Burn / Quiemada (1969) *****

May have lost its allegorical power now that Vietnam is no longer a cause but even more compelling for standing as a generic condemnation of imperialism. The Vietnam connection is invoked immediately as Englishman Sir William Walker (Marlon Brando) on arrival is told that the Portuguese conquered the island hundreds of years before simply by setting fire to it until all the natives had perished or fled and restocking it with slaves from elsewhere. For a 1960s audience, that summoned up images of U.S. military use of napalm and carpet bombing.

The idea must have stuck in Walker’s head because that’s exactly the strategy he devises towards the end of the movie. Beyond his title, and the fact that he looks and talks like an upper-class Englishman of the mid 1800s, Walker is one of these shady characters you often found in the Colonies doing shady work for the British government. While this island is ruled by the Portuguese rather than the British, that’s about to change since the British find Portuguese attitudes to free trade too restrictive.

So Walker sets about creating the spark for an explosion. Having earmarked the local bank for an easy heist, he recruits Jose Dolores (Evaristo Marquez) to head a team of locals. Of course, such a large-scale robbery ensures pursuit. Capture is evaded when Walker produces a cache of rifles aware that in defending themselves the natives will trigger revolution. Walker then goes to work on the upper-classes, explaining how much better off they would be if they could side with the rebellion and overthrow the Portuguese.

Mission accomplished, he scoots off home, only to return when corruption has so destroyed the island, now a British colony, that Jose Dolores is back creating rebellion. Old friend becomes foe and is ruthlessly hunted down.

You can’t help but admire Walker’s guile. To create a large enough distraction to pull off the robbery he simply gets the entire town population drunk on free booze, giving soldiers more than enough rioting to cope with. To provide the circumstances to assassinate the President, he takes advantage of the costuming for a festival, allowing people to sneak past guards in any disguise. But when cunning doesn’t work, it’s down to brute force. The group with the biggest army, more weapons and the greater degree of ruthlessness will always win.

This isn’t one of those movies that sets out to idolise a rebel leader or where a small band of outlaws outwit the ruling power with clever ruses or filled with duels or ambushes or full-on battles. This is about the puppeteers, the men who use violence for their own commercial ends.

Like General Custer, Walker is a man with a job to do, even while he might despise it and certainly is filled with disgust at the ruling party. He claims he is not the author of either group’s misfortune but merely “the instrument.” On his return, he argues, “I didn’t start it; when I arrived you were already butchering each other.” In other words, blameless, just following the orders of either government or employer. But he takes pride in doing his job “well,” no matter the cost.

Every action has consequence. Even attempting to save Jose Dolores’s life, it is with consequence in mind. Let him live and set him free elsewhere and he will be viewed as a traitor. Kill him and he will be seen as a martyr, the most dangerous currency for incipient rebellion.

He knows exactly what buttons to press. In order to convince the ruling band of natives to support revolution in the first place, he makes a comparison with prostitution. You hire a sex worker by the hour to fulfil a need, you are not required, as with a wife, to dress her and feed her and look after her for her entire life. Should the employers free their slaves, that would eliminate the need for a lifetime of care (no matter how little) but could hire them as required.

The brutality is not dwelt upon, no The Wild Bunch-style bloody carnage, just a growing number of corpses on either side depending which group has the upper hand. The difference between the brutal Portuguese and the sedate English is in their approach to execution. The Portuguese rely on the garotte, by which a steel band fixed round the neck is slowly twisted until life is extinguished. The English prefer the speed of the gallows.  

Marlon Brando considered this one of his finest performances and I am inclined to agree. There is no showboating either way, neither inflating a character nor deflating him, as the actor was apt to do when playing a loser. Instead, Walker never loses a grip on his emotions, no temper, no tears, just saying whatever someone wanted to hear, guiding with a hidden hand, a man who might have invented the term “results-based.” It is the calmest you will ever see Brando, and you might catch elements of this portrayal in his Godfather pushing pawns into place. But you won’t see here a single explosion of anger. For a non-actor, Evaristo Marquez gives a superb performance, though mostly he is also restrained, as if he was learning from a master.  

Director Gillo Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers, 1966) takes a semi-documentary approach to the subject, concentrating on the machinations, no attempt to pull audience heartstrings with images of poverty. The garotte death does the work of explaining the brutality to come.

But there are three brilliant scenes that showcase the unstoppable character of war. In the best, the rebels, trying to escape an island ablaze, seek shelter on the higher ground. But this arid region is also exposed, no jungle here to provide cover, and scrambling up the naked slopes they are picked off, in long shot, one by one.

In the second example, the closest Walker comes to emotion is waking up one morning to the sound of a gallows being built. He takes a moment, listening, aware perhaps, though unwilling to admit it, that the harvest of a seed sown is about to be reaped. Brando is such a good actor that sadness only appears as a flicker of regret that the rebellion he began took a wrong turn once it was taken over by the wrong hands.

And, technically, his hands are clean. He is never seen firing a weapon. In the last of this trio of scenes, the English introduce hanging to the island. But since no one possesses the expertise to make a noose strong enough to support a head, Walker shows how.

There are two versions of this movie. It was filmed as Quiemada and this version is 17 minutes longer than the one released as Burn! I would urge you to see the far more atmospheric former. Editing down the picture, the distributors took out much of the background material. As a plus, there is a score by Ennio Morricone.

One of the best films ever made about the politics of war and the destructive force of commerce.

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

Wild raucous’n’roll rollercoaster that, contrary to expectation, I found totally absorbing, length not an issue. Employing a simple structure of rise and fall, and exploring the upside and downside of Hollywood in the transition from silent to sound, it seemed to me in essence to capture movie-making. A Broadway play could be a hit if seen by 100,000 people, that size of audience constituting a flop for a movie, but the play was viewed by 100,000 of the “right” people, the moneyed elite who could afford the tickets, a movie by the flotsam and jetsam that made up the majority of the American population even when, theoretically, the country was going through the boom times of the “Jazz Age.”

Most films and books concentrate on the downside, the battle to get to the top, the seamy undercurrent, the inevitable collapse, but none capture the giddy heights like this. Silent movies were viewed primarily as technical, nobody had to even talk, much less learn lines or spout Shakespeare. Initially, the stars were drawn from vaudeville so had some proven talent but then it was clear anyone could become a star, such as here Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), or a producer like Manny Torres (Diego Calva) by simply being in the right place at the right time, initiating a gold rush to Los Angeles.

Just as there is no single reason for the camera and audience to turn a person into a star, the same applies when they fall out of favor. In a movie thankfully given little to long lectures on filmmaking beyond aspirations to “form” and wanting to do something good, the best explanation about how/why careers end is delivered in dry tones by columnist Elinor St John (Jean Smart) to disillusioned out-of-favor Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt).

The narrative shuttles between Conrad, LaRoy and Torres, interweaving the lives of trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo),  Conrad’s multiple wives, LaRoy’s hapless father (Eric Roberts), director Ruth Adler (Olivia Hamilton) studio wunderkind Irving Thalberg (Max Minghella), publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (Pat Skipper), gangster James McKay (Tobey Maguire) and imperious director Otto (Spike Jonze). Excess is the name of the game whether ostentatious consumption Hollywood-style or the more sedate black tie dinners of caviar and lobster enjoyed by the elite.

The elite looked down their noses on a new class of wealthy individuals who were ill-educated, didn’t talk proper, but had struck gold simply from being able to stand in front of a camera without being able to tell their Ibsen from their Shakespeare and didn’t understand art. 

Surprisingly, this is a pretty good comedy, slapstick sometimes but excelling at setting up visual jokes, though audiences might recoil from a rare reliance on elephant ordure and vomit. Some scenes are pure standout: Nellie’s first talk scene where the sound engineer has tyrannical control; Nellie’s fight with the snake; Manny’s race to find a camera before the director loses the light; the uncontrolled venom of battle scenes; the black Sidney not black enough; and of course the various wild parties although nothing in the Hollywood imagination could match the depravity of one where Manny is the unwilling guest of gangster McKay, as if fiction cannot match reality.

Of course, people who have everything rarely know what they actually want and spend their lives throwing away what they have in pursuit of the unattainable, so Conrad is apt to view wives as disposable, Nellie finds relief in drugs and gambling, Manny’s obsession with Nellie which should lead to ruin paradoxically by happenstance brings him happiness. The rampant unchecked hedonism that runs through the picture could well just be a metaphor for the helter-skelter modus operandi of the movies, enjoy it while you’re hot, cram in as much as you can, because, heaven knows, something from left field (sound, for example) could dramatically upend everything.

Brad Pitt (Bullet Train, 2022) is very good as the often drunk but generally streetwise star. You can hardly take your eyes off Margot Robbie (Amsterdam, 2022), not just for her brazen sexuality, but her ability to cry on cue, awareness of her self-destructive personality, inherited from self-destructive parents, greedy idiotic father, mother committed to an upmarket mental institution. Diego Calva (Beautiful Losers, 2021) is good in a less showy part. Interesting cameos abound.

This has the intensity of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014) rather than the cleverness of La La Land (2016).

I mentioned in my review of Tar that it could have done with a stronger producer to cut down on the running times and some elements I felt were bound to alienate audiences. I would make the same suggestion here, though not so forcefully. Elephant shit and urination are always, I reckon, going to be a major turn-off for audiences. While I had no trouble with the length, that’s clearly been an issue and it would hardly be a problem for a decent editor to snip chunks out of party scenes or eliminate non-essential characters.

Emotionally and artistically this seems to me to capture the essence of the formative days of Hollywood before the double whammy of the Great Depression and the Hays Code brought about a systematic rethink with studios insisting their stars take more care hiding their proclivities from general view.

Ignore the reviews and check it out.

Vanishing Point (1971) *****

There always was an existential element to speed. Destination was another symbolic aspect. A “vanishing point” has an artistic meaning; relating to perspective it’s the place where parallel lines cross. But it also means something so diminished as to be unimportant, and you could argue this movie is a place where the figurative and metaphorical collide. Throw in a couldn’t-care-less driver and you have all you need for a cult film, a cross between the thoughtful paeon to speed of Easy Rider (1969), Sugarland Express (1974) and the camped-up chase characteristics of the later Smokey and the Bandit (1977).

It has less in common with the city-bound Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971), whose protagonists had the excuse of being on the right side of the law. And where Easy Rider is majestically scenic, the route here is through Backwater U.S.A.

With a little bit more planning, Kowalski (Barry Newman), tasked with delivering a car from Denver, Colorado, to San Francisco, could easily have driven the 1250 miles (see Note) roughly within the 16.5-hour deadline he set himself – and very easily within the target set by his employer – without breaking the law. But he’s got no intention of easing his foot off the accelerator. Instead of pulling over, he sends the first pair of speed cops into the ditch.

And that sets the tone. Countless cops set out to stop him, countless cops are driven off the road, the authorities increasingly infuriated by constant humiliation. Kowalski is helped by blind DJ Super Soul (Cleavon Little), who has infiltrated police radio, and whoops up public support.

Director Richard C. Sarafian could have hit the existential mother lode by making Kowalski mysterious, akin to the western’s anonymous lone rider, or to a contemporary audience “the last American hero.” Or he could have dressed him up in more contemporary colors. But instead of being a long-haired drugged-up sex-mad hippie, he’s a decorated war vet, a stock car racer and a cop who exposed corruption and prevented a colleague raping a young girl. Unlike the drug peddlers of Easy Rider or the hostage-takers of Sugarland Express, he doesn’t start out as a law-breaker (setting aside his intake of Benzedrine) and the most he’ll be charged with is a misdemeanor.

Apart from a desire for the freedom of the open road untrammelled by petty rules, we don’t get much of an idea why Kowalski is so intent on risking his life, beyond a hint that an idyllic loved-up beach lifestyle had been shattered. There’s a fatalism that Ridley Scott ripped off for Thelma and Louise (1991).

The awe-inspiring driving across arid country is interrupted by episodes uncovering the underside of the American Dream and the nascent counter-culture. He is almost robbed by a couple of gay hitchhikers, encounters an old man (Dean Jagger) living off the land, trapping rattlesnakes and trading them for supplies, and a youth-oriented revivalist group who make music their mantra. He turns down free sex and marijuana offered by a beautiful nude motorcycle rider (Gilda Texter) while her boyfriend (Timothy Scott), with a stolen police siren, guides Kowalski through roadblocks.

Mostly, though, the focus is on the driving. Kowalski’s white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum, souped-up to reach 160 mph, leaves a Jaguar E-Type in the dust, and makes a mockery of the succession of wannabe cop speedsters.

He can leap over gaps, race off-road, charge through the desert, hide from pursuing helicopters, and could probably have hidden out till the heat died down except his blood is up and his eyes are starting to glaze over and he’s got a peculiar smile on his lips.  

Even on a small screen the full-throttle driving hits the spot. But it scores on many other emotional and intellectual levels. It strikes a chord with the disaffected. It’s the ultimate in defiance of authority, innate skills belittling superior forces. The fastest man will always have an audience rooting for him. If you can’t win, choosing how this will end means you remain in control. Speed puts a man in the zone, where you are reduced to an essence of being.

On paper, this should hardly work at all. In the hands of director Richard C. Safarian (Fragment of Fear, 1970) it works like a dream. Barry Newman (The Lawyer, 1970) is superb with very little to go on, nothing but a buttoned-up driving machine. Cleavon Little (Blazing Saddles, 1974) on the other hand goes nuclear as the hippest of the hip disc jockeys. Oscar-winning Dean Jagger (Firecreek, 1968) makes his mark and you might like to know Gilda Texter went on to become a successful costume designer. Depending on what version (not the one I caught) you see, you’ll get a glimpse of Charlotte Rampling (Three,1969).

Stone cold classic. Gets the adrenaline going, but leaves you thoughtful.

The DVD is worth buying just for Sarafian’s commentary.

NOTE: That’s according to Google. Though estimates vary. One reference puts it at 15 hours of non-stop driving, another between 19 and 22 hours. Without breaking the speed limit of 70mph and allowing for not hitting any big cities necessitating curbing your speed, I reckoned he would only cover 1150 miles within his deadline but there are clearly plenty stretches of remote road where you would be able to crank up your speed without any bother. It’s noticeable that Kowalski sets off during the night but we never see him doing any night-time driving, he only attracts the attention of the cops during the day.

Skidoo (1968) *

Hubris can only get you so far. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill. Whatever possessed Otto Preminger (In Harms Way, 1965) to believe he could deliver a contemporary satirical comedy beats me. And it beat him, too.

Despite the comedic input of Jackie Gleason (The Hustler, 1962) and Groucho Marx there’s nary a single laugh, except, sadly, at the director’s expense as he attempts to shine a coruscating light on social mores and instead ends up fluffing his lines. The highlights (!!) are gangster Tony Banks (Jackie Gleason) having a bad trip, his daughter Darlene (Alexandra Hay) falling in with a bunch of hippies and having her body painted, his wife Flo (Carol Channing) trying to seduce another gangster Angie (Frankie Avalon) and some attempted gags at the expense of technology.

There’s even the old one of kids making out beside a parking meter and when busted complaining they are not getting their allotted time. And there’s an ongoing “joke” of Flo tussling with various men for control of the television set through rival remote controls.

The story, if you can call it that, has Tony infiltrating a prison in order to bump off inmate Packard (Mickey Rooney) who plays the stock market, complete with ticker tape, inside. Flo and Darlene, trying to find his whereabouts, end up at Angie’s hi-tech pad. Then all the hippies go back to the family house where Flo washes their hair.

You can imagine where hippies come into all this, making with the hip talk, and trying to set up an alternative world to the Establishment.

Carol Channing makes her feelings known by donning pirate garb.

In the style of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) the main attraction are the cameos, Peter Lawford (Ocean’s 11, 1960), John Philip Law (Hurry Sundown, 1967), Burgess Meredith (Rocky, 1976), George Raft (Five Golden Dragons, 1967), Mickey Rooney (24 Hours to Kill, 1965)  and Frankie Avalon (The Million Eyes of Sumuru, 1967). But they will all cringe at their participation.

Channing, only just Oscar-nominated for Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) makes the worst career choice of her life, Alexandra Hay (Model Shop, 1969) not far behind, though with less marquee value to play around with.

Every acclaimed director has an off day, taking on a project through poor judgement or, more likely, financial necessity. But Preminger was still a Hollywood high-roller and this just looked like a dose of career suicide.

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

After pulling double worthy duty with Empire of Light and Till as the starting points for my Monday multiplex triple bill it was something of a welcome relief to finish with an unpretentious pretty serviceable actioner that traded on Taken, The Equalizer and The Mechanic.

Ex-con Cuda (Antonio Banderas) has taken up his old job of debt collector/enforcer for bisexual mob boss Estelle (Kate Bosworth). Through happenstance he acquires streetfighter  protégé Stray (Mojean Aria). Cuda’s daughter won’t speak to him so he’s partial to coming to the aid of homeless 15-year-old Billie (Zolee Griggs). To get her off the streets he puts her up in a motel. But, of course, no good deed goes un-punished and the motel manager arranges for her kidnap by Freddie (2 Chainz), a rising gangster who threatens Estelle’s dominance.

Meanwhile, Stray falls for dancer/hooker Lexus (Alexis Ren) who works for Estelle and may well be her main squeeze, though the consensuality of that relationship may be in question.

There’s none of the pavement-pounding hard-core detective work or even nascent skill undertaken by the likes of Taken’s Bryan Mills before Cuda tracks down Billie’s whereabouts and it doesn’t take long for the various strands to coalesce, resulting in a variety of fights and shootings.  Given it’s a perky 90-minutes long, there’s very little time for subplots anyway or to find deeper meaning. That’s not to say there aren’t patches of clever dialog – Estelle compares the blood in her veins to that of the marauders in ocean depths whose blood has evolved to be extremely able to withstand parts of the sea where the sun never shines. (She says it a bit neater than that).

And there’s no time wasted on sentimentality either. Neither Cuda’s ex-wife or daughter want anything to do with him and thank goodness we’re spared a scene of him emerging from jail with nobody to greet him. The movie touches on the most venal aspects of modern crime, paedophilia, webcam pornography, kidnap, sexual violence, and of course Freddie bemoans the fact that Estelle is so old-fashioned she wants her tribute paid in cash not cryptocurrency.

It’s straight down to brass tacks, Cuda not seeing the betrayal coming. Thanks for bringing me fresh blood, Cuda, says Estelle, would you like one bullet or two with your retiral package. The only element that seems contrived at the time, that the battered and bloodied Stray can fix Cuda’s broken down car, actually turns into a decent plot point. And where Bryan Mills seems to be living on Lazarus-time, here it’s clear that the ageing Cuda is not going survive these endless beatings and shootings, so if there’s going to be a sequel it will be on the head of Stray.

I had half-expected Antonio Banderas (Uncharted, 2022) to sleepwalk through this kind of good guy-tough guy role but in fact his mostly soft-voiced portrayal is very effective, and his occasional stupidity lends considerable depth to the character.  Kate Bosworth (Barbarian, 2022) has been undergoing a transition of late and is very convincing as a smooth, if distinctly evil, bisexual gangster.

I’ve never heard of Mojean Aria though if I’d kept my ear closer to the ground I might have ascertained he was a Heath Ledger Scholarship recipient. He had a small role in the misconceived Reminiscence (2021) and took the lead in the arthouse Kapo (2022). Judging on his performance here, I’d say he is one to look out for. He has definite screen presence, action smarts and can act a bit too.

And just to show my ignorance I was unaware that Alexis Ren is one of the biggest influencers in the world. This is her second movie and she doesn’t really have much of a part beyond compromised girlfriend. Zolee Griggs (Archenemy, 2020) is another newcomer. But you remember that old Raymond Chandler saying that when the plot sags have a man come through the door with a gun. Well, here, there’s a different twist – it’s a woman, in fact both these women turn up trumps when it comes to rescuing the guys.

This is the directing debut of Aussie commercials wiz Richard Hughes and, thankfully, there’s none of the flashiness than would have drowned a tight picture like this. He keeps to the script by W. Peter Iliff who’s been out of the game for some time but who you may remember for Point Break (both versions), Patriot Games (1992), Varsity Blues (movie and TV series) and Under Suspicion (2000).

Undemanding action fare, for sure, but still it delivers on what it promises. It doesn’t have a wide enough release or a big enough marketing budget to even qualify as a sleeper but I reckon it will keep most people satisfied. I had thought this might be DTV but that’s not so. Although it’s not been released in the States it’s had a wide cinema release in Europe. However, this looks like it’s already on DVD but been thrown into cinemas to coincide with the launch of Puss in Boots.

Lost Highway (1997) *** – Seen at the Cinema

One of these films with bits missing. Where you are fated to fail to join the dots the director didn’t put there in the first place. Or so it seems. But when you work it all back from the end appears to make some kind of sense.

But that’s only while you are of a mind, given the directorial credentials, to stick it in the cult category rather than the direct-to-video vault where its companions might be any erotic thriller featuring Shannon Tweed. And that might be appropriate in  another way because this was such a flop on initial release, despite David Lynch’s reputation courtesy of Blue Velvet (19860 and Twin Peaks, that it owes much of its current cult status to rediscovery on DVD.

Mysterious message, mysterious video, mysterious man (Robert Blake) resembling Lindsay Kemp from The Wicker Man (1973). What connects jazz saxophonist Fred (Bill Pullman) and garage mechanic Pete (Balthazar Getty) except the women in their lives, brunette and blonde, respectively, and the fact that the former’s high-pitched music gives the latter a headache.

In fact, sorry to spoil it for you, though you’ve no doubt already seen this, this is really a story told, however opaquely, from the perspective of blonde/brunette Alice/Renee (Patricia Arquette), a commodity du jour looking for a dupe du jour. Because it’s, don’t you know, about a young woman lured into debauchery, forced to strip at gunpoint for gangster Mr Eddy (Robert Loggia), act in porno and become his squeeze, and naturally looking for a way out. Enter Pete, an easy enough snare, just turn up at his garage looking blonde and sexy. Not that Pete in any way resembles the introspective jealous Fred, Pete can make out in the backs of cars with other willing women like Sheila (Natasha Gregson Warner).

Into Fred’s dull life – he doesn’t seem that excited by being an avant garde jazzman and his sexy wife has given up on sitting adoringly in nightclubs gazing at her idol – comes the mysterious trilogy. “Dick Laurent is dead” is the mysterious message. The video contains footage of their apartment, with some footage shot when they were asleep. The mysterious man, unless he’s a ventriloquist, has the mysterious ability to be two places at once and then just turn up, like a subconscious, out of the blue.

That’s not the only switcheroo. At times Fred turns into Pete. And the two women turn up in the same photograph. And nobody seems much alive except when it comes to villainy. The gangster has a neat method of teaching tailgaters the error of their ways and likes his goodies (women) to unwrap themselves in the presence of others.

And it’s a nightmare of sorts, hallucinatory, or at least the characters exist on a surreal landscape. The audience never quite knows where it is. Instead of the usual twists of the thriller genre, this has mind-bending twists. It may make sense, I tried to make sense of it, but I’m not sure that’s necessary and it may even be folly, the whole idea I guess being to go with the flow and just enjoy what the director puts in front of us.

The forced strip sits uneasily in these times, though the beating up of the tail-gater always geta a great audience response, as if of course gangster violence has the imprimatur of Martin Scorsese, and in the world of a lost woman seeking a way out any man, no matter how innocent (Pete refuses loan of a porno video), is there to be used.

David Lynch is one of the few directors of the last 30/40 years to be considered a true auteur, his movies full of strange exotic images, and characters who would not exist outside his imagination, and it was quite rewarding to see that he has at least garnered an audience for I saw this in the largest cinema in a triple-screen arthouse and it had attracted a sizeable audience.

Peak enjoyment for the head-scratching fraternity, red meat for arthouse hounds, it certainly has the Lynch trademarks in camerawork and music and the parcelling up of the illicit into digestible fragments.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) ***** Now Officially The Greatest Western of All Time

Having complained about lists and then recanted when one of my favorites got the nod at the top of the heap, I’m doing the same again.

The recent Sight & Sound once-in-a-decade Directors Poll did the unthinkable and placed Once Upon a Time in the West ahead of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) which, virtually since release, had been anointed the top western of all time. The critics who participated in the Critics Poll, which ran concurrently with the Directors Poll, were not, I hasten to add, quite so convinced. According to the critics, the John Ford picture was still top dog, ahead of the Leone masterpiece in second place. But in a battle between directors, who make a living making pictures, and critics, whose only skill is writing about them, I know which side I would come down on. And in any case I had long sided with the directors on this issue.

A masterpiece to savor. The greatest western ever made. Sergio Leone’s movie out-Fords John Ford in thematic energy, imagery and believable characters and although it takes in the iconic Monument Valley it dispenses with marauding Native Americans and the wrecking of saloons. That the backdrop is the New West of civilisation and enterprise is somewhat surprising for a movie that appears to concentrate on the violence implicit in the Old West. But that is only the surface. Dreams, fresh starts are the driving force. It made a star out of Charles Bronson (Farewell, Friend, 1968), turned the Henry Fonda (Advise and Consent, 1961) persona on its head and provided Claudia Cardinale (Blindfold, 1965) with the role of a lifetime. And there was another star – composer Ennio Morricone (The Sicilian Clan, 1969)

New Orleans courtesan Jill (Claudia Cardinale) heads west to fulfil a dream of living in the country and bringing up a family. Gunslinger Frank (Henry Fonda), like Michael in The Godfather, has visions of going straight, turning legitimate through railroad ownership. Harmonica (Charles Bronson) has been dreaming of the freedom that will come through achieving revenge, the crippled crooked railroad baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) dreams of seeing the ocean and even Cheyenne (Jason Robards) would prefer a spell out of captivity.

The beginnings of the railroad triggers a sea-change in the west, displacing the sometimes lawless pioneers, creating a mythic tale about the ending of a myth, a formidable fable about the twilight and resurgence of the American West. In essence, Leone exploits five stereotypes – the lone avenger (Harmonica), the outlaw Frank who wants to go straight, the idealistic outlaw in Cheyenne, Jill the whore and outwardly respectable businessman Morton whose only aim is monopoly. All these characters converge on new town Flagstone where their narratives intersect.

That Leone takes such stereotypes and fashions them into a movie of the highest order is down to style. This is slow in the way opera is slow. Enormous thought has gone into each sequence to extract the maximum in each sequence. In so doing creating the most stylish western ever made. The build-up to violence is gradual, the violence itself over in the blink of an eye.

Unusually for a western – except oddities like Five Card Stud (1968) – the driving force is mystery. Generally, the western is the most direct of genres, characters establishing from the outset who they are and what they want by action and dialogue. But Jill, Harmonic and Cheyenne are, on initial appearances, mysterious. Leone takes the conventions of the western and turns them upside down, not just in the reversals and plot twists but in the slow unfolding tale where motivation and action constantly change, alliances formed among the most unlikely allies, Harmonica and Cheyenne, Harmonica and Frank, and where a mooted  alliance, in the romantic sense, between Jill and Harmonica fails to take root.

There’s no doubt another director would have made shorter work of the opening sequence in Cattle Corner, all creaky scratchy noise, in a decrepit railroad station that represents the Old West, but that would be like asking David Lean to cut back Omar Sharif emerging from the horizon in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or Alfred Hitchcock to trim back the hypnotic scenes of James Stewart following Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958). Instead, Leone sets out his stall. This movie is going to be made his way, a nod to the operatic an imperative. But the movie turns full circle. If we begin with the kind of lawless ambush prevalent in the older days, we end with a shootout at the Sweetwater ranch that is almost a sideshow to progress as the railroad sweeps ever onward.

No character is more against audience expectation than Jill. Women in westerns rarely take center stage, unless they exhibit a masculine skill with the gun. There has rarely been a more fully-rounded character in the movies never mind this genre. When we are introduced to her, she is the innocent, first time out West, eyes full of wonder, heart full of romance. Then we realise she is a tad more mercenary and that her previous occupation belies her presentation. Then she succumbs to Frank. Then she wants to give up. Then she doesn’t. Not just to stay but to become the earth mother for all the men working on the railroad.

Another director would have given her a ton of dialogue to express her feelings. Instead, Leone does it with the eyes. The look of awe as she arrives in flagstone, the despair as she approaches the corpses, the surrender to the voracious Frank, the understanding of the role she must now play. And when it comes to close-up don’t forget our first glimpse of Frank, those baby blue eyes, and the shock registering on his face in the final shoot-out, one of the most incredible pieces of acting I have ever seen.

And you can’t ignore the contribution of the music. Ennio Morricone’s score for Once Upon a Time in the West has made a greater cultural impact than even the venerated John Williams’ themes for Star Wars (1977) and Jaws (1975) with rock gods like Bruce Springsteen and Metallica among those spreading the word to successive generations and I wonder in fact how people were drawn to this big-screen showing by the opportunity to hear the score in six-track Dolby sound. There’s an argument to be made that the original soundtrack sold more copies than the film sold tickets.

The other element with the music which was driven home to me is how loud it was here compared to, for example, Thunderball (1965), which as it happens I also saw on the big screen on the same day. Although I’ve listened to certain tracks from the Bond film on a CD where the context is only the listener and not the rest of the picture, I was surprised how muted the music was for Thunderball especially in the action sequences. Today’s soundtracks are often loud to the point of being obstreperous, but rarely add anything to character or image.

If you live in the U.K. you should get the opportunity to see this once again on the big screen because the British Film Institute, which coincidentally owns Sight & Sound, is planning to screen all the 100 films in its latest poll. Other countries might take note.

London in the Raw (1964) ***

The headmaster of top English public school Harrow and the owners of upmarket emporium Grieves probably didn’t realize what they were letting themselves in for when they agreed to participate in this British version of Mondo Cane (1962), the movie that turned documentary into box office gold by the simple device of concentrating on the sleaze.

In truth it’s a bit of bait-and-switch, although anyone seeking titillation in those more repressed times when nudity was forbidden by the censor would be rewarded by the sight of three women topless, an anomaly explained by such nudity appearing in a non-sexual situation and my guess that the movie’s producers pointed to the stage loophole which permitted it as long as the women did not move. (That reasoning was explained, should you be interested, in Mrs Henderson Presents, 2005.)

The nudity occurs in the context of life classes, one organized by a bunch of beatniks as a means of funding their lifestyle, which includes eating baked beans cold and snacking on cat food, rebels that they are; when business is poor, they resort to taking snaps of the girls for Soho magazines. The other is the post-dinner entertainment in an upmarket restaurant where the customers sketch drawings of the undressed immobile models.

There’s an expose of clip joints, where elderly men are duped out of money by unfulfilled promise, paying extortionate amounts for non-alcoholic beverages, and a behind-the-scenes look at a strip club (nudity concealed behind nipple pasties) and a sex worker, the narrator making the point that while it’s not illegal for that woman to ply her trade indoors, a beggar playing a penny whistle in the street could be arrested. The strip club has the dingiest of entrances.

But in the main it’s a rather snippy examination of contemporary mores as staid London, at this stage not quite Swinging London, undergoes dramatic change. A health club enters the frame and there’s a gory piece on male hair transplants, a bloodier experience than audiences might expect, and a trawl round various unusual, but harmless, place of entertainment: an Irish pub with a horde of singers, an amateur Jewish theater, disco dancing at the renowned Whiskey-A-Go-Go, German students congregating for a slice of home at the Rheingold Club, the casino at Churchills, and cabaret.

“Bold! Brazen! Bizarre!” boasts the trailer and while that might be typical hype, audiences in those tamer times may well have been shocked especially when the camera focuses on two elements rarely discussed at that point in polite society: homelessness and drug addiction. Even so, it does find, as with the rest of the movie, unusual aspects of both. For example, the homeless lace their methylated spirits with milk. A director with an eye for dynamic composition could not have hit upon a better idea than contrasting the white contents of one bottle with the blue contents of another, the mixture being consumed in tea cups.

And I, for one, did not know that drug addicts were treated far more sympathetically in Britain than in the United States. That may well have been because the numbers were low, only 600 registered addicts compared to 47,000 across the Atlantic, though the degradation was no less pitiful, female abusers taking to the streets to pay for their addiction.

As a slice-of-life it’s less exploitational than the posters – or title – suggest and so falls into the historic category of The London Nobody Knows (1967), although less compelling, and it’s perhaps more interesting for the personalities involved, several of whom became significant figures, one way or the other, in the movie business.

Making the biggest later impact was Michael Klinger who went on to produce Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-Sac (1966), drama Baby Love (1969), gangster classic Get Carter (1971), Gold (1974) and Shout at the Devil (1976). Co-producer Tony Tenser went on to found Tigon, the horror outfit that challenged Hammer. Stanley Long turbocharged the British sexploitation industry with numbers such as Groupie (1970), The Wife Swappers (1970) and Eskimo Nell (1975).

But it didn’t open many doors for director Arnold L. Miller who managed only a handful of features such as Frustrated Wives/Sex Farm (1974) which was banned by the British censor. Uncredited co-director Norman Cohen later made The London Nobody Knows.

Interesting for the most part and buy it if you want to play your part in upholding the British Film Institute which has rescued this from the vaults in the hope of making a quick buck.

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.

Black Butterflies / Les Papillons Noirs (2022) **** – Netflix

Not since Basic Instinct (1992) has there been such an obvious connection between sex and murder. Slow-burn French film noir throwback, every twist, unusually, is matched by emotional resonance. Over six episodes this turns into an absolute cracker with several shocking scenes and, for once, a post-credits scene in the final episode worth waiting for.

You do however need to give this time. The first episode is mostly confusing as it sets up the three main strands. But episode two contains such a revelatory twist thereafter you’re on a rollercoaster.

In the present day ex-con acclaimed but impoverished novelist Adrien (Nicholas Duvauchelle) takes up a not particularly well-paid ghost-writing job listening to grizzled old fella Albert (Niels Arestrup) recount his memoirs. Adrien, on the jealous side, has a tangled relationship with partner Nora (Alice Belaidi). Also in the present day a couple of cops, Carrell (Sami Bouajila) and Mathilde (Marie Denarnaud),  are working on a cold case, the death of renowned photographer Steven Powell.

Running parallel with these two tales we go delving into the romantic past of Albert and in particular his relationship with Solange (Alyzee Costez) back in the 1970s when the entire world was on a massive experimental binge. A couple of other elements pop up from time to time,  a small boy and his mother, Adrien and his stepfather, and an artist/tattoo artist Catherine (Lola Creton).

Eventually, it all comes together and when it does it packs an incredible punch, a real emotional wallop, as the lives of all concerned are turned upside down.

And while there is most definitely twist upon twist upon twist, what raises this above most movies/programs that rely just on twists, is the emotional impact of such changes, and above all, characters seeking identity, trying to work not just who they are but whether they like or are repelled by the characters they have become.

Chock-full of atmosphere, this will have you hooked from the incredible second episode which tumbles full-tilt boogie into a dazzling mysterious past. Mostly, it takes place in France but just for the hell of it we race to Brussels and Genoa, and timewise, there’s an important element that takes place at the conclusion of the Second World War.

Everyone is damaged one way or the other and as the series progresses you realize just how damaged. And one of the best parts of the series is that lives that should collapse under the weight of such heavy emotions find themselves taking an alternative route that occasionally provides solace and occasionally dodges the issues enough to keep them steady. But, of course, nobody can escape the past.  

While this is definitely on the raunchy side, it does set out to show the part sex plays in the lives of the characters, whether emotional crutch, expressing the full joy of falling in love, or desperate measure.

The characters are well-drawn, and as new personality details emerge, they take the story in different directions. In some respects it’s grounded by Albert, the kind of old guy who really knows how to smoke, slipping the cigarette into his mouth old-style, sucking the life out of it, and for all his obvious dodginess a genuine human being seeking respite and redemption.

What Adrien discovers relates only too well to what he suspects about his own instincts and so he is as much disgusted as revelling in each new discovery. An ex-kick boxer, one of the running motifs is not so much being up for the fight, or in true private eye mode being able to hold your own in the fisticuffs department, but willing to accept physical punishment. That is matched by an understanding of the toll emotions can take on your life, especially if you lack the mental capacity to defend yourself against such intrusions.

And at the heart of the story is the mysterious, seductive, beautiful Solange, a different kind of femme fatale, perched atop beguiling innocence, at times unaware of the passions she unleashes, and yet, trying to find a way out of her own spiralling emotions, internal conflict typified by undergoing various abortions while so desperately wanting a child that she plays interminably with a doll’s house, her own reaction to the sexual act buried deep in her past.

I’ll admit the first episode is at timse heavy-going as writer-directors Olivier Abbou (Get In, 2019) and Bruno Merle (The Lost Prince, 2020) set out their complex stall, but the second episode is such a humdinger it more than makes up for it. The contrast between the free-wheeling free-spirited 1970s and the grungy contemporary look where responsibility brings an edge to everything is very well done. But while the violence would do Tarantino proud, contemplation of the creative process is as considered.

It probably helps that I’m unfamiliar with any of the actors because for me they carry no screen baggage. Nicholas Duvauchelle (Lost Bullet, 2020) carries off his first top-billed role superbly, making a terrific transition from a character almost playing a part to one who wishes he had done a better job of remaining an ordinary guy. On the basis of this, Hollywood should come calling for veteran Niels Arestrup (A Prophet, 2009) any time they’re looking for a crusty supporting actor.

Alyzee Costee, in her biggest role to date, certainly announces her presence, presenting the most complicated character of the lot, daughter, lover, mother, possibly the most intriguing female character of all time, beauty matched with fragility matched with toughness matched with an agility to switch persona at dizzying speed. This is what Netflix is best at, investing in foreign television programs, or just sticking their name on them, to bring them to global attention. This is definitely worth a wider audience

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