DVDs and Blu-Rays are all very well (and what on earth did we do before VHS?) but in 2015 I resolved to watch as many old films on the big screen as possible. I’d already seen some of these on video or TV, but as you’re probably aware, the experience of watching something in the cinema is totally different to seeing it at home. You are obliged to concentrate, there are fewer distractions, you can’t break off to answer the phone or make a cup of tea, and thus it’s easier to immerse yourself in the experience, and harder to get bored.
(I wish imdb would oblige people who leave comments on a film to describe the circumstances under which they watched it – in the cinema? on TV? on a tablet or iPhone? Downloaded or streamed? Thus, whenever some idiot complains that a film is “boring” you would be able to ascertain whether or not they’d done more than glance for a few minutes at a postage-stamp-sized image before breaking off to talk or text or surf or post comments about it.)
I saw most of these films at the Cinematek in Brussels, where seasons included the work of Vincente Minnelli, Conrad Veidt and Christopher Lee. The vaguely related (they’re both listed in the Cinematek programme, but you can’t use the same tickets or cards) Flagey cinema had a Jacques Tati retrospective. I also saw films in Paris and Amsterdam. I have also been making an effort to watch more silent movies; the Cinematek screens them with live piano accompaniment.
This is the first time I’ve compiled a list like this; I mainly did it because I was curious to see how many old films I’d seen during the year – I haven’t counted TV or DVD.
Please note these aren’t reviews – they’re a cobbling together of notes and fragments of old tweets, more as an aide memoire for my own future reference than for public consumption. The entry for Out 1 – noli me tangere is particularly rambling and incoherent, and is unlikely to make a shred of sense unless you’ve seen the film.
The Big Gundown aka La resi dei conti (1966)
Saw this at the end of 2014, but squeezed it into the list because it was so great. Spaghetti westerns are best watched BIG, and Sergio Sollima directs the hell out of this one. Lee Van Cleef (underplaying) pursues Tomas Milian (overacting). Terrific use of landscape, ace fight choreography, great characters, good plot and an Ennio Morricone score. Also, a monocle-wearing Prussian, whose every appearance is accompanied by a few bars of Für Elise on the soundtrack.
Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987)
Norman Mailer adapted and directed his own novel, and it’s a riot of OTT performances and bonkers artistic choices, nearly all of them bad. Flashbacks within flashbacks, other flashbacks from the POV of people who weren’t even present. Also a random dog. My first view of this in 28 years, first time on the big screen. More entertaining than expected. There’s also this:
L’assassino… è al telefono (1972)
Seventies giallo set, unusually, in Flanders. Telly Savalas as the world’s most inept hitman, repeatedly trying and failing to kill amnesiac Anne Heywood in Bruges. And he doesn’t use il telefono at all! Climax in a deserted theatre with the slowest safety curtain ever.
Designing Women (1957)
Lauren Bacall vs Gregory Peck in rom-com somewhat dated by its assumption that you will be INSANELY jealous of anyone your spouse hung out with before they met you. Career women, huh? But… five narrators! Bacall in fab frocks! Swishy choreographer (Jack Cole) who does dance-fu. (Clearly gay, but he bests a whole bunch of thugs with his dance steps. Bravo!) Peck is personable but alas no Cary Grant.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1971)
Second time on the big screen; first was in Paris, about 15 years ago. Reading contemporary reviews of Billy Wilder’s film, you realise with an ache in your heart that no-one got it. They complained the case wasn’t interesting enough. And even now, commentators on imbd write things like, “This film is awkwardly staged, poorly acted, badly written, and boring.” But this is one of the most bittersweet films I know – it draws you in with light comedy, and then bam! Punch to the gut. I wrote more about it here.
Two Weeks in Another Town (1962)
Wonderfully histrionic account of washed-up American star (Kirk Douglas) seeking redemption on a movie being shot at Cinecittà outside Rome. Two cats. Best ever hysterical drunk-driving with Kirk + Cyd Charisse in a Maserati 3500 GT Spyder in front of mad back projection; grand tour of Rome nightlife; Dracula dra-cha-cha! Some women (and men) get slapped and Kirk kicks someone’s backside.
And then there’s this, which plays in the background of one scene:
The Sandpiper (1965)
Elizabeth Taylor plays a free-spirited boho painter who lives in a shack at Big Sur and proves to be temptation incarnate for Richard Burton as a married headmaster of an episcopal boys’ school. Taylor is kind of miscast, but is never less than fabulous to watch. Film has dated, but Taylor’s unapologetic single mom who rejects society must have been quite radical for mid-1960s Hollywood. Screenwriters (including Dalton Trumbo) make an admirable effort to flesh out its women, making them more than stereotypes, and there are good supporting roles for Charles Bronson (as a beatnik who sculpts topless Taylor and karate-chops Burton) and Afro-American actor James Edwards.
On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970)
Late Vincente Minnnelli musical, opens with blossoming flowers. Yves Montand hypnotises Barbra Streisand into giving up smoking and accidentally discovers she has lived a past life with an English accent in 1814. Cue Brighton Pavilion and Cecil Beaton costumes. Elsewhere, Barbra in baby-doll pyjamas that match her sheets. Montand sings the lovely song Melinda. And random New Yorkers (and a poodle) sing Come Back To Me at Streisand in Yves Montand’s voice – check it out, it’s like the demon-possessed people singing the Rolling Stones at Denzel Washington in Fallen!
Dragon Gate Inn (1967)
One of King Hu’s first big wuxia hits. Pure pleasure, a martial arts masterpiece. Villains descend on remote inn to kill offspring of unfairly disgraced general. Knights errant step in to save the day. The supercool swordsman (Shih Chun) is the actor who plays the nerd in A Touch of Zen. I failed to recognise regular Hu actor Bai Ying as the evil albino eunuch/Final Boss. The climactic fight incorporates the ancient art of several people running in circles around the villain to make him dizzy. Score is a mix of Peking Opera and almost avant-garde electronic, plus an unexpected blast of Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie.
Now out on dual-format DVD/Blu-Ray from Eureka’s Masters of Cinema.
Shaolin et les 18 hommes de bronze (1976)
Wacky goings-on at the Shaolin Temple, where the young orphaned hero is faced with mad tests, including dodging spikes, lifting dragon pots and battling with the bronze warriors of the title, before he leaves the temple to avenge his parents’ murderers. There’s a lot of late-breaking plot stuffed into the final five minutes. Not classic nor a must-see, but fun for aficionados.
Jour de fête (1949)
Les vacances de M. Hulot (1953)
My dad took me to see this when I was little. Ode to the French on holiday. Styles have changed but maybe not the rituals. Men in shorts. Quasi-silent with sound effects. Chuckles of recognition rather than belly-laughs. Packed with sight gags and keen wit. Frame teeming with detail.
L’ultimo squalo (1981)
Astonishingly witless Jaws rip-off with not as big a body count as one might like; directed by Enzo G. Castellari; starring James Franciscus and Vic Morrow. One genre where I don’t mind dubbing too much is cheap Italian exploitation like this; print I saw was dubbed into French.
Mon oncle (1958)
Jacques Tati’s first film in colour. This is the one with Hulot baffled by the gizmos in his sister’s ultra-modern house, and wreaking havoc in his brother-in-law’s factory. As always I find Tati more fascinating than funny – the mise en scène (there’s no other word for it) is astonishing, packed with detail and choreography. I suspect I don’t find Hulot that funny because I identify with him too closely, especially when he’s flummoxed by modern technology – I have problems with washroom taps all the time, always pressing and prodding and failing to make the water run.
Some great dog action, including a sterling performance from a teckel (dachshund) – the only trained canine actor. Lots of nice old American cars, including a Chevrolet Bel Air in spectacular green and pink.
Sylvie et le fantôme (1946)
Gentle romantic whimsy directed by Claude Autant-Lara, set in a dilapidated château whose strapped-for-cash owner is having to sell an old portrait, much to the sorrow of his 16-year-old daughter Odette Joyeux (aged 32) who is being wooed by young Jean Desailly (La peau douce) and François Périer (Orphée, Le samouraï).
The film is so whimsical it almost floats away, and Joyeux’s character really got on my wick (maybe because I was nowhere near as soppy as this when I was that age; maybe this is a middle-aged film-maker’s idea of what a 16-year-old girl is like) but is made palatable by a streak of melancholy, and a rather moving mute performance by Jacques Tati as the ghost who lives in the portrait. Meanwhile, grandfather hires an actor to pose as a ghost as an attempt to cheer up his granddaughter… Plus there’s a dashing young criminal on the run… Yes, a lot of people pretending to be ghosts plus one real ghost. Fun with sheets and double exposure SPFX.
I’d never seen this on the big screen before, so jumped at the chance.
François Truffaut wrote that Jacques Tati’s masterpiece, “is a film that comes from another planet, where they make films differently.” Tati’s alter ego, Monsieur Hulot, tries in vain to keep an appointment in a baffling Paris of angular modern architecture, trompe l’oeil glass and steel (in fact a specially constructed set) where familiar monuments such as the Eiffel Tower are glimpsed only fleetingly in reflections. Dialogue is limited to semi-audible muttering from an impeccably choreographed cast of tourists, bureaucrats, service staff, with another layer of sound effects added by footsteps, squishy chairs or fluorescent signs. It’s a long way from the crowd-pleasing comedy of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, but patient viewers will be rewarded by a dense, mesmerising symphony of social observation, beautifully composed tableaux and brilliant sight gags. (Billson Film Database)
Blade Runner – “the final cut” (1982)
Can’t remember how many times I’ve seen this now, but I knew all the dialogue.
The Ceremony aka Gishiki (1971)
Nagisa Oshima satire on class, ritual and the sins of the fathers. Some amazing widescreen compositions; a lot of stylisation which distances the viewer emotionally. Grimly funny, quite vicious and a bit disturbing; rather like a Japanese version of Festen.
The Innocents (1961)
First time on a big screen, and with an audience – exquisite black & white cinematography by Freddie Francis; and for the first time I was truly able to appreciate the widescreen compositions with their beautiful deep focus. A collective intake of breath when Quint appears at the window, followed by (extremely) nervous laughter. Watching this for the umpteenth time, it seems obvious Miss Giddens is insane, but if anything that makes the film all the more frightening. The perfect balance of supernatural and psychological – either way it’s scary.
Der Student von Prag (1926)
Henrik Galeen’s remake of Hanns Heinz Ewers’ 1913 film inspired by Poe’s William Wilson. Student and fencing champ Balduin (Conrad Veidt) is fed up with being penniless and strikes deal with the mysterious Scapinelli (Werner Krauss) who of course is the Devil in disguise. Balduin is haunted by own doppelganger, loses it. Famous images include the diabolical Scapinelli standing on a hillock. One drunken party scene seems to be an early example of hand-held P.O.V. My favourite bit is the Expressionist climax set during a storm, when the student is being followed down the road by his double – it looks like (but can’t be) a Vertigo-style dolly-zoom. Spine-tingling stuff.
The Man Who Laughs (1928)
Paul Leni directed this adaptation of a Victor Hugo novel about a clown called Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt), disfigured in childhood by the king’s wicked minions, who carved his face into a Joker-like rictus. Grows up and joins a troupe of actors who treat him like a human being; also falls in love with a blind girl (Mary Philbin) who loves him back. Olga Baclanova plays the queen’s slutty sister. Veidt does amazing acting with his eyes. There’s a faithful dog called Homo. Which means, of course, plenty of title cards saying “Homo!”
Everyone laughs at Gwynplaine, though if you ask me he looks scary, not funny. But he’s a nice guy, so it’s terribly sad. The point where I really broke down and started blubbing was when everyone thinks Gwyplaine is dead and the other clowns are trying to hide this fact from the blind girl. Luckily Hollywood imposed its own ending on Hugo’s gratuitously cruel one. (And if you think that’s cruel, get a load of his ending for Notre-Dame de Paris aka The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.)
Out 1, noli me tangere (1971)
One of the highlights of my film year was getting to see all twelve and a half hours of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 – noli me tangere, screened over a weekend at the Cinematek in Brussels. It’s a long way from being my favourite Rivette – Céline et Julie vont en bateau, Duelle and Noroît are more my cup of tea – but it reintroduced me to the pleasures of total immersion.
Maddening, indulgent, wayward, elusive, endless. Also oddly inspiring and compelling. Lengthy scenes of actors improvising and playing acting games, to no clear purpose. I do hope that’s mud or clay they’re smearing all over themselves. Primal therapy, full retard, Von Trier’s The Idiots, yoga, screaming, shoving horrible feet in her face. Sometimes the impro verges on violence. What if it got out of hand and someone died?
After two films, I’m more worried about deep vein thrombosis than falling asleep. Cigarettes, wine, crochet. Michel Lonsdale = boss. Juliet Berto (always pouting, always trailing things – bags, scarves) wears bellbottoms decorated with a labia-centric design and lives in an attic in the Bastille quartier; we get to see the Paris skyline from her window and it’s breathtaking. The entire movie is a snapshot of Paris in 1971, before Tour Montparnasse, Opéra Bastille and the centre commerciale at Les Halles; La Samaritaine is still open. Jean-Pierre Léaud repeatedly recites The Hunting of the Snark, pronouncing Boojum as “Boo-joom”.
Smoking in cafés – could you even make this film without cigarettes? Smoking near small children; once upon a time I might not have noticed this. Bernadette Lafont is FIERCE. I’m anxious about the tortoise. Parsing the clues. The ur-conspiracy theory movie. “These people might be killers.” Bulle Ogier talking about blackberry and rhubarb tarts. Léaud eating jam straight from the mug, getting the giggles. Are they stoned? Closed societies and initiation rituals. Implicit power struggles.
Scenes at Porte d’Orléans – lots of old Renaults and Citroëns, a car-spotter’s paradise. Before each film there’s a sort of “Previously on Out 1 – noli me tangere” collage. Small children staring into camera. Considering this is a French film, the food is remarkably unappetising – spaghetti triste, dry biscuits, jam out of a mug. The crochet shawls: Marie – purple, Ogier – sky blue, Lili – greenish, Rose – multicoloured poncho. “Decidement, tu es partout.”
Dialogue turns in boucles, just like an assemblée de syndic. The red queen is talking backwards. Pierre and Igor are absent. We never see what characters are looking at. Quentin and his clipboard at Porte d’Italie, bothering passers-by. The Mirror Shot. Lonsdale = Stephen King + Dan Aykroyd. Statue of Minerva.
“Pourquoi tu me regardes comme ça?” “Non, je te regarde normalement.”
Quintessentially French – chain-smoking, drinking red wine and talking bollocks. VERY disappointed the Cinematek didn’t hand out badges with “I SAW OUT 1 – NOLI ME TANGERE” on them.
Le diable par la queue (1969)
There seems to be an entire subgenre of French films about cash-strapped aristocrats struggling with the upkeep of their enormous old houses (see also: Sylvie et le fantôme). Like this charming Philippe de Broca comedy about eccentric and impoverished aristocrats trying to run their dilapidated château as a hotel. Yves Montand = dapper gangster on the run. Marthe Keller is frisky and delightful, climbs a tree in a micro-miniskirt, shows endless legs and irrepressible energy. Some hotel guests are naturists. Implied horrible accident (sound effects) with mill wheel. Unfeasibly young Jean Rochefort as paterfamilias.
The Sorrows of Satan (1926)
Famous shadow, made even more famous by post-punk-proto-goth band Bauhaus. Directed by D.W. Griffith. Faustian tale of struggling writer who can’t get published, sells soul to Lucifer and hangs out with loose women. (We’ve all been there.) Carol Dempster is the nice girl who impresses even Satan with her incorruptability. Lya De Putti plays a saucy Russian princess who steals our impressionable writer away from her. Orgies and fleshpots. Film’s MSP is Adolph Menjou, astonishingly timeless as a dapper Satan. He has one hell of an entrance:
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968)
Directed by Freddie Francis. Dracula revived when blood trickles out of head wound and penetrates ice where he is frozen. The blonde lives! Victims are feisty redhead and brunettes. Dracula falls off a cliff and is impaled on a cross.
Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
Directed by Peter Sasdy. Begins with flashback to end of Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, this time witnessed by dodgy antique dealer Roy Kinnear, who keeps artefacts: red dust and signet ring. Vampire revived when blood is added to powdered Dracula blood, like Instant Whip. Highgate Cemetery. Victims are hypocritical Edwardian/Victorian paterfamilias plus feisty brunette. The blonde lives! Dracula is killed by holiness (in a church where he already spent half the film). So not a very satisfactory ending.
“That was a damn fool thing to do.” “Possibly. But it amused me.”
The Face of Fu Manchu (1965)
Christopher Lee’s first outing as Fu. Not Hammer but Hallam. Nigel Green as Nayland Smith, not the brightest of bulbs; always ready for fisticuffs, but fails to recognise Fu Manchu’s daughter when she’s wearing spectacles or disguised (not very convincingly) as a little old lady. Dublin plays London. Body count = entire population of an Essex village. Not sure what Fu motivation is, other than to be very, very evil. Karin Dor plays German scientists’ daughter, first seen dusting ornaments. Gets kidnapped very easily. But saves the day! Hurrah! Fu’s minions (mostly played by swarthy white stuntmen, plus a few token Pan-Asians) are dacoits who strangle their victims with Tibetan prayer-shawls. Lee makes no attempt at a Chinese accent – thank God.
Violence report: protracted fisticuffs in a laboratory (turns out to be between two people on the same side as each other); whip brought out and brandished, but not used; special drowning chamber linked to the Thames; protracted fisticuffs in warehouse; assorted throttlings; stabby suicide under Fu hypnosis; protracted fisticuffs in cellar. Hoods and gowns like The Silent Three. Blowing up a Tibetan place = dodgy foreign policy. “The world shall hear from me again.”
The Last Command (1928)
The Russian Revolution according to Josef von Sternberg and Hollywood. Emil Jannings plays Russian general reduced after the Revolution to working as a movie extra in Hollywood. Jannings won first Best Actor Oscar; according to Susan Orleans, first choice for the award was Rin Tin Tin, but the Academy worried they might not be taken seriously. Jannings’ performances don’t seem to have aged as well as Veidt’s; they now seem excessively twitchy and OTT. Hard to fathom why passionate revolutionary Evelyn Brent would fall for this crusty old reactionary (he loves Russia! yeah, right). William Powell plays revolutionary-turned-Hollywood-movie-director who wants to give ex-General Jannings a taste of his own medicine.
Terence Fisher. Second time on the big screen. So many changes from the novel that it takes me by surprise every time. Why does Van Helsing tell Mina not to touch the garlic in Lucy’s bedroom, but forget to tell the servant? Brunette victim (Lucy). The blonde lives! Finale surprisingly action-packed – Cushing and Lee really going at it and (literally) letting their hair down. Cushing leaping around like a swashbuckling hero.
Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966)
Directed by Don Sharp. Christopher Lee quaffs, dances cossack-style, treats the chicks like shit but is so great in the sack they flock to him anyway. Scoffs poisoned Milk Tray, is shot and falls out of a window. Filmed on leftover sets from Dracula Prince of Darkness; reunites three of its stars – Lee, Barbara Shelley (who is terrific) and Francis Matthews. Lee has ENORMOUS hands, with healing powers. Should have been called Rasputin: The Drunk Monk; last time I saw this much quaffing was in Barfly: Lee necks red wine non-stop, and at one point has ten empty bottles on his table. Hammer’s hard-pressed costume department pushed to the limit with Imperial Russia. But Lee’s scarlet tunic is spivvy.
54 (director’s cut) (1998)
Better than original theatrical version (cut against director’s wishes) but still not great. Characters sleazier, but arc still cleaves to the rise and fall of a New Jersey busboy scenario. I see no reason to change my 1998 verdict – I wish the movie had been about Steve Rubell instead of busboy. Still worth seeing for Mike Myers’s glorious performance as Rubell – creepy, funny, oddly sympathetic. Breckin Meyer very good as one of Ryan Philippe’s fellow barmen.
The ‘Maggie’ (1954
Directed by Alexander Mackendrick. Canny Scots give gullible but rich American a ride on their rickety steamboat and take him for all he’s got. More anxious-making than funny. Pretends to be heartwarming, but is actually quite bleak; presents characters as loveable when they’re anything but. Film posing as sentimental Ealing comedy but in fact is utterly cynical, almost grim.
Dracula père et fils (1976)
Vampire comedy directed by Édouard Molinaro (La cage aux folles, L’emmerdeur). Plot similarities to Love at First Bite; Dracula has to leave Transylvania because of Communism. Hammer and sickle = crucifix. Catherine Breillat plays young woman kidnapped and impregnated by Dracula in the 18th century, gives him a son; her sister Marie-Hélène Breillat plays main (present-day) love interest; father and son both fall for her. Son is geeky loser who ends up as a nightwatchman in Paris; father becomes a vampire movie star in London. Lee speaks French! In tenth and final appearance as Dracula – though character is named as such only in title and publicity. Lee’s shirts are puffier and floppier than usual. I laughed only a couple of times, but some of the vampire lore is fun. Two cats get eaten, offscreen.
Vladimir Cosma’s music is lovely. I thought at first it was by Krzysztof Komeda, the guy who scored Dance of the Vampires, particularly as there’s a blatant Polanski homage early on in the movie.