Blow-Up (1966) ****

Movies can break all sorts of rules but they can’t cheat.

A film has to stick to an internal logic. For example, it can’t portray a photographer so obsessed with his calling that he even takes a camera with him to an antique shop and starts shooting off roll and after roll capturing the area’s rundown streets but then the one time he really could do with a camera – to prove there is a corpse at his feet – he is somewhat remiss. Especially when that the movie turns on that plot point.

Setting aside what’s a somewhat contrived snapshot of “Swinging London” there’s a lot to admire here. The absence of music for one thing. Most of the movie runs without musical accompaniment, a bold move since so often we rely on the soundtrack to provide guidance for a scene or an overlay for the entire film. Here, Michelangelo Antonioni (Zabriskie Point, 1970) makes us falls back on our own interpretation.

David Hemmings (The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1968), all mop-top and intense stare, is a high-flying high-living fashion photographer in the David Bailey mold (casual sex with wannabe models a perk) who turns investigator on being confronted in a park by Vanessa Redgrave (Hemmings’ adulterous love interest in The Charge of the Light Brigade) after taking snaps she wants back. Tension is sustained by her sudden appearance at his studio, willing to pay with her body for the return of the photos, and then by Hemmings’ careful, photo-by-photo blow-up-by-blow-up analysis that slowly comes closer to the truth.

Everything in his world is judged through a lens, as if he can capture elusive truths, and he has aspirations to being more than a mere fashion adjunct, having spent time taking portraits of down-and-outs. He judges Redgrave as he would a model, she has a good stance and sitting posture. Even by the standards of the permissive society, he is a bit of sexual predator, taking advantage of two giggly model wannabes – Jane Birkin (Wonderwall, 1968) and Gillian Hills (Three, 1969).

But the photography scenes are well done and Antonioni captures the intimacy between model and photographer that create the best images. If you want to see what a model brings to modeling check out real-life model Veruschka posing in an outfit held together by the thinnest of threads, bringing to life the much-touted notion that a model makes love to a camera. If you can get past the cheat and the deliberate obtuseness this creates – and the tsunami of artistic interpretations it inspired about the director’s intent – then it remains intriguing.

This isn’t Hemmings’ greatest work – Fragment of Fear is much better – but it certainly provided him with a marketable movie persona. Redgrave is excellent as the nervy woman willing to do what is required and the movie might have worked better had she had been allocated more screen time and their duel had continued through other scenes. But then that would have been Hitchcock and not Antonioni.  

Sarah Miles (The Ceremony, 1963), Peter Bowles (The Charge of the Light Brigade) and John Castle (The Lion in Winter, 1968) have small parts. The film certainly captures the electricity of a photo shoot between a skilled photographer and pliant model, but it also works as an extended metaphor about the elusiveness of cinematic truth.

Despite my misgivings about the “cheat,” an intriguing and satisfying exploration of an artist seeking to jettison the fripperies of his art yet unable to avoid the temptation of enjoying the easy sexual benefits.

Taste of Excitment (1969) **

Must-see for all the wrong reasons. An epic of confusion, appalling acting and dodgy accents make this thriller a prime contender for the “So-Bad-It’s-Good” Hall of Fame. Director Don Sharp (The Devil-Ship Pirates, 1964) jibed at star Eva Renzi (Funeral in Berlin, 1966) when he should have concentrated on a script that is over-plotted to within an inch of its life. A couple of kidnaps, casino visit, a sniper, and a vertiginous cliff-top maneuver are thrown in before a truth serum lights up the climax in spectacularly hilarious fashion.

Promising material goes badly awry. English tourist Jane Kerrell (Eva Renzi), floating around the South of France, is being targeted for unknown reasons. A white Mercedes has tried to drive her off the road, mysterious phone calls and visions make her believe she is going mad, that prognosis helped along by handy psychiatrist Dr Forla (George Pravda). And before you can say Surete, Scotland Yard and NATO she is the chief suspect in the murder of a man called Chalker on the ferry to France. Assistance comes in the form of handsome artist David Headley (David Buck) – preposterously famous “I’m David Headley” “The painter?” – who nearly does what’s she’s been complaining everyone else is trying to do, namely knock her down with his car. He specialises in painting nude women and for no reason at all, given he is identified immediately as a lothario, he resists her attempts to take her to bed.

Turns out Jane is something of a boffin, as any self-respecting computer expert would be known in those days, and a millionaire businessman Beiber (Paul Hubschmid), one of Headley’s rich clients, enlists the painter to offer her a job. Of course, he has something else in mind. His company is being accused to shipping unnamed goods to the unnamed opposition, hence the involvement of NATO chap Breese (Francis Matthews).

But nobody is to be trusted, especially as the French police have dismissed her fears as nonsensical. Scotland Yard’s Inspector Malling (Peter Vaughan) throws flames on the fire by not coming to her rescue but planning to arrest her since she is the last person to see Chalker alive. Then it turns out Chalker must have given her a code or secret message before he died. The police take apart her red Mini Cooper in clinical French Connection style but find nothing. That just shows how dumb they are. It never occurred to them, as it does instantly to Headley, to check the carburretor.

By now you’ll have guessed consistency is not this movie’s strong point. You never even know who the sniper Gaudi (Peter Bowles) is targeting his aim is so appalling. There’s even a sinister secretary Miss Barrow (Kay Walsh) with a pronounced Scottish accent in the Jean Brodie class. Headley comes up with an idea to disguise her – by changing her hairstyle (that’ll fool them!! – and astonishingly, in keeping with the bizarre tone, it does).

For someone who is meant to be paranoid Jane is surprisingly trusting, toddling off with clearly-identified villains when fed a line.

Most of the advertising, including this spread in “Films and Filming” magazine, made play of the sight of Eva Renzi’s naked derriere but ignored the unusual gender equality when it came to the nudity since in this scene David Buck gets out of bed and stands as equally starkers by the window.

You won’t be surprised when Jane ends up trussed and gagged, in her bikini naturally, in a fabulous house with an electrified fence. I can’t resist telling you about the truth serum. Before the evil psychiatrist has the chance to question her he is bopped on the head, Headley having sneaking in before (the dolts!) Gaudi thought to switch on the electric fence. (The electric fence is nullified by the police who just switch off all the electricity in the area.) But when she escapes, still full of the truth drug, when Gaudi calls out to find out where she is hiding, the serum forces her to give the correct answer. In the midst of the danger, Headley takes the opportunity to get an honest answer to the question of whether she loves him. And that’s not the best bit. The final line, given there hasn’t been a decent line all the way through, is a cracker. “Never believe a woman when she is telling you the truth” certainly gives you something to ponder.

So much is held back from the audience that there is never a chance, unlike Charade (1963), of genuine tension. Even the one gripping moment, taking a shortcut along a perilous cliff road, which is well done, is undercut by their pursuer beating them to their destination. The whole thing has an air of being improvised or being devised by someone who thought that twists counted more than characterisation, plot development or relationships.

The acting is so uniformly bad that Eva Renzi actually looks good. David Buck (Deadfall, 1968) is miscast in the slick Cary Grant role. While it is entertaining to see Peter Bowles (The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1968) drop his plummy English accent, his Italian accent fails to pass muster. Peter Vaughan (Alfred the Great, 1969), saddled with the bulk of the murky exposition, does his best. In a bit part, veteran Kay Walsh (A Study in Terror, 1965), holds the acting aces but she doesn’t have much competition.

Director Don Sharp also had a hand in the screenplay so it’s difficult to know who must take most blame, him or colleagues Brian Carton and Ben Healey. This was the alpha and omega of this pair’s movie career.

If you want to see how not to handle a potentially classy thriller tune in.  Can’t make up my mind whether to give this two stars for being so bad or four stars for being so bad it’s good. You decide.

And you can do so for free on Flick Vault. Be warned that you have to get past some adverts first. And if you’re wondering what happened to the opening credits, there ain’t any.

The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) ****

It’s worth remembering that Britain, led by roughly the same type of commander lampooned here, won the Crimean War and that initially this particular engagement, despite the deaths, was celebrated for its valour by poet Lord Tennyson, in much the same way as famous defeats like Dunkirk and The Alamo somehow managed to achieve the status of some kind of victory in the public perception. It’s also worth noting that the documentary-style realisation of Dunkirk, (2017) and to that extent Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) owe much to Tony Richardson’s approach, both films more interested in the bigger picture than individual acts of heroism.

And our conscience here, dashing cavalry officer Nolan (David Hemmings), is not quite saintly, engaged in an affair with the wife Clarissa (Vanessa Redgrave) of a friend. Despite the director’s rush to judgement, his approach displays a refreshing change to a genre where acts of selfless courage were the norm. Setting aside the occasional self-reverential artistic lapse, it’s an excellent depiction of class-ridden Britain at war in 1854, an era when military advancement was purchased without any consideration to the leadership skills such high-ranking officers required. I’m never sure if John Ford invented the camaraderie of his Cavalry in westerns, where at dances  the officers mixed with the ordinary soldiers, but here the two classes are kept apart.

And while Richardson clearly wants to blame the class system for the military calamity, the outcome is a no-holds-barred ultra-realistic portrayal of war in in all its sordid glory. At its heart are the machinations of senior commanders jostling for position and control and, much as with Field Marshal Montgomery and General Patton in World War Two, allowing personal enmity to affect decisions.

The two biggest culprits are Lord Cardigan (Trevor Howard) and brother-in-law Lord Lucan (Harry Andrews) in charge of the ill-fated charge who openly spout bile at each other, remain deliberately obtuse, and are, nonetheless, a joy to watch. Cardigan is irascible to the point of apoplexy, incredibly brave, vainglorious, a vindictive sex-mad peacock, with an odd selection of principles (refuses to deal with spies, for example). Nothing can beat a quite marvellous spat between the pair over how to pitch tents. Both, however, are a vast improvement on the ineffectual commander-in-chief Lord Raglan (John Gielgud) whose idea of tactics is to “form the infantry nicely” and another commander who refuses to let the simple matter of being under attack ruin his breakfast.

At the other end of the scale are the poor recruits, drawn from the lower classes, so ill-educated they don’t know their left foot from their right (something of a necessity in obeying orders in the field), lured by the promise of glory and a job, and find themselves turned into horsemen in the most brutal fashion.

In the middle is the effete Nolan, initially introduced as the good guy, who believes horses should be treated with kindness and stands up to Cardigan. His romance with Clarissa is a masterpiece of nuance, all furtive glances, hardly a word spoken. And he has a pivotal role in sending the cavalry in the wrong direction at the Battle of Balaclava, causing the fatal charge.

It’s episodic in structure, characters bobbing in and out, some for comedic purposes, and without the battle it’s doubtful the picture would have been made for, excepting the high-level squabbling, there’s little inherently dramatic. And possibly that’s to the movie’s benefit for it clears the way to concentrate on how an army operates and goes to war, the focus, unlike most war or historical pictures, being as much on what goes wrong as goes right. So the horses dying during the voyage and callously dumped overboard and the men marching through Crimean heat and afflicted by cholera take centre stage rather than lavish sequences of soldiers on splendid parade.

On the downside, you have to accept the director’s version of the war’s causes, British imperialism don’t you know, rather than Russian aggression as a result of religious conflict in the Middle East. And there’s narrative indecision, various characters permitted interior monologue for no particular reason except artistic impulse. Mrs Duberley (Jill Bennett) wife of the paymaster (Peter Bowles) is permitted to accompany the expedition for the sole purpose it would appear of being shagged by Cardigan.

The detail of what exactly went wrong on the battlefield is obscured by the fact that Nolan, who hand-delivered the famous order to attack, itself unclear, died in battle, so it’s like one of those Netflix documentaries about unsolved murders, fascinating but ultimately annoying. If incompetence is measured in casualties, apart from this one charge the British came out better than the other participants, 40,000 dead compared to three times as many among their French allies and more than ten times as many among the Russian enemy.

The acting is of a very high quality, David Hemmings (Alfred the Great, 1968) as good as I’ve ever seen him, Vanessa Redgrave (Blow-Up, 1966), except for her deception a Stepford Wife Victorian-style, Trevor Howard (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965) brilliantly outrageous and John Gielgud (Sebastian, 1968) who turns befuddlement into a high art.

Tony Richardson (Tom Jones, 1963) makes some bold choices, not least in what is included and what is left out, the battle of the tents, fake news (from The Times!), soldiers facing the lash, the dashing charge and its terrible aftermath, the animated sequences, and his revolutionary soundtrack. Sergio Leone might have claimed the artistic high ground with the buzzing fly at the start of Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) but there’s little in film music of the time – beyond Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score – to compare with the sound of a fly playing over the end credits or its inclusion during the march when men are literally dropping like flies. This is a very different kind of curate’s egg, absolutely brilliant in parts, and never dull.

Unfortunately, there’s a topical parallel, Crimea having been invaded several years back by Russia and now the whole region aflame.

This was the first home-grown excursion into the all-star-cast business – other British movies in that ilk, originating from these shores, previously headlined by a Hollywood star like Gregory Peck (The Guns of Navarone, 1961),  Kirk Douglas (The Heroes of Telemark, 1965) or George Peppard (The Blue Max, 1966). And I can see why the new box office stars David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave, repeating their Blow-Up (1966) teaming, would have, in the narrative sense, occupied center stage. But given nobody knew for certain what caused the disastrous charge and that it would taken place anyway in the picture, the far more entertaining approach would be to concentrate entirely on the likes of the feuding Cardigan and Lucan, two characters who leapt off the screen. Outside of the battle itself, Nolan’s sole purpose, it would seem, was to point out that the army treated its horses badly, a point the audience would have easily picked up without Nolan’s display of alternative horsemanship. Still, all told, at the risk of repeating myself, an excellent watch.

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