Archive for The Man Who Fell to Earth

Great Brain Robbery

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2021 by dcairns

RIP Jean-Paul Belmondo.

We had just watched Michael Crichton’s best film, THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, which I’d been surprised to find on DVD in a charity shop (movies from 1978 or earlier are rare, except the very obvious ones), and then Belmondo’s passing prompted me to dig out THE BRAIN/LE CERVEAU (1969), a big-budget splashy caper comedy by Gerard Oury (who had just scored a massive hit in his homeland with LE GRAND VADROUILLE). And since the Brain, international master-criminal extraordinaire, is played by David Niven, it tied in with our weekend viewing of A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH.

So, Crichton first. his Victorian heist movie was called simply THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY in America, heedless of Edwin S. Porter, but had a FIRST interpolated in the UK to avoid confusion with the 1963 robbery of the Glasgow to London Royal Mail train, which was still a legendary job here. And, funnily enough, that real-life robbery is credited to the Brain in Oury’s film, even though several of the actual thieves had been nabbed by ’69.

Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Leslie-Anne Down are Crichton’s conspirators, briefly aided by Wayne Sleep, master of parkour (in reality a dancer who enjoyed a burst of fame just after this movie). The target is gold bullion used to pay the British troops in the Crimea. the The gimmick is that nobody at this this time had robbed a moving train.

With Geoffrey Unsworth shooting it, the film looks dandy, with Irish locations (Dublin mainly) augmented by skillful matte paintings and the whole thing is elevated hugely by Jerry Goldsmith’s jaunty score — the man understood the romance of steam trains and put that romance into musical form very purely. And the climactic sequence, with Connery doing a lot of his own stunts on top of a locomotive, is everything it needs to be.

It’s interesting to reflect that Crichton’s odd career — medical doctor, novelist, film director, then back to novels (which regularly became films by other people) — culminated in an even odder spree as climate change denier, in which Crichton tried to parlay his medical experience into some kind of expertise in a field he knew nothing about. (The only thing that could have made Crichton’s life odder is if Nic Roeg had followed up his first impulse to cast the very tall 6″ 9 non-actor as Thomas Jerome Newton in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. Crichton also created the TV show E.R., an early example of prestige television which it seems nobody now talks about.) This is vaguely relevant here solely because T(F)GTR is a very mercenary film, and I recall Crichton being asked by an interviewer about the consequences for our children if he was wrong, and global termperatures WERE being forced up. He replied, strangely, by asking in turn what if he were right, and we lost a lot of money by trying to tackle climate change? Which struck my as a really strange thing to put in the balance, as if greater wealth were as important as survival.

“All you care about is money,” says Leslie-Anne Down.

“All anyone cares about is money,” says Connery.

There’s a thesis to be written about the popularity of the heist movie in the swinging sixties — the genre slowly gathered steam from THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, THE KILLING and RIFIFI, but became almost ubiquitous in the flower power era, even though the unrestrained capitalist impulse would seem incompatible at first glance with free love and all that. Evidently it was VERY compatible. I guess you have the demise of the Hays Code, so “crime must not pay” goes out the window; you have a generation questioning authority; and law and order thrown into disrepute by a second prohibition, that of recreational drugs. And the hippies were not indifferent to money, just hostile to the rat race. And so now we have Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and the muppets.

Anyway, Oury’s THE BRAIN posits two rival gangs after the same target, the secret wealth of NATO. France had temporarily dropped out of NATO, it seems, so Belmondo, energetic and optimistic as ever, sees nothing wrong in pilfering from the remaining nations, and his dour compatriot Bourvil is persuaded to join him.

(If you want a triple-bill, the third entry should be Melville’s THE RED CIRCLE, with Bourvil as a cat-loving detective and yet another train heist, this time staged with Thunderbirds-style miniatures.)

Meanwhile Niven’s Brain is secretly the officer in charge of security and is planning to filch the sacks of cash himself. This being the sixties, he lives in an opulent mod apartment and keeps a pet leopard. He briefs his team with an animatic showing how the robbery will work. Fiona: “I love that he’s gone to the trouble of making an animated film!” Me: “It’s rotoscoped, so he’s gone to the trouble of shooting it all in live action and then animating on top of it!”

Complications, as they say, ensue: Sicilian money-launderer Eli Wallach wants a bigger cut, and his virginal young sister Silvia Monti wants Niven. This film is silly. There’s a lot of very broad slapstick. The train robbery is mostly covered via process shots, so Belmondo doesn’t perform many of the incredible Keatonesque/Jackie Chan stunts you can see in THE MAN FROM RIO, LES TRIBULATIONS D’UN CHINOIS EN CHINE, FEAR OVER THE CITY, LE CASSE, but it’s all very lavish and undemanding. The opening title sequence drops every sixties special effect on the cutting room floor and tramples them into a fine paste.

THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY stars James Bond; Klute; Dr. Eileen Flax; Master Shallow; Lord Hibbott – Wedding Two; Night Porter; Miss Moneypenny; Esther Waters; Drogue; Lady Felicity: The Palace; Professor Bernard Quatermass; and Mr. Sugden.

THE BRAIN stars Louis-Dominique Bourguignon alias Cartouche; Sir James Bond; Un drogué; Tuco Juan Maria Ramirez, known as The Rat; Miss Milbanke; Lord Henry Wotton; and Le Sergent Mac Fish.

Roeg Ape

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2021 by dcairns

Rewatching PLANET OF THE APES — I am gratified to see that when you type “Planet of the Apes” into the IMDb, this is once more the film that turns up, the Tim Burton adaptation being mercifully forgotten — I got struck by the Roegisms. Did Nic R. see this, like it, and absorb it into his stylistic toolbox?

Case in point: the dramatic zoom in on Heston laughing at the little stars and stripes planted on the planet, a zoom which aims at his face but then misses and shoots off into the sky as Heston’s voice echoes away. A slightly similar effect occurs in EUREKA right at the start, but the space-zoom isn’t integrated in with a character in that one.

But that’s not all — there’s the rocket crash, even before that point, which is really a self-plagiarism by director Franklin J. Schaffner (who has the greatest, crunchiest Hollywood director name ever) since there’s a very similar ski crash at the starts of his earlier THE DOUBLE MAN. Roeg’s splashdown in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH is *extremely* similar.

A less obvious one is the descent down a gravelly incline by Heston and his crew, which Roeg also borrows for Bowie in his sf movie. But he reverses the handheld camera descent, so that it’s backing away from Bowie at a low angle, instead of following Heston at eye-level.

APES is edited by Hugh S. Fowler, a Twentieth Century Fox company man all his life, who worked on some fine stuff — but asides from PATTON, it’s kind of hard to detect a consistent sensibility between this, IN HARM’S WAY and WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? But his cutting, and the excellent sound design and Jerry Goldsmith’s score (a game-changer) do wonders to make every angle change a startle effect. Of course Schaffner deserves huge credit for providing such muscular material, along with cameraman Leon M. Shamroy, in gorgeous lifelike colour by Deluxe.

One more swipe — the dinghy’s transit along narrow canyons is borrowed by Michael Anderson for the final episode of his TV Martian Chronicles. And it serves him very well!

Three-Dimensional Chess

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 6, 2020 by dcairns

I read Walter Tevis’s The Queen’s Gambit years ago and loved it. His other filmed books, The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth are great too, and made good movies but the books are still worthy of investigation. The Color of Money doesn’t really have anything much in common with Scorsese’s film and you can see why they chose a different story (“but the book had a very good love story,” said Scorsese in Edinburgh, which was nice of him to note). And there’s an unfilmed sci-fi novel, Mockingbird, which is really beautiful.

I’ve also been impressed with Scott Frank’s stuff — he adapted Elmer Leonard for Soderbergh (OUT OF SIGHT — still maybe SS’s best movie) and from the audio commentary on that one you could tell he was going to direct, and probably be really good at it. And THE LOOKOUT, his first film, was terrific. Like all the promising middlebrow genre filmmakers of his generation, he did time in the Marvel salt mines but the one he wrote, LOGAN, is said to be GOOD. I wasn’t paying attention and thought A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES was just some Liam Neeson movie so I skipped that but now I have bought a DVD of it for 50p because WOW Scott Frank’s miniseries of The Queen’s Gambit is a beautiful thing.

From my memory of the book I can affirm that the CGI visualisations of chessboards are pretty much what Tevis wrote. It’s very faithful though some melodrama early on is removed, which I came to accept as a good call. Though maybe Tevis gains something by making his heroine more damaged.

I can’t recall the clothes in the book — I had a vague impression that Anya Taylor-Joy is more glamorous than the Beth Harmon who Tevis gave us, but I’m probably misremembering. But boy, ATJ is a magnificent screen presence. Her glamour is increasingly weird and witchy so she’s a credible outsider. In fact, everyone in this is terrific, down to the smallest roles — each minor player defeated by ATJ, for instance, is a little one-scene cameo and they’re all uniquely human and different.

Photography, design, music, cutting, are all weapons-grade delicious, and as the story moves through the sixties Scott allows himself a subtly evolving stylistic palette that reflects developing film language of the period without ever becoming pastiche. You don’t see more surefooted choices than this. He could maybe have taken some of them even further, but his caution is probably part of the reason why he hits absolutely everything he aims at.

Nothing negative to say about this show at all, it may be the best American film or “film” of the year.