Picking Stanley Kubrick's greatest film is like trying to choose between a series of perfectly formed diamonds. Every time you revisit one of his films, in whichever order and context, you gravitate towards that offering as a masterpiece - only to change your mind having seen the next one. Such is the master's skill in almost every genre that it is hard to pick one which either epitomises said skill or accurately represents his oeuvre.
But when push comes to shove for this reviewer, it isn't such a tough decision. For all the undeniable brilliance of Dr. Strangelove or Full Metal Jacket, the out-and-out winner is A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick's adaptation of Anthony Burgess' novel is unparalleled in its time and ours, as a literary adaptation and in science fiction. It's been called everything from the first punk movie (Steven Spielberg) to right-wing propaganda (Roger Ebert), and is still as shocking, disturbing and satirically sharp as it was more than 40 years ago. Above all, it's a masterpiece of storytelling, substance and pure filmmaking, with Kubrick at the very peak of his powers.
If asked to sum up A Clockwork Orange in one word, the only one that would suffice is mesmerising. Watching Kubrick's film is a truly hypnotic experience: from the first haunting chord in the opening titles, we are pulled into the film as if in a trance, forgetting about any world that may exist outside of it. The first shot of Malcolm McDowell, staring at us with his head slightly down, is akin to that of a hypnotist as he sends his patient into a state of complete submission. Once under Kubrick's spell, it is physically impossible to look away.
The first key ingredient to this mesmerism is the soundtrack. Written by Walter (later Wendy) Carlos, who worked with Kubrick again on The Shining, it blends classical and electronic music to stunning effect. The dark, haunting synthesisers at the beginning serve as a murky counterpoint to the jolly and uplifting renditions of Beethoven, both in traditional orchestral recordings and the jazzy re-workings on harpsichord. The score riffs ironically on various military themes, which works particularly well during the Ludovico sequences.
Much like Blade Runner more than a decade later, the visual world of A Clockwork Orange is conceived as the future that might result if certain aspects of our present are extrapolated. With Ridley Scott's film, it is the threat of overpopulation, the environmental problems that result, the intensification of social hierarchies and the loss of humanity in a world dominated by machines. With Kubrick, it is the alienation of youth, the dehumanisation of mankind, and most chillingly the acceptance of the latter as a form of punishment or control.
Like all great dystopian science fiction, what matters is not the surface resemblance, but the reflection of underlying moral and social problems. It doesn't matter that young thugs now wear tracksuits and Burberry rather than jockstraps and bowler hats, just as Blade Runner isn't rendered irrelevant by the current absence of flying cars. The moral questions raised in this film are still controversial, and our society is no more enlightened or mature in its conceptions of justice, freedom or possible punishments.
While Kubrick's films have always been open to multiple interpretations, there are three general perspectives on A Clockwork Orange. The first sees it as a conservative work about youth, rebellion and the counter-culture. The film is either a reaction to the empowerment of young people, depicting them in entirely negative ways, or a call to arms of said young people which is darker, edgier and nastier than its hippie predecessors. Both views accuse the film of glorifying violence, with Roger Ebert calling it "a paranoid right-wing fantasy masquerading as an Orwellian warning". Whatever the knee-jerk appeal of this view, it is, like Ebert, well wide of the mark.
The second interpretation, which carries more weight, sees the film is a warning against state power, and how the use of reconditioning can undermine individual freedom to such a point that the whole notion becomes irrelevant. The prominence of socialist architecture in the film, such as concrete tunnels and high-rise flats, indicate a society emerging from failed social engineering, with a rise in "the old ultra-violence" being part of the fallout. This theory is consolidated in the use of nadsat, the slang language invented by Burgess which is a mixture of English and Russian, which in turn gives the film an even more unique and timeless feel.
Throughout his career Kubrick was fascinated by the social and political mechanisms which conspired to dehumanise and imprison individuals. Dr. Strangelove explored the absurdity of Mutually Assured Destruction, in which nuclear deterrents put at greater risk the very people they were designed to protect. In Full Metal Jacket he explored the techniques by which humans are turned into killing machines, and how said machines can so often turn on their masters. A Clockwork Orange is the most subversive of these examinations, using a guilty, twisted and depraved protagonist to reinforce the importance of choice and free will.
Having undergone the Ludovico Technique, Alex becomes the clockwork orange of Burgess' title: fleshy on the outside, but fatally mechanical on the inside. He is incapable of crime, but also incapable of other human actions such as self-defence and appreciation of music. In order to prevent him from threatening society, the state have destroyed Alex's self. He contemplates suicide for the simple reason that he cannot choose whether to be good or bad.
This brings us on the third and most radical interpretation. Where both the previous views argue over which party is the moral one, this school holds that morality has nothing to do with it. In this relativistic, almost Foucauldian interpretation, all the relationships within the film are expressions of power, in which notions of right and wrong are invoked only to show who holds power over whom. The prison service, the Catholic priests, the doctors and Alex's droogs are all but sources of discourse, wrestling endlessly for the right to set the rules.
The force which Alex exerts (beating up gangs and beggars) is counterpointed by the mental and psychological forces exerted on him, from being spat on in custody to near-drowning by his former droogs. Kubrick went on record as saying that the Minister and the radical writer differ "only in their dogma", with both wanting to exert power over Alex and through him control the opinions and actions of the public. The film explores how certain human acts, such as sex, have incurred double standards in favour of the rich and intellectual. Where Alex's conception of sex as "a bit of the old in-out" is criminalised, the powers-that-be have no problem with doctors having it off in hospital, or the cat-lady's phallic sculptures.
Whichever interpretation one leans towards, there is no denying A Clockwork Orange's power as a black comedy. The 'Singing In The Rain' sequence is perfectly executed, so that it shocks the first time round but then draws you in on the joke. Whether it's Alex's deranged social worker, the fraught dinner table talk with Patrick Magee, or Alex's ramblings in the hospital, it is damned impossible not to erupt into laughter. But like Dr. Strangelove, it is laughter laced with fear and deep discomfort, lest any part of what we see become reality.
It is equally impossible to talk about A Clockwork Orange without mentioning Malcolm McDowell. Having excelled in Lindsay Anderson's If...., he was the natural choice for the part, and even without his immense reputation he is simply perfect for every second he is on screen. His snarling, boyish looks, precocious posture and fabulous voice are all immaculate, and once you have seen him in that iconic costume, no-one else can ever carry it off.
Kubrick's direction in A Clockwork Orange is superb, both in its technical invention and its brilliant storytelling. He was often accused of being cold and clinical, being more interested in ideas than the human beings who embodied them. But so many of the film's high points are moments where the technical skill combines with deep connections to humanity. A good example comes in the lakeside scene, where Alex beats up his droogs in slow motion. This, coupled with dolly shots and close-ups, exaggerates the expressions of the characters and pulls you right into their pain, anguish and triumph.
A Clockwork Orange is the greatest film of the 1970s and the high point of Kubrick's career. It mesmerises from start to finish, flooding us with style and substance, and reinventing science fiction as it goes along. Malcolm McDowell is nothing short of stunning in the lead role, and the film is a good example of star and director working in harmony at the top of the respective games. In the end it is impossible to summarise all its glories in such a short space. Suffice to say, it ranks only behind Blade Runner as the greatest film of all time.
It?s almost impossible to undersell the importance of Alien, both as a film in general and as a contribution to both science fiction and horror. It introduced mainstream audiences to Ridley Scott, one of the greatest directors of the last forty years. It proved that science fiction filmmaking could still be rooted in ideas and metaphors at a time when the likes of Star Wars were shifting the genre towards pure entertainment. And it scared the living daylights out of a generation of filmgoers, something which it still does more than thirty years on.
Just as Blade Runner was both futuristic and nostalgic, drawing on and updating the conventions of film noir, so Alien is on one level a harmony between two separate schools of horror. On the one hand, it is a haunted house movie, based on a premise which stretches back to the 1920s: a building harbours an evil presence or creature, which bears ill will to the people inside. On the other hand, it draws on the slasher genre pioneered by Black Christmas and Hallowe?en, in which a group of people are picked off one by one by an evil force, who then meets its match in the shape of the ?final girl? as an avenging angel.
What Alien manages in one full swoop is to solve the central problem of both these genres by a combination of setting and character development. The flaw in most haunted house films is simple: if being in the house is so terrible, why not just leave? In Alien, there is no escape. The Nostromo is a never-ending labyrinth of corridors and air ducts, and a monster could be lurking behind any corner. The film is unbearably claustrophobic, to the point at which you find yourself feverishly scanning every corner of the screen as the panic steadily builds.
Likewise, the flaw with most slashers is that the characters are so paper-thin that we don?t care about them. The main reason people paid to see all the Hallowe?en sequels and knock-offs was the elaborate and increasingly goofy manner in which the victims were killed. Somehow we went from Hallowe?en, with Michael Myers as the essence of evil and barely any gore on screen, to Lucio Fulci?s The New York Ripper, in which our antagonist stabs prostitutes whilst doing duck impressions.
Alien, on the other hand, takes its time to build up its characters in the opening act. The first hour is dreamlike and takes its time, from the slow Kubrickian shots of the corridors, to the time-lapse of John Hurt emerging from hyper-sleep, to the wry discussions about the poor quality food and the bonus situation. Even after the face-hugger attacks Kane, the film sticks to its guns and keeps the character development going. It builds up Brett and Parker?s outsider status and the lack of respect for Ripley, factors which become of key importance as the story unfolds.
Alien has been described as the anti-2001, the blue-collar depiction of space against the gleaming white dignity of Kubrick?s vision. This is unsurprising, since its writer Dan O?Bannon also wrote and starred in Dark Star, John Carpenter?s oddball sci-fi comedy which contains many similar elements (albeit played for laughs). The Nostromo is a grimy and dingy place, inhabited by worldly-worn men and women who care about little more than getting paid and getting home. The elements of corporate paranoia and gender inequality which begin to infiltrate make Alien a compelling social commentary. ?The company?, with Ash as its representative, is aloof, greedy and uninterested in the lives of ordinary people, or women in particular. These same ordinary people (and women in particular) end up saving the universe, albeit through massive and involuntary personal sacrifice.
The acid test of all horror movies (no pun intended) is whether or not they remain scary, and Alien is still one of the scariest ever made. A large part of this lies in the technical construction of the film. Scott understands that true fear lies in the mind of the audience; people are not scared by what they see, they are scared by what they think they have seen. By showing so little of the alien until the very end, Scott plants a seed of fear and paranoia into the audience?s mind, which grows exponentially as the body count rises. The combination of lighting, camera angles and Jerry Goldsmith?s nail-biting score creates an atmosphere of unstoppable terror in which all one can do is watch, pray and scream.
Alien plays on the ancient fear of the unknown, challenging the audience?s curiosity and confounding our expectations. The most famous example of this is the ?chest-burster? or ?birth? scene, which is rightly considered one of the scariest scenes in cinema. In the scenes leading up to it, we are led to believe that the worst is over; the face-hugger is dead, Kane has come out of his coma, the ship has been repaired and they are once again on their way home. Then Kane starts to choke, something which is distressing but nothing out of the ordinary. Hence when the alien bursts through his chest, covering Lambert in blood, we sit there petrified at the sight of this creature and stunned by just how well we have been deceived.
But it is not just the fear of the unknown which makes Alien so terrifying. The film draws on a long line of science fiction films which have dealt with some form of alien possession or violation of the human body. Mario Bava?s Planet of the Vampires is the most frequently cited influence, but there are also hints of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers and The Thing from Another World (which would later be remade as The Thing by John Carpenter). So much of horror is rooted in the idea of people we think we know turning out to be something else ? vampires, pod people, mothers of xenomorphs, these are all means of challenging our perceptions of human identity.
But Alien goes further than basic possession, equating the alien with the fear of rape or the male fear of pregnancy. H. R. Giger?s designs are insanely phallic ? the long, curved head of the alien with its internal set of teeth, which extend like a thrusting phallus to violently penetrate and impregnate the victims. All the men on board are picked off before the women, and in the Director?s Cut we see chilling shots of their bodies being cocooned to serve as incubators for further aliens. Just as the Eraserhead baby is a metaphor for the father?s fears and dark secrets, so the alien is like a son that turns on its surrogate fathers.
There has been a great deal of discussion as to the feminist implications of the Alien franchise, with James Cameron?s instalment being held up as the greatest expression of this. But actually Alien has as good a case, if not a better one, because of the precise nature of Ripley?s transformation. Ripley spends much of the first film in a passive role ? she is something of a goody-two-shoes, who goes by the book and has little respect from the lower orders of the crew. After the death of Dallas she becomes the leader or matriarch, but doesn?t take on traditionally male characteristics in doing so. While Parker goes into a battle-crazed rage, she remains calm and considered. She retains her maternal or feminine qualities, as shown by her decision to take Jones with her, and her defeat of the alien is a profound expression of her individual identity and refusal to be exploited. Compare that to Aliens, in which Ripley takes on much more macho or masculine qualities, undergoing a similar shift to Sarah Connor in Terminator 2.
Alien remains a masterpiece of both science fiction and gothic horror, conveying deep psychological themes while scaring us to death. For all the talents of James Cameron and David Fincher (whose instalment is very underrated), it also remains the most complete and profound member of the franchise, a status which doesn?t look like being threatened any time soon. Sigourney Weaver is the stand-out from a note-perfect cast, and Ridley Scott?s direction is simply extraordinary, taking something utterly fantastical and making it terrifying real. A magnificent achievement from every angle, and the first of Scott?s many masterpieces.
Some films have become so recognised as masterpieces that no-one bothers to analyse them anymore. If you mention The Godfather, people will quickly pronounce it to be one of the greatest films ever made, but if you ask them to pin down exactly what makes it great, they will struggle beyond recycled praise for the central performances. It's the same story with Chinatown: its reputation as one of the finest films of the 1970s is both maintained and justified, but the precise reasons for its greatness seem to have been forgotten.
Chinatown is an extraordinary piece of work, and is by far and away Roman Polanski's best film. Part classic flatfoot film noir, part murky political thriller, Chinatown is a bitter, twisted and cynical exploration of corruption, identity and political intrigue wrapped up in the Californian water wars of the 1920s. When held up against its big rivals for Best Picture -- The Conversation and The Godfather Part II -- it outperforms both of them, creating two hours of cinema which are mercilessly gripping and thoroughly rewarding.
In his previous few films -- Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, Macbeth -- Polanski had combined a deep-rooted interest in psychological trauma with a penchant for outrageous visuals. While all three films have their substance rooted in the torment of the central characters, and the collapse of their mental state as the world closes in on them, Polanski is never afraid to compliment this with the shock value associated with gore. The rape scene in Rosemary's Baby is frightening, not just because it is mentally disorientating, but because of the physical damage being inflicted on Mia Farrow.
In Chinatown, on the other hand, the most outré or gory moment occurs in the first hour, when Jack Nicholson's nose is sliced open by Polanski as a warning for him to stay away. With a couple of exceptions, the rest of the film is subdued and understated, with the truly frightening or creepy moments coming from revelations in the dialogue. It feels like a more mature work, with characters which are considered and rounded rather than simply vessels for psychosis.
Much like Blade Runner nearly a decade later, Chinatown draws on traditional film noir characters and conventions, and retunes them to suit the interests of the story. Jack Nicholson's private eye, Jake Gittes, is every bit as downbeat and cynical as Humphrey Bogart, but he also has a patience and intelligence which lesser flatfoots have neglected. The precise manner in which he wanders through the records room, or waits for the acting chair of the water board, indicates someone who is confident, self-assured and determined to see this matter through. As the mystery deepens, Gittes' motives grow from wanting to clear his name to wanting to save the town from the evil forces at work. He undergoes a definite moral shift, and his painstaking approach to snooping makes this all the more convincing.
Likewise, Faye Dunaway's Evelyn Mulwray is not a token femme fatale or black widow. There is a romantic entanglement between her and Gittes, but this is not consummated until the final third of the film. Where Gittes starts off cynical and steadily becomes more moral, she appears cold and distant when in fact she is the most moral character in the film. There is the classic sense of mystery surrounding her, and the film gives only fleeting clues about her relationship with her husband and father. This not only makes the resulting revelations more shocking, but it makes her character compelling: we want to study her, unravel what is going on behind those plucked eyebrows and red lipstick.
Like all great noirs -- indeed like all great thrillers -- Chinatown has a twisty and labyrinthine plot, which requires your full attention to follow every twist and notice every clue. It may be that, like Blade Runner, you don't fully understand everything until about the fourth or fifth viewing. But even the first time round there can be no doubt either of Chinatown's depth or its believability.
The thing which distinguishes it from the work of Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese is its complete and bitter cynicism towards every institution of modern society. For all the dark moments in The Godfather, and all the grittiness of Mean Streets, there is a faint undercurrent of nostalgia present in these films, either for the lifestyle of old-time gangsters or for a past version of America. Producer Robert Evans hired Polanski because he wanted the film to be an outsider's view on the hideous corruption therein, and as a result no institution is left unscathed.
Chinatown is at heart about how the very organisations that were created to serve the public now function for the precise opposite effect. Mulwray talks about her husband wanting the water supply to belong to the people of LA, to prevent it private owners like Noah Cross holding a town to ransom by turning off the taps. But in the end that is exactly what happens; Cross still holds the town in the palm of his hand, using the Club to pump freshwater into the sea in the middle of a drought. The face of evil may have changed, but its intentions remain the same.
Towne's script marries this feeling of betrayal and the lack of real change with a series of revelations which show just how far ordinary people have been let down by the people they trusted to provide for them. The sexual themes of the story which emerge are symbolic of the way in which the likes of Cross have manipulated ordinary citizens for personal gain. Cross' incestuous relationship with Evelyn is an echo of his 'raping' of Los Angeles and its resources. Cross has no regard for the little people his grand scheme is harming: when Gittes asks him what he can buy that he can't already afford, he coldly replies: "The future."
The final scenes of Chinatown are some of the best in cinema. Up until this point, despite all the darkening turns, Polanski seems to have convinced us that good will triumph: Cross will get his comeuppance, Evelyn will escape to Mexico and everyone will live happily ever after. But in the space of four minutes, Gittes is arrested by his former colleagues, Evelyn is killed, her 'daughter' is taken in by Cross, and Gittes is advised to leave as the cover-up becomes complete. The perfect closing lines -- "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown" -- embody the film's thesis of the triumph of power and money over truth, and the inability of individuals to defeat the system. In this dark world all rules and moral codes are irrelevant, and the only way one can survive is to do "as little as possible".
Chinatown is an outright masterpiece which has stood the test of time and matured as a viewing experience. The splendid central performances by Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway are married to beautiful cinematography and meticulous direction with Polanski at the very top of his game. Robert Towne's script is one of the finest of the last 40 years, with intelligent dialogue which captures both the dry wit of Gittes and the sense of desperation and futility which surrounds the characters. It is as shocking and enthralling today as it ever was, both as a self-contained story and as a commentary on human greed. It is a magnificent masterwork which deserves every plaudit in the book.
Just it's hard to imagine cinema without Steven Spielberg or Stanley Kubrick, so a world without David Lynch seems as absurd and as nightmarish as one of his films. The man who is arguably America's greatest living filmmaker has so completely re-written the rulebook for surrealist filmmaking, that even non-fans like Roger Ebert would admit that the world would be a duller place without him.
If you want proof of this sea-change which Lynch has caused in cinema, you need look no further than his debut feature Eraserhead, a dark and fascinating fable about marriage, heaven and industry which set the midnight movie circuit alight in the late-1970s. Marrying Alan Splet's masterful sound design to a series of horrifically beautiful and strange images, Lynch creates a viewing experience which is nothing short of mesmerising.
Part of the mystique of Eraserhead lies in the fact that relatively little is known about it even after 34 years. Lynch is famous for refusing to reveal what his films mean, but the production history is as mysterious as the finished product. There are no making-of documentaries, and even Lynch's own interviews focus on the pre-production rather than the actual filming.
Eraserhead was filmed intermittently over six years beginning in 1970, when Lynch received a grant from the American Film Institute to film a 21-page script about adultery. What began as a long short morphed over these six years into a four-hour rough cut which Lynch subsequently pared down to 90 minutes. During this time Lynch experienced a spiritual epiphany, beginning his involvement in transcendental meditation which he continues to this day.
Lynch's photography, both past and present, has often revolved around disused factories or industrial landscapes which have fallen into disrepair. Eraserhead mirrors this fascination, depicting a vision of post-industrial society which makes the workers' city in Metropolis look like the Costa del Sol. Every building seems to be either a relic of a bygone age or coming apart at the seams; where there are plants or trees, they are black and completely bare. Alan Splet's amazing soundtrack howls and wails, as if the Earth itself were groaning under the weight of Man's work, from all His once-great achievements now rendered obsolete by age and progress.
By creating such a dark and desolate landscape, Lynch makes us feel isolated and alien to our surroundings: we are the living and the breathing in a world comprised entirely of death and decay. This feeling of alienation and malaise spills over into the characters, with Henry's father-in-law remarking that the whole world has become a "hell-hole". Their conversations are filled with the awkward silences that would become characteristic of Lynch's work, while the black-and-white visuals give the impression that this world is slipping into the next, like the characters in Samuel Beckett's Endgame who are patiently waiting for death.
Like Alien two year later, Eraserhead's central story revolves around the male fear of pregnancy and the Freudian connotations of offspring. Some commentators have speculated that the entire film is an allegory for Lynch's anxiety about the birth of his daughter Jennifer - none moreso, incidentally, than Jennifer Lynch herself. Regardless of whether that is true or to what extent, this theme is writ large throughout Eraserhead, and manifests itself in a number of sinister ways.
When Henry first discovers that he is a father, he reacts not with delight but with fear - fear not of the parents' reaction, or for his girlfriend, but of what monster he may have created. The film begins with the spectral apparition of a child emanating from Jack Nance's mouth, as if this creature was spawned from the darkest depths of his unconscious. The baby is the id to Henry's ego, its bizarre and impossible constructions being at odds with his straightforward demeanour and limited range of expression. Along these lines, Henry's attack on the child is the ego (or super-ego) defeating the animalistic id, albeit with serious and unforeseen consequences.
Over the course of the film both Henry and his girlfriend are tormented by their child. It lies screaming incessantly at night, to the point where the girlfriend packs her things and goes home, leaving the baby entirely in his care. From then on the baby becomes more menacing and vindictive towards Henry: first it screams to prevent him leaving the flat, and then it laughs at him when it seems the girl who lives across the hall no longer cares for him.
With this development Eraserhead becomes a film not just about fear but about responsibility, in which the child is the physicalisation of Henry's conscience. Although Henry is hardly the philandering type, he does entertain fantasies of other women, where the brunette across the hall or the strange blonde who lives in the radiator. There are almost hints of Pinocchio in the father-son relationship, with the almost unreal baby keeping the real-life father on the straight and narrow. But unlike Pinocchio, there is no friendship between them, and ultimately the puppet permanently rebels against his conscience.
In his 2006 book Catching the Big Fish, Lynch called Eraserhead his "most spiritual movie", and claimed that the whole project came together after he read a certain (unnamed) part of The Bible. There are huge Biblical overtones in Eraserhead, and most of them are from the more unpleasant parts of the Old Testament. Not only does the baby represent the sins of the father being visited on the sons (Exodus 34:7), but the man in the moon moving all the levers could be God setting all of this in motion.
Alternatively, the man in the moon and the woman in the radiator may have nothing to do with God at all. They might be projections of Henry's subconscious, being respectively a scapegoat and a possible source of redemption. The man resembles the baby in all his rashes and peculiar spots, hinting at the concept of Man creating a jealous, negative God as a projection of his own cold heart.
When the lady is dancing, she tramples on copies of the apparitions from the beginning, suggesting to Henry that he must overcome this evil to gain both her love and his salvation. The final scene, where she embraces Henry and the screen fades to white, could indicate that he has gone to heaven - where, as the song says, everything is fine. There are clear through-lines to Mulholland Drive in her resemblance to Marilyn Monroe (whom Betty/ Diane also resembles) and in the use of a theatrical performance within the world of a film.
All of these interpretations are valid, and there is nothing in the content of Eraserhead which can be explained for certain. What is for certain is the terrifying nature of the special effects used to bring this baby to life. Various rumours surround this unique special effect, the most common being that it is a pickled calf foetus, animated from within. Whatever it is, its twisted shape and harrowing cries burn deep into our subconscious and genuinely freak us out. We jump when we see it break out in spots, and its death throes are nothing short of nerve-shredding.
Eraserhead is a dark and twisted masterpiece which remains one of the most extraordinary debut features in all of cinema. Lynch's direction is immaculate, creating a unique cinematic vision which is not only frightening but deeply visceral and dripping with substances. It is a high point of surrealist cinema that would have made Salvador Dali proud, and may even be the best such work since Un Chien Andalou. In any case, it is essential viewing for everyone with even an iota of interest in film.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail is one of the few comedy films which continues to deserve its hype. Now thirty-eight years old, it remains incessantly hilarious, fantastically silly, magically absurd and brilliantly surreal, right down to the last detail. It is the perfect balance of intelligence and madcap anarchy, drawn together by razor-sharp writing and superb comic timing from every performer. It is low-budget film-making at its absolute best, and one of the best films of the 1970s.
The first and biggest hurdle that Holy Grail has to overcome is the transition from the small screen to something more cinematic. Many comedy series have faltered here, but the very essence and structure of Python gives them a leg-up. The TV shows were always conceived as streams of consciousness, in which ideas bled into one another and minds wandered freely. Scenes ended not with a punch line, but when things stopped being funny, and nobody either inside or outside the joke questioned it. This means there is far greater scope to construct an over-arching narrative over the course of ninety minutes, as opposed to creating an anthology of episodes similar to And Now For Something Completely Different.
The second hurdle, arising from this, is preventing the film from becoming baggy or having long sections of no laughs in between set-pieces. Thankfully this problem is swiftly overcome by two means, one intentional, the other not so. On the one hand, Holy Grail was very tightly scripted from the beginning, under the same rules and restrictions of the TV series - namely, if it's not funny, it goes. This led at one point to half the script being binned because it didn't gel with the rest of the story. On the other hand, the very, very low budget (less than £250,000) meant that there was simply no room to shoot any scene or sequence for longer than was deemed necessary.
The result of this careful preparation, and even more careful execution, is a film which is not only efficient but incessantly funny. From the famous opening credits to the Castle Aargh and everything in between, the film is packed full of jokes in a way which, Airplane! aside, has never been emulated. Every conversation builds as a routine to a hilarious climax, and barely a line goes by without something quotable coming along. The script is the perfect balance between the verbal and the visual, high-brow and low-brow, making it a comedy film that is genuinely for everyone.
There is not enough room to praise or point out all the great sequences, not without giving a scene-by-scene commentary of the whole film. There are, however, a number of categories of jokes which can be easily recognised. Although the film as a whole is a spoof of the Arthurian legends and the epics of Cecil B. DeMille, very little of the humour is derived from directly poking fun at these things, in the manner of Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein. Instead we have numerous examples of surreal absurdity (the Knights Who Say Ni ordering Arthur to cut down a tree with a herring); repetition (the Bridge of Death, Swamp Castle); existential role-reversal (Dennis the peasant arguing about anarcho-syndicalism); and running gags (swallows with coconuts, the cat being beaten, and the constant appearance of rabbits).
One question which has bothered both Python fans and film fans alike is whether or not this is better than the Life of Brian. John Cleese opines that Brian is a "more mature" work, noting sardonically how Americans tend to prefer Holy Grail while Brits opt for Brian. And he does have something of a point. It is more mature and professional from a technical point of view, and it is more substantial in either its subject matter or its use of it. But Life of Brian has its problems, most of which relate ironically to its abundance of substance.
Although the film is still very funny, it has a more obvious axe to grind than Holy Grail, and there are moments where it loses sight of what is truly funny in favour of focussing on what is simply uncomfortable. In Life of Brian, you're focussed on the story so intently, so aware of the intelligence and the controversy, that many of the little distractions - like the aliens sequence - get lost. In Holy Grail, you still follow the story with some intent, and everything is efficiently told, but the jokes speak for themselves and ultimately triumph over ever other aspect.
Every member of the Python team is at the top of their game in Holy Grail - even Graham Chapman, who was still a rampant alcoholic and struggled to remember his lines. Like all the Python films, this is an ensemble piece; no one member is allowed to dominate and be the star, no matter how many roles Michael Palin plays. Terry Gilliam's animations are as beautifully mad as ever, helping at very least to get around the budgetary limits and humorously divert us while time passes.
Each of the six gets at least one scene in which they excel, although Cleese is particularly brilliant in both the fight with the Black Knight and the one-man assault on Swamp Castle. Like all the best low-budget films, you're so swept along by the story and laughter that you aren't constantly trying to spot the body doubles or continuity errors. After a while you don't even notice it's the same six guys playing all the characters (well, almost).
The influence of Holy Grail remains writ large in comedy and in film-making. To some extent, this is unsurprising because of Gilliam's subsequent success. His first post-Python films, Jabberwocky and Time Bandits, have Holy Grail hovering somewhere in the background either in the story or the aesthetics. Likewise much of Handmade Films' output owes something to the ropey, creaky (but still fantastic) look of this film.
The film's most curious legacy, however, lies in the realm of horror comedy. Python's relationship with gore started in the TV series - think of the sketch about Sam Peckinpah's 'Salad Days', with blood oozing from every limb and every prop serving as a murder weapon. In the film we have the Black Knight, Swamp Castle, the Killer Rabbit and the Bridge of Death, all of which are simultaneously gross-out horrific and laugh-out-loud hilarious. You only have to look at Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead or Peter Jackson's Brain Dead to see reflections of Python's undying genius.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the film to turn to whenever you lose faith in the power and lifespan of comedy. It is brilliantly written, brilliantly acted, and contains more moments of hysterical laughter than almost any other film. It still has the charm and vibrancy which it had at the point of its conception, and its reputation and influence will only grow as time goes by. For all the subsequent efforts of Python, both as a troupe and individually, this remains their finest achievement and the benchmark against which all their other work should be measured. It's a masterpiece, a classic, a joy and a thrill - quite simply, the greatest comedy of all time.
1976 saw the release of two great films about journalism which remain gripping and compelling even though the professions they examined have long since changed dramatically. In one corner, we have Network, a film which anticipated the move towards ratings-driven TV news with a career-best performance from Peter Finch. In the other corner, we have All The President's Men, perhaps the greatest film ever made about print journalism and one of the all-time greatest thrillers.
The first miracle of All The President's Men is that it manages to be a superbly tense conspiracy thriller even though we already know what the conspiracy is. Films which attempt to capture the political or social zeitgeist (in this case the fall of Richard Nixon) either date very badly or are often found wanting dramatically; they presume that there is no need to do the legwork, since we know how it ends even before we start.
All The President's Men gets the balance absolutely pitch-perfect between the facts and the drama. Robert Redford, who also produced the film, insisted that everything that played out on screen was factually accurate, to the point of liaising between screenwriter William Goldman and the real-life journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to ensure that every detail was correct. Those of us who are knowledgeable about Nixon and Watergate can watch the film and admire how well all the pieces fit together and all the facts are checked, while those less familiar will soak up all the information, admiring the work of the journalists and the screenwriter, who conveys all the twists, turns and dead ends.
Being this factually accurate pays off in dramatic terms for two reasons. Firstly, it means that the film's political stance, if it has one, is not so blatantly obvious that it weighs the action down, as with Redford's Lions for Lambs. But more importantly, it demonstrates that the filmmakers have confidence in the material, believing the truth to be so extraordinary in its own right that to dress it up in Hollywood convention or other such artifice would do the audience a great disservice.
Because the film is so relentlessly focussed on the story, the audience become like junior reporters following Woodward and Bernstein around, desperately trying to keep up and learn on the job. Like real-life journalists we are receiving information from a range of sources with varying degrees of reliability, to the point at which we almost feel the need to take notes. The dialogue is rattled off at a pace which makes even The Social Network look choreographed and considered.
Unlike so many contemporary thrillers, All The President's Men manages to be so completely understated, keeping a lid on things and building tension throughout its running time. All of the big revelations come out through small tics in the dialogue; there are no great swathes of exposition to remind the audience what has happened so far. It takes us two hours to get to Deep Throat finally telling Woodward what he wants to hear in the car park; like Woodward, we have had to earn this information through patience and perseverance.
The sense of tension created by the revelation of events and the pressure on the characters means that the film has no real need for action set-pieces or choreographed thrills. The closest things approaching action sequences are little pops of paranoia surrounding Woodward in the last hour - the disturbance in the car park, or the two journalists typing out their conversations for fear that they are being bugged. That's not to say that set-pieces in themselves are a bad thing, or a sign of dumbing-down in Hollywood movie-making. But All The President's Men simply doesn't need them - it does things the hard way, which turns out to be the smart way and the right way.
It would be very easy to praise this film on purely nostalgic grounds, coming from a time when thrillers didn't have to end with explosions, and when there was 'proper' investigative journalism instead of commercially-minded, celebrity-saturated hearsay. But the makers of All The President's Men would not accept this rose-tinted view of journalism, and the film specifically warns not to take such days for granted. Long before Rupert Murdoch's empire-building, the conflict between money and the truth was present, and crucially the truth didn't always win hands down.
There are several arguments in the film about the freedom of the press and its independence from the state and government. This conflict is present in the initial disagreements between Woodward and Bernstein which govern their different styles of reporting. Woodward is the newcomer who believes in facts above everything else; he types up his article, only for Bernstein, the seasoned hack who likes something with flair, to polish it behind his back.
In one scene about halfway through, the two reporters are in a car arguing about the difference between fact and gut instinct. Woodward use the example of snow falling overnight, or a man stopping and asking for directions, to demonstrate that one cannot simply rely on logical presumptions to be sure that something happened. Bernstein's responses, while broadly in agreement, belie a disagreement between substance and style, graft and guesswork which would come to shape the industry.
As a paean to 'proper' journalism, the film is a lot more subtle than something like Good Night and Good Luck, which used stock footage of Joseph McCarthy to hammer its point home in every scene. And unlike George Clooney's film, All The President's Men does a brilliant job of showing the fear and intimidation involved in the profession and practice of journalism. This is present throughout Woodward and Bernstein's work, from the persistent refusal of people to go on the record, to the pressure coming from their bosses who are staking the reputation of their paper on what could be an entirely spurious story. Woodward and Bernstein are forced to balance their own personal ambitions within the paper, the desire to protect people from exposure and ruin and the need to tell the truth - something which is no easy task.
All The President's Men is also masterful at making the very act of writing exciting. As I mentioned in my review of Adaptation, it is very difficult to put the physical act of writing or typing on screen in a manner which is genuinely cinematic. But Alan J. Pakula achieves this in his directorial style, which is completely unfussy and marked by great attention to detail. So accomplished is his direction that you almost don't notice it, which might explain why he is so underrated as a filmmaker. The tension he builds makes one focus on all the random doodles on Woodward's notepad, and the typing scene is very well-paced.
The performances in All The President's Men are all front-page material. Robert Redford is great, proving that he was more than just the pretty face from Butch Cassidy and The Sting and carrying himself with poise and conviction. Dustin Hoffman gives some of his best work as Carl Bernstein, resisting the temptation to 'over-method' as he did in Marathon Man the same year. And there is a terrific supporting role for Hal Holbrook as Deep Throat. Holbrook, best known for his appearance in The Fog, brings a murky edge to the character which not only conveys the danger of his situation, but leads you to believe that he is no good either.
All The President's Men is a proper thinking-person's thriller with great direction, superb performances and an impeccable script. Though the worlds of both politics and journalism may have changed, the film's ideas and approach remain as fresh and bracing as they were 35 years ago. Whether as a paean to journalism or an argument for political accountability, a debate about the nature of truth or a thrill-a-minute drama, it succeeds on every conceivable level, resulting in a movie for the ages.
When it comes to reviewing films, there are two kinds of masterpieces. One is the film in which every single scene is immaculately perfect, and your emotional involvement supports and compliments this perfection. The other, more contentious kind is a film which on paper is riddled with faults, but the experience of watching it is so intoxicating that all such faults can be forgiven or forgotten.
With war films, the first camp is defined by Full Metal Jacket and the second by Apocalypse Now. Where Stanley Kubrick's film is meticulously constructed and judged to clinical precision, Francis Ford Coppola's is simultaneously a bloated, meandering mess and one of the greatest films of all time. Full Metal Jacket is the more accessible and perhaps more rewarding, but on the big screen Apocalypse Now is nothing short of knockout, as all the elements of Coppola's epic collide in a full-on and frightening story of darkness, madness and war.
As with so many great films, the production history of Apocalypse Now leads us to believe that things should have turned out very differently. John Milius, who had written much of Clint Eastwood's dialogue in Dirty Harry, drafted a loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness by the middle of 1969. Originally titled The Psychedelic Soldier, George Lucas was set to direct before being hired to helm American Graffiti. In 1974 the project came to Coppola, who had just seen both The Conversation and The Godfather Part II nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.
Shooting for the re-titled Apocalypse Now began in March 1976 and was scheduled to last for five months. Soon after shooting began, Harvey Keitel was replaced by Martin Sheen and in May the entire set was destroyed by Typhoon Olga. When filming resumed a month later, Marlon Brando turned up heavily overweight and completely bald; Coppola compensated by dressing him in black, shooting him in shadow and using a body double in the wide shots. While shooting the ending in 1977, Sheen suffered a heart attack and had to walk a quarter of mile to get medical attention. By the time Coppola finished editing the film for release in August 1979, Apocalypse Now was two years late and three times over budget.
If you attempted to write down all the things that are wrong with Apocalypse Now, it wouldn't take you long to get quite a big list. For a start, the film is too long - or at least, it feels too long. The story of Captain Willard travelling up the Nung River unfolds at a very leisurely pace, with every section of the river having some major significance in terms of plot or mood. There is no montage or time-lapse footage of the boat rapidly reaching the Cambodian border, and the longer it goes on the less sure you feel that Coppola actually knew where the story was going.
There is a very fine line in screenwriting between poetic and ponderous, and Apocalypse Now crawls along this line like the snail on the edge of a straight razor. The actual scenes of Brando reading poetry in the temple are dull; the fact that we can't always make out what he's saying annoys us at first, but after a few lines we couldn't care less. By the time you have reached the temple, you are more or less certain that there will be some kind of brutal final confrontation between Willard and Kurtz, so that even as you sit there soaking up T. S. Eliot, you wish that things would get a move on.
Then there is the problem of characters. Martin Sheen is absolutely terrific as Captain Willard, and in spite of his incoherence Marlon Brando manages to match him in the last truly good performance of his career. But as is the way with epics, a lot of the supporting cast don't get even half the screen time they deserve. When you've got a film featuring Harrison Ford, Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper, you expect them to be on screen a lot. But only Duvall gets the screen time and the character depth he needs, with the other two becoming largely superfluous.
Finally, there are aspects of Apocalypse Now which reek of the indulgence present in New Hollywood and 1970s filmmaking in general. This is typified by Coppola's self-referential cameo as the director of a war documentary; Sheen walks into his shot at the river mouth, and he shouts: "Don't look at the camera! Keep on fighting!". If Coppola was making a point about the psychological role of a director, it's handled a lot more clumsily and self-importantly than Peeping Tom. Add in the sequence of a live cow actually being butchered and you have more than enough reason to dismiss this film.
So far, Apocalypse Now would seem like the Vietnam equivalent of Gone With the Wind: commendable for its scale and ambition, but over-long with too many characters and several questionable scenes. And yet, for all the truth in what I have said, none of it really matters. For Apocalypse Now is not a film to be dissected but to be experienced; it will burn its way into your synapses in a mixture of horror and wonder. Watching it is less like making a Swiss watch than walking into a cloud of hallucinogenic vapours. If you refuse to go with it, you won't get it, but if you do, it'll be one hell of a trip.
Instead of recreating the experience of Vietnam with a deliberate and calculated sense of hindsight, Apocalypse Now seeks to put the audience in the same place as the soldiers so they can decide how war felt and why men behaved the way they did. Because the script was written during the war, there is no attempt made by Coppola to lecture the audience one way or the other. There are no easy answers to the questions of right and wrong, and the film's slow, meandering tone is vital for us to soak up as much information as we can. Whatever our conclusions, we feel like we've been through hell with these characters, and been changed irrevocably by the horrors of war.
So much of Apocalypse Now is about the chaos of war, and so it's appropriate (at least to some extent) that the film should feel out of control. The relaxed discussions at the beginning, in which Willard's mission is laid out, give us some kind of grounding so that we know where he will end up. But the film is populated by profound and moving insights into the inherent anarchy and absurdity of war. These range from Robert Duvall's insistence on surfing at the beach to the post near the Cambodian border where the troops are fighting without a commanding officer. These scenes produce reactions ranging from laughter to sadness to genuine fright, and often all three at once.
Apocalypse Now keeps adding more and more literary aspects to its central story, like someone throwing books into a library that had just been set on fire. The final showdown between Willard and Kurtz is an inventive restaging of The Golden Bough, in which the murderer kills the mad king and becomes king himself. Much of Martin Sheen's dialogue is culled from Michael Herr's Dispatches, which would later be used by Kubrick on Full Metal Jacket. And Kurtz takes on aspects of both Eliot's 'The Hollow Men' and Genghis Khan, whom Coppola studied while the sets were rebuilt.
At the heart of Apocalypse Now is the darkness at the heart of all mankind, and the ability of such darkness to consume all that is good and just and sane if fully unleashed. Kurtz has tipped over into this darkness by his experiences in Vietnam. The war has caused him to see the futility and the nonsense in his orders, and he now lives out his days as a hollow man who has understood evil at the cost of losing his soul. Willard kills Kurtz to fulfil his mission, but the very act of obedience threatens to tip him over into the same darkness. Although he manages to resist, he leaves Kurtz's kingdom as a shell of a man, his life shattered by knowledge of that same evil.
Apocalypse Now is a truly extraordinary piece of work which is fully deserving of its masterpiece status. In spite of its myriad flaws, it retains an indescribable aura which leaves us shrinking into our seats, mesmerised and paralysed with fear and wonder. It's a film which damaged both Coppola as a filmmaker and the New Hollywood movement, whose reputation for indulgence had finally caught up with them. But at the dawn of the blockbuster age, it is a fantastic last hurrah and remains one of the most extraordinary experiences in American cinema.
In my review of Dark Star, I referred to John Carpenter as "the most accidental of pioneers", since the films which he created simply to get by have since become widely recognised as innovative and culturally significant. Just as Dark Star bridged the gap between old-school sci-fi and space opera, so Hallowe'en is a cinematic bridge from Psycho and Black Christmas to full-on, nuts-and-bolts slashers like Prom Night and My Bloody Valentine. But even taken outside of its legacy, it remains a memorably terrifying film, and the high point of Carpenter's career.
Contrary to popular belief, Hallowe'en is not the first slasher film. To some extent that title belongs to Psycho, which is also one of the classiest considering its strong psychological underpinning. The serial killer motifs therein were taken up by Black Christmas and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which explored serial killings within a context of complete moral nihilism; no explanation was ever offered for what Leatherface did, or the way in which he did it.
Hallowe'en takes the sexual elements of Psycho, blends it with the motiveless excesses of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and serves it up with Carpenter's unique sense of rhythm and love of the unknown. If Psycho was the film which made serial killing an art form (a tradition proudly continued by Dario Argento), Hallowe'en was the film that helped to take it into the mainstream. It made the slasher sexual again, setting the template for most of what followed until Wes Craven retuned things in A Nightmare on Elm Street.
So much modern horror, including the Hallowe'en 're-imaginings', try to explain everything to their audience; they feel the need to find a reason for every aspect of the killer, and no back-story must be left incomplete. Doing this often neglects the elements of uncertainty and menace which are essential parts of being scared; Alien wouldn't be half as scary if we had a complete psychological profile of the creature.
What makes Hallowe'en so special, and so brilliant, is its ruthless and brutal simplicity. There are no sadistic, lingering deaths, no confusing subplots, no unnecessary gore and no gratuitous nudity -- just genuine fear and genuine terror. Michael Myers doesn't need his motives explaining -- the fact that he is so singular makes it more terrifying.
Hallowe'en was designed as a drive-in movie, an exploitation film made on the cheap that would play for two weeks and then disappear. Under these circumstances they couldn't be any indulgences, whether creatively or financially. But like all the best low-budget films, it manages to get beyond its limitations and be innovative in the process. It takes several elements which on paper seem completely hokey and somehow makes them scary again. There have been dozens of horror films involving escaped mental patients, ignorant parents, or a police force which doesn't believe our hero or heroine. But the atmosphere which Carpenter creates, and the precise way in which the encounters are handled, conspire to give us the creeps.
Running through the whole film is an undercurrent about how the notion of being scared has become instititionalised. Laurie Strode comforts the child she is babysitting by telling him the bogeyman can only come out on Hallowe'en night. The fact that Hallowe'en is so widely observed and its practices so commonplace have taken the edge off it; it is no longer associated as a night of evil spirits preying on the weak, but as an excuse for the kids to have fun, the adults to go out and everyone in-between to have sex. This trend is even bound up in the production of the film, which was originally titled The Babysitter Murders.
Carpenter seeks to redress this balance, proving there are still things to be scared of which cannot be confined artificially to a single day. The children Laurie babysits are never scared by the films they watch on TV (including The Thing from Another World, which Carpenter would later remake) and so assume that there is nothing to be scared of. But as soon as the boy catches a glimpse of Myers, he starts screaming hysterically and fearing for his life.
The fear of the unknown is present in Hallowe'en right from the opening shot. As the camera approaches the house and we move inside, we have no idea from whose perspective we are seeing the events. The repeated use of a steadicam (or pana-glide, as it was originally called) gives the impression of seeing events from a first-person viewpoint, and the film keeps shifting so you are never sure whether or not you are seeing things through the eyes of the killer. This, coupled with the fantastic synthesizer score played in 5/4 time, creates an unmatched level of unease, predating Stanley Kubrick's work on The Shining by two whole years.
The fear of the unknown manifests itself in the character of Michael Myers, described by Dr. Loomis as "purely and simply... evil". Although Myers appears to be human in appearance and movement, there is something supernatural about him, demonstrated by his inability to be killed and his way of appearing and disappearing with great speed. There is no emotion with Myers, no sense of pleasure in his killings; he kills for no other reason other than that is what he does. Like Dr. Loomis, we spend time trying to understand him but eventually conclude that the only thing we can do is contain him. He is an archetypal bogeyman onto whom individuals project their own fears; the blank face masks serve as a canvas, a mirror in which we look and see our deepest fears.
Much has been made of Hallowe'en being a twisted morality tale, which borrows from the old 'tale of the hook' to warn people about the perils of having sex. Proponents of this view do have a point, considering that all of Myers' victims are people who are doing what they shouldn't be doing, and the only teenager who manages to stand up to him is a virgin. But Carpenter has long downplayed this view, claiming that the film is more about temptation and repression than the physical role of sex. While her classmates are content to drink under-age and tease each other about boys, Laurie is quiet and introverted. She is also the most intelligent of the group, and is the first to be aware of Myers' presence; hence she is better-equipped to deal with him, regardless of her sexual status.
It's easy to look at the ending of Hallowe'en as an excuse for a sequel, but this does pre-suppose that such a thing was intended. Unlike today, where many sequels are green-lit before the original has made its money back, this was intended as a stand-alone piece; Carpenter refused to direct Hallowe'en II despite a massive increase in the budget. As it stands, the ending is brilliant, with Donald Pleasance's facial reactions perfectly conveying the final chill: that Myers is still out there, and remains unstoppable. The film then puts the icing on the cake with a montage backed by Myers' heavy breathing, indicating that now he could be anywhere, and that we could be next.
Hallowe'en remains a masterpiece of horror, tapping into archetypal fears and scaring us to death with brilliant efficiency. The central performances by Donald Pleasance and Jamie Lee Curtis are note-perfect, the camerawork is superb, and Carpenter shoots the entire film with the perfect balance of shock value and suspense. None of the sequels, knock-offs or remakes have dented it reputation, and thirty years from now it will still be as scary as ever. A triumph of low-budget cinema and a real must-see.
Paul Verhoeven's career is the living embodiment of 'never judge a book by its cover'. What on the surface appear to be nothing more than exercises in violent, sleazy indulgence bordering on soft-core porn, are in fact some of the most interesting, nuanced and intelligent examples of their respective genres (apart from Showgirls). Even so, you might struggle to defend Verhoeven's works on the grounds that they are entirely subtle - until you've seen Soldier of Orange, a truly great war drama which remains his best film.
What's so striking about Soldier of Orange is how little it conforms to the popular stereotype of what a Paul Verhoeven film is meant to be. Those of us who grew up with his Hollywood films (RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct and so on) will expect flesh-ripping violence, swearing and full-frontal nudity from the start. But instead we get a subtle ensemble character drama with several intertwining stories, which unfolds very gradually and whose moments of action punctuate the character drama as much as facilitate it.
There is an immediate comparison between this film and its contemporary A Bridge Too Far. Both Verhoeven and Richard Attenborough were striving to depict an aspect of World War II which had been hitherto overlooked - respectively the German occupation of the Netherlands and the failure of Operation Market Garden. Both films have large ensemble casts with characters of all ages, ranks and backgrounds, and both are broadly revisionist in their historical outlook.
Where the films differ is their tone and the way that said characters are presented. Attenborough is a director whose films emphasise respect: his characters are people who should be taken seriously, troubled over and admired - sometimes, as with Gandhi, to the point where we don't actually connect with them emotionally. Verhoeven, on the other hand, is driven by the need to tell the story as honestly as possible - and if that honesty involves showing people being smeared in goose fat or being blown up whilst on the toilet, then all the better.
A good example of this approach comes in the opening scene, where our main character Erik is initiated into his fraternity. The humiliating rituals the freshmen are forced to endure are depicted as something time-honoured, a tradition so entrenched that it has become absurd. You could argue that this is how If.... would have turned out had Verhoeven been in charge instead of Lindsay Anderson. Erik fills in for Mick Travis, and Rutger Hauer is every bit as charismatic as Malcolm McDowell, but instead of verbal taunting followed by a whipping, Erik sings off-key before being knocked out with a soup terrine.
There are several unexpected pockets of comedy throughout Soldier of Orange which prevent the film from drifting into any kind of awards-worthy stodginess. The funniest of these comes early on when a local stops a Dutch patrol, saying he has spotted some paratroopers in nearby farm buildings. The soldiers approach and hear groaning; presuming them to be wounded airmen, they round the corner to find two people having sex in the hay. The camera cuts back to the local, who dances around shouting "April fool!", while the couple explain he's escaped from the local asylum.
Although Soldier of Orange is more refined and understated than Verhoeven's Hollywood work, there are still several pungent layers through which we have to navigate. While the violence isn't as flesh-ripping or visceral as in Total Recall, the firing squad still is still pretty gruesome, for all the right reasons. And then there's the nudity, which is taken so much for granted that it's actually used as a plot point. When Erik finds he is being tailed by a German agent, he goes to the apartment of his best friend's wife, asking her to get undressed and then draw the curtains. The agent presumes the two are having sex, and waits for several hours while Erik escapes.
But once we dig beneath the surface, Soldier of Orange emerges as a really smart and often touching depiction of occupied life and the ethics of organised resistance. It is particularly effective at showing how war impacts on the innocent, and how this response varies across the classes. In an early scene Erik and his university friends are playing tennis when the declaration of war comes over the radio: the match stops, they all crowd round the radio - and then go back to the game as is nothing had happened. Their apathy is contrasted with the fearful faces of the teachers and schoolchildren, who are grilled by paranoid Dutch soldiers to see if any of them are Jewish (giving Hitler a reason to invade).
The story of Soldier of Orange is filled with a number of fairly complex sub-plots, using the copious nudity to set up a series of love triangles between the characters. For instance, Robby and Esther are married and deeply in love, but Esther and Erik have an affair as a result of Robby's absence through working for the resistance. The film never reveals how close the characters really are, leaving us to decide whether their relationship is borne out of love or lonely desperation.
The same goes for the platonic relationships, with the film throwing us off the scent about who the traitors might be. We hear so much about Van der Zanden being the mole that he takes on a reputation akin to Professor Moriarty, so that the true reason for his proximity to the queen comes as a shock. We understand the threat facing Robby which leads to his defection, just as we end up sympathising with Colin Firth in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It is testament to Verhoeven's skill that he can take something as silly as two men dancing the tango, and turn it into a complex battle of wits, with both parties being guarded with their words while being fully aware of the other's intentions and allegiances.
From a visual perspective, Soldier of Orange is distinctive in its use of photographs. The film opens with what feels like decolourised footage of Erik on Liberation Day: it's a good way to introduce him as a protagonist whom we know will do great things. Hauer plays these opening scenes brilliantly, using his suave yet intimidating presence to make us like Erik without being entirely sure that we trust him, thereby maintaining the suspense around his character. There is also a helpful framing device in the photograph of the six college friends, of whom only two will survive the war.
The reunion of Erik and Jacques, the two survivors, makes an interesting point in itself. One of them survived the war by helping the resistance and fighting for his country; the other survived by carrying on and getting his preliminary in spite of the occupation. Verhoeven is making the point that there is more than one way to serve your country; he pulls back from depicting Erik's heroism as the only kind of heroism that is acceptable or achieves anything.
There are a couple of small problems with Soldier of Orange. While its pacing is generally good, it does accelerate quite rapidly towards the end. This is done to make the opening foreshadowing work, and in the film's defence it resists ending on a lazy, jingoistic note. More problematic is that the women in the film are dealt less of a hand than you might expect from Verhoeven. In Spetters he gave the sexually open characters some kind of symbolic weight, but here neither Esther nor Susan get the screen time or development they deserve.
Soldier of Orange is one of the best films ever made about World War II and remains Verhoeven's finest work to date. Beneath its flaws and excesses lies a riveting and complex tale of loyalty and betrayal, with a strong script, a terrific central performance by Rutger Hauer and a hugely underrated score from Rogier van Otterloo. Above all it is a glowing testament to Verhoeven's directorial abilities and a truly great war film, in its time and in ours.
So many of the films we now regard as classics were severely misunderstood when first released. Blade Runner received mixed reviews and underperformed at the box office, with critics saying it was visually arresting but insubstantial (snigger). The Shawshank Redemption sank without a trace at the cinemas and was snubbed at the Oscars (but what do they know?). Both films have, through subsequent rehabilitation (and with Blade Runner, substantial revision), become recognised as the towering achievements they are.
In the same way, Get Carter was once lambasted as soulless, misogynistic garbage. Even fans of the film, like the American critic Pauline Kael, commented on the sense of moral emptiness at the heart of it. But nearly forty years on, Get Carter has survived the vitriol of critics (and a really rubbish remake) to take its place as one of the greatest British crime films of all time.
Get Carter is part of the 'Unholy Quadrilogy' of films released in 1971 which changed the landscape of what was acceptable on screen. The groundwork had been laid by the likes of The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy, but it was these films which truly blew away the rose-tinted looks of the late-1960s. The French Connection, Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange took audiences in the dark underbellies of British and American society, showing sides to these countries which had been swept under the carpet in the age of peace and love.
Get Carter is a happy meeting point between these three films, taking the British setting and violent sexuality of A Clockwork Orange, the vigilante edge of Straw Dogs and the crime thriller aspects of The French Connection. It is a rough, edgy and endlessly tense film which manages to get beyond both its exploitation roots and the pulpy nature of its source novel, producing both a really solid crime film and a biting attack on British society.
The film begins very slowly, with the introduction of Jack Carter in a brief scene before he travels from London to Newcastle to attend the funeral of his brother Frank. This opening is the weakest part of the film, and in reality most of it could have been cut. We don't really need to establish Brit Ekland's character in any great depth; not only is she largely incidental, but the graphic phone call between her and Carter paints a vivid enough picture of their relationship. In any case, Carter's reason for heading north, along with the antagonism between him and the other gangs, is clearly established throughout the first half hour.
Roy Budd's jazzy soundtrack underscores the film, but after watching it a few times you realise that there is really very little incidental music. The thing which is making the biggest noise on screen is not the cars, or the guns, or the boats: it's the landscape. The images of Newcastle and Gateshead which Mike Hodges puts on screen speak volumes about the state of urban Britain -- not just the poverty but the sense of standardised despair and awkward silence which permeates through these communities. Early on we see the funeral cars driving down the cobbled street meeting every house - row upon row of faded brick, fading into the smoky distance like a dream slowly dying of old age. Throughout key sections of the film the only noise on the soundtrack is a hollow breeze, which adds a sense of starkness which threatens to shred ones nerves at any minute.
The film is brilliantly anchored by Michael Caine, who gives his finest performance as the ruthless Jack Carter. In a huge departure from his light-hearted 1960s work, Caine builds on his typical understatement and uses it as the driving force for uncontainable. terror. Carter is someone who is brutal, callous, sexist and rude, and yet charming, quick-witted and immensely cool. The sight of Caine in that black trench-coat, carrying a shotgun and a whisky bottle, is an iconic symbol of British criminals; like the Krays, Carter is hard as nails when he needs to be, but also understands the power and place of both family and dignity.
What makes Caine's performance and the character so remarkable is that Carter is never played as a straight-out heavy or meat-headed psychopath. It makes sense considering that he only finds out his brother's true fate during the last third of the film; while his methods have been forthright, if not shocking, they are not necessarily motivated by blood lust. When he does tip over the edge, he does so both out of a desire to avenge his brother and -- just as importantly -- to protect those whom he loves.
Despite its graphic sexual content, which seems gratuitous on first viewing, Get Carter is an oddly moral film. It is not moral because it suggests that what Carter is doing is 'right'; while it is established that what Eric did to Frank was 'wrong', it does not necessarily follow that vengeance will right that wrong. The ending is perfect because it encapsulates the ultimate futility of vengeance, and by extension love -- in the very moment when he thinks that he and his family will be safe, Carter's happiness is taken from him by as cruel and cold a method at that by which he lived.
Instead, the morality of Get Carter lies in its simultaneous documentation and criticism of society, particularly with regard to sex. Nearly all the female characters who appear on screen are either topless or in short skirts for any length of time, but with the possible exception of Ekland, these scenes are not there for our titillation. Instead they are on screen to make a point about how degraded and corrupted society has become, from the exaggerated fashions of ordinary women to Kinnear's den of vice at his country home.
Carter undergoes a kind of transformation late in the film, rejecting casual sex and the lifestyle which goes with it. Up until seeing the porn film, he has bedded women willy-nilly; but after seeing Doreen being exploited, he openly weeps and singularly resolves to take out the culprits. The fact that he chooses to ring the police and send the film to the vice squad before he kills Eric is a clear sign that the character has undergone some kind of moral shift. It doesn't make Eric's murder any easier to condone, but it does demonstrate the film's commitment to its subject matter.
Get Carter is also surprisingly twisty for a low-budget thriller. With so many different characters and named being batted around, we have to keep our eye on the ball if we are to follow every turn and understand every development. The dialogue in which key plot details are revealed is well-crafted, so that it doesn't just feel like exposition. The best scenes from this point of view are Carter interrogating Thorpey, the conversation on the top of the car park, and the fantastic final encounter between Carter and Eric on the beach.
Aside from its slow opening act and occasional moments of gratuity, Get Carter is a near-as-damnit perfect film. Caine's sterling performance is flanked by a cast of great supporting ones, the highlights being a young Alun Armstrong and a caddish John Osborne (whose seminal play Look Back in Anger hangs over whole sections of the film). The dialogue is perfectly pitched, the direction is strong, and the tension is brilliantly sustained right up to the final minute. It's a crackling crime thriller packed with subtle social commentary, and it deserves its ever-growing reputation.