Thursday, 30 May 2013

Who’s in it? Ten Little Indians (1965)

Shirley Eaton and Hugh O'Brien
This is a sixties update on the classic Christie “whodunit” moving the action in place as well as time from a remote Scottish island to a mountain-locked hotel high in the alps. It’s hard to beat Rene Clair’s atmospheric 1946 version but this take has enough stars and style to engage with only the odd moment of period-cringe (take a bow Fabian!).

Directed by George Pollock, the film’s a roll-call of established and rising stars, in an attempt to appeal to as many demographics as possible but, whilst that may suggest artifice there’s an enthusiasm and wit which counter-balances the commerciality.

Who did it?
Every box is still dutifully ticked, American lead, pop-star, Bond sex kitten, music hall vet… grumpy German butler but they’re all well played and good company for an hour or so. The Christie format was already a well-honed one by 1965 and the following half century has meant we can all pretty much write them as they go… all except the endings: that still takes professional guile.

And to act these convoluted and semi-predictable tales still takes some work and it’s no surprise that only the best and most experienced tend to succeed.

High on a hill...
Here we have the great Dennis Price as the dipsomaniacal Doctor Armstrong who may or may not have killed a patient while under the influence. He is joined by the great (OK I’ll stop that…),
Wilfrid Hyde-White as Judge Cannon who may or may not (and that too…) have sent an innocent man to be hanged.

Master craftsmen...
The traditional suspects of jaded military man, General Mandrake (Leo Genn) and old, possibly bent copper William Blore (Stanley Holloway) are balanced against the new breed, glam-dram-queen Ilona Bergen (Daliah Lavi) and pop star Mike Raven (real-life poster Fabian… the only one who really grates… but then he’s probably meant to).

As the actress said to the General...
The guests are completed by the heroic Hugh Lombard (Hugh O’Brian) and the gamine Ann Clyde (Shirley Eaton) – these are the ones we most readily identify with.

Fabian meets the man who had a hit with Albert and the Lion
Arriving by cable car they are greeted by Herr und Frau Grohmann (Mario Adorf and Marianne Hoppe) who it quickly transpires have been hired just for this occasion.

The Happy Couple
None of the guests know each other (although the general alludes to previous knowledge of Miss Bergen long ago in Berlin. They eventually sit down for dinner and are stunned by a recorded message from their host, one UN Owen (an un-credited voice-role from Christopher Lee).

He accuses all of them of murder or deliberately causing the death of innocents… if you’ve not been here before, an effective scene that sets up the drama from now on. Each guest has the poem of Ten Little Indians in their room and on the table is a model of ten Indians… it’s soon as clear to the guests as it is to the audience that Mr Owen is intent on a live re-enactment of the poem as first Mike Raven sings himself to death…sorry, drinks poison and then the general gets knifed in the basement…

And then there were...
There’s no escape not by cable car nor by climb – the mountain is too steep for that – and the guests have no option but to try and stay alive and hope for help.

I won’t spoil the story – if you don’t already know it it’s still a compelling yarn with twists and turns to confound even the most jaded of modern observers.

Pollock directs well if a little flatly… and there’s not quite the atmospheric tension of Clair’s version. The old stagers deliver as you’d expect, especially Dennis Price who does moral compromise so well. Hyde-White is Hyde-White and Holloway is Holloway and that what they got paid for.

Did someone turn the Eaton... (sorry)
Daliah Lavi does well as the Hollywood actress brought back to confront her past but the real sexual selling point is Shirley Eaton who Pollock doesn’t forget to highlight at every possible occasion in a variety of stylish costumes (or, indeed, without…) – Ann must have brought a very big suitcase.

American second-streamer, O’Brien is similarly highlighted and makes for a believable hero.

"Professor Plum?"
On the DVD there’s a precious extra – "The Whodunit Break" - an “insert” for the film, to be played at a crucial point in order to allow the audience to discuss who they think “done it”. An interesting idea which would need little encouragement for some of today’s chattering cinematic classes… Maybe we’ve lost some of the art of patience and the ability to give the benefit of the doubt to film makers who try to engage with just a black and white mystery.

Hanging around etc...
Dusty verdict: worth keeping to show your children how easily we were once amused. And if you like Shirley Eaton… who is still every inch a superstar. This has long been hard to find in the UK but there's a new-ish DVD available here.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Wild in the country… Straw Dogs (1971)

Oh, this is a tricky one. The vague premise of this blog is to review my dusty old VHS videos with a view to digitising/ upgrading to DVD or dumping… This is a remarkable film but will I ever want to watch it again? Straw Dogs is a very intelligent and superbly well-made but it’s also harrowing and cruel…a tale that forces the viewer in on themselves. It’s not comfortable.

So much has been made about the violent transition of the main character – played with brilliance by Dustin Hoffman – and especially the graphic rape scene(s) involving Susan George: they make or break your appreciation of the movie.

Del Henney and Susan George
George’s character, Amy, is involved in partially consensual sex with Charlie, a man who was formerly a boyfriend. He forces himself on her and she – shockingly – starts to enjoy the experience. Would anything she said have stopped her assailant? He goes way beyond permission but in the complex psychology of the moment she acquiesces – the tears from her eyes a mixture of guilt and pleasure… or is this the only way she can get through this? Peckinpah dares us to not look away…

Moments later, one of the gang turns up behind Charlie and, wielding a shotgun, does commit rape. It is unpleasant and very real, the camera unflinchingly close up on George’s agonised expression. Is this the director playing with our sympathy: “you think this stuff is sexy, well this is what it really looks like...?”

Dustin Hoffman
But is this any worse than the slaughter that takes place in the last half hour of the film? There are no gradations of violence in this film and the director is here to make us question the nature of entertainment and passive viewing...

Hoffman plays David, a New York mathematician who has married Amy, a very pretty if un-academic, English rose and returned to her native Cornwall to complete work on his thesis. They drive into the local village in their sleek Triumph Stag sports car, the very model of a sophisticated couple. Naturally enough the locals treat them with suspicion, envy and not a little lust.

Sally Thomsett and Susan George
Peckinpah’s camera lingers on George’s chest as she walks to the car and she encounters the rugged Charlie Venner (Del Henney) with whom she once had a brief fling… she’s moved on but he hasn’t.

The other young men of the village stare with amused disbelief at the un-manly academic who struggles to engage them on their terms.

Del Henney and Susan George
The local pub is a-brim with violent undercurrents as the local aged alpha male Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan) locks horns with authority, challenging the landlord and only been kept in check by the magistrate (JP McKenna).

Then there’s the village strangeling, Henry Niles (David Warner) who appears to have indecently assaulted a child in the past and now lives in the protective custody of his elder brother…on his last chance: an accident waiting to happen.

Peter Vaughan, Del Henney and Dustin Hoffman
The couple’s garage is being renovated by some of the local lads and David finds them difficult to manage. At the same time he is spending far too much time with his chalkboard for Amy’s liking… Their sex life is still vivid but she’s getting bored.

Hoffman was apparently against George’s casting not seeing how his character could cement a relationship with such a pretty yet un-intellectual girl but she acts very well… I’d really like to hear what she has to say on the Criterion DVD commentary.

She the focus of the local men’s dislike of David – how can she possibly see more in him than in them? It’s just not right...

The Lads confronted by David
One of the men kills Amy’s cat and she eggs David on to confront them but he hasn’t the moral courage to do it, preferring to offer them beer and agree to go hunting – he really wants their approval, so much easier than accepting their incomprehension.

But the hunt is a ruse to lure him away so that Charlie can have his way with Amy… a moment that is made so much worse as he is followed by cousin Norman (Ken Hutchison). It is horrible and yet, when David returns from his own humiliation (they left him for hours) he is too self-absorbed to notice any change and Amy suddenly finds herself incapable of sharing.

They drag themselves to social engagement at the local church and the wheels begin to come off as Henry is lured away by one of the local teens (Sally Thomsett in trade mark mini). Frightened by the shouting when she is reported missing. Henry accidentally kills her when trying to hold her safe… a tragic accident.

Susan George, David Warner and Dustin Hoffman
The local men are roused from their drunkenness and begin a search for both parties. David and Amy knock Henry over on their way back to their cottage and David calls the village for help.

The men arrive intent on extracting the location of the missing girl but Henry is too scared to answer… suddenly David begins to locate his backbone and starts to push back in defence of his home and property. Polite society is being stripped away and he is gradually steeling himself for a fight.

Under siege
This begins the final battle as the body count starts to grow and the options run out in an unlikely fight to the death. Does David bring this on himself? Could he have prevented this by being more assertive earlier and is this what he really wants: an escape from the reasoned existence that is suffocating his ambition… a way out from academic block?

Peckinpah later claimed that David is the real “heavy” who almost engineers the face-off thereby revealing his psychotic tendency. He also said that there were two types of girl: “women and pussy” putting Susan George in the latter category. Fair to say Sam was a complex man…

Can't find my way home...
But, typically, this film does say something about the nature of manhood, violence and sexual discourse and it does it in a way which makes you feel complicit. No one walks away without having to question his own response.

Dusty verdict: keeper for those moments when you become complacent. Film entertainment sometimes comes at a cost and violence should have real meaning or it desensitises us all.

The Triumph Stag