The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 20: Dead Man’s Treasure): fun and childhood fantasy turn deadly and dangerous

Sidney Havers, “The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 20: Dead Man’s Treasure)” (1967)

A courier, mortally wounded, just manages to stumble into Steed’s home and mutter to Steed (Patrick Macnee) scraps of information about some important documents he has hidden in a treasure chest at a manor house before conveniently expiring.  In order for Steed and Peel (Diana Rigg) to recover the documents, the courier hands them an invitation to enter a rally hosted by wealthy Formula One aficionado, Sir George Benstead (Arthur Lowe). Whoever wins the rally wins the treasure chest and the money (and documents) inside.

The two enter the rally but each is partnered by another person. Unbeknownst to them, Benstead and the other rally partcipants, the two enemy agents Carl and Alex (Neil McCarthy and Edwin Richfield) who shot the courier have also entered the rally, having found out by eavesdropping on Steed and Peel that the documents they want are in the treasure chest. During the course of the rally, Carl and Alex throw spikes onto the road, putting most of their competitors out of business save for Steed paired with Penny (Valerie van Ost) and Peel paired with Mike (Norman Bowler). Unfortunately for the dastardly duo, the people partnered with Steed and Peel also cheat so any advantage the enemy agents gain is quickly lost.

This is one of the more enjoyable episodes in this season as our heroes have to deal with not just the enemy agents but also mercenary double agent Mike who’s prepared to torture and kill Peel to get the prize money and documents at the end of the rally by strapping her into the racing simulator where he has killed Benstead early on. The plot is very light and has more holes than a piece of Swiss cheese, and the English countryside suffers from the smell of burnt tyres and hot asphalt, squashed hedgehogs and other roadkill, and excess air pollution as rally participants race one another in classic 1960s sports cars and try to dodge the enemy agents’ spikes.

Character is done well through quirks in the plot and in excellent dialogue, the latter particularly in the case of Penny who chats constantly to Steed about all her boyfriends who had the misfortune of dying in freak accidents. She is developed into a ditzy blonde babe who proves to be useful with a weapon when it counts. Even Carl and Alex banter about Peel’s fighting abilities, Peel having taken one of them on in Benstead’s study. Mike is a bit colourless and one sees in him an early prototype for the character of Mike Gambit in the later New Avengers series. The later part of the plot in which Peel is forced to race for her life in the simulator, suffering progressively more painful electric shocks that come close to killing her, demonstrates the character’s steeliness and is very tense as well. The racing simulator with the electric shock deliverer is an excellent plot device used first to show off one character’s eccentricity, another’s amorality and sadism, and a third’s bravery in not revealing the location of the prize and documents in spite of the death that awaits her.

As long as The Avengers stuck to straight spy stories with ingenious plot elements, well-rounded characters and smart dialogue, the series worked well. This episode just manages to get away with the vacuous Penny because she does save Steed’s life and disposes of the enemy agents, and gets to claim the prize money as well. It’s surprising that for all the kudos the series got for its lead female characters in Cathy Gale and Emma Peel, the supporting female characters who appeared were often very one-dimensional stereotypes. Naive women are played as empty-headed bunnies. In addition as Season 5 progresses and the episodes start becoming darker, Peel is subjected to some very unpleasant forms of torture, any one of which would cause major post-traumatic stress disorder in most people. I know the show is not meant to be serious but you sometimes wonder if the producers and script-writers were fully aware of what they were doing. But then, perhaps that’s the point of episodes like “Dead Man’s Treasure”: people may imagine they’re acting out childhood fantasies as did Benstead but such fantasies can be a double-edged sword and what’s fun at one point of time can be dangerous and deadly the next moment.

The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 6: The Winged Avenger): flighty fantasy let down by tedious and repetitive violence

 Gordon Flemyng and Peter Duffell, “The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 6: The Winged Avenger)” (1967)

The father-and-son team of stony-hearted corporate vultures at Simon Roberts & Son Publishers has been found mysteriously murdered – clawed to bloodless death, as it were, by a giant eagle – so Steed (Patrick Macnee) and trusty sidekick Peel (Diana Rigg) are immediately on the trail of this bird of prey. Initially an author with a grudge against Simon Roberts pere et fils is suspected of the deed but he’s discounted early on when his assistant is literally scratched out. Chasing more leads and more dead bodies, the intrepid twosome link a comic book studio called Winged Avengers Enterprises which specialises in writing, drawing and producing a comic around a superhero called the Winged Avenger with an inventor called Professor Poole (Jack MacGowan) who is trying to promote his special magnetised boots which allow people to walk up walls and on ceilings.

A homage to comic books and borrowing effects and some of the music from the Batman live-action series that starred Adam West as Batman / Bruce Wayne and which was popular in the mid to late 1960s, this episode is loopier than many others of the season and features as its climactic battle an upside-down fight between Peel and her enemy which viewers can see was originally filmed right way up because of the way the falling chair moves as if being pulled. The transitions between storyboarded cartoons and the live action are an interesting touch and illustrate how the villain Arnie Packer (Neil Hallett) has confused his fantasy world with the real world. On the other hand, the violence is unrealistic – for all the tearing and scratching that occur, there’s no blood shown at all – and the constant repetition of it when the novelty of the killing method wears off makes for a lot of tedium throughout the episode. It’s as if the script is running out of ideas so the fifty minutes allocated to the episode have to be padded up with pointless killing, especially that of Poole and of the actor playing the cartoon character for the storyboard illustrations. An unnecessary scene of a callous businessman shooting pheasants who ends up very dead to the delight of his would-be victims is included to drive very heavily home the point that his eponymous killer is motivated by social justice to pursue and destroy those who would exploit others for their own selfish interests.

The best scene is right at the beginning where Simon Roberts is instructing his son on how to sack people in the cruellest, most cold-hearted way possible and Junior turns out to be a chip off the old block when turfing out a loyal employee of the publishing company. Needless to say, the role model is quickly turfed out of the story and this sets off the race to find his killer.

The acting varies with MacGowan almost over-acting his role as the batty boffin bestriding the firmaments of his mansion and looking not a little flitter-mouse himself with his elfin features, and Hallett not quite looking and acting crazed enough as the creator of the Winged Avenger taken over by his child. John Garrie is unconvincing as the Asian man-servant to explorer / adventurer Lexius Cray (Nigel Green) which is a bit strange as the show had used Chinese-British Burt Kwouk in three episodes in the past; the role of man-servant could have been adjusted slightly to be non-Asian.

This was one of two episodes that featured birds as a sinister motif and it’s hard not to think that Alfred Hitchcock (“The Birds”) was not an influence on this episode and on other episodes of the show.

The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 9: The Correct Way to Kill): satire on upper class English culture and mores

Charles Crichton, “The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 9: The Correct Way to Kill)” (1967)

Soviet agents are being cut down almost as soon as they arrive in Britain and a diplomatic criss between the USSR and the UK is imminent. Who better than Steed (Patrick Macnee) and Peel (Diana Rigg) to entrust with the task of messing up the crime scene, follow leads that go nowhere, visit eccentric individuals and training organisations, and eventually uncover mad schemes hatched by the most unlikely of villains to take over the world and install a Nutski World Order? Our dynamic duo once again follow the well-worn script of trawling through bodies of people done down by seemingly polite City of London bankers (who turn out to be the vanguard of a highly trained and professional assassination squad) in office elevators and even rotating doors. This time Steed is given extra assistance by one Soviet agent Olga (Anna Quayle) and it’s Peel’s turn to feel a little annoyed at this unwelcome intrusion into her and Steed’s tidy partnership.

There’s considerable over-acting from those playing Russians, especially Quayle who plays Olga as a dour KGB agent stereotype fresh out of spy-training school and inclined to interpret everything literally and robotically, and Michael Gough who lays on the thick accent as Nutski, an long-term Soviet agent living in Britain who turns out to have double-crossed his side and the British side. Generally the characters are one-dimensional and Nutski and his lieutenants are presented as power-hungry types. The plot as usual is convoluted and a little tricky, and there are loose ends dangling, with not much depth overall. How on earth Steed and Olga can hide in the S.N.O.B. office and keep opening the door at intervals to watch a fencing training session and not be noticed at all by the instructor or his students is very strange indeed!

The staple cat-fight that climaxes the narrative is a fencing fight between Olga and Peel on one side and Nutski’s men training as spies and assassins in his organisation that masquerades as S.N.O.B. (Sociability, Nobility, Omnipotence, Breeding Inc.) which purports to teach ruffians and common caitiffs how to be Proper English Gentlemen. (Although I’m not sure that part of the training includes wielding umbrellas as foils and sabres and pricking Bulgarian exiles with ricin-injecting tips.)

Upper class English culture is satirised in this episode and the message that politeness, gentility and culture often hide a brutal, savage and amoral mentality and set of values is not lost on this viewer. In such a culture, style is privileged over substance: even the episode title in what it says and the minimal, succinct way it announces itself suggests as much. However clunky Olga appears, she provides a good if wide-eyed vicarious stand-in for audience reactions to goofy British character caricatures and assassinations.

Running umbrella and hat gags and loads of bawdy sexual and anal penetration jokes and double entendres, especially in the episode’s concluding scene, rather ruin this viewer’s experience. The episode itself is a remake of an earlier Avengers episode “The Charmers” with Honor Blackman as Steed’s partner Cathy Gale.

The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 17: The Return of the Cybernauts): mind control is the dominant theme

Robert Day, “The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 17: The Return of the Cybernauts)” (1967)

One of the more openly science fiction episodes in this season of the TV show, this mixes comedy, horror, action and even a love rival who not only makes Steed (Patrick Macnee) extremely jealous but also turns out to be his foe. Guest star Peter Cushing plays Paul Beresford who inveigles his way into Peel’s affections in order to draw her and Steed into a situation where he can destroy them as revenge for their role in the death of his robotics scientist brother Clement Armstrong in an earlier Avengers episode. Along the way he and Armstrong’s former assistant scientist Benson (Frederick Jaeger) use their Cybernaut machine to pick up and imprison a few scientific and engineering experts to assist the dastardly duo in their scheme to torment and kill Steed and Peel (Diana Rigg).

The title of the episode is a misnomer as there was only one robot used unless we count the humans enslaved by an ingenious mind control device (that can stop their hearts and kill them if they resist) as Cybernauts as well. As is usual with these Avengers episodes which were filmed on tight budgets, there are plot holes that viewers are expected to gloss over, such as how traces of skin dandruff and DNA can be used in creating a tiny nanochip in short order (say, a day or so working 24/7) that can tap into and control people’s brain functioning and thoughts, and also send an electric shock to the heart that literally stops it dead.

It has to be said that very little is done with the lone Cybernaut as something other than a killing machine: the robot could have been usefully employed serving drinks or assisting the three captured experts in designing a mind control gadget. If the robot could speak, one less character could have been used but that would have been Benson. The gadget itself is of more interest than the Cybernaut: small enough to fit into the palm of an adult hand and never straying from Beresford’s home, it nevertheless has an astonishing range of control, reaching as far as Steed’s country mansion which Peel frequents rather too frequently for someone who’s supposed to be Steed’s assistant. Once Peel places Beresford’s bracelet on her wrist, the receptor in the bracelet receives the remote message from the gadget and controls Peel’s behaviour completely. If this episode were to be shown today, I daresay the US Department of Defense would be very interested in a tiny hand-held device that could control people’s thoughts and actions by remote control, transmitting electromagnetic signals to a microchip embedded in the skin of the neck perhaps rather than through a receiver attached to a body part that can be removed or dislodged, and which could also detect thoughts of resistance and either delete them or kill the person if necessary.

The plot follows the familiar template of disappearing people with something in common and whose manner of disappearing is the same if eccentric and fantastic, the cause of which Steed and Peel must investigate and during which investigation they mess up the crime scene. They follow promising leads that take them into various by-ways, not all of which are successful or open to another lead. One of the two (often Peel) ends up being captured by the villain/s which means the other must race to rescue her/him in the nick of time. The template culminates in an all-out fight which ends only when the villains dies or is trapped by one of his (rarely her) signature devices.

At least the acting in “Return of the Cybernauts” is outstanding and there is some real development in the lead characters: the best scenes are ones where Steed is jealous of Beresford’s attentions toward Peel and makes some cutting remarks to her. Peel brushes them off, regarding them as quite amusing. Beresford plays an evil English gentleman to the hilt. Even the captive scientists distinguish themselves: Chadwick (Fulton Mackay), seduced by the money offered him, eagerly does as he’s told by Beresford and Benson while Neville (Charles Tingwell) acts as Chadwick’s foil and conscience. These characters might have struck a chord with a 1960s audience as their behaviour is reminiscent of the ways scientists in Nazi Germany coped with Adolf Hitler’s government and its control of German science: some scientists supported the Third Reich zealously and offered their services to the Nazis without a second thought; others, like Neville, worked for the government in order to control the direction of their science and ensure it wasn’t degraded by the government; still other scientists resisted and were either punished or managed to flee Germany.

A memorable episode but not in the way the producers had intended it to be.

 

The Ghoul: upper class comedy masquerading as horror

T Hayes Hunter, “The Ghoul” (1933)

I had never heard of this film before and stumbled on it while looking for something else on Youtube. Boris Karloff plays Professor Morlant, an eccentric Egyptologist who long ago bought a mysterious jewel that bestows the gift of eternal life. Now dying, he gives his staff specific instructions on how he is to be buried and states the jewel must be buried with him. After his staff promise to obey him, Morlant soon carks it and initially he is lain in his coffin with the jewel as per his orders.

A young woman Betty (Dorothy Hyson) inherits Morlant’s property and she and a male cousin Ralph (Anthony Bushell) arrive for the reading of the will. Others arrive too – Betty’s older unmarried friend Kaney (Kathleen Harrison), Morlant’s  Egyptian colleague Ben Dragore (Harold Huth) who plans to steal the jewel, a vicar Nigel Hartley (Ralph Richardson, in his first film role), Morlant’s old butler Laing (Ernest Thesiger) and solicitor (Cedric Hardwicke) – and soon enough they discover Morlant’s mansion is plagued by strange shadows, things going bump in the night and a ghoulish presence. Sure enough, Morlant has revived and discovers the jewel that was supposedly buried with him has been stolen. What happens then is the jewel passes from one person to another as Morlant pursues it.

The film contains as much comedy as it does horror, in which there’s very little of the supernatural: what has happened is that Morlant fell into a coma, was thought to be dead and after a several hours lying in a cool tomb, has recovered his strength if maybe not his wits. An amusing minor sub-plot develops when Kaney falls heavily in love with Ben Dragore, imagining him to be a Valentino-style desert sheikh which Ben Dragore, figuring she might be useful to his thievish scheme, does little to disabuse her of: a number of cultural stereotypes about Arabs then popular in  Britain is skewered neatly during their encounters. The most exciting part of the film happens AFTER Morlant dies for real while worshipping the Egyptian god Anubis: the vicar is revealed as a fake, part of Ben Dragore’s little gang of thieves, and tries to kill Betty and Ralph. The mausoleum where Morlant was interred after his first “death” soon catches fire and Betty and Ralph must fight their way out of the tomb before they are overcome by smoke and heat.

The acting varies from competent to histrionic and the cast behaves as though part of a stage comedy of manners. The characters conform to British stage stereotypes: Ralph as stiff upper-lipped hero, Betty as a sometimes independent and capable young woman eventually reduced to screaming damsel, Kaney as lovelorn spinster, unlucky in love, the vicar as head villain and Ben Dragore as straight man partnered with the pathetic Kaney. Indeed, Huth and Harrison display excellent comic timing in their scenes together and it is a credit to both that their characters are not as one-dimensional as might be assumed from the plot and the minor roles they play in it; Harrison in particular displays some very heroic qualities near the film’s end. Ralph and Betty are rather more conventional characters who quarrel at first, then start to co-operate and finally show romantic interest in each other after surviving some gruelling tests. Much good acting comes from Karloff himself as the “mummy” character and he also provides some comic relief in a memorable scene where he menaces an unwitting Kaney, waving to Ben Dragore through a set of French doors; the ghoul then leaves and shuts the door behind him, and it’s only then that Kaney turns around to see the door shut and begins to panic!

The set designs are astonishing in their clean quality for a 1930s British film (they had been worked on by people with a German Expressionist background) and there is plenty of “haunted house” atmosphere with the filming of shots that emphasise dark shadows and gloomy ambience. Action takes place mostly at night and the grounds of Morlant’s mansion see plenty of creepy occurrences among tall overgrown grass and trees with bushy canopies, lit up in parts by the light of a full moon. Unusual camera angles stress atmosphere and suspense.

For us moderns, the film isn’t really scary and the action only perks up well past the halfway mark; most of the film is actually character-driven with various cast members having their own reasons for turning up at Morlant’s mansion to hear the will being read, and the movie takes its sweet time setting up the characters and providing them with motivation. The film does have the look of having been adapted from a stage play; in fact it was based on a novel. It’s recommended mainly for the technical production aspects (set design, cinematography) which can be very outstanding; as plot and characterisation go, “The Ghoul” isn’t one of the better films of the 1930s.

Judex (dir. Georges Franju): an affectionate, light-hearted homage to Louis Feuillade and silent films

Georges Franju, “Judex” (1963)

A remake of the Louis Feuillade 1916 mini-series about the mystery masked crusader Judex (Latin for “judge”), Georges Franju’s film is said to partake of some of that earlier film’s visual style. Certainly there is an emphasis on careful staging of action and great attention given to details of background scenery and landscapes. Several scenes almost have a Post-Impressionist look in the manner of Georges Seurat’s misty pointillist paintings. The music soundtrack, composed by Maurice Jarre who collaborated with Franju on several films, may be repetitive but is also emotionally expressive when required. The film deliberately blurs distinctions between heroes and villains: main characters are people of questionable character or are sinister somehow, no matter how noble their motivations and principles might once have been.

Set at the turn of the 20th century, the film initially revolves around the unscrupulous banker Favraux who plans to marry off his widowed daughter Jacqueline (Edith Scob) to an impoverished aristocrat. A couple of early scenes involving a vagabond reveal Favraux’s moral emptiness and concern only for his own interests. He receives letters from a mysterious correspondent who calls himself Judex (Channing Pollock) which threaten him with harm if he doesn’t return the money he swindled from past investors. Naturally Favraux ignores the letters and later at a celebratory party, he keels over, apparently dead. Jacqueline buries him, dismisses the staff who include one Diana Monti (Francine Berge) and resolves to give up her inheritance. Later Jacqueline is menaced by Monti, her lover and their minions who are after documents detailing Favraux’s investments and other wealth. Judex comes to Jacqueline’s rescue and foils Monti’s plans to rob the Favraux family but not before tragedy occurs.

The plot is pulp-comic ordinary and parts of it appear amateurish and badly staged to 21st century eyes. There are cliff-hangers, scenes of laugh-out-loud soap-opera melodrama – in one scene, two strangers fighting discover they are a long-lost father-son pair! – and characters are stereotyped: Jacqueline as a helpless damsel in distress, Judex as an imposing Batman hero figure, Diana Monti as all-out Catwoman villain and her boyfriend as a somewhat dim-witted sidekick. A detective Cocantin and a small boy add comic flavour and an unexpected diversion to the plot. The action is slow and the pacing awkward.

The acting is so-so but the character of Judex isn’t required to be anything other than strong, silent, always in control and lady-killing in his Zorro cape and broad hat. At least Pollock (in real life, he was a magician and some-time amateur actor) is good-looking and has quite a commanding presence even in scenes where he falls into trouble. Scob spends much of her screen time in one dead faint or another. Perhaps the only decent and intriguing character is Monti who, in spite of failing many times, comes up with one dastardly scheme after another to get her paws on the Favraux fortune and wears figure-hugging black catsuits, in the days before British audiences clapped their gazes onto Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg in “The Avengers” TV series. For sheer determination and resourcefulness in escaping Judex and justice, this Monti dame sure can’t be beat!

The film’s highlight is the fight scene between Monti and a passing circus acrobat Daisy, a friend of Cocantin’s, on a roof-top which must have been a hit for audiences not used to seeing brave and self-reliant women defend themselves without the help of men. True, no flashy martial arts moves are used here but the women fight desperately to avoid falling off. The music used here is partly electronic in sound and sinister in mood.

“Judex” is an affectionate and not at all serious homage to Louis Feuillade and his films – watch out for a pulpy comic book “Fantomas” featuring a picture of nuns with guns in one scene, a reference to Feuillade’s “Fantomas” series; and Berge in the cat-suit is a reference to Irma Vep of Feuillade’s later “Les Vampires” series – and a good introduction to Georges Franju’s oeuvre and style of cinema.

 

 

Two comedy horror shorts by Martin Scorsese about self-destructive compulsions and obsessions

Martin Scorsese, “What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?” (1963) 

Martin Scorsese, “The Big Shave” (1967)

Two hilarious short films from Martin Scorsese, one from his student days and the other when he was starting his film-directing career, yet both have energy and a refreshing surrealist experimentalism. Both shorts are at once comedies and horror films. In the first film, a writer called Harry (Zeph Michaelis)  is obsessed by a photograph of a man in a boat on a lake, so much so that his career suffers and his life goes down the toilet. He tries to escape his obsession by socialising at parties, marrying an attractive girl (Sarah Braveman) and confiding in his close friend (Fred Sica) and a psychoanalyst. Eventually though, Harry’s life does go down the toilet – literally. In the other film, the focus shifts from the toilet shown in the first few frames to the rest of the bathroom which an unnamed man (Peter Bermuth) enters to shave. For a few moments, viewers could be mistaken for thinking this is an advertisement for “Rape Shave” shaving cream or a mock parody of a Kenneth Anger film – but then the fun really starts about the third minute where the film takes on more colour, the man just keeps going with his shaving ritual and the all-white bathroom becomes rather … less so.

“The Big Shave” is intended as a satirical comment on the Vietnam war raging at the time: the man’s continual shaving of himself might represent US stubbornness in pouring in more cannon fodder and resources into fighting a war that was going badly and which would end badly for the US. Much the same can be said for the current self-destructive US policy of fighting wars across western Asia and northern Africa even as the American middle class shrinks in numbers and income and the country teeters on the brink of calamity and chaos, whichever angle (political, financial, economic, social, cultural) you want to look at it from. The jazz music soundtrack barely skips a beat and even increases in tempo and happy mood. The creepiest part of the film is the actor’s blank and empty-eyed expression as he repeatedly, even compulsively, continues to shave himself as if trying to obliterate his existence that disturbs the tidy whiteness of the bathroom. It’s as though Scorsese has noticed something fetishistic about the bathroom’s all-white hygienic perfection – the early close-up shots of bathroom objects suggest as much – and is determined to mock it. Close-up shots of soiled bathroom taps and sink drive home the character’s almost ritualistic self-flaying and I half-expected him to faint: most certainly that would have been too histrionic and the final shot in which he places the razor blade gently if shakily on the edge of the sink and presumably dies quietly off-screen while the water washes away the mess is a chillingly powerful one.

“What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?” is notable mainly for its use of montages of photographic stills throughout, in particular, the montages of scenes in the offending photograph where the man and then the boat are made to disappear, and of Henry’s engagement and marriage to the girl and their honeymoon. The film is very brisk with rapid-fire editing and one gets a sense of Harry’s awful fate in his voice-over narration which increasingly becomes panicky. His confrontation with his demon occurs off-screen with a right royal flush and his friend watches in horror as Harry disappears into the object of his obsession.

Although very brief and more concerned with experimentation in style, these little films already indicate a future theme that Scorsese would return to again and again throughout his career: humans driven by hidden and unacknowledged compulsions and urges to repeat self-destructive actions.

It’s Not Just You, Murray! – a clever comedy piece by budding film director great

Martin Scorsese, “It’s Not Just You, Murray!” (1964)

Made by Scorsese as a film student at New York University under the tutelage of Haig Manoogian, this short film is a clever comedy piece about a mob boss Murray (John Bicona) who’s commissioned a film crew to make a laudatory biopic about him and his chief enforcer Joe (San de Fazio) who’s been his best friend since childhood. The beauty of the film is in the way Scorsese skilfully packs in experimentation with elements of various Hollywood film genres of the past – musicals, musical comedy, silent film, film noir, gangster movies among others – and with the film-making process itself: photographic stills, a kaleidoscopic montage of one scene multiplied into five that rotate around one another in the manner of Hollywood musicals, cinematic self-reference among other techniques Scorsese uses. At once a spoof of gangster movies and an affectionate homage to aspects of Italian-American culture such as male bonding, the film is a character study of sorts: it’s a look at Murray and Joe, how their friendship has developed over the years and how the two men are close even though it’s obvious to all except Murray himself that Joe’s been two-timing him with his wife and might even be the father of Murray’s kids.

The fact that it’s in black-and-white is no problem for Scorsese who even makes fun out of that restriction by shooting some scenes as though they were part of a silent film, complete with tinny piano accompaniment, or part of a 1930s Hollywood musical, complete with close-ups of a chorus line of girls; other scenes in the short might have come straight out of a serious crime or legal drama from the 1950s, or from an Italian movie of the same period (Federico Fellini’s “I Vitelloni” has been cited as an influence on Scorsese so I assume that film’s being referenced here). All the different styles, filming elements and techniques and references are blended together so well that the flow of the film appears completely natural even though parts of it look old and other parts look new and fresh, even nearly 50 years after its making.

The final scene at the end of the film looks like pure surrealism with all the major people in Murray’s life turning up to celebrate his success and a professional photographer hired to take a photo of Murray and Joe together. The film ends precisely at the point that the camera flash goes off, there’s a big bang and a white cloud of smoke issues to completely obscure the two, er, friends … so does Murray finally realise what Joe’s been up to or does Joe get the last laugh here?

Scorsese’s mother Catherine shows up in small cameos as Murray’s mama, forever stuffing her little boy with spaghetti even when he’s doing jail-time and she has to feed him through the bars!

The film looks back on Hollywood history and forward to Scorsese’s career in making films about the Mafia and his interest in  film culture and its preservation. It’s a must-see for anyone interested in Scorsese’s development as a film director and in film experimentation.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb: black satire on fetishisation of war and technology

Stanley Kubrick, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb” (1964)

Notable as the film that features British actor Peter Sellers in three very different roles, this black comedy is a satire on the Cold War that had developed between the United States and the Soviet Union in the late 1940s and which extended to the early 1990s when the Soviet Union fell, and the attitudes, culture and outlook associated with that period. In particular, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, in which countries refrain from nuclear war due to the fear of universal nuclear catastrophe resulting from detonation of an atomic bomb irrespective of who drops it first, is revealed as an inadequate response to a situation of deadlock which should be resolved by communication and diplomacy, both options being badly bungled by politicians on both sides. The film is outstanding for its cast of actors and their acting: Sellers has perhaps never been better before or since he made the film, and other actors like George C Scott, Slim Pickens and Sterling Hayden also distinguish themselves playing characters on the brink of mental derangement brought about by extreme fantasies and paranoia born from their military training and background.

The narrative divides into three connected strands: General Jack D Ripper (Hayden) is so hung up about the Commies contaminating America’s vitality – there is a clear theme of nuclear power being analogous to male sexuality, therefore paranoia reveals male sexual inadequacy – that he orders a sudden nuclear air strike on the USSR and four bombers take off to drop their loads far deep in Soviet territory. News of the order reaches the White House where President Merkin Muffley (Sellers) frantically tries to contact and convince his Soviet counterpart that the attack is a mistake. Muffley tells his War Secretary Turgidson (Scott) to storm the military base where Ripper and his second-in-charge Captain Mandrake (Sellers) are located; Mandrake tries to stop Ripper from ordering the nuclear attack but fails so he turns instead to figuring out the recall code that will stop the bombing. The base is stormed and Ripper’s men, believing they are being attacked by the Soviets, fight back. Ripper commits suicide and Mandrake finds the recall code and phones the White House.

In the meantime the President and his cabinet are shocked at news from the Soviet ambassador Alexei Sadeski (Peter Bull) that the USSR has built a doomsday machine after its politicians read a New York Times article proclaiming that the Americans had already made one. Muffley summons his scientific advisor Dr Strangelove (Sellers) who suggests that the ambassador’s statement is a ploy. Sadeski admits the doomsday machine’s secret was going to be revealed by the Soviet government in another week.

Three of the four US bombers are eventually persuaded to turn away but the fourth, headed by Major Kong (Pickens) heads for a ballistic missile complex in remote Soviet territory and in spite of various technological malfunctions in the plane – malfunctions deliberately installed so as to make the job of dropping bombs difficult and so enforcing caution on those who would use the bomb – Kong manages to get it going in a spectacular scene suggestive of sexual penetration and the adolescent schoolboy reaction to “getting it up”. On receiving the news that a nuclear bomb has been released, Muffley and his dejected cabinet begin discussing how they can protect the American population from the inevitable radiation fall-out once the US and the Soviets begin trading inter-continental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads in earnest. The weird Dr Strangelove, struggling with his atavistic Nazi tendencies, finally stands up and the feared doomsday machine is triggered as suggested by the film’s repeating coda to the tune of Vera Lynn’s famous World War II song “We’ll meet again’.

The various characters in the film draw their effectiveness from the real people who inform them: Strangelove is based on famous German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, physicist Edward Teller, futurist and strategist Herman Kahn, and mathematician John von Neumann; President Muffley is based in part on US politician Adlai Stevenson; and Mandrake is based on British airforce officers Sellers had known during World War II. Mandrake is played fairly straight though it is not difficult to see Sellers’s most famous role of Inspector Clouseau of Pink Panther notoriety in the character and Muffley is also quite a straight, non-comic character in spite of the hilarious lines he sometimes has to deliver. Bureaucracy and political ineptitude are targets for satire through these characters. The sinister Dr Strangelove is a metaphor for Nazi scientists and others who fled to the US from Germany while the latter country was descending into flames and hell in 1945, and whose loyalties to America might still be in doubt despite the passage of time. Strangelove worships science and technology and the capabilities and range of opportunities these offer; his character might be said also to satirise those who fetishise technologies of annihilation so much that they rejoice even in the alarming number of deaths the weapons are certain to cause.

Sexual innuendos abound in the characters’ names, the language they use and their actions (Strangelove’s behaviour at the end of the film being an example) and in much of the film’s visuals and the images employed, especially near the end. This suggests that the competition to build up armed forces and military weapons with no thought for their consequences is a puerile fantasy that can only end badly.

Cinematography is employed in ways that enhance the film’s claustrophobic paranoia: the bomber aircraft is cramped, the President’s war room looks bunker-like, sealed off from public scrutiny, the headquarters at Ripper’s military base is made bunker-like as well due to the attacks on it. The film’s climax and conclusion are dominated by scenes of the bomber flying to its definition, all flipping backwards and forwards among themselves, to create a feeling of growing tension as viewers become convinced that the bomb will be dropped in spite of the White House’s best efforts to stop it.

While the film has dated in nearly 50 years as of this time of writing, what with military technology having changed dramatically to the extent that aerial bombing has all but ceased, the point that reliance on technological balance between enemies is fragile at best and dangerously unstable at worst remains and that there is no technological substitute, however seductive, for openness, accountability and diplomacy.

 

 

Cosmopolis: profound road-movie meditation on corporate nihilism and its destruction of people

David Cronenberg, “Cosmopolis” (2012)

A profound and thoughtful film on the nature of the corporate fascist mind-set, “Cosmopolis”  is a quasi-cyberpunk road movie across New York City. Billionaire asset manager Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) sets out in his stretch limousine early in the morning for a hair-cut appointment. His path is not straightforward for the President of the United States has come to NYC on a state visit and security barricades have been put up in those parts of the city where the limo would travel through, plus his favourite rap singer Brutha Fez (K’naan) has just died and his funeral cortège will also interfere with and slow down the limo. As the limo also serves as his office, Packer meets with his art dealer / mistress (Juliette Binoche), his finance officer (Emily Hampshire), a corporate guru / philosopher (Sandra Morton), a couple of analysts (Jay Baruchel, Philip Nozuka) and his doctor for various appointments. He catches sight of his estranged wife (Sarah Gadon) a few times and tries to convince her to return but she refuses as she needs her energy for work. Throughout the day, he receives news that his humongous fortune, dependent on his prediction of the Chinese yuan’s depreciation being correct, comes crashing down and that his life is in danger from a stalker.

Due to the aforementioned obstructions and an unexpected protest, Packer’s trip to the barber takes much longer than expected – it takes over 12 hours! – during which time Packer reveals himself as a highly complex and troubled man: cold and emotionless externally, yet vulnerable, hungering for real human contact, searching for meaning to his existence and ultimately self-loathing. The plot is flimsy and absurd, and characters speak in a highly stilted and staged way, indicating that the source material is either a novel or a play – as it happens, the film is based on a Don DeLillo novel of the same name. Packer’s conversations with his employees and other people range over topics such as the nature of information and information flows and their value in capitalist society, the distinction between the present and the future, finding meaning in life and the value of wealth and material goods to one’s self-esteem. By night Packer realises that he is a ruined man yet seems quite happy and even feels free; and when he comes face to face with his stalker (Paul Giamatti) who may or may not kill him at point-blank range, he does not plead for his life and even appears to welcome the release that death may bring him.

“Cosmopolis” is cool, calculated and stunningly beautiful in a clinical, Ballardesque way in which the thin line between intellectual, abstract rationality and rich-kid hedonistic psychopathy disappears. The rapacious dehumanising values of corporate capitalism unfold through Packer, his hermetic limo world and the contrast it makes with the rough-n-tumble cosmopolitan world of NYC. R-Patz is an ideal choice to play Packer: his blank and beautiful face conveys subtle emotion and intelligence, and his acting is efficient. One can truly believe that here was once a golden youth, highly intelligent and university-educated, restless and wanting to know and to control more, a thrill-seeker desirous of experience and love, but now perverted by material greed and sensuous hedonism. First indications that his perfectly aligned, designed world will crash around him come from his two analysts and doctor who informs him that his prostate is asymmetrical. It will be interesting to see how Pattinson’s career progresses from “Cosmopolis” onwards: he can act in the kind of challenging role that once upon a time the likes of James Spader, Christian Bale and Heath Ledger chased and if he and his agent can find the right character roles in future films, his star will surely eclipse those of the current generation of Hollywood actors.

The support actors are a little wasted as they are all talented but their roles have very limited screen time: the stand-out is Paul Giamatti as the vengeful and deranged ex-employee who believes killing Packer will restore meaning to his own life. Other memorable characters include the security chief (Kevin Durand) whose whole life revolves around protecting Packer to the extent that he literally is Packer’s shadow and is nothing without him; and chauffeur Ibrahim (Abdul Ayoola) who together with the barber (George Touliatos) provide the warm proletarian contrast to Packer’s world of virtual reality and ruthless control of information and resource flows where real-life people like the security chief can be dispensed with at the barrel of a gun.

There are strong themes of authenticity-versus-inauthenticity, the quest for self-knowledge and identity, and the danger to one’s sanity of being caught up in a world where abstraction and emotionless rationality reign supreme and the need to know and control everything down to the tiniest detail such as the shape of one’s prostate absorbs all one’s attention. Packer represents a profoundly nihilist individual who has become God in his world and it seems appropriate that to be truly Übermensch, he pays for his nihilism by destroying everything he has, including his own life.