After a decade in filmmaking, Stanley Kubrick was just beginning to get the public recognition he deserved. His earlier works, like The Killing and Killer's Kiss, had received critical acclaim but were modest box-office hits. His two brushes with the mainstream had been both ambivalent: Spartacus was heavily criticised, and the censorship scandal surrounding Lolita made him regret the whole process of making it.
Dr. Strangelove was the film which finally catapulted Kubrick into the public eye, giving him both critical adulation and huge commercial success. His classic satire of the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction struck a chord with audiences, who had just seen the world teeter on the brink with the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. But even outside its original context, Dr. Strangelove remains not only the greatest black comedy ever made, but also the very best film of the 1960s (with 2001 a close second).
The secret to Dr. Strangelove's success can be found in its production history. Kubrick and his producing partner bought the rights to Peter George's novel Red Alert with the intention of making a straight drama about the threat of nuclear war. Kubrick's obsessive reading of Cold War literature gave the production a certain weight, but as the writing sessions went on, his mind began to wander into absurdist territory (e.g. wondering what the Russian Ambassador would eat when visiting the War Room).
This shift from straight drama to black comedy results in a film in which everything is played so straight that you can't help but laugh. Every aspect of the Cold War and the 'logic' of nuclear deterrence is justified on its own terms, and taken so deadly seriously that the entire construct becomes totally absurd. Kubrick constructed the production carefully, so that everyone who was 'in on the joke' was made to feel like it was the real thing. With George C. Scott, Kubrick constantly beat him at chess on set, making the former work harder on his performance. In the case of Slim Pickens, who was drafted in to play Major Kong, he didn't even tell him it was a comedy.
Like Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket either side of it, Dr. Strangelove is chiefly concerned with the futility of war and its destructive power on the individual. But where those works conveyed this through the psychological trauma of the central characters, this film is more instructed in structure, showing how nuclear deterrents have put at greater risk the very people they were designed to protect. General Turgidson talks about secret studies showing that there would be 'only' 20 million casualties should the Russians retaliate. When the President cites the comparison with Hitler, he asks him to put the American people before his place in the history books.
From this thesis Kubrick takes a dive deep into Freud, arguing that all politics and conflict have a basis in sexual frustration. Sex runs throughout Dr. Strangelove, from the coital act of planes refuelling in mid-air to the deadly multiple orgasms of the Doomsday machine. The film is constructed like a sexual act, with things starting slowly but confidently and gradually building to a breath-taking climax.
The idea of sex and sexuality permeating every human act is conveyed subtly in every line and image in the film. General Jack D. Ripper orders the deadly attack because he believes that fluoridation of water is a Communist plot that has made him impotent. In Ripper's mind, adding fluoride to water will reduce Americans' ability to reproduce, and therefore its ability to produce soldiers to keep fighting the Russians. Under these circumstances, he decides that if he cannot reproduce, then no-one else should be allowed to either: at least, that way, there would be peace on earth.
There are Freudian undercurrents elsewhere too. There is frequent talk from Ripper about "precious bodily fluids", and from Dr. Strangelove about radiation never "penetrating" deeper mine shafts. The President is named Merkin Muffley, 'merkin' being another term for a pubic wig, while 'Turgidson' could easily be a euphemism for an erection. And Strangelove's plan for living space (more on that later) involves a ratio of 10 females to each male, reflecting how the desire for sexual satisfaction shapes the way men govern themselves.
Within this there is an underplayed comment about the objectification of women. With the exception of the Playboy centrefold and Turgidson's 'secretary', all the characters in Dr. Strangelove are men. The women are treated as sex objects in either situation, so that it may as well be the same actress playing both women (and, in fact, it is). Their fate would be no better under Strangelove's plans: on top of mandatory polygamy, they would be selected according to fertility and sexual stimulation, so the men can set an example by sitting around breeding all day.
This final section is Kubrick at his most cynical, arguing that even when faced with disaster, political structures and attitudes irrevocably persist. Just as the German scientists who built V2 rockets were enlisted to send America to the Moon, so Strangelove is a war criminal who has become accepted simply by changing his name. His essentially Nazi plans for lebensraum and an Aryan race are met with enthusiasm on both sides - something which is doubly ironic considering Muffley's earlier comments about Hitler. And as soon as the plan is agreed upon, the US military start suspecting the Russians of planning a sneak attack to create a "mineshaft gap". The same arguments are being had even in the last seconds before everyone and everything is destroyed, like vultures picking at a rotten carcass.
As always, Kubrick's direction is magnificent, fleshing out all these ideas but never at the expense of the characters. The integration of stock footage is so seamless that when the troops attack Ripper's base, it could be actual news footage from urban warfare, not like that in Full Metal Jacket. In many of Captain Mandrake's scenes, where he is surrounded by computers, Kubrick tilts the lens so that he always looks small and insignificant compared to the technology which dominates him. Such shots, together with the failure of the CRM-114, hints to Kubrick's work in 2001 about perfect machines that go wrong.
The last 20 minutes with the B52 bomb run is an editing master-class worthy of D. W. Griffith himself. These scenes are scored by a recurring riff with a military drum beat, a simple device which gives us the rhythm needed to make all the technobabble tense and interesting. And then there is Major Kong riding the bomb, an image which encapsulates our response to the film: we shift from laughing out loud to an awkward chuckle and finally open-mouthed horror at what is unfolding.
The performances in Dr. Strangelove are all terrific. For all his good work in Being There, Peter Sellers was never better. Being allowed to freely improvise, he nails all three characters, managing to be ridiculous and down-right hilarious while constantly seeming reigned in. Sterling Hayden is pitch-perfect as Jack D. Ripper, and George C. Scott is brilliant as Turgidson: even at his most (unwillingly) exaggerated, he still seems grounded in reality.
Dr. Strangelove is an undisputed masterpiece which still looks and feels as fresh and as radical as in 1964. Kubrick marries career-best performances from his cast to strikingly constructed visuals and a script with substance and sardonic wit coming out of its ears. It holds up on every conceivable level, as a black comedy, as a piece of socio-political commentary, and above all as a damn fine piece of filmmaking. It is, beyond any doubt, a stupendous work and the best film of the decade.
When looking back on his long career in an interview with The Onion, Robert Altman said that "you tend to love your least successful children the most", saying that he felt more affection for Popeye than for anything critics and audiences embraced, such as Short Cuts or Nashville. One wonders whether Michael Powell would have taken the same view of Peeping Tom, the film which all but destroyed him as a filmmaker.
But unlike Popeye, which produces reactions ranging from 'utter rubbish' to 'guilty pleasure', there can be no doubt that Peeping Tom is a blistering masterpiece. You will struggle to find a more audacious, bold, striking and shocking piece of British cinema, at least until the rulebook was re-written by A Clockwork Orange. Coming at the beginning of a decade which would be defined by rebellion against any and every convention, Peeping Tom blazed the trail, stepping into the darkness with a red-hot torch at the cost of setting its own coat-tails on fire.
Considering that Peeping Tom and Psycho were released within months of each other, you would expect audiences to have flocked to both releases, and for both to become regarded by critics as among the best works of 1960. Aside from their similarities in terms of story and characters, there was very little to separate the prestige of Alfred Hitchcock from that of Michael Powell. While the former was more recognisable in public and was in his commercial prime, the latter had captured audience imaginations during the war years through his work with Emeric Pressburger.
Sadly for Powell, who was a close friend of Hitchcock's, joint adulation was not to be. While Psycho enjoyed huge box-office success and garnered four Oscar nominations, Peeping Tom was greeted with outright hatred in the British press and quickly disappeared from screens. For the next twenty years the film was seen as an untouchable bête noire, a half-whispered rumour of a once-great man gone mad. It was not until 1979, when Martin Scorsese was asked to remake it, that Peeping Tom began its long rise from the critical sewers to take its place among the all-time greats.
It would be tempting to blame Peeping Tom's demise on the perceived small-mindedness of 1960s audiences, something seemingly reinforced by the ridiculous reviews which branded it as "evil", "vulgar" and "repellent". But watching the film even 50 years later, you can understand why even the most open-minded people in any age would be shocked by it. On this occasion it is not so much a case of finger-pointing at audiences, as applauding the dangerous (and self-deprecating) vision of a director.
Peeping Tom was made at a time when cinema was still very much focussed around the life and trials of the rich and famous: a time when films were star vehicles with often shamefully predictable plots, consisting of little more than talking, smoking, dancing and kissing (though not always in that order). When Hollywood attempted to tackle difficult subjects, or to interpose itself among the less fortunate, it did so in a way which was often deeply patronising (in the case of My Fair Lady) or which smoothed over any rough edges in a way which made the finished product seem dishonest.
The problem wasn't simply that the subject of Peeping Tom was a million miles from the ballet of The Red Shoes or the pilots of A Matter of Life and Death. It was more the way in which prostitutes, sleazy models and above all a serial killer were presented in a way which was not only realistic, but empathetic. The film eschews melodramatic convention, contrasting the showy, frothy acting of the film star (played by Shirley Anne Field) with the considered, naturalistic and more believable performance of Carl Boehm. Proof of this is to be found in the murder of Moira Shearer's character; Powell allows her to perform a flamboyant dance routine, as happens in The Red Shoes, before her dancing days are cut short with a tripod leg and a piercing scream.
As Scorsese observed, Peeping Tom is like the darker, shiftier cousin of 8 1/2. Both are self-reflexive films about filmmaking and the role of the director, and both feature said director coming in front of the camera (Powell appears in the black-and-white sections as Mark's manipulative father). For Federico Fellini, cinema was inherently a force for good, a place of magic in which the director was a creative genius with noble intentions. But for Powell, in an act of brutal self-deprecation, cinema was a dangerous weapon in the hands of an insane voyeur, who would exploit, manipulate and even kill, just to get the perfect shot.
In complete contrast to the fairy tale quality of his earlier work, there is very little in Peeping Tom in the way of childlike magic. Film is presented as a medium characterised by darkness and strange noises; Mark's dark room is like a haunted house or Frankenstein's lab, only instead of slamming doors and creaking floorboards, we have the flicking of metal switches and the drip-drip-drip of silver nitrate. Camera and projector hum and whirr like some sinister insect, waiting for the right moment to pounce and claim its victim.
Having likened filmmaking to murder, Powell then turns the camera on us to show that we are as much a part of this as the director. The film is a breath-taking examination of voyeurism, arguing that the very act of watching a film is voyeuristic. When we pay good money to sit in the dark for two hours, we are devoting our time to watching others who are oblivious to our presence and have no means of defence. We see their lives play out in such detail that we become unwittingly obsessed by them; our psychological relationship is of the same morbid fascination which prompts Mark to make his documentary.
As with Blue Velvet more than twenty years later, this revelation of our role in Peeping Tom produces a reaction combining repulsion and mesmerism; we are shocked, or offended, we cannot look away. But rather than shock us cheaply by showing the murders in graphic detail, Powell leaves the real terror of what is occurring entirely in our minds. Towards the end of the film, Anna Massey discovers the footage of Mark's victims; she watches, being frightened and repulsed - but she keeps watching. The camera tracks her reactions in a long panning shot, which tell us all we need to know about what is happening.
But even taken outside of all its commentary, Peeping Tom is still terrifying as a pure, full-on horror movie. Carl Boehm's performance is extraordinary, helping to create an immensely compelling character who feels more three-dimensional than Norman Bates. The psychological trauma which Mark suffers could be lazy shorthand, but instead he comes across as a lonely, fractured young man who struggles with himself, something reinforced by the distant, broken quality of his slight Austrian accent.
The film explores the relationship between love and fear, with Mark wavering between the two as he is caught between the need to complete his documentary and the affections bestowed on him by Helen. We feel so close to Mark that when his doom approaches, we are willing to ignore or forgive his gruesome actions if it would save or redeem him. This is the final savage trick of Peeping Tom which reinforces our position as voyeurs; not only are we drawn to gaze, we impose emotion on people's actions so that even the truly terrifying can seem tragic.
Peeping Tom is a barnstorming masterpiece which ranks alongside The Red Shoes as Powell's finest achievement. Its psychological complexity and cerebral treatment of its themes are perfectly complimented by Powell's direction, and the whole project is enhanced by Otto Heller's luridly beautiful visuals. It is still as fresh, shocking and truly terrifying as it was over 50 years ago, and in its level of emotional engagement - say it quietly - it's a better film than Psycho. In short, it is compelling, chilling and nothing less than essential viewing.
In selecting the greatest high school movie of all time, there are a number of different 'schools' from which to choose. We have the light-hearted nostalgia of The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Off; the awkward indie spirit of Napoleon Dynamite and Grosse Point Blank; the adolescent gross-out of Porky's and American Pie; and the twisted one-upmanship of Carrie and Heathers.
But while all of these entries are valid and have their own merits (even Porky's), they cannot hold a candle to the overall winner: a film which combines earthy black comedy with artistic flights of fantasy, and savage satire of the establishment with personal quandaries about sex, servitude, romance and rebellion. And, as a bonus, it is the film which launched the career of Malcolm McDowell. The film is If...., the director is Lindsay Anderson, and the result is one of the greatest films of the 1960s.
If.... might seem an odd choice for the greatest ever high school film when we consider the kind of schooling on which it focuses. Set in the fictional College School deep in the conservative heartlands of 1960s England, it explores the kind of education and school system which the vast majority of us will never have to endure. It's the kind of school that would serve as an ideal backdrop for a story like Goodbye Mr. Chips or The Browning Version: while capable of producing fine drama, it doesn't smack of rebellion, let alone revolution.
Fortunately, If.... has both qualities in spades, and it captures all the essential elements of adolescence that have been replicated in often putrid detail by its American progeny. It manages to be aware of the intelligence and sophistication of public school while overtly and sarcastically mocking everything it stands for. The very title is an act of thinly-veiled defiance: If... is a famous poem by the staunchly patriotic Rudyard Kipling, with the extra '.' in the ellipsis being an impudent revision of the way of life it encapsulates. The final scenes in particular give new meaning to the poem's penultimate line: "Yours is the earth, and everything that's in it."
Like many films of the counter-cultural period, If.... depicts the relationship between the older and younger generations as being one of bitter opposition. The older generation, embodied by the masters, parents and prefects, are entrenched in the pre-war, imperial mindset with an emphasis on serving one's country and knowing one's place. The younger boys, including Mick Travis, feel no attachment to these values, regarding them as irrelevant, out-dated, stuffy and dull.
But while there is this broad divide in outlooks between the generations, there are instances of crossover on both sides. Some of the teachers harbour relatively subversive thoughts and attempt to convey them, such as Graham Crowden's history teacher who cycles right into the classroom and then proceeds to outline his own peculiar take on key historical events. The headmaster is less successful in this, calling Travis into his office and repeating the phrase "I understand" to a point of desperation.
Just as not all of the teachers are straightforwardly stuffy and backward, so not all the students in If.... are didactic flag-wavers. The students who rebel are not politically motivated like their counterparts in Zabriskie Point; in the words of the headmaster, "You're not rebels. That would be too easy." Travis may have posters of Lenin and Che Guevara on his wall, but his monologues are more concerned with the beauty of freedom, and the need to live a truly meaningful and joyous life even in the shadow of a possible nuclear holocaust. He rejects and flouts all forms of authority, despising the very essence of anything which inhibits him from free expression and the passionate act of being himself.
One aspect of free expression on which If.... focuses is sexual liberation. In one of the film's more surreal segments, Travis and one of his friends steal a motorbike and drive some distance to a roadside café. Once there, they order coffee, Travis plays some classical music on the jukebox and, without any notice or questions asked, begins an affair with the waitress. In other section, a young boy spots Wallace training on the parallel bars, and they develop a homoerotic relationship. Anderson may not be encouraging free love in the now-clichéd manner of hippie movies, but he uses these scenes to reinforce his point about needing a society shaped by the people, rather than the other way around.
If.... is Anderson's stand against the traditional values of England - everything from duty and propriety to the barmy traditions of private clubs. The film is part of his continued attempt to destroy the post-war malaise of British cinema, just as his political heroes had tried to destroy it through guns and social democracy. Throughout the film we see bastions of the community attempting to drill their students with values of 'honour', 'duty' and 'fighting the good fight', only for these ideas to crumble into absurdity and insignificance when applied.
Two examples perfectly illustrate this point. The first comes at the three-quarter mark, where the chaplain gives a sermon on fighting for Christ, and how desertion or failure to fulfil duty is the greatest and most unforgivable of sins. But less than ten minutes later, he is cornered by Malcolm McDowell during the war games and becomes a quivering coward, terrified by the prospect of there being real bullets in Travis' gun. At the end of the film a visiting General gives a speech about how "the cynics" have nothing to replace the old values which they criticise. But what starts as convincing soon descends into the absurd: he speaks about discipline, only for his public to stumble into the aisles in blind panic while the stage beneath him goes up in flames.
The film is built around the central performance of Malcolm McDowell, who is little short of magnificent. It's a very close rival for his work in A Clockwork Orange, which could be described as the more cynical cousin of this film. Stanley Kubrick and Lindsay Anderson may direct in totally different ways, but they both use McDowell superbly, utilising those huge, puppy-dog eyes, perfect hair, curled lips and upstart demeanour. And then there is the voice, which is note-perfect when delivering his poetic musings and savage put-downs to the uptight prefects.
There is a further comparison with Kubrick in the idea of discipline and degradation being used by the establishment in a manner which ultimately destroys it. The brutal scene of Travis being caned repeatedly in the gym is like an artier, moodier version of the boot camp scenes in Full Metal Jacket. Travis may not take on the psychotic quality of Private Pile, but his experience of brutality makes him more determined than ever to fight against the system and reclaim his identity.
The visuals of If.... are distinctive in their combination of colour and monochrome cinematography. When the film was first released, people read into the black-and-white sections as having some deeper artistic meaning, with a variety of theories being posited. In fact, these sections exist for the simple reason that Anderson ran out of money - or, as in the chapels scenes, it was quicker and easier to light for monochrome on a tight production schedule. Whichever is the more true, the film benefits from its unique look - it's a happy accident which reinforces the artistic and personal tone even if it doesn't bring much in the way of meaning.
If.... remains as incendiary and as perfectly formed as it was over 40 years ago. Anderson's masterful yet understated direction gifts us with a series of properly believable performances, and his balanced of the natural and the surreal is effortless, particularly in the final shootout. While the revolutionary zeal and optimism surrounding it have long since faded, the film remains both a truthful product of its time and a work of timeless genius. It is an extraordinary piece of British cinema and is essential viewing.
Whistle Down the Wind is a truly extraordinary film. Bryan Forbes' debut feature is a gut-wrenching, darkly comic allegory which takes one of history's most spectacular events and retells it in the most bittersweet of circumstances. It foreshadows both the gritty, compelling realism of Ken Loach and other great Christian allegories such as Being There and The Green Mile. Most of all, it's a fantastic commentary on childhood, belief and the erosion of both by the grim realities of the adult world.
It is remarkable that a film about some of the most complex aspects of theology should be so accessible and welcoming to the casual viewer. The film's treatment of its biblical subject matter is neither bald nor manipulative; it never glosses over important questions, nor does it ever make a deliberate tug on the heartstrings of its audience. Every shred of emotion we have for Kathy, Blakey and the rest is completely genuine, and in its third act the film builds to a breathless final scene, in which we are completely in the shoes of the central character.
In a number of ways, this is the opposite of The Railway Children, both as a novel and later as film. Where The Railway Children is essentially light, airy and carefree, with only moments of real danger, Whistle Down the Wind feels strict and repressive. Arthur Ibbetson's brooding cinematography paints the Lancashire countryside as somewhere stark and unforgiving; the early scenes of Kathy and Charles walking over the hills are closer to the 'dance of death' at the end of The Seventh Seal than to Jenny Agutter's pleasant frolicking along the railway lines. Shooting in black-and-white gives the film a Bergman-esque sense of pathos, particularly towards the end where Kathy's world virtually comes apart.
The film makes it clear very early on that it is a Biblical allegory, reinterpreting several key passages from the Gospels. The score riffs on the carol 'We Three Kings' and the scene of the children presenting gifts to Alan Bates in the barn is a clear restaging of the nativity, with Kathy et al as the shepherds and the other children as the Magi. In this version, the "Arabian charm bracelet" and free gift in the comic stand in for gold, frankincense and myrrh, while the story Bates reads from the comic represents either the parables or the Sermon on the Mount. This kind of gesture is present throughout the film, right up to the moment where Bates is searched and holds up his arms like he is being hung on the cross.
Although it restages the story of Jesus from birth to death, the central message of Whistle Down the Wind lies in the middle of Matthew's gospel: "unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." This is not a film which views children as stupid, or gullible, or easily manipulated. If anything they are the opposite, possessing a large amount of common sense and reasoning. This may be structured around something which we as an audience know to be 'untrue', but the children's 'faith' in Blakey is never portrayed as irrational or foolish.
In contrast to the children's openness and willingness to believe, the adults in the film are reluctant to talk about religion, or indeed any moral issues which are outside their own interests. The film does touch on church, Sunday school and the Salvation Army, but all the scenes directly involving these see the adults skirting the issues, dodging the difficult questions and worrying instead about trivial matters like lead and guttering. In the scene in the café between Kathy and the vicar (who can't even remember her name), his answer to her question quickly gets off topic and becomes an irrelevant sermon. The bully is the oldest of the children and the most prominent sceptic in the group, to the point at which he slaps Kathy when she first tells him the news. He is already on his way to adulthood, settling for dark monotony over other-worldly hope.
The idea that the film puts across so brilliantly is very similar to that hinted at in Being There: namely that if Jesus were to return to earth, we would not recognise or accept Him. This is a world which clings onto religion and traditional order, and in doing so has turned its back on the childlike nature of faith, the only thing which a relationship with Jesus requires. The adults in the film are so wrapped up in their own affairs, so sure of their own convictions and traditions, that they are unable to even accept for a moment the possibility that Kathy is telling the truth.
This meaty subject is well-handed by a subtle script adapted from Mary Hayley Bell's novel. The film revels in the earthiness of its dialogue; it doesn't feel like a pretend version of Lancashire, with the characters as parodies of working-class life. Forbes' direction is notably unfussy, shooting key moments in the most understated way to allow the themes of the dialogue to speak for themselves. The best example of this comes after the death of Charles' kitten, where he and Kathy discuss why things have to die. Rather than make this a confrontation, Forbes shoots it with the camera at their backs as they fling pebbles into the lake. The film treats the deepest philosophical questions on a level playing field with every other issue the characters face, arguing that these questions are just as important and relevant as anything which the adults consider superior.
The bleakness of the characters' predicament is punctuated by a wonderful sense of humour. The film derives its initial comedy from the warm, brutal honesty of the children, largely on the part of Charles who is wonderfully played by Alan Barnes. In an early scene, Kathy expresses doubts about the Bible being true, and Charles spits out the line, "wait 'til Jesus comes and gets you!". Later, after his sister remarks that Jesus can do anything, he asks if the Lord can provide him with a big chocolate cake for his birthday. Gradually the film becomes more pathos-ridden and this outré kind of humour is replaced with a deep, underlying sadness. By the end we are in the same territory as Charlie Chaplin's The Kid, and the only comedic element is a conditionally happy ending.
Hayley Mills' central performance is incredible, being truly naturalistic and yet wise beyond her years. Bernard Lee, most famous for playing M in the James Bond films, is very compelling as the father, who attempts to stamp his authority on the household but is ultimately in the pocket of Auntie Dorothy. And Alan Bates' performance is very good, on a par with his best work in Women in Love.
Whistle Down the Wind is a magnificent piece of British filmmaking, with strong performances and an even stronger script which convey deep questions about life and purpose in the most accessible way. The dialogue is intelligent without being pretentious, the direction is suitably unfussy, and the film is emotionally gripping to the point at which at moves you to tears. Without this, Being There, The Green Mile and Angela's Ashes probably would not have been made. But more than that, it demonstrates the relevance of a story which is so often ignored in today's society. It is a subtle reminder of the power of faith and the need to see the world with the open eyes of a child.
Films about racial prejudice often date very badly. There's no denying the historical significance of something like In The Heat of the Night, but the style in which such a film conveys its message now seems heavy-handed, even while its message remains important. Many films about racial conflict are so much a product of their time that they quickly become historical caricatures. This is true right back to the days of D. W. Griffith, though with Intolerance he could just have been trying too hard.
In contrast to these films, To Kill A Mockingbird has survived largely untarnished for 51 years, with neither changes in film technique nor wider social changes serving to blunt its powerful message or diminish its memorable characters. Through the steady hand of Robert Mulligan and the brilliance of Gregory Peck, Harper Lee's beloved novel is wonderfully realised in a film which is equally graceful, playful and heartbreaking. It remains, with 12 Angry Men, the standard to which all courtroom dramas aspire, and is a genuinely fine piece of drama in its own right.
I've already reviewed two other films based on Pulitzer Prize-winning novels, namely Gone With The Wind and A Place in the Sun. The common observation about these two was that neither film had enough of a story to warrant their respective running times: the ideas were either improperly executed or not that nuanced in the first place. Whether through the superior nature of its source, Mulligan's solid approach or the influence of producer Alan J. Pakula (All The President's Men), To Kill A Mockingbird does not suffer the same fate.
Horton Foote's screenplay is a great adaptation of Lee's novel, retaining all its unique imagery and rich language while ensuring the story is told in the most efficient and visually intriguing way possible. Just the right amount of time is taken in setting up the lives of our young protagonists: we see Atticus and his children Jem and Scout going about their daily lives, setting up the ease and ethics of their existence before the crime conspires to shatter their world. In short, each movement of the story is accorded as much time as is needed and nothing more.
Mulligan's directorial approach is similar in one way to that of Clint Eastwood. Both are at heart steady, nuts-and-bolts directors, interested in getting the job done quickly and telling their given story in the tidiest manner possible. The vast majority of their films tell their stories plainly and logically, and there is very little slack in either the visual or verbal narrative. You'd think that such an approach would dent the subtleties of Lee's book, but in fact it allows them to emerge freely. By being so reluctant to invade stylistically, Mulligan creates a naturalistic environment in which the young actors can produce their great performances.
That being said, Mulligan does benefit from assistance elsewhere in his crew. The film is shot by Russell Harlan, who also shot Blackboard Jungle and Witness for the Prosecution. Not only is he at home with the formal settings of the school and the courthouse, but his lighting choices add real tension to the story, particularly in the shadows and shot choices for Boo Radley's house. The film also benefits from a score by Elmer Bernstein, later known for his collaborations with John Landis. His light, cheery themes beautifully underscore the childlike innocence of the opening act; their absence is conspicuous during the later, darker scenes, which become more effective as a result.
As a result of these creative decisions, To Kill A Mockingbird is much more tense than you might at first presume. Considering its reputation as a lynchpin of American liberalism, you might regard it as a worthy but overly talky drama, full of big speeches about morality but not enough actual character development. But its moral backbone is only part of the film, since it is also the story of a child's innocence being invaded and ravaged by a dark world of prejudice.
One of the great assets of both the book and the film is presenting the action through the eyes of Jem and Scout. Through the early scenes of them playing with Dill, we get to see the world as it appears from their experience, including their own levels of prejudice regarding the children at school. The case that Atticus takes forces them to confront issues about race and injustice long before they are ready or their father would have wanted. We feel both Jem's pain and Scout's heartache at her revelation, in a way that we wouldn't if we saw the film through Atticus' eyes.
As for Atticus himself, it's not hard to see why the AFI ranked him as the greatest movie hero of all time in 2003. Atticus is the embodiment of all the values Western civilisation holds dear: justice, decency, freedom and equality before the law. He is unbending in his belief in the power of law and the rights of man, and unlike the heroes of many westerns he does not carry out these beliefs by morally duplicitous means. Gregory Peck thoroughly deserved his Oscar for a role which feeds off his natural grace and authority; even amongst such a glittering career, it remains his finest performance.
There is a comparison between this film and A Man For All Seasons. Robert Bolt's original play was written two years before this film came out, and both stories revolve around a tragic hero. Both Atticus and Sir Thomas More are idealists struggling in a world which has abandoned said ideals for the sake of short-term satisfaction, be it power, wealth, status or revenge. The courtroom scene in To Kill A Mockingbird wins out, however, being less stagey and needlessly histrionic than Fred Zinnemann's film. Mulligan uses similar techniques to The Paradine Case (which also starred Peck), using low angles to give the characters more authority over proceedings.
To Kill A Mockingbird is a beautifully nuanced examination of prejudice. Rather than needlessly caricature the more red-neck characters, it takes its time to show how ordinary people defy reason, logic, good argument and morality just to satisfy their own convictions. No courtroom drama since has quite captured the heartache of injustice as this film does when Tom Robinson is found guilty despite all the evidence proving his innocence. The long, slow walk that Peck endures, in the presence of all Robinson's supporters, is a heartbreaking image of a man of good faith broken by needless, gutless hatred.
To Kill A Mockingbird is a truly great film which still delivers an emotional punch even after all this time. Despite a few scenes which seem tame or creaky by today's standards, the film as a whole has held up immensely well. Peck's performance, and those of the young children, are beautifully complimented by Foote's deft writing and Mulligan's unfussy hand. It is a classic of its time, and essential viewing in ours.
Whatever else may be true about Roman Polanski, there can be no denying that he makes a damn good thriller. With Repulsion, his first English-language feature, he established many of the techniques and motifs which came to define his career, particularly his unique ability to unnerve an audience while flattering their intelligence. More than 45 years later, it remains one of the most unsettling films of the 1960s, and one of Polanski's best early works.
Repulsion is the first instalment of what would become Polanski's 'Apartment Trilogy', the others being Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant. On top of their common setting, all three films are built around the idea of architecture being able to express, harbour or reflect a given horror. Repulsion is the most straightforward of the trilogy in this respect, insofar as the architecture of the apartment changes and decays along with the mental state of our heroine: plaster cracks and falls off the wall, and the skinned rabbit lies slowly rotting in the living room.
Repulsion owes a big debt to two previous entries in the canon of psychological thrillers. Like Black Narcissus, it deals openly with the issue of sexual repression, and how the introduction of overtly sexual, male forces into a pure and female environment can lead to some form of madness. Carol Ledoux is like a warring hybrid of Sisters Clodagh and Ruth: on the surface she is like the former, pure and disinterested, but her vivid fantasies or nightmares hint towards deeper, murkier desires or fears. And like Psycho, the main character with whom the audience identifies happens to be insane - although quite how insane is left for us to judge.
Like Alfred Hitchcock, Polanski is not content for us to sit back and discuss Carol's madness as if it were entirely academic. Instead he put us through the mill constantly throughout, pulling us headlong further and further into her madness so that by the end we feel like we are lucky to be alive. But unlike a lot of Hitchcock's work, there is no moment of relief, no tidy pay-off that makes us "come out giggling". By the end of Repulsion you feel like you have lived in that apartment and experienced everything that Carol has, and your only response is to sit, near-catatonic with fear, and marvel at what has been created.
The film is anchored by the terrific central performance of Catherine Deneuve, who was only 22 when filming began. Deneuve has the most amazing eyes, which convey the slightest shifts in her mental state. Her right eye follows the opening credits as they dart across the screen in close-up, and there is a recurring shot of one eye hidden in darkness, showing what horror lies beneath such glacial beauty. Deneuve manages to portray a character who is aloof, aimless and very shy while making her constantly intriguing. The men who fall for her may be initially attracted to her physically, but their continued interaction is (seemingly) motivated by an equal desire to understand and study her.
Repulsion is primarily an examination of androphobia, or the fear of men. The cause of Carol's affliction is never entirely established; although the photographs imply she was molested as a child, it is not clear whether the man in the photograph is her father, her uncle or a total stranger. The film raises the question of the motivation behind Carol's exact responses to men, particularly in the case of the murders. Were they simply extreme reactions, the end result of concentrated exposure to her fear? Or is there a more aggressive element of Carol which wants vengeance, and therefore actively pursued these killings?
In the end, however, the exact reason for Carol's mental state is rather secondary. The film is less about the 'twist' contained in the final photograph than about convincingly depicting an individual's descent into madness and paranoia. Polanski succeeds in this by surreally physicalizing the fears of our protagonist, projecting her fears onto her surroundings so that the apartment becomes Carol's own private haunted house.
Repulsion is filled with nightmarish imagery which even out of context has the ability to send shivers down one's spine. Certain moments are played initially for shock value - for instance, the man first appearing in the mirror or the hands bursting through the wall to grope her. But these are accompanied by more subtle touches in the cinematography which point to the film's Freudian undercurrents. The central corridor of the apartment is permanently in shadow, and every time she enters it she is immediately confronted by her fear - whether it's the hands coming out of the walls or finding Ian Hendry shaving in the bathroom.
But what makes such imagery truly disturbing, rather than simply creepy, is the ambiguous response of the central character. Deneuve never shrieks or screams, maintaining some form of dignified façade even as she grows more and more deranged. When she first imagines a man breaking into the flat and forcing himself on her, she is naturally repulsed by it. But the more it happens, the more we entertain the possibility that it is less of a nightmare than a dark fantasy - that in the midst of being terrified she accepts it - or perhaps, in a warped way, she enjoys it.
Because the central character is so conflicted, she gradually ceases to be a reliable narrator. But by the time that has happened, we have grown to trust and empathise with her so much that there can be no escape. The level of claustrophobia Polanski creates is astonishing, and the incidental score by jazz drummer Chico Hamilton keeps things at fever pitch. Occasionally the score drifts a little too close to the work of Bernard Hermann with the constant cymbals resounding, but considering the film's relationship with Psycho such indulgences are kind of appropriate.
This marriage of character conflict and intense music to create unbearable claustrophobia is brilliantly demonstrated in the murder of John Fraser's character. The scene begins with no score and the camera on Deneuve's face as she bashes Fraser's head in, out of shot, with a candlestick. We are not seeing the actual perspective of the killer, but we are seeing her mind-set, which seems calm and considered. Then, after he is dead, the reality of what she has done hits her and the score kicks in to complete the effect. We are still looking at her rather than through her, but we still feel what she feels - and that is really smart filmmaking.
Repulsion could also be construed as the forerunner of Hard Candy and Teeth in its treatment of men as sexual predators. Its male characters are all defined by a desire for satisfaction in the hands of the opposite sex - whether out of love, in the case of John Fraser, or something more cold-hearted as practised by the young men in the bar. The film is a cautionary tale, advising men to think twice if they think they can dominate women just because they appear more vulnerable. Carol's actions in this respect are an extreme and irrational expression of women's desire to be independent, of both men and gender expectations (for instance, cooking and working in a beauty parlour).
Repulsion is an excellent psychological thriller which bewitches, excites and terrifies in equal measure. It isn't quite a masterpiece, being slightly too slow in its opening minutes and with a score with is occasionally over-cranked. But this is more than made up for by the central performances, Polanski's masterful direction and the sheer amount of tension which both parties have managed to ring out of such a simple premise. A watershed moment for Polanski and a real must-see.
When John Landis was being interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live for his new book Monsters at the Movies, he commented that zombies have become the main monsters of the early-21st century. From the re-tooling of Down of the Dead and political, 'infected' movies like 28 Days Later, to spoofs like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, zombies have become the go-to monster for popular horror. Zombies are cheap to create, easy to direct, and can be overladen with all manner of social commentary, or played for all kinds of laughs.
With this in mind, you might think that Night of the Living Dead could not hold up to modern expectations of a zombie movie. George A. Romero's low-budget debut effort, shot entirely in black-and-white, is not as slick or grossly shocking as either its sequels or modern-day equivalents. What it is, however, is a really terrifying, deeply unnerving film, whose substance still rings true and whose scares still deliver even after 44 years.
It's very difficult for us to imagine the kind of outcry Romero's film created the first time round. When it was first released, it played in matinee screenings alongside classic Hollywood horror movies such as James Whale's Frankenstein and Val Newton's The Curse of the Cat-People. Because the MPAA rating system was not in place until a month after it arrived, there were reports of young children going to see a fun old-fashioned horror film and coming out completely traumatised. After much public outcry, with Variety calling it an "unrelieved orgy of sadism", the film was pulled from mainstream theatres, only to find a second, more devoted audience on the midnight movie circuit.
Looking at the film today, its terror derives from two completely different sources. One is the same kind of fear or shock that greeted audiences in 1968, namely the shock of seeing monsters that looked exactly like them, preying upon innocent people and eating human flesh. The other kind comes from the continuing political resonance, with its themes of racism, revolution and the Vietnam War still striking a chord in today's society.
Up to Night of the Living Dead, popular horror had by and large externalised or marginalised its monsters or enemies. The War of the Worlds and Invasion of the Body-Snatchers used alien invasions as a double for communist infiltration, depicting the enemy as something that was totally un-human, something that had to be eradicated rather than understood. Whether they were tripods or pod people, the aliens were so clearly different to our heroic American protagonists that the films were never quite as scary as they could have been.
Romero's film incorporates many classic B-movie elements into its storyline. There is the hapless heroine, the expository radio broadcast, the phone lines being completely down and alien radiation being blamed for what is unfolding. But none of these elements are ever allowed to become the centrepiece, pushing the zombies into the background for the sake of pulpy fun. Romero is too good to let that happen, and instead uses the B-movie riffs as a comfort zone to provide relief from an enemy that is like us in every detail. His "blue collar" monsters come at us head-on, relentlessly questioning our perceptions about our fellow man.
One of the creepiest scenes in Night of the Living Dead, which reinforces this technique, comes in the very first scene. Johnny (Russell Streiner) attempts to wind up Barbara (Judith O'Dea) by playing on her childhood fear of ghosts: he jumps around, pulling hokey faces and hollering: "They're coming to get you, Barbara!". While they are larking around, we see a strange man shambling around in the background; because he looks exactly like them, we assume he's a passing stranger and take no notice. Then, out of nowhere, the stranger attacks Johnny and Barbara: he gets his head smashed in, she runs for cover, and the ordinary has become the terrifying.
The film is on one level a brilliant examination of racism. It tackles the stereotypes associated with black people in American society, showing the tension and prejudice among the characters in a far more effective way than mainstream efforts like In The Heat of the Night. The interactions between Ben (Duane Jones) and Harry (Karl Hardman) belie a continuing distrust between blacks and whites, resulting in the latter's betrayal of the former in favour of base self-interest.
Much of the racial politics of Night of the Living Dead are rooted in the Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend. Both the novel and its 1964 adaptation The Last Man on Earth were big influences on Romero, and while Matheson dismissed the film as "cornball" he bore Romero no ill will. Running through all three works is the theme of protagonists realising their inferior position, letting the old ways pass and submitting to the new order. But while John Neville becomes philosophical about his impending execution, Ben has no such choice. In an appropriately shocking and subversive ending, he survives the zombie onslaught, only to be mistaken for a zombie and is shot in cold blood by a white police officer.
Romero described Night of the Living Dead as a film principally about revolution. The idea of the dead no longer being dead is a huge challenge to the preconceptions of the main characters, with Romero playing for scares what Landis played for laughs in An American Werewolf in London. Less frivolously, the zombies are characterised as an unstoppable wave, a counter-culture of death descending on, quite literally, the old way of life. The traditional family unit is destroyed, first by Barbara and Johnny being separated and then the young daughter becoming undead. The creepy scene of the child killing its mother reflects both the rise of the young generation and the erosion of family bonds in favour of pure greed.
Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a few years later, Night of the Living Dead also touches on the impact of the Vietnam War. In this interpretation the zombies become the brain-dead soldiers returning home in their droves, being unable to reintegrate into polite society to the point where normal citizens feel the need to isolate themselves entirely and ignore the problem. Alternatively, they are the embodiment of war guilt, representing all the 'gooks' on the consciences of American troops, refusing to go away and tormenting the Americans to the point where they literally lose their minds.
What makes Night of the Living Dead so effective as a horror movie is how invasive it is. By confining the action to a few rooms, Romero achieves a natural sense of claustrophobia which is exacerbated by the intimate and intrusive camerawork. The recurring images of hands clawing through the barricades are akin to the hallucinations in Repulsion, in which Catherine Deneuve imagines thousands of male hands reaching out along a corridor to grope her. In both films the threat is breaking in rather than exploding out; the threat is endemic and yet is being concentrated in a manner which becomes thrillingly unbearable.
The performances in Night of the Living Dead are the key to cementing the level of tension achieved by both camerawork and allegory. Duane Jones and Judith O'Dea improvised much of their dialogue, adding another layer of chilling realism to an already unsettling picture. Karl Hardman's character may be the loudest and brashest in the building, but his performance is one of subtle shifts and gestures which perfectly convey his cowardice and frustration. But it's not just the heroes who are well-fleshed out. The zombies seem to take on personalities of their own, with make-up supervisor Marilyn Eastman making the best of the low-budget effects on offer.
Night of the Living Dead remains a huge horror milestone and as cracking a debut feature as you could possibly hope for. While its dialogue is occasionally repetitive and its female characters are never properly fleshed out, its political and social significance remains writ large and it can still scare every bit as well as its gorier cousins. Romero's later zombie movies would push the boundaries of what could be shown on screen, but if pure and simple terror is what you're after, the original is still the best.
The Odd Couple is a comedy which has stood the test of time and survived all attempts made on its longevity, from its endless inferior imitators to its own god-awful sequel. Neil Simon's script, brought to the screen by Gene Saks, is still as razor-sharp as went it debuted on Broadway, and while not quite everything has translated smoothly to the big screen, it remains a yardstick against which modern comedies should be measured.
When adapting a play for the big screen, one needs to create the impression of a world which is expansive. The spacial limitations that come from staging a play are not an immediate problem when making a film: you can't knock through walls in a theatre, but you can always build a bigger set.
If The Odd Couple has a flaw, it is that portions of it still feel stagey, and the ways in which it attempts to get around this are not entirely satisfactory. Rather than show every last angle of Oscar's flat, as would have been impossible on Broadway, Saks resorts to adding in a lot of extra scenes which may play well as set-pieces but feel disconnected and unnecessary. The screenplay, adapted by Simon himself, has been plumped full of travelogue scenes, ranging from Felix's botched suicide attempts to the guys driving around in Murray's car looking for him. As with Shadowlands, these scenes which are designed to broaden out the play and make the world expansive only serve to highlight how theatrical the finished product still feels.
But like Shadowlands, it isn't hard to get beyond or forgive the stagey qualities of The Odd Couple once we have gotten on board with the characters and begun to laugh (or cry). And in one aspect, the limited space and use of long takes works to the advantage of the performers. Much of the original script requires characters to talk over each other or react quickly to changes in the others' postures. Although the actors have the scripts learnt in their heads, they approach every scene knowing that the word "cut!" could be at least two minutes away. This keeps the energy up and convinces us that these characters could exist beyond the occasional edit.
This is particularly recognisable in the central performances, which blend together in perfect (dis)harmony from the outset. Walter Matthau, who had played the character on Broadway, is the perfect middle-aged slouch. He has charm, intellect and is loyal to his friends, but is incapable of running his own life, shambling around his spacious apartment like he has worn the same clothes all his life. Jack Lemmon, who steps into the shoes of Art Carney, really taps into the character's well-meaning up-tightness and self-hating neurosis. The scene of him clearing his ears in the diner is a perfect match of dry anxiety and belly laughs that would have made Woody Allen proud.
When The Social Network was deservedly garlanding awards attention, one aspect which was widely praised was Aaron Sorkin's script; it moved through the creation of Facebook at a blistering pace, conveying both the natural impatience of the characters and the ruthlessness of the world in which they exist. But the origins of Sorkin's rapid-fire screenplay can be found in Simon, whose characters have an equally large amount to say and are using language as a means of achieving political dominance, using every sentence to compete for space. And like The Social Network, it takes a few minutes for us to tune in and get used to the pace of the dialogue.
But while The Social Network's script is designed to embody and convey impatience and impulsiveness, The Odd Couple is all about awkwardness and neurosis. On its simplest level it is the epitomic buddy movie, the film to which we owe everything from Lethal Weapon to Mississippi Burning. Popular culture has so readily embraced the archetypes of Felix and Oscar, the two opposites who don't attract but have to get along, that there almost isn't any point repeating the reasons for their appeal. Suffice to say, the combination works, as insight and as entertainment.
Dig a little deeper, and the film becomes a comedy about catharsis and the difficulties of accepting the end of a relationship. Felix and Oscar have completely different approaches to the women in their lives, whether their ex-wives or their potential future brides in the shape of the Pigeon sisters. Felix finds it hard to let go of Frances even when she wants to repaint his room just after he's left: because so much of his life is based around things being beautiful on the surface, it is completely anathema that anyone should desert him, especially when, in his mind, he has done nothing wrong.
Oscar, on the other hand, hates even talking to Blanche, letting along paying her alimony. He wisecracks about her during the opening game, remarking that "Poland could live for a year on what my kids leave over for lunch!". His attitude towards woman is strictly one of personal interest; he invites the Pigeons over with the sole intention of bedding them. But as the film rolls on both characters pick up on each other's traits, learning to atone for their past mistakes on the one hand and to seize upon the various new chances of romance on the other.
Within this exploration of two men's romantic relationships with women, there is also a more nuanced examination of platonic love. The Odd Couple is as much about men's desperate desire for love as it is about their seemingly inability to be emotional or discuss their problems with other men. Felix finds it easy to open up to the sisters about how much he misses his wife, but when he tries to talk to Oscar about it, he feigns disinterest. Likewise Oscar desperately tries to convey his happiness to Felix when the girls invite them back, but Felix interprets it as selfish sarcasm. These scenes are expertly staged so that they simultaneously make you laugh and break your heart.
The Odd Couple also has elements of class struggle about it. In amongst the various complaints about Felix disinfecting the playing cards and insisting upon coasters, there is an undercurrent of snobbery on the part of Felix and a bitter reaction on the past of Oscar. Felix is richer than Oscar and has an emphasis on standards which he likes to make clear whenever possible. After the meatloaf has burned, he spits out the line that "people like you don't appreciate good cooking and that's why they eat TV dinners!". Oscar meanwhile is an ordinary white-collar guy who loves his job but has little in the way of ambition. He approaches Felix's standards in the same way as he approaches his cleaning: constant irritation, boiling over into anger and ending up as outright resentment.
But even if you don't want to read into all these undercurrents, The Odd Couple still works as a simple comedy. The laughs are frequent and consistent, drawing subtly on the traditions of farce and comedies of manners to produce two hours' worth of severe chuckling. The smooth jazz score which punctuates the film gives certain sections the feeling of a silent movie, while the long awkward silences in the second act are like a lighter, less absurdist variant on the work of Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter. There's something for absolutely everyone, whether you pick up all the period details or not.
With the exception of its occasional theatricality, The Odd Couple is a virtually perfect comedy. It's a real hum-dinger which still hits every note right on over 40 years after its release, and though the times have moved on it hasn't lost any of its subtle edge. Its personalities and conversations remain charming and familiar, and the performances are career high-points for all involved. A real must-see comedy.
In the immediate post-war period, British cinema lost a lot of the sparkle and sense of adventure which it had previously embodied. With Alfred Hitchcock now permanently based in America and Powell and Pressburger past their prime, cinema became increasingly populated by American melodramas, jingoistic war films and ropey comedies. It would take something truly momentous to shake cinema out of this stupor: that something was the British New Wave.
Beginning with John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, the New Wave sought to reinvigorate film and theatre, tackling controversial subjects head on and presenting a view of the working classes which was the very opposite of patronising or parochial. In time the genre, with its left-wing undercurrents and subtle emphasis on counter-culture, would come to be epitomised by Lindsay Anderson, the director of If.... and This Sporting Life. But well before the latter entered production, Anderson's colleague Karel Reisz was blazing the cinematic trail with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
Based upon the novel by Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a rich and respectful work which depicts the life of the working man in Nottingham in a completely uncompromising way. Reisz' background in documentary filmmaking makes him a naturally understated director. His camera is always an observer, sitting passively in the corner; it never flinches or mitigates, and it makes no apologies for what occurs on screen.
Not only does this approach make the action more realistic, but it helps to convey the message of the film. It allows the characters to speak for themselves, to create and form their own voices and identities, rather than having to conform either to the conventions of Hollywood or to social attitudes of what is considered 'proper'. The central line of the film comes towards the end from Albert Finney: "whatever people say I am, that's what I'm not", from which we get the title of The Arctic Monkeys' debut album.
The visuals in Saturday Night reflect this desire for the characters rather than the director to do the talking. The film is shot by Freddie Francis, who also shot The Elephant Man and would work with Reisz again on The French Lieutenant's Woman. His choice of angles is simple but effective and he never attempts to play up the emotion of a scene by resorting to thriller tropes in the manner of Hitchcock or surreal, dreamlike shifts in the manner of Michael Powell. There are moments of visual exuberance - for instance, the blurring of the footage at the fairground to convey Arthur's disorientation - but these are only used as occasional devices.
Shooting in black-and-white, whether for artistic or budgetary reasons, always seems to give a film a sense of gravitas and ruggedness, something which was comparatively lacking in Technicolor efforts from the same time. Francis' cinematography and Reisz' direction show up unashamedly all the rough edges of working life, from the thundering monotony of the factories to the grimy back streets and beer-drenched pubs. There is an underlying respect for what they document, but they do not glamorise working life to the point of parody, in the manner of Sergei Eisenstein. This might help to explain why the film was awarded an 'X' certificate when first released (it has since been downgraded to a PG).
This ruggedness and gravitas is never more noticeable than in the performance of Albert Finney. In only his second film role, he inhabits Arthur Seaton, creating a complex and contradictory character that we spend the entire film trying to figure out. He is anti-heroic, and largely amoral save when it comes to his own skin. In certain scenes he is borderline sociopathic, like when he takes pot shots at a nosey neighbour with an air rifle. But he remains compelling in his capability to love, to think beyond what we expect of him, and - on occasion - to do the right thing.
The most interesting moments of the film, which lift it out of the clichés of what would become kitchen-sink, see Arthur and his colleagues passing the time at weekends fishing or drinking, and discussing what the point of their lives might be. Arthur makes passing comments about a life beyond this, saying that he doesn't want to get married until he feels ready. His angry voiceovers about the factory and wayward relationships with women reflect a restless attitude towards the limits of the world put before him. He knows what he doesn't want, but can't quite communicate anything beyond that.
This desire to communicate creates an emotional involvement with Arthur which makes the story gripping and engrossing. Like most kitchen-sink dramas the actual plot is quite slim, and has a number of similarities to A Place in the Sun - the central one being a male protagonist who is torn between two women, and who is threatened with ruin when one of them falls pregnant. But Saturday Night rejects the melodramatic tone of that film, just as Arthur remarks upon living the cinema that he always knew where the film was going.
In A Place in the Sun, like so many melodramas, the characters are so clearly drawn that you knew where things were going after about fifteen minutes: Montgomery Clift is bound to fail and make the wrong choices, because that is the archetype into which he fits. In Saturday Night, there are no such guarantees and no stock ending to dampen the mood. Not only do the twists and turns feel more realistic, they carry a greater weight because the various parties do not have to respond in a manner predetermined by genre. Because Arthur is so conflicted, we don't know what choice he will make and therefore there is no assurance that he will emerge intact.
The film deserves further plaudits for sticking to its guns in depicting the darker elements of urban life. It's one thing to go for realism when things are rosy for the protagonists; it's quite another to follow through with this and risk the censors' wrath in the process. The film is quite happy to linger on the scenes between Arthur and Doreen, but it is equally candid in the fight between Arthur and the squaddies which leaves the former near-dead. The ending itself is quite ambiguous, as Arthur surveys the housing developments and wonders whether he can change even as the landscape changes around him.
If there is a flaw with Saturday Night, it is purely a question of scope. Apart from little details that have dated and any resounding prejudiced surrounding the now-ripe genre of kitchen-sink, the big problem with the film is that it is a little too self-contained. While it captures this particular part of Nottingham exceedingly well, it doesn't have quite the same general reach as Anderson's work - it doesn't reach out beyond its tight-knit community in the manner of This Sporting Life.
In spite of this problem, which has prevented it from ageing quite so well, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning remains an important work in British cinema. In the long-term its realistic treatment of ordinary life and uncompromising storylines can be seen in everything from Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to the more recent work of Lynn Ramsey and Andrea Arnold. Reisz directs beautifully, bringing Sillitoe's novel and screenplay to life through a series of refreshing performances, resulting in a very fine piece of work.
One of the longest arguments in horror fiction and filmmaking is over a very simple question: to show, or not to show? The novelist and director Clive Barker one said of monster movies: "I hate that school of filmmaking where for the first hour you see a foot, for the second hour you see a hand, and then you finally see the monster for five seconds before it gets blown up by an atom bomb."
For those too squeamish to throw in their lot with Barker, or his partners-in-slime David Cronenberg and John Carpenter, The Haunting is Exhibit One in the case of withholding the monster to produce terror. Along with close counterpart The Innocents, it has become the Bible of the modern cinematic ghost story, whose influence can be seen in everything from Alien to The Others. Though not a masterpiece by any standards, it remains essential viewing for any horror fan.
In both its story and its production, The Haunting comes from very deep-rooted stock. The haunted house movie had been around in some form for over 40 years, and in the 1940s the genre produced such classics as The Uninvited and The Canterville Ghost, one of the big influences on Tim Burton's Beetlejuice. Robert Wise, the film's director, came from a background in low-budget horror, having helmed such titles as The Body-Snatcher and The Curse of the Cat-People.
But the first success of The Haunting is its departure from both the increasingly comedic tone of the haunted house movie and the ultra-low budget look pioneered by Wise's benefactor Val Lewton. Whereas the spooks in The Canterville Ghost were included primarily for comedy, the ghostly forces present in The Haunting are inherently malevolent towards the inhabitants of Hill House. The impressive exterior shots (of Ettington Hall in Stratford-upon-Avon) situate the story in the serious end of gothic fiction, being reminiscent of the wide shots in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca.
The visuals of The Haunting are very restrained, and are well-complimented by the score by classical composer Humphrey Searle. Wise shot the exterior scenes of Hill House on infra-red film to create a grainy, amorphous look for the stones and give the impression of an ancient monster lurking within. His composition is very good, choosing his angles and edits very carefully to wring the most tension you could out of a door slamming or heavy footsteps on a wooden landing.
Like most great ghost stories, the central dilemma of The Haunting surrounds whether what we are seeing is reality or a particular kind of insanity: in other words, are there ghosts, or is it all in the mind of Nell? The lengthy voiceover in the early section of the film makes the character naturally unsettling, not simply because she is sensitive but because the tone of our thoughts gives the impression of her being at least partially mentally unhinged.
Though it seems obvious to point out, The Haunting was a huge influence on The Shining. But beyond Stanley Kubrick's general intention to put his own stamp on the classic ghost story, there are whole scenes in The Shining which either pastiche The Haunting or lift directly from it. Compare the sequence of Jack Nicholson driving his family to the Overlook Hotel with Nell's long drive to Hill House. Both Nell and Jack Torrance have a frenzied quality behind the wheel, as if both know that they are leading themselves, their loved ones and the audience to certain doom - and though Torrance shows it more, both are somehow excited by it.
On a thematic level, The Haunting is about humans' attempts to rationalise the supernatural - to paraphrase Dr. Markway, to give a name to what we don't understand, even if the name is meaningless. The desire to prove the existence of the supernatural through science is found throughout mediaeval and early modern philosophy, with thinkers as varied as Thomas Aquinas and Rene Descartes believing that the scientific method could reveal the essence or nature of God. The Haunting is the latest chapter in this long line of inquiry, and as with Aquinas and Descartes, its findings are decidedly ambiguous and inconclusive.
Subsequent ghost stories like The Orphanage have explored the link between science and the supernatural from a technical point of view - for instance, by showing the movements of a medium on infra-red cameras. But despite the scientific intentions of Dr. Markway, there is precious little cold science in The Haunting. Markway enters the house with purely rational intentions, seeking to objectively study, record and observe rather than pass judgement or live in fear. But as the nights wear on, the house rebels against his attempts to impose order, until he concludes that the only sensible thing to do is to burn Hill House to the ground.
Much of the success of The Haunting lies in its ability to make us see things which aren't necessarily there. There is a comparison with Repulsion in the way that the architecture of Hill House seems to embody some sinister force, ever-present and ever-threatening. Wise is no Roman Polanski, but he does manage a couple of good tricks, making us see faces in the wallpaper, eyes in the window of the tower, and something deeply sinister in the blank expression of the marble statues.
As with The Shining, the terror of The Haunting comes from the fact that so little is explained. There's nothing on the level of the man in the bear suit or Jack Torrance's appearance in the photograph, but we are still left with uncertainty as to whether or not Hill House was haunted, or whether we have just spent two hours in the midst of a deranged mind. Julie Harris gives a really great performance which is convincing and engaging even in the moments where she is bouncing off the walls.
The flaws with The Haunting lie in aspects of it which are too close to the riper end of studio horror. In the midst of several really good scares, there are numerous shots of characters running into mirrors or being scared by their reflections, things which feel silly or cheesy within the context of the story. Some of the special effects are creaky even for the day; we can see the wires pulling down the mirror on the mantelpiece, and when one character falls down the stairs in the prologue, it looks stunted and over-choreographed.
Elsewhere the film resorts in certain small ways to cliché, deriving a couple of jumps or scared from devices which just don't cut the mustard. The introduction of Markway's wife, played by Lois 'Moneypenny' Maxwell, is largely unnecessary - especially when she randomly appears in the attic like the mad first wife of Lord Rochester in Jane Eyre (which in turn inspired Rebecca). The opening prologue, whilst being deliberately hackneyed, almost overcooks things from the off, and it's only through a speedy introduction to Markway's plan that we choose to overlook it.
The Haunting remains a scary and significant horror movie which still holds up to some degree even after nearly 50 years. Its inventive take on the haunted house motif is complemented by Wise's solid direction and a series of good performances (including an unrecognisable Valentine Dyall as Mr. Dudley). It's dated and cheesy in places, and has long been surpassed by The Shining and its successors. But as a yardstick against which ghostly movies should be measured, it still has the power to spook.