Films Of The Year

1972 has been a year when less feature films have been made than ever before, and this may have something to do with the fact that what films there were, were of a consistently high standard. The lack of money, and audiences has seen further massive closures of cinemas, particularly Rank Organisation Odeons, and vast areas of suburban London are now without filmic jollification. Where cinemas remain, seat prices have risen, and it is unusual to pay less than about 50p for your evening’s entertainment. As a confirmed film freak, I still believe that there is no better way of spending an evening than at your local Classic or ABC. The bleak hollows of Haverstock Hill, South Harrow and Burnt Oak look even more morose without their garish red Odeons, and thousands of old age pensioners and bored teenyboppers have lost their only escape from sordid reality. The lack of money on the production side has meant directors have tended to make their movies on location, which has greatly added to their realism. Most of the really fine films, because of the ever crazy, impossibly unaware, monopolistic cinema owners in this country, have hardly been shown. Furthermore, advertising by the ABC chain in the local press, the means most people use to find out what’s on at their local cinema, has been sparse and uninformative to the extent of killing many potential successes stone dead.

The British film industry, except for its slight over enthusiasm for making comedy films based on TV series, has produced some splendid films, free from foreign finance and specifically British. I don’t mean this chauvinistically; several films such as Family Life and Made have really managed to get to grips with life in Britain as it’s lived today. Clockwork Orange about the Great Western World urban disease, greatly benefited from being made here.

My British film of the year is Dulcima, written and directed by Frank Nesbitt and starring John Mills and Carol White. Based on a short story by H. E. Bates, John Mills beautifully characterises a gregarious, ageing, naturalistic farmer in the West country, who falls in love with a girl from the farm down the valley, who comes to clean his ramshackle pigsty of a house. Both White and Mills give a simple, charming, loving performances as the oddly assorted couple, in this realistic yet fantastic, funny yet sad, little film, with its unyielding affection for the beauty of the English countryside and its real characters.

The American cinema has undoubtedly entered a new phase during 1972. The flamboyant, ridiculous, Hollywood wealth image has finally been irrevocably overthrown, and a new wave of fast, realistic, made where they happen, entertaining films with a widespread appeal has taken its place; the two best examples are The French Connection and Prime Cut, The former set in New York, successfully combines a documentary picture of New York with the exciting story of the relentless search and tracking down of a drug ring, by a tough cop. Prime Cut does the same thing for modern rural America, being a gangster movie set in Kansas.

The traditional Western too, continues to change beyond recognition, from the dull patriotic crap for which those hallowed names John Ford and Audie Murphy, were in various ways responsible. The transformation is magical and gives us in 1972, two totally contrasting Westerns. One Chatos Land, directed by Michael Winner, is a tough, deliberate, visual, thinking masterpiece about a half breed Indian who is relentlessly and insanely pursued by racially crazed townsfolk, who finally perish in the desert. The moral overtones of the movie, which suggest that the oppressed will finally secure the demise of the oppressors, through the justness of fate, have many parallels with present day minority problems, and the fact that society will inevitably, illogically, crucify those who are different, who don’t fit in in some way. Charles Bronson’s performance as the half-breed is deeply haunting and the bullies are superb characterisations. Winner’s fine direction and visual style makes fantastic use of the scenery, and creates a masterpiece of realistic suspense.

The other outstanding Western Dynamite Man from Glory Jail, directed by Andrew McLagen and starring James Stewart and George Kennedy, is effectively a big send up of, if you excuse the phrase, the Western myth. The story concerns three old style bank robbers who are released in the early twenties, after serving forty years.

The film is a delight with its array of eccentrics, believable sentimentality and sympathetic affection for its characters that makes Dynamite Man from Glory Jail my second place film of the year.

There have of course be«n some real bummers, like Michael Winner’s The Nightcomer, based on Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. It altogether had the appearance of being made during the three days Michael Winner had in England, between making Chato’s Land in Spain and The Mechanic in Hollywood. One is so used to expecting so much from Winner, that this version of the story, made without the slowness and careful thought and atmosphere necessary to this type of subject is just a big let down. Historical/Epic film of the year is Lady Caroline Lamb, see my review in this issue.

Another real bummer was The Godfather, a gigantic con that tries to make out the Mafia are really quite nice people. In fact they’re really the nice family in Golders Green you’d like your daughter to marry into. It’s also about 2 hours too long and downright boring. There was also the dreadful Rentadick, 92 minutes of meaningless banter that was so bad it’s very celebrated script writers had their names removed from the credits. Talking of overrated films, you’d think Fuzz was another Godfather. Really it’s a kind of mildly amusing American ‘Carry on Constable’ without the camp. If it’s Burt Reynolds you fancy, you’d far better see him in Deliverance. His acting is as bad as ever, but nevertheless, it’s a worthwhile film, an adventure drama about pollution and a nightmare canoe journey four men make down America’s last unpolluted river.

Other notable films this year were, from Australia, Walkabout and Outback, which in their own ways showed the horrors of that land very succinctly. Comedies: there were two very original and entertaining products; The Ruling Class, a bitter satire on the English upper classes, their strange habits and ridiculous way of life, with Peter O’Toole as a schizoid Earl who believes he is, and acts out Jesus Christ, and later on Jack the Ripper. Pulp is a send up of just about everything from Hollywood to package holidays, with Michael Caine and Denis Price sending themselves up beyond the point of no return. On the musical front, both Cabaret and The Boy Friend were outstanding and novel examples of the genre. The Boy Friend is my musical of the year. Certainly Ken Russell’s most successful effort, it is a charming, escapist, camp pastiche of the 1930’s and that period’s theatre and musical films.

Every year there seems to be one film which shakes everyone who goes to see it into a rigid appraisal of their lifestyle and attitudes. Last year it was Sunday Bloody Sunday, this year Billy Jack, which most unfortunately has hardly been shown outside central London due to the vagaries of Columbia-Warner. Story aside, Billy Jack is about the need to evolve a different lifestyle, within the practical limitations of the reality in which we live. Set in contemporary mid-West America, Billy Jack is half Indian, half white man and is hated and bullied by the local townspeople because of the way he protects the wildlife they want to shoot, and his involvement with the free-school in the desert outside the town. A school where all kids can go and do and create what they like, away from their parents who paranoically seek money, goods and success. The crux of the film lies in the scenes where the kids go into the town and are stoned by those jealous of their freedom, and in the unrehearsed, unscripted segments where some of the townsfolk are invited to the school to air their grievances in discussion. Again a highly moral film, in which the oppressed ultimately react violently to the oppressors, the parents. Billy Jack played by Tom Laughlin who also directed the movie, is a man neither black nor white, rich nor poor, or interested in making money. He therefore doesn’t fit into any of the ghettoes. Films like these are far more relevant to gays, than obviously homosexual movies like Fortune and Mens Eyes, since they clarify our position in society. It desperately cries out for a quick change in our attitudes to all those who are not good, money-loving, white, middle-class citizens. It is now up to you to persuade your local cinema manager to show what I would say is the film of the year.

Films For Christmas

If you’re planning a Special Christmas visit to a West End Cinema, the film I most recommend you to see is Lady Caroline Lamb at the Empire cinema, Leicester Square (see my review). It shows daily at 2.30, 5.30 and 8.30.

At the Odeon Marble Arch, one of the most reasonably priced, luxurious and comfortable cinemas, you can see Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the latest adaptation of Lews Carroll’s classic of our inner minds. This version promises to work more successfully than most, with music by John Barry and a magnificently eccentric cast, which includes Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Dennis Price, Flora Robson, Dudley Moore and Fiona Fullerton as Alice.

For the addicts the latest carry on, Carry On Abroad, shows at the Metropole Victoria until December 27th and for Alistair Maclean addicts there’s Where Eagles Dare, also until December 27th, at the Astoria Charing X Road. If you’d like some rather more original British comedy you can see Dick Emery flaunting and camping his way through Ooh, You Are Awful at the Astoria and Metropole from December 28th, or Danny La Rue as several good women in his first film, Our Miss Fred, which is showing at the ABC Shaftesbury Avenue.

There aren’t any new epics this Christmas so 20th Century Fox have rehashed the mammoth and ridiculously lavish 1962 version of Cleopatra. More famous at the time for the dramas on the set than for its narrative performances, it’s certainly worth a look at if you’re keen on historical films, or fascinated by the Taylor/Burton mystique. It’s showing at Studio One, Oxford Street.

After all the sweetness and plastic tinsel of the Christmas festivities, you might like to see a couple of films with slightly acidic tongues. Kubrick’s well publicised and deservedly highly praised Clockwork Orange is showing at the Warner West End, Leicester Square; and breaking all box office records at the Odeon Haymarket – it’s now in its eighth month – is the Ruling Class, a bitter, entertaining, delightfully destructive attack on the British upper classes with Peter O’Toole giving his best performance to date as the schizoid Earl.

Happy movie viewing this Christmas.


West End Cinemas Footnote

Since writing this feature certain changes have come to light, Cleopatra is no longer showing at the Studio 1. Where Eagles Dare is no longer running at the Astoria. It has been replaced by Ooh you are awful, but Carry on Abroad continues at the Metropole until the 27th. I wrote “for the addicts” before seeing it. It is in fact the best Carry On for ages, and literally had me screaming with laughter non stop for 90 minutes. The extreme blueness of the jokes, plus the riveting satire of those deserving targets, Mediterranean resorts, with their charming unfinished hotels, really make an entertaining film, which has a brilliance in its caricatures, which I am sure will ensure it is regarded as a British comedy classic by the NFT in about 30 years time. In support is a little publicised, exquisite, delicate, amusing and exciting thriller Ransom for a Dead Man, directed by the unknown Richard Irving; it is as superb as Hitchcock’s more brilliant efforts; a highly recommended double bill.

Alistair Maclean fans who missed out on Where Eagles Dare, can see the latest adaptation of his work, Fear is the Key, starring Barry (Vanishing Point) Newman at the ABC (twin cinemas, the other shows Our Miss Fred) Shaftesbury Avenue.

I have only seen excerpts, but it seems reasonably thrilling. Rather ironically, although mainly made in the USA, it was financed by a British distributor Anglo-EMI.

All Star History Show

LADY CAROLINE LAMB Writer/Director: Robert Bolt. Stars: Sarah Miles, Jon Finch, Richard Chamberlain, John Mills, Margaret Leighton, Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier. Music: Richard Rodney Bennett, played by the New Philharmonia Orchestra. UK Distributors: Anglo-EMI. Cert. ‘A’.

‘Lady Caroline Lamb’ is an eccentric, sensitive, vivacious, extreme young woman who dazzled and shocked the prim, extremely hypocritical London society in the 19th century, with her flaunting of every ridiculous convention in her exuberance and concentration of her energies into extremes, whether they were horse riding or her passionate love for Lord Byron. Her husband, William Lamb, although a Whig, is conservative and unimaginative and loves Lady Caroline deeply. In as much as he can show it, he is shocked and saddened by her scandal-making affair with Byron, and not only for the sake of propriety either. The film is basically about the collision course of natural romanticism and natural unrestrained living, with the hard conventions of society.

It differs from most other historical films I have seen in that the characters like Wellington (Laurence Olivier), and other legendary historical figures appear as real people with feelings and failings, rather then the cardboard moving pictures of other historical films: it is in fact a series of fascinating character studies. Sarah Miles’ performance as Lady Caroline Lamb is the best performance by any actress I have seen this year. She manages completely to become the person she is playing and to transfer this person’s intense feelings to the audience.

London society is shown as colourful, lavish, sad, and there is a good deal of subtle, delicate send-up as well as accurate historical detail. Who better to talk about the genius of the film than Robert Bolt the writer/director, who says: “I find out all I can about my characters and their background … I look at the pictures and read the literature of the period and try to pick up the flavour of their thinking. The glamour of the past, of high living, gives me the freedom to explore a style of speech, an elegance. We make a mistake in judging the aristocracy of the early 19th century by the standards of today. I hope first and foremost that the audience will leave the cinema feeling they have had their money’s worth in mere entertainment. I have a faint hope, as a sort of bonus, that they will leave feeling a little encouraged about life in general and their own lives in particular.”

Bolt certainly succeeds in his aims. Basically because he unpretentiously produces the almost perfect film which has universal appeal. It is romantic, instructive, and entertaining. Recommended.

Well Engineered

THE MECHANIC Director Michael Winner, Stars: Charles Bronson, Jan-Michael Vincent. Distributor United Artists. Cert AA.

‘The Mechanic’ is an interesting film about the inner character of a middle-aged, declining, professional assassin. A necessarily cold and completely unemotional man, a wife or girlfriend would wreck his cool; he’s forced to make use of a society prostitute. He is also vaguely homosexual in his feelings and fascinated by the young man he decides shall become his apprentice, who he subconsciously realises will be his successor.

The film would have been compelling, rather than just interesting, if Michael Winner’s latterly acquired, rather tough, unsubtle, fast style of direction hadn’t masked a lot of the feeling of desperation and extreme isolation I think the character was supposed to have. Charles Bronson is miscast. His ability to play parts requiring a blank, expressionless coldness and no more, works well in Westerns, but is not sufficient m films like this, in which a deep character study is the base.

The serious stuff is interspersed with exciting action scenes, where Winner’s superb talent creates some scintillating suspense.