The Birds (1963)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A small town is terrorised when the local bird population begins attacking people…

The Birds is one of those films with a big reputation. Too big, perhaps. Like Psycho – the film Hitchcock made immediately prior to this one – it’s a horror movie that’s built on its scares. And admittedly the sequences of avian assaults are relentless and violent and terrifying. But sadly, once the trick’s been played, there’s not a huge amount left to admire. It’s a film whose bark is more deadly than its bite. Or should that be, whose squawk is more deadly than its flight?

A vital component to this kind of story is a slow build-up to the terror so we have a chance to get to know the characters before the carnage begins, and this one starts with a meet-cute in a pet shop. Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) flirts with Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) and is so intrigued by the confident lawyer that she finds out where he’s spending the weekend and drives there to surprise him. She soon meets his family – a haughty mother played by Jessica Tandy, a tweenage daughter played by Alien’s Veronica Cartwright – and his neighbours. But it’s a slight story with precious little interest and it’s soon forgotten about when the strangeness begins.

Why the local birds begin persecuting and attacking people is never explained. They simply target our characters and the other residents of sleepy town Bodega Bay, California. As the incidents pile up, including an impressively staged explosion at a petrol station and scenes where people have their eyes plucked out, the film starts to seem familiar – at least to a modern viewer. Swap the birds for the undead and you’d have a zombie movie.

That genre wasn’t really defined until a few years later, when George A Romero directed the seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968). But here’s Alfred Hitchcock in 1963 preempting so many of its ideas and themes. The characters in The Birds are pushed to the limit by an impersonal, illogical threat that they don’t understand and they can’t reason with. It wants to hurt them, pure and simple. Also, with people fleeing, in hiding or killed, Bodega Bay soon starts to feel like a post-apocalyptic frontier town. Residents board up their houses, preparing for the next onslaught, while the authorities are noticeably absent. (There is a cop character, but he does little more than belittle the threat posed by the birds.)

But the best zombie films work because – like in any kind of successful thriller – you care about the characters. Melanie and Mitch, however, never quite punch through. They’re uninteresting people played by actors giving uninteresting performances.

Six men walking his dogs out of 10

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Blake’s 7: City at the Edge of the World (1980)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Vila is taken prisoner by a notorious criminal and forced to unlock a mysterious door in a ruined city…

Series C, episode 6. Written by: Chris Boucher. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 11 February 1980, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* As the episode begins, Tarrant (6) has been in touch with a group who want to utilise Vila’s lockpicking skills; in exchange they’ll provide some crystals that will help the Liberator weaponry systems. So he bullies and brow-beats Vila into teleporting down to a planet. Tarrant’s hubris comes back to haunt him, though, when the group kidnap Vila and give the others a booby-trapped box rather than the crystals.
* Vila (32) doesn’t take kindly to Tarrant’s tactics: as he points out, he’s been on the ship longer; he was with Blake. Tarrant isn’t impressed and Vila is guilt-tripped into teleporting down to a planet. Forty-three seconds later, he radios in to say the others can come and collect the crystals. Meanwhile, two mutes escort Vila to a ruined city, where he encounters first an aggressive woman called Kerril, then her boss: the infamous, murderous thug Captain Bayban – aka Bayban the Berserker, aka Bayban the Butcher, aka (by his mum) Baybe. Bayban wants Vila to open a mysterious door, behind which – he thinks – are hidden all the treasures of the planet. Vila sets to work, his fear dissipating as he focuses on the challenge of cracking a complex lock. He also enjoys a bit of flirting with Kerril, who’s starting to warm to him. Eventually, Vila opens the door and he and Kerril enter but are soon teleported to a far-away spaceship. An automated message tells them they are now 3,000 light years away from the planet; the ship has been searching for a new colony for the planet’s inhabitants. Resigned to being trapped, Vila and Kerril have sex – then Vila deduces that the ship has landed. They step outside onto an idyllic planet they dub Homeworld, but then Vila spots expensive crystals lying at his feet – coincidentally the kind needed for the Liberator weapons systems – so resolves to get back to his colleagues.
* Cally (29) follows Vila down to the planet to collect the job’s payment, but find no one there. She spots a box on the floor; fearing it’s booby-trapped, Cally stands back and triggers its explosion from a distance. Realising Vila’s in trouble, Cally and Avon mount a search-and-rescue mission, and are later joined by Tarrant and Dayna.
* Avon (31) won’t let Vila teleport down to the planet without a tracer on his person. Tarrant says he agreed with his clients that Vila wouldn’t be carrying surveillance equipment. “I gave them my word,” he says. “You didn’t give them mine,” replies Avon. But after Vila has gone, Avon realises that he deliberately left the tracer behind.
* Orac (16) tells the others that there are scant records on the planet’s history. But an archaeological survey discovered that its ancient people may have called it Kezarn.
* Dayna (6) gives Vila a gun for his trip to the planet – again, against Tarrant’s wishes. She also declines to back Tarrant when the others tell him he mucked up by risking Vila’s life.
* Zen is mentioned but doesn’t appear.

Best bit: The Vila/Avon dynamic has been great for a long time now. The two characters are like warring brothers: Avon as the cooler, more accomplished, more arrogant, older one and Vila as the cheekier, less responsible, less capable younger one. They spar, they insult each other, they never openly show any affection. And yet, as in this episode, there’s a subtext to it all. Avon challenges Tarrant when he bullies Vila. He warns him off. It’s clearly a case of ‘no one beats up my brother but me’.

Worst bit: The Kezarnians’ plan is utterly bonkers. Thirty centuries ago, a planetary leader reckoned that society was inevitably going to descend into chaos. So he sent a ship, which was hooked up to a teleport machine housed behind an elaborately sealed door, into deep space to look for a new home. Then he recorded an audio message that he somehow knew would be heard by someone in 3,000 years’ time. Riiight…

Review: This vivid episode is alive and engaging in every moment and is powered by some brilliantly rich, razor-sharp dialogue. It’s also a great showcase for Michael Keating, giving Vila his usual comedy and cowardliness but also scenes of ingenuity, smarts and even romance. And there’s a very Colin Bakery performance from Colin Baker as Bayban: highly theatrical, highly bombastic, and highly entertaining. Marvellous stuff.

Nine stupid sons of a slime crawler out of 10

Next episode: Children of Auron

Stage Fright (1950)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A young acting student in London attempts to prove that her friend is not a killer…

A curtain rises up the screen to reveal not a theatrical stage, but the bomb-damaged London of 1950. It’s a cheeky way to begin in the film, Hitchcock winking at us and telling us that this is an artificial world – and it’s not to be taken at face value.

This is a movie about lies and deceptions, about acting and pretending. No one can be fully trusted, whether they’re the student who poses as a dresser to spy on a famous actress, or her smuggler father, or the self-obsessed star, or the man who kicks the plot off with a torrid tale of murder.

As the story begins, a frantic Jonathan Cooper asks for help from his friend and fellow acting student Eve. She has a crush on him, so is happy to drive him out of London as he explains what’s happened. In flashback, we learn that he’s been having an affair with the noted stage actress Charlotte Inwood, and that she showed up at his flat with blood on her dress after killing her abusive husband. Jonathan then headed to her house to clear up the mess but was spotted by Charlotte’s maid and now fears that he’ll be accused of the crime.

Sensing an injustice and suspecting that Charlotte has tried to frame Jonathan, Eve resolves to investigate herself. She stashes Jonathan at her father’s seaside hideaway, then accidentally-on-purpose gets to know a private detective who’s looking into the case. She also seeks out Charlotte’s assistant and bribes her into feigning an illness so Eve can masquerade as her replacement. To do this, she uses her acting talents to adopt a new persona: the meek, cockney-voiced Doris Tinsdale. (There’s a great gag when, after carefully putting on clothes, make-up, a wig and glasses, Eva bumps into her mother… who doesn’t bat an eyelid: ‘Oh, there you are, Eve darling…’)

Eve is played by American actress Jane Wyman, whose mid-Atlantic accent is explained by saying the character was educated abroad. She has expressive eyes, which get archly lit in the revelation scene towards the end of the film. But she’s perhaps a bit too tightly bound to be the lead of a thriller. We rarely get a sense of her being pushed to extremes emotionally. Hitch wasn’t a fan for another reason, later arguing that the part had needed a more ‘real’ look. ‘[She] should have been a pimply faced girl,’ he said. ‘[Wyman] just refused to be that and I was stuck with her.’ Despite knowing that the director wanted her to appear frumpy and plain, Wyman was putting on flattering make-up in secret.

Co-star Marlene Dietrich, who plays Charlotte, also didn’t warm to Wyman. ‘I heard she’d only wanted to do [the film] if she were billed above me and she got her wish,’ the German star was once quoted as saying. ‘Hitchcock didn’t think much of her. She looks too much like a victim to play a heroine, and God knows she couldn’t play a woman of mystery – that was my part. Miss Wyman looks like a mystery nobody has bothered to solve.’

In Stage Fright, Dietrich gives a big, theatrical performance of a big, theatrical character. For the role of Charlotte, Hitch had originally wanted Tallulah Bankhead, who had been in Lifeboat for him six years previously, but the studio lobbied for someone more bankable. It was Dietrich’s only role for Hitchcock, and he must have been pleased to have the legend on board because he – uniquely – allowed her a far-ranging freedom over the way her character appeared on screen. She insisted on artfully lit Hollywood close-ups, even telling cinematographer Wilkie Cooper where to put his lights, and also was also given a song specially written by Cole Porter and costumes designed by Christian Dior.

Stage Fright is well cast generally, in fact, with even interest in the smallest parts. Richard Todd is sturdy and believable as Cooper. Alastair Sim is especially fruity and likeable as Eve’s father, while Sybil Thorndike is her uptight mother. There’s a nicely comedic cameo from Joyce Grenfell as an eccentric stallholder at a funfair. Irene Handl plays Charlotte’s maid, and even the Major from Fawlty Towers, Ballard Berkeley, shows up as a nonplussed copper who shares a scene with Marlene Dietrich. Hitch also cast his daughter, Pat, as one of Eve’s RADA pals. (The character is called Chubby Bannister, which was an in-joke – she’s the girl you can always lean on. Pat Hitchcock went on to appear in several episodes of her father’s TV show and had a small role in Psycho. In recent years, she’s been a well-informed and welcome presence on many documentaries about Hitch’s work.)

And the cast get an intriguing thriller plot to play with. Hitchcock and his writers – including wife Alma Reville, who worked on almost all of his films as a writer/producer – often reveal their characters’ motives and secrets, allowing the audience to know what they’re thinking even if other characters don’t. This not only raises the suspense levels – we usually know what’s at stake in a scene – but it also makes the film great fun because we have to see characters (especially Eve) improvise their way out of trouble.

But one element of the movie caused trouble. Hitchcock even later said it was the second biggest mistake of his career (after a plotting misstep in 1936’s Sabotage). Towards the end of the film, as the truth starts to seep out, we discover that the flashback we saw at the start – Jonathan’s story of Charlotte killing her husband and his attemp to cover it up – never actually happened. In reality, Jonathan killed the husband.

‘A lot of people complained because the opening flashback was a lie,’ said Hitch 13 years later. ‘Now, why can’t a man tell a lie?’ His argument is sound in theory. Storytelling – especially Hollywood narrative cinema – is all about point of view. We experience stories through characters’ eyes, so when Jonathan tells Eve what had happened, he’s simply lying – and characters lie in fiction all the time. However, by *showing* us the fantasy, Stage Fright breaks a vital convention.

The greatest writer ever to tell mystery stories, Agatha Christie, understood that. Characters can lie, yes. But her books don’t; the authorial voice doesn’t. The audience must be given a fair crack of the whip, and by dramatising a sequence that didn’t happen, this film cheats. It doesn’t ruin the movie, which is still a very enjoyable thriller. In fact, it fits the theme of deception and theatrical trickery. But it stops Stage Fright being one of the very best Hitchcocks.

‘You see, if you break tradition,’ said the director about this film, ‘you are in trouble every time.’

Eight men in the street out of 10

Blake’s 7: The Harvest of Kairos (1980)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Tarrant comes up with a plan to steal some valuable crystals, but Servalan is hunting the Liberator…

Series C, episode 5. Written by: Ben Steed. Directed by: Gerald Blake. Originally broadcast: 4 February 1980, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Dayna (5) – looking sexy in a blue jumpsuit – spots a space craft near the Liberator. This eventually leads to Servalan taking control of the ship, and when aboard the president orders an underling to kill Dayna but our heroine just fronts up and refuses to be scared. Later, on the planet Kairos, actress Josette Simon has to put herself through the indignity of acting opposite, and taking seriously, a large, cockroach-like monster that spins cobwebs. She also gets some fight scenes with the episode’s main guest star.
* When Dayna spots that ship, Tarrant (5) deduces there’s more than one – and he recognises the tactics: the Liberator is being shadowed by Federation forces. Having escaped them, Tarrant then convinces his colleagues that they should head for the planet Kairos and steal its valuable harvest of crystals. They ambush a ship leaving Kairos and nab its cargo, but it’s actually a trap – the crates are full of enemy soldiers! Later, having lost the Liberator and been stranded on Kairos, Tarrant finds an ancient and basic space craft and gets it working. With help from Avon, he’s able to bluff that it’s more powerful than it really is and the gang take the Liberator back from Servalan.
* Zen (27) provides some important information about Kairos, then is forced to accept commands from Servalan after she takes control of the ship.
* Cally (28) helps Avon investigate a rock he’s found. It reminds her of her parents. No, seriously. More on the rock in a moment…
* Servalan (16) is initially bemused by Tarrant’s response to her ships stalking the Liberator. (And she does just assume that Tarrant, a man she’s barely met, will be in command.) Why doesn’t he run or attack? She’s then shocked to hear that a low-grade worker has openly criticised her strategic decisions, so she demands that he come to see her… Jarvik (Andrew Burt, giving a hands-on-hips performance of virility and confidence) reacts by grabbing hold of her and kissing her. It turns out he used to be a Federation officer but gave it all up to lead a simpler life. Intrigued by his sheer arrogance, Servalan dares him to do better than her and ensnare the Liberator. He uses a Trojan-horse trick and smuggles some soldiers aboard. After they’ve taken control, Servalan teleports over and swaggers around her new domain. She wants Jarvik to be her consort, but he’s later killed by accident when a soldier nervously opens fire.
* Avon (30) is off-ship as the episode begins, then returns with a rock he’s found on a nearby planet. It’s some sopron, a mineral that is – in a rather vaguely defined way – alive and capable of reasoning. He seems disinterested in the Liberator’s plight, leaving Tarrant to deal with the situation while he obsesses over the rock. Nevertheless, he’s still on hand to save his colleagues’ skins when Tarrant naively allows some Federation soldiers aboard; then later, Avon’s able to use the sopron to trick Servalan into thinking she’s outgunned. (It has the ability to reflect someone’s thoughts back at them, you see. Or something.)
* Vila (31) gets to run the flight deck while Tarrant leaves to look for Avon, and he has some success. Later, when the team decide to steal the Kairos crystals, Vila says he’ll use his cut of the booty to start a family.
* Orac (15) has to grudgingly admit that Avon’s rock has a bigger capacity for reason than he does.

Best bit: Servalan addresses the fact that Jarvik grabbed her roughly and kissed her: “There is the question of that degrading and primitive act to which I was subjected in the control room… I should like you to do it again.”

Worst bit: The monster. Obviously.

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Review: The episode is especially interesting because of two men. The intriguing Jarvik is a rarity in Blake’s 7 – a doesn’t-give-a-fuck, isn’t-trying-to-prove-anything scoundrel who cuts through the other characters’ bravado. Matching him with Servalan makes her more interesting and shakes things up. You can see her develop more in this one episode than the first two seasons put together. (Jarvik disrespects computers, though, so can’t change her that much – she still trusts a digital readout when her eyes and common sense are telling her something different. It’s her downfall; it’s why she loses the Liberator.) Meanwhile, Tarrant – in only his fourth full-length episode – has quickly become a vital part of the show. He’s moved into Blake’s position as the nominal team leader very smoothly, and has also taken over the role of butting heads entertainingly with Avon. The episode as a whole is fun, for the most part. Sadly, though, towards the end the wheels start to fall off one by one. There’s the monster, perhaps the most embarrassingly awful visual we’ve had so far (and that’s saying something). There’s the dreary deux ex machina of Avon’s conveniently helpful rock. And there’s the fact Cally and Vila are reduced to little more than glorified extras.

Seven weeks following the vernal equinox out of 10

Next episode: City at the Edge of the World

My 10 favourite Christopher Nolan films

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To celebrate the 48th birthday of film director Christopher Nolan, I’ve ranked his 10 movies to date in order of wonderfulness…

10. Following (1998)
Nolan’s self–financed debut is a story about a wannabe writer who stalks strangers out of curiosity. It has many of the elements you’d expect from a 1990s low-budget crime movie: a story told out of sequence (because, you know, Tarantino); a cast who aren’t as sharp and believable as you’d hope (to save money, Nolan only allowed one or two takes); black-and–white photography (because that makes it look moody, right?); and handheld camerawork (because that’s quicker than setting up elaborate shots). Mildly diverting to begin with, it then starts to drag.

9. The Prestige (2006)
An interesting film rather than an entertaining one. It’s about Victorian stage magicians competing to find the perfect trick, but it feels clinical and cynical. The craft is there, but not enough heart.

8. Insomnia (2002)
An orthodox crime thriller elevated by a really great performance from Robin Williams as the bad guy and the generally weird setting of Alaska in the never-ending daylight of summer.

7. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The weakest of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, this sees a reclusive Bruce Wayne forced to suit up to fight the muffled-voiced terrorist Bane. It’s too long, too convoluted, and has too many risible moments (most famously, an entire city’s police force gets lured into some tunnels) – but it’s still a fun watch. Anne Hathaway is especially good as the cat burglar Selina Kyle.

6. Inception (2010)
Mindboggling at times, but fascinating nevertheless. It’s a film full of complex concepts and it expects you to keep up. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the leader of a gang who can secretly access people’s dreams and plant ideas in their subconscious. (The gang are an enjoyable bunch, with chalk-and-cheese members like Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. As much as it’s a sci-fi ‘concept’ film, this is also a heist movie.) The visual flamboyance on show is absolutely staggering. Many scenes take place in a dreamworld that’s spatially surreal and yet still solid, while CGI and inventive camerawork are expertly used to tell the story and embellish the settings. Also, Hans Zimmer’s *much*-copied incidental music makes everything feel monumentally huge.

5. Batman Begins (2005)
A retelling of the Batman origin story that turned its back on the kiddie-friendly slush of the most recent entry in the series. With the character rebooted, the story was played straight and given psychological rigour. It takes a while to get going, but once we’re into Bruce Wayne fighting crime in Gotham City the film sings with theatrical style.

4. Interstellar (2014)
A science-fiction movie with real sweep and panache. In a near-future blighted by ecological problems, Matthew McConaughey plays Coop, an astronaut sent on a vital mission into the depths of the solar system. Due to the differences in relative time, decades will pass on Earth while he’s away… There’s plausible science mixed with speculative theory and even spiritualism, an adventure plot merged with family drama, as well as shocks and twists. Jessica Chastain is also tremendous as Coop’s grown-up daughter.

3. Dunkirk (2017)
The evacuation of Dunkirk seen from various points of view – young soldiers stranded in France, airmen providing the cover for the retreat, and the crew of a fishing boat crossing the Channel. The three subplots take place over different time spans (an hour, a day, a week), yet feel totally concurrent due to the film’s artful editing and Nolan’s sense of storytelling. The 70mm photography takes your breath away, while several epic action sequences are impressively staged for real. Moving, well cast and engrossing.

2. Memento (2000)
A superb, noir-ish thriller with – famously – its scenes in reverse order. Devilishly clever and admirably bold, with a great central performance from Guy Pearce, this is the story of a man hunting for his wife’s murderer. The biggest problem? A medical condition means he can’t form any new memories so must rely on self-written notes and photos he can’t remember taking. As with later films Interstellar and Dunkirk, the unusual chronology never feels confusing or clunky. Instead, it puts us into Leonard’s point of view: we don’t know what happened earlier because he doesn’t.

1. The Dark Knight (2008)
Big, bold, complex, provocative and dangerous, this is the superhero genre’s equivalent of The Godfather Part II or The Empire Strikes Back. It’s monumental. Daunting. Impressive. Threatening. Challenging. Fascinating. *Ambitious*. Heath Ledger commands the frame whenever he’s on screen as the Joker, while the IMAX-shot action sequences are thrilling.

 

Blake’s 7: Dawn of the Gods (1980)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Liberator falls through a black hole and encounters a mythical being…

Series C, episode 4. Written by: James Follett. Directed by: Desmond McCarthy. Originally broadcast: 28 January 1980, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Vila (30) is losing a board game he’s playing with Cally, Avon and Dayna – it’s clearly modelled on Monopoly. But he then has bigger things to worry about when the Liberator is dragged off course and heads towards an uncharted area of space (Vila soon reaches for a bottle). When the ship ends up in a mysterious location, he’s persuaded to put on a space suit and venture outside. He finds a surface, gravity and wreckage of other ships. Eventually, Vila and the others encounter a flamboyant man who tells them that the Lord Thaarn – a mythical figure that Cally learnt about in childhood – rules this artificial planet…
* As the episode begins, Cally (27) is actually on her way home: the Liberator is en route for Auron. But after the ship is dragged into a black hole, she’s knocked unconscious and spends time in a resuscitation capsule. She then starts to hear voices: specifically the Thaarn, a being from a children’s story about gods who oversaw the development of Auron. When she encounters him for real on the artificial world, he says he wants her to join him…
* Avon (29) is concerned by the Liberator’s course deflections. Soon he and the others realise that it’s gravity pulling them away from their target – the ship is falling towards a black hole. As it passes the event horizon, however, the crew are not crushed down to the size of an atom (or whatever actually happens when things fall into a black hole). Instead, they experience a sluggish, dreamlike period of time… and then are basically fine. After landing on the artificial planet, Thaarn imprisons them, and soon Avon and Tarrant are put to work… on maths. You see, the all-powerful Thaarn doesn’t like computers so wants his new captives to work out how to control gravity or something. Avon, not unreasonably, decides to escape.
* Dayna (4) tends to the ill Cally, fires the neutron blasters, then stays on the ship while the others investigate outside. She’s the new Jenna, it seems.
* Orac (14) admits that the Liberator’s new course is his fault: he changed it simply because he fancied seeing a black hole up close. What a twat.
* Tarrant (4) is the one who notices that the ship is falling off course. At first he thinks they’ve been snared by a tractor beam. Interestingly, despite only joining the crew about five minutes ago, Tarrant smoothly assumes the role of operational commander during a crisis. He issues orders and plans strategies. He’s the new Blake, it seems.
* Zen (26) claims nothing is wrong with the ship when the crew can’t work out why it’s going off course. He’s right – it’s Orac who’s changing the heading – but not very helpful. Later, after the ship has landed on Thaarn’s world, Zen and Orac team up to repel some salvagers trying to break up the Liberator.

Best bit: On the artificial planet, the mandarin who takes the crew prisoner wants to know who Orac is and where he is. He also has the means to cause pain if our heroes lie. So first Dayna and then Tarrant must answer his questions truthfully but without giving any information away. The dialogue is carefully written to fulfil both aims.

Worst bit: The half-arsed attempt at a Vila-is-dead story beat? The Robot Wars-style machine that has to filmed in glimpses to hide how naff it is? The painfully underwhelming, Wizard of Oz-ish reveal of the Thaarn? Take your pick.

Review: Dawn of the Gods is reaching for something big and important; it’s trying to be upper-case, bold-font Science Fiction. There’s more than a hint of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, while the guest characters feel vaguely Star Trekian. (Why is an Auron god’s spokesperson dressed like a Regency fop? Answers on a postcard please.) It’s certainly not typical Blake’s 7. In fact, you get the impression that this script was written by someone who’d never seen the show before. It’s also another episode that backloads its story. Not for the first time, a Blake’s 7 adventure features just the regular characters for its opening half, then squeezes a hell of a lot of storytelling into the second. Very little of it works, sadly. The worst episode so far.

Three neuronic whips out of 10

Next episode: The Harvest of Kairos

Blake’s 7: Volcano (1980)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Tarrant and Dayna attempt to forge an alliance with a secretive group of people on a planet dominated by a volcano…

Series C, episode 3. Written by: Allan Prior. Directed by: Desmond McCarthy. Originally broadcast: 21 January 1980, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Tarrant (3) teleports down to the planet Obsidian with Dayna. Their aim is to make contact with the planet’s leaders because the Liberator crew need a base of operations for their continuing rebellion, and Obsidian has never been affiliated to the Federation. They’ve also heard a rumour that Blake has been spotted there. Tarrant offers the Obsidian leader, Hower (Michael Gough), a slice of any spoils for the use of his planet. But Hower is a pacifist and says no. So Tarrant next tries to nobble Hower’s son, who then betrays him by contacting Servalan… Luckily for our heroes, Hower then steps in and, er, kills his own son. Hashtag overreaction.
* Dayna (3) has a connection to Hower: he knew her late father. During the negotiations she acts as the good cop to Tarrant’s bad, and by using her charm learns the reason they’re not going to get any help. Hower and his cronies have turned the whole population into pacifists – mainly by education, but partly by electro-shock treatment and propaganda. Detective Dayna also finds out why the planet has never been invaded by the Federation: there’s a massive atomic bomb under the surface, and Hower is willing to wipe out his own people rather than see war. Hower even shows Dayna the convenient planet-destroying button. Hashtag Chekov’s gun.
* Back on the Liberator, Cally (26) is worried when Tarrant and Dayna don’t radio in with news. Later, after the Liberator has been breached, she’s able to use her often-forgotten-about telepathy to warn Avon. But the Federation troops that have come aboard then steal Orac and take Cally hostage. Taken down to Obsidian, Cally is hidden in a cave until Tarrant and Dayna come along and rescue her. Hashtag damsel in distress.
* Avon (28) is worried as the episode begins. He knows the Federation once visited Obsidian and carried out a survey. Why did they not colonise the place, then? He’s also cynical about the rumour Blake has been spotted there. When Tarrant and Dayna fail to check in, Avon teleports down to look for them. He finds dead bodies and then spots Servalan and a squad of soldiers so beams back up. Not long after, the soldiers manage to get aboard the Liberator – and one of them shots Avon in the arm during a gunfight. Hashtag ouch!
* Vila (29) points out the oddity that Obsidian has just one volcano on the entire planet. (Earth today has approximately 1,500 of the fuckers.) Avon and Cally also tease him about how he fancies their new colleague Dayna. Later, Vila acts rather foolishly and accidentally teleports some Federation soldiers aboard the Liberator. But he also gets a nice moment when he hears Servalan’s voice on a discarded radio so answers her sarcastically. Hashtag pwned.
* Orac (13) is asked to operate the teleport and is not happy: he points out that it’s a menial job more suited to someone like Cally. Hashtag patronising.
* Zen (25) reports that Obsidian has not had serious volcanic activity for ‘some years’, a vagueness that does not go down well with Avon. Hashtag get your act together.
* Servalan (15) has regained power since we last saw her. She’s now President of the Universe or something, but rather than lounging about in a mansion she’s commanding a ship staffed by thugs and mutoids. Their mission is to snatch the Liberator! (How many times has she tried that now?) Down on Obsidian, she encounters some locals and orders her second-in-command to kill them. He’s shocked. (Has he never met Servalan before?) She then manages to get a squad of agents aboard the Liberator, who snatch Orac. She also receives word of how to wipe out Obsidian’s control bunker – but before she can act, Hower pushes the button and destroys his entire planet. Hashtag overkill.

Best bit: Hower has a robot butler! It’s not vital to the plot. Nor is it especially remarked upon by the characters. It’s just a cute bit of texture.

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Worst bit: Michael Gough plays Hower and gives one of *those* performances where a clearly capable actor shows up in a genre show and just goes through the motions. You get no sense at all of Hower – and therefore the society at large – having a life outside his scripted dialogue. Gough also has a moment or two where he’s obviously grasping to remember his next line.

Review: Volcano begins with Tarrant and Dayna landing on the surface of Obsidian – two characters who weren’t seen or mentioned in the show’s first 26 episodes. It feels like a mission statement: a chance for the two to get some screentime. And it works, at least until the pair go missing from the episode for a 10-minute chunk in the middle. Not especially gripping, Volcano as a whole doesn’t offend either. The dialogue contains some clunky exposition, while Servalan has a moronic sidekick who says stupid things just so she can then explain things. But there’s been worse. One thing in its favour is the impressive location work. There might be some stock footage thrown in, but director Desmond McCarthy sells the idea that the scenes are taking place on the slopes of a volcano. There’s smoke, wind and actors shouting over roaring sound effects that must have been added later. (Having said that, there’s also one CSO shot of a soldier falling into the lava that just makes you howl with laughter.)

Six narcotic spray guns out of 10

Next episode: Dawn of the Gods

Blake’s 7: Powerplay (1980)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While Avon and Dayna attempt to wrestle command of the Liberator away from an enigmatic Federation officer, Vila and Cally find themselves in danger…

Series C, episode 2. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: David Maloney. Originally broadcast: 14 January 1980, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Del Tarrant (2) – who seized the Liberator in the previous episode – tells Avon and Dayna that he’s a Federation captain; he and his men found the ship abandoned. He also warns them that he may execute them for trespassing. Avon plays dumb, pretending that he and Dayna are a married couple and that he’s only vaguely heard of Blake. It’s clear Tarrant has a fractious relationship with his second-in-command, a snarling thug called Klegg (Michael Sheard). And when some Federation soldiers are killed off, observant viewers should be able to work out that Tarrant is not all he seems… It’s eventually revealed that he *isn’t* a Federation captain. He’s a rebel who found a Federation uniform so posed as an officer.
* When he first encounters Tarrant, Avon (27) thinks quickly and claims to be an innocent civilian caught up in the recent space battle. He and Dayna are locked up but soon escape. After learning who Tarrant really is, Avon seemingly betrays him to Klegg. But it’s actually just a ruse: Avon, Dayna and Tarrant are now working together…
* Dayna (2) boarded the Liberator for the first time at the conclusion of the previous episode. Now she proves to Tarrant and Klegg that she’s not one of its famous crew by demonstrating that Zen doesn’t recognise her voice. Later, after being knocked unconscious and locked up, she takes her revenge by killing the sadistic Klegg with her bare hands. Avon and Tarrant look on appreciatively. In the episode’s final scene, she and Tarrant are officially welcomed as new members of the Liberator crew, in effect replacing Jenna and Blake.
* After abandoning the Liberator in the previous episode, Vila (28) has ended up alone on a planet in some woods. He’s first found by some more of Terry Nation’s medieval-natives-played-by-middle-class-actors, who tell him they’re being hunted for sport. Vila is then separated from them and meets the hunters: two not-unattractive women in sci-fi helmets and cloaks, who explain that they’re not killers; they just tranquilise the locals and help them with their superior technology. It’s a big social-divide subtext, you see – the hi-techs versus the low. The women are seemingly very kind to Vila and take him to a nearby city, where he bumps into Cally…
* At the start of the episode, Cally (25) is aboard a hospital ship, having been picked up after the space battle. She suffered burns but they’re on the mend. Then the ship lands on a planet to collect another patient… Servalan! After also meeting up with Vila, Cally and he learn the awful truth: the doctors and nurses are actually organ harvesters and intend to operate on them. Thankfully, the Liberator then arrives and the pair are teleported to safety.
* Servalan (14) – still wearing the hand-me-down frock she was given in the previous episode – is determined to regain her authority. The fact the Federation has been crippled by the destruction of its Star One facility doesn’t deter her, and by the episode’s end she’s managed to coerce the hospital ship’s captain into getting her back to Earth.
* When Avon sneaks onto the flight deck and talks to Zen (24), the computer fills him in on his crewmates’ statuses. Blake is safe and en route to a planet. Jenna was injured, though not badly, and is now aboard a neutral cargo carrier. There’s been no contact from Cally, while Vila is in trouble so the Liberator is heading to pick him up.

Best bit: While alone in a strange forest, Vila hears the gurgles and rumbles of a monster nearby. So he mimics the voices of a well-armed military team to scare it off.

Worst bit: At the start of season three, the regular characters were scattered to the four winds by a massive space battle. But ever since, for plotting expediency, they keep bumping into each other – Avon and Servalan last week, now Cally and Servalan, then Cally and Vila.

Review: There are three strands to this episode: Avon and Dayna’s Die Hard dealings with Tarrant; Vila’s rather odd encounters in the woodlands; and Cally’s experiences on the hospital ship. The whole thing moves well and is never boring, but the standout element is clearly the character of Tarrant. He only appeared briefly last week, so this is our first chance to see him in action. He’s terrific. The storyline is a great way to introduce a new regular character, showing him off in several different situations, and while Steven Pacey was joltingly young – just 22 when the episode was recorded – the character feels older, with authority and steel.

Eight inspiring epitaths out of 10

Next episode: Volcano

Dial M for Murder (1954)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A man discovers that his rich wife has been having an affair, so plots to kill her…

After a botched attempt to have his wife murdered, ex-tennis pro Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) must think quickly. There’s a corpse on the floor of his Maida Vale flat and a detective from Scotland Yard has arrived to ask questions. Tony’s plan had been to establish an alibi while his wife was killed by the now-dead man, CA Swan (Anthony Dawson), who he had been blackmailing. But Margot (Grace Kelly with a cut-glass English accent) managed to fight Swan off and stab him with a pair of scissors. Scared of being rumbled, Tony must now play the concerned husband and convince everyone that Swan was just acting alone.

But there’s a problem. The policeman, Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams), may appear at first to be laid-back and cursory. You almost suspect he’s going to accept the situation at face value. But we viewers soon learn that he’s insightful, observant, caring and the cleverest person in the room. He also only arrived on the scene halfway through the film; until then, the story had been told from the point of view of someone planning a murder.

Sound familiar? Whether intentionally or coincidentally, Dial M for Murder is nothing short of a dry-run for superior American TV crime drama Columbo – a show that told ‘murder mystery’ stories from the killer’s point of view – and Inspector Hubbard can be considered the most telling antecedent of its title character, the ramshackle, rambling, seemingly sycophantic but piercingly perceptive Lieutenant Columbo.

The character of Columbo (he was never given a first name) debuted in anthology TV series The Chevy Mystery Show in 1960. Writers William Link and Richard Levinson based their script on a short story they’d contributed – appropriately enough – to an issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. But that source material had lacked a detective character, so they created Columbo with Bert Freed cast in the role.

Later, Levinson and Link adapted the script into a stage play called Prescription: Murder, first performed in 1962 and starring It’s a Wonderful Life’s Thomas Mitchell, then a TV movie in 1968 with Peter Falk taking over the role. The latter’s success led to a sequel in 1971, which was followed a regular series of feature-length episodes. The show ran, on and off, until 2003 with Falk giving a dynamic and incredibly watchable performance as the LAPD’s most iconoclastic detective.

History has not recorded whether Dial M for Murder’s Hubbard was a deliberate influence, but the similarities between the two characters are striking. Both are detectives who spot the significance of vital clues straightaway; who see through the inconsistencies in the villain’s story but don’t give away that their suspicions have been piqued; and who play dumb in order to lull the killer into implicating himself. They never resort to rough stuff or intimidation – the investigation is more a battle of wits – but they aren’t afraid to plant evidence or outright lie if it secures a confession. Both also smoke, maintain a level of civility, and own a crumpled rain mac. Hubbard even has a version of Columbo’s famous catchphrase: “There’s just one other thing, sir,” he says at one point as he’s about to leave the Wendices’ flat.

John Williams, who plays Hubbard with such effortless intelligence, later appeared in an episode of Columbo: Dagger of the Mind, originally broadcast on 26 November 1972. He played a murder victim, so due to the detective-shows-up-after-the-crime format he didn’t share any screentime with Peter Falk. Earlier in that same season, incidentally, Williams’s Dial M for Murder co-star Ray Milland had played a murderer in The Greenhouse Jungle (15 October 1972)… and the year before that, had a supporting role in the episode Death Lends a Hand (6 October 1971). Were these casting choices a deliberate acknowledgement of the debt owed to Dial M perhaps?

(Parenthetically, while we’re on the topic, a few other Hitchcock stars played killers in Columbo too. Janet Leigh appeared in Forgotten Lady (14 September 1975), while her Psycho co-star Vera Miles was in Lovely But Lethal (23 September 1973). North by Northwest’s Martin Landau appeared in Double Shock (25 March 1973) and Louis Jordan, who had a role in Hitch’s The Paradine Case, was in Murder Under Glass (30 January 1978). Also, Nicholas Colasanto, who cameoed in Hitchcock’s Family Plot, directed two Columbo stories.)

Like Columbo, Dial M for Murder also had a theatrical phase in its development – as well as an early TV try-out. The story debuted in an episode of BBC Sunday-Night Theatre broadcast on 23 March 1952. Cast as Inspector Hubbard was Raymond Huntley, who had played Dracula on the London stage in the 1920s. (When he turned down the chance to take the Count to Broadway, the role was taken over by an unknown Hungarian called Bela Lugosi.) Writer Frederick Knott then reworked his TV script for a West End production, which began in June 1952. In October, the play transferred to New York, where John Williams and Anthony Dawson first played the roles they were soon to reprise on film for Alfred Hitchcock.

All this means it’s hardly surprising that the movie Dial M for Murder has a theatre-like feel. The story almost entirely takes place on one set: a small, one-bedroom flat. Less than five per cent of the running time is spent elsewhere. There are long scenes of continuous action; one is well over 20 minutes, another close to half an hour. And there are only five significant characters: Tony, Margot, Swan, Hubbard and the man Margot’s been having an affair with, American crime writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings).

But the film never feels contained or constrained or repetitive. Obviously, a lot of this is down to Hitchcock’s ability to build and sustain suspense. Because the murder plot is told from the perspective of the man who’s planning it, we’re told ahead of time what’s going to happen. Or rather, what’s *meant* to happen. As Tony lays out his plan to the unwilling Swan – a man in debt and on the run from several aggrieved landladies – we’re told in minute detail how these two men will murder Margot and get away with it. Tony has thought of everything and has the cool, calm confidence of a man in total control. Hitchcock even switches to a God’s-eye view of the apartment, watching from above as Tony explains how Swan will enter the flat and strangle poor Margot.

This insider information makes us accomplices. It makes us unconsciously hope that they pull off their horrid crime. But this is not a unique trick. Movies are littered with criminals who we rout for because they’re the point-of-view characters. We want what they want, even if what they want is questionable. Any number of gangster films, from Scarface to Reservoir Dogs; war movies such as The Eagle Has Landed; heist stories like Ocean’s 11… They’re all about ‘bad guys’, but we’re seduced us into colluding with them. So when things go wrong – Tony’s phone call (to distract Margot) comes too late because his watch stopped; Margot fights back and Swan is killed – we don’t cheer at the thought of Margot surviving. We worry that Tony is going to be found out.

But another reason for the audience’s attention never wavering is that the film isn’t shot like it’s a stage play. Dial M for Murder is fluid and cinematic and visually interesting. Hitchcock had form for this sort of thing, taking the real-time, one-set Rope (1948) and filming it in loooong takes with a roaming camera. Here, for example, he opts for a forensic focus on the physical details of the plot – the latch keys that end up in various people’s pockets and purses, the scissors and the sewing box, the stockings, the cash, the geography of the apartment. The devil’s in the details and these elements are just as important as Tony’s calculating jealousy or Margot’s infidelity. Dial M for Murder is a puzzle, a parlour game, and it’s addictive even on multiple viewings.

Hitchcock also, famously, shot the movie in 3D. For a brief moment, it was the coming thing in Hollywood cinema, thanks to the success of a now largely forgotten film called Bwana Devil. But Hitch knew that the technology would mean some changes to his shooting style. ‘The close-up, for instance, will have to be completely scrapped,’ he mooted to a journalist before filming. In the end, Dial M’s character close-ups are amongst many striking shots that take advantage of the technology – there are also low angles, high angles and extreme close-ups. The cinematography always has plenty of depth and often uses foreground objects to make us feel like we’re in the flat with the characters. And each and every one of these techniques adds to the tension of the situation.

The director also toyed with an idea he’d had for a 3D trick shot: ‘All of a sudden a large hand with extra-long fingers reaches out and takes the audience by the throat,’ he said while prepping Dial M. ‘Think that would frighten you?’ Sure enough, in Dial M for Murder, the most daring 3D moment comes as Margot is being attacked by Swan and her arm reaches out in desperation towards the camera. She’s begging for our help – but as we were in on the planning of her murder, are we willing to give it?

Ten men at the college reunion out of 10

Acknowledgement: For an in-depth look at the history of 3D cinema and Dial M for Murder’s place in it, I very much recommend this article, which I drew on for information and the Hitchcock quotations: http://www.3dfilmarchive.com/dial-m-blu-ray-review 

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Blake’s 7: Aftermath (1980)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Liberator is attacked and its crew dispersed. Avon finds himself stranded on a planet where he encounters some fellow rebels, some aggressive locals, and Servalan…

Series C, episode 1. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 7 January 1980, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* As the third season gets underway, Zen (23) reports that the alien attack force seen at the end of season two have destroyed the Federation base Star One. He also urges the crew of the Liberator to abandon their damaged ship. Later, while off-ship, Avon contacts Zen and the computer tells him that Blake is uninjured but his location is unknown, while Jenna is aboard a hospital ship.
* Cally (24) and Vila (27) feature in the early scenes aboard the chaotic Liberator as the ship comes under attack from the aliens. Cally gets dialogue to explain why Blake and Jenna aren’t in this episode – saying they’ve decided to remain on the flight deck – while Vila is now the last remaining character who’s been in every episode of Blake’s 7.
* Avon (26) is knocked unconscious aboard the Liberator, so Cally and Vila bundle him into a Star Wars-style escape pod and activate it. He crash lands on a nearby planet called Sarran. He’s challenged by some natives – the kind of vaguely Anglo-Saxon/Viking-ish locals that Terry Nation seemed to like so much – but is saved by a young woman called Dayna. The pair then form a shaky alliance with Servalan, who has also been stranded on Sarran. Dayna takes them to her home (a space craft submerged under the sea) and introduces them to her father and sister. Servalan then offers Avon a deal: with the Liberator and Orac at their disposal, and the Federation in tatters after the loss of Star One, they could build a new empire. Avon wisely deduces that she’d be bound to double-cross him. So when the repaired Liberator arrives in Sarran’s orbit, Avon and Danya teleport aboard, leaving Servalan behind. But there’s a shock in store: the ship has been taken over by a Federation officer…
* Orac (12) is also loaded into Avon’s escape capsule. He’s later able to keep Avon apprised of the Liberator’s condition.
* Dayna Mellanby (1) was born on Earth. Her father is a weapons developer called Hal, who has long been on the run from the authorities. She’s a smart and capable young woman who enjoys using basic weapons like knives and bows and arrows – actually, there’s more than a hint that she’s sexually excited by the danger they provide – but also has a skill at building complex guns. When she rescues Avon and takes him to the safety of a cave, she kisses him – purely out of curiosity. Later, her father is killed by Servalan so she vows revenge, but Avon talks her out of killing the Supreme Commander because she’s hidden the vital Orac. After her sister is also murdered (talk about a bad day…), Dayna joins Avon when he returns to the Liberator… Dayna is played by Josette Simon, who was only about 20 but gives the character confidence and energy.
* Servalan (13) soon stumbles across Avon when she ends up on Sarran after the space battle above. (He isn’t surprised to see her: after all, the chances of them bumping into each other are so remote that it was bound to happen.) She doesn’t initially remember who Hal Mellanby is, but subtly grills his daughter for information. This happens during a scene where the two girls chat about fashion and Dayna gets changed behind a screen with her silhouette cast upon it. After she remembers who Mellanby is, Servalan kills him and steals Orac. She’s soon captured by the plot-device locals, but Avon and Dayna rescue her and force her to reveal where she’s hidden Orac. She’s then left behind on Sarran…
* When Avon and Daya arrive on the Liberator, they’re confronted by a Federation officer (1) who tells them the ship is now his… Actor Steven Pacey gets one line of dialogue in the episode’s final scene.

Best bit: For two seasons Servalan has been a one-note panto villain. Admittedly, that one note entertains a lot of people, but it’s hardly been dynamic storytelling. Aftermath, however, adds a bit of drama by giving her some concrete obstacles. Shorn of her power, her resources, her back-up and her underlings, she now has to be *an actual character*, rather than someone who just makes dry quips with a withering look in her eye. Actually, coupled with the debut of the entertaining Dayna, it feels like a feminist has had a word in Terry Nation’s shell-like between seasons.

Worst bit: Two Federation soldiers are introduced into the story *solely* to give us some badly written, badly played and badly directed exposition about the massive space battle. They’re then promptly killed off.

Review: Blake’s 7 without Blake. Or Jenna. In fact, given that Gan and Travis were killed off in season two, we’ve now lost half of the human regulars introduced in the first season. So this episode is doing some very specific things in order to refurbish the format. Most obviously, Paul Darrow is taking centre stage. Avon is now the de facto lead, the character who drives the story and who we identify with. (This is a season opener and, significantly, Vila and Cally barely feature.) As mentioned above, Aftermath also works to adapt Servalan into someone more interesting and introduces two new regular characters. It’s admirable that it also manages to be a fun, enjoyable story in its own right. Well, mostly. The guest cast are quite variable. (Cy Grant as Hal and an overacting Alan Lake as the native chieftain are especially poor.)

Eight usual punishments for boarding a Federation ship without authority out of 10

Next episode: Powerplay