Thor: Ragnarok (2017, Taika Waititi)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Captured and imprisoned on an alien word, Thor is forced to fight an old friend in gladiatorial combat. But back home on Asgard, his evil sister has taken control…

Despite cynics claiming that all superhero films take themselves too seriously, there’s been comedy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series since day one. The Iron Man strand has given the world lots of droll sarcasm from Robert Downey Jr. Ant-Man and its star Paul Rudd often have tongues placed firmly in cheeks. Even the muscular thriller Captain America: The Winter Soldier uses gallows humour alongside its high-octane plotting. But even so, there was still something very significant about 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy.

As much an out-and-out comedy as a sci-fi adventure film, Guardians was very funny indeed. There were actual gags as well as playfulness, satire and self-deprecation. It was a risk, but it earned a huge amount of money and reviews were great. Coupled with the similar success of the likewise light-hearted superhero film Deadpool, and Marvel Studios knew they were onto a winner. Guardians soon got a sequel, but its influence also extended to another floor of the MCU skyscraper.

There had been two previous Thor films. Neither was without merit, but both suffered from a lack of distinction. The character’s debut movie, 2011’s Thor, hardly rewrote the rule book. Its sequel, 2013’s Thor: The Dark World, was the closest the MCU’s got to being actively boring. But for the third movie, there were big changes. It’d be underselling it to say Thor: Ragnarok is influenced by Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s more a shameless copy. Jokes are never far away from any scene. The film constantly pokes fun at itself and the genre as a whole. The colour scheme has switched from The Dark World’s grim, earthy dirge to an explosion of bright, bold, pop-art colours. And old music is used as score.

Inside five minutes, for example, there’s a confrontation between Thor (Chris Hemsworth, who knows how to handle comedy) and a mystical, all-powerful entity. It’s a moment seen often in genre films, yet here it’s played entirely for laughs. Then, as the action kicks in, so does the heavy-metal chugging of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song (1970). As the film develops, we get pop-culture references, slapstick, insults, a cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange, another confident turn from Tom Hiddleston as Loki, and even guest appearances from Matt Damon, Chris Hemsworth’s brother Liam and Sam Neill as actors playing Loki, Thor and their father in a play loaded with in-jokes for attentive viewers.

It’s fun. Bags of fun. Enormous fun. A lot of the credit must go to director Taika Waititi, who also voices a very funny secondary character (‘I tried to start a revolution but didn’t print enough pamphlets so hardly anyone turned up.’). It would be very easy for a film like this – where the cast are clearly having a ball and where the writers are running free of the usual shackles – to descend into self-indulgent nonsense. Thor: Ragnarok teeters on the edge a few times, but Waititi always keeps it upright.

Having said that, long-term MCU fans do have to let a few things go. This film bears such little tonal relationship to Thor’s previous outings that it may as well be a spoof. Humour is no bad thing in a multi-million-dollar franchise blockbuster, but here it can sometimes feel flippant (a problem that the Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy movies have always sidestepped). When Jeff Goldblum shows up and gives the most Jeff Goldblummy performance in the history of Jeff Goldblummary, it’s certainly entertaining. But it doesn’t exactly help with the suspension of disbelief.

Because, buried under all the silliness, there is actually a plot going on. On a far-off planet, Thor is captured by a sometimes drunk bounty hunter with a secret heritage called Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson, very good). He’s sold into slavery, forced to have his Nordic locks cut off, and must fight as a gladiator in an intergalactic amphitheatre. His opponent? As revealed in the film’s gleeful trailers, it’s Hulk! Thor’s trepidation instantly dissolves as he sees his old pal (‘We know each other! He’s a friend from work!’) but the two superheroes are forced to brawl for the paying audience. Eventually Hulk calms down and, for the first time in two years, reverts into Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, always good value). Then Thor gets word that home planet Asgard is under threat, so he and Bruce – the latter wearing a Duran Duran T-shirt – escape with the help of Scrapper 142 and Loki. The quartet form a team, jokingly self-named the Revengers.

Meanwhile, Hela – the goddess of death and Thor’s never-before-mentioned sister – is taking over Asgard, killing millions and waging war on the universe. She’s played by Cate Blanchet, who gamely wears a skin-tight costume and black eyeliner as she rants and raves and pontificates. The actress also has a Lord of the Rings reunion with Karl Urban, who here plays a cockney wide-boy Asgardian who unwillingly becomes her sidekick. But, as talented and entertaining as the pair are, their section of the story never really takes flight. The relentless comedy works against the story here: with the script constantly undercutting her pomposity, it’s too difficult to take Hela seriously.

In fact, the whole Asgardian section of the story feels unnecessary. Thor, Bruce Banner and co having breezy, riotous adventures in a colourful, sci-fi setting – all scored by 1980s-ish electronica and 1970s rock music – would be even more enjoyable without it.

Eight hairdressers out of 10

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Blake’s 7: Killer (1979)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While Avon and Vila attempt to steal a cipher machine, Blake encounters a derelict spaceship with a dangerous cargo…

Series A, episode 7. Written by: Robert Holmes. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 20 February 1979, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Avon (19) teleports down to the planet Fosforon with Vila, and together they break into a Federation command centre called Q-Base. There, Avon seeks out his old friend Tynus (Ronald Lacey) and asks for help in cracking the Federation’s new communications encryption. Tynus is reluctant, but Avon blackmails him into starting a small fire as a distraction while he and Vila nab the technology.
* When a derelict space craft drifts close to the Liberator, telepath Cally (17) senses that there’s life aboard. She says it’s something malignant…
* After Vila (20) has helped Avon break into Q-Base, he enjoys some of Tynus’s booze while they wait to acquire the crystals used to decipher Federation messages. Then, later, he stumbles across a note from Tynus to Servalan – Tynus has betrayed them and is stalling until back-up arrives!
* While Avon and Vila are away on their mission, Blake (20) becomes aware of a nearby derelict ship. He deduces that it’s centuries old and is about to be salvaged by Q-Base. But the people on Fosforon don’t know that the ship contains some kind of life, so Blake teleports down to the planet and warns lead scientist Bellfriar (Paul Daneman, who skilfully underplays everything). When the ship is opened, a body is found inside. While being autopsied, it awakens and kills a doctor…
* Jenna (20) wants to search the derelict, then is very nervous indeed that Blake plans on beaming down to Q-Base – what if he’s caught?! What if they take his teleport bracelet off him?! (The fact Avon and Vila are already down there doesn’t seem to bother her. Neither does the fact they’ve all been in similar situations many times before.)
* Zen (18).
* Orac (7) does the research on the derelict ship (he Googles it, basically) and tells Blake that it’s K47, a Wanderer Class-1 ship that went missing with three crewmembers 700 years ago.

Best bit: This is a terrific episode, with action, intrigue and horror. But it’s a tiny character moment that sells the terror the best. The station is eventually overrun by a deadly virus that strikes and kills quickly. After Blake and co have escaped, Bellfriar contacts them via the radio to tell them about the antidote – but as he’s explaining, he realises that he’s forgotten how to read. Looking at his hands, he sees bubbling scars. He’s been infected too.

Worst bit: It’s unavoidable perhaps, but the fact the long-dead corpse is clearly an actor in full-body make-up tips us off that it’s going to reanimate.

Review: Scholcky but entertaining. No, scratch that: it’s entertaining *because* it’s schlocky. This is space pulp that zips along very enjoyably. Robert Holmes had been the writer or script editor of some of the best Doctor Who of the previous decade, and in this script you can see several of his favourite themes. There’s a love of horror-movies ideas (the episode soon becomes a zombie story). There’s an understanding of historical precedent (Blake mentions Field Marshall Jeffrey Amherst, an 18th-century British Army officer who tried to deliberately infect Native Americans with smallpox – though Blake calls him Ashley for some reason). There’s the idea that space travel is dangerous, with exotic risks at every turn. There’s a complex guest character who’s not what he first appears. And there’s a distinct lack of interest in women (Jenna and Cally are noticeably peripheral to the action). Ronald Lacey, meanwhile, becomes the second future Indiana Jones villain to play a duplicitous official on a space station in Blake’s 7 (cf Julian Glover in Breakdown).

Eight A-line messages using a new pulse code out of 10

Next episode: Hostage

Number Seventeen (1932)

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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.

Various characters congregate in an old, abandoned house…

This is a film seriously lacking of oomph. Underwhelming and boring, it has the distinct feeling of having been made by a director whose mind is elsewhere. There’s a real absence of polish, for example, which is a vanishing rarity with an Alfred Hitchcock movie. We get poor, hammy performances throughout, some of which often feel like unrehearsed first takes. There’s a difficult-to-follow plot with bland, ill-defined characters (most of whom seem to be pretending to be someone else). The editing is jarring and clumsy. The score often bares little relation to the mood of the scene. It’s a *mess*.

The story begins when a man searches an empty house at night. He encounters first a homeless man and then a spirited young woman, each of whom have their own reasons for being there. Later, a group of criminals also shows up – and we eventually learn that the gang is using the house as part of a plan to steal a diamond necklace and escape via a nearby railway. But the storytelling is astonishingly scant and perfunctory. Alfred Hitchcock once said that drama is life with the dull bits cut out. In Number Seventeen, it often feels like he’s removed the *interesting* bits.

With the events taking place in a spooky house at night, at least Hitch enjoys playing around with shadows and some tricksy lighting. There are a few arresting images and clever shots. The studio set is also quite elaborate and built on several levels, which allows for a fun stunt when two tied-up characters fall off a balcony and are left dangling in mid-air. But the travesty of a script insists on telling its convoluted and clichéd tale with no finesse or clarity at all. When you *can* understand what’s happening you often wish you hadn’t bothered.

In the last quarter of the film, the characters leave the house and Number Seventeen morphs into an action thriller involving trains, a Green Line bus and a ferry. At least the new energy creates some enjoyment. (Check out the charming Gerry Anderson-style model shots!) But there are still some head-scratching plot twists to come in the final scene. There aren’t many Alfred Hitchcock films you’re glad to see the back of. But this is one of them. The director himself later called Number Seventeen a disaster and ‘very cheap melodrama’, and it’s difficult to disagree.

Three bus passengers out of 10

NOTE: Clips from Number Seventeen were later seen in The ABC Murders (1991), the very best episode of ITV detective series Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Although the story takes place in 1936, a character called Alexander Bonaparte Cust spends an afternoon at the cinema and takes in Number Seventeen. He’s later accused of being a serial killer. It’s a toss-up which is the more traumatic experience.

Ten Things I Love About Notorious (1946)

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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.

The daughter of a Nazi is coerced into working as a spy. She must go undercover with a group of Germans hiding in Brazil, but is also falling in love with her handler…

Sometimes a movie rattles around inside your head long after the viewing ends – its pleasures, its story, its characters lingering in your thoughts. Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious is one of those films. On the face of it, it’s just an orthodox thriller about a spy working undercover. But in the hands of a master director, and played out by a first-rank cast from the height of the Golden Age of Hollywood, it’s so much more than that. Most strikingly, as well as a suspense film, it’s also a love story – perhaps Hitch’s most mature and engrossing. Perhaps that’s why Notorious stays with you days after you’ve seen it. These are characters in extreme situations, but the emotions are universal. Here are ten reasons why Notorious is one of Hitchcock’s finest films…

1. The set-up
It’s April 1946. Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is the American daughter of a Nazi traitor. After her father is tried, convicted and imprisoned, she’s hounded by the press who assume she must be a Nazi too. So she tries to ease her heartache by holding a party, but she soon gets drunk and encounters an enigmatic man called TR Devlin (Cary Grant). He’s a US intelligence agent and, despite her belligerence, he forces her to admit that she doesn’t share her father’s politics. He then recruits her to work as a deep-cover spy in Brazil. Their mission: to infiltrate a group of Nazis who have gone into hiding after the war…

2. Ingrid Bergman
This was the actress’s second film for Hitchcock, after playing a psychiatrist in Spellbound the year before. One of the director’s definitive ‘blondes’ – surely she and Grace Kelly vie for the top spot – she holds the entire story together with a performance as detailed, complex and interesting as any in Hitch’s filmography. Alicia is messed-up, a drunk, and at first arrogant and dismissive. But because she’s played by Ingrid Bergman, she’s also *magnetic*. Bergman was a fine movie actor who was able to convey huge emotions with small gestures. Even when being brave or bolshy, her characters have vulnerability, which means you can’t take your eyes off her. Neither can Devlin, and after he and Alicia have travelled to Rio together the pair fall in love…

3. Cary Grant
When Devlin is introduced into the story, he’s shot from behind and in shadow and doesn’t say anything – it’s a theatrical device calling attention to the fact he’s going to be an important character. He’s gate-crashed Alicia’s party, but doesn’t talk until all the other guests have either left or passed out. Then, after he’s sobered Alicia up, Devlin pitches his plan: she can right some of her father’s wrongs by working as an American spy. As in all of his Hitchcock roles, Grant has good looks, a cool sophistication and a sharp intelligence. But there’s a difference from Johnnie in Suspicion, Robie in To Catch a Thief and Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest. Devlin is a more sombre character, a more serious man. In other words, he’s more grown-up. This is a guy who’s been there, seen that, and internalised it all… Before filming, Bergman had worried that she wouldn’t like Grant. She feared he’d be a patronising, self-obsessed alpha male. In fact, the two actors got on very well and that chemistry shines through the screen.

4. Film noir
Alfred Hitchcock made several films that employ film-noir conventions. The most notable uses include Shadow of a Doubt, Spellbound, Strangers on a Train, I Confess and Vertigo, but the genre lurks in the corners of many others. Notorious is perhaps the classic example because it contains so many elements that are key to film-noir cinema: black-and-white photography, great use of shadows, a morally ambiguous leading man, a femme fatal, a mystery plot, a mood of cynicism, an atmosphere thick with menace… even venetian blinds. At its heart, the movie is a romance – but it’s not one drenched in Hollywood sentimentality. This is a tough film, with difficult choices and quiet unhappiness.

5. Claude Rains
In Rio, Devlin’s bosses tell him the details of the mission he’s to give Alicia – and it involves a man from her past. Alexander Sebastian is a member of a group of Nazis-in-hiding, and several years earlier he fell in love with Alicia when he knew her father. Now she must engineer a meeting, seduce him, and learn about the group’s plans… Sebastian is played by Claude Rains, who four years earlier had co-starred with Ingrid Bergman in the sumptuous Casablanca. (Coincidentally, he’d also co-starred with Cary Grant before, in 1935’s The Last Outpost.) In both Casablanca and Notorious, Rains’s character is a villain – a Nazi here, a corrupt policeman then. But neither is a cartoon bad guy. Sebastian is the film’s antagonist, and is clearly a despicable man in many ways, but the actor makes him watchable and, you have to accept, sympathetic. Towards the end of the film, Devlin and Alicia leave him to face the wrath of his co-conspirators. He may well be killed for allowing American spies into his life, albeit unknowingly. You can’t help but feel for his plight.

6. The kiss
Alicia and Devlin’s romance builds through a twisted meet-cute – he looks after her while she’s drunk, even when she’s driving erratically down a road – as well as early scenes of them bickering. Then, once they fall for each other, Hitchcock directs one of the most sensual movie scenes of the 1940s. While discussing their situation in their hotel room, Alicia and Devlin kiss on and off for two and a half minutes. Famously, the reason the two actors repeatedly nuzzle then detach lips was to cheekily bypass Hollywood’s censorship rules, which stated that kisses should last no longer than three seconds. Ironically, by sidestepping the rule, Bergman and Grant created a scene that’s significantly sexier and more romantic than if they’d simply smooched non-stop for the entire movie.

7. Suspense
It’s a definition that’s been often repeated, but that’s because it’s so illustrative. In an interview with Francois Truffaut in 1962, Alfred Hitchcock once explained the difference between surprise and suspense. Imagine a movie scene where two people are sitting at a table, he said. If a bomb explodes from underneath the table, that’s surprise. But if we – the viewer – are *shown* the bomb beforehand and then anxiously wait for it to go off, that’s suspense. It’s a simple principle, but Hitch used it so brilliantly. He knew how to eke out suspense better than any other film director; to keep audiences on the edge of their seats by structuring plots and scenes specifically to delay events that we either wish for or desperately fear. Notorious is built around suspense – will Alicia be found out? Will her connection to Devlin be rumbled? Can the two search Sebastian’s house while a party is going on?

8. The shot
The film has several moments of cinematic panache. Every Hitchcock movie does. Early scenes of Alicia suffering from a hangover, for example, are dramatised by off-kilter point-of-view shots (the camera even turns upside down as she lies back on a bed and looks up at Devlin). But the greatest piece of flamboyance comes during the party scene at Sebastian’s house. Alicia needs to steal Sebastian’s key to the wine cellar so she and Devlin can search it in secret, but she’s terrified of being rumbled. He nearly finds her with it upstairs, but she manages to drop it on the floor unseen. Then we cut to the party. The opening shot pans across the large hall with the camera on a high balcony. There are around 35 people in the frame, mingling and chatting. Dead centre as the camera stops is Alicia. Then – gracefully, miraculously – the camera starts to move. It glides diagonally downwards towards Alicia, who’s turned slightly away from us. It gets closer and closer and closer until her hand fills the frame… and it’s holding the key. As always with Hitchcock, it’s not just camera trickery for camera trickery’s sake: the shot tells the story masterfully.

9. The mother-in-law
Having learnt that Alicia was rooting around in the wine cellar, Sebastian realises she now knows that his group are dealing in uranium – and he needs to silence her. So he admits to his live-in mother (played by former silent-film actress Leopoldine Konstantin, who was actually only three years older than Claude Rains) that he’s married to an American agent. Stunned, she reaches for a cigarette. They both know that he’ll be killed if his Nazi colleagues find out he’s been so careless, so they cook up a plan to slowly poison Alicia… The film now takes another deliciously chilling turn as Alicia’s health deteriorates. The life starts to drain out of her face – but in an illicit meeting with Devlin, he just assumes she’s drinking again. She eventually realises what’s happening to her, but then collapses and becomes bedridden. She’s now at the mercy of her husband and mother-in-law…

10. The finale
Suspicious when he doesn’t hear from her, Devlin visits the Sebastian house and is told that Alicia has been in bed for a week. He sneaks up to her room and the two talk, cheek to cheek. She tells him about the poison – so Devlin gets her out of bed and holds her up as they make their escape. The sequence is all the more gripping because it’s not a mad dash or an action scene. It’s two characters calmly and slowly walking out of a house. Sebastian tries to stop them, but as Devlin points out he can’t cause a fuss. His Nazi colleagues are within earshot: all Devlin has to do is tell them who he and Alicia are…

Ten men at a party out of 10

Blake’s 7: Trial (1979)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While Travis is court martialled by the Federation, Blake decides he needs some time away from his Liberator colleagues…

Series B, episode 6. Written by: Chris Boucher. Directed by: Derek Martinus. Originally broadcast: 13 February 1979, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Servalan (7) is pleased that Travis is about to be court martialled for his role in a civilian massacre. She sees no reason why a guilty verdict won’t be found and even nobbles Travis’s fascist-chic defence lawyer. And the reason she wants her former favourite out of the way? Her failure to deal with Blake may lead to an enquiry and Travis’s evidence could embarrass her.
* Travis (8) is standing trial for the murder of 1,417 unarmed people on the planet Serkasta. He says he’s not guilty, but then spends the bulk of the legal proceedings staring into the middle distance. Eventually he’s convicted, stripped of his rank, dishonourably dismissed and sentenced to execution. But just as his fate is being sealed, Blake and his friends attack the space station. Everyone in the courtroom is killed… except Travis, who is able to escape.
* Earlier in the episode, Blake (19) teleports down to what he thinks is a safe and empty planet. He needs some alone time to think. Recent failures and setbacks, including Gan’s death, have hit him hard. However, he encounters an alien creature called Zil and then the planet – which turns out to be one gigantic living organism – begins to devour all the life on its surface. Eek! After being rescued by the gang on the Liberator, Blake comes to some conclusions. The team need to make a big impact to restore their reputation and power, so he now wants to strike at Servalan’s space station. Unbeknownst to Blake and the others, however, they attack *just* as Travis is being sentenced to death and they cause a distraction allowing him to escape.
* Zen (17) finds the planet for Blake’s sojourn after Blake requests somewhere quiet and out of the way. Good job, Zen!
* Avon (18) snipes at Blake in an early scene, pointing out that he (Avon) doesn’t get their friends killed. When Blake suddenly teleports down to a nearby planet with no explanation, Avon suggests to the others that they simply leave him there and get on with their lives.
* Jenna (19) – wearing a very fetching red leather outfit that makes her look like some kind of space-age Suzi Quatro – admits that she doesn’t know Blake’s motives any more.
* Cally (16) is tricked into letting Blake teleport off the Liberator in such a way that his colleagues won’t know where he is. (Well, they know he’s on the planet below, of course. But planets tend to be rather large.)
* Later, Orac (6) reveals a deduction: the planet is alive! Blake is in danger, so the others mount a rescue attempt.
* Vila (19) wishes Gan were still around; he was straightforward and trusted people, Vila says, and would have asked whether the missing Blake had left a message… Zen then reveals that Blake *has* left a message. In it he asks for 13 hours on his own then let’s meet up again, okay?

Best bit: Avon invents a revolutionary piece of technology that allows the Liberator to remain undetected by Federation scanners. “Avon’s gadget works!” cries Vila. Rather than pride, Avon just feels sadness at his friend’s lack of poetry.

Worst bit: Because there’s a perceived need for both futuristic and fascistic detailing to the world of Blake’s 7, Travis’s trial lacks the courtroom drama you assume you’re going to get. The scenes have no tension or jeopardy. All the characters – and all the viewers – know he’ll be found guilty.

Review: There’s a minor character in this episode played by the actor Kevin Lloyd, who later found fame in ITV police drama The Bill. His role here is Parr, a Federation solider whose rank is trooper. In other words, he’s called Trooper Parr. (Say it out loud. Do you now have a super ABBA song running through your head?) I once saw Kevin Lloyd on a train as we pulled into Derby station. He was pissed, poor bloke. Alcoholism killed him later that year. Anyway, the episode… There’s a split focus this week. Two plots run side by side and are unrelated until the final few minutes of the episode. Both, however, contain more examples of Blake’s 7’s cynical toughness. Perhaps the freshest thing about the Liberator crew is that they don’t fully trust each other. They’re not a Star Trek-style team of friends who happen to be colleagues and who love each other deeply. There’s a more interesting, more complex dynamic going on. The Federation characters, meanwhile, can’t stop plotting against each other. It’s a shame all this gritty drama is undercut by Trial’s hopelessly awful sci-fi subplot. Blake’s time on the living planet feels like it’s been transferred over from a 1950s B-movie, while the character of Zil combines a terrible alien costume with an irritating, drama-school performance.

Seven philosophical fleas out of 10

Next episode: Killer

Blake’s 7: Pressure Point (1979)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Blake decides to strike at Control, the Federation’s central computer system, it leads to a tragedy for the Liberator crew…

Series B, episode 5. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: George Spenton-Foster. Originally broadcast: 6 February 1979, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Travis (7) and Servalan (6) have been waiting in a secret bunker for 18 days – inside it’s all white, cold and sterile; outside it looks like a ramshackle cottage. Travis has laid a trap and insists that Blake will arrive soon. They then capture a local rebel leader called Kasabi (who coincidentally knew a young Servalan when they were cadets together) and torture her into giving away where and when she’s due to meet Blake.
* Blake (18) has set course for Earth without telling his crewmates because he wants to attack Control, the Federation’s chief computer bunker. Destroying it would cause the authorities real damage, he says. But when his local contact, Kasabi, fails to get in touch he starts to worry. Then the signal finally arrives. Unbeknownst to Blake, it’s been sent by Travis…
* Cally (15) – not for the first time – is the one colleague of Blake’s who agrees with his dangerous plans. She thinks his idea is a sound one, which makes sense given that we first met her as a guerrilla revolutionary. Despite this support, Blake doesn’t actually give her anything to do in the mission: she spends the whole episode aboard the Liberator.
* Avon (17) had guessed that Blake’s stated intention to skirt the solar system was a lie. But he nevertheless goes along with the idea to attack Control. His logic: if Blake’s rebellion takes hold he’ll be busy managing it and Avon can take command of the Liberator.
* Jenna (18) – as the de facto second-in-command – is the spokesperson for the others when they agree to Blake’s plan. Later, when there’s no word from Blake, Gan, Avon and Vila, who have all teleported down to Earth, she realises something’s gone amiss. She beams down too and saves the day.
* Vila (18) takes part in phase two of the mission. He and Avon teleport to a spot close to Control and recce its defences. The area is known as the Forbidden Zone, which raises the idle thought that perhaps Blake’s 7 and Planet of the Apes are set in the same fictional universe.
* Zen (16).
* Gan (17) joins Blake on his trip down to Earth. They find Kasabi’s daughter, Veron, who says her mother and all their colleagues have been killed. Gan is fatherly and protective towards her – so much so, he fails to spot that she’s lying. After Vila and Avon arrive, she knocks them all out with gas, steals their teleport bracelets and locks them in a church. (Earlier in the episode, Gan mentioned that he doesn’t know what a church is. ‘A place of religious assembly,’ explained Blake. ‘The Federation had them all destroyed at the beginning of the new calendar.’ What a lovely piece of writing. It implies lots of backstory without labouring the point.) Later, while escaping after a confrontation with Travis and Servalan, Gan is killed when a grenade explodes nearby…

Best bit: Blake and his friends return to Earth for the first time since the show’s opening story. Blake has changed in the 18 episodes since and his arrogance has grown and grown. ‘I think I can do it,’ he says as he pitches his fait accompli plan to the others. His fixation on the personal pronoun then returns when the Liberator team finally break into Control’s central room. ‘We’ve done it! We’ve done it! We’ve done it!’ Blake starts to say before adding: ‘I’ve done it!’ But then he realises the awful truth: the room is empty. It was a ploy, a decoy. Even Avon shows sympathy for Blake’s devastation.

Worst bit: The costumes in this show really are dreadful. Various members of the Liberator team (Vila and Cally in particular) are now dressing like demented hipsters, while Servalan has decided that her mission is so important she needs to wear a cocktail dress, a baroque collar and a wide-brimmed hat.

Review: Gan’s dead – the first of the gang to die. In truth, it’s no great loss. He never felt like a vital character and the small insight into his past we once got never really went anywhere.

Seven pacemakers implanted in my heart out of 10

Next episode: Trial

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017, Rian Johnson)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While Rey attempts to convince Luke Skywalker to return from his exile, her friends in the Resistance are being pursued by the First Order…

WHICH VERSION? There’s only one. The on-screen title is Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi.

GOOD GUYS:

* Commander Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is still the Resistance’s most dashing pilot. As the story begins, he squares up against the evil First Order fleet – on his own, just one small fighter ship against city-sized cruisers. It’s a gutsy delaying tactic, but after he’s bought enough time for his colleagues to escape he can’t resist hammering home the advantage and leading a full-scale assault. While the bulk of the Resistance gets away, they suffer many loses – and Poe is blamed. He’s demoted by his superior, Leia, and then kept out of the loop, which angers him when he believes a new battle plan will lead to the Resistance’s destruction. So he agrees to an idea cooked up by his pal Finn and new character Rose, then relieves Vice Admiral Holdo of command…

* Droid BB-8 is by Poe’s side during the early space battle, then accompanies Finn and Rose on their mission.

* General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is still in charge of the Resistance. During a space battle, though, the hull of her cruiser is hit and she’s sucked out into space… but because she’s awesome and has vaguely defined Force powers she’s able to survive and fly across space back to the ship. (How much you like this Mary Poppins-ish moment will probably depend on your age, your level of cynicism and how much joy you have left in your soul.) The character then spends a long while recovering. Later, once the Resistance have reached a safe planet and are holed up in a fortified base, Leia’s surprised to see her brother walk in. Leia and Luke share an extremely touching scene together before he leaves to confront Kylo Ren… Very sadly, Carrie Fisher died not long after filming The Last Jedi. The Force will *always* be with her.

* C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) features in a few scenes, interacting with Leia, Poe and Luke, but doesn’t contribute anything beyond nostalgia.

* Finn (John Boyega) is unconscious to begin with, after his injury at the end of the previous film. When he awakens his first thought is, ‘Where’s Rey?’ Later, he decides to leave and find his friend, but is caught in the act by a Resistance engineer called Rose. The two of them bond and come up with a plan to disrupt the First Order’s ability to track the Resistance fleet. However – and here’s where it starts to get convoluted – in order to sneak aboard a First Order ship and do some sabotage, they need a master codebreaker. So with Poe’s sanction, they leave the fleet, travel several parsecs across space, and visit a casino in a city called Canto Bight to find a guy recommended by Finn’s friend Maz . The casino section is the film’s biggest flaw: it’s frivolous, throwaway and – with its Art Deco stylings, naff gags, simplistic politics and crummy CGI – an unwelcome reminder of the Star Wars prequels. (It does, however, contain an elaborate tracking shot that’s a reference to the 1927 film Wings, which pleased this film-geek blogger.) After much titting about, Finn and Rose don’t find Maz’s mate, but do stumble across another codebreaker called DJ who agrees to help them. Later, while the Resistance are defending their base on a planet with a crust of red salt, Finn leads a mission to destroy the First Order’s biggest gun.

* Having found Luke at the end of The Force Awakens, Rey (Daisy Ridley) refuses to leave his remote island. She wants him to come and help the Resistance; they need the resurgence of the Jedi order to defeat the First Order. Luke is initially grumpy and says he’s not interested, but Rey perseveres. In part, it’s because she recognises the island from her dreams. Soon, a teacher-pupil relationship develops, though he’s not impressed by her understanding of the Force (“It’s a power that Jedi have that allows them to control people and make things float.”). It’s clear, though, that Rey has huge, untamed power… and seems unconsciously drawn to the dark side. She also begins to have psychic conversations with the First Order’s Kylo Ren, who is Leia’s son and Luke’s former pupil. (The conversations are really well staged and played. The two actors are filmed on their respective sets and simply cut together as if they were talking to each other.) One night, Rey’s drawn to a murky cave where she experiences a nightmarish hallucination – she sees multiple versions of herself and is given a tantalising glimpse of her long-lost parents. Soon after, she leaves to find Kylo and turn him back from the dark side. But he wants her to join him in villainy. He also draws out a truth she’s always instinctively known: her parents were no one special and simply abandoned her. Rey resists the temptation to become evil and escapes…

* Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has been found. Following on directly from the monumentally wonderful cliffhanger ending to The Force Awakens, Rey reverentially passes him his old lightsaber… which he then just dismissively tosses away! (Great gag. Great mission statement.) Luke’s in a bad way, wracked with guilt for his failure to help his student Ben Solo aka Kylo Ren. He’s living a basic, prehistoric-like existence on a rocky outcrop, sharing it with a strange mixture of creatures, and initially doesn’t want to listen to Rey. He finally agrees to teach her in the ways of the Jedi, but she leaves when she comes to believe that Luke tried to murder Kylo. Later, Luke apparently shows up on the Resistance’s planet. But he’s not really there: he’s projecting his body across space using his Force powers. He squares off against the entire First Order battalion, then Kylo in person – all as a stalling tactic to allow his friends to escape. The enormous effort proves too much and, back on his island, the real Luke fades away from existence. The last thing he sees before he dies are twin suns in the sky… With his greying beard, shaggy hair and cantankerous maturity, this is a career-best performance from Hamill, who in this series has believably progressed from a naïve, young upstart to a wise yet grizzled elder statesman.

* Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo, taking over the role from Peter Mayhew) accompanied Rey to Luke’s island, so the two old pals now meet. Briefly. Chewy then spends his time hanging around on the Millennium Falcon.

* R2-D2 (Jimmy Vee) is aboard the Millennium Falcon, so Luke sees him when he explores the ship. He tells the droid that he’s not coming back and nothing will change his mind. So R2 replays the famous hologram message of Princess Leia recorded more than 30 years previously. “That was a cheap move,” says Luke wryly.

* Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) takes over running the Resistance when Leia is incapacitated. As with most Laura Dern characters, she has a folksy quality, but she’s a steely military leader. She also has purple hair. Holdo doesn’t seem to like Poe very much, especially when he questions her odd tactical decisions. It’s eventually revealed that she knows what she’s doing, her actions will save the Resistance, and she’s willing to sacrifice her life for the greater good. Quite why she kept this plan to herself is another matter.

* Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) is a young woman who works for the Resistance as an engineer. When we meet her, she’s mourning her sister Paige (Veronica Ngo), who was killed in a battle with the First Order. Then she rumbles Finn in the act of running away and electrocutes him. When Finn reveals that the First Order can now track the Resistance through hyperspace, Rose suggests a plan to scupper this ability – and the pair head off to the casino city. Later, on the planet with the Resistance base, she saves Finn’s life because she loves him… Rose is a great addition to the regular cast and it’s a good, likeable performance. Rather astonishingly, while publicising this movie, Kelly Marie Tran became the first Asian woman to ever appear on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.

* Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) returns from The Force Awakens in a cameo. Finn and Poe phone her up to ask for some advice and she talks to them while in the middle of a gun fight.

* Yoda (Frank Oz) appears as a ghost when Luke’s at a low ebb and offers him some kind, good-natured guidance. In a move that makes a geek’s heart sing, the character is back to being a puppet after his drift to CGI in the early noughties.

BAD GUYS:

* Among several First Order officers and lackeys are characters played by Vyvyan from The Young Ones, Lysa Arryn from Game of Thrones and Finchy from The Office.

* General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is still in operational command of the First Order and is still a prick.

* Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) is not happy when the Resistance escape his clutches and takes his anger out on Hux. We finally see him for real – as opposed to a hologrammatic projection – when we visit his throne room. So we can now confirm that he’s a disfigured alien who’s about six feet tall. He still doesn’t make much impression, though.

* Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is a changed man. He’s still evil; he’s still kneeling before Snoke. But you can see the doubt in his eyes caused by his encounters with Rey in the previous film. The two characters also start to talk to each other via a psychic connection, which affects each in interesting ways. We’re told conflicting versions of what happened years previously between Kylo and Luke – that Kylo rebelled and murdered his fellow students, or that Luke grew paranoid and decided to kill Kylo before he grew too powerful. The truth lies somewhere in the middle and there’s a wonderful emotional depth to the whole storyline. After killing Supreme Leader Snoke, Kylo takes his place at the head of the First Order… Driver is again absolutely fantastic in this role, turning what could be a cartoon villain into the most complex character in the movie.

* DJ (Benicio del Toro) is a master codebreaker who Finn and Rose are conveniently imprisoned with just as they’re looking for a master codebreaker. A louche scoundrel with an odd speech impediment, the character is clearly shifty so it’s not the biggest shock in Star Wars history when he betrays his new friends for a stash of cash. Del Toro is a bit irritating.

* Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) returns from The Force Awakens and has a fight with her old nemesis Finn. During which, her metallic helmet is cracked open and we see a terrified look in her eye before she dies.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: Kylo takes Rey to see Snoke in his theatrically designed throne room. A massive open space with a shiny floor and blood-red walls, it looks like the set of a dream sequence from a 1950s Hollywood musical. Snoke taunts Rey but also arrogantly ridicules Kylo, who snaps and murders his master. Kylo and Rey then team up to take on Snoke’s bodyguards in a beautifully choreographed and wonderfully filmed fight that’s full of invention and excitement and violence.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: The humour isn’t always successful in this film and a handful of gags fall flat. But there are still many chucklesome moments. There’s Poe speaking to Hux over a radio and pretending not to recognise his voice… Finn stumbling around in a space suit that’s leaking fluid everywhere… Rey saying she’s from nowhere, Luke replying that ‘no one is from nowhere’, Rey telling him she’s from Jakku, and Luke deadpanning, ‘All right, that is pretty much nowhere’… Chewbacca and the cute little porgs… Luke ridiculing Rey’s naivety about the Force… BB-8 mimicking a First Order droid… But the best laugh comes after Kylo has ordered every weapon in the First Order arsenal to fire at Luke Skywalker. Miraculously, Luke seems to survive the battery intact. The way Mark Hamill then archly flicks away some dust from his shoulder may very well be the greatest ‘fuck you’ in cinema history.

MUSIC: It’s by John Williams so of course it’s *superb*.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: My first viewing of The Last Jedi was at the Everyman Baker Street cinema in London on 19 December 2017. I went with my great friend and former colleague Fraser Dickson; going to that cinema to see a new Star Wars movie has become an annual tradition for us.

REVIEW: In one half of this film some characters are doggedly chased by the bad guys, while in the other half the young lead travels off to a mysterious planet to learn about the Force from a grumpy old Jedi. This bifurcated storytelling was used so well in The Empire Strikes Back, of course, but here it’s more of a problem. And that’s a big shame because in many, many ways The Last Jedi is *wonderful*. All the scenes featuring Rey, Luke and/or Kylo are knock-it-out-of-the-park successful… The main series characters – Rey, Poe and Finn – now feel just as integral to Star Wars as Luke, Leia and Han, which really is an astonishing achievement… There are plenty of cute echoes of previous Star Wars situations, but the film is also bold enough to push the mythology into dramatically interesting territory (Luke has flaws, Rey’s heritage is just a red herring, the villain is sympathetic)… The crosscutting between scenes and subplots is fluid and pacey… The action sequences are exactly what you’d want from this type of movie: exciting, meaningful, inventive and easy to follow… The look of the film is marvellous, both in the art of the design and the craft of its realisation… The sound mix is staggeringly impressive… However, the half of the story that focuses on Poe, Finn and the others has several issues. Frankly, after an exciting opening, it starts to feel like vamping; like ‘stuff’ to pad out the running time. The plot is built around a chase sequence and the threat is that the First Order will catch up with the Resistance. But it’s not a chase where characters are sprinting or racing at full speed. It’s played more like ocean liners chugging along through space, which doesn’t exactly help with the tension. It’s also a chase where a pair of characters can pop off on a separate, self-contained and rather silly subplot for *hours*. And while they’re gone, there’s a naff bit of superficial drama back at the fleet. There’s no reason why Holdo doesn’t reveal her plan to Poe (or we viewers), other than to set up a reveal when we find out what it is. It’s artificial and unsatisfying. But, as irksome as they are, these gripes shouldn’t distract from how entertaining the rest of The Last Jedi is. It’s not as good as The Force Awakens – very few things in life are – but it’s still a movie to cherish.

Nine and a half beards that are grey when Luke is real but darker when he’s a Force projection and I’ve genuinely only just spotted that on my third viewing of the film out of 10

Secret Agent (1936)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A British spy is sent to Switzerland on a deadly mission…

The story begins on 10 May 1916. It’s the First World War and London is being bombed. A British officer, Captain Edgar Brodie, is given a fake funeral, a new identity, and an enigmatic mission by his boss – an avuncular man known as R (Charles Carson). Assuming the name Richard Ashenden, the officer travels to a hotel in Switzerland to find and kill a German agent.

Cast as Ashenden was John Gielgud, who reportedly didn’t enjoy the filming process, and you do quickly sense that the actor would rather be somewhere else. Despite its spy-film trappings, Secret Agent is sometimes written like a screwball comedy or a romantic thriller. Dialogue should be swatted back and forth, yet Ashenden is such a colourless character that it sometimes falls flat. Much more fun are his two cohorts.

As a sidekick, Ashenden has help from ‘the General’, a flamboyant, grotesque assassin played by Peter Lorre. (This meant a swift return to the Alps for Lorre: his only other Hitchcock movie, 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, also has scenes set there.) The character is a livewire and an outrageous flirt. He wears an earring, has a natty moustache, and recites his long name when introducing himself (‘General Pompellio Montezuma De La Vilia De Conde De La Rue’). It’s a big performance – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it adds plenty of energy and interest.

Then, when he arrives at the Swiss hotel, Ashenden is startled to learn that his ‘wife’ has already checked in. She turns out to be a fellow British agent called Elsa Carrington (Madeleine Carroll), who he discovers in his room wearing a towel and flirting with an American she’s met at the hotel called Robert (Robert Young). As the plot develops, Ashenden and Elsa fall in love – it’s easy to see why from his point of view – and consider quitting their espionage lifestyles.

Meanwhile, there’s a vaguely diverting spy plot going on. Ashenden and the General identify a man who seems to be English but they think is a German agent en route to the Middle East to cause problems for the Allies. Luring him up into the mountains, the General kills him while the more delicate Ashenden watches from afar. (Back at the hotel, the man’s dog whines in psychic sympathy.)

However, then comes the movie’s one real shock: they had the wrong man… They’ve murdered an innocent person. Elsa is distraught, but the General just laughs at the absurdity of the situation. It’s hard to discern what Ashenden thinks, though, because of Gielgud’s overly stoic performance.

The restarted investigation finally leads to a local factory and a sequence where the noise of industry masks any dialogue (you get the sense that Hitch is enjoying an old-fashioned ‘silent’ scene). Ashenden then learns the identity of the German agent: it’s Elsa’s American friend, Robert, who at that very moment is leaving town… And Elsa, wracked with guilt over the Englishman’s death, is going with him.

The film now gets bigger in scale as it races towards a climax. Ashenden and the General catch the same train as Robert and Elsa – a train that heads into Turkey (i.e. enemy territory). We see some charmingly primitive model shots of the train and there’s an impressive action sequence as the Royal Flying Corps attack it causing a huge crash! Ashenden and Elsa survive and retire from the profession; the General is killed.

As previously mentioned on this blog – in my wildly off-topic review of Psycho – there’s something very familiar about Secret Agent. It’s a film about a British military officer turned intelligence agent who’s given an overseas mission by a superior whose codename is a single initial. The agent then encounters outlandish characters, has a relationship with a sexy woman, visits a casino and boards a train across Europe. There’s also a big action climax…

Secret Agent may be based on stories written by W Somerset Maugham, but sixteen years before Ian Fleming sat down at a desk in Jamaica to write his first novel, and 26 years before Sean Connery pulled on a Savile Row suit to play his most famous character, it feels like Alfred Hitchcock presciently made a James Bond movie.

Seven church organists out of 10

Blake’s 7: Horizon (1979)

Screenshot 2018-03-03 17.25.57

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The crew of the Liberator follow a Federation freighter to a hidden planet with a secret. Blake and Jenna, then Gan and Vila, then Cally are all captured, leaving Avon with a dilemma…

Series B, episode 4. Written by: Allan Prior. Directed by: Jonathan Wright Miller. Originally broadcast: 30 January 1979, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* When Vila (17) suffers from a panic attack, he has to be sedated by Cally. After he comes round, all he wants is a drink – but then Gan guilt-trips him into searching for their friends who have gone missing…
* Jenna (17) continues to be the Liberator’s default pilot. In fact, during a jaunt off the ship, Blake specifically takes her along because he knows Avon will be less likely to do a runner with the Liberator if the best pilot is not aboard. Jenna and Blake teleport down to a planet codenamed Horizon and find some Federation-run mines. Again, the two characters feel like the closest friends in the group, which is more down to the actors’ chemistry than anything inherent in the writing. On Horizon, things don’t go well: the pair are knocked out by poisoned darts, tied up, tortured, questioned, then set to work breaking rocks.
* As the episode begins, Avon (16) doesn’t understand why they’re still running. The Liberator is in deep space, away from Federation eyes, so why don’t they stop and rest? Then when a Federation freighter shows up, he wonders what it’s doing this far out. After all, he says, they’re in zone eight. (It’s a nice thought, isn’t it, that space has a zonal system akin to the London Underground. The Liberator’s so far away from the action they’re in the cosmic equivalent of Cheshunt or Watford High Street.) After all his colleagues are captured on Horizon, Avon is left alone on the Liberator. He seriously considers abandoning them and fleeing, but then his conscience gets the better of him.
* Cally (14) acts like the crew’s doctor, tending to Blake’s headache, Avon’s bad back and Vila’s stomach cramps – all things brought on by fatigue. Later, after most of her colleagues don’t return from Horizon, she beams down to help but ends up being captured herself.
* Blake (17) recognises the crew’s need for a break, but where can they find sanctuary? They’re so well known, he argues, that nowhere would be safe. Then the idea of some R&R is forgotten about because the Liberator encounters a Federation freighter. Blake decides to follow it to find out why it’s so far into deep space – perhaps there’s a planet he could use as a base for the rebellion. They track the freighter to a planet where the natives are being forced to work as a slave-labour force. After being captured, Blake is forced to work too – sans shirt. (Vila is also stripped to the waist when he’s caught. Jenna and Cally get to keep their clothes.)
* Zen (15) tells the crew about the existence of Horizon, but other than its name he knows bugger all about it.
* When Blake and Jenna don’t return from Horizon, Gan (16) decides to teleport down to look for them – but he’s also caught and then strung up on a wall as a warning to other rebels.
* Orac (5) gives the crew some information on Horizon and also operates the teleport. He also features in the episode’s best scene…

Best bit: …which is a *terrific* showcase for the hazy, dangerous genius of Avon actor Paul Darrow. In a scene loaded with be-careful-what-you-wish-for subtext, Avon is left alone aboard the Liberator and ponders whether to leave his friends to a life of slavery. He reasons that he has enough food and power to survive quite adequately, and with Orac’s help he can pilot the Liberator well enough to hide from the authorities. He’s genuinely tempted – but also clearly torn. Orac acts as a kind of sounding board, but it’s essentially a soliloquy.

Worst bit: When captured and forced to work in some caves, Blake arrogantly bosses the other slaves about because they dare to eat some food put in front of them. That’s right: some *literally starving* prisoners get a lecture on social behaviour from a middle-class twat who’s been enslaved for about five minutes. They have the good grace not to tell him to fuck off.

Review: There are some nice surprises in this one. The main plotline – bad guys oppress population and make them break rocks in caves while wearing rags – doesn’t sound like it’s going to be anything special. And it isn’t. But in and around this cliché are plenty of things of interest. As well as all the great Avon business mentioned above, there’s also a short but fun sequence when the Liberator passes through Horizon’s ‘magnetic barrier’, a planetary-defence system that shakes the ship, unsettles the crew, and even manages to playfully corrupt the episode’s videotape image. There are also plenty of telling moments for the regular characters, their behaviour and attitudes revealing (or reinforcing) something about them, and an interesting guest character. Ro is a villain who doesn’t know he’s a villain. He’s the local who the Federation have appointed as a puppet leader on Horizon; he sits on a throne but has no real power. Despite being a prisoner, Blake is able to rekindle Ro’s rebellious spirit and he soon fights back.

Eight seams of Monopasium-239 out of 10

Next episode: Pressure Point

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)

The Lodger at the Door

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While London is being rocked by a series of violent murders, a man checks into a boarding house near the scenes of the crimes. Is he the killer?

Context is everything. I’ve started Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger on three occasions, yet only finished it twice. The first time was during my university degree course in the late 90s, projected onto a big screen, and for a long time afterwards I remembered an entertaining, creepy and visually ambitious film from the silent era.

Two decades later, when it came to viewing the movie for this blog, I went online and found a cheap second-hand DVD available to buy. After it arrived in the post, I excitedly put the disc in the machine… and barely lasted 10 minutes. I had to switch off in disgust.

The DVD had been issued by GMVS Limited in 2004 and was such a ghastly piece of work it made me cringe. I was offended on The Lodger’s behalf. As good as many silent movies are – as great, as important, as interesting, as fun – it’s sometimes difficult watching one. Unless you’re a silent-era buff, the passage of such a long period of time inevitably creates barriers. As a modern viewer, you often need to abandon expectations of pacing and storytelling conventions, and learn how to enjoy a movie without audible dialogue, that has fewer cuts and camera moves, and can (sometimes) be dogged by overly theatrical performances.

And the process wasn’t helped by the awful, lazy, sloppy presentation available from GMVS. The print of The Lodger was dirty, scratchy, damaged. There were jarring cuts. Every scene was in dull black-and-white. Unrelated – and presumably available for free – music had been plastered onto the soundtrack, irrespective of relevance or rhythm or mood. (The macabre discovery of a murder victim next to the Thames? Scored by Beethoven’s Ode to Joy….)

Thank the cinematic gods, therefore, for the heroes at distribution company Network who, in 2012, reissued The Lodger as a lovingly assembled DVD and Blu-Ray. The print had been artfully cleaned and repaired by the British Film Institute. The film’s colour had been restored to what audiences in 1927 would have seen – the image tinted blue for exterior scenes at night, for example, or tinted a warm yellow for homely interiors. And a musical score by Nitin Sawhney had been specially commissioned, recorded and expertly dubbed. Now, thanks to Network, The Lodger can shine in all its glory.

(Just to balance all this gushing, I should say that the new score is only partly successful. Although a definite improvement on the GMVS disc’s that’ll-do dubbing, Sawhney opts for too much bombast. There are also – bewilderingly – *songs*, which is just distracting.)

The Lodger is the story of a Jack the Ripper-style serial killer called the Avenger. Near where his victims are being found, the family who run a boarding house start to fear that their new resident – a handsome but troubled young man played by Ivor Novello – could be the killer. The daughter of the house is a fashion model called Daisy (June Tripp) and she soon grows close to the man; her boyfriend, Joe (Malcolm Keen), is a policeman investigating the deaths.

Of course, Ivor Novello isn’t the killer. His character is actually a bereaved brother searching for his sister’s murderer. This revelation follows a fantastic scene where the suspicious police search his bag and discover details of the Avenger’s crimes. Novello’s performance alters at this point – his eyes well up and he pleads with the audience for sympathy in the classic silent-movie style. (Hitchcock had considered leaving it ambiguous as to whether the character was guilty, but studio bosses insisted on him being innocent. They reasoned that Ivor Novello’s fanbase wouldn’t like him playing a serial killer.)

Not for nothing, The Lodger’s director later called it ‘the first true Hitchcock movie’ because it introduced so many of his favourite themes and ideas. There’s tension and suspicion, romance and playfulness, dark humour and cynicism, an ambiguous hero and an enigmatic blonde. The film tells its story both through the perspectives of its characters *and* from a detached, omniscient point of view. It also makes great dramatic use of the boarding house’s staircase, starting an obsession with stairs and steps that ran through the rest of Hitch’s filmography.

At times the movie feels like a horror film (especially in the evocations of Jack the Ripper, whose crimes were then just 39 years in the past), while there’s also a real debt to German cinema of the 1920s. Hitchcock had worked in the German film industry prior to making The Lodger, and had generally been wowed by the works of directors Robert Wiene, FW Murnau and Fritz Lang. There’s some of their influence in The Lodger, especially in its use of shadows and camera angles. The way the lodger himself is sometimes shot brings to mind Count Orlok, the Dracula-by-another-name villain of Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu.

But the movie also has its charming and upbeat pleasures. There’s the gorgeous, Art Deco title cards… Scenes in the 1920s fashion world… A snappy, inventive sequence showing news spreading across London… The famous ‘glass ceiling’ shot as Hitchcock shows us a man pacing about in his bedroom *from beneath*, a moment of filmmaking bravura that takes your breath away…

What a brilliant movie. Inventive, clever, dark. It’s well worth seeing. Just make sure you see a decent version.

Nine men standing by some railings out of 10