Rocky V (1990, John G Avildsen)

RockyV

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Now retired, Rocky Balboa acts as mentor to a promising young boxer – but his commitment to the cause leads to a rift in his family…

What does Stallone do? He wrote the script and plays Rocky Balboa again. (Five movies in and the actor’s soppy shtick is starting to grate now.) But for the first time with a Rocky sequel he didn’t direct. As this was intended as the final film in the series, original director John G Avildsen returned, having spent most of the intervening 14 years making Karate Kid movies… Soon after the events of Rocky IV, Rocky Balboa is welcomed back to the US by excited journalists who are proud that he beat a Soviet boxer in his own back gulag. But the bonhomie falls away when the Balboas lose all of their money and are forced to move into meagre housing in urban Philadelphia. Needing cash, the now-retired Rocky considers fighting his replacement as world champion, a young guy called Union Cane, but is then diagnosed with cavum septum pellucidum (in other words: irreversible brain damage). So instead he takes over running his old boxing gym, and then encounters a promising young boxer called Tommy Gunn. The two quickly develop a bond, with Tommy even living in the Balboas’ basement (much to the chagrin of Rocky’s son, Robert, who feels ignored). But then Tommy is tempted away by a flamboyant boxing promoter, who promises him riches if he fights Cane. As the public turns against him for abandoning his old trainer, the riled and petulant Tommy feels the need to beat Rocky in a fight – and the two men end up brawling in the street… During filming the plan had been that Rocky would die at the end of his scrap with Tommy, but then Stallone changed his mind and the character lived to fight another day (in 16 years’ time, as it turned out).

Other main characters:
* Adrian Balboa (Talia Shire) insists that her husband has retired after his bruising battle with Ivan Drago in the last film – even when Rocky is tempted by a huge payday if he gets back into the ring.
* Robert ‘Rocky’ Balboa (Sage Stallone) has magically aged a few years during the weeks his father spent in Russia – he now appears to be about 12. When the family move into inner-city Philly, he starts at a new school but is soon bullied. (You know, in that way that sons of world heavyweight boxing champions are often picked on…) As Rocky becomes more and more distracted with training Tommy, Robert is beaten up and feels isolated and alone. He wants to learn how to fight but his dad is too busy to teach him.
* Pauline Peninno (Burt Young) has mucked things up in a big way. He naively signed away the family’s power of attorney to a crooked accountant, who has now wiped out all their wealth. (Does this make sense? Since when did layabout Paulie have that kind of authority?) Rocky and Adrian’s only remaining asset – thankfully, because it keeps the plot going – is the old gym once owned by Rocky’s mentor Mickey Goldmill. Characteristically, Paulie shows little remorse for his fuck-up. He also moots moving to Miami to work as a gigolo.
* The flamboyant, loud and arrogant George Washington Duke (Richard Gant) styles himself as a promoter extraordinaire, and is pretty obviously based on boxing impresario Don King. He wants Rocky to fight one of his young clients, a guy called Union Cane (Michael Williams, a real-life boxer giving a truly dreadful performance). But Rocky resists the idea, so Duke hounds him in the media and in person then later turns his attentions to Rocky’s new protégé.
* The late Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) appears in some newly filmed flashbacks. Set during the timeframe of Rocky II, and featuring Mickey giving pep talks to Rocky, the scenes are so heavy-handed they very nearly rip through the screen and flop onto the floor.
* Tommy ‘the Machine’ Gunn (Tommy Morrison) is a boxing hopeful from Oklahoma who introduces himself to Rocky on the street and wants him to be his trainer. A walking collection of muscles with a mullet on top, Tommy is a savage brawler who impresses Balboa enough that the older man takes him in, shows him the ropes, encourages him… However, Tommy’s head is then turned by the flashy Duke (and his cleavage-on-legs moll). Morrison gives a pretty flat performance of a one–note character.

Key scene: When Tommy gets a chance to fight world champion Union Cane, Rocky watches the bout on television – and he throws or ducks every punch along with his friend. When a victorious Tommy then gives a speech, he says he wants to thank one man in particular and Rocky’s chest puffs out in pride… only for Tommy to say he owes everything to Duke.

Review: If this lacklustre film is about anything, it’s about fatherhood. At one point, Rocky says that having his son was like being born again; it gave him a second chance. Rocky himself has lost his own father figure (trainer Mickey, who died in Rocky III) and is now attempting to take on the role of a parental mentor. However, the person who he should be focusing on – his son, Robert – gets ignored because Rocky has acquired a surrogate in the form of Tommy. (All of this has an extra level to it: Robert is played by Sylvester Stallone’s real-life son.) But the choice of storyline has an odd emotional effect. Rocky is the film’s lead character and yet is behaving so appallingly – being such a poor father – that we don’t have any sympathy for him. Tommy, meanwhile, is soon revealed to be a selfish chancer. Robert should be the one we root for, and it’s actually not a bad performance from 13-year-old Sage Stallone, but he gets relatively little screen time. It constantly feels like the movie, not just Rocky, is distracted. Elsewhere, the clunky plot that strips the Balboas of their wealth overnight is pretty laughable. The high times of the previous sequels (flashy cars, mansions, robot butlers) has gone, and now Rocky and co are back in a working-class ghetto. (‘This neighbourhood’s coming down with tooth decay,’ says Paulie.) Director John Avildsen is going for the kind of stark realism he used in the original movie, but it now comes off as artificial. Rocky might start wearing his old hat, old locations might get reused, old scenes echoed. But it’s all undercut by a cast who are either coasting or not good enough, a hip-hop-flavoured score that feels out of place, and lots of soft Hollywood lighting. Then the finale is just risible. Tommy goads Rocky into brawling on a Philadelphia street and the resulting fight is shot with tricksy frame rates, irritating editing and the kind of staging you usually only see in music videos. Rocky wins and everyone around him acts like a 45-year-old man beating up the world heavyweight boxing champion in the gutter is a perfectly reasonable thing to happen.

Four butts in the buckets, asses in the seats, out of 10

Next: Rocky Balboa

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Rambo III (1988, Peter MacDonald)

RamboIII

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Living off the grid in southeast Asia, John Rambo learns that his mentor has been captured by an evil Soviet commander…

What does Stallone do? He worked on the script, reprised the title role, and used his influence behind the scenes to have the film’s director replaced midstream… We first see John Rambo in Thailand. He’s working at a local monastery but also taking part in stick-fighting duels for spare cash. Then, just as in the previous film, his mentor Colonel Trautman shows up and asks this clearly damaged war vet to go on another life-threatening mission. There’s an area of Afghanistan, it seems, where the occupying Soviet forces are especially cruel so the US wants to do something about it. (This is therefore the third Rocky/Rambo film in a row with Russian villains. It was the 80s, after all!) John is understandably reluctant, but then Trautman goes on the mission alone and is snatched by the Soviets. ‘Can you get me in?’ asks John when he learns the news; yes, says Trautman’s colleague, but it’ll have to be an unofficial rescue mission. So John travels to Pakistan, meets up with a local guide, crosses the border, hangs out with the mujahedeen resistance, and hunts down the camp where his former boss is being held…

Other main characters:
* Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) presumably never trained any other half-decent covert agents in his military career, given that this is the second time in three years he’s sought out a mentally scared loner and begged for his help.
* Robert Griggs (Kurtwood Smith) is a diplomat who shadows Trautman when the latter arrives in Thailand to ask John to go on the mission. Later, after Trautman has been captured, Griggs returns to the monastery – which is up a mountain, a long way from any town – for a 23-second chat with John before turning round to head back home.
* Mousa Chanin (Sasson Gabai) is the US government’s ‘man in Pakistan’. Rambo finds him in a prosthetic-limb shop (it does good business due to all the landmines in the area). Chanin then acts as a guide as well as supplying information, equipment and history lessons for the audience.
* Colonel Alexi Zaysen (Marc de Jonge) is the regional commander of the Soviet forces in Afghanistan and, obviously, as they always are in action films, is a sadistic, arrogant prick. He interrogates and tortures the captured Trautman for information. Being an American, Trautman is able to resist and even taunts Zaysen, saying Afghanistan is Russia’s Vietnam (ie, an unwinnable folly). Zayzen also personally leads a helicopter attack on a local village, just to emphasise how evil he is.
* Hamid (Doudi Shoua) is a young Afghan orphan who tags along on Rambo’s mission.

Key scene: Having escaped from the Russian compound, John and Trautman end up cornered in a large area of rocky wasteland. They’re in the open, with no available cover, and an helicopter piloted by Zaysen is hovering in front of them. It’s armed to the teeth, with torpedoes, machine guns… probably even flame-throwers knowing this film. Over a loud-speaker, Zaysen warns them they have no way out. ‘What do you say, John?’ asks Trautman. ‘Fuck ’em,’ snarls Rambo and the pair start shooting. The fact that not one bullet of the returning fire hits anywhere near them is, of course, a motif of action films. The fact they suddenly find a convenient gash in the landscape to hide in is a similar stretch. But the subtext – that a pair of vastly outgunned people can get out of this situation simply because they decide to – sums up this movie’s macho attitude perfectly.

Review: After clashing with Stallone, this film’s original director, Russell Mulcahy (Highlander), was fired mid-shoot and replaced by second-unit director Peter McDonald. ‘I was intrigued by the challenge,’ McDonald later said. ‘I tried very hard to change the Rambo character a bit and make him a vulnerable and humorous person. I failed totally.’ He wasn’t wrong. Rambo III is as amped-up and unsubtle as its lead character’s sweat-glistened biceps. We get lots of worthy talk about the indefatigable spirit of the Afghan people and the evils of the USSR aggression, but for a rescue plot there’s a distinct lack of urgency. John even takes time out to play a local version of polo that uses an animal carcass as the ball. Then, after Rambo has eventually freed Trautman, the film plummets into mind-numbingly drab action: a thousand gunshots, a hundred deaths, a dozen explosions. There *is* a way of doing this kind of story. Compare Rambo III with the superficially similar Arnold Schwarzenegger film Commando (1985) and you can see a gulf of difference. The latter is just as violent and simplistic. It also has a weak central performance and a naïve political attitude towards foreigners. But it’s also knowing and genuinely flamboyant and a lot of fun. Rambo III, on the other hand, is just empty-headed, jingoistic drivel.

Two worst nightmares out of 10

Note: In the three years since the previous Rambo flick, one of the more bizarre spin-offs in pop-culture history had hit TV screens. Animation production company Ruby-Spears decided to produce a kiddie-friendly cartoon version, Rambo: The Force of Freedom, which ran for 65 syndicated episodes between April and December 1986. John Rambo and Colonel Trautman were carried over from the films, sans any mention of PTSD, and were now complemented by zappily named characters such as Edward ‘Turbo’ Hayes, Katherine Anne ‘KAT’ Taylor and TD ‘Touchdown’ Jackson. As a team, these heroes battled terrorists called SAVAGE (Specialist Administrators of Vengeance, Anarchy and Global Extortion). None of the film actors took part.

Next: Rocky V

Rocky IV (1985, Sylvester Stallone)

RockyIV

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Soviet Union’s best boxer turns professional, leading to a showdown with Rocky Balboa…

What does Stallone do? He wrote the script, directed the film, and starred for a fourth time as Rocky Balboa. After the death of his friend Apollo Creed, Rocky resolves to take on the man who killed him in the ring: a giant Russian boxer called Ivan Drago. Ultimately Rocky defeats him in an oddly oomph-free fight in Moscow, then gives a cringe-making speech to the watching world about the current acrimony between the US and the Soviet Union: ‘In here, there were two guys killing each other… but I guess that’s better than 20 million.’

Other main characters:
* Rocky’s wife, Adrian Balboa (Talia Shire), doesn’t go with him to Russia for the fight. Then she does. They must have been paying Talia Shire a lot of money to keep turning up in these films.
* Robert ‘Rocky’ Balboa Jr (Rocky Krakoff) is now about nine years old. He also stays behind when his dad flies off to Russia, but later cheers him on while watching the fight on TV.
* Paulie Pennino (Burt Young) is still loafing, still moaning, still earning a wage from Rocky for no discernible reason. He has a birthday in this film, so – and this really is one of the most bizarre moments in all of 1980s cinema – is given a robot butler as a present. A fucking robot butler. Paulie later reprograms it with a sexy female voice, then the film wisely turns its attentions elsewhere. (As easy as it is to scoff, as I’ve just proved, there was actually a sweet reason for robot’s inclusion: it had been designed a few years earlier to assist autistic children with communications skills and Stallone’s son Seargeoh, then about eight, is autistic.)
* When Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) learns that young Soviet boxer Ivan Drago wants to turn pro and fight an American, he steps up to the rope – partly through pride, partly through patriotism. Rocky advises against it, given that Apollo has been retired for a few years, but then agrees to be his corner man. The quickly arranged exhibition bout starts out as razzmatazzy as they come: James Brown sings a song, showgirls flounce about, the ring is part of an elaborate stage set. Creed then begins the fight well, but when Drago lets loose he absolutely pummels the older man. Creed is knocked out in the second round and dies in the ring… Rocky is distraught. Drago shows no remorse.
* Captain Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) wears his military uniform to his first press conference in the States, and is flanked by stern Soviet handlers. A world amateur boxing champion, he’s a man of very few words – just 46 in the whole movie – and when he does speak he says things like ‘You will lose’ and ‘I will break you.’ His support team emphasise their technological approach to training – screens, readouts, statistics, white-coated boffins – while he himself seems to be completely devoid of emotion. While Apollo is lying unconscious on the mat, his leg twitching unnervingly, Drago tells a reporter: ‘If he dies, he dies.’ (The quality of Lundgren’s performance can be illuminated by the following anecdote. A couple of years after Rocky IV had come out, Sylvester Stallone visited the set of kids film Masters of the Universe. He turned to a friend who was working on the movie, pointed at its star Dolph Lungren, and said, ‘You gave that guy lines?!’)
* Ludmilla Drago (Brigitte Nielsen, who married Stallone in December 1985) is Ivan’s wife and de facto spokesperson. She’s a former Olympic swimming champion.
* James Brown plays himself.
* Tony ‘Duke’ Evans (Tony Burton) used to be Apollo’s trainer, and was more or less a background character in the first three Rocky films. Here he joins Rocky’s entourage and offers some fatherly guidance.

Key scene: After Apollo’s death, Rocky drives his sportscar around at night while reminiscing about the events of the series so far – we see clips as he broods on past events and the scene is scored by Robert Tepper’s soft-rock hit No Easy Way Out. It’s basically a fully-fledged music video just dropped inelegantly into the middle of a Hollywood film! And it’s far from the only montage in Rocky IV. The movie hits peak montage as Rocky trains at a remote cabin in the Russian wilderness. Two sequences – separated by a short drama scene involving Adrian – amount to *seven and a half minutes* of screentime. They contrast Rocky’s snowbound slog with Drago’s high-tech and well-funded preparation, and the film editors have great fun match-cutting images of the two men doing similar things in very different surroundings.

Review: While Rocky IV was in preproduction, President Ronald Reagan won a second term in the White House and Mikhail Gorbachev became the new leader of the Soviet Union. Soon after filming wrapped, the USSR announced a moratorium on testing nuclear weapons but the US refused to follow suit. Then on the very day Rocky IV was having its LA premiere, Reagan and Gorbachev met for the first time at a summit in Geneva. The Cold War was hot news in 1985, and Rocky IV uses boxing as a metaphor for the clash between the two superpowers. In the American corner is Rocky Balboa, the meritocratic yet passionate individual, free and frank and funny. In the Soviet corner is Ivan Drago, the cold, unholy product of a totalitarian state, driven and determined and detached. It’s not subtle. Neither are all the other 1980s concerns squeezed into this film: the brash showbiz, the crass commercialisation, the technology fetish, the cheesy FM rock, the Miami Vice suits… It’s also a quick film – rushed, to be honest – and is directed with an overreliance on close-ups, press conferences and montages (so many montages!). Take it too seriously and the whole enterprise will flop to the mat. But its silliness and total commitment mean you end up punch-drunk and quite enjoying it.

Seven lies and false propaganda to support this antagonistic and violent government out of 10

Next: Rambo III

The Pleasure Garden (1925, Alfred Hitchcock)

PleasureGarden

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A pair of chorus-line dancers experience conflicting fortunes in their careers and in their love lives…

The 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said that while life must be lived forwards, it can only be understood backwards. On that basis, let’s see if we can understand how Alfred Hitchcock’s debut feature film as a director – The Pleasure Garden, shot in 1925 – came into being and how it began a career that has had such a lasting impact. We’ll get to the movie itself in due course, but first a diversion…

In June 2019, almost 120 years after Hitchcock’s birth, I set out to explore the area he will have known as a child. However, when I arrived in east London I was confronted by something that can’t have been there in 1899. Leytonstone Underground Station (opened 1856) is decorated with 17 bold, colourful and rather delightful murals celebrating the movies of Alfred Hitchcock. They adorn the walls of the sloping tunnels that lead from the street level to the ticket office, and are made up of a total of 80,000 tiny coloured tiles. Everyone but me was ignoring them now, being more concerned with their commute and perhaps numbed to them by overfamiliarity, but to a newcomer these mosaics are incredibly striking pieces of art.

LeytonstoneMuralPleasureGarden1

They were commissioned by the local authorities and produced by an arts company called Greenwich Mural Workshop, then unveiled on 3 May 2001 to rather belatedly mark the centenary of Hitch’s birth. Fourteen of them represent specific films from throughout his career, so one by one I admired imaginatively dramatic scenes from The Pleasure Garden (pictured above), The Skin Game, Number Seventeen, Rebecca, Suspicion, Saboteur, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds.

The remaining three murals are especially apt for our purposes here. In one, for example, Hitchcock’s childhood connection to Leytonstone is represented by a young Alfred outside his family’s shop in around 1906, dressed as a soldier for Empire Day celebrations. This image seems to have been based on a rare surviving photograph of Hitchcock’s father and older brother (both called William) taken circa 1900.

The other two mosaics, meanwhile, see Hitch later in life working on his films – in one he’s with Marlene Dietrich, who starred in his 1950 thriller Stage Fright; in another he’s calling action on the set of The Skin Game (pictured below). Stretching from his childhood to the peak of his Hollywood powers, these murals raise an obvious question. How did a working-class London lad born just 140 days before the end of the 19th century develop into the most famed moviemaker in history?

LeytonstoneMuralHitchcockDIrecting

‘I had no intention of becoming a film director, you know,’ Alfred Hitchcock said in the 1960s. ‘It was quite a surprise to me.’ For one thing, cinema was still a new concept when he was born in 1899. The world’s first film studio, inventor Thomas Edison’s Black Maria in New Jersey, had only opened six years earlier – and that was to produce motion pictures that could only be viewed on a Kinetoscope (a ‘peephole’ device used by one person at a time). French visionaries the Lumière brothers were the first people to put on public screenings of films – a set-up recognisable as modem cinema – from December 1895. Edison began similar showings in New York four months later, while the US’s first dedicated cinema, on Canal Street in New Orleans, opened in July 1896. Another Frenchman, George Méliès, may have passed a career total of 200 short films in 1899, producing ground-breaking material that dabbled with special effects and tricks, but the art form was still astonishingly young and something of a novelty.

Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born on a Sunday 13 August, in a flat above the Leytonstone greengrocers run by his parents, Emma Jane and William Hitchcock (the same shop depicted in the Leytonstone Station mural mentioned above). William Hitchcock didn’t live long enough to see his son succeed in the film industry but Emma survived until 1942, dying while Alfred was making the brilliantly seedy Shadow of a Doubt. She seems to have had a harsh side. When Alfred was young, she had a habit of making him stand at the foot of her bed for hours on end as a punishment, and she later stubbornly refused to leave England during the bombing of the Second World War. Perhaps this maternal steel explains why so many Hitchcock films feature strong, domineering, eccentric or vital-to-the-plot mothers. Think of the sinister Anna Sebastian in Notorious, the ambitious Jessie Stevens in To Catch a Thief, the kooky Clara Thornhill in North by Northwest, the distant Bernice Edgar in Marnie, the haughty Lydia Brenner in The Birds, or of course the ghostly presence of Mrs Bates in Psycho – characters who all appeared after Hitch’s own mother had died.

Alfred had siblings while growing up but still felt isolated, later describing his childhood as a lonely experience – in part because of his strict Catholic parents, in part because of his obesity. (He was never a slim chap. His mother, it seems, was a feeder.) In 1910, he began attending a Jesuit school in north London. He excelled academically and, he later said, developed a long-lasting fear of authority – a fear that had been seeded by an infamous incident earlier in life when his father arranged for Alfred to be locked up by the police as a punishment for misbehaving. ‘I don’t think the religious side of the Jesuit education impressed itself so much upon me as the strict discipline one endured at the time,’ he later told film critic Peter Bogdanovich.

An early ambition to be an engineer led to the teenage Alfred studying mechanics and electricity. But after his father’s death in 1914, he needed to earn some money so got a job as a technical clerk at the Henley Telegraph and Cable Company near London Wall, where he also wrote some short stories for its in-house magazine. (The stories often contained themes and plot devices he would revisit in his movies, such as innocent people being accused of crimes.) Away from his day job, he also developed passions for art history, painting and the cinema, especially films starring comedians such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. This provides us with a nice connection: as the cultural commentator Kim Newman has pointed out, Hitchcock and Chaplin are the only genuine contenders for the title as the most influential Englishman in cinema history.

This enthusiasm for film was then given a release when Hitchcock speculatively sent some title-card designs to a new London-based film studio called Famous Players-Lasky and was hired in 1919. He was soon mentioned by name in The Times thanks to his impressive work with title cards, but in these hazy, embryonic days of the industry, being a jack of all trades was encouraged and Hitchcock – only just into his 20s – was quickly gaining experience in various production roles…

During my exploration of Hitchcock’s childhood stomping ground in June 2019, I left the station after admiring the murals and headed up to High Road Leytonstone, a busy main road that has changed a great deal since the 1890s. On the short walk there, I unexpectantly happened upon a large piece of graffiti on a wall on Harrington Road, which contains an image of Alfred Hitchcock smoking a cigar. Birds can be seen in the margins too.

LeytonstoneHitchcockGraffiti

After a few minutes’ walk south, I found 517 High Road Leytonstone. William Hitchcock’s greengrocers once stood here but was long ago demolished, and there’s now a gaudy Jet petrol station in its place. It was busy as I wandered across the small forecourt, with cars fighting for space and a gang of car-washers at work.

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An ignored blue plaque on the modern wall to the side of the petrol station’s shop is the only acknowledgment of the site’s link to Leytonstone’s most famous son.

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I then had a neat piece of happenstance. I was standing on the pavement outside the petrol station, checking over the photographs I’d taken, when I became aware of a woman calling out to me from a passing car. It was a colleague of mine from my day job: a lovely woman called Ellen, who lives in the area. She pulled into the petrol station and we had a chat. We had both unexpectedly been given the afternoon off (IT issues: don’t ask), so talked about how we were spending our sudden free time. I said I was doing research for a blog, and it turned out she knew her Hitchcock history. She told me about Hitchcock’s Home, an annual event held at the nearby St John’s Church. Over two evenings in the church’s graveyard, Hitchcock films are played onto big screens. At the most recent edition, in July 2018, they showed Rebecca and Notorious.

After parting from Ellen, I next turned my attention to a building a few metres away from the petrol station. In 2014, as part of a £9m renovation project by the local council, its outer walls were covered with large paintings of birds – an obvious reference to Hitchcock’s 1963 film. A bird motif is also evident on the nearby pavement, while I clocked that a building further up the adjacent Lynn Road is called Hitchcock Place. The building in which he was born may be long gone, but Alfred’s presence, it seems, is everywhere.

LeytonstoneHitchcockBirdsBuilding

Ensconced at Famous Players-Lasky and working on a succession of silent movies, Hitch was first given the chance to direct in 1921. However, the production of social drama Number 13 was chaotic and was abandoned after just a handful of scenes had been shot. Hitchcock later called it a ‘chastening experience’, but he never forgot the generosity of its star Clare Greet who had pumped her own money into the project: Hitch cast her a further six times before her death in 1939. Around this time he also stepped in at the last minute to co-direct a frivolous short called Always Tell Your Wife (1923) and had a stint working at Babelsberg Studios in Potsdam. He was in his element in Germany, already being a fan of Weimar Republic cinema. One of his favourite recent films had been Fritz Lang’s fantasy drama Der müde Tod (1921), and now he got the chance to watch close up as another great German director, FW Murnau (he of 1922’s vampire classic Nosferatu), directed The Last Laugh (1924). Hitchcock was gaining knowledge and experiences, and soaking up influences from all around him.

Then came two enormous developments in his life – one professional, one personal. Hitchcock moved across to a new company, later to be known as Gainsborough Pictures, which was run by the producer Michael Balcon. Balcon was only three years older than Hitch, and had a glittering career ahead of him that would include such classic British movies as Whisky Galore! (1949), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Passport to Pimlico (1949), The Blue Lamp (1950), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and Hitchcock’s own The 39 Steps (1935). At Gainsborough, Hitchcock designed sets, wrote scripts, and acted as a producer. He also met his future wife: the editor and screenwriter Alma Revile. As well as a romantic partner, she soon became his de facto first officer, working in a variety of roles (often uncredited) on many of his films. One witness who saw Hitchcock direct during the 1920s said that he had a habit of turning to Alma after a take and asking, ‘Was that all right?’ The couple had been born within a few hours of each other, and married in December 1926. Their only child, Patricia, followed in 1928 and she went on to appear in a few of her father’s movies. Towards the end of his life, at a celebratory dinner thrown by the American Film Institute on 7 March 1979, Hitchcock said that he wished to pay special tribute to four people who had given him affection, appreciation, encouragement and constant collaboration: an editor, a writer, a mother and a cook. Then came the punchline: ‘And their names are Alma Revile.’

After seeing the area where Hitchcock had been born, I doubled back north, past the turnoff for the underground station and past St John’s Church and into Leytonstone’s shopping area, all the way up to 692 Leytonstone High Road. The pub here on the corner with Aylmer Road has had several names over the years, but was renamed The Birds in Hitch’s honour in May 2017.

LeytonstoneHitchcockBirdsPub

The bar was virtually empty as I walked in, being mid-afternoon on a weekday, but it was an eccentric, cool-looking place. I had a poor-tasting beef burger and a very nice beer while I had a rest and considered Hitchcock’s legacy. It depends of course how you define it – does compilation Elstree Calling count? What about the German-language version of Murder!? – but it’s reasonable to claim he made 53 feature films in a 51-year directorial career. In Western cinema, he stands at the most famous and arguably most revered movie director of all time. But how did it begin? What was the spark of life in the primordial soup?

‘Sir Michael Balcon is really the man responsible for Hitchcock,’ Alfred once said, referring to his time at Gainsborough. ‘One day Balcon said that the director – I worked with the same director all the time – didn’t want me any more. I don’t know what the reason was, some political reason. And it was then that Balcon said, “How would you like to become a director?” I had been quite content at the time, writing scripts and designing. I enjoyed it very much.’ The project Balcon had in mind for his protégé was a co-production between Gainsborough and the German studio Emelka. It was an adaptation of a novel by Oliver Sandys (one of several pseudonyms used by the writer Marguerite Florence Laura Jarvis).

Filming on The Pleasure Garden got underway in March 1925 on location in Italy. The cast featured two American stars brought over to Europe by Balcon, Virginia Valli and Carmelita Geraghty, but it wasn’t an easy shoot. The budget ran low, forcing Hitchcock to borrow cash from several people – including his cast and Alma. He had to pay a fine before Italian customs officials would allow the precious film stock into the country. And there was reportedly an awkward incident when an actress refused to film a scene in water because it was her time of the month (the innocent Hitchcock had to have this problem explained to him). Some filming was carried out in at Villa d’Este on Lake Como, where Hitchcock and Alma would later have their honeymoon and several subsequent holidays. The production then wrapped in August at Geiselgasteig Studios in Munich.

The resulting film shows all the exuberance and enthusiasm of a debut – despite its melodramatic and simplistic storyline, The Pleasure Garden is full of Hitchcockian energy and invention. It’s often been tagged as a ‘backstage’ drama, and it’s true that early scenes are set in the sometimes harsh world of a West End theatre. But we soon move away from that into torrid, and even lurid, romantic entanglements.

A woman with little dance experience, Jill Cheyne (Carmelita Geraghty), wants to be a showgirl so is given a try-out by a haughty producer called Oscar Hamilton (Georg H Schnell, who had appeared in Murnau’s Nosferatu). She attempts the Charleston and impresses, so is offered a gig at five pounds a week. ‘You know I’m better than that,’ she replies. ‘I’ll take 20.’ She quickly becomes the star of the show, but her new friend and fellow dancer Patsy Brand (Virginia Valli) grows concerned that fame is going to her head – especially when Jill moves out of their shared flat, begins socialising with an aristo called Prince Ivan (Karl Falkenberg) and cheats on her abroad-on-business fiancé, Hugh (John Stuart, an actor with a career long enough to take in 1978’s Superman: The Movie). At the same time, Patsy grows close to Hugh’s colleague, the lonely bachelor Levet (Miles Mander); they later marry and take their honeymoon on – that’s right – Lake Como.

However, Levet then also goes overseas for his job and falls ill. When word reaches Patsy, she wants to go and see him but Jill refuses to loan her the cash for a boat ticket (‘Can’t do, Patsy – I’m spending everything on my trousseau. The Prince and I will be married soon.’) Eventually getting the funds from her kindly landlords, Patsy arrives in unnamed foreign climes and discovers that Levet has been sleeping with a local girl. She flees, and an embarrassed and angered Levet reacts by drowning his new girlfriend. Patsy and the jilted Hugh then find solace with each other and fall in love, but Levet suffers ghostly visions of his murdered girlfriend so resolves to kill Patsy too…

Hitch later called The Pleasure Garden ‘just an assignment’ and dismissed it by implication when he claimed his third feature, The Lodger, was the first true Hitchcock film. But it’s fascinating to us now for more reasons than it just being a famous director’s debut movie. The most obvious is simply that it’s a very watchable and charming piece of work in its own right: engaging, visually ambitious and – thanks to the soap-opera plotting – never dull. But it also comes so fully formed. The Pleasure Garden is no rough-and-ready, first-draft version of the Hitchcock brand. The term auteur – which denotes a director being the ‘author’ of a movie – wouldn’t come into mass usage in film criticism until the 1950s, but here is a 25-year-old Alfred Hitchcock showcasing so many of his personal concerns and favourite techniques that would run throughout the next half-century of his career.

Hitchcock would one day be the benchmark for how to tell a story through specific points of view, for example – Rear Window is the classic instance, presenting its entire world through the perspective of James Stewart’s housebound photographer. In The Pleasure Garden, we get a taster of that formal device early on: as rows of chorus girls dance on stage, we see enraptured men on the front row and are invited to watch the girls through their lustful eyes. There’s more risqué-ness later on too, such as when the young and attractive Jill and Patsy unselfconsciously undress while getting ready for bed barely minutes after meeting. Hitchcock would never be too far away from potentially saucy moments like this – see Madeleine Carroll taking her tights off in The 39 Steps, or the famously Freudian gag that sees a train entering a tunnel just as two characters become amorous in North by Northwest.

And the seeds that will grow into later obsessions continue sprouting. Perhaps we can detect the director’s strict Jesuit schooling in a moment when he both presents and mocks religion in The Pleasure Garden: Jill prays before going to bed, while the more earthy Patsy watches on bemused. Faith and its implications would play a major role in I Confess, while you can detect Catholic guilt in many other films. But this theme rarely if ever dominated story. A few diversions into realism aside – The Wrong Man, Frenzy – Hitchcock was always a keen proponent of the idea that movies are escapism. They can be dramatic, they can be meaningful, but they should always be first and foremost entertaining. Later in his career, he and his collaborators excelled at Hollywood sheen and a vibrant, Vistavision veneer – think of the sunny To Catch a Thief, which positively radiates with beauty and luxury, or the 3D sophistication of Dial M for Murder. But this wasn’t an idea that had to evolve. His first film has a glamour all of its own, whether it’s the Art Deco decadence of the West End fantasies being created by Oscar Hamilton or the exotic Mediterranean locations. (Of course, viewers in the 21st century also get a thrill akin to opening a time-capsule. The Pleasure Garden is not only a film set in the mid-1920s. It was *made* in the mid-1920s. Those cloche hats are genuine, not postmodern costume design.)

All that’s missing from the Alfred Hitchcock collection of motifs is perhaps his most remarkable: a troubled, enigmatic, sexy yet icy-cool blonde with a dark past. But that aside, brilliantly, The Pleasure Garden sees the director’s personality and preferences splashed across every set-up, every frame, like a master painter with his own unique brushwork.

LeytonstoneHitchcockHotel

The final destination of my exploration of Leytonstone came after a 20-minute walk further north, via a footpath under the busy A12. On Whipps Cross Road, opposite a section of the ancient Epping Forest, I found the reasonably grand façade of the Sir Alfred Hitchcock Hotel. The establishment has no authentic connection to the great man himself, but it’s another example of east London commemorating his achievements. According to lettering painted onto a mirror in its small hallway, the hotel was opened on 27 August 1980 – just four months after Hitchcock’s death. Its bar is open to the public and has many photographs of Hitchcock and his leading actors on the walls. There’s also a framed copy of Alfred and Alma’s marriage certificate from 1928.

LeytonstoneHitchcockHotelWeddingCert

I bought a beer from a pretty barmaid who was clearly bored out of her skull with the laddish regulars gathered around the small bar, then I sat at an outside table, resting my weary feet and enjoying the breeze coming off the Leyton Flats section of the nearby forest. It had been a good day.

The term ‘silent film’ is a retronyn, only coming into parlance once we had films that *weren’t* silent. (A similar process has happened with ‘analogue watch’, ’steam train’ and ‘hardback book’.) But, very sadly, a lot of silent films are silent in more ways than just having no soundtrack. Three out of every four British movies made in the silent era can’t communicate to us at all because they are now lost. And not even the revered Alfred Hitchcock has evaded this cultural cull. The footage shot for Number 13 is long since gone. Only a couple of reels of Always Tell Your Wife exist. Hitch’s second feature, 1926’s The Mountain Eagle, is one of the most sought-after missing films in cinema history.

But, wonderfully, The Pleasure Garden is still here. And if you look hard enough, so is Alfred Hitchcock – in spirit at least.

Eight lovely curls of hair out of 10

Notes and acknowledgements:

A new restoration of The Pleasure Garden was carried out by the BFI in 2012. Judging by the trailer, it’s an amazing piece of renovation and reconstruction – but inconviently for me it’s not available commercially. As research for this review, I therefore resorted to watching a poor-quality copy of a 1981 rerelease on YouTube. Produced by the film collector Raymond Rohauer, this version of The Pleasure Garden is the work of a hack: it’s missing many scenes (which have since been added back for the BFI version), while the attractive title cards have been ‘updated’ with drab plain-text replacements.

My walk around east London took place on Friday 21 June 2019. Photos © Ian Farrington 2019.

I drew on many different sources for the factual information contained in this essay, but a few online articles are worth mentioning specifically.

The Hitchcock Zone’s pages on The Pleasure Garden helped with some important details, especially the section that lists all the original title cards.

Hitchcock’s 1963 interview with Peter Bogdanovich has been endlessly helpful throughout this blogging project.

This post (from a fascinating website that’s well worth exploring in full) is especially strong on The Pleasure Garden’s production and archive history.

This website helped with local information about Leytonstone.

The full set of Leytonstone Underground Station murals can be viewed at Greenwich Mural Workshop‘s official site and at this walking-tours page.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985, George P Cosmatos)

RamboFirstBloodPartII

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

War veteran John Rambo is coerced into a dangerous mission, one which involves returning to Vietnam…

What does Stallone do? In the early 1980s, James Cameron – then known as a behind-the-scenes boffin who’d directed a dreadful B-movie called Piranha 2: The Spawning – was offered two writing assignments on the same day. Needing money, he accepted them both, so was working on a sequel to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic Alien at the same time as a draft for a follow-up to the Rambo film First Blood. When he then had to shift focus to his own film The Terminator (1984), Sylvester Stallone took over the First Blood sequel script and made several changes. He removed a techy sidekick character, he beefed up the action, and he underlined the political subtext with some cloying dialogue about patriotism. Although George P Cosmatos is the credited director of the movie, the rumour mill says that Stallone was the real power on set… When we check in with John Rambo (Stallone) a few years after the events of his debut film, we find him breaking rocks in a prison camp. But his old mentor, Colonel Trautman, then offers him a way of cutting short the sentence. Despite the Vietnam War having been over for a decade, it’s rumoured that Americans are still being held there as prisoners of war – and Rambo is required for a covert reconnaissance mission. Parachuting into the jungle, he soon finds an illicit camp and confirms that POWs are in fact there. But despite being on a recce only, he can’t resist helping one of the Americans escape. Things go badly, however, and both men are captured. Rambo is tortured but escapes, then tools-up for a one-man assault on the compound…

Other main characters:
* Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) shows up at Rambo’s prison and tells him his name has been selected by a computer as the ideal man for a dangerous mission. That’s right: the powers-that-be want to arm a war vet with PTSD and return him to Vietnam. ‘Do we get to win this time?’ deadpans Rambo. While John is on his mission, Trautman butts heads with the guy running it…
* Marshall Murdock (Charles Napier) is the arrogant bureaucrat in charge of the op in southeast Asia. He has lots of fancy computers, but no compassion or decency; to him, this is just a box-ticking exercise. When John finds the prisoners, Murdock abruptly aborts his extraction and the sordid truth comes out: the mission was always intended to fail, so money could therefore be saved by not committing to any rescue attempts. Napier is sufficiently weaselly in the role.
* Ericson (Martin Kove from The Karate Kid) is one of Murdock’s lackeys, who acts like a Mafia boss’s bodyguard. He also flies the plane when Rambo is dropped into ‘Nam. Another goon is Lifer (Steve Williams), a perma-sunglassed prick who pulls a gun on Trautman at one point.
* Co-Bao (Julia Nickson) is Rambo’s in-country contact. She helps him cross the jungle and later poses as a prostitute so she can sneak into the enemy camp and rescue him. As often happens in these kinds of films, we’re first told the character’s name in a gender-neutral way so Rambo assumes he’ll be meeting up with a man rather than a hot 20-something woman. Nickson and Stallone have virtually no connection at all in their scenes – it’s like the actors have never met before – and Co-Bao is a nothing character.
* Lt Colonel Podovsky (Steven Berkoff) is a sadistic Russian military type, who arrives in the camp after Rambo’s capture and tortures him for information. The hammy Berkoff had recently played a not dissimilar character in the James Bond film Octopussy (1983).

Key scene: One of the few subtle moments of this movie comes when Rambo breaks an American called Banks (Andy Wood) out of the POW camp. Banks is weak and thin and has clearly been through hell. He asks Rambo what year it is and looks devastated to learn he’s been in captivity so long… The notion that Americans assumed to have died during the Vietnam War were actually being held as POWs was a live political issue in the mid-80s. Given the sheer number of servicemen whose remains were unaccounted for, a lot of people believed the Viet Cong had captured them and were keeping them alive. Subsequent governmental reports, however, concluded that there’s no compelling evidence for the notion being true.

Review: Sometimes a movie’s sequels drift off-topic to such a degree that the series takes on a new reputation. The first Fast and Furious film had none of the cartoon action and Bond-style supervillains of later films, for example. The opening Carry On was a gentle, innuendo-light comedy. The original Friday the 13th doesn’t even have Jason Voorhees in it, let alone a hockey mask. Well, here the stripped-down economy and social satire of First Blood has been abandoned and we’re into the stuff that came to typify the Rambo brand. Part II is a dumb, on-the-nose, right-wing, tough-guy war movie. You half expect Chuck Norris to wander in at any point. When the scenes aren’t dominated by gunplay, stabbings, explosions and nameless foreigners being killed, the drama is patience-testingly basic and empty. In the plus column, composer Jerry Goldsmith and cinematographer Jack Cardiff – classy men with many films of a *much* higher quality on their CVs – are working very hard to lift the material. So it’s not total preposterousness. But it’s not far off.

Five rocket launchers out of 10

Next: Rocky IV

Juno and the Paycock (1930, Alfred Hitchcock)

JunoandthePaycock

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Boyle family come into a large amount of money during the Irish Civil War, but does it make them happier?

Alfred Hitchcock once called Juno and the Paycock ‘a photographed stage play’ – and no other film he directed feels less cinematic. At times, as the am-dram cast drone on, you wonder whether he’s nodded off and forgotten to call cut. (Of course, this is unlikely for more than the obvious reason of professionalism: Hitchcock made the film expressly because he liked the play it’s based on so much.)

Set during the Irish Civil War of 1922-23, the story follows a family of meagre means headed by drunkard husband Captain Boyle (Edward Chapman). His wife, Juno (Sara Allgood), calls him a paycock – a pun on peacock because he poses but has little fight. The family also features invalid son Johnny (John Laurie, much later of Dad’s Army fame) and daughter Mary (Kathleen O’Regan), who’s on strike from her job.

There are money worries, failed romances, religious satire, a few songs, murder and a political edge thanks to the context of 1920s Ireland and the disagreement over how to form a new independent country. But nevertheless the drab, depressing substance combined with no discernible style in either the playing or the staging means that this film becomes very boring very quickly.

Three real Dublin people out of 10

First Blood (1982, Ted Kotcheff)

First Blood

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A former Special Forces soldier is harassed by a small-town police sheriff so decides to fight back…

What does Stallone do? When offered the lead in a new film based on a novel by David Morrell, Sylvester Stallone agreed if he could also work on the script. Sly’s contribution was largely to make Vietnam veteran John Rambo a more sympathetic man. In Stallone’s draft, for example, unlike in the book, the character avoids directly killing people… Rambo is a former Green Beret and a winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Like Stallone’s other key character, Rocky Balboa, he’s also fundamentally a decent guy. But as the story begins, he’s depressed that so many of his old army buddies have died. He wanders into a small town looking for somewhere to eat, but his rough appearance and long(ish) hair rile the local sheriff, who promptly arrests him. Then, during a humiliating booking procedure, John suffers flashbacks to his time in ’Nam. (He was tortured by the Viet Cong and now clearly has post-traumatic stress as well as physical scars.) He snaps, attacks several cops, and flees into the massive woods outside the town. Fashioning improvised weapons and traps, John then evades a manhunt and defends himself when the police get too close… Stallone gives a stoic and largely silent performance based on stillness and stealth (at least until an over-the-top emotional scene towards the end of the film).

Other main characters:
* Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) knows everyone in his small town. But his affable manner with the locals hides the fact he’s a wannabe Dirty Harry. He sees himself as the law incarnate, a man who can dish out summary justice. So when he spots a glum stranger looking slightly unkempt, and fears he might be a troublemaker, Teasle tries to shepherd the guy out of town. A defiant John Rambo ignores the advice – so a pissed-off Teasle arrests him for vagrancy. After Rambo beats up several policemen and escapes custody, Teasle leads the chase into the forests. He thinks he can hunt his prey down, but John is far too well trained – and even sneaks up on the sheriff at one point (with a knife to his throat, he asks him to ‘let it go’). Dennehy – a bear of a man with steel in his eye – is terrific in the role. Teasle’s not a nice man, but neither is he a moron, and the actor plays both elements.
* One of Teasle’s officers is a twatty brute called Art Galt (Jack Starrett). He’s the ringleader who treats John so appallingly when he’s arrested – beating him, blasting him with cold water, generally treating him like scum – then later falls fatally from a helicopter while trying to shoot his nemesis in the woods. A young David Caruso is one of the other cops.
* Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) shows up when the manhunt gets underway. He’s John’s former Special Forces CO and knows full well how dangerous he can be. ‘I didn’t come here to rescue Rambo from you,’ he tells Teasle when the two men butt heads. ‘I came here to rescue you from him.’ He can’t at first convince his protégé to come in, but later confronts him when John returns to the town… (Kirk Douglas was initially hired to play Trautman, but then quit soon into filming: creative differences, it seems.)

Key scene: After hiding in the woods for more than 24 hours, Rambo is eventually flushed out and returns to the town of Hope, Washington (or ‘Jerkwater, USA’ as Trautman sarcastically calls it). Before this point, First Blood has been a grungy, down-and-dirty drama; now it takes on an expressionistic, mythical feel. The town has become a hellish reflection of Rambo’s state of mind: it’s night-time, it’s deserted, and thanks to John’s covert diversion tactics, there are fires rages at several locations. The stage is set for a showdown…

Review: This efficiently directed movie – no fuss, no fat – takes place in the Pacific Northwest of America, so there’s plenty of low cloud, mountains, mud, rain, woodland and mist. But despite this setting, which obviously echoes the kind of terrain John Rambo will have crossed in Vietnam, the plot is straight out of a Western. John is the iconoclastic stranger of few words who wanders into a new town and clashes with a powerful figure – akin to Clint Eastwood in, say, A Fistful of Dollars (1964) or High Plains Drifter (1973). Teasle is obviously the corrupt sheriff. (Additionally, like many Westerns, First Blood has no interest in female characters.) Barrelling along, with both action and a bit of subtext about how society treats its ‘heroes’, this is an entertaining and well-made film. Whether the brave, emotional finale hits home will depend on personal taste, however. Perhaps Stallone’s manic, garbled delivery when Trautman elicits a cathartic breakdown from Rambo is appropriate for a man so traumatised by a savage war. Or maybe it’s just bad acting.

Eight water hoses out of 10

Next: Rambo: First Blood Part II

Rocky III (1982, Sylvester Stallone)

RockyIII

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Now the world champion, Rocky Balboa faces a threat from a young new fighter…

What does Stallone do? Sly wrote the script, directed the film, and obviously reprised the role of Rocky Balboa. A few years after the events of Rocky II, our lead character is now world heavyweight boxing champ. We see a quickly cut montage of him easily beating various challengers in the ring, becoming a major celebrity (even appearing on The Muppet Show – the footage comes from when Stallone was in an episode for real), meeting presidents and raising a family. However, his world come crashing down when he loses his title to a young upstart from Chicago. Down and out, and having also lost his father figure, Rocky resolves to win the rematch… This film maybe sees Stallone’s acting talent stretched a bit thin. It’s a pretty docile performance and lacks the charm of the first two movies. Nevertheless, Rocky remains a compelling character because he’s a nice guy – unlike other famous boxer characters. He’s not a violent, quick-to-temper thug like Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta, neither does he carry the anguish of On the Waterfront’s Terry Malloy. And that makes us root for him even more.

Other main characters:
* Up-and-coming boxer Clubber Lang (Mr T) watches on as Rocky fights a string of no-hopers. When the Italian Stallion then announces his retirement at a public event, Lang steps forward, confronts his rival and demands a shot at the championship. Affronted by the younger man’s arrogance and brashness, Rocky has little choice but to agree. Clubber wins the bout easily – his punches sound like shotgun blasts, his arms look like pneumatic pistons – which sets up the second half of the film as Rocky works towards a redemptive rematch… More a force of nature than an actor, Mr T plays Clubber with a snarling, fuck-you attitude at all times. And yes, at one point he says, ‘I pity the fool.’ This film is where the catchphrase comes from.
* Paulie Pennino (Burt Young) has not benefitted from his brother-in-law’s success; as the story begins, he’s still a bitter dullard stuck in a Mean Streets-style life. When he lashes out drunkenly and breaks a Rocky-branded pinball machine, Rock has to bail him out of jail. Rocky then agrees to give him a job, which involves Paulie standing around for the rest of the movie and doing a lot of moaning.
* Early on, Rocky takes part in an exhibition fight against Thunderlips, the reigning world wrestling champion played by real-life wrestler Hulk Hogan. Given all the razzmatazz and the fact the event is for charity, Rocky assumes it’s going to be a faux fight – a bit of fun for the punters – but Thunderlips then attacks him for real, forcing Rocky to respond in kind. Balboa wins eventually, and to his credit Thunderlips’s aggression drops instantly: it *was* just an act.
* Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) is still Rocky’s trainer, but suffers from severe chest pains a couple of times. When Rocky says he’ll take on Lang, Mickey doesn’t want anything to do with it because he reckons Rocky can’t win. Lang has the hunger that Rocky has long since lost (and, admits Mickey, Rocky has been fighting handpicked below-par boxers since film two). Rocky soon talks him round into helping, but just before the fight with Lang, Mickey has a heart attack. Soon after Rocky loses his championship belt, Mick dies in the locker room. (In the storytelling handbook, this is called the lowest ebb.)
* At Rocky’s first bout with Clubber, former champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is ringside doing media work – and he takes an instant dislike to the disrespectful Lang. So after Rocky’s defeat and Mickey’s death, Apollo offers to train his old foe for the rematch. He takes Rocky to a rundown gym in LA, away from all the hype in Philadelphia, but Rocky struggles with Apollo’s techniques.
* Adrian Balboa (Talia Shire) mostly stays in the background of her husband’s story. Her only big moment is a scene on a Californian beach where she and Rocky spell out the subtext to each other: ‘You gotta [fight Lang] for the right reasons – not for the guilt over Mickey, not for the people, not for the title, not for the money or me. But for you.’
* The Balboas’ son, Rocky Jnr (Ian Fried), looks to be about six years old now, which kinda makes sense when you consider that Rocky II (1979) was only set a few months after Rocky (1976).

Key scene: By this point in the series, training montages have become as much a part of the idiom as Stallone’s slurred delivery and fights with a thousand punches per round. Rocky III contains more than one. The best, which comes directly before Rocky and Lang’s rematch, is a whopping 205 seconds of Rocky running on beaches, hitting punching bags, sparring with Apollo and learning how to be nimble on his feet.

Review: The song Eye of the Tiger by Survivor is heard a few times in this movie, but it’s not just a catchy bit of soft rock to keep us entertained and flog the soundtrack album. Its title phrase becomes a mantra given to Rocky during prep for the rematch – ‘Eye of the tiger, Rock,’ calls out Apollo. ‘Eye of the tiger!’ – while the tune’s lyrics tie in directly to the film’s theme of celebrity. ‘You trade your passion for glory,’ counsels lead singer Dave Bickler. ‘Don’t lose your grip on the dreams of the past/You must fight just to keep them alive.’ Rocky III has several scenes that reflect this idea – while Rocky appears on TV and gets a taste of the showbiz word of pro-wrestling, his fame and money are making him soft. His training sessions for the first fight with Clubber are glitzy, open-to-the-public events with bunting and a house band. Clubber, meanwhile, trains hard and wins. Away from this thematic thread, there’s nothing much new to the Rocky format: it’s the third movie in a row with the same basic structure and a very similar finale. But it’s passable fun.

Six has-beens messin’ in my corner out of 10

Next: First Blood

Rocky II (1979, Sylvester Stallone)

rocky-2

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Boxer Rocky Balboa is forced to get back into the ring for a rematch with the world heavyweight champion…

What does Stallone do? After the success of the first Rocky film – a huge profit, good reviews, an Oscar win – Sylvester Stallone was in a prime negotiating position when it came to the sequel. So as well as again writing the script and playing the lead character, he also took over directing duties. (Rocky director John G Avildsen was busy working on Saturday Night Fever. Coincidentally, Stallone later directed that film’s sequel, Stayin’ Alive.) Sly had only made one film previously, a now largely forgotten wrestling movie called Paradise Alley, but he does a decent job here. For the most part, Rocky II is no-nonsense, well told and engaging – if familiar and predictable… As the story begins, Rocky Balboa has surgery after his battering boxing bout at the end of the previous movie (he says he doesn’t want to end up with a nose like his trainer Mickey’s). He may have lost the fight on points, but he came out of it with pride and has decided to retire. At first, thanks to his new high profile, he has the cash to flash on coats, watches, a car and a house, but Stallone generates sympathy from us when Rocky later fails as a minor celebrity and struggles to find work. The actor is oddly likeable and there’s a dignity in his performance. When Rocky’s finances get grim, he’s forced to consider fighting Apollo again…

Other main characters:
* After a recap of the first film’s climactic boxing bout, we rejoin the story later that same night. The victorious Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) approaches Rocky in the hospital and, embarrassed that his amateur opponent lasted the distance, demands a rematch. But while the world heavyweight champion is puffed-up and adversarial for the watching journalists, behind closed doors he’s downbeat and becomes obsessed with proving that he can knock Rocky off his feet. So he continues to taunt his rival in the media, urging him to fight again…
* Rocky’s girlfriend, Adrian (Talia Shire), doesn’t want him to get back in the ring so is pleased when he retires. They get wed and soon have a child on the way. But she’s worried about how quickly he’s going through the $37,000 he earned from his title bout, then later goes into labour prematurely. The baby is fine, but Adrian falls into a coma for a while. (This section sees the film at its soppiest.) After recovering, she doesn’t attend her husband’s rematch with Apollo on doctor’s orders. (In reality the actress was busy on another film.)
* Paulie Pennino (Burt Young) is still a bit of a prick. When he thinks his sister is failing in her matrimonial duties, he suggests that Rocky break her teeth. (Rocky replies that he likes Adrian’s teeth where they are.) Paulie also asks Rocky to sort him out a strong-arm job, which he does – so as Rocky’s fortunes fall, Paulie’s actually rise and he’s able to buy his brother-in-law’s sportscar from him.
* Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) now has a hearing aid to further emphasise how old, grizzled and world-beaten he is, and initially says no when Rocky asks him to be his trainer again. In a touching, low-key scene, Mick demonstrates that Rocky’s damaged eyesight is a liability. ‘You got the heart but you ain’t got the tools no more,’ the mentor says. But later, Mickey sees Apollo being arrogant on TV and comes round to the idea of a rematch: ‘I think we oughta knock his block off!’ His plan (which was actually cooked up because Stallone had injured his left arm before filming) is to train Rocky to fight right-handed, holding his southpaw power in reserve for later in the bout.

Key scene: During his attempt to make a living off his newfound fame, Rocky is persuaded to film some TV ads for Beast aftershave. The set-up has him dressed first as a caveman in a cage, then as a sketch-show version of himself with a fake-looking appliance for a boxing bruise. The director is an angry, rude, little man who has no patience for the fact that Rocky can neither act nor sight-read off the cue cards (or dummy cards, as they insensitively get called). As a storytelling tool, the sequence is the gear that shifts Rocky from laidback retirement to the realisation that boxing is his only viable way of supporting his family.

Review: Don’t you miss film sequels that begin with a lengthy reprise of the previous instalment? The second and third Karate Kid films give you a handy refresher of the story so far; Halloween 5 replays a cliffhanger to show you what *really* happened; while Back to the Future Part II actually refilmed the previous movie’s ending because a major role had been recast. It’s a shame this device has gone out of fashion, presumably because home video and download have made films so much easier to see more than once. Anyway, Rocky II’s recap reminds us that the Italian Stallion went the distance with – but lost on points to – world champion boxer Apollo Creed. We’re then into the new stuff… which is a conventional story made entertaining by a half-decent cast. After 80 minutes, a Bill Conti-scored training montage, which is a mini-masterpiece of rousing emotion, drives us into a final act where Rocky takes on Apollo for a second time. The fight features a ludicrous and unrealistic amount of punches, then an arch, slo-mo climax as both fighters fall to the mat at same time. But it’s difficult not to get swept up in the moment as Rocky beats the count and wins the championship…

Seven condominiums (I never use ’em) out of 10

Next: Rocky III

Under Capricorn (1949, Alfred Hitchcock)

1949-Under Capricorn-poster

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In 19th-century Sydney, a man reconnects with an old friend who’s keeping a dark secret…

Speaking in 1963, 14 years after its release, Alfred Hitchcock summed up a pesky issue with his period drama Under Capricorn. ‘I remember some remark by a Hollywood critic who said, “We had to wait 105 minutes for the first thrill.” They went in expecting something and didn’t get it.’ Not since his silent-movie days had the director made such a laidback film, and after two decades distinguished by thrillers, spy stories and capers, audiences wanted more of the same. Under Capricorn, however, is decidedly sedate and orthodox.

But while the plot is wispy, the emotion overwrought and the sloshy incidental music constant to the point of tedium, Hitchcock’s shooting style is worth discussing and also ties into a theme of time that runs through the whole movie.

In 1831 in Australia – the film’s title is a reference to being south of the Tropic of Capricorn – a new governor (Cecil Parker) arrives to take over the administration of the town of Sydney. Convicts were once transported there from Britain, and a delicate etiquette has now built up. Reformed characters known as emancipists are given respect and freedom as long as they behave.

One of the governor’s aides is his cousin, a happy-go-lucky yet ambitious Irishman called Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), who soon befriends shifty local businessman Samson Flusky (Joseph Cotten). Then Charles is surprised to realise that he already knows Samson’s wife from when they were children – but Lady Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman, in her third and final role for Hitchcock) is now a deeply troubled and isolated alcoholic. She’s more or less a shut-in, wracked with some unknown guilt and apparently under the spell of her domineering housekeeper, Milly (Margaret Leighton). Over time, Charles and Henrietta grow close and he starts to tempt her out of her malaise…

Though based on a novel by Helen Simpson, all this feels like stage-play material – the kind of thing you can imagine a rep company wheeling out on tour. As well as performances that are being aimed at the audience as much as to other characters, one of the reasons for this is that virtually every scene is shot in a long, uninterrupted take. Writing for The Guardian in 2012, the film critic Joseph D A Walsh argued that the long takes ‘challenge audiences used to rapid cuts and edits’ and he’s not wrong. We’re drawn into a world where, as in the theatre, actors are allowed to dictate the pace and rhythm of each scene. Unlike classic narrative editing, which creates its own sense of time by chopping together moments in precisely chosen orders and at precisely chosen points, this kind of storytelling exposes the script and the cast: there’s little support and no hiding place. Sadly, with Under Capricorn, it sometimes means you feel ‘stuck’ like a theatre-goer with a poor view of the stage. Boredom creeps in a bit too often.

But whereas edits are rare, there are plenty of camera moves which dictate where our attention should focus. The camera tracks, glides, swoops and even climbs storeys of the Fluskys’ house. (During one take, the rig actually ran over Hitchcock’s foot – breaking his toe!) A great example comes early on in a grandstanding scene presented as one fluid camera move that lasts for seven minutes, takes place in several rooms and features 13 (!) actors. (It’s actually two shots stitched together by a disguised edit, to allow an actor and the camera to pass through a doorway.) The camera roves around a large, complex set as Charles approaches the Fluskys’ house; we shadow him as he eavesdrops on events from outside the window; we follow him as he goes inside and talks to Samson and Milly; he meets several other dinner-party guests, and the men all sit down to eat… but are then shocked by the unexpected arrival of a barefooted and distracted Henrietta at the door. As a self-contained example of what cinema can achieve, it’s an absolute wonder.

Other long takes in Under Capricorn are more static and less showy, essentially being played out in a locked-off frame, such as a key scene where Henrietta reveals her terrible secret to Charles… We’ve earlier been told that Samson is an emancipist who was transported to Australia for seven years for killing Henrietta’s brother; she followed him from Europe out of love. But now, in a monologue that dominates an astonishingly controlled take that lasts close to nine minutes, she spills the truth: *she* shot her brother and Samson gallantly took the blame. It’s a bravura piece of acting. ‘The crowning achievement of the story,’ says Walsh, ‘and, in my opinion, one of the finest performances of [Bergman’s] career.’

Hitchcock had used long takes throughout in his most recent film: the dazzling and experimental Rope, which is a 78-minute movie with just 11 shots in it. (He would have made the whole thing as a ‘oner’, but film cameras can only hold so much film at a time.) In that movie, however, the style is totally simpatico with the story’s real-time setting and the way tension is built inexorably and steadily. Trapped in a single apartment with a body stashed in a box, waiting to be found, the long takes enhance the viewing experience no end. However, while extraordinary moments in and of themselves, the long takes in Under Capricorn are – in comparison – hollow pieces of showing-off by a director who doesn’t seem engaged with the material. (Variety magazine agreed at the time, saying in its contemporary review that the long takes and moving camera are not ‘a substitute for the dramatic movement that would have come with crisper storytelling.’)

When Hitch mentioned critics having to wait ‘105 minutes’ for the first thrill, he of course chose the figure as an arbitrary way of suggesting a point when the film was almost over. (Under Capricorn is 117 minutes long, so 105 minutes is close to 90 per cent of the way through.) But he was hitting on the truth in more ways than one. Yes, he meant that critics didn’t like the film because they were expecting another thrill ride like The 39 Steps or Notorious and felt short-changed. But his comment explains the failings of Under Capricorn in another way.

Throughout this story the past weighs heavily on many characters. It’s also a film about waiting – Samson for power and respectability, Charles for independence and happiness, Henrietta for romance and to be free of her history, the devious Milly for Samson’s attentions – but the people who have to wait the longest are the viewers, and not just because Hitchcock and editor Bert Bates make us wait for a camera cut. Early on in the story, newly arrived in Sydney, Charles is shocked to see a man carrying a shrunken human head on the street. Samson tells him there’s an illicit trade for such things because people use them superstitiously. It then takes 90 minutes for this plot point to come back into focus when we learn that Milly has been using a shrunken head in her attempts to drive Henrietta insane. Under Capricorn is clearly not a movie in a rush to deliver anything, thrills or plot developments.

At the time of its release, audiences even had to wait to see it. The New York premiere was held on 8 September 1949, followed by a US nationwide release on 8 October. But many other countries – Italy, France, West Germany, significantly Australia – had to wait until the clock had ticked over into the 1950s before they could view the film. Sadly, while interesting on an intellectual level, it wasn’t especially worth it.

Six men listening to the governor’s speech out of 10