I'm A Cyborg

Format: Cinema

Release date: 4 April 2008

Venues: ICA, London and key cities

Distributor: Tartan

Director: Park Chan-wook

Writers: Jeong Seo-Gyeong, Park Chan-wook

Original title: Saibogujiman kwenchana

Cast: Lim Su-jeong, Rain

South Korea 2006

105 minutes

After three films that revelled in such dark issues as organ theft, incest and child kidnapping, wrapped in the key theme of revenge, it seems understandable that Park Chan-wook chose a lighter tone for his next project, the inventively titled I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK. That’s not to say, however, that in doing so he has compromised the exploration of challenging subjects and the creative characterisation that distinguished his earlier work. Here, he weaves a tale that could be described as a berserk romantic comedy, but beyond such classification he offers a film that bursts with quirky ingenuity and striking visual beauty.

Brought up by an eccentric grand-mother who was convinced she was a rodent, Cha Young-goon (an excellent Lim Su-jeong) sees herself as a ‘sort of human robot’ who needs battery power to function. This leads her to electrocute herself and she winds up being locked up in a mental institution, where she meets an array of misfits afflicted with similarly bizarre conditions. Amidst the chaos she finds the enigmatic Park Il-Sun (Korean pop star Rain), a mysterious young man who claims to have the ability to steal other people’s souls.

In spite of its outlandish premise, the real strength of Park’s film lies in its wholly unconventional approach to the theme of mental illness, which is generally portrayed either through bleak realism or optimistic drama. Rather than focusing on the restrictive and depressing nature of mental disability, Park instead invites us to directly experience life through the wacky mindset of his characters, making their bizarre pursuits and undertakings not only exciting but also strangely touching. There is a particularly poignant moment when Il-Sun comes up with a compelling ploy to convince Young-goon to eat: believing food will cause her to malfunction she is close to starving herself to death so he creates a device that he says turns food into electrical energy, thus saving her life.

I’m A Cyborg does have its flaws, particularly in its slightly inconsistent script, which at times causes the film to drag, though this is largely overcome through Jeong Jeong-hun’s stunning cinematography. Having worked with Park since Oldboy, he creates flamboyant visuals that live up to the impressively surreal scenes featured in Lady Vengeance. While many may flinch at Park’s change in direction, as evidenced by the film’s poor reception in his native Korea, those who embrace I’m A Cyborg‘s lovable quirks will find much to enjoy.

James Merchant

Read the interview with Park Chan-wook.


Funny Games

Format: Cinema

Release date: 4 April 2008

Venue: Odeon Camden, Covent Garden, Whiteleys, Wimbledon (London) and key cities

Distributor: Tartan Video

Director: Michael Haneke

Alternative title Funny Games US

Cast Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet

USA 2007

107 minutes

Michael Haneke has done a Gus Van Sant and remade his own controversial 1997 film almost frame for frame, only in a US setting and with Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as the hapless, well-off couple tortured by two freakily polite young men decked in immaculate white tennis outfits. The purpose of the film in both its incarnations is to challenge the public’s consumption of violent cinematic fare for pleasure and it certainly succeeds. The introductory scene sets the tone: a couple and their teenage son are on their way to their lakeside home, playing an urbane game of ‘name the classical tune’ to while the drive away. Suddenly a hellish death metal piece by John Zorn crashes onto the screen, jarring with the peaceful family tableau and sonically assaulting the audience. Funny Games sustains its all-out attack on the viewer to the very end, inducing a nauseous unease that lasts well after the final credits have rolled.

The tone is chillingly cold and detached, making the film feel almost like some kind of scientific experiment performed on the audience. As Paul and Peter play supremely cruel games with the family – the use of the golf balls is brilliantly sadistic – Haneke himself pitilessly manipulates the audience, setting us up to extract specific emotions from us. While the family’s undeniable smugness makes it difficult to feel any real sympathy for them, we desperately want them to survive as the director successfully forces us to identify with their suffering. Simultaneously, however, Haneke uses self-reflexive devices, as when Paul winks at the camera, or when he rewinds the images after events take a turn that does not suit him, and in that way makes us complicit with the killers, with the ‘funny’ games that they’re playing. But this film is the anti-Reservoir Dogs, and those scenes certainly don’t raise a chuckle, Haneke taking any idea of ‘fun’ out of the violence by putting all of his directing talent into the task of making us feel the family’s every jolt of pain and fear. So why watch such a film, you may ask. Precisely because through the unpleasantness of the experience Haneke intelligently probes our voyeuristic consumption of violence. And while I for one would certainly not support a blanket neo-puritan condemnation of violence on film, the recent glut of senseless ‘torture-porn’ movies such as Saw and Hostel makes Haneke’s provocative reflection all the more timely.

Haneke has claimed that he agreed to remake the film in the US because he’d always thought of Funny Games as an American story, meant for an American audience, the original film being made in Austria only for budgetary reasons. How odd though that a director of Haneke’s quality would want to waste his time in what seems like a pointless repetition, in the – misguided? – hope that a larger American audience will see his film. What’s more, having two highly recognisable actors in the central roles makes the story feel somewhat less real, and therefore less affecting. That said, the US version is (almost) as devastatingly powerful as the original, and it is certainly worth seeing if you missed it the first time round.

Virginie Sélavy



Format: Cinema

Release date: 25 April 2008

Distributor Optimum

Director: Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud

Writers: Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud

France 2007

95 mins

Fundamentalism, fanaticism and terrorism – these are the three elements making up the axis of evil which Marjane Satrapi hoped to disassociate from Iran when she started her graphic novels Persepolis – The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis – The Story of a Return. Like her fellow countrymen who refer to themselves as Persian instead of Iranian in order to conjure up images of beautiful cats and carpets rather than holocaust threats and gay deniers, Satrapi was fed up with the narrow vision of her birthplace that has been projected to the outside world. She wanted to tell the tale of a country that has battled for an enlightened independence in the face of the oil-hungry West and the puritanical elements from within. Converted for the cinema screen, Persepolis is a marvel. The original drawings have been expertly rendered for film and the pace is punchy despite both novels being thrown in together.

As with films such as Ví­Â­ctor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive the film begins by showing social conditions and war-time history through the eyes of a child. Satrapi’s depiction of herself as a forthright, stubborn and fanciful child who believes she is the next holy prophet and later dons a headscarf to march around her house chanting, ‘Down with the Shah’ is utterly enchanting. But disturbing also, insofar that the views of those around her can easily translate into misunderstanding and cruelty. In one scene, armed with a handful of nails and a mindful of torture techniques she gets her friends to gang up against a boy whose father she hears was in the Shah’s secret police. Similarly, Satrapi shows a ‘my dad is bigger than your dad’ one-upmanship among the children as they compare the heroism of various family members imprisoned for their political beliefs.

As she grows up, her political conscience sharpens and she finds herself the subject of scorn from the so-called Guardians of the Revolution who catch her buying pop music records on the black market, and from the teachers at school who object to her questioning their authority and their doctrine. This is a story that is as much about the growth of a nation as about Satrapi’s growth as an individual as she faces life in a country so restricted by political and religious wrangling.

With the fundamentalists in power growing ever more oppressive, her parents send her to school in Austria where she falls in with an outcast crew of hippies and nihilists. With this chapter, the films takes on a slightly lighter tone, charting her adolescent life with its romances and insecurities. Whatever darkness there is here comes not from the regime outside but from within, from Satrapi feeling isolated, heartbroken and homesick. One of the film’s most touching moments comes when, alone during the festive period, she receives a phone call from her parents in Iran. Both parties feign an upbeat tone to avoid revealing how bitterly unhappy the distance makes them feel.

With her character’s eventual return to Iran and her consequent depression, Satrapi makes clear the dichotomy between feeling free yet lonely in Europe, and feeling oppressed yet surrounded by her family in Iran. Displaced and caught between two cultures, she feels like an outsider in both places.

The film’s ultimate strength lies in its ability to engage with heavy politics and powerful emotions with the lightest of touches. Not only does the animated form convey the issues with style, but even the most challenging parts of the film are made easier to watch thanks to Satrapi’s mischievous sense of humour. As she claws her way out of depression, a heavily-accented rendition of ‘Eye of the Tiger’ takes over the soundtrack to hilarious effect for example, while the most ridiculous elements of the Islamic regime are brilliantly lampooned by the children in Satrapi’s school.

With its warm-hearted, individual vision of the many different people that make up the nation of Iran, the film sharply rebukes simplifications of the ‘axis of evil’ type. In that perspective, Satrapi’s original goal has been victoriously achieved.

Lisa Williams

Read the interview with Marjane Satrapi.


Female Yakuza

Format: DVD

Release date: 11 June 2007

Distributor: Fabulous Films

Sex and Fury

Director: Norifumi Suzuki

Writers: Tarô Bonten, Masahiro Kakefuda, Norifumi Suzuki

Original title: Furyô anego den: Inoshika Ochô

Cast: Reiko Ike, Christina Lindberg, Tadashi Naruse, Seizaburô Kawazu

Japan 1973

89 minutes

Female Yakuza

Director: Teruo Ishii

Writers: Teruo Ishii, Masahiro Kakefuda

Original title: Yasagure anego den: sôkatsu rinchi

Cast: Reiko Ike, Jun Midorikawa, Toru Abe, Tarô Bonten

Japan 1973

86 minutes

Like the pretty girl-thief says, ‘Western goods are somehow elegant’. The goods in question – mysterious little transparent rubber rings that roll out into tubular balloons stolen by one thief from another – are ‘rude sacks’, from England, popular amongst students. But the comment has wider resonance for this magnificent exploitation flick-cum-political fable. In 1905, at the height of the Meiji era, lots of Western things are penetrating Japan, and the stakes are high for spies, businessmen, and politicians with an eye to the main chance. Faced with a corrupting invasion of ballgowns, pianos and oak panelling, someone has to stand up for the traditional Japanese arts of gambling, thieving and nude swordfighting, and Inoshika Ochô is the very lady for the job.

Not that Ochô is primarily acting under patriotic impulses: like all the other major players in a complex but impressively coherent plot, she is driven by private passions. Ochô’s story starts with the murder of her detective father, and it has been the making of her. His dying act is to assemble a hand of three blood-spattered karuta cards bearing the emblems boar, stag, butterfly, and Ochô knows this is the hand she has been dealt, as the cards prescribe her duty of revenge, and give her her name. Later in life they also provide her with a living as a renowned gambler. As she says, her whole life is strangely tied to these flower cards. Smaller, harder, glossier and more colourful than western cards, they are woven into the aesthetic of the film from the opening credits where they rain down, then form tiled ensembles. Later, they are emblems and calling cards of Ochô’s fury, dropping from the ceiling moments before the female yakuza herself; and as she staggers off into the snow in the delirious blood-soaked aftermath, suddenly it is a blizzard of cards that falls around her.

The first step towards the final reckoning, however, is a detour, a sort of double of her debt to her father. A gambling-house employee caught in the act of cheating for the house is sacrificed to his boss’s hypocrisy. ‘Hell awaits beneath the gambling mat’, quips the elder sister of delinquents, before taking upon herself the duty of redeeming his little sister from prostitution. So it is that private, petty passions – a predeliction for deflowering maidens – rather than big-time corruption, expose legitimate businessman Iwakura: the business of defloration naturally requires the removal of his respectable Edwardian suit, unavoidably revealing the tattoo that spells more to Ochô than just yakuza roots. As a stalling tactic, Iwakura proposes a wager that introduces Ochô to another piece of elegant western goods; a poker match with Europe’s foremost lady gambler and dancer, Christina Lindberg. This leads us to the ballroom of British agent Guinness’ mansion were Iwakura’s politician boss Kurokawa is assailed by his aggrieved anarchist nemesis Shinosuke. Ochô has already saved Shinosuke after his first bungled attempt, and filched his locket, containing a photo of his beloved; none other than Kurisuchina Rindobaagu, as Lindberg is known to her Japanese fans. For indeed, with her dancing career on hold through pregnancy, she has got herself mixed up in Guinness’ effort to stir up a second Opium War, just to have the chance of coming to Japan to see her lover once more.

It is, admittedly, a tangled web, but by no means the mere clothes-hanger of nudity some reviewers have suggested. Clearly the ‘cowardly sneak attack’ while Ochô is in her bath is as much geared to viewer titillation as for the convenience of gambling boss Inamura’s henchmen. In fact, the viewer is the net beneficiary here, as the full brilliance of Ochô’s swordplay shines all the brighter unencumbered by clothes, whereas the goons’ hopes of a path to victory smoothed by soap are roundly thwarted. Somewhat more problematically, the morally alert viewer may ponder the form taken by Christina’s lessons in spying; viz., prolonged sexual assault at the hands of Guinness. But Sex and Fury is living proof that the pink and the violence comprising pinky violence can be brought together with wit. The tassled buckskin mini and tunic combo worn by Christina as she whips Ochô certainly provides excellent upskirt camera opportunities. But the setting – a weirdly modern Christian chapel, with nuns in attendance, and Ochô suspended in chains – hints that the West’s gifts are, shall we say, double-edged. Another unabashedly pink scene smartly sums up what the film is about here: Ochô lures the paunchily corrupt satyr Iwakura into licking perfume off her body before coolly announcing – Deadly poison, from Germany.

Another popular view is that Lindberg’s performance is only good in the pink. Obviously she is not in the same league as the utterly brilliant Reiko Ike who invests Ochô with a sly, sexy wit, and more dignity than one would have thought possible in one fencing entirely naked, in the snow, in slo-mo. But Lindberg’s range – earnest to despondent wide-eyed vacancy – limited as it is, is not so far removed from that of, say Laura Dern, and fits her part perfectly. Her introduction as Europe’s best dancer, in bilious green ball gown and carnival mask, halting halfway down a luridly uplit staircase to receive thunderous applause, already suggests the marionnette. The mask lifts to reveal her trademark innocent lasciviousness. Fathomless, distended eyes, lips melting with gloss and so engorged they are actually not able to ever properly shut, spell distraction and availabilty in equal measures. Lindberg is, in other words, always a power of seduction not in charge of itself. As she intones in one of her strangely hypnotic voice-overs, as Guinness mauls her, the spy has to learn to separate mind from body. Lindberg is already half way there: her body seems to be a perpetual source of astonishment to her. But bearing this all in mind, there is something genuinely touching in the stilted earnestness of her ‘Where are you Shinosuke?’ soliloquies, and Shinosuke’s English, when they do meet up, has a similar vulnerability: ‘Kurisuchina’, he growls, for all the world like a mop-top anarchist Scoobie-Doo. Some things are also found in translation.

The sequel, Female Yakuza Tale (1973), is rather less successful. Director Teruo Ishii seems to lack Suzuki’s skill in weaving narrative, and the result is a dog’s dinner of too many characters and storylines getting in the way of each other. The basic premise – girls lured by drugs and sexual abuse into smuggling drugs in their vaginas – is more nakedly exploitative and one-dimensional, whereas some potentially good ideas are weirdly underexploited. Yoshimi of Christ – ‘When I pray, I kill’ – is flagged only to disappear for most of the film, when she reappears as the leader of a gaggle of the least impressive female delinquents in Japanese cinema, whose main contribution is a sequenced strip in an apparent hommage to Busby Berkeley. The film does have its good points. In contrast to the narrative chaos, design and cinematography are slick and coherent; if anything holds the film together, it’s the insistent use of blood red against white and black. But the use of pink is often just silly, and the violence middling. Ochô herself is curiously peripheral, a shocking misjudgement given the poise with which Reiko Ike marries pink and violence in the earlier film.

Sex and Fury is a shining example of the peculiar potentials of exploitation cinema. It is thoughtful in ways that have nothing to do with chin-scratching; morally unencumbered, it is light on its feet in its exploration of some really quite daft desires. With the super-ego put to bed, it certainly wanders into some indefensible territory, particularly in questions of sexual politics. But equally, and for the same reasons, it can produce the sort of baroque combinations that have more to do with dreams than waking consciousness, and at which the spectator, deprived of a ready-made, clear-cut moral stance, can only boggle. This is what distinguishes real trash from the knowing appropriation of imitators and would-be improvers. Morally armoured with the badge of artful allusion, a Tarantino bids to somehow elevate the material, but can only weigh it down. Sex and Fury is certainly guilty of voyeurism, but unapologetically so. As wrong as it is right, it is at least never guilty of prurience.

Stephen Thomson

See also: Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, Female Convict Scorpion: Beast Stable, Bad Girls.




Release date: 25 February 2008

Distributor Tartan Video

Director: Koen Mortier

Based on: the novel by Herman Brusselmans

Cast: Dries Van Hegen, Norman Baert

Belgium 2007

104 mins

Adapted from cult Belgian liberal-baiting novelist Herman Brusselmans’ book, Ex-Drummer is the story of a disabled Ostend punk band who recruit a famous liberal-baiting novelist to be their drummer.

As can be expected from such a premise there are moments of black humour, although the juvenile ‘big dick’ jokes and cartoon violence predominate. It’s directed with style and panache (perhaps too much style and panache) by Koen Mortier who seems to have attended the same school of ‘experimental’ cinema as Tony Kaye and Danny Boyle. His background in TV commercials and pop promos is there for all to see as a barrage of inventive shots and sequences follow one another endlessly. The opening is visually stunning and quite brilliant. The sequence runs backwards, showing the band cycling to (or from) the drummer Dries’ stylish apartment, stopping briefly to help a bus driver to his feet before beating him up. The titles imaginatively appear as adverts, road signs and discarded magazines. It ends with an upside down shot of singer Koen back in his apartment, like a bat in his cave. However, the total effect of this bag-of-tricks style is rather nullifying; what is well suited to 30-second adverts or 3-minute pop videos becomes somewhat tiresome over 104 minutes.

There is little plot barring that staple of the pop music film, the ‘battle of the bands’ competition. The main narrative drive is the unfolding of a catalogue of political incorrectness – homophobic attacks, rape, battery, misogyny and child abuse. There’s even a short racist rant just to make sure all the boxes are ticked. The band are ironically christened ‘The Feminists’, although they are disappointed when they realise they’ve been outdone in the offensive-name stakes by rival band Nine Million Jews (‘Why didn’t we think of that?’). The right-wing anti-PC nature of all this makes me wonder if it is possible to be shocking and non-reactionary (the films of Alan Clarke maybe?) but perhaps it depends on who you are trying to shock.

The DVD has a cover bearing laurels from the Rotterdam International Film Festival – perhaps a plea for the film’s artistic merit to be taken seriously (surely the Tartan label is enough). But perhaps the fact that it is a subtitled Belgian film (and thus unlikely to inspire ASBOs) has been enough to prevent calls from The Daily Mail to ‘ban this filth’.

At first, it seems as though Dries, the novelist/drummer, will be our bourgeois guide on this tour through the underworld. But instead of providing the audience with a ‘normal’ viewpoint, he soon turns out to be an abusive bully, and the worst of them all in many ways. But despite the lack of any character with even a hint of a belief system or a value the film is simply too entertaining and too silly to achieve the heights of nihilism of, say, Herzog’s Even Dwarves Started Small. Although I must say that the utter pointlessness of playing in a band certainly rings true.

Despite enough internal band fights to rival The Troggs, The Feminists manage to rehearse a decent version of Devo’s ‘Mongoloid’ (once the deaf guitarist stops shouting his backing vocals) and actually start to sound quite good. The soundtrack features a pretty great selection of Belgian indie, punk and new wave bands (as well as others such as Mogwai) and was for me the highlight of the film. The Feminists’ music is performed by real-life Flemish punks Millionaire.

The DVD comes with an excellent warts-and-all making-of documentary, which shows director Koen Mortier being every bit as disagreeable as any of the characters in the film. With this, his debut feature, he has certainly made his mark (or at least marked his territory) although he’s less one to watch than one to watch out for.

Paul Huckerby


The Sixth of May

Format: DVD

Release date: 31 March 2008

Distributor: Bluebell Films

Director: Theo Van Gogh

Writers: Theo Van Gogh, Tomas Ross

Cast: Thijs Romer, Tara Elders

Holland 2004

117 mins

It’s a bleak postscript to the political murder mystery The Sixth of May that director Theo Van Gogh was assassinated in 2004, the same year the film was released. Prior to his assassination, Van Gogh was better known as a creative descendent of the famous painter, and he only gained international notoriety as a political filmmaker after his short Submission, which challenged Islamic attitudes towards women, was broadcast on Netherlands TV: as a consequence, he was shot dead by an Islamic Dutch citizen.

The Sixth of May focuses on the real-life assassination of right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn but while an interest in Dutch politics would increase the appeal of the story, it is most definitely not a pre-requisite to enjoying this relevant, compelling and at times very funny film. The mystery unravels through the eyes of Ayse, a young Turkish immigrant, ex-con and former member of the far-left Green Offensive, and Jim, a white middle-class Dutch photographer with an estranged wife and a kid to support. The pair provides two disparate perspectives not only on Fortuyn’s murder, but also on Holland’s wider political landscape. The assassination awakens panic and casual racism (‘Ring the papers, dear – a Turk’s going back to Turkey!’), which had been lurking below the surface for some time.

Through The Sixth of May, Van Gogh proves his prowess as a director: he not only handles the political material and complex plot deftly, but also garners genuinely warm, naturalistic, and occasionally funny performances. Jim’s transformation from cynical paparazzi photographer to driven, would-be investigative journalist is handled realistically and develops organically. Tara Elders, playing Ayse, is muted and knowing – her unpredictable shifts from passivity to strength carry the film. Van Gogh’s greatest success, however, is in his attention to detail: from the characterisation of Van Dam, the liptstick-wearing political mastermind with a farcical horse-neighing ringtone, to the intense, almost incestuous relationship between Jim and his daughter.

The pared-down visual style, however, does not do justice to the superb performances. Shot on video, the film looks like a made-for-TV doco, which may put some viewers off: it is not until the underlying sex and violence intensify and the richness of the characters become apparent that the film’s power is revealed. The minimalistic soundtrack is unusual: the opening song adds a hint of ‘cool’ but the music that accompanies the kids’ water park sequence pushes an already bizarre chase scene into the realm of the surreal.

The Sixth of May is certainly original. It avoids any kind of historical re-telling and it makes no attempt to define where the truth ends and the embellishment begins. It deflates dramatic tension at moments where other films would have exploited it, focuses on political enemies in love with each other and has the villain provide comic relief. In someone else’s hands, these key elements may have spelt disaster. However, Van Gogh’s obviously intimate knowledge of the story and clear sense of purpose save the film. The Sixth of May shows him off as a passionate filmmaker who fervently believed that this story should be told. And he did it, just in time.

Siouxzi Mernagh

La Notte

La Notte

Format: DVD

Release date: 24 March 2008

Distributor: Eureka Video

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

Screenplay: Michelangelo Antonioni, Ennio Flaiano, Tonino Guerra

Cast: Marcello Mastrioianni, Jeanne Moreau, Monica Vitti

Italy/France 1961

122 mins

For the first 45 minutes La Notte appears to be a beautiful but cold study of sophisticated ennui. At any rate this is a good excuse to photograph Jeanne Moreau (Lidia) and Marcello Mastroianni (Giovanni) against the angular modern cityscapes of Milan, or more austerely still against bright blank backgrounds. If the aim of cinematography were to produce a series of beautiful images, then it could hardly be done better than this. Any still from these scenes would glow on the wall of the Photographers’ Gallery. But it is supposed to be a narrative art as well. To the extent that La Notte is a dramatic rather than a photographic work, its drama is one of existentialist angst, with Antonioni on the psychological trail of two individuals who find themselves alienated from their lives and each other in a world which needs them to give it meaning. The mood is not improved by a distinct sense of menace, particularly in the scenes where Moreau wanders the city alone, in search of the lost soul of her marriage.

But as the night approaches, the film shifts – geographically, visually, and dramatically. We move to a luxurious mansion outside the city, from low-key scenes of individuals and couples, restrained in movement and sparing in words, to the flux of a party. And soon the malaise of the protagonists is grounded, as the travails of their relationship come to the surface. Gianni Di Venanzo’s precise, swooping photography of the ensemble scenes through which Mastroianni wanders immediately calls to mind their famous collaboration on 8킽. But this is a more sombre counterpart, in which Antonioni offers affectless beauty and slow, steady development instead of Fellini’s chaotic charm and irony. And Lidia perhaps more than Giovanni is the emotional fulcrum of La Notte. She faces the deaths of two relationships: with her husband and with her terminally ill admirer, the one who is and the one who might have been.

So if you’re looking for a date movie, approach with caution. It’s not (quite) as depressing as I make it sound, though, and there are plenty of delights, not just photographic. Admirers of Monica Vitti will find her particularly good value as the sophisticated daughter of Giovanni’s would-be patron. The film is vividly evocative of affluent Italy just before the 1960s wave of Anglophone popular culture swept away the soignée elegance of the European elite for something looser and brasher. And Antonioni’s skill in shaping a visual expression of the emotional drama of a single day is all the more impressive for being so stealthy.

Peter Momtchiloff



Format: DVD

Release date: 25 February 2008

Distributor: Network

Part of the Alfred Hitchcock: The British Years box-set

Directors: Alfred Hitchcock

Based on Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent

Cast: Oskar Homolka, Sylvia Sydney, John Loder

UK 1936

76 mins

Despite the fact that Alfred Hitchcock had made over twenty films before he moved to Hollywood in 1939 it has been suggested that his British films were those of a gifted amateur whereas in America he was a true professional at the peak of his powers. There are obvious differences between these eras; a comparison of the two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956) or between Sabotage and Saboteur (1942) clearly demonstrates how the two countries’ products differ; but to divide his career in this way is surely an over-simplification.

As this box-set shows, by the 1930s Hitchcock was already a master filmmaker. Alongside those Saturday afternoon favourites The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes are some less well-known but equally great films – particularly Young and Innocent and Sabotage – films that are as good as, and often better than his American work. However, despite the critical and commercial success of these films, Hitchcock was not thought to be suited to Hollywood filmmaking. None of the major studios were keen to employ him. Independent producer Darryl F. Zanuck finally took the ‘risk’ and invited him over.

In 1936, in what many considered a move to get noticed in America, he cast the Hollywood star Sylvia Sydney in Sabotage. But the film was to prove a poor calling card and simply served to emphasise everything the studios found troubling about him.

Sydney plays Mrs Verloc, the owner of the London cinema the Bijou. Unbeknownst to her, her husband (played by the Austrian actor Oskar Homolka) is a terrorist, a saboteur working for some unnamed country (surely unmistakable as Nazi Germany to audiences in 1937). After failing to alarm the public with a power cut he conspires to explode a bomb in Piccadilly Circus tube station. However, Verloc is no monster but a quiet husband looking after his wife and her young brother Stevie – merely trying to subsidise the meagre income he makes from the cinema with a bit of sabotage on the side. He is being watched by an undercover cop posing as a greengrocer. Hitchcock famously claimed to have a fear of the police and his protagonists are rarely policemen. Even here our sympathies are divided and there is a sense that we don’t want Verloc to be caught. This playing with the audience’s loyalties, getting them to identify with the wrong character, was to reach its apotheosis in Psycho – where the audience’s sympathies are made to switch from a thief to her murderer.

One of the most striking differences between Hitchcock’s British and American films is in the soundtrack. The incidental music that makes his US films seem so slick and professional (especially when scored by Bernard Herrmann) was less prominent in the early 30s, and even in Hollywood it was only after 1935 that it became the dominant style. Many films of that era seem lacking – the absence of spooky music in Tod Browning’s Dracula prompted Philip Glass to write and perform a score for it. However, for Hitchcock this was more of an opportunity than a deficit, such was his skill at employing diegetic sound to add mood to his films, as in the famous scream/train whistle in The 39 Steps or the cruise ship band who break into a quarrel whilst playing romantic music in Rich and Strange (a film unfortunately missing from this box-set). It is most dramatically and perfectly realised in the film he made earlier in 1936, Secret Agent, with its rhythmic machines or the eerie sustained discord played by the dead organist lying on the keys.

In Sabotage, non-diegetic sound is used but sparingly. And even when sound is post-mixed it is the sound of traffic in the street outside the Bijou (a studio set of course) that is added. Mood and tension come from squeaky shoes approaching ominously or from the sounds of the Bijou cinema and its audience. A scream is heard as the detective questions Verloc who explains casually that it is someone being murdered – on the screen. But where incidental music is generally written to suit or enhance a scene Hitchcock’s diegetic sound can work in contrast. A dejected Sylvia Sydney walks through the cinema as the audience roars with laughter at a Disney cartoon – a perfectly appropriate ‘Who Killed Cock Robin?’ Sydney even finds herself joining in. With Hitchcock’s move to Hollywood this creative use of diegetic sound was almost lost and disappeared until it was revived to spectacular effect in Rear Window (1954) – for me, his masterpiece.

But the similarities between the early material and later works are more evident than the differences. His mastery of suspense is as clear here as anywhere. Hitchcock once said, ‘There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it’, a theory perfectly realised in Little Stevie’s journey across London with a bomb set to ‘sing’ at 1:45. The cutting between Stevie, the package and a variety of clocks adds tension to the most innocuous of moments. A toothpaste salesman wastes valuable time forcing him to try ‘new Salvodent’. He claims it is ‘from the Greek – salvo – no more – and Dent – toothache’. (Hitchcock’s ‘inappropriate’ moments of humour are already a firmly established feature). Nervous non-diegetic music is used here and Hitchcock even throws a cute puppy into the danger area to raise the tension to breaking point (surely even he wouldn’t kill a child and a puppy in the same shot).

The DVD comes with an introduction by film historian Charles Barr. Barr sees the scene as evidence of the influence of Soviet montage that Hitchcock’s collaborator Ivor Montagu had introduced him to. But one must add that such cross-cutting was also a feature of DW Griffith and other directors in the silent period (with the famous example of cutting between the speeding train and the heroine tied to the track). Montage theory can be seen more clearly in the use of close-ups, which are often used symbolically. The (almost silent) opening shots of a light bulb, a power station, the bulb flickering and going out followed by the sabotage being discovered and finally Verloc walking out of the shadows certainly recalls the Soviet style, although here it is used for a different purpose.

Even when adapted from literature, Hitchcock’s films are always cinematic (Sabotage not Secret Agent is from Joseph Conrad’s book The Secret Agent). He is a filmmaker of great imagination. In interviews he is often thought to be disingenuous in that he ignores themes and subtexts to give all his attention to the formal and technical aspects of film. He has been sometimes dismissed as ‘merely’ a technician. As Penelope Houston points out, ‘critics feel there is something demeaning about the thriller form. Their request to Hitchcock is always to transcend it’. Thus Vertigo – with its fascinating subtext – wins the critics’ polls despite its preposterous plot. But to Hitchcock it is the ‘craft’ of filmmaking that comes first, and the manner in which he can use this craft to excite, frighten or disturb his audience. He was to claim subsequently (with regret) that in Sabotage he had pushed his audience too far.

The film opens with a definition of the word ‘sabotage’ as ‘wilful destruction of buildings or machinery with the aim of alarming a group of persons or inspiring public unease’. One can’t help thinking that there are times, and Sabotage is a prime example, when this definition could apply just as well to Hitchcock’s cinema.

Paul Huckerby

In the same box-set: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog