Saturday, 27 December 2014

Guilty pressure… Saturn 3 (1980)

The great film critic, Roger Ebert really hated this film and just felt it was dumb, citing as evidence the scene in which the two main characters, on the run from a psychotic robot, break a hole in the floor of their space station so that it will fall into the hyper-cold waters below. Surely the air pressure would render such action suicidal mused Ebert and, thinking about it, he was probably right unless the station formed an air-tight seal over the cavern…?

There is so much pressure to not like this film but you know I always like to find something even in the most lost of causes…

Saturn 3 was, improbably, directed by Stanley Donen who also directed Singing in the Rain… it has a script from Martin Amis (who later based his 80’s masterpiece Money on the experience) and features Harvey Keitel dubbed with an mid-Atlantic English accent (courtesy of Roy Dotrice)… in truth it’s a bit of a muddle but not one that isn’t fun to watch.

Kirk Douglas
Kirk Douglas is in it for a start and, even at the age of 64, he’s a believable action hero – even a leading man. I think his performance is full of warmth and wit overcoming the obstacles this compromised production placed in front of him. Harvey Keitel also puts in a string performance, with lots of dark moody looks and method intensity although he is majorly under-minded by the decision to dub his lines: what on earth was wrong with his accent?!

Farrah Fawcett
Now, Farrah Fawcett is easily the least able of the three leads but she puts in a decent enough stint and is also exceptionally good looking to the point at which you sometimes forget to watch her acting. (In fairness it should be remembered that Ms Fawcett was later nominated for four Emmys for her dramatic work on The Burning Bed, Extremities and others…).

Against all this is a robot with a tiny head…

The big spaceship arrives...
Saturn 3 was based on a story by John Barry, the production designer who devised the visuals for George Lucas’ Star Wars and Richard Donner’s Superman, who hoped to make his directorial debut with the film. Various production chops and changes resulted in Donen directing and initially he was so disappointed in the end result that he asked for his name to be taken off the credits…

The film opens with an attempt at space operatics as a laughably giant spaceship hoves into view in orbit around Saturn. On board there is an unseemly rush to launch a probe, shadowy figures emerge in a large hanger - echoing the emergence of the aliens in Close Encounters – whilst the call goes out for the probe’s Captain Harding (voiced by UFO’s Ed Bishop!); you’d expect things to be better organised.

The Captain is late for take-off!
As Harding is getting dressed in his spacesuit he encounters Benson (Keitel) a man who just failed to make the grade for this mission – being judged unstable. He soon demonstrates how “unstable” as he opens the airlock and Harding is swept out to his doom. Benson makes the take off in time and heads down to Saturn’s third moon – which could be Atlas, an outer ring “shepherd” – where, for some reason, there is a base working on the production of hydroponic food for an Earth choked by pollution and, drug-dependent, over-population.

The base is run by Major Adam (Douglas) and his partner Alex (Fawcett) who, along with their dog Sally, have been alone for three years – Alex has never been to Earth whilst the much older Adam has spent time there.

Harvey Keitel keeps schtum...
They welcome Benson who proves somewhat socially maladjusted, not interested in small talk but clearly impressed with Alex… He has a canister with him that is later found to contain artificially grown brain tissue: it is to be used in the construction of a robot designed to improve efficiency on the base.

Whilst Adam and Alex continue with their daily routines, exercising, taking communal showers and generally living in relaxed inter-planetary idyll, Benson constructs his robot. You wonder why the couple are not more concerned with his strangeness: he’s clearly loopy.

But, they find out soon enough, as the robot is completed and named Hector… at first the mechanoid appears harmless as Adam easily defeats it at chess and it shows its control in extracting s shard of rock from Alex’s eye – in a genuinely unsettling moment.

Hector's steady hand comes to the rescue... this time...
But, as Benson begins to inject Hector with his own consciousness, it takes on his psychotic elements. Sally is killed and Hector attacks Alex only to release her on her command… but the respite is not for long and the robot attacks all three of the humans who only just manage to bring it to ground – Douglas still making his heroic moves with style!

Hector is disassembled and left in pieces in the lab and, as Adam and Alex work on what to do with the bonkers Benson he arrives in their quarters and tries to wrest Alex away from her older lover. Adam easily bests the younger man and has to be restrained by Alex from finishing him off.

Whilst the humans argue, Hector re-assembles and sets off in pursuit of his “instinctive” revenge. With Benson’s “brain” he is set to fulfil his prime directive in the bloodiest and most barbaric way… will anyone get off the planetoid alive?!

Alex is menaced by Hector
Dusty verdict: The endgame is played out in convincing fashion although, as monsters go, Hector is no match for Ridley Scott’s Alien or Kubrick’s Hal.

It’s entertaining in an undemanding way but full of the aforementioned holes: neither science fiction in the detailed way of 2001 (Arthur C Clarke was rather more of a scientist than Barry or Amis…) or Alien and not science fantasy like the grown-up version of Star Wars the producers maybe wanted.

Hector's tiny head
Much was made of Ms Fawcett’s revealing costumes in the film’s publicity and it does feel as if she is an adornment as much as an active participant in the story. That said there’s a slight spark between her and Douglas and she looks so vulnerable next to the rapacious stare of Mr Keitel… such a shame he was robbed of his voice!

The angelic adornment...
The music by Elmer Bernstein is suitably space operatic and lifts some of the grander visuals even when the interior scenes resemble a low-budget TV series.

Saturn 3 is available on DVD from all the familiar places… but I may keep my VHS for a very rainy day…

Lou takes full responsibility...

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Thames-side story… Four in the Morning (1965)

This sparse film wears its influences lightly on its sleeve and, whilst it could easily be the back of Monica Vitti’s head the camera focuses on as she looks out Thames-ward, it’s Ann Lynn’s as she struggles to find her depth of feeling towards her lover. French new wave and Antonioni may well have been formative but this film has a very British feel all of its own.

The film’s Thames locations have a muddy glamour accentuated by the somewhat under-lit camerawork of Larry Pizer: it had to be this way in order to cope with the contrast between bright morning sky and dark docksides. It’s a fascinating essay on London’s riverside showing a world just recently disappeared replaced from Wapping to Battersea by re-development, posh flats and office blocks… they only took down the old cranes in front of the power station a few weeks ago.

The characters are also particularly British (and Irish) with their quiet desperation: just about hanging on to hope through the distractions of sex, drink and see-through humour – which one of them will crack?

Ann Lynn
The emotion on show is also subtly under-scored by a debut film score from John Barry, none of his Bond pyrotechnics here or the swing of Beat Girl, just mournful jazz perfectly reflecting the dark waters and muddied motivations.

The film is focused on two relationships in crisis – four in the morning? – but there’s also another participant. The film starts abruptly with the discovery of a woman’s body: found  drowned in the Thames in bloated stillness on the shore out East. Throughout we slip to and from the two other story strands to follow the gruesome processing of this corpse, all the while trying to work out which one of the two women it might be… if either of course. We assume the narrative to be a flash back and the work of the river police, coroners and undertakers to be in the present.

The story moves downstream from the initial discovery to a nightclub near Chelsea in which a cabaret performer (Ann Lynn) is winding up for the night. She receives a phone call from a man (Brian Phelan) but doesn’t seem keen on meeting up with him.

Ann Lynn and Brian Phelan
He insists though and comes to greet her in the early morning light as she leaves the venue. The two look out over the river and smile: not strangers but not lovers either, not yet. They walk the riverside pathways and find a café for an early breakfast. There’s an uncertainty to them and they only abandon reserve when they decide to borrow a motor boat for a trip. There’s some superb footage as they sweep through Putney and round up towards the east end docks.

There’s love but she wants to be sure whilst he thinks sex to be the only way to demonstrate his feelings: to mean it he has to say it and the woman is chilled by his inability to explain himself.

Judie Dench
Elsewhere a young woman (Judi Dench) is near despair as her teething baby refuses to sleep. Her husband (Norman Rodway) is out on the tiles  with his best mate (Joe Melia), a joker who wants his friend to be the life and soul he used to be. The man takes them both back to their flat where they rudely interrupt his sleep-deprived wife.

Lads night out: Joe Melia and Norman Rodway
Here again the couple struggle to communicate as the lines between married life and a good time have not been properly drawn. He still wants to have fun but she feels the responsibility of parenthood and career more strongly. Is this just a phase of adjustment or have they drifted too far apart.

Talk but no understanding
Two women under so much pressure… will it be too much in the end?

The girl leaves and the man travel back West by tube and enjoy carefree moments chasing oranges across a bridge but it’s just a fleeting distraction and they will part at Aldgate Station (which has barely changed) leaving her to travel on alone.

The wife runs off but returns to find husband asleep… they talk about their lives and face towards their rivers front living room windows in neutral…as uncertain as ever.

The body is weighed, stripped and finger printed before being shut away in the mortuary… who was she? Do we know her?

Dusty verdict: Four in the Morning may tell a slight story but it tells it with style. Written and directed by Anthony Simmons it is a thought provoking film that lingers in the mind… The cast are superb and none more so than young Judi Dench. This was her first film, five decades before M, and her theatrical training is in evidence as her controlled expressiveness pulls the viewer in... we hope it's not her who succumbs but she's the one most believably at wit's end.

The film is available on DVD and is worth your investment: it's here from Amazon and here on Movie Mail.