Archive for Mike Hodges

Feature

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on October 1, 2022 by dcairns

It can be revealed.

The special project I was working on in the summer is a feature-length interview film with/about Mike Hodges. MIKE HODGES – A FILM-MAKER’S LIFE. It’s included on the Blu-ray of CROUPIER, seen top left, from Arrow Films, coming in December.

It was a great job to have — I miss it. Mike was extremely generous with his time and energy. And Arrow and I are already thinking about doing more long career-covering pieces like this.

Trapped in the Turret

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on July 2, 2022 by dcairns

“Trapped in the Turret” is a wonderfully lame title for the penultimate episode of FLASH GORDON. Some sense of escalation, of final doom to be averted, is presumably desirable at this point, but instead we have a description of an inconvenience.

I looked up the actor who plays “Commander Torch,” Ming’s earthbound (or mongobound) flying monkey. Earl Askam seems, in his armour and with his kidney-bean torso, like an actor who would play an unsympathetic cop in a Laurel & Hardy short, if Edgar Kennedy was preoccupied. Instead, of course, he was a B-western fixture. He died just a few years after making this, from a Bing Crosby-anticipating golf course heart attack, while playing fellow western star Kermit Maynard. Earl was also a trained opera singer, a talent I wish this serial had exploited.

Flash rushes to Dale’s aid, and his differently-shaped stunt double has an enjoyable rollabout with the playful tiger fearsome tigron, as Dale and her stunt double take turns watching in terror. Ming, in turn, watches on Zoom.

The closeups of Larry “Buster” Crabbe wrestling a stuffed cat corpse are tastefully interpolated — the trick is inherently obvious, but never becomes comically obvious the way it is in many more expensive productions. Flash uses his main talent — strangling — no doubt acquired on the polo field — to subdue the ravenous taxidermy exhibit.

“The sacred tigron has been killed!” gasps the Indian temple maiden. Flash Gordon, visiting district iconoclast, strikes again. Mongo will be an entirely profane planet by the time he’s got through strangling everything.

Prince Barin converts Aura to the cause by pointing out that arranging for Dale’s devouring is unlikely to win Flash’s love. “I shall intercede with my father the emperor,” she says, which depending on your reading is either bragging (my son, the lawyer) or exposition above and beyond the call of duty (it’s a big building with doctors in it, but that’s not important right now).

The wide shot of Ming’s palace is really lovely, even if it does have a big hair growing out of it in the frame I’ve selected.

Commander Torch (is he backed up by Sergeant Screwdriver, Corporal Sliderule and Private Flyspray?) belatedly remembers he has a firearm and subdues Vultan and Zarkov, aiming directly at the pretty flower on Frank “knobbly knees” Shannon’s onesie. Ming demands that Flash be found, “visible or not.” At which point, Flash and chums enter the throne room. And Ming STILL doesn’t look happy. He and Zarkov really ought to be friends, they have so much in common: both seem depressed and sullen about their lot in life , the clothes they have to wear, the words they’re expected to say.

Ming is immediately held hostage, his armed guards somehow powerless against Barin’s sword and Flash’s disapproving attitude. Aura, whose character arc resembles a crazy straw, has not only joined the forces of good, she’s SETTLED — accepting passively the meaty love of Barin. Ming promises the earthfolks can return to their “sphere” — but he does it while making Mr Burns-type evil finger movements. We discover he has a henchman called “Officer Ego.”

One is used to these stories being tales of foreign intervention, so the willingness of all concerned to leave Ming in charge, with no guarantee he won’t threaten the earth again, is baffling.

I’m struck by the fact that I found Vultan to be a fun character when I was a kid, whereas it’s now abundantly clear that he’s as dangerous as Ming, crazier by far, and has the mind of a three-year-old. Mike Hodges told me that he saw his FG as a satire on American interventionism, with the bounding idiot Flash (shades of Lang’s Siegfried) smashing the state without understanding anything that’s going on. I suggested there should have been a sequel where Mongo falls to pieces without its dictator, like a post-Tito Yugoslavia. He chuckled.

The non-interventionist Flash we see here, obeying some unstated Prime Directive issued to polo players on the off-chance of interplanetary entanglements, perhaps echoes American foreign policy circa 1936, explaining that late entry into WWII, whereas 1980 Flash is consistent with a new era.

The earthfolks and their buddies load “power units” onto Zarkov’s rocket, intent on visiting Vultan’s city for no clear reason. Commander Torch and his bitches watch warily.

First mention of the turret! “I am to meet the others at the turret-house, by the lake of rocks,” says Barin. I very much want to see this “lake of rocks.” I wonder if it’s a sacred lake of rocks? Or just regular.

Due to popular demand, director Frederick Stephani shows us the iguanas again. They watch Zarkov’s rocketship buzz overhead, licking their dry lips, and it is amusing to speculate what they might be thinking. Perhaps they are anticipating their appearance in an 80s surrealist cigarette commercial. Perhaps they are looking back on their acquaintanceship with that nice Mr. Darwin. One opens his maw to give throat to a fearsome cock-crow — apparently in valediction to the departing earthpeople. So long. It’s been emotional.

See you later, iguana.

Arriving at the turret-house, Flash, Dale, Aura, Vultan and Zarkov notice a rocketship bearing down on them. Like Cary Grant in NORTH BY NORTHWEST they stand for ages, dopily staring at it, too embarrassed to run or duck until its lethal intentions become completely unambiguous. It’s very human.

“It must be Prince Barin’s ship,” says Flash the optimist.

BOOM! It fires on them.

“Why should Prince Barin do that?” asks Zarkov, not rhetorically — he’s legit terrified at this new development. Friends have become enemies, enemies friends! Chaos!

“I don’t know!” says Aura, just as baffled. Nobody has the power to think during this scene. It’s scary. They’re trapped — and they’re not even IN the turret! they are trapped in a brainless limbo: the Sea of Rockheads. Five characters without the initiative to even search for an author. Stiff, hopeless illustrations of the doctrine of predetermination, they must now trap themselves in the turret to fulfill a chapter title not of their own choosing. But, when you think about it, isn’t that the plight of every one of us? Isn’t every one of us forced to trap themselves in a turret to fulfill a chapter title not of our own choosing?

The inside of the turret door looks very much like Bronson Caves. Explosion! Explosion-like wipe to closing title card! Next week, the chapter title Flash and his chums will be rigidly fulfilling will be —

1) The Planet of Peril

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 28, 2022 by dcairns

High time I rewatched FLASH GORDON. All of it!

It was my Dad who introduced me to Flash. My Mum had already given me accounts of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, whose adventures she read in her big brother Kenny’s Eagle comic. (Kenny is now a widower thanks to Covid and suffers from vascular dementia: who knew the future would be such a tough place?)

My Dad saw the Flash serials on rerelease as a boy in the forties. I remember I was playing in the garden one summer when he came out and suggested there was something starting on TV I might like. I think this is the only time he ever did anything like that. And he proceeded to bring the experience alive by recounting how he and his chums would cheer the heroes and boo the villains, particularly during the role call at the start of each episode. So I intuited that the true purpose of those sequences was not to let us know that Larry “Buster” Crabbe was playing the role of Flash, but to give us a chance to prime our audience participation engines.

The original 1936 serial starts as it means to go on: with stiff acting interspersed with model shots and stock footage. Planet earth is a model, a cloudless globe dangling against a starscape with interplanetary clouds drifting about; as we get closer there are crowd scenes of various panicking nationals — it’s funny how the New Yorkers are swarming about as if in a stock market charge, the Romans thronging as if listening to a pontiff, the Indians are actually praying, the Africans dancing, the Arabs charging on camels, each to his own idiom — and when we set magnification to maximum we get cheap actors in cheap sets.

These actors are for sure a mixed batch but they’re GOOD ENOUGH for these purposes. Swimming star Larry “Buster” Crabbe joked that his acting reached the level of incompetence and stuck there, but like his fellow naiad Esther Williams he’s quite effective and charming in a casual, “just-chatting-with-my-chums” way. At 5.50 he gives maybe the greatest line reading of 1936 (a fine year) when Doctor Zarkov says “I’m sure the planet rushing up on us is inhabited, It is also intensely radioactive. If I can reach it in my rocketship, I may be able to control its power, and divert it from its course towards the earth.”

Larry “Buster” Crabbe practically shrugs: “Well, it’s worth trying.,” he says, mildly. Almost a Joe E. Brown vibe there.

Zarkoff is Dublin-born Frank Shannon, and the idea of a mad scientist called Zarkoff who speaks with an Irish brogue is intensely amusing. Like being constantly tickled from an unknown direction. One imagines a backstory: the Professor has realised he’s never going to get anywhere in the mad scientist business with a name like Padraig Mahoney. He must change it to something more slavic, or face penury.

Dale Arden is Jean Rogers and I’m keen to see if the vibrant good humour she displayed in a few comic feature films is going to be evident here. It seems like a good place for it.

Charles Middleton, not a naturalistic actor by any means, more of a pound store John Carradine, is in his demented element as Ming, Kentucky-born ruler of Mongo. The job seems to require mainly self-confidence and a lack of resemblance to anyone you might hope to encounter irl. Middleton achieves this consistently. The perfect contrast to the throwaway style of Larry “Buster” Crabbe. Middleton-Ming doesn’t throw his lines away, he throws them AT you, with deadly force.

If you’ve seen the 1980 masterpiece, it’s surprising how similar the set-up is. Zarkoff’s assistant has run off (but we never see this) and he needs a co-pilot for his rocketship. Flash Gordon in this version is a polo player, so he naturally has the required skillset (he can make something bigger than himself go in the direction he desires — it’s exactly like steering a spacecraft). Dale Arden is abducted along for the ride. Being a girl, she’s the first to pass out from asphyxiation as they leave the stratosphere. “Sorry,” says Prof Z, “In the excitement I forgot to turn on the oxygen.” He’s a man who somehow fills one with confidence.

Larry “Buster” Crabbe is really good also because he looks more worried than most leading men. Even being tasked with looking through a periscope causes him to tug his collar away from his overdeveloped neck. He looks as worried as you or I might be. And he sheds a tear in one of the sequel installments when a Princess dies. Sam Jones, star of the big remake, was obsessed with playing a hero who might cry, and he does come close in one of the various dungeon scenes.

The rocketship wobbles delightfully on its path, and makes the sound of a thousand jet-powered jalopies banging in unison, while sparks shoot out of its rear end as if it were Chris Lynam. That’s an obscure reference, I know, but I’m not out to please everyone.

Despite appearances the rocketship is perfectly capable of reaching an alien world in mere minutes, even navigating “the death zone,” which is just as well, since the set has been built in such a way as to afford us only a view of the three principals’ backs. We pitch up in a kind of papier-mâché terrarium, a fitting introduction to Planet Mongo, a world created by a God on a tight budget.

Flash’s jodhpurs. I just realized, he’s still dressed for polo. Three horses drowned under him, etc. The remake casts him as a footballer, which is fine. More plebeian, more everyman, and more in keeping with Mike Hodges notion of Flash the idiot interventionist, moronic embodiment of US foreign policy. I always think there should have been a sequel where Mongo falls apart without Ming there to run things.

When our heroes are pursued by thunder lizards, the filmmakers have had to cope with the refractory behaviour of real live reptiles, who eat up miles of film in slomo as they rampage around their miniature set without meaning or control, so that sometimes they seem to be fleeing their prey, or just walking headlong into rockfaces. As predators, they seem mainly dangerous due to their (supposed) size — they might myopically tread on our heroes, but they aren’t likely to actually catch them. It may be that the horns that have been glued all over them are a distraction, sending the poor iguanas cross-eyed.

The more expensive and time-consuming special effect would be to actually composite lizards and actors together in a single frame, but we’re not going to do that. The only special effect here is the Kuleshov one.

Oh, but then we do! Dale is ordered to keep an eye out, so she wanders blithely almost into the nearest dragon’s gob. The monsters do battle! One can’t shake the suspicion that they are either making out, or being rammed into each other by props men in protective gloves. Then the pyrotechnics guy blows them up. “Are they dead?” asks Dale. “No doubt about it!” barks Zarkov, suddenly an expert paleontologist.

Cause of the explosion is a rival rocketship, a neat little buzzing bee of a thing. It is a thing of joy to watch the armour-plated pilots disembark through the tiny hatch, the chunky leader’s pugilistic arse-out stance and anti-chaffing walk challenging you to laugh at him, you bastards. His two henchbeings look like the Black Knight from MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, but without the detachable limbs. Their equivalents in the remake DO have hands that come off.

“Why destroy earth? Why not conquer it?” Brought before Ming the Merciless, Doctor Mahoney Zarkov doesn’t seem to be as faithful an ambassador as we might wish for. He’s sent off to the laboratory to invent stuff. Then Princess Aura barges in, with a certain Tugboat Annie attitude Ornella Muti could learn from. She and Dale immediately size each other up as hated rivals. Nice that Dale, so far from home, has immediately found a hated rival.

Ming is sizing Dale up too, but in a different way. “Your eyes, your hair, your skin!” He’s taking inventory. Flash has had enough of this salty talk, and immediately sets about battering flunkies with an enormous vase. Then he starts fencing. A useful outlet for his pent-up passions, I suppose, but hardly appropriate behaviour on a diplomatic mission. He’s probably right, though: a six-foot unbreakable urn rammed down on the plumed helmet is the only language these people understand.

Flash is then thrown into the arena, where he must battle the Brute Men of Mongo, three bruisers with swim trunks, tusks, and male-pattern baldness, in a choppy skirmish where his shirt is soon as ragged as the continuity. Aura gazes on in erect-nippled fascination. Dale, pinioned by handmaidens, is less tumescent but still concerned.

“He fights well, the earthman,” observes Ming, naturally falling into alien imperial syntax. In truth, Flash’s signature move, picking up one Brute Man and hurling him at the others, is somewhat overused, but it’s a good trick if you can do it.

Aura is even more impressed, so much so that she intervenes before Flash can be dropped into the dreaded Pit. Unfortunately her intervention takes the form of raygunning down the man in charge of the levers. Falling, he pulls down the lever controlling the trapdoor. Flash (and Aura) fall into the pit.

TO BE CONTINUED!