Saturday 27 January 2018

The Day of the Triffids (1963)

Off-list: The Day of the Triffids
As the third extra movie of 1963 I have been watching “The Day of the Triffids”. Technically it is a 1962 movie, but I suppose with a US release in 1963 it is close enough to qualify.

“The Day of the Triffids” is not a movie I would argue very hard for deserving a place on the List, it is not exactly what you would consider a quality movie, but something like this movie is desperately needed on the 1963 selection. I am literally drowning in depressing movies and the “Triffids” movie was exactly the right medicine to get me out of my funk. It was a lot of fun to watch.

During a major meteor shower two terrible things happen: Everybody who has been looking at it turns blind (!) and an until then dormant plant called the Triffid turns into a murdering beast (!!).

Only those very few people who ignored the show or was prevented from watching can still see. Bill Masen (Howard Keel) is one such person. He has been undergoing an eye operation and on the morning after the shower he takes off his bandages and finds himself all alone. Everything is a mess and devoid of people. Straight out of “28 days” or “The Walking Dead” (guess who was first…) When he finally meets other people, they are all blind. His eye doctor is so desperate about loosing his sight that he jumps out the window (!). Eventually Bill finds a little girl, Susan (Janina Faye), who has been sleeping on a train, and together they go to France (!).

On the way there they discover the Triffids. Monstrous plants, 4 meters tall, who creep along with a strange swooshing sound and munch on people. Naturally Bill and Susan are disturbed. In France they meet some people who has set up a hospital. In between a Triffid and a convict assault they escape and decide to go to Spain (!).

Meanwhile, off the coast of England the scientist couple Tom and Karen Godwin (Kieron Moore and Janette Scott) are stranded. Tom is a very unsympathetic guy bent on drinking himself to death, but the attack of the Triffids gives him new purpose and he redirects his angry energy into finding a means to destroy them.

This movie has all the elements of a goofy monster movie. The characters are one-dimensional and primitive, the acting… interesting, the special effects hilarious and logic does not really apply. And best of all, it takes itself seriously. It is absolute gold. Whereas a movie like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” works because we actually buy the story, the “Triffids” movie works because it itself buys the story while we… probably do not. The budget was simply not up to the task. A spoofing movie would have been intentionally funny, but “The Day of the Triffids” never tries to be funny. Seeing people crash to their death is never funny. It means it seriously, innocent people in droves are dying in this movie. We are meant to be terrified and at the same time it is just so helpless.    

The rear projections are a hoot and the Triffids themselves are just amazing, but the dialogue… uh, awesome.

I had so much fun watching this movie. This is exactly the kind of 50’ies/60’ies B-movie I love and of which there is way too little on the List. Thanks Bea for recommending it.

Tuesday 23 January 2018

The House is Black (Khaneh Siah Ast) (1963)

Khaneh Siah Ast
Misery again again…

This next movie on the List is a short Iranian poetic documentary about a leper colony in Iran. Its obscure Iranian title “Khaneh Siah Ast” apparently means “The House is Black” and that is actually a very apt title for the lives of the people in this little movie.

The camera films life in the leper colony for better or worse. Some people have lost arms or legs, some have strangely distorted faces, but the prevalent picture is one of people trying to just accept their fate, getting on with life despite suffering a chronic and terminal disease. In fact, many of the scenes look like everyday life anywhere else. Eating, smoking, talking and whatever it is people do. They are even partying.

We also get various details about the disease. All the horrors these people are going through and why they are kept separate from other people. This is a contagious disease. We also get the most shocking piece of information: Leprosy can be cured and with the right treatment even advanced stages has a hope of recovery. Shocking because it means that these people do not need to live a life in misery. It is their poverty and the surrounding world who has condemned them to this life.

This becomes even more poignant when we see children in the colony, all with clear symptoms of leprosy and all trying to live a normal childhood, playing ball and going to school. They are not ignorant of their condition, but they are accepting it. Or taught to accept it. Religion seems to be the tool used to make the children appreciate and accept their lot. As one of the children is asked by the teacher, why it is he should thank God for his father and his mother. He answers that he does not know, he does not have a father or a mother.

Throughout the movie the narrator is reciting poems of religious nature that seems to tell another story, one of mercy and compassion, starkly at odds with the use of religion in the colony. I am not good enough with poetry to appreciate it, but even I can see the point.

The leper colony is an abomination and its existence should trigger a bad conscience with those responsible. This is a long time ago and in an exotic country, but the problem is universal enough to be relevant for us as well. The children do not deserve that fate and they and we should not accept it. That is the message and it is well received.

I have mentioned it before, 1963 must be a year of misery. Children with leprosy just take the cake. If I see one more misery feast I will start screaming.  At least this one was short. But 20 minutes is easily long enough for the subject. It is a window into a world, it is snapshot of the lives of these people, showing us they are just as human as we are, but there is no story as such and there is no need it should be any longer. It manages what it set out to do fine enough.

Sunday 21 January 2018

Kvarteret Korpen (1963)

The Danish edition of ”1001 movies…” has replaced a number of titles on the international list with local entries. It has been a while since I had one of those come up, but now it is time for a local… Swedish movie to show up (It replaces “Mediteranee”). I am not sure why the Danish editors thought that the List lacked some Swedish titles, but I suppose, as this movie takes place in Malmø, just on the other side of Øresund from Copenhagen, it counts as sort of local.

In any case, “Kvarteret Korpen” is a movie by Bo Widerberg about a family in a poor neighborhood in Malmø. The father, (Keve Hjelm) used to be, and still considers himself to be, a businessman, but he has for many years been drinking his career into ruin. Even small jobs like handing out pamphlets he has difficulty doing and the small money he makes are used on more drink. Of course he refuse to blame himself for his misery. The mother (Emy Storm) is the one keeping the family together with her self sacrifice. In her clinging on she is almost as apathetic as the father and her objective is mainly to survive. The story is told through the eyes on Anders (Thommy Berggren), the son. He watches his father drink himself senseless and his mother waste away and is powerless to do anything about it. He hangs out with his friend, Sixten, and sort of girlfriend, Elsie, but there is not much content to what anybody does. At home he writes about it all. His family, his friends, the neighborhood. This is his way of dealing with his frustrations.

When done, he submits his manuscript and is even called to Stockholm for an interview with a publisher, but nothing comes out of it. It is just not good enough. This throws Anders himself into a stupor. His father calls it “the diving bell”, that allows him to sink into a world, away and isolated from the harsh demands of reality and he invites Anders to join him. For Anders it is a choice between letting himself be dragged into the life in misery or break free.

“Kvarteret Korpen” was, it appears, selected in a vote to be the best Swedish movie ever. That is a bit sad if that is really the case. It is an okay movie and the acting is good. You can also feel the pressure weighing Anders down and the desperate need to shake it, but it is also terribly sad and depressive. Sure, this is not the abject misery of migrant workers in Brazil, but the feeling of being stuck, of throwing away your life is no less palpable. For better or worse this is social realism.

It is a curious detail that the story takes place in 1936, around the time of the Olympic games in Berlin. This may seem odd as I am sure exactly the same problems would be relevant in 1963, but I can make a few guesses. One would be that this might be a story remembered by Anders as a later writer, an autobiography if you will. Another could be that in 1936 the world was on the brink of something big, way bigger than the misery of the Korpen neighborhood. It was time to open the eyes and that is what Anders does, if only to escape his immediate world. Or sometimes you just have to distance yourself to see things more clearly.

I am not sure I expected that much from this movie and as such it did not fail me. There is more to Swedish movies than Bergman, but I could also see Bergman making this movie. It would not be so terribly different. The existentialism is certainly right down his lane.    

Wednesday 17 January 2018

Barren Lives (Vidas Secas) (1963)

Vidas Secas
Man, some movies are just so depressive that they are hard to watch.

True to form for 1963, “Vidas Secas” or “Barren Lives” is another difficult-to-watch movie. It is a Brazilian movie following a family of migrant workers in north-eastern Brazil in the 1940’ies. Migrant in the most literal sense. Mum (Maria Ribeiro), Dad (Atila Iorio), two sons (Gilvan Lima and Genivaldo Lima) and their dog wanders on foot from place to place to work as cow hands (or whatever comes their way). They start being on their way, find a place to work and eventually wanders off again. In between, they work, make a little bit of money, loose it again, drinking, gambling and shopping. Dad gets imprisoned by corrupt police and eventually the drought kills the cows.

It is misery on misery on misery. Even the few moments that bring on a bit of light to the story, only do so to prepare us for another round of misery. When they get a bit of money, it is in order to lose it. When the children play with the dog it is in order for them to suffer when the dog dies and so on and so forth.

To me, true horror is to watch poverty and misfortune like this. To know there still are people out there for whom this is their bitter reality. It has a bigger impact than any slasher or ghost story and I frankly do not enjoy it. I suppose that sort of movies are important, but it does take a level of masochism to get through them. In the case of Ray’s Apu trilogy there is enough (just enough) light to take us through and a level of technical and artistical brilliance. Vidas Secas is a far more naked story in line with Italian neo-realism. I am sorry to say that I see very little to recommend it.

Instead of dwelling on this miserable tale, let me tell another one.

In 2012 I visited this area, up in Rio Grande do Norte. It looks exactly as it does in the movie. Dry and barren, completely covered with this thorny, 3 m high vegetation growing on sandy soil. The villages are desperately poor, some of the poorest I have ever seen.

But this is all changing because this area has a resource that has now become valuable: It is incredibly windy. In fact, it is one of the windiest places on Earth, a steady, persistent wind, ideal for wind turbines. Wind farms are spreading all over the land, hundreds if not thousands of them. The locals may not own all these turbines, but it has caused such an influx of wealth, or relative wealth, into this area that these towns are in the process of changing. Roads are being paved, schools are built, houses are repaired or torn down to build something better and it is happening to the regular people there.

I was there visiting a planned wind farm and went into the towns with my local guide. He was a bit afraid of the locals, but they were the nicest people. Food was still poor, but you could see hope and a feeling that their lives were changing. Maybe they were just being paid off to accept the wind farms, but rarely has money hit so dry a spot and it was more than just bribe. The sheer activity level had finally boosted life into these desolate towns.

I felt proud of my job.

Thursday 11 January 2018

The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) (1963)

I like historical dramas. The window into another era is usually interesting, especially when it throws some light on historical events that I knew little about. Luchino Visconti’s “Il Gattopardo” (“The Leopard”) is just such a historical drama, at least on the face of it.

In 1860 the process that would unite Italy into a single country was in full swing and Garibaldi was taking on Sicily. Garibaldi was in opposition to the established aristocracy and represented the middle class, typical of many of the revolutions sweeping across Europe in those years. On Sicily the aristocrat Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster) sees these events with, for his class, unusual clarity. He knows that the old era is and must be over and that he has to embrace the new era. He sees the old and the new era with equal amounts of distaste and he knows that he himself is probably too old to change. This fills him with sadness and his preparation for the future must be made through his proxy, his nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon). He supports Tancredi when he joins Garibaldi’s forces and he supports, even arranges his marriage to Angelica Sedara (Claudio Cardinale), daughter of the distasteful Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa), Mayor of the town and representing the new power class.

Visconti made “Rocco and His Brothers” about Italy’s transition into modernity. This time it is clearly Italy’s transition into democracy.

For a three-hour movie surprisingly little happens in this movie. Visconti takes his time to dwell on each scene and let the actors and scenery speak. It is effective in expression, but it also causes some serious pacing problems. Three hours is a very long time for very little to happen. What is worse, from my point of view, is that the larger historical framework and drama is largely lost and replaced by a character study on Fabrizio, Prince of Salina. It is him we get to know, and know very well, not the context. It is not that bad a trade off, though. The Prince is a fascinating character. Strong and vulnerable, brutal and sensitive, vigorous and tired. Definitely a far more complex character than we are used to see in movies. He is the heart of the movie, but not a perfect being. His flaws are what makes him human after all. Burt Lancaster does an excellent job portraying this enigmatic Prince.

Personally I would have preferred to have a clearer picture of the context though, of the larger historical events, but that may be just me and my particular interests. At least a little more story would have been nice. It is just difficult for a character study to carry this big a production. To help out we do get stupendous sets. Seriously, this must be the wet dream for costume drama fans. Sumptuous palaces, extravagant dresses and tons of extras. The grand ball scenes at the end alone would have cost a fortune to make and if the purpose was to project old world wealth, it succeeds magnificently. I am not easily swayed by those things, but when the scenes then go outdoors, into the hills or the villages I too yield. This is eye candy galore.

Maybe the intention was to make a European “Gone With the Wind”. It certainly plays on many of the same strings. The end of an era nostalgia, the hopeless South with a heart, if not wealth, and old school romances in uniforms and big dresses.

If only the story itself was a bit more interesting. I cannot help feeling a bit cheated. The focus on the fluff and the character of the prince means that the whole element of drama is… not entirely gone, but drowning out. I wonder what exactly was the crisis, the issue here and find the question difficult to answer.     

The conclusion is that I am ambivalent about “The Leopard”. Part of me loved it, another part was disappointed. Lovers of costume parties would go nuts with this movie while those who seek out period dramas for the documentary elements would end up frustrated and the broad majority would likely be somewhere between fascinated and bored.

Wednesday 3 January 2018

Shock Corridor (1963)

Chock korridor
Samuel Fuller was apparently a bit of an oddball. His specialty seems to have been fringe movies, well away from the mainstream. That in itself is of course reason enough to take an interest in him. It also qualifies him for the List where the editors are suckers for anything different. I would take that sort of recommendation with some skepticism.

Fuller apparently wrote the script for “Shock Corridor” back in the forties for Fritz Lang, but ended up directing and producing it himself much later. This allowed him to make the movie exactly as he wanted it with no punches pulled and that is exactly what he did. Seriously.

The idea is that a newspaper man, Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) is letting himself be committed to a mental hospital, faking an illness, in order to solve a murder mystery. He does indeed solve the case, but in the process, he loses his mind and becomes an inmate himself.

This story is not terribly deep and frankly the movie does not delve very much into it. In fact it is often easy to forget that this is the overarching story. Instead Fuller sends us full throttle into the world of the insane and seems to enjoy himself immensely doing it.

We get a very fat and obnoxious opera singer, a young man, Stuart (James Best) who is convinced he is a Confederate officer, but in reality was brainwashed into becoming a communist during the Korean war and a bunch of nymphomaniac women who attack men on sight. There is Trent (Hari Rhodes), who was one of the first black student to be allowed into a segregated university, but is now a raving racist against black people and is working on his KKK outfit whereas Boden (Gene Evans) is a Nobel prize winning nuclear physicist who has regressed back to a 6 year old mentality.

Even people on the outside are odd. Peter’s boss is a cold fish, and his coach is a weird Chinese phycologist. Not to mention Peters girlfriend, Cathy (Constance Towers), the moral heart of the movie, who is an exotic dancer that spends half the movie in a skimpy outfit.

It is seriously weird but also fascinating stuff. All these people are not just random people, but built up with lots of details. While the movie is in grimy black and white with lots of grey and shadows, the minds of the crazy people are in colors. Vivid and bright as representing a very different world than the prison that holds them, mentally and physically.

Peter’s own decent into madness is probably less believable until you consider how crazy it is to want to go under cover as he does and how determined he is to go through with it. He was not normal to begin with and then being treated as a crazy person, well, I suppose it gets to you.

I would have loved the movie to have ended about 10 minutes early, a classic Hollywood problem. There is a glorious moment where it is finally clear that Peter Barrett has completely lost his mind, which would have served as a perfect ending. From then on the movie does not offer us any more and it just feels stretched and unnecessary. Still I enjoyed this crazy movie more, a lot more actually, than I thought I would. Mainly, I think, because it is so completely far out. An acquired taste, I suppose.


Monday 1 January 2018

The Great Escape (1963)

Den store flugt
During the Christmas holiday I have, by coincidence rather than design, been watching John Sturges “The Great Escape”, a movie I thought I remembered from ages ago (turned out I was confusing it with another movie) and had been looking forward to see again. An adventurous movie in color with quality actors. The right medicine to overcome the torment that was “Flaming Creatures”.

Going into a movie with high expectations is problematic and true enough, 10 minutes in I started to become disappointed. It did not last, though, and by the time it finished I was happy enough about this movie. I know the bar is not that high in 63, but I think it would have been a good movie in any year.

“The Great Escape” is the story about a group of Commonwealth (+ a few American, for the audience) war prisoners, who are brought to a high security POW camp due to their history of attempting escape. True to form, they have hardly arrived before they start planning their next escape. While a few of the them, Hilts (Steve McQueen) and Ives (Angus Lennie) in particular want to do it on their own, the majority joins a large-scale effort to free a very large number of prisoners.

This effort is led by Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), who is considered an escape genius, and is joined by capacities such as Hendley (James Garner), the master scrounger, Velinsky (Charles Bronson), a master tunneller, Sedgwick (James Coburn), maker of all things, and  many others including Blythe (Donald Pleasence), the forger, who actually spent a long time in a POW camp during the war.

The plan, which takes up the major part of the movie, consists of digging three tunnels (Tom, Dick and Harry), under the fence and into the surrounding woods. The tunnels are however just part of the plan. They also must arrange papers, cloths, backstories and scout out the terrain around the camp. The whole plan is close to collapse when one of the tunnels is discovered and when the second turn out to be 20 feet short it is nearly fatal.

The last part is the story follows those who do get out and how most of them get rounded up by the Germans. I suppose that is a spoiler, but since it is a movie that claims to tell a true story, there are limits to the freedoms it can take and this is something that can be looked up.

My initial disappointment came from the very obvious Hollywood makeover this story got. Everything looks just a tad or two too pretty, glorious and heroic. I know this was a camp for western officers, the top-rung of prisoners, but having watched and read so many stories of prison camps in Germany during the war, I have come to expect a grimy and miserable camp full of starving and worn out prisoners. This is 1944 and nobody in Germany, except for the top echelon is getting enough to eat, yet these people look like they are in a summer camp. Their hunger to escape is not because of any physical want, but a combination of wanting to get home and to go back to join the fight. At the same time we see none of the German brutality that was so notorious in the camps.

An hour into the movie however I had overcome this suspension of disbelief (too many musicals have trained me in that skill) and I started to enjoy it for the boyish adventure it is. The tunnel is really amazing and the logistics they set up is impressive and slowly the characters start to flesh out. There are so many stars here that there is never enough time with any of them, but this kind of two-dimensional story does not require that much depth.

The story also turns outright exciting and tense as the escape draws close and is executed and the last hour of this very long movie rushed by in a flash.

For a movie that takes as many freedoms with the true story as this one does, the ending may come as a surprise. I had in my mind pictured this escape as a great success with all these heroic characters finding their way back home. When reality catches up with the fairy tale, it is brutal and laconic. How much patience would Nazi-Germany have for enemy officers on the run?

I think the ending saves the movie to a large extent. It gives it more weight and goes a long way to tone down the fluff. I come out of the movie feeling very entertained and with a sufficiently somber feeling in the gut. Definitely a highlight of 63 and recommended.