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.
Cast: Sid Haig, Lon Chaney Jr., Carol Ohmart, Quinn K. Redeker
Jack Hill’s uncategorisable cult nasty is part Old Dark House/Addams Family black comedy, part Texas Chainsaw Massacre, before the whole thing winds up somewhere in Eraserhead territory.
In Spider Baby, Hill sets out his stall at the start, bringing on Mantan Moreland, an eye-rolling, black comic actor from the 1940s whose career had taken a hit as soon as the civil rights movement kicked in. Moreland does his trademark spooky-house face, glancing hither and thither – and is then knifed to death by a demented teenager, something that could never have happened back in the days when horror movies played by a safe set of rules…
Equipped with a budget of only $60,000, nearly half of which was paid to star Lon Chaney Jr., Hill approached his first professional, solo directing gig (his filmography is littered with odd part-works, sharing credit with others or receiving no credit at all) with a take-no-prisoners bravado, seemingly hopeful that a movie subtitled ‘The Maddest Story Ever Told’ might get by just on being completely different from anything ever before attempted. Disastrous previews nearly stopped the movie coming out at all.
From its insistent theme tune, sung with gravelly enthusiasm by Chaney himself, to its gleeful embrace of inbreeding and genetic disorder as a plot point, the film is a bad-taste banquet. With little money to spend, Hill nevertheless cast extremely well, with pixie-like Beverly Washburn and baby-faced Jill Banner impressive as two psycho teens whose minds have regressed into infancy – and possibly to a pre-human state; hairless, gash-grinned Sid Haig (a Hill favourite) is a wondrous, appalling sight in his Little Lord Fauntleroy uniform; and Chaney himself enjoys a late-career renaissance in a role that actually treats him with some respect as an actor and a horror icon (all his most famous monster roles are name checked). Years of alcoholism left the lumbering actor looking puffy and leonine about the face, and he’s neither quick on his feet nor with his delivery, but as with Lennie in Of Mice and Men (1939), his finest role, he has material that plays to both his strengths and weaknesses. Forget the likes of Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971), as I’m sure Chaney did, and look upon Spider Babyas a final grace note in a long and disorderly career.
The straight characters are fun too, as they rarely were in Corman movies: Carol Ohmart excels as the nasty heir, intent on kicking the freaks out of their decaying mansion, and Quinn K. Redeker is both hilariously square and curiously lovable as the hero. And there’s even something appealing about the more exploitational elements of the flick: the sexual content is limited to the more attractive female cast members running about in their undies. It all seems so innocent.
The limitations of budget and schedule are seen in some inconsistent, but often eerily beautiful, black and white photography, and some quite noticeable sound problems, plus the movie, having set up its premise too hastily, is then required to remain in a holding pattern until the crazed climax. But it’s all so much more inventive, and more good-natured, than a movie shot under the title ‘Cannibal Orgy’ has any right to be, so how can one quibble? At its best, it achieves camp irony, serious psycho-horror and pathos all more or less at once, which is more than most movies achieve sequentially.
Arrow’s Blu-ray is typically handsome, with the misty, diffuse whiteness of Alfred Taylor’s photography attaining a mysterious, chalk-and-charcoal dustiness that’s truly dreamlike. A cluster of extras trace the movie’s fascinating genesis, and Hill himself comes over as a far nicer guy than most practitioners of supposedly ‘legitimate’ mainstream cinema.
Cast: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray
The Apartment is the story of a Manhattan apartment used for illicit sexual liaisons by company executives who in return give its owner, their lowly colleague C.C. Baxter, good efficiency ratings and fast track promotions. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) works in the ‘Ordinary Premium Accounting’ department at a large insurance company. His desk is one of many situated in rows of hundreds in an open plan office. Those ‘using’ the apartment are all his superiors with their own offices and keys to the executive washroom, and their liaisons are with their secretaries, the switchboard girls and the elfin elevator assistant Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), with whom Baxter falls in love. Such is the insular world of this office tower block whose employees outnumber the residents of Natchez, Mississippi.
The script (co-written with regular collaborator I.A.L. Diamond) is so brilliantly crafted you could just sit and marvel at its perfection. It even creates its own syntax, dialogue-wise. There are a smattering of topical 1960s jokes and a few in Yiddish that might need translating but much of the humour is universal and the film is as funny now as it surely was 50 years ago.
Wilder’s films in general are so well written it is easy to credit him as a screenwriter and overlook his talent as a director. For Wilder, the screenplay came first and the other elements worked to support it - his gravestone even reads, ‘I’m a writer but then nobody’s perfect’. But that doesn’t mean that mise en scène, cinematography, sound or even editing are without imagination, or that his work is any less cinematic. The editing may be classically smooth and unobtrusive but when the film cuts seamlessly from a suicide attempt to a drunken dance routine with the melodramatic death music morphing into the jukebox’s cha-cha-cha, we can see Wilder taking unobtrusiveness to another level.
The film has a great look - the cocktail bars thick with smoke and bustling with Christmas drinkers (even Santa Claus himself orders a whiskey); the open plan office with its geometric patterned ceilings. The art direction was by the great Alexander Trauner who used forced perspective to show the masses of office staff. The rows of desks were built smaller and smaller with those furthest away being peopled by children in business suits. The apartment itself is a wonderful creation, a quirky combination of thrift-store furnishings and technical innovations, including a very impressive remote control television.
In Jack Lemmon, Wilder seems to have found his perfect star. The Apartment was the second of seven films they were to make together. His C.C. Baxter is anxious, self-pitying, sickly, weak-willed but still the film’s hero. Like his Daphne in Some Like It Hot (1958), he is unable to say no to escalating requests. He is lacking in moral fibre and non-judgemental to a fault. Even Fred MacMurray’s charming philanderer Sheldrake has stronger, if skewed, sense of justice as he complains of how unfair it is for his mistresses to expect him to divorce his wife. The moral world of The Apartment is one of those who take and those who get taken, or of ‘finks’ and ‘schmucks’. Baxter is the latter.
The re-issue material seems to play up the Mad Men connection. The early 1960s inter-office politics (particularly the sexual politics) have a lot in common with Matthew Weiner’s TV show as does the drinking and smoking at work and the after-work cocktails (a Frozen Daiquiri, a Rum Collins or a dozen Martinis). Was every office worker in New York permanently sauced? However, the philanderers in The Apartment are much less classy than Don Draper - actually even less than Roger Sterling. As the switchboard girl complains, she hoped he would take her to ‘Twenty One’ but instead had to settle for ‘Hamburg Heaven and some schmuck’s apartment’. The gulf between the advertising world of Mad Men and the insurance industry of The Apartment is exemplified by Mr Dobisch can-can-ing in sock-suspenders at the Christmas party.
Perhaps more than any of his other films, The Apartment is full of Wilder’s irreverent sense of humour. Although aimed mostly at the corporate business world his scattershot approach hits a wide range of targets, from Wilder’s previous star Marilyn Monroe (a lookalike is picked up in a bar by the aforementioned Dobisch) to Fidel Castro (‘a no-good fink’), from credit card culture to television. Baxter’s enjoyment of one of cinema’s classiest moments - Grand Hotel (1932) - is destroyed by an advertiser’s question - ‘Do you have wobbly dentures?’
Male-female relationships have rarely been viewed with such relentless pessimism. The Apartment has to be the least romantic rom-com ever. However, the film’s darker comedic moments are deftly handled and Wilder side-steps the moral maze he has led us into with yet more well-timed gags. When assessing his own work Billy Wilder described The Apartment as being the film with the fewest mistakes. And he is right: it is as near to perfect as is possible.
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