Saturday, April 30, 2011

... and it felt so good

Regular readers of these pages will know that I share a birthday with Kirsten Dunst and for the last two years, I've used this as an excuse to load the blog with eye-candy.

Time for a change this year, methinks.

I also share a birthday with R&B star Akon, whose hilarious collaboration with The Lonely Island, 'I Just Had Sex', is presented here for your viewing pleasure:

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Shane Briant resources

Wrapping up two weeks celebrating the work of Shane Briant, it’s worth mentioning his recent second career as a best-selling author. His first novel ‘The Webber Agenda’ appeared in 1994: an old-school plot-driven thriller that you imagine flowing from the pen of Alistair MacLean or Robert Ludlum. It’s fast-paced globe-trotting narrative mirrored the locations Briant was visiting for a movie he was shooting at the time!

It was followed by ‘The Chasen Catalyst’ (1995), ‘Hitkids’ (1995), ‘Bite of the Lotus’ (2001), ‘Graphic’ (2005), ‘Worst Nightmares’ (2009) and ‘The Dreamhealer’, published this year. ‘Hitkids’ could almost be a precursor of the pre-pubescent killers in ‘Kick Ass’, with the son of a mob hitman taking on his father’s mantle, while a vengeful associate tries to trap him through the internet. Hi-tech, compellingly contemporary and unflinching in its subject matter, it confirmed the promise of Briant’s first two novels and demonstrated that he’s a writer with his finger on the pulse of popular culture.

‘Worst Nightmares’ – fittingly enough for an actor inextricably associated with Hammer – is a psychological horror novel centring on a novelist who comes into possession of a diary of dreams and murders, which he initially considers a heated but compelling work of fiction. A bit of research suggests that (a) the murders mirror actual cases, and (b) the author is dead. Against his better judgement, but struggling with writer’s block, he publishes the work as his own … and quickly comes regret it. ‘The Dreamhealer’ continues the story, as Briant steers the narrative from Paris to LA.

Go here for Briant’s Fantastic Fiction page, and here for a video trailer for ‘The Dreamhealer’. Elsewhere on the net, Robcrankey’s channel provides a wealth of archive Briant material, including trailers, montages, interviews and extended footage from some of his key performances. Of particular interest are a series of short films directed by Robert Kenchington where Briant reprises his iconic roles from ‘Straight on Till Morning’, ‘Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter’, ‘Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell’ and ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Shane Briant on the small screen

A great actor will excel in any medium. Shane Briant earned comparisons to John Gielgud and Michael Redgrave before he’d ever stepped in front of a movie camera. It was a natural transition from the stage to the silver screen. It was also inevitable that he’d shine on the small screen.

I’ve already written about his deliciously amoral turn in the ‘Sweeney’ episode “Chalk and Cheese”, but his work for television goes beyond that highpoint in 70s drama.

Briant followed his cinema debut in ‘Straight on Till Morning’ with an episode of the long-running ‘Armchair Theatre’ entitled “Franklin’s Farm”, notable for being directed by British TV stalwart Peter Hammond (Hammond went on to direct episodes of classic series ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’, ‘Tales of the Unexpected’, ‘Inspector Morse’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes’.

A year later, Briant gave what is arguably the definitive account of Oscar Wilde’s louche but tragic anti-hero in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, directed by Glenn Jordan and also starring Nigel Davenport and Fionnula Flanagan. Niftily sidestepping the oh-so-polite costume drama elements of Albert Lewin’s lavish 1945 MGM version, and mercifully not making any of the mistakes that blight Oliver Parker’s egregious 2009 travesty, Jordan’s made-for-TV production – for all that it was a quickly made, low-budget piece – pays attention to the importance of the performance, the acid wit of Wilde’s writing and the importance of absolutely the right person in the lead role. With his debonair style, good looks and ability to conjure an ironically removed characterization, Briant was most certainly the right man for the job.

In the same year that he made his Hollywood debut alongside Paul Newman and James Mason in John Huston’s ‘The Mackintosh Man’ (a poundingly unsubtle but satisfactorily old-school adaptation of Desmond Bagley’s novel ‘The Freedom Trap’), Briant appeared in two very different but quintessentially 70s TV shows. In the ‘Crown Court’ episode “The Inner Circle”, he gave a highly memorable performance (go here and here for all the evidence, pardon the pun, you need); while in “Season for Love”, a season two episode of ‘Van der Valk’, he retains a commendable professionalism in the face of chocolate box production design and some notable scenery chewing by the show’s leading man.

1975 saw Briant appear not only in the aforementioned ‘Sweeney’ episode, but two notable TV movies: Stuart Burge’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Under Western Eyes’ and Jack Gold’s unforgettable Quentin Crisp biopic ‘The Naked Civil Servant’, in which Briant’s turn is every bit as memorable as John Hurt’s – and compliments don’t come much higher than that!

Shane Briant has remained active in film and television (most recently starring in the acclaimed Australian dramas ‘City Homicide’ and ‘Rogue Nation’) but it’s key to his enduring appeal that he put in such great work in the 70s – perhaps the key decade in TV drama.

Monday, April 25, 2011

THE SILLITOE PROJECT: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner

Posted to commemorate the first anniversary of Alan Sillitoe’s death

Published in 1959 and one of the few Sillitoe titles (along with ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ and his last two or three books) still in print, this collection of short fiction contains nine stories: ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’, ‘Uncle Ernest’, ‘Mr Raynor the School-Teacher’, ‘The Fishing Boat Picture’, ‘Noah’s Ark’, ‘On Saturday Afternoon’, ‘The Match’, ‘The Disgrace of Jim Scarfedale’ and ‘The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller’.

The title story is about a youth named Smith who is sent to Borstal after robbing a bakery. Borstals were youth prisons in the UK (named after the village near Rochester where the first one was established in 1902), which housed delinquent offenders under the age of 23. The Borstal model was abolished in 1982 when the Criminal Justice Act 1982 made provision for youth custody centres. The controversial British TV play ‘Scum’, written by Roy Minton (remade as a feature film when the original was banned), was an attack on the Borstal system.

Smith (his first name is never mentioned, rendering him effectively an Everyman given that Smith is the most common surname in the UK) demonstrates an affinity for cross-country running which, as he ruminates early in the story, is “a bit rare, having long-distance cross-country runners in Borstal, thinking that the first thing a long-distance cross-country runner would do when they set him loose at them fields and woods would be to run as far away from the place as he could get on a bellyful of Borstal slum-gullion”. Therefore, seeing an attempt to bolster his own reputation as a progressive jailer, the governor coerces Smith into competing for the Borstal Blue Ribbon Prize Cup For Long-Distance Cross-Country Running (All England), a prize that the gangly-limbed and fleet-footed Smith could win with his eyes closed. If he wanted to …

Essentially a first-person stream of consciousness, ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’ probes Smith’s mind as he reaches his anti-establishment decision. Whipsmart, attitudinous, cunning as a fox with criminal tendencies and blessed with, to quote William Ernest Henley, an “unconquerable soul”, Smith is perhaps Sillitoe’s greatest working class rebel. Even Arthur Seaton accepts the reality of lifetime at his capstan lathe, with booze, birds and brawling as the raison d’etre of the weekend. Smith accepts nothing, nor does he complain or seek to the shift the blame when the establishment demands recompense of him. Smith is the patron saint of everyone who has ever said “fuck you” to authority and lived it!

Most of the other stories are “slice of life” vignettes. ‘Uncle Ernest’ is about a lonely middle-aged man who befriends two prepubescent girls and starts buying them treats, seeing in them the daughters he never had. His intentions are purely good-hearted, but two bullying policemen warn him to stay away from them, their groundless assertion that “we know all about you” awakening in Ernest a guilt for something never done, never even contemplated, and yet a guilt so great that his final refuge is “through the swing doors [of] the crowded and noisy bar of a public house, his stare fixed by the beautiful heavily baited trap of beer pots that would take him into the one and only best kind of oblivion”. It’s a heartbreaking piece, more so for Sillitoe’s depiction of how the sisters, once they’ve cottoned on his generosity, start taking advantage of him.

‘Mr Raynor the School-Teacher’ starts off as a wry portrait of a man settling into the dull routine of work and the tedium of marriage, whiling away his life bullying his class into silence, the better to gaze at the buxom young woman who works at the haberdashery shop across the street. It’s only by the final paragraphs that Sillitoe plays his hand and the small collection of pieces cohere themselves into a picture of loss and helplessness.

‘The Fishing Boat Picture’ treads similar territory, chronicling the aftermath of a couple splitting up. Ostensibly, the man – Harry – seems content enough to live alone. He settles into the routine of work; reads his books; smokes his pipe. The picture of the title – the remaining item from a triptych (the other two broken during vicious arguments) – serves as an epitaph for their relationship. Then his estranged wife reappears on the scene and asks for it back. Harry relinquishes the picture philosophically enough, only to discover the next day that she’s pawned it. The story is a study in regret and ends unexpectedly.

The young lads in ‘Noah’s Ark’ are less like Ernest, Harry or Mr Raynor, and more like teeny versions of Smith in the title story. They skive off school, head to the Goose Fair (a yearly funfair that occupies a large recreational ground in Nottingham), cadge pennies for rides, pick up drop cigarettes, swear, sing rude songs and engage in the odd bit of petty theft. When their ill-gotten finances run out, they take to playing a dangerous game on the mechanical ride of the title, trying to ride for free while evading the bullish owner. Think ‘Emperor of the North’ with a little kid instead of Lee Marvin, a carnival ride instead of the train but still with Ernest Borgnine as Ernest Borgnine and you’ve pretty much got ‘Noah’s Ark’. It’s also an effective study of peer pressure and complicity, and captures that moment when a prank ceases to be a prank and becomes an altogether more serious matter.

A similarly young protagonist is the narrator of ‘On Saturday Afternoon’. Left out of a trip to the cinema, he passes the time roaming the back alleys of his hardscrabble neighbourhood. Overhearing subdued looking man accounting for the coil of rope he’s carrying with the blunt statement of purpose “It’s to ’ang missen with”, the boy follows him out of curiosity. Thus he becomes witness to (and complicit in) a suicide attempt.

I’d be tempted to call ‘On Saturday Afternoon’ the jewel in the crown after the title story, were it not for the poisoned brilliance of ‘The Match’. Storywise, there’s not much to it: Lennox attends a Saturday afternoon football match with his mate Fred, becomes increasingly morose at the poor conditions (a murky fog renders much of the game unwatchable) and outright angry at the final score, which sees Notts County lose pitifully at home (fifty-three years after Sillitoe wrote ‘The Match’, Notts County aren’t doing much better). Lennox’s belligerence is at odds with Fred’s happy-go-lucky demeanour. Fred goes home to his new bride and makes the most of the rest of his weekend. Lennox, however, goes home and deliberately picks a fight with his wife. What Sillitoe pinpoints here is the moment when somebody does something for pure spite, knowing full well what they’re doing and how destructive the outcome will be, but pathetically unable to stop themselves. It’s a horribly realistic and psychologically accurate piece of writing.

Relationships are at the centre of ‘The Disgrace of Jim Scarfedale’, Sillitoe here contrasting a volatile romantic relationship with the smothering influence of a mother unable to give up her son to the realities of growing up, life, love and the outside world. Mrs Scarfedale is a pinafore-wearing, house-proud Midlands version of Mrs Bates, constricting Jim with the taut knots of the apron-strings. Like ‘Noah’s Ark’ and ‘On Saturday Afternoon’, the story also deals with complicity.

The collection ends on an unexpectedly poignant note with ‘The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller’ which seems, for its first few pages, to be a back-streets of Nottingham vignette that could have been an early sketch for ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, but suddenly reveals itself as a nakedly autobiographical work.

The nine stories here add up to little more than 170 pages, yet ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’ is a major book. Sillitoe’s ability to evoke a time and place is faultless; his dialogue has the rough-hewn poetry of real working class life. His characters rage and struggle, tearing themselves fully-formed from the page even though their creator has sketched them with deceptively few sentences. Sillitoe gets inside their heads. He understands them. He makes them all too familiar. Disturbingly familiar at times. And therein lies the genius.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell

Although the Frankenstein franchise notched up almost as many entries as Hammer’s Dracula series, it never quite captured the popular consciousness the way the caped bloodsucker from Transylvania did. Maybe because Peter Cushing wasn’t as dangerously sexy as Christopher Lee. Maybe because reanimated corpses aren’t as darkly appealing as aristocratic vampires.

What the Frankenstein films can lay claim to, however, is that they didn’t suffer the drop-off in quality that beset the latter Dracula titles, particularly when Hammer took the decision to update the Count’s milieu to a horribly psychedelic version of 1970s London. Hard to imagine Baron Frankenstein swanning around Carnaby Street in a velvet smoking jacket, doing LSD and listening to the Velvet Underground.

Just as well that the studio allowed Frankenstein to go out in fine style, unrepentant in his experiments in playing God, against a particularly apposite Gothic backdrop. Sure, ‘Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell’ is saddled with a lurid title that suggests Hammer were scraping the bottom of the barrel, but it scores highly in virtually every respect.

The film starts with a grubby bodysnatcher (Patrick Troughton) only just evading the clutches of a passing constable as he makes off with an unofficially exhumed corpse. He delivers said item to the house of Dr Simon Helder (Shane Briant), who greets him with a raised eyebrow and the satirical homily, “That smell: is it you or him?” Immediately, this touch of mordant humour establishes Helder as a likeable character even if his experiments are macabre.

Inspired by the works of Frankenstein, whose publications he owns, Helder is attempting reanimation. His attempts are short-lived as the bodysnatcher is promptly arrested and sings like a caged canary. The police come calling on Helder, he’s hauled up in court and the judge – who previously sentenced Frankenstein for similar offences some years earlier – loses no time in sentencing Helder to a period of five years in an asylum for the criminally insane.

It’s at this establishment, nominally run by Adolf Klauss (John Stratton), a licentious alcoholic hiding a dark secret, that Helder meets the asylum’s doctor, Karl Victor (Peter Cushing) and realizes that Frankenstein, long believed dead, is using the anonymity of the facility to continue his experiments. Initially drawn to the older man as a mentor figure, Helder eventually comes to the reluctant conclusion that playing God has its consequences.

Although beset by a budget as small as its title is misleading, ‘Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell’ injects some new blood into the formula. Helder’s character arc – from arrogant and self-confident scientist to a man who discovers his humanity when faced with the greater and more amoral urge to scientific gain of his supposed hero – is contrasted with both that of Frankenstein, initially a benign presence who saves Helder from the heavy-handed treatment of Klauss’s goons, but whose hold over Klauss comes only at the subjugation of angelic mute Sarah (Madeline Smith). Frankenstein’s plans for Sarah in the last act cross a line Helder cannot tolerate.

Another interesting juxtaposition is that of the creature (Dave Prowse) to the two scientists. Created from the body of a thug, the hands of an artisan and the brain of a genius, the disparate elements rebel against each other, causing the creature physical, emotional and cerebral agonies. Never mind the horrible “monster from hell” part of the title, Prowse arguably conjures one of the most pitiable incarnations of Frankenstein’s monster put on screen; that he does so from behind a plastic mask that is simultaneously groteseque and almost laughable only proves how good a job he does. One of the best scenes segues from Frankenstein and Helder, sharing a drink to celebrate the creature’s resurrection, to the create itself, abandoned, alone and desperately melancholy.

In fact, the performances are uniformly good. Cushing never took the easy way out in playing Frankenstein: there was nothing self-deprecating about his performance, nary a wink to the gallery. He always played the character straight, and never more so than here. Briant’s Helder is not just a foil to Frankenstein, but the opposite side of the coin. Helder could easily become Frankenstein; inherit his mantle. The drama is in the dichotomy between Helder’s scientific curiosity and his sense of humanity.

The closing scenes toy ironically with the old concept of the lunatics running the asylum, a melee which it requires Frankenstein’s aristocratic air of authoritarianism to rectify. In consolidating Frankenstein’s status as both instigator and invigilator – as well as delivering a gut-wrenching climatic scene that says as much about the human condition as any art film – ‘Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell’ asks some probing questions about mortality, science, advanced knowledge and intellectual responsibility. If only Hammer could have rethought the title!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter

Talk about potential. ‘Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter’ had all the elements to make it one of the Hammer’s finest horror movies, the curtain raiser to a franchise to rival the Dracula or Frankenstein franchises.

The film ticks the right boxes in its traditional period setting, its embrace (and subversion) of vampire tropes, its third act narrative development that links it to the Karnstein trilogy, its bevy of beauties (including Caroline Munro, Wanda Ventham and Susanna East) and its mysterious anti-hero, the titular Kronos, an aristocratic military type who has survived a vampire bite and dedicated himself to kicking vampire arse from one end of the British Isles to the other. He’s moody, enigmatic and handy with a sword. The ladies like him, too, hence he spends a certain amount of screen time conducting a fleeting romance with the voluptuous Carla (Munro). Pretty cool dude, right?

Unfortunately, the problems start with the casting of Horst Janson as Kronos. Although an accomplished actor in his native Germany, Janson never seemed quite at ease in English language roles; and while there’s no doubt that he has the physicality and aristocratic looks required to play Kronos, he doesn’t bring the character to life.

This, is turn, damages the relationship, central to the narrative, between Kronos and his partner Dr Marcus (John Cater). The hump-backed and sometimes self-pitying Marcus is a different beast to the usual “sidekick” stereotype: he’s there neither to provide comic relief or deliver screeds of expositional dialogue, but functions as a cerebral and rigorously determined vampire hunter in his own right. Sadly, with Janson unable to flesh Kronos out into a three-dimensional protagonist, there is no inkling of what keeps these very different men together.

Likewise, the relationship between Kronos and Carla is by-the-numbers, shoehorned in and lacking any real chemistry. A shame, since the striking and eminently likeable Munro is reduced to mere set dressing.

Fortunately, when ‘Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter’ gets things right, it does so iconically and interestingly enough to give us hints of the film it could have been. The treatment of vampirism does things differently: attacks occur in the daylight, the cross is useless unless its wearer is devout to begin with, and the victims are drained not of blood but of their youth. Kronos’s philosophy of vampire hunting seems to be tinged with Eastern mysticism and he openly admits that “there are different ways to kill different vampires”. The black-hooded figure whose appearance presages the attacks is iconic and properly macabre. The attacks are over quickly and not eroticized in the manner of, say, the Christopher Lee Dracula films.

The film also makes an interesting juxtaposition between the transient Kronos – a man who seems to have no home, no family and only one friend (which is not to say we should in any way feel sorry for someone who gets to enjoy a dalliance with Caroline Munro) – and the Durwards, an ostensibly close-knit family but with one mother-humper of a secret in the closet.

The Durwards are held together by siblings Paul (Shane Briant) and Sara (Lois Daine). Given their closeness and Sara’s androgynous looks, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there’s a touch of the Emil/Elizabeth relationship from ‘Demons of the Mind’ percolating away in the background. But the focus seems to be more on their ailing mother Lady Durward (Ventham), still grieving the death of her husband from the plague. Paul blames surgeon Grost (John Carson) for not saving Durward’s life. Meanwhile, Grost – horrified at the recent attacks – joins forces with Kronos.

It almost goes without saying that Briant’s turn is the standout (closely followed, arguably, by Cater). He brings a similar degree of vulnerability to the role as he does as Emil, but without Emil’s capacity for sociopathic behaviour. Sadly, it’s a very limited role and the denouement sees Paul sidelined while the rest of the cast get stuck in.

Hammer dropped the ball with ‘Captain Kronos’: with Briant in the title role, Munro’s part beefed up and better execution of the swordplay (the duelling scenes are pretty bad!), it could have been a classic. Kronos himself might have taken up the mantle from Van Helsing. It’s sad to reflect that what we’re left with is, at best, a watchable intimation of what could have been.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Service announcement

Due to unexpected technical issues it being a nice day and yours truly intending to put in some serious social time at the pub, the planned review of 'Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter' will be appearing tomorrow.

Hangover permitting.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

THE SWEENEY: Chalk and Cheese

Shane Briant’s four iconic appearances in Hammer productions are the main feature of Shane Briant week here on The Agitation of the Mind. But let’s take a mid-week break and consider his deliciously amoral turn in “Chalk and Cheese”, the first episode of series two of ‘The Sweeney’.

I’m going to throw out a statement here which might sound like fan-boy rhetoric, but I can assure you it’s not mere opinionism but a statement of fact. Ready? Here it comes: ‘The Sweeney’ was British TV’s finest hour. With Patrick McGoohan’s ‘The Prisoner’ (I spit on the remake) and ‘Inspector Morse’ coming joint second. Two of these shows starred John Thaw. Coincidence? I think not.

‘The Sweeney’ debuted in January 1975; for purposes of comparison, the cosy ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ was still on air, in its penultimate season. ‘The Sweeney’ kicked down the doors of staid and generic TV, came charging in with pistols pulled and put the finger on complacency, cliché and moral exactitude. It depicted a world in which coppers were as dirty as the blaggers and nonces they took down; where the bad guys sometimes outwitted them; where the rule book was torn up, fair play didn’t exist and violence was an occupational hazard.

‘Hill Street Blues’, ‘Miami Vice’, ‘NYPD Blue’, ‘CSI’ – fuhgeddaboudit! ‘The Sweeney’ got there first – and if anyone reading these pages remembers John Thaw solely as the opera-loving, poetry-reading, real-ale savouring Inspector Morse, then they might need a stiff drink before exposing themselves to his boozing, brawling attitudinous incarnation of the hard-as-nails Jack Regan.

It was a characteristic of the series that the opening credits juxtaposed hard-hitting imagery with a pulsating, edgy theme tune, while the closing credits were a slower, more melancholy variation on the theme, accompanied by shots of the protagonists in more contemplative mode. The creative talent behind ‘The Sweeney’ weren’t afraid to end episodes on a sour note, or leave a shard of discontent in the viewer’s mind.

In “Chalk and Cheese”, the melancholy subject is a father’s grief at a son going down the wrong path. Tommy Garrett (Paul Jones) is vaguely embarrassed by his gruff but honest father (David Lodge) and out of his depth with society girlfriend Caroline (Lesley-Anne Down). Caroline has hooked Tommy up with upper crust playboy Giles Nunn (Briant), and together they pull robberies on upper classes Giles knows socially. Tommy wants money (flash car; high maintenance girlfriend); Giles needs it (gambling debts). Tommy still has some shred of conscience that he’s plagued by. Giles, however, is louche, amoral and not above playing hide the salami with Caroline behind Tommy’s back.

With Detective Inspector Regan (Thaw) backgrounded for much of the episode, the dynamic is driven by Detective Sergeant Carter (Dennis Waterman)’s friendship with Garrett’s father – a friendship that threatens to become compromised when Carter suspects Tommy is up to no good – and by the increasingly volatile relationship between Giles and Tommy … the chalk and cheese of the title.

Briant and Jones are well matched, the latter delivering a performance so much better than his turn in ‘Demons of the Mind’, while Briant revels in Giles’s elegant villainy. “Bright boy, good looking in an androgynous sort of way,” is how one of Regan’s informers describes him. Giles is a kind of Dorian Gray but with a poor run at the tables, a line of credit that it would be ungentlemanly not to settle, and a taste for using firearms when the robberies get a bit dicey.

Lesley-Anne Down does a nice line in ice maiden as Caroline – “a snotty bit from Kensington” – while Lodge invests his role with gravitas. ‘The Sweeney’ always benefited from high calibre supporting players (Colin Welland in “Faces”, for example, or James Cosmo in “Hard Men”) and “Chalk and Cheese” is no exception.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Demons of the Mind

Technically Shane Briant’s first film – completed with “and introducing ~” credit – although ‘Straight on Till Morning’ ended up being released ahead of it. On the surface, ‘Demons of the Mind’ inhabits a more generically Hammer milieu: a gothic castle, a carriage and horses thundering through the woods at dusk, hidden family secrets, heaving bosoms, grisly murders, torch-bearing villagers and a mad priest.

Scratch the surface, however, and it goes into some of the darkest territory of any Hammer production. The elements enumerated above are merely trappings – the real business of Peter Sykes’s alternately dream-like and brutally cynical film is a study of the family dynamics gone sickeningly wrong. It’s a story of incest, guilt, desperation and inherited madness. With some torch-bearing villagers and a mad priest thrown in for good measure. Imagine the bastard mutant child of ‘Through A Glass Darkly’ and ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’ that grew up reading horror comics and lusting after its sister. That’s the kind of film we’re talking about.

The setting is some unspecified part of Austria, probably during the 1800s. Nobleman Zorn (Robert Hardy) keeps his son Emil (Briant) and daughter Elizabeth (Gillian Hills) under lock and key, concerned that (a) the sociopathic tendencies he recognizes in himself are manifesting in them; and (b) they have an unhealthy sexual interest in each other.

Summoned from Vienna (where Elizabeth had earlier escaped his care), Dr Falkenberg (Patrick Magee) makes haste to Zorn’s estate to attempt to find a cure for the siblings. En route, he shares a coach with earnest young student Carl (Paul Jones) who brings up the thorny subject of Falkenberg’s recent discrediting: “Haven’t you fallen from grace?” “Fallen?” Falkenberg thunders. “Thrown! Hurled! E-jec-ted!” It’s a ripe bit of overacting from Magee and sets the tone for every scene he subsequently appears in. Worse: he seems to inspire Hardy to ever greater heights of scenery-chewing.

But I digress. Carl’s antipathy towards Falkenberg is piqued by the fact that, following Elizabeth’s brief escape from Vienna, he enjoyed a fleeting romantic interlude with her and is still a tad sore that Zorn’s thuggish footman Klaus (Kenneth J. Warren) effectively abducted her just as he was really starting to get to know her. (That’s “know” in the Biblical sense, by the way.)

Meanwhile, a crazed, mumbling priest (Michael Hordern) comes stumbling out of the woods and rallies the local villagers – whose numbers have been decimated by a series of disappearances – into fighting the evil that has blighted them. It’s no surprise that, come the full-throttle melodramatic ending, these various parties with their various agendas converge at Schloss Zorn and conflict ensues.

‘Demons of the Mind’ is a compelling and often queasy slab of Gothicism, albeit flawed. The performances by Hardy and Magee make hard work of too many scenes, and Hordern seems hell-bent on joining them, only pulling his characterization back from the brink in the climatic scenes where he leads the villagers against Zorn; in these scenes, the ham is carved away and what remains is a properly intense bit of messianic fire-and-brimstone. There is a staginess to many of the interiors, as well, and the score is about as subtle as Magee sticking his face right in the lens and ranting for extended periods.

Let us be thankful for small mercies, then. Two of them, in fact: Shane Briant and Gillian Hills. Ladies first: Hills, radiant and dreamily photogenic, invests Elizabeth with an otherworldly quality that transcends mere romantic interest or set decoration. Her ethereal calm contrasts well with Briant’s masterfully underplayed evocation of Emil’s inner turmoil. Without ever resorting to the retinue of tics and bulging eyes and chest-beating that many of Hammer’s regular players would have brought to the performance, Briant turns the disturbed and yet strangely pitiable Emil into a multi-faceted, three-dimensional character. He makes the shoddy antics of other cast members look all the worse by comparison.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Straight on Till Morning

Hammer = horror, right? The way Ealing = comedies, or Platinum Dunes = unnecessary remakes.

But just as Ealing also produced gritty crime movies (‘The Blue Lamp’), historical dramas (‘Scott of the Antarctic’), slices of social realism (‘It Always Rains on Sunday’), war movies (‘Went the Day Well?’) and one of the most accomplished horror portmanteau films (‘Dead of Night’) ever made, so Hammer’s output – including Bernard Mainwaring’s lost satire ‘The Public Life of Henry the Ninth’, Vernon Sewell’s moody thriller ‘The Black Widow’ and Val Guest’s classic sci-fi ‘The Quatermass Experiment’ – spans genres and iconography beyond the classic horror archetypes the studio became synonymous with.

When Peter Collinson’s ‘Straight on Till Morning’ was released in 1972, however, it was these very archetypes that defined Hammer. The Dracula franchise had reached its seventh instalment with the spectacularly lurid (and contemporarily set) ‘Dracula AD 1972’, the Frankenstein series had chalked up six titles, and the Karnstein trilogy – ‘The Vampire Lovers’, ‘Lust for a Vampire’ and ‘Twins of Evil’ – had stirred a hefty dollop of Sapphic shenanigans into the mix.

Audience expectation was always going to work against ‘Straight on Till Morning’. The opening credit sequence confounds and intrigues in equal measure. Opening on a tight shot of terrace rooftops, soot-stained chimneys and a grubby diesel loco jerking a passenger train across a railway bridge, the immediate aesthetic is that of a kitchen sink drama of the previous decade – an Alan Sillitoe or Barry Hines adaptation, maybe. This sense is reinforced, albeit briefly, by the instantly recognisable tones of Rita Tushingham (herself British cinema’s go-to actress for social realism) in voiceover.

And immediately the first of the film’s many subversions. Tushingham’s character, the cripplingly shy Brenda, is narrating a fairy story. It is quickly established that she has written this twee tale. Scenes of her scribbling away at a small table in an equally small room are jarringly intercut with a confrontation between Brenda and her mother. Brenda announces that she’s pregnant and is leaving for London where she hopes to meet “a father for my baby, someone who’ll love us both”. Her mother’s imprecations not to leave fall on deaf ears. A taxi arrives. Brenda leaves home.

In London, Brenda fetches up at a crowded labour exchange. She secures a low paying job at an oh-so-trendy emporium owned by the predatory Jimmy Lindsay (Tom Bell) and strikes up a tentative and unlikely friendship with promiscuous shop girl Caroline (Katya Wyeth) while trying to catch the eye of cynical co-worker Joey (James Bolam). Meanwhile, the impossible handsome and ethereally calm Peter Clive (Shane Briant) goes about his daily business of buying cigarettes and looking cool in his E-type Jaguar while flashing back to the woman he murdered in his flat the previous evening. All of these plot-strands, set-pieces and character introductions are effected in a dizzyingly extended sequence achieved with the kind of hyperkinetic intercutting and mind-bending visual juxtapositions that wouldn’t be out of place in a film by Nic Roeg or Alejandro Jodorowsky.

This from the guy who directed ‘The Italian Job’!

Essentially – and this is to take the film at its most basic level – ‘Straight on Till Morning’ is about the relationship between two people who live in fantasy worlds and how they drawn together by their very different attempts to function in the real world. Brenda’s fantasy world is the most obvious of the two: it is a world of fairy tales, her very own handsome prince and their baby (in case you haven’t guessed – MINOR SPOILER – Brenda’s pregnancy is a fiction), a world into which the actuality of cheap rooms, mundane jobs, social ineptitude and wrenching loneliness continually intrude.

The nature of Peter’s fantasy world is the thornier subject; a dichotomy that lends the film its power to disturb. With his Dorian Gray-ish looks (Briant was a natural to play Wilde’s ironic anti-hero in a TV production a couple of years later), his life of leisure (the source of his cash-in-hand income is never really explained) and his zen-like tendency to seem utterly removed from his surroundings, Peter never quite seems suited to the ostensibly real world of newsagents, cul-de-sacs and nocturnal walks with the dog along the South Bank (never mind that Collinson shoots the South Bank so that it looks like an alien landscape).

This, it is hinted, is the fantasy world to which he does his best to pretend he belongs. The real world – hammering away at his aloof façade and sliding knife-edges of memory into his waking consciousness – consists of the murders he has committed, an absent but devastatingly powerful mother figure, and a fairy tale of the beautiful prince driven to sociopathic hatred by his own beauty; a story Peter recounts to Brenda, in a reversal of the storyteller/fantastist role, in one of the film’s key scenes.

Collinson loads the film with symbolism: mirrors are everywhere; androgyny is rife; the surface image is challenged and fractured time and again (most notably in a scene where Brenda’s makeover renders her a grotesque and sexless caricature); and a sense of troilism permeates. Brenda initially introduces herself to Peter as “Rosalba” (the name of the princess in her fairy tales); he later renames her Wendy (the ‘Peter Pan’ analogy hardly needs belabouring).

’Straight on Till Morning’ presents a strange, disconcerting and never less than chilling fusion of genres and film-making tropes – from the warped character study of Michael Powell’s ‘Peeping Tom’ to the visual dissonance of ‘Performance’ by way of an on-location aesthetic in its production design and cinematography that recalls ‘Poor Cow’ or ‘Up the Junction’ – that coheres into a haunting and challenging piece of work, nasty but surprisingly bloodless, with the power to linger in the mind long after much gorier fare has faded. It’s one of those films that gets under the skin. You can never unsee it. And I can’t think of a better recommendation than that.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Shane Briant week on The Agitation of the Mind

Robert Kenchington, the man behind the Shane Briant Tribute Site, recently provided me with review copies of his pictorial biographies ‘Shane Briant: a Talent for Terror’ and ‘Shane Briant: the Hammer Years’. The latter gave me a yen to revisit the four (very different) films Briant made for Hammer between 1972 and 1974.

Actually, scratch “revisit”. Two nights ago I watched ‘Straight on Till Morning’ for the first time. It’s one of those films that’s been on my radar for a while but which, for reasons I can’t even fathom, I’d never got round to seeing. All I can say is I’m glad I made the effort: a disturbing and multi-faceted film, I’ll be posting a review tomorrow.

In addition to the Hammer productions, I’ll be rounding off Shane Briant week with a look at his appearance in the ‘Sweeney’ episode “Chalk and Cheese” (he’s on the subject of one of Inspector Regan’s most memorable arrests).

First up, though, Robert Kenchington’s biographical volumes. These glossy, lavishly illustrated volumes (available online here), provide an excellent introduction to Briant’s career for the newcomer as well as offering a wealth of archive material – including many stills from the actor’s own collection – sure to be of interest to the seasoned Briant fan.

It’s perhaps some marker of how critically overlooked Briant remains amongst his contemporaries (although the hero’s welcome he regularly receives at events tells a different story!) that Kenchington’s books together form the first biographical overview of his life and work.

‘A Talent for Terror’ succinctly guides the reader from Briant’s early triumphs onstage (his Hamlet was compared to Gielgud’s and Redgraves) to his iconic work at Hammer, a big-screen proving ground that gave him the springboard to appearances in big Hollywood productions. His small screen work in timeless ’tec shows ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Van Der Valk’ is also considered.

‘The Hammer Years’ does exactly what it says on the cover and considers ‘Straight on Till Morning’, ‘Demons of the Mind’, ‘Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter’ and ‘Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell’. As such, the stills on offer in this volume capture Briant at his most iconic (and, sometimes, demonic); better still, Kenchington’s informed analyses of the films are peppered with witty and evocative recollections from Briant himself.

Tomorrow: Briant excels in the dark fairy tale/psychological drama ‘Straight on Till Morning’

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Welcome to St Hilda’s College, less a finishing school for young ladies than a school where young ladies get finished off. It’s an establishment rife with jealousy, petty rivalries and lesbian crushes … and that’s just the staff!

Behind this inimically voyeuristic setting and its magnificently lurid title (a literal translation from ‘Nude … Si Muore’), Antonio Margheriti’s pacy and entertaining giallo is a classic whodunit bracketed firmly in the Agatha Christie tradition … only with a surfeit of jailbait in the kind of short skirts that immediately identify ‘Naked You Die’ as a film made in 1968. That it was released in some territories as ‘The Miniskirt Murders’ tells you all you need to know.

Things begin with the murder of a woman who remains unidentified until the final act. She’s naked when the killer strikes (in the bath), thus justifying the title. It is, however, one of the primmest bits of exploitation you’re ever likely to see, with nary a nipple or a glimpse of the delta of Venus to be seen. (Later, when another victim buys it in a shower – also unclothed – they fall with such balletic grace as to wind an entire shower curtain around their body.) The corpse is bundled into a trunk, the trunk strapped to the roof-rack of a taxi, transported to a station, manhandled onto a train, and finally transferred to a mini-van for the last stretch of the journey to St Hilda’s. Where it – and its grisly contents – are then shunted offstage for a good hour and twenty minutes.

In the meantime, we’re introduced to some of the girls: high-spirited wannabe crime-writer Jill (Sally Smith), stuck-up Betty Ann (Caterina Trentini), sexually precocious Lucille (Eleonora Brown) and her loyal friend Denise (Patrizia Valturri). Lucille is carrying on with riding teacher Richard Barrett (Mark Damon), much to the chagrin of equestrian Betty Ann. Denise knows all about it but is sworn to secrecy. Jill, though popular, pisses off the staff right royally with her tall tales and tendency to melodrama.

And speaking of the staff, a quick round-up: there’s headmistress Miss Transfield (Vivian Stapleton), newly promoted Miss Martin (Ester Masing), recently arrived relief teacher Miss Clay (Ludmila Lvova), the aforementioned Barrett, the elderly Professor Andre (Aldo de Carellis) and groundskeeper La Floret (Luciano Pigozzi). Miss Transfield tuttingly disapproves of Barrett’s popularity with the girls, Miss Martin owes her promotion to an implied dalliance with Miss Transfield, and La Floret gets his jollies spying on the girls’ shower room.

Not the kind of place you’d want to pack your daughter off to. And even less so once the murders start and the stately Inspector Durand (Michael Rennie) and his sidekick Detective Gabon (Franco de Rosa) turn up and ploddingly start putting the pieces together as the body count increases.

Between Fausto Zuccoli’s opulent widescreen cinematography, Carlo Savina’s jauntily inappropriate score (the sleazy saxophone as La Floret peeps on a disrobing Lucille predates just about every 1980s soft-core/erotic thriller soundtrack ever written), and a stratospherically high eye-candy quotient – look out for the achingly gorgeous Silvia Dionisio (she of ‘Waves of Lust’ fame) in a supporting role – it’s difficult to keep your eye on the ball, never mind an eleventh hour revelation of a crucial inheritance that tips you off to the why if not the who.

As well as being thoroughly entertaining and solidly made, ‘Naked You Die’ toys with identity, perception and gender confusion in a way that lays the groundwork for, amongst others, the two great gialli of Dario Argento’s mid-period majesty: ‘Deep Red’ and ‘Tenebre’. At the other end of the spectrum, Andrea Bianchi’s unapologetically seedy ‘Strip Nude for Your Killer’ also owes it a debt of dishonor. The sacred and the profane: ‘Naked You Die’ can claim one hell of a birthright.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Alan Sillitoe statue fund

My appearance in today's edition of the Nottingham Evening Post; I'm the one in the the top right hand corner. The one with the facial hair. I'm working with the Alan Sillitoe Statue Fund Committee on various projects to publicize and raise money for a commemorative statue of Alan Sillitoe in his home town of Nottingham.

We're hoping to have a website up and running by early next month; I'll post a link when it goes live. In the meantime, The Sillitoe Project continues here on The Agitation of the Mind next week with a review of 'The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner'.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Seizure (guest review by Aaron)

Thanks once again to my buddy Aaron for contributing a guest review.

Edmund (Jonathan Frid) is an accomplished horror author who's referred to as "the modern-day Edgar Allan Poe". He has recurring nightmares about being terrorized by three of his own characters, but the nightmares eventually become a reality for Edmund and his houseguests one weekend when they actually show up at his home and force everyone to partake in a series of sadistic games. There's Spider, the Dwarf (Herve Villechaize), Jackal, the Executioner (played by the naked black cop with the cowboy hat from CRUISING), and their leader, the Queen (Martine Beswick). Jackal is a mute, whereas Spider constantly runs his mouth and talks a big game, but the Queen calls the shots.

If anyone knows how to make a grand entrance, it's Herve Villechaize's character in this film. Edmund and his houseguests are understandably startled by a brick that crashes through a window, which, unbeknownst to them at the time, signifies the beginning of the end. Following the breaking of the window, Spider calmly crawls through it and plants himself in the center of the living room with his hair pulled back into a tight ponytail to reveal his beady eyes. In his thick French accent, Herve recites the following lines:

"Now, we will play a lillah game. The game is fun for da young, but penful for da old. It will match each of you against the uzzer in a razor un'da rouse [ed. 'race around the house']. Supair-vised by my poor mute friend Jackal, five time you will make da circle. Until the [inaudible] of you cross the finishing line. Last. He... or she... will be executed."

Not much is known about Spider, other than the fact that he obviously slays animals much larger than he, such as bears or tigers. This is evidenced by his trophy necklace made of animal teeth. He's killed so many animals that he ran out of room around his neck and made a belt from the leftover fangs he's collected. And, the reason why I'm putting a lot of focus on Spider instead of talking about the film's FAUST influences and whatnot is because he's one of the highlights of this surprisingly "OK" film. For me, there's nothing scarier in this world than sharks and a hairy Herve Villechaize running at you with a knife in hand, and why more horror movies didn't capitalize on this while the troubled French actor was still alive, I have no idea. I'd rather be visited in the middle of the night by a clown covered in spiders than Herve Villechaize... or a shark.

It should be noted that Spider, the Dwarf makes small appearances (get it?) earlier in the film before making his presence known to Edmund and the rest of the houseguests. One of the older female houseguests reaches out to her dead husband on a nightly basis by basically having conversations with herself, and he supposedly replies back from beyond the grave, which is most likely a figment of this crazy bitch's imagination. Anyway, while doing so on the night that all hell eventually breaks loose, she's greeted by Villechaize's character who proceeds to moisturize her face with some sort of anti-aging cream. I shit you not.

Allow me to go back a little and talk about some of the supporting characters (Edmund's houseguests). I'm not exactly clear as to why this odd assortment of characters were staying the weekend at Edmund's in the first place, and it's either my fault for not paying enough attention to the film, or the film's fault for not really elaborating on what was going on. Let's just say it was the film's fault. Anyway, one of the characters is played by Mary Woronov, who starred in pretty much every cult movie ever made. Don't get me wrong, I love me some Mary Woronov, but, for what it's worth, this is the only film I've seen her in where she actually looks attractive. However, this could be due to the poor quality of the film masking her man-like facial features. Her character is married to an obnoxious rich dude named Charles (he owns 2% of Texaco), with whom she has an open relationship with (they openly cheat on each other). The other characters aren't really worth talking about.

Early in the film, when all of the characters are hanging out around the lake near Edmund's estate and Charles is trying to hit on some random teenage girl who just happens to be there, a message is broadcast over the radio in regards to three escaped mental patients, led by a former female professor at Harvard who was responsible for fatally stabbing one of her students. Yes, the old "escaped mental patients" convention. It's a very cliche horror/thriller convention, but it works here for reasons that I don't need to get into.

I love that the Queen is a very dominant character in SEIZURE!, which adds an element of female empowerment to the film, but it doesn't serve any particular purpose in the overall theme; this isn't a bad thing, but merely an observation. If these evil characters are in fact a figment of their creator's imagination, there's nothing that would suggest he has any strong negative or positive emotional connections to women, which eliminates any symbolism as far as the Queen is concerned.

SEIZURE!, as a whole, is a very bizarre film in both theme and atmosphere. As I mentioned earlier, it's surprisingly not as bad as I expected it to be. The Mill Creek-ish quality of the DVD left much to be desired, and I think a good print of the film would do it justice, whereas something like, say, DRILLER KILLER should be viewed in the lowest type of quality possible in order to preserve that sleazy Grindhouse feeling. Perhaps even more bizarre than the film itself is that there seems to be a lot of downtime in between the antagonists mentally and physically torturing Edmund and his family and friends. For example, Edmund and another older gentleman have enough time to discuss the parallels between the Queen and the Hindu goddess Kali, and at one point Edmund even has time to bump uglies with his wife who may or may not be a ghost, or something.

Did I mention that this is Oliver Stone's directorial debut? Yeah, there's that, too. Overall, an odd and mildly interesting fever dream of a film that some will find nonsensical and boring as shit and others will appreciate for its psychological elements and general weirdness. I definitely fall into the latter category. It's no U-TURN, but - in all fairness - what is?

Sunday, April 10, 2011


Posted to coincide with Max von Sydow’s 82nd birthday

Broadly speaking, the glory days of the giallo were the mid 60s to the late 70s. But the genre never entirely went away. Still hasn’t. Dario Argento saw in the new millennium with ‘Sleepless’, a rather calculated return to form that gave him the biggest hit in his native Italy that he’d had since ‘The Stendahl Syndrome’ five years earlier.

A prologue set in 1983 has world-weary cop Inspector Moretti (Max von Sydow) promised the young son of a murder victim that he’ll bring the killer to justice if it takes him the rest of his life. A promise he thinks he’s fulfilled when the dead body of the dwarf identified as the killer is retrieved and the case is closed.

Eighteen years later, Moretti has retired, the young lad Giacomo (Stefano Dionisi) is now in his twenties and embarking on a relationship with harpist Gloria (Chiara Caselli), and Moretti’s successor Inspector Manni (Paolo Maria Scalondro) finds himself reopening Moretti’s old case when an identical series of murders occur.

There are two ways to look at ‘Sleepless’: an old-school return to the giallo stamping ground that Argento made his name with; or a “greatest hits” package that simply rehashes former glories. Indeed, the case for the latter hardly needs to be made. There isn’t a single set-piece that doesn’t recall an earlier example of Argento’s filmography, with ‘Deep Red’ in particular being worked over (major plot points involve a child’s nursery rhyme, a buried childhood memory, a character poking about in an old dark house, and a victim menaced by a mechanical doll marching inexorably out of the shadows) like there’s no tomorrow. A secret unearthed in a graveyard recalls ‘Cat of Nine Tails’; a victim framed between the windows of a train is reminiscent of the huge glass doors both framing and denying prevention of the murder in ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’; some prowling camerawork in a concert hall is straight out of ‘Opera’, and the plot device of a novelist whose opus the killing spree seems to be patterned on is ‘Tenebre’ writ large.

However, coming after the abysmal ‘Phantom of the Opera’, and providing the last hurrah of satisfyingly stylish Argento goodness prior to a decade’s worth of offerings (‘The Card Player’, ‘Do You Like Hitchcock?’, ‘Mother of Tears’, ‘Giallo’) that has seen his stock plummet to a new low, even something as deliberately reflexive as ‘Sleepless’ is to be embraced: it’s a reminder, however self-derivative, of what you love about Argento.

Saturday, April 09, 2011


Posted in memory of Sidney Lumet

Sidney Lumet had a run of straight-up masterworks during the 70s which included ‘The Offence’, ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ and ‘Network’. All are dynamic, character-driven and provide investigations into their protagonists’ state of mind. In particular, ‘The Offence’ and ‘Serpico’ are probing and disquieting enquiries into police work and moral compromise. Their main characters are a study in opposites. Whereas, in ‘The Office’, Detective Sergeant Johnson (Sean Connery) is a man in psychological meltdown who finally crosses the line during the interrogation of a suspected child molester, Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) is an idealistic but ambitious New York cop who admits early on that he’s looking for a fast-track to promotion, but whose sense of morality is challenged at every turn by cynicism, apathy and corruption.

Adapted by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler from Peter Maas’s biography of Serpico, Lumet’s film kicks off in high gear with a police car tearing through the nocturnal streets, Serpico in the back seat, shot and bleeding badly. When word reaches the station house, the first comment is, “Wonder if a cop did it.”

It sets the tone. Lumet flashes back to Serpico as a rookie, his strict moral code soon coming to the fore. Partnered with an older cop who doesn’t bother to respond when the dispatcher puts out a call about a rape in progress, Serpico hauls ass to the scene. There are four perpetrators: three escape. Serpico collars the fourth. Back at the station, the youth takes a kick to the balls and a beating with a telephone directory. Serpico has no part of it.

As he tries to establish a career, moving to plainclothes assignments and taking courses in fingerprint analysis, he gets a worm’s-eye view of corruption, from bribe-taking to pay-offs. His friend Tom Keough (Jack Kehoe), who was wangled a mayor’s office assignment thanks to political connections, becomes Serpico’s unlikely ally as he tries to take his concerns through the proper channels while at the same time protecting himself. A string of transfers convinces him that corruption is endemic across the force; and as the higher-ups increasingly stonewall him, he realizes that it encompasses many levels.

Coming a year after his flawless performance as Michael Corleone in ‘The Godfather, and with his reprisal of the role in ‘The Godfather Part II’ still a year away, ‘Serpico’ basically sealed the deal for Al Pacino, confirming him as one of the great acting talents in contemporary American cinema. Lumet surrounded him with a wealth of great character actors: John Randolph, Tony Roberts, John McQuade (in his final role) and M Emmet Walsh. Even the uncredited swathe of the cast list contains F Murray Abraham, Judd Hirsh and Tony Lo Blanco.

Does anything need to be said about Pacino’s performance. He’s unafraid to delve into the personal consequences of Serpico’s rigid morality, showing him venting his frustrations on the women in his life, losing the flamboyant Leslie (Cordelia Sharpe) and driving away the loyal Laurie (Barbara Eda-Young) as he vents the frustrations of the job on her. He also captures, with chilling immediacy, Serpico’s professional isolation, culminating in a scene where Serpico goes into a drug den only to find himself (quite literally) trapped and facing down the business end of a small calibre gun while his colleagues hang back and let him take a bullet.

Lumet’s direction is unshowy and unobtrusive – a hallmark of his career. He makes superb use of the location work. There is also a great understanding at work of the dynamics of mise en scene, particularly in a scene where Serpico is upbraided by a group of fellow cops during an off-the-record meeting in a park. Lumet contrasts the uncluttered openness of the exterior with a sequence of shots where the heads of Serpico’s colleagues fill the screen, their cheap shirts and bad ties all but out of shot. What remains is the hatred in their eyes. It’s one of the best representations I’ve seen of someone being surrounded.

Lumet pulled off a comparable seen a couple of decades later in ‘Night Falls on Manhattan’ where Andy Garcia is the only character seated as a group of men in suits surround him, firing off questions. There’s the obvious metaphor of standing (as in “standing in judgement”), but more than this Lumet frames the shot to cut off Garcia’s questioners at shoulder-height: effectively, they’re faceless.

‘Night Falls on Manhattan’ was underrated, as was ‘Q&A’ – unjustly so – but both demonstrate that Lumet’s fascination with the machinations of bureaucracy and the moral compromises of the law and those who are entrusted to withhold it were lifelong concerns. Lumet’s swansong, ‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’, was again a crime thriller, shot on the streets with a fierce realism, and proved that the man never lost his edge. Cinema is poorer for losing him.

i.m. Sidney Lumet, 25 June 1924 – 9 April 2011

Friday, April 08, 2011


Let’s call it WTF Syndrome. Mainly because You’ve Never Seen [Insert Film Title] Syndrome is a bit long-winded, and the friend/colleague/family member uttering these words in a tone of diamond-hard incredulity will usually follow up with an equally disbelieving “what the fuck” anyway.

We all have WTF Syndrome movies is our lives. Movies that passed you by on their first release – sometimes for reasons that seemed valid at the time, sometimes for reasons you now can’t recall for the life of you, sometimes because they just plain disappeared under the radar – and which, for equally ephemeral reasons, it took you years to catch up with.

I seem to remember skipping ‘Snatch’ when it first came out because the general consensus was that Guy Ritchie had followed up his iconic debut ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ with basically more of the same, on a bigger budget, only not as good. This at a period in time when the multiplexes were awash with too-cool-for-school Tarantino copyists. (Which, to be honest, I’d pegged ‘Lock, Stock’ as, albeit better made and more genuinely witty than the norm.)

A few months ago, cruising Tesco for groceries and household goods beer, I noticed the box set of ‘Lock, Stock’ and ‘Snatch’ for £5. ‘Snatch’ was the 2-disc release. Bargain. Into the shopping trolley it went.

And on the shelf it sat for a while.

I finally slid it into the DVD player a few nights ago … and enjoyed an hour and thirty-nine minutes of top-flight, laugh-out-loud funny, Cockney-accented nonsense.

And I don’t mean “nonsense” in a pejorative term. The closest I can come to describing the plotting and overall aesthetic of ‘Lock, Stock’ and ‘Snatch’ is like a P.G. Wodehouse novel. Except with guns. And swearing. Your average Wodehouse novel consists of a foppish toff, a meddling aunt, a potential fiancée, a big social event and the always lurking potential for cringing embarrassment at same. The machinations of a handful of characters and a couple of overlapping incidents are shuffled with the blink-and-miss-it legerdemain of a game of find the lady. Sit down and try to unpick the narrative after you’ve set the novel aside and you’ll be engaging in an exercise in pointlessness. Best just to go along for the ride and laugh at some good clean fun.

Same deal with ‘Snatch’, only Turkish (Jason Statham) and Tommy (Stephen Graham) – the luckless protagonists at the centre of Ritchie’s filmic whirlwind – are about a million miles (and several postcodes) removed from Jeeves and Wooster. And Jeeves would never be seen dead at a bare-knuckle boxing match, even if it meant getting Bertie out of the soup. Nor could you imagine Aunt Agatha heisting a diamond the size of a fist under the auspices of American crime boss Avi (Dennis Farina).

But I digress. ‘Snatch’ basically boils down to these two plot strands: (i) two boxing promoters get caught up in a rigged match organized by the downright sociopathic Brick Top (Alan Ford); (ii) Franky Four Fingers (Benicio del Toro) nicks a fuck off big diamond and various individuals want it. Both deals go south. Very quickly.

This is how the boxing side of things goes south: Turkish sends Tommy and the heavyweight boxer they represent, Gorgeous George (Adam Fogerty) to buy a caravan from Mickey (Brad Pitt), a pikey* whose extended family talk a barely comprehensible lingo and spend their time drinking and brawling. A financial dispute sees George and Mickey get into a fight. Mickey soon demonstrates why he goes by the nicknamed “One Punch”. With George subsequently incapacitated, Brick Top gets a bit narked at Turkish, reminding him that Turkish is supposed to be providing him with a nice ringer who’ll take a dive on cue in the fourth round. Turkish’s one chance at avoided vivisection at the hands of Brick Top’s goons (after which he’ll be fed to Brick Top’s pigs) is to persuade Mickey to take George’s place. Except that One Punch Mickey knows as much about taking a dive as Bertie Wooster does about the criminal underworld. Fight night comes around, Mickey does his thing, and the shit hits the fan. Dahnit?

This is how the diamond heist goes south: Franky Four Fingers absconds from Antwerp with the hot rock, under instruction from Avi to lie low, acquire a piece from Russian expatriot Boris the Blade (Rade Sherbedgia), stay away from the casinos, and wait for Avi to set him up with his London contact Doug “The Head” Denovitz (Mike Reid). You know that big cliché in American cinema of a few years ago with white characters acting like they were black? Doug’s an East End dodgy geezer who acts like he’s Jewish. Franky hooks up with Boris, who asks him to place a bet on his behalf on an illegal boxing match at a bookies run by Brick Top. Boris owes a debt which precludes him placing the bet himself. Boris then recruits pawnbroker Sol (Lennie James), wannabe Yardie Vinnie (Robert Gee) and corpulent getaway driver Tyrone (Ade) to rob said bookies and remove the diamond from Franky’s possession at the same time. The robbery goes tits up; Sol, Vinnie and Tyrone find themselves on the receiving end of Brick Top’s less-than-tender mercies; Franky gets caught in the middle; and Avi, enraged that the diamond has dropped off the radar, immediately flies out to London and engages the services of professional hard nut Bullet Tooth Tony (played by professional hard nut Vinnie Jones) to track him down.

This is the simple part of the narrative.

From the opening scene, where the progress through a heavily guarded building by an equally heavily disguised Franky and his crew is charted on a succession of CCTV screens, it’s clear that Ritchie is in full-on style-over-substance mode. And why complain when the style is this stylish? Not to mention self-deprecating. Ritchie immediately segues from his ‘Peeping Tom’-style opening to a robbery scene of such ludicrous over-stylization, all jump cuts and freeze frames and OTT camera-work, that your average MTV video looks like an Andrei Tarkovsky film by comparison. The guy’s taking the piss – and he continues taking it, sometimes obviously and sometimes subtly, for the rest of the film.

In a collection of stereotypes that would be considered racist if they represented non-criminal social groupings, Ritchie gives us the dour but temperamental Russian arms dealer (“Boris the Blade, a.k.a. Boris the Bullet-Dodger.” “Why do they call him that?” “Because he dodges bullets”), the Oirish tinkers (“Da ye like dags?” “What?” “Dags.” “Oh, dogs. Yeah, I like dags”), the tea-drinking Lahdan gangster who snarls and threatens like he’s auditioning for an OAP remake of ‘Get Carter’, and the smart-talking wide-boy who comes across like he’s just stepped out of some bizarre unscreened episode of ‘Only Fools and Horses’ that got mixed up with a reel of ‘The Long Good Friday’ in the editing room.

He also draws brilliantly funny – and, in the case of Alan Ford, terrifying – performances out of an ostensibly mismatched cast. Seriously: in what other movie would you find Brad Pitt doing a pseudo-Irish accent with Jason Flemyng playing his brother and Sorcha Cusack as their dear old ma, or America’s go-to character actor for mob roles sharing a split-screen transatlantic phone call with ‘Eastenders’ regular Mike Reid?

The dialogue is priceless: Turkish’s continual “before ze Chermans arrive” line rips the piss out of many a bad UK sitcom, the bickering between Sol and Tyrone is hilarious; and every time Mickey opens his mouth and a blarney-tinged screed of gibberish rolls out, the result is pant-wettingly funny. The boxing scenes are like ‘Raging Bull’ kidnapped, re-edited and satirized by the Monty Python boys. The shoot outs are like John Woo on laughing gas. The set-to between Bullet Tooth Tony and Boris the Blade (a.k.a. Boris the Bullet-Dodger), when it becomes apparent how Boris earned the second of his nicknames, is easily the funniest thing Ritchie has put on film.

Like I said before, it’s total nonsense. But damn, it’s funny as fuck. As stylish as fuck. And quotable as fuck. And – I’ll go out on a limb here – probably more accomplished and more all-round entertaining than its kudos-grabbing predecessor.

Sadly, Ritchie’s reputation went as far south as Turkish’s boxing promotion and Franky’s diamond heist after ‘Swept Away’. ‘Revolver’ bemused critics, ‘RocknRolla’ went some way to restoring his standing and ‘Sherlock Holmes’ (which I must admit I haven’t seen and have very little interest in seeing) has given him his biggest box office returns to date. There’s a sequel in the works. Give me ‘Lock, Stock 2’ or ‘Snatch: The Next Chapter’ and reunited him with The Stat, Vinnie Jones and Jason Flemyng and things might start cooking again. Guv’nor.

*ie. a gypsy.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

True Grit

Permit me to hawk up a loogie and spit on an icon.

Ready? Got your burning torches lit? Rounded up a posse? Tar and feathers to hand? Rail on order to run me out of town on?

Okay, here goes: I’m not keen on John Wayne.

There: I said it.

I’m not keen on him because of his swaggering self-satisfaction, I’m not keen on him because of his right wing agenda (this is, after all, the guy who starred in and co-directed a pro-Vietnam movie), and I’m not keen on him because, frankly, the guy couldn’t act. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying that there are plenty of John Wayne performances which are downright embarrassing.

In Henry Hathaway’s ‘True Grit’, the sight of The Duke as Rooster Cogburn riding full pelt into a gunfight, reins clamped between his teeth, pistols in both hands, is so obviously a striving for macho iconography that it’s almost laughable. In the Coen Brothers’ spot-on remake, the sight of Jeff Bridges doing exactly the same thing is a thrilling piece of cinema: from the world-weariness with which he lifts the reins and bites down on them, to the blink-and-you-miss-it hint of desperation, to the audacity of his Light Brigade-style charge against superior numbers, this moment alone would probably be enough to make me dance on the saloon roof declaring the film the best western since ‘Unforgiven’.

Shout it loud, then, that the rest of ‘True Grit’ is just as good. Going back to the morality (and almost comedic absurdity) of Charles Portis’s novel, the Coens get it intuitively right in every aspect that Hathaway got it wrong. Gone the wooden characterisation of LaBoeuf by Glen Campbell; in its place, a fine and entertainingly self-deprecating supporting performance courtesy of Matt Damon. Gone the missing-the-point casting of then 22-year old Kim Darby as the 14-year old narrator and all-too-young heroine Mattie Ross; in its place a simply remarkable turn from Hailee Steinfeld, authentically 14 at the time of shooting, and yet inhabiting the skin of her character with a depth of nuance and a genuine screen presence that many seasoned performers three times her age would weep to achieve.

I’m still unsure, a month after I saw the film (yeah, I’m getting tardy with my reviews lately; blame it on the novel!), who I’m more impressed by: Bridges, Damon or Steinfeld. Perhaps, ultimately, Steinfeld. We all know Bridges is a great actor, and the role of Rooster Cogburn allows him to cut loose and have a little fun, while still anchoring things with an ornery gravitas. Damon was always more than just a pretty-boy leading man, and here he (pardon the pun) earns his spurs with an often hilarious portrayal of a self-important windbag.

But it’s Steinfeld who comes out of nowhere and provides the emotional core of every scene she’s in – which is basically the whole movie! That she came away empty-handed on Oscar night is a crime.

The bad guys of ‘True Grit’ do equally sterling work, with Josh Brolin on typically excellent form (after this and his breakout performance in ‘No Country for Old Men’, here’s hoping he becomes a Coens regular) and Barry Pepper bringing a gimlet-eyed depiction of career villainy to the table.

Roger Deakins, back in the fold after scheduling conflicts didn’t allow him to lens ‘Burn After Reading’, conjures a vision of the old west that is at once classically elegant, grubbily unromantic and tinged with the melancholy of reminiscence – this latter particularly appropriate as it is Mattie in middle age who recounts the story, a device that culminates in a poignant final scene.

In opting not to remake Hathaway’s film, but strip things back to the original novel, the Coen Brothers have finally given Charles Portis’s ‘True Grit’ the big screen incarnation it deserves.