Wednesday 26 September 2018

The War Game (1965)

As a child in the eighties one of the things that could keep me awake at night was the fear of nuclear war. It was one of those horrors, unlike ghost stories, that you could not just shake off as unreal or exaggerated. So, I would lie there and hope no-one would start throwing nukes at us.

When Peter Watson made his documentary “The War Game” in 1965 the BBC and the British government banned it from television, ostensibly because it was too scary for the public. While I am not a fan of censure, having now watched “The War Game” I am inclined to agree. This is friggin’ scary and public panic seems a likely outcome of public screening. On the other hand, given how serious an affair even a limited nuclear war is, you really have to understand what you are in for if you are advocating this.

“The War Game” is a dramatized documentary that combines two styles: An informative documentary about possible future scenarios and a dramatized reporting from the scene of a nuclear attack. It is an odd mix of future and present form that can be quite disorienting, but works surprisingly well. A combination style Peter Watson brought with him from the 1964 film “Culloden”.

The topic of this documentary is what would happen if Britain came under a limited nuclear attack. Limited in the sense that strategic targets would be hit and leave survivors to live a few more years in misery and pain as opposed to an outright wipeout. It is divided into three stages: The preparation for the attack with people being evacuated from the larger cities and encouraged to find or build shelter, both of which the British were hopelessly unprepared for given the massive numbers involved. In interviews with ordinary people they seem completely unaware of what they are in for.

The second phase is the attack itself. This is a terrible horror show. Flashes burning the eyes of children, shockwaves blasting houses, firestorms sucking people into the furnaces and misery all round. As the narrator tells us, these are not speculations but things that actually happened in Germany and Japan during the second world war.

However, this is nothing against the absolute terror of the aftermath. The few survivors have nothing left. No food, no shelter, no future, no life as radiation is slowly killing them. This is the apocalypse.

This is the most terrifying movie so far on the List. The only one I can compare it to is “Nuit et Brouillard” about the Holocaust. The realism makes it shocking, you are an eyewitness to individual suffering, not just statistics. In fact, there is only little statistics in this movie, instead we have to assume that what we see is valid for the entire country. We also understand that this is not some far out hypothetical possibility, but a scenario that is openly considered as a strategic option by the military and politicians. The policy of nuclear deterrent means that we threat to waste the opposition if they dare to attack us in a mutual apocalypse.

“The War Game” also holds up very well today, mainly because the threat is no less now than it was fifty years ago. We still have plenty bombs to kill us all and while we may not have two superpowers threatening each other with obliteration, nuclear weapons are now widely spread to many countries, some of which have leaderships that may consider personal gain and gratification about the future of mankind.

“The War Game” is still a must-see to understand what is implied when we casually talk about nuclear weapons. The horror is still staggering.


Saturday 22 September 2018

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)

Off-List: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

When I considered which three movies I should pick off-List for 1965 I looked at a list of the most successful 1965 releases and realized that I was not looking for the best movies of a given year, but the movies I would want to see. “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” holds a fairly modest 11th place on the Ranker list, but to me title alone holds a lot of appeal. I know this is a famous John le Carré novel and I was just dying to finally see the movie. 

I was not disappointed. “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” is exactly as good as expected, maybe even better.

Very far from James Bond this is a chilling story that feels so real I have no doubt this could actually happen. There are no heroes, just the naïve and the cynics and practical expediency. Our “hero” does not shoot or beat up anybody (except a mock assault on a store keeper). Instead he exists in a world of deception where nothing is exactly what it looks like and in this deception he is terrific. 

Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) was station chief in West Berlin for British intelligence. When his last agent is shot he is recalled to London. His boss, Control (Cyril Cusack), wants him to stay in the cold in an attempt to nail a powerful member of East German intelligence, the man who caused the death of Leamus last agent, Hans Dieter Mundt (Peter van Eyck). The plan is a clever one. Leamus will appear to have left the service, embittered and poor and a severely alcoholic, a prime target for East German intelligence. He is to be picked up by their recruiters and reveal details that will seem to indicate that Mundt is a double agent and so get the East Germans to do the job and take him out. This works remarkably well, the German second in command Fiedler (Oskar Werner) buys is completely, having already suspected something fishy about Mundt. 

But nothing is as it seems to be, even to the players, and the world turns upside down a few times in some remarkable twists. If you were of the opinion that “The Usual Suspects” invented the 180 degree twist I am sorry to tell you that this is a very old trick indeed.

It is remarkable how well this movie works. This of course comes from a good adaption of a great story, but also the cinematography. In 1965 color photography is par for the course, but “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” uses black and white cinematography in the most chilling and gray manner possible. It is as if life gets sucked out of everything into a grey and bland, disillusioned world. Grey people, grey jobs, grey prospects and a twilight world of shadowy spies. This creates exactly the right atmosphere for this movie. 

The same with Richard Burton as Alec Leamus. The only times you see a smile on his face is in mock derision of other people’s naivety. Otherwise he is gloomy or expressionless. Grey and embittered. 

Leamus befriends a girl called Nancy Perry (Claire Bloom) who, despite holding a dull library job, is naïve and hopeful of the future. A girl who still believes in a dream. Maybe this is what attracts Leamus to her, a glimmer of a better world than his. But such hope is too easy to exploit and is only a liability in the world of spies.

This was a movie I rushed through and had difficultly letting go of. It simply works. It is like those books where you have to read a few pages more to see what happens, which I am sure would be the case with the book version. I could not predict this story and it goes places that even afterwards surprises me and which I shall not reveal here. But let me just say that it is very bleak.

In my opinion “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” easily deserves a slot on the List. Although 1965 has been better so far than many other years, the sheer entertainment value as well as its significance for the spy thriller genre earns it spot on my list of movies you must see before you die.

Wednesday 19 September 2018

Juliet of the Spirits (Giulietta Degli Spiriti) (1965)

The editors of the List have these directors they really like, and Fellini is definitely one of those. So, once again I have a Fellini movie to review, this time it is “Juliet of the Spirits” (“Giulieeta degli spiriti”). Followers of this blog will know that my relationship with Fellini is… strained and so I went into this movie with very low expectations.

“Juliet of the Spirits” is both a confusing and complex movie and a deceptively simple story, both hard and easy to decipher.

Juliet of the title (Giulietta Masina) is this proper, boring housewife who is stuck in her own life. Her pretty home is like a cage. Her husband is having affairs and not doing much to hide them, and everybody else seems to have a far more interesting life than Juliet. This movie is about Juliet breaking out of her own prison, physically and particularly mentally.

What happens to Juliet is half real, half imagined. Juliet is projecting a lot of her thoughts into visions and dreamlike sequences to the extent that we as viewers hardly know what is real and what is imagined. This is not made easier with the circuslike menagerie of odd characters surrounding Juliet. There are occultists who get her involved in spiritism, conjuring up some weird spirits, one of which becomes a guide to Juliet. There are some extravagant neighbors who have verly… liberated lifestyles. There are dancers, prostitutes, clowns, doctors, purple nuns and what-not.

All the while Juliet is the observer rather than involved in this circus. She looks at it in bemused wonder, but also impotent at taking part in it. When invited she shies away. When discovering her husband’s infidelity, she is unable to do anything about it and all the while she is the complete opposite of the colorful and lively menagerie around her. Everybody tries to tell her what to do and draw her in all directions until in the finale it all comes to a confusing head and she breaks free.

This is Fellinis first color feature and it shows. He is like a small child with a box of crayons using big colors everywhere with all the colors having a symbolic meaning. White for innocence, red for lust etc. It makes for a pretty movie, but it is also rather overwhelming. Especially until you start getting an idea of what is going on here. Frankly, the first hour I was just confused and had no idea what I was looking at. But in the second half it all falls into place and starts to make sense. At that point I accepted the use of the colors as meaningful rather than annoying and confusing.

The same with the Nino Rota score. It is flamboyant and overwhelming with Tivoli and circus themes and very much contributes to the surreal effect. It was grating to begin with but became increasingly fitting as I got attuned to the movie.

I will grudgingly admit that I liked “Juliet of the Spirits” better than I expected and it may even be one of the best Fellini movie I have seen, but it is certainly not a movie for everybody and one I would find it difficult to recommend.

I did like the tree house though. I want one of those.

Sunday 16 September 2018

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Doctor Zhivago

One of the most prominent movies of 1965, “Doctor Zhivago” is an epic drama spanning some forty years and over 3 hours of running time. It is one of the famous movies in director David Lean’s catalogue which includes such exalted movies as “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Lawrence of Arabia”. 

By no means a movie to ignore.

So, what did I think of it?

Well, technically this is definitely an achievement. The cinematography, the set designs, the score, the exquisite cutting and editing of the movie, all points towards a master piece. A work upon which not a penny was spared to achieve the sublime. All this cannot fail to impress. I have often wondered where that tune I like to hum comes from and now I know. 

Yet, despite all this “Doctor Zhivago” fails to excite me. This mainly stems from the story itself and has very little to do with the production value or Lean’s direction. 

“Doctor Zhivago” is the story of doctor and poet Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) from childhood to eventual death in the first half of twentieth century Russia. This is a long a winding story that intertwines with the upheaval in Russia at the time in the form of war, revolution, more war and starvation. Dr. Zhivago is involved with two women, his wife Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin) and Lara (Julie Christie), a woman who is herself caught between three men, the rich opportunist Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), a zealous revolutionary Pasha (Tom Courtenay) and Dr. Zhivago himself. The crazy things happening to these people knows no end and it does not end well for any of them, I think that is safe to say.

My problem is partly that this whole affair tastes far too much like a soap. There are just far too many juicy and obscure affairs, and everybody seems to be involved with everybody else as if this was a few episodes of “Dynasty”. Secondly Yuri Zhivago has control over absolutely nothing. Not events, or his life and not even his emotions can he control. He is completely adrift and while I do not mind flawed heroes he is so impotent I sometimes feel like kicking him. Part of his impotence is none of his fault, but much of it is written into the story as a manipulation and as such feels too much, well, soap-like.

I can imagine many people who would enjoy such a story and be touched to tears by it, but for me it gets over the top and becomes melodramatic and that is such a shame.

There are also some jarring errors that makes me cringe. On the train towards the Ural Mountains it is bitterly cold and snowy, then passing the mountains into Sibiria the climate turns balmy and spring-like. I think maybe Lean thought of crossing the Alps into Italy and forgot that Sibiria is even more forbidding than European Russia. Another example: the palace in Varykino is covered in snow and ice, which works fine on the outside, but inside the palace there is just as much snow and ice. That would imply a seriously drafty house and come spring all this would create an immense amount of moisture. Everything inside would have rotten away in a year or two, yet it has not. 

It was a very long movie to watch and despite its obvious qualities it felt like a long movie. The problem of course is that with all the turns and swings this story take you cannot really cut it down without losing essential parts of it. Already Lean has trimmed it as much as it is possible. In 2002 “Doctor Zhivago” was made into a tv series and that format seems so much better suited for this story.

I would not say I was disappointed by this movie but I was not overwhelmed either. Is this good enough?