Saturday, 28 November 2015

Venus in furs… Striptease (1963)

Ah Nico… I saw her performing at Scamps club in Oxford in 1982 backed by The Blue Orchids – a true icon who carried herself with grace even during what was clearly one of her “difficult” periods: she fell off stage at one point but when she performed Waiting for the Man my friend Jon stood transfixed and wept. This Nico, our Nico… a Velvet.

Born Christa Päffgen in Colgne, Nico had initially worked as a model before appearing in small acting roles most notably in Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita. She studied with Lee Strasberg whilst living in New York and made this film in Paris in 1962 sometime around the time of her affair with Alain Delon.

I'll be your mirror..
Directed by Jacques Poitrenaud Striptease was a Franco-Italian production that was based at the legendary Crazy Horse club (well it’s had a documentary on Sky Arts) and aims to show the glamourous side of the business of a lot of show. It’s interesting to compare with Expresso Bongo and Beat Girl which attempted to do the same for Soho. Both those films are less explicit but in some ways more seedy than this one.

But in terms of cool the Brits can’t hope to compete for, as well as Nico, this film also boast music and an appearance from Serge Gainsbourg… rather more impressive than Harry Webb.

Serge Gainsbourg, Joe Turner and Nico
Nico plays Ariane a dancer aiming to make it big in musical theatre but whose big chance seemingly evaporates when an established ballet star needs a new direction. She can stay on the show but it won’t be the same and she walks out.

She runs into an old friend Berthe (Dany Saval) who is well dressed and fed, living a comfortable life as, she reveals, a show girl called Dodo Delight… but of course. She invites Ariane to her workplace where she naturally turns the head of the club’s director, Paul (Darry Cowl).

Darry, Dany and Nico watch...
The problem is, Ariane is shy and doesn’t want to reveal too much which would seem to be a major handicap in this branch of stage craft. But then, inspiration strikes as Ariane mirrors a marionette in moving stiffly and being unable to take all her own clothes off. She goes down a storm and the Crazy Horse has a new star!

There are some great shots of the audience reaction and unlike Beat Girl’s seedy raincoat brigade, the club seems as full of women as men: more legitimate entertainment?

Honey, Doll or possibly Rafa?
We are given a thorough run through of the club’s other assets as Honey Liberty, Doll Rose and Rafa Temporal (actual stage names!) go through their routines – a real period piece.

Bringing art to the part
Meanwhile Ariane confides in her friend Joe Turner a real-life American pianist and one of many black jazzers who made a living in France (Miles Davis lived there for a while enjoying a more tolerant society than elements of his home country). Joe’s a wise old bird and recognises the pitfalls of his pal’s new direction. He’s seen so many dance this way and succumbing to the lure of wealth for favour… ending up on the scrapheap or worse once their looks have faded.

The watchers
Sure enough Ariane’s temptation soon arrives in the form of the rake-ish bored millionaire Jean-Loup (John Sobieski) who tries to win her over with masses of flowers, jewellery and, of course fur… but is he genuine with these rings and things: you know money can’t buy you love.

Ariane refuses to be sure of Jean and this of course, drives him even further on in his pursuit. Gradually she starts to trust enough to accept his love and those expensive expressions of his affections.

Sunday morning
Yet, when Jean takes her home to meet his family, he throws her profession in their face as an expression of his independence and wild spirit succeeding in blackmailing them into topping up his funds on the condition that they do not under any circumstances, what-so-ever get married…

Spoilers… Jean things he’s been rather smart but, of course, Ariane is far from impressed and he is devastated when she exacts the most appropriate revenge ion the film’s best moment. It turns out that diamonds aren’t actually a girl’s best friend.

The Family
Jean is confused but Ariane has her purpose renewed and, as Joe smiles on she resolves to return to dancing with clothes.

Christa Päffgen aka Nico
Dusty verdict: Striptease is a more than competent morality tale and doesn’t take itself so seriously that it fails to entertain.

It stands and falls with Nico who performs pretty well her characteristic Germanic drawl cutting through the French dialogue as she moves gracefully through proceedings. She is, as ever, detached which fits perfectly with her character’s reluctance to commit. As in life, perhaps she felt there was another, better party to go to tomorrow?

The film is available on DVD from Amazons.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

No rehearsal... Seconds (1966)

This is the main event and there are no second chances? In director John Frankenheimer’s world the fact that there are is almost incidental what’s important is what this shows about the first chance. Do we simply search for what we’re told is important and what does it take to shake us from a pre-determined course with built in mortgage debt and career traps?

Even though Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) has been a success – well advanced in banking, fine wife, lovely home intelligent and motivated daughter… he still wants more and his life feels hollow after the struggles of career and parenthood appear to have been won. As Peggy Lee sang: Is that all there is?

John Randolph
But Arthur keeps on getting strange phone calls from a man claiming to be his deceased friend Charlie Evans (Murray Hamilton) who talks impossible talk about being re-born in a new identity. At first Arthur doesn’t believe but then as new Charlie reveals facts that only he could know, he starts to believe.

Arthur already lives in a daze his position in the bank having everything but a challenge and his home life sterile and repetitive – his wife Emily (Frances Reid) tries to connect but he’s too distracted by his own absence.

Alone together
He follows a lead offered by a mysterious man and with Charlie’s encouragement goes to find out more: what if he could start all over and aim for something completely new without the comfort of the ties that bind.

An offer he can't refuse?
He meets with the corporation and the offer is too good to ignore: a new face, new body and a new identity – with a new career following his deepest desire as revealed by hypnosis and sodium pentathol: is that how much it takes to make us actually say what we really want?

One pill makes you larger...
So… under he goes and we see the knives begin to cut, the implants and the re-workings only just imaginable in the sixties (now we have Katie Price and Pete Burns to show us that plastic surgery can convincingly make you look like a different species let alone person…). He wakes face covered in gauze and is finally revealed to himself as Rock Hudson… not a bad swap with all due respect to Mr Randolph.

Awake to a new face...
His new name is Tony Wilson and he is an artist living in California. The corporation have already seeded some of his works and will ensure that new Tony will begin to develop his own style…

Up to this point the acting has been excellent but Rock Hudson gives something else: he is bemused and as subdued as Arthur and even looks as tired and over-mannered. He restricts his expression and changes his gait in a superbly well-observed performance – if there were any better in 1966 I’d be surprised.

Rock and Salome Jens
It’s almost painful watching Rock playing Tony trying to hide Arthur and even when he meets an exuberant free spirit Nora Marcus (Salome Jens) on the beach, he still struggles to be the new man.

Nora is the woman he might have thought he wanted Emily to be and she starts to losen his self-imposed shackles. The couple attend a “happening” at a winery and Tony finally lets his hair (and pants) down as they jump into a giant vat to trample grapes with dozens of hippies… does this kind of thing still go on?

California dreaming
But something’s not right and Tony can’t handle his new youthful celebrity and gets agonisingly drunk at a party he and Nora host for their neighbours. He just isn’t used to the free life and is still stuck with Arthur’s hard-wired caution: he can’t let his new self just be and as he gets ever more drunk he starts to blurt out the secrets that, as it turns out, most of his guest don’t want to share… pretty much everyone is a second-chancer and even Nora is in the employ of the company, sent deliberately to help him adjust to his new life.

Adjusting to new youth
Tony is threatening too many people now and goes on the run back home – he wants to see what impact his “death” has had on his home and, claiming recent friendship with Arthur, talks with Emily about her husband. It is now he hears something of the truth as Emily seems to have begun her grieving process a long time ago and, when she points out that Arthur spent too long chasing what he was told he should chase the penny drops.

The men from the company find Tony and as they take him back he resolves to ask for another chance. This is where things begin to get complicated; he must supply another volunteer in the way that Charlie had done but he can’t or won’t “sponsor” anyone.

A visit to the old home...
 He meets Charlie again who is waiting for his own second, second life and finds out that he is not the only one to struggle with the change. But, if he wants to move on he must come up with another nomination to take his place/ensure further cash flow. The Company is a business and how will they deal with this failing asset? Tony hopes to bargain but in spite of the open-ended talks he has with the garrulous oldster who runs the show, you begin to wonder…

One more try?
Dusty verdict: Seconds is a strange and impactful experience…aided by the cinematography of James Wong Howe which deservedly won an Oscar.

The film has just been released on dual format by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series - quite right too. It is available from all the usual places but be prepared to be unsettled...