The Birds (1963)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A small town is terrorised when the local bird population begins attacking people…

The Birds is one of those films with a big reputation. Too big, perhaps. Like Psycho – the film Hitchcock made immediately prior to this one – it’s a horror movie that’s built on its scares. And admittedly the sequences of avian assaults are relentless and violent and terrifying. But sadly, once the trick’s been played, there’s not a huge amount left to admire. It’s a film whose bark is more deadly than its bite. Or should that be, whose squawk is more deadly than its flight?

A vital component to this kind of story is a slow build-up to the terror so we have a chance to get to know the characters before the carnage begins, and this one starts with a meet-cute in a pet shop. Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) flirts with Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) and is so intrigued by the confident lawyer that she finds out where he’s spending the weekend and drives there to surprise him. She soon meets his family – a haughty mother played by Jessica Tandy, a tweenage daughter played by Alien’s Veronica Cartwright – and his neighbours. But it’s a slight story with precious little interest and it’s soon forgotten about when the strangeness begins.

Why the local birds begin persecuting and attacking people is never explained. They simply target our characters and the other residents of sleepy town Bodega Bay, California. As the incidents pile up, including an impressively staged explosion at a petrol station and scenes where people have their eyes plucked out, the film starts to seem familiar – at least to a modern viewer. Swap the birds for the undead and you’d have a zombie movie.

That genre wasn’t really defined until a few years later, when George A Romero directed the seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968). But here’s Alfred Hitchcock in 1963 preempting so many of its ideas and themes. The characters in The Birds are pushed to the limit by an impersonal, illogical threat that they don’t understand and they can’t reason with. It wants to hurt them, pure and simple. Also, with people fleeing, in hiding or killed, Bodega Bay soon starts to feel like a post-apocalyptic frontier town. Residents board up their houses, preparing for the next onslaught, while the authorities are noticeably absent. (There is a cop character, but he does little more than belittle the threat posed by the birds.)

But the best zombie films work because – like in any kind of successful thriller – you care about the characters. Melanie and Mitch, however, never quite punch through. They’re uninteresting people played by actors giving uninteresting performances.

Six men walking his dogs out of 10

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Blake’s 7: Volcano (1980)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Tarrant and Dayna attempt to forge an alliance with a secretive group of people on a planet dominated by a volcano…

Series C, episode 3. Written by: Allan Prior. Directed by: Desmond McCarthy. Originally broadcast: 21 January 1980, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Tarrant (3) teleports down to the planet Obsidian with Dayna. Their aim is to make contact with the planet’s leaders because the Liberator crew need a base of operations for their continuing rebellion, and Obsidian has never been affiliated to the Federation. They’ve also heard a rumour that Blake has been spotted there. Tarrant offers the Obsidian leader, Hower (Michael Gough), a slice of any spoils for the use of his planet. But Hower is a pacifist and says no. So Tarrant next tries to nobble Hower’s son, who then betrays him by contacting Servalan… Luckily for our heroes, Hower then steps in and, er, kills his own son. Hashtag overreaction.
* Dayna (3) has a connection to Hower: he knew her late father. During the negotiations she acts as the good cop to Tarrant’s bad, and by using her charm learns the reason they’re not going to get any help. Hower and his cronies have turned the whole population into pacifists – mainly by education, but partly by electro-shock treatment and propaganda. Detective Dayna also finds out why the planet has never been invaded by the Federation: there’s a massive atomic bomb under the surface, and Hower is willing to wipe out his own people rather than see war. Hower even shows Dayna the convenient planet-destroying button. Hashtag Chekov’s gun.
* Back on the Liberator, Cally (26) is worried when Tarrant and Dayna don’t radio in with news. Later, after the Liberator has been breached, she’s able to use her often-forgotten-about telepathy to warn Avon. But the Federation troops that have come aboard then steal Orac and take Cally hostage. Taken down to Obsidian, Cally is hidden in a cave until Tarrant and Dayna come along and rescue her. Hashtag damsel in distress.
* Avon (28) is worried as the episode begins. He knows the Federation once visited Obsidian and carried out a survey. Why did they not colonise the place, then? He’s also cynical about the rumour Blake has been spotted there. When Tarrant and Dayna fail to check in, Avon teleports down to look for them. He finds dead bodies and then spots Servalan and a squad of soldiers so beams back up. Not long after, the soldiers manage to get aboard the Liberator – and one of them shots Avon in the arm during a gunfight. Hashtag ouch!
* Vila (29) points out the oddity that Obsidian has just one volcano on the entire planet. (Earth today has approximately 1,500 of the fuckers.) Avon and Cally also tease him about how he fancies their new colleague Dayna. Later, Vila acts rather foolishly and accidentally teleports some Federation soldiers aboard the Liberator. But he also gets a nice moment when he hears Servalan’s voice on a discarded radio so answers her sarcastically. Hashtag pwned.
* Orac (13) is asked to operate the teleport and is not happy: he points out that it’s a menial job more suited to someone like Cally. Hashtag patronising.
* Zen (25) reports that Obsidian has not had serious volcanic activity for ‘some years’, a vagueness that does not go down well with Avon. Hashtag get your act together.
* Servalan (15) has regained power since we last saw her. She’s now President of the Universe or something, but rather than lounging about in a mansion she’s commanding a ship staffed by thugs and mutoids. Their mission is to snatch the Liberator! (How many times has she tried that now?) Down on Obsidian, she encounters some locals and orders her second-in-command to kill them. He’s shocked. (Has he never met Servalan before?) She then manages to get a squad of agents aboard the Liberator, who snatch Orac. She also receives word of how to wipe out Obsidian’s control bunker – but before she can act, Hower pushes the button and destroys his entire planet. Hashtag overkill.

Best bit: Hower has a robot butler! It’s not vital to the plot. Nor is it especially remarked upon by the characters. It’s just a cute bit of texture.

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Worst bit: Michael Gough plays Hower and gives one of *those* performances where a clearly capable actor shows up in a genre show and just goes through the motions. You get no sense at all of Hower – and therefore the society at large – having a life outside his scripted dialogue. Gough also has a moment or two where he’s obviously grasping to remember his next line.

Review: Volcano begins with Tarrant and Dayna landing on the surface of Obsidian – two characters who weren’t seen or mentioned in the show’s first 26 episodes. It feels like a mission statement: a chance for the two to get some screentime. And it works, at least until the pair go missing from the episode for a 10-minute chunk in the middle. Not especially gripping, Volcano as a whole doesn’t offend either. The dialogue contains some clunky exposition, while Servalan has a moronic sidekick who says stupid things just so she can then explain things. But there’s been worse. One thing in its favour is the impressive location work. There might be some stock footage thrown in, but director Desmond McCarthy sells the idea that the scenes are taking place on the slopes of a volcano. There’s smoke, wind and actors shouting over roaring sound effects that must have been added later. (Having said that, there’s also one CSO shot of a soldier falling into the lava that just makes you howl with laughter.)

Six narcotic spray guns out of 10

Next episode: Dawn of the Gods

Rich and Strange (1931)

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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.

Note: In the US, this film was released as East of Shanghai.

An English couple inherit some money so go on a round-the-world trip, but hit problems when they reach Singapore…

The ‘rich’ comes when – after a frustrating commute home to the suburbs from his City job – a middle-class man and his wife learn that his uncle is giving them a huge amount of money. The ‘strange’ is not so much that Fred (Henry Kendall) and Emily Hill (Joan Barry) decide to set off on a cruise to the Orient. It’s more that the film plays it all for laughs. This is Hitchcock directing a throwaway comedy.

When the humour works, the film does too. There aren’t many belly laughs but a few smiles are raised. Kendall and Barry indulge in some funny drunk acting, while Elsie Randolph plays a fellow tourist who gets several bits of comedy business. (The character is a middle-aged spinster. The actress was 27. Her second Hitchcock role came 41 years later in Frenzy.) Also, the prologue showing Fred’s tiresome journey home from work is a joy: dialogue-free and full of sight gags, it’s like something Charlie Chaplin would have shot.

In fact, at this point Hitchcock was only two years into working with sound and you wouldn’t say it was Rich and Strange’s strength. The score is too prominent and you soon tire of heavy-handed sound effects such as footsteps. Perhaps the director was already nostalgic for the silent era, hence the many sequences without dialogue. There are even expositionary title cards to push the plot along. But he was certainly keen on making the film look as modern as possible. As well as sending a camera crew off round the world to capture shots of some real locations – such as an elaborate and daring stage show at Paris’s Folies Bergère – he also built large sets of the ship back at Elstree Studios.

As entertainment, the film passes the time without ever really impressing you. A big problem is that it’s not especially *about* anything: it’s an extended comedy sketch with the loose appearance of a story. Hitchcock historian Noël Simsolo disagrees, once saying it’s an ‘almost tragic’ film because it deals with a childless couple idly filling their lives with frivolity. ‘They are empty,’ he purred. ‘They are sterile.’ In the same lecture, though, Simsolo also claimed that Dale Collins – the demonstrably real man whose story was adapted into the film – never existed. So what does he know?

Six games of deck tennis out of 10

Blake’s 7: Hostage (1979)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Blake receives a message from Travis, who has taken Blake’s cousin hostage and wants to talk…

Series B, episode 8. Written by: Allan Prior. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 27 February 1979, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* After being attacked and chased by Federation pursuit ships, Blake (21) learns that his old nemesis is on the planet Exbar. Travis is now on the run from the authorities. He wants to talk and maybe join forces with Blake – so takes Blake’s cousin Inga hostage as a bargaining chip. Blake heads to Exbar and teleports down alone, despite his colleagues (and the audience) all telling him it’s clearly a trap. He finds his uncle, Ushton, then climbs a hill to search for Travis – but yes, it is a trap and Blake is captured…
* When Blake says he has to try to save Inga, Avon (20) reminds him that while he’s off the ship the others may just leave him behind. (That’s nice.) However, after Blake has gone down to the surface, Avon gets jittery. He decides to follow his colleague, and soon discovers that Ushton has betrayed Blake to Travis.
* Vila (21) is actually open to negotiations with Travis, which is grimly ironic considering the fact that he’s later captured and intimidated by him.
* When the episode begins, Zen (19) warns the Liberator crew that Federation pursuit ships are nearby. He later fails to spot, however, that a single ship is just a few hundred metres behind them. Aboard it is Travis’s replacement as Servalan’s space-commander-of-choice.
* Jenna (21) pilots the Liberator to avoid the pursuit ships (one of the controls seems to be the arm of an adjustable table lamp). Later, she’s tricked into teleporting a ‘crimo’ – one of Travis’s new gang of criminal psychopaths – aboard the Liberator. But she then manages to re-teleport him into space, killing him.
* Cally (18) gets very little to do. She’s mostly taken over Gan’s function in the team: stand around, beef up the numbers, and occasionally say something that doesn’t really develop the plot. Her one moment in this episode is just before Blake leaves the ship. Telepath Cally gets a Deanna Troi-style vague sense of danger.
* Orac (8) picks up the coded message from Travis.
* Travis (9) has been on the run since his interrupted trial a couple of episodes ago. The real reason he’s taken Inga prisoner and coerced Ushton into helping him is because he wants the Liberator. The plan seems to be going well: he manages to capture Blake, Avon and Vila, but then Inga and Ushton turn on him. Blake and co escape, leaving Travis tied up with Servalan on the way…
* Servalan (8) ain’t happy that Blake is becoming a folk hero. To make matters worse, Travis’s replacement turns out to be rubbish at hunting down Blake. She then gets word where Travis is… Once she finds him, they do a deal. If he gets her Blake, she’ll officially list Travis as dead (thereby allowing him to disappear and avoid his execution sentence).

Best bit: Pretty much anything Avon says or does. It’s another terrific episode for the show’s most enigmatic character. He acts cool and disinterested in Blake, but then risks his life to save him (again). This is clearly a man with a complex psychology. He’s also part of the episode’s best plot twist – it’s he who sends an anonymous message to Servalan telling her where Travis is.

Worst bit: During an action scene on the surface of Exbar, there’s a *very* polystyrene-y avalanche of rocks.

Review: One of the pleasures of Blake’s 7 is the way it develops across the episodes. This is not a show with a reset button at the end of every adventure. Travis, for example, has a character arc – once a respected and feared officer in the Federation military, he’s now reduced to a mercenary on the edge of society. And that kind of thing makes the series more interesting. (He certainly fairs better than Jenna and Cally do: this is yet another episode where the male crew members get action and story, and the female crew members get standing-around-on-the-Liberator.) Too simple to be really enjoyable – we all know it’s a trap and it is – Hostage passes the time well enough.

Six kissing cousins out of 10

Next episode: Countdown

Blake’s 7: Weapon (1979)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Six screams of protest ringing in our ears out of 10

Next episode: Horizon

Blake’s 7: Orac (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Six decontaminate drugs out of 10

Next episode: Redemption

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Six men in trenchcoats out of 10


Suspicion (1941)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A young heiress falls for a charming rogue. But after their wedding she begins to doubt his intentions…

While there’s a nice, rising menace in this story, events start conventionally enough. Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) comes from a stuffy, drab, middle-England life; she meets charmer Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant); he sweeps her off her feet; they fall in love and quickly marry. But then when they return from their honeymoon, Lina learns that Johnnie’s skint and a cheat and a liar.

You feel for Lina’s plight. She’s trapped in a bad situation she didn’t see coming – and sadly the modern-day solution (telling him to get lost) doesn’t seem to be an option. Johnnie is clearly a wrong’un. He pawns two priceless chairs that were a wedding present from her father, shows little concern when his best friend nearly chokes to death, then pretends to have a job just to stop Lina asking too many questions. But because he’s played by Cary Grant, he also has genuine charisma and you’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Then, on the day the increasingly worried Lina learns Johnnie was sacked weeks previously for stealing £2,000 from his employer, her father dies. Johnnie soon has designs on the family inheritance, but is visibly disappointed when they don’t get anything from the will. So he starts planning a dodgy-sounding real-estate deal with his friend Beaky (played by a fun Nigel Bruce). But then Lina suspects that her husband plans to kills his mate – in a nice Hitchcockian moment, the idea hits her while she fiddles with some Scrabble tiles and spells out the word ‘murder’. Beaky dies a few days later…

The tension’s mounting now, especially after Johnnie drives dangerously down a clifftop road with passenger Lina fearing for her life. But then comes the truth: Johnnie has an alibi for Beaky’s death. He’s a crook, yes, but not a killer. And now the film rather undercuts itself. An unsatisfying ending can undo a lot of good work – and as Lina begs her shit of a husband for another chance, you’re suddenly reminded that Suspicion was made in a bygone era. In a final moment with troubling undertones, Johnnie says they have no future but then puts his arm around her as they drive home.

Six men posting letters out of 10

Vampira (1974, Clive Donner)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Note: In order to trade on the success of Mel Brooks comedy Young Frankenstein, this movie was released in America under the title Old Dracula.

Setting: Transylvania and London, 1974.

Faithful to the novel? No, it just uses the character of Count Dracula (played here by David Niven). He wants to resurrect his long-dead love, Vampira, and needs some blood. So he invites a party of Playboy Playmates over to Transylvania – they think they’re there for a photoshoot with a writer – and takes samples of their blood. However, due to a mix-up, Dracula and his loyal manservant Maltravers (Peter Bayliss) use the blood of the one non-white Playmate. So when Vampira awakens she’s now black (and played by Teresa Graves). No, seriously, this actually happens. She’s a fan of her new look, but Dracula sets about reversing the process. To do this he flies to London with Vampira and Maltravers to track down the other Playmates and to acquire their blood. The writer from the photoshoot, Marc (Nicky Henson), gets mixed up in it all, as does his friend Angela (Jennie Lindon). Eventually, after much busking about, the plot resolves when Vampira bites her husband… and changes his ethnicity too. (For the final scene, I’m sorry to report, Niven is blacked up.)

Best performance: Despite the dodgy finale, David Niven is effortlessly entertaining. He’s giving the David Niven performance of cool, unfussy charm. (By the way, this is a Vlad-is-Dracula movie: we’re told that the count used to be Vlad the Impaler and he even uses the name Count Vladimir at times.)

Best bit: There’s a neat trick when Dracula hypnotises Marc and Niven takes over the role for a scene. The switch between actors comes in a fun dissolve as Marc looks at himself in a mirror.

Review: Hmm… There are two films here, operating side-by-side and in conjunction, and they need reviewing separately. One is a madcap, rough-round-the-edges, schlocky comedy horror with some oddball casting choices (David Niven! Bernard Bresslaw! Carol Cleveland!), plenty of attractive models trying to act, lots of impressive incidental music, and some likeably silly gags. Sadly, the other movie is an embarrassingly dated mess of antiquated gender, sexual and racial politics. Teresa Graves is very watchable presence as Vampira, but she has to gamely ignore a plotline that’s based on her skin colour being an unwanted aberration and something different from the ‘norm’. If you can excuse that as naivety, the film has an enjoyably quirky tone and it’s clearly not taking itself too seriously. So maybe we shouldn’t either.

Six fake fangs out of 10

Penny Dreadful: season one (2014)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: An early scene in episode one tells us it’s 22 September 1891. The events mostly take place in London. We also see a flashbacks to some of the characters’ youths.

Faithful to the novel? This first season of glossy television drama Penny Dreadful takes a couple of characters from Stoker’s book and mixes them with several other 19th-century creations as well as some new elements. The idea of a mash-up of Victorian fictions is nothing new, of course: from the Universal horror movies of the 1940s to Kim Newman’s novel series Anno Dracula and the comic book The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, it’s a well-mined idea. Penny Dreadful’s biggest steal from Dracula is the character Mina Murray, who as the season begins has gone missing. We’re told she was married to a solicitor called Jonathan Harker, but then became embroiled with a mysterious, supernatural creature and became his slave. Her father, the explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), doesn’t appear in the novel but is a lead character here. He’s searching for his daughter with the help of an original character called Vanessa Ives (Eva Green). She’s an enigmatic woman who’s haunted by evil spirits. In episode four, another of Stoker’s creations shows up – but oddly Professor Van Helsing (David Warner) is a colleague of a non-Dracula character. Vanessa also makes a passing reference to Henry Irving, Bram Stoker’s real-life employer and mentor who was an influence on Dracula’s eponymous villain. Away from Stoker, Penny Dreadful’s dramatis personae is a mixture of people borrowed from famous literature (Dr Victor Frankenstein, Dorian Gray) and characters invented for the show.

Best performance: Eva Green plays Vanessa like a swan – she’s an elegant, controlled beauty but there’s enormous power and violence under the surface. The character is a torrid mix of guilt and doubt yet hides it so well, and Green’s performance ranges from serene poise to literally foaming at the mouth. In episode two, for example, there’s an extraordinary séance sequence that sees her possessed by malevolent, foul-mouthed spirits. It’s a bravura piece of acting. Incidentally, Green is just one of many Penny Dreadful alumni who have connections to the James Bond films. She played Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, while elsewhere there’s also creator/writer John Logan (who co-wrote Skyfall and Spectre), executive producer Sam Mendes (who directed Skyfall and Spectre), and actors Timothy Dalton (The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill), Rory Kinear (Quantum of Solace onwards), Joseph Millson (Casino Royale) and Helen McClory (Skyfall).

Finest episode: Closer Than Sisters, the dark, twisted, intensely peculiar fifth episode, is a thing of wonder. It’s an hour-long flashback, telling Vanessa’s back story, filling in some of her mystery and explaining her connection to the Murrays. Vanessa suffers family upheaval, demonic possession and extreme medical ‘treatment’.

Review: The world presented in Penny Dreadful is a fascinating place, if not that original. It’s ‘Gothicana’: a never-existed London of Cockney boozers, opium dens, Pall Mall gentlemen’s clubs, secret crime gangs, mentions of Jack the Ripper, prostitutes waiting in fogbound streets, rat-infested docks, Tower Bridge under construction, and Grand Guignol theatre shows. It’s a shame the drama that takes place there isn’t more gripping. A big problem is a distinct lack of urgency. The various stories meander along, and we drift from subplot to subplot. There are sparks of energy when the characters start to crossover and collide – there’s a terrific sequence at a theatre in episode four which has Ethan, Bronagh, Vanessa, Dorian, Caliban and Sebene all in attendance – but all too often there’s a slow, earnest pace. There is some genuine horror and a few shocking plot twists, but sadly the show is a bit humourless and pretentious.

Six exorcisms out of 10