Wednesday 13 November 02

Welcome! Outside the twenty-first century continues, with its farcical 'news' stories about dead princesses' butlers, world leaders fighting wars against terrorism with no sense of irony, and soforth, but in my little world the present day is being greeted with apathy and disinterest... I seem to be living in some kind of cultural realm located somewhere between 1942 and 1966. Currently my listening is almost exclusively Chet Baker, Miles Davis's "Porgy and Bess" and John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" (I'm thinking of buying a trumpet and some bongos and a black poloneck sweater just to complete the picture) whilst film-wise I have recently discovered three black and white films that I'm amazed escaped my radar for so long. I'd like to discuss them with you if I may...

Two weeks ago I caught Hitchcock's "Strangers On A Train". What a great little film! Two men in a train carriage both have people they would like to bump off to make their life easier and fancifully discuss swapping murders for mutual convenience. One of them actually goes ahead and does his half of the deal, to the surprise of Farley Granger - who thought it was all just a speculation. Needless to say, the poor chap (who happens to be a famous tennis star) is pressed into fulfilling his side of the bargain, leading to some compromising situations, moral dilemmas, and a life-or-death denouement on board a fairground carousel.

If you've seen "The Trouble With Harry" or "North by Northwest", you'll know Hitchcock specialises in mixing genuinely thrilling drama with blacker than black humour, the two styles juxtaposed but never cancelling each other out. "Strangers On A Train" does this superbly, although it does lean to comedy to a great extent, but not without a great amount of tension. And Farley Granger's nemesis is hilarious, an effeminate rich chap (definitely what Hollywood used to call a 'confirmed bachelor') anxious to get rid of his mother, and hilarious when casually discussing the most practical methods of murder with two morbidly fascinated old dears at a sophisticated dinner party.

Last Sunday, "Casablanca" was on TCM as part of a day of Humphrey Bogart films. This was the first time I sat down to watch this film all the way through, and boy was it worth the effort! Flawless cinema. Excellently photographed, snappily edited, sparkling snappy dialogue with not a word wasted - no wonder the film is so quotable, every line is a classic - with a strong vein of ironic humour (notably from Claude Rains), some romantic moments. Bogart's character is a great study in masculinity and emotion. The famous tough guy exterior turns out to be a delicate veneer constructed to prevent anyone from getting under his skin after having had his heart broken by the only woman that he has loved.

All of the big names in cinema at the time are here - Paul Henreid (fresh from "Now Voyager" - see Kitsch Classics), the beautiful Ingrid Bergman and a superb appearance by Peter Lorre at his most slimy, desperate and pathetic. The soundtrack is by Max Steiner, the greatest soundtrack composer ever (King Kong, Mildred Pierce, A Summer Place, Gone With The Wind - the list of his triumphs is endless). The story is timeless - a tale of idealism, heroism, values and hope. The flashback to Paris is more powerful and moving than some whole films that I've seen. "Casablanca" also proves the exception to the rule that 'patriotic' films are trite and manipulative - the film deals with Nazi Germany's occupation of Europe and the millions of lost souls who became refugees, struggling to find a safe haven. I defy anyone not to be moved by the scene in which Paul Henreid leads a singalong of "Le Marseilleise" to drown out the Germans singing "Deutschland Uber Alles" in the bar, no matter how cynical or immune to emotional manipulation one might claim to be. "Vive le France!"

Rick's Bar, home of refugees and black market dealers, is possibly one of the most evocative and atmospheric environments created in film history. Bogart's surrender of the love of his life for the greater good of the free world is wonderfully romantic, and so much more real than a corny 'they walk off into the sunset' cop-out. I haven't actually bothered describing the film's plot, because even if you haven't seen the film you probably feel as though you have by virtue of the numerous parodies and homages to the film - the most memorable being Woody Allen's classic comedy "Play It Again, Sam". Don't be like me and wait until "Casablanca" next comes on TV to see it, go out and buy it now! (No, I'm not being paid commission by Warner Home Video!)

Lastly, I recently saw "The Quatermass Experiment". The complete antithesis of what passes for a sci fi film nowadays - the action is mostly dialogue-based, centres around hospitals and remote areas of the country, and most of it happens offscreen and is only referred to (a tried and trusted way of working on a low budget). The film is seminal in many ways. The concept of 'body horror' - invasion from within, a being becoming a host to a parasite and one's body becoming a biological battlefield is a popular one in the horror and sci fi genres (eg "Alien", most David Cronenberg films) this kind of 'stealth invasion' is far more sinister and psychologically disturbing than an Independence Day-style alien attack. It's been said that "Quatermass" was a big inspiration for "Doctor Who", but it's amazing just how many stories have been inspired in some part by this film - "The Ark In Space" (another "Alien" precursor), the Krynoid in "Seeds of Doom" (otherwise known as the one with the plants) and virtually of the Earth-based Jon Pertwee stories ("Spearhead from Space", "Ambassadors of Death", "Claws of Axos").

The film delivers a suprising amount of shocks, even to a jaded, wise-cynical modern audience that thinks it's seen it all before - the alien initally possesses the surviving astronaut of a moonshot, who takes on a creepy, zombie-like appearance and drains the energy from anyone he comes into contact with, who become husks; as the film progresses, it has become a jelly/squid organism that procreates at a fantastic rate by releasing spores from its cactus-like skin. The astronaut's self-revulsion is clearly visible in some scenes, thus reiterating the real scariness of 'body horror'. One of the scariest moments is when the zombiefied astronaut is approached by a little girl at a canal (who obviously was never told not to speak to strangers with blue veins and sunken cheekbones) and strikes out at her, knocking her doll's head off - nasty! Bet that kid was seriously traumatised.

Although the climax amounts to an octopus hanging off a scaffold in Westminster Abbey, the idea of using the National Grid's energy to fry it provides a glimpse of the scale of the threat - spooky scenes of famous London landmarks such as Big Ben and the Pink Floyd Power Station in sudden blackout. Even after the alien has been destroyed, there is no triumphant scene (a la "Ghostbusters"!) - the scientists are seen as a pretty heartless bunch, and the leader of the space programme walks off to start again, and presumably run the risk of the whole mess starting all over again! And I can't fail to mention Thora Hird's brilliant appearance as a drunk vagrant bursting into a police station to report her sighting of the slime ("No, it wasn't a gin monster!") - not quite in the league as the Dame's appearance in the war film "Went The Day Well?" as a farm girl gunning down Jerries!