My 13 favourite Draculas

I first read Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula in the early 1990s and it soon became a favourite. As today (Tuesday 26 May 2020) marks 123 years to the day since the book was published, I thought it would be fun to list some of the best film and TV adaptations. Let me know in the comments section below if I’ve missed off your favourite…

13 Dracula (1979)

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A fairly faithful retelling of the classic story, though it favours the plotting used in a 1920s stageplay over Stoker’s original. Frank Langella is a suave, sexy, fangless Dracula, and the film – while a bit humourless – has a romantically Gothic tone. Smoke billows, the score swells, characters look longingly… It’s like watching an epic music video at times, but it seduces you.

12 Love at First Bite (1979)

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Also from 1979 is this George Hamilton-starring comedy, which sees the Count evicted from his Transylvanian castle and move to New York City. The humour is deadpan, likeable and often very funny.

11 Blacula (1972)

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Count Dracula himself only appears briefly in this Blaxploitation spin on the myth. The focus is his successor: Mamuwalde, an African prince turned vampiric in 1780 then awoken in 1970s LA. The premise is hokey, but actor William Marshall makes sure Mamuwalde always has dignity and grace. The film is also one of the earliest ‘Dracula’ stories to include a subplot about a modern woman being the reincarnation of a vampire’s long-dead love. Now common, it doesn’t appear in Stoker’s text. The following year, Blacula got a sequel co-starring Pam Grier. Scream Blacula Scream is slower than the first film but is more confidently made.

10 Dracula (1931)

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Probably the most influential telling of the Dracula story ever filmed, this Universal Pictures classic doesn’t totally stand up as a piece of cinema. The acting creaks, the pace flags and the action can be flat. But its iconography – especially a cape-wearing and heavily accented Bela Lugosi as the Count, and his cobweb-strewn castle – became enshrined in popular culture. The film was, of course, the start of a long-running sequence for Universal. Made concurrently with Dracula was a terrific Spanish-language equivalent starring Carlos Villarías – Drácula (1931) – then several sequels to Lugosi’s version followed. The Count was absent from the decent Dracula’s Daughter (1936), then played by Lon Chaney Jr (Son of Dracula, 1943) and John Carradine (House of Frankenstein, 1944, and House of Dracula, 1945). Lugosi returned in the fun crossover Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1974)

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Not the feeble version with the same name directed by Francis Ford Coppola in the 1990s, but an enjoyable 70s TV movie starring Jack Palance. It’s an abbreviated adaptation of the novel, which also throws in some cute amendments to the story. The most long-lasting of which is the same idea that had coincidentally been used in Blacula in 1972 – here, it’s Lucy Westenra who is the unknowing reincarnation of Count Dracula’s long-dead partner. (This film also codified the notion that Count Dracula is the historical tyrant Vlad the Impaler made immortal. That hadn’t been Bram Stoker’s intention.) Palance is terrific, never forgetting that Dracula is a monster but simultaneously making him sympathetic.

Dracula 2000 (2000)

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It’s schlocky, but this revamp for the new millennium has a postmodern awareness of the genre, which means it’s also a lot of fun. Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream) was the executive producer and his knowing fingerprints are everywhere – from the pure horror to the contrasting comedy. The new storyline also gives Dracula (Gerard Butler) an interesting Biblical backstory. It was followed by two lesser sequels: Dracula II: Ascension (2003) and Dracula III: Legacy (2005).

7 Dracula (1958)

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A rejigged adaptation of the novel, which makes some intelligent cuts and is quite pacy by the standards of other Hammer Films productions. It upped the amount of pain and pleasure on show in the Dracula myth – this is a film of rich, red blood and repressed sexuality – and, most notably, it introduced the world to Christopher Lee’s looming, patrician portrayal of the Count. Just like the 1931 Universe film, Hammer’s Dracula led to many sequels, sadly of varying quality. Peter Cushing, who had played Van Helsing in the original, headlined The Brides of Dracula (1960); then Christopher Lee returned in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968), Scars of Dracula (1970) and Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970). After a reboot (see below), Cushing also starred in The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974). The sadist-tinged Taste the Blood of Dracula was the best of these, while the 1974 kung-fu crossover is fun too.

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)

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The character names were changed in an unsuccessful attempt to bypass copyright law, but this influential silent film is still the earliest screen version of Dracula we have. (There was an Hungarian film the year before called Dracula’s Death, but that was a new plotline and now seems to be lost.) The eerily demonic Max Schreck plays Count Orlok, one of cinema’s most memorable monsters, while FW Murnau’s direction is a blueprint of German Expressionism. Every scene has darkness and danger in the shadows. Fifty-seven years later, Werner Herzog directed a creepy remake called Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979). It’s an acquired taste. 

5 Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Buffy vs. Dracula (2000)

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The story goes that the writing team behind the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer were busking ideas for a new villain – a one-off vampire who was powerful and famous and had a certain cache. They needed someone like Dracula. Then Buffy creator Joss Whedon said, ‘Why not Dracula? He’s public domain!’ Bringing the character into the world of BTVS, even for one episode, served a purpose within the show’s story arc. The heroine Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Geller) was questioning her vamp-fighting destiny, so why not test that against the genre’s most iconic villain? But like so much in Whedon’s show, the idea is also a huge amount of *fun*. It’s a typically witty, playful script, and the regular cast have an absolute blast, both respecting and poking fun at the Dracula cliches. Playing the Count is Rudolf Martin, who coincidentally had another Drac-related credit in the same year: he starred as Vlad the Impaler in the forgettable TV movie Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula.

4 Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

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An oddball choice, perhaps. This is a behind-the-scenes drama set during the shoot of 1922’s Nosferatu, and stars Willem Defoe as that film’s leading actor, Max Schreck. The perverse twist is that, in this version of events, Schreck isn’t just playing a vampire – he actually is one, and has been promised victims by Nosferatu’s ambitious director, FW Murnau (John Malkovich). It’s a surreal idea, and it really flies. The cast are terrific, there are some brilliantly unnerving moments, and the story contains layer upon layer of subtext. Fact/fiction, life/death, film/reality…

3 Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)

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The seventh film in Hammer’s Dracula cycle is, in fact, not a sequel but a reboot that moves the Count into the very vivid present day of the early 1970s. It’s a time when London was still swinging and youth culture was all about coffee bars, music you could dig, wild clothes, and generally having a good time. The film may have been mocked at the time (and since) for these stereotyped flower-power characters, but that does it a disservice. Dracula A.D. 1972 is enormously likeable and vibrant, but it’s not all about partying kids. The storyline – which sees Christopher Lee’s long-dead Dracula resurrected and Peter Cushing playing a descendent of the Victorian Van Helsing – has darkness and plenty of threat too. The sequence in which Caroline Munro’s Laura and Christopher Neame’s Johnny Alucard take part in the occult ceremony that calls forth the Count stands as one of the most strikingly impressive in any Dracula film. (A.D. 1972 was followed by a less successful sequel, 1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula.)

2 Dracula (2020)

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Made by the creative team behind the BBC1 hit Sherlock, this recent adaptation is openly aware of previous Dracula adaptations and has a cineliterate love of the genre, but it is also completely its own beast. The script smartly, but not in any way reverentially, carves up the Stoker story up into three equal parts. Episode one is the most traditional, telling the story of Jonathan Harker’s terrifying time at Castle Dracula, but still plays around with the material in interesting ways. The middle episode then takes the vampire’s voyage aboard the Demeter – less than five pages of the novel – and expands it into a Agatha Christie-style chamber piece of paranoia and claustrophobia. The final instalment is the most daring of all, pulling a fearless storytelling trick as we follow the Count’s adventures in London. At the centre of everything is Claes Bang giving a dominant performance as a hugely charismatic yet still monstrous Dracula, while Dolly Wells is also extraordinary as a clever, sarcastic character called Sister Agatha. This is funny, scary, intelligent and exuberant storytelling of the highest order. (The 2020 series was the third version of Dracula made by the BBC. The first is mentioned below, while in 2006 there also was a fairly bloodless and confused one-off.)

1 Count Dracula (1977)

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Made 43 years before the Claes Bang version, the BBC’s first attempt at Dracula is not only one of the most faithful adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel (the few minor tweaks are improvements). It’s also highly seductive and stylish in its own right. Made in the classic format of 1970s television (multi-camera studio for interiors, polished film work for locations), this 150-minute story contains plenty of surreal imagery, unorthodox direction and horrific scenes. But these are not examples of showing-off; each moment supports and enriches the storyline. Louis Jordan is an excellent Count Dracula, all charm and unflappable grace but still menacing, while there are also excellent performances from Frank Finlay as Van Helsing and Susan Penhaligon as Lucy Westenra. For the sections set in Whitby, the production filmed in the Yorkshire town itself – staging scenes on real locations that Bram Stoker knew well and included in his novel.

Since 2015, I’ve been attempting to watch and review as many Dracula-related films and TV episodes as possible. You can see a list of my efforts here.

 

REDUX REVIEW: Batman & Robin (1997, Joel Schumacher)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

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Watched: 5 January 2020.
Format: A DVD from my collection.
Seen before? Yes. Sadly.

Note: I’ve already reviewed Batman & Robin on this blog, back in 2015 when I wrote a series of reviews about Batman and Superman films. I was fairly damning, but rather than rake over old ground, this redux review will instead focus on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s contribution as lead villain Mr Freeze…

Review: The magic of filmmaking is in its ability to create new sensations of time and space. It isn’t theatre, which mostly plays out on a defined stage with its pace dictated by the actors’ choices. Cinema can redefine geography and chronology through editing, and create the impression of a natural flow by cutting together takes that have been filmed at different times. Sometimes wildly different times: a conversation between the characters of Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), for example, had its two close-ups filmed a year apart for logistical reasons.

At least in that instance, actors Elijah Wood and Sean Astin were acting together during both performances – the fact their respective ‘over the shoulders’ were filmed in November 1999 and November 2000 is not detectable in the finished movie. The same can’t be said for certain scenes in the spectacularly terrible Batman & Robin. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was collecting $25 million for playing the villain Mr Freeze, often feels like he’s in a film all of his own – and not just because director Joel Schumacher had an ‘anything goes’ attitude to acting styles.

Watching the movie today, you can’t escape the feeling that Schwarzenegger is not exactly in sync with anything else that’s going on. He seems detached from the action, isolated from the drama, uncoupled from the cinematic flow. He doesn’t *fit*. A few years after the film came out, his co-star Chris O’Donnell – making his second appearance in the series as Robin – provided an explanation. ‘I’m in a lot of scenes with Mr Freeze,’ he said. ‘But I didn’t work one day with Arnold.’ It turns out that Schwarzenegger was not the only person to play Mr Freeze. A succession of body doubles and stand-ins were used for shots where the character’s face isn’t seen, largely because it took so long to apply the elaborate make-up and costume. Arnie’s close-ups were often filmed in isolation too, with the ‘performance’ being stitched together in post-production.

Not that the situation improves when Arnie himself is on screen. The most notable aspect of his contribution is dialogue that groans under the weight of its own awfulness. The character has around 100 lines of dialogue and every single one is dreadful. Nothing he says, in fact, sounds like dialogue. Instead Mr Freeze’s words are a combination of shallow pronouncements (‘Nice of you to drop in’, ‘I hate uninvited guests’, ‘Ah! A laundry service that delivers!’) and a never-ending conveyor belt of tedious puns. Most of the wordplay involves the character’s icy theme, with practically every variation wheeled out at some point: ‘The Iceman cometh!’, ‘You’re not sending me to the cooler!’, ‘You’re skating on thin ice!’, ‘Chilled to perfection!’, ‘Nothing frustrates a man like a frigid wife’, and many, many more of an equally tiresome flavour. For good measure, the character also insists on leading his henchmen in a singsong while wearing polar-bear slippers.

All this childish nonsense is a double disappointment because Mr Freeze is one of the most interesting villains in the Batman canon. Victor Fries is a scientist attempting to find a cure for his terminally ill wife, but an accident involving liquid hydrogen has led to him needing a cyber-suit to keep his body at a low temperature. There’s pathos in that story, even if the present film mostly ignores it. He first appeared in the Batman comic-book series in 1959 under the name of Mr Zero. Renamed Mr Freeze, he was then a recurring villain in the 1960s TV show (played by a different actor each time – George Sanders, Otto Preminger and Eli Wallach).

But it was Heart of Ice, a critically acclaimed 1992 episode of Batman: The Animated Series, that introduced the tragic backstory. Voiced by Michael Ansara, this cartoon iteration of the character has become the default and has inspired almost every subsequent Mr Freeze – including various comic books reimaginings and his appearances in the TV shows Gotham (played by Nathan Darrow) and Harley Quinn (voiced by Alfred Molina). In comparison, Arnie’s attempt at the character feels like something from the last Ice Age.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘There’s a moment going into [heart] surgery that I really hate. It’s the moment when the anaesthesia start to take hold, when you know you’re going out, when you’re losing consciousness and don’t know if you’ll ever wake up. The oxygen mask felt like it was suffocating me – I was gasping for air, short of breath. This was a much bigger version of the claustrophobia I fought when I was having face a body masks made to play the Terminator or Mr Freeze in Batman & Robin. For me, Stan Winston’s special-effects studio was torture.’

One chilling sound of your doom out of 10

Next: Aftermath

The Return of the Pink Panther (1975, Blake Edwards)

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Spoiler warning: These reviews reveal plot details

After the famous Pink Panther diamond is stolen from a museum, the local authorities insist on Inspector Clouseau being flown over to investigate…

The titular diamond is not the only thing returning in this fourth Pink Panther story. After 11 years away, Peter Sellers rejoins the series as the inept Inspector Jacques Clouseau. Blake Edwards is likewise back in the director’s chair and the music is once again by Henry Mancini. The film also, in effect, combines the guest casts of the first two movies: Herbert Lom’s Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus, André Maranne’s police assistant François and Burt Kwouk’s martial-arts valet Cato all return from 1964’s A Shot in the Dark, while we also have Sir Charles Litton, the thief from 1963’s The Pink Panther.

The plot begins when the famed Pink Panther jewel is stolen one night from a museum in the fictional North African country of Lugash. We see a ninja-like agent break in at night and evade the security system’s laser beams in the classic heist-film fashion. After taking the diamond, the masked criminal then leaves behind a glove embossed with a letter P – the calling card of Sir Charles Litton’s alter ego, the Phantom. It’s a slick, Bond-ish sequence, and notably it’s not meant to be funny. In fact, we get about a quarter of an hour into this film before there’s something definitely intended as a gag.

That changes somewhat once Clouseau appears, walking his Parisian beat in a gendarme’s uniform. It’s apparent straightaway that Peter Sellers has rethought the character during his decade off. Clouseau is still bumbling, dimwitted, unobservant, sensationally accident-prone and hopelessly naive. But now he’s *even more* bumbling, dimwitted, unobservant, sensationally accident-prone and hopelessly naive. He also now has a more outrageously cod French accent, which even other French characters struggle to understand. Coupled with the uniform, it inescapably makes a modern viewer think of Officer Crabtree from ‘Allo ‘Allo.

All this is a shift from the tone of the early films, which were gentle farces, into something more ostentatiously wacky. The Return of the Pink Panther is a movie where its lead character uses a succession of disguises/aliases, and where the violence and action would feel more at home in a Looney Tunes cartoon. (People get blown up and are unscathed other than soot-covered faces and tatty clothing.) It means the storyline is never the focus. It’s more about the slapstick.

As Clouseau investigates, he soon suspects that his old nemesis Sir Charles Litton is involved, but Sir Charles insists he’s not the thief. This plot point echoes one of the biggest influences on The Pink Panther series: Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, in which Cary Grant plays a retired criminal attempting to prove his innocence. But the idea doesn’t sing as much as it should, partly because the role of Sir Charles has been recast. The original actor, David Niven, was unavailable – or perhaps not keen to be upstaged by Peter Sellers again – and the Canadian Christopher Plummer is a poor replacement, lacking Niven’s effortless air. By the way, the identity of the real culprit will not evade anyone who’s paying attention. In other news, Catherine Schell plays Sir Charles’s wife, Claudine.

The Return of the Pink Panther is not what you’d call an urgently paced thriller. In its middle third, for example, this film can afford to spend more than seven minutes watching Clouseau comedically search Lady Litton’s hotel room. It also lacks the class of the early Pink Panther stories. But Sellers is still fun, Blake Edwards knows how to shoot this kind of material, there are a few laughs along the way, and it’s diverting-enough nonsense.

Six vacuum cleaners out of 10

Next time: The Pink Panther Strikes Again

 

Inspector Clouseau (1968, Bud Yorkin)

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Spoiler warning: These reviews reveal plot details

When the British authorities suspect a mole in Scotland Yard, Inspector Clouseau is seconded from Paris. Arriving in London, he begins to investigate a case involving a major criminal gang…

In some ways, this can be considered the On Her Majesty’s Secret Service of the Pink Panther series – a one-off aberration, a side-step quickly rethought. After establishing the lead role of Inspector Jacques Clouseau in two successful comedies, star Peter Sellers did what Sean Connery was concurrently doing with James Bond and skipped a late-60s sequel. Sellers preferred instead to do the film The Party, which was being directed by Blake Edwards and scored by Henry Mancini – a schedule clash that meant all three of these key players from The Pink Panther (1963) and A Shot in the Dark (1964) were unavailable. Unbowed, the Panther producers pushed on anyway, gambling that the brand was bigger than any individual names.

However, Sellers had created such a memorable and entertaining character that simply swapping in a new actor was never going to be a smooth process. In the event, Alan Arkin was signed up, largely because of his turn in the 1966 war comedy The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming. The American’s career has been significantly more impressive than Sean Connery’s replacement as 007, former model George Lazenby, and he’s clearly a much more capable performer. But the analogy with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service still stands up when focused on the present film. Arkin does a wonderful job of demonstrating just how superb Sellers had been. This Clouseau is still accident-prone, naive and has an unfounded sense of his own abilities. But Arkin lacks the romantic idealism that had made the character so appealing in the first two films. The Sellers version had a winsome nobility, whereas Arkin’s Clouseau is more of a dullard. He also fails to build any chemistry with his co-stars; a nominal love-interest plot with Delia Boccardo’s Interpol agent Lisa Morell never has any spark to it.

After the continental settings of the earlier films, the first half of Inspector Clouseau takes place in London. Called in by the British Prime Minister to root out a mole in Scotland Yard, Clouseau soon encounters gadget-obsessed police chief Superintendent Weaver (Frank Finlay), his overly flirtatious wife (Beryl Reid), and members of a criminal gang (including Frenzy‘s Barry Foster and Doctor Who‘s Anthony Ainley). The plot, which manages to be both convoluted and arbitrary at the same time, sees the gang planning a series of simultaneous bank raids in Switzerland. Once Clouseau makes his presence felt, they also come up with the additional idea of framing him for each and every heist… by all wearing Inspector Clouseau masks.

Our comparison with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service starts to fall apart here. That Bond film may have had a poor lead actor who lacked the power and charisma of his predecessor, but it was still an excellently made and very enjoyable movie. Inspector Clouseau, on the other hand, is just lacklustre. It’s an unfunny, uninspired mess, and often boring. Unsurprisingly, as with Lazenby and James Bond, Arkin never returned to the role. For the next Pink Panther, Peter Sellers was tempted back – just like Sean Connery was in the next Bond movie.

Incidentally, whether it’s a coincidence or not is unclear, but Sean Connery is actually name-checked in Inspector Clouseau – it’s revealed that Clouseau carries a signed photo of the actor around in his wallet. Perhaps the filmmakers did know what they were doing, after all.

Four humble English vacations out of 10

Next time: The Return of the Pink Panther

The Expendables 3 (2014, Patrick Hughes)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. 

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Watched: 14 December 2019
Format: A secondhand DVD.
Seen before? No. 

Review: More is less. This is the third go-round for the ageing action stars of a series that was never brimming with new ideas to begin with. Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and his crusty cronies engage in another rescue/revenge/does-anyone-care-what-the-plot-is? mission that entails a lot of shooting and shouting. We again get bucketloads of numbskull action, some tawdry drama delivered by actors who sound like talking is a recently developed skill, and scene after scene dominated by male posturing. 

The newcomers to this retirement-home jolly include Mel Gibson, ignoring his troubled personal life to play the latest boring villain; Wesley Snipes as an original member of the Expendables; Harrison Ford, slumming it to replace Bruce Willis as the team’s CIA boss; Kelsey Grammer, who’s at least watchable playing a laid-back fixer; and Antonio Banderas, who likewise introduces some much-needed humour as a cocky recruit to Ross’s gang.

As with the previous two films, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s contribution as Ross’s foe-turned-uneasy-friend Trent Mauser can best be described as bolted-on. It’s an extended cameo, a few scenes, and he’s there because he’s Arnold Schwarzenegger not because his character is plausibly or even interestingly taking part in the adventure.

Three former brothers in arms out of 10

Next: Batman & Robin

A Shot in the Dark (1964, Blake Edwards)

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Spoiler warning: These reviews reveal plot details

Inspector Clouseau is called in when a maid is found next to a dead body, but he refuses to accept that she could be guilty of murder…

This sequel to 1963’s The Pink Panther was initially an unrelated project. It was planned as an original crime caper but there was a problem. Peter Sellers has been lined up to play the lead character, a police detective investigating a murder, and he hated the script. So he used his muscle to hire director Blake Edwards, with whom he had just made The Pink Panther. Not thrilled with the script either, Edwards made a suggestion: retool the piece so Sellers could reprise his recent role of Inspector Jacques Clouseau. As well as rewrites, Edwards and Sellers also planned to improvise comedy business on set as the opportunities arose.

All this explains why there’s no mention of the Pink Panther diamond, either in the film’s title or in its plot, and why Clouseau is now a singleton (his wife had played a significant role in film one). There are other significant departures from the PP framework too. That earlier movie had been an exercise in Euro glamour, with a gentleman thief, an exotic and beautiful princess, a top-price ski resort and chic locations. A Shot in the Dark, conversely, is a film about affairs and office politics and people with mundane jobs, and is often set in a cramped police station and in servants’ quarters.

We begin with a prologue. In long, choreographed shots, people move in and out of each other’s bedrooms in a large house, avoiding being seen and spying on each other. We look in from the outside; objectively, like we’re glimpsing into a doll’s house. As well as being a pretty piece of cinema, it also tips us off that this crime plot will not be taken that seriously. These characters are not psychologically nuanced people. They’re more like toys being moved around for our amusement. Then the plot begins when a shot rings out…

While the tone is a notch sillier than in The Pink Panther, Blake Edwards’s shooting style helps a lot with the kind of comedy on show here. He knows exactly how to set a wide frame, which captures all the players at once and lets them dictate the pace of each scene. There are few edits, no flashy camera moves and no cut-in-for-a-close-up emphasising. The director keeps things light and keeps things moving.

When Inspector Clouseau is assigned to the case, he learns that a murder has been committed at the house of millionaire Benjamin Ballon (George Sanders). A chauffeur is dead, with one of the maids found next to the body holding a smoking gun. Maria Gambrelli swears she has no idea how the chauffeur died… and the smitten Clouseau believes her unswervingly. Despite the mountainous evidence suggesting she’s a killer, he assumes she’s innocent and begins interrogating the rest of the household. Maria is played by the German actress Elke Sommer, who was then at the start of a decent career in 1960s comedy films, and she’s a game foil for Peter Sellers.

Due to the unusual script development, the powerhouse Sellers is the only carry-over from The Pink Panther, but A Shot in the Dark does set up three new characters who will recur in future entries. The Pink Panther had essentially seen Clouseau as a James Bond-style lone agent out in the field, but we now see him both at home and working at Sûreté headquarters. His police boss is Commissioner Dreyfus (Herbert Lom), a man who detests Clouseau and wants him removed from such a high-profile case, while we also meet Dreyfus’s more reasonable assistant, François (André Maranne). Meanwhile, at chez Clouseau, the Inspector is attacked without warning by a character called Cato (Burt Kwouk)… who we later learn is his valet and the surprise attack was part of a judo-training regime. Pink Panther devotees would get very used to this joke.

Nevertheless, Sellers *dominates* proceedings. Clouseau has a succession of delightful physical gags – falling off sofas, falling out of windows, attempting to play billiards with a curved cue – and even looks exasperatedly to camera when a scene starts to get away from him. It’s a very funny performance, perfectly pitched in a niche bordered by deadpan and silliness. In between filming his first two appearances as Inspector Clouseau, Peter Sellers had worked for Stanley Kubrick, playing three different roles in the war satire Dr Strangelove, or How I Leaned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). For that triple performance he got many plaudits, but fewer laughs than when he’s Inspector Jacques Clouseau.

Seven pointing sticks out of 10

Next time:Inspector Clouseau

The Pink Panther (1963, Blake Edwards)

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Spoiler warning: These reviews reveal plot details

When a jewel thief targets the largest diamond in the world, he becomes distracted by its beautiful owner. Meanwhile, a French detective is on the thief’s trail, unaware that his own wife is having an affair with the criminal…

In retrospect, this 1963 comedy film contains a couple of surprises. The Pink Panther series later became dominated by a single character – the bumbling, naive, earnest and overwhelmingly accident-prone Inspector Jacques Clouseau. But in this original movie he’s just one member of an ensemble. And rather than a slapstick-heavy comedy vehicle, it’s a glamorous, witty Euro-caper with some interesting influences.

A big antecedent is the gentleman thief AJ Raffles, a character created by EW Hornung for a short story in 1898. As well as a successful burglar, Raffles is an upper-case dilettante who lives in a wealthy part of London and plays cricket as an amateur. His stories are not about a seedy underworld or people pushed into crime through dire circumstance. They’re flamboyant and fun. Raffles sometimes steals because of greed or need, but his lifestyle is often closer to a hobby. Few people get seriously hurt, aside from some toffs who can afford to lose their goods anyway.

The Pink Panther’s top-billed star, David Niven, had actually played Raffles in a 1939 Hollywood production. It was a role that perfectly chimed with his developing screen persona of a dashing, elegant, unflappable rogue, and turned out to be a dry-run for his appearance here. The Pink Panther sees Niven as the affable and well-off playboy Sir Charles Litton, who is secretly a well-known cat burglar known as the Phantom. As the story gets going, he is attempting to track down the famous diamond the Pink Panther – so named because a flaw in its core creates the outline of such an animal. He travels to an exclusive ski resort in Cortina, northern Italy, where the diamond’s owner is on holiday, and engineers a meeting. That owner is an Indian princess called Dala, played by the captivating Italian-Tunisian actress Claudia Cardinale. (David Niven on his co-star: ‘After spaghetti, she is Italy’s happiest invention.’) While Sir Charles gets to work on seducing Dala so he can get to the jewel, a French detective also arrives in Cortina. He’s seemingly on holiday with his wife, but is actually on the hunt for the Phantom…

A ski resort with luxury hotel rooms and chalets populated by good-looking clientele gives the story the wish-fulfilment feel of a James Bond film, as do the early globetrotting scenes set in Paris and LA. All Bonds feature multiple countries and beautiful people, of course, while many also have cold-weather sequences (most notably in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and For Your Eyes Only). But we must admit that these similarities are coincidental. When The Pink Panther was being made, just one James Bond film had been released: Dr No, which is only set in London and Jamaica. (There is, however, an additional connection worth mentioning here. Niven and his co-star Peter Sellers would later both appear in a Bond picture: the chaotic spoof version of Casino Royale in 1967, a film that was offered to Pink Panther director Blake Edwards before he priced himself out of the job.)

More certainly an influence here is the Alfred Hitchcock movie To Catch a Thief of 1955. Although set in sunnier climes (the French Riviera), this lighthearted caper features Cary Grant as a retired gentleman thief attempting to clear his name when he’s accused of a spate of burglaries. It’s a film that shines with panache, sexiness and glamour; there are scenes of breezy romance alongside suspense, and the tone is sophisticated and as light as air. It’s not as openly comedic as The Pink Panther, but the stylistic debt is obvious.

What To Catch a Thief doesn’t have, however, is a memorable detective character. That is *far* from a failing with The Pink Panther, whose not-so-secret weapon is the French policeman Inspector Jacques Clouseau, played by the versatile and iconoclastic Peter Sellers.

Clouseau was originally written as a straight role in Maurice Richlin and Blake Edwards’s script. Peter Ustinov had been cast but then pulled out, disappointed that Ava Gardner had likewise withdrawn from the project. (She was initially going to play Clouseau’s wife.) When Sellers signed up, he immediately saw huge comic potential and an opportunity to steal the movie from under Niven’s nose, so insisted on a rewrite. Clouseau became more hapless, less authoritative and a lot funnier. Edwards later called Sellers the ‘enigma of my life’. The two men worked on several movies together, but had a love/hate relationship. (It was not the only fractious actor/director relationship of the capacious Sellers’s career.) Yet, whatever was going on behind the scenes, Edwards guided Sellers as they created something very special.

The essential gag with Inspector Clouseau, which explains why every single scene featuring him in The Pink Panther is such a success, is that he attempts to maintain his dignity no matter what’s thrown at him or how many mistakes he makes. The humour comes from this man attempting to laugh off hardships, ignore errors and cover up his accidents. We may detect moments of frustration or sadness, but Clouseau is mostly putting on a show of confidence, which makes him both hilarious and endearing. A lot of the mishaps are prop-based or minor stunt work, such as his first big laugh in the film when he falls over while leaning on a spinning office globe, and Sellers gives a performance of supreme physical comedy. It’s not as showy as a Chaplin or a Jackie Chan, but in its own controlled way it’s just as impressive. Being notionally a secondary character, Clouseau is occasionally absent from the story and you always miss him.

Elsewhere, The Pink Panther often leans away from its Raffles and Hitchcock influences, and towards the rough and tumble of a Whitehall farce. It’s a plot of pretence and pretending, featuring characters with differing goals crossing paths in a confined setting, and there’s scene after scene where one or more of the characters is lying. People adopt cover stories, assume aliases, come in and out of each other’s hotel rooms, hide under beds, and even get into bed with the wrong person. (The film has been called a sex comedy where none of the characters ever gets to have sex. That sums it up brilliantly.) The showpiece sequence centres on Clouseau’s wife, Simone (French model Capucine). In the best farce tradition, she has been having an affair with Sir Charles and is now being chased by his American nephew George (Robert Wagner). In an inventive 14-minute scene that maintains admirable comic energy, she must keep manoeuvring the three men in and out of her bedroom so they don’t meet, alternatively shuffling them into the ensuite or under the bed or through a connecting door into another room. There are also different levels of knowledge going on, which keeps it fun: Sir Charles knows about her connections to George and Jacques; George knows only about her marriage to Jacques; while Jacques knows nothing. It’s very funny stuff.

Crucial to this film’s comedic success, however, is that none of the characters rarely finds anything funny. It’s deadpan humour carried off by a cast relishing the situations and the interplay, and there’s a slickness to the madcappery. There’s also fun to be had with the animated title sequence (which was later spun off into a cartoon franchise), the now-classic theme tune and incidental music written by Henry Mancini, and a truly bizarre scene halfway through the movie where everything stops for a superfluous, if enjoyable, song performed by Fran Jeffries. What an enjoyable little film.

Eight Scotland Yard-type mackintoshes out of 10

Next time: A Shot in the Dark

Red Sonja (1985, Richard Fleischer)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

RedSonja

Watched: 8 December 2019
Format: A secondhand DVD bought in a branch of CEX in Stratford-upon-Avon in October 2019.
Seen before? No. 

Review: The Sonja of the title is a woman living in a time before recorded history who is wronged by an evil queen. She was based on a character from a run of Marvel Comics who in turn had been taken from the writings of the fantasy novelist Robert E Howard. By 1985, Howard’s work had already provided Arnold Schwarzenegger with an early signature role for two films, the mighty Conan the Barbarian. But while Red Sonja nominally takes place in the same fictional world, here the top-billed Arnie has been given a new character.

The plot is humdrum beyond belief: Arnie’s wandering Lord Kalidor delivers a message from a dying woman to her sister, Sonja, who has recently been imbued with great strength by a goddess for not terribly clear reasons. But there’s a caveat: she can’t sleep with a man unless the man first defeats her in combat. (Riiiiiight….) Sonja then sets out on a vague mission to get her revenge on the evil Queen Gedren.

The script was the product of George MacDonald Fraser (he of the very funny and smart Flashman novels) and Clive Exton (who was later a driving force behind the classy TV shows Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Jeeves & Wooster). But they can’t give us much more than a boring, oomph-less and episodic plot with pompous characters pontificating rather than talking. There’s also a muddy hint of mysticism and a hopeless attempt at a feminist subtext. At least the film looks good, thanks to some grand sets, a few dramatic locations and the kind of costumes where the designers’ imaginations have been allowed to fly free.

Starring as Sonja (‘Sow-ne-ya’ if Arnie says it) is Brigitte Nielsen. It’s probably fair to say that she was cast thanks to her sultry, Nordic looks rather than any acting ability. She gives a completely dreadful performance, lacking any naturalism or charisma at all. Arnie’s no better either, so their shared scenes are a real test of your patience. Elsewhere, Sandahl Bergman – who was initially considered for the title role – is game enough as Gedren, while Ernie Reyes Jr and Paul L Smith have relatively enjoyable supporting roles as a puffed-up child prince and his last remaining loyal aide.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Before I hung up my broadsword for good, Dino [De Laurentiis, who had produced Arnie’s earlier Conan films] said, “Why don’t you just do, you know, a cameo?” He handed me a script called Red Sonja… Maria [Shriver, Schwarzenegger’s then girlfriend] read the script and said, “Don’t do it. It’s trash.” I agreed, but I felt I owed Dino a favour… My so-called cameo turned out to involve four whole weeks on the set. They shot all the Lord Kalidor scenes with three cameras, and then used the extra footage in the editing room to stretch Kalidor’s time onscreen… I felt tricked.’

Two talismans out of 10

Next: The Expendables 3

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019, JJ Abrams)

SWTROS

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Long thought dead, the evil Emperor Palpatine is back. He wants Supreme Leader Kylo Ren of the First Order to command his ‘Final Order’ forces and take over the galaxy, but Kylo has a different plan. And it involves the last remaining Jedi knight…

WHICH VERSION? There’s only one. The on-screen title is Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker.

GOOD GUYS:

* Commander Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) – the Resistance’s most buccaneering pilot – is at the helm of the Millennium Falcon as the story begins. This feels so perfectly spot on: throughout his trilogy of films, Poe has been the clear successor to Han Solo (another charismatic scoundrel driven by boyish bravado). During a journey to collect a communique from a spy, for example, Poe even uses an unorthodox and daring ‘light-speed skipping’ manoeuvre, which involves jumping vast distances across the galaxy but re-entering normal space inside a planet’s atmosphere. (Ignore the logic, enjoy the visuals.) However, the spy’s message confirms some terrifying rumours: the powerful Emperor Palpatine, a dark lord of the Sith who was killed by Darth Vader around 30 years ago, is somehow back on the scene… There’s also trouble in the rebels’ camp. Safely back at base, Poe’s irritable with his powerful Jedi friend Rey because she’s prioritising her spiritual training over helping to fight the totalitarian First Order. Thankfully, she soon gets on board (literally) when she, Poe and others all head out on a mission to find the Sith homeworld. It’s a complicated quest. The gang eventually stumble across a dagger, which has an inscription that details how to find a Wayfinder – a kind of stellar compass that will lead to the Sith’s planet. But there’s a big problem: the inscription is in the runic language of the Sith, and although Resistance droid C-3PO *can* read it, his strict programming doesn’t allow him to translate from that language (for… reasons…). The team have little choice but to take C-3PO to the planet Kijimi, where they employ a droid blacksmith to retrieve the information from his memory banks. Poe knows this world well – it’s a bleak, wintery, urban, film-noir place, and he used to smuggle spice here. Much later, after Rey has identified the location of Sith planet Exegol, Poe – who’s now the commander of the entire Resistance – coordinates a mammoth plan. Most of their available forces will attack the planet, while others will head off to seek reinforcements. Poe being Poe, he doesn’t sit back at base like a general. He pilots one of the attack’s lead crafts, flying into danger… Throughout all three of these movies, Oscar Isaac has been sensation as Poe, perfectly capturing the swashbuckling tone that’s always there when Star Wars is at its best.

* On the early mission with Poe, stormtrooper-turned-good-guy Finn (John Boyega) collects the intel from the spy within the Nazi-like First Order. Later, while on a desert planet trying to track down information about Palpatine, Finn and his friends are sucked into quicksand. Just before his head bobs under the surface, Finn starts to tell Rey that he has something important to tell her – but his words are cut off. (We all know what he was going to say.) After being one of the genuine highlights in his debut film, The Force Awakens, John Boyega should be disappointed by how his character has fared in films two and three. He’s a very good actor giving a really likeable performance, but sadly Finn often feels underused and a bit sidelined.

* The Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) is still a big part of the Resistance movement, but he’s seemingly killed off when Rey believes her Force powers have caused a tragic accident. (Don’t fret. We soon find out he’s okay.) Near the end of the movie, Chewie is then involved in perhaps the most cloyingly ghastly Star Wars moment outside of the prequels. While everyone else celebrates the destruction of the fascistic Final Order fleet, his alien friend Maz walks up to Chewbacca and says, ‘This is for you.’ She passes him a chunky gold medal, which most fans will recognise as the same type given to Luke Skywalker and Han Solo – but notably not Chewie – after the destruction of the Death Star in the 1977 film. The fact he was overlooked at that ceremony has long been a favourite ‘oddity’ of Star Wars connoisseurs (alongside a stormtrooper who bangs his head on a door and, of course, the fact that siblings Luke and Leia share a kiss in The Empire Strikes Back). But to ‘solve’ the issue 42 years later is just cringeworthy. It also smacks of a bigger issue with The Rise of Skywalker: that fan-pleasing continuity is more important than focused storytelling. (On the upside, Chewbacca is at his most expressive and characterful in this film, thanks to an improvement in the prosthetic face mask.)

* The droid R2-D2 (Hassan Taj and Lee Towersey) clicks and whistles occasionally, continuing his record of appearing in every Star Wars episode. His memory banks thankfully contain a copy of C-3PO’s personality, which comes in handy when his droid colleague has his mind wiped.

* Rey (Daisy Ridley) is now the last remaining hope for the Jedi. (Her mentor Luke Skywalker is dead, while her Resistance boss Leia has her hands full fighting fascism with guns and space ships rather than the ability to levitate rocks with your mind.) As the film begins, Rey is training in the jungles of the planet Ajan Kloss (didn’t he play for the Netherlands in the 1970s?) and it’s going okay. But with no Yoda figure to guide her, Rey has been struggling with maintaining concentration. Learning that Palpatine has returned, Rey realises some old notebooks of Luke’s are vital. Years ago, he was hunting for the Sith planet Exegol and discovered that a mystical object called a Wayfinder will pinpoint its location. So Rey, Poe and the others head off to pick up where Luke’s trail went cold: on the desert planet Pasaana (yes, that’s right: yet another desert planet in Star Wars). A convoluted series of clues (eventually) leads them to an ocean in the Endor system where Rey finds the Wayfinder in the ruins of the Empire’s second Death Star. However, Kylo Ren, the leader of the evil First Order army, shows up too – and destroys the compass. He also taunts his adversary and reveals her true heritage, a question that has dogged her since childhood. Rey, it turns out, is the secret granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine. (Who saw *that* coming? Well, no one. Most of us had guessed that Rey was Luke’s daughter, or Han and Leia’s daughter. Or, as The Last Jedi seemed to confirm, that her parents were just a red herring. Her parental history has been a mystery since The Force Awakens, so having her be the granddaughter of a character not introduced until *this* movie in the trilogy is a bit of a curveball. Agatha Christie wouldn’t have tried something like this.) Anyway, Kylo is engaged in a power struggle with Palpatine and wants Rey’s help in defeating him; he hopes she will turn to the dark side so they can rule the galaxy together. She’s having none of this, though, and the two fight atop the Death Star ruins. She fatally stabs her rival, but because he’s never been *totally* evil and she knows there’s still good in him, she then uses her Force powers to revive him. This results in a moment of clarity for Kylo, who realises he can resist the temptations of the dark side. Later he and Rey fight together to defeat Palpatine… The movie then ends with a coda that sees Rey travel to Tatooine, to the farm where Luke grew up. She reverentially buries his and Leia’s lightsabers in the ground, then is asked her name by a passing woman. ‘Rey,’ she says. ‘Rey who?’ asks the woman. ‘Rey Skywalker,’ comes the reply, proud and defiant. She’s finally found her family – not the one she was born into, but the one she chose… As with Oscar Isaac and John Boyega, Daisy Ridley has been superb in these films. Rey is the trilogy’s equivalent of Luke Skywalker; the emotional centre of the story and the audience’s primary identification character. Ridley has played her with energy and intensity as well as humanity and sass.

* Early on, the spherical droid BB-8 helps out with Rey’s Jedi training regimes, but ends up getting bashed by a falling tree for his trouble.

* General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is still in overall command of the Resistance forces, issuing orders and platitudes from their secret base. She has also taken an interest in Rey, teaching her in the ways of the Force and becoming a kind of mother figure. Now a strong Force user herself, Leia later reaches out psychically across the stars in an attempt to make contact with her troubled son, Kylo Ren. But the effort is so draining that it kills her and she fades away from existence… As is well known, Carrie Fisher died in December 2016. Many assumed that Leia would therefore be absent from Episode IX, which was still 20 months away from being filmed. But director JJ Abrams and Lucasfilm supremo Kathleen Kennedy decided to include the character via repurposed footage taken from unused scenes shot for The Force Awakens. It’s hard to fault the intention, which was surely driven by noble motives. Leia has been a vital part of the Star Wars saga since the first five minutes of the opening film, so to have her be missing from the finale would undoubtedly have been unfortunate. However, and sadly, the result is more unfortunate. The iconic Princess Leia is reduced here to static shots of Carrie Fisher rotoscoped and dropped into scenes filmed long after her death. The other characters in the scenes have to use clunky phrases so Leia’s dialogue will connect to what they’re saying, and you never for one minute sense a genuine connection between anyone. The pull to include Leia in this film also upends Rey’s character arc. Her mentor in the previous film had been Luke, not Leia, but he’s now little more than a cameo. (The Poe/Leia connection that built so well in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi is also mostly ignored.) Leia should have been allowed to die when Fisher did.

* Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran)… Well… She’s in the film, certainly. The Resistance mechanic hangs around the Resistance’s jungle base, occasionally says something functional, and declines an invitation to go on the Wayfinder hunt. (Perhaps she knows that storyline already has too many characters.) After her spunky debut in The Last Jedi, it’s rather pathetic to see Rose pushed to the periphery here. Even worse, in that last film she formed a potentially romantic bond with Finn; now, it’s like the two have barely met. Some critics argue that JJ Abrams was keen to ignore The Last Jedi as much as possible because he hadn’t directed it. They may be spot on when it comes to Rose. 

* Maz Kanata (Lupira Nyong’o), the diminutive alien we first met in The Force Awakens, has now gone all-in with the Resistance. We’re told she has experience and ability and knowledge without her ever being given the chance to demonstrate it. She doesn’t *do* anything. (As anyone who’s read this far in this blog post will know, The Rise of Skywalker is rather overpopulated with characters. Why Maz needed to be involved *at all* is difficult to fathom.) 

* Humanoid protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) is on hand to translate the Sith runic on the dagger the gang find on Pasaana, then promptly announces that he’s forbidden to share the info. (In a less cluttered film, this would be a great gag. But it’s just one of 700 arbitrary obstacles so comes off as annoying.) Later, a droid blacksmith tinkers with Threepio’s head and manages to extract the information Rey and the others need: the Wayfinder can be found in an Imperial vault on a moon of the Endor system. Beforehand, knowing the procedure will wipe his entire memory banks, C-3PO wistfully gazes at Finn, Rey and Poe and says he’s ‘Just taking one last look at my friends’. It’s a lovely moment of charm. With this film, of course, Anthony Daniels completes the full set: he’s the only actor to appear in all nine movies of the Skywalker saga.

* General Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) makes a surprise cameo on the planet Pasaana. He saves Rey and the others from some stormtroopers then conveniently helps them in the latest stage of their quest. He tells us that years earlier he and Luke Skywalker teamed up to search for the assassin who might lead them to the gizmo that could lead to the Sith homeworld. They didn’t find him, but Lando does know where his abandoned ship is. In other words, Rey and co now head off to find the ship that will lead to the assassin who might lead to the gizmo that could lead to the Sith homeworld where Palpatine is. (It’s like a videogame, this. Characters set sequential quests to find different MacGuffins.) It’s fun to see Billy Dee Williams back in a Star Wars movie, of course; it’s his first appearance since 1983. But Lando feels like he’s being wheeled out to please fans and he actually plays precious little role in the narrative. (Also, Lando and Luke were apparently the best of mates? Do they even *meet* in the original trilogy?!)

* D-0 (voiced by JJ Abrams) is a cute, small droid with a conic and comic face. He was once owned by the Sith assassin Ochi and now teams up with Rey and friends. He is entirely superfluous to the story.

* Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), an old flame of Poe’s, seeks him out when she hears he’s come to her home planet of Kajimi. She wears a full body suit and a helmet with face mask, aside from one moment when we see her eyes through a visor. She holds a bit of a grudge against Poe, but it’s clearly a love/hate thing and the former half wins when she gives him an Imperial badge that he can use to get out of tricky situations. She’d been saving it for her own attempt to escape her dreary planet, so it’s quite a sacrifice.

* Babu Frik (voiced by Shirley Henderson) is a tiny alien who works as an illegal droid blacksmith on Kajimi. Speaking in a sometimes unintelligible babble, he’s able to get the information about the Wayfinder out of C-3PO’s memory banks – but the procedure involves rebooting the droid to factory settings.

* Rey’s parents (Jodie Comer and Billy Howle) appear briefly in flashback when we learn that they were killed by agents of Palpatine who were hunting for the young Rey.

* Jannah (Naomi Ackie) is a rebel who lives on the Endorian moon where the Death Star from Return of the Jedi crashed and burnt. She and her dialogue-less friends like to ride horses, even when going into battle on a space ship. In her one real scene of substance, Jannah reveals to Finn that – like him – she was conscripted as a First Order stormtrooper when just a child. She was called TZ-1719 but then deserted after being ordered to kill innocent people. Given that this perfunctory character’s only connection is with Finn, why was her role in the story not given to Rose in order to develop that relationship?

* Beaumont Kin (Dominic Monaghan) is a member of the Resistance who gets a few lines here and there. In The Force Awakens, a similar role was played by the actor Ken Leung. Was he unavailable for The Rise of Skywalker, so JJ Abrams replaced him with another cast member from Lost?

* Han Solo (an uncredited Harrison Ford) appears to his son, Kylo – as a psychic vision or a ghost or probably just a daydream – when the latter is having a crisis of faith.

* Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has a one-scene cameo too, though it is actually him speaking from the afterlife. Angered by her failure to find the Wayfinder and emotional because she’s learnt her grandad is the biggest baddie in the universe, Rey flies off and hides on the same planet where Luke once lived in exile. At her lowest ebb, in fact, her mentor appears to her as a Force ghost – and gives her a pep-talk. At one point, she’s about to destroy his storied lightsaber, but he stops her. ‘A Jedi’s weapon deserves more respect,’ he says, which is a pointed reference to the controversial moment in The Last Jedi that had Luke toss his weapon away with disdain.

* Wedge Antiles (Denis Lawson) gets a *two-second* cameo during the final battle. He’d been a Rebel Alliance regular during the original trilogy, when his screentime had been slightly longer.

* Wicket W Warrick (Warwick Davis) from Return of the Jedi likewise makes a look-down-at-your-phone-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance.

BAD GUYS:

* Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is now in total command of the First Order, after his coup in The Last Jedi. But a new threat is apparent in the form of the resurrected Palpatine, so Kylo wants to destroy his rival. Finding Palpatine hooked up to elaborate machinery in a dark, grimy, vast factory on the Sith homeworld, Kylo is surprised to be offered a deal. Palpatine wants Kylo to be the new emperor and has even built an enormous fleet of powerful ships with which they can crush any resistance. Having agreed, Kylo symbolically starts wearing his old face mask again – which has been soldered back together after he broke it during a tantrum in The Last Jedi. However, Kylo’s obsession with Rey still continues. He’s certain he can turn her to the dark side, so reaches out psychically and taunts her about her parentage. The fascinating thing about Kylo has always been the implication that he’s conflicted. In the original Star Wars trilogy, his grandfather Darth Vader went two and a half films before we sensed any doubt in his dastardly motives. But right from the start of The Force Awakens, thanks to good writing and excellent acting by Adam Driver, Kylo has been different. He’s felt trapped. In a strange way, he’s a victim of evil rather than a perpetrator of it. So, it’s completely plausible when, in The Rise of Skywalker’s final third, he joins forces with Rey to defeat Palpatine – not in order to replace him, but to vanquish the evil. The two have had a strong emotional connection throughout all three movies and we now seem them fight side-by-side, simpatico; even passing a lightsaber from one to the other via Force powers. They do manage to kill Palpatine, but at a cost: Rey lies dead. So Kylo returns the favour she gave him earlier and sacrifices his remaining ‘life force’ (that good old sci-fi standard) so she can live. He also gets a quick snog from her before he carks it himself.

* Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is back! How do we know he’s back? It says so in the opening crawl of explanatory text. And how do we know *how* he’s back? Well, we don’t really. There’s talk of cloning and ‘dark arts’, but it’s all pretty vague. In part, the film presents his resurrection as a recent event, but then we’re told that he’s been pulling strings behind the scenes for decades – he was manipulating previous First Order supremo Snoke, for example, and was conducting a search for Rey when she was a child. When he finally meets Rey, he hopes to taunt her into killing him; this will complete her descent into darkness and she can take his place as the leader of all evilness everywhere. He tried the same with Luke in Return of the Jedi, obvs. It didn’t work then; it doesn’t work now.

* Allegiant General Pryde (Richard E Grant) is a severe and humourless First Order military commander. When he identifies a spy in their organisation, he cold-heartedly executes him on the spot. We later learn that he’s a long-time acolyte of Palpatine’s. Grant is typically classy in the role, playing a sneering bastard with conviction.

* General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) reveals himself as the spy while saving Finn and Poe from execution by First Order stormtroopers. He’s not been helping the Resistance because he wants them to win, he says, bitterly; it’s because he wants his rival Kylo to lose. 

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: Poe, Finn and Rey rescuing Chewie from the Star Destroyer is ace – there are lots of zippy tracking shots as our heroes run down corridors, shooting at stormtroopers, while Rey also gets to use her Force powers (see next section).

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: Encountering armed stormtroopers, Rey is able to swiftly nullify them by using a classic Jedi mind trick. They lose their aggression, drop their guns, and do what she says. Poe and Finn look on, both impressed and confused. ‘Does she do that to us?’ asks a worried Poe. 

MUSIC: John Williams fulfils his life’s masterwork. The Star Wars series constitutes a nine-movie symphony of film score that is totally without parallel. 

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I first saw this film on Thursday 19 December 2019 at the Everyman Canary Wharf in London. As has been the tradition with new Star Wars movies since 2015, I went with my friend and colleague Fraser Dickson. We had time to kill before the 8.45pm screening, so went for a meal at The Grapes, a lovely little pub in Limehouse co-owned by the actor Sir Ian McKellen.

REVIEW: There’s an episode of the 1970s sitcom M*A*S*H in which Alan Alda’s character, army surgeon Hawkeye Pierce, desperately wants some new boots to replace a pair with a hole in the sole. But the supply officer won’t provide any, instead being more concerned about a sore tooth. So Hawkeye cuts a deal: the boots in exchange for him arranging a dentist’s appointment. However, the camp dentist says he’s too busy, so Hawkeye offers to get him a three-day pass to Tokyo in exchange for seeing the supply officer. But then the commanding officer won’t issue the pass unless Hawkeye helps with a personal problem he’s going through, and so on and so on – a comedic chain of tasks and negotiations, all so Hawkeye can get some new boots. The plotting in The Rise of Skywalker can sometimes feel like this too. Rather than character-driven storytelling, our heroes lunge from one short-term goal to another; it’s all very breathless, and provides plenty of movement and action, but you rarely get a sense of anyone learning anything or developing. It’s a shame, as when we do get emotion it really socks home – surely there are no dry eyes when Rey, Poe and Finn share a celebratory hug after winning the day. But all too often, instead of us experiencing the story with our heroes, events just happen around them and are then quickly forgotten. For example, Rey was the plot motor of her first film, driven by a desire to have an adventure and discover who her parents were. Here, she’s guilt-tripped into joining in, then told a guy who she thinks is beyond evil anyway killed her parents, which raises the ante in precisely no ways. Poe encounters an ex-girlfriend, who has no effect on his personality or motives in this story. Finn meets a fellow stormtrooper-survivor, but his character arc would be no different if she were removed from the cut. The movie also suffers horrendously with schmaltz. Perhaps it was inevitable, being the looooooong-awaited finale to cinema’s most popular series, but the fan-baiting references (Lando! Chewie’s medal! Tatooine!) begin to overload the story, while the perceived need to include a character whose actor has died is a well-intentioned folly. The Rise of Skywalker is still Star Wars; it’s still beautiful to look at, with thrilling action and moments of comedy and pathos and revelation. On a surface level, it’s entertaining and diverting and never boring. But, sadly, regrettably, it’s the weakest film in the Skywalker Saga outside of the prequels.

Seven complete redacted memory bypasses out of 10

REDUX REVIEW: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003, Jonathan Mostow)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

Terminator3Arnie

Watched: 1 December 2019
Format: A DVD from my collection.
Seen before? Yes, at the cinema on 19 August 2003 and a couple of times since.

Note: I have already reviewed this film as part of another blogging series – you can read it here. So instead of focusing on the film itself, this article is about how its iconic star turned his back on acting soon after the movie’s release…

Review: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s final films before his move into professional politics. He announced his candidacy for Governor of California in August 2003, just six days after T3 had been released in the United Kingdom, and then won a recall election in October. Almost inevitably, he was soon nicknamed the Governator.

He’d made no secret of his electoral ambitions while an actor, talking publicly about his Republican leanings, attending a rally for George Bush Snr in 1988, and later serving in some ambassadorial-type roles for President Bush. Considered a moderate Republican – a centrist who advocated financial conservatism but also supported liberal issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage – Governor Schwarzenegger was initially a popular leader. For many, he came across as sensible, no-nonsense and conciliatory, even appointing a Democrat as his Chief of Staff. In 2006, he claimed a second term by a winning margin of more than a million votes. However, his approval rating dropped appreciably during his time in the Governor’s Mansion, finishing on a record low of 23 per cent, and he was dogged by allegations about sexual misconduct.

All this meant that Arnie’s movie appearances were put on ice for a few years, with the period 2003 to 2012 notable only for some cameos. He’d already filmed an ear-scrappingly awful appearance in 2004 adventure film Around the World in 80 Days before running for office, then he took time away from his political schedule to work briefly on comedy The Kid & I and action mash-up The Expendables.

An actor who deliberately engineers such a long break from a Hollywood career is an oddity. Studios clearly favour stars with recent cachet and assume audiences have short memories. So when Arnie returned to the movies full-time after seven years as California’s 38th Governor, he found that the world had moved on. He was now on a noticeably different level of the industry. It’s true that his star had begun to wane anyway, his appeal lessened by age, over-familiarity and the fact that his style of high-concept action film was going out of fashion. His starring roles in the years immediately before his gubernatorial adventure – End of Days, The 6th Day, Collateral Damage – were simply not in the same class as his 1980s heyday. But not playing a lead character for nearly a decade resulted in the post-Governor Arnie having to accept roles in what were essentially straight-to-video projects.

He starred as a sheriff in The Last Stand, a prisoner in Escape Plan, a SWAT team leader in Sabotage – undistinguished parts in films that most people have now forgotten. In fact, the return to the big time came only when Arnie went full circle. In 2015 and then again in 2019 he returned to the Terminator series, essentially short-circuiting the two halves of his movie career.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Another close friend I wanted to touch base with was Andy Vajna, who with his business partner, Mario Kassar, had produced Total Recall and Terminator 2 and owned the rights to Terminator 3… If they were enthusiastic [about Arnie’s political ambitions], I meant to hit them up for a lot of money for the campaign… When I went to their office to talk about the governorship in April 2001, I didn’t expect them to bring up Terminator 3. I’d signed a “deal memo” to star in it if it ever got made, but the project had been in development limbo for years… Jim Cameron had moved on to other projects, and as far as I knew, they didn’t have a director or a script. But as I made my pitch about politics, I saw them looking at me as if to say, “What the fuck are you talking about, running for governor?”‘

Seven nano-technological transjectors out of 10

Next: Red Sonja