Wednesday, 16 January 2019

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

I nattens hede
I always feel a bit odd when it comes to racism in America. I am not American and do not have that first-hand experience to understand the subject and, really, the best course for me would be to abstain from such a, likely sensitive, subject for which I have insufficient understanding. Unfortunately, it is just not possible to discuss a movie like “In the Heat of the Night” without getting into racism. It is very much at the center of that film.

This thing about racism against black people has always baffled me. From a European perspective black people and black culture is an integral part of America and to think of it as something separate and of lesser worth is just… weird, yet, in the mid-sixties, twenty years after the wake-up call that was Nazi Germany, comes along “In the Heat of the Night” and throws a spotlight on rampant racism.

In a small Mississippi town, a man gets killed in the night and the police does not hesitate to arrest a stranger on the train station and pin the murder on him. It is understood that the fact that the man is black makes him without question guilty. In a truly amazing scene the black guy (Sidney Poitier) turns out to be a Philadelphia police officer in town to visit his mother and the astonished Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) learns, when he contacts Virgil Tibbs’ boss, that Tibbs is a homicide expert and the best he got. In your face!

Gillespie and indeed most of the town are eager to get rid of this black guy who carries himself with a pride they are not used to and do not like. Obviously, a black guy who does not grovel before them needs to learn his place and get out of town. Tibbs is more than happy to leave, but Gillespie finds out that he needs Tibbs and Tibbs himself finds that he needs to find the murderer.

Keen to solve the case Gillespie keeps finding new targets to pin this murder on, but Tibbs is not free of his own prejudices and is ready to pin it on the rich planter of the town, old white aristocracy. Their relationship, Gillespie and Tibbs, is turbulent, they need each other but despise what the other stand for, yet in the process the gain a mutual respect. Grudging at first, but it grows, and that relationship is the heart and soul of the movie. Sure, there is a murder case, but it takes second stage and when it is finally resolved it seems almost unimportant.

“In the Heat of the Night” is an awesome movie. It takes you places, and it is committed to the story it wants to tell and that story feels important. It is also a movie where everything works. The acting of course is stellar. The cinematography is spot on, you feel the heat and you feel the discomfort and the oppression. The plot movies forward fast enough to keep me on the edge of my seat, but the stand out item must be the scoring by Quincy Jones. This would not have been half the movie without it, and it points the way to how movies were scored in the seventies.

The thing that makes “In the Heat of the Night” so exceptional however is the spotlight it throws on racism. Undiluted bigotry on an unimaginable scale. The timing is perfect, smack in the middle of the whole civil rights process and this movie must have made a splash in its time. To me, as an outsider, this is just unbelievable, what is wrong with these people, and I wonder how it must have been for an American watching it back in its day.  

And yes, this is a 1967 movie and I am not done with 1966, but my (ancient) edition of the Book places it as a 1966 movie and this was simply the next movie to watch. But what a break from 66! I can only recommend this movie and so did the Academy: Five awards including Best Picture.


Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Manos, The Hands of Fate (1966)

Off-List: Manos, The Hands of Fate
The motivation for the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” list is to provide a canon of movies you just must see. It is clearly stated that these are not necessarily the best or highest grossing movies. The quality is measured in terms of being significant in some way or another and that may have nothing to do with actual quality as you would normally understand it. There are plenty of movies on the List that demonstrate that. A “quality” that seems to have been overlooked is the extreme lack of quality. A movie that is so bad that it is in itself an achievement is in my opinion a significant film that you simply have to have watched.

Here my good friend Bea at Flickers in Time has been most helpful providing a suitable candidate in “Manos: The Hands of Fate” and this will be my third off-list movie for 1966.

Let me say right off the bat that this is an incredible film. It is very clear that it was not intended as a spoof or a joke, they meant it when the team behind made this movie, yet they have managed to do just about everything wrong. Very wrong. Several lists name it one of the worst movies ever and a score on IMDB of 1.9 speaks for itself. It is so bad a score it is quite an achievement.

The plot, because, yes, there is actually a plot (at which point it is actually better than some movies on the List), is revolving around a family of three, Michael (Harold P. Warren), Margaret (Diane Mahree) and their daughter Debbie (Jackey Neyman) who is out driving but get lost in the desert. They end up at a mysterious house to ask for directions but end up staying there.

At the house they are greeted by Torgo (John Reynolds), a cripple who claims to be a servant of a guy he refers to as Master. Master is a Dracula kind of guy, lying in a crypt surrounded by still women in white dresses. Once he wakes up it becomes apparent that he worships a demon called Manos and sports a ridiculous moustache.

Michael and Margaret keeps going in an out, consistently making wrong and stupid decisions. Margaret is mostly calling out to Michael and repeating how much she does not like the place but otherwise seems to be a woman of very limited vocabulary. Repetition is a very common theme in the movie. The characters will repeat the same sentences over and over. When they have been over the same ground three or four times, they may move on to something new. I suppose it is a way to save on script.

Master is supposed to be scary, but he mostly looks confused. His super-scary dog is actually looking rather sweet and well-behaved and I am no expert on dogs. He also has some trouble asserting himself over the “slave” women of his sect who seem to drive him to frustration. Speaking of which, we get a scene where the women are “killing” Torgo by applying gentle hand slaps to his face. So scary…

Besides all the repetitions the dialogue is a marvel. It is incredibly stupid and applied with the worst dubbing imaginable. That dubbing may be the funniest element of the entire movie. Combine that with a score that is misapplied and poorly chosen, and you got a sweet mix. I loved it when horrible Torgo starts fondling a frantic Margaret and the score shifts into bedchamber cozy mode.

Then there are all the smaller details: problematic editing, inconsistent cutting, gaping plot holes, unmotivated actions, weird lighting and so on. Basically every decision made on this movie was flawed.

The result is hilarious, especially as it is very clear this is meant as a serious horror movie. For fans of utter disastrous movies this is a gem and a must-see. I could definitely see this movie earning a spot on the List and I would prefer it any day to free-flying dicks.


Sunday, 6 January 2019

Seconds (1966)

“Seconds” is a rather obscure science fiction movie by John Frankenheimer from 1966. In the Danish edition of the List it was discarded to make room for “Sult” and that was in my opinion a very poor trade. While both movies represent novel cinematography and plots, “Seconds” is an example where it worked very well, whereas “Sult”… well, the less said about that the better.

John Frankenheimer made the very interesting “The Manchurian Candidate” and that should have given me some indication of where this would go. Yet I was surprised how far off the beaten track “Seconds” would take me. This is a truly fascinating story with some interesting cinematography.

Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a middle-aged banker who lives a comfortable but gray life. He is being contacted by an old friend who is offering an alternative, a second change at living his life. Arthur is not sure, his wife does care about him, but he is also fretting over how empty his life has become. Charlie, the old friend, talk him into joining the program and soon he is taking a cloth and dagger route to a mysterious organization called simply “the Company”. Everybody here are simply faces and there is a very weird feel to this place. Arthur has second thoughts, but when he tries to bail out, he learns there is no return.

The Company uses hypnotic regression to find out what people really want to be and changes the character accordingly. After some time under the knife, Arthur emerges as Tony Wilson in the shape of Rock Hudson. In the sixties, what guy did not want to be Rock Hudson? The company is faking Arthurs death and Tony is installed in California as a painter.

While Tony is weirded out by this life, he also tries to embrace it. A new girlfriend, hippie free love, cocktail parties with the neighbors, except Tony cannot entirely let go of his former self and there is something decidedly weird about his neighbors. Could they also be seconds…?

It would be a shame to reveal the conclusion of the movie, suffice to say that the story take a very unconventional road, which is ultimately satisfying, but probably one likely reason the movie tanked at the box office.

The point is that we tend to think the grass is greener on the other side and that life would have been better if we had had a second change at living it. Or would it? These people are living out this dream, but maybe this is something that should just remain a dream because there is a high chance it would not survive reality. Arthur/Tony realizes that he in his second life is just as trapped as in his first life and apparently so do many other people. In fact, this disappointment is a major problem for the Company to the extent that they have a large waiting room for people queuing for a third chance.

This is also one of the first Evil Corporation stories in cinema. The Company is high above its clients, making choices for them, sucking their resources and discarding them as liabilities if things go wrong. Life and death are trivial to the Company, to whom only profit counts.

As mentioned above “Seconds” tanked at the box office and I think to some extent it was ahead of its time. Several movies have picked up elements of this story since with success. “Total Recall” back in the eighties borrowed liberally from “Seconds”, but spinned it as an action movie. Today the themes of “Seconds” would be more in touch with the zeitgeist and I would not be surprised to see an actual remake soon.

A definite asset of “Seconds” is the disturbing cinematography. We get some very unusual camera angles, fish eye perspective and other tricks to give us that disturbing, uncomfortable feel Arthur/Tony is experiencing. The spookiness of the Company is underscored by the cinematography and the sound of a “cranial drill” will for a long time give me uncomfortable associations…

“Seconds” is probably not for everybody, but for me it was a hit. It is one of those rare unusual experiences of watching something new and different that actually works. That it also tells a story with modern relevance is just a plus.


Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Sult (Hunger) (1966)

For the first review of 2019 it is time for another of those special Danish entries in the Danish edition of the 1001 List. This one is called “Sult” and is a glorified piece of work. It is based and apparently closely follows a famous novel by Norwegian author Knut Hamsun and made quite a splash in 1966 with a Best Actor win in Cannes.

Needless to say I was both curious and excited to watch this movie for the first time. Sadly, it was not for me at all.

“Sult” was devised as a Scandinavian co-production with participants from Norway, Sweden and Denmark and the idea was that while the action takes place in Oslo, 1890 and all the characters are Norwegian, the actors would talk to each other in their own language. It is true that there is enough similarity that we generally understand each other, but from a viewer’s perspective it is very confusing and disturbing to listen to and, well, it simply does not work. Yet, this is merely a technicality.

The story is about a young poet, Pontus (Per Oscarsson) who is going around in Oslo. Pontus has no money and no food. He gets evicted from his crappy apartment and hunger is gnawing at him. He hopes to make money by publishing articles and in the meantime, he tries and fails to get jobs for which he is unsuited.

I can understand a story about suffering. Hunger is not fun and poverty is a very real issue. I can also understand a story about unemployment, there are good ones around and I can sympathize with the issue. The problem here is that there is no need for Pontus to suffer. I lost count of the number of times he is offered food, money or a place to sleep, but he always refuses, choosing his weird sense of pride rather than people taking pity on him. When he has money, he gives it away.

Instead Pontus is simply being stupid. In the beginning he is arrogantly stupid, then plain stupid and as the movie progresses his hunger is adding confusion to his stupidity. In other words, he is an ass. This makes it a tremendously difficult movie for me to watch. How can you help a person who does not want to be helped? Well, you can let him rot and that was basically where I ended up. I lost interest in Pontus and the movie and it became a very hard movie to get through. It is not made easier by the fact that this is all that is happening throughout the movie. There is no progressive plot, except that Pontus is getting more and more hungry, driving himself into disaster.

One could argue that pride and stubbornness are virtues and Pontus is an uncompromising example of this, but my counter argument is that he is an example of extreme arrogance and idiocy and a complete failure at facing reality. Not something to be encouraged.

“Sult” was an ordeal to watch, not for the suffering but for the stupidity. I had to chop it up and watch it in small bites and even then I had to do something else on the side, while I just could not wait to get this over with. That is hardly a description of a good movie and so my verdict is accordingly.

Technically this is probably a fine movie, but the result is so difficult to watch that I cannot recommend this to anyone.