Monday 30 September 2019

On Blu-ray - David Hare at last discovers the joys of THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM (Michael Anderson, UK, 1968)

"ever luscious Senta Berger, The Quiller Memorandum
(click on any image for a slideshow)

"Excuse me, do you have a light?"


"Do you smoke this brand?"

"No, I don't think I know that brand."

"Perhaps I might introduce it to you?"

"Thank You"
This inspired twaddle from screenwriter Harold Pinter and presumably the original author of the novel by Trevor Dudley Smith, AKA Adam Hall, is the code used in The Quiller Memorandum from the year 1968 with which assorted "agents" from "Our" side signal recognition.
Alec Guinness
This is only the beginning of a movie set in 1967 Berlin which never once alludes to the Cold war, or the Wall, or the Communists and the quarantined East Berlin regime. 
In fact, the notion of cold war which might have been the movie's signature, is instead buried beneath a kind of re-invented espionage thriller apparently dealing with hidden "neo-Nazis", although even that definition is largely unspoken in favor of the adjective "extreme." 
Pinter's completely extraordinary screenplay for this very smart movie not only deconstructs the spy genre but purposefully drains it of most, if not all, tension, and the usual nailbiting that goes hand in hand with the genre. There is one car chase and one very mutely conducted drug induced inquisition from the wonderful Max von Sydow in close-up, along with only one killing at the beginning, and two aborted killings later, in what is more or less the climax of the picture. 
"overly unctuous" George Segal
Pinter really goes to town with his trademark "pointless" dialogue for supporting players George Sanders, Alec Guinness from the opening and at the end, as well as Bobby Helpmann through the picture. Each only play three scenes. The three of them are flawless performers for Pinter's universe of non-communication, a curse of the civilised human condition with which he joyously plunders the spy genre.
Michael Anderson who directed this with great efficiency and attention to detail, was never going to set the temple of auteurism on fire. Anderson’s 1956 Around the World in 80s Days is surely one of the most turgid motion pictures ever made. But it feels as though Pinter's elusive and evasive writing leads Anderson into highly personal mise-en-scène territory. 
Max Von Sydow
Two examples: He films the opening sequence of the first agent being murdered with one long 90-second wide shot and a single cutaway to the telephone booth. In the last ten minutes, to open the penultimate sequence he uses precisely the same set-ups down to the time cue but the screenplay aborts any killing, and denies us the obvious expectation. 
Similarly, in the one big love scene between ever luscious Senta Berger and overly unctuous George Segal (whose haminess  seems supremely if contrapuntally apt for this endlessly amusing picture), rather than simply stage and film the love scene with medium close, close and reverse close shots, he arranges four setups/angles for the two shots and continuously cuts between them during real time, effectively alternating and multiplying the point of view and disrupting any predictable immersion in the sequence. The distancing effect is outstanding. 
Robert Helpmann
Somehow or other I missed this movie over the decades although I'm as much a fan of espionage as the next overgrown boy-man. Anderson's achievement here, with the very personal ring of Pinter's world view, is a unique entry in the field I think. While not generically similar I would rank this picture as highly as another unnoticed and rarely praised British masterpiece from the crooked cop/kitchen sink school from the same year 1968 as David Greene's The Strange Affair with Jeremy Kemp and MIchael York, from a Jeremy Thoms novel. 
The screens are all from a very fine Twilight Time Blu-ray which easily beats the UK Network release for superior grading, color, and picture quality. Buy, if you can still get your hands on it.

Sunday 29 September 2019

Jewish International Film Festival - 3 Films of interest to students of the history of the cinema

The JIFF is going on in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane and Perth. For details of films, session times and tickets click here for the festival website. The information below is taken from the website

Carl Laemmle (James L. Freedman USA, 2019, 91 MIN)  
“A heartfelt tribute to one of the great Jews of early Hollywood.” — Atlanta Jewish Times

A German Jewish immigrant, Carl Laemmle (left) was one of the great creative minds behind the modern motion picture business. After creating Universal Pictures in 1912, Laemmle would go on to give many Hollywood legends their starts, including Walt Disney, John Ford and Irving Thalberg. He also hired many female directors and made Lois Weber the highest paid director on his lot. Under Laemmle’s leadership, Universal would become known for its classic monster movies, mostly notably The Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein and Dracula. After selling the studio in 1936, Laemmle would go on battle Adolf Hitler’s government and a notoriously anti-Semitic U.S. State Department, and ultimately rescue over 300 Jewish refugee families from Nazi Germany. 

Curtiz (Tamas Yvan Topolanszky, HUNGARY, 2019, 98 MIN)
 “Bound to make cinephiles everywhere very happy... very sophisticated.” 
— Cineuropa 

It’s 1942 and America is on the brink of war. Facing government pressure, Jewish Hungarian-born lm director Michael Curtiz is given the opportunity to direct a new propaganda film,Casablanca. However, Curtiz’s focus is pulled in every direction as he contends with his estranged daughter to help his sister flee Nazi oppression, and the decision of what his protagonist Rick should choose in the end of the lm. Shot in stylish black-and-white, Curtiz recreates the Hungarian auteur’s struggle and sacrifice as he produces the masterpiece that went on to win the 1944 Best Film and Director Academy Awards. 

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (Rob Garver USA, 2018, 95 MIN)  
“An exquisitely crafted documentary about the woman who was arguably the greatest movie critic who ever lived.” 
— Variety 

Pauline Kael is among the most famous and divisive lm critics of all time, and a key figure in the world of 20th century cinema. Her praise helped uplift the careers of Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and others, while her put downs left lasting wounds that reverberated around the world. Kael was a pioneering Jewish woman full of intellectual verve in a male chauvinistic environment. Her words could launch a career and mobilise audiences. This nuanced portrait captures her complexity while revisiting late-twentieth-century cinema through her lens, using a myriad of film clips, never-before-seen archival footage, wide-ranging interviews and Kael’s  writings voiced by Sarah Jessica Parker. 

Tuesday 24 September 2019

Streaming on SBS On Demand - RAVEN/KRUK (Dir: Maciej Pieprzyca, Scr: Jakub Karolczuk)

Times used to be when the two Polish films at the film festival used to be amongst the most anticipated. If Andrzej Wajda had made a film that year, the authorities permitting its export, that would be one and there would be another by the likes of Alexander Ford, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Kazimierz Kutz, Jerzy Skolimowski, Kryzstof Zanussi, Wojciech Has or more. We would get allegories about the power of the state, comedies about bureaucracy, youthful exuberance and rebellion, Cybulski and Olbrychski and Kyrstina Janda and Beata Tiskiewicz. Into the 80s young directors emerged to take on the very same subjects, often very extravagantly, even more ferociously, but hiding their purposes and intentions of bringing down the whole apparatus behind surreal moments, youthful exuberance and rebellion.

I still remember one of my three nights in Warsaw when an acquaintance from Film Polski invited me home and we were joined by Filip Bajon, Janus Kijowski and Peter Sczulkin. The Melbourne Film Festival had just added Kieslowski and Feliks Falk to its roster of discoveries and the amazing actor, later director, Jerzy Stuhr was coming to prominence. I was told that the next big thing was a young woman Agnieszka Holland who had just made a movie called Provincial Actors  which in 1978 had won a major prize at CannesThat night I discovered that the joke about the New Zealander and the failed brain transplant was an old Polish anti-Russian jest.

Then, around about the time that Lech Walensa brought the edifice down it all stopped. The state-based production system clogged up, went broke and, more importantly film-makers, seemed to lose their subject and their mojo.

Michal Zurawski in the title role Kruk/Raven
It all came flooding back, pardon any memory lapses, when I started watching Kruk/Raven  a six part police procedural directed by Maciej Pieprzyca from a script Jakub Karolczuk It's produced by Canal+ and is screening without anybody seeming to notice on SBS on demand. (Then again it's dangerous in days when you've stopped reading newspapers to suggest that the media might have missed it. Who knows...)

Kruk is a cop with a sore neck and, inevitably, an addiction. He has the usual trope of having narrowly escaped child sexual abuse in an orphanage but he is accompanied by a constant presence -the grown up version of the boy whom he sent in his place to visit the superintendent and who suicided immediately thereafter. He also has a pregnant wife.

Kruk is sent off from Lodz to Bialystock to ostensibly investigate cigarette smuggling but darker things are afoot - including, in the station he's assigned to, a whole panoply of corrupt and violent cops with guilty secrets . One cop even has a local goon squad he calls on to do his dirty work.  Kruk initially demonstrates seeming psychic powers by uncovering a a little robbery but then he's off on the big one, uncovering the secrets of the paedophile ring from long ago from which he harbours his own guilty secret.

Kruk has to battle against forces of power but also against spiritual forces summoned up  by an old lady and  does it despite the mind-bending fug of the pain-killing drugs he needs to function and the constant harping of his imaginary accompanist, the ghost from the orphanage past. All of this is played out in the darkest of Polish winters where the sky and the townscape are just different shades of dirty grey.

In the end, having solved the crime, having seen most of the main characters off by either shooting or suicide, Kruk is curled up with his pregnant wife and the ghost, now once again a child seems to happily move on. It suggests more to come.

I can't say I've even been checking out the Polish films at the Sydney Film Festival or going to the Polish Film Festival for a long time so who knows...  That was because I thought the days of the Poles surprising us, drilling down into a society where everybody is on the take or the make, were well and truly over but...not so.

Monday 23 September 2019

Vale John Richardson - Kevin Anderson pays tribute to a pioneer of the modern Australian film industry

Vale John Richardson.
Sunday September 22nd marked the passing of Melbourne producer/writer/director John Richardson, head of Kestrel Media Company. He was 89. 
Kestrel Films team
Back Row: Shane Watson, Evelyn Cronk, David Greig, Stephanie Wherret, Eddie Moses, Kevin Anderson
Front Row: Colin Tregenza, John Richardson, Julie Guthrie
John had been a producer at the ABC before setting up his own production company Kestrel Film Productions with his wife Valerie, David Morgan as director/editor, and secretary, Jan Tourrier. John’s stock-in-trade was the so-called ‘sponsored documentary,’ before it later diminished to become known as the ‘corporate video.’ During the less litigious late sixties and early seventies major companies like BHP could venture into quality film productions, which were mainly produced through their PR departments. While most of these films disappeared into various company vaults or skips, some made it to the commercial screen as supporting shorts.
One of Kestrel’s biggest clients was BHP and John had made the documentary Digger Rig for them in the late sixties, recording life on the ‘Ocean Digger’ oil rig in Bass Strait. The film established a single rigger named ‘Andy’ and through him we learned about the operation of the rig as well as his role on it, a model John would pursue in many other films. The success of this film led to John being given the budget to make a wildlife documentary in Bass Strait. The film he produced was a poetic short called Solstice, a paean to the large variety of wildlife that called Bass Strait home. John brought his many skills and sense of excellence to bear on this beautiful film which was shot by Tom Cowan and had a wonderful score written by Bruce Smeaton. Instead of a conventional narration, John created a poem which was performed by Barry Hill, one of the great voices of the time. The only reference to the sponsor was their logo at the end of the film. 
I first met John at a job interview. I was working at the ABC in January 1972 and was languishing in the news and current affairs editing department, when I heard of a job as a Production Assistant at Kestrel Film Productions. I hopped on my motorcycle and rode from Elsternwick to Richmond and got the job. I had already seen Solstice at the Union Theatre at Melbourne University, where it played as a short supporting a feature film, common practice in those days. 
Two weeks later I was in Rabaul in Papua New Guinea as a Production Assistant working with Cinematographer Ron Bollman and Sound Recordist Cliff Curll. The film was called My Brother Wartovo and was sponsored by Shell. The film focused on three brothers, one a university student, another as bus driver on Bougainville and ‘Wartovo,’ a villager based near Rabaul in New Britain. The contrasting lives of the brothers, as well as their physical dislocation, served as a metaphor for the country. Independence elections were held in PNG while we were there, resulting in the formation of a government headed by Chief Minister Michael Somare who then lead the country to independence the following year. 
Since leaving Swinburne School of Film and Television I had been working on several film ideas and one night over dinner I pitched one to John and asked him if he would support me by letting me use his camera and editing equipment. To my great surprise he agreed and the finished film was The King of the Two Day Wonder (1978). Some time after our return to Australia I became Kestrel’s House Cinematographer and spent most of my time immersed in making films, professionally and in my own time.
Kestrel’s offices were located at 575 Church Street in Richmond, the ground floor of a two-storey building, the upper floor being the premises of a cheap garment importer. While on a tram-line the building was somewhat isolated from other industry practitioners, although John Bowring was soon to move into a few rooms about a mile away in Church Street in his first tentative iteration of his company Lemac. 
With each production John would invest some of the profits into filmmaking equipment, the prize piece being a second-hand 16mm Moviola. While this ran at sync speed it was noisy and cantankerous, often devouring film and audio tape as well. More reliable was the Formica editing bench John and David had fashioned into a crude double-system editing system, consisting of a HKS 16mm viewer connected loosely to a 6-gang synchroniser with sound reader via small screws that were dropped through holes drilled into the table top. You could run up to five soundtracks at once on this hand cranked Heath Robinson contraption. With some experience you could wind at an approximation of sync speed - 24 frames per second in those days - to be able to edit dialogue. David Morgan became very proficient at this and edited much of ‘My Brother Wartovo’ this way and would then check his edits on the Moviola. 
Tony Stevens was also an early staff member and edited my first film The King of the Two Day Wonder, before going on to become one of Melbourne’s pre-eminent and most highly respected documentary editors. Fellow Swinburne Alumni David Greig also joined Kestrel as film editor, writer and director and remained there until John called it stumps.
Confining himself to the sponsored film John and Kestrel itself remained somewhat under the radar. Such was John’s relationship with his clients however he also had a great deal of freedom, both in his subject matter and in the way in which he treated the resulting films. When BHP’s Oil and Gas Division Hematite wanted to make a film set in Bass Strait, John produced The Birders (1975), an ethnographic record of the Mutton Bird industry as carried out on the Furneaux Group of Islands. Many of the people involved in this cottage industry were descendants of Tasmanian Aboriginals and the film remains a touching historical record of their involvement.
Unlike other production houses Kestrel's films had a human quality, even if the subject matter was a truck making a journey to a mining town. John Richardson understood the nature of 'story', telling me to always get close ups of the people so that the audience could become involved in the people first, and then in what they were doing.
John’s first encounter with the filmmaking funding bureaucracy was in 1983 when he produced and directed the film of Frank Dalby Davidson’s Dusty starring Bill Kerr. This was John’s first feature film and was followed by the television series of the same name.
Across the years Kestrel provided a great training ground for generations of industry professionals, many of whom are still working in the industry. John was once asked how he wanted to be remembered and he replied ‘As a good businessman,’ and he managed to keep Kestrel going through often tumultuous times by modernising and streamlining as needed. 
One of John’s lessons as you approached the end of the editing process was to always go back to the rushes before you signed off on the cut, something that I still do. In this way you check if there are any moments of gold that you may have resigned to the ‘outs’ reel, or just simply forgotten about. 
While Kestrel wasn’t necessarily regarded as ‘mainstream,’ many industry professionals passed through its doors and were impressed by what John had achieved and by the sheer spirit of the place, as well as the professional example he set. John was a great mentor to me personally, and also to many others. 
My condolences to John’s wife Valerie and their children Sophie, Alex, Digby, Tom and their families.

Sunday 22 September 2019

The Road to Pordenone - Barrie Pattison checks out his old haunts in Paris

It's a kind of nightmare. 

Nicholas Ray
You get to Paris and the Cinémathèque is doing simultaneous tributes to Phillippe Garrel and Nick Ray.  Their forties French season isn't all that good either. Surprise is that it doesn't make all that much difference.

The Forum des Images steps in to fill the void with L'Étrange Film Festival - an extraordinary, elective event putting a Marcel Herbier, that has only had one showing since its first run in 1924, opposite Al Adamson's Satan's Sadists.

Come to Daddy
I concentrated on the new releases, each of which was a grabber. New Zealand's Ant Timpson made Come to Daddy, an Irish co-production filmed in British Columbia with Hollywood stars. Add fashion photographer Alice Waddington's Paradise Hills, the animated Aragne (Saku Sakamoto, Japan, 2018) and Chicago's Jennifer Reeder's Knives and Skins.

Across the river in the Desperado re-named Studio Écoles re-named Écoles Cinema Club, they were running Mikio Naruse and Sacha Guitry in parallel.

In all this wealth of choice the two films which I most enjoyed were the Naruse Nagareru (Flowing, Japan, 1956) with Hideko Takamine in a fifties geisha house, and the new Woody Allen, A Rainy Day in New York which is having a troubled release. These films have in common that they invite you into their makers’ unique worlds. 
More on all this if I get the chance.  Writing them up adds to the pleasure of seeing them.

Thursday 19 September 2019

Streaming on SBS On Demand - SPIRAL (Series 7, France 2019)

Dated as 2019 with SBS's own subtitles also from this year…after fifteen years it comes to this…

Caroline Proust (Laure Berthaud)
Series 7 starts out badly for the two leading women who have been on the journey since Series 1. Laure Berthaud is suffering post-natal depression, is in rehab and doesn’t want to know her child. Josephine Karlsson is on remand in prison, accused of murdering the man whom only she knows is her rapist. Tintin has gone off to a quieter life, having been applalled by Gilou’s criminal behaviour in Series 6 in which his marriage fell apart. Roban is fighting a brain tumour. Herville is running the police station in one of the toughest neighborhoods. He barely lasts beyond the credits of episode one when he’s perfunctorily murdered sitting in a local Chinese restaurant. 

The frailty and the vulnerability identified by Mark Pierce in his earlier note is on full display. The willingness of cops to take risks, the way the law hampers justice, all backgrounded by the acute sense of a city throbbing with life and adventure and cops struggling to keep up. Even a routine matter involving a couple of young fraudsters fleecing pensioners via their electricity bill almost goes belly-up as a result of dereliction of duty. 

But as it steams towards the end this time there is rekindled love, sacrifice, honesty, loyalty all amid the twisting compromises of a legal system which tries to protect all rights and inevitably can’t get it right. 

The final episodes have been directed by Jean-Philippe Amar and they bring some changes of style. I don’t know why, suddenly, many scenes begin with reflections in pools of water. There seem to be more random shots, not scene setters, of elegant bits of Paris filmed from moving cars. But everytime we get back to Laure, Gilou, Beckriche, Bremont, JP, Nico, Tom, Josephine, Edelman, le juge Roban and Didier, the magic spell resumes. 

Finally, there are resolutions and the barest hint of some happy endings. 

No cliffhanger this time. 

It must be done and dusted.

Wednesday 18 September 2019

John Baxter's Adventures in the Movie Trade (4) - An encounter with Don Siegel after watching DIRTY HARRY

Editor's Note: Paris-based Australian expat John Baxter sent in this memoir after reading David Hare's review of Don Siegel's The Lineup. You can read David's note if you click here

Don Siegel
February 1972 was a better time than most for me to discover the United States. While the last Christmas trees were still clogging up the trash, Richard Nixon gratified the long-time science fiction reader in me by inaugurating the Space Shuttle program.  Later in the year he would make his visit to China, and, less publicly, send in the burglars to bug Democrat headquarters in the Watergate.  America was not only satisfying all my hopes but exceeding them.

Cresting the Hollywood Hills on US101 we took the off-ramp onto Lankershim, skirting the edge of the San Fernando Valley. 

“Guess that’s it,” said Mary Lou, my driver, as we pulled up at the gate of Universal Pictures. Above our heads, a stubby tower of black glass blotted out the morning sun. From his penthouse office, Universal president Lew Wasserman could look out over the film industry of which he was, by common consent, the chief architect. That I would one day meet him, introduced by the director of The Creature From the Black Lagoon,  was of an improbablity verging on the surreal.

The guard who bent to peer into Mary Lou’s ten-year-old Pinto made no comment on its smoky exhaust and the duct tape repairing the back seats. Poverty and success were the twin faces of show business, separated by the thin-ness of a coin.

“Do you have an appointment?” 
Lew Wasserman

Mary Lou handed him the documentation showing that I came with the blessing of the US State Department, anointed under its program to aid scholars from less fortunate nations, among which Australia apparently ranked. Perks included the services of Mary Lou, my amiable volunteer guide. Without her Pinto and intimate knowledge of Greater Los Angeles, the City of Angels would long since have swallowed me up. 

(As an added bonus, she was also the former daughter-in-law of an important figure in Hollywood special effects, responsible for, among other tasks, parting the Red Sea at the orders of Charlton Heston’s Moses. She had asked him how it was done, and, this being Hollywood, he gave an order – I always imagined it being delivered in Chuck’s Stentorian tones: “Behold His mighty hand!” – and a detailed photographic breakdown was created, complete with custom box the size of a large suitcase. It still sat in her loft, from where we wrestled it down one afternoon. Portions found their way into the book. Wonderful place, Hollywood. 

The chain link gate rolled back squeakily.

“Park over there,” said the guard, “and wait for your driver.”

In an industry as tightly unionised as the American cinema, there was no prospect that we would be left to find our own way to the person I was there to meet. Time to reflect of the improbability of my being there in the first place.  I was about to meet one of my most admired artists, an occasion which, when I was  growing up in an Australian country town,  would have appeared as impossible as walking on the moon.  What was a kid from outback Australia doing here?

After ten minutes,  a member in good standing of Teamsters Local 399 arrived at the wheel of a pink and white electric golf cart decorated with an incongruous fringed roof.  Grizzled, and with ham-like arms crawling with tattoos, he would have looked more at home in the cab of an 18-wheeler. However he seemed cheerful enough. After all, he was in the movies!

Universal Studios (2019)
Beyond the tower, the only buildings of any size were sound stages. White-painted, uniform and unremarkable, ranged along wide concrete alleys, they were a reminder that Hollywood’s “dream factory” was, after all, just that – a factory. In films that take place behind the scenes of Hollywoodexotically costumed extras and leggy showgirls peopled these streets, but this morning they were deserted. In those days before the razzmataz of the Studio Tour turned it into a fun fair, Universal had the air of a country town. Grass poked from cracks in the cement and dumpsters overflowed with the debris of construction. A teenaged Steven Spielberg found it a simple matter to sneak in, take possession of an empty office and hang out there for weeks, waved through the gate each day by a complaisant guard who assumed he was the son of some studio bigwig.  

Raymond Burr, Ironside
Five minutes brought us to the far side of the lot, and  a sloping tree-shaded avenue lined with bungalows, each , I knew, reserved for a director or star currently working for the studio. Competition for these was fierce, and possession energetically defended.  Recent tenants had included Raymond Burr, star of the detective series Ironside, and his former employer, Alfred Hitchcock Richard Franklin, who bluffed his way into a job as Hitchcock’s assistant before starting his own career as a director, had told me how Hitch, glancing across at his neighbour’s bungalow, had seen, propped up in the window of his bathroom, one of the life-size cardboard cut-outs created to promote Psycho. They showed the portly Hitch pointing to his watch as a warning that nobody would be admitted after the first seven minutes. He sent Richard to learn the reason for the actor’s eccentric behaviour.  “Mr. Burr says he’s tired of people talking about ‘Raymond Burr in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window,’ ” Richard reported on his return. ”Now you can see Alfred Hitchcock in Raymond Burr’s rear window.“

The obligatory five-minute wait in the outer office that precedes any Hollywood rendezvous gave me time to think over what I’d say to the man I was about to meet. 

Memories of his newest film were still vivid in my mind, as were the circumstances of seeing it a few days before, during my first visit to Washington DC. Leaving my motel, map in hand, I’d navigated to the cinema, bought a ticket, taken my seat in the dark and sat through the film, only to look around for the first time as the lights went up to find myself the sole white face in the house. Retracing the route I’d taken so casually to get there, I did so looking over my shoulder every ten seconds, even though nobody gave me a second glance. 

A buzz from the inner office interrupted my thoughts. Before we could get to our feet, a grinning face, decorated with moustache and glasses, appeared at the door into the inner sanctum. 

“Cummon in.”

Fifty-ish, greying, tanned,  in  hibiscus-red aloha shirt and cotton trousers, Don Siegel looked less like a movie director than a Toyota dealer just back from an Hawaiian holidayBut, arms folded, pipe drawing well, and feet up on the desk, he watched us over the top of his spectacles like an old tomcat watching a kitten playing with a ball of wool. 

Leo Gordon, Neville Brand, Riot in Cell Block 11
While Siegel’s work didn’t invite the superlatives lavished on Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and John Ford, to many of us who admired a leaner, meaner and more urban cinema, he had few equals.  As an editor for Warner Brothers he created the montages for Casablanca that explained the location of that Moroccan backwater. He went on to direct such skilled exercises in urban tension as The Lineup and Riot in Cell Block 11, the science fiction classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, two of Elvis Presley’s early films, Hound Dog Man and Flaming Star,  then Coogan’s Bluff, Two Mules  for Sister Sara and that slice of Southern Gothic, The Beguiled,  all of which helped rescue his protegé Clint Eastwood from the scrap heap of TV  and launch him as film star, then director. 

Robert Keith, Eli Wallach, The Lineup
What set Siegel’s films apart from those of his competitors was a forensic quality, an interest in the beliefs and impulses that motivated what would otherwise have been stock characters. In The Lineup,  the hired killer Dancer, played by Eli Wallach, travels with Julian (Robert Keith), a personal manager who accepts bookings and negotiates compensation. Dismissing protests on behalf of Dancer’s victims, Julian chides them for their lack of sociological perspective. Ordinary people of your class,” he says, “you don't understand the criminal's need for violence.”  Wallach was to articulate the same philosophy as the bandit chieftain in The Magnificent Seven.  Of the Mexican villagers on whom he preys, he argues persuasively “If God had not wanted them shorn, he would not have made them sheep.”

Clint Eastwood, Dirty Harry
All my admiration of Siegel coalesced around his latest filmWe had hardly dispensed with the pleasantries before I began to express my enthusiasm for Dirty Harry: the majesty of its vision, the characterisation of Eastwood as the retributory figure, seen always in high places, often in bright day, descending to levy justice on the killer Scorpio, who, in contrast, appears  a creature of the earth and night, the twisted Peace symbol on his jacket an emblem....

Siegel held up his hand to stop me in mid sentence. Turning to Mary Lou, he enquired amiably “Is he always like this?”

Well, yes, I suppose I was.

John Baxter is an all-round writer, scholar, critic and film-maker who has lived in Paris since 1989 with his wife Marie-Dominque Montel and daughter Louise. His Wikipedia entry  details the many books he has written which include the first  ever critical volume devoted to the Australian cinema as well as studies of Ken Russell, Josef von Sternberg, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Federico Fellini, George Lucas, Robert De Niro and Luis Bunuel. His most recent book, one of a number of studies of Paris is A Year in Paris, described by the New York Times thus "In “A Year in Paris,” (Baxter) strings together the beautiful beads of the French everyday, all held together by the invisible act of imagination that makes a country cohere and endure." 

On Blu-ray - David Hare revels in the Criterion edition of John Waters POLYESTER (USA, 1981)

Elmer Fishpaw (the be-rugged David Samson) with trophy wife, Francine (Divine) (in the screen shot above) who's praying for forgiveness for Elmer's porno movie theatre business and its ill-gotten gains. It’s all in John Waters Polyester from back in 1981.
And Divine (below), later, with Cuddles (the great Edith Massey, "Egg Lady" of Pink Flamingoes). For a special lunch of Pepsi and cake. "Oh Francine, your house is something out of Architectural Digest". She's right.

From the new special edition Criterion Blu-ray out this week, complete with Odorama Scratch and Sniff card. It's good to remember this was Tab Hunter's comeback movie after years in the boozy twilight. My fave scene, genuinely Sirkian in its lyricism, is their visit to a Marguerite Duras Triple Bill at the local drive in.
The new Criterion is probably worth it if only for the copious extras, although I think the movie is the last genuinely Waters-esque picture he made, in both tone and a cast who all sport flawless Baltimore twang accents. Especially sock sniffing juvenile delinquent played by the exhilaratingly named Stiv Bators as Bo Bo.

Editor’s Note: Click here for an interesting essay on the film by Elena Gorfinkel published on Criterion’s website. Criterion cover below.

Tuesday 17 September 2019

New Australian Documentary - Helen Gaynor invites you to see her film THE CANDIDATE

Editor's Note: Thanks to Ian Lang for bringing to attention this new film and the new way it is being marketed. 

Director and Co-Producer of THE CANDIDATE Helen Gaynor writes:

I am very happy to be able to announce new screening dates for my latest feature length documentary THE CANDIDATE in Melbourne, Sydney and Hobart.

The film captures the campaign of Greens candidate Alex Bhathal (below) during the Batman by-election in 2018. The story is an up close and personal look at electoral politics, where truth really did turn out to be stranger than fiction. 

The films screened to two sell out sessions at the recent Melbourne Documentary Film Festival where it was nominated for best Australian documentary. It has been selected to screen at the NEZ International Film Festival in India in late September. 

These new screenings are through Cinema on Demand site Fan Force. A minimum number of tickets per screening must be sold by the tipping point date for the screening to go ahead so please spread the word far and wide. I intend to be at the screenings for a filmmaker Q&A

MELBOURNE Tuesday 22nd October at 6.15pm CINEMA NOVA, Lygon Street Carlton: 
TIPPING POINT: 76 tickets need to be sold by the 10.00am, 10th October for the screening to go ahead

SYDNEY Wednesday 23rd October at 6.30pm DENDY CINEMA, Newtown
TIPPING POINT: 58 tickets to be sold by the 11th October for the screening to go ahead

HOBART Monday 4th November at 6.00pm at the State Cinema
TIPPING POINT: 55 tickets to be sold by 10.00am, 23rd October for the screening to go ahead

Hope to see some of you later this year.

Director/Co-Producer : THE CANDIDATE


Monday 16 September 2019

On Blu-ray - David Hare uncovers Don Siegel's THE LINEUP (USA, 1958) in the latest volume of Columbia Noir

Eli Wallach (Dancer, above) and William Leslie (Larry Warner, below) in the steam room of the San Francisco Seaman's Club moments before Dancer rubs out his apparent pickup. 

From Don Siegel's amazing The Lineup for Columbia in 1958. The title makes its first appearance on Blu-ray in the third and best disc from Volume 3 of the Columbia/Mill Creek/Kit Parker Collection of Columbia Noirs from 1945 to 1960 in Volume three of this nine disc series. 
Three titles a disc, three discs a volume making 27 titles. Amongst the frequent and inescapable dross, some absolute doozies. 
This disc alone carries the Siegel which, if only for its multi cast gay texts, should be mandatory viewing. This presentation sadly doesn't include the hilarious commentary track Eddie Mueller recorded with "Tough Guy", James Ellroy for the now ten years old DVD boxset of Sony Noirs volume (I think) 2. 
Eddie tries - very hard - to bring the resolutely right wing macho Ellroy into a gay reading, not just of this sequence but the singular mobster heroin syndicate's fairy godmother role, played superbly by Robert Keith. During the Muller-Ellroy exchanges, Ellroy mutters, "here comes the swish" referring to Keith. Eddie seizes the opportunity to take this voyage into Ellroy's psyche even further thus, "So isn't Keith playing the old queen to the young blond talent, Richard Jaeckel." At this point Ellroy falls silent, and there's no more to be had of it.
Probably just as well as the movie itself is so ably carried by Siegel's very personal montage-based dynamic, a style he honed in his days as senior Editor at Warners through the 40s. 
On the same disc (3) from this volume, Fuller's terrific The Crimson Kimono, from the same fine source as that used for the excellent Twilight Time US Blu-ray from 2017.
Completing this disc a new, to me, de Toth, a very late entry in the cycle, Man on a String.
The set has its equal share of duds, notably Tijuana Story, directed by Laszlo Kardos and Sidney Gilliat's interestingly cast but lacklustre 1957 Fortune is a Woman. But even this disc lifts the game with the third title, Paul Wendkos's procedural non-Noir, The Case Against Brooklyn from 1958. 
At some point I need to report back on the preceding two Volumes of six discs and their collection of 18 more Noirs.

Thursday 12 September 2019

From the Archives - Adrian Martin retrieves John C Murray's unpublished review of THE DREAMING (Mario Andreacchio, Australia, 1988)

Introduction: This is an unpublished piece by John that I recently came across in my files several months after his death in May 2019. I am not exactly certain how I came to be in possession of it or when it was written, but I suspect it was during the initial flurry of work done for Scott Murray as editor of Australian Film 1978-1994 (Oxford University Press) in the early 1990s. Scott’s original plan for the book (as I recall) was to include feature films that had achieved release only on video, and so various authors (including myself) were commissioned to cover these (often quite obscure and unknown) titles. In the event, however, these entries were dropped and never published. This piece on The Dreaming– a film compromised during production and diverted from its original intentions, according to director Mario Andreacchio  in this 1988 interview (click on the link), – has a modest scope (as befits a reference book entry), but the critical mind and voice are unmistakeably John’s. Adrian Martin, September 2019


The Dreaming is one of several Australian films to use Aboriginal mythology as the basis for a modern thriller. Here, 1980s characters inadvertently confront terrifying images from the Dreamtime, threatening both their sanity and their lives.

Professor Bernard Thornton (Arthur Dignam) is the head of an archaeological team which discovers a sealed burial chamber on a remote island off the Southern Coast. Breaking into it, he finds and touches a bracelet and, almost immediately, he is haunted by images of a past when whalers came ashore and murdered an Aboriginal girl, Muridji (Kristina Nehm). Similar images haunt the Aboriginal activist Warindji who steals the bracelet from a museum, and the doctor who handles it when treating her in hospital after she has been bashed by guards (shades of earlier, brutal times). By coincidence, the doctor happens to be the Professor’s daughter, Cathy (Penny Cook).

Now while borrowing loosely from Aboriginal mythology, the filmmakers do nothing with their concept other than attempt to milk it for suspense. There is no explanation for what happens (as in touching the bracelet), or for why Warindji seems to be a reincarnation of Muridji, and the Professor of one of the whalers. (Both Nehm and Dignam have dual roles, uncredited.) And the spirit which possesses Cathy, and leads her to the final confrontation with her father, is never identified.

That would all be okay if the film gripped one’s attention, but it fails singularly to do that, leaving the audience sitting there pondering questions that shouldn’t be asked. Essentially, the fault lies with a script which in its ordering and construction of scenes seems to actively mitigate the suspense, relying finally on unconvincing shock moments. And too often the writers resort to that tiredest of clichés: a character waking up just as horror is about to engulf him or her, thus revealing it was all only a dream.

As well, director Mario Andreacchio seems uncomfortable with this sort of material. The action sequences are poorly staged, particularly the climactic one in the lighthouse, and much of the dialogue is handled perfunctorily. There is also a sloppiness one doesn’t expect even in a B-film, such as when Cathy’s husband Geoff (Gary Sweet) is knocked out of his rowboat by a whaler ship. As the ship passes, Geoff is seen in the reverse close-up to turn his head to watch in the wrong direction. Now mistakes can be made in shooting, but why wasn’t the shot flopped over in post-production to fix it? Those involved seemed not to have cared.

Made in South Australia with obviously limited resources, this film went straight to video early in 1989.

© Estate of John C. Murray