Thursday, 22 February 2018

Goldfinger (1964)

Welcome to 1964.

Another year and a new batch of movies. Again, I will garnish the salad of List movies with a few of my own List candidates, but much more on that a I proceed through the year.

First movie of 1964 is “Goldfinger”, the third James Bond movie in the still active franchise. Back in the autumn when I looked for the movie I found a box set with the entire franchise at bargain price, so I started watching them all as a little side project (currently at “The Spy Who Loved Me”). As a consequence, the current watch is actually a re-watch only three months after the last time I saw it. That is okay, I do not mind. The James Bond movies are fun to watch and this one more so than many of them.

“Goldfinger” is described as the movie that settled the franchise and it is quite fitting that this should be the one representative the franchise on the List. All subsequent James Bond movies borrow from this one as does the spoof franchise of “Austin Powers”. James Bond (Sean Connery) is a super hero character that moves in a cartoonish world of technical gadgets, super villains and threats of world shattering scale. His super powers are not demonic strength or the ability to fly. No, James Bond’s special abilities are his irresistible charm, his cleverness and ability to always come out on top no matter how bad things look. In short, he is any boys dream of a heroic character. Who wouldn’t want to be James Bond? As unrealistic as it is I find this sort of super hero far more palatable then the typical Marvel fare.

In this third installment the super villain is a fellow called Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe), who is obsessed with gold. He is about to execute his cunning plan, “Operation Grand Slam”, when James Bond gets involved. To begin with Goldfinger is merely a suspicious character, who destroys people who gets in his way. To this end he has a very efficient bodyguard “Oddjob” (Harold Sakata), who can kill with his bowler hat. Eventually however the details of the operation are revealed. The Fort Knox gold reserves are to be irradiated, increasing the value of his own gold manifold and throwing the western world into chaos.

To execute this plan Goldfinger uses squadron of flying girls led by a woman with the unlikely name Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman). She also happens to be a stunning looking woman and we know what Mr. Bond can do…

The whole thing takes place on several continents and involves numerous technical gadgets, including the most awesome grey Aston Martin filled with everything a secret agent might need in a pinch. I had one of those as a toy when I was a little boy and it was pretty awesome. Goldfinger also has a horde of henchmen conveniently wearing a yellow sash whose main function is to die. Honestly, if it had not been for the charm and tongue in cheek humor pervading the movie it could easily have become too much, but these are exactly the properties that makes it work so well. James Bond makes me smile, especially when Sean Connery is James Bond.

Another element that the better James Bond movies does well is to bring just the right level of darkness into the movies. People do die. There are true atrocities and James Bond sometimes must admit defeat, even getting beaten up pretty badly. It sounds bad, but it is necessary in order to ground the movies. There is really nothing worse than an all-powerful super hero. Bond feels guilt, anger, vanity. Human feelings that makes him human and sometimes he makes terrible mistakes, but never fear, Bond is no anti-hero. He is the real deal and a lot more of most things than most people and in the end Bond always wins.

I have a lot of fun watching James Bond. It is iconic and familiar and very entertaining. It is Sunday afternoon TV and I can kick back and take my Bond movies shaken, not stirred.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Mediteranee (1963)

The last movie of 1963 is “Méditerranée”. It is excluded from the Danish edition in favor of the Swedish “Kvarteret Korpen” and thus by the Danish edition editors considered dispensable.

In my frank opinion there were a number of movies on the list in 1963 that were dispensable, but alas, this was the one that got booted out.

“Méditerranée” is an experimental film by a fellow called Jean-Daniel Pollet. It consists of beautiful pictures of, lets see… some ancient ruins, a garden, a sea (probably the Mediterranean), a bull fight, a Greek wedding, some Egyptian statues and pyramids, a fisherman, a girl getting dressed, some hot iron being processed and picked up by a machine and a girl on an operation table. Probably a few more items. Each scene is nice to look at, the colors are great, and we return to each scene again and again in the course of the 42 minutes of the movie.

There is a wonderful score that fits the pictures very well. It is the kind of music I do not mind listening to and it is even a bit hypnotic.

And then there is a narrator. Now, the only place I was able to find this movie was on YouTube and the version was without English subtitles. As the narration is in French and my French is… ah… inadequate, I only got a word here and there. Enough to understand that this is more of a poem than an actual commentary to the pictures and that it has something to do with time and memory. It is probably a nice and poetic, well, poem, but I really cannot comment much more on it than that.

Now, since this is an experimental movie we know that whatever happens here is probably different and does not have to make any sense in regular terms and that is precisely where we are here. I had very little idea of what was going on, but at the same time I got the feeling that I do not really need to know what this is about. The pictures are real pretty and the score is very nice, so it feels quite meditative. After my initial frustration at not understanding what on Earth was happening here, I fell into a quiet acceptance and just enjoyed the state of mind it really is.

I quite agree that this movie was not the highlight of 1963, but it was not the worst either and I would probably have chosen something else to boot off the List. Still you can ask why it is on the List in the first place? Apparently it was very influential. Godard, my old friend, was inspired by this when he made “Le Mepris” although “Méditerranée” was only shown publicly four years later. How exactly that works out I am not sure.

Alas, 1963 is now done and I am looking forward to get started on 1964.


Thursday, 15 February 2018

The Servant (1963)

”The Servant” is a movie I very much want to like, but somehow it does note quite make it.

Tony (James Fox), a somewhat foppish upper-class bachelor, has just acquired a London townhouse and hires Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) as his manservant. They seem to get along quite nicely. Barrett takes care of Tony’s every need at home and is every bit the deferential servant. Tony’s girlfriend Susan (Wendy Craig), however, takes an instant dislike to Barrett. She wants him out of the way and does not see the need for a servant to take care of everything in the house.

This seems unnecessarily cruel and while the idea of a manservant may well seem exaggerated there is no need to take it out on the poor servant. Little do we know at this time that Susan is more right than even she could guess. See, Barrett has a cunning plan to make Tony his obedient slave…

Over the next part Barrett continues to be the attentive servant, while behind the scene he is plotting the downfall of his master. He hires his sister Vera (Sarah Miles) as maid in the house. Only, Vera is apparently (perhaps) Barrett’s fiancé and an instrument in his plan. Vera’s task is to insinuate herself on Tony, which should not be too hard, Vera is very attractive. The plan succeeds, and Tony gets so infatuated with Vera that he stops paying attention to Susan.

Eventually Tony and Susan discover that Vera is in fact not Barrett’s sister and he fires the both of them. Susan sees how besotted Tony is with Vera and walks out on him an Tony is all alone. Now that Tony sorely misses Barrett he takes him back, but now Barrett is on top and Tony is a broken man.

The acting here is very interesting as is the cinematography. It is a mixture of ultra-realism and weirded out surrealism. This is in particular the case in the very intense scenes such as when Tony is captured by Vera or the wandering camera on the restaurant. The end sequence most of all has the feel of an acid trip, worthy of Trainspotting.

Yet I cannot come to terms with this movie. I do not understand the motivation of Hugo Barrett. Of course he may have a deep hatred for the upper class, but his transformation from servile waiter to manipulating mastermind seems so unmotivated. I seriously doubt that Susan’s dislike for him has anything to do with it. Secondly, what motivates Tony to sink so deep? It is true that Tony has very little content in his life. Except for some rambling about a project in the jungle we never see him do actual work. We also never see him in contact with anybody but Susan. Still he seems too willing to be manipulated and too weak to separate himself from Barrett. It is this complete lack of self-respect that I find difficult to understand.

Therefore the scheming of Barrett and the decent of Tony feel, to me, oddly contrived and unreal and that is preventing me from entirely buying into the story. I would love to get just a hint of motivation for either of them, but it is strangely absent. The closest thing is Barrett’s arrogance towards some incredibly annoying women at a phone booth and that anger was quite understandable.

Still, I did enjoy the movie even if I did not quite understand it. It does ensnare the viewer with its captivating cinematography and interesting camera angles. That I suppose is good enough.


Saturday, 10 February 2018

An Actor's Revenge (Yukinojo Henge) (1963)

Skuespillerens hævn
When my wife and I went to Japan in 2013 one of our objectives was to see an actual Kabuki show. We never got to see one unfortunately, but it remains very high on our list of things to do. The Kabuki theater is a Japanese specialty, going back hundreds of years. It is heavily stylized and only performed by men. Female roles are performed by men in drag specialized in impersonating women, but (as I understand it) without any sexual implications. It still bothers me that we missed a show.

The setting for “An Actor’s Revenge” (Yukinojo Henge) is exactly the Kabuki theater. Yukinojo (Kazuo Hasegawa) is a Kabuki actor specialized in female roles back in 1836. It would seem that Kabuki actors back then practiced method acting, certainly Yukinojo stays in the role and is also wearing a woman’s outfit, makeup and mannerisms off-stage. Today you might call him a transvestite, but that sort of modern labels does not apply. Yukinojo is considered, also by himself, a male and an actor.

Yukinojo is on a dark mission. As a small boy he witnessed his father hanging himself, ruined by three men, who since then has become rich and powerful. Taken in by Kikunojo (Chūsha Ichikawa), the manager of a Kabuki theater troupe, he was trained as a Kabuki actor, as well as a swordsman, and has nurtured a desire for revenge, fueled by Kikunojo. Now the troupe is in Edo and it is time for revenge.

Yukinojo is a very unlikely avenger and it is difficult to see if he is accomplishing his revenge by design or by accident. He gets romantically involved with the beautiful Namiji (Ayako Wakao), daughter of one of his enemies and through fate she becomes instrumental in the revenge. A revenge that loses much of its sweetness.

Meanwhile the whole affair is witnessed and commented upon by a group of rivaling thieves. They are hovering on the edge of the story with limited influence on the actual happening, but serves rather like a Shakespearian choir.

There are in fact a lot of theatrical elements to this movie. Many of the scenes look indeed as if they are filmed on a stage, the actors are talking to the audience, sharing their thoughts with the viewer in the way a stage actor would and as mentioned, the role of the thieves seems an obvious theater reference. So, this is the story of the revenge of a theater actor, played out as theater. A very interesting, almost stylized choice of cinematography and rather fitting for a Kabuki story.

I was quite excited about this movie. Beside the very interesting style of the movie it is also visually a stunning movie, taking its historical setting serious with sets and costumes and great colors. The story, as in the case of Kurosawa’s movies, is also one that has reference to the western genre. A single, unlikely, guy avenging his father’s death against overwhelming odds. I believe I have seen this plot a number of times in American movies and could imagine Charles Bronson doing something similar, though probably not in drag. So, Kon Ichikawa also went into this territory.

There is something very curious about taking a very well know theme, a man avenging his father’s death, and transplanting it into a very different setting than what we are used to. I love this idea and in this case Ichikawa gets away with it completely. In “Harakiri” by Kobayahi the revenge motive is played out by samurai, trained warriors. Giving this role to a female impersonating Kabuki actor gives the story a very different angle.

Highly recommended.


Monday, 5 February 2018

The Haunting (1963)

Spøgeriet på Hill House
I remember that one of the scariest things you could do as a child was to enter a “haunted” house. A house that we children would talk about as being haunted. There were the remains of an ancient mill that I could not look at for fear of the ghosts who were supposed to rest there and when we went to explore the crypt of an old church I was stiff from fear at the thought of the ghosts down there.

I also had a very hard time with horror movies back then, something I have only overcome in later years and frankly I was worried if “The Haunting” would challenge that old fear. The answer to that question is both yes and no. I am fortunately jaded enough and, yes, mature enough that I can digest a haunted house. Indeed watching this movie gave those delightful shivers that I assume is what is the general attraction of horror movies. In fact this movie worked a lot better than I had hoped.

The story is about an old (well, as old as they get in New England), gothic house, Hill House, that is reputed to be haunted. A number of women has died there under mysterious circumstances and it is certainly mysterious enough to make such stories believable. Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) investigates supernatural phenomena and intends to prove or disprove their existence by running an experiment. He invites a number of very susceptible guests to stay on Hill House and to monitor them for any contact with supernatural phenomena. Only two guests show up: Eleanor “Nell” (Julie Harris) and Theodora “Theo”.

Theo is equipped with an uncanny ability to know what other people are thinking. She is also a modern, elegant and self-contained woman. Nell on the other hand is a bit of a mystery. There is some mumbling that she has been exposed to a poltergeist, but she does not recognize that story herself. Even though we frequently are witnesses to her thoughts her mind is so confused that it is difficult to make sense of. It is clear that she is escaping from her relatives, that she feels guilty for her mother’s death and that she has a crush on Dr. Markway. The rest, well, let’s just say she is very unstable.

The fourth person is Luke, the young heir to Hill House who is accompanying this little expedition.

It is clear right from their arrival that something is very off with this house. There are banging sounds at night, doors that open and close and weird cold spots and soon the two women are utterly terrified. Dr. Markway is getting exactly what he came for and more. Yet I cannot escape the thought that the real mystery is not with this house but with these four people. Something is very off about all of them. Maybe it is just the influence of the house, but there are nasty secrets here. Whether this is intentional or not I do not know. In the end the movie decides to focus on the house itself, so it may just be my wild imagination, but there is definitely a plotline there that could have been pursued.

In any case, things spin out of control as they typically do in this sort of movie, leading up to a finale that may come as a surprise, so no spoilers here.

This kind of movie can go two ways. One is to reveal or at least hint that there is a perfectly natural explanation. Another is for the movie to accept that supernatural things are real and as such let the supernatural run amok. The later is the more difficult because we also have to be led to accept this criteria. “The Haunting” does this rather elegantly. Theo is obviously a psychic. She literally plucks the thoughts out of Nell’s head and that means that the door is open, if people can be psychics, ghosts can be real, anything may happen and there is plenty reason to be afraid.     

Somehow “The Haunting” felt a lot older than it is, like something out of the thirties. It is the way they look and talk and the shadowy black and white photography, as if the cinematographers were inspired by Val Lewton movies or Frankenstein. I suppose it is part of the magic of this house.

“The Haunting” was very entertaining and a lot better than I thought it would be. It goes interesting places, but perhaps misses the chance to go to even more interesting places. Still, I am happy with what I got.


Saturday, 27 January 2018

The Day of the Triffids (1963)

Off-list: The Day of the Triffids
As the third extra movie of 1963 I have been watching “The Day of the Triffids”. Technically it is a 1962 movie, but I suppose with a US release in 1963 it is close enough to qualify.

“The Day of the Triffids” is not a movie I would argue very hard for deserving a place on the List, it is not exactly what you would consider a quality movie, but something like this movie is desperately needed on the 1963 selection. I am literally drowning in depressing movies and the “Triffids” movie was exactly the right medicine to get me out of my funk. It was a lot of fun to watch.

During a major meteor shower two terrible things happen: Everybody who has been looking at it turns blind (!) and an until then dormant plant called the Triffid turns into a murdering beast (!!).

Only those very few people who ignored the show or was prevented from watching can still see. Bill Masen (Howard Keel) is one such person. He has been undergoing an eye operation and on the morning after the shower he takes off his bandages and finds himself all alone. Everything is a mess and devoid of people. Straight out of “28 days” or “The Walking Dead” (guess who was first…) When he finally meets other people, they are all blind. His eye doctor is so desperate about loosing his sight that he jumps out the window (!). Eventually Bill finds a little girl, Susan (Janina Faye), who has been sleeping on a train, and together they go to France (!).

On the way there they discover the Triffids. Monstrous plants, 4 meters tall, who creep along with a strange swooshing sound and munch on people. Naturally Bill and Susan are disturbed. In France they meet some people who has set up a hospital. In between a Triffid and a convict assault they escape and decide to go to Spain (!).

Meanwhile, off the coast of England the scientist couple Tom and Karen Godwin (Kieron Moore and Janette Scott) are stranded. Tom is a very unsympathetic guy bent on drinking himself to death, but the attack of the Triffids gives him new purpose and he redirects his angry energy into finding a means to destroy them.

This movie has all the elements of a goofy monster movie. The characters are one-dimensional and primitive, the acting… interesting, the special effects hilarious and logic does not really apply. And best of all, it takes itself seriously. It is absolute gold. Whereas a movie like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” works because we actually buy the story, the “Triffids” movie works because it itself buys the story while we… probably do not. The budget was simply not up to the task. A spoofing movie would have been intentionally funny, but “The Day of the Triffids” never tries to be funny. Seeing people crash to their death is never funny. It means it seriously, innocent people in droves are dying in this movie. We are meant to be terrified and at the same time it is just so helpless.    

The rear projections are a hoot and the Triffids themselves are just amazing, but the dialogue… uh, awesome.

I had so much fun watching this movie. This is exactly the kind of 50’ies/60’ies B-movie I love and of which there is way too little on the List. Thanks Bea for recommending it.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The House is Black (Khaneh Siah Ast) (1963)

Khaneh Siah Ast
Misery again again…

This next movie on the List is a short Iranian poetic documentary about a leper colony in Iran. Its obscure Iranian title “Khaneh Siah Ast” apparently means “The House is Black” and that is actually a very apt title for the lives of the people in this little movie.

The camera films life in the leper colony for better or worse. Some people have lost arms or legs, some have strangely distorted faces, but the prevalent picture is one of people trying to just accept their fate, getting on with life despite suffering a chronic and terminal disease. In fact, many of the scenes look like everyday life anywhere else. Eating, smoking, talking and whatever it is people do. They are even partying.

We also get various details about the disease. All the horrors these people are going through and why they are kept separate from other people. This is a contagious disease. We also get the most shocking piece of information: Leprosy can be cured and with the right treatment even advanced stages has a hope of recovery. Shocking because it means that these people do not need to live a life in misery. It is their poverty and the surrounding world who has condemned them to this life.

This becomes even more poignant when we see children in the colony, all with clear symptoms of leprosy and all trying to live a normal childhood, playing ball and going to school. They are not ignorant of their condition, but they are accepting it. Or taught to accept it. Religion seems to be the tool used to make the children appreciate and accept their lot. As one of the children is asked by the teacher, why it is he should thank God for his father and his mother. He answers that he does not know, he does not have a father or a mother.

Throughout the movie the narrator is reciting poems of religious nature that seems to tell another story, one of mercy and compassion, starkly at odds with the use of religion in the colony. I am not good enough with poetry to appreciate it, but even I can see the point.

The leper colony is an abomination and its existence should trigger a bad conscience with those responsible. This is a long time ago and in an exotic country, but the problem is universal enough to be relevant for us as well. The children do not deserve that fate and they and we should not accept it. That is the message and it is well received.

I have mentioned it before, 1963 must be a year of misery. Children with leprosy just take the cake. If I see one more misery feast I will start screaming.  At least this one was short. But 20 minutes is easily long enough for the subject. It is a window into a world, it is snapshot of the lives of these people, showing us they are just as human as we are, but there is no story as such and there is no need it should be any longer. It manages what it set out to do fine enough.