EXPLORING THE ALCOVES OF CULT CINEMA …

Drama

Bo Widerberg’s The Ballad Of Joe Hill (1971)

Sweden/USA, 1971  Dir: Bo Widerberg

Starring: Thommy Berggren, Anja Schmidt, Kelvin Malave, Evert Anderson, Cathy Smith, Hasse Persson, David Moritz, Richard Weber, Joel Miller

Bo Widerberg seems destined to remain an obscure filmmaker, which is a crying shame if The Ballad Of Joe Hill is anything to go by. Carving out something of a niche in beautiful impressionistic dramas depicting earnest subject matters, Widerberg sealed his artistic reputation on the festival circuit with Elvira Madigan (1967), about two lovers in a suicide pact, and Adalen 31 (1969), about a 1931 industrial strike that ends in tragedy, both films based on real-life events. Whilst Ingmar Bergman was leading the way with Swedish dramas geared upwards towards man’s relationship with life, death and religion, Widerberg preferred to direct his issues sideways at man’s place within society and his perpetual social conflicts. As Widerberg stated in his book A Vision Of Swedish Cinema, “Nor me or my friends saw very much in [Bergman] … We didn’t find the issues of god’s existence that damn important”. There’s no better example of Widerberg’s more socially conscious approach than his 1971 retelling of the life of legendary Swedish political activist and songwriter Joe Hill.

The film opens with Joe Hill’s arrival in New York as an emigrant in 1902, details his move to the west coast and his involvement with the Industrial Workers of the World movement, and ends with his controversial trial for murder and subsequent execution (I wouldn’t say these are spoilers in any way since the life and death of Joe Hill is well documented). The delicate recreation of the period is meticulous and absorbing, with the slightly muddied Eastmancolor adding an almost sepia hue to the photography, but also a harsher realism befitting the story’s bleak conditions. Presenting a distanced outsider’s view of a transitional period in American history, Widerberg unashamedly romanticizes (some would say rightly extols) the important role played by defiant immigrant workers in shaping a modern democratic USA.

Widerberg’s detailed poetic touch notwithstanding, Thommy Berggren’s wonderfully commanding performance as Joe Hill is crucial to the film’s dramatic success. Berggren imbues the role with impassioned joy and fearless tenacity, roaming the land as a prophetic figure determined to alter the social landscape, making his ultimate fate all the more tragic. In early scenes, Hill becomes enamoured with the muffled sound of opera heard with his ear up against the back wall of the Metropolitan Opera House. Listening with him is the equally penniless Lucia (Anja Schmidt), whose fate is to end up as mistress to the lead Tenor after being discovered at the back door and invited inside, thereby immediately rising to the top social echelon. Hill meanwhile has no such luck (or maybe it was Lucia who really missed out?), making his way across America hidden on the underside of trains and swinging from one hazardous and underpaid job to another. In one memorable scene, Hill stands alone singing his self-penned ‘Pie in The Sky’ (a phrase originated by Hill) against the sound of a Salvation Army hymn, gradually commanding a large appreciative audience. The film is peppered with well-rounded and engaging supporting characters, notably a plucky young street urchin and a kindly nomadic old-timer, both of whom are vital in setting Hill off on his mission to galvanize the working class through speeches and songs.

The closing sequences of Hill’s imprisonment and ultimate execution have a lingering dramatic potency. A thorough and unflinching portrayal of capital punishment, Hill’s struggle to remove his blind fold only to discover his assassins hiding behind a dark canvas, their rifles peeking through small cut-out holes, perfectly conveys the state’s own guilt and hypocrisy in their treatment of political activists. Joe Hill’s death is even shown to be doubly sacrificial, strengthening the labourer’s cause with infamous martyrdom as well as protecting the reputation of a married woman who could have provided his alibi. Widerberg marks the scenes with several striking visual moments, such as Hill’s beautiful pastel drawing of California on his cell floor being scrubbed away with a mop. The whole  sequence is the most powerful and emotive depiction of state murder until Krsysztof Kieslowski’s far grimmer A Short Film About Killing (1988). After his death, as folklore has it, Hill’s ashes were sent in envelopes to every IWW local, in the hope that they would be scattered and encourage his influence to grow. The film concludes with the envelopes being sent and a reading of the singer’s final written words: “Perhaps some fading flower then/Would come to life and bloom again/This is my Last and final Will/Good Luck to All of you, Joe Hill“.

The Ballad Of Joe Hill is strong fictionalised romanticism from a clearly masterful filmmaker. Just as Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s Winstanley (1975), a similarly powerful tale of historical social turbulence, received a trumpeted re-release in 2008, one can only hope that the work of Bo Widerberg and The Ballad Of Joe Hill in particular can benefit from a much-needed reappraisal. But until then it remains a buried gem.

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Richard Eyre’s The Ploughman’s Lunch (1983)

GB, 1983  Dir: Richard Eyre.  Starring: Jonathan Pryce, Tim Curry, Rosemary Harris, Frank Finlay, Charlie Dore, Bill Paterson

Very much a forgotten gem of British Cinema and a masterclass in sharp observational drama, The Ploughman’s Lunch captured the caustic nature of Thatcher’s Britain during the Falklands war like no other film, and found critical appreciation both at the cinema and as part of Channel 4’s inaugural Film On 4 season. The film also became famous for surreptitiously filming scenes against the backdrop of the 1982 Conservative Party conference in Brighton, similar to the use of the Democratic National Convention backdrop in Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969), even including footage of Margaret Thatcher’s speech.

Jonathan Pryce stars as the ambitious BBC radio journalist James Penfield, who has been commissioned to write a book on the 1956 Suez crisis at the same time as the Falklands War begins to dominate media coverage. During his research Penfield pursues the equally odious Susan in order to get assistance from her mother Ann Barrington (the excellent Rosemary Harris), a noted historian, who he eventually sleeps with in order to secure the fate of his book. Pryce’s compelling performance makes his sullen and pointedly unsympathetic character difficult to take your eyes off, despite being one of the most selfish leading men ever put on screen.

Ian McKewan’s script is unsurprisingly thorough and novelistic in its use of recurring themes and acutely observed characterisation. The prominent theme is the manipulation of truth – in the selective rewriting of history (the Suez Crisis), media coverage (Penfield dictates radio news scripts), and most devastatingly, the rewriting of one’s own history and personality. For example, Penfield is ashamed of his working-class parents, telling people they are dead. The film’s bleakest scenes show him grudgingly visiting them and showing no compassion for his mother’s terminal illness. Similarly deceptive, Ann’s marriage to Advert Director Matthew Fox (Frank Finlay) is a sham, existing for purely economic reasons. Matthew’s own arena of advertising is of course built on fabrications, as his character explains that the titular Ploughman’s Lunch is nothing more than a marketing trick, a 1950’s invention dressed up as an archaically traditional meal.

The Ploughman’s Lunch succeeds in making its thoroughly unlikable set of characters incredibly watchable. Like peering into a nest of vipers, the film reveals a morally and emotionally bankrupt British media – a rot which the film projects throughout the whole of society. Every scene and almost every character displays a soulless self-interest, offering a doomed vision of a country heading towards total ethical deterioration. Richard Eyre’s direction gives events a moody grey outlook and, in one stunning sequence when Penfield stumbles across a protest camp in a Norfolk airbase, there’s an almost apocalyptic feel to the landscape.

The Ploughman’s Lunch is the kind of film that forces the viewer to dig deeper, each viewing uncovering new subtleties in theme and characterisation. A cynical, severe and intelligent drama, given its concepts of moral decay at the heart of media, politics and society, perhaps it’s the right time for The Ploughman’s Lunch to find a new audience – it’s clearly as relevant now as it was in 1983.


Dennis Price: Very Nearly A Star

Describing himself in a 1969 TV Times interview, Dennis Price wryly said he was “very nearly Britain’s biggest film star”. By the late 1960’s, after experiencing 30 years of ups and downs in British films, Price had seen all too clearly how haphazard the life of a “movie star” could be. For my money, Dennis Price is up there with Olivier, Richardson and Guinness (more on him later!) as the consummate British actor, but he is now almost a forgotten name, certainly a neglected one, even among film buffs. The reasons are many fold and pretty much a textbook example of a tragic film career. A brief look through his film roles offer possible answers as to why he is such a forgotten star, but they also remind us how he was one of the greatest actors of his generation.

His first film role could hardly have been any grander – a starring part in the excellent 1944 war drama A Canterbury Tale from the prodigious Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, which sees Price in thoroughly serious acting mode, hiding the naturally dry comic style with which he became known. The film was not a box office hit but is now regarded as one in a number of Powell & Pressburger classics. But the Dennis Price of this era seemed just another in a line of dashing leading men appearing in slushy melodramas that were ten a penny from Gainsborough studios, albeit with some good performance notices. But his leading role in The Bad Lord Byron (1949) didn’t even have those and met with a critical backlash, halting any chances of a move to Hollywood.

Then things took a turn with Kind Hearts And Coronets, the film that if anything Price is today best remembered for. His role as the devilishly suave psychopath Louis Mazzini showed how charismatic and funny Price could be. But he was cast against a certain Alec Guinness, appearing chameleon like as no fewer than eight members of the doomed D’Asgoyne family, a feat which largely stole the film’s plaudits. But Price’s performance in the film is absolutely pitch-perfect, a model of ruthless manipulation and cruel composure, surveying his victims as obstructive nuisances to be neatly swept aside. Despite his top billing, and being arguably Price’s best film and best role, Kind Hearts And Coronets is now only ever referred to today as the ‘classic Ealing black comedy” or ‘the film where Alec Guinness plays eight parts’. Another false start, it seemed. Price never made another Ealing comedy and Guinness went on to star in another four before launching an international career. Price seemed to make do with lesser comedies such as Lady Godiva Rides Again (1951) and a run of B-movie crime thrillers.

Thanks to the Boulting Brothers, Price finally got another slickly diabolical role to get his teeth into with Private’s Progress (1956). Sharing top-billing with Richard Attenborough, Price’s performance as the corrupt Brigadier Bertram Tracepurcel simply oozes ‘dispicable bounder’ from every pore. Invited to reprise the role in the landmark sequel, I’m All Right Jack in 1959, Price more than holds his own in a cast of British comedy goliaths: Peter Sellers, Terry-Thomas, Irene Handl and Margaret Rutherford.  But once again, Price’s role is somewhat neglected, given the stellar cast, the fact that the wonderful Ian Carmichael pretty much dominates the action and, like Guinness in 1949, Peter Sellers won all the plaudits in 1959. Price provided sterling support in many comedies from this British golden age – in The Naked Truth (again with Sellers and T-T), School For Scoundrels (with T-T and Carmichael), Double Bunk and What A Carve Up! (both with Sid James), and Go To Blazes (1962), but these roles were often all too throwaway and barely did his talent justice.

The 1960’s showed Price making a number of brief pit stops with stardom, mostly in notable supporting roles. In 1960 he was Sophia Loren’s analyst in The Millionairess (again with Sellers), but then the same year Tunes Of Glory presented a rare chance for Price to combine his persona of inscrutable upper-class cad with his some real dramatic meat. But yet again his role is somewhat obscured, given that the film is essentially a two-hander between John Mills and Alec Guinness (who actually used his considerable clout to make sure Price was cast, clearly demonstrating a professional respect Guinness had for him). It’s well worth revisiting Tunes Of Glory to take in Price’s delicate and subtle performance. The following year he gave what many considered a deeply personal performance as an actor blackmailed over his homosexuality in the controversial drama Victim, with Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Syms. A small role but an effective one, contemporary critics have made much about how Price’s own homosexuality informed the part, which no doubt it did, but more striking is how it perhaps laid bare Price’s own insecurities about the trappings of fame and the fragile nature of success.

A late career upturn took place with the role of Jeeves in the BBC’s The World Of Wooster (1965 – 67) but sadly recordings of the show barely exist today. Continued financial troubles forced Price to become a tax exile on the island of Sark in 1967, making it hard for him to accept regular work. So it’s always a bonus to see Price briefly crop up in some good comedies of this era – The Magic Christian (1969), Some Will Some Won’t (1970) and The Rise And Rise Of Michael Rimmer (1970).  For the last few years of this life however, Price fell into something of an undignified trough and many a cult horror fan will recognize him for his many bit parts in a whole range of horror films – from the half-decent Twins Of Evil, the enjoyably bad Haunted House Of Horror and Horror Hospital, the below-par for Hammer Horror Of Frankenstein, to the downright awful Tower Of Evil and Vampiros Lesbos! One of his last roles was a good one though, as a bitchy theatre critic in the deliciously over-the-top Theatre Of Blood (1973), but Price died of heart failure after a hip fracture and a long battle with alcoholism before the film’s release.

So Dennis Price, one of the great underrated British film stars? There are a dozen film roles which stand as testament to his huge talent and natural gift for comedy, a handful of striking dramatic roles, and a flurry of enjoyable supporting turns. But perhaps he never fulfilled the potential he displayed in Kind Hearts And Coronets. Although did he ever really hunger after the role of revered leading man? As he once admitted, with sharp self-awareness: “I am a second-rate feature actor. I am not a star and never was. I lack the essential spark, you see.” Of course, he was quite wrong about the spark.

Recommended reading: Elliot J. Huntley’s excellent and thorough Dennis Price: A Tribute – The Life And Death of Dennis Price, which had a limited print run but it’s well worth tracking down a copy.


La Nouvelle Vague à Cinquante! – Celebrating The French New Wave

jean-luc-godard

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the start of La Nouvelle Vague, the French New Wave which transformed and dominated European cinema in the late 1950’s and 1960’s. Although the majority of French films from this decade are blanketed with the term Nouvelle Vague, the movement encompassed many different styles and approaches to cinema from a wide variety of directors. The New Wave filmmakers were all united by their desire to alter the horizons of cinema, rejecting the formalist traditions of the classical style, although they never formally recognised themselves as being part of one conscious group, more a body of young filmmakers sharing the same iconoclastic mindset. However, despite their wish to rewrite the cinematic rulebook, many of the directors had a great appreciation for classical cinema. In fact, the movement’s origins began with the magazine Cahiers du Cinema, which saw critics and future pioneering directors Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette create anew the doctrine of film theory and criticism. Under the guidance of Cahiers founder Andre Bazin, the critics were instrumental in re-evaluating the importance of classical films both in France (from Renoir, Vigo and Cocteau) and in Hollywood. The Cahiers writers felt that the artistic achievements of certain Hollywood directors were undervalued, as they had always been associated with the restrictive American studio production line. Through these writings, the manifesto for ‘Les Politiques des Auteurs’ emerged, where the critics argued that the stylistic approaches and use of mise-en-scene gave some films greater merit beyond their generic narratives. These theories greatly enhanced the critical value of Hollywood director’s oeuvres, notably Nicholas Ray, John Ford, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. Francois Truffaut even conducted lengthy interviews with Hitchcock for a book published in 1967. The Cahiers critics were really the first to celebrate the American films of the 1940’s and 1950’s that are now regarded as classics.

the400blowsTo represent the varied approaches within the Nouvelle Vague, I’ve chosen to briefly discuss four of my favourite films from the movement, all of which represent very different interpretations of the wave’s intentions from four key directors. The 400 Blows (1959) is generally considered the first film of the wave. Directed by Francois Truffaut, it tells the story of troubled teenager Antoine Doinel, as he struggles at home and at school, finally being sent to a detention camp after being misunderstood by his parents and the authorities as an incorrigible trouble maker. The film gives a bleak, realistic presentation of events, an influence from Robert Bresson and also the Italian neo-realist style, but combines it with playful cinematic techniques including jump cuts and freeze frames. In the final sequence, the camera tracks Antoine running along the beach towards the ocean for the first time in his life, followed by a zoom in and a sudden freeze frame, as Antione apparently stares at the audience. It’s undoubtedly one of the most memorable and powerful moments in cinema history. The 400 Blows clearly expresses the New Wave’s unwritten manifesto of rejecting traditionally structured linear narrative, instead presenting an episodic account more interested in the experiences of the character, as well as the film’s stunning black and white photography. This film would become the first episode in an unprecedented twenty-year series of four films and one short, showing the young Antoine (always played by Jean-Pierre Leaud) become an adult, fall in love and start a family in Antoine And Colette (1962), Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed And Board (1970) and Love On The Run (1979). A similar romantic story with dark realistic overtones was Truffaut’s 1962 masterpiece Jules et Jim, which gave Truffaut even greater scope for innovative techniques. Similarly, Godard’s Bande A Part (1964) explored a dangerous love triangle with playful exuberance, whilst Jacques Remy’s The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964) presented a romantic liaison as a musical in glorious technicolour, giving Catherine Deneuve her breakthrough role.

last-year-at-marienbad

Alain Resnais’ Last Year At Marienbad (1961) is a film rich with symbolism and vague meaning. Having previously been revered for his acclaimed dramatic-documentary Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Resnais collaborated with writer Alain Robbe-Grillet (later another New Wave director) on his first fictional narrative feature, although the shifting perspectives of Marienbad would make it far removed from other narrative films in the movement. Whilst Truffaut, Godard and Chabrol represented the Cahiers directors, Resnais represented the Rive Gauche or ‘Left Bank’ filmmakers, alongside Chris Marker, Anges Varda and Robbe-Grillet. These distinctively bohemian directors took the approaches of the New Wave to more experimental levels. Resnais imbues Marienbad with a subtle sense of strangeness –  in the vivid scenes of the chateau’s garden (pictured), the people walking cast long dark shadows, whilst the numerous pointed trees cast no shadow at all. The film abandons plot and narrative in favour of images, events and the sense of characters caught in a dream-like state of repeated memory. Unsurprisingly, the film divided critics, who either saw it as a beautiful masterpiece or a bewildering exercise in self-indulgence. In truth, Last Year At Marienbad is a hypnotic combination of both these things – it is at once beautiful and bewildering, but I don’t really believe it’s worth analysis beyond mentioning it’s powerfully arresting visuals. The film is an open-book for interpretive meanings and debates, which can be enjoyed as much as it can be alienating. However, it is the major film of the New Wave to fully embrace the movement’s art house leanings, an approach taken to even bolder experimentation in Jacques Rivette’s Celine And Julie Go Boating (1974).

Monique Hennessy and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Pierre Melville'

Le Doulos (1962), directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, is a stylish gangster movie featuring many plot twists involving theft, murder and deception. Given the Nouvelle Vague touch, this crime thriller takes on an almost surreal aesthetic, artistically exaggerating the chiaroscuro technique associated with film noir. The hyper-reality of the world created by Melville has characters wearing strikingly overstated trench coats, shot in extreme contrasting shadows. Jean-Pierre Melville became a major figure of the New Wave, although he had been directing feature films since 1949, making him a continually strong presence in French cinema who, along with Robert Bresson, bridged the gap between the classical era and the Nouvelle Vague. Influenced by American crime movies, Melville’s noir-style thrillers were hugely influential to other New Wave directors – his 1956 film Bob La Flambeur being the first of it’s kind in France. Truffaut’s second feature, Shoot The Piano Player (1960) owed it an obvious debt, as did Godard’s pulp sci-fi classic Alphaville (1965). These classy thrillers suited the fashionable groove of the sixties and Melville became the most important exponent of the policier genre – gangster films taking their lead from American film noirs but offering a uniquely French perspective. This particular sub-genre reached it’s zenith with Melville’s own The Godson (1967) and The Red Circle (1970). Hip and referential, much of the flashy style of these noir movies had been previously explored in Godard’s seminal Nouvelle Vague masterpiece Breathless (1960), the second film from the Wave. A significant stylistic strand throughout the wave, one of the movement’s final great crime thrillers was Charles Chabrol’s The Butcher in 1970. The French noir really is the ultra-cool division of the Nouvelle Vague.

weekendWeekend (1967), Jean-Luc Godard’s darkest film is a strikingly ambitious black satire on French bourgeois society and moves from the bickering of a middle-class couple and some aggressive road rage through to revolution, violent murder and cannibalism. It’s surrealistic approach and fierce attacks on the complacent middle classes make it comparable to the work of Luis Bunuel, who was also making films in France during this period (the similarly daring Belle de Jour was released the same year).  Viscous and shocking in it’s approach, Weekend takes the Nouvelle Vague’s reactionary course to the ultimate extreme, incorporating moments of Brechtian disillusion and scenes of pure fantasy (Lewis Carroll and Emily Bronte wandering in the woods springs to mind!). Admittedly the film is a pretty hard watch and frustratingly incomprehensible in parts (although not nearly as baffling as Godard’s rockumentary-come-political manifesto Sympathy For The Devil in 1968), but that’s really the point – there’s something fantastically daring and exhaustively rewarding about Weekend. For its famous and breathtaking ten-minute tracking shot of an ever-worsening traffic jam alone, the film is a landmark in black comedy. Allowing itself to be completely free of any strictures, the film remains one of the most relentlessly wild and inventive additions to the French New Wave. Weekend ends with two captions –  ‘End Of Film’ and ‘End Of Cinema’ – not only pointing to the total collapse of civilisation within the film’s narrative but perhaps acknowledging that Godard had taken the New Wave as far as it could possible go.

The 1960’s was a decade of many shifts and surprises in culture and accordingly many new waves in cinema – in Italy, Britain, Japan, Czechoslovakia – but the most revolutionary and influential was surely the French New Wave, which gave the world many of the greatest films ever made. Bernando Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003) paid explicit tribute to the films of Godard and Truffaut, and the influence of the Nouvelle Vague can still be felt today in the films of Luc Besson, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Michel Gondry.

The BFI French New Wave Season begins in April, showcasing a number of films from the movement, including The 400 Blows and Breathless, in London and around the country.

Recommended reading: A History Of The French New Wave Cinema by Richard John Neupert; Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life Of Jean-Luc Godard by Richard Brody; Francois Truffaut: The Complete Films by Robert Ingram.


Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End (1970)

deep-endWest Germany/GB, 1970  Dir: Jerzy Skolimowski

Starring Jane Asher, John Moulder-Brown, Diana Dors, Karl Michael Volger, Christopher Sandford

“If you can’t have the real thing – you do all kinds of unreal things.” Deep End kicks straight in with a splash of darkest red paint (or is it blood?) hitting the screen to the sound of Cat Stevens’ But I Might Die Tonight, from which point the film takes it’s  hold and doesn’t let go for 90 minutes. The sordid and unglamourous view of a London bathhouse in the 1970’s could only have been the product of a foreign filmmaker. Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski’s outsider view perhaps reveals more about the quirks and vices of our nation than a homegrown talent could, ranking alongside Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) as uniquely skewed depictions of ‘swinging’ London. Deep End was a co-production between Britain and West Germany and was filmed in both countries, the mix of English actors and peculiarly dubbed German actors adding a bizarre tone to the film’s already-bewitching style.

The plot concerns 15-year old Mike (John Moulder-Brown) taking his first job in a public bathhouse, once a proud monument to Victorian respectability but now mostly a haven for unsavoury characters and their sexual urges. So, maybe not the best place for the naive and idealistic Mike to get his baptism of fire, surrounded by mature lady clients looking for their sexual kicks, various depraved middle-aged men and a scarily perverse swimming instructor. deep-end-still-1Amidst this bubbling decadence, Mike’s attentions turn to his colleague, the provocative and beautiful Susan (Jane Asher), who soon becomes the focus of his dangerously obsessive adolescent fantasies. Asher’s Susan is no shrinking violet however, being manipulative and impulsively cruel almost on a whim – it’s a fascinating performance. The way she toys with Mike’s feelings, notably by seducing him in the cinema and then reporting him to the police for assault, reveal both her selfish and reckless streak. Moulder-Brown’s Mike is a captivating central character, not always likable but causing much empathy despite being frantically wayward, his soft plummy accent and sudden fits of rage raising the character above the usual coming-of-age teen. As the film swirls towards it’s shocking climax, the viewer is plunged deeper into the dark recesses of Mike’s ever more twisted psyche.

The brilliant centrepiece of Deep End is an extended sequence set in and around the seedy clubs of Soho, as Mike embarks on a crazy nighttime odyssey into London’s weird underworld. The repeated encounters with the hot dog vender (played by Burt Kwouk and incidentally the only genuinely likeable character in the film) have been compared to Wong Kar Wai’s similarly ultra-real snack bar scenes in Chungking Express (1994). Mike stalks Susan in and out of clubs and backstreets, stumbles across a chatty prostitute with a broken leg, steals a life-size cardboard cut-out of Susan (or is it?) and buys hot dogs for a couple of Liverpudlian girls. But to describe it is to take away the spontaneous surrealism of the events. The whole sequence is set to the sound of Mother Sky by Krautrock pioneers CAN, a 14-minute blast of grimy pulsating bass rhythms, trippy guitars and hazy vocals. It’s no exaggeration to describe this as the most audaciously demented quarter of an hour ever put into a mainstream narrative film!

deep-end-still-2Watching Deep End feels like you’ve somehow imagined it in a fevered dream, as if Mike’s confused desires spill out and effect the film’s aesthetic. The improvised quality of the performances and the blending of realist and surreal styles have the combined effect of a documentary as seen through an acid trip. The film lurches from absurd comedy (Diana Dors’ memorable scene as a sex-starved harridan; the out-of-control fire extinguisher) to startling symbolism (the ethereal underwater shots). In one scene, as passions increase in the bathhouse, a strange little man begins painting the wall dark red in the background, typical of the odd touches and vague symbolism that Skolimowski splatters throughout the film.

Funny, tragic, disturbing and delirious, Deep End is a singular masterpiece which sits right at the top of my choice for the most underrated British film and, along with Ken Russell’s The Devils, from the same maverick era, the film most deserving an urgent DVD release. Until then, bootleg copies are doing the rounds and I strongly recommend you find one.

Update 20/01/10: New Information On Official Deep End DVD Release! http://tinyurl.com/ydvo77b


Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979)

being-there

USA, 1979  Dir: Hal Ashby

Starring Peter Sellers, Shirley Maclaine, Melvyn Douglas, Jack Warden, Richard A. Dysart, Richard Basehart.

This week sees the 30th anniversary DVD release of Hal Ashby’s comic fable Being There, the film which gave Peter Sellers his last great role. Sellers had become obsessed with Jerzy Kosinski’s novella Being There since the early 1970’s, fascinated by the character of Chance the Gardener, a man with hardly any personality but whom others see in him whatever character they want to see. Clearly tapping into Sellers’ anxiety of ‘who was the man behind the actor’s mask’ (he was famously quoted as saying “there used to be a me behind the mask, but I had it surgically removed”), the character of Chance represented the ultimate challenge for the actor. The story concerns the quiet and simple Chance, isolated from the world as a gardener in a private townhouse and learning all he needs to know through television, who through a chain of fortuity and misunderstanding becomes an important and influential figure in US high office, to the extent that his associates ultimately consider him as a Presidential candidate. Chance’s lack of personality and his short uncomplicated replies are seen by others as highly intelligent statements of great depth and profundity, essentially using Chance’s blank canvas to paint any picture they want on to it.

The film is deliberatley slow paced, befitting Chance’s measured nature, but there are several wonderful scenes throughout. As Chance first embarks on his lonely path back into society and towards his fate, we see him walking down the centre of a busy highway accompanied by a funk version of Also Sprach Zarathustra a la 2001: A Space Odyssey, highlighting the exploratory nature of this all-new territory. Later, when Shirley Maclaine’s sexually deprived Eve seduces Chance, she is unaware that he is entirely focused on watching television, resulting in one of the most bizarre sex scenes in cinema history! The film ends in the realms of the fantastic, with Chance apparently walking on water, raising questions as to whether his fated path was really so coincidental.

beingthere-1Being There is surely the most gentle and thoughtful black satire ever made. Hal Ashby’s delicate direction is underrated, given that the film is generally regarded as a ‘Peter Sellers movie’, but afterall it was Sellers’ last film completed and released during his lifetime (his last film, released after his death, was a weak comedy of Fu Manchu, and the least said about the cobbled together Pink Panther sequels the better!). Sellers’ performance is understated and mesmeric (he said he had partly based his interpretation on the lackadaisical style of Stan Laurel) and netted him his first Oscar-nomination for Best Actor since Dr. Strangelove in 1964. Sadly he lost out to Dustin Hoffman in Kramer Vs. Kramer and to rub salt in the wounds his co-star Melvyn Douglas won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Sellers died from a heart attack on 24th July 1980, aged just 54. This delightful story of chance remains a fitting finale to a career encompassing many compelling and hilarious performances.


Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956)

a-man-escapedFrance, 1956  Dir: Robert Bresson

Starring Francois Letterier, Charles La Clainche, Maurice Beerblock, Roland Monod.

Based on the real-life memoirs of World War II Resistance fighter Andre Devigny, A Man Escaped is the most rewarding escape-from-prison drama ever made. Far more affecting than the sentimental The Shawshank Redemption (1994), although both films are similarly affirmative of the indomitable human spirit, Bresson’s masterpiece makes the viewer live and breath every desperate moment of POW Lt. Fontaine’s ordeal, from his initial capture to his final joyous getaway (I don’t feel this gives away any details of the ending, given the film’s explanatory title!)

Robert Bresson’s austere and contemplative approach to film-making, famously compared to Yasujiro Ozu and Carl Theodor Dreyer by writer/director Paul Schrader in his book Transcendental Style In Film, is given it’s fullest expression here. The bleak, claustrophobic nature of events, combined with the dull routine of day to day prison life, allows Bresson to extract the maximum amount of compassion for our protagonist through the film’s stark detail. Every creak, crunch, squeak and crack of Fontaine’s attempts to carve through his cell door are magnified to heart-stopping effect against the deathly silence of the prison. In fact, the whole film is a masterclass in less-is-more sound technique. Apart from Fontaine’s narration, the soundtrack mostly consists of a restrained stillness, punctuated by noises of digging, scratching, cutting, footsteps etc. This technique is particularly effective during the film’s tense final half hour.

a-man-escaped-still1The only instance of music is the occasional yet powerful use of Mozart’s Great Mass In C Minor, played each time the prisoners collectively emerge outside to clean out their slops and then finally as Fontaine manages to make it over the wall and to freedom. Perhaps Bresson is choosing to use the music as an expression of shared experiences and liberty, as opposed to the silence of loneliness and confinement. Whatever the reasons, this selective use of music, rather than a blanket effect throughout, is just one aspect of A Man Escaped which raises it above the standards of most prisoner of war dramas – indeed, most dramas full stop.

A richly profound and spiritual cinematic experience, A Man Escaped is clearly informed by the director’s deep religious convictions (he was a lifelong Jansenist Catholic) which inspired themes of redemption and salvation in his work, as well as his own experiences as a prisoner of war. Bresson’s influential style was an expression of pure cinema, stripping away any theatrical illusions and capturing on camera the raw essence of human existence. A Man Escaped is Bresson’s great poem to the best and worst of humanity.