Let us never speak of this again

A few films have never made it into The Late Show: The Late Movies Blogathon because they were too desultory and depressing. Our main purpose is to celebrate overlooked films from late in the careers of great artists, which are often overlooked or disparaged because they’re out of step with the times. One likes to pass over in silence, where possible, those films which really stink like burning faeces. Who was it who said of Cukor’s JUSTINE, “to criticise it would be like tripping a dwarf”? (I often think Cukor should have filmed the Sade book instead of the Durrell. In 1932. With Joan Crawford. And tripped a dwarf in it.)

But on the other hand, there is fun to be had in the stinker, tinged though it may be by regret and embarrassment for a great cinematic mind now o’erthrown. With these emotions battling within me, I glance, mercifully briefly, at a few films I couldn’t bring myself to devote entire pieces to.

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THE DELTA FACTOR — written and directed by Tay Garnett from a novel by Mickey Spillane, produced by Spillane and featuring his latest wife in a supporting role. Garnett’s autobiography, Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights, is a hell of a lot of fun. At the end of a long and often distinguished career, Garnett wasn’t about to trash his more recent films, because he was still hoping for one or two more adventures in the screen trade — they never came.

This movie has all the obnoxiousness of Spillane’s writing and world view but with none of the awareness that Aldrich and Bezzerides brought to KISS ME DEADLY. Spillane hated that film, and with him holding the purse-strings one can’t expect Garnett to smuggle in a critique of masculine violence or anything like that, even if he felt inclined to do so. But did it have to be so obnoxious?

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There’s no Mike Hammer, but Christopher George plays tough guy bank robber and escape artist with a distinct air of Mitt Romney, which is unappealing to say the least. A “hero” who gloatingly threatens to rape the heroine (it’s okay, he’s only “joking”), he never inspires in the appalled spectator any of the admiration Spillane and possibly Garnett seem to feel for him. Yvette Mimieux tags along, the action scenes are low-budget uninspired, and there’s not even any of the astonishing nastiness that makes Spillane striking in print (“I shot her in the stomach and walked away. It was easy.” — “I took out my gun and blew the smile off his face.”) There is, however, a genuinely hair-raising car chase which breathes a little life into the thing. Unfortunately, it did so at the cost of nearly killing the director, and the hand-held shots taken from inside his car when it plunged off the mountainside road and through the trees is IN THE FILM. Had the adventures of Morgan ended there and the rest of the film detailed Spillane’s painful recovery from a broken cheekbone, broken ribs all down one side, a broken AND dislocated shoulder, and the loss of several teeth, it would have been more entertaining.

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Garnett bounced back — five years later he was in Alaska filming Mike Mazurki as a trapper in CHALLENGE TO BE FREE. This one sounds pretty dramatic in his book, but the result is slow icy death on-screen, thanks to a script that has no shape or sense of drama. Some of the wildlife footage is pretty extraordinary, but Mazurki, a reliable thug in decades of thrillers, is directed into an appalling performance, and so is everyone else — lots of characters nodding to themselves to telegraph to the audience that they understand what just happened. Did you ever nod to yourself? I suspect not, but if you see this one you’ll definitely be left shaking your head.

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I had long dreaded the inevitable moment when I would look at Ronald Neame’s FOREIGN BODY, whose title already suggests something very bad. Victor Bannerjee, fresh from A PASSAGE TO INDIA, cheerfully kills any vague career momentum he may have acquired by playing a penniless Indian emigrant who becomes a bogus Harley Street doctor so he can undress white women. The role was written for Peter Sellers and the screenplay was a trunk item that had lain wisely unmolested by production for at least a decade and a half. Warren Mitchell plays Bannerjee’s uncle with “My goodness gracious me” mannerisms and shoe-polished features, and Amanda Donohoe supplies the gratuitous nudity. (Oddly, she also starred in PAPER MASK, the only other British film about a fake doctor I can think of.) The whole thing is so staggeringly time-warped (and bad, to boot) that it uses a landlord’s “No coloureds” as a hilarious punchline to a scene. Break and dislocate your shoulder before you see this film.

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I can’t review Ken Russell’s THE FALL OF THE LOUSE OF USHER, his last feature-length offering (Poe seems attractive to late-period filmmakers, see also Curtis Harrington) because I could only watch five minutes of it, in the videotheque of Edinburgh Film Festival back when it was new. The festival declined to screen it but put it on in their ‘theque along with all the other British productions of 2002. It was the cheap synth music that put me off — this from a filmmaker who had filmed the lives of most of the great composers of the 19th and 20th centuries, and worked with the Who, Thomas Dolby, Peter Maxwell Davies, Rick Wakeman. It’s too sad.

I’d rather remember this –

My schoolfriend Robert told me that he was taken to see BAMBI as a kid. In front of the film they played trailers for SHIVERS and TOMMY. Of the two, TOMMY was the more disturbing. He didn’t go to the cinema again until he was about sixteen.

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20 Responses to “Let us never speak of this again”

  1. Oh good grief, you just reminded me I had to review Foreign Body for Monthly Film Bulletin. Everyone who worked on that film – what were they THINKING?

  2. On the other hand, I liked John Collee’s screenplay for Paper Mask A LOT – just wish they’d got someone less telly-drab to direct it.

  3. “To criticise it would be like tripping a dwarf” was said of HURRY SUNDOWN. Maybe somebody said it of JUSTINE, too, but that would have been later.

  4. Thanks, Chris. I must look into that to see who may have plagiarized the line. Seem to remember it was quoted by Halliwell’s.

    I can vaguely see how Foreign Body may have looked like a goer in 1968. The idea of dusting it off and warming it up in 1986 is astoundingly bad. Poor Victor Bannerjee.

  5. I was going to write about Louis de Funès’s last for the most recent blogathon but after about fifteen minutes I just couldn’t do it. It’s so bad that it killed de Funès AND the director. WIth that double-whammy I may have to give it another go for 2014.

  6. I would put Wilder’s Buddy Buddy on this list. It just SITS THERE — inert and unfunny.

  7. I *liked* Cukor’s Justine, in fact I could probably think of about 5 Cukor films I liked less. And IIRC there are dwarves!

    I also, (sort of) enjoyed, The Fall of the Louse. I watched it shortly after Ken Russell died, and altough it was flawed it comforted me that in his last years he was still making films, making films in his back garden, with a camcorder. But it seemed at the time that even the cowardliness of the film industry couldn’t stop the masesto creating and having fun. I think it helps if you see it as a home movie. And occassionally low budget moments of beauty would spring up: A pub attic, full of wet car tires, filmed in the dark, suddenly resembled something from H R Geiger. Maybe it was the circumstances that made me more charitable.

    Poor Ronald Neame. I’ve been afraid to watch this too. For some reason it takes up the same space in my mind as Shadey (1985) both mid 80s films from past directors, set in dull rooms but premises that I still can’t believe got funding.

  8. Bob Clark made some goodies in the 1970s and had a couple of successes in the 1980s, but his last two films were THE KARATE DOG and SUPERBABIES: BABY GENIUSES 2 (both 2004).

  9. Shadey needed a director as inspired and crazy as Snoo Wilson — why not Ken?

    With a career like Clark’s it was always going to be a coin-toss whether he ended on a bang or a whimper, a Murder by Decree or a Loose Cannons. He can’t have been expecting such an abrupt and tragic death. Who does?

    I haven’t quite become a Louis de Funes fan yet so I shall be saving his late work and trying harder to get into his fresher ones.

    Agree on Buddy Buddy, but also agree with Matthew Wilder that even in it’s misguidedness it’s sort of fascinating.

  10. I’m very fond of the films that DeFunes did with Gérard Oury . I think you’ve seen La Grande Vadrouille , but Le Corniaud , La Folie De Grandeur & Les Adventure de Rabbi Jacob are also hugely entertaining.

  11. Yes, saw LGV with you and Anne. LDF has a good bit in La Traversee de Paris also, trying in vain to out-apoplexy Jean Gabin.

  12. I like some of LDF a lot, but other stuff just leaves me cold: I am as much interested in him as a window into another culture’s delights as anything else… His films with Oury and, not incidentally, Bourvil, are very good, though.

  13. I get that impression. Like Jerry Lewis, when he’s not on form or the material is not good, he can be irksome. But at his best he’s clearly a great comic actor.

  14. Speaking of Poe and late works, I can’t bring myself to watch Jacques Tourneur’s WAR GODS OF THE DEEP (based on Poe’s “City in the Sea”). I found THE COMEDY OF TERRORS dismal enough, although it has plenty of fans. Then again, the episode of Twilight Zone that he made between those two films is pretty damned good.

  15. War Gods is mostly terrible — Deke Hayward at AIP rewriting Charles Bennett’s script and adding a chicken as sidekick — but it has a late night Lewtonesque walk of terror sequence that’s absolutely beautiful in widescreen and colour. I was just thinking of posting that bit to save readers the agony of seeing the rest of the movie.

  16. Mike Mazurki spends almost the entire running time of Challenge to be Free laughing his head off, which suggests he was either hopped up on bennies for the shoot or was appreciating the absurdity of it all. And you must admit that the theme song (“He had a Challenge to be Freeeeeeee…”) is annoyingly memorable. At least, I still find it popping into my head many months after watching the film…

  17. I couldn’t believe the laughter was sincere, though. It seemed completely joyless. Maybe he was just trying to keep warm.

  18. I once met some French chums for Halloween drinks at a chic-ish Parisian bar, and one of them (female) turned up wearing fake beard and sidelocks, in homage to Les aventures de Rabbi Jacob. This was considered normal. After multiple forced exposure to such beloved French films fétiches such as Les bronzés font du ski and Père Noël est une ordure, I finally started laughing at them, usually under the influence of something or other, but I suspect one needs to have been exposed to de Funès from childhood onwards to really get into the spirit of him. Though I am quite fond of La soupe aux choux, which involves aliens, cabbage soup and farting, but is actually quite melancholy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B4KDBDQIkGI

  19. This brings us back to terrible last films. When I traveled to Glasgow (!) to see Michael Winner’s final magnum no-hopus, appropriately titled Parting Shots, my companions for the screening turned up wearing wigs and fake beards. As well you might. My face felt nude by comparison.

  20. Les bronzés font du ski , Père Noël est une ordure and Bienvenue chez les ch’tis are pretty well embedded in French culture , in a way that’s hard for a non-native to really understand. Speaking as a non-native who has tried.

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