Archive for Les Bowie


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on July 31, 2019 by dcairns

I picked up John Brosnan’s book on special effects, Movie Magic, which seems to have been staring at me from various shelves for all my life, after finding it in a charity shop. Obviously, a book on VFX written before the advent of digital cinema wasn’t going to be selling at top prices.

It’s a fun, breezy read, though. Not too technical. The best stuff is the interview with jobbing films craftsmen. Brosnan’s prose is more serviceable than immortal (though still superior to that of Mike Evans in The Making of Raging Bull, another recent cheapo purchase, where potentially fascinating material is rendered practically unreadable) but when he hands the page over to doughty practitioners like Les Bowie, things get mordantly amusing:

‘We were working with these two American effects men on that picture [IN SEARCH OF THE CASTAWAYS] and they had […] all sorts of fancy gadgets, including these special mortars that were used to fire clumps of arrows through the air. These, along with their other equipment, had been flown out from Hollywood at great expense. One day one of these men told me to go and practice firing arrows out of this mortar. So I did, I carried one of these gadgets away from where we were based, set it up, put some arrows in it, fired it . . . and the arrows went about ten feet before dropping to the ground. I was rather upset about this because it meant I was going to have to tell the other fellow his gadget wasn’t working any more. In desperation I just grabbed a handful of arrows and flung them in the air . . . and they just flew and flew. After a few more tries I even worked out a way of throwing them so that they separated in mid-air and like a swarm of arrows would if they’d been fired by several bows. Anyway I went back and confessed to this bloke that his mortar wasn’t working, so he came back and checked it out and said it was working perfectly. “But it only propels them about ten feet,” I said, “do you know that you can throw them much further by hand?” And I demonstrated to him how far I could throw them. He was shocked. “For God’s sake,” he said, “don’t do that on the day of filming!” But when the day came an assistant and I were hidden in the woods, throwing the arrows out by hand. All that equipment shipped out at such a high cost and yet no one had tried just throwing the things!’

There’s more about this kind of UK-US rivalry and bickering on Disney locations in props man Eddie Fowlie’s account of making THE SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON in his memoir David Lean’s Dedicated Maniac: Memoirs of a Film Specialist, though Fowlie inexplicably omits to make any reference to being sent home early after seemingly injuring one of his opponents in a knife fight conducted over the affections of Janet Munro.


An Odyssey in Bits: Moonwatchers

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on February 9, 2019 by dcairns

Fadeout on Rossiter/Smyslov. Fadeup on chunky moonhopper on its way to Earth’s satellite. Fadeup also The Blue Danube again, just to piss off Quincy Jones. Because we’ve already heard it, and because we don’t have a spinning wheel-shaped space station this time, the reprise feels like a lesser sequence, but it has some really lovely shots. The inside of this craft has a great sixties/seventies leisure centre look… it actually feels a bit like the ABC Cinema where I saw 2001 in the seventies. Heywood R. Floyd is asleep AGAIN, there are more cute stewardesses, and a mouth-watering selection of vegetable drinks. The stewardess gets to demonstrate the power of grip shoes by walking up a curved wall in a tubular corridor until she’s upside down. I wonder if they ought to have filled the drinks trays with helium to make them look weightless in her hands. I mean, they look light, but not like they would float off, even though Heywood’s does.

The stewardesses are studying self defense.Zero gravity toilet gag! For those who are interested, or even concerned, the full instructions can be read here.

Randy Cook points out the similarity between the moonbase’s dock and the selenites’ solar power panels in THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON, released not long previously, which shared some crew, notably effects man Les Bowie.  Kubrick wasted a good bit of his time on earth worrying about whether the TV show Space 1999 was infringing his copyright — “The title is just two years removed from our own!” But you can’t copyright a title, Stanley. However, he might have potentially sued Gerry Anderson and his team for ripping off the look of Moonbase Alpha from his Clavius base. Pick your battles.

Kubrick also remarked that older viewers seem to be depressingly word-based in their thinking — several picked up on the characters’ discussion of “Clavius” and imagined that H.R. Floyd was on his way to a planet called Clavius. He knew that most audiences wouldn’t know that was a place on the lunar surface, but assumed they’d figure it out when they got there. When he asked kids how they knew his destination was instead the moon, they all replied, “Because I SAW it.”If you want reasonably compelling proof that Kubrick didn’t fake the moon landings — and I’m only speaking to those of you who want it, I can’t be bothered with anyone who NEEDS it — consider how everyone on the moon walks about as if the gravity were earth-normal. No galumphing sideways meerkat loping for Heywood R. Floyd, thank you very much. And nobody’s wearing grip shoes. We might guess that Kubrick is supposing some kind of goofy artificial gravity in the Clavius briefing room, but Arthur Clarke would surely have nixed such unscientific nonsense. And when we see the astronauts outside at the excavation site, they’re STILL walking perfectly normally, as if strolling around Borehamwood on a May morning. It seems nobody concerned with the production predicted the effects of the low lunar gravity, or else they dismissed it as too finicky to deal with (subtle slow motion might have been an option, reverting to normal speed when Floyd and his colleagues talk, keeping them stationary for dialogue or looping in normal-speed lines…)Further proof that S.K. the perfectionist wasn’t perfect: (1) the stills photographer in the briefing room has a hideous, Great McGinty-style suit; (2) big-ass continuity error on Floyd’s posture as he addresses the assembled bods.A beautiful lunar cruise in another lovely craft, with Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna for company — the micropolyphony (don’t know what it means) of the unaccompanied choir gives an eerie, celestial (or selenite) tone which anticipates the appearance of alien artifact #2. We couldn’t have stood another iteration of The Blue Danube, so Kubrick transposes the eerie emotions of the upcoming scene over this more neutral one. As ever, those effects that don’t quite convince are the ones that look like still photographs on a rostrum camera set-up, but they’re beautiful anyway.More unappetizing space food, and more monotonous space dialogue. Floyd, the world’s blandest man, has a tendency to parrot back whatever anyone offers him, sometimes repurposing their words a little, and the others do the same to him. His dialogue isn’t chicken, but it tastes the same anyway.

“What a wonderful surprise to meet you here.”

“You’re looking wonderful.”

“I appreciate the way you’ve handled this thing…”

“Well, the way we look at it, our job’s to do this thing the way you want it done…”

It’s not quite Tom Cruise’s baffled echolalia in EYES WIDE SHUT, where he repeats every damn sentence spoken to him, but it’s an early clue to the new direction.

The original script, or one of them (here) suggests more dialogue, in particular stating clearly that the recently unearthed (or unmooned?) monolith may be solar-powered (because it’s black, therefore absorbs light) but has not actually seen daylight for millions of years, and has not yet been shone on by the sun since they cleared the moondust off it. So that the low angle “eclipse” shot that accompanies the painful high-pitched whine — the Jupiter signal, we must presume — shows the sun actually triggering the hitherto inert device.A lot of Kubrick’s dialogue slashes have the effect of making the action more ambiguous or mysterious, which is clearly both deliberate and, I would argue, good. In this case, the repeated angle with the sun cresting the monolith suggests an almost astrological event, which I’m sure would horrify Arthur C.C. Of course, the fact that the astronauts apparently HEAR the Jupiter signal from the monolith, through the vacuum of space, doesn’t make literal sense, but as we don’t know quite what kind of signal it IS, I guess we can’t rule out the possibility.

Might have been funny if the stills photographer at the excavation was wearing a loud plaid spacesuit.

Just when the whine becomes too irritating to bear, we cut to ~

“People melting, indeed!”

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2015 by dcairns


The above scornful remark by a Scottish policeman in X: THE UNKNOWN (1956) recalls the words of the burgomaster in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN: “Monster , indeed!” And screenwriter Jimmy Sangster probably knew his Universal horrors, as he was about to write CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

The perils of a little knowledge: IMDb attributes the film to Leslie Norman, the credited director, and Joseph Losey, and I thought I could see traces of Losey’s trademark snaky tracking shots, but reading more I learn that Losey was removed before production began. as star Dean Jagger refused to work with a blacklisted commie. A shame. Losey had made a short film for Hammer (the turgid A MAN ON THE BEACH) and would eventually shoot THE DAMNED for the studio, but he wasn’t too sorry to be removed from this hokum. Hammer had wanted a Quatermass sequel, I believe, but author Nigel Kneale had refused to allow his creation into the hands of another writer. A shame, in some ways, since the character played by token yank Jagger is closer to Kneale’s conception than the bellowing lout played by Brian Donlevy in THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT.

I had tried to watch this with Fiona once, but we got bored of the muddy quarry setting, which seemed to go on forever. The grumbling squaddies played by the likes of Anthony Newley and Kenneth Cope got sick of it and their lack of enthusiasm was infectious. Seeing it properly, I can’t understand this, as the movie is OK and for heaven’s sake, it’s a quasi-Quatermass set in Scotland. We should have been all over that shit.

My friend Alex, with whom I’ve been writing a Quatermass-inspired project, said he remembered this one improving as it went on. But later, when we discussed it, it turned out that he’d mentally grafted the last half of QUATERMASS II onto the front half of X, so naturally it improved. And somehow the bits went together quite well.


If the film were in colour you’d be able to see that hapless young Kenneth Cope, centre, is wearing a red shirt. Yes, that’s a Star Trek joke.

The monster in the Scottish Quatermass turns out to be mud, which seems kind of apt given the weather. Radioactive mud from the earth’s core, explained by a shambolic bit of Sangster pseudo-science. But, as often with Sangster’s all-thumbs scripting, apparent mistakes or clumsy inconsistencies can be oddly evocative. On the surface, the film has little of the anti-militarism of Kneale’s writing, although the army try to dynamite the monster and then cement over the fissure it oozes from, so they’re idiots. But the best bit is the Geiger counter test — a group of soldiers are training in the use of Geiger counters when they happen to stumble upon the exact spot where the radioactive monster is going to emerge. It’s a fairly global coincidence, but that isn’t the best bit. The inevitable Michael Ripper tells his men that in a real radiation situation, they would be required to mark the spot and get out fast, as radiation can be very nasty. When, seconds later, the pale and trembling young Kenneth Cope does indeed find real radiation, he is ordered to stand on the spot so everyone can see where it is. He dies horribly.

This cheered me up no end, and made me feel the movie would be worth watching as soon as we could get out of the muddy quarry. And we do, to a couple of nuclear labs and a few simpler sets. The nearby village, Lochmouth, is scene of a great bit once the blob gets properly oozing — forced perspectives allow a very small blob to pretend to be a very big blob. For most of the film, the blob is absent, like Godot, though Leslie Norman does grant us a couple of blob’s-eye-view attacks. Before there was Michael Myer, there was X: THE UNKNOWN. X is also an unusual character in that he gets to physically embody his own main title, a gloopy X of rippling oily matter. Even Marlon Brando never got to embody a title, though clearly such an approach could have greatly enhanced his later work.


Red-hating Dean Jagger is, appropriately, on the right, whereas Leo McKern is, like, whatevs.

Then Leo McKern turns up. Like chocolate, Leo McKern makes everything a bit better. I think even chocolate-coated rabies would be a bit better than the normal kind. But I’m unsure if a chocolate-coated Leo McKern would sort of cancel himself out. Anyway, I suspect he was Losey’s idea — his next film would be TIME WITHOUT PITY for that director. I was a little disappointed that McKern’s policeman character wasn’t given more to do — Sangster has crowded the film with largely benign authority figures who get on much too well together — and he accepts with complete credulity the theory that the radiation slayings plaguing this rural locale are the work of some mud. A scene of Leo angrily rejecting such a supposition could easily have been the best scene in the picture.


Priest rescues little girl from blob, which is trickling listlessly through gap in dry-stone wall in front of a painting of Scottish scenery — and the little girl wins the movie’s best acting award by laughing her head off throughout. Nobody, it seems, had the heart (or energy?) to dub on screams.

Instead, the best bit is when makeup guru/top splodger Phil Leakey and effects wiz Les Bowie make a doctor melt. The doc has arranged a romantic tryst with a sexy nurse in the hospital’s “radiation room.” Because what woman can resist a proposition like that? The amorous medico’s disintegration is served up with two shots, a swelling finger closeup which suggests a Tom & Jerry hammer-to-the-thumb gag, while also looking forward to that staple of seventies and eighties horror, the bladder effect. Then there’s a LOST ARK type flesh-melt,all the most striking for its brevity. Lucio Fulci would have gotten a full minute out of that bit, but HE WOULD HAVE BEEN WRONG.


Ha! The sign omits to mention that it’s the SEXY Radiation Room. OF DEATH.

So now commie-hating Dean Jagger has to kill the mud with special science. I liked the fact that the film’s ending hinges upon the need to zap the mud before it decides to rampage through Inverness. The film is a product of a gentler age, in which our empathy for Inverness was presumed to be strong enough to motivate a film’s climax. And I like the fact that Jagger is persuaded to use an experimental technique which, if it fails, is going to cause a gigantic explosion much more devastating than the mud monster.


And then I *really* like the bizarre ending, when the mud-monster is blown up, and there follows a mysterious second explosion from the bowels of the earth. Dean Jagger is deeply perturbed. It shouldn’t have happened. Every one else is, like, whatevs, we blew up the mud didn’t we? But Jagger remains perturbed. And then the film abruptly ENDS, a colossal fuck-you to the curious. It’s not enough to constitute a typical horror movie closeup-of-a-bee sequel promise. It’s not pointed enough, specific enough. It’s just bloody weird, like Sangster started to write a final twist and then couldn’t be bothered, and then couldn’t be bothered XXX-ing out the bit he’d started.

Maybe they used up all their Xs in the title.