The Witches (1990)

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You can never be sure if it’s a witch you’re looking at or a kind lady. Little American boy Luke Eveshim (Jasen Fisher) is holidaying with his Norwegian grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling) who regales him with stories of witches, female demons masquerading as normal women but possessing undending hatred of children.  Helga’s best friend in childhood was entrapped by one of them in a painting and eventually faded from view. When Luke’s parents die his grandmother becomes his guardian and sends him to boarding school where he evades the attention of one such witch (Anne Lambton) and during the holidays at a seaside resort Luke become aware that witches are holding their annual British convention as The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children led by the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston).  When he and another boy Bruno (Charlie Potter) are in their midst they encounter a life-changing transformation into mice and have to avoid all sorts of predators as they try to escape to safety experiencing an actual cat and mouse chase … Real witches hate children! Adapted by Allan Scott from Roald Dahl’s darkly comic book, the biggest surprise to fans of Nicolas Roeg is that he directed it (perhaps not when you consider he had young sons at the time) but it has some of his recognisable tropes as well as a crew of his regular collaborators, including Scott, costumier Marit Allen and editor Tony Lawson in a production from Henson Studios with all that firm’s puppeteering and effects skills to the fore. The trick of balancing realism with fantasy, humour with horror, and scares for children (Roeg edited out more morbid material after seeing one of his children’s reactions) with jokes for adults, is perfectly achieved in this ambitious comic drama with Huston camping it up appositely to Zetterling’s caring grandmother. How is the room service here?/Diabolical./ Good! A third of the film is the adventure the boys have as mice, attempting to avoid becoming part of the hotel’s dinner menu, and there’s a marvellous payoff with formerly fat Bruno achieving his mother’s (Brenda Blethyn) ambition that he lose weight. The (happy) ending is different from that in the book and Dahl hated it and threatened to publicly campaign against it (Jim Henson dissuaded him) but overall it retains his casual cruelty and wit. Stanley Myers’ score is amped up with excerpts from Dies irae here and there to sound like Berlioz’ The Witches’ Sabbath. Shot in Bergen, Newquay and at Bray Studios, this was the last feature to involve the great Henson and the final one of Dahl’s books to be adapted prior to his own demise. A foolish witch without a brain, must sizzle into fire and flame! A witch who dares to say I’m wrong, will not be with us… VERY LONG!

 

 

Far From the Madding Crowd (1967)

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Don’t anyone suppose that because I’m a woman, I don’t understand the difference between bad goings-on and good. I shall be up before you’re awake, I shall be afield before you’re up, and I shall have breakfasted before you’re afield. In short, I shall astonish you all. In the late nineteenth century in England’s West Country beautiful young Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie) inherits a picturesque farm from her uncle and decides to run it herself. Three very different suitors – Francis Troy (Terence Stamp), an intense soldier who has impregnated a maid; William Boldwood (Peter Finch), a prosperous middle-aged farmer; and Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates), a neighbouring sheep farmer of modest means – all contend for her hand in marriage and her different attitudes to each of them cause conflict and tragedy … At home by the fire, whenever I look up, there you will be. And whenever you look up, there I shall be. Adapted by Frederic Raphael from Thomas Hardy’s classic novel, this is one of the most gloriously beautiful films of its era, starring some of the most attractive British performers, all shot in almost decadently luminous imagery by the great Nicolas Roeg, a few years from making his directing debut. However none of that would matter if it weren’t for the management of the material which clarifies the novel’s question – how is it possible for a woman to maintain her independence and property while claiming a romantic relationship for herself? The painful issues of patriarchy and community combine when Bathsheba turns down Gabriel’s offer of marriage and she inadvertently triggers a chain of horribly dramatic events in this bucolic setting. It’s director John Schlesinger’s third film with Christie and she’s at the peak of her beauty and charisma playing this passionate girl. You can understand why everybody loves her. A woman like you does more damage than she can conceivably imagine

Performance (1970)

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I’ll tell you this: the only performance that makes it, that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness. Right? Am I right? You with me?After killing a rival in self-defence, South London gangster Chas (James Fox) must flee both from the law and from his boss, Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon). He eventually moves into a Notting Hill guest house owned by Turner (Mick Jagger), a former rock star who lives with his two female companions Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michèle Breton). Chas presents himself as juggler Johnny Dean. Chas and Turner initially clash, but Turner becomes fascinated with Chas’ life as a criminal. Through drugs and a series of psychological battles with Turner, Chas starts a relationship with Lucy and emerges a different man… Nothing is true, everything is permitted. “You do not have to be a drug addict, pederast, sadomasochist or nitwit to enjoy Performance,” wrote the New York Times reviewer, “but being one or more of those things would help.” The notorious film that made a Warner Bros. exec vomit, this directing collaboration between screenwriter Donald Cammell and cinematographer Nicolas Roeg remains a landmark of Sixties cinema and is Mick Jagger’s acting debut. It started out as a crime drama with an American crim on the lam and when it was shot in 1968 became a very different animal, an experimental and eye-opening analysis of sexual identity, exploring ideas of performance and madness culled from Antonin Artaud. Set in a frankly decadent Swinging London with graphic scenes of sex and drug use, its trippiness, use of real-life gangsters like John Bindon and riffing on the relationships between Pallenberg and Cammell (her ex), Pallenberg and Jagger (their intimate scenes were allegedly the real thing) and Pallenberg and Richards (offscreen) resulted in a screenplay drawing on Pallenberg’s own experiences which were used in Cammell’s screenplay which she co-wrote. There was a change in the plans for the soundtrack which was no longer going to be by The Rolling Stones following the tricky sex on the set:  Jack Nitzsche stepped in. Apparently Pallenberg wasn’t even aware there was a gangster plot until she saw the final cut. Breton had been part of a three way relationship with Cammell and never made another film. John Lennon’s white Rolls Royce makes a cameo appearance. It’s an astonishing and influential piece of work that was slaughtered by the critics – who are now lining up to call it a masterpiece. C’est la guerre. I need a bohemian atmosphere! I’m an artist, Mr. Turner. Like yourself  MM#2350

 

Nicolas Roeg 15th August 1928 – 23rd November 2018

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I can’t think how anyone can become a director without learning the craft of cinematography. I was very glad later when I was directing that I wasn’t in the hands of a cinematographer and hoping that he would do it well. I would know what he was doing, and we could discuss how that scene would look. It was just lucky in a way that I didn’t go to film school and just learned all this on the floor.

My proudest moment was one afternoon in Nic Roeg’s study when he patted me on the shoulder and said, Very good. Very good! He was referring to my screenplay, a script for a short film which I had persuaded my producer Roeg should direct. He was my favourite director, after all, if you removed Alain Resnais from the equation (I treasure a lovely letter Resnais wrote to me explaining he couldn’t meet me because he was shooting a film. I completely understood). I had written my film for a certain actor and this was my second, exhausted tilt at the windmill. And Roeg had agreed. I was stunned. It was a work which needed someone who understood imagery but wouldn’t be hamstrung by it, liked a fluid camera and was comfortable dealing with humorously dark erotic drama. Who else? He had learned his craft working on some of the most beautiful films of the Sixties as cinematographer, including Doctor Zhivago (which he quit because he needed more freedom than Lean would allow), Casino Royale, Far From the Madding Crowd and perhaps crucially, Petulia, which is a kaleidoscope of visual and narrative montage honed to a smooth entirety. I took a look at all the walls lined with books (an entire shelf on the Kabbalah, courtesy of Eureka), many photos of his ex-wife and muse Theresa Russell (although I wasn’t sure that they had divorced), and of their sons, one of whom was about to model for Harper’s Bazaar.  His current reading included The Sexual Life of Catherine M. It was on top of a stack of books on his desk which looked down onto the street – Miranda Richardson (who went on to star in Puffball) lived opposite.  He had recently met with a former colleague of mine to discuss making a feature script based on Ivanhoe – that company had had two different takes on the material but the boss wanted the lesser of them. Roeg shared my very low opinion of both the project and this bottom of the barrel individual (who was fronting for a very famous director) so we had even more ground in common as well as a shared love of the original novel. When my producer showed him some artwork for my prospective film he dismissed it and just pointed at the script, and said, It’s all there. The greatest compliment I could ever receive. I had grown up watching Walkabout and The Man Who Fell to Earth and Don’t Look Now (very late at night) and I read about Bad Timing for years before I could see it:  that film alone shaped my view of cinema and a lot more besides: I was completely obsessed by it and was amazed to discover I wasn’t the only one (see the video clip below of critic Mark Cousins when he introduced it on BBC2’s Moviedrome). His AIDS public service ads voiced by John Hurt terrorised my generation as kids. His films swamped my brain: I adored his gleeful wit, his painterly freedom and his narrative ease, which belied complex character and depth-charged psychology. These mosaics of memory and meaning dominated my own psyche. Roeg’s son wanted a huge amount of money upfront for his father, the producer went nuts, my film never got made for reasons never made clear to me and my leading man is currently playacting in a jungle. I weep at the thought of all the talentless goons churning out dross over the past twenty years while Roeg struggled for finance to make any project that matched his majesty. What a remarkable, transgressive, fascinating filmmaker he was. I just worshipped this man who fell to earth. I am devastated by his loss.

 

MM#2100

Eureka (1983)

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Aka River of Darkness. Once I had it all. Now I have everything. After 15 years of searching on his own, Arctic prospector Jack McCann (Gene Hackman), becomes one of the world’s wealthiest men when he literally falls into a mountain of gold in 1925. Twenty years later in 1945, he lives in luxury on Luna Bay, a Caribbean island that he owns. His riches bring no peace of mind as he feels utterly besieged:  he must deal with Helen (Jane Lapotaire), his bored, alcoholic wife; Tracy (Theresa Russell), his headstrong daughter who has married Claude Van Horn (Rutger Hauer) a dissolute, philandering, narcissistic social-climber; and Miami mobsters Aurelio D’Amato (Mickey Rourke) and Mayakofsky (Joe Pesci), who want the island to build a casino off the Florida coast but Jack is resistant to gambling and their frontman Charles Perkins (Ed Lauter) cannot persuade him to do a deal with them. I never made a nickel off another man’s sweat. When Jack is brutally murdered, his son-in-law, Claude, is arrested for the crime and put on trial … One of Nicolas Roeg’s most underrated achievements, this pseudo-biography is a fascinating portrayal of perversion and power, obsession and dread. The texture of the film, contained in lush colour coding, symbols of the occult and the ever-present stench of sex, oozes corruption and greed, decay and desire. Adapted by Paul Mayersberg from Marshall Houts’ book Who Killed Sir Harry Oakes? an account of that real-life murder in the 1940s, in which the author suggests that Meyer Lansky had Oakes killed [Pesci’s role is based on the gangster albeit this carries the conventional disclaimer], this exhibits all the familiar Roegian tropes. It also has echoes of Orson Welles as character, a director who hit the cinematic motherlode first time off the blocks and spent the remainder of his life in a kind of desperation (or so people would like to think). Hence McCann feels larger than life and is dramatised as such with Wagner soundtracking his great – almost psychedelic – discovery and Yukon poet Robert Service’s words Spell of the Yukon amplifying its myth. It isn’t the gold that he wants so much as finding the gold The allusions to Citizen Kane are clear and the portentous character of prostitute/fortune teller Frieda (Helena Kallianiotes) would appear to have at least superficial similarities with Oja Kodar, Welles’ last companion. One moment of rapture followed by decades of despair. The first line of dialogue we hear is Murder! and there is a structure which suggests destiny is being fulfilled. This is a story about disparate characters connected by blood and a morbid wish for ecstasy which suggests life but actually propels towards death. Russell’s testimony in court is gripping and Hauer as the playboy driven by the Kabbalah and other elements of the supernatural is just as good. Hackman is Hackman – he totally inhabits Jack, this man whose greatness is envied by all but whose happiest time was in the wastes of Alaska so long ago, basking in heat and light now but longing for snow.  It is this man’s ability to function as a totally singular individual that creates the chasm between himself and others, gangsters or not.  Internally he knows it is Frieda who led him to the gold that made him the richest man in the world but he decries notions of luck or superstition. His murder is an accurate depiction of what happened to Oakes and it’s terribly gruesome – sadistic and heartless. The first part of the film could be from silent movies – and the bizarre aphoristic dialogue is laughable except that it sets up the sense of supernature which dominates the narrative. Shot by Alex Thomson, edited by that magician of jagged mosaic Tony Lawson, and scored by Stanley Myers (including wonderful double bass solos composed and performed by Francois Rabbath), if this sometimes feels that it has not fully committed to the melodramatic mode (there are a lot of genres at work), the threads of gold and blood make it a satisfying and disturbing watch, with some extraordinary performances bolstering the overall effect. This is all about signs and meaning.  A mystery. The end of the beginning

Casino Royale (1967)

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You are joke shop spies, gentlemen.  The original James Bond (David Niven) is the debonair spy, now retired and living a peaceful existence. He is reluctantly called back into duty when the mysterious organization SMERSH begins assassinating British secret agents (through the medium of sex) and he is impersonated by six impostors and his return to service includes taking on the villainous Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) and baccarat expert Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers) who is hired by Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress, the greatest Bond girl of all!) to be yet another iteration of the great spy as she plays both ends against the middle.  Then there’s Bond’s bumbling nephew, Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen)… Producer Charles Feldman acquired the rights to Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel in 1960 but despite protracted negotiations with Eon could never agree terms so decided to send it up – everyone else was making Bond spoofs, so why shouldn’t he?  Wolf Mankowitz, John Law and Michael Sayers play fast and loose with the source and it’s directed variously by Ken Hughes, John Huston (who gets blown up early on in the film as M/McTarry), Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish and an uncredited Richard Talmadge. Niven has fun in the film’s early sequence overlong though it is stretching credibility at its occasionally joyless spoofing. However there are compensations – Ursula and Peter’s sidelong romance;  motormouth comic Allen becoming silenced in the presence of his famous uncle;  Welles doing a magic trick. And what about Bond finding his illegitimate daughter Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet) by Mata Hari?! Meta is the word. And I love seeing Charles Boyer and George Raft (as himself!), Deborah Kerr sending up her Oirish accent from Black Narcissus playing the nun-wannabe widow of Huston, French spy spoofer Jean-Paul Belmondo, TV stars Ronnie Corbett and Derek Nimmo (and Catweazle plays Q!) with starlets Jacky (Jacqueline) Bisset and Alexandra Bastedo. Mad and quite bad it might be – there’s a flying saucer! And cowboys! – but heck it’s also a lot of fun, dated as it is. The cinematography by Jack Hildyard, Nicolas Roeg and John Wilcox is decadence itself. And then there’s the Burt Bacharach soundtrack and that song:  the desert island classic…

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

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No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing. Due to his knowledge of the native Bedouin tribes, British Army Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is sent to Arabia to find Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) and serve as liaison between the Arabs and the British in their fight against the Turks. With the aid of the native Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), Lawrence rebels against the orders of his superior officer and strikes out on a daring camel journey across the harsh desert to attack a well-guarded Turkish port… The greatest film ever made? Probably. One of my more shocking cinematic excursions was to see this at London’s Odeon Marble Arch when it was re-released in a new print:  I hared to the early evening screening, thought I was incredibly late when I got my ticket because the foyer was deserted, ran upstairs two steps at a time and took my seat. And realised I was the only person there. This is one of the most feverishly protagonist-led narratives you will ever see, by which I mean that what you are seeing is the world created by Lawrence, whether or not it is true to The Seven Pillars of Wisdom or the entire facts of the matter or the man.  Like Psycho, everything in it exists to explain his perspective, his character, his essence. And it starts so shockingly, in a way that horrified me when I first saw it on TV one afternoon when I was probably nine years old:  his death in an English country lane on a summer’s day on a motorcycle. This frames an action adventure rooted in archaeology, espionage, politics, propaganda and the division of the vast desert lands and their warring tribes into convenient nation-states. It’s a narrative that is free of women but includes issues of homosexuality and torture. It uses the trope of the journalist Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) rewriting history as it is being made. It is filled with imagery that pulses through your brain – the arrival of Ali across the shimmering sands;  the (literal) match cut;  Lawrence shot from below in his white Arabic robes, stalking the hijacked train;  the magical appearance of water. I watch this on a regular basis and get lost in it every time. It’s extraordinary, arresting, brilliant, startling, stunning. O’Toole is utterly luminous as this complex man. Blacklisted Michael Wilson and British screenwriter Robert Bolt did drafts of the script and it may not be entirely historically accurate but it is true. Shot by Freddie Young, scored by Maurice Jarre, directed by David Lean. Magnificent. Happy Birthday to me.

Don’t Look Now (1973)

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Nothing is what it seems. Grieving over the accidental death of their daughter, Christine (Sharon Williams), John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie) leave their young son Johnny in an English boarding school and head to Venice where John’s been commissioned to restore a church. There Laura meets two ageing sisters (Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania) who claim to be in touch with Christine’s spirit. Laura takes them seriously, but John scoffs until he himself catches a glimpse of what looks like Christine running through the streets of Venice. Unbeknownst to himself, he has precognitive abilities (which might even be figured in the book he’s written, Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space) and the figure of local Bishop Barrigo (Massimo Serato) seems to be a harbinger of doom rather than a portent of hope.  Meanwhile, another body is fished out of the canal with a serial killer on the prowl …  Director Nicolas Roeg made one masterpiece after another in the early 1970s and this enjoyed a scandalous reputation because of the notorious sex scene between Christie and Sutherland which was edited along the lines of a film that Roeg had photographed for Richard Lester, Petulia, some years earlier. The clever cross-cutting with the post-coital scene of the couple dressing to go out for dinner persuaded people that they had watched something forbidden. That aside, the adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant is a clever mix of horror, mystery, enigmatic serial killer thriller and a meditation on grief. All of that is meshed within a repetitive visual matrix of the colour red, broken glass and water. None of that would matter were it not for the intensely felt characterisation of a couple in mourning, with Christie’s satisfaction at her dead daughter’s supposed happiness opposed to Sutherland’s desire to shake off the image of the child’s shiny red mackintosh – the very thing that leads him to his terrible fate. Some of the editing is downright disturbing – particularly a cut to the old ladies busting a gut laughing whilst holding photographs, apparently of their own family members. John’s misunderstanding of his visions coupled with the literal crossed telephone line from England creates a cacophony of dread, with Pino Donaggio’s score and Anthony Richmond’s limpid shots of Venice in winter compounding the tender horror constructed as elegiac mosaic by editor Graeme Clifford. A heartbreaking work of staggering genius? Probably. I couldn’t possibly comment.  I never minded being lost in Venice.

The System (1964)

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I wasn’t aware of this British film;  it had simply bypassed my cursory interest in both director Michael Winner and star Oliver Reed (this was the first of several collaborations) and what a terrific pleasure it is. Written by Peter Draper, this clever screenplay is about a bunch of well-educated wideboys who spend their summers using a system to pick up girl tourists in an English seaside town. This was an era prior to bunking off on the cheap to the Costa or Ibiza or Crete for drugs and the clap. Tinker (Reed) makes his living taking snaps to pay his way and when a new influx arrives on the train his interest is piqued by a particularly photogenic girl Nicola (Jane Merrow) who turns out to be the model daughter of a local millionaire. And while his friends have to deal with pregnant girlfriends, messing about at gigs and partying and the next pickup, the taker is taken – Tinker falls in love. Trouble is, Nicola’s been around and seen it all and has sex as easily as he does. There are some wonderful sequences – a montage about ‘grockles’ (the pitiful tourists); and a most un-English beach ceremony to burn off the summer; and the wedding of one of the guys who’s been caught – you’ve got to hear Reed’s depressed Best Man speech to believe it. It’s photographed in monochrome in very striking fashion by Nicolas Roeg and the performances in this bittersweet social commentary are thoroughly engaging. Merrow was TV’s Lorna Doone and Julia Foster replaced Julie Christie at the last minute. This downbeat story has excellent characterisation, structure and several moments that are surprising for a film of that era, not least the openly expressed attitudes to sex and the reality of relationships. Well worth a look.