1980s, Action-Adventure, Film Noir, Scifi, Thriller

The Terminator (1984)

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Director: James Cameron
Screenwriters: James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd, William Wisher (uncredited: Randall Frakes)

By Roderick Heath

Night. Dark. Ruination. Los Angeles, 2029. Monstrous metallic death machines traversing an apocalyptic landscape of twisted metal and structures, piled skulls crushed under caterpillar tread, laser beams slicing brilliance through the dank night. Darting human figures dodging the blasts. Instantly The Terminator plunges the viewer into a zone imbued with two contradictory impulses, at once ablaze with kinetic immediacy and vibrancy, and also haunted, moody, oneiric. A title card announces “the machines rose from the ashes of nuclear fire” and the battle between them and mankind’s survivors raged for decades, but will be decided in the past, “tonight.” The machinery of the present day – garbage trucks, front-end loaders, diggers – ape and presage the monstrous cast of the futuristic marauders. Spasms of brilliant energy discharge. In the two spots about the city, where the rubbish flits upon mysterious urges and the brickwork glows electric blue, naked men appear amidst a ball of white light. A version of birth rebooted for a new way of conceiving life and death. Two kinds of body disgorged from these pulsing portals, one hulking and glistening with honed perfection, the other curled in a foetal ball, smoking sores and scars on his body like the stigmata of future reckoning. The hulking man surveys Los Angeles’ nighttime sprawl and encounters a trio of punks, mechanically repeating their mocking words before making a clear and direct demand for their clothes. The price for resistance proves hideous.

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James Cameron, the kid from Kapuskasing, Ontario, found the answer to his dualistic mentality in movies. The former student of both Physics and English dropped out of college and educated himself in special effects techniques and wrote stories whilst working as a truck driver. But it wasn’t until he saw Star Wars (1977), announcing an age where his twinned fascination for technology and creative endeavour, that Cameron properly decided to become a moviemaker. Cameron made a short film about battling robots, Xenogenesis (1978), with some friends. Like many young wannabe filmmakers before him, Cameron got his break with Roger Corman, joining his low-rent studio New World Pictures. He quickly gained a reputation as someone who could get the budget up on screen, working on trash-cult movies like Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1978), Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), Escape from New York (1981), and Galaxy of Terror (1981). Cameron was hired as special effects director on Piranha II: The Spawning in 1981, a sequel to Joe Dante’s darkly witty 1978 film, but the sequel was being produced by Italian schlock maestro Ovidio Assonitis. Assonitis sacked the original director after clashes and Cameron got a field promotion to take command of the shoot, although he too eventually would be fired and the movie patched together by Assonitis.

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The resulting film was dull and silly, although it betrayed hints of Cameron’s sleek visual talent. During a bout of food poisoning Cameron contracted as the production wrapped up, he had a nightmare about robotic torso chasing him about with stabbing protuberances. Cameron turned his dream into a script with the help of writer pals Randall Frakes and William Wisher, and went into a producing partnership with Gale Ann Hurd, Corman’s former assistant. Cameron was determined to direct the project, but he couldn’t get backing from studios around Hollywood. Cameron and Hurd finally gained backing from the British Hemdale Pictures, and made his debut for the tidy sum of just under $7 million. Whilst Cameron went to England to shoot Aliens (1986), The Terminator proved a startling hit, a signature icon of the age of VHS and seed for a franchise that’s produced five sequels to date on top of a TV series, all of highly varying quality. Cameron found epochal success with Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009), which anointed him as the all-time box office champion twice in a row, only to be recently, finally dethroned by Avengers: Endgame (2019), a film which to a great extent can be regarded as both a clear descendant and pale imitation of the kind of sci-fi action movie Cameron made king.

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The Terminator’s opening reels betray Cameron’s nascent epic sensibility with the immediate onslaught of potent imagery matched to a script unafraid of thinking big even whilst creatively adapting it to a tight budget, whilst gaining immeasurably from an authentic feel for place. Cameron turns downtown LA into a neo-noir zone splendid in its seamy and desolate hue, where the homeless and wretched litter the streets and cops cruise in their own paranoid battle with mystery in the night. Early scenes of the film parse fragments of information to distinguish the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) and their distinct yet fatefully joined missions, as the former casually unleashes terrible violence to get what it wants, whereas Kyle only strips the trousers off a hapless derelict (Stan Yale), and nimbly eludes the cops whose attention he attracts. Reese manages to overpower one cop and bewilders him by demanding to know what year it is, before fleeing within a department story and exiting dressed. Cameron quickly has Reese don a long overcoat to underline his noir hero status whilst arming him with a shotgun he steals from a cop car and readily joining the other night flotsam stalking the LA downtown in the wee hours. Daylight brings the mundane sight of young waitress Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) riding a scooter to the diner where she works with her roommate Ginger (Bess Motta) and tries valiantly to get through days clogged with frenetic work and humiliation.

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Sarah’s name has been rendered totemic without her knowing, as both future visitors have searched the phone book for her name. The Terminator enters a pawn shop and kills the owner (Dick Miller) to obtain his horde of quality guns, before heading on to the home of one Sarah Connor, shooting the woman repeatedly at the front door. Ginger alerts Sarah to the bloodcurdling apparent coincidence when it’s reported on the news. That night, as Ginger prepares for a night in with her boyfriend Matt (Rick Rossovich) Sarah decides to head out on the town but soon becomes convinced she’s being followed as she spies Reese trailing her, she takes refuge in a dance club called the Tech-Noir, and when she learns that a second Sarah Connor has been killed she calls the police, who warn her to stay put. But she also calls Ginger, just as the Terminator has killed her and Matt, and he heads to club. Just at the point where the Terminator is about to shoot Sarah, Reese unleashes his shotgun, filling the Terminator with wounds that should be fatal, but only plant the man on the ground for a few moments. Reese and Sarah flee and Reese explains that the hulking man is a type of cyborg, sent back to kill her to prevent her giving birth to her son John Connor, beloved in the future as the great leader of the human resistance, and Reese was dispatched in pursuit to stop it.

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Whilst relatively limited in comparison to his immense later productions, The Terminator still stands as the Cameron’s best film to date, and, taken with its immediate follow-up Aliens, helped bring something new and galvanising to post-Star Wars sci-fi cinema. Cameron didn’t invent the sci-fi action movie, but he certainly perfected it. The Terminator matches the qualities of the title entity as a lean, precise, utterly driven unit of cinematic expression. Cameron managed something unique in the context of 1980s low-budget genre cinema. That zone was replete with inventive movies that often purveyed a weird and subversive attitude in comparison to the more high-profile releases of the age even whilst mimicking their trends: 1984 offered some strong entries in the same stakes including Repo Man, Trancers, The Philadelphia Experiment, and Night of the Comet, but none have left anything like the same cultural footprint. Perhaps that’s because The Terminator avoided the waggish edge those films had: whilst hardly humourless, The Terminator takes itself and its ideas with deadly seriousness and contours all into a cool, kinetic style, perfect for compelling an audience without yet hearing the call of the bombast and filed-down edges of multiplex fare.

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Cameron established immediately that he knew how to not just set up an interesting and bizarre story but how to keep it moving with headlong force and concision. The name of the Tech-Noir club nods to Cameron’s aesthetic mission statement, in fusing fatalistic thriller intensity with the chitinous sheen and intellectual flickers of sci-fi. Cameron incidentally revealed fetishism for malevolently cool hardware, and his fascination for the mindset of the battle-hardened. Cameron’s confusion in this regard might well have even helped his eventual conquest of the mass audience. Cameron’s initial purpose with The Terminator was to make up for a severe lack he perceived in sci-fi cinema: the lack of a robot movie that summarised the iconic power of the concept that had so often decorated the cover of pulp magazines. The vision of tingling paranoia and evasion amidst a grubby midnight world after the mediating opening title sequence carefully likens the world Reese lands in as a sector of the present day a visitor from a grim future like Reese can recognise and operate within. The glimpses of that future allowed throughout the rest of the film involve much the same game of eluding and pockets of poor and filthy people subsisting as they’re hunted by hostile forces.

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Then there’s the reason behind Reese’s arrival: the artificial intelligence (unnamed in this film, dubbed Skynet in the sequel) that sent the Terminator back into the past for a pinpointed assassination, an entity constructed for defence logistics that suddenly became self-aware and tried to wipe out humanity. The intelligence’s last-ditch plan after being defeated in a long insurgency reveals an amusingly robotic logic that can only perceive in limited terms: Skynet perceives its enemy, John Connor, as a variable to be erased, rather than one nexus for the human will and energy inevitably turned against it. Cameron’s engagement with the post-apocalyptic subgenre strained to remove direct political references, as the artificial intelligence’s intervention subverts the Cold War that had heated up again in the early Reagan era by portraying both the USA and the Soviet Union as the mere incidental arsenals for the machine’s plot: te superpowers’ illusion of control is mere grist for the ghost in the machine. But the portrayal of the results of Skynet unleashing such destruction still kept company with a spasm of bleak and portentous portrayals of such events around the same time in fare like The Day After (1983) and Threads (1984). Reese’s methods involve something like urban guerrilla warfare, ironically looking less acceptably normal than the Terminator itself as he wanders the streets with glazed eyes, filthy pants, and sawed-down weapon tucked under his arm and plastic explosives cooked up with household products in a motel room.

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In concept The Terminator is only a degree removed from a thread of speculative cinema ranging contending with the idea of urban guerrilla warriors from Ivan Dixon’s The Spook Who Sat By The Door (1973) through to the Mad Max films and variants like Enzo Castellari’s Bronx Warriors films, as well as works tussling with thrillers rooted in post-Vietnam angst like Black Sunday (1977) and First Blood (1982). Cameron had even written a script, eventually much-revised, for Rambo: First Blood Part II (1984). Cameron’s fascination with the fallout of the Vietnam War, an aspect still echoing loudly in his work by the time of Avatar, comes into focus here as Reese is offered as a veteran still at war even whilst returned to the ‘normal’ world. Cameron would back it up with Aliens in offering a blunt metaphor for the American grunt’s-eye-view experience of the war, whilst The Terminator leans heavily on time travelling warrior Reese as an analogue for a damaged veteran still carrying on the war on the home front. Such recognisable affinity was given a new charge by Cameron’s exacting technique and careful aesthetic, and well as the edge of his sci-fi conceptualism, suggesting all such conflicts are a trial run for the coming ultimate war. Reese’s experience is also imbued with Holocaust overtones as he displays the identifying tattoo, cast with chilling aptness in bar code, he retains from years in the AI’s disposal camps where survivors like Reese were used like sonderkommandos. Reese recounts how John Connor helped organise the prisoners, break out, and begin their war, leading to a hard-won victory where only Reese’s mission remains the last, strangest fight.

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Cameron’s grasp of time as a fluid and dimensional rather than a purely linear concept helped give the film, and its follow-ups, room to breathe in terms of cause and effect: “One possible future,” Reese tries to explain to Sarah before admitting he doesn’t grasp all the technicalities, implying regardless that the version of the past he’s landed in might not lead back to the same future, but probably will as long as the variables are still in place. That’s why the storyline erects a straightforward paradox as Reese becomes Sarah’s lover and father to her child, the man who will eventually find it necessary to send him back in time. Despite the many heady and imaginative elements fed into it, The Terminator shows Cameron sticking with established formulae when it came to make low-budget genre cinema in that moment. The film freely blends the basic pattern of the slasher style of horror movie with a style of thriller built around car chases and gunfights. Sarah Connor is a standard final girl in many respects, defined by her relative lack of worldly and sexual confidence compared to hot-to-trot Ginger who bangs her boyfriend with her Walkman turned up loud, channels nascent maternal instincts into her pet iguana, and slowly grows from frayed everywoman to resilient survivor. Like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and other slasher monstrosities, the Terminator moves with the steady remorselessness and lack of human register of fate itself, and repeatedly comes to life again for fresh onslaughts after it seems to have been laid low.

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The key difference is that those monsters rely on a supernatural mystique whereas the Terminator is a comparatively rationalised force. The way Cameron exploits the slasher killer figuration allows him to exploit its key value – it’s a narrative style cheap and easy to stage and blessed with straightforward velocity – whilst also extending the psychological tension in Reese’s inability to establish his veracity until the Terminator provides proof, by which time it’s too late. Cameron also signalled the slasher mode’s end by pushing it into a new zone that would prove much more difficult to emulate because it required more special effects and makeup input, and audience would seek something more clever and substantial from then on. Schwarzenegger’s cyborg devolves from ultimate specimen of manhood to one losing bits of skin and flesh, slowly revealing the underlying robotic form, until only the mechanical being is left. Cameron also pushed against the grain of the slasher style in situating the drama squarely in an urban world where the forces of authority are ultimately revealed to be just as powerless before the marauding evil, and toying with the underlying moralism of the slasher brand. The Terminator offers a story in which, for a saviour to be born, the heroine must enthusiastically engage in premarital sex. The film toys constantly with imagery of birth and tweaked religious impulses. John Connor’s initials clearly signal his messianic function, and he’s the spawn of a figure that falls from the sky and comes to give Sarah the new gospel.

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Cameron readily admitted to emulating Ridley Scott and George Miller, emulating the cyber-noir of Blade Runner (1982) and the rollicking ferocity of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981). Interestingly, even as Cameron sublimates of Blade Runner’s atmosphere and ideas, he strays closer to Philip K. Dick than Scott’s film did in one crucial aspect: Dick’s original theme was that however close the facsimile of the replicants was to the human, ultimately they remained creatures without souls, without transformative empathy. Another of Cameron’s inspirations, the 1960s anthology TV series The Outer Limits, would eventually prove a thorn in his side. The ever-prickly Harlan Ellison, who had written two notable episodes of the series with similarities to Cameron’s eventual story, “Demon With a Glass Hand” and “Soldier”, would sue Cameron and his studio for plagiarism, a contention that was eventually settled out of court against Cameron’s objections: Ellison received a vague credit. To be sure, the basics of The Terminator do resemble Ellison’s episodes, although a great deal of sci-fi often borrows and remixes ideas in such a fashion, and the way Cameron develops his variations on the same themes proves quite different.

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Another strong antecedent is Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973), with its similar basic plot of a marauding killer android. Crichton’s film presaged The Terminator and some other ‘80s sci-fi-action hybrids in its visual motifs, introducing a post-human viewpoint as the deadly machine stalks its foes utilising point-of-view shots overtly placing us in a post-human way of perceiving the world’s textures. And, of course, the ace in the hole proved to be the casting of the former bodybuilder turned actor Schwarzenegger in the lead role. Schwarzenegger, who had become an odd kind of movie star appearing in the documentary Pumping Iron (1977), had been acting off and on since the late 1960s, and with Conan the Barbarian (1982) was promoted to leading man. Whilst that film had been a fitting vehicle for Schwarzenegger in emphasising a childlike quality within the hulking form, The Terminator went one better in turning all his liabilities as an actor into strengths. Cameron had intended the Terminator to be played by someone like the actor Lance Henriksen with whom he’d worked on Piranha II. The cyborg was supposed to be, after all, an infiltrator, without characteristics that would normally draw the eye.

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Nonetheless he found the entire project gained a new and specific gravity thanks to his star’s presence. Schwarzenegger’s grating Austrian accent, slowed down and levelled in a monotone, became perfectly unified with the character, as in his famous threat/promise to a cop at a duty desk, “I’ll be back,” before driving a car through the front doors. His line deliveries became then chiselled little runes depicting the awkward interaction of a machine mind and human custom, most amusingly illustrated when, trying to ward off a nosy hotel janitor, he punches up a selection of retorts and choose “Fuck you, asshole.” Schwarzenegger’s body meanwhile encapsulated the idea of bristling, unswerving threat and force: where Cameron’s initial concept was to utilise the cognitive dissonance between the form wielding deadly force and its impact, casting Schwarzenegger erased it, as he looked like he might just be able to ram his hand into a man’s chest and rip his heart out. A good deal of the film’s signature mood is illustrated simply by the image of the Terminator cruising the city streets in a stolen cop car, a renegade influence that nonetheless readily adheres to an image of pure authority, face bathed in red and green light, eyes promising cold execution.

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Although he ultimately came out of it with the least lasting credit amongst the major figures of The Terminator, a great deal of the film’s quality is due to Biehn, who perfectly embodies the future warrior, every nerve and muscle in his body honed by decades of brutal warfare and twitching with tormented survival instinct, and yet still retaining a streak of fractured romanticism. Cameron allows him a veritable Proustian streak as he constantly drifts into reveries of the future past, all of them invoking moments of trauma, as when he recalls battling robots monsters only to be trapped inside a toppled and burning truck, but also signalling the things that keep him human, as in the last flashback/forward where he retreats into an underground bunker where fellow survivors persist and settles to dream upon a photo of a lovely woman taken in another world, an image he clearly adores: it is, of course, a photo of Sarah gifted to him by John.

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This sequence is perhaps my favourite in the film as it offers Reese’s memory through a lens of the dreamy remove shading again into nightmare. Cameron evokes Reese’s feeling of peculiar hominess in the grim hovel he shares with other people, a sense of intimate shelter contending with such bleak jokes as a mother and child staring at a TV that proves to house a warming fire and people hinting rats for food. The abode is despoiled when penetrated by a Terminator that cuts loose with a laser canon, Reese’s memories fixating on the glowing red eyes of the murderous cyborg glimpsed through the murk and the photo of Sarah blistering and blazing in the fire. Upon waking, Reese finds that Sarah has dreamt of dogs, the barking sentinels that warn of a Terminator, somehow having shared some portion of his liminal space. Sarah herself is the first of Cameron’s many, celebrated gutsy heroines, although pointedly she doesn’t start as one, complaining that “I can’t even balance my chequebook” in response to the suggestion she’s the mother of the future. Cameron makes the idea of biological function both an ennobling prospect and a cross to bear as Sarah finds herself tethered to this aspect of her female being, whilst Reese, however heroic, serves his function as drone protector and inseminator and then dies, purpose spent.

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The film’s most recent extension, Tim Miller’s Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) honourably attempted to allow the alternative of a woman not being simply defined by the man she might birth but become a leader in her own right, but whilst this ticked a rhetorical box it spurned the weird force of Cameron’s initial metaphor for maternity itself, considering every woman as the mother of the future, surprisingly little tackled in the sci-fi genre and a major aspect of The Terminator’s nagging novelty: it found a way to make motherhood seem inherently heroic. This ironically essentialist take on gender functions contrasts the mechanical way of assembly lines and the Terminator’s perfectly self-sufficient body that is nonetheless functionless beyond dealing out death, a most perfectly inflated and reductive evocation of a certain ideal of masculinity. The film’s first sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), would stretch Cameron’s thinking further to the point where he offers Sarah a few years down the line as having become Reese, just as wiry and honed and ablaze with terrible, maddening awareness.

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The film’s more earthbound and familiar aspect is provided by an array of supporting characters, most of whom fall victim to the Terminator, including Ginger and Matt. The cops tasked with investigating the spate of Sarah Connor homicides are Traxler (Paul Winfield) and Vukovich (Henriksen), a splendid pair of workaday non-heroes with palates deadened by bad coffee and cigarettes and existential miasma, and the police psychologist Dr Silberman (Earl Boen) who interviews Reese and rejoices in the brilliant complexities of his psychotic delusion. Such men try their best to defend a reality they don’t realise is crumbling, and come supplied with running jokes like Traxler’s lack of interest in Vukovich’s anecdotes. Sarah and Reese are arrested after surviving another battle with the Terminator, with the possibility of alternative explanations for what’s happened presented to Sarah. Just after Silberman leaves the station the Terminator comes crashing in, blasting his way through the small army of police with cold efficiency, including Traxler and Vukovich, whilst Sarah and Reese take the chance to escape custody. The police station slaughter is another of Cameron’s nerveless action sequences, the Terminator’s ruthless brutality and efficiency finally described at full pitch, calmly gunning down cop after cop and shrugging off bullet wounds, hobbling his foes by knocking out the power and then proceeding with his infra-red vision. This scene also incidentally underlines the Terminator’s badass lustre in his complete indifference to adult authority, one clear reason perhaps why so many kids and teens immediately adored it.

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Cameron’s technical expertise certainly helped him in forging momentous images on a budget, his technique incorporating a cunning use of slow motion in the sequence when Reese and the Terminator converge on Sarah in the Tech-Noir. This seems to match the Terminator’s seemingly more distended sense of time and action when seen from his viewpoint. There’s also Cameron’s signature use of filters, particularly steely blues and greys with patches of lancing reds, and the use of plentiful Ridley Scott-style smoke and steam diffusion. Amongst its many precursors, the film The Terminator most resembles in mood and visual palette is Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), another work in a zone of urban noir albeit one lacking sci-fi aspects, similarly propelled by the feeling that its characters are akin to the last living survivors of an apocalypse and yet still persist within the stark and alien textures of nocturnal LA. One significant aspect of the film’s identity is Brad Fiedel’s then-cutting edge electronic scoring, with its throbbing, metallic textures, revolving around a main theme at once ominous and plaintively evocative: the scoring feels perfectly of a unit with the film’s underlying struggle between the mechanistic and the emotional, describing all the blasted landscapes and desperate humanity.

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Reese underlines the absolute relentlessness of the Terminator to Sarah, its complete imperviousness to all forms of reason and dissuasion. The film draws its galvanising pace from the depiction of such unswerving programming. When it does grab some effective moments of downtime, islands of peace must be bought with moments of incredible exertion and frenzied survival will. Humans need things the Terminator doesn’t, and only geography and the maintenance of its camouflage limit it. The notion of the robot made to look human was hardly new – it has a clear precursor as far back as Metropolis (1926) – but Cameron’s vivid illustration of his version, in the mangling of the Terminator’s appearance, offered a newly gruesome depiction of the machine within, the grown human apparel discarded through its many battles until revealing shining metal and a glowing red eye, the organic one that covered it plucked out with Biblical readiness when damaged. Such subterfuge becomes unnecessary as the Terminator zeroes in on its prey. “Pain can be controlled,” Reese tells Sarah, a sign that to function in terrible extremes the human must aspire towards a Terminator-like state to survive cruel realities, but limits to all such remove are eventually found. The human urge to vulnerable connection inevitably sees Reese and Sarah have sex in a motel room they retreat to, after Sarah beholds Reese’s body with all its scar tissue and his mind with all its quivering, innocent need.

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Narrative efficiency reasserts itself with cold humour as Sarah calls up her mother to reassure her about her safety and her mother’s voice extracts her location from her, whereupon Cameron shows the other end of the call, panning past signs of violence to find the Terminator on the phone performing an imitation. This lapse sets up the film’s climax as the Terminator arrives at the motel, with Sarah and Reese warned by a barking dog and fleeing just ahead of the cyborg, which pursues them on a motorcycle. Reese tries to fend off their pursuer with his improvised explosives, but is clipped by a bullet, and both chased and chaser crash on a freeway overpass. The Terminator, after being dragged under a semitrailer, commandeers the truck whilst Sarah has to drag away the injured Reese, but Reese manages to blow up the truck with one of his explosives, and the Terminator stumbles out amidst the flames, collapsing as its flesh burns away in blackened flakes. The lovers embrace by the flaming wreckage, only for Cameron to stage his own variation on the famous, carefully framed revival of Michael in Halloween (1978) as the now entirely denuded cyborg skeleton rises from the wreckage and resumes the chase. Cameron’s penchant for nesting surprising new stages in his climaxes had its first and most sensible iteration here, as once again the constant assaults of the Terminator obey its own logic and capacity to the limit, as well as his intelligence on a plotting level which always tries to make the various crises grow out the previous ones. The terrifying difficulty of halting such a foe is illustrated again and again, and the film’s finally tragic aura stems from the accruing certainty that it can’t be stopped without countenancing hard loss.

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Hard loss comes indeed as Sarah and Reese flee within a factory and, desperate to keep the cyborg away from Sarah, Reese gets close enough to stick his last explosive into its armature, blowing it to pieces but getting himself killed, and Sarah badly injured, in the process. Even this still doesn’t stop the monster as the bedraggled torso keeps after Sarah, dragging itself along with one good hand, the organic and mechanical beings now both crippled, mimicking each-other’s motions as they drag themselves across the floor and through the gullet of a hydraulic press, as mutually entrapped as the Coyote and Roadrunner who, at root, they strongly resemble. Sarah’s final destruction of the Terminator by catching it in the press and crushing it is both the end of the narrative and the culmination of Sarah’s evolution, saving herself with warrior grit and kissing off her great enemy with the ultimate reversal of role, “You’re terminated, fucker.” Hardly the birth of the action heroine, but certainly the modern breed’s debutante party. It’s fitting that, after all the thunderous action and surging drama, the coda returns to meditate upon the film’s rarer quality, that aspect of menacing yet yearning genre poetry. Sarah, now travelling the desert in a jeep with a dog for company, is sold the photo that will become Reese’s icon by a Mexican kid, now revealed to be the image of her meditating on Reese himself in an eternal loop of longing and pain. Onwards she drives and vanishes into Mexican mountains, the storm clouds blowing in suggestive of the oncoming apocalyptic threat, one of the great final movie shots.

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The Terminator’s influence still echoes through action and sci-fi cinema, including its own birthed franchise. Following a relative commercial slip with the undersea alien tale The Abyss (1989) Cameron would take up his debut again and reiterate it as Terminator 2: Judgment Day, released seven years after the original, this time on a record-breaking budget and riding a wave of hype and expense the likes of which Hollywood had scarcely seen since the days of 1950s widescreen epics. In the meantime the Cold War had ended and the Vietnam-age angst of the original had dwindled. Cameron did his best to intensify the nuclear angst with a punishing vision of LA’s destruction in a dream sequence, but the newly positive mood of the moment was reflected in Cameron’s depiction of his heroes forestalling the rise of Skynet and the destructive war. So Cameron deflected his narrative’s stress points into concepts more rooted in societal observation particularly in describing the feckless lot of the moment’s young folk, as represented by the teenaged John Connor, trapped between disinterested representatives of square society as represented by his dimwit foster parents and a new, ruthless Terminator now disguised as a policeman and entirely subsuming the image of authority, and ruined radicalism as embodied by Sarah, whilst recasting Schwarzenegger’s Terminator from embodiment of brute masculinity to an ironically idealised father figure. The film’s excellence as spectacle, with groundbreaking special effects and tremendous action setpieces couldn’t quite hide the degree to which Cameron often settled for lightly riffing on his original script and recycling a settled template. But taken as a pair the two films remain one of the great diptychs in popular cinema. The rest of the sequels are a matter of taste.

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1960s, Action-Adventure, Crime/Detective, Scifi, Thriller

You Only Live Twice (1967)

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Director: Lewis Gilbert
Screenwriter: Roald Dahl

By Roderick Heath

I vividly recall, when I was a very small boy, the first time I saw You Only Live Twice on television. More specifically, it was the opening scene that sank like a fishhook through my imagination. A NASA Gemini space capsule in orbit, carrying two astronauts. One astronaut, Chris (Norman Jones), starts a spacewalk, only for the trackers on Earth to warn some strange contact is approaching. With John Barry’s score swirling in ominous and ratcheting intensity, Chris sees another spacecraft zeroing in, its nosecone splitting apart like a hungry maw and capturing the Gemini. The closing jaws sever Chris’s lifeline, cutting him adrift as the devouring craft moves off. Director Lewis Gilbert conveys something stark and chilling about the notion of death in space in the way the frantic dialogue of the astronauts and the trackers is suddenly severed and Chris drifts away in silence into the cosmos like so much refuse. Not long after, Pauline Kael accused Stanley Kubrick of trying to inflate this affecting vignette into an entire film with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Such a vivid evocation of space and death as harsh and lonely certainly didn’t sit with the usual, larkishly nasty entertainment value of the James Bond series, which in just five years had become astonishingly successful to the point of reorganising much of popular culture in its own image.

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You Only Live Twice was also the first Bond film I ever saw and the one that made me a lifelong if sometimes hesitant aficionado, deeply fascinating me with its vivid, iconographic style, particularly the opening credits with their evocation of dreamlike romanticism and seething natural force. John Barry and Leslie Bricusse’s great theme song as sung by Nancy Sinatra warbles over Maurice Binder’s visions of naked geishas and boiling volcanic lava, describing a grandly sensual and mysterious world that treads close to subliminal zones, a vision that powerfully infiltrates the often more boyish fantasies glimpsed in the rest of the film. The relatively modest initial hit that was Dr. No (1962) had made Sean Connery synonymous with the lead role and resulted in three follow-ups, From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), and Thunderball (1965), each of which outstripped the last in astonishing popularity and moneyspinning: the margins of profitability on those films would make modern blockbuster producers weep in yearning. By 1967, the Bond marque had to fight for screen space amongst a plethora of other spies and suave action men, and so the series began to leave behind its relatively modest and earthbound roots in exchange for grander showmanship and a more overt engagement with science fiction. Sci-fi had been percolating in the series since Dr. No’s plot involving rocket toppling, and the futuristic edge to Q’s (Desmond Llewellyn) inventions, as well as the supervillains and mysterious cabals borrowed from old serials and Fritz Lang movies.

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To give the instalment some fresh vigour, the producing team of Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman turned from their settled series team. Directors Terence Young and Guy Hamilton had forged the series in aesthetic terms, working with regular screenwriter Richard Maibaum and cinematographer Ted Moore. Hamilton had affixed a glistening pop sheen to Young’s cool jazz template with Goldfinger, but the relatively languid and indulgent style of Thunderball pointed to difficulties the series would have in reconciling a greater and greater push for fan service with strong plotting. Trying to up the stakes, You Only Live Twice saw something like the birth of the modern blockbuster as a genre unto itself, melding special effects and action in a delirious blend. Lewis Gilbert, an experienced and robust director used to handling big productions and just coming off a major hit with Alfie (1966), was taken on as director. With Maibaum busy on another project, Roald Dahl, a writer known mostly for his maliciously witty and cunning children’s stories, was commissioned to write the script. Freddie Young, winner of two Oscars for his work on Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) with David Lean, was hired to give the film a dose of widescreen spectacle. The making of the film proved somewhat fraught, as Connery was getting sick of the role and fearing typecasting, and disliked filming in Japan, leading to his fateful dropping out of the role.

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You Only Live Twice already represented a break for the series beyond the personnel changes, as it was the first entry to more or less compose its own storyline and only borrow basic elements from Ian Fleming’s source novel, and leave behind the relative modesty and credibility of the early entries, albeit merely amplifying the tropes of futuristic technology and grandiose conspiracy already established. Dahl, who disliked the Fleming novel he was nominally adapting despite having been a friend of the writer, decided instead to offer a more expansive variation of the plot of Dr. No, and You Only Live Twice would itself be recycled in the Bond series, as The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). Fleming’s book, the last he properly completed in his lifetime, was one of his harshest and strangest entries, with Bond sent to Japan on the hunt for Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the leader of the insidious SPECTRE organisation, after Blofeld had killed Bond’s wife Tracy at the end of the preceding novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Blofeld had taken over an old castle on a remote island and amongst his varying projects had turned it into a garden filled with poisonous plants and creatures as a place where rich people could come to kill themselves. Most of the book, including the finale where Bond was left amnesiac in blissful ignorance, was jettisoned, and the order of the novels reversed in filming, leaving only the basic premise of Bond going on a mission to Japan and battling Blofeld in alliance with local spymaster Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba).

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The mysterious spacecraft that swallows the Gemini capsule at the outset has been launched by SPECTRE – the Special Executive for Counter-Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion – from a base secreted within an extinct volcano and carefully hidden from all aerial and satellite surveillance. The USA blames the USSR for taking their craft, but during a heated summit meeting in the ironically frigid climes of Scandinavia where the Americans accuse the Soviets of trying to seize control of space, the British Foreign Secretary (Robin Bailey) reports radar signs the craft responsible returned to Earth around Japan. In Hong Kong, James Bond is currently off assignment and enjoying the fruits of his labour with a local girl (Tsai Chin, best known for playing Fu Manchu’s daughter in the Christopher Lee series), only for her to trap him and let in two machine-gun wielding assassins. When policemen arrive they seem to find Bond dead. Bond is given a burial at sea from the deck of a destroyer in Hong Kong harbour, only for his sail-wrapped body to be collected by two frogmen and brought aboard a submarine, where M (Bernard Lee) and Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) wait: Bond’s death has been faked and he’s being spirited to Japan in the most covert fashion to take up the search for the spaceship.

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Dahl’s cruelly mischievous sense of humour and imaginative gift for absurd mechanics, long apparent in his own writing, quietly invaded the Bond style here, meshing with the wistful spiritual overtones suggested by the title and the many games with identity and culture played throughout, to invest the film with a blithely surreal energy: Bond’s once-solid identity is fractured in many pieces to keep pace with the vastly inflated stakes and bizarre new facts in the age of the space race. Dahl’s imprint is particularly obvious in an early run of droll flourishes, like the Hong Kong girl trapping Bond in a spring-loaded Murphy bed, and the idea of putting bond through all the trappings of a naval funeral, before being brought aboard the submarine where M holds court in a travelling version of his familiar office complete with wood panelling. You Only Live Twice skirts satire of the already-settled Bond formula at quite a few junctures, only to prove they were always a moveable feast. Soon Bond, ever a globetrotter who reminds Moneypenny that he “took a first in Oriental languages at Cambridge,” lands in Japan nominally as a dead man and therefore free to experience on a deeper and stranger level. Upon landing on the Honshu shore, after being fired out of the submarine’s torpedo tube (!), Bond looks towards the sun as it sets with mystical import: Bond reborn in a new land in time to take on a new age.

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The film still retains some of the flavour of Fleming’s exotic tourism at a time when Japan was truly becoming a world player again after World War II, offering it as a country with a shell of glistening, ahistorical super-modernity concealing a far more potent classical culture at once unfamiliar and appealing to a westerner half in love with death and dedicated to pagan mores like Bond. So Gilbert cuts from that evocative sunset to shots of pulsating Tokyo neon, putting the dualistic sensibility into the visual language. Bond’s adventures in Tokyo nightlife take a hard swerve towards the mysteriously transformative and unstable spirit of Lang and Orson Welles, as Bond makes contact with one of Tanaka’s operatives, Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) at a sumo match, and she takes him to meet his colleague, the local British intelligence officer Henderson (Charles Gray). Bond takes the quick and expedient route of ensuring Henderson is who he says he is by taking his cane and giving one of his legs a whack, accurately establishing it’s false. The beaming Henderson begins explaining why he thinks the mystery rocket really is locally based when suddenly he stops speaking in mid-sentence. Bond realises someone’s stabbed him through the paper wall of his room. He chases down the assassin, knocks him out, and dons his clothes, including the surgical mask he wears, to take his place: another goon waiting in a car spirits him to the skyscraper belonging to the Osato Chemical & Engineering Co.

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When the second goon uncovers Bond’s face after hauling him up to an executive office, the two have a brutal battle that Bond wins by swatting his foe with a decorative statue. Bond cracks and robs a safe and flees, with Aki proving to be waiting nearby to spirit him away. When Bond demands to take over, Aki lures him into an underground tunnel where the floor opens up and drops Bond into a chute that deposits him neatly on a chair directly before Tanaka in his secret office. This hilarious flourish of destabilised reality strongly evokes the funhouse sequence in Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai (1947) and would itself be filched by Bond fan George Lucas for Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) in Luke Skywalker’s plunge out of Cloud City. Bond and Tanaka prove swiftly to be well-matched collaborators and personalities, both being fantasies of man-of-the-world largesse and finesse as well as effective force. Upon inspecting the stolen Osato documents find a suggestive list of chemical orders and a photo of a freighter, the Chinese-registered Ning-Po, at anchor off a coastal island that the company has gone to ruthless lengths to suppress.

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After Tanaka introduces Bond to the pleasures of a Japanese bath, with his harem in attendance, Bond and Aki become lovers. Posing as a chemical buyer, Bond visits the Osato building legitimately to meet with the boss, Mr Osato (Teru Shimada), and his sultry assistant Miss Brandt (Karin Dor). After sparking another attempt to kill him, Bond heads with Aki to Kobe to inspect the Ning-Po to see if it might be carrying constituents for rocket fuel. Dor, swanning into the film with mane of red hair and eyeliner thick enough to dam the Mississippi, doesn’t get to make as much of an impression as some other Bond femme fatales, like Luciana Paluzzi in Thunderball, as this seems the one aspect of the Bond formula Gilbert and Dahl don’t quite seem to know what to do with, not in the same way they give a new flesh to the familiar figure of the ally-lover-victim in the form of Aki, who overshadows the official Bond Girl. Brandt’s attempt to kill Bond by trapping him in a plane and letting him crash is rather lackadaisically staged. Nonetheless Dor gains a memorable note of sadistic incision as she threatens the captive Bond with a knife used by plastic surgeons for slicing away skin, only to quickly give it to him to cut away the straps on her gown. “The things I do for England…’ Bond murmurs.

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It’s tantalising and disappointing that no-one involved in the franchise has yet done something with the Sadean poetry inherent in the novel’s concept of Blofeld’s garden of death, imagery that accords strongly with the cult of extreme experience Bond and Blofeld both subscribe to. Certainly it wasn’t however a particularly cinematic concept in a series increasingly defined by action. One aspect of the novel retained was the theme of Bond being immersed in Japanese mores by Tanaka. The very dated bawdiness of Tanaka introducing Bond to the pleasures of the Japan way of life where according to him “men come first, women come second” gives the requisite dose of Bond-as-playboy business as he takes pleasure in being scrubbed over by the harem. Fortunately this stuff is quickly and playfully undercut by the way the film offers Aki and, later, Bond’s second partner and “wife” Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama) as deft agents for Tanaka. Kissy even saves Tanaka with a well-aimed shot in the finale, and the two women are rather more effectual heroines than many from the franchise’s more officially enlightened eras. Aki in particular is a terrific partner for Bond, dashing around Tokyo streets in her zippy white Speed Racer sports car, shimmying down ropes to make a speedy getaway, and calmly calling up the familiar Tanaka surprise for pursuing goons, a helicopter with a dangling electromagnet to pick up their car and dump it in Tokyo Bay.

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Bond and Aki’s foray to Kobe justifies a sequence that sees Gilbert and Young delighting in their unfettered sense of the cinematic as they shoot Bond battling off a horde of dockyard thugs, set upon them by Osato, in an ebullient helicopter shot watching Bond punch and thrash his way through opponents as he dashes along a pier rooftop, with Barry’s scoring surging joyously on the soundtrack. Bond escapes them a display of physical daring and skill and he leaps onto piled cargo from on high, only to be knocked out as he calmly tries to walk away. After escaping the villains’ attempt to kill him in a staged plane crash, Bond has Q bring to Japan one of his inventions, Little Nellie, contained within four suitcases, which proves to be a gyrocopter festooned with weaponry. Bond uses Little Nellie to search for the SPECTRE base, and gets to use all her talents in a terrific aerial action, a few ropey, interpolated model shots notwithstanding, as four SPECTRE helicopters appearing seemingly out of nowhere and attack him, only to be out manoeuvred and outgunned by the nifty little vehicle. This sequence augments another familiar element to new importance: where before Bond’s gadgets had been used as part of more functional action scenes, this time an entire scene is contrived purely for a ritual display of what Bond can accomplish with Q’s ingenious weapons. Gilbert employs a puckish cinematic joke as Little Nellie is assembled in an array of still shots without the constructors, the finished machine only becoming coherent in the last.

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In spite of his jokes and flourishes of weirdness, Dahl’s script is also notable for having a remarkably solid plot by the series standard, and for actually letting Bond do real and effective spy work. As opposed to, say, Goldfinger where the plot depends on him being incredibly incompetent at his job but then doing Pussy Galore so well she rats out the entire evil plan. By contrast in You Only Live Twice Bond successfully uses ruses to uncover his enemies and collects information that yields clues that describe the increasingly tangible outline of what he’s facing. He also contends with enemies with an edge of real guile and brutality, like Osato, who uses an x-ray machine in his desk to uncover the fact Bond is armed when posing as a buyer, and Brandt, who uses Bond for sex and subversion in the same way he often uses others to get him where she wants him and then tries to kill him. Gilbert conveys all with his hard, clean, rigorously flowing images that play off the specific landscape of 1960s Tokyo. He builds to spasms of terrific action like Bond’s combat with the fearsome goon in the Osato office, a small masterpiece of stunt fight staging, and rendering even episodes of comic-surreal weirdness like Bond’s fall into Tanaka’s office somehow coherent.

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You Only Live Twice has significant rivals to being called the best Bond film, particularly From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), and Casino Royale (2006). Tellingly, each of them retains a more intimate sense of Bond’s character in professional travails and emotional risk, whereas Bond here is necessarily at his most acquiescent at the dizzying flow of violence and strangeness thrown his way, in one of his most serial-like adventures. You Only Live Twice fully codified some aspects of the series most beloved of lampooners and apt for generalised caricatures, the first Bond film that really adheres to the popular lore of what an old-school Bond film was like. Where before the intimations of awesome force and alien threat represented by Blofeld and SPECTRE were kept fairly minimal and suggestive, here they step out into the open, with their colossal lairs and technology, their nasty paraphernalia for mistreating weak employees, and their nice line in futuristic fashion and architecture. But You Only Live Twice also lacks significant flaws its rivals films have: it doesn’t contend with an awkward lead performance like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service or a first half crammed with franchise-building make-work as Casino Royale, and it moves faster than the relatively slow-burn From Russia With Love.

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The major quality as a consequence of You Only Live Twice is that it surely represents the finest balance the glib and absurdist aspect of the series with the side defined by a tough and percussive sense of adventure. Despite its enormous box office success Thunderball had evinced signs of the self-indulgence that would often dog the franchise, as Terence Young had been both the perfect man to kick off the series and a vexing one to continue it precisely because of his strong identification with Bond. Broccoli and Saltzman were wise to turn to a talent like Gilbert to take over. Son of music hall performers and a former actor and screenwriter before making his directorial forays as a documentary maker, Gilbert was a skilled classical storyteller with a talent for evoking atmosphere and finding strong human dramas within big-budget spectacles, with war films as excellent as Reach for the Sky (1956), Carve Her Name With Pride (1958), Sink the Bismarck! (1960), and H.M.S. Defiant (1962), as well as more intimate and ironic movies like Ferry To Hong Kong (1959), The Greengage Summer (1961), The 7th Dawn (1964), and Alfie. A connecting thread between many of his diverse movies was a fondness for studies of sardonically disaffected and detached characters who find themselves trapped between worlds figuratively and/or literally, often trying to convince themselves they’re not affected by their quandaries and heroically, or sometimes tragically, discovering they’re right.

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Bond fits neatly into this attitude, the existential survivor and gladiator who feels it when one of his lovers dies but doesn’t let it divert him one iota, the perfect British swashbuckler who finds more self-recognition in Japanese culture, and who is, eventually, even transformed into a Japanese man with makeup at Tanaka’s insistence so he can infiltrate a fishing community. You Only Live Twice evolves a uniquely precise atmosphere for a Bond film, largely thanks to the pulse of Barry’s scoring, constantly revising and recapitulating the essential theme to offer a permeating sense of exotic fancy to accompany Gilbert and Young’s lush visuals, and the sense of double identity and duplicitous appearance that defines the film stems from the interplay of sound and vision. One particularly affecting scene in this regard comes when Bond has to marry Kissy, one of Tanaka’s operatives and an Ama girl who can give him good cover in his search for the SPECTRE base. On one level the scene involves a rather crass joke as Bond dreads the wedding because Tanaka has told him his bride has “the face of a pig,” only to behold the lovely Kissy. But Gilbert pays close attention to the evocation of ritual and a different cultural sublimation of a common act. It’s perhaps the closest the series ever came to reconciling its intensely romantic impulses and its celebration of louche behaviour.

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The way Gilbert shoots Bond’s first glimpse of Kissy, with Barry’s surging music, packs an unexpected jolt of romantic intensity, and suddenly Bond’s act of tourism becomes a genuine immersion within the spiritual and sexual life of Japan (Gilbert would later offer a semi-remake of the film with an explicitly romantic gloss with 1976’s Seven Nights in Japan). It also suggests a new act in Bond’s sputtering evolution, setting the scene for his marriage in the subsequent film. Meanwhile SPECTRE’s plot hits its climactic phase as their rocket swallows a Russian capsule, pushing the Soviets and the US on the brink of war as the former accuse the later of a revenge attack. With the second snatching, Gilbert this time follows the mysterious craft through its descent into the atmosphere and landing within the volcano lair. The rocket is a delightful piece of hardware, beyond what rocket engineering was at the time and yet strongly resembling more recent attempts to build a lander. Here, we gain glimpses of Blofeld, his presence still only signified by the infamous white cat he pets and his ruthlessly commanding voice. In From Russia With Love and Thunderball Blofeld’s presence had been suggested with actor Eric Pohlmann’s plummy European accent wielding sonorous menace, offered as an enigmatic, near-abstract source of evil lurking behind the schemes Bond fought, commanding and terrifying his underlings from behind veils of mystery and remote-controlled punishment.

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For Blofeld’s first proper appearance Donald Pleasance was cast, but his revelation is left until the climax. Until then he’s the same unseen source malignancy lurking in an apartment off the lair that, like M’s mobile office, mocks the pretences of old European power with its art and tapestries even whilst adapted to a new landscape of cyclopean metal and hewn living rock, high life for the age of the nuclear bomb shelter. Blofeld pushes a lever with his foot that dumps Miss Brandt from a footbridge into the pond filled with ravenous piranha to punish her for her unsuccessful attempt to kill Bond, a moment that still packs a disquieting note, although it’s neatly dispersed by the deadpan comedy of the bridge snapping back into place and Osata scurrying off in alarm to obey Blofeld’s orders. This scene also sees Blofeld meeting with the people who provided the plot’s financing and equipment with the strong hint they’re Chinese Communists, fitting the film neatly into an odd run of movies and TV shows around the same time, also including the likes of Battle Beneath The Earth (1967) and The Chairman (1969) based around a paranoid feeling the Chinese were quietly outstripping the rest of the world.

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Unlike the novels, where Fleming cast Bond as the mortal enemy of the KGB, the Bond films liked to avoid dealing with the Cold War too explicitly, playing up SPECTRE instead as a foe. The series even recast the plot of From Russia With Love from a SMERSH operation to one cooked up by SPECTRE, which is rather an supra-national organisation formed from the human refuse of clashes between political systems – their cover, as glimpsed in Thunderball, is a refugee resettlement organisation, which also hints this is how they recruit operatives – and aggressively committed to subverting and leeching off all such blocs. Blofeld even forces the Chinese backers in this film to give him more money before committing to the last part of the plot, and when one retorts furiously, “This is extortion!”, Blofeld coolly replies, “Extortion in my business.” This concept of SPECTRE as something rather larger, more insidious, and more efficiently malignant than any rogue terrorist operation or even rival spy group gave the early Bond films much of their cohesive force, and less random than the later pool of lone wolf tycoons that would provide most of Bond’s foes. It’s also an idea the more recent revivalist entries with Daniel Craig have tried to leverage but have yet to properly exploit.

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You Only Live Twice offers Alexander Knox as an American President who’s all terse business and warlike grit, dismissive of the British theory and determined to forestall another snatching, putting the world on the brink of nuclear Armageddon. Fleming’s book had meditated on the decline of British standing in the Cold War game, but the film cleverly points the way forward for the series and Bond as a character in presenting the British influence as a mediating one, a level head outside the whirlwind of Cold War intransigence, and Bond as the hard human edge of that attitude. The regular production designer for the Bond films was Ken Adam, whose style almost invented a way of thinking about the future in his cavernous, Spartan spaces, a touch he also applied to Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). The similarity of Adam’s war room designs here certainly reflect his design principles but also accords with the vision, not at all dissimilar to Kubrick’s, of nuclear brinksmanship as something harsh, alien, incomprehensively destructive and real yet also waged through the prophylactic of telecommunications, and so entirely modern. This contrasts the supernal retention of homey environs M prefers. Like Dr. Strangelove, You Only Live Twice beholds an age of annihilating terrors and readily provoked national egos. Only Bond is big enough, in various senses of the word, to hold it off.

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This thread runs right through the early Bond series, albeit mostly only explored on a specifically visual level, the tension between futurism’s homogenising power and the peccadilloes of established order. Attempts to dissect or revise Bond from a more politically correct angle are always doomed to fail because they don’t understand this tension is fundamental to the series’ popular cachet. This entry even was the first to start making constant jokes about Bond’s traits a ritual facet, in repeatedly making sport of his smoking habit. Blofeld, once revealed, resembles a kind of full-grown misbegotten foetus, the scarred and malignant, asexual embodiment of a world defined by radiation and pollution and monstrous will to power. The immediate follow-ups, which cast Telly Savalas and Charles Gray in the part (and, much later, Christoph Waltz), failed to live up the specific charge of perversity personified Pleasance offered. By comparison the whole of Japan is presented as embodying the dualism of contemporary existence, again according with Bond himself, the primal man enclosed by a loose glaze of civilised mystique.

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Fittingly, Tanaka has Bond join his cadre of trainee ninjas who will when the time comes attack the SPECTRE base. The ninjas are presented as both modern warriors but also still proficient in an ancient arts, thus achieving perfect balance and fusion. Amidst their number Bond has to slay a couple of moles out to kill him. One of them sneaks into the house he shares with Aki and tries to poison him by dripping poison down a thread, only to kill Aki by mistake. It’s to You Only Live Twice’s credit that it actually feels connected with some genuine Japanese thriller films of the period (the manner of Aki’s death is borrowed from one), true to the baroque, even surreal lilt many have, if far short of the bravura lunacy of someone like Seijun Suzuki. A lot of Japanese thrillers, like their sci-fi, were attuned to the same tensions as the Bond films, the feeling that the modern world was the insubstantial hallucination, not the past. Tamba, Hama, and Wakabayashi were popular faces in Japanese cinema at the time, and the two women had appeared in both King Kong vs Godzilla (1962) and the Toshiro Mifune vehicle Samurai Pirate (1965) together.

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When Bond, Tanaka, and Kissy head to a small village in the region where they think the base is hidden, they and the other ninjas blend into the populace. They’re forced to spring into action as it’s announced the next American launch has been moved forward, and Bond and Kissy act on a clue presented by the death of a local Ama girl: inspecting where she died, they realise she was killed by gas warding off inspection of a volcanic tunnel linked to the SPECTRE hideout. Bond and Kissy’s relationship is initially defined by Kissy’s insistence they’re engaged in business, not indulging themselves, but heats up as they take a time out from climbing the volcano for a bit of smooching, an act that fortuitously makes them look innocuous to a helicopter that flies into the volcanic crater. Once Bond establishes that what looks like a lake in the crater is in fact a huge metal hatch, he sends Kissy back to fetch Tanaka and penetrates the lair. There, he finds the captive American and Russian astronauts and breaks them out, and attempts to pose as one of the SPECTRE astronauts to take command of their craft. But Blofeld spots the deception and has Bond brought to him, cueing Blofeld’s unveiling, eyeing Bond like a frog blinking out of the water with sadistic intentions.

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Today the makers of many franchise works and blockbusters fret over giving audiences too much of what they want, but You Only Live Twice has no such compunction: it promises James Bond and an army of ninjas rumbling with SPECTRE in their hideout to decide the fate of the world, and it delivers. Moreover, the Bond films had properly anointed themselves by this point as the inheritors of old-fashioned Hollywood values despite all their pop-age chic, the Roman Forums of recent epics now giving way to glistening abodes of super-science. Adams’ set for the SPECTRE base, the largest ever constructed for a film at the time, is still an awesome piece of movie infrastructure. The set’s enormity helps give the film palpable drama: all this absurdity seems like it could actually be happening, fusing a precise depiction of functional detail and scale with an edge of the dreamlike, another aspect of the film that anticipates the Star Wars series. This is a world where radically different realities nest within the apparent, lethal beasts planted within beautiful landscapes. SPECTRE’s method in capturing the space capsules rather than simply blowing them up seems to be based in the charge of menace the act evokes for the audience: an explosion would be blatant and clear-cut, but the act of swallowing is stranger and leaves no trace, making it seems as if in space there literally be dragons.

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The rush of action in the finale is perfectly organised and delivers every gleeful absurdity you could ask for, the ninjas rappelling into the lair, complete with a katana-wielding badass carving his way through SPECTRE operatives. The running joke about smoking being bad for your health finds its punchline as Bond requests a last cigarette only to launch a tiny rocket at the controller for the lair’s hatch, allowing the ninjas access. Blofeld guns down Osato as a lesson in failire, but Bond’s life is saved when Blofeld next means to shoot him when Tanaka plants a throwing star in the megalomaniac’s wrist. Bond himself has to fight his way past Blofeld’s hulking bodyguard Hans (Ronald Rich) in order to make the swallowing ship self-destruct before it intercepts the next American capsule. Hans of course finishes up as food for the piranhas and Bond manages to blow up the craft in time. The injured but unbowed Blofeld sets off the lair’s self-destruct system, the explosions reawakening the volcano and forcing the heroes to flee via the sea tunnel, and the air force drops rubber rafts for them. There Bond and Kissy seem ready to consummate their marriage at last, only for M’s submarine to surface directly under them. Someone always wants to wake you from a good dream.

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1970s, Action-Adventure, Scifi, Thriller

The Omega Man (1971)

The Ωmega Man (on-screen title spelling)

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Director: Boris Sagal
Screenwriters: John William Corrington, Joyce Hooper Corrington

By Roderick Heath

Published in 1954, I Am Legend, Richard Matheson’s classic and influential amalgam of apocalyptic science fiction and horror, has known strange fortune when it comes to filming. The novel surely owes some of its standing to being adapted to the big screen three times, as Sidney Salkow’s The Last Man On Earth (1964), Boris Sagal’s The Omega Man, and Francis Lawrence’s 2007 film under the original title. None of them represents a purely faithful version of the novel, each instead pursuing its own, particular motives and conceptual twists. Salkow’s threadbare if atmospheric take was nominally based on Matheson’s own script, but was so heavily revised by the producer he insisted on a pseudonym, and nudged the material closer to traditional horror. Lawrence’s was a well-made but generic, special effects-laden action vehicle that reduced the enemy from dark antitheses of the hero to marauding CGI critters. Sagal’s film was made to capitalise on Charlton Heston’s new status as a sci-fi star following on from the first two Planet of the Apes films, and like that series enthusiastically uses genre movie garb to tackle flashpoint social and political issues. Soylent Green (1973) would round out an unofficial trilogy for Heston. The Omega Man wasn’t the first post-apocalyptic survival movie released by Hollywood, but it does seem from today’s perspective to be the one that made the subgenre perennially popular, laying down a blueprint by showing how it could function as a both a microcosmic metaphor and a branch of action cinema.

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Husband and wife writing duo Joyce and John Corrington’s script for The Omega Man departed widely from Matheson’s novel in several respects. The novel, set in a time where most of humanity has been wiped out by disease leaving one immune survivor, proposed that that vampirism, revealed through the protagonist’s research as a once-rare and often misdiagnosed disease, has infected all the other survivors of pandemic to a greater or lesser degree, turning some into ravening beasts whilst others remain functioning and civilised, but hate and fear the hero now as the last human. The novel ends with him realising that he is now the stuff of myth and bedtime bogeyman stories to the post-humans, who put him to death. The Omega Man, by contrast, portrays the diseased survivors as the direct product of the pandemic, a manmade virus unleashed during a war between China and the Soviet Union (not that farfetched at the time) supposedly breaking out in 1975, with the bulk of the film set two years later in an empty and decaying Los Angeles. The man who thinks himself the lone true survivor, Colonel Robert Neville (Heston), is a former army scientist who managed, in the raging days of the epidemic, to synthesise a vaccine, but was only able to give it to himself.

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At the film’s outset, Neville roams the vacant streets in a convertible, faking his way through conversations with imagined people, partly to suit his sour sense of humour and also in a ritual trying to keep hold of his sanity. Whilst driving around, scored hilariously by a cassette recording of “A Summer Place,” Neville hefts a submachine gun and sprays bullets at a window he sees a figure flit behind. When he crashes his car and busts a tyre, Neville smashes his way into an auto showroom to prime and take off in another vehicle. He heads to a movie theatre which he’s plainly visited often before to watch the film that was showing there when everything fell apart: Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970), powering the projectors with emergency generators he knows to bring petrol for. The on-screen record of massed and joyous humanity gives Neville company he otherwise lacks, and he can recite the optimistic speech of one young attendee interviewed word for word. Leaving the theatre, Neville starts hearing telephones going off all over the city, a dazzling din that forces Neville to deny its reality, whereupon the noise ceases. Neville returns to his home as he realises nightfall is coming. As he prepares to enter his garage, black-robed figures with chalk-white faces launch a prepared assault on him, and Neville only narrowly survives with a blend of quick reflexes and brute force.

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These marvellous early scenes skilfully establish Neville’s solitude and situation along with an aesthetic of desolate genre poetry in surveying the desolate city still festooned with all the appealing, empty yardsticks of the modern lifestyle. Neville’s favourite movie doesn’t just ironically underline his loneliness with a teasing vision of mass idealism, but also announces The Omega Man’s key theme, the breakdown of humanity’s remnants into camps representing contentious visions of society and its future, if any. The hidden menace lying in wait for the last man is suggested but presented as initially less frightening than the weight of solitude and potential insanity upon him, setting in motion the basic drive and irony of the narrative, that Neville needs his foes and vice versa to give their lives meaning. What that contest is slowly becomes apparent as Neville spends his days wandering the city seeking out the hive of his nemeses. That tribe call themselves The Family, and are led by former TV news anchor Jonathan Matthias (Anthony Zerbe). Grotesquely transformed into albino ghouls who can’t survive in the sunlight, many of them injured psychologically as well as physically, The Family, under Matthias’ fanatical leadership, now want to cleanse the Earth of the hated reminders of the fallen human world and its final arbiter, and fight an extended guerrilla war with Neville.

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Neville’s apartment, which he later explains he clings to out a sense of sheer, obstinate resolve despite being difficult to defend, is filled with retrieved artworks and accoutrements befitting the lifestyle of a well-heeled man of the world. Floodlights affixed to the building exterior keep the intensely light-sensitive Family away and CCTV lets him see everywhere at once. He tries to settle down with a good whisky and get back to the chess match he nominally plays against a bust of Julius Caesar, but his enemies begin congregating in the street and chanting the perpetual demand, “Neville! Come Down!” Neville hurls his glass across the room in reactive anger and triggered desperation. His robed and misshapen enemies roam about the city in packs at night, collecting the fruits of human civilisation from technology to books, and destroy them, staging a Hitlerian bonfire in the plaza outside Neville’s building to taunt him with the sight as well as satisfy their own project. “The whole Family can’t bring him down out of that – that…” Matthias trails off as he smoulders in frustration, so his lieutenant Zachary (Lincoln Kilpatrick), once a black man, suggests the descriptor, “Honky paradise, brother?” When they try assaulting Neville’s apartment with flaming masses fired with a crude ballista, Neville responds with a machine gun.

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Neville drifts into a reverie in the elevator to his apartment, cueing the first of two efficient, visually striking flashbacks to the time of the plague’s coming, unleashed during the war, punctuated by images of flocks of pedestrians struck down in their tracks by the deadly disease. The flashbacks cleverly render Neville and Matthias as opponents long before they encounter each-other’s works in the dead city. Neville, in his old office, listens to Matthias speaking on the television with bleak import: “Is this the end of technological man? Is this the conclusion of all our yesterdays, the boasts of our fabled science?…We were warned of judgement. Well, here it is.” Neville allows no such fatalistic philosophising, still trying to develop his vaccine and save the world. But the pilot of the helicopter taking him to a secure facility with his experimental vaccine keels over as the disease hits him, and Neville is unable to prevent the helicopter crashing. Crawling out of the flaming wreckage, Neville took the desperate shot of injecting himself with the dose, and two years later his success is now also a bitter mockery. Neville resumes his systematic search the following day, exploring the innards of downtown buildings where he still finds desiccated corpses from the time of the plague, including a couple who died in each-other’s arms in bed.

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Sagal blends aspects of gothic horror with a sarcastic sense of derelict consumerism in this scenes, all the high-end shops and hotels filled with dead plants and bodies and copious cobwebs. The stuff of daily life and social ritual betrays the sudden cessation of that life, like a dining table laid out for some banquet now filthy and encrusted, the whole world now resembling a vampire’s castle in a horror movie. Neville also finds dead members of the Family finally consumed by the disease, their physical symptoms being what Neville refers to as “tertiary cases.” Roving about a boutique clothing store, Neville is stricken with erotic fascination by a mannequin, reaching out to touch its smooth plastic belly in tactile arousal now that only a facsimile of a female form is left to him. This flourish of knowing sexual desperation dashed with humour has an immediate consequence, as Neville seems to virtually conjure up a very real female out of the recesses of his mind. When he thinks he hears something moving through the store, he looks to see a mannequin where there wasn’t before, a figure with eyes that slowly pivot to look at him. The woman, Lisa (Rosalind Cash), dashes out of the store and Neville loses track of her outside. Unsure if she was real or just another figment of his imagination, Neville resumes his hunt, only to be ambushed and captured in a well-laid trap by the Family.

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Matthias has Neville tried and convicted for forms of heresy according to The Family’s law as a “user of the wheel,” lacking the stigmata-like proof of faith that is the bleached irises the tertiary cases all have. Matthias wants to destroy all the pretensions of the old civilisation, considering himself the anointed avenger of the Earth, extinguishing the original sin of knowledge so The Family can then build something else. “Build coffins, that’s all you’ll need,” Neville tells him late in the film, knowing as he does The Family will all die out if their disease isn’t treated. Matthias has him wheeled out into the centre of Dodgers Stadium on a tumbril, complete with a dunce’s cap, to be burned alive. But Neville is saved when the stadium lights come on, dazzling The Family. Lisa and another survivor, Dutch (Paul Koslo), move to save him despite Lisa’s take-no-shit attitude towards Neville. Dutch wards off The Family with flash-bombs whilst Neville and Lisa make a zippy getaway on a motorcycle. Lisa directs Neville up to a bunker in the hills above the city where she and Dutch are caring for a small collection of children. All of them have the disease, but so far have resisted either dying or devolving, although all expect one or the other: one lad, a teenage boy named Richie (Eric Laneuville), is in the throes of transitioning, so Neville decides to risk trying to use his blood as a serum to treat his case.

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The Omega Man is a very much a pop film in the early 1970s mode, and it’s often been criticised for this. But this specificity is also the source of much of the film’s pleasure and its specific thematic punch, investing it with levels of symbolism and metaphor for a particular moment and sensibility, whilst also still working readily today as a mythically styled action movie. Like a genre-fied, mass-audience friendly remake of Zabriskie Point (1970), it contemplates an impending post-human era where characters are coded as representatives of various cultural sectors, and the radical fringe, embodied by Dutch and Lisa and the children they care for, are poised to be the only possible inheritors of the Earth. They subsist between the poles of Neville with his attachment to the old material world and willingness to defend it with ferocity, and the cult of Matthias and The Family, who take the streak of suspicion for the mainstream, technological society found in the hippie movement to an extreme but also inject it with medievalist religious certainties, as well as Nazi-like contempt for contradictory knowledge. The Omega Man takes off where Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-End (1967) left off in considering the efforts of iconoclasts to smash apart the last signifiers of a fundamentally sick world.

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The Family, with their bleached white faces and hair riddled with bloody buboes and glazed eyes, wrapped in monkish garb and stalking the streets at night with torches, bridge the imagery of classic horror stories, like the hordes of undead devil worshippers in something like The City of the Dead (1960). But they retain dimensions of damaged humanity, as well as fanaticism rooted in the belief they are the lucky ones to be so marked and tasked, as well as susceptibility to suggestion that makes someone like Matthias, who retains his intellect, able to control them. The Family members are scrubbed of racial, gender, and social differentiation, instead blessed with a new homogenised identity. Late in the film, Lisa is suddenly stricken with the disease and unfurls her headscarf, revealing she’s been overtaken by the disease and recognises The Family as her new kind. It’s a sign of the times that the film votes Matthias a great deal of sympathy for his perspective, his passionately righteous hatred for the world men created and then laid waste to, no form of logic or argument more plain and cold than the simple and obvious fact he can point to of apocalypse all about them.

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Matthias is ultimately, in a perverse fashion, presented as a sort of antihero, the one who counsels Zachary, “Forget the old ways, brother, all the old hatreds, all the old pains. Forget, and remember,” and promises Neville they will “cancel history.” Social divides are now reduced now to a much simpler dynamic: us versus him. The very name of The Family suggests a likeness to the Manson Family, all over the news at the time the film was being made. Matthias tells Neville that in the days after the plague’s coming he realised he and the others like him had been spared for the purpose burying what was dead, including the fallen civilisation. “You’re the Angel of Death, Doctor, not us,” Matthias tells Neville in reminding him that even if they are trying to kill him, he’s killed far more of them, after angrily shouting, in response to Neville’s question as to why they haven’t tried finding a cure, “There is none!” Zerbe, a much-employed actor at the time, is terrific as Matthias, expertly countering Heston’s bellicose passion with his own surgically precise enunciations of his sure and unremitting interpretation of their lot.

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Against them stands Neville, ensconced in his fortified bachelor pad. Neville’s lifestyle is offered in part as dry parody of an early ‘70s magazine ideal of masculinity and the action man ethos so common in the period, once ironically associated with all the estimable hip values and yet standing in opposition to many of them. Neville tries to make like Hugh Hefner playing James Bond, the First World incarnate guarding its turf and privilege in stalwart style, treating the remnants of human culture he’s assembled and curated like his collection of guns and booze, steadily ransacking the city for everything that’s useful or eye-catching for him. He’s the swinging bachelor as superman survivor even whilst cursed with awareness of his actual insignificance and paltriness before the vast empty world, at least before the other survivors turn up. Much is made of Neville’s brawny body – Heston’s as shirtless throughout the film as Chris Hemsworth in his average vehicle – and his concomitant physical resilience, whilst his apartment’s art collection sees him in company with Caesar and mad emperor Caracalla, suggesting the poles of authority and brutal power Neville anoints himself heir to. Neville’s intelligence and resolve are likewise admirable, and when fate gives him a genuine function once again he leaps to the task.

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But he’s also, as young Richie states after Neville’s serum cures him, “hostile,” a man who feeds off his war with Matthias and The Family, happy to oppose their campaign of destruction with his efforts to remain an island of the old ways, and uninterested in trying to find some sort of accord even as it becomes clear a cure that can restore The Family is now in their hands. In the finale he even dons once more his military uniform and cap, as if both acknowledging his anachronism whilst committing to a warrior creed he never really aspired to in the first place as a healer with the job of “inventing cures for diseases that didn’t exist yet.” Neville’s idea of civilisation is appealing but also hermetic, immobile, and intolerant. Lisa’s entry into the film injects an amusing edge borrowed from the nascent Blaxploitation mode as she appears swathed in red leather with a ballooning afro, a tough survivor stridently bossing and pistol-whipping Neville even in the process of rescuing him, in part because, as she later tells him, when he warns her to be careful whilst foraging for supplies, “The most dangerous thing I ever met in one of those places was you.”

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Introduction to Lisa, Dutch, and the children strips from Neville the armour of his solitude and replaces it with responsibility. One of the first serious post-apocalyptic dramas was Ranald MacDougall’s The World, The Flesh, and The Devil (1959), a film that exploited both racial and sexual anxieties hatching out in the waning days of the Ike era as two men, played by Harry Belafonte and Mel Ferrer, battle for the one (white) woman left in an irradiated New York. The Omega Man takes up the same teasing motif of interracial eroticism in end-times as Neville and Lisa become lovers as Lisa negotiates the delights of Neville’s apartment. They try to forget the world outside it even as Neville acknowledges he really is looking at the last girl on Earth. Their tete-a-tete is interrupted when the building’s generator stops from lack of fuel, requiring Neville to shimmy down the elevator cables to the ground floor, whilst Zachary takes the opportunity to climb up the outside of the building to kill the enemy. Neville gets the power working again and arrives back upstairs just in time to gun down Zachary as he springs through the windows. Zachary plunges back off the balcony onto a spiked railing below. As it becomes clear the blood serum works and can reverse the disease mutation, Neville, Lisa, and Dutch resolve to take the children to a new base in the Sierras.

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Heston, who had been fascinated by the book when reading it on a plane flight and didn’t know it had previously been filmed, supposedly had tried to interest Orson Welles in the script. Heston was still trying to leave behind his association with epic films and religious movies, but he was canny not to entirely leave behind the outsized associations he retained: both Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man cleverly twist and pervert Heston’s titan stature. The director he ended up with, Boris Sagal, was mostly a very well-employed TV director, and his feature work only sported a couple of solid westerns and war movies and an Elvis vehicle, Girl Happy (1965). Nonetheless some of his telemovies, like Sherlock Holmes in New York (1976) and his surprisingly good remake of Dial M For Murder (1981), wielded a similarly baroque visual sense matched to a flair for tight drama. The Omega Man is easily his most popular and best-known feature. Personally I love the fleshy, colourful vividness of his work on the film: it’s the sort of thing where a more restrained and refined talent might have burnished off the rough edges but not achieved the same the delirious and suggestive highs as well. Various vignettes, like Neville crawling from the burning helicopter and dosing himself, the revelation of the infected Lisa, and the finale, at once eerie and operatic, have stuck like jagged glass in my mind since childhood.

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Despite its cheesy and modish touches The Omega Man achieves something of an ideal for a movie of its kind, maintaining a fleet and functional pace, dotted with flashes of punchy spectacle, and yet remaining attentive to the bleak and meditative aspect of the drama, the twinned yet contradictory feeling of crushing solitude and being trapped with inimical beings, ironically a less dreadful feeling, neatly articulated. The Omega Man is crucially balanced in a way that eludes a lot of contemporary movies in the same vein. One great plus is Russell Metty’s cinematography. Heston obviously remembered how good Metty was from working with Welles on Touch of Evil (1958), and his work conveys the right pulpy lustre offsetting the pallid and sonorous texture of the deserted cityscape with the primal drama unfolding on the streets, where extremes of mortification and danger are measured in blazing fire, unnaturally white skin, and pocks of red blood. Another aspect of the film I’m inordinately fond of is the score by Ron Grainer, the Australian-born composer who had worked for the BBC where he wrote classic TV themes including those for Doctor Who, The Prisoner, and Steptoe & Son. Grainer’s memorably elegant and evocative main theme comes in variations that truck in flourishes of funk, jazz, and pop, with organ flourishes to lend an appropriately gothic tint in places, even if it gets a bit Mannix-esque in the Dodgers Stadium sequence.

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Coming as it did at the outset of the ‘70s, a decade when sci-fi tinted parables became popular, The Omega Man’s success had a definable impact on the cinematic genre that took a little time to hatch out and infect pop culture. The film’s release coincided with Robert Wise’s more procedural and cool-witted take on Michael Crichton’s novel The Andromeda Strain, and the two works helped codify the subgenre concerned with disease and epidemics as potential apocalyptic agents dubbed bi-fi, quickly taken up by works like George Romero’s The Crazies (1973). The film laid down a template for how a pulpy notion of genre thrills and a more high-minded variety came into fruitful fusion, likewise allowing movies like Crichton’s Westworld (1973) and Jack Smight’s Damnation Alley (1976), and leading on to a host sci-fi-action hybrids with smart propelling ideas in the 1980s: such stalwart hits from Alien (1979) to The Terminator (1984), Predator (1986), and RoboCop (1987) owe it at least that much impetus. The Mad Max series would offer a version of Neville, albeit one that wisely chose mobility but still retained certain traits, as a figure carrying on a sense of duty and legacy into post-apocalyptic battles. Whilst his Night of the Living Dead (1968) predated Sagal’s film, Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) would annex The Omega Man’s driving concepts and oppositions, likewise presenting its heroes as futile warriors living on swathed in a consumerist bubble in trying to ignore collapse and the zombified hordes without.

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True to the credo of the best ‘70s sci-fi films too, The Omega Man isn’t afraid to get seriously dark at points. This is particularly apparent as the plot barrels towards its climactic crisis, as Richie decides to try and reason with Matthias and the family, to convince them to let Neville try and cure them. Matthias listens to him indulgently, only for Neville, when he arrives to save him, to find Richie strung up with his throat cut, the final, perfect goad to Neville and a rejection of all hope. Neville tries to charge back to his building, only to crash through a trap set by The Family. His jeep upturned, Neville fights his way out of the trap and enters his apartment, to find Lisa, now inducted into The Family, has let Matthias and his goons in. Matthias makes Neville watch as his people unleash an orgy of destructive fury on all the remnants of civilisation Neville has collected. Neville manages to break free and drags Lisa away with him, but this causes a fatal delay: as he tries to unjam his gun and call back Lisa as Matthias chants her name to draw her back, Matthias takes the opportunity to hurl a spear at Neville, hitting him in the torso and knocking him into a fountain in the plaza. As the sun rises, Dutch and kids arrive to find Neville bleeding to death, but Neville manages to hand over the last bottle filled with his blood serum, key to curing Lisa and the children. Sagal offers one lovely grace note as one of the young girls plucks Neville’s cap out of the fountain water and places it on the rim as a show of respect and salutary farewell to the last of his kind. The last image, with Neville splayed Christ-like as he dies, is by comparison too insistent, although this certainly presents an appropriately futuristic and ironic twist on Heston’s messianic image and the very idea of the saviour who donates to his followers his blood and flesh for the sake of salvation.

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1940s, Auteurs, Film Noir, Thriller

The Lady From Shanghai (1947)

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Director/Screenwriter: Orson Welles

By Roderick Heath

Orson Welles long served a cultural function as the emblematic genius discarded by Hollywood, doomed by the wrath of the kitsch Olympians to only to manage a singular labour of creative awe, Citizen Kane (1941), before being forced to scrimp his way through a fragmentary and disappointing subsequent oeuvre. That narrative for Welles’ career has long since been challenged and revised, and whilst it’s certainly true Welles and Hollywood never got along, they continued a long, uneasy dialogue for decades, and Welles only finally abandoned all hope of making a final Hollywood film in the early 1980s. Following the infamous collapse of his deal with RKO, resulting in the dumped release of a crude edit of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Welles ventured to South America on a war effort-enabling goodwill tour, during which he worked on the multipart docudrama It’s All True, only to suffer another aborted project and accompanying corrosion to his professional reputation. As an actor, Welles quickly regained footing when he returned to the US, resuming stage and radio work as well as gaining traction as a movie star. He also married his fellow goodwill ambassador Rita Hayworth, who arrived during World War II as one of the hottest properties in movies.

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Thanks to arduous, self-effacing negotiations with studio honchos, Welles made his directorial comeback with The Stranger (1946), which, despite flashes of his visual ingenuity and aesthetic and thematic fixations, sufficiently fulfilled his promise to make a ‘normal’ movie. Welles was rewarded with a proper box office success, although his backers still welched on a deal to produce four more of his films. Welles went to Broadway to stage a flashy adaptation of Around the World in Eighty Days, only for producer Mike Todd to suddenly pull out. Welles tapped Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn for cash he ploughed into the doomed project, on the promise of writing, directing, and starring in a movie for him without further recompense. Welles took on an adaptation of Sherwood Kingsley’s crime novel If I Should Die Before I Wake, purportedly at the urging of William Castle, and Cohn gave Welles the green light to make the movie also featuring Hayworth. Cohn’s sense of prerogative over Hayworth’s career had already been offended by her and Welles’ union, which he deemed insufficiently glamorous, and he was properly livid when the resulting film’s rough cut was screened for him, revealing Welles’ new look for her with short, platinum blonde hair. Cohn didn’t much like the rest of the film either and had it extensively recut and reshot, reinforcing Welles’ reputation as a mercurial spendthrift. Although The Lady From Shanghai did reasonably good box office again, it was still fated to mark Welles’ break with the major Hollywood studios.

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Great as Welles’ films are, none of them feels quite as urgent and personally exposed as The Lady From Shanghai, save perhaps his final, pieced-together opus The Other Side of the Wind (2018). The film’s gadabout affectations, the giddy humour and overt ridicule of neat plot rhythms and Welles’ music hall Irish accent, can’t conceal the film’s real emotional tenor, one of anger – anger with love, anger with self, anger with the world. Cohn in turn was incensed by the film for good reason, as it presented, amongst many other things, Welles’ poison pen letter to the dawning atomic age and American capitalism, his bitterest, most biting commentary on the politics of sexual possession as espoused in Hollywood, and a return to Citizen Kane’s preoccupation with the insidious gravity of power and money in warping normal human relations. This time he cast himself as a lovestruck interloper rather than the all-consuming man of destiny, a choice that betrayed Welles’ jaundiced new perspective. Spurred by the slow spoiling of his marriage and his frustration in falling from boy titan to harried supplicant, as well as his unease within the rapidly changing zeitgeist in the post-war period, Welles responded with a film lit in a sulphurous glare, fuelled by smouldering, even despairing anxieties. It’s also perhaps Welles’ most stylistically extreme film, an aspect actually amplified by Cohn’s reediting, and the violence of technique enters a feedback loop with the overtone of emotional burnout.

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Welles happily occupied a contradictory position as an artist, the frustrated classicist and tragedian who delighted in playing comic book heroes and who grasped the epic potentials in pulp fiction. The Lady From Shanghai and its companion piece Touch of Evil (1958) saw him collapsing boundaries between high and low cultural argots, turning the seamy, worldly obsessions of film noir into high Shakespearean evocations of love, treachery, and penance. Welles initially turns King’s story into a jokey pastiche of knight errant tales, with his character Michael O’Hara the nominated dumb Quixote, a man who testifies in his opening narration, “I start out in this story a little bit like a hero, which I most certainly am not.” O’Hara flirts with the beautiful lady, Elsa (Hayworth), he sees trundling by in a Central Park carriage and then saves her from a gang of hoods who knock out the cabbie and try to rob and rape her. The sarcastic lilt of pre-Raphaelite romanticism, as Michael ventures into the well-pruned parkland serving as virgin forest to rescue the damsel and then commandeers the carriage to ferry her homeward in gentlemanly style, quickly collides with the grease and concrete aesthetic of a Manhattan car park, a nest of Futurist swoops and curves and blocks.

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There various imps of ill-fortune lurk and dangle, the heavy with a tragedy mask for a face, Broome (Ted De Corsia), and the dough-faced George Grisby (Glenn Anders) both on hand for vicarious jollies as Michael realises the lady he’s saved is the wife of Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloan), a notoriously brilliant and utterly ruthless defence lawyer, a man known to a man like Michael only as figure of awe and dark magic in anecdotes but about to become an all too familiar acquaintance. Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons both revolved a stung sense of nostalgia, ransacked for discrepancy but never entirely demystified, for a slower, quieter past where iniquity was balanced by the comfort of set order, as compared to the oncoming spree of hypermodern angst, where even the go-getters and empire builders felt alien to themselves. Destructive and intransigent as they were, Charlie Kane and George Amberson Minafer were also trapped as mediating figures, spanning the days of the aristocrat and modernity, where Bannister and Elsa are pure-sprung creatures of their moment.

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By contrast, The Lady From Shanghai satirises O’Hara’s status as a man also out of time and joint, sailor, soldier. A man who, even though he’s been all around the world and killed whilst fighting fascists in Spain, nonetheless retains the aura of the eternal naïf, a man who’s lost contact with a vital piece of himself, a Hercules who partakes of eating the lotus and forgets his mission. Welles couches Michael as the emblematic working class hero, admired and feared by his pals to equal degrees as a guy who’s “got a lot of blarney in him but he knows how to hurt a man when he gets mad,” imbued with a faint lustre of legend because of “what he did to them finks back in ’39,” a lustre later turned against him with an overheard radio broadcast characterises him, in one of the film’s throwaway flourishes of carbolic wit, as “Black Irish O’Hara, the notorious waterfront agitator.” He’s glimpsed banging away on a typewriter in the seamen’s hiring hall in front of a poster that read, “We Accept All Americans,” a pointed dying echo of the credo that had during the war become something like an official ethos.

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Bannister tracks him to that place, to hire him to crew his yacht, ostensibly seeking him as a proven good guy, Mephistopheles to grasp his Faust. “You’ve been too busy seeing the world to learn anything about it,” Bannister informs Michael. “What’s a tough guy?” Jake Bjornsen (Louis Merrill), one of Michael’s sailor pals and a former comrade from Spain, tells Bannister as he applies that label to Michael: “A guy with an edge…A gun or a knife, a knife-stick or a razor, something the other guy ain’t got. Yeah, a little extra reach on a punch, a set of brass knuckles, a stripe on the sleeve, a badge that says ‘cop’ on it, a rock in your hand or a bankroll in your pocket.” Welles uses this speech to set in play not just the film’s essential plot, but also to subvert the general basis of noir storytelling in a romanticised envisioning of working class violence and the folk heroic figure of the underclass badass. Bannister’s jealousy of Michael’s physical prowess is more than outpaced by his capacity for brutality leveraged by other means, and the thug in the alley with a switchblade isn’t half as scary as an aggrieved plutocrat with his hooks in you.

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Sloan’s Bannister is one of the great screen monstrosities, a courtroom marauder who walks with canes like a mincing praying mantis, his high, crackly voice shifting between registers of slurred, liquored-up aggravation and clipped, precise assassination: the way Sloan pronounces “lover” does to the word what Exxon did to the Alaskan shoreline. The triangle of Michael, Elsa, and Bannister plays at least on the surface as a lampoon on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, down to the crippled rich man as emblem of a twisted modern age, but with woodland renascence swapped for dread-caked globetrotting and penny dreadful conspiracies where the promise of sex is part of the trap rather than a mode of escape. Welles gleefully steals imagery and textures from ‘40s travel posters and the promised high life of Hollywood’s fantasias as portrays the Bannisters’ voyage about Central and South America, with Elsa’s commodity physique celebrated in rest and motion, high-diving from rocks into the sea, splayed out the yacht deck whilst warbling a gently seductive ditty. The siren updated, coming on to Michael in playing another abused and frightened subcontractor wondering if the price paid in anxiety is worth the paycheque. Accompanying the holidays are Bannister’s nominal law partner Grisby, his hired PI and minder Broome, Michael’s pal and deck hand ‘Goldie’ Goldfish (Gus Schilling), and Bannister’s cook Bessie (Evelyn Ellis). A potent, simmering attraction seems to manifest between Michael and Elsa, but the real seduction is between Michael and Grisby, who offers Michael a wad of cash for a simple job: to confess to murdering him.

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Welles’ archly theatrical and equally arch cineaste sides, held in balance in his first films, came into conflict in The Lady From Shanghai. The film is littered with verbal soliloquies and passages of visual delirium, creating a tension that finally snaps the elastic in the finale as Michael rattles off a synopsis of the plot whilst assailed by surreal images, the lingual, factual, and experiential realms crumbling before the onslaught of images evoking surrender to the absurd, dismissing the usual mechanics of the thriller story as mere detail in a story that’s much more about consuming chaos. Michael’s narration carries much of the weight of the actual storytelling, certainly to patch over some of the editing but also investing it with a palpable sense of Michael’s bewildered and stricken romanticism. Bjornsen’s speech about tough guys is the first of several lengthy, memorable discourses delivered throughout, followed by Bannister’s acidic commentary on the power of money as a vehicle not merely for survival but revenge, and Michael’s anecdote about witnessing a shark feeding frenzy that saw the beasts turn on each-other cannibalistically, implying the Bannisters and their cohort are behaving the same way. Bannister’s commentary reveals himself as a man who himself is reacting to memories of being an outsider under the thumb of the rich, describing with relish how he destroyed a man who kept his mother out of a club he owned for being of an undesirable ethnicity, whilst also noting that Bessie prays she’ll never be too old to earn the money he pays her to support her family.

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This scene captures Welles’ coldest and most concise analysis of capitalism as a by-product of human urges, the desire for dominance and supremacy and a precise weighing of the “trickle-down” effect of wealth untinted, at least, by noblesse oblige hypocrisy. The Lady From Shanghai emerges as a more politically analytical and revealing film than Citizen Kane, even before it invokes nuclear terror as the new existential state, the bitter taste in the post-war triumphalism. Grisby hovers around, snatching privileged glimpses of Elsa and Michael’s simmering attraction and teasing them with his knowledge, before making overtures to Michael to be his fictional assassin, cover for some convoluted scheme to claim his own insurance and sail off to some remote clime where he’ll be safe “when they start dropping those bombs.” Bannister already resembles a post-apocalyptic thing, the first of the many atomic monsters that would start loping across screens in following years. Welles later reported he gave Sloan canes to walk with to give the actor, still relatively fresh out of radio, something distinctively physical to cover his inexperience, but the theme of creeping disease and sexual amanuensis is too tightly wound into the story to ignore.

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The new look Welles imposed on Hayworth, so startling and offensive to Cohn and others, anticipated the 1950s’ run of platinum blondes as the embodiment of a plush and acquisitive age’s ideal of femininity, when Marilyn Monroe would corner the market to near-mystical perfection in playing the blonde as status symbol love object. Hayworth as Elsa is the atomic bomb in human form, the flash of brilliance on her crown and blood on the lips and the black ash of fallout in her eyes. The beasts of the aquarium where Michael and Elsa meet look forward to the aquatic beds of Godzilla and the Gill Man. The Lady From Shanghai can be seen as much Welles’ metaphor for his permanent yet agonising love affair with the filmmaking world as for his faltering relationship with Hayworth, although the two things were surely linked – how could Welles entirely repudiate a change of profession that helped him marry the most beautiful woman in the world? Trying desperately to hold on to these extraordinary gifts straight out of the dream life he’d discovered, in the face of petty dictators and profit margins. Things constantly happen to Michael in ways that leave him completely mystified as to why they’re happening, the temptations and repudiations wielded by power alike wielded with capricious verve in a way that must have felt very true to experiences with the studios.

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What a fresh sense of irony Welles, the boy wonder out of pinko theatrical climes with the New Deal ideals, must have gained contending with such outsized provocations to lust and wonder in Hollywood, moving from the relatively abstract evocations of trophy wives and malign plutocrats in Citizen Kane to this electro-Hogarthian stew where the feeling is palpable. The film canters to its climax and it seems less that Michael and Bannister represent Welles and his tycoon nemeses than, finally, it represents the warring sides of Welles himself, the image-maker and the desperate husband: “Killing you is killing myself,” Bannister tells Elsa, suddenly revealed as the actual tragic lover in the story. Hayworth had, with Gilda (1946), nailed down a specific persona as the girl who seems corrupt purely by dint of her incarnation of sinful temptations, but is actually covertly virtuous, a persona she’d later be forced to take to a biblical extreme when she played Salome. Welles upended basic image expectations not just in look but in character: Elsa proves to be a killer and schemer whilst all the while seeming like an innocent, soulful and tremulous in her pathos. The desire to believe Elsa is good is nonetheless a compelling fiction not just for Michael but also for Bessie, who regards her as the poor child at the mercy of the monster, so perfectly does she embody a vessel of elevated fantasy. The name of Bannister’s yacht gives the warning – Circe, the sorceress who turns men to swine.

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Part of The Lady From Shanghai’s strange beauty resides in the way Elsa remains a creature of perfect ambiguity even after she’s unmasked, creature of manifold realities, a woman who was “taught to love in Chinese” in “the second wickedest city in the world,” (Michael nominates Macao as number one, a place Welles would finally visit for The Immortal Story, 1968). She’s product of political ructions and cultural collisions, trying to survive a uniquely cruel marriage but also determined not to be thrust back into the cold, especially when, as Michael’s pleas prove, capitalism’s gravity can only be countered by a kind of sentimental romanticism. “Now he knows about us,” Elsa says after Grisby had witnesses them in a clinch. “I wish I did,” Michael quips. Elsa’s attempt to seduce Michael into a kiss earns a slap instead, the film’s most electric moment of physical intimacy giving way to Elsa silently and shakily jamming a cigarette between her lips and lights it. A sublime piece of acting from Hayworth that manages to suggest all at once that Elsa’s far too used to being hit and controlling herself when it happens, and also the shock, not entirely disagreeable, of experiencing the real sensation, and then the equal shock of recognition: Michael’s fear. Even when exposed as a scheming murderer Elsa retains a flailing, almost pathetic quality, canary in a gilded cage trying to reinvent herself as a condor, making a hash of schemes to liberate herself. Except that everything goes awry and she has to use Michael as a fall guy.

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Writing about any Welles film is hard and The Lady From Shanghai amongst the most challenging simply in the lure to muse on the visual textures, the cavalcade of astounding and evocative shots, achieved here in collaboration with cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr with uncredited work by Rudolph Maté and Joseph Walker. Welles’ desire to break away from studio simulacra saw him shoot much of the film on location with a palpable sense of place, although the result was hardly a neorealist work, the seedy glamour of the Mexican locales and the San Francisco waterfront and Chinatown instead charged with a sarcastic sense of their exoticism, albeit with the sense of strangeness inverted, such places charged with life and energy which the visiting representatives of the high life despoil. The elegance of Welles’ first two films even in their radicalisms, and the relatively prosaic grammar of The Stranger, gave way here to the vertiginous affect that would mark the rest of Welles’ oeuvre, the driving pace of editing matched to visuals that come on often with discursive jaggedness. Shots like the dollying camera tracking Hayworth as she runs, clad in swimming white, down an Acapulco street with archways and pillars breaking the shot into segments of lush yet elusive romantic fantasia.

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Or the shot of Michael and Grisby standing on a cliff edge, framed from overhead, distorting all sense of geography so that when Grisby says, “So long, fella!” and steps out of frame for a second it seems he’s jumped into the void only to leave the startled Michael as the one hovering on the edge. Moments like these only represent a fraction of the cinematic creativity on display. The sight of Elsa running away from dinner with Bannister to meet Michael in the gritty Acapulco streets sees her briefly as an illuminated figure in a special effects shot, hovering in luminosity over the dark town, a shot reminiscent of images in The Red Shoes (1948) the following year, another film meditating on the figure of the mogul as cruel magician. Their stroll through the streets together sees them passing by boles of local nightlife, cellars and taverns crammed with fervent existence even as the interloping gringos find no refuge: Michael, teased by the pursuing Broome, knocks him out, only for Goldie to turn up later with some cops hoisting Broome’s unconscious bulk demanding to know who he is. “What’s the Spanish for ‘drunken bum’?” Goldie requests in gleeful derision.

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Welles steadily builds a feeling of dizzied, intoxicated intensity often by framing the actors at great heights or having them move in reeling, criss-crossing lines in ways the pervert geographical reckoning. He combines the two as Michael has his fateful talk with Grisby. The duo climb on the heights above Acapulco, intersecting with other examples of economic exchange, like the gigolo reassuring his lady, as Grisby courts Michael for a different kind of service rendered. Welles plays an extended game with acts of seeing, through lenses, windows, and most famously in the climax, mirrors. Grisby watches Elsa through a telescope, the visuals becoming a succession of magazine-like poses, and then later on the rest of the party, rendering them specimen-like in their varying characters. The aquarium windows invert the specimen spectacle. The politics of seeing are correlated with evaluation and possession but ultimately feed back into the labyrinthine self as the funhouse mirrors rend and smear form and identity and fracture personas.

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The beach party scene is one of Welles’ most amazing sequences, a revisit to the laboriously extravagant picnic scene depicted in Citizen Kane but again invested with a more specific and vivid realisation. A grand exercise in high living curdles into a dank, tragicomic voyage into the heart of darkness – Welles’ faint revenge for his failure to film Conrad – as the picnickers canoe up tropical rivers and set up on a sunset beach with roving mariachi bands, torch-wielding partyers, and frolicking children, where the objects of rent-a-crowd exaltation sit in the fire-lit dusk and insult each-other with vicious art. Montage matches the picnickers with their animal totems amidst the sliding, flapping, squawking swamp creatures. Michael’s story conjures a whole squirming ocean full of blood and teeth even as the falling sun behind him seems to promise tropical peace. He delivers the punchline – “I never saw anything worse, until this little picnic tonight,” only for Bannister goes one better as he notes for Grisby’s benefit, “That’s the first anyone’s ever thought enough of you to call you a shark. If you were a good lawyer you’d be flattered.” Bannister’s a good enough lawyer to turn his foe’s attack into his own.

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The Circe’s return to San Francisco sees Michael giving in to Grisby’s offer, hoping to entice Elsa away from Bannister with a safety cushion of cash, only for Grisby’s genuine and properly dead body to be found and Michael put on trial with his bogus confession taken for the real deal, with Bannister taking on his defence nominally to not make him seem a martyr for Elsa’s sake. Occasionally, as in Citizen Kane, Welles privileges the viewer to knowledge that he denies his nominal storyteller, most crucially when Grisby shoots Broome, who confronted him over his machinations, shortly before his own death, and conversations between Broome and Bannister establishing that both seem to be aware of a plot against Bannister’s life. Broome, seemingly a crass and threatening figure at first, proves one of the few decently motivated characters as hired watchdog who struggles even as he bleeds to death to warn Elsa and Michael against impending wheels of fate. Grisby, by contrast, with his perversions of elocution and bulging eyes set in a perpetually sweat-seeping face, seems a ridiculous figure, and whilst he really is a ridiculous figure, he’s also playing for high stakes, Elsa’s confederate in an attempt to bump off Bannister that goes awry and demands Michael go through with his role as killer. Grisby leaves Michael to go through the prearranged motions whilst heading out to the Circe, firing off a gun and attracting the attention of a horde of dancers in a waterfront tavern.

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The trial sequence is another tour-de-force of restless visual energy and satiric gall as Welles makes a mockery of justice processes in a way that again feels fascinatingly prognosticative in a different way, here anticipating the age when celebrity culture and law would become tightly entwined in acts of mass-media theatre. Bannister turns proceedings into a vaudeville routine as he affects to interview himself on the witness stand. Jurors sneeze heartily during testimony, onlookers gawk with vicarious hungers to be sated, and the prosecutor (Carl Frank) means to oblige them by forcefully attempting to brand Elsa star in a pornographic cornucopia. The closer the camera gets to Elsa’s face as the prosecutor’s questions become increasingly ruthless sees her threatening to lose substance altogether, to dissolve into a frieze of lacquered beauty, unable to play the roles required either by self-protecting social function or natural empathy – Elsa no longer atom bomb personified by the first computer, crashing from colliding streams of information and incapacity to resolve the outcome. Bannister’s sadistic intention to sabotage Michael’s defence despite knowing well he’s innocent instead fulfils the game they’ve been engaged in since the beginning, Bannister’s urgent and ultimately self-destructive need to annihilate the man who represents all the things he isn’t, having purposefully brought Michael into his fold to inhabit the role he cannot and then destroy him. Nothing sharpens the mind like the thought of being hung in the morning, as they say, and Michael learns the truth of this as imminent condemning finally grants him wisdom.

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Michael’s escape from the court house blends clammy desperation and ridiculousness as Michael sucks down a handful of Bannister’s medication, giving him a chance to escape by beating up a couple of court cops in the overseeing Judge’s (Erskine Sanford) office, trashing it in the process. The fight is offered as a miniaturised synopsis of the threatened apocalypse, civilisation crashing to bits much to the Judge’s horror complete with his neatly ordered chess pieces sent flying – Napoleon’s bust sits silently as a cop’s head crashes back against a pane of glass, shelves filled with law tomes it toppled as a weapon – before Michael escapes the building by joining a flock of jurors from another trial and the Judge is left to demand a full report from an unconscious man. The sickly humour that pervades The Lady From Shanghai also makes sport of the nominal conjuring of exotic mystery in the title, inverting the emphasis of Josef von Sternberg’s equally baroque but more wilfully fantastical entrances into Chinoiserie dreaming in the likes of Shanghai Express (1932) and The Shanghai Gesture (1941): even as Welles depicts a descent into delirium he relentlessly demystifies, hunting the sawdust behind the tinsel. The glimpse of two Chinese-American teens at the trial, exchanging comments in Mandarin before one of them exclaims in ripe Californian, “You ain’t kiddin’!” Michael fleeing to take refuge in a Chinese opera house in San Francisco’s Chinatown only to fall into the hands of Elsa and her underworld contacts contrasts the impenetrable stylisation of the art form with the studied blandness of its audience, the gateway to the last act in the equally impenetrable drama, like the opera full of signs and symbols Michael cannot read.

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The legendary climax confirms the correlation between show business and brutal crime, if in the most outlandish dimensions, Michael’s bemoaning that either the world or he is insane gaining a grotesque mimesis as he awakens in a funfair crazy house. Mirrors reshape him, Caligari geometry maps out his confusion, slippery slides deliver him into the maw of a papier-mache dragon and dump him out on a set that looks like a Miro painting: somehow Welles manages to cram the entire experience of modern art as a response to the opening fields of the absurd in the first half of the 20th century whilst also suggesting the carnival got there long beforehand. Painted slogans – STAND UP OR GIVE UP – both demand his action and mock his powerlessness. Elsa’s torch picks him out and she draws him into a hall of mirrors where her lovely simulacra are infinite, still protesting “I love you” even in mutual awareness she was willing to sacrifice him. Bannister’s arrival, given the last necessary jab of jealousy, sees him and Elsa annihilate each-other in a fusillade of bullets.

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This shoot-out, a brief spasm of total chaos, has long since been installed as a classic cinematic moment, and films as diverse as Enter The Dragon (1973) and John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) have taken it as a touchstone. But few imitators have tried to match the specific visual effect Welles manages, his subdivided frames and huge images of Elsa’s ghostly face compared to Bannister’s sharp, scuttling form, amounting to a surrealist study of psychological space. The obsessive clawing at the game of surfaces can only end this way, only to find nothing left once Elsa and Bannister’s bullets crack glass and break bodies. The destruction of all illusory selves is enacted, Bannister’s belief that killing Elsa is killing himself literalised. Michael’s passivity even in the face of this grim corrida nonetheless give him the key to his real problem, to deal with his existential crisis, responding to Elsa’s nihilistic credo that “We can’t win” means “We can’t lose, either – only if we quit.” The Lady From Shanghai is, ultimately, the story of Michael’s rebirth, even as he ruefully walks away confident of being proved innocent – “But that’s a mighty big word, innocent. Stupid’s more like it.” – and knows how deep the barbs of the Elsa illusion remain stuck in his sinews. Nonetheless the irony of Michael’s basic conclusion, his rediscovery of a form of faith in confronting the void and gaining the realisation that any individual has the power of a god in terms of their own specific world but their fate would depend on how they utilise that knowledge, and that only the storyteller can properly impose meaning to life, would become the essential theme for the rest of Welles’ career. But Elsa supplies the proper trash-poetic benediction for those who can’t face such a choice: “Give my love to the sunrise.”

Standard
2010s, Auteurs, Biopic, Crime/Detective, Historical, Thriller

The Irishman (2019)

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aka I Heard You Paint Houses

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Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriter: Steven Zaillian

By Roderick Heath

And then, more time had passed than anyone realised, and suddenly things we thought perpetual are lost, and the age and its titans that stood in authority became another dusty annal.

The Irishman, directed by Martin Scorsese, now aged 77, stands self-evidently as a work both extending and encompassing a key portion of Scorsese’s legacy, his beloved and perpetually influential mafia movies. The Irishman reunites the director with three actors long connected with his cinema, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel, as well as bringing in a fresh young whippersnapper named Al Pacino. The sharp pang of recognised mortality inherent in The Irishman is given a special cruelty by the way Scorsese’s cinema has long seemed, even in its most contemplative and rarefied moods, like American virility incarnate. The clamour of New York streets, the whiplash effects of urban life’s furore and the human organism in contending with it, the buzz of an era bombarded with cinema and television and advertising, written into the textures of Scorsese’s famous alternations of filmic technique, whip-pans and racing dolly shots colliding with freeze-frames and languorous slow-motion: Scorsese’s aesthetic encephalograph. The Irishman has been described by many as a terminus for the gangster movie. That’s fair in some ways, dealing as it does with a basic and essential matter very often ignored in the genre, what happens when gangsters are lucky enough to get old and die, as well as simply recording a moment when a genre’s stars and a most esteemed creator are facing the end of the road, however distant still.

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But of course, movies set amongst hoodlums and lowlifes are still pretty common, for Scorsese’s bastard artistic children are plentiful and likely to populate the cinematic landscape for a good while yet. What new tricks could the old dog still have to teach? The Irishman answers that question incidentally as it adapts a book by Charles Brandt, recounting the life story of Frank Sheeran. As biography it includes inarguable factual details, like the time Sheeran spent as a World War II soldier, truck driver, and Teamster official jailed for 13 years for racketeering, blended with assertions and conjecture about Sheeran’s involvement with organised crime, most vitally the claim he personally killed Jimmy Hoffa, the legendary former head of the Teamsters union, who vanished in 1975. The tales in Brandt’s book have been disputed, but the appeal to a filmmaker like Scorsese, over and above the inherent drama in such a story, lies in the way Sheeran claims to have grazed against the mechanics of power underlying American history in the mid-twentieth century, and indeed have been part of the mechanism, the finger that pulled triggers but never the levers. The Irishman becomes, amongst many achievements, a unified field theory in regards to the concerns of Hollywood’s New Wave filmmakers, wrestling with the waning memory of a certain age in political and social life, as well as that cinematic era.

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And yet The Irishman is also a project that sees Scorsese negotiating with very contemporary aspects of the moviemaking scene, produced by online streaming giant Netflix and exploiting all the possibilities opened up by such a backer in making a film without compromise, and employing a cutting edge special effects technique, using digital processes to make his lead actors appear younger in sequences depicting their characters in their prime. It’s Scorsese’s longest film to date, a veritable epic in theme and scope even whilst essentially remaining an interpersonal story, arriving as a roughly hemispheric work. The first half, recounting Sheeran’s early encounters with the potentates of the underworld and evolution from scam-running truck driver to hitman and union boss, broadly reproduces the detail-obsessed and gregariously explanatory style of Scorsese’s previous based-on-fact mafia life tales, Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), if rendered in a much cooler, less compulsive manner. The second half mimics the processes of ageing, slowing down until finally reaching a point of impotent and stranded pathos, ticking off fate-making moments of choice and consequence, contending with the ultimate consequences and meanings of a man’s life actions.

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If The Irishman’s tone and sense of mortal and moral irony suggests Scorsese’s tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), the famous epigraph of which Scorsese reiterates in direct and pungent terms, the method is more reminiscent of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible Parts I & II (1944-58), as an expansive and surveying first portion sets up a second that proves a dark and immediate personal drama about power and betrayal. The Irishman’s narrative revolves around what seems initially a scarcely notable vignette, with Sheeran and his friend, associate, and boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci), a cool, wary potentate of the Philadelphia mob with great resources of invisible yet definite power, and their wives Irene Sheeran (Stephanie Kurtzuba) and Carrie Bufalino (Kathrine Narducci) striking out on a road trip on the way to attend the wedding of the daughter of Russell’s lawyer brother Bill (Ray Romano) in 1975. Sheeran’s voiceover narration readily concedes there’s a definite pretext to this trip, as Russell wants to collect various debts along the way. But the peculiarly pregnant, tense mood of the journey betrays something else in the offing, a hidden source of tension and expectation, and of course when it comes into focus the implications are terrible. The road trip accidentally doubles as a trip down memory lane, as they pass the scene where Sheeran and Russell first actually met, when Russell helped the young truck driver when he was pulled over with mechanical trouble, sparking an account of their adventures in racketeering.

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The Irishman returns to a motif Scorsese touched on in Shutter Island (2010) in contemplating the mental landscape of the so-called greatest generation of servicemen returned from World War II, men playing at fitting into a suburban world whilst invested with the skills and reflexes of soldiers, all too aware, with niggling import, how thin the membrane between settled life and chaos can be. Sheeran recounts the pathetic details of shooting German POWs with nonchalance, an experience he describes as teaching him to simply accept life and death with an almost Buddhist indifference, only to make sure to be on the right end of the gun. This experience, at once brutalising and transfiguring, proves to have armed Sheeran with not just a skill set but a mindset as well, one that makes him useful to men like the Bufalinos and their associates, including Angelo Bruno (Keitel), and ‘Fat’ Tony Salerno (Domenick Lombardozzi). Sheeran gains his first contacts in the underworld via the lower-ranking Felix ‘Skinny Razor’ DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale), by letting him substitute the high-quality meat Sheeran transports for his restaurant. When a load of meat he’s carrying vanishes before he can steal it himself, Sheeran is prosecuted for the theft. Bill Bufalino successfully defends his case, although he gets sacked from his driving job. After proving himself adept at debt collecting for DiTullio, he gains a more definite connection to Russell and Angelo, who sit in mandarin judgement upon representatives of a tragically unwise world.

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As in Goodfellas and Casino, Sheeran’s narrative expostulates the arts of gangsterdom in a succession of illustrative vignettes, as Sheeran begins to make himself reliable with his army-instilled smarts for sabotage and demolition, making him handy at wiping out rivals’ sources of income and power. Such gifts are illustrated in sequences touched with a sense of the ridiculous, as when Sheeran and some other mobsters try to wipe out an opponent’s taxi fleet by laboriously pushing all the cars into the harbour before Sheeran suggests less arduous means. When he’s hired by a laundry boss Whispers DiTullio (Paul Herman) to destroy a rival laundry only to be brought before Angelo who partly owns the rival, Sheeran is obligated to make amends and shoots Whispers in the face, kicking off his new career as a hitman, or, in coded parlance, a man who “paints houses” with blood. Some of the blackly comic hue Scorsese’s long been able to tease out of such grim situations manifests here as Sheeran notes the building arsenal of used weapons collecting on a river bottom under a bridge popular with folk in his line of work to toss away their used guns. Scorsese avoids the adrenalized fervour of his earlier films, however. For one thing, Frank Sheeran is a different creature to guys like Henry Hill or even Jordan Belfort, who delighted in their status as men apart, challenging law and fate with bravura even as they proved much less tough and canny than they wished to think. Sheeran rather fancies himself as a suburban husband and father with an unusual occupation: the circumstances that eventually make him a hitman stem from the need to feed his growing family.

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Part of what made Scorsese’s canonical gangster films vibrant was the way they offered innately interesting prisms through which to encompass other, more quotidian things difficult to make popular movies about. Friendships, troubled marriages, domestic violence, gender roles, the structure of civic life and the circuits of power that often hide in plain sight. One reason Scorsese has long seemed to have a specific affinity for the genre, to a degree that tends to drown out perception of his varied oeuvre, is because the gangster in his eyes simply represents ordinary people in extremis, bound by peculiar loyalties of family and immediate community, balancing attempts to retain certain ideals whilst contending with a cruel and corrupting world. Rodrigo Prieto’s photography, with a muted, greyish colour palette, gives the most immediate visual clue to the way The Irishman disassembles the template of Scorsese’s earlier gangster works, contrasting their lush, pulpy hues and baroque evocations in favour of something chillier, more remorseless, like the cancer that eats up the flesh and bones of these old bastards in the end.

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Another vital pivot in Sheeran’s life comes when Russell sets up the opportunity to become Hoffa’s enforcer, some hard muscle to back up Hoffa’s battles with rivals and powerbrokers. Sheeran’s first conversation with Hoffa over the phone sees De Niro register with beautiful subtlety the minuscule moment of shock as Sheeran realises Hoffa speaks the rarefied language of mob euphemism, conversant in the harshest facts of such life. But Hoffa manages to retain an avuncular glamour, a sense of righteousness even when swimming with human piranha, through seeming like a general engaged in a long guerrilla war, and he also crucially reaches out to Sheeran as “a brother of mine,” that is, a Teamster. Hoffa isn’t wrong to surround himself with hard men, with lieutenants nominally under his control like Anthony ‘Tony Pro’ Provenzano (Stephen Graham). Sheeran recounts how Pro had a rival underling garrotted in a car, cueing one of the film’s most startling visual flourishes, as the murder is glimpsed as the car moves by a moving camera, yawing mouth in silent scream and struggling bodies glimpsed in a flash and then gone. Pro is just one of many creeps and thugs who parasite off the Teamster organisation, a union built to resist the violent resistance to organised labour from management, but which has required and rewarded mob support to do so. Tension builds between Hoffa and his underworld contacts however as he tries to prevent the Teamster union fund, which bankrolled their casino projects, from devolving entirely into a ready cash pool for wiseguys. When a government investigation of Hoffa sees him imprisoned, the mob becomes more inclined to see the union go on being run by more pliable figures, like Tony Pro and Frank Fitzsimmons (Gary Basaraba).

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Like an updated version of the same analysis in Gangs of New York (2002), Scorsese considers the tribalism of politics and gangland as they form mutually parasitical relationship through their symmetry of outlook and method, disconnected from the real musculature of the workers whose ambitions and desires fuel their empires. Hoffa’s story has already been told comprehensively on film, in Danny DeVito’s overblown but fascinating Hoffa (1992), which rendered his life as an outsized romantic epic and elegy, in complete contrast to Scorsese’s dolorous and nitpicking realism. Hoffa was upfront in exploring the way Hoffa turned to the mafia for support to counter the overt and unsubtle brutality wielded by big business, where here this aspect is more implied and seen as part of an inseparable organism: wherever human energy is turned, and money’s involved, reefs of strange coral grow, and sharks come to live. The great swathe of The Irishman’s plot encompasses titanic figures like John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert (Jack Huston), whose vendetta-like pursuit of Hoffa drives the union boss to distraction, and finally overt acts of petty defiance like refusing to have the Teamster flag lowered after John’s assassination, whilst it’s heavily suggested the mob arranged the assassination in revenge for the Kennedys turning on them after they helped John’s election.

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Such history also grazes minor yet noteworthy supporting players like David Ferrie (Louis Vanaria), interlocutor for the Mafia support for Cuban exiles trying to retake their nation from Castro, and E. Howard Hunt (Daniel Jenkins), CIA agent and eventual Nixon henchman infamous for his role in Watergate, both of whom Sheeran meets delivering equipment to the Cubans. Sheeran’s encounters with such people illuminate in flashes the great puzzle of power Sheeran perceives without really comprehending. They also contain Scorsese’s winking acknowledgement of the way the film encompasses cinematic as well as political history, for Pesci played Ferrie in Stone’s JFK (1991), whilst the personages and events the film touches on have provided bone marrow for a host of serious modern American movies. Such encounters are nonetheless laced with a droll sense of individual ridiculousness and everyday farcicality contaminating all facades and postures. Hunt gets upset when he thinks Sheeran is staring at his infamously big ears. Hoffa’s unwitting ride to his end, a moment of solemn and skittish tension, is tainted by the smell and run-off of a fish his adopted son Chuckie O’Brien (Jesse Plemons) dropped off beforehand for a friend, taunting all the men present with the reek of ludicrous fortune and imminent mortality. Sheeran’s proximity to Hoffa and the generational struggle he represents is the most concrete and meaningful of his brushes with renown, and even sees him write a page of history.

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And yet Sheeran’s presence is actually defined by his absence, his being the incarnation of impersonal power, his carefully maintained readiness to be erased the key to his success as a killer and functionary. There’s an aspect of the self-mortifying and self-annihilating in Sheeran’s makeup, only purveyed for worldly rather than spiritual ends. Hoffa keeps him in his hotel room so his visit to the city for strongarming is completely without record, a trick that’s eventually turned on Hoffa as it’s revealed the true purpose for Sheeran and Russell’s road trip in 1975 is to set up a situation where Sheeran can be flown to Detroit to kill Hoffa. His talents as a killer demand taking some real risks, particularly when he’s sent to take out Joseph ‘Crazy Joe’ Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalco), a strutting, defiant figure of the underworld who happily ignores its laws as much as the straight world’s and who’s had a potentially difficult Teamster boss killed during a rally. Scorsese nods back to the gun purchasing scene in Taxi Driver (1976) as Sheeran selects the ideal weapons for the attack and considers how to pull it off with method. Sheeran elects to kill Gallo in a restaurant, avoiding gunning down his family members about him whilst taking out his bodyguard, before chasing Gallo out to the sidewalk to deliver the coup-de-grace as he’s sprawled on the concrete. This scene captures Sheeran’s abilities as a hitman at zenith, as well as illustrating his personal myth, seeing himself as a kind of good guy according to the world he lives in, eliminating fools and scumbags and sparing the innocent. It’s a mystique eventually stripped from him in the rudest possible manner.

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Although hardly a repudiation of his bravura stylistic flourishes, The Irishman sees Scorsese and his ever-ingenious editor Thelma Schoonmaker delivering a sinuous and measured work of high style. An early shot ushering the viewer/camera down the corridors of the nursing home Sheeran’s exiled to in his dimming days has the quality of a visitation by a reluctant but curious acquaintance; when this shot is repeated close to the end, it has a lacerating effect as now it’s clear that when the camera abandons Sheeran he is left in utter solitude, deserted by all he once claimed as friends and family. Scorsese repeatedly interpolates sequences shot in extreme slow motion, in one case in portraying percussive violence as Gallo’s goon shoots the Teamster official, bullets puncturing his flesh in spurts of red blood whilst hands desperately wrap about the assassin, but in each case with a sense of languorous absurdity even when describing tragedy, like the survey of seemingly mundane but despicable visages at the wedding after Hoffa’s killing: the wistfully twanging tones of a guitar cover of ‘Blue Moon’ and some doo-wop giving such scenes with a sardonic quality, at once melancholy and mocking. Throughout the film Scorsese puts up titles identifying various characters with their nicknames and the date and manner of their death, almost only violent. In the film’s slyest joke, one man is blessed with a title describing him as “well-liked by all, died of natural causes.”

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The cumulative effect of this device is to emphasise not just the incredible brutality of the mob world around Sheehan but also his ultimate luck, which might not be luck at all, in outliving all of them; suspense is removed from the equation, and instead we’re made to understand Sheeran as a man living in a city of memory crowded with ghosts. The mob community, one that eats its own, is a perverse family that has its deep rituals of belonging and expulsion. But the rubbing out – erasure – of its members is reproduced in terms of actual family as Sheeran secures his position but with consequences. Of his four daughters, Peggy, growing from a small girl (Lucy Gallina) to a middle-aged woman (Anna Paquin), matures as the mostly silent but incessantly aware ledger of culpability. She regards Russell with suspicion, knowing him for the monstrosity he is, and remains wary of her father ever since witnessing in childhood the spectacle of him beating up a grocery store owner who treated her brusquely, an act that left her feeling less like the well-guarded princess than an unwitting bringer of violence and horror. Peggy’s gravitation to Hoffa, even idolisation of him gives special sting to the way Hoffa embodies for Sheeran a more idealised version of himself, a man with feet planted in the mud and bloodied knuckles but with the stature of a working class gladiator turned statesman.

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The shift of The Irishman from case study review to something more intimate and tragic is managed over the course of a central sequence where Sheeran’s tenure as a Teamster Local boss is celebrated. Hoffa is present, out of jail and pursuing his utter determination to win back “his” union from Fitzgerald, Pro, and the mob heavyweights who want to maintain the new status quo. Hoffa glares daggers at Russell and Salerno whilst sawing up his steak, and carefully fends off Sheeran’s mediating warnings about giving up, insisting with simple assurance that for him abandoning such a cause, so deeply infused with his sense of being and mission, would be tantamount to dying in itself. Peggy watches the play of glances and conversation as she dances, long used to divining through such tells of language and posture. Sheeran is ennobled when Russell gives him a ring that signals his induction into the innermost circle of the mob along with Russell himself and Salerno, a gesture that indicates permanency and security in terms of that family, but which soon proves to actually be a nomination and bribe, as Sheeran is being commissioned without realising to be Hoffa’s assassin.

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The vein of pitch black comedy, blended with a forlorn sense of human vileness, is particularly icy here as Sheeran is essentially wedded to Russell via the exchange of rings, a gesture that contrasts in fascinating ways both men’s relationships with their nominal wives and families. Russell is married to a princess of mob royalty, a detail noted as it makes Russell seem for all his gathered strength like someone who just lucked out and married the boss’s daughter, whilst Sheeran almost casually seems to swap his first wife Mary (Aleksa Palladino) for his second, a little like getting a car upgrade. Hoffa’s wife Josephine (Welker White), who gets fired from her Teamster bureaucratic job in the escalating tit-for-tat, winces and imagines a car bomb blowing her to smithereens as she starts her car before the engine roars calmly to life, just another moment in the life of a foot soldier in a game of spousal ego. Late in the film Sheeran ruminates with tragic sting on how another car, one he loved, became responsible for his imprisonment. The men in The Irishman, at least until it’s too late, tend to adopt a fiercer sense of loyalty to the measures of their social status than their human attachments, from Hoffa’s obsession with “his” union to Pro’s anger at losing his Teamster pension despite being already being rich through to that car of Sheeran’s, his personal cross with Corinthian leather seats.

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One of the wisest decisions Scorsese made in tackling The Irishman, possibly even the reason he made it, was also one of costliest and most troublesome, in offering a movie that serves as a grace note not only for Scorsese’s career but for his stars. Though he’ll surely make more movies, perhaps many more if he keeps at it like Clint Eastwood, The Irishman relies in a manner reminiscent of something like Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) on emotional association with its stars and the sense of an era ending. Scorsese first worked with Keitel on his own debut feature Who’s That Knocking At My Door? (1967), and his associations with De Niro and Pesci, stars of several of his best regarded works, seem virtually umbilical. Scorsese spent a lot of time and effort on the de-ageing effects even as the stiff and angular movements of the actors, as well as the often plastic look of the effects, betray reality. It’s a more convincing approach than using make-up probably would have been for actors in their seventies, but the artificiality is still patent. In practice it’s clearly just a theatrical nicety, not trying to fool the audience but negotiate with our knowing in a way that Scorsese couldn’t have managed if he’d cast other actors to play his protagonists when young as is the usual practice. Scorsese needs the sense of continuity, wants us to perceive the corporeal reality old men lurking within facsimiles of young, potent bucks, in a tale where what age does to self-perception is a key aspect of the drama as well as artistic nostalgia. The quality of the mask-like in the effects underscores Peggy’s keen capacity to penetrate such veneers, and time just as assiduously uncovers the face men carve for themselves.

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Hoffa conceives time as a literal form of wealth, a notion that provides both a thematic thesis – everyone’s time is running out – and also essential characterisation, as Hoffa’s anger is stoked by nothing quite so much as being made to wait, in part because he knows that waiting is something you only do for someone who presumes to have control over you. Which is why Pro calculatedly infuriates him by turning up late to a meeting, adding fuel to their feud. Pacino, ironically finally appearing in a Scorsese film despite being very much another Italian-American product of 1960s New York’s cultural vitality and long associated with gangster films, is particularly well-cast not only for his capacity to project potent, larger-than-life charisma but also embody in Hoffa a being who, whilst capable of speaking over the gap, nonetheless inhabits a slightly different continent to the gangsters, a man corrupt, compromised, but proud, not cynical in his authority even when cynical in many of his actions. Pesci by contrast is intriguingly cast as the most contained and calm of the major characters here after playing eruptive firebrands for Scorsese in the past, his Bufalino charged with terseness edging into easily stirred disgust, as he deals people who can’t work to the very specific rule their world demands, like an aged priest with unruly seminarians. One of the most arresting vignettes in The Irishman is also one of its most casual, as Russell orders Sheeran to hand over his sunglasses before he boards a plane to go kill Hoffa. Russell knows very well that the sunglasses are part of a killer’s uniform and shield, where he knows Sheeran needs the appearance of complete simplicity to pull off the hit, and moreover the discipline imbued by not retaining such a shield. Treachery must be entirely honest.

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De Niro’s specific brilliance, in a different key again from his two great costars, manifests in playing a man who feels no particular emotional urgency until it’s far too late for him to do anything about it. This reckoning comes in two great, mirroring moments, first as he regards Russell in silent grief and reproach even as he also plainly acquiesces to his command to kill Hoffa, and then later as he struggles to maintain a feined veneer of bewildered concern through a conversation with his family over Hoffa’s vanishing, before calling Josephine Hoffa to offer reassurances. The film’s heightened commentary on paternalistic values, where old men’s capacity to make conversation is a very obvious marker of their power and various characters ultimately reveal their foolishness and impotence by talking out of turn or too long, crystallises here as Peggy, who has noticed everything whilst adhering to the rule of being seen but not heard, rips off her father’s façade with a few pointed words, “Why?” the question that registers like the point of an ice axe into a glacier. Sheeran makes his call, an action of duplicity and false hope he’s still quietly hating himself for making as he waits around to die decades later: “What kind of man makes a call like that?” he asks of an oblivious priest seeking his confession in the nursing home.

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The most fundamental thread of Scorsese’s cinema has been the hunt for spiritual and aesthetic clarity in desperate conflict not just with the necessities of existence within a society but also with physical and emotional hungers that lead in the opposite direction from sainthood, even whilst stemming from the same impulses. Scorsese knows about such things; he took on Raging Bull (1980) as a project after being hospitalised for a cocaine overdose, and that film’s alternations of dreamy meditation and raw savagery have infused his mature oeuvre ever since. The Irishman follows Scorsese’s masterful study of cultural and religious clash, Silence (2016). Where that film seemed a capstone on a loose trilogy studying belief after The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997), The Irishman rounds out Scorsese’s study of mafia lore in Goodfellas and Casino, chasing their concerns to one logical end. The unexpected quality of The Irishman is that it also unites the two bodies of work. Scorsese returns to the figuration of Judas and Jesus Scorsese wrestled with so controversially on The Last Temptation of Christ in Sheeran’s treachery towards Hoffa. This comes with an inherent sense of irony – no-one here is exactly Jesus – whilst extending Silence’s contention with devotion and betrayal, the costs of adhering to a faith, with inverted propositions, and like so many of Scorsese’s films it contends with a character who eventually faces the essential situation of being left alone to do battle, Jacob-like, with their contending angels and devils.

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The ideals of religious faith, humane and yet eternally defined by individual conscience, high-flown, transcendental, necessarily defined ultimately by a person’s solitary confrontation with their conception of eternity, have always warred in Scorsese’s vision with a different brand of faith, a social devotion defined by communal ties, hierarchy, expectation, and ruthless punishment for deviation. Religious faith, which in Scorsese often bleeds into other faiths, like labour organising in Boxcar Bertha (1971) as well as in The Irishman, contends with social faith in direct contrast: religious faith is punishment of self where social faith is punishment of others. Father Rodrigues in Silence suffered just as much and met his end just as solitary and battered as Sheeran, but his retained grip on faith into the grave signalled his most vital stem of being, no matter how tortured, retained a sense of worthiness in his life mission. By contrast Sheehan is left by the end of The Irishman entirely stripped of any illusion his choices have ultimately been worth the cost, and stripped at the same time of the things that make such costs worth bearing. The Irishman could be seen as a classical winter’s tale as Shakespeare might have recognised it, even as it refuses to become such a tale. Those are supposed to be about conciliation and natural cycles, stories where the bite of the frigid season matches the gnawing proximity of death and the necessity of making peace to facilitate rebirth. The Irishman is about the consequences of rudely assaulting nature, and instead becomes something far more like King Lear, a tragedy where a once ferocious king is left bereft and pitiful and exiled from home and kin because of the long, lingering memory of his own lessons.

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Hoffa’s actual death nimbly turns from deadpan realism, as Sheeran shoots him in the head in an awkward and rushed jumble of motion, to a precisely composed renaissance pieta, as Sheeran leaves the arranged corpse and gun lying in the foyer of an empty house. Scorsese lingers on the sight after Sheeran leaves, the weight not simply of violence and crime but of dreadful absence, the negation of Hoffa’s presence and will, forces that compelled the world. The hit excises a roadblock to easy business but also echoes as an act of violence that consumes the men who committed it. Sheeran is forever excommunicated by Peggy, refusing to speak to him again even as he shambles after her in withered age in a bank where she works, whilst the destabilisation of an equilibrium vibrates through the mob world, with authorities prosecuting and jailing everyone they can, including Sheeran and Russell. Their figurative marriage becomes more like a real one as they’re left only with each-other in a cold and cheerless old age, withering within prison walls, two men who quietly despise each-other for the compromises forced and the implied lack of forgiveness in return, chained together in a caricature of amity into the halls of prison and then the grave.

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The viewer must watch with both a touch of scorn and half-willing sympathy as Russell, dying, reveals he’s turned to religion as he’s pushed away in his wheelchair for treatment, as if he’s found a way to mollify the big boss. No major American director has dealt so sharply with imminent old age, the reduction of the human form and mind by the entirely natural predation of ageing, although in taking up such a theme in what’s nominally supposed to be a true crime thriller recalls Eastwood’s similar evocation in J. Edgar (2011). Sheeran’s corrosive experience of solitude and humiliation even after being released from prison sees him fending off two calls for purgation by confession, from the priest (Jonathan Morris) and federal agents, whilst he picks out coffins and resting places, still hunting a last echo of worldly status even into the grave. But the framing suggests Sheeran is confessing to someone, perhaps the audience, a surrogate for Brandt, a craned ear hungry for forbidden lore. All these legends lose their immediate meaning as their actors die off, even as the labour they’ve been part of, equated with both the society they comprised and the movie they appear in, persists, carrying lessons that cut many ways for those who follow. Sheeran recounting his story is one last attempt to leave a certain mark, to give experience any form of meaning. Scorsese grants him no absolution, but does offer a small consolation.

Standard
1950s, 1970s, Horror/Eerie, Scifi, Thriller

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) / Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

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Directors: Don Siegel / Philip Kaufman
Screenwriters: Daniel Mainwaring / W.D. Richter

By Roderick Heath

I said, “Hello!” again, a little louder, jiggling the phone, the way you do, but the line was dead, and I put the phone back. In my father’s day a night operator, whose name he’d have known, could have told him who’d called…But now we have dial phones, marvelously efficient, saving you a full second or more every time you call, inhumanly perfect, and utterly brainless; and none of them will ever remember where the doctor is at night, when a child is sick and needs him. Sometimes I think we’re refining all humanity out of our lives. – Jack Finney, The Body Snatchers

Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers began life as a serialised story in Colliers Magazine and was published as a novel in 1955. Finney, a former copywriter and journalist, became adept at writing in many a genre with the discipline of a shrewd professional. He wrote many crime stories, some of which were also adapted as films, including Phil Karlson’s 5 Against The House (1955), although his biggest publishing success was the 1970 time travel tale Time And Again. The Body Snatchers was received harshly by some science fiction writers and critics as a variation on an already well-worn idea: Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick had already explored very similar notions. Even when adapted as a movie in 1956, it was following Jack Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space (1953) in employing the theme of people in a small town replaced by alien doppelgangers. But Finney knew how to place such a story in a resolutely believable and human context, and Don Siegel’s adaptation immediately made the story the most famous variation on the theme, lodging itself in the popular consciousness and birthing the phrase “pod people” in common parlance. The hyped-up retitling initially gave it a trashy lustre but the film’s quality quickly grabbed critical attention, helping cement Siegel’s reputation.

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Siegel himself, unlike Arnold, wasn’t drawn to science fiction by inclination, and like Finney was more associated with thrillers. But it was precisely this likeness, each creative hand’s skill in grounding a tale in an immediately substantial and quotidian sense of the world, that would lend the story its specific texture. Eventually Invasion of the Body Snatchers was lodged as a diamond-hard genre film classic, an eternal touchstone for anyone who saw it when young and had their love for dark thrills galvanised. It also proved a ready template, officially remade three times, and imitated and lampooned endlessly. Philip Kaufman’s first remake, released in 1978, rode a wave of new interest in sci-fi cinema following the success of Star Wars (1977), as studios scrambled to find genre properties that could be quickly given a new gloss with modern special effects. Kaufman’s version immediately inspired and influenced a string of remakes, including John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), and Chuck Russell’s The Blob (1988), adding new lashings of gruesome corporeal detail and radicalism to a fairly clean-cut and beloved movie in a manner that divided fans of the originals. But the most interesting disparities between the two films speak more of the radical social shifts in the twenty-two years that separate them, and the distinctive perspectives of their directors.

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Siegel was noted as a studio hand who’d risen to become a master editor at Warner Bros., and fought to get a break as director. Far from finding himself washed up as the studio system declined, Siegel thrived in the grittier climes of the 1960s and ‘70s, noted for his spiky tales of antiheroic misfits and his fascination for dramas pitting avatars of anarchy and control in direct, almost schizoid opposition. Kaufman, by contrast, was a literate bohemian turned filmmaker who started making movies in the mid-1960s but who didn’t start gaining traction until his fortunes aligned with the emerging Movie Brat generation. Both films retained the same basic structure and stuck fairly closely to Finney’s storyline, although Kaufman’s version transferred the setting from the small California town of Santa Mira to the urban zones of San Francisco and altered aspects of the character drama. Finney’s lead character Miles Bennell is a doctor in his home town Santa Mira who reconnects with his former teenage flame Becky Driscoll, and they edge into a tentative romance again as both are recovering from divorce.

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Kaufman and his screenwriter W.D. Richter reconfigured this so Bennell, rechristened Matthew, is a health inspector and Becky, now Elizabeth, is a colleague and friend with an obvious spark of connection although Elizabeth’s married. In both versions Bennell begins encountering anxious people who report that loved ones have been replaced by beings that look, sound, and act just like the people they know and yet are missing some vital defining trait. Bennell consults a psychiatrist friend, named Dan Kauffman in the original and David Kibner in the remake, who insists the phenomenon is purely mental. But Bennell’s writer friend Jack Belicec and his wife call him to take a look at a mysterious body that’s appeared on their premises, looking like an unfinished version of Jack. A terrible truth begins to emerge: people are being replaced by lookalikes growing out of seed pods with an extra-terrestrial origin, mimetic organisms able to absorb every characteristic of humans save any capacity for authentic emotion.

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Finney’s book had laid down a fine blueprint for describing the tensions between communal and individual identity. The main characters cut across the grain of their surrounds and old-fashioned social presumptions, with Miles and Becky as divorcees, whilst Miles and Kauffman and Belicec comprising something like the intelligentsia of their town with just a faint hint of the siege mentality such cliques often feel, an aspect Kaufman would elaborate on, just as their names nod to the polyglot state of American society. Siegel’s version doesn’t expend a great deal of time setting up the social backdrop of Santa Mira, because he doesn’t need to: it’s so damn ordinary, the people wandering through it familiar with their howdy-neighbour grins, everyone performing a function, from Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) to Kauffman (Larry Gates) to Police Chief Nick Grivett (Ralph Dumke) to gas repairman Charlie (Sam Peckinpah). The first sign of disturbance to the status quo comes as Bennell sees young Jimmy Grimaldi (Bobby Clark) running away from the family fruit stand, gripped by the conviction his mother isn’t his mother. Bennell soon finds the same apparent delusion gripping several other people, including Becky’s friend Wilma (Virginia Christine) who swears her Uncle Ira (Tom Fadden) isn’t her Uncle Ira. “A strange neurosis, evidently contagious – an epidemic of mass hysteria,” Kauffman judges it, and to Miles’ question what causes it, responds: “Worry about what’s going on in the world, probably.”

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Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers has long been the object of debate as to whether it can be considered as a political parable, with factional readings rooted in its era taking it as either a metaphor for the anti-Communist panic of McCarthyism, where a community gangs up on a small and hapless group to destroy or assimilate outliers, or rather the opposite, a vision of Communist infiltration, as the lookalikes conform to certain canards about the Red Menace, detached and enforcing a collective, hive-mind-like system. The quote from Finney’s book above indicates his target was something at once vaguer and more thoroughly encompassing, a general portrait of modernity as a state of perpetual, alienating shock, defined by a constant succession of nudges away from immediate human reference into a state of prophylaxis. Political readings blur into each-other from such a perspective, the desire to project insidious and malignant motives onto an Other a desperate attempt to return shape to communal experience, which is subject to a constant, intense process of homogenisation. Siegel had a love for characters who, for whatever reason, exist on the outskirts of society and try to operate according to their own very peculiar code. Here he’d found a perfect ironic text to explore his obsession, one that allowed him to make his heroes at once beings apart and the final exemplars of “normality,” the act of retaining their individuality valorised above all else but also doomed to cost them everything.

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At the same time, the story echoes more personally and immediately, speaking to a basic aspect of human experience that’s hard to portray dramatically. The fear of changes in people we know and love, the tiny, almost imperceptible alterations in behaviour that can signal anything from infidelity to senility, the noticing of which can often make the observer feel like they’re the one losing their wits. The way the story ties Bennell and Becky’s resuming relationship to the larger drama emphasises their frail and worldly-wise sense of becoming and cherishing, starkly contrasting the relentless assimilation of the alien invasion. When the lovers are confronted by the replicated Belicec and Kauffman, they insist it’s a blissful deliverance from all the fractiousness that defines human identity, the passion that brings pain, a sort of instant shortcut to a Zen state that represents however not triumph over flesh but the mere deadening of it. Kaufman would take up this facet, envisioning poddom as a kind of transubstantiation that fulfils in detail familiar religious visions – release from the tyranny of flesh and self, the achievement of perfect pacifism and embrace of a higher, gestalt truth – with infinitely cruel sarcasm.

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Part of what was innovative and notable about Siegel’s approach to Invasion of the Body Snatchers lay in the way he completely avoided the usual signifiers of a film in its genre. No dreamy expressionist visuals until the very end or familiar stars, no bug-eyed monsters or giveaways to suggest the alien point of view or airy, poetically meditative dialogue, but unfolding more like a mystery thriller or police procedural a succession of revelations and inferences. Pretty much to be expected, given that was Siegel’s usual purview. He was following Gordon Douglas’ Them! (1954) in taking up that approach, but Invasion of the Body Snatchers took the method a step further: the most monstrous thing it can conceive is beings who look like people but who are not, the most frightening thing a horde of neighbours chasing you through the street in blank determination to erase what makes you you. Shots of Bennell and Becky running through the dark streets of Santa Mira’s downtown, glaring lights reflecting off wet tar, and dashing through empty office buildings and across the desert landscape, is more purely film noir stuff, close to Siegel’s The Big Steal (1949) or Private Hell 36 (1954), or Karlson’s The Phenix City Story (1955). The connection with the latter film, a portrait of corruption and conspiracy proliferating in a nominally average small town, is especially strong, as Siegel applies the sci-fi element to such bedrock.

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The body on the Belicecs’ dining table, grotesquery in the midst of the utterly banal, alien horror manifesting in the space where the characters usually play at small town sophisticate, signals a narrative shift as an invisible phenomenon suddenly becomes substantial and paranoia becomes reality. Soon horror is suggesting itself everywhere, in cellars and greenhouses and farm fields, but remains excruciatingly hard to pin down. Siegel’s expert use of deep focus in widescreen frames constantly places his characters in coherent relationship with each-other and with strange phenomenon, containing them neatly within the same reality despite the protestations of hallucination. This leads to the crystallising moment where he films the replica Belicec’s eyes slowly peeling open, with Belicec and his wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones) in the far reaches of the frame, trying to last out a vigil at their kitchen counter, Teddy alerted by the flicker of movement to a new and terrifying development. Another expert use of the same method comes when Bennell spies in through the window of Becky’s father’s house and sees the cabal of the replaced preparing to distribute pods, whilst a hand reaches into the frame and grips his shoulder. When the danger and perversity become more urgent and disorientating, Siegel’s proclivity for vertiginous low and high camera angles becomes more and more blatant, becoming defining aspects of the film’s most vivid scenes.

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Bennell queasily senses a likeness, having witnessed Becky’s faint disquiet at her father (Kenneth Patterson) making a mysterious trip to his basement. Sure enough, as Bennell breaks in and checks out the shadowy cellar, he finds a similar doppelganger of Becky, so he sneaks up to her room and snatches her away. In both Siegel’s and Kaufman’s films, the psychiatrist character is a rhetorical villain, offering up rationalisations in trying to convince Bennell and his friends that they’ve hallucinated or misinterpreted what they’ve seen. He almost convinces the characters the problem is all in their mind, and yet the psychiatrist is swiftly and easily subsumed to the alien purpose, or was perhaps part of it all the time. Kauffman/Kibner is identified as part of an infrastructure of detachment and learned distrust of the senses. The psychiatrist in each movie even essentially parrots socio-political readings of the narrative of the film he’s in. But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not really out to get you. Both homunculi vanish and Grivett grouchily reports to Bennell, Belicec, and Kauffman that the male form was found burning on a bonfire out on a farm. The many people who had insisted relatives had been replaced like young Jimmy and Wilma report to Bennell that they were mistaken and everything’s fine. This seems a victory for good sense. Except that as Bennell and Becky and the Belicecs to try and leave behind the bizarreness by having a barbecue in Bennell’s backyard, they discover giant seed pods in the greenhouse that pulse and foam, and split open disgorge humanoid forms that begin taking on the likenesses of the four.

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Most good films detailing the eruption of the fantastic amidst the familiar hinge upon the question as to just when what’s logical – in the sense of what conclusion about a situation that can be reasonably deduced from the facts – ceases to obey one set of presumptions and dictates another. The heroes of such tales are usually those who make the leap a little earlier than anyone else. The discovery in the greenhouse marks the pivot in Invasion of the Body Snatchers in this regard, but it’s a narrative that cleverly obfuscates all certainty in other aspects. We never know when most of the townsfolk are replaced or even if Bennell, Becky, and the Belicecs are the last humans there. This loss of a common reality is the most insidious aspect of the narrative. At what point do the humans become aliens, threatening the native population? One detail in Finney’s novel the films intriguingly avoid mentioning is the fact that the replicas only have a very limited life span, and can’t sexually reproduce, in essence moving about the universe like a locust swarm laying each planet they come to waste. Both films engage the pod people less as a specific parasitical enemy and more as a purely social phenomenon. This might seem to rob an aspect of urgency from the films, but it does throw into relief the notion that really concerns Siegel and Kaufman: what is humanity, and what are we willing to endure to hold onto it?

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Siegel’s film is inexplicit about how aspects of the alien replication work. Part of the physical process is glimpsed in the greenhouse, fleshy human forms rapidly taking shape as would a pumpkin, a blend of familiar forms of propagation to signal the completely alien. Some sort of psychic process seems to be involved in the transference of memories and character. It becomes clear that the vital stage of replacement occurs during sleep, when the pod people have the capacity to download the minds of their models and to upload their own. Which does make one wonder why the pods bother replacing bodies at all, although there’s some potent metaphorical value in there. It makes sense that just as there are people who get by in life despite lacking any sense of integral identity or feeling by mimicking others, so too there might be other species doing it too. Kaufman would be very finicky in nailing down the details in his version. Either way the greenhouse discovery makes the source of the doubles and their nature clear to the protagonists: the psychological narrative, the problem of knowing one’s localised reality, gives way to a battle for existence, but both are seen as stations on an existential continuum. Bennell and Becky hide out from their pursuers in Bennell’s surgery overlooking the town square, where they become witnesses to the replica horde suddenly converging once the first morning bus has been through to distribute truckloads of pods.

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The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ connections reached both backwards and forwards in screen history. Siegel would more aggressively pursue the theme of the lone wolf warrior in films like Edge of Eternity (1959), Coogan’s Buff (1968), and Dirty Harry (1971), and offer a gendered examination of collision of the one and the group in The Beguiled (1971). Kevin McCarthy gained by far his best-known screen role in it, but his casting at the time certainly carried association with his performance as Biff in the Fredric March-starring adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1951), another story rooted in the superficially placid yet tense mood of post-war America where someone finds someone they love isn’t the person they think they are. Gene Fowler Jnr’s I Married a Monster From Outer Space (1958) would take up the alien masquerade theme as a manifestation of gender angst. One of the many later films Siegel’s would clearly influence would be George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), with its similar sense of besiegement within the superficially normal and the terror of loved-ones become emotionless shells, although Romero would twist the idea with the ultimately more marketable concept of a total removal of identity.

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Siegel’s film would echo through a host of films both within and without the sci-fi and horror genres, lurking in the DNA of thrillers in the 1970s like The Parallax View (1973), where the humdrum turns menacing and the infrastructure of daily life becomes enigmatic and oppressive. So when it came time for Kaufman to make his version, he gave the ‘70s paranoid trip a fitting terminus in also bringing it full circle. The pod people motif involves the ironic creation of civilisation that works better according to civilisation’s own ideals where the zombie tale eyes the animalistic underside of social identity. Finney’s novel ended in an upbeat fashion as Bennell’s assault on the pod growing farm results in the aliens abandoning Earth, realising it’s too tough a planet to colonise. For once a Hollywood adaptation decided to go in another direction and embrace a grimmer outlook. The climactic sequence of Siegel’s film is justly immortal as Bennell reaches a busy stretch of highway, the pod people halting their pursuit in caution as Bennell enters the lanes of traffic bellowing out hysterical warnings, Siegel’s camera viewing Bennell’s sweaty, bedraggled, mad-eyed visage as he tries desperately to alert the world only to be lost amidst the din and disdain. The good doctor has become just another nut, as Siegel switches to one of his characteristic high-angle shots and zooms out from him, leaving him stranded in his pathos.

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This, the film finally seems to say, is what we’re all offered as a choice in life: to become braindead in conformity or to be a madman howling at cars in warning. Siegel’s initial cut of Invasion of the Body Snatchers dismayed test audience, so his backers, Allied Artists, and producers Walter Mirisch and Walter Wanger, shot a wraparound sequence that turned the bulk of the movie into a tale recounted by Bennell to patient but sceptical doctors, Hill (Whit Bissell) and Bassett (Richard Deacon), after Bennell is brought into a police station in a frazzled, near-hysterical, but lucid state. It’s usually considered an awkward and obvious appendage as has been excised from some prints, particularly as it despoils the perfection of the highway scene. But it’s never really bothered me, in part because the act of narrating the story gives the film context that engages the possibility of an unreliable narrator. The very end as Hill realises Bennell’s been telling the truth thanks to a very well-timed traffic accident, leaves us on a tantalising note: can any action be taken in time? And what about Bennell, on the verge of collapsing from exhaustion?

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Kaufman and Richter (Richter would go on to write Big Trouble in Little China, 1986, and direct The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, 1984, both movies that couldn’t find an audience but which became cult objects), in updating and transposing the original’s story, radically altered aspects of its meaning. The relatively unruffled hominess of the Ike-era small town setting is swapped out for the jostling, already mistrustful environs of a mid-1970s American metropolis, where the oddball is always on the boil and the architecture already seems encoded with a disdain for the human, thrusting pyramidal skyscrapers and facades of glass and steel cutting the human connections into cubist fragments. Where Bennell in the original has the noble task as town doctor of ministering to his local flock, Kaufman’s Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) is tasked with seeking out filth and carelessness as agent of benign bureaucracy resented by those he surveys: he’s introduced as a looming face distorted in a peephole lens, and infuriates the manager of the swank restaurant he inspects as he insists an object he fishes out a bubbling dish is not a caper but a rat turd. Kauffman, renamed Kibner, is not just a psychiatrist but a writer of successful advice books, peddling fashionable New Age bromides to his audience. Belicec in the original seemed an avatar for Finney himself as a modestly successful and personable writer, so Belicec becomes Kaufman’s frustrated shadow in his version, a frustrated poet and angrily authentic bohemian. Belicec decries Kibner’s work even as he hopes to ride it for a little benefit, weeping by himself after failing to get a chance to read his work at Kibner’s book launch, even whilst running a mud bath with his wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright).

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Kaufman makes his Invasion of the Body Snatchers a more literal horror movie than Siegel’s, with flashier camerawork mediating realism with a slow dissolution into a neo-expressionist nightmare, and extended sequences of nascent body horror and gore. And yet Kaufman takes a more leisurely and quirk-sensitive time in setting up the story with flashes of wit and menace as well as incidental characterisation. The credits unfold over visions of alien spores flocking on the surface of a strange planet and being disgorged into space, floating through the void before landing on Earth in rainfall, making the presence of the aliens explicit from the start. Kaufman zooms in to study the alien spores growing parasitically on Earth trees and eventually growing into small, blooming pods. Elizabeth picks one and tries to identify its species, whilst contending with her dentist husband Geoffrey Howell (Art Hindle), who takes time out from watching football immersed with headphones on to come ravish her: theirs is a marriage that seems cheerful but has the quality of a college hook-up nearing its use-by date. The next morning Elizabeth awakens to find Geoffrey already well-dressed and acting in a taciturn, almost robotically severe manner, cleaning up the broken glass she kept the pod in on her bedside table, and spiriting out a strange load of matted material to a garbage truck.

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Whereas Siegel kept the slowly metastasising invasion in the shadows until the last portion of film, Kaufman offers, mostly through Elizabeth’s eyes at first, a sense of a cabal forming and taking grip. She glimpses Geoffrey meeting strangers around town, handing each-other strange objects wrapped in blankets or bags, unspoken accords forming. Michael Chapman, who had shot Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver two years earlier, was called upon here to expand his feel for inner city psychosis, expounded through shots that play with diffused and disturbed vision. Grainy zoom shots of ambiguous dealings. Faces seen through or reflected in distorting mirrors or glass, or looming out of shadows. One shot of Bennell hiding in a cupboard in Geoffrey and Elizabeth’s house is pure Expressionism. Handheld camerawork to capture a sensation of woozy, disoriented isolation. Chapman’s camera notes a man dashing across the street as it pans onto Elizabeth heading to work, faint screeching sounds and people starting to chase after the man unnoticed by her, just more city weirdness to tune out. Soon she’s pounding pavements seeing strangers all around on buses and the like who seem somehow charged with strangeness, the din and frenetic movement of the cityscape not quite obscuring the change at its heart. Bennell’s shattered windscreen, broken by an angry cook at the restaurant he shuttered, becomes a quasi-abstract pattern. It’s through this that Bennell and Elizabeth glimpse a panicky, urgently warning man they almost run down as he dashes in front of them: why, it’s Kevin McCarthy, still sounding the alarm, only this time to be swiftly run down and killed by pursuers.

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This inspired cameo gives Kaufman’s film less the lustre of a remake than a quasi-sequel, taking up where Siegel left off. He left Bennell as the incarnation of a world spirit crying out for attention and awareness, whilst Kaufman runs over it. Siegel himself appears later as a taxi driver. When Bennell takes Elizabeth to meet Kibner, the psychiatrist’s encompassing roster of condemnation and proposed causes for paranoid conviction now includes a disintegrating family unit and people who can’t handle responsibility because life is too confronting. Belicec sticks up for the bohemian spirit as bawls out Kibner’s book: “Where’s Homer? Where’s Kazantzakis? Where’s Jack London?” Meanwhile his wife Nancy accidentally draws attention to the problem of trying to alert people to disintegrating reality when one is already deeply plugged into New Age kookiness, as she brings up Von Daniken-via-Quatermass notions. Then again, who’s to say she’s wrong? The omnipresence of the garbage trucks in which the replicas dispose of the shrivelled remains of the replaced become Kaufman’s most bitterly amusing touch, the most fitting etude for a consumerist society to be deposited in the rubbish by a parasitical species.

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Despite their differences in outlook and temperament, Siegel and Kaufman were nonetheless united in their fascination with and determination advocacy for individualism. Perhaps indeed it’s one trait shared by just about any creative in the western tradition. Abel Ferrara’s awkward, misjudged 1992 version, which to a certain played as less as another remake than as a companion story simultaneous to Kaufman’s, nonetheless included one brilliant sequence rooted precisely in this artistic sense of humanity, in which the one remaining human child in a class is outed when the kids are all made to draw: the human offers colour and form whilst the aliens all come up with static-like fuzz. Kaufman’s sense of political parallel is more pointed and self-conscious, however. Kaufman senses in frustration an oncoming conservatism after the flowering of the Counterculture that would soon bring about Reaganism. Perhaps his most memorable tweak to the way Siegel presented the pod people was to give them a distinctive shriek they release to alert others of their kind when a normal human has detected them, usually with a finger thrust out in identifying accusation.

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This nerve-rattling touch gives the pod people a more immediately alien, monstrous quality, but also more draws out the notion of social horror acutely: the humans become the hated enemy, the deviation, that must be abhorred. Holocaust metaphors are hard to miss, particularly in a late scene in which Bennell watches, in deadpan distress, as a busload of school children are unwittingly ushered into a building to be assimilated. As in Siegel’s film, Kaufman builds to a sequence where Bennell and Elizabeth are confronted by the fake Kibner and Belicec, calm proselytisers for the change who Bennell finishes up killing in a terribly intimate struggle. Like Siegel, Kaufman would devote the rest of his career to celebrating gutsy people apart after having defined his personal nightmare. But where Siegel’s vision became increasingly antisocial, Kaufman tried to celebrate an ideal, helping create Indiana Jones and glorifying the Mercury astronauts and turning Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin into bohemian swashbucklers. Kaufman stages his take on the original film’s greenhouse scene out in Bennell’s backyard, where he, Elizabeth, and the Belicecs are resting: Bennell falls asleep sprawled in a sun chair. Fine tendrils from one of the pods are seen attaching themselves to his body for the sake of absorbing his physiognomy and then mind.

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This brilliantly executed scene did for makeup and prosthetic effects what Star Wars had done for spaceship action the year before in showing an audience a sudden leap forward in a special effects art, presenting a convincingly corporeal vision of the replication of process, twitching, shivering bodies growing rapidly. Only Nancy’s interruption, screaming out to Bennell as she spies the malefic scene, awakens him and forestalls the process. Bennell hacks his replica to pieces with a shovel and the gang flee the house. In both films Bennell can’t bring himself to attack Becky’s replica and so attacks his own instead. Another of Kaufman’s great scenes, a moment charged with the essence of ‘70s screen culture, is a montage sequence in which Bennell tries to alert authorities from pay phones in the San Francisco downtown. Random voices from a distant regime fending off his warnings drone on audio as Kaufman’s visuals employ swooning hand-held camerawork, tracking Bennell as he wanders the city and makes his calls, all sense not just of structured society and authority disintegrating but reality along with it, as Bennell falls down the rabbit hole into complete disconnection from the world, the city completing its transformation from enveloping community to enemy territory.

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As the conspiracy busts loose and the heroes are driven out onto the streets, the style becomes increasingly baroque. Bennell, Elizabeth, and the Belicecs are glimpsed under a flight of stairs, only their four sets of eyes visible through gaps in the woodwork, as their pursuers pound down the steps before them; then the fleeing foursome’s shadows are seen dancing upon the wall of the Embarcadero like they’ve become refugees from a Murnau film. Kaufman’s genuine engagement with the original is also nodded to in two sequences that are also inspired enlargements upon Siegel’s. In the original Bennell and Becky’s efforts to move undetected amongst the pod people by acting emotionless are foiled when Becky screams in concern for a dog that nearly gets hit by a truck. Kaufman has Bennell encounter the bedraggled, homeless busker Harry (Joe Bellen) who sleeps with his dog in the park: Bennell kicks at a pod lying near him to save him from assimilation, but later as Bennell, Elizabeth, and Nancy escape a locale teeming with pod people a grotesque chimera comes loping towards them, the dog with Harry’s head, tearing a scream from Elizabeth. It feel like a black-hearted gag taking aim at too-little too-late liberalism as well as an episode seeking some genuine perversity in the evocation of new frontiers of flesh.

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The second variation plays on a haunting sequence in Siegel’s where Bennell follows the sound of eerie music only to find it’s only on a radio ignored by the replica people working on a pod farm. In Kaufman’s version, this becomes a more expansively operatic moment as Bennell hears a mass bagpipe version of “Amazing Grace” echoing from the waterfront and thinks they might be able to escape on a ship still crewed by humans, only to find as he ventures close that pods are being loaded onto the ships for exporting. The simultaneously mocking and plaintive sense of spiritual longing and human grandeur takes Siegel’s ironic scene to a new place here, all the more tragic in the sense of such art and feeling being erased. Perhaps the greatest moment in Siegel’s film comes when a completely exhausted Becky collapses as she and Bennell try to flee a cave where they’ve hidden. As Bennell tries to pick her realises she’s fallen asleep just long enough, no more than a few seconds, to be possessed by the aliens, her black eyes opening slowly with impassive and depthless regard: Siegel cuts from viewpoint to viewpoint – Bennell’s horrified reaction, eyes wide with shock and revulsion, mirrors the possessed Becky’s – as it becomes clear at last this is a nightmare there’s no waking up from.

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Kaufman’s version of the same moment is less immediately vivid, but it has its own sick power. Bennell returns from the waterfront to find Elizabeth asleep and lost. He sits cradling her body until it crumbles into a fibrous mess, and her replica arises from the scrub nearby, naked and remade as a blankly carnal thing that mocks the way Bennell and Elizabeth played at platonic friendship that finally became passion with the sarcastic permission of the alien invasion: Elizabeth becomes a mere body there’s no point in trying to make love to. Faced with the choice between honouring Finney or Siegel’s endings, Kaufman and Richter chose to do both, which makes for a slightly awkward if still vigorous set of climaxes. Fleeing the fake Elizabeth, Bennell comes across a warehouse where the pods are being cultivated, and he manages to lay waste to the place by dropping lighting rigs on the nursery and starting a fire. But faced with no chance to escape the city, Bennell returns to the Department of Health building and seems to make a play of operating normally amongst his colleagues, now all silent, pokerfaced, utterly futile beings for whom the workaday treadmill has become a robotic routine, a bleak and tedious reductio ad absurdum for all late capitalist life.

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The sting in the tale waits until the very last shots, as Bennell wanders solitary in the town only to encounter Nancy, who gives away her humanity by giving him a complicit grin: Bennell lifts a hand and points at her, releasing the demonic alien scream of accusation. Kaufman’s camera zooms into the black void of the screaming maw. It’s one of the most memorable and ghoulish endings in fantastic cinema, capping the movie with a note of bottomless angst and horror. And yet it’s also ambiguous. Many critics felt the end of Kaufman’s film implied there had never been much point fighting the pods and that the pod Bennell simply represented clapped-out acquiescence. But what does it mean that Bennell became a pod person? His yawing-mouthed cry evokes both his counterpart in Siegel’s film as he raved his desperate warning, and also his own choked-off scream as Elizabeth crumbles in his arms. Did he simply run out of steam, unable to keep himself awake? Did he give in because it was too painful to be alone? Or did he, as the last glimpses of him gazing at the replicated Becky possibly suggest, give in in order, in whatever pathetic, degraded, impotent state, to share it with her? The horror of the ending of Siegel’s film is that Bennell seems inhuman when bellowing and crying out in a most human way. The horror of Kaufman’s is that our most human need, for other humans, could lead us to abandon humanity.

Standard
1960s, Horror/Eerie, Thriller

Peeping Tom (1960)

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Director: Michael Powell
Screenwriter: Leo Marks

By Roderick Heath

The tale of Peeping Tom’s rejection upon release, and the way it doomed Michael Powell’s directorial career, is today inseparable from its mystique. After twenty years spent as one of Britain’s most respected and high-profile filmmakers, Powell ended his “The Archers” production partnership with Emeric Pressburger following Ill Met By Moonlight (1958) and carried on alone, even the signature Archers logo sequence featuring an arrow hitting a bullseye now amended for a solo act. Tired of trying to subsist in the increasingly mundane mood of late ‘50s British film, Powell seems to have seen a way out as horror films and thrillers regained popularity: fierce thrills awaited. Powell had never really worked in Horror before, although his early quickie The Phantom Light (1936) had offered a playful lampoon of genre canards. Having worked early in his career as still photographer under Alfred Hitchcock, Powell went to the same well the Master of Suspense was about to have his biggest hit in drawing from, with Psycho. It’s generally forgotten now that as Psycho opened in cinemas many critics and cinema figures wondered if Hitchcock had gone too far. Hitchcock might have taken some warning from Peeping Tom’s fate, as he bypassed critics at first, letting the audience set the pace. The film’s colossal success essentially forced an entire culture to roll with it. No such restraint was offered Powell.

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Whereas Hitchcock was strictly associated with his niche genre and knew how to playfully mediate his persona so that even his darkest provocations could be made to seem mischievous rather than malign, and the gore and provocation of the Hammer Films product was veiled relatively in a relatively benign and stylised historical setting, Powell situated his in the immediate, full-colour present. Not that he was alone in that, either. The likes of Arthur Crabtree’s Horrors of the Black Museum (1959) offered studies in tabloid cruelty not that dissimilar. But no one expected better of such movies. Powell however seen as a fallen angel of prestige film turning to a debased genre by the British press, which would maintain its punitive view of horror films through to the “Video Nasties” debate of the 1980s. Powell’s oeuvre was ransacked for evidence he’d always been a pervert. Plenty of evidence was available, from the hothouse eroticism and maniacal assaults of Black Narcissus (1946), the consuming down-home passions of Gone To Earth (1950), the erotically useful statue coming to murderous life in The Thief of Baghdad (1940), the glue-wielding small-town enforcer of A Canterbury Tale (1944), and the sadomasochistic view of artistry in The Red Shoes (1948).

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Such analysis was perfectly correct. Powell and Pressburger had made their names offering their unique cinema in an age of grim and intractable facts, ironically countering with narratives celebrating an almost obstinate perversity in individualism and applying a psychologically aware, layered texture taking inspiration from fairy tales and theatrical fantasias to otherwise grounded stories. Powell and Pressburger’s partnership, and the films they made in the 1940s, exemplified a strange variety of idealism fired by the war and its immediate aftermath, a desire to express the human urge at all extremes, even the irrational and disturbing. Powell noted later that The Red Shoes’ success seemed rooted in the way it gave permission for people, after years of being told to go out and die for democracy, to now go out and die for art, whilst The Archers’ written manifesto had the quality of a crusade in just that fashion. But the swooning cinematic fervour of Powell and Pressburger’s ‘40s heyday had been slowly corroded by forces without, as audience tastes changed, and also within. The very lightly satirical frothiness of Oh Rosalinda! (1955) felt forced, and the darkness crowding at the edges of The Red Shoes, Gone To Earth and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) betrayed a desire to dig deeper into the nightmarish and neurotic, held in check by a love of colourful style that threatened to become mere artifice. Powell and Pressburger’s last two works in official partnership, The Battle of the River Plate (1956) and Ill Met By Moonlight, had seen their eccentric art turned upon the reminiscences of the war, fine works that were nonetheless products of creative wills entrapped by the rest of the culture’s inability to look forward.

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Peeping Tom saw the black beast suddenly bust out of its chrysalis, but it paid the price. Later Powell would note with acidic acuity that a film no-one wanted to see in 1960 became, thirty years later, the film everyone liked. The funny thing about Peeping Tom is that it’s a thriller without thrills. Psycho kept the mystery of Norman Bates in the shadow until the end, psychology offered at the end by way of explanation as also as source of sour, sceptical humour, betraying Hitchcock’s ultimate unwillingness to betray the mystery and insidious will of the killer to mere jargon, whilst also allowing him to sustain the basic precepts of a mystery, uncertain as to where threat will resolve and in what form. Peeping Tom is even more dubious about the science of psychology, but is also more straightforward on that level. It tells us in precise and insistent terms why its antiheroic killer Mark Lewis (Karlheinz ‘Carl’ Boehm) is what he is, and presents his situation more as a pathetic character study, anticipating later works like Mario Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970) and John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1987) in offering the killer not just as roving embodiment of the audience’s hunger for violent thrills but as active antihero, a perspective you’d rather not share but are forced to identify with. We’re left alone with a madman, and obliged to cringe when justice comes close and grit teeth as someone violates his private world. Powell doesn’t really try to create any traditional sense of suspense, but rather a queasy certainty, a grim patience.

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Peeping Tom inspires an almost desperate empathy for Mark, who’s working through a psychosis he has no control over and all but begs for someone to intervene, only to be foiled by good English traits like politeness and neighbourly respect for privacy, plus a more general incapacity to read the screeching eyes of the quiet, polite, good-looking young man. But Peeping Tom manages to grope its way to the far side of the bright light to find the shadows again, in the way it offers an active assault on the very drive to make and watch cinema. Peeping Tom offered a ripe fetish object for cineastes for the way it puts the act of seeing and filming front and centre as a pathological act. Peeping Tom’s time was in the future, when the desire to both experience and capture experience, to see and be seen all at once, became all-consuming and technologically enabled. The opening sequence inevitably offers a point-of-view shot through Mark’s movie camera, hidden under his trenchcoat, as he approaches a blasé prostitute, Dora (Brenda Bruce), follows her up to her room, and then assaults her. Her screaming, makeup-emblazoned face becomes a hallucinatory vision of femininity and fear.

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At the climax, the hidden facet of Mark’s modus operandi is revealed, a polished lighting parabola that reflects back the image of the victim’s own screaming face at them, turning the act of murder into an inescapable, infinite, yet depthless succession of seeing and being seen. But the reflection is distorted, a Picasso mask, a grotesque revision grafted onto the face of the killer. Mark seeks to document the perfect and absolute moment of terror that’s also transcendence, where object is image, the dying person with no future or past, only the terrible eternity of death/recording. The very first shot of the film, however, is a carefully aestheticized glimpse of a seedy London backstreet, the light of the streetlamps pooling red on the cobbles. As a shot it clearly refers back to a passage in the central ballet sequence of The Red Shoes, where the bewitched heroine finished up exiled in similarly nightmarish spaces, grazing against women of the night twisting like gargoyles. The darkest corner of that film’s conjured psychic landscape here has become the entire world, and the film stumbles into a hall of mirrors it can’t escape until the very end when Mark treads a gauntlet of cameras mimicking those mirrors, entrapping his image from every vantage.

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The credits sequence, unfurling after the preamble of Dora’s murder, essentially repeat the sequence, except now in black and white, without sound, projected upon a screen in Mark’s flat: the act of watching Powell’s movie is directly connected with the act of Mark watching his own. Powell’s regular composer, the great Brian Easdale, offers a single, relentlessly neurotic piano thrumming away in mimicry of a silent movie accompanist as Mark watches his personal cinema of cruelty with its little flourishes of artisanal signature, as when Mark shoots the discarded box of his film reel as he dumps it in a bin. Peeping Tom’s script was written by Leo Marks, a former cryptographer and son of a bookstore proprietor who packed the film with characters he recalled from his youth observing the types coming in and out of the store. The film is then deeply rooted in a sense of suburban London as a place of property and exchange. Mark has turned his father’s large and potentially lucrative building into a boarding house but his obsessions lead him to scarcely pay attention to it, not even the money he makes from it, in a manner opposed to the film studio boss (Michael Goodliffe) and the corner newsagent (Bartlett Mullins), both of whom employ Mark and are out to make money in part through retailing desirable imagery.

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Powell’s perspective amplifies all this in making Peeping Tom as an infinitely sarcastic panorama of British society from the specific viewpoint of a filmmaker. The commoditised sex of the streetwalker represents the lowest, and yet least falsified stratum. Next is Mark’s job shooting nudie pictures of a pair of models, Milly (Pamela Green) and Lorraine (Susan Travers), bound to be sold under the counter to respectable pervs like the elderly customer (Miles Malleson) who comes to the newsagent on recommendation, and walks away with a folio of them bundled with the label “Educational Books.” Quite. The highest level is the movie studio where Mark works during the day as a focus puller, engaged on a shoot of a bright and chintzy romantic comedy set in a department story, replete with consumerist pleasures. The shoot pits the increasingly infuriated director Arthur Baden (Carl Esmond) against his unpliable and amateurish starlet Diane Ashley (Shirley Anne Field), who just won’t faint the way he wants. Like Norman Bates, Mark is blessed with counterintuitive purity in his indifference to money or other material interests not relating to his specific mania, seeming rather a romantic ideal of a shy, unworldly yet good-looking young man.

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His tenant, the librarian and budding author Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), who lives downstairs with her blind mother (Maxine Audley), is intrigued precisely by Mark’s fleeting, toey presence. Coming up to bring him a piece of her birthday cake, leaving behind her flat full of her birthday party guests, Helen talks Mark into showing her some of his films as a present. Mark obliges, in a gesture laced with urges towards both sadistically discomforting Helen and revealing his own pain to a confessor, shows her footage of a young boy filmed by his father. It becomes clear that the boy is Mark and the film was taken by his father, an experimental psychologist who used his son as a guinea pig for his experiments, particularly his obsession with recording fear. This is recorded all too vividly in shots of the elder Lewis waking his son in the night with torches shining in his eyes and a lizard tossed onto his bed, and even his grieving beside his mother’s body as she readied for burial. Helen is understandably disturbed by such a privilege, but it also deepens her fascination with Mark and his intense, seemingly self-sufficient private world and mode of mystic transport, to the point where she seems to transmute it for a children’s book she writes about a magic camera.

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It’s tempting to read this facet of Mark relationship with Helen’s as a metaphor for Powell’s with Pressburger, Powell noting his release from Pressburger’s magic-realist lilt and elegiac sensibility, stuck pondering how to isolate his own, more carnivorous instincts. The way Peeping Tom foregrounds the theme of scopophilia and the receptivity to it of cineastes perhaps invites a touch of scepticism in itself, lest it totally displace other aspects. Suffice to say Peeping Tom is also a cold lampoon of forms of childrearing that insists on imposing rational adult concerns upon the frail, fantastical, protean nature of childhood, and a dissection of repression in sexual terms and also cultural. The film offers a rare feel for a London caught between the immediate pall of exhaustion in victory that defined the post-war period and the glitter of the Swinging London age. Powell’s acidic caricature of the kind of anodyne, brightly-coloured moviemaking popular in the late ‘50s ties in with the general portrait of a grubby and rundown era, filled with people cut off from all sources of authentic passion save what simulacra they can by under the counter or glean from a movie screen. Mark inverts the proposition by trying to make movies out of the stuff of reality, manufacturing his scenes directly where Baden tries to bellow them into being. Life provides him with all the apparatus of a good movie. Life, death, danger, mystery, beauty, savagery.

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The ironies of image-mongering are highlighted early on as Mark photographs the two porn models, making Milly pose on a bogus set representing a fantasy of Parisian sleaze, and discovering to his mesmerised fascination that Lorraine has a scarred and twisted lip. “He said you needn’t photograph my face,” Lorraine snaps, only for Mark to take up his cinecamera and approach with almost loving coos as the attraction of broken beauty accords with his mania. Providing Helen with a blind mother, left out of the roundelay of image-making and smashing, was a borderline excessive idea in thematic underlining. But the film nonetheless employs her for enriching dramatic ends, as she becomes disturbed by her daughter’s interest in Mark and eventually gropes her way around Mark’s workspace, having entered it and lingered in the dark until he got a shock switching on a light to find her waiting. “The blind always live in the rooms they live under,” Mrs Stephens comments. Mrs Stephens is imbued with qualities close to the sagacious, not simply keener to sound and motion but able to sense, like her daughter, Mark’s glaring presence through her rooms’ ground floor window. When she feels his face to learn his features, Mark comments, “Taking my photograph?” She carries a cane that resembles Mark’s own weapon of choice, a metal spike on the end wielded as a device to ward off danger.

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“Instinct’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it Mark? A pity it can’t be photographed,” she tells Mark, sensing the obsessive and fetid nature of his experimentation, some code of the malignant transmitted through his footfalls, and then delivers the film’s watchword: “All this filming isn’t healthy.” Despite having her at bay, frightened and unsure, Mark can’t kill Mrs Stephens in his usual method, because of its futility for his ends: she can’t offer the endless mirror of self-seen death. Peeping Tom has a requisite dose of Freudian symbolism, particularly the inevitably phallic device of the key: Helen receiving a large cardboard card in the shape of one for her 21st signals her coming of age but Mark has no keys. He tells her his father never allowed him to have any and it’s become so habitual he leaves all his own rooms unlocked, his manhood stunted and impotent, and his lack of urgency in amending the fact suggests on some level he invites invasion and discovery. Late in the film it’s revealed Mark’s father rigged the entire house for sound, the reels containing all the shrieks and moans of Mark’s fear from years of being systematically terrorised still all available at the flick of a switch, a perverted family album. Mark has the rare privilege and nightmare of having his childhood available in instantaneous recall, without expurgation or pleasant vagary. Plus he has the talk of his tenants, chattering away in all their mundane states. Even their transgressions and clandestine kinks retain the tinny ring of the predictable, the measly; Mark has a mission, however mad.

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Hitchcock had always kept his fascination for the act of looking as a form of voyeurism enclosed within the logic of his stories, allowing it to nudge the surface of Rear Window (1954), so Powell was going one better on the master by turning it into the essence of his psycho-thriller venture. Mark’s weapon, a leg of his clockwork camera’s tripod with a knife hidden within, brought to bear for murder, seems like a device an assassin might use in some vintage pulp novel. But Powell manages to make it an unnerving device, keeping the feature of real terror, the mirroring lamp, hidden until Mark confronts Helen with it, her face reflected back to her in a distorted travesty. Powell seems to obviously implicate himself in the study of cinema’s dark side by casting himself, in blurry cameo, as the late Dr A.N. Lewis, glimpsed in footage shot by his young second wife, stands with his son and gives him a fateful present – his first movie camera. Powell, whose messy private life saw him constantly falling in and out love of the women in front of his camera, knew well how enticing and diaphanous the object of obsession was: the protagonist of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) projects an elusive ideal onto successive performers. Mark’s desire to arrest the ideal image, to reduce it to the pure and unchanging state, gives sarcastic flesh to Powell’s self-accosting concept of the male movie director as perpetually frustrated fetishist.

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Peeping Tom seems on the surface of things antipathetic to The Red Shoes’ epic and free-flowing sense of creative passion, but both essentially chase after the event horizon where art and act, deed and performance, become unified, and the project of alchemising weak flesh and the pathos of life into a perfect totem can only end with the complete annihilation of self. Mark combines young romantic and twisted puppeteer as embodied separately by Craster and Lermontov in The Red Shoes; like Vicki Page, Mark ultimately destroys himself in perfect dedication to his art, or perhaps rather in ultimate obedience to a project imposed upon him. Powell twists the knife of likeness by featuring the star of The Red Shoes, Moira Shearer, as Mark’s second victim Vivian. Vivian works as a stand-in on the film Mark’s also working on, with its trenchant title The Walls Are Closing In. Vivian and Mark sneak back onto the sound stage, as Mark has asked Vivian to participate in a filming project he’s making. Vivian is easily seduced into Mark’s plot, through the hope of gratified yearning for stardom and glimmerings of romantic promise. Vivian limbers up by dancing to a jazz number on her tape recorder whilst Mark arranges the studio to facilitate the perfect visual record of his bloodthirsty art. Powell’s prowling camera and the loud colours of the set turn this sequence into a musical, more Stanley Donen than Powell’s usual look, however. Vivian’s cheerful, vibrantly physical presence couldn’t seem more alien to Mark’s boding purpose, spinning around the stage and leaping onto a camera, inverting the gaze, so Mark films her in return, “photographing you, photographing me.”

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The vignettes of Baden trying to make The Walls Are Closing In do more than show Mark at work and poke fun at bland cinema product, but offer a blackly comic echo of Mark’s real work, the snapping despotic male director and the blasé female star. Where Baden snaps in response to Ashley’s complaint that “I don’t feel it,” with “Just do it!” by way of sensitive direction, Mark’s more immersive method gets just the right performance out of his subject, but his technical execution proves off, provoking howls of anguish from Mark as he screens his footage of Vivian’s death. But he does get to make a covert record of the discovery of her body, hidden in a trunk to be used in an asinine gag sequence on the movie, Ashley screaming in shock as she discovers the body enclosed in the candy-coloured coffin, Mark’s (and Powell’s) incidental guerrilla assault on cutesy mainstream cinema, a turd on a wedding cake. Another nod to Hitchcock, the body hidden in plain sight in Rope (1948). “The silly bitch’s fainted in the wrong scene!” Baden bellows. Vivian’s murder brings the police to the studio, Chief Inspector Gregg (Jack Watson) and Det. Sgt. Miller (Nigel Davenport) taking the lead in a perplexed enquiry, neither dolts nor supermen but canny investigators faced with a pair of murders with no apparent connection, only a modus operandi as individual as a thumbprint. Mark hovers in the rafters, filming the investigators. The spillage of gleaming red pencils from his pocket seemingly dooms him, and yet he still eludes detection.

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Along with Psycho, Peeping Tom announced the arrival of a new, truly modern variety of horror film, refusing veils of the folkloric and psychologically symbolic, if in a way that draws mythological parallels into a hard and technocratic likeness – Mark’s camera becomes a version of the gorgon, the look that annihilates, his invention as torturous as Procrustes’ beds, his entrapped state of yearning labour echoing Tantalus and Sisyphus. But Powell’s model was harder to assimilate: Psycho’s narrative, dank and incestuous as its evocation are, nonetheless echoes outwards into the world, encompassing the collapse of an old system of morality in the glare of modernity, whereas Peeping Tom twists inwards into infinite self-reference, the camera, a signature device of modernity, allowing only a descent into death-dream, a place where hallucinations of people live on forever.

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Yet as Peeping Tom emerged from the dustbin of initial appraisal to become a cult object and then well-regarded classic, filmmakers latched onto it as a lodestone, a fittingly extreme portrait of their own obsession, a self-flagellating self-diagnosis. Brian De Palma would take the duel of watcher and watched as the basis for his entire career and deliver particular tribute with Raising Cain (1992). Martin Scorsese’s fascination with the film would permeate works like Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982) with their focus on monomaniacs in search of fellowship and glory. Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1987) would pay it heed in shifting attention onto its serial killer finding momentary rapport and potential rescue in a blind but otherwise entirely ordinary girl. David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014) would offer a variation with a female protagonist with a similarly exploited childhood who becomes not a maker of images but a ruthless manipulator of them. And of course Peeping Tom’s vision found its revelation in the stage-managed triumphs and cruelties of reality television and the self-obsessed gazing of social media.

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The film’s second-last line of dialogue is a recording, the elder Lewis’ haughty declaration, “Don’t be a silly boy, there’s nothing to be afraid of,” despite dedicating his life to giving his son things to be afraid of, seems nonetheless only like a particularly hyperbolic brand of very familiar tough-love patriarchy, delivering wounds with the purpose of strengthening against taking more. Casting the German actor Boehm was an odd touch, with his accent muted but still apparent in playing a character who’s supposed to be entirely English, but his smooth-faced, golden-haired visage and his speech imbue Mark with an aspect of alien allure, distinct in his environment, even as he tries to edit himself out of that setting, to become a mere mediating eye. His casting stirs associations with Powell’s familiar obsessions, a fairytale prince out of a Grimm tale raised by an evil alchemist, a broken Coppelia trying to reassemble itself, a child of the fascist age imploding like the lad at the end of Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1946). When Mark encounters the psychiatric advisor Gregg brings to the film set to study the denizens, Dr. Rosan (Martin Miller), Rosan recalls not just Mark’s father and his work but also notes that “He has his father’s eyes,” incidentally confirming the way Mark is entrapped by both genetics and inherited obsession, the killing gaze. “Goodnight Daddy, hold my hand,” is the actual last line from the recording, echoing off into the dark, a whispered prayer for safety and understanding never answered.

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The bleak comedy of the movie shoot, once it recommences, sees Ashley unable to make it through a recast version of the would-be funny scene she was filming when she beheld Vivian’s corpse, her lines dissolving in hysterical moans: before she couldn’t feel the scene where she had to faint, and now can feel nothing else. Waggish cops hanging about quote cartoons (“I tawt I thaw a puddy tat!”) whilst the murderer lurks in the shadows. The depth of sardonicism apparent in Peeping Tom feels close to shocking considering the warmly humanistic lilt of Powell’s work with Pressburger, and yet it’s just as keen to flashes of warmth, the proofs of community, the displays of human wit and feeling, inherent in Helen’s approaches to Mark, in Vivian’s dancing, in Gregg’s attentive and unstereotyped policing and his love of a beer whilst watching the football on TV, and Mrs Stephens’ keen and confrontational obedience to her ways of knowing that necessarily bypass appearances. Powell’s refusal to be entirely rational and realisitc, an aspect that always manifested in his work and informed its perpetual distinction from the fussier, more strictly earthbound, empirical tenor of British dramatic art, cuts through the texture of careful realism and precisely observed psychology, like the preternatural awareness Helen and her mother have for Mark’s presence at their window.

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Significantly, Dr Lewis’s attempts to create an entirely rational and thus fearless son are a terrible failure: facing his own blade, Mark comments “I’m afraid, and I’m glad I’m afraid.” The rejection of reality is a necessary gift for the artist, but one that can easily be maladapted to incapacity to actually share it. Mark’s failed attempt to understand himself by speaking to Rosan instead helps Gregg finally grasp the truth, who has Mark tailed. Mark however is indifferent to capture or punishment, having already written the script for his end, and he blithely ascends to the makeshift apartment where Milly waits for him for another photo session: Milly, prostrate on a bed, breasts bared (a first in a mainstream British film, although clipped out of many prints), is the pornographic priestess invading a thousand masturbatory dreams but Mark can only cut apart like a clumsy editor. Meanwhile Helen, delivering her manuscript to Mark’s rooms with pride, can’t resist switching on his projector to see what he’s been filming.

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The horror is abyssal, but not bottomless. Helen forces Mark to explain how he killed his victims to deliver her from eternal fear, which proves to be the one grace Mark can offer anyone. Mark’s march of death, recorded for posterity, finishes up with him skewered upon his own weapon, collapsing dead with Helen fainted on top of him. It’s a familiar motif of horror cinema, the tortured monster seeking release in death and the woman who loves him even in knowing his darkness, not that far from The Wolf Man (1941). But in staging, we’re far from any traditional ending of a horror film, at once inhabiting a place closer to grand opera as a spectacle of death and love, but also caged by a dank room and the cold regard of Mark’s camera array, rhapsodic exultation plucked from the click of shutters and the frigidity of the lens. Even as Gregg and his men arrive, the old recordings of Mark’s fear and longing still play, but at least he’s delivered from them. Powell, in making the film, might well have dynamited his familiar career, but he was also freed, in a fashion. Eventually he’d wash up on an Australian beach, dreaming of nymphets and suntanned barbarian-visionaries.

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