Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Second class post… Penny Gold (1973)

Directed by the great cinematographer Jack Cardiff who worked with Powell and Pressburger on The Red Shoes, Black Narcisus and many more, Penny Gold has some interesting angles, great views of Windsor and Francesca Annis but, in the version I watched, not the marvellous, deep colours of his best work.

It has some pretty decent acting and Miss Annis is an absolute thing of wonder, with controlled expression across a face that could launch a thousand scripts… backed up by the care-worn febrility of James Booth and a good supporting cast; Una Stubbs, Nicky Henson, Joss Ackland.  It’s a little tame and feels like a TV pilot for Booth and Henson cop double act, but still highly watchable all the same…

It begins like a Berkshire Giallo with a young woman emerging naked from the shower in a plush flat full of the trappings of cool post-sixties style. Huge photographic posters of a glamourous model adorn the walls and the angle suggests we’re not the only ones looking into the vulnerable intimacy of the apartment. Then, from out of the dark, a figure with a knife, with hat, sunglasses and long raincoat, slashes into the helpless young woman, mutilating her lifeless form…

The police are called, a proto Sweeney/Morse combination of seasoned, romantic under-achiever, Inspector Matthews (James Booth) and his youthful detective sergeant Rogers (Nicky Henson). They interview the surviving sister, Delphi (Annis), twin sister of the deceased, Diane (also Annis, and shown in flashback) along with the young American woman who lived with her and the wild child’s associates.

Sisters, sisters... Francesca Annis, a dummy and Francesca Annis
There follows the tale of two wildly different sisters, one drawn to the wild side and the other involved in her uncle’s philately business where an ultra rare stamp called the Penny Gold might well have provided the motive for the murder. Matthews naturally suspects Delphi but quite quickly falls for her gamine charms – a not entirely convincing liaison. He spends a lot of time at Rogers’ gaff chewing over the evidence and being fed tea and biscuits by the always delightful Una Stubbs who plays Anna, the unlikely girlfriend of Mr Henson.

There are lots of flashbacks as we learn more about the poisonous relationship between the sisters – a chance for Annis to show her range, albeit in fairly two-dimensional ways. More deaths follow suggesting the killer still has unfinished business. There’s trip to the suppose owner of a Penny Gold,  Miss Hartridge (Penelope Keith) who discovers her Gold gone… somethings afoot and it’s moderately complicated but not entirely suspenseful in spite of a dramatic closing sequence with a Giallo-esque twist.

James Booth casts an eye...
Dusty Verdict: As the Time Out reviewer noted at the time: the film has a "…a brilliant opening sequence, otherwise this flat-footed British thriller is hampered by something like the world's worst script, including flashbacks no one would ever conceivably flash back to, and by a cumbersome storyline about big league stamp trading."

It’s all a bit pedestrian although there’s an uneasy feeling about just like the Giallo that, presumably influenced Cardiff. Things don’t really move quickly enough and the young American woman is a suspicious lose end from the start. That’s not to say that the scenery and the numerous guest-starring, house-hold names aren’t amusing backdrops but it’s a little predictable.

Also starring Windsor
This being a Jack Cardiff film, the camerawork is interesting although this is not the best of copies. Never-the-less, Windsor and the surrounds look great and we even have a well-filmed car chase.

It’s not without it’s charms but file it under Tales of the Expected. Still, watch it for Annis and her cheek bones… also her range… which did actually have me fooled for a few minutes.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Scream queens… Sound of Horror (1964)

This film is fascinating for a number of reasons the most obvious being the pre-fame appearance of both Soledad Miranda (later to appeal in notable films from Jess Franco, Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed in Ecstacy) as well as Ingrid Pitt – the Queen of Hammer Horror. But, on a micro budget director José Antonio Nieves Conde also manages to produce a genuinely atmospheric film with a largely unseen monster and a cast acting their socks off. Conde plays his monster just right and we only get a few glimpses as he prefers to focus on the human reaction to what seems to be unstoppable – and unlikely - alien carnage.

His two leading actresses don’t let him down and, Soledad Miranda in particular shows what a good dramatist she was before Jess Franco decided she could act much better with her clothes off…

This film owes a lot to the American sci-fi dramas of the fifties with an invisible monster from pre-historical outer space and a feeling of an unseen invasion. It may save money on special effects, but it also doesn’t puncture the tension by revealing a lame hand puppet – suspense is maintained as belief is suspended. Does this relate to Spanish politics in the same way as to US infiltration paranoia? Probably not, it’s just a good yarn.

The story begins in the Greek countryside, as archaeologist Dr Pete Asilov (James Philbrook) and Professor Andre (Antonio Casas) are attempting to uncover some mysterious buried artefacts. Desperation overcoming subtlety they dynamite a cave in the hope of revealing their goal but all they find are some petrified eggs… clearly some long-extinct dinosaur (yeah right). As they make their way back to their base one of the eggs hatches and a reptilian creature hatches before quickly disappearing…

Odd doings in the cave...
Back at the Professor’s villa we meet his lovely niece Maria (Soledad) and their superstitious housekeeper Calliope (Lola Gaos) who is convinced that nothing good can come from this pursuit of gold from the mountain. As if to prove her point the Prof’s former partner, Mr. Dorman (José Bódalo) arrives with the other half of the map revealing the gold’s exact location. Desperate Dorman is accompanied by his man Stravos (Francisco Piquer), his glamorous girl, Sofia (Ingrid) and happy-go-lucky driver Pete (Arturo Fernández).

The men go back to the cave uncovering mummified remains, presumably buried in ritual sacrifice or to preserve the secret of the treasure. But now things get spookily serious as strange screams fill the cavern and Stravos is slashed to death by invisible claws. Now this would be enough to convince most men to leave well enough alone but not this lot and they go back in only to be chased back by their unseen foe.

The hunters have now become the hunted and as poor Calliope is killed outside the villa they realise that even the brick walls of the villa may not be enough and they take the fight to the mountain and to the monster; there are thrills and twists as the limits of the tight budget are never exceeded…

Dusty verdict: It’s not a classic but it’s enjoyable hokum with the tension is sustained well by director Conte as the monster makes his way into the villa to terrify Maria and then refuses to be killed easily… inspite of the men’s ingenuity.

None of this would work if the cats didn’t act their socks of and there’s a whole lot of impressive emoting from Soledad and Ingrid. The moral of the story? Don’t look gift mountains in the mouth and quit while you’re still alive.

The Sound of Horror is available in so-so but watchable quality on DVD from Amazon, it really could do with a clean up given the status of the two female leads.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Body of evidence... The Exquisite Cadaver (1969)

The seeminly clumsy title for this Spanish mystery is drawn from the practice of assembling a collection of words or images from a number of people none of whom has the complete picture or knows what the other has done. Invented by the surrealist movement, André Breton reported that the exquisite cadaver started in fun, but became eventually enriching: presumably by being either a mess or revelatory.

On balance I would have to say this unusual film succeeds very well in the latter even though it does have the disjointed approach defined by the rules of the game: both narratively and literally as parts of a corpse are detached and sent to provide clues to one of four main characters, all acting independently.

Vincente Aranda directs with discipline and establishes the mystery well before resolving most of his entanglements in a pacier closing half hour. It’s kind of a love story, part-giallo and horror but all based on the existential crisis triggered by one man’s indifference to his lover’s passionate frailties and her lover’s determination to right her wronging.

The few reviews there are online on IMBD et al are rather faint in their praises but I’d say this was one smart and engaging story and Aranda sets out the pieces of the puzzle carefully for them all to make sense later one, whether it’s the tranquilisers the young woman Esther (an excellent early performance from Judy Matheson, later Judy Jarvis) is playing with when she meets her man (Carlos Estrada) or even his throwing away of his children’s tortoise: he’s no time for sentiment and is as driven in his private life as he is in business.

There are two more sides to this bizarre love quadrangle and they are the man’s wife, Spanish actress Teresa Gimpera and Esther’s next lover, Lucia Fonte (the beyond glamorous Capucine). It is quite a line up and the four interact in unexpected ways throughout… there’s just a touch of Luis Buñuel about Aranda’s style: we think we know what’s happening, but nothing is necessarily as it seems and even at the end there are possibilities to consider.

The exquisite Judy Jarvis née Matheson
In the same way as the best horror films use mood and tonal signals to create audience anxiety so too does this film steer away from specific explanations until the very end. It creates a note of unresolved uncertainty that keeps you engaged throughout.

The set up is pure Giallo with a boorish publisher of horror fiction being interrupted by the delivery of a box containing a severed hand. We’ve already seen a young woman head down to place her head on an isolated railway track and assume that this belongs to her body.

The man buries the hand after initially thinking it was fake sent by one of his writers… his reaction makes us think the same. Another parcel arrives at home following a message read by his wife asking if he wants a forearm next time.

Carlos Estrada and Capucine
Too panicked to open the parcel he walks into town and leaves it on a bench hoping someone will steal it, but it ends up back at the house where his wife opens it to find a dress and a photograph of a woman, Lucia Fonte not, as we expected, Esther.

The man’s explanations do not convince his wife and she starts to follow him when she notices a glamorous woman in a chauffeur-driven Citroen following him as well…

The man gets driven by Lucia – calling herself Parker – to her mansion where she has the strangest of encounters with him. She has an artificial hand, did she cut it off to scare him?  She makes him take LSD and leads him deep into the house listening to recording of Esther’s voice before revealing her perfectly-preserved body in a fridge.

She knows... Teresa Gimpera and Carlos Estrada
The man wakes up at home on his couch, was it a dream – did anything actually happen?
Lucia had called his wife to her house after, she says, he turned up looking for her… neither wife nor watcher are now sure who or what to believe. There’s a neat Antonioni-esque moment at the park when the could fail to communicate whilst young men are flying a toy plane – it buzzes around like nagging doubt before the man breaks it.

Finally, we discover the relationship Esther had with the man… a brief fling according to him and years according to Lucia. Esther was full on and wanted truth in her life even at the extent of her own death… she was broken by the man.

But what happened and who stands to gain what… the twists and turns continue right to the end.

Dusty verdict: This is such a powerfully performed film and Judy Matheson is superb as the conflicted women who flutters between life and oblivion. Judy later went on to feature in a number of Hammer horrors as well as Peter Walker’s excellent Flesh and Blood Show which has something in common with this film: she is an actor with nuanced expression and here is indeed exquisite, creating a character we instantly connect with - perhaps the truest of any in the film.

 Around her Carlos Estrada is suitably broody and reminds me of an Antonioni male, lost in the subtext of life while all the while expecting that success and dominance will enable him to have his way. This affair is clearly not the first and Teresa Gimpera’s portrayal shows she has already reached a position of little trust, batting away his excuses and feeble explanations and following him to find out the truth.

Capucine is high intensity and as ever has intelligence and protean depths that convince you that her character is capable of anything. The film’s final twist is not something those other reviewers seem to have picked up and even then, we can only imagine what is going to happen…

The Exquisite Cadaver deserves to be less obscure and hard to find – there are currently no official home video releases and I got my copy from a US supplier of out of copyright schlock horror flicks a genre of which this most certainly is not! Seek it out if you can, hopefully it will get restored and re-released.