Monday, 11 April 2011

The Hill (1965)

Sidney Lumet died at the weekend and as a tribute I'm putting this one forward for the late show. The Hill is set in a North African military prison at some point during WWII. It's a typical story of sadistic guards and wardens vs the inmates who struggle to survive harsh life in the slammer. The prisoners themselves are inside for the pettiest of crimes yet are treated like grade one criminals. The Hill of the title refers to a mountain of sand in the middle of the camp that the prisoners are made to run up and down in the baking hot sun every day. Presiding over the regimented daily punishment routine is hard-ass warden Harry Andrews, who takes pleasure in breaking men down in order to build them up once more into toy soldiers. When one of the prisoners dies on The Hill, the whole system is called into question, fingers are pointed, and revolution is in the air...

The Hill is an engrossing and intelligent drama. The themes that run throughout the film range from the rebel's constant need to challenge authority and the faceless machine that runs it, through to the latent and not so latent racism inherent in British society. The film is shot in stark black and white to empahsise the contrast between the punishing African sun and the bleak interiors of the prison cells and guard's quarters. With lots of tight camera angles and many close ups, the strange clanging sounds from within the cells and sudden jerky camera movements only add to the rising tension.

The film is also strangely stage-like, not surprising considering Lumet's off-Broadway background. You can imagine The Hill playing out in fringe theatre, a sparse set with the actors performing in front of and around the vast sand dune. The acting is uniformly excellent. Lumet always seemed to bring the best out of his actors in his films and this is no exception. Fresh from Goldfinger, Sean Connery stars as prisoner Sgt Joe Roberts, the main symbol of subordination and revolt. Connery excels in the role, his delight increasingly apparent as the system crumbles around him just as his frustration in his own inadequacies overwhelms him. Harry Andrews puts in one of his usual creepy performances as Warden Wilson whilst the two Ian's, Bannen and  Hendry, play good and evil respectively as the two "staff" guards in charge of the day to day running of the prison. Even Roy Kinnear puts in a good turn.

The Hill isn't one of the more celebrated films of Sidney Lumet. It's been overshadowed somewhat by his albeit terrific 70s movies such as Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Network as well as his courtroom dramas 12 Angry Men and The Verdict and also his final film Before The Devil Knows You're Dead. To be honnest though, this list doesn't even touch the sides. Lumet made more than 45 films over the space of 50 years, and stayed at the top of the game throughout. He was a true American great.


Saturday, 2 April 2011

The Long Goodbye (1973)

See that guy in the top right hand corner of this blog? Curly black hair, dark suit, tie loose at his neck with the top button undone on his shirt? Looks like he's been dragged through a hedge backwards? That is Elliott Gould who stars as private detective Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman's 1973 classic The Long Goodbye. He's one of my favourite characters from the movies so he holds prime position at the top of this page. The film itself is a funny, knowing look at 1970s culture and private detective movies as a whole. A second viewing reveals the movie as some kind of experiment in deconstructing genres and a few myths of popular fiction. However don't let that put you off - on the surface The Long Goodbye has no high brow pretensions, it's just a damn fine film.

Loosely based on the 1953 novel by Raymond Chandler, the story begins with Marlowe being cajoled into driving his friend Terry Lennox south to Tijuana after Lennox claims to have had a run of the mill bust up with his wife Sylvia. On his return to LA, Marlowe is picked up by the police as an accessory to murder. Sylvia is dead and Lennox is the number one suspect. When Marlowe hears of Lennox's subsequent hotel suicide, he sets about trying to clear his friend's name and find the real murderer. Along the way he encounters a washed up alcoholic writer (superbly acted by Sterling Hayden) with wife in toe, a midget psychiatric "doctor", a psychopathic Jewish mobster and his gang of hoods and a bevy of half-naked chanting, yoga practising girls who live in the flat opposite.

Altman's film plays clever with both plot and themes, updating a post-war 1950s LA to the post-hippy fallout world of the 1970s. In essence the movie is a bit of an ode to Hollywood and the mass of black and white thrillers that populated cinemas and picture houses in the 30s, 40s and 50s. By setting the film in the 70s, Altman also draws comparisons between the selfish me generation of that era and a more innocent age when friendship, loyalty, morality and trust stood for something - themes that run through the majority of Chandler's work as well, although in the movie there is much humour and satire to soften the blow.

The Long Goodbye is a heavily stylised movie. The film is shot in golden textures by Vilmos Zsigmond and post flashed to add depth of colour. This means that the film is actually exposed slightly before developing so that the extra sunlight mutes the colours and creates a softer focus to what we see on screen. As such, it looks like we are watching the 1970s through a 1950s filter. Alongside this, Altman and Zsigmond use a continually moving and roaming camera, tracking, panning, zooming in and out through windows and mirrors, focusing on areas of the screen that seem insignificant and of interest only to the director, but actually serve to heighten the senses. Altman's use of John Williams' memorable theme tune also disorientates the viewer. The music plays almost constantly throughout the film in several different formats - from a jazzy lounge piano piece to a souped up supermarket background muzak, from Mexican flamenco guitar to a doorbell ring, and from a sitar led Far Eastern theme to a Yiddish tune hummed by Mark Rydell's gangster character Marty Augustine.

Central to the success of the movie as a whole is Elliott Gould's performance. At once shambolic, dishevelled and wise-cracking, Gould plays Marlowe as a man out of time - Rip van Marlowe. Constantly smoking (no one else smokes in 1970s health conscious LA) and chanting his mantra "It's OK with me" Gould drifts through the film always one step behind the plot. Roughed up, used and abused, and ultimately betrayed, it should come as no surprise when the worm turns at the climax.

The Long Goodbye came bang smack in the middle of a rich run of form in Robert Altman's career - M.A.S.H., California Split, Thieves Like Us and Nashville all achieved either box office or critical success, sometimes both. It wasn't always the case, nobody produces gold forever, but right up until his death Altman was making his own films on his term sand we salute him for that.

Marlowe shares a drink on the beach with Roger Wade...