Three Oscar Winners

The Academy Awards are the premier awards for artistic and technical expertise in the motion picture industry. The awards are given annually to mark various categories of cinema excellence. The award statuettes are known as Oscars and were first awarded in 1929 at a ceremony hosted by Douglas Fairbanks at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The very first film to be voted as Best Picture was Wings, a first world war silent film starring Clara Bow, Charles Roger and Richard Arlen. In my DVD collection I have quite a few Oscar winners but here I’d like to look closer at three in particular. Two fairly recent films and one absolute classic.

The Shape of Water

Now, there are those who seem to think I only ever look at black and white classic movies. Not so, I like modern films too and just to prove it I picked up The Shape of Water not long ago for a few pounds on Ebay. You may remember that the film won the Oscar for Best Film at the 2018 awards and it looked pretty interesting in the various clips I have seen. Everything I had heard about the film was positive so I decided to search the internet for the DVD version. The first warning sign was the extensive availability of DVDs of the film on Ebay and the second was the rather low prices those DVDs were fetching. Anyway, I got my copy and watched it and how this film won an Oscar I really do not know.

Yes it is well acted. The photography was excellent although everything is presented in a sort of greenish hue that the director perhaps feels enshrouded late fifties and early sixties America. However the content just didn’t do it for me. It’s about a young mute woman cleaner in a top secret government installation who falls in love with a strange creature, half man, half fish, that is held captive there. She and her father rescue the fish man and take him back to their apartment high over a cinema and install the creature in the bath.

The Guardian said this about the film: ‘Guillermo del Toro’s escapist fantasy-romance The Shape of Water was the biggest winner, (at the Oscars) the story of a young woman’s love for a captured sea creature — with best picture and best director, setting the official seal of approval on what is, by any measure, a beautifully made movie to which audiences have responded with distinctively sensual delight.’

Don’t believe a word of it, the fact is The Shape of Water is a dismal weird film that completely failed to engage me and my copy will soon be available once again on Ebay. It was so bad it even made me hunger for one of Roger Moore’s dreadful Bond Films.

 

Nomadland

Now that I’ve retired I’ve often thought about spending more time in my motorhome and it’s only Liz’s recent hip operation that has prevented us from travelling over to France for some exploring. Could I live full time in a motorhome though? I’m not so sure. Everything is fine in the summer but I doubt if I could cope with the cold of the winter. Of course, we could always drive south towards somewhere a little warmer, even perhaps our beloved Lanzarote but van life isn’t, I suspect, as romantic as it sounds. Nomadland is a film that addresses this subject. A woman loses her job when the US Gypsum plant closes down in her town. Her husband has died so she decides to buy a van and go in search of work. She works for a while at an Amazon packing centre and when that job ends she goes off to Arizona where she heard fellow nomads will be meeting.

She makes new friends among the nomad community and has to overcome various problems, mainly issue with her van. At the end of the film she returns to her home town where all her possessions are in storage and finally sells them all before going back on the road again. After the first thirty minutes or so the film seemed like an actual documentary with real people rather than actors, so much so I had to pick up the DVD box and double check. It’s a slow film with little dialogue but even so it is original and realistic and examines the lives of a new breed of Americans, nomads who live in vans and spend their lives on the move, settling down where there is work and moving on when the work runs out. A flat tyre can be not just an inconvenience but a disaster as well as other problems which for us are merely distractions. Washing and showering for instance, not so easy when you have to consider whether there is enough water in the tank, where to do the laundry and so on. When a major van repair is needed the heroine of the film has to leave the van -her home- at a garage and check into a hotel while it is repaired.

I’ve got mixed feelings about this film. It’s good and well worth watching but whether it’s worthy of an Oscar I’m not so sure.

Silence of the Lambs

After watching the above two Oscar winners on DVD I fancied something a little different. The very first horror film to win an Oscar was Silence of the Lambs. It’s a gruesome film in many ways following the FBI as they try to track down a serial killer who has just abducted the daughter of a US senator. The killer known as Buffalo Bill, imprisons his victims then kills and skins them. (Told you it was gruesome!) To try and get a lead on the killer the FBI send trainee agent Clarice Starling to interview the incarcerated murderer and psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lector to see if he can give any insight into the murders, a new perspective that might help the FBI investigation.

Lector is played by Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster plays agent Starling. She wants to work in the Behavioural Science Unit of the FBI and Lector, chillingly played by Hopkins, finds her interesting. He seems willing to give information about Buffalo Bill but in return he wants information about Clarice herself. He initiates a quid pro quo, he gives her information and observations about Bill and in return she must reveals snippets of information about herself, her background and her life.

Clarice becomes a pawn when Jack Crawford, the head of behavioural science, makes a fake offer to Lector. They promise that Lector will be moved to a secure unit on an island with a view of nature and wildlife in return for more information. The head of the secure unit where Lector is currently held, Dr Chiltern makes a rival offer which Lector accepts but passes on fake information about Buffalo Bill.

Clarice meets Lector again and presses Lector for the real information but Lector wants only to hear about her life, in particular when she was orphaned and terrified when lambs were slaughtered on the farm where she was staying. Lector tells her that all the relevant information to find the killer is in the case file which he has been allowed to read.

Later, FBI agents approach the suspected home of Buffalo Bill. At the same time Clarice is following a lead based on some advice from Lector. The two situations are presented in alternate clips. The FBI ring the bell of Bill’s supposed home. Clarice rings the bell of her suspect. When the FBI burst in and the house is empty, Jack Crawford, and we the viewers, realise that Starling has stumbled on the real Buffalo Bill.

Much of the content of the film is terrifying but at the same time, it is a compelling film and comes together in an exciting climax.

The film spawned numerous sequels. Hopkins reprised his role as Lector twice but Jodie Foster declined to play Clarice again blaming scheduling conflicts. Clarice was played by Julianne Moore in the follow up film, Hannibal.

Silence of The Lambs won five Oscars, Best Picture, Best Director (Jonathon Demme) Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins) Best Actress (Jodie Foster) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ted Tally).

Do you have a favourite Oscar winning film?


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The Human Eye and A Handful of Film Directors

I wrote a blog post a while ago about the 60s TV show the Time Tunnel. I used to love that show when I was about 12 years old but watching it these days it isn’t quite as good as I remember. If the time tunnel was real and I could sneak inside and send myself back in time the place I’d like to go would probably be the early days on cinema in Hollywood.

Back then when the cinema was new and the job of film director was something that didn’t require a degree, I reckon I might have been in with a chance of getting to direct a film. These days I have to content myself with being an amateur video maker. Anyway, I may not be a director but I can certainly write about film directors if nothing else.

Charlie Chaplin

I’m going to start off with Chaplin because he was one of the very first to give actual direction to a motion picture. Charlie came to Hollywood after a career in Fred Karno’s musical halls in England. Karno was a successful impresario and producer and when his productions became successful, he decided to export them and sent various troupes on tours of the USA. On one of those tours Chaplin was spotted by slapstick film maker Mack Sennet and Chaplin began to appear in early Hollywood comedy shows. In those days there were no scripts. The actors and directors threw a few ideas about and then the cameras began to roll. The short films were made quickly and then sent off for distribution across the USA and even the world.

Chaplin clashed frequently with his directors when his ideas or suggestions were dismissed but after exhibitors asked Sennett for more Chaplin films, he was allowed to direct his own. When his contract expired in 1914 Chaplin asked for 1000 dollars per week. Mack Sennett complained that that figure was more than he was getting and refused. Another film company Essanay, offered him $1200 per week and a signing fee and Chaplin signed. He wasn’t initially happy with Essanay and didn’t like their studios in Chicago, preferring to work in California.

Chaplin was also unhappy after he finished his contract at Essanay because they continued to make lucrative Chaplin comedies by utilising his out-takes. Chaplin was however an astute businessman. In his new contracts the negative and film rights reverted to Chaplin after a certain amount of time. This was in the days when a movie had a life of months, if not weeks.

I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever thought of Chaplin as a genius but he was clearly one of the first to realise a film needed a structure and that comedy films didn’t need to be gag after gag after gag. They needed a story, the audience needed to sympathise with the characters and so on. Whatever you think of Charlie Chaplin, his contribution to the film world was immense.

Billy Wilder

My favourite Billy Wilder story goes like this: In his later years he wanted, as usual, to make a movie. He approached a studio and was invited in to make his pitch, as they call it in the movie world. The executive who met with Billy was a young man. He said to Billy, “I’m not familiar with your work could you tell me about it?”

Wilder replied, “of course, after you!”

Wilder was born in 1906 in Austria. He became a screenwriter while living in Berlin but left when the Nazi party began their rise to power. In 1933 he moved to Hollywood where many artists and film makers fled to escape the Nazis. Wilder wrote numerous screenplays with his co-writer Charles Brackett and in 1942 made his directing debut with The Major and the Minor.

A big hit for wilder was the film Double Indemnity. Wilder co-wrote the script with Raymond Chandler and the film was nominated for 7 academy awards as well as becoming a classic of film noir.

By far my favourite Wilder film though was Sunset Boulevard. The film follows William Holden as screenwriter Joe Gillis who is down on his luck and is about to have his car repossessed. To escape the repo men, Holden drives into what he thinks is a deserted house on Sunset Boulevard. To his surprise he finds reclusive film star Gloria Swanson living there. Swanson plays Norma Desmond, once a star of the silent era who is planning her return to the screen.

Norma engages Joe to edit a script she has written herself and Joe soon finds himself seduced by the affection and money she lavishes on him. Some of Swanson’s own silent films are used within the production and one of her old directors, Erich Von Stroheim plays the part of her butler and former husband. The final scene of Joe floating dead in Norma’s pool took was a difficult shot to film. Wilder eventually did it by putting a mirror in the bottom of the pool.

Wilder died in 2002. He is buried in Los Angeles and on his grave is inscribed. ‘Billy Wilder. I’m a writer but then, nobody’s perfect’, a reference to the final line in Some Like It Hot.

Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone enlisted in the US Army in 1967 and served in Vietnam with the 25th Infantry and later the 1st Cavalry.
Back in the USA he enrolled at university in New York and studied filmmaking. Martin Scorsese was one of his teachers. Vietnam was among the first subjects of his student films.

Stone graduated in 1971 and took on various jobs while he wrote screenplays. His breakthrough success was in 1978 with the screenplay for the film Midnight Express for which he won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay.

The first Oliver Stone movie I ever saw was the 1986 movie ‘Platoon.’ Stone wrote and directed the movie set during the Vietnam War and based on some of his own experiences.

He followed up with another Vietnam film, ‘Born on the 4th of July’ about Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic. A third film completed Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy, Heaven and Earth released in 1993.

Wall Street was a hit movie for Oliver Stone in the eighties and the character of Gordon Gekko played by Michael Douglas became an eighties screen icon. In Wall Street Stone first developed a mesmerising visual style almost akin to a music video and it is a style that many film-makers seem to have picked up.

In JFK, Stone takes this visual style to another level and combines various film formats to produce a stylish visual montage. The subject is a controversial one, the shooting of President John Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. Stone decides to use the investigation by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison as a vehicle to explore the various theories about the shooting although ultimately an amorphous military industrial complex is blamed for the conspiracy. Criticism rained down on Oliver Stone from anti conspiracy theorists but I personally felt that the movie was a fair one and everything that was conjecture was shown as conjecture. The great treat for me was the combining of the different visuals and the inter weaving of documentary film with new footage. Stone went on to make two more films about American presidents, Nixon and W, the latter film about George W Bush.

George Stevens

George Stevens made many memorable films and I’ve including him in this handful of directors because if I was a director, I reckon I’d make my films the way George did. George directed the classic western Shane starring Alan Ladd. Shane is one of the great film westerns and one that tried to show the west as it really was. Stevens also directed Giant, James Dean’s last film. Giant is about Bick Benedict, a Texas rancher played by Rock Hudson and Dean plays Jett Rink, a surly ranch hand who is fired by Benedict. Benedict’s sister however, has a soft spot for Jett and when she is unexpectedly killed in a fall from a horse, we find that she has gifted a small piece of land to Jett. Bick wants to keep the ranch together and offers Jett a large sum of money for the property but he declines and goes on to strike oil on the land. Stevens filmed his actors with many cameras and liked to shoot everything he could then sit back and work his way through the resulting footage and slowly figure out how to edit it together, which is pretty much what I do with my short amateur YouTube videos.

Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock was a British director who began in the days of silent films and came to be known as the master of suspense. Blackmail made in 1929 was the first British Talkie and 10 years later producer David O Selznick lured him to Hollywood where he made many films that are now regarded as classics, films like North by Northwest, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, The Birds and Pyscho. Hitchcock might also be seen as one of the first celebrity directors. He became popular because of his habit of appearing, however briefly in all of his films, sitting on a bus for instance, just missing the bus in another. He also became well known by introducing his television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Alfred Hitchcock (Picture courtesy Wikipedia)

There are some directors who have tried to make films that show events the way the human eye sees things. Roberto Rossellini was one. Another surprisingly was Hitchcock himself.

In 1948 he made the film The Rope. It was an unusual film in many ways, especially for Hitchcock. The length of a film magazine back then was ten minutes so Hitchcock decided to shoot the film in a series of 10 minute takes each take morphing smoothly into the next one. The set was built with moveable walls which were able to be moved swiftly out of the way by the prop men to accommodate the very large film camera of the time as it moved about the set.

Making a film without the usual cuts and edits would create a viewer experience more akin to the way a human being sees things, or so Hitchcock thought. My personal view is that we see things with our mind more than the eye. The human eye is constantly scanning the scene before us and these scans are used by the mind to put together an image for us. Some of that image will be up to date, especially whatever it is we are concentrating on. Other elements, things in our peripheral vision for instance may be seconds out of date because that element of the image we are seeing was scanned seconds or even minutes ago. That’s my theory anyway. For me the director who films in the way the human eye sees things is Woody Allen.

Woody Allen

I’ve written plenty about Woody before so I won’t go on about him here too long. The great thing about Woody’s films is that they don’t follow the usual film school format of close up, medium shot and wide shot. Woody usually makes a one or two camera set up with few if any close ups and that’s it. In one shot in Hannah and Her Sisters, Michael Caine is talking to someone, it might have been Mia Farrow but I can’t remember off the top of my head and the Mia character goes into the bedroom but continues to talk with Caine. Michael expected there to be a second set up filming Mia in the bedroom but there wasn’t. He asked Woody why not and Woody answered why do we need to see the other person in the bedroom? We can hear their voice that’s all we need. If the character was hiding a gun in their purse or pocket or something pursuant to the plot then we need to see that but otherwise, what’s the point? That’s what I like about Woody’s films, their economical use of film and the lack of multiple set ups.

Those then are my handful of film directors. Who are your favourites?


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A Series of Random Classic Film Connections

Back in the 1960’s I was a big fan of the Apollo moon missions and on UK TV one of the presenters was James Burke. Burke also did a TV show called Connections. It was a really fascinating series which connected various historical events to make a sort of chain which led up to something which was pretty unexpected. The episode that stands out in my memory was one about the atom bomb, various unconnected events and discoveries that together, led to the splitting of the atom. I thought that in today’s blog, I’d try and do something similar but relating to film so here are five fascinating connections.

Casablanca.

Casablanca is one of my very favourite films, in fact a while back, I did an entire blog post dedicated to the film. Humphrey Bogart starred as Rick who runs a popular café in the city of Casablanca. Set in the 1940’s during the second world war, refugees are everywhere, fleeing from the Nazi menace. Certain letters of transit have disappeared guaranteeing the owner free travel out of occupied lands to freedom and various people want them, in particular freedom fighter Victor Lazlo and his wife Lisa played by Paul Henreid and Ingrid Bergman.

The Chief of Police, Captain Louis Renault, is out to stop them and perhaps even out to make a little money for himself on the side. The film was made in 1942 entirely at the Warner Brothers studio in Hollywood apart from one scene at Van Nuys Airport in Los Angeles. The film won the Oscar for best picture, best adapted screenplay and also one for best director for Michael Curtiz. The film has grown in popularity ever since and always ranks highly in any list of the greatest ever films.

Captain Louis Renault was played by Claude Rains. Rains was a British actor who became one of the screen’s great character actors. He died in 1967 but one of his last films was Lawrence of Arabia, made in 1962.

Lawrence of Arabia.

Lawrence is another great classic of the cinema. Filmed in 70mm and directed by David Lean, the films tells the story of TE Lawrence played by Peter O’Toole and like Casablanca it is a classic of the cinema. The film was made in 1962 on location in Jordan, Spain and Morocco.

There are numerous stars in the film as well as Claude Rains but the one I want to highlight is Alec Guinness. Guinness made his film debut in another David Lean film Great Expectations made in 1946. In 1955 Guinness was in Hollywood having been nominated for an Oscar. One night he went out and was struggling to find a table in a restaurant. At one establishment where he was turned away a young man came after him and asked him to join him for a meal. That man was James Dean. Dean insisted on showing Alec his new Porsche Spyder and when he saw the car Guinness was apparently overcome by a strange feeling and told Dean never to drive the car and that if he did, he would be dead by the following week. Guinness was not someone who regularly made predictions of the future and was probably as taken aback by this feeling as Dean was.

A week later, Dean was driving the Porsche to a race in Salinas when he was killed in a car crash.

Giant

James Dean had just finished the movie Giant only weeks before his death. Giant starred Rock Hudson as Texas rancher Bick Benedict with Dean playing the third lead of Jett Rink. Rink is a no good cowboy who works for Bick Benedict. Bick and Jett don’t get on well but Luz, Bick’s sister has a soft spot for Jett and re-employs him after Bick has fired him. Later, Jett Rink inherits a small piece of land after the death of Luz. He goes on to find oil on the land and becomes a millionaire. The film’s other lead star was Elizabeth Taylor. She plays Leslie who marries Bick Benedict.

Elizabeth Taylor was born in 1932 and began her career as a child actress in the 1940’s. She was one of Hollywood’s most highly paid stars and was married eight times including twice to Richard Burton. Her second husband was Mike Todd. He was an entrepreneur and producer who decided to try his hand at film production. His company developed the Todd AO Process, a widescreen film process that was based on Cinerama, a technique that used three projectors. He was sadly killed in a plane crash after completing Around the World in 80 Days, a film that showcased the process.

Around the World in 80 Days

Around the World in 80 days was a film version of the novel by Jules Verne. David Niven starred as Phileas Fogg, an English gentleman who takes part in a bet at the London Reform Club, in which he wagers that he can successfully circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. The film was shot in 70mm using the Todd AO process mentioned above. The film starred numerous celebrities in small parts and was filmed all over the world.

David Niven was perfect for the role as Phileas Fogg. He was an English actor and former army officer who arrived in Hollywood in the early 1930s. He worked as an extra and was one of the few people who went from extra to film stardom. He was put under contract by Sam Goldwyn.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

In 1936 Niven starred with close friend Errol Flynn in the Hollywood film version of The Charge of The Light Brigade, transferred by Warner Brothers from the Crimea to India. Flynn and Olivia De Havilland were the main stars and Niven writes about the production in his wonderful book, Bring On The Empty Horses.

The book was named after a phrase uttered by the director to begin a scene calling for a number of riderless horses. The director was none other than Michael Curtiz, who also directed Casablanca, which makes our film connections complete.


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More Beginnings and Ends

As I approach my 500th blog post, I sometimes wonder if I’m running out of steam. Yes, instead of brand new posts I’m looking back at my old ones and giving them a bit of a rehash or sometimes writing more on the same theme and adding ‘More’ to the title or ‘Part 2’.

Last week I talked about more Essential Englishmen and this week I’m going to return to a post from 2021 so, without further ado, let me see if I can interest you in some more beginnings and ends.

I’m going to start with an end, a personal end.

I wrote about the issues I had paying my electric bill a while ago. Here’s a quick recap. I’d paid my bill but my banking app remembered the account number from when I used to pay my mother’s electric account and used that instead of my own account number. Mum is living in a nursing home at the moment so her electricity account has been closed. I contacted my supplier Eon, who were not at all helpful. They wouldn’t credit my electric account and neither would they return the money to my bank. Contact my bank was their one and only suggestion. My bank tried to sort the issue, they tried to retrieve the payment but contacted me back the other week saying Eon’s bank were not playing ball.

I called Eon again but after waiting over 30 mins in a telephone queue I gave up, put the phone down and wrote a moaning email to Eon. In sharp contrast to last time, their staff member Jim checked the details I gave him, saw immediately an error had occurred and credited the amount into my bank account. Simple, although I’ve had weeks of hassle, hanging onto phone lines and going through various phone menus until I got basically nowhere. Thanks Jim at Eon!

Beginnings

Next I’d like to talk about one of my favourite films written and directed by my favourite director, Woody Allen. Woody is not the most popular guy in Hollywood these days but back in 1979 he made the film Manhattan and the opening sequence is one I’ve always been fond of. In it he’s narrating the opening to a new novel and as he goes along he starts editing and rewriting and starts over again. No, that’s too preachy, he says. That’s too angry, till finally he comes up with some text he really likes –I love this says Woody.

I loved it too, so much that I made a spoof version about Manchester rather than Manhattan.

The Godfather

The Godfather is one of the classics of cinema. It’s based on the book by Mario Puzo which is a classic in its own right. In the film version Marlon Brando plays Don Corleone, the head of the Corleone mafia family. The film opens on the day of his daughter’s wedding which is a day when no Sicilian can refuse a request. In his office that morning is a man whose daughter has been the victim of an attempted rape and he comes to ask the Don for revenge. The Godfather emerges out of the shadows not a happy man. Has he been asked with respect? No. Has he been called Godfather? No. Marlon Brando plays the Don beautifully as a man of honour but also a dangerous man.

Director Francis Ford Coppola always wanted Brando for the role but the executives at Paramount weren’t happy. They made him do a screen test and also put up a bond in case he delayed the film and caused unwarranted expense. The result is a wonderful piece of cinema.

The Truman Show

I’ve not always been a fan of Jim Carrey but I’ve always rather liked The Truman Show. It’s a sort of reality show where Jim Carrey’s character Truman is the star only he isn’t aware of it. Everyone around him knows everything is fake. Secret cameras film everything he does and all those around him, including his mother, his wife and best friend who are all actors in on the secret. The TV show is the brainchild of Christof, a producer/director played by Ed Harris. As the film unfolds we gradually realise that Truman is becoming aware of things that are not right; a spotlight that falls from the sky; people who approach him and want to talk but are hustled away by strange people; an office building where no one is working and his wife who seems to announce the benefits of various products as if she is in a TV advert.

The film is based on an episode of The Twilight Zone. A man getting ready for work finds a camera in his bathroom and realises he is being secretly filmed. It turns out that unknown to him, he is the star of a reality TV show. The producers take him aside and explain what a hit the show is and how much money he could be making. Why not carry on as if he never found out the truth they ask. Keep the show running. No one would ever know.

The man decides to just carry on with his life and allow the filming and the money to continue. In some ways I think that might even be a better storyline than The Truman Show. Either way, this film is a really interesting look at the current reality TV genre and flips the whole concept on its head. Carrey is great in what is really his first dramatic role too. The most telling moment comes at the end when the whole world has been glued to the last episode. When it has finished one of the enthralled TV viewers asks ‘what’s on now?’

The Big Sleep

The book The Big Sleep was written by Raymond Chandler and he had this really fabulous talkative way of writing. You can almost imagine hearing Humphrey Bogart’s voice as you read the book. Here’s a quote from the text, an example of Chandler’s descriptive style:

I sat down on the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble. She was stretched out on a modernistic chaise-longue with her slippers off so I stared at her legs in the sheerest silk stocking. They seemed to be arranged to stare at. They were visible to the knee and one of them well beyond. The knees were dimpled, not bony or sharp. The calves were beautiful, the ankles long and slim with enough melodic line for a tone poem. She was tall and rangy and strong looking. Her head was against an ivory satin cushion. Her hair was black and wiry and parted in the middle and she had the hot black eyes of the portrait in the hall. She had a good mouth and a good chin. There was a sulky droop to her lips and the lower lip was full.

Not bad eh? Dilys Powell called his writing ‘a peculiar mixture of harshness, sensuality, high polish and backstreet poetry’ and it’s easy to see why. Anyway, the book was made into a film starring Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe and the film and the book open with Marlowe’s visit to see General Sternwood. I was calling on a million dollars says the famous detective in the opening monologue. Sternwood is an elderly man who spends his time in a stiflingly hot conservatory where he offers Marlowe brandy while he explains just what he wants Marlowe to do.

The Story in Your Eyes

In my original blog post I stuck to film, TV and books but for this version I thought I’d throw in some music, just for the hell of it. Despite being a great music fan I was pushed to think of something with a really outstanding opening but I think the guitar riff on this track from the Moody Blues really fits the bill.

The Cut

Before I cut to the ‘ends’, I thought this might be just the point to show what we video editors call a cut. Here is what has been described as the most epic cut in film history.

Ends: The Fugitive

Another old show repeated currently on the CBS justice channel is The Fugitive starring David Janssen as Dr Richard Kimble, falsely accused of the murder of his wife. The show ran for four seasons but as viewer ratings began to fall, the series was cancelled. It was then that the producers hit on what at the time was an unusual idea. Instead of the show just ending, they decided to make an actual finale. Yes, they would wrap up the story of Kimble’s wife’s murder. Kimble had been searching for the supposed one-armed man he had seen leaving the murder scene for the past four seasons, now he would finally find him!

Back in the 1960’s, TV was not very highly thought of even by the TV networks themselves. So what if Kimble never finds the murderer. So what? It’s only a TV show. Of course, the viewers would disagree. They had kept faith with the series for four long years, they deserved a proper ending.

The final episode aired on August 29th 1967 and in the USA the viewing figures were a sensation: 72% of US TV viewers were watching that final episode and the show held the most watched record until November 1980 when someone shot JR in Dallas.

Citizen Kane

The cinematography was by Gregg Toland, one of the film industry’s top photographers. Toland had asked to work on the film and director and star Orson Welles replied ‘Why? I don’t know anything about making films.’ Toland countered that was exactly why he wanted to work on the film because a film by a newcomer, Kane was actually Welles’ first film, would produce something new and original.

There are some fascinating elements to Citizen Kane, especially in the special effects department. A famous one is where the camera flies through a rooftop sign and then drops down through a skylight into a restaurant. That was done with a sign that came apart as the camera approached and then a fade from a model shot into the restaurant set disguised in a flash of lightning. I could go on and mention plenty of elements like that but if you haven’t seen Citizen Kane let me just explain what it’s all about. The film opens with the death of Kane, a millionaire newspaper magnate. His last words were ‘Rosebud’. The makers of a cinema newsreel decide to find out what or who Rosebud was.

To do so they research Kane’s life; his inheritance of a huge fortune, his takeover of a newspaper, his great wealth, his power and influence, his marriage and divorce and ultimately his death. The reporters never find the answers to their questions but we, the cinema audience, have the secret revealed to us right at the end of the picture. The end is what makes the film really and Welles admitted that Rosebud, and the idea behind it, was the idea of his co-writer Herman Mankiewicz. The final scene takes place in a huge storage area, packed with crates containing all the numerous items the acquisitive Kane bought, packaged and hoarded during his lifetime. Some of the stuff is scheduled for the furnace and as one labourer throws in an old sledge, we see the flames begin to consume the wooden frame. The top coat of paint is burned off and we see revealed underneath the name ‘Rosebud’.

One Final End.

I’m due to get my state pension in October which as regular readers will know is my least favourite time of the year. I thought it might be nicer to retire in the spring which is actually one of my favourite times of the year, the days are getting warmer and longer and the summer is on its way. A nice time to tootle off in our little motorhome perhaps so I sent in my early retirement request letter to my boss. That is in fact one really big end. I’ve been working since I was 16, starting my working life in Manchester city centre in the world of insurance back in 1973. Apart from a break in the early 1990’s when I decided I wanted to be a film maker and went on a video production course in Manchester I’ve worked all my life so understandably I was a little nervous when I pressed the send button on that particular email. I didn’t get to be a film maker, well, not a professional one anyway. Still, I’m not dead yet so there’s still time for a new beginning . .


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The Essential Englishman (Part 2)

I published a post quite a while back called The Essential Englishman. I say a while back but now that I’ve looked, it was 2017. Anyway, as a working-class council house boy I’ve always envied those well-dressed gentlemen who look impeccable and talk ‘proper’, dropping witty comments here and there with apparent ease. I wrote about six Englishmen who all rather impressed me either themselves or in the characters they played on screen so I thought it might be time to look at some more candidates.

Roger Moore.

I’ve always liked the debonair Roger Moore. Many people think he was good as James Bond 007 but sorry Roger, I wasn’t impressed. His other famous character did impress me; Simon Templar alias the Saint. The Saint was based on the books by Leslie Charteris about an adventurer called Simon Templar. Templar seems to have no job but owns a smart London flat, drives a white Volvo with the registration plate ST1 and sets about helping damsels in distress and solving various crimes. The police, in particular Templar’s nemesis, Inspector Teal of Scotland Yard view Templar as a criminal and are determined to put him behind bars.

Moore had always wanted to film the Saint and in fact bought into the latter part of the series becoming a co producer. Most of the clothes worn in the series were Roger’s own clothes too showing how keen Roger was about the way he looked. Later, when the series ended, Moore co-starred with Tony Curtis in the Persuaders, another action series, although the Persuaders was filmed all over the world whilst the Saint, despite all the various locations portrayed in the series, was filmed almost entirely at Elstree studios in the UK.

One of the best elements of the series was the pre-title sequence where Moore turns to talk to the camera. In later episodes there is a voice over instead but someone usually recognises the famous Simon Templar. Cue an animated halo appearing over Roger’s head which he looks up at just before the title sequence begins.

Moore played James Bond in seven feature films. The last one was A View to a Kill in 1985. He died from cancer in 2017.

Ronald Colman

Colman was born in 1891 and became a well-known amateur actor in his native Surrey. He joined the army when the first world war began. He was seriously injured at the battle of Messines in 1914 and was invalided out. When his wartime wounds healed, he resumed his acting career and eventually graduated to films. In the USA he became a famous silent film star but it was not until the talkies began that he could use his best asset, his wonderful voice. According to Wikipedia, he mirrored the stereotypical English gentleman and he went on to great success in the golden age of Hollywood. He appeared in many famous films like The Prisoner of Zenda and two of my personal favourites, Lost Horizon and Random Harvest.

Colman died in 1958 aged 67.

Wilfrid Hyde-White

Hyde-White was born in 1903 and trained at RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. He once famously said that at RADA he learned two things; ’One, I couldn’t act and two, it didn’t matter.’

He became almost a fixture of many British films of the 1950’s and in fact his film credits are almost too numerous to mention. He appeared in some of my favourite films such as The Third Man, Last Holiday, The Browning Version, My Fair Lady and many others. In Hollywood he appeared with Marilyn Monroe in Let’s Make Love. In later life he also appeared in many US television series including two episodes of Columbo. Hyde-White was apparently in trouble with the inland revenue and was declared bankrupt in 1979. He died a few days prior to his 88th birthday and his body was flown back to the UK for burial.

Kenneth More

More epitomised the English officer gentleman in many films, most notably with his portrayal of Douglas Bader in the film Reach for the Sky. He played an officer aboard the Titanic in A Night to Remember and a naval officer in Sink The Bismark.

He was under contract to the Rank organisation but was dropped by Rank after swearing and heckling their managing director at a BAFTA award ceremony.

In later life he had further success on TV playing the part of Jolyon Forsyte in the Forsyte Saga and later the title role in Father Brown. He died in 1982.

Terry-Thomas

Thomas was a comedy actor who found fame in many British radio shows and films of the 50s and 60s. He typically played an upper-class rogue or bounder and his distinctive upper-class accent is fondly remembered by many, including me. According to Wikipedia in 1921 he began to develop his distinctive, well-spoken voice, thinking that “using good speech automatically suggested that you were well-educated and made people look up to you”. He apparently was impressed by Douglas Fairbanks so much so that he began to imitate Fairbanks’ debonair dress sense.

Thomas played a similar character in most of his films and was a great success in films like Carlton-Browne of the FO, I’m All Right Jack and School for Scoundrels. He appeared in a number of Hollywood films such as How to Murder Your Wife in which he played the genteel English butler to comic strip author Jack Lemmon. He is probably best remembered for his portrayal of the scheming rotter in Those Magnificent men in Their Flying Machines. Thomas died in sad circumstances in 1990 after suffering with Parkinson’s disease and spending most of his fortune on medical bills

C Aubrey Smith

C Aubrey Smith is perhaps an unfamiliar name on this list to anyone who is not a fan of classic films. Smith was born in 1848 and became a stage actor only after retiring from an early career as a cricketer. He appeared in some early British films but went to Hollywood in the 1930s where he carved out a career playing an English officer and gentleman. He was Colonel Zapt in the Prisoner of Zenda and played another colonel in Hitchcock’s Rebecca. In Hollywood he was the acknowledged leader of the British contingent and in 1932 founded the Hollywood Cricket Club. Other film stars considered to be “members” of his select social group were David Niven, Ronald Colman, Rex Harrison, Robert Coote, Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce and Leslie Howard.

Smith died in 1948 aged 85.

Hugh Grant

There are others I could possibly mention here, stars like Christopher Lee, Dirk Bogarde, Basil Rathbone, Dennis Price and Jack Hawkins but perhaps it’s time to look at some more modern actors. Hugh Grant has played the essential Englishman in a number of film roles starting with his part in Four Weddings and a Funeral, the 1994 British comedy written by Richard Curtis. Four Weddings is a direct successor to the Ealing comedies of the 1950s and 60s and Grant’s persona is in the same way, a successor to Ronald Colman, David Niven and many others of the same ilk.

I’ve always thought that Four Weddings was one of the best British comedy films ever, only marred by the constant use of the ‘f’ word. I was happy to hear that American audiences agreed with me and in the US version, the word ‘bugger’ was substituted.

Hugh Grant was born in 1960 and is still working in film and TV. He recently starred with Nicole Kidman in the TV mini series The Undoing.


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Beginnings and Ends

I’ve been off work for quite a while with my sore arm and neck and even though I don’t feel quite right I’ve started to think that perhaps I won’t ever be fully ‘normal’ again. I said as much to my physio and he didn’t agree. Keep doing the exercises he reckons and one day I’ll be back to my usual fitness. OK, that’s pretty positive so I’ll just keep calm and carry on, what else can anyone do? Well, I can go back to work for a start, which is what I did this week. It was a little odd at first but by the second day, it felt as if I’d never been away.

As my time off has come to an end you might think that as an enthusiastic writer, I might have completed a draft of a new book or screenplay. Well actually no, I didn’t. It was the same old story and once again I succumbed to laziness or procrastination or being me, probably both.

I read a blog post on Medium the other day in which the writer rejected all those terms which writers like me cling to and put forward another one. Unwillingness. That’s right. It’s not laziness that stops us writing but an unwillingness to write. In order to write said the author, we must be willing to write, we must sort out a writing space, sort out a writing time and just write. It was actually a pretty motivating piece, so much so that I pulled out my finger and wrote a few new pages of my next novel.

I’ve applied for a few jobs while I’ve been off. One job looked ideal for me, it was only a customer services role but according to the job advert it was weekend work, just what I wanted. I applied and was invited for an interview but it was an online interview. I read all the information they had sent and it looked like the interview involved answering various questions then doing something with a webcam. I guessed that they wanted to see me in a sort of simulated question/answer situation with the public so as they advised, I put on a smart shirt and clicked the link to start.

The first question was the usual one; Did I have to right to work in the UK? Yes. Was I willing to work shifts? Yes. Did I want the full time role or the part time? Part time. Was I ok selling media packages to the public? Wait a minute, selling? I thought it was a customer services role, what has selling got to do with it? Wait a minute I thought, maybe this was just a general question and there were other roles available as well as the customer service ones? There must be sales roles too. Anyway, that’s where I made a big mistake and pressed no.

The system thought for a moment and then a message came on the screen. The interview is over, thanks for your interest in Virgin media. Whoa, wait a minute, where’s the rest? Where’s the webcam bit where I simulate talking to the public. Alas, that was not to be, I’d blown it and that was the end of that.

Books

Here are two of my favourite beginnings and ends from books. My favourite book of all time has to be David Copperfield from that late, great master of the written word Charles Dickens.

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.

Some of Dickens’ other books I’ve found hard to read. I’ve never finished The Pickwick Papers and Bleak House is another book I started then found reading enjoyment elsewhere but Copperfield draws me back time and time again and it’s a book I probably re read every few years. Dickens died in 1870 but his stories will live on for as long as books are read.

Here’s another quote, this one is from the end of a book.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter, tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther and one fine morning . . So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

If you haven’t guessed already, that’s a quote from another of my favourite books of all time, The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald. Like Dickens, I’ve tried to read other books by Fitzgerald but not really found them to my taste. Gatsby though is a wonderful book, opening up a window back into the jazz age of America and with a story told through some outstanding descriptive passages just like that last paragraph above.

Films

I wrote a post a long time ago about the texts my brother and I send each other. They are just quotes from films, usually pretty obscure ones and because he and I generally watch the same kind of films we usually know which film the quote is from. Here’s one he sent me a while ago. I knew straight away which film he was watching, what about you?

Take ‘em to Missouri Matt!

Did you get the film? Well, perhaps you are not a fan of classic westerns then. Red River is a 1948 film directed by Howard Hawks and starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift. It’s about a cattle drive from Texas to Kansas along the Chisholm Trail and John Wayne says the line to Montgomery Clift when they begin their epic drive. The men encounter many difficulties along the way including a big fall out between Wayne’s character and his adoptive son, played by Clift. It’s one of the great westerns of all time and even if you haven’t seen it you might have seen a clip of it in the film The Last Picture Show. At the end of the film when the only cinema in a small American town is closing, the last picture show is Red River.

Robert Zemeckis is one of my favourite directors. He directed Back to the Future, Castaway and Forrest Gump among others. Forrest Gump isn’t a great favourite of mine but I love the way the film opens and closes. A feather is floating high up on the wind and the camera follows it as it falls down towards the ground. Forrest Gump played by Tom Hanks is revealed sitting on a wooden bench and he picks up the feather and places it in his book as a bookmark. Zemeckis’ films are full of little touches like that and of course the film ends in a similar way, Gump opens his notebook and the feather blows away.

I’m going to end with a clip I used in another post a few weeks ago. It’s the last scene in Castaway again with Tom Hanks. Hanks’ character has been rescued from a desert island after four years. The love of his life has married someone else and now he has arrived back to civilisation he doesn’t know what to do, after all, his home is gone and all his possessions presumably either sold or given away. He decides to deliver in person a package which washed up on the desert island with him. The person isn’t home so he leaves it with a note. Then he stops and wonders what to do next.

Come to think of it, I’m wondering what to do next myself.


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More ‘Didn’t Quite Make it’ Cinema Stories

I did a post a while ago about actors who came close to the role of a lifetime but didn’t quite make it to the screen. Here are a few more and a film itself that also didn’t quite make it to the screen.

Lawrence of Arabia

Director David Lean made many classic films and Steven Spielberg famously said that it was Lean who caused him to become a film director. Lean’s most famous film was the story of TE Lawrence aka Lawrence of Arabia. That name, Lawrence of Arabia, was coined by Lowell Thomas, an American journalist who wrote about Lawrence’s role in the desert revolt in Arabia during the First World War.

Lean was fascinated by the subject and various scripts were produced, the final one by Robert Bolt, but who would play the enigmatic Lawrence? Lean chose a young actor called Albert Finney. Finney was not widely known at the time. He had starred in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and apparently two days of filming in the role of Lawrence were done before he was either sacked or departed. Other sources say that he filmed an extensive four-day screen test but would not sign a long-term contract with producer Sam Spiegel and so left the production. Not so long ago I watched an interview with Finney on BBC’s Talking Pictures series in which he said pretty much the same, that Spiegel wanted him to sign a seven year contract and he didn’t want to be tied to a producer in such a way.

According to Wikipedia, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift were considered for the part before Peter O’Toole was cast.

The film was a huge success and has since been acclaimed as one of the greatest films of all time. It won seven academy awards. Missing out on the role didn’t affect the career of Albert Finney. When he died in 2019 he left behind an impressive collection of film, TV and theatre performances. His last screen appearance was in the 2012 James Bond film Skyfall.

The Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz.

Buddy Ebson is a name you might remember from the TV comedy The Beverly Hillbillies. Buddy played the part of Jed Clampett, the head of a country family which discovered oil on their property, became rich and moved to Beverly Hills. Ebson started out as a dancer and appeared in many Broadway musicals. In 1935 he signed a two year contract with MGM after a successful screen test and made his film debut in Broadway Melody of 1936. In 1939 he won the part of the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz but swapped parts with Ray Bolger who wanted to play the Scarecrow rather than the Tin man. Ebson recorded all his songs and worked through the rehearsals but during filming became very ill. It was found he was having an allergic reaction to the make up used for the Tin Man and Buddy was unable to continue. Jack Haley took over the role and the make up was changed to something safer. According to Wikipedia, they didn’t bother to tell Buddy that the make up had caused his problem until much later.

Buddy Ebson went on to appear in the Beverly Hillbillies and Barnaby Jones and numerous other productions. He made a cameo appearance in the film version of the Beverly Hillbillies in 1993. He died in 2003 aged 95.

Clemenza from The Godfather.

Sometimes an actor plays a great part in a film and then when the time comes for a sequel, he tries to use a little leverage to get a better deal. In the Godfather, Richard S Castellano plays the part of Clemenza, one of Don Corleone’s Caporegimes. A Caporegime is a sort of captain in the mafia who heads a team of ‘soldiers’. He plays a pivotal part in the original film and it is clear by the film’s end he is one of new Godfather Michael’s most trusted lieutenants.

When it came to Godfather II, Castellano wanted more money as well as wanting to write his own dialogue. According to a post I found on whatculture.com Castellano was the highest paid actor on The Godfather. Brando was considered pretty much washed up before the Godfather and had to do a screen test to get the part. Al Pacino was a complete unknown and James Caan and Robert Duvall were not well known at the time whereas Castellano came straight to the project from an Academy Award nomination. For Godfather II, having an actor write his own dialogue was a complete no-no for director Francis Ford Coppola so the character was written out and a new character, Frank Pentangeli was brought in to take Clemenza’s place.

Richard S Castellano died in 1988 aged only 55.

All The Money in The World

Here is one final story concerning an actor. It is slightly different to the ones above as the actor concerned was hired for the role, he played the part, the film was completed and ready for its première and then they cut the actor out. They then recast the role and added the new actor. The actor concerned was Kevin Spacey and he appeared as J. Paul Getty in the 2017 film All the Money in the World. The film was directed by Ridley Scott and is about the kidnapping of Getty’s grandson and Getty’s refusal to pay the ransom.

After completion of the film various allegations of sexual misconduct appeared against Spacey, notably one by an actor called Anthony Rapp, who claimed Spacey had made sexual advances towards him when he was only 14. Spacey responding by apologising and saying if he had acted in that way his behaviour would have been deeply inappropriate. However more complaints against Spacey came forward and TV producers of the series House of Cards dropped Spacey from the show. It seems that the producers of All the Money in the World must have been getting nervous about their production and the possibility of Kevin Spacey spoiling their box office takings so director Ridley Scott engaged Christopher Plummer to play the part. A partial reshoot of Spacey’s scenes were done with Plummer, the film was re-edited and Spacey was out and Plummer was in.

Kevin Spacey has not worked since but I did notice an article in the news that he had been signed to play a detective in a film directed by Franco Nero.

David Lean and Nostromo

David Lean had been inactive as a director since the poor reception of his film Ryan’s Daughter. He was apparently so upset over the critics dislike of the film that he had not made another film until his adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India in 1984. That and the restoration of his classic Lawrence of Arabia, in which around 35 minutes of cuts had been edited back into the film had put him back on top of the film business.

He started pre-production on various projects in his final years. One was a version of Mutiny on the Bounty. Lean dropped out after his preferred screen writer Robert Bolt suffered from a stroke. Star Mel Gibson brought in Roger Donaldson as director and the film was finally released as the Bounty.

Lean also began work on Empire of the Sun which Steven Spielberg took over when Lean again dropped out.

David put together a stellar cast for Nostromo including Marlon Brando, Paul Schofield and Peter O’Toole. Spielberg wanted to work with his directorial hero and signed on as producer but Lean wasn’t amused when Spielberg criticised the screenplay.

Lean once again turned to Robert Bolt who had recovered somewhat from his stroke and rewrote the screenplay. Not long ago I finished Sarah Miles’ autobiography. Sarah was Bolt’s wife and she tells how Bolt and Lean began to work together again and the many meetings they had in Lean’s impressive London home. Lean had bought two warehouses in a street near to the Tower of London. He knocked one down to create a lovely garden and the other he and his wife transformed into a wonderful riverside home. There, the two worked on Nostromo. The novel was written in 1904 and is set in South America. A man called Nostromo helps hide the silver from a mine which is then used to prop up the government which the mine owner, Charles Gould, believes will bring stability to the region.

I’m not quite sure what attracted Lean to the project but he was extremely keen on the story and worked hard to complete the film. Numerous storyboards were made for the project which Lean wanted to shoot on 65mm film. The budget grew to $46 million.

David Lean sadly contracted throat cancer and became very ill just before the cameras were ready to turn. In her book Sarah tells of a phone call from set designer John Box talking about the sets that had been built at Pinewood Studios, ‘Those sets’ he said to Sarah, ‘my best work ever.’

The sets were never used. Lean passed away on 16th April 1991. He was 83 and without him, Nostromo collapsed.

There is an interesting documentary film to be found about the production of Nostromo, here is a clip I found on YouTube:


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Prisons and Prisoners in TV, Books and Film

As usual on this blog I’ll be talking about books, films and TV and what started me off on this theme of prisons and prisoners was watching my box set of the 60’s TV series the Prisoner. Anyway, I’ll get to that shortly but first let me start with a book. It’s one I reviewed earlier in the year

Papillon by Henri Charrière

Papillon is a book by Frenchman Henri Charrière. It is an autobiographical novel about Charrière’s imprisonment in the French penal colony of French Guiana and covers a period of about fifteen years. The original novel was written on a series of exercise books and is presented in just that way. Charrière describes his experience of imprisonment as a terrible one. He escaped and was recaptured many times and ended up in solitary imprisonment twice. The first time was for two years and he was kept in solitary for 24 hours a day. In his second bout of solitary a new officer takes over the running of the area and prisoners are let out for exercise every day. At one point in his escape Charrière encounters a tribe of Indians and joins them for many months, even marrying one of the Indian girls but despite finding this apparent paradise, he leaves and is imprisoned again. He eventually escapes from Devil’s Island by jumping into the sea aboard a sack filled with coconuts. The book is an incredible read and I found it one I just couldn’t put down. It is filled with action and adventure but also with thoughtful observations about the human condition and there are many moments when simple acts of kindness stand out to the author against a background of cruelty and inhumanity.

The book was an instant hit when it was published in France in 1969 and the author, Henri Charrière, nicknamed Papillon because of a tattoo of a butterfly on his chest, became a French celebrity. He died in 1973 but always maintained the book was true and based on his own recollections despite claims to the contrary. Whatever its origins the book is a true classic adventure story.

Papillon was made into a film in 1973 and on paper this should have been a brilliant film; Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman star, there was a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo and the author acted as an advisor. Actually it’s pretty poor, I’m not sure why but McQueen was not suited for the role and the writers tried to cram in all the events of a pretty hefty book into a film when there really wasn’t room. Forget the film, read the book.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

It’s a long time since I read this book and I couldn’t seem to dig my copy out so I don’t think I can be too critical. According to Wikipedia it was first published in a Soviet magazine and was only later published in book form. It’s the story of a single day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet labour camp seen through the eyes of a man called Ivan. It’s a pretty bleak book as I remember and unlike the book by Henri Charrière, it’s not a hopeful book and there is no feeling that Ivan will ever escape or would even try to escape. It is a book about survival rather than escape. The book was first published during the Khrushchev years when the new Premier Nikita Khrushchev attempted a degree of openness after the repressive years of Stalin’s rule. Author Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel prize for Literature in 1970.

The Prisoner TV Series.

Actor Patrick McGoohan was the man behind this exceptional TV series made at the end of the 1960’s. McGoohan had become a TV star with a series called Danger Man about a secret agent called John Drake and the actor had become fascinated with what would happen to a spy or agent when they decided to retire. Would their spymasters be happy to let someone with highly classified secret information emigrate for instance? On Danger Man, McGoohan met writer George Markstein and the two discussed McGoohan’s ideas. Markstein hinted that he might have had connections to the secret service in the past and told McGoohan about a top secret establishment called Inverlair Lodge in Inverness, Scotland where during the Second World War ‘recalcitrant agents were housed.’ McGoohan and producer David Tomblin, also from the Danger Man series, started their own production company, later called Everyman Films to produce a new TV series based on these ideas. McGoohan asked Tomblin and Markstein to write the script for the first episode into which he later incorporated some of his own ideas.

The basic idea was that a secret agent resigns and he is kidnapped and taken to an unknown place known only as the village. The agent was possibly John Drake from the Danger Man series but this could never be said publicly because of copyright reasons. In the village there are no names, only numbers. McGoohan plays Number Six and the chairman of the village is Number Two, played by a different actor every week. Will Number Six reveal why he has resigned? Who is running the village? Is it our side or the enemy?

McGoohan, then a hugely popular TV star went to Lew Grade, the head of the ITV network and told him he wasn’t keen on a new Danger Man series but had an idea called the Prisoner. Grade apparently said ‘you know it’s so crazy, it just might work’, and production went ahead.

In the first episode we see McGoohan driving into London in his Lotus 7 and slapping down his resignation letter on the desk of some unknown person. The man at the desk was in fact George Markstein who became the story editor of the series. McGoohan returns home to pack but then his house fills with gas rendering him unconscious. When he awakes, he is not at home but in the village.

Confused and disorientated he attempts to find out where he is and soon meets Number Two. Number Two explains that he wants to know why McGoohan resigned and that there is no escape from the village. The exteriors of the village were filmed in the Welsh village of Portmerion but the interiors, especially Number Two’s office, had a very futuristic, hi-tech feel.

Lew Grade had expected various seasons of The Prisoner but Patrick realised early on that the format was not something that could be sustained for multiple seasons so eventually he and Lew Grade agreed on making 17 episodes in order to realise a product that could be marketed to other countries, particularly the USA.

The 17 episodes all had either a mystery, sci-fi, espionage appeal or leaned towards McGoogan’s vision of an avant-garde allegory about the individual and freedom. In the first episode, Arrival, the prisoner who we come to know only as Number Six wakes up in the mysterious village. What is it all about? Why is here?

Number Two comes straight to the point, ‘why did you resign?’ he asks.

Number Six looks down at his file and observes the time of his birth is missing.

‘Let’s bring it up to date’ replies Number Two.

‘4:30 am, 19th March, 1928’ answers Six. ‘I’ve nothing more to say’ he adds slapping the file shut.

4:30am, 19th March 1928 just happens to be Patrick McGoohan’s date and time of birth so we can see just how personal The Prisoner was to him. The file photo of number Six used throughout the series was McGoohan’s own actual publicity picture.

The final episode where viewers expected everything to be explained and for Number Six to escape and find out who was Number One was a controversial episode and many viewers jammed the network in the UK complaining about the crazy ending in which a mock trial descends into a psychedelic montage of 1960’s music and imagery.

McGoohan defended himself by describing The Prisoner as an allegory when the viewers were still expecting something similar to The Saint or Man in a Suitcase, the action/ adventure and espionage series that were being filmed at the time. Today over 50 years later the Prisoner is a TV show with cult status.

The Truman Show

The Truman show is a film starring Jim Carrey. Carrey plays Truman who lives in a small town but does not realise that he is in fact the star of a reality TV show. Secret cameras film everything he does and all those around him, including his mother, his wife and best friend who are all actors in on the secret. The TV show is the brainchild of Christof, a producer/director played by Ed Harris. As the film unfolds we gradually realise that Truman is becoming aware of things that are not right; a spotlight that falls from the sky, people who approach him and want to talk but are hustled away by strange people, an office building where no one is working and his wife who seems to announce the benefits of various products as if she is in a TV advert.

The film is based on an episode of the Twilight Zone. A man getting ready for work finds a camera in his bathroom and realises he is being secretly filmed. It turns out that unknown to him, he is the star of a reality TV show. The producers take him aside and explain what a hit the show is and how much money he could be making. Why not carry on as if he never found out the truth they ask. Keep the show running. No one would ever know.

The man decides to just carry on with his life and allow the filming and the money to continue. In some ways I think that might even be a better storyline than the Truman show. Either way, this film is a really interesting look at the current reality TV genre and flips the whole concept on its head. Carrey is great in what is really his first dramatic role too. The most telling moment comes at the end when the whole world has been glued to the last episode. When it has finished one of the enthralled TV viewers asks ‘what’s on now?’

So, are we all prisoners then, prisoners trying to break free from either the bars of our cell or from the restrictions imposed on us by modern living, the media or society itself?

As they say in The Prisoner, ‘be seeing you!’


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TV, Westerns and The Outlaw

Once upon a time Howard Hughes was the richest man in the world. In today’s society being the richest man requires some serious wealth and Howard Hughes ticked all the financial boxes you can think of. He inherited his father’s tool company when he was very young. Too young in fact to take control but he found a law that said if he could prove he was capable of running the company then he could take control. He proved he could and did just that, took control. His father had designed a tool bit that was essential to America’s oil industry but instead of selling the drill bit he patented it and then rented it out. Howard Hughes though had other ambitions which did not involve oil or drilling but the profits from the Hughes Tool Company were vital for his ambitions in aviation and film making.

Hughes combined those two interests in making the WW1 movie ‘Hell’s Angels’ about fighter pilots and for the shoot he assembled the largest private air force in the world. Towards the end of the shooting, sound pictures made their appearance so what did Howard do? He reshot the entire film with sound equipment!

The_Outlaw-poster-trimAnother movie Hughes made that is famous, or perhaps infamous, was the 1943 Movie ‘Outlaw’ starring Jane Russell. Hughes appeared to be obsessed with Jane’s breasts, even to the extent of designing a new bra for her and reshooting a famous close up of her time after time. Hughes clearly had some psychological issues; he was a compulsive, obsessive man. He usually had the same meal when he went out with one of the many starlets he courted. Jane Greer recounted in a TV interview how Hughes would eat things in the same order; the peas first, then the potatoes and finally the meat. Once when they dined Hughes came back to the table and Jane noticed that his shirt was wet. Hughes had spilt something onto his shirt so he had washed the shirt in the men’s room, rinsed and squeezed it out, then put it back on.

As his mental health deteriorated, Hughes retreated into a world of blacked out penthouse suites and midnight telephone calls to his army of assistants, some of whom were private investigators keeping close tabs on anyone Hughes had an interest in, particularly starlets he had signed to personal contracts and his girlfriends like Katharine Hepburn or Jean Peters whom he later married.

Anyway, this isn’t a post about Hughes, it’s about TV and looking through my old posts I noticed a couple that caught my attention. One was about Hughes and I have to confess, I pinched the text above from that post, and another was about my life as a couch potato and avid TV viewer. A few days ago, staying at my mother’s house I once again had a few couch potato days. On the first one I was tapping away on my laptop with the TV on but no sound. On Mum’s old TV you can go through the on screen menu and choose programmes you want to watch and the TV will flip to that channel at the appointed time. It was Saturday afternoon and even though that Saturday’s post had just been published, as usual I was already worrying about the next one.

As I looked up from my laptop I could see a new film had started. I switched on the volume and was surprised to find it was The Outlaw, the Hughes film I mentioned above. I had never seen the film and everything I knew about it came from either books, documentaries or films like the Aviator, the Martin Scorsese film about Hughes himself. Hughes filmed The Outlaw in 1941 but had trouble with the film censors of the time. He had to cut half a minute from the film where the camera had lingered for too long on Jane Russell’s ample bosom. 20th Century Fox however decided not to release the film thinking perhaps it was too hot to handle. Hughes decided to build his publicity on that very idea. The film was released for a quick showing and then Hughes put the film under wraps for the next few years while his publicity people whipped up controversy and hysteria, meaning that when it opened in 1946, released finally by RKO, the film was a huge hit.

Even over half a century later people like me are still liable to be caught up in the controversy because I always thought the film was about Rio, the character played by Jane Russell and was of a risqué nature, or at least as risqué as films could get in 1941. I have to admit I missed the beginning of the film the other day and the famous scene of Jane Russell in the hay must have occurred either before I looked up from my laptop or when I was in the kitchen making a brew.

Hughes seemed to be obsessed with Jane’s breasts and wasn’t happy with the way they looked on screen, so much so he designed a new cantilevered bra for her, perhaps the first push up bra ever made. Russell later claimed that the bra was a nightmare to wear so she simply used her own but padded the cups with tissue, which apparently achieved the effect that Hughes wanted.

The action, such as it was, seemed to revolve around the friendship which blossomed between Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday which seems to make Pat Garrett very jealous as he considered himself a better friend to the Doc than Billy. It was actually a quirky sort of film. Walter Huston, father of film director John, played the part of Doc Holliday and Jack Buetel, an actor I don’t think I’ve heard of before, played Billy.

Billy the Kid has been portrayed a number of times in films, as have Pat Garrett and Doc Holliday. Paul Newman played Billy in The Left Handed Gun, a part originally earmarked for James Dean until Dean was killed in a car crash. In the 1970’s Sam Peckinpah directed Pat Garret and Billy The Kid starring James Coburn as Pat Garret and Kris Kristofferson as Billy. Bob Dylan also had a small part as well as writing the music for the film including the hit single Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.

Billy the Kid was killed in 1881 by Pat Garrett. There were rumours however that Pat staged Billy’s death so that he would be free of pursuit by the law. That scenario was used in the end of The Outlaw, although in the film it was Doc Holliday who gets the bullet but it was Billy’s name on the gravestone.

One of my favourite cowboy/outlaw films has to be Jesse James, the 1939 film starring Tyrone Power as Jesse and Henry Fonda as his brother. The film was so successful that they made a sequel, The Return of Frank James starring Henry Fonda as Frank on track to find his brother’s killer.

Two more outlaws whose fame has lasted right down to the present day were Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and the two were played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford in a film called just that: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I saw a film programme a while back on the BBC where Paul Newman explained that screenwriter William Goldman had approached him about making the film and starring as Butch. Various people were suggested for the Sundance Kid and Newman even met with Steve McQueen about the part but eventually it was Robert Redford who won the role.

The film was released in 1969 but has a very 1970’s feel about it. There is even a musical interlude in the film where Paul Newman tries out a new fangled bicycle with Sundance’s girlfriend Etta to the tune of Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head.

My two favourite westerns both star John Wayne, the quintessential cowboy hero. Wayne starred in The Searchers, directed by John Ford. Wayne stars as a civil war veteran whose niece has been kidnapped by a band of warlike Commanches. Ethan Edwards takes his adoptive nephew on a long search for the kidnapped girl until they finally rescue her.

My other favourite is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Lee Marvin plays a brilliant part in that of Liberty Valance, a mean, no good bully who terrorises a western town until lawyer James Stewart manages to shoot him dead, or so we think. Later, when Stewart decides he is unwilling to base his career on being the man who shot Valance, John Wayne reveals what really happened.

Back in the fifties and sixties was probably the heyday of cowboy films and TV shows. Today it seems that the western is a genre that has been almost forgotten. As a schoolkid I was an avid watcher of The Lone Ranger, Branded, The Virginian, Bonanza, Casey Jones and many others. One of my favourites was Alias Smith and Jones, a series about two outlaws, Kid Curry and Hannibal Hayes who are on the run but have been offered an amnesty on the condition that they give up crime and go straight. They adopt new identities, that of Smith and Jones and try to live law abiding lives. It was a great series with some excellent episodes but in December 1971, Pete Duel, the actor who had played Hannibal Hayes committed suicide. Another actor was substituted in the role but the series was never as popular afterwards.

Another great western was Kung Fu. Kung Fu was an oddball western in many ways; it was about a half Chinese, half American called Kwai Chang Caine played by David Carradine. Caine becomes a Shaolin monk after he has been taken in by the monastery as an orphan. Caine has been tutored in the Buddhist religion and martial arts by master Po. When Po is murdered by the Emperor’s son, Caine retaliates and kills him. Now with a price on his head Caine flees to the USA. In the USA of the old west, Caine encounters many situations which then cause him to reflect on his own upbringing and tutoring in China, shown in many flashback sequences. Caine defends himself in many situations with his mastery of Kung Fu and the series became not only a great success but the forerunner in a world wide Kung Fu craze with many Hong Kong martial arts films also becoming popular.

The western film and TV shows seemed to have all fizzled out by the end of the 1970’s. Perhaps these days audiences prefer sci fi series like Star Wars and Star Trek. Tastes change of course and one day perhaps audiences will once again want more westerns. For now I think I’ll settle down after a busy shift, pour myself a glass of wine and wind down with my copy of John Ford’s The Searchers.


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The Film of the Book or the Book of the Film Pt 3

Papillon by Henri Charrière

Papillon is a book by Frenchman Henri Charrière. It is an autobiographical novel about Charrière’s imprisonment in the French penal colony of French Guiana and covers a period of about fifteen years. The original novel was written on a series of exercise books and is presented in just that way. Charrière describes his experience of imprisonment as a terrible one. He escaped and was recaptured many times and ended up in solitary imprisonment twice. The first time was for two years and he was kept in solitary for 24 hours a day. In his second bout of solitary a new officer takes over the running of the area and prisoners are let out for exercise every day. At one point in his escape Charrière encounters a tribe of Indians and joins them for many months, even marrying one of the Indian girls but despite finding this apparent paradise, he leaves and is imprisoned again. He eventually escapes from Devil’s Island by jumping into the sea aboard a sack filled with coconuts. The book is an incredible read and I found it one I just couldn’t put down. It is filled with action and adventure but also with thoughtful observations about the human condition and there are many moments when simple acts of kindness stand out to the author against a background of cruelty and inhumanity.

The book was an instant hit when it was published in France in 1969 and the author, Henri Charrière, nicknamed Papillon because of a tattoo of a butterfly on his chest, became a French celebrity. He died in 1973 but always maintained the book was true and based on his own recollections despite claims to the contrary. Whatever its origins the book is a true classic adventure story.

The Film

On paper this should have been a brilliant film; Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman star, there was a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr and music by Jerry Goldsmith. The director was Franklin J Shaffner, who I’ve not heard of but there are plenty of big names involved who would normally guarantee a great film. They even had author Henri Charrière who acted as an advisor to the production. Somehow though, they managed to turn out something of a dud. It’s hard to put the finger on what went wrong but reviewer Robert Ebert said the big flaw was that the audience failed to gain interest in the McQueen and Hoffman characters. I think the big problem was that the book was a long book, packed with incident and instead of trying to cram the whole book into a film, perhaps the producers should have concentrated on just a part of it. Steve McQueen was a reasonable actor and he was good in basic action roles but I just don’t think he was good enough to play Papillon. The film skips over many interesting elements of the book and at the end of the film when Charrière is imprisoned on Devil’s Island, McQueen appears to be an old man which wasn’t the case in real life. My advice: Don’t bother with the film, read the book.

The Wooden Horse by Eric Williams

I’ve been trying to remember which came first for me, the book or the film. After some reflection, it was probably the film but I read the book soon afterwards. I found a copy in a box of paperbacks someone had given to my Father. The book is a classic escape story from World War II. It’s a great read and the story starts with a usual day in the POW camp which consists of tea making, cooking and cleaning and exercising by walking a circuit around the camp. The author, real life escapee Eric Williams, tells the reader about the everyday problems of living in a hut full of bored officers looking forward to either red cross parcels, letters from home or escaping. The problems of escaping are many. The soil is soft and sandy meaning that a tunnel would be liable to collapse and the soil cleared from underground is different to the grey topsoil making it difficult to hide from the German guards. The main problem is the distance from the huts to the camp perimeter but the author and a friend hit on the idea of taking a vaulting horse and placing it near to the perimeter fence and having a tunnel dug from there with the prisoners exercised by vaulting over the horse and masking the escape operation. The POW camp, Stalag Luft III was also the same camp where the events depicted in The Great Escape took place.

The Film

The film is pretty faithful to the book and stars the usual stalwarts of British films in the 1950’s, actors like Leo Genn, Anthony Steel and David Tomlinson. It’s a nicely paced film showing the boredom of camp life and then the idea for the vaulting horse and its preparation and use. Various problems have to be overcome including tunnel cave ins and disposal of the resulting excavated sand but all goes well. The two escapees decide to add another man to their escape team and one night the three emerge from the tunnel into freedom. Of course the escape is not over; two of the men make their way to the Baltic port of Lubeck and manage to escape to neutral Sweden with the help of the Danish resistance by stowing away on a Danish ship. The third escapee also makes his way to freedom separately and all three meet up in neutral Sweden.

On her Majesty’s Secret Service by Ian Fleming

This book as you probably know is one of the James Bond series of books and is one of the last in the series. As usual, the book is well written and James Bond 007 is on the lookout for Ernst Stavro Blofeld whose fiendish plot was thwarted by Bond in the previous book, Thunderball. In this one Bond is close to resigning but after being given some holiday leave from work, meets a young girl, Tracy, who appears to be suicidal. After saving her from one such attempt Bond is introduced to her father Draco, who is head of a Corsican crime syndicate. Draco gives Bond a lead on Blofeld who appears to be trying to establish that he is in fact a baronet. Anyway, without going on and explaining the plot in detail, the book is an excellent read, one of the best in the Bond series.

The Film

The film was notable for being the first in the film franchise without Sean Connery as James Bond. Connery was tired of playing the part and so a search for a new Bond had begun. The new actor chosen was George Lazenby whose only claim to fame at the time was appearing in a TV advertisement for a Big Fry chocolate bar. For me, Lazenby was the perfect Bond. He looked the part, in fact I’ve always thought that he fitted Ian Fleming’s description perfectly. The film is a fast paced thriller and is one of the more serious of the Bond films. Diana Rigg plays Contessa Tracy Di Vincezo who Bond saves from a suicide attempt, just as he does in the book. Tracy’s father Marc Ange Draco who happens to be an underworld boss, gives Bond a tip as to Blofeld’s whereabouts. Bond, masquerading as Sir Hilary Bray, a representative of the College of Arms meets Blofeld in Switzerland on the pretext of confirming Blofeld as a baronet. Bond arrives at the ski resort of Piz Gloria and finds Blofeld is engaged on a new plot against the UK. The film throws in some great fight scenes, car chases and also an exciting ski chase sequence. It was directed by Peter Hunt and is still a favourite today amongst Bond fans. Sadly Lazenby decided not to play Bond again and Sean Connery returned for another outing as 007 in Diamonds are Forever.

Hamish Macbeth

This last entry is a little of a cheat really as the Hamish Macbeth series of books were made into a TV series rather than a film but here we go anyway.

Robert Carlyle played the eponymous TV police officer in the BBC series which first aired in 1995. The series is about a local Bobby based in the village of Lochdubh in the Scottish Highlands. Macbeth applies the rule of law in his own way and dispenses his own brand of laid back justice. Although successful at solving numerous crimes Macbeth avoids promotion in order to stay in the village.

Three series of Hamish Macbeth were produced with six episodes each. Although the series was based on the books by MC Beaton, the TV series differs greatly from the books, with new characters devised by the TV producers and various other aspects changed. I enjoyed the series enormously and even once visited Plockton, the Highland village that doubles for Lochdubh on television. MC Beaton, whose real name is Marion Chesney, apparently hated the TV production which I can understand as they changed her work considerably, adding and changing characters. I have to say though, I’ve always liked it.

Death of A Dreamer by MC Beaton

I picked up this copy of one of MC Beaton’s books in a second hand bookshop in Skipton. At first I wasn’t sure if it was a book for me but I soon settled into the story and it bumbles along nicely with a few twists and turns on the way. A lady artist, Effie Gerrard, arrives in the village and develops an obsession with another artist named Jock. Later Effie is found dead. Was it a suicide or was it murder? The police decide it was suicide but Hamish is not so sure and he decides to make further investigations.

In the books Hamish has a dog and a wild cat as pets unlike the TV show where his only pet is ‘Wee Jock’, a highland Westie dog. The book is heavy on dialogue and light on descriptive passages but it was an easy and enjoyable read and I liked it immensely. The only annoying thing was that after finishing the book, the first chapter of the next book had been added to tempt the reader I suppose into buying that one. I read that and found myself wanting the next book in the series so it might be time to begin scouring the bookshops of St Annes for more books in the series.


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