The Menu (2022) ***** – Seen at the Cinema

Hitchcock would have adored the apocalyptic flavour of this quasi haunted house psychological thriller. Setting aside its intellectual pretensions this is pure pedal-to-the-metal material. You never know what’s going to happen next in a tense environment created by dictatorial celebrity Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) in whose eyes the entitled are likely to get their just desserts.

In most thrillers of this nature, the assorted bunch of potential victims usually attempt some kind of fightback, and they’re usually younger and sexier, but this crew are trapped in the headlights because they find it impossible to believe they could possibly be in the middle of a revolution.

The beauty of their dilemma is that Chef is trapped, too, by his desire for fame, suffocated by pursuit of perfection, but yet, as they soon come to realise, accepting punishment for his own sins (attempted rape for one). You might be fooled by the trailer into thinking there is a way out, if only a perilous one, but that’s a bit of a red herring, and as the tension grows you realise it’s heading for an incredible conclusion.

Only the rich can afford to visit this expensive restaurant on a secluded island. Most of the guests aren’t even interested in the food – that’s one strike against them – but for the experience of having said they’d been there or to, as is the prerogative of the wealthy, be pampered within a whim of their life, or to find something minute to complain about, a niggle guaranteed to cause grief.

Creepy though they are, Chef’s thunderclapping hands that demand guest attention, the cries of “Yes, chef” from his slave-like adoring workers, the detail of high-falutin’ cooking, history and ecology lessons, a ramrod sergeant-major of a maitre’d Elsa (Hong Chau), and occasional ironic twists – a bread course that contains no bread for example – are mere hors d’oeuvres for the main event.

Chef knows a tad too much about his guests’ peccadilloes – infidelity, financial irregularity – for their liking and as the evening out begins to turn into a cul de sac and shocking incident follows shocking incident, cowardice and lack of the kind of retinue that could come to their rescue, the guests can only watch as they are served up on a platter to a madman’s ideology.

Certainly, the format is exceptionally cinematic, sequences chapterized as menu courses, and the intellectual discussion that divides the world into the servers and the served well observed, but driving the thriller engine is the most refined nutcase this side of Hannibal Lecter, a thin-lipped specter at a feast of his own devising , a creator at the end of his tether, seeking revenge on those who quibble with his talent. And yet there is something  universal about this individual, a man scrabbling so hard to stay ahead of the game that he is almost on a par with Arthur Miller’s famed salesman. Is Chef doing much more than the culinary equivalent of “riding on a smile and shoeshine?”

The guests are the usual high priests of pamperdom, food critic Lillian (Janet McTeer), movie star (John Leguizamo) planning to revive his career by fronting a food show, simulating orgasm with every taste, a trio of young financiers, a couple who have come several times but can’t recall a single dish they’ve eaten, and foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) accompanied by a mysterious woman Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) who turns out to be in a different branch of the service industry.

British director Mark Mylod (Ali G in Da House, 2002, anyone?) has learned from helming episodes of Game of Thrones and Succession how to match reaction to incident. As much as Chef is in control in the restaurant, Mylod is in control of exactly what we see. There is none of the over-acting that appears to come with the territory, certainly no screams or titillation, not a whiff of cleavage, the usual recourse of a horror film run out of ideas, though, as with that genre, it is the sexually compromised who suffer first.

Mylod’s tight rein ensures shock is just an element of the overall effect, rather than its signature dish, and that all the ruffley-truffley culinary dialog only serves to heighten morbid  sensation.

Ralph Fiennes (The Forgiven, 2021) may well have delivered a career-best performance it is so constrained. Given equally little room to manoeuvre, little time for eye-rolling or exacerbated action, Anya Taylor-Joy is back to her The Queen’s Gambit (2020) best, while Nicholas Hoult (Those Who Wish Me Dead, 2021) adds sly deviance to  a screen persona that plays on innocence. It’s an astonishing screenwriter debut for television writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy.

As it happens, I’m very familiar with the lives of chefs, having spent three decades working with them, initially as a cossetted observer, as journalists often are, being the fawned-upon editor of Caterer & Hotelkeeper, the hugely profitable industry trade weekly in Britain, with massive sales at a time when print was the dominant media, so much so that during my time we produced a world record (for a weekly) issue of 524 pages. But when I later set up the Scottish Chefs Association, whose board comprised all the top chefs in the country, and its offshoots the Scottish Chef Awards and a cookery school for chefs, I became privy to the fears and wonders of the cooking business. So I can attest to the fear and loathing for some customers and most critics, who seemed determined in the days before social media to spoil anything they could, or demand preferential treatment.

Certainly, the restaurant is a unique kind of business, food being cooked to order, “a la minute” as the saying went, and customers disrupting a tight ecology by simply turning up late, or early, or not at all. Customers were prone to theft, teaspoons in particular replaced on a titanic scale, and the litany of complaints could outweigh a Bible. Then, as now, reputation was everything, and could be destroyed by a food critic or word-of-mouth. It wasn’t just chefs who sought perfection, but customers, any deviation from expectation harshly dealt with.

Successful chefs with investors would find that somehow they saw little share of the profits. Chefs minus investors lived a precarious existence. Good reviews would  bring in bad customers, the kind who pored over every detail, like Tyler wanting to share their paltry culinary knowledge with the expert, needed extra attention, and came to say they had been there. But I can sympathise with Margot who felt she was being experimented upon rather than fed and can recall several times buying fish and chips immediately after dining in a Michelin-starred establishment.

I remember, too, industry astonishment that celebrity-chef-du-jour Anton Mosimann began the day by walking round the kitchen shaking hands with every chef, no matter their rank, rather than starting off their day with a rant. Kitchens are organised on a brigade system, obedience imperative, no questioning of authority. But rather than derogating talent as occurs here, many top chefs proved apt talent-spotters. The Roux Brothers, for example, created a magnificent template, finding backers among their appreciative wealthy customers for the young talent in their kitchens, which resulted in a new generation of chefs setting up in business without the usual financial woes.

In Britain and Europe, however, perfection could be achieved. If you reached the highest standards set by the Michelin Guide inspectors and were awarded the coveted three stars, the highest culinary accolade that could be bestowed, you had reached the top of the tree. You couldn’t relax because one or more of the stars could be taken away, but the kind of personal obsession that afflicts Chef here would be lessened. However, since very few chefs hit the three-star mark you have hundreds if not thousands beavering away trying to achieve it.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Another triumphant entry in the casebook of Benoit Blanc, self-style world’s greatest detective and easily the most flamboyant in the genre since Hercule Poirot. Writer-director Rian Johnson’s invention offered Daniel Craig an immediate opportunity to shed the typecasting curse of James Bond and the actor rises splendidly again to the occasion, some hints of his inner life offered, signs of depression and a cameo by Hugh Grant as flatmate, helpmate, whatmate.

But in the main it’s another twisty picture that plays with audience expectation even though, if only we were as clever as its creator, the truth is in plain sight, beginning with the title.

Victims – or suspects – assemble.

You have to peel through layer upon layer of an ordinary onion, but a glass onion you can see straight through. It would not occur to the audience, lured by mystery, arriving with a different sort of anticipation, counting on this glass onion to be a mere architectural folly atop a majestic building on a remote island off the cost of Greece, that everything could be actually straightforward and that the need for complicated crime is a figment of our own imagination.

There’s only one twist you may guess and the movie certainly takes a while to spark into life as we are introduced to a variety of unlikeable characters, ideal candidates you might think to be a victim, through the device of them all receiving an extremely puzzling puzzle in an apparently impenetrable wooden box.

Right from the get-go, the audience is sucked in. Are they the  type of people who are determined to solve the riddle, with endless patience, or in collaborative effort expend energy and time on a fiendish enigma that seems to change shape every few minutes, layer by layer like a veritable onion? Or do we just work out that a box made of wood ain’t going to have no defence against something as simple as a hammer?

Anyway, enough with the philosophizing and on with the show. During Covid a bunch of disparate characters with no connection except a link to billionaire Miles (Edward Norton) are invited for a murder mystery weekend to his island home. Miles, being the show-off to top all show-offs, has invited Benoit on the basis that his mystery will fox the detective, score one for an  uber-clever magnate.

He is so unbelievably wealthy and ridiculously endowed with genius from thinking outside the box that he has managed to secure a loan of the Mona Lisa painting from the Louvre in Paris, paid through the nose for it of course, taking advantage of the museum’s lack of income from the paying tourists, Covid having dried up that moneywell. The artwork will form the centerpiece of his cleverness as he presents to a posse of investors later on his newest invention, Klear, an idea that, however dangerous and untested, will solve the world’s energy supply problems.

Anyway, Benoit is way too smart for him and solves the murder mystery in a trice, only for there, as you might have expected, to be another real murder or two, leaving the private eye with the unusual accent a classic closed room mystery.

Under suspicion are Miles himself of course, plus one-time model turned fashion designer Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), the dumbest cluck in the coop, aspiring politician Claire (Kathryn Hahn), Miles’ former business partner Andi (Janelle Monae), macho male Duke (Dave Bautista) and girlfriend Whiskey (Madeline Clyne), Miles’ sometime lover, scientist Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr) and Peg (Jessica Hanwick). What they share with Miles is vanity, an overweening sense of their own importance and entitlement.

Actually, one of them doesn’t qualify as a suspect because as you may have guessed that would be the victim. Two of them, since I’ve already kind of given away that there are two dead. Anyway, you’re not going to guess any of this since you’re all dupes to the infinite ingenuity of Rian Johnson.

Sure, the director takes pot-shots at the rich and the wannabe wealthy and the wannabes that trail along in their wake, but mostly he takes aim at the genre itself, turning the whole idea of the mystery picture on its head, that we expect something pretty intricate the moment we are presented with a movie puzzle, and motivation being the engine of all mystery start delving headlong into that morass without thinking the answer might be something a lot simpler.

Whatever Rian Johnson is doing he’s got the elan to carry it off. Sequels often disappoint. This won’t. Not quite the caliber of cast as Knives Out (2019) but that’s actually to the film’s advantage, no need for the star-stalking that afflicted the recent Death on the Nile (2022).

Thoroughly entertaining, ingenious and devious, what more could you ask for, apart from Netflix not having snapped up the golden goose, since this will be infinitely more enjoyable in the company of an audience responding en masse to the trickery, as I discovered when watching it on its brief foray to the cinema.

And there’s certainly a dichotomy here. What is the point of the Netflix sop to the movie theatre? Sure, it’s going to rack up a ton of reviews but they’re all going to be posted a month before the picture opens on Netflix rather than the weekend before. Anticipation may not last that long. Anyway, given all the turkeys Netflix has foisted on movie fans, this will be one Xmas when it delivers.

PS: Apologies for the goof on Behind the Scenes: “Bandolero.” That blog is coming on Saturday but I pressed the wrong button and sometimes when you press the wrong button there’s just no going back.

Three Hats for Lisa (1965) ***

Until the triumphant arrival of Oliver! (1968), the bar for British musicals was set very low. This just about scrapes through, thanks primarily to the enthusiastic cast and a rare opportunity to hear Sid James warble, though that may well be a detrimental factor.

At this point the British movie musical was kept aloft by pop stars, Cliff Richard (Summer Holiday, 1963) injecting box office life into a moribund mini-genre, The Beatles (A Hard Day’s Night, 1964) adding artistic credibility. Any pop star could front a musical, hence Ferry Across the Mersey (1965) starring Gerry and the Pacemakers, or if you filled the picture with enough stars (Gonks Go Beat, 1964) that was deemed sufficient.

You would be hard put to place Joe Brown, leading man of Three Hats for Lisa, in the Cliff Richard/Beatles class and no British effort could come close to West Side Story (1961), Gigi (1958) or South Pacific (1958).  Despite a paucity of hit singles – three Top Ten hits in 1962-1963 the extent of his chart success, Brown, voted UK Vocal Performer for 1962, and with a distinctive brush-cut, had already starred in What a Crazy World (1963), an adaptation of a stage musical, directed by Michael Carreras (The Lost Continent, 1968) which featured singers Susan Maugham, Marty Wilde and Freddie and the Dreamers.

But there was an emergent generation of stage songsmiths led by Lionel Bart (Oliver!, stage debut 1960) and Leslie Bricusse (Stop the World I Want To Get Off, stage debut 1961) and even the venerated John Barry (The Passion Flower Hotel, stage debut 1965) had tried his hand. Bricusse, on a publicity high after co-writing the lyrics for Goldfinger (1964), already had a movie musical to his name, Charley Moon (1956).

If Joe Brown had no proven box office cachet he was in good company. Frenchwoman Sophie Hardy had little musical experience that I’m aware of (unlike namesake Francoise Hardy), was making her English-speaking debut (as an Italian) and was best-known for Max Pecas’ number The Erotic Touch of Hot Skin (1964), a title that suggested far more than presumably the picture delivered. Una Stubbs, later famous for Till Death Us Do Part comedy series, was equally unknown.

Joe Brown is the one in the middle.

Narrative was the least consideration when crafting a British movie musical. This gets by on the notion that three irrepressible Cockneys – Johnny (Joe Brown), Flora (Una Stubbs) and Sammy (Dave Nelson) – somehow get entangled with a sexy Italian movie star Lisa (Sophie Hardy) who wants to dodge out of work commitments and collect a selection of typical British hats: a bowler, a busby (bearskin) and policeman headgear. Taxi driver Sid (Sidney James) is along, literally, for the ride. The rest of the time it’s a Swinging Sixties London travelog, an opening aerial shot of the capital, iconic sites to the fore, setting the scene, and subsequently cramming in as many tourist attractions as possible.

Every couple of minutes, for no particular reason, they burst into song and faux-West Side Story choreography. In fact, it’s stuffed with songs, fourteen over a short running time. Some are clearly spoofs – “The Boy on the Corner of the Street Where I Live” for example, or “Bermondsey” and none are particularly hummable. On the plus side, all the song-and-dance numbers are exteriors, though presumably because it was cheaper than hiring studio space. That London remained dry enough to accommodate such spectacles is probably the only miracle on show.

It’s far from dreary, and the story is daft enough, in the vein of 1940s Hollywood musicals, to get by, and the young cast fling themselves about quite splendidly, and there’s certainly an innocence to the proceedings, Johnny settling for just a kiss on the cheek from Lisa, and it would have probably stretched the imagination even more had serious romance beckoned. It seems a shame to mark down such effervescence, and though it’s in reality a two out of five, it’s not in the execrable league so I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt especially as it was directed by Sidney Hayers (Night of the Eagle/Burn, Witch, Burn, 1962) who usually manages to salvage something from unprepossessing material. And also because neither Sid James nor Talbot Rothwell, the Carry On series resident writer, give in to the temptation of the double entendre.

Welcome to Hard Times (1967) ****

Director Burt Kennedy’s record with westerns was very much hit or miss. This revisionist effort is one of the former though it could as easily tipped into the latter, beginning with a shrill soundtrack that telegraphs every incident and the no-name villain. And you might also wonder if irony had taken such a hold of settlers that they would actually name their town “Hard Times” when there was a gold strike over the hills.

Anyway, this is certainly a town that lives up to its name. Can’t have been more than a dozen houses, a saloon of course, but it’s the muddiest place west of No Name City (Paint Your Wagon, 1969) and the meanest to hove into view since High Noon, with the townspeople in thrall not to an entire gang, but one nameless stranger (where have we seen that before).

The Man from Bodie (Aldo Ray), as he is known, is the bad guy from Hell. He shoots anyone who stands up to him like Fee (Paul Birch) or shows the slightest dissent like undertaker Hanson (Elisha Cook Jr) and rapes Fee’s girlfriend Flo (Ann McCrea) before dumping her corpse on the saloon stairs.  

Will Blue (Henry Fonda), lawyer not lawman, hasn’t the guts to stand up to him, but comes the closest of the cowardly bunch. When The Man has done as much rampaging as a tiny town will allow he burns it to the ground. Most people leave, but Blue,  having done too much running in his life, decides to stay to look after Fee’s orphaned son Jimmy (Michael Shea).

If Blue’s vengeful Oirish girlfriend Molly (Janice Rule) also remains it’s mostly to hate him for abandoning her to the madman – Blue had used her to distract the Man but then retreated when the going got tough leaving her to be raped at will. She sets up her own League of Desperadoes, recruiting new arrival Jenks (Warren Oates) and the orphan, to tackle the bad guy on his inevitable return.

Meanwhile, a mobile unit of sex workers, complete with tent, turns up to service the nearby gold workers.  Their entrepreneurial boss Zar (Keenan Wynn) spots opportunity and helps Blue rebuild the town. Of course, everyone’s just waiting for Bodie Man to return.

Anyone that’s likeable or got anything approaching character is killed off at the start, so we’re left with an unlikeable, ambivalent, but realistic, crew. For all his later hi-falutin’ principles and pioneer spirit, Blue is still a coward who, to save his own skin, sacrificed Molly. Hoping to redeem himself by acting as surrogate father to Jimmy doesn’t result in him winning any respect from Molly.

This is one raped woman who found out the man on whom she was depending was no protector. Why should she ever love him again? And she’d be crazy to put her life in his hands once more. Of course, she could have got herself her own shotgun or pistol and ambushed Brodie Man when he took another shine to her, but instead she plays pretty please with Jenks, which is understandable, and the young Jimmy, which is deplorable.

That the sex worker magnate becomes one of the town’s foremost citizens might cleave closer to the bone than many viewers would like, but corruption was as endemic in America then as it presumably is now.

And it begs the question when all those pioneers headed out West how many of them were scum like Bodie Man? And how did the settlers think law-and-order was going to work out?

On the downside we have a villain, who, not content with killing and raping, demonstrates just how mean he is by smashing whisky bottlenecks because he hasn’t the patience to extract the cork with his teeth. Fee is dumb enough to take on the bad guy with a bit of log. Molly’s Irish accent is all over the place. And we could do with less music. And there’s a climactic twist that belonged to a horror film and is not only completely out of place but undoes the realistic tone by providing a somewhat sanctimonious ending.

But if you are expecting a movie along High Noon lines, with the good guy beating the bad, and winning the town’s respect, then you will be disappointed. On the other hand if you come prepared for one of the darkest westerns of the decade where the terrorizing outlaw exerts such fear that the townspeople, in defending themselves, pull down the shades between good and evil, then you will be amply rewarded.

The boldness of director Kennedy (The War Wagon, 1967) in reimagining the West as a place of venal proportions should be applauded. The direction might take a wrong turn here and there but the aim is effective. Henry Fonda (Firecreek, 1968) is good as ever and although I could do without the awful accent Janice Rule (Alvarez Kelly, 1966) is superb as the vengeful woman refusing Blue forgiveness and willing to use a youngster as a weapon.

A sound supporting cast includes Keenan Wynn (Warning Shot, 1967), Edgar Buchanan (Move Over, Darling, 1963), Janis Paige in her final movie outing, John Anderson (5 Card Stud, 1968) in a double role, Aldo Ray (The Power, 1968) and Warren Oates (The Wild Bunch, 1969).

Kennedy wrote the screenplay form the book by E.L. Doctorow.

Will make you flinch but worth a look.

Is Paris Burning (1965) ****

Politics don’t usually play a part in war films of the 1960s but’s it’s an essential ingredient to Rene Clement’s underrated documentary-style picture. Paris has no strategic importance and after the Normandy landings in 1944 the Allies intend to bypass the German-occupied French capital and head straight for Berlin.

Meanwhile, Hitler, in particular vengeful mood after an attempt on his life, orders the city destroyed. Resistance groups are splintered, outnumbered and lacking the weaponry to achieve an uprising. Followers of General De Gaulle, the French leader in exile, want to wait until the Allies send in the troops while the Communists plan to seize control before British and American soldiers can arrive. 

When the Communists begin the fight by seizing public buildings, the Germans retaliate by planting explosives on the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and other famous buildings and all the bridges across the River Seine. German commandant Von Choltitz (Gert Frobe), no stranger to slaughter having overseen the destruction of Rotterdam, holds off obeying his orders because he believes Hitler is insane and the war already lost.

The Gaullists dispatch a messenger to persuade General Omar Bradley to change his mind and send troops to relieve the city. Director Clement, aware how little tension he can extract from the question of whether von Clowitz will press the destruct button (history tells us he did not) so he takes another route and documents in meticulous detail the political in-fighting and the actual street battles that ensued, German tanks and artillery against Molotov cocktails and mostly old-fashioned weaponry.

The wide Parisian boulevards provide a fabulous backdrop for the fighting. Shooting much of the action from above allows Clement to capture the action in vivid cinematic strokes. Like The Longest Day (1962) the film does not follow one individual but is in essence a vast tapestry. Scenes of the utmost brutality – resistance fighters thrown out of a lorry to be machine-gunned, the public strafed when they venture out to welcome the Americans – contrast with moments of such gentleness they could almost be parody: a shepherd taking his flock  through the fighting, an old lady covered in falling plaster watching as soldiers drop home-made bombs on tanks.

This is not a film about heroism but the sheer raw energy required to carry out dangerous duty and many times a character we just saw winning one sally against the enemy is shot the next. The French have to fight street-by-street,  corner-by-corner, bridge-by-bridge,   enemy-emplacement-by-enemy-emplacement, tank-by-tank.

And Clement allows as much time for humanity. Francophile Sgt Warren (Anthony Perkins), an American grunt, spends all his time in the middle of the battle trying to determine the location of the sights he longs to see. Bar owner Simone Signoret helps soldiers phone their loved ones.

Like The Longest Day and In Harm’s Way (1965), the film was shot in black-and-white, but not, as with those movies for the simple reason of incorporating newsreel footage, but because De Gaulle, now the French president, objected to the sight of a red swastika.

Even so, it permitted the inclusion of newsreel footage, which on the small screen (where most people these days will watch it) appears seamless. By Hollywood standards this was not an all-star cast, only fleeting glimpses of Glenn Ford (Fate Is the Hunter, 1964), Kirk Douglas (A Lovely Way To Die, 1968), Robert Stack (The Corrupt Ones / The Peking Medallion, 1967), Orson Welles (House of Cards, 1968) and George Chakiris (West Side Story, 1961).

But by French standards it was the all-star cast to beat all-star casts – Jean-Paul Belmondo (Breathless, 1960), Alain Delon (Lost Command, 1966), Yves Montand (Grand Prix, 1966), Charles Boyer (Gaslight, 1944), Leslie Caron (Gigi, 1958), Michel Piccoli (Masquerade, 1965), Simone Signoret (Room at the Top, 1959) and Jean-Louis Trintignant (A Man and a Woman, 1966).  Director Rene Clement was best known for Purple Noon (1960), an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley starring Alain Delon

At $6 million, it was the most expensive French film ever made, a six-month shooting schedule, shot on the streets of the city including famous locations like Etoile, Madeleine and the Louvre. Big hit in France, it flopped in the United States, its box office so poor that Paramount refused to disclose it.

The Caper of the Golden Bulls / Carnival of Thieves (1967) ***

Just to be clear. Nobody is stealing a golden bull, though the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona in Spain is a plot element. No, this gang, led by former bank-robber Churchman (Stephen Boyd) is only going to break into an impregnable bank (par for the course) and steal priceless royal jewels.

There’s an audacious, certainly unorthodox, plan, tension throughout between Churchman’s  sexy former lover Angela (Giovanna Ralli) and current more demure squeeze Grace (Yvette Mimieux), a couple of unexpected comedy sequences, a silent heist and a superb final twist.

Just to be clear – there’s no bikini blonde with a pistol.

Churchman is not your ordinary robber. He only hit banks to make reparation for, while a World War Two pilot, mistakenly dropping bombs on a French cathedral, donating the loot to the reconstruction. Angela, with no such ideals, has spent her share of the dosh and intent on a financial top-up  blackmails Churchman, now a respected businessman, into the one-final-caper scenario.  

Key to getting the jewels out is becoming involved in the annual fiesta, of which the bull-running is a minor part. The bull-running, too, shifts the dynamic of the job, and what appears an irrelevant sub-plot of former resistance fighters hunting a traitor provides an essential pay-off.

When moral Grace uncovers the plot she is inveigled to participate, ensuring some spicy bitchy dialog between herself and the more obviously immoral Angela.  Unwittingly helping out is Spanish cop (Walter Slezak) and with Churchman committed the only person Angela needs use her wiles on is a giant, friendlier by the minute as he responds to her seductive smiles.

While this lacks the panache, guile or gloss of a Topkapi (1964) or Gambit (1966), it’s certainly well-done enough. It’s one of those films you appreciate more after you’ve watched it than during, the structure of the screenplay most of all, as all the little pieces of a finely-tuned jigsaw lock into place.

There’s a couple of excellent reversals, an ambush where firecrackers pass for bullets, imminent discovery of explosives thwarted by a quick-thinking Grace, and some split-second timing.  Explosives, timed to match the firing of a cannon, allow a bystander cop to remark, “that cannon gets louder every time.” At first the fiesta appears standard time-filling tourist-fodder but both the parade and the bull-running are allocated genuine spots in the narrative.

The sensuous, devious Giovanna Ralli (Deadfall, 1968) is the pick, a femme fatale straight out of film noir, with a knowing twist in her main seduction scene. Fans of Stephen Boyd (Assignment K, 1968) will enjoy seeing him dally with conscience rather than rely on a straight down the line hardman, albeit with more than an ounce of charm. What Yvette Mimieux (Dark of the Sun, 1968) ultimately brings to the occasion is hidden until the end so her character has more depth than initially surmised.

There was a sense here, though, of three stars still trying to make their mark on Hollywood, establishing their marquee credentials. Although Boyd had enjoyed box office success in Fantastic Voyage (1966) and The Bible (1966) he was not seen as the main element in those film’s hitting the target. Other films relying on his star potential to pull in an audience had flopped.

Outside possibly of Disney confection Monkeys, Go Home! (1967) and The Time Machine (1960) Yvette Mimieux had yet to enjoy a proper hit. Giovanna Ralli was the latest in a string of European imports, a low-level gamble since they were cheaper than Hollywood alternatives even though most never made the grade or did so only fleetingly.

You wouldn’t pick this picture to put either of the trio back on the very top since for the sake of later twists the screenplay plays around with motivation and the very lack of gloss limits the movie’s potential. But although we’ve seen much of this before, it’s still suspenseful enough.

Russell Rouse (A House Is Not A Home, 1964) directs from a screenplay by David Moessinger (Number One, 1969) and Ed Waters, who had form in this area with Man-Trap (1961).

An engrossing enough matinee.

When Roadshow Ruled

The 70mm roadshow didn’t rule for long, in reality just over a decade. Beginning with Ben-Hur in the final month of 1959, the peak came six years later with the double whammy of The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago. But towards the end of the 1960s flops outweighed hits and the youthquake of Easy Rider (1969) spelled the end of audience acceptance of excessively-budgeted pictures.

But there was nothing new about roadshows. By the time the likes of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) hove into view the concept was already half a century old. Initially, the term came from the stage, from the travelling troupes taking a famous play from city to city, in essence taking a “show” on the “road.” A similar principle applied to the first big-budget pictures. Prints were limited and so one print would tour a wide area, moving on only after demand had been sated.

Roadshow anomaly – sent out on general relase in the U.S. but given
the proper roadshow treatment in Europe.

It was a premium-priced concept and to make it sound even grander the audience could book in advance for separate performances. For Neptune’s Daughter (1914), showing in Chicago, the adverts proclaimed “every seat reserved $0.25 and $0.50” at time when going to the movies usually cost less than a dime (10 cents). The Birth of a Nation (1915) – seats topping out at $2 on its New York debut – was the most celebrated roadshow by dint of being the most successful movie of era.

Roadshow became shorthand for a movie trying to make a big splash, Gone with the Wind (1939) the best example, but it faded in and out of fashion and by the 1950s only a handful of pictures including the Cinerama series, Oklahoma (1955),The Ten Commandments (1956), War and Peace (1956), Around the World in 80 Days (1956) and South Pacific (1958) took this route. These films were being made in 35mm or its widescreen equivalent.

But when MGM’s massive gamble on the 70mm presentation of Ben-Hur paid off big style, the other studios took heed. It wasn’t just the size of the screen but the length of the picture. Audiences accustomed to watching double-bills were more than satisfied with an epic.

And where going to the movies was still for many a relatively inexpensive weekly habit, attending a roadshow was on a different level – an event – akin to a night on Broadway, with all the extra cost that entailed: pre-show cocktails, perhaps dinner, babysitter, a brochure, parking and candy or popcorn, not to mention perhaps a new dress.  (Anyone who moans about the high price of going to the movies these days, just remind them it was a fraction of the cost of buying a ticket to a roadshow.)

Even accounting for an odd failure like Can-Can (1960), Cimarron (1960) and The Alamo (1960), the next few years opened up a box office gusher from the likes of Spartacus (1960), Exodus (1960), West Side Story (1961), Kings of Kings (1961), El Cid (1961), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Longest Day (1962) and Cinerama pair How the West Was Won (1962) and It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Even the budget escalation on Cleopatra (1963) did not prevent the movie doing huge business, and eventually it would turn a sizeable profit.

The all-star cast – some starrier than others – became synonymous with the roadshow.  Some stars with waning marquee value suddenly found their fees rising as they became an essential element of a supporting cast. And it often meant that a star-studded cast – Grand Prix (1966) springs to mind – did not require the presence of an out-and-out box office name.

Shown in 70mm in France and the rest of Europe, just not in the US.

Studios revelled in the double whammy of box office kudos and Oscar cachet. In six of the ten years, a roadshow took the coveted Best Picture Award, only one of these (A Man for All Seasons in 1966) not being made in 70mm. In addition, roadshows enjoyed longevity, not just remaining at one theater for six, seven, eight months, over a year in some cases, but gaining another marketing spurt when the movies went into wider release “at popular prices.”

Just as audiences appear to tire of historical epics, The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and Lord Jim (1965) among the more poorly-received, along came David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965) to restore faith in the mini-genre while studios struck 70mm gold with musicals My Fair Lady (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965).

Waiting and its marketing partner-in-crime, anticipation, had never been so effective. Unlike now, you could not just go and see a movie when you wanted. When virtually the global cinema system revolved around continuous performance – i.e. in favor of the audience – roadshow was separate performance which required a moviegoer to turn up at a specified time. And not necessarily a date of your choosing. Advance booking meant it might be months before you could find a free seat.

Roadshows provided ongoing advertising for such movies. Any big city cinema showing any roadshow would advertise its continued presence for as long as it ran. As a by-product that meant it was promoting said movie to a larger audience that could not afford premium pricing and would wait avidly until it turned up at a lower-priced local theater a year or two years later.

There were significant financial pros and cons. A roadshow could run for a considerable time in one prime cinema in a big city at peak prices, and while that distribution technique could result in bigger grosses, it also took longer to pay off while interest charges mounted.

And once the movies had played out their runs in roadshow and general release, they usually came back within five or six years for a wide reissue. That was usually a prelude to being sold and sold again – to television. Event pictures made for event television. The networks shifted their programming to accommodate these big movies, usually splitting them over two nights, and running them on peak evenings at peak times.

In the second half of the decade, despite huge revenues garnered by roadshows as diverse as Hawaii (1966), Grand Prix, Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), the revamped Gone with the Wind (1939), Funny Girl (1968) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), bloated budgets were beginning to take their toll, and what had once been seen as the saviour of the industry increasingly spelled its financial doom.

Sharp changes in distribution and marketing saw an end to the earlier type of roadshow run. Patton (1970) was limited to a 16-week run anywhere with a general release scheduled immediately after in order to create a coordinated release pattern. The last roadshown picture of the era was Man of La Mancha in 1972.  While the curtain came down on the advance-booking-separate-performance juggernaut, films like The Godfather (1972), initially given restricted release, and The Towering Inferno (1974) would easily have fitted the pattern.

Apart from movies put into production with the specific aim of being launched as roadshow, Hollywood took advantage of the added hoopla roadshow provided to release, if only briefly, other movies in that fashion. Step forward Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) and The Blue Max (1966). Other films expressly made for U.S. roadshow release found few takers or none. Khartoum (1966) and Ice Station Zebra (1968) fitted the former category; The Comedians (1967) and Isadora the latter.

Conversely, films that failed to gain any roadshow traction in the U.S. were welcomed as 70mm separate performance attractions – blown up from 35mm if necessary – elsewhere, The Great Race (1965), Cinerama pair Custer of the West (1967) and Krakatoa – East of Java (1968), Alistair MacLean duo Where Eagles Dare (1968) and Ice Station Zebra, and even The Wild Bunch (1969) enjoying extensive runs in British and European cinemas.

Some films roadshown in their country of origin were denied such a release pattern in the United States – Zulu (1964), The Battle of Britain (1969) and Alfred the Great (1969).

Of course directors still like to shoot in 70mm but it’s not quite the same without the curtains opening and closing, the overture, intermission and entr-acte. It’s not the event it once was. Lucky for me, the Bradford Widescreen Weekend operates in the prescribed fashion and once those curtains begin to open you know you are in for a whale of a long-forgotten time.

The Demon / Il Demonio (1963) *****

I was riveted. This is one of the most extraordinary films I have ever seen. Highly under-rated and largely dismissed for not conforming to audience expectation that horror pictures should involve full moons, castles, darkness, fog, costumes, nubile cleavage-exposing female victims, graveyards, a male leading character, shocks to make a viewer gasp, and the current trend for full-on gore.

So if that’s what you’re looking for, give this a miss. Even arthouse critics, spoiled by striking pictures by the Italian triumvirate of Fellini, Visconti and Antonioni, were equally scornful. For the most part the action takes place in broad daylight, rather than the twilight and darkness beloved of Hollywood (and British) horror.

It is set in an impoverished town in the Italian mountains, where farming is so primitive the soil is tilled with horse and plough and water is collected in buckets from the river.

One of the most striking aspects of the picture is that it creates its own unique universe. The townspeople are both highly religious and deeply superstitious, every traditional Catholic ceremony matched by old-fashioned ritual. Even some of the formal traditions seem steeped in ancient belief, sinners marching up a steep hill with people being scourged or carrying a heavy rock, in a convent the tree of a suicide covered in barbed wire.

Less conformist notions include a wedding night rite involving shoving a scythe under the bed to cut short Death’s legs with the bedspread covered in grapes to soak up evil and discord arranged in the form of a cross to act as bait for bad thoughts and poison them before they can cause the couple harm. When the people run through the town brandishing torches it is not, as would be genre tradition, to set fire to a castle but to vanquish evil from the air.

It is filmed in austere black-and-white. In the Hollywood Golden Era of black-and-white movies, lighting and make-up transformed heroines, rich costumes enhanced background. Here, if the heroine is wearing make-up it’s not obvious and the only clothes worth mentioning are a priest’s robes or a plain wedding dress. Otherwise the most arresting feature is the stark brightness against which the black-dressed figure of the heroine Puri (Daliah Lavi) scuttles about.

And although there are no jump-out-of-your-seat shocks, there are moments that will linger on in your mind, not least the heroine enduring a vicious extended beating from her father, an exorcism that turns into rape and the sight, Exorcist-fans take note, of a spider-walk, the young woman’s torso thrust up high on elongated arms and legs. Virtually the entire success of the picture relies on atmosphere and in places it is exquisitely subtle, the audience only realizes she has been raped, for example, by the look on her face.

The picture opens with a dialogue-free scene of stunning audacity, foreshadowing the idea from the start that image is everything. Puri pierces her chest with a needle, cuts off a chunk of her hair to mop up the blood, throws the hair into the oven and rams the crisp remains into a loaf of bread. Not to be consumed as you might imagine, but as a tool of transport.

Shortly after, having failed to seduce Antonio (Frank Wolff), she tricks him into drinking wine infused with the ashes of her bloodied hair, bewitching him, so she believes, to abandon his betrothed. In an echo of a Catholic sacrament she shouts, “You have drunk my blood and now you will love me, whether you want to or not.” 

The next morning when collecting water at the river she has a conversation with a boy Salvatore only to discover he has just died, his death blamed on her because his last words were a request for water, which she is judged to have denied him. She is beaten by women. She is feared by everyone in the village, her family tainted with the same brush, wooden crosses nailed to their door. She is not a ghostly figure, flitting in and out of the townspeople’s lives, an apparition tending towards the invisible, but fully formed, highly visible in her black dress and anguished expression, doomed by often vengeful action and forceful word.

Much of the film involves Puri being beaten or chased or captured, at one point trussed up like a hog. Attempts to exorcise her, whether by pagan or Catholic means, focus on getting the demon to speak his name. The ritual performed by heathen priest Giuseppe involves blowing on a mirror before taking on sexual aspects which culminate in rape. The Catholic version in a church in front of her family is primarily, as it would be in The Exorcist, a duel between the priest and whatever possesses her.

Movie producers who took one look at the beauty of Palestinian-born Daliah Lavi (Blazing Sand, 1960) and thought she would be put to better use in bigger-budgeted pictures made in color that took full advantage of her face and figure and that stuck her in a series of hardly momentous movies such as The Silencers (1966) and Some Girls Do (1969) should be ashamed of themselves for ignoring her astonishing acting ability.

And much as I have enjoyed such films, I doubt if I could watch them again without thinking what a waste of a glorious talent. This is without doubt a tour de force, as she alternatively resists possession and adores the being who has taken hold of her mind. She dominates the screen.

The rest of the mostly male cast is dimmed in comparison, as if overawed by the power of her personality. Future spaghetti western veteran Frank Wolff (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1969) comes off best. Director Brunello Rondi (Run, Psycho, Run, 1968) is better known as a screenwriter for Federico Fellini. He made few films, none matching this in scope or imagination, perhaps as a result of the picture not receiving the praise it deserved. Even now it does not have a single critical review on Rotten Tomatoes.

One other point: you may have noticed that in general the proclivities of male horror characters are never in need of psychological explanation. Nobody considers that the Wolfman must have suffered from childhood trauma or that a vampire drinks blood because he was a rejected suitor. Strangely enough, as would be the case in The Exorcist and other instances of female possession, psychiatry is usually the first port of call and here all reviews I have read implicitly see Puri’s actions as based on sexual inhibition and rejection by Antonio. 

You would need to chase up a secondhand copy to find this, I’m afraid.

Never Give In (2021) ***

The best documentaries, rather than bombarding you with facts or indulging in endless repetition, allow you to draw your own conclusions. Sometimes you might take the opposite view to that expressed by the filmmakers. Or perhaps the producers were being deliberately ironic in entitling this Never Give In when one of the most notable features of the early part of the career of legendary British football manager Alex Ferguson is that he did the opposite.

Possibly, his own experience permitted to understand better the temptations lying in wait for the young players in his charge. For as a young player himself Ferguson went by his own admission “off the rails” and committed an act, somewhat glossed over in humorous fashion, that under his own regime would have been more heavily punished.

He was not, except for a couple of years, a great player. Signing up part-time for St Johnstone involved a four-hour-plus round trip to Perth three times a week, getting home at 1am and rising at 6am for his full-time job as an apprentice toolmaker in Glasgow. Over four years he notched up relatively few appearances, turning out for barely one-quarter of the team’s games, and so disillusioned that he started enjoying the nightlife in his hometown, even breaking the unwritten code of drinking the night before a game.  

Because he couldn’t be bothered going all the way to Perth for a game for the reserve team he got a pal to pretend to be his mother and call the manager to say he was ill. The ruse was rumbled and, ordinarily that would have been the end of a less-than-promising career. But, through injury, the team was short a striker, Ferguson’s position, and the game was against Glasgow Rangers, whose ground was close to the footballer’s home.

The gods were on his side. He scored a hat-trick, won a transfer to another team where he did far better and eventually was signed for a record fee by Rangers. He fell out with them because he failed to carry out the job of man-marking an opposition player who scored a vital goal in a Celtic-Rangers derby. He doesn’t blame himself for this fundamental error but assumes that the club had decided to freeze him out for sectarian reasons, forgetting for the moment this was the same club that defied sectarian opinion in forking out a record fee for him in the first place. Big-time career over he eventually found his way into management and when the gods shined on him again made the most of it.

Ferguson, effectively the narrator, looking back on his career after his near-fatal brain haemorrhage, doesn’t always draw the same conclusions as the audience, which is always the main ingredient of the better documentary.

Ironically again, for a man who built, courtesy of Harvard, a post-managerial career as a wonder communicator, that aspect of his personality was occasionally lacking. His father refused to speak to him for the two years when he was throwing his career away by falling victim to temptation, a presumably the intemperate youngster was not going to be the one to heal the breach.

Lack of communication was the consequence of another incident at Manchester United when he dropped out-of-form goalkeeper Jim Leighton, who had previously saved the manager’s bacon countless times with his displays between the posts, for an F.A. Cup Final replay. Leighton never spoke to him again. Ferguson’s response: he did the right thing.

What comes across most effectively, though not quite in the manner Ferguson suggests, is his ability to bring a team together. Famously, he created a siege mentality at Old Trafford, “us against them.” What underscores that of course is “us vs ego,” the team rather than the individual, no player, as he so often stated, more important than the team, and on the few occasions that did occur quick to dispense with the player’s services.

One of his methods of bonding individuals from disparate backgrounds was to call on shared memory, not the water-cooler kind of shared experience, but to get his players to recall their working-class backgrounds, their fathers and grandfathers who had done decades of hard graft, in jobs, such as Ferguson’s own father, in shipbuilding, or mining, or mindless factory work, and of mothers who made sacrifices to ensure a child’s future and of both parents who invested so much time and money either shuttling their offspring to endless football matches or watching every single game they ever played before any manager came calling.

In a post-operative state, Ferguson hit on the single most important aspect of memory, not so much remembering who you are, but recalling in detail who are the people around you, and where they fit into your life, and you to theirs, and of your shared experiences, that unique bond, where the individual is less important than the family.

Ferguson, in the light of his achievements, probably deserves a 10-part documentary. But this will certainly do for a start, not the first documentary made about him, but the one that touches most on the subjective rather than the objective view. Given our later image of him as a dour individual it’s refreshing to catch glimpses of his younger self galloping across a pitch in sheer delight. While he doesn’t quite own up to his failings, they are revealed nonetheless.

I must confess that, having been given access to Amazon and being a proud Scot, this was my first port of call rather than, say, Lord of the Rings or the many contemporary films now streaming. Thereafter, one sneak peek at The Rings of Power was enough, the portentous dialogue about how ships float put me off entirely.

Rampage (1963) ***

A more misleading title you’d struggle to find. There’s no sign of a rampage until the last 20 minutes, and even then it plays out on a rooftop in a city. Not a patch, action-wise, on Howard Hawks’ Hatari! the previous year, but sharing the female lead Elsa Martinelli. More romantic drama than jungle adventurer, and not much Malaysian jungle at that given Hawaii was the stand-in.

Big on metaphor, women viewed as trophies to boost the male ego or requiring male protection. Surprisingly contemporary with reference to the grooming of young women. Though Hatari! went down the same line, hunting animals for zoos rather than sport, this again take  contemporary approach, animal conservation seen as a battle of cultures, between men for whom shooting an elephant or a rhino reinforces their macho tendencies, and those who want to preserve rare wildlife for future generations.  

Trapper Harry (Robert Mitchum) and hunter Otto (Jack Hawkins) team up to capture for a German zoo two tigers and a legendary panther-like creature known as “The Enchantress.” From the outset, sexual tension sizzles between Harry and Otto’s young partner Anna (Elsa Martinelli). Although Otto is possessive, he permits Anna to take male companions on the assumption that she will always return to him.

Anna’s not quite as submissive as Otto would like to believe and she puts Harry in his place more than once. There’s a 35-year age difference between Otto and Anna. But Harry is disturbed at how they became lovers, persistently asking how soon, after the older man saved the orphaned girl from poverty, he seduced her.

The love triangle is set against a more primitive background where women have no rights and are as likely to be offered up to any passing male. Native guide Talib (Sabu) feels duty-bound to pass his wife onto to Harry. The wife not only acquiesces, but is insulted when the American refuses.

The men represent different cultures, Otto a marksman who prefers to bring his trophies back dead, hanging his virility on every scalp, Harry more emancipated for whom capture is enough. There’s a stand-off with a local tribe when Otto is too hasty with his rifle.

Martinelli does better here in terms of panther, the creature in the film was
more of a leopard with some red marks.

Given the lack of budget and the consequent lack of action, it’s no surprise that the drama revolves around whether Anna will betray her lover. Despite his apparent laid-back approach, Otto watches Anna with an obsessive eye, her potential loss deemed a blow not just to his esteem but a sign of approaching death.

What sets this aside from the submissive female trope is that the decision rests with Anna. Harry certainly doesn’t push his luck and until his pride is dented Otto allows the situation to play out. The shift in Anna’s feelings is discreetly rather than dramatically handled. The traditional bathing scene is used to reveal that Anna is not actually married and therefore neither committing adultery nor under legal obligation.

When we finally get down to some action, the build-up is interesting, Harry using beaters to nudge tigers towards his traps, but, unfortunately the majority of these animals are a disgrace to their wild forefathers, on the whole appearing pretty obliging if not outright dumb. There’s one charging rhino and, heaven forfend, Otto commits the cardinal son of requiring two bullets to finish it off.

The movie picks up when they encounter “The Enchantress,” by a long way the smartest beast in this particular animal kingdom, who enhances her mythical status by hiding in a cave, clash of personalities between the alpha males triggering the movie’s final, more dynamic, phase, Anna coming into her own not just as a crack shot but as an independent woman, Otto making Harry his prey.

More interesting as an examination of contemporary mores, not quite as sexist as initially it appears, and nudging in the direction of a woman attempting to attain independence, and in discussing the issues surrounding conservation. Just as bold is the questioning of Otto’s motivation is saving Anna from poverty, an act of kindness or grooming? You might wonder how much better off Anna would be with a man two decades older rather than one three decades older, but nobody goes there.

The acting is uniformly under-played. Elsa Martinelli is given a better showcase for her talents here than in Hatari! and this is Robert Mitchum (Five Card Stud, 1968) at his laid-back best while Jack Hawkins (Masquerade, 1965) keeps his simmering under control until the end.

Without the budget to ape Hatari! director Phil Karlson (The Secret Ways, 1961) has no option but to focus on characters rather than animals, but finds interesting ways to put various messages across. Marguerite Roberts (Five Card Stud) and Robert I. Hope (White Commanche, 1968) based their screenplay on the novel by Alan Caillou a.k.a Alan Lyle-Smith.

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