The Birds (1963) *****

Years ago I was asked to write a book on the six best Hitchcock films and from those choose the one I considered his very best. My choice was The Birds (1963). And it is for these reasons.

Firstly, unusually in the master’s work, there is a proper meet-cute. In most of his films, the couple are either already together (Rear Window, 1954; Torn Curtain, 1966) or when they get together it is for a hidden reason, one is on the run, or being pursued by the other, and the getting together is a convenient way of reaching an ulterior goal. When Melanie (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch (Rod Taylor) meet in the pet shop it is a certainly a precursor for the future and ensures that Mitch gets in a stickier jam he would otherwise likely have avoided but in the true sense it is the traditional Hollywood boy-meets-girl.

Secondly, and now cutting more to the chase, this is where the modern action film was invented. You might think that honour rested with Dr No (1962) or any other of the Bond pictures or even as late as Bullitt (1968) with its epochal car chase. But although the Bonds are filled with derring-do and escape, there is nothing to match the scene when the birds attack the town, wave after wave, as if they were World War Two bombers. There is even the point-of-view from the air which Hitchcock also invented and has been repeated in airplane war films ever since, most famously Pearl Harbor (2001).

But the way in which full-scale disaster, with everyone rendered helpless, unfolds is a true first. People in the café can see the river of petrol and the match about to be discarded and can only observe as the river of flame reaches the petrol tanker and in a perfectly ordinary town setting – rather than a military base – there is an almighty explosion. It is terror for the sake of it. And there is no escape, no one racing to the rescue, just pure devastation,

Lastly is the ending. It is apocalyptic. In every other Hitchcock when the hero/heroine escapes from dire peril, that is the end of the matter, there is no final twist as with a film like Carrie (1976). But although the birds are now silent and the couple can pick their way through their lines, you know full well this is not the end and that the birds will soon be as inexplicably massing somewhere else.  

That’s three reasons but there are many more. For a start, in other films where the hero/heroine is in danger, the peril is not relentless. And often it is the threat of danger or of being captured that provides the narrative spring. And if there is physical threat in that era it was not unrelenting. And it is with another character whom you can fight or at least attempt to outwit. Not just, later in this instance rather than sooner, realize that there is no way to defeat these marauding creatures, no way at all. So, compared to his other films, when attacks of one kind or another punctuate a film, here it is like a battery of machine-guns and not episodic but virtually non-stop for over 30 minutes.

The storyline since it is after all a meet-cute is excessively simple. Melanie and Mitch meet, trade remarks, she leaves him what would easily be interpreted as a love token, and they link up after she is attacked by a gull. Wherever they go now, there will be no escape. Gulls attack children playing outside. The same day sparrows invade Melanie’s home. There is another attack on children. In town the gulls swarm in wholesale, wreaking the devastation mentioned above. All his is just a prelude to the final overwhelming siege. Except in modern horror pictures where a body is dispatched every ten minutes or so, there is  nothing to match the unremitting attacks. It is as though Mitch and Melanie are in the front line of battle, under siege, Zulu (1964) with birds perhaps, but with no hope of salvation. Unlike Zulu, there is no sign that in raising the siege, the birds are hailing their bravery.

Unusually, too, for a Hitchcock film, there is considerable back story that informs current action. Mitch has an overbearing mother who seems to hover over his life attempting to scare off any woman who comes near. Annie has been left behind precisely because he needed to escape his mother. For her part, Melanie’s mother ran off with another man and she is a spoiled socialite with a habit of getting into trouble, possibly attention-seeking behaviour as a result of abandonment issues. Full to the brim with sophistication. Melanie is the least likely candidate for motherhood, yet her maternal feelings rush to the fore when she has to care for a terrified child.

Tippi Hedren’s career when south when she parted company with Hitchcock so we only have this and Marnie (1964) to consider her worth as a star. This is easily her best performance, shifting from icy cold to playful to romantic to maternal and of course no one has quite emoted such shock and terror. This is Rod Taylor (Dark of the Sun, 1968) coming into his stride as a leading man. He always had the charm and certainly the brawn, but rarely displayed both in the one picture. You would not have picked the Rod Taylor of Seven Seas to Calais to lead a squad of mercenaries in Dark of the Sun but he might well be first pick after this performance.

Hitchcock got so many of his effects by laying on the tension, a man or woman on the run, an innocent framed, a man displaying dubious morality (Rear Window, 1954, and Vertigo, 1958) nonetheless being presented as hero, the question in every instance being whether they will escape their fate. Here, the barrage of devilry is so intense it is almost inconceivable that anyone could get out alive. That they sneak out by the skin of their teeth, watched by their silent conquerors, for me was only the prelude to The Birds Part Two.  

Term of Trial (1962) ***

Notable for the debuts of Sarah Miles (Ryan’s Daughter, 1970) and Terence Stamp (The Collector, 1963) and an ending that even in those misogynistic times was wince-inducing. The halcyon era of dull English schoolteachers being celebrated (Goodbye, Mr Chips, 1939) or finding redemption or even just managing to overcome pupil hostility (The Browning Version, 1951) were long gone, replaced by a more realistic view of the casual warfare endemic in education establishments, not quite in The Blackboard Jungle (1956) vein but running it close, with bullying, sexual abuse and ridicule running riot.

Self-pitying Graham Weir (Laurence Olivier) has failed to achieve his ambitions in part due to alcoholism, in part to antipathy to his conscientious objection during World War Two. And although he has a sexy French wife Anna (Simone Signoret) in the days when any Frenchwoman was deemed a goddess, she is embittered that the future he promised has not materialized. Like To Sir, with Love (1967) his classroom is filled with no-hopers so that he responds to the meek and innocent wishing for educational betterment.  

Weir’s only defence against endless indignity is a stiff upper lip and slugs of whisky. His lack of character contrasts with a young lad who takes revenge against constantly being chucked out of his house by his mother’s lover (Derren Nesbitt) by blowing up the man’s sports car.  

Spanning the twin cultures of religion and the razor, one falling out of favor, the other holding violent sway, opportunity to rise above kitchen-sink England lies with the self-confident such as thug Mitchell (Terence Stamp) who smokes in class, gives the teachers lip, takes photographs of girls in their underwear in the toilets, physically threatens classmates and when his target is bigger gets older men to give him a good thumping.  

A somewhat unlikely development is an end-of-term trip to Paris where the infatuated Shirley (Sarah Miles), who the good-hearted Weir has been giving free private tuition, ends up in the teacher’s bedroom and later accuses him of abuse. The impending court case and threat of imprisonment scupper Weir’s chances of promotion, make him consider suicide, and Anna to leave him.

The court scenes allow a number of famous character actors a moment of acting glory. Laurence Olivier (Bunny Lake Is Missing, 1965) must in part have been attracted to the role by a terrific court monologue. The movie is very downbeat in a country universally known never to enjoy an ounce of sunshine justifying the black-and-white movie rendition. If there is liveliness in the streets, cinemas, shops, it never translates into any of the main adult characters, all determined to uphold ancient values and endure constricted lives.

Exploiting audience expectation for verbal fireworks, the tension in Laurence Olivier’s finely judged performance comes from his untypical, unshowy delivery. You can almost hear him grinding his teeth. Simone Signoret (The Sleeping Car Murder, 1965) also acts against the grain, battening down her inherent sexuality, and her very presence speaks of lost hope, the fact that she was once attracted to Weir indicating he was once a very different prospect.

Sarah Miles excels as the wannabe seducer, that hesitant voice that would become her hallmark, struggling here to turn innocence into lure, expressing her adoration in heart-breaking simplicity, and yet aware that to catch Weir would require more than just the submission a guy like Mitchell requires. While hers is a stunning debut, I’m at a loss to see what marked out Terence Stamp’s typical surly teenager for speedier stardom.     

Oscar-winner Hugh Griffiths (The Counterfeit Traitor, 1962) is the pick of the supporting roles. A remarkable scene-stealer, a shift of his head, a flicker of his eyelashes is all he needs while sitting in the background to attract the camera from another character in the foreground. Look out for Barbara Ferris (Interlude, 1968), Derren Nesbit (Where Eagles Dare, 1968), Allan Cuthbertson (The 7th Dawn, 1964), Roland Culver (Thunderball, 1965) and Thora Hird (television’s Last of the Summer Wine, 1986-2003).  

Surprisingly un-stagey direction from Peter Glenville (Becket, 1964) who was far better known as a theater director in London and Broadway. Probably in those days if you were setting a movie outside sophisticated London you had to present a gloomy version of Britain so you can’t really blame him for that and Olivier was hardly a major box office attraction so a budget trimmed of color would be a requisite. Although the older characters display grim determination, the younger ones have not had the spirit knocked out of them in the Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) manner and the location shots reveal a buzzy atmosphere.

Glenville also wrote the screenplay based on the bestseller by James Barlow.

Banned, Ignored, Shelved

If anybody in Britain told you they saw Wild Angels (1966) when it came out that year you could safely accuse them of being liberal with the truth for that was one of the many films banned by the censors there. Global censorship remained a major issue for studios during the 1960s, every country imposing its own system, and very rarely did they conform with each other. At the beginning of the decade, the biggest issue was sex, by the end it was joined by violence and drugs.

Films were rarely banned in the United States since scripts for movies liable to violate the agreed guidelines tended to be submitted in advance and a compromise reached prior to production. However, local U.S. censorship bodies acting independently prevented some films being shown, This Rebel Breed (1960) in Memphis, Room at the Top (1959) in Atlanta. Movies banned in different countries included: Operation Eichmann (1961) in Israel and Germany, Queen Bee (1963) in Italy, The Collector (1965) in New Zealand, Wild Angels (1966) in Denmark, Lady in a Cage (1964) in Sweden and Geneva, Ulysses (1967) in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and Easy Rider (1969),  despite winning a prize at Cannes, in France. Doctor Zhivago (1965) was banned in Thailand for being pro-communistic and in India for the opposite reason. Ireland banned 56 movies in 1960, Finland 12 in 1962, Sweden 10 in 1963 and West Germany 19 that same year. In South Korea in 1962 you still could not see any Japanese movies.

Being banned of course became a promotional tool. It was a regular joke in America that a low-budget picture had no chance of box office success unless it was banned in Boston. In France, Les Teenagers (1968), Young Wolves (1968), The Nun (1966) and Paris Secret (1965) all benefitted from being released after tussles with the censor and the controversy over Ulysses saw it break box office records in Dundee in Scotland.

The British censor prevented screening of films deemed too violent including The Couch (1962) about a serial killer, Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963), Violent Midnight (1963), The Thrill Killers (1963), Shock Treatment (1963) – despite a cast that included Lauren Bacall and Stuart Whitman – Fuller’s The Naked Kiss and Weekend of Fear (1966). Among horror films denied a showing were Blood Feast (1963), Two Thousand Maniacs (1964) and, initially, Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) which was later reprieved and shown as Revenge of the Vampire.

Juvenile delinquency, often straddling the biker world, was another subject to fall foul of the British Board of Film Censors. Among them The Choppers (1961), Jacktown (1962), The Cool World (1964), Kitten with a Whip (1964) starring Hollywood sensation Ann-Margret,  the aforementioned Wild Angels (1966), Rat Fink (1966), Hot Rods to Hell (1966) with Dana Andrews and Mickey Rooney, Riot on the Sunset Strip (1967), Born Losers (1967), Devil’s Angels (1967) and virtually anything that mentioned Hell’s Angels.

Drug taking was also forbidden to be seen, thus accounting for the absence on British screens of The Trip (1967), Hallucination Generation (1967), Mary Jane (1967), LSD Flesh of the Devil (1967) with Guy Madison and Revelation – The Flowering of the Hippies (1967). Easy Rider (1969) was passed for “being actively concerned with human beings and the effect of drug taking.” Films considered too morally dubious or too sexually open to let loose on British audiences included Sinderella and the Golden Bra (1964), 3 Nuts In Search of a Bolt (1964) starring Mamie Van Doren, 90 Degrees in the Shade (1965) with Anne Heywood, Russ Meyer’s Motorpsycho (1965), Good Morning…And Goodbye (1967) and Lee Frost’s The Animal (1968). Explicit language was the objection to Warrendale (1967) and Ulysses (1967), homosexuality the problem for Deathwatch (1965) starring Leonard Nimoy and Shirley Clarke’s documentary Portrait of Jason (1967).  

In Britain, to get round the censor’s strictures, the “cinema club” was invented in 1960 by Gala Film Theatres, an offshoot of a distributor specializing in racy fare, and within a month had 7,500 members, the operation launching with a showing of The Wild One (1953).  Local authorities could also take exception to the national censor’s findings and grant a reprieve for various films, Wild Angels and The Trip eventually achieving exposure in this fashion. Most cinema clubs would eventually segue into becoming outlets for soft porn but some stuck with the original concept of showing arty movies considered too risqué by the censor. The New Cinema Club in London, for example, in August 1969 programmed Wild Angels and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963)

But the censor was not the only reason why films were not shown and ended up either ignored by the distributors or stuck on the shelf and we’ll come to those in another article.

David McGillivray, “The Crowded Shelf,” Films & Filming, September 1969, 14-15; “High Cost of Censor Fights vs. Principles,” Variety, March 2, 1960, 1;“If Banned in Britain, All Is Not Lost,” Variety, April 20, 1960, p48; “Theatre, Not Censors, Banned Breed,” Variety, June 1, 1960, p24; “Room at the Top Ban,” Variety, July 27, 1960, 4; “Operation Eichmann Banned in Germany, ” Variety, May 3, 1961, 1; “211 Pix Scissored, 56 Banned in Ireland,” Variety, May 3, 1961, p15; “Operation Eichmann Banned by Israeli,” Variety, November 1, 1961, p2; “12 Pix Banned by Finland Censors,” Variety, March 28, 1962, 17; “Singapore Censor Gets Tough with U.S. Pix; Satan, Suzie Banned,” Variety, August 8, 1962, 21; “Japanese Pix Still Banned by S. Korea,” Variety, December 12, 1962, p16; “Bee Banned by Italian Censor,” Variety, January 23, 1963, p18; “W. Germany Claims Only 19 Pix Banned, “ Variety, December 4, 1963, p11; “Swedish Censors Banned 10 in ’63,” Variety, February 5, 1964, p2;  “The Group Banned,” Variety, April 8, 1964, p84; “Lady in Cage Banned by Sweden Censors,” Variety, July 15, 1964, 2; “New Zealand Censors Turn Down Collector,” Variety, November 3, 1965, 11; “Cage Banned By Geneva Censors,” Variety, January 19, 1966, 16; “Can’t Second Guess Global Censors,” Variety, November 30, 1966, 20;  “Banned in Australia,” Variety, May 24, 1967, 26; “Scot Exhib, Whose Town Disapproves Censorship, Cleans Up with Ulysses,” Variety, May 1, 1968, 27; “Film Censors in France Spark B.O.,” Variety, May 8, 1968, 131; “Dracula Sole Film Banned in Israel Last Year,” Variety, May 28, 1969, 39;  “Britain gives ‘X’ Tag to Fonda’s Rider Pic,” Variety, June 18, 1969, 30; “Eire Banned 35  Films in ’68,” Variety, August 20, 1969, 32.

Easy Rider (1969) *****

Just goes to show what a little bit of reimagining can do. A companion piece to The Wild Angels (1966) but which takes the viewer in the opposite direction, turning the characters from perpetrators of violence to its victims, adding in a stonking soundtrack and a bit more philosophy, though holding on to the long tracking shots of motorbikes that defined the Roger Corman approach. From the bare bones of the Corman movie emerged a cinematic – and box office – miracle.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the movie’s main influences were the early Cinerama pictures that focused on extensive tracking shots of scenery (in this case, the open road) and unusual customs (ditto, alternative lifestyles, dope-taking etc) and Mike Nichol’s use of contemporary pop music in The Graduate (1967). But it also drew on the assumption, as did Hitchcock in Vertigo (1958) and Kubrick with 2001: A Space Odyssey a decade later, that a camera doing nothing can be hypnotic.

Message pictures were the remit of older directors like Stanley Kramer and Martin Ritt and films that had something to say about the human condition generally emanated from Europe and not low-budget efforts coming out of Hollywood. Easy Rider has a European sensibility, an almost random collection of unconnected episodes with no narrative connection to the main story, itself incredibly slight, of two mild-mannered dudes heading to New Orleans to see the Mardi Gras.

Road trips were not particularly unusual in American cinema but the form of previous locomotion was horse-related – westerns. The journey has been a central theme to movies. This is an 80-minute picture masquerading as a 95-minute one, a good fifteen minutes of screen time taken up with endless shots of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on bikes passing through the landscape, with a contemporary soundtrack as comment.

Unusually, it’s also a hymn to ancient values, heads bowed in prayer at meals as different as you could get, the Mexican family and the commune, a marching band playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” and the recitation of prayers in the cemetery.

What marks the film out stylistically, perhaps enforced by the lean financing, is the sparing way it is told. The most dramatic scenes – the three murders – are filmed in shockingly simple fashion. There are often long pans along groups of characters. While innovative, the flash-cut flash-forward editing adds little to what is otherwise a very reflective film. Inspired use is made of natural sound, the muffled thumping of oil derricks at the cemetery, the soundtrack to one death is just the battering of unseen clubs by unseen assailants.

The dialogue could have been written by Tarantino, none of the confrontation or angst that drives most films, but odd musings that bring characters to life. At the beginning of the trip, Hopper and Fonda are welcomed wherever they travel, but towards the end resented, treated as though a pair of itinerant aliens. They entrance young girls but are vilified by authority, jailed for no reason except the threat to traditional values they apparently represent.

Elements not discussed at the time of release make this more rounded than you would imagine. The excitable Hopper, a nerd in hippie costume, is driven by the American dream of making money. The more reflective Fonda, developing a character trait he revealed in The Wild Angels, senses something is not only missing from his life but has been lost forever. He has the rare stillness of a top actor, face reflecting unspoken inner turmoil. As revelatory is the performance of Jack Nicholson, here effectively making a bid for stardom in a part that would snare an Oscar nomination.

It remains an extraordinary film, a series of accumulated incidentals holding up a mirror to an America nobody wanted to acknowledge and the brutal climax no less powerful now. 

 

The St Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) ***

I didn’t realise that the Prohibition gangsters who invented the drive-by shooting were perfectionists. Just to be make sure of completing the job, I found out here, they might send a dozen cars one after the other rolling past the chosen restaurant/cafe, machine guns spouting hundreds of bullets. Nobody could survive that, you would think. But there was a flaw to the idea. If someone just lay down on the floor, the bullets would pass over their head. Strangely enough, we never got a potted history of the drive-by shooting in this docu-drama because otherwise we found out just about everything we needed to know about the infamous massacre.

But I did wish that the narrator would shut up once in a while. I kept on thinking we were going to be examined afterwards. Every dumb schmuck that made even a brief appearance on screen got the full bio treatment, including when – and how (not always by violence) – they died. That annoying feature aside, it was certainly a forensic examination of the whys and wherefores of the infamous gangland slaying. Rival Chicago mobsters Al Capone (Jason Robards) and Bugs Moran (Ralph Meeker), both concluding that the other was not open to negotiation, decided instead to rub him out and the movie basically follows how each develops their murderous plan.

All the big gangster names are here – it’s like a hit man’s greatest hits – Frank Nitti (Harold J. Stone), massacre mastermind Jack McGurn (Clint Ritchie) and Capone enforcer Peter Gusenberg (George Segal) – and the movie reprises some of the classic genre tropes like mashing food (sandwich this time rather than grapefruit) in a woman’s face and Capone taking a baseball bat to a traitorous underling. And there’s the usual lopsided notion of “rules,” Capone incandescent that a ganster was murdered in his own home.

Capone’s plan is the cleverest, involving recruiting people with little or no criminal record including the likes of Johnny May (Bruce Dern in a part originally assigned to Jack Nicholson), renting a garage as the massacre venue, and dressing his hoods up as cops. The film occasionally tracks back to set the scene. And the ever-vigilant narrator makes sure to identify every passing gangster but come the climax seems to run out of things to say, a good many sentences beginning with “on the last morning of the last day of his life.”

Since there’s so much money washing around, it makes sense for the ladies to try and get their share. Gusenberg’s girlfriend (Jean Hale) casually, without seeking permission, swaps one fur for another four times as expensive. A sex worker as casually steals from her client’s wallet before demanding payment for services rendered.

The only problem with bringing in so many bit characters – either those doing the murdering or being murdered – into play is that it cuts down the time remaining to cover Capone and Moran, so, apart from the voice-over, we learn little of significance, most of the drama amounting to outbursts of one kind or another. But it’s certainly very entertaining and follows the Raymond Chandler maxim of when in doubt with your story introduce a man with a gun, or in this case machine gun. The violence is episodic throughout.

Despite the authenticity, punches are pulled when it comes to the physical depiction of Capone. The man universally known as “Scarface” shows no signs of such affliction as played by Jason Robards (Hour of the Gun, 1967). Certainly, Robards shows none of the brooding intensity with which we associate Godfather and son Michael in the Coppola epic, rather he has more in common with Sonny. He delivers a one-key performance of no subtlety but since the film has no subtlety either then it’s a good fit. Ralph Meeker (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) has the better role, since being the junior gangster in terms of power he has more to fear. I felt sorry for Oscar-nominated George Segal (No Way To Treat a Lady, 1968) since although his character is there for obvious reasons there is no obvious reason why he should be allocated more screen time. And given more screen time, nobody seems to know what to do with it.

There’s a superb supporting cast including Jean Hale (In Like Flint 1967), Bruce Dern (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, 1969), Frank Silvera (Uptight, 1969), Joseph Campanella (Murder Inc., 1960) Alex Rocco (The Godfather, 1972), future director Gus Trikonis and future superstar Jack Nicholson.  

After over a decade of low-budget sci-fi, horror and biker pictures, this was director Roger Corman’s biggest movie to date – his first for a major studio – and, excepting the voice-over, he does an efficient job with the script by Howard Browne (Portrait of a Mobster, 1961) who was presumably responsible for the intrusive narration.

CATCH-UP: This isn’t really a good place to start with the acting of George Segal and you will get a better idea of his talent if you check out the following films covered so far in the Blog; Invitation to a Gunfighter (1964), Lost Command (1966), The Quiller Memorandum (1966), No Way to Treat a Lady (1968) and The Southern Star (1969).

Available on Prime.

Witness (1985) *****

The Casablanca of the crime thriller, a stone cold classic in which impossible love takes precedence over unusual situation. In the Bogart-Bergman picture it is expatriates in war-torn North Africa, here a cop protecting an innocent boy hides out among the Amish. Like The Rock, this is so good the director makes the audience wait for a first sighting of the star while exploring the other main characters and the unique backdrop, in this case the customs and dress code of a religious cult that shuns the modern.

Adding to the paranoia rampant in American cinema in the 1970s/1980s is a further element – the hunted man or, in this case, boy. There’s no mystery in this thriller, 20 minutes in we know the culprit, involved in a criminal conspiracy so powerful it cannot be fought. And unlike the bulk of cop movies it’s not set in a city but in the country.

Just-widowed Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) and eight-year-old son Jacob (Lukas Haas) set out by train to Philadelphia where the boy witnesses a brutal murder. Questioned by  Detective John Book (Harrison Ford), we discover by accident the killer is cop Lt McFee (Danny Glover). Reaching out to trusted mentor Police Chief Paul Schaeffer (Josef Sommer) only to discover he is implicated, Book flees back to Amish country, where a gunshot wound prolongs his stay.  

Distrusted as an uncouth “English,” liable to violence the Amish abhor, Book, with a range of carpentry skills, soon finds himself at home. Drawn to Rachel, passions simmer, but in this collision of cultures she cannot leave and he cannot stay. Without the cop background this would be a beautifully rendered love story, but the daily danger of the hidden being located  heightens already tense emotions.

The examination of the Amish lifestyle is faultless. Transport is horse and cart, though sometimes that is with almost balletic assurance, there is no electricity, the community works together but threatens exclusion for disobeying strict rules. In compliance, Book dons the typical Amish outfit of plain black jacket and straw hat, buttons forbidden. And it is only when he breaks out of such strictures that his charges are threatened.

While the violence is powerful and when the time comes Book has a ruse or two up his sleeve, the most memorable scenes are as far removed from the crime thriller genre as  possible. First is when Rachel enjoys a tentative forbidden dance with Book. Then there is the love scene where he watches her wash her naked torso, desire written over each face. Finally is building the barn where in quiet but obvious ways Rachel reveals her growing feelings for Book while with hammer and saw he helps put together the structure to the soaring strains of Maurice Jarre’s most magnificent composition.

Director Peter Weir (Dead Poets Society, 1989) excels in observation, a scene between Rachel and wooing farmer (Alexander Gudonov) takes place in silence, women whispering declaim attitudes to Rachel, her father Eli (Jan Rubes) waking Book before dawn, and several scenes of meals. Since restraint is the watchword, Weir draws exceptional performances from both principles, Harrison Ford (Blade Runner, 1982) receiving his only Oscar nomination, McGillis (Top Gun, 1986) nominated for a Bafta, likewise her only recognition at this rarified strata. Josef Sommer (Silkwood, 1983) is good as the ruthless but tormented corrupt cop, and both ballet dancer Alexander Gudonov and Viggo Mortensen (Green Book, 2018) make Hollywood debuts. Lukas Haas is as wide-eyed as they come.

Although nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Director and Music, it only picked up two, for editing and for an outstanding screenplay by William Kelley and Earl W. Wallace, both known almost exclusively as television writers.

An authentic, heartbreaking, multi-layered, adult picture like this is very hard to come by.

The Brotherhood (1968) ****

Minimal violence and no sex was the wrong recipe for this Mafia picture – as proven at the box office – but this is an absorbing, underrated drama nonetheless.

It bears a surprising number of parallels to The Godfather (1972). Pure coincidence, extraordinary though that may appear, because The Brotherhood premiered in December 1968 while the Mario Puzo novel was printed in March 1969 (and delivered to the printers long before), so no opportunity at all for plagiarism.

The two films could be opposite sides of the same coin. For a start, both begin with a wedding. Vince Ginetta (Alex Cord), brother of Mafia kingpin Frank (Kirk Douglas), is marrying Emma (Susan Strasberg), daughter of another Mafia chief Dominick (Luther Adler). Like Michael (Al Pacino) in The Godfather, Vince is just out of the army, well-educated and primed for a life outside the business. And like Michael is called upon to commit an act of supreme violence. There’s even a hint of Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) in the relationship between the brothers, Frank having brought up the much younger Vince after his father’s premature death.

And just as Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) refuses to join the other Mafia families in a new business venture (in that case, drugs) so Frank bows out of an incredibly high risk (but amazingly prescient) scheme to invest in electronic firms involved in military work for the government, a deal that not only promises huge profits but a potential hold over the powers-that-be.

Frank’s wife Ida (Irene Papas) is like Don Corleone’s wife, not wanting to know anything about the business, but both Emma and Frank’s daughter Carmela (Connie Scott) are thematic cousins to Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) as initial implicit trust is wiped away. When Frank dances with Carmela at the wedding, that is reflected in Don Corleone dancing with his daughter at her wedding. Like The Godfather our first sight of the other Mafia chieftains – including Jim Hagen (Murray Hamilton) and Don Peppino (Eduardo Cianelli) – is at the feast where they are viewed with suspicion by Frank’s clan. And the scene where Frank uses a banana to tease his nephew will remind you of Don Corleone spooking his grandson with an orange.

However, the twist, if you like, is that, unlike Michael, Vince is desperate to join the Family and is instrumental in developing legitimate enterprises, which is echoed by Michael Corleone’s strategic shift to Las Vegas. In some respects, Frank is more like Sonny (James Caan), happy to assume personal command of murders which the other Mafia chiefs now scrupulously delegate to “mechanics” in Los Angeles. He is more old-school whereas the others act as respectable businessmen.

And then it becomes a question of loyalty. Which side the ambitious Vinnie will take is crucial to the story. Frank is under pressure on all sides, from the other Mafia leaders, a government investigation, Vinnie, and the need to exact revenge on the man who caused his father’s death.

There is authentic detail here as well – religious procession in Sicily, Frank playing boccia (the Italian version of the French boules) with his old pals, family dinner, canary stuffed in the mouth of a stool pigeon, but it is less spaghetti-drenched than The Godfather. Screenwriter Lewis John Carlino (The Fox, 1967), also listed as technical adviser, claimed to be drawing on his intimate knowledge of organized crime.

There are only three moments of violence – four if you count a shocking moment of someone spitting on a corpse at a wake – a pair of straightforward murders that bookend the film, plus a scene of Godfather-style brutality in which a man slowly strangles himself to death after being hogtied. Everyone is happily married, Ida very old-school to the extent of removing her husband’s clothes (and shoes) when he returns home drunk, Vince in a good relationship.

Kirk Douglas (Cast a Giant Shadow, 1966) is excellent in a difficult role that presents a fully rounded character, playful with his daughter, loyal to his wife, holding his own against the other mob bosses, enjoying the company of the old-timers who resemble his father, and the changing nature of his relationship with brother Vince. Alex Cord, whose work I initially dismissed (Stiletto, 1969), I have come to more fully appreciate, especially here, where, in a masterpiece of restraint, he makes the transition from adoring brother to threat.

The supporting cast is terrific, a rare Hollywood sojourn for Irene Papas (The Guns of Navarone, 1961), Luther Adler  (Cast a Giant Shadow, 1966) as one of the hoodlums exasperated by Frank’s recalcitrance,  Murray Hamilton (The Graduate, 1967) but, except at the start, Susan Strasberg (The Trip, 1967) is underused.

While director Martin Ritt (Hombre, 1967) is at times guilty of melodrama, his rendering of family life is much more nuanced than Coppola’s. There are very tender moments between Frank and his wife and Frank and his daughter, as well as moments where Ida plays a more maternal role.

For nearly half a century, The Brotherhood has lain in the shadow of The Godfather simply because they both deal with the Mafia. But this is an excellent movie in its own right.

The Harder They Fall (2021) * – Seen at the Cinema

Here’s the set-up: a cavalry officer, who has looted a town and slaughtered its population, apparently, is given the task of transporting notorious outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) by train from one jail to another for no particular reason, but a higher-up soldier has hired the remainder of Buck’s gang, led by Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), to attack the train and kill this officer and in return Buck is granted is freedom. The train driver is so dumb that seeing a horseperson astride the track he simply stops the train, obviously not realising what time period he is in, and that in the lawless West, this person is not taking up this position because they missed their stop. When Buck returns to Redwood, a town no bigger than a postage stamp, he discovers it is actually extremely rich, source of wealth not explained either, except the money has been stolen by his associate Wiley Escoe (Deon Cole), leaving Buck to somehow recover the $50,000 that has been lost.

Buck has been on a losing streak, his own gang having been robbed of $25,000 by another gang led by Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), whose family, incidentally, has been slaughtered by Buck who carved a cross in the young Nat’s forehead, making him of course far too instantly recognisable for such a chosen profession, but that doesn’t seem to bother him.  

And that’s before it gets complicated with Love trying to get the drop on Buck, Buck trying to regain his stolen cash, rival gunslingers wanting to demonstrate their quick-draw skills, and rival saloon keepers Trudy and Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz). Fields is another contender for the dumb-and-dumber award after thinking the best way to scout the postage-sized town of Redwood is not just to sneak up in darkness and have a looksee but instead to pretend she’s moseyed into town with the intention of buying up the saloon and not having the sense to work out that Buck is just going to capture her and use her as bait. Oh, and just in case in case you do get lost, geographically, the titles of the various locations are splashed over the screen in ginormous letters.

Not only is the story a mess but it’s awash with songs, some of which appear thematically or historically relevant, but most are not and one of which written by director Jeymes Samuel (making his feature debut) was chosen as the ideal accompaniment for the climax. You might as well have called this picture Anachronism City, which is a shame because all the leading characters were real people. It was maybe a stretch to find a historically-accurate story in which to feature real people, but surely it could not have been so difficult as this.

And don’t get me started on the money – $25,000 / $50,000. Really? Don’t remember Butch Cassidy or Jesse James earning that amount. Where’s all this meant to come from? Did nobody on this picture have any idea how much people earned – and therefore could save – or how much might be in a bank vault? This is pluck-an-idea-out-of-the-air screenwriting.

There’s definitely a good deal of energy on show but mostly of the music video kind. There’s explosive violence of course. And occasionally there is a decent piece of composition. And you can’t fault the acting despite the failings of the script and the tendency towards Tarantino philosophizing. But it’s pretty much a complete misfire, especially if you like your westerns.

Point Blank (1967)****

The Man With Half A Name doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as The Man With No Name. Lee Marvin’s professional thief Walker (first name absent) is a close cousin of the spaghetti western’s amoral gunslinger. But where Leone is disinclined to fill in the emotional blanks in his anti-hero’s story, British director John Boorman, making his Hollywood debut, feels obliged to look for redemptive features in keeping with American tradition.

Along with several unnecessary arty elements, that gets in the way of a brilliant character portrait. The movie also suffers from critical assessment, not in the manner of bad reviews, but from an irrelevant and misleading insistence on discovering  the film’s “true meaning.”

However, where Boorman gets it right, the movie is a cracker. The bursts of brutal explosive violence still shock, Walker a force as unstoppable as The Terminator, while representing the Mafia as a faceless corporation is a stunning concept. Walker refuses to recognize the dictum that there is no honor among thieves and expects repaid the money stolen from him by a Mafia henchman. In his mind payment will come either in cash or retribution. There is double-crossing aplenty, but Walker is ready for it.

Boorman’s palette is fascinating, the grey bleakness of early scenes giving way to yellow (even the pillar in a parking garage is painted yellow) and other colors. And he has learned from Hitchcock how to apply silence and use natural sound effects like footsteps.

But there are some changes to Richard Stark’s original novel that the movie can do without. The introduction of the abandoned Alcatraz, for a start, is an illogical nonsense, cinematically stylistic though it is. Walker, as shown in the original novel is far too clever to allow himself to be led to a place so open to ambush. Nor would he allow himself to be emotionally blackmailed into doing the job that caused the trouble; he would have walked away from someone as unstable as the double-crossing Mal Reese (John Vernon).

The ambiguous ending, where Walker appears to fade away, issues unresolved, also attracted odd critical theories when, having spent ninety minutes demonstrating the gangster’s destructive capacity, it seems more likely to me that the two Mafia gents left alone with him on Alcatraz would be in the greater peril.

That said, the rest of the picture has an inbuilt dynamic and Marvin’s laconic menacing performance is mesmeric. By comparison Major Reisman in The Dirty Dozen was garrulous. The original novel was called The Hunter and Walker ruthlessly stalks his prey even though they are some of the most dangerous men alive. Angie Dickinson is dropped in to provide some emotional core and a scene of him as a younger man courting his wife is along the same lines. Ignore the arthouse elements and run a mile from critical theories and you are in for one hell of a ride.    

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