Archive for Donald Pleasence

Year of the Rat

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2022 by dcairns

It wasn’t much commented upon back in 1984 but the advent of breakfast television in the UK — incredible to think we were so late in adopting it, but also incredible that anyone would want to watch television while getting ready for work — and if you were going to watch television, why would you watch GARISH and NOISY television full of IDIOTS?

Hang on, I’ve gone off the rails.

Start again: 1984, the year Orwell wrote about, was marked in the UK by the advent of breakfast television, and two of the stars of that new phenomenon were the Green Goddess, an exercise instructor straight out of Orwell’s book, and Roland Rat, a puppet rodent straight out of Orwell’s book. And it was the Chinese year of the rat. Not that Roland R actually ate anyone’s face off. THAT WE KNOW OF. But as O’Brien might have said, it’s the thought that counts.

I was at school. Thatcher was in power. I kept thinking, Why does nobody else see this?

Thirty-eight my god years later, the BFI has a Blu-ray out of Nigel Kneale and Rudolph Cartier’s teleplay NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR (no numerals for the BBC), which should have been out eight years ago but the Orwell estate is rather funny, which is why we never got a Bowie musical version of the book (but we did get Diamond Dogs so on the whole we won that round).

Trailers for this release made it seem like the greatest feat of restoration in human history, but inspection of the actual article clarifies the achievement: the play went out live but bridging sections had been shot on film to enable scene changes. It’s these bits that look as if they could have been shot yesterday. The live portions are your typical kinescope haze, but looking about as good as they ever could. It feels like we’re watching the action from inside Winston Smith’s little snowglobe.

Film and tube camera, side by side.

The double aesthetic is fascinating — both styles work in their distinct ways. The locations for filming are mostly BBC buildings so, like in The Goon Show‘s parody, 1985, Airstrip One and the British Broadcasting Corporation are conflated. The stark lighting of BBC corridors and post-WWII London makes for bold and striking imagery. Only the addition of Orwellian signposts makes it science fiction. Whereas Mike Radford’s film version, made in 1984, strove for the look of 1948, the year the book was written, this version is perfectly clear that 1984 is RIGHT NOW. Mainly I suppose because they couldn’t afford to make it anything fancier.

The one big special effect is an unfortunate affair. The painting — not a matte, not a backdrop, just a static painting — is technically decent enough to pass under the circumstances, but why does the Ministry of Truth have windows the size of office blocks, and why, when we see Winston Smith looking out one of them, is it suddenly a tiny porthole.

But that’s the only stupid bit.

The interior sets are strictly from poverty, and this works nicely. “Despair enacted on cheap sets,” as Errol Morris is always saying. The Ministry of Truth canteen is a bit of backcloth. The walls of Winston’s flat don’t even meet, so that the most felicitous nook in all English literature is compiled of a series of flimsy-looking flats you could post a letter between.

The show is so cheap it had Kneale himself as the voice of the televisor and production designer Roy Oxley is Big Brother. And a very effective BB he is too: he looks stern and noble, rather than shifty and sinister which is the dumb way of portraying him. Obviously BB would be from Central Casting and would look like an inspiring leader. Or, I suppose, like a cuddly clown. That could work…

In the leads we have Peter Cushing and Yvonne Mitchell — a few years later he would inaugurate Hammer Horror while she introduced kitchen sink drama with WOMAN IN A DRESSING GOWN. Cushing is amazing in this — like Karloff, he exploits a physical advantage, removing a dental plate to portray Smith in his final decrepitude.

“So much face-crime!” Fiona enthused. Cushing just can’t help showing us what he’s thinking.

As O’Brien we have the excellent Andre Morell, who was also a Quatermass for Kneale, also a Watson for Cushing’s Holmes, and his tormentor (again) in CASH ON DEMAND. Morell has a bluff, matey quality that works nicely in counterpoint to O’Brien’s more obviously vicious aspect. He’s cold, but superficially clubby, chummy. Affable. When the Thought Police come for us, they will be wreathed in smiles.

Donald Pleasence is Syme, and I don’t have to tell you how much entertainment HE brings — a warm-up for similar turns in the CIA-backed 1956 version (where he plays Parsons) and THX 1138. Parsons is an extraordinary gremlin called Campbell Gray, who looks, sounds and acts just like A CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s P.R. Deltoid, Aubrey Morris, so much so that I thought it could be him under an assumed name. Which would make this some kind of dystopian trifecta.

Also: Wilfred Brambell (in two small roles) and a pre-beard Sydney Bromley.

Highly recommended. I find the desaturated eighties version drab and dull, whereas this one delivers its moments of horror with a lipsmacking relish more in keeping with Orwell’s grand guignol tendencies. Instead of speeding up at the end, it slows down, delivering a series of grisly blackout sketches whose recurrent punchline is the death of hope.

Almost the best thing on the disc, however, is the original continuity announcer, a plummy gent (unidentified) who welcomes the people of Aberdeen to the BBC, regrets that the Scottish comedy they’d hoped to present has been postponed, worries a bit about what they’ll make of this offering, muses aloud that perhaps the people of Aberdeen have never SEEN a play, and sums up the thematic concerns of the work in a remarkably sophisticated manner. There we have it: the Reithian vision of the Beeb, to inform and educate as well as entertain, coupled with a good dose of condescension. It’s real time travel, quite a fitting epitaph for the British Broadcasting Corporation now that the government has finally decided to destroy it.

Meanwhile, actor Dan Stevens has appeared on the BBC’s The One Show (a wonderfully Orwellian name) and shocked the nation by uttering an actual political THOUGHT not sanctioned by universal consensus. The palpable terror in the room!

I Don’t Spy with my Little Eye

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 5, 2022 by dcairns

I had fond memories of the poorly-titled De Laurentiis spy caper MATCHLESS from my childhood — mostly false memories, as it turns out, but the movie is still fun. Part of a trilogy of colourful Dino Bondian joints, culminating in the classic DIABOLIK. This one has Ennio Morricone music too.

The movie is an invisible man fantasy, revolving around a Tolkeinesque ring of invisibility. I remembered that much, but since the movie starts with the hero escaping a firing squad, I had mentally pegged it as starting out in some banana republic, not China, which is where it starts out. I’d also for years tried to find out what the film was (that title is so very unmemorable — Fiona said, “You just told me what it’s called but I’ll have forgotten by the next time I think about it”) and my memory told me it was a Terence Hill film. In fact the lead is Patrick O’Neal, which suggests that as a kid I had total prosopagnosia, the inability to recognise faces. Which does make sense of a few of my experiences back then. On the other hand, I had apparently recognised the film’s Italian origins, so add a couple of points there.

Not remembering the Chinese stuff, I naturally didn’t remember the racism. Embarrassing bit with Chinese spies who have been transformed by plastic surgery into Caucasians, and are being sent to the US with moronic Amurrican buzzwords and catchphrases drilled into their heads. The intent here is actually more anti-American than anti-Chinese, and the movie is rather bracingly dyspeptic about America, spies, the whole bit. But there’s still some considerable discomfort here.

“Perhaps -“

“I’ll do the perhapsing around here.”

Jack Pulman’s dialogue is often quite funny. He went on to do the BBC I, Clavdivs, and seems to be the last in a whole football team of scenarists, the rest of them Italians. And our director is the distinguished Alberto Lattuada, who gets in a few gibes at his former collaborator, F. Fellini.

Tortured by the Chinese, O’Neal (an amusingly dour double-oh-nothing) is rescued and then tortured by the Americans, who are busy turning American agents into Chinese infiltrators. Then he’s released, recruited and sent to spy on criminal mastermind Donald Pleasence, who has disappointingly little to do (no monologuing!) but does live in a Northumbrian castle full of robots. so that’s nice.

This is one of the few invisible man films that respects the notion that your clothes wouldn’t automatically disappear along with the rest of you, so it’s also one of the few sixties spy romps with more teasing male pseudo-nudity than female. O’Neal looks pretty good, though he has trained furniture following him around to make sure we don’t see too much of our invisible hero.

O’Neal is followed around by arch-nemesis Frank Henry Silva, the man whose cheekbones can kill, who gives a gloriously fullblooded comic performance, completely awful from beginning to end. But this works quite well, as you learn to hate him quickly. He explains his fondness for sneakery by saying that even as a kid he liked snitching on schoolmates. And that is kind of the film’s view of espionage: a dirty game played by assholes. O’Neal’s character is appealing because he can see through it, just as we can see through him.

The only other specific detail I remembered from BBC1’s Saturday Night at the Movies was lasers — a bank full of them. You assume they’re photo-electric cell type detectors, but in fact you can light cigarettes on them.

“Well, how about that. Here I am, locked in a bank, naked, alone, trying to save the world. Lot’s o’ luck.”

One of the rules is that O’Neal needs a ten hour break between bouts of unseeability, so the climax strands him, fully visible and at the mercy of the bad guys. So he does something rather brilliant — he strips nude, leaving his clothes in a heap, and PRETENDS to be invisible. The baddies find the clothes and assume they’ll never be able to catch him, and all the time he’s hiding, bollock naked, behind a nearby pillar, completely defenceless. Amid all the silliness and dumb jokes there are some quite smart moments.

List of ingredients: amphibious vehicle, absurd gown, gratuitous cheesecake shots, inane quips, eccentric millionaire baddie, figures badly matted into CCTV comms system, fancy cars, gloating, sinister Chinese element, sliding panels, exotic locales, villain’s lair, stagey punch-ups, colourful laboratory, rescue by aircraft, bondage, feats of escapology, List of ingredients: amphibious vehicle, absurd gown, gratuitous cheesecake shots, inane quips, eccentric millionaire baddie, figures badly matted into CCTV comms system, fancy cars, gloating, sinister Chinese element, sliding panels, exotic locales, villain’s lair, stagey punch-ups, colourful laboratory, rescue by aircraft, bondage, feats of escapology, black-tie reception, ring with hidden needle, fancy Rolls-Royce.

MATCHLESS stars Jason Cravatte aka Jason Caroll; Princess Irina Yusupov; Blofeld; Mr. Moto; Scarabea; General Bullmoose; Boss Hogg; Lewis Jordan, agente 777; Genghis Khan’s Lover; and La Saraghina.

Dordogne Among the Dead Men

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2021 by dcairns

More J. Lee Thompson — EYE OF THE DEVIL was originally to be called DAY OF THE ARROW and then THIRTEEN, which would seem to have jinxed it. They started shooting on September 13th, also.

Sid Furie was originally slated to direct, and a few distinctive “Sid Furie shots” appear, but these seem to have been shot by Thompson and the resemblance is a matter of fashion. Not many directors shoot down through lampshades, it must be said. Within a year or two directors got all self-conscious about this kind of self-consciousness. The minute they found themselves crouching behind a potted fern, viewfinder nosing through the leaves, they would say to themselves, Oh God no, not a Sid Furie shot!

After Furie, Michael Anderson was attached, but got ill early in the shoot. Or did he? There are a number of questions hanging over this one. Did he fall or was he pushed?

So it became a Thompson film, starring Kim Novak, and then two weeks before the end of filming, Novak was out. The official story was that she’d injured her back in a fall, but everyone stressed the fact that she’d be fine, but she couldn’t work for a few months and so the film would have to be restarted with a replacement.

But David Hemmings, who makes an early appearance, indiscreetly reveals in his very readable memoir that Novak departed after rowing with producer Martin Ransohoff at a press conference. Hemmings reports that he can no longer recall what Ransohoff said to offend Novak, nor if she was justified in her outrage, but he had an indelible memory of Novak stubbing her cigarette into his one good eye…

Nothing that horrifying happens in the film, which is nominally a scary movie…

Anyway, that’s Novak out, but co-star David Niven comes to the rescue, roping in Deborah Kerr, making the film a kind of Powell & Pressburger affair since Flora Robson also appears.

It’s a kind of WICKER MAN/ROSEMARY’S BABY plot, but much less gripping and more guessable than either, and the horror at its heart is strangely uninteresting. But the film itself is sort of fascinating.

Thompson is treating it as an exercise du style, pulling in a lot of nouvelle vague influence — the opening blur of flashforwards, which has no real reason to exist, is certainly modernist and flashy — then MARIENBAD seems to be the order of the day. Thompson tracks incessantly and cuts before his movements finish, which pre-Resnais was considered filmically ungrammatical, though obviously this was always false (exceptions existed for cutting from a shot tracking with a character, to their POV, for instance, as seen so often in Hitchcock).

The direct cutting approach, unfortunately, lops all the tension out of the film. No sooner has the thought of a character going somewhere scary been planted, than we cut to them arriving, or already there. And yet MARIENBAD itself is quite a spooky film. Maybe because it combines sudden jumps in time (which promote nervousness) with funereal creep. This movie’s had all the creep excised.

It has Donald Pleasence doing his whispery bit, but the eeriest presences in it are Hemmings and Sharon Tate, as a twisted brother and sister. One’s first response to Tate is that she’s surely dubbed. Publicity at the time suggested she took lots of voice lessons to acquire a posh English accent and a deeper voice — but, as we know, the publicity people on this film were not always completely truthful.

In a way, it doesn’t much matter if Tate’s using her own voice — certainly there’s a lot of (pretty good) post-synching going on — the combination of the plummy purr and her striking beauty and stillness is quite uncanny. A slight feeling that her voice isn’t coming from her body but from somewhere beyond adds to the character’s sinister presence/absence.

Critics complained about her immobile face, evidence that the weekly film reviewer’s job is to notice anything fresh or interesting an actor does, and then condemn it. They trashed Anjelica Huston on first sight also.

This vertiginous sequence, part of the evil games Tate’s character indulges in, is genuinely alarming, partly because real child endangerment seems to be occurring. Sure, the shots are framed so that someone can always be hanging onto the kid, and ropes and harnesses may be involved, but it still seems dodgy.

Elsewhere, Niven gets some terrific stuff acting hypnotized — a mode of Niv we’ve never seen before. And there’s a relatively early example of a downbeat ending — not only does evil triumph, but it’s going to carry on perpetuating itself and triumphing down the generations. If the film had come out when it was new it would have perhaps had more impact, but it seems to have crept out incrementally over the course of about three years.

I’d love to see the outtakes — Michael Anderson’s stuff, Kim Novak’s. And I wonder if the MARIENBAD approach was established by Furie at the planning stage (it seems like something he might come up with) or Anderson (if Thompson were taking over early in the shoot it seems he’d want to match what had been filmed) or Thompson, who certainly went to town with it. “He’s given this film everything,” attested Niven.

EYE OF THE DEVIL stars Sister Clodagh; Sir Charles Lytton; Ernst Stavro Blofeld; Devon Miles; Queen Elizabeth I; Caligula; Sarah Shagal; Dildano; Sgt. Wilson; Lady of Lyonesse; Tsarevitch Alexei; Bunny Lake; and Vivian Darkbloom.