Tuesday, 27 November 2012

School for scoundrels... Pretty Maids all in a Row (1971)

A film directed by the man who made Bardot a star, written by the man who devised Star Trek and which deals with inappropriate sexual relationships between teachers and pupils. Oh, and it features a theme song performed by the Osmonds too.

This is a seemingly typical early 70’s American movie featuring many actors who were the mainstay of 70’s TV dramas… Keenan Wynn, Roddy McDowall, Telly Savalas…  Rock Hudson. It even feels like a made for TV movie in all but one very significant respect: there’s a little too much nudity. Naturally it’s pretty much all female and, with the notable exception of Angie Dickinson, all are supposed to be senior students at Oceanfront High School.

John David Carson, the greats Roddy McDowall and Keenan Wynne,
All of the “pretty maids” were aged between 19 and 25 when the film was made and yet they're meant to be a little bit younger – around 18. They were a roll-call of the hottest young actresses of the day (see what I did there?) including future Isis Joanna Cameron, Brenda Sykes, Gram Parson's squeeze, Gretchen Burrell and the always smiling June Fairchild.

Joanna Cameron
June Fairchild

They are all preyed upon by Rock Hudson’s manipulative alpha male coach, who also has a beautiful wife back home (Barbara Leigh). The film never really explains why it is that he feels the need to dominate and exploit these women… only a half-coherent murmur about wanting to connect with them in the only way they would understand… He related to the boys through sports and the girls through sex: an arch comment on contemporary sexual stereotyping?

Now, I’m no expert on early 70’s sexuality and I appreciate that there’s humorous intent here, but this feels wrong-headed: I'm not entirely sure of the film's sincerity...

Rock and Telly
There’s no doubt the cast is excellent and that the film is genuinely funny in parts but the story’s too slight to get away with any high-minded attempt at sophisticated social commentary. It’s very uneven suggesting, at various points, a Dickinson/Hudson rom-com in the making, a murder mystery with slap-dash cops, a coming of age story and an attempt at a socio-political statement.

Angie Dickinson and Rock try a little rom-com
Gene Roddenbury (who also produced) based on the screenplay on a novel by Francis Pollini, yet, whilst he made  plenty of statements through science fiction you feel here he’s missed the point(s). Vadim, from the modern perspective, just appears to be interested in showing off female flesh (as previous wives, Bardot and Jane Fonda could attest…).

Maybe there was less of a hang up about this in 1970 -  but then we’re hardly living in more enlightened times these days... Perhaps the shock come from those of us old enough to remember (or at least be aware of in my case) the feminist movement at the time.

Yet these women are not just exploited, some of them are killed and by an almost mindless and motiveless self-serving psychotic. One who may or may not escape to Rio in the end…

John David Carson
It all swings into action with the sexually-frustrated cycle into college of Ponce (John David Carson ) who’s eye is tortuously drawn to the hemlines of his fellow students as he passes. He’s at a difficult age but doesn’t know how to get on with the opposite sex.

His torture is made even sweeter by the arrival of an attractive older teacher, Miss Betty Smith (played by the aforementioned Angie) who can’t help but add to his virgin woes. He escapes to the bathroom only to find the dead body of one of his fellow students… the murderer has left a cheery message on her panties…it’s not funny.

Roddy McDowall and Telly Savalas
The police are called as the school principal, Roddy McDowall ineffectually tries to keep order.  Keenan Wynne plays comedy cop Poldaski until the real police arrive in the form of homicide specialist Captain Sam Surcher (Telly Savalas) and his lieutenant  Follo (James Doohan… almost a shock to hear his natural accent!). You feel sure they’ll get to the bottom of things...

Suspect number one rapidly emerges as “Tiger” McDrew (Rock Hudson) who seems to be systematically working his way through the female students under the guise of providing counselling and guidance.  He coaches the football team as well as the young women: he seems to be in complete control of his environment and the people in it.

Angie Dickinson and John David Carson
He directs the new teacher Betty towards young Ponce in an attempt to give his “protégé” a sexual kick start, playing both along he succeeds in melting the ice between them – Angie Dickson was just 40 at the time whilst Carson was almost 19… here’s to you Mrs Robinson.

Meanwhile young girls keep on being killed and stickered with off-hand messages. The detectives interview the senior pupils and they all seem sexualised, not that this cuts any ice with Surcher who has his eyes on the job. But there’s an implication that these young women are anxious for experience.

Gradually things unravel for Tiger as Ponce discovers a tape recording from one of his “maids”. Tiger would seem to have only one option and takes Ponce to a secluded part of the docks… he drives his car into the water and, in a last act of nobility appears to save the young man he had earmarked as his successor…

There’s a funeral but we’re left in no doubt that Tiger has flown and, from the look of his wife’s air ticket, they will be re-united in Brazil. But the ever vigilant Surcher spots the ticket and we know he will follow.

Why Miss Smith...
Meanwhile Miss Smith looks to have overcome her reservations about staff-pupils relations and Ponce appears to have gained the confidence to start providing a broader base of guidance to the female students.

It’s an interesting film in spite of my reservations and very well acted by Dickinson - arguably the prettiest maid of them all and Savalas who is assured and just darned cool - Kojak was only a few years away. Savalas' believability contrasts sharply with the humour provided by Wynne and McDowall.

Cool before Kojak...
Hudson, who was a powerhouse of US cinema at this stage, is also excellent. His motivations may be unclear but he portrays them with conviction… you can believe in his need to control but are none-the-wiser about why it exists - he's effortlessly psychotic: cuddling his wife and daughter one minute and killing the next. 
Tiger explains his peculiar mentoring techniques...
Perhaps he’s just the big bad wolf, the reality of sexual violence that can await the unwary. Perhaps the film’s more moral than it looks and maybe Vadim’s European sensibilities are ill-matched with US innocence and ultra-violence?

Dusty verdict: Back in the video box. If you must have the DVD it's available here.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Tales of the Expected 2 – Tales of the Unexpected 1… Histoires Extraordinaires (1968)

When I was a teen I picked up a darkly-intriguing book about the influence of Edgar Allen Poe on film: Cinema of Mystery by Rose London*. It featured the illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley and Arthur Rackham along with stills from numerous films that left their mark on my impressionable mind.
I was already familiar with the Hammer horrors but less so with Roger Corman and a whole host of others alongside a film that featured Jane Fonda, a horse and her brother Peter, in what looked like a fairly saucy tale of debauchery…

Years later I followed these images up by recording Histoires Extraordinaires (aka Spirits of the Dead) a selection of three Poe stories filmed by some of the leading European directors of the late 60’s. The Fonda story was Metzengerstein, directed by Jane’s then husband, Roger Vadim, followed by William Wilson (Louis Malle) and Toby Dammit (Federico Fellini).

Now I’ve finally watched it and the film that interested me then is not the film that interests me now.

Metzengerstein (Roger Vadim)

Kinky boots...
Metzengerstein, was made directly after Barbarella and appears to feature some of the same costumes! It certainly shares Vadim’s passion for showing off his beautiful wife as he makes Fonda wear a series of barely there dresses, sky-high, thigh boots and low-cut everything.. . It’s not done as well as their space pop-opera but there’s no denying that Jane could carry the looks off.

In spite of her apparent wealth Countess Federica insisted on sharing the bath...
She plays the young Countess Federica, who inherits the family fortune in her 22nd year and proceeds on a path of spiralling debauchery, ruling over her subjects with cruel disdaine and bending all to her will. We see one maid servant being turned towards this life and scene by scene her initial disgust is replaced by acceptance and then relish… very Vadim.

Federica’s 24 hour non-stop party people laugh at her dignified cousin Baron Wilhelm (Peter Fonda…see what they did there?) as he stays in his manor, minding his beloved horses. But after he saves her from a wolf trap on the estate she becomes entranced by his stillness. He’s a pure being amongst all the partied out detritus of her entourage.

When do I get the motorbike?
But he won’t bend to the Countess’ will and wants only to be left alone even though he seems to return her interest he will not meet her on anything other than equal terms. In anger she orders her servants to burn down his stables and his horses with it. But Wilhelm plunges into the flames and sacrifices his own life in trying to save his animals.

Federica realises that there's something familiar about Wilhelm
Federica is horrified and sees the black horse on her tapestry vanish in flames at the same time that a wild black stallion arrives. Only she can tame the horse and they begin to spend more and more time together as she abandons her wayward existence.

She orders the tapestry re-woven and, a sit takes shape, gradually realises who the horse is and what she has to do to atone for all her crimes. In the closing segment she rides headlong into a bush fire near her castle…riding to her death in the flames along with her lover.

Only Federica can tame the black horse
It’s a well-groomed tale but lacks real suspense especially as Jane F’s multiple costume changes don’t quite mask the static nature of the scenes in the castle. It feels a bit rushed in spite of some excellent camera work and the acting talent on show.

William Wilson (Louis Malle)
Alain Delon
William Wilson is less stylish but more straightforwardly unsettling.  Alain Delon stars as the titular Wilson and is at his detached best dispensing cruelty to all around him but still terrified by his nemesis, a man who shares not only his name but his face.

Wilson insists on seeing a priest to confess to having murdered a man, he needs to share a secret and in is not seeking forgiveness just validation. We see his cruelty emerging early on at school as he bullies his weaker classmates.

Only BB could smoke a cigar like this!
But then, one arrives who is more than his equal, even down to sharing the same name. He tries to kill his doppelgänger then but only succeeds in getting them both expelled. The story shifts forward to when he is a medical student who’s cruel tortures are again cut short by his other self.

Finally, Wilson, by now in the army, engages in a sado-masochistic game of cards with the Lady Giuseppina (strikingly played by Brigitte Bardot in raven-haired wig). Having cheated her he then proceeds to beat her, humiliating her in public in a gratuitous scene I could have done without. But, again, the other Wilson arrives to expose him as a cheat and save the lady.

Wilson is himself humiliated and his career is over. In a rage he flies at the other Wilson and finally succeeds in slaying him but, as one Wilson dies, he says to the other, that he cannot exist by himself… and so it proves.

Malle does very well with the card scene (apart from the violence) but, in spite of the leads’ excellence, they cannot elevate this section to “mysterious” it’s just “uncomfortable”, from the schoolyard torture, the attempted live dissection of a young blonde to the violence towards Giuseppina.

Toby Dammit ( Federico Fellini)

Totally cool Terence
Toby Dammit was (very) loosely based on Poe’s Never Bet the Devil Your Head and is not only the best of the three but bears comparison with some of Fellini’s best work. His first film following Juliet of the Spirits in 1965, it carries some of the displaced mysticism of that film whilst also pre-figuring the atmospheres of David Lynch: dislocated and disorientating.

A lot of this is down to cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, who captures an extraordinary consistency of light in the opening sequences in particular… it’s as if the airport was being bathed in Hellish glow and as Toby travels towards an icy cool television interview the streets reflect unsettling scene in the red light of his car window…

You have to assume that Toby is already in Hell as surely as he is already damned…

Fellini apparently asked for the most debauched actors in Britain and chose Terence Stamp ahead of Edward Fox, to play Dammit. And what a superb choice it was a Stamp agonises and twists his way through the roll… remembering that this was before the deaths of many key 60’s icons he looks set on a path of self-destruction - no one gets out of here alive.

Toby is promised a Ferrari and taken to the Italian Oscars, the “She Wolf Awards”. This is where the Lynch comparisons really kick in as various and sundry odd-balls give and receive awards. It’s surreal and unsettling echoing Toby’s inner state.

Antonia Pietrosi
He meets one sympathetic character, played by the amazing Antonia Pietrosi, who assures him that he is in safe hands and will be looked after… Is it the cocktail of drink and drugs or is this Old Nicola herself coming to claim his soul? Hard to know but whatever you want.

Toby gets up to deliver his guest speech but breaks down amidst the Shakespeare and runs off. Outside he encounters the Ferrari, his reward… he climbs in and speeds off through the bewildering foggy darkness…  Racing on with scant consideration for his own safety, he eventually skids to a halt near a fallen bridge.

"Old Nicola" doesn't always play ball...
He seems relieved at the narrow escape but then sees a young girl on the other side, the same one he had seen at the airport. She smiles at him and he knows he must try and cross over to meet her. Reversing the car he revs the engine and prepares to drive on to his destiny.

None of the other stories is as genuinely chilling as Fellini’s and it fits in enough imagery and ideas to fuel and entire film. All of this is as jarringly disconcerting as the best of Poe. The story may be further from EAP’s original but the spirit is there.

Terence Stamp plays a blinder and takes the best actor award for the triptych: it may have been close to his existence at the time but he plays the character as a man run out of ideas and time… betrayed by all of those around him including the little girl who finally claims his soul.

Dusty verdict: Buy the DVD – it’s worth it for Toby Dammit alone: Fellini on form.

*Rose London's Cinema of Mystery is still to be found on Amazon and elsewhere.

Nuns, in sunglasses