Monday, 20 March 2017

Beware of miss-selling… The Smashing Bird I Used to Know (1969)

By golly, this one’s a bit odd. It’s more than a little conflicted: a film in search of the right tone with its twin titles telling you everything you need to know about the ragged line it walks between sexploitation and a lighter/darker drama: in the US it was called School for Unclaimed Girls.

Neither title is accurate with the first referring to a phrase used by the unfortunate father of the lead character, his daughter who, inadvertently, causes him to be crushed on a merry-go-round when just a child. She grows up fatherless and always blaming herself for her “smashing” Dad’s death whilst her mother – seemingly oblivious to her torment – seeks out a replacement.

Renée Asherson
The mother is played by Renée Asherson an actress who enjoyed a long and fascinating career, from Powell and Pressburger’s genius The Small Back Room to The Day the Earth Caught Fire and onto TV like Tenko and beyond. An excellent actor throughout and one I had never previously joined all of the dots with!

The father was played by David Lodge, a mainstay of sixties cinema with many comedy roles, here he makes a prototypical father with his likability making us question how we feel about his accidental killer. His grown-up daughter Nicki is played by a little-known actress – at least now – called Madeleine Hinde who looks like she stopped performing to start a family in the late seventies. Here she gets to have Dennis Waterman for a boyfriend and Maureen Lipman as a would-be girlfriend (yes, I know…).

Funfairs before health and safety...
 Directed by Robert Hartford-Davis, School for Unclaimed Smashing Birds (as it could be called…) also features a host of go-go bad girls including a fifteen-year old Lesley-Anne Down in her first screen role.

After a psychedelic nightmare flashing back to the death of her father,  we join Nicki (Hind) as a rather mature-looking schoolgirl (she was 20 at the time) caught in the middle of that desperate relationship between her mother Anna (Asherson) and the viewable-from-space nastiness of Harry Spenton (Mower in second gear… you won’t cut much grass like that mate). Harry wants to use Nicki’s trust fund to invest in a beautiful laundrette and Anna agrees little realising that the Seventies’ revolution in white goods will soon turn their dreams to powder – Daz or Omo probably.

Nicki waits for her mother and step-git
Nicki’s only escape from her repressed life is going for drives with her almost-boyfriend Peter (a youthful Dennis Waterman), he picks her up from school and they imagine a life free of parental compromise and bad memories…

Sadly, Harry is more than a one-dimensional bad guy and he also has designs on Nicki’s lovely slim figure, makes his move in their kitchen with all the subtlety of a period disc-jockey. In spite of her emotionally vulnerable state Nicki is no pushover and slaps her assailant before being forced to knife him in clear self-defence.

Kitchen sink drama
Cut away from the incident – no resolution is shown - and Nicki is to be found at a reform school for… not so much unclaimed girls but badly-judged ones. Whilst Nicki is in for presumably attempted murder, Susan (Janina Faye) is merely pregnant whilst others have stories of the mildly sordid to impart.

Naturally enough given we have women in prison there are a couple of lovers, Jane (Michele Cook) and the joint’s alpha female Sarah (Maureen Lipman, also the film’s alpha actress as it turns out). Sarah is maybe getting a little bored of her pretty friend and casts longing looks at the new arrival.

Michele Cook and Maureen Lipman
Nicki is shown in consultation with Dr Sands (Faith Brook) who is just determined to get to the bottom of her neurosis even though Mother Anna is still clueless as to the impact her husband’s death had on their daughter.

But at least Nicki begins to open up to Sarah although not to the extent the latter would like. Still it’s enough to drive her now-ex into a rage and she attacks Nicki provoking a massed pillow fight that may or may not be a reference to Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite… It’s more like a scene from a Leslie Nielsen comedy as suddenly a topless woman appears amidst the mayhem as if to show how "adult" the film is.

Fight, fight, fight!
Sarah exacts revenge on her girlfriend in the showers by getting the gang to beat on her whilst her eyes are no doubt clouded by steam. Nicki tries to help but is angrily rejected by the weeping girl. Gosh, it’s tough inside.

Anyways, Nicki doesn’t blame Sarah and soon they’re cosying up and telling each other’s life stories. They agree to escape because… well because.

The escape committee
In the confusion of their prison break Sarah gets nabbed but Nicki gets away. She makes her way to Peter who is working at an antiques shop run by his uptight pal Geoffrey (Basil Brush’s sidekick Derek Fowlds).  Briefly hope flickers as it’s agreed she can help out in the shop and gets dressed up in fab gear by their friend Amanda (Valerie Van Ost). This is too much for Geoff who, enraged by miss-judged passion makes a play for Nicki only to be fought off by Peter… it’s her fault for turning him on apparently… how times have changed.

So, literally too sexy for the antiques store, Nicki must move one… she drives off with Peter in his cool Triumph and they talk about her making a clean breast of it all and starting afresh; the future beckons… No spoilers.

Young Dennis at the wheel
Dusty verdict: Never less than interesting if occasionally frustrating, this film has some smashing performances, notably from Maureen Lipman, Renée Asherson and Faith Brook. Ultimately though it’s neither here nor there as either serious social commentary or sexploitation – the publicity promises “a perfumed zoo for teenage she-cats” - even though it’s far closer to the former.

Typically, just before Geoffrey’s sexual assault, he’s discussing antiques with a young couple one of whom is played by the boundlessly-quirky Sheila Steafel. She’s great but it all contributes to that uneven tone.

It's about freedom... probably
Smashing Bird is still well worth watching though and now available on DVD from Network: you can purchase either direct or from Amazon.

Lesley-Anne Down on the right...

Monday, 27 February 2017

Land of the minor tour… The Devil’s Men (1976)

You can’t really go wrong with Peter Cushing, so expressively constrained he carries menace or blessed determination with him as two side of an innately-intense dichotomy that makes him compel even in the mildest of films. So powerful is the Cushing aura that it even works over a distance of forty years and, as recently seen, in CGI form.

In this film, also known as Land of the Minotaur,  he is let down by a pedestrian script and some reptilian directing from Kostas Karagiannis even though there is still plenty to entertain. The screen is as sun-bleached as the parched locations and the pace a strength-sapping climb in arid Grecian hills but events are enlivened by an interesting electronic score from Brian Eno as well as the tight-fit presence of Luan Peters.

Donald Pleasence and the magnificent Luan Peters
There is also lovely Donald Pleasence whose sure step on characterisation as the fearless Father Roche is threatened though not quite undermined by his struggle with an accent of Irish.

A couple of western tourists have vanished under mysterious circumstances… well, mysterious to the Father but we’ve already seen their ritual slaughter before the title credits, as mysteries go this is more Columbo than Murder She Wrote. The priest is convinced it’s the return of an ancient evil and, unable to trust the local police - Fernando Bislamis is great as Sgt Vendris: an officer with so many things on his mind… calls on a favour from an old friend.

 Jane Lyle and Kostas Karagiorgis
Now working as a cool private eye in New York City, Milo (Kostas Karagiorgis) is found frolicking with his American girlfriend played by elfin Jane Lyle – this film is not going to let the audience down on looks, if nothing else. Milo is quickly established as a kind of younger and more hairy Kojak with a world-weary reluctance to either conform or be gullible. He respects his old friend’s beliefs but he is expecting routine human evil and not the supernatural ravings of father Roche. He’ll learn… we fully expect.

Vanna Reville, Nikos Verlekis and Donald
More people unwilling to head Roche’s dire warnings are a likeable group of archaeologists who have returned to the area to investigate the possibility of an ancient temple beneath a Greek temple. They arrive in a convincing combi-van but sadly their accents fail to match: I’m not sure if Beth (Vanna Reville also known as the Italian popstar Gelsomina) is actually meant to be an Aussie but, ultra-tight (very) hot-pants aside, she could easily be more Surrey than Sydney. Her boyfriend Ian (Nikos Verlekis) is dubbed… and clearly not by anyone south of Sussex whilst their pal Tom (Robert Behling) is supposed to be an American but he – or at least his voice artist - doesn’t say too much.

They present Father Roche with an old ring with the image of a Minotaur cast on it but he tries to put them off investigating the location where it was found: there’s danger there he knows it.

Will they listen? Will they heck… Off they scoot in the mystery machine and set up camp on the edge of a foreboding walled town up in the mountains… The following Beth takes the combi and her short-shorts into the village to buy some provisions. She is briefly held spellbound by a strange child in the store, whilst her pants have a similar effect on male shoppers.

Outside, struggling with her shopping and her mighty mid-seventies platform shoes, she meets an even stranger presence in the form of Baron Corofax (Peter Cushing) who charms her immediately with his serpentine stare and easy charm. Cushing conveys so much evil intent even as he smiles at the young woman casting his eyes heavenward as if in challenge to his master’s ultimate enemy. The Baron presents as trustworthy old money but all his chivalry is masking something unpleasant and as Beth smiles sweetly in her suddenly vulnerable hipster clothing we know she’s in for trouble.

The Baron, the kombi-van and the shorts...
By the time Beth returns to the camp, the boys have gone having found, in relatively short order, the secret entrance in the ruins to the cave of the Mintoaur cult along with the bodies of the last two victims. The monster appears – a statue breathing flmes out fo its nostrils… and their reaction shot says it all. Beth goes looking for them and naturally asks the Baron for help… which, of course, is the last place to start.

Cut to someone new as another jet brings in Laurie Gordon (Luan Peters) in search of her missing boyfriend… she joins the priest and the private eye and the three drive out to the mysterious town where the young white couples have gone a-missing. There’s a bit of funny about Milo’s driving – New York minutes past too fast for Father Roche and soon they are mingling with the sinister villages, their something to hide attitudes clear for all to see.

Donald, Luan and Kostas
The Sergeant tries to fend them off but there’s a middle-aged woman with something to tell them but… not here… come to my house… later.

The trio stay at the local inn – home to the starey-eyed girl and her nervous father. It’s been a long dusty trip and so, hooray, Laurie decides to have a bath! This is good news for so many men of my age and the sight of Luan Peters in bubble-bath is not at all gratuitous as it allows the director to illustrate her vulnerability, which is, after all, next to clenliness… a window creaks and hooded faces look through, seven levels of moral perversions on their mind. Milo arrives to find Laurie fainted and steadfastly refuses to believe her story… got to string this one out a little further.

And the Oscar for best use of soap goes to...
The next day they locate the entrance at the temple and discover the hidden subterranean lair of the Mintaur and its followers… There’s something a foot although Milo refuses to believe Roche’s religious rationale wilst I’m surprised either is capable of reason in the presence of Laurie’s spray-on white jeans and her seemingly-impossible relationship to gravity.

So, in the interests of plot exposition, perhaps it’s a good thing that Laurie is next to vanish, carelessly left behind as the players align and this all boils down to a battle between the Baron and the Priest and Milo’s humanistic brute force against the hooded hoards’ pagan force.

The fearless Minotaur cult hunters
There can be no spoilers only to say that short-shorts may distract the male eye but say more about the fragility of normalised fashions in the face of ancient horrors: some may yet live and some will die but I couldn’t possibly reveal who… I have to leave some mysteries for the film to unfold.

Dusty Verdict: The Devil’s Men is worth a look for sunshine, Luan and the two old masters but the story is a little lacking in impact. Almost every move is telegraphed from Milo’s hackneyed Greco-Manhatten attitudes to the inevitability of those sacrificed and even those saved.

Kostas Karagiannis directs with a deliberate hand and, whilst there are some good moments, these are never sustained and in the end everything is a just little too neat. Cushing and Pleasence do their best but there’s precious little for Luan to do other than scream, take a bath and wear the most outrageously tight white trousers, whilst Kostas Karagiorgis fires off one liners with as little effect as his bullets against the Minotaur’s followers.

Donald Pleasence
Eno’s anxious ambience is however impressive throughout and promises mystery and unease the narrative fails to deliver. It is supplemented by a more conventional title song from Karl Jenkins who was a member of late-period jazz-proggers Soft Machine and later went on to huge success with modern orchestral easy listening.Eno has never stopped striving and remains an interesting artist to this day.

Jane Lyle