Monday 30 August 2021

On DVD - David Hare finds treasure buried in a Charlton Heston Box set - THE SECRET OF THE INCAS (Jerry Hopper, USA, 1954)

Chuck Heston, still typecast by Paramount, here as a travel driver in Peru and hunk for rent to middle aged tourist wives, with Nicole Maurey in her hoped for break though English language debut.  (Both above).

They’re observing from the relative safety of the Paramount backlot in Wilshire Blvd the newly discovered Incan city of Machu Picchu back in 1954's Paramount thriller, Secret of the Incas, directed by an able Jerry Hopper in part to cash in on the growing interest and fame of that great discovery. 


The further but even more fascinating object, still hidden until the 45 minute mark appears in the third screen in the form of 50s "exotic" music sensation Yma Sumac (above), who broke onto the music scene bigtime with her early 50s Capitol albums, Voice of the Xtabay and Legend of the Sun Virgin, with scores by Moises Vivanco and (my own favorite) the far more commercial Les Baxter, which massively adorn the movie and take it to another level of "exotic" kitsch.


Call her camp or call her phony, those tales of her actually being Amy Camus from the Bronx are no more ridiculous than some of the "Achievements" she and her "Discoverer", Moises Vivanco are supposed to have claimed, like her allegedly "Royal" link to a line of original Incan Princesses. Still if you’re a pretty soprano with a four octave range, why not?


But such foolishness merely amplifies the texture of Hopper's movie, bringing a touch of the Incan gods' revenge to an otherwise routine work of cold war kitsch with the good guys (Chuck, Nicole), the commies (Robert Young), and the usual plunder for lost treasure, a plot device that seems to have come out of Carl Barks’ 1954 Donald Duck comic, “Lost in the Andes.”


The thing is, without Yma's opening track "Ataypura" vocalised over the credits and repeated later during the movie with Yma in Incan drag darting in and out of papier maché rocks the movie wouldn't be worth even half its weight in sheer interest. 


In this YouTube clip she sings the same number from backlot set playing to location for the second unit camera, assisted by a heavily Egyptian dusked Michael Pate playing her brownface "attendant"


The title is included in a newly released six movie early Heston boxset from Madman, Australia. 


For the ages.


Editor's Note: The full set comprises

The Savage (1952

Pony Express (1953)

The Naked Jungle (1954)

Secret of the Incas (1954)

Diamond Head (1962)

Julius Caesar (1970)

Saturday 28 August 2021

"I guess Haiti lives in me" - Tom Ryan talks to film-makers (2) - Jonathan Demme talks about Haiti, documentary film-making and THE AGRONOMIST (USA, 2003)

Jonathan Demme

Editor's Note: This is a second in a series of transcripts of interviews recorded by Melbourne film critic Tom Ryan during the years when he reviewed films for The Sunday Age. The first in the series was with the French film-maker Costa-Gavras and it can be found If You Click Here. This is part one of Tom's discussion with Jonathan Demme. Part two will be published shortly


As will become clear in the following interview, Jonathan Demme (1944 – 2017) never really saw himself as a Hollywood director. When I spoke to him he was in a bouncy mood, delighted by Manhattan’s early spring blossoms and excited to be moving into new offices, much smaller than his previous ones. He was also still buzzing about the Bob Dylan concert he’d attended the previous evening at Broadway’s Beacon Theatre, and taking some time off from his busy work schedule.


He’s probably best known internationally as the director of The Silence of the Lambs, which was nominated for seven Oscars in 1992 and won five, including one for him. He also hit the jackpot a couple of years later with Philadelphia, a drama with a message starring Tom Hanks as a lawyer suffering from AIDS; and again with The Manchurian Candidate, a politically subversive remake of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 thriller. In it, Demme and his screenwriters switch the villains from the Red Menace to the Corporate Menace, with Manchurian Global as a thinly-disguised version of Halliburton.


He’d had some difficult times in the business, most famously when Swing Shift (1984) was taken out of his hands by lead actress Goldie Hawn, whose contract allowed her “approval rights”. It was partially reshot and re-edited according to her demands and his initial inclination was to go for the Alan Smithee option, although he was eventually talked out of that. 


But he remained justifiably proud of most of his work in Hollywood following his beginnings with maverick producer Roger Corman in the mid-’70s. It includes the wonderful Melvin and Howard (1980), Something Wild (1986), Married to the Mob (1988) and Beloved (1998). 


He was equally proud of the films he made about musicians (including David Byrne and Talking Heads, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Robyn Hitchcock, and Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids) and of the many politically committed documentaries which he directed and/or produced over the years. His work in Haiti rightly earned him accolades for his celebrations of the local culture and his commitment to the people’s cause there.


He backed at least half a dozen documentaries shot by others in the still strife-ridden Caribbean nation, including two by Patricia Benoit, Tonbe/Leve (1992) and Courage and Pain (1996). And he directed two himself. The first was Haiti: Dreams of Democracy (1987), made around a year after the overthrow of dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, and a few years before the 1991 landslide election of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a radical Catholic priest. The second, The Agronomist (2003), completed before Demme began work on The Manchurian Candidate, deals with the life and death of outspoken Radio Haiti journalist Jean Dominique, who was murdered by two gunmen in April, 2000.


It was screened as part of a documentary season programmed by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne in June, 2005. I spoke with Demme by phone about it and his career a couple of months earlier. My contributions are in italics.




The Agronomist is the second film you’ve directed about Haiti, but you’ve also produced a number of others (including Haiti: Killing the Dream, directed by Katharine Kean and Rudy Stern). What first drew you to Haiti?


Haitian art. I don’t know if any Haitian art manages to get down to Australia or not.


As far as I know, not really.


Historically Haitian art is very rich and very varied. I’ve seen Aboriginal art, which I think is great, but it’s quite different from Haitian art. What they have in common is no restrictions, no academic restrictions, on the imagery and a lot of spiritually driven material. In New York City, one gets exposed a little bit to Haitian art. I really got interested in it and finally I got so interested I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got to go to the country that spawns this.’ And I went down there. 


When was this?


That was in 1986. In my life I’ve lived in four different countries – this is a thought I had earlier this week when I was trying to explain something to my daughter – and I feel like I’ve lived in Haiti, although I haven’t. So I guess Haiti lives in me.

And that first trip I made down there, I went to see the art but I was taken by the people. It was exactly a year after “Baby Doc” had been overthrown, which was exactly a year prior to the first democratic elections in the history of the country. And all you could see everywhere there was this amazing enthusiasm for the process and for removing the shackles of the dictatorship for once and for all. It was very intoxicating. 


It really turned me on and made me want to go back and do a documentary that would somehow capture this passion for democracy and this passion to create a better tomorrow for the next generation through social and political change. That turned out to be Haiti: Dreams of Democracy

Haiti: Dreams of Democracy


And what happened for me really was that the more I learned about Haiti – and through making the documentary I made an enormous number of friends down there – the more I became interested in the gigantic collection of Haitian art and Haitian music. 


At the same time, the more I learned about Haiti the more I came to understand how profoundly toxic a presence US foreign policy was in Haiti. And I learnt that a dozen all-powerful families in Haiti retain lobbyists in Washington working very closely with Republican congressmen to make sure that the foreign policy suits the rich people in Haiti’s agenda, and realised that the United States was really part of what was keeping the Haitian people down. So when President Aristide was elected and overthrown, my next phase really was to feel galvanised as an American citizen. I knew that the CIA had participated in the coup.


So I became sort of an activist, as a former hippie – or maybe you’re never a former hippie. But as a hippie from the ’60s I got all radicalised again around Haiti this time and wanting to protest the government.


So you’re an activist with a camera…


Yes. Yes, I came to think, actually, Tom, that at certain points, organising protest groups which I did and participating and getting arrested and writing letters and all that was fine. But I have come to feel that maybe the best thing you can do if you have social concerns is to try to make a film to give you an outlet to illustrate what it is that concerns you about a subject and hope that the film will maybe communicate and provide an opportunity for others to become concerned about the same thing.


One of the things that’s fascinating to me is the way that politics is critical to your musical documentaries and music to the political ones (like The Agronomist). Is this the way you think about them? 


I like that perspective. I also think that music – whether it’s a documentary or whether it’s a feature film – is the great directorial crutch. Music is your last chance. You’ve filmed it, you’ve edited it, you’ve put the sound effects in. Now it’s your laaast chance to pull the audience in that much more via the magic of music. So I shamelessly get swept away by the musical dimension of anything I do. 


Dreams of Democracy goes so far as to suggest that “songs are all about struggle”. Is that your experience of the music in Haiti?


I think one of the things that really provided a secret framework for Haiti:Dreams of Democracy was, yes, I wanted to capture the spirit of democracy in the air. And, interestingly, here’s a country where the vast majority of the population – the figure at the time was 85% of the population – is illiterate. So how do you educate people about democracy? How do you raise the collective consciousness in regards to participating in a democracy when the vast majority of people can’t read? Well, the answer is: through song, through street theatre, through street art. 


In Haiti:Dreams of Democracy, there’s a singer named Manno Charlemagne, and everywhere you went he was either called the Bob Marley of Haiti or the Bob Dylan of Haiti. Because all of his songs were about social change, and the content of those songs gave political context to the native democratic aspirations of the individuals who hadn’t read about democracy. That’s also how radio played such an enormous part, and especially Jean Dominique’s Radio Haiti because that station was dedicated to providing a voice and information for an illiterate population.


How did the Duvalier regimes respond to the music? In The Agronomist, Jean Dominique talks about the way in which Creole as a language can be subversive and that this was recognised by the regimes who then repressed that language. 




Jean Dominique, The Agronomist

Was there any kind of response to the music like that?


Absolutely. And, in fact, one of the exciting things about filming Haiti: Dreams of Democracy was that Manno Charlemagne was wanted for subversion in Haiti at the time of our filming. And yet he was having concerts that would spring up spontaneously. There would be thousands of people attending and, as the military or the police would arrive, alerted that there was a demonstration going on, Manno would vanish. He was so beloved by the people, he just melted away. They got him out of there. 


And when I was trying to track him down, everywhere we went we were trying to leave messages that we wanted to film him… And one morning, very early, I got a phone call at our hotel and it was Manno Charlemagne at the other end and he said, “I understand you’re looking for me. I understand that you’re making a film and that you want me to be in it.” 


What he offered us was: if we would give him a ride across the mountains to a town called Jacmel [on the Caribbean coast] where he wanted to do a spontaneous concert, he would let us film that concert and would also stop at some remote area and perform some of the songs in the countryside of Haiti for us. And the reason he was offering us this was that by being with a bunch of white foreigners he was assured of not being arrested in his journey across the mountains. That was very thrilling, and we did it and it’s some of the best stuff in the documentary.

So, yeah, during the crackdown under Duvalier, you simply couldn’t sing about social change and social complaints because anyone who expressed themselves in any way against the government under the Duvaliers was arrested and frequently tortured and frequently “disappeared”.


When did you first come across Jean Dominique and Michele Montas?


Well, the names that people kept mentioning when we went down to do the film and asked who were the leaders of the pro-democracy movement, who were the people who are really leading the charge here and raising the consciousness, were Manno Charlemagne and Radio Haiti. So it was much easier to get a meeting with Radio Haiti. So we called and we got permission to film their editorial about the one-year anniversary of when Duvalier left. And we went in there and when I saw Jean Dominique I was just struck immediately by his extraordinary charisma. I was really, really taken with the guy. And I’d sort of got it in my head that this was someone who I hoped I would cross paths with again some day.


Jean Dominique and Michèle Montas in the
Radio Haiti studio,
The Agronomist.

And then when he went into exile in New York, after Aristide was overthrown and Radio Haiti was attacked, I heard about that and that’s when I called him up and asked him if he would consider being the subject of a documentary that would be a portrait of a journalist in exile. I told him it would have a built-in happy ending because, inevitably, one day the coup would be over and then the documentary could end with the journalist back at his microphone. A happy ending! 


I thought it was a good idea for a documentary, but I didn’t think it was a brilliant one. It certainly gave me the opportunity to get to know this guy better, to film him, because my ultimate secret agenda, Tom, I swear to you, was that I felt that one day I might have a script that would have a part in it that I could offer to this Haitian radio journalist who would be so dazzling that he would get an Oscar nomination and I could dine out forever on what a great discoverer of unlikely stars I was. He would never have taken a part in a feature film, but he would have been great.


So you actually started work on The Agronomist as early as ’91 without knowing it was going to be The Agronomist?


Yes. And, by the way, we filmed over the course of the coup and then, when Jean returned to Haiti in ’94, we did go back in order to shoot him back at the microphone. But the station had been so devastated and the destruction by the army had been so comprehensive that it was gonna be ages before he actually went back on the air. And, at that point, Jean also had gotten fed up with being filmed and he thought it was kind of a bad idea. 


The good news was we had become very good friends. The unfortunate news was he really wanted the filming to end. So we pulled the plug on the documentary, the friendship intact. My mission had been accomplished. I had this fantastic screen-test material on him and it was all shelved and it remained shelved until the day that Jean was assassinated. And at that point it seemed imperative that the film get finished. It was really a way to act out one’s grief and anguish at the loss of this great guy and this great friend.


And you still managed to find a way of giving him the triumphant return at the end…


Yeah. As we accumulated more and more footage of Jean and that footage came in at the end – that was filmed by CBS – I was so moved by that moment. And it was also amazing to see this guy who’d been so strong and so tough and so cynical, it was amazing to see how moved he was. It gave a whole other dimension to his humanity and the footage spoke to me. It said that this is the mood to end on, this is the mood to leave the audience with. That moment of seeing Jean so adored and so moved himself. 


You’re doing in your way what Michele Montas [Jean Dominique’s widow] does on the radio, which is to allow the voice to continue.


Well, it’s incredible because we wanted so much to show this film in Haiti. But the unrest and insecurity and violence has been so extreme over the year since we finished it that we just didn’t know when were we going to get to do it. Then finally this year we got two television stations to agree to broadcast the film on April 3rd, the anniversary of Jean’s death. 


So, earlier this month, The Agronomist was finally seen, in Creole. We did a special Creole version, in Haiti. And now we’re making hundreds and hundreds of video cassettes and shipping them down there. We’d had a lot of requests off of the TV showing from groups throughout Haiti asking, “How can we get a copy of it? We want to show it.” So we’re sending free cassettes to everyone who asks and we’re sending groups of cassettes to people we know down there in the different cities saying, “Spread them around. Make copies. Let’s keep Jean’s voice alive.” 

You know, I have to say, Tom, I love everything that Jean Dominique stood for and the extent to which he was willing to live out his passion for social change. And what I like best about this film and what I like best about keeping Jean’s voice alive is just how charismatic and slightly crazy he was.




I mean he’s got the glint of a madman in his eyes, and I think it’s quite incredible to get intimate with him for an hour and a half and realise that, my God, there’s been someone like this on the planet.


Who do you think murdered him and why?


The why is easier. He was murdered in order to silence his voice. No doubt. Because Jean was utterly – and I hope the film shows this – an equal opportunity champion. He had no allegiance to any political party. He had no allegiance to any political figure. He criticised whatever he saw as needing criticism.


The confrontation with Aristide is quite extraordinary.


I know. And you know, I’ve always felt that Jean Dominique, as wily and brilliant as he was, also had this kind of naïve side. I’m convinced, because of his past relationship with Aristide and his past belief in Aristide, that Jean felt that in the interview he was providing Aristide with a golden opportunity to come clean and to really address so many of the issues that had started to concern so many of the people about Aristide, about the new Aristide. 


To Jean’s horror he saw Aristide starting to resort to these pathetic platitudes and metaphors and dancing away from these very direct questions, from these very clear opportunities to clean the slate. Jean was an aggressive journalist and when he saw Aristide doing that he really did go for the throat. And, as Michelle says in the documentary, that was the end of that relationship.

Jonathan Demme and Jean Dominique, discussing
Haitian film in 1994


To your question about who murdered him: there’s this guy that the film devotes a little attention to, Dany Toussaint, who wanted to be head of the police again, who had been Aristide’s key bodyguard, who had become a senator, and who had attacked Jean’s radio station demanding that he be able to get on the air and say his piece. He refused to cooperate with investigations after Jean’s murder, claiming some kind of parliamentary immunity to avoid sitting down with investigators and answering questions. Now if you’re innocent, you don’t do that, in my view. 


So, listen, I live in a country where we cling to the notion that you’re innocent until proven guilty, so I’m incapable of believing that anyone is guilty of something until they’ve confessed or until it’s been proven irrevocably that they did it. But, for me, Dany Toussaint is the big candidate. He’s a big suspect. He’s also gonna run for president in the next election. He got this vaaaasssst “security” operation with virtually a private army of armed investigators. He’s a terrifying figure who gives a lot of money away in a lot of the poorer neighbourhoods. 


And I think that with Jean Dominique being so outspoken, especially with elections approaching, and with his power to affect the way his constituency felt, I think that someone in a very, very high position of power – probably a group of people in high positions of power – felt that it was time to shut Dominique up once and for all, and had him killed. 

Thursday 26 August 2021

The Current Cinema - Rod Bishop welcomes Cannes prizewinner ANNETTE (Leos Carax, France/Mexico/USA/Switzerland/Belgium/Japan/Germany, 2021)

In a riveting opening sequence (image above), director Leos Carax is in a studio control booth with his daughter, directing his screenplay-and-music writers Ron and Russell Mael as they start performing “So May We Start”.

The Mael brothers (aka pop/rock/art musicians Sparks) with their backing group then sing their way out of the studio and collect the three main actors, Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard and Simon Helberg. 

Marion Cotillard, Adam Driver, Annette

Ending up on a street in Santa Monica, Henry McHenry (Driver) heads out on a motorbike and Ann (Cotillard) collects her limousine. They drive to their respective gigs – Henry to perform as a cutting-edge, confrontational comedian and Ann, to the opera where she sings with a voice from the angels.

The rest of the opening act sets up their mercurial love affair and their marriage, all undercut by McHenry’s disturbingly anti-comedic stand-up comedy routine. At this point, you might start to wonder how this will hold your attention for 140-minutes. 

Or whether you’ll just turn into another member of McHenry’s all-singing Greek chorus audience who spend most of their time abusing the egotistical ‘comedian’.

But hang in there, everything changes at the start of the second act with the arrival of Henry and Ann’s first and only child Annette, played by a superbly rendered puppet.

Leos Carax (r) rehearses the puppet

The late, great UK film director Anthony Minghella directed only one opera – Puccini’s Madama Butterfly- and it opened in London in 2005 at the English National Opera. 

After a competent but hardly outstanding first act, a restlessness was discernable throughout the Coliseum Theatre audience, especially from my companion next to me. Where was the magic? 

That all changed in the second act, however, when a beautiful, mesmerizing puppet arrived on stage playing Butterfly’s young son (image below). From that moment on, the opera soared and touched the sky.

Anthony Minghella's production of Madama Butterfly

It’s much the same with Carax’s Puccini-like dramatic arc to Annette. His visionary and audacious direction and the puppet borrowed from Minghella’s opera, allows him to counteract the masculine malevolence of McHenry and the operatic tragedy of Ann, with the poignancy, humanity and wonder of the otherworldly child.

There are many references along the way to a culture broken by domestic violence, mindless celebrity, #MeToo, death wishes, child exploitation, tortured relationships and more, but in the end, like all great opera, Annette thunderously and movingly explores tragic love and ends in the ruination of its protagonists.

It’s not for everyone but I suspect Anthony Minghella might have loved it…although maybe looking for his credit.


Annette was the opening selection for Cannes 2021. Leos Carax won the prize for Best Director. The film opened in cinemas that are open in Australia yesterday August 26. Locked down cities later.




Monday 23 August 2021

Calling all fans of Hollywood Pre-code Movies - Ross Barnard sets up an online film club.

Ross Barnard, whose history in film exhibition and programming spans the Sydney Uni Film Group, NFTA, Walker St Cinema and the Sydney Film Festival, has set up an online film society on Facebook.

The Group is called The Hurlstone Park Pre-Code Film Club, just because that’s where where Ross lives. He  is sourcing the best available quality Pre-Code movies on YouTube, posting the link and lots of wonderful stills, and writing a brief introduction to each film. Members are sharing their reactions to the films with the Group after watching.

Ross is focusing on rarities from the Pre-Code period (1929-1934), of which there are many now in the public Domain. YouTube actually checks for copyright on all posts, and blocks any attempted posts that are challenged by copyright holders.

Just search THE HURLSTONE PARK PRE-CODE FILM CLUB on Facebook. It’s a Public Group open to everyone.

Current links include:

Sunday 22 August 2021

Canberra International Film Festival postpones until 2022 ...and something to amuse



The Canberra International Film Festival, due to commence on 22 October this year, has been postponed until 2022.

The President of the Festival committee, Dr Adele Chynoweth, said today, “As Canberra’s longest running film festival, it is very sad that the event has now been cancelled in two successive years because of the COVID pandemic. The festival in October this year would have been the 24th edition of the event, and had been designed as a significant comeback after missing 2020.”

Dr Chynoweth added, “Our Festival Director, Dr Andrew Pike, has created a brilliant program which we will roll out next year as soon as conditions allow.”

Dr Pike said that the program planned for 2021 can be held over intact. The program will reflect the Festival’s role as one of Australia’s leading retrospective film events, presenting cinema classics in both digitally remastered form as well as in their original 35mm format. He said, “The essence of the Festival is to re-discover our cinema heritage and to experience these films on the big screen. We also have a distinguished line-up of specialist guests to provide historical context for the audience through introductory talks and in Q&As.”

The Canberra International Film Festival is supported by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, the Friends of the NFSA, the Motion Picture Association, and many private donors.

Information about new dates for the Festival will be notified in due course on the Festival website and on Facebook ( and Instagram (

For interviews and further information contact Andrew Pike on 0412 440 954 or Both Dr Chynoweth and Dr Pike are available for interviews.


Canberra International Film Festival, P.O. Box 680, Mitchell, ACT 2911.

So here are a couple of stills from the postponed program to whet the appetite. A prize of a free subscription to Film Alert 101 to anyone who gives the correct answer. Tie break questions. Name the Australian connections. Answers to

Streaming - John Baxter delves into the efforts to render MARCO POLO by Hollywood and by Netflix


Benedict Fong as Kublai Khan and Lorenzo Richelomy
as Marco in Netflix' MARCO POLO


         A substantial fort of logs used to stand (and perhaps still does) just over the border into former Yugoslavia, a survival of the 1965 Omar Sharif/Françoise Dorleac Genghis Khan  and a monument to the hubris of Europeans who apply European sensibilities to Mongols. 

         Netflix has a similar white elephant in the 2014 series Marco Polo, which has just returned to the front rank of its programming, in painful juxtaposition to a re-run of the effortfully expert Downtown Abbey. The company’s first attempt at independent production and a disastrous one, Marco Polo shut down at the end of its second year with a $200 million loss. 

         Eight directors from widely diverse backgrounds shot the work of ten writers in Hungary, Slovakia, Kazakhstan and Malaysia, with an Italian star but an almost entirely Asian cast, including two token Mongols, one of whom,  Baljinnyamyn Amarsaikhan, takes a large share of the meagre acting honours for his performance as Ariq, thoughtful and troubled younger brother of Kublai Khan, a far more subtle characterisation than Benedict Wong’s B-movie Kublai.  

         As one of the few Occidentals in the series, Lorenzo Richelmy as Marco is repeatedly marginalized by such veterans as Tom Wu, who does a star turn as the blind Shaolin master Hundred Eyes. So effective was his portrayal that Netflix starred him in a mid-season feature, Marco Polo: Hundred Eyes.  

         Chin Han also makes the most of devious Chancellor Jia Sidao, demolishing bare-handed a man twice his size who suggests that contemplating praying mantises (key to the Southern Chinese school of martial arts) represents no more than “an unusual hobby”. The feat is nothing, however, beside that of Olivia Chang, who, naked, vamps three fully-armed soldiers who invade her boudoir, and kills them all.   

Lorenzo Richelmy's Marco in the
House of Five Desires

         Nudity is commonplace in the series, which is not to say it’s particularly erotic. Scenes set in Kublai’s harem, the House of the Five Desires (only five?), give more time to Ray Tan Seok Yuan’s self-important Court Eunuch who marshals and lectures his charges while they stand in line, naked, silent and resigned, like army recruits on “short arm” parade.  

         As the Venetian teenager abandoned by his father and uncle as they hurry off to develop a trade route along the Silk Road, Richelmy has little to do but hang about and look soulful. Marco Polo is not his story at all but a drama of political chicanery in 13thcentury China, to which he is little more than a baffled observer. 

Gary Coooer, Basil Rathbone, George Barbier

         The predominantly Asiatic cast of Marco Polo stands in marked contrast to Sam Goldwyn’s 1938 The Adventures of Marco Polo, in which, among the major roles,  there is not a single Asian face. Gary Cooper plays Marco, George Barbier, formerly King Achmed II in  Lubitsch’s The Merry Widow, is Kublai Khan, portly Robert Greig, archetypal gentleman’s gentleman, is his chamberlain, and Basil Rathbone, without even the perfunctory concession of slanted eyes, the evil adviser who plots his overthrow. One may also spot Lana Turner as a maid and veteran stunt man cum character performer Richard Farnsworth as a Mongol warrier.

         John Cromwell began as director, approaching the film in the tongue-in-cheek style of Robert E. Sherwood’s script, a kind of Venetian Yankee in Kublai Khan’s Court.Cooper protested, so journeyman Archie Mayo stepped in. The wild improbabilities remain, however, resistant even to Mayo’s pedestrian style.

         Love interest is provided by Sigrid Gurie, advertised as Norwegian but actually born in Brooklyn, whom Marco introduces to the supposedly uniquely European practice of kissing. Some low comedy ensues as a minion, set to spy on the couple, describes their exotic behaviour to Rathbone, then tries to demonstrate on a disgusted male colleague. 

Gary Cooper as Marco learns from H.B. Warner
how to eat spaghet in

          Marco, inevitably, returns to Venice with two major Chinese contributions to Western culture, gunpowder and a dish called, if we are to believe a synthetically Chinese H.B. Warner, spaghet.  Audiences of the time were no more impressed with this film than modern viewers with Marco Polo, and it also was an expensive flop. Which of the two is the more unlikely? I’d say it’s too close to call.


MARCO POLO  is on Netflix. A superior copy of THE ADVENTURES OF MARCO POLO  is streaming here

Friday 20 August 2021

On Blu-ray - David Hare is excited by a new edition of NASHVILLE (Robert Altman, USA, 1975)

Lily Tomlin, Keith Carradine, Nashville

The two screens above and below are from a gorgeous new Paramount rescan and remaster of Altman's wonderful Nashville (1975). Click on the images for a better view.


Criterion released Nashville under license on a Blu-ray back in 2013 and, apart from greater sharpness and color density, it looked like it was taken from a much older HD master Paramount used even further back in 2003 for its then DVD release.

That period of Paramount video releases from the 90s up to just a few years ago ca. 2015 is littered with a large number of relatively weak transfers to disc whether native or licensed to other labels. Perhaps the other most outstanding title, Chinatown, which was originally released on Blu-ray in 2012, looks better than the old Nashville ever did but it was obviously a better scan from the O-Neg and other prime elements which delivered a superior image. A gorgeous new 4K scan happened a couple of years ago but alas Paramount has only made that available as a streaming option through Amazon and region locked. Perhaps Polanski's tarnished reputation in the States from the puritan left inhibits the majors from ever really doing his movies re-issues justice.
In any case a new scan and master from the negs of Nashville finally realizes the full visual impact of the original Panavision anamorphic 35mm image with a ton of shadow detail and color range that is simply crushed to black in the DVD and the master supplied to Criterion back in 2013. 

The new Paramount image is one of those now often realized miracles these days where a film stock with so much detail and nuance gets the best scanning and mastering available for the 1080p medium, as it has at Paramount under VP Archive Andrea Kalas, almost eliminating the need for a UHD 4K from the same new master.
As for the movie what more can I say? Watching it again with the semi-random but highly focused staging of the musical performance numbers, the show reminds me as never before of Altman's great swansong, essentially his self realized wake in the form of his final masterpiece, A Prairie Home Companion. Perhaps Nashville, if not quite a wake for American democracy with the end of the Vietnam War, anticipates it. History teaches us everything endlessly repeats itself, after all.
Meanwhile A Prairie Home Companion is another Altman that hasn't been given justice by home video to this day.

Streaming - Peter Tammer draws attention to an international online exhibition of the work of Australian experimental film-maker David King

David King

Peter Tammer writes

It's not easy for local filmmakers who create short avant garde or experimental work to have overseas presentation of any single work, let alone a whole programme which shows their entire body of work. 

I got a huge buzz when Bill Mousoulis and Chris Luscri organised a two retro programmes of some of my work a few years ago at AFW.

I can assure you that it was very important for me at the time to see my films being enjoyed by people who may never have seen them otherwise.

David King has been the receipient of a rare honour as his filmwork will soon be presented online at  Salto 1TV, The Netherlands via this link:

All details of the programme on my blog:

Congrats to you David. 

Thursday 19 August 2021

Last Night I Went To Manderley Again - Ken Mogg revisits the pleasures of Alfred Hitchcock's REBECCA (USA, 1940)

Manderley, Rebecca

Rebecca has stood up quite well over the years – I don’t know why.

-      Alfred Hitchcock


REBECCA (1940) IS THE film where some of the door-handles are set at eye-level.  Remember?!  Maxim de Winter’s ancestral home, Manderley, in Cornwall, where he brings the seemingly nameless heroine (henceforth ‘I’), who is also the story’s narrator, is one of the film’s impressive ‘stars’ – along with Laurence Olivier as Maxim, Joan Fontaine as ‘I’, and Australia’s Judith Anderson as the formidable housekeeper Mrs Danvers.  The timid ‘I’ is as much initially frightened of ‘Danny’ (as Maxim calls Mrs Danvers) as she feels dwarfed by Manderley’s architecture and lost in its maze of corridors.  However, well before the end, she has grown up– the perennial theme of so many Hitchcock movies over the years.  (I see it as almost inevitable, given such a masterful director.)

In the early scenes, the orphaned ‘I’ often seems intimidated.   When she and Maxim first encounter each other in an off-season Monte Carlo, she is employed as paid companion to the overbearing Mrs Van Hopper.  Likewise, the plot seems to subtly characterise Mrs Van Hopper – she doesn’t seem to have the friends, nor perhaps quite the wealth, to be seen in ‘Monte’ (her term) at the height of the season.  (Maxim has his own reason for being here at this time, and it concerns the death of his first wife, Rebecca, a short while before.  ‘I’, who squirms when her employer acts over-familiarly towards Maxim, is embarrassed as much for Maxim as for herself, but Maxim shows himself capable of sizing up Mrs Van Hopper and administering a snub in double-quick time, before walking off.)  Later, when Maxim encounters ‘I’ alone in the hotel foyer, and is again taken with her, he invites her to join him for a drive. 

Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, Rebecca

These days I read Rebecca as a comedy in the very best sense – it rings true.  Olivier’s performance as Maxim subtly registers how his aristocratic character is used to getting his way without question - enough to imply that the fearless Rebecca may have offended him for reasons he never admits.  (At the climax, he will say to the startled ‘I’, ‘I hated her!’)  As well as Olivier’s performance, there are explicit incidents, as when, braking suddenly, he tells ‘I’ that if she doubts his concern for her she can get out of the car and walk.  Topping that is his proposal a bit later: ‘I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool!’ They get married in a registry office. He buys her some flowers.  In the following scene they are driving through the Cornish countryside, but the moment is not exactly auspicious: it begins to rain.  (Hitchcock may have been remembering the rainy wedding-day in his first film, The Pleasure Garden.)  Again stopping the car, Maxim shows his bride the distant Manderley.  Framed through the car’s windscreen, it appears to have a visible spell cast over it. We see a mansion that looks forbidding and apart.

Manderley interior

Conveying the same idea that Manderley is somehow spellbound is the fact that all of its menfolk appear to have become ‘impotent’ and denatured.  (Even the younger Frith, at the gatehouse, seems elderly.  His father is one of Manderley’s house staff.) Typical is a remark made about the estate’s resident eccentric, ‘Barmy’ Ben, that he’s ‘perfectly harmless’.  The person who makes that remark is the estate-manager, Frank Crawley (Reginald Denny), a bachelor, whom Maxim calls ‘as fussy as an old mother hen’.  (In Torn Curtain, Professor Lindt uses that line to criticise his ‘cluck-clucking’ colleagues.)  As for the marriage of Maxim and ‘I’, for a long time it never seems much more than another ‘companionship’ – later we find out why - a mere extension of ‘I’s’ position with Mrs Van Hopper.  Also, her intimidation by her former employer effectively continues, but this time at the hands of the fearsome housekeeper, Mrs Danvers. A suppressed final chapter to Daphne du Maurier’s novel, unpublished until 1981, reveals that the central couple are still childless several years later.  

Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson)            

Mrs Danvers deserves a separate note to herself.  For a start, it isn’t clear how she acquired the title ‘Mrs’ – presumably it’s a courtesy title given her when she came to Manderley as Rebecca’s personal assistant.  Anyone less likely to be married (to a man) is hard to picture.  We’re told that she ‘simply adored’ Rebecca; the housekeeper’s  butch nature seems established from the start.  Actually, she strikes me as one more of Hitchcock’s eccentrics, of which his films are full.1  Mrs Danvers remains single-minded in her dedication to the supposedly drowned Rebecca, and oppressive towards poor ‘I’. At one of the film’s many climaxes, she nearly pressures ‘I’ to jump from the window of Rebecca’s bedroom to her death  (‘Go on! It’s easy!  Why don’t you?’), only to be thwarted by rockets suddenly being fired at sea to signal that a ship has run aground – a different, more impersonal, disaster, but keeping the melodrama at high intensity.  Wicked housekeepers were not unprecedented in fiction, of course (a rough equivalent to the wicked witches in the contemporary work of L. Frank Baum!).  Hitchcock told Truffaut that he had tried to avoid ‘humanising’ Mrs Danvers by dressing her in black and seldom showing her moving.  And indeed, Daphne du Maurier seems to have based the character on another, called Mrs Unthank, in the novel ‘The Great Impersonation’ (1920) by espionage writer E. Phillips Oppenheim.  Here’s how Oppenheim introduces his malevolent housekeeper: ‘A woman whose advent had been unperceived, but who had evidently issued from one of the recesses in the hall, stood suddenly before them all.  She was as thin as a lath, dressed in severe black.’  And here, for comparison, is how du Maurier introduces Mrs Danvers: ‘Someone advanced from the sea of faces, someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black …’  (Hitchcock told Truffaut that he found du Maurier ‘derivative’.)  The type has continued in movies: think of the devastating housekeeper,  Mrs Baylock, in The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976).

Hitchcock seems to have enjoyed depicting butch women for their ‘entertainment’ value. The novelist Isobel Sedbusk (Auriol Lee) in Suspicion (1942) is another. She is by no means disagreeable, but masterful like Hitchcock himself – indeed, he sees fit to give her a knowledge of plotting, and of true-life murder cases, to rival his own.  In Rebecca, there is also Beatrice Lacy (Gladys Cooper), Maxim’s plain-spoken sister, who, fortunately for ‘I’, takes an immediate liking to the new bride. She is married to Major Giles Lacy (Nigel Bruce), seemingly a bit of a duffer, revealed in the novel to have been one of Rebecca’s victims, i.e., seduced by her.  Giles and Beatrice’s marriage appears childless ...

Jack Favell (George Sanders)

I have still to mention Jack Favell (George Sanders) who describes himself as ‘Rebecca’s favourite cousin’ and who remains chummy with Mrs Danvers, probably due to the fact that he, too, in the novel, had been seduced by Rebecca.  However, if Giles is a duffer, Favell is a bounder. Sanders is suitably smarmy, as he will be again when featured alongside Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950).  In Rebecca, he provides comic counterpoint to the gentlemanly Maxim, and more than once they cross swords.  Here’s how the film introduces Favell, or, rather, how he introduces himself.  Catching ‘I’ unawares, he appears behind her and asks her almost cheekily, ‘Looking for me?’ (She has just been eavesdropping on him and Mrs Danvers, being too timid to enter the same room.  Instead, she hides herself nearby.)  Favell is standing outside a window behind ‘I’, and his voice makes her whirl around, startled.  We had not been shown the window earlier in the scene, so we are startled, too.  Hitchcock often required windows, doors, etcetera, placed for an effect he might want. For example, Patricia White’s monograph on Rebecca mentions a window in Rebecca’s room which Mrs Danvers opens: ‘strangely adjacent to the bed … and Danvers encourages [‘I’] to jump.’  (p. 87)  Favell doesn’t remain outside.  With cheeky insouciance, he throws a leg over the sill and bounds into the room.  There is a shadow across his face just before he does so, undercutting any impression that he is simply being jolly.  Later in the film, during a lunch recess at the inquest, he joins Maxim and ‘I’ in their car uninvited, and promptly attempts blackmail.  Cheekily, he first helps himself to a piece of chicken before tossing the bones away.  ‘What does one do with old bones?’, he wisecracks. ‘Bury them, eh what?’  

The boathouse, Laurence Olivier

Another key line spoken by Favell reflects directly on Maxim:  ‘That temper will do you in yet.’  (An exasperated Maxim had punched him.)  It gives us justifiable pause.  Maxim’s irascibility surfaces on several occasions along with references - such as Favell’s - to his temper.  His generally subdued manner is integral to the dramatic outcome, and proves to be an instance of clever misdirection.  Until a quite brilliant 14-minute boathouse scene2which steers the narrative where we hadn’t anticipated, our assumption (with ‘I’) has been that Maxim is subdued because he hasn’t gotten over Rebecca’s death.  Now, suddenly, we learn that he had hated her, and that his manner has another explanation.   The scene both gives and withholds information.  Maxim claims that when he had confronted Rebecca in the boathouse about her liaisons with Favell, she – secretly knowing that she had cancer (as we find out later) – intended to goad him into killing her, such was her malevolence. ‘Aren’t you going to kill me?’, Maxim claims she said.  But then ‘she had stumbled and hit her head on a piece of ship’s tackle’.  Throughout Maxim’s account of what had happened, the camera moves around the boathouse to show his and Rebecca’s movements.  It is both graphic and gripping.  For example, we see the rope and tackle lying on the floor. But later we are prompted to ask questions.  Did Rebecca really fall and hit her head accidentally?  It sounds an unlikely story!  In du Maurier’s version, Maxim did indeed kill Rebecca.  Then he buried her body at sea, placing her body in her boat and scuttling it.  Then he rowed himself ashore in the boat’s dinghy.  Incidentally, if Maxim isn’t telling the truth, then the boathouse scene prefigures the ‘flashback that isn’t true’ in Stage Fright (1950).  Only, critics don’t think of it that way, even if they distrust Maxim’s words, because it’s as much verbal as visual.

Similarly, critics tend not to notice, or anyway don’t comment on, the underlying questioning that du Maurier’s story embodies, and from which it derives much of its power. Maybe, just maybe, Hitchcock’s Catholicism stopped him from developing that aspect – but it’s there anyway.  In du Maurier’s novel of Jamaica Inn, her villain is a man out of sympathy with his age: a clergyman whose real allegiance is to paganism, to a time ‘when the rivers and the sea were one, and the old gods walked the hills’.  It’s hard not to see some of du Maurier in that character - but she is sufficient of a craftsperson to simply write herself out of any head-on accountability.  In Rebecca, what so shocks Maxim about his first wife is that she is both promiscuous and – apparently – bisexual.  (Mrs Danvers is the face of Rebecca in that respect.)  She thus resembles an aspect of du Maurier herself, as her biographers have shown.  In effect, Rebecca is what Camille Paglia has called the archetypal Great Mother, ‘[t]he supreme symbol of fertility religion … a figure of double-sexed primal power’. Maxim, by contrast, is an arch conservative and patriarch: someone who firmly believes, he tells ‘I’, in mastering an action by performing it ‘over and over again’.  When he learns the true nature of Rebecca, he is understandably traumatised – and driven to hatred of her.

The English of the time firmly believed in being ‘decent’ in all their dealings. (In its under-stated way, the term no doubt expressed why for years they had opposed Hitler: he wasn’t a ‘decent’ chap, now was he?)  But it’s a term that can be used to put a person down – and Marnie (‘Tippi’ Hedren) in Hitchcock’s film of that title scoffs at it.  You feel that Hitchcock was on her side.  Sarcastically, Marnie says to Mark (Sean Connery): ‘I’m a thief and a liar, but I am decent!’  Superficially, she’s right, but she knows that there are deeper factors that make her what she truly is.  Even Rebecca had been prepared – she tells her husband after four days of marriage – to play up to an image of her as the perfect hostess and to make herself and Maxim, and Manderley, the envy of Society.  Just so long as he lets her stay what she is, i.e., promiscuous!  The opposite of Rebecca in nearly every way – except that they’re both ‘spoilt’ – is Mrs Van Hopper.  I chuckle when I hear her reprimand to ‘I’: ‘Have you been doing anything you shouldn’t?’  No doubt, Mrs Van Hopper thinks of herself as virtuous and a good ‘parent’ to this girl, her ‘companion’.  Hitchcock loved under-statement, of course.  My favourite example is what Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) says at the climax of North by Northwest, ‘This won’t do! We’re on top of the Monument.’

Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier

Above all, I think that Rebecca’s plotting needs appreciation as an instance of what the distinguished playwright Robert Sherwood - the film’s screenwriter - and Hitchcock came up with after many drafts, taking inspiration from du Maurier’s ‘prodigious imagination’ (White, p. 99).  Granted, they draw on whatever they can get away with!  For instance, it’s doubly convenient that an unknown woman’s body had been washed ashore soon after Rebecca had disappeared in her boat.  Convenient for Maxim, who had killed her (probably), and for the screenplay!  Equally, it’s convenient that when Rebecca’s boat is found at the bottom of the sea with holes in its planking, and her body still on board, the scene can be read as one of suicide.  Convenient for Maxim and again for the story, too.  (Presumably, the gash that must have been on Rebecca’s forehead is no longer apparent.)  The very ambiguity that accompanies the sinking of the boat allows the screenplay to not actually say that Maxim had killed his wife: the American Legion of Decency rules for films decreed that a murderer could not get away with his crime, no matter how exonerating the circumstances.  (There’s another choice line at the second inquest into Rebecca’s death: the boatbuilder Tabbs waits for a suitable moment in his evidence before saying, ‘And then there’s them ‘oles!’)                                                    

Finally, I’d like to pay tribute to producer David Selznick’s moderating influence on Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film. Selznick actually threw out its first treatment, which was written by Philip MacDonald and Joan Harrison under Hitchcock’s supervision.  In one of his famous memos, Selznick wrote: ‘Dear Hitch.  It is my unfortunate and distressing task to tell you that I am shocked and disappointed beyond words by the first [treatment].  I regard it as a distorted and vulgarized version of a provenly successful work, in which, for no reason that I can discern, old fashioned movie scenes have been substituted for the captivatingly charming du Maurier scenes.’  The treatment had begun by showing the characters on their way to Monte Carlo, including scenes of seasickness à la Champagne (1928) or perhaps Chaplin.  Selznick thought these ‘cheap beyond words’ (that phrase again!), and called for a total rewrite.  Such an imposition of discipline on England’s top director surely taught him a rigour that he never lost thereafter.  Rebecca is plainly his first Hollywood masterpiece.





1. Author Charles Dickens also had many such grotesque characters in his novels, such as Miss Havisham in ‘Great Expectations’ who was jilted on her wedding day and has lived as a recluse ever since – although bringing up a beautiful waif, Estella, as a lure for male victims, who will fall in love with her only to find that she has been taught to be unresponsive, and thereby break their hearts!

2.  When Selznick saw the rushes for the boathouse scene, he called them ‘wonderful’. For once, he seemed almost lost for words!  


Editor's Note: This is the twelth essay by Hitchcock scholar Ken Mogg to have been published on Film Alert 101.

The other essays can be found if you click on these links.

Under Capricorn 

The Man Who Knew Too Much


Vertigo's Cinema Sources

Hitchcock's Methods

I Confess

About the author

Ken Mogg has published widely on Hitchcock; his The Alfred Hitchcock Story(1999, revised 2008) covers every film 'in loving detail'  (Bill Krohn, Cahiers du Cinéma). His recent writing includes a chapter on Topaz and (the script of) The Short Night in Hitchcock and the Cold War (Pace University Press, 2018), a chapter on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in Children, Youth, and American Television (Routledge, 2018), a chapter on "Hitchcock's Literary Influences" for A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock(Wiley Blackwell 2011, pb 2014), and an essay on "The Cutting Room" in 39 Steps to the Genius of Alfred Hitchcock (BFI, 2012). Ken has also written "Psycho Considerations" (2020), on the hitchcockmaster website if you click here    

Ken Mogg's email address is