Friday, 26 November 2021

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

 


Off-List: Tre Døgn for Condor

I recall having watched “Three Days of the Condor” ages ago, so when this movie popped up as a 1975 movie not on the List, I knew I had to add it. As it turned out, most of the things I thought I remembered from the movie turned out to be wrong and this was very much like watching the movie for the first time. Only the image of a worried Robert Redford with big glasses held true.

Fortunately, “Three Days of the Condor” is as good as I remember, especially the opening half hour is very promising. Joe Turner (Robert Redford), codenamed Condor, works at a CIA office looking for intelligence clues in books and magazines from around the world. They simply read them and scan them electronically. Sounds very 21st century, but using old, noisy and very unwieldy machinery. One day while Joe is out to pick up lunch, a hit squad headed by the mysterious Joubert (Max von Sydow), takes out the entire office. That sort of ruins Joe’s day. He is not a field agent and is confused on what to do. The obvious thing is to call the head office for help, but when the agent sent to bring him in wants to kill him, Joe realizes that this was an inside job, and he probably cannot trust anybody.

Of course he hooks up with a pretty girl (Faye Dunaway), who does not believe him, but eventually is won our by the immense Redford charm (oh dear…) and Joe goes from hunted to hunter as he sets out to find those who killed his colleagues.

That first half hour is phenomenal, but then “Three Days of the Condor” moves into template-land. Maybe I have just watched too many spy/conspiracy thrillers, and I am a bit hard on it. To me it felt as if the steam came off around the middle part and the entire girl hostage part is mostly unnecessary but quite predictable. They just had to bring in a love interest. Then comes the unravelling of the conspiracy and again the story gets tighter. There are some interesting and mildly puzzling things around the Joubert character. A hitman who is professional to the fingertips, entirely cold on his kills, with no other loyalty than his job, but outside the job jovial and entirely ordinary. The way Joe Turner is a regular guy with an odd job, so is Joubert.

The targets of this movie are the power games casually played by agencies like CIA. The hit was orchestrated by a renegade group within CIA (ups, spoiler…), but not more renegade than having opinions and employing methods condoned by the larger CIA. This makes the larger organization just as guilty as the renegade operation, and Joe learns there is really no difference.

In the wake of Watergate and a number of other shenanigans, “Three Days of the Condor” tapped into a general sentiment of distrust toward the power structures, which anchors it in this period, but the theme has been persistent and works just as well today. Conspiracies, or at least the suspicion of conspiracies are very much alive and well today and while many belongs to the fringe, there are enough crazy stunts around the world to feed Hollywood for decades to come.

Shake off the clichés and template structure and “Three Days of the Condor” is highly entertaining. It has its eye-rolling moments, but there is enough meat here to keep me going and yeah, I admit it, I read a lot of these stories in my youth.

Not exactly Academy material, but you could do a lot worse than watching “Three Days of the Condor”.

 


Friday, 19 November 2021

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

 


Gøgereden

The big winner at the Academy Awards for 1975 was “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. It took five statues, including the big ones and remains to this day a very famous and celebrated movie. Yet, I never saw it until now. Probably something to do with that it takes place inside a mental asylum. I have always had a fear of mental illness.

Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) arrives at a mental institution from a labor camp (prison). He is there so they can find out if he is insane or just faking it. What Randle discovers is that life at the ward is tightly controlled by nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher) and that the other inmates are effectively pacified. Randle McMurphy is a maladjusted rebel and he soon chafe under the tight regime and instigate various rebellions, including a spontaneous fishing trip and a party in the ward with prostitutes. It is will against will, but nurse Ratched is no pushover.

When I learned that director Milos Forman saw the story as a metaphor for life under the communist thumb in Czechoslovakia, it was not difficult to decode this movie. The patients are the powerless and largely pacified regular people who has been dumbed down into apathy and are considered nitwits by the authorities. Those who do rebel, in particular McMurphy, are faced off and dealt with, the electro chock likely being a metaphor for torture and re-education.

I like this metaphor, it is very sympathetic. My problem is just that to some extent I actually sympathize with the hospital. Many if not most of the patients are very sick and need to be cushioned. They need the protected environment that is the hospital and as some of these inmates can get quite agitated there need to be some degree of firmness. At the same time Randle McMurphy is an asshole, he is in prison for a pretty good reason, and he is a very disturbing element in the ward. That is a poor starting point when you are supposed to take his side in the power struggle with nurse Ratched.

McMurphy does get to sympathize with many of the other patients, although he think them more capable than they really are, and when the system gets pushed it is revealed as being more interested in asserting its control than the well being of the patients and the fatal ending is on the head of nurse Ratched and the institution, so I guess in the end I was won over.

“One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is notable for introducing a number of famous actors, such as Danny DeVito, Brad Dourif and Christopher Lloyd and that in itself makes it an interesting movie to watch, but also for its own sake it is a well put together movie and a strong performance from both Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher. I am still early on 1975, so I cannot tell what it was up against, but I was not so impressed with it that I would have expected it to be in contention for all those Academy Awards. But then again, the Academy loves movies about disabilities.

I do think it is an interesting perspective though, to see the inhabitants of communist East Europe as living in an insane asylum and treated as disenfranchised cattle, unable to take care of themselves and the rebels as being lobotomized by the authorities. I am just not certain the metaphor was entirely successful. I am preparing myself to be crucified for that position…

Nevertheless, this is a must-see, if nothing else then for its significance and a Jack Nicholson at the top of his game.

 


Friday, 12 November 2021

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

 


En skæv eftermiddag

Sidney Lumet is becoming one of my favorite directors. He consistently manages to get a lot out of his material and at least those of his movies that are on the List have managed to draw me in like few others. But then again, starting out with “12 Angry Men” is a running start.

“Dog Day Afternoon” is on paper not a big movie. Its premise is simple enough, a bank robbery goes south because the criminals are a bunch of desperate amateurs, and develops into a hostage drama. Lumet, however molded it into something more, a lot more actually, and this is likely to be one of the best movies of 1975.

Al Pacino is Sonny, who together with Sal (John Cazale) and Stevie (Gary Springer) tries to rob a bank in Brooklyn. The three of them are clearly not very experienced in this line of business and already in the opening Stevie backs out. Sonny tries to take charge of the situation, but he is easy to confuse and it does not help that the cash deposit of the bank was picked up earlier in the day. As much as he wants to be tough, he is also a softie resulting in a number of absurd situations, such as him trying to lock up the staff in the vault, but the girls have to take turns on the toilet first or Sonny insisting on burning the bank registry for reasons he cannot even explain himself, which create the smoke that attracts concerned neighbors and soon the police is there.

Now, I did say police, but it is more like an army of police. Hundreds of heavily armed policemen with helicopters surround the building, climb the roof tops and man the fences. FBI moves in and thousands of spectators. Sonny is not up to this but tries anyway and, somehow, he becomes the little man against the system. People cheer for him and even the staff in the bank treat him with sympathy. It only gets weirder when it turns out Sonny is married with several children and to a gay man called Leon who wants a sex change operation. Sonny wants to do the right thing for people around him but has some pretty crazy and desperate ideas on how to do it.

This is definitely an actor’s movie. There is not much of a plot here, but rather a number of people acting this crazy situation out. Not least Al Pacino. This is a huge departure from his Godfather character. Totally opposite in fact. Sonny has absolutely nothing under control, least of all himself. In a way this did remind me of “12 Angry Men” and not only because everybody are drenched in sweat. It is the dialogue driven plot and the clash of personalities, even the absurdities in this clash.

Somehow “Dog Day Afternoon” becomes a metaphor for the larger society, political in a way, but also an exposition of the absurdities. The regular guy reduced to a bank robber, the overwhelming force of the authorities pitched against the little man, the rebellion against these authorities and the need of the public for symbols for such a rebellion. Meanwhile, it all turns into a sideshow of absurdities, which the media does its best to exaggerate and milk. This is 1975 but it could just as well have been 2021.

I found “Dog Day Afternoon” hilarious and sad, absurd and relevant and thoroughly interesting, both to watch and to think of afterwards. It is by no means a big movie, but it is definitely one of the better movies around. 1975 is off to a good start. Highly recommended.

   


Monday, 8 November 2021

Naturlig Energi (1975)

 


Off-List: Naturlig Energi

The first movie of 1975 will also be the first off-List movie of the year. When I recently visited the Cinematek in Copenhagen to watch “Stjerner og Vandbærere” I also watched “Naturlig Energi” from 1975. It was a movie I had never heard of until I started researching movies for 75, but given the subject matter, this was a movie I just had to watch.

“Naturlig Energi” means Natural Energy (should not be a surprise, really) and is a documentary on the natural alternatives to burning fossil fuels. This was shortly after the oil crisis of 73 so supply security was a big thing, but also in the wake of the hippie movement there was a strong concern with pollution and being “unnatural”. Burning a finite resource is certainly unsustainable. Global warming, however, was not a concern at the time.

What the movie does is explore the alternatives to fossil fuel and it sets up a roadmap to how the country can reduce or even eliminate the need for fossil fuels without going into nuclear power (which in this context is also considered unnatural).

The remarkable thing about this movie is that every single item explored here has become reality or are in the process of becoming so. The motive may have changed but the instruments are the same.

It is suggested to reduce the need for energy for heating through better insulation and it tells of experiments at DTH (now DTU) with energy neutral houses that gets all it energy through solar heaters and a warm water tank. Today, building codes prescribe low energy consumption, low energy houses is the standard and a large percentage of houses in Denmark produce more energy with PVs than they use.

It is suggested to use the surplus heat from power plants to heat up homes rather than letting it go to waste. Today, all major cities in Denmark gets their heating from a central heating network, bringing surplus heat from the power plant and into our homes.

Wind energy is touted as being the energy source of the future. We see the construction of the giant 1MW turbine at Tvind and the small Riisager turbines that individuals could buy and set up next to their home. Shortly after this movie those Riisager turbines became the first series produced turbines to feed directly to the grid and today 50% of the electricity demand in Denmark is covered by wind energy. The Tvind turbine is still producing. Its technology is hopelessly outdated, but it still works.

The problem of intermittency, that the sun does not always shine and there is not always wind, is emphasized and it is suggested to store surplus power as hydrogen through electrolysis. Today we call it “power-to-X” and it is probably the fastest growing field in the energy business. Two artificial islands are planned in Denmark to receive power from wind turbines to convert it to hydrogen to supply fuel for particularly ships.

Energy sources can be combined and a decentral network of smaller powerplants that combine electricity, heating and storage may supply small communities far more flexibly than big power plants. Today Denmark has a network of decentral power plants doing exactly that. Mixing energy sources and actively using the flexibility on the grid has now become hot also outside Denmark, but we have done it for at least 20 years already.

The movie suggests that growth is not a given success criteria and another dogma should be considered. Where did I hear that before?

It also suggests that the only way all this can be done is bottom-up, by involving the individual and take local action, with the support of politicians, of course. This was exactly how we got all those wind turbines in the eighties and nineties and now PVs, electrical cars and so many other items that actually works are driven bottom-up.

The only item mentioned in the movie which has not come true is the reduction on transport emissions by having people live closer to work. Though, maybe it has. We learned during the pandemic that so many work functions can be done from home, that we do not need to travel that much and that our quality of life can be improved remarkably if we do not have to spend two hours each day on transport.

For me personally this was super interesting. This is exactly what I do for a living. I have been planning wind farms for more than twenty years. My colleagues have been designing decentralized power plants just as long and now they add power-to-X to it and advice companies how they can become energy efficient or even power neutral by mixing production and storage actively with the grid. I know personally many of the people who made all this happen. I met Mr. Riisager and I know people who worked in the Tvind turbine.

We are not there yet. In fact, there is an awful long way to go, but this movie, 6 years ago, showed us the way.

Very highly recommended if you can find it.

    


Saturday, 6 November 2021

The Towering Inferno (1974)

 


Det tårnhøje helvede

The last movie of 1974 is “The Towering Inferno”, an added movie from the 10th edition revision of the Book.

This is one of the most iconic of the seventies disaster movies, the one most people would have seen. It was frequently enough on television in my childhood but was, rightly so, deemed unsuitable for children to watch.

On the opening night of the tallest skyscraper in the world a fire breaks out due to faulty electrical wiring and hundred of people are trapped in the building, including 300 guests at the opening party on the top floor. In classic disaster movie style, we follow a variety of characters through a night that is growing increasingly desperate as the fire spreads.

Paul Newman is the chief architect of the tower, Doug Robert, who, too late, discovers that his specs has not been followed in a bid to reduce costs. Rather than attend the party, he goes on a hunt to survey the scale of the problem. Too late as it turns out, the bad wiring has already started a fire on the 81’st floor. The fire brigade, headed by Michael O’Halloran (Steve McQueen) are called in but as bad wiring is just one of many unsafe shortcuts, the fire spreads fast and is soon out of control.

A stellar ensemble cast includes William Holden as James Duncan, builder of the tower, Faye Dunaway as his daughter, Susan. Richard Chamberlain as her scumbag husband Roger, Robert Vaughn as a senator, O.J. Simpson as Harry Jernigan, security and not least Fred Astaire as an elderly con-man, just to mention a few.

This is a big movie in every sense of the word. Irwin Allen really went out of his way to create a spectacle. A skyscraper on fire is no simple affair and though some of the cinematography looks a bit dated, there is no doubt this is a landmark movie on pyrotechnics, special effects and stunts. The scale of the thing makes Allen’s previous movie, “The Poseidon Adventure” small and primitive by comparison. Usually on large scale disaster movies the acting drama takes the back seat and suffers as a result, but for a change this is not too shabby. Not surprising, really, when you have both Newman and McQueen in the movie. That cannot go wrong.

I was worried going in how this movie would work post-9/11. We have all seen the pictures of the twin towers on fire and people trapped on the top floors desperately trying to escape, recently even, as media was full of it less than 2 months ago at the marking of 20 years since the event. There are a lot of parallels and I kept making comparisons. The problem is that no matter how brutal Allen is, killing people left and right, it pales compared to the horror of 9/11. Reality trumps fiction. I suppose it takes something away from the movie and leaves a bit of poor taste in the mouth. McQueen’s last words that some day thousands of people will be stuck in such a building turned uncanny prophetic.

There is a parallel as well to human hubris, a combo of the Tower of Babel and the Icaros myth. Humans reaching for the sky, but being only humans with human failings, they get, literally, burnt.

I liked the movie a lot better than I had expected. It works on many levels, and I think that the lack of CGI and other modern tricks forces an emphasis on other element. Not for lack of trying, there is a lot of fire here, but there is also dramatic content.

And with that, I am ready for 1975…

 


Sunday, 31 October 2021

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

 


Bring mig Alfredo Garcias hoved

The Book writes that “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” is a polarizing movie. I see what the editors mean as this goes both ways for me. It is brutal and disgusting, but also it is also fascinating and raw like few movies. But then, you can say that about any of Sam Peckinpah’s movies.

Bennie, played by a very grimy Warren Oates, is a bar manager in some seedy part of modern Mexico. When some big money gangster types walk in and offer a lot of money for information on a person called Alfredo Garcia, Bennie smells a chance to get out of this dump and move on. Garcia was quite a women’s man and had impregnated a gangster boss’ daughter. He also had an affair with Elita, Bennie’s girlfriend, and now Bennie can get 10.000$ if he can bring back the head of Alfredo Garcia.

Elita (Isela Vega) knows Garcia recently died in a car accident so now she and Bennie embarks on a road trip to find his grave and chop of his head. This turns out to be quite an odyssey with rapist bikers (Kris Kristofferson), Garcia’s mourning and vengeful family and other gangsters looking for that reward. Bennie will find out how far he is willing to go for money.

That is essentially the core of the movie. Bennie must bend all hos moral principles on the way. He has to desecrate a grave, subject his girlfriend to degradations beyond belief, shoot people left and right and drive through the desert with a stinking head in a bag. It costs him everything, including Elita and the accumulation drives him mad. Is it worth it? What is money when it costs you everything else?

This is a grungy movie, almost grindhouse in style. Everything is dirty, the cars, the roads, houses and especially the people. Sometimes on the outside, sometimes inside, usually both. Even the Madonna character of Elita is a whore with crabs. There is a moral capitulation everywhere, closely linked to poverty and the condition that among the poor you can buy anything with money. Mexico here is the lawless place the West is in Peckinpah’s Western movies. There is very little romantic about this world, it is one you suffer, not enjoy, and it is one you need to get away from if you want a chance to save anything of yourself.

Needless to say, this makes “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” a rather depressing movie.

There are a lot of Peckinpah staples here. The already mentioned griminess for one. Tons of very graphic shootings, all of which are in slow motion with blood splattering in all directions. There is a liberal use of alcohol, Bennie is rarely seen without a bottle of liquor in his hand or at his side. The liquor is a crutch to cope with the misery, something apparently adopted from Peckinpah himself. The women in the movie are madonnas and whores and generally being abused. We see a lot of Vega’s breasts, but it is used as a sign of her degradation, and you have to be a very disturbed person to see anything arousing in that. Some say Peckinpah hated women and I can believe that.

There is some high art in the very awful and that is more or less where “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” is. It is great and horrible at the same time. I cannot say that I liked it, but there is something impressive about it that makes me respect it. Would I recommend it? Not to everybody.

 


Monday, 25 October 2021

Stjerner og vandbærere (1974)

 


Stjerner og vandbærere

For my third off-List movie for 1974 I had chosen the legendary Danish sports movie “Stjerner og vandbærere” (which apparently go by the English title of “The Stars and the Water Carriers”…), but it turned out it was not legendary enough to be available in any format. You cannot buy this movie and the YouTube version is with English speak, which completely misses the point. This movie is all about Jørgen Leth’s narration in Danish. The only way, seriously, to watch this movie is to venture into Copenhagen to the Cinematek of the Danish Film Institute and ask to watch a copy on the spot. That I finally got around to do last Wednesday along with another movie I had picked for 1975. More on that one in a few weeks.

This was actually a very nice experience. They are very helpful at the Cinematek and you get a nice room to watch the movie in, with headphones and soft seats. A great afternoon, really, for both my movies were all I hoped they would be.

“Stjerner og vandbærere” is a film epos, a poem, really, on the 1973 edition of the Giro d’Italia bicycle race. It is a feature length movie by Jørgen Leth who until recently was an integral part of the commentator team of any large bicycle race on Danish television such as Tour de France or Giro d’Italia. His style is poetic with short, clipped sentences, painting an epos out of the duels and endurance of the riders in these races. In his story they become heroes battling for the highest glory, knights with superhuman capabilities.

Giro d’Italia takes place over a few weeks and for those not into bicycling the winner is the one who finishes in the combined shortest time. Each rider is part of a professional bicycling team where some are stars, and some are there to help the stars. It is a grueling race over a very long distance and with many, very tall mountains.

It is telling about the style that we almost never get any results in this movie or times or positions. These, normally so essential, elements are completely uninteresting to Jørgen Leth. For him it is the dynamics, how the assistant riders, the water carriers, are helping the stars, the support teams with the doctors and mechanics, the concentration before the race, the excitement of the towns the race is passing through, and, perhaps more than anything else, the duels, the battles, the king and the challengers.

Eddy Merckx was the ruling king and famous for grinding the opposition with his constant, powerful speed. Gimondi his rival and Fuente, the Spanish climbing specialist who may or may not be able to challenge the king in the mountains. In Leth’s narration this is so much more than bicycle duels. These are big tactical games and demonstrations of superhuman strength, desperate attacks and honorable defeats.

A second main character is Ole Ritter, the single Danish participants, who officially is a support rider for Gimondi on the Bianchi team, but because he is doing so well, gets a chance to race his own chance.

This was exactly the movie I had expected it to be, exactly the Jørgen Leth I know from watching bicycling 10-20 years ago and exactly the larger than life epos I hoped it would be. Technically it is not up to today’s standard and also the race has evolved since then. Thankfully the riders are now wearing helmets and the roads on the mountains are now paved, but there is also an innocence here. Riders picking up cola and beer en-route to drink and interviewing each other for television. It is charming, no doubt about that.

If you can get your hands on this movie it is definitely one I recommend, I just wonder if the narration will come through in the subtitles. Stay away from the English version on YouTube.

    


Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst Essen Seele Auf) (1974)

 


Angst æder sjæle op

The next installment from the hands of Rainer Werner Fassbinder is “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” (“Angst essen Seele auf”). This time Fassbinder takes on the theme of racism.

One rainy night, Emmi (Brigitte Mira), a 60 or so year old widow, enters a bar to seek shelter. This is a bar frequented by guestworkers and she is clearly a rare sight in the bar. The patrons want to have fun with her and suggest Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) to dance with her. Ali, however, is a gentleman and he helps her home and as it rains, Emmi asks him inside until the rain clears. Emmi and Ali fall for each other.

This is controversial. Ali is 20 years younger than Emmi, but, a lot worse, he is also Moroccan, one of the many guestworkers that had started to arrive in Germany. Emmi and Ali do not seem to care but everybody else does. A large chunk of the movie is the reaction of their surroundings. The gossiping Hausfrau in her apartment block, her narrowminded colleagues at work, the deeply racist grocery storekeeper across the street, even the staff at Ali’s bar. The most hurtful reactions come from Emmi’s grown children who essentially cut her off for marrying Ali. Not that they cared much about her to begin with.

Eventually Emmi starts to adopt her surrounding’s view on Ali. She starts acting as his superior as if she is barely tolerating him and their relationship falls apart. Is their relationship now beyond repair?

“Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” is filmed in a strange, stilted manner. The actors are frequently just standing still, looking with the camera just lingering. The dialogue is often short and clipped and delivered as if the actor is just reading from a script. It is an odd impression, somewhere between theatrical and amateurish. Eventually I realized it is a stylistic choice. It removes it a little bit from reality and perhaps allows it to caricature some of the characters and reactions.

It is a very focused story, on the racism met by this mixed couple. We learn very little about them. The only reason for them falling for each other seems to be that they are both lonely and colorblind (as well as age-blind). The stylism allows this singular focus. This also means it is a very easy movie to read: It is simply an exposé of all the racism and prejudice people who are different are faced with. Make them gay or in other ways different from mainstream and it would be the same story.

I think Fassbinder had a good time making this movie. It is an open provocation of mainstream Germany, exposing both smaller and large scale racism and also the often ridiculous opinions and reactions. All these people get to look incredibly small and stupid. The best scene is when Emmi is presenting Ali to her grown children. The look, drawn out, of their stunned disbelief, shock and embarrassment is so hilariously funny that I just could not stop laughing. Fassbinder made these children 10 years again.

The movie takes place in Munich. Fassbinder had some relation to Munich, and the movie allegedly takes place some month after the Munich Olympic Games tragedy, helping to explain some of the animosity towards foreigners, but it also feels like an apt choice. My wife has some relation to Munich and used to live there so I have visited Munich frequently. Let us just say that it is not surprising that Hitler started his career in Munich.

I would not go so far as to say “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” is a great film, but it is interesting enough and of course just as relevant today as it was in 74. If you are in a Fassbinder mood, this would be a good pick.  

Anyway, I am off to Germany tomorrow, not Munich this time, but Berlin (much nicer place) for a little vacation. If weather holds, we are going to visit the Babelsberg studios in Potsdam. Cannot wait…


Friday, 15 October 2021

The Godfather, Part II (1974)

 


The Godfather II

The big winner at the Academy awards in 1974 was “The Godfather Part II”. It was the first sequel to win Best Picture and is, as I understand it, by many ranked even higher than the first Godfather movie.

It is a great movie, I am just not certain I would swing myself that high.

“The Godfather Part II” continues where “The Godfather” left off. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is in full control of the family and all its activities. It is big business and big money and despite his promises to his wife, Kay (Diane Keaton) it is still mostly on the wrong side of the law. As in the first movie, this one starts with a big family party, eating, dancing, family and friends while inside presides Michael, giving audience to applicants. There is no doubt Vito’s role is now Michael’s.

Something in the line of a big business venture is in progress involving a competitor or business partner, Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg). The game in underhanded and involves treason and violence and soon Michael sees enemies everywhere. He finds himself very much alone, up there on his throne.

Intermixed we follow the story of the young Vito (Robert De Niro), how his family was killed by the mafia in Sicily and how he came to America and eked out a living. Eventually, Vito gets involved with the underworld and it turns out he has a real talent. Soon he is the king of the Italian community in New York.

“The Godfather Part II” is an interesting film that tries to dig into the nature of the mafia phenomenon. It is examining how it works, what makes people do what they do and the price they pay morally and as well as physically. It is fascination and abhorrence at the same time. Respect and disgust. The problem is just that as a driver of a movie, especially a very long one as this is, it is not enough. Where Part I had an evolving plot that kept the movie interesting, Part II is more about disintegration than actual plot and it makes the story feel long. I never worked out the details of the plot with Hyman Roth, which is frustrating, but also not really important. Michael probably did not work it out either, he just lashed out left and right, wielding his significant power.

The mixing in of the Vito story did a lot to lift the movie and I found it potentially more accessible, but just as it was getting interesting, it is left floating. When Vito has become a mafioso, he is home, and the story is left there.

On the technical side this is a true dazzle movie. The new year party in Cuba, the Little Italy setting, and the court hearings are such time capsules, full of interesting details. There are so many great acting performances here by such a stellar cast like Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, Robert De Niro and so many more. This is a big movie by any standard and maybe that was what dazzled the Academy.

Gangster movies was never really my thing and I do not share that fascination with thugs, so this is a bit uphill for me. Having now watched “The Godfather Part II” I am convinced “Chinatown” was robbed. That was the best movie back in 1974.

I do give my recommendation for “The Godfather Part II”, although I may be the last person above 40 to have watched it. It is a big and important and very impressive movie. It just did not keep me that engaged.

  


Friday, 8 October 2021

Blazing Saddles (1974)

 


Sheriffen skyder på det hele

“Blazing Saddles” is the second Mel Brooks film for 1974. Considering how happy I was with “Young Frankenstein”, I had high hopes for “Blazing Saddles”, but alas, this is in my humble opinion a far inferior movie.

“Blazing Saddles” is a spoof on every Western ever made, trying as it is to cramp every trope and cliché of the genre into a single movie and turning them upside down. This is the lonely sheriff (Cleavon Little) against ungrateful townspeople, a drunkard of a gunslinger as the sheriff’s sidekick (Gene Wilder), an evil railroad baron (Harvey Korman as Hedley, not Hedy, Lamarr), a corrupt governor, uncivilized cowboys, exotic saloon performers and so on. On top of that Brooks throws in racism and bigotry as a major theme.

The story is… well, I am not too certain what the story really is, because it is very clear from the get go that the objective here is to fire off as many jokes as possible far more than drive a story forward. I imagine there was an outline of a story somewhere, but in some frenzied brainstorming among the scriptwriters it sort of got lost. It is something about a railroad baron who needs to drive his railroad through a town and so he needs people to move. To that end he gets them a black sheriff, expecting that will drive them out of town. Then he wants to get rid of the sheriff and then get rid of the townspeople again… well, I am not too sure.

In any case, the jokes here have totally taken over the movie. They fail more often than fly, and that is not necessarily because they are bad, but mainly because they flood the movie. It all becomes terribly silly and infantile and it seems as if Brooks forgot the principle that worked so well in “Young Frankenstein” that every joke needs a straight partner. There are no straight partners here. What would have been a funny scene in any other context or as a stand-alone scene becomes a wish-wash of silliness.

A wonderful scene like Gene Wilder telling Cleavon Little that these people are “just simple villagers, the clay of the West, you know, morons” is super funny when I watch that snippet, but in the movie, I hardly smiled at it and it is such a shame. Madeline Kahn’s Lili Von Shtupp sings the wonderfully terrible “I am Tired”, but in the context it is almost boring. There is simply an overload of jokes, and this is unfortunately Mel Brooks as I know him.

The anarchy of it all goes all in towards the end with a complete breakdown of the fourth wall, with actors of this movie breaking into the set of another movie and trashing it and sheriff and sidekick wondering off to find a cinema to watch the end of their own movie while talking to the audience…

With “Young Frankenstein” Brooks could restrain himself enough to maintain a balance and it worked. With “Blazing Saddles” that balance is completely gone. I am sure it works for some people, I am almost convinced my son will like it, but it did not work for me. When I start glancing at my watch it is a bad sign.

When I think about it, I could say almost the same things about “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, but with a completely different outcome. There it all works. Curious…

 


Sunday, 3 October 2021

Celine and Julie go Boating (Celine et Julie Vont en Bateau) (1974)

 


Céline og Julie ta'r sig en tur

The Book writes that if you do not master French, you will not fully appreciate this movie. This is likely true, and I suspect this can be extended to not even understand this movie. I know, I know, I have been here before and yes, I seem to be one those plebeian viewers who need the movie to make sense on the immediate level to appreciate it. It is clearly a failing in me, so my views are strictly for myself and not a general verdict on the movie.

I was rather lost watching “Celine and Julie Go Boating” (“Céline et Julie vont en bateau”).

Or, to be more precise, every time I thought I understood what it is going on, something happened to convince me that I do not understand it after all.

Julie (Dominique Labourier) sits in a park reading a book on magic spells. She sees another woman, Celine (Juliet Berto) rush by and drop something. Julie picks it up and runs after Celine to return it, but she keeps running away, dropping more things. After a long run through Paris, they meet up in a café and soon after they are best friends (?). They start sharing each other’s life, literally, and they start visiting a strange house. Coming out from the house they are confused and do not remember anything, but there is a candy in their mouth and using this candy they can relive what appears to happen in the house as if it is a movie.

The story in the house is a loop around a triangle drama where a child ends up dead, but they only see bits and pieces, so they have to return to get more candy. Julie also finds out this is a house she visited a lot when she was younger, maybe even as a child.

Eventually, Julie and Celine cook up a magic brew so they can enter the story and save the girl.

There are elements that are naturalistic, like the Paris setting and the bohemian lives of the women and then there is the fantastic, Alice in Wonderland, element of entering a magic fantasy world. The problem for me is that neither are very consistent. In both, the things they say or do or events they are subjected to make very little sense, as if it all take place on a planet where cause and effect are messed up. When I started to settle on the idea that they have found an entrance to a fantasy world where they can change events I actually did get invested in the story, almost understanding it, only to get thrown off again when clearly something else was going on.

So, what is actually happening here? Forget about the apparent story. The real story is something about fantasy worlds, about loops, inner-lives and some meta-themes around being a viewer and active participant at the same time. From what perspective are we watching a story? Can we take on the role of somebody else? Who is the viewer anyway? Is all this actually the imagination of a cat?

Heady stuff, and I am not at all certain any of this is even remotely correct.

What I do know is that “Celine and Julie Go Boating” clocks in at over 3 hours and that I had to stop it several time because I was zoning out. You have to be really into this stuff to stay focused throughout its running time and I cannot say that I was. Half the time I had no idea what was going on. My mastery of French is clearly insufficient.

 


Friday, 24 September 2021

Chinatown (1974)

 


Chinatown

I am a big fan of film-noir. Those 1940’ies noir are just awesome, even if some of the private-eye themes are bordering cliché. The neo-noir genre tries to reanimate the look and feel of the original noirs, usually with a twist, and few does it better than “Chinatown”.

“Chinatown” is a Roman Polanski movie, the last he made in Hollywood. It recreates a 1930’ies private eye scenario in Los Angeles where the former cop, now private investigator, specializing in extramarital affairs, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by Mrs. Mulwray to look into her husband’s infidelities. Gittes and his team tails him and shoots some nice pictures of Hollis Mulwray with a girl. The pictures get publicized and Mulwray is publicly crucified.

Immediately after, Gittes is approached by another woman (Faye Dunawaye) who claims she is the real Mrs. Mulwray. Gittes realizes he has been duped, but before he can find Mr. Mulwray, he has been murdered. Something very fishy is going on.

Hollis Mulwray was the Chief Engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and clearly this goes a lot deeper than infidelities. Gittes is a character straight out of a Hammett or Chandler novel and insist on digging into it only to find out that nothing is what it looks like, and nobody are straight.

Polanski took special pains to make this look like the 30’ies and with the saturated colors and almost stylized sets there is almost a cartoonish texture to the cinematography. This is underscored by an almost perfect moody jazz score. The layered and convoluted plot where we are always caught off-balance and not entirely certain what is going on, also harks back to the noir originals.

Where Chinatown deviates from this formula are in two particular elements.

Gittes may look as if he is in control and he certainly wants to make that impression, but he is not. Everything he learns tells him how wrong he was before and though he has the audacity to get into places and obtain information others would not get, it is often too late or too little because he is missing information. He may be two steps ahead of us, like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, but he is also two steps behind the events unfolding. He is not an antihero, but an insufficient hero.

Secondly, the catastrophic ending. Without spoiling too much, I can say we get a spectacular ending, but not in the way you would expect. This ties in with the first exception. Gittes is insufficient and the case is bigger than him. The bad guys are overwhelmingly strong and there really is no stopping them. This moves “Chinatown” very much from the 40’ies to the 70’ies. It is a breaking of illusions and a political statement, really. Chinatown here is a metaphor for lawless corruption. Gittes tried to get out of Chinatown, but Chinatown caught up with him.

The combination of the 30-40’ies pastiche and the political implications of the conclusion makes for a strong and unique combo. I was totally sucked in, experiencing that combination of love and horror and I have to say this is one of the best neo-noirs ever. This is powerful stuff and extremely well crafted. Polanski has made a lot of great movies, and this is among his best, seriously.

Chinatown won one Academy Award (Best Original Screenplay) and was nominated in another 10 categories, including all the big ones. In a year without “The Godfather II”, it could have swept the table.

Strongly recommended.

 


Monday, 20 September 2021

Young Frankenstein (1974)

 


Frankenstein Junior

I was certain I had seen “Young Frankenstein” before, it is a title I am very familiar with, but I quickly realized that I must have mixed it up with something else and instead this became an unexpected first view for me. I cannot complain, this was a lot better than I thought it would be.

“Young Frankenstein” is a Mel Brooks comedy and for better or worse, his trademark is silly jokes. Especially in his later movies there is an infantile streak that, well, makes it a Mel Brooks movie. “Young Frankenstein” is funny and silly, but it is also something more. There is a heart in it. A love for the old Frankenstein movies by James Whale and a restraint from going totally overboard. An explanation was offered when I discovered that the original idea was Gene Wilder’s and that he co-authored the screenplay. This movie is, simply put, more than a Mel Brooks comedy.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) is teaching medicine in America. Sober and scientific medicine, not the mumbo-jumbo of his infamous grandfather. When he inherits the old family castle, he travels to Transylvania (inexplicably misplaced in Germany…) to check it out. He is met by Igor (Marty Feldman), an assistant, Inga (Teri Garr) and the housekeeper, Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman) and together they set out to create their own monster (Peter Boyle).

Everything in this movie is made with an eye to “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein”, whether it is the black and white cinematography, the gothic laboratory (the original set from the thirties!) or the various scenes. We get the brain mix-up, the life-by-electrocution scene, the little girl with the flowers and the blind hermit. Even Elsa Lancaster’s hairdo is recreated with the white stripes. But where the original was having religious elements such as a human as the Creator, “Young Frankenstein” largely replaces that, rather serious, element with a lighter father-son theme, about acceptance of the father role.

Most of all though, it is a comedy. Igor has fantastic bug-eyes and frequently breaks the fourth wall with Monty Pythonic comedy. Garr as Inga is a revelation in comedic timing, often stealing the scenes and Wilder himself does the Gene Wilder thing, but more controlled than how he usually appear. It would have been easy to take him totally overboard, but he actually stays believable throughout. Amazingly enough.

In the extra material it was explained that every comedic stunt in the movie has a straight guy, though the role of straight guy may change mid-scene, and that is why the jokes usually work. If Feldman is funny, Wilder is straight. If Wilder is funny then Garr is straight, but suddenly they reverse and so on. Sounds simple, but I believe that is the successful recipe.

The only time they cross the line and take the silliness too far is when Wilder and Boyle, as Frankenstein and Monster, stage a musical piece, “Putting on the Ritz” in front of a dignified audience. Curiously, not a Brooks stunt, but Wilder’s idea. Luckily though, the movie quickly returns to form from this intermezzo.

I had a great time watching “Young Frankenstein”. It is funny and quotably. Silly and witty but with a heart and a respect for the original story that make you feel like you watched a complete and coherent movie and not just a string of theme jokes. Warmly recommended.

As a bonus, see if you can spot Gene Hackman.

 


Tuesday, 14 September 2021

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

 


En kvinde under inflydelse

I am no expert on mental illnesses. I think it is scary what illnesses in the brain can do to you and I am quite certain I would not be good at handling a person with such an illness. Yet, this is exactly what Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence” invites us to do. For two and a half hours we get to live with the Longhettis.

Mabel (Gena Rowlands) is suffering from some illness, though I am in no position to tell what it is. There is some indication she is bipolar, but I could be very wrong. She seems very nervous and slips into a fantasy world where she will act strangely hyped and say and do odd things. The last thing Mabel needs is someone too stupid, selfish or hot tempered to deal with her illness, but that is exactly what her husband Nick (Peter Falk) is. Shouting and bullying is his way of handling things, force them into submission and show who is the boss. He is the kind of guy who will shout at people to have fun and if they do not, a slap may help them on their way.

Frankly, if I was in Mabel’s shoes I would also want to retire into my own little world where Nick could not reach me and that makes me wonder how big a hand he may have in her illness.

Plotwise, it is not as if a lot is happening over the course of the movie. Mabel is slowly getting worse and in a scene with a particularly lot of shouting, Mabel gets hospitalized. Half a year later she comes back, but her welcome home party disintegrate when Nick starts shouting and Mabel suffers a relapse.

It is clear to me that Mabel is very much alone. People see her as an ill and potentially dangerous person, and she has nobody to rely on. In a crucial scene near the end, she asks her father if he will not stand up for her, but he deliberately misunderstands her instead of coming to her help. And Nick, man, he may mean well, but he is downright abusive. Again, near the end, when Mabel is feeling most vulnerable, she asks him if he loves her, and he cannot commit. He simply has no idea what she needs. In his eye, she just needs to be normal, dammit, and it probably works better if he shouts it.

As such, this is a painful movie to watch. There is no doubt that both Rowlands and Falk act their asses out of their pants (an expression that works better in Danish…) and it feels very real, but it is not enjoyable to watch. Like a train wreck in slow motion. I cannot help thinking of the children who must grow up scarred for life and I get so upset watching Nick and both set of parents.

Does that make it a good movie or a terrible movie? I guess it depends on which standard you use. It feels important and it makes you question things in yourself, though it might be difficult to handle this any worse than Nick does. Would I want to watch it again? Well, I do not think I would do that to myself. Once is plenty enough.

Wikipedia writes that it was difficult to sell the movie. Cassavetes was told that “No one wants to see a crazy, middle-aged dame”. I think the real question is, who wants to see an insane middle-aged man go crazy on his mentally ill wife? It is spectacular, maybe even important, but also very, very painful.

 


Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Vampyres (1974)

 


Off-List: Vampyres

Sex and blood is a combo that always seems to work. Or the idea is that it is meant to work. An appeal to something primeval or something like that. Teenage vampire movies are the natural consequence and Heaven knows we are swarmed with those. The ultimate milking (pun intended) of this combo however must be the movie “Vampires”.

When I was browsing for off-List movies for 1974 I found a movie with the description “Vampyres is a 1974 British erotic/lesbian vampire horror film”.  Okay… I have to see this. This would either be fantastic or a complete disaster, both of which qualifies it for my list.

It actually turned out to be… neither… or a bit of everything. Certainly, it is not your average movie.

It is a story that barely adds up. Fran (Marianne Morris) and Miriam (Anulka Dziubinska) is a lesbian couple who was shot to death and now, as vampires, pick up strangers by the wayside, posing as hitchhikers, and take them to their gothic mansion where they seduce their victims, get them drunk and drink their blood. The corpses are placed back in their cars posing as mock car accidents. And yeah, there are a few holes in that premise…

Here is the thing: Fran and Miriam are very pretty, and the “seducing” part is… very explicit and so is the killing afterwards. There was some tongue kissing there that literally look like they are already eating each other, and it blends directly into a blood frenzy that looks more like cannibalism than the sanitized blood letting in a teenage vampire movie. This is Sex and Blood at full throttle.

Beside the girls and their random victims there is Ted (Murray Brown), a “victim”, easily seduced by Fran, who the girls for some reason do not kill. Just tap a bit of blood each night. Maybe Fran likes the sex too much. In any case, when Ted is starting to realize something sinister is going on, he is strangely unable to leave. Don’t ask why.

Also, there are the campists, John (Brian Deacon) and Harriet (Sally Faulkner), who have setup their caravan next to the manor and see a lot of strange shit.

There is a little twist at the end (or a few if you like), but really, this is all about Sex and Blood. Lots of Sex and Blood.

On the one hand the production value here is actually reasonably high. There is some decent acting, and the set is spot on. Then on the other hand, this is a story with gaping holes and only there to set up the sex and the gore. So, I guess it is a movie that actually delivers what it sets out to do. It is not outright porn and it is not an amateurish production, but the scary elements often bent to camp and exploitation, so I am not entirely certain it counts as horror either. What it is, is a movie that dares to go all in instead of beating around the bush. It is unapologetic about what it does and despite its trash agenda there is something liberating in that.

You want sex and blood? You got it.

 


Saturday, 4 September 2021

The Mirror (Zerkalo) (1974)

 


Spejlet

This is, once again, one of those situations where I feel like a plebeian idiot. I am so confused having watched “Mirror” and I have very little idea what it is I have just been watching. There was some extra material to the movie including a scholar analyzing the movie and I got just as little from that. Clearly, I am an idiot and not at all the target audience.

What is going on here? Well, the structure of the movie is a stream of consciousness rather than a plot. In fact, there is no plot as far as I can tell. We get a number of settings spread out in time and often we are reverting to those settings. Some are fairly easy to place, there is something in the thirties or forties taking place in rural Russia and some “modern” (1970’ies) scenes, presumably in Moscow. Some scenes are dream sequences identified as such by being in black and white and some scenes I just cannot place: dream or reality? Present or past? It is not helping that the same actors seem to have multiple roles and there is a strange blur in time.

I also got that Tarkovsky plays a significant role in the movie. Sometimes we see things from his point of view as if all this is taking place in the mind of Tarkovsky himself. Following that thought, the child in the “past” sequences is likely himself and the woman his mother, who incidentally is also his wife in present time. There is also a boy, Ignat, in the present scenes with an uncertain function.

Another dominant feature is the pervading sense of gloom. The score is beautiful and range from funeral music to grand, melancholic drama, always with a slant of sadness. It is the most accessible element of the movie and the one thing I liked about it. Whether it is a personal doom, a memory of loss or something larger I do not know, but if this is somehow meant to describe Russia, I am starting to understand why they need a lot of vodka.

This is as much as I can describe this movie. As I have already indicated I have no idea what is going on, so I suspect that it is a movie that require an analysis, to have a key to unlock it. That is sometimes fun, but in this case it is as if the movie is trying to avoid my attention. I am constantly drawn away rather than into the movie. I am simply not interested enough to make that extra effort to understand it and as a result it becomes just random, incoherent pictures.

And that places me in the group on plebeian idiots and not among movie scholars. “Sight and Sound” rank it as the 9th greatest movie of all time, and it has a 9.2 score on Rotten Tomatoes. Apparently, this is a really great movie. Well, maybe I like my movies just a tad more accessible.

 


Friday, 27 August 2021

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

 


Motorsavsmasakren

“Motorsavsmasakren”? Do I know “Motorsavsmasakren”? Of course, I know “Motorsavsmasakren” or “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” as is its correct, original name, but I have always known it by its Danish name, which frankly sounds more awesome, at least to me. This film is an institution! Did I ever watch “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”? ehh… no… I actually do not think so, at least not until now. But I know it, I know all the elements, Leatherface, the girl on the meat hook, youngsters getting caught by cannibals and that image of the chainsaw wielding cook running through the bush.

Why I never actually saw it, I cannot tell. It would have been the kind of thing we would have watched back at campus, but it just never came up or we just cut the line at “Evil Dead”. In hindsight that is a bit silly. “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” would have fitted in just perfectly.

This is a movie that could easily have become one of those ridiculous movies made by amateurs by enrolling their friends, but somehow, like with “Night of the Living Dead”, the idea, creativity and energy to actually pull it off, made it work despite itself. It is realistic enough, camp enough and (certainly) barbaric enough to hit the right balance. Back in the day it moved the boundary for what you could show in a movie and were probably considered way across that line, but with just the right amount of camp it pulls back and there is something even… funny about watching the completely insane Leatherface keeping track of all these awful intruders that just won’t die, alright?

The story is that five youngsters, Sally (Marilyn Burns), her wheelchair bound brother Franklin (Paul Partain) and their friends Kirk (William Vail), Jerry (Allen Daniziger) and Pam (Teri McMinn) are on an outing in a van and stop at an old homestead belonging to Sally and Franklin’s family. They are short on gas so when Kirk and Pam spot a house, they go asking for some. As nobody answers them knocking, Kirk goes right in (?) only to meet a big man (Gunnar Hansen) with a mask made of human skin who immediately, without preamble, knocks him down with a big hammer. Pam, of course, walks in to look for him and finds some scary shit. Her screaming immediately calls Leatherface to the scene, he grabs her and puts her on a meat hook, still screaming, while he cut up Kirk with his chainsaw.

For the last third of the movie, we see Sally run through the brush, chased by Leatherface (after he quickly dispatched Jerry and Franklin), captured she is tied up with the most horrendous family ever, ready to become the evening dinner and finally fleeing again with Leatherface and his chainsaw in hot pursuit.

This is gory and violent and brutal with not much more point to it than to present a nightmare scenario. The ultimate in “don’t mess with the locals”. It should be absolutely terrible, either because of the scare or because it is so disgusting, but somewhere, as I wrote above, it is also so over the top, without breaking form, that I could not help laughing. Somewhere between the dinner party from hell and the insane chainsaw wielding Leatherface it hits a nerve of camp that is just priceless. Back in campus, in the nineties we would play Doom, the hottest thing at the time, and the most ridiculous and yet most awesome thing you could do was to take that chainsaw and run around, impotently and yet menacingly and cut up the bad guys (or each other) and as spectators we would roll around laughing watching a player run around with some chainsaw dude chasing him. And it all comes from “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”.

The production value is not super high, this was made on a shoestring budget, the acting is, well, amateurish, but the energy! Whoah! I am not really into gory horror but this is a classic for a reason.

Do I dare recommend it?


Friday, 20 August 2021

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

 


Off-List: Murder on the Orient Express

Are there any whodunnits more iconic than Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express”? Not that I can think of.

For this kind of story, it is a curse to be famous because you do not want to spoil the guessing game and yet I had happily forgotten the resolution of this murder mystery. Incredible but true. I am probably getting old. In any case, I had a great time watching the mystery getting unraveled with Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) tying all the little pieces of information together.

What I had even more fun with, was watching the greatest assembly of acting credentials ever to perform in a single movie. A bold claim, but one that may actually be true. It may be easier to mention who was not in this movie.

Hercule Poirot, the famous (in Agatha Christie’s novels) detective, is returning from the Middle East and boards a train, the famous Orient Express, in Istanbul, heading for France and England. The first-class section is fully booked by 12 other passengers (sounds like a small train…) and they only just manage to squeeze in Poirot.

Shortly into the ride, the American businessman Ratchett (Richard Widmark) offers Poirot a small fortune to protect him from an unknown danger. Ratchett has been receiving threatening letters, but Poirot refuses and the morning after Ratchett is dead. Mr. Bianchi, director of the train line, implores Poirot to solve the mystery and a sudden snowdrift may just offer enough time to do so.

So, who did it? Was it,

The loud and obnoxious Mrs. Hubbard (Lauren Bacall)?

The pious Ms. Ohlsson (Ingrid Bergman)?

The charming Countess Helena Andrenyi (Jacqueline Bisset) or the just as charming Count Rudolf Andrenyi (Michael York)?

The stout Colonel Arbuthnot (Sean Connery) or his girlfriend Mary Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave)?

Maybe the butler did it (John Gielgud) or Ratchett’s secretary (Anthony Perkins)?  

Or the elderly, slightly infirm and very aristocratic Princess Dragomiroff (Wendy Hiller) or her maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Rachel Roberts)?

One cannot rule out the bodyguard (Colin Blakely) or the car salesman (Denis Quilley), surely?

And that train attendant, Pierre (Pierre Paul Michel) was just a little too close to all the action, no?

This list, of course, is mostly an excuse to write up the amazing list of actors and actresses participating in this spectacle, for a spectacle it is. This may be a murder case, but it is played for nostalgic reminiscence of a nobler time long gone, when train rides were spectacular and the high and mighty would be sharing a train car. The music, the décor, the costumes, this all has a lighter and easier air than is normally due a crime scene and Poirot solving the case is more the unraveling of a riddle than the apprehension of a dangerous criminal. All very gentleman-like.

I did feel a bit odd with Albert Finney as Poirot, but I guess that is simply because I am so used to David Suchet’s rendition of the famous detective in the TV-series. Cannot really blame Finney for that.

“Murder on the Orient Express” is the first of my off-List movies for 1974 and, honestly, I find it odd that this one was left out. It was nominated for six Academy Awards and won one (Ingrid Bergman). It is a fluffy piece, but an incredibly taste one. I would have added it to the List.

 


Saturday, 14 August 2021

The Conversation (1974)

 


Aflytningen

1974 was a good year for Francis Ford Coppola. Not only did he win with “The Goodfather part II”, he was also nominated twice personally for “The Conversation”. In the shadow of “The Godfather I+II” it is easy to miss “The Conversation”. Personally, I had not even heard about it before watching it. It is a much smaller movie in scope, more a character study than anything else, but perhaps because of this narrow scope it reaches a depth shared by few other movies.

Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a surveillance expert. This is the high-tech version of the private eye. Corporate espionage, extramarital affairs or political shenanigans, Caul is the expert. He is a technical wizard, builds much of his equipment himself, and knows all the tricks in the business. Harry Caul is also a very lonely man. All this surveillance has made him the ultimate voyeur and because he can glean all the secrets from other people, he is convinced he himself is just as exposed to others. He never tells anybody any personal details and are nervous around anybody who asks him questions. We see how this makes women around him give up on him. Nobody wants to be kept at arm’s length.

This voyeurism also becomes a bit of an obsession in relation to his work. Professionally, what he observes is not his business, he simply delivers the tapes or photos to his clients against payment, but somewhere he is losing that professionalism and gets engaged in his material. Harry suspects, becomes convinced even, that the couple he is asked to keep under surveillance are at risk of getting murdered. His only input are those recordings and photos he has, but hearing them again and again enables him to piece together a picture.

The problem is that, like the blind man touching only part of an elephant, the image he gets is wrong. A murder is in planning, but he got the wrong victim, and he is powerless to do anything to prevent it. At the same time he learns that all the care he takes to shield himself is futile. He is as prone to surveillance and tricks as his marks and as powerless to prevent it. His innermost secrets, those he guards most zealously, are there for the taking.

For a man like Harry Caul this is complete destruction. He is a failure. This is also a warning about the dangers of surveillance.

For a movie as downbeat as this, “The Conversation” is very engaging. We are truly getting under the skin of Harry Caul, and we feel we understand his sorry and very lonely existence. He is paranoid, but even his paranoia offers him no protection and no answers. I know this is a movie that should make me depressed, but Coppola and Hackman are just too good to let me dismiss the movie.

Beside a brilliant performance by Gene Hackman, “The Conversation” also sports an amazing jazz soundtrack. This is the kind of music that gets under my skin and I can easily think of an autumn afternoon where I would feel like listening to nothing but this.

As a little bonus we also get a young Harrison Ford as Caul’s client’s spooky assistant. A small but important role, feeding Caul’s paranoia.

“The Conversation was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay (by Coppola) and Best Sound. All three highly deserved nominations. It is early into my 74 movies to say, but I could see Hackman getting a nomination too.

Highly recommended.

 

Monday, 9 August 2021

600 Movies Anniversary

 


600 Movies Anniversary

With “Dersu Uzala” I reached movie number 600 on the List. I have reviewed quite a few more movies, including the off-List entries and the special Danish edition entries, but among those on the big List, this was number 600.

From 500 to 600 I went from 1968 to 1974 and this has taken me exactly two years. It is slow, I know, but slowly the movies are accumulating. My shelves with DVDs are starting to look pretty impressive.

Following my own tradition, I have to issue some sort of award that must include all movies watched up to this point, but be inspired by the period I have just been through. Well, if there is one thing that typifies this period it must be the counter-culture theme. It runs like a red thread through so many of the movies, either as a main theme, a side theme and influencing the choices both of characters and filmmakers. Counterculture can be many things, but in the late sixties and early seventies it was almost everything that would break with the established way of doing things. The embrace of the alternative, sometimes simply for being different. It is easy to sit back today and ridicule it, but for those involved this was a big and important thing and it was an energy you had to tap into if you wanted your movie to sync with the zeitgeist.

I made a count, probably missing some, and identified 28 movies that definitely contains countercultural elements, either intentionally or unintentionally. My award will be to the movie where counterculture is the most dominant element for better or worse. From my larger list I have nominated seven movies:

Zabrieski Point

                Antonioni’s misfired attempt at nailing the counterculture. Although he failed, you cannot blame him for not trying.

Five Easy Pieces

                Maybe a surprising entry, but I think this movie embraces the rebellion of the existing and search for something to replace it by going its own way. The essence of counterculture.

Easy Rider

                Biking across the US, smoking weed, and doing everything the establishment hated. Need I say more?

Midnight Cowboy

                An incredible look into the zeitgeist of the age, the entire setting is the counterculture in NYC around 1970

The Graduate

                Earlier than most counter-culture movies, this is a movie that almost defined the anxiety of stepping into established adulthood and deciding not to.

Blow-up

                Antonioni’s more successful depiction of alternative lifestyles before it turned sour.

Woodstock

                A movie about the greatest hippie festival ever, how can this not embrace counterculture?

 

And the winner is:



Easy Rider.

There is not a single element of this movie, in front of or behind the camera that is not heavily influenced by the counterculture and its legacy is almost the definition of the age.