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

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Ten Things I Love About The Wicker Man (1973, Robin Hardy)

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SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists!

The Wicker Man is sometimes cited as Britain’s best horror film. Here are 10 reason why I think that might be so… (Note: this review is based on the version of the film released in 1973. I’ll cover the longer ‘director’s cut’ in the next blog.)

1. The story…
…which (seriously, big spoiler coming up now) is a huge con trick. Every character but one is lying throughout, which makes a first viewing a gripping mystery and repeat viewings great fun. Policeman Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives on a small, isolated island in the Hebrides in search of a missing 13-year-old girl. He’s been tipped off by an anonymous letter, but no one on the island – not even the girl’s supposed mother – appears to have heard of Rowan Morrison. They also seem benignly disinterested in Howie’s investigation. As the copper asks more and more questions, he also becomes aware that the villagers have abandoned Christianity in favour of pagan rituals and beliefs, many of which centre around sex. Eventually, he uncovers the truth: the disappearance of the girl was staged in order to lure him to the island – and the entire village is in on the ruse. They need a pure, righteous virgin for a horrific sacrificial ceremony…

2. Sgt Neil Howie…
…who is the movie’s point-of-view character. Edward Woodward holds the whole film together, appearing in every scene and playing Howie with total sincerity (and a decent Scottish accent). The earnest West Highland policeman arrives on the island in a dapper little seaplane (he represents the technologically advanced outside world, you see) but soon faces a frustrated enquiry. He’s a deeply religious man who prays before going to sleep and who rallies against the island’s heathen community. He’s also, we learn, engaged to be married and doesn’t believe in sex before marriage. Woodward’s measured performance is fantastic: just watch as Howie gets increasingly manic and angry and shocked from scene to scene. Howie’s a rather humourless man, yet you feel real sympathy for him during the harrowing final scene.

3. The music…
…which is vital to the movie’s eerie, unsettling vibe. The Wicker Man is essentially a musical in disguise. As well as mood-setting score, there are numerous scenes where characters burst into song. The first instance comes after just 11 minutes: Howie watches agog as a pub full of villagers serenade him with a lewd song called The Landlord’s Daughter. Even Howie himself gets to sing later on when he blasts out Psalm 23 as death approaches. Music is woven into the fabric of life on the island and the film’s many folk songs manage to sound both menacing and seductive at the same time.

4. The landscape…
…which gives the story a beautiful yet strange island setting. The movie was shot entirely on location in Scotland, which immediately differentiates it from, say, Hammer Horror films that were confined to sound-stages and Home County woodlands. In The Wicker Man, you can sense the fresh air blowing through every scene. We see the fishing village, the sea, cliffs and caves, the woods, fields and orchards, an abandoned churchyard and the stately manor – all locations with a bucolic, medieval, pre-science feel. Nature is so important to this story – it’s almost a character in itself – so images and discussions of it recur throughout.

5. The villagers…
…who are now the prime example of ‘happy yet creepy locals’ in a horror movie. When Howie arrives at the island, they’re reluctant to send a dinghy out to his seaplane. Then they pretend they’ve never heard of the child he’s looking for. Without being openly rude or aggressive, it’s clear that *something* is wrong. The scene also showcases some fantastically characterful faces: these are real people, not Hollywood extras. The action soon cuts to the village pub, The Green Man Inn, where we get one of the great the-music-stops-and-everyone-looks-round moments in cinema. But again a palpable sense of danger is being created because the villagers are being so *nice*: they smile, laugh, sing, dance; they never threaten Howie or tell him to get lost.

6. Willow…
…the beautiful, blonde barmaid at The Green Man who enjoys being the object of the villagers’ lusty affections. The film ekes out real menace because no one (not Willow, not her father) is at all concerned by a load of old men perving over her. Cast in the role was Swedish actress Britt Ekland, who brought both star power and sexual chemistry to what is actually a relatively minor role. (Britt had some help: not only is all of her dialogue dubbed by another actress, but a body double was brought in for some of the nudity.) The character’s showpiece scene comes during Howie’s first night on the island: he’s trying to sleep, but in the next room a naked Willow is singing a seductive song and rhythmically banging on the wall and writhing around. It’s an erotic temptation – an act designed to test the virgin Howie and make sure he’s the best possible person for the sacrifice. (Howie’s willpower holds. Somehow.)

7. The weirdness…
…which gives the film a relentlessly surreal, and often sexual, quality. Without ever going full-blown mental (and therefore losing the ‘truth’ of the situation), the bizarre behaviour soon starts to mount up… The local postmistress cheerfully denies her eldest daughter is missing, then later forces her youngest to hold a toad in her mouth as a cure for a sore throat. The village schoolteacher (Diane Cilento) teaches a class of 13-year-old girls about phallic symbolism. Howie stumbles across a midnight orgy going on in the middle of the village. The chemists has a jar full of foreskins for sale. A schoolgirl has a beetle tied to a piece of string attached to a nail, so the more it fights to get free the more it’s trapped. Women dance naked around some standing stones. Howie walks in on the local librarian (Ingrid Pitt, another bit of star casting) having a bath and possibly masturbating… and she just smiles at him.

8. Lord Summerisle…
…who is the leader of the community. He doesn’t actually appear until the 40th minute, but his entry into the story kicks Howie’s indignation into an even higher gear. It’s probably Christopher Lee’s finest acting performance: free of Dracula and co, he’s able to show charm, toss off quips (“Do sit down, Sergeant. Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent”), affect nonchalance, and turn into an ever-smiling murderer. Lee was a prime mover in getting the film made and took it very personally when his studio bosses didn’t like it. 

9. The different edits…
…which mean this film has a fascinating production history and now exists in a variety of cuts. Basically, director Robin Hardy’s preferred version of the film was edited down by the producers before release. About 12 minutes were removed, much to the chagrin of Hardy and star Christopher Lee, then the unused negatives were junked. (The urban myth is they were thrown into a landfill site that’s now under a motorway – sometimes said to be the M3, sometimes the M4.) A few years later, however, Hardy remembered that a print of the longer edit had been sent to independent film producer Roger Corman so he could give his opinion on how to market the film in America. And he’d kept it. So the long version was released in 1977 – ironically with a few trims. I shall look at how the versions differ from each other in the following blog.

10. The ending…
…which is where this horror film becomes truly horrific. Having deduced that Rowan Morrison is to be sacrificed to appease the gods who let a harvest fail, Howie disguises himself and joins the village’s May Day parade. There are strange rituals along the way, including a moment when it seems that someone has been beheaded, then Howie sees Rowan near some caves. He races to save her and they flee… But it’s all a ruse. Rowan deliberately leads him onto a cliff where Summerisle, Willow and others are waiting. It’s not Rowan they’re going to sacrifice; it’s Howie. The whole thing has been a long con: they staged the girl’s disappearance to draw the virgin Howie to the island, then frustrated his investigation until May Day. The entire village was in on the charade, even the children. It’s an astonishingly chilling plot twist, in part because of how numb Woodward plays the revelation scenes. Howie knows there’s no way out so retreats inward, quietly praying and reaffirming his faith in Jesus. But then he’s led further up the headland and sees it… an enormous wicker statue, in which he’s to be burnt to death. “Oh, Christ! Oh, Jesus Christ,” he calls out, as much a call for help as a scream of desperation. He’s a man of faith, who believes he will be reborn through Jesus. But aren’t the villagers also people of faith? There’s a cheeky piece of religious satire going on here. Earlier in the movie, Howie, shocked by the community’s heathen beliefs, asked, “Have these children never heard of Jesus?” and Summerisle pointedly replied, “Himself the son of a virgin impregnated, I believe, by a ghost.” The difference, of course, is that the villagers are prepared to murder an innocent man for their beliefs… The Wicker Man is part of the ‘folk horror’ tradition – a series of stories set in isolated rural communities and featuring brutal, often violent behaviour. It’s the finest example, actually.

Ten apples out of 10

Ten Things I Love About Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

1. The script.
Los Angeles, November 2019. Six replicants – strong, skilful, synthetic humans – have escaped and are on the run. So a detective called Deckard is pulled out of retirement to hunt them down… Philip K Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a thoughtful book set in a post-apocalyptic world and is full of complex sci-fi ideas. However, in adapting it for the cinema, writers Hampton Fancher and David Peoples unashamedly stripped the story down and repurposed it as a film noir. There’s a world-weary detective on one last job, a gruff boss who wants results, a classy broad with a secret past, a dark, rain-sodden city… Despite being about robots, it’s a pleasingly old-fashioned plot. And it’s remarkably simple: detective Deckard simply moves from A to B, following clues and tracking down the ‘bad guys’. There’s virtually no intrigue. Director Ridley Scott’s previous film, Alien, was about a dispassionate creature killing a group one-by-one. Here’s the same concept, but from the killer’s point of view. But with so much going on visually and thematically, the story needs to be linear and clear. (The combination of sci-fi concepts and film-noir conventions resulted in a new sub-genre called Tech Noir, named for a nightclub in 1984’s The Terminator. Blade Runner is its definitive text.)

2. Deckard.
This is Harrison Ford in the middle of one of *the* great CV runs. For a decade or so from 1973, he appeared in American Graffiti, The Conversation, a Star Wars trilogy, Apocalypse Now, two Indiana Jones movies and Blade Runner (and was cut out of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial). Not too shabby. Philip K Dick certainly approved of the casting, calling Ford “more like Rick Deckard than I could have ever imagined… Seeing him as a character I created is a stunning and almost supernatural experience to me.” Here, Ford’s hair is closely cropped rather than Han Solo shaggy, while the Indy charisma has gone too. It’s a terrifically controlled, unshowy performance. Deckard is a classic film-noir gumshoe – he works reluctantly for the police’s Blade Runner Unit (what the name means is never explained), is a loner (the droll voiceover tells us he has an ex-wife) and barely raises a smile. The character’s name is a pun on René Descartes, a philosopher whose most famous maxim was “I think therefore I am.” And that rings with the film’s central question: what does it mean to be alive? Deckard is initially cruel to Rachel, the first robot he meets, because he doesn’t see her as a genuine person. But he gradually grows fascinated by her, falls in love, and this helps with his mission: he only starts finding the rogue replicants once he accepts they have emotions and personalities… In one scene, Ford gets to step outside the private-eye persona. When he meets Zhora, he pretends to be an unctuous union rep with a whiny voice. It’s a better bit of acting than Harrison Ford’s Scottish accent when does a similar thing in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (Note: because it’s less relevant to this version of the film, I’ll save discussion of who Deckard really is for the next review.)

3. Futurism.
When released, the movie was set 37 years into the future – a date we’re now only 36 months away from hitting. But like all the best science fiction, it looks back as much as it looks forward. This is not a Star Trek world of gleaming perfection and utopian lushness. The city still has garish 1980s commercialism, such as billboards for Coke, Atari and Pan Am; there are flying cars, but they mostly have the silhouette of vehicles from the mid-20th century; and every street is full of bustling, chaotic crowds. There’s just as much decay as there is progress. As a fictional setting, it’s *totally* convincing. (It’s also constantly raining. This helps with the relentlessly gloomy vibe, but Ridley Scott had a more prosaic reason: the water disguised how small the exterior sets were.) Blade Runner is also the key example of cinematic cyberpunk, which is perhaps surprising given that it pointedly sidelines computers and has little concept of a digital world. Machines here are functional and analogue. (Check out Deckard’s chunky, juddering photo scanner!) But the clash of ‘high tech and low life’ is what cyberpunk is all about – the more advanced the technology gets, the more rotten the society becomes. And Blade Runner’s world is built on that conflict.

4. The design.
The aesthetic of the sets, costumes, vehicles, props and locations is *extraordinary*. Numerous cinematic geniuses worked on the film’s physical look, among them concept artist Syd Mead (Tron, Aliens), production designer Lawrence G Paull (Back to the Future), special-effects wizard Douglas Trumbull (2001, Close Encounters, Silent Running) and of course Ridley Scott. Their Los Angeles is a masterpiece. From a wide shot of the city, we see familiar sprawl – but with additional power plants, flaming towers and flying vehicles. Thick smog hangs over the whole area. Then when we go down to ground level, everywhere is busy, textured, overflowing with people and vehicles and activity. Again, it’s about imagining a future culture by using what’s gone before – specifically the early 20th century. To suit the story’s film-noir mood, sets and costumes (including men’s hats) often feel like they’re from the 1940s. Meanwhile, because he’s detached from the rest of the population, Tyrell’s office building is shaped like a pyramid and has a vaguely Egyptian feel inside (another logical throwback: after Howard Carter opened Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, a streak of Egyptology ran through American theatre, film and fashion). The 1920s and 30s are also evident in the flashes of Art Deco architecture and the decadent nightclub where Deckard finds Zhora. But playing on the rise of Japanese technology in the early 80s, the city has been laced with an Asian influence – colourful neon signs pop out of almost every exterior shot, many in eastern languages, while fast-food stalls sell noodles. Ridley Scott mostly used sets, including a heavily redressed section of a pre-existing fake street, but there are also carefully chosen real locations: the cavernous Los Angeles Union Station for the police HQ, the Bradbury Building for Sebastian’s apartment, a glistening road tunnel… All of these elements build a stunning universe for the story to take place in. There is enormous detail – extras, shop fronts, stalls, vehicles, signage, screens, umbrella, bicycles, hovering sky-ships – but it’s never overwhelming or cluttered like a lumbering CGI blockbuster. Instead, the world feels alive and vibrant and menacing and fresh and dangerous and seductive. On each viewing, I want the camera to follow every single extra to see who they are and where they’re going.

5. Lighting.
Let’s not equivocate. Blade Runner is the best-lit film there is. The director of photography was Jordan Cronenweth, who was responsible for two hours of sensationally beautiful images. Not one single frame is boring or ugly. There’s a lot of smoke and shadow, flares and florescence, Venetian blinds and fan blades. Almost the entire film is set at night, yet for such a dark film there’s beauty, atmosphere and texture in *everything*.

6. Rachel.
A dame right out of the 1940s – clock her vintage outfits and victory-rolls hairdo! – Rachel is introduced with an archly lit shot where she walks into a spotlight. The camera loves her. When Deckard realises that she’s actually a replicant, he starts referring to her as ‘it’. Sean Young is maybe not the strongest actress, but you can’t help but feel the character’s pain when he then rudely confirms her fears that she’s not real. Sadly, Rachel later drops out of the story while Deckard hunts down Roy Batty. She returns for the ending, though: Rachel escapes the city with Deckard and they drive off into the countryside. For the first time in the film, it’s daytime. Ridley Scott hated being forced to include the scene, and it’s been dropped from subsequent versions. But I’ve never had a problem with it. It’s not a cosy happy-ever-after; it’s a brief glimpse of hope…

7. Music.
The famous score is by Vangelis. It’s electronica with Pink Floyd prog-rock grandeur. Elegant, seductive, hypnotic. Later, it turns appropriately grubby when Deckard’s detective works leads him deep into the bazaar-like streets. (The whole sound mix is generally terrific. Multiple viewings keep throwing up new details.)

8. Roy Batty.
We first see the film’s antagonist on a computer screen. A caption tells us that his ‘incept date’ – ie, his date of birth – is 8 January 2016. Billy Idol blond, he’s a combat model and is the leader of the replicants who have got loose. In some ways, Roy is the most human character in the story. He certainly has the biggest lust for life. His tragedy is that he’s fatally aware that his time is running out – and that means he appreciates experiences more vividly. Roy isn’t actually in the film very much, but like any great ‘villain’ he’s really charismatic. You can’t take your eyes off him. His pre-death soliloquy – partly written by actor Rutger Hauer – is rightly lauded. An action film where the climax is the baddie saving the hero’s life, sitting down, and quietly dying? That’s a pretty decent trick.

9. The rest of the cast.
We meet three other replicants… The kooky and sweet Pris (Daryl Hannah) has a punk look and is euphemistically called a leisure model. Ironically, her incept date is 14 February 2016. Tough guy Leon (Brion James) is uncovered in the opening scene, so attacks his boss and later tries to kill Deckard. The youngest of the gang, his incept date is 10 April 2017. And the beautiful Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) is hiding as an exotic dancer at a seedy nightclub. Her incept date is 12 June 2016. Sadly, her death scene features a very obvious stuntwoman in a very bad wig. Roy and Pris befriend a nervous, naïve man called JF Sebastian (William Sanderson), who lives with a gaggle of animatronic toys. They force him to take them to their creator, Tyrell (Joe Turkel), who lives in a palatial apartment of drapes and candles. Meanwhile, Deckard has two colleagues of note. His boss is Bryant (M Emmet Walsh), while a man called Gaff (Edward James Olmos) seems to have a watching brief over the Blade Runner agents. The latter uses a cane, enjoys origami and talks in Cityspeak, a mishmash of various languages.

10. Cuts.
One of the minor reasons Blade Runner has such a lasting legacy is that there are five different edits available, some with really interesting differences. For a kick-off, there were two versions released in 1982: in the rest of the world, we got 16 seconds of violence that had been trimmed from the US print. This review is based on that slightly longer ‘international version’. The bits not seen in America come during Tyrell’s murder, Deckard’s fight with Pris, and a moment when Batty pushes a nail through his own hand. I’ll discuss the other versions in the next two reviews.

Review: There’s a recurring motif of eyes in this movie. A close-up of a pupil is one of the first things we see; the machine that assesses replicants uses an iris-scanner; Leon threatens to poke Deckard’s eyes out; an ocular technician gives Roy some vital information; Batty pushes Tyrell’s eyes into his head; replicants’ eyes sometimes glint red in the light… The eyeball is a product of evolution, but is so complex and useful that many assume it must have been designed. That tension – evolution vs design, human vs replicant – runs through the whole film. Nominally a standard manhunt movie, Blade Runner is a discussion of what it means to be alive. Are the humans (evolution) any more ‘alive’ than the replicants (designed)? Do they have more right to life? The film’s biggest achievement may be that it’s so stylised, so constructed, so designed, yet feel totally organic and real. Just like a replicant. It’s also, as mentioned, the best-looking movie of all time. The craft on show in the design work, the photography and the special effects has yet to be bettered. Unfortunately, before the film was released, poor audience reactions at test screenings led to a voiceover being added against the wishes of the director and star. As a storytelling device, it’s fine in concept – it really does fit the Sam Spade idiom – but is just bad writing. All it does is spell out things we would rather be left to infer. The crassest example comes just seconds after Roy has died: the narration cuts in, spoiling the moment, to tell you the bleeding obvious. Make no mistake: this film is a masterpiece. It’s one of the most imperishable examples of popular culture. But that voiceover, man… I just can’t justify a 10. Let’s cheat:

Nine and a half Voight-Kampff machines out of 10

Next time… Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut

Ten Things I Love About… Back to the Future Part III (1990, Robert Zemeckis)

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Plot spoilers ahead. In fact, I’m assuming you know the film’s basic story.

This is not a review. (Want a review? ‘Perfect – 10 Shonash Ravines out of 10’.) Instead, here’s a list of 10 areas in which I think Back to the Future Part III especially excels. I’ll avoid covering things discussed in the previous two blogs.

1. “10.04pm next Saturday night!”
The scene of the lightning bolt striking the Hill Valley clock tower in 1955 and sending Marty back to his own time is seen again – therefore, uniquely, it appears in all three movies.

2. “It’s Howdy Doody time!”
The 1950s sequence at the start of the film is wonderful. Set at Doc’s house, an abandoned mine, a graveyard, a library and a gaudy drive-in cinema, it has dark, solemn feel about it. It’s raining as the action begins, because it’s still the same night as the thunderstorm from film one. In the scene in Doc’s house, Christopher Lloyd and Michael J Fox are on fire – their rat-a-tat-tat delivery of the lines is a joy. It’s also so refreshing to see a movie scene between two actors played out in long takes – one shot is 49 seconds, another is 54, another 46. The camera moves discreetly so the point of the drama is always in focus; the editing speeds up if needed, but mostly lets Lloyd and Fox do their thing. There are lots of fun details in the scene too. The fact Marty still has the hoverboard is smuggled in via a bit of slapstick, and the events of the last film are neatly recapped in dialogue. Because it’s the same week of the events of the first movie, Doc’s scale model of Hill Valley is still in place, and Marty fiddles with the Doc’s mind-reading helmet. After the action moves to the mines, Jules Verne is casually mentioned (seeding information for later in the story) while the Doc idly wonders if his life in 1885 will be in the town archives (minutes later, he has to go and have a look).

3. “Clint Eastwood never wore anything like this.”
When he prepares to time-travel to the nineteenth century, Marty dresses in a ridiculous, garish cowboy costume. When he gets to 1885, he needs a pseudonym so picks Western icon Clint Eastwood (who he’d seen briefly on a TV in Part II). This is all part of the movie’s have-your-cake-and-eat-it approach to the Wild West. It wants to use the real history as a setting, but is more interested in clichés and conventions. The list of stereotypes being plundered for drama and comedy is seemingly endless: Indians and the US Cavalry; cowboys and campfires; duels and dung; horses and hangings; saloons, stagecoaches, shindigs, sheriffs, six-shooters, sipping whiskeys, standoffs and steam trains.

4. “How could you forget a thing like your hat?!”
Soon after arriving in 1885, Marty meets his immigrant ancestors – great-great-grandfather Seamus, great-great-grandmother Maggie and baby William. There are plenty of *very* impressive split-screens to allow Michael J Fox to play both Marty and Seamus in the same shot. Meanwhile, having Lea Thompson play Maggie is a strange decision – partly because of the incestuous implications now inherent in Marty’s family tree, but also because her Irish accent is not the greatest. But it’s a welcome move, because otherwise she wouldn’t be in the film very much.

5. “As mayor of Hill Valley, it gives me great pleasure to dedicate this clock to the people of Hill County!”
The Hill Valley set is another sublime bit of production design, though ‘bit’ is a laughably inadequate word for such an endeavour. Unlike in films one or two where the basic set could be refitted for four different time zones, the Wild West needed a whole new town built. It has the recognisable skeleton of the square we know so well, and the saloon is deliberately in the same location as the 1955 and 2015 cafés. A sign hanging over the street announces that the townsfolk are raising money for their new clocktower – which we then see under construction. Doc and Marty actually attend the clock’s unveiling ceremony. As the Doc says, it’s apt: they were there at the end of its working life too.

6. “It’s a science experiment!”
Doc Brown’s existence in 1885 – he’s been there several months by the time Marty shows up – has a delightful steampunk vibe about it. His workshop has a steam-powered contraption to create ice cubes; he’s built a long-range rifle; and the connection he makes with schoolteacher Clara (Mary Steenburgen) is based on their mutual love of science. I think it’s residual goodwill from this film that makes me so predisposed to enjoy sci-fi Westerns or ones with some kind of modern twist – both the good ones (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 2010’s True Grit, 2013’s The Lone Ranger) and the clearly awful ones (Wild Wild West, Cowboys & Aliens, Jonah Hex).

7. “Hey, Frisbee! Far out!”
As ever with a Back to the Future film, each viewing brings new details to light. This time, one example was in the scene where Doc and Marty question the train driver about how fast his engine can go. In the background, you can see the town clock being unloaded from a carriage – another instance of the series’s thematic connection to that timepiece. In terms of a whopping great big plot hole, something I didn’t spot for years and years is that Doc and Marty need to steal a train in order to get the DeLorean up to 88mph because they don’t have any petrol… and yet, they never once consider using the fuel from the DeLorean the Doc has recently stashed in a nearby mine.

8. “I adore Jules Verne!”
The third film gives us a simple yet highly effective love story, and also allows the Doc time to shine. The sweet subplot is very well played by Lloyd and Steenburgen, and it gives the middle of the film a reasonably leisurely feel (certainly in comparison to the sugar-rush storytelling of Part II). It’s a nice change of pace. And Clara isn’t a bolted-on complication; she plays a vital role in the plot. In the second half, thinking the Doc has lied to her, she gets on a train to leave Hill Valley. However, she then changes her mind and stops the train – which is handy as it’s the very train that Marty, who’s running late, needs to get back home.

9. “It erased…”
The stuff back in 1985 is fantastic – especially the Doc’s surprise appearance in a flying steam-train time-machine. (Everyone’s spotted how his son Verne points at his cock in the background of a shot, right?)

10. “Everything concerns the law!”
I first saw this film illegally before its UK release. A family I was friends with had somehow got hold of a pirated VHS. To protect their anonymity, I won’t say who they were – let’s just call them the Cowing family of 169 Burscough Street, Ormskirk. So I saw Back to the Future Part III on video before it was available in the cinemas. It was a black-and-white copy, sadly, though that was kind of appropriate for a Western. (It was a special year for seeing films early. That summer, I was on holiday in Spain and one afternoon a local bar showed an illegal copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which hadn’t been released in the UK yet, for all the holidaying British kids.)

Ten Things I Love About… Back to the Future Part II (1989, Robert Zemeckis)

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Plot spoilers ahead. In fact, I’m assuming you know the film’s basic story.

This is not a review. (Want a review? ‘Perfect – 10 screen doors on a battleship out of 10’.) Instead, here’s a list of 10 areas in which I think Back to the Future Part II especially excels. I won’t mention the direction, the music, the production design, the dialogue and the main cast (Michael J Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson and Thomas F Wilson) because they were discussed in the previous blog post. But they’re all just as sensational in this film.

1. New Jennifer.
The opening scene is a reprise of the final few minutes from the original movie. However, the footage had to be reshot because Claudia Wells had dropped out of playing Jennifer for personal reasons. I was already a fan of the new actress, Elisabeth Shue, from The Karate Kid and Adventures in Babysitting. She’s a big improvement on Wells: she gets more to do, and is also a better comic actress. (I’ve only this week learnt that there was a *third* Jennifer. Originally cast in the role in 1984 was Melora Hardin, who was later in the US version of The Office. She filmed a few scenes with Eric Stoltz, the original Marty. However, when Stoltz was fired and replaced with Michael J Fox, Hardin was deemed too tall to play opposite Fox so was let go.)

2. “Whoa, this is heavy!”
This film’s plot is dizzyingly complex and all the better for it. The mechanics of who does what, when they do it, what that means, and what it leads to are very complicated but (almost entirely) make perfect sense. The writers even use something they considered a mistake – putting Jennifer in the car at the end of the first film – to their benefit. When the cops in the future find time-travelling Jennifer, they naturally deduce that she’s the Jennifer from 2015 so take her home. We then get a very entertaining sequence at Marty’s future house, which is full of fun gags and character details, *and* provides Biff with the opportunity to steal the DeLorean. The whole script has this kind of plotting panache.

3. “Please, Marty – no one should know too much about their own destiny.”
The DeLorean arrives in the future at 4.29pm on 21 October 2015. Doc even specifies that it’s a Wednesday. I first saw this film at a cinema in Southport in December 1989. It was my cousin’s birthday, so he, some of his pals and I went together. I was only 10, but crucially a year or so older than everyone else. So I felt enormously smug when, after the movie, they all complained that it made no sense and I was able to spell out what had happened. I also remember calculating that I’d be 36 years old in October 2015. That seemed a laughably long time away. It was, I suppose.

4. Future proof.
The twenty-first century on show here has flying cars, self-tying shoes, and Jaws 19 playing at the cinema (tagline: “This time, it’s really, really personal!”). The filmmakers knew they had no hope of accurately predicting 26 years into the future, so they chose to play it for laughs. The main dialogue scene, for example, takes place in the Café 80s – a horrid, pastel, plastic retro joint with AI waiters in the form of Ronald Reagan and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In presenting a future society, the film got a lot of things wide off the mark (Marty Jnr uses a payphone) but some things bang on the money. Check out how Marty Jnr watches six TV feeds all at once, and how he and Marty’s daughter are both obsessed by their Google Glasses while at the dinner table. Behaviourally speaking, they’re kids using social media. (The sight of Michael J Fox playing Marlene McFly, however, is just horrific.) When he arrives in the future, Marty buys a sports almanac from a vintage-goods shop. It’s said to list all major sporting results from 1950 to 2000, including American football, baseball, horse racing and boxing. In 1955, Biff verifies its accuracy by looking up the score of a routine college-football game. Even if we assume it’s only *American* sports, it still seems a very thin book for all that information! (By the way, I’ve looked it up: some if not all of the football scores we hear on Biff’s car radio are from genuine games that took place on 12 November 1955. And UCLA did really beat Washington with a last-minute field goal.)

5. “Manure! I hate manure!”
As with the first film, there are loads of gags only noticeable on repeated viewings. An electronic billboard in 2015 advertises Major Goldie Wilson III’s election campaign. An edition of USA Today we see in the future has jokey headlines such as ‘Washington prepares for Queen Diana’s visit!’ and ‘President says she’s tired’. Some subtle gags are, in effect, in the wrong order. We’ve already seen Lorraine married to a wealthy Biff in the alternative 1985 when, in 1955, she tells him that she wouldn’t marry him “even if [he] had a million dollars!” There are also quite a few forward references to the third film, which was shot back-to-back with this one. Marty plays a Western shoot-’em-up arcade machine in 2015 (a young Elijah Wood is one of the kids in the scene); the Doc laments that he’s never visited the Old West and says he wants to learn more about women; we find out that Biff’s great-grandfather was a Wild West outlaw; and Biff is seen watching A Fistful of Dollars. (One little detail I spotted on this viewing that I’ve never realised before: the old codger in 2015 who gives Marty the idea to go back in time and make money via betting is also in the 1955 stuff. He’s the mechanic charging Biff $300 for the repairs to his car.)

6. “I’m old!”/”I’m young!”
For 1989, the special effects are tremendous. There are numerous split-screen shots where the same actor plays two (or even three) roles at the same time. The characters interact believably and the camera often *moves*, which was just revolutionary for the time. The two Jennifers seeing each other and both fainting might be my favourite example, but there are plenty to choose from. There’s also some smart animation used for the flying cars in 2015. Stylistically it’s reminiscent of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the movie Robert Zemeckis made immediately before this.

7. History repeating itself.
The same type of events keep happening, but in interestingly different contexts. This kind of story rhyming is not unique to the Back to the Future films – The Godfather and Star Wars series both use the same technique. In the first film, Marty used a skateboard as he was chased round Hill Valley’s square by Biff; here, in 2015, it’s a hoverboard and Biff’s grandson. Marty’s asked for a donation to “save the clock tower” again, this time in the future. When Marty wakes up in the alternative 1985, a scene from the first film is being echoed – however, rather than a slim teenager, his mum is now a middle-aged woman with fake tits. Biff ends up crashing his car into a manure truck for a second film running. Of course, in the final act, events are literally repeating themselves…

8. “It’s like we’re in hell or something.”
The clues that 1985 has changed are evident before Marty learns what’s happened. We see ruined cars and lots of graffiti; Hill Valley Square has been taken over by bikers; and there’s a toxic-waste plant. In its middle section, the film is heading into It’s a Wonderful Life territory – ‘what if’ Biff were rich and successful? Like in It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s now a nightmarish world. There’s lots of violent crime. Everywhere’s rundown and tatty. It’s always night. Biff’s built a Vegas-style casino on top of the clock tower, seems to run the whole town, and is married to an unhappy Lorraine. George is dead (a subplot created because the original actor wouldn’t come back). Doc has been committed. And Marty’s been packed off to school in Switzerland.

9. Back to the Fifties.
The original script set the final third in the 1960s. Lorraine would have been a flower-power girl, George a peacenik. But then the writers made the inspired decision to go back to 1955. It’s a time-travel film, they argued, so we can do anything – including revisiting the events of the first movie. We therefore get the intoxicating, imaginative situation of having two Martys and two Docs running around Hill Valley. For 38 glorious minutes of cinema, the film stitches new scenes in and around footage shot in 1984 (as well as restaging some moments). There’s a joyful exuberance for this kind of tomfoolery – the Doc meets himself, we go back to the Enchantment Under The Sea dance, and we see classic moments from new points of view. It’s heady storytelling that would only work on film or television.

10. “Is your name Marty McFly?”
As two sequels were made back-to-back, we get a monster of a cliffhanger at the end of Part II. The plot concluded and the real 1985 put back on track, the DeLorean is struck by lightening. It vanishes in mid-air, stranding a bemused Marty in the 1950s. Then, out of the rain, comes a man with a letter. His company have had it in their possession for 70 years, with specific instructions to deliver it to Marty as this precise moment. The letter is from the Doc, telling Marty that he’s living in the Wild West. Writing to someone in the future: it’s a sensational concept. Cinema tricks us into accepting that the two times – 1885 and 1955 – are somehow concurrent, that Doc is speaking directly to his friend. (The 2007 Doctor Who episode Blink uses the same letter idea. I have no idea if it’s a coincidence or was deliberately half-inched. But the show has lately become more and more fascinated with Back to the Future-style time-travel trickery. A thought occurs: did Steven Moffat name Clara after Part III’s main guest character?) The movie then ends with an in-film trailer for the third chapter – that was a stunningly exciting move in 1989. But a frustrating one, as the next film was eight months away…

Ten Things I Love About… Back to the Future (1985, Robert Zemeckis)

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Warning: plot spoilers ahead. In fact, I’m assuming you know the film’s basic story.

This is not a review. (Want a review? “Perfect – 10 flux capacitors out of 10”.) Instead, it’s a love letter to one of the most important films in my life. Here’s a list of 10 areas in which I think Back to the Future especially excels.

1. It’s about time.
Unsurprisingly for a movie about time-travel, there’s a recurring theme of clocks and chronology. Time plays a huge role in the story, thematically as well as literally. The characters are often surrounded by reminders of it. The first thing we hear is ticking clocks; the first scene is a slow pan across dozens of timepieces. As the story begins, Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) is carrying out an experiment and has set all these clocks to the wrong time, meaning Marty (Michael J Fox) is late for school. The time machine, meanwhile, has digital readouts specifying the time and date of each travel. Later, Marty is pestered by a woman wanting a donation for her campaign to save the town’s decrepit clock tower. When Marty reaches the 1950s, that clock is in working order: its deafening clang is a vivid pointer that he is actually in the past. Later, the same bell prevents Doc hearing important information from Marty. The writers’ original idea was for the story’s climax to take place at an out-of-town nuclear plant. What a smart move it was to change that and keep Hill Valley’s town clock central to proceedings. Much more satisfying.

2. A design for life.
Lawrence G Paull’s production design for this movie is just masterful. It does precisely what film design should do: the sets, costumes, props and locations create a fully believable setting, but they also *tell the story* just as cleverly as dialogue or acting. That’s really the key to this film, why it’s such a classic. Its story is explored via every tool in the cinematic workshop. For example, in the opening shot – a 126-second slow track through Doc’s house – we see newspapers hinting at the character’s back story. The camera then tilts down to his modest bed and cluttered belongings; then shows off his Heath Robinson gadgetry, including a device for feeding the dog. Before we ever clap eyes on him, some of Doc’s history, personality and situation are conveyed through visual means. The entire movie is crammed full of this kind of storytelling. Sometimes it’s big and obvious – for example, how bright and gleaming the 1950s are compared to the 1980s – but often it’s subtle. Doc’s house in the 1980s is a rundown shed; in the 1950s, that shed is just a workshop next to his enormous mansion. Without it being said, we infer that he’s on his uppers in later life.

3. Hiding in plain sight.
Again and again, the film plonks down huge clues and jokes and bits of information right in front of you, and dares you to spot the significance. Some examples… One of the clocks in the opening scene has a miniature Harold Lloyd hanging from its face… a situation Doc will later find himself in. We’re shown a seemingly random TV news report about some missing plutonium… which we soon learn the Doc has stolen. A poster in the town centre is asking people to re-elect the mayor… a man we’ll meet in 1955, when Marty gives him the idea to go into politics. Marty is handed a flyer about the clock tower’s history, which we think is important because his girlfriend has written her phone number on the back of it… but it’s actually the printed side that’ll prove vital. We see some boys in 1955 using proto-skateboards… one of which Marty later nabs for a getaway. All these things make repeat viewings an absolute blast. (If anyone mentions Twin Pines Mall, we all have to take a sip of our drink.)

4. “Marty!”
What a fantastic lead character Marty McFly is. He’s the audience’s point of view, and is in virtually every scene. He has energy, charm and wit. He wears sunglasses, a denim jacket and a body-warmer. He uses a skateboard and hangs Walkman headphones round his neck. He gives off an air of Ferris Bueller-like confidence, yet admits to being scared of rejection. And he has a cute girlfriend (who’ll get even cuter after a recast in the sequels). It’s amazing we don’t hate him – but we don’t. That’s down to Michael J Fox, who plays the role with fantastic comic energy. Equally important is the fact his performance has total sincerity. We believe in the situations because he does. It would have been so easy to play it detached or with a knowing irony, kind of like Bill Murray in Ghostbusters. Maybe that’s what Eric Stoltz, who was originally cast in the role, was doing before he was fired.

5. “Well, looky what we have here.”
There are so many fantastic jokes in the background of scenes or details tossed off without comment, and they’re often bits of comedy. It took me many viewings to appreciate the gag of Marty methodically fine-tuning a humungous amplifier… only to then use a laughably *tiny* guitar. Later, when Marty reaches 1955, a Ronald Reagan movie is playing at the local cinema. It’s a joke that works on two levels. Not only was Reagan US President at the time of the film’s release, but the reminder that he used to be actor sets us up for a gag from an incredulous Doc Brown. Another great example is how Marty and his dad do the exact same hand gesture when unknowingly sitting next to each other in a cafe.

6. “Don’t need no credit card to ride this train!”
There’s loads of music in this film (well, it was the 1980s). Huey Lewis and the News get two tracks – The Power of Love and Back in Time. The latter’s lyrics relate directly to the story, though I didn’t spot that for a stupidly long time. In a bit of postmodern humour, when Marty auditions for a battle-of-the-bands competition, he and his pals play The Power of Love and Huey Lewis cameos as the judge who doesn’t like it. From the present, there are songs by Lindsey Buckingham, Eric Clapton and Van Halen on the soundtrack; in the past, period tracks such as The Four Aces’ Mr Sandman and Etta James’s The Wallflower (Dance With Me Henry) set the scene. Meanwhile, Alan Silvestri’s incidental music is just magic. Big and dramatic, it makes what is a reasonably small-scale movie feel like fucking Die Hard.

7. “I’m gonna clean up this town!”
Has there ever been a better film set than Hill Valley? For the production, an entire town square was built from scratch – and we see it in two different states. In 1985, it’s grimy and rundown, there’s graffiti, and it has a porno cinema. In 1955, it’s clean and verdant and full of life. (The name of the town is an oxymoron, by the way – it took me a long time to twig that.) You could watch this film and solely concentrate on how the shop fronts and other details change between decades. One great example is how the central square is a car park in 1985 yet in 1955 has a war memorial. Presumably it got bulldozed at some point.

8. “I’m writing this down – this is good stuff.”
The dialogue pulls off an astonishing trick. Pretty much every line is doing three things all at once: it’s moving the plot forward, it’s speaking to character, and it’s entertaining us with style. We’re constantly – and I mean constantly – being given vital story information, yet it never feels like dull exposition because it’s smuggled in under the cover of characterisation or comedy (or often both). Check out the early 1985 scene between Marty and his family, where Lorraine (Lea Thompson) talks about meeting George (Crispin Glover). The *entire* conversation is information we need to know for what’s going to happen in the story. It’s pure plot primer. Yet the scene is alive and fresh and funny and charismatic. It doesn’t feel like an info-dump. It feels like people talking. (As a scene that’s an exposition lecture and you just don’t notice, the only comparable example I can think of is the newsreel at the start of Citizen Kane.)

9. The right direction.
Robert Zemeckis does a quietly magnificent job directing this film. Every moment is paced to perfection and the flow from scene to scene is seamless. The film is fit to bursting with energy, while the camerawork – the movement, the framing, the mise-en-scene – is superb.

10. “Don’t be so gullible, McFly!”
Biff Tannen is one of cinema’s great bad guys, superbly played by Thomas F Wilson, who has to give us three versions of the same man. We see him in the 1980s, where he’s overweight, domineering and slovenly; in the 1950s, where he’s the arrogant school bully with a gang of hangers-on; and then back in the 80s, where he’s a subservient car-cleaner. Wilson pulls off all incarnations brilliantly. Biff is not a subtle character. He has no hidden depths. Yet the actor makes him so watchable. He also has a gag – “Why don’t you make like a tree and get out of here?” – that won’t get its punchline until the sequel.

11. (Did you seriously think I could limit this to just 10 things?!) By George!
Marty’s nerdy dad is the real heart of the story. In some ways, it’s *his* story: he’s the protagonist who’s trying to achieve something. (Marty is actually a complication.) When we get to the 1950s, George is sat at a café – but neither Marty nor us notice him at first. It’s then quite a moment when the realisation sinks in. Later, it’s a totally believable moment when George punches Biff and wins Lorraine’s heart, thanks in big part to Crispin Glover. The actor was clearly a bit of a fruit-loop back in the day, but he’s terrific in this film. (And, I learnt recently, is the son of Bruce Glover, who played assassin Mr Wint in Diamonds Are Forever.)

12. We are family.
Marty’s siblings aren’t in the film much – just one scene in each version of 1985. But they’re fab. Brother Dave is played by Marc McClure, fresh from four movies as Jimmy Olsen. Sister Linda is played by Wendie Jo Sperber.

13. “It’s written all over your underwear!”
Marty’s mum, Lorraine, is an old soak in 1985. She’s chavvy, a bit overweight and very world-weary. She condemns modern behaviour such as sitting in parked cars with boys, then bores her family with a well-worn story about she met her husband. But when we meet her in 1955 at the age of 17, she’s a right hottie. The young Lorraine is sweet and adorable, but also feisty and a bit of a secret rebel. Lea Thompson is wonderful at playing the two versions of the character (as well as a happy and trim 47-year-old at the end of the film). Despite young Lorraine’s lust for Marty, she doesn’t dismiss nervous George when he makes a play for her, which helps sell their eventual union. She also does all the things her grown-up self condemns: park with a boy, smoke, drink and flirt.

14. “Great Scott!”
We first see Dr Emmett L Brown driving his time machine out from a van, down the ramp surrounded by smoke. It’s a theatrical entrance for both the car and the Doc – though how he got into the motor when it was inside such a narrow van is another issue. He’s the epitome of the wild-haired, wild-eyed mad scientist, but has a huge likeability. (He’s one of the great Doctor Whos we never got.) It’s never revealed how Doc and Marty met or became such good friends, because we don’t especially need to know – it’s still a massive moment when the Doc is seemingly murdered at the end of the first act. In 1955, the younger version is just as bonkers. When Marty tracks him down, the 50s Doc is conducting a mind-reading experiment, then later builds a scale model of Hill Valley so he can demonstrate to Marty – and us – how the film’s climax will work. (Soon after this show-and-tell, he meets Lorraine: the only time in the entire trilogy that the two characters interact.) When Marty gets back to 1985, the Doc evades death by changing history. “What the hell?” he quips. He then features in a cliffhanger ending when he collects Marty and Jennifer to take them 30 years into the future (ie, to now).

15. “You built a time machine… out of a DeLorean?!”
A sports-car shape with a harsh, metallic finish and gull-wing doors? Well, it just looks cool, doesn’t it? Making the time machine a car – rather than a stationary capsule – was a masterstroke, giving movement and dynamism to the act of time-travel. (Surely HG Wells would have made this improvement if he’d done just one more draft. Or, you know, been writing after the invention of the car.) After each time-travel, the vehicle is icy cold and covered in mist. That idea got dropped for the sequels!

16. “Do you really think I oughta swear?”
Marty exclaims, “Holy shit!” a few times. When Biff attacks Lorraine, his intentions are shockingly obvious. And the entire emotional storyline is predicated on a mother falling romantically for her son. (Disney turned down the chance to make the film because of its Oedipal overtones.) For a ‘family film’, Back to the Future has an edge. And that makes it more interesting.

17. “Looks like an airplane… without wings!”
When Marty arrives in 1955, his silver car and yellow radiation suit trick a family of farmers into thinking he’s an alien crashed on earth. And Marty later uses the suit (and a Sony Walkman) to con George into believing ‘Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan’ has come to visit him. This old-school sci-fi paranoia is just one thread in the wonderful 1950s-ness of the film’s middle chunk. Nostalgia for that decade is seen a lot in American pop culture from the 1970s and 80s: Grease, Happy Days, American Graffiti, Stand By Me… But it’s especially apt in this movie. It’s the story of a teenager meeting his parents when they were teenagers – and the 1950s saw the birth of teenage culture.

18. “You know, Marty, you look so familiar. Do I know your mother?”
In 1955, Marty meets his mum’s family – Lorraine’s pregnant mother, her TV-fixing dad, and her siblings (one of whom is Kevin Arnold’s brother from The Wonder Years). They get one scene and very nearly steal the film. There’s the joke about baby Joey enjoying being behind bars, Marty being uncomfortable with Lorraine’s flirting, Marty recognising the Jackie Gleason show on TV because he’s already seen it, and the dad not knowing who John F Kennedy is.

19. New things.
I’ve seen this film dozens of times, yet I always spot something new every time I watch it. The two things that dropped into my mind this time are both pretty obvious, yet I’ve never considered them in 30 years. At the start of the film, Marty and his band audition for a panel of judges… on the *same stage* that Marty will play Johnny B. Goode at the end of the film. Never made that connection before. Also, the movie establishes that Twin Pine Malls is around two miles from the centre of Hill Valley. Yet at the film’s climax, Marty runs that distance in *under nine minutes*. No wonder he’s out of breath.

20. “Let’s do something that really cooks!”
I don’t have children, but I’m certain Sophie’s choice would be preferable to selecting just one favourite moment of Back to the Future. But for its sheer joyfulness, why don’t we focus on Marty’s stint as replacement guitarist with dance band Marvin Berry and the Starlighters? It’s maybe not the most vital scene in terms of the plot, though Marty’s erratic guitar playing is a neat illustration of the timeline being under threat. But it’s so, so fun. Once George and Lorraine have hooked up – to the swell of the band playing Earth Angel – the camera cranes up and back, signifying that the storyline is concluded. Then Marty is asked to play another song. He tells the band, “It’s a blues riff in B; watch me for the changes and try to keep up, okay?” then rips into Johnny B. Goode, wowing the crowd with a burst of nascent rock-n-roll. They’ve never heard the song before; no one has. Marty is seemingly inventing a genre on the spot. Lead singer Marvin Berry is so impressed that he telephones his cousin so he can hear the song. “Chuck? Chuck? It’s your cousin, Marvin Berry. You know that new sound you looking for? Well, listen to this!” Hashtag bootstrap paradox. Marty then goes off-piste, throwing in impressions of Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townsend, which just bemuses the entire room. “I guess you guy aren’t ready for that yet,” he says after finishing. “But your kids are gonna love it.”

21. Summing up?
This post is three thousand words and I’ve barely got started. The film has surgical attention to detail, but never loses sight of the big picture. It’s played at a lick, but never feels rushed. It’s funny, poignant, clever, exciting and witty. It has *huge* heart, but is never soppy. There’s dramatic irony, but it’s never smug. The camerawork and editing are aimed precisely at where the story is, never showing off. Plot, character, action and comedy are all intertwined all of the time – it’s the greatest ever example of this. I don’t remember the first time I saw Back to the Future. It was on a rental video, and must have been in around 1986. (I’ve since seen it on a big screen three times: at an independent cinema in 2000 and twice during a re-release in 2010.) In my mind, it’s just always been there, always been a part of my life. Always been a friend.