Friday, 29 January 2010

Confidential Agent (1945)

I have a particular soft spot for the Graham Greene thriller on which this was based, being the first work by that esteemed writer I ever read, with its despair-sodden but dogged hero D. representing an unstated cause in a desperate attempt to secure coal for his civil-war-torn nation. In some ways, in spite of being one of his nominal “entertainments”, it’s actually one of Greene’s most grim and acutely political books.

Not surprisingly, the film version, in coming a few years later, was free to do away with the vague Kafka-esque appellations and be explicit about the story’s evoking the Spanish conflict as a tale of the first battle against fascism. D. is here designated Luis Denard and embodied by the fitting features of Charles Boyer, who isn’t allowed to play his role quite as tormented and dour as on the page, but nonetheless acquits himself with vigour and slow-burning restraint.

Director Herman Shumlin isn’t exactly a name to conjure with in film history (more of a theatre personage, his only other work as director was the much more dated Watch on the Rhine), and the film of Agent lacks the tautness and force Fritz Lang brought to similar contemporary projects like Man Hunt and Ministry of Fear, or indeed what Hitchcock might have brought out in it (but of course Greene maintained a hypocritical misgiving towards Hitchcock to the end of his days) but that doesn’t make it negligible: in fact it’s very close to the source novel and preserves intact all of Greene’s chilly, sinister insight into the moral atmosphere of the late 1930s.

The landscape of indictment ranges from magnates who’d happily sell goods to fascists just as long as they’re not seen to be selling to fascists, through to rapacious double agents hidden in seedy boarding houses and pathetic islets of idealism (the hilariously try-hard “Entrernationo” language school run by a particularly overeager Ian Wolfe) and work-desperate miners throwing stones at voices of conscience.

Lauren Bacall is cleverly cast as Rose Cullen, the self-loathing, undirected, alcohol-stewed society princess whom fate puts in Denard’s path and soon becomes besotted with the empathetic, doomed-seeming hero – short distance from this to Three Days of the Condor – and even if Bacall can’t quite submerge her New York accent, that’s preferable to the back-lot Cockney accents that litter the minor cast. But the most delicious pleasures come from some perfectly employed character turns, especially the villainy of Peter Lorre, as the weak-hearted, wretched Entrenationo tutor-come-traitor, Holmes Herbert as Rose’s imperious, disinterested industrialist father, George Coulouris as a supercilious uptown bigot, and Victor Francen as the sleek, domineering Falangist spymaster who outwits Denard at every turn and yet never manages to shut him down.

Most amazing of all is Katina Paxinou as the barely restrained savage of a landlady, Mrs Melandez, with her hooded cobra eyes and infanticidal rages, and her utter contempt of all forms of human charity, who chooses suicide as her last, best chance to spit on all that’s sacred. Also of note is Dan Seymour as a philosophical Indian peeping tom and Wanda Hendrix as Paxinou’s ill-fated serving girl, whose death at her mistress’s hands – pushed out a window to set up Denard – sets the agent into an implacable programme of revenge. But Denard remains a rare creature, an impressive man who’s an unimpressive operative, and he brings about the ends of his enemies more through persistence than great professional art. He of course gets the girl in the end. Although slightly overlong, the inky visuals confirm the oncoming noir style clearly flowering, and the film is worthy.

Kiss of Death (1947)

True story recounted in Adrian Boot and Michael Thomas’ photo-book “Babylon on a Thin Wire”: Kiss of Death was immensely fashionable in Jamaica in the fraught cultural and political moment of the early ‘70s, so unnerving in its popularity in fact that the authorities censored all scenes of violence from the constantly repeated showings for fear of encouraging Rastafarian radicals and banana grove revolutionaries. Such an anecdote, combined with the impact of Richard Widmark as tittering assassin Johnny Udo, kicking the wheelchair-bound old lady down the stairs in a famous moment of boundary-pushing savagery, would seem to highlight Kiss of Death as one of the more trashily energetic, rock ‘em-sock ‘em works of post-war noir.

Which couldn’t be further from the case: there’s not much thrill left in this thriller, with its disjointed, problematic plot and slow pace. Director Henry Hathaway didn’t have much affinity for gangster films and it shows, the resulting film possessing very little of the adamantine strength and plainness of Raoul Walsh’s similar pre-war films. It deserves credit for attempting an adult, soberly recounted story, with Victor Mature’s ill-starred hero Nick Bianco suffering for his attempts to live by principle, firstly by not violating his criminal ethics, and then later by doing just that for the purposes of restarting his life and sheltering his children after their mother’s despairing suicide.

Hathaway and screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer offer a nuanced compassion for Bianco and his situation, which thankfully lacks any interventions by Pat O’Brien in a dog-collar (although there are some nuns), instead demanding Bianco put his neck on the line only to protect his new young wife (Colleen Gray) and girls from persecution. Such a portrait of a returning patriarch’s having a hard-bitten shell of enforced resilience eaten away in trying to resume a domestic life perhaps expressed the mood of the returning GIs with unexpected accuracy. There’s a certain charge too to Mature and Gray’s forlorn romance, and the post-war fashion for authenticity, bordering on neo-realism, is apparent in the location photography.

Kiss of Death made Widmark a star and confirmed Mature as one, and that’s comprehensible: Mature’s impression of stalwart physicality and emotional simplicity inflected by melancholy is interesting, and Widmark of course created a template for many a grinning psycho in screen history. By the same token, Mature lacks the kind of grace and intensity other actors might have brought to the role, so the potential for the work to become a kind of character study of a man in a vice is only partly realised. The famous wheelchair scene is just about the only truly galvanising moment in the film, as if dreaming it up unnerved the filmmakers in some fashion, who generally play the rest with a curious mix of intimacy and distraction, lacking a sense of gritty immediacy, and leaving much of the story’s threads distractingly unresolved and fixating on Udo as if by default. This leads to a neatly conceived but rather implausible resolution, and finally the film has aged very badly. Still, Kiss of Death might be considered a median point between They Drive by Night and On the Waterfront in sustaining a hint of social realism in a generic setting, and it shares a theme of irrepressible reckoning with Hathaway’s best film, The Shepherd of the Hills.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Conquest (1937)

From the moment an opening title tells us that “This is a story of an historic love - the imaginative detail supplied by the dramatist has not violated the spirit of this immortal romance”, we know we’re not in much accuracy in this account of Napoleon Bonaparte’s fractious romance with Polish mistress Maria Walewska. I’m not entirely sure if Charles Boyer’s and Greta Garbo’s performances are great theatre or great ham, but one thing is for sure, they’re very entertaining, and furthermore Boyer is undoubtedly the only real equal Garbo ever had to play off in a movie. Unlike the magnetic narcissism the likes of John Barrymore and Robert Taylor stoked in her in Grand Hotel and Camille, Boyer’s aggressive, utterly physical incarnation of Napoleon struts into the film, sinks in his teeth and tugs it, and Garbo with him, around like a hungry wolf, and the couple’s clinches are shot through a volatile chemistry.

As a film, Conquest is fairly standard bed-and-drawing-room history, not as nuanced as the kind Alexander Korda was making in Britain at the time, but compensating with strong production values and technical qualities (particularly Karl Freund’s gorgeous photography), and, of course, meteoric star power. The script’s fairly intelligent portrait of Bonaparte as one part noble idealist, one part childish egotist, lends weight to the proceedings, and the pitch of Walewska as a star-struck young patriot, married to a noble, good-hearted but ancient Count (Henry Stephenson), forced to approach a love-struck Bonaparte to plead for her country’s case with her lips and, it's implied, her hips, has a kind of corny force that probably doesn’t have much to do with the real people but makes for a good yarn. Indeed, considering the themes of infidelity, state-sanctioned immorality and what is definitely an extra-marital sexual affair that results in an illegitimate son, it must have counted as risqué stuff at the time. Apparently, however, losing at Waterloo counts as sufficient punishment.

Director Clarence Brown essays the early scenes with atmosphere and drive, with the attention-getting opening in which rampaging Cossacks invade the Walewska’s mansion and threaten Maria’s rape, before the arrival of Bonaparte’s army inspires her to brave the snowy night and encounter him at a snow-crusted shrine. The clash of sensibilities and purposes between the hyper-energetic Bonaparte, grasping hungrily at pleasure in between the business of conquest, and the ardent, ripe-to-be-seduced Maria, played out with spiky energy even in the most glamorous of Warsaw ballrooms, is amusing and well-sustained, with Boyer delighting in portraying Napoleon’s slightly boorish manners and air of imperial prerogative mixing to grating effect. A neat motif sees Bonaparte repeatedly encountering people who don't recognise him, firstly in a comic encounter from Count Walewska's senile mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) and much later, and more seriously, from a soldier dying (Vladimir Sokoloff) in the retreat from Moscow, events that underline his journey into self-destructive solipsism. But once Maria forgives Bony for taking dreadful liberties and leaves her husband for the giddy atmosphere of his camp, the film slowly loses force, turning into a series of black-out scenes that skip inelegantly over the statecraft and warfare and leave the supporting characterisations, like Reginald Owen's Tallyrand and Alan Marshall's stand-by love interest, d'Ornano, hovering without resolutions.

The dialogue, supporting the sentimentalised realisation of the historical personages (oh look, Napoleon had a mommy too!), lurches into the kind of breathless, absurd rhetoric (“I have signed many treaties, but this is the first time I have known peace!”) that inspired a couple of generations of movie spoofers. Garbo and Boyer however hold up their end, as in the lengthy, compelling scene when Maria, having learnt Bony’s going to marry Marie-Louise, accuses him of succumbing to his worst impulses and failing his creed, and in the very finale, in which Boyer exits the film with the same unfussy, swift purpose he entered it. He, like Napoleon himself, cared only for the business and had little time for show, and in the context of Hollywood weepies, becomes nearly as heroic. But that's not to diss Garbo, who's at her most lively and lovely.

Thirst (1979)

One of the key works of Antony I. Ginnane’s wave of international audience-seeking Aussie-made horror movies of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and a pillar of the genre today known by the playful name of “Ozploitation”, Thirst is well-produced, and has the benefit of an intriguing set of ideas animating its story. An international body of secretive vampires, providing a ripe metaphor for capitalist and colonialist abuse, keeping farms of human cattle, and trying to brainwash the heir to their founding member, Elisabeth Bathory, one Kate Davis (Chantal Contouri), who’s been brought up outside their ranks. Her persecutors include bitch-queen Mrs Barker (Shirley Cameron), Dr Gauss (Henry Silva), and his seemingly more conscientious colleague Dr Fraser (David Hemmings), whose job it is to render Kate a fit, sane inductee to their creed, so she can mate with the slimy Hodge (Max Phipps), the scion of another great lineage of the vampire world.

Cameron’s gloating, self-assured Barker walks off with the movie, as she and her fellows snatch Kate from her everyday life as a fashion designer and plunge her into a grotesque and bizarre situation. Director Rod Hardy mounts some effective suspense in moments like when Kate, having temporarily escaped the vampire farm, desperately trying to get a stalled truck going on a lonely road where the only people passing by are more haemovores she has to fake her way by, in a sequence that suggests Hardy learnt something from Hitchcock, and a lengthy, more spectacular scene in which Kate, under drug-induced hypnosis, recalls her abandoned childhood and is driven to blood-drinking by a barrage of spook-house tricks, including breathing walls and cracking mirrors.

The environs of the vampire’s farm, with its corralled, glazed-eyed residents being milked for their blood in sterile areas, dolorous compliance punctuated by momentary outbreaks of hysteria and terror, are cleverly rendered. Likewise the queasy moment when Kate is treated to the sight of the old farmer whose truck she stole in making her breakaway receiving the honour of being exsanguinated, as Barker proudly describes it, and the cheery tourist-guide explorations of the farm, possess a morbid satiric force in evoking exploitation. The film’s choice of bright sunshine and firmly, ironically solid and contemporary settings are a cunning twist on the gothic material. It’s also worth noting the film’s intriguing underlying commentary on the discomforting processes of Australia’s post-war immigrant assimilation, and the schism between the nation's Anglo-centric, colonial past and its yearning, urbane, democratic present: heroine Davis, sporting an anglicised name that disguises her roots in the old world, with the lingering anxiety of those ties still binding, is inducted into a self-declaredly aristocratic world embodied by the pasty, self-satisfied, virility-lacking Hodge.

The problem is that the longer the film goes on, the less logical and interesting it becomes, until the final scenes reach an apogee of clumsiness. Clear story links and motivations disappear and opportunistic action and violence enter. Hardy’s direction constantly succumbs to a cheesy variety of modish hype, like the visions of eroticism with Kate and her magazine-ad architect boyfriend Derek (sex god Rod Mullinar) making love in front of the fire and in a park with gliding swans, joke-shop horror in the glowing red eyes that the vamps sport when the blood-lust is upon them, and tacky scares, like a milk carton full of blood and a shower of gore, stunts that seem rather unlikely to inspire the heroine’s latent vampirism. Late in the film, a villain is dispatched by being tossed into a vat of blood in what seems to be an empty factory, before revealing moments later it's full of workers who somehow haven’t noticed this event.

Likewise, the reasons for Kate’s having been brought up outside the realm of bloodsuckers isn’t competently explicated, nor the reasons for the quiet war between camps of the vampires – Barker and Gauss on one side, Fraser and Hodge on the other - existing only to provide some tension in the ramshackle second half, with a final scene that’s criminally incompetent. Worse yet, the driving idea, the process of a thoroughly average young lady being steadily inducted into foul, inhuman depravities, is flatly handled, without any grasp on the necessary dark sensuality at the fantasy’s core, the evocation of increasing addiction and attraction to the dark side being entirely failed by the narrative.

Contouri, with her exotic, Barbara Steele-ish looks and malleable face, is well-cast, and, even if her acting is, to put it kindly, unpolished – her line readings are often very frail – she plays trembling fear and assailed conscience quite well. But there’s no dark revelry at all to her eventual transformation into what she loathes, and the film’s lack of contiguous, convincing narrative defines what went wrong with a lot of Aussie stabs at genre filmmaking, even if this Thirst is surely the most intriguingly conceived and one of the few tolerably executed instalments in the Ozploitation cycle.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Although not up to the standard of director Sydney Pollack’s immediate predecessor The Yakuza as a ripping genre yarn leant weight and atmosphere by artful and intimate handling, Three Days of the Condor is nonetheless one of the best paranoid ‘70s films. It’s a fitting precursor to star Robert Redford’s subsequent production All the President’s Men, and also a terrific starring vehicle for Redford himself and Faye Dunaway in an atypically demure role, as Joseph Turner, the gadabout young CIA researcher who finds himself pursued by assassins, and Kathy Hale, the brittle, slightly pathetic photographer he snatches off the street to provide him first with transport and then a safe harbour. Turner, codenamed Condor, finds himself in a world of pain when his co-workers, including his girlfriend (Tina Chen, whom I know best from Alice’s Restaurant), are brutally slaughtered by a team of assassins invading their office in downtown Manhattan, led by the quiet, gentlemanly European thug-for-hire Joubert (Max Von Sydow).

Pollack’s snappy, crisp filmmaking is still a long way before the sluggish prestige work he churned out through the ‘80s and ‘90s, and the gamy New York locations well-employed. Less pretentiously stylised in its evocations of surveillance culture and political conniving than Coppola’s The Conversation (and co-writer Lorenzo Semple Jr had just penned the more baroque study in '70s alarmism, The Parallax View, 1974), it evokes existential malaise just as well, in the unexpected erotic charge that Turner and Kathy find together in close circumstances. Pollack cuts between a sex scene and Kathy’s desolate photographs to illustrate the hollowness, rather than heat, motivating their tryst, a visual flourish that works better than it should. The idea that political alienation and the emotional alienation of post-‘60s, post-liberation urban pick-up culture are similar is intriguingly described, and summarized memorably in Kathy’s slightly forlorn, slightly aggressive self-description as “the old spy-fucker”. Cliff Robertson is oddly cast but suitably shifty as Higgins, the company man with whom Turner tries and fails to find some common ground. It’s close to being Redford’s best performance, his glib, bouncy character shading into sullen, grave, dishevelled confusion whilst fighting for his life, with nuance and confidence he didn’t always get to display in some of his blander pretty-boy parts.

It’s a problem, common in the spy yarn genre, when Turner begins to turn into a bit of a superman survivor, adept at avoiding surveillance, combat and wiretapping, in spite of his resolutely non-technical job (he “reads a lot” is the slightly glib explanation for his instant mastery of more obscure spying techniques). His sudden omnicompetence is balanced by excessive naiveté about political motives: surely a guy who joins the CIA isn’t quite this dewy, no matter how nerdy and distracted. This thin quality is backed up by a terrific story set-up that fails, finally, to go anywhere particularly vital, a point that Pollack tries to conceal with a vague, menacing anti-climax, which is effective to a degree, and captures the unmoored, cynical feel of the Watergate-era, an age defined by not knowing which way to turn in an age of betrayed institutions and failed countercultural alternatives.

But the film works best on an interpersonal level rather than a political one, in the scenes between Redford and Dunaway and also in his fascinating exchanges with his technical nemesis, Von Sydow’s terrific embodiment of bland, self-effacing villainy-for-hire. Joubert considers himself a purely professional tool of power without any moral engagement beyond doing his job and surviving and, after relentlessly pursuing our hero about the city and exterminating his friends and lover, turns into his friendly helper and advisor when he’s dispensed his contracted services. Like many of the best spy movies, Condor is in truth about the mystery people are to each-other and themselves.

Carnival of Souls (1962)

Herk Harvey’s solitary but celebrated midnight matinee masterpiece is an indelibly creepy no-budget work that could be called the film Ed Wood might have made if he'd had talent. But it honestly works a magic reminiscent of Carl Dreyer and anticipatory of the stylisation of Stanley Kubrick (in The Shining), David Lynch (especially in Lost Highway) and the directors of a thousand music videos, in cleverly exploiting the simplest and ropiest of effects, from pancake make-up for its spectral beings to sped-up filming of prancing ghouls, for genuinely unnerving and surreal effect.

It’s chiefly a victory for inventive filmmaking and masterful use of locations rather than scripting or acting, for both of those elements are for the large part crude, in accounting the mysterious tale of Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), a young musician who seems to die in a drag-racing accident with her two friends, but crawls out of the river unharmed hours later and proceeds, unflappably, on to her new job, playing the organ in a Utah church.

The film possesses an element of didacticism that reflects Harvey’s background in pedagogic short films and educational works, bandying such lines as “You cannot live in isolation from the human race, you know” with blatant meaning, as the irreligious, estranged heroine slowly begins to perceive herself as more than especially alienated from her fellow people, to the point where she desperately clings to the pushy, slightly sleazy blue-collar guy she shares her rooming house with, John Linden (Sidney Berger), and drifts into a trance-like fit of sonorous organ playing that offends the church pastor (Art Ellison).

She continually hallucinates being haunted by a creepy pasty-faced spectre (Harvey himself), is plagued by nightmarish visions of a deserted funfair and ballroom on the edge of the Great Salt Lake filled with the dancing damned, and experiences moments of total divorcement from reality when no-one can see or hear her in spite of her entreaties. Her desire to remain unmarried and ply her trade as a musician to the church without engaging in reverence for such a job carry a whiff of parochial reaction.

If the script is unwieldy and the underlying sentiments a bit regressive, Harvey still constructs an intensely accurate transposition of nightmare imagery and logic that’s transcendent. He evokes, especially in the weird, brilliantly employed locales, a peculiar kind of American gothic, based in the desperate, desolate, erstwhile pretensions of a decaying Midwestern setting, infused with the lightest touch of down-home religious fervour, which effectively delineates the mid-ground between fairy tale and urban myth.

Hilligoss, although nothing amazing, works her character’s coldness and mounting hysteria with intelligence, and Berger is very effective in evoking a sticky mixture of neediness and threat in his character. A couple of would-be scares, like Harvey turning up in the chair of Hilligoss’s doctor, are a bit laborious, and the technical deficiencies hard to work through in spots. But scenes of the spirits cavorting within the great ballroom, still hung with forlorn streamers from long-forgotten carousing, evoke the shadowy revels of Vampyr, and the final sequences of Hilligoss’s relentless hounding by the ghouls who have come to jealously claim her restless soul, seeing herself as one of them, locked in a laughing dance with her spectral taunter, and especially the bleakly cryptic conclusion, aren’t easily dismissed.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Ghosts of Mars (2001)

John Carpenter’s last movie to date, Ghosts of Mars, not particularly appreciated at the time of its release, was actually something of a comeback after the wayward In the Mouth of Madness, the chaotic and unfocused Village of the Damned, and the overt self-satire of Vampires. Ghosts returned to the template of Assault on Precinct 13, with a few dashes of The Thing and Escape from New York, and superficially polished production that seems to stretch a low budget a long way. The result looked out of date when released, a clunky attempt to play the modern action flick game without the money or edge to match.

The modesty of Ghosts as a production and a story is, however, one of the endearing things about it; it's as finely crafted in pace, visual exposition, and deadpan sense of humour, as many a Carpenter classic. Even if, like most of Carpenter’s less committed, more cynical post-They Live work, it’s self-consciously tongue-in-cheek, where the distinguishing feature of his early work was the committed intensity with which they balanced their black humour, one can see now it was a short jump from this sort of back-to-basics affair to the likes of Neil Marshall’s funny/sick oeuvre, Joss Whedon’s Firefly and Serenity concept, and Danny Boyle’s more abstract, hyped-up approach to Carpenter-esque ideas.

Ghosts of Mars takes place in a future terraforming human colony on the red planet which reconstitutes the gritty flavour of the Wild West. And who are the Indians? Archaeologist Whitlock (Joanna Cassidy) accidentally provides them by unleashing long-buried disembodied aliens who possess human bodies and pervert them to their own savage liking and then set about exterminating the rest of the non-possessed populace. A unit of paramilitary security guards, led by Helena Braddock (Pam Grier), is dispatched to pick up a notorious prisoner, Desolation Williams (Ice Cube), from a remote mining camp, but instead find themselves besieged by these self-mutilating, turf-defending natives.

Ghosts contrasts, with increasing favour to itself, the movies that followed it in the decade from Hollywood, from Michael Bay’s editorial incontinence to Boyle's frenetic, frustrating approach, and even Avatar’s soft-edged, one-dimensional new-age commentary. Cameron and Carpenter are similar filmmakers in many ways, both being defiant genre artists whose violent, showy sensibility mixes in curious ways with their social and political perspectives, and both have love for, and paranoia about, strong women in the action genre. But where Cameron has no irony, Carpenter has too much, perhaps explaining why one makes billion-dollar blockbusters and the other sank nearly out of sight. If Rio Bravo was Hawks’ riposte to High Noon, Ghosts is Carpenter’s send-up of Aliens.

Carpenter envisions a Martian colonial society that’s toying with social engineering, officially matriarchal. Not only are tough women common in this future, they’re prevalent, and, indeed, this presents its own amusing problems, like near-compulsory lesbianism amongst the female members of the security forces: heroine Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) antagonises boss Braddock by refusing to sleep with her to gain promotion. Simultaneously, the unleashed, insidious force of the aliens, although beaten off at first with satisfying brutality by the humans, proves eventually incomprehensible, and finally impossible to contain or repress. The story unfolds through layered, deceptively intricate, and yet never confused, anecdotal flashbacks. Melanie is telling her story, and that of others, in reporting her experiences to her hostile commanders, ready to be dismissed or pilloried, bringing attention to the way truth is mediated through individual eyes and decided upon by bureaucratic elision.

Where in Escape from LA Carpenter evoked the corrupted worship of illusory leftist heroes as well as the bullying self-righteousness of neo-cons, squeezing between them a disgusting caricatured edition of the Hollywood dream factory, and In the Mouth of Madness satirised the brain-deadening potential of the modern media, Ghosts presents two iconic figures of post-‘60s social protest: the tough feminist and the black survivor. Here they're presented in contrast and conflict, but also working to create a new harmony, following Howard Hawks’ set template of resolving social tensions and problems in the context of common enemies. Carpenter quotes with keen humour the codes of blaxploitation films in an impious new context when Desolation accuses Melanie of having “The Woman” on her side, whilst Desolation and his comrades Uno, Dos, and Tres are social outcasts persecuted by the police who might as well be followed about by a funky Curtis Mayfield beat. In many ways, then, Carpenter makes a more pointed and aware use of Grier and the tropes of blaxploitation than Tarantino did in Jackie Brown.

Such are the oddball ways Carpenter takes on his recurring fascinations, and anxieties, with strong women, revolution and civic anarchy, the repression of individualism, and blurring social and ethnic boundaries, constantly evoked in the body-infecting spirits, demons, and aliens that recur in his works. Where Precinct 13 offered a black policeman, a tough Hawksian heroine, and a likeable outlaw as its heroes, Ghosts shuffles the figures into a diptych finally united by fighting spirit and maverick spunk.

Amusingly the only significant white male in the film, Jason Statham’s cocky, libidinous cockney Jericho, is all dick and little brains, who spends the whole film talking up his prowess with Melanie, leading to a great punchline where, when he points out to her what might be their last chance to get laid, she realises he has a point with a brief moment of reflection, and jumps right on him. That’s a fitting follow-up to an earlier moment, when she gives hulking, self-important tough guy Uno (Duane Davis) a lesson in R-E-S-P-E-C-T. But Melanie’s also coping with her conformist life by taking drugs, a bad habit which helps her in fighting off possession by the evil spirits, and it's clear that she's a stifled individualist with no place in the ass- (or pussy-) licking system she serves, inimical to both that system and also into being subsumed into the alien scheme. Such details make Melanie a genuinely interesting and likeable action heroine. Henstridge, all proportions maintained, is actually charismatic and physically graceful in the well-tailored role, and her high hard cheekbones can do most of her necessary acting.

Where Carpenter’s early films brought artistry to schlock that made them transcend that status and become pop art, his later films, even his best ones, revel in their own goofiness. And yet throughout his ramshackle ‘90s output, whether destroying the neat limits of cinema itself in In the Mouth of Madness or conjuring a greenie apocalypse in Escape from LA, it seems that Carpenter’s politicisation of narrative, with his patent refusal to clean up his open-ended messes and revelling instead in the notion of apocalypse, confirmed an increasing contempt for the hegemony of both the blockbuster format and many aspects of modern life. The funny finish of Ghosts of Mars, with black guy and blonde chick declaring that kicking ass is what they do best and marching out to take on the world come what may, is still discernibly ambiguous whilst reveling in revolutionary spunk and catastrophic epiphanies.

Ghosts is certainly uneven: the script is underwritten, and although the action scenes are generally excellent, the first big fight sports clumsily choreographed extras simply running circles in the background, and the limited budget obvious in places. Casting is frustrating: having Grier in his film ought to have provoked more imagination from Carpenter than to have her casually killed as a cap to the first act, and he did equally little to draw out Statham’s fresh, still almost untapped potential. Ice Cube is no Kurt Russell (or even Austin Stoker), all image and no force, and the lack of a strong star presence in the role robs Carpenter’s gift for creating iconic badassery of necessary potency. The aliens, with their shamanistic appearance and fondness for perverting their humanoid bodies with piercings and mutilations, like stripping their fingers down to bony claws, had the potential to be blood-curling manifestations of wild, sado-masochistic irrationality, similar to what the under-rated Event Horizon offered in its outer-space-creepfest, or the granddaddy of such motifs, Barker's Hellraiser, but they're mostly just Fangoria-fit cannon fodder. Carpenter, who brought the body-horror genre mainstream with The Thing, never returned to it with any enthusiasm. But generally Carpenter’s commitment to sustaining his film is stronger here than it had felt in over a decade. Ghosts of Mars, at least, moves as sleekly as any film of the ‘00s, the rugged, paranoid atmosphere is well-sustained, and most of all, it possesses intelligence without a shred of pretension.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

The Ghost Ship (1943)

Along with Mademoiselle Fifi, The Ghost Ship is possibly the most neglected of Val Lewton's seminal series of RKO productions. Whilst not as atypical as Fifi, The Ghost Ship, as well as having been unavailable for a long time owing to legal problems, is set apart by a lack of any but the most finite of suggested supernatural presences, the absence of a genre star like Boris Karloff, and the fact that Mark Robson, in spite of his excellent work on The Seventh Victim, Isle of the Dead, and Bedlam, is generally the least celebrated of Lewton’s three directorial prodigies. It stars Richard Dix, badly on the wane only twelve years after headlining the Oscar-winning Cimmaron.

Does The Ghost Ship deserve its minor status? No. Although saddled with moments in the screenplay that over-literalise the inherent humanism of Lewton’s sensibility, and surely not the best of the Lewton oeuvre, Robson’s second film for Lewton sustains its resolutely simple story with rare cumulative force. Whilst the title sparks images of maritime gothic, Lewton and Robson offer a contemporary setting and a remarkably subtle construction of mood and tension, and build upon the remarkable note of drifting limbo first essayed in the shipboard scene of I Walked With A Zombie.

Dix plays Captain Stone, commander of a freighter, the Altair, who takes on a young, recent academy graduate Tom Merriam (Russell Wade) as his third officer, because his record reminds Stone of himself: an up-by-his-bootstraps orphan with talent and conscientious ambition. Merriam responds to Stone very much as an avuncular father figure at first, for Stone has a warm and reasonable affect that charms his crew. But the Altair has a reputation as an unlucky ship, a reputation which soon proves to be founded in fact, as lone crewmembers keep meeting grisly deaths. Merriam observes that Stone is given to playing odd games with his men’s safety, as when he leaves a huge cargo hook untethered so that its paint job will dry neatly, which eventually requires the men to risk having their brains bashed out in securing it when a sea rises and the hook starts to dance like a great, impudent serpent on its chain.

Stone soon reveals to Merriam his fixation with “authority”, a deep-set psychological need to intrude his will upon men – to play not just commander but god. He kills men who stand up for themselves or presume upon him through artfully arranged accidents. When one man is crushed by an anchor chain after Stone has locked him in, Merriam recognises his game, and tries to alert the shipping company when they put in to a Caribbean port, but the inquiry that results fails to reveal any support from the men for Merriam’s story. Merriam quits his post, but when he’s knocked out defending one of the crew, Billy Radd (Sir Lancelot) in a bar fight, he’s carried back aboard the ship, and soon realises that Stone plans to kill him after destroying him with mind games.

Stone’s maniacal fixation is described in plainly psychological terms, and yet it’s also, like the villain of The Leopard Man’s madness, a metaphor for fascist impulse and a Nietzschean nightmare, with Captain Stone explaining to Merriam that when in command of men, one has the right to take risks with those lives. His men, however, only perceive his patina of authority, even if they see through his falsely congenial, protective demeanour, and it’s a fact Stone counts on, believing his authority to be a gift bestowed only on the exceptional. Merriam and Stone are locked in a deep mutual awareness stemming from their innate similarities, which first attracted them and then finally, destructively sets them in polarised antagonism. Merriam finally finds his only help on board to be the intellectual radio operator Jacob 'Sparks' Winslow (Edmund Glover) and Finn (Skelton Knaggs), a mute but preternaturally aware seaman who bides his time until the crucial moment.

Knaggs’ character, like Sir Lancelot’s in I Walked With A Zombie, serves as a kind of chorus for the tale, his innermost thoughts expressed in voiceover, and an almost otherworldly protecting presence for Wade, one whose silent awareness counterbalances the blind voice of fate that is the beggar who waits on the dock at the Altair’s home port. For Merriam’s soul is at stake in the drama: both Knaggs and Helen (Edith Barrett), Stone’s long-time paramour, attempt to defend his innocence and keep him from becoming consumed by his misanthropy like Stone. Barrett (in a terrific performance; she also played the divided, self-consumed mother, a similar figure to Stone, in Zombie) tries one last time to coax Stone back to humanity when in port, telling him that she’s finally secured the divorce that she’s been unable to get for over a decade, that they can finally be married, but Stone knows he’s too far gone to be saved by her now. She also promises to fix up Merriam with her sister, which is jolly nice of her.

Lewton tended to resent having stars imposed on him by the RKO chieftains, but he always took remarkable care then to tailor roles for those stars: the conception of Captain Stone, seemingly solid, dependable, friendly, yet oddly, subtly off-kilter, fits Dix as precisely as the parts Lewton conjured for Karloff and his altogether more immediately fearsome affect. Although Dix was anything but a great actor, he does remarkably well by the part, with his calm, seemingly avuncular way of reciting foreboding creeds and opinions, his lunacy steadily rising, and his impression of physical size and strength makes him a truly formidable psycho for Merriam to have hounding him. Wade, unfortunately, is as bland here as in The Body Snatcher.

Whilst many have noticed Lewton's films' casually anti-racist bent, this film sports perhaps the most explicit example, where Merriam intervenes to save Radd from white bullies, an act of selflessness that lands him back in the path of the murderous dictator figure: it's easy to miss because it's not emphasised in a self-congratulatory manner, but this moment lends a dash of specificity that strengthens the film's allegory of scapegoating, divide-and-rule authoritarianism. The final twenty minutes are superb in detailing Merriam’s increasingly desperate, paranoid frustration in finding his cabin rigged to be vulnerable to any intruder, the crew refusing to listen to his entreaties, and Stone gloating over Merriam’s inability to prove him a nefarious villain, indeed, having convinced everyone else that Merriam is himself a disturbed individual, before the truly, unnervingly physical confrontation of between hulking Dix and spidery Knaggs sees the embodied Dictator and Samaritan ideals fight to the death. Characteristically, rather than having blaring melodramatic music accompany this struggle, only one of Sir Lancelot's gentle shanties, being sung on the deck, scores the moment, lending it an hallucinatory incongruity. With many Lewton regular players (Lancelot, Barrett, Ben Bard) and the technical team at the height of their suggestive gifts, The Ghost Ship is the quietest of quiet successes.