Thursday, 25 April 2013

Sitting Target
(Douglas Hickox, 1972)

The pantheon of great ‘70s British crime films is, I suppose, I fairly limited one. Whereas Italy, France and Japan were cranking them out with a vengeance, codifying and exploiting every corner of their nations’ rich underworld mythologies, the UK never managed to get a comparable production line rolling, despite having all the requisite ingredients (a readymade hard-boiled aesthetic, an intimidating legacy of real-life hoods, enough industrial wasteland to host a million blood-thirsty showdowns) very much in place. With a film industry increasingly deprived of vital US funding and increasingly snooty in its approach to genre cinema, British crime cinema entered the dread wasteland of the ‘80s clutching a mere handful of carefully guarded classics alongside a scattering of misbegotten duds and money-sink bad ideas, and that’s yr lot really.

As such, good examples of the Brit-crime aesthetic are highly prized, which leads me to rejoice even more in my belated discovery of what turns out to be one of the best of the bunch – Douglas Hickox’ ‘Sitting Target’. Once again, I must here thank the proprietors of London’s Filmbar70 for bringing this one to my attention, their uncanny knack for screening incredible movies that had somehow slipped beneath my radar once again delivering the goods.

Not that I needed much encouragement to step out for a screening of ‘Sitting Target’. I mean – action-packed crime/revenge story? Oliver Reed? South London? 1972? Count me IN! Shooters! Car chases! Coppers in Morris Minors (possibly)! Edward Woodward (definitely)! This is gonna be amazing.

But you know that feeling when you approach a relatively little-known film and think, “well theoretically this sounds great, but I’d better keep my expectations low, because if it actually WAS that great, surely it would be hugely popular and acclaimed; given its continued obscurity, I suppose it will most likely be a missed opportunity or ill-starred fiasco of some kind”? Yes, I’m sure you know that feeling, even if your gut instincts don’t regularly include suffixes and semi-colons. And correspondingly, you’ll probably also be familiar the  sense of surprise and elation that follows when you watch a film like ‘Sitting Target’ said discover that yes, it actually IS as good as it sounds - perhaps even landing a dent or two on the rear bumper of ‘Get Carter’ in the great Brit-crime grind up the M4.

Ok, well, maybe not quite. I guess the plotting here is fairly contrived, the characters are pretty shallow (only really distinguished by the oomph the first-rate cast puts into them), and there are some goofy ‘action movie’ moments in the second half that come across as kinda silly, undercutting the prevailing mood of quasi-realism. But on first viewing such things don’t matter much, and on the whole I was verily blown away by just how solidly *good* ‘Sitting Target’ is. In the limited field of British crime, it’s one of the heavy-hitters for sure, going off with the kind of unpretentious, populist bang that’s rarely encountered in the staid world of mainstream British cinema (rated X solely due to its blood-curdling thuggery!), and basically providing one hell of a good time for anyone with a yen for tough crime flicks in general, and the murky underbelly of ‘70s Britain in particular.

Not that the film’s quality should come as that much of a surprise I suppose. Director Hickox came to ‘Sitting Target’ following a divisive adaptation of Joe Orton’s ‘Entertaining Mr Sloane’, and went straight on to make the much-loved ‘Theatre of Blood’, taking the unpromising (from a mainstream POV at least) shell of a retirement-era Vincent Price bodycount flick and transforming it into one of the most perennially popular British-made horror movies of all time.* In their own way, both of these projects – precariously balanced between outrage and respectability – suggest that Hickox was perfectly placed to go to town on a smart, violent crime movie… and a hefty bank-roll from MGM probably didn’t hurt matters either.

Whilst I’ve never actually bothered to research the issue in any detail, my understanding is that it was in around ’72 or ’73 that the American studios started to pull the rug out from under their UK-based operations, thus precipitating the eternal crisis that has dogged the national film industry ever since. But assuming this was the case, you certainly wouldn’t know it from looking at Douglas Hickox’ CV. Both ‘..Target’ and ‘Theatre..’ were backed by MGM and for whatever reason, the director seems to have thrived on such productions, apparently pleasing the studio to the extent that he managed to spend the rest of the decade working on such high profile US/UK crossovers as the bizarre, John Wayne-starring Brit-crime caper ‘Brannigan’ (1975) and 1979’s belated sequel ‘Zulu Dawn’.

Anyway, point is, whilst ‘Sitting Target’ is not exactly lavishly budgeted by Hollywood standards, it clearly had more cash to throw around than your average British b-movie, and the bulk of it seems to have been invested wisely – in production design, technical expertise, casting, stunt-work, music… stuff that really matters, in other words.

Most importantly, ‘..Target’ plays like a film in which the cast and crew had the time to get things right - a rare virtue in genre cinema. Just like the sort of heist the characters presumably wish they could pull off, nearly every shot here seems flawlessly planned and executed. The cinematography (courtesy of Edward Scaife, whose career as DP ranges from ‘Night of the Demon’ to ‘The Dirty Dozen’) is plain superb, making somewhat experimental use of reflections on glass, super-impositions, deep focus and so forth, with some really effective night shooting too. The editing is tight as a story like this requires, and Hickox’s direction, though rarely ostentatious, oozes style, precisely the way a post-Point Blank/Get Carter crime movie should.

For my money, the film’s opening half hour – filmed largely in Kilmainham Jail, Dublin, subbing for a non-specific English prison – is practically faultless, launching straight into what looks to be a brutal, existential crime yarn in the tradition of Jim Thompson or Jean-Pierre Melville. And what better vehicle for your brutal, existential needs than Oliver Reed, here looking more embittered and punch-drunk than ever, expressing more pent-up rage in a single flared nostril than most actors manage in a lifetime?

In fact we’ve barely even been introduced to jailbird Harry Lomart before he see him subjected to a harrowing spell in solitary confinement following a homicidal assault on his wife (Jill St. John). When she pops in at visiting hour to reluctantly inform Harry that she is seeing another man and wants a divorce, Lomart literally punches straight through the plastic communication grille, foaming at the mouth as he throttles her – an astonishing moment of violence that only an actor like Reed could render believably. Indeed, Lomart turns out to be such a perfect role for Reed that I can only assume the character was written as such, balancing a mixture of brooding, taciturn nihilism and relentless single-mindedness with outbursts of unhinged, hulk-like aggression, and just a hint of blubbing sentimentality behind the machismo… aside from the fact he has to adopt an East End accent in place of his usual husky RP tones (“I’m gonna get that toffee-nosed git one day..”), fans can be assured that this is full-force Reed, exactly the way we like it.

Hickox wastes little time in establishing the bind Lomart is in, setting out his inner turmoil and limited range of action with admirable cinematic efficiency, whilst Stanley Myers’ so-fucking-bad-ass-I-can-scarcely-believe-it psychotronic score adds tension-building pulse to proceedings**, as we head straight into a tour de force prison break sequence that is vicious and suspenseful enough to actually seem kinda convincing. Lomart and his best mate Birdy (Ian McShane) team up with a snooty Firm big-wig to make their escape (an excellent turn from the rarely-less-than-excellent Freddie Jones) , scaling walls, paying off and/or bludgeoning night-guards and beating a guard dog to death with a brick, culminating in a nail-biting bit of chasm-crossing grappling hook business that sees Reed swinging Tarzan-style toward the outer wall with seconds to spare (I really hope he did his own stunts).

At the risk of repeating myself, all of this is tautly directed, brilliantly performed, and by the time Ollie, Freddie and Lovejoy have made their getaway, swigging from a bottle of scotch in the back of a counterfeit US Army truck as it roars off into the night, I’m finding it hard to believe that a film this good can actually exist without tearing a black hole in the delicate fabric of British cinema.

Sadly, the remainder of ‘Sitting Target’ perhaps doesn’t *quite* live up to the promise of the opening prison segment. Somehow it feels as if the freedom of movement offered by the outside world invites the movie to take on some slack, loosen its belt a few notches. But even as the brooding Melville-ism is overtaken by a more commercially minded, action-packed approach to the genre, there’s still an absolute shit ton of stuff left to enjoy here, often enlivened by the same spirit of devil-may-care mayhem and street-level psychopathy that fuelled the contemporaneous Italian crime boom.

Once Birdy and Lomart hit London (the latter packing a high-end shooter and fixated on dead wife-shaped vengeance), some of the action set-pieces that transpire are simply ridiculous, but well-chosen locations, keen attention to detail and pure cinematic flash all do their bit to stop things ever going completely off the rails. For instance, a scene in which Reed scurries through a maze of washing lines at the base of a Clapham tower-block dodging a pair of motorcycle cops seems absolutely absurd on a practical level, but as a bravura cinematic sequence is works brilliantly, with disorientating montage editing and bright patterns of gauzy colour, accompanied by Myers’ churning collage of police radio, sirens and malfunctioning synth bleeps – a great example of low(ish) budget cinema’s power to take a pretty laughable concept and render it extraordinary.

It’s a particular treat to see the familiarly drab environs of just-over-the-river South-West London transformed into a viable backdrop for shoot-outs, double-crosses and pyrotechnics, as the sodden, concrete landscapes of Clapham Junction and Battersea begin to play an increasingly prominent role in proceedings. Using chaotic, vertiginous angles and jagged, asymmetrical lines, Hickox fills this overlooked corner of London with noir-ish signifiers of confinement and confusion, adapting them for a new era and a new city, as tower blocks, construction sites, snaking rail lines and the crumbling remnants of Victoriana combine to reflect Lomart’s tormented headspace; brutalist design meets brutalist behaviour, if you will.

In British films from the ‘50s and ‘60s, Battersea often seems to feature as a place where deviant toffs and shady characters from across the river in Chelsea keep their quiet little love-nests***, and indeed we see that tradition followed up in another great segment here, as Harry & Birdy crash a spectacularly garish/grotty swank-pad where a former underworld acquaintance (Frank Finley) is housing his current mistress (Jill Townsend). Although he’s not allotted much screen-time, Finley’s portrayal of crooked race-track mogul Marty Gold is one of my favourite things in the whole movie (“Christ, don’t you do nothing but wash your bastard self?” he yells up the stairs as he hears the bath running), and Townsend is very good too (probably the film’s strongest female presence, not that that’s saying much). The whole sequence oozes a wonderful, peculiarly British bad taste, from the pink bathtub and matching telephone to endless supplies of cheap scotch, ceiling mirrors, a sudden mania for elaborate mirror / reflection shots, and what appears to be a giant brandy glass full of goldfish in the living room… heavy Pete Walker vibes predominate, which is fine by me.

Like a thousand other 70s crime flicks, ‘Sitting Target’s conclusion decamps to a junk-strewn, disused railyard (directly opposite Battersea Power Station, if the editing is to be believed), matching up the splintered allegiances and collapsing plans of the story with a visual palette of twisted metal, shattered glass and rust-covered girders that’s pretty much obligatory for this kind of movie, but is captured with particular verve here. In an inspired move, Reed gets to screech around is some kind of bright red, soft-topped land-rover / dune buggy type thing – perhaps the perfect vehicular equivalent of the actor himself (assuming you discount the possibility of a pirate-hijacked Victorian dreadnaught) - and much fire, bloodshed and heavily sign-posted bathos ensues, leading us through a wholly satisfactory stock conclusion.

Overall, I think ‘Sitting Target’ is one of those films that works best as a purely visceral experience. As soon as you subject it to closer examination, significant flaws start piling up left & right. For one thing, former Bond girl and American interest Jill St John really doesn’t cut it as Lomart’s missus. Set adrift in a film in which the rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, her nervy, exaggerated mannerisms and wobbly trans-atlantic accent (like Reed’s cockney, it comes and goes) fail to ever quite convince, and the expository dialogue she feeds police detective Edward Woodward in their scene together feels clunky as hell.

Speaking of which, what the hell happened to Woodward’s character anyway? He has one big scene, introduced as if he’s going to be a significant player in the forthcoming drama, but then he disappears completely, only turning up again in the film’s final moments to glower through the flames. I get the feeling much of his screen-time might have ended up on the cutting room floor, and actually the film betrays numerous other symptoms of regrettable script-chopping shenanigans, reducing the story to a set of bare bones that perhaps stick out just a bit too clearly at times (particularly given that many of the best moments result from its assorted detours and local colour). Whilst I personally didn’t guess the finale’s Big Twist on first viewing, I’m sure that if I’d paused for five minutes midway through to examine the several gaping holes in the information the script had provided us with, the ‘shocking’ turn-around would have been rendered pretty bloody obvious – a conclusion more analytical viewers than I will likely reach without the aid of a ‘thinking break’.

But - this kinda stuff doesn’t really matter. It won’t even register on first viewing, what with all the great stuff that’s also being thrown at the screen. Even if it doesn’t quite manage to connect on quite the kind of gut-punch emotional level I demand of real top drawer crime films, this one is easily still, uh, top of the second drawer down, if you get me? A high-energy ninety minute rampage through the streets of Ted Heath’s England, full of flash cinematic business, powerhouse acting and unfeasible mad dog violence, it’s a real thrill to see a British tough-‘70s-crime contender that can step in the ring alongside ‘Gang War in Milan’ or ‘Yakuza Graveyard’, and here’s hoping there’s plenty more of the same out there somewhere awaiting my attention.

Bloody cinema, you bastards!

* Interestingly, ‘Sitting Target’ also shares several shooting locations with ‘Theatre of Blood’. One beautifully shot but entirely pointless scene has Reed wandering across the stage at the derelict Putney Hippodrome (site of many of Price’s depredations in ‘..Theatre’), and if I’m not mistaken, the final showdowns of both films take place in the same SW London railyard / car park type place.

**Sitting Target’s OST was reissued by Finders Keepers in 2007. Now out of print, but worth every penny if you can find a copy.

***Well, I’ve seen several films in which this was the case anyway. I don’t know whether it was a frequent enough feature of the era’s cinema to constitute a ‘thing’, but I’d like to think so.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Murder in Haste by Brett Halliday
(Mayflower, 1963)

Like the Carter Browns, I’ve always got time for these Mike Shayne numbers with the McGinnis covers, regardless of condition or relative literary merit.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

The Canvas Dagger by Helen Reilly
(Macfadden, 1970)


“I say, that looks like the body of Grant Melville, the noted painter..”

Those drawn in by the gruesome cover may be disappointed to learn that ‘The Canvas Dagger' was originally published 1956 (presumably with rather more restrained artwork), and gives every indication of being a rather tame art-themed whodunit, rather than a rampage of psychotic, knife-wielding nihilism.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013


When the ‘Kickstarter’ website / concept began to take off a few years back, I’ll admit I treated the whole thing with a certain amount of derision. (You want £10,000 to make a rock album? Fuck off - £150 of Maplins vouchers probably buys you more recording capacity than Sam Philips saw in his lifetime, and if that’s not good enough for you, get a bloody job like the rest of us etc etc.).

Filmmaking though is something that actually does take a certain amount of investment, and that generally involves a massive financial risk for all who venture into it. With the good / bad ratio horribly skewed toward the latter in what passes for the low budget film ‘industry’, and very few people willing to take a chance on the former, I find myself feeling a lot more charitable towards folks struggling to get worthwhile projects on screen, and as such, I’m interrupting our regular programming to inform you of a few such endeavours that have come to my attention recently.

First off, official Breakfast In The Ruins Hero Alex Cox is currently hunkered down in Boulder, Colorado, working on an adaptation of the late Harry Harrison’s ‘Bill The Galactic Hero’. Never less than ambitious, Cox is asking the world for $100,000 with which to realise this retro-fitted sci-fi epic, and, speaking as someone who actually really liked 2011’s Repo Chick, I have confidence in his ability to deliver entertaining, informative and generally ass-kicking satirical product for extremely low overheads. $88,000 in the bank with five days to go.

And secondly, those of you who keep an eye on the more interesting corners of weird-world-cinema type blogging might already be aware of Filipino b-movie super-fan Andrew Leavold’s long struggle to realise his self-explanatory documentary feature ‘The Search For Weng-Weng’. Without rehashing the details here, let’s just say that he’s obviously put a vast amount of time, research and obsessive dedication into the project over the years and has pretty much been taken to the cleaners for his trouble. For anyone half as interested as I am in the odd world of regional b-movie industries and suchlike, it looks to be an absolutely fascinating film and I’d really like to see it, so for heaven’s sake, drop him a few bucks.

Right, that’s the commercial break over with. You can turn the sound up again. Hope you enjoyed your trip to the kitchen.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

The Sin File by Stephen Ransome
(Panther, 1968)


It’s amazing the variety of books you can find thrown out with the rubbish or offered up for free whilst traversing the streets and public buildings of the area in which I live. I mean, haven’t these people ever heard of charity shops? Or seen the volunteer-run community library just down the road?

Well thankfully for me, they apparently haven’t, and in the past six months alone, I’ve picked up a book of essays by Takashi Kitano, a ‘70s era karate manual, a hardback biography of Dashiel Hammett, novels by Richard Matheson and Elmore Leonard, a book purporting to explain ‘The Seventy Great Mysteries of Ancient Egypt’… and this little number, which was staring up at me from a sodden cardboard box on somebody’s doorstep when I took a stroll round the block a couple of weeks back.

Nice, subdued British sleaze kind of vibe that’s only enhanced I think by the faded colours. (Are they faded though? Perhaps they've always looked like that…)

Either way, nice example of another publisher jumping on-board with the Penguin-created connection between crime and the colour green, and, um… would it be facile to bother pointing out that ‘Ransome’ is a pretty fitting surname for the author of a book about blackmail..? “Research” suggests Stephen Ransome was a frequent pen name for prolific pulpster Fredrick C. Davis, so perhaps less than a coincidence.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Vixen Hollow by Jim Harmon
(Epic, 1961)

Love the sudden lurch into over-excited, red-hued capitals…. It’s like the copywriter was just going to do a reserved, low-key plot synopsis, but MY GOD, HE JUST CAN’T BELIEVE WHAT HE’S READING!

I hate to sound overly judgemental, but for fans of the pulp-fiction-as-outsider-art kinda way of looking at things, this is some real, grade A ranting-into-a-dictaphone type bad writing right here. And all those exclamation marks! Reminds me of that story in Richard Brautigan’s ‘Revenge of the Lawn’ where he’s hired to type up a book by an illiterate logger, only without the pathos.

It’s all the more surprising therefore to recall that Jim Harmon (1933-2010) was actually a *proper writer* - a ‘50s SF stalwart and pioneering radio historian. I mean, I guess this must be the same guy, right..?

The only other result that turns up when searching “Jim Harmon Epic Books” is ‘The Man Who Made Maniacs’ (1961), which looks to be some kind of freaky horror-ish smut novel..? (It also seems to have employed the same cover artist).

Somehow, neither of these publications merit a mention in the assorted biographies and obits for Harmon available online.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Franco Farewells Update.

Before we move on, I just thought I’d do a quick round up of some of the numerous tributes to Jess Franco that have appeared online since I wrote my initial post below.

Contrary to my preliminary grumbling about his assumed absence from mainstream papers and websites, I was happy to see that Stephen Thrower got to write a real nice obituary piece for The Guardian, and to read the compendium of heart-felt remembrances pulled together by Kimberly Lindbergs for the TCM Movie Morlocks weblog.

In addition, Pete Tombs has posted a terrific bit about meeting Franco in a seedy London hotel in the early ‘90s, plus some thoughts on the demise of the “commercial underground” within which he thrived, on the Mondo Macabro blog, and, slightly closer to home, Unmann-Wittering has also rejigged this week’s Sub-Machine Gun schedule for a bit of an impromptu Franco tribute.

Sadly, real-world concerns have prevented me from revisiting Franco’s work as much as I might have liked this week (which is probably for the best, as I’m not sure how well my mental and physical health would cope with the 24/7 Franco/Rollin marathon my life would soon become without such concerns), but all of the above are well worth reading, and it is heartening indeed to see so much love for a man who spent so much of his life languishing on so many film fans’ “most hated” lists.

But anyway – onwards and upwards. Admittedly, the future may not often be the concern of a blog like this one, but the weird, sexy past represented by Jess Franco and his contemporaries won’t just celebrate itself y’know, so hopefully we’ll be back to regular business very soon.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Jesús Franco Manera
(1930 – 2013)

 Well in our heart-of-hearts I guess we knew it was going to happen sooner or later, so let’s close the curtains, take the phone off the hook, break out the whisky – it is time to mourn Jess Franco.

As it happens, I spent most of today undertaking a marathon train journey, blissfully disconnected from the internet, so I didn’t get word until late this evening, when I unpacked my laptop after dinner. Not really news I wanted to hear. Given the weight of importance Franco has attained in my own cosmology over the past few years, I was momentarily surprised that the train driver hadn’t announced the sad news over the PA, and that the nation’s transport network hadn’t ground to a halt as passengers wailed and tore out their hair… but then of course reality set in, as I reflected on how incredibly far removed from popular consciousness a figure like Franco was, is and ever shall be. Most likely, his passing won’t even merit a column inch in a single European newspaper, or more than a passing mention in any mainstream film magazine or website. Unless you subscribe to the right weblogs, browse the right forums, hoard copies of the right fanzines and obscure journals, you’d probably have no idea he ever lived, let alone died.

Would Franco himself have demanded or expected any such displays of public grief though? Probably not. This after all was a man who toiled relentlessly (if ‘toiled’ is the right word – I find it hard to believe that hanging out on the set of a Jess Franco film would be anything other than a huge amount of fun) for over fifty years, in the face of almost no critical or commercial recognition whatsoever, bestriding mid-20th century popular culture like an invisible colossus, absorbing beauty and detritus from all around him and forming it into his own utterly unique, mystifying, intoxicating and (until now) apparently unstoppable form of cinematic expression, his legacy preserved and marvelled over by a mere handful of scattered lost souls who in most cases have probably never even met in person. Love him or hate him, I think his credentials as the ultimate ‘cult filmmaker’ are pretty unassailable.

Given the sheer number of words I’ve already posted here about Franco’s work, I should think my admiration for him should be self-evident, and that a full biography/appreciation is probably surplus to requirements by this point, as well as being far too much of a herculean task to undertake at this stage of the evening. If you need a refresher course, my initial post about my discovery of Franco’s films and how I gradually began to love them can be found here, and heart-felt farewells are already in from Stephen Thrower, Jeremy Richey, Robert Monell and Cinezilla.

No doubt we will be returning to Jess Franco very soon on these pages – hopefully with more unhinged enthusiasm than ever – but in the meantime, let me conclude by saying that I basically just really loved this guy. For the films he made, for the way he lived his life (as a musician, scholar, gourmet, traveller and speaker of many languages as well as a film director, lest we forget), for what he represents in culture, and for the relentless energy and enthusiasm with which he explored and transformed that culture, he is a hero of everything we stand for here on this blog, and I will really miss his presence in the world.

Jess Franco’s first film, ‘Tenemos 18 Años’, premiered in Madrid in February 1959.

Jess Franco’s final film (his 199th, 180th or 214th, depending on who you ask), ‘Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies’, premiered in Madrid and Barcelona in March 2013.