REDUX REVIEW: The Terminator (1984, James Cameron)

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

TheTerminatorRedux

Watched: 14 October 2019
Format: A 35mm print projected at the Prince Charles Cinema in London’s West End.
Seen before? Yes, many, many times. 

Note: I have already reviewed The Terminator as part of another blogging series – you can check it out by clicking on this link. So instead of focusing on the film itself, this article is about one particular viewing…

Review: It’s a rainy October evening as I head into central London to watch The Terminator, a film I’ve loved since I was a child, on a big screen for the first time. I don’t specifically remember my first viewing of this sci-fi action masterpiece, but it will have been on VHS in the mid-1980s. At that time I adored films; I adored Hollywood films; and I especially adored Arnold Schwarzenegger films. I also, thankfully, had a mother who let me rent violent movies. I’ve watched it many times in the 30-odd years since, but tonight I get the chance to see it projected in a cinema setting. I’m excited beyond measure.

The Prince Charles Cinema, housed in a 1960s building that was initially a theatre, is the only independent cinema in the West End and is located on a pedestrianised side street to the north of the tourist-heavy Leicester Square. I’ve been here several times before, so am well used to the set-up: the small entrance where you can buy popcorn, the small bar where you can buy drinks, the chalkboard where they invite you to suggest movies they should run. It has two screening rooms – a 104-seater upstairs, a 300-seater downstairs – and at 6.15pm tonight The Terminator is being shown in the latter.

I get out my phone and show the email containing my pre-bought ticket to a friendly guy at the door. This has been a big change to cinema-going in recent years, hasn’t it? Not only the notion that you pre-book online rather than just show up and pay there and then, but also that your ‘ticket’ is a barcode in an email. Part of me – a rather big part of me, if I’m honest – misses the old system. I fret about my phone battery dying and them not letting me in, or the barcode not scanning properly. I worry that too many things can go wrong. In fact, the day before my Terminator trip, I went to see the newly released movie Joker at the Everyman Canary Wharf (a very fine little cinema indeed). I’d bought my ticket on their website the night before, but the email never showed up. In the end it hadn’t mattered: I’d simply strolled in, taken my seat, watched the film and strolled out again afterwards. Not one member of staff had challenged me. But it had added an unnecessary level of anxiety to the process.

It’s not a huge turnout tonight at the Prince Charles, which is a bit of a surprise. There are only perhaps 20 to 30 of us here. But this cinema has a brilliantly eclectic programme – later this week, for example, it’s also showing a documentary about Miles Davis, Eddie Murphy’s new film Dolemite Is My Name, a recorded performance of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s show Fleabag, the horror film Get Out, Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and 80s flick The Lost Boys. A screening of James Cameron’s 1984 classic doesn’t therefore stand out, no matter how much I adore it. There’s just so much choice.

After a refreshingly brief period of ads and trailers – no multiplex-style half-hour of tedium here! – the lights go down and the film begins. They use a variety of formats at the Prince Charles, sometimes loudly trumpeting the fact they have a 70mm copy of, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey… or sometimes whispering that they project a few films digitally. Tonight, I’m watching The Terminator on an old 35mm print, which is occasionally scratchy and damaged.

Rather than detract, I find that this actually enhances the experience. We’re living through a shiny, sleek era of apps and high-def and broadband, and of course that’s great and has brought untold benefits. But it’s wonderful, once in a while, to be reminded what popular culture used to be like. To wallow in the nostalgia of imperfection and to feel a bit more connected to the world around you.

The print I’m now watching is clear and sharp and shows off Adam Greenberg’s cinematography brilliantly. But it’s also undeniably aged, gritty, textured. It’s been round the houses. It has history. The reel changes are also noticeable – if, that is, you know to look out for an occasional flashing dot in the top right-hand corner of the screen. (This device tips off the projectionist that they need to switch over to a new reel. I first learnt about it when I saw an old episode of Columbo in which the murderer’s alibi was based on making a reel change at a certain time. The practice has now vanished from multiplexes due to digital projectors.)

All this is part of the fun of seeing a favoured film on the big screen. It’s not a dispassionate experience; it’s emotional and visceral. When you know and love a movie as much as I know and love The Terminator, you’re viewing it in a different way from most people. Most people, it seems to me, watch a film once. Their pleasure comes from experiencing a new story for the first time, and after that they’re not sure what you’d get from it. They perhaps find the idea of repeat viewings peculiar, but for people like me rewatching movies is a vital part of the process. I once heard the film critic Mark Kermode being challenged about this on the radio. Sounding bemused by the notion of watching one film many times, the presenter Richard Bacon asked how often Kermode had seen his favourite movie, The Exorcist. Kermode guessed at least 200. ‘It works for me every time,’ he explained, ‘and every time I see it, it looks like a different film.’

I haven’t seen The Terminator or any other film quite that often, but tonight could easily be my 20-something-th viewing. Therefore the story doesn’t take me by surprise any more. I know every scene, every beat, and I can – and this evening I occasionally do – mouth along with the dialogue (‘The Uzi 9mm?’, ‘Look at it this way: in a hundred years, who’s gonna care?’, ‘Fuck you, asshole!’). But my enjoyment isn’t lessened any by this. It’s partly due to familiarity. It’s like seeing and hanging out with an old friend, even if you know it’ll mean hearing the same anecdotes and the same jokes. It’s also the effect Mark Kermode mentioned about The Exorcist. Each time you watch a cherished film, in some ways you see it anew. Already knowing *what’s* happening on screen means you can focus on *why* and *how*. You can appreciate the detail, you can track certain aspects, you can try to understand why it works so well.

Also, having it projected onto a big screen, which of course is how director James Cameron intended it to be seen, gives me a new context this evening. All my previous viewings had been on a TV. The early ones were also cropped into the ghastly pan-and-scan format. Now I can look up from my comfortable seat and enjoy The Terminator in its correct aspect ratio (it was shot with spherical lenses and is projected at 1.85:1), playing on a screen around 10 feet tall by 20 wide. I can be thrilled by the story, excited by the action, entertained by the wit, intrigued by the clever storytelling, wowed by the intensity and the sharp direction, charmed by the cast, impressed by the craft in the art design and music and camerawork. Outside it’s raining. In here, I’m safe and happy.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Released just a week before Halloween 1984, [The Terminator] was the number-one movie in America for six weeks, on its way to grossing close to $100 million. I didn’t quite realise how successful it was until… some people stopped me walking down the street in New York. “Oh man, we just saw The Terminator. Say it! Say it! You’ve got to say it!” “What?” “You know, ‘I’ll be back!'” None of us involved in making the movie had any idea that this was going to be the line people remembered.’

Ten plates of burly beef out of 10

Next: The Expendables 2

Commando (1985, Mark L Lester)

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

Commando

Watched: 6 October 2019
Format: A DVD I bought many years ago.
Seen before? Oh fuck yes. 

I first saw Commando soon after it was released on VHS. I was only about eight years old and was absolutely enraptured: it felt like the perfect film. I’ve rewatched it many times in the three decades or more since, always thoroughly enjoying it, so here are 10 reasons why this 80s action classic is so entertaining. Spoilers ahead…

1. Arnold Schwarzenegger
Commando presents Arnie in such a way that all the aspects of his carefully moulded Hollywood persona are contained in one character. The plot features plenty of action and violence, for example, which utilise his enormous muscular body and towering presence. (His first shot is a mission statement: he’s carrying a fucking tree.) The script also uses the kind of comedy that Schwarzenegger was developing film by film in the 1980s. His dialogue around this time often favoured deadpan, James Bond-style quips and puns, which pepper and enliven Commando, adding a self-aware edge to the macho storyline (‘Where’s Sully?’/‘I had to let him go…’). But there’s also a big change going on here too, one that’s very important in the context of Schwarzenegger’s career. John Matrix is arguably the actor’s first *normal* character. (Well, relatively speaking.) He’s not a Greek god, a prehistoric warrior or a cyborg from the future – the roles that had made Schwarzenegger’s name but which didn’t call for much emotional depth. Here, when we meet Matrix during the film’s opening credits, he’s a kindly single father living a life of pleasurable retirement. He takes daughter Jenny (Alyssa Milano, spirited) for ice cream and teaches her self-defence. We soon learn that he has a past as a stealthy military assassin, but – give him his due – Schwarzenegger never forgets that Matrix is a reluctant hero who just wants a quiet life…

2. The script
In fact, the only reason Matrix leaves his idyllic rural cabin and gets involved in the wider world is because Jenny is kidnapped by mercenaries. They then attempt to blackmail John into killing a Central American politician, which they hope will incite a fascist coup. But of course our hero is smarter than the bad guys. He gives his handlers the slip (by, you know, killing them) then ignores his mission and heads off to rescue his daughter… The fictional country at the centre of the plot, Val Verde, was later referenced in 1990’s Die Hard 2, which like Commando was written by Steven E de Souza. A writer whose style is full of attitude and momentum, de Souza was brought onto the project to rejig an existing script after Arnold Schwarzenegger had been cast. Commando might not be Shakespeare, but it’s not trying to be. It’s a sugar-rush, action-driven thriller, with stunts and spectacle as well as humour and humanity. It’s full-on and full-throttle, but the closer you look the more you also see a sense of playfulness. Far from spoof, it nevertheless has its tongue in its cheek.  

3. Rae Dawn Chong
John Matrix is on a mad dash to find Jenny before the bad guys realise he’s free, and he soon crosses paths with a woman called Cindy, played by Rae Dawn Chong. She’s an air stewardess whose sports car Matrix appropriates when he needs to give chase to the slimy henchman Sully. At first Matrix’s terrified hostage, Cindy then realises that this is a desperate man who needs her help and the pair become allies. (Extremely conveniently for the plot, she has been learning to pilot small aircraft, which comes in handy when Matrix learns that Jenny is being held on an island.) Playing the frustrated, sarcastic dialogue for all its worth, the actress lifts the character above the usual ‘female sidekick’ function and adds a huge amount of fun to the film, not least when she haphazardly uses a rocket-launcher to rescue Matrix from a temporary spell in police custody. Refreshingly, there’s no romance between the two leads. Why would there be, when Matrix is focused on saving his daughter’s life? (A sex scene was shot then wisely cut from the finished movie.)

4. The violence
The film’s opening scene is murder in suburbia. A middle-class couple are awoken one morning by the sound of a garbage truck, so the husband races outside to make sure they collect his bags. The two binmen then starkly gun him down in the street… We later see many more scenes of brutality: deaths, gunplay, stabbings, explosions, scalpings, dismemberments, a man plummeting down a cliff, a man being impaled on a pipe, and so on. (Some of the more extreme shots were trimmed out of the print originally released in the UK.) It’s the kind of ultra-violence you don’t get in this type of film any more. The 1980s saw savagery go alongside sass in many high-profile genre films, especially those starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was understood that adult audiences could decode fact from fiction, and take harmless pleasure from the cartoon action. But since then – for financial reasons – there’s been a split. The big-budget action successors to movies like Commando (the Avengers series, for example) are courting a wider age range of viewers so contain watered-down violence. It’s never too graphic, never too challenging. The really hard-core stuff, meanwhile, is mostly found in lower-profile films like John Wick and Drive. Times change; fashions shift; cinema evolves. Commando now feels old-fashioned but – if you’re of a certain age – in a brilliantly nostalgic way.

5. Vernon Wells
Every great action thriller needs an entertaining bad guy. And Commando has a beaut. A colleague of John Matrix’s from their old special-forces days, the thug Bennett is a moustachioed Australian dynamo of testosterone and arrogance. He dresses in a macho-gay outfit, all string vest and tight leather trousers, and comes off like some kind of sadistic Freddie Mercury. Bitter at his firing from the military (for being a nutjob), he teams up with Central American fascists and helps kidnap Matrix’s daughter; he even stages his own death to disguise his involvement. A thoroughly nasty piece of work, Bennett snarls and snarks and smirks his way through the movie. This is not a misunderstood character with a deep psychology: he’s just a shit. But actor Vernon Wells (Mad Max 2, Weird Science, Innerspace) knows that and plays up the campy villainy in such a gleeful way that you miss Bennett whenever he’s not on screen.

6. The other bad guys
Bennett is just one of a gaggle of entertaining foes in this film. The boss is pompous wannabe dictator Arius (Dan Hedaya), and like a Bond villain he has baroque underlings. The goons who try to coerce Matrix into flying to Val Verde, for example, include Cooke and Sully. The former is an ex-Green Beret (‘I eat Green Berets for breakfast!’ quips Matrix) and is played with a stern expression by Bill Duke, who co-starred again with Arnie in 1987’s Predator. The latter, meanwhile, is a slimy, suit-wearing 80s twat who thinks his seedy chat-up lines will work on Cindy. He’s played by David Patrick Kelly (The Warriors, 48 Hrs).

7. The director
When Mark L Lester got the Commando gig, his CV was a mixture of now-forgotten genre flicks, a roller-disco musical featuring Linda Blair, and the hit horror film Firestarter. Tasked with an Arnold Schwarzenegger action vehicle, he pushed all the dials up to 11. This is not a movie about nuance. Made today, Matrix would have a drinking problem or an estranged wife (Jenny’s mother is never mentioned), but Commando works so well because it’s stripped down to the essentials. There’s nothing but plot, action, humour and excitement. It might have cost $10 million to make, but it’s essentially and tonally an exploitation film; directed crisply and sharply, with lots of driving momentum and no flab to the storytelling. Lester understands the idiom so well, taking the story *just* seriously enough that it flies but never forgetting that this is an arch, escapist fantasy. He also provides us with plenty of vivid, well-chosen locations, such as the Californian woods where Matrix lives, a vibrant shopping mall (which was later used in another Arnie classic: Terminator 2), and Arius’s island compound (which was actually an estate built by the silent-movie star Harold Lloyd). The action sequences, meanwhile, often have a James Bond-style panache, whether it’s Schwarzenegger swinging across a food court or jumping off the undercarriage of a jumbo jet during take-off. Commando is 90 minutes long and packs a huge amount in.

8. The tooling-up scene
If one moment typifies both Commando as a whole, and Arnie’s mid-80s career generally, then it’s when Matrix has arrived on the small island where his daughter is being held prisoner. Cindy has flown them the two hours off the Californian coast in a seaplane, and now Matrix has come ashore in a dinghy loaded down with supplies. In a meticulously edited montage lasting 19 seconds, we see our hero ‘suit up’. He ties laces, clicks buckles, straps on guns, pockets ammunition, sheaths knives, cocks handguns, zips up his jacket, streaks war paint across his muscles and face, then strikes a pose like a superhero on the cover of a comic book. It’s a scene that adds little to the plot – all it’s saying is that Matrix has guns with him – but it’s hugely important on a more primal level. Psychologically – if that’s not too highfalutin a word to evoke when it comes to this film – we’re seeing Matrix prepare for the most important battle of his life. It’s pure ritual. (In 2007, this kind of tooling-up scene was spoofed with affection in Edgar Wright’s millimetre-perfect action comedy Hot Fuzz.)

9. The music
Commando’s score was written by James Horner, a man whose career was typified by exciting, vibrant and memorable work on films such as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Aliens, The Rocketeer, Sneakers, Patriot Games, Titanic and many more. Riffing on ideas he’d recently used in the cop film 48 Hrs, here his music is a joyous collision of electro sounds, sax gurgles and steel-drum melodies. (What do steel drums have to do with the plot of Commando? Nothing. They just sound cool.) The score drives the action and embellishes scenes with wit. As the credits roll at the end of the movie, with the bad guys vanquished and Jenny returned safely to her father, we also get to hear a rock song that was specially written for the film. Sadly, We Fight for Love by the supergroup The Power Station is one of those tracks you start to forget while it’s still playing.

10. The line
‘I’ll be back, Bennett,’ promises John Matrix when he’s being shipped off to Val Verde. As most viewers – both then and now – will have realised, this is a reprise of an especially memorable line of dialogue from The Terminator. In fact, it’s the *first* reprise of ‘I’ll be back’ – and it would be far from the last. The line has since been repeated or referenced in many other Arnie movies: all the subsequent Terminators, Raw Deal, The Running Man, Twins, Total Recall, Kindergarten Cop, Last Action Hero, Junior, Eraser, The 6th Day, The Expendables 2… But here is where ‘I’ll be back’ evolved from a quotable bit of one movie and became a Schwarzenegger-specific catchphrase.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘I was riding the great wave of action movies, a whole new genre that was exploding during this time. Stallone started it with the Rocky movies. In the original Rocky, in 1976, he’d looked like just a regular fighter. But in Rocky II, he had a much better body. His Rambo movies, the first two especially, also had a giant impact. My 1985 movie Commando continued the trend, coming out in the same year as the second Rambo and Rocky IV. Then The Terminator and Predator expanded the genre by adding sci-fi dimensions. Some of these movies were critically acclaimed, and all of them made so much money that the studios could no longer write them off as just B movies. They became as important to the 1980s as Westerns were in the 1950s.’

Ten promises to kill you last out of 10

Next: The Terminator

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991, James Cameron)

T2JudgmentDay

NOTE: This is a review of the original cut of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, as released in 1991. A blog on the extended Special Edition will follow at a later date.

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A few years after his mother was targeted by a robotic killer from the future, the young John Connor must go on the run – but like his mother before him he has a protector…

Main characters:

* The cyborg known as a T-800 may be played by Arnold Schwarzenegger (now an enormous star who commanded a fee of $15 million). But this is not the same character we saw in The Terminator. It’s a different iteration of the same factory-produced model. When he arrives in the present in a flash of kinetic electricity, having time-travelled from the year 2029, it’s a scene that reminds us of the T-800’s entrance into the original Terminator film. He then coldly attacks a heavy-set biker in order to acquire ‘his clothes, his boots and his motorcycle’, so we’re primed to assume that this T-800 is bad news like his earlier counterpart. He searches for the child John Connor – the son of the first film’s Sarah, who we know will grow up to be an inspirational leader in the future war with the machines – and randomly spots him after driving around LA for a while. But then the cyborg *saves* John from another Terminator who’s trying to kill him, and we instantly understand the film’s cheeky conceit (admittedly, a plot twist that almost every audience member will have known before going in, thanks to trailers and word of mouth). Schwarzenegger’s T-800 has been reprogrammed and has actually been sent back in time to *protect* John from an assassination attempt. For the remainder of the story, he carries out his mission with unshakable commitment… As with the first film, this role is the finest of Schwarzenegger’s career. It’s true that part of the reason is that the T-800 doesn’t require much emotional acting or many nuanced line-deliveries, things Arnie has traditionally struggled with, but this is not totally a back-handed compliment. The actor’s undoubted presence – not just his size, but his posture and movement and gaze – are simpatico with the character. It’s difficult to imagine anyone playing the part more effectively.

* When the new Terminator – known as a T-1000 – arrives in the present, early scenes make us think of the Kyle Reese character from the original movie (further setting up the twist to come). But we also recognise that something is ‘off’. This guy kills a cop and steals his identity – all the better for tracking down John Connor, detective-like. When he finally does encounter John at a shopping mall, he’s about to strike when the T-800 intervenes and shoots him several times… but each bullet hit is harmlessly soaked up into the T-1000’s chrome-coloured liquid innards. We discover that this Terminator is composed entirely of a durable, pliable and intelligent fluid metal and can metamorphise into any solid object of comparable size – including people. (Writer/director James Cameron came up with a term to explain the character’s base material: ‘mimetic poly alloy’.) Played with granite conviction and actually quite a bit of charm by the hawkeyed Robert Patrick, and sometimes realised by cutting-edge CGI, the T-1000 is an amazing creation. Sequels can’t just trot out the same idea again, and making this film’s threat so different and fresh adds a huge amount of danger and tension to the story. For most of its running time, our heroes have no idea in the slightest how they’re going to stop him.

* John Connor, who we saw being conceived during the first movie, is now a rebellious 10-year-old who talks back to his foster parents and steals cash from ATMs. Estranged from his mother, he’s clearly a troubled lad who likes to ride his bike around the city to the sound of Guns N’Roses. The then-unknown Edward Furlong is really good in the part, largely because he brings no cuteness to it at all. This is a cynical, wise-beyond-his-years character who swears and knows how to use weapons, and Furlong’s sassy attitude works really well. He also has genuine chemistry with Arnold Schwarzenegger once the T-800 has convinced John to trust him…. and especially after John realises that his future self has reprogrammed the cyborg to accept any command John gives him. He even tries to humanise the T-800 by teaching him slang and sarcasm (‘Hasta la vista, baby!’), which works as both light relief and character development. But John also decides on a risky mission: once he knows about the T-1000 he insists that they go and rescue his mother, Sarah, who has been committed to a psychiatric hospital. Once they successfully get her free and evade another murderous attempt from the T-1000, John is disappointed that his mum seems more concerned in his physical state than in an emotional reunion. The latter takes more time, but comes both gradually and believably. (At the beginning of the film, we see a 44-year-old John Connor during a flash-forward to the future war. He’s played by Michael Edwards, a former boyfriend of Priscilla Presley.)

* It’s clear straightaway that Sarah Connor has undergone a *massive* change since the first film. Not only is she institutionalised in a psychiatric hospital, but as her opening close-up emphasises she’s now muscular, intense and serious. The former happy-go-lucky waitress been diagnosed with acute schizo-affective disorder – delusions, depression, violent outbursts – which we realise has been brought on by the fact she knows the world is due to end in 1997. So we’re presented with a beloved character who is now radically different and yet who we still recognise as the same person underneath. It’s great writing from James Cameron, but it’s also undeniably great acting from Linda Hamilton: this is a blistering performance of primal power, full of aggression and complexity. When refused permission to see her son, Sarah begins a daring escape of the prison-like hospital… and due to Hollywood storytelling, her attempt comes on the very night that John and two Terminators are converging on the building looking for her. The moment when she first sees the T-800 – which of course instantly terrorises her, due to her experiences in film one – is shot with nightmare-evoking slo-mo and is hugely effective. (‘Come with me if you want to live,’ he says, significantly quoting Kyle from the first film.) But after her initial shock, she learns that this T-800 is on her and John’s side. Very slowly, she even begins to trust and genuinely befriend him. The last third of the movie is then kicked off when Sarah learns from her new ally how Judgment Day will come about. A scientist called Miles Dyson will develop a revolutionary new micro-processor that will eventually lead to sentient machines who want to do away with humanity. So without telling John or the T-800 she suits up with some weapons, and heads off to kill him…

Other characters:
* John’s foster parents are a working-class couple called Janelle (James Cameron regular Jenette Goldstein) and Todd Voight (Xander Berkeley). She seems to be trying to do a decent job, but Todd is a pessimistic layabout. When the T-1000 needs to find John, he kills Janelle and impersonates her while he waits for the boy to call home. When John does so, Todd’s bitching gets so irritating that the T-1000 simply kills him too.
* John’s best pal is the ginger-mulletted Tim (Danny Cooksey). A savvy little kid, he lies that he doesn’t know John when a cop (ie, the T-1000 in disguise) asks after him.
* Dr Silberman (Earl Boen) returns from the first film; Sarah has become something of a career case for him, though he still assumes that all her talk of robots and time-travel and the end of the world is delusional nonsense.
* Miles Dyson (Joe Morton, terrific) is the director of special projects at the Cyberdyne Systems Corporation. The company has in its possession a microchip and a mechanical arm recovered from the first film’s T-800 and Dyson is leading the research into this radical technology. (The implication, which was explicit in a scene cut out of 1984’s The Terminator, is that the factory where Sarah killed the cyborg in that movie was Cyberdyne property. Hashtag bootstrap paradox.) He’s not a selfish, careless mad scientist but rather a decent family man. After Sarah’s conscience prevents her from murdering him, he’s aghast to be told what his work will lead to, so offers to help destroy all the evidence.

Where: We’re mostly in Los Angeles again. John’s foster parents’ house and the shopping mall where he encounters both Terminators are in the San Fernando Valley neighbourhood of Reseda. Later, after her break-out from the hospital, Sarah, John and the T-800 flee the city. ‘Just head south,’ says Sarah, and they drive into the desert. They eventually hook up with a Mexican family who Sarah and John know of old.

When: The ‘present’ story begins at night, carries on through the following two days and ends before dawn on the third – so takes place over not much more than 48 hours. The first movie had internal evidence that its main storyline took place in either 1983 or 1984, and the latter year is confirmed here in both a voiceover from Sarah and when we see John Connor’s date of birth on a monitor screen (28 February 1985, which means he was conceived the previous May). But John in this film is clearly not six years old so we’re obviously not in 1991, the year of Terminator 2’s release. John is now 10 (which is just about plausible: actor Edward Furlong was 13 during filming) and the story is set in 1995. There’s a continuity error, however, when the T-800 tells Sarah what is due to happen in the coming few years. Our terminus ad quem – or to put it in a less pretentious way, the date before which this story must be set – is 29 August 1997, which Sarah says is when the upcoming apocalypse will occur. Despite that being only two years away, the T-800 explains that Cyberdyne will start to supply the military with computer systems in three years’ time. (In real life, incidentally, 29 August 1997 was the day Netflix launched as a DVD-rental service. So when your on-demand service tries taking over the world, you can’t claim the clues weren’t there.) We also see 2029 in a brief flash-forward to the war.

I’ll be back: Since the first Terminator movie, Arnie had playfully quoted his catchphrase in some unrelated films. Along with his bulk and his accent it was a key part of his Hollywood persona. The first instance came in 1985’s endlessly enjoyable action film Commando (‘I’ll be back, Bennett!’), then over the next few years it was alluded to in violent cop movie Raw Deal (‘I’ll be right back’), media satire The Running Man (‘Killian, I’ll be back!’), likeable comedy Twins (‘If you’re lying to me, I’ll be back!’), entertaining sci-fi thriller Total Recall (‘I’ll be back!’) and so-so comedy film Kindergarten Cop (‘I’m back!’). So when reprising his most famous role, it was obvious that he would also reprise his most famous line. But where would James Cameron fit it in? We actually have to wait quite a way into the film, over 90 minutes. While trying to escape the Cyberdyne offices, Sarah, John and the T-800 are trapped in a lift. Cops have arrived and flooded the lobby with teargas, meaning no escape. But then we realise that the T-800 doesn’t need to breathe. ‘Stay here,’ says Arnie with a slight smirk. ‘I’ll be back.’ He then leaves the lift, deals with the cops, and returns for his human colleagues in a van.

Review: James Cameron had form for this kind of thing. Not long after making the original Terminator film, he had been hired to write and direct a sequel to another recent sci-fi classic. Aliens, his 1986 follow-up to Ridley Scott’s stratospherically wonderful Alien (1979), was at least the equal of its predecessor – some would say it surpassed it – and Cameron achieved this by doing something very clever indeed. In essence he repeated the first film’s premise (a monstrous threat terrorising humans), but now played it out in a different format (a war movie rather than a horror). The resulting film is absolutely related to its forebear spiritually and thematically, but it also has its own unique attitude and style. So, when it came time to create a sequel to The Terminator, Cameron used the same trick. Intense, pacey and thrilling, T2 is unquestionably in the same vein as the first film. It has the same slick, precise storytelling, the same apocalyptic concerns, the same attention to character. But it’s also bolder, deeper, larger in scale, and quite obviously made on a bigger budget. Cameron had actually started his career in frugal filmmaking, cutting his teeth on Heath Robinson-like Roger Corman productions, but here he is spending $100 million (a record movie budget in 1991, some of which was paid for by sprinkling the Pepsi logo throughout many scenes!). All this means that, instead of the first Terminator’s thrilling rawness and punky edges, we now get an unparalleled Hollywood sheen. This is a supremely confident film, made by a skilled crew going all-out to do their best work. The revolutionary computer-generated special effects, for example – which build on similar images on Cameron’s previous film The Abyss – threw us back into our seats in 1991 and are still enormously impressive today. Crucially they’re deployed sparingly, surgically, and are always focused on telling the story. It’s not just the CGI used for the fluid movements of the T-1000; there are also numerous in-camera techniques such as prosthetics, puppets, models and rear-projection screens. Just generally, the movie is a visual marvel: the action is tough and huge and powerful and visceral, everything is photographed beautifully (check out the blues hues for the night scenes) and the editing is unimprovable. But all of that only goes so far, of course. A great film needs great characters and a great story – and T2 exceeds in these areas too. In another echo of Aliens, this script neatly builds a family unit for us to follow and root for: instead of Ripley, Hicks and Newt as the parents and child, we have Sarah, the T-800 and John. Watching their triangular bond develop as the film progresses is a genuine joy, and more importantly the process increases how much we care about them. If all that wasn’t enough, the whole enterprise is also founded on one of the best reversals of expectation in genre-cinema history. Arnold Schwarzenegger – an embodiment of terror and savagery and brutality in the first film – is now playing a protective good guy. What a brilliant coup.

Ten thumbs-up out of 10

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The Terminator (1984, James Cameron)

TheTerminator

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A cyborg is sent back in time to 1984, intent on killing a woman called Sarah Connor. Her only hope is a man from the future with a secret…

Main characters:

* The star of the show is Linda Hamilton. She’d just made the horror film Children of the Corn, but The Terminator took her to a whole new level: one of a science-fiction icon. As the story begins her character, Sarah Connor, is an everyday young woman living an unambitious but happy-enough life in Los Angeles. A bright, likeable person who works as a waitress at a diner called Big Jeff’s, Sarah shares an apartment with her gregarious friend Ginger and – how’s this for an oddball detail? – a pet iguana. But her life is turned upside down when she realises that someone is murdering local women who share her name. The killer, a slow-moving but extremely powerful assassin displaying no emotion, then catches up with her and is about to pull the trigger… when another man saves her life and they go on the run together. The nervous and intense Kyle Reese tells her that he’s been sent back in time. His mission is to save her from a part-organic android called a Terminator, which wants to kill her before she can conceive her son – a son who will grow up to be an important military leader in a future war against self-aware machines. As you’ll appreciate, this is a lot of information for Sarah to take in. But when she later sees the relentlessly savage Terminator in action, she’s convinced by the outlandish story. She also starts to bond with kindly Kyle and they eventually sleep together… Sarah Connor is so much more than a stereotypical girl-in-danger. As the story develops we see her grow and learn. Bit by bit, she becomes more assertive and more confident, eventually taking the lead in her and Kyle’s attempt to evade the Terminator (‘On your feet, soldier! On your feet!’), yet we always recognise her as a human being with fears and doubts. Hamilton gives an absolutely terrific performance, selling every phase of her character’s journey, every shade of her personality. (The actress later married The Terminator’s writer/director, James Cameron.)

* Kyle Reese is a sombre and serious man in his 20s; his lack of humour is understandable given that he grew up in a 21st century ravaged by a guerrilla warfare with sentient machines. His mission is to protect Sarah from the Terminator, and he knew before he time-travelled that it was a one-way journey into the past. Suffering from nightmares and post-traumatic flinches, as well as physical scars from his war experiences, he seems singularly devoted to Sarah – and it’s only gradually that we realise why. In the future, Kyle was a colleague and friend of Sarah’s grown-up son, John. Through him he learnt about and fell in love with Sarah. By that time she had proved herself as a fearless leader in her own right as well as being the mother of humanity’s saviour, the Mary to John’s Jesus. Where Sarah is in this future – whether she’s died, for example, or is a 70-year-old elder stateswoman – is never explained, but Kyle hadn’t met her before he travelled to the 1980s. So rather than personal experience, his devotion developed through John’s stories and a single Polaroid of a young Sarah looking wistful. ‘I came through time for you, Sarah,’ he tells her as they grow close while on the run from the Terminator. They soon have sex in a motel room – it was the first sex scene your current blogger ever saw, aged about seven or eight – and the implication is clear: they’ve just conceived John…  Playing Kyle is Michael Biehn, one of those actors whose career contains two or three very high points but a surprising amount of trash too. He gives classy, interesting and very effective performances in three successful films written and directed by James Cameron – The Terminator, Aliens and The Abyss.

* For the role of the T-800, the robotic killing machine from the future, Cameron wanted to cast someone who could blend into a crowd. He initially plumped for Lance Henriksen (who was later given a different role in the film) while ex-NFL player and future jailbird OJ Simpson was also considered. But when Arnold Schwarzenegger campaigned for the part, it made business sense to cast the Austrian. He’d just had a big hit with Conan the Barbarian and his star was on the rise… It did mean a rethink of the character, however: the Terminator would now be significantly more ostentatious and noticeable. His first scene sees him arriving in the 1980s, totally naked and looking carved and chiselled like a statue of a Greek god. He’s also often filmed from below and framed like he’s a giant, adding to the sense that this machine is an unstoppable force. (In reality, Arnie’s height has long been a bone of contention. He claims to be 6’2”, but some have said he’s actually under six feet and wears lifts in his shoes.) Even if the original idea of an assassin looking like an everyman makes more sense, in this film you can still see a pop-culture icon being created before your eyes: the looming walk, the steely gaze, the dispassionate intent, the monotone voice, the Teutonic accent, the dry humour (‘Fuck you, asshole’), the brutal violence. Famously, the character only has 16 lines of dialogue in the whole movie. Shakespeare’s Hamlet has 100 times as many – 1,569 of them – in *his* eponymous story. But which one looks better punching a car window in, eh?

Other characters:
* There’s the aforementioned Ginger (Bess Motta) and her sex-mad boyfriend, Matt (Ross Rossovich), who are both victims of the Terminator when he comes looking for Sarah.
* Early in the film, the T-800 encounters a street gang and kills two members before stealing the clothes of a third. One of them is played by the great, sadly late Bill Paxton who pops in his small role (‘I think this guy’s a couple of cans short of a six-pack’) and soon had an impressive CV that included James Cameron’s Aliens and Titanic among much else.
* The sequences involving the police focus on the fatherly and deadpan Lieutenant Ed Traxler (Paul Winfield) and his gleefully cynical sidekick, Sergeant Hal Vukovich (Lance Henriksen). When they arrest Kyle, he keeps blabbing about being from the future, so Traxler and Vukovich call in a criminal psychologist called Dr Silberman (Earl Boen) who doesn’t have much sympathy for Kyle’s fantastical story.
* Although not a hugely important character, I mention Sarah’s co-worker Nancy (Shawn Schepps) because she has one of my favourite lines of dialogue in cinema history. Early in the story, during a busy shift at the diner, Sarah is dealing with customers who are complaining about her getting their orders wrong. Then a cheeky kid deliberately plops a dollop of ice cream into her pocket. Sarah sighs with quiet frustration. Nancy breezes over and says: ‘Look at it this way: in a hundred years, who’s gonna care?’ I say that mantra to myself after every one of life’s frustrations.

Where: Most of the film is set in and around Los Angeles. In a coda scene, Sarah is seemingly in Mexico. The Terminator’s LA is a grimy, crime-y city. We see suburbia briefly but there’s little glamour or glitz or showbiz here; instead it’s a place of rundown streets, gangs, hobos, cynical cops, punky nightclubs, flophouses and construction sites. It’s also often dark and threatening: around 90 per cent of this movie is set at night. One location with a surprising legacy is a nightclub called Tech Noir (entry fee: $4.50). Spooked by news stories of other Sarah Connors being murdered, and sensing that a strange man is following her (it turns out to be Kyle), our Sarah ducks inside a club to use its phone. This is where the Terminator first catches up with her, and where Kyle first intercedes (‘Come with me if you want to live,’ he says, coining a franchise catchphrase). So Tech Noir is very important to the story. It also had an effect outside the fiction. The Terminator is part of a sub-genre of movies that blend science-fiction ideas with film-noir stylistics – Blade Runner is its key text – and the nightclub gave the concept a name.

When: The bulk of the story takes place over about 54 hours. According to a line of dialogue, we start in the early hours of Thursday 12 May and events progress until daylight on Saturday morning. It’s usually assumed that the film is set in 1984, the year it was released, but 12 May 1984 was a Saturday. The date works if it’s 1983. (Having said all that, at one point we catch sight of Sarah’s timecard when she clocks in at work – and that’s for a pay period that will end on 19 May 1984. Time-travel stories, eh?) Kyle also experiences a series of flashbacks to his earlier life in the year 2029, and there’s a coda scene set several months after the defeat of the Terminator.

I’ll be back: After about 57 minutes of the film, Sarah and Kyle are at a police station. The latter is under arrest, while the former is being cared for by officers who think she was Kyle’s hostage. In a neat piece of writing, Lt Traxler tells Sarah not to fret: ‘We got 30 cops in this building,’ he says, implying she’s completely safe. The Terminator then storms the station and dispassionately kills every single police officer in his attempt to find her… The moment when he gains entry is where Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most infamous catchphrase was born. Walking into the quiet reception area, the T-800 asks to see Sarah Connor. A bored and distracted desk clerk tells him to return in the morning. The Terminator surveys the wooden-and-glass barrier that protects the station’s innards, then leans in and says, ‘I’ll be back.’ A few moments later he does so: in a high-speed car, that crashes through and destroys the station’s lobby… It wasn’t written as an arch piece of ‘movie dialogue’ – James Cameron was going for underplayed irony that would only ping on repeat viewings – but the phrase ‘I’ll be back’ quickly took on a life of its own. It’s been reprised in all the Terminator sequels, as well as several other Schwarzenegger movies.

Review: The idea for The Terminator came to James Cameron in a fever dream while he lay ill in an Italian hotel bedroom (‘It was this chrome skeleton emerging phoenix-like out of the fire’) and that nightmarish quality purveys throughout the movie. There’s a bleak, edgy, violent tone, almost like a Halloween-style slasher film. The incidental music is percussive and unsettling – all harsh clangs, eerie drones and mournful electro washes – rather than a Hollywood score of reassuring lushness. And Cameron’s masterful control of pace and point of view creates tension right from the word go: we feel like we’re experiencing events along with Sarah and Kyle, rather than being objective viewers. The story is simple. It’s a chase movie with the good guys evading the bad. But for various reasons, we’re gripped and intrigued throughout. One is that the sharp script centres on extreme situations, and has no interest in anything that doesn’t help tell the story. Another is that the characters feel like they have lives that exist beyond the barriers of the fiction (Sarah has easy-going, natural friendships; Traxler is clearly a cop who deals with difficult cases on a daily basis; what we see of Kyle’s war service seems like the traumatic tip of an horrific iceberg). There’s also the thematic unity of the movie, which expertly supports a central idea – a machine attempting to kill a human being – with numerous examples of technology being unhelpful. A construction site reminds Kyle of the mechanical war engines of his youth. Ginger doesn’t hear her boyfriend being killed because her Walkman headphones are too loud. The Terminator locates Sarah by listening to an answerphone message. Dr Silberman’s misses seeing the Terminator because his beeper distracts him. But these conceptual jokes never get in the way or draw attention to themselves; they’re part of a fully realised vision, which is exciting, suspenseful and packs a hell of a lot into a lean, trim running time of 103 minutes. The high-octane final 15 minutes are then breathlessly brilliant and focused, almost like a modern action thriller has time-travelled back 35 years to terrorise 1980s cinema. And just when you think it’s peaked with an enormous explosion, we get a then-innovative false ending: the Terminator emerges phoenix-like out of the fire, kicking the movie into an ever higher gear. A masterpiece.

Ten nice nights for a walk out of 10

An American Werewolf in London (1981, John Landis)

AmericanWerewolf1

Spoiler warning: This article reveals plot details.

Moviedrome was a wonderful way of screening films on television. Broadcast between 1988 and 2000, it was a BBC2 showcase for horror, action, art-house and science-fiction flicks, which were introduced on-screen by the film director Alex Cox and later by the critic Mark Cousins. In truth, the movies would have been screened anyway but the smart and insightful intros made them feel as if they were part of a carefully curated season. It was marvellous television and now much-missed.

If you were watching at 10.30pm on Sunday 22 July 1990, you will have seen Alex Cox – filmed on a bleak hillside and pretending to be spooked by an out-of-shot werewolf – presage that night’s offerings by saying, ‘The film is a weird mixture of naïve comedy and apocalyptic violence with an abrupt ending…’ This was my first viewing of the 1981 comedy-horror An American Werewolf in London, which had been written and directed by John Landis. I was 11 years old and fell in love. To this day it remains my favourite horror film.

Moviedrome

The movie was shot in early 1981, Landis reportedly wanting Britain’s drab weather to provide a gloomy backdrop for his story. The crew did some filming in the Black Mountains in Wales (standing in for Yorkshire), but the majority of the production was based in and around London. So I thought it would be fun to spend a few weeks exploring the movie’s use of the city. Perhaps I could visit some of the filming locations as I try to discuss why I love this movie so much?

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I begin my odyssey, however, by immediately breaking my own rule and leaving London. I’m on a train that will take me a mile or so outside the M25 motorway, a notional defining barrier of Greater London. But I know the journey will be worth it because I’m going to fulfil a long-standing ambition. I’m going to have a pint of beer in the Slaughtered Lamb…

As the movie begins, David Kessler and Jack Goodman climb down from the back of a sheep lorry. They’re young American men on a backpacking holiday in Yorkshire and a local farmer has given them a lift. It’s a terrifically witty introduction and Landis has confirmed that the visual gag – the characters being treated like livestock ready for the abattoir – was deliberate. Tramping across the countryside, the boys then end up in a village pub called the Slaughtered Lamb, where they get a decidedly frosty reception from the suspicious locals. Brian Glover’s chess player unsettles the newcomers with ghoulish jokes; David Schofield’s darts player threatens them for putting him off his game; Rik Mayall just smirks impishly. The scene is a horror standard: outsiders treated with distrust in a pub. The same kind of thing can be seen in movies such as Dracula (1931) and The Wicker Man (1973). But by combining a genuine air of menace with just the right amount of self-aware humour, American Werewolf’s is the best example.

In reality, the Slaughtered Lamb was a Hollywood-style composite. Despite being set in Yorkshire, the exterior was a redressed cottage in Wales. For the interior scene, meanwhile, the crew found a real pub in the brilliantly named Surrey hamlet of Martyr’s Green. That’s where I’m going now. Getting off the train at the rural station of Effingham Junction, I walk north for about two miles down a meandering and often pavement-less road. On either side of me is woodland, from where I can hear the pop-pop-pop of paint-ball guns. Occasional cars zoom past. A few cyclists are out on morning rides. Then, after 25 minutes in increasingly warm sun, I reach my target: a country pub called The Black Swan. It’s an old building with a modern extension added in 2006. A small beer garden is out front, a car park round the back. The locals affectionately call this place the Mucky Duck.

BlackSwanExterior

It’s 11am as I arrive, the specified opening time on the pub’s website, but a guy tidying up outside tells me they won’t be ready for ‘about half an hour’. He’s friendly about it, rather than the cool reception David and Jack received at the Slaughtered Lamb, so I hide my disappointment and have a wander around the local area to kill time. The Black Swan is opposite a turn-off for the historic village of Ockham, where the 13th-century philosopher William of Ockham was born (he devised the keep-it-simple principle of Occam’s Razor). I walk over there and enjoy the tranquillity of the Surrey countryside.

When I return to the pub at 11.30, a couple are already at an outside table with drinks, so I go inside. What a moment for an American Werewolf fan. Here I am, in the Slaughtered Lamb. The interior of the pub has changed an awful lot since 1981. It’s now less working-class and dingy, more upmarket and airy. All of the film’s set dressing is long gone, of course – that pentangle on the wall wasn’t genuine – but the space has also been opened up and the layout I recognise from the movie is now just part of a larger bar. But I can still see the framework of the Slaughtered Lamb. The way I came in is through the same door David and Jack used; the bar is in the same place; over there is the corner where the chess game was going on. And after I’ve bought a very nice pint of IPA and taken a few photographs I sit at a table just to the right of the door – in other words, on the very spot where David and Jack plonk themselves down during their visit.

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For a very long time, I assumed that the interior of the Slaughtered Lamb had been a film set constructed at somewhere like Twickenham Studios. It’s wonderful to be in the ‘real’ place, even with all the cosmetic changes. Sadly I can see no acknowledgment of the pub’s popular-culture heritage on display; no signs or framed photographs from the filming. But then something rather wonderful happens. The bar staff have put on a playlist of inoffensive music, as bar staffs tend to do when they want to generate some atmosphere, and before long I’m listening to a track that was used in An American Werewolf in London. It appears to just be a coincidence, but it provides me with a neat way of talking about the film’s music…

An American Werewolf in London does have a score, and it was composed by an all-time great: Elmer Bernstein (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Ghostbusters). But what’s more memorable to most viewers are the pre-existing songs that Landis used to complement his scenes. There’s also a cute running joke going on. To reflect the werewolf motif, the director chose tracks with the word moon in the title: three different recordings of the ballad Blue Moon, the Creedence Clearwater Revival hit Bad Moon Rising, and Van Morrison’s light-as-air jazz-pop classic Moondance.

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It’s the latter I can now hear as I drink my beer in the Black Swan. A poetic yearning for a bit of alfresco sex, it was recorded in New York City in August 1969. At the very same time, in Yugoslavia, John Landis was working as an assistant director on the satirical war film Kelly’s Heroes. During his nine months on the movie, he encountered some local gypsies who believed in the undead and the incident inspired him to write a script about a werewolf. But it was then put in a drawer (metaphorically at least) while Landis made inroads in the film industry. At the age of 21 he directed a cheap horror spoof called Schlock (1973), then followed it with three hit comedies: The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980).

Now a rising star of the Hollywood directing fraternity – someone who delivered popular and profitable films, someone who was friends with Steven Spielberg – Landis dusted off his old werewolf script and began pre-production. He hired his friend the special-effects genius Rick Baker to design the make-up then began scouting locations in England. For the story’s lead character of David, Landis cast 29-year-old David Naughton, who was then best known in the US for a series of Dr Pepper commercials. In the role of David’s pal Jack, the director plumped for Griffin Dunne, who was 25 and later married Bond girl Carey Lowell. David and Jack are superbly cast. They absolutely feel like believable pals with an easy-going yet deep friendship.

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As I leave the Black Swan pub, I have a much more pleasant time than Naughton and Dunne’s characters do in the movie. I simply walk back to the train station. After leaving the Slaughtered Lamb, David and Jack have a terrifying encounter on the Yorkshire moorlands. Lost at night, under the light of a full moon, the pair are menaced by some kind of wild beast – David is badly injured, while Jack is mauled to death. It’s a brilliantly shot sequence, director of photography Robert Paynter creating a lot of menace from smoke and artificial moonlight.

Three weeks later David wakes up in a London hospital and is soon spooked by a ghostly visitation. His now-undead friend Jack appears by his hospital bed to urge David to kill himself, otherwise he will inevitably transform into a werewolf… The scene is a marvel. Jack’s matter-of-fact appearance in the room is all the more effective because Landis simply cuts to him via a conventional edit, rather than using any supernatural effect or melodramatic music. Griffin Dunne also looks so brilliantly ghoulish, thanks to some world-class monster make-up featuring deep scars and bloody rips in his neck. He’s one of cinema’s greatest zombie-like characters.

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The hospital featured in these scenes is fictional, but for the filming the crew used the interior of the abandoned Princess Beatrice Hospital in west London. It had been founded in 1887 and initially called Jubilee Hospital to mark Queen Victoria’s half-century on the throne. Various name changes and redevelopments followed – it was only known as the Princess Beatrice from 1931 – until it was considered obsolete and closed down in March 1978.

When I visit the surviving building on the corner of Finborough Road and Old Brompton Road, having walked there from Earl’s Court tube station, I do so knowing that I won’t be able to go inside and see where David recuperated. It’s long since been converted in hostel accommodation.

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But I’m in the area anyway, as it’s on the way to another key filming location from An American Werewolf in London. When David is discharged from hospital, he accepts an invitation to stay with the nurse who’s been looking after him, Alex Price, and she takes him to her modest flat in a converted townhouse. Much to David’s understandable delight, the pair soon become lovers in a shower-and-sex montage scored by Van Morrison’s Moondance. Alex is played by Jenny Agutter, then 28 years old and the most famous member of the cast after big films such as The Railway Children, Logan’s Run and The Eagle Has Landed. The actress brings an awful lot to the movie, combining star power with believability, an English-rose quality with a fierce sex appeal.

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In the film, Alex’s workplace is a tube ride away from where she lives. In reality, the filming locations are only about 150 metres apart. I turn off Finborough Road and zigzag onto a parallel residential street. Very soon I’m walking into a familiar view and I find myself standing on the spot where John Landis’s camera filmed Alex and David arriving at her home.

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RedcliffeSquare

I’m on Redcliffe Square, which was laid down in the 1860s by the surveyors George and Henry Godwin. Across the road I can see St Luke’s, a squat and rather beautiful Anglican church built in 1872-73 and also designed by the Godwin brothers, while to my right is number 64, the address used as the location of Alex’s flat. What’s most striking is how little it’s all changed. Visiting the Black Swan pub had required a bit of mental squinting to see how it had been transformed into the Slaughtered Lamb. No such process is necessary here: other than the trees being fuller of leaves and the cars being modern – and the obvious absence of Jenny Agutter and David Naughton – I could be in the movie. The architecture of the building is exactly the same. Even the railings and the familiar black front door are still here.

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In the film, it’s in this ground-floor flat where the full horror of David’s predicament becomes clear. Alone as the full moon begins to rise, David suddenly shouts out in pain… His werewolf’s curse has struck, and as he screams in agony (‘Jesus Christ!’ he cries. ‘I’m burning up!’) his body contorts and twists, changing him from a man into a hairy, snarling beast… The scene is rightly famed as a wonder of special effects. This is where Rick Baker and his team show off their astonishing skills with prosthetics and make-up. His transformation complete, David leaves the flat. He’s on the hunt…

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David may have metamorphosed into a rabid lycanthrope, but the only notable change to the Redcliffe Square location I can see today is a sign on the front door saying ‘ADDRESSED MAIL ONLY. NO FREE PAPERS, NO JUNK MAIL’ (Perhaps they should add ‘No werewolves’. Or ‘No American Werewolf fans researching blogs’.) I hang around for a few minutes and take my photos, hoping no one asks what I’m up to. No one does. I then chance my arm and walk up number 64’s steps, recreating David and Alex’s approach. It’s always a thrill to be in a location that was used in a cherished film or TV show. The best movies are ‘transportative’; they invite you into a heightened, escapist world that might be superficially similar to reality but somehow seems magical or unreachable.

This happens in An American Werewolf in London. It’s set in an everyday 1980s London – one of packed tube carriages and newspaper vendors and trashy adverts on TV – but even before the supernatural plot comes into focus the film feels ‘other’ and ‘special’. All good films do, if they have smart direction, classy camerawork and a skilful cast (things that distinguish American Werewolf hugely). So there’s a kind of spiritual connection that happens when you visit a filming location. The place is both eerily strange and reassuringly familiar at the same time.

I feel this vivid sensation again a few days later when I head up to leafy Hampstead in north London to see the site of werewolf David’s first kill. Known as Middle Heath Road until the 1860s, East Heath Road snakes around the north of the locale, dividing the streets and houses from the vast open parkland of Hampstead Heath. To get there I take a pleasant, undulating walk from the tube station. I pass through a quiet, well-off residential area and see a house where, according to a blue plaque on its wall, the painter John Constable once lived. Then after a few minutes I hit the T-junction with East Heath Road and see a view familiar from the movie.

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ThePryors

It’s actually quite a short sequence that was shot here in 1981. A young, posh couple (played by Geoffrey Burridge and Brenda Cavendish) get out of a taxi. They’ve come to attend a dinner party with friends, and jovially walk down the side of a building towards Hampstead Heath. They’re sneaking round the back so they can playfully scare their hosts, but they’re about to encounter David in the form of a ravening werewolf… The block of flats featured in the film and which I can now see is called The Pryors. It was built at the beginning of the 20th century to the design of the architect Paul Waterhouse and was only allowed on the Heath side of the road because it was replacing an existing property. Former residents include the novelist Ernest Raymond and the acting couple Jean Forbes-Robertson and André van Gyseghem.

As with Redcliffe Square, what’s immediately apparent is how little has changed – but then again, why would it be different? This is a fine piece of architecture in a well-to-do area of London. I’m oddly amused to see that the post box visible in the movie is still here (or at least there’s now a modern one in the same position), while a pedestrian crossing has been added since 1981. As well as the building’s frontage, I take a look down its left-hand side, where a hedge separates the block from the wilds of Hampstead Heath. This is where the posh couple walked arm in arm to their doom…

ThePryors2

ThePryors2

With dusk falling fast, the trees and hedges feel full of menace. The light from the streetlamps doesn’t reach very far into the Heath and total darkness is only a few steps away. Not wanting to risk an encounter with a werewolf or any other potential danger, I keep close to the road. Occasional cars come past, a couple of joggers too. But mostly it’s quiet. After taking my photographs, I then retrace my steps back towards the tube station. Hungry, I look for somewhere to eat. In a delightful alleyway called Flask Walk, I find an equally pleasing pub called The Flask and dive inside for a beer and a burger.

Talking of pubs, the Slaughtered Lamb makes a reappearance in the film long after David and Jack’s visit. David’s doctor, Dr Hirsch, has had his interest piqued by David’s stories of a werewolf attacking him so he travels to the Yorkshire village of East Proctor to investigate. Hirsch is brilliantly played by the fuss-free actor John Woodvine, a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who brings both gravitas and a light touch to the part. He’s just one of many wonderful supporting actors in this film. Elsewhere, there’s the deadpan Lila Kaye as the Slaughtered Lamb’s landlady; Landis’s old pal Frank Oz cameoing as a man from the US embassy; and Paul Kember as a charmingly buffoonish British policeman.

However, back in London, the werewolf David is tearing through the city… After his attack on the posh couple, he stalks some tramps near Tower Bridge then terrorises a lone commuter in an atypically quiet Tottenham Court Road tube station. (The commuter is played by Michael Carter, later Jabba the Hutt’s aide Bib Fortuna in Return of the Jedi.) The following morning, a now-human-again David awakens – naked and understandably discombobulated – in the wolf pen at London Zoo, then later freaks out while in Trafalgar Square with Alex.

As you can see, this section of American Werewolf ticks off many hugely famous picture-postcard landmarks. Interestingly, though, in earlier drafts of the script some of them aren’t specified. Tottenham Court Road is just ‘a subway station’, while others were changed during the filming process. A scene of David using a public phone box, for example, was written as Leicester Square but then moved to Piccadilly Circus. As that location features so heavily in the movie’s final third, I feel I must take a pilgrimage…

PiccadillyCircus1

Piccadilly Circus, one of central London’s most recognisable areas, is busy as I arrive on a rainy October evening. Because I’ve lived in London since 2002, I’ve been here many times before, so it’s not a surprise that it’s full of tourists and traffic. It always is. (It’s not for nothing that ‘It’s like Piccadilly Circus’ is a British cliché used to denote a busy place.) But tonight my plan is to attempt to see the area through fresh eyes. Can I place it within the context of An American Werewolf in London? Can I ignore the smartphone-obsessed crowds and the horn-honking cars, and see if I can visualise where the film crew worked and how John Landis staged his remarkable and chaotic sequence here?

In truth, the Circus – the word has its roots in the Greek for circle or ring – is simply a crossroads. But it’s taken on a cultural significance over the years, not least because of two major features: the massive advertising hoardings first installed in the 1890s, which tonight glitter and flash and pulse with digital persistence, and the central fountain often called Eros but which actually includes a statue of the Greek god Anteros. When the nearby Regent Street was laid down by the architect John Nash in 1819, its meeting point with the venerable thoroughfare Piccadilly was shaped into what we now recognise as Piccadilly Circus. Shaftesbury Avenue, built in 1886, also connects to the junction and it’s on that road – famed throughout the world as the spine of London’s theatre district – where I first turn my attention.

In the movie, David is on Piccadilly Circus when he spots his undead friend, Jack, standing outside the ticket office of a cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue. He races across the street and follows Jack inside, only pausing to buy a £2.80 ticket to the porno See You Next Wednesday. (Landis buffs will know that the title See You Next Wednesday is an in-joke; a motif the director adds to most of his movies.) I don’t race across the street now, however, because that would mean risking my life with the traffic. I also don’t go inside the cinema, because sadly it’s no longer there.

ErosCinema

The Art Deco-styled cinema the Eros News Theatre first opened its doors at 7 Shaftesbury Avenue, along the northern edge of Piccadilly Circus, on 20 August 1934. It was a real success for several years, but by the time John Landis and his crew came here it had developed a reputation for being a rent boys’ hangout and for showing soft-core pornography. It had also been renamed the Eros Cinema. The cinema later closed down in February 1985; the final screening was of the Bo Derek flop Bolero. After a period as a jewellers’, the space was then converted into a branch of clothing store Gap in June 1997. The shop is still there now and is open as I walk over. I wonder how many people inside tonight realise that the entrance they used was, in a 1981 horror film, the ticket office of a porno cinema.

GapPiccadillyCircus

It’s inside the Eros Cinema where David Kessler is forced to face his zombiefied victims – the posh couple, the tramps, the commuter from Tottenham Court Road. He then metamorphoses again into his werewolf form. Bursting out of the cinema, past the assembled crowds and the police called by the cinema’s ticket attendant, he rampages across Piccadilly Circus. It’s the movie’s huge action set-piece. Cars crash, buses skid, pedestrians are run over, policemen’s throats are ripped out. In the kind of director’s cameo that Alfred Hitchcock would have balked at, John Landis – who’d worked as a Spaghetti Western stuntman earlier in his career – is flung through a shop window.

LandisPiccadillyCircus

When planning all this stuff, Landis had sweet-talked the Metropolitan Police into letting him take over Piccadilly Circus for two nights. No movie had been allowed to shoot there in 15 years because of the disruption caused to central London traffic, but Landis got the permission after screening his recent comedy film The Blues Brothers to 300 police officers. It went down a storm, apparently. Thankfully, there’s none of that chaos here tonight. I look around, mentally replaying the American Werewolf scene over what I can see. I’m far from the only person taking photos as Piccadilly Circus is something of a tourist mecca. The nearby Criterion Theatre is preparing for a performance of The Comedy About a Bank Robbery. A street artist is painted silver and impressing the crowds by standing very still. A busker starts to plink away on his electronic keyboard and is soon belting out Bohemian Rhapsody. Before leaving I also look for the red phone box where, earlier in the film, David makes a call home to America. It’s not here any more.

That’s mercifully not true of everything in this city. In certain areas it’s all but impossible to avoid London’s rich and cherished heritage, and I’m reminded of this as I make my way to the site of Amercan Werewolf’s final sequence: the rabbit-warren of streets to the south of the Thames between London Bridge and Westminster. Leaving London Bridge underground station, for example, I walk past the vibrant Borough Market, which dates back around a thousand years. I admire the gorgeously Gothic architecture of Southwark Cathedral, a building begun in 1220. I see tourists flocking around a sprightly modern replica of Sir Francis Drake’s 16th-century galleon ship the Golden Hind. And I stumble across the sole surviving fragment of the 12th-century Winchester Palace. All of this in just a five-minute stroll.

ClinkStreet

I then arrive at my final destination – and David Kessler’s too. Clink Street, which these days is a very smart, pedestrianised alleyway, has changed greatly from when John Landis and his crew came to this area to film their final scene. An upmarket eatery sits opposite a shop selling Union Jack-branded tourist tat, while many of the buildings have changed beyond recognition in the last 38 years. The street’s name comes from the nearby Clink Prison, a notorious institution that opened (and then presumably swiftly locked) its doors in the 12th century and served as a penal institution until it burned down in 1780. (It’s now a museum.)

ClinkStreet2

As I wander around, it’s early evening – earlier in the day and significantly lighter than when the werewolf David was chased here by the police after his Piccadilly Circus rampage. The street is busy with tourists, commuters, people on nights out, and at least one fool taking photographs for a blog. I assume I’m the only person here who realises that he’s walking on hallowed ground. No one else seems to be aware that this is where David was cornered by the cops. Where Dr Hirsch and Alex looked on in horror. Where Alex broke through the barriers to comfort the werewolf. And where a police gunshot rang out fatally…

Finale

The legacy of An American Werewolf in London and its director have, sadly, been quite haphazard. John Landis made at least one more classic – the riotously enjoyable comedy Trading Places in 1983 – but his output has had its share of duds too. At least neither he nor anyone else from my favourite horror film had anything to do with a truly ghastly sequel called An American Werewolf in Paris. In the same year as that turkey (1997) there was also a better-received BBC radio adaptation of the 1981 film that reunited some of the cast, while a remake of the original movie is currently in development and is set to be directed by John Landis’s son Max.

But whatever has happened since 1981, and whatever may happen in the future, we’ll always have An American Werewolf in London.

Ten bathroom mirrors out of 10

Notes and acknowledgments

As well as providing lots of encouragement, my friend Lizzie Hopley helped enormously by giving this blog a read before I published it and pointing out some errors. (Any that remain are entirely my fault.) Andy at the Gap UK press office gave me the information about their Piccadilly Circus branch.

My trips to the filming locations were carried out in a slightly different order from how I’ve presented them above. I visited Clink Street on Tuesday 20 August 2019; the Black Swan pub on Saturday 24 August; the old Princess Beatrice Hospital and Redcliffe Square on Monday 2 September; East Heath Road on Monday 16 September; and Piccadilly Circus on Monday 14 October. Photos © Ian Farrington 2019

There is some dubiety about exactly where the final scene of An American Werewolf in London was filmed. Some online sources claim it was a short distance from Clink Street, in the nearby Winchester Walk, but the Bankside area has been so massively redeveloped over the last four decades that it’s difficult to be sure. The scenes of police converging in the area were certainly shot on Clink Street, so I chose to focus on that location.

Incidentally, Clink Street can also be seen in the 1940s film Oliver Twist, a 1977 Doctor Who serial set in Victorian times, and the 2001 movie Bridget Jones’s Diary. The Black Swan pub also features in Deadly Slumber, an episode of ITV crime drama Inspector Morse originally broadcast on 6 January 1993.

I used a wide variety of sources, both print and online, for the factual information in this article. There’s little point listing them all, but these websites and books were especially helpful:

You can watch Alex Cox’s Moviedrome introduction to American Werewolf in London here, while this website helped with Moviedrome generally.

These sites were good starting points when it came to identifying American Werewolf filming locations:

https://www.timeout.com/london/blog/15-places-that-appear-in-an-american-werewolf-in-london-061617

https://www.reelstreets.com/films/american-werewolf-in-london-an/

Information about Princess Beatrice Hospital was gleaned from this National Archives site.

Background details about East Heath Road were found in Streets of Hampstead by Christopher Wade (Camden History Society, third edition, 2000), a locally published guide to the area. This private residents’ website was also useful.

Some details about the Eros Cinema were found on this site about cinemas around the world.

Vertigo and the Obsession of Cinema

Vertigo

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A retired policeman is hired to tail a troubled woman but fails to prevent her from dying. Then soon afterwards, he spots her doppelganger…

Displaying a masterful command of both form and feeling, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is measurelessly wonderful. It’s one of the most exemplary films ever made – a profound piece of work that thrillingly encapsulates what the medium of cinema can achieve. However, there’s been such a wealth of material written about the film since its release in 1958 that a blog like this has no hope of adding anything new. So instead of a straight review, I propose to use the space for something else. It’ll be a personal – some might say self-indulgent – discussion of falling in love with cinema. But we’ll not be going totally off-topic, because above all else Vertigo is about obsession.

Vertigo2

A whirling, swirling matrix of high emotions and dark, dizzying undercurrents, the movie tells the story of former San Francisco police detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart, giving the best performance in a career dominated by excellence). When he’s hired to spy on a disturbed woman called Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak, sensational), he soon becomes enthralled. She’s clearly troubled, and seems at times to be possessed by the ghostly spirit of her own great-grandmother, but Scottie is fascinated and enamoured in equal measure. He saves her from killing herself and they fall in love, but his acrophobia prevents him from stopping a second – and successful – suicide attempt. Weeks after her tragic death, he then spots a lookalike woman on the street and begins to purposefully manipulate her into being a replacement for his lost love…

Early in the film, Hitchcock presents us with lengthy, dialogue-free sequences: we watch Scottie as he watches Madeleine, and we’re sucked into the same kind of enchantment that he’s experiencing. The mood of the filmmaking – slow but graceful and enormously powerful, like an ocean liner – draws you in, seduces you, entraps you, and doesn’t let go. The effect is close to hypnotism. The actors’ performances, Bernard Herrmann’s never-bettered incidental music and Hitchcock’s scintillating control of time and space create a trance state – both on screen and inside each viewer’s mind.

The film is addictive while you’re watching it and that sense doesn’t go away afterwards either. It demands attention and cultivates affection, just like Madeleine. The academic Charles Barr discusses this in his book-length analysis of Vertigo written for the BFI (highly recommended: seek it out if you want to explore the movie’s abundant subtexts). In the opening chapter, aptly called Obsession, he recounts several instances of people being drawn to the movie again and again over several years. It’s such a rich film that it not only stands up to being seen more than once, it grows with meaning exponentially. You appreciate so much more with each viewing: the symbolic use of reds and greens; the telling references to San Francisco’s heritage; the subtly of Scottie’s platonic friend Midge; the intricacies of the mystery plot (ie, what’s *really* happening); the way the cutting creates rhythms and conveys narrative information… The more you look the more you see.

Vertigo1

But that’s true of cinema as a whole. If you become hooked, you become obsessed. There are, no doubt, many people who are quite content to watch a film once, take in the surface details, and then move on, never giving it much thought again. (Poor sods.) But some of us – and if you’ve read this far, that probably includes you – realise something deeper. We know that movies are not disposable or ephemeral. (Well, admittedly some of them are: I’m talking the good, the great and the interesting here.) They’re more like the people in your life: each one has a unique personality; they have characteristics and psychology and moods.

Many are like lifelong friends you relish hanging out with again and again, nostalgically riffing the same old jokes and simply enjoying each other’s company. Some are extrovert and brash and shout their glories for all to hear; others are introverts who only reveal their secrets after several encounters. There can be challenging films that require patience and understanding, but you sense they’ll ultimately be worth the effort, while some are objectionable little shits you catch sight of once and then avoid forever. Vertigo is that one-in-a-million soul that evokes love at first sight and total devotion.

VertigoScreenGrab2

In the kind of coincidence that makes life worth living, I was considering writing a blog about how Vertigo could stand as a metaphor for my love of cinema when I stumbled across an astonishingly relevant book in an Oxfam charity shop. Written by a retired insurance broker called Norman Olden, Sixty-Three Years a Movie Fan was published in 1991. It’s an incredible example of cinematic obsession in action.

In the mid-1920s, Olden was a teenager living in London who spent much of his spare time in cinemas. Partly as an aide-mémoire, he began methodically keeping track of not only which films he’d seen, but in which venues he saw them, and who accompanied him, and who the leading actors had been, and which studio had produced the film. Before he knew it, he had comprehensive records and anal statistical lists charting *years* of cinema-going. Sixty-Three Years a Movie Fan is based on those copious notebooks, cataloguing a habit involving thousands of trips to hundreds of cinemas from 1927 until 1989.

Sixty Three Years a Movie Fan book cover

Reading the book now is a thing of wonder, especially if you adore this kind of trivial minutia – it’s one part history of cinema, one part social snapshot, one part trainspotter’s ledger. The story is told year by year, beginning before the introduction of talkies, passing through in the Golden Age of Hollywood, taking in the blockbuster era of the 1970s and 80s, and ending with the release of films such as When Harry Met Sally and Dead Poet’s Society. Because he was going to the pictures so often, the number of films he saw seriously began to mount up. Olden was occasionally featured in the press (‘Has Seen 1,890 Films’ ran a small item in the Daily Mirror of 2 February 1934) and he eventually developed an ambition to see 10,000.

This was a tough task, especially as he grew older. British cinemas began to eschew double-features of new releases and, instead, showed the same films for longer. Olden’s free time was taken up by getting married and watching more and more cricket. And, perhaps inevitably, he found that fewer films each year were to his tastes. In one of the book’s more oddball moments, he records a bizarre tactic to reach his self-imposed quota: ‘I was forced to the sad conclusion that if I were to reach my goal of 10,000, I had better attend some double features of sex or porno films. To be truthful, they are not as bad as all that.’ He found German porn films ‘funny rather than vulgar’ but found British equivalents ‘quite pathetic’. He’s quick to mention that he stopped this habit once he’d crossed the 10,000 threshold.

Norman Olden

As well as the relentless recitations of – and opinions given on – films seen across more than six decades, Olden (pictured above) also peppers his book with details of his personal life. We learn about his parents, his jobs, his girlfriends, his wife, his experiences during the war, his holidays, and his love of theatre. He comes across as gentlemanly, old-school and politically conservative (he admits to being thrilled by films like Death Wish because they depict criminals getting what they deserve!). The overwhelming impression, however, is one of enthusiasm. He’s just generally wowed and thrilled by cinema of all forms, of all genres, from all countries; he’s willing to give anything a go, and his enjoyment is infectious.

That doesn’t mean that Norman loves everything he sees, however, and he holds some unorthodox opinions along the way. The rare movies he doesn’t like, for example, include Citizen Kane (‘tedious and pretentious’), The Maltese Falcon (‘my number-one disappointment in all my film-going’), Some Like It Hot (‘another Monroe failure…  I have never thought men in drag the least bit funny’) and All the President’s Men (‘it left a nasty taste in my mouth, maybe because I believe Nixon will go down in history as a good American president’). As he passes through middle age he’s also nonplussed by violent or provocative films, disliking fare such as A Clockwork Orange, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Omen.

Sixty Three Years a Movie Fan page

Given the era his book covers, it’s no surprise that he mentions seeing several Alfred Hitchcock films. His movie-going odyssey, after all, begins in the year that Hitchcock’s debut was released in the UK and ends a decade or so after Hitch’s death. He was generally a fan, and from an early age. Impressed in 1929 by Blackmail (‘England’s first talking picture’), he made a mental note to keep an eye out for its director’s future work. He records seeing Rebecca in 1940; four years later he thought Lifeboat was marvellous: ‘Who can wonder that Hitchcock became a name with which to conjure; he had an unerring flair for filmmaking.’ He says he would have guessed Strangers on a Train was a Hitchcock film and was charmed by the innovative Rear Window. Cary Grant ‘played out an improbable story with immense panache’ in To Catch a Thief, while The Trouble With Harry was delightful and Dial M for Murder ‘an intellectual treat’. Olden was ‘duly shocked out of my seat by the bloody murder in the shower’ in Psycho and found The Birds startlingly realistic.

Sadly for the purposes of this blog post, if he did see Vertigo he failed to mention it in Sixty-Three Years a Movie Fan.

One of the reasons Olden’s book struck such a chiming chord with me was that I have my own equivalent record of cinema visits. I assembled it a few years ago, basing it initially on annual lists I’d been keeping in appointment diaries since I was 18 years old. For films seen before I was 18, I’ve had to rely on my memory so those years may not be complete. There won’t be many missing entries, though. I fell in love with films on VHS in the 1980s and trips to the cinema were rare treats indeed. It was only once I went to university in 1997 that I started going more often – hence the habit of keeping records. I now update the list after each trip.

ET poster

If I look over the list now, it brings back so many great memories. I can vaguely recall, as a three-year-old, starring up at the huge vastness of a cinema screen when my parents took me to see E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial during a rainy Lake District holiday in 1982. (I’ve always been very proud that my ‘first’ was such a wonderful movie.) A few years later and 1989 was a sensational time to be a young film fan. Seeing a sequel to Back to the Future was almost unbearably exciting (to this day I have an enormous soft spot for Part II), while I can clearly remember the hearty laughter that the gags in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade got from a packed house in Southport.

The film doesn’t need to have been a classic for my memories to flood back. For some unfathomable reason, I can remember seeing comedy Nuns on the Run with my mother in 1990. I enjoyed it more than she did; I imagine the same would be true if we both watched it again. We used to go to the cinema together quite often, me being an only child and she being a single parent. I owe her a great deal – just generally of course, but certainly in terms of my love of film. As a young child I saw violent and sweary movies such as Aliens and Commando and Die Hard at home on video and my mum never objected because she knew I could handle it. She even occasionally sneaked me into cinemas with her to see 15-certificate films when I was underage. We went to Oliver Stone’s JFK twice because we both adored it so much. We watched Schindler’s List together and were blown away. When I’m on my deathbed and asked to cite the greatest things that have ever happened to me, very near the top of the list will be the fact I saw Terminator 2: Judgment Day on a big screen when I was 12 years old.

The cinema wasn’t always a wonderful experience, of course. I remember being confused by the Michael Jackson vehicle Moonwalker because it had no real storyline. Ghostbusters 2 was vaguely disappointing. My friends and I all thought Drop Dead Fred was dreadful. White Fang was incredibly boring. But the positives far outweighed the negatives.

Sneakers

A year before I entered into my teens, my mother and I moved from Lancashire to Derbyshire. At my new school I soon became pals with two boys called Stuart Oultram and Andy Fisher – the three of us are still friends today – and we began to hang out together, including occasional cinema visits. We adored the caper film Sneakers (pictured above) so much that we went back to see it again the following week. (It’s still one of my favourite movies – easily in my top five.) Three years later, I caught a Bond flick at the cinema for the first time: the amazing GoldenEye, seen with Stuart. I’ve not missed a 007 film since. In 1996, he and I also tried an obscure, low-budget, black-and-white horror called Nadja, which became one of his favourites. It was on at the Metro Cinema, an independent housed in a building on Green Lane in Derby that dates from 1876 – and a place that would soon come back into my life…

In 1997, I moved away to university in Leicester and had a fairly miserable year. Homesick, lonely and not keen on the new friends I’d made, I took to going to the cinema on my own as a way of escaping the darkness. With a National Union of Students card, I could get into the local UCI multiplex for just £3 so ended up seeing some films more than once. I watched As Good as It Gets and The Devil’s Advocate at least twice, Tomorrow Never Dies and Alien: Resurrection about three times each.

LAConfidential

I also saw what instantly became my single favourite film of all time: LA Confidential (pictured above). I was so enraptured by this sassy, stylish, sinister, film-noir masterpiece that I raved about it to my old school friends – so much so that Andy, Stuart and I then went to see it together. Thankfully, they loved it too. I even tried seeing it a third time, again on my own, but two elderly women sat near me kept talking so I left after half an hour. (Oh, the irony: the only time I’ve ever walked out of a cinema and it was during what I consider to be the best movie ever made.)

After a year of unhappiness in Leicester, something had to change. So in the summer of 1998 I switched universities to the University of Derby, an institution based in a city I knew well from living close by as a teenager. My new degree course was Film & Television Studies and – thrillingly for me – it was based in the same Gothic building on Green Lane that housed the independent Metro Cinema. We actually used its screening room during the day for our lectures; then in the evenings it became a public cinema. There were instances of me, essentially, spending all day in the same room.

Green Lane, Derby

As you get older, however, a lot of experiences feel less vital simply because of familiarity. So while I continued to go to the cinema in my 20s, fewer visits have lodged specifically in my memory. There are exceptions, of course. In 1999, my mate Will Haywood and I went to a weekday morning screening of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Unless rose-tinted specs are at play, I recall us both enjoying it. It only sunk in later that the film was drivel. (You can see my cinema ticket below, Sellotaped into my 1999/2000 appointment diary.) The following year, I saw a revival of one of my all-time favourites, Back to the Future, at the Metro and this opened my eyes to the joy of seeing a classic film on a huge screen. I now love seeing old movies at places like the Prince Charles Cinema in London’s West End. It allows you to reappraise, as well as wallow in shameless nostalgia.

PhantonMenacecinematicket

In 2002, at the age of 23, I moved to London and rather fell out of the habit of going to the cinema. There were just too many other things demanding my attention – an exciting job, new friends, being young and having energy, that kind of thing. I made sure to see Bond films when they came around, but otherwise only went occasionally. That fallow period came to an end, appropriately, when Back to the Future was rereleased to mark its 25th anniversary in 2010. I went twice and caught the bug again. Since then, I’ve gone to the cinema every couple of months or so. Nothing to compare with Norman Olden’s multiple-times-a-week strike rate, and I’ve always seen far more films at home than in a cinema, but it’s still a very important part of my life.

Even with middle age approaching fast and going to the cinema no longer being a novelty, I can still be utterly captivated. In my 30s I fell into my current habit of going to see the big sci-fi and superhero movies with my friend and colleague Fraser Dickson. And it was with Fraser that I had the most scintillating cinema experience of my adult life. Just before Christmas 2015, we saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the Everyman Baker Street in London. It was a movie we’d waited a very long time to see and we were both nervous and excited. No spoilers, but the final scene made such an overpowering impression on me – in effect, for a minute or so I forgot I was watching something fictional – that I walked out afterwards in a daze. Fraser did too. We stood on the busy pavement agog. We’re both Star Wars nerds, and had hoped this new one would be enjoyable, but we simply couldn’t believe the movie had been *that* good.

That’s what cinema can do. It can enthral and fascinate, just like Vertigo’s Madeleine. Good and great films rattle around inside your brain long after the end credits have rolled; they can provide enjoyment, entertainment, emotional fulfilment, intellectual stimuli, catharsis, joy or simply a carefree couple of hours.

In the introduction to his book, Norman Olden attempts to explain this. ‘Above it all,’ he says, ‘was the knowledge that for three and a half hours, I was going to escape to an enchanted place where I would be richly entertained, enjoy the comfort and luxury in so many of the cinemas I visited and the good manners of the audiences. I must bless whatever gods may be for my good fortune in having had all these joys at my disposal just at the very time they were necessary to me.’

Isn’t that fantastic? Doesn’t that just cut through to the core of why so many of us love movies? I think it’s his use of the word ‘escape’ that gets me. First and foremost I want films to be essentially trivial. I don’t mean unimportant or not worthy of discussion or lightweight. But the way cinema can distract you from the pressures and problems of real life – give you a respite and some fantasy – has been a regular solace for me during difficult times, and I imagine the same is true for lots of other people. As for Vertigo, let’s ignore this blog’s usual scoring conventions so we can emphasis just what a majestic movie it is.

A thousand men walking past the offices of Gavin Elster out of 10VertigoCast.png

Notes:

Charles Barr’s wonderful analysis of Vertigo is part of the BFI Film Classics series. It was first published in 2002.

Sixty-Three Years a Movie Fan by Norman Olden was published by The Book Guild in 1991, when its recommended retail price was £12.50. I bought a secondhand copy in a branch of Oxfam in Rochester on 6 July 2019. I doubt I’ve ever spent a better £2.99.

You can see my pedantic list of cinema visits by clicking on this link.

Ten Things I Love About Blade Runner 2049 (2017, Denis Villeneuve)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner is an intoxicating neo-noir mystery story, a masterpiece of art direction and cinematography, and one of the best examples of science-fiction in any medium. It also, however, feels like a self-contained piece of work – a glimpse into a world that is all the more fascinating because we only spend two hours there.

So producing a sequel 35 years later was something of a risk. Scott himself has recently directed two follow-ups to his other sci-fi classic, Alien (1979), and both fell a very long way short of that movie’s seductive terror. Thankfully, Blade Runner 2049 is *at least* the equal of the 1982 antecedent. Made with an understanding of the original’s power but also with a distinct voice by director Denis Villeneuve, it’s a big film, a difficult film at times, but an engrossing and hugely rewarding experience.

There are a multitude of reasons why it’s quite so wonderful. Here are just 10…

1. Connections
A sequel can do several things. It can go down the James Bond route of presenting another adventure involving the same character/s; essentially a new self-contained story. Or it can be more like the films in the Godfather or Star Wars series, which are discrete units but also work to develop an ongoing narrative. In other cases, ‘sequels’ actually have precious little to do with their originator – see Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), which takes place in a different continuity, or The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), which presents a whole new cast. But the latest Blade Runner film goes down its own path. It’s set 30 years after the events of the original movie and focuses on new characters. But its storyline is inexorably linked to the first movie; it could not exist without it. It is a sequel, there’s no denying that. But it might be more useful to think of 2049 as a companion piece to Ridley Scott’s film; an extension; a development. It’s not just the literal narrative that’s being picked up and run with. It’s also the themes.

2. K
The story’s lead character is a replicant (a human-like synthetic lifeform) played by Ryan Gosling. The actor has recently developed a brand of impressively impassive acting that says nothing and everything all at the same time. He glides through this film, outwardly not emoting much or reacting very demonstrably to anything. But Gosling, whose wonderful deadpannery can also be enjoyed in great films such as Drive (2011) and The Nice Guys (2016), has grown into one of the best *movie actors* of recent years. Knowing his face will be enormous when viewed on a cinema screen, he’s able to convey curiosity, anger, frustration, excitement and especially melancholy with remarkable restraint… The slight rise of an eyebrow, an adjustment of the mouth: these moments always tell you exactly what his character is thinking and feeling. Like Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard in the first Blade Runner, KD6-3.7 – K for short – is an LA cop who tracks down and deals with renegade replicants. (We still don’t get told why they’re called Blade Runners.) When he stumbles across some bones buried under a tree, however, he discovers a volatile secret: replicants can procreate. Knowing this information could cause widespread panic and unbalance society, his boss Lt Joshi orders K to find the child and ‘retire’ it – in other words, kill it. K’s gumshoe storyline also leads him to remember details from his own childhood, and he starts to wonder if *he* is the missing child…

3. Pace
In 1930, the average length of an individual shot in an American film was about 12 seconds. By the start of the 21st century, this had decreased to just 2.5 seconds. Coupled with the increased running times of movies in recent years, and that can mean an awful lot of shots. (Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong, for example, has over 3,000 of them. It’s a decent film, but no one would disagree with the notion that a few trims would help.) Many people point to the influence of television, music videos and services like YouTube as the reason for this increase in cutting speed. The idea is that we’re all losing the ability to pay attention. But there’s actually no evidence for this. Studies have shown a steady decrease in shot length across the decades, irrespective of other media. (It’s probably more down to the development of user-friendly technology in editing rooms.) However, in an era of non-stop cutting and a fear that audiences will get bored if you linger on one image for too long, Blade Runner 2049 is pointedly slooooow. It’s more deliberate than your average blockbuster and it *takes its time*. The rhythm of the storytelling feels old-fashioned – joyfully so – and allows the plot, the characters and the world to just *be*, to exist and develop. The film seduces you, grips you, and doesn’t let go. It’s lyrical, cerebral and beautiful. If most sci-fi films are rock songs, this is a symphony.

4. Joi
K leads an empty life, alone in a small apartment in a seedy building full of thugs. His one source of solace comes from an ersatz girlfriend – an artificial-intelligence hologram called Joi, played by Ana de Armas. It’s fair to say that this film has come in for some criticism around the character, given that she’s essentially a spin on the ‘sex robot’ cliché. She’s a mother/lover totem who switches from domestic goddess to flirty girl in the flick of a hologrammatic beam; she’s artificial and has been programmed to serve and ‘love’ anyone who buys her. But does this miss the point? The central theme of the Blade Runner films is ‘What is life?’ (The novel that the original movie was based on, after all, was called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) Here, a pointedly provocative character is being dramatised so we can question what it means to be alive. K is ‘artificial’ too, after all: he’s a replicant. But he’s capable of emotion and independence and sentience. We don’t question his right to life or to be treated with respect. We accept him as a character worth investing in. Why is Joi any different? At several points in the film, she seems to make complex and human-like decisions out of genuine love – she even sacrifices herself to save K. We later see a giant, 3D advertisement for her model and it presents a crasser, more sexualised version. ‘Our’ Joi had broken away from this cliché and become a unique personality. Doesn’t that make her ‘alive’? Joi has been programmed, yes, and has pre-set parameters that control her actions and ‘feelings’. But how is that any different from a human being? Our personalities and psychologies are shaped by natural characteristics, our upbringing, our surroundings and a host of other factors outside of our control. It doesn’t stop us being us.

5. Visuals
Cinema is imagery. If it were just people talking, it would be a radio play. And Blade Runner 2049 understands the beauty and power of visual images better than any other Hollywood movie of recent years. Just like in the 1982 original, both the physical world and the cinematography are *achingly* wonderful. Production designer Dennis Gassner and director of photography Roger Deakins (who both have Coen brother and Bond movies on their CV) create something that feels 360-degree real, 100-per-cent immersive, 3D vivid. It’s a logical development of the neo-noir LA we saw in Ridley Scott’s original – there are still cluttered streets and smoggy atmospheres and dramatic skyscrapers and neon adverts and dangerous shadows. But 2049 also moves the world on: America is now more Brutalist than Deco; more straight than curved; more scathing than seductive; more stark than sleazy. (Tellingly, director Denis Villeneuve’s keyword when trying to convey the film’s tone to colleagues was ‘brutality’.) There’s also still the Japanese influence we saw in 1982 (the bad guy’s lair is based on Kiyomizu-dera, an ancient temple in Kyoto), while several scenes take place away from urban sprawl: on a desolate farm, in sandblasted ruins. Each location has its own identity – a cold and sterile police station, the ethereal, golden offices of the Wallace Corporation, a cyberpunky brothel alley, an industrial factory, the faded, entropic ruins of Las Vegas – but they all feel part of the same whole and they all contribute to telling the story. There’s also a constant sense of size and scale: Blade Runner 2049 takes place in an enormous, wide-angle fictional world. Deakins rightly won an Oscar and a Bafta for his work on this film; Gassner was nominated at both ceremonies. The craft and skill involved in producing something so wonderful beggars belief.

6. Luv
If there’s perhaps one blemish on this film it’s the lead antagonist. For the character of Niander Wallace, an eccentric, blind businessman who runs LA’s most powerful conglomerate, Villeneuve initially hoped to cast David Bowie. ‘He embodied the Blade Runner spirit,’ the director said. But then Bowie died. It would have been an interesting piece of casting, given the associations the actor would have brought from other roles and his career in general. Sadly, Jared Leto – an acquired taste of an actor – is a poor second choice. The character has a plan to steal the bones that K has discovered, because he wants to learn how replicants can conceive and then use this to expand his business empire. But Leto plays Wallace in such an affected and theatrical way, especially in a perverse scene when he kills a naked replicant, that the character teeters on the edge of silliness. He doesn’t fit with the movie’s mood or world. Thankfully, much more watchable is Wallace’s second-in-command, Luv, played with icy control by Sylvia Hoeks. She’s essentially the film’s ‘heavy’, who acts as Wallace’s proxy because he’s too important/lazy/scared to leave the sanctity of his palatial building. Luv carries out his orders and kills mercilessly when needed.

7. Music
The first Blade Runner movie has a famously good score, so 2049 had a lot to live up to. Much like the look of the film, Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer’s incidental music manages to both honour what came before *and* push things forward. The score begins with ominous, reverb-heavy noises that echo Vangelis’s music from the first film, but this is no empty copy. Zimmer has become Hollywood’s premier composer over the last 25 years or so, known for music that feels enormous but which still has telling emotional weight. His work with Wallfisch on Blade Runner 2049 is no different.

8. Names
K’s boss at the police station is Lt Joshi, played with intelligence by Robin Wright, and she’s one of several characters in Blade Runner 2049 with an intriguing name. In Japanese, for example, jōshi with a long ‘o’ sound (上司) means boss while joshi with a short ‘o’ (女子) means female. Elsewhere, K’s single-letter moniker is a nod to Philip K Dick, the man who wrote the story on which the original Blade Runner movie was based. Niander Wallace’s name is a pun on Homo Neandertalensis, a now-extinct species of humans (suggesting he is destined to be superseded by replicants). Ana Stelline (played by Carla Juri) is an enigmatic woman who designs complex fake memories for replicants, and has a name that refers to anastellin (a natural substance that suppresses tumour growth and metastasis – ie, she keeps things alive). The implication of Luv’s name when said out loud is obvious… but if you don’t understand why Joi’s name has that spelling, ask your older brother.

9. Deckard
In recent years, Harrison Ford has been reprising the roles that won him such a venerated place in genre cinema history. In 2008, he got out his archaeologist’s hat and whip for a fourth time in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Seven years later, he returned to the Star Wars universe to give Han Solo one last Kessel Run round the block. Then he completed the hat-trick of heroes in 2017’s Blade Runner 2049… Rick Deckard doesn’t appear on screen until after 100 minutes, and for anyone who’s seen the poster or DVD cover and knows he’s on his way, this delay gives his return to the two-film narrative a huge amount of significance and weight. A trail of clues has led K to the post-apocalyptic ruins of Las Vegas, where he encounters his Blade Runner predecessor. ‘You mightn’t happen to have a piece of cheese about you?’ asks Deckard. It’s a quotation from Treasure Island, a book about a young man on a dangerous, revelatory quest for an enormous prize. The line is said by Ben Gunn, a pirate who has been stranded alone for a long time – in much the same way as the isolated and bitter Deckard. After a punch-up that plays out against the gleefully absurd background of a stop-start hologrammatic Elvis Presley concert – another masterpiece of lighting from Roger Deakins – the two cops discuss the case. Ford is sombre, soulful, sanguine; there are decades of anguish carved into his granite face. (Commendably, this film maintains the original Blade Runner’s ambiguity over whether Deckard is himself a replicant. Evidence weighs towards yes, but it’s not conclusive.)

10. Rachel
As well as Deckard, two other characters from the original movie have presences in Blade Runner 2049. Edward James Olmos returns for a one-scene cameo as Gaff, the prissy detective with a fondness for the multi-lingo Cityspeak. K visits him in a retirement home when he’s trying to track down Deckard. It’s a scene that could have been cut: precious little information is learnt and it’s largely a geek-pleasing moment (Gaff even does some origami – tick!). Much more significant is the reappearance of Deckard’s late lover – the replicant Rachel. She’s died in the decades since the first film, but makes a haunting cameo when Wallace taunts Deckard by presenting him with a facsimile of his lost love. In the finest use of computer-generated imagery yet seen in any film, the character appears exactly as she did in the original Blade Runner. Sean Young, who played Rachel in 1982, advised body double Loren Peta how to move and stand, then the latter’s face was replaced digitally. This kind of thing has been done a few times recently, most notably in the Star Wars spin-off Rogue One (2016). But Blade Runner 2049 exceeds anything done in that film or elsewhere. It’s a stunning moment, full of awe and wonder. If Blade Runner 2049 is about anything – and actually, it’s about a lot of things – then it’s a movie built on memories. K questions his own recollections, searches for his real history, and tries to create new memories with Joi. Ana specifically designs artificial memories for other people. Deckard, meanwhile, is haunted by the past – and Wallace knows that. The latter takes the former prisoner because he needs to know what happened to his and Rachel’s child. He taunts Deckard by playing him an audio recording of his first meeting with Rachel, then offers an incentive to talk… ‘An angel, made again,’ says Wallace as a millimetre-perfect recreation of Rachel sashays into the room. ‘Did you miss me?’ she says, totally believable. ‘Don’t you love me?’ Deckard is stunned by being confronted by something so beautiful, that he loves so much, but that he thought long gone and that has been made anew. So are we.

Ten wooden horses out 10

Rope (1948, Alfred Hitchcock)

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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.

After committing murder, two men stash the body in a trunk and then invite the victim’s loved ones round for a party…

The most striking aspect of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope is not that it’s the director’s first Technicolor film after 35 made in black and white, or the fact that the story is based on a real-life case of two young men who murdered someone as an intellectual exercise, but that the movie is in real time and is mostly presented as if it were one long unedited take – kind of like a sentence without a full stop – as the camera roves ceaselessly around a Manhattan apartment while its occupants host a dinner party with the corpse of a recent murder victim lying in a nearby chest, and also that this technique works so well you soon forget that a conventional movie would be cutting between different shots and between different rooms of the apartment rather than everything having the appearance and flow of a stage play (incidentally, the script was based on a 1929 stage production), but instead of a hindrance, this stylistic gimmick gives the film an extra level of tension – the longer the continuous shot goes on, the more vividly we fret that the crime committed by Brandon (John Dall, superbly smarmy) and Phillip (Farley Grainger, nervy and guilty) will be discovered – as well as a chance for us to appreciate what a monumental effort this movie must have been to rehearse and stage, though when you do pay attention to the craft of the filmmaking it soon becomes clear that Rope *isn’t* one long take with no edits at all because every 10 minutes or so Hitchcock needed to disguise a change of shot (the timing was dictated by how much film could fit into a 35mm camera), so in most of these instances the camera closes in on a character’s back or some other material that will black out the whole frame for a beat and allow editor William H Ziegler to subtly cut to the next section, but there are additionally a few key moments when Hitchcock simply switches conventionally to a new camera angle. These unexpected hard cuts were positioned strategically to help cinema projectionists change reels, but they have enormous dramatic weight because, of course, by the time they come along we’ve fallen into the rhythm of the film, which is fluid and real-time and dictated by actors’ performances and camera movement rather than editing, and to jolt us out of that mind-set really highlights an important line or reaction, such as when Brandon and Phillip’s old tutor Rupert Cadell (James Stewart, slightly miscast but reliably watchable) first suspects that something is amiss after Phillip becomes increasingly nervous and drunk and angrily denies that he once strangled a chicken on a farm, and then we cut suddenly to a reaction shot of an intrigued Rupert, though the character’s sense of curiosity soon morphs into dread as he begins to put the clues together and work out what’s happened, and this is where the gentle façade of the film and its fun, parlour-game conceit of ‘Will they get rumbled?’ – and, of course, the entertaining gimmick of the long takes – is superseded by an extra level of suspense and we watch closely as Rupert probes and questions like a classic detective, eking out the sordid truth of what Brandon and Phillip have done, which is to say strangle an innocent man with a piece of rope and then ghoulishly invite his friend, his father, his aunt and his girlfriend round to have drinks served over his hidden corpse – all done as an ‘intellectual’ exercise, to see whether it could be done, which is about as perverted and immoral as any crime in Hitchcock’s canon (at least Norman Bates is ill; at least the killer in Dial M for Murder wants money) so when Brandon attempts to justify his action academically – arguing with Rupert and the victim’s poor, unsuspecting father that murder can be an art form if carried out by ‘superior men’ and if the victim is an ‘inferior’ – we the audience are placed in a tricky position because the usual effect of a movie such as Rope, where we see events from the bad guys’ point of view, is to turn us into accomplices and encourage us to side with the villains and hope they get away with whatever they’re doing, but here Brandon and Phillip – especially Brandon – are openly espousing fascism, so something smart happens at the midway point of the story and that’s that our sympathies and empathies switch across to Rupert (the other party guests, meanwhile, drift away and never learn what’s happened) and he acts like a detective in a mystery story and he questions Brandon and Phillip and he challenges their story and he finds the victim’s hat in the apartment and he leaves the party then returns later in order to talk to Brandon and Phillip alone and the tension in the air is immense and Rupert drops hints that he knows what they’ve done and Brandon can’t resist betraying his perverted, perhaps sexual excitement at being caught and Phillip is a broken man and Rupert walks to the chest and he opens it and he sees the body and the noise of the city outside gets louder and the neon lights across the street pulse through the windows and he finds the rope used to kill and he shoots a gun to attract attention and we hear police sirens approaching – 

Ten silhouettes out of 10

Rear Window (1954)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ten men adjusting a clock out of 10

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

 

The 39 Steps (1935)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 men walking past a number 25 bus out of 10