Thursday, 31 October 2013

Dragnet (1987) and Ghostbusters (1984)

Friday, with a chill dog, Streebek with salad
For four months now, it's been established that as soon as we had some hot-dogs in the house there would be an evening of hot-dogs and 'Dragnet', a reasonably enjoyable comedy based on a very sober old-time radio police-procedural of which I'm tolerant, even fond.

The great novelty of the original is that tries to present a realism, with characters umming and ahhing and making irrelevant or domestic conversation, just like in the real lives of police officers.  Time is taken while people walk from one side of the office to the other.  Joe Friday, the cop at the series' heart is not flamboyantly adventurous or heroic, he's a serious-minded public official doing his job.  It was the first radio series to be so dry, earnest and factually-based, so its main appeal in recent years (if I may call 1987 a recent year) is as an object to be parodied.

Friday and Streebek undercover as typical criminals
In this movie, Dan Akroyd plays Joe Friday, the nephew of the radio original, but very much the same in character.  He's obsessively precise and disciplined, and takes no time for fun, so his world is shaken up when he's partnered with the wise-cracking Pep Streebek (Tom Hanks), who is, by his standards excessively liberal.  I'm inclined to think Hanks overplays his role, making Streebek rather more manic than is needed: the concept for the film seems, originally, to have been pairing a ridiculous character with the intensely serious Friday, but Akroyd is too warm, and Friday too fun, to be a straight-man to Hanks's Streebek.  Indeed, Friday is so odd that he would have better been paired with somebody a little less hysterical.  Too often Hanks seems to be trying to steal the scene, where he could more profitably have shared it.  Akroyd is too good and too subtle to let his scenes be stolen.

In no time the two find themselves embroiled in a web of crime, a vast network of villainy known as P.A.G.A.N., criminals who engage in orgiastic dancing while wearing majestic goat-leggings and chanting 'kill the good', who impersonate police officers and seem to be linked in some way to the charismatic clergyman Jonathan Whirley, a fine performance by Christopher Plummer, who happens to be one of the actors I most like to watch.  It's a wonderfully clear-cut world of good and evil, and it knows it.

Oh, and a couple of weeks later we watched:

Ghostbusters (1984)

...which it seems only reasonable to mention at the same time, it being another fine eighties comedy with Dan Akroyd in a leading role.  If you haven't seen it, I shall explain in brief: there are some ghosts and some people who bust the ghosts and you should certainly watch it today as it is an embarrassing hole in your education that will be enjoyable to fill.

But of course you've seen 'Ghostbusters', and isn't it excellent?  I really haven't a word to say against it.  It was just the thing to test out the new television (the old one having perished of old age), and I could watch it again tomorrow, if this Penciltonian project wasn't pressing me toward less familiar years.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

My Man Godfrey (1936)

'All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kinda people'.
I bought this film a long time ago because I thought it might have David Niven in it.  As it happens, I was really after the 1957 remake, but at least this way I had something on my shelves to stand for 1936.  'My Man Godfrey' is a screwball comedy, meaning that everybody speaks at twice the normal speed, and regards a family of upper-middle-class twits, New York's high society, taking in a homeless man to work as a butler.  Said butler, Godfrey, then becomes romantically entangled with the daughter of the family, but feels it's inappropriate for a mere butler to woo, or be wooed by, a socialite so high above his station.

Godfrey (William Powell) is a fine fellow, and immediately likeable, with his position as a 'forgotten man' made good use of.  The rich ninnies he serves are immensely patronising to him on account of his recent homelessness, but Godfrey doesn't take offence, preferring to remain perfectly gracious, coolly receiving their awkward compliments in the spirit in which they were meant.  He's quietly amused by the outrageously dysfunctional family, and eventually saves them from their folly and, with a Gilbertian inevitability, turns out to be a man from their own class who had arrived at hard times almost on purpose, and is thus an appropriate suitor for the daughter (whether he wants to be her suitor or not).  It's a classic American happy ending: a family difficulty in the great depression is solved by the butler investing in stocks and bonds, so capitalism saves the day.  You could tell the same story today, but I'll be happy if you don't.

Godfrey is opposed at every point by the other daughter, Cornelia, that villain.
It's an entertaining film with a witty script, well performed, but isn't particularly extraordinary by the standards of the time.  The DVD release I watched presented so unrestored a print, crude and fuzzy in sound and picture that when I first watched it I was put off '30s cinema for several years.  I now realise that a good scrub and a more tender preparation for release might have let it show its merits - there's probably a pretty watchable film under all the noise.

P.S. The rule seems to be that 30s films are better if they aren't in English.  Or perhaps the sample of purchasable 1930s films from abroad is smaller and weighted towards the excellent, whereas there's a great deal of 30s Americana to be had.  Alternatively, crappy sound is more of a problem when you aren't reading subtitles.  I think I prefer my first theory, and my suspicion that America, and its cinema, wasn't the best or the coolest until World War II, at which point the whole nation suddenly got its jiggy on.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

I've a friend and co-writer who occasionally claims that all British films fall into two narrow categories, Richard Curtis London rom-coms, and grim, gritty tales of the bleak North.  It's a limited viewpoint, which forgets Peter Greenaway, Richard Lester and the Bond films, but 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning' fits very neatly into the latter category.  Factories, cigarettes, back-alley abortion, beer and austerity, with an aggressive, adulterous worker as its cocky protagonist.  All it's missing is mass unemployment, though that hadn't really been invented yet.

My 1960 film was meant to be 'Psycho', if only to show a massive contrast in style and scale with the previous year's 'Ben-Hur', but it struck me that American cinema was overbalancing my project, while Britain, my nation of preference, was getting a little neglected.  So here's England, the industrial North, and young Albert Finney, before he was a Sir.

Norman Rossington and Albert Finney down the pub.
Why is Rossington's face so familiar to me? What on Earth have I seen him in?  Hmmm...
A few weeks ago I described 'Orphée' (1950), probably erroneously, as being grounded in kitchen sink drama.  This, though, is the real kitchen sink, with life's small highlights embedded in a world of work and tedium, in which nothing is extraordinary and there is no lasting excitement.  It's a grim view, and one that doesn't particularly appeal to me in films.  In some ways it's too real, insufficiently fanciful, as the film's events probably played out in much the same way all over Britain in real life.  I'm always glad to see the cold truth in a film, but I prefer to see it told with more imagination.

In other places I've praised 'Die Zweite Heimat' (1993), the events of which likewise begin in the austere, 50s-tinged world of 1960, and I've often described that as being more like life than like a film - but it has an epic quality, taking in the whole decade over two-dozen hours, and bears some suggestion of romance, art and progress.  'Die Zweite Heimat', or its forebear 'Heimat' (1984) could easily take an hour or so to look at bleak, inescapable cycles in the manner we see here, but would do so as part of a larger, more interesting story.  By the same author as 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning', Alan Sillitoe, I prefer 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner' (1962), which captures the same mood, but is generous enough to provide a likeable protagonist and the element of surprise.

Monday, 21 October 2013

The Lawnmower Man (1992)

Lawnmower, man.
Do excuse my fortnight absence from writing up films for The Penciltonian; a blend of business and laziness left me indisposed, but I'm back with these words on 'Lawnmower Man', a serious-minded vision of a year 2000 in which VIRTUAL REALITY is credible, practical and nineties beautiful.  You can tell it's from the nineties, as the CGI sequences resemble 'ReBoot', and every important scene is lit wholly in blue.

Our hero is a scientist played by young, dark-haired Pierce Brosnan, a couple of years before he became Bond.  At this point in his career he's just Some Guy and accordingly gives a less subtle, more theatrical performance than I've become accustomed to.  In looks and manner, he's a cross between Gaius Baltar and Dr Lucian Sanchez.  He works with the most colourful screen-savers, and is making breakthroughs in either brain chemistry or software.

The future of computing.
When his chimp dies of science, he recruits Jobe (who has extreme learning difficulties, but whose performance in no way resembles any of the learning-disabled people I work with), treating him with all the sciences combined in order to increase his brain, and the prominence of his naked torso.  Poor Jobe soon abandons his lazily-worn dungarees and takes to driving, sex and catastrophic mental spasms.  'Awesome dudical!'

What follows is a cyberspace horror, as Jobe's mind becomes inseparable from the Day-Glo CGI that dwells inside all computers, and he goes on a rampage of embarrassing character.  The special effects aren't what I'd describe as good enough for Youtube, and are probably the least impressive that I've seen during my century of film-watching.  The visual effects from 'Orphée' (1950), for instance, would stand up far better today than these do, and it's a great pity that the point where this film ought to turn from sci-fi to horror, it in fact loses its credibility and becomes 'Garth Marenghi's Darkplace'

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Rear Window (1954)

For years I assumed this film's title would refer to the rear window of a car, and that we'd be treated to a paranoid driver obsessively checking his rear-view mirror.  It is, in fact, about a housebound Jimmy Stewart, who gets his kicks as an imaginative voyeur.  He's a globe-trotting photographer, but he's been stuck at home for the past seven weeks with his leg in a cast, so he's taken to watching the goings-on in the housing block opposite.

Most of what he sees through his neighbours' windows are romances, either requited or one-sided, giving us, in a series of brick-framed silent films, Hitchcock's 'Love Actually'.  In one window, though, our inquisitive hero believes he has seen clues to something far more sinister: either he's found evidence of an uncommonly calm murderer, or else he's just being paranoid.  Of course, characters in Hitchcock movies are always told they're being paranoid.  It's part of what makes the films so tense.

Thelma Ritter as the wonderfully down-to-earth nurse Stella,
and Grace Kelly as the glamorous Lisa.
The film alternates between James Stewart watching other people's stories, and getting on with his own tale of romance with Grace Kelly, before the two strands finally come together in the movie's thrilling climax.  It's a slow build, with a blend of strangers' stories and a good deal of humour.  It's a simple concept, and excellently visual.  A great deal of it is told in P.O.V. shots down binoculars or through Stewart's camera, meaning that for once the most alarming thing that could possibly happen, and which inevitably will, is if the apparent murderer looks at the camera and sees the audience.

Through no particular planning I've managed to watch three of Grace Kelly's films this month - 'High Noon' (1952), 'Rear Window' (1954) and 'High Society' (1956), and for some reason all three films show her in a romance with a man a generation her senior.  She's excellent here as James Stewart's equal and opposite.  He's a traveller at heart, but is encumbered by his broken leg and must spend the film looking and thinking, while she's more inclined to home comforts, but has to take all the action in the film, venturing into danger, and travelling into the places Stewart has often seen but never visited.

I'd seen the film once before, but was unprepared for how enjoyable it was to watch, how immediately likeable the characters were and how much comedy Hitchcock used to include in his alarming tales of violent crime.  For the severalth time during this Penciltonian project, I'm reminded to learn that famous directors can make really good films.

The Robe (1953)

There was, in the olden days of fifties cinema, a brief fad for Biblical films and, what's more, for Bible spin-offs - adventures about characters who don't appear in the Bible at all, or who only get cameos in the gospels.  Thus we have 'Quo Vadis' (1951), about Peter and the early church, 'Ben-Hur' (1959) about a young Jewish Prince, and 'Barabbas' (1961) about the murderer Barabbas who was freed by Pilate on the eve of Jesus' crucifixion.  Since the stories only need to touch very briefly on Biblical events they're freer to be more visual, less religiose, and where possible allow the heroes to be violent, deceptive and all-in-all conventional heroes before last-minute conversion to Christianity, whereupon they renounce their (hitherto very useful) violent ways.  Crucially, if your main character is Jesus it's hard to have him kill the villain at the end, and movie-goers like to see the villain trounced.  In an adventure story, forgiveness looks less exciting than revenge.  'Ben-Hur' probably does it the best, but 'The Robe' is shorter, so gets plenty of TV repeats.

The film follows a Roman soldier, Gallio, who turns out (eventually) to be the centurion who crucified Jesus.  Here, he happens to inherit Jesus's robe (it's red, as per the gospel of Matthew); anyone who's read the book of The Trial and Death of Pontius Pilate (Bible fanfic from the second century, and plenty of fun) may recall that Jesus' robe was considered to be a relic of unpredictable magical powers (with, as they say, hilarious consequences).  It's similar here, though that makes the film sound considerably more entertaining than it actually is.  What we get is a film about a soldier sent to destroy the early church, who, seeing God's work in the lives and hearts of the early Christians, comes to faith.  At points its rather too earnest, but at times it's rather exciting, as the loving pacifists find in Gallio a mighty defender, skilled with sword and political rhetoric.

Turns out this widescreen thing is really good for sword-fighting
The film is one of the earliest examples of anamorphic widescreen, and was shot in the super-widescreen of Cinescope which leaves ample black bars even on a widescreen TV.  It gives impressive scope, especially to landscapes and crowd scenes.  It's still not quite right, with long shots looking rather distorted around the edges.  Unlike the later 'Ben-Hur' (1959), there seems a reluctance here to use facial close-ups, meaning we're never really given actors expressions to scrutinise.  (The first time we get to see the pores in anyone's skin cones after two hours and two minutes).  Coupled with Richard Burton's habit of wearing a helmet in as many shots as possible, we get to see far too little of his performance, and his dialogue is too functional to allow him much freedom of expression.

His opponent, the Emperor Caligula, is, as they say, worth the price of admission.  I've seen him described as 'unforgettably camp', and he has an amazing delivery, rendering 'Christians' as 'kress-chuns', and getting more vowels out of Gallio than one might think believable.  This is Caligula as he might have been played in sixties 'Batman'.

The film makes slightly too much use of characters being inspired by simply
looking at Jesus, rather than being inspired by (say) his words or actions.
The real surprise, which I mean now to spoil, is the ending of the film.  The genre would seem to expect a daring escape, and Caligula defeated.  Instead, the villainous Caligula prospers and sentences our heroes to death, and they are taken outside to be executed, and this martyrdom is treated as a happy ending, with the hope of resurrection the real reward.  I was taken aback to see an adventure film, and a schlocky, campy one at that, giving us life in Christ as the true prize, rather than something's more tangible, crude or conventional.  I can't imagine a modern film presenting such a martyrdom as a happy triumph.  I suppose 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928) and 'The Last Temptation of Christ' (1988) come close, but we know those stories so their endings seem inevitable.  As it is, Caligula has to wait for the sequel, 'Demetrius and the Gladiators' (1954) to get his comeuppance.

P.S. This film has the rubbishest Pontius Pilate.  My Pilate of preference is Frank Thring, but I'll also speak up for David Bowie.

High Noon (1952)

I don't like Westerns very much.  There are so many of them, and they play incessantly on television in front of old people who live without aspirations or energy.  The overwhelming quantity means there are plenty of poor ones - not badly made as such, but tediously efficient, competent, formulaic and uninspired.  The aesthetic doesn't appeal (though I like the hats), and neither does casual violence against indigenous Americans, so if I need to watch a film set in the age of the Wild West (about 1865-1895), I'd generally rather it was set in Khartoum or Transvaal, to avoid such well-worn cliches and over-familiar pictures.

There are a few notable exceptions.  A friend showed me Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy, which starts slowly and dustily, but ends with the breathtaking 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' (1966) which I embraced despite its genre and count as a favourite film, and I likewise find delight in 'Back to the Future Part III' (1990) and in 'Living in Harmony', the unexpected Western episode of 'The Prisoner' (1967), though the first of these three is quite unlike the genre as it stood, and the other two subvert it to make unusual points as parts of bigger plots.

I really like the framing that's possible in the Academy ratio.
Who needs the wild novelty of widescreen, unavoidable from the next year.
It was put to me, though, that I oughtn't to avoid the Western; I'm aiming to see a good range of 20th Century movies in this Penciltonian project and the Western is one of the most significant genres of American cinema.  I'd watched 'Laurel and Hardy Way Out West' for 1937, but it was even more out-there than the films listed above, since it lacks gunfights of any kind.  So, I resolved to watch 'High Noon', having had it recommended by accident by an unseen stranger.  In short, a man sitting behind me in the theatre was recommending it to his daughter, telling her it was beautifully shot, was told in real time, and stood over and above the rest of its genre.  I'm more than happy with a second-hand recommendation, so watched the film at Noon-ish on a Sunday, the traditional week-day for Western-viewing, and the day on which the film is set.

To my surprise, the film turned out to be a really good drama, with well-written, well-played characters and an interesting story, which I later learnt was a metaphor for Hollywood blacklisting.  The film wasn't just a set of hollow cliches - it was genuinely atmospheric, crisply shot in handsome greys, and without the simplistic morality I've tended to associate with fifties Westerns.  Crucially, it didn't have John Wayne in it, an actor who stands for all I dislike in the genre (and who, as keen McCarthyist, vocally opposed this film, deriding it as un-American).

Grace Kelly gets the high billing, but Katy Jurado's Helen Ramírez is much more interesting.
She seems far more honest and more in control of her destiny than most in the town,
and almost the only person to leave the film with their credibility intact.
The story regards Will Kane, a town marshall retiring on his wedding day, who finds he has to take up his old job for just ninety minutes more to face off against a threat to the town and (since he hasn't fled) to him in particular.  The people he's long protected tell him to escape the town, but he refuses to run from his obligations.  He has an hour to round up a posse of allies before the unavoidable showdown, but nobody will give him the support he needs.  Will is the just about the only person in the town with a social conscience, and for that reason the townsfolk are ready to let him go to his death.  It's like the parable of the Good Samaritan, without the Samaritan.

The African Queen (1951)

Humphrey Bogart impersonates a hippopotamus.
I quite like boat-films set on rivers.  I'm not a fan of boats, and have in past made sweeping statements about my lack of interest in films set at sea, but there's something rather pleasing about this and 'Aguirre: the Wrath of God' (1972) and 'Apocalypse Now' (1979), stories set in tiny boats traversing tangled rivers in the middle of jungles.  It's never clear whether the river will go where it ought, and in each film we're told it would be madness to attempt the course, but times are always desperate.  The river's basically a road that nobody built and nobody knows, and it could easily lead you into traps or else disappear entirely, leaving you lost without hope.  Thinking about it, perhaps that's why I don't like being in boats, but as the concept for a movie it really works.

At first the film doesn't look to be so boaty.  We're introduced to the continent (Africa, if you're curious) with a scene of Katharine Hepburn playing the harmonium for her unnamed brother, a missionary who we're meant to dislike from the off: he makes the Africans moan English hymns (and moan they do, in what seemed a rather racist portrayal of black incompetence to a basic task), and he bitches about how he ought to be a bishop by now.  He's mercifully released from the film inside a quarter-hour by some World War I Germans, meaning we can focus on the real stars.

Into Katharine Hepburn's life comes Humphrey Bogart.  Not the slick Bogart of 'Casablanca' (1941), but a crude and stubbly commoner, with a proper workman's tan.  It's not the sort of role I'd associate with Bogart, more the sort of thing I'd expect of Charlton Heston - indeed, Chuck appeared in a film of strikingly similar tone and setting two years later, 'The Naked Jungle', except that had killer ants rather than the German army, but was in all other respects cashing in on the success of this picture.

Katharine Hepburn pours away the gin.  Based on my recent experiences, a good idea.
So With the 'natives' written out as a homogenous crowd of no intelligence, and the missionary a berk, and a dead berk at that, it's left to Humphrey Bogart to carry the film.  Him and Katharine Hepburn, but with such a prim character she has a fight on her hands if she's to rival his charisma in this old age of men.  Her somewhat puritanical manner gives us the delight of watching a slow transformation, as she discovers the pure physical delight of white-water rafting, a love of danger that turns her into a reckless Mary Poppins, more than a match for Bogie.

The premise seems to promise constant jeopardy, with the dangers of water, jungle and war all in close proximity.  In actuality, our pair of heroes are hardly ever under threat.  For the first hour, what we get is almost a two-hander, the most of the film an unfurling romantic comedy between the two characters.  Indeed, the film seems much more interested in showing us colour footage of elephants, crocodiles and the like (it's strange to think of this as having a novelty value) than delivering on the river's potential for tension and drama.  But when threats come they are tense indeed, and John Huston showing himself to an incredibly good director (an attribute he hid expertly in 1967's 'Casino Royale', for instance).

P.S. I always confuse Katharine Hepburn with Audrey Hepburn who was in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' (1961), and confuse both of them with Barbara Hepworth, whose sculptures littered my garden when I used to live in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

P.P.S. The African Queen of the title is the boat, though I suppose on some metaphorical level it may be Ms Hepburn.  There's never any suggestion that it might refer to anyone who's actually African.

Orphée (1950)

I watched this film by accident as I had in mind that it was released in 1949, a gap in my chronology, rather than 1950, in competition with 'Julius Caesar'.  In ways I cannot properly define, though, it feels more fifties than forties, so perhaps I should have guessed.  Forties films had an agreeable broadness to them, a roundness and a slightly theatrical character to their dialogue and performances, while 'Orphée' joins the fifties in enjoying a sort of realism, a sharper, harder beauty.

There was a romantic and fantastical flavour to 'Les Enfants du Paradis' (1945), for instance, and even 'Went the Day Well' (1943) had a niceness against which to offset the brutality of war.  'Orphée' is quite different, giving us an incredibly grounded world, with Orphée himself a poet of the plainest kind, an unpretentious, rather humourless fellow.  His home-life is almost kitchen-sink drama, though not so grim as that makes it sound.

Orphée slumped at the mirror.
And into this uncommonly believable France comes death herself.  She's utterly practical, and is as likely to be driven in as automobile as she is to enter the underworld through a mirror.  The special effects are excellent by merit of their simplicity.  Nothing is excessively fancy: the world of the dead, though dream-like, is plainly bomb-ruined France.  Death's employers are not flamboyant or demonic, but a small board-room of sober, suit-wearing bureaucrats.  The fantastical parts are as entrancingly plain and unostentatious as the domestic, and so come across as far more impressive and memorable than they might have been with fancier effects.

Since I've already covered 1950 (whoops) I'll leave my comments short.  And through further administrative bungling I've ended up with a small backlog of fifties films from consecutive years, so over the coming week you can expect Penciltonian comments on 'The African Queen' (1951), 'High Noon' (1952) and 'The Robe' (1953).  And if I can watch something for 1954, I'll have completed the decade.

Beaurocracy beyond the mirror.

P.S. Wikipedia's page on the film calls it 'Orpheus'.  It seems terribly rude to translate a character's name in the title.  I'm sure anyone with the slightest interest would be able to guess that it's the same name, and the opening minute of the film makes the link between the story we're about to see and the ancient myth quite explicit.

Shutter Island (2010)

A twin delight of writing The Penciltonian and having access to Netflix is that I'm able to catch up on some of the big movies everybody else seems to have seen at The Cinema.  Since I'm not immensely sociable, and since movie theatres are unappealing for dozens of reasons, I've managed to miss almost all the blockbusters of the last half-decade, so I had ample choice for 2010's movie.  I left the choice up to Saskia, since she worked in a cinema at the time, and she picked 'Shutter Island', as I said I knew nothing about it, nothing at all.

Apparently complete ignorance is a good starting-point for this film, so if you think you'd like to watch it (and it is very good) I'd skip the rest of my comments, though I intend to say little and spoil less.  I knew only that it was set on an island.

So Leonardo DiCaprio is a detective, ferried into an island asylum for the criminally insane, there to investigate an implausible disappearance.  This much is clear in the first ten minutes, and it's really all I need to talk about.  It's a fine, attention-grabbing set-up for a film, and he's an actor I quite enjoy.  I was wary of the whole 'island of insane criminals' concept, but once Sir Ben Kingsley turns up as a quiet, intense, but generally agreeable psychiatrist we get a decent discussion of medical and surgical responses to the island's prisoners and patients (this being 1954, and the age of needless brain-surgery) and his own preferred method, the talking cure.  The mentally ill prisoners are shown to be irrational, sometimes unpredictable and in some circumstances dangerous, but for once they aren't presented to us as monsters.

I'm rather pleased to have discovered so recent a film about crime and psychiatry, as it's a pair of themes that are often coupled in the movies.  From pictures I've seen this year, 'Das Testament des Dr Mabuse' (1933) and 'Der Cabinet des Dr Caligari' (1920) both tell of murderous psychiatrists who dwell within their asylums, and 'Häxan' (1922) ends with a familiar discussion of whether institutionalising our eccentrics is really much of a move up from burning them to death.  'The Island of Lost Souls' (1932) also leapt to mind, since it too begins with a hero on a boat to a dangerous island ruled by a doctor, his guards and patients.  Its a pity I didn't make room for Hitchcock's 'Spellbound' (1945), which popularised all the common psychiatrist stereotypes while telling a tale of a murder investigation.  Cinema has taught us to be immensely suspicious of psychiatrists, and this film spends a long while asking us, and DiCaprio's detective, what we should make of Sir Ben Kingsley and his Germanic colleague Max von Sydow.

What we get is engrossing and rather fascinating, and feels much like a cross between 'The Wicker Man' (1973) and 'The Prisoner' (1967).  Indeed, it does the things that 'The Prisoner' did very much better than that series own 2009 remake, and is, as a result, extremely satisfying and much to my tastes.  If I've one complaint it's that the last few minutes of the climax are too laboriously thorough, telling us something we already know to make sure we get the point.

At the end I discovered this was yet another Martin Scorsese film.  These keep creeping up on me during my Penciltonian viewings, so this one goes on the list with 'Taxi Driver' (1976), 'The Last Temptation of Christ' (1988) and 'Goodfellas' (1990). Only Peter Greenaway and Fritz Lang have lent me so many movies, and I'd be happy to see more by any of 'em.

The Island of Lost Souls (1932)

At the start of the thirties, with the arrival of audible dialogue, films seem suddenly more basic, less ambitious and altogether less impressive - or at least, the English-language ones do.  Fritz Lang somehow got away with the transition, making his talking pictures more grounded than his silents, but no less exciting.  But then, he was one of the best silent directors, so naturally he still had talent and a sharp mind in the age of the talkies.

This, though, is an American film at a time when that didn't portend slickness or coolness.  Not that it's a bad film, it simply doesn't inspire in the same way as those hectic twenties.  It's an early horror film, but less horrific than 'Nosferatu' a decade earlier, its moral less memorable than that of 'Häxan' (1922), for instance.

The Speaker of the Law (Béla Lugosi)
So what is there to recommend the film?  Well, there are scenes on ships and in the sea, things one couldn't see on stage (which is surely the major rival to the talking pictures).  Everybody speaks clearly, and the set-up for the story is interesting and memorable, the story itself being H.G. Wells' 'The Island of Dr Moreau'.

Moreau joins Doctors Mabuse, Caligari and Nicholson in being a wretched villain with a twisted mind (doctors in the films I've been watching are, it seems, wholly malign until 1965 gave us the double-whammy of Who and Zhivago), but at least Dr Moreau is only tampering with nature, operating on animals to turn them into humans (which makes less sense the more you think about it), rather than murdering, hypnotising, stealing diamonds or working as a psychiatrist.  His beasts have exciting prosthetic heads, the hairiest of which is Béla Lugosi (the first screen Dracula, an actor now best known as a historical figure, as played by Martin Landau in Tim Burton's 1994 biopic 'Ed Wood').  The beasts are all male, except The Panther Woman, who is far less exciting than one might expect from her name, and who doesn't have fancy prosthetics or make-up at all.  Perhaps she's there to titillate the audience, but this would surely be more novel, less boring, if she had a head like Lugosi's all-over beard.  Or am I expecting the wrong things from actresses?

Even after a good restoration, 30s films tend to look rather grainy.
There's a human drama played out amidst this tale of monstrous science, but within a few days I've forgotten all its details.  I suspect it, and the moral dimension, had a greater depth and emphasis in the original novel - the film is all about spectacle.  Still, it's short and it isn't dull, but it doesn't delight me.