Alien (1979) – Extra Terrestrial Horror Classic

Alien (1979) – Extra Terrestrial Horror Classic

The plot of Alien is relatively simple: The crew of a towering 800 foot long commercial towing ship, the Nostromo, are tasked with investigating what appears to be a distress signal from an alien planet. The crew investigates this but, unbeknownst to them, bring an extremely dangerous alien life form onto their ship. One by one they are picked off…

Scott, aided by his special effects team, headed by Brian Johnson and Nick Allder, and many others who deserve to be mentioned but can’t be, creates in the confined space of his main set a sweaty little world on its own that responds ideally to his obsessive close-ups and restless, magnifying style. Hurt has said that it was more a matter of reacting than acting, and one can well understand what he means. His own performance makes one miss it when it’s gone. And that of Sigourney Weaver, as one of the two women astronauts, is also consistently watchable (with a bigger slice of the cake). Derek Malcolm

Tom Skerritt … Dallas

Sigourney Weaver … Ripley

Veronica Cartwright … Lambert

Harry Dean Stanton … Brett

John Hurt … Kane

Ian Holm … Ash

Yaphet Kotto … Parker

Bolaji Badejo … Alien

From the beginning Alien is otherworldly in its subject matter, set and striking visuals. The derelict alien ship which is investigated is as large as a building. Its vaulted insides are just as towering. The uniform rows of hibernating eggs, covered by an ominous coloured fog make for terrifying viewing. One can only imagine what the 1979 audience must have felt, before the SAW series of ‘films’ desensitised the public to horror.
However, the crew stayed small (seven, plus cat), the alien stayed medium-sized (no bigger than the man who played him, supple Masai tribesman Bolaji Badejo) and the story stayed simple: ship lands on planet in response to an SOS that turns out to be a warning; alien infects one of the crew; alien kills the rest of the crew one by one. It’s Ten Little Indians in space. Empire
Alien is a triumphant film in many regards, from its sensational design aspect, plot and the acting itself. The late great Sir Ian Holm (Bilbo Baggins, no less) is a phenomenon as the sociopathic, robotic follower of procedure, calm even in the face of his screaming colleagues. Sigourney Weaver as Ripley is of course a marvel as the jaded bad-ass survivor against all odds, increasingly bedraggled  with every passing minute of the film. John Hurt’s role may be one of the most compelling but is unfortunately too brief, however superb its denouement.
To describe Alien as a triumph chiefly in terms of its look is not to underplay its dramatic strengths, it’s just that ordinary filmgoers tend to nod off if you pay tribute to designers (art directors Roger Christian and Les Dilley, production designer Michael Seymour, FX team Brian Johnson, Nick Allder, Carlo Rambali… wake up!) Empire
And talk about an ending! Alien for me scores 10s across the board. Even now some 42 years later, it packs a punch.

Rosemary’s Baby – Roman Polanksi 1968 Horror Masterpiece

Rosemary’s Baby – Roman Polanksi 1968 Horror Masterpiece

In my quest to discover the best films ever made, I came to learn that this 1968 satanic offering is considered the height of horror. Watching it, one can see why. Rosemary’s Baby tells the tale of husband Guy Woodhouse (Cassavetes), a down on his luck actor, moving in with his new wife Rosemary (Mia Farrow), who move in to the exclusive Branford building which has rather an unpleasant history of witchcraft and cannibalism, among other things. The couple hope to have a baby. And they shall have one too.

During her longed-for pregnancy (after dreaming that she’d been raped by something monstrous), oddities, miseries and weirdness accrue before Rosemary realises the Castevets lead a witches’ coven. She becomes convinced they want to sacrifice her baby to the Devil, and that her husband has agreed to help them in return for professional success. Empire

Allow me to confirm, as is mandatory, that the director of this film is not a terribly nice man, in my opinion and that of the Los Angeles County Superior Court. I should like to speak about this film and his direction separately from his atrocious acts if at all possible. Whatever we think about the director, and one is right in not thinking very much of him personally, this is a startling work. Filmed partly at the iconic and recognisable Dakota Building at 1 West 72nd Street, where John Lennon was shot, don’t you know, Rosemary’s Baby is a triumphant screen adaptation of the Ira Levin novel upon which its script is based. Interestingly, having now read the novel, the point must be made that prior to this novel, horror happened elsewhere, on Haunted Hill or in Hill House, for example. Rosemary’s Baby was the first instance of truly home-grown horror, which must have petrified audiences at the time.

Levin went even darker: What if he took the birth of Jesus and turned the whole tale upside down? What if God was not only dead but the devil lived? Vanity Fair

Polanski and producer William Castle succeed in keeping an air of mystery and deep unease throughout the film, the shocking truth is not revealed until the very last scene. In the interim, we are left feeling the increasing tension that Rosemary must have felt, unable to trust anyone in her environs, not even her husband. At all times something is afoot but Rosemary cannot quite put her finger on it. Her shyness and compliance is possibly a large contributing factor to her sorrows.

The film revolves around Farrow, who is in all but a very few shots. Polanski slyly exploits her mannered childishness. Even before she gets pregnant she wears shapeless little smocks and flat, little girl shoes. When she has her hair trendily cropped at Vidal Sassoon (one of the film’s ubiquitous, precise notations of a cultural signpost for the year of the story, 1965-66) she is even more pathetically waifish. […] Easily led, Rosemary repeats parrot-fashion other characters’ statements and allows herself to be utterly dominated. Empire

A personal highlight was Ruth Gordon playing the wife Castevet, with outrageous fashions, pronunciation and sinister undertones. It is no surprise she won an Oscar for this performance. This is a stellar horror and ranks very highly indeed.

12 Angry Men – Insular Legal Triumph 1957

12 Angry Men – Insular Legal Triumph 1957

12 Angry Men is mandatory viewing for legal people. This was the first film to show the legal process solely from the perspective of the jury. It pertains to a murder case, ostensibly open and shut. The jury are set to deliberate on the fate of the young man accused of murdering his father. Eleven of the twelve jurors are convinced of his guilt, it falls to the twelfth, Juror 8, to convince them there is room for reasonable doubt.

Martin Balsam … Juror 1

John Fiedler … Juror 2

Lee J. Cobb … Juror 3

E.G. Marshall … Juror 4

Jack Klugman … Juror 5

Edward Binns … Juror 6

Jack Warden … Juror 7

Henry Fonda … Juror 8

Joseph Sweeney … Juror 9

Ed Begley … Juror 10

George Voskovec … Juror 11

Robert Webber … Juror 12

I should think that director Sydney Lumet took inspiration from Rear Window, released three years prior, in deciding whether to go ahead with an insular single room set film, quite uncommon at the time. I don’t imagine the heroic Tommy Wiseau would have been born for some decades when this film was released in 1957. In concept, this is not the most exciting prospect. I had a hard time selling this one to Matthew. This is a drama set in one room about the deliberations of a jury. What makes it so special?

On paper this courtroom drama had little to get excited about – a one room setting, a dozen old-timers spouting off, a first-time director, a non-event. But on film, 12 Angry Men is transformed into a superlative brew of acting prowess and dynamite direction, and could stand as a screenwriting masterclass in the development of character and plot without resorting to the big stunts, grandiose locations or special effects. Empire

The tension begins with Fonda, the runaway star of this picture, putting his hand up to signify his not guilty plea. He is then predictably seized upon by the rest of the group, Cobb in particular (Juror 3), whose vocal dissent and energy are mesmerising to watch. His performance is the direct opposite of Fonda’s, who is the picture of calm, quietly but effectively dissecting each piece of evidence the other jurors took as read. Fonda’s character is an architect by trade but seems to have the nose of a detective. This is the only criticism that can be made of an otherwise flawless, consistent and engaging drama.

Cobb losing it at Fonda

The overarching theme for me seems to be male fragility under pressure. There is an added urgency to proceedings, as it were, by it being at once the hottest and seemingly wettest day of the year. The jurors are incrementally sweating and more uncomfortable throughout the film as a result of the storm happening outside the window. There is no relief inside the juror’s room aside from one wall mounted fan which is discovered rather late in the film. Lumet demonstrates his genius once again by including this. The added element lends itself to increasingly hostile jurors, some of whom simply wilt under the pressure of the heat and cave to Fonda’s arguments.

Overall, it should be noted that there are no special effect, no novel camera work and no changes of room (aside from one bathroom break) in this film. Yet it remains a watershed moment in cinematic history on account of its compelling characters and robust, flawless script. This is rightly one of the greatest films ever made and a personal favourite of mine.

 

Casablanca – The Greatest Movie of All Time?

Casablanca – The Greatest Movie of All Time?

I have been given the unenviable task of discussing ‘Casablanca’ today. I say unenviable, partly because I know practically zilch about films and therefore am woefully unsuited to the role of film reviewer, and partly because this film has often been ranked as one of the greatest, if not the greatest films, of all time. It is as if Cedric were to set about reviewing the footballing career of Diego Maradona.

I did not, however, shirk from the task this time. Despite my vast ignorance of the subject, I am keen to express some of my opinions. Occasionally, greatness can inspire greatness in others, and so taking some comfort in that thought, I have decided to plod on and see what I can come up with.

What makes this film so interesting to me is that it is not only set during World War II but also produced during World War II. It premiered in November 1942 in the middle of the conflict. That is almost three years, before well-known Austrian mad-man, Adolf Hitler, killed himself in a bunker in Berlin. Moreover, it is almost two years before the Normandy Landings. Hitler had of course by then made his two colossal blunders that would eventually cost Nazi Germany everything: the commencement of operation Barbarossa and the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22nd 1941, and the declaration of war on the U.S.A. on 11 December 1941, but it was still not yet clear that the allies would win. The tide was turning but the ship had not yet been sunk.

Theatrical release poster, 1942

So, audiences would have received this film at a time of great uncertainty, searching for hope. I do not wish to get into the plot too much, partly so as to avoid “spoilers” and also partly because on a few points I am confused myself. To lay down the bare essentials however the film “Casablanca” is unsurprisingly set in the town of Casablanca, in French Morocco. The location is significant on two counts. Firstly, at the time, refugees from across occupied Europe were using Casablanca as a staging post from which to travel to Lisbon and thence to the U.S.A. and freedom. Secondly, we are in French Morocco, a colony of a country who had surrendered to Nazi might.

I do think the film is at least in part an exercise in propaganda. This is not to say it is bad art. Far from it. The beauty is that it can be viewed simultaneously as a very personal story too. This is after all a tale about the overcoming of cynicism, about doomed love and about self-sacrifice. The main characters the disillusioned Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, and the beautiful Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid Bergman are three-dimensional, living people. The basic plot is simple: Rick Blaine must choose between his love for Ilsa or the safe passage of both her and her husband, resistance leader Victor Laszlo to the new world via Lisbon. It is a moving tale of love and love’s heartache and could just as easily have been set in any place and at any time.

But the choice was a contemporary setting and the reason is clear. Everything at the time was to be directed towards the war effort. Film-making like any other industry was expected to support the cause. The film, then, is propaganda as well. Propaganda about the U.S.A, the land to which all the refugees in the film are fleeing, where all their hopes are pinned. Propaganda about the importance of the war effort over private interests. Propaganda about the allied world, where jazz can be heard, where black people and other ethnic minorities are visible (think of the wonderful character  of Sam), and where good humour is in ready supply.

Dooley Wilson as Sam

It is of course also propaganda directed towards the peoples of occupied Europe, and above all to occupied France. At no point is that made clearer than in the brilliant scene at Rick’s bar where the customers singing the Marseillaise outcompete the German soldiers’ stale nationalistic anthem. The Marseillaise is of course not just an anthem of the French people, but also an anthem of the French Revolution, and therefore a song for all men, all free men that is.

I suppose what was conspicuous to me as a Brit watching, was the absence of my fellow countrymen from all this. But of course, that is not quite true. The character of Captain Louis Renault, though technically French in the story, is played by an English actor (Claude Rains) who makes no attempt to assume a French accent. Though the character does illustrate some French attributes, his wit is undeniably the wit of an Englishman, just as Rick’s humour is inseparable from the streets of New York. All the main western allies therefore find some role in this film.

Claude Rains as Captain Louis Renault

The humour is as brilliant as the romance is heart-wrenching. This really is a film that can make you both laugh and weep. The screenplay is inspired. There are so many classic lines, it is hard not to gasp in astonishment at times. The wit is essential. At this time people needed humour more than ever. They needed to laugh at the enemy, they needed to laugh at the situation, in some ways all they had left was their courage and their good humour. For they had to go on fighting. Go on Fighting for the world that this film in some ways stands for, the world of dissidents, the world of freedom and jazz, a world in which individual “human life was” not “cheap”.

The world they fought for survived and like a phoenix was reborn from the ashes of World War II taking on new life. I am not especially left-wing, but I do sincerely believe in the liberalism that this film encapsulates. Just as much in fact as those claiming to be the Victor Laszlos of today. In some ways in recent decades we have felt this liberal world order slip from our grasps ever so slightly. At times this has been because the liberal order has become corrupt and complacent, and therefore from time to time there has been justification for it receiving flack. Still, we must not to allow it to be lost completely. By watching ‘Casablanca’ we can remind ourselves that it is worth fighting for.

Rear Window (1954) – Suspenseful Hitchcock Masterpiece

Rear Window (1954) – Suspenseful Hitchcock Masterpiece

Empire refers to this film as flawless and essential. I could not agree more. Rear Window is a film which I watched with my jaw on the floor throughout. Like after Cabaret, I sat stupefied as the credits roll, questioning the magnitude of what I have just witnessed. Rear Window tells the story of a wheelchair bound photographer, Jeffries (Stewart), who has nothing to do in his convalescence but spy on his neighbours. He becomes convinced that one of them, Thorwald (Burr) has murdered his bedridden wife and… well… gotten rid of her in a bed of flowers. Lisa, (Kelly) his girlfriend, and Thelma (Ritter) his maid assist him in their investigations.

James Stewart … L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies

Grace Kelly … Lisa Carol Fremont

Wendell Corey … Det. Lt. Thomas J. Doyle

Thelma Ritter … Stella

Raymond Burr … Lars Thorwald

Made in 1954, this propelled Alfred Hitchcock from everyday master of suspense to a position as titanic public figure, popular entertainer and true artist. He made great films before and after, but Rear Window showed he could take a gimmick premise and transform it into a movie at once accessible to a mass audience and deep enough to be worth dozens of reviewings and critical analyses. Empire

The concept of this film is so à propos for the past miserable year. A man locked away in his apartment, unable to do anything but spy on his neighbours. We have a derelict council building and hotel which charges by the hour (probably) opposite our rear window which does not make for especially tantalising viewing. Jeffries is lucky that he has such entertaining neighbours. From Miss Torso to the couple who sleep out on their balcony, the fascinating and tragic Miss Lonely on the ground floor and the struggling composer above and the wonderful lady who lowers her dog down on a winch, to do its business in the garden. See a picture of Jeff’s view below.

This film is a remarkable work of atmosphere and demonstrative of Hitchcock’s undeniable genius. The whole film is shot from the perspective of Jeffries with the exception of one scene where Hitchcock breaks away from his perspective logic. This is the scene where Lisa is looking up at the woman on the fire escape about two third in, who is scorning her neighbours. I shall not tell you what for but will say this scene is likely among the most suspenseful in the film. Follow this link for an excellent article on Hitchcock’s understanding of the language of cinema in Rear Window.

I’m not much on rear window ethics.

Lisa

Although it is filmed entirely from one room, the film is never once dull. The blinding star power of Grace Kelly is visible in her every movement. The strength of the script, written by John Michael Hayes based on Cornell Woolrich’s 1942 short story “It Had to Be Murder”, is astounding at every turn. The initially frustrated exchanges between Steward and Kelly are superb, followed by their joint enthusiasm for the case they are pursuing. Add in the cynical nurse Thelma and the even more disbelieving Det. Lt. Thomas J. Doyle (Corey), both reluctant to provide assistance, and you have yourself a winning film. The plot is dense and unfolds slowly in a manner reminiscent of 12 Angry Men. Each piece of evidence is adduced slowly to provide a full picture of the events transpired.

Overall this is powerful and perverse movie which tells of the lengths to which humans will go when locked away and intrigued. It is simultaneously about voyeurism, justice, and human nature. Rear Window is an enduring masterpiece which continues to have a strong effect on you long after you have watched it. This is a film which will stay with you forever.

Seven Samurai – Timeless Beautiful Action Film

Seven Samurai – Timeless Beautiful Action Film

In my quest to watch all of the greatest films ever made, I stumbled upon this 1954 stunning black and white, Japanese language action masterpiece. With a running time of 200 minutes, this is a truly epic film. Set in the Sengoku period of Japanese history (1467-1615), Seven Samurai tells the story of a small village which is besieged by bandits who seek to take the village’s crops. The plot begins with some swift background with some of the villagers overhearing scouts from the bandits saying aloud that they will return once the crops have ripened. From then, the villagers, knowing the clock is ticking, set about finding seven Ronin (masterless samurai) to protect their village from the bandits.

But only a true sensei of movie trivia can list all of the Seven Samurai — Takashi Shimura (Kambei), Toshiro Mifune (Kikuchiyo), DaisukeKato (Shichiroji), Yoshio Inaba (Gorobei), Seiji Miyaguchi (Kyuzo), Minoru Chiaki (Heihachi) and Isao Kimura (Katsushiro). Empire

This film is a work of supreme beauty. It scores in the top percentile for me across every metric by which I measure good films. It is visually staggering throughout, even though it is set in a small village in rural Japan. The script is relatively sparse given the often laconic Ronin but hits hard when warranted, including the exquisite scene where Kikuchiyo scalds his fellow Ronin for being judgmental of the villagers. The characterisation of the samurai is done richly and beautifully, by the end you have a full picture of each of them and their respective feelings towards each other. The film really takes its time in establishing these relationships and succeeds.

Here, Kurosawa one-ups Hollywood. Before 1954, even the most epic American adventures featured a lone hero and a stooge posse, or at best two brawling buddies. But here Kurosawa invented the now-familiar device of a heroic leader assembling a team of specialists to meet a challenging task. At well over three hours, the movie has time to give each of the Samurai rich characterisation: Shichiroji is Kambei’s long-term right-hand man; Kyuzo is the icy master swordsman; Gorobei signs up because he admires Kambei’s heroism; Katsushiro is the youth who yearns to learn from the masters; Heihachi is the second-rate sword, welcomed because of his cheery disposition; and Kikuchiyo (a hyperactive, star-making role for Mifune) is the crazy amateur whose insane clown antics mark him as the wild card in this otherwise dignified, professional pack. Empire

Once recruited, the Samurai set about fortifying the village and teaching the villagers basic fighting tactics. The film culminates in one of the greatest battles in cinematic history with the 40 bandits storming the village over the course of several days.

One of my favourite elements of post war Japanese filmography is that they capture the mood of Japan after the war and impose this on situations before the war. The shame of allowing an invading force to have power over them, themes of robbed sovereignty and the honour of fighting oppression are vividly deisplayed throughout Seven Samurai. At the time of filming the repercussions of World War Two will still have been felt and having US soldiers posted around Japan must have twisted the knife daily for the Japanese. Not to mention the Americans wrote the Japanese Constitution after the war therefore engineered their legal infrastructure. All of this is visible within Seven Samurai, although it was set some 400 years previously.

Overall this is an undeniable masterpiece which reflects a national mood and triumphs in every metric for cinematographic gold. I cannot recommend it enough.