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.
West 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. Amidst 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!
Watching 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
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.
Orson 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.
Akira 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 murders. 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.
GB, 1971. Dir: Robert Fuest
Starring: Vincent Price, Joseph Cotton, Peter Jeffrey, Terry-Thomas, Virginia North
“Love means never having to say you’re ugly”. And so the poster tagline sets the tone for this hilarious little British horror from the early seventies. Vincent Price stalks around his art-deco jazz club, dragging with him a gramophone wired to his vocal chords and harbouring a peculiar grudge against nine people who tried to save his wife from dying. It’s that kind of film.
From an era when horror films were designed to be tremendous fun as well as being gruesome and frightening, Dr Phibes features one revoltingly elaborate death after another, but is done with such enjoyable panache you may well find yourself laughing at the bits that are meant to be funny. Yes, there’s no ‘so bad it’s funny’ awfulness here – Dr Phibes is a rollicking slab of comedy horror that knows exactly when to play it for laughs (which is actually for 90% of the film!). In one scene, Terry-Thomas is desperately trying to get rid of his old maid in order to watch some twenties-style porn (which, if you’re interested, involves a woman trying to swallow a snake!) before being interrupted by a girl who drains him of all his blood.
Price’s performance oozes delicious melodrama, remarkable considering he never speaks once in the film, all his lines are instead pre-recorded and played through the gramophone. And any film which has the line “A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen.” has to be worth your consideration.