2020s, Horror/Eerie

Last Night In Soho (2021)

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Director: Edgar Wright
Screenwriters: Krysty Wilson-Cairns, Edgar Wright

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Edgar Wright built his fame as a filmmaker with a very particular brand. Wright offered sarcastically comedic takes on well-worn film genres that, rather than playing as outright lampoons, took the up the thrilling, extraordinary, dynamic experiential journeys found in the likes of a George Romero-esque zombie horror movie or a Michael Bay-style cop action movie, and inserted very ordinary characters contending with the most commonplace and stodgy life problems into the midst of such craziness, taking the truism that the heightened metaphors found in genre films represent more fundamental and familiar human quandaries and gaining strange fizz from the disparity, the awareness that in some ways it’s easier to face up to big disasters and epic calamities than the small, everyday terrors of life, and wielding filmmaking technique skilled and kinetic enough to bind the two seemingly opposite dramatic styles into lucid, giddily amusing wholes. Wright’s breakthrough feature Shaun of the Dead (2004) and its follow-ups in the so-called “Cornetto Trilogy” Hot Fuzz (2007) and The World’s End (2014), were also fuelled by that disparity, but also the tension between the very British settings with their air of cosy familiarity, and the adrenalized, stylised, fantastic precepts of Hollywood blockbusters.

Wright’s first Hollywood film, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2011), whilst working in a similar fashion, inevitably lacked that tension of sociology as well as genre, although it tried to retain it to a degree in adopting a Canadian setting. Wright’s 2017 hit Baby Driver, whilst a divisive experience that proved oddly aggravating to some viewers in mashing together bratty comedy, neo-musical, and action thriller, signalled Wright starting to shift ground. Last Night In Soho, his latest film and judging by early signs his least well-received to date critically and commercially, continues that shift in offering what is essentially a straitlaced mystery-horror film. That is, straitlaced to a degree. Last Night In Soho is every inch a Wright film in its stylistic and thematic refrains. The fetishism for pop music and use of it as a seismograph of life experience for the characters and a texture-imbuing device for the filmmaking. The constant theme of a hero trying to come of age even as life proves rather more daunting and dangerous than expected. But where in Wright’s previous films the pop culture fun was presented as a kind of spicy sauce layered atop the smart-aleck allegories, Last Night In Soho goes a step further and makes the allure of nostalgia and the habits of creative young folk in wrapping themselves in a self-mythologising cloak of preferred culture into a topic to be dissected rather than played off. Wright is certainly out here to do something more ambitious than offer a feature-length version of Don’t, the terrific little unit of pastiche he made as a fake movie trailer for Grindhouse (2007).

Wright’s heroine Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) is a pure avatar who for myriad young, talented dreamers, albeit with her own, particular abilities and inspirations. She’s first glimpsed dancing about her grandmother’s house in a tape-and-newspaper dress to Peter and Gordon’s “World Without Love” and fantasising about being a famous fashion designer. Eloise’s penchants for a world of retro glamour are given a plain story basis, as she was raised by her grandmother (Rita Tushingham) on a diet of 1960s LPs, after her mother’s death by suicide. Eloise is blessed with an extra layer of oddness in that she has a form of psychic awareness, allowing her to stay in touch with her mother’s watchful shade. Eloise’s embracing world of old music and big dreams faces the challenge of going to the London College of Fashion from her home in Cornwall. Eloise’s stranger talent is the vehicle for the plot as it leaves her especially vulnerable in both her sense of detachment from other people her age and her ability to absorb the dense layer of experience, good and bad, soaked into every inch of London. But it also provides Wright and co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns with a clever metaphor for a certain kind of heightened, transformative awareness that would surely feel familiar to many an artistically inclined youngster. Eloise’s private universe allows communing with history, both personal and social, conjuring a glorious lost golden age when the culture’s fruits were in full bloom compared to the petty, happenstance, unpredictable present, all the better for drawing on as fuel for one’s own attempts to create alternate universes where more perfect things can exist.

Eloise’s specific spur to such yearnings is her childhood loss of her mother. When she first lands in London she’s both been schooled to be cautious in the Big Bad World to a degree that she overreacts at some manifestations of it – a flippantly libidinous taxi driver, ads for sex workers festooning phone booths – and quickly finds herself run ragged when she falls into the hard-partying company of her new roommate Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen) and her circle of friends, finishing up zoning out whilst listening to her favourite sounds and falling asleep wrapped in a blanket at her first student dorm party. This part of the movie is the most familiarly Wright-esque as Jocasta and her circle are swiftly and wryly sketched as insufferable poseurs and providing a few good laughs in the process, with Jocasta explaining why she’s dropping her last name thanks to the example of Kylie – Jenner, not Minogue – and tries to make social capital out of belonging to the “dead mum’s club,” and desperately trying to make up ground when Eloise incidentally outmanoeuvre her in the pitiable stakes. Jocasta and her pals provide suitably snooty foils for Eloise, whilst also representing the debased modern world with its most shallow and transitory obsessions and heedless disinterest in anything that doesn’t feed into the machine of current commercial appeal.

Wright might be making a nod to Pretty In Pink (1986) as Eloise turns up to college wearing clothes she designed and made herself only to find Jocasta and company festooned in designer gear. Jocasta does a least perform the essential service of introducing Eloise to the pleasures of booze and a rowdy night out in Soho, where Wright cheerfully plays John Barry’s theme for Beat Girl (1959) on the soundtrack. But the only person Eloise finds any real connection with at school is John (Michael Ajao), a young man who admits that he also has had trouble fitting in in North London. Being as he is from South London. Quickly tiring of dorm life, Eloise chooses to seek out a place of her own and seems to find the perfect place in a small flat in Soho rented off the elderly Ms Collins (Diana Rigg), who seems like a reassuring substitute for her grandmother, and the flat seems to harbour hidden pleasures available specifically to a person like Eloise. When she falls asleep on her first night there, drifting off whilst listening to Cilla Black’s “You’re My World,” Eloise enters into a dream so vivid it seems more like an inherited memory, in which she witnesses young and lovely Sandie (Anya-Taylor Joy) saunter into the Café de Paris, the hub of Soho nightlife, circa 1965, and goes about trying to catch the eye of the right person to help her dream of becoming a singing star.

This sequence is perhaps the most unabashedly grandiose and idealised Wright has ever dared be in his staging and evocation of a past that’s imperial in its renascent confidence and glamour, an embrace of something in a fashion that Wright, long the hipster’s hipster in his blend of fervour and irony, has clearly both admired but held himself wary of. He stages a travelling shot from Eloise’s point of view emerging from a side street into the midst of busy Soho, a huge poster for Thunderball (1965) pinpointing the historical moment as Black’s singing rises from soft and enticing to grand and swooning in force, before entering the Café de Paris. There Eloise finds herself the reflected, fragmented image of Sandie descending stairs as the perfected dolly bird, and Eloise is able to share the experience as Sandie dodges the sleazy, grasping Cubby (Paul Brightwell) and makes a beeline for Jack (Matt Smith), who seems every inch Sandie’s period male counterpart with his slicked-back pompadour, sharp suit, and insouciant charm, still daintily gripping drink and cigarette even as he joins Sandie on the dance floor. Sandie sets about wowing Jack, who seems to be the man to talk to break into Soho show business, by dancing to Graham Bond’s “Oh Baby”: Sandie gets to act out her fantasy of arresting the very eye of the zeitgeist whilst Jack plays her ideal swashbuckling lover, socking Cubby as he becomes insulting and dashing off with Sandie to make out in a telephone booth.

Eloise’s vicarious experience through Sandie’s persona gifts her a vision that fits her concept of the past and also an idealised edition of her own hopes and anticipations: Sandie has all the brash confidence Eloise (and Wright) associated with a spectacular era and which Eloise finds conspicuously lacking in herself. Here Wright touches on an essential matter that’s fascinated him since Shaun of the Dead – how people construct themselves not only through their own lived experience but the art they love and how those two realms interact, art itself being an inheritance whether it’s a week old or a century and presents a way of seeing that contains truth but not reality. Although both characters are linked by their maintained bubbles of detachment from the world, Wright makes Eloise the opposite to the hero of Baby Driver: for him all the music he loved, soaked in through his perpetually present ear-buds, was rendered equal and contemporary through the omnivorous way he encounters, where Eloise, detached from the mainstream by her life circumstances, uses music to create a world to retreat into. Eloise’s psychic talents, in this regard, are unabashedly presented as an amplification of her creative talents, and the tale of Sandie and Jack, at first at least, operates like her fantasy projection of herself, a vehicle to evoke the textures she tries to recreate in her design work, birthing designs taking inspiration from Sandie’s apparel. Of course, Wright is creating both stories, and the hall-of-mirrors story structuring is recreated within, as Eloise finds herself increasingly uncomfortable and unable to maintain the vicarious perspective, trying to escape the mirrors, but finds the price of that is the other world can access hers, too. Finally, after taking Jack back to her flat in an attempt as much to try and escape that other world as to gain experience of her own, Eloise is driven into screaming hysterics as she envisions Jack threatening Sandie and seeming to kill her in a gruesome welter of blood.

That Wright plainly loves the mid-1960s pop culture and the fabled stature of Swinging London is etched into every frame of the film even when considering its dank and malevolent side – indeed Wright knows full well part of the allure of nightlife groves is that debauched and seedy aspect, the feeling of a place carefully cordoned off from polite society where animal pleasures can be indulged, so long as it’s place where one can safely be a tourist rather than a permanent resident. A little like horror cinema itself. If Last Night In Soho had been made at the time the period scenes are set they would in turn be transposed to about 1910. And, indeed, there were a number of horror movies in the mid-1960s and early ‘70s that cast their minds back, if not quite that far, then to the Jazz Age as a sounding board for contemporary drama, with a similar motif of an age of quaint glamour on the edge of popular memory, recalled by bedraggled and ancient survivors, a la Robert Aldrich’s gothic valentines Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (1963) and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), Terence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out (1967), and Robert Fuest’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971). Wright makes the obvious gambit of casting Tushingham, Rigg, and Terence Stamp in prominent roles as actors who aren’t just the right age for their characters but carry a distinctive cachet from the era that gives an extra sense of import in their roles: Tushingham still has the limpid crystalline gaze she had in Doctor Zhivago (1965), now used to give a little twinkle of familiar compassion to Eloise’s aging but reliable guardian.

Stamp is cast as an elderly man Eloise keeps encountering around Soho including in the Toucan, a pub where she gets a job pulling pints. Eloise soon begins to suspect he may be the older Jack, a suspicion that gains solidity when he seems to recognise her inspiration once she changes her hairstyle to match Sandie’s. Stamp is still a formidable screen presence, and he brings something ineffable to his part, expertly deploying his native Cockney accent in alternations of gruff, chisel-on-stone scepticism and passages of wry, almost lilting wistfulness: “How dare you,” he retorts when Eloise notes he was once a ladies’ man as he bangs out air piano on the bar: “Still am.” Eloise’s conviction that he is Jack leads to a confrontation in which she tries to get him to confess to Sandie’s murder and record it on her phone, only for the increasingly irate man to become so distracted in his irritation he’s hit by a car, and Eloise learns not only isn’t he Jack, he’s actually Lindsay, a former policeman – the same one who decades before encouraged Sandie to get out, and has survived into old age as the keeper of the memory of all Soho’s nasty secrets. Wright leaves it frustratingly vague as to whether Lindsay dies, and indeed it’s a subtly dark touch where Wright makes his heroine essentially responsible for the death of the closest thing the period scenes offer to a hero figure.

Last Night In Soho is, evidently, a homage-cum-revision of 1960s and ‘70s giallo thrillers, most famously and specifically associated with Italian cinema and directors including Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and Lucio Fulci. But giallo can be argued to in part have British roots. The style took heavy licence from Alfred Hitchcock – Wright mischievously closes the stylisation loop by referring back to Vertigo (1958) in having Eloise’s room flooded by red and blue neon light, in good Bava style, from the neighbouring sign of an Italian restaurant much like the hotel room in the Hitchcock film – and directors like Seth Holt and George Pollock were engaged in giallo-like stories and visual motifs at the same time Bava was synthesising the giallo style and creating his signature colour film filled with clashing, drenching hues which Wright quotes copiously. The very Italian quality of the giallo as it developed was of course more one of aesthetic, the delirious gusto in entering entirely into a tricky, deceptive way of seeing that in the hands of directors like Argento and Fulci all but lost contact with standard ideals of coherent narrative. Wright honours the giallo style with expected levels of referentialism, nicking from Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970) the motif of a murderous assault witnessed but misinterpreted in terms of who is attacking whom, and the obsession with dream visions and psychic connections from the Fulci films like A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin (1971) and The Psychic (1977), devices that allowed Fulci to play cinematic games with perception and enter completely into a dreamlike space. And, in classic giallo fashion, the climax involves a gender switch of the expected killer, a gender switch connected with the style’s concern with disrupted social mores. Like Suspiria (1977), Wright’s film tracks a young student as she enters into a dark fairy-tale realm where the dangers and strangeness about her dramatise her urgent attempts to mature.

Wright also nods to a more local tradition in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), and some of its odder children like Peter Collinson’s Straight On Till Morning (1972), variants that drew on a more psychological and realistic style of horror preoccupied with sympathetic killers whose sanity has broken down until they are isolate islands of neurosis. Wright also reminded me a little of “The Mirror” episode from Kevin Connor’s From Beyond The Grave (1973), which similarly depicted a hapless person experiencing mind-twisting visions in a recently-rented apartment, although Wright stops well short of going down the route in that story of having Eloise possessed and start killing herself, as amusing as the thought of the winsome McKenzie going on a killing spree is. Alongside the horror movie trappings, though, Last Night In Soho is also like Baby Driver before it a covert musical, and again takes its title from a song, in this case by cult ‘60s band Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Titch, whilst its heroine is named after the song by Barry Ryan, featured in a key scene. The way Wright weaves music into the film’s texture and its storytelling rhythms is represents perhaps his best filmmaking to date. Wright’s use of music has always been inspired – the scene in Shaun of the Dead where the heroes bash zombies in semi-choreographic time to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” being a beloved example. But here he goes deeper in the way he exploits emotional associations with music, most obviously in Eloise’s first dream where Black’s singing encapsulates all her fantasies about the past and the authority of its art, segueing into Sandie and Jack’s dance together as a tableaux of retro cool.

In Eloise’s second dream of her, Sandie performs an a capella rendition of Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” a song specifically about the romantic allure of the big city’s most fervent quarters, to Jack and the owner of a club called the Rialto (Terence Frisch), in an audition Jack arranged. The performance is a success, and the boss gives Sandie a job, leading to Sandie and Jack becoming lovers. So far Sandie’s story is still perfectly on song for Eloise’s idea of emerging into adulthood. Next dream, however, Eloise finds herself watching Sandie from amongst the all-male audience in the Rialto, and beholds Sandie as merely one of several back-up dancers in a burlesque act headed by “Marionetta” (Jeanie Wishes), who performs a tawdrily naughty dance whilst lip-synching Sandie Shaw’s “Puppet on a String.” This sequence, whilst depicting bawdy high spirits, nonetheless represents one of the most effective tonal shifts I’ve ever seen in a film, as Eloise confronts the squalid flipside of her throwback dreaming. Soon enough she realises Sandie, as well as being degraded in the show, is doomed to become Jack’s thrall and pet prostitute, rented out to a parade of bland middle-aged businessmen who go through the motions of charming her to a predestined outcome involving her sprawled in depressive self-loathing on her bed back in the flat with a wad of cash laid out beside her.

Wright uses the lyrics of the Shaw song, with its jolly but oddly sinister evocation of romantic dependence, to set the scene for Sandie’s downfall, and segueing into a deliriously garish vision in which Eloise swaps places with Sandie and flees through the interior of the Rialto, glimpsing visions of grim fates for girls like her glimpsed in dressing rooms engaged in sex acts or drug use, whilst being chased by Jack who’s now become an ogrish incarnation of the sleaze. The fantasy suddenly becomes a bleak, Fellini-esque nightmare zone where the fetid flipside of the period is unveiled with all its abusive prerogatives. Wright follows this sequence with an equally effective episode where Wright communicates Sandie’s mental fracturing and apparent total defeat through her dancing frenetically to the Walker Brothers’ cover of “Land of a Thousand Dances,” dissolving in deliriously psychedelic imagery, intercut with her listless and repetitious encounters with prospective johns. Amongst these, only an encounter with a man she takes to be a cop (Sam Claflin) stands out, as he suggests she’s too good for what’s she’s doing and should get out while she can.

Last Night In Soho is, then, a story about the problems of nostalgia, rather than an unleavened paean to it. Eloise is an apt vehicle for such explorations: thanks to her empathic gifts, Eloise is able to explore the past both as spectator but also actor in it, cinema viewer and theatrical performer, a detachment that becomes increasingly frustrating – at one point Eloise tries to shatter the barrier, represented by the mirror she exists in as Sandie’s reflection, and grab hold of her in a gesture of desperate protectiveness, a moment that perfectly illustrates the powerful feeling a lot of us have in contemplating the lives of people from the past we admire but know came to a bad end, wishing we could have intervened. But detachment is also deliverance, as Eloise is safe to awaken from the vicarious demimonde. At first, at least, before her dream life begins to invade her waking one, and she’s stalked by grotesque shadow-men with blurred faces who resemble Sandie’s client-rapists, as well as Sandie and Jack themselves. The dichotomies built in here involving the difference between safe distance and immersion, sentimental longing and grim reality, cinematic image and immediate reality, invest Last Night In Soho with a depth that eludes many such genre-sampling tributes, stumbling into territory for Wright close to Brian De Palma, another arch image-player with a penchant for quoting giallo cinema, although Wright, thus far, lacks De Palma’s deeper perversity, his fascination for the dark battles in the soul he represents through his characters who are often brutally stripped of their naiveté.

Wright by contrast prizes the gawky innocence of his characters whilst also meditating on the inevitability of disillusionment and the sometimes unbearable impact of it. He has Eloise strikes up a tentative romance with John as the two uncool kids in the College of Fashion, but when the two finally try to take some time out for a little authentic youthful fun of their own as they attend a student union Halloween party and start bouncing about joyfully to Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Happy House,” and where Eloise and John’s sudden exuberance might partly be the result of Jocasta giving them spiked drinks. This island of true, personal, potentially transformative experience for Eloise nonetheless becomes a jagged trap as she starts seeing the ghostly men hovering around the dance floor, their grey semi-transparent forms flickering like the strobe lighting. An extremely effective image that also, oddly, calls back to the imagery of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World in Wright presenting the arena of music as a literal warzone, a place where people battle for control of their personalities, and perform great acts of self-discovery. Here Wright counters the jollity of that film with a jolt of ghostly visitation that can also be read as a portrait of melancholia piercing through fun, the melancholia that Eloise is trying to outrun, inherited from her mother. This theme of preternatural sensitivity to environment which operates as a kind of recording device for the common consciousness connects to a later comment by Ms Collins when Eloise asks her if someone once died in her room, “This is London – someone’s died in every room in every building in this whole city.” All cities are cities of the dead as well as the living.

The Toucan’s owner, Carol (Pauline McLynn), offers her converse version of this when she expresses a faith that her pub’s walls are haunted by ghosts of good times, as a stage where everyone – “Every gangster, every copper, every red-faced lush” – has some time of another stopped in for a drink and a laugh, forming part of the great mesh of community and continuity that imbues the city with its identity, in which every person is both a fleeting presence and a vital player, stars of their own movie overlapping with everyone else’s, and life happens in those overlapping margins. Eloise’s decision to seduce John leads into a keen example of Wright’s talent for layering his motifs, presenting her as at once a normal but troubled young person contemplating a familiar rite of passage in part to try and root herself in the here and now rather than her dark obsessions, and a very unusual one, making a desperate but oddly practical attempt to find a way to distract herself from a haunting that’s not metaphorical: from Eloise’s viewpoint an array of kissing couples in the street outside the nightclub blur and become their predecessors from another era, including the abused and maligned, part of a chain of events. When Eloise freaks out at the vision of Sandie’s apparent death as she and John try to have sex, John becomes the fool of absurd fortune, his humiliation and anxiety illustrated as he shatter a mirror and dashes out past Ms Collins with glass cutting up his feet, whilst Eloise is lost in a delirious and horrifying scene of flashing steel and spraying blood, taking to the most hyperbolic reaches imaginable the basic proposition of an initial sexual encounter proving tragically clumsy and hurtful.

Eloise, trying to find some historical record of Sandie’s death in part to prove she’s not simply suffering from a hyperactive imagination, goes trawling through old newspaper microfiche reels in the college library, not noticing that some of the faces from the old missing persons cases are awfully familiar. The Halloween dance party and its nightmarish interrupting is a brilliant scene that Wright, perhaps trying to really live up to his ambition to make above all a horror movie rather than a deconstructive impression of one, repeats arguably once or twice too often, as Eloise keeps experiencing similarly bloodcurdling and disorientating encounters with the wraiths. She cracks during one such assault during her library sojourn and tries to stab one of the ghosts, only to for her blow to be stopped just in time by John, and Eloise realises she was actually about to stab the understandably perturbed and wrathful Jocasta. It’s not at all hard to guess where the plot of Last Night In Solo leads, for anyone who’s ever watched a giallo or even an episode of a TV show like Medium, and when the casting itself serves to a degree as a giveaway. Suffice to say that there’s a very good reason Eloise finds her double-edged dream-life in the place she does, which turns out to be as crammed full of dead bodies as Reginald Christie’s notorious address. Classic giallo films liked playing games with perception, of course, much of it built around preoccupations with alluring images of beauty and complications of gender. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage climaxed with the revelation a psycho killer was actually the seemingly victimised young woman, whilst Deep Red rifled a whole Freudian litany in its often literal deconstruction of bodies and the beings that inhabit them.

Last Night In Soho takes up those preoccupations in a manner that can be seen, depending on one’s predisposition, as timely or trendy, but it’s also wound deeply into its form and function. Whilst the narrative follows a classical giallo arc to its end, why we get there is given a new spin rooted in the exposure of sexism and exploitation in the entertainment industry, where monsters beget monsters. Wright’s cunning approach to casting also made me think of how different actors in different eras are used to encapsulate similar personas, linking the ambidextrous talent of Taylor-Joy as well as her unusual looks to Rigg, and Claflin’s brief but eye-catching embodiment of the young and urbane Lindsay, ingeniously able to reproduce the notes in Stamp’s performance as a figure who is in many ways the closest thing to a hero in the narrative but fatefully stymied by a streak of smug detachment that curdles eventually into angry, guilty boding. This is also reflected in the casting of McKenzie and Taylor-Joy, who don’t really look that much alike but are able to almost will themselves to resemble each-other. Rigg, for her part, in her last role, goes out luckily with a part that depends entirely on her specific talents as an actor: Rigg’s particularity, going back to her days in The Avengers TV series, lay in her ability to suggest something steely and dangerous under a carefully maintained surface, be it the chic insouciance of Emma Peel or a wrinkly old granny type here.

When it’s finally, inevitably revealed that sweet old Ms Collin is actually Sandie, or Alexandra as was her full, true name, Rigg handles the shift in manner to great effect, letting the sly, maniacal edge Sandie’s used to survive for half a century show as she proposes to kill Eloise and John. The edge of fierce and unsentimental knowing in Rigg’s performance as well as a certain indulgent awareness about life and the mistakes people make in it up until that point changes in perception from crusty-but-likeable to disturbing, like her comment that she would have killed John if she’d caught him in the bedroom scene. Sandie confesses that she killed Jack rather than the other way around before embarking on a campaign of vicious revenge by slaying all her old johns as well, and she drugs Eloise and stabs John in a last-ditch, determined attempt to keep her secret. Wright goes for broke in the finale in a way that risks excess – indeed many have found it so – in seeking reaches of quasi-operatic grandeur to match the emotional heat of the songs Wright deploys in the film, returning to “You’re My World” as Wright switches between the reality of old Sandie stalking Eloise up the stairwell and the swooningly stylised version of her fantasy where she’s young again and bringing the murderous pain in a most glam way. Here, Wright tries to twin the opposite poles of his cinematic lexicon in a new manner, the adoration of grandiose spectacle and show business colliding with sordid reality.

The climax still has its twists, as the ghostly men seem to erupt out of the floor and walls, and demand Eloise gain revenge and kill Sandie, only to wring a note of tragicomic sickness out of the sight of the shades all cringing like chastised boys as Sandie looms over them and they remember the savage wounds she inflicted. Only the ghostly Jack with his leering, provoking sneer holds the line in maintaining what is actually his perpetual puppet-play where even in murder and afterlife Sandie and the others can’t escape until cleansing fire claims them all. Wright tries to have his cake of genre fulfilment and eat his slice of revisionism, and there is some concomitant awkwardness. But ultimately I appreciated his attempt to be more complex, the dead men just as misogynistic and implacable as they were alive but not merely rendered as undead demons needing putting down again, Sandie neither fully crazed nor entirely sympathetic in answering abuse with abuse, grinding on in a joyless cycle that creates little hells on earth, a hell which, as Lindsay warned earlier, was in part Sandie’s own choice. Eloise refuses to let Sandie cut her own throat, but still has to leave her to her auto-da-fe, catching a last sight of the youthful Sandie seated on her old bed, about to be consumed by boiling flames, striking in her pathos but also at least finally gaining the kind of spectacular ending any good performer deserves. Wright includes a coda that sees Eloise emerging as a designing star with her flowing retro creations now bobbing on the bodies of male models, watched by her grandmother and the healed-up John, whilst Sandie’s image is now the one that keeps watch from the mirror, signalling Eloise has embraced the ambiguities, gender and otherwise, of the present and is keeping the cautionary example, and sense of mission, gained in her ordeal.

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2020s, Action-Adventure, Crime/Detective, Thriller

No Time To Die (2021)

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Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Screenwriters: Cary Joji Fukunaga, Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, Phoebe Waller-Bridge

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

It feels like an eternity ago when Daniel Craig was cast as James Bond. The thought of a rugged, jug-eared, blonde-haired bruiser in the role caused consternation and debate amongst fans fond of the character’s popular image as a slick, dark, handsome toff in a tuxedo. But Craig’s debut in the role, Casino Royale (2006), proved an audience-delighting smash hit and a smart reinvention of the well-worn franchise: taking its cue from Ian Fleming’s debut novel, Casino Royale stepped back from familiar, much-loved template filled with absurdist action, sci-fi gimmicks, and quasi-surreal villainy, and instead aimed for something tougher, earthier, more realistic, an edge that had been present in the earliest films in the series like From Russia With Love (1963) and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), and briefly returned to in For Your Eyes Only (1981). Casino Royale owed much of its success to the direction of New Zealander Martin Campbell, who had previously reinvented Bond effectively for the 1990s in Goldeneye (1995). But it was Craig’s strength in the role that enthralled the zeitgeist, his muscular sex appeal and skill in depicting Bond’s evolution from a relatively unsophisticated government goon to something more like the familiar, suave, ice-cold agent. Craig’s stint as Bond has been the longest of any actor to date at 15 years, although he’s made less movies in that time than either Sean Connery or Roger Moore, thanks to oddities of fate like the credit squeeze that held up making Skyfall (2012) and the Covid-19 pandemic that delayed release of No Time To Die, Craig’s avowed last turn in the part.

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Craig’s tenure has also been bedevilled by violent unevenness in the quality and reception of his actual movies, even if the actor himself has held on to general, if not universal, acclaim essaying the role. Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace (2008) was met by many as an excessively hyperactive, underwritten entry, and Sam Mendes’ Spectre (2015) was also met as a letdown after Mendes and Craig scored a colossal success with Skyfall, a movie that managed to convince the rest of the world to play along with Britain’s reborn nationalist delirium. For myself, despite being a Bond fan and nominally appreciating the moves the franchise made back towards Fleming’s model, I’ve found it hard to really like the Craig era. Quantum of Solace was a bruising disappointment after the excellence of Casino Royale, and I also found Skyfall rather ungainly; ironically I liked Spectre a lot more than many, whilst conceding it had serious problems. Campbell’s touch on Casino Royale expertly mediated the new sock-in-the-teeth grit with some of the old globetrotting lushness in a manner at once smart and unpretentious, but the production team’s choice to bring in artier talents proved frustrating. Forster’s tilt, much like his supposedly serious movies, proved flashy and facetious. Mendes’ gift for creating adamantine imagery with a sense of scale and solidity and touched with gentle abstraction helped the series retain its aura of lush, ultra-classy style – you could all but smell the money being spent during his entries – but at the price of a somewhat languid pace and a sense of top-heavy self-importance in a franchise that once served up neo-matinee serial thrills.

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There were subtler problems with the Craig-era films, too. The Bond series had long sustained itself vampirically through emulating pop culture trends – annexing Blaxploitation for Live and Let Die (1973) and the sci-fi craze of the late 1970s for Moonraker (1979), for instance, or even the parkour and Texas Hold ‘Em portions of Casino Royale – whilst retaining its own, mooring roster of demarcating tropes – the inimitable Monty Norman and John Barry theme, the opening gun-barrel logo scene and dreamy pop-art credit sequences filled with naked, silhouetted women, the familiar in-universe touches like Bond’s weapon of choice, the Walther PPK, and supporting characters like Q and  Miss Moneypenny. The choice of divesting the series of many of these for Casino Royale came with a mooted promise to bring them back as Craig’s Bond evolved, whilst in the meantime the new films heavily emulated first the Jason Bourne films with their maniacally edited hand-to-hand combat and chase scenes and superficial cynicism towards statecraft, and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, particularly The Dark Knight (2008), which Skyfall emulated to such a degree it sometimes felt like someone had erased the names from Nolan’s script and pencilled in new ones. The emulation of strong tendencies in contemporary serialised storytelling also drew the Craig Bonds to adopt a running storyline that managed to be at once negligible and convoluted, and an insistence on personalised conflicts and revenge themes based in backstory, leading to the point where even protozoa on Ganymede rolled their eyes when the series reintroduced Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the mastermind of SPECTRE, only to now characterise him as Bond’s resentful adoptive brother and chronic behind-the-curtain tormentor.

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Skyfall and Spectre did at least serve to fulfil the promise of reintroducing the familiar Bond tropes with a fresh sense of their function. Spectre, in bringing back Blofeld (played inevitably but with curious miscasting by Christoph Waltz) and resetting the table so SPECTRE could once again provide ideal running villains detached from geopolitical tides, seemed to finally set the scene so the series could go wild again. Trouble is, the Craig-era films were simultaneously locked into another pattern, one obedient to current screenwriting clichés and the niceties of star vehicles. Craig’s advancing age was thematically tethered to Bond’s backdated status as a retro kind of hero and already being joked about in Skyfall, and now with No Time To Die Craig’s popularity in the part essentially obliges the franchise to eat its own tail. What was supposed to be a superhero’s origin story is suddenly, abruptly a fin-de-siecle meditation and dismantling. No Time To Die breaks with series traditions in many obvious and very arch ways, starting with being directed by an American for the first time, Cary Joji Fukunaga, who sometime back suggested a gift for filming very English material with his intelligent and textured work on Jane Eyre (2011) and brought cinematic attitude to the TV series True Detective. On the face of it, he seems like just the sort of talent to give the series a shot in the arm and help Craig wrap up in a blaze of glory. But something went very, very wrong here.

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No Time To Die opens with a long flashback sequence to when Bond’s current paramour, Madeleine Swann, a doctor and the daughter of the deadly former SPECTRE operative Mr White, was a child (played at that age by Coline Defaud), at home with her alcoholic mother (Mathilde Bourbin): a man wearing a kabuki mask, who we later learn is named Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), traverses the snowy woods outside, enters the home, and kills the mother. Madeleine shoots Safin, but fails to kill him, and as she flees she falls through the ice covering a neighbouring lake. The intruder, rather than leaving her to die, saves her life. Cut to thirty-odd years later: Madeleine (Léa Seydoux) is travelling through Italy with Bond after he quit MI6 at the end of Spectre. As the pair resolve to make their peace with the ghosts haunting them as they stay in the town of Matera, Bond at Madeleine’s encouragement goes to say farewell at the grave of Vesper Lynd, his great love from Casino Royale. But Bond is almost killed by a bomb secreted in her tomb, and is chased by a gang of SPECTRE agents working under Blofeld’s command despite him being in strict isolation in an English prison. Hints given both by one of the assassins and Blofeld himself as he rings Madeleine on her cell phone, as well as her earlier encouragement, tell Bond she set him up for the assassination, and after he manages to wipe out the killers Bond stick her on a train and tells her she’ll never see him again.

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The opening flashback puts a value on Madeleine’s past and perspective which does resurface later in the film, and yet I still don’t feel it was justified especially in a movie so long, but Fukunaga does tap the image of the masked man suddenly appearing in the window of the house for a jolt of effective creepiness. The subsequent sequences in the lengthy pre-credits movement are excellent. Fukunaga and the production team do their best to provide some thundering good action with some thankfully real-looking stunts as Bond throws himself behind a small brick fixture on an ancient stonework bridge to avoid being run over by a speeding car and then leaps off the bridge using a power cable as a bungee cord, and a few moments later rides a captured motorcycle up a cyclopean wall and leaps onto a terrace. This is the sort of daring, vivid, no-bullshit stunt work that’s been sorely missing from too much contemporary action cinema. But Fukunaga breaks the spell a few moments later when he has Bond, behind the wheel now of his beloved Aston-Martin, eject some miniature bombs that blow up a pursuing vehicle, done with obviously, horribly fake CGI. It’s dismaying that even James Bond films no longer have the courage of their own megabudget, go-big-or-go-home convictions.

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Nonetheless Craig-as-Bond is at his best in this sequence: the way his eyes go wide and glazed in their fixed and murderous ferocity where he was warm and romantic a few seconds earlier, betrays Craig’s intelligent feel for how being an action hero requires a rarefied and demanding kind of acting, and builds to a moment when he seems paralysed by rage and heartbreak as he and the bewildered Madeleine are trapped in the Aston-Martin by gunmen who pound it with machine gun fire. Bond seems to be considering letting them both be shredded by the bullets once they finally puncture the armoured body as a just end for her deception and his foolishness, before his better self kicks back in as he beholds Madeleine’s weeping, terrified face, and he wipes out the shooters with the car’s secreted machine guns. A marvellous moment that knows how to express character through action, and seems to promise a Bond movie for the ages. The familiarly stylised credits sequence tips one of many nods to Peter Hunt’s series high On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in revisiting the imagery in Maurice Binder’s credits sequence for that film involving a Britannia figure and hourglasses, seen here crumbling to pieces and sinking to the ocean floor, with Billie Eilish’s duly dirge-like theme song on sound: the increasingly morbid and languid tenor of the last three Bond themes has exacerbated a certain cheerlessness starting to cling to the series.

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The narrative proper takes up five years after the shootout in Matera, with a unit of heavily armed SPECTRE goons invading a covert germ warfare laboratory in a London skyscraper (!) to snatch a turncoat scientist, Obruchev (David Denchik), and a nanobot virus he was developing at the behest of M (Ralph Fiennes), capable of being programmed to kill anything from a specific person to an entire ethnic genome, and codenamed Heracles. Bond now in solitary, disaffected retirement in Jamaica, is visited by his pal and CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), along with a State Department official, Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen): they want to hire Bond to track down Obruchev as they’ve caught wind of the danger his invention represents. Bond initially turns them down, before he’s confronted by a British agent, Nomi (Lashana Lynch), who is soon revealed to be Bond’s replacement as 007: Nomi warns Bond not to get involved, which is a good way to make sure he does. Bond goes to Cuba where Leiter and Ash tell him Obruchev was last spotted, and in downtown Havana he finds the entire SPECTRE team gathered together to celebrate Blofeld’s birthday. Bond makes contact with an American agent, Paloma (Ana de Armas), who professes to being a recent recruit with three weeks’ training, but unleashes major skills when things go haywire.

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Bond realises too late that he’s been lured to this place by Blofeld who wants his death by Heracles to be the crowning moment of the celebration, but when the virus is released it instead kills all the SPECTRE bigwigs: Obruchev, whose true master is Safin, has doublecrossed them. Bond and Paloma fight their way out and engage in a little friendly rivalry with Nomi in trying to catch Obruchev: Bond wins and flies him to a CIA spy ship disguised as a trawler where he meets with Leiter and Ash. But Ash proves to be another traitor in league Safin: he shoots Felix and leaves him and Bond to die as a mine blows a hole in the boat. Bond can’t save Felix, but he manages to escape and when he returns to London has a charged confrontation with M, before allying with Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Wishaw) to fully understand Heracles and seek out Safin. Bond demands to see Blofeld, who usually only allows Madeleine, now living in London and serving hand-picked as his psychotherapist, to visit him. Preparing for the next session, Madeleine is visited by Safin, and who blackmails her into spiriting a vial of Heracles in to Blofeld. Madeleine flees before actually confronting Blofeld, but Bond, having touched her, transmits the virus to Blofeld when he gets mad and tries to throttle him, and Blofeld promptly expires. When Bond goes to visit Madeleine, they swiftly reconnect, but life throws a new wrinkle Bond’s way – Madeleine has a daughter, Mathilde (Lisa-Dorah Sonnet), who he notices has his eyes: Madeleine swears she isn’t his, but of course she’s lying.

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No Time To Die proves maniacally determined to cross the Ts and dot the Is when it comes to wrapping up Craig’s tenure, which, I might as well say now seeing everyone in the universe knows already, ends with Bond dying. In the process, the film completely contradicts the supposed initial promise of Craig’s entries as origin story. Instead, it exacerbates a trend that had been noticeable in Skyfall and Spectre in playing as a compressed greatest hits collection of tropes, but muted and pinched to fit in with the nominally more terse and down-to-earth Craig style, whilst also burning them as fuel for its own star vehicle engine. No Time To Die bewilderingly sets about wiping out Blofeld and SPECTRE just after they were restored to their proper place in the franchise, and also Wright’s Leiter, on the build-up to the climax where Bond himself finally seems to bit the bullet. Or missile. It’s as if the filmmakers feel that Craig is now so integral to Bond mystique that the character can’t survive in the same form beyond him as far as his fans are concerned, and so as far as this wing of the franchise goes, all the outstanding business must be ticked off. Or is simply that contemporary Hollywood screenwriting needs big bangs all the way through, and the only way to prove how big No Time To Die must be taken as is to be, as TV commercials might put it with thumping music stings, The. One. That. Changes. Everything.

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Craig’s films have repeatedly tried to root themselves in concepts and lore taken in Fleming’s books, many of which were casually tossed aside as the film series became its own happily ridiculous thing, in continuing on from Casino Royale, the film of which obeyed the novel in presenting Bond as the product of heartbreak and disillusionment. The death of Vesper Lynd left him hollowed and icy, but Fleming’s most cunning and effective twist on this was that it finally made Bond the perfect spy. The Craig film accepted this as its own new beginning, but has, ironically, been dedicated to contradicting it since. Fukunaga and the screenwriters tip their hand many times to Fleming’s closely linked later novels, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice, which saw Bond married and widowed at the hands of Blofeld in the space of a few pages, then travelling to Japan where he tracked down Blofeld and killed him before finishing up as an amnesiac living to a local diving girl and presumed dead by the world. Fleming had made a stab at killing off Bond before in From Russia With Love, only to bring him back for Doctor No, and when he tried to rid himself of the spy a second time deliberately left it more open-ended. So Fleming was hardly averse to the idea of his great hero proving very mortal, but he kept walking it back anyway.

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The film version of You Only Live Twice threw out much of that novel’s business, but the adaptation of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service stuck closely to the template, ending famously with a note of tragic romanticism with Bond murmuring “We have all the time in the world” over his wife Tracy’s dead body, the phrase also providing the title to the Louis Armstrong warbled theme song for the film. No Time To Die gives warning this will be a reference point early on by having Bond repeat the “All the time in the world” line to Madeleine as they drive about in bliss, which for anyone who knows the series lore immediately sets antennae twitching, and wraps up with the Armstrong song, which is both agreeable – it’s one of the great themes and Armstrong’s singing is unbeatable – and a bit arch. It also incorporates the marvellous concept in You Only Live Twice of the villain propagating a garden filled with poisonous plants, although this classic touch of Fleming’s borderline surreal morbid imagery is here rendered in flavourless visual terms. At least, for the first time since Pierce Brosnan’s run, the plot stakes here offer the once-standard motif of a megalomaniac out to terrorise the world, working from a secret headquarters on a remote island – Safin’s father was in charge of a former Soviet chemical and missile plant on an island in disputed waters, where Safin grew up and now has set up a plant to manufacture Heracles there. Safin’s remorseless project of revenge was set in motion when Mr White killed his family by poisoning them all with smallpox, which Safin survived albeit badly scarred. Now, once he finishes his mission of wiping out SPECTRE, he turns his attention to remaking the world, mostly into corpses. He also seems to feel some sort of proprietary interest in Madeleine, feeling that he in effect owns her after saving her life, which makes it a bit confusing as to why he’s decided to wait thirty years or so to take possession of her.

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Most of this heavy stuff is held off to the second half of the film at least. The first half tries on the other hand to restore some jauntiness too many felt had deserted the series. The added screenwriting hand of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, whose TV series Killing Eve offered its own, semi-satirical spin on a Bond-esque universe of assassins and spies, and which No Time To Die clearly seeks to emulate to a degree, is very apparent in this half, if not to much advantage. A lot of the humour falls flat, or at least it did for me, feeling entirely at odds with the tenor of the rest of the film. This in particular clings to Obruchev, who despite being a major villain in the film is also its comic relief, appears, like in his first scene where he’s being teased by his fellow scientists and he threatens to kill them in return. It also inflects the scenes involving Paloma, although it works much better there, in part because De Armas knows exactly how to sell a blend of superficial naiveté and secret dynanism. The scene where Fukunaga cuts between Bond and Paloma engaged in their own style of fighting, Bond in brutal fisticuffs with a SPECTRE goon, Paloma using explosive gymnastic dexterity and ingenious physical wit, is a highpoint not just for movie but the series in general, particularly in the wry punctuation of Bond falling from a balcony and springing back up again and patting himself down again to recover his savoir faire, before pouring himself and Paloma a drink and the two downing theirs with brusque aplomb.

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The ebullience of this scene nonetheless points up the shortcomings of the rest of the film rather painfully, particularly when it comes to Nomi, who’s posited in the film alternately as Bond’s replacement, rival, foil, and comrade-in-arms. Lynch has the right statuesque swagger for the part, but Nomi emerges as seriously underwritten and scarcely conceived beyond the basic proposition of “tough black chick,” and by comparison to the eager, surprising Paloma, she feels like a walking cliché and no fun to boot. I also got the feeling she’s a victim of the rather garbled midsection of the film which might have been the result of hasty reshoots. Bond’s contretemps with M also feels like a victim of this, leaping from the two having quite the falling out, in very English polite English fashion, when they meet face-to-face for the first time in years, only to be relatively chummy again a couple of scenes later, and there’s definitely some connective tissue missing there. This is also strongly suggested through small but consequential plot details like the fact Blofeld in prison is able to communicate through a bionic eye implanted in him somehow, which is a nice, very Bondian idea, except that its discovery and removal all take place off screen. The core team of M, Q, and Moneypenny, well-served in the past two entries, here get very little to do. Q in particular, despite being playfully characterised here as gay, is still reduced to a character who taps rapidly at keyboards and explains the plot. Oh, and Rory Kinnear’s Tanner is still around, doing whatever it is he does. Other problems are more existential for this material. Spectre interestingly mooted the continued need for the human touch in spy work in an age of cyber and drone warfare, which actually gave that entry a hint of contemporary political relevance, something the Bond series has generally run away from since its earliest days when it swapped out Soviets for SPECTRE as the necessary villains. But it also saddled itself with the silliest countdown in movie history as Bond and company had to race against a ticking clock…to when a computer system would go online!

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No Time To Die similarly chooses a MacGuffin in the nanobot virus that’s both difficult to make work in a movie and also somewhat worn out as a plot device in sci-fi action flicks. Which wouldn’t be as much as an issue but it feeds into the clumsiness of the film’s narrative, which the urgent attempts to earn gravitas through killing off familiar characters feel mostly designed to paper over. No Time To Die take the cake-and-eat-it-too tendencies of the Craig era to the limit, setting up all the old-school Bond tropes at last but still also play off the beat, in a way that foils narrative intensity, as when Safin simply lets Mathilde go, whilst the jokey playing of Obruchev means he’s never convincing as a villain but not actually funny either. Nomi feels like the biggest victim of this indecisiveness. She’s plainly introduced as a sort of goad to the much-mooted idea of generation change in supplanting Bond with a black woman, one who treats him with an edge of cutting condescension (“I’ll put a bullet in your knee,” she promises when warning him against interference, “The one that still works.”), even if she finds he’s still able to give as good as he gets. Of course, they eventually become mutually reliant partners, and Nomi hands back the 00 title to Bond. There’s no particularly good reason given for why they’ve become less antagonistic by this point or why Nomi should give up a rank she presumably earned: of course James Bond should die, if he must, as 007, but the script fudges, and somewhere along the line Nomi was left as a fifth wheel rather than a potent new figure. Nomi is eventually given one would-be iconic vignette late in the film when she vengefully pushes Obruchev into a vat of his own nanovirus after he threatens to turn his invention on the “west African diaspora.” Mass-murdering bad guy? Fair enough. Racist too? Die, mofo!

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It’s been compulsory for film critics to take a poke at the nominally outmoded aspects of Bond as a character and franchise for decades now, apparently oblivious to the fact that the series itself has been tapping it as a source of humour since the quips in Live And Let Die about “following a cue ball” and through segues like Judi Dench’s M tautologically calling him a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur” in Goldeneye, as well the issue of a superspy belonging to a country that had devolved into a mid-range power by the time he was created. There’s been a lot of debate lately about replacing Craig with an actor of colour or even a woman. The problem with such proposals, modishly pleasing as they are, is they reveal a fatal misunderstanding of what Bond is. The basic appeal of the character is rooted in ironic contrast, his surface appearance of the classic English gentleman hiding an existential shark whose interests, talents, and occupation all converge in bringing mayhem, delivering orgasm, and tempting chance, in about that order. Mendes got that, at least, particularly at the start of Spectre when he had Craig-as-Bond wearing a Day of the Dead mask and waving a red rose, his basic functions as bringer of death and life reduced to essential symbolism with a hint of morbid humour. There’s still nobody quite like him around: compare him to the gelded stable of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, full of grown men who can barely speak to a woman. Only Tony Stark, who tellingly birthed that franchise, was conceived in a Bondian manner – his first entry even sported a direct lampoon in playing Bondish guitar music over Tony having a quickie. Of course, Stark’s maturation saw him obliged to leave that behind, and Craig’s tenure sees him somewhat ironically obliged to follow that arc, now even forced to mimic Stark in Avengers: Endgame (2019), which also saw him become a father and die at the end. There isn’t even a hint of the fun Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) found could be tapped in the idea of a loner hero finding he’s a dad.

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The cinematic Bond’s arrival on the pop culture scene in 1962 heralded a tectonic shift in many regards, but one above all. Certainly Bond was a male power fantasy at a zenith, but he owes his success to also being a female one: Bond’s sexual prowess was a resource more valuable than all Auric Goldfinger’s bullion, capable of rewriting the world’s rules, as in Goldfinger (1964) itself, where the only actual, positive thing Bond does to alter the outcome of the plot is be a good enough lay to win Pussy Galore back to the side of right and virtue. Bond became thus the first authentic modern icon of female sexual need, save perhaps Dracula, a character with many fundamental similarities to Bond. The way a lot of critics talk about this aspect of Bond now, you’d think nobody in the world has casual hook-ups. Anyway, the Craig era’s general response to this has been to make Bond less an erotic swashbuckler and defined more as a kind of emotionally crippled pseudo-stud. Which would be fine, close indeed to Fleming’s character, but the Craig cycle has refused to stick to it; again, we are trapped within the formats of modern screenwriting manuals. Craig’s arrival in the role rang bells across the world with his shirtless beach scene, but now he’s middle-aged despite still being in ferociously good shape. Skyfall’s best moment also gave the best new twist on Bond’s sexuality, when the villain teased him with queer flirtation, “First time for everything,” to Bond’s unblinking, ever-so-cool retort, “What makes you think this is my first time?” The perfect line: on the one hand a nimble revision of the undercurrents (and sometimes overcurrents) of homophobia in some earlier movies and in Fleming, on the other one that just seemed to fit: of course Bond would have tried every dish before settling on a favourite. Anyway, No Time To Die has no such adroitness. Instead it settles for a few jabs at the idea of aging lotharios, with Bond striking out with both Nomi and Paloma, before taking it to the logical extreme of having suddenly face up to being a family man.

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Craig and Seydoux were good together in Spectre, but here they totally fizzle in terms of chemistry, not that the script gives them much chance to work it up again. Madeleine’s reappearance in the story is so sudden and happenstance it’s almost like a reel got skipped, before the film underlines Bond’s new emotional dimension in the most hackneyed manner conceivable. In the prior film Madeleine was cool and ambiguous: now she’s the vaguely tragic baby mama, and that does her as few favours as it does Bond, until she becomes the object of Safin’s weirdly obscure attentions. It pains me to say that Craig himself eventually became part of the problem he was supposed to cure. There’s a pretty familiar pattern to Bond actors getting tired with the demands of the role and the consuming nature of the career-arresting fame that comes with it, and Craig’s increasing unease in the part has been apparent for a while now, even as he’s become so fixed to it in the public imagination. Craig’s good-humoured recent performances for Steven Soderbergh and Rian Johnson have indicated the kinds of parts he’d rather be playing. Craig still delivers in some vignettes, as already noted: he’s too good an actor and too smart a star to walk through a part. But somewhere along the line his characterisation was drained of the roguish force he evinced at the start of his tenure, and Craig’s pinch-mouthed and squinty impersonation of grim grit, once refreshing, is now somewhat rote, and as the character’s basic qualities have been eroded – his sex appeal, his omnicompetence, his jet-setting savoir faire, his dark relish for adrenalized thrills – his Bond stopped feeling groundbreaking and just became, well, a bit of a drag. The irony of No Time To Die is that it suggests the filmmakers were aware of this and wanted to put some zest back into things, only to then be obliged to double down on the pseudo-seriousness.

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Of course, one can simply say that No Time To Die obeys the logic of Craig’s Bond as something distinct and discrete in the history of the character, and that’s fair enough, I suppose, but it also made me really pine for the good old days. Malek is surprisingly effective as Safin, playing his supervillain as soft-spoken almost to the point of feyness whilst retaining a cold conviction that he feels is perfectly reasonable even when revealing utter mania. The film does its best to build him up as a truly threatening, apocalyptic figure, from his creepy, slasher movie-like entrance through his process of wiping out such storied figures as Leiter and Blofeld. And yet Safin never comes close to being a Bond villain for the ages: he feels more like the ultimate by-product of the Craig era’s tendency to take an each-way bet when it comes to the series legacy, trying at once to present a vaguely realistic figure but also inhabit the superstructure of the old, epic-scale series villainy. He’s not physically threatening enough to lend real, feral intensity to their final confrontation – compare the limp tussle here to, say, Bond and Blofeld’s bobsled battle in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – and he lacks the kind of arrogant stature and venom that’s long defined Bond’s most indelible enemies. Instead he’s offered rather too nudgingly in the screenwriting manual fashion as a mirror of the hero, to the point of giving him a very slightly revised version of the archetypal “we’re not so different you and I speech,” and having them battle over possession of Madeleine and Mathilde. In that last regard, the film can’t even really commit to the basic melodramatic spur of a bad guy endangering a hero’s mate and child: instead we get a helluva lot of wandering around corridors shooting anonymous henchmen.

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I counted down to the virtually inevitable moment when Fukunaga would, as he did on True Detective, interpolate a one-take action scene, another contemporary cliché that Mendes already ticked off at the start of Spectre: Fukunaga’s version is a long strenuous tussle on a flight of stairs that’s not half as engaging as recent variations on the same idea in movies like Atomic Blonde (2017) and Extraction (2020). Whilst I still think Fukunaga’s a talent, his work here for the most part feels rather fidgety and anonymous, and poorly geared to the rhythm of the performances. The action scenes aren’t particularly clever or well-staged either, except, again, for the opening, and bits and bobs like a nod to the gun barrel logo sequence in a different context, and the smart use of wildly varying vantages in the Havana fight. The scene of Obruchev being kidnapped begins with sleek, semi-abstract images that suggest a real style-fest is in the offing. There’s a solid chase that caps the second act in which Safin, Ash, and an array of goons chase after Bond and his new family into a fog-drenched Norwegian forest, which reminded me nonetheless just a little too strongly of the battle on Takodana in Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) in serving the same purpose of providing a lot of bash and crash as a distraction whilst the villain snatches away someone precious to the hero. Ash is another character who suggests possibilities that barely get to register: Magnussen plays him as a bland WASP who’s also a star-struck Bond fanboy (do secret agents have fans?), but also a cunning and ruthless turncoat, a mixture that could be witty but here just feel random. He ought to have been kept around to loan some extra villainous presence to the climax, but he bows out in a nod to For Your Eyes Only when Bond literally drops a car on him as revenge for Leiter.

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The film does finally hit the right notes again quite late in proceedings when Bond confronts Safin after invading his island base and finding its overlord seated behind a modernist-minimalist desk with Mathilde on knee. Suddenly, for a couple of crucial minutes, No Time To Die feels like an ideal James Bond film, with the classic situation of two extremely dangerous men with very different worldviews playing at calm conversation whilst discussing stakes both personal and global, given a new gloss by the hard conviction of the actors. The punchline of the film must be that Safin deliberately infects Bond with a dose of Heracles, this one programmed to make sure he can’t ever touch Madeleine and Mathilde again without killing them. This is entirely contrived to place Bond into a cul-de-sac he doesn’t want to escape as missiles rain down to wipe out the base, even as it scarcely makes a lick of sense on a basic plot level. Why the hell would Safin waste time on such a thing? Why not actually just kill Bond with it, especially considering Bond shoots him dead a few seconds later? Then he could still make sure his evil plan can be carried out. All right, so Safin’s a man with a well-developed sense of irony as well as a mass-murderer, sure. All this still plainly happens entirely so the film can have its ending. All this apparently disturbs Bond so much he can’t face living without Madeleine and Mathilde, who he was doing a perfectly fine job of living without a few days earlier, and so he climbs to the top of the base and lets the missiles rain down on him. This is designed to preclude any doubt of the character’s fate, with Bond disappearing in the blinding light of erupting bombs. “James Bond Will Return,” the very end credits nonetheless assure. There is direct heed paid to the end of the novel You Only Live Twice in the choice of poetic eulogy M chooses to read to his team in memorial of Bond.

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Perhaps the filmmakers intend a segue into some variation on Fleming’s last, posthumously-published revival of the character, The Man With The Golden Gun, where Bond turned up after several years in amnesiac exile after being thought dead. But if they want to go that route, they ought to have been a tad less explicit. Such questions are, I expect, being held off for the time being. The real point of this ending is to allow Craig to draw a firm line under his tenancy and allow another reboot. After all, if Spider-Man can keep going through the same origin story again and again, why not James Bond? It’s the sort of thing that might please those who considered Craig the apotheosis of the franchise, but will leave others wincing and wondering why they even bothered. What’s most galling is that when one considers the many references to previous entries and to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, realisation dawns that as well as filching from Marvel and The Force Awakens, No Time To Die is also powerfully beholden to another J.J. Abrams movie, Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013). That film, whilst okay in itself, has deservedly become a byword for incoherent franchise remixing and self-sabotage, particularly in the finale where it decided to rearrange the immortal end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) so that Kirk dies instead of Spock, whilst casually removing all the qualities that made that model so memorable. No Time To Die does basically the same thing in having Bond rather than his great amour die, and also forgets what made that long-ago tragic ending so strong, the stinging irony of a man so talented at keeping himself alive cursed to remain that way after crushing loss. By comparison this Bond’s end feels like a sigh of relief. Bond’s greatest enemy isn’t Blofeld, or Safin, or love, or time, or fate, but the shrunken horizons of modern franchise creativity. The price paid for making Bond more earthbound, it seems, is to eventually drive him into the mud.

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2020s, Auteurs, Drama, Fantasy, French cinema, Horror/Eerie

Titane (2021)

Director / Screenwriter: Julia Ducournau

By Roderick Heath

Film festivals are in an odd position these days. Given the wealth of venues for viewing movies we have now, the idea of gathering everyone together in one place to watch the new crop threatens to feel passé. And yet critics and cognoscenti still look to the major film festivals to winnow down the ridiculous number of movies produced these days, to showcase and gate-keep for the supposed crème de la crème. The Cannes Film Festival has been the premiere event in the international cinema calendar since the late 1940s, providing a great crossroads for the many artistic streams around the world, but it’s still had a bumpy ride in the past few years, with a large number of Palme d’Or winners failing to make much impact. Recently, however, Cannes has managed to reverse that to a degree, first with 2019’s anointed Palme d’Or winner, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, and this year’s Titane, both choices well-attuned to capitalise on contemporary cultural talking points, much as the Venice Film Festival created a stir with its 2019 choice Joker. Such choices, however good as actual films they are, nudge awareness that current film discussion is animated as much by the way art is framed as much as by what it does in itself. The way movies are sold to us today is in terms of cultural discussion as important, or indeed more so, as the movies themselves, one reason why today YouTubers can make a good living fossicking through trailers interpreting the signals blockbuster movies are transmitting into the populace, and in art-house cinema touching on hot-button issues can make a movie seem vitally important even if its message is something like, “greed is bad,” and when you’re desperately trying to make up for a roster of seventy-odd previous Palme d’Or winners where only one was directed by a woman.

All that doesn’t really have much to do with Julia Ducournau’s Titane beyond noting that it’s very easy these days to be pulled into reviewing the way a movie is framed by external factors rather than the movie itself. But today we might well be facing cinema that plays this game within itself. On YouTube it’s common to see movie trailers that start off with a kind of miniature trailer within a trailer, a little grab-bag of moments of action and spectacles offered as a taster presumably offered to instantly capture the attention of attention-deficient young people. Again, this doesn’t necessarily have much to do with Titane, except that the film’s narrative approach reminded a little of this: Titane is frontloaded with elements of attention-getting intransigence before taking a swerve into something for the large part more conventional. Ducournau emerged in 2017 with the gruesome, stylish Raw, a portrait of a girl attending a veterinarian school, who contends with the abusive social strata in the student body and begins to develop voracious cannibalistic traits. Ducournau immediately declared herself in the running as one of the many possible heirs to David Cronenberg as the founder and champion of “body horror” on the current scene. Ducournau is also working in a familiar stream of outrageous, carnally and intellectually provocative French filmmaking long plied by the likes of Claire Denis, Catherine Breillat, Bruno Dumont, and Jean-Claude Brisseau: Ducournau borrows Vincent Lindon to play a similar character type as he did in Denis’ Bastards (2013), the igneous but weathered exemplar of Gallic manhood.

Body horror retains an aura of cool because it readily situates itself at a fruitful nexus of cinema’s most low-down and most exalted aesthetic vantages: any director who dabbles in it is automatically edgy because not everyone can stomach it, but it’s easy to be considered elevated in the mode too, because body horror challenges contemporary culture’s obsession with physical wellness and beauty and easy commercialised images of such by degrading, perverting, and outright assaulting such imagery with inversions of decay, damage, and grotesquery: it is therefore, intellectually and aesthetically, connected with the deliberate destabilisation and defiling of form found in post-World War I modernist art. Which leads me to consider another odd contemporary trait: nostalgic attachment to yesterday’s iconoclasm, often matched by an absolute resistance to current iconoclasm. Anyway. Ducournau’s first film, in a manner that’s becoming increasingly pervasive in current, ambitious horror cinema, turned the cannibalistic theme into an unsubtle metaphor, in this case for emergent sexuality, which was something horror cinema had done arguably to more effect before, but the framing of quasi-abstract artiness made it more respectable, more discourse-worthy. One problem with body horror is that, to me at any rate, it’s a style most effective when being sparing. Many of Cronenberg’s imitators, constantly trying to up the ante of provocation and abnormality, see their films devolve into sprawls of blood and other bodily fluids without that much wit or depth to their musings, and indeed I too often get the feeling the showmanship is substituting for anything actually stimulating to say.

Ducournau is most interesting for most onlookers as a female filmmaker venturing into this zone, and both Raw and Titane are predicated around impudently twisting ideals of femaleness on screen. Actually Titane is ultimately rather old-fashioned, given the fiercely schismatic debates going on about gender and its meaning today, in what it says about the female body. Ducournau’s journey to that end is a long and winding one. She begins with a jarring scene that presents an everyday sort of life-altering disaster: 7-year-old Alexia (Adele Guigui) sitting in the backseat of her father’s (Bertrand Bonello) SUV, stokes his irritation with constant humming, fidgeting, and finally unbuckling her seat belt and flipping about; when the father turns momentarily to force her back into her seat, he loses control of the car and it crashes against kerbside barrier blocks. Cut to gruesome surgery scenes as surgeons implant a titanium cap in her skull, which leaves her with a large scar, and Ducournau’s vision of the shaven-headed Alexia, encaged by a steel truss (nodding less to Cronenberg than to the vision of the hospitalised father in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, 1986, another constant point of emulation for would-be art-house provocateurs) presents her as something already ambiguous in gender and physical integrity, a fusion of human and machine, a misbegotten by-product of rage, damage, and family. As she’s released from hospital, Alexia walks to the family car, caressing it and hugging it, pressing her scar against the window glass as if in intimate communion.

Ducournau takes this basic idea to a weird and literal extreme as the adult Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) is portrayed as erotically attracted to cars. Ducournau stages a long, dynamic tracking shot travelling through the environs of an auto show where exotic dancers gyrate atop vehicles to The Kills’ “Doing It To Death,” conjoining the fetishisation of flesh and of shiny steel for the titillation of the mostly male consumers, but Alexia has ironically taken this to the logical conclusion as her dances are to covertly get her rocks off with the machines, even as they’ve made her famous in this world. But Alexia’s strange tastes have a dangerous side. Showering after her performance, she gets her hair entangled with the nipple ring of a friendly fellow dancer, Justine (Garance Marillier), in a moment of comic intimacy; as she heads out to her car later, she’s tracked by a male fan who crosses the line between eagerness and offensiveness when he tries to force her to kiss him, whereupon he stabs him in the ear with a sharp metal file she hides in her hair like a hairpin. Ducournau seems to stoke sympathy for Alexis here, presenting her as a cold-blooded survivor who’s justified to a degree in lashing out at a sexist and abusive world. But this is soon enough revealed as Ducournau trolling the audience: Alexis is an active serial killer, murdering anyone she gets close to.

We’re obviously in quasi-surrealist territory here, even before our antiheroine fucks a car and gets pregnant by it. Or at least, surrealism in a contemporary usage. Original, authentic surrealism aimed to move beyond mere symbolism and strangeness to explore a realm of total instability, where all things can become their opposites; it aim was anarchic. Titane is not anarchic, not really: how it works as a movie depends on the degree to which one swallows the storyline’s outlandish ideas as metaphorical. We can, say, interpret Alexis’ injury and reconstruction as recovery from childhood abuse and her later persona as a resulting maladaption, her ardour for cars a symbol of a need for perverse and self-mortifying kicks, as well as offering a clear enough nod to Cronenberg’s Crash (1996). But it’s more fun to take literally: Alexis, infused with foreign metal as a child, has been infected with the hunger for steel: only such fearsome penetration can satisfy her, and the language of the metal beings is the one she speaks. Ducournau depicts Alexis having an actual erotic encounter with a self-animated Cadillac that demands she emerge from her dressing room, car bouncing up and down with glaring headlights and beeping horn as Alexis within has a raging orgasm, wrists wrapped in the seatbelts and tits jogging merrily, sweat flowing down her tattooed form. A bold, funny, weird, sexy image. We, and she, will of course pay a price for this. Turns out if you have an automobile for a lover you can still get knocked up.

Anyway, Alexia’s taste for violence asserts itself when she hooks up with Justine, biting her nipple with hungry force when they make out at a waterfront locale, just before Alexia vomits and realises she’s fallen pregnant by the car. When she goes to Alexia’s house and they resume their make-out session, Alexia slays Justine once again by her hair needle, missing at first and plunging it into her cheek, before a struggle that ends when Alexia manages to plant it in Justine’s ear. But she’s quickly confronted by the necessity of killing the two people Justine shared the house with, plus a random guy one had brought home for sex. Here Ducournau feels locked in the same creative zone as Raw, basically repeating its driving, punkish preoccupation with a young woman whose carnal needs manifest as a desire to kill, only sans cannibalism and with a different motivation. It could be that Alexia is supposed to be gripped with such a homicidal impulse because of her injuries, or because she’s not entirely human anymore. But the real explanation is that Ducournau simply wants to galvanise the audience with images of bloodshed and mayhem ironically committed by a young and sexy woman: when she has Alexis tussle with a topless woman on the stairway, it seems Ducournau’s trying to do an arty lampoon some concept of trashy thrills. Alexia, deliberate as she is in her murderous activities, experiences a blackly comedy exasperation as her task keeps getting more gruelling, including killing a sweet-natured black man named Jerome (Lamine Cissokho) and one of Alexia’s housemates: a second manages to throw her off and escape. Realising she’s going to be busted, Alexia returns to her home and sets fire to her clothes, seeming to set fire to her family home as well, and flees northwards.

It’s easy to see why Ducournau kept all this stuff in her script, because it’s provided all the talking points for many critics and viewers ever since, the sort of thing that gets reported in breathless “it’s so crazy” terms, even though it only accounts for about a third of the film. The rest of Titane is an oddball take on a Shakespearean pastoral play, mixed with a variation on the Monster and the blind man scene from Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Alexia adopts a cunning plan to elude police: a couple of times early in the movie an old missing persons case is mentioned on TV broadcasts, with the father of a young boy named Adrien Legrand who vanished several years earlier still searching for the son he still resolutely believes it alive. Realising she looks just enough like a new computer-aged picture of the boy that’s being circulated by investigators to possibly pass for him, Alexia retreats to a bus station bathroom and quickly gives herself a brutal makeover to look like a teenage boy, even breaking her nose on the sink to complete the illusion. And so she’s ironically able to use the police hunting for her to instead deliver her to Adrien’s father, Vincent (Lindon). Vincent proves so eager to find his son that it quickly becomes clear he’s willing to accept anyone in the role, refusing to get a DNA test and immediately taking “Adrien” under his wing. Vincent is the captain of an all-male squad of firefighters, and he swiftly inducts his reclaimed son into their ranks.

This portion of the film felt the most adroitly observed and successfully ironic in the contrasting visions of people doing gruelling things to themselves in bathrooms: Alexia’s self-effacing, self-mutilating adventure, strapping down her breasts and smashing her nose and shaving her head to a ragged crop, segues into vignettes of Vincent not just forcing his body through a gruelling nightly exercise regime, but injecting himself in his bruised and track mark-riddled flank with steroids, in his ongoing attempt to maintain his physical fortitude as the macho hero and king of the crew of professional heroes: as Alexia is trying to erase and overcome her biological identity, Vincent trying desperately to hang onto his. This works because, wild as the adult-woman-passing-as-a-teen-boy twist is and these scenes nudge zones of heightened grotesquery, it’s still made just sufficiently believable by Ducournau and the actors. I’m sure someone’s also already writing a thesis comparing the scenes of attractive women breaking their own noses in this and Cate Shortland’s Black Widow from earlier this year, an act with the quality of a last taboo: with so many women, and men, in the world desperately trying to improve their looks, to reverse their aging, to assert their inner vision of what they are over the crude material of their genetics and environmental moulding, what perverse freedom in the act.

Once this point is made, however, Titane begins to tread water, settling into a wash-rinse-repeat structure of Alexia/Adrien constantly trying to avoid being caught in the altogether, first when she’s bunked down for the night when her/his “father” comes to give her clean clothes, and then repeatedly thereafter. In between are vignettes of Vincent fiercely declaring his determination to protect Alexia/Adrien at all costs, and his pseudo-offspring interacting uneasily with the firefighter squad, including when she accompanies them on an emergency call and manages to save a life. The smirking younger men take the slight and shy-eyed Adrien to be “gay.” For a moment I imagined a more farcical variation on the situation where all the nominally straight young braves start hitting on the newbie who has to keep his own secrets, but this is a supposedly serious movie. Finally Vincent’s ex-wife (Myriem Akheddiou), the mother of the missing boy, barges in on Alexia and recognising her fraud demands a basic compact: she won’t tell on Alexia if Alexia will continue her charade for Vincent’s sake as one who truly knows how deep and painful his psychic wound is. Underlying all the superficial perversity here then is a straightforward emotional arc: Alexia, so badly damaged by her own pinch-faced father’s incapacity to control himself, finds a superior father figure in Vincent, who engages Alexia/Adrien in an extended dance of role-playing where each is entirely willing to sustain their role according to their needs, leading to moments like Vincent insisting on shaving Alexia/Adrien’s face, as well as ignoring the gigantic scar from her childhood operation on her head.

Their relationship seems to be constantly in danger from the ticking biological clock of Alexia’s pregnancy, and she finds herself increasingly, frustratingly beset by her body’s rebellion against her attempts to bury it. Eventually she’s forced to survey her mangled form, covered in bruises and gouges and with the stigmata of her unnatural pregnancy breaking out regardless as she leaks out motor oil in place of milk and blood from nipples and vagina, and splitting skin on her bulging belly reveals the infesting gleam of metal. This narrative turn reminded me, in a seemingly distant swerve of attention, of something out of ancient ritual myth, or variations transmitted in some more profane vehicle like Jane Seymour’s Solitaire in Live and Let Die (1973) – the seer who loses her mystic power when she’s sexually awakened. Similarly, Ducournau seems to offer Alexia as depowered by the admission of anything like human feeling, with her killings representing some sort of sovereign power – a ridiculous metaphor but okay – that she loses, although it’s her impregnation that nominally starts her down this road, an impregnation brought about by her rare nature. The trouble with this is that the early scenes of Titane seem to explicitly disavow sentimentality in terms of its characters, only to then try and milk Alexia/Adrien and Vincent’s relationship for something resembling grounded pathos. Their connection is deepened when Alexia finds Vincent prone after one of his steroid injections goes wrong, and finds she can’t take advantage of the chance to kill him.

More power to artists trying to walk a tonal tightrope and reach for strange new epiphanies, but I never felt particularly convinced or compelled by any of this, despite Lindon’s vehemently committed and deeply felt performance: Lindon is one of the best actors in movies today, and he brings a depth of feeling and a palpable sense of his character’s bleary mental and emotional exhaustion and desperate attempts to keep up appearances. The greater part of the problem is that Alexia/Adrien is by comparison an empty vessel: the casually murderous entity of the first section of the film becomes a poor vehicle for exploring unexpected and unusual bonds later in the film. It might have been more interesting if Alexia/Adrien was allowed a greater degree of self-expression, but the character is stricken with an impassive blankness beyond mere registers of transient feelings – pain, anger and so forth – particularly emphasised in the long mid-section of the film where Alexis/Adrien refuses to speak lest her voice give the game away and it’s taken for a traumatic symptom. Such blankness is rather too common in contemporary “serious” movies, usually because filmmakers want characters who function as ready viewpoint figures, but Alexia remains stuck someplace else, between multifarious symbol and actual character. Alexia’s scar is constantly, improbably on show, obvious both when she’s a dancer – is that a good career move? – and later when she’s posing as Adrien, gaining no comment from anyone. Again, of course, one can read it as symbolism of a kind, but it still feels overly garish and distracting.

In Raw Marillier also played a character called Justine, whilst the two major characters framing her emergent nature were named Alexia and Adrien, suggesting those names have some totemic meaning, particularly in their ultimate pseudo-fusion. Ducournau killing off this version of Justine, who’s bold and queer, might represent some leaving behind of the past. Or maybe it’s just a precious screenwriting touch. The version of Alexia presented early in the film is completely unsympathetic; the version we get later, the quasi-Adrien, we’re asked to feel some odd sympathy for as she’s beset by increasing impotence, stricken as her body rebels on her and her former cold-bloodedness deserts her – she can’t kill Vincent and she fails in her attempt to abort her new body-infesting foetus with her hair needle. She can’t even wield the same sexual imperiousness as before – when she’s laughingly goaded by the fire fighters into dancing atop a fire truck during one of their unit’s occasional parties, her sexy dance style falls flat by the weirded-out young men. This scene aims for cringe-inducing discomfort and obtains it, although Ducournau seems to think it’s utterly verboten for a young man to dance like a sexy woman. Most guys would find it hilarious and the highpoint of the party. The repeated jabs at the raunch culture Alexia profits off feel rather dated in themselves, whilst Ducournau’s collection of firefighters looks like a gang of male strippers anyway. The cultural targets in Titane feel a bit hackneyed is what I’m saying. Alexia’s revisit of her ritual seduction dance is then followed by her attempt to get it on with the fire truck, but gains no result: Alexia has lost her ability to give or gain satiety that way.

Being inducted into the firefighter crew at least seems to offer Alexia/Adrien the chance to enter a world defined by madcap physical heroism and gutsy dedication that’s the polar opposite of her/his sharklike and parasitic existence, an induction that also sees Alexia/Adrien slowly embrace the role of sustaining Vincent’s illusions, something everyone around him seems to agree to do on one level or another. Vincent already has a surrogate son figure on his team, Rayane (Laïs Salameh), who gets jealous of Alexia/Adrien. It’s not a thread of the film that goes anywhere, and Rayane is killed later when he and Vincent fearlessly venture into a forest fire and Vincent gets him to take charge of a gas canister retrieved from a caravan which then explodes. This event serves to chiefly serve to drive Vincent even deeper into his self-imposed role, even beholding Alexia naked finally but still avowing his function as father and protector. Things build to a head as Alexia tries to seduce Vincent, a move that creeps him out too much, but also seems to finally provoke Alexia to give birth, with Vincent desperately trying to coach her as her body tries to do something at once natural and inimical.

Much of Titane made me wish Ducournau had stuck to the initial epater-le-bourgeois zaniness or had started with Vincent accepting this odd changeling and had rolled from there in a more careful journey through a game of arbitrarily agreed rules in deception and acceptance, because it feels like an uneasy conjunction of a couple of different script drafts, and there are points in the film where it comes close to – quelle horreur – a typical indie feels entry where some life-ragged people find each-other and form an oddball unit. Or perhaps it’s the dream life of the Fast and Furious films turned inside out, with their obsession with cars and family. The scene with Vincent’s ex-wife, although exceptionally well-performed by Akheddiou, nonetheless disrupts the dragonfly-skating-on-water tenor of the rest of the film’s mutually agreed reality, a veering into quotidian psychological realism that feels misjudged. Overall, as a film Titane lacks the derivative but compelling aesthetic of Raw, and in many ways feels like a classic awkward sophomore effort, even if the faults it shares with its precursor are fairly consistent: an indecisive tenor to the toggling between realism and anti-realism, the lack of sense for somewhere interesting or exciting to go after the basic conceits are employed and their elemental value expended until a great climactic image partly makes up the difference. This climax does manage to bring many of the film’s meandering threads and depraved emotions to coherent and fitting terminus, culminating with the indelibly sick image of Vincent cradling Alexia’s offspring with veins of rippling metal running up its spine and head, ironically reborn himself as a father to some fresh hybrid whilst the misbegotten mother lying dead and mangled.

Ducournau’s attempt to restore some of the primal anxiety inherent in childbirth is fascinatingly visualised even if it remains at an arm’s length from the nominal narrative containing it. Maybe if I felt something more maniacal and wilful in Alexia, something that made her body’s rebellion and her ultimate fate feel more palpable, I might have been more persuaded by the drama overall. But I kept thinking back to the moment in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) where Vasquez (Jeanette Goldstein) wails “Oh no!” when she suffers a crippling injury that finally foils her brash physicality, and it hits in a few brief seconds exactly the note Titane tries constantly to hit. In terms of the film’s nominal exploration of gender role-playing, Titane actually makes an unfashionable point – that, no matter how it’s denied, disguised, revised, and inhabited, the body is still ultimately a slave to nature. Perhaps the proper zone of ambiguity there is just what nature is, what it imposes on us, the people trapped within such cages of flesh, could be a much larger question than anyone knows. Which is a damned interesting point to chase down, and the pity with Titane is that it doesn’t really ask it until the very end.

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2020s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Scifi

Dune: Part One (2021)

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriters: Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

As a dedicated fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune and its literary children, I anticipated a new film adaptation with a mixture of hope and apprehension. Dune has managed to sustain a potent cult over the half-century since its publication, its influence manifest in subsequent hits as diverse as Star Wars, The Matrix, and Game of Thrones, to the point where its building blocks now seem pervasively familiar, even if its most individual and esoteric qualities remain largely untapped and evergreen in their strangeness. Herbert’s legendarium, with its encoded metaphors for mind-expanding drug use, fossil fuel dependency, post-colonial politics, nascent feminism, and religious seeking, seemed exactly attuned to gathering forces in the modern zeitgeist and so caught the imagination of three generations of dorm room dreamers, but also connected with a larger, more mainstream audience in a way hardcore science fiction rarely does, albeit also erecting a firm barrier between those who could penetrate Herbert’s odd, dense writing style and those left totally cold by it. On a more immediate level, Herbert’s preoccupation with the figure of a quasi-messianic hero who finds himself anointed the one person who can rebound from near-oblivion to lead an uprising helped connect the science fiction genre’s roots in pulp heroism and exotic adventuring with a new preoccupation with the experience of maturation as the key modern narrative, birthing the “chosen one” motif in just about every emulating fantastical epic since.

And, of course, there were earlier versions. David Lynch’s big, bizarre, contorted, but almost endlessly fascinating 1984 version became mostly remembered as a debacle echoing in the corridors of pop culture history but has since gathered a fervent cult following. Jim Harrison’s 2000 TV miniseries proved modestly popular and proficient in its indulgence: whilst scarcely memorable, it seems to have laid seeds for the age of prestige television. For myself, I love both the Herbert novel and Lynch’s film, even if they’re passions that cannot ever quite overlap: they exist a little like matter and antimatter, reflecting the image of the other but unable to touch without annihilation. Lynch’s film manages the unique task of being both maddeningly fastidious and wilfully odd as adaptation, sometimes obsessed with communicating the most finicky details from Herbert and elsewhere badly distorting and even avoiding important elements. Now comes the first part of Denis Villeneuve’s proposed two-instalment adaptation of Dune, a bombastic unit of expenditure and epic portent that seems to have been produced with a determination to avoid the heralded mistakes of Lynch’s version, by taking a leaf from Andres Muschietti’s financially successful adaptation of Stephen King’s It (2017-19) and splitting the book into two movies.

It’s easy to see a dismaying motive behind the new version: present-day Hollywood’s reliance on familiar intellectual property with a hopefully baked-in audience has become so unshakeable that it would rather try again to adapt a book commonly described as unfilmable after Lynch’s version proved a massive financial failure, on the vague expectation the novel’s fans will come, than take a chance on something new. But hope for a new adaptation that would prove sufficiently balanced and coherent, able to at once honour the material’s most specific qualities and appeal to a big audience, has long preoccupied Dune’s fandom, particularly as I suspect every aficionado has long cherished their personal idea of how it should be done. Bifurcating the story promises that the novel’s meticulous construction of its imagined future 8000-odd years hence could be carefully meted out along with the strong, fairly straightforward central storyline. This approach has its own, big risks of course, as any of the three people who remember The Golden Compass (2007) can testify. Regardless, in familiar fashion, Dune unfolds in a distant future in which humans have colonised tracts of the galaxy and have developed a neo-feudal system of control where an all-powerful Emperor and the feudal houses under him administrate the many planets.

We see the House of Atreides, led by the canny and noble but world-weary Duke Leto (Oscar Isaacs), assigned to take over the planet Arrakis by his Emperor, displacing the previous clan of administrators, their hated rivals the Harkonnens, and taking on the responsibility of mining the substance called spice that only occurs there. The spice is absolutely crucial to the shape and operation of the Empire, so whilst the spice mining is an incredibly lucrative business, failure to keep it flowing could bring down harsh penalties. Leto and his advisors also suspect they’re being set up for a fall, a correct assumption, as the Harkonnens are being backed by the Emperor to wipe the Atreides out and rid him of rivals. Leto and his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) have one son, the teenaged Paul (Timothée Chalamet): Jessica is a member of the Bene Gesserit, a sect who operate at the nexus of priestesses, nuns, witches, and genetic scientists. The sect has long been dedicated to breeding a human with psychic gifts pronounced enough to see the future and actively control future human evolution, a notional being dubbed the Kwisatz Haderach in ancient prophecy, and Jessica represents the near-culmination of the project. But Paul’s birth, the result of Jessica’s desire to please Leto after she unexpectedly fell in love with him, disrupted the project, and now Paul is displaying nascent signs of being the Kwisatz Haderach. The Atreides are attacked by the Harkonnens, who break through their defences thanks to the treachery of their house physician Wellington Yueh (Chang Chen), but Yueh’s complex motives also see him arrange to save Paul and Jessica from the massacre.

Villeneuve wisely casts familiar faces even in relatively minor parts, making Dune something of an old-fashioned star-studded epic, even if it resists the Lynch version’s delight in showing off its all-star cast in a long curtain call-like final credits scene. Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin play the ultraloyal and omnicompetent Atreides warriors Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck, respectively, whilst Stephen McKinley Henderson plays the house strategist and “Mentat” Thufir Hawat. The three actors have the ability to swiftly and effectively make their characters interesting and palpable, even as they’re also essentially wasted. Brolin gets one of the very few jots of humour in the film as he maintains his familiar tight and stoic grimace even whilst answering Leto’s teasing command to smile with “I am smiling.” Charlotte Rampling is somewhat inevitably cast as Reverend Mother Mohiam, the stern, mysterious, haughty exemplar of the Bene Gesserit creed who nominally works for the Emperor but pushes the Bene Gesserit agenda at all times. Liet Kynes, the Imperial ecologist assigned to study Arrakis turned covert renegade and a male in the book, has here been turned into a woman for some reason or another, with Sharon Duncan-Brewster taking the role. Javier Bardem turns up for two scenes to mumble impressively as Stilgar, a leader of the so-called Fremen, the original human colonists of Arrakis who long since adapted to life on the planet and consider themselves its true custodians, but have since suffered from persecution at the hands of the Imperial and Harkonnen enforcers.

Villeneuve and his co-screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth peel away much of the story superstructure in digging down to the fundamental melodrama that forms the spine of the plot, which, he’s decided, is the fate of the key Atreides themselves – Leto, Jessica, and Paul, with interpersonal exchanges between the three trying for a mix of familial affection and pained gravitas, and the tragedy that presages the rise of the young scion on the path to revenge and mystical transformation. There’s an early scene in the novel, dutifully recreated in all versions, which provides a galvanising moment in the narrative, when Paul is visited by Mohiam, who insists on testing his mettle for at that point obscure reasons. She forces him to stick his hand into a box that induces terrible pain, challenging him to withstand the pain or be killed with a poisoned needle pressed to his throat, in a rite of passage designed to distinguish if he’s a true human, infinitely capable of patience and resistance, or a mere “animal,” slave to impulse and reaction. It’s a scene that, I expect, most genuinely hooks the attention of about-to-be fans, as it not only presents a thrilling situation, but also encapsulates much of how Herbert’s writing and storytelling works – the lengthy, ritualistic confrontation of strong personalities, the suspense based in the problem of a surviving a situation when hemmed in by potential checkmates of lethal capacity where cast-iron willpower must be met with the same, and the unsettling description of a teenage boy being forced to endure perfect agony without flinching as a preparation for life in a world without safe and comforting moral boundaries.

Villeneuve handles the scene as well as Lynch did, in the contrast between Chalamet’s open-faced youthfulness and Mohiam’s veil-clad and forbidding embodiment of all that’s powerfully arcane and dismissive of weakness, particularly with the added touch of Jessica able to maintain sympathy with her son from outside the room and experiencing what he experiences, reciting the famous mantra against fear. Villeneuve and his screenwriting team seem to be trying to take a leaf from The Godfather’s (1972) example in trying to communicate the relationships between the central family characters whilst they seem to mostly discuss business, as in another early scene where Paul and his father discuss the looming challenge before them whilst walking between grave markers of their ancestors on the grey and watery world of Caladan that has long been their home and fiefdom. The trouble is despite this approach I never really felt convinced by their family dynamics. Isaac and Ferguson are strong actors and are undoubtedly the right age, but it still feels a little odd seeing them cast as the grizzled patriarch and weirdly hot mother who has a perturbing dynamic with her on-screen son. It doesn’t help that Isaac and Ferguson are both forced to quell their natural charisma to fit into Villeneuve’s pinched, po-faced dramatic style. Villeneuve’s essential approach is one of characters muttering earnestly at one-another in dimly-lit spaces.

What’s surprising about Villeneuve’s Dune is that despite being given a nominal wealth of space to tell the story, it doesn’t really know what to do with it. Despite the simplifications, the script essentially settles for being an exposition machine, with very few flashes of effective and engaging interpersonal detail, like Paul being teased by Gurney whilst being welcomed for the first time into one of the House strategy meetings. It’s the sort of movie that makes you long for the day when a director would spice up an epic with a few dancing girls or something. Villeneuve takes almost exactly as long as Lynch did in telling the story from beginning to the point where Leto finds Fremen housekeeper Shadout Mapes (Golda Rosheuvel) dying, signalling the start of the Harkonnen attack, and then spends the majority of the next hour and twenty minutes of running time on a listless succession of chase scenes Lynch was more effective in compressing. As a fan of the book I’m in a dichotomous position in this regard. Familiarity helps me keep up and indeed a step ahead of everything so I don’t need to expend the mental energy it will undoubtedly cost a newcomer to the material. But it also makes me susceptible to possible boredom when I simply see things being checked off rather than being truly, creatively explored. Unfortunately, that’s what I began to feel watching Villeneuve’s Dune.

The Quebecois Villeneuve emerged as a feature filmmaker with 1998’s August 32nd On Earth, a debut that immediately gained him notice as a talent screening at the Cannes Film Festival, and his French-language follow-ups, Maelstrom (2000), Polytechnique (2009), and Incendies (2010), were all acclaimed and award-garnered, with the middle film stirring some disquiet in portraying an shooting spree at the University of Montreal in 1989. Villeneuve then went Hollywood with the would-be thoughtful, moody thriller Prisoners (2013), sparking a swift rise up the Hollywood totem pole as he followed with the paranoia study Enemy (2013), the drug war drama Sicario (2015), and sci-fi tales Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). I haven’t seen Villeneuve’s French-language films: if I had I might have a different perspective on his later stabs at mating art movie postures with popular storytelling. As far as they go, I find Villeneuve a largely insufferable filmmaker. But he’s one who certainly seems to be finding a particular niche in current mainstream cinema discourse similar to those held in the recent past by David Fincher and Christopher Nolan, in that his particular approach seems to impress some and dismay others through a carefully filtered aesthetic sensibility aiming to deliver chic spectacle.

Villeneuve’s mainstream works to date have been defined by this smothering aesthetic matched to storylines that are generally far less deep and intensive than the stylistic cues insist they are. Those cues, including a relentlessly drab colour palette and droning, booming music scores, seem to me hallmarks of a particular brand of modern quasi-seriousness even when, upon close inspection, there’s little substance to back them up in Villeneuve’s films. I still cringe when I remember how the plot of Arrival was explained by a randomly info-dumping Chinese general to the time-unmoored heroine, or Sicario affected to be a grim investigation of the drug war only to become a ridiculous revenge drama, and Prisoners waded through highly unsubtle character signposting and emblazoned themes even whilst affecting a glaze of knit-browed profundity. Like Blade Runner 2049, Dune sees Villeneuve being relatively restrained, but there’s still something relentlessly pummelling and joyless about his filmmaking to me. Dune has been sucked dry of all its exotic strangeness and dynamism, all its semi-surreal, florid liveliness, with a kind of dry, pseud efficiency in its place. “My planet Arrakis is so beautiful when the sun is low,” Chani (Zendaya), Kynes’ daughter and a Fremen warrior, is heard in voiceover at the very outset. This immediately evinces an attempt by the filmmakers to combine exposition and low-key genre poetry, a method that continues throughout. But the unconvincing clumsiness of the line, the lack of actual, proper expressive language and specificity apparent in it, also neatly demonstrate how this method fails.

Rather than the artists who provided beloved illustrations and cover art for the books, like Bruce Pennington and John Schoenherr, Villeneuve moves to take inspiration from more European styles in sci-fi illustration, with a particular emulation of the work of Jean ‘Moebius’ Girard in the oddball costuming and weirdly-shaped spaceships, designs which, as Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) which had actual Moebius design work proved, just don’t work very well off the page. But that’s a relatively minor issue. It’s in the specifics that Villeneuve really falls down. The actual uses of the spice and way the substance informs the entire social, political, and economic structure of Herbert’s universe are more or less dismissed in a couple of pithy lines of dialogue, and so we’ve subtly but firmly shifted from any attempt to convey the depth of Herbert’s text in favour of simply delivering its most basic story points. Sometimes this can be a wise move – Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy worked in large part because whilst it happily included much of J.R.R. Tolkien’s esoterica, it knew how to impart it in a fashion that wove around rather than interrupted the central story. The trouble is Dune doesn’t work in the same way. Tolkien deliberately structured his stories so you didn’t have to worry about the quasi-angelic background of the many magical figures including Sauron, Gandalf, and Balrog, even if to understand all that does make things more explicable: nonetheless we intrinsically grasp their function. Similarly, in Dune, it’s possible to approach it without thinking too much about the larger structure and historical meaning of organisations like the Bene Gesserit and the guild of mutated Navigators who need the spice to fuel their precognitive ability to steer colossal spaceships.

But – and this is a large but – to not understand those things means to miss what’s important and interesting about Dune as a mythos and as a work of speculative fiction. If you haven’t read the books you’ll have no idea from this movie about the Navigators; whilst the function and method of the Mentats are depicted through Thufir, just exactly what they are and why they exist is likewise impossible to properly deduce, nor why the flying machines and spacecraft are conspicuously missing guidance computers. Anyone who’s read the book knows about the Butlerian Jihad, which saw all robots and artificial intelligences destroyed and forbidden in the universe, and obliging human beings to stretch their abilities to limits unthought-of in our current time, most of it allowed by the spice. Herbert’s real fascination was with human intelligence and physical development as our vehicle, for which our machines are mere externalised devices. I didn’t sense any real intellectual curiosity in Villeneuve’s Dune, nor desire to put across Herbert’s world beyond what’s strictly necessary to the plot. In Villeneuve’s vision, the spice is reduced from a substance of vast, fantastical conceptual importance to the mere, tinny metaphor for fossil fuel it started as, combined with a kind of light hallucinogen. Villeneuve’s renderings of Paul’s visions are the most banal imaginable, consisting of lots of adolescent yearning glimpses of Chani, swanning about in flowing garb, and occasional glimpses of tussling warriors.

This tendency, to mine the prosaic from the visionary, is an awfully common failing of a lot of recent genre film and television in the contemporary obsession with grounding and pseudo-realism. With Villeneuve it’s particularly acute, having already taken Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and tapped it for straightforward plotting and self-consciously obvious thematics, reducing the original’s unique dreamlike palette and narrative density to just another plodding blend of action movie and TV commercial-like sentimentality in its odes to human qualities. Similarly, there’s a monotony to the acting and dramatic beats here. The introduction of the Harkonnens themselves, including the bulbous, infinitely malevolent Baron Harkonnen himself (Stellan Skarsgard), his henchman Raban (Dave Bautista), and Mentat Piter De Vries (David Dastmalchian), takes the mumbling-in-dark-rooms aesthetic to a logical conclusion: the entire world of the Harkonnens seems to have a lighting problem. The obvious, cliché casting of Skarsgard, swathed in a fat suit, is matched by the equal, exhausting obviousness of the nods to Marlon Brando’s performance in Apocalypse Now (1979), as Skarsgard strokes his greasy bald pate with monstrous meditation.

The portrayal of the Harkonnens in Lynch’s film has long seemed to me the biggest problem with that work, in trying to graft Lynch’s penchant for leering id-beasts and wild, bristling bullies onto Herbert’s material with its hypnotic fascination with intellectual evil and total amorality. And yet I found myself longing for the vividness of Kenneth McMillan’s Harkonnen and his outsized delight in obscene behaviour, compared to this drab substitution, and Lynch’s most gleefully appalling touches, like giving a poisoning victim a surgically stitched-together cat and rat to milk for an antidote daily, or Raban crushing a small animal and drinking its bodily fluids like orange juice. The closest Villeneuve gets to such twisted flavour is a brief glimpse of some genetic chimera, part humanoid, part spider that his Harkonnens keep as a pet. Yueh was played with some force by Dean Stockwell in Lynch’s film, and his pathos as a man who betrays himself and his friends for the sake of one, desperate tilt at a more personal revenge was allowed to register as he screamed at Harkonnen after being stabbed in the back for his aid, “You think I don’t know what I’ve done? For my wife?” By comparison, Cheng’s Yueh is bland and blasé even as he dies, his motive not suggested until just before he’s killed, one of the many tributaries of potential melodramatic juice reduced to mere plot function in the face of the impassive-grandiose style. There is, that said, a good touch when Harkonnen has Leto prisoner thanks to Yueh’s machinations: Villeneuve has the Duke stripped naked and laid prone before his enemy, a potent little encapsulation of his sudden vulnerability before a truly evil foe. But Lynch’s crazy, disturbing imagination imbued his Dune with something by and large missing from this one. Which is one reason I’ve long felt that Lynch’s Dune is not a perfect adaptation but is perfectly itself, wielding a specificity and, most importantly, a fearlessness of creative passion almost entirely missing from contemporary big-budget cinema.

Not that I want to get bogged down in simply comparing Lynch and Villeneuve’s versions. Villeneuve goes for an aesthetic, full of monumental forms and a kind of medieval minimalism in décor and design, that’s quite different to the tangled Gothicism, Austro-Hungarian martial dress, and madcap Rococo dominant in Lynch’s film, and it’s a look that struck me as more appropriate to the material. And yet Villeneuve’s style of shooting too often has the hyper-sharp, gritty-glossy look of high-end video game cutscenes, particularly in the special effects sequences, although there’s still some genuine awe stoked by visions like the Atreides fleet being disgorged by one of the colossal “heighliner” space transport vessels. His vision of Caladan makes it look like a drizzly patch of New Brunswick – understandable perhaps for Villeneuve – rather than a watery world where the primal power of the ocean matches and opposes the similar power of Arrakis. Villeneuve swaps out a blue filter for Caladan for a grey-brown one on Arrakis, and he makes the desert planet relentlessly dingy and colourless. Villeneuve’s approach has drawn a lot of comparison to Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but I can’t see why. David Lean (who was apparently approached to direct the first version at one point, whilst Herbert himself took strong inspiration from T.E. Lawrence’s story) knew how to convey the scale of the desert as well as its physical extremes through his approach to light, framing, and colour – the more brilliantly blue the skies the more relentless the sense of sun beating down, of exposure and dire physical straits. Villeneuve makes all of his shots colourless, his skies filled with omnipresent dust, and his desert looks, well, rather tepid.

One telling disparity in Villeneuve’s take on Blade Runner was where Scott’s street scenes were teeming with life carefully conveyed not just through hiring extras and costuming them but with the camera’s sense of how to pick up that life, Villeneuve’s felt stodgy and depopulated. There’s a similar lack of any real energy and sense of lifestyle in his approach here. Here everyone seems afraid to raise their voices too high or gesticulate too much lest they disturb the carefully composed symmetry of the shots. There’s genuine visual ingenuity sometimes, that said. Herbert’s cleverest touches, like the ban on nuclear weapons and the personalised force-fields that have returned warfare back to a matter of who’s best at hand-to-hand combat rather than one of projectile weapons, helped at once to give a clever legitimacy to the old-school space opera’s Wagner-in-space sensibility, whilst also feeling coherent and well-thought-through in terms of its imagined future’s construction, where the path to victory for both villains and heroes means threading a path through seemingly impregnable bulwarks of technology and behaviour. The visualisation of the fights between force-field-wearing warriors are good, but only when dealing with one-on-one fights. The big, tragic combat between the invading Harkonnens and Atreides host is oddly curtailed and lacking much dynamism in staging, the sort of moment that really makes you wish some ebullient meathead like Zack Snyder or Neil Marshall was directing rather than a hyperfussy aesthete. Herbert’s ornithopters, the usual mode of flight on Arrakis, long seemed one of those ideas easy to imagine and write but just about impossible to effectively film, are realised nonetheless with true visual élan, with Villeneuve’s take offering helicopters with side-mounted blade that beat like dragonfly-like wings. There are some truly beautiful images scattered throughout, testifying to the cinematographer Greig Fraser’s masterful talents, including the striking prologue depicting Fremen resistance against the Harkonnen spice miners during a sandstorm.

And of course there’s the sandworms, the massive beasts that infest the sands of Arrakis and provide an omnipresent threat, as well as a potential source of power, and are connected to the spice. Villeneuve handles the first scene involving a worm well, in part because it’s a strong suspense situation: Leto and his team, being flown over the desert by Kynes, spot a worm advancing on a manned spice harvesting machine and race to save the crew before the unimaginably large creature swallows the harvester up. Modern special effects are more than equal to the task of realising the worms, and there’s a nice tightening of the suspense as Paul is abruptly distracted during the rescue as he breathes in the unrefined spice and is plunged into a visionary state, demanding Gurney fetch him, the two almost getting caught in the liquefying sands caused by the worm’s approach. After this, however, in the subsequent appearance by the worms as one swallows up a team of Imperial “Sardaukar” troops after they’ve executed Kynes in the desert, and another chases after Paul and Jessica, the worms rapidly become familiar and prove a bit dull-looking: whilst obviously better-realised in a technical sense, they never register as effectively nightmarish as Carlo Rambaldi’s creations for Lynch did, particularly in the latter pursuit. Villeneuve’s versions have long hair-like teeth and perfectly round mouths and crinkly, puckered skin that make them look a bit, well, anal, particularly in a very misjudged shot when one pauses it attack and sits centre-frame. Not that this represents some lurch towards Freudian imagery. If Lynch arguably went overboard in trying to tease out the surrealist imagery and dream symbolism inherent in Herbert’s material, Villeneuve’s edition strains in the opposite direction to make everything clean and hard-edged, plunging Herbert back into the regulation techno-fascist style he broke with.

Momoa’s presence, with his innate muscular swagger and obliquely twisting grin, gives the film a thankful jolt of matinee heroism that’s also appropriate for the character, who, as his name suggests, is offered as a kind of holdover of an ancient kind of frontier grit – one reason Herbert kept reviving Duncan over and over in the books. Villeneuve gives him an appropriately spectacular end, something Lynch fumbled rather badly, as he fights a unit of the Sardaukar hunting Paul and Jessica after the Atreides’ downfall, still managing to battle on even after being skewered with a blade. Momoa’s presence is particularly vital as he offsets Chalamet. Chalamet is definitely a current It Boy on the cinema scene with his anime-drawing-of-a-young-man looks, and he’s an actor with great potential – he did, for instance, an excellent job as the compulsory stand-in for the director of A Rainy Day In New York (2020). The film tosses in a ribbing joke about his lack of muscular manhood, but it doesn’t quite cover up the fact that he feels wrong in the role, whereas Kyle MacLachlan, whatever else you can say about him, expertly negotiated the shift from eager teenager to fearsome messiah: here Chalamet kept reminding me a little too keenly of his character in Lady Bird (2018) as a gangly brat who read a Marxist text once, here with a few added taekwondo lessons. One problem is that Villeneuve’s relentless approach to the style means the only moment where Paul feels at all boyish is when he first meets Duncan on screen, displaying a smile reserved for a kind of older brother or alternative father hero figure. Later in the film when he’s called upon to display emerging grit and gravitas he falls totally flat.

A more obvious problem with Dune: Part One is there in the title. We don’t get a complete story here, and the point where Villeneuve and company choose to leave off is at once fairly natural but also tormenting only in being anticlimactic. Villeneuve ends not on a cliffhanger but at a relatively lackadaisical story juncture, as Paul and Jessica are accepted into the Fremen fold after Paul finally meets Chani, and he is obliged to kill a Fremen, Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun), when the offended and xenophobic warrior challenges him to a duel, a fight that establishes Paul really does have a deadly streak as well as training. This provides a solid fight scene that nonetheless caps off the multimillion dollar blockbuster about some kind of war in the stars with a knife fight. “This is only the beginning,” Chani says in a trailer-ready line, whilst looking and sounding just like a sophomore at a SoCal performing arts school. The time Dune: Part One spent on the shelf awaiting post-COVID release is telling as Zendaya still looks rather young and pouchy-cheeked, with no sign of the impressive maturity she brought to bear in this year’s Malcolm & Marie – not that she’s in the film long enough to make much impression either way. Hans Zimmer matches Villeneuve’s style perfectly in his scoring, alternating drones and ululating songstresses and throbbing-propulsive, drum-thumping cues in a succession of current scoring clichés. Zimmer’s scores are inseparable from the contemporary blockbuster scene, and more specifically from the way movies are sold now: Zimmer’s work maintains a perfect synergy with the art of modern movie trailers, and in effect his work essentially does advertising for the movie within itself, refusing any kind of lyrical invitation in an imaginative universe but instead twisting the viewer’s wrist to find it all grand and darkly thrilling.

Herbert nodded to the early history of science fiction with Dune, with quite a bit of Flash Gordon and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars tales in its makeup as well as more sophisticated concerns and investigation of mythopoeic patterns. So to a certain extent it’s fair enough that the movie emphasises this aspect, even if it doesn’t do it all that well. But Herbert deconstructed that kind of old-fashioned adventure tale at the same time, commenting on what’s often seen as the quasi-imperialist assumptions of stories where outsiders, usually white and western, become leaders of far-flung populaces, whilst his narrative both mimicked and commented upon the power of messianic mythology, uncovering links with twentieth century totalitarian movements. Herbert kept in mind things like the way Moses’ emergence as prophet and nation leader led directly to a war of extermination after the wanderings in the desert waged upon occupants of the Promised Land, and saw the way such narratives are pitched as self-justifying for aggrieved nations. He also had an evident fascination for Arabic legend and culture, appropriate considering the story’s basis in the current reality of the oil boom in the Middle East, but also tackled in a complicating fashion: Herbert’s future is a great melting pot of all past human culture and identity, where religions, creeds, and races have long since all formed into a melange as rich as the spice. The Fremen are hardly supposed to be mere stand-ins for Arabic peoples, but a society that’s retained and transmitted a classical culture as appropriate to their lifestyle. This is, after all, once again supposed to be science fiction. Villeneuve’s choice nonetheless is to hammer home the relevance and the more stolid side of the fantasy by emphasising the Fremen culture as quasi-Arabic, which manages at once to be more of a sop to emphasising contemporary parable but also more retrograde and confused in the contained politics.

As for Paul’s dread of the potential of unleashing a genocidal holy war, Villeneuve signals, at least, unlike Lynch who avoided and indeed entirely contradicted it, that he plans to deal with this consequence, but still only has Paul very quickly mutter some malarkey about holy war along with some flash-cut visions of a bloody hand. Lynch’s theatrical cut was forced to compress the second half of the novel in extremely ungainly fashion, so in this regard Villeneuve has left himself plenty of room to deal with the oncoming deluge of fresh weirdness, including Paul’s self-inflicted visionary trip to emerge as Kwisatz Haderach, the arrival of his sister Alia, the bloodthirsty adult in a child’s body, and the great battle for control of Arrakis and the Empire, as well as the bleak side to Paul’s ascension. And yet I’m also forced to ponder how Villeneuve will drain these of their perverted fervour. The ultimate impression Dune: Part One left me with was of something utilitarian, a work that seems to have finally managed, judging by the box office and general reception, the task of successfully selling Herbert’s creation to a broad audience, and indeed it’s worth celebrating insofar as it finally revives hope for franchise blockbusters more ambitious and mature than superhero movies. But the price paid for this is pyrrhic, as too much of what made Herbert’s work lasting and interesting has been sacrificed, and what’s left in its place is occasionally striking but essentially inert. Moreover, it forces me to say something I never, ever expected to say: Lynch’s version remains the superior.

Standard
1980s, Action-Adventure, Horror/Eerie, Scifi

Aliens (1986)

Director / Screenwriter: James Cameron

By Roderick Heath

If Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) sounded in abstract like a movie unlikely to leave much of a mark on cinematic culture upon release, the sequel seemed if anything even more ill-starred. Alien had been a big hit, but attempts to make a sequel soon became bogged down in changing executive regimes at Twentieth Century Fox, lawsuits, and wrangling over returning star Sigourney Weaver’s salary. Despite having emerged as a potential major star thanks to Alien, Weaver had only had one major success since, with her strong if not essential supporting turn in Ghostbusters (1984). A potential answer to the question as to who would make the film, at least, provided when an employee at Brandywine Films, the production company of the first film’s producers and co-writers Walter Hill and David Giler, was on the lookout for interesting new scripts and found a pair by a young filmmaker named James Cameron. Cameron, a graduate of the film schools of Roger Corman and Italo-exploitation, had submitted a potential sequel for First Blood (1981) and his own original sci-fi work called The Terminator, and was busy trying to forget his first foray as director, Piranha II: The Spawning (1982). Hill and Giler, who had taken a chance with Scott and would continue later to hire interesting new talents for the series like David Fincher, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Joss Whedon, fed Cameron a basic idea of thrusting the first film’s heroine Ripley into a situation with some soldiers. Cameron hit the ground running in developing the project, but was considered too green to take on directing duties until he made The Terminator on a low budget with maximum industry and potent results.

Cameron was officially hired to make the Alien sequel, given a large but, even by the standards of the time, hardly enormous budget of $16 million, with his then-girlfriend Gale Ann Hurd, who had produced The Terminator, taken on in the same capacity. Cameron’s osmotic knowledge of sci-fi, which caused problems for The Terminator, also drove his interest in portraying spacefaring soldiers in the mould of writers like Robert Heinlein and A.E. Van Vogt. The sequel was filmed at England’s Pinewood Studios, and the 31-year-old Cameron upon arrival found himself facing a lot of scepticism from the British crew, as The Terminator hadn’t yet opened in the UK. Cameron’s own relentless approach to filmmaking, soon to become notoriously onerous, also ruffled feathers, but the film came in, as studios like so much, on time and budget. Aliens was finally released seven years after the first film, an eternity by pop culture standards, particularly in the 1980s. Nonetheless the film proved an instant smash with audiences, and one that would soon enough prove perpetually influential, to the degree that it doesn’t feel like hyperbole to say that Hollywood’s been trying to make it again and again for the past 35 years and never quite succeeding. All anyone who was young and impressionable thought when they first saw it, most likely on video, was that it was awesome.

Arguing over whether Alien or Aliens is the better film is one of those topics movie lovers enjoy fighting over, but what’s certain is that Cameron managed the very rare trick of emulating a great model in a manner that both suited his own sensibility and logically expanded on the original. Indeed, the significant problem that beset subsequent entries in the series was in the inability of any single entry to pull the same trick. Cameron had the unenviable task of mediating Scott’s stylistic approach, which had invested the first film with much of its unique power, and find something new to offer the audience through bringing his own sensibility to bear. The simple addition of an S to the title was all the promissory needed, as simple a declaration as any possible: where before there had been one alien, and the situation matched it, now there would be many, and Cameron follows through on the expectation to expand upon the world and the nightmares Scott depicted. The opening seems to take up where the first film left off, with Ripley drifting through deep space in the Nostromo’s shuttle, the Narcissus, ageless in cryogenic sleep. The craft is intercepted by a much larger salvage vehicle, with a remote robotic unit cutting through the escape hatch and scanning the shuttle before salvagers enter and find Ripley and the Nostromo’s cat Jones still alive. This prologue is exacting in returning the viewer to the mood and method of Alien, not just in the careful recreation of the shuttle set and the hushed, eerily romantic strains of James Horner’s scoring mimicking Jerry Goldsmith’s work, but in the rueful and world-weary comment by one of the rescuers, “There goes our salvage, guys,” immediately recapitulating that this is a universe inhabited by working stiffs where the profit motive looms large and deep space is hardly an escape route from the mundane, where the possibility of rescuing someone is a secondary concern when rounding up a drifting spacecraft.

Cameron continues to follow Scott’s model at first, artfully building a mood of quiet dread where for a vast chunk of the film little seems to happen, although of course every moment of charged intensity without payoff eventually gains it counterweight in thriller action. Such an approach to storytelling in a blockbuster feels all but impossible today, but it’s part of Aliens’ greatness, testifying to a near-vanished moment when crowd-pleasing on the biggest level could also still involve patient, careful storytelling and directorial conditioning. In the theatrical cut of the film, a full hour passes before any actual alien is seen on screen; well over an hour in the “Special Edition” director’s cut assembled for laserdisc in 1990, which stands now as the essential version. Cameron does break from Scott and follows a lead more reminiscent of Brian De Palma in a fake-out dream sequence early on, in which what seems to be the authentic memory of being told by Burke (Paul Reiser), a representative of the company that owned the Nostromo, that she was rescued after 57 years in cryosleep, in the medical bay of a huge space station orbiting Earth: Ripley’s probably real panic attack becomes a nightmare in which she imagines herself impregnated with one of the alien beings which starts to hatch inside her as it did in her fellow crewmember Kane, until she abruptly awakens, panicked and sweating, in the real medical bay. This dream both illustrates the deeply traumatic impact of Ripley’s experiences and provokes the audience’s presumed memory of the first film’s most infamous scene.

As made particularly clear in the Special Edition, Cameron’s script works initially to undercut any hope Ripley’s homecoming will be as positive as the last frames of Alien suggested. She finds herself jobless, disgraced, doubted, and wracked by traumatic nightmares, without friends or family to recognise her upon return, a relic and an exile torn out of her moment. Even her daughter Amanda, who was a young girl when she left, has since grown old and died, a wizened face gazing out at her still-young mother from a pixelated image, time, fate, and identity all in flux. As Burke comes to give Ripley this news, Ripley seems to be sitting in a garden, delivered into nature to recuperate, only for her to pick up a remote control and switch off the large TV screen feeding the illusion. Cameron’s wry visual joke here about technology and falsified environments feels oddly connected with his own extended act of providing such illusion in the fantasy world of Avatar (2009). Soon Ripley is unable to keep her temper when thrust before a review committee who plainly don’t buy her story about the infiltrating alien and seem more concerned by the destruction of the Nostromo and its cargo, and to an extent one can see their point. Finally Ripley is found to have acted negligently, has her flight officer licence cancelled, and learns to boot from the committee chair Van Leuwen (Paul Maxwell) that the planet where the Nostromo’s crew found the alien spaceship and its deadly cargo, now known as LV-426, has now been colonised and is undergoing terraforming.

Aliens immediately recapitulates the cynicism of Alien towards the company, whose canonical name, Weyland-Yutani (suggesting in very 1980s fashion the future convergence of American and Japanese corporate interests into one all-powerful gestalt), was first revealed in the Special Edition, scapegoating Ripley and reducing her to a menial with a tenuous grip on existence. Burke introduces himself by assuring her that “I’m really an okay guy,” which is a pretty good sign he isn’t: although he does seem at first like a solid advocate for Ripley, he nonetheless uses a practiced line of clichés in the course of trying to manipulate her into helping him when it appears she was right all along. Cameron allows images of the cast of the previous film to appear on the computer feed scrolling behind Ripley during the meeting, a salutary touch. But another of Aliens’ qualities is that it’s well-told enough to be a completely stand-alone entity, as the film carefully lays out Ripley’s survivor guilt and contends with the consequences of a situation in a manner most similar types of movie gloss over whilst also offering enough sense of what happened to make her fear as well as the continuing plot entirely comprehensible. Cameron alternates visions of Ripley awakening in stark, body-twisting terror with moments of glazed stillness as Ripley smokes and stares off into nothingness. One nice, barely noticeable touch sees her mane of wavy hair as sported in the first film still present in early scenes but later shorn away to a more functional do, suitable as Ripley is by this time working a labourer in the space station loading docks.

The Special Edition also sports an early visit to LV-426, allowing a glimpse of the colonist outpost, dubbed Hadleys Hope – the outpost’s place sign has “Have a nice day” scrawled in graffiti over the stencilled lettering. Futuristic all-terrain vehicles trundle by the pre-fab structures, buffeted by wind and dust in this tiny island of human civilisation located amidst roiling volcanic rock forms, located someplace between a Western movie town and the outer precincts of hell. A conversation between two administrators (Mac McDonald and William Armstrong) establishes their jaded and frazzled state of mind in running this pocket of habitation whilst an important plot point is conveyed: some company honcho has sent a message asking for a grid reference far out in the planetary wilds to be checked out, so wildcatter mining couple, the Jordens (Jay Benedict and Holly De Jong), have gone off in search of it. Of course, the Jordens come across the all-too-familiar wrecked horseshoe spaceship. I’ve always found this portion of the director’s cut interesting but ungainly: effectively atmospheric, it gives a glimpse of Hadleys Hope as a functioning zone of labour and community, with convincing touches like the playing children who invade the control area of the otherwise tediously functional outpost, and a glimpse of the Jordens as an example of the kind of people who would choose such an existence – tight-knit, working class, adventurous. But it dispels the highly effective sense of mystery and discovery sustained in the theatrical cut, has noticeably weaker acting, and it goes just a little too far in coincidence in presenting Rebecca ‘Newt’ Jorden (Carrie Henn), later to prove an essential character, as being at the epicentre of the nascent crisis. Newt screams in horror as she beholds the sight of her father with a facehugger gripping his head with remorseless biological purpose whilst her mother urgently sends out a mayday.

An unstated amount of time passes before Burke comes to Ripley’s domicile with a representative of the Colonial Marines, Lt. Gorman (William Hope), and tells her that contact with LV-426 has been cut off, and they want her to come with them as an advisor as a unit of Marines are sent to investigate. Ripley is at first, understandably, determined to not to go, resisting Burke’s arsenal of pop psychology cliché (“Get out there and face this thing – get back on the horse!”) and the offer of protection from the armed forces that Ripley already, plainly half-suspects might be vainglorious. Only another wrenching nightmare and a long, hard look in the mirror convinces Ripley there’s only one way out of labyrinth for her, and that only after calling up Burke and seeking assurance that the plan is to exterminate the aliens. Cut to the Marines’ spaceship, the Sulaco, cutting through deep space: the name, taken from a town in Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, extends that running gag and the connection with Conrad’s grim contemplation of hearts of darkness and corporate-imperial enterprise. Cameron apes Scott’s creation of mood and tension by recreating the quietly gliding camera movements Scott explored the Nostromo with, now scanning the Sulaco’s interior. James Horner’s scoring, like Goldsmith’s employing horns and woodwinds to illustrate the eerie absence of life, interpolates faint drum taps that match the sight of military hardware dormant. One quality that invests Cameron’s early films with much of their populist muscle is the respect and feel he had, certainly earned in his time working as a truck driver in his early 20s, for working class characters, strongly defined by their little social units and camaraderie. It’s a quality Cameron shared with John Carpenter, his immediate forebear as the hero of neo-B movies, although with Cameron it’s arguable this quality arguably hardened into a kind of shtick by the time of Titanic (1997) and Avatar, and where Carpenter’s sensibility led him to increasingly ironic considerations of genre storytelling, Cameron knew which side his bread was buttered on. Nonetheless this lends weight to Cameron’s glancing portrait of life LV-426 and the attitudes of the grunts of the Colonial Marines, as well to Ripley herself. Weaver herself noted that Aliens is essentially one great metaphor for Ripley overcoming her trauma, albeit in a way that thankfully avoids overtness.

It’s important for Cameron that Ripley, originally portrayed in Alien as an officer who makes a slightly snooty impression on her more plebeian crewmates and irks others with her cautious mentality even as circumstances prove her right, here falls basically to the bottom of society as well as mental health. Burke, whilst assuring her there’s nothing wrong with it, tries to plants hooks in Ripley by commenting on her newly tenuous existence. What he doesn’t know, nor Ripley herself, is that her fall also occasions her rise, with particular consequence in the climax, where her specific skill and talent learnt on the loading docks arms her for the ultimate battle with her personal demon. The detachment of Gorman’s Marines, awakening along with Ripley and Burke from cryosleep, is quickly and deftly sketched individually and as a functioning team, particularly the dominant if not necessarily most genuinely strong personalities, including the motor-mouthed, enthusiastic Hudson (Bill Paxton) and the formidable Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), as well as the quiet, calm Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn), and the no-nonsense sergeant Apone (Al Matthews). The Marines are reassuring in their confident certainty of their own toughness and competence, and also their generic familiarity, combining classical war movie archetypes and modern sops: the unit includes women, a touch that illustrates Cameron’s cunning retrofitting of old movie templates for a new audience as well as suiting his own sensibility – Apone, who jams a cigar between his teeth within moments of awakening, is right out of a Sam Fuller. But the most crucial point of emulation is Howard Hawks, as the core team fuses together in to a functioning unit once the authority figures are dead or counted out and prove more effective once reconstituted as a semi-democratic whole. Ripley could be said to play the part of the traditional Hawksian woman, except Cameron inverts the old emphasis: she doesn’t have to adapt to the group, but the group fails because it doesn’t adapt like her. Cameron disposes of any dissonance as Hudson teases Vasquez, as she immediately starts doing chin-ups, with the question, “Have you ever been mistaken for a man?” to her immortal riposte, “No. Have you?”

The soldiers patronise Ripley not as a woman but as a civilian, something she gauges immediately, and she takes a certain wry, challenging delight in showing off when she clambers into a robotic loading suit that resembles an anthropomorphic forklift and casually handles a heavy load, much to Apone and Hicks’ approving amusement. Cameron drops in effective, intelligently accumulating character touches that give depth to the Marines, from Hicks falling asleep during the bumpy descent to the planet, to Vasquez and Drake (Mark Rolston) displaying their deep sense of camaraderie as masters of the big guns, drilling in choreographed movement and sharing their own sense of humour, and shades-wearing, ultra-cool shuttle craft pilot Corporal Ferro (Colette Hiller) spouting surfer lingo as she steers her craft down through the stormy clouds of LV-426. There’s also the android (“I prefer the term artificial person myself”) Bishop (Lance Henriksen), present as a standard member of the team. At one point Gorman gets Hicks and Hudson’s names mixed up, a hint at the speed with which the unit was formed that can also be taken as a wry acknowledgement of the difficulty in telling a bunch of young men with buzz cuts apart and of Gorman’s lack of deep investment in noticing the distinction. Hudson himself has an edge of bratty braggadocio that first vanishes when Drake forces him to give aid to Bishop in his party trick display of speed and precision with a knife, but resurges as he regales Ripley with the splendours of these “ultimate badasses” and their arsenal of cutting-edge technological weaponry. The soldiers and their tag-alongs eat before getting mobilised, and another facet of social tension manifests: the grunts notice Gorman doesn’t eat with them, another early sign he’s not going to prove much of a leader. Ripley, remembering Ash from the Nostromo, reacts with virulent unease when she realises what Bishop is, despite his Isaac Asimov-quoting reassurances.

Later, during a briefing for the unit, Gorman generically describes the creatures Ripley has encountered as a xenomorph – exterior-changer – in some official taxonomical flourish that has become since the general name for the malevolent species. After preparing for deployment, the unit is dropped into LV-426’s atmosphere and upon landing find Hadleys Hope seemingly deserted, with signs like half-eaten meals, in a nice nod towards the mystique of the Mary Celeste, betraying the suddenness of what befell the colonists. The Marines soon turn up signs that prove Ripley’s story, particularly patches of metalwork eaten through by the xenomorphs’ spilt acidic blood, and occupy the command centre which was hastily fortified for a last stand. Whilst exploring the deserted domicile, movement detected on their sensors proves to Newt, now bedraggled and deeply traumatised, but also having managed to survive thanks to her intricate knowledge of the domicile’s air duct system, gathered in her years playing in them. Ripley quickly takes on a motherly role for Newt. The team discover two live specimens of the “facehugger” strain that implants larvae in living hosts, kept in plastic tubes in the centre’s Med Lab, with a surgeon’s notes queasily reporting a patient died having one specimen removed. Finally the Marines, trying to find the missing colonists by looking for their subcutaneous tracking chips, locate them seemingly all congregated together in a space under the gigantic atmospheric plant, a fusion reactor-powered array busily making the planetary atmosphere breathable. But when the Marines venture into the plant, they quickly find signs they’re entering a xenomorph nest, and the one living human they find amongst the many eviscerated victims they find fused to the walls quickly dies as one of the larval aliens explodes from her chest. Within moments the unit is attacked by swarming xenomorphs, quickly reducing their ranks and setting the remnant to flight, and it falls to Ripley’s quick thinking to save them.

One aspect of Aliens, relatively minor on the dramatic scale but important to the deep impression made by its overall look and texture, was Cameron’s strong feel, bordering on fetishism, for both a realistic technological milieu, and for military lingo and tough-hombre attitude. Some of the hardware, like futuristic guns mounted on steadicam harnesses and the robotic loading suit, still remain exotic, but other touches, from the Marines’ helmet-mounted cameras to video phones, have become familiar, and all still seem part of a coherent vision of a future that’s at once hi-tech but also rough-and-ready, everything designed for hard encounters on far-flung rocks. That the Marines would use a “drop ship” to shuttle them to and from the planet rather than land a cumbersome spaceship like the Nostromo on LV-426, provides both a logical-feeling aspect of the mechanics of the enterprise whilst also echoing both World War II landing craft and helicopters in the Vietnam war, and also, eventually, provides an important component of the plot. The drop ship itself disgorges an Armoured Personnel Carrier, which the Marines use as a mobile protective base of operations. The visual sheen of Adrian Biddle’s cinematography, with omnipresent steely blues and greys, suggests that the atmosphere itself has soaked up the cobalt-hued lustre of gunmetal and industrial colossi, and the first sight Ripley and the Marines have of LV-426 is of the enormous atmospheric processor installation, powered by a fusion reactor, looming out of the grimy haze, and Hadleys Hope beyond, blurry and smeared in being seen through cameras.

Cameron’s use of such mediating technology also gives Aliens flashes of estranged menace, as the signs of battle and carnage the Marines find once they penetrate the interior of Hadleys Hope, bearing out Ripley’s accounts, are mediated through grainy, fuzzy camera feeds. The oft-emulated scene of Gorman steadily losing all connection and control as the Marines are attacked and the mission turns to lethal chaos intersperses immediate footage and glimpses conveyed through the way their cameras capture incoherent flashes of action and, in the cases of those grabbed or killed by the xenomorphs, blacks out: the technology, which seems to embrace and unite the humans, instead only testifies to their breakdown and impotence. This sequence, which sees the film finally combust after its long, nerveless build-up, cleverly reproduces a key aspect of Alien in the idea of the responses to the xenomorphs being limited by situation, as the nest is directly underneath the plant’s cooling systems, which means that firing off powerful weapons could critically damage the reactor and result in a nuclear explosion. Given the unexpected signs of sentient intelligence the xenomorphs display, too, this might not be a coincidence. This means the team is left almost defenceless as the aliens pounce, save flame throwers and Hicks’ shotgun (“I like to save this for close encounters.”), although Drake and Vasquez, having contrived not to hand over all their ammo, start blasting away wildly as the attack comes.

Cameron and the design team gave the xenomorphs a slightly different look for the film than the sleek anthropoidal shark look of the original model, kicking off a motif in the series where the creatures adapt to their environment. Here they’re distinctly more demonic with a more veinous-looking exterior, hobgoblins surging out of dark reaches they’ve decorated to suit themselves, an environ festooned with eviscerated corpses in a vision of a Dantean hellscape. They discover one living woman (Barbara Coles) who, as Ripley did in her dream earlier in the film, begs her would-be rescuers to kill her, but they’re too late to stop the larval “chestburster” alien from erupting from her chest. The Marines immediately incinerate it with a flamethrower, but this has the unfortunate effect of stirring the other xenomorphs from their nooks. Gorman, pale and sweating and delirious in his horror, quickly proves incapable of a response, so Ripley leaps into the seat of the APC and charges through the corridors of the processor plant, Horner’s furiously martial scoring booming out in announcing the gear change from cosmic horror to rumble-time action. Ripley’s frantic driving in her compelling sense of mission, APC careening against walls, and Gorman’s attempt to intervene only sees him fought off by Burke and then knocked silly by falling containers. Ripley crashes through a partition and reaches the Marines, but not in time to save Drake, who takes a face full of acid blood when Vasquez blasts a xenomorph about to launch on him. As it tries to force open the APC doors, Hicks jams his shotgun in a xenomorph’s mouth and cries “Eat this!” before blowing its head off – an all-time great cheer-out-loud flourish that deliberately makes mincemeat of one of the most disturbing aspects of the xenomorphs as seen up to this point, their double jaw.

One of Cameron’s most important storytelling inflections that recurs throughout Aliens is evinced here in near-throwaway fashion, as Hick’s heroic action nonetheless results in spraying acid blood burning Hudson’s arm. This motif of rolling crisis where gestures and actions constantly result in unintended consequences drives much of the story in a manner that feels realistically chaotic whilst also forcing it onwards in compulsive motion. Ripley manages to barrel the APC out through the plant door after running over a xenomorph that tries to break through the windscreen to get at her, at the cost of shattering the APC’s transaxle. The Marines call in Ferro and the drop ship to come pick them up, but a xenomorph gets aboard the ship and kills the crew, resulting in the drop ship crashing and colliding with the atmospheric plant, setting in motion exactly the inevitable nuclear meltdown they feared. Later in the film Vasquez and Gorman’s final action of blowing themselves up to avoid being eaten and take a few xenomorphs with them offers a moment of valiant kamikaze grace, but also causes another accident that forces Ripley to even more dangerous and strenuous actions.

Aliens tends not to be thought of as a horror movie, unlike Alien, which more obviously straddles the narrow gap between that genre and sci-fi. And yet it has just as much horrific imagery and atmosphere as its precursor, and indeed goes a few steps further, like showing the results of people getting sprayed with the acidic alien blood, and the imagery of the hive festooned with dead, eviscerated colonists. As well as the obvious Horror cues Alien subsumes – the “haunted castle” space ships, the blasted alien planet, the lurking monster, the presence of Ripley as an early and defining “final girl,” the strongly Lovecraftian tilt of the imagery and ideas – it exemplifies how Horror is a style or genre defined by tension derived from the fallibility of the feebly human before forces beyond their control. By contrast, action as a genre is defined by the dispelling of such forces through exemplars of human resilience and toughness: filmmakers don’t have some big, tough muscleman turn up in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) or Halloween (1978) to kick the fiend’s ass, precisely because such stories require the heroes to be distinctly more vulnerable than the avatars of evil. Aliens can also count classic horror films like The Birds (1963) and George Romero’s Dead films as precursors in the theme of fighting violent inhuman besiegement.

But of course Aliens is also a war movie and an interstellar western, and the argument between the immobilising dread of horror and the proactive furore of these other genres is part of what makes Aliens endlessly engaging as a grand nexus of various storytelling traditions and inflections. As legendary as the film’s heroic beats have become, they wouldn’t be at all effective if Cameron wasn’t also so committed at walking his characters up to the edge of the truly nightmarish. The disparity can be traced to the divergent urges expressed in the roots of the two genres. Both go back to stories told around tribal campfires in a far-flung past. In such oral traditions, horror is based in the kinds of stories told to keep children close to the circle of light, warning balefully of the gleaming eyes watching from the dark, whereas those other genres are based in the tales told about great warriors and leaders, the defenders of the tribe, the ones strong enough to go out into that dark. Something Aliens does better than just about any other example I can think of is find the interlocutor of the two in the image of a protecting parent.

Cameron’s approach to the war movie, whilst containing character types going back to silent films like The Big Parade (1925), is nonetheless shaped by his own and his original audience’s cultural moment. Aliens presents a strongly nudging subtext for a popular understanding of the Vietnam War: the Marines, confident in their edge of both machismo (even the women) and technological superiority, as they descend into an environment which their foes, who prove far more intelligent and dangerous than expected and motivated by more coherent, communal urges, are all too good at exploiting. Cameron emphasises the motif through both casting – Matthews, in a casting touch anticipatory of R. Lee Ermey in the following year’s Full Metal Jacket, had been a real-life US Marine, and knew the required attitude inside out – and details like the future-but-not drop ships and the subsumed banter and attitude of Vietnam-era American soldiers. Cameron had success writing the post-Vietnam revenge and homecoming fantasy of Rambo: First Blood Part II and to a certain extent Aliens can be read as its distaff variation, with Ripley fulfilling the role of resurgent natural warrior. But Aliens feels closer to the more considered metaphorical meditation Cameron had woven into The Terminator, where Biehn’s Kyle Reese was easily read as a damaged returned veteran.  Aliens came out in the same year as Oliver Stone’s Platoon, and the two films’ similarities include a soldier’s-eye sense of disdain for officer school training grad lieutenants.

Aliens feels its way around all this in portraying Ripley’s reconstruction from PTSD-riddled human cargo to the essential and emblematic action heroine. Ripley’s place in finally and persuasively creating an archetype scarcely seen so unfettered since folkloric figures like Boudica, Kahina, or Jeanne Hachette has been very well covered ever since, but it’s worth noting on some of the things Cameron and Weaver manage to do through her that made her so vital. As noted, Cameron presents a largely gender-egalitarian world, mediating the traditional Hawksian testing of the outsider on the level of civilian versus soldier and grunt versus officer, cutting out any of the usual jockeying and bickering or tendencies towards what is now called “girlboss” politicking. Ripley’s wisdom, as in the first film, is a mere edge of awareness and forthrightness, and what seems to be her chief liability, the crippling horror of her prior experience with the xenomorph, proves to be a great advantage too, able to recover more quickly from the dizzying blows of their attacks and already knowing what kinds of behaviours will save lives and which will get them all killed. A crucial moment comes when she reacts to the horrible death of the cocooned survivor, recreating her own image of herself from her dream as impregnated and doomed, as Ripley grips her own stomach and grimaces in terrible sympathy. As far as catharsis goes, this is about as rough as it gets, but it nonetheless immediately precedes her resurgence as a fighter.

To this Cameron added a faith that Ripley’s specifically feminine qualities were potent virtues rather than discomforting appendages to be denied or ignored in the course of enabling her. Alien suggested maternal instinct in Ripley in her choice to save Jones at the risk of her own life, and to a certain extent Cameron merely elaborates on this streak in reiterating the lengths Ripley will go to to save those she cares about and in subtly reproducing the original film’s basic plot beats. Nonetheless Aliens is much more specific, and particularly in the Special Edition makes it clear that for Ripley such instinct is because being a mother is a significant and immediate part of her identity. This signals why she’s able to form such a quick and intense bond with Newt, and also underlies her instinct to race to the rescue of the Marines. It’s also apparent even in small but consequential gestures as when Ripley orders Newt to leave the APC’s command space when the cameras show the Marines exploring the hive and seeing colonist bodies festooning the walls: as well as the awful spectacle in and of itself, in which Ripley amusingly resembles a dutiful parents warding a child off from something verboten on TV, Ripley also knows well Newt might see her parents and brother amongst them.

Newt herself is in part a nod to the kinds of urchins who attach themselves to soldiers in classic war movies, whilst presenting an ideal surrogate daughter for Ripley in the way too she is an uncommon, alternative kind of survivor: at one point Ripley admonishes the ranting Hudson with a reminder that Newt found ways to subsist for weeks without help or training, so surely the ultimate badasses can take a few lessons. Newt wields a mixture of the authentically childlike – picking up the Marines’ idiom and gestures (“Affirmative!”) with mimicking delight – and an edge of premature awareness and gravitas, in her certainty that the Marines’ firepower “won’t make any difference” against the aliens, and her nudging reminder to Ripley that her doll Casey isn’t cursed with scary dreams unlike herself and Ripley because “she’s just a piece of plastic.” It’s a measure of the depth of Weaver’s performance, and probably the reason why she gained a Best Actress Oscar nomination for the role, a rarity for such a genre movie, in that she’s coherently able to shift between more fearsome postures and gently coaxing maternal interactions with Henn’s Newt, in utterly convincing vignettes like her murmuring ruefully, after dabbing away some dirt on the girl with some cocoa when she’s first discovered, “Now I’ve done it, I’ve accidentally made a clean spot here – now I guess I’ll have to clean the whole thing.” Newt is of course also, like Jones, a plot device, providing a motive for Ripley to not only survive, but to take the kind of risk usually reserved to heroes of classic mythology.

Meanwhile the rest of the humans interact with a deft combination of acting and writing to the point where they’re more precisely drawn than many another film’s lead character, from Paxton’s brilliant slide from posturing wiseass to whiny hysteric before finally going out in a blaze of authentic glory, to Goldstein’s strident Vasquez demanding of the injured Gorman, “Wake up, pendejo, and then I’m gonna kill you!” Henriksen, a familiar enough character actor in movies including Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), had been the star in Cameron’s Piranha II: The Spawning and his initial proposed casting for the role of the Terminator. Cameron’s fondness for him was justified as playing Bishop finally boosted him to cult acting hero status, in part because he expertly walks a line of studied blandness that sustains the question as to whether Bishop is another cyborg monster like Ash – he has a similar awed regard when studying their anatomy – or a good guy. The answer finally comes when he makes a quip, “I may be synthetic, but I’m not stupid,” when he volunteers for a risky mission only he can likely pull off, and it’s impossible to doubt him henceforth, even when he seems to abandon Ripley and Newt to their fate.

Biehn, hastily brought aboard the movie to play Hicks after James Remar was forced to drop out, finished up playing a similar role to the one he had in The Terminator as an ideal male hero who nonetheless finishes up too battered and scarred to be of much help to the heroine as she faces evil alone. Hicks however isn’t a damaged case like Kyle Reese was, but rather a quiet, intense dark horse who clearly isn’t eager to be the star: “Yeah…yeah,” he murmurs ruefully after Ripley points out he’s now in charge, a marvellous little moment for Biehn. But within moments, after being incidentally belittled by Burke, Hicks readily commits to command and to implementing Ripley’s suggestion of aerial nuclear bombardment of the area – “Only way to be sure” – in a way that suddenly confirms he’s the rare character both smart enough and sufficiently untroubled by ego to know the right idea when he hears it, and so is precisely the leader the crisis needs. The crash of the drop ship foils this plan, and obliges the team to fortify themselves in the command centre, sealing up every conceivable door, pipe, and conduit, planning to wait out the 17 day interval before another rescue mission is sent. But Bishop soon tells them they can’t wait that long: the drop ship’s crash damaged the atmospheric processor and it’s now on a countdown to explosion. Bishop agrees to venture outside to patch into the outpost’s transmitter and remote pilot a second drop ship down from the Sulaco. During the wait, Ripley and Newt find themselves trapped with two freed facehuggers specimens, and are only rescued by the Marines in the nick of time. Ripley knows full well this must have been orchestrated by Burke, who she already knows both ordered the search for the alien ship and wants to take the specimens back to Earth, and saw a good way of getting what he wants whilst silencing Ripley. And, incidentally, everyone else.

The reveal that Burke is a villain isn’t at all surprising, as it was pretty compulsory for a 1980s genre film to have an asshole yuppie. It could be said his presence dials down the Kafkaesque portrait of corporate insidiousness in Alien to something more containable: rather than operating on the company’s behalf Burke’s self-defence suggests it’s his own opportunism driving his actions. Still he’s the avatar of the same forces at work, and Reiser makes the character effective in the way he carefully shades Burke’s purposefully inoffensive façade with his unblinking believe-you-me stare and air of practiced facetiousness, a film of sweat greasing his upper lip as he labours to keep up his bullshit in the face of the Marines’ murderous anger. His execution is only staved off by a sudden power outage, a failure that tells Ripley the xenomorphs are on the move with purpose, much to Hudson’s disbelief (“They’re animals, man!”), but quickly confirmed by the team’s motion detectors. Cameron’s use of the detectors, pulsing with ever-increasing pitch and squirming blurs on their readout screens confirming the horde’s approach, to generate tension is peerless, whilst also returning to the ambiguity of technology as a filter for experience. The relentless march of the monsters towards the command centre remains invisible and illogical as they seem to be right upon the humans but without any sign of them, until the penny drops and Ripley turns her gaze upwards towards the panelled ceiling – the one, forgotten conduit for invasion. The pure essence of the monster movie and everything the mode encompasses comes in the next moment: Hicks is boosted up to lift a panel and turn a torch down the duct, glimpsing the hellish vision of a horde of xenomorphs crawling inexorably closer.

Aliens created a template that young and eager genre filmmakers, and some not-so-young ones, would imitate exhaustively in years to come. The hard, chitinous look imbued upon the tech and environs would be endlessly imitated along with the plot patterns and lines of defiant dialogue. Cameron’s editing of the action scenes is quick almost to the point of being subliminal in places, generally to mask limitations of the special effects but also amplifying the sense of the blindsiding speed with which situations turn on a dime from anxious calm to life-and-death conflict. And yet it’s also still entirely lucid and precise in filming and framing. Cameron’s repeated, forceful use of point-of-view shots goes beyond the fascination with layered media, and provides much of the film surging, immediate energy – barely noticed in the rush of events as when he cuts between Burke’s viewpoint as he shuts the door sealing off himself from Ripley and Newt and theirs as they see the door close, and repeated with more bravura towards the end as Cameron adopts Bishop’s pilot’s-eye-view as he barrels the drop ship through plumes of smoke and fire amidst the jutting steel forms in fleeing the atmospheric processor. The sequence of Ripley and Newt trapped in the Med Lab is particularly great in exploiting what the audience both knows and doesn’t know as well as offering a moment of pure situational thrill-mongering. Cameron reiterates the constant motif in the film and its predecessor involving waking and sleeping and the blurred ground between dream and nightmare, as Ripley, who has fallen asleep with Newt who by habit hides under her bed from the very real monsters, awakens and spies the toppled tubes that contained the facehugger specimens, shifting from an idyllic portrait of her bonding attachment into imminent danger and threat, as well as invoking the basic parental role, as the person whose presence allows a child to sleep untroubled.

Ripley quickly finds they’ve been locked in, and Cameron cuts to a shot of Burke switching off the security camera in the Med Lab unnoticed by the Marines. Hicks has given Ripley one of the pulse rifles after showing her how to use it, but it’s been lifted and left on a table outside. Ripley has to find a way of attracting attention, a problem she solves quickly enough by setting off the fire alarm. Hicks and the other Marines dash to the rescue, but how long it will take them to get there is unknown. Ripley has gained their attention, but has made the situation even more nightmarish as infernal red fire lamps glow, the harsh siren buzzes and robs any advantage of listening for the creatures, and water pours down: will the water slow down the facehuggers, or do they love it? For those who had seen Alien, the facehuggers are known to be swift and akin to an instant death sentence once attached, but just how fast they can move and whether they can be outwitted is still moot. Cameron builds to the sear-itself-into-your-cortex shot of the facehugger scuttling after Ripley with obscene multi-limbed motion before it springs on her, wrapping its tail about her neck, Ripley trying to find off its furiously wriggling form, whilst Newt manages to pin the other one’s tail against the wall as it comes for her. Only then does Cameron cut to the sight of the Marines outside, having arrived in the meantime: their appearance is both logical but also a non-sequitir, a startling break from the suffocating moment of dread. Hicks tells the others to shoot out the plexiglass window before launching himself through it in a moment of fearless bravura, and the Marines earn a moment of heroic effectiveness as Hudson saves Newt whilst Hicks, Gorman, and Vasquez untangle the one on Ripley and toss it into a corner to be blasted to bits.

The final invasion by the xenomorphs likewise exploits the red emergency lighting to signal the change from placidity to hellish urgency, as monstrosities drop from the ceiling and erupt from the floor. Burke momentarily prevents the team’s retreat by locking a door, seemingly hoping the team will be killed so he can meet up with Bishop and escape, only to find himself trapped with one of the monsters. It’s a measure of the craftsmanship brought to bear in the film that this sequence manages to evoke the authentic chaos of such a battle as the jangling monsters spring and surge in the bloody red light, whilst also capturing iconic vignettes for its heroes – Hudson taunting the xenomorphs as he guns them down, Vasquez blasting them with her grenade launcher, with Horner’s most epic strains blasting all the way. Hudson, Vasquez, and Gorman all die in the rear-guard defence. Cameron allows each to go down as the reborn absolute badass they always sought to be, fighting to the last round with all their ferocity and grit brought to bear, Hudson dragged into the abyss still screaming out curses at the monsters, Gorman blowing himself and Vasquez up when he realises they’re trapped and can’t escape.

But it’s also worth noting that their gestures are also self-defeating, dying in part by their own heroic pretences as well as the monsters, as none of them quite has the sense to follow Newt at top speed: the little girl holds the key to their salvation in knowing the way through the air vents to the landing field. In this regard Cameron echoes something of the romantic fatalism of H.G. Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), and indeed its source novel with its last line describing its ill-fated hero as one killed by his own ferocious determination to live. The way Vasquez wails, “Oh no!” after she’s crippled by some of the xenomorph blood, is a perfect signature for her character, registering both fury at herself and terror in finally being crippled, before the simultaneously stirring and ironic sight of her and Gorman locked together in a moment of perfect fulfilment in the second before Gorman’s grenade goes off, and they vansish in a fireball. Problem is, this götterdamerung for warriors results in a shockwave that makes Newt fall into a vent and plunge to a lower level in the building, demanding Hicks and Ripley pursue her. By the time they reach her she’s been snatched away to the hive by a xenomorph, and Hicks is badly burned by acid blood killing another. Ripley manages to help Hicks reach Bishop as the drop ship arrives, but insists she has to back into the hive to rescue Newt. Cue perhaps the all-time greatest variation on a standard action movie vignette, as Ripley arms herself to the teeth in preparing for the venture whilst Bishop flies her into the atmospheric processor, which is beginning to show signs of destabilising in the face of imminent meltdown.

Everything up until this point has been great, but Aliens kicks to a higher level, reaching the innermost core where those divergent ancient storytelling traditions fork, in this sequence. This is of course in large part to the converging elements of cinema – Weaver’s performing, the shooting and editing, Horner’s big brass-and-drum scoring – but also because of the way everything seen before in the film and its predecessor unites into one, pure spectacle. Much like the following year’s Predator, the climax dispenses with all social-animal preliminaries and gets down to a basic, primal rite, the hero who must venture into the bear’s cave and risk tooth and claw. But with the corollary that Ripley’s motive is not symbolic or general, but a specific, deeply personal expression of maternal urge that overrides every other instinct in the existential manual. The deep-flowing fairy tale motif returns as Ripley uses flares like the breadcrumb trail in Hansel and Gretel, whilst on a more mythic level she combines in herself Theseus and Ariadne heading into the Labyrinth on the hunt for the minotaur, Perseus and Andromeda, St George and the princess. The processor plant, glimpsed as Bishop flies into it, has become a gothic monstrosity, spitting lightning and fire, the most literalised edition of William Blake’s vision of dark satanic mills as the blight of industrialism conceivable. All classical storytelling kneaded into modern psychological theory, and it’s working on that level too, as Ripley has also found the overriding urge that makes all inner demons ineffective. At the same time, Cameron lets the audience see Ripley thinking as well as acting: the weaponry she assembles – taping a flamethrower to a pulse rifle, readying the flares – is, far from heedlessly vainglorious, instead utilising every particle of knowledge she’s gathered about her foes and their home, from their physical traits to their numbers, which by this point if hardly decimated must be greatly thinned, and with the majority of the remaining host left behind in the abandoned command centre. In short, even as Ripley finally becomes an action hero unbound, she’s still very much the character she’s been portrayed as, quick on her mental as well as physical feet. If Cameron had by and large eased back on the protean erotic imagery Scott wielded by way of H.R. Giger’s art in the earlier part of the film, he brings it back with a more sickly, suggestive edge in the sight of Newt swathed in hardened cocooning gel that looks like ejaculate, a xenomorph egg peeling open in rather penile fashion, giving this vignette a coded quality of a wrathful mother coming to save her child from a paedophile.

The symbolism inverts nonetheless as Ripley successfully locates Newt and tears her free only to stumble upon the monstrous queen, a great bony crone with a gross, pendulous egg-sack spitting out monstrous seed. Ripley has found her own interspecies doppelganger – the queen’s squarish jaw even seems to have been deliberately moulded on Weaver’s – as another fiercely protecting mother, but this one diseased, spawning misbegotten devils. The two communicate in gesture, as Ripley gives a spurt of fire from her flamethrower, just enough to make clear to the queen she’ll set fire to her eggs if she lets the xenomorphs lurking in the wings come out, and the queen bids them retreat. The tentative little truce ends when one of the eggs opens: Ripley gives a tilt of her head, grits her teeth, and starts blasting. It’s impossible not to share Ripley’s raw, punishing, near-mindless expression of exterminating rage, and yet as with the Marines earlier, her warlike self-purgation is self-defeating, as she wastes most of her arsenal destroying a hive that will be blown up anyway in a few minutes, making herself very close to a victim of new warrior bravura. Tellingly, Ripley aims all her rage and grenades at the queen’s vestigial egg-sack rather than her exoskeletal body, and after Ripley flees with Newt, the alien queen rips free of the sack and follows, bent on vengeance. Ripley finds Bishop seems to have flown off with the drop ship, seemingly confirming Ripley’s anxiety about Bishop, and in the moment of ultimate confrontation with both parental and childhood fear, Ripley tells Newt, “Close your eyes, baby,” as the alien queen emerges from the shadows of an elevator. Except, of course, Bishop suddenly flies the drop ship into view and scoops up the two humans, before fleeing at top speed, just managing to escape the colossal explosion that consumes Hadleys Hope and everything around it and zooming back into the stars.

Cameron makes a dry nod towards a Spielbergian take on a cinematic fairy-tale motif, as he shifts from the cataclysmic vision of the explosion to the sight of the drop ship zooming up into the stars, Horner’s music now offering gently melodic, resolving sounds at a juncture that for most movies would mark the end of the bad dream. But this being Cameron, of course, he has a trick up his sleeve as he did with the emerging cyborg in The Terminator and with the same basic concept of an inimical form of intelligence simply refusing to observe the niceties of what a human would justifiably call enough, as well as repeating and expanding upon the finale of Alien. Right at what seems to be the hearty final moment of conciliation between Ripley and Bishop, who’s delighted by her praise, the hiss of burning acid and Bishop suddenly contorting in pain announces a last act as the alien queen crawls out of a landing gear bay, having skewered Bishop on its horny tail, before ripping him in half. Being as he is an artificial person Bishop doesn’t expire from such treatment, but the vision of both Hicks and Bishop left too injured to help Ripley not only demands she find a way to battle the monster alone but also carries potent metaphorical aspects – Cameron’s viewpoint of a fatally injured idea of masculinity, exposed in both the classical hero Hicks and the motherly, slightly fey male Bishop, whilst playing nice in that they’re both nobly wounded rather than toxic and imperious like the Terminator, nonetheless demands a new kind femininity evolve to take its place, and with the suggestion that the last act of all wars is ultimately fought by women, those who have to deal with the subtler but more pernicious monsters it unleashes.

Bishop’s sundering is also a bravura moment of visual ruthlessness, a shock twist that resembles Ripley’s discovery of the alien on the Narcissus in the previous film and also a last, needling reminder that the material is still mean stuff. Whilst the alien queen hunts for Newt, who tries to hide under the docking bay floor gratings, Ripley emerges wearing the power loader suit, augmented to a level of power equal to the monster. Okay, altogether now, three…two…one: “Get away from her, you bitch!” An unnecessarily rhetorical flourish, probably, given we’ve already seen the idea illustrated thoroughly, but still one of the most delightful moments in the genre film canon, and the signature for Ripley: this isn’t Ripley the damaged survivor or Ripley the hysterical berserker but the ultimate version, powered up with steel fists, completing the journey in now making clear it’s the monster that should be scared. Later, in Titanic and Avatar, Cameron would more conspicuously re-devote himself to what could be called new-age editions of imagery and themes echoing out High Romantic art and literature of the 1700s and 1800s, where artist-heroes rewrite reality with passion, flee collapsing idols, and bestride pristine wildernesses, a twist that might have seemed odd given his penchant for technology as a device both liberating and frightening.

But it becomes clearer in watching Cameron’s oeuvre that the dark side of technology lies in its potential, indifferently destructive effect on living systems, the appeal of it lies in restoring the kind of heroic agency associated with classical art forms. Thus Ripley repurposes a tool, one associated previously with her humiliation and reconstruction, into a new kind of knightly armour, able to step up to the nastiest demon lurking in Beelzebub’s caverns and sock it in the face. Finally, in the titanic struggle that follows, she manages to dump the creature into an airlock and blast it out into the same void as its predecessor, although not before the queen, with its species’ characteristic will to survive, keeps hanging on to Ripley to the bitter end. Finally Ripley seals up the ship as the bifurcated Bishop clings onto the flailing Newt, who finally, unthinkingly anoints Ripley as “Mommy!” as they’re finally united. Cameron returns to the fairy-tale motif for a final image of mother and daughter delivered back to their dreams, perhaps no better than before, but at least now just dreams.

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The City of the Dead (1960) / Night of the Eagle (1961)

aka Horror Hotel / aka Burn, Witch, Burn!

Directors: John Llewellyn Moxey / Sidney Hayers
Screenwriters: George Baxt / George Baxt, Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson

By Roderick Heath

The City of the Dead and Night of the Eagle present two small gems of horror cinema, closely connected by the moment of their making and their basic genre film business. Both are products of the flourishing horror cinema in Britain inspired by the success of the Hammer Horror films. Each was directed by an interesting filmmaker well-known to genre fans but few others. The City of the Dead was written by the mystery writer George Baxt, who went on to co-author the script of Night of the Eagle with Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. Both films offer horror narratives set firmly in the present day and involving witchcraft. Both are partly set in academia, hardly the usual location for horror apart from the reaction of the odd flunked student. Both are evidently influenced by other, recent great and popular films but have their own specific charm. Both were awkwardly retitled for American release. But the two films are quite distinct in other ways, exemplifying how movies can be both very similar in their basics and yet divergent in approach: The City of the Dead is a lesson in making the most of a miniscule budget to weave a classical brand of atmospheric dread, whilst Night of the Eagle is a study in psychological tension and metaphorical power.


The City of the Dead represented an early foray into producing British genre cinema by the entrepreneurial American producers Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg, about to become two of the more consequential figures in that rarefied realm. The duo first collaborated in the US on the rock’n’roll craze-exploiting film Rock, Rock, Rock (1956) and a handful of other B-movies. The duo reached out to Hammer Films honcho Michael Carreras, trying to entice his involvement with a new version of Frankenstein Subotsky had written. Carreras became interested but eventually cut out Subotsky and Rosenberg, and his The Curse of Frankenstein, upon release in 1957, proved an earthquake that permanently revived horror cinema as well as, in the short term, making the UK the epicentre. Subotsky and Rosenberg moved to avenge themselves by moving to Britain and forming the production entity Vulcan Films, which would eventually be reorganised into the better-known Amicus Films, which tried thereafter to be a rival to Hammer. Amicus would produce an enjoyable if interchangeable series of anthology horror movies like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1964), The House That Dripped Blood (1970), and Tales From The Crypt (1972), and sci-fi flicks like Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Kevin Connor’s Edgar Rice Burroughs trilogy. Baxt had originally written the script as the intended pilot of a TV series to star Boris Karloff, and when Subotsky took it over he performed rewrites, adding a subplot and giving himself story credit, whilst the film’s stringent £45,000 budget was partly obtained from Nottingham Football Club.

For a director, Subotsky hired John Llewellyn Moxey, who at 35 had recently become a TV director. Moxey’s knowledge of how to conjure a convincing drama out of the most stringent needs definitely helped with The City of the Dead. The film kicks off with a prologue that’s intriguingly similar to the beginning of the same year’s La Maschera del Demonio, and anticipates the like of Witchfinder General (1969) and The Devils (1971) in evoking the bleak history of witch hunts and executions as a gruelling and gruesome social phenomenon. Moxey opens with the townsfolk of the small Massachusetts village of Whitewood in 1692 dragging Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) to be burned at the stake as a witch. Selwyn screams out for help to one of the men in the crowd, Jethrow Keane (Valentine Dyall), but when asked by the town elder supervising the execution (Fred Johnson), if he consorts with her Jethrow denies it. When Selwyn is tied to the stake and set on fire, she and Jethrow both make appeal to Satan to help her, and Selwyn begins to laugh with pleasure as thunder rings out as if answering her prayer, whilst the baying crowd chant, “Burn witch, burn!”

Moxey cuts to history professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee) enthusiastically repeating the same chant as he instructs his students on the event in contemporary times, to the rapt fascination of prize pupil Nan Barlow (Venetia Stephenson), and the wry lack of interest of her boyfriend sitting in on the lecture, Bill Maitland (Tom Naylor), whose quips infuriate the teacher. Nan’s brother Richard Barlow (Dennis Lotis), who is himself a teacher at the college, quickly gets into an argument with Driscoll, as his own hard-headed lack of credulity and interest in the historical events clashes with Driscoll’s preoccupation, as Driscoll notes the historical record suggests the lingering influence of malefic forces in Whitewood, which also happens to be his home town. Nan is despite Bill and Richard’s scorn so interested in the seemingly irrational subject that she tells them and Driscoll she wants to travel through New England during the term break and collect independent research on the topic, including a visit to Whitewood. Driscoll gives her directions and the name of a hotel in the town to stay at, and Nan heads off after promising to meet them at a cousin’s house in two weeks. On the rough and misty road to the town, Nan picks up a hitchhiker, a tall, plummy, sardonic man heading to Whitewood and who just happens to look just like the long-ago Jethrow Keane.

Nan is briefly perplexed when, upon arrival in Whitewood, Jethrow seems to slip out of the car without her noticing, but she soon books into the hotel, The Raven’s Inn, run by Mrs Newless, who also happens to look rather like Elizabeth Selwyn. The hotel has a plaque announcing it stands on the spot where Selwyn was burned. The town of Whitewood is a quiet, fog-shrouded place with a neglected church, a blind and ominously advising pastor, Russell (Norman MacOwan), and silent, glaring citizenry. Nan does encounter the blessedly normal Pat Russell (Betta St. John), the granddaughter of the pastor, who’s just recently returned to the town and opened an antique store. Pat digs out a book from her collection entitled A Treatise on Devil Worship in New England in trying to satisfy Nan’s researching needs, and Nan arranges to borrow it for the duration of her stay in town. Back in the hotel, however, Nan begins noticing strange incidents, as bracelet she likes to where vanishes, a dead bird skewered with a pin turns up in a drawer, and a sprig of woodbine appears on her door, all details that happen to recur in the historical documents recounting the human sacrifices Selwyn and her coven liked to perform. And there’s also the little matter of some eerie singing emanating up through the floorboards. When she finds the key to the old hatch in the floor of her room dangling from her window, Nan descends into a labyrinth under the church, where she’s suddenly grabbed by some robed and hooded figures and dragged to a ceremonial altar, where she’s laid prostrate and stabbed to death by Mrs Newless, who confirms she is actually Selwyn.

The pleasures of The City of the Dead walk a line that can strike many as campy, with its air of threadbare charm and almost comically oblivious characters. A brief vignette of Stephenson parading about in 1950s bodice and garters is a flash of sexploitation that’s both amusingly obvious as a ploy and dated in that women often wear less on the main street of my town these days. But it’s the kind of movie that’s held together by the conviction everyone involved wields. The ploy of setting up Nan as the apparent heroine of the movie and then killing her off sees The City of the Dead often compared with the looming example of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Given the filming and release of the two movies it seems unlikely Psycho had direct influence – Moxey’s film started shooting before Hitchcock’s – making The City of the Dead more significant and ballsy in this move. Psycho nonetheless announced a great genre sea-change, auguring in today’s general norm for the horror movie, built around lurking killers dealing out gruesome demises in modern, mundane locales, rather than the classical arsenal of supernatural monsters and stylised historical, foreign, or psychologised settings. The City of the Dead mediates the two ages with its simple but sufficient storyline. Another of the film’s obvious quirks is being a British film set in the US, which had been done before and is chiefly notable in this case for Lee doing a surprisingly good accent. Devil worshipper movies had been relatively uncommon before the late 1950s in Horror cinema except in when safely relegated to exoticised forms like the many misconstruing takes on voodoo, in part because they tended to be stringently censored, testified by the edits The City of the Dead underwent and the controversy sparked by The Devil Rides Out (1967) a few years later. One of the few previous major examples was Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934).

The City of the Dead avoids playing out as a kind of drive-in take on The Crucible insofar as it makes no bones about the supernatural nature of the events, even as it offers a sliver of sympathy for the devil as the viciousness of the repression of the witches scarcely seems preferable to any evil they can deal out, and the result is perpetually dooming Whitewood to subsist as a canker subsisting into the officially purified modern world. Witchcraft as a subject was a potentially fruitful one for genre filmmakers as it tackled the basic schism between the audience’s scepticism, backed up modern psychological and political understanding, pitted against a chthonic credulity. Despite the American setting, The City of the Dead also gave birth to a stratum of peculiarly British horror films involving heroes stumbling into strange communities where arcane cults and mores rule, a plot pattern that neatly encompasses a very British sense of the tension between communal mores and upsetting outsiders, modernity disturbing the balanced tensions underlying a fantasy vision of a settled, ordered, homey past. On came straight-laced variations like Devils of Darkness (1965) and The Witches (1966), ambitious and wilfully odd variations in The Wicker Man (1973) and Kill List (2011), and lampoons like Bloodbath at the House of Death (1983) and Hot Fuzz (2007).

Moxey had been born in Argentina, one port of call where his family had depots for their coal and steel business. Moxey underwent training at Sandhurst, the famous British military college, and fought in World War II, but left the armed forces after the war already world-weary at 20, and decided to instead realise a childhood ambition to get into show business. Moxey only made a handful of feature films in his long career, but they include several cultish gems of low-budget filmmaking, as he followed The City of the Dead up with the fascinatingly antiheroic World War II spy story A Foxhole in Cairo (1960), the gritty Hands of Orlac variation Hands of a Stranger (1964), and a string of Edgar Wallace-derived thrillers including Circus of Fear (1966), a thriller enlivened by Moxey’s flashes of visual wit, including Klaus Kinski dying with a huge leering mask in his grip, a great opening sequence depicting an armoured car robbery on Tower Bridge, and a general glaze of drizzly, moody British charm. When the low-budget UK movie scene began to dry up, cheating Moxey of any further chance of breaking out into higher-profile movies, he returned to work entirely in television and soon moved to Hollywood, working on shows as varied and beloved as The Saint, The Avengers, Mission: Impossible, Mannix, Hawaii 5-0, Magnum, P.I., Miami Vice, Murder, She Wrote, and the pilot episode of Charlie’s Angels, as well a number of telemovies. His signal success in the latter field was the hugely popular telemovie The Night Stalker (1972), which birthed the cult TV series starring Darren McGavin.

Moxey’s great eye, backed up by Desmond Dickinson’s excellent black-and-white photography, and ability to conjure a powerful atmosphere with minimal elements, are clear right from the opening shot in the Whitewood town square, coals burning in a metal brazier looming in the foreground with sketchy shapes of a bent tree and town buildings just visible through the heavy pall of fog, out of which resolves a mob of period Puritans on the warpath. Moxey then carefully orchestrates the ritual condemnation that follows as Selwyn is first seen, dragged out from the prison with her imperiously sensual and boding gaze cast down upon the momentarily arrested villagers: the camera scans their stricken faces for a moment before settling on one woman who hisses, “Witch!” and earns a gob of spit from Selwyn in the eye, kicking off the baying abuse again. When Selwyn sets eyes on the waiting stake she stares in dread, and Moxey has two more harridans of the village loom in the frame, one pointing to it and crying, “Burn the witch!” Selwyn’s terror, crying out Jethrow’s name, and the puckered rage of the villagers, puts one immediately on the imminent victim’s side, but Selwyn is nonetheless exactly what they think she is, and she makes her pact with Lucifer as the flames lick her flanks (much of her vow was cut out of the film’s American release under the title Horror Hotel). Moxey cranks up the note of murderous hysteria as his camera tilts and swoops up to the variably frantic, blood-lusting, wailing faces of the crowd whilst Selwyn, sensing her plea has been heard, begins to laugh with malefic joy.

The rest of the film’s first half revolves around Nan as the blonde, creamy-skinned co-ed falling under the spell of a mystique of devilry and atavistic forces more powerful and enticing in their dank vividness than the bright lights of the world she knows. The film’s cramped budget, as is often the case, is cleverly employed to help build the drama’s sequestered mood, from the relative normality of Driscoll’s lecture through to Nan’s encounters with the odd citizens of Whitewood, where the signs of lurking threat and oneiric eccentricity seem so overt one could rightly expect any visitor to run away screaming. The undercurrent of weird intensity Driscoll forges in his lecture is lightened by Bill’s jokes (“I’ll bring the matches.”) which feel, in their way, distantly anticipatory of the self-aware tone of something like Scream (1996). The recurring use of Ken Jones’ jazz music for diegetic music is an amusing touch but also one that Moxey uses with a degree of cleverness, managing to seem both drowsily seductive whilst also letting sounds of the ordinary, current world infiltrate Whitewood and its surrounds. Moxey’s glimpses of a number of couples dancing in the cramped lobby of the Raven’s Inn recalls the similarly eerie and stylised glimpses of a stygian dance in Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) just as the story recalls Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943). Moxey makes the dance, to which Nan is invited by Selwyn in her guise as Mrs Newless, seem at once romantically inviting and quietly creepy and unreal, like a show put on Nan’s sake, which it is: when Nan emerges from her room after getting dressed, the crowd is revealed to have suddenly broken up, the music they were dancing to abruptly turned off: Nan’s solitude suddenly feels dangerous. The only potential ally Nan seems to have is the chambermaid Lottie (Ann Beach), who cannot speak but still tries to warn her, only to be foiled because Selwyn keeps a close and threatening watch on her.

Whitewood seems a place where the sun never comes up and the fog never lifts, a cute way to mask production shortcomings but also providing a deliciously iconic genre film setting. Whitewood is the essential Horror movie ghost town, a throwback to the purely stylised, set-bound variety of horror movie setting once seen in the Universal Pictures horror movies like The Wolf Man (1941), the kind where ground mist ran like rivers and twisted trees loomed like withered crones doing interpretive dance. Roger Corman seems to have emulated it for his The Haunted Palace (1963), and indeed whilst The City of the Dead isn’t based on H.P. Lovecraft like the Corman film, it is perhaps the first movie to capture a Lovecraftian mood in its vision of a fetid, forgotten corner of New England where strange cabals meet and dark forces hold sway. John Carpenter probably likewise remembered it for his own Lovecraftian riff, In The Mouth of Madness (1994). Moxey’s great images continue, most particularly in a recurring shot where first Nan and then Pat drive along the road to Whitewood in the foggy dark and see Jethrow picked out in their car headlights, standing at a crossroads, filmed from within the car: technically clever, this motif also helps Moxey firm up the urban legend texture he’s chasing, presenting the kind of frisson that’s come over anyone who’s ever driven along a dark country road at night. The shot occurs a third and fourth time when Barlow and then Bill drive to Whitewood, but do not see Jethrow. Bill instead sees the looming supernatural vision of the laughing Selwyn on the stake, so disorienting that he swerves off the road and crashes into a tree.

The build-up to Nan’s sacrifice is particularly good in vignettes like the dance and Nan’s spacy, somnambulant voice as she recognises it’s Candlemas Eve, one of the two favoured nights for witches’ Sabbaths. The noted plot detail that Nan’s stolen broach allows the witches to “call” her at least papers over the question as to why someone as smart and well-versed in this lore as Nan doesn’t flee the moment a clear pattern starts accumulating. Of course, there’s another dimension to this, in Nan’s desire to know, with all its quasi-erotic underpinnings. She falls under the intellectual spell of the charismatic Driscoll, inspiring her to travel to a place that represents the dark reservoir of history’s septic sense of sexual knowledge and falls prey to waiting fiends, amongst whose number Driscoll eventually reveals himself, his face becoming visible under the cowl as he and Selwyn lean over Nan just before killing her. Later Driscoll is depicted performing a minor sacrifice with a caged bird in a sanctum in back of his academic office, a moment to which Lee applies all of his grim-browed conviction. Driscoll delivers a memorably simple epigram in riposte to Barlow’s forceful insistence on rationalism: “The basis of fairy tales is reality. The basis of reality is fairy tales.” One significant common and immediate precursor for The City of the Dead and Night of the Eagle is Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957), with both films mimicking that film’s heavy emphasis on the clash between realist and mystical worldviews, with a particular pertinence to the way Horror as a genre suddenly came roaring back at the time after the craze for science fiction earlier in the decade. In turn, Val Lewton’s films with Tourneur and others in the 1940s hover in the background, and The City of the Dead channels something of a Lewton feel in the moments quiet and subtle strangeness in pockets of detached reality, the dialogue between moments of quiet, even hominess, and pressing threat.

Moxey performs a jagged jump cut from Selwyn bringing the knife down on Nan to her and Barlow’s cousin slicing her birthday cake at a party in her house, where Barlow and Bill wait with increasing unease for Nan. Once it becomes clear she’s late, they set in motion an investigation, and some detectives visit The Raven’s Inn. Selwyn-as-Newless claims Nan left without any notice without paying her bill. Pat reclaims the book she loaned Nan from Selwyn and later travels to Barlow and Driscoll’s college to talk with them, and after Driscoll fails to throw her off her talk with Barlow and Bill convinces them to head to Whitewood and look around for themselves. On the return journey Pat picks up Jethrow, making it clear she’s the anointed sacrifice for the Witches’ Sabbath, a particularly apt victim for the witches as she’s a descendent of the original, cursed villagers. After crashing thanks to the tormenting vision whilst following Barlow to Whitewood, Bill crawls out of his wrecked and burning car and stumbles towards the town, whilst Barlow himself checks into the Raven’s Inn and then encounters Reverend Russell, who explains how the walking dead now control the town, but also recounts the formula for their destruction. Lottie is murdered by Jethrow and Selwyn when they catch her trying to leave a note for Barlow, whilst Bill manages despite his grave injuries to stumble into town just as Barlow finds Pat kidnapped and the Reverend dead.

The climax is suitably breathless and gripping as Moxey brings things home with ingenious cheapjack hype. Barlow searches for Pat, stumbling across Lottie’s corpse hidden in the labyrinth under the hotel, before managing to snatch Pat away from the sacrificial altar. The pair flee up into the cemetery only to be met there by more of the coven: in a deliciously campy-creepy shot, the Satanists lift their clawing hands from under their swathing robes to grab hold of their prey. Forced to wait until “the hour of thirteen,” that is an extra toll of the bell at one a.m., before they can kill Pat and claim another year’s extension on their undead existence, the coven are obliged to stand around just long enough for Bill, obedient to Barlow’s shouted instructions, to pluck out a crucifix from the cemetery ground and wield it as a weapon of faith whilst Barlows pronounces a ritual adjure. Even a notably good bit of knife-throwing from Selwyn, planting her sacrificial dagger in Bill’s back, doesn’t put him down for good, and the coven all erupt in flames screaming as the shadow of the cross falls on them, save Selwyn herself, who flees. Bill finally dies muttering Nan’s name. Barlow and Pat chase Selwyn, only to find her in The Raven’s Inn under the plaque describing her death, where she’s become a burned and blackened corpse.

Despite its many intersecting lines of story and theme, Night of the Eagle takes a very different approach. Night of the Eagle is more obviously made in the mould of Night of the Demon, down to its title (and borrowing that film’s cast member Reginald Beckwith), but it’s actually an adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s 1943 novel Conjure Wife. Leiber’s book, one of the most famous and influential horror novels ever written, had already been adapted once as the Weird Woman (1944), a solid entry in the enjoyable series of B-movies starring Lon Chaney Jr and made under the imprimatur of the radio show Inner Sanctum. Baxt redrafted the script, which had originally been written by the lauded genre writers Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont as a collaborative project: both men were connected at the time with the TV series The Twilight Zone and Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe film series. Matheson and Beaumont’s love of the novel acknowledged how it presented an ideal model for blending mundane realism and suggestive supernatural menace, and it’s had the same impact on writers since. The movie project was first taken up by Corman’s usual backers at American International Pictures, and farmed out to their regular production partners Anglo-Amalgamated. When the film was released in the US by AIP under the title Burn, Witch, Burn!, it came with an awful opening narration provided by the inimitable Paul Frees and new opening credits that removed Baxt’s name.

The Scots-born director Sidney Hayers, who worked as a top-flight film editor in the 1950s, made his directing debut with The White Trap (1959) and quickly forayed in horror with the impressively Sadean Circus of Horrors (1959). Hayers’ directing career ultimately proved disappointing, rarely living up to the remarkable control of Night of the Eagle, although he would later make the striking wilderness drama The Trap (1966), starring Oliver Reed and Rita Tushingham, which would transfer Night of the Eagle’s fascination with marriage as a kind of loving war in depicting a rudely matched couple surviving life on the frontier, and the lurid but effectively disturbing and atmospheric rapist-on-the-loose thriller In The Devil’s Garden, aka Assault (1971), a film that would return to a school setting with a rather darker and more direct approach to the idea of fetid institutional repression and vicious abuse feeding each-other. Hayers had a potent feel for percolating sexual hysteria and agents of monstrous will, both of which inform Night of the Eagle. The film commences with protagonist Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde), a professor in a small, unnamed English college, lecturing his psychology students in matters of ritual belief and custom, in the face of which he maintains a ruthless scepticism, writing the phrase “I Do Not Believe” on the blackboard, a missive that will turn significant much later, but is offered here as a kind of reverse magic spell to exorcise all demons of irrationalism. Norman is much enjoyed by his students, most particularly his smitten prize pupil Margaret Abbott (Judith Stott), much to the aggravation of her boyfriend Fred Jennings (Bill Mitchell), a much less enthusiastic student.

Norman’s male colleagues Lindsay Carr (Colin Gordon) and Harvey Sawtelle (Anthony Nicholls) are enormously admiring of their young but brilliant and energetic colleague, and it seems he’s going to land the chair of their department. Harvey’s wife Evelyn (Kathleen Byron) is teeth-grindingly angry about Norman’s seemingly inevitable rise. Her sister Flora (Margaret Johnston) is Lindsay’s wife and also a professor at the college as well as Margaret’s guardian, and also walks with a limp. She seems more sanguine, and likes commenting on it all with teasing, ironic distance. The three couples and the college dean Gunnison (Beckwith) and his wife come to Taylor’s house for a night playing bridge, where the factional tensions register despite the air of genteel entertainment, with Norman’s wife Tansy (Janet Blair) playing the expert hostess but registering a certain jumpiness. Once their visitors leave and Norman goes to bed, Tansy makes excuses to begin a frantic search of the living room. Eventually she finds a tiny fetish figure pinned within a lampshade. She burns this and, relieved, heads off to bed. But Norman begins to find many similar items around the house, these all planted by Tansy herself, including a jar full of dead spiders. When he confronts Tansy about them she tries to dismiss them as keepsakes of a journey they once took to Jamaica to investigate voodoo practices, but Norman is unconvinced. Eventually the fraying and desperate Tansy admits they’re totems she uses to ward off forces of black magic she believes are constantly assaulting them, combating them using methods she was taught by a bokor named Carubias and which she first turned to when Norman almost died in an accident. Norman forces Tansy to burn them all, despite her conviction this will leave them undefended.

The key beauty of Leiber’s novel was the contrast between the insular, seemingly placid, rather dry world of the little academic grove that was its setting and the invocation of vast, powerful, inchoate forces, strongly anticipating some of Shirley Jackson’s fiction, and the clever way this contrast was joined to a story that played witty games with the basic theme expressed by the old saying, “Behind every great man is a good woman.” Leiber took that idea to an extreme in the tale of Tansy warding off the magical attacks by her fellow campus wives in an ongoing contest to fuel success or impose ruination. Night of the Eagle simplifies this aspect to a degree, as here Tansy only has one real foe, although the faculty politics are still drawn with amusing, stinging accuracy, particularly once Norman is exposed to malevolence involving jealousy and misdirected passion which could well manifest normally in any school setting, and the potential professional dangers that can befall a man like Norman Taylor feel all accurate, perhaps even more today than in 1961. Once Norman makes Tansy burn all her protections, including one she keeps in a locket with her photo that results, with particularly ominous import, in the photo being burnt too, nothing seems to change, and Tansy is briefly willing to entertain the possibility she really was being ruled by her anxiety. But soon events begin to rattle Norman’s assurance: he gets a lewd phone call from Margaret, is almost run down by a lorry as he enters the college, and is threatened by Fred. When Margaret, in a volatile state, tells Flora that Norman raped her, Norman confronts her and gets her to retract her statement, and she flees after tearfully telling Norman, “I hate you!” Shortly after, Fred pulls a gun on him. Norman manages to get it away from him, but the swiftly mounting number of sudden calamities starts to make Norman think Tansy had a point after all.

Night of the Eagle offers similar characterisations to The City of the Dead – Margaret and Fred resemble Nan and Bill as your basic Jane and Joe College, if here pushed through the gates of self-combusting neurosis by forces beyond their ken. Norman is a more high-powered and abrasive version of Barlow, similarly dismissive of the supernatural but far more zealous about his self-image as an unshakably lucid mind. Hayers presents him as the acme of a certain ideal of a high modernist intellectual, fascinated by the meaning behind cultural arcana but also dismissive and contemptuous of any belief system contrary to his own, his own neo-puritan project one of ridding the world of its shadows. The crux of the drama is the relationship between Norman and Tansy, as an only slightly intensified study in heterosexual marriage as both a meeting and clash of personalities and ways of seeing and knowing. Norman’s aggressive confrontation of Tansy’s beliefs ape a familiar pattern in horror movies, of the hard-headed man correcting female inanities, reacting to Tansy’s supernatural dabbling as if she were a closet gambler or alcoholic, only to teasingly invert the certainties as Norman becomes increasingly frantic and unmoored. Equally often in horror movies the anxious woman proves correct, and here that turn is given hyperbolic force. The phrase “It got on my nerves” recurs in the movie, and Hayers conveys that feeling of locked-in, up-close, frayed-nerve portent, from the early scene of Tansy searching for the hidden fetish she knows her enemy has brought into her home with increasingly febrile purpose. Cinematographer Reginald Wyer’s zoom lensing keeps pushing closer and collapsing perspective to ratchet up the visual impression of things pressing in, whilst William Alwyn’s score unsubtly but effectively matches with its own agitating force.

The title comes from the imposing eagle sculpture that sits ominously perched above the main entrance to the college, directly outside the window of Flora’s office: for much of the film it seems the emblem of the many raptors eager to peck over Norman’s career bones. The aura of threat becomes more immediate when Norman receives a tape recording of one of his lectures about supernal ritual practice as a psychological phenomenon, and tries to make Tansy listen to it. His professorial words dismissing all irrational forces are undercut by a strange, undulating sound dubbed in underneath it, a sound Tansy recognises as a sorcerous invocation. She switches the tape recorder off, much to Norman’s anger, but the phone rings and the same sound comes through the receiver, and some monstrous form that releases a grotesque shriek thuds against the front door. Tansy manages to yank the phone cord from its connection just as Norman opens the door, and after being buffeted by a blast of the rainy night sees the caller has vanished. Here, as elsewhere in the film, Hayers generates remarkable hysterical energy that builds swiftly from baseline calm, aided by Wyngarde and Blair’s terrific performances, his hawkish features and hatchet-like force of personality colliding with her bright-eyed and vibrant anxiety, and the forceful editing rhythm betraying Hayers’ background.

Now entirely convinced that the enemy means to destroy Norman, Tansy gives him a laced drink and makes him recite words that will transfer any curse onto her, as a selfless gesture in her hope to die in his place: such gestures are the flipside to the tension between the couple as each is finally revealed to be willing to go to any length to save the other. When Norman awakens he finds Tansy gone, and figures she’s heading to the seaside cottage they own. He manages to catch up with the bus she’s taken but crashes off the road when forced to swerve out of the way of an oncoming truck. One the lorry drivers is a black West Indian immigrant (Frank Singuineau), and Norman awakens to focus on the totemic necklace around his neck, an odd little touch that obviously harkens back to Tansy’s embrace of magic in Jamaica whilst also suggesting the manifold ocean of belief Norman floats upon in a manner that’s correlated with the reverse colonisation of England, the nascent multicultural state. Norman shrugs off his injuries and continues in a hire car, but is too late to reach the cottage before nightfall.

Hayers keeps the tension mounting as the narrative begins to move with breathless pace, and delivers another great little set-piece here: Norman, realising he might find Tansy in the local churchyard thanks to a note he finds in one of her occult books, dashes along the moonlit beach, unknowingly passing Tansy who sits blank-eyed and motionless behind a boulder. When he reaches the churchyard cemetery, he claws his way through the old and overgrown tombstones and enters into a crypt. There Norman desperately performs a ritual to reclaim Tansy, whilst Hayers cuts to her robotically walking into the ocean as if to drown herself under the evil influence. Finally Norman gives up in a flurry of despair, only to turn and see Tansy standing in the crypt doorway, sodden, rigid, and staring-eyed, still under trance but having obeyed Norman’s ritual call back out of the water. Hayers manages here to deploy classical genre imagery – the craggy coastline and the lonely cottage, the gnarled and ancient graveyard, the creepy sight of the mesmerised Tansy returned – but still not any sign of literalised menace. Reginald Wyer’s grainy-gleaming, chiaroscuro photography and tight lensing enforce the tunnel-visioned reality of the characters as well as heightening the drama whilst also remaining real-feeling.

Indeed, Night of the Eagle manages something that Night of the Demon, thanks to that film’s producer-enforced glimpses of the demon, never quite got to do, in that it occurs in a grey zone of credulity: if the mood of The City of the Dead feels Lewton-like, Night of the Eagle is closer to Lewton’s ideal on a dramatic level in keeping things ambiguous. As dialogue throughout in the film hints, everything we see might be the result of entangled hypnotism, hysteria, and coincidence, even after the spectacular climax, although of course that kind of influence wielded with a malicious design could be scarcely less frightening than the occult. Norman takes Tansy to a doctor (Norman Bird) whilst she’s still under a powerful influence, but she manages to utter a few words, asking him to take her home. There, she wakes up, and everything seems perfectly normal again. But once Norman goes to sleep, Tansy goes into a trance again, leaves bed, goes into the kitchen, selects a big knife, and sets out to stab Norman to death. Norman manages to fight her off and notices that as she’s being compelled she walks with a limp, and he realises that Flora is the sender. After Tansy collapses and Norman puts her to bed, he goes to the college and seeks proof, finding a photo of him and Tansy attached to a fetish.

When Flora enters her office, Norman confronts her and puts on the tape recording of his lecture with the incantation, forcing her to shut it off. Flora then drives Norman to flee by building a deck of cards and affecting to set fire to the Taylors’ house; at that moment their cat sets off a conflagration that begins burning down the house with Tansy in it. Attentive filmgoers might then and now have expected Byron, so specifically associated with her role as the crazed nun in Black Narcissus (1947), to prove the agent of satanic mischief, but her presence proves a red herring. Johnston’s grinning malevolence nonetheless galvanises the climax, the sardonic quality her Flora had in the early scenes now touched with hints of lunacy and sadism as well as proud pleasure as she teases Norman about having his cage rattled by “just a silly woman,” revelling in the puppeteer power she can wield over people and institutions in compensation for her debilitation and general sexism, although of course she has no qualms about making her own ward a plaything for her own ends.

Flora turns the tape recording on and broadcasts it over the school loudspeaker system, and Norman begins to see the eagle statue seeming to relocate itself constantly as he tries to leave the college grounds. The statue soon comes fully to life, a colossal bird of prey swooping from on high with eyes set on ripping him to pieces. Ripping open Norman’s jacket and a chunk from the head of a statute, the beast soon crashes through the college front door when Norman tries to lock it out. Even here, as the film seems to finally indulge special effects and a literal manifestation of the sorcerer’s art, Hayers is judicious and the effects are good with smart use of a real bird and models, apart from one unfortunate shot where the string tied to guide the bird is visible. Wyngarde’s performance, which hints at the edge of hysterical energy in Norman in the first scene and gradates it throughout, reaches its tousled, sweat-caked apogee as Norman is reduced to screaming terror, backing against the blackboard in his classroom as the bird corners him there, his squirming incidentally erasing the word “not” from the slogan he wrote there at the beginning.

Norman is saved from the manifestation by Flora’s husband bemusedly entering her office and complaining about the noise on the loudspeakers: Lindsay switches the audio back to the office, alarming Flora as she plainly fears the curse might rebound, whilst for Norman the eagle and all signs of its visitation suddenly vanish. This again opens up the possibility that the eagle was a hallucination provoked by some mesmeric quality of the tape recording. Norman dashes home and finds the house on fire, but Tansy is safe amongst the onlookers. Meanwhile as Flora and Lindsay leave the college the eagle statue suddenly toppled and crashes down upon her, killing her instantly, the reel of audio tape unspooling across the gravel from her corpse. A nicely ironic blowback comeuppance that still offers the tiniest fig leaf for clinging on to a rational explanation. In any event Night of the Eagle is a superlative little movie, one that could still use more attention, and it both compliments and contrasts The City of the Dead perfectly as a relic of a time when all you really needed to make a good horror movie was a fog machine and a creepy sound effect.

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Freaks (1932)

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Director: Tod Browning
Screenwriters: Willis Goldbeck (uncredited), Leon Gordon (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

The Horror film and controversy have long been conjoined in general understanding, culminating in moments like the infamous “video nasty” debate in the UK in the 1980s. The concern that Horror movies are colonising minds with perverting images, unleashing barely-quelled inner demons, or lending some strange flesh to dark fantasies usually kept secret if not safe, is one that can still drive popular argument. Whilst there were undoubtedly controversial movies before it, Tod Browning’s Freaks is nonetheless the great antecedent of such debates. Freaks is the most fabled, notorious, and elusive of great Horror movies from the first half of the Twentieth century, and such a description could also be applied to its creator. Browning stands as likely the first true auteur of the Hollywood wing of Horror cinema, reaching his apogee of fame with 1931’s Dracula and its follow-up, Freaks. Browning, born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1880 with the real given names of Charles Albert, was the son of a successful builder. At age 16 did what many a youngster has dreamt of, and ran away to join the circus, which had become his obsession. After stints as a roustabout, a barker, a contortionist, a dancer and entertainer on Mississippi riverboats, a magician, a clown, and an acrobat, he achieved notoriety with his buried-alive act, “The Living Hypnotic Corpse,” before moving on to become a vaudeville performer, and adopted his perennial nickname because it was the German word for death. Short leap then to acting in movies, making his debut at age 29, with a vast amount of life and performing experience already behind him. Browning joined D.W. Griffith’s company. In 1915, Browning was involved in a car crash that cost a fellow actor’s life and nearly killed him. The crash was the direct result of the drinking problem that would dog Browning throughout his life and ultimately foil his great talent.

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During his recovery Browning started working behind the camera for Griffith, including as an assistant director as well as playing a small role in Intolerance (1916), but his previous speciality in comedy now gave way to a brooding obsession with physical deformity and ominous melodramas preoccupied with revenge, culpability, illusion, and social exile. Browning’s early feature directing work is hazy, with some uncertainty whether some works he was credited with were ever even actually shot, but he was certainly on the move by 1917. He found success at Universal Pictures directing a string of exotic melodramas starring Priscilla Dean, one of the top leading ladies of the time. Whilst making The Wicked Darling (1919), in which Dean played a slum girl forced into crime, Browning met the star collaborator he’s best-remembered for working with, Lon Chaney, who played Dean’s victimiser in the film. Chaney was already well-known for his incredible feats of physical transformation, and within a few years he had become one of the biggest stars of the silent age, with his make-up and prosthetic effects often bordering on the masochistic, and he became the perfect living canvas for Browning to act out his dark fantasies with. Their true alliance began with 1921’s Outside The Law, in which Browning cast Chaney in a double role as a slimy gangland villain and a kindly Chinese man, with one character murdering the other. Browning and Chaney owed much to the creative indulgence of young producing whiz-kid at MGM Irving Thalberg, and Chaney like Browning had an immediate personal grounding for his fascination with physical difference, as the son of deaf parents.

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Browning and Chaney’s work together included a string of successful, near-legendary movies including The Unholy Three (1925) and its 1930 sound remake, The Unknown (1926), the gimmicky vampire movie London After Midnight (1926), and the lurid exotic thriller West of Zanzibar (1928). Chaney’s death from throat cancer in 1930 ended the partnership just as Browning was gearing up for Dracula, intended as another Chaney vehicle. Browning’s huge success with Dracula carried multiple ironies. Chaney’s death and pressure from Universal Pictures, obliging him to stick close to the template of the stage adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel once its star Béla Lugosi was cast in the lead, contributed to Browning’s reportedly erratic involvement the shoot, with its director of photography Karl Freund gaining credit for rescuing the picture. Dracula’s enormous, zeitgeist-altering success papered over many sins, and Browning was brought back to MGM, where he had made most of his Chaney vehicles: despite the studio’s general resistance to making horror films, the genre’s enormous profitability couldn’t be ignored, and Browning, as a known quantity, seemed the man to make them. There Browning made Freaks, with proved another career-damaging fiasco, before his impudent, self-reflexive remake of London After Midnight, Mark of the Vampire (1935) and The Devil-Doll (1936), his last major horror movies, mixed in with other movies, before his last feature work, 1939’s Miracles For Sale.

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Today Dracula’s reputation has shrunk greatly, perhaps a little too much: the film’s aesthetic of eerie stillness and somnambulist dread convey much of the book’s flavour in spite of the clumsy elements transposed from the stage. The central performances from Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan as Professor Van Helsing are still perfect, and even its oddly evasive approach to physical horror gives it a unique charge, as if grazing the edges of truly obscene things. Freaks is nonetheless easily Browning’s best sound film, and very likely his masterpiece. Browning took inspiration from the short story “Spurs” by Tod Robbins, the tale of a circus bareback rider named Jeanne who marries a dwarf named Jacques for his money whilst actually loving her performing partner Simon. Browning kept little of Robbins’ story except for the specific triangle mentioned above and the fateful act of the bride carrying her husband at their wedding feast. Freaks’ calamitous reception from studio, censors, and eventual audience is an irreducible part of its legend: Thalberg backed the film right through filming but disastrous preview screenings made him cut half an hour from the 90 minute film, and when the film proved only intermittently popular it sold on to the infamous early independent exploitation filmmaker and distributor Dwaine Esper, who added a hyping moralistic scroll to the opening. Today the opening with the MGM logo and the single title card have been restored: the title card proves to be a poster torn through by a hand in a brusque and potent gesture that confirms this film will be something unusual.

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The flashback structure harkens back to Robert Wiene’s ever-influential Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1919), and the films share a circus setting and inside-out sense of social reality. A sideshow barker (Murray Kinnell) entices an audience with the strange and shocking story of one of his human exhibits, offering a salutary message to the crowd of gawkers: “You laughed at them, shuddered at them, and yet but for the accident of birth, you might be even as they are,” and notes that, “Their code is a law unto themselves – offend one and you offend them all.” The barker then moves to the side of a pit wherein resides “the most astounding living monstrosity of all time,..she was once a beautiful woman.” The twinned concepts of beauty and monstrosity are immediately tethered in the language of spectacle and showbiz, each necessary to the successful purveying of entertainment-as-business and which also provides a way of living to those who fall at either extreme of the dichotomy. The opening gives away the ultimate twist of the story, as Browning dissolves from the barker noting this particular former beauty was once called “the peacock of the air” to the image of Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) perched on an acrobatic swing high under the circus big top. The peacock of the air eventually becomes the fowl in the pit in Browning’s particularly savage and punitive take on the familiar tradition of dark storytelling, one built around a morality play climaxing with highly ironic punishment. Robbins’ gleefully sadistic tale resolved with Jacques murdering Simon and forcing his wife to carry him right across France like the horses she used to ride, digging spurs into her back all the way.

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The contradiction built into Freaks as a film, the simultaneous demystification and humanist embrace of the “freaks” themselves and the ultimate segue into their nightmarish eruption as a force of strange vengeance, is complex and not entirely free of qualms. But it’s also very much the film’s ultimate subject: the imagery of the freaks chasing down their prey with grim and homicidal purpose ought to be scarcely more disturbing ultimately than the many instances of contempt and verbal abuse turned on them throughout the preceding hour of cinema, with many of the “normal” people portrayed as attractive but loathsome and the “freaks” as a warm, proud, individualistic bunch. An early scene sees a gamekeeper, Jean (Michael Visaroff) leading his estate owner employer (Albert Conti) through forest, gabbling about glimpsing unnatural creatures dancing in stygian scenes in the depths of the estate, only to find the freaks picnicking and at play under the care of Madame Tetrallini (Rose Dione), their mother figure amongst the circus employees. When the intruders disturb their play the “children” as Tetrallini calls them scurry to her in fright despite her admonitions, and the estate owner contrasts the rabid offence of his gamekeeper by graciously giving them permission to stay and not acting at all perturbed. Browning quickly makes the freaks seem normal and defines them as innocents who have to buy their moments in the sun with an expected edge of risk of reviling and rejection.

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Browning and his screenwriters Willis Goldbeck and Leon Gordon offer the stable of freaks in the unnamed circus, which is travelling through what seems to be rural France that is the setting for the entire film, as both a world apart but also as just another coherent working community, granted collective integrity and independence precisely and ironically because of their peculiarity. There’s no interest in the circus folks’ interactions with patrons, with the estate owner and the groundskeeper the only outsiders glimpsed, and they’re sufficient to represent the world. Much of Freaks is indeed more an oddball, gentle sitcom rather than a horror-thriller, as Browning emphasises the interactions between the circus denizens, some of it encompassing the casual cruelty of the usual towards the unusual, but most of it mediated with the gentler by-play between characters, but with the actual plot simmering away from the earliest frames of the flashback, as Hans (Harry Earles), a midget in the circus, stares longingly up at Cleopatra as she dangles from the highwires, with his fiancé Frieda (Daisy Earles) gazing on helplessly as she registers his smitten distraction. Hans is one of Browning’s most habitual character types, a figure who feels his humanity all the more ferociously despite not being perceived as an entire person. “They don’t realise that I’m a man, with the same feelings they have.” Hans reacts with aggrieved vehemence when he feels his sovereignty and his instinct for protectiveness have been offended, shrugging off the familiar mockery of most of the circus hands but standing up with unbridled rage when they extend the same mockery to Cleopatra when she’s playing up to him.

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Browning’s films with Chaney fixated on figures who both invite and deal out mortification and whose perversities and neuroses are written in the flesh, most particularly the antihero Alonzo of The Unknown who elects to have his arms surgically removed so he can emerge from a life of hiding, an act designed to make real his extended performance, and Dead Legs of West of Zanzibar, whose physical paralysis is explicitly connected with his moral rot and desire to debase others, as he drives his adopted daughter into forced prostitution in a campaign of revenge. In Dracula he mostly passed off the imagery conveying such grotesquery onto the world surrounding the characters, particularly in the visions of Dracula’s castle, alive with seething, crawling, scuttling animal life, a visual motif he repeated in Mark of the Vampire as well as proffering a multilayered, self-satirising joke about role-playing and the deceptive appeal of woolly-minded narratives. Later, in The Devil-Doll, Browning found a new metaphor for exploring the artist figure and his literal human puppets as vehicles of delight and menace. Freaks as traits in common with all of these but with an inevitable caveat: Browning’s stars are entirely themselves, requiring no make-up or fakery, presenting a wing of show business ironically defined by inescapable reality rather than hiding from it or rewriting it at whim.

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Hans also possesses another quality Browning constantly gave his protagonists, a grim need to ultimately confront the moment when he will be exposed and humiliated. Earles had played the leader of the gang in The Unholy Three, where he gleefully tore to shreds the enforced childish image for midget actors by playing a vicious, dictatorial master criminal (that film was also based on a Tod Robbins story). The relationship between Hans and Frieda is a core facet of the drama and one where Browning takes their emotional experiences with absolute seriousness and psychological attentiveness, allowing Harry both dignity in his transgressive passion, seeing nothing sick or aberrant about his erotic needs stoked by Cleopatra, even as he enacts the arc of a thousand chumps in noir films like, say, Elisha Cook in The Killing (1956), haplessly under the sway of a beautiful, heartless woman who nonetheless hooks him not just by appealing to basic erotic urges but to his complex, masochistic streak, the desire for aspiration and degradation constantly cohabiting. Frieda’s maternally styled affection for Hans is the kind of selflessly suffering love that fuelled a thousand romantic melodramas in turn. Browning allows the couple a depth of pathos and emotional intricacy, and his shooting is attentive in visual language to such intensity and schismatic feeling, as when he has Hans abruptly turn from Frieda and walk out through a door where he hovers beyond the threshold, the two contained by frames within frames in their different spaces of angst and longing. “To me you’re a man, but to her you’re only something to laugh at.” Ironically the casting of the two Earles, who were actually brother and sister, is just about the kinkiest touch in the whole movie.

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Browning presents both authorial and audience surrogates in the clown Phroso (Wallace Ford) and performing seal trainer Venus (Leila Hyams), who form a quirky romantic coupling as the story unfolds and maintain an entirely equable friendship with the freaks. They contrast many of the other circus workers, like the two jerks who tease the “half-woman half-man” Josephine Joseph. Josephine Joseph fancies the circus strongman Hercules (Henry Victor), who is first introduced breaking up with Venus, who he kicks out of his trailer. In one of the film’s many, notable pre-Production Code touches, they’re depicted quite directly as being merely shacked up together. After storming out on Hercules, Venus pauses to launch into a rhetorical harangue at Phroso, who listens in bewilderment as he strips off his performing costume, before suddenly flaring up, chasing after her, and delivering his own by way of angry consolation. Phroso is Browning’s artist hero, granted an extra degree of awareness in some things but slightly too distracted by his creative process in others, as when he gets too absorbed in building a prop for a gag he thinks up to remember to go on a date with Venus – Browning offers a good visual gag as it seem Phroso is having a bath out in the open before the unabashed Venus, only to pull back and reveal Phoros has cut the bottom out of the bath and has mounted it on wheels, and is only stripped to the waist. This nonetheless segues into Phroso and Venus’ bashful first kiss. Phroso’s acts notably depend on him playing games with his own physical identity, making a quip, “You should’ve seen me before my operation,” and dressing in costume that allow him to suddenly seem headless. Rather than aspiring towards the appearance of strength and normality, his theatrical project is to be more like the freaks.

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Much of the film’s midsection is similarly given over to portraying the peculiarities of life in this subculture, laced with hints of perverse experience, particularly in the case of the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet (Daisy and Violet Hilton). Daisy is engaged to marry one of the circus performers, the stammering Roscoe (Rosco Ates), who regards Violet with the kind of pecking hostility many a husband would turn on a sister-in-law constantly hanging around, and it’s made clear the sisters share sensations: Roscoe warns Violet off drinking too much because he doesn’t want a hungover wife. Later, famously, when Violet becomes engaged to a lothario, he kisses her and Daisy quivers in shared ecstasy. This follows Phroso and Venus’ kiss and precedes Roscoe and Phroso glimpsing Hans leaving Cleopatra’s trailer, in a roundelay of vignettes grazing the edge of the peculiar erotic life of the circus denizens, although in one case of course the appearances are deceiving. Roscoe is introduced to the fiancé, who graciously tells his soon-to-be-brother-in-law, “You must come to see us sometime.” Roscoe’s anxiety about being unmanned by his unusual marriage is at once rich and understandable considering makes a living himself through blurred gender identity, dressing up every night as a “Roman maiden” in some act. The comedy of manners plays out simultaneous to the darker drama. Roscoe makes Phroso crack up when he comments that Cleopatra “must be going on a diet.” In fact Hercules quickly catches Cleopatra’s eye and becomes her conspiratorial lover, and when he glimpses Josephine Joseph gazing on in lovelorn disquiet, he punches them in the face, much to Cleopatra’s amusement. This is actually the most overt and shocking moment of violence actually seen in the film.

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The palpable physical reality of the performers makes Freaks as much an historical document as a movie. Some critics have theorised Browning intended Freaks as a riposte to the eugenics movement, then at a height in the US, by showcasing the ingenuity and physical genius of his performers, as well as their personalities. Certainly the film’s general pitch counters the kind of thinking behind such a movement, seeing the specific worth in the variously abled performers, and comprehending their often amazing physical attributes, which provide Browning with much of his movie. One wry scene sees an acrobat yammer on about his act to Prince Randian, ‘The Living Torso,’ who has no arms or legs but patiently lights himself a cigarette purely with his mouth, after he which he announces proudly, “I can do anything with my mouth.” Johnny Eck, ‘the Half-Boy,’ born with sacral agenenis leaving him without legs, trots about on his hands with an astounding sense of motion and balance. ‘The Armless Girl’ Frances O’Connor, primly and precisely eating and drinking entirely with her toes whilst chatting with Minnie Woolsey, aka Koo Koo ‘The Bird Girl’. Three people with microcephaly, or pinheads as they often were called at the time, appear in the film, including one marvellous vignette of Phroso jesting with the performer Schlitzie (who was male but is referred to in the film as female), in a scene that breaks down any barrier between the movie and capturing Ford and Schlitzie interacting, Schlitzie’s bashful delight as Ford teasing her about her new dress before Schlitzie becomes mock-angry with him when he offers to buy one of the others a big hat, giving him a slap, and then a reassuring pat.

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Freaks’ European setting, despite the large number of very American actors in the movie and the strong aura they keep alive through the film from the American circus community Browning had known, situates it squarely in the emerging Hollywood gothic horror movement’s air of displaced and cloistered reality. That thin wedge of divorcement allows Freaks, like the previous year’s Frankenstein, to present a thorny commentary on social norms without seeming to. Like James Whale’s film it revolves around communal rejection of the “abnormal” and climaxes with an act of mob justice, but where Whale at that point was could only signal a degree of empathy for the monster but had to ultimately side with the wider forces of society that sets out to destroy the destructive reject, Browning wholeheartedly embraces the outsider perspective with all attendant social and political meaning. His freaks are a community apart, both entrapped by the circus but also protected and allowed to be functional within it. That communal identity and integrity have appeal, and Hans, despite becoming independently wealthy thanks to an inheritance, still sticks with the circus because to leave it would be to leave society, a notion confirmed at the very end, although by then it’s an act of choice. Once Cleopatra hears about Hans’ inheritance, it encourages her to move from merely profiting from Hans’ occasional gifts and gaining private entertainment from his ardour, to thinking about claiming his riches through marrying him and then killing him. Frieda accidentally reveals Hans’ fortune to Cleopatra when she makes a pathetic entreaty to the willowy beauty not to play around with Hans.

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The ready potential for a circus setting as a metaphor for moviemaking and the attendant industry of beauty-manufacturing is something other filmmakers haven’t neglected, from Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show On Earth (1952) to Sidney Hayers’ Circus of Horrors (1960). Freaks goes deeper and bites harder in beholding the circus as the ideal amphitheatre for such preoccupations, taking to an extreme the negotiation between an audience fused from painful flesh and taunting dreams and its objects of illusory beauty, and the will to tear those objects to pieces when they prove human. For Browning, who had been a part of the larger but in many ways just as insular and segregated world of working entertainment for his entire life, the freaks are a particular example of a loving human commune, and obliges the audience to identify with them as surrogates in the midst of the Depression and the usual business of surviving in the world. Cleopatra and Hercules are mockeries of the usual business of movie stardom and its obliged identification with the usual winners in society, the strong and the beautiful, surviving like vampires off the figurative and literal theft of others’ time, money, and aspirations, and repaying with contempt and violence. Baclanova’s casting played on her other best-known role in The Man Who Laughs (1926), where she played the fetishist Duchess turned on by caressing the edges of ugliness. Here by contrast she plays a person pretending to indifferent to physical difference, but with a similarly extreme evocation of sensual cruelty and egotism.

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The film’s infamous apotheosis comes when Hans and Cleopatra are married and hold a celebration attended by the friends of the bride, which in Cleopatra’s case is just Hercules, and Hans, being his sideshow pals. Browning even gives the episode a title card, as in a silent film, to give it special import: “The Wedding Feast.” The circus folk all do their party piece for the sake of entertainment in the giddily cheerful moment, from Koo Koo doing a weird shimmying dance on the table-top, to a sword-swallower and fire-eater doing their bits. Cleopatra wastes no time in beginning her husband’s slow death as she poisons the wine he’s drinking, and gets swiftly drunk to the point where she scarcely conceals her passion for Hercules and treats Hans with patronising good-humour, pinching his cheeks and pouring him cups of poison. One of the dwarves, Angeleno (Angelo Rossitto), proposes they hold the ritual induction for a new member of their circular with a loving cup, which he passes around whilst trotting along on the feast table, and the freaks begin chanting, “One of us! One of us! Gooble Gobble, gooble gobble!” The song is both childlike and goofy but also nagging and perturbing in its monotone repetition, the sound of the community rejoicing in their own weirdness, a veil dropped. The amplifying rhythm of the editing, both vision and sound, blends the chanting with Cleopatra and Hercules’ raucous laughter into a hysterical gestalt, until Hercules comments to Cleopatra, “They’re going to make you one of them, my big duck!”

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Squinting drunkenly to behold the proceedings more closely, Cleopatra’s amusement abruptly wanes, as she stands and beholds the scene now as a stygian vortex threatening to consume her, and she reacts with sudden, noisy rage, bellowing, “You dirty, slimy freaks! Freaks! Freaks!” The horrendous force of Cleopatra’s abuse and rage lands like a collective slap to the face, and she flings the contents of the cup at them, driving them out. When Hans protests she’s made him feel ashamed, Hercules and Cleopatra compound the humiliation as the strongman scoops him up and deposits Hans on Cleopatra’s shoulders, and as she forcibly piggybacks him around the ring Hercules grabs up a trumpet and begins blowing it merrily, at which point Browning mercifully fades out. This scene sees the film’s uneasy aesthetic, with its observant, often wry tone interspersed with darker notes of mockery and bigotry, abruptly cohere. The way the feast builds in intensity into a spectacle of rejection and cruelty is almost without parallel, treading the finest of lines in evoking both sides of the equation, the group enthusiasm of the freaks in their ritual of acceptance and the repulsion of Cleopatra. She comprehends the ritual’s meaning as a reversal, however malice-free, of the familiar power dynamic: suddenly the secret lode of force is not located in being superior to or even accepting of the freaks, but in their act of accepting, and Cleopatra experiences the moment as, in quintessential Browning fashion, deep humiliation. The party degenerates into a sickly mockery of family dynamics – Cleopatra and Hercules treat Hans as their child in order to reclaim their authority.

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The next day, the two “normal” people make their apologies to Hans, using their drunkenness as an excuse and all but demanding acceptance of the apology because it was all “just a joke.” Which points to the key quality Freaks remains painfully relevant even as its setting and most of its particulars have faded into vague cultural memory and surreal hyperbole, in its comprehension of the little games of dominion and dominance involving things like who has the right to laugh at who enacted all day, every day in society, with the swaggering bullies playing the aggrieved parties in being obliged to act contrite. Hans, troubled and ill, soon collapses as Cleopatra’s poisoning takes effect, and a doctor only diagnoses ptomaine poisoning. Nonetheless the wedding feast has alerted the other freaks that something sleazy is going on, and they form a silent, attentive cabal who now focus their collective attention of proceedings, hovering with silent, boding interest. Their staring presence discourages Hercules from assaulting Venus when she confronts him about her suspicions. Nonetheless he and Cleopatra agree that Venus must be silenced. Meanwhile it becomes clear that far from oblivious to what the couple are trying to do to him, Hans is now aware he’s being poisoned, as Angeleno visits him as he feigns sickness, and Hans mimics Cleopatra’s assuring ministrations with a queasy smile.  As the circus caravan heads on to another town along a muddy road amidst a thunderstorm, Cleopatra continues to poison the bedridden Hans whilst Hercules moves break into Venus’ trailer and kill her.

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Here, Browning finally shifts into outright horror imagery and an eruption of action that, whilst hardly arbitrary, nonetheless presents a radical stylistic and thematic reversal appropriate to the theme of tables-turned vengeance. The idea of the “code of the freaks” as mooted by the narrating barker, whilst certainly codswallop invented for the film, nonetheless has the pricking insistence of a campfire tale, an idea promulgated to frighten the young and the foolish into being a tiny bit mindful of what they say and do, and might have had some roots in the real culture of the circus. The thunderstorm provides pummelling rain and flashes of lightning that nicely punctuate the dramatic pivot of the entire movie, when Hans suddenly sits up his bed as Cleopatra tries to ply him with poison and demands the bottle she has in her pocket. Browning weaves an increasingly odd, tense, eerie mood, as Hans’ friends hover and Angeleno blows a creepy tune on an ocarina, before the menace becomes overt, as the visitors unveil a jack-knife and a gun. Baclanova handles the moment when the penny drops with memorable poise, freezing with suddenly wide, glaring eyes and vanishing fake smile as Hans demands the poison bottle. Meanwhile Hercules slips out of his trailer and drops back to attack Venus in hers, whilst Frieda, having eavesdropped on Hercules and Cleopatra making plans, warning Phroso of his intentions. Hercules smashes through the door of Venus’ trailer, but Phroso manages to catch him and the two struggle in the mud. Hercules is skewered with a knife by a dwarf as he throttles Phroso, and the wounded strongman squirms away in the mud as the freaks advance on him. Cleopatra’s trailer hits a broken branch and breaks an axle. Cleopatra flees screaming into the rainy night, chased by Hans and the other little people.

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Freaks’ ploy of sustaining a tone to proceedings that seems at first to belong to a different genre but also calmly sets the scene for a radical shift, and eschewing overt terror and the stylisation of the Expressionist-style Horror film until an eruption of jaggedly ugly violence, has proven a source of real power over the intervening decades, power other genre filmmakers have channelled. Movies like The Wicker Man (1973) or Audition (1999) with their similarly jarring shifts from sustained eccentricity to hideous reckonings might still exist without it, but its influence feels crucial, as well as its less immediate echoes through art-house filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, who would repeatedly pay tribute to its rarefied evocation of the circus as a place apart from society where social laws become both relaxed and microcosmic. Here too are inklings of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1978), with its complete entrance into a nightmare zone where the humanity of the misbegotten and mangled becomes too terrible to bear. The finale, discomfortingly, depends on the sudden reversal of the way the freaks have been presented until now: where before the film normalised them, suddenly Browning offers them scuttling through the rain and mud with insinuating motion, turned to pure nightmare fuel.

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On the one hand, this seems to contradict the message of the film until this point, as Browning literally and purposefully makes the freaks dirty and slimy as per Cleopatra’s words. But the real charge of the sequence is in the spectacle of the freaks’ surrendering of their hard-won humanity for the sake of revenge, a spectacle consistent with Browning’s other works: to suddenly see even the gentle Schlitzie as an armed and dangerous being is a genuinely disturbing spectacle. To be human is to also have a dark, dangerous, wilful side as well as a sense of justice, two innate qualities that can’t always be easily separated especially with a group such as the freaks who are without recourse, and the freaks get things done as they will. The finale obviously suffered greatly from Thalberg’s editing, as well as the postscript: the extant film dissolves from the sight of Cleopatra screaming as she’s chased through the woods back to the wraparound sequence of the barker recounting the story. His concluding words embrace ambiguity, as if he’s been an unreliable narrator: “How she got that way will never be known. Some say a jealous lover. Others, that it was the code of the freaks. Others, the storm. Believe it or not, there she is.” Browning reveals what’s left of Cleopatra, now scarred, with both her legs and perhaps her tongue cut away and possibly left insane, making some sort of living jammed into a duck costume for the amusement of the crowd, left subsisting at the nexus of human and inhuman, sense and nonsense, served as erotic travesty.

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Originally, it was supposed to be made clear that this was taking place in a dime museum called Tetrallini’s Freaks and Music Hall, suggesting a move from Madame Tetrallini to give her stable a permanent home. It was also made clear that Hercules survived the freaks’ vengeance but was glimpsed singing in a high voice as another act in the museum, hinting he had been castrated. As it is, Freaks elides such clarification, and indeed, the glimpse of the mutilated Cleopatra suffices as a punch-line, with all its grim and perverted implications and final embrace of a total, hysterical devolution into dream-logic and sadistic fantasy. In some prints, the film ends with this as the appropriately ghastly last image, but there’s a coda in others depicting Hans now living in a mansion, having cut himself off from other people, only to be visited by Phroso, Venus, and Frieda. Where the barker’s narration hints at unreliability, the possibility that everything seen and heard in the account of the duck-girl’s creation is phooey, the coda renders it inarguably true. It also tries to mitigate the fact that Hans is seen amidst one of the cabal chasing Cleopatra down. Frieda assures him she knows he tried and failed to turn his friends from their dreadful punishment, and his current isolation is driven by guilt, eased finally by the couple reconciling. The coda might well have been shot by Thalberg in an attempt to mitigate the bleak splendour of the climax with a note of reassurance, and its does work to an extent, in that it gives the romantic triangle that was at the story’s heart a nominally happy ending. But nothing can quite win out over the image of the twisted, feathered Cleopatra squawking away in the sawdust…

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1980s, Auteurs, Fantasy, Horror/Eerie, War

The Keep (1983)

Director / Screenwriter: Michael Mann

By Roderick Heath

The Keep’s very first shot, as if tracing the path of a falling angel, describes a seemingly endless downwards pan, descending from grey, storm-ridden sky to jagged pine forests clinging to the flanks of soaring mountains, before finally settling on a convoy of grey-painted Wehrmacht trucks labouring their way up a narrow mountain pass, set to the throbbing, alien textures of Tangerine Dream’s score evoking both the roll of thunder and the chugging of the straining motors and mimicking the narcotising effect on the German soldiers rolling up the road. A cigarette lit in ultra-close-up, a shot of caterpillar tracks churning along the gravelly road, swooning visions of the mist-drapped mountain peaks. Immediately, director Michael Mann, making his second feature after Thief (1981), deposits the viewer within a dreamlike space, offering a classical Horror genre setting and motif in journeying from the mundane world into one of oneiric remove, but wrapped not in traditional genre style cues, but a hard shell of burgeoning 1980s high style cinema. The year, a title card informs us, is 1941, with the Nazi onslaught reaching its climax with armies closing in on Moscow. In this place, the Dinu Pass in the Carpathian Mountains, Captain Klaus Woermann, embodied in rugged, sagging melancholy by Jürgen Prochnow, leads his men into a tiny Romanian hamlet clinging to the jagged walls of the pass’s highest reaches, to occupy and garrison an enigmatic medieval fortification there.

Actually entering the village, penetrating a veil of mist to behold a medieval hamlet, sees Mann shifts to slow motion and the score to spacy, mysterious strains as Woermann surveys this piece of another, older world cut off from the sturm-und-drang of the warlike moment and, seemingly, whole other intervening centuries. And the Keep itself, a featureless trapezoidal block of grey brick, looming over the village and a deep gorge. One of Woermann’s men complains about this unimportant detail when Germany’s soldiers are near to total victory, but Woermann assures him the real fighting is over and Germany is now master of Europe: “Does that enthrall you?” he enquires with theatrical enthusiasm. Woermann’s own ambivalence over fighting in a war that most certainly does not enthral him is something that resolves even as his situation becomes ever more mysterious and terrible. Woermann and his men enter the Keep and begin setting up their garrison. But Woermann notes, however, the building is not a defensive structure, but designed like a prison. The walls are lined with 108 silvery, crucifix-like markings that the Keep’s caretaker, Alexandru (Morgan Sheppard), warns are not to be touched, a taboo he insists upon with deadly seriousness although he doesn’t know why and can’t report any bad events in the Keep save the general refusal of visitors to stay through the night: “Then what drives people out in the middle of a rainy night?” Woermann questions. “Dreams?” the caretaker replies.

Since the time of its release, The Keep could scarcely seem more benighted. Despised by F. Paul Wilson, author of its source novel, it was also soon disowned by Mann, furious at the way Paramount Pictures threw the film away after losing faith in the project. Special effects master Wally Veevers died during production, leaving the planned spectacular finale in uneditable disarray. Finally the film proved a calamitous bomb at the box office and was generally dismissed by critics, although many Horror genre fans and scholars grasped its unique and fascinating aesthetic. Mann’s active role in keeping the film hidden away, refusing to let it be released on DVD for many years, only helped its slow accruing of near-legendary mystique for anyone who could catch it on TV or had access to its early VHS and laserdisc releases. The Keep has evolved into one of my absolute favourite films, and its evident flaws are an indivisible part of its compelling makeup. After success with the telemovie The Jericho Mile (1979), Mann made a terrific debut as a feature filmmaker with Thief, a movie that commenced Mann’s career-long aesthetic preoccupation with trying to blend classical genre cinema with a hypermodern, dramatically distilled approach, trying to place as much of the weight of the storytelling and ambience fall on his rigorously constructed imagery that often nudges a kind of neo-expressionistic minimalism. This approach generally suits his preference for tough, stoic heroes, beings who still have some of the toey instinctiveness of forest animals even in the densest urban jungle.

When, for his second film, Mann chose to make a Horror movie, he took a similarly essentialist approach, trying to make a movie describing the idea of a Horror movie as much as the thing itself. He stripped out almost all of the background lore of Wilson’s novel and trying to convey a sense of dread and lurking menace through careful visualisation, to make a fable of pure menace and mood. Mann shot most of The Keep in Shepperton Studios whilst building the Romanian village and the Keep’s exterior in a Welsh quarry, but Mann’s notorious later habit of causing budget overruns with his exacting shooting style was apparently already emerging. But, again as he would later, Mann’s exacting reach for effect justifies itself. The early shots see him weaving his style in a series of elusive directorial flourishes: that opening shot conveys place and time but relentlessly pushes the eye down a vertical access, giving little sense of the surrounds. A lake surface mirrors back the sky, turning the grand space into a trap. Woermann’s first glimpses of the village are dreamy, punch-drunk, barely liminal. The Keep itself is hardly glimpsed apart from the looming grey gateway, with only two proper wide exterior shots of the structure in the whole film. This approach lets Mann skirt location and special effects shortfalls, of course, but also conditions the viewer to a zone unmoored from any sure sense of geography and spatial stability, just as Woermann beholds a scene out of the Middle Ages, unmoored in time.

The Keep itself presents a cultural, architectural, and military conundrum: the locals who maintain it have no real idea of how old it is, who pays for its upkeep, or what its purpose it ever served. Woermann’s soldierly eye notices that for what seems to be a defensive structure it’s built inside out, with easily scalable exterior walls and the largest, strongest stone blocks inside, more like a prison. Rumours start to grip Woermann’s more avaricious men, including Pvt Lutz (John Vine), that the crosses are made of silver and other treasures might be hidden in the Keep: Lutz tries to break off one of the crosses only to receive watch detail for a week from the irate Woermann. During the night, as Steiner stands bored and lonely watch, one of the crosses begins emitting an eerily bright blue light, and looking closer at it Lutz realises that this cross does indeed seem to be silver. He fetches another man on watch, Otto (Jona Jones), and the two men claw out the great granite block the cross is affixed to, revealing a narrow tunnel that Lutz crawls into. Mann’s stylistic oddness continues in this sequence, as he distorts the avaricious franticness of the two soldiers with slow-motion shots of them running to and fro amidst hazily backlit shots, all bound together in strange manner by the use of Tangerine Dream’s theme “Logos” on the soundtrack, imbuing a propulsive mood, if retaining a spacy, alien texture inherent in that classic synthesiser sound, of a unit with Mann’s recurrent passion with intensely rhythmic image-audio match-ups, the flagrant anachronism of the scoring heightening the disorientating texture.

Lutz crawls into the passage and dislodges a block, only to almost fall into a vast, dark space beyond, saved because he had Otto tie a strap to his waist. In one of the greatest shots in all of fantastic cinema, Mann’s camera retreats a seemingly infinite distance away from the soldier’s dwindling torch into the furthest depths of the abyss, a space which contains mysterious ruins of some ancient structures. Once the long pullback shot finally concludes, a surge of light swoops into the frame and coalesces into ball of light that rises up to meet the faint torchlight. Otto is almost pulled into the tunnel by a sudden, violent jerking, and when he drags his comrade out, finds only a steaming, headless trunk, before being flung away with bone-shattering force as a mysterious power floods out of the shaft and infests the Keep. Mann cuts with headlong force to the antipathetic force stirred to action: Glaeken Trismegestus (Scott Glenn), awakening in a bed somewhere in Greece, eyes glowing and surging energy drawing into his body, stirred by the eruption of the entity in the Keep. Glaekus rises from bed, packs his belongings including a long wooden case, and heads to the docks of Piraeus where he bribes a fishing boat captain to take him to the Romanian coast: Mann films the boat’s voyage into dawn light in a languorously beautiful vignette.

Walking the line between intriguing hints and frustrating vagueness is always a tricky art, and for many Mann went too far with The Keep. But it’s precisely the film’s allusive sense of arcane and ageless struggle, and its near-ethereal, carefully reductive vision of perfect forms of good and evil, that makes it something unique, the hints of cosmic battles and unknowable history at the heart of the story, a vast mythic-emblematic Manichaeism pointedly set against the more immediate and definable evil of Nazism, the heart of darkness nested inside the European übermenschen dream. Paramount might well have hoped the film would prove a Horror movie variant on the supernatural anti-Nazi revenge fantasy of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Most broadly and obviously, the film presents a variation on the classic motif of a haunted castle. Wilson’s novel presented a Lovecraft-tinted rewrite of that founding tome of modern Horror, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a work that’s retained much of its popularity for the way, published just before the dawn of the 20th century, it charted so many of the oncoming age’s faultlines. Wilson made more literal the connection between Dracula and the paranoid impression of dread power and evil rising in the east of Europe it articulated, by moving the setting to World War II and drawing together crosscurrents of folklore and politics at the moment.

Mann, whilst divesting much of the novel’s superstructure, had his own take on the same idea evidently in mind. In particular, Mann seemed interested in investigating through visual and thematic refrains the link suggested by German film historian Siegfried Krakauer in his book From Caligari to Hitler between the psychic anxieties communicated in the imagery of classic German Expressionist films and the oncoming fascist mentality. The German Expressionist era was replete with contradictions, like future Nazi Paul Wegener’s obsession with the Jewish myth of the Golem that caused him to make two films on the subject, and the Nazi leaders’ worship of the monumental aesthetic laid down by the half-Jewish Fritz Lang. Krakauer’s ideas had their highly dubious aspect, but Mann found how to put them to dynamic use, making The Keep perhaps the closest thing anyone has made to a truly modern take on the Expressionist Horror style, and tethering it to a story that specifically offers meditation on the Nazi mindset and questions of how to resist it. The story purposefully unfolds simultaneous to WWII’s supreme tipping point of the furthest Nazi advance during the invasion of the Soviet Union, and the drama enacted in the Keep is both far more intimate than the war and far larger, a confrontation of primeval forces.

Mann’s casting notably has the Eastern European characters speak with American accents, to emphasise their distinctness from the Germans, who are played by a mix of British, Irish, and German actors. Mann also shifted away from the novel’s use of vampirism, which he found silly: once the entity trapped within the grand cavern is unleashed into the Keep, it begins killing Woermann’s men by absorbing their life essence, leaving charred and withered corpses. The entity, appearing after a time as a writhing pillar of fog around a stem of skeletal parts and blood vessels, builds substance out of its harvested victims. The idea of a monster slowly assembling itself a physical form echoes back to Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and would be used again in Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy (1999). Woermann’s messages of distress soon bring not relocation as he hopes, but an SS Einstaz Kommando detachment under the command of Sturmbahnführer Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne), which steams into the village, takes a number of hostages, and shoots them before their horrified fellow villagers. Kaempffer promises of more retaliation against them if any more Germans are killed. The irate Woermann, who is ordered by Kaempffer not to interfere, points out that Kaempffer has just killed citizens of an allied state.

Kaempffer nonetheless begins using all his arrogant prowess as a bully and killer to get to the bottom of the mystery, using terror tactics to root out presumed partisans. “Something else is killing us,” Woermann states in riposte: “And if it doesn’t care about the lives of three villagers? If it is like you? Then does your fear work?” When some mysterious words appear carved in a wall of the Keep near another dead soldier, the village priest, Father Mikhail Fonescu (Robert Prosky) recognises that the words are not written in any living language, and suggests the only way Kaempffer might get them translated is to find Theodore Cuza (Ian McKellen), a scholar and expert in Romanian history and linguistics, who grew up in the village and once made a study of the Keep. Problem: Cuza is Jewish, and has recently been rounded up for deportation. Cuza and his daughter Eva (Alberta Watson) are at that moment sitting in a depot with other Jews, Gypsies and sundry undesirables awaiting transportation. Cuza is crippled by a degenerative disease that makes him look far older than he really is, and Eva acts as his carer.

Kaempffer’s command brings them both to the Keep, where the SS commander taunts Cuza with talk of place he was just about to be taken to, a place with two doors out, one of them a chimney: “So you had better find a way to be of use to me in three days.” Cuza recognises the language of the writing on the wall as a language dead for 500 years, and reads, “I will be free,” a message Kaempffer immediately interprets as a rebel declaration. Woermann tries to assure the Cuzas that he might be able to sneak them out of the Keep to a safe hiding place if they can buy enough time by keeping Kaempffer satisfied: “But then again you may not,” Eva comments sceptically. Eva soon attracts the lascivious eye of a couple of the German soldiers, who track her through the Keep after she comes to get food in the mess, and assault her in a dark, lonely corridor. Mann pulls off another of his weird yet potent visual flourishes as he pans down from Eva’s body, suspended between the two would-be rapists, to the leather boot of one soldier, an almost fetishistic contrast of the soft and feminine with macho brutality. As with the appeal to greed that helped set it free, the assault on Eva only stimulates the entity’s appetite as well as its cunning: the entity, now a ball of fire and smoke reminiscent of the one that pursues the hero of Night of the Demon (1957), surges through the Keep’s innards and falls on the soldiers, who disintegrate messily as the entity absorbs them.

Mann lingers on the image of the entity, now with two burning red eye-like orbs attached to a glowing brain stem, peering out of a writhing pillar of mist, carrying Eva with tender-seeming care back to her and her father’s room, a particularly strange distillation of the classic image of the monster and the maiden, whilst the scoring imbues the vision with the overtone of angelic deliverance. The stunned Cuza nonetheless retains his wit and will sufficiently to tell the entity to release his daughter. The entity speaks to Cuza, accusing him of collaborating with the Nazis: Cuza responds vehemently that he’d do anything to stop them, so the entity reaches out and touches him, giving him a shock of energy. When he regains consciousness, Cuza finds that he’s been restored to full health and mobility, and he realises why quickly enough: the entity wants his help to escape the Keep, which still entraps him. When he again encounters the entity, whose name, Molasar (Michael Carter), is only uttered once in the film, the mysterious being refers to the Jews as “my people” and vows to destroy the Nazis if Cuza will help him escape the Keep: Cuza agrees to find a mysterious energy source hidden in the grand cavern, an object Molasar describes as the source of his power and must be removed if he is to leave the Keep’s confines.

Mann’s enigmatic approach to the entity and the supernatural drama emphasises the humans in between ultimate good and evil as enacting gradations. “You believe in Gods, I’ll believe in men,’ Cuza tells Fonescu, and yet both material and emblematic conflicts have to play out to their bitter end. Where Thief had mooted Mann’s fascination for self-enclosed, self-directing protagonists, The Keep introduced his other career-long obsession, one with with doppelgangers, characters sharing similar traits and characters who often find they have surprising kinships, yet are doomed to clash violently because they’ve become, or were born, disciples of opposing creeds. It’s a preoccupation Mann would notably take into Manhunter, which revolves around the hero’s capacity to enter into the mindset of his repulsive quarries, and Heat (1995), where the cop and criminal have more affinity for each-other than anyone else, as well as The Last of the Mohicans (1991), where the heroes and villains are linked but also perfectly distinguished by their responses to loss of home and habitat. Mann would extend his recurrent imagery and implications to the point where he’d shoot Chris Hemsworth in Blackhat (2015) in a way that would make him look strikingly similar to Glenn in this film. In The Keep Mann’s preoccupation is presented in a set of generically rigid yet unstable binaries: Woermann and Kaempffer, representing Nazi Germany’s armed forces and yet divided by completely different characters and philosophies, contrasted with the atheist Cuza and Orthodox priest Fonescu, who’s desperate to do anything to keep his learned friend safe, and gives Cuza a crucifix as a gesture of protective feeling: Cuza hands the cross on to Woermann. In the course of The Keep, the link between the overt evil of the Nazis, particularly Kaempffer, and the entity as manifestation and overlord of their diseased ideals, is constantly reiterated; Woermann likens the twisted psyches of the Nazis to the illogical forms of the Keep’s architecture, and the entity itself no mere stand-in for their sick fantasies but the secret source of them.

As the film unfolds the affinities evolve and twist: Fonescu, under the influence of the evil in the Keep, degenerates into a ranting fanaticism for his creed like Kaempffer, whilst Cuza’s physical prostration is mimicked by Woermann’s moral impotence. At the same time the shaded oppositions cast Woermann as a pawn of the necessities of patriotism in the same way the entity turns Cuza into his Faustian representative: Cuza’s desire to smash the Nazis is realised but as he flexes his fist in his new strength he unconsciously mimics a fascist salute. Behind each set of mirroring protagonists, the eternal champions of light and dark, converging in the Keep. Glenn’s Glaeken is glimpsed making his way to the Dinu Pass, frightening and intimidating a pair of Romanian border guards at a checkpoint when his eyes again flash with brilliant energy as he warns them not to touch the case he has strapped to his motorcycle, a marvellously eerie vignette. Fittingly for a character intended as the pure incarnation of good, the otherworldly Glaeken is also presented as the ne plus ultra of Mannian hero figures: mostly silent, he dominates purely by corporeal presence and baleful charisma, communicated by a stare that seems to x-ray people even when not radiating supernatural energy. Mann had Glenn base his character’s odd, halting, ritualistic speaking style on the vocalisation of electronic musician Laurie Anderson. Glaeken turns up in the village at last making claim to a room in the inn which has been promised to Eva, after Woermann and Cuza outmanoeuvre Kaempffer in getting her out of the Keep. Glaeken the eternal warrior seems to have been left to wander the earth until needed to exterminate Molasar once and for all, and he quickly seduces Eva.

Mann’s debt to William Friedkin as a source of influence on his style – one that would reverse for To Live and Die In L.A. (1986), much to Mann’s displeasure – is apparent in The Keep through borrowing of Tangerine Dream’s pulsing, estranging sonic textures and a visual preoccupation with machines in motion from Sorcerer (1977), and subsuming that film’s subtler sense of atavistic powers working behind the mask of inanimate yet strangely motivated things. Mann’s style is its own thing, that said, to a radical degree. Mann contrives glimpses of grotesque and perplexing things, like the discovery of a dead soldier under the carved words comes in an obliquely framed glimpse of the man’s head fused into the wall, one staring eye amidst a charred black face, and Eva realising she can’t see Glaeken’s reflection in a mirror in what seems a perfectly intimate moment. The colour palette of Alex Thompson’s brilliant photography is mostly reduced to a sprawl of slate greys and blacks and misty whites, tellingly broken up only by the red of the SS Nazi armbands and the glowing eyes of Molasar. The film is full of disorientating jump cuts and discordant camera angles, work to sever a clear sense of chronology and context, as precise measures of time and place cease to be relevant as if within an explosion of the innermost Id, whilst relating back to classic genre cinema and the sense imbued by works from Lang through to Val Lewton of a world gone mad: indeed the cumulative sense of isolated paranoia closely resembles Isle of the Dead (1945), with which it shares a wartime setting and invocation of imminent doom in an isolated locale that seems to have slipped off the edge of the world’s physical and psychic maps.

Molasar meanwhile poses as a saviour to please and manipulate Cuza, who’s desperate to find a way to halt the Nazi onslaught: the Molasar costume, designed by Enki Bilal, an artist for the storied sci-fi and fantasy comic book Heavy Metal, was designed to be reminiscent of Wegener’s Golem with its dark, lumpen, bulbous, stony form, and Molasar, like the Golem of myth, promises to be a righteous weapon defending the faithful and victimised, only to prove a destructive monster. Molasar needs a man like Cuza to release him because, as Glaeken later mentions when he confronts Cuza, only an uncorrupted soul can even approach the imprisoning talisman. McKellen, who after playing D.H. Lawrence in Priest of Love (1981) was having a brief moment as a major film actor long before his eventual resurgence in the mid-1990s, wields a noticeably plummy American accent, but ultimately gives a galvanic, impressively corporal performance in playing an intellectual hero who nonetheless experiences his world physically in his relationship with his wrecked body and frustrated will, and whose transfiguration from angry cripple to empowered and determined avenger has suggestions of both spiritual and erotic overtones – “He touched my body!” he tells Eva in describing his encounter with Molasar. This echoes again in Glaeken’s seduction of Eva, an act that has the flavour of ritual, the lovers become vessels connecting the immortal and mortal, sacred and earthly, flesh and alien substance, culminating in the couple forming themselves into a cruciform.

Prochnow was undoubtedly handed the part of Woermann because of his similar role as the intelligent and humane U-boat captain fighting for an evil cause in Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (1981), although Woermann’s ultimately quite a different character, and Prochnow gives a subtly apposite performance. Where the captain was endlessly tough and resourceful in defence of his men and his command whilst maintain open cynicism for their cause, Woermann is already bursting at the seams when he arrives at the Keep, haunted by witnessing SS men slaughtering people in Poznan, and by the wish he’d fought in the international brigades in Spain and had taken a stand against Nazism before it consumed his and everyone else’s lives. His punishment for his failures of nerve is to be stricken with ineffectiveness in protecting his men, relieved only by upbraiding the icily revolted Kaempffer, who ultimately diagnoses Woermann in turn with “the debilitating German disease – sentimental talk.” Woermann describes Kaempffer’s version of strength as having become literal in the Keep, a force of evil beyond imagining, the manifestation of all the sick psyches that have been given guns and carte blanche to slaughter. The clashes between Woermann and Kaempffer are unusually potent rhetorical vignettes thanks in part to the intensity of the two performers, inhabiting archetypal roles, the classic liberal and the perfect fascist: Woermann ferocious in his denunciations of evil but lacking the necessary edge to be truly effective, Kaempffer all too willing to do anything to make the Nazi ideal real, and willing to murder anyone who stands in opposition, including, ultimately, Woermann.

Their clash reaches its climax when Kaempffer furiously shoots Woermann in the back, just as Woermann, hearing his men screaming as Molasar assaults them, grabs up Fonescu’s cross, and he dies with it in his bloody hands. Kaempffer, plucking the cross from Woermann’s bloody hands, heads out into Keep’s atrium only to find all the remaining Germans killed, some fused into the walls, others scattered in smouldering chunks across the floor, their war machines twisted and melted, as if Molasar has become some Picasso-like modern artist working in the medium of stone, steel, and flesh to create mangled interpretations of warfare. Kaempffer is confronted by Molasar, causing him to drop to the ground wailing for Jesus to protect him, brandishing the crucifix. Molasar seems momentarily afraid of the icon, which resembles the talisman that holds him in the keep, so Kaempffer gathers up enough of his customary arrogacne to stand and face the thing. “What are you?” he demands. “Where do you come from?” the amused hulk asks: “I am you.” He takes the cross from Kaempffer, crushes it, and casually sucks the life from him with the same pitiless ease with which Kaempffer murdered, the Nazi releasing a bone-chilling shriek as he does. This is a brilliant moment where even the utterly despicable Kaempffer earns a flash of cringe-inducing empathy in the face of such pure, inhuman malevolence.

Mann’s hope to make a parable about fascism might well have been a tad pretentious, but he succeeds within the film’s dream logic as Mann paints in visual textures the symbolic drama he’s describing. Molasar literally feeds off the darker desires in the men who release him, and in turn stirs people to more and more destructive acts. Kaempffer’s total embrace of Nazi ideology and methods makes him the human equivalent of Molasar, aiming to build “the next thousand years of history” on the bones of necessary sacrifice, but Molasar even uses Cuza’s own best qualities against him by posing as a messianic saviour figure simply by appealing to his righteous anger and hunger for revenge. The blackened, shrivelled, charred bodies of the Germans ironically resemble holocaust and atomic bomb victims, the casual victims of the war’s unleashed apocalyptic logic. Mann’s depiction of the Keep’s architecture, a strange space of uncertain angles and spaces above the mammoth, black, atavistic cavern, presents an ingenious visualisation of what Woermann describes as “twisted fantasies” of Nazism, growing out of the Nietzschean abyss, the abyss that looks back and sees right through all civilised and intelligent pretences. In this manner, Mann expands on Kracauer’s key concept of the Expressionist cinema movement as directly expressing the collective neurosis gripping Germany after World War I, which finally malformed into susceptibility to Nazism.

Mann’s concept of the Keep nods then back to the Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1919) and Metropolis (1926), films that offered their stylised physical world as discrete emanations of human will and mind, beset by insane and sclerotic sectors. The Keep’s interior recalls the cavernous zones of Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1923), and the windmill in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) where the good doctor performed his experiments, with alternation of spaces vast and cramped, soaring and warped, fashioned with rough and inhospitable brickwork. In most classic Expressionist Horror the weird world presented in them was the world nonetheless for the characters who exist in them, except notably in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari which laid down the template but also revoked it by presenting the key drama as the ravings of a madman. Mann does something similar in the opening moments of The Keep by emphasising Woermann’s act of seeing the village and the Keep, presenting his drama as subliminal, with a sense of passing through a discrete veil between waking and oneiric states, and everything encountered beyond there is operating on an unreal level. Whilst Kracauer’s thesis that Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari expressed a collective wish for a paternal dictator to restore shape to reality remains largely unconvincing, Mann puts it good use, correlating the perverse mental projections of the Expressionist style with the reality-distorting influence of Molasar. At the same time The Keep is also a movie that was, in 1983, a work defining a stylistic moment in moviemaking, which it quite obviously belongs to with its obsessive use of diffused lighting effects and backlit shots, as well as the dreamy slow motion and music: Mann follows Das Boot not just in casting Prochnow but in annexing its blithely anachronistic electronic score.

It’s often hard to exactly pinpoint in a compromised work like The Keep where exactly directorial intention and jarring interference diverge: what is apparently true is that Mann was forced to cut the film down from two hours to just over an hour and half. Eva’s swift seduction by Glaeken is often taken to be one sign of editing, but frankly it seems to me like one of the more purely Mannian elements of the film: near-instantaneous fusion of lost and needy souls is common in his movies, like John Dillinger’s swift claiming of Billie Frechette in Public Enemies (2009). There are however snippets of interaction between Eva and Glaeken in the film’s trailer that certainly suggest their scenes were cut down. The rough transition around the one-hour mark more clearly demonstrates interference. What’s presumably supposed to be the insidious infiltration of the village by Molasar’s influence comes on far too suddenly, particularly Fonescu’s pivot from kindly, good-humoured friend of Cuza to a ranting loony who barks zealous scripture at him. Soon after, in a moment difficult to parse on initial viewings Eva goes to Fonescu for aid only to find he’s sacrificed a dog on the altar of his church and is drinking its blood from a goblet. There was also a scene of Alexandru being murdered by his sons with an axe.

Given Mann’s stylisation, however, the jagged editing and resulting elisions really only reinforce the generally unmoored mood of the tale, the sense of obscene things lurking in the corner of the eye and numinous forces working relentless influence on the merely human. What was lost from the film through cutting, as well as some of the integrity of the last act, was Mann’s attempt to film the idea of evil as a miasmic influence, meant to mimic the fascist sway picking at the stitches of society and stampeding the world towards barbarian ruin. On the other hand, most of that stuff is supernal to the essential drama: Kaempffer and Woermann’s deaths transfer the weight of the story on Cuza and Eva. Moreover, it’s apparent that when faced with cutting the film, Mann often chose to jettison plot sequences to concentrate on moments commanding his bleary and submerged sense of atmosphere – that long shot of the fishing boat sailing into the dawn, for instance, kept instead of a moment taken from the book where Glaeken kills the captain of the boat who tries to doublecross him. Glenn, the top-billed actor, is nonetheless barely in The Keep for most of its first half, and even when he does arrive at the Keep he remains detached, ambiguous: authentic good is as alien as pure evil.

Glaeken seems to wield some sort of psychic power over Eva, brushing a hand over her eyes to make her sleep as they together in bed, a subtler but equally coercive force to the one Molasar wields. Glaeken senses through Magda the nature of her father’s compact with Molasar, and when Cuza takes a chance to leave the Keep with the German guards insensible under Molasar’s influence, Glaeken warns him about Molasar’s true nature and need. Cuza refuses to believe him, and drops hints about his presence to Kaempffer, who immediately sends some of his men to bring him in. When Eva frantically protests the arrest and gets into a tussle with the soldiers, Glaeken, to protect her, begins tossing the soldiers about like nine-pins, only to be machine-gunned: splotches of luminous green blood appear all over his torso and he refuses to die, until he plunges into the ravine and finishing up sprawled on a ledge where the Nazis presume him dead. Molasar’s subsequent slaughter of the remaining Germans clears the way for Cuza to descend into the cavern and locate the talisman, which he then carries back to the surface, whilst Glaeken revives and begins climbing the jagged ravine wall.

Mann offers one of his signature sequences here, a mesmerically constructed climactic running montage set to intensifying music, later exemplified by the likes of the hero’s Iron Butterfly-scored dash to the rescue in Manhunter and the clifftop chase in The Last of the Mohicans. Mann cuts between Glaeken hauling himself up the ravine face, still covered in glowing green blood (a touch notably recycled by Predator, 1986), whilst Cuza retrieves the talisman, which Molasar can’t even look at. Cuza climbs up through the cavern, a vast, eerie space filled with unknowably ancient ruins and signs of mystique-ridden history, all set music sampling operatic choruses and a church bell-like propelling rhythm. Striding down a corridor as he re-enters the Keep, Cuza’s progress is marked by the crosses on the wall glow in reaction to the talisman’s passing. Glaeken, after escaping the ravine, opens the case he carried to the Keep and removes what appears to be a simple metal tube, actually a weapon capable of destroying Molasar. This passage is one of Mann’s greatest units of filmmaking, and reaches its apotheosis as Cuza reaches the atrium, only to meet a dazed Eva, who tries to stop him removing the talisman. Molasar, watching on as the two struggle, commands Cuza to kill her and continue out.

As if in humanistic rewrite of the Abraham and Isaac myth, Cuza turns on the monster and demands of it, “Who are you that I should prove myself by killing my daughter?” before insisting that if the talisman is Molasar’s, he should be able to take it out himself. This marvellous climactic moment closes the loop on the moral drama before the supernatural battle can occur, as Cuza’s faith in men is proven right by his own deed, refuting the famous test of Abraham’s faith whilst sticking up for the nobility of the reasoning person. McKellen’s challenge to the monster, shouting “Take it!” with the ferocity of hero facing down a demon, is every bit as epic as McKellen’s confrontation in the guise of Gandalf with Balrog in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring some seventeen years later. Infuriated, Molasar reduces Cuza to his crippled state again, but before he can kill Cuza and Eva, Glaeken walks in with his cosmic bazooka, fitting the talisman into its muzzle and unleashing energy rays that charge the crosses and drive Molasar back into the Keep. Of all the sequences in The Keep the finale was the most crudely curtailed by Veever’s death, production quagmire, and Mann’s own creative uncertainty. What was intended to be an epic showdown was reduced to a straightforward scene where Glaeken, despite knowing that “when he goes, I go,” as he tells Eva earlier, nonetheless confronts Molasar with the intention of annihilating him.

Mann interpolates flash visions that hint at alien origins for Glaeken, whose physiognomy changes to match Molasar’s (Molasar already resembling Glaeken in turn in his complete form, nudging the refrain of dualistic kinship), and a close-up of his eyes as he wields the energy weapon sees a kind of mesh grid has been exposed on them. When Molasar tries to hit his foe with an energy pulse as Glaeken glances to make sure the Cuzas are safe, Glaeken responds by blasting a hole through Molasar, who returns to a formless state and is sucked back into the cavern. Glaeken, after giving a last, forlorn gesture to Eva, is then sucked in after him, disappearing through the cavern door amidst blinding white light. And yet, once again, apart from the rather jagged edit in the brief combat of the two beings, the climax feels more consistent with the movie as it stands than a more drawn-out fight would have. The proper climax of the story we’ve been told is Cuza’s challenge to Molasar, proving that Molasar cannot ultimately corrupt everyone. Glaeken’s arrival merely delivers the coup-de-grace, although this comes complete with a memorable vision of his weapon gathering power, pulling in energy with a rising whir before unleashing primeval force.

Mann instead, typically, places the weight of the scene’s power and meaning on the intensity of the gestures and visuals, particularly in Glenn’s deliberately stone-faced yet delicately plaintive characterisation as Glaeken finally proves he’s a true white knight, fearlessly eliminating the evil despite knowing it will cost him everything, leaving behind Eva screaming in dismay. A TV reedit of the film, screened a few years after The Keep’s theatrical release, sported a restored coda based on the novel’s ending, in which Eva descends into the cavern and finds Glaeken still alive there, restored to mortal form. This was excised from the theatrical release, an odd move in itself, as presumably movie studios would usually take the more clearly upbeat ending. The movie proper instead concludes on an enigmatic note, as Fonescu and other villagers, now free of the evil influence, rush to help the Cuzas, and Mann offers a final freeze frame of Eva staring back into the Keep, as if hoping, or sensing, Glaeken is still within, still existing in some form. Again, Mann’s choice here prizes evocation over literalism, with the surging, soulful music and the image of Eva capturing an iconic impression, of triumph bought at a cost, and love as strong as death. The Keep is undoubtedly an untidy, misshapen work, but it’s also a uniquely potent and densely packed work of brilliance, and to my mind close to ideal of what a Horror movie should be.

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1950s, Action-Adventure, Drama, Epic, War

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

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Director: David Lean
Screenwriters: Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson, David Lean (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

My father once told me the story of how when he was a child, he and my grandfather, who had been a professional soldier in the British Army since before World War II and remained one for a time after, went to see The Bridge on the River Kwai. They saw it in a grandiose Piccadilly movie theatre during the film’s first release, a movie experience they had to skirt one of Bertrand Russell’s ban-the-bomb marches to attend. My grandfather, who had fought in North Africa, Malta, and Burma, and survived being struck by a mortar bomb, the shrapnel from which he carried until the day he died, was normally rather disdainful of war movies, but nonetheless he emerged from The Bridge on the River Kwai extremely impressed, particularly by the climax’s realism in capturing an injury he had suffered. He wasn’t alone: the film was granted colossal success, capturing multiple Oscars and proving one of the biggest hits of the 1950s, and fatefully catapulting director David Lean into new and lasting fame as a maker of epic tales. And yet, The Bridge on the River Kwai was and is a strange kind of popular hit, a movie that mediated a crested and now waning surge of nostalgia for the war’s certainties and manifold heroic tales, and the onset of something new, more doubtful and questioning, and did so through a bleak, semi-satirical storyline wielding a edge of barbed cynicism aimed at several key mythologies of the war.

The Bridge on the River Kwai was adapted from a novel by French writer Pierre Boulle, whose peculiar, acerbic imagination would also produce a very different popular tale nonetheless sharing preoccupation with culture clashes and reversals of dominance, Planet of the Apes. Boulle, an engineer who worked in rubber plantations in what was then called French Indochina, became a spy when war with Japan broke out, only be eventually captured by Vichy collaborators and thrown into a Japanese POW camp, where he was forced to take part in the construction of the infamous Burma-Thailand Railway, where his observations of collaborating French officers would inform his eventual novel’s acidic portrayals. Boulle tried his hand at writing after he returned to France and fell on hard times, scoring an enormous breakthrough success with Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï, his third published work. In his novel, perhaps to avoid controversy with a French readership but also certainly to deploy his sardonic perspective on different forms of national and imperial arrogance contending, Boulle focused on British POWs and amalgamated the officers he remembered in the figure of an imaginary British Lieutenant-Colonel named Nicholson. The novel was brought to the screen by the entrepreneurial, Anglophiliac Polish-American producer Sam Spiegel, but the project owed its inception to writer Carl Foreman, who had left the US after writing High Noon (1952) because of blacklisting, and bought the movie rights to Boulle’s novel.

Spiegel, after considering an array of major directors including Orson Welles, eventually settled on David Lean. Lean and Foreman eventually suffered a clash of vision of Foreman, and when he pulled out of the project Foreman suggested fellow blacklisted émigré Michael Wilson to take over, whilst Lean also later said he contributed much to the script. In a stinging but fairly familiar irony when it comes to the annals of 1950s moviemaking, none of them gained screen credit, with a screenwriting Oscar eventually instead given to Boulle, who didn’t speak English. Lean was already a respected and successful director, although he had not quite been able to recapture the acclaim garnered by his early collaborations with Noel Coward, including In Which We Serve (1942) and Brief Encounter (1945), and his diptych of Charles Dickens adaptations, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), films where Lean’s rigorous filmmaking and illustrative verve were perfectly suited to his preoccupation with half-stifled, half-rampant quixotic urges. The films Lean made after that legendary run have only slowly gained the respect they deserve, particularly The Passionate Friends (1949) and Madeleine (1950), Lean’s most intimate and agonised portrayals of romantic frustration shading into acts of violence against self and others. The Sound Barrier (1952), Hobson’s Choice (1954), and Summertime (1955) all tackled characters pushing themselves to shatter boundaries that repress and stymie their capacities, with the latter film offering a mediation between the personal, domestic focus of Lean’s early films in depicting a spinster finding love during a holiday in Venice, and a fantastic liberation in a foreign clime realised in splendid colour that presaged Lean’s own emergence into the glare of international spectacle cinema.

The Bridge on the River Kwai was certainly never intended to be a documentary or true account any more than the book had been, although Boulle, working from his own hazy memory of the region where he set the book, wilfully crossed paths with some agonising events. As with the rather more populist The Great Escape (1962), based more directly on a real incident, the fame of the fictional version made the real history invoked all the more stinging for those involved in it, including the real commander of British troops who had built a bridge over the Kwae Hai river in Thailand, Lt-Col. Philip Toosey, and the Japanese commander, who Toosey defended as a relatively humane man amidst the general cynicism and degradation that marked the railway’s construction, the building of which cost upwards of 100,000 lives, mostly South Asian slave labourers but also including 12,000 POWs. The Bridge on the River Kwai’s take on imperialism, and militarism aggravated members of its cast, including Alec Guinness and James Donald, whose fretting about the alleged anti-British streak in the material contributed to the general tension that grew between Lean and his actors on set during the film’s lengthy shoot in Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon. This almost caused a permanent falling-out between Lean and Guinness who was cast as Nicholson, whose movie career Lean had vitally boosted by casting him in his Dickens films, especially when Lean kept reminding Guinness he originally wanted Charles Laughton in the role. The film’s success, and Guinness’ Oscar win, nonetheless proved irrevocably that they were a winning team.

Today some of The Bridge on the River Kwai’s original stature has been reassigned to another great antiwar film about an obsessed military leader released the same year, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. Whilst feeling both are very great films, I think The Bridge on the River Kwai is the superior work in large part because it’s more ambivalent: Kubrick’s film all but screams its humanist principles from the rooftop, where Lean’s sustains the opposing tensions between its many perspectives. The Bridge on the River Kwai’s famous early scene of the column of British POWs under Nicholson marching into the POW camp run by Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) whilst whistling the march “Colonel Bogey,” is more than just a jaunty interlude in an otherwise cruel and concerted drama: it’s an act of calculated showmanship, the first of Nicholson’s many attempts to hold his men together as a coherent team despite captivity and privation, obliging them to mark time march on the spot as they whistle. The sight is at once inspiring and more than a little sadomasochistic. The scene is also an evergreen example of Lean’s technique, his ground in editing and sense of cinema as a rhythmic thing that could stand being stretched or curtailed to any degree in service of a point. The scene has no particular dramatic necessity, and yet it illustrates everything about what we’re about to see, expostulating the essence of the drama entirely through cinematic gesture. The tune’s ear-invading catchiness officially invokes regimented yet waggish defiance. Nicholson’s stiff-necked pride and force of command over his men who play along, despite sceptical glances to one-another, is plain, as the men march in past the graves of their predecessors in this fetid little hell. Survival is the name of the game, survival must be communal, and Nicholson feels fully the lot given to him as commander to lead. Composer Malcolm’s Arnold’s counterpoint arrangement rises up to give accompaniment to the whistling, interlacing it with a sarcastically carnivalesque quality that resurges in the film’s very last scene.

Circularity is also staked out by the opening and closing shots of eagles reeling in the sky above the jungle, before Lean and his cinematographer Jack Hildyard offer sweeping helicopter shots descending into and retreating out of the greenery, the viewpoint of gods and carnivorous birds aligned in considering the mean human drama about to unfold. The opening credits unfurl over shots of Nicholson and his men, deposited at the end of the completed line by train in the middle of the jungle where desperately thin and exhausted men are working on digging cuttings, before marching through the jungle and looking down upon what is to be their new home, the River Kwai, which they’re to build a bridge across as part of the railway. Nicholson’s solution seems to be to pretend nothing is wrong, that he and his men are still on the parade ground back in old Blighty, under the comforting sway of the Union Jack rather than the Rising Sun. But Nicholson’s choice to bring his men into the camp with a show of discipline and spirit is really the first shot in a different kind of war, one where one side seems to have all the cards. Saito looks on, perhaps sensing the oncoming battle of wills and grasping the soldiers’ defiance of his particular, very different sense of honour.

The last gang of POWs kept in the camp, including the hardy, wily American Navy man Shears (William Holden), are a mostly shattered and withered remnant, many resident in the camp hospital: Shears himself has stayed strong through his talents as a scrounger and the nourishing nectar of his own cynicism. He’s introduced bribing a guard to get put on the sick list with a lighter purloined from a soldier he and another captive have just buried. Holden was plainly cast as Shears as an extension of his Oscar-winning role as J.J. Sefton in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953), although where Sefton was a misanthropist, Shears is decent, but sceptical about warfare in general, representing an articulate everyman’s perspective: Shears, who has been accepted as a Commander but is actually, secretly a ranking sailor, having put on an officer’s uniform in the hope of getting better treatment from his captors only to suffer Saito’s utter indifference to such things, presents the polar opposite to Nicholson’s governing philosophy and outlook. “I don’t mock the grave or the man,” Shears assures his comrade as he knocks a crude crucifix grave marker into the ground over the new grave, after he delivers an acerbic eulogy, just as he surely means nonetheless to mock the forces that put the man in the grave.

The first half of The Bridge on the River Kwai depicts Nicholson seeming to prove himself right as he stands up to Saito’s harshest punishments and humiliations. Nicholson determines to insist he and his men be treated according to the Geneva Convention, which in particular means resisting Saito’s insistence that the officers work with the men, because as Nicholson formulates it, “our men must always feel they are still commanded by us and not by the Japanese – so long as they have that idea to cling to they’ll be soldiers and not slaves.” The degree to which Nicholson is directed as much by snooty pride as by gallant motives is left ambiguous, although perhaps such things can never entirely be separated. Saito responds furiously to Nicholson’s defiance, smacking him on the parade ground and leaving him and his officers standing at attention through a broiling hot day. Saito tries to threaten Nicholson with shooting him and the officers, but Nicholson’s medical officer Clipton (James Donald) intervenes, warning Saito that he can’t kill all the potential witnesses in the sick bay, a move Shears has already, sullenly anticipated. But Clipton’s intervention, which uses Saito’s own invocation of his bushido against him – “Is this your soldier’s code? Murdering unarmed men?” – works.

Saito instead has Nicholson beaten and flung alone into a corrugated iron box to swelter away, whilst the other officers are similarly imprisoned. Saito doesn’t realise the moment he reveals there are limits to his methods he loses the fight. Hayakawa, who forty years earlier had been Hollywood’s most popular male actor with a niche playing cruel and destructive “exotic” lovers, made a sudden resurgence thanks to his performance as Saito. Hayakawa, who unlike Guinness got along famously with Lean, proved his charisma hadn’t entirely deserted him even though he was pushing 70 at the time, as well as his tendency to get typecast as Asiatic brutes. Hayakawa nonetheless is quite brilliant at portraying weakness hiding within apparent strength, apparent in Saito’s frantic, incompetent reaction to being challenged, and his desperately smarmy attempts to save face even whilst trying to get Nicholson to let him off the hook, before he again erupts in a quivering harangue: “I hate the British. You are defeated, but you have no shame. You are stubborn but have no pride. You endure but you have no courage.” Nicholson remains steadfast: even when Clipton eventually talks Saito into letting him attend to him in the hot box, he finds Nicholson retains all his strength of purpose as if he’s the one being perfectly reasonable, commenting with exasperation, “That man is the worst commanding officer I’ve ever come across – actually I think he’s mad,” a judgement Saito in turn passes on Nicholson. “Without law, Commander, there is no civilisation,” Nicholson tells Shears, who ripostes that here there is no civilisation: “Then we have the opportunity to introduce it.”

Nicholson’s approach to his new and his men’s new situation emerges as he resolves that, with escape more or less impossible and his legal situation strange – he explains that he was ordered to surrender when Singapore fell, which might mean escape attempts might well constitute a breach of those orders – he resolves instead that “here is where we must win through,” particularly after Shears and some other men seem to all be killed attempting an escape. Nicholson’s defiance stokes his men’s resistance, singing “For he’s a jolly good fellow” as he’s put in the hot box, and they sabotage and generally foul up the bridge-building attempts, causing the project to fall far behind schedule. Saito’s anger falls heavily on his chief engineer, eventually taking over the construction himself, but to no avail. Eventually Saito makes overtures to Nicholson, first trying to win him over by offering to let him remain exempt from working, but Nicholson refuses. Finally, under the cover of a magnanimous deed in celebrating the anniversary of the Battle of Tsushima, Saito agrees to Nicholson’s demands. Soon, Nicholson sets his engineering officers to the task of building a better bridge, to give his men something to labour on and take pride in, and leave something to posterity even in their defeat.

Lean’s films hinged on crucial identification with his heroes as mediators of his intense but divided personal nature, his creative and emotional passion clashing with his firmly instilled personal morality stemming from his Quaker upbringing, with his unique talents for animating landscape, either through the careful studio stylisation of his Dickens films or the dynamic sense of landscape exhibited in his epics, offering elemental contrast to the human irony of his stories. And yet Lean resisted identifying too overtly with Nicholson for both himself and the audience, reportedly insisting that Nicholson needed to be a bit of a bore, despite Guinness’s desire to make him more appealing. I think I know why. The first time I ever watched The Bridge on the River Kwai as a child, I burst into tears at the climax, for I had granted Nicholson all my sympathy in the story, identifying with his pride in creation without quite understanding the depth of his breach of duty. Lean understood this, and guarded against it: the story’s rich irony demands both sympathy with Nicholson but also some distance from him. But it’s also plain Lean knew Nicholson was the avatar for his creative-romantic streak. Hayakawa, in an interview given to Films and Filming, recalled one of the crew complaining that Lean “shot 30 seconds of film a day and then sat on a rock and stared at his goddamn bridge!” It’s impossible not to see Lean and Nicholson almost fusing there in their near-religious sense of craft, just as it also offers pertinent context to the scenes Lean’s next hero, T.E. Lawrence, dreaming up his attack on Aqaba in a similarly contemplative position.

By contrast, Clipton offers a constant counterpart also constant in Lean’s films, the figure of moral authority and adamant perspective, a figure that would splinter across various protagonists in Doctor Zhivago (1965) but reconfigure as the priest in Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and Fielding in A Passage To India (1984). Clipton’s business is saving lives, a service he performs for Nicholson, but later prods him with questions as to whether he’s now collaborating with the enemy, and the end refuses to be involved in the christening of the bridge, a choice that accidentally saves his own life. Nicholson’s arguments in riposte make sense to a degree: assuming the bridge will be built somehow and either by his men or atop their graves, Nicholson determines to make it suit his purpose. Trouble is, Nicholson’s sense of the camp and bridge as their existential amphitheatre forgets there’s still a world beyond. Foreman’s attraction to the story seems fairly obvious: like High Noon it’s a story of a man suffering to stand up for principle, and culminates with the whistle of a train announcing an imminent battle.

But that film’s moral certainty and elemental approach to violence-as-justice have been scattered all to hell. Nicholson’s rigid stance against Saito is at once heroic and unnerving, a matador provoking the bull’s horns, in part because Nicholson knows as well as Saito that killing him would be, in a strange way, to lose the game. Saito in turn, although he seems clearly tempted to kill Nicholson at several points including by stabbing him after Nicholson refuses his peace offering meal, nonetheless holds off. Saito’s restraint matches Nicholson’s, as if proving the British officer’s stance by responding to his show of fortitude with his own. Saito, however, is in a radically different position, knowing he’ll be expected to commit seppuku if the bridge isn’t completed on schedule, and his vehement, shuddering displays of anger and disdain for his British counterpart register the overtones of fear lurking behind his own cruelty. Nicholson and Saito represent, at their broadest, symbolic conceptions of the respective British and Japanese armies, the former defined by a mysterious high-tensile ability to be rigid and flexible at once in hyper-courteous browbeating, the latter by the maniacal severity of its concepts of honour and purpose.

But the narrative plays some intricate games with these presumptions. The Bridge on the River Kwai glances back at Lean’s films with Coward, in their mythological engagement with the wartime ethos of the stiff upper lip, particularly In Which We Serve, where Coward’s idealised Captain hero figure coaches his men through disaster. Here the fortitude is laced with irony and delusion, the adamantine strength of purpose questioned and eventually found confused and self-defeating. Saito is the official representative of the barbaric treatment meted out by the Imperial Army on just about they considered their inferiors, but as the story unfolds he becomes a faintly comic figure, outmanoeuvred by Nicholson. Lean and Hayakawa oblige sympathy for Saito for glimpsing his deep, weeping humiliation after caving in to Nicholson. This vignette proves one Saito never truly seems to recover from, spending much of the rest of the film in a near-silent, almost zombified state, gazing on silently and beggared as Nicholson and his men set about feverishly doing his work for him, whilst also aware that Nicholson’s purpose, to triumph in the face of shame, is one he cannot encompass. Nicholson earns the love of his men as the seeming exemplar of his creed, and yet collaborates actively with the enemy to fulfil his own ends, however self-justifying those ends are. Saito, a prisoner of his own values, can’t do that, and it’s made plain late in the film that he intends to commit seppuku upon the passing of the first train down the railway line, even though he and Nicholson eventually seem to work up an odd kind of camaraderie.

That militarism eventually consumes all its children, British or Japanese or anyone else, is made abundantly clear in the climax, particularly when Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) mortar bombs some of his own people to prevent their capture, and the possibility of any kind of private achievement or separate peace eventually, literally goes up in flames. The stand-off between Nicholson and Saito consumes most of the film’s first half, and whilst in many ways it presents the inverse situation to the first half of Lawrence of Arabia with its sweeping portrait of Lawrence’s desert-spanning, myth-making raid on Aqaba, in concentrating on a tiny microcosm that gets even smaller when Nicholson is jammed in the hot box, it nonetheless has the same rolling, compulsive power and sense of punishing physical straits. Lean shoots extremely low-angle shots of the sweltering, at-attention soldiers with the glaring sun above, and makes maximum use of the widescreen frame’s expanse and depth of field in moments like when Shears comments balefully on Nicholson’s actions as he and other men in the sick bay watch the officers on the parade ground, one man fainting dead away as they speak in the distance of the centre frame. One moment of sublime accord for Lean’s direction and Guinness’ performance, one indeed Guinness himself felt was his best screen moment ever, sees Nicholson, exhausted, bedraggled, and barely able to stand, nonetheless forcing himself to walk unaided from the hot box to Saito’s office with an automaton-like gait (which Guinness said he based on his son, who was recovering from polio), watched with deadpan patience by the camera in a tracking shot with his men saluting as he passes.

Something of Boulle’s more sarcastic, quasi-satirical sensibility filters to the surface in the scene where Nicholson and his officers take over Saito’s conference on how to proceed with building the bridge, Saito now the one acting mechanically with his repetitions of “I have already given the order” in response to Nicholson’s utterly reasoned and quietly irresistible logic. The same streak returns later on as Shears, softly blackmailed into joining a commando raid on the bridge, is repeatedly acclaimed with the arch old-boyism, “Good show!” Shears’ story, pushed off to one side during Nicholson’s resistance except for a brief depiction of his and his companions’ escape attempt, which seems to end brutally when Shears is shot and plunges into the river. But Shears, only lightly wounded, crawls out of the river and stumbles desperately through the jungle, where, in perhaps the film’s oddest and most misjudged touch, he mistakes a kite for a buzzard swooping to pick his carcass: the kite proves to be flown by some kids from a nearby village. The villagers happily give Shears a boat so he can continue downriver, but when he runs out of water he makes the mistake of drinking the river water, and drifts out of his mind with fever down to the ocean, where he’s eventually spotted and rescued by a plane and taken to Ceylon. Cue another unfortunate moment, this time the result of Columbia’s insistence at least one white woman be added to the cast, adding a romantic scene for Shears cavorting with a nurse (Ann Sears) from the hospital where he recovers on the beach.

This scene nonetheless serves as the moment Shears meets Warden, a former Cambridge teacher of Oriental Languages turned demolitions expert and commando (“We’re trying to discourage the use of that words, it’s come to have such a melodramatic air about it”) with a group called Force 316. The Bridge on the River Kwai is in essence two separate stories, and Foreman put that down to it having two writers who never quite reconciled things. But the stories are also deeply entwined, one commenting on the other and coinciding in the finale. Shears’ story is a more traditional kind of adventure story than Nicholson’s, but no less barbed a story of people who prove avatars for incoherent values. Warden, who keeps alive a sort of happy amateur ideal of the English gentleman of war as he playfully shows off the new wonder of plastic explosive, invites Shears to join the group. They want him to guide them from the village he visited back up to the Kwai bridge, so they can sabotage it. Shears, who’s been maintaining his pose as an officer in the hospital, confesses his deception in the course of vehemently refusing to go back, but Warden reveals that he and his superiors had already learned about this and the US Navy, to avoid embarrassment, has handed Shears over to them.

Shears sourly volunteers, and at least gets the rank of “simulated Major” out of it. Asked by the commander of 316, Colonel Green (Andre Morell), for his impressions of the prospective team, Shears is less anxious about the young, unblooded accountant-turned-warrior Lt Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) elected to the unit than by Warden, who strikes him as playing a game of war. Green starts telling him about Warden’s combat experience, including of being captured by the enemy, an anecdote left crucially unfinished. When they are eventually parachuted into the jungle, one member of the team is killed in the drop. The rest reach the village Shears visited before, and the village chief, Khun Yai (M.R.B. Chakrabandhu), and six of their young women volunteer to help their mission. They begin a trek through the jungle. Joyce’s hesitation in stabbing a Japanese soldier they encounter obliges Warden to do it for him, but injures his ankle in the process: Warden insists on continuing with the team, limping along in agonising fashion.

Lean’s emergence as the doyen of “epic” filmmakers entailed a new way of filming, some of it engaged with the changing nature of cinema itself. Widescreen formats had been introduced in 1953 to counter television with a new expanse and vividness of visual experience. Despite Fritz Lang’s infamous comment that it was only good for snakes and funerals, many major filmmakers immediately began experimenting with what could be achieved in widescreen, but most of the movies made in the format were very brightly lit and glossily colourful. Lean, seeing the widescreen style was punishing on any sort of artifice, completely eschewed any shooting shortcuts like rear projection or sets, helping imbue a monumental, tactile quality that immediately changed the way other filmmakers would approach such things, where just a year before epic cinema had meant the total artifice of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. The Bridge on the River Kwai has a palette of muddy greens and browns and shaded, shadowy frame reaches. In its way, Lean’s film might well have done the most of any movie up until that time to demonstrate that colour cinema could be as compellingly immersive and realistic, just as black-and-white had become the accepted language for realism as opposed to the usually decorative effect colour was put to. Lean had filmed stark figures amidst bleak, near-animate landscapes in the opening scenes of his Dickens films, creating backdrops that seethe and overwhelm in a manner harking back to J.M.W. Turner, an artist Lean had vital traits in common with. He expanded on this motif in The Bridge on the River Kwai, which is now part of the basic lexicon of large-scale moviemaking, in the sequences depicting the demolition team’s march through the jungle, bestriding cliff faces and marching up the flanks of hills, humans dwarfed by natural forms, in a reversal of the deadly intimacy of the first half.

Unlike filmmakers who would absorb his influence and transmute it into a more rarefied thing, including Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick, Lean’s approach to the natural world doesn’t regard it as sublimely indifferent but rather as a stage humans can’t escape from, nor it from them. The narrative is on one level a straightforward adventure movie, with the heroes braving the wilderness to achieve a difficult, noble objective. But as Lean would reiterate more completely in Lawrence of Arabia, the punishing drive of his heroes, Tennyson’s Ulysses-like, to cross and conquer the earth feels more like neurotic compulsion than straightforward intrepidity, as if identity can only be gained by risking its negation, becoming part of the landscape – death, in short. The jungle trek is defined by its objective, one where the characters are searching for an answer to a question, sometimes asked aloud, sometimes not. Whether Joyce can kill a man. Whether Shears can escape hell twice, and whether there’s something he would actually consider worth dying for. Whether Warden can prove he’s the man he wants to be, the great war commander. They counterpoint Nicholson, who finds the last chance for identity in the project of building the bridge, something to leave to the age. And of course the commandos want to destroy his brainchild, meaning that inevitably the men will destroy each-other in their pursuit of identity. Nicholson’s first fight with Saito is at its heart that same quest, as Nicholson knows being reduced to chattel will destroy him and his men as men. Nicholson’s quasi-messianic sense of mission eventually sees him leading out the sick and lame men from the hospital to work, and Nicholson’s strange genius is his ability to make it all seem utterly reasonable.

The trek culminates when Shears, Joyce, and Warden gain a vista over the Kwai, camera tilting down vast horizon until the bridge comes into view, seen for the first time in its complete state. That the bridge proves to be an all-wood pastiche of the Forth Bridge, that signal monument to the emergence of the industrial age’s height in Britain, is both a mordant underlining of Nicholson’s desire to make British genius bloom in the desert, and an entirely earnest nod to it, the last stand of imperialist export. Nicholson is right in one regard: here is where the stand must be made, but civilisation isn’t just righteousness and tea. It’s also rivalry for resources and tests of strength and will — in short, war. So inevitably Nicholson’s desire to build civilisation must meet the determination to destroy it. Lean’s roots in editing are equally crucial in his then-unusual approach to building scenes, most indefinably yet vitally in the rhythmic unfolding of Nicholson’s resistance, and sometimes more overtly. The scene where the commando team are surprised by a unit of Japanese soldiers whilst swimming at a cascade is a fine example, in the way Lean circles around standard action staging to instead present quick, vivid tableaux and symbolic force. The scene starts playfully, the soldiers and the women taking a last chance to enjoy themselves, before the enemy arrive: they, seeing only the women, seem to have the same end on their mind. Lean cuts from Warden throwing a grenade and the commandos firing down on the enemy to shots of teeming fruit bats scared out of the trees and flocking madly in the sky, their screeching panic mimicking the violence. When Lean returns to the Japanese soldiers they’re now dead, blood pooling in the water. Life and death, human and inhuman, natural and unnatural, all stirred into a state of flux, thesis and antithesis.

The march through the jungle, whilst describing human smallness and mutability, is punctuated with personal vignettes noting the growing bond between the men and the village women. This skirts potentially risible romantic interest but instead registers an extra, finite emotional texture that rubs salt in during the climax, where the women, each with their own preferred potential warrior-mate, have to watch as they die, as much unwitting priestesses in a death cult as lovers. One of the film’s notable descendants, Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), would provide the peyote-soaked take on all this; Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) would strip it down to maniacal-visonary essentials. When the raiders finally arrive at the Kwai, Nicholson is at the same time inspecting his construction, indulging pride, and he muses on his career and disappointments to a quietly receptive if bewildered Saito, and it becomes clear why all that’s happened on the Kwai has happened, a last stage for Nicholson to make his life matter. Guinness was aggravated by Lean choice to shoot the scene from behind, but why is very clear when viewed, Nicholson allowed a degree of privacy even as he confesses something poignant about himself, the weight of emotion carried by Guinness’ lilt.

Nicholson then attends a celebratory performance his men put on, including drag acts and dubious song numbers, intercut with Shears, Yai, and Joyce silently and methodically stealing up on the bridge and laying explosive charges on its stanchions, in a sequence that suggests the influence of the quiet robbery scene in Rififi (1955) as the men do their best to not make noise and attract the attention of guards above nor ruffle the moonlit water. The attention to the saboteurs’ method and the deadly seriousness of their endeavour sharply offsets the festivities echoing from above and the placidity of Nicholson’s musings on life and the glorious sunset, tension slowly building all the while. Finally, with all their preparations deployed with nerveless patience, Shears leaves Joyce to his job to set off the explosives, which has been deigned will go off as the first train crosses the bridge and must be detonated from the only good cover within reach, located on the other side of the river from where his fellows take up position. When dawn breaks, the commandos realise to their cringing horror that the water level has dropped and the wire to the charges is visible at points. Joyce does his best to conceal the length closest to him, whilst Shears gives a smile of something like pride when Nicholson’s men march out over the bridge, again whistling “Colonel Bogey.” Whatever else he’s done, Nicholson certainly helped his men survive.

The climax of The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of the greatest in narrative cinema, charged with dizzying, bone-jarring physical force and tragicomic wildness, the long and patient build-up justified as the many threads of story and character collide in a spasm of apocalyptic violence. Nicholson spots the explosives wire as he again bestrides his precious bridge, and he and Saito descend to puzzle it out. As Warden and Shears both from their positions cringe in agony as they near Joyce and realise their own man is about to foil the operation, Joyce works up the nerve to spring out of cover and knife Saito, but it’s Nicholson’s panicked reaction to Joyce’s explanation about what’s happening, grabbing the young man and trying to hold him down, that attracts the guards’ lethal attention, and bullets start flying. Shears, screaming out for Joyce to kill Nicholson, leaps into the river and swims across to aide his pupil, only to be wounded by bullets, whilst Joyce is also shot by the advancing guards. Nicholson’s look of pure shock upon recognising Shears as he crawls out of the river, knife in hand, face twisted in warlike grimace even as he dies, completes the circuit.

Meanwhile Warden rains mortar bombs down on the area, through his own, traumatised conviction they’re all better off dead than captured and tortured, at the cost of having the village women retreat from him in fear. Lean’s control over the eruption of frantic action and the dovetailing of so many narrative and thematic strands into a singular sequence remains quite remarkable, utilising the widescreen expanse to encompass multiple planes of action with a blend of ferocity and grace, ironic distance and immediate furore, building to the epic close-ups that ram home the drama – Nicholson’s look of profound surprise at recognising the wounded Shears as he stumbles ashore, his exclamation of “You!” answered by Shear’s own, enraged, agonised utterance of the same word before collapsing. Boulle pointedly did not have the bridge blown up in his book, leaving it as an ironic monument to war’s madness. The film needs the bridge destroyed, both for the sake of climactic showmanship, of course, but also because the story of the film as opposed to the book demands it, particular in Lean’s private moral scheme, which emerges in harkening back to Great Expectations where Miss Havisham murmured “What have I done?” when she realises she’s destroyed people’s lives.

Lean again (and if he did actually contribute anything to the script, it’s hard to doubt this was it) puts this question in Nicholson’s mouth as he experiences a moment of devastating clarity even as all hell breaks loose about him, the proof of his own blinkered convictions littered about him and bleeding out. Nicholson sets his sights on the plunger and moves for it, only for one of the mortars to land behind him, killing Shears and Joyce and leaving Nicholson with a gouge wound in the back of his head. Nicholson stands and once more makes a controlled effort at recovering his soldierly bearing before resuming his advance, only for him to collapse dead. Fortunately, he falls on the plunger, and the bridge blows apart in a thunderous calamity, train plummeting into the river. Lean was apparently bothered until he died that he didn’t make it clear enough that Nicholson intended to destroy the bridge and the explosion wasn’t just dumb luck. I’ve never doubted it, as Lean’s careful scene grammar plus that crucial line makes Nicholson’s chain of thinking very clear, but I can see why some didn’t. The fact that Nicholson doesn’t quite set of the blast with his last breath, but instead stumbles towards his final, redemptive act of refutation, is nonetheless just as important, taking the moment out of the realm of melodrama and placing it rather in the absurd.

The destruction of the bridge that takes the train with it provides the orgasmic moment of destructive carnage and spectacle, amplified immeasurably by the undeniable reality of the staging, the wonderful bridge, a real, strong thing, and the train crashing into the river, huge logs and rigid iron crashing and breaking, waves of smoke and steam wafting. Cinema staging had scarcely been so immediate, so wantonly mighty and reckless, since the silent era. The visuals underline the descent of all art and pretence into pure chaos, but the final gestures retain meaning. Warden hurls his mortar away into impotent frustration before retreating, successful yet chagrined, back into the forest. He has succeeded in the letter of his mission, but what he stood for has gone bust, failed to reclaim his creed as the locus of stability and sanity in the world, and now the village women are afraid of him, the first flutters of the post-war, post-colonial wind. Meanwhile Clipton’s immortal, stunned, cringing cries of “Madness! Madness!” as he surveys the scene of carnage became the essential viewpoint of an entire generation still children watching the film but soon to be all too aware of the knife-edge that was the post-war, atomic-age world. And that last shot, sailing endlessly up into the sky, leaving the follies of humanity in splinters on the ground, the ghost army still marching.

Standard
1950s, Action-Adventure, Western

High Noon (1952)

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Director: Fred Zinnemann
Screenwriter: Carl Foreman

By Roderick Heath

Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon stands in popular moviegoing memory as perhaps the most famous and purely emblematic of Westerns, and yet what made it stand out in 1952 was the way it violated conventions over the look and sound, as well as the deeper themes, usually found in the genre. It’s also one of two films made in the 1950s that provide a perpetual blueprint for modern action filmmaking, the other being Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). Kurosawa’s film set the template for tales about a group of warriors with diverse talents and qualities drawn together for righteous battle. High Noon, its immediate precursor, by contrast portrays the crucial vision of a fighter forced to stand alone, with a title that became a by-word for moments of fraught confrontation. Both films, of course, were themselves condensations of earlier movie and storytelling traditions and particular influences, but each managed to winnow their concerns and approach into such precisely articulated iconography that they became henceforth the instant point of reference. Despite eventually being accepted as not just a classic but a perfect totem for an attitude of fortitude and resolve, Zinnemann’s film became a contested moment in screen history: greeted with general but by no means universal plaudits and solid popular success, it nonetheless irritated many, including John Wayne, and Howard Hawks, who felt the film’s basic premise so wrongheaded he made Rio Bravo (1959) as a riposte. High Noon was nominated for multiple Oscars and yet the disquiet behind the story it told probably resulted in losing out for Best Picture against reactionary chieftain Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show On Earth. Ironies proliferate, as a movie specifically birthed by, and depicting, the failure of political and social leaders became a morale-boosting favourite of both American Presidents, as well as the Polish Solidarity movement.

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The story behind High Noon’s making is now impossible to detach from the film itself, even as most viewers in its time were unaware and indifferent. Screenwriter Carl Foreman, working from an outline he had penned and a short story called “The Tin Star” by John W. Cunningham, claimed his completed script was an allegory for the anti-Communist McCarthyist furore casting a torturous and destructive shadow over Hollywood, an episode where many hauled in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee suddenly found themselves without support or backing in the climate of fear and fecklessness. Foreman himself was called before the committee as High Noon was being made, and began revising the script to incorporate some of the things happening to him, particularly the church argument sequence. Foreman’s refusal to name any people he had once been members of the Communist Party with left him vulnerable to blacklisting. As if fulfilling his own prophecy, Foreman’s producing partner Stanley Kramer immediately severed their association. Whilst a political conservative who had given friendly if trivial testimony to the HUAC, Cooper disliked the blacklist and backed Foreman, helping keep his name on the film, to such a degree that Wayne and others threatened to get him blacklisted too. Foreman eventually moved to England, and rebounded in Hollywood years later when he pseudonymously wrote David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), another tale of resisting oppressive power that shades into oblivious collaboration with that power, and then officially by writing and producing The Guns of Navarone (1961).

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Polish-born Zinnemann saw the project more universally, later noting that there was “something timely – and timeless” about the story, and perhaps with a degree of pretension declared that he didn’t see it as a Western but simply a story taking place in a particular historical setting. For Zinnemann, whose parents had died in the Holocaust, High Noon presented the perfect myth of civilisation standing its ground against malevolence, anarchy, and most insidious of all, cravenness. Certainly he would return repeatedly in his career to the concern of a protagonist wrestling with moral dilemmas and forced eventually to face a reckoning, whether it be with their own conscience, like the heroine of The Nun’s Story (1959), or, as in High Noon, From Here To Eternity (1953), and A Man For All Seasons (1966), being forced to take a stand against bullying and bludgeoning power despite the inevitable cost this invites. Zinnemann had made his prototype with 1948’s Act of Violence, a movie crucially depicting an inexorable march towards a potentially deadly confrontation that also, crucially, hinged on a demand for justice and accountability, in the tale of one war veteran hunting down a former fellow inmate of a POW camp he believes betrayed his comrades. Decades later Zinnemann would invert High Noon’s focus to an extent with The Day of the Jackal (1973), depicting an icily detached assassin’s exacting preparations for killing a political leader at a fatefully appointed hour.

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If High Noon’s standing has declined over the years, part of it’s because of greater recognition that it didn’t spark the “adult Western” movement of the ‘50s, although it certainly seems to have helped define it in certain key qualities. Zinnemann, whose defining traits of fine-grained, carefully sober, borderline minimalist style has gone in and out of critical fashion, moreover worked to purposefully reject the visual sweep and epic lustre associated with the genre’s leading exponents like John Ford and Hawks, despite the film resembling a feature-length take on the ending of Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). Zinnemann and cinematographer Floyd Crosby studied Matthew Brady’s Civil War-era photographs to and recreated their look, stripping away all hint of painterly gloss and what Zinnemann later called the “religious ritual” quality of most Western cinematography, instead shooting the film in a unsoftened, unfiltered black-and-white. The unvarnished approach gave the film a level of visual similarity to what was emerging as the distinct aesthetic of the era’s television, which seemed all the better for putting across studies of psychological angst and moral drama. At the same time, Zinnemann and Foreman’s key storytelling touch laid down a template for more recent crazes in trying to create a sense of unified realism in cinema, in labouring to make the film play out in very close to real time, with a ruthlessly metronomic sense of editing’s meaning and its relationship with time that finally becomes overt and oppressively intense in the legendary passage immediately preceding the inevitable climax. Time in High Noon is life, and death.

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The story is simplicity itself. In the small but burgeoning town of Hadleyville, in the New Mexico Territory, Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is marrying his young Quaker bride Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly). The wedding, performed by the town judge Percy Mettrick (Otto Kruger) in his court, brings together many of the players in the subsequent drama celebrating the hero Marshal’s nuptials, including the Mayor, Jonas Henderson (Thomas Mitchell), Will’s predecessor and mentor Martin Howe (Lon Chaney), his friend Sam Fuller (Harry Morgan), and Fuller’s wife Mildred (Eve McVeagh). After the ceremony he surrenders the Marshal’s star before leaving on his honeymoon, although his replacement will not arrive the following day. Just before heading off, however, two coinciding events ruin the happy day. News arrives by telegram that Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), a cruel and violent outlaw who used to tyrannise Hadleyville and its residents until Will took over as Marshal, has just had his sentence commuted by the Governor and been released. Moreover, three men who once comprised Miller’s gang, his brother Ben (Sheb Wooley), Jack Colby (Lee Van Cleef), and Jim Pierce (Robert J. Wilke), have just ridden into town and are now waiting at the railway station for the noon train. This portends an obvious fact: Frank is coming back, intending vengeance and renewal of his reign of terror. After initially continuing on out of town, Will eventually heaves the wagon to and tells his new wife he must head back. Amy retorts with a line of thinking he soon hears repeated in many variations, that it’s not his job anymore. But there’s no-one else to do it, and Will feels the obligation.

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Zinnemann commences the film with initially mysterious shots of the three hoodlums assembling in the wilds outside of Hadleyville and heading for the town. The style is immediately unusual, playing out wordlessly under the opening credits but already setting the drama in motion, suggested in the hard, bullet-eyed, expectant faces of the gunmen, set to the strains of Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington’s ballad “High Noon,” sung for the film by Tex Ritter, with its plaintive refrain of “Do not forsake me, O my darling,” which then returns at intervals throughout the film, as if it’s playing within Will’s head, loping, repetitive, nagging, anxious. The song’s popularity and clever dramatic justification sparked a craze for Westerns to all sport their Top Ten-wannabe theme song, but most of those imitators tended much more strident: in High Noon the song is spare, stark, mournfully simple, sounding at once like an authentic Western ballad whilst also evoking the courtly romanticism of a medieval troubadour’s poem. The lyrics recount the film’s plot informally, and suggest the story’s most deeply essential relationship is, ultimately, that between Will and Amy rather than Will and the community: anyone can stand facing the world and its evils when the one person dear to them stands behind them.

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Will knows his enemy, sure in his anticipation that Miller and his gang, vicious thugs all with a lode of pent-up anger to expiate, will visit abuse, murder, and rape upon the town, as well as the risk of them running him and Amy down on the road. Will soon forms the conviction that the only way to stop them is to meet them with sufficient force to ward them off. Will soon finds his conscientious sense of purpose, which he feels as surely as any knight or samurai, isn’t necessarily shared by his fellow townspeople. His first major disenchantment comes from Amy herself, as she tells him in a fury that she doesn’t want him risking his life or taking those of others, and swiftly presents an ultimatum, promising to abandon him and head off on the train if he doesn’t immediately leave with her. Will looks pained but makes no gesture to comply, so Amy heads to the station. Will at least knows this was a potential problem with his mate, having accepted her and her Quaker faith, which, as she memorably narrates later, she turned to after losing loved-ones to ferocious violence: “My father and my brother were killed by guns. They were on the right side but that didn’t help them when the shooting started. My brother was nineteen. I watched him die.” Amy’s moral perspective runs counter to the basic precepts that Will espouses through deed and unspoken feeling rather than intellectual formulae, that certain dangers must be braved in order for society to hold together.

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High Noon’s take on an eternal dialogue between pacifism and measured force is cast in the roles of masculine and feminine values, purposefully set at their most polarised extremes with Will’s, but also entangled by the bonds of affection, as well as an incipient trial of strength within the marriage, the marriage of two minds as inevitably fraught contests of moral vision with mutual degrees of incomprehension. This element of the film, which threads right through it both dramatically and philosophically, immediate connects High Noon to the social perspective espoused in Ford’s great Westerns but also confronts it and asks certain interesting questions. In My Darling Clementine (1946) the eponymous lady embodied civilised values the gunfighter hero could dance with but could not countenance settling down with: as he had before in Stagecoach (1939) and would again in The Searchers (1956) despite their divergences in theme and style, Ford conceived of the Western hero as a figure who had substance only in a specific place and moment and had to yield to a civilisation, defined as intrinsically feminine. One thing that’s particularly interesting about High Noon, both within its own narrative and in terms of its genre, is that High Noon actually tells the story after the story. Will’s first victory over Miller can be regarded as the Western genre in miniature: the barbarian has been defeated, civilisation has settled. Now the warrior can turn in his badge and take the bride who will have him “running a store.”

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Of course, the narrative compels us to recognise the more imminent validity of Will’s point, because his foes aren’t reasonable men with motives that can be assimilated or negotiated, but rather holdovers from a barbarian past who once might have held sway over the Steppes or the Danelaw, given an historical petri dish to grow again by the Wild West’s disorder. This aspect also both builds upon and interrogates Ford’s concept of the Western, suggesting that barbarity and civilisation exist one inside the other like Matroushka dolls than a rolling tide of colonial superceding, one keeping a check on the other, requiring that certain people, in this case Will, retain their outback bushido as the only way to ensure the world holds together. The message is most easily and commonly formulated by the famous line Wayne delivered in another film, “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.” But just what is it a man’s gotta do? A phrase repeated twice in the film in variations is an answer to a character’s uncomprehending question as to why Will pursues his sense of duty: “If you don’t know, then I can’t explain it to you,” evoking a realm of ethical experience that almost lies beyond liminal understanding, a sense of personal responsibility for the world that one either possesses or doesn’t.

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Will soon finds others want him to move on for a wide variety of reasons. His chief deputy, Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), a callow and resentful man, is annoyed that he got passed over for being Will’s replacement, a choice Will says was that of the town council rather than himself: where Amy’s resistance is principled, Harvey’s motives are more aggressively perverse, his desire to assimilate Will’s stature plain in not just seeking his job but also in having taken up with his former lover Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado). It’s as if Harvey sees all this as the blueprint for evolving into a similarly potent and sovereign man, also manifesting in a need to hinder Will, to reduce him rather than try to live up to his example. Harvey quits when Will refuses to promise him the sheriff’s job in exchange for his help, and later assaults Will to forestall his confrontation with the gang, not to save him but because Harvey knows it would too sorely expose his own weakness. Mettrick, who passed sentence on Miller, packs up his belongings upon hearing Miller is coming, whilst coolly and calmly explaining his own attitude to Will, recounting both historical precedent and personal, including one from ancient Athens and a similar situation he was involved in himself years before and feeling discretion the better part of valour: “I’ve been a judge many times in many towns – I hope to live to be a judge again.” The rule of law has no strength without its enforcers.

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Mettrick is glimpsed, in a mordant touch, taking down and folding up the American flag: afterwards the rectangular imprint of it on the wall behind him remains visible. Invisible presences are important in this scene, nudged more forcefully as Mettrick reminds Will of Miller’s promise to return and kill him, pointing to the chair where he sat during the trial and spoke those words. Zinnemann dollies up to the empty piece of furniture as it becomes the totem of Miller’s tyrannical presence, before making a jagged jump cut to Pierce smashing an empty liquor bottle as he and his companions wait in sweaty frustration. Others in town wouldn’t mind seeing Will go up against the gang and earn a few bullet holes, like the impudently sarcastic hotel receptionist (Howland Chamberlain) and tavern owner Gillis (Larry J. Blake), still annoyed that the process of “cleaning up” Hadleyville cost them their best sources of business. When Will enters the tavern on the search for volunteers to back him up, immediately after a charged, silent encounter with the smirking Harvey, he hears Gillis delighting in the prospect. Will socks Gillis in the face, but immediately apologises when the bloody-lipped Gillis notes he has all the power in their immediate situation. Will tries to find Fuller, but Fuller hides in his house and has Mildred tell Will he’s not home: “Well what do you want, you want me to get killed?” he demands of her when she wears a shameful look after lying to Will.

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The central scene sees the failure of support for Will implicate the community’s innermost ranks, when he visits the congregation gathered in the local church mid-service. This scene bears a strong and deliberate-feeling resemblance to scenes that often featured in movies made during World War II where communities argued about the costs of resistance versus passivity, like Edge of Darkness (1943), which also takes place in a church. Except that the upshot of such scenes is inverted, starting off with some of the men in the congregation immediately rising to pledge their aid, only for objecting voices to be raised and stall them, and Will’s hope of forging a unified response bleeds steam and dies. Will’s motives are impugned, accused of wanting to drag others into what is a personal feud between him and Miller. The parson (Morgan Farley), who snippily criticises Will for coming to the church despite rarely visiting it other times and not getting married there, notes with confused gravitas that the Commandments forbids killing “but we hire men to go out and do it for us,” and remains noncommittal. Voice of protest are still raised from those who find the failure to support Will disgusting and those who remember how bad things were before he took up his job and got rid of Miller. The real blow falls when Henderson starts giving a speech that seems to be supporting Will until he suddenly changes tack and argues any gunfighting will ruin the town’s nascent prosperity and that likely nothing will happen if Will doesn’t confront the gang, preferring the illusion of peace and harmony to its actuality. This finally leaves Will without any support.

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Zinnemann provides both a dash of comic relief and pointed symbolism as Will leaves the church, as the children play tug-of-war on the lawn mimics the verbal contests of their elders before all falling over. The connection between the church scene and those forebears from wartime movies, with the stinging diagnosis of faltering communal will and purpose, takes aim at the chief disease of a hard-bought peacetime: apathy. The accumulating portrait of a community now paralysed by its own timidity and uncertainty is mediated by a complex sense of individual purposes. Everyone has their reasons, from Henderson’s forced-seeming declaration of faith in simply avoiding the fight, breaking out in a muck sweat as he praises Will to the heavens whilst also abandoning him in his cause, to Harvey’s more personal, egocentric objections. The only men who fearlessly volunteer to help Will are disabled, like the one-eyed Jimmy (William Newell), or addicted, or very young, wanting to prove themselves, and Will must gently turn them down. Will’s last visit to make an appeal for help is to Howe. Howe too elects to stay out of the fight, in part for the right reasons as he’s too old and riddled with arthritis to be of any real help. But he also clearly mortifies Will when he comments on the underlying problem Will’s facing: “They don’t care. Deep down, they don’t care.” Finally the only one of Will’s deputies who shows up, Herb Baker (James Millican), immediately begs release from his duty, and Will grants it, knowing by this point there’s no point resisting this particular tide.

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Just about everyone has experienced some moment in their life, perhaps relatively trivial or truly life-and-death, where they’ve felt exposed and alone before fate to the indifference of others. High Noon converted this feeling, this familiarity, into a perpetual legend applicable to any variation; indeed, it might even have incidentally exposed it as something close to the existential state of the modern world. Whilst the genre plot rhythms might disguise it, High Noon is as disillusioned with the post-war settlement as any Italian alienation epic. Despite Zinnemann’s unease with identifying the film as a Western, it nonetheless depends on its genre setting for its potency, and not just to provide an accessible commercial chassis. High Noon annexes the already well-defined capacity of the Western to tell rock-ribbed, quasi-mythic stories about good and bad, about civilisation and its discontents. It’s a genre where the arrival of civilisation is supposed to be a good thing but also an ambivalent moment if only because its arrival chokes of further hope for the kind of violent, freewheeling action the genre required. High Noon, like a sagebrush take on Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, nonetheless took that ambivalence a step further to diagnose jealousy, selfishness, cowardice, disloyalty, and all the other familiar traits of human beings since time immemorial in Hadleyville. Of course, none of this was exactly, entirely original in the Western. After all, Ford had introduced his heroes in Stagecoach as social outcasts, beset by Pharisaic creeps appointing themselves the defenders of civilisations. Nor did High Noon introduce the idea of a lawman making an appeal to townsfolk for aid: many dozens upon dozens of oatsers had featured the sheriff rounding up a posse to go hunt down somebody. What High Noon did more concertedly than most before it was make the Western a realm for social drama, an idea that ironically helped fuel its explosive popularity over the next 15 years, as now it could encompass analogies for any kind of moral conundrum and interpersonal conflict, but most crucially the fraught relationship between individual and the community values.

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Cooper was in a rough patch in when he came on board for High Noon. He’d made several financially disappointing films in a row, he was separated from his wife after a string of affairs with leading ladies, and he was in physical pain from both his hip, which had been injured in a car accident when he was a teenager, and from a recent operation to remove a bleeding ulcer. He only landed the role of Will Kane after several other stars turned it down, including Marlon Brando, the breakout star of Zinnemann’s earlier film The Men (1950), and Kirk Douglas. Cooper had been the top male movie star in the world fifteen years earlier, powered by a rarefied combination of rough-and-ready charm and sanguine cool, able to wear a tuxedo or buckskins with equal ease and as deft at comedy as gunfighting, playing a certain kind of male ideal but never projecting an aura of compensating force, instead offering a gently discursive, off-the-beat rhythm in his dialogue and emoting. His handsome playboys and igneous range heroes often seemed slightly embarrassed, conscious of the disparity between their inner and outer worlds. Cooper had won his first Oscar acting in Hawks’ Sergeant York (1941), playing a character who could well be described as a combination of Will and Amy, a pacifist who becomes a warrior through his desire to save others rather than kill.

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Cooper’s presence is the life blood of High Noon, his familiarly subtle, discursive acting style helping make Will Kane an unusually realistic, palpable hero, one who distilled Cooper’s entire career and persona into one character. He’s somewhat off the beat for the style of hero gaining traction in 1950s dramas who wore their jagged anger on their sleeves, those played by actors like Douglas and Brando. Will Kane is by contrast an emblematic stoic, and yet Cooper constantly reveals through controlled gestures the troubled, shocked, infuriated soul lurking behind his limpid gaze: Will Kane is compelled by inner virtue to take a stand, but he’s all too aware he’s probably asking to be gunned down in the street, and he’s frightened. The registration of staggering treachery and weakness in his encounters with various townsfolk registers in that gaze like tiny star shells going off, reaching an apogee when he realises Henderson is deserting him, his expression barely changing yet his absolutely beggared shock still apparent, as well as his sense of sudden exposure, suddenly changed from public hero to the indicted problem, a fool at the pillory, his desire to sock Henderson just as he did Gillis plainly simmering even as he keeps his cool this time and offers a single, terse “Thanks” before stalking out. Cooper’s health problems only amplified the performance as Zinnemann and Crosby’s intense, almost excoriating close-ups found the most finite registers of discomfort and disenchantment.

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Kelly, by contrast, was the fresh-faced starlet plucked off Broadway, still with a little baby fat around her famous face, easily projects maturity far greater than her 21 years, her posh, cut-glass accent odd in the setting and yet helping give haughty edge to Amy’s vehement, zealous moralism and repudiation of Will when he can’t be swayed. Jurado is the dark and bodied opposite of Kelly’s virginal blonde primness, spindly white-clad form and earthy, fleshy, dark-draped body in strange gravitational proximity when the two meet. Helen Ramirez combines opposites within herself: she is at once a figure of social potency and a sort of anointed priestess in a primeval cult, moving as lover from villain to hero to Harvey, the avatar of a misbegotten species of boy-man hovering in between. Amy, who knew nothing about Helen before Will feels obliged to visit her to ask for her influence, eventually visits her hotel room in furtive fascination. Like so much of the film, they retain multivalent symbolic power, Madonna and whore, Latin America and WASP, independent woman and spouse, and two different but equally fierce private codes. Helen knows Hadleyville’s secret life with unblinkered honesty, grasps its true nature with its supercilious piety and imminent lack of real character: “I hate this town. I always hated it. To be a Mexican woman in a town like this.”

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Helen is many ways the most vividly realised and remarkable character in the film, both exemplifying and undercutting the figure of the Latin temptress, a worldly being whose charisma and fecund sexuality, something she has no compunction in bestowing on men who catch her fancy, have ironically made her a potent and respected figure in her community. Helen alone stands outside the communal dynamics being acted out as she coldly repudiates everything that begins to disgust her all at once, most particularly Harvey who finds he has no sway over her at all when tries to force her to stay and kisses her. “I don’t like anybody to put his hands on me unless I want him to – and I don’t like you to anymore,” she states imperiously, and gives him a good slap to seal the deal. Helen may be anointed but also knows her role is to do the anointing of the successor in the chain of masculine maturation, and Harvey just ain’t got it. Helen does what Will most pointedly cannot do, and forsakes Hadleyville and its citizens in her conviction that when Will dies the town dies with him, and refuses to wait around to watch it. Meanwhile the offended and semi-soused Harvey tries to force Will to leave town, finally attacking him physically when he cannot be persuaded, his eyes bright with hysterical need to rid himself of Will. Fisticuffs are sparked when Will finally resists by throwing off his grasp: “Don’t shove me, Harv. I’m tired of being shoved.”

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Will wins the brutal fistfight that follows but emerges battered and bloodied and perhaps robbed of his best fighting edge: Will still pauses to tip a pail of water over Harvey to make sure he rouses, a lovely little character touch, as is the subsequent scene where, after writing his last will and testament, he releases town drunk Charlie (Jack Elam), who’s utterly oblivious of the primal drama gripping the town and asks if the saloon is open yet. The film’s real climax is the marvellous montage sequence as Will writes his legacy in his office whilst the clock ticks down the last few seconds to noon. Zinnemann cuts between the various players in the previous hour or so locked in their little spaces of particular feeling – all of them suddenly solitary like Will even amongst community – before returning to the empty chair where Miller sat, in his absence now as powerful as any dragon, whilst Tiomkin’s mostly sparing score gyres up the sense of imminent drama in obedience to the ticks of the clock’s pendulum, until suddenly severed by the whistle of the approaching train, sounding exactly upon the noon stroke.

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Zinnemann’s aesthetic for High Noon, which studio chieftains kept complaining about during shooting, helped speed up a process in which Hollywood divested itself of the lingering influence of Expressionism and adopted the look Zinnemann and Crosby created as the new template of realism which was in its way as stylised as what it was supplanting particularly in the flat lighting, quickly travelling beyond the boundaries of the Western. But the harsh, flat look doesn’t obscure the precision of Zinnemann’s framing, his careful use of close-ups and tightly composed images of the actors that still retain some of the flavour of the silent era German cinema he had been involved in, and that cinema’s overriding desire to capture people in both their physical and mental dimensions. Zinnemann’s shots in the countdown montage, like a looming close-up not entirely contained by the frame of the three waiting outlaws looking like the three heads of a sleazy Cerberus, and a glimpse of the Fullers in locked together in their safe, guilty space, have piercing clarity. The countdown montage, endlessly influential in terms of the mounting suspense and rhythmic intensity of a movie, sees Zinnemann and collaborators turn cinematic time itself into an iron maiden squeezing upon each character, not simply heightening the suspense but offering in its way a final signature on each facet of the social drama, each person who has failed Will and themselves weighing up the value of their mortality.

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After releasing Charlie and sealing up his will, Will heads out into the street where the only thing that moves is the carriage carrying Helen and Amy to the station: Helen dares a glance at Will alone on the street but Amy cannot. Zinnemann’s deft punctuation with camera movement is as notable as the editing proceeding this vignette, first offering a dolly shot moving away from Will, the act of abandoning him rendered physically palpable. Zinnemann then switches to a crane shot that moves remorselessly upwards from Will until he’s a small, dark, spindly figure alone in a ghost town: Will is at once dwarfed by space, realising just how completely alone he is, but he’s also now the only presence, the rest of the townspeople, as Helen predicted, erased and meaningless. This particular shot has also been endlessly imitated and invoked in heroic cinema, inverting as it does Ford’s introduction of Wayne’s Ringo in Stagecoach, where the hero resolves out of shadow, mythic function, the storehouse of archetype, suddenly loaned flesh; Will instead becomes the focal point of a different mode of cinematic exaltation, one that diminishes him physically but also urges in the opposite direction, from man to figure fit for legend.

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Zinnemann continues to keep Miller himself a vague, almost abstract presence even after he steps off the train and greets his confederates; his acne-scarred, crudely charismatic features aren’t seen until he glances up and sees Helen boarding the train. The demon finally has a face, and he’s granted immediate potency precisely because he’s not immediately presented as a frothing mad dog, but as a coldly imperious figure. The businesslike swagger of the gunmen as they head into town has the focused precision of a death squad rather than a gang of scabby desperados, but the discipline is broken when thought turns to the revels to come after the hunt: Ben steals a lady’s bonnet from a shopfront display, the sound of shattering glass warning Will where the killers are and allowing him to lie in ambush, gunning down Ben in the first volley. The first gunfire also shatters Amy’s glaze of resolve, and she dashes off the train and back into the town to find Will, whilst Helen is carried out of town.

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Will uses his immediate familiarity with the town as his one real advantage, lying in wait, shooting, running, eluding, finally ending up in the hayloft of a stables. He manages to kill Colby when he comes in close for the kill. Will’s innate decency and his quick thinking converge when he’s trapped in a barn and the gang try to force him out by setting fire to it: Will frees the frightened horses and drives them out of the stables, clinging low and hard to one as he speeds out, bullets whizzing around him. The action in the finale is notably intense and realistic – nobody’s a superhuman shot and the violence is quick and frenetic. Men die in the blink of an eye. Will’s tactics and use of the town as an obstacle course not only make perfect sense given his situation but also makes clear why he preferred to make his stand there rather than risk running on the prairie. When, inevitably, Amy intervenes in the fight and shoots Pierce, it’s a powerfully affirming gesture for Amy in intervening to save her husband, but also a distinctly inglorious one: she shoots Pierce in the back from the window of the Marshal’s office when he’s reloading his pistols, and Zinnemann cuts to a close shot of her cringing in horror and pain.

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It’s easy enough to see this as the ultimate “stand by your man” message, but it’s more complex upon consideration, chiefly in the fact that Amy likely saves her husband’s life and then saves her own, granting her equity as Will’s partner, and when one remembers Amy’s motives in becoming a Quaker, because of her dead loved-ones: the one essential impulse drives two seemingly contradictory impulses, much indeed as it does Will. Amy’s intervention also makes her a combatant and therefore she immediately becomes vulnerable: Miller takes the chance to sneak up on her and take her hostage. Amy helps save herself and Will by clawing at Miller with sufficient ferocity that he thrust her away, giving Will the chance to gun him down. And just like that, the threat is gone, the dead very dead, the living holding each-other in numbed gratitude. Will’s famous last gesture, picking off the star after giving a long look of disgust to the crowd flocking and tossing it into the dirt, confirms there are limits to even the best person’s sense of duty and responsibility, and Will, fully justified in his house if not his town, leaves with his bride to the lilting refrain of the title ballad. As an ending this still feels daring in its curt diminuendo, the refusal to force any kind of make-nice or underline with bombast: doing right has been a terrible thing, but not half as terrible as watching others do wrong.

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High Noon’s impact is such a constant in pop culture it’s hard to summarise, giving rise most immediately to Westerns as diverse as the self-consciously mythic Shane (1953) and the vividly psychological Johnny Guitar (1954), and echoing on in overt variations and tributes. The template was as easily transposed into space for Peter Hyams’ Outland (1981) and monster movie for Predator (1987) as into the contemporary landscape for the likes of Dirty Harry (1971), which pointedly invested new meaning to Will’s last gesture, and Die Hard (1988), where duelling memories of the film define the relationship between the hero and villain (“That was Gary Cooper, asshole!”) and the worlds they represent. Despite his lack of fondness for the way the film changed the Western towards something more psychological and moralistic, Sergio Leone offered his own, characteristically magnified tribute in the opening scene of Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) as he recreated the vision of three bored, tense gunmen waiting for a train. Sam Peckinpah inverted the march of the villains into the town for the legendary march of The Wild Bunch (1969) towards their auto-da-fe. But as is so often the case, the wellspring retains its own, specific power, one that can still sneak up on a viewer even now.

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