Archive for Christopher Lee

White Russian, Red Face

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2012 by dcairns

For my birthday I had a bunch of people round and we drank white Russians (vodka + kahlua + milk) and watched HORROR EXPRESS, a movie I’ve always been indecently fond of.

Screenwriters Julian Zimet and Arnaud d’Usseau (who later co-wrote the mighty PSYCHOMANIA) look to have been blacklistees, hired by producer Bernard Gordon, who definitely was barred from working in Hollywood. They cobble together an amusing QUATERMASS-type yarn set on the Trans-Siberian Express, chuffing across the tundra from Peking to Moscow, bearing Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, an amok neanderthal specimen, and a Rasputin wannabe (prolific giallo star Alberto de Mendoza).

I’d always heard that the movie was made to exploit the availability of a model train from NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA, a perfectly decent reason for making a film… guest David Wingrove felt some of the train footage looked familiar from DOC ZHIVAGO… online I find references to the train model and set both being recycled from Gordon’s previous production, PANCHO VILLA, aka VENDETTA. That film starred Telly Savalas, who turns up here as a cossack. That alone is a reason to love the film.

Note the unusual way of holding a cigarillo — Savalas was one of the screen’s great smokers until he gave it all up for lollipops. The Savalas career includes a notable Spanish Period, with LISA AND THE DEVIL (the film where he discovered lollipops, on the recommendation of director Mario Bava, as a way to quit smoking) and the immortal A TOWN CALLED BASTARD, which co-star Dudley Sutton described to me as “the crookedest film I was ever in.” Dudley also had some story about Telly being “out of his face on LSD the whole time.”

That rogue caveman soon busts out of his crate — we started a drinking game to swill back a white russian every time he escaped his box — this was soon replaced by a game to drink whenever a supporting player turned up with white, featureless eyeballs. It turns out the hominid is infested by an alien intelligence, trapped in the ice millennia ago. This being can drain the minds of those it comes in contact with, absorbing their knowledge and leaving their brains as smooth and featureless as a baby’s bottom, or Jeffrey Hunter’s face.

It can also transfer from host to host, making it hard to catch and subdue. Rival scientists Cushing and Lee set out to trap it, but the Rasputin-alike pledges his allegiance, as a kind of beardy Renfield character, offering up his own brain for draining. The entity snootily declines, stating that the monk has no knowledge worth filching. Instead he eventually uses Raspy as his new host body, before the authorities shunt the train down a siding leading conveniently to the precipice of obliteration. John Cacavas’ haunting (well, it haunted twelve-year-old me) theme tune resounds from the miniature wreckage, a spaghetti western whistle associated with the monster, implying that the beast lives on, perhaps having transferred its vast intellect to the film’s optical soundtrack…

The movie also seems to imply that this alien, if it made it to Moscow, might have started the Revolution — communism is a virus from outer space! A strange phenomenon that filmmakers too left-wing for Hollywood should find themselves reconstructing Tsarist Russia in Franco’s Spain. If we can swallow that, why should the scene where an image of the Earth seen from space is found imprinted on the caveman’s retina give us any trouble?

Buy: Horror Express (Blu-ray / DVD Combo)

Diagnosis: Murder. Prognosis: More Murder!

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , on May 25, 2012 by dcairns

DIAGNOSIS: MURDER — not the completely excellent Dick Van Dyke TV show, oh no, but a TV-ish movie from Edinburgh-born Sidney Hayers (NIGHT OF THE EAGLE). I had limited hopes for it but watched anyway due to my quasi-sexual passion for Byronic wonderboy Jon Finch.

I was pleasantly surprised!

Not so much by Finch, who seems to have lost a terrifying amount of weight. He looks like he’s competing for the Miles Mander Cup. His face is pinched and drawn, his movements lack energy, and he’s still sporting that disfiguring Action Man ‘tache from FRENZY. *But* — the script casts him as a wonderfully charmless and acerbic copper, tirelessly insolent to suspects, colleagues,   even inanimate objects. It channels some of the impudence of his greatest role (to date), Jerry Cornelius in THE FINAL PROGRAMME. The only dull spots are a subplot involving his married mistress, which requires him to be solicitous and noble, which is hugely disappointing, but about two-thirds through I started wondering if Hayers, who co-wrote, was playing a Long Game. He was, and it all pays off in one of the best-plotted denouements I’ve seen in AGES.

Finch isn’t the whole show, mind you — we get Christopher Lee as an aloof psychiatrist who may have murdered his wife, and the adorably box-faced Judy Geeson as his secretary, who may be his mistress. To say more would be unfair. Fiona describes this one as “LES DIABOLIQUES meets The Sweeney.” Which may take some unpicking.

The twisty thriller thing you probably understand. The Sweeney was a violent slice of televisual thick-ear which ran amuck over British airwaves, an onslaught of bad hair, bad clothing and bad attitudes, accompanied by an aggressive yet campy score by Laurie Johnson (The Avengers).

The show spawned two movies, which are actually not bad — the second in particular deserves attention. It’s arguable that the portrayal of British coppers as surly, boorish and prejudiced, though it was uncomfortably admiring, was a lot more accurate than respectable show’s like the BBC’s Dixon of Dock Green and its polite ilk. Fans of 70s shows perhaps regard them as equivalent to those Warner pre-codes which uncritically serve up a lot of offensive attitudes, but strike a truthful chord at the same time.

Here’s a bit of Finch at his most obnoxious, followed a scene later by Christopher Lee in… unusually ebullient mode. Nice to see him loosen up and enjoy a laugh. The music is by Laurie Johnson.

Like clockwork, like magic

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 12, 2011 by dcairns

HUGO is a film about books, movies, magic and clockwork. And work — life’s work.

It’s my new favourite use of 3D. It revives the 2-strip Technicolor look that was the best thing about THE AVIATOR, and returns to the long take aesthetic which informed Scorsese’s work before the rock ‘n’ roll fast-cutting of THE DEPARTED and SHINE A LIGHT. It’s set in a giant artificial period world like GANGS OF NEW YORK, and is at times more in love with that world than with its own story, just like the earlier film, but at least in this case the foreground story intrigues for the great bulk of the film.

Ben Kingsley returns from SHUTTER ISLAND, Ray Winstone returns from THE DEPARTED, and Jude Law returns from THE AVIATOR, none of which was my favourite Scorsese by a long way, but they’re good here, and Kingsley is T-riffic. The kids, Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz, are wonderful.

Old-timers! Christopher Lee, Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour. Frances was big on British TV in the seventies, starring alongside Leonard Rossiter (BARRY LYNDON) in a seminal sitcom called Rising Damp. Then she vanished. I presume she’s just changed her agent, because suddenly she’s in Tim Burton and Scorsese films. The business with the supporting players is lightly charming but not quite effective… they inhabit little REAR WINDOW scenarios of their own, but aren’t tied to the hero’s POV enough so they don’t seem germane. Although I like Kristin Thompson’s theory here that the sub-plots’ simplicity recalls early films of the Melies era.

Midway, Chloe M’s character sums up the plot: “It’s a terribly long story with a great many circumlocutions.” She’s right! Not everybody enjoys that, especially when the plot motor and pay-off are kind of slight. Fiona saw the film with our friends the Browns and Marvelous Mary, who really hated it. Since the Browns work in the film biz, I think their anger was focussed on huge resources being lavished on a movie with such a slight spine. Imagine little Asa Butterfield wearing a giant Transformers robot armature. They had similar doubts about GANGS OF NEW YORK, which has a really rotten plot and a similarly sumptuous environment (had Scorsese been allowed to follow the path of FELLINI SATYRICON and dispensed with narrative, what  amovie that could have been!). Fiona enjoyed the visuals, completely, but complained of the script.

She’s basically right, I have to admit. The dialogue is mostly flat — there are no memorable lines except those that actors invigorate with a lot of effort (Chloe Moretz is especially good at this and Kingsley is compelling as always) The plot is thin and the happy pay-off arrives for no entirely convincing reason. Scorsese has never been a fan of plot, preferring the loose, baggy structure of MEAN STREETS or the purely character-driven narratives of TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL. But those latter films are extremely tight, with everything happening because of who the people are — there’s no chance or contrivance or hidden revelations to provide artificial twists or accelerations. The apparent messiness of MEAN STREETS is in keeping with its imitation of messy, unstructured life. This is Scorsese’s first mystery, and the questions intrigue, but not every question has a satisfactory answer — I kind of expected some news about the hero’s father and uncle, but it turns out they weren’t part of the mystery. Spectacular dream sequences add pyrotechnics but don’t advance the story, which seems to be building to something bigger… and Logan really isn’t very good at building gags or action sequence, so things like the clock-hanging sequence tend to just fizzle out rather than building to a thrilling climax with developments and reversals and all that good stuff…

But 90% of the time, the plot had a fascinating effect on the children in the audience — the narrative purpose of a scene could be very slight, but as long as it was there, they sat hypnotized. You instantly got fidgeting when the scene turned out to be just about some kind of character moment. But they sat there for two hours and the fidgeting only happened for about four instances of ten seconds apiece. I contrasted this with the kid at TINTIN who tried to climb over the seat backs in front of her. There’s a revelation here about pacing and children — children’s movies have been hyperkinetic for ages, and crammed in all the stuff they assume kids like — farting and monsters and pop music — and it turns out that an effect of intense concentration by the filmmaker can produce the same thing in a young audience. Scorsese may have saved a generation of parents from ever having to suffer through ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: CHIPWRECKED. If more filmmakers learn from the rhythms of HUGO, things could be very different.

As the Self-Styled Siren says in her loving review, this is glorious 3D, and likely to win over even those who generally dislike it. What excites me is that we’re actually learning more about how to use the gimmick, something that barely happened in the 50s. In HUGO, 3D discovers the power of the close-up. Seemingly, TANGLED achieves some of this, but I’ve only seen it flat, on BluRay (it’s GOOD). Here, there’s a shot of Sacha Baron Cohen leaning slowly in, filmed from a low angle, which has a funny and ominous and freaky effect. A track-in on Ben Kingsley near the end is magisterial. Those faces hover there, giant and blimplike, eerie in the way the Kingdom of Shadows was eerie to the earliest cinema-goers. The reference to the first audience’s panicked reaction to the Lumiere’s TRAIN ARRIVING AT A STATION ties it all together neatly. 3D isn’t an add-on, here, it’s part of the story, part of the film’s essence. And the drifting snowflakes and cinders are beautiful, the aerial perspectives of the station are spectacular, and every frame seems to bristle with potential discoveries. Robert Richardson’s partnership with Scorsese as DoP is something to be grateful for for two reasons: his luminous lensing enhances Scorsese’s films, and it keeps him out of the clutches of Oliver Stone.

I recalled a line from Our Town: “Oh, I can’t look at everything hard enough!”

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