Friday, 16 April 2021

Papillon (1973)



There is a distinct and very popular sub-genre called (at least in my book) prison break movies/series. This is not a favorite of mine, but there are a number of excellent representatives of this genre on the List. “A Man Escaped”, “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Papillon” to mention a few.

They have this in common that someone we would root for have been imprisoned (unfairly) and in an escape-room-like challenge attempts to gain the freedom the System will not grant him. This is the ultimate freedom of the individual against the oppressive structures of the majority scenario. In the case of “Papillon” this person is Papillon (Steve McQueen), based on the real-life character of Henri Charrière.

At the opening of the movie a group of French prisoners are being moved from France to a penal colony in French Guyana, among these Papillon. We never learn exactly how he got there, but it is hinted that he was falsely accused of murder to get him out of the way. En-route to South America Papillon befriends the geeky Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman) a notorious forger who apparently caused a financial scandal where many people lost a lot of money. Dega has hidden away a lot of money where the sun does not shine and Papillon, seeing this man needs protection, considers a friendship with Dega a win-win situation.  

The prison in French Guyana is not a pleasant place. It is hard work, diseases and humiliation and Papillon, despite dire warnings, is looking for ways to escape. Turns out there is an entire industry of luring prisoner’s money by offering fraud escape routes. Papillon’s first escape attempt falls into one such trap and he spends the next two years in isolation. Dega tries to smuggle in food to him, and when it is discovered, rather than ratting on Dega, Papillon endures by eating bugs.

Papillon’s stay in prison becomes a continuation of escape attempts and hard punishment and that seems to be the morale of the story. The prison system against the spirit of this man. We see many others who lose this fight and either break or die or both (the system does not want to correct the prisoners, it wants revenge), but Papillon refuse to do either. Papillon may be fighting a futile battle, but the fact that he continues to fight it is a victory in itself.

Louis Dega handles the disappointments differently. He bends and closes up inside himself. By the end he is not entirely mad, but so secluded in his own world, and comfortable there, that he cannot be reached, neither by Papillon nor by the system.

“Papillon” works because the prison system is as brutal as it is and because Papillon and Dega are as sympathetic as they are. In fact, it is difficult to see any of the prisoners as deserving and that makes them more like KZ prisoners. This makes the struggle morally easy and let it focus on the philosophical dilemma between individual freedom and conformity. Of course, this is a brutal simplification and leaves out all the arguments for having a penal system in the first place, but that is not where this movie wants to go, and the simplification gives it clarity.

Another reason why it is works is the very high production value. McQueen and Hoffman were at this point at their peak and it shows. The acting if first rate and dialogue is only a small part of it. The set design is exquisite with a copy of the original prison and jungle scenery so steamy and humid that you feel it watching the movie. My only complaint, really, is that the whole thing takes place in English and not in French. This threw me in the beginning, but eventually I got used to it and had it been in French, I doubt we would have gotten Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman as Papillon and Louis Dega.

“Papillon” is a definite recommendation from me and another great movie from 1973.  This is quickly becoming one of the good years in cinema.


Friday, 9 April 2021

Soylent Green (1973)


Off-List: Soylent Green

The second off-List movie of 1973 is “Soylent Green” and again we are in the science fiction genre. A few years ago I started a little sci-fi movie project with my wife. It is now defunct, but one of the movies I was looking forward to watch on that list was “Soylent Green”. It sounded interesting and I had never even heard about this movie.

“Soylent Green” is a dystopian detective story, 9 years before “Blade Runner”, set to take place in New York 2022. That is, next year! In this version of 2022 humankind has gone into a Malthusian death spiral. Wild population growth has used up all natural resources and destroyed the ecosystem until the only thing left is people. It is everybody for themselves and nothing works, except perhaps the police.

In this environment we meet Frank Thorn (Charlton Heston), a police detective, and his “Book” (researcher) Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson). Thorn is investigating the murder of a rich fellow, Simonson, who lived in the fenced off exclusive part of town with his concubine, here called “furniture”, Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young). Simonson was a board member of Soylent Industries who supply food for the mass of humanity in the form of nutrient wafers “Soylent Red” “Soylent Yellow” and “Soylent Green”. As Thorn gets deeper into this case he finds out things he probably wished he had never known.

There are a lot of similarities to “Blade Runner” here, but “Soylent Green” never does manage to hit the nerve “Blade Runner” touched. For one, the dystopian world, scary as it is, is not anywhere as convincing and thought through as “Blade Runners”. Although some of the things, the greenhouse effect, the reduced biodiversity, the depletion of resource, are no longer science fiction. “Blade Runner” had a melancholy darkness that held a lot of fascination, even appeal. In “Soylent Green” the world is just plain disgusting.

Another difference is that where Harrison Ford was a perfect cast, Charlton Heston was a terrible one. He is totally unconvincing and somehow strikes me more like a Douglas Fairbanks thrown into movie, except Fairbanks would have been a lot more fun. Somebody ought to have told him this is not “Ben Hur”.

But then on the other hand we get to see Edward G. Robinson in what turned out to be his last movie, and that was pure bliss. It is actually worth the admission just to enjoy the great Robinson. As a bonus we also get Joseph Cotten in a small, but important role as the murder victim, Simonson. Too little though to get much fun out of it.

When “Soylent Green” is best it is examining the horror of a hyper Malthusian age, taking that scenario into the most extreme and showing the degradation of people when there are too many of them and their lives are cheap. When it is worst, we get a not well enough thought through detective story with Charlton Heston as the knight in shining armor. That story has way too many holes and loose ends. We never even find out why Simonson dies and Thorn’s discovery in the end has only very thin ties to the murder case. Ugh.

There are things to enjoy in “Soylent Green” and I would not be surprised to see a remake at some point, but it was not a winner for me.

Oh, and by the way, if anybody offers you a piece of Soylent Green, just pass.

Thursday, 1 April 2021

American Graffiti (1973)


American Graffiti

It is the Easter Holiday and I have done something incredibly exotic for these Corona times, which is to go to Germany to spend the holidays with my family in law. Crossing a border these days is apparently a super dangerous affair with an amazing amount of paperwork… You have to want to do it.

Anyway, I brought with me “American Graffiti”, the next movie on the List and what a holiday treat that was. Blowing it up on a badass television in high definition from a Blu-ray disc only enhanced the experience. This is delicious stuff.

“American Graffiti” is George Lucas memoirs of his youth in Modesta, California and is as such a love letter to the youth culture of the early sixties. Young people cruising up and down the street in their cars, listening to the music of the time and worrying about their future. Apparently, Lucas based this movie on a number of characters he knew when he himself graduated from high school.

In the course of a single night, we follow four stories, which to some extend intersect, and in each of them the guy in focus achieve some sort of clarity on his life. That sounds very profound, but the stories are unforced and easy and quite believable.

The guys are Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), Steve (Ron Howard), John (Paul Le Mat) and Terry “the Toad” (Charles Martin Smith).

Curt is supposed to leave for college in the morning, but is having second thoughts about going. His adventures of the night include spotting a pretty blonde in a passing car, getting picked up and almost pressed into membership of a local gang and finding (and meeting) the mysterious radio DJ Wolfman. Through this Curt finds his resolve for what to do.

Steve is also set to leave for college in the morning, but have a fallout with his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams) along the line of “I think it would be okay if we see other people”. Laurie gets pretty upset and throughout the night Steve and Laurie are alternately together and apart in a complex dance. Steve also finds his resolve on what to do.

John Milner is the local drag racer, driving a home-made construct of a car. By chance he ends up having the under-age Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) in his car, which forces him to find his responsible side, moving in the course of the night from being the reckless drag racer to the responsible big brother type.

Finally, Terry, the local geek, has an absolutely insane night which include getting an awesome car, picking up a pretty girl (Candy Clark), getting an armed robber to get him booze, getting sick from the booze, loosing the car, hiding from the mysterious goat killer and getting beaten up by some tough guys. Crazy night, but also very maturing.

The narrative of four stories in parallel is pretty standard today but was completely new ground in 73. Despite this it works flawlessly and was, I suppose, quite an eye-opener. So was the storyline which does not move towards a particular climax, but instead take the characters through a development and process them as evolved beings on the other side. This combination apparently was difficult for the studios at the time to swallow, but I guess it helps having the director of “The Godfather” as producer (Francis Ford Coppola).

The big draws to me though were the ambience and the cast. Lucas managed to draw almost iconic imagery of the early sixties with wall-to-wall music and a documentary like depiction of the youth culture. By letting the actors improvise and be relaxed about their roles he also managed to make the dialogue and acting unforced and natural which is in start contrast to the theatricals of earlier youth movies.

And then there is the cast. This is where young actors like Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard and Harrison Ford (as the drag racer Bob Falfa, who is challenging John) became names in their own right. This was if not their breakthrough then the pivotal boost of their careers. Watching them here was just magic and the amazing thing is that all the other young actors in the movie were just as great to watch.

I had a great time watching American Graffiti. This worked 100% for me and I can only recommend it. A classic coming of age story in a brilliant wrapping.


Thursday, 25 March 2021

Badlands (1973)



I have never been a fan of the touring criminals genre. Intellectually I understand that this is the ultimate freedom dream, to go anywhere you want and do anything you want, no limits, but I do not feel that fascination and without that there is just not that much left. Killing and stealing left and right just does not feel that cool.

I also do not care that much for movies about white trash. That is probably a very arrogant and ignorant position and I sincerely apologize, but I do not even want to relate.

White trash on a killing tour then… well, with that premise we start at a very low point indeed.

Yet, “Badland” is touted as a great and classic movie so either there are a lot of people who think differently from me or there is something else to this movie.

Kit (Martin Sheen) is a young man in some South Dakotan town who pics up (and quickly lose) random jobs. While being a garbage collector he meets the 15 year old Holly (Sissy Spacek) and wants to get to know her. Neither of them say or do much that is worth listening to and them hanging out together seems more like a thing to do because they are bored and cannot think of a reason not to. Holly’s father does not approve so Kit breaks into the house, packs a suitcase for Holly and shoots her father, right in front of Holly. You would think Holly would be screaming and shouting but she seems mostly indifferent and so they set the house on fire and leave.

They build themselves some fantasy treehouse, but eventually have to move one. Wherever they go Kit uses his guns to remove obstacles and Holly never seems to question the sense of it. Eventually, Holly does not care to continue and Kit gets caught and that is about it.

These two youngsters appear as complete morons, but I think it is more correct to say that they live in an alternate reality where what they do is completely okay. Kit likes to think of himself as a James Dean character and that he has great things waiting for him. Holly seems to live in some childishly innocent dream world and both of them are completely numb to the suffering they are causing.

My guess is that the “greatness” of this movie is somehow in the portrait of these two, although I have some trouble figuring out what that is.

One thing that really works though is the photography. Every single picture is knife-sharp and saturated in color. The images are staged like Sergio Leone’s and the great emptiness of the High Plain is perfectly captured. Probably an analogy to the feral emptiness of Kit and Holly.

There is a stark beauty which is in contrast to the insensitive characters that makes the film itself feel like a poem. As if in their heads they are aspiring to a beautiful dreamlike world and in the disconnect from the real world they have grown insensitive to it.

I am not certain this at all makes sense.

As much as it tries though, to me this is still a movie about white trash on a killing tour. In a nice wrapping, yes, but I cannot get much beyond that.

Still, there are plenty of fans of the genre and I will leave this movie to them.


Saturday, 20 March 2021

Westworld (1973)


Off-List: Westworld

My history with “Westworld” goes way back. I watched it, or at least some of it in my early childhood and it scared or disturbed me so badly that I never went back. Even in adult life I have had the idea that this was an uncomfortable movie and so I have not even watched the HBO reboot of it.

Yet, this is the first of my off-List movies of 1973 and I am very happy that I faced my demons because, lo and behold, this is an excellent movie and truly one I should have been watching several times over the years.

“Westworld” takes place in a not-too-distant future where a company called Delos has created the ultimate theme park. They have recreated three historical settings, the Roman world, the medieval world and the old West, and submerge the guests into them as if they were living in that setting. Sort of time travel as a holiday resort or ultimate roleplaying. To bring these worlds alive Delos has populated them with very lifelike robots. They are almost indistinguishable from humans and are so complicated that they needed computers to create them (meaning that no human fully understand how they work).

This theme park has become incredibly popular with affluent adults and we are following two of these guests on their visit to Westworld: Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) and John Blane (James Brolin). Everything is awesome as they suspend themselves into this reconstructed historic world. They get to experience all the Western tropes: lusty barmaids, saloon fights, escape from prison with dynamite and gunfights. The gunfight in particular is convincing. A particular robot, labelled Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) is specialized in provoking duels and Peter Martin gets to shoot him twice. It is perfectly safe, the robots are programmed not to harm humans.

Except, something is happening to them. They are starting to deviate from their programming and become more… human. A concern is slowly becoming a worry, but before the operating staff can do anything about it the robots are in open rebellion. We see how in both the Roman and Medieval world the guests are being butchered and now the Gunslinger means business and duels become deadly. Will any guest get out of this alive?

Michael Crichton was a very well-known author, most famously the writer of “Jurassic Park”. What I did not know is that he also directed a number of his stories and “Westworld” was his directorial debut. There are in fact a lot of parallels to “Jurrasic Park”, but also “Bladerunner” and “The Terminator” reference back to Westworld and they are not Crichton stories.

Clearly Crichton was interested in technology getting out of control. In “Westworld” Delos thought they could control robots, in “Jurassic Park” it was dinosaurs. The creatures evolve and what was supposed to be safe becomes very dangerous. As in “Bladerunner” (or “Does Androids Dream of Electrical Sheep?”) the boundary between robots and humans get blurry and the robots start challenging their makers. There is a very philosophical angle to this movie and I got the impression that the HBO reboot spends a lot of energy on this question.

But this is also an action movie. Once the robots take control of their own “lives”, Westworld becomes a very dangerous place to be. There is a chase with the gunslinger that was definitely the inspiration for The Terminator chase in the movie of that name. The end scene is almost a clone.

It is a movie that keeps a good pace and it never grows boring, but the most amazing thing is how modern it all looks. There is nothing clunky about these robots. There are even very early computer graphics (the pixelated vision of the Gunslinger). Sure, the computers running the theme park are big industrial things, but not distractingly so. But most of all the ending feels very modern. Our hero may have gotten a respite, but he is not out of the woods and it is a very uncertain future he is looking into.

I very much enjoyed watching “Westworld”, it is one of the best movies I have watched lately and the production value is top notch. In an age where the discussion of AI’s has returned, this is a movie that is surprisingly relevant even today.



Saturday, 13 March 2021

The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain) (1973)


Moderen og luderen

That was a tough one to get through.

In “The Mother and the Whore” (“Le Maman et la Putain”) we follow three people. Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a young man in Paris. He lives an idle life, doing nothing to earn an income, but spends his time picking up girls and telling anybody who cares to listen his view on things. Alexandre lives in a flat with Marie (Bernadette Lafont). Marie runs a small shop and while barely scraping through it is she who supports Alexandre. Veronika (Francoise Lebrun) is a nurse Alexandre picks up. She spends her spare time having sex with anybody, really, and getting drunk. Usually in combination.

It is obvious that the movie is a picture of and commentary to the post-68 culture of the early seventies. Alexandre is the useless and narcissistic intellectual who is wasting away his life considering his own belly button. His contribution to anything is zip. In his relationships it is him talking to the girls, not with the girls. He knows practically nothing about the women around him because his sole interest in them is as listeners. At the same time, he feels fully entitled to a bed to sleep in, a car to drive in, cigarettes, lots of alcohol and sex. What the girls see in him is truly a mystery. As such he is a harsh picture of the alternative lifestyle the 68 revolution produced.

The strange relationship between the three people is also an image of the hypocrisy of the free sex ideal. All of them recognize the open relationship ideal and all of them get hopelessly jealous when the others get involved with each other. They all seem to confuse sex and love and it is difficult to see that any of them get any pleasure or satisfaction from it, yet nobody puts the finger on the spot that free sex without commitment is just another empty waste of time. Sounds awfully prudish of me, but the casual, pointless way these people negotiate their relationships looks a lot more like a way to fight boredom and loneliness than anything meaningful.

This could be fun. I have watched a lot of movies that take a comedic spin on these post-68 characters, but that is not the angle of “The Mother and the Whore”. Instead, we are invited to the boredom and dreariness of these people’s lives. The movie is in black and white, it is 3½ hours long, with incredibly long scenes, often filled with Alexandre venting his thoughts on whatever topic comes to his mind. I feel the uselessness and boredom. I miss direction in the same way as the characters miss direction and I end up feeling somewhere between confusion, disgust and pity for these three people.

On the positive, it does take some skill to effectively communicate this to the audience and stay serious about it. The characters are acted very naturalistic and at the same time completely pathetic which is extraordinaire. But the result is also a movie which is very tough to get through, where I got bored and because I do not care for any of the characters, least of all the narcissistic Alexandre, I cannot invest myself with any of them. Then, do this for 3½ hours (deep breath…).

Some of the monologues do have some isolated value, though. There are small pieces of gold in them that ticked my interest (and thank you for that). They are just odd things to say in the context and therefore feels almost shoehorned into the movie, as if the director / scriptwriter wanted to express some ideas, but by letting Alexandre present them, they make him look smarter than he otherwise comes about.

I would only recommend “The Mother and the Whore” to those with a particular interest in post-68 counterculture and maybe make it an obligatory watch for youth considering experimenting with this scene. For myself, it is safe to already now predict that this will not be one of my favorite ‘73 movies.


Wednesday, 3 March 2021

The Sting (1973)


Sidste stik

A new year for me and this one is special. 1973 was the year I was born so from now on I could technically have watched the movies upon release, though frankly I do not remember watching any movies until around 1980 and those movies hardly made the List. Anyway, from now on the movies are no older than I am.

The first movie of 1973 is the “The Sting”. That is a pretty solid start for the year. “The Sting” won no less than 7 Academy awards, including Best Picture, though none of the acting awards (Redford was nominated as best actor), so this is clearly THE movie of the year. This is also a movie I remember having watched ages ago, but I have reached that blissful age where details quickly fade away and as it turned out I remembered absolutely nothing of it with the possible exception of the score. That includes all the plot twist and so I was drawn around in all the scams of this caper movie, falling for every one of them.

I cannot say if “The Sting” was originally intended as a vehicle for Paul Newman and Robert Redford, but it is clear that setting them up together again after “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” was a guaranteed success with the audience and in the various presentations I found it is this partnership that is emphasized. Admittedly there is very good chemistry between these two buddies, but to my mind it takes backseat to the two great draws of “The Sting”: The wonderful screenplay and the ambience of the movie.

Johnny Hooker (Redford) runs small scams in a minor town when they suddenly pay off. Together with his partner, Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones), they catch a windfall of 11.000$. The mob, whom they have robbed, lets no such act go unpunished and soon Luther is dead and Hooker is on the run from both the mob and the local police lieutenant Snyder (Charles Durning).

Hooker seeks out Henry Gondorff (Newman) in Chicago upon Luther’s recommendation. Gondorff is a legendary conman who has grown bored, so when Hoooker shows up with an urge to revenge himself on mob leader Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), Gondorff quickly change gear and soon a most spectacular con is in progress. Will they manage to outsmart Lonnegan and the police and who can you actually trust?

Caper movies can go two ways: Either the law wins and we merely watch an elaborate and cunning plan go to pieces, usually in the last act, or the conmen gets away with it and we see all the pieces fall into place. To the credit of this movie, I was very much in doubt which way it would go until the last scene and I will not spoil that here. Suffice to say that the screenplay takes us on an amazing ride full of twists, backstabs and incredibly complex plans and as a viewer I was kept on the edge of my seat all the way and greatly entertained.

Most amazingly, “The Sting” manages to recreate that 1930’ies feel, not of reality, but of movies of the age. It is more 1930’ies than any movie actually from the thirties. The ragtime music, the costumes, the stages and the lightning. It all combines to give this ambience of a 30’ies fairy tale. The con itself is also so incredible it could only really work in a movie of that age, with that certain amount of levity that made my think in the direction of “The Thin Man”, but with the brawn of a Cagney movie. It is no wonder that “The Sting” won so many technical awards.

I had a great time watching “The Sting” and it is great to take a break from seventies social realism. That will return soon enough. This is just wonderful escapism and a perfect lockdown movie.

Highly recommended.