Archive for The Tenth Victim

Forbidden Divas RIP: Help Me, Rhonda!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2020 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove’s latest Forbidden Divas piece seems like a suitable way to close out The Late Show for 2020. Though the film itself is not a particularly late one in its star’s life (or that of its director or anyone else), it is also an obituary, and you can’t get any later than THAT.

FORBIDDEN DIVAS RIP

Help Me, Rhonda!

“It was to save your life that I became…what I am”

~ Rhonda Fleming, Queen of Babylon

A weird numinous glow seems to emanate from movies you loved as a child. When I was eight years old, I thought that Queen of Babylon (1954) was quite simply the most wonderful film I had ever seen. It was a flashy, splashy, trashy Italian epic about a feisty red-haired shepherd girl named Semiramis (Rhonda Fleming) who rose to become queen of a vast empire.  Not that she was driven by anything as crass as a lust for power. It was true she got married to the evil King Assur. But she only did it to save the man she loved – a dashing rebel leader named Amahl (Ricardo Montalban) – from being tossed into a giant swimming pool and eaten alive by hungry crocodiles. This was my introduction to the fact that any and all relationships involve some form of compromise.

Watching Queen of Babylon today, it is hard to imagine a movie better calculated to appeal to a gay eight-year-old. The wardrobe worn by Rhonda Fleming is the sort a drag artiste would kill for. She does an erotic dance before the king in a bikini made of aluminium foil. It is eerily similar to the one worn by Ursula Andress in The Tenth Victim (1965). OK, so she stops short of firing bullets out of her bra. But she still makes short work of a gorgeous half-naked slave boy, who has been placed in the middle of the dance floor for just that purpose. She marries the king in a crown that looks like a silver filigree flower pot perched on her head. The fate of empires may hang in the balance, but this movie is less about politics than about fashion. That can only ever be a good thing.

An actress who never quite scaled the heights of Hollywood stardom, Rhonda Fleming is the ideal protagonist for a movie like Queen of Babylon. That is because her acting is never marred by subtlety or underplaying of any sort. Her every pose and expression is designed to fill a vast Technicolor screen. Her eyes blaze imperiously in every close-up. At each crisis – and one arises, reliably, at intervals of five minutes or less – she raises an arm in front of her face to indicate shock. She has remarkably beautiful hands, with long and sinuous fingers. But she repeats this gesture so often and so energetically that we fear she is about to gnaw her arm off at the elbow. This bothered me not the slightest as a child. After all, what was the point of acting if nobody could see you act?

So bowled over was I by this bravura display that Rhonda became, albeit briefly, my Absolute Number One Favourite Star. She was supplanted a year or so later by Brigitte Bardot in Viva Maria (1965). I was desperate to see Rhonda in other movies – but, alas, by the 70s she and the films she made had fallen out of favour. She had drifted into doing guest spots in TV cop shows or ‘witnessing’ on evangelical Christian broadcasts about how Jesus had helped her through her countless divorces and remarriages. Like her friend Jane Russell, she was a devout Born Again Christian and a staunch right-wing Republican. But she seemed a remarkably nice lady for all that. To put it bluntly, Rhonda Fleming talking about Jesus was more fun than most other people doing most other things.

It took me years to catch up on the rest of her career. Born in Los Angeles in 1925, she was perhaps the only female star to be discovered by the infamous gay super-agent Henry Willson. (She seemed like a girl who would have baulked at sleeping her way to the top; with Willson as her agent, it is a safe bet she did not have to.) Her debut at the age of 19 was as a mental patient in the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Spellbound (1945) Her character was meant to be ‘a nymphomaniac’ – and Rhonda confessed years later she had not the faintest idea what that word meant. She went home, looked it up in the dictionary and was profoundly shocked. But she played the role with undeniable gusto. Along with the Salvador Dalí dream sequence, Rhonda Fleming is the liveliest thing in that film.

She played a few more minor roles in major movies – she appears, for a few minutes each, in The Spiral Staircase (1946) and Out of the Past (1947) – but it was major roles in minor movies that made Rhonda Fleming a legend. She was Cleopatra in the riotous no-budget Serpent of the Nile (1953). Even a dance by Julie Newmar, with her body painted gold all over, could not quite upstage Rhonda. Her greatest roles were in two films by Allan Dwan. In the homoerotic Western Tennessee’s Partner (1955) she is the madam of an establishment called The Marriage Market. It is decorated in red plush and gilt and is all too obviously a whorehouse. In the Technicolor film noir Slightly Scarlet (1956) she plays a nice upstanding girl with a trashy nympho sister (Arlene Dahl). As the film progresses, we learn that the ‘bad’ girl is really not all that bad – and that the ‘good’ girl is really not that good!

Her role in Queen of Babylon is both a ‘good’ girl and a ‘bad’ girl depending on the scene. Hence it is more complex than that of her co-star Ricardo Montalban. The devastatingly handsome Mexican actor is given little to do apart from shake his great big sword in defiance of tyranny. Then he gets captured, stripped to the waist, tied up and tortured in as many sadistic and photogenic ways as possible. I can think of no more satisfying use for his talents. The director Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia lays on the depravity and gore to a degree Hollywood at that time would not have dared. The mass catfight in a dungeon rivals the Sapphic excess of Prisoner of Cell Bock H. And if Ben-Hur (1959) is famous for its chariot race…well, this movie has a scene where monkeys race around a banquet hall in chariots pulled by dwarfs. Dare I confess I enjoyed this race a whole lot more?

Somehow I doubt Rhonda Fleming talked much about Queen of Babylon in later years. When she flew to Rome to make it, she had not yet learned a lady does not do anything she cannot reminisce about at Republican Party conventions. Her last years were dedicated to charity and good works and her death in 2020 – following those of Olivia de Havilland, Juliette Gréco and Lucia Bosè – made me fear that almost nobody I like will be left alive by the end of this epically awful year. Queen of Babylon is the sort of movie little gay boys dream about in their sleep. It says that you too may one day grow up to be a queen, if only you wish hard enough.

David Melville

The Sunday Intertitle: Interzone

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2015 by dcairns

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I was almost despairing of finding an intertitle in a seventies sci-fi film — because that’s the kind of thing I spend my time worrying about (as opposed to, say nuclear war, overpopulation or the collapse of social order) but then I found Elio Petri’s TODO MODO, a vaguely science-fictional doomsday wallow from 1976. Petri’s THE TENTH VICTIM is a hip and zippy pop-art spree of a film, but this one, despite being set in a reinforced concrete bunker designed by the great Dante Ferreti, or perhaps partly because of that, is a bit turgid and airless. Even exciting actors (Mastroianni, Volonte, Melato) and Petri’s snaky camera moves can’t quite bring it to life. But it earns its place in a mini-entry about the various films I’ve looked at but am not devoting big pieces to.

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Dante Ferretti and Mariangela Melato remind us of the Mike Hodges FLASH GORDON, of course, a film which, like THE BED SITTING ROOM, could be said to sum up everything about the preceding decade while also anticipating everything about the decade to come.

In TODO MODO, officials from church and state are gathered underground as an epidemic begins to spread across the country — we could situate this in our future history books between THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN and TWELVE MONKEYS. Funny how these films can link up.

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This setting in Tarkovsky’s STALKER suggests some connection with PHASE VI — Lynn Frederick must be lurking just under that powdery sand, wearing an enticingly thin top. The heroines in both STALKER and SOLARIS freak out on the floor while wearing similarly revealing garb.

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Bra-less-ness, of course, was a big seventies phenomenon, and it’s understandable that science fiction filmmakers assumed that things would carry on in that general direction. John Boorman, in ZARDOZ, went as far as to imagine Future Man clad in only bandoliers, thigh boots and nappies, a natural extrapolation of seventies fashion.

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Here’s Nigel Davenport, more sensibly dressed. Why is he concealing his hand? It must surely be crawling with ants, as in PHASE IV, but this is THE MIND OF MR SOAMES, made four years earlier. Terence Stamp plays a man whose been in a coma since birth but is brought to consciousness by Robert Vaughan and then educated by the unsympathetic Davenport. Quite an interesting piece, despite its basic impossibility. Stamp’s child-like performance is affecting, and it’s a very unusual piece to have come out of Amicus Productions. A predatory TV camera crew hang around filming the unfolding tragedy (and contributing to it) — reminiscent of Peter Watkins’ glum futuristic mockumentaries THE WAR GAME, PRIVILEGE, THE GLADIATORS and PUNISHMENT PARK, but TV director Alan Cooke doesn’t use them as a narrative device in that way.

One of the TV crew is played by Christopher Timothy, famed for seventies vet show All Creatures Great and Small. His co-star in that, Carol Drinkwater, plays a nurse in CLOCKWORK ORANGE, another film about Bad Education.

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Note also the b&w production design, even in the nursery set — Mike Hodges must have liked this, as he appropriated the look for the haunting THE TERMINAL MAN, a ruthlessly colour-coordinated vision of Los Angeles. Even the operating room looks similar, with its hexagonal viewing gallery. I’d always assumed that, like Boorman, he was under the influence of inveterate park-painter Antonioni. While SOAMES is an intriguing curate’s egg, TERMINAL MAN is a despairing masterwork, and a far more interesting take on Michael Crichton than the JURASSIC PARK series we’re all assailed with today.

(Remember when JP first came out — weren’t we all struck by the fact that the author of WESTWORLD had done it all again only with dinosaurs? Had he lived longer, surely he’d have gotten around to writing a botanical garden where the monkey puzzle trees go on a rampage.)

We watched Red Shift, a TV play written by novelist Alan Garner and directed by Edinburgh man John MacKenzie. A very odd piece of work, shifting about over a thousand years of history in one small geographical spot in Cheshire, and hinting at psychic links across the centuries. And there’s James Hazeldine, star of BBC Scotland’s The Omega Factor, which dealt with psychic phenomena and freaked me out as a kid — saw it again years back, and it’s very disappointing — and there’s Hazeldine again in THE MEDUSA TOUCH, being defended in court by Richard Burton.

Red Shift’s best bit is the first shift, when an oddly-written but basically social-realist family drama is abruptly interrupted by a savage battle between Romans and Britons, the most startling transition I’ve ever seen in a TV play. We were also pleased to see Leslie Dunlop (that nice nurse in THE ELEPHANT MAN) and Stella Tanner, who also turned up in sci-fi kids’ series The Changes, and in Spike Milligan’s unique take on the Daleks ~

The Changes manages a more nuanced take on multicultural Britain, featuring an extended family of Sikhs as major characters. The concept freely adapted from novels by Peter Dickinson, is unique and wondrous — one day, the whole population of Britain starts smashing their machinery, driven by a sudden conviction that the stuff is evil. As if a Luddite meme had been downloaded into every brain. The series then follows the adventures of a teenage girl in an England that’s been sent back to medieval standards.

I watched this show religiously as a seven-year-old, though it strikes me that the rioting, madness and so on must have been a little disturbing. But somehow I missed the final episode. So I had to ask a friend at school what happened, and this is what he said: “There was a big stone that had been asleep for hundreds of years and then it woke up and there hadn’t been any machines when it went to sleep so it didn’t like them so it told everybody to smash them.”

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I liked the Big Stone Explanation of Everything but was never sure it was true — I also kind of liked the idea that he had just made it up. But it turns out to be EXACTLY TRUE (the BFI have kindly re-released the series). And here I am, forty years later, having entirely forgotten the kid who told me the story, but remembering the story he told. Says something about my priorities.

If women burned their bras in the seventies (which they didn’t — but in the mostly magnificent SLEEPER Woody Allen makes the worst joke of his career on this subject: “As you can see, it’s a very small fire,” a kind of perfect own-goal of a joke, proving that anti-feminist attitudes make you smug, stupid and obnoxious) the men really let it all hang out. Rip Torn allows little Rip to be fondled and addressed in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (more on that tomorrow), Terence Stamp is seen full-frontal in his coma in MR. SOAMES, and in SHOCK TREATMENT, a sort of Twilight Zone narrative about a predatory health farm, unsustainably extended to feature length, Alain Delon enjoys a nude romp in the sea. A cheerful note to end on.

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