Tag Archives: Oliver Reed

The Devils

The Devils

Format: Screening of the director’s cut

Part of Ken Russell Forever

Date: 19 March 2012

Time: 8pm

Venue: BFI Southbank

Format: DVD of UK original X certificate version

Release date: 19 March 2012

Distributor: BFI

Director: Ken Russell

Writer: Ken Russell, John Whiting

Based on The Devils of Loudun by: Aldous Huxley

Cast: Vanessa Redgrave, Oliver Reed, Dudley Sutton, Michael Gothard, Christopher Logue, Graham Armitage

UK 1971

109 mins (screening) / 107 mins (DVD)

Ken Russell’s 1971 film deliberately sets out to shock and does so with a verve and an integrity of purpose that few films can equal. The shock does not simply reside in its subject matter of religious hysteria, taken from the Aldous Huxley book The Devils of Loudun and a 1961 play by John Whiting, also based on the Huxley book, but arrives in a 360-degree arc. There is the disgusting body horror of the plague, the soundtrack by Peter Maxwell Davies, hell-bent on giving an aural rendering of Pandemonium, and the radically shifting tone of the film, which lurches from low comedy to high tragedy, often in the same shot.

It is 17th-century France and Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) conspires to have the battlements of various French towns torn down. When Baron De Laubardemont (played by Tinker from Lovejoy, Dudley Sutton) tries to carry out the orders in Loudun the charismatic but deeply flawed priest, Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), intervenes, having been given control of the town by the dying Governor. Unfortunately, Grandier has made a series of powerful enemies, including the Baron, a pair of conniving quack doctors and a noble, whose daughter Grandier has impregnated, and Grandier is set for a fall. This promptly happens, when rumours of his secret marriage to Madeleine (Gemma Jones in her debut) incense the local convent. Unwittingly, Grandier has become the object of the nuns’ repressed lust, and a specific dream object of Vanessa Redgrave’s hunchback Sister Jeanne. During a hysterical outburst, Sister Jeanne names Grandier as being party to a demonic possession of several of the sisterhood. The reenactment of the hysteria is itself hysterical, and of course Russell leaves himself open to the criticism that he ‘goes too far’. But thank god. His camera doesn’t just show an orgy of cavorting nuns, but leaps right in and takes part. With a disapproving priest masturbating under his cassock the camera starts a delirious zooming in and out, in and out, in and out until … oh… my.

Listen to the Electric Sheep show Ken Russell: ‘All Art Is Sex!’ on Resonance 104.4 FM on Friday 16 March, 5pm.

Aside from the orgies and the enemas and the frolicking nuns and what not, Russell has great fun with the satire. One of the quacks, Adam (Brian Murphy, famous as George from George and Mildred), while assisting in the exorcism, comments, ‘nice day… bit chilly, but still…’ to Sister Jeanne. A disguised King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) also assists and in the process exposes the whole thing as a sham, but rather than denounce the rock’ n’ roll exorcist (a fantastic performance by the tragically wasted Michael Gothard), he sees it as all part of the fun. After all, his monarchy is based on an empty box of sorts and he shows himself to be a keen fan of the theatre. ‘Enjoy yourself,’ he tells Sister Jeanne.

The tragedy comes with Grandier’s fall. Oliver Reed is magnificent. His Grandier is carelessly witty and licentious and yet convincingly heroic. In the shambolic comedy of the trial, he maintains a credible dignity and indeed begins to rise to grandeur. Only Reed could deliver the line ‘Go away, De Lauberdemont, you grow tedious’ while he is being tortured and make you at once laugh and feel crushing sorrow. His tormentors and Russell refuse him every consolation, and in a particularly horrific moment his illegitimate son is held up so the ‘lucky bastard can watch his father burn’. Of course, as the flames climb high it is no longer Grandier who burns, but all of Loudun and us as well.

The film looks wonderful - sets designed by Derek Jarman - and the healthy punkish nihilism, the anger, is as relevant today as it ever was. We could have a paean to what might have been, if Warners hadn’t so hated the film and if Oliver Reed and Russell had formed a collaborative partnership similar to Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog that somehow balanced their crazy talents, but as one of the most outstanding 70s films to come out of Britain, I am simply thankful that it is at last (almost all) here.

The Devils is released on DVD by the BFI in its original UK X certificate version. BFI Southbank will screen the director’s cut of The Devils on March 19. For more details of the season, please go to Ken Russell Forever.

John Bleasdale



Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 26 July 2010

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Freddie Francis

Writers: Jimmy Sangster

Cast: Janette Scott, Oliver Reed, Sheila Burrell, Maurice Denham, Alexander Davion

UK 1963

80 mins

The quality David Lynch most valued in the late Freddie Francis, his cinematographer on The Elephant Man, Dune and The Straight Story, was not so much the technical knowledge accrued through a long apprenticeship in the British studios of the 1940s and 50s, remarkable though that was, but the more elusive ‘sensitivity’, Francis’s ability to respond evocatively to dramatic situations, characters and spaces.

This was not a quality Francis could use to full effect on projects like The Deadly Bees or The Creeping Flesh, his bread and butter when he became a director, although even in patently absurd projects like the Joan Crawford apeman movie Trog, you can see him striving to inject some interest. But occasionally the scripts he dealt with was just about good enough to allow him to shine. Paranoiac (1963), his third credited feature, is such a movie. Since Francis the director was as sure a hand as Francis the cinematographer at creating atmosphere through lighting, composition and movement, this convoluted country house crime story is rich material.

Now available from Masters of Cinema, Paranoiac is an early entry in Hammer studio’s long line of twisty thrillers ‘inspired’ by the success of Les Diaboliques, and to a lesser extent Psycho. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, a driving force behind Hammer horror, could apparently knock these out in his sleep: weave together at least two criminal conspiracies, add some false identities, leapfrog from one shock or suspense sequence to another as rapidly as possible, and strain credibility until it groans but doesn’t quite give way.

Here, we have a confused heiress (Janette Scott, of Day of the Triffids fame) being driven insane by her wicked, drunken brother (Oliver Reed, playing very much to type), until another, long thought dead, brother (Alexander Davion) shows up. Suspicions quickly arise that this interloper is an impostor, part of a Tichborne claimant-style plot to steal the family inheritance, but where does the eerie, masked figure armed with a lethal hook fit into the puzzle, and who is singing at night in the crypt?

The answers probably won’t startle you too much, but this handsome edition shows off Arthur Grant’s widescreen black and white cinematography to terrific effect - Francis had shot The Innocents just a few years before, and he uses many of the same tricks in this less sophisticated country house melodrama, from the elegant mise en scène to the subtle vignette effect that darkens the corners of the frame. His camera glides and arcs almost ceaselessly, explicitly taking over the storytelling at times, a creeping, constant presence; and then jabbing and swinging in rhythm with Reed’s unrestrained, gorilla-like machismo. When Martin Scorsese hired Francis to photograph Cape Fear, Francis said it was because he would know how to shoot a young lady in a night gown wandering around a dark house when she ought to be in bed. He does indeed have a feel for the modern Gothic. Playing it just straight enough (Reed occasionally mugs too vigorously, but he’s electrifying the rest of the time), Francis uses everything he’d learned as a cinematographer to create a genuinely beautiful-looking movie, moody and powerful, combining the gusto of Hammer with some of the eeriness of the classic English ghost story.

David Cairns