Spirits of the Dead (1968)

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Aka Tre passi nel delirio/Histoires extraordinaires. Three stories of hauntings adapted from Edgar Allan Poe. Part 1:“Metzengerstein” directed by Roger Vadim. Are you sure it was a dream? Sometimes you need me to tell you what you did was realAt 22, Countess Frederique (Jane Fonda) inherits the Metzengerstein estate and lives a life of promiscuity and debauchery. While in the forest, her leg is caught in a trap and she is freed by her cousin and neighbor Baron Wilhelm (Peter Fonda), whom she has never met because of a long-standing family feud. She becomes enamored with Wilhelm, but he rejects her for her wicked ways. His rejection infuriates Frederique and she sets his stables on fire. Wilhelm is killed attempting to save his prized horses. One black horse somehow escapes and makes its way to the Metzengerstein castle. The horse is very wild and Frederique takes it upon herself to tame it. She notices at one point that a damaged tapestry depicts a horse eerily similar to the one that she has just taken in. Becoming obsessed with it, she orders its repair. During a thunderstorm Frederique is carried off by the spooked horse into a fire caused by lightning that has struck.  Written by Vadim and Pascale Cousin and shot in Roscoff. Part II:  “William Wilson” directed by Louis Malle. It is said, gentlemen, that the heart is the seat of the emotions, the passions. Indeed. But experience shows that it is the seat of our cares.  In the early 19th century when Northern Italy is under Austrian rule, an army officer named William Wilson (Alain Delon) rushes to confess to a priest (in a church of the “Città alta” of Bergamo that he has committed murder. Wilson then relates the story of his cruel ways throughout his life. After playing cards all night against the courtesan Giuseppina (Brigitte Bardot), his double, also named William Wilson, convinces people that Wilson has cheated. In a rage, the protagonist Wilson stabs the other to death with a dagger. After making his confession, Wilson commits suicide by jumping from the tower of “Palazzo della Ragione”, but when seen his corpse is transfixed by the same dagger. Written by Malle, Clement Biddle Wood and Daniel Boulanger. Part III: Toby Dammit” directed by Federico Fellini.  This film will be in color. Harsh colors, rough costumes to reconcile the holy landscape with the prairie. Sort of Piero della Francesca and Fred Zinneman. An interesting formula. You’ll adapt to it very well. Just let your heart speak. The modern day. Former Shakespearean actor Toby Dammit (Terence Stamp) is losing his acting career to alcoholism. He agrees to work on a film, to be shot in Rome, for which he will be given a brand new Ferrari as a bonus incentive. Dammit begins to have unexpected visions of macabre girl with a white ball. While at a film award ceremony, he gets drunk and appears to be slowly losing his mind. A stunning woman (Antonia Pietrosi) comforts him, saying she will always be at his side if he chooses. Dammit is forced to make a speech, then leaves and takes delivery of his promised Ferrari. He races around the city, where he sees what appear to be fake people in the streets. Lost outside of Rome, Dammit eventually crashes into a work zone and comes to a stop before the site of a collapsed bridge. Across the ravine, he sees a vision of the little girl with a ball (whom he has earlier identified, in a TV interview, as his idea of the Devil). He gets into his car and speeds toward the void.The Ferrari disappears, and we then see a view of roadway with a thick wire across it, dripping with blood, suggesting Dammit has been decapitated. The girl from his vision picks up his severed head and the sun rises. Written by Fellini and Bernardino Zapponi and adapted from ‘Never Bet the Devil Your Head’… Who but Vadim could cast Jane Fonda’s own brother as her object of desire? And she’s terrific as the jaded sexpot. Delon is marvellous as Poe’s ego and id, haunting himself; with Bardot turning up as a peculiarly familiar iteration of what we know and love. And then there’s the wonderful Terence Stamp as Toby, the scurrilous speed freak. This portmanteau of European auteurs having a go at Poe is the dog’s. Watch it over and over again to pick up on all the connections and beauty within. Uneven, fiendishly sexy, ravishingly brutal, moralistic and really rather fabulous. Makes you wish it was fifty years ago all over again. Oh, no. I’m English, not Catholic. For me the devil is friendly and joyful. He’s a little girl.

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I Know Where I’m Going (1945)

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I haven’t heard any intelligent female nonsense for months. Plucky and stubborn Englishwoman Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) travels to the remote islands of the Scottish Hebrides in order to marry a wealthy industrialist many years her senior. Trapped by inclement weather on the Isle of Mull and unable to continue to her destination, Joan finds herself charmed by the place and becomes increasingly attracted to naval officer Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey), who is also marooned in the house of childhood friend Catriona (Pamela Brown).  He holds a secret that may change Joan’s life forever and may make her want her to stay on Kiloran … We live off the country. Rabbits, deer, a stray hiker or two. This Powell and Pressburger production has a kind of mystical aspect that has long made it a cult favourite and turned Mull into an unlikely tourist hotspot for the more discerning film fan. A romcom of a different order with an unexpected cast for such a story, and an appeal that lies directly in something almost erotic that seems to seep up from the very landscape and the misty air. Count them before you go to sleep and your wish’ll come true

La Belle et la Bete (1946)

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Children believe what we tell them.  Jean Cocteau’s masterful interpretation of the classic fairytale proved hugely influential on a certain Walt Disney – this is a film of actual moving parts with arms holding candelabra, illuminating and grasping. The tale of thwarted masculinity transformed by the love of a young woman finding her own way as she searches for her father starts out as a story of the quotidian but magic lies beneath:  the crystallising of the term magic realism. A truly beguiling fantasy, beautifully staged and intriguingly performed by Jean Marais as the monster/prince and Josette Day as Belle, this is a shimmering post-war dream of ornamentation and desire, a sensual miracle of cinema, a poetic exegesis on the liberating power of love. Co-directed by René Clément. How will I find my way home? I got lost in the forest

Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948)

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Aka SarabandNo one’s safe in love. In the 18th century, Sophie Dorothea (Joan Greenwood) is forced into marriage with Prince George Louis (Peter Bull), an aristocrat destined to inherit the British crown as George I. But when he becomes king, Sophie meets suave Swedish mercenary Count Philip Konigsmark (Stewart Granger) with whom she falls in love.  They decide to flee England together, abandoning her horrific marriage. Their scheme is discovered  however and the lovers must figure out a way to escape while Philip’s previous lover Countess Platen (Flora Robson) plots revenge … My sisters have been liberal with their favours in half the courts of Europe.  Doomed romance! Beautiful costumes! Colour cinematography! John Dighton and Alexander Mackendrick’s adaptation of Helen Simpson’s melodramatic novel about the Hanoverian claim to the British throne hit the ground running for Ealing with the man chat show host Michael Parkinson described as resembling a Maltese pimp setting hearts and more aflutter. Greenwood’s husky voice alone is worth the price of admission. This lavish post-war tale was just what the doctor ordered with the exigencies and privations the nation was suffering in the aftermath of combat. Françoise Rosay makes a wonderfully superior Electress Sophia while Anthony Quayle and Michael Gough line up among the ensemble and the score by Alan Rawsthorne is just swoonsome. Fabulously entertaining, overblown saucy fluff directed by Basil Dearden and produced by Michael Balcon and Michael Relph.  I hear she doesn’t want me for a husband. Well, I sympathise with her – I don’t want her for a wife

Ludwig (1973)

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Ludwig. He loved women. He loved men. He lived as controversially as he ruled. But he did not care what the world thought. He was the world. Munich 1864. Young Ludwig (Helmut Berger) is crowned King of Bavaria and sets up financing his composer friend Richard Wagner (Trevor Howard) whom he hopes will be his intimate friend. When Wagner betrays him with married Cosima von Bülow (Silvana Mangano) he leaves Munich but Ludwig continues to support him. Ludwig’s cousin Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Romy Schneider) wants to set him up with her sister Sophie (Sonia Petrovna) but it’s Elisabeth that Ludwig wants. He retreats into the world of imagination, soundtracked to Wagner’s compositions, even when the 1866 Austro-Prussian war happens and his brother Otto (John Moulder-Brown) and cabinet cannot persuade him to take a side. Despite his burgeoning homosexuality he is persuaded to marry Sophie by his advisor Count Durckheim (Helmut Griem). Following the Franco-Prussian war of 1871 when Bavaria loses a deal of sovereignty to Prussia, Otto is hospitalised to treat his declining mental health. Ludwig is absorbed by his extravagant building projects including Neuschwanstein Castle and becomes involved with actor Josef Kainz (Folker Bohnet) and starts hosting orgies. He ignores Elisabeth. Word of his behaviour spreads to the Bavarian cabinet so that by 1886 it’s time to draft in the doctors … Mad, bad and dangerous, that was Ludwig’s reputation and Luchino Visconti’s lush, beautiful account doesn’t exactly clarify matters about his decline and mysterious demise even though it creates a fully fleshed world, dictated by the preferences of the protagonist himself. Partly the confusion has to do with what version you have the opportunity to watch. With five different cuts varying from two to four hours in length (I have watched two, the latest being the 226 minutes version as Visconti intended) this is something of a frustration in anyone’s language;  and, at the point in Visconti’s career where decoration was slowly supplanting dramatic tension, the joy in seeing Berger and Schneider exchanging sweet nothingness is replaced by a kind of exhaustion. Beauty can do that to a person. Breathtaking? It’s all that. And less, and less, if you see the shorter cuts with some of the gay stuff removed for censorship reasons. To the detriment too of dramatic logic. Yet this is quite a rounded vision of Germany’s intellectual and cultural aspects in the latter half of the nineteenth century, bristling through a nation-state’s growing political personality as a kind of warped belle époque happens. Visconti had a stroke after filming which led to all manner of issues for a production that happened when his long-cherished Proust project failed to come to fruition.  It’s a tribute to his protegé Berger really, who totally inhabits the role from boy to man with remarkable, emotive physicality in this inscription to a sorrowful life (the Italian dub is voiced by Giancarlo Giannini); while Schneider was returning to the role of Sissi (which had made her famous throughout Europe in a series of much-loved films) as a favour to the director.  Written by Visconti with Enrico Medioli and Suso Cecchi d’Amico, this was shot on the original locations, which adds immensely to the overwhelming spectacle, a great immersion into big characters and the way they made their lives matter.

Blood of the Vampire (1958)

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Three quarters of what you hear here are the ravings of imbeciles. Anaemic Dr Callistratus (Donald Wolfit) is bringing criminally insane prisoners at his remote castle asylum into the lab to take their blood because mistaken villagers put him to death after mistaking him for a vampire.  Resuscitated through a heart transplant, he needs a regular supply of blood.  Poor Dr John Pierre (Vincent Ball) fetches up there instead of a penal colony for medical malpractice following a blood transfusion that goes wrong . We are in deepest Transylvania in the 1870s and when John’s fiancee Madeleine (Barbara Shelley) follows her beloved you can imagine the consequences … You might find it hard to stifle a giggle when you see Victor Maddern turn up as Carl the one-eyed hunch-backed enforcer in the imaginatively named village of Carlstadt but otherwise this takes itself very seriously indeed, which is how it should be.  The topic of medical experiments made a lot of people squirm in the wake of finding out what the Nazis had been up to in WW2 so this had a weird kind of topicality in genre form:  exchanging one person’s entire bloodstream for another’s? Why not? Theatrical actor-manager legend Wolfit eats up the screen as the baddie and Ball and Shelley are a very attractive couple battling the madmen and the dogs. Woof! Written by Hammer stalwart Jimmy Sangster who had just written that studio’s first two big hits (also in colour) and directed by Henry Cass.

Murder By Death (1976)

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Locked, from the inside. That can only mean one thing. And I don’t know what it is. Five famous literary private eyes, including Sam Diamond (Peter Falk), Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers), Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester), Milo Perrier (James Coco) and Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith) are invited to the mysterious millionaire Lionel Twain’s (Truman Capote) castle for a dinner party despite none of them actually knowing him. There, they are told that Twain plans an unsolvable murder in the house at midnight and he will pay $1 million to the one who determines the killer. But when Twain’s blind butler, Bensonmum (Alec Guinness), dies long before the deadline, the stakes go up for the trapped sleuths and it takes a real detective to figure it out … The country house/locked room whodunnit gets a decent parody and a slew of stars indulge in high jinks and costumed fun. You may notice that certain names were altered for copyright reasons (Sam Spade, Charlie Chan, Miss Marple, Hercules Poirot, Nick and Nora et al) but otherwise the ‘satire’ from the pen of Neil Simon translates as smoothly to the screen as a whiskey down the gullet even with the famously incomprehensible ending and a one-off performance by Capote. There’s a built-in discourse on the tropes and flaws of the genre. An absurdist fun item that is now deserving of cult status with a ton of one-liners. Directed by Robert Moore.

La Dolce Vita (1960)

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In the summer of 1958 several layers of Roman society collided in the flashing lightbulbs of celebrity, with Hollywood actors, aristocrats, drug dealers, designers, artists, writers, prostitutes, journalists and street photographers engaging in salacious conflicts that kept several scandal rags going with outrageous tales of a demimonde that seemed to congregate around the Via Veneto. Federico Fellini was taking note. A photograph of Anita Ekberg frolicking in the Trevi Fountain seemed to encapsulate the scene and a story took root in his brain. Along with Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi and some uncredited assistance from Pier Paolo Pasolin, he came up with the script that would define the time and the place like no other. Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) is the urbane gossip journalist who secretly hankers after the life of his intellectual friend Steiner (Alain Cuny, playing a character loosely based on Cesare Pavese) but cannot cease his lifestyle of instant gratification. The opening shot is stunning:  a helicopter is taking a statue of Christ across a football field surrounded by ancient ruins, and chased by another helicopter. All at once the image shows us Rome ancient, imperial and modern, and God is leaving the city, opening up a world of self-indulgence. Marcello is in the second chopper and dallies with some beauties sunbathing on a roof. Right there we have some very economical socio-cultural analysis about contemporary values.  38 minutes in, the film’s raison d’etre occurs:  Fellini re-stages the Ekberg image, starring Ekberg herself. Surely this is the ultimate post-modern shot in cinema. This is a very glamorous film about incredible people in a state of pure decadence. It was much criticised at local level but Fellini had tapped into fascism’s true expression – the cultivation of image above meaning, the use of culture to promote an antithetical belief system, the failure of humanity, mob rule. Popular culture was the vehicle through which fascism was transmitted. Fellini was working as a caricaturist during Mussolini’s alliance with the Nazis, he was involved with several of the neorealist classics made right after the war and he had already made a couple of classic films:  his concept of reality did not mean the subtraction of meaning. Christening the scattini (street photographers) Paparazzo was only the start of it. He understood the power of voyeurism. Marcello’s disenchantment as he pursues his personal satyricon is groundbreaking and inimitable. The role changed Mastroianni, as he admitted. You cannot walk through Rome and not see it as it is here – ironically, Fellini recreated most of it at Cinecitta (a Mussolini factory that lured so many American filmmakers to free up their frozen profits and enjoy the sweet life):  that’s how I discovered the real Via Veneto is very hilly.  Rome is Fellini, Fellini is Rome. And as for Nino Rota’s score! As Jonathan Jones said some years ago, Fellini thought of everything first. We are still catching up. Simply great.

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My review of Shawn Levy’s book Dolce Vita Confidential which excavates in scrupulous detail the circumstances leading up to the film’s production is here:  http://offscreen.com/view/dolce-vita-swinging-rome.

Ivanhoe (1952)

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Wilfred of Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) is determined to right the wrong of kidnapped Richard the Lionheart’s predicament, confronting his evil brother Prince John (Guy Rolfe) and Norman knight Brian de Bois-Guilbert (George Sanders). His own estranged father Cedric (Finlay Currie) doesn’t know he’s loyal to the king but feisty Rowena (Joan Fontaine) is still his lady love although his affections are now swung by the beautiful Jewess Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor), daughter to Isaac of York (Felix Aylmer), who is almost robbed by the knights and whose fortune can aid the King. Robin Hood appears and Ivanhoe joins forces with him and his men, there’s jousting at the tournament and love lost and won, and a trial for witchcraft ….  Adapted by AEneas MacKenzie from the Walter Scott novel, this was written by Noel Langley and Marguerite Roberts, whose name was removed subsequent to her being blacklisted. It’s glorious picture-book pageantry in Technicolor, such a wonderful change from those grim grey superhero and historical excursions to which we are being currently subjected in the multiplex. Everyone performs with great gusto, there’s chivalry and action aplenty, a great baddie, a kangaroo court, a ransom to be paid, a love triangle, a king to rescue, costumes to die for and properly beautiful movie stars performing under the super sharp lens of Freddie Young to a robust score by Miklos Rozsa. It was the first in an unofficial mediaeval MGM trilogy shot in the UK, followed by Knights of the Round Table and The Adventures of Quentin Durward, all starring Taylor (Robert, that is) and shot by Richard Thorpe. Prepare to have your swash buckled. Fabulous.

Marie Antoinette (2006)

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Sofia Coppola knows what it feels like for a girl. When the officials at Versailles gave her the very big keys to open up the palace and reimagine a little Austrian girl lost in the vicious and foreign French royal court working from Antonia Fraser’s biography, they probably didn’t picture this – a portrait of teenage decadence in the pastel palette of macaroons (magenta, citron, mint) scored to a New Romantic soundtrack as if she were making an Adam and the Ants video.  Kirsten Dunst is the kid sold to the gormless dauphin (Jason Schwartzman) in a strategic alliance organised by her mother the Empress (Marianne Faithfull). Her father in law the King Louis XV (Rip Torn) is like a Texan cowboy carrying on with Madame du Barry (Asia Argento). Her husband has no idea what to do in bed and she’s a giggly kid who spends her nights drinking and gambling with her girly friends and it takes a visit from her brother Emperor Josef (Danny Huston) to explain to the mechanically-minded prospective king about locks and holes, and a year later, finally, the marriage is consummated and a baby girl is born. Seven years of foreplay!  The life of conspicuous consumption, of colourful costumes and cookies and candy is swopped for something almost rural and natural at Le Petit Trianon where the young mother holds a different kind of court and succumbs to an affair with the Swedish Count Fersel (Jamie Dornan) and frolics with her little girl in the meadows. The mood alters and the cinematography (by Lance Acord) attains the backlit flared quality of a nature documentary:  this is impressionistic and expressionistic all at once, reliant on Dunst’s face and the overall vision of a writer/director in sympathetic tune with her tragic protagonist whose perception of the vicious society over which she holds sway dominates the narrative. The final quarter hour is the nightmare:  people are starving because the peasants are bearing the cost of the war in America, and propaganda and lies, dead children and the baying mob are at the door. This is a fabulist film about fashion and feeling and food and it gets into your head and your heart. If you don’t like it, you know what you can go eat. I’ver reviewed Fiona Handyside’s study of Coppola on Offscreen:  http://offscreen.com/view/sofia-coppola-a-cinema-of-girlhood.