Our next screenings are, for Black History Month; 'THE HARDER THEY COME' Wednesday 20th October, 19.30. Then for Halloween; 'MISERY', Sunday 24th October, at 19:30 and 'Don't Look Now' Sunday 31st at 19.30, all at The Castle Cinema. Get your tickets:
DON'T LOOK NOW
The hero of “Don’t Look Now” is a rational man who does not believe in psychics, omens or the afterlife. The film hammers down his skepticism and destroys him. It involves women who have an intuitive connection with the supernatural, and men who with their analytical minds are trapped in denial--men like the architect, the bishop and the policeman, who try to puzzle out the events of the story. The architect’s wife, the blind woman and her sister try to warn them, but cannot.
Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film remains one of the great horror masterpieces, working not with fright, which is easy, but with dread, grief and apprehension. Few films so successfully put us inside the mind of a man who is trying to reason his way free from mounting terror. Roeg and his editor, Graeme Clifford, cut from one unsettling image to another. The movie is fragmented in its visual style, accumulating images that add up to a final bloody moment of truth.
The movie takes place entirely on late autumn days when everything is grey and damp and on the edge of frost. It opens in the country cottage of John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie), who are curled up before the fire, working, while their children play outside. There is never a moment when this scene in the British countryside seems safe or serene.
The little girl Christine, wearing a shiny red raincoat, plays near a pond. Inside, her father studies slides of Venetian churches. Her brother runs his bicycle over a pane of glass, breaking it. Her father looks up sharply, as if sensing the sound. Christine throws her ball into the pond. Her father spills a glass, and a blood-like stain spreads across the surface of a slide--a slide showing the red hood of a raincoat in a Venetian church. Shots show Christine’s raincoat reflected upside down in the pond. Something causes John to look up, and then run from the house, and then find his daughter’s body beneath the water and lift it up with an animal cry of grief.
This sequence not only establishes the loss that devastates the Baxters, but sets the visual themes of the movie. There will be shots that occur out of time, as characters anticipate future events, or impose past events on the present. There will be sharp intakes of psychic foresight. Christine’s death by water will lead in an obscure way to Venice, where John Baxter is restoring an old church, where a killer is loose, where the police pull a body from a canal, where a child’s doll lies drowned at the water’s edge.
The shiny red raincoat will be a connector all the way through. In Venice, Baxter will get glimpses of a little figure in red running away from him or hiding from him, and may wonder if this is the ghost of his daughter. We will see the red figure more often than he does, glimpsing it on a distant bridge, or as a boat passes behind two arches. And the precise tone of red will be a marker through the movie; Roeg’s palate is entirely in dark earth tones, except when he introduces bright red splashes--with a shawl, a scarf, a poster on a wall, a house front painted with startling brilliance. The color is a link between death past and future.
The marriage of John and Laura seems real and constant in the film, not just a convenience of the plot. The death of their daughter devastates them, and when we see them in Venice (an undetermined time later, but again in very late autumn), there is a sadness between them. Then in the restroom of a restaurant Laura meets two English sisters, Heather (Hilary Mason) and Wendy (Clelia Matania). Heather, who is blind, tells Laura she “saw” little Christine sitting with her parents at lunch, laughing and smiling: “She’s happy now!”
Laura at first doubts, then joyously believes. She collapses at the restaurant, but that night, probably for the first time since Christine’s death, the Baxters make love. This scene is celebrated for its passion and truthfulness, but its full emotional impact comes through the editing: The lovemaking is intercut with shots of John and Laura dressing afterwards, so that they are at once together and apart, now and later, passionate and preoccupied. There is a poignancy here beyond all reason; in a movie concerned with time, this is the sequence that insists that our future is contained in our present--that everything passes, even ecstasy.
Venice, that haunted city, has never been more melancholy than in “Don’t Look Now.” It is like a vast necropolis, its stones damp and crumbling, its canals alive with rats. The cinematography, by Anthony B. Richmond and an uncredited Roeg, drains it of people. There are a few shots, on busy streets or near the Grand Canal, when we see residents and tourists, but during the two sustained scenes where John and Laura are lost (first together, later separately) there is no one else about, and the streets, bridges, canals, dead ends and wrong turns fold in upon themselves. Walking in Venice, especially on a foggy winter light, is like walking in a dream.
The city is old and ominous. John struggles to raise a statue to its perch on a church wall, and then uncovers it to reveal a hideous gargoyle, sticking its tongue out at him. A church scaffold collapses beneath him. The hotel where the Baxters are staying is eager to close at the end of season; the lobby furniture is already shrouded. The canals yield drowned bodies. And John’s concern mounts as his wife listens to the two strange sisters, and becomes convinced their daughter is sending them messages. “She’s dead, Laura,” John says. “Our daughter is dead. Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead.”
But it is John who has second sight. “He has the gift, even if he doesn’t know it, even if he’s resisting it,” the sisters tell one another. And after Laura is called home to be with their son, who has had a minor accident at boarding school, John sees her and the sisters standing at the front of a motorboat passing him on the Grand Canal. How can she be here and there? Those who have been to Venice will recognize it as a funeral boat.
The plot of “Don’t Look Now,” if it were summarized in a realistic way, would be fairly standard horror stuff. The identification of the red-hooded figure is arbitrary and perhaps even unnecessary. It is the film’s visual style, acting, and mood that evoke its uncanny power. Like the recent films of M. Night Shyamalan, it works through apprehension, not plot or action. The “explanation”: is perfunctory but the dread is palpable.
The movie is based by a novel by Daphne Du Maurier. “Romantic sludge,” Michael Dempsey calls it in his Film Quarterly review, explaining how the screenplay extends and deepens it but does not improve on the device of the hooded red figure. Dempsey makes a key point about the film’s use of montage: Unlike Eisenstein, who suggests shots are linked, he says, Roeg and Clifford put together shots that might be linked. We are always as uncertain as John Baxter about the connections between what he sees, what exists, what will exist, what does not exist.
Roeg, born 1928, used a similar freedom of movement through time in his first two films, “Performance” (1970) and “Walkabout” (1971), and has continued to play with chronology. He doesn’t always enter his stories at the beginning and leave at the end, but rummages around in them, as if separated moments can shed light on one another.
I’ve been though the film a shot at a time, paying close attention to the use of red as a marker in the visual scheme. It is a masterpiece of physical filmmaking, in the way the photography evokes mood and the editing underlines it with uncertainty. The admitted weakness of the denouement is beside the point, and I have come to an accommodation with the revelations about the figure in the red raincoat. That figure need not be who and what it seems to be, or anything at all--except for the gargoyle that awaits us all at the end of time, sticking out its tongue.
ROGER EBERT, 2002
Any mixture of Stephen King, William Goldman and Rob Reiner ought to be out of the ordinary. If you add to that an Oscar-winning performance by a relatively unknown actress, you’ve got something reasonably special. It’s called Misery and you’d have to be churlish not to be entertained.
Predicated, like most Hollywood box-office swingers, on a one-line concept – famous writer gets kidnapped by number one fan – the film hasn’t any depth to speak of, but is consistently shrewd enough not to go totally obvious ways. And the audacity in casting Kathy Bates as the dotty fan pays considerable dividends.
Firstly, she is not a face we know, which aids rather than undermines conviction. Secondly, she is not your conventional American screen actress, glamorous unto death. She almost looks like a real person the sort you might find in a deserted area of Colorado in comfortable snow boots. Thirdly, she is a fine actress who knows that less in the way of a ‘performance’ is often more and that strong moments have to be severely rationed.
She plays Annie Wilks, a nurse with a murky past, who digs Paul Sheldon, famous romantic novelist, out of his crashed car in the icy wastes, nurses the badly crippled man back to something like health and then imposes her will on him. It is all to the good of the film that it is not sexual.
He’s just finished an as yet unpublished novel about his early days in the slums of Brooklyn, in total contrast to the romantic flim-flam that’s made him a fortune if not a very enduring reputation. She’s just finished his last tome starring Misery, the 17th century fictional heroine she is obsessed with.
But, alas, he has killed her off, and committed the cardinal sin of profanity in his new book. He will be held captive until the new manuscript is burnt and Misery brought to life again in a new guise.
Bates pushes her character this way and that, dispensing kindness and threat in equal proportions. It’s clear she’s mad but, not at first, that she’s absolutely barking. Meanwhile, James Caan as Sheldon goes from pain-filled gratitude to anger and terror with all the aplomb of a man who started his career on screen a quarter of a century ago frightening an immobile Olivia De Havilland half to death in Lady In A Cage.
This performance is at least as good as Bates’, and Richard Farnsworth as the eccentric Sheriff, of sounder mind than he seems, is not far behind.
Reiner’s film, the perfect 90-minuter, is sometimes a little stretched at 107 minutes. Nevertheless it maintains its tension well, plays enough tricks on us so that we don’t ever treat anything quite seriously and Goldman’s script has enough good lines and situations to keep one interested in exactly what is coming next.
In racing parlance, it is by Whatever Happened To Baby Jane out of Fatal Attraction, and a good example of a popular film that doesn’t take its audience for granted.
THE HARDER THEY COME
A brash bumpkin from the countryside comes to the city, dreaming of stardom. He cuts a record, gets ripped off, turns to trafficking drugs, is betrayed, and dies a folk hero at the hands of the police as his song becomes an anthem.
“The Harder They Come,” is a universal story set in a highly specific milieu. Powered by one of the most infectious scores in the history of cinema, it is also a pop classic — the movie that brought reggae to America and “launched a thousand spliffs,” as the New York Times critic Ben Brantley joked in a 2008 review of a theatrical version in London.
Inspired by the life of the Jamaican outlaw Ivanhoe “Rhygin” Martin, credited with the line that gives the movie its title, “The Harder They Come” was a vehicle for the reggae star Jimmy Cliff. It was independent Jamaica’s first homemade feature, as well as the first film directed by Perry Henzell, a scion of that nation’s white planter class. The distinguished black playwright Trevor Rhone co-wrote the script. (“The Harder They Come” is being shown in conjunction with the theatrical release of Henzell’s long-delayed follow-up, “No Place Like Home,” which is also at BAM.)
Beginner’s luck — or lack of same — might almost be the movie’s subject. Robbed upon arrival in Kingston, Ivan Martin (Cliff) founders at first in the urban maelstrom. Social conditions are manifest in documentary-type shots, filmed in 16 millimeter, of poverty and desperation. Ivan finds his footing only to mix it up with an assortment of predatory preachers, mercenary record producers, corrupt cops and miscellaneous hustlers. In the background, Toots & the Maytals, Desmond Dekker, Cliff and others sing a collective siren song of fame. Chased by the police, Ivan creates his own legend, leaving graffiti (“I am here — I am everywhere”) and imagining an audience for his last stand.
A movie of abrupt transitions, “The Harder They Come” appears to have been assembled piecemeal and shot off the cuff. Cliff, who wrote the title song, has described the film changing direction while in production. In an article published in The Caribbean Quarterly in 2015, the cinematographer Franklyn St. Juste said he never saw a script: “I really didn’t know what was happening — and what was going to happen from one scene to the next or from one setup to the next.” But the spontaneity proved a recipe for what St. Juste termed “happy accidents.”
The timing was also fortuitous. The film arrived on the international scene in the wake of “Shaft” (1971) and “Superfly” (1972), with a hero akin to the righteous outlaws in films like the Brazilian director Glauber Rocha’s “Antonio das Mortes” (1969), Melvin Van Peebles’s “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (1971) and numerous Italian westerns. (It’s hardly coincidental that Ivan goes to see “Django,” Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 evergreen.) For early audiences, Ivan’s willingness to defy authority at the cost of his life evoked Bonnie and Clyde, the Black Panthers and Che Guevara.
After making a splash at the 1972 Venice Film Festival, “The Harder They Come” was picked up by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures; it opened (with English subtitles, because of the particularly thick Jamaican patois) to some success at a Broadway theater in February 1973 and enjoyed a second run as an exploitation film. (I saw it that summer in Florida on a double bill with the Pam Grier prison movie “Black Mama, White Mama.”) It would soon have a third life. In a 1974 piece titled “Films That Refuse to Fade Away,” the New York Times critic Vincent Canby noted the movie’s popularity as a midnight attraction.
As reported by Canby, “The Harder They Come” ran for 26 weeks at the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge, Mass., in 1973. A true cult film, it was brought back in 1974, where, as Jonathan Rosenbaum and I wrote in our book “Midnight Movies,” it remained another seven years. In April 1976, The Times ran an article, noting that “The Harder They Come” had played 80 consecutive weekends at the Elgin Theater in Chelsea. (The run would continue there for months.)
That film’s director, Franco Rosso, named “The Harder They Come” as his inspiration. “Babylon” (1980) might be a sequel, focusing on West Indian life in London. An immersive, verité-style movie following a disaffected young singer of a homegrown reggae group, it uses a constant flow of music to animate the struggle for survival in a hostile white world. “The movie is more interested in what feels right than what seems right,” the critic Wesley Morris wrote in his review for The Times.In his enthusiasm, Canby called “The Harder They Come” “a more revolutionary black film than any number of American efforts, including ‘Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.’” In any case, “The Harder They Come” provided a model for later movies, most notably the 1980 British film “Babylon,” which belatedly opened in New York this spring and itself became a cult film. (It is on the Criterion Channel and can be streamed elsewhere.)