Pumping Iron (1977, George Butler and Robert Fiore)

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.

PumpingIron

Watched: 28 November 2019
Format: A DVD bought online, second-hand.
Seen before? No. 

Review: The opening moments of this 1977 documentary – which explores the world of competitive bodybuilding – see Arnold Schwarzenegger and fellow bodybuilder Franco Columbu being taught dramatic posture by a ballerina. It quickly becomes clear that the sport is as much about show as substance. The Mr Olympia competition that all the bodybuilders are working towards is not about strength; it’s about style.

Directors George Butler and Robert Fiore initially planned to have their cameras follow the actor Bud Cort as he took up bodybuilding as a novice. But after a rethink that idea was dropped and focus switched to the charismatic Schwarzenegger, then 28 years old and the king of the sport after five consecutive Mr Olympia titles.

We meet Arnie as he hangs out and trains at Gold’s Gym in Venice, Los Angeles – and he’s clearly the leader of the pack. He’s popular with his colleagues, can charm a gang of inmates when he visits a local prison, and relishes a saucy photoshoot with a trio of bikini babes. He also pontificates passionately about the benefits of bodybuilding, likening the rush that comes from a workout to sex: ‘It’s as satisfying to me as coming, as having sex with a woman and coming,’ he says, beaming. ‘I’m coming day and night.’

But Pumping Iron is not just the Arnold Schwarzenegger show. Occasionally the documentary eye moves to other competitors, such as amateur rivals Mike Katz and Ken Waller, who are involved in a surprisingly moving sequence when the former loses out to the latter in competition. Katz says he’s happy for his colleague, but you can plainly see the pain behind his eyes. Katz also misplaces a lucky T-shirt, compounding his bad day. It was stolen by Waller as a prank, and we even see Waller impishly planning the joke beforehand with some pals. However, this is where the line between fact and fiction becomes a little fuzzy. Katz and Waller were actually friends and the scene of Waller mooting the theft was staged later in order to massage the drama. In fact, given that people in Pumping Iron rarely acknowledge the presence of the camera – aside from one moment during competition when Arnie winks at a female camera operator – this documentary often feels like a scripted drama.

This sense of a directorial hand guiding events is stronger still once Lou Ferrigno enters the story. Acclaimed as the ‘largest bodybuilder ever’, Ferrigno was then a gentle 24-year-old with hearing problems who was coached by his clearly devoted but perhaps too-eager father, Matt. Compared with the brash, arrogant and charming Arnie, Lou comes off as childlike and full of doubt – despite being 6’5” and 275lb. However, the pair are destined to meet at the 1975 Mr Olympia tournament in Pretoria.

The contrast between these two ‘characters’ must have been a documentary-maker’s dream, and Pumping Iron uses various tools to amp up the differences. Schwarzenegger is filmed in airy, sunny spaces; he’s smiling, laughing, hanging out with acolytes; he’s been there, done that, and got the too-tight T-shirt. When we see Ferrigno, however, he’s serious, frowning, worried; his gym is a windowless room. Whereas Arnie talks about sexual contests, Lou has dinner with his working-class parents. It’s clear Ferrigno is desperate for something to happen, to be able to burst out of his confined world. Pumping Iron was eventually released in 1977, the same year as Saturday Night Fever, and there are eerie similarities between Ferrigno and John Travolta’s character in that movie, Tony Manero. We even see Lou delicately drying his bouffant hair – all that’s missing is a Bee Gees soundtrack.

After the kind of training-regime montage that would later become a backbone of the Rocky movies, the two men cross paths in South Africa. In these sequences, a Schwarzenegger victory is never really in doubt. He openly announces his ability to unstable opponents just by talking to them, then brazenly puts down Ferrigno at every opportunity – even slighting him while having breakfast with his parents. But despite his arrogance and cockiness and undoubted bad behaviour, it’s incredibly easy to see why this film sky-rocketted Arnie into a Hollywood career. He’s a gigantic personality.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘My job, of course, was to play myself. I felt that the way to stand out was not just to talk about bodybuilding, because that would be one-dimensional, but to project a personality. My model was Muhammad Ali. What separated him from other heavyweights wasn’t only his boxing genius – the rope-a-dope, the float like a butterfly, sting like a bee – but that he went his own way, becoming a Muslim, changing his name, sacrificing his championship title by refusing military service. Ali was always willing to say and do memorable and outrageous things. But outrageousness means nothing unless you have the substance to back it up – you can’t get away with it if you’re a loser.’

Nine people who could be remembered for hundreds of years, or even, like Jesus, be for thousands of years remembered out of 10

Next: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

REDUX REVIEW: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991, 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.

Terminator2

Watched: 21 November 2019
Format: A DVD copy I’ve owned for many, many years.
Seen before? Yes, many times. This film was released when I was 12 years old – I sneaked into a cinema to see it.

Note: I’ve already reviewed this film, and you can read my thoughts here. So instead of going over old ground, this redux review will instead look at how wonder-director James Cameron actually damaged the film by giving us too much of a good thing… Spoilers ahead…

Review: When released in the UK in August 1991, Terminator 2: Judgment Day was so impressively sharp and focused that few viewers would have taken out a single frame. But what about adding some? Well, that’s what its writer/director, James Cameron, did when the movie was issued on VHS and LaserDisc in 1993. He used the opportunity to add back some footage he’d been persuaded to leave out of the theatrical release. For better or worse, this longer cut – known as the Special Edition – is now the default version of the film, being shown on television and released on home video as if the 1991 cut had never existed.

Cameron has form for this kind of thing. He likewise re-edited 1986’s Aliens and 1989’s The Abyss, releasing longer versions a few years after their cinema runs. In the cases of those sci-fi greats, the longer cuts were even better than what had come before. Both now had deeper, more resonant subplots that shed intriguing light on the main stories, as well as some fun extra details. Crucially, the pacing of neither film was damaged. Both still played extremely well.

Sadly, the same can’t be said about Terminator 2. An extra 16 minutes were added in 1993, coincidentally the same minute-count that Cameron had added to Aliens: Special Edition. However, a lot of the additions come during the middle phase of the story, meaning a tight, tense chase plot now feels a bit flabby. The result is *far* from awful. It’s still a wonderful movie, whichever version you watch. But by expanding Terminator 2, Cameron slackened the tightness and few of the extra moments justify their inclusion. 

Early in the film, for example, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is locked up in a psychiatric hospital. The heroine of 1984’s The Terminator has gone off-the-rails since her encounter with a time-travelling killer android, but we viewers know that her ‘paranoid’ ravings about the imminent end of the world are spot on. If being incarcerated wasn’t bad enough, the Special Edition has some bonus footage of the institution’s sadistic porters abusing her. The original cut had trimmed this plot point back to a perverted moment where one of them licks her face, but now they beat her with nightsticks. All this emphasises her awful existence some more, but the original cut played fine without it.

Also in these sequences, Sarah now has a lengthy dream in which her lost love, Kyle Reese, appears to her and tells her to stay strong for their 10-year-old son, John (Edward Furlong). The scene was Michael Biehn’s only contribution to the film, so he ended up being cut out entirely in 1991. It’s a decent character moment, for sure, but the movie didn’t suffer from its loss. We understand Sarah’s motivation perfectly well without it. More interesting is how the scene develops: after Kyle’s pep-talk, Sarah’s dream takes a very dark turn. In a brilliantly surreal moment, she runs (in nightmarish slo-mo) out of the hospital and straight into an idyllic park, where children are gleefully playing on slides and roundabouts. Sarah, of course, knows that the world is heading for an apocalypse – and her unconscious now conjures one up: a massive fireball that graphically rips across the whole area, blowing buildings down and immolating everyone in sight. Trapped behind a wire fence, Sarah screams until she too burns – and then she wakes up in the hospital. In the 1991 version of the film, she only describes this nightmare. Seeing it, rather than talking about it, has several advantages. It ramps up Sarah’s already intense fear; it’s a very visually striking sequence; and by using children it ties thematically to Sarah’s desperate need to protect her son.

Later, after John breaks Sarah free from the hospital, with help from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ‘good’ Terminator – the movie heads into its middle phase. The ‘bad’ Terminator, a T-1000 played by Robert Patrick, is chasing the others across country – and he’s intent on killing John, who is destined to grow up to be the leader of the human resistance in a war against sentient machines. James Cameron was a marvel at these kind of stories, building and maintaining suspense and mixing it with muscular action and character insights. In the theatrical release print, the balance was perfection. But in the longer cut, we now get quite a few extra dialogue exchanges between Sarah, John and Arnie’s T-800. Each moment is fine in and of itself: well written, well played, enjoyable. (Mostly: a quick scene of John trying to teach the T-800 how to smile is far too goofy.) But they all whiff of ‘deleted scene’ material. They underline or spell out subtexts that already exist in the 1991 version, and – more importantly – let too much air into the taut chase plot. The film is better without them, for the most part.

The one addition with the biggest claim on being an improvement is when John and Sarah operate on the T-800, who has revealed that he has a chip in his processor that prevents him from learning. It idea to deactivate it expands the nice character thread about John’s relationship with the T-800. While his mother considers Arnie to be purely a machine, John – who has already grown to trust the T-800 – knows he can crack the programming if they switch off the chip, and this will allow their ally to be his own person. It also shows us John’s burgeoning leadership skills, as he pushes through the plan and even confronts his mother when she attempts to destroy the chip. Moreover, the operation is dramatised via a sensationally complicated shot in which we see the side of the T-800’s head opened up, revealing the mechanical innards, while at the same time we can clearly see it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger sat in the chair.

How was it done? The shot is a mirror trick: near the camera is a prop head but we read it as Schwarzenegger facing a mirror. In fact, the mirror is an open break in the wall, through which is the real Arnie. Linda Hamilton is on one side of the divide, with her *twin sister* doubling her in the ‘reflection’. Terminator 2 has always been justly praised for its revolutionary CGI, but old-school gags like this make a film buff swoon.

Elsewhere, there are changes centred on the character of Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), the scientific engineer whose work will one day trigger the apocalypse. We now see more footage of him working at home, and his two young children playing in the house. There are also extra shots of Sarah outside the house as she gets ready to assassinate him. Again, it simply expands ideas and plot points that are already there in the 1991 cut, which sold the notion of Miles as a decent family man well enough.

That sums up the 1993 re-edit. It takes a spectacular action movie – one of the finest ever – and makes it longer. It adds, it expands, it over-explains. And in doing so, it reduces the effect and the power. Less is more.

Schwarzenegger Says:Seven years had passed since The Terminator lifted both our careers, and Jim Cameron and I had always felt committed to a sequel. He’d directed a couple of huge pictures since then – Aliens and The Abyss – and, finally, in 1990 he got the rights and preliminary financing in place for Terminator 2. Still, I was a little thrown when Jim sat me down at a restaurant and told me his concept for my character in the film. “How can the Terminator not kill anyone?” I asked.’  

Nine dipshits out of 10

Next: Pumping Iron

Acknowledgements: To make sure I wasn’t missing any extra footage, I checked my notes against these excellent posts that also look at the Special Edition’s changes:

https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2018/04/battle-of-the-cuts-terminator-2—theatrical-vs-sp.html

https://stason.org/TULARC/movies/terminator/1-2-2-What-scenes-were-added-to-the-T2-Special-Edition.html

https://www.movie-censorship.com/report.php?ID=5698359

Total Recall (1990, Paul Verhoeven)

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.

TotalRecall

Watched: 26 August 2019
Format: A secondhand DVD bought for £2 from the Oxfam Bookshop in Greenwich, south-east London.
Seen before? Yes, when it came out on VHS and several times since.

Review: This is more like it! After seeing a few underwhelming Arnie flicks recently, it’s great to return to the kind of high-concept sci-fi/action thriller that’s exactly in his wheelhouse. We get a story and a tone that play to his strengths and don’t require him to be anything other than a movie star.

It’s the year 2084. Schwarzenegger plays everyman construction worker Doug Quaid, who keeps dreaming of a life on Mars so wishes to move there. But when his wife (a very sultry Sharon Stone) resists the idea, he instead visits a company called Rekall and buys an implanted fake memory of an action-packed holiday on the Red Planet. However, the implant procedure goes wrong. Doug had chosen to spice up his fantasy by assuming the role of a secret agent on a dangerous mission. But after being injected by Rekall’s doctors he now thinks he *is* a secret agent on a dangerous mission, and his life as a construction worker was just a cover story. Has he been duped into believing the artificial memories he asked for? Or did the implant process uncover a real personality, which had been hidden for unknown reasons?

Loosely based on a Philip K Dick short story, and then focused through the sharp storytelling lens of director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers), the story is a spiritual sequel to Arnie’s previous sci-fi film The Running Man (1987). It’s easy to imagine this being the same world but 60 years on; there’s still the Brutalist design aesthetic, a totalitarian state and 80s fashions, but now we also have an off-world colony and radiation-affected mutants. We also get Michael Ironside as a typically watchable villain, some eye-popping special effects (literally so in the opening scene), and masses of tech-noir embellishments (driverless taxis, instant nail varnish, walls that turn into TVs, the scene where Doug disguises himself as a woman by using a fake robotic head). It’s frenetic, fun and fantastic, with scene after scene of surprises and shocks and excitement. *Huge* tongue-in-cheek entertainment. 

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Paul [Verhoeven, who Schwarzenegger headhunted for the director gig] added a dimension of realism and scientific fact… So many things he said were brilliant. He had a vision. He had enthusiasm… The story twists and turns. You never know until the very end: did I take this trip? Was I really the hero? Or was it all inside my head, and I’m just a blue-collar jackhammer operator who may be schizophrenic? Even at the end you’re not necessarily sure. For me, it connected with the sense I had sometimes that my life was too good to be true.’

Nine women who make you wish you had three hands out of 10

Next time: Red Heat

Avengers: Endgame (2019, Anthony and Joe Russo)

AvengersEndgame

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Reeling from the devastation caused by Thanos, the remaining Avengers and their allies attempt a risky strategy to put things right…

In early October 2019, a few months after the release of the Marvel superhero film Avengers: Endgame, the revered film director Martin Scorsese caused a minor kerfuffle. Asked if he’d seen any Marvel movies, he said, ‘I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.’

An array of fans cried foul on Twitter, ridiculing Marty as an out-of-touch old man or a snob or a fool or all three. (Samuel L Jackson, who’d had a small role in Scorsese’s Goodfellas before appearing in many Marvel films, gave a more measured response: ‘That’s like saying Bugs Bunny ain’t funny. Films are films. Everybody doesn’t like his stuff either.’) Scorsese is entitled his opinion. He’s earned that much after a career that has included genuine all-time-great works of the art form such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, even if there’s a certain irony in him evoking the purity of cinema while preparing to release a film, 2019’s The Irishman, that has been funded by Netflix and will be available for people to watch on their phones astonishingly soon after its theatrical run.

Also, as clumsily articulated as his point was, modern, flashy, big-budget, effects-heavy superhero films are undeniably different beasts from, say, Lawrence of Arabia or Casablanca or American Beauty. Films such as Avengers: Endgame and its stablemates have a different focus, a different intent. Scorsese’s theme-park analogy actually holds up when you consider that every Marvel Cinematic Universe movie is awash with boldly designed visuals intended to excite and thrill, as well as camera movements and rapid editing designed to pull you along and sweep you around.

The problem comes when you assume that that’s *all* they are. To use Martin Scorsese’s logic against him, should we conclude that Mean Streets is not cinema but closer to a videogame because it contains lots of violence? Of course not. The film uses violence to tell its story, and its story is about human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.

It’s true that the Marvel series is open to any number of criticisms on a filmmaking level. The movies can be cinematographically bland, flatly staged, horrendously over-edited and lit like a game show; the scripts can feel hammered out by a committee and have a sense of explain-everything-for-the-people-in-the-cheap-seats; occasionally the stories can be undermined by boring action sequences and badly thought-out villains. However, saying they’re ‘not cinema’ is patently ridiculous. And while no one is going to claim that modern superhero films are as sophisticated as Shakespeare, so is implying that there’s no drama involved amongst the razzmatazz. Soon after that Scorsese quote went viral, the writer C Robert Cargill tweeted to say that when he was working on Doctor Strange, the 14th MCU film, ‘the vast majority of Marvel’s notes were about deepening character, strengthening the story, and asking us if we could “make it weirder”. Anyone who thinks Marvel is only trying to make theme park rides is being unjust and cynical.’

That approach is easy to believe when you watch Avengers: Endgame, which is nevertheless the most bombastically epic movie in a serious not short of bombast or epic qualities. The film, all three hours of it, is packed pull of *stuff* and characters and spectacle and action and hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of talent and effort, but its story is still founded on character choices and character reactions. It starts, in fact, feeling less like an event movie and more like an indie drama: an understated cold open shot with a handheld camera shows us Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton in idyllic domesticity with his family. But then the mood darkens, as his wife and children fade out of existence thanks to the villainous actions of Josh Brolin’s Thanos as seen in previous MCU mega-hit Avengers: Infinity War.

Endgame is very much a follow-on from that earlier film. In fact, when originally announced in 2014 its title was Avengers: Infinity War – Part 2. However, the script moves events on by five years into a grim, sombre, post-Thanos world where the remaining members of society are trying to deal with their grief and their survivor guilt. Even the mighty Avengers and their associates have been hit hard by Thanos’s finger-clicking carnage. Well, ish… Fifty per cent of all life in the universe may be now gone, but for storytelling reasons the big headline characters who started this series of films – Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Bruce Banner aka Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton aka Hawkeye – have all survived the cull.

Character stories dominate. Thor has descended into a overweight drunkard. The traumatised Clint has become a cyberpunk vigilante. Tony Stark has retreated into rural obscurity. Natasha is trying to coordinate the remaining Avengers but is emotionally raw. Bruce Banner has actually flourished, finally finding peace with the two halves of his personality. It’s a bravely downbeat way to start such a film, but a smart one. Martin Scorsese may disagree, but the MCU has always put emotion at the heart of their stories. For all the razzle-dazzle, each film has been about characters wanting things and overcoming hurdles. It’s fundamentally why the series has been so enjoyable. (And why it stands up so well when compared to the rival DC franchise.)

However, the dark mood doesn’t last. Slowly, bit by bit, the film raises its levels of humour and momentum as the characters realise they have a way of righting the wrongs caused by the now-dead Thanos. The surprise reappearance of Scott Lang aka Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), who avoided the cull because he was infinitesimally small in the quantum realm at the time, gives the gang the impetus to attempt a plan based on time-travel. The plan dominates the middle third of the movie, and is generally a hoot.

The goal is to obtain a full set of the Infinity Stones – singularly bland plot devices that have recurred throughout this series since 2011’s Thor movie – by removing them from the timeline before Thanos did his damage. We get the usual meta gags about how time-travel doesn’t really make sense (Back to the Future is cited), then we’re thrown into a gleefully self-indulgent tour around the MCU’s own heritage. Tony Stark, Steve Rogers and Scott Lang travel to the New York City of Avengers Assemble; Bruce Banner drops in on Tilda Swinton’s character from Doctor Strange; Thor and Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) head to the planet Asgard at the time of Thor: The Dark World; Nebula (Karen Gillen) and Rhodes (Don Cheadle) visit the planet Morag at the time of Guardians of the Galaxy; and later Tony and Steve must also travel to a secret research base in the 1970s where they encounter a succession of younger versions of important MCU characters (Michael Douglas’s Hank Pym, Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter and John Slattery’s Howard Stark). The sequences are riotously enjoyable, blending action-driven plotting and emotion with humour and postmodern winking-to-the-audience. Several times, new footage is stitched into old scenes, a la Back to the Future Part II, allowing both fresh perspectives and a hell of a lot of fun.

The final third of the movie is then more conventional, essentially boiling down into yet another MCU battle scene where thousands of characters are filmed (or created digitally) in isolation and then matted together in post-production. But you forgive it with Avengers: Endgame because the stakes have been laid out so cleverly. And for all its CGI noise and bluster, this climactic action sequence still contains plenty of character moments, comedy and stirring emotions. (Having said that, how you respond to an archly designed moment that features all the major female characters – Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Okoye (Danai Gurira), Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Shuri (Letitia Wright), Hope van Dyne aka Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula – teaming up for *one shot* will depend on your levels of cynicism. Is it a daring, pointed, woke breakthrough? Or a rather silly bit of tokenism? You decide!)

Endgame is well named. The MCU series has continued, with movies and TV spin-offs announced for several years to come. But this film has the real feel of a season finale, an end point, a conclusion. The two biggest, most well-known and most popular characters are written out, while it features the final cameo from Marvel godfather the late Stan Lee. It’s the end of an era. Given how effective the emotional series of wrap-up scenes are, it’s also undeniably the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.

Nine men shouting, ‘Make love, not war!’ out of 10

StanLeeEndgame

The Lady Vanishes (1938, Alfred Hitchcock)

TheLadyVanishes

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

On a train journey across Europe, a young woman begins to panic when a fellow passenger goes missing without a trace…

Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Lady Vanishes is an adaptation of the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White – and it’s breezy, confident and a lot of fun. Four decades later, there was another film adaptation of the same book, this time directed by Anthony Page and made by Hammer Films. Inevitably it’s tempting to view the two movies in direct comparison, so let’s do just that and see how they match up.

Story

Both films follow largely the same plot. A motley gang of passengers – a beautiful fiancée, an eccentric older woman, a couple having an affair, two cricket-obsessed men and others – board a train in central Europe, heading west. The young fiancée befriends the older woman, but is shocked when the latter goes missing… and her anxiety only increases when no one else on board seems to remember ever seeing the woman. The fiancée’s only ally is a charming young man who helps her search (perhaps more because he fancies her than he believes her story). After they spot a bandaged patient being brought aboard the train at the next station, the fiancée suspects that the older woman has been switched for the patient – and it turns out she’s right! A group of bad guys have been hunting the older woman because she’s actually a secret agent carrying a coded message back to London. Eventually, the train is surrounded by gunmen and the fiancée, her male friend and others passengers are besieged – they must hold off the bad guys until the older woman can sneak away to continue her quest…

Time

1938: Hitchcock’s film is set contemporaneously to when it was made, so the story takes place in the late 1930s.

1979: We’re in the late 1930s in the Hammer version too – an on-screen caption tells us it’s August 1939. But because these filmmakers had the perspective of 40 years, their movie has an extra level of political context. It’s the month before Germany invaded Poland, starting the Second World War, and Nazis have taken over the picturesque town where the story begins.

Place

1938: Hitchcock’s film gets underway in the fictional central-European state of Bandrika (‘one of Europe’s few undiscovered corners’), starting at an alpine inn and then following the train as it crosses the countryside. One of the stops the trains makes is at the similarly made-up town of Morshkan.

1979: The action begins in the landlocked German state of Bavaria. The passengers then board a train for Basel in Switzerland.

Heroine

1938: The lead character is Iris Henderson, who we first meet in the inn staying with two friends. One night she complains about noise coming from the floor above and has the man creating the racket kicked out of his room. Brazenly, he then walks into her room while she’s in bed and attempts to share it. The next day Iris leaves for London to get married, but we suspect that her heart is not really in it. She soon bonds with another guest from the inn, a kindly older woman. But after Iris wakes from a nap, the woman has disappeared – and Iris gets increasingly manic when no one else on the train remembers seeing her… Iris is played by Margaret Lockwood, who is a British take on the idea of a ‘Hawksian woman’: a type of female character popularised by director Howard Hawks who is both movie-star beautiful and sassy-smart. Or as Hitchcock put it when discussing Lockwood: ‘She photographs more than normally easily and has an extraordinary insight in getting the feel of her lines, to live within them.’

1979: In the later film, Iris’s equivalent is ‘madcap’ heiress Amanda Metcalf-Midvani-Von Hoffsteader-Kelly, whose introduction into the story comes when she does a daring impression of Hitler… while drunk… and wearing a slinky and revealing evening gown… in front of dozens of Nazi shits in a hotel bar. She’s nearly 30, enjoys marrying people for money, and is American rather than English, but like Iris is on her way to London for a wedding she’s not too enthusiastic about… Cybill Shepherd plays her character with a fast-talking energy and the air of someone who’s used to getting her own way. The actress had burst onto the scene with an amazing performance in drama film The Last Picture Show (1971), then starred in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in 1976.

Hero

1938: The man causing the noise above Iris’s hotel room is musicologist Gilbert Redman, who spends the whole film with a carefree, cheerful attutide. He’s a cocky individual, but as he’s the only passenger on the train willing to help Iris she’s forced to spend some time with him. He’s deflated when he learns Iris is returning to London to marry, then like so many of Hitchcock’s mismatched partnerships of the 1930s – The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Young and Innocent – they almost imperceptibly start to fall for each other. Gilbert is played by Michael Redgrave, a member of the famous Redgrave acting dynasty (he was the son of stage actor Roy Redgrave; the father of Vanessa Redgrave, Corin Redgrave and Lynn Redgrave; and the grandfather of Natasha Richardson, Joely Richardson and Jemma Redgrave). The Lady Vanishes was his first big film role, but he was an established theatre actor and brings a knowing wit to the part.

1979: Gilbert’s equivalent in the second adaptation has also has his nationality switched to American. Robert Condon is a photojournalist rather than a music expert, so we get a more subdued meet-cute than in 1938. There’s no ruckus in the bedroom above; instead the two characters simply get chatting outside their hotel. But, like Gilbert, Robert soon falls for the film’s leading lady – the fact Amanda spends the entire story in a flimsy dress and no bra is probably part of the reason. Elliott Gould, an actor who’d had a very good 1970s thanks to films such as M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye, A Bridge Too Far and Capricorn One, gives Robert a different kind of light touch from Redgrave; less smug, more affable. His Jewish heritage also adds another level of meaning to the film, of course.

Lady

1938: The eponymous character of the story is the kind-hearted and inoffensive Miss Froy, a woman in her 70s. She claims to be a governess who’s lived and worked in Bandrika for six years; she says she loves the place. But we later learn that she’s an intelligence agent who’s been tasked with delivering a message to London – the information has been coded in the form of a musical tune, which she heard from an undercover spy in Bandrika. (As Hitchcock himself later chuckled, why don’t they just send the message via carrier pigeon?) Miss Froy is played with old-woman twinkle by May Whitty, a woman who was born in the year Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

1979: When we first glimpse Angela Lansbury’s Miss Froy in the 1979 film, she’s whistling a tune as she tramps down an alpine valley (so therefore already has the coded message as the film begins). She doesn’t meet Amanda until they take their seats on the train; the former helps the latter wash off her Hitler moustache, which she hasn’t had time to deal with since her drunken night in the bar. Lansbury was only in her early 50s when making this movie and plays Froy with a more lively eccentricity than Whitty.

Charters & Caldicott

1938: Two of the other passengers on the train are a pair of unflappable, unruffled Englishmen called Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne). They’re the story’s comic relief, and an early gag has you wonder if they’re secret agents – they say they need to race home because England is ‘on the brink’. Is this a comment on the rising threat from Nazi Germany? No, the two men are actually cricket obsessives and are talking about a Test match at Old Trafford. The characters are all the more amusing because the actors never go for ‘funny’ – they play everything dry, calmly; with a straight bat. (One comedic scene has them sharing a bed, Morecambe & Wise-style.) Radford and Wayne were so successful as supporting characters in this movie that they reprised Charters and Caldicott in three further unrelated films – Night Train to Munich (1940), which also co-starred Margaret Lockwood, Crook’s Tour (1941) and Millions Like Us (1943). They also played suspiciously similar double acts in eight other films of the 1940s and various BBC Radio comedies.

1979: The 1979 versions of Charters and Caldicott are also entertaining and are played by Arthur Lowe, who’d spent the previous decade playing the self-important Captain Mainwaring in BBC sitcom Dad’s Army, and Ian Carmichael. In their opening scene, the men ask a German officer when a train is due to leave and are rather affronted that he doesn’t speak English. Later, the 1938 gag about needing to race home because ‘England is on the brink’ is repeated, but has added weight here because we know war really is imminent. After this film, Charters and Caldicott featured in their own TV spin-off, produced by the BBC in 1985 and starring Michael Aldridge and Robin Bailey. The characters were missing, however, when the Beeb made their own version of The Lady Vanishes in 2013. In that adaptation of the novel, their role in the story was given to female characters played by Stephanie Cole and Gemma Jones.

Production

1938: Hitchcock made his film entirely in London studios, but opened up the fictional world via rear-projection screens for the train windows, stock footage of moving locomotives, and – most appealingly – some beautiful model shots. The best of the latter is the film’s opening image: the camera pans across a charming, train-set model village covered in snow, tracking in towards the window of the inn. The film is in black and white, like all Hitchcock movies before 1948, and was made before the advent of widescreen cinema.

1979: Shot attractively in Panavision’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio and in colour by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Italian Job, Raiders of the Lost Ark), Hammer’s version contains plenty of location filming in Austria. Scenes aboard the train were recorded at Pinewood Studios, but the scenery passing by the windows is faked very well.

Review

Cinema was born with short films made by French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière and projected to paying audiences in the 1890s. One of their earliest works, first screened in January 1896, was a 50-second single take called L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat. It showed – at a daringly oblique angle – a train pulling into a station, and the probably apocryphal story goes that audiences fled in terror, assuming the train would burst through the screen and into the room. So trains have been a part of the movies since the very beginning, and as the art form developed into complex narratives, they were soon being used as both plot devices and settings. Think of silent-movie clichés and you’ll probably list a scene where a woman lies on the tracks in front of an oncoming train. (It did happen, of course: in a 1905 film called The Train Wreckers, for example, or in 1911’s The Attempt on the Special. But the cliché actually predated cinema, and the few silent films that featured such a moment usually did so as a spoof.) Elsewhere, trains cropped up in some vastly significant films: DW Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator (1911), one of the earliest movies to cut between different locations rather than stick to a single setting; Buster Keaton’s innovatively filmed Civil War comedy The General (1926); the British action thriller The Flying Scotsman in 1929, which featured actors risking their lives by hanging off the side of the speeding locomotive; and Shanghai Express, the seductively noir-ish thriller directed by Josef von Sternberg in 1932. (And it wasn’t just cinema, of course. Agatha Christie published her novel Murder on the Orient Express – a masterpiece of a mystery story set almost entirely on a train – in 1934, just two years before Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins.) Hitchcock had got on board with the idea too, featuring trains in films such as The 39 Steps and Secret Agent. But his adaptation of The Lady Vanishes takes things to a whole new level. The dialogue sparkles like a screwball comedy, but the director never forgets that this is a thriller and he keeps the plot speeding along with such confidence, such aplomb. Things take a dark turn when Miss Froy disappears and an added element of pleasure comes from the sophistication of the script: the characters who claim they never saw the old woman each have a plausible reason for lying. This gives us, the audience, more information than Iris, allowing us to both enjoy and sympathise with her plight. The 1979 version, meanwhile, is an efficient film in its own right, if flatter and more conventional. Shepherd, Gould and Lansbury are all good value. Nevertheless, it was made with a certain disdain for the first adaptation. ‘Hitchcock’s film had some brilliant things in it,’ intoned writer George Axelrod. ‘But as a whole picture you’d have to admit it’s pretty creaky. The four or five things people remember from the original receive a homage in our version.’ What a strange thing to say: aside from the new political context, almost every good idea in the Hammer remake is a direct lift from 1938.

1938: Nine men at Waterloo station out of 10
1979: Seven poker games with Karl Marx and Jean Harlow out of 10

Acknowledgment: This blog post was helpful with details about trains in silent cinema.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018, Ron Howard)

SoloStarWars

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Ten years before his encounter with Luke Skywalker in a cantina, Han Solo becomes embroiled in a job to steal a valuable fuel source for a gangster…

WHICH VERSION? There’s only one.

GOOD GUYS:

* When we first meet him, Han (Alden Ehrenreich) is hot-wiring a land-speeder in a rusty, rundown city on his home planet of Corellia. It’s a place dominated by crime lords, even though the fascistic Empire are technically in command. Han – a young man in his late 20s – is scratching out a living for himself and girlfriend Qi’ra. He’s accumulated enough cash to buy their way out of the ‘control zone’, but while attempting to escape the planet Qi’ra is arrested by the authorities. Needing to hide, Han hits upon the idea of joining the Imperial military. When the recruiting officer asks his name, Han admits he doesn’t have a family and therefore no surname, so the officer plucks one out of the air: ‘Han… Solo.’ Three years later, Han is an unhappy grunt in the Imperial infantry. However, backchat to superior officers leads to him being thrown into a punishment pit with a ‘beast’. The monster actually turns out to be a sympathetic creature called Chewbacca, and rather than fight to the death the pair collude to escape their prison. (Handily, Han speaks a bit Chewy’s language.) Fleeing the army, Han and his new pal hook up with a criminal called Beckett, whose crew are planning to steal some valuable fuel from a speeding train. This opportunity pleases Han because his long-term goal is to earn enough money to get home to Corellia and save Qi’ra. However, despite Han getting to show off his piloting skills, the heist goes wrong: Beckett’s lieutenants are killed and the loot is snatched by a third party. So Beckett and Han must go cap in hand to Drydon Vos, the crime lord who hired them and the leader of a terrorist organisation called Crimson Dawn. On board Vos’s palatial Art Deco yacht, Han is stunned to bump into Qi’ra – she escaped Corellia on her own, and now works for Crimson Dawn. He then cuts a deal with Vos to steal the loot from somewhere else. This involves travelling down a dangerous space route known as the Kessel Run (take a gulp if you’re playing the drinking game), but for this they need a fast ship. Luckily Qi’ra knows a guy who has one. At first, Han attempts to win the craft in a card game – but the cad with the transport, a slick fella called Lando, beats him and insists on a cut of the take for the use of his ship. When Han then sees Lando’s vehicle – the Millennium Falcon, a disc-shaped Corellian YT-1300 – he goes all misty-eyed and mentions that his father helped build this brand of spaceship. The gang travel to the planet Kessel, where they steal the coaxium Vos wants, then flee via the Kessel Run. Lando’s pilot was killed during the job, though, so Han must take the controls of the Millennium Falcon – he actually completes the run faster than anyone ever before. Meeting up with Vos, Han is betrayed by both Beckett – who attempts to steal the loot for himself – and Qi’ra, who chooses a dark path. So as the film winds down, Han and Chewy seek out Lando again, and Han wins the Falcon from him in a rigged card game. They then head for the planet Tatooine, where they’ve heard a crime lord is putting together a new job… Charged with the task of taking over such a venerated character, Ehrenreich is absolutely terrific. He brilliantly evokes Harrison Ford’s smirky charisma but never resorts to a hollow impression. Actor and script capture the tone of the Han Solo we know – the swashbuckling heroics, the playful cheek, the romantic streak, the hubris and failure – but as this is a younger Han, he’s also more optimistic and idealistic. (Fun fact: Alden Ehrenreich was given his first name in honour of family friend Phil Alden Robinson, the director of Sneakers and Field of Dreams.)

* Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) seems initially to be an infantry officer in the Imperial Army, but soldier Han quickly deduces that he’s an imposter: a thief for hire who pulls off jobs with a couple of cohorts. After allowing him to join his crew, Beckett becomes a kind of father-figure type for Han – offering advise, encouraging him, all that. This doesn’t stop him betraying his protégé, however, when he steals the coaxium for himself. Han gives chase and, before Beckett can talk his way out of it, shoots him dead. (Han shoots first, you see.) Harrelson is typically watchable.

* Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau) is Beckett’s pilot: a small, monkey-sized, multi-armed Ardenian with a sarcastic manner and a New York accent. The character is *in no way* a blatant rip-off of Bradley Cooper’s Rocket from the Guardians of the Galaxy series. He dies during the train heist.

* Val (Thandie Newton) is Beckett’s partner, both professionally and personally. A spiky, entertainingly rude character, she also dies attempting to steal the fuel – which is a real shame, as Newton is a fun presence while she lasts.

* Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) is a 190-year-old Wookie – a seven-foot-tall, furry alien – and has been locked up by the Empire, who are treating him like a savage animal. When we first see him, his fur is matted and he’s in an understandably bad mood. Han soon wins him round, though, especially by speaking to him in his own language, and the pair not only escape the Empire but become quick pals. During the Kessel Run, Chewy jumps into the Millennium Falcon’s co-pilot seat, establishing a spaceship-flying partnership with Han. At one point, we also learn that Chewbacca is searching for his lost family. Presumably, he’s referring to the Wookies seen in the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special. (A sad side note: I was doing a final pass on this blog when I heard the news that Peter Mayhew had died at the age of 74. He played Chewbacca in five Star Wars movies from 1977 until 2015 before passing the baton on to Suotamo.)

* Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman) initially seems to be the leader of a gang of pirates. She and her pals – one of whom is Warwick Davis’s Weazel, a character who first appeared in 1999’s The Phantom Menace – beat Beckett and co to the loot during the train heist. They must be crims, then? No, when Nest shows up near the end of the story we discover that she’s actually the leader of a nascent rebellion against the evil Empire. She asks Han to join their cause, but he declines. Kellyman, who only appears without a facemask in the final third of the film, is a bit earnest.

* Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) is said to be the best smuggler around, and is a dashing, louche, cape-wearing smoothie who enjoys cheating at card games and being economical with the truth. He signs up to Beckett’s mission to steal some coaxium, but wants 25 per cent of the take. However, after completing the job and running into more trouble, Lando leaves his new comrades behind and sneaks away with his ship. Later, Han tracks him down and suggests another game of Sabaac… Glover is tremendous value, echoing original actor Billy Dee Williams but bringing his own brand of swagger. (He also pronounces Han’s name with a short A, to match Williams in The Empire Strikes Back.)

* Droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is Lando’s first mate. She’s a vaguely human-shaped robot with an oversized head (all the better for containing, as Lando points out, the best navigational database in the galaxy). She’s also a fierce defender of ‘droid rights’, and is first seen pleading with other mechanical life to stand up for themselves. Despite being in a permanent bad mood, she has a thing for Lando (‘How would that work?’ asks a dubious Qi’ra) and maybe he has one for her too… On Kessel, she’s movingly upset by the sight of droids being held as slaves so incites a revolution – but then is fatally shot during the ensuing combat. Lando is *distraught*. (So are we.) L3’s navigational database is then uploaded into the Millennium Falcon’s computer… She might be a CGI creation, but you wouldn’t know that from the absolutely seamless way the character interacts with the actors and the physical sets. (Technology has moved on A LOT since Jar-Jar Binks, hasn’t it?) Waller-Bridge’s voice work is really brilliant: very funny and full of sass.

BAD GUYS:

* When Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) returns to the story on Crimson Dawn’s luxury yacht, she’s clearly a changed woman. She’s harsher, colder, and now a gangster’s moll-cum-advisor. But she’s also genuinely pleased to see Han again, and when the old flames travel to Kessel together they actually share a kiss in Lando’s cape room. (Yes, Lando has an entire room to store his capes. He’s *that* cool.) ‘Am I interrupting something?’ says a cockblocking Beckett, who’s not sure his new protégé should be cosying up to Drydon Vos’s aide. Qi’ra helps on the Kessel Run scam, pretending to be an Imperial official with Han as her shackled prisoner – then late in the film she turns into a samurai-sword-wielding badass, kills her boss and takes over his criminal empire. She then contacts his shadowy benefactor… This is a tough role for Clarke, who filmed Solo in-between seasons of Game of Thrones. Qi’ra may as well have a neon sign above her exceedingly pretty head that reads ‘I’m not who Han thinks I am’, but the actress disguises it as much as she can by using natural charm.

* Lady Promixa (voiced by Linda Hunt) is a giant slug-type creature who rules the underworld of Corellia with an iron tentacle. Early in the film, Han is taken to see her when it becomes clear he’s been ripping her off. The character is a nice reminder that the original Star Wars movies were no strangers to bizarre and even risible aliens. Nevertheless, it’s quite a relief that she doesn’t last very long in the story. To escape her oily clutches, Han pretends to have a thermal detonator (a grenade, essentially). Proxima is not fooled: ‘That’s a rock!’ she says. ‘And you just made a clinking sound with your mouth.’ (More than a decade of story time later, Princess Leia will use the same gag in an attempt to save Han from a different alien gangster.)

* One of the Imperial officers in the warzone scenes looks suspiciously like the late actor Don Henderson. Presumably he’s meant to be a younger version of Henderson’s character in the original Star Wars film.

* Drydon Vos (Paul Bettany) is the leader of Crimson Dawn, so therefore is the man Qi’ra now works for. He’s an arrogant, maniacal loon with a violent streak, a love of pithy threats and a scarred face. He also makes an obscure reference to having a sinister boss… After Beckett and co have brought him the coaxium he wants, Vos suffers a double-cross as Qi’ra kills him and takes over his organisation… Michael K Williams was cast in the role, but was then unavailable for some reshoots so Bettany took over. At the same time, the character went through a rethink: he was originally a CG creation resembling a humanoid lion. Whatever the visuals, he’s a bit of a rent-a-bad-guy.

* In a shock twist held back from all the publicity and trailers, Darth Maul (Ray Park; voiced by Sam Witwer) appears late on. He’s the real power behind Crimson Dawn – oh no! We only see Maul as a hologram when he FaceTimes Qi’ra, but we can tell he has robotic legs (in his last appearance, remember, he was cut in half by Obi-Wan Kenobi). Maul summons Qi’ra to come and see him and tells her they’ll be working more closely from now on… This is just a cameo, meant to set the character up for a sequel that will now probably never happen because Solo “only” took $392 million at the box office (ie, the smallest gross of any live-action Star Wars film). Peter Serafinowicz was originally hired to reprise the voice of Maul from The Phantom Menace, but then the strange decision was made to use someone else.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: The action is uniformly great in this movie, whether it’s the chaotic trench warfare scenes, or the slick, wind-machined train heist, or the multi-character punch-up on the planet Kessel. Especially impressive is the dieselpunk chase sequence on Corellia with Han and Qi’ra in a land-speeder, a kind of floating car. Unlike most CG-heavy action scenes, this one feels totally real and heavy and locked into gravity. Solid, metallic vehicles career round corners and skirt past palpable obstacles. You feel the speed and the thrill and the danger. It’s like something from a Mad Max film.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: Solo’s original directors were Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the team behind the far-better-than-you-think-it’s-going-to-be comedy 21 Jump Street and the everything-is-awesome Lego Movie. But they were fired during production – reportedly for trying to make the film too much of a comedy. Nevertheless, even with the more serious-minded Ron Howard taking over, Solo is still often very funny. L3 is a hoot (‘Is there anything you need?’ ‘Equal rights?’), meaning this is the second Star Wars spin-off running with a comedic droid (cf Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO in Rogue One). Lando as played by Donald Glover is so watchable he *needs* a film all of his own (check out the throwaway moment when we glimpse him recording a vainglorious diary entry). Geeks all over the world will have smirked when the infamous Imperial March music cue is used in-story, as the Empire’s army-recruitment theme tune.

MUSIC: The score is utterly superb, feeling thoroughly and joyfully Star Wars-esque but having a life of its own too. Whether the scene is action or romance or melancholy or humour, John Powell’s incidental music adds a huge amount. Old John Williams themes are quoted if appropriate, such as a 1977 motif when Han first sits behind the controls of the Falcon, but the new stuff is always memorable and engaging. (Williams made a contribution too. He wrote a new theme called The Adventures of Han, which Powell then incorporated into his work.)

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I first saw this film on 6 June 2018 at the Everyman Canary Wharf in London with my old pal Fraser Dickson. Unlike the December releases of the previous three Star Wars films, Solo came out in the UK on 24 May. WHY NOT MAY THE 4TH?!

REVIEW: This was a huge ask. Huge. To take such a famous and beloved character and *recast* him could have gone catastrophically wrong. Thankfully, both lead actor and the film as a whole are wonderful, vibrant and entertaining. Not that anyone’s going to claim Solo is rewriting the rules of cinema. Being a prequel, for example, it goes down the predictable route of ticking narrative boxes – we learn how Han gained his surname, how he met Chewbacca, how he met Lando Calrissian, how he first encountered the Millennium Falcon, how he gained his gun, why he claims in the original Star Wars that he did the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs, even how long he’s owned a pair of gold dice that featured beyond fleetingly in the 1977 film then became a plot point in 2017’s The Last Jedi. This kind of dramatised backstory – simply filling out the spaces between established facts – could of course become boring very quickly. Solo, however, has more than enough zip, panache and style to sidestep the issue. It’s full of vivid characters, exiting sequences, humour, romance and adventure. It’s a caper movie, a heist movie, a Western in disguise. It’s enormous fun. It’s Star Wars. 

Nine spice mines of Kessel out of 10

Lifeboat (1944, Alfred Hitchcock)

Tallulah Bankhead In 'Lifeboat'

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After a ship is torpedoed by a U-boat, a group of survivors find shelter in a lifeboat – but they also take aboard a German…

Soon after its launch in 1944, Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat began to sink. Influential film critics objected to the even-handed depiction of a German character – a U-boat caption no less – and Twentieth Century Fox responded by limiting the number of prints in circulation and soft-pedalling the advertising. The movie actually ended up losing money at the box office.

It was released before the Normandy landings, so perhaps this reaction is understandable in the heightened context of the Second World War (even if, at the time, star Tallulah Bankhead called the critics moronic). But today it’s an unfair critique of a mostly excellent film. The first of Hitch’s single-location experiments (cf Rope, Dial M for Murder and Rear Window), Lifeboat presents an intriguing situation then populates it with memorable characters, plenty of drama and reversals of fortune. It’s a buoyant film, with themes that bubble to the surface. But there are also choppy waters along the way, as well as some dangerous undercurrents…

After an attack by a German U-boat, a passenger ship goes down in the Atlantic Ocean. A small group of survivors – a famous journalist, a couple of seaman, a nurse, a wealthy industrialist, a mother with her baby, a British radioman and a ship steward – find refuge in a lifeboat. They’re adrift, isolated and helpless. Their supplies are low and they have no means of contacting anyone.

The overall tone of the film is gallows humour mixed with a Blitz spirit. Despite the subtext of fear, there’s a real can-do attitude amongst this group. Whether it’s proactively fixing the boat’s damage or cataloguing supplies or playing cards – or working as a team to amputate a gangrenous leg! – these characters come together despite their differences. Every person in the story makes a contribution, even the character with the shortest screentime (Heather Angel’s Mrs Higley, whose baby dies but she’s too catatonic with shock to notice).

The nominal lead is journalist Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), who appears at first to be a thoroughly awful woman, one so selfish that she boasts of the photographs she’s taken of the disaster rather than helping the victims. She starts off as an immaculately turned-out lady of society, but as she sheds clothes and accessories due to the heat and dehydration we get to know more and like her more. She even develops a cross-class flirtation with the rugged John Kovac (John Hodiak), a man who takes his shirt off at the earliest opportunity and flaunts his tattoos.

Elsewhere, there’s the affable but badly injured Gus Smith (William Bendix), the sweet and stoic Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), eccentric, cigar-chewing millionaire Charles J Rittenhouse Jr (Henry Hull), the friendly and resourceful Stanley ‘Sparks’ Garrett (Hume Cronyn, sadly putting on a pretty dire English accent) and the calming presence of ship steward Joe (Canada Lee). But thrown into this mix is an additional survivor, one who threatens to scuttle the sprightly group.

Floating through the wreckage of the passenger ship, they pull a stranger aboard. ‘Danke schoen,’ he says as he regains his breath, and the implication is immediately obvious. He’s from the U-boat, which itself has now sunk. But should our characters help stricken Willi (Walter Slezak)? Or should they just throw him overboard? He’s not an outwardly evil man, even offering help with poor Gus’s busted leg and suggesting the correct way to Bermuda. But he’s still the enemy. The dilemma of what to do with him drives much of the story, creates divisions within the lifeboat survivors, and has a shocking climax…

Based on an original idea by Hitchcock, the script was initially written by playwright John Steinbeck. (Ernest Hemingway had also been sounded out.) However, it was later tinkered with by a number of hands and Steinbeck disowned the project. In many ways, it’s a marvel. The dialogue is punchy yet meaningful and has a pleasing rhythm. The story never flags, despite the single setting. And you always want to know what’s going to happen next. But there is a problem. It’s one of the reasons Steinbeck turned his back on the movie. Lifeboat, regrettably, is lazily racist in its depiction of the story’s only black character.

Given the eras in which he produced movies it’s not surprising that Hitchcock’s diversity record is, by today’s standards, rather appalling. Other than Lifeboat’s Joe, his only other significant non-white character is charismatic spy Philippe Dubois (Roscoe Lee Brown) in Topaz. When black men (never women) are otherwise spotted in Hitchcock movies, they tend to be servile or docile. The plot resolution of Young and Innocent, meanwhile, has a white character hiding under blackface.

At least Joe is played by a conscientious actor who tweaked his dialogue to remove the worst of the clichés he’d been given to say (the yessirs and all the rest). But, sadly, the character still comes across like a second-class citizen who’s there to entertain the others with his flute and sort out their food supplies. He rarely has a voice of his own, he has to ask not to be called by the generic black servant name of Charlie, and other characters initially use the nickname Charcoal.

But if this blemish needs us to turn a blind eye, in its physical staging Lifeboat *excels*. The studio recreation of the rough desolation of the mid Atlantic Ocean is a wonder of filmmaking and gives the story so much texture. It was achieved via a number of methods. Four different boats were built for the production; two were complete, while two were cut in half so the camera could get closer to the actors. A water tank was used for certain shots where a boat could be held in place by wires; another vessel was on rollers to better control its pitch and yaw. Dump tanks and chutes allowed thousands of gallons of water to be sloshed around. Dry ice created hazes of ocean mist and fog. Footage of endless, barren seas off California and Florida was played behind the actors on enormous rear-projection screens. In the final cut, everything is then accompanied by smartly chosen and edited sound effects. It all creates a tremendous sense of place.

Filming might have come at a price. The cast were repeatedly soaked with water and had to contend with motion sickness; Tallulah Bankhead caught pneumonia twice; Mary Anderson fell ill; Hume Cronyn suffered broken ribs and nearly drowned. But their sacrifices were worth it. Lifeboat is worth clinging to.

Nine before and after pictures in a newspaper ad for Reduco weight-loss drug out of 10

NOTE: I cut the following paragraph from the above review because it didn’t really fit into the flow, but the gags are so good I thought I’d add it here as a kind of ‘deleted scene’ extra:

There were moments of levity along the way too. When actress Mary Anderson asked Hitchcock what he thought was her ‘best side’, he said, ‘You’re sitting on it, my dear.’ After being told that Tallulah Bankhead had a habit of not wearing underwear, and this may cause an issue if caught on camera, Hitch is said to have joked, ‘I don’t know if this is a matter for the costume department, make-up or hairdressing.’ And when the director argued that he didn’t want the film to have a score because the audience would be asking where the music is coming from, a caustic composer commented, ‘Ask Mr Hitchcock to explain where the camera came from and I’ll tell him where the music comes from.’

Rebecca (1940, 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.

A secretary marries a widower, but finds life difficult when they return to his ancestral home…

A ghost story without a ghost in it, Rebecca begins with a spooky, eerie sequence that reveals the mysterious Cornish country house of Manderley. It’s a horror-movie opening, full of fog and forests and foreboding. We know we’re heading into a story where the past will never quite let us go…

In Monte Carlo, a shy young woman (Joan Fontaine) is working for a rich harridan as a secretary/travelling companion/general dogsbody. But when she meets a widower called George Fortescue Maximilian de Winter, aka Maxim (Laurence Olivier), they fall in love, she quits her job, and they quickly get married… The unnamed central character was not Fontaine’s only Hitchcock role – she returned the following year to play another woman whose marriage is not what she expected in Suspicion. She gives a fine performance here as a woman whose happiness is short-lived.

After their honeymoon, the pair travel to Manderley, a house deep in the West Country woods. It’s near the sea and seems to have its own weather system (rain begins on cue as they approach). It’s a Gothic pile of unused wings, huge, echoing rooms and too many servants. But despite the vast interior, the new Mrs de Winter quickly feels suffocated – especially when Maxim’s relatives and creepy housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson, giving a performance that has become a movie standard) keep mentioning the former lady of the house.

The character of Rebecca, Maxim’s late wife, never actually appears on screen. We don’t even see a photograph of her. But she hangs over the whole story, casting a shadow on Fontaine’s character, who can’t escape the implication that she’s not up to the job of replacing this saintly woman. What started out as a romantic melodrama in the south of France becomes a Victorian horror. Our lead is metaphorically trapped in a castle-like prison, friendless and hopeless. Maxim begins to feel more and more like a villain. The paranoia builds, the menace rises, the swirling, romantic score turns mysterious.

But then the myth of Rebecca is shattered when Maxim reveals how she died: despite everything we’ve been told, their marriage was anything but idyllic and he accidentally killed her during an argument. The captivating revelation scene sees Hitchcock’s camera move around the room as Maxim recounts what happened – if it were following a ghostly Rebecca recreating her final moments. It’s also one of several examples of the director’s amazing command of the material. Throughout the film, he artfully shifts the tone from light to dark, comedy to tragedy, suspense to shocks. Because of this authorial control, the story seduces you and never bores you, even though for long stretches nothing much actually happens. It’s absolute magic.

The effect perhaps has a wobble during the final third of the movie, in which plot starts to dominate mood and when Rebecca’s cousin/lover Jack (George Sanders) takes focus and fails to convince. Fontaine also fades away into the background, which is a real shame. But nearly 80 years after it was released, this film is still casting its shadow.

Nine men near the phone box out of 10

The Wrong Man (1956, 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.

January 1953. A struggling musician is accused of being a criminal…

The Wrong Man is a rare thing indeed: an Alfred Hitchcock film based on a real-life incident. The tale of a man accused of a crime he didn’t commit must have appealed to the director for at least two reasons. Firstly, it gave him a chance to retell his favourite plot: an innocent man being caught up in events beyond his control. But perhaps this movie is also Hitch exorcising a peculiar episode from his childhood.

In the first decade of the 20th century, when Hitchcock was a small boy, he misbehaved. So, wanting to teach him a lesson, his father sent him to the local police station with a note asking the coppers to lock young Alfred up in a prison cell for a few minutes. The scary experience had a long-lasting affect. Even in his advancing years, Hitch was recounting the story in interviews, saying it had given him a healthy fear of the police and of being deprived of his freedom. It’s this fear that powers The Wrong Man.

In need of some cash to help his wife pay a dentists’ bill, jazz bassist Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) visits an insurance company’s office to enquire about taking out a loan against her policy. Unfortunately, the women who work there are convinced – incorrectly – that he’s actually a man who robbed them a few weeks previously. It’s simply a matter of mistaken identity, but soon the police pick Manny up off the street and take him in for questioning…

Henry Fonda plays an excellent everyman and elicits a huge amount of sympathy out of Manny’s plight. Early on, we see him flirt with his wife and spend time with his two sons. We quickly, economically see that he’s a good, unpretentious guy. (There is never any suggestion, by the way, that the film is setting up a switcharoo twist. You never doubt Manny’s story.) It’s all the more effective, then, when one evening he’s suddenly arrested and dragged away from his family. Manny helps the police and is accommodating and calm, but he becomes increasingly numb as he’s shuffled through all the legal protocols – being interviewed, being charged, being searched, being locked up, attending a bail hearing, being transferred to a prison, being tried. His sense of hopelessness and fear is enormous.

Crucially, there’s a kind of grim realism going on here that you don’t often get in the razzle-dazzle world of Hitchcock. Rather than rant and rave, or act flippantly, or leap over a barrier and go on the run, Manny does what most innocent people would do when accused with a serious crime: he freezes, he goes pale, he becomes consumed with the dread of what might happen next. Also, the lead police detective (Harold J Stone, excellent) is not a movie-thriller dullard or a ‘bad guy’; he’s a smart, fair man doing a decent job. It’s not his fault that several (misleading) pieces of evidence suggest Manny is guilty. Likewise, Manny’s lawyer – the real-life Frank O’Connor played by Anthony Quayle – feels like a person who exists on his own terms rather than a theatrical character.

The plot also has a very affecting impact on Manny’s family. In the second half of the film, as he prepares for the defence at his trial, his wife suffers a breakdown. Rose is played by Vera Miles, who had most recently been spirited and likeable in John Ford’s classic Western The Searchers (1956). She is the film’s secret weapon, providing a subplot you don’t see coming and which ratchets up the stakes without any melodrama. Hitchcock was so impressed with her turn in The Wrong Man – especially her haunted performance once Rose can’t cope with the pressure and starts to shut down – that he gave her a five-year contract and cast her as the lead in his next movie, Vertigo (which she didn’t end up doing, but that’s another story).

All these cliché-avoiding choices give the film a depth and a breadth that the genre doesn’t usually demand. We also get a lot of real locations, rather than the artificial world created on Hollywood sound stages. Doubly real, in fact: not only are they not movie sets, but several places – the Stork Club, a prison, a sanatorium – are where the actual events really took place.

The movie’s refusal to glam up the story even extends to the resolution, which comes suddenly and fortuitously. A shot of Manny crossfades slowly to a shot of character haven’t seen before. As the man walks towards the camera, his face lines up with the fading image of Manny’s – and we realise that this lookalike is the real crook. When he attempts another robbery, he’s apprehended and arrested and Manny is off the hook. Maybe it’s fate; maybe it’s his Catholic prayers being answered. But he finally has his freedom back.

Nine Alfred Hitchcocks actually appearing on screen at the start of the film to tell you that The Wrong Man is based on a true story out of 10

Blake’s 7: Sand (1981)

Screenshot 2018-11-13 23.11.51

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While on a mission to find out why the Federation is so interested in the planet Virn, Tarrant has an encounter with Servalan…

Series D, episode 9. Written by: Tanith Lee. Directed by: Vivienne Cozens. Originally broadcast: 23 November 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Servalan (26) has come to the planet Virn to investigate a distress call from a pilot called Keller. He crashed there five years previously and had reported a unique trace of life on the planet. Along with an officer called Reeve (Stephen Yardley), Servalan lands on and walks across the barren, rocky desert to Keller’s prefab base. But it’s not a successful sortie: they get lost, a lackey mysteriously dies, and then they bump into Tarrant. After Tarrant has killed Reeve, Servalan flirtatiously offers a truce – and the enemies investigate the base together. There’s sand inside, the computer system has gone loopy and they find Keller dead, though his body is still warm. The base is then enclosed by shifting sands, trapping them inside…
* Vila (48) gets drunk when things start to go pear-shaped aboard the Scorpio.
* Dayna (22) and Tarrant teleport down to Virn to learn why the Federation expedition has gone there. But Reeve soon spots them and shoots Dayna in the arm, so Tarrant sends her back to Scorpio. Unbeknownst to anyone, she brings some sand up with her on her boots…
* Soolin (9) pilots the Scorpio; tends to Dayna’s flesh wound; and generally stands around looking fiercely sexy with a side-on ponytail.
* Avon (47) is the one who pitches the idea that the team should visit Virn. If the Federation are there, he argues, it must be for something useful – and he’d rather the Scorpio gang have whatever it is. Later, when Avon sees the sand that Dayna has brought up from the planet, he deduces that it’s dangerous and in some way sentient. But he also discovers that liquid can combat it, so he engineers a rainstorm on Virn.
* Once Dayna’s teleported back to the ship, Tarrant (22) encounters Reeve and kills him. After Servalan has revealed that she’s on the planet too, the pair are locked inside the base. They share a meal and flirt. (The fact the characters have barely interacted before this episode doesn’t seem to be important.) Tarrant also realises that the sand is alive – it has the ability to suck life out of people like a vampire and also has the power of reason. For example, it leaves potential couples alive so they can breed and produce more ‘food’. Servalan and Tarrant end up sleeping together, but later – after the rainstorm has dampened the sandy threat – he teleports back to Scorpio, leaving Servalan alone…
* Orac (31) has to be switched off when he’s affected by the goings-on and tells Avon that he loves him.
* Slave (8) also gets some bizarre dialogue.

Best bit: In a rare moment of sincerity and vulnerability, Servalan tells Tarrant that she was once in love with Keller. He left her when she was a teenager and, bitter at the rejection, ‘power became my lover.’ Tarrant later admits that she might have been lying to him as a manipulation, but we viewers know she wasn’t.

Worst bit: While speculating on the plot, Soolin tells the others that she ‘seems to recall you telling me of an alien trying to take over the Liberator through Cally.’ Do we think the others have sat her down and explained the storylines of all the episodes she missed? There were 39 of them, so it must have been a long evening: ‘Then Brian Blessed showed up… There was that time Avon thought he was Columbo… Dayna got menaced by a giant crab-spider-thing-type-thing… We met Cally’s sister and Tarrant’s brother, both of whom looked exactly like them… Did we mention when we got sucked into a black hole?’

Review: This is an episode high on both atmosphere and subtext, and there’s a real richness to the dialogue. It’s also plotted and paced very well and the drama is brilliantly played and directed. Sadly, the production lets the side down now and again. The scenes on the surface of Virn – a jarring, embarrassing clash of CSO, videotape, film and model shots – are pretty naff, for example. But it’s easy to forgive when the story keeps the attention, when the key scenes are so enjoyable, and when Servalan is more than just a Cruella de Vil with caustic quips.

Nine girls next door out of 10

Next episode: Gold