Wednesday 16 February 2011

The Nutty Professor (USA, 1963)

There are those who detest Jerry Lewis. I cannot empathise with them because I can no more understand them than I can those who disparage Charlie Chaplin or dismiss Casablanca. But I can sympathise with them, as to struggle inside so joyless a mind, or to possess a sense of humour so diseased by cynicism, that one cannot enjoy the life-enriching artistry of one of cinema's most accomplished clowns is surely the worst sentence – save perhaps a Rocky V-Battlefield Earth double bill – to which any cineaste could be condemned. Even those who dislike Lewis, though, seem to enjoy The Nutty Professor: it is the one film of his that has retained almost universal appeal, and it is the best demonstration of The Total Filmmaker’s total talent.

In it, Lewis – who, like the few creative screen comedians who are his equal (Chaplin, Keaton, Fields, Tati, Allen...), is something above an auteur – is at his most accomplished as a scriptwriter, as a director and, most notably, as an actor. His turn here is one of the great comic performances, though given the connotations it carries that description is practically an insult. We do not say that Laurence Olivier gave one of the great tragic performances in Hamlet, that Marlon Brando gave one of the great dramatic performances in A Streetcar Named Desire, or that Anthony Hopkins gave one of the great horrific performances in The Silence of the Lambs. But when it is said – if it is said – that Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor (or Buster Keaton in The General or Charlie Chaplin in City Lights...) gave one of the great performances, the compliment is always qualified: this, we say, is one of the great comic performances.

When Nicole Kidman employs a fake nose and an accent that isn’t her own in a performance designed to make us cry, it is an award-worthy example of dedication and craft. When Jerry Lewis uses fake teeth and an unnatural voice in a performance designed to make us laugh, however, it is a performance worthy of only the most patronising praise. Comedy, as Woody Allen noted, so often ‘sits at the children’s table’. Jerry Lewis has never much minded sitting at the children’s table: he knows there is far more unfettered fun, and far less pretension, to be had there. Even so, the unadulterated truth deserves to be stated – and the unadulterated truth is that Jerry Lewis is just about as good in The Nutty Professor as any actor is anywhere on film.

He’s helped by having one of American comedy’s greatest roles – or rather, by having two of American comedy’s greatest roles. Lewis plays Professor Julius Kelp, an experimental chemist who, the persistent explosions in his laboratory classrooms suggest, should really lay off the experimental chemistry. Kelp is bespectacled, buck-toothed and timid; his voice is a high-pitched assault on the ears, and his clumsiness a strain on even saintly good manners.

Mocked and outmuscled by almost all other men and, he thinks, unable to win the love of his favourite student (played, wonderfully, by Stella Stevens) he concocts, and imbibes, a chemical potion designed to transform him into an Adonis. It works, and he becomes Buddy Love, sexiest of sex symbols and swingingest of swingers.

Love is handsome, talented, and arrogant; he is Chet Baker and Jimmy Dean, Frank Sinatra and The Fonz (before, that is, The Fonz existed). In the irony that ignites the movie, Kelp is loveable but unloved, whilst Love is loathsome – and adored. When Julius Kelp walks into his classroom to begin a lesson he is timetabled to teach, few of his students even notice. When Buddy Love walks into a noisy nightclub (or, indeed, simply walks down the street), crowds fall silent and stare.

The change from Kelp to Love is, of course, only temporary and must, of course, be expertly managed. And, of course, it isn’t – which is why the Jekyll and Hyde plot is so powerful and gives so many opportunities for Lewis to create such a staggering performance. To present two characters as opposed as Kelp and Love (and to present, at various stages of transformation from one to the other, so many amusing mixtures of the two) is a feat of acting that would be beyond almost anyone but Lewis. What is more, he displays such range without the aid of any CGI or special effects, but simply by the tilt of his eyes, the curl of his shoulders, the inflections of his voice, and the manipulation of his face.

It should be impossible to accept that the handsome, imposing Buddy Love and the absurdly unattractive Professor Kelp are the same man, but Lewis ensures it isn’t. To compare his achievement in the original Nutty Professor with Eddie Murphy’s CGI-dependant performance in the remake is to see the gulf of ability between Lewis and the modern star thought best able to reproduce his accomplishments. To set Murphy’s turn as the Nutty Professor against Lewis’s is to compare Professor Kelp's singing voice to Buddy Love’s.

Most films that are set at the time they are made, and that have anything to say about the period, generally age at a grossly accelerated rate compared to those that are set in the past or at unspecified times. That The Nutty Professor (which was set and released in 1963) avoids this is because, although the film is largely about post-swing, pre-flower power American attitudes, it does not reflect them but instead distorts them. The world of The Nutty Professor is, as the settings of Lewis’s films always are, a movie-world over-saturated with sentiment, sound, colour and calamity. And, most obviously, with comedy.

The sets here don’t seem like sets but like the backgrounds in animated movies. The bright contents of each test tube; the colour of every item of clothing on everyone, whether lead actor or scarcely seen extra; the texture and positioning of each prop in The Purple Pit (the gaudy den of debauchery of which Buddy Love is emperor), all these are presented with same forethought and precision with which they would be drawn in a Miyazaki movie. This is fitting, because Lewis – and the comparison is complimentary – is like a human cartoon, capable of extremes of physical absurdity that could only be replicated in animation. (In 2008 they were so replicated, when The Nutty Professor was given an animated sequel.)

The Nutty Professor is not perfect – but, in all the times I have watched it, I have only ever noticed two obvious faults. Firstly, for all his excellence at playing the tough guy Buddy Love, Jerry Lewis throws the least convincing punches you’ll ever see outside a training school for visually impaired pro wrestlers. Secondly, there really is no reason why Jennifer (the talking bird whose super-intelligence presumably results from one of the professor’s earlier experiments) would eat the notebook in which Kelp keeps his copy of the transformation formula. When, however, you’ve seen a film as often as I have seen The Nutty Professor and those are the only two failings you can find in it, you’ve discovered something special. I will never give more earnest advice as a film critic than this: whether you love or (think you) loathe Jerry Lewis, go and watch The Nutty Professor.

Wednesday 1 December 2010

A Christmas Story (USA, 1983)

To Americans, my suggestion that, one Christmas, they should watch A Christmas Story will seem as unnecessary as the suggestion that, one Christmas, they should send cards or exchange gifts. In the US – where, during the festive season, the film famously plays on one cable channel 24 hours a day – A Christmas Story is an institution. In Britain it is almost unknown. Ask a Brit if he’s heard of a festive failure like Jingle All The Way or Scrooged or Christmas With The Kranks and he’ll probably tell you’ve he’s seen it several times. Ask if he’s heard of A Christmas Story and you’ll likely be met with a pause, eyes that narrow into a searching expression and, eventually, a question about whether that’s the one that’s something to do with the Nativity.

It isn’t anything to do with the Nativity. It isn’t anything to do with any of the traditional Christmas stories, and certainly not the traditional Christmas movie plots. There’s no sub-Scrooge miser who calls working lunches on Christmas Eve but is soon reformed by the faith of one sweet-eyed little girl toting a snow globe; there’s no race to reunite a fractured family; nobody steals Christmas and nobody has to save it. There is only a boy, a believable, lovable, flawed every-child, who urgently wants from Santa a certain toy – an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time’ – and is told by every adult to whom he appeals that, if he gets one, he’ll shoot his eye out.

Between meeting him sometime during Advent, and leaving him sometime on Christmas night, we experience with this boy, Peter Billingsley’s Ralphie Parker, many of the tests and joys and absurdities of small town childhood – and each of the ostensibly unremarkable episodes constructed around them is more magical, and more genuinely connected to the spirit of Christmas, than any amount of CGI-infected sequences showing previously hard-bitten New Yorkers joining hands and making Santa’s sleigh fly by just believing in him so damn hard.

Why the film is scarcely seen in Britain – and why, indeed, it isn’t considered a classic the watching of which is integral to any properly conducted Yuletide – is a mystery I cannot solve. Perhaps it is ‘too American’ … but that can’t be right. Certainly, A Christmas Story is entirely and unmistakably All-American, but it’s All-American in the welcoming, comforting, universally appealing way that Peanuts or Forrest Gump are All-American – not in the incomprehensible and off-putting way that homecoming queens or hotdog-eating contests are. The film isn’t just a slice of American pie: it’s a feast of human experience.

What astonishes most about A Christmas Story is its accuracy. I’m assured, by articles I’ve read and conversations I’ve had, that every detail of its period setting is perfect (even though its period is deliberately unspecified). The brands, the clothes, the manners, the streets, the school and the interior decoration are all, apparently, just as they were in towns like Hammond, Indiana during the 1930s and ‘40s. I have had notably limited experience of towns like Hammond, Indiana during the 1930s and ‘40s, but I think I would have known how accurate a reflection of them this film presents even without being told. Every large and important element of this movie – the characters, their interactions, their emotions and motivations – feels so right it simply follows that all the smaller and less significant details are equally exact.

This shouldn’t suggest that A Christmas Story is dully realistic. In fact, it’s enhanced by pronounced cartoonish qualities. Ralphie’s father – who works ‘in profanity the way other artists might work in oils and clay’ – constantly screams obscenities, but these are heard only as streams of innocuous nonsense. And they are subsequently very much funnier than it would be hear Mr Parker (or ‘The Old Man’, as he is known) actually say ‘fuck’ to a furnace.

I don’t believe that Jean Shepherd – the raconteur on whose semi-autobiographical writings the film is based – ever visited, as Ralphie does, a department store Santa Claus who kicked him in the head when he took too long to say what he wanted for Christmas. I don’t believe that any children have ever visited a department store Santa who kicked them in the head when they took too long to say what they wanted for Christmas (not even Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa does that). But I believe totally that thousands of children have seen shopping centre Santas who were so gruff and efficient they might as well have kicked children in the head once their allotted moments in the grotto were over. As such, the scene, while no doubt factually inaccurate, is entirely true.

The characters in this movie behave the way people – not characters in movies – behave, and because of this we truly experience things from their points of view. Many good films – particularly good Christmas films – excel at making us empathise with one character. (Generally, we see everything from the perspective of the little boy who just wants his spoilsport parents to believe that the odd old man he’s befriended really is Father Christmas. We can see he’s Father Christmas – why can’t they? We see nothing from the perspective of those loving, sane, parents who are concerned about the intentions of the probably predatory, and most definitely deranged, white-bearded weirdo hanging around their only child.) Some films, special ones like A Christmas Story, make us able to empathise with two characters at once – and not just within the same movie, but within in the same moment.

As Roger Ebert wrote in his original review of the film:

‘When [Ralphie’s father] wins a prize in a contest, and it turns out to be a table lamp in the shape of a female leg in a garter, he puts it in the window, because it is the most amazing lamp he has ever seen… I can understand that feeling. I can also understand the feeling of the mother… who is mortified beyond words.’

This is the key to A Christmas Story. When I watch it I’m Ralphie, looking up at his mother, hotly, painfully desperate to have that Red Ryder rifle – but I’m also his mother, looking down, disapproving, wanting Ralphie to get his gun but knowing that, if he does, the aforementioned ocular injury is almost inevitable. I’m The Old Man wanting to show my lamp – the Major Award I’ve always known I deserved – to the world from my window, and I’m his wife wanting to smash it to powder. I’m the kid who doesn’t believe that tongues really get stuck to frozen lampposts and I’m the kid triple-dog daring him to prove it.

Christmas is, at its best, about empathy. And Christmas movies, at their best, allow us to empathise. They connect us to characters, like us and utterly unlike us, across time and across oceans. Great Christmas movies make us feel more human, and make us want to be more humane. And A Christmas Story is a very great Christmas movie indeed.

Thursday 26 August 2010

Laura (USA, 1944)

Laura is a definitive film: one of the finest films noir and one of cinema’s most celebrated whodunits. Staged in exquisite sets (by Thomas Little), presented in pristine black and white by cinematographer Joseph LaShelle and directed with the intensity of atmosphere and intelligence typical of Otto Preminger, the film sucks us into what is, for all its elegance, a profoundly unpleasant and persistently disturbing story populated by characters underserved by the ordinarily complimentary description ‘three dimensional’.

The titular lady (Gene Tierney) is dead when the film begins, her face – young, unblemished and universally beloved – having absorbed the impact of both barrels of a shotgun from only inches away. On a Friday night Laura answered the door of her apartment, and on the Saturday morning that follows Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) begins his investigation into the messy murder that immediately ensued. He has three chief suspects (four if you count the girl, a model, with most reason to be envious of Laura, though that girl doesn't seem to get around much anymore).

The rather prosaically named Laura Hunt could, it seems, have been slain by her finance, the money-chasing male beauty Shelby Carpenter (played, in a performance that will surprise those only accustomed to his later work as the grand old man of schlock, by Vincent Price). Her moneyed aunt (Judith Anderson) may also be the murderess; she apparently adored Laura, but then everyone, from maids to millionaires, apparently adored Laura, and the aunt is also in love with Carpenter.

The first person of interest to McPherson, though, is the person who is, throughout the film, of greatest interest to us: the rather un-prosaically named Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb, in a role Price could well have played at the more famous end of his career). Lydecker is louche, effete and ferocious; one of America’s most celebrated minds; and one of its wickedest wits. His newspaper column, which he employs to assassinate the character of whomever he likes (or rather, whomever Laura likes, so keen is he to discredit her suitors) is read by millions. Only his obsession with Laura matches his absorption in himself. (‘In my case self-absorption is completely justified: I have never found any subject quite so worthy of my attention.’) He may well be gay, and yet his longing for Laura is overwhelming. He is a malign mastermind – but his urgent, possibly impotent, lust for a girl who could be his granddaughter makes him also a pitiable fool.

Lydecker was Laura’s social sponsor: under his stewardship, through his introductions and endorsements (both of her and the products she was employed to advertise), she became a sensational socialite, enthralling all. Besides bewitching Lydecker, she of course enchanted her fiancé, Shelby Carpenter, who Lydecker insists is sure to have slaughtered her. Carpenter is an inconstant pretty boy with two lovers besides Laura, one of whom is Laura’s aforementioned aunt. (The other is the aforementioned model.) Laura was too good for him – we agree with Lydecker about that – and at times it seems certain Carpenter killed her. At others, though, he seems a child, incapable of killing anything, and even less so of competently covering it up.

We are led through all this intrigue by Detective McPherson who is, in Andrews's characterisation, a classic noir investigator. He happens to be a legitimate law officer, but he could just as well be a shady private dick or a crooked cop. To him women are ‘dolls’ and ‘dames’. Asked if he's ever been in love, he answers: ‘A dame in Washington Heights got a fox fur out of me once ... but she kept walking me past furniture store windows to show me the parlour suites’. He, too, is in love with Laura – and his desire for her is the darkest on display. We’re accustomed to seeing noir heroes fall for the mysterious seductress who may be an innocent, may be an accomplice or may even be a murderess – but they usually do so whilst that seductress is alive. We’ve seen the weary, wisecracking detective fall for the chief suspect in a murder many times; in Laura we see him fall for the murder victim – after she has been murdered.

McPherson becomes enthralled by a portrait of Laura that hangs at the crime scene and, in the first certain sign he has lost his compass, puts in a bid for it before his case is close to being solved. The picture becomes an object of fascination, of fetishisation, of macabre desire – which is entirely typical of this movie’s psychological landscape. (There are in the film even, perhaps, suggestions of incestuous lesbian longings for Laura by her aunt.) The shafts of psychosexual subtext beneath Laura are deeper, and murkier, than those below Blue Velvet.

Laura’s script – adapted from Vera Caspary’s novel by a team of screenwriters led by the renowned Ring Lardner Jr. – is one of Hollywood’s best paced and best plotted. Midway through there comes a plot twist so extraordinary it would derail practically any other picture that attempted to incorporate it – but that propels Laura to levels of excellence and excitement unparalleled in all but the most elite film thrillers. Many, if not most, reviews of Laura describe this famous twist – as doing so does not reveal the story’s resolution – but I won’t. If there is anyone reading this who is yet to watch what is possibly Preminger’s most flawless film, and who now wants to, they should be allowed to do so with as little knowledge of the progress of its plot as is possible.

That is not to say that knowing how everything in Laura works out diminishes its appeal or is ever likely to dissuade anyone who has seen it from seeing it again. The best murder mysteries are not those that most intrigue and astonish, but those that continue to captivate after the third or fourth viewing, when every aspect of every character is uncovered and every lurch of the story is remembered and unsurprising. By this measure, as by virtually all others, Laura is one of greatest murder mysteries ever made.

Saturday 3 April 2010

Russian Ark (Russia, 2002)

For a man who spends an awful lot of his life considering the relative merits of movies, I’m surprisingly poor at picking favourites. Naming Top Tens, ‘Best Ofs’ or any other kind of list, of any kind of length, that erects a barrier between one wonderful film that is ‘in’ and another wonderful film that is ‘out’ is not something for which my mind is designed or towards which my personality is inclined. Predictably, this is an inability that’s revealed whenever I talk about Citizen Kane. Those friends who haven’t seen Kane but who’ve spoken to me about it have often seemed positively uninterested in letting me persuade them to watch it. (This, I concede, may well reveal more about me than it does about them, or about Orson Welles.) And yet they have all been urgently, achingly, keen to know if I think it is the best film ever made.

I have said innumerable times, in conversation if not in print, that I find there is an infinitesimal amount to be gained (for film fans, for film critics and, most importantly, for film) from squabbling over whether Citizen Kane is slightly ‘better’ than La Regle de Jeu or slightly ‘worse’ than Tokyo Story. There is, though, an incalculable amount to be gained from simply saying that Citizen Kane is a marvellous movie, as good as any other; that if you haven’t seen it you should watch it immediately; and that if you have you should watch it again.

This entry, though, isn’t about Citizen Kane – but it is about a film that, in its innovation and audacity, bears serious comparison to it. It is the film that, gun to my head or hand on my heart, I would, despite my aforementioned aversion to saying this kind of thing, nominate as the greatest film of that decade amusingly but inelegantly nicknamed ‘The Noughties’. The film is Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark.

Sokurov is not so much a filmmaker as alchemist. He takes the same base metals of moviemaking that are constantly combined to produce those pictures – average and uninspiring, amusing but unoriginal – that we all watch weekly, and makes out of them films so astounding it’s difficult to accept they are the same breed of creation as most of those movies playing in our multiplexes and on our television channels. His exquisite Mother and Son was, if not the best film of the 1990s, an incredibly close contender, and – though it is opulent where Mother and Son is austere and massive where Mother and Son is minute – Russian Ark is a comparable accomplishment.

That I have yet to give a précis of its plot points to the difficulty of discussing Ark. It is a film that defeats film criticism. The standard language of movie analysis, whether journalistic or academic, seems (like so many movies one had previously thought cutting edge) suddenly and startlingly outdated once one has watched Sokurov’s masterwork about Russia’s heritage and St. Petersburg’s Hermitage.

The film’s American trailer introduces it best:

‘2000 actors. 1 single continuous shot. 33 rooms of The Hermitage Museum. 3 live orchestras. 300 years of Russian history … Not only is Russian Ark the longest single shot in cinema history, it is also the first film ever created in a single shot.’

In this introduction the methods of the film’s construction and hints at its ‘story’ are intertwined – and so should they be: in Russian Ark form and content are inseparable. A disorientated man awakens at The Hermitage Museum, formerly the palace of the Tsars, and sees episodes from its vast and varied history played out as he (or rather we) wander through its rooms and its history. He (or rather we) admire its exhibits, argue over their quality and, most memorably, witness figures from Russia’s past play out the events the Hermitage has housed. Before him (or rather, before us) appears Peter the First and Puskin, Nicholas the First and Catherine the Great. His (or rather our) companions on his (or rather our) trip through reality and time are the Marquisde Custine, a 19th Century French diplomat dismissive of much of Russian art, and the 19th Century Russian spy who shadows him. (The spy’s presence is one of a half a million historically accurate and subtlety deployed details.)

The parentheses in the preceding paragraph are important. We never see Ark’s main character. In fact, perhaps, we are Ark’s main character. The character is, I think, a modern day filmmaker. Certainly, he is Russian and voiced by Sokurov – but is he Sokurov? Or is the unseen Sokurov playing someone else? We hear his words – indeed, we virtually think his thoughts – but we are not gifted any explanation as to why. The film is not simply shot in one unbroken shot, but in one unbroken Point of View shot. Subsequently, no movie has ever come closer to capturing the experience of consciousness.

Sokurov’s success is due not only to his talent, endeavour and strict generalship of his enormous army of collaborators, but to crucial advances in filmmaking equipment. Other directors – most famously, perhaps, Alfred Hitchcock in Rope – have attempted to make features filmed in a single shot, but their ambition exceeded the capabilities of the technology available to them. In their films you can, sometimes quite literally, see the join. (After ten minutes or so, reels of film had to be changed in the camera.) Because of the stupendous sophistication of its digital recording, Russian Ark is, again quite literally, seamless.

There are those who ask, slightly derisively, ‘Yes… but what if Russian Ark hadn’t been filmed in one take? What if it had used traditional methods of editing?’ To those questions, I find, the best answers are questions themselves: What if Battleship Potemkin had used traditional methods of editing? What if A bout de souffe had? What if Toy Story had been made using traditional animation? What if Citizen Kane hadn’t used deep focus photography or if The Red Shoes had been in black and white? We cannot separate artworks from the means and styles of their creation and, as film critics, we can assess only what is onscreen.

At the core of the question, ‘What if Ark hadn’t been made in one take?’ is, I think, a far cleverer question: ‘Is the film all style and no substance?’ I, emphatically, do not believe that it is – but I can see that there will be always be viewers who think that, and I can almost see their reasons for it. Chief among these is that the film’s style is so arch it is hard for the first-, or fifth-, time viewer to take in anything else. There is, though, far more to take in. Ark is a film about the collision of cultures; about man’s reaction against circumstance as expressed through the art he makes and the societies he constructs; and, above all, about Russia, alone and in relation to the rest of Europe. In Ark, there is almost as much to think about as there is to gawp at. But not quite: Arks form, and our wonder at how it was created, will always overwhelm us. This doesn’t disturb me: the same is true of The Sphinx.

As I wrote in my review of El Topo, there is always an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ quality to any film this esoteric, and many who laud it as I do are no doubt simply pseuds showing off. Perhaps I will be proved to be one of them – but I’m willing to take that chance in order to take the chance of persuading someone to see it. Ark is a marvel. It’s a film that focuses on the past, but that feels like it was sent from the future. Whether, decades hence, it does prove to have been the best film of its time is ultimately immaterial – but I hope it proves to have been the most influential. The prospect of a future for filmmaking in which Russian Ark’s ideas are influential, and its qualities commonplace, is awesome.

At present, though, Russian Ark stands clear as a film that is – if any film can be – unique. Indeed, it is so unusual it forces the viewer to go outside cinema for reference points and comparisons. It reminds me a little of Ulysses (and, no, I don’t pretend to understand half of that, either) and a little of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller. That ordinarily un-illuminating cliché ‘poetry in motion’ has been applied to the picture more than once and, for once, it actually says something about the film it describes. The measured rhythm of Ark’s development; the well-timed appearances of its motifs (both thematic and visual); and, most of all, the obsessively strict way it is orchestrated all recall tightly ordered poetry. Most films are written in free verse. Russian Ark is a Petrachan sonnet.

I don’t mean to imply, by heaping all this praise upon it, that Russian Ark does everything a film can do. Watching it, you are unlikely to burst out into belly laughs or weep at the emotional intimacy you feel with its characters – but you may well be moved to laugh at the astonishing daring of it all and to weep at its equally astonishing visual beauty. If you choose which films to watch because you like to be consumed by a powerful plot, or simply to have your ribs tickled (and those are, incidentally, perfectly decent reasons to choose which films to watch), you may not find much pleasure here. If, however, your mind is set alight by those movies that could change what movies are – and if you want to travel to filmmaking’s freshest frontier – there is no better choice than Russian Ark.

Friday 19 February 2010

Murder By Death (USA, 1976)

It is a dark and stormy night … The world’s five finest detectives – Inspector Wang (read: Charlie Chan), Jessica Marbles (read: Miss Marple), Sam Diamond (read: an amalgamation of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe), Dick Charleston (read: Nick Charles, ‘The Thin Man’) and Milo Perrier (read: Hercule Poirot) – are enticed to the mysterious, mechanised and misleading mansion of ‘short madman’ Lilo Twain, by his cordial invitation ‘to Dinner and a Murder’. After surviving several absurd attempts on their lives, these preeminent private dicks are eventually informed that, at midnight, there will be a murder and, in the morning, there will be a million dollars for whosoever is able to solve it. There follows a film so deliciously ludicrous that its most straight-faced scenes feature a blind butler arguing with a deaf-mute cook.

Astonishing silliness and astonishing intelligence seldom arrive together onscreen. When they do, as they do throughout Murder By Death, the comedy is always exquisite. Everything in this movie is calculated to entertain. The cast is listed ‘in diabolical order’; the opening credits, designed by Wayne Fitzgerald and drawn by Charles Adams, are a fine warm up act for the film; and, once the dialogue begins, we immediately attempt to memorise every line of it. The term ‘big name screenwriter’ is almost an oxymoron, and Neil Simon’s is one of the very few names that keeps it from being a complete contradiction. Though not as intellectual, or as frequently studied, as some of his other scripts, his work here should be as celebrated as anything else in his oeuvre.

Forced, by the Machiavellian machinations of a short madman, to pick a favourite line, I would probably opt for: ‘Locked from the inside! This can only mean one thing … but I don’t know what it is.’ However, practically every joke in the film would be in contention: its lowliest one-liner would be the standout gag in a hundred Hollywood comedies. Just as there are sing-along screenings of The Sound of Music, so should there be (and perhaps there already are) speak-along showings of Murder By Death.

The cast set loose on Simon’s lines is so superb that the best praise it can be given is simply to list its members: Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, David Niven, Maggie Smith, Peter Falk … and, of course, Truman Capote. Capote’s turn as Lionel Twain (a character who is, according to the trailer, ‘a short, sinister man who looks exactly like Truman Capote’) is a joyous and unrestrained explosion of himself, and un-reproachable proof that, given correct casting and understanding direction, a performance beyond the capabilities of any actor can be wrung from someone who is not any kind of actor at all.

Praise for (generally engendered by surprise at) Capote’s performance should, though, never be allowed to overshadow appreciation of the other actors on show. No one has ever been better at giving glimpses of the lecherous and the louche underneath an ‘enormously well-bred’ exterior than David Niven, and he was never better at doing it than he is as Dick Charleston. Not even Jerry Lacy – who provided a priceless impersonation of Humphrey Bogart throughout Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam has ever been better at aping Bogey than Peter Falk is as Sam Diamond. But what is most impressive about the performances exhibited in Murder By Death is that its actors are able to present such obvious and individual caricatures and yet, somehow, to tessellate as an ensemble.

Set designers are seldom the subject of a sentence in film reviews, but Stephen B. Grimes’s work is worthy of a whole paragraph here. Twain’s house, all of which was constructed upon a soundstage, is an incredible creation and enhances the hilarity of every scene: it is every country mansion from every country mansion murder mystery Hollywood ever made, and every haunted house from every haunted house thriller you’ve ever seen. It’s fitting that a film that thrives on its cast’s high-class scenery chewing has such high-class scenery for them to chew.

Outstanding as it is, the film has faults. Any picture this absurd is almost certain to be uneven (cf. Monty Python’s inability to concoct a cohesive plot in anything other than The Life of Brian) and Murder By Death has too many moments that bemuse more than they amuse. The film’s ending, although it makes a clever and amusing point in a clever and amusing way, is also dramatically disappointing.

To pick at such imperfections, though, is not just to miss the point of this movie, but to miss the point of moviegoing. This is a spoof so spot on it is often incapacitatingly entertaining. Next time you want to feel a little more alive, prescribe yourself a little Murder By Death.

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.