To mark the BFI’s season ‘Dennis Hopper: Icon of Oblivion’ which celebrates the filmic work of the maverick actor, director and artist, who died in 2010, we take an illustrated look at his extensive career.
The season continues at BFI Southbank until the end of July 2014 and coincides with the photographic exhibition ‘Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album’ at the Royal Academy of Arts, which runs until 19 October 2014.
More information on Chris Doherty can be found here.
Based on the novel:If I Die before I Wake by Sherwood King
Cast: Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane
Orson Welles’s dazzling 1947 film noir has a plot so complex that Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn famously offered a cash reward to the lucky person who could explain to him what the hell was going on. But really the storyline is almost incidental to the disorientating inventiveness of The Lady from Shanghai.
Welles plays Michael O’Hara, a poetical lunk of a mariner, who has a truly atrocious Irish accent, literary ambitions, and a hefty punch when the chips are down. He provides the lyrical voice-over, explaining how he found himself all at sea, enmeshed in the machinations, double dealings and conspiracies of an amoral bunch of well-to-do whose idea of a good time is sniping at each other and thinking murderous thoughts, some of which are put into action.
‘It’s a bright, guilty world,’ says Michael O’Hara as he’s spellbound by the beautiful Elsa Bannister, wife of the country’s leading criminal barrister and played in enigmatic siren mode by Rita Hayworth, Welles’s soon to be ex-wife. O’Hara meets her in the park, saves her from thugs, sees her home and turns down her offer of a job crewing their yacht (tellingly called the Circe). It’s too late though, the staunch seafarer has already run aground – ‘I did not use my head, except to think of her’ – and he sets sail on the kind of voyage that could get a man killed, or at the very least, wrongly accused of murder.
Hayward sizzled and sashayed her way through Gilda; here her trademark red hair is cropped and bleached, (much to the chagrin of Cohn, who was hoping to cash in on her pinup status) as, wreathed in cigarette smoke, basking on rocks or softly singing, she sets about luring men to their doom. There’s Michael, who’s entranced by her white hot, ice cold approach to his approaches; her husband, Arthur Bannister, played by radio actor Everett Sloane, who knows far too much about her disreputable past (‘you need more than luck in Shanghai’); while Glen Anders, filled with maniacal glee, takes on the role of Bannister’s business partner. Smitten by Elsa, but keener on disappearing, he persuades O’Hara to pretend to kill him. It is, of course, a set-up, but not in any of the ways you expect.
Welles keeps everything beautifully off-kilter. There are vertiginous shots from a costal keep, strangely disorientating views from the top of the boat’s mast, a claustrophobic jungle picnic, where O’Hara compares the languorously deadly picnickers to frenzied sharks (a speech cribbed from Moby Dick) and a haunting aquarium scene where Elsa and Michael meet, with strange, shadowy sea creatures ominously lurking behind as the couple chart their duplicitous romantic course.
But there’s no escape, as an absconding O’Hara runs through a funfair, plummets through the open mouth of a painted shark and slides, pell mell, into another nightmare. It is a brilliantly expressionist homage to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, which the director made the cast watch before they began filming The Lady from Shanghai. Welles spent the dark hours of the night hand-painting this scenery, intended as the eerie backdrop for an extended exercise in the unhinged, only for most of it to end up on the cutting room floor; but even in its shortened version it’s deliciously sinister. And then there’s the iconic grand finale – a breathtaking shoot-out in a hall of mirrors, with guns, bullets, dizzying reflections, life and death and the kind of dialogue that just demands to be quoted: ‘Killing you is like killing myself. But, you know, I’m pretty tired of the both of us….’
A new restoration of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari will be released in UK cinemas by Eureka Entertainment on 29 August 2014, followed by a Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray) edition on 29 September 2014.
Part fairy tale, part sex romp, part Buñuelian satire, Walerian Borowczyk’s The Beast is as much of a quirky oddity now as it was upon its original release in 1973. Disparaged by Borowczyk purists and mainstream reviewers both (the New York Times called it ‘unfit for man or beast’), the film was originally rejected for UK certification by the BBFC and not seen here in its uncut form until 2001, when it finally underwent something of a critical reappraisal.
So how does the once controversial film look now, nearly 40 years on from its production? Certainly still transgressive; perhaps less so for its over the top scenes of prosthetic bestiality than its cheerful disavowal of current social mores (it’s hard to imagine the character of the priapic black servant passing muster these days, for one). The sexual liaison between woman and beast (King Kong with bodily fluids!) that so outraged reviewers at the time seems largely comic now; not simply because of the relatively primitive make-up effects, but mainly due to the fact that Borowczyk seems to be in on the joke, even if most of the critics of the period weren’t.
But beyond the more censor-baiting material, The Beast is still a barbed, funny satire on sex, hypocrisy and repression. Certainly its jabs at the aristocracy and the priesthood, although perhaps less daring with age, are still relevant several decades on. And the director’s visual command and deft pacing keep the bawdy hijinks from ever descending into complete silliness, even if he never seems to be taking any of it particularly seriously. It’s impossible to claim The Beast as a particularly poetic or meaningful film; without a doubt there are Borowczyk works that go deeper. But it nevertheless remains a defiantly entertaining one, political correctness be damned.
It’s not easy to explore genre films nowadays without running into the zombie apocalypse sub-genre: a popular topic for both studio and independent films, the scenario has been explored from almost every angle imaginable. However, Jeremy Gardner’s genuine gem of a movie The Battery manages to inject it with some much needed adrenaline, using its low-budget roots to intelligently revisit the tropes of the sub-genre.
The Battery concerns two ex-baseball players, Ben and Mickey, who find themselves forced to survive together despite their clear character differences. While Ben accepts the apocalypse and tries to adapt, Mickey is adamant in holding on to his old lifestyle – needless to say the two are constantly at odds.
As the two men make their way through a desolate landscape, we learn more about their past as well as the world in which they exist. The Battery is a subtle exploration of the aftermath of a tragedy, and a film inhabited by characters with more than just two dimensions.
To reveal more of the story would be unfair to those venturing into this land for the first time; instead let us say that this clever, exciting film uses the limitations of its budget and production to create a convincing world within which real people commit some very desperate acts.
The music, and the lack of it, play an important part. The film uses its soundtrack cleverly, involving the audience emotionally in ways they might have otherwise missed. The cinematography also deserves applause. Through clever framing and extensive use of natural light the filmmakers are able to conjure up a wholly believable apocalypse without ever resorting to the sort of post-production work that can prove distracting.
The Battery represents independent, low-budget filmmaking at its absolute best. It’s a film made with care and thought, bringing a hitherto unseen intelligence to a genre fast decaying into familiarity.
A tragic figure, a cult figure, a figure of fun with a full figure; in many ways Divine is the perfect subject for a documentary. Born Harris Glenn Milstead, the artist better known as Divine escaped a childhood of bullying and estrangement from his parents to become the archetypal drag queen, a film star and disco singer, dying of a heart attack on the eve of his first mainstream television commitment.
To die aged 42 is alone a tragedy, but as Jeffrey Schwarz’s film brings to light, Divine struggled throughout his career to separate Divine the person from Divine the character, and his eventual move from fringe to populist entertainment (playing a man on the long-running Fox series Married… with Children, no less) gave the timing of his sudden death a cruel irony.
The film confronts his complex identity full on, asking close friends and colleagues, notably long-time collaborator John Waters, if Divine ever wanted to be a woman. Talking heads respond with an adamant ‘no’, and go further to admit that Divine yearned to find fame beyond the persona, and often found the charade tiring, asking people to ‘get this shit off me’ as soon as he walked off set or stage.
But ‘this shit’ was what made him famous, and the film charts the careful construction of this image. As a teen, Divine enjoyed cross-dressing, fellow actor David Lochary encouraged it, and Waters christened him ‘Divine’ for their first amateur movies together. It was also Waters who instructed make-up artist Van Smith to ‘do something with his hairline’, thus creating that iconic look (the raised hairline, Smith reasoned rather gloriously, would leave more space on the face for make-up).
I Am Divine is released on DVD in the UK on 25 August 2014.
The result was nothing more than spectacular and, with his full girth and tight-fitting, trashy clothes, Divine rocked the surprisingly prim drag queen scene of the time. Twin this with his punk sensibility (‘I blow murderers…’ was the opening line for his first live performance) and he pretty much managed to break every taboo going.
Unsurprisingly, Divine’s partnership with Waters emerges as the key to his success, and I Am Divine was made with the filmmaker’s full blessing, affording crucial access to the vast archive of their work together. Theirs was a symbiotic working relationship, with John the wicked master to Divine’s willing puppet. Several contributors remark on how Divine placed blind faith in Waters, allowing himself to fall out of moving cars, swim through freezing rivers in full drag and eat dog shit (for the famed final scene of Pink Flamingos) in the name of making movies. In one of many excerpts from interviews with Divine (often presented, movingly, via his voice alone, set to a rolling slideshow of images), he mentions he never knew whether to hate Waters or thank him for setting him on this path.
But the film offers a fascinating insight into Divine’s life beyond Waters too.A key speaker is Divine’s mother, Frances Milstead, who died shortly after contributing to the film, and to whom I Am Divine is dedicated. She recounts ‘Glenny’s’ difficult childhood and cries as she recalls telling her young son that, despite a paediatrician telling her he would always be ‘more female than male’, she told him she would always love him. She admits, however, that when he revealed the full extent of his private life to them as a young adult (up to and including stripping and cross-dressing), she and her husband disowned him. They reconciled in later life, but the film prompts the question of whether the empty space inside Divine referred to by one of his great friends (and which caused him to spend wildly and unsustainably, and to eat uncontrollably) was that vacated by his parents.
Despite the sadness, we are reminded of what an influential figure Divine was, and how his very presence continues to bring comfort to others who identify as outsiders (the fact the film was funded by fans on Kickstarter is testament to their ongoing affection for him). Clips of his live performances, complete with colourful put-downs, are a treat, and the photographs, though in some cases slightly overused, provide a procession of glamour which most of us have no hope of emulating.
By now, many people will have heard of nanny Vivian Meier, who was revealed to be one of the 20th century’s very best street photographers when her astonishing body of work – often shot while she wandered the city of Chicago with her young charges – was discovered posthumously. It’s a remarkable story: in 2007, the amateur collector John Maloof came across several boxes of her photographs at an auction; over time, he tracked down her remaining possessions: over 150,000 photographs and negatives, hours of Super 8 footage, as well as audio recordings, receipts, letters – everything.
Finding Vivian Maier documents the attempt of directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel to tell her fascinating story by tracking down people who knew Maier – her employers, their children, the odd friend and relative. But the film is also about Maloof, who is now the sole owner of her work; it’s understandable, but somewhat regrettable, that he has been so heavily injected into the film. Maloof deserves enormous credit for tirelessly promoting her to the public, and to the sometimes less-than-receptive art establishment, but the truly captivating element of this tale is not Maloof, or even Maier, but the incredible artistry of her photographs.
Finding Vivian Maier is released in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray on 10 November 2014 by Soda Pictures.
The woman was an enigma; she spoke with a French accent but was born and raised in New York; no one really seemed to know where she was from or what her background was. But she went everywhere with her camera, photographing the children she cared for, crime scenes, the destitute (think Weegee and Mary Ellen Mark), as well as creating incredible self-portraits using mirrors and glass – anything she could point her camera at.
The documentary is at its best when it reveals Maier’s photographs and films to the audience, and the narration at its strongest when we hear her own voice on the audio recordings. What is clearly evident is her ability to capture candid and beautiful moments on film; and while playing detective proved irresistible to the filmmakers, does it really matter if she was a hoarder, or, as she’s painted towards the end of the film, possibly mad and violent? There’s something uncomfortable and slightly sensationalist about a posthumous portrayal of a woman who can’t speak for herself.
Some of the very best documentaries are themselves works of art; skilfully written and shot, intricately pieced together. And while there’s little doubt about the value of Finding Vivian Maier in terms of revealing her work, it’s a shame that the documentary itself is a victim of conventional story-telling, with its over-reliance on talking heads, and insistence on a very concrete linear narrative, rather than something more abstract and innovative. But despite its flaws, the film should be seen, if only for the chance to experience Maier’s stunning photographs.
Based on the novel:Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Cast: Udo Kier, Marina Pierro and Patrick Magee
Original title:Docteur Jekyll et les femmes
Alternative title:The Blood of Doctor Jekyll
France, West Germany 1981
It’s 1886. Workers at the Woolwich Royal Arsenal form a football club; Dr John Stith Pemberton develops a fizzy beverage to be known as Coca-Cola and a novella – Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – is published by Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, and becomes an instant success. It was almost immediately adapted for the stage, and starting with a lost 1908 film, over 120 film versions were to be produced, with actors from Spencer Tracy to Jerry Lewis essaying the role(s) of the austere Victorian scientist Jekyll and his libido made flesh, Hyde. In one guise the story is a moral tale of the secret desires repression creates, but in another it is a wish-fulfilment fantasy/nightmare haunted by its own ‘if only…’ premise.
Walerian Borowcyzk’s 1981 take, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, is a kinky French horror film, with a disturbingly lustful sadism. A child has been attacked in the blue-lit foggy London night and an unspeakable menace lurks. In a palatial town house complete with turbaned man servant, Dr Henry Jekyll (a young Udo Kier), a wealthy and celebrated scientist, is hosting a party to celebrate his engagement to Miss Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro). His crippled mother, his mother-in-law as well as assorted scions of Victorian society, a clergyman, a rival scientist and a general (Patrick Magee in typically eccentric form), gather for an evening of food and celebration. They are all like escapees from some savage Buñuel satire, pompous, self-satisfied and bubbling over with barely concealed desires as they exchange pleasantries and hotly debate Jekyll’s new theory of transcendental medicine. They are the apotheosis of British Imperial self-satisfaction, smirking through the evening, oblivious to the noise their clay feet make, clumping on the parquet. But Jekyll wants his estate given over to the mysterious and as yet unseen Mr Hyde, and there seems to be a settling of accounts in the offing.
Borowcyzk keeps everything suitably murky and fragmented. His use of mirrors seems at first like an over-literal rendering of the split personality theme, but as the film goes on the visual confusion becomes increasingly disconcerting and dream-like. There is more than a little vampire/Nosferatu in Hyde (Gérard Zalcberg) when he appears, an eyebrow-less fiend and something of Jack the Ripper as well with his murderous phallus. His assault on the guests is savage, and yet they are complicit in their own downfall, either because he stirs in them their own (scarcely) hidden desires, or because they rather bathetically provide him with the weapons of their destruction. His sadism is pitched against their own hypocrisy and general vileness. In a twist which the title anticipates, Marina Pierro’s yearning raven-haired heroine has a yen for some self-transformation as well. Violence and murder are intertwined with a longing for freedom, but Borowcyzk’s film is dark and claustrophobic, locked in Jekyll’s hollow town house. His characters don’t find emancipation via their potions and transformations, but rather murderous and self-destructive rage.
Cast: Franco Nero, Vanessa Redgrave, Georges Géret, Gabriella Grimaldi
Original title: Un tranquillo posto in campagna
Whenever Franco Nero is asked about Elio Petri, his heartfelt appreciation for the director he worked with only once in his career, performing one of his most demanding roles, is as poignant as it is powerful: ‘Elio Petri is the greatest Italian director of the past, the only Italian director who made 10 films that were completely different from one another.’
This unqualified praise is certainly confirmed by A Quiet Place in the Country, Petri’s foray into experimental horror. It’s a film that demands repeated viewing as it is all too easy to get engrossed in the intricacies of the delirious plot. Once you know how this flamboyantly elusive tale of a troubled abstract painter obsessed with the ghost of a nymphomaniac young countess pans out, you appreciate all the more how brilliantly it is all set up. Blending sex, love, madness, identity crisis, alienation, death, art, consumerism and social commentary in a hypnotic, dazzling visual swirl of bold colours, powerful emotions and artistic expression, it is a feast of experimental visual imagery, but not without Petri’s typically dry, caustic touch.
Franco Nero stars as Leonardo, the young established painter afflicted with self-doubt and reckless fantasies, and looked after by his art dealer lover Flavia (Vanessa Redgrave). In an effort to help Leonardo overcome a creative crisis, she rents a derelict country house that he feels is the perfect place for him to work. But soon after his arrival, the previous owner of the house claims possession of her property in mysterious and increasingly dangerous ways. Mentally unstable and with a fatal weakness for beautiful women and vivid hallucinations, Leonardo gets more and more obsessed with the tragic story behind the elusive, free-spirited Wanda (Gabriella Grimaldi) and soon finds himself pushed to the limits of reality, myth and sadism.
The film’s original score by Ennio Morricone plays no small part in contributing to the moody, feverish atmosphere created in the film, while Petri, who had a passion for modern art, goes to great pains to illustrate the relation between present and past, in sinister and haunting, rather than nostalgic, manner. Perhaps A Quiet Place in the Country is best seen as a submersion in a dream that unfolds buried layers of unresolved affairs – emotional, sexual or psychological – to alluring and puzzling effect.
There is a small scene in Elio Petri’s The Assassin (L’assassino), which is set on a grey, miserable day in Rome. Two police officers, drenched from the rain and their shoes splattered with mud, enter a house in search of a man who has become the main suspect in a murder case. As the two men walk up the staircase, the concierge shoots out of her flat and scolds them, ‘Hey you, where are going, you’re making everything dirty’. In 1961, shortly before the premiere of the film, the authorities insisted on having this particular scene removed on the grounds that it represented the police in a negative way – according to the censors, the police would never make a hallway dirty.
The scene, as minor and negligible as it might seem, not only nearly led to the banning of the film but perfectly illustrates the climate in which Petri shot his impressive and still potent feature debut. Airing his resentment of the moral decay of early 1960s youth and the corruption of Italian society, the film is riddled with a refreshing irony that bears comparison to Kafka and Camus.
Dazzlingly intercutting police interrogation scenes and flashbacks to the night of the crime, The Assassin follows the investigation concerning Alfredo Martelli, a cunning thirty-something Roman antiques dealer accused of having murdered his former business partner and long-term mistress, the wealthy socialite Adalgisa de Matteis (Micheline Presle). As unscrupulous as he may be, Martelli (played by the brilliant Marcello Mastroianni) doesn’t understand what is going on as he is taken to the police station, and any attempt to find out more is met with icy disdain by the officers on duty. When he eventually learns what he is suspected of, he desperately tries to prove his innocence to the equally corrupt inspector in charge (Salvo Randone). With the subtle noir style of its plot and music, combined with Petri’s assured direction, The Assassin plays out as a smartly paced, deftly twisted cat-and-mouse tale that sees Martelli progressively losing his dandy manners as the police’s unorthodox methods grind him down.
Luckily, the above mentioned scene was never cut from the film because Goffredo Lombardo, one of the producers – he remembers the circumstances of the release in the documentary Elio Petri: Notes about a Filmmaker (2005), an extra on the Criterion edition of Investigation – told the censors that he would remove it but then released the film in its original version under the assumption that ‘the authorities would never go to see the film in the cinema anyway.’
Based on the novel:To Each His Own by Leonardo Sciascia
Cast: Gian Maria Volonté, Mario Scaccia, Irene Papas
Original title:A ciascuno il suo
Arguably one of his most mordant films, We Still Kill the Old Way (1967) marked a deliberate turn for Elio Petri from the dazzling, super-stylised pop-art adventure he had just embarked upon in The 10th Victim (1965). Written by Petri and Ugo Pirro (a collaboration that lasted until 1973), this austere murder mystery is set in a small village in Mafia-ruled Sicily, a location that allowed Petri to fully realise his aspiration for greater political involvement.
Based on the novel To Each His Own by Leonardo Sciascia, the story is apt for this purpose: a young, naïve professor (Gian Maria Volonté) gets himself tangled in a web of lies and deceit as he attempts to reveal the truth behind some dubious death threats and the subsequent killing of two men during a hunt. While the police mistakenly believes it to be a crime of passion, Laurana suspects a political conspiracy, but his judgment is obscured by his seething desire for his friend’s widow, played by a wonderfully aloof Irene Papas.
As the plot thickens Laurana’s passion leads to his doom, and Luis Bacalov’s score, based on a distinctive 60s calypso-style rhythm mixed with melancholic piano chords and threatening drums, perfectly matches the increasingly darker, more enigmatic mood. With vivid cinematography, We Still Kill the Old Way is compelling and acrid in equal measure, if not as driven and fierce as some of Petri’s later triumphs such as the Oscar-winning Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion. But although here as in his other films narrative stringency is not his forte, Petri excels once more at creating an infectious atmosphere that draws you right in, is impossible to resist and hard to shake off even long after you step out of his unsettling, expressive world.