Categories
Action/Adventure Romance Science Fiction / Fantasy

Superman

The undeniable wonder of Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman can be summed up in one word: Reverence. For decades, comic book fans were dismayed by movie and TV adaptations of the heroic stories with which they grew up. Producers and writers seemed to feel that the material couldn’t stand up on its own. Rather, it had to be made campy (Holy Evil Menace Batman!) or have asinine new characters added or adopt an ironic or juvenile tone. What Donner and Producers Alexander Salkind, Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler understood is that the reason untold millions of people around the world love Superman is that it’s a thrilling story with an inspiring central character. In short, it didn’t need some Hollywood type to change it, it needed someone to take it seriously on its own terms and produce it with a real budget and good actors. The result is a superb movie without which many subsequent, highly entertaining comic book hero films (e.g., Spiderman, Captain America, Iron Man) would be unthinkable.

The filmmakers’ respect for the source material is evident in the very first frame, during which a little girl reads some lines from Action Comics #1 (Superman’s 1938 debut) as the velvet curtains of an old style theater open. The camera then glides past the Daily Planet building into outer space, where the audience is treated to a whooshing credit sequence and John Williams’ thrilling, majestic score. This sequence doesn’t typically get discussed when critics debate the best film openings, which I view as rank snobbery: It’s transcendent.

The Superman story is then lovingly told, from his origins on the doomed planet Krypton, to his escape to Earth and his Midwest Americana childhood with Ma and Pa Kent (Love these scenes: old pros Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter ease comfortably into the roles of the Kent parents and newcomer Jeff East nicely conveys what it would be like to combine adolescent awkwardness and emotional pangs with budding superpowers). Then of course, Superman moves to Metropolis to work under the guise of a mild-mannered reporter at the Daily Planet, sweetly romances Lois Lane (Margot Kidder, a good choice for the part) and battles the villainous Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman, having and being a good time, while also being appropriately callous).

Superman Movie Review | Movie Reviews Simbasible

The most unforgettable set piece is Lois Lane’s helicopter disaster, which triggers Superman’s (Christopher Reeve) first appearance. But the romantic scenes and the closing sequence during a massive, Luthor-induced earthquake, are also welcome crowd pleasers.

Though Superman is an uncynical hero who believes in truth, justice and the American Way, and has been sent to Earth from the heavens by his father to save humanity (ahem), this is far from a self-serious film. I still remember vividly the explosion of laughter in the theater when Reeve looks at a modern phone “booth” when he needs to change into costume for the first time. The rapid-fire scenes with Jackie Cooper (as Editor Perry White) and the team at the Daily Planet are also a great deal of fun, almost a bit of Front Page-style screwball comedy interspersed with the overall adventure story. Valerie Perrine and Ned Beatty get some laughs as Luthor’s half-witted assistants. Look fast also for an amusing cameo by Donner as a guy on the street who isn’t sure he believes a man can fly.

Geoffrey Unsworth works miracles combining special effects and live action shots on this film as well as its sequel, Superman II, which was filmed at the same time and is dedicated to his memory (For other film recommendations featuring this gifted cinematographer, see my prior film recommendations here and here). Unsworth’s contribution is one of many reasons why Superman is not just an outstanding movie adaptation of a comic book; it’s a outstanding movie, full stop.

As a closing note, Superman was unquestionably the defining film of Christopher Reeve’s career, so much so that it’s impossible to imagine the movie without him. He passed away in 2004, even more of an inspiration in life than he was as the Man of Steel.

Categories
Action/Adventure British Drama

Hell Drivers

Having recommended the movie that gave Stanley Baker his first break (The Cruel Sea) and one he produced and starred in once established (Robbery), let me fill in the middle by recommending the thrilling film that made him a star in 1957: Hell Drivers.

The plot is agreeably simple. Baker plays Tom Yately, a tough but moral ex-con trying to go straight. He takes a job at a trucking firm managed by a ruthless boss (William Hartnell, who effectively plays the villain here, albeit of a different type than in Brighton Rock). The business would give OSHA a coronary. The truckers are assigned to ship gravel from a mine to a worksite many times a day, getting paid more money the more trips they make. They respond by driving like maniacs, at significant risk to themselves and others. And they all compete to topple the domineering, violent and reckless “Red” (Patrick McGoohan) as the top driver of the crew. Meanwhile, Tom befriends a kindly, devout Italian driver named Gino (a spot on Herbert Lom) whose girlfriend (Peggy Cummins) begins to put the moves on him.

The driving scenes in this movie are thrillingly shot by the justly revered Geoffrey Unsworth (I’ve praised his work in Superman and Unman, Wittering and Zigo). This includes the ultimate driving test from hell for Tom Yatley, in which he is accompanied by a perfectly droll Wilfrid Lawson as the firm’s mechanic. The final confrontation of the film, as Red and Tom have a trucking duel in an abandoned quarry, is particularly well-done and highly satisfying.

Categories
British Drama Horror/Suspense

Unman, Wittering and Zigo

I have recommended the film Flirting, in which sadistic masters torment the new students in a boys’ school. I now turn the tables by recommending a film in which a new teacher John Ebony (David Hemmings) and his wife Silvia (Carolyn Seymour) are terrorized by the fifth form from hell. The last three students on the class roll are Unman, Wittering and Zigo, but Zigo is always absent, even going back to the time when the teacher that Ebony is replacing, Mr. Pelham, fell to his death (by accident?).

Director John Mackenzie of Long, Good, Friday fame made this creepy, nasty, thriller in 1971. He was aided immeasurably by master cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, who contributed some dazzling and disturbing point of view shots in the opening sequence as well as during the most horrifying scene in the film (which I will not spoil by describing other than to say, don’t bring the kids to this one).

The nefarious school boys (who include some actors who went on to distinguished careers including Michael Kitchen and Michael Cashman) are hard for the viewer to keep straight but that actually works, along with skillful editing, to make them seem less a group of individuals than a multi-headed hydra snapping relentlessly at Mr. Ebony. Hemmings, who also produced, is good as the pitiable Ebony, including in those scenes where he starts destroying himself with alcohol (perfect casting there, sadly enough. Hemmings left us too soon).

Unman, Wittering and Zigo (1971) | Nostalgia CentralWhile struggling with the boys ostensibly below him in the hierarchy, Ebony must also cope with the headmaster, played by Douglas Wilmer with just the right amount of Old Brit unctuousness overlaying snobbery and cold-heartedness. Although the scenes with the boys are chilling, the pre-dinner drinks scene with the Ebonys, another master and his wife and the headmaster, make one’s skin crawl in an entirely different way.

The final third of the movie is not entirely satisfying in terms of logical plotting, but the film still delivers a consistent air of menace that gets under your skin. Certain ambiguities in the story invite debates about the interpretation of this film; to avoid spoiling the movie for those who haven’t seen it, I have placed my own nagging questions about this movie after the jump (i.e., Don’t read the rest of this unless you have seen the film, it will ruin it for you).