W-films, Part 3

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Richard E. Grant stars in 1987's Whitnail & I. FROM ©CINEPLEX-ODEON PICTURES/EVERETT COLLECTION.

‘We have gone on holiday by mistake.’ Last time one of my quiz questions for you was to identify the W-film containing this line: it is of course Withnail & I – which on re-watching nowadays seems an odd combination of the old-fashioned and the prescient.  Paul McGann (lately of Luther) is decorative, even in his Y-fronts, and Richard Griffiths creates the type that he was to provide various versions of over the following years.  Ralph Brown plays Danny as Harry H. Corbett; but it is Richard E. Grant’s performance (in his first role) that sticks in the memory – along with some very funny lines (the best other one comes with a hangover: ‘I feel like a pig shat in my head’) and the hilarious Camberwell Carrot.  But it degenerates a little into an outdated drama of homosexual predation.

It can be dangerous to go back to these much-loved films of the past, and this is certainly true of Walkabout.  The best bits of it, by far, are the series of stunning images that director Nicholas Roeg finds in the outback, after the economical scene-setting of the new country and the shocking parental suicide – part and parcel of the other-worldliness of all of the non-outback scenes.  The use of radio in the soundtrack is also pretty inspired – civilisation, learning, adventure, confusion, dissonance, irrelevance – sitting oddly alongside a standard John Barry score.  But when the film lapses into National Geographic mode there are too many travelogue shots of animals (and far too many of animals being killed), labouring the point that beneath the veneer of civilisation we’re all just beasts.  In between, the problem is essentially one of voyeurism – not so much the use of Aborigines, but the prurient interest in Jenny Agutter, who plays the 14-year-old ‘Girl’.  You worry about this, especially nowadays, from the heavy-breathing school scene onwards, and it’s not surprising that the story unfolds in and out of her school uniform and underwear.  The pass is completely sold by the swimming scene, which is basically under-age porn (clearly the perspective on her is not Black Boy’s but one which the camera is inviting us to share), and which is itself preceded by a bizarre pornish interlude with weather scientists.  Girl’s sexual interest in the boy is made obvious, to the extent that he is being exploited as much as her by a story that downplays the peril of the white children in favour of the threat to her virginity – all framed by the coming-of-age Aborigine ritual, so that it reads like a middle-aged paedophile’s defence that in other cultures she would have been ‘fair game’.  Positioning it as her Blue Remembered Hills implies that she loved every minute of it, too.  David Gulpilil is excellent as Black Boy; Roeg’s son Luc is White Boy; Father is played by John Meillon, who was in Wake in Fright in the same year and played the mayor in The Cars That Ate Paris, but who is probably most familiar from Crocodile Dundee (which we’ll come to later).

On the other hand, Whisky Galore! is still charming even if it doesn’t have as much depth as other Ealing comedies (and, inexplicably, does not feature John Laurie).  The lovable Londoners in the other films aren’t particularly accurate, but here the Scottishness much more often doesn’t quite ring true – exemplified, ironically, by the varying pronunciations of Gaelic/gallic/garlic, the latter version from the delectable Joan Greenwood, sounding more Irish than anything.  The final voiceover also strikes a false note, as the cost of whisky rises and all the islanders stop drinking it (this was apparently inserted by the censorious Americans).  Basil Radford’s Home Guard captain is a clear model for Dad’s Army’s Mainwaring; James Robertson Justice prescribes pipe tobacco for his patient in the lamentable absence of whisky; Gordon Jackson from The Great Escape and Upstairs, Downstairs plays a young man; Jean Cadell, who is also in ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’, plays his mother, and at one point you’ll have to rewind in astonishment to double-check what must be the first cinematic appearance of the C-word, before realising that this is in fact her perilously imprecise pronunciation of  ‘blackcurrants’.  John Gregson stars; Compton MacKenzie, who wrote the source book and co-wrote the screenplay, appears as the captain of the doomed SS Politician with its desirable cargo.

Don’t be put off by the beginning of West Side Story, a seemingly interminable overture with little or no visual interest (despite the involvement of Saul Bass).  The rest of it has a perfect understanding of the capacity of film to bring the music to life.  The iconic finger-snapping is one thing, but as the strutting gang intersperse ballet moves you sense the pent-up energy and art here, and the confidence to undermine verisimilitude in order to outdo realism.  It helps, of course, that there are some great songs (and they in turn keep up the interest during the incidental music) – Maria, I Feel Pretty, America, There’s A Place for Us (hum this one next time you go to buy fish and chips), Tonight, Somewhere – from Bernstein and Sondheim.  And there’s nice and bright direction from Robert Wise (and the sacked Jerome Robbins), good with the movement (despite some iffy special effects).  The whole thing is vastly entertaining, deserving its ten Oscars although the acting is a little patchy – Natalie Wood is good, with George Chakiris and Rita Moreno; the white boys rather less so.  The police lieutenant is Simon Oakland, the psychiatrist in Psycho.   It all comes across, of course, as rather more to do with racism than Shakespeare.

The West Wing is well-loved by its aficionados, and is eminently bingeable if by some chance you’ve never seen it (while almost everyone who has will have given up on it at some point before the end of the seventh series).  The pilot is promising, with what will become the trademark swoopy camera-tracking; the first series confirms that this is a pretty knowing and intelligent version of Yes, Prime Minister, with some good ongoing characterisations and sub-plots always linked to the main political action.  Rob Lowe is excellent (having a brief fling with escort Lisa Edelstein (Cuddy from House)), as he is in the similarly wonderful but also ultimately tailing off Parks And Recreation; there are strong women characters (with a breakthrough role for the wonderful Allison Janney) – a point clunkingly made in episode 5, which also features Nick Offerman (Ron Swanson from Parks And Recreation) and Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale).  Martin Sheen initially seems to be the weak link, but very much grows into it.  Episode 15 has the very final appearance of Karl Malden and his nose, by now almost cubic; episodes 12 and 17 are directed by Ken Olin, Detective Harry Garibaldi from Hill Street Blues all those years ago.  If 22 sounds like a lot of episodes for a first series, it doesn’t feel like that; as I say, though, whether you’ll go on to watch all of the 130+ others is a moot point, but like many things you’ll enjoy it as long as you know when to stop.

Another of my quiz questions last time related to the line ‘Made it Ma!  Top of the world!’.  Famously, this comes at the climax of White Heat, in which James Cagney is terrific as Cody Jarrett – smart, cold-blooded, deranged, every inch the high-functioning psychotic, pretty much defining this role for future generations.  He suffers from blazing headaches initially developed to attract his mother’s attention: his mother-fixation prefigures Psycho, but isn’t overdone.  He acts with great economy – his opening gesture to speed up the driving, the realisation that he has to murder the initial victims – but he’s also great in his outburst as he learns of his mother’s death (the noise of the convicts returning to their meals like applause for his emoting); modulating things, too, as he nonchalantly kills the guy in the stuffy trunk more or less for the sake of a pun as well as vengeance, and chats about talking to his dead mother as he walks among the trees at night before the final job.

There’s much more than just his performance, though: the story is intricate, brilliantly plotted, exciting and absorbing, and director Raoul Walsh zips it along at a tremendous clip: with the initial train robbery straightaway underway, and over in minutes; the nice trick of the false first story, till Jarrett on the run leaves the drive-in cinema (showing Task Force, of the same year) and confesses to a lesser crime as an alibi; the jail time with its cliff-hangers – the near-identification of the undercover cop, the assassination attempt, the eavesdropping con, the jailbreak; vengeance for the mother’s death; and the final job with the Trojan Horse tanker in the chemical factory, the actual identification of the undercover cop, and the spectacular ending with Cagney’s acting pyrotechnics (giggling, shooting his pal, and proudly reporting to his mother that he’s made it all the way) and the final explosions.

There’s some nice detail of police work, with surprisingly modern aspects – spectrographic analysis as well as fingerprints; the ABC method to follow a car; Edmond O’Brien as the undercover cop in Cody’s cell; an oscillator to track a getaway car, this idea reappearing at the end; and some very large walkie-talkies.  Virginia Mayo, often in her underwear as in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, has a rather underdeveloped role as the murderous, duplicitous moll after the main chance; Ma is the rather good Margaret Wycherly, tracked after she is seen buying strawberries for her boy, and eventually shot in the back by Mayo.

A more niche White film is White Men Can’t Jump, an entertaining basketball movie to set alongside director Ron Shelton’s other sporting efforts Bull Durham and Tin Cup.  Woody Harrelson is solid as ever, and to the untrained eye his moves and those of Wesley Snipes (who also does a good Brando impression) look convincing.  There’s good support from Rosie Perez (Tina in Do the Right Thing), and some nice a cappella street music as part a soundtrack which is decent.

But obviously not as good as that of White Christmas.  This was the first film made in Vistavision, and it’s charming and heart-warming, rather than an utter delight; but it’s certainly worth watching, and in fact it wouldn’t be anything of a penance to watch it every year as you digest the sprouts.  Unlike many film musicals it’s not a treatment of a pre-existing stage-show; although it reprises Holiday Inn, that too was in its first incarnation a film (they re-use its set here).  It showcases Irving Berlin’s songs, but there are not that many and the stand-out ones (White Christmas and Sisters) recur.

The film opens poignantly in devastated Europe on Christmas Eve 1944 with the first rendition of the eponymous song and then settles down into the rapid rise of ex-soldiers Wallace and Davies (Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye), who then meet the sisters – striking Vera-Ellen and plainer Rosemary Clooney.  Their song is then covered by Crosby and Kaye in drag – that, plus the subsequent train-ride with bunk beds, recalls Some Like It Hot.  Up in Vermont it turns into the usual musical story about putting on a musical, here touchingly to help their old general (Dean Jagger).  The stars are a good, varied foursome – Crosby and Clooney can obviously sing, and Kaye and Vera-Ellen do some decent dancing (with her athletic legs so unlike Cyd Charisse’s thick thighs, but characteristically splayed) and Kaye is really quite funny in parts.  Sig Ruman from To Be or Not To Be is the landlord, early on; George Chakiris again is a dancer alongside Clooney in her sub-Monroe number in New York during the one minor misunderstanding that threatens the happiness; the housekeeper is the familiar Mary Wickes; directed by the versatile Michael Curtiz.

Carrying whitely on, White Bird in a Blizzard was Gregg Araki’s next film after Kaboom!  It has its moments (and nice late 1980s detail, with matching soundtrack), but ultimately disappoints.  The best part is the first half, which has nice elements around the relationship between 17-year-old Kat (who looks like Stacey off EastEnders but is played by Shailene Woodley, who was one of the daughters in The Descendants and who went on from this to Snowden and the excellent Big Little Lies) and her mother (Eva Green, who played Vesper Lynd in the 2006 Casino Royale); the parents are a ‘quintessential American couple’ but the Mom/homemaker has fallen like a Douglas Sirk heroine into boredom and emptiness, the father quite uninspiring at home, just wanting his dinner, but popular with the ladies at work, the breakdown of the relationship strongly characterised as sexual dysfunction.  That the wife should walk out on him seems sudden but not surprising, and the daughter seems to cope with it well (talking to a token therapist who advises her that dreams often have no meaning at all).  She’s having her own lack of sex with her dumb boyfriend Phil, prone to Malapropisms (‘it’s a vicious circus’); and, encouraged by her friends (token fat black girl (Gabourey Sidibe from Precious) and token gay guy), decides to bed the hot policeman (rugged Thomas Jane, the hilariously named Detective Scieziesciez) who is investigating the mother’s disappearance.  Kat is vaguely wondering whether her Mom was having an affair because she saw in her daughter the past self that she had lost.

Three years on and Kat is at Berkeley, but back visiting, learning that the Dad has a new woman, but herself still having dreams about her mother and going back to bed the detective whose theory is that the Dad discovered an affair and killed the Mom.  Kat begins to remember things she had suppressed at the time while she was in denial, and which we did not see, and it all points – not least the cold whiteness that characterises her dreams – to the Mom’s body being locked in the freezer, but it doesn’t seem to be.  There’s some interest in the way that we were lulled as much into thinking that the Mom just took off, and that Kat is taking it more or less in her stride, as we were into thinking that she really is dead: but then it transpires that she is, and she was in the freezer after all, and that Phil was indeed having an affair, but with the Dad not the Mom – and the whole thing disappears into unsatisfying inconsequence.

The White Ribbon is rather different fare.  Michael Haneke’s curious film, set in rural Germany in 1913-14, is narrated by an older version of the teacher who appears in the action, and explicitly sets up as recounting events which may illuminate later aspects of the country’s development – so pretty obviously Nazism.  Oddly, this rather undermines the characteristically unsettling scenes that Haneke presents; things in Hidden and Funny Games are arguably more sinister, in their own way.  Here, you’re constantly trying to relate the goings-on to that suggested symbolic relevance – particularly since they’re clearly fabricated by the fiction, presumably for that purpose.

So what do we have?  A series of mysterious events – some relatively minor, some very violent – which together seem to undermine the natural feudal order and often take the form of attacks on figures of authority.  But we’re presumably not being led to conclude that respect for one’s betters would have prevented the rise of Hitler: it’s more, I suppose, that the wilfulness of the largely Aryan children, which culminates in sadistic destruction of a boy with Down’s Syndrome, is to be equated with the suasion of a nation to acquiesce in the flouting of norms and the victimisation of people (although there’s no sign of animosity to the local Poles).  There is also, of course, some bad behaviour by adults (to each other and to children), but in a sense the wider the focus goes (to include not only family sexual abuse but also ill-treatment of a long-term lover), the less well it maps on to the specific Nazi strand – while risking that any more general conclusion that bad things can lead to other bad things, and that everyone should be nice to each other otherwise anything might happen, becomes simply banal.  But as a film-maker Haneke is always interesting, and here he gets some good performances from child-actors like Thibault Sérié and Leonard Proxauf, alongside old stagers like Burghart Klaussner, and creates a haunting feel through the monochrome images and a memorable sense of foreboding and unease.

My final quiz question last time invited you to locate the line ‘That’s not a knife.  This is a knife!’.  It is of course a reference to Crocodile Dundee, but the answer I was looking for (well done, all 128 of you who got all three quotations right!) was Wolf Creek.  Wolf and Wall both begin with W, so you can perhaps guess the sort of thing I’ll be looking to cover in my next instalment.  But I shall also touch on Women, so my question this time is which ironically black-and-white Sherlock Holmes W-film features not only Moriarity but the equally misspelt London thoroughfare Edgeware Road?

By Film Buff