EXPLORING THE ALCOVES OF CULT CINEMA …

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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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Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968)

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USA, 1968   Dir: Peter Bogdanovich

Starring Boris Karloff, Tim O’Kelly, Peter Bogdanovich, Athur Peterson, Monte Landis, Nancy Hsueh

Targets opens as a Gothic horror, like any of a dozen Roger Corman B-movies, with Boris Karloff stalking around his 19th century mansion. Then the lights come up and Karloff is seen watching the film with studio executives. Playing a version of himself, under the rather obvious but amusing moniker of Byron Orlok, Karloff is the ageing horror star who decides to call it a day, stating “I’m an antique, out of date … an anachronism. The world belongs to the young. Make way for them, let them have it.” Immediately after these words, the film cuts to Karloff as seen through the lens of a rifle. Young Bobby (Tim O’Kelly) has just made an easy purchase of a new rifle and ammunition using his dad’s chequebook. Within the first few minutes, the film’s intentions are clear – it’s ring out the old, bring in the new in terms of horror.

Targets came about through a strange set of circumstances, when B-movie maestro Roger Corman realised that Boris Karloff owed him three days filming. With the proviso that sequences from one of his previous Gothic horrors must be incorporated, Corman gave film critic and aspiring filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich the chance to direct his first feature using the old footage and three days with Karloff. The obvious conclusion that Bogdanovich would simply make a creaky old B-movie were dispelled when the young director instead created something daringly new out of the necessary elements. Simultaneously a celebration of the classic Gothic style which had dominated Hollywood since the 1930’s and a critique of the old methods in the face of very real terrors that existed in 1960’s (and modern day) America, Targets is a brave piece of mainstream cinema. Rather than sit amongst the traditional American horror films of the 1960’s, Targets has more in common with the challenging works of the American New Wave instigated with Bonnie And Clyde in 1967. Indeed, Bogdanovich would go on to become a key figure in the first flourish of this New Hollywood, alongside Robert Altman, Mike Nichols, Sam Peckinpah and Arthur Penn, and Targets can be seen as one of the first attempts to present modern-day violence with an appropriate level of seriousness.

targets21The two narrative strands of the retiring Karloff and the disturbed Bobby interweave with each other throughout, until they finally merge in the closing sequence. The scenes with Karloff are poignant and warm, whilst the scenes with Bobby are chilling and cold, with Bogdanovich using an effective colour scheme to express the mood of the contrasting narratives. Karloff’s scenes are bathed in yellows and browns, like autumn years viewed through a whisky glass, conveying a cosy warmth befitting the story of the “antique” actor recalling his old-fashioned movies. Conversely, Bobby’s scenes are filled with blues and whites, making them feel sterile and unemotional, befitting the story of a cold-blooded murderer disconnected from the world around him. Although coldly stylized, the stark reality and matter-of-fact presentation of Bobby’s murders are incredibly frightening. Unlike the rousing music and stock effects which accompany the Gothic opening, Bobby’s attacks are presented in their authentic sound-scape, mostly silences punctuated by loud gun shots. The sequence of Bobby killing his family and calmly putting their bodies to bed is all the more terrifying for it’s domestic setting and non-sensational approach. This really was a new direction for the horror genre, chilling in a different way even to the contemporary horrors of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), because the Bates motel actually feels very much in the Gothic mould. Targets horrors are all too real, occurring in undimmed daylight. All the more alarming though – Bobby is a charming, well-mannered young man who commits his crimes as if they were a natural extension of his everyday life. “Hardly ever missed, did I?” he happily boasts after a spate of shootings.

The film’s final sequence has a riveting premise as Bobby shoots through a hole in the screen into the audience of a drive-in, the victims unable to see him but are themselves visible from the light of the film. The melodramatic soundtrack of the drive-in movie (the same Gothic horror from the opening scene) heard through the cinema’s speakers whilst Bobby picks off members of the audience seems sickeningly inappropriate, yet reveals the pertinent truth that certain things are just too horrific to suit the manner of sensationalism. Karloff’s concluding words “is that what I was afraid of?” speaks volumes about the stripped-down reality of horror films with a contemporary setting. No dressing up of large sets, no monstrous make-up, no strikes of lightning – just a boy with a rifle.

targets1What is most striking about Targets is how incredibly assured it is with it’s own knowing deconstruction of cinema. Bogdanovich even plays a version of himself called Sammy (named after writer-director Samuel Fuller, who advised on the film) who is trying to prepare a new horror film that will show Orlock in a different light, as indeed this film allows Karloff’s acting to shine in a role of rare sincere depth (it’s a wonderful performance from the veteran in one of his last films before his death in 1969). This film has as much to say about the art of filmmaking as it does about contemporary violence in the USA. For a low-budget picture from a first-time director, Targets is a brilliantly confident and detailed film, but it had little effect in 1968, proving unpopular with audiences after the recent assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. It’s only important effect was securing Bogdanovich good notices, leading him on to greater heights of success in the 1970’s. But 40 years on, Targets can be seen as remarkably portentous in the way that it literally passes the baton between the old (the Corman Gothic cycle) and the new (gritty thrillers and slasher movies of the 1970’s). It is equally  effective as both a horror-thriller and as a critique of the gun laws in the USA, arguing that the real threat could well exist in your own home, as opposed to those of a 19th century mansion. Both can be scary, but Targets ensures that contemporary home-grown terrors are the more disturbing.


Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979)

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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.


Welles, Kurosawa and Polanski: Three Takes On Macbeth

I was lucky enough to see one of the first performances of Rupert Goold’s acclaimed staging of Macbeth at Chichester in 2007, starring Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood, and was gripped by what I considered a very cinematic approach to theatre, re-imagining the play as a gory horror film set in the clinical hospitals and kitchens of Stalin’s Russia. Afterwards, buoyed with a new appreciation of the play, I was compelled to revisit the key film versions of Macbeth – three very different approaches, which individually display each director’s unique style.

welles-macbethOrson Welles showed a repeated interest in the play, firstly staging an all-black 1936 stage production set in Haiti. His film of  Macbeth (1948) was shot on a low budget in just 23 days, which Welles later admitted was a self-imposed limitation to see if “it might encourage other film-maker’s to tackle difficult subjects at greater speed”. The sets were made from papier-mache and take on an almost surreal grandeur. The lighting is dark and murky, creating a sense of heightened paranoia within the sparse, simple setting. The tone is really that of Macbeth-noir, unsurprising when it came off the back of Welles’ noir classics The Stranger (1945) and The Lady From Shanghai (1947), in many ways a perfect fit – Lady Macbeth’s ice-cool murderess is perfect film noir, as is Macbeth himself, the corrupt and fatally-flawed lead. The film was no exception to Welles’ continued battles with studio executives, who felt that the strong Scottish accents of the cast wouldn’t help the film commercially. The entire soundtrack was re-dubbed, whilst Welles left Hollywood for Europe, although he did later return at the studio’s request to cut 20 minutes from the film in 1950 and add a narration. Like many of his works, the version now available on DVD is restored to Welles’ original vision.

throne-of-bloodAkira Kurosawa’s Throne Of Blood (1957) recasts Macbeth as a Samurai epic at the time of the feudal wars in medieval Japan. Like Kurosawa’s other historical films of the 1950’s, Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954), this adaptation immerses itself in the natural elements. From the opening scenes of mist shrouding the barren countryside and the fierce winds, to the rain and lightning engulfing the woods, the natural world combines to control proceedings. Characters ride on horseback in and out of the mist as if guided to their ultimate doom by the elements, making the normally evil lead roles appear somewhat more sympathetic. The wood and castle are even given the name Cobweb, suggesting the duplicitous effect of the natural world, and at one point Toshiro Mifune’s Taketori (the Macbeth figure) even fires an arrow up towards the treacherous lightning in the sky. The scene of Taketori encountering the unearthly Spirit in the woods, the old woman bathed in a translucent glow and gently spinning cotton, is surely one of the most beautiful sequences in movie history. Throne Of Blood is an exceptional, visceral film, which perfectly utilizes Kurosawa’s talent for impressive battle scenes. The film concludes not with a duel but with the magnificent image of countless darting arrows pinning the tragic Taketori to the wall of his fortress, having been turned on by his own men. This famous sequence was reportedly filmed using real arrows in order to give Mifune the desired look of terror, although this has been disputed.

Roman Polanski’s The Tragedy Of Macbeth (1971) was his first feature since the brutal murder of his wife Sharon Tate and their unborn child at the hands of the Manson family, leading many to view the film as a violent cathartic exercise from the grieving director. It’s certainly the most unflinchingly violent adaptation of the play, even depicting the murder of Duncan in all it’s gory detail for the first time on film, rather than off-stage as written. The slaying of the MacDuff family in particular is almost too brutal to watch, especially given its obvious comparisons with the Tate macbeth-polanski1murders. Certain scenes, such as the meeting with the witches and the apparition in the woods, dip the viewer into the terrifying world of the surreal, a dark hallmark of Polanski’s work as seen in Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976). As well as the horrific style, Polanski took controversial liberties with the play by casting 26-year old Francesca Annis as a much tamer Lady Macbeth and giving her a notorious nude soliloquy (but not so strange when it was revealed the film was being partly funded by Playboy magazine, although Polanski and co-writer Kenneth Tynan maintained the scene was written before Hugh Hefner’s involvement). Jon Finch was also a comparatively young Macbeth at 29 years old. The film’s ending replaces Malcolm’s speech with a scene of Malcolm’s brother returning from exile with possible ambitions to reclaim the throne, suggesting that the evil in man is ever present – something Polanski had experienced all too graphically in the summer of 1969.


James Mason: Suave And Sinister

james-masonApart from his distinctive and much-imitated delivery, James Mason has always stood out for me in films because his performances evoke a conflict of interests – his characters are at the same time fascinating and charismatic whilst also mysterious and unsympathetic. It makes him all the more unlikely as a Hollywood star and, looking back at his career, few actors could claim such a number of polarizing lead roles. Even when playing the archetypal British villain in Hollywood, notably in The Prisoner Of Zenda (1952), Julius Ceasar (1953), 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954), and North By Northwest (1959), there’s a depth of character that stands out as something mysterious and sinister. In Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, there are hints that the villain Phillip Vandamm is in a relationship with his henchman, suggesting hidden depths of guilt and pretence under his suave and controlled exterior.

Once established as a reliable supporting actor in America, his first significant leading role was in A Star Is Born (1954), where he played opposite Judy Garland as a violent alcoholic who ultimately drowns himself – a pretty demanding role for any film, let alone a Hollywood musical! Mason was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar and won a Golden Globe for the film.

His definitive film role came with Lolita in 1962 and it’s hardly surprising that Mason was Stanley Kubrick’s first choice for the role of the sophisticated paedophile Humbert Humbert. About as controversial as a mainstream film could be in 1962 (even though Kubrick raised the age of Lolita from 12 in the novel to 14 for the movie) Mason still won plaudits for his intense portrayal and it’s now impossible to imagine any other actor successfully tackling the dark complexities of this part. A similarly obsessive role came in Michael Powell’s Age Of Consent (1969), playing a jaded painter opposite a young Helen Mirren.

A few interesting collaborations with Sidney Lumet followed, including the bleakly atmospheric spy thriller The Deadly Affair (1966), Chekhov’s The Seagull (1968) and the acclaimed courtroom drama The Verdict (1982), but Mason’s later films were largely supporting roles, offering neither the depth or intrigue of his 50’s and 60’s work. His last great film was The Shooting Party (1985), which put Mason at the centre of an impressive cast including John Gielgud and Edward Fox and, appropriately enough, concerned a landowner whose very existence and way of life were becoming obsolete. Mason died in 1984, before the film’s release.

Mason casts a shadow as dark as his character in Bigger Than Life

Mason casts a shadow as dark as his character in Bigger Than Life

Of all his Hollywood roles, perhaps the most interesting was that of Ed Avery in Bigger Than Life (1956), a family man who agrees to take part in an experimental drug treatment for his life-threatening illness, the result of which turns him into a dangerous psychotic with serious delusions of grandeur. The character serves to critique the dangerous trappings of conformist suburban life, a topic that may have been close to Mason, given that he also co-wrote and produced the film. A remarkably scathing movie for its time, Bigger Than Life took a typically perverse view of 1950’s suburbia from director Nicholas Ray and it may have been too much for contemporary audiences to take because the film was a flop, although it’s now increasingly being recognised as a masterpiece. It stands as a fitting monument to Mason’s bizarre career as Hollywood’s ultimate un-romantic lead.