1960s, Action-Adventure, War

Zulu (1964)

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Director: Cy Endfield
Screenwriters: Cy Endfield, John Prebble

By Roderick Heath

The Anglo-Zulu War was, for the most part, an inglorious episode amidst the colonial enterprise carving up Africa in the 1800s, but it included two closely linked incidents that gained the lustre of legend. Britain had been accruing control over what is now South Africa since the early 1800s, in competition with enclaves of Dutch-descended Boer settlers, and native peoples. Assigned as High Commissioner to knit the patchwork quilt of small states and regions into a federation, Henry Bartle-Frere worked by hook and by crook to that end, but faced two strong and fractious opponents, the Boers’ South African Republic and the Zulu Kingdom of Cetshwayo. Bartle-Frere tried to bully Cetshwayo into surrendering his kingdom’s sovereignty, on pain of war justified by scattered violent incidents and disputed borders. Cetshwayo chose to fight. Early in 1879 a large military expedition under the command of Lord Chelmsford invaded Zululand. One of Chelmsford’s columns, numbering about 1,800 soldiers plus civilian followers, camped under the mountain of Isandhlwana. A huge Zulu force assaulted the camp on January 22, slaying the bulk of the column in one of the most startling upsets in military history and temporarily foiling the invasion. The Zulu reserve forces decided to venture on and wipe out the small contingent of soldiers at Rorke’s Drift, a mission outpost by a river ford about six miles away.
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By the late 1950s, around the time the last veteran of the battle died, the events of Rorke’s Drift might well have seemed a colourful anecdote of a lost age, the kind Angry Young Men liked to mock, and which would eventually gain an emblem in the character of the dotty old Pvt Jones in the TV series Dad’s Army, eternally recounting his colonial ventures. Cy Endfield read an article written by historical writer John Prebble about the Battle of Rorke’s Drift and became so excited he shared it with his actor pal Stanley Baker, who was equally enthused, partly because it roused patriotic feeling for his native Wales, where many of the soldiers in the battle came from; this aspect also attracted the input of Richard Burton. Endfield worked on a script with Prebble and Baker used it to attract the interest of producer Joseph Levine. The film was shot in South Africa at the height of the apartheid regime for a budget that belied the film’s epic look and feel, about a hundred kilometres from the real battle site. Baker took the role of Lt. John Chard, the military engineer who found himself ranking officer during the defence. Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a descendent of Cetshwayo and soon to be one of the leading figures of agitation against apartheid, played his ancestor. A 31-year-old Cockney Korean War veteran turned actor who had taken the stage name of Michael Caine, and who had been playing small movie roles since 1956’s A Hill in Korea, was initially tested for the role of private soldier Henry Hook, a role that went to James Booth instead. Caine instead landed the second lead, as the company’s upper-crust commander Lt Gonville Bromhead, in part, Endfield told him later, because they didn’t have time to cast anyone else.
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Zulu today stands as a perennial, if not an entirely uncontroversial one. It’s in no way to be taken as a documentary, and despite the title it neglects the actual Zulu perspective on events. From a contemporary standpoint it’s easy to look askance at a movie where the African warriors are largely presented as a great, undifferentiated mass whose only aims are to exterminate heroic white men. The film avoids the political backdrop noted above, except in fleeting references. Endfield would write a prequel about the events leading to Isandhlwana, Zulu Dawn (1979), balancing out the story in that regard, unsparingly depicting the mixture of arrogance and cynicism that led to such a disaster for the British and the simple defensive will of the Zulus. But Zulu is also much more complex than the above description allows. Endfield was a creative figure who in addition to being a writer and director also had a reputation as a magician and inventor: his magic skills made him friends with Orson Welles, who gave him a job at the Mercury Theatre. Endfield began making short films that quickly earned him a reputation both as a talent and as a troublesome figure politically. His educational short film Inflation was rejected for government use for being too sharply critical of capitalist institutions. After arriving as a feature filmmaker with an impressive early run of noir films like The Underworld Story (1950) and The Sound of Fury (1950), Endfield found himself on the wrong side of the blacklist and decamped to Britain, making films under a pseudonym at first before forging a good working partnership with Baker on punchy working-man melodramas like Hell Drivers (1957) and Sea Fury (1958). Endfield concluded his resurgence helming the Ray Harryhausen special effects vehicle Mysterious Island (1961), before embarking on Zulu.
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Endfield opens with Burton’s inimitable strains, reading the official dispatch reporting Isandhlwana. A shock cut to the midst of that battlefield, surveying blazing carts and sprawled, red-clad soldiers, through which the Zulus calmly march and take up the fallen rifles of the soldiers, one posing with a potent attitude of declarative revolt, the title Zulu sweeping out at the audience in flaming letters. The mood is utterly present-tense, attuned to the ructions going on in Africa in the early 1960s, one of post-colonial turmoil. Endfield shifts the scene to find the nominal master of Rorke’s Drift, the Swedish missionary Otto Witt (Jack Hawkins), visiting Cetshwayo at his kraal and watching a mass wedding rite between warriors and maidens, along with Witt’s daughter Margareta (Ulla Jacobsson). Endfield offers the surreal oppositions apparent in this time and place, effete European piety and tribal earthiness each making a great play of honouring and respecting each-other, as the virginal, white-clad Margareta senses the metaphorical sexuality in the Zulu wedding rite, Endfield cutting between her eyes in colossal close-up and the stamping legs and phallic spears of the Zulu girls. News arrives of the victory at Isandhlwana, a moment of celebration for the Zulus but a moment of utter shock to Witt, who exclaims, “While I stood here talking peace a war has started.” Father and daughter flee.
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At Rorke’s Drift, Bromhead’s detachment of about a hundred and fifty men, mostly consisting of B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot, has been left defending the mission, whilst Chard has been assigned to build a bridge over the river. Chard’s repeated summation, “I came here to build a bridge,” has almost spiritual connotations as well as practical immediacy: although a soldier he sees himself more as a builder, a knitter-together of worlds, who soon finds himself obligated to wreak tremendous violence and destruction. Bromhead meanwhile is out hunting, gunning down antelope and failing to take out a dashing cheetah before mildly chastising Chard with facetious bonhomie for using his men without asking permission, before leaving him to it. The men of Bromhead’s command are bored, tense, and overheated, particularly the men in the mission hospital, including Hook, described by Bromhead as “a thief, a coward, and an insubordinate barrack-room lawyer.” Hook’s bête noir is the feverish and very sick Sgt Maxfield (Paul Daneman), still determined to make a soldier out of Hook when he’s not raving out of his head. Also in the hospital are the Swiss-born Natal policeman Corporal Schiess (Dickie Owen), laid up with a bandaged foot and limping about on a crutch, and the sarcastic Welsh privates William Jones (Richard Davies) and Robert Jones (Denys Graham), who must explain to Schiess the general practice in the regiment of calling each-other by their service numbers rather than by the all-too-common Welsh surnames.
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Other figures of note around the camp are Colour Sergeant Bourne (Nigel Green), the epitome of the soldiering creed, and the equally competent Sgt Windridge (Joe Powell) and Corporal Allen (Glyn Edwards), who must guide unseasoned fighters like Pvts Cole (Gary Bond) and Hitch (David Kernan). Pvt Owen (Ivor Emmanuel), leader of the regimental choir, is anxious about one of his best singers, shanghaied for Chard’s service. Pvt Thomas (Neil McCarthy) is a gentle farmer whose instincts are stirred to worry about an ailing calf in the corral. Store keeper and camp cook Louis Byrne (Kerry Jordan) is upset when Chard orders him to pour out his soup on his fires to stop the Zulus getting it. Surgeon-Major Reynolds (Patrick Magee) lances a boil on Hook’s back with vengeful pleasure in whiling away a tedious detail. News of the calamity at Isandhlwana is brought by a survivor, the Boer Lt Adendorff (Gert van den Bergh), alerting the stunned Chard and Bromhead and necessitating swift decisions. First of these is who should take command – Chard has seniority despite not being a combat soldier, to which Bromhead comments, “Oh well, I suppose there are such things as gifted amateurs.” Facing clear orders not to abandon the post, Chard decides to fortify it. When the Witts arrive, they appoint themselves saviours of the men in the hospital although Chard believes it far safer to keep everyone in one defensive position. The two missionaries soon infuriate him so much by openly criticising his decisions and inspiring desertions that both are locked up.
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Endfield emphasises isolation and tension throughout these scenes through a measured sense of space about his actors, almost entirely avoiding musical scoring except for very scattered chords from composer John Barry and the intense rhythms of the ritual songs in Cetshwayo’s kraal, sensitising the viewer to the immersion of the men in an environment that seems at once placid and alien. Thomas grasps a handful of parched soil and sadly notes there’s “nothing to hold a man in his grave.” All the soldiers are eddying in their fetid private spaces, mentally and physically, even as they’re supposed to be units of a coherent whole. Bromhead, the born-to-command scion, confesses to feelings of inadequacy before his noble heritage as the moment of truth comes and finds the weight of history and expectation almost unbearable compared to the less ethereal worries of his enlisted men. The enlisted men aren’t necessarily the salt of the earth however. The air seems glutinous with the promise of violence. Margareta’s venture into the hospital to tend to the casualties sees her hungrily appraised and molested by a delirious man. The sound of the advancing Zulus bashing their assegai spears on their shields makes for an eerie forewarning that sounds like a steam train chugging, echoing about the surrounding hills. Past and future do not exist; all is in a sunstruck eternal present, waiting for death to fall like a hammer. As the threat of action slowly comes closer, Endfield’s camera becomes more dramatically mobile, surveying the defenders and their environs in long, swaying camera dollies that gain in speed and intensity.
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The appeal of the Rorke’s Drift story is, despite its roots in unromantic history, essentially existential, a story where courage and discipline are answers to the terror of overwhelming odds and seemingly universal indifference. Endfield and Prebble’s script emphasises this aspect, particularly with the totemic exchange of Cole and Bourne: “Why us?” Cole asks, when confronted by the imminent prospect of being steamrollered in the sorry adjunct to a disastrous venture. The Sergeant replies, “Because we’re ‘ere lad – and nobody else.” It’s also a story that bespeaks the most cherished self-image of the British: brave, resolute, unflinchingly professional, unfazed by furore, eternally individualist but capable of extraordinary collective action. Small wonder Zulu is held in much fonder regard than Zulu Dawn, which deals quite a few of the worst national traits. The grinding gears of private concern, official requirement, and guiding paradigm shoot sparks everywhere, for no-one more terribly than Witt, who becomes increasingly desperate to make his voice and moral authority heard in a situation that has become subordinated to an entirely different philosophy with dizzying speed. After trying to reach some of the soldiers like Bourne, who he gets to dredge up some biblical phrases of relevance – “He breaketh the bow and snappeth the spear in sunder” – Witt takes refuge in a bottle of brandy and gets pie-eyed, spiralling into despair and bellowing out admonitions to the soldiers, begging them to abandon their posts. The most pathetic and exposed vignette comes when Chard has wagons Witt wants to use to ferry away the sick turned on their sides for barricades, and Witt tries to pull back over, begging for righteous strength that doesn’t come, a moment of great testing that leaves the great and the insignificant alike alone on a barren hill, baking in the sun.
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Endfield was unabashed in seeing the film as a transposed Western, and it has strong affinities in sensibility with the likes of John Ford’s Cavalry trilogy, particularly Fort Apache (1948), which in turn took inspiration from the Battle of Little Big Horn, a military debacle with many similarities to Isandhlwana. Endfield’s cool compunction and sense of intensifying rhythm were however radically different to Ford’s style, as well as his scepticism about the sorts of social projects Ford celebrated. Endfield’s portrayal of his soldiers, mostly plebeian and entirely uninterested in dying for ideals, is something very different. He sees them as spiritual kin of the variously exalted and exploited working men of his earlier melodramas, as he notes them in all their inglorious attitudes, some bordering on antisocial, stuck with the ultimate shit job this time around. Zulu however also represents an evolution of the theme, as Endfield struggled to encompass the ugly as well as noble side of the human character, always struggling for pre-eminence within all people. In this regard Endfield was a highly prognosticative filmmaker, as precisely this conflict would be taken up by many major filmmakers in the next decade or so, as diverse as Stanley Kubrick and Sam Peckinpah. The driving irony of Zulu, crystallised at the very end, is that the two sides in the battle represent both facets at the same time, united in martial honour and in the happy dealing of death. His next film after Zulu, Sands of the Kalahari (1965), would repeat the same basic theme in an even more remote and existentially blighted situation, with various he-men battling the desert and apes, a woman caught between them over whom they try to establish rights to conquest.
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Characters like Witt and Hook are then presented not according to any historical record – the real Witt for instance was 30 and Margareta was a child, whilst Hook was regarded as a quality soldier – but as avatars for Endfield’s concerns, his favoured variations of troubled and exiled protagonists, defined by violent extremes of self-loathing and temptations to passion that cannot be contained by their apparent roles and stations. Endfield notes maternal qualities in some of the men, including Thomas and Bourne, in the way they foster and nurture in a situation otherwise without femininity. Such men, artists like Owen, and builders like Chard prove astoundingly accomplished as killers when push comes to shove. Endfield strays awfully close to anticlericism in considering the Witts, denying the relevance of a transcendental system in a situation where immediate reality has a powerful stink, and Chard dismisses the use of the word “miracle” to describe their survival with his own correction: “It’s a short-chamber boxer Henry point-four-five calibre miracle.” Witt collapses in upon himself as he faces the ruination of his self-image as well as the foiling of his credos, whilst others suddenly find themselves elevated to titan status by qualities that have hitherto rendered them black sheep. The stiff, pristine whiteness of Margareta’s jacket demands ripping, and her dark-eyed gaze as she listens to the bawdy remarks of the soldiers signals the struggle of official piety with boding sexuality within.
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Chard is celebrated at the ideal persona at the axis of such events, workmanlike in the best sense, his ideals and his pragmatism bound together in his mind’s approach to things, although there are spurts of class tension between him and Bromhead. Endfield avoids didacticism, however, as he gives Bromhead as much empathy as all the other characters: “I rather fancy he’s no-one’s son and heir now,” Bromhead snaps at Chard when he’s sarcastic about an order given by some probably slain high-ranker. The attack becomes the essential levelling event, ransacking each defender’s reflexes of character and muscle to determine who will live and who will die. With further ironic cunning, Endfield makes the tough and canny Adendorff, the only major Boer character in the film, not just a voice to make explicable the Zulu battle tactics and culture, but also the voice of awareness in both racial and political dimensions. “Just who do you think’s coming to wipe out your little command, the Grenadier Guards?” he asks when Bromhead makes a bitter comment about “cowardly blacks,” and notes that the price the British will demand for putting down “the enemy of my blood” (as he calls the Zulus) might be a steep one for his people too. Adendorff is a character completely without illusions about the nature of the larger struggle of the age but committed nonetheless to the fight at hand, where nearly everyone else is essentially an interloper (Van den Bergh would go on to appear as a wrath-stirring bigot in Cornel Wilde’s discomforting exploration of Darwinian race clashes out on the veldt, The Naked Prey, 1963). Another man defending home turf is Schiess, although he’s a Swiss émigré, who notably saves Chard after he’s knocked down by some foes and creaming the Zulus with his crutch.
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Zulu plays out almost in real time for much of its length: the first hundred minutes are essentially one, long, concerted sequence. The first appearance of the Zulu impis on the hills above the mission, surveyed in one, long, seemingly endless camera pivot, is a high-point of the use of widescreen cinema in the use of presenting to the audience a vision of awe and fear. But Endfield immediately contrasts it with the claustrophobic hysteria of Witt, glaring out from his cage as he hisses desperate appeals to heed the word of the Lord: the twinning of opposites that drives his world view realised on the most immediate level. Stephen Dade’s great photography aids Endfield’s igneous sense of composition, constantly catching the actors against the arena-like mountains or the mission buildings in stark framings as if the humans are insects picking over the colossal bones of an enormous monster. Endfield drops in some expert touches of comic relief: Owen’s quip, “That’s very nice of him,” after Bromhead allows free fire, has a special zing as it captures the way the commencement of battle counts as something of a relief after the excruciating anticipation. Adendorff helps the commanders see the way the Zulus, far from randomly provoking them, are carefully probing their defences. The crashing tides of Zulu warriors test Chard’s quickly assembled but cunningly laid defences, spilling over at points and demanding the defenders battle hand-to-hand. Chard is lightly injured in the first battle, and others like Hitch and Allen are badly wounded but still keep trying to help out, crawling around with bullet wounds handing out ammunition. Reynolds works with sweating industry, pausing only to berate Chard as representative of the entire soldiering profession.
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Caine would remark years later that he felt he owed his casting here, and through it his career, to the fact Endfield as an American looked past his background, and Baker, just as working-class in roots as Caine, had similarly benefited from working with visiting Hollywood directors. Baker had been the ideal lead in Endfield’s melodramas as he wielded both quotidian grit and also the stature of a star. The two actors make a great contrast in looks and screen energies, Baker with his square jaw, strong build, and tight grin, suggesting both intensity of personality and width of vision, Caine gangly, blonde-thatched, sleepy-eyed, investing Bromhead, who seems initially to be a right arse, with qualities of both guts and sensitivity. They’re surrounded here by a grand company of actors, from the towering Greene, who cleverly conveys Bourne’s authority and prowess not by acting like the traditionally bellowing sergeant but through the impression of consciously restrained strength, to Booth, who never quite gained the level of attention his performance here might have warranted, playing Hitch as a man who covers up a war with the entire world with a glaze of smarmy humour and whatever the opposite of noblesse oblige is. Hook is finally obliged to work for a living as the Zulus target the hospital, as he predicted, as a blind spot, he and other men furiously battling the invading warriors in a dizzying scene of intimate combat. Spears and bayonets clash, the thatched roof catches fire and walls are dug through frantically, whilst Bromhead battles on the roof. Finally an unsecured gate latch unleashes a stampede of cattle that halts a Zulu charge and ends the great assault of the first day.
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Endfield plainly offers the British and Zulus as well-matched foes, both meeting with the sharp edge of their martial culture, as the soft edge of politesse and religion fall by the wayside early on. “I think they have more guts than we have, boyo,” Owen allows as they fend off yet another charge. Endfield signals cultural clash in the early scenes of the Witts confronted by a very different approach to life, but also the presence of affinities, the vitality of ritual and universality of certain gestures, giving shape and procedure to communal expressions. Violations of that order are the by-product of individual flaws that also testify to the reason behind such order: Endfield makes a point of having both a Zulu warrior and a British soldier rudely grab Margareta in plays of erotic possessiveness. The former is immediately punished by Cetshwayo who has another warrior execute him summarily; the latter transgression isn’t officially noticed. Language is an unsurmountable barrier but gestures so often speak for themselves, as Endfield parallels Chard and Bromhead trying to figure out their enemies to shots of the Zulu commanders doing the same thing. The attacking Zulus are always warlike and determined, but in Chard’s battle with some Endfield privileges him with seeing, in close proximity, fear and uncertainty in their faces, facing like him the same ultimate truth of life and death decided by reflexes of mind and muscle virtually beyond sense.
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Endfield’s emphasis on such oppositions and equivalencies reaches apogee in the film’s two most emotive moments before and after the climactic bout of bloodletting. In perhaps the most famous scene in the film, the British soldiers, facing a new charge by the Zulus at dawn of the second day of the siege, sing a version of the Welsh marching song “Men of Harlech” in riposte to the Zulus chanting one of their war songs. Endfield borrowed this flourish directly from the Val Lewton-produced, Hugo Fregonese-directed Apache Drums (1951), although he offers it with more canny showmanship and a greater suggestion of peculiar accord: Endfield turns the clash of the two songs into a bizarrely harmonic experience, the challenge of aggression and pride apparent in both camps mirrored and transformed into poetic exaltation. Endfield’s sharpest irony lies in his observation that given warfare is a most human phenomenon, even when bracketed under the heading of inhumanity, it is a form of communication, replete with agreed cues, signs, and converse values. When the time for singing ends, the Zulus charge, the British retreat to one of Chard’s prepared redoubts and wield the massed power of their rifles.
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When the guns fall silent, Endfield surveys a bloodcurdling mass of black bodies, spread across the ground right up to the defenders. Suddenly outmatched defence has become a scene of carnage declaring the birth of the modern world where mass destruction is a basic fact and raw courage a mere expeditious way of getting killed. No wonder Bromhead soon confesses, “I’m ashamed.” The second gesture of unexpected affinity comes as the Zulus suddenly reappear to regale the defenders, initially scaring the hell out of the remaining defenders before Adendorff realises they’re being saluted as “fellow braves.” Of course, reality was nowhere near so romantic or ethically stirring: after the departure of the besiegers and the arrival of Chelmsford’s relief, the soldiers brutally killed many of the wounded and captured Zulus in payback for the mutilations many of their own had received at Isandhlwana. This is instead Endfield’s attempt to knit the story into a contemporary context, forces at a standstill of mutual respect pointing the way forward to modernity. One reason the battle was remembered to posterity was the astounding tally of eleven Victoria Crosses awarded to the defenders, often seen as an official attempt to save face in the midst of the campaign’s general disaster. Endfield brings back Burton’s narration for a coda that succinctly unifies Endfield’s mission, message, and aesthetic, his camera moving in long, gliding reveries through the mission in the wake of the battle, noting the men who received the Victoria Cross in the midst of their comrades, caught in attitudes of boredom, pain, exhaustion, business, even indifference, still trying to work out if what just happened to them had meaning or was just a nightmare that left with the rising of the sun.

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1960s, Comedy, Drama, Greek cinema

Zorba the Greek (1964)

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Director/Screenwriter: Michael Cacoyannis

By Roderick Heath

My father Douglas Heath died late in 2018 at the age of 71. Dad was a lifelong cinephile. Many of the films he held in fierce affection were movies he saw during his late teens and twenties, a time when he was often homeless and constantly adrift in life, but also intellectually voracious and consuming culture in any way he could. He told me he knew my mother was the woman for him when he took her to see Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade (1967) at a revival screening and she loved it (a previous girlfriend had walked out during the opening credits). Later in life when asked what his favourite movie was, he tended to name one of two films as his favourite. One was the Robert Wise-directed, Val Lewton-produced The Body Snatcher (1945), which he held in particular esteem in part because of its dreamlike evocation of the Scotland he’d been forced to leave as a child when his father decided to emigrate. But the movie he most consistently named was Michael Cacoyannis’ Zorba the Greek. It’s not hard for me to see why Dad was so particularly passionate about Cacoyannis’ film. Like Zorba, my father had done every job known to humanity, could make friends in an empty room, had talents he wouldn’t sell, and those he did usually left him rolling amidst the wreckage wondering what went wrong. I remember the first time I watched the film with him, as a kid, and being confused at the switchbacks of high tragedy and knockabout comedy throughout. I asked him what kind of movie this was. Dad responded, “It’s life.”
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Cacoyannis’s oeuvre in general and Zorba the Greek in particular perhaps need revival these days. Alongside American blow-in Jules Dassin, Cacoyannis captured the world’s attention for Greek film, well before the arrival of Theo Angelopoulos and the current brace of figures like Yorgos Lanthimos and Rachel Athina Tsangari. If Zorba the Greek still has any cultural cachet it’s certainly thanks to its famous theme by composer Mikis Theodorakis, which became emblematic for the post-WWII Greek diaspora and introduced something of the spirit of Greek rembetiko music to the world at large. Ironically the theme’s popularity might have done the movie few favours, perhaps making it seem like escapist exotica from another age along with the likes of Black Orpheus (1959). Cacoyannis’ reputation meanwhile never quite recovered from the bruising reception to his follow-up to Zorba the Greek’s great success, The Day The Fish Came Out (1967), a film which, in spite of its gutsiness in trying to be a queer-themed comedy at a time when that was still pretty outre, still can’t even claim cult status. But Cacoyannis’ career also included great, highly underappreciated adaptations of Euripides, including Elektra (1962) and The Trojan Women (1971), and he reunited with Zorba the Greek star Alan Bates in the early 2000s for a version of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.
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The film was an adaptation of the novel The Life and Times of Alexis Zorba by Nikos Kazantzakis, (called Zorba the Greek in English-language editions), who had earned international interest for contemporary Greek writing up until his death in 1957. Kazantzakis’ art was built around apparently contradictory precepts, contradictions that gave his books their feverish sway. As a Marxist writer Kazantzakis wanted to dig into the authentic character of Greece’s working and peasant classes, and he initially annoyed cultural watchdogs by writing in demotic or popular modern Greek. But Kazantzakis was also compelled by a defiantly personal religious sensibility, which gave birth to his other best-known book, The Last Temptation of Christ, filmed by Martin Scorsese in 1988: the infamy that met Scorsese’s film had already been anticipated by the reaction of religious authority to the novel. Zorba the Greek was Kazantzakis’ attempt to summarise the vitality of the national character, so long buffeted by poverty and oppression since the ancient glory days, presented through the title character who’s uneducated but possesses great wisdom after a long, hard-knock life, and sufficient unto himself. Somewhat ironically, the character was bound to become synonymous with the Mexican-Irish actor cast in the film role, Anthony Quinn.
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Quinn was another man who identified deeply with the character nonetheless, as an actor who’d lifted himself out of a childhood of grinding poverty through creative talent and achieved a career as one of Hollywood’s perennial supporting players, in large part thanks to his ready capacity to play any ethnicity under the sun. Quinn owed some of his early career traction to marriage to Cecil B. DeMille’s adopted daughter Katherine, and the filmmaking titan gave Quinn a lot of work, eventually producing Quinn’s lone directorial outing, a remake of his father-in-law’s The Buccaneer (1958). Quinn eventually captured two Oscars in the mid-1950s for Viva Zapata! (1952) and Lust For Life (1956), playing the more degraded brother of the folk hero in the former and Paul Gauguin opposite Kirk Douglas’ Vincent Van Gogh in the latter. But it wasn’t until Federico Fellini cast him in La Strada (1954) that Quinn gained traction as a leading man and became a popular figure in European as well as Hollywood film. Often cast as a Latin roué in the ‘30s and ‘40s, the grizzled and thickening Quinn became exalted for his ability to play strong, earthy, eruptive personalities, usually with a brutish streak, who thrive at the expense of the more neurotic, delicate, or victimised people they orbit. By playing Zorba, Quinn tried to revise his screen persona in inhabiting a similar role who nonetheless tries to pass on some of talent for life to others.
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Cacoyannis laid specific claim to the material with his emphases. Cacoyannis came from Cyprus and his father had been closely involved the British administration of the island at the time. Cacoyannis spent much of his youth in Britain, including a stint in the RAF during World War II, and so the novel’s narrator and viewpoint character Basil became a half-Greek, half-English intellectual trying to get back in touch with his roots. A subplot involving his ill-fated romance with a local widow was emphasised and refashioned into a tale within the tale close in nature to one of the classical Greek tragedies sporting a female figure of titanic suffering Cacoyannis was so compelled by. Basil, played by Bates, is on the way to Crete, having inherited a small property there that belonged to his father incorporating a seaside shack and a disused lignite mine. When the ferry to Crete is delayed by a storm, Basil waits with other passengers in the terminal; Cacoyannis offers the subtly weird touch of the sound of the storm abating as Basil senses a strange presence, and notices Zorba staring through the fogged glass. Zorba, on the lookout for an opportunity, quickly attaches himself to Basil, offering to serve him in any capacity he requires. Zorba seems initially a sort of vulgar, unctuous grotesque borne out of the storm, but Basil quickly takes a shine to his energy and gains increasing respect for him as he reveals surprising turns of personality, like his refusal to offer his talent for playing the santuri: “In work I am your man, but in things, like playing and singing, I am my own – I mean free.” Basil employs Zorba specifically to get the mine working again, and they board the ferry together.
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The corner of Crete where Basil’s land is proves poverty-stricken and defined by a finite balance the two arrivals find themselves doomed to disturb. The two men spend their first night in the town in a crumbling guest house amusingly styled the Hotel Ritz, owned by Madame Hortense (Lila Kedrova), an aging former dancer from Parisian nightclubs and courtesan who airily regales them with accounts of her once-wild life. She dances saucily with both men, although it’s Zorba who ends up in bed with her, after Basil, with the heedlessness of youth, humiliates her when he can’t help but laugh at her increasingly overripe anecdotes. After setting up home in the shack on Basil’s property, he and Zorba hire some workers and tackle the mine, but find the wooden props are too badly rotten to risk starting operations, after Zorba is almost buried alive twice. Spying a large forest down the coast, Zorba travels there and finds it’s owned by a monastery; after befriending the monks, he hits upon a plan to use their lumber to rebuild the mine, requiring a large zipline to be built down the side of a mountain. Basil sinks the last of his capital into supporting Zorba’s plan, whilst Zorba, who considers passion a veritably holy thing, in turn encourages Basil to romance a young and well-to-do widow (Irene Papas) who’s the object of desire for every man in the village, but only the young stranger has a chance with her after he aids her gallantly.
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Zorba the Greek revolves around fundamental oppositions, represented most immediately by Basil and Zorba, the difference between head and heart, reason and instinct, proletarian and intellectual, modernity and archaic lifestyles. Basil’s cautious and thoughtful manner stands in near-perfect opposition to Zorba’s gregarious, life-greedy sensibility, but the two men become inseparable precisely because they’re such natural foils, and has something to offer the other. Basil’s stiff Anglo-Saxon half wants to steer clear of intense and potentially unstable situations, whilst Zorba believes that’s the only way to go: “Living means to take off your belt and look for trouble.” The essence of Kazantzakis’ book, a dialogue of values and viewpoints between two long alienated ways of approaching the world represented by two mismatched yet amicable avatars, comes through. Zorba has plenty of literary antecedents, of course, as the voice of common wisdom, stretching back to Hamlet’s graveyard digger. Zorba the Greek never proposes that Zorba is a saintly character, although he also has aspects of a holy fool: he’s a sexist whoremonger and spendthrift, given to expansive inspirations and notions that don’t ever quite seem thought through. The main lesson he teaches Basil is that tragic moments in life can’t be avoided, and it makes more sense to celebrate living as something sufficient in itself than to live in fear of consequence or search for absurd designs behind it all.
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Zorba’s own melancholy history is grasped at intervals, as he memorably answers Basil question whether he ever had a family with the admission, “Wife – children – the full catastrophe.” Later, after one of his frenetic moments of incantatory dancing, he confesses to Basil that he danced the same way after his young son died. In a drolly comedic sequence, he becomes something like a literal Pan figure, as he goes to take a look at the monastery’s forest and scares the hell out of some of the monks when they find him hiding, so filthy from his forays in the mine they think he’s a literal devil rather than his mere advocate. Zorba plays this to his advantage as all the monks come out to hunt the demon only to finish up getting drunk with him. Zorba pronounces, with dubious theology if certain feeling, that the only sin God won’t forgive is if “a woman calls a man to her bed and he does not come.” Zorba gets along like a house on fire with the lusty, romantic Hortense, who subsists in a bubble of melancholic recollection of her glory days as exalted concubine for warriors and statesmen, an embodiment of forgotten belle époque and spirit of sensual exaltation who remembers being bathed in champagne by her harem of naval officers who then proceeded to drink the liquor off her body. But Zorba has no intention of marrying again or settling down, taking up with a young tart when he goes to Chania to buy tools and parts for his project. Basil semi-accidentally commits Zorba to marrying Hortense when she insists on hearing the contents of a letter he writes his friend, substituting romantic feelings for Hortense for Zorba’s actual boasts of erotic adventuring.
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When Kazantzakis wrote his novel he was trying to bridge the ways Greeks had of looking at themselves, and to forge a new literary zone for himself and followers to inhabit. When Cacoyannis made his film, he faced the task of making a relatively esoteric piece of regional portraiture interesting to international viewers. Cacoyannis had been directing films since 1953’s Windfall in Athens, but with Zorba the Greek caught a similar wind to what had made Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and Dassin’s Never on Sunday (1960) big worldwide hits. Cacoyannis absorbed the new lexicon of New Wave cinema, as Zorba the Greek is replete with jump cuts, zoom shots, and interludes of hand-held shooting, and took to the latter technique in particular as a way of getting close to his characters and evoking their extreme emotions. Over and above that, Cacoyannis might as as well have been trying to reconcile principles of early ‘60s art cinema style with more traditional theatrical understandings of performance and character. Moreover, Zorba’s unpretentious and expansive sensibility repudiated the navel-gazing tenor of the Italian “alienation” mode and the hyperintellectualised aspects of the New Wave, and anticipated the oncoming age of the counterculture, when Kazantzakis’ writing would find many new fans.
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Cacoyannis’ interest in behaviour as an object of study in itself distinguished his work from much other filmmaking of the period however, and laid down a blueprint that countrymen like Angelopoulos and Lanthimos would explore in their own diverse ways. Cacoyannis stands off for long stretches to watch Quinn or Bates in character eddying in moments of private compulsion and eccentricity, as in a scene in which the bored and bothered Basil tries falteringly to recreate some of Zorba’s exultant dance moves, Zorba’s own seduction of Hortense. Scenes of rollicking comedy, reminiscent of the likes of Rossellini and Buñuel, retain the same method, in Zorba’s encounter with the monks, and engaging in teasing sensual overtures with the young prostitute. When Zorba returns from drinking with the monks, he starts dancing in Basil’s shack, confronting his friend with the near-deranged force of his passion and need to unfetter the forces straining within him, and some wandering musicians, seeing Zorba on the move, start playing to whip him up and drive him on. Quinn and Cacoyannis locate something disquieting, even menacing, in this scene, as the camera reels about the room with Quinn and captures something noir-like in the heavy shadows and increasingly haggard, frantic look of Zorba. Even after Basil chases off the musicians Zorba keeps dancing and the fugue only climaxes when Zorba collapses exhausted on the sand and narrates to Basil the story of how he danced just this way after his son died. Zorba alchemises both physical and mental passion into direct expression, moving into a state of being without past or future.
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Basil’s situation, trapped between languages and adrift in a place where little of meaning is actually spoken aloud anyway, except by Zorba, ironically gave Cacoyannis licence to play much of the film as a kind of silent movie or theatrical pantomime, with dashes of classical theatre and ballet incorporated as well. Such method is plain in the humorous sequences but also defines the most crucial dramatic moments. The sequence when the widow makes her first significant appearance unfolds almost entirely in silence, as she chases her escaped goat only to find several of the village men have herded it inside a tavern to hide it, vibrates with an evocation of repressed lust and hatred turning to a toxic stew, as the widow scans the men with haughty challenge, the camerawork turning madcap amidst the laughing and jostling as she tries to catch the animal. The foul tenor of the episode is only dispelled by the grace of Basil handing the widow his umbrella, a simple gesture of gentlemanly feeling that quickly defines both their lives. The widow has a sort of servant in the mute and stunted villager Mimithos (Sotiris Moustakas), who has a faintly Chaplinesque quality, or perhaps an extremely devolved version of the pantomime character Pierrot, slavishly enthralled to beauty.
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Zorba encourages Basil to make a play for the widow because “I saw how she looks at you,” the only true barometer, and Basil’s subsequent encounters with her unfold on a level of gesture, as when she sends back his umbrella along with food and rosewater, and then encounters him on a trail, charged with mutual awareness. The quality of the gaze obsesses Cacoyannis, sometimes furious, sometimes challenging, baleful, exalting, desirous. The sequence in The Trojan Women when he would stage a chorus recitation with the faces of many women staring into the camera is presaged by the sure sense here that eyes might be the windows of the soul but are also its cameras, demanding and excoriating in return. Another striking moment of mimed intensity comes when several of the villagers, infuriated by the knowledge Basil is spending the night with the widow, cruelly tell a young man of the village who’s obsessively infatuated with her, Pavlo (Yorgo Voyagis), holding him down in his tavern chair and whispering in his ear as she struggles and resists the knowledge as if he’s having evil spells cast down upon him. Meanwhile Basil’s time with the widow is a scene of pathetic displays, the widow experiencing a fit of inexplicable grief, followed by Basil suddenly and desperately grasping her naked form when she seems to feel embarrassed, revealing himself, and the depth of his feeling, for the first time.
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Gesture is just as important as gaze in Zorba the Greek, precisely where Cacoyannis identifies much of life actually happens, in silence, in cues and exchanges that have their own meanings. Acceptance of one thing is also rejection of another, however implicit or unintentional, and the widow’s affair with Basil drives the maddened and despairing Pavlo to drown himself, a tragedy which his father Mavrandoni (George Foundas) and other village men blame on the widow rather than Basil. They carry his body up to her door as if in accusation: Mimithos stands on her garden wall ready to defend her, only to fall off and be mocked by one of the old women of the village, “Is he her lover too?” Sometime later a gang lies in wait to ambush her as she goes to church. Mavrandoni bars her from entering, and villagers hurl stones at her, before one of the angry and offended men, Manolakas (Takis Emmanuel), moves to slay her in an honour killing; the circle of eyes that surrounded the widow in the tavern sequence has now grown and become malignant, a hydra now ready to devour. Basil, alerted from inside the church by the ruckus but unable to break through the cordon about the fateful scene, instead sends Mimithos to fetch Zorba, and he arrives just in time to save the widow from his knife in a trial of strength that sees Zorba victorious. But as Zorba stares down the other men and leads the widow out of the cordon, Mavrandoni springs upon her and cuts her throat.
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Cacoyannis’ love of tragedy and grand theatre certainly found its element in this movement of the film, and it’s a hard scene to take, in its portrayal of virulent communal misogyny and the cheerless confrontation with the truth that, however much moral and physical authority Zorba has and intellectual refinement and purity of spirit Basil retains, both are finally, easily outmatched when an entire community decides to consume its own. Basil confesses in a disorientated mumble his utter incapacity to help. Basil and Zorba are reduced to mere bystanders in someone else’s grim fate; indeed, the narrative implies, that is all anyone is, each in turn. One notable difference between source and film sometimes targeted by commentators is that Kazantzakis held Crete in greater affection, and balanced his portrait of the island’s inhabitants with more forgiving and indulgent aspects, whilst Cacoyannis seems much more prosecutorial of the Cretans he surveys in their brutal, hypocritical morality and vulture-like greed when they flock to raid the dying Hortense’s possessions. That said, Cacoyannis’ camera readily contextualises such behaviour, where scarcity engenders a form of madness that readily breaks out if the forms designed to keep life processes in play are disturbed. The widow’s commodity of beauty is retained chiefly because she doesn’t have to labour in the fields like the other women. Hortense’s pretences to keeping alive a little corner of romantic beauty are paltry by comparison with her dreams but might as well be royalty to her poorer neighbours.
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In Cacoyannis’s eye Zorba seems nonetheless less the archetypal common man than an exceptional one, one forged by a hard life of being used and absorbing such cruel lessons. An earlier scene in the film sees Basil facetiously accuse Zorba of being unpatriotic (in part to deflect Zorba from asking questions about the widow’s gifts) because he readily cited “a wise old Turk” as one source of his wisdom, stoking Zorba’s anger as he reports having “killed men, raped women” in the name of patriotism, led through paths of painful wisdom in a long life of being used to the conclusion that only his own sense of good and bad, right and wrong should guide his actions. The widow’s murder has no apparent consequence in the film (in the novel, Mavrandoni was hunted and eventually arrested), and of course there is nothing to be done: no rite or process breathes life back into a corpse. Basil and Zorba are left only to confront their own anguish, sparking one of the great dialogue exchanges in cinema, as Zorba demands Basil explain why the young die: “What’s the use of all your damn books if they don’t tell you that – what the hell do they tell you?” “They tell me,” Basil replies oh so poetically, “About the agony of men who can’t answer questions like yours.” To which Zorba retorts with all his peasant defiance, “I spit on their agony.”
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Quinn and Bates play off each-other beautifully throughout the film, and Bates, whilst cast in the far less eye-catching part, nonetheless gives the film its true centre. Carefully suggesting the lingering sorrow of loss and the wordless sense of need that drives him to Crete and makes him hire Zorba, Bates, with his inimitably lucid gaze and capacity for suggesting roiling emotions at war with cool intellect, balances Quinn’s evocation of bravura with a portrayal of a man for whom self-expression is like watching a golem trying to fashion its own clay. Papas, who had worked with Quinn on The Guns of Navarone and with Cacoyannis in the title role of Elektra, was always an astounding movie presence and she’s mesmerising here, her Widow a force of sensual imperative incarnate, glowing-eyed in the dark amidst the olive trees of her estate, until she’s revealed as all too human as Basil ventures close. Director of Photography Walter Lasally’s close-ups, particularly of Papas, are something close to shamanism in their enthralled study of intense and remarkable faces.
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Kedrova however emerged with the only Oscar for the film’s actors, with her marvellous blend of absurdity and pathos. Zorba’s decision to try and make Hortense happy, as he realises she’s dying, by actually agreeing to marry her, becomes another raw lesson in accepting loss. After she ventures out in rain to see Zorba, he goes through a mock wedding ceremony with her, and then looks after her as she becomes dreadfully ill. As it becomes clear she’s dying, the villagers flock to the Hotel Ritz as because Hortense isn’t officially married and has no relatives, the state will claim her belongings. The moment she expires, they begin stripping the valuables out of her house, leaving Zorba to only her corpse splayed upon her bed and her caged pet parrot in an otherwise completely bare room, a hyperbolic depiction of life and death as states of being and not being. Zorba’s simple reaction is take her parrot in hand and leave with Basil, after drinking a toast to her soul offered, with silent and conciliatory meaning, by Manolakis.
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Although Theodorakis’ theme is so well-known, it’s worth noting that his work throughout the film is excellent, snapping into lockstep with Cacoyannis’s images, investing hints of disquiet and abnormality as well as local flavour and comedy (Theodorakis became a significant voice of opposition to the military regime that took control of Greece in the late 1960s). An early scene, as Basil and Zorba travel on the ferry to Crete, becomes a kind of dance sequence as the passengers are tossed to and fro about as the ferry ploughs through heavy seas, reeling motions and editing choreographed with comic effect and Theodorakis scoring it like a madcap hoedown. Theodorakis’ scoring is also of course utterly vital to the film’s end. Zorba’s zipline proves to work a bit too well when they finally get around to testing in a moment of great ceremony and spectacle for the village, and the logs come flying down so fast they keep breaking, or ripping away and crashing, before shaking the whole array to pieces. Basil, aware he’s got no choice now but to go back to England, nonetheless asks Zorba to teach him to dance, and finally obtains the same talent Zorba has, laughing at disaster and determined to actually live life. Cacoyannis’ iconic final shot zooms back on the sight of the two men dancing on the beach, Theodorakis’ theme plucking away merrily on the soundtrack, two dancing idiots delivered from a sad world.

Standard
1980s, Action-Adventure, Crime/Detective, Scifi

RoboCop (1987)

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Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenwriters: Michael Miner, Ed Neumeier

By Roderick Heath

Like many a filmmaker who, having gained stature and plaudits in their native land, heard the siren call of new shores, fresh stories, and better paydays, Paul Verhoeven vacated his place as the most lauded director in the Netherlands to fight for a place on the totem pole in Hollywood. His first film there, the medieval adventure Flesh + Blood (1985), hardly stirred a ripple, but the title was to prove a veritable mission statement for the way Verhoeven would heartily embrace a new career by pushing it to the max. Verhoeven’s lack of timidity as a Hollywood director who notably refused to deal in the usual pretences expected of transplanted auteurs was hardly surprising in light of the movies he had made in the Netherlands. Their number included his sex farce debut Wat Zien Ik (1972), about a prostitute’s misadventures, Turkish Delight (1974), his spectacularly vulgar take on the romantic tragicomedy, and his fetid, delirious melange of horror film, erotica, and metaphysical angst, The Fourth Man (1983). He had offered some films of more restrained temperament, including the historical class-clash epic Keetje Tippel (1975) and the Oscar-winning war film Soldier of Orange (1977). But something in Verhoeven’s overheated sensibility couldn’t be contained too long by such relatively straight-laced fare.
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So when he went Hollywood, Verhoeven went big. Where Hollywood executives told him the audience wanted sex and violence, he would serve double portions, as part of an outlandish mixture of often gross mockery, earnest melodrama, and sleight of hand in tackling Verhoeven’s deeper interest in the politics of body and soul. He didn’t appreciate Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner’s script for RoboCop when he first read it, but his wife did, pointing out to him the barbed skepticism aimed at the emerging corporate dominance, and the theme of the Christ-like saviour. The film was destined to be a smash hit and would place Verhoeven on top for a time until he pushed his tendencies just a little too far for critics and audiences alike. But RoboCop, perhaps his greatest film and a remarkable balancing act by any measure, has never lost its cachet as a cult film sprung out of most surprising soil, standing alongside The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), and Predator (1987) in the holy sepulchre of ‘80s sci-fi action but also outstripping them in the force and clarity of its ideas and provocations. Great science fiction is usually part imagination, part reportage, with the best extrapolating trends of the moment of conception and projecting them into a fictional future that if done well can retain that seer-like mystique.
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Like many other movie-mad kids I watched the movie into the ground back when, and like many such relics of a misspent youth it tends to sit around, a must-own for the movie collection but also a little like part of the furniture. RoboCop hasn’t lost its pure, grade-A Columbian potency or its scabrously funny, cruelly satirical purview. Nonetheless time has changed how I relate to the movie: the general mayhem and specific blend of idealism and cynicism, so perfectly in synch with a teenage mindset, gives way to a deeper empathy for hero Alex Murphy, a family man torn away from identity and family – what does age do, but make us feel like pieces are being cut off us and remaking us into hardened things we don’t quite recognise, whilst stealing away things we love? RoboCop’s prognosticative edge seems near limitless, anticipating contemporary concerns of automation and artificial intelligence, the loss of public sovereignty over our institutions, the debasement of social discourse and the media, the unhinged power granted corporations in our lives and the grim spectre of government being annexed by businesspeople – all wrapped up in RoboCop’s shiny, sardonic shell. Even some of the film’s more dated references, like jokes related to Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars project, have gained a new window of relevance, whilst others, like the indictment of a city like Detroit being first built and then trashed and then gentrified at the expense of the inhabitants according to the whims of capitalism, never stopped being immediate.
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Over and above its satirical aspect, RoboCop is of course also a gloriously unhinged pulp adventure that finds whacked-out poetry in the notion of a normal man, his body appropriated for corporate use, transformed into a Kevlar-coated knight. RoboCop’s insidious genius is immediately signalled by the use of TV news reports and ads to frame the action, Greek chorus gone smarmy and commercial: the cold opening offers Media Break, a news programme that takes the pattern of news reduced to capsules and soundbites to an extreme – “You give us three minutes and we’ll give you the world!” – filled with biting bits of futuristic geopolitical info, like the apartheid South African gone belligerent and nuclear, and the “Star Wars Orbiting Peace Platform” that fouls up, at first comically and then scorching a section of California to a cinder. This device also lets Verhoeven summarise the film’s basic plot and background with sublime efficiency. Interspersed are fake ads, grounding futuristic phenomena in familiar packaging, like one for mechanical heart transplants, and sketching out a future society where the phenomena of all kinds – human, machine, news, marketing – are dissolving into a grotesque and lawless stew. On to the real show: the setting is a futuristic Detroit where the infrastructure of the working class’s livelihoods has been reduced to cavernous shells whilst a new elite of corporate overlords rule on high.
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A massive corporation with the delightful nonentity name of Omni Consumer Products, or OCP, has taken over the privatised police force of Detroit, a city that has degenerated into a rundown, crime-infested, Hobbesian hellhole. The cops are outmatched by criminals toting heavy weaponry also made by OCP who manufacture military arms, and the police are slowly being starved of resources by their new masters. OCP’s barely hidden agenda is to rebuild Detroit into the new and shiny Delta City, whilst also hoping to replace the human police with robotic workers, cheaper, easier to maintain, and utterly unquestioning of authority. This project hits a speed bump however, when OCP’s number two man Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) parades the product of his R&D lab before the company board and the company chairman, referred to only as “The Old Man” (Dan O’Herlihy). The hulking, prototype robotic law enforcer ED-209 machine guns unfortunate executive Kinney (Kevin Page) to a bloody pulp during a simulated exercise to demonstrate its abilities. Mid-grade executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), assigned to develop contingency projects in case of the ED-209’s failure to perform, steams in to steal Jones’s thunder and capture the Old Man’s interest with his alternative: his notion is to create a cyborg incorporating the brain and know-how of a real policeman.
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Morton is already busy trying to orchestrate the ready providing of a good test subject, by restructuring the police force and putting good candidates into dangerous positions. One such candidate, Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), arrives for duty at Detroit’s most hazardous precinct, and is partnered up the station’s hard-ass commander Sgt Reed (Robert DoQui) with the equally tough Officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen). The partners soon swing into action, chasing down a team of bank robbers commanded by the malevolent and ambitious Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), and pursue them to an abandoned steel mill. There, Lewis is knocked out and Murphy, after gunning down one of the crew, is bailed up by the rest and used for target practice by the gang, before Boddicker gives him a coup-de-grace in the head. Rushed to hospital, the medical team can’t save Murphy’s life, but his organic remains become the indispensible central component in Morton’s exercise in Frankensteinian public utility service.
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The savage boardroom sequence offers startling violence amidst arch mockery of corporate culture that has strong overtones of mirthful lampoons from days past like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1956) and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967), where young go-getters try to impress the man upstairs with wacky notions. The Old Man gives a speech of hollow self-congratulations met with applause, particularly from the eagerly brownnosing Morton, and hides his face in shame after Jones’ hiccup before admonishing him oh so solemnly, “Dick, I’m very disappointed.” The conceptual starting point is the same as Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho as the corporate world is revealed to be an arena of literal life-and-death competition, replete with cocaine orgies and blood-spattered exercises in free enterprise from these upstanding captains of industry, but it’s also a zone of slapstick absurdity, as the Old Man cradles his head in cringing embarrassment in the face of Kinney’s demise. “We steal money to buy coke and sell the coke and make even more money,” says Boddicker’s lieutenant Emil (Paul McCrane), which he holds as basic business acumen, and Boddicker and crew attempt a hostile takeover of a mob drug business.
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Street-level capitalism is soon revealed to be working in harmony with the glass citadels of corporatism, for Boddicker works under the protection of Jones, who offers him the rights to control all the crime proceeds in Delta City. “Good business is where you find it,” Jones and Boddicker both parrot, one of the many catchphrases that recur throughout the film, way-stations of commercialist mind colonisation: everyone in the film, well before Robocop first marches out to battle, is already brainwashed to a certain extent. Glimpses of television in this future are either ads, chop-chop news, or bawdy, soft-porn sitcoms, disgorging another catchphrase, “I’ll buy that for a dollar!” Not, of course, that RoboCop was so unique in terms of its targets when it was released. Corporate honchos, snotty yuppies, and government heavies were kicked about in quite a few ‘80s action films, victims of a lingering suspicion of authority, a hangover in genre film reflexes from the counterculture era but gaining a more blue collar basis in the era of the common man (a couple of years later, in Leviathan, 1989, for instance, a female corporate boss gets a sock in the face from Weller, playing one of the workers she left to die).
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What makes RoboCop so striking in this regard is the way it coherently envisions its future world. The threat of collapse into anarchy is both imminent but also manufactured. The Old Man crows about changes to taxation that have allowed corporate growth at the price of running down civic infrastructure, to which the proposed cure-all is corporate governance. Meanwhile the assailed, under-resourced, cost-ineffective police are driven to the point of considering a strike, something Reed considers utterly verboten. RoboCop is a product intended, like ED-209, to render messy human components to the system unnecessary. And yet Morton’s idea needs the human element. RoboCop’s near-future has hues of dystopia and the shining prospects of renewal on the horizon seem to promise only new dimensions in iniquity. In terms of the science fiction genre in general and in more specific conceptual terms, the entire narrative can be seen as the stage before the construction of the great city of Metropolis (1926).
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In this landscape Murphy is a plain anachronism, a competent cop with a sturdy home life and an old-school delight in the mystique of the western hero, recreating the signature gun-spinning move of his young son’s favourite TV character, T.J. Lazer, protagonist of a sci-fi western blend, and admitting to Lewis that “I get a kick out of it.” Rebirth as RoboCop ironically remakes the gunslinger as futuristic hero, but as a 21st century myth, or at least a 1980s anticipation of one, the context is infinitely more questioning about the actual meaning of such heroism – what was the Old West hero but precursor and defender of more efficient exploitation of the land? RoboCop depicts the search for freedom in immediate and gruelling detail, perceiving the entire world, never mind the computer chips and LED screen that feed fragments of corporate circumspection to Murphy, as a trap of conspiring paradigms. It doesn’t seem at all coincidental that Jones and Boddicker’s association closely resembles that of Frank and Morton in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), hired gun and business potentate learning from each-other with mutual yearnings to be the other. The true cleverness of RoboCop, and the source of its power, lies in Verhoeven and the screenwriters’ precise feel for what to make sport of and what to take seriously, playing their hero and the other cops absolutely straight. This approach allowed Verhoeven to extend his obsession with the mysterious blurring of the sacred and profane to emblematic extremes.
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Verhoeven’s visual patterns constantly stress the act of seeing, experiencing, processing, and also the limitations imposed upon them. Verhoeven repeatedly returns to Media Brief bulletins and commercials without warning, assaulting the demarcations between standard movie narrative and meta-commentary, between movie-watching as self-evident flow and self-critical process. Point-of-view shots are a constant motif. These kind of shots were increasingly common in this brand of ‘80s sci-fi action movie, the red-drenched viewpoint of the Terminator, the infrared gaudiness of the Predator, evoking new ways of seeing the world through technological media. Verhoeven renders them more purposeful in terms of his hero’s experience. He obliges the audience to spend much time watching this world through Murphy-RoboCop’s eyes, or from those who look on at him with blends of heartache and fear. Murphy’s death and resurrection are first-person events, his viewpoint maintained as doctors try to save his life, in alternation with incredible close-ups of Weller’s glassy blue eyes. Flashback memories take on dimensions of spiritual symbolism, the sight of his wife and son waving to him from the driveway of his house as he drives away becoming a more permanent and piercingly wistful evocation of loss.
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Murphy’s transformation into RoboCop continues in this vein, experience reduced to brief snatches of online awareness, enough time to observe his creation team and overseers like Morton in all their crass and clumsy humanity. RoboCop is supposed to be a completely pliable tool, without memory or sense of self, only a series of simple and unswaying directives to guide his actions. As Murphy-RoboCop rises from his seat to the applause of the technicians and executives, his vision is pixelated by video feed and criss-crossed by targeting grids and computer read-outs, with a viewpoint that’s rigorously linear and straightforward, Verhoeven’s subtle jab at the drab functionality of much Hollywood filmmaking. But dream and memory come to disrupt the way of seeing OCP impose upon him, making the film, in its way, a new paradigm for the classic surrealist creed. Verhoeven cleverly extends the feeling of displacement and the shock of the new as the cops dash through the halls of their precinct trying to catch a glimpse of the outlandish newcomer in their midst, a gleaming hunk of technological force, a masculinised answer to the sleek robot Maria of Metropolis. One of the most logical throwaway details also contains one of its sharpest gags, as RoboCop has to consume a paste close to baby food to keep his organic parts alive, humanity at last perfectly infantilised and rationalised. The film found a way to weaponise David Cronenberg’s dank dreams of body perversion and intrusion.
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RoboCop is sent out to snare the bad guys – one of Verhoeven’s many circular motifs suggests something of Murphy’s spirit is still within RoboCop as he drives out of the precinct car park with sparks in his wake on the steep ramp. Verhoeven compresses vignettes of totemic pop vigilantism into gems of black comedy here, as he offers several hilariously hyperbolic versions of the kinds of street crimes reported breathlessly on nightly news and in cheesy movies. A stick-up man with a machine gun terrorising a market. A pair of denim-clad rapists. Disgruntled former councillor Ron Miller (Mark Carlton) holding the mayor hostage. The stick-up man is easily sent flying into a refrigerator as his bullets ricochet off RoboCop’s armour. More wit is required to take down the rapists: RoboCop successfully shoots between their victim’s legs to make mincemeat of an offending member. The hostage-taker is dragged through a wall and punched out a window (one of my favourite parts of the film is the terrorist’s list of demands to the negotiating cop outside, including fresh coffee, his job back, and a new car, and the cop’s assurance: “Let the Mayor go and we’ll even throw in a Blaupunkt.”) So successful are RoboCop’s forays that Morton’s hubris becomes outsized, crowing to the media that crime will be wiped out in 90 days and dissing Jones in the executive washroom at OCP without realising the target himself is in a toilet stall. Morton is soon assured he’s truly earned an enemy, but doesn’t quite realised how dangerous an enemy until Boddicker barges his way into Morton’s house, shoots him in the legs, and leaves him to watch a DVD of Jones gloating as a bomb ticks down to zero.
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Just prior to getting his goose cooked, Verohoeven gleefully portrays Morton and a pair of models indulging lashings of snow white and fetid sexuality, in a scene that feels eminently like the filmmakers probably witnessed such a scene or perhaps even indulged it somewhere in the Hollywood hills: “God I love to be with intelligent women,” Morton crows to the dimwit pair before snorting coke off one’s tits, summarising the mindset of the executive sexist with cruel exactitude. Boddicker and his crew, by contrast to the corporate corsairs, are a multiracial bunch of scumbags and overgrown school bullies who enjoy turmoil and tormenting, evinced as they sadistically blow pieces off Murphy, and later Emil threatens a geeky gas station worker (“Are you some kind of college boy?…Think you can outsmart a bullet?”). They’re logical end-products of a society based around dumbing things down and celebrating ruthless muscle. That process is in itself a product of the torturing dualism that Verhoeven constantly perceives in the human condition. People at the pinnacle want the seamy pleasure those as the bottom can give them; those at the bottom wish to drag everything down but then ascend in its place. By the time the cops do actually strike and leave the streets to the marauders, the crew unleash their casual destructive impulses with an impunity reminiscent of Verhoeven’s antihero in Turkish Delight, a madcap incarnation of impulse and basic organic hunger detached from all natural feeling for higher function, as well as the ensnared bisexual protagonist of The Fourth Man, who finds himself trapped between sweat-inducing desire and beckoning transcendence.
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Murphy meanwhile experiences the return of consciousness as a digital glitch, the face of his killer leering at him in fuzzy dream, wrenching him out of repose and driving him out into the night, with Lewis’ attempt to reach the man within – “Murphy, it’s you!” – ringing in his ears. Encountering Emil as he robs the gas station, mutual recognition spooks both men, and the device of recognition is, of course, a catchphrase: Murphy’s favourite quip, perhaps also culled from T.J. Lazer, “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.” Some of the film’s funniest jokes are also its least subtle, like the constant repetitions of the diminutive of Jones’ first name, and the key object of consumerist fancy, the 6000-SUX sports car, a car that fulfils the dream of conspicuous consumption – it nicely meets Miller’s criteria for his dream car that it give “really shitty gas mileage.” Verhoeven returns to the first-person style as Murphy for an amazing sequence where his trash satire and poetic sense of elusive memory work in perfect tandem, following the breadcrumb trail back through Emil’s arrest record through to what used to be his home. Here he finds a smarmy salesman guiding him through his house on video screens, reducing the setting of his life to a series of metrics and brand names, whilst the ghostly memories of his wife (Angie Bolling) and son (Jason Levine) loom before him, conjured out of the past and dissolving again. Murphy, in his prowling distress, punches in one of the salesman video screens, the first overt act of revolt against the overwhelming web of choking commercialism and phony pleasantry glimpsed throughout the film. Characteristically, Verhoeven eases back from the emotional crescendo with a return to comedy whilst still managing to step up the narrative pace as he makes a crash-cut to a nightclub, as Murphy hunts down another of Boddicker’s associates, Leon (Ray Wise). Leon tries to kick the cyborg in the balls but of course gets only some broken toes for his pains and the dancing denizens hoot in approval as Murphy drags Leon out by his hair.
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One of Verhoeven’s master strokes was in casting, putting actors in vividly counter-intuitive roles, like casting the eternally girlish Allen as a tough cop, Cox, best known before this as the dreamiest member of the rowing foursome in Deliverance (1972), as a raging, strutting prick, and Smith, who mostly had played cops in various TV shows before this, as a brutal bandit king, utilising his aura of intelligent authority with an extra layer of antisocial acidity, converting all his lines into little arias of cruel humour. Weller had been circling the edges of stardom for a few years before being cast as Murphy, in cultish fare like Of Unknown Origin (1983), in which he played an everyman doing battle with a giant rat, and the title role of Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984), where he played a polymath pulp hero; the diversity of such parts signalled both Weller’s skill as an actor and also his peculiar physiognomy, spindly, slightly hangdog, but equipped with soulful eyes and cupid lips. The latter feature being just about all you can see of him throughout RoboCop and so vital to his presence, some remnant of the human, the romantic, amidst the technocratic fantasia. Weller’s ingenuity as an actor is vital to selling RoboCop, in the mechanical gait of the character, the way he seems to struggle against his new form and then to use it effectively express his rage and distress as he begins to regain his memory. Somehow he manages to make all the stages of his role effectively expressive – from the all-too-vulnerable Murphy to the grimly stoic cyborg to the blank, haunted, quietly resolved remnant that emerges towards the end.
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Murphy’s crashing of a business meeting between Boddicker and a drug kingpin (Lee DeBroux) sees him wipe out a small army of hoodlums, and bash Boddicker around until he tries to warn off Murphy by telling him Jones looks after him, but it’s rather the reminder that Murphy is a cop that saves Boddicker’s life. Instead he casts him to Reed and heads off to arrest Jones, but soon finds a wicked limitation placed upon him – the incapacity to take action against an OCP employee, ingrained in his programming. In this future there is quite literally one law for the rich and another for the rest. Murphy has to elude an ED-209 set upon him by Jones – fortunately, that monstrosity, in what feels like a grand joke aimed at decades worth of impractical robots in movies, can’t negotiate the stairs – and then is almost shredded by the combined fire of ranks of cops called out to deal with the apparently rogue cyborg. Basil Poledouris’ tremendous scoring reaches an apogee here in the grand yet mournful evocation of mecha-Christ crucified over and over again. Lewis manages to snatch Murphy away and helps him self-repair and recuperate in the same steel mill where he was first shot up, and Jones sends Boddicker and crew after him, equipped with explosive shell-lobbing guns. Verhoeven, via Murphy and Lewis, dishes out nasty comeuppances to the criminals, but with a seething overlay of perverse, Looney Tunes-esque comedy: Emil, immersed in the contents of a well-labelled vat of toxic waste, is reduced to a grotesque mass of melting flesh before being run down by Boddicker; Leon is blown to smithereens by Lewis just as he whoops in triumph after trapping Murphy under some junk, and Boddicker gets skewered in the throat by Murphy’s data plug when he gets just a little too close to crow over his pinioned opponent, a deadly steel spike that also looks like an installation art take on flipping the bird.
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What holds RoboCop together is the conviction with which Verhoeven and Weller celebrate their heroes, the cops both human and augmented, even as just about everything around them is revealed to be some sort of sham. When Verhoeven would return to a similar blend of high cynicism and straight-laced thrills on Starship Troopers (1997), a lot more people didn’t, or wouldn’t, get the joke even as Verhoeven unsubtly clad his spacefaring warriors in Nazi-esque uniforms. Such a lapse that time around was due in large part because Verhoeven offered no wriggle room between the fascist precepts of his future society and the aims of the heroes obliged to live in it; on the contrary, the film unstintingly states that their qualities and desires are rather exactly fulfilled and expiated by that society, and infers a similar dynamic can seduce all of us. That quality in some ways makes Starship Troopers the more sophisticated and slyly unsparing as a ransacking of genre film, but in another sense the lack of such tension foils it; it can’t thrill in the way RoboCop can, and so isn’t as effectively two-faced. Murphy returns to OCP Headquarters to handle unfinished business, blowing up the ED-209 with quick efficiency – somehow Tippet and the sound effects team manage to turn the death reel of the decapitate robot, which collapses with a ratcheting click of its wayward toes, into a hilarious moment – before bursting into the company boardroom to brand Jones as a killer before the Old Man and all the other corporate sharks. But Murphy cannot fire, not until the Old Man delivers the true assassination according to his world’s values, by firing Jones as he holds a gun to his head.
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This conclusion offers rowdy, crowd-pleasing flourishes with a sarcasm so complete it circles right back around to earnestness, as Morton’s executive pal Johnson (Felton Perry) gives Murphy and thumbs-up, and the Old Man slides back into western flick argot – “Nice shootin’ son.” The executives, like the audience and Murphy himself, in the end desperately want and need the western hero to exist even when it completely cuts against the grain of all logic. Similarly, Murphy’s final, simple, smiling utterance of his name carries enormous power precisely because of the farcicality, the grotesquery that surrounds him, and the hilariousness of the context only sharpens the sting of Murphy’s self-reclamation. RoboCop was such a hit that inevitably it spawned sequels, but just how essential Verhoeven’s touch had been, and how smart Miner and Neumeir’s writing had been, was soon confirmed. The first follow-up, Irvin Kershner’s RoboCop 2 (1990), proved a disastrous mess which just about everyone involved blamed everyone else for, retreading most aspects of the original but this time with the foulness turned up full and the stabs at humour and excitement this time proving leaden. Weller refused to return for the third instalment, released in 1993, helmed by Fred Dekker, so Robert John Burke was cast in the role instead. This time the result swung too far in the other direction from the second entry, playing more like an extended TV pilot with goofy humour and a broad approach. Still, it did actually manage to provide a worthier follow-up. Jose Padilha’s would-be thoughtful but actually merely verbose and heavy-footed remake from 2014 tried to turn its own by-committee, brand-exploiting status into the very subject of its riff, but neglected everything else, and simply reduced proceedings to a crying bore. Some prototypes, it turns out, just can’t be reproduced.

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2010s, 2018, Confessions of a Film Freak

Confessions of a Film Freak 2018

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By Roderick Heath

2018 was a tough year.

I lost my father this year. My partnership with Marilyn Ferdinand at Ferdy on Films came to an end, a rather gentler and less wrenching if still saddening end for an era. Too often the zeitgeist felt like a practical joke where everyone was the sucker. Watching things we love crack up and fail has seemed a little too often like the new state of things. Hell, the year’s biggest hit movie, Avengers: Infinity War, ended with half the universe exterminated. Granted, that’ll probably be reversed in the next movie, and yet it sat heavily with me when I realised my father, who always loved zoning out with the Marvel films, will never see it.
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Solo: A Star Wars Story

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But 2018 also saw some new beginnings, including the founding of my new site, Film Freedonia. The year’s movies often betrayed a pensive, roiling, deeply uneasy sensibility but often underscored with guttering expectation, perfectly in tune with such a backdrop. Many films spoke to a general hunger for justice and renewal. One major connective theme of 2018’s cinema meditated upon shambolic figures who find themselves at the mercy of fate at once leviathan-like but also often informed by seemingly trivial signifiers – a motif that connects a film as massive as Avengers: Infinity War and as rarefied as Lucrecia Martel’s Spanish Colonial tale Zama. The moment of crisis is one of the basic lynchpins of drama of course, but this year in particular the theme of imminent reckoning became a constant, unavoidable topic in movies – the moment when fair weather suddenly and cruelly ceases and for insular structures of families, friends, common causes, and communities, when agreed mutual fictions and sustaining myths must be abandoned and raw truths confronted if anything is to be salvaged. Such fulcrums were found in tales as diverse as Support The Girls, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Disobedience, The Party, The Rider, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Black Panther, Colette, Blockers, The Endless, Bad Times at the El Royale, Double Lover, Cargo, The Ritual, Braven, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Breath, First Reformed, The Commuter, A Star Is Born, Widows, The Death of Stalin, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, The Kindergarten Teacher, and on and on. Hell, even ‘70s drop-in The Other Side of the Wind managed to fit in. Some, like Roma and Vox Lux, depicted mean scenes of personal reckoning but hinted at larger cultural moments still to come.
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A Star Is Born

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This year I found myself growing frustrated with a dominant mode of realism celebrated in current cinema, where a certain droning, one-note experience was too often had, laden with a kind of false subtlety, and more attracted to films that attempted to capture states of mind and zones of interior fantasy and experience. Much-praised works like Roma, First Man, The Rider, Leave No Trace, The Guardians, and others featured fastidious depictions of exterior reality, but on close inspection their drama was familiar, even a bit trite. Roma and The Guardians for instance both revolved around quasi-saintly, servile female characters used and abused by the clans they’re attached to, scarcely evolved from types you’d find in Victorian fiction and silent films. More interesting, if not always more successful, were the spasms of creative flux and floundering expression apparent in movies like the scabrous surrealism of Sorry to Bother You, or the dreaming zones of On Body and Soul, the multitudinous layerings of Ready Player One. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman wrestled not only with racial consciousness and real history but with pop culture modes as signifiers of substance. The Strange Ones tried to depict the world from the viewpoint of a damaged young mind, where reality becomes a splintered and nebulous thing. All were movies that tried to wrestle with complex ways of knowing self and others
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Bohemian Rhapsody

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The makings of stardom and general heroism came under close scrutiny. Films like A Star is Born, Vox Lux, Bohemian Rhapsody, Colette, and Mary Shelley considered artistic fame and success as fields of violent and sometimes fatal contest despite their general reputation for being removed from gritty realities. Movies like Black Panther, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Red Sparrow, Tomb Raider, and The 15:17 To Paris, looked at protagonists who must fight tooth and nail to become the men and women they hope to be, and a telling number of “fun” films, including Black Panther, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Bad Times at the El Royale, and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, revolved around watching friends, doppelgangers, and loved-ones make unconscionable choices based in understandable if not condonable reasons. One unifying interest in several of the year’s comedies was a basic template of fretful, middle-aged people contending with their own unruly appetites whilst still trying to function as nominally mature entities, for the sake of those entrusted to their care, be it children or society at large.
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Blockers

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Kay Cannon’s Blockers was particularly interesting in this regard as it contended with reactionary impulses amongst the officially equable and aware modern brand of parent out in the swanky suburbs, and it managed to generate some real laughs amidst musings on what it’s like to be both a parent and a young adult today. The trouble was, the film cut itself off from the sexual anxiety that was fuel for its premise and so had to generate increasingly absurd and strained situations to justify itself. Terrific comic performances, particularly from Leslie Mann, helped a lot. Stephan Elliott’s Swinging Safari looked back to the 1970s milieu of Australian suburbia as a rambunctious Eden, and considered the opposite problem of kids adrift when parents exist within a bubble of self-interest. Elliott’s outlandish stew had moments, but it never knew when to quit or throttle off. Sally Potter’s The Party explored the crack-up of New Age mores in the face of a treacherously enticing promise from an unseen temptress, standing in for a fickle audience of voters and viewers; Potter’s wickedly funny script and trenchant camerawork instilled what might have been a minor exercise, a tribute to a very arch mode of theatre, with real cinematic meaning. John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s Game Night felt agreeably reminiscent of a breed of shambling ‘80s comedies about everyday folk thrust far out of their comfort zone as it sent a crew of flaky gamers into the night to solve a mystery they think a mere fun exercise but turns out to involve real danger and crime. The film delivered a fun night at the movies thanks to snappy acting, particularly from Jesse Plemons as a discomforting cop neighbour, and Cliff Martinez’s vibrant electronic score exacerbated the ‘80s vibe. Trouble was, the script got too clever by half and what could have been a freewheeling outing kept tripping over its own feet.
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Support The Girls

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For comedy that tried to maintain a more authentic and quotidian vibe, Claire Scanlon’s Set It Up and Andrew Bujalski’s Support The Girls each tried to marry shambolic indie flick energy with slick, conventional appeal. Both studied small communities consisting of the self-exploited, in the former the overworked minions of New York office culture, the latter the young lovelies and their frazzled mother hen working in a Texas boobs-and-sports bar. Scanlon’s film sported fun performances and jolts of brazen humour, particularly from the ever-promising Zoe Deutch, but the film semi-accidentally made the case that none of these company creeps actually deserved love. Bujalski’s entry lacked the intricate humour and originality of his previous work and rambled on a bit, but its ripe, open humanism and liking for its characters were refreshing. Bujalski’s mumblecore fellow Aaron Katz made his own methodical play to go Hollywood without losing the vibe of his no-budget work with Gemini, a moody, sinuous, multifaceted send-up of celebrity culture that doubled as a parable for its own making, accumulating the paraphernalia of a traditional thriller much as its heroine dons the garb of a noir heroine, trying to work out how all the pieces fit together.
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Sorry To Bother You

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Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You stood up for a more aspiring wing of comedy, and provided a shot of absurdist satire with a specifically black perspective, following Lakeith Stanfield’s antihero from garage-dwelling loser to wealthy telemarketer thanks to his talents at “white voice,” and finding himself an imminent tool in a plot by Armie Hammer’s loony corporate boss to foster a race of half-horse, half-human slave workers. Riley’s comic conceits were occasionally genuinely brilliant, like a central scene where the hero cynically improvises a rap verse that goes over a treat, and the film felt reminiscent in its ambitions of classics like O Lucky Man! and The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer as a scattershot takedown of an entire cultural moment. But Riley’s direction and script were both highly erratic, stumbling over dull conventions like Tessa Thompson’s girlfriend of articulate conscience and a unionising subplot, and badly dispelled its impact through over-length.
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Early Man

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Nick Park, one of the most creative filmmakers around, nonetheless proved that even he can have an off day with Early Man, a jokey prehistoric mini-epic that both teased and honoured the familiar underdog sports drama; whilst littered with Park’s usual ingenious figments, particularly his lovable menagerie of animals, nonetheless the result felt underdeveloped in too many regards, and the subject matter, football, proved ill-matched to Park’s usually dazzling instincts for action staging. Wes Anderson offered his own stop-motion animated film, in the style of his best to date, Fantastic Mr Fox, for Isle of Dogs, a parable for scapegoating wrapped up in a self-satirising Japonaise edition of Anderson’s picture book style. The lack of a solid basis like Roald Dahl was telling this time, leaving Anderson leaning even more heavily on pure aesthetic than usual for an occasionally droll if very minor exercise.
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Winchester

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2018’s crop of horror cinema continued the momentum the genre’s had in the past few years, performing well at the box office and galvanising filmgoers, although some of the more trumpeted efforts of the year felt bizarrely overinflated in rhetoric. John Krasinski’s mass audience-friendly A Quiet Place proved a fun exercise in gimmicky tension in depicting a rural family battling sound-sensitive monstrosities: Krasinki proved himself a surprisingly dab hand at staging thrills but the script was far too evasive when it came to providing logic and context. Ari Aster’s Hereditary aimed higher in both style and theme, depicting a family beset by awful events that prove to have a secret, incredibly malevolent unity. Aster’s filmmaking was intricate but onerous, his attempt to create a bleak parable for family secrets and the predestination of genetics big on laboured visual metaphors but short on convincing writing and detailed characterisations. Michael and Peter Spierig’s Winchester flew the flag for the old-fashioned haunted house rollick, building a story around an authentic location, the house built by the heiress to the Winchester firearms fortune (Helen Mirren). But the film proved flimsy and absurd on just about every conceivable level, failing to do any justice to its fascinating basis.
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The Endless

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Gary Bruckner’s The Ritual, a loose adaptation of a well-received novel, followed a well-trod path into the spooky woods it sent a bunch of urban twats out into the Scandinavian wilds to meet an ancient monstrosity and a perverted cult. Bruckner’s happy embrace of genre convention was at once limiting and faintly vexing given the more original pitch of its source, but also proved by the end a bit of a relief in comparison with the year’s more exhaustingly self-serious horror flicks, as it worked up genuine tension and sustained it to the very end. Post-modern freaks Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead returned with their third feature, The Endless, casting themselves as twin brothers who feel compelled to return to the bizarre, cultish setting of their youth and find themselves confronted by segmented pockets of time and causality reigned over by an invisible, sadistic entity. The filmmakers cleverly augmented the meaning of their previous outings (including a salutary revisit to Resolution), but the human level of their drama remained sketchy, and the film kept blindly poking about hoping a tone would stick.
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Unsane

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An Australian entry in the zombie apocalypse stakes, Cargo, saw another collaborating duo, Yolande Ramke and Ben Howling, employ Martin Freeman’s specific everyman pluck in a tale of a solitary father trying to save his infant daughter from a cruel landscape. The attempt to adapt a very well-worn model to comment upon localised racial and environmental concerns honoured the Romero debt, but were never properly thought through and failed to mesh with the maudlin reflexes of the main story: the result grew tedious on the way to a finale that played like a parody of Woke cinema. Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane was bolder in extending its director’s recent penchant for interposing twisty, straightforward thrills with overt social issue-raising, tracking Claire Foy’s uptight heroine as she finds herself under the thumb of both a greedy institution and a ruthlessly controlling stalker turned nurse. The result wasn’t subtle and the choice of shooting the whole thing on an iPhone made for an occasionally grating, inflexible visual style, and yet it still built up a surprising charge of grimy excitement, proving perhaps finally that Soderbergh is at his best when he’s at his trashiest.
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Upgrade

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Former Saw mastermind Leigh Whannell presented a new venture in low-down genre thrills with Upgrade, unfolding in the blurry margin between body horror and sci-fi. The product played as an update of a ‘80s Cannon Films video shelf filler, as its hero (Logan Marshall-Green), paralysed in the same vicious attack that also killed his wife, forms a symbiotic relationship with the AI installed in his body to help him walk again and setting out for revenge, only to find he’s being used. Upgrade was moderately engaging whilst unfolding, but bland performances and a strangely detached, ugly tone retarded hoped-for high spirits, even before the gracelessly cynical ending. Similar in theme and lexicon of influences if vastly different in approach, Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy was a far more arresting if also more heedlessly monolithic work, unleashing Nicolas Cage in a trippy alternate universe 1980s to battle demon bikers and malignant cultists whilst avenging his murdered wife. Genuinely strange, wild, and beautiful in a junk-art manner, it proved one of the most unique films of recent years.
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Pacific Rim: Uprising

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Steven S. DeKnight took over the Pacific Rim imprimatur with Pacific Rim: Uprising, subbing for Guillermo Del Toro who was presumably too busy making his Oscar and his Godzilla figurine fight it out in the bath tub. The sequel’s deliberately more naïve, youth audience-friendly tilt and DeKnight’s plainer visual approach meant it wasn’t as gaudy an entertainment as the original, but it still proved a decent piece of ridiculous fun, with a couple of neat twists and a finale that paid pure tribute to its roots in old Toho monster movies. Alex Garland returned for his second directorial outing with Annihilation, adapting Jeff VanderMeer’s acclaimed novel trilogy into a would-be mind-bending exercise where the psyche and the physical blend in bizarre and dynamic ways. Unfortunately, Annihilation merely confirmed Garland knows nothing about cinema, proffering a lumbering exercise in dingy-looking pseudo-profundity, embarking on a trek that ripped off several better films before arriving at a lightshow finale that aimed to inspire cosmic awe but only inspired extreme boredom.
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I Kill Giants

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Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald saw director David Yates and writer J.K. Rowling return with the second instalment of the prequel pentalogy set in Rowling’s Wizarding World, with introverted hero Newt Scamander contending with his heartier brother and other confounding human relationships whilst trying to stop the ascent of charismatic fascist Grindelwald. The instalment proved aggravatingly lumpy, betraying Rowling’s inexperience as a screenwriter to an excruciating degree and neglecting the best aspects of the first film. But eventually it got to an interesting keynote regarding good and terrible choices in life and political adherence based in the amount and kind of pain one’s suffered, and Eddie Redmayne and Johnny Depp gave sure performances playing perfectly contrasting antagonists. Anders Walter’s I Kill Giants went for a variety of magic realism reminiscent of the kinds of ‘80s fantasy movies young folk have fallen in love with through home viewing ever since, depicting a smart and disdainful adolescent who escapes harsh reality into a fantasy life so intense it borders on lunacy. Madison Wolfe confirmed she’s an actor to watch with her vehement playing of a spiky, troubling heroine, but the film around her proved too insistent and unsubtle and excessively indebted to directors like Spielberg and Del Toro, without any of their sense of intimate detail or storytelling savvy.
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Tomb Raider

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Roar Uthaung’s Tomb Raider and Ron Howard’s Solo: A Star Wars Story were both surprisingly good extensions of hallowed franchises, and both were relatively, sadly neglected by the mass audience they courted and served so well, telling tales of formative escapades for famed adventurers, with Alicia Vikander and Alden Ehrenreich filling a decent percentage of their predecessors’ very large shoes. Tomb Raider managed the faint-praise task of proving the best video game adaptation ever with its lean and intelligently restrained action sensibility, although it should have doubled down on its best impulses. Solo: A Star Wars Story proved that sometimes a sober, smart, experienced professional behind the camera can outpace showy tyros. Manhunt, John Woo’s belated return to the sort of hard-charging pulp fiction he made his name with three decades ago, proved a heady melange of Hitchcockian thriller, sci-fi-tinted social conscience tale, and straight-up Woo shoot-’em-up; the product was absurd and awkwardly acted in three languages, and yet I’ll be damned if it wasn’t a blast all the same.
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Ocean’s 8

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Lin Oeding’s Braven took on a weary action movie formula, if with the beguiling contemporary twists of offering up a family of protagonists where everyone’s a badass. The notion of staging an action film on such a homey, intimate scale was a good one, but the film kept hurting itself by not sticking to that brief. Christian Gudegast’s Den of Thieves flew the flag for hardboiled cops-and-robbers fare as it pitted a nefarious team of former soldiers turned bank raiders against Gerard Butler’s ornery rogue detective, with O’Shea Jackson Jnr as the low-rent criminal apparently caught between the two camps. The film had the right idea in serving up a desperately-needed shot of bloody urban action, and it promised an interesting portrait of warring subcultures and streetwise protocols. Sadly, it was beset by a plot that belonged in an Ocean’s film and far too much cliché macho posturing in the meantime. Speaking of which, Gary Ross served up an extension of the Ocean’s series with Ocean’s 8, with a driving idea right out of 1966 in putting together – get this! – an all-female team of thieves. Fun work from Anne Hathaway and Helena Bonham Carter, both making fun of their popular images with gusto, kept things modestly engaging. Hard not to notice, however, a fascinating lack of proper dramatic complication or real stakes in the drama, as if the film, under its frothy façade, was actually sustaining a subtly sexist notion that women can’t face a real challenge or danger, and a script that gave most of its entirely overqualified cast far too little to do.
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The Commuter

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The Commuter was another essay in pressure-cooker situational action from Jaume Collet-Serra, pressing Liam Neeson into service again as a weary but able hero, this time on a train where he comes under the thumb of some villains who want him to kill an enigmatic passenger. The signposted class politics and late middle-age fretfulness promised new dimensions to a well-worn template, but were cancelled out by the need to keep the plot swerving. Script and handling were both way too formulaic and artificial, and the film urgently needed more of Vera Farmiga’s expertly galling voice of doom. Babak Najafi’s Proud Mary couldn’t even manage to provide solid Saturday night streaming fodder, holding out the promise of some flashy-trashy thrills in casting Taraji P. Henson as a hitwoman, but Najafi’s flavourless direction exacerbated a tediously generic product. Ted Geoghegan’s neo-western Mohawk at least had the virtue of wielding some great ideas and some riskiness to its historical perspective, as it portrayed a valiant female Mohawk warrior living in a ménage-a-trois with a brother brave and an English agent provocateur, taking on a party of ruthless Yankee warriors during the war of 1812. But hamfisted direction and a tinny, repetitive script meant it eventually degenerated into an overripe bore.
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The Predator

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When it came to the kind of big, immodest, special-effects driven spectacle you look for in Hollywood cinema, 2018 was a damn limp year. John Turteltaub’s The Meg set out with a simple mission: unleash a giant man-eating shark upon hapless submariners and swimmers for bloody hayhem and malicious entertainment. And it still managed to screw it up, unfolding with incredible blandness and perfunctory plotting, without any sense of how to use its monstrous enemy. Only one good phobic image, of the behemoth staring at a child through a wall of plexiglass as an impersonation of childhood nightmare, made it at all worthwhile. Shane Black returned to old stomping grounds as he took over a franchise he acted in way back in 1987, to make The Predator, a misshapen mutt of a movie sporting salty Black dialogue in spades and some fun performances, particularly from Olivia Munn. But the film’s tortured production proved very evident in a final product that never quite found its groove in pace or style, moving spasmodically through some half-chewed ideas and patchy action scenes.
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Black Panther

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Deadpool 2 saw Ryan Reynolds now co-scripting as well as starring, evolving his smart-mouthed antihero into the personification of the internet, a one-man machine for snarky memes, callbacks, flames, and smarmy sentiment. The vehicle about him attempted a balancing act that was always going to be difficult, employing straight-arrow John Wick and Atomic Blonde helmsman David Leitch for action movie cred for a film that tried nonetheless to offer perhaps the most aggressively mocking deconstruction of a pop culture blueprint since the days of certain Swinging ‘60s lampoons, but desperately lacking their jaunty charm or panache. Star Josh Brolin dominated Deadpool 2 by playing his part completely straight, just a couple of months after doing the same thing in Marvel’s crowning colossus, Avengers: Infinity War. Speaking of Marvel, that studio’s domination of the box office epoch reached a new height with the astounding success of Black Panther and Infinity War just behind it, one powered on by its uniqueness as a cultural phenomenon as a tailored Woke blockbuster, and the other drawing on the momentum of the entire series. Black Panther was merely okay, save a rowdy car chase sequence mid-film and a potent performance from Michael B. Jordan as a villain whose smouldering sense of injustice encapsulated an entire sociological moment. The film’s status as a fanfare for the possibility of a black blockbuster sensibility was worth honouring but the minutiae of its efforts bore little scrutiny.
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Ant-Man and the Wasp

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By comparison, Avengers: Infinity War was widely criticised for being crammed to the gunwales, but that’s precisely what made it such a blast for me, the comic book movie’s moment of Neroesque excess that had the balls to leave its audience hanging like no movie ever has before, and stands as underrated despite its success for the way it made Brolin’s archvillain the propelling figure rather than all those pesky outmatched twerps in tights. Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and the Wasp had the misfortune of looking rather shrunken (sorry) in contrast. Some find this branch of the Marvel universe the most personable and engaging, and I had some sympathy for that after the first Ant-Man, but this one I found almost torturously lacking when it came to plot, action, and repartee; only Hannah John-Kamen as a pain-wracked antagonist who could teleport at will wielded real spunk. Ava DuVernay returned after her potent work on Selma for a much-hyped leap into big-budget fantasy with a Disney-sponsored version of Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved book A Wrinkle in Time. Not perhaps since Heaven’s Gate has a follow-up to an admired hit seen a director’s stock drop so sharply, but by contrast with that flopped masterpiece, A Wrinkle in Time proved was rather the spectacle of talent gone screamingly generic and bland, toneless in script and performing, strangled by a would-be empowering gloss, with DuVernay’s direction at once fidgety and lumbering. And that’s before we even got to the attack of the fifty-foot glitter Oprah.
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Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom

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J.A. Bayona stepped behind the camera for another venerable franchise extension with Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom, in which Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard returned as Owen and Claire to save their beloved dinosaurs from their exploding island, only to find themselves yet again the fools of corporate malice. Bayona’s strong dose of imported horror movie and dark nursery rhyme imagery, and a couple of plot twists with potential, brought this property to the brink of new territory, but it all still felt far too familiar and enervating, neglecting its real dinosaurs for yet another genetic chimera and wrapping up with a seen-it-all-before game of chase and chomp. Christopher McQuarrie reteamed with Tom Cruise and company for Mission: Impossible – Fallout, yet another go-round for the IMF adventurers that tried to offer closure for some dangling loose ends from previous entries. As usual for this series, the entry was zippy, well-made, and still absent any true personality, its characters still placeholders despite the attempts to provoke nostalgia. Surprisingly, or not depending on your viewpoint, by far the year’s best event movie was Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, a project couched in an unpromising basis, cataloguing tropes of ‘80s and ‘90s nerd culture, but which turned out to be only incidentally such a fetishist totem, with its inexhaustible director both lampooning and extending his own impact on pop culture.
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Bad Times at the El Royale

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Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow showcased Jennifer Lawrence, improbably cast with her Crossfit build as a ballerina who turns to espionage at the encouragement of her Putin-lookalike uncle, in what seemed like a determined attempt by Lawrence to cast off her down-home sweetheart aura. The film’s lengthy, sleazy discursions to a “whore school” for spies proved something of a miscue in promising a ruthlessly kinky psychosexual escapade, and eventually revealed it had no game at all beyond a stock-standard tale of spy deceptions and divided lovers. Drew Goddard aimed someplace between fake Tarantino and devolved Robert Altman for Bad Times at the El Royale, a labyrinthine thriller unfolding at a depopulated hotel on the California-Nevada border in the late 1960s. Goddard’s busy intersection of characters and their attendant mystiques kept accumulating rather than enriching, and ultimately felt like plotline bingo. That said, the film sported some strikingly well-directed sequences and a terrific roster of performances, but only when Chris Hemsworth’s swaggering pseudo-Manson cult leader entered the scene did the film really find a focal point.
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Thoroughbreds

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Sibling filmmakers Eshom and Ian Nelms made Small Town Crime, a riff blending aspects of character drama and film noir, portraying a screw-up former cop, played in a perfect star turn by John Hawkes, embarking on a quixotic attempt to solve the murder of the girl he finds dumped by the roadside. The familiarity of the recovering drunk angle and neat obedience to basic genre precepts kept results modest, but within such limits the film proved one of the year’s quieter successes. Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds also juggled familiar tropes, if in a more unusual manner, depicting a pair of young women bound together by a common detachment from the usual laws of empathy and responsibility in a well-to-do environment where psychopathy might be an evolutionary advantage. The film proved too hermetic to really bloom as a pitch-black comedy-thriller, but it did find strange pathos in characters bewildered and exiled by their lack of humanity. Beirut saw one-time indie tyro Brad Anderson taking on a Tony Gilroy script, with Jon Hamm playing a former American diplomat forced to negotiate with the byzantine dramas of Lebanon during the prolonged and vicious civil war, trying to lay his own tragic past to rest at the same time. Good work from Hamm and Rosamund Pike as a roguish CIA agent kept the film buoyed, yet couldn’t paper over the fact Gilroy’s written the same movie about a world-weary wheeler-dealer over a few too many times, and the seemingly pertinent backdrop eventually felt incidental.
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Hold The Dark

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Steve McQueen ventured into more mainstream climes for his first feature since his Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, with his big screen adaptation of Lynda La Plante’s admired 1980s TV series Widows, transplanted from England to Chicago. This film theoretically had everything: a meaty story, a great cast, and a top director, with a seam of intersectional angst to mine in following a gang of patronised criminals’ wives band together to outwit their foes and pull off a big score. But the result was perhaps the year’s most grinding disappointment, with characters who resolutely failed to become interesting, stakes that utterly fizzled in a rushed finale, and pretentions to sociological depth far too familiar. Only a couple of almost incidental elements, like Daniel Kaluuya’s sadistic goon and Robert Duvall’s mean old-school patriarch, galvanised at all. Blue Ruin and Green Room director Jeremy Saulnier and actor-writer Macon Blair returned with Hold the Dark, a bleak and savage tale in which Jeffrey Wright’s aging, alienated wolf expert travels to Alaska to hunt down a rogue animal at a young widow’s request only to find very different monsters are at large, in a film that eventually became an odd, antiheroic spin on First Blood. The director-writer duo revealed expanding creative horizons in their attempts not only to fuse genres but work in unexpected reference points, including a weird and unsettling nod to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and political allegory, as the corrosive effects of social neglect on the home front and traumatising warfare combine to create several cold and well-matched killers. The lashings of portent, complete with constant suggestions of supernatural menace and threats to segue into horror, nonetheless highlighted the filmmakers’ confused intentions, and the result proved more intriguing than substantial.
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Double Lover

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Much less grave and far more entertaining, Double Lover saw Francois Ozon bounce back from a recent spell of half-hearted movies with a psychodrama outing, employing muse Marine Vacth as an anxious young woman drawn into an affair with the aggressive twin brother of her kindly therapist fiancé, only to soon find all reality becoming blurred. Ozon had a ball using the feverish storyline, taken from a Joyce Carol Oates story, as an excuse for erotic provocations, including a hilarious fantasy of threesomes and twincest, and his visuals were often genuinely delirious, even if the film finally became a bit too silly and excessive to truly unnerve or add to more than a lark. Paul Feig stepped away from broad farceur duties to take a tilt at his own kind of droll domestic thriller with A Simple Favor, pitting Anna Kendrick’s Pollyannaish working mom against Blake Lively’s self-invented existential antiheroine. The project had potential as a partial send-up-cum-fantasy rewrite of the likes of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train with a number of interesting ideas on the simmer. Feig proved utterly incapable of sustaining a tone or structuring a thriller, however, and only Lively’s strident performance made results watchable.
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12 Strong

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Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris was the venerable auteur’s latest exploration of true-life heroism, in this case the three young American friends and patriots who successfully foiled a terrorist attack on a train, but this time Eastwood seemed finally set on moulding himself to the commonly deployed caricature of his efforts, wielding atrocious, conservative base-pleasing screenwriting and flimsy acting to dress up his tawdry insights. By contrast, Nicolai Fuglsig’s 12 Strong was a stab at making a cool, clean-cut war movie, depicting a Special Forces team forging an alliance with Afghan allies in the early days of the US-led war there. The corny Taliban villain didn’t entirely detract from Fuglsig’s otherwise surprisingly textured, atmospheric, good-looking filmmaking, and it finished up one of the few superior War on Terror-era films. Following his showy but shallow 2016 musical La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s First Man set out to depict one of modernity’s great events, the Moon landing, and the man at its heart, Neil Armstrong, in a biopic packed with sombre gravitas as it explored the way unspoken grief and emotional repression helped and hindered Armstrong in his titanic venture. Chazelle’s depiction of extreme physical straits through attentive filmmaking was persuasive. Nonetheless he foundered rather badly when it came to getting into his hero’s head, revealing himself as too temperamentally at odds with such a character to grasp it and too determined a showman to let it be, and so fell back on hackneyed devices to wring an acceptable Hollywood arc out of the drama.
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BlacKkKlansman

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Spike Lee returned to find the times suddenly attuned again to his specific brand of socialogically attentive drama as he offered up BlacKkKlansman, an adaptation of former FBI agent Ron Stallworth’s infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. Occasional flourishes confirmed Lee’s greatness as a stylist hasn’t entirely waned, and the film was at its best when playing out like a demented sitcom about self-creation through role-playing. But even after bolstering the material with imaginary characters and invented action, the story was thin, and I found Lee’s attempts to be simultaneously larkish and trenchant often cancelled each-other out. The more overt agitprop touches, like an interlude depicting diverse reactions to The Birth of a Nation and a coda leading into the Charlottesville riots, proved more successful than the film’s scanty attempts to analyse white nationalism, without much to say about the phenomenon beyond rednecks gonna redneck, and Lee’s greatest gifts, for dynamically portraying both personality and culture in flux, remained frustratingly scattershot. Actor Joel Edgerton made another foray into directing with Boy Erased, an adaptation of a memoir of a young gay man’s excruciating experiences weathering religiously-informed therapy intended to turn him straight, and fight to make his religious parents accept him whilst blowing the whistle on the sordid subculture. Intelligent performances from Lucas Hedges and Russell Crowe gave the film some meat, although Edgerton’s direction felt rather laborious at points.
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Mary Shelley

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Jason Reitman returned with a movie perfectly on brand for his variety of vaguely topical, vaguely highminded pseudo-drama, The Front Runner, depicting Gary Hart’s collapse in the 1988 Presidential race in the face of media-fuelled innuendo about his private life. The film was initially absorbing with Hugh Jackman acquitting himself well in the lead, but finally proved little more than succession of pretences towards analysing the meaning of the event without a guiding principle, apart from generalities about growing media venality, and wouldn’t get to grips with the feeling Hart was destroyed as much by his own stiff-necked self-righteousness as anything else. Afghani director Haifaa al-Mansour took on the early life of Mary Shelley, with Elle Fanning playing the heroine on her path from the daughter to wife of radical thinkers before achieving her own revolutionary coup in publishing her epic parable Frankenstein. Fanning was good in the part and the movie pretty, but the numbing script made sure to make Mary mouth great hunks of modern-day critical discourse and moral repudiation of the sometimes injurious behaviour art and passion made her a party to.
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Colette

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In another literary biopic about a transgressive heroine, Wash Westmoreland’s Colette profiled the early career of one of France’s most famous writers, including her multifarious sexual and artistic exploits and tendentious relationship with her indulgent but exploitative first husband. Ace performances by Keira Knightley and Dominic West made things bouncy and occasionally the film captured the heady flavour of belle époque gallivanting, but too often elsewhere it seemed incredibly tame and tawdrily middlebrow for such a spectacularly dissolute subject. Much the same could be said of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody, a rumination upon the life and career of legendary Queen frontman Freddy Mercury, one that hit screens wafting a smoke trail of compromise and discarded stars and directors. The actual result proved chock full of music biopic clichés and shallow as a paint tin lid, but still it proved rather more entertaining than it had any right to be, as Singer gave it a dose of authentic swagger, and Rami Malek’s terrific central turn made its hero coherent in his mix of wounding vulnerability and performative zeal.
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Vox Lux

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Similarly obsessed with the problem of finding self through performance, if fictional this time, Bradley Cooper gained a popular hit and plaudits with the umpteenth version of A Star Is Born, casting a game Lady Gaga as the gutsy pop belter who falls for Cooper’s shambolic country rock star and finds herself catapulted to fame whilst coping with her husband’s collapse. Cooper displayed an inconsistent but occasionally fine-tuned touch for capturing chemistry and intimacy between himself and Gaga, and smarts for staging musical sequences (and the score was actually good). But Cooper’s relentlessly up-close-and-personal style grew wearisomely high-handed after a while, and the script made only scant gestures towards revising and deepening the very familiar melodrama of the storyline. Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux played as A Star Is Born’s instant critique, biting off a big chunk of contemporary angst in offering pop star Celeste (played by Raffey Cassidy whilst young and with amusing bravura by Natalie Portman in maturity) as the subject of a “Twenty-First Century portrait,” a girl put on the path to fame when she’s gunned down by a classmate in a school massacre, survives, and finds her gift for writing anthems unleashed. The film offered a coldly incisive proposal, that the current cults of empowerment and optimism in pop music are a bromide in an increasingly unsettled time whilst real trauma lurks untapped through the total exile of any kind of dark revelry, and Fassbender might have appreciated one twist, when terrorists appropriated Celeste’s imagery for their own counter-messaging. Corbet however skidded over such ideas and settled into an amazingly clichéd arc as heroic young talent evolves into a regulation jerk star, with the showy direction failing to venture beyond superficialities, interspersed with utterances of strained significance from Willem Dafoe’s narrator.
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31-TKTeacher

The Kindergarten Teacher

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The more ambitious American independent fare of 2018 betrayed depths of moral struggle not just between cultures and communities but inside individuals, psyches whiteanted by the manifold pressures of the age. The Strange Ones signalled real talent from collaborating directors Laura Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff, in their attempts to depict the viewpoint of deep trauma through fragmented and elusive cinema, bolstered by intelligent performances from Alex Pettyfer and James Freedson-Jackson. Only the film’s uncertainty when and where to end degraded its carefully parsed sense of enigmatic desolation. Similarly obsessed with fragmented identities and perceptions, You Were Never Really Here was Lynne Ramsay’s first film in six years, a disturbing exploration of a psyche and a society equally damaged by misuse and iniquity. The careful, remorseless deconstruction of a standard genre story resulted in a movie that seemed wilfully offbeat and anticlimactic, and yet rewarded careful attention and receptivity to its portrayal of deep-riven spiritual and mental pain. The Kindergarten Teacher was an American remake of an Israeli film, adapted and revised by writer-director Lisa Colangelo. Her take proved an exacting portrait of a woman in the title profession, latching on to the astonishing poetic talents of a young boy in her class as a way of coping with her own growing frustration in life and outlook. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s terrific lead performance kept the character ambivalent even as she eventually did foolish and self-destructive things, and the story unfolded with a certain rarefied tension as it invited the audience to share her mania and know its urgency.
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First Reformed

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Chloe Zhao’s The Rider and Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace were very similar experiences for me, as works made by talented filmmakers trying to unite methods derived from documentaries, in a careful attention to physical detail and authentic contexts, with a more elusively poetic quality, in depicting individual avatars of assailed and damaged subcultures in contemporary America. Both were interesting works but remained basic on the dramatic level, their central characters blankly alienated, noticeably avoiding examining the furore of individual personality and the way such people stand in context of the louder, uglier cultural brawls at large in the nation. Paul Schrader’s First Reformed was a more traditional brand of serious filmmaking, but one with a similar aim in describing a personal watershed, in this case the gyring mania of a troubled priest confronting both individual and systemic despair after the suicide of a young environmental activist whose welfare he tried to take an interest in. Schrader’s attempt to articulate a specific sense of crisis and a general state of contemporary existential angst provoked a great performance from star Ethan Hawke. But Schrader remains a frustratingly basic director in many ways, aping the haughty masters he’s long admired without their easy intimacy or sense of detail, and his script promised a forceful dialogue between value systems that never arrived, settling instead for a kind of religiously-tinted green-left rewrite of Taxi Driver. Only right at the end, as Schrader invited ridicule but gained real power in depicting the life urge breaking loose in all its unruly, irrational force, did he explode his own formula.
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What They Had

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Elizabeth Chomko’s What They Had occupied slightly different territory in the continent of awards season cinema, depicting the reunion of a troubled but loving family faced with the decline through dementia of its matriarch, played with skill and deftly obvlious humour by Blythe Danner. Robert Forster, Hillary Swank, and Michael Shannon were equally fine as her flailing family, and the film unfolded with a level of real feeling. And yet the cross-currents of life straits afflicting the various characters felt too stagy and designed, and made for a busy, slightly facetious dramatic landscape. In a similar vein of slickly-scripted, urbane comedy-drama, Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life depicted a pair of aging creatives (played, with stunning inevitability, by Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn) trying to have a baby with increasing desperation and finally entering into a pact with their flaky but talented, hero-worshipping step-niece for an egg donation. The film never rocked the boat in filmmaking or narrative, and sometimes reeked of navel-gazing, but an acerbic sense of humour and accurate sense of people in different stages of life crisis kept it interesting.
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34-DarkRiver

Dark River

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After a superlative 2017, what I saw of British cinema this year was much more awkward. Saul Dibb again proved his eye one of the more visually textured and purposeful amongst the current crop of vaguely prestigious Brit directors, as he took on a real war horse by remaking R.C. Sherrif’s Journey’s End, an appropriately bleak revisit to the trenches of the century-gone Great War. The remake proved solid enough, but the adaptation neglected the play’s central question as to the value of hero worship, and so added up to just another bummer war movie. Armando Iannucci, maker of cult TV satires and occasional movies, dared a more risky and insolent foray with The Death of Stalin, a depiction of that momentous event couched in terms of multiple farceur traditions, in recognising an aspect of the absurd to a terrible regime. But Iannucci’s filmmaking was shaky, and his enormous conceit eventually proved unmatched by any degree of real intellectual provocation or truly outrageous humour. Clio Barnard’s Dark River took up a similar story and setting to last year’s The Levelling as it depicted a troubled woman’s return to her home on a farm in the Yorkshire dales after many years, following her father’s death. The film was strong when depicting her haywire relations with her aggrieved brother, and sported gritty performances, but wasted time trying to play its abuse aspect as a formative mystery, and the stab at tragic grandeur at the end felt unconvincing, depending on twists of circumstance and character that felt rushed and arbitrary.
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35-GuernseyLiterary

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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Mike Newell’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society employed a great cast for describing an interesting but little-studied time and place, the impact of Nazi occupation on Guernsey, cut off from the mythology of resistance to blitz and tyranny and forced to find meaning in other ways. But the result was the worst kind of by-product of the current school of middlebrow British cinema, slinking through a lamentably dull romantic subplot and fragmented stiff-upper-lipisms, and proffering smarmily anachronistic congratulations for its presumed audience. Spanish director Sebastian Lelio landed in a fresh pasture, London, to focus on the city’s Orthodox Jewish community, for a drama invoking those frisson-inducing words, forbidden lesbian romance, in Disobedience. Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams played the former lovers thrown together again after the death of Weisz’s beloved rabbi father; Alessandro Nivola played the third corner of the triangle as McAdams’ husband and heir in scholarly repute to the late rabbi. Bodied, intelligent performances gave the film most of its muscle, which otherwise proved too inoffensive in its portrait of tested tradition and worrying desire, never really penetrating its characters and failing to ask really hard questions about how to reconcile self with community.
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On Body and Soul

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In Australia, Breath saw Simon Baker making his directorial debut on home turf, adapting author Tim Winton’s fictionalised take on his own youth, depicting a pair of teenage boys falling under the spell of a former champion surfer and his damaged American wife. The brilliantly shot surfing sequences managed to trace out a zone of pantheistic poetry, and if he’d had faith to simply immerse his viewer in that zone, Baker might well have conjured a minor classic. But as the thin plot played out Breath proved overlong and eliding, failing to penetrate any character’s headspace or make the jailbait romantic twist of the last third feel believable. Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi captured the Berlin Golden Bear with On Body and Soul, her mystically romantic study of oddballs who find themselves connected on a sublime level despite being immersed in a squalid environment. The film was hindered by a slight feeling of inevitability, but it remained a lovely study in people pushed towards natural fulfilment in spite of their being misshapen by worldly standards.
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The Guardians

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Perpetual provocateur Claire Denis made an unexpected pivot back to the wistful, urbane romanticism of her Friday Night with Let The Sunshine In, a study in middle-aged romantic frustration, readily communicated by Juliette Binoche as she contended with a coterie of potential mates who all prove mismatched to some degree. The film was witty in portraying its heroine’s frustration with a parade of men in love with the sound of their own voices, but it never wielded any clear design as a character study, and remained awkwardly perched between Denis’ impressionistic films and more conventional fare. Xavier Beauvois, who contributed memorably to Denis’ film as an actor, returned as a director with The Guardians, a film that applied the slow, elegant, patient tempo of his Of Gods and Men to a depiction of the French home front during World War I, where the rhythms of rural life unfold with stammering interruptions and transformations in a context of general dread. Beauvois’ attentiveness to detail was lovely and rewarding, but something about the drama remained frustratingly unfledged and obvious – like one character’s dream sequence of killing himself in battle – and it lacked the inquisitiveness of Beauvois’ precursor.
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38-Burning

Burning

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Lee Chang-dong’s Burning extrapolated a short story by Haruki Murakami for an uneasy contemplation on a contemporary Korean social landscape litted with bewildered and alienated young folk, with its central character, a would-be writer and son of a hothead farmer, stumbling into a sort-of relationship with a girl from his home town who’s had so much plastic surgery he can’t recognise her, and her other pseudo-boyfriend, a blithe and mysterious rich kid who confesses to arson as a hobby. Lee’s patient, attentive filmmaking paid off in some extraordinary passages depicting desperation, both personal and in the zeitgeist, particularly when noting the flighty heroine’s various stabs at self-expression, all too incompetently observed by others. But of all the films I wanted to like this year, this one left me the most subtly frustrated. The hangdog blankness of the main character and the opaque smugness of his foe struck me as excessively calculated, sapping some of the power intended in the finale’s jarring, almost arbitrary eruption of overt violence, and the film was more interesting in its first half, when it was a study of confused and drifting types, before it became more an enigmatic thriller. Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not A Witch was a broadcast from Zambia that noted with both puckish humour and a sense of desolate beauty the surreal collision between ancient and modern varieties of flimflam.
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Cold War

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Lucrecia Martel’s Zama was an equally perturbing study in social breakdown and personal ambiguity, albeit in a radically different setting, in this case an Argentine outpost in the waning days of Spanish imperialism. The titular hero, an ageing don eternally pining for escape from his supposedly respected but actually excruciating post but constantly missing the cues that might deliver him, rides his downward trajectory to the bitterest end. Martel’s striking images were vital in creating an increasingly surreal atmosphere, even if sometimes the story felt less like a tragedy of a ridiculous man than a hyperbolic castration fantasy. Some notable works of non-English language cinema seemed to think being in black-and-white was a serious cinematic gesture in itself. Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski released Cold War, a follow-up to 2014’s Ida and a similar exercise in stringent, monochrome evocation. This time Pawlikowski focused on a pair of quarrelsome lovers, a hangdog music teacher in a state-sponsored folk culture conservatorium and his earthy student discovery, who criss-cross Europe and find themselves trapped both by political systems and by their own ornery personalities. Sharp performances, particularly from Joanna Kulig as the imploding heroine, and Pawlikowski’s gift for composing images by turns artful, abstract, and soulful, made the film a fascinating journey, and yet this time around the eventual recourse to tragedy felt unearned, the narrative too rushed and fragmented to add up to much more than an exercise in historical-aesthetic ventriloquism.
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Roma

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Alfonso Cuaron returned for his first film since 2013’s Gravity with Roma, a fastidious recreation of the milieu of his childhood in early 1970s Mexico. A contemplation of domestic life as a manifestation of bigger things, Roma centred on a privileged but unstable bourgeois family and their maid Cleo, who does most of the real work of raising the rambunctious brood of kids whilst contending with her own troubles. Cuaron’s talents for staging and shooting episodes of spectacle were given free rein in a film that played less as dramatic entity and more as an attempt to submerge the viewer in a way of seeing and feeling. But for me the ostentatious style foiled the intended essence, the attempt to orientate according to a childlike perspective. Dramatic values remained obvious, the political backdrop never really developing beyond affected window dressing. Whilst Cuaron offered up the most artfully shot dog turds I’ve ever seen, his characters remained vague gestures, their world recreated but not made to matter. The very end, despite the apparently raw emotions involved, came perilously close to sitcom neatness as the family settled down with its two shaky but resolute matriarchs. Valeska Grisebach’s Western depicted a clutch of German labourers exiled to a Bulgarian backwater to build a dam, faced with language difficulties and character clashes, with one lanky worker finding tentative amity with the locals but also eventually catching the brunt of their pent-up ire. The title’s reference to genre mythology informed a wry sense of frontier isolation and episodes of physical struggle and communion over such raw essentials as water supplies, gravel, horses, and sex, and overall Western proved easily the best and least strained of the several films this year that tried to evoke a sense of workaday straits with a drifting, virtually plotless narrative, with a particularly astute use of non-professional actors.
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The Other Side of the Wind

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The most remarkable film event of 2018 was certainly the appearance of Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, methodically pieced together after decades on a variety of shelves. The result might have blurred the boundaries between archival rescue and accomplished film – I suspect Welles might have been a touch more brutal with his footage than the editing team, including costar Peter Bogdanovich, could bring themselves to be. But it was still a startling, blissful experience, joining Welles’ obsession with corrupt and compromised men of vision to a vicious meditation upon his own rare stature and the transformations sweeping the movie world at the time of shooting, filmed with his characteristic ferocity turned up to 11. I can’t bring myself to call The Other Side of the Wind a film of 2018, but it was still rather easily the best work released this year.

Performances of Note:

Nathalie Baye, The Guardians
Iris Bry, The Guardians
Nicolas Cage, Mandy
Olivia Cooke, Ready Player One ; Thoroughbreds
Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born
Claire Foy, Unsane
Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
John Hawkes, Small Town Crime
Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Kindergarten Teacher
Michael B. Jordan, Black Panther ; Creed II
Jong-seo Jun, Burning
Lola Kirke, Gemini
Rachel McAdams, Disobedience
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Leslie Mann, Blockers
Ben Mendelsohn, Ready Player One
Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace
Meinhard Neumann, Western
Joaquin Phoenix, You Were Never Really Here
Linus Roache, Mandy
Dominic West, Colette
Ensemble: Bad Times at the El Royale
Ensemble: The Party
Ensemble: Support The Girls

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Favourite Films of 2018
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I Am Not A Witch (Rungano Nyoni)

Alternately beguiling in the often haunting poise of its imagery, and piercing in its darkly comic portrait of institutional corruption and prejudice in a context well off the beaten track, I Am Not A Witch contemplated the lot of an orphaned, wandering 9-year old Zambian girl accused of being a witch, exiled to a camp full of similarly accused women and exploited by various parties in the faith that her supernatural capacities can bring riches and dispel the parched and blighted pall over the locality. Debuting director Nyoni managed the fine art of blending potentially discordant tones – laugh-out-loud satire colliding with mystic sparseness and social issue movie – ultimately achieving a sense of enigmatic regret in questioning what we steal from ourselves when we fail to recognise wonder.

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Gemini (Aaron Katz)

From its early scenes, with their carefully woven sense of punch-drunk paranoia, to a droll last third where Lola Kirke’s kooky fool of fortune slowly refashioned herself into master of all she surveys, Gemini was one of the year’s most intriguing and stylish films. Katz offered a spry, twisty narrative that worked on several levels whilst never quite giving in to the temptation to become any one thing definitely. Katz made affectionate sport of noir film clichés, analysed the alienating precincts of an endlessly self-referential celebrity culture, and dramatised the uneasy process of his brand of filmmaker negotiating with Hollywood, contending with the problem of selling out even whilst taking charge.

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Mandy (Panos Cosmatos)

Often I hold the phrase “unique vision” in a certain dubiety as it’s by no means a guarantee a filmmaker who has one is necessarily also any good at making a watchable movie with it. But Mandy established firmly that Panos Cosmatos certainly has one, and moreover one that surely flaunts his touchstones and inspirations and yet also subsumes them entirely into his private universe. Starring a cunningly cast Nicolas Cage as wrath, backed up Andrea Riseborough and Linus Roache as grace and malevolence, Mandy promised and delivered a gory, gut-crunching genre film, but also successfully communicated something more elusive, about the transformative power of love and its eternal partner, loss.

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Manhunt (John Woo)

This whackadoodle excursion from an aging master seemed to be trying to singlehandedly invent a new variety of pan-Pacific action movie, as Woo remade an old Japanese film and used it as a template to study the uneasy relationship of modern Japan and China where the only common lingua franca is English in the boardroom and Hollywood thrillers on the streets. The plot was silly and the acting off. But the explosions of dazzlingly fluid staging, episodes of operatic showmanship, and overripe images of romantic annihilation made the whole thing a crazy treat of pure joy in the medium.

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Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg)

Spielberg’s best film since Lincoln and his most carefree since his tilt at Tintin, Ready Player One received a lot of commentary upon release that read more like polls over how much one liked its basic mission statement, as a film based around a certain period in pop culture (of which it proves, astonishingly, there are more fans now than of, say, Little Nemo and Biggles). Generally they ignored its actual form and function, as a swinging romantic adventure film and old-fashioned teens-fight-the-man comedy, ebullient spectacle mixed with lucid, affectionate satire on online culture and a surprisingly pensive sense of summation for its director, contemplating the hazy zone at the nexus of artists’ rights, open-sourced culture and fan provenance, and corporate domain defence. Plus it had Mechagodzilla and Chucky going apeshit.

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You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)

Lynne Ramsay’s fourth feature gained a pitifully small viewership for such a well-reviewed and original effort, with its relentlessly interiorised, eccentric deconstruction of the purgation-through-violence noir tale, and its sense of psychic struggle with things both virulently ugly and ungraspably beautiful will probably remain too rarefied for a cult audience either. But it was still a major achievement, creating a sense of what it’s like to have a badly damaged and traumatised mind whilst still trying to act according to a potent sense of right and wrong. Joaquin Phoenix’s carefully recessive performance provided the axis around which Ramsay’s visions created a hallucinatory void where acts of decency skid across ice with a dark hell below.

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Zama (Lucrecia Martel)

Weird, painful, and ultimately perversely cathartic in studying degradation as a natural process, Zama had a basic storyline that felt on occasions like a Coen Brothers put-on about a character too dumb or blinkered to know he’s doomed. But Martel turned that journey into a fresco at once fetid and desolating yet also perfervid, with some of the most beautifully composed images in recent cinema, finding hues of surrealism in sights as disparate as a woman caressing a horse’s belly, lordly natives wearing bird-masks, or a man robbed of his hands but finally delivered from the tyranny of worldly cares. The film came ready-loaded with implications about hot-button issues, like the ills of colonialism and slavery, but Martel’s pictures dispelled all trace of thesis and instead became a shamanic invocation of a past lingering like mist in the dawn.

Added to 2018 Favourites List after 1/1/2019:

To be announced

Honourable Mention

If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins)
Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (Ron Howard)
The Strange Ones (Laura Wolkstein, Christopher Radcliff)
Western (Valeska Grisebach)

Rough Gems and/or Underrated

12 Strong (Nicolai Fuglsig)
Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony and Joe Russo)
BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee)
The Endless (Justin Benson, Aaron Moorehead)
First Reformed (Paul Schrader)
The Kindergarten Teacher (Sara Colangelo)
Green Book (Peter Farrelly)
The Guardians (Xavier Beauvois)
On Body and Soul (Ildikó Enyedi)
A Quiet Place (John Krasinski)
The Party (Sally Potter)
The Rider (Chloe Zhao)
The Ritual (Gary Bruckner)
Small Town Crime (Eshom Nelms, Ian Nelms)
A Star Is Born (Bradley Cooper)
Support The Girls (Andrew Bujalski)
Tomb Raider (Roar Uthaug)
Unsane (Steven Soderbergh)

Disappointing and/or Overrated

Ant-Man and the Wasp (Peyton Reed)
Black Panther (Ryan Coogler)
Deadpool 2 (David Leitch)
The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci)
Early Man (Nick Park)
First Man (Damien Chazelle)
Hereditary (Ari Aster)
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (J.A. Bayona)
Let The Sunshine In (Claire Denis)
Mary Queen of Scots (Josie Rourke)
Mission: Impossible – Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie)
Ocean’s 8 (Gary Ross)
Roma (Alfonso Cuaron)
Vox Lux (Brad Corbet)
Widows (Steve McQueen)

Crap

The 15:17 to Paris (Clint Eastwood)
Annihilation (Alex Garland)
Mohawk (Ted Geoghegan)
Suspiria (Luca Guadagnino)
Vice (Adam McKay)
A Wrinkle In Time (Ava DuVernay)
Winchester (Michael and Peter Spierig)

Unseen:

22 July ∙ Aquaman ∙ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs ∙ Can You Ever Forgive Me? ∙ Capernaum ∙ Crazy Rich Asians ∙ Destroyer ∙ Eighth Grade ∙ The Favourite ∙ The Guilty ∙ Halloween ∙ Happy as Lazzaro ∙ Madeline’s Madeline ∙ The Mule ∙ A Private War ∙ The Old Man & The Gun ∙ Revenge ∙ Shoplifters ∙ The Sisters Brothers ∙ Sweet Country ∙ Welcome To Marwen ∙

The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2017

Anatahan (Josef von Sternberg)
Atlas (Roger Corman)
Les Anges du Peche / Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson)
Aparajito (Satyajit Ray)
The Beast (Walerian Borowczyk)
The Black Room (Roy William Neill)
Boudu Saved From Drowning / Night at the Crossroads / A Day in the Country / The Crime of Monsieur Lange / La Bête Humaine (Jean Renoir)
Cabin in the Sky (Vincente Minnelli)
La Collectionneuse (Eric Rohmer)
The Gun Runners / Edge of Eternity (Don Siegel)
Female Vampire (Jesus Franco)
Fires on the Plain (Kon Ichikawa)
First Man into Space (Robert Day)
Fort Graveyard / Japan’s Longest Day (Kihachi Okamoto)
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rex Ingram)
A Fugitive From The Past (Tomu Uchida)
Galaxy Express 999 / Adieu Galaxy Express 999: Final Stop Andromeda (Rintaro)
Heart of Glass (Werner Herzog)
Ikiru / The Lower Depths (Akira Kurosawa)
In a Year of 13 Moons / The Marriage of Maria Braun / The Third Generation (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
The Iron Rose / The Grapes of Death (Jean Rollin)
The Lady and the Monster (George Sherman)
Les Vampires (Louis Feuillade)
Miracle in Milan / Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica)
Ned Kelly (Tony Richardson)
Paisan / Germany, Year Zero / The Flowers of St Francis (Robert Rossellini)
Portrait From Life (Terence Fisher)
Princess Yang Kwei-Fei (Kenji Mizoguchi)
Rabid Dogs (Mario Bava)
Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini)
The Sheik (George Melford)
The Soft Skin / L’Enfant Sauvage / The Story of Adele H. (Francois Truffaut)
The Son of the Sheik (George Fitzmaurice)
The Strange Door (Joseph Pevney)
They All Laughed (Peter Bogdanovich)
A Touch of Zen (King Hu)
Touki-Bouki (Djibril Diop Mambéty)
The Weary Death / Woman in the Moon / Spies / House By The River (Fritz Lang)
Whisky Galore! (Alexander Mackendrick)

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Uncategorized

Collected Film Writings of 2018

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Friends, you can now download on pdf all my writings for Film Freedonia and sister blogs This Island Rod and Ferdy on Films for this year. Just click on the link below which will take you to PDF Archive and download the file:

Roderick Heath 2018 Collected Film Writing

Here’s wishing you all happy holidays; be sure to check back here next week for my annual year in film review, Confessions of a Film Freak 2018.

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1970s, Horror/Eerie, Romance

Don’t Look Now (1973)

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Director: Nicolas Roeg

Screenwriters: Allan Scott, Chris Bryant

By Roderick Heath

Morning in the yard of an English country home. Christine (Sharon Williams), a young, blonde girl, clad in a plastic rain coat the colour of blood, plays in the drizzle with a ball, skirting the pocked surface of a reedy pond, whilst her brother rides amongst the trees. The scenery is shot in that indefinably specific manner of early ‘70s filmmaking, all soft watery light, grainy mists, and fecund hues of green and brown and grey, the few patches of primary colours alight with portentous power. The playing girl’s listless parents inside the house in the comfortable envelope of their lives, with a touch of youthful cool and countercultural edge still to their learned, bourgeois calm, scents of green tea and marijuana blending with the pot pourri in cool English domesticity. Wife researching the deceptive minutiae of natural phenomena, husband surveying slide stills of the medieval churches he restores as cultural artefacts without any spiritual belief, before he suddenly senses disaster. He jumps up, runs outside, and plucks his daughter’s angelic corpse from the water of the reedy pond. He surfaces in a slow motion shot that captures every stir of water, a depiction of raw, primal agony elongated into a fateful eternity, transmuted into art, a motion Pre-Raphaelite painting depicting transfiguring grief. Art dissolves into life just as future, present, and past splinter and speak to each other in Don’t Look Now.

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The reputation of Don’t Look Now, Nicolas Roeg’s third film as director, has steadily climbed to the point where some surveys have named it the greatest British film of all time. That kind of acclaim is particularly noteworthy given that Don’t Look Now is a horror film, a genre that rarely attracts such regard. But Roeg found a way to make the genre the vessel for stylistic ambition and cinematic invention it hadn’t been since the silent era, and Don’t Look Now straddles modes of filmmaking in singular fashion. Similarly, Roeg, who died recently at the age of 90, defied convention and cliché just as intrepidly. The son of a one-time diamond merchant with Dutch roots, Roeg entered the British film industry as a tea boy and worked his way up through studio ranks, becoming camera operator on a range of prestigious films in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before gaining repute for his second unit photography work on Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Roeg soon served as cinematographer on the likes of Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964), François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) and Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968). Working with such filmmakers at a time of great cinematic energy and experimentation emboldened Roeg began developing a distinctive approach to filmmaking. He was soon courted for collaboration with Donald Cammell to make his directing debut with Performance (1970). Many talented cinematographers have tried to make the leap into directing before and since, but even greats from Karl Freund to Jack Cardiff to Janusz Kaminski have made it with often less than stellar results.

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Roeg, however, turned out to be something else entirely, a well-trained technician and product of studio cinema who nonetheless proved a unique and challenging film artist. The dazzling visual sensibility he demonstrated as a film shooter was unleashed, although he was lucky to emerge at a time when filmmakers of all stripes felt freer to improvise with the texture of cinema. Roeg took more advantage than most, and created in his early works bold fusions of narrative and experimental cinema, playing freely with cinematic time signatures and composing images in contrapuntal rhapsodies. Even as his style settled down in later films, they retained an element of jagged strangeness and sensual immersion that was utterly distinctive. The roots of Roeg’s style and status in the midst of a national cinema usually praised, or written off, for its penchant for classical calm and literacy, were evident in Petulia, and took that film’s experiments with structure and time to hallucinatory, hyperbolic places in his first two films. Performance offered a brain-twisting graph of blurring identity and the cacophony of Swinging London’s surreal collision of subcultures, whilst Walkabout (1971), his Australian outback odyssey, depicted a crisis in mutually uncomprehending ways of being which Roeg characteristically conveyed as fractured ways of seeing. Don’t Look Now was comparatively straightforward. Only comparatively, as Roeg stitched a dense fabric of image play and time distortion whilst telling an intelligible and deftly intriguing story. that managed to satisfy the generic requirements of a horror film but also, like some other, rare entries in the genre, moves into a realm of mystification and distortion of reality that lays bare a strange, extreme psychological landscape.

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The unfortunate parents glimpsed at the outset are John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie). Sometime after their daughter Christine (Sharon Williams) died in that pond, Roeg rediscovers the pair in Venice, having left their son Johnny (Nicholas Salter) in boarding school. John supervises the restoration of an historic church. The first shots of John in Venice see him and workmen drilling into the church’s fabric like a dentist hacking into a cavity about to release foul and nasty rot. When the couple have lunch in a Venetian café, they notice a woman who seems to be staring at them. Laura learns the staring woman is actually blind when they meet in the washroom. Her name is Heather (Hilary Mason), and the woman she’s travelling with she calls her sister, Wendy (Clelia Matania). Heather claims to be clairvoyant, and she thrills and appeases Laura profoundly when she reports having seen a young girl sitting with them, meaning that Christine’s spirit is close and benevolently watching over them. Laura returns to John in the café but suddenly faints, knocking over the table. She’s rushed to hospital, but quickly recovers and indeed emerges in better spirits than any time since Christine’s death. This epiphany kicks of a subtle polarisation in the couple, as John’s regulation male rationalism seems beggared and suspicious of Laura’s equally regulation female mysticism, but also reunion, as the couple spend an episode of utterly carnal passion, seemingly their first in a long time, fuelled by a sense of liberation from disaster and guilt.

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The basis for Don’t Look Now was a short story by Daphne Du Maurier, who had also provided Alfred Hitchcock with material for Rebecca (1940) and The Birds (1963), and it has certain similarities – the encounter with the travelling duo of English women recalls Rebecca and the preoccupation with marriage and mating under the pretext of an enigmatic and disquieting plot is clearly reminiscent of many of Hitchcock’s films, going back to the likes of Rich and Strange (1932). The marriage of the Baxters, united both by passion and sorrow, is the true engine of a storyline that covers the span between two deaths, for a film that analyses the ephemeral experiences and connections that constitutes life whilst also suggesting a tentative belief in things beyond. The opening scene sees Laura trying to solve a question her son asked her as to why, if the Earth is round, frozen water is flat, and finds that it isn’t, but the arc can be imperceptible. John’s book, Beyond The Fragile Geometry of Space, sits on the sofa. Perception is limited, existence is infinite. John studies slide photos he’s taken of the church he’s working on, spying a red-clad figure seated on a pew, and when a psychic intimation warns him of Christine’s danger, he springs up and dashes out, knocking over a glass of water that causes the red figure on the slide to dissolve and create an abstract swirl encircling the stain glass window of the church; Roeg cuts between this act of incidental art-making with the terrible sight of John rising from the water with Christine’s body, past and future, spirit and flesh, love and hate all blurring in an inscrutable melange.

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The Baxters in Venice are still a handsome couple, but weighed down by experience, as John testily oversees a project that involves digging into the past literally and finding what he describes as layer of faux-Byzantine fakery after another. Laura loses herself in memories of rain-sodden melancholy whilst sitting in a tony restaurant. The encounter with the milky, staring eyes of Heather and her happy pronouncements of lingering personality and beneficence draw Laura out of depression, even as her prompt collapse sets the world into chaos. Roeg zeroes in on the spilt wine, oil, and salad dressing on the motley flooring, a shot reminiscent of the puddle of commingled perfumes glimpsed in one of the stronger precursors to Roeg’s style, John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), and with a similar import reflecting the director’s obsession with reality in flux. The film’s most celebrated sequence follows soon, as John and Laura reunite in a scene of sexual passion that pushed the envelope about as far as it would go in a mainstream film sporting two movie stars, intercut with shots of the couple dressing and preparing for dining out. Roeg’s careful structuring, including his deadpan sense of intimacy with the couple as they go through the motions of life together, showering and stripping and lazily eddying within the world-precluding walls of their room (save the hapless hotel maid who comes in to find John sitting naked), invites the viewer into John and Laura’s crucial moment of rediscovery of each-other in both the carnal sense and the subliminal.

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Roeg’s easy feel for the erotic was another facet that distinguished him amongst British filmmakers, and set him in both unity and contrast with the other major radical voice of English cinema of the early ‘70s, Ken Russell, fonder of outrageousness for its own sake. Roeg certainly didn’t spurn perversity as a subject, but he was more clean-cut in his way. Walkabout revolved around the sense of threat and disconnection when Jenny Agutter’s prim schoolgirl cannot comprehend the mating overtures of the young indigenous man, although they should be plain and natural enough, ironically identifying the incoherence of the erotic as the perversion; The Man Who Fell to Earth would invert the equation and contemplate intraspecies sexuality as a potentially valid form of communication. In a way, the pivotal sex scene of Don’t Look Now is fascinatingly square in celebrating connubial passion for a married couple, like Last Tango In Paris (1973) for high Anglicans, depending on Sutherland and Christie, at the height of their sinewy beauty as movie stars as well as actors, to fully inhabit the carnal display. It’s also a moment of cyclical meaning, the eruption of the life force that gives renewal between two losses: what is life but a chain of birth and death, and what are John and Laura Baxter but two momentary expressions of that cycle? The presence of the medium who gives hope of spiritual persistence gives hope of other layers of existence, but John and Laura are trapped, and liberated, by their continued existence on the one where the flesh has such exalted potency. Roeg’s crosscutting was aimed at helping get the scene past censors but also makes poetry out of sublime disparity the couple restoring their social visages, their worldly guises, after all the naked ape business: Roeg inverts moralistic assumption by noting the purity of sexuality and the puerile falsity of the restored worldly appearance and its peevish, isolated insecurities as John and Laura contemplate aspects of their bodies and appearance.

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Roeg’s evocation of Venice as a place spies flashes of tourist board-friendly glamour but more often regarding a place of festering, mouldering age, hovering like a semicoherent dream just above the water. It’s cold and out of season, not a summery abode of Italianate cheer but the same place of autumnal persistence of Death in Venice and Across the River and Into the Trees. Roeg drolly notes the workaday locals for whom the city is less a place of picturesque enchantment than a waterlogged, tourist-clogged mess. The staff in the hotel where John and Laura are staying waiting out the time until they can close down, still hovering in faintly desperate helpfulness for their single patrons. The cops roused to action over the most imprecise fears. Streets are as painful and confusing to navigate as memory; John’s attempt to rediscover the pension where Heather and Wendy were living sees him wandering in circles. Rats scuttle about with impunity. A killer is at loose in the town; John watches as the filthy and bedraggled corpse of a dead girl is fished out of a canal. He and Laura hear strange noises and cries for help echoing through the city night, and glimpse a diminutive figure wearing a red hooded coat dashing through the alleys. Roeg’s desaturated images give the city’s waterways a grey, crystalline quality, whilst the crumbling brickwork and paving seem near-organic, not entirely sapped of romanticism but charged with something more elusive and uneasy in its intimations.

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The city is as much as body as John or Laura’s or the corpse dragged from the water, a physical manifestation of an entire civilisation, arthritic in its bones and unmoored in its thoughts. John and Laura have trouble telling bridges and alleys apart. John is nagged by the feeling he’s visited certain places before, or denies having been places Laura swears he has been. The often withholding nature of the city architecture, which can harbour boles of chic modernism or ancient, pellucid beauty, also mediates the story’s invocation of psychological space, and the narrative hinging on characters who can no longer trust things lingering in their thoughts to remain obediently in place. A church John and Laura visit lulls them with its aura of hallowed calm and beatitude, encouraging Laura into ritual and John to lapse into prayer-like introspection. Venice offers elusive promise of communion with the past with all its bedraggled beauty and fetid richness. John’s job automatically invokes a sense of past and present commingling, digging into the matter of Venice itself, piecing together mosaics and restoring gargoyles. John interacts with the marrow of past and understands it’s in part an illusion to be sustained by keen eyes like his, the expressions of the long dead, the ghosts of their minds and eyes, needing faithful upkeep. John’s business is with the substance of human expression, where Heather speaks of the ethereal aspect, weaving unseen like mist around people.

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John has been hired by a bishop (Massimo Serato) from a rich and influential family, who takes solicitous interest in the Baxters’ spiritual welfare (“I’m kind to animals and children,” Laura tells him with fumbling humour and honesty when he asks her if she’s a Christian) and eventually proves to have a more ethereal connection with John, sensing when he’s in danger and witnessing his near-fatal accident on a hoist in the restored church. “Churches belong to God, but he doesn’t seem to care about them,” he notes with sad gravitas: “Does he have other priorities?” Meanwhile John and Laura play out a familiar tension, between her willingness to embrace Heather’s message and the possibility of the supernatural, versus John’s stiff-necked rationalism and simmering concern Laura might be slipping back into an irrational state she seems to have lingered in for a time after Christine’s death. And yet John ultimately proves vulnerable to irrational belief himself as he becomes convinced the red-cloaked figure he keeps seeing dashing through the Venetian alleys could be his daughter. Laura’s visit to speak with Heather and Wendy and gain deeper reassurance as to Christine’s benevolent presence sees John left to get drunk in a neighbouring café: he goes into the pension to find his wife only to get caught lurking by a resident and forced to run off in case he gets arrested as a peeping Tom. John later can’t find Heather and Wendy precisely because they moved out after reports of prowlers, a subtle fillip of humour that’s also a deftly reasoned consequence of plot.

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Roeg described Don’t Look Now as his exercise in film grammar, a concise if rather dry description that hardly encompasses all the flourishes encoded into the film’s tapestry-like form, one that recounts a simple story in the most enriching fashion. Adapting Du Maurier allowed Roeg the chance to offer his own, highly individualised tribute to Hitchcock. As many genre writers have also noted, Don’t Look Now also strongly resembles as an upmarket equivalent to the giallo style that was all the rage in Italian film at the time, a distinctive mode of artfully shot, narratively baroque thrillers also influenced by Hitchcock, instituted by Mario Bava and take up by a range of talented directors including Dario Argento. Roeg might well have taken ideas from Bava’s Operazione Paura (1966), with its similar use of a young female figure that proves deadly in the midst of a crumbling, deserted-feeling city, and the shock finale with its revelation of an unexpected killer certainly has a strong giallo flavour. Argento sometimes betrayed stylistic ambition similar to Roeg, as in the revisited, revised stabbing in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and the flash edits of Cat O’Nine Tails (1971), but Roeg’s specific, more overtly audacious method distinguishes his movie from both his model and his rivals, not just in his approach to editing and his fulsome sense of his characters as more vital than machinations of story and spectacle, but his rejection of the rectilinear succinctness of Hitchcock’s visions and the games of framing in giallo.

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Roeg’s visual lexicon is, rather, restless and troubled, sometimes settling into a careful observational rhythm, as in the build-up to John and Laura’s sex scene, or cranking up to outright jangling hysteria, as he zeroes in on the finale. Roeg and his cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond employ zoom shots and handheld camerawork throughout, and angles that could swoop up high or crouch down on floor level. Don’t Look Now composites a wealth of images that mimic both the psychological reactions of its characters, unmoored as they are from the moment by grief and blurred perceptions of reality, and also their physical straits, anxious attempts at control giving way to increasingly frantic and belaboured searching. Recurring visual touches – water, flashing light, mirrors, broken glass, the colour red – are keys to an associative symbology alongside moments of totemic import for the characters that accumulate meaning as the film goes on and are finally ticked off in the rapid succession right at the end. Immersion, with all its uterine import, is also a state between life and death. Venice sits above the water, defiant but frigid, a lot like John’s masculine being: intellectually hip, as his book indicates, he is nonetheless reflexively entrapped by his own conviction that he’s saner and straighter than anyone. In fact, as Heather realises, he’s rejected his own second sight, and so is at its mercy, inflicted with visions that foretell the future but give no context or sense of the illimitable. The warmth and vitality of John and Laura’s relationship is underscored by lingering shakiness, anxiety and discord finally defined as John berates his wife for being taken in by the two women he dismisses as charlatans.

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When the couple get a phone call from their son’s boarding school back in the drizzly English countryside, telling them Johnny has been mildly injured, Laura immediately flies out, leaving John to his work and anxiously await her return, alone in a cold, grey, decaying labyrinth of a city where every step he takes brings him closer to his end. He becomes distracted after he sees Laura on a passing boat accompanied by Heather and Wendy, and alerts the police, who ask him to locate the pension where the women were living, and have him followed by one of their men. There’s a strong suggestion that heather and Wendy are actually a lesbian couple. It doesn’t feel coincidental that female homosexuality was once sometimes euphemistically described as “Venetian tastes”, and both couples reflect Du Maurier’s divided life as a married mother who often had queer affairs, and John’s reaction to his wife gravitating to the women has an aspect of reactionary jealousy. Roeg finds pathos and humanity in both duos as John’s recourse to the police eventually results in him pathetically apologising to and guiding Heather back to her rooms after he gets a phone call from Laura, safe in England and secure in her restored sense of sanity and security. Everyone, according to Roeg, has Venetian tastes, at the mercy of forces encoded in the blood and the mind, hungrily seeking their fulfilment on the way to dusty death.

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Roeg’s faults as a filmmaker could be as pronounced as his strengths, as he often didn’t know when to quit or moderate his flow of images, and could sometimes lapse into atonal showmanship, as in some of the more sophomoric and drawn-out passages of Performance or The Man Who Fell to Earth. Don’t Look Now stands as his best film precisely because its storyline gave a coldly deterministic enclosure that allowed him to deploy his signature visual invention whilst also compressing it with clear purpose. The notion that fate is pressing down on John Baxter grows all the more omnipresent as Roeg’s camera picks out mysteriously significant sights as casual as a man crossing a bridge or as pointed as a double-exposure vision of Heather’s sightless eyes as John ascends to a rickety vantage to inspect a mosaic only for a piece of falling lumber to almost cause his death. Don’t Look Now has strong affinity with the same year’s The Wicker Man as a bleak game of sliding panels unveiling a man’s predestined fate, complete with a nasty twist involving the search for an elusive girl. Both films tried to define new ground for horror cinema whilst also honouring the genre in some essentials, including their gruesome finales and cunningly delayed revelations of the hovering blade over their protagonists. Don’t Look Now is particularly beguiling in the way it traverses arty pretence and character drama before arriving at a final twist that’s as bizarre and grotesque as anything in horror cinema.

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Along the way Roeg casually tosses off a superb sequence of physical suspense staging as John clings desperately to the collapsed hoist in the church, saved by a worker’s cool and clever efforts. This near-disaster seems to prove Heather’s warnings that John is in danger, but its happy ending also gives the illusion of restored safety. Don’t Look Now is built around evoking a sense of a thin and permeable membrane that constitutes reality, a membrane easy to mistake for solidity and security. The hoist accident sequence dramatizes the concept as John’s secure footing turns instantly to chaos, dangling high above the church floor, debris falling on his bishop sponsor and workers alike. The shock of the incident coming on the back of Johnny’s accident and Laura’s departure informs John’s quick segue into clammy panic after he catches the bewildering sight of Laura with the two women. Don’t Look Now verges on a fatalistic statement that fate claims its pounds of flesh sooner or later, but also strives to make a vital point that it’s precisely the vulnerable, all too perishable bonds of being that give life its beauty as well as pain.

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Despite the mounting sense of portent, the later scenes of Don’t Look Now have a quality reminiscent of screwball comedy in the sense of criss-crossing paths and missed meetings, using Venice’s torturous routes as a stage to enact an anxious sense of disconnection, as Laura dashes back to her husband but can’t quite catch up with him as he takes Heather home from the police station. The faintly comic element twists into panicky concern as Heather experiences a mediumistic fit as she’s possessed by Christine, and tries desperately to warn Laura that John’s headed off towards danger. The climax of Don’t Look Now, as vivid and delirious as its opening, sees John pursuing the small, red-clad figure, oblivious to the cries of warning and fear that often ring out whenever it appears, locking himself inside an abandoned building with it so he can corner it. Roeg offers some familiar horror movie hype here, as the Venetian canals and cavernous ruined interior swim with mist and shadow, whilst his handheld camerawork becomes frantic as Laura tries to chase them down, scuttling over bobbing boats and beating at the locked gate.

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John corners his quarry, who seems until the very last instant to be some lost and desperate child if not an actual ghostly manifestation of his daughter, but turns to him at last finally reveals a wizened and malevolent visage – an elderly, viciously psychotic dwarf who whips out a knife and cuts John’s throat. This is ridiculous touch on one level, of course, but also Don’t Look Now’s most inspired and gleefully cruel conceit. John’s paternal grief and misfiring second sight bring him to a brutal end, his life flashing before his eyes as his life blood gushes out of his neck in a great red spume: Roeg’s most symphonic editing arrives as he revisits sights and actions from the rest of the film and stitches them together in new context, the desperate striving for meaning in the last few moments of a man’s life. The killer has been waiting for John ever since glimpsing her in the church photo, mysteriously conjoined with his daughter’s loss. Could she be regarded as an agent of fate, the minion of some patiently boding evil, or just a random expression of chaos, of the things that maul and mutilate? The coda offers a mordant yet also grand, even triumphant sense of revelation and completion, as it’s revealed his sighting of Laura with Heather and Wendy was actually foresight of them accompanying his body to a funeral on a hearse boat. The salving aspect of this could be Laura’s firm and centred gaze and gentle smile as she buries another loved-one, alone but also bolstered by new faith that nothing is every truly lost.

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1960s, Crime/Detective, Horror/Eerie, Thriller

Psycho (1960)

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Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenwriter: Joseph Stefano

By Roderick Heath

In the late months of 1959 and through 1960, a battery of films hit movie screens that essentially initiated modern cinema. Amongst the films made the young lions of the French New Wave and the fanfare for the Italian ‘alienation’ mode, Psycho seems in odd company, as a work of commercial showmanship rather than radical aesthetic reinvention, and made by a filmmaker, Alfred Hitchcock, who had just turned sixty, a well-established celebrity rather than a fearsome young gun. But in other ways it’s inescapable. Like Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, it revolves around the unexpected hole left in both the lives of people and narrative film when a protagonist suddenly becomes absent from their own story. Like Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, it pensively regards a coming age of monstrosities lurking behind the seemingly tawdry, shiny business of post-war life. Like Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour, it anxiously contemplates the bodies of entwined lovers doomed by forces far beyond their control. Like all these films it’s bewildered by the blank and artless affect of modernity and scratches at its shiny surface, seeing bleak and septic truths in places where the old darkness still crouches.
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Psycho, although not representing any great break for its director in style or subject, nonetheless offered a ruthlessly compressed and expressive ideogram of cinema form and function, so complete and effective that it forced a reorganisation of whole continents in pop culture. Psycho shocked. For a brief moment, Hitchcock had people wondering if he’d gone too far. And he had. He also dragged everyone over the line with him. More immediately, much as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) had done four decades earlier, Psycho redefined the Horror film. Hitchcock had never ventured into the genre overtly before despite occasionally skirting it, in the old dark house melodramas of Rebecca (1940) and Under Capricorn (1948) with their elusively haunting presences and literal skeletons in the closet, in the duplicitous landscapes of mind and body in Spellbound (1944), and the many sequences of intimate violence he was so skilled at portraying, pocking his oeuvre. Hitchcock had tackled the theme of the serial killer early in his career with The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1926), but there had concentrated not on the killer or victims but on the elusively attaching spectre of guilt. And yet Psycho and The Birds (1963) are surely the greatest one-two punch in the genre. They’re deeply entwined in their imagery, characters, and metaphors, their anxious sense of the nomadic meeting the intractability of parochial identity in the midst of life’s violent flux.
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Hitchcock would have seen the early classics of the Expressionist movement, as his tenure learning his craft in Munich in the early 1920s fully immersed him in that aesthetic and its underpinning ideas. Whilst Hitchcock brought aspects of the style to his films, he quickly learned to mediate it through a harder, more three-dimensional way of looking at the world, and at film. Hitchcock’s world pretends to be entirely stolid, until suddenly it isn’t. When he finally strayed properly into Horror, Hitchcock helped give it something it needed, a new blueprint, a sense of connection with a real and immediate sense of danger living in the world, in a way the genre had never quite known before. In return it gave him something he needed as imitators crowded him and cinematic tastes changed: a jolt of new ferocity and aesthetic danger. Hitchcock did not expel the lingering influence of the old Expressionist style from his film, but does something more interesting, having it loom as large and weird as the Bates house over the motel, which, with its straight, flat surfaces and forms, invites the clear-lit gaze of his TV-trained crew; two modes of cinema are placed in close and incongruous conflict. Caligari and his world illustrated the workings of a pathological mind, an idea Psycho demonstrates to the audience in a more complex dance of artifice and authenticity. Like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Psycho revolves around the revelation a seemingly average and likeable young man is in fact insane. But the projection of his lunacy here is a worn guise rather than incarnated in the drama. Symbols are cast aside. The killer is loose.
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The starting point, of course, was Robert Bloch’s clever if flimsy novel: Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano methodically stripped out the book’s prologue introducing Norman Bates and his strange little world. Hitchcock starts instead with fastidious declarations of date, time, place flashed on the screen, as the camera turns surveying the boxes and oblongs of the Phoenix, Arizona cityscape. The precision mimics true crime reportage, whilst the visuals reproduce the voyeuristic temptations of Rear Window (1954) in miniature, camera zeroing in on a hotel room where a treat waits, a couple just done screwing. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin), a sexy, young, yet also already distinctly rather world-weary couple, having a quickie on Marion’s lunchbreak. Hitchcock’s rueful idea of what the rest of the world’s doing when he’s busy drawing up a storyboard. Sam, chafing under the load of debts inherited from his father in addition to a hardware store, having a quickie with his lover on one of his business trips to Phoenix. Marion, a real estate agent’s secretary who’s reached the end of her tether in regards to their relationship, and once the carnal ecstatics are exhausted solicitude takes over. Watch Marion primly tucking in her shirt as she inveigles Sam to come to her house and have dinner with her and her sister, “respectably.” The last, waning days of the old propriety and the first salvoes of the sexual revolution in the mix. Soon the old propriety will have its revenge. Sam is filled with sour bawdiness (“We send sister to the movies, turn mother’s picture to the wall.”) but also acquiesces to Marion’s aspirations. Romantic failure is economic burden – Sam is also paying alimony to an ex-wife. Everything has a cost and profit value, a transaction on multiple but ever-linked indexes, of money and morality, social and emotional.
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New starts are possible. Sam sees the possibility of economic freedom soon. Just hold the line and grit your teeth. But Marion desperately wants to make something happen now; the coffers of hope and joy are totally empty. Cravings for respectability fire transgressive impulses. Marion returns to the office, lunch uneaten (noted acerbically on the bedside stand back in the hotel room, forgotten whilst other appetites are sated). Her fellow secretary Caroline (Pat Hitchcock) is the image of Marion’s anxiety, the type of woman who took tranquilisers to make it through her wedding night unscathed. In comes her boss Lowery (Vaughn Taylor), who seems the image of a solicitous prig who’s probably in big with the local Rotary club, with a big new client, the drawling, boastful, cowboy-hat-wearing Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson). Cassidy flirts shamelessly with Marion, trying to excite her with his big wad. Cash, that is – $40,000 dollars, ponied up to buy his about-to-be-married pet daughter a house for her wedding day. No wonder Marion has a headache. Cassidy has the manner of a small boy caught drawing rude words on the school room blackboard, gleefully exposing Lowery’s promised horde of a hidden bottle. Everybody’s got their little secret. But Marion sees through Cassidy of course; a few more belts of bourbon and he’ll be trying to grab her ass, no fear. Marion’s patience snaps, along with her judgement. She resolves to flee town with the cash, head out to Sam in his home town of Fairvale, California, and get on with life.
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Hitchcock needs no dialogue to depict Marion’s choices, just the sight of her changing and packing with the cash on her bed. Just as loud is the declaration of how love and sex are entwined with finance. On the way out of town she gives a smile and nod to Lowery as he strays by, only to provoke his momentary bewilderment as to what his secretary’s doing out and about. Fear falls with the chugging, jarring strains of Bernard Herrmann’s music which mimic the panicky scuttling of her nervous system, and now Marion is citizen of a new world. Her journey across the Arizona landscape, out in the sun-baked hills and long, straight highways, becomes a big wide trap, where the oncoming headlights sting like lamps in a third degree routine and the eyes of a highway patrolman (Mort Mills) are big, black dishes of emptiness: Kafka on the range. The cop, who only stops to make sure the lady asleep in her car on the roadside is all right, gets too interested, so Marion resolves to sell her car and get one with California licence plates. Many Hitchcock characters had been wrongfully accused, victims of appearances and bad luck, sweating their way through survival situations where they must project the appearance of innocence in a state of irony. Or, if they were breaking the law, usually had a good reason for doing it – to help someone in a jam, to help a lover, to expose a hidden menace. Personal transgression in Hitchcock is a lynchpin theme, but so too is personal morality, the compass of private judgement that often points in the opposite direction to the blank regard of state authority.
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But Marion is one who’s actually committing a crime (anticipating her sister in weirdness, Marnie), and she’s not very good at it, although she has verbal wherewithal to get her through gruelling exchanges. Her attempts to fend off the intrigued cop and the friendly used car salesman (John Anderson) only drum up suspicious questions, concern and probation commingling. The toilet of the used car lot becomes a strange stage for a reckoning, Marion’s image reflected in a grimly rectangular mirror, counting through cash in a step that puts her further outside the wall. In Cocteau she might step through the mirror into a dream veldt. In Psycho the walls have eyes, but no portals. Hitchcock invites the viewer into Marion’s head to listen to her sorting through unseen scenarios as she imagines the processes of discovery and retribution set in motion in her wake. Hitchcock wasn’t usually one to use such a method, but he needs the audience identification with Marion to be deep and abiding, as well as to trick the audience into thinking such machinations might be important. Marion gets a definite kick out of imagining Cassidy’s aggrieved and hypocritical protestations (“and even flirtin’ with me!”) as she plays through such scenes in her head; she pegs California Charlie as a bag of clichés (one of Stefano’s subtler, wittier touches in how she imagines the salesman repeating his “customer high-pressure a salesman” line like a proud parent).
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Rainfall pounds down upon Marion in her car, and in the dark she accidentally leaves the highway, finishing up on a detour. Here only one light beckons, the sign of the Bates Motel, a few small rooms under a looming house. The infrastructure of modernity, the low, rectilinear, interchangeable motel rooms, underneath an outpost of Gilded Age pretence, jagged gables and ovular frames all in a Freudian muddle. Shadows passing behind the windows describe the outline of an old woman, just the sort of inhabitant you might expect to see haunting such an abode. Marion’s westward jaunt from Arizona into the California hinterland feels odd in movie lore, like someone’s finally made that last leap from heartland to west coast many a Western film’s heroes never get around to. The Bates Motel is the place where the Old West trail ran out, lost in a septic trap of time and mind, where lost souls find their rest. The improbably agreeable and handsome young owner-manager dashes down and introduces himself as Norman Bates. Norman’s apparent, cheery forthrightness counters Marion’s caginess in writing a false name in the register. Soon Norman’s inviting her come eat with him, but hesitates on the threshold of her room, before suggesting they repair instead to the parlour behind his office. This little abode sports the unnerving products of his favourite pastimes, stuffed birds peering down from vantages, the creatures Norman readily compares Marion to, if only quoting cliché, as he watches he eat.
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Marion and Norman’s conversation is the epicentre of Psycho, an epic sequence of suggestion and revelation that slowly pivots the storyline’s focus from one character to another. Most directors would slink through a scene like this in a succession of shots merely servicing the dialogue exchange, but Hitchcock turns it into one of his most symphonic displays of constant, cumulatively unsettling reframings matched to the rhythms of Perkins’ performance. The stuffed birds and dark corners of the room plucked out of obscurity and soon appear in mysterious psychic dialogue with Norman, who sits like a witness in the dock, only as the camera drops lower and moves in closer to vote him visual power. At the end of it, there’s no dissonance when Hitchcock remains with Norman rather than continues to follow Marion, whose viewpoint has dominated the film completely until now. Hitchcock forces the viewer into complicity with Norman whilst inserting a level of irony: now Norman is the one peering at Marion, through the safe glaze of a peephole that mimics the movie camera lens, the earlier invitation to gawk at Leigh in her bra turns into a needling accusation. Marion’s encounter with Norman, who seems to charm her sufficiently at first she has no qualms about inviting him into her room, if only silently, shades more into a woman’s startled and fascinated witnessing of a kind of living cautionary tale. By the end of their talk Marion is resolved on stepping out of what Norman calls a private trap, the sort of situation people voluntarily persist in for the sake of some obligation despite resenting it. Norman’s concept of the trap is sheltering as well as limiting.
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Today the specific twists of Psycho aren’t just well-known but so deeply enshrined in pop cultural lore it’s just about impossible to reckon with how sharply they landed in 1960. Hitchcock would later tell François Truffaut that it was the shower murder that made him want to film Bloch’s novel, but the narrative’s innate ambiguity must have had some appeal too, especially once the prologue was cast aside. Psycho represents a perfect and logical extreme for Hitchcock as a filmmaker who liked to tease and confound and audience as well as please it. Vertigo (1958) had allowed a similar level of opacity over genre as well as story before, but Psycho allowed Hitchcock to extend the game right until the end, as well as proving more functional in his chief business of attracting and exciting an audience. The film is a merry dance through genres and all attendant expectations, starting off in a key of everyday frustration. Sexy melodrama, before Marion’s thievery kicks off a seemingly low-key thriller with the constant, jangling threat of becoming something more. And then, the silhouetted, knife-wielding killer walks in, coming up to Marion as she has a shower, and brutally knifes her to death. One movie has collided with another, one pathology with another. The dizziness is stylistic as well as narrative. The real estate office, the sunstruck car yard, the interior of the motel are all harsh, ahistorical, antiseptic. Norman’s parlour is touched with hints of Expressionist fervour in the pools of light and dark. The house above, a Gothic emblem, derived from an image by that poet of American solitude, Edward Hopper.
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Then, of course, the shower scene. Marion fights for life but never stands a chance. The brilliant cruelty lies in the way Marion is enjoying her shower, seemingly not just cleaning her body but also a symbolic act of purifying herself following her resolution to go back and face the consequences of her crime; confession delivers salvation, an amniotic state of grace. But the spectre of punitive morality is quite literally standing behind her, Norman wearing the guise of his mother, incarnation of pious hypocrisy and stunting puritanism. Not that this is made clear yet; all that’s seen of the assailant is a black spot where the face should be and a thatch of stringy hair. The killer is the dark thing that lay in the highway cop’s glasses. Hitchcock continues to fascinate artists well beyond the parameters of his own form as well as critics because he had one, near-unique talent: performing little ballets of visualisation that creates epiphanies in the midst of more serviceable narrative cinema, without seeming to create a tension between the two forms. Precisely this ability taunted some viewers; it’s why some like Graham Greene dismissed him as a purveyor of gimmicks, exactly the same reason why the New Wave critics and others heralded him as someone who grasped the raw nerve of cinema. Psycho is filled with such touches, and of course the shower scene is the ultimate example. Hitchcock doesn’t just invent the slasher film in the course of a few seconds or bring a new edge of pyrotechnic pizzazz to editing a straightforward moment, but hacks up the very idea of the movie actor and the female body into a succession of images that are also lodestones. A huge close up of Marion’s screaming mouth, a lunging close-up of the knife grazing her navel.
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Even greater, perhaps, is the immediate aftermath of the murder, when the film stops dead in a kind of stunned and meditative regard. A colossal eye, glimpsed in a slowly gyring camera movement, a universe unto itself, an experimental photograph, a Japanese ink sketch. A long, slow, mysteriously dreamy retreat that suggests a recapitulation of the spirographs in the iris credits of Vertigo, the death plunge but played in reverse, leaving behind the secretive space of the dead eye until pausing the regard the blank, voided face of the dead woman. Marion Crane, whose fate we were utterly compelled by just a few seconds before, has vanished, leaving a hunk of carrion. Hitchcock rhymes the shot with the blood gushing down the plughole. Marion’s lifeblood is descending into an abyss. Did Marion go there too? This protean moment feels like the basis of Brian De Palma’s whole career. David Lynch’s too. Camera lifts away and slides over to regard the newspaper that contains the bundled money that brought her to this end, before moving to the the window to gaze at the Bates house as Norman’s cry rings out aghast: “Mother! Oh god Mother! Blood! Blood!” The chain of association seems blatant, and that’s also what Hitchcock uses to screen his most malicious secret. Just as the audience was invited in to experience Marion’s crime, now it’s drafted into empathising with Norman in his.
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Just as Marion was forgivable in the way she wanted to deliver herself and Sam from fate, Norman compels with the diligence of his act of seemingly selfless protection and concealment for the sake of his deranged and murderous mother. His cool, his logic, his care, all demand admiration, empathy. Marion and her car pushes into the neighbouring swamp, where it lingers with taunting buoyancy for a few moments before sinking into the murk with a satisfying plop. As original and radically reorientating as Psycho is, it nonetheless employs some hallowed genre rudiments, particularly the motif of the lonely traveller washing up in a backwater and the old, dark house that stands on the hill, clasping its secrets and surely and tidily as the musty Victoriana bric-a-brac that litters its rooms. The figure of the traveller who’s stumbled past a point of no return is an essential starting point in so many Horror tales. What is Marion but a very modern version of the Gothic Horror character abandoned at a creepy destination by the nervous coachman? Terence Fisher worked the same motif in the more traditional mould with his near-simultaneous The Brides of Dracula. It’s not hard to see why this is such a familiar aspect of the genre, and how precisely Hitchcock grasps it. Everyone’s gone for a long drive in the country or a road trip to locate some obscure place in their past or to plant down a future and felt the odd sensation of straying beyond the pale, discovering signs of a way of life you thought had vanished subsisting in stray corners of a roadside grove or fluttering field.
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Since fairly early in his American sojourn, from the time of Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Hitchcock had found energy and purpose in escaping Hollywood’s climes for contemplations of Americana, contemplations half-charmed and half-perturbed. Such forcibly affected normality had to hide as much strangeness just as surely as the waistcoat-wearing rose gardeners and tea-sippers of London. Norman is on the face of things an exemplar of mid-century American values, a good-looking young man who loves his mother and diligently runs his private enterprise, standing outside of but not disdaining the great national business. Norman’s strangest crime from the viewpoint of the society Hitchcock depicts is to be ignorant of money as a motive; he scarcely seems bothered by being tethered to a bare living running a tacky little motel, and never thinks to check Marion’s belongings for dough. The purloined wad of cash, that spur to offence and flight, goes in the swamp with everything else that was Marion Crane. It’s this aspect of Norman that allowed him to become a sort of antihero in a later string of sequels in the 1980s; mad and dangerous as he is, he’s also uniquely incorruptible, an eternal innocent. The force that compels him is no less universal than the desire to outdo fate. But it is in his case a far more intense and destructive struggle, an agonised wrestling match with the fact that the enveloping certainty and sense of belonging that is childhood can never be regained.
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Hitchcock certainly laid foundations for the future of Horror cinema, but also might have helped initiate a new interest in the contemporary American landscape, one the oncoming American New Wave would exalt. Psycho could count Easy Rider (1969) or Five Easy Pieces (1970) amongst its progeny as much as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) or Halloween (1978), through its fixation with the tension between the ensnared and the astray, the expanse of the land and the inward-turning gyre of social setting. Psycho is intensely aware of the landscape as stage, from the opening that surveys Phoenix in seeking out the right portal into a story, to the glimpses of the sunstruck countryside and the starkness of downtown Bakersfield where black eyes peer across hot asphalt. The motel and the Bates house stand in intimate theatrical relationship where spiteful conversations echo down and illusions play in the window frames, actualisations of a schizoid mind, one zone arguing with another, the grafted antiseptic well-lit boxes forced to overhear the rants of the creaking house with its memory of ancient neurosis. Hitchcock’s gamesmanship isn’t subtle, his caressing camera movements sneaking about like a rubbernecker but retreating to vantages that make a show of concealing the reality of Norman and his mother. The showmanship stops being method and becomes instead subtext, watching worlds, people, personalities collide and graze and threaten to merge.
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Meanwhile Sam Loomis sits in the office of his hardware store penning a missive to his absent lover he’ll never see again, asking her to join him, whilst an old woman in the store buys insecticide and worries whether it’s painless. Instead of Marion, Sam gets Lila Crane (Vera Miles), looking for her vanished sister, followed quickly by Arbogast (Martin Balsam). Lila, as tense and questing as her sister with an extra bolt of vehemence to her character, has to force action, to push through just as her Laurie harangued her beau in Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and for not dissimilar reasons, having to put a torch to the cause of masculine obsession. “Patience doesn’t run in my family,” she tells Sam, to nobody’s surprise. Psycho moves restlessly through a range of protagonists, most of whom are in turn also potential villains, distressing, stealing, exposing, tormenting, killing. Identities blur, opposites always hinting unity. Sam and Norman are near-doppelgangers, lanky, dark-haired American lover boys, both chafing under the lingering rule of failed and deceased parents, both defined by their different propensities in penetrating Marion’s body. Lila steps into her sister’s shoes and enacts a parody of marriage with Sam so they can investigate Norman (another prediction of Marnie). Arbogast’s face, shot in pugnacious close-up by Hitchcock as he first enters the film, echoes the looming visage of the highway cop and brings the same aura of authority incarnate in all its faintly bullying self-importance, although Arbogast has freedom of discretion that sets him apart from the lawman. Ironically, it’s only because of Marion’s transgression that Norman suffers his downfall, the reason why people are just a little too determined to pick up her trail.
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Arbogast interviews Norman, recognising Marion’s flimsy pseudonym in the register and slowly draws out Norman’s admission she was there, teasing at the discrepancies in his accounts but not suspecting him of anything except for very ordinary indiscretions like possibly sleeping with his guest, a notion that of course shocks and annoys Norman. But only Arbogast’s request to talk to his mother in case she talked to Marion ends the conversation. Arbogast reports back to Lila; the stern private eye is now empathetic, offering consolations and salves before deciding to return and try to satisfy the nagging ambiguity. He enters the Bates house and climbs the stairs to interview Mother Bates. But someone waits for him above, someone who comes out and stabs him at the top of the stairs. Arbogast slides back down the stairs and crashes to the floor, his assailant upon him in a moment with startling speed, delivering the coup-de-grace with brutal speed. A briefer, less eruptive episode of violence than the shower scene, but just as spectacular in its way, with Hitchcock’s camera chasing Arbogast down the stairs as he stumbles backwards, blood spattered on his face, arms flailing. A weird effect, one you can’t imagine any other director trying even today unless performing rank imitation, one that makes perfect sense in a mechanical sense and yet delivers an unreal effect, pushing Hitchcock’s desire for inspiring a physical effect upon the audience to the edge of surrealism. Where Marion falls to pieces in the editing room, Hitchcock’s camera pins Arbogast centre-screen, inescapable in his gruelling panic and literal plunge to earth.
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One significant disparity between Psycho and much of the rest of Hitchcock’s oeuvre lies in the speed with which its violent set-pieces whip by, by comparison with such displays as the concert sequence of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) or the finale of North by Northwest (1959). Psycho’s spurts of carnage are abrupt, jagged, still discomforting nearly sixty years later precisely because they arrive and depart with such speed. There’s little of the usual sense of luxury in Hitchcock’s fascination for the raw textures of cinema, no sense of delving into a dreamy netherworld as in Vertigo, although its portrait of reality is just as stylised in its way and its plunge just as deep; nor anything of the drawn-out rituals of stalking and slaying that its many progeny would soon evolve. Every shot in the film is cut to the bone in terms of declarative function. Part of this was doubtless due to Hitchcock’s determination to make the film as quickly and efficiently as possible one a lean budget, but it’s also demanded by the subject matter. Death comes on hard and fast in Psycho, and when it’s done there’s nothing left but the empty, staring eye. Psycho made the knife-wielding killer the new axis of the Horror film. The moment was ripe for this, as a new sociological awareness began to put the concept of the psychopath and the thrill killer into the popular consciousness; behind Psycho lies the well-known inspiration of Ed Gein and also his tabloid kin like Charles Starkweather.
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Serial killers had appeared in Horror movies before, but usually signposted as something bizarre and alien, played by the likes of Tod Slaughter and Rondo Hatton, presented as misshapen fiends bursting out of some usually safely locked psychic bole. Even the attempts to render more authentic portrayals usually wound up a bit absurd. Watching John Drew Barrymore just a few years earlier playing his mother-fixated whacko killer in Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps (1956) with bug eyes and fever sweats that would get him arrested by a cop on general principle gives some real appreciation for just how completely Hitchcock and Perkins reconstituted the portrayal of such a character. Perkins’ intricate performance is marked out not just by for his skill in encouraging audience compassion for Norman but in also laying bare his psychopathology without either giving away the game whilst also completely avoiding any sense of winking at the audience. The closest he comes is the ever-so-slight glint of steely humour when he tells Arbogast, “She might have fooled me, but she didn’t fool my mother.” Whilst Psycho certainly gave birth to the giallo and slasher modes in the next twenty years, the films that followed in its wake would often avoid Psycho’s distinctive strategy in making its monster also its most human figure.
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Most such progeny would labour to put back on the mask of detached symbolism Bloch, Hitchcock, Stefano, and Perkins all worked hard in their ways to strip off, resulting in black-faced murderers like Leatherface, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees, and the incidental, interchangeable slayers of Mario Bava’s founding giallo films. Only Dario Argento would take up the notes of gender chaos Hitchcock breached, but rarely with much interest in psychological depth, instead offering it as a specific device to assault his heroes and audience. Psycho’s approach is ironically, for all its modernity, more reminiscent of the classic Universal Horror films like Frankenstein (1931) and The Wolf Man (1941), where the central tragedy lies precisely in the fact that the tantalisingly vulnerable lies cheek by jowl with reflexive savagery, all in the same frame; men turn inside out under the pressure of the contradictions inherent in their being. Psycho aches with a sense of the state of humanity being, as Norman’s famous speech to Marion codifies, one of flailing isolation and permanent internal war. It’s a war that also afflicts societies, one that beliefs in official moralities and systems can both pacify and enrage. The film makes sport of just about every social piety in the book – the earnestness of the young man who loves his mother, the loyalty of the girl Friday secretary, the probity of the Midwestern businessman, the assurance of the psychiatrist.
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Psycho is often faulted for a segue into plummy hype that would seem more at home in an episode of Hitchcock’s popular TV show, when Lila and Sam, concerned for Arbogast after he fails to get back to them, visit the Fairvale sheriff Al Chambers (John McIntire). Chambers drops the jarring revelation that Mother Bates has been dead for years, and questions just who might be buried in her place if she’s still in her house with Norman. Certainly this moment sets up the last phase of the film with the lingering ambiguity stoked to a new high, and Hitchcock sneaks in a sideways swipe at the lore of gossip as Chambers’ wife (Lurene Tuttle) informs Lila that Norman’s mother and her lover were found dead together “in bed.” The eternal partner to transgressive behaviour is the obsessive interest in it by social guardians. There might also be a hint of satirical intent in the scene overall, just as there is more tangibly in the final summation of the psychiatrist Richman (Simon Oakland) called upon to explain Norman’s particular pathology. Such moments graze awkwardly against the terse energy of the dialogue scenes between Perkins and Leigh, Balsam, and Gavin. The infrastructure of the thriller itself is being tested throughout Psycho, Hitchcock mocking his own formula and the need for neat demarcations an increasingly TV-dominated mindset was encouraging, a mindset he had seen the potential in earlier but also knew was often at war with the spectacle of cinema that was his faith. You can almost hear the director clucking in amusement at the audience feeling like the TV commercial break should come after the sheriff’s hanging question.
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Emphatically, for The Birds Hitchcock would abandon any need to explain his invocations of chaos, and whilst he’d return to the Freudian fold for Marnie, it would be as fuel to an overtly artificial creation of a modernist-tinged, full-colour Expressionist melodrama. Psycho on the other hand turns its own black-and-white palette, harsh as any bleach or carbolic mixture used to scrub those bathroom tiles so bright, into part of its purely efficient structuring. Hitchcock makes a show of his concealments, but only to reinforce how nothing can hide. Mind and soul are slowly baking in a hot glare, the glare of the California sun, the neon light, the peering eye of state and authority, the shock of the atom bomb’s glare, exposed and helpless as naked flesh under a hard silver knife. Nothing to do but turn inwards, to seek refuge in backdated certainties, musty creeds, incestuous securities, a closed loop of experience. Post-war America has found the end of its frontier, the end of its logic, and there’s nothing left to do but spin into the drain where the monsters dwell. Horatio Alger’s nightmare. Lila and Sam’s venture out to the Bates Motel sees the duo declaring readiness for anything they might find, but no-one can ever really expect mummified corpses and knife-wielding cross-dressing psychotics amongst the bric-a-brac and dried turnips.
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Lila’s adventure around the Motel and the house make for some of my favourite moments in Psycho, for the sense not just of rising suspense as she tries to delve into Norman’s secrets whilst Sam keeps him talking, but the way the film’s sense physical and psychic landscape collide with pungent flavour. The Bates house is Hitchcock’s remembrance of the old Expressionist credo of film setting as explanation of film theme, as much as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s backdrops or Metropolis’ (1926) mimetic cityscape. Lila skirts the rear of the cabins where old car and piled detritus lie, and penetrates the house where the old-world charm is suffocating and the zones of adulthood and childhood are still rigidly demarcated. Mother’s room with its plush, rococo intimations of decadence and sensual delights, Norman’s still-occupied childhood bedroom where beloved toys sit cheek-by-jowl with purloined Victorian pornography books for useful education. The imprint of Mother’s body in her bed describes the immediacy of her influence and the literal hole left by her absence. Cross-cutting to Sam grilling Norman, until Norman realises he’s being distracted and knocks Sam out during a tussle. Lila’s use of the cellar stairs to hide from Norman leads her to Mother, as the door to the cellar beckons as the last, unpenetrated space of mystery, the deep pit of the mind-as-architecture where Mother is seemingly set up in a chair to keep her away from prying eyes.
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For good cause, Lila finds as she turns her chair and is confronted by an eyeless stare and the withered, toothy grin of death, the preserved but desiccated form of the body – the perfect one according to puritan ideal, removed of all blood, thought, passion, temptation, captive and ever true. With the twist that far from being the mother who enforces the regime of nightmarish repression, it’s the son over himself. Has a film ever encoded a spoiler so brazenly upfront as the very title Psycho? A sudden gust of revelation and action: the sight of the corpse’s face, Lila’s answering screaming, her flung hand striking a bare, scourging light bulb and knocking it into a jangling dance, and Norman’s entrance clad in floral nightgown and wig, grinning with relish with colossal knife in hand. His appearance holds a charge of bizarre comedy, but it’s submerged in the disorientating rush, perhaps one reason why Hitchcock seems determined not to linger on it. In a blink, Sam appears, grabbing Norman and forcing him to his knees with superior strength, as Herrmann’s screaming strings begin to wind down like a phonograph reaching its limit, in time with the slowing pendulum of the light, reality recomposing itself with nauseous uncertainty.
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Clinical deconstruction of the saga takes place in Fairvale’s police station, where reporters and gawkers wait outside and Richman boils down the mystery for easy consumption for Sam, Lila, the local law enforcers, and the viewer, in a broad parody of psychotherapeutic jive and the expected thriller winding-down explanations. A spare yet endlessly resonant epilogue sabotages it all. Norman, now entirely subsumed by the personality of Mother, sits alone against a blank white institutional wall with blanket drawn over his head, drawing into him/herself with the aspect of a yogi scissoring himself out of reality. Mother planning to still win a victory over the watching eyes, the delving smart-alecks, the coolly abiding cops, by appearing completely passive and peaceful. She wouldn’t even harm a fly. The psychiatrist might explain why, but can never really touch that infinitely strange and churning space that is the mind; Mother is exultant, unbound, a world-spirit projecting herself out from a cage of flesh and brick to find new psychic accords in a mad age. Hitchcock projects the ghostly image of the real corpse’s face upon Norman’s, and then dissolves to the sight of Marion’s car being dragged out of the swamp, looking a little like a decayed skull itself, covered in filth. Foul deeds will rise and all that jazz, but with the light falling upon the submerged and the repressed, out comes the stink.

 

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