Saturday, 20 August 2016

Doctor at war… Fräulein Doktor (1969)


This takes the sixties fascination with war films into new and surprising directions by showing us a narrative based on German success most of which is built on the superior cunning and ruthlessness of a female protagonist.

It culminates in a quite spectacular attack on Allied forces by German cavalry with horses wearing gas masks and coats: quite the most disturbing thing I’ve seen for a while. Extra precautions are required for a gas that permeates anything less than full body cover and as the French, Belgian and English troops reel from the gas, a relentless tide rushes through their lines… if you didn’t know any better you’d swear this was the turning point in a victory for the Fatherland.

The haunting image of horses in gas masks
The gas, developed by the Allies who were too principled - or squeamish - to use it, was obtained through the undercover activities of the woman known as Fräulein Doktor an unconventional role for Suzy Kendall in many ways and one she does very well in.

The film loosely based on the life of Elsbeth Schragmüller a First World War spy who had already inspired a number of films from the thirties onwards. Schragmüller did indeed have a doctoral degree in political science from the University of Freiburg and had smashed the glass ceiling academically before excelling her male colleagues in the war by rising through the ranks of the intelligence corps to become chief of the Kriegsnachrichten Antwerpen. She was awarded the Iron Cross First Class but much of her record is obscure and the subject of myth.

Did she even snog Capucine in order to obtain secrets? Suzy’s Doktor does in another eye-poppingly atypical moment - well, if it’s good enough for James Bond…

All's fair in war and love?
But first, to the capture of two German spies sneaking onto British soil – Meyer (James Booth) proves less robust than his colleague Schell (Roberto Bisacco) and cracks under pressure as the Brits – led by Kenneth More as Colonel Foreman - stage phoney firing squads. He agrees to spill the beans and to tell all about his mission to assassinate Lord Kitchener and to reveal the threat posed by the super spy Fräulein Doktor.

While Meyer tells all das Doktor goes about her business, blending into the coastal town from which she can learn of Kitchener’s plans. She gets a job a a cleaner and seduces a sailor (played by Michael Elphic) who tells her all she needs to know. Picked up by a German U-Boat she heads out to where the Kitchener’s ship will be and sees her mission succeed with its destruction.

Kitchener's battleship
She’s smart this one but she has a weakness: she is addicted to morphine…

Back at British intelligence, Meyer tells of how his colleague had acquired a deadly gas from underneath the noses of the Allies… The Doktor has passed herself off as a maid for Dr. Saforet (Capucine) who is a chemist developing an unstoppable gas. Dr. Saforet cannot resist a pretty face and falls hard for her young maid as the two begin a relationship that followed on from The Killing of Sister George – released just four months before.

Capucine falls
The older woman shares everything including her work and there’s a genuinely unsettling sequence during which she gases numerous caged dogs: her lover screams and you also wonder how they achieved the effect of so many animals in fear…

Dr. Saforet is convinced by the young woman’s reactions to the brutality of the chemical weapon – it is for the greater good something the sweet thing might not understand but then, just as the formula is completed, Frauline Doktor strikes, shooting her in the back and making off with the key to possibly swing the war in Germany’s favour.

Kill or be killed?
Now things get complicated as the British try to use Meyer to get to the Doktor whilst her commanders appear to respect what she has done but not her methods. She receives the Iron Cross for assassinating Kitchener but military solidarity prevents the German Generals from congratulating her.

Her morphine addiction is also a concern for her commander Colonel Mathesius (Nigel Green – excellent as always!) a mna every bit as sharp as his British counterpart. When Meyer turns up after apparently escaping the Brits, Mathesius quickly assesses what has been planned – helped by a traitor in the opposing camp. Meyer has been lined up to kill the Frauline with poisoned champagne… a plan that Mathesius seemingly allows to happen – killing two birds with one stone?

Frau Doktor briefs the assasins
But, whilst Meyer reports back that the Doktor is dead, she is very much alive and now sent to Spain as a volunteer nurse to infiltrate the Belgians in order to steal battle plans for the allied front. The Americans are about to enter the war and the Germans are getting desperate to land the knockout blow…

All of which leads to that climactic battle – a scene from Hell every bit as frightening as any contemporary re-enactment.

Add caption
I won’t reveal the ending…


Beautiful from all angles: Suzy Kendall
Dusty verdict: Fraulein Doktor employs enough style and twist to transcend the period of its making. Suzy Kendall is one of the defining “it” girls of the sixties but she plays this horrific character really well, overcoming the not inconsiderable distraction of being beautiful from every angle…

There's also good support from Kenneth More and James Booth - two British greats from different generations who both bring believability to their roles.
Kenneth More knows the score and so does James Booth
Stylishly directed by Alberto Lattuada the film also features a super score from young Ennio Morricone.

It's available on DVD from Amazon and elsewhere: definitely worth watching and being disturbed by... the image of horses in gas masks, protected from the poisonous clouds, reinforces the literal inhumanity of chemical warfare.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

I might… I'll Never Forget What's'isname (1967)


Oliver Reed is spotted right at the start with a sharp metal axe on his shoulder, walking purposefully through the West End towards what looks like the old Economist building off Piccadilly. As the titles roll he’s bounding through busy 1967 streets with hardly a second glance from the mass of pedestrians around him.

He enters the offices of Lute Advertising, makes his way up to his office and then wields the axe, destroying his desk, chair, filing cabinets in a few devastating movements… he has had this job and wants something more “honest”: “silly boy,” says his boss Mr Lute (Orson Welles), “There aren’t any…” as he aims a golf ball from the agency’s roof garden in eth direction of their competitors.

But Reed’s character, Andrew Quint, is not for turning so easily, he’s exceptionally good at his job but wants to escape and, despite Lute’s conviction that he’ll be back, he goes to work for his old friend Nicholas (Norman Rodway) who runs a worthy but barely profitable literary magazine. The pay is hardly worth mentioning but it’s honest work… what he wanted to do rather than what he ended up doing and being successful at…

Orson and Oliver
This may be a period piece but the central quandary has never dated. Michael Winner directs as he did for The Jokers, Reed’s earlier film in which mainstream values were questioned. Hard to think of the director of Death Wish as this challenging but Winner had been editor of Varsity magazine at Cambridge in the fifties and maybe there was some autobiography here? Quint even goes to Cambridge to meet one of the magazine’s contributors.

This film is not as slapstick as The Jokers and indeed is rather more serious as it progresses: there are no easy answers for Mr Quint nor Mr Winner…

Quint’s a man on the run, not just from his own success but also from his family and his wife, Louise (Wendy Craig) – the two still seem very connected but almost casually falling apart. She’s seeing other men more in retaliation to his constant search for a new sexual partner. Even when Quint meets someone he likes he’s still eyeing up the competition…   he cannot settle and is distracted by the “advertising” on view.

He goes to visit model Josie (Marianne Faithfull) sneaking peeks at her in the bath and then rendezvous with the married Susannah  (Lyn Ashley) at a disused signal box… oh Thomas Beaching, so much to answer for?

Carol White and Ollie
He’s detached form them all with the exception of his wife – who not only understands him but herself as well – watched a lot of Antonioni did you Mr Winner? Nothing at all wrong with that.

It’s too easy to overlook Reed’s acting chops given his later Brando-esque  reliance on his presence (Mr Welles also provides a fine example of the same…) and here he is very good with a far more nuanced and lonely character than in his two previous Winner films.

In this moment Quint wants to find himself through intellectual work, escaping the get-rich certainties his creative talent brings him in advertising. There’s a pretty young secretary, Georgina Elben (Carol White) who naturally attracts his attention but she’s wary of his love ‘em and leave ‘em baggage…

The two grow closer and – for some reason – Quint decides to invite her to his school reunion. It’s an all-male audience of course – and Georgina stands out like and attractive young woman amongst the dinner-jacketed old boys. It’s horrible… and the men revert to easily to type as their former teachers forget their names and jumble up anyone who had an ounce of individuality… no doubt all heartfelt stuff for Winner and his writer Peter Draper.

Carol White and Norman Rodway
Quint is still suffocated by his privileged background and still unable to make lasting human connections – gee, it sure is tough being a public schoolboy with an imagination.

There’s a nice turn from Michael Hordern as the bumbling headmaster – of course such a man would be in charge of a fee-paying school… he never forgets a face and a name only he can’t always remember the two together correctly: emblematic of an  indifferent establishment.

Some of the boys, led by the uber-obnoxious Charles Maccabee (Harvey Hall), spot on old victim and decide to renew their bullying. As they chase the poor fellow through the grounds, Quint steps in and fights back only to end up the worse for wear…

Georgina takes him back to her apartment where, in his delirious state, he has vivid dreams of his school life in which Frank Findlay as an inappropriate Chaplain fills his head full of poison… Waking with Georgina he allows genuine emotion to seep through…

Marianne Faithfull
The two travel to Cambridge together to meet recalcitrant author, Gerald Sater(Harry Andrews) who is late with his work but all too willing to deliver in return for a pay rise and the chance for a pervy flirt with Georgina as he shows her his collection of what the butler saw viewers…

The couple return to London to find that Nicholas, urged on by his long-suffering wife, Carla (Ann Lynn) has sold out to a mysterious third party. Of course it’s Lute just trying to get his man back and it may appear he has succeeded as Quint agrees to produce one last advert that will lay open the dishonesty of his profession once and for all.

He makes his statement, pulling in genuine statements and reactions from his lovers and ex-wife and yet he may not get the result he hopes for: in this world of sacrifice and “new clothes” who knows what anything will mean to anyone?

The films closes out in far darker tones than you’d expect and indeed is far more serious than Reed and Winner’s previous collaborations…both would have to step off in order to free themselves of the World defining their worth and their work…


Dusty verdict: The film has some very good moments and the performances from Black, Craig and Reed are especially impressive.

Maybe the central premise rings a bit hollow but then few of us ever really escape the trap of making money from jobs we’re quite good at: we can’t always chose how to make a living apart from the fact that most of us end up exactly where we’re meant to be in terms of our skill sets.

Not everyone can break free to find a plan B…

Then film is available on DVD from Amazon and other reputable suppliers.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Lost in space... Planet of the Vampires (1965)

There’s more to this than it first appears or rather doesn’t and, in the tradition of Invasion of the Body Snatchers this is a tale seeped in paranoia and cold-war angst. Or maybe it’s just aping the concerns of the many American sci-fi shockers that inspired this Italian effort. The star may be American – the aging but still dynamic, Barry Sullivan - but pretty much everyone else is Italian with American voices dubbed in post-production.

It only adds to the, by then slightly-dated, atmosphere… but the design and overall mise-en-scène places this as slightly-superior genre – Planet of the Vampires has style, from space-ships to the space-suits of the crew this is a visually-cohesive thrill from take-off to landing. It’s also not obsessed with the gory violence or detailed monstrosities often found in inter-stellar space in the mid-sixties.
This is a narrative focused on procedure and monstrous character and when the final twist hits you realise the monsters are closer to home than we might have thought.


The film’s atmospherics and scale – massive spaceships with endless interiors, has been seen as an influence on Alien and others that came later (although Ridley Scott  claimed not to have seen it at the time) and it does feel like a step up and outwards on the claustrophobia of most contemporary science fiction.

By focusing on style and atmospherics and refraining from revealing too much detail of the alien enemy, the film avoids the pitfalls of so much of its genre: you’re kept waiting and the “monsters” are very believable…

The Bridge
Barry Sullivan is Captain Mark Markary, an experienced, travel-weary, commander of a spaceship called Argos who is out exploring the outer reaches with sister ship, The Galliot. They are investigating a mysterious signal from a mist-enveloped planet – is it from intelligent life? Suddenly they lose contact with the second ship and both get drawn onto the mysterious planet almost crushed by a gravitational force they cannot resist. The effects are more stylistic than realistic – in the way that period sci-fi can only ever attempt to be – but there’s a consistency of style that works well.

Down onto this misty, volcanic world they go landing in a swoosh of steam and graveyard fog… Contact has been lost with The Galliot and Mark’s brother is on board.

Landing in the graveyard gloom
The planet's surface
Almost immediately they land strange starts to happen as some of the crew become deranged and attack for no reason: there is something on this world that is unsettling their psyches. And so it goes…

They find The Galliot with three dead crew all mysteriously marked as if they’d been attacked by wild animals and bury them under metal lids with strange posts as markers – a space funeral. The crew is spooked and it’s not long before those three metal coffins are opened by the supposedly-dead men – not so much planet of vampires as of zombies.

The crew attack the captain
The crew keep watch in the dark and begin to see multi-coloured flashes in the air: there’s something strange… and the narrative builds slowly maintaining an off-kilter suspense.

Another crew member is found dead – again covered in signs of a bloody fight – he is examined in the ship and the attacks Tiona (Evi Marandi) one of the female crew. She survives leaving Mark to go off with communications officer – and proto-Uhura – Sanya (Norma Bengell), to investigate another ship.

Norma Bengell and Evi Marandi
They find the skeletons of huge aliens and a ship that dwarfs even their own – as Mark and Sanya travel further into the leviathan, they find evidence of electromagnetic  life… the suspicion grows that whatever killed these aliens remains and is threatening them too.

Upon returning to their ship, two of The Galliot crew come staggering through the mist Captain Sallis (Massimo Righi) and Mark’s brother included… but they don’t look very well to me and it’s not long before they begin attacking the ship and crew.

The Captain and Sanya investigate
Alien bodies, long dead
Mark and Sanya establish that an alien intelligence is taking over the crew’s minds and bodies whenever they are unconscious or dead… they must find a way to stop these possessions and soon before the entire ship is taken over and the psychic vampires can escape to other worlds…

Dusty verdict: Planet of the Vampires may be dubbed from Italian into English but its message is quite clear: the enemy is within body-snatching in the same fashion as the classic fifties film.


It has a nervy energy all of its own though and that makes for absorbing, stylish viewing that has more than a few twist and turns along the way.

There’s a very impressive electronic score from Gino Marinuzzi, Jr which helps maintain the mood of unsettling mystery and suspense. Director Mario Bava makes the very most of his limited budget with some lovely set-pieces as the crew scramble over the lava flows of the erupting plant, run along sleek corridors and attack themselves from all angles.


Barry Sullivan and Norma Bengell
Planet of the Vampires is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Amazon – it goes boldly were no Italians had gone before.

Planet of Vampires issues 1 and 2 art by Pat Broderick and the great Neal Adams!
PS There was a short-lived but well-drawn comic book version loosely based on the film from Atlas Comics in 1975 which I bought at the time: very little in common with the film but cool costumes and a relentless foe!