In 1983, tensions between the US and The Soviet Union were high, and fear of nuclear war was in the air. Meanwhile, American life was being changed by the rise of the personal computer, with nerds of all ages in the vanguard. Director John Badham weaves these two strands together with excellent results in WarGames.
Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes’ clever script centers on teenager David Lightman (Matthew Broderick). David is an archetype: Someone who underachieves in all areas except that for which he has a genius, namely computers, video games, and electronics. Out of nerdly mischief and a desire to impress a girl from school (Ally Sheedy), David hacks into a computer system that he thinks is run by a software company, and starts playing a game called “Global Thermonuclear War”. But unbeknownst to David, he’s actually penetrated a computer system built by a different order of geek within the U.S. military (Dabney Coleman and John Wood) which has the autonomy to launch nuclear weapons. Adventure, suspense, and a useful lesson in game theory ensue.
Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: This film is as 1980s as it gets. 80s hair, 80s computers, 80s video games, 80s nuclear fears, and Ally Sheedy too. Although “powerful” computers with modems into which you plug your rotary telephone handset may provoke some chuckles today, the story is as relevant as ever and maybe, with the rise of artificial intelligence, even moreso. And if you lived through this time, 1980s-ness of everything in WarGames may be an appealing exercise in nostalgia for the era.
The key to this film’s success is Matthew Broderick, in a performance that showcased why he would soon become a star. Despite the extraordinary proceedings around him, Broderick consistently makes David into an utterly believable teenager, with the jumble of ideas, emotions, and capacities that are common at that age. He has particularly good byplay with Shakespearean actor John Wood, who plays a computer scientist who has lost his son and his hope for humanity, and achieves a measure of restoration on both fronts from David.
The plot developments could have been credibility-straining, but the script is smart enough and Badham is skilled enough to sell everything to the audience. The film is particularly good at giving the audience just enough of a technical explanation to make plot points credible without ever turning into impenetrable nerdspeak. Some of the adult authority figure characters are a bit cartoonish, reflecting I assume the studio aiming for a teenaged audience. That said, I enjoyed re-watching WarGames in mid-life as much as I did when I was an adolescent. This film is superb entertainment, including its nail-biting and satisfying conclusion.
p.s. Look fast for Maury Chaykin as one of Broderick’s circle of turbonerds.
I haven’t owned a television for a quarter century, and almost never recommend television shows because I don’t know enough to judge them. But I am happy to make an exception for a trendsetting, utterly fresh, and cool as all get out TV series that ran from 1958-1961: Peter Gunn.
Blake Edwards, prior to his fame for making the Pink Panther movies, 10, Victor Victoria, and other big screen fare, invented Peter Gunn whole cloth. Never before had a detective character been expressly invented for television versus adapted from books, pulp magazines, or radio. And unlike the hard bitten, rumpled PIs of yore, Peter Gunn (Craig Stevens) was stylish, smooth, and also a romantic, particularly in his flirtatious banter with chanteuse Edie Hart (Lola Albright), his gorgeous girlfriend. Edwards also broke new ground by infusing his love of jazz in every aspect of the show. Gunn works out of a jazz bar, and jazz musicians figure prominently in some of the scripts. It also serves as the default instrumental music, giving the whole series of a midnight to dawn vibe. This is all a credit to Henry Mancini, whose dynamic theme song became one of the most covered in television history.
As Gunn’s police detective friend, Herschel Bernardi gives the best performance of the series, in a part that adds some grit and gravity to what otherwise might have been overly light storytelling. Other recurring actors score with colorful parts reminiscent of Pick Up on South Street, including Billy Barty as a pool shark who knows the word on the street. The film noir look and camerawork of the series — more like what one would see in a movie that a 1950s television show — further accentuates the smoky allure of the proceedings. Also fun: An army of future stars have guest turns on the series, allowing the viewer to play “Hey, isn’t that….?”.
Yet what impresses me the most about this show is the economy of the scripts. In about 25 minutes, a new mystery is introduced, investigated, and resolved, despite the fact that almost every episode has stand alone jazz numbers or comic/romantic scenes that don’t advance the plot at all. Villains on this show don’t have lengthy trials, they either confess or shoot it out in the final minute, wrapping up each episode as a standalone adventure. On a few occasions, the storytelling is too telegraphic and thereby causes some confusion, but generally it works exceedingly well. I would recommend this show to anyone who aspires to be an screenwriter or editor because it shows how fat-free storytelling can be elevated to an art form with no loss of characterization or entertainment value.
Even though Peter Gunn has been off the air for decades, it’s fairly easy to find in DVD collections, streaming on various channels (e.g., Amazon Prime), or on YouTube. Rather than close this recommendation with a trailer, I instead embed the immortal music of a groundbreaking show. Fun trivia: The piano part on the album was played by “Little Johnny Love Williams” who went on to mega-fame as the composer of the scores of mega-hit movies.
When you steal from white people, that’s your business. But when you steal from Black people, that’s my business!
So growls badass but ethical Police Detective Ed Coffin (Raymond St. Jacques), who along with his more laid back but equally badass partner Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) protects the Black community in the most successful effort to bring the work of legendary novelist Chester Himes to the big screen: Cotton Comes to Harlem.
The plot: A charismatic, slick, con artist/preacher (Calvin Lockhart) is bilking the good people of Harlem with a phony Back to Africa scheme when gun toting bandits steal the contents of the hefty collection plate. But the hiding place for the missing $87,000 remains unknown, requiring Coffin and Jones to track down the loot while battling with mobsters, Black nationalists, and a femme fatale for the ages (Judy Pace).
Though best known as an actor (see, e.g., my recommendation of The Hill) and civil rights advocate, Ossie Davis occasionally ventured into directing. This 1970 movie was his first effort (he also co-wrote the script with Arnold Perl) and it’s a worthy effort indeed. Davis does a fine job both as a storyteller and an extractor of good performances from the actors. What comes through most of all is his feeling for Himes’ work and even moreso for the raffish, complex, dynamic, down but never out place that is Harlem. Watching this movie feels like walking through a neighborhood that is alive, and that’s a credit to Davis.
Himes, like Elmore Leonard, was a master of tough, thrilling, action scenes, and Davis nails that aspect of the books as well. Exciting car crashes, gun battles, and fist fights abound as Himes’ plot unfolds. Laurels also to costume designer Anna Hill Johnstone for the colorful, stylish, outfits, which jazz up the movie visually and also do right by Himes, who loved to describe in detail how his characters were decked out.
This film is sometimes categorized as a comedy as well as an action film. Himes’ books definitely have funny moments, but I think Ossie Davis’ only mistake was overdoing that aspect of the story. Some of the attempts at provoking mirth are so broad/slapsticky that they undermine the tone set by the hard-edged action scenes. Other comic elements work better: The scenes where the black characters outsmart white characters in symbolic triumphs over oppression, the protest at the police station which satirizes 1970s politics as well as Python did with the People’s Front of Judea, and, of course, every scene with Redd Foxx because he’s constitutionally incapable of being less than funny, even when he’s not speaking.
But mainly, I would classify this as an excellent action-filled crime melodrama. Hollywood has lately been virtue-signalling about wanting to film more stories about and starring Blacks. I wish they’d put their money where their mouth is and make a series of movies or a prestige television show about Chester Himes’ immortal recurring characters, Harlem detectives Ed Coffin and Gravedigger Jones.
An intelligent, dashing, apolitical doctor tends to a wounded rebel during the English Civil War and finds himself branded a criminal and sold into slavery. But his courage, leadership ability, and swordsmanship enable him to reverse his fortunes by becoming the greatest outlaw pirate of the high seas!: Captain Blood. This 1935 movie was a mega-hit adaptation of a mega-hit novel by Rafael Sabatini. Many a wildly popular film has had minimal artistic merit, but in this case craft and entertainment value go hand in hand.
Warner Brothers gambled big financially on Captain Blood but even moreso by resting the movie on the shoulders of two little-known actors, Errol Flynn and Olivia de Haviland. Thus was born a screen pairing of which audiences could not get enough, leading to 7 more films together that were rich in adventure, romance, and some comedy too. As the heroic Peter Blood, Flynn is passionate and athletic but also thoughtful and at times — particularly in his scenes with de Haviland — even vulnerable. This being the 1930s, de Haviland was given less to do, but she makes the most of it with charm, teasing humor, and a remarkable ability to non-verbally convey disabling sexual desire.
The film also benefits enormously from the literate dialogue in the adapted screenplay of Casey Robinson, and, the presence of a first rank director, Michael Curtiz. Curtiz handles so much so well in this movie, ranging from intimate romantic moments to epic battles with complex sets and hundreds of actors, that Captain Blood should be more often mentioned alongside Casablanca among his most significant achievements.
And though his character comes and goes a bit too quickly, Basil Rathbone delivers the goods as Blood’s frenemy, pirate captain Levasseur. He overacts zee Franch rrrrogue stuff a bit, but all sins are forgiven when he picks up a sword. Rathbone was a champion fencer in real life, and to the extent Flynn is credible as a duelist here, the credit goes to his coaching. Kudos to the rest of the supporting players as well, who are all credible in parts large and small.
The action scenes, especially the closing sea battle in Jamaica, are completely credible and thrilling (props to George Amy for outstanding editing). Even though special effects have come a long way since 1935 (e.g., in the magnificent Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) the cannon shots, swordplay, wooden ships, and iron men in Captain Blood are as vivid and vital as any Hollywood has ever portrayed.
Captain Blood would rank on any list of Hollywood’s greatest swashbuckling pirate movies, and has connections to another Sabatini novel whose adaptations would appear the same roll of honor twice: The Sea Hawk. The 1924 silent version included battle scenes filmed with massive sea-going models that were so astonishing that footage from them was recycled (with added sound of course) in subsequent films, including Captain Blood. The other connection is more obvious, namely that without Captain Blood making Flynn world-famous in 1935, there would never have been the equally good 1940 Flynn version of The Sea Hawk.
p.p.s. Dame Olivia de Haviland, incredibly, was with us until July of 2020. Late in her long life, she said that she and Flynn were in love but never consummated their relationship. It’s easy to imagine that the genuine, aching desire they experienced in real life was part of what made them so irresistible on screen.
I often recommend multiple movie adaptations of the same story (e.g., The Lodger, Dracula, The Hands of Orlac) for the enjoyment and education that comes from comparing how the same material has been filmed by different artists in different eras. H.G. Well’s classic novel War of the Worlds presents an opportunity to make a different type of comparison, namely between strong adaptations in two different media: radio and film.
I’ll begin by recommending the 1938 radio adaptation (click here to listen). To the extent people have heard of it at all, they know it as the show that allegedly drove America into a national panic about invading Martians (in truth, very few people actually listened to the broadcast). What it ought to be remembered for is its high level of artistic achievement.
The radio play was performed by the Mercury Theater troupe founded by two wildly talented people: Orson Welles and John Houseman. Howard Koch, who later became justly famous as the co-scripter of Casablanca, gets the credit for brilliantly adapting H.G. Wells’ novel to radio in a fashion that took advantage of everything the medium and the Mercury Theater company could do. The novel’s rather lengthy set-up chapters and some of its clunky plot development (i.e., having the narrator run into someone who provides crucial information) were a function of the book being told through the eyes of a single narrator. In contrast, staged as a fake news broadcast with scattered, breathless, reports coming in as the Martians wreak havoc, the radio play grips the audience by the lapels immediately, giving a range of details from different geographic locations in an utterly realistic fashion.
Radio also of course opens up opportunities to accentuate the power of sound — the screams and footfalls of panicked crowds, the horrible, metallic, unscrewing of the Martian cylinders, and the terrifying zzzaaapppp of those heat rays! It’s high craftmanship that still leaves us the fun of imagining how it all looked
Last, but not least, what an explosion of talent this troupe of actors represented! Not just the big names, but also people like Ray Collins, Dan Seymour, Kenny Delmar, and Frank Readick. They are all masterful at creating characters with voice alone, each of whom seems like a real human being responding to out of this world events. Some New York theater fans were disappointed when talented, stage-trained actors they admired began transferring to new, middle brow, media like radio and film, but the upside was that the whole country and indeed the whole world got to enjoy the dramatic gifts and skills of companies like the Mercury Theater.
I loved listening to radio play as a kid (the image here is of the record album of it my parents owned) and it’s just as suspenseful and exciting for me today. The radio adaptation of War of the Worlds is in the public domain so you can give it a listen anytime.
The most widely known cinematic version of the same story is probably the Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise mega-buck 2005 adaptation. But the sci-fi magic that duo summoned in the superb Minority Report was nowhere in evidence in their dreary, weirdly lifeless, take on H.G. Wells. You’d be far better off revisiting the work of another talented pair of frequent collaborators, producer George Pal and Director Byron Haskin, who made a groundbreaking version of War of the Worlds in 1953.
Barré Lyndon, like Orson Welles, took creative license with the original material to create a story telling style that worked well in a new medium. The film opens with two set up narrations, the longer of which, by Sir Cedric Hardwicke, is coupled with an imaginative tour of the planets in our solar system (at least as understood long ago). We then get straight into the action, with the crash landing of a mysterious meteor near an all-American small town (this time, in California). The townspeople are curious, the aliens are aggressive, the military is helpless, but luckily a sturdy Gene Barry as the heroic scientist and a believable Ann Robinson as his love interest and fellow crusader against Martians, are on the job. The quick-moving plot has many parallels with the original work, with the addition of some religious themes that likely played well in the 1950s America.
In addition to the exciting story, what wowed audiences about this movie were the trend-setting, Oscar-winning, special effects. Force fields, laser guns, exploding landmarks, devastated cities, and creepy Martians are among the sights on which to feast your eyes and ears. Of course modern computer-created effects are slicker, but for 1953, this was gobsmacking stuff that showed what movie magic could add to a Victorian English novel.
One of the best books I read in 2018 was the sci-fi/horror classic I am Legend by Richard Matheson. Matheson wrote it in 1954, years before he became famous as one of the creative forces behind The Twilight Zone. It’s a grim, powerful, novel about isolation and trauma, centering on Robert Neville, the last surviving human being. A global pandemic has turned the rest of humanity into vampire-like creatures who persecute Neville by night whereas he slaughters them by day. As the years go by, Neville is increasingly consumed by loneliness, sexual frustration, grief at the loss of his family, suicidal urges, and an ongoing angry dialogue in his own head, which he tries to extinguish with a river of alcohol. The book concludes with a psychically weighty twist worthy of the best Twilight Zone episodes.
Many of Matheson’s works were successfully adapted for the big and small screen. I have recommended a number of the excellent results, including Night of the Eagle, Tales of Terror, Dracula, and the Amelia segment from Trilogy of Terror. Given that track record, it’s not surprising that movie makers thought that I am Legend could be spun into cinematic gold. This week I examine three of these adaptations.
Producer Robert Lippert was the first to have a go at Matheson’s novel and managed to land the man himself to work on the screenplay. Initial plans were for Hammer Studios to make the film under the title The Last Man on Earth, with the legendary Fritz Lang being mentioned as a possible director. Unfortunately, financial problems and British censors got in the way, turning it into a low budget 1964 Italian production directed by Stanley Salkow. For Matheson and for many viewers as well, the resulting cheap production values and bad dubbing of Italian actors were enough to sink it, but I feel more kindly toward the film than that.
Vincent Price got to me as a glum Robert Neville, proceeding through a regime of staking vampires and burning bodies by day, and getting drunk and moody at night. Price often hammed it up on screen, but to the extent he does that here it fits with how Neville is portrayed in the novel. The vampires in the film (who are more reminiscent of the zombies that George Romero later made famous after being inspired by this movie) are simply not scary enough to make the suspenseful part of Neville’s dilemma sufficiently frightening, but the alienating and agonizing parts come through very well. Also, The Last Man on Earth deserves praise for being the only adaptation to keep the morally complex twist ending of the novel. Warts and all, I give thumb’s up to this version of Matheson’s book even though it’s certainly not at a level to make one stand up and cheer.
Seven years later, the book was re-adapted with a more respectable budget for Charlton Heston, who had a following among science fiction fans based on Planet of the Apes. In this version, titled The Omega Man and directed by Boris Sagal, the vampires have been replaced by an albino mutant cult who hate modern technology as personified by Army scientist Neville. Unlike in the novel, the film is packed from the first with comic book action scenes laced with explosions, stunts, and machine gun fire. Also unlike the novel, the character nuance and twist ending were removed, leaving a crusading hero versus bad guys storyline. That said, the few scenes showing Heston alone in his fortress apartment, trying to hold his sanity together as the mutants torment him each night, are really well done.
No one could mistake this for anything other than a 1970s movie, from the Manson Family-esque mutants to the painfully stereotypical African-American characters, who feel like they wandered off the set of a blaxploitation flick shooting on the next lot. Indeed, the whole thing could have lapsed into camp if not for Heston’s credible, strong-jawed performance (which at times recalls not only his role in Planet of the Apes but some of his religious movie roles as well), matched nicely by Anthony Zerbe as the leader of the mutants. It sticks less closely to the novel than does Last Man on Earth, but it’s more exciting to watch without being dumbed down.
The third adaptation of I am Legend kept the same title. This 2007 film is a mega-buck Hollywood blockbuster starring Will Smith. The film dispenses with the emotional core of the novel from the very first scene, giving Robert Neville a dog companion to give him comfort and to whom he can talk. The dog in the book shows up only halfway through and dies soon thereafter, painfully raising and then dashing Neville’s hopes of an end to his isolation. The canine companion here is used well to motivate some suspenseful encounters and also to give us one scene with real emotional power (kudos to Smith there), but its presence insulates the audience from experiencing the sense of isolation that made the book so haunting. The vampires here are bad CGI creations who act like the super zombies in World War Z, so filmgoers are protected from experiencing any complexities there as well. The filmmakers shot an ending that introduced a slight note of ambiguity about the vampires in the final scene, but when it didn’t “test well” with audiences (apparently someone reported experiencing an independent thought) the producers replaced it with an uncomplicated heroic end for Neville and a happy clappy conclusion for the audience. Naturally, this slick cop out of a movie made a mint at the box office.
So there you have it: Three films which were just not as great as the book on which they were based. Some novels are very hard to bring effectively to the big screen. Much of the power of Matheson’s book comes from Neville’s internal fulminations and struggles, and if you turned all that into first-person narration it would be an incredibly clunky film script. Because Neville is alone almost all of the novel, a screenwriter is also deprived of the usual opportunities for dramatic tension and dialogue between characters. It’s also a downbeat novel with psychic nuance, and that’s unlikely to please millions of film goers who come to the theater expecting simple up-with-people stories that they can stare at while stuffing their face with popcorn. It’s not an accident that as the adaptations got further and further away from Matheson’s book, they made more and more money at the box office.
So my strongest recommendation this week is not a film but a book: The only way to appreciate Matheson’s excellent novel is to actually read it. If I had to watch one of the three adaptations again, I would choose The Omega Man on balance. Yet I remain part of the cult following who sees significant strengths in The Last Man on Earth (which is in the public domain you can watch it here).
Immediately after reading Raymond Chandler’s splendid The Little Sister, I decided to revisit a 1969 adaptation of the book I remembered liking many years ago. I am happy to report that having read the source material made me appreciate the movie version even more than I did the first time through. Therefore I give you this film recommendation: Marlowe.
The plot: Orfamay Quest, a woman from the sticks who is less innocent and prudish than she at first seems (Sharon Farrell, very good here) comes to Los Angeles and hires private investigator Phillip Marlowe (James Garner) to find her brother Orrin. Meanwhile, in an ostensibly distinct plot thread which you know will get woven in because it’s Raymond Chandler, someone has taken some compromising photos of a vicious gangster (H.M. Wyant) with an alluring starlet (Gayle Hunnicutt, who as ever is nothing if not alluring). Meanwhile, the starlet’s fellow actress and friend Dolores Gonzales (Rita Moreno) tries to help Marlowe while also liking the look of him. The famous PI is soon enmeshed in a net of murder and intrigue.
The prolific and talented Stirling Siliphant had the most important job in this film, namely converting Chandler’s long, complicated, novel into an hour and a half of cinema. Siliphant did many things right by the famous author. He ditched all the opening exposition involved with Marlowe and Orfamay meeting (I am a big fan of this in movies) and started the movie with the first of the many murders, gripping the audience right off the bat. He also preserved much of Chandler’s terrific dialogue and simplified the plot without making the story less compelling.
Siliphant also added two elements of his own, one of which works and one of which doesn’t. What works is introducing American audiences to his friend and martial arts teacher Bruce Lee. When Lee unleashes his Jeet Kune Do in Marlowe’s office the results are both amazing, and, with a droll assist from Garner, very funny. What doesn’t work is giving Marlowe a stable, bland, girlfriend. This fish-with-a-bicycle move eliminates the sexual tensions and possibilities that are central to Marlowe’s character and the novel.
James Garner is well-cast as Marlowe, which no Rockford Files fan will be surprised to hear. Indeed, as Garner blearily answers a knock at his front door while dressed in his bathrobe, that trailer on the beach will come to your mind’s eye. Matching his on screen presence, charm, and sex appeal is Rita Moreno, who gets to show off both her acting and dancing chops.
Chandler’s work really belongs in the 1940s, so I tend to like period adaptations such as Farewell My Lovely a bit more than films like Marlowe that move him out of his natural era. But I greatly enjoyed Marlowe because it’s well acted and exciting, and has a plot structure that is agreeably easier to grasp than that of novel.
p.s. Two trivia notes on the incomparable Rita Moreno. She is among very few performers in the EGOT club (Won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award). She was close friends with Garner, and appeared in three episodes of The Rockford Files.
p.p.s. Director Paul Bogart and James Garner would work together again two years later on another film I commend to you: Skin Game.
Blaxploitation films are often described as sloppily produced, overly violent, sexist, racist, and demeaning to their audiences. Those gibes definitely apply to many entries in the genre, but roses exist among the thorns, particularly when a film had a bit more budget than usual and drew on other genres in creative ways (e.g., Blacula, for which I have long had a soft spot). Accordingly, I am recommending a 1972 blaxpolitation-film noir blend which is usually remembered today only as a Bobby Womack song: Across 110th Street.
The plot: The long-entrenched Italian mob is struggling to maintain the upper hand over the rising African-American gangs who rule the underworld across 110th street (i.e., Harlem’s boundary). Some small-time black criminals execute — and I do mean execute — a bold robbery of both criminal organizations, netting a massive haul of cash. The big-time criminals set out for vengeance, led by an arrogant, racist, Mafioso (Anthony Franciosa). But the robbers’ leader (Paul Benjamin) is nobody’s fool, and also knows how to handle a machine gun. Meanwhile, an honest African-American police detective (Yaphet Kotto) and a much less honest old school Italian-American police captain (Anthony Quinn) spar with each other as they try to round up all three criminal gangs.
Probably the best thing about the blaxploitation genre is the opportunities it afforded African-American actors to strut their stuff. Paul Benjamin carries the emotional heart to what otherwise would have been a routine crime melodrama. He conveys the power of friendship in his scenes with his fellow thieves, and even moreso expresses quite movingly how the degrading life of being a black ex-con in America drove him to crime as his only apparent option. True to his character’s cynicism, Benjamin sadly never became a big star in white-controlled Hollywood despite his evident talent. Where Benjamin brings the passion, Yaphet Kotto radiates intelligence here, as he was always able to do even when cast in cardboard roles (e.g., the James Bond villain in Live and Let Die, for which he was recruited while making this movie). Quinn as usual gives a blowy performance trying to dominate the screen, but in those same scenes you can’t stop looking at Kotto quietly thinking about what the hell he’s going to do next to crack the case.
Although many of its plot elements are straight from noir (cops being as crooked as criminals, small time crooks robbing big-time mobsters), the film retains the action-packed, violent, sensibility of the blaxploitation genre. The sadism of Franciosa’s character is hard to watch, but it’s central to the plot rather than being gratuitous: He’s such a racist that he enjoys torturing black people even to the point that his murderous black criminal allies are repulsed by him.
Across 110th Street’s modest budget shows here and there. At a few points, the plot jumps forward as if an intervening scene were missing, and there are some visible goofs (including two howlers in the first 10 minutes that I won’t ruin for you). But for the most part the unadorned sets and Naked City veteran Jack Priestly’s unvarnished cinematography are assets for a grim, gripping, story set in the rotting big apple that was 1970s New York City.
p.s. After watching this film, you will laugh very hard seeing Antonia Fargas send up his character 16 years later in I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka.
p.p.s. I don’t have a lot of company on this recommendation. Wikipedia summarizes contemporary critical reaction thus: Roger Greenspun of The New York Times wrote, “It manages at once to be unfair to blacks, vicious towards whites and insulting to anyone who feels that race relations might consist of something better than improvised genocide … By the time it is over virtually everybody has been killed—by various means, but mostly by a machine gun that makes lots of noise and splatters lots of blood and probably serves as the nearest substitute for an identifiable hero.” Variety wrote that “Those portions of it which aren’t bloody violent are filled in by the squalid location sites in New York’s Harlem or equally unappealing ghetto areas leaving no relief from depression and oppression. There’s not even a glamorous or romantic type character or angle for audiences to fantasy-empathize with.” Gary Arnold of The Washington Post slammed the film as “a crime melodrama at once so tacky and so brutal that one feels tempted to swear out a warrant for the arrest of the filmmakers.” Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the film “self-destructs by consistently selling out to stomach-churning displays of unrelieved violence.” Yet I stand by my recommendation, because I’m a complicated man and no one understands me but my woman.
Hound of the Baskervilles has a special place in The Sherlock Holmes canon. Arthur Conan Doyle’s story is substantially longer than the typical Holmes outing, allowing him to weave two distinct mystery tales together. It’s also remarkable for putting Watson at center stage for a significant part of the book, allowing the sidekick a turn as the protagonist. And last but not least, it has been adapted as a movie more than any other Holmes tale, beginning with a silent version made in Germany in 1914. One of the better adaptations, and the first to be shot in color, is the 1959 Hammer Films version.
The plot of the book concerns Holmes’ investigation of the ancient, wealthy, Baskerville family, and the curse of a demonic hound which has allegedly brought ruin upon them for generations. Holmes and Watson must solve the mystery about how the latest Baskerville has died, protect the new heir (Sir Henry Baskerville), and also cope with a mentally ill mass murderer named Selden who has broken out of prison and roams the moors near Baskerville Hall. I won’t ruin it for you in case you haven’t read it, but it’s a compelling mystery with more suspense and horror elements than most of Doyle’s shorter Holmes stories.
The 1959 version, playing to the studio’s strengths, puts the accent on the horror elements of the novel. Who better than Hammer to give us fog-shrouded moors and ruined abbeys in the English countryside? Hammer also wisely cast their most reliable stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, in the major roles of Sherlock Holmes and Sir Henry Baskerville, respectively. Cushing’s interpretation of Holmes is true to the book, rendering the detective as eccentric, brilliant, and not particularly warm. Lee’s performance as well as Peter Bryan’s strong script make Sir Henry a more substantial and engaging character than he is in the book. As mentioned, this particular story also needs a strong Doctor Watson, and André Morell is well up to the task. Terence Fisher, an old hand at Hammer, directs as deftly as ever.
Being a Hammer film, the 1959 version also throws in some décolletage and sex in the person of Maria Landi. Bryan’s script also changes her character’s role from what it was in the book, which may be objectionable to Holmes purists. But I found it a refreshing take, and one that gives the film a more jaundiced take on the aristocracy than did the book and other film adaptations of it.
You can watch this worthy adaptation of a beloved novel for free and legally on Dailymotion.
Britain has long managed to turn out espionage films at all points along the dimension that has escapist fare like James Bond and The Avengers at one pole and grey-shaded, unglamorous, works like Smiley’s People at the other. I can enjoy the fantasies as much as the next moviegoer, but the Brit spy films that stay with me and thereby end up as my film recommendations are all from the grimy, realistic, end of the spectrum: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, Charlie Muffin, Callan, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and the subject of this essay: The Sandbaggers.
Like Callan’s “The Section” this television series focuses on a small team of agents you’ve never heard of: the “Sandbaggers”. These trouble-shooting spies are led by a former sandbagger, the dour, workaholic, Neil Burnside (Roy Marsden, in a magnificently austere performance). Burnside spends as much time fighting Whitehall bureaucracy and careerism as he does his opposite numbers in The Soviet Union, a process that is complicated by his ex-wife being the daughter of the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office! (Alan MacNaughtan, succeeding in a markedly different role than he played in the satisfying To Serve Them All My Days).
The cast never put a foot wrong, which is a credit to their own talents as well as that of the primary directors, Michael Ferguson and Peter Cregeen. The show was produced by Yorkshire Television, and has an unmistakably Northern English chip on its shoulder about London, HMG, and people who went to Eton, which productively accentuates the cynical viewpoint of the series.
The Sandbaggers was scripted by Ian Mackintosh, a former Naval Officer who may have been in the game himself, and who (almost too perfectly) mysteriously disappeared in 1979. Every bit of the show feels real, from the civil service backbiting and hassles (I cringe in recognition at the ongoing subplot of British secret agents having to fly in economy) to the exciting front-line missions of the sandbaggers. And as in real life, virtue often goes unrewarded, many missions fail, and death does not look pretty.
As with many modestly budgeted British television shows of this era, there is no soundtrack or incidental music, only an opening and closing theme over the credits. Luckily, they got Roy Budd (who wrote the immortal music to another of my recommendations, Get Carter) to compose it. As usual, Budd hit it for six.
As a complete work, the first season is the best for overall narrative arc, especially the evolution of the relationship between Burnside and the first female sandbagger, Laura Dickens (Well-played by Diane Keen). But for a single episode that gives you the flavor of the series, I would recommend from Season 2 the nail-biting Decision by Committee.
The Sandbaggers is a 40-year old show and Yorkshire Television doesn’t exist anymore, so I don’t know if it’s still copyrighted or not. But I will channel Neil Burnside and take the risk to tell you that whatever the rules are, an agent with initiative can find almost every episode of the brilliant series on Youtube.