Category Archives: drama

Our Mutual Friend (1958-59)

Director: Eric Tayler

As well as the BBC Shakespeare, I’ve got a stack of Charles Dickens adaptations from the BBC to make my way through from the 50s to the 90s. No, I can’t believe the ones from the 50s still exist either; let’s face it , if the BBC made it before they ended their wiping policy in 1978 and it still exists, it probably does so by accident. Somehow, though, the 1958/59 production of Our Mutual Friend has come down through the ages and landed on DVD via Simply Home Entertainment (along with five other b/w BBC productions I’ll get to in due course), and that was my most recent viewing.

Now I did say before I watched pretty much bugger all last year, but I actually did watch a bit of this, the first three episodes to be precise, and I found myself not quite engaging with it. Not really in the mood for it then. Anyway, I resolved that I would make another attempt on it, and at least start by rewatching those three episodes. So I did, and having done so proceeded to the next three. Brief pause to do a bit of other business and wonder if I should leave it at that and come back for the second half later. Then I decided fuck it, let’s watch the whole thing. So I did, and finally went to bed that night a bit before 4am… which is late even by my fucking terrible standards, but clearly I was in the mood for it at last. Great stuff.

This was live TV back in the day, too, and I’m fascinated by the BBC’s live work, more so than I am by commercial TV where they could pause for breath in the ad break; the BBC didn’t have that luxury—all they really had was the occasional prefilmed bit that couldn’t be done in studio—so I’m fascinated to see how they arranged material to make it possible. Interesting to see how relatively few prefilmed segments Eric Tayler used here (unless I missed some), though that may have been a good thing given the filmed bits seemed to be most post-synchronised and quite poorly at that… yikes.

The other thing you look for, of course, is fluffs, and I spotted only a handful of those… only one that was egregious enough to actually be called a line fluff, and even that could’ve been written off as the character misreading a letter they’d been given. Otherwise, the cast manages with aplomb, and the more grating issues are technical ones, particularly the use of photographic flats for background scenery. They’re kind of screamingly obvious, particularly in Mrs Higden’s death scene where the point where the “rural” scenery and the studio floor meet and the join is quite badly covered up… yikes again.

Wasn’t familiar with most of the cast, our hero being played by Paul Daneman who was Richard III in Age of Kings (should rewatch that for review), the heroine by Rachel Roberts (later a Hollywood tragedy), and the other “hero” by David McCallum, who had yet to become known as, well, anything, never mind Ilya Kuryakin (let alone Ducky from NCIS). Credited as “courtesy of the Rank Organisation”, though, who evidently thought he was important enough to demand that notice.

Not familiar with the book either (the only Dickens I’ve actually read is the Xmas books), which was his last finished novel (Edwin Drood’s tale having ended ahead of schedule, as it were) and which seems to have puzzled critics and readers in its time who seem to have thought there was too much going on even for Dickens… and this, it must be said, is certainly a feeling I got from this TV version; there’s a LOT going on and you could probably safely ditch the subplot with the Lammles at least (I was never a hundred percent sure what was going on with them). I imagine the original audience of the show had some work to do keeping track of things, cos the show is noticeably light on recapping what happened in previous episodes. I also gather the book handles its plot somewhat differently, in that the revelation that John Rokesmith is actually the putative murder victim and dispossessed heir John Harmon is only made very late in the book. This was a point the TV version couldn’t overcome, so it frankly doesn’t try. Wonder if it’s as obvious in the book as it necessarily is on the show.

Anyway, some reservations aside, I liked this a lot. As I said, I was clearly the mood for six hours of vintage live BBC classic adaptation last night… So that leaves us with the rest of the Simply HE releases, those being Bleak House from 1959, Barnaby Rudge from 1960, Oliver Twist from 1962, Great Expectations from 1967 and Dombey and Son from 1969. And then there’s the rest of the Dickens stuff I’ve got from following decades! Lots more viewing ahead, eh…

The BBC Television Shakespeare: Richard II (1978)

Director: David Giles

I never did understand what the rationale was for the order in which the BBC tackled Big Bill’s plays in this series, so we go from one of his best-known tragedies to, well, one of his probably less-well known works (this is one of those for which there’s never been a cinema version). Richard II covers a fairly narrow period in its title character’s life, meaning it missed out a lot of stuff like the Peasants’ Revolt to basically focus on his downfall; we see him as a somewhat variable power, exiling people and seizing their assets to fight a war in Ireland and then basically crumbling when he gets home from that and finds Henry Bolingbroke’s come home from exile a few years ahead of schedule.

There’s apparently long been speculation about the historical Richard’s mental state, and Derek Jacobi’s portrayal arguably plays up to that, and, for me at least, ventures at times over the edge into ham. I think I considerably preferred Ben Whishaw’s version in The Hollow Crown. Performance-wise, I liked Charles Gray (who we’ll see again shortly as Julius Caesar) as the Duke of York and Jon Finch as Bolingbroke (remember him as Macbeth in Polanski’s film? He had form playing kings who’d got there by dubious means) a lot better here. Notable too in the cast is Boba Fett, the recently departed Jeremy Bulloch as Henry Percy, and, well, this was not his finest hour… initially I thought it was the bloke who played Prince Harry in the original Blackadder, and once I had that in my head I couldn’t take him seriously. Not sorry that he was recast for the rest of the Henriad…

Regarding which, it’s a bit odd that this was produced separate from the rest of the Henry IV/V/VI plays, and I think the BBC recognised that themselves cos they repeated it a year later ahead of Henry IV. I’m not sure how well it works by itself, I think mostly it serves to lay the background for the rest of the sequence. Overall not a bad job, kind of classically “70s BBC”, albeit somewhat less vigorous than R&J last week.

The BBC Television Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet (1978)

Director: Alvin Rakoff

So, through the course of 2021, I’m going to attempt a full viewing of the 1970s/80s BBC Shakespeare in an effort to get back into, you know, actually watching things that aren’t Youtube videos (my non-YT film viewing in 2020 amounted to precisely one short film—young mister Elena’s Audio Guide, great—and, I think, two full TV series—Firefly and An Age of Kings, the BBC’s earlier Bardtacular). My TV backlog is threatening to get as out of hand as the infamous never-ending film backlog, so it’s time I started digging in. To which end I’m starting on the BBC Shakespeare, and will try to get through at least one episode a week of that.

We begin accordingly with Romeo and Juliet, which struck me as a pretty satisfying inauguration of the series. I know the earlier productions helmed by Cedric Messina have a bit of a reputation for stodge, but this worked pretty well for me. The Verona street set is impressively large and Rakoff gets a lot of value out of it with some reasonably mobile and active camerawork, particularly during the fight scene between Tybalt (Alan Rickman making his screen debut, already radiating that bass-baritone menace despite an unfortunate head of hair I hope was a wig) and Mercutio then Romeo. The latter is played by Patrick Ryecroft, who I think does pretty well… don’t know if I was as convinced by Rebecca Saire in the other title role, though she is notable for having been the same age as Juliet (who’s usually played by older teens or 20-somethings) and for having sniped a bit at it before broadcast cos she seemed to think Juliet should be a bit more sexy, whereupon the BBC panicked and cancelled all her other promo duties… On the whole, I liked it (surprisingly bloody stuff) though it does tail off some in the second half, R & J’s emo kid business after that sword fight really isn’t as interesting, but I suspect that’s down to Shakespeare himself rather than Rakoff’s direction.

Woman of Tokyo (1933)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Wherein we can see Ozu starting to become “Ozu”, if you know what I mean, playing with the sharp scene changes his later films would be full of, and doing so in a particularly startling way at one point when, without warning, the credits for the 1932 American film If I Had a Million abruptly appear on screen. For one horrible moment I thought there was something terribly wrong with my copy of the film, but no, we soon see the characters are actually watching the film at a cinema and Ozu just decided to be cheeky and cut bits of the American film directly into his own (in a manner I rather doubt Paramount would’ve actually given him permission to do) rather than show people looking at it on a screen. I’ve been amused before by the way Ozu inserted film posters and the like into his early films, but this was clearly taking that to the next level…

Otherwise, the story seems more like Mizoguchi than Ozu, revolving around a brother and sister, Ryoichi and Chikako who co-habit in a small flat; he’s a student and she’s pretty much the wage-earner, working in an office by day and, well, doing something else by night. Something else that’s attracted police attention for some reason that the film is oddly vague about (it hints at prostitution while also hinting at something apparently worse, but what?); Ryo’s girlfriend’s brother happens to be the officer investigating her, and when said girlfriend goes to warn Chikako, complications ensue. Ozu seems not particularly involved in all of this, and perhaps the film’s origin indicates why; for whatever reason the studio needed a film from him very quickly and he certainly delivered, tossing this off in just eight days and starting shooting before the script was even finished, so that doesn’t really bespeak a strong connection between him and his material. The ultimate bleakness of the thing just seems a bit pointless too, and the brevity of it (not even 50 minutes long) doesn’t give much opportunity to get close to the characters. OK, but not one of Ozu’s strongest works.

The Mysterious X (1914)

Director: Benjamin Christensen

Is there any truth to the old claim that, in the very early days of cinema, close-ups were frowned upon because audiences were supposedly paying to see the performers’ whole bodies rather than just parts of them? If so, I presume the person who first said that would’ve had conniptions at this film, in which the audience would’ve been paying to see performers they couldn’t actually see… Benjamin Christensen is best known now, no doubt, for Haxan, but this, his debut, also offers points of interest. It has to be said the plot is not exactly one of those… basically, war breaks out and our main character (Christensen himself), a naval lieutenant, gets sent off to fight; meanwhile, Mrs Lieutenant has become the object of infatuation for a certain Count Spinelli, who takes an opportunity to break into the lieutenant’s sealed orders (Sealed Orders being the other, more immediately understandable English title for the film) and steal the info therein, which eventually results in the lieutenant himself being arrested for spreading said info to the enemy (whoever they are; the film is oddly reticent about who the other side is supposed to be. How ironic, too, that a film released just a few months before the actual outbreak of actual war should’ve been made in a country that would then stay neutral during that war…)

So this is all so much melodrama, and JESUS FUCK how excessive does it get at times, too… and just how does Spinelli manage to survive so long trapped in the old mill without food or water given that the film seems to take place over quite a number of days? Anyway, the narrative and the handling of same aren’t really the point, it’s Christensen’s visual presentation of his material that is. The staging is largely in fairly standard early cinema tableau form, very minimal cutting, but there are some nice moments of camera movement (the house interior set is revealed to be surprisingly large) leading to some borderline abstract compositions at times, and then there’s Christensen’s use of darkness as much as light. In 1914, I imagine this would’ve been particularly striking, and some of the silhouette business still is. It’s a better film to look at than it is a story to follow, but it’s not bad all up and the whole thing culminates in a last-minute rescue that Griffith might’ve liked.

Revenge (1989)

Director: Ermek Shinarbaev

Well, wasn’t THAT awesomely difficult to love. When you boil Revenge (also known as The Red Flute for no reason that I can discern, since I don’t recall any such object even appearing in the film, let alone being relevant to the story) down to its basic plot—a rural teacher kills one of his students in a rage, the child’s father gives birth to another son so that he can take revenge for him—you do it a genuine and amazing injustice. I mean, yeah, that is what happens, and yet there’s more to it… Revenge occupies an odd place both as a story and a production, appearing near the end of the Soviet Union when perestroika was inspiring a new wave of sorts in Kazakhstan, set mostly in Korea and starring Kazakh actors speaking Russian. Which I suppose is not really different from, say, Hollywood films set in foreign lands where everyone speaks English, but it was weirdly disconcerting here… plus, although the film is actually concretely set between 1915 and the mid/late 1940s, there’s a strange abstractness to the film’s apparent temporal setting; indeed, almost the only thing I can remember that really grounds it in the 20th century is a scene near the end with a truck. Otherwise I can’t recall any mention of either war that took place in that timeframe; you’d almost swear it was meant to be some piece of timeless folklore or something. Revenge is far from immediately ingratiating, being more inclined to a sort of poetic indirectness—had the director not specifically stated the film is at least in part about the forced repatriation of the Korean population of Sakhalin after WW2 I’m not sure I would’ve guessed that fact—and a few moments of animal cruelty are wince-inducing. It is, however, frequently stunning to actually look at—it has one of the most astounding crane shots I’ve seen, and really beautiful use of natural light. I liked the film more than otherwise, I think, but I’m going to need at least one more viewing to get more from it, cos I’m sure there’s more to get.

Dry Summer (1963)

Director: Metin Erksan

Dry film, too. This film is known for having been an international success (Berlin Film Festival winner, actual US release—overseen by none other than David Durston, of all people—and Oscar nominee), and for having been buried at home almost immediately for the best part of half a century, on the grounds that, well, it was kind of sexy (there’s one scene of our villain perving on the female lead which is kind of eye-popping) and maybe a bit politically progressive (although the Masters of Cinema booklet essay by Phil Coldiron frets about it not being Marxist enough). What we have, basically, is a western of sorts set in what I presume was contemporary Turkey; the previously mentioned villain is the landowner, Osman, whose property contains a spring that irrigates his land and that of the surrounding village. When a particularly hot summer sets in and water is at a premium, he decides to dam up the spring so it only services him and not the neighbours. Needless to say, this goes badly with the latter, and things end in Osman shooting one of them, convincing his younger brother to be the fall guy for him while he stays free to tend the property… and the brother’s wife. This is all quite tedious, rendered with some admittedly striking visuals plus some irritatingly choppy story-telling and some really bad technical issues (bad dubbing and what looks like some very ill-advised sped-up motion at some points), plus some pointless animal cruelty, but the dullness of the characters is what sank it for me. The wife is quite nice, but the villagers are fucking hopeless, Osman is just a dreadful person without any evident charisma to make his sheer awfulness watchable, and the brother, Hasan, is not much better; he disagrees with Osman’s scheme but doesn’t really do much to oppose him cos he’s, frankly, kind of spineless. And that’s kind of the point, cos the end of the film is about him finally discovering that backbone, but it’s a bit late by then. Not feeling the love for this one at all.

Gate of Hell (1953)

Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa

At a time when Japanese cinema was just starting to gain worldwide renown, Kinugasa had a veritable international hit on his hands—award winner at Cannes and the Oscars among others—albeit one whose success apparently perplexed him; he was dissatisfied by the film owing to studio interference and what he thought was a weak script. But! Gate of Hell has one inarguable factor on its side, and that’s colour. Early 50s Eastmancolor, and oh my. If Eastman could never entirely compete with Technicolor (apart from convenience), it could certainly put up a worthy fight in the right hands.

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Gate of Hell is set against a historical uprising, the Heiji rebellion of 1160 in which the dominant Taira clan were attacked by the Minamoto clan while the former’s leader was on a pilgrimage. In the course of this, our rather dubious “hero”, the provincial warrior Morito, emerges; he’s rather a rough diamond, and even his good deeds during the uprising are shadowed by association with his brother, who joined the other side. It’s his obsession with Lady Kesa, however, a lady-in-waiting who he rescues from the chaos at Kyoto, that really draws attention; not just for the idea of a rustic chap like him wanting to marry nobility like her, but also because, well, she’s already got a husband. Like that’s enough to stop him, of course…

All of this is played quite nicely (particularly by Kazuo Hasegawa as the initially heroic-seeming but really kind of creepy and unpleasant Morito), but I can kind of understand Kinugasa’s reservations about the script; it makes for nice semi-film noir business in a historical setting but there’s also not really enough of it to fill 90 minutes. Still, you can make an argument that the film is as much about its use of colour and design as it is the story (that Oscar it won for costuming was well-deserved), and, as I’ve said elsewhere, I do tend to give a pass to films that are visually interesting if the story is a bit lacking. Gate of Hell is pretty much the sort of thing I mean by that.

The Warped Ones (1960)

Director: Kureyoshi Kurahara

Not much to say about this other than that I really disliked it. I’m trying to remember the last time I saw a film with such frankly shitty characters (and I don’t relish meeting them again in another film in this Kurahara box set from Eclipse). Kurahara films proceedings with undeniable vigour, and the comparisons with the energy of the burgeoning Nouvelle Vague (and Nuberu Bagu for that matter) are apt, but god/dess these people are such scum that I don’t give a shit. The pointless viciousness is kind of impressive considering the period, but, yeah, I don’t care.

20,000 Days on Earth (2014)

Directors: Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard

I’m filing this under both documentary and drama because I’m not really sure how else to do so. “Dramatised documentary” is probably the best description for it, but that opens up a range of questions that the film invites us to ask pretty much from the get go. Primarily, and most obviously, how much of the film actually IS “documentary”? To what extent is it actually a drama posing as documentary? How far is a documentary still a “documentary” if parts of it at least are staged in some way (and can documentary even avoid at least some degree of contrivance)? That’s a question Werner Herzog’s documentary career has kind of been built on, and we’ve been asking it at least since Nanook of the North, and it hangs over this film… Anyway, our subject is one Nicholas Edward Cave, you may know those bands he’s fronted over the last four decades; I’m admittedly not a mega-fan of Nick—I know, I’m a bad goth—and I wasn’t particularly enamoured of Push the Sky Away, the album he and the Bad Seeds are working on in the course of this film (though the songs sound better in the film somehow than I remember them doing on record). That said, Forsyth and Pollard’s handling of their subject is interesting whatever you make of Nick himself; much of the film is in the form of conversations between him and various people—a psychotherapist, actor Ray Winstone, Kylie Minogue, former Seed Blixa Bargeld (who’s… filled out a bit since he was in the band), current Seed Warren Ellis, and a group of archivists—which sounds like death but our directors manage to make it anything but, and of course that whole issue of “real vs staged” helps maintain interest (e.g. there’s photographic evidence of Tracy Pew beating up some German guy pissing on him on-stage, but what about the equally marvellous story of Nick’s teenage transvestism? Did that really happen?). Cave says a couple of things about living for performance and the desire to transform himself into something he wasn’t, and those two statements kind of underpin the whole film and leave us to question the “Nick Cave” we see throughout it; if there’s no definite answer by the end, the journey is still a fun one. Plus Warren Ellis plays a Microkorg at several points, and that always wins me over to an artist…

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