Escape from New York
I was inspired to watch it because of a gif posted by @Gymkata. I'd actually never seen it before, turns out it's exactly the sort of thing I like.
Awesome low budget creative special effects, representing a postapocalyptic vision of New York City, starring Kurt Russel, Isaac Hayes, Adrienne Barbeau and her two jiggly friends, Harry Dean Stanton, Ernest Borgnine and Donald Pleasance! (the last named being one of ours)
I always say New York was cooler when it still looked like Taxi Driver, well this is New York looking even cooler still, like I always imagined Hunger City from Diamond Dogs! though turns out it was all filmed in St Louis, which recently had a major fire destroy several blocks...
however, Russell does look like a middle school kid dressed up for Battle of the Bands, even with the eyepatch and the Eastwood inspired voice.
Glad you liked ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK! Some budget issues aside, I think it's a pretty great film. It's a nice, slow burn vs an action fest which is something that I really appreciate.
I'd respectfully suggest avoiding ESCAPE FROM L.A., though. It's essentially a remake of EFNY with a larger budget and more of a campy tone. Some people like it (and Carpenter himself says that it crushes the first film) but I don't think it works at all. It was certainly one of the more disappointing theatrical experiences of my life. That said, the ending is kinda great...nice and nihilistic.
I like the lo-budget special effects, I much prefer creative use of practical effects vs CGI.
I also really like anything where the characters are exploring a landscape, that sense of geography and the vaguely implied backstory that explains why everything's just a bit different from the New York we know. I actually lived in the Lower East Side for a year when I was 21, mid80s, and hanging round the punkrock bars in that neighbourhood when it was still a bit dangerous everything felt almost like that film looked.
So was your use of that gif to reference the recurring line "I heard you were dead"? that was immediately after the forum went down for a whole day
That feels like a lifetime ago...I can't remember the gif I used!
And yes, I like the low budget films (like EFNY) that utilize what they have to the best and fullest extent. I mean, yeah...some of the model work and matte paintings from the film look a tad dodgy now but they still have charm and don't take you out of the film. Contrast that with EFLA where the CGI special effects are so bad that they're almost legendary in their awfulness. They're so bad that they take you out of the film whenever you're watching it, seriously.
I'm guessing the gif that I used was this:
If so, that's from the end of EFLA. Again, as bad as the movie is, it has a great ending to it that almost...almost...redeems the film.
I think that is what appealed to me most when I watched it. It's about time I went back for a second viewing. I've only seen most of the Holmes films once.
Mighty Joe Young, 1949
Having just enjoyed Jason and the Argonauts, I went back to Harryhausen's first film, which I've never seen before.
A sort of remake/re-envisioning of King Kong, with that films Willis O'Brien returning for more giant gorilla animated effects, and Harryhausen working as assistant to his childhood hero. Underlying plot components are roughly similar, a tale of a beautiful girl and the giant gorilla who loves her, and the rise and fall of a failed showbiz career ending with panic in the streets.
This lacks the Gothic Haggard-liness of the original though, its all much more 1950s sunshine and and optimism. Jill's ranch in Tanzania could be smalltown America except for the black natives walking down the street willing to trade a baby gorilla to an eight year old child, otherwise there's none of that sense of the dangerous exotic Other we indulged in so deeply on Skull Island. The showbiz sequences are spectacularly staged, making up much of the last half of the film. I want a ticket to that nightclub!
And instead of ending with tragedy on the Empire State Building, Joe is hailed as a hero for saving toddlers from a burning orphanage
Apparently this was remade in 1998 with Charlize Theron as Jill, that must have been early in Theron's career. I like Theron, anybody seen the remake?
Yes, I saw the remake...it was ok from what I remember...but I much preferred the original Mighty Joe Young...
I’ve seen all the films you mentioned and that was one hell of a good set of films 🍸
Basil Rathbone will always be Sherlock Holmes for me 👏🏻
Long way north (2015) orig. "Taut en haut de monde"
This French/Danish animated movie is different, something some will look for after being forced to watch Frozen 50 times.
It's about the girl named Sasha who is searching for her grandfather who dispeared with his ship in the Arctic. She ran away from an aristocratic life style in St Petersburg near the end of the 19th century. There are no power ballads, no talking animals and little humor. The animation style is stylised and striking. I really liked the simple beauty of it, very fitting for the sea voyage and the Arctic landscapes. I haven't tested it on kids yet, but I liked the movie.
An odd film from 1980 called 'Dangerous Davies' and starring gruff English character actor Bernard Cribbins. He plays a bulky ageing copper who never gets promoted, actually I only saw the second half. It's directed by Val Guest of Casino Royale 67 fame but also has our own Bernard Lee was a copper at front desk, looking not young but in better shape than in Moonraker.
It's a watchable British film with a good many English names you'll recognise. But some odd stuff in it, namely seeing the loveable Cribbins beat up a much younger and fitter witness in a deserted train carriage. Playing a drunken prank on a woman by letting a horse into her house in the dead of night - not having seen the build-up she didn't seem to deserve it. Or a 'that can't be right can it' scene where a young woman in her 20s seems to be giving him the come-on, I mean she's not Grace Kelly and he's no Cary Grant.
The big trail (1930)
I wanted to see John Wayne in a pre- Stagecoach western. I got the impression he worked in B-movies before he got his breakthrough in 1939, but I was curious. I chose "The big trail". It was his first leading role, in fact he had mostly been an extra in previous movies and Wayne was discovered by the director while working in the props departement. The director also gave him the stage name John Wayne for this movie.
The movie is about a group of settlers going from the Mississippi to Oregon around 1840. Wayne plays a trapper working as a scout for the settlers. I soon discovered this movie was no B-movies at all. It's mostly shot on location and not in a studio, visiting several states. There are lots of actors, extras, horses, oxes and wagons. The wagons are huge and correctly drawn by oxes. This is not long after sound became common in movies, but it's in widescreen! This is actually the reason "The big trail" did badly at the box office and wasn't the big breakthrough it should have been for John Wayne. Most cinemas didn't have the equipment to show widescreen movies. A normal ratio version was filmed at the same time, as well as foreign language versions with their own actors and crew, but the widescreen version is far superior. This is an epic with wide landscapes, thunderstorms, dramatic ricer crossings and a snow storm. There is a scene werea large number of wagons and livestock are lowered down a cliff by ropes that has to be seen to be belived! This is how it was done in the 1840's and ninty years later they did it again - for real! This scene is still impressive.
The plot isn't to complicated and the acting is of its day, but this is a western epic made while some of the oldest members of the audience could still remember the events on the screen.
This movie is so big and well made it's enjoyable to watch it and not just as movie history curiosa. I'll go as far as to say "The big trail" is a hidden western gem. Wayne is good in it too, his movie star qualities are already there.
I think only two cinemas were equipped for a 70mm projection. The Chinese Theatre in L.A. and some theatre in New York, so The Big Trail would barely have stood a chance of making money. I saw it at the BFI and it looks really great on the big screen. The problem is with the stagey acting and shot composition which betrays the formal studio bound nature of Hollywood at the time. Raoul Walsh though would develop into a very fine director of westerns and despite this early hiccup we all know how popular John Wayne became.
I noticed the camera was always static. I don't know if it was because of the heavy camera equipment, the style of the day or or the director's choice.
FIVE DEADLY VENOMS (aka THE FIVE VENOMS), 1978.
It's a Kung Fu movie. Well, that's like saying STAR WARS is a science fiction movie. 5DV is pretty much THE Kung Fu movie. Shaw Studios in Hong Kong had been churning out a bunch of Kung Fu movies in the 70s, most of which were good but few of which were really noteworthy. Director Chang Cheh wanted to make a real movie with a real plot to it, so they did 5DV. It had a much larger budget than the typical Kung Fu movie and it also had a much larger cast. Up until then, most Kung Fu movies really only had a few people in them who were actually good at Kung Fu. This one had the 5 leads as well as a couple of others.
The premise is strong, featuring some genuine intrigue and some mystery to it. Essentially, the teacher of the 'poison clan' techniques is dying and he's concerned that his five main students aren't doing good things in the world. The five students each know a specific style:
The teacher taught 1 and 2 at the same time so they knew each other. Same with 4 and 5. Number 3 was taught at a separate time. The teacher tasks his current student to go out and find the other five and see what they're doing. This new student isn't a master of any particular style but instead knows aspects of all of them. The teacher explains that this new student isn't strong enough to take on all five but should probably ally with one of them if he needs to.
Anyways, from there, you're off to the races. As the story progresses, you learn fairly quickly who 1, 2, 4, and 5 are...the only real mystery is the identity of #3. The fight scenes are all uniformly great and very well done, resulting in a fast paced and thoroughly entertaining romp.
The film was so huge (both in Asia and in other territories where it was shown, including the USA) that the main actors in the film became known as 'The Venom Mob', and a lot of them starred together in many additional films into the early 80s, many of which are quite good. Ground zero really is this film, though.
If you're in the mood for some old school Kung Fu, here you go.
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MISSOURI
Michael McDonagh’s well-acted drama has too much violence and an uncertain resolution. To have an anti-hero and anti-heroine in the same movie spending most of their time on opposite sides of an argument is highly unusual. The problem it presents the director and writer is where to take them.
The first half of the movie is a little like In the Heat of the Night, with tensions being flamed between a cop (Woody Harrellson, rarely better) and his local nemesis, a divorcee still grieving for her murdered daughter (Frances McDormand, a good but one-note role). You are unsure where our sympathy should lie. This unsettling position persists as incident piles on incident with growing hysteria.
I figured one character twist fairly early, but the one oblique reference to it, via a suicide note, isn’t utilised to anywhere near its full potential. The ending disappointed. As the film progressed the unsympathetic nature of the characters grated. This is a very hard, self-centred bunch. Every learned lesson seemed to be negated by future actions. There’s no happy centre to this tortured bitter film. In the end I couldn’t decide if what I’d watched was a serious study of obsessive grief or a series of over-indulgent character studies.
Good, but not that good.
yeah, THREE BILLBOARDS is a movie that I respect more than like. It's definitely a well made and well acted movie, but it's just so GRIM that it feels oppressive. The bursts of humor are really great and do a lot to perk things up but still, it's just a very dark movie with a lot of characters that I don't like. For this writer/director, I much prefer IN BRUGES or the highly underrated SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS to this film.
You're meant to go off the lead character aren't you? As you learn more. Then start to like Woody Harrelson's character a bit more. It's all about changing perceptions and then redemption of sorts.
A SIMPLE TWIST OF FATE (1994)
I love Steve Martin movies but this one had escaped me until last night. Apparently it is based/inspired by the classic novel, Silas Marner. Having not read this, I have no idea how it compares to the 19th Century novel, but from the basis of the movie I can imagine some of it being pretty close.
A series of events leads to the Martin character adopting a small girl, and then the real paternal father goes to court to reclaim her. I enjoyed this movie, it shows Martin in a more dramatic role but with a few of his usual touches. It must have been a personal favourite for Martin as he writes the screenplay and co-produces. I found it a warm hearted movie albeit with large doses of sentimentality, which I’m not adverse to, so all in all an enjoyable couple of hours of undemanding entertainment.
@CoolHandBond if you're a Martin fan and haven't seen it, check out THE SPANISH PRISONER. It's a fully dramatic role for him and he's excellent in it. Really good film too.
I saw that when it came out, Gmykata, as you say, it’s a good movie.
Will Hay was a comic of British 1940s cinema, often portraying an affable but incompetent and slightly fraudulent authority figure. If you wanted a film to start off with, you might try one other than The Ghost of St Michaels. All the ingredients are there - Hay plays a schoolteacher brought out of retirement to assist at a public school relocated to a reportedly haunted mansion house on a remote Scottish island - you have clanking armour, hidden passages, the sound of bagpipes foreshadowing a murder, the whiff of 5th columnist exploits, not to mention schoolboy japery headed by a young Charles Hawtrey, who'd go on to be a Carrry On staple.
But Hay is without his usual sidekicks - the fat youngster and the old man - so it just isn't as funny. Laughts ought to be there but aren't really. Dad's Army star John Laurie is there of course - be odd if he wasn't - and I guess as a kid I found this funny, identifying with the frankly rather unfriendly mockery from the school kids, but it does drag on. Hay's sidekick in this - a foppish fool of a schoolteacher - isn't all that. There's also no romantic interest for anyone, it now occurs to me, and that is a downside.
The Caine Mutiny
Decent telling of a mutiny on a beat-up old WW2 battleship. It foreshadows the likes of Crimson Tide and A Few Good Men - I think these were generally better films or did more with it. Borgart plays Queeg, who takes over as captain of the lazy, slovenly ship much to the approval of the young buck who has recently joined the crew - only for everyone to find that Queeg is quite highly strung and draconian - maybe a bit nuts.
It's odd but it calls to mind an old episode of Red Dwarf where the ship was taken over by a hard taskmaster called Queeg - I guess they were making a nod to this. Likewise, Kryton I later found was named after the servile Admiral Crichton played by Kenneth More in the film.
Anyway, this is a decent film - okay, there is romantic interest in this but it's a bit of an irrelevant sideshow in this instance. It winds up in a courtroom but it doesn't last very long and winds up a bit peremptorily, Bogart looking a bit shifty and awkward not unlike Hay's character in the previous film when he is also put on the stand. Queeg is hardly a Colonel Jessop type. You also get the sense they have to make it clear that mutiny is a bad thing even if the guy is guilty, it's not like anyone should get away with thinking they can take liberties.
THE CAINE MUTINY is excellent, a real actor's film. Bogart is obviously the star but I remember being thoroughly impressed by Jose Ferrer and Fred MacMurray as well. Also, it's fun to see Lee Marvin in an early role.
Zack Snyder's Justice League
After a years long campaign, Zack Snyder's version of Justice League finally released today. Clocking it at a brisk 4 hours and 2 minutes (yes, you read that right), I found the movie to be very entertaining and and far superior to the 2017 theatrical release that was reworked by Joss Whedon.
For better or worse, Zack Snyder takes the DC hero mythos seriously; very, very seriously. He doesn't wallow in relationship problems, overdue mortgages, forgotten homework assignments and other minutiae that the Marvel comics adaptations seem to like so much. And while there is humor in his movies (including this one), it's not to the chatty extent of his Marvel counterparts. To Snyder, these characters are giant, mythological archetypes, and he treats them as such.
The basic plot of Zack Snyder's Justice League pretty much follows the plot of the prior movie. Bruce Wayne, wracked with guilt over the death of Superman and haunted by a premonition assembles a superteam to combat an evil that seeks nothing less than the end of the world. When their initial efforts fail, they decide to play with fire and try to revive Superman to even the odds. Where the two differ is in their treatment of the characters, the gravitas of the situation at hand and the epic feel of the action sequences.
The four hour run time gives all of the heroes time to breath and tell their stories. Rather than glossing over how Vic Stone became Cyborg or why Barry Allen becomes the Flash, each character gets plenty of time to tell their origins, explore their motivations and get a chance to really kick ass and show their powers along the way. Even the villain Steppenwolf gets plenty of backstory and motivation. Gone is Barry Allen's juvenile humor like falling on Wonder Woman's breasts, or Victor Stone's unexplained moodiness. Even more established characters like Aquaman and Wonder Woman, who have each had their own movies, get fleshed out quite a bit. By the end, you feel like you really know these characters a lot better than you did at the start.
The action scenes are simply epic. Even though they largely follow the same beats as the 2017 version, new sequences are added, the editing. music and color correction all combine to make for a far more dramatic presentation and the stakes seem more desperate. Along the way, there are images like Batman on top of a building or Flash running so fast he approaches lightspeed that seem right out of a comic book panel, something Zack Snyder has always been good at.
There are lots of easter eggs along the way, a new character who joins the league at the end and an epilogue that clearly sets up more stories even as WB and Zack Snyder are both saying there are no more plans with this cast. A scene at the end with Batman and Jared Leto reprising his role as the Joker had me wishing for a movie with those two; gone are Leto's ridiculous tattoos from Suicide Squad and his whole delivery makes you finally see the Joker and not Leto in weird makeup (bravo to Snyder for getting such a great, if short performance out of him).
As a longtime DC fan, I really enjoyed this movie. It is easily the best DC comics adaptation yet and I find it's tone preferable to that of the Marvel movies. I can't help thinking about my old AJB buddies like RogueAgent, Barry Allen, Dan Same, Alex, Willie Garvin and others; I hope they are ok and wonder what they think of this movie. I'm sure we would have had many fun conversations about it.
Nice wrote up @TonyDP 👍
I've been following the whole story of the Snyder Cut, I was always left a bit underwhelmed by the Whedon version, so many plot holes and questions, and it struck a totally different tone to BvS. Like you I am now hankering for a Batfleck Joker stand alone film, Batmans appearances in suicide squad were highlights of the film for me and along with the saving Martha fight scene (which is imho the best on screen bat fight) Affleck has done a great job! I'm hoping the Snyder Cut returns Batman to his brooding best and does away with Whedons hapless bystanding dark knight.
I always though Affleck did a good job of portraying an older Batman. I also really enjoyed his scenes in Suicide Squad and the Martha Kent fight scene in BvS. Having now seen Zack Snyder's Justice League, it's kind of hard to get excited about some of the other Warner/DC projects. JJ Abrams' murky plans to reboot Superman are especially disappointing as I always liked Henry Cavill in the role and thought he was a good Superman with more adventures left to tell. At least it looks like Affleck (along with Michael Keaton apparently) will be in the Flash movie that's going into production.
Looking forward, my hope is that this new JL will be successful enough to convince WB/HBO Max to do some more direct to streaming projects with some of this cast. I think certain filmmakers like Snyder work better on a project like this, freed of the constraints and filmed-by-committee approach that theatrical blockbusters usually must endure. Naive for sure but you never know.
Looking forward to watching the Snyder Cut soon. Great write-up!
As for me, we watched THE QUIET MAN (1952) last night. The wife had never seen it before. Quite a great movie.
An utter classic and great movie, so many great elements, I also love Donovan's Reef .
@TonyDP agreed about Cavil and Snyder working better this way. I've read he actually filmed every scene twice originally, once how he wanted it and once for how WB wanted it (more joke and cheesy) I'm intrigued by Robert Patrinsons Batman, and who doesn't love Gal Gadot, but without Cavil, I'm not that interested in Superman tbh
@Chriscoop, when I first read about Robert Pattinson being cast for The Batman I was really skeptical; but I have to admit the trailer looked really good and I am very curious to see the finished product now.
I grew up watching Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman (yes, I am that old); looking back now those shows were beyond cheesy and often make me cringe, but she was always able to still hold my attention. I never thought anyone could repeat that combination of power, naivety and yes attractiveness but Gal Gadot did it in spades. She also brings a real elegance to Diana Prince. I still haven't seen WW84 (didn't have HBO Max at the time it screened and I would never go anywhere near a movie theater now) but thought she was great in Batman v Superman, Wonder Woman and of course Justice League.
As for JJ Abrams, I just don't think he's capable of coming up with any more original ideas. He makes flashy movies that are nice to look at and move at a fast pace. But look below the surface and all his recent movies are just rehashes. His two Star Trek movies that he directed were both Wrath of Khan knockoffs; Force Awakens was an at times scene for scene remake of A New Hope and Rise of Skywalker follows the same beats as Return of the Jedi. His movies also have plot holes you could fly a jumbo jet thru. As such I have zero expectations for a Superman movie with him at the reins as either a director or producer. Luckily, WB seems to have embraced the notion of the multiverse so they are open to multiple interpretations of the characters made by multiple filmmakers.
I also watched THE CAINE MUTINY yesterday. I can now imagine us three all watching this and merrily wondering what we can write on AJB about it!
Here's my take:
Not one of Humphrey Bogart’s very best films, this naval drama is boosted by a competent roster of performances and by being one of the first colour movies to utilise WW2 footage in its action scenes. Sadly the remaining points of interest are few. The story is leaden. The conclusion a little half-baked, as if we are suddenly supposed to have sympathy for Bogart’s reckless, obsessive, detail driven captain. His shortcomings are shown up to be so woeful so early, you sense he could only have attained his position by luck, not skill; there’s a few hints at post traumatic syndrome, but either the writers (Stanley Roberts and Michael Blankfort, from Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel) or the director hasn’t drawn them out enough to help us.
The film is very much about U.S. Navy protocol. This may be deliberate as it helps us appreciate the day-to-day toil of life at sea. Among the drudgery it’s possible to understand the paranoia of Bogart’s Captain Queeg, that insignificant details become huge in importance simply because there is nothing else to be concerned with. This was the focus of Wouk’s original novel and his Broadway stage production; it is not the focus here. This unbalances the film.
During the climatic courtroom scene, when Bogart’s character is interrogated and cracks into unwelcome silence, berated only by similarly mute, unbelieving and stunned stares from the court martial jury board, we do finally begin to realise what prompts the Captain’s tyrannical outbursts; there is however a lack of background which falsifies the climax. When Jose Ferrer’s tired lawyer confronts the ‘mutineers’ – who are distastefully celebrating their acquittal with luxury and champagne – his admonishment feels directed at the audience, to consider an accused man’s state of mind rather than his potential incompetence. Ferrer may as well be speaking to the producers who have muddied the waters without clear resolution.
There’s also an odd romantic subplot which feels out of place. I recall a similar intrusion into The Bridge on the River Kwai and wonder why these love scenes are not excised by prudent editors. These are films about men and what was then a very male dominated environment. The subplot does nothing to assist the narrative. Lee Marvin has a charismatic bit part as a noisy deckhand – one of dozens of good supporting roles he had in the fifties before making it big on TV’s M Squad. The production design in fine and benefits from utilising the interiors and exteriors of a decommissioned navy ship. The photography is a bit smudgy. The film was very popular and became the second biggest box office draw of 1954. This seems amazing in hindsight, but it is worth remembering the novel spent almost a year heading the New York Times bestseller list, so the title had reached the public’s consciousness even if overall the movie lacks pedigree.
Bogart’s performance is very good, and not typical of him; he deserved his Oscar nomination. Strange how none of his famed hard-boiled characterisations ever garnered him recognition, as if Bogart had to “be” an actor and not just simply “be” to attract plaudits. He is so much better in so many of his later roles (see In a Lonely Place, Beat the Devil, The Barefoot Contessa, The Harder They Fall, The Desperate Hours, etc., etc.) and never received recognition for those.
Hard to fathom quite how the movie picked up a total of seven Academy nominations, including Best Picture. Performances aside, it is low on substance and fairly static on thrills. The conversations seem overly formal and steeped in navy jargon, for instance one whole scene revolves around the discussion of what constitutes a man being unfit to command a vessel. Curiously director Edward Dymtryk felt The Caine Mutiny should have been much longer, slowly grinding in the descent of Queeg’s madness. I think two hours is about as much as I could have stood. The final scene, where the mutinous Van Johnson is reunited with his soft-touch of a former Captain, is unsatisfactory.
I think the movie probably loses substance in translation. Herman Wouk virtually disowned it, which tells you something. Still, a good afternoon’s entertainment.
I also managed to view this Humphrey Bogart gem:
(note: several spoilers in this review)
It’s easy to criticise Sirocco for being Casablanca-lite, but I think it’s a bit deeper than that, a fine piece of film noir with an untypical antihero, played out of character by Humphrey Bogart, set in unfamiliar surroundings (Damascus 1925, during the French occupation of Syria), featuring a good cast with a script and design which isn’t afraid to touch on unhealthy subjects such as terrorism, murder, assassination, passion, possession, rape, martial occupation, capital punishment, drug addiction, smuggling, gun running, comradeship, betrayal, love and immorality. That’s an awful lot to pack into 100 minutes and the detail comes thick, fast and if you blink you miss it.
Critics did not rave about this film when it was released and you can see why. It’s rough around the edges and there are one or two slips in the narrative. Several stateside accents persist even though Bogart’s is the only American character. The love story seems unlikely. So does the resolution. However, the driving force of the film is the excellent all-round performances. Bogart was in an assured vein of work during the fifties. His company, Santana, coproduced the picture and was perhaps responsible for the almost dozen writers it employed to sort out Al Bezzerides and Hans Jacoby’s nominal screenplay. This may explain why the story never focusses enough on one subject or other. Bogart’s company did ensure a strong support cast. Lee J. Cobb is almost unidentifiable as Colonel Feroud, the head of Military Intelligence in Damascus, trying to negotiate a cease fire with the guerrilla fighters who yearn for a free Syria. He’s not only fighting the rebels, but his warmonger superior General Lasalle, a good turn by Everett Sloane.
Feroud has brought his showgirl mistress with him from Cairo. Märta Torén is an actress I have no knowledge of, but who was certainly a beauty. She inhabits the role of Violetta like a glove. She’s a sensual lure, a low-class broad attempting to be a high-class lady, a materialistic, self-centred woman, eager for what she wants; she’ll be a slut to get it too. In Damascus, she’s bored and yearns for the stage again. This is implied by her seeking, opening and sensually brandishing a decorative fan, one which she must surely have used during her dances. She’s bored by the erotic belly dancing at the Moulin Rouge nightclub because she knows better. She’s bored by Damascus, it’s curfews and lack of home comforts. She’s bored by Feroud, who doesn’t love her, yet admits he cannot live without her. She affects his work, his whole life. Driven by jealousy, he strikes her and clearly a sexual assault is indicated. I can only think this scene passed the censor as the rape itself is hastily cut away from.
The assault drives Violetta away from the officer into the open arms of Harry Smith (Bogart). He’s as greedy as she is bored. A black marketeer, Harry has been running guns for the Syrians and, along with his partner Nasir (an entertaining Nick Dennis), has a neat little business going: they make deals at a local barbers, they are known in the best restaurants, they believe they are impregnable. Harry knows how to keep the military sweet, unlike his argumentative fellow racketeers. Unfortunately, a cache of Harry’s guns has been captured by the French and Feroud plays the nervous Balukjiaan (a prickly cameo from Zero Mostel) against his rivals. Needing to flee, Harry takes Violetta with him, but he’s betrayed by Nasir and captured. Feroud offers to allow Harry a passage to Cairo on condition he organises an introduction to the rebel Emir (a resolute Onslow Stevens). The plan does not go well for Harry, who has a crisis of conscience, leaves Violetta at the airport and attempts to rescue his nemesis.
The director was Curtis Bernhardt, a German emigree who never quite hit the top of the career tree. This film begins his most consistent period, which included The Blue Veil, Miss Sadie Thompson and Interrupted Melody, the last featuring our own dear Roger Moore in an early Hollywood role. Bernhardt’s work here is energetic, yet cagey. He frames some shots with a character in the foreground doing very little – being shaved, drinking chartreuse, reading a proclamation – while in the rear action is happening or dialogue is being said. He controls his actors well. No one over-emphasises their character. We believe in these people because they feel genuine and make appropriate moral – or immoral – decisions. Bernhardt’s direction, like life, is all about light or dark within shades of grey.
The movie is photographed to match. Burnett Guffey’s camera loves the darkness and shadows. Everyone is moving in and out of them. A lot of the action takes place at night, extenuating the feeling of hopelessness, of the world coming to a close. There is nothing to live for in Damascus. Robert Peterson and Robert Priestley’s designs, the lanes and alleys of the city, the dingy bars, the barren, empty apartments look suitably realistic even if they were constructed in Hollywood. It’s a dirty, grimy, war bitten place. The writers and designers spare no indignity. The catacombs are dripping with filthy water, accessed through recessed, collapsing doorways. The streets are pockmarked with battle. Everyone is on the take. At one point, Harry and Violetta take refuge in an opium den, the dazed addicts clawing at the rank air, sucking on diseased shisha pipes. Later Harry, frantic after being betrayed, returns there believing he is safe. This jolted my memory back to the opening scenes of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America, where Robert De Niro’s Noodles takes solace in a smoky, fetid opium parlour. Leone knew his American movies and surely would have seen this and noted the desolate, soaking atmosphere.
This is tough territory for Harry, a man who usually gets what he wants. This includes Violetta. He pays for an expensive bracelet to be stolen so he can ingratiate himself with her. The ruse works, but Violetta’s no fool and plays hard to get, knowing it will draw him on. Later she sees Harry in a nightclub and deliberately flirts with him in front of Feroud, provoking the latter’s ire. She wants to escape and, knowing Harry can and will help her, offers herself blatantly to him. Harry knows exactly what she’s doing, even his thief tells him: “With each new love a mist comes before the eyes; ah, the pleasure you will have before the mist rises and you find out she’s like all the others!” This is very provocative writing for the period. Sadly Torén’s femme fatale is virtually written out of the last third of the film. We must assume she took her passage while Harry’s fateful mist descends.
The movie ends in a clever confrontation between Harry and his Syrian contact Achmet, a slimy David Bond. We can tell what’s coming and so does Harry. Bogart’s little facial eye-swivelling ticks tell us he’s understood his future. His final scene ascending the staircase is one of Harry’s redemption and the audience’s trepidation for this unlikely hero; he’s decided his fate, echoing Feroud’s words: “Men don’t die to prove their dignity.” There is nothing dignified about Harry’s death or his life. He is a scoundrel, distinctly unpleasant, and with little but his self in his heart. Yet he is the only hero in a brutal film. “You’re so ugly,” says Violetta at one point, “How can a man so ugly be so handsome?”
Harry isn’t alone in his personal ruthlessness. General Lasalle wants to shoot prisoners: five for every Frenchman killed by the insurgents. The Emir is launching terror attacks on civilians. One of his agents sets off a bomb in the Moulin Rouge which almost kills Harry, Nasir, Feroud and Violetta. The scene is brilliantly shot, the aftermath acted against silence. Slowly the smoke clears. Debris is seen strewn across the arena. People are injured. Gradually help arrives. One woman is screaming throughout the whole sequence. The scene has a catastrophic reality to it. War is hell and everyone is a victim. This is very familiar to us in the twenty-first century. The Emir expounds a one-dimensional rhetoric of liberty, justice and freedom which closely resembles the totalitarian, glorified fanaticism of today’s extremists: “We do not fight to win. You will win, but it will be a victory you will regret.” This contains none of those reassuring words. It is a speech tinged with death and destruction.
Sirocco isn’t a perfect film, but it is far better than its contemporary reviewers suggested. It is hindered by a very short running time and, quite possibly, the Hays Code. The screenplay is a little haphazard. It does though provide solid entertainment, has a group of wonderful performances and creates incidents which were seldom fashioned during its era. Due to current crises in the Middle East, Sirocco probably has more relevance now than it did in 1951, when the Franco-Syrian conflict was a mere footnote compared to the Second World War. It is definitely worth a look.
I recommend it.
Oh nice. I'm avoiding reading too deeply into your review of SIROCCO but it's one that has been on my radar to get one of these days. Glad you liked it.
If you're on a Bogart kick, I'd like to recommend ACROSS THE PACIFIC and ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT if you haven't seen them yet. Both are very solid films with ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT being particularly good in my opinion.
Bogart was my favourite actor when I was younger. I've never seen All Through the Night, but Across the Pacific is a good spy wartime thriller, a sort of follow up to The MAltese Falcon as half the cast and crew were the same!
I think Bogart probably still is my fav, although there is competition from Caine, Connery and Tom Cruise these days. Also a closet guilty secret is Jason Statham.