V-films: Part Two

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If you had been asked to name another V-film in addition to those I listed last time, you might well have come up with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Irwin Allen’s 1961 film spawned the TV series of the same name and perhaps, like his The Lost World of the previous year, it is best regarded nowadays as a kind of precursor to the original series of Star Trek, with its strong characters on a daring mission (Michael Ansara, who plays Alvarez here, appeared in the episode Day of the Dove as a Klingon). But the film is over-long, with a series of increasingly unlikely twists, and patchy special effects – the interior sets are good but generally there is no expense spent on exteriors or on the underwater scenes. The nuclear submarine Seaview leaps out of the polar sea at the start, anticipating the shark scene in Jaws and its parody in Airplane!, and, inside, the state-of-the-art scientific equipment is part of an elaborate design to underpin the ship’s potential – ‘not even Jules Verne imagined anything like this’. It’s all fun and games, and played for laughs, until they go beneath the polystyrene ice – which shatters and sinks, imperilling them, for the Van Allen Belt has caught fire, making the polar ice-caps melt and (in shades of Gregory Peck’s nuclear-powered submarine in On the Beach) they have to hightail it back to New York to help save the world. As in many other films (Pacific Rim, for instance, and Quatermass 2, as well as Armageddon and so on), their solution is to fire a nuclear weapon, and the stressed crew race to the launch site as the world burns.

Part of the reason for the over-extension of the film is that it tries to combine action with exploring psychological issues (those of the single-minded Admiral Nelson (Walter Pidgeon, five years on from Forbidden Planet), who is at odds with his captain; an on-board female scientist specialising in stress under pressure; and the fatalistic, devout Alvarez who towards the end threatens everyone with a bomb to stop the missile launch in order to protect God’s will). There’s a risible fight with a giant octopus as they improbably try to patch into the undersea telephone line to get presidential authorisation for their mission; a mini-sub is blown up as they encounter an unexplained minefield; there are murder threats among the crew; they surface next to a ship of the dead, allowing pre-mutineers to leave (this bit is a partial re-run of Mutiny on the Bounty and The Caine Mutiny); they dodge torpedoes from another sub; and the sub itself is threatened again, on the Marianas sea-floor, with actually being eaten whole by an even more giant octopus; before the sudden simplistic dénouement as the missile is launched manually by the scuba-diving captain and the world is saved and everyone shakes hands and goes home. The psychology specialist is played by Joan Fontaine, her career by this point having dived alarmingly; she is actually a saboteur, acquiring a Spock-like lethal dose of radiation to try to thwart the admiral before tumbling to her death in the sub’s shark pool (which is curated by Commodore Peter Lorre). Frankie Avalon sings the theme tune, but this is also an early acting outing for him – he ended up appearing in over fifty films. Decker will in years to come memorably order ‘belay that wormhole command’ in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but it’s here (in answer to my quiz question from last time) that Avalon as Romano is told to ‘belay that noisy horn’, the instrument to which Barbara Eden from US 1960s sitcom I Dream of Jeannie is dancing in the ship’s mess. The distinctive voice of Robert Easton as Sparks will resurface soon as that of Phones in Stingray.

You’d think it would be relatively easy to find a better V-film than that, but it’s not actually so simple. As we know, one way of finding a larger number of V-films than you might imagine is to go foreign. The pre-publicity around the German film Victoria was all about how it was shot in a single take, and while that makes the experience of the film so direct that it glues you into the action without your really noticing it (or realising what a tour de force that must be, knocking the six minutes on the beach at Dunkirk in Atonement into a cocked hat), the gimmick does have the effect of masking, but not entirely, a thin and unconvincing plot – so the overall impression is that, after all, it is the technical achievement that is the remarkable thing here, rather than anything else. That’s not to say that there aren’t moments in which the single-take succeeds in producing disproportionate power – the entry into the underground garage, for example, or the emergence into dawn, which respectively give a real sense of nightmarish peril and inevitability, and the genuine passing of time in a wider context outside the narrow confines of the main narrative; and the sense of elation as they get to the club after the heist, as if they’re celebrating pulling off both the bank robbery and its cinematic recreation.

But the set-up is both unrealistic and tedious, as Victoria falls in with what are pretty evidently a rather dodgy crew in the early hours; insofar as the film is really a love-story, that seems a bit unlikely too; and it’s buoyed by some rather hackneyed tropes – she’s just going to be the driver; the car stalling at a crucial moment; the gunshot victim hiding the wound under his jacket – together with some wider improbabilities (just how does she secure a hotel room without ID (in a sequence where the single camera hovers over the stricken man, rather than following the action, using the technical trick to hide the hole in the story)?). And at times, of course, it’s not all so new – the gang and the camera skittering along in the police chase is Truffaut’s technique in Jules et Jim; and the whole is redolent of A Bout de Souffle, complete with lead male character Sonne looking rather like Jean-Paul Belmondo. Laia Costa is good as Victoria, but it needs the immersion to escape a critical perspective; ironically some closer editing might have helped, but only by destroying the USP.

Not foreign, though it sounds it, is Vicky Christina Barcelona, an interesting film by Woody Allen: it has the occasional characteristic bit of his classic dialogue seeping through; quite a lot of Spanish travelogue; and some of the protagonists border on the stereotypical. But the use of a voiceover tightens and sharpens the narrative; Rebecca Hall is excellent; and there’s reasonable support from Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, and Penelope Cruz (though these three are a bit one-dimensional, and Cruz’s Oscar for this seems slightly surprising).

Hollywood gives us The Violent Men, which like virtually all Westerns starts with a shot of the star on a horse. Here it’s Glenn Ford in the opening scenes, riding across the beautiful Technicolor plains with classic mountains in the distance. After the Civil War the cattle barons are grabbing land (which the settlers presumably grabbed before them, though that is not mentioned). But the grabber, Edward G. Robinson, is interestingly portrayed – and not just in terms of the grudging admiration that people have for him for his success and his suborning of the law, and the plausibility of his own view of the rightness of his ambitions: he is disabled (unlike Ford who has recuperated from his war wound, thanks to the countryside), like the boss in The Comacheros – and is being betrayed by his wife (Barbara Stanwyck) and his brother. Ford turns to violence eventually, and Armageddon ensues across the valley until the real baddies (notably a steely, ruthless Stanwyck) are killed and Ford can settle down with Dianne Foster (who delivers a passionate speech about the need to stop all the masculine killing) and unite the valley after all through likely marriage.

And your Hollywood V-war-film is The Victors – actually an interesting 1961 anti-war film written and directed by Carl Foreman (this was the only film he directed; he’d written the screenplay for High Noon, but then was blacklisted). The film traces the progress of an American unit from Sicily in 1942 to Berlin in 1946 – except it doesn’t really, containing little actual fighting and consisting instead of a sequence of deliberately fractured, discontinuous semi-stories each of which just jumps on to the next, occasionally via newsreel footage that links chronologically but not in any holistic way beyond showing that war can be variously like this. So we move from the rather ponderous and unsubtle Sicily scenes, where it is quite unclear what tone the film is trying to strike – gritty, romantic, humorous, a celebration of camaraderie? – to incidents of looting, of black GIs hunted and knifed by their compatriots while everyone stands by, of the French shooting Germans trying to surrender; to spiv/pimp Americans, a random concentration camp, and then an astonishing scene as the troop arrive to the tune of Jingle Bells and witness an execution for desertion with Sinatra’s version of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas on the soundtrack, alongside Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

Throughout, but again inconsistently and with no development beyond the moment, the men strike up with women, like a traumatised Jeanne Moreau, or Romy Schneider (reserved then venal), or in George Peppard’s inexplicable encounter with a Polish entrepreneur (Melina Mercouri) in whose restaurant works Kurt from the Gourmet Night episode of Fawlty Towers (Steve Plytas). A dog befriended by newbie Peter Fonda is shot for a bet; George Hamilton (who is not really up to it, relying on his blank good looks, a cross between Cary Grant and Anthony Perkins) ends up in Berlin, jealous of his rape-victim girl (Elke Sommer) who is upstaged and outshone by her gorgeous, luminous sister Senta Berger, and dying in a knife-fight alongside improbable Russian Albert Finney in the devastated city, in a final symbol of futility and division. The episodic approach, which has an obvious rationale, none the less brings problems over continuity and development and meaning in the characterisation – what was shaping up as a meaty role for Eli Wallach, for example, peters out, until we discover him again, horribly disfigured. Not an easy watch, but war shouldn’t be; it features Robert Mitchum’s lookalike son James; Mervyn Johns; and Peter Vaughan (Grouty from Porridge; Nicky’s father in Our Friends in the North; Game of Thrones).

More modern American is V/H/S: here we get found footage horror, which trades on the suspension of disbelief fostered by immediacy but often teeters on the brink of unwatchability as it tries to capture authentic hand-held video messiness. It has just enough in the way of variety to keep up the interest in spite of its illogicalities (are we really expected to believe that the guys in the framing story stop their ransacking of the house to watch the interpolated tape sequences? If one guy is wearing video-glasses to make it look that he’s in the action rather than wielding a camera, how does what he sees make its way on to a traditional video-tape? How have we moved, between the interpolations, from scenes filmed by the burglars to filming of the burglars (this is a nice subtle shift, implying a third, higher level of foundness)?).

There’s the standard way in which having a video-camera naturally leads first to sex and porn (the guys cruising around till they can find a girl and film her as they pull her top up, in order to sell the images; going to the house for a similar purpose; each of the interpolated segments featuring some kind of indecent exposure, twisting the usual linkage of sex and horror), but there’s nice variation in the individual episodes. In the first, the girl looks genuinely scary even before her vampiric tendencies are revealed in the assault (which is well done, but not as effective as in Under the Skin); the second such tape has a nice coup as, after each of the couple has used it, the camera is picked up and films the guy, then his girlfriend … then a knife; the third, with the traditional four kids in the woods, has nice intercalated images and a well-done fuzzy appearance for the monster; the fourth features facetime, making it a precursor of Unfriended, and the coup here is a small child-ghost rushing about (always super–effective, as is the idea that the trusted interlocutor is actually the danger, and how it starts again with a new victim); the last sequence also has a small ghostly figure but develops into a real tour de force, quirkily with the headcam on a guy in a bear suit, but with a spot-on nightmarish empty house they explore right into, up narrow stairs to the attic, down to the cellar, with really spooky special effects, twisting the knife as their escape into the car and away turns into a trap, the rescued woman vanishes, and the nightmare is complete as they find themselves immobile on the level-crossing with the train on its way, unable to escape … (you will probably have very little idea what I’m talking about, but I hope I’ve given some sense of the drama that awaits you if you give it a go).

One English V-film is Basil Dearden’s Victim. It seems rather dated now, but was presumably very bold at the time (it was the first English language film to use the word ‘homosexual’) and it engages fairly well with the consequences of the sodomy law as was. Dirk Bogarde is in fine fettle (though the film pulls its punches in that he has not committed an offence, just cried with a boy in a car); Sylvia Syms is excellent as his predictable wife (despite the bizarre characterisation that sees her working with disturbed boys through two-way mirrors); Noel Howlett, the headmaster from Please Sir!, is staunch as Bogarde’s clerk; there’s fine support all round (including one line for an uncredited Frank Thornton from Are You Being Served); and there’s reasonable suspense as we try to guess who the real villain is.

Apparently one way of finding a larger number of V-films than you might imagine is to go French, and perhaps I’ve left the best till last. In La Verité director Clouzot (no relation to Peter Sellers) intersperses classic courtroom drama with the story that led up to the trial: the French judicial system doesn’t come out of this very well, with the tendentious, morally judgmental judge alongside the prosecution and the barrister representing the victim’s mother evidencing that peculiar prurience which understands but still condemns sexual and moral peccadilloes: these flamboyant and self-satisfied lawyers seem to have little concern for the truth of the title, constantly over-bearing the accused and her counsel (for whom, despite his genuine passion, it is after all just another case); and, assuming the flashbacks are accurate, they threaten a miscarriage of justice for what was clearly a crime passionnel until everything is overtaken by the girl’s suicide.

The sparring barristers (Charles Vanel, Paul Meurisse) provide good support, and the victim navigates his role well. But they are all over-shadowed by Brigitte Bardot’s performance as the tearaway Dominque Marceau (subtitled Morceau at times – the subtitling is patchy, to say the least). She transcends her sex-kitten image (although the film and she still exploit it) as her prim sister’s boyfriend Sami Frey falls for her, but she only falls for him later. Her free spirit then clashes with his professional drive and his sex-obsession; his jealousy explodes when, stifled by life with him, she leaves for a few days; then becomes intense as he grows more and more suspicious and possessive; before getting engaged to her sister on the rebound after their rupture. It’s then, and in the concluding courtroom scenes, that Bardot excels – Dominique distraught in her genuine love, dramatically flying to him to a soundtrack of the Firebird Suite, only for him to use and discard her; and to taunt her when she returns, starving after weeks of moping, to declare her love again and her decision to kill herself. The louche Quartier Latin life-style of the youngsters (among whom Claude Berri) here does seem rather quaint now, though.

Finally, your quiz question: what What-film contains the following explanation of why vampires prefer virgins’ blood? ‘I think of it like this. If you are going to eat a sandwich, you would just enjoy it more if you knew no one had f****d it.’