COLUMBO: DOUBLE EXPOSURE (1973)

February 16, 2016

standard

Robert Culp makes a quality killer. He wears finely tailored clothing and and can convey a level of self-satisfaction that would make Narcissus blush. It is no surprise then, that he was the guest star/guest murderer on Columbo three times, including the episode under study today, Double Exposure (Season 3/Episode 4). Culp plays Dr. Bart Keppel, a marketing guru who peddles the value of subliminal messaging to companies. He calls himself a “motivation research specialist” who writes bestselling books with titles like, Advertising and the Motivated Sale, Motivation Research and its Value in Advertising, Human Values Vs Human Motives, and, my favorite, The Mind String: And How to Pull It. He is a master of manipulating people to part with their money, a corporate con man. He sets up the murder of his largest client (who is ready to fire him) through subliminal film editing. And Columbo finally catches him through subliminal editing of his own. This is a cat-and-mouse game where the chase happens on an on flatbed Steenbeck editing table. Directed with panache by old pro Richard Quine, this deviously complex Columbo was made in an era when celluloid was not yet dead — and it could kill.

Capture

Double Exposure aired on NBC on December 16, 1973, and was written by Stephen J. Cannell (creator of The Rockford Files and The A Team). In the title screen above you see Dr. Keppel placing one of his guns back in its display case, right below a collection of antique blades. Nothing incriminating here, for sure. But what Keppel has in mind for his client Victor Norris (Robert Middleton) is no simple shooting, but an elaborate one involving caviar, a tape recorder, and the aforementioned subliminal editing. Norris is Keppel’s biggest client, and to lose him would be lose his business. Keppel had previously kept him on the hook through blackmail thanks to some compromising photographs. But now Victor is getting antsy, and his only solution is murder. The plan is (not so) simple. Victor and his team will be at Keppel’s studio to view a new cut of a promotional film. To establish an alibi, Keppel will act the voice-over in person, but let the tape recorder take over for him while he slips out for some killing. How does he get Victor out of the theater? Easy: by feeding him caviar beforehand,  jacking up the thermostat, and then slipping in subliminal single frames of iced soda into the promo film, so the sweaty Victor will be consciously and unconsciously dying of thirst. The plan works of course, and Keppel has a complete alibi, as all the filmgoers will testify to his presence in the theater while the murder was taking place.

cde_109-640x480

Well, this is why Columbo is Columbo. Peter Falk completely inhabits the role as the disheveled homicide lieutenant, whose ruffled exterior masks a rigorously logical mind. Falk introduces a mass of tics to Columbo’s character, from his shuffling walk to the way he arches his elbow to scratch his forehead while thinking. He is also a constant snacker, whether it’s one of his hard boiled eggs or whatever is available on the scene. He has inevitably missed breakfast, lunch or dinner at home, and thus has to nibble his way around a crime scene. In this episode it leads him to a clue, for when he complains about his empty stomach, a cop on the scene leads him to the leftover caviar, which Columbo devours like a bag of Fritos. The saltiness dries his mouth out, and leads him to unlock one piece of Keppel’s absurd puzzle. The others come free in due time, through Columbo’s own dogged research.

Capture2

One of the great pleasures of the series is the interplay between the killer and Columbo, which can be a respectful duel between equals (as with Donald Pleasence in Any Old Port in a Storm), or, as in this case, total obliviousness. Keppel has so much belief in his own unimpeachable genius that when Columbo drops the hammer, he sheds a tear. Culp is so beautifully delusional in this episode, treating Columbo with withering disdain whether in his office or on the golf course wearing gigantic sunglasses. His mere presence should make the case disappear, and yet it doesn’t. For Columbo’s great gift is that he doesn’t go away. He doesn’t give up and he never goes away, even when you think he’s out the door he will always return with “one more thing.” When Nietzsche wrote about “eternal recurrence”, he was simply foreshadowing the existence of Columbo.

capture3 Capture4

And in the perfect world of Columbo, persistence always pays off.  Columbo chooses to play into Keppel’s narcissism in acknowledging him as the main suspect, but admitting they don’t have enough evidence to book him. This is telling Keppel what he wants to hear, warming him up for an emblematic gotcha moment. For Columbo has read all of Keppel’s books, and learned how subliminal advertising works. So when Keppel is away from his office, Columbo takes still pictures from many angles, and inserts them into the latest Keppel commercial. After Keppel views the film, he wanders into his office, tilts a lampshade and pulls out a calibration converter – one that turns his .45 into a gun that can shoot a .22 bullet. Keppel is shell shocked, and Quine pushes the camera closer after his jaw drops: “Subliminal cut, you used a subliminal cut!” In Columbo, it’s the editing that solves the crime.

BORDER INCIDENTS: RIDE THE PINK HORSE (1947) AND THE HANGED MAN (1964)

March 10, 2015

91g4aL-HZKL._SL1500_

 

“He hadn’t wanted to come here. He’d wanted it less and less as the bus traveled further across the wasteland; miles of nothing, just land, empty land. Land that didn’t get anywhere except into more land, and always against the sky the unmoving barrier of mountains. It was like moving into a trap, a trap you couldn’t get out of. Because no matter how you tried, no matter how far you traveled, you’d always be stopped by the rigid mountains. He didn’t like it at all when they moved into this town, his destination. Because this was the center of the trap; it was a long way back to civilization in any direction. The thing to do was get out quick.” – Ride the Pink Horse, by Dorothy B. Hughes

 

Ride the Pink Horse is a grim procedural of hate. Published in 1946, it was Dorothy B. Hughes’ ninth novel, and second to be adapted into a film, following The Fallen Sparrow (1943). A cynical gunman named Sailor travels to a remote New Mexico town during their yearly “Fiesta”, a Southwestern Mardi Gras. He is tracking down his former mentor “The Sen”, a corrupt ex-Senator, for shakedown money. Sailor is a single-minded racist brute, circling the small town in ritualistic repetitions, until the map of the main square is in ingrained in your head (one of the early Dell paperback editions included a map on the back anyway). Sailor is an outsider, and no matter how often he treads the city’s streets, it continues to constrict slowly around him. Robert Montgomery’s 1947 movie adaptation for Universal-International alters many of the plot details, but captures the doomed fatalism of Hughes’ work. Typecast as a light romantic comedy lead, Montgomery took on greater risks as a director, starting with the POV experiments of Lady in the Lake (1947) and continuing through the elaborate crane shots orchestrated by DP Russell Metty in Ride the Pink Horse. It has been a certified cult film ever since Jean Cocteau programmed it at the Festival du Film Maudit in Biarritz in 1949, but it has been hard to see until next week, March 17th, when the Criterion Collection releases it on DVD and Blu-ray.

But this was not the only adaptation of Ride the Pink Horse. In 1964 Don Siegel directed the telefilm The Hanged Man for NBC, after his adaptation of Hemingway’s The Killers was pulled from broadcast, deemed too “spicy, expensive and violent for TV screens.” This time he got his project on the air — the second made-for-TV movie ever shown. The setting is relocated to New Orleans during Mardi Gras, emphasizing the choked streets and vibrant colors that Robert Culp and Edmond O’Brien wander through with clenched determination.

pink horse

The 1947 Ride the Pink Horse would not have been made without the efforts of producer Joan Harrison. Harrison was an assistant and writer for Alfred Hitchcock from 1933 – 1942, but had been interested in the movie business long before. She earned degrees in philosophy, politics and economics at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, but wrote film reviews for the student newspaper. After parting ways with Hitchcock she became a producer for Robert Siodmak thrillers at Universal, collaborating with the talented German on Phantom Lady (1944) and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945). There was a detour to RKO to make the George Raft noir Nocturne (1946, I wrote about it here), she returned to Universal for Ride the Pink Horse. The crew assembled by Harrison and Montgomery for the feature was an incredible array of talent. The script was written by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, already legends for Scarface and His Girl Friday. Hecht had just worked with Hitchcock on Spellbound and Notorious, so it’s very possible he was introduced to Harrison through Hitchcock.

tB4BsAyqIvp3wMHl1rxGI62Rehf

Hecht and Lederer’s script compacts Hughes’ narrative, reducing the endless circling of the novel to a manageable few laps around town. They change Sailor’s name to “Lucky Gagin”, and give him a history as a WWII veteran. In the novel Sailor was a street kid raised by crooks. Montgomery was in the naval service during the war, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. For his first film back he gave a steely, dignified, and deeply moving performance in They Were Expendable, for which he had to direct a few scenes while John Ford broke his leg. The war still loomed large in his life and in the nation, so that becomes Gagin’s backstory – a disillusioned soldier disgusted by the decadence of the criminal/capitalist machine, while his friends-in-arms go down abroad and at home.  Gagin is going after mob boss Frank Hugo (Fred Clark), who was involved in the death of a friend. Hugo is a smiling monster with a hearing aid and huge chompers and the voice of a radio announcer. He’s a smooth operator – a new breed of criminal. Gagin is done with all of it, so has decided to go in business for himself — to cut ties with humanity. Montgomery gives a very controlled, mannered performance to convey this. As in the novel, Gagin keeps his right hand implanted in his breast pocket, tightly gripping his gun. This inner coil also shows up in Montgomery’s jaw, jutted out as if he’s continually grinding his teeth. Everything in an attempt to get smaller, more invisible.

rtph2

Gagin is introduced in a three-minute unbroken crane shot in which the world is displayed as nothing more than a tool for him to manipulate. It begins with him stepping off a bus into the station in San Pablo, in which he secures his gun, hides a canceled check, and uses a stick of gum as an adhesive for a secret key. He is a mechanical man. He becomes part of the machinery later on. While knocked unconscious, his newfound friends Pila (Wanda Hendrix) and Pancho (Thomas Gomez, nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) hide him from Hugo’s thugs on the “Tio Vio” (an 1882 carousel imported from Taos). Gagin is covered by a blanket and spun around like an extension of the contraption’s pink horse. As it goes round and round, Hugo’s men start brutally beating Pancho at the controls. Metty mounts the camera on the carousel, setting at towards the children onboard, who keep staring back at the beating as it swings by. Then there is a cut to the hired muscle standing over Pancho, the shadow of the carousel flickering over theirs. Gagin has reduced himself all the way down, and his friends are paying the price.

rtph4

In this town Gagin is the minority, his white face a giveaway that he doesn’t belong. One of the main motifs in the book is how the Fiesta brings together victims and the conquered in an uneasy truce, though the economic inequality is stark: the Whites frequent the upscale hotel and bar La Fonda, while the Spanish get drunk inside an adobe dive called the Tres Violetas and the Native Americans sit outside selling trinkets. Gagin is one of the few who can traverse all of these spaces. He befriends the operator of the “Tio Vivo” carousel Pancho , as well as a young Native girl who latches on to him, Pila. It is only around them that Gagin unclenches, his posture sags, and looks like a normal human being. They are outside his sphere of betrayal.

Pancho and Pila are both reductive racial “types” give life with muti layered performances. Pancho is the gregarious Mexican drunkard gifted with Gomez’s overflowingly warm, and, to quote Michael Almereyda’s booklet essay, “Falstaffian” performance. His character has no need for material things, just a tarp over his head and a bottle of tequila. To Gagin this looks like freedom. Pila is the “unknowable” and “exotic” Native American who stares at Gagin (and Sailor) with off-putting intensity. But Wanda Hendrix plays Pila as not just a mystic, but also a young, preternaturally self-assured girl. She has the penetrating eyes of Renee Falconetti and the dogged curiosity of Nancy Drew. For the last third of the feature Gagin is near unconscious, and Pila has to drag him from bar to bar evading Hugo’s goons. But the final revelation is that she is still a child. As Gagin disappears over the horizon, the camera returns to Pila, reveling in the glory of being the center of attention. She is retelling the story of Ride the Pink Horse to a circle of her former bullies. It is her story now.

allombra-del-ricatto-img-23943

Pila plays a much smaller part in Don Siegel’s 1964 telefilm, a fascinating companion piece to Hughes’ book and Montgomery’s feature. It hews closer to the Montgomery/Hecht/Lederer  version, with nods to Hugo’s hearing aid and the bravura bus station long take. An addled ticket taker has a hearing aid attached to his glasses so he “can’t hear without my glasses”. Once the Sailor character, here named “Harry Pace” (Robert Culp) gets to New Orleans to enact his revenge, he hides his canceled check inside of a Christian Science Reading room. Without the resources of even Montgomery’s modest production, Siegel still manages some effective shots, saved almost entirely for the final sequence at the Mardi Gras parade. He gets some kinetic handheld work pushing through the crowds as Pace tries to outrun his fate. While the Hughes novel and 1947 film are both very interiorized, the imagery filtered through Sailor/Gagin’s warped psyche, here there is no time for more elaborate visual planning. Instead it’s objective, straightforward pulp propulsion. Pila and Pancho pick him up hitchhiking and offer Pace a helping hand, but they aren’t the transformational forces as they are in the previous versions. Instead, it’s just another bit of revenge clumsily executed. For as focused as Sailor/Gagin/Pace is, he’s a bit of a dolt. And “the trap you couldn’t get out of” is the one inside his head.

THE OUTSIDERS: MONGO’S BACK IN TOWN (1971) AND LIFEGUARD (1976)

March 18, 2014

Mongo00011

Joe Don Baker is introduced in Mongo’s Back in Town getting off a bus in San Pedro, a scar still pulsing on his left temple. In Lifeguard, Rick (Sam Elliott) strolls in a tight white t-shirt and shades to his perch on a Santa Monica Bay beach. Each is an act of refusal. The hitman Mongo is intent on destroying himself and his hometown, while the thirty-something Rick has rejected bourgeois career building in favor of life as a beach bum.  Mongo’s Back in Town is a hard-boiled noir made for TV, first broadcast on CBS in 1971 (now available on DVD). Lifeguard is a relaxed Paramount character study that moves with the sunburnt sloth one feels after a long day at the beach, and is available on DVD from the Warner Archive. Though they exist in vastly different genres, both aim for a kind of stasis, one in which its people prefer to watch than move.

Mongo00003

Mongo’s Back in Town was adapted from a novel by E. Richard Johnson, a convicted murderer and armed robber who spent most of his life in Minnesota State Prison. He won the 1968 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his debut novel Silver Street, and Mongo was his equally well-received follow up. He wrote seven books in four years of imprisonment before escaping, succumbing to drug addiction, and getting recaptured. The terse teleplay by Herman Miller (Coogan’s Bluff) feels very faithful to Johnson’s book in its bleak and withholding nature. The basic story is straightforward but willfully opaque in its details. Mongo is called home by his estranged brother Mike (Charles Cioffi) to knock off one of his rivals. The reasons are murky, cloaked in brief, diversionary bits of dialogue. The film reveals its intentions with its opening sequence, six minutes of wordless action that introduces the characters.

Mongo00007

Joe Don Baker arrives in town with nothing, not even an overcoat to protect him from the sheets of rain. He smashes the cheap knick knacks being sold by a blind peddler. The camera then follows the peddler, who enters a rundown strip club. As the floor is scrubbed by a little person in the extreme foreground, the peddler whispers a message to Mike that we cannot hear. Mike then climbs the staircase into his upstairs apartment. Upon opening the door to his bedroom, a deck of cards set up like dominos tumble down in a line to his wife Angel’s (Anne Francis) feet. It’s a willfully strange sequence, one portraying the city as a network of criminality laid down at the feet of Angel. Whether this sequence was orchestrated by director Marvin J. Chomsky, DP Archie R. Dalzell or producer Bob Banner, it’s an effectively disorienting way to set up the knotty plot to come.

Mongo00018

The countervailing forces are the investigating detectives, played with exhausted Kojakery by Telly Savalas and a callow Martin Sheen (sporting the same pompadour as in Badlands (’73). Lieutenant Tolstad (Savalas) is burnt out from working this scummy precinct, represented in exteriors of dive bars, peep shows and strip clubs. He seems as nihilistic as Mongo, who flicks lit matches at his brother and picks up runaway coal miner’s daughter Vikki (Sally Field) at a diner, only to cruelly play with her emotions. In the triangulated climax, Vikki is torn between these two used up men, her face tensed up, staring at the phone booth that could call Tolstad, and at the club doors that Mongo is about to bust out of. In the end, like all of the characters in this strange, bitter little film, she chooses apathy. Fate decides for her, as it did for E. Richard Johnson.

Lifeguard00011

Lifeguard is an altogether more optimistic enterprise, based on the summers screenwriter Ron Koslow spent at southern California beaches. Rick (Sam Elliott) is an aging well-tanned lothario, closing in on a decade-long career as a lifeguard. While all his old friends have become salesman of insurance or luxury cars, he still spends his days at the beach and his nights with stewardesses. He has successfully avoided the responsibilities and stresses of adult life, content with staring at the ocean instead of his bank account. His apartment is a bachelor pad par excellence, festooned with surf posters and shag carpet, while he spends his free time on the highway in his Corvette Stingray. His parents fret about when he will settle down and stop wasting his life. An old friend offers him a job at his Porsche dealership, while he meets his old flame Cathy (Anne Archer) at the high school reunion, at which he’s embarrassed to admit his profession hasn’t changed since graduation.

Lifeguard00018

In an interview archived at the Director’s Guild of America, Petrie bemoaned the marketing of Lifeguard, the poster depicting big bosomed bimbos flanking a caricature of Elliott, as if it were another Porky’s. It was a modest success, netting $505,000 in profits, though it did not launch Elliott’s career as a leading man, deserving though he was. Disregard the bad taste marketing and the schmaltzy score, as Lifeguard is an understated and wise film about the rejection of adulthood. Director Daniel Petrie lets the story develop its own shaggy tempo, and elicits a grounded, engaging performance from Elliott. He exudes a bodily calm, his gestures an extension of his surfer-Buddhist ethos.

Lifeguard00005

Cathy is a recent divorcee and bourgeois striver, eager to envelop him in luxury goods. The other woman in his life is Wendy (Kathleen Quinlan), a 17-year-old girl and fellow outcast, eager to escape her bickering parents and live on the beach with Rick. She is a vision of the youth and freedom he cherishes, though he realizes it is only an image. He can only achieve the lifestyle he seeks in solitude. So he ends where he began, aging alone at his lifeguard post, scanning the ocean for signs of life and death.

RICHARD MATHESON ENTERS THE TWILIGHT ZONE

July 9, 2013

lee-marvin-twilight-zone

Richard Matheson was already an established writer in 1959, the year he started contributing to The Twilight Zone. But it took him a while. Over the course of the 1950s he rose from pitching sci-fi magazines on his off hours as a mailman, to adapting his own material to screens large and small. He  sold his first story, “Born of Man and Woman”, to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1950. After a couple of suspense novels fizzled, he garnered notice with his post-apocalyptic survival staple, I Am Legend (1954). It was his follow-up, The Shrinking Man (1956), that cemented his place in popular consciousness. He ingeniously sold himself as screenwriter as part of the film rights deal to Universal, and he would be a prolific writer for film and TV for decades to come (alongside his novels and short stories). As part of our week-long tribute to Matheson, following his death last month at the age of 87, I’ll be looking at the Twilight Zone episodes he declared to be his favorite, Steel and Night Call, both from Season 5. They present fantastical premises with procedural detail, as he also did with I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man, bringing the spectacular down to earth.

After the success of The Shrinking Man and its movie adaptation (which added Incredible to the title), Matheson moved to television writing, often with collaborator with Charles Beaumont. They were close friends, part of a circle of fantasy writers that included Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison. Matheson recalled that, “When we joined this agency [Adams, Jay and Rosenberg] it was such a strange new world out there that we decided to work together.” Beaumont and Matheson worked on cop shows and Westerns like Bourbon Street Beat and Have Gun — Will Travel.

Their most long-lasting contribution was to The Twilight Zone, which they both began contributing to, separately, in ’59. Rod Serling was a fellow traveler in the speculative arts, and provided an invaluable platform for the kind of material they wanted to write, even with showbiz compromises. Their material, as Matheson notes, “never made any social commentary”. They were detail men, interested in fleshing out their imagined worlds rather than allegorizing the existing one.

In Twilight And Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson, the writer declares that “Steel” is his favorite episode of the ones he wrote. He adapted the teleplay from his own short story, of a “sports item, circa 1976″, in which boxing was outlawed and replaced by bouts between lifelike robots. Lee Marvin plays the “Steel” of the title, a former pug turned down-at-heel manager, too poor to upgrade his rickety “Battling Maxo” bot, which mechanic Pole (Joe Mantell) keeps running through some spit and a prayer. Maxo is so old even his parts are outdated, and is only booked when a newer model is destroyed in a car accident. Steel needs Maxo to put up a fight so he can pocket the take and make some upgrades. Matheson’s small-scale story was later inflated into the 2011 blockbuster Real Steel.

steel-richard-matheson

Directed by auteur-fave Don Weis (I Love Melvin), this TV assignment replaces Weis’ usual ebullient charm for sweaty close-ups and grimy hallways, a portrait of broken American dreams as tactile as 70s fight films like Fat City. Lee Marvin shows he can ease up his ramrod military posture and ease into a slouching ignominy. A fast talking salesman like Peter Falk in Marbles, his pitches have lost their sheen, routines without conviction. Only when faced with annihilation does Steel show some backbone, replacing Maxo in the bout when the android pops some essential springs. Facing certain defeat, and possible death, Steel takes his shots and his money, ready to fight another day.

As in I Am Legend and The Shrinking ManSteel is concerned about the grungy details of these everyday futures, whether it is how to scrounge for food, evade a giant spider or make a low-tech living in a high-tech future. Night Call (Season 5, episode 139, 1964), is another of these daily grinds, which Matheson adapted from his short story “Long Distance Call.” Old spinster Elva Keene (Gladys Cooper) is living out her days in an empty home, her only company a harried maid. But every evening she receives cryptic phone calls from a moaning loner, which she first assumes to be a prank, but soon realizes is something far more disturbing.

5nightcall

Matheson claims he “talked them into hiring [Jacques] Tourneur” to direct the episode, despite the producers’ concern that a movie director would take forever to shoot an episode. Matheson recalls that Tourneur, “shot the shortest Twilight Zone schedule that anyone has ever done. It was like twenty-eight hours or something.” He was a fan of Tourneur’s work with Val Lewton (The Leopard Man, I Walked With a Zombie), and was thrilled to have him direct one of his scripts. It turned out to be one of the last projects Tourneur would work on.

It takes place almost entirely in two rooms of Elva’s house, her living room and bedroom. In frequent medium shots, Tourneur establishes her as the queen of an emptied out domain. It was the third of Cooper’s appearances on The telephone1964bTwilight Zone, and this after 60+ years of performing, having made her stage debut in 1905 in the musical Bluebell in Fairyland. She plays Elva as a shut-in battle-ax, jittery at any intrusions in her protective shell. The calls make her imperious exterior crumble, and you can see the regrets of the past rush through her softened features.

Richard Matheson wrote 14 teleplays for The Twilight Zone, and had two of his short stories adapted by others. Compromised as they are by commercial forces (“Steel” was the first episode sponsored by Proctor & Gamble), they offer variations on Matheson’s theme of process, how characters rationally deal with the unreality that is thrust upon them. Some trundle onward with brittle hope like Steel, or crumble in regret like Elva, but what Matheson is most interested in is the jagged path that leads there.

PARADISE LOST: TOP OF THE LAKE

May 7, 2013

TOP OF THE LAKE

Approximately every English-language publication in existence has run an “Is Television Better than the Movies” piece over the past few years. I will bravely buck the whims of headline writers and declare I don’t know why we have to choose. For every Louie or The Wire, there are eight billion CSIs, and a similar ratio holds for the silver screen, as long as your definition of “movies” expands beyond Hollywood. Part of the made-up race to declare TV king involves the influx of big-screen talent to the small,  including David Fincher (House of Cards), Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Penance) and  Michael Mann (Luck). The most successful auteur-to-TV transition I’ve seen so far though, is Jane Campion’s in her BBC/Sundance Channel miniseries Top of the Lake, starring Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss. Now available to stream on Netflix, it’s yet another police procedural, but the mystery is incidental to its exploration of the toll paid by women’s bodies in the hyper-masculine backwoods of Queenstown, New Zealand, where a young girl would prefer to disappear than endure it.

Jane Campion’s last feature film was Bright Star, a lovely evocation of the romance between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. It was made four years ago, and with funding tightening up worldwide, she decided to return to her roots. Campion got her career started on  television, directing the Australian Broadcasting Corporation show Dancing Daze (1986), which led to TV movies and eventually her theatrical debut, Sweetie (1989). So when BBC2 offered her the chance to develop her own series, she was ready, and with long-time writing partner Gerard Lee, created the vice-ridden town of Lake Top and placed it in the former setting of Hobbits and Orcs, the scenic tourist trap Queenstown.

top-of-the-lake6

Lake Top is lorded over by the Mitchum family, led by psychotic patriarch Matt (Peter Mullan) and his two lithe and punchy boys. Matt’s twelve-year-old daughter Tui (Jacqueline Joe) nearly drowns herself in the titular lake, and is found to be pregnant. A statutory rape investigation opens, and Tui runs off and disappears into the woods. Australian Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss), a specialist in crimes of sexual abuse, is brought back to her hometown to help the case. While all this is happening, an enigmatic guru named GJ (Holly Hunter) starts a commune for burnt-out women in a collection of shipping containers by a plot of land by the lake called Paradise.

628x471

These ladies were initially going to be the focus of the series. Campion told the New Zealand Herald that:

I thought I would like to write a story about a post-menopausal women’s camp, where women went who felt … they had fallen out of social reality because they were un****able, or unsexy or whatever, and I think being un****able in our society is [to be] fairly invisible, because it’s such a sexualised society.

In the finished series, the camp becomes a fulcrum about which the characters pivot. At various stages Robin and Tui find solace in disappearing there, as their sexualization in Lake Top makes them intensely visible, both of them magnets for the animalistic males of the Mitchum clan and their backwoods buddies. For the Mitchums, the camp is a testing ground, to see how far they can push their power. Peter Mullan is a riveting grotesque, he looks like a hippie MMA fighter with his greasy gray shoulder length locks topping a brick shithouse body. Mullan is a holy terror, whipping himself in acts of sanctification, in penance for the drug-fueled short-fuse mania of his daily life, in which he receives any opposition to his will as a mortal threat.

Holly Hunter is done up in the straight gray hair of Campion herself, her bearing that of a mystic, but her advice is filled with brutal pragmatism. The word she says most frequently is “no”. No your man will not return and it’s possible your life will not improve. The therapy is in being and being together, the camaraderie of women living a daily life free of an objectifying eye, at least until they feel willing to be objectified.

top of the lake

Robin has no such choice. She is constantly on display, not just for her looks but for her past. She had left Laketop years ago because of a brutal crime she suffered as a teen. Her attackers still live and work in town, and Robin tries to use that attention to aid the investigation. She drinks at the local pub, rousing the hicks’ hackles, luring out the sickest and most violent of them. But it is not just the bogans (New Zealand slang for redneck) who circle her lustily – local Detective Al Parker (David Wenham) is a more civilized harasser. His hand-holding and concerning gazes are paternalistic until they are not. The fragility and permeability of Robin’s body is further emphasized by the cancer that is ravaging her mother’s brittle frame. All the women in town seem to be dissolving.

It is a feministTwin Peaks, even name-checking David Lynch’s Blue Velvet at one point, kicking up the unconscious pathologies and unspoken desires of the eccentric residents of a serenely beautiful town. Campion often films the characters in extreme long shot against the misty blue mountains, almost invisible except for their forward motion. That is the only way Tui can survive – keep moving before the men in town can erase her forever.

top

NETFLIXING: SHOWTIME’S REBEL HIGHWAY (1994)

November 8, 2011

rebel highway

In one of the stranger experiments in cable television history, Showtime’s 1994 Rebel Highway series commissioned ten filmmakers to remake a 1950s exploitation movie. It was the brainchild of Lou Arkoff (the son of American International Pictures founder Samuel Z. Arkoff) and Debra Hill (producer of Halloween). They gave directors $ 1.3 million and a 12 day shooting schedule, to roughly approximate the original shooting conditions (modified for inflation). Unlike the ’50s cheapies, though, they were given final cut, and could choose their own screenwriter, editor and director of photography. This proved irresistible to the (mostly) impressive list of talents who signed on: Robert Rodriguez (Machete), John McNaughton (Wild Things), Mary Lambert (Pet Sematary), Allan Arkush (Rock ‘N’ Roll High School), Joe Dante (Gremlins), Jonathan Kaplan (The Accused), John Milius (Conan the Barbarian), William Friedkin (The Exorcist), Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat) and Uli Edel (The Baader Meinhof Complex).

All of the filmmakers, except for Rodriguez, were old enough to have lived through the era of the film they remade, engaging the aesthetics and politics of the originals in strikingly different ways, alternating between affection and parody often in the same film. Since its original airing, the series has completely disappeared from cultural memory, but Netflix Watch Instantly, that haphazard repository of moving image detritus, is now streaming every entry, and it’s well worth sampling the project’s eccentric film-historical time travel. Below, some thoughts on my favorites.

Joe Dante’s Runaway Daughters, an adaptation of Edward L. Cahn’s 1956 AIP production, is one of the few entries to completely stand on its own as a feature. It is a companion piece to Matinee, Dante’s loving evocation of a 1950s movie-huckster, modeled on William Castle, that he made the previous year. Both films were written by Charlie Haas, and share a tone of gentle satire, about the paranoia brought on by the threat of nuclear war and the space race, respectively. Runaway Daughters follows three high school girlfriends who chase down the no-good boy who loved and left.  Working class Holly (Mary Nicholson) thinks she’s pregnant, and is convinced by rich girl Angie (Julie Bowen from Modern Family) and middle-class Laura (Jenny Lewis, who later formed indie-rock band Rilo Kiley) to track the dog down. So they steal a car and hit the road, intercepting the cad before he signs up for the Navy.

Dante opens the film with an irony-drenched  found footage montage set to “Let the Good Times Roll”, from a jubilant Eisenhower and Nixon, to the NAACP hung in effigy, and closing with the repressed sexual longings of I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), the title character getting hairy while watching a stretching gymnast. The longing on-screen enters the narrative, as the trio of not-so-repressed girls is watching Werewolf at a drive-in, necking with impunity and ignoring the metaphors on screen. One of the neckees is Paul Rudd in one of his earliest roles, playing Angie’s bad boy squeeze, Jimmy Rusoff (named after the original screenwriter, Lou Rusoff). Dante gifts Rudd with the catch phrase from Speed Crazy (1959, a major part of Dante’s mash-up Movie Orgy (’68)), “Don’t crowd me!”, which Rudd dishes with appropriate petulance to his greasy gearhead Dad (played against type by Fabian, a late ’50s teen idol).

From this opening scene, it’s clear the girls are more mature than the films representing them, although the Red Menace makes them shaky just like everyone else. Bob (Chris Young) gets in Holly’s pants by waxing poetic over Sputnik, which has just launched into space. For the rest of the movie, though, the phalluses fail. On their journey, the girls run into drunk cops and a gang of flaccid anti-commies, the only sympathetic voice brought by an uncredited cameo from Cathy Moriarty. The lone competent male is played by Dante-axiom Dick Miller, a crusty private detective with a reflexive disdain of the young and their newfangled perversions. He asks the girls’ parents if they ask their kids “about the strange night world of twisted kicks, of weird rituals and equipment? Of whips and chains and rubber balls and dildos and handcuffs?” In this world, it is clear the ladies have to take the world into their own hands, and so they do.

***

Robert Rodriguez’s Roadracers (adapted from the immortal Arthur Swerdloff version of 1959) lacks any of the historical identifiers of Runaway Daughters, taking place completely in Hollywoodland. The most stylized entry in the series, Rodriguez has no interest in interrogating the period, only in refining his style, which at this point was still potently kinetic, coming right after El Mariachi. It stars David Arquette as cynical greaser Dude (in an appropriately mannered performance), who cruises around town with his girl Donna (Salma Hayek) and his fidgety buddy Nixer (John Hawkes). The overriding mood is provided by Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which is playing at the local cinema, and which Nixer returns to ritualistically. Dude doesn’t have to see it to know his town has been co-opted by evil. He’s chased by a sadistic cop (William Sadler) and his moderately sadistic son (Jason Wiles). Rodriguez institutes a rhythmic editing style, set up in the opening when he intercuts a rockabilly band and a car chasematching the downbeat with screeching turns. This tempo is maintained throughout, accessorized by swaggering slow-motion and low-angle anti-hero close-ups. As Dude grows more certain of the town’s rot, the images get more delirious and the action more violent, ending in a farrago of gleeful self-annihilation.

***

The most jaw-dropping part of the series is provided by the pen of Sam Fuller, who with his wife Christa provided the script for Girls in Prison, which was directed by John McNaughton (adapted from the 1956 Edward L. Cahn film). An overheated women-in-chains movie, it is graced by an opening of transcendent pulp paranoia. It  sets up the back-stories of the eponymous girls, in three bloody tales: a red-baiting newscaster gets bludgeoned to death with a hammer; a budding screenwriter (Ione Skye) mounts an Off-Broadway play, “The Witch Hunt”, that drives her father insane and leads her to savage a bigot with a broken bottle; and a budding country star (Missy Crider) is framed for the brutal stabbing of a abusive producer. Filmed with canted angles and looming shadows, it’s a wild and terrifying hallucination of a society spiked with a insatiable need for vengeance. It is impossible for the rest of the film to live up to this fever dream, but it goes through the rest of dramatic motions with enough pep and smarminess (including a deliciously vampy turn from Anne Heche) to make it a worthwhile sit.

***

Shake, Rattle and Rock is a joyful and reflective evocation of 50s rock musicals, this one a remake of the ’56 Edward L. Cahn movie about a town that tries to ban Rock ‘n’ Roll (for more on Cahn, check out Dave Kehr’s profile in a forthcoming Film Comment).  Directed by Allan Arkush in bright pastels and a wall-to-wall soundtrack of pop hits (from Fats Domino to Eddie Cochran), it is the most culturally precise movie in the series, along with Runaway Daughters. Renee Zellweger takes the lead as the rock aficionado whose parents just don’t understand. She first appears as a bouncing blur, singing along to Little Richard’s “The Girl Can’t Help It” (also used in the great Frank Tashlin film of the same name) in her bedroom, her addiction not outed to her parents until she appears dancing again on a local American Bandstand-type TV show, hosted by Danny Klay (Howie Mandel). Once Zellweger’s mom (Nora Dunn) sees this horrible gyrating, she gathers her sewing circle (including P.J. Soles from Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and a wonderfully bitchy Mary Woronov), to shut down the show and ban the music. There is also a subplot involving a black acapella group, “The Sirens”, who are trying to break through the town’s color barrier and hit it big, and who Zellweger teams up with to protect the town from her mom’s crew.

Arkush elicits effortlessly appealing performance from Zellweger, a perky ball of cashmere with a fierce sense of her personal rights. The director also has a light, and very funny, ironic touch in presenting the parents’ retrograde attitudes, but intimates that these comical buffoons are not a plot point to be overcome but the avatars of an entire culture. Instead of the expected ending of a bridged age-gap, it concludes on a note of muted despair, with freedom reluctantly deferred. It is unexpectedly the most political film of the series, robbing its characters of the young people’s bill-of-rights stated by Florine in Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme: “To be twenty years old, to be right, to keep hope, to be right when your government is wrong, to learn to see before learning to read.” For Zellweger, there is nothing to see and nothing to read, her only hope an escape to parts unknown.

For more information, please read Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of the series, in which he compares it to the French one produced by Arte, Tous les garcons et les filles de leur age.

THE RIFLEMAN (GUEST STARRING DENNIS HOPPER)

June 1, 2010

c946df573db05e3afab8b162b4eb6fb2

Fifty episodes of THE RIFLEMAN (1958 – 1963) are available for viewing on Hulu, and it’s a phenomenally rich show for auteurists (and everyone else). Sam Peckinpah was the lead writer (and directed two episodes), while Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy) directed a large chunk of the rest. It’s a dynamically shot program, with agile use of push-ins and close-ups, and a strong use of depth-of-field, all swiftly illustrating Peckinpah’s surprisingly violent universe. And then there are the actors, which along with Chuck Connors’ granite-faced realist includes R.G. Armstrong, Warren Oates, and a baby-faced Dennis Hopper in the pilot episode, “The Sharpshooter.”

I learned of Hopper’s passing soon after viewing his tender, soft-spoken performance as the titular marksman Vernon Tippert, and it’s as fine a tribute to his talents as any (for a complete overview, check out Matt Zoller Seitz’s great video montage up at Moving Image Source).  Hopper was only 22, but he was already a television veteran, having done guest spots on “Cheyenne” and “Zane Grey Theater” (along with theatrical bit parts in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant). Tippert is a sad-eyed youth, driven from town to town to hustle shooting contests by his grizzled, greed-addled uncle Wes. The Rifleman, Lucas McCain (Connors), and his son Mark (Johnny Crawford), arrive in the town of North Fork after the (never explained) death of his wife. Lucas is there to compete in a Turkey Shoot in order to raise money to buy a ranch, and Vernon is there to win money for his uncle and the town’s mob boss (Leif Erickson) who is rigging the contest to win his bets. McCain tanks the event to avoid the violence aimed at Mark, but he runs the gang out of town with his rapid-fire rifle by the end.

Tippert is unfailingly polite, almost courtly in his manner, especially when dealing with the McCains, who have achieved a level of familial stability alien to him. He meekly walks into the dining room, hands clasped in front, before accepting an invitation to eat lunch with Mark.  Hopper speaks lowly, tentatively, and keeps his eyes locked down at the table, even though Mark hasn’t hit adolescence. He moves like a wounded pup. Then they trade stories of loss – Mark mentions the death of his mother, Vernon tells him he never had one. He starts to lock eyes, and after Mark asks him, “Does it bother you that you never had a ma or pa?”, he replies, “I reckon.” Then he turns his head down and traces a figure on the table with his finger. He continues, “sometimes it bothers me considerable.” He jolts back up in his seat when the waitress appears, out of his reverie, and jump-starts the narrative. It’s a bracingly raw scene that rides entirely on Hopper’s cagey vulnerability.  Because while Crawford is an appealing presence, he does little more than read his lines on cue with an ingratiating smile.

The whole episode is startling, from its cynicism regarding state institutions (the Sheriff (R.G. Armstrong) is little more than a pawn) all the way to its frank discussions of death and loneliness. While “The Sharpshooter” came from Peckinpah’s script, a whole host of collaborations occurred to get it to the screen. The production company Levy-Gardner-Laven had a title for a TV show, but no script. After cycling through some bad teleplays, Jules Levy invited Peckinpah to their Culver City studios for a meeting. According to Peckinpah biographer David Weddle (If They Move…Kill Him is my main source), Sam said he had a script laying around to match their concept, and brought in “The Sharpshooter.” In his original script, McCain is childless, and it ends with him intentionally losing the contest because of the gang’s threats, and leaving town in shame. Arnold Laven, who directed the episode, recalled:

That was the end of the story…the cynicism and the reality placed against the romantic image of the West. We loved the writing, but the ending, you just couldn’t get that sponsored in 1958. I don’t know if you could get it sponsored today, to tell you the truth – a guy who doesn’t have the courage of the West – to stand up for what is right.

Laven suggested adding the child, which would give Lucas an acceptable reason for bowing to the pressure of the gang. Peckinpah incorporated this, and then added the heroic shootout which would set the pattern for the series: McCain continually derides the use of violence, but is forced into using it at the end of almost every episode. The reluctant warrior bit has worked since the age of Cincinnatus, and Peckinpah and co. wring every variation out of the material.

Peckinpah’s touch becomes even more evident in his directorial debut on the show, “The Marshal”, which features an embryonic version of his stock company. The episode includes R.G. Armstrong, Warren Oates, and James Drury, who would all later appear in his feature debut, Ride the High Country. The episode concerns the character of Micah Torrance (Paul Fix), a former peace officer turned alcoholic. His addictions are contrasted to the Sheltin Brothers (Drury and Oates), two probable psychopaths who are out to kill Torrance for shooting them years before. The Sheltins are pure id, hollerin’ and screamin’ and tearin’ up the local bar (twice). They are two sides of dissolution, implosion and explosion. Laven advised Peckinpah on his early directorial work, and he remembered:

Sam’s Rifleman shows had an inherent underlying violence. There was something unreal when the Rifleman would shoot three guys, there was a pattern it stayed within. But Sam made it much more deadly, much more real.  It was a little unsettling…

Peckinpah comes up with some great lines that surround the bloodshed. Torrance pines for a drink: “I’ve got a case of the whips and jingles.” The Sheltins are asked to sign the hotel log: “We ain’t spellin’ men.” In a similar strategy to John Wayne’s character in Rio Bravo, McClain treats Torrance with tough love, working him hard on the farm and refusing to show him pity. Eventually he comes around, and, like Dean Martin, returns to join the law. Fix would go on to play Marshal Torrance for the rest of the series.

There is so much more material here I haven’t had time to explore, including Joseph H. Lewis’ contribution, which early on seems to be the most visually complex. And then there’s producer-director Arnold Laven’s anonymous craft, which he also brought to shows like Hill Street Blues and The A-Team. Laven passed away just last year (read The Guardian obit here), and his career seems to scream out for re-evaluation, or any evaluation at all.

I’ll leave you with the opening credit sequence, which in its purity and abstraction, is the best ever, in my opinion. Chuck Connors’ eyebrows speak multitudes. Watch here.

JOHN CARPENTER’S ELVIS (1979)

March 16, 2010

maxresdefault

After completing production on Halloween, which had yet to make him a household name, John Carpenter moved on to direct one of his career curiosities, a massive 3 hour TV bio-pic of Elvis Presley. Produced by Dick Clark two years after the King’s death, it was a prestige project slotted for ratings, Emmys and an overseas theatrical run, not really an item suited to Carpenter’s talents. Up until this point, he had made the no-budget sci-fi comedy Dark Star (1974), the violent siege film Assault on Precinct 13, and the ur-slasher Halloween. All are self-reflexive genre pieces with mordant humor, slow-burn set-pieces, and a good deal of blood.  So how did he land this straight-faced gig? On the rambunctious audio commentary track for Big Trouble in Little China, Carpenter claims that when the suits heard he composed his own score for Halloween, they said, “he knows music, so he should know about Elvis.”

It’s as likely an explanation as any, but whether it was studio idiocy or a canny evaluation of Carpenter’s visual style, it succeeded in pairing him with Kurt Russell for the first time.  One of the most entertaining actor-director duos of the last three decades (Escape From New York, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China) it’s been near-impossible to see their debut together until Shout Factory! released the DVD last week. Russell was just emerging from his Disney child-star phase, appearing in the Western TV series The Quest(1976) with Tim Matheson along with a few scattered spots on Hawaii Five-O and the immortal tele-film Christmas Miracle in Caulfield, U.S.A (1977).

Elvis was his first big break as an adult, and he attacks the easily caricatured part with a feline physicality (his singing voice is dubbed by Ronnie McDowell). There’s little of the parodic machismo that marks his other work with Carpenter, but he nails a fatalistic kind of charisma ideal for the role. Russell’s Elvis is a split personality – absolute freedom on the stage, and morbid self-destructiveness off of it. That his stage gyrations are violent and his self-destructiveness a form of freedom, well, that just speaks to the complexity of the performance.  While the script avoids the seediest aspects of Elvis’ fall (it ends at his Vegas comeback tour in ’69), it is not a simple hagiography, positing his narcissism as the cause for his divorce and a death-wish at the heart of his personality (he frequently talks to his shadow as Jessie, his twin who died at birth). Tony Williams claims this complex portrait as a parallel to Citizen Kane in his essay in The Cinema of John Carpenter anthology. Graceland acts a bit like Xanadu in cutting Elvis off from humanity, and there is a dining room scene that is a nod to the breakfast montage in Kane, but I don’t know how much explanatory power these references hold aside from underlining Carpenter’s grasp of film history.

Carpenter aids Russell’s brooding take on the role with some clever visual patterning that turns Elvis into a man beseiged. It’s set up in Elvis’ first appearance. In a series of slow tracking shots, through an ornate casino floor and down a blood-red hallway, the camera stalks its way up to his shadow. The dark outline of his head fills the room, until there is a pan to the King himself. He’s shown watching a cowboy movie on TV, his hand twitching to the gunfire on-screen. Then there’s a shot of arrows flying straight at the TV camera, and in turn right at Elvis.

The frame erupts with Elvis’ own images of martyrdom – and unable to shake them off, he takes his trigger finger and shoots the screen dead. Not that this helps. Throughout the movie he’ll predict that Lee Harvey Oswald will kill him, and becomes increasingly alienated and alone, shedding his wife Priscilla (Season Hubley), and continually firing and re-hiring his band (including the smiling Ed Begley, Jr. and Joe Mantegna). Within the context of a standard movie bio-pic, Carpenter achieves some impressive effects here, and muddies the tone considerably with the help of DP Donald Morgan (who went on to work on Christine and Starman with Carpenter), for despite the film’s longeurs, it is always darkly handsome. They are able to stretch out on the musical sequences, working the same tension-release pattern that would soon rocket Halloween into the pantheon. Morgan’s camera frames the stage in long shot, tracking slowly back and forth to set the scene, prowling as insistently as Russell.  A select few insert shots are included to ratchet up the cutting speed as Elvis starts his crotch rotations, but the majority is shot from a distance, allowing Russell to command the stage as a complete physical presence. The high production values seem like something of a miracle considering Carpenter’s claim that they filmed the 3-hour behemoth (which included 16 songs, 188 speaking parts, and 150 locations) in 33 days.

With the amount of pages they had to burn through each day, there are inevitably some quality control issues. The childhood scenes are particularly cringe-inducing, with an overwhelmed kid actor  (Randy Gray) over-enunciating cornball dialogue in a studio-clean backwoods shack. It’s a sequence straight out of Walk Hard. But at least Shelley Winters is there as Presley’s Mom, warm and forgiving as ever. She’s given the thankless role as the only woman Elvis ever loved, so she’s saddled with pieties and overburdened with symbolism (Elvis dyes his hair the same color). But she injects a lightness to this creaky role that is a delight to watch, especially during her jumpy little dance when Elvis gets his first song on the radio. It’s a simple gesture that immediately captures the joyful nervousness of the moment.

The film rarely reaches the richness of the opening sequences again, but it’s loaded with great musical performances, a bewilderingly large cast (also including Pat Hingle as Colonel Tom Parker and Bing Russell (Kurt’s Dad) as Elvis’ father Vernon), and a fearless Kurt Russell at its center, tearing through the cliched script with carnivorous intensity.

VACATION TIPS FROM ORSON WELLES

July 21, 2009

If anyone can still afford to go on vacation, it would be worthwhile to pop in the DVD of Around the World with Orson Welles (or stream on Netflix) before the journey. You’ll learn important tips about expatriate American bohemians and the beauties of Basque sports. A seven part documentary series he filmed for British TV in 1955, it takes him to Basque country (2 episodes worth), almshouses in England, bullfights in Spain, and the St. Germain-des-pres section of Paris. Two parts are absent from the disc:  The Third Man in Vienna is sadly missing, and  The Tragedy of Lurs , which considers the case of a convicted murderer of a British tourist family, Gaston Dominici, was never completed. Joseph McBride, in Whatever Happened to Orson Welles?, relates that it was “partially restored for French television in 2000, and released with a new documentary written and directed by Christophe Cognet, The Dominici Affair.” These travel essays, veritable home movies, are an immensely enjoyable tour through eccentric pockets of Europe.

Welles, fresh off his globe-hopping thriller Mr. Arkadin, is in a chipper mood throughout, likely happy to be far away from the producers who would cut his films to ribbons (as happened with Arkadin). Peeking his cherubic face into loosely styled interviews with chatty locals, the series is a fascinating glimpse into Welles’ off-camera personality. All the anecdotes about his gregarious camaraderie and booming laugh ring throughout each episode. It’s not completely off-the-cuff, however, as Welles continually comes around to ideas regarding independence, individuality, and the question of dignity in aging.

There is a grab bag of styles throughout the show, with the St. Germain section funneling Welles’ observations through Art Buchwald’s typewriter. Framed as a piece he’s writing about the neighborhood, with Welles as his subject, it opens with an overheated nightclub montage, whip-pans settling under the nose of a clarinet player intercut with furious lindy hoppers. These sensationalistic elements are far afield from Welles’ concerns here, and McBride says that some shots (of Paris intellectuals Jean Cocteau, Simone de Beauvoir, and others) were added by producers after shooting. Even on quickie TV shoots Welles couldn’t get away from studio meddling!

Anyhow, his main subject here is expatriate American eccentric Raymond Duncan, who makes everything he needs, and who says, you should “not need what you cannot make”. Clad in a homemade tunic and sandals, this proto-Beatnik discusses independence, (Duncan: “The greatest thing in the world.” Welles” I say, Here Here!”), the decline of the west as a result of the rise of the pantaloon, and American’s creeping tendency toward conformism. The exchange is lengthy and detailed, and one senses Welles’ sympathies fade only when Duncan mentions that he doesn’t allow women to wear pants at the theater he runs. Welles raises an eyebrow, prods him about the women’s independence, and pivots into the influence of Puritanism on Duncan’s brand of radical freedom.

The section entitled “London” concerns itself with question of aging. The first half of the film finds Welles conversing with a gaggle of giggling old widows, residents of a local almshouse that cares for them. He interrogates them about their politics (they’re all Tories), the length of their stay, and their dining habits. He draws out that none of them invite the others over for dinner, and jovially chides them for their rudeness. This loose dialogue is immensely charming, illuminating the dignity of these poor old women and their curiosity regarding this portly stranger. McBride draws a parallel between this and the following segment with the lost ending of The Magnificent Ambersons. He quotes Welles describing the sequence in a decrepit rooming house as being about “the deterioration of personality, the way people diminish with age, and particularly with impecunious old age.” Contrast this to the statement he makes about the almshouse:

“To be old and indigent is not just an economic problem, it can be a tragedy in human terms, a tragedy of loneliness, a loss of dignity, a loss of the sense of individuality. And that’s why I admire, and I think British people should be so proud of, institutions like this almshouse.”

The second half of the episode talks with three retired soldiers living at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. Welles draws them out about the details of their uniforms, old war stories, and the everyday details of their life, which they discuss with relish. Their lion in winter bearing, as McBride notes, bears a strong resemblance to Richard Bennett’s Major Amberson. They watch as the world passes them by, but maintain their dignity throughout, regardless of their reduced circumstances. Things loosen up even more when they hit the local pub in full regalia, and Welles queries them about their living quarters, concerned that they never have time to themselves. The oldest of the group, at 85, strongly states they have their own small rooms, enough to shut the door and read a book if need be. Stating that those over 90 need additional assistance in the ward, Welles wisely notes that this elderly bull seems like he could live fully for at least another decade. In emphasizing their virility, the man notes that they are enjoying the “evening of life in independent retirement”, repeating the phrase with his two friends, proud of their station in life. Welles quotes it again at the close of the show, as the gentleman stride back to their military home. It’s a beautiful segment, and the high point of the series.

I have yet to mention the delightful Basque section, with its uncanny images of pigeon hunting (and the firecracker bull!), or even the  bullfighting show dryly hosted by Kenneth Tynan and his wife Elaine Dundy, but there’s nothing that can top those old Chelsea warriors, so I won’t even deign to try.