Wednesday, 27 May 2015

The Big Sleep as you've never seen it

The Big Sleep: the pre-release version (Howard Hawks, 1945)

The Big Sleep is one of the most purely entertaining films of the 1940s, a zingy, slangy, sexy slice of film noir that takes full advantage of a classic Raymond Chandler story, a script by three of the best writers in Hollywood (including Leigh Brackett, who co-wrote Rio Bravo and The Empire Strikes Back), and Bogie and Bacall's sizzling chemistry.

Shabby detective Philip Marlowe (Bogart) is hired by the ailing General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to foil a blackmailing racket, and finds himself up to his neck in corpses and amorous dames, including the general's smoking-hot daughter, Mrs Rutledge (Lauren Bacall).

So far, so legendary.

The movie has a peculiar history, though. Originally wrapping in January 1945, just as Bacall's debut - To Have and Have Not - hit cinema screens and made her an instant sensation, The Big Sleep was ready for release by March of that year. But with World War Two nearing a close, Warner shelved the film as they rushed to release any and all propagandist flicks that would soon be rendered redundant. By the time The Big Sleep was reinstated for release in November, Bacall's second film - Confidential Agent - had come out, receiving savage reviews that suggested her career might be over as soon as it had started.

At that point, Bacall's agent, Charles K. Feldman, wrote to the head of the studio, Jack Warner, and urged him to take action: to add more scenes of Bacall, to scrap a scene in which she wore a veil (apparently because he didn't think she looked attractive in it, the mad bastard) and to chop various exposition in order to make way for the new material. Warner wrote back to him almost at once, saying that he'd been thinking exactly the same thing (Warner always said that), and Bogie and Bacall agreed to shoot the additional material if Howard Hawks would return to direct it.

The pre-release version (the one from March 1945, which actually played to US soldiers overseas) is available on the flipside of the Region 1 DVD, and is one of the most fascinating cinematic artefacts currently in popular circulation, the sort of bonus feature you dream about, if you're a massive nerd like me. It runs three minutes longer than the finished cut and has over 18 minutes of alternate material, including:

Reel 3

More footage of Marlowe searching Geiger's house. (This is a bit long-winded and was rightly cut for pacing reasons.) Alternate scenes with Marlowe and Carmen in the car, and a different conversation between the detective and his employer's butler. This was ultimately replaced with a superb, daring new scene in Bacall's bedroom that exploits the actress's feline sensuality and her leading man's sardonism (above), and gives the film a welcome injection of eroticism ("You go too far, Marlowe", "Harsh words to throw at a man - especially when he's walking out of your bedroom"). Some dialogue was overdubbed in Reel 4 to cover for the plot changes.

Reel 7

There's a full nine minutes of exposition, explanation and macho sparring in the 1945 version that was ultimately chucked out, with Thomas E. Jackson as a compromised D.A. and James Flavin playing a vaguely incompetent, Marlowe-hating police captain. In this cut sequence, Regis Toomey really comes through for Bogie, as Chief Inspector Bernie Ohls, getting him off the hook when it matters most. Toomey is excellent in the finished film too, but their bromance has much less to it without this chunk of story. Also, if you're someone who finds the finished film hard to follow (i.e. a member of the human race), then this passage should clear things up a bit. Having said that, you can see why it was snipped: whilst it's entertaining (and completely fascinating from a historical perspective), it's also a little slow and turns the movie into more of a procedural than you might expect. This sequence is followed by the notorious 'veil' scene, a piece of exposition in Marlowe's office that simply isn't very interesting, especially when compared to the scorching 'racehorses' passage that replaced it, taking place in the bar at Eddie Mars' casino and graduating from plot-point ticking to an awful lot of innuendo.

Reel 8

The scene where Mrs Rutledge is threatened by one of Eddie Mars' henchman was later redubbed to make her and Marlowe seem more familiar with one another, fitting with the more laid-back, sensual quality of the finished film.

Reel 9

The sequence in which Carmen is waiting in Marlowe's room was added for the theatrical release (she's sitting in his chair, fully-clothed (above), rather than naked in his bed, as she was in Chandler's novel and would be in the '78 version). There's also more information in the final film than in the '45 one regarding Mrs Rutledge getting the DA to drop the case. Here it's just a few lines. In the final film, Marlowe's feelings for her are given greater context, and he ultimately seems like a nicer guy. The '45 version does include a cool bit where Marlowe flicks his guns out of the hidden compartment on the dashboard, though.

Reel 11

Pat Clark, a bottle blonde with intimidating eyebrows and a rather artificial manner, plays Mrs Eddie Mars in the '45 version. She was unavailable for retakes and replaced by Peggy Knudsen, who's more sparky, energetic and believable (and attractive). Bacall gets fewer close-ups in the original, and they're shot from a less adulatory angle.

So there you have it. The 1945 version has a clearer plot, a couple of interesting additional characters, an alternate Mrs Eddie Mars and a stronger through-line for Bogie and Regis Toomey. For once, though, a messy production history and the interference of a powerful, nosey agent made a movie an awful lot better. The original cut is a very good film, but the final product is a classic, and a seamless-seeming one at that, flowing far more freely, easily and quickly than its earlier incarnation, and possessing an irresistible erotic charge that comes largely from those three extra scenes: two spotlighting Bogie and Bacall's badinage, and one casting further light on Carmen's character.

Still, many of the film's familiar virtues are already in place - like Max Steiner's stunning symphonic score (the way he underlines Elisha Cook's closing moments!) and that perfect closing shot, and it remains an extremely illuminating and valuable piece of film history: essential viewing for anyone with an interest in the Hollywood studio era.

See also: I did a similar piece on My Darling Clementine a few years back now.


Thanks for reading.

Ten things I love about Return of the Jedi

That last minute "oh yeah but actually isn't revenge supposed to be bad?" name-change in full.

This is the final part of my '10 things I love' series about each of the original Star Wars trilogy, following:
Star Wars
The Empire Strikes Back


Yes, it's a bit of a step down from the first two: half a brilliant movie, half a mediocre one aimed at a fictional audience of Ewok super-fans, but it's still exceptionally fun, with a slew of truly great moments. Here are 10 things I love about Jedi:

1. The Jedi knight. Hamill is no longer the callow youth dreaming of glory, but the height of zen, strolling into the heart of the enemy and casting aside the puny-minded minions with a quiet word and a wave of the hand.

2. Incomprehensible aliens. There's only one Star Wars film without a load of stupid aliens in it, and that's Empire. That's also the only one George Lucas didn't write. There are loads in Jedi. On one level they're completely unnecessary, distracting from the main story and slowing the film's momentum. On another, I'm completely in love with the fact that so much nerdy care has gone into creating characters who serve almost no function: they all have names, and back stories, and elaborate production design. There's Salacious Crumb, a maniacally giggling rat that inexplicably eats C-3PO's eye, Admiral Ackbar, memorably described by one Twitterer as "a prawn that is an admiral", and Nien Nunb, the Falcon co-pilot whose sole contribution to popular culture is a hilarious chortle. And there's an albino with a neck that's a snake, and balls on his forehead (Bib Fortuna). Best of all, though, is Max Rebo, the cute, freelance disco-jazz elephant, who brings his ensemble to Jabba's Palace for a gig (the very definition of getting in with the wrong crowd) and then unaccountably hangs around till the next morning to watch them murder some prisoners, getting blown up for his trouble.

3. Fun with the Sarlacc. One of the defining action set-pieces of the series. In the original, the Sarlacc just has a lot of teeth and a couple of tentacles, which I rather prefer. The sequence is full of serial-like thrills, including Luke's own novel take on walking the plank, Boba Fett's nifty gadgetry, and Luke and Leia swinging across the toothy canyon.

4. Bikini Leia. On one level there's a credible argument that Leia is unnecessarily and gratuitously sexualised in a way that she wasn't in either previous film, a process that none of the male characters are forced to undergo. This culminates in a battle to the death with Jabba the Hutt that's the epitome of undisguised kink, as she breathlessly chokes a slug until goo comes out of the end. It's an iconic outfit, though (famously referenced in F.R.I.E.N.D.S). And also she's hot.

5. Speeder bikes. They're fast, they hover, and they only seem to be used on the singularly unsuitable forest planet of Endor. I like it when they crash into trees and explode. The version of the chase sequence in the original cut is one of the few things slightly improved in the Special Edition, as they cleaned up a little dodgy back-projection, one of my bête noirs.

6. Luke and Leia. With Lucas and Kasdan struggling to write Han, who's turned from a sexy intergalactic badass into a slightly envious intergalactic bystander, the focus is on the series' most sexually compatible siblings. Their talk on the rope-walk (lifted almost verbatim for last week's Star Wars VII teaser) is just glorious: proper tingle-down-the-spine stuff. "The Force is strong in my family," intones Hamill, with more credibility than usual.

7. "It's a trap." So the Empire left four Stormtroopers to guard the control room for their deflector shield? That's just bad writing. Unless… oh shit.

8. The showdown. Luke vs Vader. Green lightsaber vs red, with Emperor Palpatine a voyeuristic, heavily partial observer. A little repetitive, perhaps, but utterly chilling (winning is actually losing? Ah, nuts), with a cracking pay-off.

9. Sentimental talking egg.

10. The funeral pyre: beautifully conceived, shot and acted.

I'm glad they never made those prequels they were talking about. No they didn't, shut up.


Thanks for reading, now please tell me yours. And no you can't just choose all of Max Rebo's tubular fingers.

Let's re-appraise Lillian Gish

Thoughts on:
Annie Laurie (John S. Roberton, 1927) - Tue, 28 April
La Bohème (King Vidor, 1926) - Sun, 17 May

The Lillian Gish reappraisal starts here – who’s with me?

You wouldn’t have thought that Lillian Gish needed re-appraising. After all, she did virtually invent modern screen acting, in collaboration with noted bigot and revolutionary filmmaker D. W. Griffith, starring in his notorious Birth of a Nation, and the follow-up, Intolerance (contrary to popular rumour, that film wasn’t a mea culpa for the racist sentiment of his earlier film, but a response to people he thought were being intolerant of his worldview. Lol).

She does, though.

The mighty Gish wasn’t name-checked at all in Paul Merton’s most recent series on the history of silent film, appearing just once as he made a facile point about over-acting. In the book I’m reading at the moment, William J. Mann’s Wisecracker, the author gleefully notes that Gish had been excluded from a contemporary list of people with a commodity known as ‘It’ (broadly sex appeal), writing that she “was widely presumed to have no sex drive at all”. Even in the introduction to Annie Laurie at London’s Barbican Centre on Sunday, the marketing person from the Hippodrome Festival who presented the film had just three things to say about Gish: that she had made Annie Laurie to try to change her screen image to something sexier, that she was one of the hardest working actresses in silent cinema, and that when she emoted, people outside the studio walls often came running to see if she was OK, as she was so loud they thought she was in genuine distress. Aside from the fact I’m calling bullshit on that, since post-1920 soundstages were almost all indoors, and encased in massive studio lots, there’s a more important point at stake here – the reputation of arguably the greatest actress who ever lived.

Louise Brooks, who was no-one in terms of popularity in the heyday of silent film but is now an iconic figure across the Western world, wrote a superb essay on Gish in the 1970s, where she cast the actress as a proto-feminist who bought and adapted her own stories, chose her directors, starred in them and even handled the publicity. She argued, very persuasively, that Gish’s career as a leading actress was wrecked not by changing tastes but by sexist studio heads who resented her power and her pay packet. (Incidentally, it’s worth noting that the ass-kicking, non-conformist Gish was also a staunch Republican who was vehemently opposed to child labour laws, having gone on the stage as a kid to support her family!)

Beyond the trendsetting, though, there’s something just as important: the sheer acting talent of the woman. There are only a handful of artists in the field of acting whose mastery of the medium is so complete that they seem to be doing something utterly new: Jason Robards, Emily Watson, Wendy Hiller – it doesn’t happen very often. Gish is one of those. You can see it in Annie Laurie. Everything that works here does so because of her.

The plotting is perfunctory – some fictionialised, Hollywoodised rubbish based broadly around the Glencoe Massacre, as Gish’s aristocrat falls in love with the world’s burliest man (Norman Kerry) and finds herself caught between warring Scottish clans – and the first half is frankly quite boring, but the second has some magical moments, including tremendous use of the titular song, and two action scenes in which Gish loses her shit. The idea that she was melodramatic simply isn’t true: hysteria was just a card she could play, and play beautifully. Here she does it for, what, 15 seconds, then 20, across two hours? It’s in keeping with the plot, and artfully done, creating two of the best sequences in the movie.

The second is one of the few times that director John S. Robertson actually does anything half decent: a thrilling, high-octane chase, with a wide-eyed Gish legging it up a mountainside, pursued by a dude with a gun, the camera scurrying ahead of her, framed on her face and frame. An interesting footnote, though: Robertson was later the local, Stetson-wearing eccentric in the small Los Angeles town where Byrds songwriter Chris Hillman grew up, and the band’s song Old John Robertson (from their classic Notorious Byrd Brothers record) is about how he was ridiculed by the local kids, who knew nothing of his past as a Hollywood director. Here, the music accompanying his film came from Shona Mooney’s folk trio, playing their specially commissioned score for just the second time, which was both inventive and familiar, in all the right places.

And throughout, Gish – while plagued by personal problems that meant she saw this one as simply a job of work – is transcendent. Take the moment where the plot promotes that pernicious myth that, whatever they say, women do want you to kiss them. A load of dangerous, sexist bollocks, but her character’s conflicted emotions: fear of him, fear of herself, anger, confusion, arousal and joy, are beautifully conveyed in just a few flickers of a moment. It’s not sexless, she’s not over-acting, and there’s no-one rushing from outside a studio wall to check she’s OK. It’s art, pure and simple.

And no-one rocks a Tam o'Shanter like Lillian Gish.


The main ethical problem with La Bohème - based on the same stories as Puccini's opera - is that it's a romance in which the hero (John Gilbert) is a violent, suspicious and abusive bully who spends the first hour gaslighting his girlfriend.

Its main technical problems are that the script is alternately melodramatic or lacking in incident, that the sets are largely dull, and that most of the cast is mediocre.

Lillian Gish, though, is absolutely mesmerising, as another of her gentle, selfless heroines tortured by an unkind world, exhibiting a range of complex emotion, rendered both subtly and explosively, that's pretty much off-the-scale in terms of artistic genius.

And King Vidor, while never approaching the lyrical, ironic brilliance he displays in something like The Crowd, does stud this sometimes clunky-looking film with a handful of gorgeous shots, most utilising windows, railings or Gish's beautiful, matchlessly expressive visage.

Gilbert's performance, by contrast, is pretty big and unfulfilling: like a parody of silent movie acting by someone who's only seen two of them.

But in the end the film's myriad flaws won't be what stay in the mind. It won't even be Edward Everett Horton looking terrifyingly young as one of Gilbert's bohemian cohorts. Instead it'll be Gish telling her lover that he's foolish to be jealous, a look of fond, intense compassion on her funny little 1920s face.

Annie Laurie: (2.5)
La Bohème: (3)


Thanks for reading. #GishFest15 continues with A Romance of Happy Valley and True Heart Susie (both screening as part of BFI Southbank's D. W. Griffith season) over the next couple of weeks.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Jason Robards, Naked, and why Hollywood ignored the Nazis - Reviews #207

Over the bank holiday weekend, I saw Paul McCartney, David Ford (above) and Al Pacino. Here is all the other stuff I've done lately.


A Thousand Clowns (Fred Coe, 1965) - 85% of this film resulted in outright, prolonged laughter. 60% visibly moved me. 100% of Robards' performance is beyond brilliant. (4)


Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993) - Mike Leigh's vicious, virtuosic masterpiece still looks sensational more than 20 years on: an episodic, incendiary portrait of the breakdown of British society.

David Thewlis uses up all the genius he ever had as motormouthed Mancunian misogynist Johnny, a man with a rapier wit and a rapey personality, who staggers through a series of vitriolic, vituperative encounters with lonely, damaged people in a dying London, using his intellect and his sexuality as the deadliest, direst of weapons.

His interactions with a sweary Scottish homeless guy (Ewan Bremner) and a sexually frustrated security guard are simply the stuff of legend.

I'll never get over how much I love Katrin Cartlidge's voice, either, and for Potterheads there's the sight of the young, highly unwashed Lupin pretending to be a werewolf.

Are you wiv meh? (4)


Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955) - The wife and the mistress of the world’s most unpleasant man plot his death in this stunning genre-hopper from Wages of Fear director Clouzot. It’s cynical and gripping, with flashes of humour and humanity, and Simone Signoret exuding malignant cool as a peroxide, jump-suited murderess with killer shades. There's twist after twist after twist - and the final two are just dynamite. (4)


The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006) - This is probably the most widely-praised film I'd never seen (except Fury Road, but that only came out about eight minutes ago), so I thought I better finally get around to it.

It’s a brilliant story, brilliantly told, in which a security service operative (Ulrich Mühe) in mid-'80s East Germany is asked to spy on a renowned playwright (Sebastian Koch) - apparently loyal to the communist state - and finds his blind loyalty to his paymasters severely tested. While it could look a little more dynamic, possessing a glossy TV-movie appearance at odds with the chilly subject matter, and has a little flabbiness around the middle, there's little else to quibble with in this Tinker-Tailor-with-a-Stasi-spin, which is emotionally complex, increasingly gripping and builds to a wonderful, satisfying finale.

A film so preoccupied with the plight of artists could conceivably have alienated a broader audience, but this one invests so much in its taciturn, conflicted anti-hero that its resonance is enormous, and probably universal. Mühe, who tragically died just months after release, is simply excellent as the man scrubbing himself quietly clean after taking a long bath in the moral morass. (3.5)


Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (Abraham Polonsky, 1969) - Abraham Polonsky’s allegorical Western isn’t quite as great as you’d like it to be, but it is important and fascinating, with some exceptionally good dialogue.

Polonsky was one of the best screenwriters of the late-1940s and had just graduated to directing, with the superlative crime parable Force of Evil, when the hammer fell. As Hollywood was gripped by anti-communist fervour, the lifelong Marxist was denounced as “a very dangerous citizen” in the HUAC hearings and found himself blacklisted.

It wasn’t until 1968 that Polonsky’s name appeared on screen again, when he wrote the script for a police procedural, Madigan. A year later, he directed his first film for 21 years, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here. To put that in some sort of relatable context: when Force of Evil came out, George Harrison was five; 1969 was the year of Abbey Road.

The film deals with a real-life event from 1901 that must have been hugely attractive to someone who had been through what he had, being the story of a proud Native American (Robert Blake) who kills in self-defence and then flees on foot, pursued by dozens of lawmen, vigilantes and federal officers. Here, the manhunt is led by a conflicted sheriff (Robert Redford) living in the shadow of his dead father.

It’s a movie lit by Polonsky’s characteristically brusque, brilliant dialogue – “You’re not mayor yet,” Redford tells a politician while they’re on the hunt, “you’re just runnin’ – like Willie Boy” – and some glorious imagery: dust-drenched vistas boiling in the sun. The action, when it occasionally intrudes, is also superbly handled, and the film is awash with ideas: about community, justice, persecution and personal identity.

Where it falls down, though, is in the muddled story – littered with muddy, poorly-defined characters engaged in confused relationships - and the performances, which are uniformly mediocre (though Blake is the best thing on show). Whenever the film starts to work up some momentum, Katharine Ross turns up in brownface, or Redford starts yelling at his doctor girlfriend, and it all falls away again.

I’m a big admirer of Polonsky, as both a writer and a man, and I wish this was another classic in the Force of Evil vein. Though it's not, we can at least revel in his language – both audible and visual – and the cherished, confrontational ideals he looked to wallop across in his work. (3)


The Mortal Storm (Frank Borzage, 1940) - From 1933 onwards, the head of Hollywood’s censorship office, fascist sympathiser and notorious anti-Semite Joseph Breen, prevented the studios from making films which were critical of Nazi Germany. He did this using point 2.2 of the Motion Picture Production Code:

“That special care be exercised in the manner in which the following subjects are treated, to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized:

International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavorable light another country's religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry).”

On those rare occasions when Hollywood made films set in Germany, it tended to sidestep the issue completely. In Charlie Chan at the Olympics, which features footage of the 1936 Games in Berlin, the teutonic police force were not virulent racists, merely officious types who looked like the Kaiser in a WWI helmet. Anti-Nazi films were frequently planned but never delivered, and The Life of Emile Zola included not a mention of Joseph Dreyfus’s Jewishness, or the anti-Semitism so crucial to the case that Zola so celebratedly took on. Studios, afraid of losing the lucrative German market even though they were all run by Jewish businessmen, were fairly happy to oblige, and MGM put pressure on the great and unspoken Myrna Loy to apologise, after she criticised Hitler and her movies were banned. She refused, because she was a badass.

In 1939, 12 months after Breen had followed the Pope's lead in denouncing Nazism, Warner were able to make Confessions of a Nazi Spy, which dealt with German espionage within the States. The following year, MGM finally summoned the courage to make an anti-Nazi film of its own, The Mortal Storm, though it doesn’t say the word “Nazi” at any point, and nor does it say the word “Jew” (the Roth family, central to the story, are referred to only as “non-Aryans”, which seems almost more inflammatory). It was the first American movie to deal with domestic life in the Third Reich. Upon seeing it, Hitler, with his customary good grace, immediately banned all MGM films, past, present and future.

Frank Morgan plays a respected biologist and professor whose family is split by the rise of the Nazis (though we’re quite late to the story, as it begins the night they come to power), his adopted sons joining the party, but his daughter (Margaret Sullavan) falling in love with a dissident (James Stewart) who stands by his rebellious former mentor, a Jew.

The film seems Hollywoodised, artificial and – seen after the revelations of the death camps – absurdly rose-tinted, with the Roths persecuted, but more so because of what they believe than because of their race. They’re also shot at whilst fleeing the country or made to work in forced labour, not shipped into camps and gassed to death. And The Mortal Storm is the only serious anti-fascist polemic that includes a ski chase.

But the film is very well-cast and acted, with Robert Young’s inherent dislikeability for once put to fairly good use, an interesting part for the very Aryan-looking Robert Stack, and absolutely exceptional performances from Morgan and Sullavan. Morgan, who played the Wizard of Oz and was the only MGM performer on a lifetime contract, was usually utilised as a comedian but was also one of the most underrated dramatic actors of the period, and his turn here is every bit as good as in The Nuisance, The Human Comedy and The Vanishing Virginian (also with director Frank Borzage). Sullavan quit the screen for seven years from 1943, but in her early years made four films with Jimmy Stewart that are still celebrated today, including Lubitsch’s immortal Shop Around the Corner. Few people ever cried as magnificently, or combined the earthy and the ethereal so well, even if she does run funnily.

There are also plenty of Borzage’s flourishes here, though until the last scene nothing to rival his magnificent late silents (like Lucky Star, which also employs snow for a memorable finale). Then the camera starts to tell the story, moving around the rooms like Hitchcock’s did in Rebecca the same year, and putting across the film’s rather botched message as well as is really possible. MGM chooses to ally morality with religion and paint its story as one of free speech and intrusive police, love thwarted and God denied. Not a bad start from them, and more credible perhaps than the embarrassingly one-dimensional propaganda pieces that followed, but not as thoughtful, complex or extensive as a film like this really should be.

It was hilariously marketed as basically "another MGM adaptation of a book", adapted as it was from a novel by English author Phyllis Bottome.

Forget it Rick, it’s Hollywood – at least they managed it in the end. (3)


CINEMA: The Falling (Carol Morley, 2014) – This much-lauded indie isn’t even faintly successful (‘faintly’, like the people in it keep fainting), a hodgepodge of other, better movies, with almost nothing of value aside from a few pretty images, a nice Tracey Thorn soundtrack and a charismatic performance from Maisie Williams – well, aside from her curious inability to laugh convincingly – playing an influential, troubled teen whose fondness for fainting sets off an epidemic in her cloistered all girls’ school. Call it We Need to Talk About Faintin’, Sub-par-marine or Picnic at Hanging Cock, but it’s more like The Emperor’s New Clothes. (1.5)



Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut (1961) – Dangerous and dangerously funny, with Vonnegut mining race hate for all the black comedy he can find; and he's poignant with it. A slim, blistering masterpiece from one of the great novelists. (4)


Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines, Hollywood’s First Openly Gay Star by William J. Mann (1999) – An OK Billy Haines biog, best when it’s dealing with the actor’s battle with MGM – which wanted him to acquiesce to a sham marriage – and documenting the evolution of the gay community in Hollywood. Unfortunately there’s also an abundance of speculation, a tendency to claim that every famous actor of the 20th century was a homosexual (an unfortunate predilection of many gay historians) and a wealth of material about interior decoration, Haines’s chosen profession once he’d been booted out of the film industry. It’s unlikely that anyone is going to be fully satisfied by such disparate parts, or by a book that frames itself as a love story but is unable to provide almost any information about its central relationship. Also there’s only so many times you can describe some bits of furniture without it getting boring – I’d say two, Mann pegs it closer to 1,700. (2.5)



Man and Superman (National Theatre) - A bit long, a bit talky, a bit dated in its gender politics, but dizzyingly Shavian: funny, well-acted and full of fascinating ideas about love, politics and personal philosophies. Fiennes rages camply. (3)


Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Ten things I love about Titanic

Tuesday 28 April, 2015

Picture (c) Paul Sanders

I love Titanic.

Love it.

I never get tired of watching it, and last night I was lucky enough to see it at my office (the Royal Albert Hall), with an on-stage Q&A from James Horner and producer Jon Landau, a cameo from James Cameron, and the whole film accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra with Sissel Kyrkjebø. It was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, and they even put my name in the credits at the end. I still haven’t come down from this, as you might be able to tell.

Because I love Titanic.

I’ve seen it a lot over the years. More times, in fact, than James Cameron’s wife (and Old Rose’s granddaughter) Suzy Amis, who’s only watched it three times all the way through (trivia bomb). As with my recent Star Wars reviews, here are 10 things I love about Titanic:

1. The pre-amble. What a strange, fascinating way to pitch us into an old-fashioned story: chiming with the cynicism of a modern audience, then chucking all of that out and asking us to join it, as an 101-year-old woman (Gloria Stuart) bewitches a bunch of mercenaries with her tale of forbidden love, and we fade into...

2. The dockside. On the surface, Jack’s card game and dash to the boat are pure Hollywood, but they’re underscored by the film’s fatalistic themes, giving that blast of euphoria a melancholy undertow.

3. Billy Zane. The finest performance by an eyebrow since Roger Moore was replaced as Bond. Yes it all goes a bit silly when he runs around with a gun and steals a child, but I enjoy his slimy malevolence far more than anyone else seems to, particularly the elitist nastiness he enjoys snidely dispensing in the film’s first half.

4. That chemistry. Perhaps the only time Kate Winslet’s love interest has been prettier than her. She and DiCaprio are just perfect: so sincere, each completing the shortcomings of the other, sparks flying through every spitting contest, soppy utterance or action sequence.

5. The music. Last night made it even more obvious - if such a thing is possible - just what a wonderful score this movie has, augmented by Sissel’s ethereal, wordless vocalising.

6. The dinner party. Jack is so dishy. *sigh*

7. Atmosphere. A $200m budget probably helps, but so does Cameron’s obsessively hands-on approach to every part of the production. The boat’s scale and its appointments seem scrupulously faithful and its evocation of life on the ship – while leaning a little on caricature – is entirely persuasive, bringing to life both vivid archetypes and genuine historical figures who boarded the 'berg-hitting vessel.

8. “I’m the king of the world”, “So, you wanna go to a real party?”, “Never let go”, and other one-liners. I used to find some of the dialogue a bit trite, I don’t anymore: the film is so sincere, so sure in its convictions that it just sweeps you away, like a big flood in an ocean liner.

9. Nearer My God to Thee. One of my favourite set-pieces in ‘90s cinema, and by far the most moving sequence in the movie, with spellbinding imagery and sound, and a devastating emotional wallop: this was real, and this was its human cost. Just sublime.

10. The final scene. Fuck yes.

Captain Birds Eye.

I also liked the way that it predated Avengers Assemble by including all my favourite superheroes, like Captain Birds Eye (Bernard Hill) and heroic Ed Miliband (Ioan Gruffudd).

Did I mention that I love Titanic.