I’ve been patiently waiting for The Abyss (1989) to make itself available to me. I’ve known very little about it beyond the ground-break special effects that are mentioned in dozens of articles, it’s hard not to know of it’s milestone. Part of the long development that sees the special effects heavy films today. Bringing us to the point of the uncanny valley in more recent films. Audiences are beginning to question more and more what they are seeing. I was questioning just what was real and carefully constructed yet quite simplistic effects shots in tonight’s film. They may have dated slightly but still have the power to leave you in complete awe. It’s not all about the special effects, or even the build up to the water mimicking scene that made little sense out of context of the whole film. They do play a pivotal role in bringing the world alive but we see very little of the special effects wizardry until the final act. The pay off is more than worth it, even when the film is close to 30 years old.
Anyways enough of all that and onto the film itself. We are still in the midst of the cold war. The Berlin Wall is still very much in tact, but as history tells us, cracks are beginning to show. A nuclear submarine in an undisclosed ocean is tracking an unknown large mass that is closing in on them. The audience knows it’s not a Russian sub closing in on range, the fact we can’t see what is coming we know it’s far bigger than has ever been imagined. Our expectations are being set up for the unimaginable. The explained mass does enough damage that it brings the sub to its demise, giving us a reason to explore, wonder and be drawn into something we have never even imagined.
The team that are dragged it to mount a search and rescue mission remind me of the working crew on board the space merchant vessel in Alien (1979). Working class men and women who just want to do their job and get paid without any hidden surprises. Could this be James Cameron ‘s take on the sci-fi horror he made a sequel to which blows the other out of the water. The mining crew maybe still on earth, however surrounded by water, space in liquid form, just as cold and deadly. The first act borrows heavily from Ridley Scott’s Alien as the crew leave to investigate (after dragging the under-water drilling base with them. Led by a small team of navy seals who bring them the “iron b****” Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) who we learn is the estranged wife (in the process of divorcing) base leader Virgil (Ed Harris) who would rather she not be anywhere near him. She brings with tension, not sexual but friction that a warring couple who despise each other. You can see why they need to separate. Add to that she’s not the girl to fall in love, instead she bring power in the form of knowledge, she designed this monstrosity where men and women live and work away from the rest of the world. It’s refreshing to see a strong woman in a lead role, even if she starts off as being feared, she gels with the team.
The underwater world that’s created (as Cameron explains) is a brave move, filmed in water tanks, a very complex and brave move for any filmmaker. You really believe that are hundreds of metres below the water making the whole world more believable. He’s an accomplished world builder (even if he’s now got major tunnel vision) he creates and deliver’s big, there are no half measures with this guy. The structure that the crew live and work on, you never fully see it on-screen, always from an angle to suggest it’s far larger than the design department could have ever achieved. You have to remember this is nearly a decade before Titanic (1997) where a full-scale replica was built, just to play with in his film and sink again. Combined with special effects, far more advanced than The Abyss we can see the lengths he really goes to, if only his budget would allow.
I have to return to the special effects that are slowly dangled in front of us when we first glimpse the alien life form, even just as light, there’s something else going on. We’re being teased all the time. Even the guy who first witnesses them is brought back in a seizure induced coma just to keep us wanting more. It’s only when Lindsey herself discovers the jellyfish like creature who acts like a probe for the larger vessel that’s related those found in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Perfectly suited aliens in the watery depths, the design engineer reaches out in innocent friendship and wonder, wanting to connect peacefully to the unknown presence before her. Whilst Navy seal leader Lt Coffey (Michael Biehn) has no intentions of meeting with the outer-space jellyfish, wanting to using a trident missile to destroy the wreck. Not caring for the implications. Even after we are all given a lesson in these nuclear deterrents that to this day circle the British Isles – apparently 5 times as powerful as the bomb dropped in Hiroshima. The image of potential danger is too dangerous to even imagine.
Beginning not a cold but civil war between the teams that joined up in hopes of retrieving and investigating, start not to trust one another. As the Seals – Coffey doesn’t want to accept the evidence of something being out there. He’s to carry out his one man mission of destruction. A seal that’s gone AWOL that has to be stopped at all costs, leading to a tense underwater chase in subversive’s, easily replacing cars or even space shuttles. He’s the rogue element in what was supposed to be a domestic search and rescue. We get close to this potential only to be rewarded with great spectacle that heavily references 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969) what director can’t help but indulge in a homage, all be it underwater, relying more on a computer that for Kubrick never even existed. Only to think that this was the height of the spectacle we are blown literally out of the water, wondering again, just how does Cameron do it, by the end he’s just showing off saying, this is what we can do now, or this is what I can do, I’ll let you decide that.
The Abyss really blew me out of the water (pardon the pun), whatever expectations I had for the special effects – which do make this film work. Without them it couldn’t happen. As much as the director is clearly showing off, he speculates and dreams all the time. From the aliens that looks like gentle jellyfish to the amniotic fluid that allows you to dive deeper than was humanly possible. All set against a Cold War world that’s beginning to thaw. The infighting doesn’t pull them apart, instead it brings them closer together. All I want to know now it how the hell he achieved all this.
A little over a week ago I caught The File on Thelma Jordan (1950), Barbara Stanwyck playing the standard femme fatale role, which wasn’t nearly as effective as Double Indemnity (1944). I was a little disappointed, having her play opposite Wendell Corey who is not a natural lead actor. Leaving her to go into overdrive to make this slow burner of a film noir even begin to simmer. It never really comes to the boil. Tonight’s film however was a very different story, a massive improvement on the leading man with Burt Lancaster and a complete role reversal for Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), leaving me glued to the screen.
It’s great to see a screen veteran in Stanwyck able to play the damsel in distress still, even after 20 years on the screen, opposite up and coming Lancaster who is full of confidence clearly enjoying the chance to play opposite her. Even though characters are restricted by phone conversations and flashbacks that construct the film. Beginning with a stray connection, allowing bed-ridden socialite Leona Stevenson (Stanwyck) who only wants to talk to her husband who left the office hours ago. We have little idea how strong a role the telephone will play in Sorry, Wrong Number. A mumbled conversation about a murder plot is over heard on a cross-wire – this isn’t even a shared line like the one found in Pillow Talk (1959), there’s no time for innuendo here. Wanting to do the right thing she’s back onto the operator to try and track down what is essentially an accidental connection.
She wants to reports the crime to the police, but has very little to go on, the time of a train, a New York street, not enough even for a detective to come out to her. Instead the station that took the call is more preoccupied with a baby. Law enforcement has been domesticated whilst shes crippled by an as yet unrevealed condition. We are left wondering how is she going solve this potential crime herself. It’s not like she’s living in a time when murders can be precisely predicted and prevented as in Minority Report (2002). Her only weapon is her phone. Watching this in a time where phones are now so much more than the basic communication device that connects one voice to another anywhere in the country, or even a distant part of the world. She has to rely on notes, memory and the accounts of those she calls. Building up a picture of what has happened, hopefully leading to a happy conclusion. Now we can use social media to broaden our reach, an audience less personal but able to make a bigger impact, then the killer might be stopped before times up.
I wanted to see both Lancaster and Stanwyck on-screen together, we only see this in flashback, understanding how they met and married. Using her position and money to attract Henry J. Stevenson (Lancaster) to marry her. Stanwyck plays a different of Femme fatale, not relying so much on her body and sex appeal, the lure of dangerous encounters. Her position and status are all that small town boy Henry needs, and someone being ignored to ensure they marry. A daddy’s girl who gets what she wants through her condition. A weak heart that could flare up at any minute to control the one she loves. We’ve moved away from simple marital manipulation to calm a situation down like Beulah Bondi in Vivacious Lady (1938) using an “a weak heart” for a simpler life. The wife in both situations is in control, stopping the husband in his tracks.
The flashbacks are the main way of building up the plot. We need to understand the garbled conversation. Who could be behind it. It takes an amateur bed-ridden detective with a phone racking up a massive phone bill to get to the bottom of this crime. One phone call her husbands secretary leads her in the direction of an old love rival Sally Ann Hunt (Ann Richards) who as we see plays detective, spying on her own husband, no-one can be trusted in this film. Wives can’t trust husband who don’t tell the truth or hold things back. It takes another conversation with her doctor Dr Phillip Alexander (Corey) who reveals her condition to be purely psychological, given the film a Freudian overtone, the mother from beyond the grave having a hold over her son-in-law.
All the conversations start to come together as we meet one of her fathers employees Waldo Evans (Harold Vermilyea) who adds the final piece of the puzzle that we have been trying to solve. It becomes even more complicated as a man trapped by marriage, wealth and all the trappings of his position, using them to plan his escape, calculated and cold until cracks begin to show. Leaving his wife alone in there home where she slowly looses her mind over the course of the film. A woman who once had all the control has lost everything, her independence, the care of the nurses, her husband and ultimately her life. A climax that leaves you wondering if she will be saved at the last minute, after all those calls, building up a case of confessions and evidence. If only she took the time to write it all down, its all if-only’s now. Left one one hell of a cliff-hanger.
Sorry, Wrong Number has been a film worth waiting for, the structure allows a plot to be told via technology rather than traveling around, the lead character visiting everyone as they carryout a physical investigation. Based instead entirely on her emotions, feelings running wild as she holds a phone receiver to her face. Ultimately it’s Stanwyck owns the film, bringing it into melodrama at times without loosing the darkness of the plot, a murder will be committed somewhere tonight, the only question is – whose the victim? She asks all these questions from the confines of her bedroom, slowly going mad with the help of some interesting crane and mirror shots, we really don’t know if she’s coming or going, it’s a real roller-coaster ride from start to finish.
I’ve been curious about Blow Out (1981) for a while now upon learning that is was Brian De Palma response and remake of Michelangelo Antonioni‘s seminal film Blow Up (1966) which I reviewed a few years ago, finding it quite profound and left me contemplating how we deconstruct images that we capture on a daily basis, what lies under the surface of them. If we delve further are we prepared for what we find once we explore. Do we want to see and accept the hidden truth. Questions I hope to revisit and maybe find some answers in my join revisit review.
Moving forward 15 years to De Palma’s remake, a really clever reworking even on the surface level, a film in its own right away from the more obvious connections in terms of title and the protagonists discovery, audio or photo-chemical, it plunges them into a world they never wish they intended to enter. Jack (John Travolta) a sound-recordist for low-budget Hitchcockesque slasher knock-offs is working on his latest collaboration with Sam (Peter Boyden) whose advised that the scream of his shower victim is pathetic to say the least, leaving his film without the impact that he wants or really needs to sell the shower murder which opened up the film. Leading to Jack going out on a late-night sound recording session for the long list he’s been given.
The recording scene has strong links to The Conversation (1974) which saw reclusive anorak Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) on an intensely observed and documented recording of a couples seemingly innocent conversation. Carefully positioned kit from high above and around the square, picks up all the said conversation. Jack again is on a job, more isolated on a bridge with his exposed recording equipment, no need to hide as he points to what he wants to capture on tape. He’s a pro and takes a joy in the process, even getting a thrill out of catching a lovers conversation, carrying on even when they know he’s there. An audio peeping tom you could say, capturing what he wants for his own pleasure. It’s here we see the even that the rest of the film hinges on, a car-crash that carried presidential candidate Governor McRyan (John Hoffmeister) plunges to his death. On the surface it’s a straight-forward incident, until Jack jumps in to save them, finding a woman Sally (Nancy Allen) fighting to stay above the rising water level.
It all starts to get murky when we get the hospital, not yet knowing the identity and position of those involved in the car that careened off the road into the river. There’s a sense of urgency as a cover-ups suggested, for the Governor to be known to be in a car with a woman, a prostitute that could have jeopardized his political chances. The plot literally thickens with Sally being involved, her part is hushed up, and hopefully Jacks too. The role of the women is questionably changed from Jane (Vanessa Redgrave) wanting the film from snooping photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) who very easily fobs her off with a blank roll. Sally is more submissive, more agreeable to be told to get out of town for a while, let the situation blow over. Jack unlike David is more proactive, wanting to understand what’s going on.
Technology plays a bigger role in the remake, sound being the main evidence to explore, Not only has he got to be sure of what he’s hearing, he has to prove that to the Police who want to close the case as an accident. I was fascinated how he synchronised photographs that were taken (by peeping tom Manny Karp (Dennis Franz)) which brings the evidence to life. There’s more immediacy to not just prove his theory right but also act on it, inform the police, or even the press who will make even more noise. The sense of urgency is palpable here, where as Blow Up is more secretive, more investigative, wanting to know for sure himself before doing anything, or nothing, instead changing his perception.
Jack’s perception of the worlds more open, aware of the corruption in the world thanks to his past job working with undercover police to fight corruption. This discovery has to be acted on, hoping if he does it right he can redeem himself and save himself from more guilt. I’ve not even mentioned Burke (John Lithgow) a rogue element whose acts on his own for the corrupt opposition, creating his own trail of bloody murder to cover his tracks. An extra element that was only suggested in the original that creates real tension, an unknown element to Jack for the majority of the film.
Blow Out is a near perfect thriller that goes a bit too far at times, the 360 degree camera moves really should have been more restrained at times, becoming too literal, yes we get it, everything is out his his control. I found the addition of Burke’s murders of women who looked like Sally being killed, manipulating the audience to the point of pushing us over the edge, always seeing the victims from the back before he goes ahead. Now I look forward to revisiting the original, how will my memories hold up and else will I discover. It was a sparse and shocking film even then, next time I’ll be looking at the relationship between the two.
It’s been over two months since I sat down for Blow Out, before returning for the original Blow Up (1966) inspiring De Palma to remake it, which on reflection is a fitting tribute and really has built on this almost silent thriller. I remember being fired up by the film, going off the recommendation at Art school to seek this one out. I was very pleased with the end result. I had forgotten the begging as our photographer Thomas exits a factory at the end of what appears to be the working day. However his is just getting started. We’re given the wrong impression about him, he’s not just another worker, the Rolls Royce is a clear indicator that he’s a successful man who is able to support himself. Yet is self-conscious enough to hide his car, from the workers or just the his in. Back at his studio he becomes what could be Weinstien-esque artist, working with his latest model, wanting to get the best out of her, showing little respect for the woman herself. As the poster misleads me this time, she’s the model he’s enjoying through his camera, reaching an almost sexual climax.
He treats his models much like he does his staff, with little respect, they are just glad to be there, and little attention is given to them in the film. Just supporting him in the studio and his whims, allowing him to live the life of luxury and creative freedom. Coming and going as he pleases, during his next shoot he asks his 5 models to close their eyes, whilst he leaves the studio to chat with his painter friend Bill (John Castle) whose enjoying his own creativity and the attention of his lover/muse Patricia (Sarah Miles). They are all enjoying the bubble that is the swinging sixties. Creatively it looks amazing to been a part of that moment that’s depicted here as something that then takes a horrible turn to the darkness of reality.
On his comings and goings, after buying a wooden propeller he ventures to the local park, just see whats there, getting carried away he becomes a member of the paparazzi, or a peeping tom documenting what looks like an affair between an older man (Ronan O’Casey) who we always see from a distance. The first of a number of scenes films dialogue free, only the wind interrupts this intimate intrusion into the private lives of these lovers. The minimalism of the scene allows us to really get lost in what is happening in this section of the park, we are now as bad as Thomas who happily captures this private moment. We are complicit in this voyeuristic act and we’ll have to pay for that later on. Until Thomas’s spotted, causing Jane (Redgrave) to chase after him, rightfully wanting the film that has caught them in the act of something quite private.
On his return to the studio, we are as surprised he is to found Jane’s found him, out of nowhere, everything is a surprise in this film. Antonio has layered with characters throughout his film that keep appearing out of nowhere, unexpected visitors that come in and out of the photographers day slowing him down, or should I say wearing him down the images in the park begin to unveil a dark secret that he wished he never discovered. The mime artist who he meets on the road, happily given them money, creatives support or sponsorship, it’s very vague. Two young girls who will do anything to model for him reappear, whose innocence’s taken advantage off. Jane’s time however is most compelling, Redgrave’s treated with more respect, yes she undresses, in hopes of securing the roll of film. Yet we never see her breasts, I thought I had from memory, however she’s photographed more respectfully than the other actresses who’re treated like models. She indulges as best she can, clearly out of her depth with the photographer whose not about to give up on his latest roll.
Now the fun really begins, I say fun, the darkness of his latest photographs make themselves known to him. Again we go near silence as he develops and investigates the work, getting deeper, more curious to what is going on in the images. What at first could be a couple uncomfortable at a peeping tom becomes more sinister. He can’t give up, instead he continues to investigate, blowing up sections of the stills to understand the hidden landscape that he was capturing. It’s haunting to see the reveal in near silence, as he learns we learn to. A discovery that can no longer be hidden away, they can’t become part of a body of work, as they document a crime, the photographer an unwitting witness to something he wasn’t expecting.
Where Thomas is alone in his world, Jack is more vocal in Blow Out, the film allows more time to investigate and reach out to others. The original is built upon, allow is to move away from the initial shock of the discovery to look at the wider consequences, how they can affect others. We don’t really know what happens to Jane after she leaves, does she know her lovers dead or is she just relieved to know that her little secret won’t get out. Instead see just the beginning and the effect is has on someone who really shouldn’t have been there.
The end of the film has left me feeling pretty much the same, the mime artists playing tennis, lost in their own world, their craft. Thomas looks on wondering how he now fits into this world that he believed was part of. It’s just increased, revealing a far darker side, one that he has hoped to escape. Even the middle class trappings of his own have hidden him from life. The world of sex, drugs and rock and roll (courtesy of The Yardirds) he has to reassess his position, his perspective. Does all his work hide something lurking under the surface, He captures what he sees through the lens, ignoring the world around him. Unlike Jack who was more aware of the world around him, but chose to escsape it for the world of low-budget films, creating his own reality. Having seen both films, I can clearly see how De Palma has built on a minimalist film about the truth of our reality, how an artist who can be lost in the world of their work can be brought back to reality through the work they make.
My first encounter with The Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) was a few years ago when I was working on Dancing in the West (2013), which features a few pieces of found footage from the film. I have more in Iron Horse of the Studio (2015) which lifted the train outside and arriving into Gun Hill where the majority of the action takes place. Otherwise I had very little knowledge of the film beyond that fact it starred Kirk Douglas who arrives on the train.
But why does he arrive in Gun Hill asking for Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn). Away from anything even related to Trains we have a Native American mother and son, whose clearly mixed race, he has a white father. Riding through the woods on a horse drawn buggy. Passing Rick Belden (Earl Holliman) and Smithers (Brian G. Hutton) who are her attackers and killers. It’s pretty obvious what their intentions are they as they up alongside them. Throwing the boy aside, they don’t wait long before they rape and kill her. Usually it’s the white woman whose raped by the Native American in the classical form of the Western. Here the roles are reversed, the woman – Catherine Morgan (Ziva Rodann) whose seen as worthless and little more than a sexual plaything to be abused as if she has no soul – not in the Christian white man’s view.
Back in her home town, a group of boys are after a retelling of a classic gunfight from 9-10 years ago. Gun control has been enforced in this town, making it a far safer place to be, far from the crime committed in the wilderness of the frontier. Town Marshall Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas) whose happy to retell the story, creating his own legend for awestruck kids who want to experience the danger of the past as modern day audiences do through watching these films. It’s only when he’s led by his son to his wife body. Clearly upset and equipped with evidence (a saddle with the initials B.C.) He knows where he must go, but doesn’t know what he will really find on arrival. His old friend Craig Belden, could he be the killer and rapist of his wife or is there more to this than meets the eye. Turning against a friend is something no man wants to do or takes lightly.
We haven’t even met patriarch and cattle baron Belden who has power not just over his son but also the town of Gun Hill. Not only does he want his saddle but he allows his son to be beaten up by his right hand-man. A sadistic side that is rarely seen, usually the father deals out the violence himself, not delegating to his staff, who happily take over. It’s a challenge to his son’s Rick manhood. He wants him to defend himself, not so much to win but to stand his ground. Belden could be compared with Broken Lance‘s (1954) Matt Devereaux (Spender Tracy) driven by power, mistrust and frustration. His whole family are slowly driven. Whilst a grief-stricken Morgan dressed in black throughout the rest of the film, arrives with the saddle in tow, he knows what he has to do is going to hurt. Is he an avenger of death in human form with the protection of a marshal’s badge, allowing him to deal out the justice he seeks, that any other man would have to be careful to achieve.
Gun Hill to Morgan is like traveling back in time to the lawless town he once tamed, except it’s not his to even attempt to tame. Instead to try and remove two elements to face justice back home. No one is prepared to help in, living in the pockect’s of his old friend who will allow safe passage on the last train if his son goes free. It’s a lot to ask of Morgan having come all this way to give up on his mission without so much as a fight. He does have one ally in the long-term girlfriend Linda (Carolyn Jones) who wont even go home with Belden. Her reluctance works in the favour of the visiting marshal, an angel you could say whose fighting her own conscience in a town that wants her to conform. Proposing a wager on her own success, only to withdraw when she realises she’s just as bad as them. A typical woman of the frontier whose in s relationship with the man of the town, only to see the error of her ways. However she’s soul searching throughout the film, making her stand apart from other women in the genre.
I come away from Gun Hill a western that really does manipulate the world it’s functioning in. retelling stories of the West as if it’s all be won. A Train that rides right into the middle of town to position it as the main focus of the film. Whilst a marshal is happy to stay in the comfort of a hotel room waiting for the right time to face the music of the town that wants him dead. The hotel room becomes his own prison and temporary marshals office, working away from home, the law never left him throughout his time in Gun Hill is short lived but he has an effect that hopefully will send ripples through the town. I’m glad I’ve been able to piece together the clips I’ve seen previously, making sense of them now has allowed me to see a more complex western that could be darker. Made up with solid performance by a cast who are enjoying a script that goes further than your standard corruption in town.