Friday, 24 November 2017


William Friedkin, 1977, USA

This is like Georges Arnaud’s ‘Le salaire de la peur’ imagined as a straightforward thriller by Werner Herzog. That is, rather than men stranded by the vagaries and random cruelties of fate, ‘Sorcerer’ pools together its drivers from four men running from thriller plots and their drive is more like a fight with nature itself. It’s a masculine thing, but it’s led by Roy Scheider who does the injured hard-man character and panicky/steely stare well; and nuance of performance is needed for there is little of the shading of character here as there was in Clouzot’s ‘The Wages of Fear’. Rather, this is a more bare-knuckle interpretation, if that’s possible, for it almost makes Clouzot’s film with its crisp black-and-white photography by Armand Thirard look glossy and civilised by comparison. That is, the trucks used look like a peril in themselves even before we begin, eaten by rust and neglect; and the weather seems to have swamped, flooded and rotted everything. It’s all mud, dirt and dampness.

The set-up here comes from four disparate thriller scenerios that start in different countries and meet up in South America: a hit man, a failed robbery, terrorism, white collar crime. This colours our unsympathetic protagonists’ fates as the consequence of their own choices and so a lot of sympathy is off the table and the social commentary is greatly diluted. Friedkin meant this to be more about the workings of fate – it’s called ‘Sorcerer’ – but these characters triggered this path so although the film is not without existential angst, it doesn’t quite capture fate’s random cruelty. And, as we don’t particularly care for them (although Scheider naturally draws out empathy) and aren’t particularly asked to reflect on the context, we’re left with the action. But that’s enough

The most memorable set-ups are the robbery in a church as a wedding is taking place, filmed in Friedkin’s deceptively straightforward style, and the terrorists bombing a public space filmed more in the style of the French New Wave. There’s a little morsel to chew on as stockbrocker Victor (Bruno Cremer) discusses “soldier poets” with his wife and reflects that “No one is just anything.” Tangerine Dream’s electronic score pulses and keeps pace as these lowlifes meet in South America and sign up for the suicide mission of transporting nitroglycerine through the jungle. Tension starts as soon as they drive around the first bend of a rough mountain road. There’s no bonding here – well, only as a prelude to death. What there is is excellent sound design and set-pieces exceptionally executed. There may not be the same raw tension that derives from characterisation frm the Clouzot version, but ‘Sorcerer’ is a very tactile film so that not only will the audience feel waterlogged but the screen radiates with the uncontrollable danger of the fires. Best of all is the jaw-dropping sequence where the trucks battle to cross a rope bridge in torrential weather and a flood.

With a re-release ‘Sorcerer’ seems to now have claimed an appreciative audience: perhaps the overwhelming fantasy of ‘Star Wars’ (released at the same time in 1977) really did realise that public preference was for overblown but morally simplistic fantasias rather than raw but grandiose realism with a hint of existentialism. But it’s true that I can’t quite fathom the extent of negative reception since ‘Sorcerer’ is intense and muscular, consummately realised, is bold and exciting and aimed at action for adults. So much so that it’s easy to see why it’s now being called a masterpiece.

Monday, 20 November 2017

The Wages of Fear

'Le salaire de la peur'
 Henri-Georges Clouzot, b/w, France

Courzot’s adaptation of Georges Arnaud’s novel is rightly held up as a quintessential suspense-action film. Indeed, rarely will close-ups of wheels going back-and-forth cause such tension and anxiety. Four desperate men, stuck in a dead-end South American town, agree on a likely suicide mission to drive volatile nitroglycerine over rough terrain to deal with a raging fire at an oil well. But it’s an hour in the runtime before they get in the trucks and the long set-up – mostly cut from the original American release – allows a rambling exploration of the men rotting away in a Latin American town with only the Southern Oil Company offering wages or any kind of opportunity.

And it’s in this town that we find the film’s most glaring weakness in its use of its one notable female character as most clearly imagined as on her knees cleaning or fawning over men that mistreat her. Indeed, when we meet her she is on all fours, cleavage showing, being petted like a dog. Véra Clouzot (Henri-Georges’ wife) as Linda is such a weak character that it blemishes the film’s otherwise often critical slant on machismo: whereas the male characters are allowed nuance and room to be contradictory, she is given no room at all and indeed is shoved aggressively from the excitement of the trucks as they drive off into a considerably edgy male adventure. If this meant to be a comment of machismo, it is grossly underwritten so that there is little option but to take it at face value.

But the men all get some shading. Male camaraderie is initially mostly defined by lazing around, interludes of music, rivalry and the search for jobs: they have nothing to do but they’re still posturing. Mario (Yves Montand) is a posing wastrel type, treating the obsequious Linda appallingly, who rises to the occasion with tough resolve that is needed for the drive. He bonds with the gangster-type Jo (Charles Vanel) at the expense of all else, and Jo plays the bully but under the stress of the drive he cracks and becomes cowardly. The affable Mexican foreman Luigi (Folco Lulli) holds his own, but he’s dying of cement dust in his lungs – a hazard of his job. And there is Bimba (Peter van Eyck) a German that is assumed to be an ex-Nazi but was an actually against the Reich and spent time in salt mines as punishment. Even the SOC foreman (Bill O’Brien) insists these men get their fair wage even as he tells them it’s a suicide mission. It’s a context of social desperation and exploitation that is clear in its condemnation of capitalism. That may have contributed greatly to why it was initially badly received: as Karel Reisz notes’ “The film is admittedly anti-American, but it would be unfair to single this out for special mention, for Le Salaire de la peur is unselectively and impartially anti-everything.”* Or as Penelope Huston writes, that although the film is "skilful in its pre-occupation with violence and its unrelieved pessimism, it is unlikeable."** The nihilism and anti-corporate sentiment were surely ahead of their time in being so blatant and visceral and surely more in tune with a post-‘Easy Rider’ post-‘Bonnie and Clyde’ post-Watergate cinema that was to come decades later. In this environment, William Friedkin’s version of ‘The Wages of Fear’ – ‘Sorcerer’ – makes more sense, although that wasn’t liked at the time either.

But in the end, it is the set-pieces of the drive that remain indelible even if the politics remain sadly contemporary and relatable: the trucks not being able to either slow down or overtake on a perilous road; turning on a rotten bridge; blowing up a boulder in the road; driving through a lake of oil... Men are covered in sweat and oil as the tension makes the air even drier and Clouzot makes every yank of gears, creak of wood and tumble of rocks count. It’s gritty, tense, a fine melding of neo-realism and action cinema. As Bosley Crowther memorably put it, “The excitement derives entirely from the awareness of nitroglycerine and the gingerly, breathless handling of it. You sit there waiting for the theatre to explode.”*** And yet, despite the accusations of nihilism, its rough characters and fatalism, it is surely not a film of cruelty but rather about the cruelty of their hardships and the fact their lives are so often held as worthless when profit is involved. But ultimately it does hit a sour truism that it is at our happiest that we let our guard down and endanger ourselves. In this sense, in stating clearly that fate is ruthless, its message is a tough one but, boy, the suspense is in getting there.

Karel Reisz, ‘Sight &Sound. Spring 1954
**  Penelope Huston, ‘Monthly Film Bulletin’, April 1954, pg. 54

Sunday, 12 November 2017


John Frankenheimer, 1966, USA

As a kid, John Frankenheimer’s ‘Seconds’ always gave me serious chills. Not only did this come from the grand guignol of the ending, but also from the idea of failing at life, of not quite being in control, of not quite knowing the tricks of assimilation and survival that others seem to possess so effortlessly. It’s based on mid-life crisis and, as Kim Newman says, on a wartime generation that felt they had missed out on all the fun the youth culture were just about to enjoy. As a kid, I venture that this was unnerving me as it tapped into the suspicion that life would not be the constantly upward curve I was promised. The idea of wanting to do your life over again, of wanting a second chance, of being an outsider not quite fitting in, are not likely to go out of vogue. 

It’s the kind of scenario you might find in ‘The Twilight Zone’: Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a rigidly unhappy and unremarkable soul when he receives an odd offer from an old friend - one he presumed dead - to be “re-born”, of starting life over. It’s an offer of a second chance, to be what he never was but wanted to be. To this end, the mysterious company who orchestrates this seems quite accommodating – after they have snared him staging him with a false rape, that is. He is reborn as Rock Hudson in an idyllic Californian location. The trouble is: once an unhappy soul, always an unhappy soul.

Based on David Ely’s novel and populated by a cast of faces that would become familiar but weren’t so much at the time of casting – it is very well cast and notably Frankenheimer went for a lot of previously actors black-listed in the McCarthy era – ‘Seconds’ was never popular and greatly derided. As Brian Eggert says, “Frankenheimer himself noted how the film “went from failure to classic without ever being a success.’” There’s a truth and poeticism when Landon Palmer calls ‘Seconds’ the loneliest films of the 1960s. 

With James Wong Howe’s crisp black and white cinematography, Saul Bass’s disturbing credits sequence, the distortions by fish-eye lenses, a seasoning of psychedelic sensibility and undertones of body-horror, there is something always off-kilter in this world. Even the early scenes of Hamilton’s humdrum life alternate from claustrophobic close-ups and agoraphobic wide-shots, creating unease immediately. Not only the accentuated camera techniques but the bedrock of plastic surgery, identity theft and over-reaching corporations were ahead of the times, as Edward Tenner notes; and perhaps its seemingly contemporary backdrop fooled people and contributed to the backlash. Maybe if it had looked more like ‘Fantastic Voyage’, it would have been more obviously a genre piece and audiences may not have felt so threatened, have recognised such a clear attack on their culture.

It’s a world of the mid-life crisis, where post-House of Un-American Activities Committee paranoia is paramount and the film attacks commercialism, bourgeois privilege, arty pretensions and free-love hedonism equally, seeing in it all a phoniness and tapping into our fear that our whole life is performance and our surroundings staged for us, that everyone else in on it. As Eggert notes, ‘Seconds’ offers as a solution neither conformity or escapism – but perhaps “escapism” is the wrong word and hedonism is more appropriate. And yet, rather than a criticism, it seems more a cautionary tale and a warning that happiness lays not within what you are told by corporations and social movements.

Will Greer gives a sublimely genial folksy old man performance as the apparent owner of this somewhat bizarre and mysterious firm which is both sinister and weirdly empathic (hey, they seem to go out of their way to upgrade your second life). Rock Hudson cracking up is the attention-grabber, but John Randolph’s sad-sack performance is equally haunting. This is a far cry from the action inclinations of mainstream genre fare. Indeed, the science isn’t credible at all, but that’s not the point: this is the kind of science fiction whose vigorously bleak attitude shows that the phenomenon of progress will always be susceptible to human weaknesses. With a greatly disturbing finale to top off this haunted tale of a lifetime of dissatisfaction, ‘Seconds’ is uniquely disturbing.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Blade Runner 2049 (just a first watch)

Denis Villeneuve, 2017, 

I know it’s going to take second watch to fully determine what I think of Villeneuve’s continuation of Ridley Scott’s classic. I like Villeneuve ever since I thought the direction of ‘Sicario’ proved exceptional, but I felt ‘Arrival’ had major problems that dented my appraisal of him (although that was more the material than his execution). From the trailer, I thought ‘Blade Runner 2049’ was going to be a more action-filtered rendition of the premise, hyped-up with adrenalin for a modern audience, so I was pleased and surprised that the tone proved to be measured and faintly abstract. In fact, it’s so wilfully – and in my opinion appropriately – languid and conceptual that this seems to obscure its storyline: it has been accused of lacking story, but the storyline seems to me to offer plenty to chew on. A replicant (an artificial human) with an identity/midlife crisis is going about his job of killing other replicants when he is given reason to follow up on his heritage; this leads him to a revelation that makes him think he is special as well as to the narrative of the previous film, but in a nice snub to The Chosen One trope that is so dominant in fiction, he finds he is mistaken. Rather, he sacrifices himself for the greater good. This seems plenty to be getting your teeth into and perhaps it is the overwhelming art-design and mood that leads people to believe the narrative is smothered and lesser than it is. 

And this is a gorgeous film. Many times, I found myself marvelling at the visuals, with Roger Deakins’ cinematography accentuating the glare of the opening, the perpetual neon night of Los Angeles and the art design of Jared Leto’s domain. The film is almost overwhelming with visual wonder – many of the urban vistas are breathtaking – but it also abundant with details to sift through: Pan Am adverts left over from the original; 'Peter and the Wolf' as a ringtone; the idea that a personality is just memory on a data stick (an idea completely in tune with Philip K Dick’s agenda); etc. Surely it is a veritable wealth of Easter Eggs that it is impossible to parse on a single watch. On top of that, the holo-Vegas fight and the final battle in a flood are exemplary action pieces.

“K” (Ryan Gosling) has a personality built upon artificially implanted memories, but when he gets home, all he wants is a traditional set-up where a devoted wife-figure serves him dinner and dotes. Is such an old-fashioned domestic desire programmed into him? Indeed, are we to deduce such desires can be credited to his programming or a more independent personality, growing from the programming, and that this vision of an idealised lifestyle is derived from the surrounding patriarchal/misogynistic culture? Nature or nurture? And are we to assume in this future setting that gender-politics haven’t gathered any nuance in the past hundred years, at least? It’s easy to take issue with such details but it remains steadfastly ambiguous and that is surely a strength and a nod to the unresolved questions of the original, questions it snakes around answering and mostly leaves open-ended.

We can maybe attribute “K”’s heterosexuality (and that is presumably programmed too) as triggering the objectified female holograms, but we don’t see any parallel and balancing experiences from the women character’s perspective so it leaves the film wide open for accusations of misogyny. This is mitigated by having Robin Wright as “K’”s boss, even taking advantage of her power by making a pass at him; also by shading Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) by having her seem increasingly saddened during her actions, as if she is asking herself Is this all I am: a murderous replicant? Mark Kermode makes a solid argument that actually it is the women of ‘Blade Runner 2049’ that hold all the power and that it is the patriarchal mindset of the male characters that hinders them in seeing things clearly. More than once, characters are told their attractions are programmed and then the film continues to maintain the air of ambiguity. Perhaps it is human vanity that we wish the replicant characters to be human? But the original surely took a jab at this by having Roy Blatty (Rutger Hauer) in the original be the most soulful character, despite the humans?

Indeed, it is surely the female characters that actually have more to do and show. The men come from the stoic, underplayed side of things, and one of the main frictions is waiting to see if Ryan Gosling will break out of his reserve. When Harrison Ford turns up, he effortlessly shows that you don’t need so much to exude a broken, grizzled machismo. Jared Leto has come in for attack for its high mannerisms, but that is surely a piece with the original replicants. But no, it’s the women that get to show more layers, more evident intelligence and range; and with the female prostititute and assassin replicants, they express a barely subsumed tiredness at working within patriarchal culture is expressed. It’s this that muddies the waters of criticisms for ‘Blade Runner 2049’s gender politics: it’s not that they don’t have some grounding but that it’s working on a more complex terrain than might be originally thought.

The thematic heft of ‘Blade Runner 2049’ is surely stronger than the original, which benefited and may be seen as superior from having a simple film noir narrative and a romantic intention that were instantaneously familiar as a guide through the tremendous art design. That Villeneuve with Michael Green and Hampton Fancher’s screenplay manages to capture and continue much of the ambiguity and abstract tone, smothered in state-of-the-art effects and set design, is surely a remarkable and stubborn achievement (although it might be seen by detractors as just pilfering and imitation). The fact that it is surely to be hotly grilled and debated in many studies to come – not least about its gender politics – is surely indication that, although already mostly warmly received, it’s true worth is yet to come. And even in that, it follows in its seminal original’s footsteps.