Saturday, 30 April 2016

Not so bad apples... Rotten to the Core (1965)

It’s hard not to warm to a Boulting Brothers film especially one so chock-full of silver age talent, most sadly lost, but others still very much with us and acting up a storm (take a bow Charlotte Rampling).

Rotten to the Core could fairly be described as a caper movie and one of a number riding that post Great Train Robbery sense of mixed feelings… freedom and license are two very different things and most films took the “spirit” as far as they could whilst operating within accepted morality… “hang on: I’ve got an idea…”

Charlotte Rampling and those electric eyes
Directed by John and produced/written by Roy – with some pals – the film starts with three crooks hanging on for the loot at the end of their porridge.  Dudley Sutton is Jelly Knight (geddit!?), Kenneth Griffith as Lenny the Dip and James Beckett is Scapa Flood who are chewing on the thin end of 18 months for robbery. They sing un-enthusiastically as part of the prison choir whilst passing around a suspicious cigarette (really, in 1965?) which is shared by one of the screws.

They seem pretty hapless before their parole board but they have high hopes of getting their un-just deserts after they have been re-united with their boss and criminal mastermind, The Duke or to give his full moniker, Randolph Berkeley-Greene (Anton Rodgers).  But on being greeted by his lady friend, Sara Capell (Charlotte Rampling), they find out that he has passed away with their loot lost with him.

Griffith, Sutton and Beckett
It’s sad but they have been left one last job as a gift – a bank heist that involves their blowing their way into a vault that turns out to be a police station! They manage to escape without necessarily agreeing that The Duke had set them up for a quick return to clink.

There’s more to this than meets the eye… and in this case a private eye, former plod William Hunt (Eric Sykes) who is recruited by Sara’s father Sir Henry Capell (the eternally brilliant Peter Vaughan – who has just turned 93!) to make sure she is not falling in with a bad crowd. It’s a bit late for that as we see her gallivanting about in bra and scanties with first The Duke and then military man, Lt. Percy Vine (Ian Bannen).

Charlotte Rampling and Anton Rodgers
Lt Vine is low on charm and smarts and is being used as an in for The Duke’s latest plan… as he romances Sara, the three stooges, having worked out that she may know more than she’s telling, arrive past a familiar-looking road cleaner… yes it’s PC turned PI, William Hunt merging skilfully into the background to observe his target.

The boys knock on Sara’s door and as she tries to get rid of her military mug they spot details of the Hope Springs Nature Clinic and, whilst adding up isn’t really their forte, they still work out it’s where they’ll find the Duke.

Unwelcome guests
Meanwhile Hunt disguises himself as an Indian raja advertising a new restaurant. He follows Sara to the underground but his bulky disguise slows him down and by the time he’s ditched it, she gets rid of him by accusing him of assault… strewth not Eric Sykes as well!? Only in the film dear reader…

Eric and Charlotte - inapprorpiate on the Tube?
All converge on the dodgy Nature Clinic where the Duke has all kinds of elaborately-monickered hoods looking after the inmates by plying them with spring water mixed with pure gin… no wonder they’re all so happy.

The three new arrivals want in on the action and after the Duke makes them, literally, sweat on his good favour and has his accomplice, Countess de Wett (Avis Bunnage) test them for IQ (they have none) they are briefed by Anxious O'Toole (Victor Maddern).

The Duke briefs the team
It’s an audacious plan to steal the payroll from the local army base, and everything has been planned down to the very last detail… Meanwhile Hunt is questioned by the proper police led by Thorley Walters as Chief Constable Preston… the clueless cops begin to get the scent…

Now things get really complicated as the army is due a ceremonial visit from a German general at the same time the payroll is due. All looks doomed until Duke comes up with another fool-proof innovation: he will impersonate the general and distract the army long enough for the original plan to come off…

Ian and Charlotte
Dusty verdict: Events proceed thick and fast and Anton Rodgers does his best to do a Peter Sellers/Alec Guinness in multiple roles.The three un-wise men are well played by the excellent Dudley Sutton and Kenneth Griffith in particular whilst Ian Bannen pumps up the pomposity to full volume.

Victor Maddern,Anton Rodgers and Avis Bunnage
It’s interesting – on a number of levels – to see such a young Charlotte Rampling. Everyone has to start out somewhere and this richly-talented, multi-layered actor shows she can do funny as well.

It’s neither great of laugh-out loud hilarious but Rotten to the Core is still entertaining enough for a rainy spring afternoon’s viewing.

Ian Bannen and Charlotte Rampling
It’s available from Network on budget DVD – either direct or from Amazon or Movie Mail.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Dancing days… Valentino (1977)

I must admit to not always understanding Ken Russell. His films seem to suffer from an exuberance of ideas with excessive imagery often counter-pointed with the grotesque and just plain silly. Why, for example, spend a fortune on period mise-en-scène only to undermine it all by having the hero eat chips with Heinz tomato ketchup?

Ken doesn’t go for historical accuracy and is aiming for the “feeling” of his great subjects in a modern context but… why would Valentino be eating ketchup?!  Ken said he was writing a “novel” with his film and mixing fact and fiction was part of that process… he later said that this film was his biggest mistake.

Carol Kane, Rudolf and Heinz...
Anachronisms abound across Russell’s work as do appropriate non-actors from Rick Wakeman as Thor the Thunder God in Lisztomania to all four members of The Who in Tommy to Rudolf Nureyev in this film. Rudy has the right name and some of the same kind of presence but he’s not perfect casting for the great Latin Lover even though he does his best.

Similarly, Michelle Philips of The Mamas and the Papas, is asked to dance with Nureyev and act with Leslie Caron (who can do both really well) and Felicity Kendall (the best actor in the film). Philips is a stunner whose limitations are well placed for Natasha Rambova’s emotional and sexual distance… Valentino just happened to marry two women whose interests were elsewhere and who both had relationships with Nazimova.

Michelle Philips
This has led to questions about Valentino’s own proclivities but what’s so difficult to understand about the status of sex-symbol? He certainly took exception to any questioning of his manhood and even called out the author of an article questioning his impact on American manhood. He ended up fighting the boxing editor of another paper Rory O'Neil (here played by the brilliant Peter Vaughan) and, no doubt helped by the coaching of Jack Dempsey, won.

Peter Vaughan
The fight did not appear to have any link with the actor’s death in August 1926 from peritonitis following complications after an operation for appendicitis but this is Ken’s “Novel” not Rudy’s life…. To better illustrate the story Ken turns the players into comedy caricatures – Nazimova is a scheming mad woman and Rambova is a screaming control freak with Rudy caught in the middle.

Good attention to detail as Rambova's designs for Camille are replicated
It’s clear though that Russell is fascinated by the period and the creative power of these individuals – he recreates elements of Rambova’s marvellous art nouveau design even down to the bobbles in hair look Nazimova had in Salome – a film so out there that Ken could only dream…

But it’s all about Rudolph and the extraordinary outbreak of grief on his untimely death starts the film: riots in the streets outside the funeral parlour, smashed glass as women and men tried to get a glimpse of the body. Russell doesn’t show the four “black shirts” Valentino’s studio arranged and pretended were sent as a show of respect from Mussolini for his fellow countryman but subsequent events showed exactly how wrong a move that was…

June Mathis remembers with that guy from Cheers...
Inside the funeral parlour, the press buzz around as the main players from Valentino’s life mourn and are led to reflect on their role in his life.

First is Bianca de Saulles (Emily Bolton) who knew the former agricultural student – here he dreams of farming oranges yet in reality he hated them – when he had to hustle for a living. We see him dancing with some fella named Nijinsky and they make a handsome couple with an aggressive, balletic Tango (incidentally, the Tango was originally invented as a dance for sailors).
Dancing lessons with Nijinsky?
Then there is June Mathis (Kendall) a writer who first spotted his potential as a dramatic lead rather than the heavies he had originally played and who got him his break in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921). Before that he’s shown upsetting a Mr Fatty (William Hootkins) – a reference to Roscoe Harbuckle who deserves better – before stealing off with his lady friend, Jean Acker (Carol Kane).

Nazimova grieves
He marries Acker and follows her into the movies and, with Mathis’ help, to stardom.
Back at the funeral, Alla Nazimova (Leslie Caron) arrives to stunning effect perhaps also standing in for the absence of Pola Negri who genuinely did make a scene. Leslie Caron is having a ball here though and is well cast as the mature ex-ballerina turned actress.

Nazimova and Rudy’s ex Natacha Rambova (Michelle Phillips) arrives and we enter the heart of the story. Rambova fixes quickly on the Italian stallion and we’re never quite convinced that the two connect even though Rudy is clearly infatuated with her. Even in the film’s most iconic (or at least publicised) moment – the couple nude in a desert tent – Rambova teases without actually completing the moment… Is she only interested in advancing her own cause through him or is there a genuine reciprocation?
In-tents relationship...
Rather than following her dance of the seven veils to its natural conclusion she seems to rush her demi-lover away so he can save himself for The Sheik’s big rape scene the following day. The moment duly arrives with Agnes Ayres (Jennie Linden) hamming it up outrageously – honestly Ken did you not like silent films at all?!

What she says...
So it goes as Valentino goes from strength to strength with his hippy-drippy muse and her micro-management. The two decide to wed in Mexico as technically he is still married to Jean Acker. Nazimova shops them though and they end up in jail where, denied bail by studio boss Jesse Lasky (Huntz Hall), he has to endure a night of humiliation in the maddest most grotesque cell Russell could dream up… ah, but it’s symbolic

Back outside it’s now a battle between the studios and Rambova for control over the priceless “asset”… something that vaguely resembles the power struggle of real life and that’s the film’s major problem: if you know anything about the actuality of Valentino’s life you’ll be frustrated by the film’s presentation of his final months. Yes there was that boxing match – yet Rudy didn’t die directly afterwards… but a month or so later and from an unrelated illness it only matters because it matters!

An' th' winner isss...
Dusty verdict: Some good moments but to be viewed with historical sensors switched off and credibility checked in at the door… Russell has such a powerful vision yet always seems more than capable of self-sabotage: just one darned thing too many after another (the ketchup).

The film does look good though and is now available on Blu-ray as well as DVD from Amazon and the usual suspects…