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Christopher Lee: A Personal Reflection

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Christopher Lee was my rock star. When I was a kid, and everyone else my age seemed to be into football stars or music personalities, Christopher Lee was the one I admired. It was a different era back then, before the internet and the digital availability of movies, before DVDs and Blu Rays, and even before VHS tape. And so my first exposure to the films of Christopher Lee was in the pages of horror movie books. Books with lurid covers, written with a fan’s gusto by Alan Frank, John Brosnan, Ed Naha. Those Technicolour pages were the beginnings of my explorations into genre cinema, and one name seemed to rise above almost all others: Christopher Lee.

Even on the pages of a book, Lee was a towering presence. In books like Monsters and Vampires and Horror Movies stills of him as Count Dracula, still his most famous roleChristopher Lee in Dracula, emitted a cold menace and a feral animosity. But it was obvious his range extended far beyond the King of the Vampires. There were photos of him as Kharis, The Mummy, lurching up from the swamp to avenge the desecration of the tomb of the Princess Ananka. As the patchwork Creature, embodiment of Frankenstein’s misguided tinkerings in the creation of life, menacing yet confused about its own existence. As the insidious Fu Manchu, whom the world will hear from again. As the heroic Duc Du Richelieu struggling against the forces of the occult. It seemed like there was no role that Christopher Lee couldn’t tackle. I recently showed my 12 year old daughter a two-page spread, from an illustrated history of Hammer Films, of Lee’s roles for the studio and she was incredulous that this was all the same actor. He was a genuine actor, a bit of a chameleon who had a definable presence yet was not afraid to play around with his image for the sake of character. Before even a single viewing of a Christopher Lee movie, his body of work and his contributions to genre films was already as familiar to me as the details of pop stars’ lives were to other kids.

Horror Express may have been the first time I saw Lee in a moving picture. According to an online databank of Radio Times listings, BBC 1 showed this entertaining Euro-horror the night of January 2, 1980. Thirteen years old and already a horror freak, Christopher-LeeI was surprised when my parents broke with tradition and actually let me stay up late to watch a scary flick. In Horror Express Lee stars as Alexander Saxton, an anthropologist who discovers a prehistoric apeman frozen in a cave in Manchuria at the turn of the 20th century. Packed into a crate, the icy creature is loaded onto the Transiberian Express. The creature, of course, thaws out and escapes from the crate, stalking passengers aboard the train. But the apeman is far more than it appears. Lee brings an icy aristocratic arrogance to the lead role, but his character subtly changes from being a bit of a pompous ass to swash some buckles in the climax as he sword fights his way through a train car full of living dead Cossacks (don’t ask).

The second time I saw him in a film was the summer of 1980, when the Amicus portmanteau Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors arose from the late night tv crypt as part of BBC2’s legendary Horror Double Bill. Lee played in only one of the stories, a segment cryptically named Disembodied Hand, as an art critic who hounds an artist to death. This being a horror film the artist’s, uh, disembodied hand then haunts the critic to take revenge for the callous mistreatment of its former owner. In only a short period of time, Lee effectively imbrues his character with a mean-spirited arrogance that quickly turns to fear. This second viewing of a Christopher Lee performance was on a portable black and white television that was balanced on a chair in my bedroom. The 13-year old me could scarcely imagine a better way to spend a late July night.

I had to go hunting through Lee’s filmography on IMDB to pinpoint the first time I saw him in action on the big screen. Unfortunately, it appears as if this was in the forgettable and cheap 1979 fantasy actioner Arabian Adventure, which was laughably (and largely inaccurately) described on the posters as “Star Wars with flying carpets.” That film was a far cry from the Harryhausenesque fantasy I was expecting, and I don’t even recall Lee being in it. The only other times I’ve seen Christopher Lee on the big screen was in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow and then as dark magic villains in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars prequels Attack of the Clones and (briefly, before being decapitated by lightsaber in the opening set piece) Revenge of the Sith. So for me it mostly fell to television and video to catch up with a sampling of the extensive cinematic back catalogue of the legend that is Christopher Lee.

In the time before the ubiquitous availability of films via disc, streaming, and digital download, VHS tapes were a godsend. And it is on a rental VHS tape that I finally caught up with Christopher Lee’s iconic performances in the two key films that launched Hammer’s brief domination in genre cinema: Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula. These two films were hard to find for rent. At the time I was living in the city of Edmonton, Canada, and no video store near me stocked them. I eventually found them at a rental store on the opposite side of the city, so far away that it took me the best part of a day to get there and back by bus. But given the dedicated horror fan I was, I made the trek, and while my parents were out for the evening I settled in to a double dose of Hammer horror.

The impact of Christopher Lee’s performances in both of these films cannot be overstated. As Frankenstein’s creation in Curse, Lee used his tremendous talents as a physical actor to sell the character of the monster, which remains mute throughout the movie. One of the most memorable moments in Curse of Frankenstein is when the creature, unbeknownst to its creator, has come to life for the first time. Baron tumblr_m17y73F5h71qzr8nao1_1280Frankenstein, iconically played by the great Peter Cushing, opens the door to his lab only to be confronted by the towering, bandaged figure of the creature. Director Terence Fisher then pulls a coup de grace of shock cinema by quickly zooming in on Lee’s head as he pulls aside the bandages from his face to reveal the scarred, badly assembled visage, as crafted by makeup ace Phil Leakey. The creature then swiftly and unexpectedly attempts to strangle his creator. In those brief moments, wrapped in gauze, beneath layers of makeup that limit facial movement, Lee manages to portray ferocity, confusion, and pathos. It is, I will argue, one of the defining moments of genre cinema post-Universal horror cycle. Through that scene, expertly brought to life by Lee, Fisher, and cinematographer Jack Asher, horror cinema took a massive leap forward into a new age of Technicolour terror. And Christopher Lee was one of the key figures in this reawakening of the horror film, as is cemented by his next role for Hammer.

Terence Fisher’s brilliant 1958 colour film of the Horror of Dracula is a seminal genre piece, but would not have had the same impact without Lee’s performance as the Count. In one of his horror film books, I recall Alan Frank referring to Christopher Lee bringing a sense of “demonic obsessed mystery” to the role of Dracula, and that’s a good a description as any of what he brought to his performance as Bram Stoker’s creation. In Hammer’s first Dracula film the Count is an icy, aloof aristocrat who radiates power and magnetism. Beneath this is an animal ferocity and, more controversially for the time, a sexual attraction that turns his (invariably female) prey into willing victims. When Dracula drinks their blood, Lee turns it into an irresistable seduction. In his relatively brief screen time in the film, Christopher Lee emits that rare characteristic of film acting: screen presence. Not to diminish the excellent performance of Peter Cushing, but without Lee as Dracula, Horror of Dracula would not have worked nearly as well and perhaps would not have sent the same shock waves through horror cinema.

Lee’s roles in Curse and Horror, plus the subsequent Hammer remake of The Mummy, pushed the actor into the ranks of the seminal genre thespians, alongside Chaney, Karloff, Lugosi, and Price. Like the actor he was frequently paired with, Peter Cushing, one of the great strengths of Christopher Lee is his complete dedication to craft even whilst surrounded by schlock. The frequently absurd scenarios of horror/fantasy films must offer an actor great temptation to ham it up, to wink to the camera, to give less than 100% of yourself as a thespian. Even at a young, impressionable age, it was obvious to me that Lee took what he did seriously and pushed himself to deliver the best he could offer on screen. For an aficionado of a genre that too often got little respect, that had a huge, positive impact.

There is a larger than life quality to Christopher Lee. At 6’4” he has a physical presence, but there are other qualities that make the actor statuesque. He could speak several languages. He was an expert swordsman, a former secret agent, a descendant of Charlemagne and the Borgias, and an opera singer. The latter talent he put to great use when he recorded heavy metal albums. You may think you are a Renaissance man, but nobody did Renaissance man quite like Christopher Lee. This depth of experience, interest, and talent adds layers to his film work and enabled him to play many different types of characters. He frequently strained against what he perceived as the chains of typecasting, but the truth is that even his work in just the horror genre has a range that few other actors can come close to, and this range is directly connected with the depth and range of his own character.

On top of his intimidating eclecticism, there was always an aura of the exotic, of intrigue and mystery to Christopher Lee. This seemed to work against him in the early part of his career, when he was told that he was too foreign looking to be cast. But once his career exploded thanks to Hammer, it was this exotic aspect that played to his advantage for his work within genre films. While watching his best performances I always get a sense that there is something almost otherworldly about him. “Supernatural” in the most pure definition of that word — something that seems to come from beyond nature. An intangible element that slips through your fingers when you try to grasp it. A chemistry with the screen that grips your attention without you quite knowing how that has happened. So it is with great art; it ultimately defies our ability to explain it.

Another striking strength of his acting in the horror genre, and one he shares with many of the great horror actors, is his ability to engender sympathy even while playing monsters. Peter Cushing once said of his friend Christopher Lee: “…beneath his outward alcl-baskervilles-edit-xlargeoofness and dignity lies a very human being: sensitive, warm, and oft-times suffering from nerves which he goes to great length to conceal.”(1) In a sense this mirrors the so-called monsters he played on screen — a core of humanity beating at the heart of a character. As I’ve often said to my daughter who is interested in fantasy and horror, monsters are often revealed to be not monsters at all. They are misunderstood, tormented…victims in a sense. This reversal of expectation as to what constitutes “monster” and “normal” plays in the core of much of the great horror/fantasy stories. Christopher Lee seemed to understand this and in so doing gave his own unique contribution to the pantheon of great genre cinema. He will be missed, but his cinematic light will never die.

Notes:

(1) John Brosnan, The Horror People, p. 179.

 

(Originally published in We Belong Dead magazine no. 18.)

Written by Paul

June 7, 2016 at 8:12 pm

The Memory of Danger: Timothy Dalton as Ian Fleming’s James Bond

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timothy-dalton-as-james-bond1Timothy Dalton took over the part of James Bond at a time when the EON film series had veered far away from their literary source, and approached the role with the Ian Fleming novels and stories as the essence and foundation. In the press conference that officially introduced Timothy Dalton as the new James Bond, the actor noted that “I approached this project [the film The Living Daylights] with a sense of responsibility to the work of Ian Fleming.”

He went on to discuss his interpretation of the Bond role further:  “The essential quality of James Bond is a man who lives on the edge…he never knows when, at any moment, he might be killed. Therefore, I think some of the qualities we might associate with Bond, the qualities we´ve seen in this series of movies, the qualities that Ian Fleming wrote so well about, reflect that sense of danger in his own life…the qualities of the man are very much the qualities of someone who lives on the edge of his life.” In the novel Moonraker, Fleming describes Bond´s “ambition to have as little as possible in his banking account when he was killed, as, when he was depressed, he knew he would be, before the statutory age of forty-five.”

live-and-let-die-cover-imageIn Live and Let Die, Ian Fleming writes that there are times when a secret agent “takes refuge in good living to efface the memory of danger and the shadow of death.” Dalton captures this idea of somebody who lives in “the shadow of death.” Within the parameters of the scripts he was given, in his two cinematic appearances as James Bond, Timothy Dalton brought a welcome course correction to the film series, porting the core essence of Ian Fleming´s immortal secret agent to the screen.

In Fleming´s writing, James Bond is vulnerable to the sheer tension that the danger of his job inspires. Fleming writes of this in “The Living Daylights,” the short story that inspired the first Dalton 007 film, with Bond returning to the apartment in Berlin where he must assassinate a KGB sniper, and gives “a light hearted account of his day while an artery near his solar plexus began thumping gently as tension build up inside him like a watch-spring tightening.”

 

the-living-daylightsWhile on the job and building up to a potentially deadly situation, Fleming´s Bond is a curt, focused professional. Dalton portrays this best in the introductory sections of The Living Daylights, often in smaller movements or gestures. As Bond and Saunders (“Head of Station V, Vienna”) are about to step into the door of the building where 007 must kill the sniper, Dalton coolly glances both ways down the street, scanning for threats, and does the same briefly when they enter the ground floor room. “Turn off the lights,” he almost snaps to Saunders, capturing some of the displeasure Bond feels in Fleming´s short story, where 007 notes the sight of Captain Paul Sender´s tie (the Saunders equivalent in the short story) and his “spirits, already low, sank another degree…He knew the type: backbone of the civil service; over-crammed and under-loved at Winchester…” His opinion of Saunders as an officious bureaucrat is revealed in Dalton´s contemptuous glance at him and curt tone as he counters Saunder´s assumption of ammunition type with “No, the steel-tipped. KGB snipers usually wear body armour.”

Dalton shows the mild contempt through his clipped responses to Saunders, while allowing the buried coilsprings of tension to surface, in sometimes subtle ways. There is a small, almost imperceptible moment, where Dalton sits on the bed, preparing his sniper rifle, and his fingers slip as he loads the bullets into the rifle cartridge. Perhaps my favourite moment where Dalton portrays this subsurface tension is where he, sniper rifle in hand and ready for the kill, turns to Saunders, exhales distinctly, and quietly asks him to “Bring the chair.” Compare that moment with Fleming´s Daylights: “Bond said, ‘Yes.´ He said it softly. The scent of the enemy, the need to take care, already had him by the nerves.”

Fleming´s Bond takes brief refuge in sensual, carnal pleasures to help steel his nerves for the coming confrontation. In the beginning of the film version, which follows the basic plot of the short story, Dalton scans the crowd at a music recital, looking for the defector Koskov, and casually notes the “lovely girl with the cello.” His expression while he says the line is a small, tight-lipped smile, an indication of the underlying tension as he gratefully takes in the beauty of Kara Milovy.

1424915240517064877An underlying distaste and loathing for his profession also manifests in Fleming´s Bond stories, and this is another facet that Dalton brings to the screen. After Saunders expresses his anger at Bond´s commandeering of Koskov´s rescue and threatens to report to M that he deliberately missed shooting Kara, Dalton snaps back “Stuff my orders. I only kill professionals…Go ahead, tell him what you want. If he fires me, I´ll thank him for it.” Dalton´s forceful delivery of this dialogue, tinged with an edge of cruelty and contempt, brings out James Bond´s uneasy relationship with the hard, soul-eroding surfaces of his double-o status.

Dalton is helped by similarities to some lines from the Fleming original: “‘Look, my friend,” said Bond wearily, ‘”I´ve got to commit a murder tonight. Not you. Me. So be a good chap and stuff it, would you? You can tell Tanqueray anything  you like when it´s over. Think I like this job? Having a Double-O number and so  on? I´d be quite happy for you to get me sacked from the Double-O Section. Then I could settle down and make a snug nest of papers as an ordinary Staffer. Right?” (Sidenote: It´s amazingly easy to imagine Dalton delivering those lines exactly as written by Ian Fleming.)

Fleming´s Bond has an uneasy relationship with the killing that is a necessary part of the job of a double-o. In Chapter I of Goldfinger, Fleming details Bond´s self-reflection after completing a kill for Her Majesty´s Secret Service: “It was part of his profession to kill people. He had never liked doing it and when he had to kill he did it as well as he knew how and forgot about it.” Though it is “his duty to be as cool about death as a surgeon,” James Bond finds himself running the death over and over in his head, a signal that a part of the secret agent is uncomfortable with executing his licence to kill. Dalton´s performance in the opening of The Living Daylights captures this weariness, this tense introspectiveness, and brings it out through his clipped, almost cynical line delivery, quietly bringing to the surface the Bond that has an inner struggle between professional killer and the regret that lingers in his soul.

Even though there is an element of self-loathing at his profession, Fleming´s Bond was tough, ruthless, and cunning when his job demanded it. One of the key sequences from The Living Daylights illustrates Dalton´s strength at bringing this facet to the 007 film series. In this sequence, Bond has been assigned to assassinate Russian General Pushkin (John Rhys Davies), who MI6 suspects is behind a plot to kill British agents. He finds Pushkin in Tangiers, and stakes out Pushkin and his bodyguard to find the right moment to make the kill. Bond follows Pushkin to a hotel, where he sees him meet his mistress at the front, obviously for a romantic rendezvous in one of the rooms. As Bond notes this opportunity, Dalton gives a satisfied smile, obviously preparing the trap in his mind.

timothy-dalton-living-daylights-10-lamest-james-bond-gadgetsPushkin enters the trap when he steps through his mistress´s hotel room door. Dalton slowly pushes the door closed, drawing the steel teeth of the trap together, and with gun extended with dead steadiness steps forward and says quietly, but with deadly assurance, “Don´t make any sudden moves, General.” As he frisks Pushkin and circles him like a predator, Dalton never allows the gun to waver for a second. “I take it this is not a social call, 007,” Pushkin notes wryly, to which Dalton grimly responds, “Correct. You should have brought lilies.” As Pushkin and Bond talk, there is a point where Dalton lifts the gun up off its deadly focus on the General, subtly indicating that Bond is reconsidering whether killing Pushkin is justified. As in the novels, Bond kills professionally, and never without reason. When he briefly points the gun away from Pushkin, he also glances at the frightened mistress sitting watching them, aware that if he shoots the General, it will be in front of this innocent woman. It´s a beautifully subtle touch of humanity, one that Fleming´s Bond would be capable of.

Dalton segues seamlessly from the humanistic to the ruthless professional—his cold, forceful delivery of the line “Stay where you are. Get down on your knees. Hands behind your back.” as he is apparently about to execute Pushkin is utterly believable. Though Fleming´s Bond may sometimes loathe his professional requirement to kill, when personal vengeance is at stake, he does not hesitate. For revenge, he is as lethal and unhesitant as a cobra.

Licence-To-KillRevenge is the key theme of Dalton´s second appearance as 007 in Licence to Kill, and it is mirrored in Fleming´s Live and Let Die, which also provides the source material for several of the film´s plot elements. In the novel, criminal mastermind Mr. Big has Bond´s ally Felix Leiter fed to a shark, leaving him mutilated and barely alive. James Bond quietly prepares to hit back at Mr. Big; at the end of Chapter XIV Fleming writes that “Bond took out his gun and cleaned it, waiting for the night.”

 

The same incident incites 007 to revenge in Licence to Kill, though it takes place in the setup of the story, not towards the end as in the novel, and the act of revenge is directed at drug baron Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi). As in Fleming´s writing, Dalton never allows revenge to take 007 to histrionics; he does a forceful, deadly, slow burn.

When Bond discovers the bodies of Della and Felix, in a key scene Dalton effectively projects the grief 007 feels. After finding Della´s lifeless body, Dalton walks into the next room looking almost stunned. He lets out a breath as he catches sight of a body bag laying on a couch—notice how good the actor is at using breathing to indicate underlying emotion—then slowly transforms Bond´s face into a grim expression, then to outright anger as he reads the note placed next to Leiter´s body. In this scene, Dalton brings from the page to the screen the bitter anger Bond feels at the attack and mutilation of a good friend, straight from Fleming´s Live and Let Die.

licence-to-kill-1Dalton also pays tribute to the Bond – Leiter friendship that Fleming wrote of extensively in one of Licence to Kill´s key turning points: the confrontation with M at the Hemingway House in the Florida Keys. M, played by Robert Brown, chides 007 for getting involved in a mess that doesn´t concern him, and Dalton, with clear emotion, almost pleads “Sir, they´re not going to do anything. I owe it to Leiter. [breath] He´s put his life on the line for me many times.” After M dismissingly notes that Leiter “knew the risks,” Dalton turns Bond to anger once more as he snaps in response, “And his wife?” By allowing the undercurrent of anger to bubble up so quickly in response to M, Dalton shows the depth of feeling that is driving Bond on this personal quest to avenge a friend.

As an agent of vengeance, Dalton´s Bond is merciless. To the DEA agent´s remark of the chances of capturing Sanchez “We can´t even get an extradition order”, Dalton coolly replies “There are other ways.” That the actor delivers this line not with overt anger but with quite, determined forcefulness only adds to its effectiveness, plus the look on Dalton´s face is reminiscent of “the look of controlled venom” that Fleming describes on Bond´s face in You Only Live Twice as he learns that the villain he is pursuing is in fact Blofeld, the killer of his wife.

Dalton displays this same quiet venom in the later nighttime sequence set in Milton Krest´s warehouse, which offers the added pleasure of watching something inspired directly from a Fleming novel. The book Live and Let Die offers a similar scene with Bond dodging gunmen in a dark building filled with aquariums. Further along in the same sequence, when Bond gets the drop on Kellifer, he shows no compassion or emotion as he watches sharks attack and begin to devour the crooked agent who was responsible, albeit indirectly, for the murder of his friend´s wife.

As a final example of this deadly, barely submerged anger, consider the scene where Bond confronts Sanchez´ girlfriend aboard the Wavekrest, and watches from the cabin window as a boat approaches carrying the corpse of Sharkey, an ally cruelly killed by the villain´s henchmen. As Dalton turns away from the window, he pauses, staring into the distance as if imagining a cathartic future moment of vengeance, and stoicly mutters to the woman “You´d better find yourself a new lover.” Dalton makes us believe that, from this moment on, Sanchez is doomed.

Another noteworthy reference to Fleming in License to Kill is a brief scene as Bond takes his leave of newlyweds Leiter and Della on their wedding night. Della removes the garter from her stocking to give it to Bond, hinting that he will be the next one to be married. In a clear connection to Bond´s murdered wife Tracy from Fleming´s On Her Majesty´s Secret Service, Dalton projects Bond´s painful memories as he suddenly seems uncomfortable, remarking “No. No.” (the second “No” is almost inaudible) “Thanks Della. It´s time I left.” Dalton quickly turns away to walk to his car, hinting that Bond wants to escape from the revisiting of old wounds.

Overall, in the two Bond films that he starred in, there is a sense that Dalton fought for the words of Ian Fleming to return to their place as the inspiration behind the films, and that this fight was a difficult struggle, a fact that has been confirmed in interviews Timothy Dalton gave to promote the release of Hot Fuzz in 2007. Scenes and snippets of scenes influenced directly from Fleming´s writing sit uneasily aside the usual Bond-lite moments that the film series had become comfortable with. It is this schizophrenia, this lack of complete conviction, that stop the Dalton 007 films from reaching the pinnacle of success. However, the Fleming tone is there in key moments and is indelibly imbrued upon the films through the powerful performance of Timothy Dalton.

To paraphrase Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli at that initial 1987 press conference, the privilege of the actor is their interpretation. And Timothy Dalton´s interpretation, assimilating as it did the literary 007 of Ian Fleming and bringing so much of it to the screen, often in very subtle ways, stands as one of the very best.

I´ll close with the words of Cubby Broccoli:  “We´ve always liked him. We liked his work; we liked his style. And we´re sure his interpretation of James Bond will be one that we´ll be happy with.”

Amen. And thank you, Mr. Dalton.

Note: This article was originally published in Her Majesty’s Secret Servant, an excellent webzine devoted to the world of James Bond that is sadly no longer online.

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Written by Paul

March 23, 2016 at 3:08 pm

Posted in action, James Bond

Film Notes: JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS

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In 1992, visual effects artist Ray Harryhausen was awarded a Gordon E. Sawyer Award for his achievements in visual effects. In his introduction of Harryhausen, Tom Hanks said, “Some people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane…I say Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film ever made.”

1963-argonauts_2065449iIt is impossible to tell some of the story of the film Jason and the Argonauts without telling some of the story of Ray Harryhausen, a key figure not only in cinema visual effects but also in screen fantasy. Ray Harryhausen was born in 1920. In 1933 he saw King Kong, an event that changed his life. Entranced by the effects of Willis O’Brien that brought the giant ape to life, Harryhausen researched the art of stop motion animation, of which O’Brien was one of the pioneers. Harryhausen began making his own short films featuring stop motion animation, starring creatures that he built himself.

He got to show his models to his inspiration, Willis O’Brien. Harryhausen ended up working with O’Brien for his first screen credit, Mighty Joe Young in 1949. Though O’Brien was credited as the director of visual effects, Harryhausen has said that he actually completed about 70% of the animation for Mighty Joe Young.

Harryhausen’s first film as solo director of special visual effects was 1953’s Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the first of many giant monsters in the ‘50s spawned by atomic radiation, and the model for Toho’s Godzilla. Then followed other black and white SF/monster films: It Came From Beneath the Sea, about a giant octopus; Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers; and 20 Million Miles to Earth, featuring a rampaging creature from Venus. A major turning point for Harryhausen was his first colour film and his first outright fantasy, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1957). This film was based on the Arabian Knights tales of Sinbad the Sailor. Like many Harryhausen fantasies it reinterprets and blends mythologies to make a greater cinematic impact.

His later films are a mix of fantasy and SF, including Mysterious IslandFirst Men in the MoonThe Valley of Gwangi (an entry in the much neglected dinosaur western genre), and two more Sinbad films, Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.

Jason and the Argonauts is Ray Harryhausen’s personal favourite of all his films, and is probably his best known movie. It is one of only two Harryhausen forays into pure Greek mythology, the other being his final film Clash of the Titans in 1981. It tells the story of Greek hero Jason’s quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece, a quest that brings Jason and his crew face to fang with many mythological monsters along the way.

Harryhausen’s father built the model armatures (metal skeletons) for the film, following Harryhausen’s designs. The bronze giant Talos is based on the Colossus of Rhodes, a 30m tall statue that was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The moment where the giant straddles the natural harbour to catch the Argo is inspired by that statue. The Hydra is actually from the story of Hercules, not Jason, and the design of this creature in the film is partly inspired by paintings on classical Greek vases.

18mygcimp3qbwjpgThe film ends with what is perhaps Harryhausen’s most famous sequence: the battle with seven skeleton warriors. Six of the seven model skeletons were new; the last one was from 7th Voyage of Sinbad. The bones of the skeletons were made from cotton soaked in latex. There were three men fighting seven skeletons. Each frame of film required at least 35 animation movements, and some days Harryhausen was only able to produce less than one second of screen time. To match the animation with the live action, Harryhausen had to count film frames on the live action footage to figure out exactly where the actor’s and skeleton’s swords would meet. The whole sequence took four and a half months to complete.

The film has one of the best scripts of any Harryhausen film. It feels more adult in tone than his other films, with a subtext about humans learning to take matters into their own hands and growing away from the influence of the gods. This is actually a theme echoed in the second Sinbad film, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, where a repeated line is “Trust in Allah…but tie up your camel.”

The film is hugely influential and well regarded. Martin Scorsese included Jason and the Argonauts in his list of 85 Essential Films published in Fast Company magazine. Harryhausen’s work in general has inspired countless filmmakers like Peter Jackson, James Cameron, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and effects artists and companies, such as Dennis Muren, Industrial Light and Magic, Pixar Animation, and WETA.

harryhausenWriter/director James Cameron said of Ray Harryhausen, “I think all of us who are practitioners in the arts of science fiction and fantasy movies now all feel that we’re standing on the shoulders of a giant. If not for Ray’s contribution to the collective dreamscape, we wouldn’t be who we are.”

When you watch the film, pay attention to how Harryhausen instils character in his creations. He took acting lessons, and drew on this to put movements into his models that bring them to life and give them distinct personalities. Remember that, unlike today where there are armies of technicians working on the visual effects for a film, the effects in this film were all done by just one man, Ray Harryhausen. And above all, relax and be swept away by some pure movie magic.

Written by Paul

May 24, 2015 at 6:57 pm

Posted in fantasy, visual effects

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A Whisper of Bond: Becoming a 007 Fan

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“Are there any monsters in it?” was the first thing I asked my classroom friend. “No,” he replied. “Just a man with metal hands.”

I shrugged, disappointed. Vaguely interesting, but it didn’t sound like a monster film. At that point, mid 1970s, I was fixated on monsters. My friend was talking about the previous night’s TV screening of Dr. No. It didn’t sound like something that would rate an entry in Ed Naha’s Horrors: From Screen to Scream, my film bible. Shortly after, I was at the public library and my interest was briefly captured by the cover of a paperback copy of Dr. No that featured a dragon chasing Bond and Honeychile Rider through a jungle. A cursory reading of the back cover revealed that the promise of monsters was not fulfilled in the complete book, and my interest again diverged from the world of James Bond.

It came back in January 1980, with the TV debut of Live and Let Die. This was pre-VHS, back when your only options to watch a movie were on its theatrical run and when it appeared on television. So the boob tube appearance of a major film like Live and Let Die was a big deal. With no option to record and watch later, vast numbers of the viewing public would schedule their evenings so they could see a film on TV, like a vast communal screening, a pop social ritual. And so, on that dark January evening, the afterglow of Xmas holidays having faded and the grim realities of high school once again truly settled in, I sat down in the living room with my parents to watch Roger Moore’s safari-suited 007 take on the faux-voodoo forces of Mr. Big.

Live and Let Die was big, colourful, exciting and, at 13 years old, like getting a sneaking glimpse of an adult world filled with danger and sex. The sight of Roger Moore undoing the zipper on a woman’s dress using his magnet watch branded itself into my hormone-bombarded adolescent psyche, as did the ethereal beauty of Jane Seymour. The suave coolness got to me, the ability to handle any situation, take down the bad guys, bed beautiful women, and toss off a quip, all while never even getting a crease in your trousers. And the voodoo stuff was attractive to a monster loving kid. I was into it, and it was all the kids at school could talk about the next school day, but I wasn’t entirely hooked yet.

In 1977, the charms of 007 in The Spy Who Loved Me eluded me. That summer I was much too taken with the idea of hyperspacing through the galaxy as intergalactic outlaw Han Solo. This obviously had an influence on Cubby Broccoli too, leading to my first cinematic Bond experience, Moonraker, in 1979. Fittingly, I saw Moonraker in the same cinema that I saw Star Wars. Lucas’ space epic had taken the world by storm, leading to a slew of SF films, and resulting in Roger Moore ditching the flared trousers for a space suit.

Moonraker was a complicated film experience for me. I dug a lot of it, the stylish sweep and the action, but I felt consistently deflated by the campy humour. A formidable henchman flapping his arms while hurtling downward minus parachute and a double-taking pigeon were not what I wanted from Bond. I wanted the sweet tang of the forbidden, the glimpse into a dangerous, sexy, adult universe. I wanted to exit the film walking a little taller, and I didn’t quite get that. Regardless, I was back for Moore.

The next one, For Your Eyes Only, was bittersweet. My dad had begun the process of moving the family a long way from home, and so it turned out to be one of the last films I saw with my group of high school friends. Bizarrely for a film that is only a little over two hours, there was an intermission at about a third of the way through. Maybe the cinema wanted to sell more choc ices (or albatross, said John Cleese). For me, the film was better than its predecessor and, though not an aficionado yet, I still noted the considerable difference in tone for this one. In many ways this was my first, from-a-distance glimpse of Ian Fleming’s James Bond. But I had yet to meet the literary Bond in all his demon-haunted glory.

I was introduced to him in the penultimate year of high school in my new home town when I bought a Triad Granada paperback edition of Diamonds Are Forever. These editions had covers with exotic models draped in various provocative poses over an oversize model of a golden pistol. I didn’t know quite what to make of this Bond. He was very different, in many ways, from the films I had seen at that point (mostly starring Roger Moore). But I was intrigued, and the rest of the literary series beckoned.

This was the mythical pre-internet era, and so tracking down books wasn’t so mouse-clickably easy. It meant scouring the F section of the fiction shelves in any bookstore I could find. Gradually I pieced together the whole Fleming series, reading them completely out of order.

The Fleming books gave me what I wanted out of the James Bond universe, far more than the next film offerings of Octopussy and A View to a Kill. Those films had their moments, but the books had the intrigue, the danger, the sophistication I was looking for. As an undergrad bumbling his way in the world, this confident, gutsy, yet damaged and vulnerable character was someone I could both relate to and aspire to be. I was hooked, and wanted what I thought of as “the real Bond” to make an appearance in the films.

And so when the summer of 1987 rolled around I was primed by the Bond novels and by posters of the cat-eyed Timothy Dalton as “The Most Dangerous Bond. Ever.” Here was that beckoning again, the whisper of invitation to a world of sex and danger that I had first received and answered back in 1980. I left my summer job early, braving an intense thunderstorm, to see the second matinee showing of The Living Daylights on opening day. The rain belted down on me as I ran the two blocks to the theatre from the café I was killing time in, leaving me damp as I sat watching Timothy Dalton seemingly serve as a portal from Fleming page to 007 screen. Transfixed, grateful, I ignored the film’s flaws because here, at last, was the Bond I had wanted to see grace the silver screen.

The next week I was back for a second round. After I bought my ticket, I killed time by wandering over to a bar in the mall. There, I ran into a coworker who moonlighted as the manager of the theatre that was showing The Living Daylights. He was a man of great generosity and, apparently, odd-shaped kidneys that allowed him to drink copiously without getting hammered, the kind of detail that Fleming would add to a description of a Bond villain now that I think about it. He refunded my ticket money, and invited me to sit and have a drink with him and his friend, Megan.

She was a slightly older woman, attractive, a little tipsy, funny, friendly. I liked her and we chatted. She laughed at my jokes. When it was time for me to head off to the movie theatre, she paused, then jotted her name and number down on a napkin that was on the table. I thanked her, smiled, and ran off to jet to exotic locales like Gibraltar, Vienna, Tangiers, and Afghanistan.

Later, walking a little taller thanks to Dalton’s engrossing channeling of the literary Bond I had come to love, I took out the napkin from my pocket. It had Megan’s phone number scrawled across it, followed by the word “thanks.”

I have to admit that I felt a little like James Bond.

Written by Paul

February 28, 2015 at 5:15 am

Reflections on Hitchcock, Part 2

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Hitchcock was a master at using visual effects. His films are not usually thought of in that way, but his use of optical effects struck me this time. The climax of The Man Who Knew too Much (the remake) for instance. It’s set in the Albert Hall in London. A foreign dignitary is to be assassinated at the end of the orchestral piece that is being performed. (In a neat touch, the conductor of the orchestra is listed on the Albert Hall poster as Bernard Herrman, the composer of the score, and is played by Herrmann in the sequence.) There is an establishing arial shot of the hall. If you look closely at the shot, it is a composite, with live action footage of the orchestra in one section, surrounded by a beautiful matte painting of the rest of the hall and its seated patrons. Likely, obtaining a real shot like that would be impossible in the confines of the venue. So Hitchcock makes the shot using visual effects.

UN-interior-painting-511x288There are other examples. The shot on the right is from North by Northwest. It’s the lobby of the UN building. The live action is in the lower portion of the frame. The rest is matte painting. Later in the film, there is a shot of the outside of this building. From a dizzying height, we see Roger Thornhill (Carey Grant) running from the building entrance (see below).

Another beautiful optical composite. Today, these would be CGI extensions of live footage. Hitch works with gorgeous matte paintings, done on glass and optically combined with live action footage. They are striking works of art, and examples of the director using all available technology to tell his story.

north by northwest

North by Northwest is a typical Hitchcock “wrong man” story, but it’s also the closest we can get to Hitch’s James Bond film. The first 007 movie was very nearly directed by Hitchcock and starring Richard Burton as James Bond. It was to have been an original story written for the screen. It never happened, and out of these early attempts to put Bond on screen came the 1965 film Thunderball, and likely an early death for author Ian Fleming due to intense stress from legal proceedings. But that’s another story, told at length in Peter Seller’s book The Battle for Bond. Regardless, North by Northwest is a fast and stylish spy thriller, laced with humour. Hitch took great pains on getting the script right and the story here is smooth and efficient. Within the first few minutes we are dropped into intrigue, with Grant’s character being mistaken for a government agent and whisked away to a confrontation with James Mason’s bad guy. It lacks the depth of his other masterworks, but it’s great fun.

Psycho, which followed North by Northwest, is another matter entirely. It’s Hitchcock’s only out-and-out horror film which, in an elaborate fakeout, begins as a typical crime drama. Though it’s often credited as one of the key sources for the “slasher” films that began in the ’80s, there are only two killings in the film. They are strikingly staged killings, though. The justly iconic shower murder is brilliantly staged, scored, and edited. A masterclass in filmmaking in a compact sequence. The second murder, of the private detective Arbogast, showcases Hitch’s recurring use of staircases to generate suspense. The character slowly pads up the steps, only to be quickly and unexpectedly struck when he reaches the top. The camera stays on him as he stumbles backwards and downwards. Following that, there is a wonderfully fluid use of camera movement that has the camera gliding up the stairs and positioning itself overhead at the top of the staircase as Norman Bates carries his mother from her room and down. Macabre, unsettling, brilliant.

Following my viewing of Psycho, I put on the Criterion Blu Ray of Georges Clouzou’s gothic masterpiece Eyes Without a Face. Released in 1960, the same year as Psycho, this is a haunting and still-graphic film that signalled a move of the centre of gravity of the horror picture from America to Europe.

But that’s another story.

Written by Paul

December 31, 2013 at 6:51 pm

Some Reflections on Hitchcock

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M2199603For Xmas this year I got Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection, a 15-film Blu Ray boxset and I’ve been slowly making my way through this impressive set. So far I’m struck by how well Hitchcock’s films are visually designed and written. I have previously noted the visual invention of his movies, but not the latter.

With the 1942 Saboteur there is a further working out, following on from his breakthrough The 39 Steps, of the Hitchcock storyline of the “wrong man.” Barry Kane is a worker at a factory that produces armaments for WWII rushes to help put out a fire at that factory. He’s handed a fire extinguisher, which he then gives to a coworker who is fighting the fire. His friend burns to death in the expanding flames of the inferno. It later emerges that this extinguisher contained gasoline, and not fire retardant. He becomes the key suspect in the sabotage of the factory and goes on the run from the police to track down those responsible.

The script is precisely structured. It starts right in the action, and introduces a few key clues that Kane must follow up on. There are moments when Kane flashes back to an envelope he picked up off the floor after bumping into another factory worker. The words on this envelope, and the identity of the man it belongs to, becomes the slender thread Kane has to follow. The importance of the memory of an earlier event, and the protagonist thinking back to wring significance out of it, is a plot element that features heavily in the Italian giallo films of the ’70s. These were stylish mystery-thiller-horror hybrids that owed a partial debt to Hitchcock. However, Hitch’s films showed a careful, structured approach to plot that giallos mostly lacked, and it’s this aspect that stuck out on this viewing of the first seven films of the boxset.

The director’s favourite of his films, Shadow of a Doubt was one of the movies I hadn’t seen. It’s ingenious and sly in how it subtly injects corruption into the heart of a “perfect” suburbia. Joseph Cotten plays Uncle Charlie, coming to stay at the home of his sister’s family, which his smart niece, also called Charlie. The zestful Charlie longs for a break from the boredom of her domestic existence and was composing a telegram to Uncle Charlie when notice of his coming to stay happened to arrive. To Charlie, this is no coincidence and speaks to a telepathic bond between them.

This light tinge of the supernatural, never fully explored as a plot element but present in the mix, pops up again in Hitch’s masterful Vertigo. In that film, the subtle supernatural element is the possibility that the Hitchcock Blonde, Kim Novak’s Madelaine, is the reincarnation of a woman who died decades before, and that the tragic end to that persons life infects the present. This is another element that the giallo films take and heighten. As in the blind protagonist’s seemingly extrasensory perception in Cat o’ Nine Tails, and the medium’s telepathic detection of a killer in the auditorium in Deep Red, both films by giallo master Dario Argento.

entryI’d forgotten how stunningly gorgeous a film Vertigo is. The photography is radiant, with the scarlet blood red walls of a restaurant fairly popping off the screen in one scene. Saul Bass’ striking title sequence, which gives tantalizing hints of the story to come using pure image, is a sumptuous piece of pop art in its own right. And there’s even a brief moment of animation at the beginning of a dream sequence that I’d forgotten about. Almost like Freud meets Disney. Bernard Herrman’s haunting music turn the film into a beautifully atmospheric noir fever dream. I recommend watching this on Blu Ray. The colours vibrate with life and detail.

So far, the only real disappointment is The Trouble with Harry. A slow, talky black comedy that lacks true wit and has almost none of the Master’s visual flair. It’s easy to see why it flopped at the box office when it was released.

Onwards. The two up next in the set are North by Northwest and Psycho.

Written by Paul

December 30, 2013 at 7:51 pm

Hidden Treasure Alert: Stake Land (2010)

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In Danse Macabre, his nonfiction work on horror in books, film, and tv, Stephen King noted that the fans of horror films are like miners for gold. They dig methodically and patiently through tons and tons of dirt just to get that one little gold nugget that makes it all worthwhile. The American indie horror film Stake Land is one of those nuggets.

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Sort of a cross between The Road and The Walking Dead, this is a postapocalyptic horror film that follows a band of survivors across a decaying America haunted by vampires. The two main characters are a boy, Martin (Connor Paolo) and a harsh, enigmatic loner, “Mister” (Nick Damici), who rescues the kid after his family is slaughtered by vampires in the opening sequence. The duo set out across a bleak, wasted landscape in search of “New Eden” (Canada) which they hope offers a chance to survive. The vampires prowl at night, savage, animal-like creatures, single-minded and remorseless in their search for blood. An early moment with a vampire feeding off a dead baby pushes the envelope of graphic horror and signals the vampires as a relentless, mindless force of evil. Complicating things is the fact that vampires are not the only creatures to worry about. There is a band of religious fanatics who view the vampires as God’s agents who are doing the divine work of bringing about the apocalypse. And they are happy to facilitate the end of the world, even dropping vampires from a helicopter onto a peaceful, fortified town. Martin and Mister travel across this blasted world, picking up the odd straggler to join their group. They move doggedly onwards, Mister teaching Martin the ways of the vampire killer.

Stake Land is written, filmed, and acted with utter conviction. There’s not a single moment that pushes into winking comedy or that jumps the rails into implausibility. Much of it, if not all, looks like it was filmed on location. It uses stark landscapes and decaying buildings as backdrops, creating a tangible sense of a world that has gone to hell. The performances are all naturalistic and believable (including, surprisingly, Kelly McGillis). And the film ultimately becomes very touching and, thankfully, hopeful, in spite of the vast number of characters that die in unpleasant ways. The vampires and the human monsters are convincing and scary. What the film lacks in originality, it makes up for with the obvious care and intelligence that went into its making.

Stake Land is highly recommended, a true gift for us patient horror fans who suffer through much dreck to get a gem like this.

Written by Paul

July 18, 2012 at 2:56 am

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