Sunday 29 November 2020

Thriller by Bo Vibenius

I'm currently working on a new podcast about cult cinema with my friend Matt West, who is an expert in such matters. 

And it was Matt who introduced me to this extraordinary movie — I was struck by the T-shirt he was wearing at a Doctor Who convention which we were both attending in Sweden.

Rather aptly, since this is a Swedish film, written and directed by Bo Vibenius, who began his career as a second unit director on Ingmar Bergman pictures.

This movie is very definitely not an Ingmar Bergman film, though. Released in the USA by exploitation specialists American International, it was retitled They Call Her One Eye.

The original Swedish title is Thriller, a loan word from English, subtitled en Grym Film — "A Cruel Movie".

Which it is, recounting the tragedy of Frigga, a young woman who was rendered mute as a child by the trauma of a sexual assault. 

The film begins with this incident and then flashes forward to her as an adult, played by Christina Lindberg. Luckless grownup Frigga is soon abducted, drugged and trafficked...

Hooked on heroin against her will, she is enslaved and forced to work in a brothel.

Christina Lindberg is remarkable in this role. Required to remain silent for the entire film, her performance is accomplished through the great expressivity of her face, especially her eyes.

"Or, rather, her eye," as Matt West remarked... Because when Frigga tries to escape, her captors respond by putting out one of her eyes.

But Frigga, now wearing an eyepatch, is intent on wreaking retribution on them.

Indeed, the movie was also known in America as Hooker's Revenge — a fairly unforgivable title, suggesting as it does that Frigga's defined by the role she's forced into by others.

The movie is in many ways a mess, with Poverty Row sets and a script that frequently comes unmoored from reality — or even logic.

But the photography by Andreas Bellis, is often rapturously beautiful, revelling in the yellows and reds of autumnal Sweden.

The music is also remarkable, a ferociously avant garde score by Ralph Lundsten.

And while Bo Vibenius is responsible for the film's many defects, he also pulls off some unforgettable sequences — Frigga twisting in torment as a voyeur's camera remorselessly clicks away on motor drive, the hypnotic swirl of a hijacked police car's lights as Frigga drives it to a confrontation.

There's also the scene where Frigga prepares her weapons for her vengeance which anticipates Travis Bickle in Scorsese's Taxi Driver.

But, ultimately, Thriller is memorable for Lindberg's powerful and affecting performance, and for its mixture of low budget incoherence and wayward brilliance which suggests David Lynch

I might also add that my cat has never been so fascinated by a movie — thought it was the Swedish landscapes that caught her attention, not the human activity.

(Image credits: all pics courtesy of Matt West, except for the photo of the two of us in Sweden, which was taken by and is copyright Lee W Lundin.)

Sunday 22 November 2020

Dead Bang by Frankenheimer, Beck and Foster

I was recently rivetted by an outstanding BBC radio documentary about the 1995 Oklahoma bombing, the worst domestic terrorist incident in American history.

It got me thinking about this brilliant movie by John Frankenheimer which I had seen many years earlier. 

It's a first rate thriller about a Los Angeles detective whose investigation into the murder of a cop leads him into the murky and murderous world of neo-Nazis and fascists who want to keep America "white and pure."

I tracked down a copy on DVD — it's out of print and not so easy to find — and watched it again. 

And I'm delighted to say that Dead Bang is even better than I remembered. I loved it.

It tells the story of Jerry Beck, played by a compelling Don Johnson, interweaving his chaotic and fractured personal life with his terrifying and thrilling investigation of a lethal conspiracy.

The movie features a taut, efficient and character-rich script by Robert Foster, who has a long pedigree in television stretching back to Run for Your Life in 1967.

The beautiful, fluid camerawork is by Gerry Fisher, a masterful British cinematographer. 

And the magnificent production design is by another Brit, Ken Adam, whose credits include numerous Bond movies and Kubrick's Dr Strangelove and Barry Lyndon. Adam's Nazi stronghold in Dead Bang is particularly notable.

The highly effective music is by Gary Chang and Michael Kamen.

And presiding over all this talent is John Frankenheimer, one of the truly great American film directors (The Manchurian Candidate, The Train, Seconds, The French Connection II, to name a few of his achievements).

All well and good, but when I began researching this post I experienced some profound surprises.

The first is that Beck is a real person and the movie was based on his actual experiences.

Frankenheimer says, "Jerry Beck, a homicide detective in the Sherrif's Department here in LA... told me the story more or less as it appears on the screen."

How chilling. What's even more chilling is that, while I thought Dead Bang had been inspired by incidents like the Oklahoma bombing or the sieges at Ruby Ridge (1992) and Waco (1993), it was actually made in 1988 and decisively pre-dates any of them.

Dead Bang is an important movie. It was extraordinarily prescient.

It is also gripping, exciting, funny, scary and beautifully made, moving swiftly from Los Angeles to Arizona, Colorado and Oklahoma, where the well turned out wife (Evans Evans) of a Nazi Reverend (Michael Higgins) serves the police hot apple turnovers...

 (All three of the locations outside LA were actually shot in Alberta in western Canada, in Calgary, Drumheller and High River, since you ask...)

 I can't recommend Dead Bang highly enough, especially given recent events. Do please see if you can find a copy and watch it.

Meanwhile, I'll let John Frankenheimer have the final word:

"I had a good story to tell and it was a well-made movie. Foster, who comes from television, brought the various elements together convincingly. He's a good writer and Jerry Beck is a concerned and colourful character. 

"Ken Adam's production design was remarkable. Gerry Fisher's work was, as usual, excellent, and there were great moments in it. But most importantly the story was topical, urgent and true, in depicting this attempt by the extreme right wing to unite neo-Nazi groups into a dangerous fascist force within the US... This is a real danger both frightening and real. It frightens me."

Amen to that.

(All quotes are from Gerald Pratley's indispensable book on Frankenheimer.)

(Image credits: all from IMDB.)

Sunday 15 November 2020

Keoma by Montefiori and Castellari et al

While I am a fan of Spaghetti Westerns I would by no means claim to be an expert.

However, I know enough about the genre to be astonished that I'd never heard of this fantastic movie.

It only came my way because it was recommended to me by my friend Matt West, with whom I am now doing a podcast about cult cinema.

Remind me to tell you some time about how I met Franco Nero, star of Keoma, to get an autograph for Matt. He's a huge fan of Nero and of this movie.

Now I know why. I've never seen a Spaghetti Western shot with such artistry.

And although the slow motion violence in Keoma is influenced by Sam Peckinpah, the film-maker who most comes to mind is Nicolas Roeg.

Roeg, at his best, created films of intoxicating beauty and palpable menace that toy with and perturb our perception of time.

Like Roeg, Keoma's Enzo Castellari interweaves the past and present. But, unlike Roeg and just about every other director, he doesn't do this through intercutting or flashbacks.

Instead he brings the past and present together by filming them in the same shot, often with continuous action and no cuts.

This requires real brilliance in its staging and I'm left in no doubt that there's genius at work here.

I'm assuming the guiding hand is director Castellari's, though his cinematographer Aiace Parolin must have made a considerable contribution.

And it doesn't hurt that the film's production designer is the great Carlo Simi, who worked with Sergio Leone on his own Spaghetti Westerns, from A Fistful of Dollars to Once Upon a Time in the West.

Even when the film isn't twining together different time periods, the fluidity and dexterity of the camerawork is amazing, moving smoothly from one beautifully composed dramatic tableau to another.

The story in a Spaghetti Western is seldom its strongest feature and that's true here. Keoma has a narrative that is confused and confusing, to say the least.

But Franco Nero is magnificent in the title role, with his pale blue eyes and ironic, introverted performance.

The film also features Woody Strode, who was so excellent in The Professionals and Once Upon a Time in the West, as Keoma's friend and ally George. 

Once a slave, the Civil War has freed George. But he is now the town drunk. 

Keoma calls him on this, telling him, "But you got your freedom." Only for George to reply, "I found out what it's worth. That's why I drink."

The movie has similarly profoundly cynical (and painfully truthful) things to say about the massacre of the Indians.

Keoma is a Native American himself, although his full beard makes him seem more like some kind of wild psychedelic hippie gunfighter.

The film has a long list of credited screenwriters, including Luigi Montefiori and Castellari himself. 

The music is by the brothers Guido and Maurizio De Angelis, frequent collaborators with Castellari and Franco Nero. Indeed it is Nero who suggested they channel Leonard Cohen, of all people, for the memorable score to this unforgettable Western.

Keoma has a grim and unsatisfying ending, but it is still some kind of masterpiece. If you are interested in Spaghetti Westerns and, like me, had never heard of it, I urge you to seek it out.

(Image credits: All from IMDB.)

Sunday 8 November 2020

The Doors by Johnson and Stone

Although jazz is my true love, musically speaking, there's some rock music that was my first love, when I was growing up. 

And among the bands I regarded so highly then — and still do now — are the Doors. 

Oliver Stone is also an admirer. They have "always been my dream band" he says. He first heard their music when he was serving as a soldier in Vietnam.

On his return to the USA, Stone wrote a script entitled Break which featured the songs of the Doors and which he wanted Jim Morrison, their lead singer, to star in.

In fact, after Morrison died in 1971 — dead in his bathtub in Paris, like Marat — a copy of Stone's script was found among his belongings in his apartment.

Years later, Morrison's manager gave the script to Oliver Stone when Stone was in the midst of making a movie about the Doors.

So what we have here is one of my favourite bands being immortalised in a biopic by one of my favourite film makers.

Is it a success? It is a complete success. But whether it's a trip you want to go on is another matter...

The Doors is a powerfully dark story dealing with inherently dark material. 

Although Stone would probably prefer the term Dionysian, with death and destruction as just a natural consequence, indeed a celebration, of the intensity of experience sought by the poet-voyager.

Jim Morrison certain was a poet-voyager. In the film he is superbly played by Val Kilmer. Kilmer looks great as Morrison, with a considerable resemblance to the real man. 

And even when he doesn't look so much like Morrison he certainly looks like a rock god on the fast track to self destruction.

Kilmer can also sing, although he doesn't sound particularly like Morrison — except, oddly, in the scene where he's falling apart on his attempt to record 'Soft Parade'.

Stone says that as a performer Jim Morrison had an "Hitlerian ability... to make people go crazy... And the crowds became bigger and more demanding... And he had to feed them."

The movie Stone has created does full service to that relationship between Morrison and his audience, with superbly staged concerts, each with its own distinctive look and character.

"I like excess. I like grandiosity," says Stone "... huge, huge set pieces." Set pieces like the fantastic concert sequence shot at the Pulgas Water Temple in San Mateo, California.

"We had no problem finding extras who could strip and dance naked. Hundreds volunteered."

After Kilmer, the standout member of the cast is Meg Ryan, startlingly cast against type as Pamela Courson, Morrison's long term girlfriend.

Courson was a complex and elusive character. "The only thing everyone agreed on was that she was a redhead," says Ryan.

The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Robert Richardson who does full justice to the hallucinatory nature of the material. "I hadn't tripped in some time," he said, "and when we scouted locations I took some mushrooms..."

The script is by Stone based on an early version by J. Randal Johnson. 

And the music is, of course, by the Doors.

If you're a fan of the Doors then you should definitely see this movie. 

If you're not, then I suggest you ignore the movie and instead go and listen to their album LA Woman.

It's their last record, and it's a masterpiece. 

As Stone says of Morrison, "He turned out one of his best albums right at the end...With tremendous decadence comes tremendous creativity."

(The quotes in this post are from the commentary track for The Doors DVD, from a terrific coffee table book on Stone, and from James Riordan's biography of Stone, which was particularly useful.)

(Image credits: IMDB.)

Sunday 1 November 2020

Sheena by Stevens, Newman and Semple

My friend Matt West and I have just launched a podcast where we talk about cult films. (Matt hates the term "cult film" but he doesn't read this blog, so I think we're safe...)

The podcast's concept — if we can dignify it with that term — is that Matt chooses the movies and then he and I, his helpless victim, watch them and discuss them.

This method has already brought a slew of odd and intriguing film my way. But this is my absolute favourite so far.

You wouldn't know it from the credits on the movie, but Sheena, or Sheena the Queen of the Jungle, began life as a comic book. 

Sheena was created by Will Eisner and Jerry Iger in 1937, first appearing in a story written by William Thomas and drawn by Mort Meskin in 1938.

I'm getting these facts — as I say, conspicuously absent from the movie  — from The World Encyclopedia of Comics edited by Maurice Horn.

Which goes on to say that it was "the only worthy comic book competition" to Tarzan and describes it as featuring "healthy doses of sex, sadism and items surely aimed at arousing 'prurient interests'."

Those prurient interests are also likely to be aroused by the movie, too, which is a large part of its charm. (That and the animals.)

The film was directed by John Guillermin, who also made The Towering Inferno and is beginning to arouse my interest as an oddball and intriguing figure in the history of the movies.

Sheena is in no way a sophisticated masterpiece of cinema. It has all the flaws you might expect — including some dodgy special effects and shaky acting. 

And it is certainly open to criticism over issues of sex, race and animal exploitation.

Nevertheless, it is terrific hoky fun and also a really well crafted piece of entertainment, thanks largely to a surprisingly smart script.

These kind of comic book movies are really easy to screw up, and screw-ups were even more common back in the 1980s when today's template of cheeky and slick Marvel adaptations didn't yet exist.

But the screenplay of Sheena makes a lot of smart decisions. Sheena has a cool origin story, and psychic powers which allow her to summon the aid of animals — neither of which, I believe, were in the comics.

The writers also made the smart decision of fashioning virtually the entire film as a chase and fight.

Sheena (Tanya Roberts) and American journalist Vic Casey (Ted Wass) are on the run from an evil African monarch Prince Otwani (Trevor Thomas) who has just murdered his benign brother and stolen his throne. 

Sheena and Vic have got the goods on him so the Prince is pursuing them with a small army of white mercenaries.

Our heroine and Vic eventually prevail with the assistance of some wonderful African wildlife. (As I mention in the podcast, Sheena features what is no doubt the finest flamingo attack in the history of cinema.)

The animals and the location photography by Pasqualino De Santis are two of the films greatest assets. Richard Hartley also provides a rousing synth based score — there's a notable theme for Sheena riding on her zebra past a lake full of the aforementioned flamingos.

But it is the script which is the standout feature of Sheena. As I say, it's surprisingly difficult to fashion a silly comic book into an effective film.

The writers who succeeded here are a distinguished group. The first draft was by Leslie Stevens who took the story in a science fiction fantasy direction (not surprising from the creator of The Outer Limits). 

The next draft was by David Newman, a distinguished writer who co-wrote Bonnie and Clyde and, more to the point, Superman. 

There was then an uncredited rewrite by Dean Reisner, a prolific and proficient writer who was involved in Dirty Harry among many other credits.

The final credited writer was the terrific Lorenzo Semple Jr who had a flair for this sort of material — he created the 1960s Batman TV series and worked on King Kong and Flash Gordon.

But since this is a movie called Sheena I need to say something about Tanya Roberts. 

A former Charlie's Angel and Bond girl, Roberts does a hell of a job of swinging on vines and riding wild animals (that zebra was a painted horse, by the way, you can't domesticate zebras).

She is commendably effective in a difficult and physically demanding part, including a very amusing nude scene where — innocent child of nature that she is — Sheena doesn't understand Vic Casey's discomfort in her unclothed presence.

If her performance isn't always entirely convincing well, hell, it isn't easy playing the Queen of the Jungle...

(Image credits: IMDB. I particularly like the strapline "She'll fight like a tigress." There are no tigers in Africa, as Edgar Rice Burroughs found out to his cost after including one in his first Tarzan story...)