My 10 favourite John Carpenter films

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To celebrate the 71st birthday of film director John Carpenter, here’s a list of what I think are his 10 best films.

10. Prince of Darkness (1987)
A group of post-grad students spend the night in an old church to investigate a mysterious cylinder which may contain the essence of Satan. As you’d imagine, things soon start to go wrong… It’s a film full of fascinating ideas and themes – real science, empiricism, religious mythology, dreams, time-travel, a cameo from Alice Cooper – but sadly not enough storytelling focus. The second half of the film gets quite intense and features some really out-there horror, but none of the characters is compelling enough for us to care.

9. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Carpenter’s love letter to kung-fu movies is a breathlessly directed comedy. It gets quite samey in the middle, but it’s often fun and is worth seeing for the amazing sets and Kurt Russell’s subversively inept action hero.

8. The Thing (1982)
A remake of a famous 50s B-movie, this has brilliantly bizarre monster make-up and special effects. It’s also tense and claustrophobic. Shame we don’t care more about the large cast of all-male characters, though.

7. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Carpenter’s first mainstream film. (He’d previously directed Dark Star (1975), a low-budget sci-fi comedy that spoofs 2001: A Space Odyssey but replaces the awe and wonder with mundanity.) It’s a Western-style siege plot, but the story plays out in a grimy, gritty, modern-day inner city. There’s bad dialogue and flat performances all over the place, but you’re pulled through by the amazing incidental music, the bursts of ultraviolence and the general sense of menace.

6. They Live (1988)
A sci-fi actioner about a man who uncovers an alien conspiracy in modern-day LA. The social satire is very good, as is the visual device of sunglasses allowing you to see the truth. Again, it’s a shame about the lacklustre characters. There’s also a punch-up that seems to last about half an hour.

5. Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)
A sweet if overly lightweight Chevy Chase comedy-thriller. The story’s slight and predictable, but the special effects are wonderful. The film was made slightly before the digital revolution, so we get a fun mixture of practical and optical tricks – all inventive. (Sadly, nothing Carpenter’s done since this film is worth seeing. Especially bad are the cheesy Vampires (1998) and the dunderheaded Ghosts of Mars (2001).)

4. Starman (1984)
A very charming film about an alien (an endearingly childlike Jeff Bridges) stranded on Earth. It’s not just the story’s similarity to ET that makes you think of Steven Spielberg; it’s the sense of wonder too (and the presence of Raiders of the Lost Ark‘s Karen Allen, excellent as the widow who helps the alien get home).

3. Escape From New York (1981)
A brilliantly cynical sci-fi thriller set in a dystopian 1997. Kurt Russell plays former special forces soldier Snake Plissken (‘I heard you were dead…’), who’s coerced into a mission to rescue the US President (Donald Pleasance) when he crash-lands in a city-wide, lawless prison. Dark, twisted and a lot of fun. (Avoid the belated sequel, though.)

2. The Fog (1980)
A gorgeously atmospheric ghost story about a coastal town being terrorised by a century-old secret. There’s an ensemble cast of interesting characters and everything is so eerily evocative. Despite very little explicit horror – there’s almost no gore – it’s extremely scary and tense. Beautifully filmed too.

1. Halloween (1978)
This’s a stripped-down, economical movie: trim, taut and terrifically constructed. For a film about a violent killer, there’s actually little gore on display; Halloween is more about tension and scares. In her first ever movie, Jamie Lee Curtis is very good as virginal lead character Laurie Strode; Donald Pleasance adds a bit of class as Michael’s manic psychiatrist, Dr Loomis; and the excellent incidental music (written by the director) is both creepy and catchy.

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Rear Window (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.

While recuperating after breaking his leg, photographer LB Jefferies spends his days watching his neighbours… But then he starts to suspect that one of them is a murderer…

Rear Window is cinema’s most insightful use of point of view, so much so that it’s pretty much become the textbook example of how the form can tell stories through its characters’ eyes. The story concerns a housebound photographer called LB Jefferies (James Stewart, excellent), who idles away his boring days during a New York heat wave by watching his neighbours from his apartment window. He acts as our proxy as we watch them too: the lonely spinster, the kooky married couple with a dog, the wannabe musician, the flirtatious party girl. The camera never leaves the apartment once during the entire film, so we’re stuck there with Jefferies and his broken leg. He’s a voyeur and so are we.

We experience the story with him, see what he sees, hear what he hears – and crucially we *don’t* see or hear anything he doesn’t. So when Jefferies fears that one of his neighbours – a burly, sour man played by Raymond Burr – has killed his wife and hidden the body, he’s basing his suspicion on evidence that we’ve been privy to. No more, no less. He shares his theory with his housekeeper and his society girlfriend, but neither Stella (Thelma Ritter, sly and fun) nor Lisa (Grace Kelly, *radiant*) is convinced. 

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Nevertheless, the two women agree to investigate. And as Jefferies watches them cross the communal compound to scout out the neighbour’s home, we’re watching them too – from the same vantage point, with the same perspective on events, with the same blend of curiosity and helplessness…

This film is patently magnificent. It has a terrific cast. It’s suspenseful and a huge amount of fun. It’s easily one of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterworks. And it takes place on perhaps the greatest set ever built for a Hollywood movie. A large and complex Manhattan courtyard surrounded by multi-storey buildings was constructed at Paramount’s studios in LA. Designed by J MacMillian Johnson, it cost around a quarter of the entire production budget.

The space acts like an inverted theatre where there’s only audience member (Jefferies/us) but a panoramic stage filling a 180-degree view. There’s an amazing amount of depth and texture – just check out the busy street you occasionally glimpse between buildings. There’s real verticality too. The set of Jefferies’s apartment was actually built at ground level: the impression of it being on an upper storey was achieved by digging a hole in the studio floor for the courtyard.

But for all the detail and scale on show, the camera never visits the courtyard or the other buildings. We never leave Jefferies and the inside of the apartment, so we only see the bulk of the set and all of its dramas through Jefferies’s living-room window. He’s a passive viewer, an observer who can’t directly influence what‘s going on through the window. He can only watch and experience events vicariously. Sound familiar? Well, as many people have pointed out, it can’t be a coincidence that Jefferies’s window resembles the ratio of a cinema film.

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Hitchcock is deliberately equating his lead character with a film audience. After all, the whole point of cinema is to watch people who don’t know they’re being watched, and to get pleasure and excitement from this act of voyeurism. Indeed, at certain points of the film, photographer Jefferies gets out his telephoto lens in order to see events in close-up: it’s not just a pragmatic decision; it feels like he *needs* to see more. 

So let’s go off on a minor tangent to talk about the size of the screen in Hitchcock’s work in general.

Every single movie Hitchcock ever made was shot onto 35mm negative film, and for the first thirty years of his career he used what was then an orthodox aspect ratio. Early films were projected at 1.33:1, which is to say the width of the image was a third more than its height, or occasionally 1.20:1 (the width being 20 per cent more than the height). In 1934, Hitchcock switched to the slightly wider 1.37:1. This ratio is called Academy, and was the standard American film format from its inception in 1932. Hitch used it for every movies from Waltzes From Vienna until 1953’s I Confess.

But then, like Hollywood in general, Hitchcock went widescreen in the 1950s. American studios became increasingly keen on visually dynamic movies. The primary reason was as a way of competing with the threat of television, a medium that was eating into movie studios’ profits. Widescreen images and colour were the things TV couldn’t provide, so naturally more and more widescreen and colour films were released. There was actually a short-lived vogue in the 1950s for bombastically wide formats such as Cinerama or 70mm, which tested audiences’ neck muscles and peripheral vision to the limit. Just look at this ridiculous composition from the 1962 Cinerama film How the West Was Won. (The man in the centre of the frame is Rear Window star James Stewart.)

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Hitchcock resisted these extremes, perhaps because he knew that – while great for landscapes and action – they were less good on close-ups, tension and claustrophobia. But that didn’t mean that he didn’t evolve. For 1954’s Dial M for Murder, the director used Warner Brothers’ 3-D cameras. The 3-D aspect of the image was largely a gimmick, however, and precious little is lost when you view the movie today without it.

But while stereoscopy was a passing fad (‘It’s a nine-day wonder,’ quipped Hitch, ‘and I came in on the ninth day…’), Dial M was significant because it was designed to be projected at a whopping aspect ratio of 1.85:1. In other words, the image on the cinema screen was nearly twice as wide as it was high – certainly something audiences weren’t getting at home on TV. Later that year, Rear Window was a still impressively wide 1.66:1, but Hitch then went all-in with 1.85:1 and stuck with these dimensions for the rest of his career. He also began to use VistaVision, a film process that shot images with normal lenses onto 35mm film but gained a high level of detail by orientating the negative horizontally and therefore exposing a larger area. The format lasted for just seven years, but in that time Hitchcock used its rich lustre and glamorous sparkle for To Catch a Thief, The Trouble With Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo and North by Northwest.

So Rear Window came on the cusp of the widescreen revolution, a period of Hollywood history that shifted the default cinema image from nearly square to nearly rectangular. But does it make a difference? Would the film have still worked just as well if shot in the Academy aspect ratio?

Yes, it would still be enthralling, addictive, effective and fascinating. But the widescreen image gives the film an extra level of magnificence. One reason is basic aesthetic taste: it just looks better. But another is more primal. A human being’s typical field of vision is 135 degrees along the vertical axis and 200 degree from side to side. Or to put it in a cinematographically relevant term, we see in 1.48:1.

Rear Window, at 1.66:1, pushes the image wider, meaning we can’t take all the information in at once – our curiosity is never sated, we never feel in total control, and we can’t stop *looking*.

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Ten men adjusting a clock out of 10

Acknowledgment: I recommend this lecture, given by Thea Marshall-Behrendt in 2015, which helped me clarify some opinions and from which I drew some factual information: https://ksamaarchvis.wordpress.com/2015/12/08/the-importance-of-set-design-in-hitchcocks-rear-window/

 

30 Years of Agatha Christie’s Poirot

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In early 1989, I was nearly 10 years old. My mother was – and still is – an Agatha Christie fan, so when she spotted that a new TV series based on Christie’s work was starting on ITV, she suggested we watch it together. Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first shown on Sunday 8 January. It was a detective show with ingenious scripts, a brilliant regular cast, and wonderful production values. Each episode was a self-contained mystery plot (usually a murder mystery) adapted from an Agatha Christie short story or novel and featuring one of her greatest creations, the private detective Hercule Poirot. I loved it immediately.

Initially, the creative forces behind the scenes were producer Brian Eastman and writer Clive Exton, who between them set the tone and format and look for the show. Exton wrote many early episodes himself and also script-edited other writers, including David Renwick (One Foot in the Grave, Jonathan Creek) and Anthony Horowitz (Crime Traveller, Foyle’s War). When setting up the series, the two men made several masterstroke decisions. One was to move every story to a mid-1930s setting. Agatha Christie’s original stories take place across a half-century spread, but here the writers set almost every episode in 1936 or 1937. (An adaptation of the first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was kept in 1917 as a kind of flashback special. There was also an episode telling us about Poirot’s pre-war life as a Belgian policeman.)

If this created a rather head-scratching timeline – in just a couple of years, Hercule Poirot solves more than 60 complex cases, has a temporary retirement to the country, and makes several lengthy overseas trips – it was really worth it, because it meant the show could take place in a gorgeous Art Deco world. Episodes glisten with beautiful sets, costumes and locations that evoke a fantasyland Britain of ornate architecture, sleek 1930s cars, trains and powerboats, post-flapper fashions and modernist art. (Eastman and Exton later pulled the same trick with Jeeves & Wooster, ITV’s hootful adaptation of PG Wodehouse.)

Another insightful and cheerishable decision by the creative team was to establish three other regular characters, creating a team of sidekicks around the central detective character of Poirot. This trio came from Christie’s work, for sure, but Eastman and Exton chose to insert them into stories in which they didn’t originally appear. A radical decision, but an immensely wise one, as it created not only continuity across the episodes but a loveable gang of friends we enjoy hanging out with.

And casting of those four regular characters was absolutely perfect.

There have been many great fictional crime-solvers on television – Columbo, both incarnations of Morse, the recent Sherlock, Christopher Foyle – but the finest and the most entertaining is the fastidious, pedantic, perceptive, idiosyncratic, iconoclastic, kind, generous, insightful, arrogant, vain, Belgian private detective Hercule Poirot as played by David Suchet.

The character had debuted in Christie’s first ever novel and went on to appear in 32 more, as well as a few dozen short stories and a stage play. When he was cast in the role in 1988, Suchet read all of these stories and noted down 93 specific details about the detective gleaned from Christie’s text. The first one was ‘Belgian! NOT French.’ The actor quickly gained a reputation for fiercely protecting the all-important specifics of Poirot: the way he walked, the way he spoke, the look of his moustaches and suits. Therefore the TV version of the character stayed reasonably close to his prose origins. Even so, Suchet added a huge amount of depth, texture and enjoyable humour too. He took a character who’s compelling enough to read in a novel or short story, and brought him to life and made him feel real. In each and every scene, you can’t take your eyes off Poirot. It’s one of the *the* great performances in British TV history.

As mentioned, in most episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot made in the 20th century, there’s also a recurring group of allies. Hugh Fraser played the stoic, brave and affable Captain Arthur Hastings, a man invalided out of the First World War who became Poirot’s right-hand man, confidant and sounding board. (He’s often the audience’s proxy, asking the obvious questions and jumping to the wrong conclusions. But you always love him for his naivety.) Cast as Miss Felicity Lemon, Poirot’s endlessly efficient secretary, was Pauline Moran, who added withering sarcasm to the character’s primness and poise. Scotland Yard’s Detective Chief Inspector James Japp, meanwhile, was played with gruffness, guile and ramshackle charm by Philip Jackson. None of these sidekicks appears in every episode, but you always miss them when they’re not involved. They’re absolutely brilliant.

Yet another masterful decision made early on concerned the adaptations. The scripts were faithful to Agatha Christie’s originals… to a point. They retained the spirit and essence of Christie – the perfectly engineered plots, the mysteries, the clues, the vivid guest characters, the drama, the wit – but often made *numerous* changes. Almost every episode in the show’s first five years, for example, was based on a short story – and some of Agatha’s short stories were very short indeed. The episodes clearly needed expanding. Sometimes these extra subplots came organically out of what Christie had written. Or they could be period colour – scenes at a 1930s film studio, for example, or in the nightclubs of Chinatown. Often they were just unashamedly comedic. Whether it was Japp misunderstanding what a bidet is, or Miss Lemon spending an entire episode looking for some lost keys, these embellishments are just as important as the murders and the suspects and the country houses.

There were, however, changes as the series developed. Occasional feature-length specials were added to the mix, then became the norm when the well of short stories had dried up. A new regime at ITV insisted that Hastings, Japp and Lemon were dropped – unceremoniously and regrettably – after the 2002 special Murder in Mesopotamia. The episodes became more filmic and more ostentatiously star-studded. And two new occasional characters were introduced: Zoe Wanamaker’s Ariadne Oliver (a mystery-story writer who Agatha Christie fairly obviously styled on herself) and Poirot’s unflappable valet, George (David Yelland). The quality remained, but in a different way. There were still many fine and enjoyable episodes, but they were a touch more earnest and perhaps less charming.

For quarter of a century, the show adapted Hercule Poirot’s entire canon. (Well, nearly. A short story or two slipped through the net. The stageplay was ignored.) Then it came to an end on 13 November 2013 with Curtain, an episode based on the novel that details Poirot’s final case…

Agatha Christie is the single most successful author in history. The fact usually trotted out in these circumstances is that her catalogue has been outsold by only the Bible and William Shakespeare. It’s such a well-quoted detail that maybe we’re numbed to its power, so let’s emphasise: that is a *monumental* achievement. Of every novelist there’s ever been, in any language you care to mention, at any point in history, Agatha Christie is the best-selling. And she didn’t publish anything until Shakespeare had been dead for three centuries.

Her work has been adapted into films and television shows countless times. Some of them are good, some of them are bad. But the David Suchet series Agatha Christie’s Poirot is easily the best.

The 39 Steps (1935)

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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.

When a woman is killed in front of him, Richard Hannay is blamed so must travel across country to find out why she was murdered…

Orson Welles once called The 39 Steps a masterpiece. High praise indeed from the man who co-wrote, produced and directed Citizen Kane, the film most often called the finest ever made. And he’s far from alone in loving Alfred Hitchcock’s flamboyantly brilliant movie. Hollywood screenwriter Robert Towne, who won on Oscar for 1974’s Chinatown, once said that ‘all contemporary escapist entertainment begins with The 39 Steps.’ These men weren’t wrong. It’s a giddy thrill ride full of action, intrigue, comedy, stunts, sex, oddball characters, cross-country travel and set pieces, which still feels fresh and relevant today. And that’s because, more than eight decades later, people are still making this kind of entertainment. The James Bond series, caper films, superhero franchises… They all owe a huge debt to The 39 Steps.

Towne elaborated on his point to The New Yorker in 2012: ‘Most “pure” movie thrillers, especially when you think of Hitchcock, are either fantasies fulfilled or anxieties purged. The 39 Steps is one of the few, if not the only one, that does both at the same time. [Hitchcock] puts you into this paranoid fantasy of being accused of murder *and* being shackled to a beautiful girl – of escaping from all kinds of harm, and at the same time trying to save your country.’ (The full article can be read here.)

The man who’s accused of murder and is later shackled to a beautiful girl is a Canadian living in London called Richard Hannay (Robert Donat). After attending a music-hall show, he takes an enigmatic woman (Lucie Mannheim) home for supper and maybe more. However, soon after she reveals that she’s a professional spy and her life is in danger, she’s stabbed by an unseen assailant and dies in Hannay’s arms. This kicks off a roller-coaster of a plot. Hannay is of course accused of the murder so must evade both the assassins and the authorities as he investigates what the woman was involved in. Following a map she had in her possession, he heads for Scotland.

Along the way, he encounters one of Hitchcock’s enigmatic blondes – the innocent Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) – then takes part in a dangerous escape from a train while it crosses the Forth Bridge. He has a run-in with a grumpy crofter (played by Dad’s Army’s John Laurie), meets the villain of the piece (a sly Godfrey Tearle), is forced to impersonate a politician at a hustings meeting, and is eventually reunited with Pamela – the pair of them handcuffed together by the bad guys. It’s breathless, exciting and a *lot* of fun.

It’s also often daring for 1935. Hannay and Pamela blag their way into a hotel, posing as a married couple, but they’re still handcuffed together. They’re also wet through after their escape across the countryside, so Pamela takes off her damp stockings with Hannay sat ever-so close to her. A movie with a bubbling sexual chemistry between the male and female leads was not a new idea in 1935, of course. But the fact that Pamela doesn’t exist in the source material – John Buchan’s 1915 novel – is very telling. Hitchcock knew that he had to up the ante. And the will-they-won’t-they pairing of a dashing hero with a smart, sophisticated woman would become a vital element of this type of movie.

Another influence of the film is, obviously, the fact that the story has been filmed three further times. A 1959 version starred Kenneth More and was clearly a remake of Hitch’s version rather than another adaptation of the novel. Robert Powell and John Mills then appeared in a 1978 movie that stuck more closely to the Buchan original. The latter got its own a TV spin-off series in 1988, then in 2008 the BBC adapted the story with Rupert Penry-Jones in the lead role.

Actually, while we’re on the topic, several Hitchcock films have inspired remakes, sequels and other versions of the original source material. Hitch himself remade one of his own movies, giving 1934’s British film The Man Who Knew Too Much a Hollywood revamp 22 years later. Dial M for Murder (1954) has been loosely remade several times – for example, as A Perfect Murder in 1998 starring Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow. The Lady Vanishes (1938) was remade in 1979, starring Elliot Gould and Cybil Shepherd, then again for television in 2013. Since Hitch’s film version of Jamaica Inn (1939), the original novel has been adapted for television twice – in 1983 and 2014.

Rear Window (1954) has been remade a few times, sometimes rather loosely. A TV movie in 1998 starred Christopher Reeve in the role of the housebound voyeur. (The 2007 movie Disturbia also had a similar storyline, though a court case decided that no copyright infringement had taken place.) The Birds (1963) got a belated, made-for-TV sequel called The Birds II: Land’s End in 1984. It was directed by Rick Rosenthal, who then took his name off the project, and starred Tippi Hedren (though not as her character from the first film). 

But the Hitchcock movie with the biggest family tree of spin-offs is 1960’s Psycho. It firstly had two cinematic sequels in the 1980s, both of which saw Anthony Perkins reprise the role of Norman Bates. In the not-bad Psycho II (1983), Norman is released from prison and attempts to get on with his life; Vera Miles also returned from the original film. The story was continued in the less good and more crass Psycho III (1986). There was then a prequel TV movie called Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990), which cast ET’s Henry Thomas as a teenage Norman. (Perkins played the role in some modern-day framing scenes.) Regrettably, the 1960 movie was then remade in 1998 – almost shot-for-shot, for reasons that passeth understanding. Directed by Gus Van Sant, the result was a depressingly empty exercise.

Hitchcock’s movie has also been the seed of inspiration for two unrelated TV shows called Bates Motel. The first, in 1987, was a one-off drama set in a different continuity from the Perkins films. The second, which ran for five seasons between 2013-2017, was a marvellously macabre reboot that began its story with Norman and his still-alive mother taking over the establishment.

But, as we’ve discussed, the influence of The 39 Steps extended far further than the same story being told again. It acted as the blueprint for the modern thriller to such a degree that even Hitchcock and his collaborators were working in its wake. In the 1950s, when tasked with writing the Alfred Hitchcock film to end all Alfred Hitchcock films, Ernest Lehman came up with a script called North by Northwest – a giddy thrill ride full of action, intrigue, comedy, stunts, sex, oddball characters, cross-country travel and set pieces. It was more or less a remake of The 39 Steps.

10 men walking past a number 25 bus out of 10

Blake’s 7: Blake (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Avon needs a new figurehead for his anti-Federation rebellion and thinks he’s found the ideal candidate…

Series D, episode 13. Written by: Chris Boucher. Directed by: Mary Ridge. Originally broadcast: 21 December 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* As the story begins, the gang escape Xenon base – which was bombed in the previous episode – and fly off in Scorpio. Following a plan of Avon’s, Tarrant (26) then sets course for the lawless planet Gauda Prime – but as they approach, Scorpio comes under attack! The others abandon ship via the teleport machine while Tarrant stays aboard to crash-land the craft. He’s hurt in the landing, but survives…
* Slave (12) powers down after the crash.
* At the start of the episode, Avon (51) lays out his plan to find a new leader for the rebellion movement. He needs a particular man, one who can inspire followers and is willing to fight the Federation relentlessly. Orac says he’s located the man and he’s on Gauda Prime: it’s the long-lost Blake… After the Scorpio crash, Avon is stranded on the planet with Orac, but eventually finds most of his colleagues and saves them from some bandits. They then find a small aircraft and use it to follow another flyer to a nearby base. Avon assumes the other flyer contains Blake…
* When Avon talks about his potential new figurehead, Vila (52 – therefore completing a 100-per-cent appearance record) smiles ruefully. ‘It’s Blake, isn’t it?’ he says. ‘You think you’ve found Blake.’ After the crash, Vila, Dayna and Soolin take refuge in an abandoned hut, but their fire attracts some unwanted company.
* Soolin (13) has heard of Gauda Prime. In fact, she grew up there. She only left after her farming family were brutally killed. She says it’s a ‘bad place to be; no self-respecting idealist would be found dead there.’
* Dayna (26) points out that Servalan once told them Blake was dead. Avon replies, not unreasonably, that Servalan lies.
* Orac (35) actually located Blake a while ago, but he and Avon kept the information to themselves while Avon investigated other options.
* When we see him – for the first time since season two – Blake (27) seems to be living rough on Gauda Prime. He has a scarred face and workaday clothes. He encounters and saves a woman called Arlen, who was being tracked by several bounty hunters… but then reveals that *he’s* a bounty hunter too. He takes her back to a base to claim his reward, and while there hears about a space ship that’s crashed nearby. So he flies out to the wreck of the Scorpio, where he meets an injured Tarrant – the first ever meeting between the two characters. Taking him back to the base as well, Blake then reveals that he knows who Tarrant is. He also knows that Avon must be close by, so Blake lays in wait… Tarrant soon escapes and does a runner, which means he doesn’t hear the information that the bounty-hunter routine is just a façade: Blake is still fighting the good fight and is recruiting for his own anti-Federation group. He was simply testing Tarrant, as he’d done with Arlen. Then Avon, Vila, Soolin and Dayna come bursting in. Avon and Blake see each other for the first time since the Liberator crew stormed Star One…

Best bit: The final few minutes of the episode constitute Blake’s 7’s finest scene. Writer Chris Boucher – the prime creative force behind the scenes once creator Terry Nation became distracted by other projects – does an astonishing job of setting up the climax. Expert plotting and characterisation maneuverer Blake and Avon into the perfect position for a confrontation fuelled by misunderstanding. Avon, the perennial cynic and sceptic, has actually come to believe in Blake – so is sucker-punched when he assumes Blake is now nothing more than a selfish mercenary who’s going to sell them out. And this leads to a fatal showdown, which has huge weight and impact. The most famous moment is Avon’s bitter, dejected cry of ‘Have you betrayed me?’ – actor Paul Darrow someone managing to emphasise every single possible meaning all at the same time. But the killer line comes from Blake: ‘Avon, I was waiting for *you*…’ But the appeal doesn’t work and Avon instinctively and angrily shoots Blake dead. That’s some Shakespearean-tragedy shit right there.

Worst bit: Every now and again you come across someone who’s misunderstood this episode’s ending. After Blake’s death, our heroes don’t last much longer. Arlen reveals herself as a Federation spy, but Avon barely notices – he just stares blankly at Blake’s corpse. Arlen kills Dayna, then Federation soldiers burst in and shoot Vila and Soolin and Tarrant. Avon is surrounded, alone, helpless. He straddles Blake’s body protectively and waits for the inevitable. He raises his gun and smirks…. Freeze-frame, cut to credits, and we hear a hail of bullets. It’s one of the greatest moments in all of television sci-fi. But because we cut to the end titles before we literally *see* Avon being shot, some people hold the theory that he might have survived. Give me strength. That’s missing the dramatic point of the scene on a *galactic* scale.

Review: The final episode of Blake’s 7 has an unrelenting pull. Avon and Blake’s reunion is coming from the moment the latter’s name appears in the opening titles, yet the script delays and delays to build the tension. The whole thing is also really well directed – there’s an intensity and focus to every scene, a real sharpness to the storytelling. And the overall tone returns us to the cynical edge that was more evident in the show’s early episodes. A sensational series finale.

10 of these holes in the ground out of 10

Blake’s 7: Warlord (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Avon attempts to organise the anti-Federation rebellion, but a local planetary leader causes problems when his daughter disobeys him…

Series D, episode 12. Written by: Simon Masters. Directed by: Viktors Ritelis. Originally broadcast: 14 December 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* On Xenon base, Avon (50) has called a meeting of powerful men in order to discuss how they can combat the Federation’s pacification programme, which is being used to subdue planet after planet. He wants to coral the factions into a cohesive team, and offers them access to the antitoxin. The only problem? He needs both raw material and equipment. Then there’s a late arrival to the confab – a bombastic dullard called Zukan, who’s the president of the planet Betafarl and a man with lots of resources. The others don’t like him, but he has the raw material so an accord is reached. Zukan then flips his lid when he learns that his daughter, Zeeona, is secretly on the base. In order to keep him happy, Avon agrees to accompany her home. But when Zeeona tricks him and teleports back to the base, Avon has little choice but to continue his journey to Betafarl and keep up the pretense – he knows that moody Zukon is following in his ship. On Betafarl, though, Avon twigs he’s been conned too when he and Soolin are attacked by Federation troops! They escape and race back to Xenon; on the way, they encounter Zukon’s ship, drifting in space after an accident. He wants rescuing and says he’ll tell Avon how to save his colleagues from their base, which he’s booby-trapped, but Avon reckons he can save them himself – and leaves Zukon to die…
* Dayna (25) realises, after Zukon has left the base, that he’s planted an airborne radioactive virus in the ventilation system.
* Vila (51) does a lot of moaning and, later, some drinking. Remember when he had a personality?
* Soolin (12) goes with Avon when he attempts to take Zeeona home. (The colleagues dress like mechanics at a disco for some reason.) But when alone, Zeeona asks for help. She wants to teleport back to the base to be with Tarrant, so softie Soolin helps her. (Women!) Later, on Betafarl, Soolin pretends to be Zeeona when they bump into some Federation soldiers… and they just let her go! Don’t they have photos in the future?
* Orac (34) warns the others of an explosive device (‘A bomb?’ asks Dayna, hoping for further clarification), which Zukon has left behind after his visit.
* When Zukon’s processing equipment is being installed in the base, Tarrant (25) is shocked to catch sight of Zukon’s daughter, Zeeona. (He could hardly miss her. She has a massive, pink, Cyndi Lauper wig and a vacant look in her eye.) Her dad doesn’t know she’s there, but she and Tarrant have met before and there’s a romantic connection. The pair spend some sexy time together, but then Zukon finds out and goes ballistic… Later, Tarrant is caught in the explosion caused by the bomb Orac mentioned: despite it going off *in his face* and destroying most of the base, Tarrant survives more or less okay. But he and the others are now trapped and their air is running out. Later still, Tarrant is cut up when Zeeona is killed by radiation. (No one else seems that fussed.)
* Towards the end of the episode, Servalan (29) is… YAWN… revealed as… YAWN… being behind Zukon’s machinations. Doesn’t a plot twist lose its impact when it’s already been used 27 times?
* Slave (11).

Best bit: Surely next week’s episode will be better?

Worst bit: There’s a lot to choose from, but let’s go for an obvious one. The powwow of anti-Federationists features some of the worst and cheapest-looking costumes in Blake’s 7 history – and that’s really saying something. None of them feels like clothes someone would wear or like they represent a culture or imply a backstory. It’s just a random collection of bizarre outfits.

Review: It may be elaborately directed – a trippy opening sequence showing drugged citizenry, slow dissolves and extreme close-ups, dreadful greenscreen and crummy video effects, handheld camera and crash zooms – but all the gimmicks in the world can’t save Blake’s 7’s weakest episode. The script is fairly awful, but then we get one of the worst guest casts ever assembled. It’s a parade of bad acting. The regular actors just look embarrassed. 

Three non-aligned planets out of 10

Next episode: Blake

The Paradine Case (1947)

Poster - Paradine Case, The_02

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When a barrister takes on the case of a woman accused of killing her husband, he begins to fall for her – will it compromise her chances of acquittal?

The rumour is that Hitchcock only made this film to fulfil his contract with famed Hollywood producer David O Selznick, the man who’d first brought him to America. The partnership had produced at least one classic of cinema – 1946’s Notorious – but Hitch was feeling hidebound and wanted free of a producer who was all-too-keen to put his own stamp on each film. (Selznick’s name is egotistically all over The Paradine Case’s credits, even going as far as introducing two of the actors as ‘new Selznick Stars’.) Leading man Gregory Peck later said that Hitch had seemed bored with the material, and that’s not hard to believe. It’s one of his most flatly orthodox movies.

London, 1946. A wealthy widow called Maddalena Anna Paradine (Alida Valli, who’s lit like a movie star but has little of the sparkle) is arrested for the murder of her husband, an older, blind man. She’s a frosty, calm, reserved woman, but when hotshot barrister Tony Keane (Peck) is hired to represent her, he can’t help falling under her spell. This causes tensions in his marriage, with wife Gay (Ann Todd) feeling increasingly sidelined and ignored…

A big problem is that neither the script nor the performances ever convince you why Tony is so infatuated with Mrs Paradine. Peck is fine enough as the blinkered barrister, but Italian actress Alida Valli – credited as simply Valli as a marketing gimmick – is too cold, too aloof, too drab to generate much interest as the defendant. (Hitch had wanted to cast Greta Garbo, but she turned it down. Hedy Lamarr and Notorious’s Ingrid Bergman were also considered.) It’s also – it must be said – a rather boring, two-suspect case. Mrs P is accused of poisoning her husband, perhaps as an act of mercy because he was unhappy with being blind. The only other person who could’ve done it is the man’s valet, a French Canadian called André Latour. Given that Tony is desperate to prove his client’s innocence, he travels to the Paradines’ Cumberland holt to meet Latour (future Bond villain and future Dracula Louis Jourdan, all brooding and intense). The valet acts suspiciously and evasively, then snaps and tells Tony that Mrs Paradine is evil.

Then, after an hour, we enter the courtroom section of the movie. We’re in the Old Bailey – still bomb-damaged after the war – so it’s a world of wigs and gowns and people sitting in place, rather than suited American lawyers Perry Mason-ing all over the place. A haughty Charles Laughton is the judge; Hitchcock regular Leo G Carroll is the prosecution lawyer. Gay Keane sits in the gallery with a friend helpfully spelling out what each story beat means. But despite Mrs P being the accused, Tony has by now gone overboard in love with her, so the scenes play more like *Latour* is on trial. Tony harangues him in the witness box, to such a degree that during a recess in the trial Latour kills himself with shame.

Courtroom stories always have built-in drama; they’re difficult things to make boring. And The Paradine Case has its fair share of legalese, barristers’ objections, semantic bickering, shock reveals and the judge intervening. But the earlier sections of the film haven’t set up the second half well enough. So when the news of Latour’s death hits Mrs Paradine hard, and she admits that she’s guilty, and that Latour was her lover, and that she hates Tony for what he’s done, it has nowhere near the punch it should have.

Five men carrying a cello out of 10

Blake’s 7: Orbit (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The opportunity arises for Avon and co to acquire a new weapon – but can they trust the man who’s selling it?

Series D, episode 11. Written by: Robert Holmes. Directed by: Brian Lighthill. Originally broadcast: 7 December 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* As the episode begins, Slave (10) reports that the Scorpio has arrived at a mostly inhospitable planet called Maldovar.
* Avon (49) initially plans on sending Tarrant and Dayna down to the surface (‘I get chilblains,’ is his excuse for not going) to seek out a renegade genius called Egrorian, who disappeared years previously with a chunk of cash. But when Egrorian then gets in touch, he insists that Avon come himself… in a shuttle… and alone. Avon manages to negotiate a concession: he’ll bring his ‘assistant’ Vila with him. On Maldovar, they meet Egrorian and his elderly helper, Pinder, then learn that Egrorian has a super-weapon to trade: a tachyon funnel, which can destroy distant and enormous objects at the push of a button. He offers it to Avon in exchange for Orac – in part, he says, because he wants the infamous rebel Avon to destroy the Federation. On the way back to Scorpio to fetch Orac, Avon infers – from a very small piece of circumstantial evidence – that Servalan is behind Egrorian’s plan. So he pretends to trade Orac, but it’s actually a mock-up Avon prepared earlier. Avon and Vila do the deal and get away, but then realise they’ve been conned too: their shuttle is too heavy and has little fuel. It’s about to crash…
* At first, Vila (50) doesn’t volunteer to go down to Maldovar – he says he likes to stay with Avon ‘where it’s safe.’ His logic then comes back to bite him when Avon has to go and insists on taking Vila with him. Later, after the exchange, when Vila and Avon realise they’re going to crash, they frantically jettison every available item they can think of…
* Soolin (11) has to be the crewmember who’s never heard of Egrorian so the others can explain. Later, it’s also clear that – for some reason – she wasn’t informed about Avon’s con. (Good old Robert Holmes. Amazing, witty, exciting writer. Seemed to have no interest in female characters.)
* Tarrant (24) takes the Scorpio into deep space – out of harm’s way – while Avon and Vila are down on Maldovar. He *then* decides to reveal a rather important nugget of information: he once heard rumours that Egrorian and Servalan were in cahoots. Shouldn’t you have mentioned that before Avon left?
* Dayna (24) and Soolin ridicule Vila when he returns from meeting Egrorian and pretends he knows all about tachyon technology.
* Servalan (28) shows up. Again. Hasn’t she got a day job?
* Orac (33) is seemingly given away by Avon – but it was just a trick.

Best bit: The episode takes a sudden, dark and gripping turn late on when Vila and Avon realise they’re going to crash unless they lighten the load of the shuttle. They get rid of everything that’s not bolted down, but still need to lose an extra 70 kilos. ‘Vila weighs 73 kilos, Avon,’ points out Orac. Avon coolly reaches for a gun and begins to stalk the ship to find his colleague. Vila hides nervously in the cargo hold… (This story beat, which only lasts about three minutes, could have been the basis of an entire episode. Eventually, Avon finds the item that’s dragging the ship down – a super-heavy cube of neutron matter planted by Egrorian – and manages to get rid of it.)

Worst bit: Telling a story economically is commendable. No one wants to linger on boring details. But here, we’re asked to believe that Avon is convinced of the star-destroying capabilities of a new weapon of mass destruction simply because he’s shown an easily mocked-up image on a video screen. Egrorian is then likewise conned after a very scant demonstration of Orac. (Also: why didn’t Avon and Vila just take their teleport bracelets as a back-up when they visited Egrorian?)

Review: The fact Orbit is so entertaining is somewhat strange, because it’s far from perfect. The plot is a bit too mechanical, a bit too convoluted. Servalan’s involvement is head-banging-on-desk tiresome. And some of the acting is… let’s be charitable and say dated. Fond as he was of writing pairs of characters, Robert Holmes has populated his planet with just two residents: Ergrorian and Pinder, who come off like a bickering married couple. Egrorian is the Hyacinth Bucket figure – self-obsessed, vain and a little bit cruel – while Pinder is the henpecked husband. Egrorian is played by John Savident (I say, John Savident) and is a florid, bombastic man. And the actor isn’t exactly playing against the writing. It gets even worse when Servalan enters the stage: Savident and Jacqueline Pearce seem to be egging each other on to be more and more theatrical and hammy. But stories with characters conning each other are often fun, and this is no exception. The episode doesn’t hang about and gives plenty of action and meat to Avon and Vila – the last remaining characters from the early days of season one.

Eight ruthless desperadoes of legend out of 10

Next episode: Warlord

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018, Peyton Reed)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Scott Lang is under house arrest, but must leap into action when old pals Hank and Hope need help finding a long-lost loved one…

By the mid 1980s, Christopher Reeve had played Superman in three successful movies. For the fourth instalment, he was given an opportunity to develop the story himself and he hit upon the idea of Superman tackling the world’s growing proliferation of nuclear weapons. He then went to Tom Mankiewicz, the writer of the first two films, for some advice… and Mankiewicz told him to avoid the issue like it were Kryptonite. If Superman can solve the Cold War, he argued, then surely he can do anything. As a story idea, it just opened up too many cans of worms. Why doesn’t the Man of Steel cure cancer, then? Why doesn’t he solve world hunger? Why doesn’t he stop every rapist?

In the event, the advice was ignored – and we ended up with the rotten Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. But Mankiewicz had a point. Superheroes are not real. They don’t fit well into the real world. Superhero films need to construct a context for their stories – one where, for example, it’s plausible that an all-powerful character such as Superman could have obstacles to overcome. But in Ant-Man and the Wasp, the desire to have some fun results in a film where you constantly ask, ‘If they can do *that*, why don’t they just…?’

It’s been a couple of years since we last checked in with Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), the ex-con who became the miniaturising superhero Ant-Man in his debut film. He’s under house arrest after an unauthorised sojourn to Germany in Captain America: Civil War, but is having fun visits from his young daughter and is also setting up a security business with his pals. Meanwhile, his old cohorts Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) are attempting to develop technology that will allow them to locate Hope’s mother, Janet. She was lost in the quantum realm when she shrank down dangerously small 30 years earlier. Oh, and Hope has become a superhero herself: she has her own miniaturising suit – complete with wings and blasters – and is known as the Wasp. (She’s therefore the first woman mentioned specifically in the title of an MCU movie. It’s taken 20 films.)

Hank and Hope’s quest means doing a shady deal with a rent-a-complication bad guy called Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins). They need to acquire some vital equipment for their Death Star-like quantum tunnel – a device that will shrink them small enough to find the infinitesimally small Janet. And here’s just one instance of ‘Why don’t they just…?’ Hope can reduce herself to the size of a wasp. She has a gizmo that means she can change the size of other things too – cars, salt cellars, entire buildings and all their contents – so where is the suspense meant to be when Burch reneges on the deal? Can’t she just buzz in, shrink the equipment and buzz off without anyone knowing?

Anyway, when the deal goes south, a fight breaks out – and Hope and Burch’s goons are not the only ones involved. A mysterious character referred to as Ghost shows up and is determined to claim the equipment for herself. (Ghost is patently a woman, though at first Hope and Hank assume she’s a man for some reason.) Covered in a mushroom-grey bodysuit that brings to mind tardigrades, bizarre micro-animals that grow to just half a millimetre in size, she steals the MacGuffin and legs it. We then learn that she’s Ava Starr (Hannah John-Kamen), a young woman who – due to an scientific accident when she was a child – is constantly phasing in and out of reality. She’s being helped by an old pal of her father’s, Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne, previously Perry White in the rival DC series of movies).

With the pieces now in place, the ‘plot’ becomes a succession of chase sequences as various characters attempt to gain control of Hank’s lab, which has been shrunk down to the size of suitcase. Some of them are fun, such as a comedic sequence at a school that sees Scott inconveniently stuck at either half or twice his normal size. (After her time in the Hobbit films, Evangeline Lilly has form for playing opposite actors being artificially sized up or down by CGI. The film also wisely ignores any fetish subtext of her appearing half the size of Paul Rudd.) But there are a large number of plot holes, which become more and more difficult to ignore.

The biggest comes when Hank, Hope and Scott manage to send Hank down into the quantum realm and he finally locates his long-lost wife. Janet is played by silver vixen Michelle Pfeiffer, but no attempt is made to explain how she’s survived in a desolate micro-world for 30 years. What has she been eating? Drinking? Using for moisturiser? Why hasn’t she gone insane after three decades with no human contact or external stimuli? Perhaps, having been Catwoman in a different superhero series, she’s got more than one life to play with.

Another disappointment is the drearily orthodox filmmaking. Maybe this is like criticising a four-door family salon for not being a sportscar, but Ant-Man and the Wasp is very bland cinema. Scene after scene plays out in boring medium shots and over-the-shoulder cutting. There’s no distinction or panache to anything, no visual storytelling (which is even more of a shame when you notice that the cinematographer is Dante Spinotti, who shot Heat and LA Confidential). All the movement, drama and emphasis comes from the never-ending editing. It’s by no means unique to this film, it must be said: it’s the MCU house style.

But despite these problems, this is still a zippy, enjoyable – if disposable – couple of hours. Paul Rudd is charming, funny and likeable. Evangeline Lilly is excellent, providing both sass and heart. There are some good jokes, including a few meta-gags that poke fun at the film’s clichés. Michael Peña is good value as Scott’s mate Luis, even getting a reprise of his fast-talking montage from the first Ant-Man film. And of course there’s the general Marvel sheen to everything. But it’s doubtful it’ll linger long in the memory.

Six men who miss the 1960s out of 10

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Blake’s 7: Gold (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The crew of the Scorpio attempt to steal a large consignment of gold…

Series D, episode 10. Written by: Colin Davis. Directed by: Brian Lighthill. Originally broadcast: 30 November 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Avon (48) has had Scorpio chase after and hook up with a cruiser called the Space Princess. He’s seeking out old acquaintance Keiller, who has a proposition for the team: the ship may appear to be a luxury liner, but is actually used to transport gold incognito; they could steal a cache worth 17 billion. There’s a snag, though: the gold is processed in such a way that they need a special code to restore its glistening amber loveliness. So Avon, Soolin and Keiller teleport down to the processing plant on the planet Zerok… Later, during the heist attempt on the Space Princess, Avon learns that Keiller used to work for ‘the president’ so confronts him. He admits that he was told to contact Avon and co, but is twisting the plan so he can escape with the gold for himself. Near the end, Avon is nearly caught in the air lock between the two ships, but Vila manages to teleport him to safety just before his air runs out. He then leads the gang to a rendezvous to meet the gold’s enigmatic buyers…
* Vila (49) stays aboard the Scorpio when the others go to hear Keiller’s pitch. He doesn’t want any part in the heist, thinking it’s a trap.
* Dayna (23) and Tarrant teleport to Zerok as back-up when Avon and Soolin attempt to break into the processing plant, but find Keiller unconscious and two scarred bodies. Assuming Avon and Soolin are dead, they take Keiller back to Scorpio, and he explains there was a fight and an explosion. Later, during the gang’s attempt to steal the gold, Dayna has to take drugs that make her appear desperately ill; this then gives the team an excuse to move her to the Scorpio… with the gold stored under her bed.
* Soolin (10) frisks Keiller when he comes aboard Scorpio (bet he enjoyed that). He then flirts with her, unsuccessfully. Soolin later helps Avon sneak into the processing plant. After Keiller has been found unconscious and taken away, we viewers learn that Soolin and Avon are alive and well – it was actually two security guards who were burnt to crispiness.
* During the heist, Tarrant (23) and Soolin mingle with the Space Princess’s passengers, who have been drugged to keep them in line.
* Orac (32) pipes up to explain why the team can’t just teleport the gold off the ship. After the successful robbery, however, he points out that the cash the team have gained from selling the gold is now worthless: Zerok has just ceded to the Federation, invalidating its economy.
* Slave (9).
* Servalan (27) shows up at the end of the episode – turns out, she’s Keiller’s buyer. Avon has seen the twist coming. (We all have, mate.)

Best bit: Keiller is played by Roy Kinnear, an actor who often combined slyness and guile with bumbling humour.

Worst bit: The tiresome twist that Servalan has been pulling the strings. (The revelation also means that last week’s connection between Servalan and Tarrant has to be all but ignored.)

Review: A heist episode with all the usual conventions: twists, turns, complications, booby-traps… It’s fun, fast-paced, engaging and entertaining.

Eight notes drawn by the Bank of Zerok out of 10

Next episode: Orbit