Weekend Film Recommendation: The Sandbaggers

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 this week’s film recommendation: 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 former RBC film recommendation, 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.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

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. This week I recommend one of the better adaptations, and the first to be shot in color, namely 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.

Some other adaptations I would recommend:

The handsomely produced 1939 version with Basil Rathbone as the great detective; the Livanov/Solomin adaptation from the utterly brilliant Soviet cycle of Holmes’ films; the little known Sy Weintraub production starring Ian Richardson; and the justly respected Granada Television version starring Jeremy Brett.

And a few to avoid: The disappointing 2002 version with Richard Roxburgh as Holmes; the yet worse Stewart Granger/William Shatner 1972 television version; and the execrable 2000 version starring the guy who played Max Headroom.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Across 110th Street

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, this week 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 brings 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.” Gene Siskel gave the film one-and-a-half stars out of four. 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.

Weekend Film Recommendation: They Shall Not Grow Old

Americans understandably think of World War I as a far less severe conflict than World War II. But for most European nations, the slaughter was on a larger scale in The Great War, making the 2018 Armistice centennial a major cultural and historical event. The British Imperial War Museum’s contribution to the commemoration was to open their film archive to Peter Jackson, who is addition to being a famous filmmaker is also a Great War buff. The astounding result is this week’s film recommendation: They Shall Not Grow Old.

Jackson and his team began with unpromising visual material: scratchy, battered, over and underexposed, black and white, silent, film footage taken during the war with hand crank cameras. The audio material — interviews with many veterans long after the war ended — was in better physical shape but had no essential connection to the images. With remarkable technical skill and artistic vision, Jackson spun dross into gold.

Computer scanning was used to counterbalance for light exposure problems, add vivid color, and impute missing frames (the latter of which eliminates the herky-jerky motion produced by the slow pace of filming in this period). Professional lip readers were employed to determine what the soldiers in the film were saying and actors were hired to voice the lines. And an array of preserved WWI tanks, rifles, artillery, and other equipment were recorded and the resulting sound track synced up seamlessly to the original footage. The stories of soliders were then skillfully assembled to narrate the film entirely in the words of “ordinary people”.

The resulting film is a technical marvel and an emotional wallop at the same time. Watching so many young men marching cheerfully from the recruiting station to the front line, and seeing them later dying in the muck and staring shell shocked into the camera is a devastating experience for the audience. And the stories told by the veterans, which range from the lighthearted (e.g., fishing soldiers out of the latrine when the bench broke) to the gut wrenching (e.g., seeing horrific injuries…and smelling them too), are utterly compelling. The banal aspects of military life are interspersed between the terrifying moments, including the shattering climax when the troops go over the top into the teeth of machine gun fire.

Many film makers would have had the impulse to have some authority figure add narration regarding “What it all means morally” either to (a la Stanley Kramer) “make sure the audience drew the correct conclusions” or to signal their own virtue. Peter Jackson is wiser than that: he lets the soldiers speak for themselves and the audience to draw their own lessons. The overpowering result is a unique cinematic achievement. Indeed, it even made me forgive Jackson for The Hobbit.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Act of Violence

Someone once defined the essentials of film noir as “a dame with a past and a guy with no future”. One could add to that another line
which is uttered by Burt Lancaster’s character in The Killers and captures the driving mood of a subset of these marvelous films: “I did something wrong once”. The sin that can’t be erased, the guilt that attaches to it, and the inevitable doom it will ultimately bring has driven many a fine noir, including this week’s film recommendation: Act of Violence.

This 1949 film centers on a seemingly happy, All-American, family composed of war veteran and respected citizen Frank Enley (Van Heflin), his loving wife Edith (Janet Leigh), and their adorable toddler. I describe them as the people the movie centers on rather than as the protagonists because one of the many strengths of Robert L. Richards’ crackerjack script is that it’s not clear for some time (and even perhaps after you have watched the whole thing) who the hero of this movie is, or even if it includes a hero at all. At first it seems there’s an obvious villain: a limping, gun-toting, former soldier (Robert Ryan, who could always bring the sinister) who begins pursuing Frank Enley remorselessly for reasons that are mysterious. Frank refuses to disclose the truth to his increasingly terrified wife, even as he begins to disintegrate under the strain.

Fred Zinnemann was yet to be his Oscar-laden self when he directed this film, but his enormous emerging talent is impossible to miss. He draws excellent performances from the cast and revels in a tone of moral ambiguity as he would in many of his later, more famous, movies (e.g., High Noon). He had to be happy with the high talent level of the cast, including Heflin in one of his best ever roles, and, in a real pleasant surprise, Mary Astor as a shopworn prostitute (It’s amazing how deteriorated she looks only a short time after being on top of the world earlier in the 1940s, but the downslope of her personal life didn’t impair her work here– I half wonder if it helped, she’s outstanding.)

The other major league talent associated with this film is the magnificent cinematographer Robert Surtees. His shots of almost every famous L.A. noir location are gems of this genre that you could enjoy on their own merits with the sound off.

Act of Violence is a must-see for film noir fans, but its appeal is greater than that. It’s an expertly written, shot, directed, and acted movie with powerful emotional impact that anyone who loves a good story well told should appreciate.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Hangover Square

Following on last week’s recommendation of The Charmer, I stick with Patrick Hamilton adaptations again this week, albeit one that departs substantially from the original novel: 1945’s Hangover Square.

The plot: In Edwardian London, brilliant, troubled classical composer George Bone (Laird Cregar) suffers fugue states during which he commits violent acts which he cannot recall afterwards. As Bone attempts to hold his psyche together long enough to complete a concerto, a scheming, alluring dance hall tart named Netta Longdon (Linda Darnell) tempts him in every way to devote his talents instead towards producing popular songs that will catapult her to fame. When George finally realizes that Netta is manipulating him, his mind snaps once more, propelling forward this dark tale of suspense, crime, and emotional anguish.

I am going to start my analysis of this film by getting the unpleasant bit out straightaway. The middling script of Hangover Square was written by Alfred Edgar, under the pen name Barré Lyndon (Presumably he was a Thackeray fan). Edgar drained the trenchant political and psychological observations from Hamilton’s novel (which was set during Hitler’s rise to power), added some clunky expositional exchanges while leaving other important elements of the plot strangely unexplained, and concocted a character who makes little sense (Dr. Allan Middleton, played by George Sanders, who is a clinical psychiatrist but is also somehow a front-line police detective and also apparently a romantic rival of George Bone though this is dropped after a single needless scene). Edgar’s is by no means a terrible screenplay, but given the source material — Hangover Square is generally considered Hamilton’s best novel — it should have been better.

Fortunately, other elements of Hangover Square are so remarkable that they overcome the script’s flaws. The film is anchored by scintillating performances by two sadly short-lived talents: Cregar and Darnell. The character of George Bone might easily have repelled the audience, but Cregar conveys such vulnerability and ingenuousness that the audience sympathizes with him anyway. A talented musician in his own right, Cregar is also completely believable in his composing and performance scenes. Darnell, only 22 years old at he time, is just as good at being bad. She keeps every man in the movie dancing on a string with her lovely face, artful conversational dodges, and sexual ruthlessness. One central aspect of the book that the film does maintain are the scenes of love struck George letting Netta hurt him, disregard him, and demean him; Cregar and Darnell play these just right.

The visuals of the movie are as rewarding as the performances. The sets are handsome, the costumes expertly done, and the editing is spot on. On top of all that, the brilliant Joseph LaShelle (whose film noir work I have praised before) contributes gorgeously shadowy cinematography and a particularly superb tracking shot at the climax.

The other undeniable pleasure of Hangover Square is Bernard Herrmann’s score, one of the best in his storied career. Herrmann had to write not just the usual movie theme music, but also the piece that Bone is striving to compose and plays in the arresting final scene. The result — Concerto Macabre — is a knockout.

Hangover Square re-united much of the team that made a prior RBC Recommendation The Lodger the year before, but it was not a happy set. Stevens hated his closing line and got into a row about it with producer Robert Bassler that allegedly ended in fisticuffs. Cregar loved the novel and was angry about how it had been drastically changed in the script, and he and director John Brahm clashed throughout the production. Cregar was also struggling with health problems stemming from his attempts to dramatically reduce his weight, including through amphetamine use. He died two months before Hangover Square was released, but at least fate made his last scene on screen an unforgettable image that will stay with viewers of this film for many a moon.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Charmer

The movies have been good to British novelist and playwright Patrick Hamilton (1904-1962), who might otherwise not be remembered at all even though he produced some good work and claimed some significant admirers before depression and heavy drinking dissipated his gifts. Hitchcock’s Rope, two versions of Gaslight, and Hangover Square all remain eminently watchable today. But instead I am going to recommend what I believe is the most recent adaptation of Hamilton’s work, the six-part 1987 television mini-series The Charmer.

The plot: In 1930s Britain, Ralph Gorse is a suave chancer who desperately wants a life of upper class ease, but has no interest in working honestly for it. Better to use his charm, wits, and ruthlessness to secure wealth and status. If some people — particularly women — are harmed or even killed along the way, so be it. Posing as a worldly ex-army officer with connections to high finance, he enchants and then mulcts Joan Plumleigh-Bruce (Rosemary Leach) an older, lonely, widow of means. This act enrages stolid businessman Donald Stimpson (Bernard Hepton) who had long been hoping for Joan to notice him. Even before Gorse has dumped Joan, he begins pursuing an upper class sexpot he actually cares about (Fiona Fullerton, at her pouty best) as well as some other women that he really doesn’t. As Gorse does increasingly horrible things to serve his sociopathic wants, Stimpson mercilessly follows his track, all the while frustrated that Gorse’s female victims continue to pine for him.

Women viewers swooned over the handsome Nigel Havers when this series was broadcast. Havers carries off Gorse’s aristocratic pretensions well, which is not surprising given that the actor is from a very posh background himself. The other elements of his performance are serviceable, but not in the league of the other leads. The late Rosemary Leach brings Plumleigh-Bruce alive as a woman caught between what her heart and head tell her about Gorse. She gives Joan an underlying strength such that even when she is conned and humiliated, she manages to retain some dignity. Bernard Hepton is just as good at slyly revealing Stimpson’s fundamental self-deception: He isn’t really a noble crusader, he’s just jealous as hell that Gorse gets all the things he himself yearns for but will never have.

The production mostly stays indoors, I presume out of need to recreate the period on a television mini-series budget. Those sets feel authentic, as do the clothes, cars, and music. I had not heard of Director Alan Gibson before, who sadly died young just after making this series, but his work here is solid. Finally, Alan Prior’s script is well-turned, even though he changed the ending in the source novel (Mr. Stimpson and Mr. Gorse). If you want to know what that change was, read on.

SPOILER ALERT STOP HERE IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE ENDING

In the book, rather than getting dumped by Joan Plumleigh-Bruce at the end as in the television series, Stimpson dumps her and runs off with her housemaid. Because that fits with my read of Stimpson as a much worse person than he sees himself as being, I prefer the book ending. At the same time, Leach really nailed the ending in the series, so it has its own pleasures.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Bullitt

In 1967, a then-unknown British director named Peter Yates helmed a taut crime caper that included a hair-rising car chase. The movie, Robbery (RBC Recommendation here), didn’t do much business in the United States, but did come to the attention of the right person: Steve McQueen. After an incredible run of hits in the 1960s, McQueen had the money and influence to start his own production company (Solar Productions) and he was looking for the right project to launch it in partnership with Warner Brothers. He had an excellent script in hand by Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner, and when he saw Robbery, he knew he had his director. The result was this week’s film recommendation: Bullitt.

The plot: Politically ambitious District Attorney Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) has secured devastating legal testimony from a stool pigeon witness for an upcoming trial against the bosses of organized crime. Chalmers charges the San Francisco Police, in the person of Lt. Frank Bullitt (McQueen), to protect the witness, but things go terribly awry. Bullitt has to crack the case while simultaneously stopping Chalmers from ruining him.

The first time through, of course what stays with most people about this film is the legendary high-speed car chase through the streets of San Francisco. If you watch carefully, you will notice how cleverly and economically the sequence was filmed. The slow-driving green VW bug that keeps appearing is the tip-off: The same incredible driving stunt was filmed from many different angles and then seamlessly edited by Oscar winner Frank Keller to look like an entire series of death-defying maneuvers. And it certainly didn’t hurt this jaw-dropping 11 minutes of cinema that superstar cinematographer William Fraker was willing to be strapped to the outside of the car to take incredible hand-held camera shots!

But this movie has much more to offer than that unforgettable sequence. Steve McQueen is magnetic in one of his very best roles (the completely original Junior Bonner, which Solar Productions made later, is my other favorite). It’s a testament to McQueen’s presence that he could play a sweater wearing cop with short hair during The Summer of Love and still come across as the coolest of cats (The film gave him some help by making every bad guy look like a 1950s dad). McQueen didn’t have the range to be called a great actor, but he was a great movie star and the part of Frank Bullitt was right in his sweet spot. He is a man detached. With loud, free and colorful 1968 San Francisco all around him he is quiet, controlled and dark. Bullitt has closed himself off emotionally to cope with the horrible things he sees as a police officer. As a result he is almost completely alone in the world (In this sense, the character is not unlike McQueen himself).

Yates also draws strong performances from the rest of the cast in parts large and small. Robert Vaughn does some of his very best work here, almost seeming to compete with McQueen over who can underplay his part more. Jacqueline Bisset, in addition to being easy on the eyes, delivers the goods in her dramatic scenes as the one person to whom Bullitt is willing to be somewhat vulnerable.  Lalo Shifrin’s jazzy score is another major asset of the film.

Bullitt works as a detective story, as an action film, and as a character study all at once. And it holds up very well under repeated viewings, so even if you’ve seen it before you can treat yourself again to a classic piece of American cinema.

p.s. This would make a good double feature with another prior RBC recommendation from the same period that demonstrate how American crime films were fundamentally changing in terms of how they portrayed graphic violence, and, how they staged and edited action sequences: Bonnie and Clyde.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Les Yeux Sans Visage

In the decades immediately following the war, French film makers didn’t produce many horror movies, but when they did they took more risks than studios in other countries who simply revived classic monsters or reworked hoary ghost stories. Among the most compelling and influential of such productions shocked audiences when it was released in 1960 and is my film recommendation for the week: Les Yeux Sans Visage.

The story opens with a shot of a lone woman, played by the elegant Euro-superstar Alida Valli, driving down a dark highway in fear. The audience worry for her: Is she being pursued? Can she please get away? But then the film roils our emotions for the first of many times by showing us that in fact “our vulnerable heroine” is on her way to dump a mutilated corpse into the river. As the bizarre story unfolds, we learn that Valli’s character is the slavishly devoted partner of the brilliant Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a surgeon who is guilt-wracked over a car accident that disfigured his daughter Christiane (Edith Scob, who impressively manages to convey rich emotion while wearing a smooth mask). But if Génessier can capture a similar enough looking woman and force her to undergo a radical surgery, could a face transplant restore Christiane’s beauty? Grade A+ shocks and chills follow.

French director Georges Franju made this one of a kind horror film with a talented group of artists who implemented his vision. The legendary Boileau-Narcejac writing team adapted Jean Redon’s novel, implementing substantial changes to make the story more cinematic, and, approvable by censors (no mean feat in those days). Maurice Jarre composed the score and the famously innovative Eugen Schüfftan contributed pristine cinematography. Various film critics have placed the stunning result in the tradition of fantastique, surrealism, poetic realism, and even German-style Expressionism (even though it’s nowhere near as experimental as prior RBC recommendation Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). I don’t know enough about the history of French film to arbitrate that debate, so I will use the less cultured term Art House Horror to roughly categorize this movie.

Les Yeux Sans Visage recalls prior RBC recommendation Suspiria in that the visuals rather than the plot largely drive the movie and command the viewer’s attention. Dr. Génessier’s lair, to which the kidnapped young women are taken, is one of cinema’s most terrifying “second locations”, with ferocious dogs in weirdly shaped cages, tortuous passageways, and an underground surgical suite where you would never want to be a patient (roses for production design and art direction to Marie and Auguste Capelier). The horrifying, deathly, beautiful, dreamlike, series of images of this film’s last five minutes may never leave your mind.

At the time of its release, Les Yeux Sans Visage was not universally appreciated, but its reputation has deservedly soared since. Among its artistic descendants are Halloween, Face/Off, and yes, that Billy Idol song.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Three Adaptations of I Am Legend

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 here at RBC, 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 popcorn into their pie holes. 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).