Friday, October 31, 2008

Hallowe'en Triple Bill

The glow-in-the-dark bats are glowing in the dark, the illuminated pumpkin is trying to disassociate itself from how crap a movie 'Halloween III: Season of the Witch' is, the nibbles are arrayed in bowls on the coffee table, the wine is poured and Paula pulls the first title out of the witches' cauldron.

Way-hey! One from the faves list.

PERSONAL FAVES: A Tale of Two Sisters

Getting the triple bill in and posting before midnight means thumbnail write-ups and this film suits brevity down to the ground. There's almost nothing you can say about it - you certainly can't get into a discussion about director Kim Jee-Woon's genius for misdirection and the keeping of crucial things under wraps - without spoiling the twist.

Although perhaps twist is the wrong word. Twist implies something that's thrown in at the last minute to take you by surprise. What 'A Tale of Two Sisters' has is one fuck-off big hum-dinger of a narrative development; it comes about two-thirds of the way through and forces you to re-evaluate everything you've seen up to this point. But Jee-Woon's not satisfied with that and the last half hour or so takes the film into ever darker territory.

Giving nothing away, I'll just say this: it's about guilt (this applies to more than one character); you might think that one of the characters is a ghost (they kind of are and aren't); pay attention to the cringeingly embarrassing dinner party (it's all about perspectives: who sees what).

It's a beautifully shot, incredibly well acted and infinitely creepy piece of work. It proves that 'The Ring' doesn't necessarily have the monopoly on freaky women with lank black hair creeping slowly towards you. It blends psychological horror with arguably the best take on the haunted house movie since Robert Wise's 'The Haunting'. It yields up its many facets and ambiguities with repeated viewings: think 'Memento' or 'The Prestige', but with the requirement that you shelter behind the sofa to watch much of it.


A short break, the topping up of drinks, a bit of mood music ('Danse Macabre' by Saint-Saens), then the next title is drawn:

Land of the Dead

The most maligned of Romero's zombie sequence (even the decidedly hit-and-miss 'Diary of the Dead' got better reviews). Nonetheless, 'Land of the Dead' is a film I enjoy for its socio-political themes, and one that I see as the logical conclusion of the critique of Americana that spans 'Night', 'Dawn' and 'Day' and pretty much makes 'Diary' superfluous. The zombies evolve, fall in behind a leader, revenge themselves on a surviving core of humanity who have become so inured they treat the living dead as sideshow entertainments. Maybe it should have been called 'Sympathy for the Dead'.

Plenty to love: Asia Argento's tough-chick performance; the 'Shaun of the Dead' stars in an inspired cameo; supporting roles by Dennis Hopper and John Leguizamo ("I still prefer him as Chichi," Paula comments*). Then there's the whole post-9/11 American insularity subtext ...

But enough. My musings on Romero's ground-breaking sequence have already been documented on this blog, here, here, here, here and here.


Another short break, another gothic tune (Mussorgsky's 'Night on the Bare Mountain'), then it's heads-down-and-see-you-at-the-end. Here we go: the final title is picked.


The Addams Family

Barry Sonnenfeld: a master of style over substance. Yes, 'The Addams Family' looks great. Yes, everyone's perfectly cast. Yes, it's a pleasant little diversion after the head-fuck of 'A Tale of Two Sisters' and the viscera of 'Land of the Dead', but I find myself wishing it was the sequel, with its gloriously subversive summer camp subplot and expanded role for Christina Ricci's deliciously deadpan Wednesday, that we were watching.

* 'To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar' up next on The Agitation of the Mind? Watch this space.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

All Hallows Eve

Hallowe’en tomorrow, and it’s looking set to be an appropriately cold and frosty night. Nonetheless, the little darlings will doubtless be out and about, done up as witches and wizards, ghosts and goblins, vampires and vegetables (I’m guessing pumpkins count as a vegetable … anything to keep the alliteration going). Kids ringing doorbells, singing out “Trick or treat”, racing happily off with handfuls of sweets and chocolate …

Well, maybe in other neighbourhoods. Round here it’ll be a gang of hoodies wanting money. So the gate will be chained, noises outside ignored, the lights dimmed and we’ll settle down to our own Hallowe’en celebrations:

There will be alcohol (red wine, natch, served in the wineglasses decorated with pewter representations of the grim reaper … a present a few years ago from my aunt*).

There will be nibbles.

There will be a DVD triple-bill. A cheapie plastic witches cauldron has been acquired (along with some glow-in-the-dark plastic bats and an illuminated plastic pumpkin) into which we have placed folded-up squares of paper bearing the titles of all the films in our collection apposite to the occasion. Including spoofy stuff like ‘Slither’ and ‘Eight Legged Freaks’, and is-it-or-isn’t-it hybrids like ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’: is it a crime caper? is it a vampire flick? is it spoof? (answer: who cares, it’s got George Clooney, Harvey Keitel and Salma Hayek doing a snake dance in string bikini …).

Three titles will be drawn at random and watched back-to-back. I’ll be logging on just before midnight with a witches’ brew of a posting.

*You can’t get further from the twin-set and weak-cups-of-tea cliché of a maiden aunt than my Auntie Carole: her taste in films is even more esoteric than mine, she loves horror novels, and thinks Ozzy Osbourne is cool.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Switchblade Romance

After the remarks I made about the likes of ‘Hostel’ in last night’s entry, perhaps a tip of the chapeau is in order to a film that is unapologetically of that ilk … and that works brutally, brilliantly and memorably.

To whit, ‘Switchblade Romance’.

I can only assume that director and co-writer Alexandre Aja set himself the task of bringing to the screen the most extreme, graphically violent, unnecessarily gratuitous, utterly amoral exploitation movie he could possibly envisage. If so, the result is an unqualified success.

Take the home invasion scenario familiar to viewers of everything from ‘Extremities’ to ‘Straw Dogs’; add a dash of vengeful heroine turning the tables (‘I Spit on Your Grave’, ‘Halloween H20’); introduce a homicidal, motiveless truck driver (‘Duel’, ‘Jeepers Creepers’); finish with a facially-scarred monstrosity intent on using a power tool in a most unorthodox manner (‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’). Make no mistake, ‘Switchblade Romance’ is a hugely derivative film. It also boasts at least four sequences which rank amongst the most unbearably tense set-pieces in the horror genre.

What frustrates and delights in equal measure is how schizophrenic a viewing experience it is. For every moment that leaves you digging your fingernails into the nearest available surface (be it the seat rest or your partner’s arm), there's another that’s so contrived and unrelenting in its bloodletting that it makes the House of Blue Leaves centrepiece from ‘Kill Bill’ look like cinema-verite. For every genuinely original touch, there’s a cliche so shamelessly evoked that it virtually has a trademark symbol next to it.

The finale, in particular (as brilliant a spoof of ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ as it is) threatens to elicit sniggers when it should make you gasp. The much-vaunted twist ending is self-evident from the outset (three clues: the title, the pre-credits ‘dream’ sequence, the empty swing outside the farmhouse).

So what does ‘Switchblade Romance’ have to recommend it? Plenty, actually: energy, immediacy, iconography, a knowing sense of irony, and a full-tilt commitment to narrative. Whereas ‘Hostel’ sent me out of the cinema feeling slightly soiled, ‘Switchblade Romance’ fucked with my head, kneed me in the solar plexus and gave me a damn good kicking as I crawled for the exit.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


The first time I saw ‘The Exorcist’, I was eighteen. It was 1990 and the film was still a good few years away from its video-ban repeal. One of the cinemas in Nottingham held a midnight screening – the Odeon or the ABC, I can’t remember which. Both closed in the last decade.

At eighteen, my interest in horror movies was at its height. Of late, and I know exactly why (it was called ‘Hostel’ and left me wondering why I’d wasted an hour and a half of my life on it), there has been something of a parting of the ways between me and the horror genre, particularly its vicious offspring the ‘torture porn’ film.

Thus the likes of ‘Captivity’, ‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘Eden Lake’ have come and gone without tempting me into my local multiplex.

Looking back through over 130 entries on The Agitation of the Mind, horror film write-ups only barely edge into the double figures: Romero’s ‘Dead’ sequence, a handful of gialli, ‘Freaks’, ‘The Orphanage’, ‘Tremors’ … that’s about it.

But I still enjoy a scary movie – there’s at least half a dozen on the personal faves list – it’s just that gore as a raison d’etre doesn’t interest me anymore. In context, as in John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’, viscera is a powerful aesthetic tool (oops, I’m straying into the kind of pseudy pontificating I started The Agitation of the Mind to get away from!). But it needs to be backed up by character and atmosphere or by the kind of psychologically-based terror that is so much more effective than any of Eli Roth’s graphic blood-lettings.

‘The Exorcist’ is a gore-free film. Sure, it has projectile pea-soup vomiting and the possessed Regan (Linda Blair) doing something rather irreligious with a crucifix, but the horror comes from its intelligent study of the nature of – and conflict between – good and evil.

And it delivers some memorably creepy scenes that aren’t supernatural:

* The wild dogs in frenzy as Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) gazes at the statue of Pazuzu in the Iraq-set opening sequence.

* Father Karras (Jason Miller) visiting his mother in hospital, lunatics grabbing at him as he enters the ward.

* A group of nuns walking along a suburban street as the wind blows leaves around them and Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’ plays on the soundtrack (a combination of atmosphere, music and a sense of impending dread that always creeps me out).

* Regan – her mother still searching for a medical solution to her ‘condition’ – hospitalised for a brain scan. Not a hint of the otherworldly, but the harsh, clinical way William Friedkin films this scene leaves me feeling queasy every time I watch it.

* Merrin stepping out of a cab and pausing momentarily, silhouetted by a streetlight, before approaching the McNeil residence: a deliberately painterly image (the use of light is inspired by the canvasses of Rene Magritte), but hugely iconic.

This is perhaps the key to Friedkin’s genius*: this is a film about possession and exorcism, about the testing of faith by satanic evil, that is shot through with such documentary clarity that you can easily forget it’s a horror film. Perhaps, ultimately, it isn’t. But, importantly, it scared the crap out of me at eighteen, and it continues to scare the crap out of me now.

*Caveat: when I use the words ‘Friedkin’ and ‘genuis’ in the same sentence, it’s in reference to this film or ‘The French Connection’. Catch me doing it anywhere else in the Friedkin filmography and you’re more than welcome to leave a very vehement comment.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Damned

On the night of 30th June 1934, Nazi troops moved against Ernst Rohm’s paramilitary SA (Sturmabteilung) in a putsch that lasted three days and saw over 85 deaths. Hitler’s antagonism against the SA owed to their continued independence; the putsch was also an excuse for striking at his critics, demonstrating the force and deadly efficiency of his own SS troups, and consolidating his power base.

The carefully orchestrated coup was called Operation Hummingbird, but has gone down in history as the Night of the Long Knives.

This nefarious moment in German history provides the 20-minute centrepiece to Luchino Visconti’s ‘The Damned’. Subtitled ‘Götterdämmerung’ (trans. “twilight of the gods”), the Wagnerian reference is apposite. Visconti’s film is operatic to the point of being overwrought, particularly in its increasingly melodramatic last half hour.

The stage upon which this opera of Nazi-ism, power struggles, sexual ambiguities and compromised morality plays out is the Essenbeck Steelworks, owned by a powerful industrial family whose political allegiance is important to Machiavellian SS officer Aschenbach (Helmut Griem). ‘The Damned’ opens with a birthday party for the ageing Baron von Essenbeck who announces his retirement, leading to instantly fractured interrelationships inside and outside of the family as the appointment of the new director of the company hangs in the balance.

The rank outsider* in all of this is Frederick Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde); however, he has two aces up his sleeve: his relationship with the Baron’s widowed daughter, Sophie (Ingrid Thulin), and the backing of Aschenbach.

Through Aschenbach’s machinations and Sophie’s borderline erotic manipulation of her sexually confused son Martin (Helmut Berger) – whose predilections range from cross-dressing to paedophilia to mother-fixation – Bruckmann is appointed director of the steelworks. But it’s not long before his obsession with complete control over both firm and family – not to mention his reluctance to take the political hard line that his deal with the devil (or rather his suave earthly representative Aschenbach) requires – leads to his downfall.

Bogarde excels as Bruckmann: a vivid, complex study of ambition, fear, moral cowardice, desperation and, finally, abject defeat. Ingrid Thulin goes a wee bit ‘Lady Macbeth’ towards the end, but by this point Visconti’s shovelling on the theatrics like there’s tomorrow. Helmut Berger, Visconti’s homo-erotic camera clearly favouring him over the rest of the cast, gives a memorable performance if sometimes for the wrong reasons; but there’s no doubt that he gets across Martin’s vicious amorality.

Further down the cast list, Umberto Orsini and Charlotte Rampling deliver compelling turns.

But it’s Helmut Griem who eclipses even Bogarde. “That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain,” to quote ‘Hamlet’. Aschenbach smiles, and smiles, and soothes, and coerces and chills. Martin’s demonic ascension and engineering of Bruckmann and Sophie’s fate is nothing but the movement of Aschenbach pulling the strings. Griem plays him with infinite charm and assured understatement. Amidst the emotional excesses of Visconti’s lurid epic, he’s the calm centre of stillness, composure and complete ruthlessness.

*Readers of Sheridan Morley’s book on Dirk Bogarde’s early career will, I hope, forgive the pun.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Ill Met by Moonlight

By 1957, Powell and Pressburger were moving towards the annulment of their partnership. It had been an almost decade-long decline.

‘Gone to Earth’ was a slab of melodrama, ‘The Elusive Pimpernel’ a bit of pantomime camp, ‘The Tales of Hoffmann’ a failed attempt to recapture the magnificence of ‘The Red Shoes’, and ‘O … Rosalinda!!’ a self-indulgent flop, audiences showing either a singular lack of interest in operetta or an understandable caution in approaching films with three exclamation marks in the title.

Their last two outings were a return to the war movies that had made their name; but whereas the eight-film run of classics between ‘The Spy in Black’ in 1939 and the ‘A
Matter of Life and Death’
in 1946 were made during the war years (the latter in production just as the war was reaching its conclusion), ‘The Battle of the River Plate’ and ‘Ill Met By Moonlight’ came ten years afterwards: would that curious alchemy which made art of the propaganda film still function in retrospect?

Well, not with ‘The Battle of the River Plate’. Although a decent enough account overall of the sinking of the Graf Spree, Powell’s decision to film the movements of ships at sea resulted a highly cinematic footage utterly at odds with the patently studio-bound falsity of the rest of the film.

Which leaves us with ‘Ill Met By Moonlight’, their swansong, its box-office swelled by Dirk Bogarde in his dishy, matinee-idol prime, and again another account of an actual incident from the war.

The source material was a book by W. Stanley Moss recounting the exploits in Crete of Major (now Sir) Patrick Leigh-Fermor, an authentically individualistic English hero (as T.E. Lawrence to the desert, so Leigh-Fermor to the Mediterranean), and his successful kidnap of a high ranking German officer.

Powell and Pressburger’s take on Leigh-Fermor is romanticism writ large. Bogarde’s swooning performance is entirely in keeping with the sense of hero-worship with which Powell saturates the film. P&P favourite Marius Goring essays the German general with distinctly more gravitas.

And herein lies the enigma (and pleasure) of the film. Goring’s career office is a professional, but courteous with it: a Nazi and a gentleman. (P&P had been daring enough to portray ‘good’ Germans even in the war years: the harmless Vogel (Niall MacGinnis) in ‘49th Parallel’ and the dignified Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) in ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’.) Leigh-Fermor, however, is portrayed as a gentleman amateur. Ian Christie, in his wonderful study of Powell and Pressburger’s films, ‘Arrows of Desire’, describes Bogarde/Leigh-Fermor as “dressed as a comic-opera bandit when we first see him”. He goes on:

“… the whole story is framed, not only by its Shakespearean title but by a reference to the Odyssey … If the [film’s] realization does not live up to its promise or ambition, it remains nonetheless an intriguing stage in the military ideology that runs from Blimp … a defiant assertion of the gentleman-amateur ideal at a time when Britain was learning its new role in the world of superpower conflict and the end of Empire” (‘Arrows of Desire’, Faber & Faber, p.78).

Which is absolutely spot-on. Everything from Bogarde’s dashing leading man status to Goring’s good grace in defeat to the studied poignancy of the ending (the German officer tries to ‘buy’ the affections of a local Cretan child, with a view to leaving clues to his whereabouts, only for the lad – his loyalties hitherto in doubt – to be revealed as unswayable in his devotion to Leigh-Fermor). Which only makes the film’s far-and-away best scene that much more effective in its swift, no-nonsense efficiency.

Leigh-Fermor visits his contact, a dentist, in a Nazi-held town. Unbeknownst to him, he is followed. When the Nazi patrol (its sergeant a young Christopher Lee, speaking German like a native) burst in, Leigh-Fermor finds himself hustled into the dentist’s chair, a white bib-like cloth draped around his neck. Terrified of dentists, L-F plays along, not batting an eyelid when the patrol come stomping in, but losing his cool as soon as the dentist, hands shaking from fear, starts up the drill. The Nazi sergeant has his suspicions and pulls the cloth from his neck; L-F is clutching a pistol under it. He summarily executes the German soldiers. There’s nothing do-or-die or remotely heroic about the scene; he does it because he’s scared of dentists.

Seven years after ‘The Blue Lamp’ and just five after ‘Hunted’, and a full decade or more before the darker characterisations of ‘The Damned’ and ‘The Night Porter’, the anti-romantic-hero element of Bogarde’s cinematic persona is revealed in a brief lightning flash. So too the adaptability and menacing screen presence of Christopher Lee. And between them, a scene effective enough to transform what could have been Powell and Pressburger’s death rattle into a respectable send-off.

Friday, October 10, 2008

These Foolish Things

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s ‘Despair’ (1978) was almost Dirk Bogarde’s last film, an experience that soured his already sceptical feelings about film-making. Fassbinder re-edited the film drastically, despite his star’s preference of the original cut. “He fucked up my performance” was Bogarde's blunt assessment during the BBC interview ‘By Myself’ which aired shortly after he received his knighthood in 1992.

He withdrew to Clermont, his house in France (referred to in the autobiographies as Le Pigeonnier) and concentrated his efforts on his writing, only taking the occasional bit of television work out of financial necessity. Directors continued to offer him scripts; Bogarde inevitably politely declined.

Fortunately for cineastes, Bertrand Tavernier tempted him out of retirement in 1990, a full twelve years since he had last appeared before a movie camera, with the lead role in the intimate family drama ‘These Foolish Things’ (or ‘Daddy Nostalgie’ to use the indigenous title).
‘These Foolish Things’ is the better title. ‘Daddy Nostalgie’ hints at a certain sentimentality. Nothing could be further from Tavernier’s aesthetic. There is not a trace of false emotion here.
Tony* (Bogarde) is a well-travelled Englishman living out his retirement in seaside villa in France which he shares with his humourless and emotionally inexpressive French wife Miche (Odette Laure). Following an operation, Tony finds himself almost housebound. As he supposed recuperation progresses, it becomes apparent that the surgery might not have been successful.
The couple’s all-but-estranged daughter Caroline (Jane Birkin) returns to the villa to stay with them and help nurse her ailing father. For the first time in their respective lives, father and daughter get to know each other. The poignancy of their relationship has its counterpoint in Tony and Miche’s fractious marriage.

With its deceptively slight narrative and numerous scenes of marital disharmony, ‘These Foolish Things’ could easily have been tedious, talky and decidedly uncinematic. Three things redeem it: the beautiful widescreen cinematography, effortlessly establishing location and mood; Tavernier’s intelligent handling of a fine, literate screenplay by Colo Tavernier O’Hagan; and Dirk Bogarde, giving his finest performance since ‘Death in Venice’. Waspish, sarcastic and yet, at heart, utterly vulnerable, Bogarde’s characterisation of Tony is multi-layered and completely real.

‘These Foolish Things’ is about a man in the twilight of his years. It is illuminated by one of Bogarde’s most desperately moving performances (kudos to Laure and Birkin, too; the film is, after all, a chamber piece) and stands as a fitting swansong to a great actor.

*And how bittersweet must it have been for Bogarde to play a character with the same first name as his then-deceased partner of fifty years, Anthony Forwood?

Sunday, October 05, 2008

PERSONAL FAVES: Death in Venice

Thomas Mann’s ‘Death in Venice’ had already been adapted, operatically, by Benjamin Britten before Luchino Visconti came to film it in 1971. Both Britten and Visconti were gay, which perhaps accounts for the common misconception that the film is about an old man’s obsessive lust for a boy barely in his teens.

Wrong. The film, like its literary source, is about many things, not least the nature of art and beauty and the thorny question of where, between the two, the humanity of the artist resides. There is nothing perverse or cynical about the film. For all of its melancholy it is, in fact, one of the most beautiful works of film art in the history of the medium.

Mann’s novella was inspired by the author’s encounter with Gustav Mahler during a train journey. Shocked at Mahler’s physical appearance (the haggard Aschenbach at the end of the story, powdered, a line of mascara running down his face, is Mann’s fictive approximation). And it was for the purposes of fiction that the character became Gustav von Aschenbach, a writer of books, not of music.

A director whose forte was his immaculate attention to detail, particularly in the observation of social rituals (the minutiae of Mann’s descriptions are captured in vivid and poetic images), Visconti’s film is a faithful adaptation but for one crucial alteration.

The director’s most decisive aesthetic decision was to allay the character more closely with the man who inspired him. Thus the Aschenbach of the film is a composer - moreover, by dint of the soundtrack, Aschenbach is Mahler. Evocative use is made of his Third and Fifth Symphonies, particularly the latter’s adagietto. (Even Karajan, a non-Mahlerian, was taken by the film enough to record the Fifth with the Berlin Philharmonic.)

Visconti also adds a series of flashbacks which concern, variously, Aschenbach’s attitude to his art, the death of his beloved infant daughter (viewed in this light, the effeminate young boy Tadzio [Bjorn Andresen], of an age Aschenbach’s daughter would have been, becomes almost a replacement for the composer’s fatherly devotion), and his debasement in the boudoir of a hooker - this last being the event that instils in him an obsession with cerebral and artistic purity and dignity.

A key flashback sees him in heated debate with Alfred (Mark Burns), a fellow composer:

Aschenbach: The creation of beauty and purity is a spiritual act.

Alfried: No, Gustav. Beauty belongs to the senses, only to the senses.

Aschenbach: You cannot reach the spirit from the senses. It’s only through complete domination of the senses that you can achieve wisdom, truth and purity.

At the risk of oversimplifying a deep, profound and thought-provoking film, ‘Death in Venice’ is about an artist who, suffering from nervous exhaustion, takes a supposedly recuperative sojourn only to be confronted with a vision of purity and beauty, but one that, by definition of his reaction to it, completely invalidates the principles by which he has tried to live.

The last half hour is shattering. Scenes dealing with Aschenbach’s increasing bad health, played out against a plague-ridden Venice stained with disinfectant and ravaged by fires, bookend the final flashback sequence, which demonstrates Aschenbach’s failure as an artist and public vilification.

Throughout, Dirk Bogarde’s performance as Aschenbach has been perfectly nuanced and intricately mannered, suggesting through the minimum of dialogue (he is onscreen the whole time, but entire stretches of the film pass without him uttering a word) the brittleness and emotional void of a man who has kept his humanity tightly under wraps. The last quarter of the film, however, is acting on another level. Bogarde progressively tears away layer after layer of his character, culminating in a moment of heart-breaking acceptance as Aschenbach finally attempts to reach out to someone only for it to be too late. He slumps back into his deckchair; the man and the artist are dead. It is arguably one of the most moving death scenes that any actor has played.

For Bogarde, Aschenbach was more than just a role:

The five months of work on ‘Death in Venice’ had been the hardest I had ever known for stress and mental strain; daily I had struggled with a personality … who had overwhelmed me to such an extent that every single function I performed in my daily life was as he would have done. I was never without his influence at any time, even in sleep. - Dirk Bogarde, ‘An Orderly Man’, chapter 1.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

A Bridge Too Far

It's easy to see how Richard Attenborough's 'A Bridge Too Far', based on Cornelius Ryan's exhaustive account of Arnhem debacle Operation Market-Garden, was intended as a corrective to the big-budget, all-star-cast jingoist war epics so popular in the 60s and 70s.

For all intents and purposes, it takes its cue from the likes of 'The Longest Day' - epic running time (just shy of three hours); huge, intricately-orchestrated set-pieces; famous faces all over the shop (Sean Connery, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine, James Caan, Sir Laurence Olivier ... the list would be longer than the article itself if I listed everyone); an almost inappropriately stirring score by John Addison. In fact, it differs in only one crucial way.

It's about a fuck-up.

An Allied fuck-up.

This aspect of 'A Bridge Too Far' was never going to be its most popular attribute. And yet, when it was released, the almost inevitable storm of controversy that greeted it centred almost solely around Dirk Bogarde.

Here's Christian Browning, son of General Sir Frederick Browning (the real-life character Bogarde played) on his performance: "... poncing around with white gloves. Those gloves! Dirk played Anacleto in 'The Singer Not the Song' more or less the way he played Dad." (Quoted in John Coldstream's biography.) Here's co-star Edward Fox (quoted in same): "He was impersonating Freddie Browning completely wrongly. It was as if he set out to play him as a poofy waiter."

(The very idea of Edward Fox, whose okay-chaps-what-ho performance isn't far short of parody, criticising a Bogarde characterisation as 'poofy' is hilariously ludicrous.)

So why all the Dirk bashing?

The answer goes back to one of the two reasons Bogarde accepted the role (three if you count the fact that Attenborough, by dint of a holiday home in Provence, was more or less Bogarde's neighbour): (i) a $100,000 salary, and (ii) Bogarde was first billed and his character has 'the Line'.

Discarding the former (okay, $100K is decent chunk now and was a fuckload back in 1977, but it was still peanuts compared to what the American cast members earned), Bogarde's ego was certainly stroked by the latter. Because so many big stars were cast, billing was alphabetical: therefore, before Caan, Caine and Connery, let alone the likes of Elliott Gould or Ryan O'Neal, Dirk Bogarde stands as top-billed actor.

Then there's the Line. Again, a note of explanation: Browning was under considerable pressure from High Command (specifically Montgomery) to deliver an against-the-odds success with Operation Market-Garden. Concerned over the logistics, dubious about taking Arnhem, Browning famously averred that they'd be going "a bridge too far". It's worth bearing in mind that he said this before the operation.

William Goldman's script - in all other respects a clear-sighted adaptation of Ryan's book - indulges in a jarring anachronism. Because Goldman opted to omit the critical meeting between Montgomery and Browning, Browning is essentially cast as the villain of the piece: monomanicially pushing the mission through despite everyone else's misgivings, fixated in true death-or-glory stylee that Market-Garden is infallible. Worse, in order to retain the line that gives both book and film their title, he has Browning foppishly muse, after the operation goes disastrously wrong, "Well, as you know, I've always thought that we tried to go a bridge too far". Which basically makes Browning sound like a pompous dick, blithely stating the obvious after the fact.

The script, however, is the writer's business; in this case an American scribe's take on a British snafu. That a British director happily filmed it is a matter for discussion elsewhere.

As regards Bogarde's involvement .... call me biased (I'm a fan, after all), but wasn't he merely doing what all actors do - reading the lines and taking direction?

And his performance? He plays Browning as aloof, slightly disconnected (attributes I'd imagine are necessary for a high-ranking officer in wartime, who makes decisions, and by extension gambles with lives, coolly and dispassionately). In a film where so many of the other stars just be themselves (Connery is Connery, Caine is Caine) or ham it up (Hackman as a Polish officer) or phone in wooden performances (O'Neal) or play on their established persona (Maximilian Schell and Hardy Kruger reprise their rent-a-Kraut roles from any number of previous outings), Bogarde's performance is definitely not the worst. Far from it. In fact, perhaps only Anthony Hopkins emerges from the whole production as giving a rounded, subtle, memorable performance.

'A Bridge Too Far' has some stunningly brilliant scenes and a fair smattering of shruggingly ordinary ones. Attenborough's direction is often geared to spectacle when human drama needs to be at the fore (I'd love Peckinpah to have made this film, to have given it the sense of waste, loss, brutality, desperation and hard-won, shell-shocked humanity that permeates every frame of 'Cross of Iron'). Peckinpah had been a Marine. Dirk Bogarde, too, had a military background. He served in World War II. His evocative poem 'Steel Cathedrals' is still frequently anthologised in collections of war poetry.

I wonder how many other actors in 'A Bridge Too Far' had also worn the uniform for real, not just as a costume.