Don’t Worry Darling (2022) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Rejoice: a star is born. But it’s not Florence Pugh (Black Widow, 2021). It’s my habit going to the cinema to sit close to the screen in order to avoid the audience. This time I couldn’t help but noticing the streams of young women, often in large groups taking up an entire row. Out of curiosity, I chatted to quite a few at the end, imagining they might be turning up to support director Olivia Wilde’s new picture. Nope, they were here to see Harry Styles (Dunkirk, 2017). That’s what you call star power.

And he certainly has something. A screen charisma, an electricity, and without going too overboard, something akin to the danger of an early Michael Caine or Sean Connery, other British exports. When he was in a scene, it was easy to forget Florence Pugh. You knew what she’d be doing, emoting like crazy, but he was unpredictable, exactly what the camera adores.

Anyway, what we have here is a throwback, a slow-burn paranoia thriller in The Stepford Wives utopia vein with a dystopian twist. But the ending is a let-down, the kind of baffling logic Christopher Nolan often gets away with, and a rather worn trope of male supremacy.

Happily married couple, still going at sex like rabbits, Alice (Florence Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles) live in a stylized isolated 1950s community where husbands depart for work every morning and wives stay home to do the housework or endlessly shop and gossip. Every need, basic or more luxurious, is taken care of. The men are employed by the mysterious Victory Project, run by the charismatic and fun-loving Frank (Chris Pine), and beyond their housing estate is a forbidden zone.

But strange images keep zapping into Alice’s head. Eggs crumble into nothing and wrapping Saran Wrap/clingfilm round her mouth is not an acceptable lifestyle choice and when the suicide of neighbor Margaret (Kiki Layne) is denied, and she sees a plane crash into the hills, she decides to investigate. Exactly what she discovers we are never told, but her behavior becomes more paranoid, and men in red overalls are likely to scamper out of the woodwork at the hint of any threat along with a bogus psychiatrist only too keen to prescribe pills.

And although it turns out Jack is willing to try his hand at cooking, Alice is jeopardizing their relationship and without the cunning to outwit the devious Frank.

From the outset you were waiting for this fantasy to unravel, although Alice was a shade too overcooked too quickly, and there was no explanation for some of her terrors, being trapped by a sheet of glass for example, and the ending will far from satisfy. But I found the movie suspenseful overall, enough doubt sown to seed the growing tension, the characters by and large well-drawn, otherwise confident men kept insecure by jostling for recognition from boss Frank, and the playfulness occasionally teetering into the acceptably hedonistic.

However, once Alice got the bit between her teeth, there was too much teeth, flaring nostrils and general over-acting. The cooler Frank achieved more with very little.

Generally, though, quite enjoyable, although if director Olivia Wilde (Booksmart, 2019) intended making wider feminist comment, it’s too facile by far. The something that doesn’t add up emanates from the storyline for otherwise the picture is pretty well done, including a car chase and the sinuously sneaky Frank controlling and destroying lives.

As I said, I felt Florence Pugh was too over-heated but she was also let down by a screenplay by Katie Silberman (Booksmart) that failed to come up with any real answers. Harry Styles stole every scene he was in and Chris Pine (Wonder Woman, 2017), playing against heroic type, was excellent. Although there has been criticism of Styles’ performance, bear in mind that screen stardom has been built on less and it would give the industry a shot in the arm if a new star came out of nowhere. The women I encountered in the audience would certainly agree with giving him a bigger role.

From opening week box office, this looks as if it will do well enough to sustain Olivia Wilde’s career, as here her confident direction and visual skill proves she can handle a bigger budget.   

The Spy in The Green Hat (1966) ***

Unable to compete with the influx of big budget espionage pictures, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. throws in the action towel and comes out fighting as a comedy, and a more preposterous storyline you would be hard to find. As if spoofing a genre it helped create, our intrepid heroes find themselves in captivity one way or another, outwitted by a posse of retired Mafia hoods or sadistic females.

Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum) can’t even manage a chase, crashing the car in pursuit of former Nazi scientist Dr Von Kronen (Ludwig Donath). The trail leads to Sicily where Solo, again incapacitated, meets the sultry Pia (Leticia Roman) and as a result of a romantic misunderstanding is forced into a shotgun wedding in Chicago by her Mafia uncles, the famed Stilletto Brothers.

Meanwhile, Kuryakin makes the acquaintance of the deliciously sadistic Miss Diketon (Janet Leigh), assistant and masseuse to highly nervous Thrush boss Louis Strago (Jack Palance). The action finally shifts to the Gulf Stream, where Pia is imprisoned and the usual missiles are set to be launched in the presence of head Thrush honcho Mr Thaler (Will Kuluva) in the usual global takeover scenario.

Abandoning any attempt at serious drama, this is just a hoot, a score of sight and visual gags, references to Little Caesar and the St Valentine’s Day Massacre abound. Any time one of our heroes needs speedy access to a villain hideout along comes a guard to be bumped off and uniform purloined. Solo caught hiding under Pia’s bed is let off when discovered by a Thrush operative because he’s not the Uncle agent they are looking for. Not only is Solo constantly whacked over the head, but Kuryakin ends up as the plaything of Miss Diketon.  

Solo and Kuryakin look as if they stepped onto someone else’s parade, trying to keep the narrative on an even keel, while the Mafia gang and Thrush personnel effectively play it for laughs. Pia has Wanted posters of her uncles on her wall on the assumption they are just wonderful guys. Von Kronen gets the hots for Miss Diketon because he admires her skill at torture, although a spurned Miss Diketon turns traitor leading Kuryakin to mutter to Solo when all three meet, “I brought Lucrezia Borgia, you brought the Mafia.”

What makes it work so well are the fabulous performances of the supporting cast. Jack Palance (The Professionals, 1966), completely playing against type, still a villain sure, is a masochistic sweaty bag of nerves. Janet Leigh (Psycho, 1960) camps it up as the deadlier-than-the-male luscious female, dress slit at the thigh to reveal a hidden knife, whose pulse races at the mere thought of the cruelty she can inflict and the slower the better.  Will Kuluva (To Trap a Spy, 1964) is a bonus, the boss who just wants to party and has no idea of the technicalities of firing a missile.

Nobody even bothers to dress it up any more. The missiles look like something you would buy your kid for Xmas, the backdrops are as fake as anything on a backlot. But somehow it all works, as long as you weren’t expecting the original take on The Man from Uncle. And even so, director Joseph Sargent (One Spy Too Many, 1966) adds a few dabs of genuine cinematic icing, characters viewed from the ground-up, a fist fight that’s either in slo-mo or speeded-up freeze frame, the wife (Joan Blondell) of one of the Stiletto Brothers receiving a grapefruit in the mush.

After watching the original movie which came up better than expected in terms of action and spy malarkey, the last thing I anticipated that this would be headed in an entirely different direction. When that quickly became obvious, I feared the worst. Instead, I enjoyed a fun 90 minutes.

Of course, this wasn’t released theatrically in the U.S. just abroad with some added sex and violence, an expanded version, and in color, of a double black-and-white episode of the television series.   

Blonde (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Stream of consciousness reimagining of Marilyn Monroe’s life mainlining on celebrity, identity, mental illness and vulnerability and held together by a mesmerizing performance by Ana de Armas. Director Andrew Dominik’s slicing and dicing of screen shape, occasional dips into black-and-white and a special effects foetus won’t work at all as well on the small screen. Monroe’s insistence on calling husbands “daddy” and letters from a never-seen potential father that turns into a cruel sucker punch, threaten to tip the picture into an over-obvious direction.  

A very selective narrative based on a work of fiction by novelist Joyce Carol Oates leaves you wondering how much of it is true, and also how much worse was the stuff left out. As you might expect, the power mongers (Hollywood especially) don’t come out of it well, and her story is bookended by abuse, rape as an ingenue by a movie mogul and being dragged “like a piece of meat” along White House corridors to be abused by the President.

A mentally ill mother who tries to drown her in the bath and later disowns sets up a lifetime of instability. Eliminated entirely is her first husband, but the scenes with second husband (Bobby Canavale) and especially the third (Adrien Brody) are touchingly done, Marilyn’s desire for an ordinary home life at odds with her lack of domesticity, and each relationship begins with a spark that soon fades as she grapples with a personality heading out of control.

That she can’t come to grips with “Marilyn,” perceived almost as an alien construct, a larger-than-life screen personality that bewitches men, is central to the celebrity dichotomy, how to set aside the identity on which you rely for a living. It’s hardly a new idea, but celebrity has its most celebrated victim in Monroe.

According to this scenario, she enjoyed a threesome with Charlie Chaplin Jr (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr.  (Evan Williams) but otherwise her sexuality, except as it radiated on screen, was muted. The only real problem with Dominik’s take on her life that there is no clear indication of when her life began to spiral out of control beyond the repetition of the same problems. She remains a little girl lost most of the time.

I had no problems with the length (164 minutes) or with the selectivity. Several scenes were cinematically electrifying – her mother driving through a raging inferno – or emotionally heart-breaking (being dumped at the orphanage) and despite the constant emotional turbulence it never felt like too heavy a ride. But you wished for more occasions when she just stood up for herself as when arguing for a bigger salary for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

I wondered too if the NC-17 controversy was a publicity ploy because the rape scene is nothing like as brutal as, for example, The Straw Dogs (1971) or Irreversible (2002), and the nudity is not particular abundant nor often sexual. That’s not to say there is much tasteful about the picture, and you couldn’t help but flinch at the rawness of her emotions, her inability to find any peace, the constant gnaw of insecurity, and her abuse by men in power.

Ana de Armas (No Time to Die, 2021) is quite superb. I can’t offer any opinion on how well she captured the actress’s intonations or personality, but her depiction of a woman falling apart and her various stabs at holding herself together is immense. The early scenes by Adrien Brody (See How They Run, 2022) as the playwright smitten by her understanding of his characters are exceptional as is the work of Julianne Nicholson (I, Tonya, 2017) as her demented mother. Worth a mention too are the sexually adventurous entitled self-aware bad boys Xavier Samuel (Elvis, 2022) and Evan Williams (Escape Room, 2017).

While there are no great individual revelations, what we’ve not witnessed before is the depth of her emotional tumult. Apart from an occasional piece of self-indulgence, Andrew Dominik, whose career has been spotty to say the least, delivers a completely absorbing with an actress in the form of her life. Try and catch this on the big screen, as I suspect its power will diminish on a small screen.

Night of the Living Dead (1968) ****

Ground-breaking thriller in the apocalyptic vein that appeared destined for oblivion after being judged too over-the-top by the AIP/Hammer criteria suitable only for the denizens of late-night horror quintuple bills. I say “thriller” because even by today’s slaughter-fest standards when the heroes/heroines generally escape, it was unheard-of for the entire cast to die, especially considering the post-ironic ending which made a sharp political point.

Brother and sister Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Barbara (Judith O’Dea), having driven 200 miles to visit their father’s grave, are ambushed in a cemetery by a zombie. Johnny is chalked up as victim number one. Barbara escapes to what appears to be an abandoned house, attacked by more zombies, where in a by-now near-catatonic state she is eventually joined by the more action-oriented Ben (Duane Jones) who boards up door and windows and fires at the ghouls with a rifle.

The days when the Edinburgh Film Festival could put its imprimatur on breakthrough movies is long gone.

Hiding in the cellar are the Coopers, Harry (Karl Hardman) wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), ill from being bitten by the monsters after their car was overturned, and Tom (Keith Wayne) and girlfriend Judy (Judith Ridley). In the ensuing panic and continued onslaught, the numbers of zombies growing by the minute, Harry determined they would be better off hiding in the cellar and at one point locks Ben out of the house.

Radio and television broadcasts reveal a mass outbreak of people rising from the dead and feasting on the living, the result it appears of radiation in space, caused by man-made accident. The zombies can be killed off by a bullet or blow to the head or being burned. A gas pump being nearby, Ben, Tom and Judy drive there but while Ben lays down a carpet of fire to deter the marauders Tom accidentally spills gas over the truck which catches fire. Ben escapes but the couple are incinerated, turned into a tasty barbecue for the invaders.

While the relentless siege continues, Karen dies and is reanimated. And so, as you don’t expect, there is no escape, the survivors fighting zombies outside and the living dead inside.

The final image, a photographic montage, takes the movie in another direction, down the Civil Rights route, as the corpse of the only African American is hoisted up on meat hooks.

Until George A. Romero (Dawn of the Dead, 1978) took this idea and ran with it, the indie-scene was populated by cheaply-made movies of no discernible artistic credit aimed at the bottom end of the distribution market or by artistically-minded directors who hoped their talents might be acclaimed and lead to a fat Hollywood contract.  

Although there was no shortage of shockers, most had laughable special effects, little in the way of narrative, and certainly no earth-shattering concept like nobody gets out of here alive.

A budget of just over $100,000 ensured there was little room for grandiose special effects but nonetheless the scenes of relentless zombies striding forward, the single creature at the outset joined by a mass, was cinematic genius. Nor were these fragile ethereal beings, but strong enough to physically kill and turn over cars. On top of that was the revelation that death did not sate their hunger, and they weren’t vampirically-inclined either, the tastes lying in the cannibalistic. If you were able to die quickly enough to be reanimated you might escape being turned into a meal.

Taboo-busting came easily. Never mind flesh-eating zombies, and graphic violence, what about matricide? And perhaps a nod towards the power of relentless pressure, the armies of the night here could easily translate to the armies of protesters taking to the streets in broad daylight to march against injustice and Vietnam, whose continued opposition to government would drive change.

No doubt the decision to film in black-and-white was budget-driven, but that turned out to be a boon, no need to invest in gallons of what might pass as red blood, or create bloody corpses, just focus on the relentless threat.

It helped, too, that the characters under siege were very human, Barbara going out of her head with fear, isolationist Harry willing to kill the others to defend his notion of hiding out in the cellar, hoping to escape unscathed.

This was the ultimate word-of-mouth picture, critically dismissed not to say reviled on initial release, but gradually picking up an audience until it became a must-see movie. Romero’s horror approach became widely imitated, though his influence took years to permeate down. Co-writer John A. Russo later became a director, helming Santa Claws (1996).

The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961) ****

A more prescient picture you couldn’t find, tapping into a contemporary audience’s greatest fear – global warming. Its bold cliff-hanger ending would also appeal to a modern audience often left dangling at the climax of a blockbuster. And it cleverly skims on the special effects, relying on the more easily achieved downpours, thick fog, constant sweating, newsreel footage of natural disasters, water rationing and end-of-the-world riots than anything bigger.

But what surprised me more was the sheer pace. Not just a story moving at a frenetic pace but the British characters acting like they had been injected with a heavy dose of New York zap, talking over each other, hardly getting a complete sentence in before interruption, like Howard Hawks had taken command instead of a mere Englishman like Val Guest (Assignment K, 1968), a former journalist.

Front cover of the Pressbook.

It channels the director’s experience into creating the most realistic newspaper office you will ever come across, beating out All the President’s Men (1974) in its representation of how journalism really works, as concerned as much with the general fodder of unheralded stories as the scoops that normally drive such a narrative. And for a story that started off as pure pulp, the dialog is superb, so good it won the Bafta award.

It certainly helped that an actual newspaper editor, Arthur Christiansen (of the Daily Express) lent a guiding hand, playing the role of the editor of this downmarket daily. The summoning of copy boys (actually grown men), the demand for 500 words, the printers ready to switch the front page at a moment’s notice, the inevitable diet of pie and pint, and the emotional casualties as marriages crumble under the strain of a husband more concerned with this next story than wife or children, all serves to ground the film.

And yes, the narrative plays into the usual journalistic tropes, ambitious newspaperman Peter (Edward Judd), career on the line, uses typical wiles, duping lowly scientific secretary Jeannie (Janet Munro) into revealing more than she should. It’s a meet-cute of the old-fashioned variety, she hates him on sight.

Peter is as off-kilter as the world, knocked off its axis by the simultaneous explosion of nuclear devices, unable to come to terms with his divorce, finding solace in the time he spends with his child, and it seems fitting that much of that is spent diving into the darkness of the ghost train ride, the fog equally thematic as he wanders round in circles in that, as aimless as in his life, while a bath is just as cinematically important, not just for the obvious semi-nude scene but as a place of refuge from impending terror.  

These journalists know how to sniff out a story, how to separate the what from the chaff of the official line, digging deeper, and with global connections able to put two and two together far swifter than officialdom. It helps that Peter’s guardian angel Bill (Leo McKern) has a scientific brain and is able to work out the source of the infernal rising temperature.

It’s axiomatic of how clever the screenplay is that Peter and Jeannie come together over a lost child, although Peter, cynical and bitter, but more vulnerable than most, remains a conniving character, happy to risk their burgeoning relationship for the sake of a scoop.

Like Quatermass and the Pit (1967) it’s one revelation after the other as the world hurtles towards oblivion, though not before ending up as the biggest barbecue of all time. The film acknowledges the anti-nuclear demonstrations of the time before piling on proof that man has sown the seeds of destruction on a four-month countdown to doomsday.

We have been here before with end-of-the-world scenarios but this story unfolds not in scientific or official offices, and there’s no President around to add gravitas or take the blame, but in the minds of the dogged journalists, soon appalled by their discoveries, and for once a scoop is unable to save the day or give the villain his just deserts. Whoever is behind the catastrophe remains nameless, although the outcome of superpowers duking it out for supremacy is never in doubt.

Edward Judd (First Men on the Moon, 1964) delivers a star-making performance as the jaded, jagged, journo capable of emotional depths while Janet Munro (Hide and Seek, 1964) escapes Disney tomboy servitude with a very adult role. Leo McKern (Assignment K) has the solid acting chops that would, two decades before television fame as Rumpole of the Bailey, see as a formidable heavyweight addition to any film and a threat to any co-star through jis charismatic ability to steal scenes.

But the film belongs to Val Guest, who constantly turns up the emotional heat and the terror scale, getting the most out of the riveting, sparkling screenplay he co-wrote with Wolf Mankowitz (The 25th Hour, 1967).  

See How They Run (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Kind of film that needs sold on word-of-mouth and a slow platform-release rather than being bundled out to fill the distribution gap. Let the audience sing its praises first before slinging it out in wide release. Because this is a definite audience-pleaser, a fun whodunit. Though a limiting factor might be that appeal may be restricted to those of a certain age familiar with  The Mousetrap. I wouldn’t bet my last dollar, either, on modern young audiences even having a clue who Agatha Christie was, or responding to a picture set in dull, dull, Britain in a year -1953 – when there was a significantly more glorious event that might have suited better the average Downton Abbey moviegoer: the coronation of the recently-deceased Queen Elizabeth II.

Delightful pastiche on the detective story, too much to suggest it’s a piss-take on Knives Out or the latest big-screen veneration of Hercule Poirot, but it certainly has enough going for it even if none of those connections are eventually made. Certainly, there’s some sly humor in scoring points for mentioning, a la Murder on the Orient Express, that the initial murder could have been committed by all the suspects.

Basically, out of favor war hero and alcoholically-inclined cop Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) is saddled with rookie Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) – two in-jokes right there, John Stalker being a very prominent British cop, playwright Tom Stoppard the author of The Real Inspector Hound – to investigate the death of Yank Leo Kopernick (Adrien Brody), in London to turn Agatha Christie’s famed play into a movie for real-life producer John Woolf (Reace Shearsmith) who made The African Queen (1951).

Virtually everyone associated with the play becomes a suspect. These include pompous playwright Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), the play’s petulant producer Petula “Chew” Spencer (Ruth Wilson), real-life actor Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson) and even Agatha Christie (Shirley Henderson) is not above a bit of poisoning. Throw into the mix that the cops have assigned the bulk of their resources to tracking down the 10 Rillington Place serial killer – another in-joke, Attenborough playing the murderer in that movie.

One of the movie’s delights is that whereas both Stoppard and Stalker have considerable personal issues, we discover them in passing, and neither character makes a meal of them. Instead, their screen charisma works a treat, Stoppard dogged and the earnest Stalker inclined to jump the gun.

Even the “all-star-cast” is a spoof on films like “Death on the Nile.” The title was a popular one, movies in big-screen or small using it in 1955, 1964, 1984, 1999 and 2006.

The stage shenanigans are a hoot, puffed-up pride and ruthless machinations powering many of the sub-plots. There’s some pretty clever sleight-of-hand not to mention occasional cinematic avant-garde and there’s no shortage of laughs and that out-dated comedy fall-back – slapstick. The climax is particularly excellent, in part because it is a notion immediately discarded as the denouement of the proposed movie version of the play, one that succinctly critiques the differences between British and Hollywood approaches to movie-making.

Red herrings and cul-de-sacs abound, flashbacks remove any plot-holes, while managing to ram in a country-house finale takes some brio. And in among all the jokes, you might be surprised to find a serious point being made about reality vs fiction. Full marks to the virtually laugh-a-minute screenplay by Mark Chappell  (The Rack Pack, 2016) and director Tom George in his movie debut who brilliantly shuffles the deck.

Dramatic heavyweight pair Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards, Outside Ebbing Missouri, 2017) and Saoirse Ronan (Mary, Queen of Scots, 2018) prove a double-act to cherish. In gentle comedic roles at odds with virtually their entire portfolios, a wise producer might already be sizing them up for a re-run. Everyone else gets to be bitchy/scheming/ruthless to their heart’s content and certainly in those categories Adrien Brody (The Grand Budapest Hotel, 2014)  and Ruth Wilson (His Dark Materials, 2019-2022) win hands-down. But spare a thought for excellent performances from David Oyelowo (The Bastard King, 2020), Reace Shearsmith (of League of Gentlemen TV fame), Lucian Msamati (The Bike Thief, 2020) as the imperturbable Max Mallowan, husband of the distinctly perturbed Agatha, played with venomous glee by Shirley Henderson (Greed, 2019).

I went to see it not expecting much at all and came out singing its praises. Definitely worth a whirl.

Quatermass and the Pit / Five Million Miles to Earth (1967) ****

Five million dollars.  That’s roughly the budgetary difference between Hammer’s Quatermass and the Pit and Twentieth Century Fox’s Fantastic Voyage. Although the protagonists in the latter face the unexpected, the movie is (as would be 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968) an exercise in awe, in controlled exploration of wonder, whereas Quatermass, lacking the money for special effects, concentrates more on story and human impact. The government funds the experiment in Fantastic Voyage while Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir) finds nothing but obstruction from his superiors.

Quatermass and the Pit is a masterpiece of stealthy exposition. Virtually every minute brings another development, gradually building tension, stoking fear. The principals – Dr Roney (James Donald), Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley) and the professor – are cleverly kept apart during the early stages. A human skull discovered on a building site for a London Underground station is followed by a skeleton. Palaeontologist Roney determines it is five million years old, older than any previous find.

A metallic object is found nearby. First guess is an unexploded bomb from the Second World War. But it’s not ticking. And a magnet won’t stick to it. Col Breen (Julian Glover) is called in along with hostile rocket expert Quatermass. They have been locking horns from the outset.

There’s a whole bunch of apparent red herrings, mostly of the demonic variety. The location, historically associated with weird occurrences, is a nickname for the Devil. A pentagram is detected. Touching the object can give you frostbite. Col Breen argues it’s a leftover German propaganda machine from World War Two. A hideous dwarf and other spectral images are sighted. Telekinesis is involved. And tremendous vibrations.

Some people, such as Barbara, have a more receptive brain and can play memories millions of years old that reveal the alien truth. But this is an alien race with genocidal tendencies and able to unleash psychic energy.

The genre requires the scientists to discover an improbable solution which of course they do. Given the miserly budget, the special effects are not remotely in the Fantastic Voyage league. But that hardly matters. The movie coasts home on ideas, marrying sci-fi, the demonic, dormant and institutionalized evil, the militarization of the Moon and the ancient infiltration of Earth by Martians, no mean achievement, and a vivid narrative.

Director Roy Ward Baker (aka Roy Baker) provides many fine cinematic moments as he chisels away at the story, finding clever methods of revealing as much of the aliens as the budget will permit, focusing on very grounded characters, concentrating on conflict, and human emotions, mainlining fear rather than awe, building to an excellent climactic battle between man and monster.

Barbara Shelley (The Gorgon, 1964) is the pick of the stars, in part because she is at such a remove from her normal Hammer scream-queen persona, but more importantly because she brings such screen dynamism to the role. It’s refreshing to see her step up, as she carries a significant element of the story. Oddlyenough, although she has as good a movie portfolio as Andrew Keir and is certainly superior to James Donald, the denoted star, in that department, she is only billed third.

While Andrew Keir (The Viking Queen, 1967), warm-hearted for an intellectual, and James Donald (The Great Escape, 1963), trying to keep a cool head in the middle of inclination to panic, are good, they don’t bring anything we haven’t seen before. Julian Glover (Alfred the Great, 1969) is never anything but imperious and/or irascible, so ideal casting here.

The innovative electronic music was down to Tristram Cary and the unsettling credit sequence deserves some recognition. Nigel Kneale, who originally explored similar ideas for the character on television, came up with the screenplay.

Maniac / The Maniac (1963) ****

Such an ingenious thriller you just have to applaud. Opening with a close-up of a predatory eye, this scarcely draws breath as it dashes through a latter-day film noir maze, spawning out auditory and visual cues, beautiful woman luring dupe, twisting the expected narrative round her little finger.

Artist Jeff (Kerwin Mathews) setting up his easel in the Camargue, hardly one of the most tourist-friendly spots in France, eyes up Annette (Liliane Brousse), the daughter of a hotelier Eve (Nadia Gray), but, in extremely opportunistic style, settles for the mother. In true noir fashion she is using him, seducing him into a scheme to free her husband George (Donald Houston), incarcerated in a mental asylum for torturing and killing with a blowtorch the aforementioned predator who raped Annette four years before.

Eve convinces Jeff that in return for his freedom the madman will effectively give his blessing to their affair. It’s a deal only a besotted dupe would fall for. George has an ally inside the asylum, assisting his escape, but when George turns up, and Jeff drives him to Marseilles, he leaves behind the corpse of his criminal associate in the boot. Jeff dumps the body in the river.

Cue the start of a series of strange events. A fired-up blowtorch is discovered in the garage where Georges committed his initial crime. Annette, jealous of her mother’s relationship with Jeff, plans to leave and go with her father.  

And I’m sorry to say that in order to explain the attraction of this neat little picture I’m going to delve into SPOILER ALERT territory.  

All the while of course you are wondering whether George will keep to his side of the bargain, especially as Eve starts to get antsy with Jeff, and the investigating police inspector seems overly suspicious. And it being this kind of picture you expect a twist.

But not one this clever.

George, blowtorch at the ready, traps Jeff in the garage. He has fished the corpse out of the river. He plans to burn the garage to the ground, leaving behind two dead bodies, assuming the police will imagine that in a further bout of psychotic behavior the murderer gave in to his desires and killed again, but in the process accidentally killed himself.

But that’s not the final twist.

One of the victims survives. But which one? He is so badly mutilated as to be rendered unrecognisable and lies in a hospital bed covered head to foot in bandages. Has Eve’s plan backfired? Has she accidentally killed her lover?

But that’s not the final twist.

Eve knows who the man in the bed is. It’s not her lover. Because Jeff is just the dupe. The body dumped in the river was George. All the time Eve was visiting her husband in the mental asylum she was carrying on an affair with one of the guards. The guard killed George after the escape, retrieved the body from the river, left it in the garage and planned to kill off his competition at the same time.  If you’re going to be tabbed a maniac, you better behave like one.

It’s a shame you can’t see the shock on the face of poor Jeff because he is encased in bandages. And this isn’t just the clever villain unable to stop herself boasting about how clever she has been. This is Eve getting into the murder racket. She switches off his oxygen.

But that’s not the final twist.

Jeff ain’t dead. He wasn’t even on a life-support machine. He was just trussed up to tempt Eve in revealing herself. He had escaped the garage inferno and told the police what was going on. So you can guess the rest, but even then there’s one other ironic twist. Just like Jeff, the imposter George is as taken with the daughter as the mother.

The twists are so well done, the narrative so compelling, that would be enough to make a convincing case for entry into the category of cult. What makes an undeniable case is the directorial style. Sights and sounds drive the story as much as anything. The eerie bright light in the garage, the sound of blood dripping on the floor, the bold close-up of the eye, the advancing blow torch, setting it in a bleak rather than scenic area of France, are cinematic notions belonging to classic movies, not to a tawdry B-picture.

Although The Devil Rides Out (1968) is generally considered the top Hammer picture of the decade, I would argue this runs it a close second, and possibly even tops it.  Taking time off from his studio job Michael Carreras (The Lost Continent, 1968), later Hammer’s managing director, delivers a little masterpiece working to an effortlessly clever original screenplay by future director Jimmy Sangster (The Horror of Frankenstein, 1970).

It’s enough that Kerwin Mathews (The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, 1960) is playing against his screen persona as upright hero. The biggest advantage in casting Nadia Gray  (The Naked Runner, 1967) was that she was unknown and didn’t have the kind of onscreen presence that might have you doubting her motives from the start.  Liliane Brousse (Paranoic, 1963), in her penultimate movie, is initially too much all-arched-eyebrow and pout, only coming into her own when she becomes dutiful daughter rather than wannabe seducer. The pretend George, real name Henri, Donald Houston (A Study in Terror, 1965), hidden beneath dark glasses most of the time, is a dab hand at a pretend psychopath.

Surprisingly effective little gem.

Sink The Bismarck! (1960) ****

Hard to believe but outside of the Hollywood big-budget Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), this was the biggest British film at the U.S. box office in the previous decade. In fact, the British war films that did so well in the home territory, The Cruel Sea (1953) and Reach for the Sky (1956), sank like a stone when exported to in America while earnings for Ealing comedies,  limited to arthouses, hardly made a dent in the box office.

What makes this so appealing is the very lack of Britishness and the intrusion of a Yank, famed reporter Edward  R Morrow (playing himself), interrupting the action at various points to keep audiences up to speed. The fact that the sinking of the Bismarck, the biggest battleship ever built, was one of the few British actions at the start of the Second World War to be counted a success probably helped. Watching the Brits being lionized for defeat was not an attractive notion for global audiences.

But in the main it is a thrilling docu-drama, very much a departure for the genre, with every nuance of potential consequence spelled out. Dialog and models being moved across maps announce the risks inherent in the British attack: the superiority of the newly-built German battleship, the multiple options the Germans had in 1941 to escape, the difficulties in pinpointing the German vessel in the fog-bound waters of the North Sea, and the devastation the battleship could inflict on the beleaguered convoys on which Britain depended to stay afloat. In addition, even when targeted the Germans could flee to occupied France or potentially summon U-boats or air support.

So in the manner or Operation Crossbow (1965) or Day of the Jackal (1973) the audience is primed for a minute-by-minute enterprise, the battleship deemed so dangerous that the Admiralty is willing to risk its own scarce supplies of battleships, destroyers, cruisers and aircraft carriers in a bid sink the enemy. It is so much a documentary that the beyond the thrill of the hunt there is little room left for drama and certainly little of the stirring kind that had become such a byword for the British version of the genre – and such a turn-off for foreign audiences who could hardly make out what the actors were saying never mind work out why such-and-such a mission they had never heard of was so important.

In any case emotion is forbidden in the subterranean claustrophobic Admiralty War Office where new operational commander Capt Shepherd (Kenneth More) holds sway. A martinet, “cold as a witch’s heart,” on arrival he rids staff of what he sees as the rank indiscipline of addressing colleagues by forename rather than surname, eating sandwiches at a desk to which the workforce have been chained for hours  and various minor offences against the strict code of a uniform.

It was inherent in this type of picture that the land-based unit suffer the casualties of war, husbands dead or missing in action, wives and children killed by German bombs. But the tightening of the stiff-upper-lip ensures that when such revelations become known, they appeared like emotional depth-charges on this otherwise staid ocean. And Capt Shepherd, through his choices, as would be true of many high-ranking officers, might be sending his own son to is death.

This is also one of the first instances in war pictures where the Germans are not treated as stock villains, but intelligent people, like Admiral Lutyens (Karel Stepanek) with his own vanity and a hunger for redemption, and Capt Lindemann (Carl Mohner), as valiant an opponent in the cat-and-mouse duel where outwitting the British enemy could wreak untold carnage and hasten – unusually from the German point-of-view rather than from the Allies – the end of the war.

A few months after launch the Bismarck is spotted leaving its home port, destination North Atlantic to feast on convoys travelling from America with invaluable supplies. There are four possible routes open to get round the top of Britain. To prevent the Germans reaching any of them British ships must be sacrificed, including HMS Hood – three survivors out of a crew of 1400.

It’s David vs Goliath except David is a terrier capable of inflicting tiny wounds that drain the battleship of some of its power, loss of fuel and rudder problems limiting movement. It’s a different kind of war picture, as well as the big guns blasting at each other over huge distances, the British employ biplanes loaded with torpedoes, a weapon also used in some instances by its ships.

To keep audiences more heavily involved, there are snippets of dialog involving characters on board the various ships, some in distinctly un-stiff-upper-lip mode, and montages of the various vessels getting ready for action, as well as shots of devastation should a shell find its target.

But basically it’s  brilliantly-told tactic-heavy war picture that shows the shifting battleground, how the various ships are deployed, with no shortage of telling the audience how crucial success is and how crushing defeat. There’s no reliance on individual heroism, no snappy soldier defying authority, no hunch being played out, none of the usual cliches of the genre, instead, as with The Longest Day (1962) a clear explanation of what’s going on with superb battle scenes for the action-inclined.

It’s fair to say that even on the small screen, the models look a bit iffy, but this is more than compensated by other scenes on real warships, the use of newsreel footage, and fast cutting.  That action never takes place under a clear blue sky but always in murky waters also adds to the realism.

In a role that would have been custom-made for Kenneth More (The Comedy Man, 1964), king of the stiff-upper-lip, rather than simply spouting his lines, he adds considerable emotional depth. Dana Wynter (Something of Value, 1957) is excellent as his equally buttoned-up assistant.

There’s a full crew of supporting British character actors including Michael Hordern (Khartoum, 1966), Laurence Naismith (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963), Geoffrey Keen (Dr Syn, Alias The Scarecrow, 1963) and Maurice Denham (Some Girls Do, 1969) while the Czech-born Karel Stepanek (Operation Crossbow, 1965) and Carl Mohner (Assignment K, 1968) inject humanity into the Germans.

Lewis Gilbert (The 7th Dawn, 1964) does a brilliant job of bringing this all together, adding touches of emotion and humour to what could have been a too-dry concoction, drawing on a screenplay by Edmund H. North (HMS Defiant/Damn the Defiant, 1962) which was based on the book by C.S. Forester of Hornblower fame.

Chuka (1967) ****

I’m astonished this highly original western has disappeared into critical oblivion. As cruel as it is unusual, overturning every cliché, brimming with realism, more drama that action, some stunning scenes, and an ending only the bold would ever consider, this is desperately in need of reappraisal.

A refuge becomes a trap. The hero never wins. A spurned lover remains spurned. The cavalry are the dregs of society. Nobody listens to common sense. There’s no sending for help to relieve the beleaguered garrison. What chance does anyone have when the commanding officer is proud to die “by the book” rather than engineer a simple escape.

Gunslinger Chuka (Rod Taylor), arriving from the wintry north, shares some of his provisions with starving Arapaho Native Americans, comes upon a broken down stage containing two high-born Mexicans en route to California, Veronica (Luciana Paluzzi) and Helena (Victoria Vetri), his presence, thanks to that simple act of generosity, ensuring the marauding Arapahoes spare their lives. At the fort, a deserter is being whipped on the orders of martinet English commander Col Valois (John Mills). A patrol has failed to return so Valois won’t let the newcomers leave.

Chuka, sympathetic to the situation of the starving Arapahoes, suggests the colonel gives them food and sufficient weapons to allow them to hunt their own food. Veronica, now a widow, turns out to be Chuka’s long-lost love. Romance beckons but his unsavory occupation turns her stomach. Hired gun Chuka is not the only one to exploit need. Major Benson (Louis Hayward), the fort’s second-in-command, has a squaw (Herlinda Del Carmen), trading shelter for sex, stashed away.

Valois convenes a dinner party in honor of his guests – “I miss conversation and the elegance of dining in mixed company” – only to torpedo the occasion by revealing “what a uniform can conceal,” the sins of his officers: Benson a card cheat, Lt Daly (Gerald York) court-martialed for treason, the company doctor a coward. An arrow through the window ends dinner prematurely, Chuka demonstrating his skills in shooting the perpetrators.

Bit of artistic license here – Luciana Paluzzi is buttoned up all the way, no naked back,
and Rod Taylor is not quite so athletic.

Honor plays no part in Chuka’s life and he refuses to help out Valois unless paid $200, enough he thinks to start life afresh with Veronica, and only after a knockdown no-holds-barred fight with faithful Sgt Otto Hahnsbach (Ernest Borgnine), the only man on the post who doesn’t despise Valois – an upper-class stranger in a  strange land – prevents Chuka leaving in any case.

On a scouting mission, Chuka finds the patrol strung up and a massive Arapaho war party on the verge of attack. He returns to a mutiny, led by Benson, quelled by a single shot by Valois, the first time, it transpires, he has killed a man.  In a very moving speech, Hahnsbach reveals that Valois saved his life, but in consequence was tortured and castrated. Benson turns out to have a very soft spot for his squaw, feelings naturally unreciprocated. Valois refuses Chuka’s entreaty to abandon the fort, leaving the supplies and guns behind, but saving the lives of everyone.

This time it’s the Native Americans who exhibit the strategic martial skill. It doesn’t end well. And here’s no stirring music to comfort the audience. Defeat here is raw, none of the manufactured heroics of The Alamo (1960) or The Wild Bunch (1969).

Sure, I expected a tad more action, but in its place was a more than satisfying drama that honed to the reality of the American West, a pitiless region exploited by the pitiless. The rule of authority doesn’t just commit commanding officers to suicidal action, it also condemns civilians like Veronica, who flees her home rather than confronting her father over another forced marriage.

The ranks of the U.S. Cavalry – beatified by the likes of John Ford for whom occasional drunkenness and a fondness for fisticuffs were the only sins – must in reality, like armies the world over, have been filled with the scum of the earth, wanted men, killers, thieves and vagabonds, using new identities to escape their past. As if the best source of recruitment was characters on a par with The Dirty Dozen. While Valois and Hahnsbach believe they have whipped the men into shape, there wouldn’t be any whipping of deserters if that were true.

Valois the martinet certainly has parallels with the commanding officer of Tunes of Glory (1960), also played by John Mills, on the verge of a nervous breakdown  as a result of his war experience. And we are led to believe that Valois is as “guilty” as the rest of the outfit when, in fact, he keeps his heroism hidden. Hahnsbach begins with an impersonation of Victor McLaglen, John Ford’s high priest of rowdiness, but he also reveals hidden depths.

This is Rod Taylor reinvented, far removed from the romantic charmer of the Doris Day comedies or the tough hero of The Mercenaries/Dark of the Sun (1968). And Taylor, himself, was very much responsible for bringing this laid-back but deadly gunslinger to the screen. He was the film’s producer, had an uncredited hand in the screenplay, redefining the role as he saw fit. And it was an audacious character to put on the screen. The gunslingers of The Magnificent Seven bemoaned their lot, lack of family, wives, emotional baggage, but they didn’t bring the Revisionist Western to life.

And although Clint Eastwood would put a different spin on the hired gun, the Leone films were not released in the U.S. until after this was made so would not have influenced the production. As well as sharing his food with the starving Arapaho, Taylor ensures his character puts their case in straightforward language.

And a sense of foreboding, courtesy of the opening scenes, hangs over the whole enterprise, and part of the skill of director Gordon Douglas (Stagecoach, 1966) is to lull us into a false sense of security, that somehow the main characters will escape the foretold destiny. I have mentioned before my surprise that Douglas is treated just as a journeyman director. Sure, his western output can’t be mentioned in the same breath as Ford, Howard Hawks or Sergio Leone, but this is not far off not just for its down’n’dirty attitude to the West, but for some moments of pure cinema. Not only does the ending echo the opening but our introduction to Taylor, via an aerial shot, echoes our last image of him, in both cases eyes gazing upwards in apprehension.

The dinner party scene is quite superb, and Mills goes from hidebound martinet to sympathetic character, his wistfulness as he recalls wooing women in the past likely to stay in the memory, as does his reaction to shooting the mutineer, while Borgnine’s recollection of Mills’ heroism is beautifully done, Borgnine, too, morphing from cliché bully to proper  character. In another film, a star of Taylor’s caliber would have fought for a happy ending, but every opportunity for one, Taylor and Paluzzi scampering off into the sunset, for example, or being reconciled, is denied.

Good to see Luciana Paluzzi (Thunderball, 1965) in a more interesting role and Victoria Vetri (credited here as Angela Dorian), prior to her Playboy fame, is given the chance to play a more rounded character than when she went down the Raquel Welch route in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970). Richard Jessup (The Cincinnati Kid, 1965) wrote the taut screenplay based on his own novel.

Couple of minor quibbles – why doesn’t the window break when an arrow comes through it but shatters when Chuka jumps out, how come the Native Americans have enough guns to launch a major attack on the fort but not enough to hunt for food? But those are very minor points.

Very worth seeing.

Discover WordPress

A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read.

The Atavist Magazine

by Brian Hannan

WordPress.com News

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.