Sunday, May 31, 2009

PERSONAL FAVES: The Godfather Part II

If ‘The Godfather’ can be said, broadly, to be about the old Don acceding to the new Don, then ‘The Godfather Part II’ is a tale of several Dons.

Principally, it documents the ruinous patriarchy of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) following the death of his father (Marlon Brando) and his succession as the Don at the end of the first film in counterpoint with the origin story of the young Vito Corleone (Robert de Niro) and the events that made him the Godfather.

‘The Godfather Part II’ opens with Vito Andolini, a young boy, solemnly following his father’s coffin. Cause of death: an insult to mafia chieftan Don Cicci (Joe Spinell). His mother pleads with Cicci for her son’s life, but he’s adamant: the boy must be killed lest he grow to a man and continue a vendetta. Vito’s elder brother is killed for this selfsame reason.

After his mother’s death at Don Cicci’s hands, Vito is smuggled out of the isolated village of Corleone and finds himself on a ship bound for America. At Ellis Island, an officer reads his name tag: “Vito Andolini from Corleone”; the clerk mishears and logs his name as Vito Corleone.

A couple of decades later another Don, this time a corpulent white-suited robber baron called Fanucci (Gaston Moschin), seals Vito’s fate. Already associating with snappily dressed petty criminal Clemenza (Bruno Kirby), Vito makes the jump from small-time to fully-fledged Don-hood when Fanucci tries to put the squeeze on them and Vito, sickened by the way he leeches off his fellow Sicilians, decides to take him out of the game.

Make no mistake about it: Vito Corleone does bad things. He steals, he fences (and not in the swordplay sense of the word either) and he commits murder. He benefits people’s respect – and the little gifts by which they show it – by trading on the reputation gained from dealing with Don Fanucci. And yet there’s honour in the way he conducts business. Whereas Don Fanucci operated to the detriment of the fellow Sicilians in his neighbourhood, Don Corleone operates, by and large, to their betterment.

Soon he’s projecting the appearance of a legitimate businessman, importing olive oil from his native country. A business trip to Sicily takes him back to Corleone and some unfinished business.

Michael Corleone, however, is moving further away from the family business inherited from his father. The Corleone family have moved lock, stock and barrel to Lake Tahoe, Nevada, and sold off the olive oil business preparatory to a move into the entertainment sector, principally casinos. Michael wants a piece of the action owned by ageing shyster Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), a man whose incessant talk of retirement and his own mortality, sprinkled with promises that he’s going to turn over his interests to his “friends”, keeps his would-be rivals hanging on for an easy share out instead of becoming embroiled in a messy war for control. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer: Hyman Roth could have coined the saying.

Things quickly go wrong. There’s a traitor in the Corleone’s midst, and an attempt on Michael’s life. A potentially lucrative move into the casinos of Cuba goes tits up when Castro’s revolution topples the old guard and a rich man’s playground suddenly becomes a maelstrom, with mobsters, politicians and playboys alike falling over each other to leave the country. Michael becomes increasingly insular. Paranoia gradually informs his decisions and he spurns the advice of trusted consgilieri Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall). His marriage to Kay (Diane Keaton) disintegrates. Congressional hearings on organised crime single out the Corleones, with the promise of a star witness who will give direct testimony against Michael.

Pacino and de Niro are both – no other way of putting it – fucking awesome. The script, by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo, cleverly juxtaposes father and son at roughly similar ages. De Niro reverse-engineers Brando’s characterisation in a pitch-perfect performance, capturing both Vito’s steely resolve and the magnanimity and family-based code of honour that underpins it. Pacino continues the character arc from the first film, drilling down deeper into Michael’s heart of darkness.

With its extended running time (just shy of three and a quarter hours), multiplicity of characters and events, and detailed examination of the dynamics of families, businesses and allegiances, ‘The Godfather Part II’ could easily have degenerated into big screen soap opera. With Coppola at the absolute top of his game – this is one of the very few sequels in the history of cinema to surpass the original – the effect, instead, is more akin to grand opera.

Or to Shakespearean tragedy. The comparison is almost clumsy – the temptation to facile epithets like “‘Hamlet’ with a tommy-gun” or “‘King Lear’ in a fedora” are irresistible – but ‘The Godfather Part II’ deserves comparison to the Bard. Shakespeare’s tragedies are shot through with the understanding that it’s never as simple as good vs bad; that revenge is a muddied, muddled and compromised business from the off; that plotting and betrayal are only part of it, and what William Ernest Henley called “the bludgeonings of chance” are just as instrumental in the shaping of events.

Coppola’s masterpiece, too, is freighted with these understandings; and also with the grimly irony that it’s not the sins of the father that are at the heart of this particular tragedy but the sins of the son.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

"You have come of your own free will to the appointed place": another visit to The Wicker Man

If you’re after copy of ‘The Wicker Man’ on DVD, you’ll be most likely to find it in the horror section.

But is it a horror film? The ending’s definitely horrific and the subject matter is paganism and the extremes of religious belief. And yet it’s not a horror film in the way ‘The Omen’ or ‘The Exorcist’ are horror films.

It’s not a thriller either, not really … although there are elements of that genre. It’s not a mystery or crime film, even though the main character is a police officer investigating a disappearance.

If Zavvi or HMV had curio sections, or oddity sections, that’s where ‘The Wicker Man’ would end up. The fact that the only genre you could legitimately assign it to is the musical (there are at least five carefully choreographed musical numbers, all of them pertinent to the narrative) just makes it the more curious, the more odd.

Devout Christian Sgt Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) – a man so pious he’s saving himself for the marriage bed – receives a letter summoning him to the remote island of Summerisle where a young girl, Rowan Morrison, has gone missing. How remote? Howie needs a small flying boat to get there! He goes alone (bad move) and rubs the locals up the wrong way from the word go (bad move part two).

Not that Howie and the islanders were ever going to hit it off, though. Not when the younger contingent fornicate publicly while there elders lasciviously serenade Willow (Britt Ekland), the landlord’s sultry daughter at The Green Man. Not when the local chemist has jars of foreskins and foetuses on his counter. Not when schoolteacher Miss Rose (Diane Cilento) discusses phallic symbolism with a class of girls in their early teens, or one of her colleagues leads a group of similarly aged boys in a sexually suggestive song and dance around the maypole. Not when he witnesses a fertility rite in progress whilst making his way to Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee)’s ancestral seat to voice his suspicions that Rowan is not just missing but murdered.

Lord Summerisle: I’m confident your suspicions are wrong, Sergeant. We don’t commit murder here. We're a deeply religious people.
Sgt Howie: Religious? With ruined churches, no ministers, no priests and children dancing naked.
Lord Summerisle: They do love their divinity lessons.
Sgt Howie: But they a-are naked.
Lord Summerisle: Naturally. It’s much too dangerous to jump through fire with their clothes on.
Sgt Howie: What religion can they possibly be learning jumping over bonfires?
Lord Summerisle: Parthenogenesis.
Sgt Howie: What?
Lord Summerisle: Literally, as Miss Rose would doubtless say in her assiduous way, reproduction without sexual union.
Sgt Howie: What is all this? I mean, you’ve got fake biology, fake religion! Sir, have these children never heard of Jesus?
Lord Summerisle: Himself the son of a virgin impregnated, I believe, by a ghost.

On the off-chance you haven’t seen ‘The Wicker Man’ and the picture I used on yesterday’s post didn’t give it away, here’s a


The clash between Howie’s belief system (staunch, pious, puritanical Christianity) and Summerisle’s (paganism, fertility, sacrifice … you know, when necessary) is the life blood of the film. It’s what gives ‘The Wicker Man’ its structure, its tension, its symbolism and its power.

His values and moral rectitude are challenged by the islanders’ sexual liberalism, culminating in his ‘tempting’ by Willow (the darkly erotic tensions that have informed the proceedings thus far get kicked up a notch with Ekland’s renowned dance sequence); casual acts of blasphemy and heathenism fuel his slow-burning sense of outrage; obstructions to his investigation only strengthen his determination to find Rowan.

And of course it’s all, as Summerisle blandly informs him, a game. With Howie as the pawn. The sacrificial pawn. “Animals are fine,” Summerisle opines, “but their acceptability is limited. A little child is even better. But not nearly as effective as the right kind of adult.” In other words, a virgin. (Remember that line in ‘Scream’ – “There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one: you can never have sex … Big no-no. Sex equals death”? Scratch that!)

It’s when the islanders advance on Howie and bind him and drag him up the hill to the eponymous effigy that ‘The Wicker Man’ makes the leap from compelling and well-made if somewhat offbeat movie to completely unforgettable cinematic experience. The roles played in the May Day pageant are made devastatingly clear. Howie has played the fool and been king for a day – “and who but a fool would do that?” He will, he is told, undergo death and rebirth. Not his rebirth, though; that of Summerisle’s crops. “As a Christian, I hope for resurrection,” Howie retorts, “and even if you kill me now, it is I who will live again and not your damned apples.” Summerisle reminds him that it’s a rare privilege for a man of his religious values to be granted a martyr’s death. Indeed, when Howie is stripped, anointed and dressed, prior to his sacrifice, in a white robe (arms held out at shoulder height in a crucifixion pose), the ritual is almost Christian in its iconography.

Howie warns Summerisle that another failed crop might result in his sacrifice. “The crops will not fail,” comes the defiant response. The debate – the battle, as it were, of beliefs – continues even when Howie’s been secured in the wicker man and the kindling around its base lit. As Lord Summerisle leads his people in a full-throated rendition of ‘Summer is i-cumen in’, Howie gives it some 23rd Psalm, his voice carrying over theirs. He calls down a curse upon them. He beseeches his God to receive his soul.

The closing shot shows the wicker man consumed by flames, a raging fire against a yet more fiery sunset. There’s an almost blood-like quality to the image that’s wholly appropriate for a film about the conflict between two men of equal but divergent religious fervour – one orthodox, one rooted in supposedly less enlightened times – and the fine line between faith and madness evident in both of them.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009


I started The Agitation of the Mind to celebrate great movies, not to carp about mediocre ones. To indulge my passion in the art form, not to slate it. I wasn’t interested in playground-level name-calling over films I didn’t like.

Which was all very noble and high-minded. But it hasn’t stopped me, over the year and a half I’ve been running this site, from vituperatively drubbing the likes of ‘The Happening’ and ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ and having a high old time doing it.

So, before I get on with the business at hand – a two-parter* on Robin Hardy’s cult oddity ‘The Wicker Man’ in honour of Christopher Lee’s 87th birthday – there’s something I need to get off my chest and I’m going to be very immature about it.

Neil laBute’s 2006 remake starring Nicolas Cage is a great big pile of poo. So nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah!

Right. Back to business.

Christopher Lee was riding high on his popularity as Dracula in a seemingly endless parade of Hammer films when he came across David Pinner’s novel ‘Ritual’ and recognised its potential. Anthony Shaffer was also riding high: the film version of his Tony award-winning play ‘Sleuth’, starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, had garnered great acclaim, and he’d been engaged to script Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate film, ‘Frenzy’.

Shaffer’s adaptation retained little of Pinner’s narrative, instead fashioning an enigmatic mystery rich in symbolism and enigmatic mise-en-scene based around a conflict between belief systems (Christianity and paganism). Robin Hardy landed directorial duties and probably had no idea how maligned, misappropriated, controversial and – finally – revered his film would become.

Produced through the ailing British Lion, the company had just been acquired by John Bentley. Faced with union concern that he was going to asset-strip the company, Bentley rushed ‘The Wicker Man’ into production. The May Day setting, crucial to the film’s aesthetic and imagery, called for a springtime shoot; instead, Hardy and his cast and crew found themselves shooting in October. Fake blossom was glued to trees and the dancers called upon to perform au naturel and al fresco in the fertility rite scene braved the late autumn chills.

An eclectic cast was assembled: alongside Christopher Lee and fellow Hammer alumnus Ingrid Pitt were Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland and, after David Hemmings and Michael York passed, the lead role of Sgt Neil Howie went to Edward Woodward, best known then for his role in the TV series ‘Callan’.

An opening credit thanks “The Lord Summerisle [Lee’s character in ‘The Wicker Man’] and the people of his island off the west coast of Scotland for this privileged insight into their religious practices”. However, in his magnificently titled autobiography ‘Lord of Misrule’, Lee recalls “we went to Ayrshire, Kirkcudbrightshire, Newton Stewart, the Logan Botanical Gardens and Culzean Castle … and with these and other sites on the Scottish mainland, we stitched together a totally plausible island”.

If Lee refers to the fictitious island as being “stitched together”, then Hardy’s original 100-minute cut of the film was summarily unstitched, reduced by 15 minutes and the remnants re-cobbled together with little regard for continuity. During shooting, British Lion had passed from Bentley to EMI and was now being run by Michael Deeley, who deemed ‘The Wicker Man’ one of the worst things he’d seen and enforced the cuts which brought the running time down to B-movie length; it was eventually released on a double bill with Nic Roeg’s ‘Don’t Look Now’.

It’s a testament to the atmosphere of creeping dread that suffuses every frame of ‘The Wicker Man’, as well as to the performances and Hardy’s off-kilter direction (the film has the feel of a waking dream; or, in its final stages, nightmare) that even in its ravaged 84-minute incarnation, it’s still one hell of a movie. I first saw it in this version on TV in my mid-teens and it wormed into my subconscious and twenty years later I still find it unnerving and intriguing and compelling.

Robin Hardy subsequently attempted to recover the excised footage and reassemble his original cut. The film canisters, however, were missing, popularly thought to have been amongst a consignment of obsolete stock used as landfill during construction of the M4 motorway. Which could have been the end of the story, except for a print of ‘The Wicker Man’ that had been sent, pre-Michael Deeley’s interference, to Roger Corman who was considering releasing it to the drive-in circuit.

Although there was a limited cinema re-release in 1979 (six years after the ignominious original release), it wasn’t until the 2001 DVD restoration produced by Canal+, who had, by this time, acquired the rights, that Hardy’s complete version of ‘The Wicker Man’ gained any degree of widespread distribution.

The restoration is crucial in terms of pacing, characterisation and establishing Lord Summerisle and his subjects’ paganism in stark contrast to Howie’s devout Christianity. We follow Howie’s increasingly frustrated investigation over two nights on the island (the Deeley-savaged version compresses the entire narrative across one night, making for a cluttered second half where exposition and continuity are sacrificed and Howie lurches from one set-piece to the next); more of the islanders are seen to play a part in the proceedings; and Howie’s character arc from piety to outrage to martyrdom is more effectively – and poignantly – achieved.

Interestingly, Robin Hardy – whose only directing credits since ‘The Wicker Man’ have been ‘The Fantasist’ (in 1986) and some episodes of ‘E Street’ – is currently trying to secure financing for the intriguingly titled ‘Cowboys for Christ’, described as the projected second part of a ‘Wicker Man’ trilogy and slated to reunite the director with Christopher Lee.

‘Lord of Misrule’ by Christopher Lee (Orion, 2003)
‘The Wicker Man’: Wikipedia article
‘The Wicker Man’ website

*The behind-the-scenes stuff today, followed by an appreciation of the film itself tomorrow.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Sir Ian McKellen

Happy 70th birthday to an authentic acting legend: Sir Ian McKellen. Already an accomplished and justly celebrated performer in the theatre before he achieved success on the big screen, Sir Ian has excelled in everything from Michael Mann’s underrated slab of Nazi gothic ‘The Keep’ to Bill Condon’s ‘Gods and Monsters’, in which his portrayal of director James Whale pretty much fits the description “unforgettable”.

Of his appearances as, respectively, Magneto and Gandalf in the insanely popular ‘X-Men’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogies … well, the enduring appeal of the films and the man himself speaks volumes.

And you’ve got to love someone who, at the absolute height of his cinematic popularity, fulfilled a long-held ambition by appearing in ‘Coronation Street’. But why be surprised? This is, after all, the man who single-handedly made ‘The Da Vinci Code’ – a whopping pile of fetid bum-dung whenever Sir Ian’s not onscreen – somehow watchable.

There’s a lot of reasons to admire Sir Ian McKellen, a lot of reasons why I’m raising a large glass to him tonight. One of those reasons is his support of LGBT rights. Sir Ian is co-founder of Stonewall and a patron of, amongst others, Pride London and The Lesbian and Gay Foundation. He has spoken of tearing out homophobic passages from Gideon Bibles while staying in hotel rooms and caused the plug to be pulled on a TV interview in Singapore when he asked if the host could recommend a local gay bar.

All good stuff, but it’s the political aspect to his activism that stirs the blood. When he came out in 1988, he was vocal in his opposition of Section 28 (a controversial legislation then being considered by the Conservation government that stipulated local councils should “not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”; in short, a law that would have hamstrung gay rights and consciousness-raising about gay rights). At a meeting with MP Michael Howard, the politician not only refused to change his stance on Section 28 but had the temerity to ask Sir Ian to sign an autograph … which he did, annotating it “Fuck off, I’m gay.”


Sunday, May 24, 2009


Fast forward from Peter O’Toole playing a tyrannical Nazi general in an over-the-top war movie in 1967 to Peter O’Toole playing a tyrannical director making an over-the-top war movie in 1978*. And whaddaya know, it’s the director who’s the most dangerous character. Our boy allegedly based his portrayal of messaniac helmer Eli Cross on David Lean.

I’m saying nothing.

The perks of retrospect permit the observation that Eli Cross sounds quite similar to Eli Roth.

Again, I’m saying nothing.

Besides, Cross is shooting a war film not an exercise in torture porn. Or is he? Everything is about the shot; about provoking the audience. “I know a man who made an anti-war movie,” Cross reminisces, “a good one. When it was shown in his home town, army enlistment went up six hundred percent.” Cross wants his movie to be subversive, and to that end views newly hired stunt man Cameron (Steve Railsback) as more or less expendable. What’s a mere human life compared to getting the shot?

Cross’s fixation on getting the shot is demonstrated when a camera quits shooting with 22 seconds of still-usable film in the camera. When he dares to be flippant and ask what Cross could possibly have captured in 22 seconds, the director rounds on him: “In 22 seconds, I could break your fucking spine. In 22 seconds, I could pinch your head off like a fucking insect and spin it all over the fucking pavement. In 22 seconds, I could put 22 bullets inside your ridiculous gut. What I seem unable to do in 22 seconds is to keep you from ruining my film.”

So with Cross monstrously egomaniacal and the stunts he demands crazy if not suicidal, why on earth does Cameron go along with them? Ah, thereby hangs the dynamic of Richard Rush’s film.

Cameron is a Vietnam vet with a hazy past. He’s on the lam. In the opening scene, he avoids arrest by a couple of hick cops who could have wandered in from ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ and duffs up a would-be hard nut who tries to prevent his escape. Hitchhiking out of town, he’s crossing a bridge when he thumbs a lift from a man driving an old Duesenberg made up to look like a German staff car; the driver responds by kicking him out of the car and then almost running him down. Cameron heaves a lump of iron after him and walks angrily away. Next thing he knows the car has gone off the bridge and a helicopter has appeared out of nowhere, Cross borne down out of the skies in Leni Riefenstahl-ish magnificence.

Cameron has found himself, inadvertently, in the middle of one of the key shots in Cross’s movie. Moreover, he’s just killed the stunt man who was about to engineer said moment. Cross, quickly intuiting that Cameron has something to hide, makes Cameron an offer: he’ll keep the cops off Cameron’s back and in return Cameron will take the stunt man’s place. Reluctantly Cameron agrees to it, and Cross begins by having the on-set hairdresser give him a do that emphasises his resemblance to the dear departed.

A warped and satirical battle of wills ensues. Cameron engages with his new career head-on, earning the approbation of the crew and the affections of leading lady Nina (Barbara Hershey), while Cross manipulates him at every twist and turn until Cameron becomes convinced that Cross wants him to take the dead man’s place in every single respect including the all-important bit about not being alive anymore.

And this is where, for all its flaws, ‘The Stunt Man’ resoundingly succeeds. (And there are flaws: I was going to use the phrase “gaps in the logic of the film”, but “gaps” suggests restricted pockets of space you’d be hard pushed to squeeze through. The gaps I’m talking about are huge, wide-open, drive-a-fleet-of-trucks-through-without-touching-the-sides affairs. Also, it’s overlong; the humour doesn’t always gel; and Railsback’s performance is plank-like.) But where ‘The Stunt Man’ works is in its blurring of the lines between reality and make-believe, between authorial conception and directorial vision, between perception and paranoia.

“If God could do the tricks that we can do he’d be a happy man,” Cross declares, delighting in the integration of rampant egomania and huckster-like chicanery that epitomises his personality. It’s a key line. ‘The Stunt Man’ is a house of cards, a hall of mirrors, a tissue of lies and a web of deceit. And so it should be. It’s about Hollywood.

* ‘The Stunt Man’ requires its audience to think, therefore the studio got cold feet, shelved it, and it was 1980 before the film saw the light of day.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

HELLRAISERS: The Night of the Generals

An all-star production of the over-produced, over-publicized, over-long archetypally ’60s variety, ‘The Night of the Generals’ blends murder mystery, conspiracy thriller and war movie tropes into a heady cocktail of WTF. We’re talking two and a half hours of hopelessly confused narrative digressions and howlingly incongruous scenes.

Occupied Poland, 1942: Major Grau (Omar Sharif) attends the scene after a prostitute is murdered in a dingy tenement building. Dressed in an ankle length greatcoat and black boots, he questions a witness who is hesitant about co-operating. And with good reason. “He was an officer,” the witness mumbles fearfully. Grau asks how he knows. “He was wearing trousers like yours.” Trousers, that is with a red stripe. The kind of natty apparel you don’t get to strut around in till they make you a general.

Like me reiterate at this point that Grau is dressed throughout this scene in a long greatcoat and high boots. His trousers are obscured. The man could be wearing a freakin’ kilt! Also, he’s played by Omar Sharif, whose swarthy Egyptian looks, while toned down with a dusting of white powder, remain more swarthy and ethnic than you’d credit anyone with in a military hierarchy based on Aryan purity.

The incongruities continue. The Polish hooker is revealed as a German agent, only for this tantalising subplot to disappear. A Corporal who’s a talented pianist complains at having to play Chopin when Wagner is his composer of choice. (Aside from the orchestral piece ‘Siegfried-Idyll’, Wagner’s entire output was opera or lieder; he wrote no piano music.)

Then there’s the lurching flash forwards to the mid-Sixties as Interpol agent Inspector Morand (Philippe Noiret) – a man whose connection to the events of the war isn’t established until halfway through the film – plods around tracking down the surviving protagonists and asking them blandly procedural questions in a manner that makes ‘Midsomer Murders’ look like James Ellroy on crack.

Oh yeah, and no sooner has the mise-en-scene returned the audience to Poland in 1942 than it’s suddenly Paris in 1944 and everyone’s been transferred and have co-incidentally met up again. Or maybe it’s not such a co-incidence, since ‘The Night of the Generals’ takes another lurch at this point and the 20th July plot (you know, the old bomb-in-a-briefcase under the table, let’s kill der Führer routine) is in full swing and all but one of the potential murderers are involved in the conspiracy.

But wait, you protest. The 20th July plot took place back in Germany. What’s all this malarkey about the conspirators being in Paris? Well, they’re waiting for word that the craply-moustachioed one is toast, whereupon they can establish a new government and curtail the war and … oh, what the hell? The point is, the conspirators have to keep the non-conspirator out of the way for a couple of days, and some fucking genius involved in the production of this Euro-pudding decided that huge amounts of tension and suspense could be wrung from one of the major characters being driven around Paris interminably and having a Stendhal Syndrome kind of turn when he goes to view some allegedly decadent art (you know, the kind that features naked women). This character being a hardcore Hitlerite and having a tendency to viciousness, could he be the murderer?

There is absolutely no mystery to ‘The Night of the Generals’. No suspense. It is by turns ludicrous, clichéd, overacted and pedestrian in its direction. It boasts a powerhouse cast – Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Tom Courtenay, Donald Pleasance, Charles Gray (two Blofelds in the same movie! playing Nazis!), Christopher Plummer, Coral Browne, Philippe Noiret, John Gregson and Nigel Stock – all of whom are miscast, underused or saddled with appalling dialogue: Noiret’s is exposition-heavy and, although at ease in English-language productions elsewhere in his filmography, he seems distinctly unconfident here; and pity Pleasance, desperately trying to breathe life into a clunker of a line like “am I to assume that if Stage 1 meets with resistance we will go to Stage 2 and possibly Stage 3” (I can only quote Paula’s monumentally derisive comment: “Wow, so there isn’t a Stage 1a, 1b or 1z, then?”)

All, I should say, except Peter O’Toole. He takes hygiene-obsessed General Tanz (ostensibly the most one-note character in the whole piece) and imbues him with the insouciance of T.E. Lawrence (or at least the version of Lawrence essayed by O’Toole in David Lean’s epic), the provocative and oddly threatening dandyism of Dirk Bogarde in ‘The Singer Not the Song’, and an icily ironic remove that pre-supposes Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’.

Armed with cap, boots, swagger stick, leather gloves and a piercing thousand-yard stare, O’Toole stalks through the film, disdaining Anatole Litvak’s somnolent direction, rolling the deficiencies of the script around in his mouth before spitting them out, and making mediocre material memorable simply by treating it, imperiously, with the contempt it deserves.

Friday, May 22, 2009

HELLRAISERS: Plenty of O'Toole

Deciding on the Hellraisers project – rave about one film a month, alternating between the careers of Messrs Burton, Harris, O’Toole and Reed – I logged into my LoveFilm account and enthusiastically updated my list with the highlights of these gentlemen’s back catalogue. I arranged the list so that I’d get a fair selection for each actor that would give me plenty of material for the next few months.

Many of my choices, however, were flagged with “short wait”, “long wait” or “very long wait”, which I am convinced is a euphemism for “there is a copy of this on DVD, honest, but we largely suspect it’s being used as a beer mat by an oil-rig worker based off the coast of Shetland, but the moment we get it back we’ll send to you, honest we will”.

The first two hellraiser titles to hit my doormat were ‘The Night of the Generals’ and ‘The Stunt Man’. And so it is that the project kicks off, over the next two evenings, with a Peter O’Toole double bill.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

And the award for innovative casting goes to ...

There's been a lot of speculation online that Jamie Foxx is a strong contender for the role of Frank Sinatra in Martin Scorsese's forthcoming biopic.

Now, while the prospect of Scorsese doing Sinatra makes me positively drool - the '50s, the suits, the cool tunes, the mob on the fringes; this kind of stuff is to Scorsese what westerns were to John Ford - I have to admit to a certain degree of concern.

Take a look at these two pictures.

Aside from the main difference (pussy-whipped Mafia bagman vs Oscar-winning actor) does anything strike you in terms of contrast?

Could it be that one is Italian-American and the other is African-American (or, to discard these nonsensical PC-isms, one's a white guy and one's a black guy)?

I couldn't get my head round it.

Then I twigged.

In Shakespearean days, men played women. Throughout the history of cinema, gay actors have played straight roles and vice versa. Able bodied actors have won encomium and awards playing disabled characters. And why not? It's the performance that counts.

So, let's get the project underway. We've got Foxx for Ol' Blue Eyes. How about Leonardo di Caprio as Sammy Davis Jnr, Chow Yun Fat as Dean Martin, Lucy Lui as Peter Lawson, and Dwayne Johnson in drag and a fuck-off big-hair wig as Ava Gardner?

Maybe Scorsese should just stick to producing and Mel Brooks could channel some of his much-missed 'Blazing Saddles'-era directorial brilliance (sample dialogue: "To tell a family secret, my grandmother was Italian").

I'd queue to see that movie.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Garden on the Edge of Forever

Last night, after the new 'Star Trek' movie,
we beamed down to the nearest pub
and set conversation to nerd.

Today, still in the gravitational pull
of five pints of real ale, I boldly go
where no gardener has gone before.

Stardate last September: the hedge
terraforming rampantly since then.
It's foliage, Jim, but not as we know it.

Ladders, extension cable, trimmer.
Vulcan calm desiccates under
the incessant pulse of the sun

and I get all Romulan on the outgrowth
while my eyes plot a course
for next door's garden, a quadrant

of perfect symmetry, florally precise,
untainted by weeds or fallen leaves,
a Federation picnic area in waiting

and not even a sun-lounger
langorously occupied by an Uhura-a-like
in obligatory short skirt

to alleviate the boredom.
I watch the skies, alert for the first sign
of a meteor storm or a light shower,

any excuse to return to the bridge.
The trimmer screams, its motor
running hot under cheap plastic.

I'm giving it all it's got ...

PERSONAL FAVES: The Corporation

Passed at the end of the Civil War, the 14th Amendment declared that "no State can deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law". Intended primarily to safeguard the rights of newly freed slaves, it didn't take long for lawyers acting on behalf of corporations to hijack this law. The Supreme Court responded to their lobbying by according the rights of a person to a corporation. By way of example: "Imperial Steel Incorporated has many of the legal rights of a person. It can buy and sell property. It can borrow money. It can sue in court and be sued. It carries on a business ... It is a member of our society."

Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott's documentary, an adaptation of the acclaimed book by Joel Bakan, takes this concept as its starting point and spends two and a half hours relentlessly pursuing corporationism and demanding that it be held accountable for its effect on society, its effect on overseas economies and exploitation of sweatshop workers, its effect on the environment, its relationships with despotic regimes and its cynical manipulation of the consumer through branding, marketing and targetting children via heavy saturation of advertising campaigns.

Since the corporation has the legal rights of a person, the documentary asks, what personality traits does it exhibit?

Those, the answer reveals, of a psychopath.

'The Corporation' is built around interviews, illustrated with archive footage, with CEOs, traders, economists, activists, environmentalists and Michael Moore. A film of this ilk would have been incomplete without a contribution from Michael Moore. If Moore is, as ever, on the side of the angels, then he is in good company: philosopher and cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky, environmental activist and eco feminist Vandana Shiva, and Naomi Klein, author of the seminal 'No Logo', are all on hand to offer penetrating insights and/or alternatives to the grasping, dollar-driven bottom-line greed that defines the corporate mindset.

If these are the film's heroes, it's no surprise that the villains are the pocket-layering, conscience-free, money-grubbers whose souls are in hock to big business and who seem untroubled by morality or social norms.

Here's Lucy Hughes, VP of Initiative Media, a company who wants to brainwash your children and make them brand-loyal consumers for the rest of their lives (Goebbels would love to date this girl): "You can manipulate consumers into wanting and therefore buying your product. It's a game … [Children] are tomorrow's adult consumers … build that relationship with them when they're younger and you've got them as an adult … Is it ethical? I don't know. But our role at Initiative is to move products. And if we know you move products with a certain creative execution placed in a certain type of media vehicle, then we've done our job."

(Luce, babe, quick answer to your question: no it isn't fucking ethical.)

Here's Michael Walker of the Fraser Institute, a man who thinks nature should be owned. But not just by anyone, oh no. "It sounds outlandish to say we want to have the whole universe, the whole of the earth owned. That doesn't mean to say I want Joe Bloggs owning this square foot. But it means the interests that are involved in [for instance a] stream are owned by some group or by some people that have an interest in maintaining it."

And here's Carlton Brown, perhaps the most venal of all the interviewees. He's a commodities trader who has fond memories of 9/11. I'm going to quote him at length, just to emphasise the sheer awfulness of the sentiment he voices:

"I've got to be honest with you, when the September 11th situation happened, and I must say - and I wanna say this because I don't want to take it lightly, it's not a light situation - it was a devastating act. It was really a bad thing. It was one of the worst things I've seen in my lifetime, you know. But, I will tell you and every trader will tell you, who was not in that building and who was buying gold and who owned gold and silver, that when it happened the first thing you thought about was, 'How much is gold up?' The first thing that came to mind was, 'My God, gold must be exploding'. Fortunately, for us, all our clients were in gold. So when it went up they all doubled their money. Everybody doubled their money. It was a blessing in disguise. Devastating, crushing, heart shattering, but on the financial sense, for my clients that were in the market, they all made money ... When the USA bombed Iraq back in 1991, the price of oil went from $13 to £40 a barrel. Now, we couldn't wait for the bombs to start raining down on Saddam Hussein ... There was not a broker that I know of that wasn't excited about that ... In devastation there is opportunity."

Does this make you angry? Speaking for myself, every time I watch the film I have to restrain myself from hurling something at the screen when this fuckwit comes on.

There's worse to come: American corporationism's relationship with Nazi Germany. The Coca-Cola Company, patriotically advertising their product using the images of US serviceman, made sure they maintained European profits by creating Fanta, advertised with pictures of Aryan madchen. Despicable, right? Well, let's put IBM in the dock: we're talking despicable plus VAT.

The complex, pre-computer punch-card system by which the Third Reich operated the railway system serving the death camps, not mention administrating what actually went on in the camps themselves, were built by IBM, the machines (even those on-site at the camps) were serviced by IBM technicians once a month, and the millions of punch-cards themselves were printed by IBM. In its defence, IBM has stated that all of this was run through a German subsidiary company and they had no control over it. Documents are produced for the camera, however, that demonstrate the contract was between the Third Reich and IBM in America.

Manipulation of children, ownership of nature, profiteering from terrorism, complicity in the Holocaust. This is big business. This is the corporation. Fucking frightening, isn't it?

And if it weren’t for the contribution of one man, a hero within the system, Achbar and Abbott's film would be almost unbearably nihilistic in its depiction of its subject. The man in question is Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface. What he has to say is worth quoting in full:

"For 21 years I never gave a thought to what we were taking from the Earth or doing to the Earth in the making of our products. And then in the summer of 1994 we began to hear questions from our customers we had never heard before: 'What's your Company doing for the environment?' And we didn't have answers. The real answer was not very much. And it really disturbed many of our people, not me so much as them, and a group in our research department decided to convene a taskforce and bring people from our businesses around the world to come together to assess our company's worldwide environment position to begin to frame answers for those customers. They asked me if I would come and speak to that group and give them a kick-off speech and launch this new task force with an environmental vision, and I didn't have an environmental position, and I did not want to make that speech. And sort of the propitious moment, this book landed on my desk. It was Paul Hawkins' book, 'The Ecology of Commerce' and I began to read [it], really desperate for inspiration, and very quickly into that book I found the phrase, "The Death of Birth". It was E.O. Wilson's expression for species extinction, "The Death of Birth," and it was a point of a spear into my chest, and I read on, and the spear went deeper, and it became an epiphanal experience, a total change of mindset for myself and a change of paradigm. Can any product be made sustainably? Well, not any and every product. Can you make landmines sustainably? Well, I don't think so. There's a more fundamental question than that about landmines. Some products ought not to be made at all. Unless we can make carpets sustainably, you know, perhaps we don't have a place in a sustainable world, but neither does anybody else, making products unsustainably. One day early in this journey it dawned on me that the way I'd been running Interface is the way of the plunderer; plundering something that's not mine, something that belongs to every creature on earth. And I said to myself, 'The day must come when this is illegal, when plundering is not allowed. It must come.' I said to myself, 'My goodness, some day people like me will end up in jail'."

Anderson is now fully committed to sustainability. Since 1996, he has reduced Interface's carbon footprint by a third, with the stated intent of the company being fully sustainable by 2020.

His example desperately needs to be followed.

More information and resources are available at 'The Corporation's website.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Exorcist resources

Four books provide essential reading: the novel that started it all, William Peter Blatty’s ‘The Exorcist’ and its sequel ‘Legion’. Mark Kermode’s critical study is one of the most readable titles in the BFI Classics series, free of the academic tone that typifies many of the BFI’s publications and packed with background information and intelligent analysis. Bob McCabe’s ‘The Exorcist: Out of the Shadows’ provides a wealth of behind-the-scenes material.

‘The Exorcist’ fansite is your one-stop internet resource on the film. The word “fansite” normally sets alarm bells ringing with me, but this really is one of the best examples you’ll find.

Wikipedia articles on all five of the films provide easily digestible distillations of information available elsewhere and were indispensable in refreshing my memory while writing these pieces.

Finally, for some light relief after a week spent wrestling with the forces of darkness – be they Pazuzu or studio executives – click here to see the Starz Bunnies re-enact ‘The Exorcist’ in 30 seconds.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist

With the verdict swiftly in on Renny Harlin’s ‘Exorcist: The Beginning’ – to quote the immortal words of Bill Hicks: “piece of shit, say it and walk away” – the clamouring began for Paul Schrader’s original version to be released. Only to meet with a perplexing degree of critical indifference when it finally debuted on DVD under the unfortunately clunky title ‘Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist’.

Despite one essential (but minor) problem, ‘Dominion’ is far superior film to ‘Beginning’. The performances are generally better (Skarsgård has real gravitas in Schrader’s film whereas he sleepwalks through Harlin’s), the pace is more measured, the philosophical enquiry into the nature of good and evil is more pronounced (which isn’t to say it’s on the level of the original – it just seems more pronounced in ‘Dominion’ because it isn’t there at all in ‘Beginning’) and the exorcism is creepily effective and certainly the second best in the whole series.

Let’s clear up the matter of that one essential problem. Special effects. Mercifully, the budgetary limitations that denied Schrader a proper stab at post-production visual effects doesn’t debase the exorcism sequence. That could have been the film’s death knell. What it does spoil is some shots of wild dogs menacing Merrin as he goes to the aid of a leper shunned by the other tribesmen. Merrin looks properly fearful but sadly what he’s reacting to resembles some crazy version of Basil Brush with a crack problem and a grudge against humanity. Elsewhere, what should have been a heavenly radiance illuminating the firmament during the exorcism, calming the bloodlust between the British troops and the indigenous populace and bringing a traumatised and suicidal character back from the brink, just looks cheap and twinkly.

Schrader’s use of this device piles on the sanctimony a little too much, suggesting divine intervention. It’s one thing to have a priest – a servant of God; a vessel for HisHis will – casting out Satan, it’s something else to hint that He is opening the heavens and giving Merrin a bit of a helping hand. So much of ‘Dominion’ revolves around Merrin’s crisis of faith. Merrin has to come back to belief, to faith, himself.

Still, better this and the cooling of tensions between soldiers and tribesmen than the horrible blood ‘n’ guts for the sake of it massacre that blights Harlin’s film. And better still the nature of exactly who is possessed.


Forget the cheap emotional manipulation of Harlin’s version: it’s a little boy who’s possessed! No, it’s Merrin’s would-be girlfriend! In ‘Dominion’, we’re introduced to Cheche (Billy Crawford), a leper in his late teens shunned by the tribespeople for his deformities. His face is twisted into a perpetual grimace. He resembles somewhat the death mask that haunts Karras’s dream in the first film. No surprises that he becomes possessed. But ‘Dominion’ isn’t about surprises – it can’t be; the perameters in which it can operate were established by Blatty and Friedkin thirty years previously – it’s about inevitability.

Merrin is concerned with Cheche’s salvation; Rachel is convinced he can be healed medically. His possession seems to mock their hubris. Particularly since Merrin’s nemesis Pazuzu, making his first appearance, stage-manages the onset of his possession as a miracle. He heals rapidly and without a trace of scarring from an operation on his limbs. His deformities seem to disappear. He consents, at Father Francis (Gabriel Mann)’s behest, to baptism. Merrin, still in denial of his faith, leaves Francis to it. Francis quickly discovers that Cheche is possessed: his appearance transforms into an image of homo-erotic beauty. “I am perfection,” he sighs. His movements become graceful, panther-like, and finally supernatural as he glides into and out of sight.

Francis determines to perform an exorcism; but when he is brutally and terminally prevented from doing so, the task falls to Merrin.


There is something that ‘Beginning’, for all its faults, achieves to a small extent; and ‘Dominion’ realises perfectly: for the climactic exorcism to work dramatically and contextually (the context being the dynamic established in Friedkin’s film), it can’t just be about a demon being cast out of a possessed individual’s body; there also has to be an inherent and narratively established antagonism between exorcist and demon which goes beyond their immediate differences of theological affiliation.

“He will lie,” Merrin warns Karras in ‘The Exorcist’, “but he will mix his lies with the truth.” ‘Dominion’ (and ‘Beginning’ much less effectively but at least Harlin picks up on it) demonstrates that Merrin has learned this through bitter personal experience. The demon attacks Merrin using his complicity in Nazi reprisals, his wavering faith, his sexual attraction to Rachel. There is doubt in Merrin’s soul and the demon hammers away at it. Merrin looks genuinely tormented, genuinely frightened during Schader’s account of the exorcism. This is his testing ground; this defines whether Merrin loses his faith altogether, or whether it strengthens. This is where the Father Merrin of ‘The Exorcist’ is forged.

“You have made an enemy of the demon,” one of the tribesmen tells Merrin at the end of ‘Dominion’. “He will pursue you now.” Think of that blood-curdling roar from the upstairs room of the MacNeil house as von Sydow arrives: “MERRRRRRIIIIINNNN!!!

‘Dominion’, not Harlin’s weak revamp, is the true beginning.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Exorcist: The Beginning

Nearly a decade and a half between ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ and ‘The Exorcist III’. Nearly as long again between ‘Exorcist III’ and ‘Exorcist: The Beginning’.

In 2002 Morgan Creek lined up ‘Exorcist: Dominion’, with John Frankenheimer slated to direct. The script was by William Wisher and Caleb Carr and took as its starting point the throwaway line in ‘The Exorcist’ that Merrin once performed an exorcism in Africa – “something to do with a young boy”. Their script was a mood piece: reflective and sombre. It detailed Merrin’s abandoning of the priesthood after being forced into complicity in a Nazi atrocity in the war; his crisis of faith; and his encounter with ancient evil in a buried church. Liam Neeson was onboard to play the younger Merrin.

Then Frankenheimer fell ill and died shortly afterwards. Paul Schrader stepped into the breach at the eleventh hour. Stellan Skarsgård replaced Neeson. French actress Clara Bellow was cast as Rachel, the doctor Merrin strikes up a friendship – and very nearly a romantic relationship with – at the archaeological site where he comes face to face with his otherworldly nemesis. British character actors par excellence Julian Wadham and Ralph Brown played the Major and Sergeant Major of a British outpost whose colonialist views and heavy-handed presence exacerbate tensions with the indigenous population.

When Schrader tendered his cut of the film, Morgan Creek voiced their unhappiness. They wanted something faster paced; something scarier. They permitted Schrader one preview, denied him sufficient resources to complete special effects work and used the negative audience response to have him ousted. In late 2003 the studio announced that an extra budget was being raised for reshoots. Renny Harlin was on board to direct the additional material.

A few months later, however, the official line was that Schrader’s film was being junked in its entirety and was being entirely reshot, from a reworked screenplay by Alexi Hawley - now entitled ‘Exorcist: The Beginning’ – with Harlin directing from scratch. Skarsgård returned, as did Wadham, but Bellow was replaced by former Bond girl Izabella Scorupco.

I’ll be considering Schrader’s version tomorrow. For now, let’s examine Harlin’s film on its own merits. This’ll make for a short paragraph.

The cinematography’s not bad.

Told you it’d be short. Now let’s examine the flaws. Firstly, Hawley’s script strips away all the psychological nuances of Wisher and Carr’s screenplay, reorders certain events and ramps up the melodrama to the nines. The reordering of events particularly damages the film where the flashback to Merrin’s forced involvement in Nazi reprisals is placed late on in the film and followed almost immediately by a clash between British troops and armed tribesman which degenerates into wholesale slaughter, which in turn is superceded by the exorcism itself. In other words, Merrin is shown to have lost his faith as a result of witnessing military brutality, then to regain it after witnessing more of the same.

After a fairly restrained (but still frequently clichéd) first half, Harlin embraces Hawley’s melodramatic contrivances wholeheartedly and throws in a visit to an asylum, a couple of graphic suicides and …


… a ludicrous switcheroo ending revealing that it’s the doctor (here renamed Sarah) who’s been possessed and not the young boy hitherto seen flailing about Regan-like on his bed. Remember that Merrin’s backstory is the exorcism being depicted here (“something to do with a young boy”). Using the possessed boy as a red herring and following up with the exorcism of an adult woman constitutes a discontinuity from the original film which is all the more jarring given that Harlin loots visual tropes and leitmotifs from ‘The Exorcist’ left, right and centre: a pendulum stopping, a statue of Pazuzu, wild dogs snarling, a startled woman holding a candle, a medallion falling, a bed juddering and moving seemingly of its own accord.


The worst is yet to come. Morgan Creek rejected Schrader’s film for not being scary enough: his exorcism scene is at least creepy. Harlin’s is just risible, packed with enough sloppy stunts and dodgy CGI to make the average episode of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ look like an exercise in documentary realism.

It would be a cheap jibe to round off this post by saying that ‘Exorcist: The Beginning’ sucks cocks in hell. But that’s pretty much all it deserves.

‘Exorcist: The Beginning’ – production timeline on

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Exorcist III

In refusing any involvement in ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’, William Peter Blatty’s opinion was “Karras fell down the steps; he’s dead – the story is over”. However, despite Boorman’s sequel doing the equivalent of a particularly eager kamizake pilot at the box office, Warner Bros were still keen on a third film. Blatty prepared a treatment intended, despite their differences over the final cut of ‘The Exorcist’, for Friedkin to direct. Friedkin’s ideas for a sequel diverged from Blatty’s and the project came to nought.

Blatty reworked the treatment into a novel, ‘Legion’. Arguably a more accomplished literary work than ‘The Exorcist’, it’s a measured, challenging and cerebral work that channels Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ in its enquiry into the nature and reality of evil offset by mankind’s facility for redemption. ‘Legion’ was published in 1983. Lieutenant Kinderman and Father Dyer are the principal characters. The novel does not contain any scene of exorcism.

In 1980, Blatty made his debut as director with an adaptation of his earlier novel ‘The Ninth Configuration’, an offbeat but curiously mesmerising story set in a military psychiatric unit. Part parable, part satire, entirely unexpected, ‘The Ninth Configuration’ is a true one-off. Little shown and largely overlooked, it’s a film ripe for rediscovery and reappraisal.

A decade later, with production companies Morgan Creek and Carolco vying for the rights to ‘Legion’, Blatty went with the former (Carolco had suggested script changes Blatty wasn’t happy with) and ‘The Exorcist III’ went before the cameras with Blatty directing for the second (and thus far last) time in his career. It wasn’t to be plain sailing.

With Lee J. Cobb dead and Father O’Malley too busy to reprise his role as Father Dyer, Blatty cast George C. Scott and Ed Flanders respectively. Scott suggests Kinderman rather than impersonating Cobb’s characterisation, but Blatty seems unable to rein him in at times and he hams it up a bit too much in some key scenes where underplaying would have proved more effective. Ed Flanders fares much better, making Dyer his own, but …


… shuffles off his mortal coil about a third of the way in. Early, slow-moving, dialogue-heavy scenes between Kinderman and Dyer, which seem to have no narrative function, pay off with Dyer’s demise: Blatty gives over enough screen time to the two men’s relationship to make the audience care. Kinderman, already investigating a series of murders which Dyer’s killing seems inextricably linked to, takes things personally …


… but when his investigations lead him to a mental hospital, the case takes on a supernatural element. An unidentified amnesiac, known only as Patient X, eerily resembles Father Karras (Jason Miller). When Kinderman quizzes him, his appearance changes to that of a notorious mass murderer, the Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif). He knows things that only Karras could know; things that only Kinderman could know; and things, most chillingly, that only the Gemini Killer could know. Also, he knows all about the string of murders that have ravaged Georgetown. And he knows exactly how the murder was done that’s most upset Kinderman.

Brad Dourif is the ace up Blatty’s sleeve. Next to two scenes of exquisite, squirmy, Hitchcockian tension – one involving the hospital corridors by night (a scene as brilliantly constructed and shocking in its payoff as anything Hitch put his name to), the other taking the old saw of ‘the race against time’ and injecting a palpitating urgency into it – ‘The Exorcist III’ really delivers when Dourif is onscreen. His is a portrait of eloquent, mocking, sardonic, seductive evil that’s worthy of comparison to Malcolm McDowell in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and Anthony Hopkins in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’. Dourif is simply frickin’ magnificent and makes the film buzz with devilish energy.

Shortly after Blatty delivered his final cut, the working title of the film flitting between ‘The Exorcist 1990’, ‘Exorcist: Legion’ and ‘The Exorcist III’, the producers started fretting that here was a film with “exorcist” in the title (Blatty felt that, like the novel, it should simply be titled ‘Legion’*) that didn’t actually feature an exorcism. Against his better judgement, but working on the assumption that if he said no, they’d only bring in some hack to film it anyway, Blatty consented to reshoots including an all-out, effects-driven exorcism scene.

‘The Exorcist III’ would be close on a masterpiece if it weren’t for the exorcism. If only Morgan Creek had taken the long view that they didn’t even need the fucking word in the title. Imagine the poster, iconic enough with a shadowy picture of the steps down which Karras plunged, a tie to the original film already established in the tagline “dare you walk these steps again?” – all they needed was a banner saying “The story of ‘The Exorcist’ continues in … ‘LEGION’.” Job done. Simple as that. But, as we’ll see in tomorrow’s post, this wasn’t to be the last time Morgan Creek made a fundamentally bad decision vis-à-vis the ‘Exorcist’ franchise.

In order to shoehorn the exorcism into the narrative Blatty wrote in a new character, Father Morning (Nicol Williamson). Never mind that Williamson has the kind of gravitas, seriousness and granite-like presence von Sydow evinced in the original, he gets just one scene prior to the exorcism, seemingly turns up out of nowhere to conduct it, and the taunts Patient X subjects him to – visions of snakes slithering over him; the crucified and suffering Karras surrounded by the Gemini Killer’s victims – have no real impact since we learn nothing about Morning. Is he afraid of snakes? Was he a friend of Karras’s? In ‘The Exorcist’ the demon attacks Karras by using his guilt over his mother’s death; he does so to drive Karras out of the room so that an old score can be settled with Merrin. This gives the original film its power. ‘The Exorcist’ is only superficially a film about a young girl who’s possessed. It’s actually about a demon who possesses a young girl in order to destroy two priests.

If the exorcism weakens the film – and with footage excised from Blatty’s original version now lost, there seems little hope of a director’s cut – there are a couple of inconsistencies that niggle. Kinderman describes Karras as “my best friend – I loved the man”, when in fact the two men barely knew each other in the first film and it’s Dyer with whom Kinderman strikes up a friendship. Also, a young black boy murdered early on is described as the son of the woman who figured out that the tape recordings made by Karras of Regan MacNeil speaking in tongues were English being spoken backwards. But in ‘The Exorcist’ the sound engineer who determines this is a caucasian male, not an African-American woman.

However, there are enough moments in ‘The Exorcist III’ that are genuinely shocking, creepy, powerful and thought-provoking to outnumber thoroughly its flaws. In a photo-finish with ‘Dominion’, it’s joint second best entry in the series and so confidently and consummately crafted it’s a shame that Blatty didn’t dabble in directing more often.

*From The Gospel According to Mark: “And Jesus asked him, “What is thy name?” And he answered, saying, “My name is Legion, for we are many.”

‘Legion’ by William Peter Blatty (Simon & Schuster, 1983)
‘The Exorcist: Out of the Shadows’ by Bob McCade (Omnibus Press, 1999)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Exorcist II: The Heretic

To paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that all studios in possession of a financially successful property must be in search of a sequel. William Friedkin’s ‘The Exorcist’ made over $66 million in its first year’s release in America*, an impressive return on a total budget (including prints and advertising) of $15 million.

A follow-up was inevitable. Friedkin and Blatty were approached but refused. Retaining the services of playwright William Goodhart to script, co-producer Richard Lederer went scouting for a director. Initially, Lederer conceived the sequel as a quickie cash-in, perhaps even utilising footage from the original that didn’t make the final cut. Again a priest would be the central character but his role would be investigative, probing the circumstances of Merrin’s death. It would be low-budget and make Warner Bros an easy profit.

At least that was the theory.

John Boorman, who felt that ‘The Exorcist’ was little more than a film about the torture of a child, was an odd choice to direct, but Goodhart’s treatment piqued his interest. Goodhart wanted to explore the theories and theology of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest and archaeologist on whom Blatty had based Father Merrin. Teilhard believed that mankind was moving towards an evolutionary stage where telepathic communication would engender global consciousness. This dovetailed with Boorman’s ideal that ‘The Heretic’ “would be the antidote” to ‘The Exorcist’ instead of a sequel; a metaphysical drama instead of a horror film. (It’s telling that Boorman’s autobiography refers to the film as simply ‘The Heretic’, pointedly leaving the word “exorcist” out of the title.)

So far, so dubious. A producer looking for a low-budget hit; a director who didn’t like the original; a writer in thrall to philosophical theorising.

It started going wrong with Goodhart’s first draft. Boorman wasn’t happy with it and states, in his autobiography that “long discussions were required to get him to change a comma”. Boorman and his writing partner Rospo Pallenberg did uncredited rewrites, the script undergoing almost continual revision as production approached. Originally, Kinderman had a prominent role; after Lee J. Cobb’s death, the script was rewritten. Main character Father Lamont was conceived as an idealistic young priest inspired by Merrin’s life and work; when Jon Voight, Boorman’s first choice, turned the part down, the script was revised to make him an older, world-weary character. Richard Burton was cast.

Linda Blair returned as Regan, but Ellen Burstyn had no interest in reprising her role as Chris. Accordingly, Kitty Winn found herself with more screen time as Sharon, formerly Chris MacNeil’s secretary and now apparently Regan’s guardian. Max von Sydow was convinced to reprise his role as Merrin (in flashbacks) even though he had tried to distance himself from ‘The Exorcist’ after it started generating so much controversy.

Blair, Winn and von Sydow are an auto-pilot throughout the whole film. Burton is magnificently indifferent to the material, barking his lines and scowling and looking very much like he wants to get off the set and into a pub as expediently as possible. Louise Fletcher, hot off her Oscar-winning turn in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ seems to have been cast for her resemblance to Burstyn. Paul Henreid, as the Cardinal from whom Lamont receives his instructions, mumbles his way through his few minutes of screen time. And pity James Earl Jones, reduced to playing most of his scenes decked out in a witch-doctor type get-up – the worst costuming since some doofus decided to put Sean Connery in a nappy/bandolier combo in ‘Zardoz’. (Said doofus was John Boorman, btw. Coincidence? I think not.)

In the six autobiographical pages he devotes to ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’, Boorman blames (i) illness, (ii) an overambitious script and (iii) Richard Burton for its box office failure. The prosecution wishes to re-examine in order to establish that: (i) Joseph Losey was ill during the filming of ‘The Servant’ and that film’s a masterpiece; (ii) unless “overambitious” is an accepted synonym for “incoherent”, this evidence should be deemed inadmissible; and (iii) Burton’s is certainly not the worst performance on display.

Let’s consider the issue of incoherence. Here’s my attempt at a plot synopsis. I use the word “attempt” advisedly. I’ve seen the film exactly twice: at a midnight screening double bill with its considerably more illustrious predecessor (I fell asleep during the mid-section of ‘Heretic’) and just a couple of days ago on DVD when I sat aghast through its two-hour running time, mouth agape and eyes bulging at the sheer, unmitigated, wanton, unapologetic, colossal, spectacular awfulness of it.

But I digress. The, ahem, “narrative” goes something like this: it’s four years since the events of the first film and Regan is now a pouting teenager living in a designer apartment under Sharon’s guardianship. She’s taking dance classes (wanna see the kind of choreography that makes your embarrassing uncle drunkenly strutting his stuff at a wedding look like Busby Berkeley? look no further) and attending sessions with psychiatrist Dr Tuskin (Fletcher). Tuskin is using a machine called the Synchronizer to link people’s minds and explore their memories, a supposedly ultra-high-tech bit of kit that resembles a mug tree with two lightbulbs strapped to it, which makes an incredibly annoying sonar-like sound every time it’s used (ie. for most of the first half of the film). Meanwhile, in a scene that contains two jarring WTF moments, Father Lamont is asked to investigate Merrin’s death. WTF moment #1: why is the investigation only now being opened, four years after the event? WTF moment #2: why does the Cardinal tell Lamont the church is considering Merrin a heretic for practising exorcism when the first film clearly demonstrates that it was not only sanctioned by church authorities but Merrin was actually asked to do it?

Lamont’s investigations bring him in contact with Regan and Dr Tuskin. Despite an immediate antagonism, Tuskin lets Lamont sit in on a Synchronizer session during which he witnesses a flashback/hallucination/vision (delete as applicable) of Merrin expiring at the hands of the possessed Regan of four years ago – who then reaches across time, space and all other logical barriers and attempts to stop Dr Tuskin’s heart. The good Regan of the present tries to comfort Dr Tuskin while Lamont dons a Synchronizer headset and goes into Dr Tuskin’s mind to rescue her from evil Regan.

I swear to God I am not making this up.

Regan begins to demonstrate otherworldly powers: precognition, telekinesis, faith healing. Lamont goes to Africa (or at least a few square meters of polystyrene rocks and an artificial sun hanging over a back lot masquerading as Africa) to track down Kokumo (Earl Jones), who was exorcised as a boy by Merrin. By now there is a telepathic link between Regan and Lamont so that when Lamont is set upon by an African tribe offended by his heretical religious views, Regan plunges off stage during her tap-dancing routine, giving a whole new meaning to coming out in sympathy.

To reiterate: I am not making this up. Nor am I under the influence of narcotics.

Lamont learns that Kukumo has the power to predict a plague of locusts (I’m laughing out loud as I type this) and can repel them by whirling his fist in the air. (Parenthetically, when Blatty saw a cut of ‘Exorcist II’, he informed the producers that he could, without changing a frame, come up with an entirely new plot, dub the film into a foreign language, subtitle it with his script and market it as a comedy. Oh, that they had listened!) There’s also something to do with good locusts, but I think I was trying to slit my wrists at that point and I might have missed something.

The internal logic of the film doesn’t just get lost at this point, it hails a cab, hightails it to the airport, books a one-way ticket to the Twilight Zone and gets wasted in the airport bar while it waits for the flight to be called. I don’t know why, but the finale has Regan and Lamont on a train back to Georgetown while Dr Tuskin and Sharon catch a plane to the same destination. These various parties converge on Prospect Street. Lamont is tempted by an adult version of evil Regan in a slinky nightdress who gives him the come-on …

No, really, I’m not making this up. Honest. On my mother’s life.

… while good Regan clings tearfully onto the stair rail as the house disintegrates around her. Lamont performs an exorcism which dispenses with holy water, religious texts and such piffling requirements as invocations to the Almighty and takes the more direct punch-the-evil-nightgown-wearing-Regan-in-the-face-a-few-times-then-rip-her-heart-out route. The plague of locusts turns up, Regan flaps a hand in the air and they all die. Sharon immolates herself. Tuskin blubs a bit. Lamont and Regan wander off and the end credits role.

Not surprisingly, when the film opened, audiences rioted, hurled abuse at the screen and demanded Boorman’s head on a plate. Fortunately, he survived and went on to make ‘Hope and Glory’ and ‘The General’. Both of which are good films.

‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ isn’t.

‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ is a piece of shit. A waste of celluloid that could have been melted down, reconstituted and used as condom wrappers; then at least paying customers could have got fucked in a good way.

*Since its original release in 1974, total worldwide earnings on ‘The Exorcist’ are in excess of $400 million.

‘Adventures of a Suburban Boy’ by John Boorman (Faber & Faber, 2003)
‘The Exorcist: Out of the Shadows’ by Bob McCade (Omnibus Press, 1999)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Exorcist

In 1949, The Washington Post reported that a Catholic priest in Mount Rainier, Maryland, had exorcised a young boy apparently possessed by a malignant force or spirit. William Peter Blatty, studying at Georgetown University, read of the case a year later and became passionate about developing it into a book-length study. He managed to contact a priest involved in the exorcism, but church authorities denied him permission to discuss the events, citing the potentially traumatic effects on the boy should the case become widely publicised.

Blatty embarked on a career as a screenwriter and sometime novelist, mainly penning lightweight comedies. But the exorcism case stayed with him. In 1971, he published ‘The Exorcist’. Although ostensibly based on the actual case, Blatty made numerous diversions, both in terms of the circumstances surrounding the possession and the nature of the manifestations, as well as changing the possessed child from a 13-year old boy to a 12-year old girl.

Blatty’s first compromise came when his publishers stipulated a more ambiguous ending (Blatty has always been concerned that the ending of the piece, book or film, should emphasis that evil has been defeated, normalcy has returned and all is well). When Warner Bros acquired the film rights, Blatty himself wrote the first draft screenplay, bringing it in an unrealistic 220 pages (using the industry standard rule of thumb that a page of script equates to a minute of screen time, Blatty’s preferred script would have resulted in a four hour movie).

Various directors were offered the project: Stanley Kubrick, John Boorman, Peter Bogdanovich, Arthur Penn and Mike Nichols all turned it down. Kubrick simply wasn’t interested in the material, while Penn had teaching commitments at Yale. Both Nichols and Boorman were hesitant over casting a child actor in such a demanding role. Blatty lobbied for William Friedkin, even though the director had been openly critical of one of his earlier scripts.

Friedkin began whittling down Blatty’s screenplay, truncating (or even excising) entire screeds of theological discourse, and reducing the centrality of Lieutenant Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb). Still, his original 140-minute cut of ‘The Exorcist’ earned Blatty’s approbation. It was the changes he made as the release date approached and the commercial considerations of a 2-hour running time became paramount that caused ruptions between writer and director.

Amongst the scenes Friedkin cut wholesale are the now-legendary ‘spider-walk’ (although both agreed on its deletion, given that it would have freighted an already emotional scene with a double climax); a scene where Regan (Linda Blair) is checked out by her doctor (leading to discontinuity given an allusion in a subsequent scene to Regan being prescribed pills); a conversation between Fathers Merrin (Max von Sydow) and Karras (Jason Miller) during a lull in the exorcism; and, perhaps most significantly to Blatty, the original ending focusing on the developing friendship between Kinderman and Father Dyer (Father William O’Malley). This he replaced with a more dour scene in which Dyer, having bade farewell to Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and Regan, glances down the vertiginous flight of steps where Karras plunged to his death, then turns and walks away, alone.

If Blatty found Friedkin’s aesthetic decisions controversial, they pale in comparison to his directorial techniques. The undisputed highlight is Friedkin’s treatment of Father O’Malley. A Jesuit priest, author and teacher, O’Malley had been hired as technical advisor; Friedkin then decided to cast him as Karras’s friend and mentor. Dyer’s big scene is his horrified and shaky administering of the last rites to Karras following his fatal plunge. A non-actor, O’Malley was unable to emote in front of the camera. Between takes Friedkin asked O’Malley, “Do you trust me?” O’Malley replied that he did. Friedkin hauled off and slapped the priest across the face, then shoved him onto the set to do the take.

Elsewhere, Burstyn and Blair sustain back injuries during physically gruelling stunt work; Friedkin discharged a blank round from a pistol to startle Miller for a key scene; and the sound effects for the exorcism sequence were blasted out at extreme volume on set without warning to create a tense, nervous, jumpy atmosphere.

The film opened to packed cinemas and round-the-block queues. Controversy was immediate. There were reports of vomiting, fainting* and miscarriages. Much was made of Friedkin’s use of subliminal imagery (the ghost face in Karras’s dream), however this is a very brief edit rather than something truly subliminal. As Friedkin inarguably put it, “if you can see it, it’s not subliminal”. True to the tendency of urban legend to attached itself to the film, this has been taken as a suggestion that there are subliminal shots in the film.

Evangelist Billy Graham went further, declaring that there was evil in the very celluloid. Why the devil would want to possess a few cans of raw film stock is something Graham failed to elaborate on, though it does explain a few things about the work of Michael Bay.

Mark Kermode’s definitive book (published as part of the BFI Modern Classics series) is essential reading. He discusses the “complex and contradictory” nature of the film, stating that in depicting the invasion of the abnormal into the normalcy of a white middle-class American home, the setting firmly rooted in a recognisably suburban environment, Friedkin pushed back the boundaries of what audiences of the time were comfortable with (particularly in terms of the horror genre, which had hitherto channelled its aesthetic from the gothic); and yet the good vs. evil narrative that ‘The Exorcist’ finally boils down to represents a highly conservative worldview “in which priests, policemen, good mothers and devoted sons” are the arbiters of what is right and sanctified.

Kermode nails it perfectly when he says, “It is in this tension between the progressive and the regressive, the divine and the depraved, the hidden and the apparent, that the power of ‘The Exorcist’ lies.”

The 2nd edition includes a transcript of a conversation between Friedkin and Blatty conducted by Kermode in 1998. Friedkin considers the film finished. Blatty – who has written alternative endings suggesting Karras’s resurrection/ascension – feels otherwise. Beyond the divergent visions of writer and director, beyond the very tensions that make the film what it is, ‘The Exorcist’ continues to haunt the imagination, permeate popular culture/consciousness and agitate the mind.

*The first time I saw ‘The Exorcist’, back when it was still banned on video in the UK, was at a midnight screening at a local fleapit. During the arteriogram sequence – a set-piece that is arguably more disturbing than any of the supernatural shenanigans – I bolted from my seat, weaved shakily to the gents and communed with the cold water tap for a minute or two.

‘The Exorcist’ by William Peter Blatty (Harper & Row, 1971)
‘The Exorcist’ (2nd edn) by Mark Kermode (BFI Publishing, 1998)
‘The Fear of God’ (1998 BBC documentary produced by Nick Freand-Jones)

Saturday, May 09, 2009

And let my cry come unto thee / Exorcist week on The Agitation of the Mind

A couple of years ago I picked up the ‘Exorcist Anthology’ box set, dirt cheap: all five films, indifferently packaged. A raft of special features bulking out the original, directors’ commentaries on ‘Exorcist: The Beginning’ and ‘Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist’ and sod all apart from trailers on ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ and ‘The Exorcist III’.

Beyond watching the original for my write-up last Halloween, the box set sat on the shelf gathering dust. A week ago, I blew the dust off it and sat down for an ‘Exorcist’-fest. The power of Christ knows what compelled me.

William Friedkin’s ‘The Exorcist’ is visceral, cerebral and still controversial, one of the key American studio films of the ’70s – a stand-out in a decade littered with great American movies. It would be all-too-easy (and lazy) to describe the other titles as a mixed bag, beset by script and production problems. Not to mention unfair, since Friedkin’s film wasn’t exactly plain sailing in its production. Just like William Peter Blatty’s novel was essentially a compromise from his original concept of the material.

In fact, the entire ‘Exorcist’ saga is shadowed by controversy, compromise, meddling and ill-fortune.

Over the next few days I’ll be looking at each film in turn, tracing the story from the genesis of William Peter Blatty’s groundbreaking novel (it has its roots in an actual case in 1949) to production company Morgan Creek’s rejection of Paul Schrader’s prequel and astonishing decision to remake it entirely under the less-than-guiding hand of Renny Harlin in 2004.

Thursday, May 07, 2009


Hideo Nakata’s ‘The Ring’, from the novel by Koji Suzuki, is the ‘Exorcist’ of Japanese cinema: a low-key horror film, shot with a documentarian’s eye for realism, devoid of any of the genre’s obvious scare tactics or gothic trappings, that became a global phenomenon. It kicked off the still-prominent J-horror movement and opened the doors, distribution-wise, for the likes of ‘Dark Water’, ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’, the obligatory ‘Ring 2’ and ‘The Eye’, bringing them to appreciative western audiences and, in many cases, their directors to the attention of Hollywood.

Then there were the remakes: Gore Verbinski’s effective take on ‘The Ring’ (Nakata himself stepped up to the mark for the disappointing ‘Ring Two’ remake), Walter Salles’ faithful account of ‘Dark Water’*, David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s pale imitation of ‘The Eye’ and Charles and Thomas Guard’s ‘The Uninvited’, a retitled and redundant rehash of ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’.

A decade down the line, the iconography – distorted faces; eerily empty corridors half-lit by flickering lights; pale women with lank black hair shrouding their faces moving slowly and unnaturally towards the camera – is in danger of becoming clichéd. Moreover, ‘The Ring’ should feel hopelessly out of date: the source of the haunting is a fuzzy sequence of non-sequitur images taped off a late night channel (who tapes anything anymore?), the victim receives a phone call seven days later (everyone in the film relies on a landline; in the age of the cellphone it’d be a case of number not recognised? dump call!), and the only way to rid oneself of the curse is to make a copy of the take (again, who tapes anything anymore?). Let’s face it: unless the curse wormed its way onto the internet and did the viral thing, there’s no way it’d claim more than a handful of victims.

And yet ‘The Ring’ retains its power to unnerve. Nakata’s slow-burn pacing establishes character, setting and atmosphere. The cinematography dwells on shadowy interiors, rainy exteriors, dark corners. Impending dread hangs heavy in every frame. Even straightforward, exposition-heavy dialogue scenes play out with the sense that something is lurking just offscreen; something nasty is just about to happen. And when those nasty things do happen – several of them – some are tossed out so casually that it’s like finding yourself suddenly impaled on a plot development that came out of nowhere, while others are agonisingly built up to. The appearance of ghost girl par excellence Sadaka falls into the latter category and it’s one of modern horror’s most creepy and indelible images.

Essentially, ‘The Ring’ plays on the horror of the normal: a blank VHS tape, a TV tuned to static, a ringing phone. It’s also one of the few movies that work better on the small screen. When you watch Sadaka crawl out of the TV set and into someone’s room, a small and frightened part of the mind will always wonder if she’ll take a few more paces and seep through the fourth wall of your TV screen.

*That Verbinski and Salles have tendered the most successful remakes is due in no small part to the casting of compelling and intelligent actresses – Naomi Watts and Jennifer Connelly respectively – in the lead roles.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Music in Film

My thanks to Viv Apple for this nostalgic and evocative piece:

Whenever I hear mention of the film ‘Dr Zhivago’, or even see the title in print, my brain immediately replays Lara’s Theme through my mind as if an automatic switch has been thrown. Such is the power of the film music written by Maurice Jarre, who died on 29th March. Jarre composed for more than 150 films, won three Oscars, two Baftas, four Golden Globes and a Grammy. He was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in February this year received a lifetime achievement award at the Berlin Film Festival.

Jarre won his first Oscar for his score in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. After that success he was much in demand from directors including Alfred Hitchcock, William Wyler, Luchino Visconti and John Huston. He always maintained that music should be a central part of any film and not just used to underline a piece of action or a love scene, and thus he, along with other composers in the field, succeeded in making great films glorious.

I was a small child when my friend Judy and I leaned out of her bedroom window one afternoon and sang at the tops of our voices, Somewhere Over the Rainbow - à la Judy Garland. It wasn’t that we didn’t have anything better to do - although, actually, we didn’t. The real reason why we let rip over the rooftops of Streatham was that we’d discovered the joy and the power of film music. ‘The Wizard of Oz’ was, and still is, a film full of extraordinary ideas and wonderful images, but would its magic have been powerful enough to capture both adults and children in its spell without the music of Harold Arlen and lyrics of E.Y. Harburg?

That’s the kind of rhetorical question which lasts throughout a lifetime of movie-going. Musicals, by definition built around their music scores, have come a long way since Busby Berkeley’s girls on winding staircases first bored the pants off small boys waiting for their cowboy features in the 1940s. ‘The Glenn Miller Story’(1953), was among the first musicals to bring realism to the genre, separating story from musical numbers whilst still using music in the development of the scenario. The film was about Glenn Miller whose life story was about his music, just as the brilliant 2005 film ‘Walk the Line’ was about Johnny Cash, whose life was about his music.

It might appear more difficult to use music in a ‘straight’ film, but the evidence is to the contrary. A good composer can conjure up excitement, sadness, fear, elation and passion in his music; a great composer can match these emotions with what is happening on the screen so exactly that we cannot see the join. Even ‘serious’ classical composers have been attracted to the art. Shostakovich composed 34 film scores, including ‘Hamlet’ (1964) and ‘King Lear’ (1970).

Vaughan Williams wrote music for about ten films, including ‘49th Parallel’ (1941), ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ (1948) and the 1941 war documentary ‘Coastal Command’ - a ‘stiff-upper-lip’ collection which might seem to belie the love of folk music for which he was better known. Eric Coates was another quintessentially English composer, and his fondness for marches came in handy when he was asked in 1955 to write the score for ‘The Dam Busters’, the story of Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bomb. His work proved to be uplifting - an inspiration to accompany 617 Squadron on their flight over the Rhur valley.

By contrast, I defy anyone to listen to Rachmaninov’s Second piano concerto without recalling that most famous 1946 screen love story, ‘Brief Encounter’. Its pent-up passion is woven into the music, which truly tugs at the heart and gives permission for the tears to flow. And in 1995, Nigel Westlake broke new ground by arranging Saint-Saens’ Third Symphony to bring tears of joy to kids and animal-loving adults in ‘Babe’ - based on Dick King-Smith’s book, “The Sheep-Pig”, the story of a small pig’s triumph over the limitations of being a pig.

But could all this be a form of manipulation, a distortion of the truth? This is dangerous ground, but I don’t believe there is anything sinister in the enhancement of a story by way of music, which in itself cannot tell a different story. The score for the 1981 film ‘Chariots of Fire’ won an Academy Award for its composer, Vangelis. Later, there were murmurs that the movie was carried to its triumphal success primarily because of its inspirational music, without which the simple story of rivalry between runners Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddle in 1920 would not have aroused much interest. But to argue this would not only be a disservice to the film, but would also be a denial of something more fundamental, to do with connections in the human brain. When that connection is made, our understanding is enhanced.

The marriage of music and film must be one of passion, the partners locked into an emotional bond from which there is no escape. As cinema-goers we feel this to be true, but it may have been proved in practical terms recently, when Bernard Herman’s score for the 1960 Hitchcock film, ‘Psycho’ was put up for sale at the auction house Bonham’s. It was expected to go for about £40,000 - but there were no takers!

Hitchcock was unsure about the movie and wanted to cut it drastically, but Herman knew that with the application of music he could turn it into something special. And he was proved right. Hitch told Herman he wanted NO music for the shower scene, only the sound of water - and he then went away on a short break. When he returned, Herman had sneakily written the music which became perhaps the most famous horror scene theme in film history. But on its own, divorced from that horrific murder, was it just a string of notes? In this particular case, it seems so. And yet other factors, such as the present economic climate or simply the natural fluctuations of the market, may be just as much to blame here.

Would I pay £40,000 for the original score of ‘Dr Zhivago’? No. But then why should I, when I already have it in my head for ever?

by Viv Apple

in memoriam Maurice Jarre, 13th September 1924 – 29 March 2009