Blake’s 7: Weapon (1979)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Blake and the others become aware that a key Federation weapons-development scientist has gone missing and taken something called IMIPAK with him…

Series B, episode 3. Written by: Chris Boucher. Directed by: George Spenton-Foster. Originally broadcast: 23 January 1979, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Travis (6) kills Blake in an early scene! No, not really: it’s soon revealed that ‘Blake’ was an identical clone bred by a mysterious race of beings called Clone Masters. (Their leader is played by Kathleen Byron, an actress whose career was long enough to include both A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and Saving Private Ryan (1998).) Travis is therefore angry with his boss Servalan, who had manipulated him as a test to see how good the clone was. He even puts his hand around the Supreme Commander’s throat – a menacing move that suits the character’s robust recasting. Original actor Stephen Greif was busy on a film, so Travis is now played by the more earthy, more working-class Brian Croucher.
* On the Liberator, Avon (15) is worried because Blake has been planning a risk-heavy attack on a key Federation installation without telling his colleagues. But Avon later concedes that if possible they should try to acquire IMIPAK, an enigmatic Federation weapon that’s gone missing.
* Jenna (16) is in a prickly mood this week. When Avon asks where Blake is, she haughtily replies: “I have no idea. Why ask me?”
* Cally (13) gave Blake the idea to attack the Federation’s weaponry research station – the idea being that they’ll need all the weapons they can muster if Blake is set on attacking central control. But neither she nor Blake told the others of the plan because they knew there’d be resistance.
* Having said that, Gan (15) is happy to go along with Blake’s idea – he tells Avon he’ll never leave Roj’s side. (FORESHADOWING KLAXON.)
* Vila (16) has a quiet week.
* Blake (16) is clearly getting more forthright and arrogant, plotting dangerous missions without any discussion. When he learns via Orac that a Federation scientist called Coser (John Bennett) has fled his research base with something called IMIPAK, Blake decides to track him down.
* Needing to find Coser too, Servalan (5) is playing a long con. She’s hired a man called Carnell (Scott Fredericks), a ‘pyscho-strategist’, to predict where Coser will be hiding. Then she uses a clone of Blake to trick Coser into handing IMIPAK over to her.
* Orac (4) intercepts a Federation communication that tells Blake where to find Coser.
* When the Liberator is hit by a mine, Zen (14) rather lamely explains that he didn’t see it.

Best bit: The character of Carnell. A lesser show would have made him psychic, but writer Chris Boucher is a smart man and instead creates someone so adept at understanding psychology and human behaviour that he can accurately predict how complex situations will play out. After an error of judgement – not considering that Coser would take someone with him – Carnell flees the Federation in disgrace. But he leaves a flirtatious message for Servalan, who despite her anger can’t help smiling at his charm. (The character of Carnell had a life outside Blake’s 7 too. Boucher later used him in a Doctor Who novel, 1999’s Corpse Marker, then Scott Fredericks reprised the part in an audio-drama spin-off called Kaldor City.)

Worst bit: There’s a laughable bit when Travis uses IMIPAK. The weapon turns out to be a gun that silently and imperceptibly ‘tags’ its victims, allowing the shooter to then kill them at a later date with the push of a button. Travis tags Blake, Avon and Gan while hiding behind a wall – and in a dreadfully hackneyed bit of blocking, our three heroes conveniently take turns to stand in his line of sight.

Review: The episode doesn’t really come together, which is a shame because bits of it are very entertaining. The scenes with Carnell are fun, there’s some odd choral voices used in the incidental music, and the script contains plenty of hard-boiled Chris Boucher dialogue (especially among the Liberator crew). But the story underwhelms.

Six screams of protest ringing in our ears out of 10

Next episode: Horizon

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Psycho (1960)

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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 woman on the run checks into a motel and encounters its nervous owner…

Everyone knows the story. Everyone knows the stories behind the story. The film Hitchcock made in black-and-white with a TV crew for $800,000… The audacious script that kills off its lead character with an hour still to go… The movie that launched the slasher genre with the terrifying, innovative, never-beaten, endlessly analysed shower scene… The disturbing reveal of Norman Bates’s ‘mother’… The Bernard Hermann incidental music made up of violent, piercing strings… The Saul Bass title sequence… Janet Leigh in a bra (several times)… The first flushing toilet ever seen in Hollywood cinema…

With such a history, it’d be easy for a blog like this to trot out the anecdotes and conclude that Psycho is still a brilliant, incisive, shocking, addictive horror movie. So let’s take all that as read, and instead focus on something else.

After Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) has done a runner with $40,000, her boyfriend grows worried and starts to search for her. Sam Loomis is not cinema’s most enthralling character. However, as dull as he is, he does provide access to a behind-the-scenes rabbit hole that’s well worth burrowing into… Sam is played by John Gavin, an actor with a few notable credits. He was Julius Caesar in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) and had a supporting role in the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). In later life, he became the US Ambassador to Mexico. But we’re going to discuss a role he *didn’t* get to play.

In 1971, Gavin was cast as James Bond. Signed and sealed. A done deal. Original 007 actor Sean Connery had jumped ship after 1967’s You Only Live Twice, tired of the press attention and feeling underpaid. But his replacement, George Lazenby, had walked away from the role after just one film – 1969’s marvellous On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. So, keen to keep the train on the tracks, producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman searched for a new lead actor and decided on the 40-year-old John Gavin. He would have been the first American to play the role on film.

However, studio executives at United Artists then got cold feet. On Her Majesty’s hadn’t made as much money as previous Bond movies, so it was decided not to risk yet another new lead actor. They dug deep into their pockets and coaxed Connery back to the series with an enormous fee and a promise to greenlight two other films of his choice. Poor John Gavin graciously stepped aside and was paid off in full. Connery played Bond in Diamonds Are Forever and the film earned 15 times its production budget at the box office. The series was saved.

But Gavin is not the only actor who links Alfred Hitchcock with James Bond. Most notably, Sean Connery was in Hitch’s 1964 film Marnie. The story goes that Cubby Broccoli personally contacted Hitchcock to recommend the star, who wanted to work with prestige directors. (Connery had also been in the running for a role in the previous year’s The Birds.) Hitchcock later said he’d miscast the Scot as Philadelphia widower Mark Rutland, but Connery had nevertheless impressed the director. He also impressed the movie’s crew, who presented him with a gold watch worth $1000 when filming concluded. (Connery was touched, but then grimaced at having to pay £25 in duty when he took the watch back to the UK to start work on his third Bond movie, Goldfinger.)

Elsewhere, the cast of Hitchcock’s film Frenzy (1972) is a positive nexus point for actors with Bond on their CV. Bernard Cribbins (Felix) was a taxi driver in 1967’s Bond spoof, Casino Royale; Noel Johnson (Doctor in pub) played a Navy bigwig in 1981’s For Your Eyes Only; and Alec McCowen (Chief Inspector Oxford) was Q in 1983’s Never Say Never Again. Michael Sheard (Jim) was cast in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die but his scene was cut out. John Finch (Dick Blaney), meanwhile, was reportedly offered the role of James Bond in 1973 and turned it down. If true, it would be another example of Finch being a nearly man of genre cinema: he was also cast as the unfortunate Kane in sci-fi classic Alien (1979) but had to drop out shortly into filming due to illness.

Away from Frenzy, Anthony Dawson was in three Bond movies after his gloriously slimy performance in Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder (1954). Also in Dial M, although uncredited, was Guy Doleman, who then played Count Lippe in Thunderball (1964). Francis de Wolff was in Under Capricorn (1949) before a small role in From Russia With Love (1963), while another Under Capricorn alumnus, Martin Benson, played Mr Solo in Goldfinger. German actress Karin Dor brought sultry sexiness to both Bond movie You Only Live Twice (1967) and Hitchcock’s Topaz (1969). French star Louis Jourdan had appeared as the valet André Latour in Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947) before playing the villainous Kamal Khan in Bond film Octopussy (1983).

And it’s not just actors who connect the two worlds. Screenwriter Ben Hecht, for example, worked on several films with Alfred Hitchcock – Foreign Correspondent, Lifeboat, Spellbound, Notorious, The Paradine Case, Rope, Strangers on a Train – and was also the first writer of what became the 1967 film Casino Royale. (He died before the latter went into production and his more serious take on the story was heavily rewritten.)

The links also extend to television. Before the famous James Bond movie series began, the character featured in a 1954 American TV adaptation of Casino Royale. It was co-written by Charles Bennett, who had worked on the scripts of several Hitchcock movies in the 1930s and 40s. Cast as Bond was Barry Nelson, who later appeared in some Hitchcock-produced TV shows. And the villain of the piece was played by Peter Lorre, who’d been so memorable in two of the director’s British movies – The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Secret Agent (1936). (In fact, as well as starring Lorre and being written by Bennett, Secret Agent is an uncanny precursor of the whole Bond idiom. It came out 16 years before Ian Fleming put finger to typewriter, yet is an espionage thriller about a British intelligence officer given an overseas mission by a spymaster boss who’s known by a single initial. The officer soon teams up with a beautiful and classy woman, with whom he falls in love, and there’s even a scene set in a casino.)

If you search pedantically enough, small connections crop up all over the place. However, some of them are so tenuous – Malcolm Keen, who appeared in three Hitchcock films in the 1920s, was the father of Geoffrey Keen, who was a Bond semi-regular as the Minster of Defence – that perhaps we should focus on the main man himself.

Alfred Hitchcock directing a James Bond film is one of the great missed opportunities of cinema. In the late 1950s, Ian Fleming co-wrote an original James Bond film script and was keen on Alfred Hitchcock directing it. He reached out to the great man via a mutual friend, but the director had just made a spy movie so wanted to do something different. Aptly for our purposes here, he instead turned his attentions to a horror project called Psycho.

Three years later, Bond finally hit cinema screens in Dr No. Producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli had made a production deal with United Artists, and Hitchcock had again been sounded out as director. One of his regular leading men was also considered for the part of James Bond. Ian Fleming was a fan of Cary Grant, and the actor was also a friend of Broccoli’s. (In 1959, he had been the best man at Cubby’s wedding to his second wife, Dana.) But Broccoli knew that Grant would never sign up to a multi-film deal so the notion was dropped.

One of the reasons Grant and Hitchcock were such plausible choices was because, in a sense, they’d already made a Bond picture: 1959’s North by Northwest. That movie’s stylistic influence on James Bond is obvious. It pointed the way towards a new type of film: a hip, fun, light-on-it-feet thrill ride full of action, comedy, espionage, outlandish villains, theatrical sequences and a certain amount of sex. Grant’s lead character, Roger Thornhill, was even a good-looking, well-dressed, intelligent, debonair charmer with an eye for the ladies and a wry sense of humour. (It only took the Bond producers two films to acknowledge the debt. An action scene in From Russia With Love is remarkably reminiscent of North by Northwest’s famous dust-cropping sequence… and it doesn’t feature in Fleming’s original novel.)

As for Psycho? Well, after Marion Crane steals $40,000 and goes on the run, she ends up at a motel. Its owner, Norman Bates, is a peeping Tom and considers her for his eyes only. But she gets the living daylights scared out of her when the spectre of Norman’s split-personality gives him a licence to kill. Sadly for film fans, Marion lived twice. The character was later resurrected to die another day when, in 1998, Gus Van Sant directed a hollow, mechanical remake of Psycho. He didn’t even use any actors from the James Bond series.

Nine men in the street out of 10

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017, Matt Reeves)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Where, when and what: It’s 15 years since the events of the series reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). So therefore we’re a few years into the ape/human conflict that started in its sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) – let’s say it’s now the late 2020s. The events take place in a post-apocalyptic North America. Under threat from the approaching human forces, the apes decide to relocate to a desert. But when a US Army colonel infiltrates the camp and kills the wife and son of the ape leader Caesar, Caesar heads off to seek revenge…

Humans: There are remarkably few human characters in the story. The unnamed US Army colonel is played by Woody Harrelson, who’s clearly taking a lot of inspiration from Marlon Brando’s similar character in 1979’s Apocalypse Now. Also, on their trek to hunt down the colonel, Caesar and co encounter a young, mute girl (Amiah Miller). They look after her and call her Nova; the name is a reference to the 1968 Apes movie.

Apes: As with the previous films, the CGI apes are an absolute marvel. You soon forget that they’re anything other than physical, textured, *alive* characters. After the opening scene, we cut to Caesar (again played via mo-cap technology by Andy Serkis) and from now on, we see events through ape eyes. It’s a brave decision, especially as few apes can talk and even fewer speak in proper sentences. (You get very used to reading subtitles.) Caesar has a command staff, including the soulful Maurice (Karin Konoval), and a family who are soon killed by the colonel. There are also apes who are working for the humans, acting as scouts and spies, who are disparagingly referred to as donkeys (a pun on Donkey Kong?). But the simian who makes the biggest impact in this film is a chimp called Bad Ape (Steve Zahn). Caesar and co find him hiding out in an abandoned zoo. He’s mostly a comic-relief character, but a comic-relief character with plenty of heart and childlike innocence. It’s a tremendously watchable performance.

Review: We start in the point of view of human survivors as a troop of soldier stealthily creep through woodland. One has ‘Monkey killer’ graffitied on his helmet, another ‘Endangered species’. To the sound of Michael Giacchino’s droning score and woodland noises, we follow them handheld as they approach a group of apes. It’s a marvellously atmospheric sequence, which then explodes into an intense battle scene. But after this opening, the movie takes a number of surprising turns. For a start, as mentioned, this is the apes’ story and we’re experiencing events with them. The humans are the aggressive, unreasonable bad guys, which is a switch from the more measured storytelling in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Another surprise is how sedate the film is: after the initial bursts of action and crisis, we’re into lengthy travelogue sequences in some remarkably beautiful landscapes. There are forests, waterfalls, beaches, scrubland; the weather ranges from sun to blizzards. In fact, this ‘war’ movie often feels more like an old-school Western as Caesar and others ride their horses across country on a heartfelt mission. Significantly, the locations all feel real and big and vivid. They suit the story, which is soulful and engaging – and also not afraid to take its time and soak up the atmosphere. This narrative debt need to be paid off in the second half of the movie, but sadly War for the Planet of the Apes starts to drag once the characters reach the colonel’s compound.

Seven eyes (almost human) out of 10

Blake’s 7: Shadow (1979)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Liberator crew attempt to contact a powerful organised-crime syndicate…

Series B, episode 2. Written by: Chris Boucher. Directed by: Jonathan Wright Miller. Originally broadcast: 16 January 1979, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Blake (15) and his colleagues approach a giant space station called Space City, which is a pleasure palace run by the Terra Nostra crime organisation. He wants to exploit their resources in his fight against the Federation. However, the initial meeting goes badly – Blake, Jenna, Avon and Gan are taken prisoner. After they escape, Blake decides to target the Terra Nostra’s biggest revenue source: a drug called Shadow, which is cultivated on the planet Zondar. He, Avon and Jenna teleport down to its surface, all wearing Luke Skywalker cosplay outfits, to set some explosives…

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* Vila (15) is gutted not to be going aboard Space City (Blake orders him to stay on the ship) because he’s wanted to visit it ever since he was old enough to the read toilet-block graffiti. So, unable to resist its hedonistic temptations, he disobeys his leader and teleports over. Much later, he has a stonking hangover and can’t remember the last few hours.
* Cally (12) is left alone aboard the Liberator after everyone else goes to Space City. When Blake gets in touch and asks for all their money to be brought over, she’s able to use her telepathy to confirm that it’s a trap. She then mounts an aggressive rescue attempt which involves threatening to destroy the entire space station unless her friends are released. In the second half of the episode, Cally has the focus of a subplot that goes for full-on weirdness: aliens from another dimension taken over Orac’s interdimensional circuits (or something) and this has a negative influence on the telepathic Cally, who descends into a surreal madness. (She soon gets better after a visit to Zondar, where the kinda-sentient Shadow plants help her. I think.)
* Jenna (15) has history with the Terra Nostra’s agent on Space City, Largo, who once tried to employ her to smuggle some Shadow. Being a criminal with a conscience, she turned the job down.
* Gan (14) objects to Blake cosying up the Terra Nostra. By using their resources, he argues, the Liberator crew will be no better than drug pushers.
* Avon (14) leads the negotiations when he, Blake and Jenna meet with Largo on Space City. They want access to the Terra Nostra high command, but the talks break down. When our characters make to leave, they’re taken prisoner. Later, Avon voices the opinion that they’ve tracked down the Shadow planet far too easily – if they can find it, why haven’t the Federation? The answer soon becomes clear: the Federation and the Terra Nostra are two heads of the same Hydra.
* Zen (13) clearly doesn’t like the crew’s new portable supercomputer, Orac. And with good reason, it seems…
* Orac (3) is switched on when a desperate Vila wants help in secretly teleporting aboard Space City. However, the machine then begins to act very strangely: he takes over Zen’s functions, threatens to crash the ship, and causes Cally a lot of trauma. He’s been possessed by an alien intelligence from another dimension, you see. Cally’s telepathic abilities eventually put a stop to the crisis.

Best bit: Cally contacts Vila while he’s on Space City. We only hear his side of the conversation and he’s clearly indulging in some kind of pleasurable activity…

Worst bit: Sadly, guest actor Karl Howman. He plays Bek, a man whose sister is a Shadow addict and who stole from Largo. It’s not a great performance.

Review: This episode, the show’s 15th, was the first not to be written by Blake’s 7 creator Terry Nation. Chris Boucher – who was the show’s script editor and had, by all accounts, done a fair amount of uncredited polishing to Nation’s work – provides plenty of sharp, crisp dialogue. And the story starts off entertainingly. Blake is getting increasingly puritanical and unwilling to listen to reason, an interesting thing to do with an adventure show’s lead character. He’s so determined to bring down one set of bad guys, in fact, that he’s willing to parley with another. The Terra Nostra are fairly obviously the Mafia (who in real life are sometimes called the Cosa Nostra – Italian for ‘our thing’). At one point, crime boss Largo even denies the organisation exists, a reference to the US government’s naive position on the Mafia in the 1950s. There’s a boo-hiss performance from Derek Smith as Largo and there are plenty of pleasing shots and visual interestingness. All this helps to keep the episode together when it starts to fly off into some very peculiar territory. Increasingly, the Mafia has to move over to make room for muddied mysticism, and Orac’s subplot is rather too obscure, needing a scene near the end where all the characters ask questions and explain it to each other.

Seven moon discs out of 10

Next episode: Weapon

Blake’s 7: Redemption (1979)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Liberator is attacked and its crew taken prisoner…

Series B, episode 1. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 9 January 1979, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Blake (14) is still worrying about the prediction made by super computer Orac at the end of the previous series. And well he should, given that it seemed to be a vision of the Liberator being destroyed. Then his day gets even worse when the ship is attacked by two pursuit ships and its systems are disabled. Eventually, the aliens who built the Liberator teleport aboard, seize the craft and take the crew hostage. On their space station, however, Blake is able to engineer an escape with the help of a slave he happens to bump into.
* Zen (12) replays Orac’s vision of the future for Blake (and us viewers) to reassess what Orac actually foretold. But once the Liberator is attacked, Zen is taken over by the hostile aliens.
* Cally (11) has had an unflattering haircut since the last episode. As this story begins, she and her colleagues are checking the Liberator’s systems for faults.
* Jenna (14) is the most badly injured crewmember when the ship is attacked. She has to be taken to her room, but is soon up and running again. The character’s position as ‘third in command’ is reinforced in this episode: not only does Blake specify that Orac should obey only him, Avon and Jenna, but the script keeps her in focus while Gan, Vila and Cally fade into the background.
* After the attack, Gan (13) does a recce of the ship’s innards to see what’s been damaged, then is overpowered when intruders teleport aboard.
* Vila (14) says he had a headache. (“Have you considered amputation?” quips Avon.) He gets to use his lockpicking skills on the aliens’ space station.
* Orac (2) refuses to contextualise his prediction of the Liberator being destroyed. Despite the computer’s enormous capabilities, it takes Blake half the episode to ask him for help. Orac then essentially says he’s too busy. (From this episode on, Orac is voiced by Peter Tuddenham, doubling up the role with that of Zen.)
* Avon (13) rather smugly points out something that everyone else has missed in Orac’s prediction: by looking at the stars behind the ship, they can identify where the incident will happen. All they need do is avoid that area of space. (You’ll never guess where this episode’s plot-of-the-week takes them…) After he’s captured by the bad guys, Avon is put in a cell with Jenna and tells her that, if they’re going to die, they may as well go down fighting.

Best bit: The final scene of the episode. The crew watch on as the Liberator’s only-just-introduced-into-the-story sister ship explodes – *that* was the craft Orac predicted would be destroyed. Blake then sets course for Earth sector, saying he has unfinished business with the Federation. Avon is concerned and tells Blake so. Blake coolly orders his colleague to get back to his flight-deck position. Avon momentarily considered arguing, then defers to Blake. It’s a moment charged with electric subtext.

Worst bit: The episode’s powering along nicely to begin with: the opening sequences are fun, urgent and intriguing. But after quarter of an hour or so we cut to the guest characters and they’re blank, bland aliens with no personality or texture. The story takes a nosedive in quality and it’s difficult to care about what’s happening.

Review: A poor start to the second season, sadly. It seems to be largely a 50-minute explanation (or justification) for the first season’s cliffhanger. There’s no meat to the story beyond that. Also, given that it’s a new season, the regular cast have had a makeover. All sport new costumes, which feel horribly ‘designed’. The functional, Robin Hood-inspired jerkins and hoodies have been ditched in favour of flamboyant sci-fi garb that wouldn’t look out of place in Flash Gordon. (Meanwhile, Avon’s new metal-studded leather top makes him look like a customer at that gay bar characters keep accidentally going to in the Police Academy films.)

Five medium-range neutron blasters out of 10

Next episode: Shadow

Justice League (2017, Zack Snyder)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

For this review of Justice League, the fifth film in the DC Extended Universe series of superhero movies, I’m going to do something different. Rather than watch the movie, scribble a few notes, do some research and then type up a blog post at a later date, I’m going to write it as the DVD plays. I’ll note down observations as they occur to me. Aside from correcting typos, I won’t do any retrospective changes. Here goes…

The first scene is iPhone footage of Superman chatting to some kids. I now remember that he died in the previous mash-up film, 2016’s beyond turgid Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Oh, we’ve now cut to the present day and there’s a discarded newspaper with the headline ‘Superman is dead’. Given that Henry Cavill, who plays Superman, is front and centre on the DVD cover, I’m gonna guess that the character’s Jesus metaphor will extend to a resurrection.

Now a criminal is fighting Batman on a roof. It’s dark and there’s steam everywhere, a visual palette that makes me wish I were watching the Tim Burton Batman. Or Gotham. Have you seen Gotham? The TV show? It’s *amazing* – it’s the best-looking show on television, so beautifully shot and designed, and the characters are all brilliantly macabre and theatrical.

Oh, shit. My mind wandered already. Back to the film. Now Batman is fighting some strange, buzzy, giant-insect thing. His butler, Alfred, is back at HQ and looking at screens like he’s Chloe in 24. He says he has ‘Luthor’s notes’, which are full of a repeating pattern of three boxes. On other screens, there are photos of four characters, including Wonder Woman.

A song has started: a quirky, Scandinavian-sounding woman sings over a piano as we see music-video-style shots of the world mourning Superman. Poor Lois Lane lies in a double bed all alone. Clark Kent’s mum moves out of her house. A newspaper front page links the made-up-for-a-film death of Superman to the real-life deaths of David Bowie and Prince. ‘Did they return to their planet?’ it asks crassly.

CRIME! In slow motion, some twat kicks over a crate of oranges outside a shop. It seems the world is a worse place now that Superman’s gone!

Joss Whedon’s name is in the writing credits. (I knew it would be. He was brought in to tweak the script then took over directing the film when Zack Synder had to leave for personal reasons.) This is reassuring. I bet the humour will work really well…

Now we’re in London. We swoop past the Shard! Tower Bridge has a huge black flag with Superman’s S logo on it! There’s St Paul’s Cathedral! A well-dressed gang break into a building and it’s a well-staged sequence. The music’s fun, the shots are bold. Oh, now it’s got a bit silly: Wonder Woman is across the street. In full cosplay outfit. Standing on top of the Lady Justice statue on the Old Bailey. How did she get up there? WHY is she up there? Now she’s suddenly inside the building, using her lasso of truth to find out that the men are terrorists.

Oh, fuck off, Hollywood. A British criminal committing a crime in the bloody City of London has just said ‘four city blocks’ are about to be destroyed. Not everyone talks like an American!

Wonder Woman to the rescue. She beats everyone up. She dodges bullets. She pushes a hostage out of the way of a speeding bullet. She throws the bomb so high in the air it smashes through the ceiling and explodes in mid-air. What a load of laws-of-physics-flaunting horseshit.

Now Bruce Wayne is in… Iceland, I guess? He’s in a town looking for a ‘stranger’ who brings fish when the locals are hungry. The one guy who answers in English is on the DVD cover. He’s Aquaman. Bruce tells Aquaman that he’s building an alliance to defend the world (and presumably reckons that some bloke he’s never met will be more useful than the private army Bruce could easily afford to fund).

Later, on Bruce’s private jet, he’s discussing the plot (if you can call it that) with Alfred. Jeremy Irons is bringing new meaning to the phrase phoning it in. Alfred has been researching another potential recruit: Barry Allen of Central City. He’s ‘completely off the grid’ but they also know he regularly visits his father in prison. How is that completely off the grid, then? There’s also mention of another guy – Victor Stone, genius IQ, football scholar… and dead. Er, why are they interested, then?

When Alfred mentions Diana (aka Wonder Woman), Bruce bristles. He fancies her. Of course he does. Now Alfred’s made a smarmy reference to a better Batman film by sarcastically mentioning ‘exploding wind-up penguins’. Oh, piss off.

The storytelling in this movie is absolutely atrocious. Information is just dropped into scenes with no context or justification or finesse or meaning or impact on character.

Here’s a bit of humour. Barry Allen can move so fast it’s imperceptible. Kinda like Quicksilver in the X-Men films. Now I wish I were watching X-Men: Days of Future Past instead of this. In his first scene Barry draws glasses and a moustache on a bully’s face. Sides. Splitting.

With Barry introduced, we move onto the next member of the team: Victor. He’s part-man, part-machine, and clearly not-dead. He was injured in an accident and his scientist father rebuilt him (as you do). He seems to have a chip on his shoulder. (A microchip, am I right, guys?!)

Jesus, where are we now? This film has ADHD. We’re cutting around all over the shop. Oh, I see – we’re on Diana’s home island with the Amazons. They have a magical box (no sniggering at the back), which is ‘awakening’. It glows, it explodes. They point arrows at it. Then a huge, hulking CGI creature arrives via a portal or something. ‘Steppenwolf,’ says one of the bland Amazons. Cheers, love! Saves me looking up his name on Wikipedia. He’s been searching for the box. Lots of the alien insect creatures follow through the portal and we’re into one of those CG-heavy action scenes that makes you think filmmakers are now deliberately aping computer games in an attempt to please Millennials. The Amazon leader does a runner with the box but Steppenwolf gets his motor running and heads out on the highway. He chases and steals the box.

‘We have to light the ancient warning fire,’ she says once Steppenwolf has left.

‘The fire has not burned for 5000 years,’ replies another bland Amazon. ‘Men won’t know what it means.’

‘Men won’t. She will.’

I’m now reminded of The Lord of the Rings’ wonderful warning-fires sequence. It’d be wrong to switch off this garbage and watch that instead, wouldn’t it?

Cut to Diana at her day job in a museum. The sound on the nearby telly magically rises and a hysterical BBC news reporter blathers on about a fire somewhere in the world. Diana knows what this means…

And now we’re with Lois Lane at the Daily Planet in Metropolis. Amy Adams must have the worst agent in Hollywood. She was really good in Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can, then couldn’t get another job for love nor money. Now she’s trapped in this DC contract and is given perfunctory, badly written scenes like this one where she and Clark’s mum fail the Bechdel test.

Diana’s come to visit Bruce. She’s just made a passing reference to the Chris Pine character from her solo film, and I now wish I were watching that instead. Or any other Chris Pine movie. I love the Star Treks he’s in. Yes, all three of them. And Unstoppable is an amazing film. It’s essentially one 90-minute action scene but is also great fun and-

Fuck! Got distracted again. Diana is now telling Bruce who Steppenwolf is. Via grimy, CGI flashbacks. To cut an underdeveloped story short he’s a powerful bad guy who wants the Mother Boxes, three mystical cubes that contain nebulous but enormous power. There’s a common problem with these kinds of films: they misunderstand how a MacGuffin works. (I’ve paused the DVD while I make this point.) A MacGuffin – the term was popularised by Alfred Hitchcock – is an object or idea in a story that motivates the characters but is essentially unimportant to the viewer. In a heist movie, it’s the money in the vault. In a Indiana Jones film, it’s the ancient relic. But in many superhero films the MacGuffin is so ridiculously bizarre or maddeningly vague you stop caring that the characters care. A MacGuffin shouldn’t need explaining. *Because it’s not important.* In Reservoir Dogs, there isn’t a big long sequence exploring why a gang of criminals want to steal some jewels; we just understand that they’re valuable. It’s how the MacGuffin affects the characters that counts. In Justice League, the Mother Boxes have no psychological impact on our characters at all.

Press play. Bloody hell, I’m only half an hour in. I need to stop commenting on everything I think of.

Diana says that, thousands of years ago, various races – Amazons, men, gods – came together to form an alliance to defeat Steppenwolf. The Mother Boxes were then split up to hide them. “One was entrusted to the Amazons,” says Diana in voiceover. “One to the Atlanteans… The box of men was buried in secret.” This script REALLY has a hard-on for The Lord of the Rings, doesn’t it?

Bruce and Diana’s recruitment scheme continues. Bruce finds Barry in an abandoned building – it’s now clear that Barry is this film’s comic relief. His dialogue feels like it’s from a different movie; it’s more like the tone in Marvel’s Ant-Man or Guardians of the Galaxy. Some of it’s amusing, but it’s mostly tiresome. It’s far from breezy wit. This comedy feels plastered on top of someone else’s script. (Rumour has it extensive reshoots were ordered to make the film funnier.)

Meanwhile, Diana seeks out Victor. He knows that she’s Wonder Woman and that Bruce is Batman. How? Fuck knows. And also meanwhile, Aquaman swims down to the bottom of the ocean. One of the boxes is there and bad guys arrive to steal it. How did they know it was there? Fuck knows.

Now, I’m not a comic-book fan. I love movies based on them, but actual comic books themselves? Nope, not for me. So I may be very wide off the mark here. But it strikes me that one of the reasons this storytelling doesn’t work is that aping a comic book too closely. Scenes are short. Information is summarised succinctly and then we move on. Emotion and humour are faded up and down like sound effects rather than feeling integral to the characters and situations. Seemingly important characters pop up with no explanation then vanish from the story just as quickly. There’s no movie-like development, growth, progression or pacing.

I’m banging on now. Let’s cover the next few scenes with just one-line comments. JK Simmons has turned up as Detective Jim Gordon. There’s a shameless shot of Gal Gadot’s arse. Steppenwolf has taken hostages including Victor’s dad, who’s played by Miles Dyson from Terminator 2. (I now wish I were watching Terminator 2. But I always wish that.) Batman, Wonder Woman, Victor (aka Cyborg, I think) and Barry (aka The Flash) save the hostages with relative ease. They don’t break a sweat. I bet the CGI team had to pull a few all-nighters, though. Oh, and Aquaman shows up. He helps by controlling water or something.

Right, so now Steppenwolf has two of the Mother Boxes but needs the third – the one entrusted to men. And Victor has that one. It had ended up at the lab where Vic’s dad works. Ooh, here’s a bit of inter-team drama. Bruce wants to use the Mother Box to revive Superman from the dead. (Barry mentions Pet Semetary – good gag.) Diana says it’s a bad idea and rows with Bruce. He cruelly – but accurately – calls her out for spending a century doing bugger all to help innocent people. At least the scenes are *about* something now, but we’re also into that slow middle phase of a superhero movie where people in the cinema start going for a wee.

Barry and Victor dig up Clark Kent’s body, then the whole team go to the alien ship from Man of Steel and, thanks to some bullshit science, resurrect him. But Superman is pissed: with his shirt off to please certain fans, he fights his former colleagues. He’s especially angry at Batman. Ungrateful twat. But he calms down when Lois Lane appears on the scene and the pair leave together. But – oh no! – Steppenwolf has sneaked in and stolen the third Mother Box! Cripes! He has them all now! Which is bad!

Diana’s not too concerned, though. ‘So we find them,’ she says. ‘If the boxes are even close to each other, there is going to be some kind of energy surge.’ Seriously, that’s a line of dialogue she actually says. I know the global geek concensus is that Diana Prince is a marvellous character and a great role model for women of all ages and that Gal Gadot is a goddess of imperishable magnificence and all that. But I’m really bored of the character being flawless. Her enjoyable solo film gave her a bit of depth, but in these crossover events she has to the perfectly beautiful, unflappable know-it-all who can do anything. Surely characters are only interesting if they have to overcome things.

Next we get another lame attempt at comedy when Batman nervously asks Aquaman if he talks to fish. “The water does the talking,” says Aquaman like that means something.

So, let’s be clear. The worst, most powerful villain in the history of villains now has all three of the plot devices he needs to destroy the whole world. So do the Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash and Cyborg leap into action? No, they skulk around and discuss their feelings. Meanwhile, Superman is being cheered up by Lois – the scene is meant to be touching, but once you twig that this is the footage where Henry Cavill’s moustache has been digitally removed because he’d grown one for another film, you just can’t stop staring at his rubbery top lip.

We’re approaching the climax now (I hope). Our team are aboard a huge, technologically advanced cargo plane, heading for a nuclear power plant in northern Russia. The plane reminds me of the equivalent craft in the Avengers movies, and I now wish I were watching those films instead. Justice League makes the weakest of that series (Thor: The Dark World?) seem positively masterful. At its worst, the Marvel series always has a basic storytelling competency that’s woefully absent here.

Right, the home straight now. A big long action sequence that feels depressingly artificial. As is often the case with these kinds of third acts, there’s no heft or consequence to anything. No real threat or suspense. It’s just actors and stunt performers matted into CGI. Our characters fight the bad guys. There are occasional gags involving Barry. Jeremy Irons radios in with exposition. Superman shows up, looking all smug. (The music quotes the John Williams theme from 1978 – nice touch!)

But they win, obviously. We then get the usual wrap-up scenes that point the way to more sequels. Oh, and there’s a tiny, one-shot scene filmed outside the British Museum.

Well, we’re near the end now, so can I sum up Justice League?

It was awful. Really crummy. I suppose it was slightly less awful than Batman v Superman. It was certainly more colourful to look at, lighter in tone, quite a bit shorter and slightly less boring. But it was still a dreadful movie.

Three snack holes out of 10

Oh, I forgot there’d be post-credits scenes. The first one’s quite funny: a dick-measuring contest between Superman and the Flash over who can run faster. Then, after a further 387 minutes of credits, Lex Luthor returns. Oh good.

Four years of reviews…

To celebrate four years since I began this blog, here’s a list of every review that’s gained a maximum score of 10 out of 10…

Rubber Soul (1965)
Revolver (1966)
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band (1967; actually, I gave it 4,000 out of 10, but that’s the same thing)
Abbey Road (1969)
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
The Wicker Man (1973)
Fawlty Towers: The Builders (1975)
Fawlty Towers: The Hotel Inspectors (1975)
Fawlty Towers: Gourmet Night (1975)

Jaws (1975)
Star Wars (1977)
Alien (1979)
Fawlty Towers: Communication Problems (1979)
Fawlty Towers: The Kipper and the Corpse (1979)
Fawlty Towers: The Anniversary (1979)
Fawlty Towers: Basil the Rat (1979)
The Empire Strikes Back (1980; actually, because it’s so good I gave it 11 out of 10)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Return of the Jedi (1983)
Hatful of Hollow (1984)
Back to the Future (1985)
The Breakfast Club (1985)
Aliens (1986)
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
The Queen is Dead (1986)

Die Hard (1988)
Back to the Future Part II (1989)
Batman (1989)
Blackadder Goes Forth (1989)
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Licence to Kill (1989)

Red Dwarf III (1989)
Back to the Future Part III (1990)
Aliens: Special Edition (1991)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut (1992)

Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Jurassic Park (1993)
Schindler’s List (1993)

Definitely Maybe (1994)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
GoldenEye (1995)
(What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (1995)
Fargo (1996)
The Empire Strikes Back: Special Edition (1997)

Jackie Brown (1997)
The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Masterplan (1998)
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Firefly: Our Mrs Reynolds (2002)
Firefly: Out of Gas (2002)
Firefly: Objects in Space (2002)
Serenity (2005)
Casino Royale (2006)
Love (2006)
Blade Runner: The Final Cut (2007)
The Dark Knight (2008)
Star Trek (2009)

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)
The Lego Movie (2014)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Logan (2017)

Blake’s 7: Orac (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

With their crewmates suffering from radiation sickness, Blake and Cally head to the planet Aristo, hoping to find a cure – and the mysterious Orac. But the Federation are also hunting for Orac…

Series A, episode 13. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 27 March 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Gan (12) is just one of the Liberator crew struck with lethargy and sweating fits. He has radiation sickness because of his time on the planet Cephlon (in the previous episode).
* Blake (13) has very helpfully edited together a video recapping the events of last week. He’s even recorded a stentorious voiceover. He shows it to Avon, who uncharacteristically has the grace not to point out that it’s just telling him things he already knows. Blake also figures out that Ensor’s ship was sabotaged, so sets course for his home planet where they find his dying father. And a remarkable machine called Orac.
* Avon (12) feels dizzy early on: he’s another victim of the radiation sickness. When Blake hopes Ensor’s father will have some anti-radiation drugs, Avon points out the irony that they are travelling to a planet to save a stranger’s life in the hope that stranger will then save theirs. Later, when Blake and Cally don’t return from the planet Aristo, a visibly ill Avon beams down – and that’s the term he uses – to search for them.
* Jenna (13) is also under the weather, but still finds the strength to pilot the Liberator.
* Vila (13) – another radiation victim – says he can’t die. Avon points out that he can: “It’s the one talent we all share. Even you.”
* Zen (11) goes wonky at one point, slurring his speech. Then it becomes clear that he has been taken over by an outside force: Orac.
* Cally (10) finds Jenna looking woozy in a corridor, so takes her to the medical bay (and accidentally gropes her as she does so). She then deduces why Jenna, Vila, Avon and Gan are ill – they need drugs that the Liberator stores (for once) don’t have. Later, she and Blake teleport down to the planet Aristo. They find Ensor’s father and give him the power cells he needs for his artificial heart; they also ask him if he has any drugs… Oh, and by the way, what’s this Orac thing that everyone’s talking about?
* Orac (1) initially seems to be a talking plant. But that’s just the way he’s filmed in order to disguise the truth: he’s actually a super computer designed by Ensor and housed in a portable Plexiglass box. He makes a buzzy noise when switched on and has a prissy, pedantic manner, kinda like a ruder version of C-3PO. But his capabilities are quite astonishing – he can access any other computer in the known universe and collate masses of information and analysis. After Ensor’s death, using the finders-keepers rule, Blake and the others take Orac back to the Liberator with them. (Orac is voiced by Derek Farr, the actor who plays Ensor Snr.)
* Travis (5) and Servalan (4) arrive on the planet Aristo and break into Ensor’s base via some underground tunnels. At one point, Servalan is menaced by a humanoid amphibian monster called a Phibian and is visibly shaken by the experience. She manages to pull herself together quickly, but she and Travis arrive just too late: Blake, Cally and Ensor have done a runner with Orac.

Best bit: Being the last episode of season one, it needs to finish on a cliffhanger. And we get a whopper. As a demonstration of his ability to predict the future based on available information and deductive reasoning, Orac shows Blake and co a vision of the Liberator being seemingly destroyed.

Worst bit: Between the location filming and the studio recording for this episode, actor Stephen Greif injured his ankle badly while playing squash. So Travis’s indoor scenes had to be recorded with a body double whose face is always inelegantly out of frame. Greif later dubbed his dialogue over the shots, but it really jars.

Review: The first season of Blake’s 7 ends with one its duller episodes. We’re following on from the previous episode, Deliverance, and finally get to find out what Orac is and why it’s so valuable. But everything’s a bit underwhelming. There’s a fair amount of ‘Zen explains things’ rather than actual storytelling, while Servalan and Travis’s subplot seems to go on forever.

Six decontaminate drugs out of 10

Next episode: Redemption

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

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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 couple’s young son is kidnapped to prevent them from revealing some dangerous information…

Alfred Hitchcock once said he wasn’t ‘audience conscious’ when, in 1934, he first made a film called The Man Who Knew Too Much. But 22 years and 25 movies later, he directed a loose remake. It was produced at the height of his Hollywood popularity and power, and as well as the many cosmetic or production differences from the original – colour! Widescreen! Americans! – there was also a significantly different script.

Writer John Michael Hayes was told not to view the 1930s movie or read its script, so instead he worked off an outline told to him verbally by Hitchcock. The result is the same vague storyline: an innocent couple on holiday stumble across some dangerous information and their child is kidnapped to stop them from talking. But the plot has been rejigged and the trappings moved around. One reason for this was to give the father character more action – Hitch argued that if you’ve cast James Stewart, you can’t lock him up for as long as Leslie Banks was in the original.

This was Stewart’s third role for Alfred Hitchcock, after a key supporting character in Rope and the lead in Rear Window. A charismatic powerhouse, Stewart was perhaps the best ‘everyman’ Hollywood’s ever had. He possessed an amazing ability to play decent, likeable men who wear their intelligence lightly. Here, he’s Ben McKenna, a successful doctor on holiday in north Africa with his family. Ben’s wife, Jo, is played by Doris Day. Hitch cast her against the wishes of colleagues who wanted a more ‘serious’ actress – someone like Lana Turner, Grace Kelly or Jane Russell – but he knew Day was more than just a singer. And he was right. She’s fantastic in this film.

In the early scenes of Ben, Jo and son Hank (an irritating Christopher Olsen), the movie has a travelogue feel. Unlike the 1934 film, which began in the Swiss Alps, we’re in Morocco. We see markets and traders and street exhibitionists and bustling buses; we learn about why Muslim women wear veils and all about Moroccan restaurant etiquette. The sequence is a combination of location work in Marrakesh, and shots taken of Stewart and Day back in Hollywood acting against massive rear-projection plates. It’s also a more leisurely opening than in 1934 – but that allows us to get to know Ben and Jo much more than Bob and Jill, their equivalents in that first movie. The couple meet a Frenchman called Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin), then an English couple called Lucy and Edward Drayton (Brenda De Banzie and Bernard Miles). Ben is jovial towards them all, but Jo is suspicious of Louis.

The situation is preparing the ground for a suspense plot, but as ever with Hitchcock there’s also time for human moments or humour. In their hotel room, Jo and Hank enjoy singing Que Sera, Sera together – being played by Doris Day, Jo has quite a nice voice and the scene is adorably sweet. There’s also some fun business when Ben can’t settle on a low, soft chair and struggles to eat with one hand.

Then comes a crisis… The next day, Bernard is stabbed in the street. Just before he dies he whispers a message to Ben. There’s to be as assassination in London! This is a nice simplification of the 1934 film, which only got to this information after some silliness about a secret message hidden in a shaving brush. Then Ben receives a phone call while at the local police station – Hank has been kidnapped and Ben better keep quiet about what he’s heard. To make matters even more harrowing, Ben twigs that the kidnappers are the friendly English couple from the hotel.

A big problem with the 1930s movie is that the parents’ reaction to their child being taken hasn’t dated very well. In that film, the Lawrences are too reserved, too pent-up, for us to have much sympathy. This version, though, solves that issue with more heartfelt writing and acting. Ben doesn’t tell Jo straightaway, and James Stewart plays his character’s isolated terror very well indeed. You really feel for him as he tries to maintain an appearance of calmness when he’s clearly going through hell inside. Then when he finally breaks the news to Jo, she balls and cries with anguish. It’s very affecting.

Bernard’s message mentioned ‘Ambrose Chappell’ in London, so the couple head there now. Ben tries to find Mr Chappell, but his quest is a red herring that involves a comedic brawl in a taxidermists’ workshop, the various animals staring down impassively. Jo, meanwhile, deduces that Ambrose Chapel is a place – an actual chapel which turns out to be run by the English couple from Morocco. Ben confronts them but is knocked out and locked up – he later escapes by climbing up the church’s bell rope – while Jo heads to the Albert Hall. That’s where the police chief is because he’s attending a concert with a foreign dignitary. It also turns out to be the location of the assassination…

At the Albert Hall, we get a nine-minute scene with no dialogue as Hitch cuts between the orchestra, Jo looking nervous, Ben arriving, Jo explaining she’s spotted the assassin… The intensity rises with the orchestral music (which is the same Arthur Benjamin piece as used in 1934). Then Jo screams at the key moment, the assassination is avoided, and the shooter dies after a fall from the balcony. It’s a wonderful sequence, staged and edited with real skill.

But Hank is still being held hostage, and Ben and Jo deduce he’s at the embassy of the foreign dignitary. Ben and Jo blag their way in, and a nearly tearful Jo sings a heartfelt performance of Que Sera, Sera to distract everyone while Ben searches the building. It’s a happy reunion for the family, unlike the cursory moment in 1934. And that’s the key reason why this version is the better film. Times change, of course, as do moviegoing tastes. But whereas both films contain suspense, action, intrigue and Hitchcock-style flamboyance, the British-made, pre-war movie now comes off as quite shallow. In 1956, thanks to actors as good as James Stewart and Doris Day, there’s emotion alongside the excitement.

Eight men in the market out of 10

 

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

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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 couple’s young daughter is kidnapped to prevent them from revealing some dangerous information…

Alfred Hitchcock made two movies with the same title, but while they share the same basic storyline, they’re told in extremely different ways. In fact, the more you watch the more the contrasts pile up: British vs American… pre-war vs post-war… black-and-white vs colour… the nearly square Academy aspect ratio vs widescreen VistaVision… mostly forgotten actors vs Hollywood star power… a bombastic orchestra vs Que Sera, Sera. In this blog post and the next, I’ll be watching these two films and seeing how they compare.

The 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much – produced when Alfred Hitchcock was the star director of the UK film industry – came about after an aborted attempt at filming a Bulldog Drummond story. Tickled by the subject matter but unable to get the project going, Hitch concocted an original plotline about international intrigue and topped it off with a title taken from an unrelated GK Chesterton book.

The action begins in Switzerland. Married English couple Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks – who later grimed himself down to play a bad guy in Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn – and Edna Best) are on holiday with their precocious young daughter, Betty (Nova Pilbeam). They’re a frightfully clipped and proper family, one where the mother tells her nagging daughter that she’ll be with her presently. They watch the ski-jumping and Jill enjoys taking part in a clay-pigeon shoot. But the lightness ends when, later that night, fellow hotel guest Louis (Pierre Fresnay) is shot by a sniper. Before he expires he has just enough time to tell Jill to collect a shaving brush from his room and take it to the British consulate. In its handle, the brush contains a secret note: ‘Make contact A. Hall 21st March’.

The Lawrences then learn the shock news that Betty has been kidnapped, and are warned by the bad guys to keep quiet about the note. Jill is so overcome she faints, dramatised by Hitch cutting to some jarring, spinning camera shots to convey her dizziness. The notion of innocent characters getting caught up in dangerous, criminal or espionage-related events was a favourite of Hitch’s, appearing in various movies and reaching its zenith in 1959’s North By Northwest. The idea drives The Man Who Knew Too Much, with the gag being that the man didn’t *want* to know too much; he’s just lumbered with it. (The title’s misleading, by the way: both parents know too much.)

The Lawrences return to London – what else can they do? – and pretend that nothing’s amiss. Jill lingers round Betty’s room holding her toys and drinking, while Bob glibly pretends to the police that Betty has gone to stay with friends. Then a man from the Foreign Office shows up. He knows what’s really going on, in the way that silky spymasters from Whitehall always do, and tells them that a man called Ropa is about to be assassinated. Louis had uncovered this so was killed by the bad guys. Bob asks why the death of an obscure foreign dignitary should matter, so the mandarin makes a direct analogy to the assassination of Serbia’s Archduke Ferdinand (an event then just 20 years in the past).

To modern eyes, the biggest problem with the story is the parents’ calmness. The emotion’s not strong enough; the situation lacks punch. Bob and Jill should be devastated with worry yet seem to be coping reasonably well. Lawrence and his friend Clive (Hugh Wakefield) start to investigate, but it’s not driven by a father’s desperate need to find his daughter. It feels more like a mild curiosity. Their quest takes them to Wapping in east London and into contact with a peculiar man called Abbott, who we recognise as a guest from the ski resort. They tail him to the Tabernacle of the Sun, a religious order in a ramshackle building, and now the film picks up intensity thanks to a scene-stealing performance.

Abbott is played by Hungarian-born Peter Lorre. Hitchcock knew the actor from Fritz Lang’s German classic M (1931), in which he had played an oddly sympathetic child murderer. Initially cast here as another character – the assassin Ramon – Lorre was soon promoted to the main villain role after impressing Hitchcock in person. He reportedly didn’t speak English at the time of filming, but this is a well-trodden anecdote that we should take with a pinch of salt. Not only does Abbott have *reams* of dialogue in uninterrupted takes, which would be near impossible to learn rote, but Lorre had actually already performed a movie role in English – the English-language version of M, which had been filmed alongside the original.

In The Man Who Knew Too Much, Lorre’s unforgettable bearing – that smirk, that bulk, those eyes that seem both evil and lovable at the same time – is used to create the first truly great bad guy in Hitchcock’s cinema. Abbott is a clever man with charm, a calm confidence and a gaggle of grotesque underlings. In fact, he’s more or less a precursor of a James Bond villain. Aptly, Lorre later played a Bond villain – the first ever seen on screen – in a 1950s TV adaptation of Casino Royale. After moving to Hollywood he also gave enjoyably baroque performances in films such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). It’s a real shame that he only worked for Hitchcock once more, in 1936’s Secret Agent. Actor and director feel made for each other.

The religious order turns out to be a front for Abbott’s criminal operation: he is arranging the assassination of Ropa, for unspecified reasons, during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. (That’s what A. Hall meant in the note.) Bob manages to get word to Jill and she attends the concert. As well as hearing Arthur Benjamin’s Storm Clouds Cantata, which was specifically written for the film, she manages to distract the would-be killer by screaming at the apposite moment. It’s one of the film’s best scenes: tense and edgy.

But it’s not the end of the story. Betty and Bob are still being held prisoner by Abbott and his cronies, so armed police surround the Tabernacle of the Sun and an epic, Wild West-style shootout develops. The 15-minute sequence was influenced by the Siege of Sidney Street, a violent confrontation between police and Latvian revolutionaries that took place in east London in January 1911. Alfred Hitchcock had been 11 years old at the time and lived nearby, so would have remembered it well. The harum-scarum scale doesn’t especially match the rest of the film, which mostly takes place in paranoid shadows, but at least Jill’s sharpshooting skills come in handy.

Ultimately, though, you get the feeling that the film’s not as good as it could be. It’s a story about the assassination of a man we don’t care about; about a couple who don’t seem unduly worried about their missing daughter. Thirty years after the release of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock said it had been the ‘work of a talented amateur’. The 1956 movie with the same title, he said, ‘was made by a professional.’ In the next blog, let’s see if he was right…

Six men in trenchcoats out of 10