Archive for Halliwell’s Film Guide

Two Deaths

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2018 by dcairns

Bernardo Bertolucci evidently hoped to make more films before getting the cancer that killed him. Nic Roeg, after writing his autobiography, had grown frail in mind and body, and would not have been able to. Still, we wish it were otherwise. The fact that Roeg was unable to make his own projects for so long is deplorable, an extraordinary tragedy to add to the more mundane fact of death. (“This isn’t the worst,” Von Stroheim is said to have lamented on his death-bed. “The worst is that they stole twenty years of my life.”)

To a friend, Roeg freely admitted to trading on his reputation with nonsense like SAMSON AND DELILAH (with Liz Hurley! On the basis that Baby Spice hadn’t been discovered yet, I suppose). He clearly wasn’t the kind of filmmaker who could be a gun-for-hire and still bring his distinctive sensibility into play. His work was cerebral, and if the underpinnings weren’t there, you couldn’t expect a gloss of Roegian affect. Bertolucci was lucky enough never to have to make a biblical epic for HBO, though he’d probably have been a better choice for the task.

I first caught a glimpse of Roeg’s work when Barry Norman, presenting Film 83 on the BBC, showed us what the programme (and he himself) had looked like when it started ten years earlier, and there, startlingly, was a clip of a sodden Donald Sutherland screaming in slow motion, holding his drowned child, a trail of droplets raining from her toe, as a slide of a church dissolved into a lurid phantasmagoria of colours. I immediately knew I had to see this film, even thought (or BECAUSE) I had no idea what the images meant.

I looked the film up in Halliwell’s Film Guide, and surprisingly, if you know Halliwell, he actually managed to capture some of the strangeness I had felt, though I think he also managed to (a) spoiler the ending and (b) render the plot garbled and meaningless in a single two-line synopsis.


Then there was a Guardian lecture at the NFT, broadcast by the BBC again, where we saw clips from other Roeg movies including his latest, EUREKA!, which I was able to rent on VHS a bit later. I may need to revisit it to see if I still feel that the beginning is great and the rest, progressively less great. By the time INSIGNIFICANCE came out, I think I’d caught up with the earlier films and been blown away. Even if I didn’t always enjoy or understand the experience first time round, some blowing-away always took place. I used to alternately hate and then love BAD TIMING each time I watched it, and even though half the time was no fun, I couldn’t stop watching it. On VHS!

ARIA screened at Edinburgh International Film Festival but I can’t actually recall if Roeg took to the stage for the intro. Ken Russell was there with a plastic cup impaled on the end of his golf umbrella and that rather stole all the thunder, I’m afraid.

I think the first one I was able to see on a first run at the cinema was CASTAWAY (maybe that’s worth revisiting? It was one he really wanted to make). Barry Norman previewed it, saying he’d seen a rough cut with the director sitting right behind him muttering, gloomily, “It is what it is, I suppose…”

A guy I know worked on a script for Roeg. He said a lot of the script notes were just muttering, really, but then you would get these blinding flashes of brilliant insight. And Roeg would turn up on TV interviews, muttering quite dreamily to himself, the words sometimes completely indecipherable, then snapping into sharp focus. Kind of like what my developing mind would experience when struggling through the denser passages of his films.

Another guy I know worked for years and years to get another Roeg movie made, and he was absolutely certain Roeg was still a master, powers undimmed, if only the right project could be launched. This was a kind of Jekyll & Hyde story, and when the idea of an octogenarian Roeg helming the whole thing came to seem unduly optimistic, the plan became to have one, younger director for Jekyll while Roeg handled Hyde, or maybe it was the other way around. Donald Sutherland was up for starring, and when scheduling conflicts intervened, Ruther Hauer was slotted in. But the financing never came together.

I don’t have such a clear image of when Bertolucci impinged on my mind, but Paul Schrader discussing him on The South Bank Show (ITV this time) would have brought THE CONFORMIST into my ken. I hadn’t even seen TAXI DRIVER at this point, I think, and the interview made me rent that and RAGING BULL and probably AMERICAN GIGOLO but Bertolucci had to wait until BBC2’s Film Club, I think, screened THE CONFORMIST, and then there was THE LAST EMPEROR at the cinema, and LAST TANGO IN PARIS at the University Film Society (but maybe at one of the Cameo’s late-night double features first, with something unsuitable like BETTY BLUE).

Channel 4 (see how television used to play such an active role in cinephilia) showed 1900 over two nights, and I watched it with my parents, treating it as a big miniseries, and my dad summed up the weird, allegorical ending with a quite literal interpretation that turned out to be exactly what BB had in mind. I can only assume that screening was censored at least a bit, because there are SO many WTF images in there that I can’t imagine my parents lasting ten minutes. Fiona’s face nearly fell off when I ran it for her.

While the experimental arm of commercial cinema in which Roeg had been able to work — the very fag-end of British sixties cinema — sputtered out and left him to waste his time on hackwork — Bertolucci was somehow able to keep making personal films. What hurt him, I think, was the end of the arthouse cinema he’d come out of, and the end of the hope for a particular revolutionary change in society which had animated his vision. The man who made STEALING BEAUTY and BESIEGED was still talented, but I think he’d lost key elements of his relationship to the world, so that his talent didn’t know quite where to go. He gamely kept at it.

We saw him in Bologna a few years ago, in his wheelchair with the Mondrian wheels. I was going to say “I love your wheelchair” and then I realized who he was and would have added “and your work!” but he had a big guard standing over him making sure nobody interrupted his chat with the guy from Variety. So I didn’t get to have an encounter as charming as the one I heard about from a friend of a friend on the internet, who had approached him at a cafe and asked, “Those colours in THE SHELTERING SKY… was that what the desert was like, or were they created?” to which BB replied, “They were created… for you.”

Books 5: The Deadly Companion

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on July 21, 2009 by dcairns


Halliwell’s Filmgoer’s Companion, and its sister book, Halliwell’s Film Guide, had a special place in my distant youth. In an era when a kid could not own a bunch of movies (even when we got VHS, I couldn’t afford the blank tapes for a big collection of off-air recordings) a big book was a way to have a swathe of cinema at one’s fingertips. It was similar to the attraction of heavily illustrated tomes like Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies. You gazed in wonder at all the movies you might never see. The difference was, Leslie Halliwell achieved this effect without pictures, just by marshaling facts and opinions.

It’s the opinions that are the problem. While I still keep copies of his books around (not the latest editions, since the IMDb has largely destroyed the need for such reference books, but still, having the facts in hard copy form is useful at times), I’ve learned to largely ignore the value judgements expressed in the capsule reviews.

When I first held the Film Guide in my hands (which was exciting), I was astonished to discover that Halliwell awarded 0 stars out of a possible 4 to Sergio Leone’s THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY, indicating that the film was, in his opinion, of no interest to the average viewer. That was the first of various dismaying discoveries.  In the edition before me, edited by John Walker, the film now gets 3 stars, but Halliwell’s review remains unchanged ~ “Intermittently lively, very violent, and interminably drawn-out Western with a number of rather hilarious stylistic touches.” Which suggests that Halliwell couldn’t recognise when Leone was being deliberately funny. My ten-year-old self had struggled a bit with Leone’s humour, but I eventually figured out the joke. Halliwell’s inability to do so might tell us a lot about the poor reception Leone tended to get from critics in his day.


I soon learned that Halliwell was not to be trusted on any film made after the 50s, because he just didn’t like modern cinema. The most recent film to get 4 stars was BONNIE AND CLYDE.  As I grew more sophisticated, I perceived that he couldn’t really be trusted on earlier films either, since he tended to misunderstand even the great films he liked: he once wrote that the climax of THE RED SHOES seemed tacked-on, as if they couldn’t think of a way to end it. Which demonstrates pretty conclusively that, while enjoying and appreciating the film as the masterpiece it is, he totally missed the point of it.

I did discover that LH had a kind of negative genius for picking out films of rare interest, and roundly condemning them. Long before I saw the films reviewed below, I was drawn to them by Halliwell’s scathing denunciations, which seemed to promise the kind of corrupting and depraving adult entertainment every growing boy needs. See if you can identify the films ~

Despite undeniable technical proficiency this is its writer-director’s most outrageously sick film to date, campy, idiosyncratic and in howling bad taste from beginning to end, full of worm-eaten skulls, masturbating nuns, gibbering courtiers, plague sores, rats, and a burning to death before our very eyes… plus a sacrilegious dream of Jesus.

Couldn’t get my head round that at all. He says “campy” and “idiosyncratic” as if those were BAD things. And wnat’s wrong with rats? And he seems to enjoy the blasphemy in Bunuel, so why not here?

A repulsive film in which intellectuals have found acres of social and political meaning: the average judgment is likely to remain that it is pretentious and nasty rubbish for sick minds who do not mind jazzed-up images and incoherent sound.

Brilliant, I thought. I not only don’t mind “jazzed-up images,” I adore them! In fact, Halliwell’s denunciation was never the “average judgment” of this vert successful box-office hit, nor has such a view prevailed over time.

Not badly made but rather seedy film about appalling people.


The most excessive and obscene of all this director’s controversial works, incapable of criticism on normal terms except that it seems unusually poor in production values.

Our man is being rather inconsistent here, since this film is by the same director as the first example. They can’t BOTH be his most obscene work, surely?

Appalling kaleidoscope of black comedy and the director’s own brand of uncontrolled cinematic zaniness, with echoes of Candide and Oh What A Lovely War! Just the way to alienate a paying audience.

Oh yeah, you keep Voltaire well away from our poor defenseless paying audiences.

The person who does the best job identifying these movies wins a copy of one of them.

halliwellEmil Jannings as Henry VIII.

So why do I still keep these books, and why do I cite them as influences on my becoming a cinephile? Well, for all his middlebrow curmudgeonly philistinism, Halliwell had certainly seen a lot of films, and he was happy to pass his experience on to the rest of us. I not only used his books as occasional references, I devoured them, cover to cover, soaking up information on the films that interested me, and locating many others that seemed worthy of pursuit. Leonard Maltin’s books, harder to find in the UK, contained fewer preposterous critical own goals, but also fewer cast and crew credits. Cross referencing between the Film Guide (movies) and the Companion (people), I could assemble a personal cinema history of the cinema I was interested in. While scorning Halliwell’s opinions, I nevertheless owe him a massive debt.