Archive for Richard Johnson

Explosive Rod

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2011 by dcairns

Remember, remember the fifth of November 

Gunpowder, treason and plot

I see no reason

Why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot.

HENNESSY is a mostly pretty interesting terrorism thriller from the director of  THE FACE OF FU MANCHU (which had a big impact on me on TV as a kid) to the 1979 THE 38 STEPS (which I saw at the cinema a few years later) to the legend that is PSYCHOMANIA. Don Sharp was an Australian working in England, and he brought a rugged professionalism to everything he did — his films aren’t all good but they’re unapologetic.

In this one, Rod Steiger plays an ex-IRA man who sets off on a suicide mission after his family are (accidentally) wiped out by British soldiers during a riot. Traveling to London, he embarks on an elaborate plan to get access to the opening of Parliament, disguised as a cranky politician, and blow the Houses of Parliament, the Royal Family, the government and the opposition and himself to united kingdom come.

As you can see, the movie sparked some controversy (although possibly AIP are hyping it up for their promotional purposes). Back in 1975, any attempt to make entertainment out of the Troubles was regarded not only with suspicion (which would be natural and reasonable) but with hysteria — as Mike Hodges found out later when his A PRAYER FOR THE DYING likewise sparked a media shitstorm for daring to portray an IRA man who’s tired of violence in a sympathetic manner. While Carol Reed’s ODD MAN OUT was something of a beloved masterpiece, any attempt to treat similar ground provoked unreasoning fury from the tabloids. The subject WAS rather a grim one, and the horror WAS an ongoing scenario rather than safely in the past, but the frenzied denunciations rarely seemed to have anything to do with the subject under discussion. HENNESSY certainly isn’t an abhorrent film.

Rod and Lee, not being abhorrent.

In fact, the premise was the brainchild of co-star Richard “Who You Fucking?” Johnson, who plays a brutal cockney cop in the film, hot on Rod’s trail and sporting a Captain Haddock beard. He’s quite convincing as a thug, continuing the “violence to the shins” theme he originated in his Bulldog Drummond movies. And meanwhile, not only is Rod Steiger sporting a very convincing Irish accent, but so is Lee Remick, and both of them are really good.

Haddock to a tee.

Although the opening, which requires Rod to kneel and agonize by his slain wife and child (Patsy Kensitt, precociously attempting to justify the shoot to kill policy by her very presence NO! I don’t mean that I’m sure she’s very nice really), which is a red rag to a bull to a man with Rod’s histrionic tendencies, actually he’s 90% muted and restrained and underplaying and all that. Which is remarkable when you consider that this film was shot around the time of WC FIELDS AND ME, where he’s fairly flamboyant, and after the excesses of NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY, THE SERGEANT and WATERLOO, movies where the word “outsized” could fairly be deployed.

Only when Rod straps on the gelignite does an explanation suggest itself: clearly, Sharp stopped his star hamming by having him wired to explode should his acting exceed thirty Oliviers per hour. This clamps a lid on the tempestuous player: you can see him approaching conflagration point, but pulling it all in and down, broiling inwardly with the agony of not being a big show-off, radiating all that intensity through the eyes…

Special guest stars!

So that’s all going on. And then, at the climax, his ridiculous plan nearing fruition, Rod enters a studio mock-up of the Houses of Parliament, and Sharp pulls his cheekiest move: actual guest appearances by the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles, Princess Anne, James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher… at the appearance of Mrs T, not yet elected to PM, I confess I did start to hope that Rod would heroically blow up and save us 11 years of right wing Tory rule…

Sharp is intercutting documentary footage of the real event, which an opening title shamefacedly admits was not shot especially for this film (but I bet it was, under false pretenses), with Rod and Richard in the Twickenham studios mock-up. To add further to the delirium, Sharp cuts to Steiger’s sweaty fingers connecting the wires within his clothing. Yes, this is doubtless the true reason the movie was banned: for daring to intercut images of our sovereign with images taken inside Rod Steiger’s clothing. These are, I think, the only photographic images recorded inside Rod Steiger’s clothing ever presented to the public. Some brief shots of his nipples chaffing against his shirt in IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT were deleted for pacing reasons, and although David Lean did consider shooting Steiger’s drunk scene in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO from under his furry hat, he decided against it (a decision he regretted to his dying day).

Inside Rod Steiger.

Bullshot

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on March 15, 2011 by dcairns

The 1969 follow-up to DEADLIER THAN THE MALE is called SOME GIRLS DO, and it’s both better and worse. Better, because it’s more consistently silly, rather than nasty, and the annoying American sidekick has been replaced by an annoying British sidekick called Reggie, as should be. Worse, as the script by David Osborn and Liz Charles-Williams lacks the occasional plot felicities of Jimmy Sangster’s original — indeed, it sometimes seems a straight rip-off. Both films begin with a glamor girl disguised as an air stewardess assassinating a passenger, unmask their villain as a would-be Mabuse called Petersen, and spend a lot of time with “Bulldog” imprisoned by Petersen as the madman monologues away about his plans for world domination or whatevs.

Petersen, who died in the previous film, has mysteriously returned, and is played by a different actor, the droll James Villiers, which suggests a fast-and-loose approach to continuity. Virginia North (Vulnavia in DR PHIBES), who played the useless nephew’s girlfriend in the first film, here plays a murderous fembot with an “off” switch on her neck. Also appearing as background crumpet are Joanna Lumley and Yutte Stensgard, with Daliah Lavi as lead femme fatale. Goo-goo-eyed babe Sydne Rome is a sort of femme foetal, with a berserk comedy performance that finally convinced me that she’s not a dumb blonde, just very good at playing one. I should know better than to be taken in by the bimbo act. Her work in Polanski’s WHAT? is so artfully artless as to suggest an entirely empty head atop a curvaceous body, being skillfully moved about by unseen off-camera-hands. But she’s a proper actress, or at least a real performer. What she does may not be subtle, but it shows the only real enthusiasm in the picture.

The idea of a maladroit female sidekick was trotted out again in THE WRECKING CREW with Sharon Tate providing the sexy bumbling, and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN gave the blonde business to Britt Ekland. On the one hand, at least it gives the actresses something to play. On the other, it’s not exactly empowering. Sydne Rome’s ditzy ebullience does take some of the curse off it.

Villiers, sad to relate, is hampered by a series of ridiculous disguises, and proves to be no master of accents. Only when he’s unmasked and can swan around, exulting in his own nastiness, do we get the full, unfettered J.V.

Richard Johnson raises an eyebrow here and there and is mercifully unsupplied with quips. A plot point involving the “robotizing” of girls — fitting them with artificial brains — seems tacky and unpleasant, unmasking the dehumanization fantasy of so much swinging sixties sex stuff: the idea of the perfect woman being brain-dead and compliant. Objectification is a tricky point — human bodies ARE objects and it seems fair enough for artists to explore their physical properties, but when the storyline drools over the idea of reducing a person to an animate automaton, something more sinister is going on. The fact that the mastermind of all this is played by the strikingly camp Villiers is just another note of nonsense.

This movie seems to have killed off “Bulldog” for good — not even TV has tried to resuscitate the old bigot. A 1983 spoof, BULLSHOT, from Handmade Films, was really quite bad: it took George Harrison quite a while to realize he couldn’t replace the Monty Python team.

A reader sends me this image of her striking James Villiers tattoo — “Jimbo” shares arm-space with Jonathan Frid from DARK SHADOWS.

Sapped

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2011 by dcairns

“Who you fucking?” This is apparently how actor Richard Johnson (83) greets friends he hasn’t seen for a while. It’s a pertinent question in DEADLIER THAN THE MALE (1967), in which RJ plays “Bulldog” Drummond, partially re-imagined for the James Bond era. Or, since the screenwriter in question is by Hammer’s Jimmy Sangster, we might say de-imagined. Despite his Bondifying, this manly protag is weirdly abstinent sexually, and some of his bedroom antics are treated with a weird attempt at “plausible deniability” as if the censor still cared how many ladies the hero laid.

As part of the refit, “Bulldog” is now a jet-setting businessman, or insurance man, or something, which doesn’t seem to amp up his glamour any to me. Also, nobody calls him “Bulldog” — almost as if they were ashamed to be making a “Bulldog” Drummond movie. They needn’t be — it’s a character with a long, dishonourable tradition. The highlight of poor BD’s screen career is probably the fact that THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, the film that kickstarted Hitchcock’s espionage cycle in Britain in the ‘thirties, started life as an idea for a BD movie. Anyhow, having rejected “Bulldog” as too laughable for the ‘sixties, Sangster is stuck with a hero whose first name is Hugh.

Rather than being accompanied by a near-deformed upper-class imbecile called Reggie, the new, disimproved Hugh is saddled with an American nephew called *can’t remember and can’t be bothered looking it up*. This blatant sop to out friends across the water is surely flawed by the fact that Nephew is an entirely useless character who gets captured and tortured a lot.

Ah yes, torture. The stories by “Sapper” apparently can be quite brutal (and racist) at times, and this is seized upon by Sangster, whose bread and butter was horror movies, after all. This results in some tonal lurching, as our hero threatens to break a thug’s legs by crushing them against a wall with his car (the guy gets off with badly barked shins), and Nephewman gets singed with lit cheroot and lighter by the sexy bad gals. Such nastiness sits awkwardly with the film’s flip, silly plotting and fun gimmicks like a giant remote-control chess-board.

Also, Johnson is a disaster as a sub-Bondian hero — he makes a tweedy professor seem sexy in THE HAUNTING by way of unexpectedness, but typecast as a staunch protag he’s as useless as Anthony Steele, and that’s saying something. Of course, the writing doesn’t help — while Bond movies always feature one or two scenes of pure exposition enlivened by gags and sparring with M & Q, Sangster fills the whole first half of the film with endless waffle, board meetings and chats with informants, which lack any dramatic tension. That stuff gets supplied by the in-between scenes where Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina wiggle about in revealing costumes killing everybody they meet.

In the first five minutes, Elke has killed an oil magnate with a novelty exploding cigar (it fires a bullet through his head, actually), blown up his private jet while parachuting into the ocean, and joined Sylva to speargun some poor guy to death while wearing startling bikinis. Later on, they’ll use curare to paralyse Leonard Rossiter before rolling him out the window of his penthouse shagging palace. All good clean fun, and helped by the film’s best writing (Koscina is always borrowing Sommer’s stuff, leading to lighthearted squabbling). Elke has little in the way of comic flair (beneath that curvaceous exterior throbs a talent of hinged plywood) by Sylva is pretty hilarious, giving her sadism a touch of knowing innocence that’s very Takashi Miike.

Director Ralph Thomas of the Thomas filmmaking clan (brother Gerald produced the CARRY ON series, son Jeremy has produced Bertolucci and Cronenberg) actually makes a fair fist of things, aided by Malcolm Lockyer’s John Barry impression on the soundtrack (title song by the Walker Brothers) — on this evidence, Thomas could have directed a James Bond movie at least as well as, say, Guy Hamilton. He has Nigel Green as the evil mastermind, which helps. But ultimately, the static, boring script sinks most of it, especially the low-grade quips. I envisage Sangster’s script being full of footnotes, pretty much whenever Drummond opens his mouth — “Insert wisecrack here.” But somebody forgot to do so, and thus we get devastating parting shots like “Hey, don’t forget your panties.”

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 357 other followers