforts, remain terminally obscure bordering on actually-totally-forgotten to this day.

Oft was the time, back in the glory days of both 4DK! and his work for Teleport City, that I’d find myself overcoming the boredom of my day-job by covertly clicking across to a web browser to read, dumbfounded, about the latest extraordinary, subtitle-free discovery he’d dug up from the darkest VCD-trading corners of Taiwan, The Philippines, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, Mexico, Argentina or goodness only knows where else. Who knew, prior to Mr Stadtman’s evangelism, that pretty much the entire globe had once been busy cranking out rip-roaring, culturally specific entertainments full of garish colours, monsters, robots, disco dancing, high-kicking heroines, spies, cavemen, mini-submarines and guys in skeleton suits? Well, I’m sure some people did – but not I.

All these years later, I’ve only managed to watch the tiniest fraction of the stuff Todd wrote or spoke about online, but, speaking as someone who always enjoys learning about other nations primarily through their pop culture, I found his work hugely educational, as well as funny, concise, unpretentious and – crucially – always respectful of the people and cultures who created these amazing movies, retaining a tone of open-minded bewilderment which I’ll always take hands down over the kind of misplaced mockery and snark which tends to predominate whenever fragments of this kind of stuff find themselves washed up on English-speaking shores.

Todd’s 2013 book Funky Bollywood is a fantastic read (although I’ve STILL not managed to find a source through which to acquire most of the movies discussed within it), and his myriad podcasting endeavours have always been worth a listen, most particularly the long-defunct Infernal Brains series recorded in collaboration with the aforementioned Tars Tarkas. It’s no exaggeration to say that almost every episode of this podcast will take you to a place on the cinematic map you never even knew existed, and their series of episodes on the work of Taiwanese action heroine/director/mysterious lost genius Pearl Cheung-Ling borders on the life-changing. (Well, it certainly changed my bank balance slightly at any rate, as I scoured the shadier corners of the internet trying to track down watchable copies of her films.) [Links: part one, part two.] 

Outside of film, even the briefest scan of Todd’s blog reveals that he was something of a renaissance man to put it mildly – a novelist, musician, songwriter and DJ, just for starters – and, having followed his endeavours from a distance for over a decade at this point, I would also venture to suggest that the picture which emerges from all of his work is that of a very nice man indeed.

Even in a many-steps-removed online kind of way, his presence will be greatly missed. My thoughts go out to his family and friends, who must miss him terribly. R.I.P.

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

Best First Time Viewings: 2020.
(Part # 2 of 3)

I’m sorry once again for the delay in getting this post to you. If you missed it, don’t forget to read part # 1 of this list here.

30. Golden Queen’s Commando 
(Chu Yen-Ping, 1982)

Months after viewing, the utterly ridiculous adventures of Black Fox, Black Cat, Dynamite and the rest of the gang as they navigate an inexplicably Nazi-riddled, Morricone-soundtracked Asian Old West in search of…. I’m still not entirely sure what, to be honest… continue to resonate. See my full review from September for more. (Sort-of sequel ‘Pink Force Commando’ wasn’t quite as good incidentally, but it had its moments.)

29. So Sweet, So Perverse 
(Umberto Lenzi, 1969)

Umberto Lenzi’s second Carroll Baker-starring giallo of 1969, ‘Così Dolce... Così Perversa’ (as Italian audiences had it) may not be particularly remarkable in terms of its heavily ‘Diaboliques’-indebted plotting, or indeed its quotient of sex n’ violence, which remains surprisingly low for the most part. As far as quasi-sophisticated, late ‘60s Euro-pudding thrillers about the seedy lives of the decadent rich go however, it proves pretty f-ing definitive, representing the moment in Lenzi’s career which saw him coming closest to overcoming his battlin’ b-movie origins and establishing himself as a slick, mainstream-acceptable director (or so I’m assuming).

Certainly, this is some of the most stylish and accomplished filmmaking Lenzi ever signed his name to, to some extent prefiguring Martino and Argento’s re-invention of the giallo aesthetic over the next few years, as subjective cameras glide around empty, kinkily decorated apartments, wrought iron lifts and spiral staircases are milked for all their inherent suspense, and torrid, sleepless nights are illuminated with a barrage of outré visual effects. (Not to take anything away from Umberto, but perhaps this superficial resemblance the genre’s later classics can to some extent be explained by the fact that Sergio Martino takes a producer credit here alongside his brother Luciano, whilst the ubiquitous Ernesto Gastaldi handles script duties..?)

As locations range between Paris and the Riviera though, more than anything it is that impossible-to-replicate aura of louche, J&B-sozzled glamour which will keep you coming back to to this one. I mean, by the time we reach the thirty-minute mark, Jean-Louis Trintignant has been having it off with Baker, Erika Blanc AND Helga Liné, whilst also being menaced by Horst Frank as a delightfully sleazy blackmailin’ photographer/sadistic fiend! What more could you ask of a ‘60s Euro thriller, quite frankly?

Quite how he also manages to find the time to run the ill-defined but evidently lucrative factory business he has inherited and keep up with his clay pigeon-shooting and water-skiing, god only knows. Poor Jean-Louis! No wonder he scowls so beautifully, radiating such exquisite boredom, through the entire picture.

28. Hollywood Boulevard 
(Joe Dante & Allan Arkush, 1976)

And so it came to pass that, in late 1975, eager young New World Pictures trailer cutters Dante and Arkush managed to convince Roger Corman to let them loose on a minimally budgeted feature with full access to the studio’s equipment, stock footage, props, costumes etc, with the eventual result being this outrageously slipshod, in-joke saturated full spectrum piss-take of the company’s production methodology.

Most of the gags may be of the knee-slapping / old-as-the-hills variety (company slogan: “if it’s a good film, it’s a Miracle”), whilst multiple rape jokes and industrial strength quantities of Corman-mandated T&A may not play terribly well for 21st century audiences (and there was me thinking that Mr Dante was such a nice man). But, for anyone with a soft spot for ‘70s b-movies (particularly those of the New World/AIP axis), or an appreciation of the absurdities of low budget filmmaking in general, this thing is an absolute riot.

Happily, everyone you’d hope to see in a movie like this turns up immediately, in roaringly good form - Paul Bartel as the self-important, jodhpur-clad director making girls-with-guns flicks in The Philippines (“..but my films - my films will outlive all of you”), Mary Woronov as the vindictive, bitch-queen aging starlet (“you’ll never be a star now, you little cunt!”), and best of all, the late Dick Miller as a perpetually sweating, wise-guy talent agent, named, of course, Walter Paisley (“you want an amazon girl and a giant python? Hold on a second...”). For all that though, my favourite line came from an interview segment with the one-eyed cameraman played by George Wagner: “two years ago, I didn’t know what an F-Stop was, now I practically am one”.

In short, I cannot really defend this film in any way, shape or form, but watching it late in the the evening with a few drinks under my belt, I laughed so much that an ambulance was nearly required. Essential feel-good viewing for… a very particular kind of viewer, let’s put it like that. (If you’re one of them, you can probably be my friend.)

27. Matinee 
(Joe Dante, 1993)

And, completing our Joe Dante double bill for the evening…. this immensely charming film-about-films couldn’t be much more different in tone from the one which precedes it on this list.

Essentially comprising a kind of low key ‘Cinema Paradiso’ for ‘50s/’60s monster kids, ‘Matinee’ gives us John Goodman as a struggling, William Castle-esque producer/showman valiantly attempting to premier his latest atomic monster movie, together with its inevitable barrage of outlandish gimmicks, at a beach-front suburban theatre on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

For all that this is essentially a nostalgic, period comedy attempting to wring some more quote-unquote ‘magic’ from an era already thoroughly strip-mined by baby boomer filmmakers however, Dante’s portrayal of the ground level fear inspired by the nuclear brinksmanship being played out both literally and figuratively above the film’s West Coast navy town is refreshingly direct and unsentimental, with the director’s own childhood recollections no doubt helping him to capture an authentic sense of surreal, gut level dread which sits incongruously alongside the story’s more light-hearted, screwball capers.

Likewise, Dante’s proven ability to imbue his pre-teenage central characters with real personality and intelligence remains a rare thing indeed within the realm of quote-unquote ‘family’ movies, whilst the film-within-a-film footage from Goodman’s character’s movie (‘Mant!’ - complete with ‘Them!’-esque typography on the poster) is a hoot - perhaps the most perfect, affectionate send-up of ‘50s monster movies I’ve ever seen. (Most DVD/blu-ray editions of ‘Matinee’ include the complete ‘Mant!’ footage as a stand-alone short film, and it’s well worth a watch - cracks me up every time.)

With all due respect to Lucas, Spielberg, Scorsese, Milius et al in fact, if you only watch one film in your lifetime in which a director born in the ‘40s puts on his rose-tinted glasses and starts banging on about the good old days, you could do a lot worse than make it this one.

26. The Color Out of Space 
(Richard Stanley, 2019)

The last movie my wife and I managed to see in the cinema before covid hit back in March, Richard Stanley’s big feature film comeback after over two decades in the wilderness may not exactly be a world-beating instant classic, but it is an accomplished, highly enjoyable and authentically weird piece of contemporary horror filmmaking, so that will do very nicely, thanks very much.

Going back to some notes I made immediately after viewing, it struck me that, in a weird sort of way, Stanley’s film actually fits quite neatly into cycle of ‘60s Lovecraft adaptations which I examined at length on this blog a few years back, in the sense that they were all basically attempts to make commercial horror movies in the standard (ie, gothic) style of the era - but adding a slight twist of Lovecraft to the mix knocked each of them off balance, making them strange. 

Likewise, ‘Color..’ plays like a slick, 21st century American horror film which has been left out in the rain too long and has gone a bit warped and peculiar as a result. (Admittedly however, the strangeness in this case seems more likely to have resulted from the combination of Stanley, Nicholas Cage and way too much weed than from any engagement with Lovecraft’s source text.)

In terms of tone and pacing in fact, ‘Color..’ is absolutely all over the place, and I’ve spoken to some people who have hated it as a result. Personally though I found that this rambling/dissociative approach allowed Stanley to capture the uneasy mixture of genuinely disturbing ideas and outright goofiness found in Lovecraft’s writing quite well.

Much in the film - from the alpacas and the day-glo CGI bugs, to the blatant borrowings from ‘The Thing’ and ‘Poltergeist’, to Nicholas Cage doing his “Nicholas Cage” thing - is just plain ridiculous, but nonetheless, whilst we’re being distrcted by all of that, Stanley is busy imbuing his doomed characters with a sense of humanity emphatically lacking in Lovecraft’s source material. As a result, the final act, which drastically shifts gear to become a kind of supernaturally-enhanced meditation on the horrors of cancer, palliative care and euthanasia, becomes horribly upsetting in a manner which I daresay many viewers found difficult to reconcile with the laffs and kerfuffle which proceeded it.

More than anything though, it’s just been really spiriting to see Stanley returning to the fray with such a strong and (prior the the effects of pandemic-related fuckery at least) commercially successful movie. It’s typical of the director’s bad luck I suppose that he happened to achieve this shortly before the film industry as we know it effectively collapsed, possibly never to fully return, but be that as it may, you’d better believe I’m still on-board for the remaining instalments of his proposed ‘Lovecraft trilogy’, as and when they manage to make it through the gates of our flat-screen, sofa-bound dimension.

25. A Quiet Place To Kill 
(Umberto Lenzi, 1970)

Yet more fish-eye shots through poolside whisky decanters here, as we hit Umberto Lenzi and Carroll Baker’s third, and arguably most enjoyable, pre-‘..Crystal Plumage’ proto-giallo thriller. This time around, Baker is a champion racing driver(!) who screeches off on a sudden whim, leaving her non-plussed boyfriend on the side of the road as she motors down to the Spanish fleshpots to hook up with her irresistible, gold-digging duplicitous bastard of an ex-husband (a magnificently caddish turn from Jean Sorel), only to find herself reluctantly drawn into ‘Diaboliques’-esque cahoots with ex-hubby’s unsatisfied, murder-minded second wife (Anna Proclemer).

A harpoon gun-based attempt on Sorel’s life does not go according to plan however (especially when it emerges that Jess Franco regular Alberto Dalbes caught the sorry episode on camera), leaving Baker and Sorel wrestling with a whole hornet’s nest of crushing guilt, shifting sand allegiances and sanity-threatening anxiety which is only intensified once Proclemer’s teenage daughter unexpectedly returns home from boarding school with her own investigative/seductive agenda.

Moreso than the earlier entries in this loosely linked series, the plotting here veers more toward the kind of shenanigans you’d expect to find in a ‘90s erotic thriller than to anything which could be comfortably pigeonholed as a ‘giallo’, but, as usual, Lenzi keeps the twists and turns crashing in with such speed and dramatic hysteria that we’ve no time to catch our breath or to start splitting hairs. And, once again, the sheer intoxicating essence of conspicuous wealth, 1970 style, on display here proves impossible to resist, with an even greater emphasis than usual placed on potentially life-threatening sporting pursuits (hunting, grouse-shooting, spear-fishing, scuba diving and high speed motoring all get a suitably perilous look-in). Utterly shameless, decadent fun of the highest order.

24. Paganini Horror 
(Luigi Cozzi, 1989)

Perhaps the last gasp of classic Italian gothic style to make it to the silver screen before the wrought iron gates finally slammed shut, I reviewed this weird and wonderful impoverished delight back in May, and had a great time with it. 

Merely thinking about it makes me happy, and getting another opportunity to share Enzo Sciotti’s magnificent poster artwork with you makes me even happier. Get your 2021 off to a good start and watch it tonight in tribute to the late Daria Nicolodi!

23. Kansas City 
(Robert Altman, 1996)

This underrated Altman film, set in the director’s home town across a few eventful days and nights in 1934, seems to be chiefly remembered for its musical content, as the script’s tale of crime, corruption, kidnapping and murder is intercut with passages from a mammoth jam session taking place at a fictional backstreet club, wherein contemporary jazz players take on the roles of assorted luminaries who passed through Kansas City in the early ‘30s, including a central, seven minute recreation of a legendary ‘cutting contest’ which took place between Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, with a teenage Charlie Parker waiting in the wings.

All of which is absolutely great, with Altman’s controversial decision to let the players step outside of period jazz convention and explore their own, somewhat more modern, styles lending the performances a sense of raw energy and excitement. But, it should not, I feel, detract from the movie’s plot and characterisations, which are equally worthy of attention.

In particular, Jennifer Jason Leigh is great here as Blondie, a tough-talking, insecure tomboy whose attempt to kidnap the spaced out wife of a local politician (Miranda Richardson) in order to effect the release of her small-time crook husband, who is being held captive backstage at the jazz club by splendidly named gangland kingpin Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte), forms the central axis of the action.

Though it shares the cross-cutting, map-like structure of Altman’s other “place films”, wherein multiple characters bounce off each other within the boundaries of a fixed geographical area, ‘Kansas City’ is essentially a film about stasis. A fog of political corruption and race and class-based prejudice hangs heavy over the city, as thick as the more literal haze of cigar smoke, cement dust and exhaust fumes evoked by Oliver Stapleton’s murky photography.

Almost without exception, the people we meet here are content to keep their heads down and to ‘know their place’. Like the seemingly endless jam session at the club, which stretches out far beyond the point of sun-rise and exhaustion, the gears of the city’s crooked machinery will continue grinding away indefinitely, with the same grafters or their descendants forever at the wheel. The only characters in the entire movie who demonstrate any sense of individual initiative are Blondie and her husband - and it’s probably not much of a spoiler to reveal that their attempts to affect change don’t exactly end well, precipitating a harrowing, noir-worthy denouement which simultaneously recalls both ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ and ‘Chinatown’.

Perhaps it was this dispiriting, rather depressive tone - together with the cast’s tendency to veer more toward extended monologues than to Altman’s patented improvised/overlapping quickfire patter - which led to the movie being overlooked upon release, but viewed simply as a beautifully-rendered, thoroughly cynical, period crime film, it’s well worth making time for.

22. The Exorcist III 
(William Peter Blatty, 1990)

Though it will never supplant John Boorman’s ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ in my weird movie affections, Blatty’s second sequel to the movie adaptation of his own novel is really quite the thing - eccentric, cerebral, unconventional, stylistically bold and, as Youtube users across the globe have noted, jump-out-of-your-seat terrifying. As I set out in my equally rushed review from back in October, I’d also contest that it was curiously ahead of its time in anticipating many of the developments seen in the horror genre through the late-90s and early-00s.

21. Cherry 2000 
(Steve De Jarnatt, 1987)

Proving that his extraordinary ‘Miracle Mile’ (see my ‘first viewings’ list from last year) was no fluke, Steve De Jarnatt pulls off some admirable silk-purse/sow’s-ear type business here on his directorial debut, helping turn an unpromising sounding studio property (part PG-rated post-apocalyptic adventure, part sci-fi romantic comedy?) into a charming and unpredictable mish-mash of consumer culture satire, humanist philosophical musings and Quixotic pop art camp.

As in De Jarnatt’s later masterwork, the decision to use relatively inexperienced actors in the lead roles (including, in this case, Melanie Griffith as tooled up desert tracker E. Johnson), cushioning them with a wealth of more grizzled/charismatic character players (Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr, Tim Thomerson, Brion James, Robert D’Zar, to name but a few) works wonders, whilst Michael Almereyda’s off-kilter script is consistently entertaining, the surreal, comic book production design is a delight (imagine a more inventive and generously budgeted take on one of those demented Donald Jackson ‘Roller Blade’ movies), and…. did I mention that this movie also includes the most jaw-droppingly elaborate / dangerous action sequence I saw in any film during 2020, wherein the car containing Griffiths and male lead David Andrews hangs suspended from a magnetised crane above a vertiginous desert canyon as they exchange rocket launcher and machine gun fire with Thomerson’s goons..? It’s pretty stunning.

I’d say such an inclusion was ‘unexpected’, but, as with ‘Miracle Mile’, just about everything that happens in ‘Cherry 2000’ is unexpected, cementing it alongside its successor as real diamond in the rough.

20. Odds Against Tomorrow 
(Robert Wise, 1959)

Skimming back through my review of this one from February, it seems I had some kind of problem with it. I can’t imagine why. I mean, ok, Harry Belafonte’s casting maybe doesn’t seem a natural fit, but he makes the character work, and the more I look back on the film, reflecting on the exceptional photography, Robert Ryan’s remarkable performance and the insightful, no bullshit approach Abraham Polonsky’s script takes in exploring the ambiguities of racial and class strife, the more ‘Odds Against Tomorrow’ seems to sit naturally alongside ‘A Touch of Evil’ as one of the stone-cold classics of the original noir era’s last gasp.

Side-bar: if we take those two films and Fuller’s ‘The Crimson Kimono’ (which I wrote about in the first part of this list) as a starting point, do you think there’s a case to be made for 1958/59 as the point at which the American crime film suddenly began to deal head-on with the issues of race and racism..? Might be a book proposal or two in that, were I a writer of a more academic persuasion.

19. Majoran 
(Seiji Izumi, 1984)

Another complete one-off, this little-known Japanese youth film is a breezy, big-hearted rock n’ rollin’ delight, somehow managing to transplant the spirit of 50s/60s music-based coming of age films to a down-at-heel, proletariat corner of Osaka’s docklands, where ‘80s hair metal rules supreme.

Casually detourning the cynical/materialist narratives usually associated with this era and genre however, ‘Majoran’, rather wonderfully, portrays glam metal as a kind of grass roots, DIY scene, played in tiny neighbourhood bars by good natured devotees driven on by the love of friendship and rock n’ roll. Director Seiji Izumi favours an unshowy, documentary-like approach (the brief montage of apparently real bands performing is absolutely wonderful), effectively drawing us into the world of teenage Rei (Yuko Watanabe) as she drifts away from her delinquent high school friends during the summer break, instead finding herself irresistibly drawn toward the vibrant world of rock, which welcomes her with open and reassuringly non-gropy arms.

The tale of Rei becoming torn between the affections of charismatic rockabilly bar owner Sabu (Ginji Gao) and moody virtuoso guitarist Daisuke (actor unknown) may be pure boilerplate stuff, and the sub-plot about a bar hostess and a wild boy ‘punk’ vocalist succumbing to drugs is heavy-handed in the extreme, but the performances are so endearing, the naturalistic surroundings so fascinating, the fashions so consistently awesome and the frequent back street brawls so exhilarating, that ‘Majoran’ never wears out its welcome.

Rarely seen in the West (or, for the most part, in the East) before it turned up online in fan-subbed form last year, this is a great little movie which richly deserves wider exposure.

18. Sword of Doom 
(Kihachi Okamoto, 1966)

And, on completely the other end of Japan’s cinematic spectrum meanwhile… Kihachi Okamoto’s nihilistic samurai epic will need no introduction for many, but somehow I managed to put off actually sitting down and watching it until 2020 - and needless to say, it’s as coldly precise an exercise in expressionistic celluloid menace as I possibly could have hoped for.

Though the film is lumbered with a needlessly convoluted, historically detailed script (my understanding is that the film was intended as the first instalment of a proposed trilogy which never came to fruition, leaving secondary characters and plot points hanging in limbo), canny viewers will soon realise that the vast majority of this can be disregarded in favour of simply revelling in the extraordinary, chiaroscuro visuals, the baleful, carefully poised camera movements, and the terrible, brutalist beauty of the stylised, blood-drenched action sequences.

What really grants the film cult immortality however is Tetsuya Nakadai’s performance as the psychotic young ronin Ryunosuke Tsukue. As terrifying a portrayal of blank-eyed, remorseless psychopathy as has ever been seen on-screen, Ryunosuke is a living, breathing condemnation of the twisted value system encouraged by Tokugawa-era bushido (for which read: 20th century fascism) - a man who has been systematically drained of humanity, leaving nothing behind but a cackling, why-faced killer, balancing perilously on the edge of complete mental collapse… an edge from which he effectively takes a flying leap during the extraordinary, Kaidan-styled self-immolation which comprises the film’s final act. A fatalistic howl from some nameless, inhuman abyss, these final scenes see the film almost literally tearing itself apart at the seams as it descends into a pure, abstract hellscape.

As much as we cineastes may allow ourselves to be awed such unprecedented, bravura craziness however, it’s perhaps understandable that, back in ’66, the movie’s producers found themselves grimly eyeing up part # 2 of the trilogy under Okamoto’s direction on their production schedule and thought, “y’know what? Let’s just not.”

17. The Scarlet Empress 
(Josef von Sternberg, 1934)

Both the greatest folly and most uncompromising artistic statement of Josef von Sternberg’s turbulent career, this suffocating, unheimlich epic, ostensibly telling the tale of Catherine the Great’s rise to power within the Russian monarchy, is chiefly memorable for featuring the most aggressively overwrought, insanely OTT production design I have ever witnessed in a motion picture of any vintage.

Making his other exotic Hollywood fantasias look like models of minimalist restraint by comparison, von Sternberg here seems hell-bent on jamming every last inch of the square, 4:3 frame with densely-packed, utterly superfluous detail, battering us into senseless submission with a parade of towering gothic edifices, huge tolling bells, smoke-belching censers, gleaming golden icons, grotesquely twisted martyrdom sculptures, lavish feasting tables, self-flagellating crowds, verdant, impossibly fertile-looking gardens, gigantic bouquets of cut flowers, stampeding hordes of cavalry, feral packs of tittering bridesmaids, chanting retinues of white-bearded monks, gigantic, King Kong-scaled wooden doors, torture chambers, humans skulls leering from man-sized birdcages, vertigo-inducing painted ceilings, red-cheeked pig-tailed maidens, virile glowering Cossacks, fetishistic royal bed chambers…. you get the idea. And that’s before we even get onto the costumes! Those hats, my god.

Never resorting to a hard cut when a long, slow super-imposition can be cross-faded through the lens instead, von Sternberg’s visual excess at times becomes so crazed here that his film - ostensibly a garishly flamboyant, commercial spectacle - begins to feel positively avant garde, as the loose thread of the narrative is gradually drowned in a proto-psychedelic whirlpool of Kenneth Anger-like abstraction.

Pitched against this constant, hyper-compressed visual babble, the only characters who can really punch through the flimsy storyline are those who are simply too emphatic to ignore - Louise Dresser as the remorseless matriarch Empress Elizabeth, and Sam Jaffe as her childlike, boggle-eyed son, Grand Duke Peter. Played by Jaffe like a psychotic Harpo Marx, he is a singularly horrible figure, truly the stuff of nightmares.

In the prominence accorded to these grotesques though, we see the fatal flaw of Von Sternberg’s mad masterwork. So overpowering is the whirligig of excess that he has built around his beloved and sanctified Marlene Dietrich that she herself becomes lost within it, her commanding presence and poised beauty faltering for the first time into goofy camp as she’s cast adrift amid the chaos.

16. The Iron Fisted Monk 
(Sammo Kang-Bo Hung, 1977)

As much as I’ve enjoyed exploring the world of Hong Kong martial arts cinema over the past few years, I rarely cover it on this blog, simply because it’s difficult to find much to say about many of the best exemplars of the form. Lacking as I am in knowledge or experience of the behind-the-scenes culture which created these films, there’s not much of a hook for me to really hang any writing on, beyond simply echoing one of the old English dub soundtracks by stating, “‘Iron Fisted Monk’ (1977), your kung-fu is very impressive!”

This time around though, I can at least single out Sammo Hung’s debut as both star and credited director as one of the very best of the first wave kung-fu comedies, easily standing alongside Jackie’s ‘Snake in Eagle’s Shadow’ and ‘Drunken Master’, with the essential characteristics of Sammo’s game-changing approach to action cinema (bone-crunching impacts, slo-mo, dramatic zooms and the all-important ‘power powder’) already in full effect, alongside an anarchic, free-wheeling spirit shared with the aforementioned classics, and, of course, lashings of Sammo’s beloved, if frequently mystifying, Cantonese street humour. And if that’s not enough to make you want to go and watch it… you should probably just keep on walkin’.

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To be concluded…

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Best First Time Viewing: 2020.
(Part # 1 of 3)

I realise I’ve been pretty late off the mark this year in getting this list underway, but, like a somewhat less aesthetically pleasing version of Anneli Sauli in the above screengrab from Der Hexer, I’ve been busy, busy, busy in my day job through December, and personal projects such as churning out a load of rambling crap for this blog have unfortunately fallen behind schedule as a result.

Now that the holidays have hit and we find ourselves legally prohibited from mingling with other humans or indeed leaving the house without a reasonable excuse however, I daresay I’ll find myself catching up pretty quickly.

As mentioned back in October, one unexpected plus point arising from the travails of 2020 is that I have managed to watch more films in the space of a single year than I ever considered possible. I’ve not done the math yet (for indeed, the year hasn’t ended), but I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m averaging out at just under one film per day across the past nine months. Imagine that!

As a result, there has, naturally, been a lot of really good First Time Viewing going on. Getting the list down to a mere 45 was tough going, so I’d like to emphasise that, more so than in previous years, the exact numbers assigned to the movies below is pretty arbitrary, and that basically, if a film made it onto this list, that means that I really, really liked it.

Also, I’m going to count down rather than up this year, because, well… that seems like the sensible way to do these things, right? Anyway - let’s get on with it!

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45. Seven Blood-Stained Orchids 
(Umberto Lenzi, 1972)

In 2020, I watched four Umberto Lenzi-directed gialli for the first time, and four of them are on this list. Nuff said? Anyway, kicking off the director’s second, early/mid ‘70s run of films within the retrospectively ring-fenced genre, ‘Seven Blood-Stained Orchids’ actually makes a pretty good case for the giallo aesthetic having been both recognised and consciously exploited by the era’s filmmakers. Sitting at the dead centre of the post-Argento/Martino venn diagram, it delivers pretty much everything a 21st century cult film fan might be liable to expect when they hear the word “GIALLO”, and does so with all the energy, excess and pulpy gusto said fans have no doubt come to expect of the indefatigable Senor Lenzi.

So comprehensively in fact does it lock into the genre’s post-1970 conventions and stylistic tics that, were someone to jump out in front of you and enquire, “so, this giallo thing, what’s it all about?”, passing them a copy of ‘Seven Blood-Stained Orchids’ could provide a far more enjoyable ninety minute answer than launching into that whole dog-tired, “yellow - old crime paperbacks - Krimis - Mario Bava” routine for the umpteenth time. I doubt this one would make many connoisseurs’ top ten lists, but if you’ve already cracked open the chianti and/or J&B of a Friday evening and feel like getting down with some bloody murder in the intoxicatingly exotic environs of mid-century southern Europe, then by jove, it does the business.

44. The Walking Dead
 (Michael Curtiz, 1936)

AKA, the one in which Boris Karloff is framed for murder, executed, and gets resurrected by a for-once-actually-benevolent scientist, proceeding to take his revenge upon the clique of gangsters who put him down.

The courtroom drama / underworld intrigue plotline which takes up much of the first half is needlessly convoluted, with a ton of fast-talking Warner Bros yakking failing to disguise a hatful of just-plain-ridiculous contrivances, but for a low budget ‘30s programmer, Michael Curtiz’s direction during the more horror-y / less talk-y sequences is extraordinarily stylish, with elaborate, gliding camera moves, dutch angles and expressionistic shadowplay to beat the band.

The scene in which Karloff is led to the electric chair whilst a fellow prisoner plays his favourite piece on the cello remains powerful to this day, whilst the crazy equipment in the brief resurrection sequence does a pretty good job of trying to top ‘Frankenstein’, as indeed does Karloff himself - when he eventually returns as a stuttering, hunched undead avenger, his performance ranks for me as one of the great man’s very best, with his quiet, mannered speech, slow, lumbering movements and icy stare all in full effect.

When the assorted bad guys are invited to witness Karloff performing a piano recital, he glowers at them with such withering intensity that these hard-nosed gangland heavies more or less flee the room in terror, wiping sweat from their brows and pulling at their collar buttons, such is the malignancy of Boris’s evil eye. Amazing stuff.

43. The She-Creature 
(Edward L. Cahn, 1956)

As I tried my best to convey in my review from October, I was pretty thoroughly entranced by this utterly bizarre esoteric/idiotic SoCal beach-set AIP creature feature. Who may chart the further reaches of its multitudinous aesthetic/cultural tentacles…? Not I!

42. Lethal Panther 
(Godfrey Ho, 1990)

Wonderful, ultra-sleazoid girls-with-guns mayhem from the great Godfrey Ho, proving once again that he really had the chops to deliver a solid action movie when he was allowed to actually shoot one front-to-back without any of the usual IFD cut-and-paste / day-glo ninja type shenanigans getting in the way.

By “solid” of course, I mean that this is shamelessly trashy, opportunistic brain-breaking nonsense, shot for peanuts in The Philippines, complete with hilariously inept English dubbing, eye-watering late ‘80s sartorial carnage and frankly terrifying interior décor.

Shovelling in masses of utterly gratuitous (fairly strong) sex and nudity in between equally herculean quantities of squib-happy gore and surprisingly high quality action choreography, and including what feels like about 30 solid minutes of of perfectly made up (and no doubt under-paid) sexy assassin ladies firing multiple machine guns at each other in slo-mo in assorted insalubrious locales, this is basically a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Do not watch sober - you’ve been warned.

41. T-Men 
(Anthony Mann, 1947)

Are John Alton’s jaw-droppingly beautiful photography and Anthony Mann’s no nonsense tough guy story-telling instincts enough to save this mixed up noir from floundering under its producers’ determination to turn it into a PSA on behalf of the U.S. Treasury Department? Read my review from back in August, and find out!

 40. The Crimson Kimono 
(Samuel Fuller, 1959)

What the hell is this anyway? A film noir? A romantic melodrama? A treatise on racial integration and post-war combat angst? A downtown L.A. travelogue? The simple answer is, it’s a Sam Fuller movie. As his admirers will be well aware, Fuller was one of those filmmakers possessed of such a unique sensibility that watching one of his films feels more like spending ninety minutes furiously bouncing around inside the writer/director’s brainpan than settling into any more comforting variety of Hollywood genre upholstery. Disorientating and potentially headache-inducing, perhaps, but a richly rewarding experience if you’re if you’re able to leave your expectations at the door and just go with the juddering, out-of-control street trolley flow of the whole thing.

As a movie, ‘The Crimson Kimono’ certainly has its drawbacks - the whodunit / crime story angle is never very well integrated with the tale of a love triangle played out between a Japanese-American cop, his white partner and a quasi-bohemian art teacher, leaving the narrative feeling rushed and disjointed, and performances are variable to say the least, whilst Fuller’s perverse determination to explore the notion of “reverse racism” seems misguided, even as his spirited enthusiasm for documenting Japanese culture on-screen, and for celebrating it’s U.S.-based adherents as his fellow countrymen, is extremely refreshing by the WASP-centric standards of the 1950s.

Despite all this though, the film is still more vibrant, thought-provoking and attention-grabbing than just about anything else bankrolled by a Hollywood studio in 1959. Beginning with the sight of a scantily-clad burlesque dancer getting gunned down in the middle of a busy street, it moves like a rocket, with the subsequent action taking in kendo tournaments, Buddhist temples and alcoholic beatnik lady artistes amongst a wide variety of other off-the-beaten-track, quasi-documentary sights and sounds, whilst the reactions of Fuller’s characters - expressed in explosive bursts of crazed, short-hand jive never actually uttered by any human being, excepting perhaps the writer himself - are never remotely predictable.

39. It! The Terror From Beyond Space 
(Edward L. Cahn, 1958)

Another smash hit from Eddy L. Cahn, this quintessential two-fisted sci-fi slugger not only partially inspired Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett’s script for ‘Alien’, but, somewhat less significantly, also served to cheer me up considerably as I adjusted to the lifestyle changes necessitated by lockdown back in March of this year, reigniting my enthusiasm for ‘50s American SF movies in process. See my review from back in May for more!

38. Orgasmo 
(Umberto Lenzi, 1969)

The second Lenzi giallo on this year’s list (or the third, depending on which direction you’re counting in), the director’s first collaboration with exiled American star Carroll Baker gets his contribution to the Hitchcock/Clouzot-derived ‘psychological thriller’ era of the loosely-defined genre off to a cracking start, as Baker’s anxious, psychologically scarred and loaded-in-more-ways-than-one divorcee is seduced and subsequently terrorised by a pair of incestuous (or are they?), terrifyingly free-spirited young people, memorably played by Lou Castel and Colette Descombes.

Many directors, faced with this kind of minimal, performance-driven / single location three-hander, may have favoured a subtle, carefully planned slow-burn, but not our Umberto, no sir. Instead, the perennially undervalued prince of cinematic pulp turns the movie into a shrieking, raging maelstrom of crash zooms, screaming faces, blaring music, eye-scorching colours, woozy drunk-o-vision, shocking-for-its-day peekaboo nudity and endearingly low rent psychedelic freak-out effects, battering the audience into submission, even as the double/triple cross heavy plotline gradually runs out of steam.

Particularly interesting in this one I thought was the way that the unbridgeable generation gap which separates Baker (who was 37 years young at the time of filming) from her younger, more uninhibited tormentors is obsessively frayed and worried by Lenzi and his co-writers, eventually raised to a degree of outright hysteria which presumably reflects the fear and resentment actually experienced by slightly older creative/professional types at the tail-end of the 1960s, as the relentlessly youth-fixated counter-culture generation reshaped culture slash n’ burn style around them. Case in point: that f-ing pop song the evil kids use to drive Carroll out of her mind…. goddamn, you will never get that thing out of your head. It’s like garage rock reconstituted as an instrument of psychological warfare or something.

37. Into The Night 
(John Landis, 1985)

As crass, self-indulgent and OTT as you’d expect of a mid-‘80s John Landis production, this comedy/action/romance type palaver seems oddly pitched, marketing-wise, what with being slightly too slick and commercial to make it as a ‘cult movie’, but too weird and violent to appeal to a mainstream crowd. Nonetheless though, it fights its way onto the side of the angels simply by virtue of being remorselessly, unrelentingly entertaining.

As far as story ideas go, I’ll admit that the concept of an insomniac suburban husband (Jeff Goldblum in this case) deciding one night to jump in his car and set off in search of free-form adventure on the nocturnal streets of L.A. very much appeals to me. This being a Landis movie of course, the frantic, macguffin-chasing adventure Goldblum finds himself embroiled in after Michelle Pfeiffer unexpectedly lands on the hood of his car chiefly involves outbursts of mindless violence and automotive destruction interspersed with a seemingly endless series of outrageous cameos, all soundtracked by sleazoid yuppie blues jammin’ from ‘80s-era B.B. King, but… well, the thing is you see, I like mindless destruction and outrageous cameos, and nocturnal L.A. and sleazoid blues jammin’, so no complaints from this quarter.

I mean, at the end of the day, it’s pretty difficult to prevent one’s critical faculties from short-circuiting when faced with a knife fight between Carl Perkins and David Bowie, even as their characters, along with so much else, subsequently dissolve into a tangled mess of unresolved plot threads and unrealised potential.

Meanwhile, the film also finds Landis taking the old “Hitchcock cameo” concept to frankly absurd extremes, cracking open his phonebook and effectively transforming the picture into a 90 minute ‘Where’s Wally?’ puzzle for movie nerds as he orchestrates walk-ons for something in the region of seventeen different noteworthy film directors, turning the banter from our sofa into a constant litany of, “hey, was that guy in the hotel lobby Brian DePalma? Is that Sam Fuller driving past? OHMYGOD, that guy in the ambulance is Dario Argento!” (A public screening event with complimentary bingo cards and prizes for a full house seems like a must for the post-covid world, methinks.)

36. The Love Witch 
(Anna Biller, 2016)

Much as I wanted to love Anna Biller’s magnum opus, I must confess, I couldn’t quite get over the sense of cognitive dissonance which seemed to result from mixing what seems to be a heartfelt and rather tragic tale of a woman’s search for empowerment and self-definition with a set of archly mannered performances whose self-parodic dialogue seems to be delivered from behind a Teflon screen of cantilevered eyebrow-level irony.

But - perhaps that’s just my problem. In every other respect, ‘The Love Witch’ is an incredible achievement. The film’s obsessively detailed production design and colour-saturated photography in particular are breath-taking, transcending easily parroted accusations of “kitsch” or “camp” to instead achieve a kind of overpowering totality which I can only really liken to some kind of ultra-feminine, vintage-furniture-market equivalent of the work of Alexandro Jodorowsky. (The Renaissance Fayre sequence in particular nearly sent me over the edge into a state of pre-sugar coma delirium.)

The affectionate send ups of early ‘70s Satanic horror movies, made-for-TV melodramas and suburban occultism meanwhile are all spot-on and frequently hilarious, whilst the thread of fetishistic eroticism running through the film is admirably bold and forthright. Notwithstanding my griping above, Samantha Robinson’s performance as the deeply troubled title character is also superb - ambiguous, disturbing, and ultimately even moving in precisely the way the material demands.

It feels fairly ridiculous to describe Biller as a “bold new voice” or some such, given that she’s been toiling away in the trenches of independent filmmaking for a quarter century at this point, but nonetheless, it’s difficult to overstate just how fresh and unique a film like ‘The Love Witch’ feels within the current genre movie landscape, essentially carving out it’s own niche from scratch amid a marketplace whose ideas of what is and isn’t viable have been defined for decades by the tastes of 30/40-something hetero males such as myself. Well worth tracking down if it passed you by on release.

35. The Astrologer 
(James Glickenhaus, 1975)

The most brain-breaking exemplar of WTF Cinema I’ve experienced since chancing upon 1984’s Furious a few years back, I’ve been meaning to write a review of this one all year, but just haven’t quite been able to face the prospect of trying to corral my thoughts into words. It sure as hell wasn’t what I was expecting from James Glickenhaus (future director of ‘The Exterminator’ and ‘Shakedown’), I’ll tell you that much.

I won't go in to too much detail here (otherwise we’ll be here all night), but… trying to make sense of it all, I can only assume that the source novel upon which the film was based (written by Glickenhaus’s father-in-law, no less) must have been some sprawling, new age-y / conspiracy theory-filled airport blockbuster kind of thing. And, in attempting to do it justice, the young and inexperienced filmmakers decided to try to retain all of the various sub-plots and characters for their adaptation. But, being essentially self-financed amateurs at this point, they only managed to get about 50% of the material necessary to tell the story onto the screen, resulting in full spectrum bafflement for anyone who has ever tried to sit through it.

Viewed through this lens, ‘The Astrologer’ can almost be seen as a master-class in how NOT to adapt a book for the screen, full of total non-sequiturs, inexplicable jumps in time and space, characters who serve no purpose, numerous scenes in which people sit around making extraordinary metaphysical pronouncements whose relevance to the wider narrative is never really established, and other bit n’ pieces which seem like meaningless remnants of plot-lines which have otherwise been discarded… all leading up to a “what?! Is that it?!” unresolved ending for the ages.

Strictly in terms of its quote-unquote “quality” and conventionally-defined entertainment value, ‘The Astrologer’ would certainly not merit a place on this list, AND YET, go into it cold (as most viewers picking up Severin’s recent blu-ray will, I suspect) and the sheer, overwhelming sense of WTF-ery you will experience is a rare and wonderful thing - a powerful hit of a strange and exotic draught from an ancient and undisturbed celluloid vault, the like of which I’ve not experienced for quite some time. Pure “weird movie” nirvana, pretty much. Press play and drink it in!

 34. Nightbeast 
(Don Dohler, 1982)

Perhaps swayed by numerous reviews which emphasised their general tedium, I’d never bothered watching any of Baltimore-based indie monster movie specialist Don Dohler’s work prior to 2020 - but more fool me apparently, because this one was absolutely delightful. It basically plays out like a film made by a 12-year-old boy who has read a how-to guide for making a movie (including the basic rudiments of professional lighting, editing and special effects), and has meticulously carried out its instructions step by step, recruiting largely uncomprehending adults from his local area to help out.

As I'm sure other commentators must have noted, the Nightbeast does much of its rampaging during the daytime, so, more of an All Hours Beast really, but I still couldn't help exclaiming “look out - Nightbeast!” each time the inexplicably well-dressed alien marauder popped up to bloodily slaughter somebody - which, happily, was frequently.

Our hero, the local sheriff, resembles Wayne Coyne from The Flaming Lips if he'd never gone near a controlled substance and instead dedicated his life to law enforcement, and his calm and collected responses to the escalating crisis unfolding around him are truly a thing of beauty (“someone call Bill Perkins, he’s a crack shot”). The scene in which the sheriff fails to convince the town’s venal, drunken mayor to cancel his pool party for the eminently sensible reason that there’s a Nightbeast on the loose is really one for the ages (and pretty topical this year, in particular).

Factor in scenes of sex and nudity which seem to have been co-ordinated by someone who has no idea how these things function within human society (but just knows that they need to be in films), the strangely sad exploits of ‘Drago’, the town’s lone obnoxious biker guy (I guess the budget didn't stretch to giving him a gang), plus *the* best laser gun battles ever (as appreciated by Nicholas Cage and Andrea Riseborough in Mandy), and this really is regional American filmmaking at its strange, life-affirming best. Totally enchanting.

33. Nightmares 
(Joseph Sargent, 1983)

How have I managed to make it through near two decades of adulthood without being aware of this one? An out-of-nowhere ‘80s American portmanteau horror anthology which becomes stranger and more inexplicable with each passing segment, ‘Nightmares’ begins in fairly conventional territory with a suspenseful Topanga Canyon-set take on the old “killer in the back seat” urban myth, but then, before you know it, Black Flag-listening video games junkie Emilio Estevez (a close cousin of Repo Man’s Otto, I’m assuming) is fighting for supremacy against the computer-generated (in 1983!) ‘Bishop of Battle’, angst-ridden desert priest Lance Henriksen has his faith restored after tangling with a Satanic monster truck, and, last but not least, Veronica Cartwright heads up a family attempting to deal with cinema’s most sympathetic (and also quite possible most poorly animated) giant, cat-killing rodent. Will wonders never cease?

32. Satanico Pandemonium 
(Gilberto Martínez Solares, 1975)

Though its reputation may have suffered over the years as a result of its reticence to dish up the kind of immediate sleaze n’ thrills viewers might reasonably expect of a movie named ‘Satanico Pandemonium’, this extremely unusual Mexican nunsploitation picture nonetheless has far more to offer that merely its extraordinary nomenclature.

Beautifully photographed, full of eye-popping primary colours and bucolic, rural landscapes which more resemble central Europe than anyone’s preconceived ideas of Mexico, the film taps into a vein of rustic, fairy-tale magical realism more frequently encountered in Czech or Eastern European cinema, patiently building a picture of day-to-day life within its geographically dislocated, quasi-fantastical convent, only occasionally allowing hints of institutional hypocrisy and racism to upset the placid surface prior to the inevitable arrival of sexy Old Nick himself.

Characterised as a vampiric, gothic seducer, the movie’s spectral Satan duly proceeds to throw a few sparks into the hormonal tinderbox of our previously chaste protagonist-nun, who before we know it has covertly pledged herself to evil, indulging in taboo-breaking acts of gross indecency whose matter-of-fact presentation proves more authentically disturbing than anything encountered in more hysterical/exploitational entries in this most specialised of horror sub-genres, leading eventually to a mind-boggling final act whose far-out imagery seems destined to linger long in the darker reaches of my messed up psyche.

As critics/podcasters Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger discuss at length in their audio commentary (included on Mondo Macabro’s blu-ray reissue of the film), the fact that director Gilberto Martínez Solares, an elderly industry veteran whose earlier work encompassed a brace of Santo movies alongside innumerable popular comedies, decided to throw his weight behind such a daring, transgressive and apparently sincerely intended production seems downright inexplicable. It would indeed be fascinating to get some behind-the-scenes background on how this project came together. Failing that though, all we have is the movie itself, and it’s… quite something.

 31. Psycho II 
(Richard Franklin, 1983)

In cvase you’re wondering, I think we can place this one firmly in the “far better than it has any right to be” category. Nearly four decades after the fact, the sheer audacity of trying to turn Hitchcock’s storied classic into a character-driven, slasher-style franchise may still rankle with cinephiles, but the sheer breadth of the talent behind this one should help win over most doubters.

Having already proved his Hitch-devotion with “Rear Window in a truck” classic ‘Roadgames’ (1981), director Franklin really goes all out here, digging deep into the nuts and bolts of the master’s technique without ever resorting to mere pastiche, whilst Anthony Perkins’ perverse determination to re-invent Norman Bates as an essentially sympathetic protagonist works far better than anyone might have imagined. A strong supporting cast, including Meg Tilly, Dennis Franz, Robert Loggia and Vera Miles (reprising her role in the original) certainly helps in that regard, whilst photography from John Carpenter’s main man Dean Cundey is beautiful, John Corso’s entirely set-bound production design is pitch-perfect, Jerry Goldsmith absolutely nails it on the score…. you get the idea. Even the great Albert Whitlock contributes a few matte paintings here and there, helping to create an autumnal, twilight atmosphere which really works wonders.

Best of all though is ‘Fright Night’ director Tom Holland’s script, which basically spends the best work of two hours pulling audience expectations through the most twisted series of reversals and handbrake turns his apparently devious intellect could come up with. Never quite veering into “too clever” territory, it’s just-clever-enough to keep us hooked, and if the story perhaps doesn’t quite succeed in transcending the project’s cynical origins or achieving any kind of deeper significance, as far as psychological thrillers reimagined as rollercoaster rides go, it’s a pretty smashing time. 

---

To be continued….

Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Deathblog:
John le Carré
(1931-2020)

To my shame, I’ve been a late-comer to John le Carré’s work. Scanning over his books (which have always been gifted by their publishers with singularly boring cover designs) in innumerable charity shops through my youth, I’d long assumed that they must be dry, procedural, unappealingly nationalistic affairs - the kind of spy novels read by grey-faced, commuter-belt dads, padded out with tedious detail about the firing rate of sniper rifles, the mechanics of phone-tapping and the precise dimensions of expensive suitcases. Not my bag man, especially in those relatively hopeful, paranoia-free years which followed the fall of the Berlin Wall.

To his eternal credit, it was my brother who convinced me to think again, passing on a copy of ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ (1963), and solemnly instructing me that I needed to read it. He was right - I did need to read it. Not simply one of the best cold war thrillers, I’d class it as one of the best novels written in the second half of the 20th century, period.

Reportedly composed by the author in a kind of frantic fugue in the months following the Cuban Missile Crisis, ‘The Spy Who..’ turns the reader’s expectations of a ‘spy story’ inside out, obscuring the methodology and purported grander purpose of espionage and focusing instead upon the fragmenting identity of its protagonist and the ugly human cost of low level cold war brinksmanship.

Building to a suitably bleak crescendo of morally bankrupt existential absurdity, the novel is a match for any of Graham Greene’s tonally similar masterpieces, and the widespread acclaim with which it was received could easily have seen le Carré undertaking a similar leap toward the realm of literary fiction. The fact that he chose not to, instead remaining firmly ensconced within the more comfortable terrain of genre / ‘popular’ fiction across the decades as he eyed the critical establishment with suspicion, very much counts in his favour, I feel.

Though it veers a little more toward the kind of procedural detail I was initially dreading, ‘The Looking Glass War’ (1966) is a solid follow up, doubling down more directly on the earlier novel’s core theme of men and women being left to die ‘in the field’, solely in order to satisfy the petty, bureaucratic jealousies of London’s administrative hierarchies.

With those two under my belt, I took a step backwards and read le Carré’s second novel, ‘A Murder of Quality’ (1962). Noting that the author’s famed intelligence agent George Smiley was the protagonist, and aware of le Carré’s low key approach to his art, I began the book convinced that their must be some sort of nefarious international conspiracy underlying what initially seemed like a fairly benign whodunit, remaining alert for hidden inferences and code words which would blow the whole thing wide open.

At one point, I recall seizing upon a passing reference to a character’s wife collecting donations for an Eastern European refugee charity, thinking, “aha, finally, that must be the connection”, only to realise in the last few pages that I actually had just been reading the kind of innocuous Home Counties murder mystery which Inspector Morse might have sorted out of a Sunday evening a few decades later. Ho hum.

Back on safer ground, my next (and to date most recent) foray into le Carré’s world was what most people would probably consider his second masterpiece, 1974’s ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’. In stark contrast to his ‘60s spy novels, this labyrinthine tale of George Smiley’s quest to identify the Soviet double-agent operating within the highest echelons of British intelligence is at heart a genre potboiler, complete with clearly defined goodies and baddies, as the absent spectres of Control and Karla loom like a sainted elder and a red devil over the chessboard upon which le Carré’s grey-faced cast of inscrutable, tormented middle-aged men endlessly circle one another, seeking a momentary advantage.

You would not immediately grok this however from the dense lexicon of ministerial hierarchies, committee membership lists, coded filing systems and obscurely named internal departments through which the author tells his tale. I’ll be honest, the pointed avoidance of sensationalism or directly expressed emotion which characterises le Carré’s quote-unquote ‘mature’ style can take some getting used to.

If the idea of a thriller written by an administrator doesn’t sound like too much of an oxymoron though, ‘Tinker Tailor..’ embodies this idea beautifully, and as you allow yourself to sink into its quiet, judicious world of painstaking information gathering, and let the full scope and resonance of the author’s vision become clear, the eventual impact is staggering. 

(Well I remember sitting on a long haul flight a couple of years back, taking a brief break from reading and realising that I’d become breathlessly excited at the prospect of Smiley managing to remove a confidential file from a reading room without the necessary permission.)

Ideally I think, ‘Tinker Tailor..’ should probably be read in conjunction with watching the 1978 BBC TV series, directed by John Irvin - a brilliant adaptation which retains the core structure, characters and feel of the novel, whilst also finding time to depict some of the more conventionally exciting, action-packed diversions which le Carré decorously left off-page.

As much as tributes have naturally concentrated upon the plotting and realism of le Carré’s novels though, I’d also like to highlight what a fantastic prose stylist he was. Though his characters may initially seem like little more than surnames wearing old school ties, his knack for humanising and differentiating them through seemingly casual asides or tantalising suggestions of hidden depths, is often extraordinary.

Each one of the le Carré novels I’ve read thus far has contained indelible, seemingly random, references and descriptions which stay with me long after I’ve read them - from the protagonist of ‘The Looking Glass War’ somehow finding malign intent in a child’s toy as he idles at an airport en-route to his fatal mission, to the description in ‘Tinker Tailor..’ of a small-minded finishing school headmaster “beating the flanks of his dachshund like a drum” as he casts uncharitable aspersions in the direction of a supply teacher whose actual achievements and experiences he couldn’t even begin to imagine, or to Smiley’s instant dismissal of a rumour that Control has been seen alive and well in North Africa on the basis that “the only place he ever felt at home was Surrey, or the Lords Cricket Ground”.

Whatever subject turned his attention to, le Carré was, above all else, an exceptionally gifted writer, and gradually acquainting myself with the rest of his extensive oeuvre is a task I’ve been greatly looking forward to over the coming years and decades.

On a personal note meanwhile (as if any of this has been anything but), I also can’t help but mention how much I’ve appreciated le Carré’s re-emergence as a public figure in the 21st century. Interviews such as those featured in the excellent 2000 documentary ‘The Secret Centre’ (which sadly doesn’t seem to be available to view on line, but can be found as an extra on the recent blu-ray reissue of the ‘Tinker, Tailor..’ series) left me with an impression of le Carré as a wise, compassionate and clear-headed thinker, and it has subsequently been gratifying to discover that, whilst a lifetime of opposition to communism lent him a distrust of the political left which I do not necessarily share, his views on many subjects closely echoed my own, and he expressed them with a directness and eloquence which I greatly appreciate. [In addition to the link above, I’d also refer you to the concluding paragraphs of this BBC online obituary.]

What le Carré referred to as “[his] England” is, I would hope, mine too, and as our nation continues to toil under the yoke of assorted bullies, bastards and dead-eyed incompetents, the loss of one of the all-too-few affirming flames who are able to make me feel proud, rather than ashamed, of my nationality has been especially keenly felt this week. RIP old chap - you will be much missed.

Friday, 4 December 2020

Deathblog:
Hugh Keays-Byrne
(1947-2020)


And so the bad news continues to roll in. Just a few weeks after Sandy Harbutt passed away, it’s time to say farewell to his ‘Stone’ co-star and the preeminent bad-ass of ’70s Australian cinema, Hugh Keays-Byrne.

Born in India to English parents, Keays-Byrne was raised in the UK and honed his acting chops working for the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1968 to 72. After touring Australia with a production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in ’73, he decided to stick around and try his luck, and the rest, as they say, is history. His role as the freaked-out Toad in ‘Stone’ was followed in quick succession by Brian Trenchard-Smith’s ‘The Man From Hong-Kong’ in ’75, Philippe Mora’s ‘Mad Dog Morgan’ in ’76, and, eventually of course, his unforgettable turn as The Toecutter in George Miller’s ‘Mad Max’ in ’79.

A wildly charismatic, powerhouse performer whose screen persona combined booming, Shaekspearean diction with feral outback grit, Keays-Byrne is fantastic in every film I’ve ever seen him in. In particular, he totally kicks ass (sometimes literally) as the rogue, long-haired cop in ‘The Man from Hong-Kong’, completely stealing the show from Wang Yu and George Lazenby (if not necessarily from frequent co-star Roger Ward, playing his more laconic partner).

By the time we get to 2015’s ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’, well, much of the time it could have been anyone under all that get-up he wore for the Immortan Joe role, but it was nice to at least know that he was buried in there somewhere, and to appreciate some of menacing, stentorian gravitas he still managed to put across - his Shakespearean roots showing through to the end.

He always seemed like a really great guy in interviews too (I particularly recommend the Mad Max episode of The Projection Booth in that regard), and will no doubt be much missed by many. RIP.

Monday, 30 November 2020

Double Deathblog.

Daria Nicolodi 
(1950-2020)

Like all euro-horror fans I’m assuming, I was very sad to hear last week that the great Daria Nicolodi has passed away at the age of 70.

Personally, I've always subscribed to the belief that Nicolodi played a big part in the writing and conception of Dario Argento’s ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Inferno’; not that there seems to be much hard evidence for this, but I just really want it to be true. The former masterpiece in particular seems to herald the introduction of a distinct, new voice into Argento’s cinema, and, be it coincidence or otherwise, the sharp nosedive in the quality of the director’s work after the estranged couple ceased working together at the end of the 1980s speaks for itself.

Always a bold and outspoken figure, Nicolodi’s own account of her subsequent career seems, sadly, to have revolved around the notion of her creative input being ignored or misinterpreted by male filmmakers - first by Luigi Cozzi on Paganini Horror and the disasterous ‘De Profundis’/ ‘The Black Cat’/ ‘Demons 6’ (both 1989), and then latterly when her proposed script for the concluding chapter of the ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy was again disregarded by Argento as he set to work on what eventually became 2007’s ‘Mother of Tears’.

In all likelihood, we’ll never know the true extent of her behind the scenes contribution to the films she was involved with, but for her acting roles alone, she was one of the greats - eccentric, charismatic and super-cool in pretty much everything she appeared in, from her breakthrough in Elio Petri’s ‘Property is No Longer Theft’ (1973) to her defining role playing opposite David Hemmings in ‘Profundo Rosso’/’Deep Red’ (1975), to Mario Bava’s ‘Shock’ (1977) and beyond. 

Now and forever, Daria rules. RIP. 

 

Sandy Harbutt 
(1941-2020)

And meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, we must also say farewell to another guy whose creative artistry never really got its due, Sandy Harbutt, pioneer of independent Australian cinema and writer/producer/director/star of the greatest biker (sorry, bikie) movie ever made, 1974’s ‘Stone’, which I reviewed on this blog way back in 2010.

A landmark of outsider/psychedelic cinema, positively overflowing with talent, energy and raw craziness, ‘Stone’ remains an absolute blast, and the fact that Harbutt managed to single-handedly pull it all together in a country that basically didn’t have a film industry at that point remains an incredible achievement.

Subsequent leading lights of the livelier end of Australian filmmaking, from Peter Weir to Brian Trenchard Smith, and most particularly George Miller, owe Harbutt a huge debt of gratitude from essentially clearing the ground and establishing the parameters of the nation’s highly specific genre cinema aesthetic, and the fact he was never allowed the opportunity to follow up his debut feature or make a living from his film work is little short of criminal, given the phenomenal promise shown by ‘Stone’.

If you’re unfamiliar with the film, just watch the trailer here, and I’m pretty sure you’ll want to rectify that ASAP.

Raising a glass to you Undertaker - RIP.

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Two-Fisted Tales:
Brother Cain
by Simon Raven

(Panther, 1965)



Though the brightly-hued cover photo affixed to this edition of Simon Raven’s second published novel ‘Brother Cain’ carries a distinct whiff of pop-art / psychedelic chic, Panther’s paperback was actually printed in February ’65, too early to have really hitched a ride on the ‘swinging sixties’ bandwagon, whilst the book itself was first published back in the grey, buttoned up world of 1959.

One of those renowned-in-their-day-but-now-largely-forgotten authors whose work always sparks a certain fascination, Simon Raven (1927-2001 - and yes, that was indeed his birth name) wrote voluminously through much of the latter half of the 20th century, and, read today, his books feel both strikingly modern (in terms of their frank and non-judgemental approach to sexuality and general air of shark-ish cynicism) and hopelessly old fashioned (being largely concerned with a segment of upper crust British society whose values and behaviours now seem entirely alien, probably even to those lucky enough to have been born into it).

Freely mixing elements of personal / social writing and thinly veiled autobiography into popular genre thrillers, Raven’s more noteworthy works include Oxbridge vampire yarn ‘Doctors Wear Scarlet’ (loosely adapted into Robert Hartford Davis’s disastrous Incense for the Damned in 1971) and, on the other side of the coin, the ten volume ‘Alms for Oblivion’ sequence, which follows the lives and loves of a cadre of toffs, set against the changing social and political mores of post-war England. (I read the first few chapters of the first volume of this epic saga a few years back and actually found it quite compelling, but unfortunately I lost my copy on a train and haven’t got around to picking it up again since.)

Throughout his early literary career, Raven seems to have been fixated on the dilemmas faced by male scions of the English upper classes who, whether through conscious rebellion or mere lethargy and personal weakness, have squandered the privileges conferred to them by their noble upbringing and must find alternative paths through life. This theme is certainly front and centre in ‘Brother Cain’, whose protagonist Jacinth Crewe (note the Moorcock-ian initials) finds himself in a predicament closely mirroring that apparently faced by the author himself a few years beforehand.

Having been expelled from Eton on the grounds of moral turpitude and subsequently forced to curtail his studies at Cambridge due to what we might charitably call a self-inflicted lack of funds, the novel joins Crewe as he is invited to offer his resignation to the British army’s elite training academy at Sandhurst, having accrued gambling debts sufficiently gargantuan as to bring his entire regiment into disrepute.

“Honour and dishonour are conventions,” Captain Crewe’s understanding commanding officer advises him during their final interview, effectively establishing the theme of the novel to follow. “They are relevant in the world in which you have so far existed: they will not be relevant in the world for which it is clear you are now destined.”

Retreating to London with his tail (amongst other things) between his legs, Jacinth throws himself upon the mercy of his regiment’s allotted merry widow, one Miss Kitty Leighton, who, after a night or two of wild passion at her Chelsea flat, places a call to a mysterious contact who may be able to assist her disgraced and destitute young lover before the debt collectors come knocking.

Thus, Jacinth is summoned to a lunch date at the Trocadero in Piccadilly (decades before it became the tourist-choked hellhole we know it as today), where he is greeted by dirty mac-clad, brown ale supping “professional messenger” Mr Shannon - a character I found it impossible not to imagine being played by Donald Pleasance.

Though highly suspicious on all levels, the proposal Mr Shannon’s anonymous employers wish to convey to Captain Crewe is entirely too good for the desperate young layabout to resist. In short, his gambling debts will be covered in full, and he will be issued with sufficient funds to allow him to fly to Rome and install himself in the swank Hotel Hassler overlooking the Spanish Steps, there to await further instructions.

What with this being the height of the First Cold War and everything, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that when those orders do eventually arrive, they direct Jacinth to an appointment at a shabby ‘Institute for the Promotion of Mediterranean Art’, a flimsy front for a top secret wing of the British government whose job, to all intents and purposes, is to create new James Bonds.

Which is to say, Jacinth and the other young rascals corralled by the nameless ‘organisation’ are pointedly not being groomed as spies or intelligence agents. Instead, they are basically just hatchet men - proponents of what one of their instructors (who is of lower middle class extraction, and so naturally a graceless, grudge-bearing git) bluntly calls “the cold art of murder”.

Taking a more refined view on things, the Big Cheese of the whole operation, who naturally enjoys the benefit of a ‘proper’ education, instead waxes lyrical to his new recruits about how, in the light of communist infiltration and so forth, the democratic institutions so cherished by western nations can only be preserved through the unilateral execution of acts which the champions of democracy would find impossible to countenance, should they become aware of them.

(Being unfamiliar with Raven’s own political leanings, assuming he had any, it’s difficult to get a handle on whether this justification for extra-judicial murder and mayhem, which continues at some length, is being presented as satire, or simply as a statement of the author’s own beliefs.)

Furthering the Bond parallel, Jacinth and his fellow recruits are essentially allowed to adopt the lifestyles of globe-trotting playboys, so long as they follow their orders precisely, ask no questions, and leave whatever moral scruples they may once have possessed at the door. And, if they have any thoughts of ducking out and taking their chances in civilian life, well…. their more ruthless classmates will simply have an easy first assignment to look forward to, won’t they?

Despite his military rank, Jacinth Crewe is still more a feckless dosser than a cold-blooded killer, and, still bedevilled by confused notions of personal honour and brotherly conduct, he is naturally terrified by the prospect of having to immerse himself in the paranoid, compassionless world promised by his new profession - all the more so when, with a neatness which surely defies mere coincidence, he is paired up for training with one Nicholas Le Soir, the former schoolmate whose charms led to his being expelled from Eton for corrupting the morals of a younger boy. (This incident directly mirrors Raven’s real life expulsion from Charterhouse public school, incidentally.)

Now a qualified surgeon, Le Soir has arrived at the ‘organisation’ after being struck off and effectively exiled from the UK for performing an illegal abortion upon the daughter of a prominent Catholic family (oops), and the plot is further thickened once both Jacinth and Nicholas find themselves drawn into an embryonic love triangle with Le Soir’s promiscuous yet sexually dysfunctional cousin Eurydice, who is also resident in Rome, working for an equally questionable ‘cultural mission’…. and who seems suspiciously keen on pumping her two mixed up suitors for information on the nature of their employment.

And, there I will leave my plot synopsis, but suffice to say, Raven proves himself eminently capable of setting up a fast-moving, exquisitely intriguing yarn here, even if his story’s conclusion - following an incident in a bat-infested railway tunnel, a scheme to virally infect the whores of a high class brothel and a head-spinningly convoluted murder scheme set against the backdrop of a Venetian masked ball, amongst other diversions - eventually veers more toward the kind of existential, internecine futility in which John le Carré would later specialise than the two-fisted action-adventure stuff beloved by Ian Fleming’s fans.

In view of the fact that ‘Brother Cain’ was first published a full decade before the legalisation of male homosexuality in the UK, one of the most striking aspects of the book for modern readers is Raven’s forthright and unapologetic presentation of his male characters’ bisexuality. Not only acknowledging this dark secret of the English public school system, which tended to be referred to only through implication and innuendo by other writers of this era, he seems keen on eagerly exploring its every nook and cranny, pushing the book’s language about as far as the era’s censorship would allow.

“I’m not a homosexual, or at least, not very often,” Jacinth muses to himself as he drifts into introspective reverie in the flight to Rome. (“What shall I do about women? Well I suppose there must be brothels..,” he charmingly adds, as if to bolster his own sense of masculinity.)

As soon as he falls asleep though, he finds himself dreaming of a beautiful American boy he once briefly courted at Cambridge (and who will, of course, play an integral role in the unfolding plot), and as the book goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that Jacinth’s most significant and long-lasting relationships have always been with other men.

In spite of its attention-grabbing plotline in fact, ‘Brother Cain’ often reads more like a semi-autobiographical personal novel than it does a thriller. More specifically, it seems like an attempt on Raven’s part to take stock of his life to date, and to redefine his place in the world as he hit his early 30s. As noted, the parallels between the background of the book’s protagonist and that of the author himself are considerable, and, given the multiple accusations of libel which were levelled against Raven as a result of his writing over the years, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that many of the secondary characters in ‘Brother Cain’ were simply thinly veiled versions of his own friends, lovers and acquaintances.

Suffice to say, Raven was presumably not actually press-ganged into committing top secret outrages on behalf of the British crown, but, at a push, you could perhaps see Jacinth Crewe’s recruitment by the ‘organisation’ as a reflection of Raven’s own unique arrangement with the publisher Anthony Blond, who, when the author found himself in particularly dire straits, is reported to have agreed to pay him £15 a week in perpetuity and to publish his books as and when he completed them, on the understanding that he should leave London and never return.

Elsewhere, the book’s story is jammed with sinister, wisdom-dispensing potential father figures and unbalanced, mothering women, whilst Jacinth’s ruthless generational contemporaries all seem ready and willing to trample on his yearning, sensitive soul, creating a maelstrom of weird moral / psychological angst which can only really end with our protagonist becoming entirely consumed by it as he slips helplessly between the cracks separating the world of ‘honour and dishonour’ from the one in which most of us now live, in which such concepts are simply a quaint irrelevance.

Normally of course, I’d be pretty pissed off to find a book which has all the makings of a rip-roaring mid-century thriller derailed by such a load of ponderous navel-gazing, but Simon Raven was such a fascinating character, and the lost world of foppish decadence in which he dwelled such an enticing one to visit, that in his case, I’ll happily make an exception. 

Whatever you may think about his conduct or way of life, Raven was a strange and unique literary talent; even at this early stage of his career, his prose and plotting are crisp, witty and ruthlessly efficient, and I’ll certainly be redoubling my quest for more of his work as soon as the doors of the world’s surviving second hand bookshops begin to creak open once again.