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

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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

Rocky (1976, John G Avildsen)

00rocky

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.

Small-time boxer Rocky Balboa is offered the chance to take on the world champion…

What does Stallone do? Wanting to give his career a kick-start, struggling actor Sylvester Stallone wrote a script inspired by a no-hoper boxer who nearly lasted the distance with Muhammad Ali in March 1975. Selling the project to United Artists, he insisted that he play the lead role himself and this was the start of Stallone the movie star. Nevertheless, his persona in this film is quieter and far more downtrodden than he later became; it’s actually a decent job of acting. Rocky Balboa (aka the Italian Stallion) is a young guy from Philadelphia, scraping a living from fighting in poorly paid boxing bouts and carrying out strongarm work for a puffed-up gangster. Crucially, he’s not an out-and-out crook – early on, we see him defy his boss and *not* break someone’s thumb. We also feel for Rocky when he’s given just $40 for a bruising fight or when he loses his locker at the local gym or when he sweetly flirts with a woman he fancies. He’s a nice guy, if rough round the edges. The character is then offered the chance of a lifetime: to fight the world heavyweight champion in a title bout. (Unbeknownst to Rocky, the champ has picked him from obscurity simply because he likes his nickname.)

Other main characters:
* Rocky’s love interest, Adrianna ‘Adrian’ Pennino, is played by Talia Shire (then most notable for her role in The Godfather series). When we meet her, she’s a meek, nervous, glasses-wearing singleton in a cardi who works at a pet shop. Rocky flirts with her and their slow-burn, underplayed romance takes up a big section of the movie’s middle third.
* Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) runs Rocky’s local gym and has a 50-year career in boxing. He’s rude and mean towards Rocky – but we eventually realise it’s down to frustration. Mickey thinks Rocky has the talent to be successful but wastes his time working for a loan shark. When Rocky is offered a chance to fight the world champion, the gravelly-voiced and lopsided-faced Mickey offers to be his manager/trainer. He’s one of the great mentors in cinema, and Meredith brings plenty of soul to the part.
* Paulie Pennino (Burt Young) is Rocky’s pal and Adrian’s brother. A drunk and a dullard, he tries matchmaking Rocky with Adrian because she’s nearly 30 and he worries about her ending up alone.
* World heavyweight boxing champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) – a charismatic, verbose character fairly obviously based on Muhammad Ali – is preparing for a boxing bout to celebrate America’s bicentennial. But his opponent pulls out due to injury, so Apollo hits upon the PR-friendly idea of taking on a local unknown instead. Weathers is terrific, taking a thinly written character who doesn’t get much screentime and giving him so much pizzazz.

Key scene: The title bout, as Rocky goes 15 rounds with Apollo. There’s a remorseless volley of punches, sweat flying everywhere, the macabre moment when Rocky needs to have his bruised eyelid sliced open, and the euphoric ending that pulls an amazing trick of giving our lead character an emotional win despite him losing the fight on points. After the final bell, as Rocky calls out for his girlfriend – ‘Adrian! Adrian!’ – he doesn’t even listen to the result being announced. It was never about winning. Creed was just too good. It was about *not falling down*.

Review: At the Academy Awards ceremony on 28 March 1977, Rocky beat All the President’s Men, Network and Taxi Driver to the Best Picture Oscar – that’s some company, and to be honest it’s difficult to argue that the conventional Rocky deserved the win. The narrative structure of a lowly hero who overcomes obstacles is as old as the hills and has a familiar Hollywood chime. But perhaps what appealed to the Academy voters the most was the grimy, cynical sense of realism. This story takes place in a cold, inner-city, working-class world of litter-strewn streets and flaking wallpaper and money problems. It’s shot in real locations and is not lit very prettily. Aside from the pointedly flashy Carl Weathers, the film is also stocked with characterful and ‘unattractive’ faces. All this makes the slightly implausible story – an unknown being given a shot at the big time – feel like something that could actually happen, while the script and Stallone’s unshowy performance really make you root for Rocky. Then once we enter the training scenes and especially the climactic bout, Bill Conti’s incidental music becomes more and more stirring and rousing and anthemic and you’re throwing and ducking every punch. It’s melodramatic, but you can’t take your eyes off it.

Eight raw eggs out of 10

Next time: Rocky II

Strangers on a Train (1951, Alfred Hitchcock)

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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 tennis pro’s life takes a dark turn when he bumps into someone who suggests they each commit a murder on behalf of the other…

Flicking past at the imperceptible rate of 24 per second, there are something like 140,000 individual frames in Alfred Hitchcock’s classy thriller Strangers on a Train. But let’s focus on just 20 of them to illustrate, in a minor way, just why the director was such a master at visual storytelling.

1-3: The footsteps

We’re introduced to the film’s two strangers in an unusual way. To dramatise amiable tennis professional Guy Haines (Farley Granger) encountering the unsettling playboy Bruno Antony (Robert Walker), Hitchcock at first only shows us the two men’s shoes as they march independently – and in opposite screen directions – through a train station. We sense that these two men are about to collide, and when they do it’s an underplayed moment as their feet accidentally touch under a table aboard the train. This gets Guy and Bruno talking, and after learning that Guy has a troublesome wife called Miriam who won’t divorce him, Bruno suggests a dark plan: *he’ll* kill the wife, if Guy murders Bruno’s rich father… Guy rejects Bruno’s plan, thinking at least in part that he’s not being serious, and exits their train compartment. Unknowingly, he leaves behind a distinctive monogrammed cigarette lighter, which Bruno realises might be useful…

4-6: The hands

Later Hitchcock uses thought-association cutting to suggest that Guy might be considering the macabre idea. After a row with his truculent wife, he’s on the phone to the new woman in his life and – raising his voice to be heard over a nearby train – says that he’d like to kill Miriam. He’s only speaking figuratively, but we then dissolve to Bruno’s hands held in a strangulation pose. The connection between problem and potential solution is clear. There’s then a undercut of a punchline: Bruno’s holding his hands like that because he’s having a manicure from his mother.

7 & 8: The stalking

Not waiting for Guy to agree formally to his plan, the psychopathic Bruno tracks down Miriam at a funfair. He sits behind her on a carousel, and from the way Hitchcock frames the actors and the way actress Laura Elliott looks over her shoulder we can tell that she enjoys the attentions of this stranger…

9: The murder

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Following her to a secluded spot, Bruno attacks Miriam and strangles her – we see the killing reflected in her glasses, which have been knocked off in the struggle. This arch way of filming the death is a typical Hitchcock flourish: he knows we watch these films for the ‘thrill’ of things such as murder, so how better to present it than in the lens of a pair of spectacles?

10 & 11: Film noir

Alfred Hitchcock made several films that employ film-noir conventions such as black-and-white photography, great use of shadows, morally ambiguous characters, a mystery plot, a mood of cynicism and an atmosphere thick with menace. The most notable uses include Shadow of a Doubt, Spellbound, Notorious, I Confess and The Wrong Man, but Strangers on a Train has its fair share of noir imagery. After Miriam’s murder, Guy realises that Bruno is waiting for him outside his home. We see Guy in an off-kilter camera angle that could be straight out of The Third Man, the 1949 British film that stands as one of the genre’s most beautiful examples, while Bruno stands hidden in the shadows.

12 & 13: Symbolism

When Guy then walks over to talk to Bruno – and is shocked by the lengths this man has gone to – Hitchcock uses one of the neatest tricks in cinematography. Bruno doesn’t want anyone to see the two men chatting, so stands back from the pavement, hiding behind a metal gate. Hitchcock frames him *behind bars*, implying where his criminal activities will lead him. Then, later in the same scene, as Guy gets sucked into Bruno’s plan more and more, it becomes his turn for the symbolism…

14-16: The tennis match

Guy wants nothing to do with Bruno, but can’t shake him. The murderer even shows up when Guy is taking part in a professional tennis tournament – and we spot him in the crowd because, while everyone else turns their head to watch the ball going back and forth, Bruno stares at his co-conspirator…

17: The memory

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As Guy resists, Bruno becomes more desperate and anxious – after all, he killed a woman he didn’t know expressly so Guy would then kill his father for him, but Guy hasn’t  followed through with his side of the ‘bargain’. We see something of the Bruno’s turmoil when he encounters Barbara, the sister of Guy’s current girlfriend. She wears glasses coincidentally similar to Miriam’s, and they trigger in Bruno a flashback to the murder – he also remembers Guy’s cigarette lighter, so to dramatise the idea Hitchcock superimposes the item onto the lenses of Barbara’s glasses. (By the way, Barbara is played by Pat Hitchcock, Alfred’s daughter.)

18 & 19: The fight

Guy soon realises that Bruno plans to plant the lighter at the crime scene, as revenge for Guy’s failure to go through with murdering Bruno’s father. The climax of the film is set, and we return to the amusement park, where Guy and Bruno fight on the carousel. Hitchcock has great fun with fast cutting and dramatic angles, while the fake horses of the ride appear alive as the two men fall onto the floor and the ‘hooves’ pound up and down near their heads…

20: The finale

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After an accident sends the carousel spinning out of control, Bruno is killed. The final image of the film is then Guy’s all-important cigarette lighter – Strangers on a Train’s MacGuffin – being held limply in Bruno’s dead hand.

Eight men with a double bass out of 10

 

Star Trek: The Original Series – season three (1968-69)

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Over the last few months I’ve rewatched all of Star Trek: The Original Series. Here’s what I thought were the notable episodes of season three…

Best episode:
* Spectre of the Gun. With viewing figures unimpressive, NBC actually axed Star Trek after its second season. Then, at least in part due to an organised letter-writing campaign by fans, it was given another year – but on a smaller budget and in a less favourable time slot. Creator Gene Roddenberry also stepped away from the production. So season three has long had a crummy reputation, not least because of its lack of ambition. (In 24 episodes, they filmed on location just once.) The lack of money is evident in several episodes, but the one that sidesteps the problem the best is Spectre of the Gun, a brilliant take on the classic Hollywood Western. Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Dr McCoy (DeForest Kelley) and Chekov (Walter Koenig) find themselves in an alien reconstruction of the Arizona town of Tombstone in October 1881. The Enterprise crew realise they’re the Clantons. The Earps are nearby and the scene is set for the Gunfight at the OK Corral… As they had to shoot this episode on a soundstage, and save cash, the production team decided to go surreal. The sets contain deliberately missing walls; the barriers between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are blurred; the sky is a vivid, bold red. It’s a brilliant effect, both heightening and supporting the script.

Honourable mentions:
* The Enterprise Incident. A tremendous espionage plot as Kirk and Spock are captured by a female Romulan officer (a watchable turn from guest star Joanna Linville), who then starts to fall for Mr Spock. There are plenty of twists and a spy-story structure.
* The Paradise Syndrome. An intensely odd episode, this. Kirk suffers from amnesia as he’s left behind on a planet populated by Native American types. He falls in love, marries, and grows sideburns in the months it takes for his colleagues to return and pick him up. (Downside: the near-constant incidental music gets irritating, and you also need to excuse a fair amount of naive 1960s racism.)
* Is There in Truth No Beauty? Ultimately a rather silly episode with some naff attitudes, but it contains a good guest appearance from Diane Muldaur (later a regular in Star Trek: The Next Generation) and a nicely disguised plot twist.
* Day of the Dove. A claustrophobic episode that sees the crew trapped on the Enterprise with a group of Klingons and an alien force that exaggerates negative and aggressive tendencies. The end is rather risible, though, as humans and Klingons alike down weapons, call a truce and burst into fake hearty laughter to outfox the alien entity.
* For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky. Merits a place on this list just for its amazing, poetic title! It’s an engaging enough story about Dr McCoy falling terminally ill (spoiler: he gets better) and having a romance.
* Wink of an Eye. It’s an intriguing concept for a sci-fi episode (aliens move at a vastly higher speed, so are imperceptible to humans), but the season’s budget restrictions mean it’s another episode that’s dragged out by scenes on familiar sets.
* Whom Gods Destroy. By this point, we’re past the point of boredom with the powerful-yet-loopy-villain cliché, but this episode at least has a fun guest star (Batgirl Yvonne Craig), lots of doppelganger scenes (cue William Shatner acting opposite his body double) and a general air of oddness.
* Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. Some rather hamfisted satire of race relations is made enjoyable by interesting guest characters (including one played by Frank Gorshin) and a tense sequence as Kirk threatens to destroy the Enterprise unless its control is returned to him.
* The Mark of Gideon. The meat of the story is a bit rancid – something about an arrogant race on an overpopulated planet – but Kirk being conned into thinking he’s on an abandoned Enterprise works well. (Spoiler: it’s actually a Truman Show-style recreation.) There are some surreal images and a strong subplot for Spock, who gets to act as both diplomat and detective.
* The Savage Curtain. A fun one, as Kirk meets his hero Abraham Lincoln (sort of). It gets a big eggy as the show a) rolls out another ‘war is bad’ metaphor, and b) yet again refuses to leave the soundstage for exterior scenes. But it’s enjoyable tosh.
* All Our Yesterdays. An enjoyable, if convoluted, concept episode. Visiting a strange library on an empty planet, Kirk is accidentally sent back in history – to a time similar to the earth’s 17th century. Spock and McCoy, meanwhile, are sent back even further and end up trapped in a harsh Ice Age wilderness. Being 5,000 years in the past begins to affect Spock’s psychology (somehow) and he becomes emotional…
* Turnabout Intruder. Star Trek’s final episode is one of its more ludicrous. A woman swaps bodies with Kirk, Freaky Friday-style. While playing the nefarious Dr Janice Lester masquerading as Kirk, Shatner overeggs it something rotten, but the gimmick plot works and it keeps the interest (which is more than can be said for many season-three episodes!).

Worst episode:
* The Way to Eden. Hippies. Hippies singing songs. Eugh.

Star Trek: The Original Series – season two (1967-68)

the-trouble-with-tribbles

Over the last few months I’ve rewatched all of Star Trek: The Original Series. Here’s what I thought were the notable episodes of season two…

Best episode:
The Trouble with Tribbles. A terrific comedy episode, full of wit and class. Behind the scenes, there were worries the show was going too far into self-parody with this story, but there was no need for concern. The big hitters among Star Trek’s cast – William Shatner (Captain Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Mr Spock) and DeForest Kelley (Dr McCoy) – were all capable comic actors, able to play funny scenes without undercutting the premise. (Thirty years later, spin-off show Deep Space Nine produced a tribute episode in which that show’s characters travel back in time and interact with the events of The Trouble with Tribbles. It’s an absolute marvel.)

Honorable mentions:
* The Changeling. It seems old-fashioned now, as many Stark Trek ideas do (because they’ve been copied so often), but this is a generally engaging episode about a computer that’s out to destroy all non-perfect life. Our heroes must, essentially, out-logic it to death. The less said the better, however, about the subplot where Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) has her memory wiped so must learn to read again!
* Mirror, Mirror. A fantastic, foot-to-the-throat thriller based on an imaginative idea: the Enterprises crosses into a parallel dimension where they meet their fascistic, sadistic and cynical counterparts (which obviously gives the regular cast a chance to have some fun). The concept has since been rehashed several times in other Star Trek series, but here it still feels fresh and very dangerous.
* The Doomsday Machine. A passable episode with a Moby Dick metaphor. (Rather than a whale, it’s a giant planet-killing entity from another dimension.)
* Catspaw. Another story about an all-powerful figure toying with lesser beings, which Star Trek was very keen on, but this episode has gothic trappings and fun guest characters. It perhaps loses its impact as it becomes more campy and hokey, especially when Kirk and Spock are menaced by a giant cat (ie, a normal cat filmed in such a way that we only see its enormous shadow).
* I, Mudd. Roger C Carmel returns as guest character Harry, who is now king of his own planet populated by androids, and is again an enjoyable presence. The episode contains the now-hoary idea that robots can be turned loopy if you confuse them.
Journey to Babel. There’s some good, meaty drama for Spock as we encounter his parents for the first time. His Vulcan father, Sarek (Mark Lenard), needs a blood transfusion but, with Kirk incapacitated, Spock feels his duty is to command the Enterprise rather than give blood. He should logically stay at his post.
The Deadly Years. A decent one. The key members of the crew are affected by a virus and begin to age artificially, which leads to Kirk having to be relieved of command when his memory starts to fail him. (This is one of several episodes that highlight the stupidity of sending a starship’s captain, first officer and chief medical officer on missions together!)
* Obsession. A simplistic plot, on which an engaging character drama about Kirk’s guilt for a long-ago catastrophe is hung.
* Wolf in the Fold. The famed Scotty-as-Jack-the-Ripper episode. It’s perhaps not as good as its reputation suggests (there are too many scenes of computers explaining the plot) but it whips up to a maniacal climax.
* A Piece of the Action. Near enough a comedy, but played and directed with a light touch. Not for the first time in Star Trek’s run, it’s a let’s-use-the-backlot episode: standing sets are used for an alien planet that has modelled its whole society on Al Capone-era gangsters. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy revel in the gangster idiom and are great at playing their respective characters’ differing reactions to the situation.
* Patterns of Force. Another episode where the Enterprise stumbles across an alien world that’s oddly similar to an era of Earth history (which allows the production to save some money by shooting of pre-existing sets). This time, Kirk and co go looking for a long-missing Starfleet officer and find him as the leader of an ersatz Nazi Party. It’s a gripping episode with something to say and some surprise turns.
* The Ultimate Computer. Kirk feels threatened when an ‘AI captain’ is roadtested on the Enterprise. Not the best, but it contains a wistful scene where Kirk romantically ponders the golden era of sail (quoting John Masefield’s poem Sea-Fever: ‘And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by’). Co-stars Blacula himself, William Marshall.
* Bread and Circuses. *Yet again*, the Enterprise discovers an alien culture modelled on a period of Earth history. This time: Ancient Rome, though an Ancient Rome where people have technology and guns. It’s clunky at times but generally enjoyable and contains – gleefully – a satire of the television industry when we see behind the scenes at the gladiator contests. Also, Spock and McCoy share a lovely heart-to-heart scene.
* Assignment: Earth. Not the most nuanced or fluid piece of television you’ll ever see, but interesting for its minor place in Star Trek history. A back-door pilot for a spin-off show that never happened, this episode spends a lot of time seeding the potential new characters, such as the enigmatic Gary Seven, his secretary, his intelligent cat and his idiosyncratic computer.

Worst episode:
The Apple. A boring, naff episode about the crew wandering around a soundstage jungle set and encountering hippies who don’t know what love or sex are.

Star Trek: The Original Series – season one (1966-67)

james_kirk_embraces_janice_rand

Over the last few months I’ve rewatched all of the original Star Trek TV series. Here’s what I thought were the notable episodes of season one…

Best episode:
Balance of Terror. The debut of the militaristic Romulans in Star Trek is a terrific episode that plays like a submarine movie. The Starship Enterprise stalks a Romulan ship in the Neutral Zone between the two empires’ territories and the story is tense and exciting. There are also subplots and an interesting villain and telling character moments. Superb.

Honorable mentions:
The Naked Time. A fun, early episode that sees the regular crew go a bit loopy after being affected by a virus. It’s well paced and has good stuff for both Sulu (George Takei), who gets some gleeful scenes where he fences topless, and Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who struggles with his human/Vulcanian psychology.
* The Enemy Within. The central concept has become a sci-fi cliché – due to a transporter accident, an evil doppelgänger of Captain Kirk is let loose on the Enterprise – but it’s very well done here. William Shatner hams it up as the evil Kirk and there’s a ticking-clock element to the plot thanks to some crewmen stranded on a desolate planet below.
* Mudd’s Women. It’s not exactly ‘woke’, being a story about a charlatan selling women to miners, but Roger C Carmel is very entertaining as the lead guest character: the flamboyant and verbose Harcourt Fenton Mudd.
* Miri. The first really great episode. (Balance of Terror wasn’t broadcast until after this one.) A set of enigmas is set up – a planet that looks identical to Earth, a society that seems to be stuck in the 1930s, no adults anywhere to be seen – then a plot with a countdown is kicked into gear. There’s good drama along the way and it’s well directed too. The subtext of the story is that, after puberty, people do ‘bad things’.
* The Menagerie (Parts I & II). An ingenious way to save some production budget by reusing footage from Star Trek’s then-unbroadcast pilot episode, The Cage, as a flashback story. The wraparound scenes have mystery and intrigue because Spock is acting so out of character.
* The Conscience of the King. An effective – if thoroughly prediactable – drama about an actor who may be a mass murderer in hiding. There are plenty of Shakespearean parallels and quotations, such as the title.
* Shore Leave. The regular characters spend some time on a planet but start to hallucinate and undergo personality changes. Fun and surreal, if lightweight.
* The Galileo Seven. A superb showcase for both Mr Spock – the show’s most fascinating character – and the actor who played him. The story sees Spock, Dr McCoy (DeForest Kelly), Scotty (James Doohan) and others stranded on a planet with no way of contacting the Enterprise. There’s a monster nearby, deaths within the group, and dissention in the ranks…
* Tomorrow is Yesterday. A fun time-travel story (Star Trek’s first ever) sees the Enterprise end up above 1960s America and encountering an Air Force test pilot. The script has a good sense of humour.
* Space Seed. An entertaining episode about a megomaniac from the 1990s coming out of suspended animation. (The second Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan, is a direct sequel.)
* A Taste of Armageddon. A society is killing its own people as part of a deal with its enemy, rather than the two states launching actual attacks. A decent story about the futility of war.
* This Side of Paradise. A good episode for Spock, who’s pacified by a weird spore and then has a romance. (It’s kind of a druggie/hippie metaphor, I guess.) The only way Kirk can shake him out of his ennui is by provoking an emotional response.
* Errand of Mercy. Kirk and Spock are stranded on a planet under Klingon occupation. Engaging stuff. (This is the Klingons’ first appearance in Star Trek.)
* The City on the Edge of Forever. It’s contrived, and needs a lot of sci-fi set-up, but this is a brilliant time-travel tragedy with a good guest performance from Joan Collins. When a disturbed Dr McCoy is flung back into 20th-century America, Kirk and Spock must give chase. There’s lots of future-men-out-of-water stuff as the two men adapt to a more basic lifestyle, then the tragic ending really packs a punch.

Worst episode:
The Squire of Gothos. It’s become such a cliché in science fiction: a capricious, arrogant, sociopathic god-like figure toys with people because he’s bored. And as well as being boring and irritating, this example gets its history wrong and has a dreadful deus ex machina ending.

Drácula (1931, George Melford)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Castle Dracula in Transylvania; aboard a ship on the open seas; London. Renfield mentions that he was called to the bar in 1928, so we’re in the 1930s.

Faithful to the novel? The story of the production of this Universal Pictures film is both famous and fascinating. It’s a Spanish-language movie produced at the same time and on the same sets as the more famous English-language version starring Bela Lugosi, with this movie’s crew working at night while the main unit slept. Doubling up like this was an occasional practise in the days before post-dubbing dialogue was possible and it allowed the studio to release the same title in different territories. Using the same script and sets, therefore, the Spanish film Drácula has the same storyline as the English version; both were adaptations of the Dracula stage play so the plot only loosely follows Stoker’s book. See my earlier blog here for more details.

Best performance: Eva Seward (played by Lupita Tovar, an actress who lived to be 106 years old, dying only in 2016) is a noticeably more spirited and charismatic character than her counterpart in the Lugosi movie.

Best bit: During production, the Spanish version’s crew kept a keen eye on what the other team were doing and often saw ways of improving the action. One example comes when Van Helsing realises the mysterious foreigner newly arrived in London is a vampire. In both films, the doctor spots that Dracula has no reflection, but look at how the two shots work compositionally. In Tod Browning’s English-language version (left), the debt owed to the stage play is obvious: we’re looking at flatly arranged actors, the mirror is small in the shot and actor Edward Van Sloane has to turn away from the camera to look at it. However, when the same beat was filmed for the Spanish film (right), we can see the shock on the face of Van Helsing (Eduardo Arozamena) and at the same time the mirror is large and significant in the frame.

Review: If you know the Bela Lugosi movie, it’s an uncanny experience to see different actors performing the same actions on familiar sets. And in some ways the comparison does the more famous film no favours. This lesser-seen Dracula is visually more competent and ‘modern’; the action flows a bit more smoothly and the creepy scenes get under your skin (often by using silence to generate tension). But while director George Melford was popular with his cast, the fact he himself didn’t speak Spanish can’t have helped with the performances, which to this non-Spanish-speaking reviewer sometimes seem stilted and uncertain. One exception is Carlos Villasias, who is effective as Conde Drácula. Uniquely among the cast he was allowed to watch footage of the other film because producers wished him to imitate Bela Lugosi. In the end, he maybe gives the better performance.

Eight London newspapers that apparently print their front-page stories in Spanish out of 10