Monday, 2 November 2009

The Invisible Man (USA, 1933)

Though not as famous as his other 1930s classics, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, James Whale’s The Invisible Man showcases the same inspired juxtaposition of the hilarious and the horrific that makes them so outstanding. Like them (and like the other great Universal monster movies, such as Tod Browning’s Dracula, with Bela Lugosi as the iconic count, and Karl Freund’s The Mummy starring Boris Karloff) The Invisible Man was so cleverly designed, and so assuredly executed, that it has been influential ever since.

It’s a short, lean film and its plot is pleasingly brisk. Claude Rains, who had previously starred in one silent film, in which he of course couldn’t be heard, here makes his debut in a sound film in which he can’t be seen. His haughty and ultimately homicidal Dr. Jack Griffin is already invisible when we meet him – wrapped in bandages and an overcoat, and sporting dark glasses and a natty fake nose – and so there is no clumsy and long-winded exposition to stall the picture while it explains how he came to be such a transparent Trevor.

Griffin checks into an out-of-the-way English inn in the hope it will provide the peace and privacy that will allow him to reverse the effects of his recently perfected disappearing serum – but, naturally, it does not. Instead, perpetually pestered by the locals (including Una O’Connor in a cracking turn as his hysterically shrieking landlady), he eventually unveils himself. The first time he unwinds his bandages and discards his clothing to reveal nothing underneath is one of the finest scenes in sci-fi.

Unlike any other special effects in cinema, those in this film are essentially unsurpassable: no-one will ever be more invisible than The Invisible Man’s invisible man. So, while The Wolf Man’s transformations look less impressive with every new generation of werewolf films, and while Frankenstein’s monster make-up becomes creakier with every cinematic reimagining of Mary Shelley’s story, those effects on show here remain as effective – though admittedly not as astounding – as they were upon the film’s release. (What’s more, when Invisible Man-style SFX are upgraded with new graphics technology, as they were in 2000’s Hollow Man, the visuals – by showing us water clinging to his face, or organs working inside his body – serve only to make the invisible character more visible, and thus they are often self-defeating.)

Having cemented himself as the movies’ most committed naturist (no major studio film has ever featured so much male nudity as this one), Griffin eschews the opportunity to become the world’s best burglar, most secret secret agent, or the Pele of peeping Toms and runs about bashing people, stealing bicycles and tweaking policemen’s noses before making the sinister decision to start a killing spree as a prelude to exploiting his powers for the purposes of world domination. (He dreams of selling his secret to whichever nation will pay the most for the chance to unleash invisible armies upon the world.)

From here until its tense and intelligent end, the film is a manhunt drama, with various officials and investigators attempting to apprehend the un-spottable scientist as he becomes increasingly insane and ever more murderous. Some ingeniously witty scriptwriting (by R.C. Sherriff) has the audience’s every idea about how to catch an invisible fugitive (spraying ink about, waiting until it is cold enough to see his breath, slapping wet tar on every roadway…) shouted down as idiotic when it is suggested by someone onscreen, and so we really are intrigued by just how the police could catch Griffin and genuinely wonder if they will.

But while the screenplay and special effects are responsible for much of the film’s enduring appeal, the true powers behind its classic status are Rains and Whale. Giving one of film’s greatest exhibitions of vocal acting, Rains – who invests Griffin’s every word with a commanding and condescending disregard for everything in the world except his genius – manages to steal every scene he is in, despite not actually being in any of them. Whale, meanwhile, underlines what Frankenstein had proved two years before and its sequel would prove again two years later: that there is no cinematic mix as potent as that of the comic and the macabre, and no one with a better command of it than he. The Invisible Man is a masterpiece and deserves to be revisited as often as any Hollywood horror film.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

A Nightmare On Elm Street (USA, 1984)

Although it seems incredible, A Nightmare On Elm Street – the supernatural slasher movie that launched the career of undead icon Freddy Krueger – was based on real-life events. In 1977, apparently healthy young members of the Hmong-American community began inexplicably dying in their sleep. Victims had complained of an evil spirit hunting them in their dreams and, desperate to stay awake, had resorted to drugs and drinking enormous quantities of coffee. When they finally slept, they didn’t wake up.

Seizing on this story, writer-director Wes Craven gave an unforgettable identity to its dream-bound killer and created the picture that would bring him international acknowledgement as a horror movie maestro. Of course, he changed the chief characters from ex-pat Asians to the standard assortment of sexually enticing WASP teens – but little else about Elm Street was standard. The usual slasher rules – established in 1978’s Halloween and so quickly appropriated by its imitators that by the mid-eighties they had already become clichéd – were cleverly tweaked by Craven to remove whatever comforts they allowed the films’ post-pubescent corpses-to-be.

In Krueger, he created a killer who wasn’t limited to tapping on your bedroom windows to put the willies up you, or breaking in through them to butcher you: he just had to wait until you dropped off to sleep before sucking you into your mattress and sending out a 100-gallon geyser of your blood. If you happened to escape him by waking up, any wounds he’d inflicted – a torn nightgown or a sliced arm – were taken by your parents, or the police, or anyone on whom you depended for support, as evidence of your incipient insanity.

This was the movie’s cleverest conceit. Whilst other slashers required adults to be out of town, or stuck in the rain, or just looking the other way in order for the villain to be able to pick off his prey, Elm Street ensured that the more the victims complained, the less help they were likely to receive: no parent would ever believe the babblings of a child intent on spending every night in a state of self-inflicted insomnia. Without the possibility that adults could burst in and see off the bogeyman just as things looked bleakest, Elm Street’s teenagers were truly alone.

In straight slasher films, victims were confronted by the murderer in a landscape in which they ordinarily felt secure. Whilst this put a frightening twist on the idea of attending high school on prom night or graduation day, spending the summer at sleepaway camp or babysitting in your neighbour’s front room, the physical setting nevertheless worked to neither the killer nor the victim’s advantage. Elm Street’s adolescents, meanwhile, are chased through a hostile world over which, crucially, their pursuer has control. Here, as you turn to run up to your bedroom, that most obvious and comforting childhood sanctuary, the stairs can turn to quicksand underneath you.

The electrifying idea of apparently benign situations revealing a sinister edge also stretches into Elm Street’s storyline, as Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy, the purest and perkiest of Krueger’s quarry, uncovers a compelling mystery, thoroughly believable within the fantasy framework of the film, which reveals who Fred Krueger is – or was – and why he is driven to kill this generation of Elm Street kids. Every slasher film needs a decent back story to provide motives for its murders, and this slasher film has one of the best.

There are failings, though. The most obvious occurs in a sequence always smiled at by the film’s fans and sneered at by its detractors. As Freddy stalks a victim along a wide alleyway, his arms expand until his hands touch either wall, allowing him to block any escape. It sounds all right: but it looks awful. Considerably clouding his air of evil, actor Robert Englund appears to just spend the scene waving a pair of broom handles inside an especially long-sleeved sweater (which, one imagines, is exactly what he was doing). But, unconvincing arm extensions aside, the low-cost special effects (which can never have appeared particularly high-tech) still do the business in the CGI age.

Where the film falls down hardest is in its ending. Uncertain how to close the film, Craven filmed a few endings and, oddly, opted to include them all. Perhaps the possibility of creating a more satisfactory final scene is what persuaded the powers behind the 2010 remake to believe they could improve upon the original. Certainly, apart from a slight freshening of the special effects, there is no other area in which, for what it is, this film could possibly be improved upon.

Elm Street’s commercial success and ingenious premise were the wellspring for a seemingly incessant stream of sequels. Although these were all enlivened by the Krueger character and the malign sparkle with which Robert Englund always endowed him, they became increasingly silly and tended to undermine each other. Elm Street 3, for example, operated around the idea that Krueger would be free to stalk the sleeping until his worldly remains were buried in consecrated ground, and so reached a solid and definitive finish when they were. The following year’s Elm Street 4 then saw him unaccountably resurrected by a stream of flaming dog urine.

But the rot emphatically stopped with the seventh Freddy film, Wes Craven’s A New Nightmare, an intelligent semi-sequel to the Elm Street movies in which actors from the original film, playing themselves, are terrorized by a ‘real life’ Krueger (with much more impressive extendo-arms). Far more than any of the true sequels, A New Nightmare makes a perfect double bill with the first movie.

It is only the first movie, however, that deserves a place in this collection. Filled with fun, fear and thrills all orchestrated by the greatest horror villain ever created specifically for the screen, A Nightmare On Elm Street will outlast any number of remakes or commercially-minded franchise reboots.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Plan 9 From Outer Space (USA, 1959)

Muhammad Ali has not been called the greatest boxer of all time; nor Citizen Kane the best of all films; nor Shakespeare the world’s greatest playwright anything like as often as Plan 9 From Outer Space has been called the worst movie ever made. Ed Wood’s infamous Z-movie ‘about grave robbers from outer space’ is beyond abysmal and beneath abominable. It features the least ‘special’ effects ever committed to celluloid; the most stuttering, inarticulate script ever put into production; and acting – much of it by performers who struggle to speak English – so awful you pray for certain characters to be killed just so their screen time can be taken by someone who is at least audible.

Stephen Fry wrote, ‘What can we say about Wodehouse? He exhausts superlatives.’ What can we say about Wood? He exhausts insults. To detail even Plan 9’s most superficial faults would require one to write a book as big as the Bible, Infinite Jest and Proust combined. But it would be an impossible exercise: the English language, the greatest instrument of expression yet devised, falls impotent when tasked with conveying just how diabolical this film is. If aliens arrived on Earth to sit in judgement over human achievement, Plan 9 From Outer Space is, without qualification, absolutely the last exhibit we should ever want them to see.

And yet it is not the worst film ever made. What’s more, it deserves a place in this collection of ‘movies most worth watching’ as much as many a masterpiece or rhapsodically-praised cult classic. Unless your taste is so superb that the cliché ‘so bad it’s good’ has never found echo in your experience, then Plan 9 is likely to afford you as much amusement as just about any movie you’ll ever see. No calamity-prone pre-school play or scandal-stricken politician’s apology was ever as unintentionally entertaining as even the film’s dullest moments, and very few of the great screen comedies generate anything like as many laughs.

The ineptitude is instant and incessant: the film’s second sentence (spoken by nationally-syndicated psychic The Amazing Criswell, with his tongue steadfastly out of his cheek) is, ‘Future events such as these will affect you – in the future.’ And from here the film limps into an inconceivably idiotic plot involving aliens, angered by the US government’s refusal to acknowledge their existence, undertaking to conquer the Earth – for our own good – by re-animating the recently deceased and directing them to stagger arthritically around graveyards. (This is, apparently, the ninth plan they have for taking over the world; what the first eight are we sadly never learn.) Endeavouring to stop them are an airline pilot, an army colonel and various members of the LAPD, whose best idea for combating an invading race of super-intelligent extra-terrestrials and their invulnerable un-dead strongmen is to try to start fist fights – an approach that proves markedly successful and even manages to set one flying saucer ablaze as it hovers over Hollywood.

There are dozens of stories that suggest something of the appeal and incompetency of Plan 9, and the most famous is always worth recounting. According to its credits, the film ‘guest stars’ Hollywood horror legend Bela Lugosi. There would be nothing remarkable in this – the iconic Dracula star, who spent the last years of his life in obscurity, had worked for Wood before in order to fund the insatiable drug habit that helped push him into penury – but, when the movie was made, Bela Lugosi was dead.

Ed Wood had a few minutes of unseen footage of the actor shot for a different (and incomplete) film, and so decided to edit it into Plan 9, over and over again, to make it appear that Lugosi was involved. Whenever the oft-repeated footage of his world-famous ‘guest star’ couldn’t be shoehorned in, Wood used a ‘double’: his wife’s chiropractor, a Dr. Tom Mason. In every shot in which he appears, Mason – who resembles Lugosi as strongly as Samuel L. Jackson resembles a young Shirley Temple – holds up a black cape to hide his face, a feat he maintains even whilst his character is being repeatedly shot in the stomach. The chance to witness so absurd a spectacle should be enough to induce anyone to give 79 minutes of their time to Plan 9.

They would not be 79 minutes wasted. For all its faults, we never leave a screening of the film feeling resentful we have watched it, and that sets it ahead of hundreds of other films that are, by virtually every other measure, infinitely superior to it. There are many movies that are, because of their vapid commercialism, prejudicial politics or sustained tediousness, far worse than Plan 9 From Outer Space – which is, ultimately, one of the world’s most enjoyable movies.

What’s most wonderful about it is that, whilst many legitimately brilliant films grow less effective with age, its appeal will only increase. As filmmaking technology improves, Plan 9’s pitiful production values, un-countable continuity errors and special needs effects will seem increasingly atrocious – and thus watching them will become increasingly hilarious. 200 years from now, Plan 9 From Outer Space may be more entertaining than Some Like It Hot.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Scum (Great Britain, 1979)

In 1977, having been commissioned by the BBC, leading television director Alan Clarke took Roy Minton’s merciless and tirelessly researched script about survival in a youth offenders’ institution, and a cast comprised mainly of unknown adolescents, and delivered Scum, a stark and often terrifying drama that remains one of Britain’s most effective pieces of TV. Realising they had been presented with a minor masterpiece that was sure to prove socially incendiary – by exposing the brutalities of the borstal system and spotlighting a criminalised underclass that was all but ignored on TV – the powers-that-were at the BBC decided not to screen it. And, to make sure it couldn’t be screened in the future, they also decided to ban it.

In 1979, the rights to Scum’s script had reverted its author, and Minton and Clarke were able – because of the quality of the un-broadcast original and a guarantee that Ray Winstone would reprise the central role – to secure funding to re-film it for cinematic release. The result was just as powerful, but far more polished, than the television version and, though often eye-wateringly uncomfortable to watch, was one of the few British films of the 1970s and 80s to achieve any kind of greatness.

With the exception of Mike Tyson and Norman Whiteside, Ray Winstone was the most intimidating teenager in the history of humankind – and so he is ideally cast as Carlin, a ‘light-fingered guttersnipe’ transferred to one borstal because he assaulted an officer at another. Alongside him in his new nick is Mick Ford’s Archer, an eccentric intellectual keen ‘to get through [his] time in his own little way, causing as much… trouble to the screws as possible’, by pretending to be vegetarian and refusing to wear standard issue leather boots; telling the fanatically Christian governor he is considering converting to Islam; and cheerfully undermining authority in any peaceful way he can devise. (He is, for example, punished for painting ‘I AM HAPPY’ on a wall.)

Around them are John Blundell’s Pongo, ‘the daddy’; Julian Firth’s Davis, a pathetic erstwhile escapee who is, by comparison with Carlin and co., underdeveloped and oversensitive, and therefore destined for disaster; and a hoard of other ‘trainees’, sane and disturbed, weak and barbaric, most of whom are abusers and all of whom are abused. Though only youths, they exist inside a de-humanising system imported from adult prisons and follow the clichéd criminals’ code under which no one informs on anyone else. Subsequently, ABH, GBH and eventually even a brutal gang rape are all explained by the victims with the darkly comic refrain, ‘Nothing [happened], sir. I fell, sir’. Meanwhile, the guards, in an attempt to preserve order, condone and even orchestrate the vicious exploitation of the vulnerable.

Much of the plot concerns Carlin’s efforts to become the dominant inmate, and the centrepiece sequence – in which, with the assistance of two snooker balls in a sock, he makes the savage and irrefutable statement, ‘I’m the daddy now!’ – is one of the best in British films. Its quality is such that it recalls two sequences in the first two Godfather films: the moments when Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone decides to move from civilian to mafioso by murdering the men who ordered an attempt on his father’s life; and those when Robert De Niro’s Vito Corleone decides to supplant Don Fanucci as kingpin of local crime, and stalks him over the rooftops of Little Italy. Of course, it is a very British version of those scenes: utterly unromantic, prominently featuring a communal toilet, and with repeated boots in the bollocks in place of ingeniously concealed handguns.

While Carlin drives the action, Archer voices its implications – and his quiet, dialogue-rich scenes are the perfect counterpoint to Carlin’s eye-catching explosions of aggression. Mick Ford (and Roy Minton)’s biggest moment comes when, calmly and cleverly, Archer explains to a guard the debasing effect the punitive system has had on both of them – and is reported to the governor for insolence. Nothing like the incessant stream of unnecessary violence its detractors imagined, Scum is often as verbally persuasive as it is visually arresting.

In the early 1990s, long after the first television broadcast of the theatrical release of Scum, the BBC finally allowed the premiere of the TV movie. It’s largely unnecessary to weigh the merits of the two versions – those interested enough to watch one are likely to be interested enough to watch the other, and both are available in the same DVD set – but some comparisons have to be made. Because of the cuts the BBC demanded before they would allow the first film to be shown (before, that is, they decided not to show it all), it lacks the escalating sense of anger and desperation among the inmates that gives the plot its impetus. Without being exposed to the first suicide (which was completely removed from the TV film) and to the horrific realities of the second (which was heavily censored), it is difficult for an audience to accept that the inmates – and, in particular, as avowed a survivor as Carlin or as non-violent a person as Archer – would abandon themselves to the (self-)destructive chaos of the climatic riot.

Just as notable is the absence from the cinematic release of a subplot that is vital to the TV movie: Carlin’s homosexual relationship with a gentle and immature trainee. The scene in which the hyper-macho Carlin – fuelled by a need for intimacy and sexual release that he can barely allow himself to express – asks the boy to become his ‘missus’, is the most beautifully acted in either film, and reveals a helplessness and humanity without which Winstone's character is drastically diminished. Had an equivalent scene, and storyline, been included in the remake, it would have greatly improved an already fine film.

But even without the additional depths that sub-plot would have supplied, the cinema release is still immensely powerful, primarily because it is lightened by a glittering vein of gallows humour, and so never becomes too bleak to bear, and yet manages to maintain the unremitting air of menace that many otherwise excellent prison dramas – and horror movies and gangster films and thrillers – aim for but never achieve. Always violent but never artless, Scum is like a great boxing match: involving and revolting in equal measure.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

The Snowman (Great Britain, 1982)

A boy wakes to find his garden covered with snow. He spends all day building a snowman and, in the evening, is sent to bed. Waking at midnight, he looks out of the window to see his snowman come to life and, joyously, joins him in exploring the thrills of wearing make-up, watching television, riding a motorbike, meeting Father Christmas and, most memorably of all, walking in the air. Back home, the boy goes to bed and, when he wakes up, runs outside to reunite with his frozen friend. He is devastated to see that, while he slept, the snowman melted. And so the 26-minute movie ends with the boy, alone in the snow, falling to his knees in despair.

As many before me have pointed out, it’s not a story (or, at least, an ending) that would have appeared in an American Christmas film (or, it must be admitted, in 99% of British ones) – but it is this honest and unflinching finish that has made The Snowman, and its sub-zero hero, part of the modern iconography of Christmas, both in Britain and abroad. The last moments of the movie elevate it from a sweet and wonderfully amusing entertainment into a perfect reflection of the briefness, and power, of those few childhood years when we can completely believe in the myths and magic of Christmas – and, by extension, make it a metaphor for the quick-burning brilliance of all childhood innocence.

Dianne Jackson’s classic animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’s classic children’s picture book is essentially a silent film with a musical soundtrack (it is often preceded by one of a couple of bits of live action, by far the worse of which is an awkward introduction, and a few moments of unnecessary narration, from David Bowie), and every word-free moment is a reminder, for filmmakers and audiences alike, of just how redundant much movie dialogue can be. The excellence of the animation and the expressiveness of the music recorded to accompany it render pointless any of form of verbal description. The only words we do – or could want to – hear during the film are the lyrics to the endlessly whistle-worthy 'Walking in the Air' (sung not by Aled Jones – he would come later – but by St. Paul’s Cathedral choirboy Paul Auty). The song is the foundation of the film’s most famous scenes: the snowman, en route to a rendezvous with a certain S. Claus, flying hand-in-hand with the unbelieving boy over forests and fields, suburbs and seas.

The Snowman’s finest achievement is probably that anyone still wants to watch it. Like It’s A Wonderful Life, its annual Christmas appearances on (British) television are so long-standing a tradition that one wonders if schedulers aren’t trying to force a programme of aversion therapy onto the film’s fans. If ever a film had the opportunity to become worn out before our eyes, it is The Snowman. And yet the movie remains – the simplicity of its story, the agreeability of its characters, and the marvels of its animation making it immune to negative effects of age and overexposure.

Perhaps not the best Christmas movie (though very possibly the most moving), The Snowman is still a definitive festive film for millions of children, teenagers and adults. For charm and heartbreak, it’s equal to ET, that other great family film from 1982, and, for beauty and impact, to Watership Down, that other great classic of hand drawn British animation. Unlike the appeal of the formulaic, so-and-so-saves-Christmas movies that are vomited onto cinema screens each December, the brilliance of The Snowman will never be melted in the morning.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The Purple Rose of Cairo (USA, 1985)

I have a natural prejudice against The Purple Rose of Cairo: I so adore Woody Allen’s usual film character (his quintessential New York neurotic is as a funny, and as deceptively versatile, as Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Buster Keaton’s Stoneface) that I automatically resent any Allen film in which he does not appear. But not even I would argue that the addition of Allen the actor, or indeed the addition of anything, could possibly improve this, one of the finest, and most bittersweet, of American comedies.

Mia Farrow is Cecilia, a scatty waitress in a 1930s New Jersey ravaged by the Great Depression. Her husband is a deadbeat boozer and the sadness of her life is alleviated only by her frequent pilgrimages to the local picture house. Up on the screen, in a world of spats and champagne, white telephones and one-liners, are the impossibly attractive characters of The Purple Rose of Cairo – the kind of urbane and exotic escapism beloved of Depression-era audiences (and those modern moviegoers prone to sigh and declare, ‘I love old movies!’ at any glimpse of black and white cinematography). Standout among these characters is Jeff Daniels’s dashing, pith-helmeted Tom Baxter – ‘of the Chicago Baxters: explorer, poet, adventurer; just back from Cairo, where [he] searched in vain for the legendary purple rose’ – and Cecilia returns to watch him again and again.

Eventually, intrigued by her incessant attention and desperate to meet her, Baxter steps off the screen and into the real world. The audience erupts, the management go mad, news reporters appear and so, eventually, do the movie’s makers. Accompanying them is Gil Shepherd, the actor underneath Tom Baxter’s safari outfit (and also, of course, played by Daniels). After a chance meeting and an afternoon’s ukulele-playing, Shepherd, too, falls for Cecilia – and soon she is being romanced by both a Hollywood movie star and his latest character. It’s one of the great comic plots, as spectacularly absurd as the storyline of any of the great screwballs, but resolved with an honesty and intelligence that the endings of few movies can match.

When asked to nominate his favourite of his films, Woody Allen frequently cites The Purple Rose of Cairo, not because it is necessarily the best, or the one for which he has most affection, but because it is the movie that, by the time it reached the screen, most exactly resembled the vision he had of it when he sat down to write the script. Even the most auterist major movie is the work of several ensembles and a couple of committees, and so it is remarkable to see one as cohesive and as consistent as Cairo. This isn’t to suggest that simple fidelity to a scriptwriter’s original concept of a film is automatically a mark of quality – only that is here, in a movie entirely without the muddled compromise and thematic loose-ends that so often infect films subjected to focus groups, studio-imposed script doctors or arguments in the editing suite.

Cinema as an escape from the woes of America’s Great Depression is not a new theme – in fact, it is almost a cliché – but its treatment here is uniquely skilled. There is, for example, more psychological resonance – and, I’d wager, more historical accuracy – in the urgent hope in Farrow’s eyes as she gazes at the cinema screen than could be found in any documentary or lecture about 1930s America. And it is in the exquisite balance of period detail and emotional accuracy on the one side, with farce and fantasy on the other, that Cairo’s brilliance is most obvious.

Although the script and performances are equal to those of any of Allen’s many masterpieces (and, considering that Woody has written both more Oscar-nominated scripts and more Oscar-winning roles than any other screenwriter, that is a major compliment), it is the film's visuals that are primarily responsible for the impact of story. The grim and grimy browns of the costumes and backdrops instantaneously transport us to the period (and prefigure those that would star in that festival of nostalgia, Radio Days, which Allen would make two years later); and their contrast with the uncanny recreation of Golden Age sets and cinematography shown in the film-within-a-film not only reinforces our immersion in the era, but also makes a world in which a character stepping out of a cinema screen, or an audience member stepping into it, is both suitably amazing and utterly believable.

Although critical reaction to Cairo was – and remains – pretty much universally rapturous, the film is often omitted when cinephiles name Woody Allen’s best movies. This, I’m sure, is because of the very reason I was initially turned-off by it: Allen doesn’t appear onscreen. Without the spectacle of his comic alter-ego, bumbling, mumbling and spilling jokes of genius about penis envy and anti-Semitism, no Allen film will be ever be seen as emblematic of his work – but that shouldn’t stop it being as acclaimed as any other entry in his oeuvre. The Purple Rose of Cairo is as much a masterwork as Manhattan or Annie Hall.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Singin' In The Rain (USA, 1952)

The question ‘What is the best musical?’ is not only a test of a filmgoer’s taste but also of his or her sanity: anyone who doubts Singin’ In The Rain is the greatest musical ever made should certainly not be allowed to vote and probably not permitted to speak. Rain is a masterpiece of entertainment, a master class in the musical, and the most fun you can have inside a cinema without breaking laws on public indecency.

The story of the calamitous journey from silent to sound films at a fictional Hollywood studio, Rain was written primarily so MGM could wring extra revenue from its back catalogue of (often unconnected) musical numbers composed by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown in the 1920s and 30s. (None of the songs featured appears on film for the first time, and several had been sung in a number of movies prior to their performance in Rain). It hardly seems the ideal genesis for a classic of any kind – let alone one frequently held up as hands down the best work in one of the most successful and overpopulated genres in Hollywood history – but this decidedly uninspired beginning was not the worst of the problems that could have hamstrung the picture before its premiere. Virtually every fan of the film knows that Gene Kelly performed its eponymous, puddle-splashing routine with a temperature of over a hundred; most are aware that Kelly’s character was very nearly written as a singing cowboy and played by Howard Keel; and some can offer dozens of other equally valid reasons why the production might well have gone pear-shaped. That it didn’t is just one of the more mildly amazing things about this miracle of a movie.

Put simply, Singin’ In The Rain has ‘it’: that intangible Casablanca quality that means every element of its design and execution is somehow supernaturally better that it could ever have been expected to be, and works wonderfully both separately and together. As in only a very few classic movies (The Godfather and Grease are decent examples), practically every scene is iconic, so often has it been parodied, referenced or ripped off; included in innumerable clip shows and countdowns of most beloved movie moments; or held up as an example of the heights to which Hollywood movies can climb. Because of this, it’s practically impossible for anyone in the Western Hemisphere to see the film for what is truly the first time – but that shouldn’t put anyone off. Sitting down to watch Singin’ In The Rain for the first – or fifth or fifty-fifth – time is so exciting and surprising, so sumptuous to the eye and joyous to the ear, that to deny it to yourself is to miss one of moviegoing’s great experiences.

For many (in fact, for virtually everyone except professional film critics), the test of whether or a film is ‘good’ is whether or not they enjoy it, and it’s worth noting that by that simplest of measures – the amount of delight it engenders in any audience that watches it – Singin’ In The Rain is very possibly the finest film ever made. Every viewing is a 103-minute high to which we never build up a tolerance, and almost every moment is worthy of special praise or study.

Indeed, to highlight one area of the movie’s appeal is to do a disservice to every other one. Its characters are so endearing and amusing, its pacing so perfect (even allowing for the borderline inexplicable, but undeniably beautiful, ballet sequence with Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly), and its musical numbers so spectacular that it seems like some Platonic model of the perfect musical comedy, after which all others are condemned to flounder in imperfect imitation. Even so, there are two standout sequences: Donald O’Connor’s gravity-goading performance of 'Make ’Em Laugh' and Gene Kelly’s 'Singin’ In The Rain' routine are, in all of American musicals, equalled only by each other.

On Oscar night, Rain was all but ignored: nominated for only two awards, it won neither (probably because a year earlier An American In Paris, that other great Gene Kelly musical, had taken six, including Best Picture). But since then organisations major and minor have buried it in awards – the American Film Institute named it one of America’s five best films, Sight and Sound twice named it one of the world’s ten best films, and the Library of Congress deemed it a national treasure – and everyone, or at least everyone who doesn’t belong in the booby hatch, has acknowledged it as the finest musical we are ever likely to see.