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 Collector (1965) *****

William Wyler’s paean to Incels strike such a contemporary note it’s hard to believe it was made over 60 years ago. An insightful study of male entitlement, female submission and    novice serial killer that showcased two emerging British stars, this is as much about the psychological make-up of the victim as the captor.

Following a lottery win (see Note), lonely bank clerk Freddie (Terence Stamp) kidnaps the woman of his dreams, flame-haired art student Miranda (Samantha Eggar) in the hope that once she gets to know him she will fall in love. He has found a large cellar beside the secluded mansion he bought with his winnings. But this is no dank dungeon with a prisoner chained to the walls, but a comfortable abode with lighting, heating, clothing, food, and art materials. However, it is locked.

In turn angry, puzzled and submissive, Miranda tries to work out what she needs to do to achieve her liberty without realising that no matter what she does she will never fulfil his dreams. Despite his shyness, it wouldn’t be hard in other circumstances to fall for a guy as good-looking as this, if only for an affair. She is sexually experienced, but has just been rejected by an older man (Kenneth More), and love on the rebound is hardly uncommon.  

Unfortunately, Freddie lives such a soulless, empty, existence, no interests beyond an obsession with butterflies, of which he has amassed a collection large enough to supply a complete museum, that the chances of finding common ground are remote and the circumstances of their meeting pretty much douse the potential for any spark.

At first, once she has expended her anger at her incarceration, she is grateful not to be murdered or raped – even pleads that if he is going to take her by force sexually not to drug her – and soon her mind turns to ways of escape, especially once he invites her into the big house, allows her to bathe, cooks her a meal and shows the world she could enjoy as his willing partner.

With every step, Freddie dares to dream more, that his insane idea will come to fruition, that a beautiful princess will love the lowly commoner. And as much as this focuses on male domination, it is also an examination of female independence, Miranda being in the foreground of that generation to espouse personal freedom, not viewing marriage as an ultimate destination, but seeking a fulfilling career with love almost a perk on the side.

Even without going to extent of kidnapping a woman, males of the period still expected a female to cater to their every whim, wife-beating hardly considered a crime, and, ironically, it would be a rare woman who would not enjoy the worship a more ordinary Freddie planned to bestow on his beloved.

It being set in the England of a particular period, Freddie blames the gulf between them on “class,” that where or to whom you are born creating an unattainable barrier between young men and young women, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. But, of course, to the thwarted, there is always someone to blame.

You will be very familiar with the cinematic tale of the imprisoned female attempting to escape by wiles and ingenuity, but even so, this will take you by surprise, in part because the idea of being forcibly detained was a rare event back then, so Miranda does not spend her time trying to chisel through loose cement using a stolen fork or other ideas along the same lines. That she has even managed to negotiate the length of her prison term makes her initial custody tolerable, especially as, in terms of material things, she wants for nothing.

Unfortunately, although Freddie is immune to normal feelings, he is alert to the slightest nuance, and would feel it an insult to his intelligence should she just play along and pretend to fall in love with as a means of engineering her escape. That the audience is probably more aware of this than Miranda makes the tension virtually unbearable.

This is a duel of the highest caliber between captor and detainee. At several moments it looks as if the tide will turn. A terrific scene with overflowing bath water fails to make a nosy neighbor suspicious. She even at one point manages to whack her assailant over the head with a shovel and attempt a genuine escape. You are left to wonder if making a sexual sacrifice, even taking the initiative with a virgin, will make the necessary difference. But one look into those implacable eyes would have told you exactly where you stood without having to wait until you were dragged by the hair across the lawn in a rainstorm.  

Audiences more familiar with the director through late-career roadshows like Ben-Hur (1959) and Funny Girl (1967) or the earlier rom-com Roman Holiday (1953) would be forgiven for forgetting how adept Wyler was at racking up the tension from his early thrillers or dealing with unattainable love (Wuthering Heights, 1939) or entitlement (Jezebel, 1938). He evokes such a claustrophobic atmosphere, ingrained with pure Englishness, and plays with ironies of character beauty – Freddie’s eyes and cheekbones, that should have attracted women by the score, instead lending him devilish menace while Miranda’s sensational looks that would have most men begging for just a minute of her company prove insufficient to enslave this particular creature.

That there is genuine sexual tension, not just whether he will end up raping her, but whether she might see his more attractive version of himself and come to give him what he wants without being repulsed, brings a surprising sexual tension. You wouldn’t say there was chemistry between the characters in the normal sense, but the situation is electrifying.

This was a career high for Terence Stamp (Term of Trial, 1962), minus many of the acting foibles and vocal tics that peppered his later work, and the same went for Samantha Eggar (Walk, Don’t Run, 1966). But the performances are of such a high quality, especially when you think she has breached his defences sufficiently, that at times it is an unbearable watch. John Kohn (Caprice, 1967) and Stanley Mann (The Naked Runner, 1967) based their screenplay on the bestselling – and highly praised – novel by John Fowles, author of later cult work The Magus.

This would have stood the test of time anyway as a pure thriller but since it digs into what has now become a counter-culture it carries even greater significance today.

NOTE: He didn’t win the lottery. That didn’t exist then. Instead he won on the “Football Pools,” but that concept – it began in 1923 –  is so hard to explain to non-British people that I took the easy way out. However, the “pools” was a gambling phenomenon of the times, the entry fee so low, at its peak played by 14 million people in the UK every week in the hope of winning a jackpot akin to lottery cash. In essence, you had to guess out of all the soccer games being played on a Saturday (all games in those days kicked off at 3pm on a Saturday) how many would end in draws.

Triple Bill Blues: Fall (2022) ***; The Forgiven (2021) **; Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022) ** – Seen at the Cinema

You may be aware that I am partial to a triple bill on my weekly Monday trip to the cinema. I’m rather an indiscriminate cinemagoer and generally just see what’s available, though it’s true return trips to view Top Gun: Maverick have helped paper over cracks in the current distribution malaise. Sometimes a triple bill can reveal unsung gems, sometimes I am rowing against the critical tide in my opinions and sometimes, not too often thank goodness, I end up seeing movies with few redeeming qualities. That was the circumstance this week.

FALL

So now I know. If I need to get a mobile phone dropped 2,000 feet without it breaking into pieces, the thing to do is stuff it inside a cadaver. That’s one of the more outlandish suggestions in this climbing picture two-hander that for most of the time is quite gripping.

So as not to have to spend the first anniversary of her husband’s death sozzled in booze and despair, Becky (Grace Caroline Currey) agrees to partner YouTube click-hound Hunter (Virginia Gardner) in scaling an extremely high disused radio mast. Becky, a mountaineer, had watched her husband fall to his death, so is pretty iffy about the expedition. When they reach the top they can’t get down again since the ladder they climbed has disintegrated. Although there was mobile phone reception at ground level, there’s none this high up. Hunter has 60,000 followers and reckons if only her phone reached the ground it would automatically activate so they toss it down in a shoe stuffed with a bra.

That doesn’t work nor does firing a flare pistol to alert two guys in a nearby RV – all they are alerted to is the girl’s vehicle which they promptly steal. The girls are trapped without water or drone, both stuck 50ft below on radio dishes. At one point you think this is going to go in an entirely different – murderous – direction after Becky discovers Hunter had an affair with her husband. But they manage to get over that hiccup. Recuing their water and drone results in Hunter being out of action as far as further climbing goes and it’s up to Becky to reach the top of the mast and recharge the drone from the power there, fending off a passing vulture.

There’s definitely one weird bit where it turns out that Hunter, who you imagined was up there all the time supporting a defeatist Becky, is already dead. But, luckily, the corpse provides the cavity in which to bury the mobile phone. I’m not sure much of a human body survives a drop of 2,000 ft, certainly not enough to safeguard a phone, but that’s the way this plays out.

A great mountaineering film is always a welcome find in my book. This isn’t great but it’s certainly passable. And while Becky is more interesting than the gung-ho Hunter, the pair, emotions almost spinning out of control, make a very watchable pair.

Grace Caroline Curry aka Grace Fulton (Shazam!, 2019) does well in her first starring role and Virginia Gardner (Monster Party, 2018) is as convincing. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Rampage, 2018) has a small role. A novel take on the mountaineering sub-genre, it’s kudos to director Scott Mann (Heist, 2015) – who co-wrote the screenplay with Jonathan Frank (Final Score, 2018)  that I spent a lot of time wondering just how the hell they managed to make it look so realistic.

THE FORGIVEN

Note to studios, no matter how much you plan to tart up a modern version of Appointment in Samarra – aka a tale of unavoidable fate – you ain’t going to get anywhere if it’s filled with entitled obnoxious characters. The worst of it is this is well-made.

Functioning alcoholic doctor David Henninger (Ralph Fiennes) knocks down and kills young Muslim boy Driss (Omar Ghazaoui) while on the way with wife Jo (Jessica Chastain) to a hedonistic weekend party in Morocco hosted by Richard Galloway (Matt Smith) and his partner Dally (Caleb Landry Jones). There are hints that Driss was planning to hijack the tourists, but while his death is deemed an accident by the local cops, David agrees to go back with the boy’s father Ismael (Abdellah Taheri) and observe the local funeral rites and possibly pay the father off.

While her husband is away Jo has a one-night stand with serial seducer Tom (Christopher Abbott) while the rest of the party – including Lord Swanthorne (Alex Jennings) and assorted beautiful men and woman – trade bon mots and make racist and sexist remarks. While the arrogant David changes his perspective and accepts his fate, there is not, himself included, a single likeable person in the whole of the tourist contingent which makes it impossible to care what happens to anybody. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (Calvary, 2014) it spends all its time trying to make clever points, not realizing the audience has long lost interest.

THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING

Note to studios, if you’re going to indulge an action director in a vanity project, make sure he hires actors who don’t just drone on. It might also help if the director could decide what story he wants to tell, and not essentially present a voice-over narrative of stuff that happened in the past, no matter how exotic the timescale.

I was astonished to discover there actually is a job called narratologist. Alithea (Tilda Swinton) is a dried-up old stick of a narratologist who summons up the dullest genie/djinn in movie history known – no names, no pack drill – just as The Djinn  (Idris Elba) who proceeds to bore the audience to death with his stories of how he came to end up in a bottle.  

There’s a bundle of academic nonsense about storytelling, a swathe of tales that sound like rejects from The Arabian Nights, and a lot of unconnected characters. The invention of director George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road, 2015) just isn’t inventive enough and the visuals just aren’t arresting enough. I’m assuming this got greenlit on the basis Miller would turn in a couple more in the Mad Max franchise.

The Invitation (2022) ***- Seen at the Cinema

Two words – “Whitby” and “Carfax” – hint at what’s coming but luckily have no resonance for impoverished New York ceramics artist Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel) who takes up an invitation to visit long-lost relatives in an English mansion of significant splendour. Immediately taken by her host, lord of the manor Walt (Thomas Docherty), who comes across like a Regency buck, she finds herself a surprising guest of honour for a forthcoming wedding.

Head butler Mr Fields (Sean Pertwee) and the statuesque Viktoria  (Stephanie Cornelissen), another guest, are snippy but the others, a smorgasbord of three influential European families, make her welcome. A nightmare and a few things unexplained drive her into the arms of the sympathetic Walt and before she knows it, she has agreed, in jest, to marry him. “The Big Reveal” – a subject of the last two posts – is well-paced giving Evie time to react to her unexpected circumstances. Like Hide and Seek (1964) she has been led into a trap of her own making, millennial entitlement coupled with the chance to mix with the rich and famous enough to do the trick.

She, it transpires, is the bride of a very particular individual and despite her efforts to escape it will be a very red wedding.

If there had been no mention of Whitby and Carfax – and I don’t remember anything in the trailer – I would have been completely unprepared for what followed, at least in the vampiric context, for the other goings-on did not tilt the viewer in that direction. The romance was refreshingly modern, with various reversals, including Evie standing up for menials who had fallen foul of the butler, and for herself against belittlement by Viktoria.

The ice-house, a mainstay of such buildings prior to refrigeration, also turns out to be fit for purpose and in another twist Walt favours the harem approach to marriage.

Considerably less savage than your modern horror picture, and definitely a shade more romantic, I can see why it would go down poorly with the modern horror cognoscenti but I felt it was very well directed, much more in the classic tradition of pacing, character development and twist. And it has an excellent ending that I suspect might kick-start a sequel.

Nathalie Emmanuel – best known from a stint in Game of Thrones and F9: The Fast Saga (2021) – will surely be elevated to stardom after her first leading role. A big-screen natural, she carries the picture effortlessly, and even though effectively playing the innocent abroad, there are few moments where the character is out of her depth, tribute to her innate acting skills. This could have gone wrong in so many ways, but her performance evokes natural sympathy while at the same time you would not make the mistake of pitying her.

A bright future also awaits Thomas Doherty (High Strung Free Dance, 2018) who carries off his role with style and except until necessary does not hint at the real character underneath the charm. Sean Pertwee (The Reckoning, 2020) shows he can glower with the best of them but Stephanie Corneliussen, in her movie debut,  makes an excellent queen bitch and her whimpering sidekick Alana Boden (Uncharted, 2022) proves anyone can turn nasty given the right amount of prodding.

Big shout out to Scottish actress Carol Ann Crawford – better known as the dialect coach for Outlander – as the maid who sets Evie right. I do believe I was at university with her.

Director Jessica M. Thompson (The Light of the Moon, 2017) does an excellent job of keeping a tight rein on proceedings and even when all hell is about to break loose ensures that the ensuing havoc is carried out with some style. Blair Butler (Polaroid, 2019) knocked out the screenplay.

My only gripe is that Emmanuel and Doherty make such a fine couple – with the kind of screen charisma that is in short supply these days – it was a shame that the story had to take a turn into horror rather than continue (forgive the pun) in the romantic vein.

She Died With Her Boots On / Whirlpool / Perversion Flash (1969) ***

Sexual adventuress takes trip to the country with disastrous results. Best described as an early British venture in the giallo mold it lacks some of the style of that genre but is notable for the debut of Spanish cult director Jose Ramon Larraz (Vampyres, 1974). Perhaps as interesting is that it details a nascent killer warming to his task and climaxes in a nihilistic ending. Scoring so high on the sex/nudity quotient in the U.S., it was considered an out-and-out exploitationer.

Wealthy older woman Sarah (Pia Andersson) brings home model Tulia (Vivian Neves) for her protégé Theo (Karl Lanchbury), a budding photographer.  Sarah’s proclivities are apparent from the start, preferring young women though young men will also suffice, a switch in the normal power play of the era (and now for that matter) of rich old men chasing younger women.

Tulia is no innocent, lured or straying into the big dark house, and she’s game for anything, happily participating in a game of strip poker that ends in sex with Theo. However (and striking a contemporary note), he is unable to perform – for reasons that might be similar linked to young people today who suffer from the same condition due to over-exposure to porn – and in Theo’s case because he prefers watching.

Quite how far he is willing to go to achieve his kicks is shown in a scene where he drives Tulia to the woods where she is almost raped by his friend Tom so that Theo can photograph the act. Quite how far Tulia is willing to go is indicated by the fact that, while upset at this incident, she doesn’t run a mile and instead continues to enjoy games of seduction, this time with Sarah, with Theo at first limiting his participating to recording the action but later taking part in a menage a trois.

Meanwhile, a Scotland Yard Detective Inspector (Barry Craine) interrogates businessman Mr. Field (Edwin Brown), sugar daddy to missing Irishwoman Rhonda (Johanna Heger), and Field takes it upon himself to pay Theo a visit. Quite how he knows of Theo’s involvement with Rhonda is unclear but he doesn’t accept the explanation that the girl has gone home and hangs around to do a bit of spying. Not such a good idea, because he pays the penalty.

Although it’s a pleasant detached cottage and far from an old dark house, Tulia takes it upon herself to take a look at Theo’s studio where she finds various items of female clothing and photos of an unsavoury nature. A flashback reveals the death of Rhonda, seduced by Tom, then, following the arrival of Theo and his trusty camera, raped by a tramp. But it’s not Theo who kills her. It’s Tom, and largely by accident.

So what’s being set up really is how far beyond his normal games Theo will go, with Tulia providing the test case.

A chunk of the tension comes from having no idea what’s going on beyond Sarah indulging Theo. She appears ignorant of the depth of his perversion. And with Tulia being so complicit initially in the sex it appears to be going down a different route to the slasher pictures like Scream and more in keeping with the giallo which had yet to get into its stride. Tulia is a modern girl for the times, certainly not sexually repressed, which was refreshing, and being a model comfortable with her body. But she would not have been expecting something like this.

Karl Lanchbury (What’s Good for the Goose, 1969) looked like he was perfecting the creepy persona that would carry him through a few more Larraz pictures. Vivian Neves was a model, famous two years later for featuring in the first nude advertisement in The Times, but also a glamour model with pictorials in Penthouse and The Sun, and known as “The Body” a quarter of a century before that title was appropriated by Elle Macpherson, and later set up her own modelling agency. Pia Andersson only made this one picture.

Given he was dealing with so much inexperience and was himself a debutant, Larraz does a pretty good job. He would go on to make another 25 films mostly in the exploitation vein.  

I came across this on YouTube while looking for the Otto Preminger film noir Whirlpool (1950). The version I saw is taken from a very ropey VHS with time codes but there’s a better print on the channel under the title of Perversion Flash.

Harlow (1965) ***

Harlow presents such a convincing picture of Hollywood abuse that I was astonished to discover that it was not entirely truthful where the title character was concerned.

Jean Harlow was a hugely popular star in the 1930s before her untimely death at the age of 36. This film depicts her as a virgin (not true) who turns neurotic (not true) after her impotent husband commits suicide (debatable) on their wedding night (not true) leading to her go off the rails and die from pneumonia (not true). But in terms of the Hollywood system a great deal rings true and if the Me Too movement had existed in the late 1920s the finger would be pointed at a huge number of men.

The film is at its best when dissecting the movie business. A five-minute opening sequence demonstrates its “factory” aspect as extras and bit players clock in, are given parts and shuffle through great barns to be clothed and made up, often to be discarded at the end of the process.

No sooner has this version of Jean Harlow (Carroll Baker) been given a small part than she encounters the casting couch, operated by a lowly assistant director, who bluntly offers five days’ work instead of one if she submits to his advances. When she turns him down, work is hard to come by and she resorts to stealing lunch before rescued by agent Arthur Landau (Red Buttons). After tiny parts that mostly consist of her losing her clothing, receiving pies or eggs in the face and displaying her wares in bathtubs, she geta a big break only for that producer to demand his pound of flesh – “I’ve already bought and paid for you.” Here she has “the body of a woman and the emotions of a child” and ends up choosing the wrong suitor which leads to a calamitous outcome.

However, the pressures of stardom are well-presented: she is the breadwinner for her unemployed mother Jean (Angela Lansbury) and lazy stepfather Marino (Raf Vallone) and soon box office dynamite for studio chief Everett (Martin Balsam) who sees in her the opportunity to sell good clean sex. The negotiations/bribery/blackmail involved in fixing salaries are also explored.

But the film earns negative points by mixing the real and the fictional. The agent and husband Paul Bern (Peter Lawford) existed but most of the others are invented or amalgamations of different people. MGM is represented as “Majestic” and among her films there is no Red Dust (1932) or China Seas (1935) but lurid inventions like Sin City

Director Gordon Douglas was a versatile veteran, with over 90 films to his credit, from comedies Saps at Sea (1940) and Call Me Bwana (1963) to westerns The Iron Mistress (1952) and Rio Conchos (1964) and musicals Follow That Dream (1962) and dramas The Sins of Rachel Cade (1961) and Sylvia (1965) which also starred Baker. The opening scene apart, which is a seamless construction, he is adept at this kind of helter-skelter drama. John Michael Hayes (Rear Window, 1954) has produced a punchy script based on the book by Arthur Landau and Irving Shulman.

In the title role Carroll Baker (Sylvia) has probably never been better, comedian Red Buttons (Stagecoach, 1966) excellent in a straight role while the smarmy Raf Vallone (Nevada Smith, 1966) is the stand-out among an excellent supporting cast that also includes Angela Lansbury (In the Cool of the Day, 1963), Peter Lawford (Sylvia), Leslie Nielsen (Beau Geste, 1966), Martin Balsam (Seven Days in May, 1964) and Mike Connors (Stagecoach, 1966).

Except that virtually none of the movie is true, I would have given it four stars for its portrayal of Hollywood but I have come to expect that biopics, while moving facts around for dramatic purposes, are required to be good more faithful to their subjects than this. 

The Southern Star (1969) ***

There’s a surprisingly good movie here once you strip out the cliché jungle stuff and the racist elements. The diamond of the title is actually a MacGuffin, just enough to get you started on two parallel tales of revenge.

Dan (George Segal) is a mining engineer-cum-adventurer and Erica (Ursula Andress), daughter of mine owner Kramer (Harry Andrews), as far from the traditional jungle heroine (except in one regard) as you could get. She saves him from crocodiles, rescues him from jail and quicksand, swims across a hippo-infested river and is a better shot than him (or anybody for that matter) with a rifle. This is female empowerment with a vengeance.

Suspected of stealing the diamond, he is hunted by ranger Karl (Ian Hendry), Dan’s love rival, who intends to win Erica back using the simple expedient of killing the thief. Lying in wait is all-purpose rogue Plankett (Orson Welles) who seeks revenge on Karl. The second unit had a whale of a time filming anything that moved –  lions, leopards, zebras, giraffes, buffaloes, monkeys, antelopes, the aforementioned hippos and crocodiles and what looked like a cobra – and at one point everything does move in coordinated fashion if you can call a stampede coordinated.

But the main focus is an Erica who constantly confounds Dan’s sexist expectations. Docility is her disguise. Anytime she appears to be doing what she’s told you can be sure she’s planning the opposite. While Dan does have his own specific set of jungle skills, he often looks a fool. But they do make a good screen partnership and their dialogue is lively.

Hollywood spent millions of dollars trying to create screen chemistry between various stars and although it seemed to work very well in the industry’s golden age with Clark Gable and any number of MGM female stars, Bogart/Bacall and Tracy/Hepburn and I guess you could chuck John Wayne-Maureen O’Hara into that particular mix, the formula seemed to have gone awry by the 1960s discounting the Doris Day/Rock Hudson combo, big budget romances like El Cid (1961) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) and an occasional home run with whomever Cary Grant was romancing on screen. So it was usually hit-or-miss whether any sparks flew between the stars.

Andress had certainly been a European femme fatale par excellence as seen in Dr No (1962) and The Blue Max (1966), but it was certainly not a given that she would more than hold her own for an entire picture. Segal was nobody’s idea of a romantic leading man although the notion had been given a tryout in The Girl Who Couldn’t Say No (1968) with Virna Lisi. But here the whole enterprise works in an It Happened One Night vein with the supposedly superior male recognizing that perhaps his companion was more than a match.

Harry Andrews and Orson Welles both try to steal the picture, with polar opposite characterizations, Andrews loud and menacing, Welles soft and menacing. You can tell Scottish director Sidney Hayers (The Trap, 1966) was an editor because he cuts for impact and mostly does an efficient job of sticking to the story. Supposedly, Orson Welles directed his own scenes, but that might be to make sure he got to hog the camera. He has enough choice lines and bits of business to keep him happy and gives his venomous character a camp edge. Matakit (Johnny Sekka), Dan’s buddy, who actually has the diamond, is separately pursued and subjected to racism and being whipped.

Despite my reservations, this is well constructed and keeps one step ahead of audience expectation with plenty twists to subvert those, although the music by Johnny Dankworth gets in the way, offering musical cues opposite to what is required.

As it is a jungle picture there is the obligatory heroine’s bathing scene – and to balance the books on that score Segal does whip off his shirt at one point. Except for the clichés and the racism, it would have gone higher in my estimation for by and large it is well done and Andress is once again (see The Blue Max) a revelation.   

Night of the Blood Monster / The Bloody Judge (1969) ***

Handsomely mounted historical drama set in 17th century England on the brink of revolution  meets Son of Witchfinder General. An uprising headed by the Duke of Monmouth in the south-west threatens to overthrow King James II. Involved in the plot are Harry Selton (Hans Hass), son of suspected agitator Lord Wessex (Leo Genn), whose beloved Mary Gray (Maria Rohm) is in the sights of Judge Jeffreys (Christopher Lee) after he has condemned her sister Alicia (Margaret Lee) to be burned as a witch.

The minute witchcraft enters the equation the narrative thrust is constantly interrupted by scenes of nudity, blood and torture, mostly involving women, but actually the film does attempt to cover the rebellion and its notorious aftermath when hundreds of rebels were executed, the “Bloody Assizes” with “Bloody Judge” Jeffreys to the fore. Conflating witchcraft with a genuine historical episode does not work very well and unlike Witchfinder General (1968), the murder of innocent women is more of a sideshow, despite the brutality involved, and you get the impression the story has been hijacked to accommodate supposed witch Mary in the interests of adding titillation.

Even as the story of the rebellion unfolds, the threat to the crown spelled out, the origins of the revolt mostly made clear (Monmouth being the illegitimate son of Charles II, and nephew to James II) although the sectarianism behind the rebellion is ignored, the narrative keeps jumping back to the witch element. Jeffreys connects the parallel narratives, hunting down rebels and witches, while handling most of the exposition. Given the budget, there’s a surprisingly good battle sequence, cavalry charging cannon. Given his later reputation, Jeffreys also reflects on the meaning of justice.

And while there are some camp moments – Jeffreys playing the organ while attired in grand robes, dancing girls sticking pins in his effigy – the twists and turns (Mary captured and rescued, captured again)  are effective enough. Despite the copious nudity, there a couple of low-key love scenes and, oddly enough, a touching moment when Mary licks the blood from a dead prisoner. And for all the blood, that is effect rather than cause, nothing too gory.

But with the powerful all-mighty, and investigators able to plant evidence, and the innocent forced into immoral acts to save their loved ones, lawlessness is apparently next to godliness. But in reality the wicked did not get away with their crimes so various villains get their come-uppance.

Most peculiar sight is Christopher Lee in a love scene where he is not about to sink his incisors into a neck. Occasionally, the film bursts into German with English subtitles – as if various versions were pillaged to produce this copy – or has lines like “you turn me on.”

However, fans of Spanish cult director Jess Franco (The Girl from Rio) who expected something more along the lines of 99 Women (1969) and Venus in Furs (1969) may be disappointed that he spends so much time on the historical elements and less on the random T&A. You might not be surprised to learn of the involvement of ubiquitous producer Harry Alan Towers (Five Golden Dragons, 1967).

Crossplot (1969) ***

Roger Moore – in his first movie in seven years – almost auditioning for James Bond with his lothario instinct, light touch for dialogue, a nice side-line in double takes, and enough action to show that even in his early 40s he was still nimble enough. Not in the Charade (1963) or Arabesque (1966) league and over-reliant on the Swinging Sixties and other “Tourist Britain” clichés and a plot that takes far too long to get going, it takes all the actor’s charm to make it watchable.

After one of his staff Warren (Dudley Sutton) switches the photo of a model in his portfolio, ad-man Gary (Roger Moore) finds himself on the trail of Marla (Claudia Lange), a sometime fugitive hiding out on a houseboat. Meet-cute is prompted when she pushes him into the Thames. On leaving he is knocked out and framed on a dope charge and once he manages to get her into the photographic studio Warren attempts to throw her off the roof, the would-be killer himself eliminated by his boss Ruddock (Francis Matthews) who in a marvelous piece of quick-thinking throws his gun to Gary who instinctively catches it, further implicating himself.

After going all round the houses (including a stately home), evading pursuit via an antique car race and a wedding, Gary finally gets to the bottom of why Marla is in such danger – she overheard a conversation between her aunt Joe (Martha Hyer) and Ruddock. Only problem is – she can’t remember it. And it takes even more time for Gary to figure it out, (not realizing, how could he,  that the clue is in the title, in fact two clues in a crossword puzzle). You can imagine how it goes from then.

This poster takes the easy route by trying to sell the picture on the back of “The Saint.”

On the plus side is mostly Roger Moore. “I come from a long line of hippopotamuses,” isn’t the sort of line you can deliver without some skill. But Moore’s performance lifts what is for the most part  a shaggy dog story, and he’s game enough to do all the running and fighting required, even the heavy lifting (of his eyebrows), to keep the story moving. It’s far from as funny as it thinks and not as funny as it needs to be, but there are still some good stabs at humour, a pistol held to Gary’s head discovered to be a toy gun, Gary turning the tables in a shower on Marla, telling the bride that her groom is a bigamist, and a running joke about the Marla being perennially hungry.  

The politics barely touches on the conspiracy aspects that Hollywood would have pounced upon and made a better fist of, although the idea that Britain could be undermined by civil strife was not far off the mark for the times. It needed some smarter thinking, though, for that element to work.

A much better attempt at selling a thriller with scenes from the film,
including the toy pistol pointed at Roger Moore’s head.

The rest of the cast are game enough. Claudie Lang (The Gatling Gun, 1968) is no Sophia Loren or Audrey Hepburn but nobody is pretending she is and she just about gets away with the dumb model approach. Martha Hyer (The Chase, 1966) delivers a glamorous villain and the suave Francis Matthews (Rasputin: The Mad Monk, 1966) her ideal match.

There’s quite a supporting cast: Veronica Carlsen (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, 1968), Gabrielle Drake (Suburban Wives, 1972), Dave Prowse (Star Wars, 1977),  Bernard Lee (You Only Live Twice, 1967), Alexis Tanner (The Ernie Game, 1967), Ursula Howells (BBC’s The Forsyte Saga, 1967) and Dudley Sutton (Rotten to the Core, 1965).

If Alvin Rakoff (The Comedy Man, 1964) is in charge of the material he doesn’t have enough material to work with. He does enough to keep it on course but would have benefitted from a a tighter screenplay from Leigh Vance (The Frightened City, 1961). Both had done better in the past, but it is easy to be seduced by the romantic thriller format, almost a mini-genre in itself, assuming it is easier to pull off than it looks. The likes of Alfred Hitchcock (North by Northwest, 1959) and Stanley Donen (Charade) made it look easy but they had the advantage of big stars in Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn who possessed the ability to make the lightest confection work.

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