This was my third visit to Glasgow Film Festival as a punter. It’s an ambitious festival with a strong local-global feel. It appeals to its local audience with a diverse range of events and activities, often linked to screenings of well-loved Hollywood films. There is also a focus on Scottish filmmakers – writers, directors, stars and their films and in the last couple of years a new ‘Industry’ strand supporting Scottish filmmaking. But it also celebrates the heritage of Glasgow Film Theatre with a similarly diverse range of foreign language films with directors and stars offering Q&As for some events. It’s this last strand that tends to be the focus for this blog.
Festival co-directors Allison Gardner and Alan Hunter work hard to find films at other international festivals and via their networks and contacts. I’m conscious this year that the range of films on offer felt different but I know that often this is dependent on what is picked up by sales agents or major distributors and then what is selected for Berlin, Cannes, Venice and Toronto. I usually hope to visit for three or four days, seeing between two and four films a day so any kind of overview is more about reading the brochure than what I’ve actually seen.
This year, the same sad trends are in evidence across the festival programme as I’ve noted at Leeds and London in recent years – the gradual shrinkage of the range of films available from Africa and Asia. I couldn’t find a single African or Indian film. Glasgow is one of the centres for the Africa in Motion festival later in the year, but the Indian cinema problem is I think as much to do with the failure of the distributors of Indian independent films to get involved in international distribution. This year, Glasgow did highlight Irish films and ‘Baltic’ films in two of its strands as well as casting a wide net for other strands such as Documentary, FrightFest and ‘Pioneer’ (first-time directors).
My usual 3/4 days expanded to six this year because of the weather which prevented me leaving by train. Unfortunately the snow was so bad that parts of the festival closed down completely and I was faced with only a limited programme on my extra couple of days. I must praise the staff at GFT for re-opening on the Thursday 1st March after struggling to get in to work. As co-director Allan Hunter quipped, the Blitz spirit was abroad on Rose Street. I think I ended up seeing more films than usual that have already or are soon about to open on general release. I also probably saw more archive prints. My highlights of the festival were therefore Sweet Country and Zama and, a revelation, the three films I managed from the Ida Lupino retrospective. I hope to be back in Glasgow next year – perhaps better prepared for ‘Red’ snow warnings!
I did see this film in Glasgow, but as it was released officially in the UK on March 9th, I decided to wait to see what kind of reception it got on its opening weekend. That has proved to be an interesting experience. Sweet Country was screened at Cineworld on Renfrew Street on a large screen which benefited this magnificent film – if you get the opportunity, see it on the largest screen you can. Unfortunately, you will struggle to find a local multiplex showing the film over the next few weeks. Despite the good job Thunderbird Releasing has done in promoting the film it is mainly showing at arthouse cinemas in major cities (and we don’t have screenings in Bradford – just two shows in Leeds). Check for your nearest screening here: http://showtimes.sweetcountryfilm.co.uk
Sweet Country is that rare but increasingly important beast – an Indigenous film from Australia. It is presented in a form that is instantly accessible to audiences outside Australia as a ‘Western’ set in the Northern Territory during the late 1920s. The narrative is based on a true story and it explores the racism of Australia’s colonial past (and as such comments on the racial tensions of the present and possible future of Australia). Writer-director-cinematographer Warwick Thornton came to prominence on the international stage with short films and then with Samson and Delilah (Australia 2009) which won the Camera d’Or at Cannes. I was knocked sideways when I saw that film on DVD a few years later. Samson and Delilah uses local non-professional actors for its teenage lead characters and was shot on location in the Alice Springs area. Before I saw that film I had come across Warwick Thornton’s camerawork in a more mainstream Indigenous film The Sapphires (Australia 2012) by Thornton’s mate Wayne Blair. This hugely enjoyable (and moving) film about an Aboriginal girl group performing for US Armed Forces in Vietnam in the 1960s deserved a much bigger audience than it found in the UK.
The narrative of Sweet Country is in one sense quite simple, but Warwick Thornton’s treatment, in terms of sound and image and narrative structure, turns into a rich and complex film that will repay many re-viewings. (The film eschews non-diegetic music and relies on the natural sounds of the environment.) The basic premise is that the establishment of cattle stations in the Alice Springs area has produced an unbalanced and dangerous local community with white men outnumbering white women and the local Indigenous people forced to work almost as indentured labour on their own land. In 1929 an embittered war veteran Harry March takes over a ranch and seeks to ‘borrow’ some Indigenous workers for a couple of days. Fred Smith (Sam Neill), a local rancher who sees himself as a religious man reluctantly agrees to ask his worker Sam to go to the March place along with his wife and niece for a few days. Sam is wary of March and when the drunken white man comes after the Indigenous family with a gun, Sam kills him in self-defence. Having killed a white man, Sam and Lizzie must go on the run in the bush. A posse led by Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) sets out to track them. The outcome of the search and its aftermath is shocking. I’ve purposefully left out a lot of detail and not allowed any real spoilers but these are the main sections of the narrative. Thornton uses both flashbacks and flashforwards in presenting his narrative.
Helped by his local knowledge, Thornton’s presentation of landscapes including rocky outcrops, ravines, scrub and desert is stunning. The brief outline above refers to familiar elements from American Westerns. Australian development in the Northern territory was slower and only the presence of a travelling film show featuring The Ned Kelly Story (1906) signifies the twentieth century. The Western comparison is, I feel, a two-edged sword for Warwick Thornton who has promoted his film using the ‘Western’ tag. It makes the story more familiar and more accessible to audiences outside Australia (and perhaps to contemporary Australian audiences), but it also risks critics and reviewers treating the film as simply an ‘exotic’ form of a familiar genre rather than a historical Indigenous film exploring the racism and oppression of colonial exploitation. I fear that this has happened to a certain extent in some of the UK critical writing on the film. Some of the better coverage of the film comes in Sight and Sound, April 2018 with ‘Red Earth’, an essay by Trevor Johnston plus a review by Jason Anderson. Also in the same issue is a Tony Rayns DVD Review of the film Goldstone by Ivan Sen. As Rayns notes: ” . . . it’s blackfella directors like Ivan Sen and Warwick Thornton who are making the running in current Oz cinema”. I would endorse that view. Ivan Sen’s new film is another ‘frontier Western’ (in Queensland) following on from his previous film Mystery Road (2013) featuring an Indigenous police officer Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen). None of the reviewers I read this weekend mentioned The Tracker (Australia 2002), the film made by the partnership of director Rolf de Heer and veteran Indigenous actor David Gulpilil. The pair made two more films, Ten Canoes (2006) and Charlie’s Country (2013) about Indigenous characters across history. The films by Thornton, Sen and those in which Gulpilil had considerable creative input sit alongside films like Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) – which though directed by a white Australian has Indigenous children at its centre and a memoir by an Indigenous woman as its source material (and is therefore another historical film based on a true story). Together these films present a significant Indigenous Australian cinema. (I should also note that Little White Lies is a UK publication that has a committed review of the film and references ‘10 essential Indigenous Australian films‘.)
Although Sweet Country and The Tracker are not the same narrative they do share several significant features. Both are set in the 1920s and both involve a posse attempting to apprehend an Indigenous man accused of murder of a white person. In both cases the posse includes a white man who is fanatical and openly racist, another who is experienced but not so ‘hot-blooded’ and a younger police officer who is more constrained by rules and ethics. Equally both groups of Europeans are outwitted by the Indigenous fugitive who knows how to live off the land and navigate the terrain. Important too is the fact that the chase moves across land occupied by other Indigenous groups – Aboriginal Australians are not one amorphous mass simply recognisable as ‘Other’ by white society. Instead they are different groups of people with different languages and different cultures. The significant difference in The Tracker is that an Indigenous man is ’employed’ as a tracker to lead the posse to the fugitive with all the moral dilemmas that entails (and he’s played by the film’s lead actor David Gulpilil). In Sweet Country there is also an Indigenous tracker, Archie, another stockman. But Archie is a relatively minor character in the narrative. Another minor character is a mixed race boy Philomac whose status is not clearly defined. However, Philomac is involved in the major incident at the beginning of the film and his ‘in between’ position carries meaning. The whole final section of Sweet Country is loaded with meanings. It poses a number of questions including whether the establishment of a church or the intervention of the justice system will have an impact on the racism expressed in the white community. British audiences should feel implicated in these questions because although Australia became an independent nation in 1901, the influence of British colonialism was still being felt in the 1920s. Researching this post I discovered that between 1927 and 1931, when the events in the narrative were meant to take place, the Northern Territory was in a kind of limbo while new arrangements for its governance were being discussed. I’m not sure if this is significant. Wayne Thornton expresses some of these concerns in the Press Notes.
Sweet Country is a western. A period western set in Central Australia. It has all the elements of the genre – the frontier, confiscation of land, subordination and conquest of a people and epic sweeping landscapes.
The world of Sweet Country has been newly established by the British Crown through the forceful taking of Indigenous lands. Yet these are lands which had and still possess a deep and complex web of ancient Indigenous laws, customs and life.
Sweet Country is set on a frontier outpost in 1929, where different cultural worlds collide, in an epic and beautiful desert landscape. It is a place where Indigenous, and non-Indigenous people push against each other like tectonic plates. It is a clash of cultures, ideologies and spirits that still continues today from when the colonisers first arrived in Australia.
My aim has been to use the accessibility of the western genre for audiences to enter the story and be drawn into this world and so experience the issues faced by an occupied people. (Warwick Thornton)
I think that reference to ‘an occupied people’ is very telling. Sweet Country should make non-Indigenous audiences think differently about how they have previously viewed Australian films.
I’m looking forward to seeing the film again at some point and I’m sure I’ll see things I missed the first time round. I’m encouraged by the Australian box office which after seven weeks has held up very well taking nearly US$1.4 million so far. The UK first weekend (plus previews) is £29,000 from 26 sites (the equivalent of US$40,200). The film opens in the US on Friday 16 March. Part of its box office appeal lies in the presence of Sam Neill and Bryan Brown, two audience favourites in Australia. The Indigenous characters Sam and Lizzie are played by Hamilton Morris and Natassia Gorey-Furber. Morris has one previous credit but Gorey-Furber was making a first appearance. The film was written by Steven McGregor and David Trainter. McGregor is an experienced hand having written and/or directed several TV dramas and films. David Trainter is an Indigenous sound recordist who worked on Samson and Delilah. It was from his grandfather’s knowledge of the historical incidents that the story was developed.
The Australian trailer: (WARNING it shows more of the story than set out above):
As if to prove that Glasgow’s programme offered real diversity, the last film I saw was also the most difficult to read (but also at times quite beautiful in its construction). This is the latest film from Sergey Loznitsa who has now become a Cannes regular. I’m guessing that Loznitsa’s best-known film is Maidan (2014), a documentary about the civil protests in Ukraine in 2013/2014. I was intrigued by that title as I’ve always associated ‘maidan‘ with India as a public space but it turns out to be a Persian word. Loznitsa turns out to be a prolific filmmaker and I’m glad I got the opportunity to see one of his films for the first time. I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Sergey Loznitsa is a Ukranian but has recently lived in Russia and now Germany, which might help to explain the wide range of funders for his latest film. A Gentle Creature is an adaptation – a ‘creative’ one – of a short story by Dosteyevsky. The story dates from 1876 and has had several film adaptations, the most notable perhaps by Robert Bresson as Une femme douce in 1969 and Nazar by Mani Kaul in 1991. There have also been other versions in Russia, Poland, Vietnam, the US and Sri Lanka. Having read an outline of the Dostoyevsky story, I’m at a loss to relate it directly to the new film but it may be that it is a thematic adaptation rather than a ‘faithful’ one.
The film begins with a long shot of a country road. A young woman alights and sets off across the fields. The photography is by Oleg Mutu, The Romanian master whose work I saw most recently in the Polish film United States of Love (2016). The young woman is ‘the gentle creature’ of the title who, like many of the characters in the film, is not given a personal name, and is played by Vasilina Makovtseva. Next we see the woman visiting the post office to retrieve a parcel (actually a box of food, clothes and cigarettes etc.) that has been returned to her by the prison where her husband is incarcerated. Why has this parcel been returned? Her only option is to visit the prison, many miles away, in person and try to deliver it. At this point we begin to realise that we are again in a Kafkaesque narrative where every move to resolve an issue will result in a block or a refusal to act. Our hero is constantly thwarted and thrown into danger as various unreliable characters offer her assistance. The cinematography and some of the elements of the mise en scène suggest that the setting for the journey to the prison could be Soviet Russia before 1990, but other clues confirm it is 2012. It doesn’t seem to matter and as several reviewers have pointed out, the Russian penal system (like the American one?) has been a source of despair from the time of the Tsars until the present. There are suggestions that the prison in the film might be in Siberia and the woman travels by train. The long distances which relatives must travel just adds to the despair.
On the train and at the prison itself, the woman is surrounded by a variety of Russian character types with much drinking and singing of songs. Stoically she walks to and fro carrying her box. We fear that her naïvety will lead her into some kind of forced sex work but somehow she evades her fate. Finally, she falls asleep and in her dreams experiences a kind of show trial and then wakes from a nightmare – only for it to appear as if the real nightmare is about to begin . . . A Gentle Creature is a long film (143 minutes) but for the most part I was fully engaged trying to work out what was happening and what it might mean. It was only the last sequence of the dream that seemed to drag, not because of the dream/fantasy itself but that similar ‘testimonies’ are made by virtually every character the hero has met on her journey. It felt as if we had to hear each one for the narrative to be ‘complete’. I thought I’d got the point after the first two or three but I suspect I wasn’t getting the point at all.
So much talent and effort has gone into the film, supported by so many different organisations from different European countries that I want to support the film myself even if I don’t understand it that well. The performances are all very good, especially the lead. The cinematography and design features are also very good and if the whole mammoth enterprise was achieved with a budget of €2million (IMDb) both the producer Marianne Slot and director Loznitsa are miracle workers. According to the festival programme, the film has been taken up by Arrow Films in the UK, though whether it will get a cinema release remains to be seen. I hope it does find its audience because anyone with better knowledge than me about Russian history and culture will find plenty to get their teeth into.
The final screening in the Ida Lupino retrospective again proved to be a fascinating production and an absorbing film. I’m indebted to the excellent detailed study of Lupino’s work on the Cinema Scope website by Christoph Huber for some of the insights explored here. After The Hitch-Hiker was a sleeper hit (earning over $1 million dollars) Lupino was persuaded by her partners at The Filmakers, against her best instincts, to end the link with RKO and distribute The Bigamist independently. Although by all accounts they promoted the film well, it failed at the box office and sent The Filmakers into a decline it never recovered from. That’s a shame because The Bigamist is definitely worth seeing and we were able to watch a 35mm restoration by UCLA. I understand that some of the other films from The Filmakers are now in the public domain and only exist on poor quality video transfers.
The Bigamist is an example of how Ida Lupino managed to bring elements of film noir to bear on a social issue/problem film. The plot involves a couple, Harry (Edmond O’Brien) and Eve (Joan Fontaine) who want to adopt a child. An agency is pleased to help them and Mr Jordan (Edmund Gwenn) sets out to investigate whether the couple will be good parents. Jordan is a complex character drawing on Gwenn’s signature role as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street in 1947. He appears avuncular (he was 75 when the film came out) but also sharp as a tack when it comes to checking out a prospective parent. He follows Harry, a travelling salesman, from San Francisco to Los Angeles where he corners him and extracts a story, told in flashback in the best film noir style. Eve is the wife and Ida Lupino herself is Phyllis, the woman in another city who Harry turns to from loneliness. I don’t really need to say any more, except that Lupino handles the narrative with great skill and cleverly allows for an ‘open ending’ when the two women meet after the court hearing.
What I found fascinating was that Lupino injects a real sense of disturbance through Mr. Jordan’s investigation. Innocent actions by Harry can take on different meanings and eventually he will be ‘betrayed’. Lupino plays her part very well and she gives it a tone of the innocent young woman caught up in a film noir story. She knew all about that from her own acting career. She was 35 when she made the picture but feels younger. Having said that she has a mature woman’s playful response to Harry’s attempted pickup. Joan Fontaine is also well cast as Eve, unable to have children, super-efficient at building a business with Harry and concerned about her own parents. Harry’s actions are stupid perhaps, but not malicious. He tries to do his best for both women and that’s why it is oddly satisfying that we are denied a ‘resolution’. In the central role, Edmond O’Brien is very good indeed.
The Bigamist looks good and that’s probably down to the partnership of Ida Lupino as director and George Deskant as cinematographer. Deskant had been behind the camera at RKO since 1946 and he’d worked with Lupino, shooting On Dangerous Ground (1951) and another title from The Filmakers, Beware, My Lovely (1952). After The Bigamist he moved into TV – like Lupino herself and I think he must have shot several of the many TV episodes Ida Lupino directed. I suspect too that others from The Bigamist crew followed her into TV. Christoph Huber adds another twist, reporting that Lupino and Deskant decided to use a different camera crew for Eve’s and Phyllis’s scenes. I confess I’m not sure what this achieved. The other strange set of links about The Bigamist concerns Collier Young. His marriage to Lupino had ended in 1951 and in 1952 he married Joan Fontaine. Ida Lupino thus found herself directing her ex-husband’s new wife in a film he produced and for which he provided the original story and even took a bit part in a scene featuring Lupino. The landlady of the apartment house where Phyllis lives is played by Joan Fontaine’s mother Lilian. In one sense it sounds like a bewildering experience for Lupino yet I think it demonstrates how organised and disciplined she must have been. The result is a tight 80 minute feature with not a frame wasted. It’s not surprising that Ida Lupino was so prolific in directing episodes of TV series from 1956 until the late 1960s (during which time she also acted on TV). One other aspect of The Filmakers work that is interesting is an early embracing of product placement in The Bigamist – a clever way to make some extra money. I didn’t notice it until I found it mentioned in a useful Cineaste piece by Dan Georgakas (Vol XXV No. 3 June 2000).
I’m now on a search for more Ida Lupino films – those she directed and those she acted in. Thanks Glasgow FF!
For the Friday free screening in GFF’s ‘Rebel Heroes’ strand, the selected title was the Steve McQueen ‘action policier‘ Bullitt. I saw this film on release nearly 50 years ago and I’ve watched it a few times since on video. But I was up for another stab at the film on a big screen. All the previous archive films I’d seen at GFF were film prints in reasonable condition but Bullitt turned out to be what I assume to be a poor digital transfer to a DCP from a very dark 35mm original. As I remember the film, it offers a contrast between sunny exteriors and almost noir interiors. What we watched was just ‘dark’. I have a widescreen VHS video copy that would probably have looked better on the screen of GFT1. Since the catalogue listed this as coming from Park Circus (the company with most archive prints available in the UK) this is quite disturbing.
So, instead of settling down to simply enjoy the screening I was pushed into trying to find something new in the narrative to grab my attention. If by any strange chance you don’t know the plot of Bullitt, Steve McQueen is the titular hero who is assigned to protect a witness in San Francisco whose evidence could enable slimy politician Robert Vaughn to gain credibility before an election. Everything goes wrong and Bullitt needs to sort out the situation. The script is adapted from a novel by Robert L. Pike, Mute Witness (1963). What is surprising is that the film feels more like 1963 than 1968. Jacqueline Bisset is cruelly under-used as Bullitt’s girlfriend when an English beauty in mini-dresses driving a Porsche – and working as a designer in a large SF agency – might be considered as a major asset in the cast. The film’s score by Lalo Schifrin is very good and memorable but again it does it reflect the changing times? It’s worth thinking about The Graduate (1967) which I’ve argued is also a film that seems a little ‘out of time’ (apart from its soundtrack). Around the late 1960s Hollywood studios were beginning to think about how to attract and retain younger audiences with films that recognised the growing ‘alternative culture’. Easy Rider, when it arrived in 1969, gave the major studios something of a shock. The film I’ve always wanted to see, also set in San Francisco, is Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968) with Julie Christie. This doesn’t seem to get revived. In San Francisco in 1968 you might expect some evidence of the developing Haight Ashbury scene.
Alan Hunter in his introduction emphasised that it was McQueen’s own company Solar Productions who took up the rights and increased McQueen’s role while trying to keep the locations as ‘real’ as possible, enabling shooting in both a hospital and San Francisco airport. In the end, the film stands or falls on McQueen’s performance – and he’s still cool. The car chase at its centre is still exciting. There are also some enjoyable moments when Robert Vaughn finds his imperious commands thwarted by McQueen’s silent insolence and stubbornness. The British director of the film, Peter Yates, had just come from making Robbery (UK 1967) and IMDb informs me that he had been a professional racing driver. McQueen had chosen Yates and he certainly delivered the kind of film McQueen must have wanted. Bullitt is really a testosterone-fuelled police chase movie and though Bullitt gets his man it is at the expense of the collateral death of several others. Audiences have always enjoyed the car chases and McQueen’s star presence. It’s a pity the print didn’t allow us to see them both more clearly.
Alan Hunter introduced this screening in the midst of Glasgow’s ‘whiteout’ as a frivolous French comedy perfectly suited to the need to raise our spirits. He was right – it is a very silly film, but also at times very funny and it’s blessed by a performance at its centre by the great Rossy de Palma, everyone’s favourite supporting player in Almodóvar’s films, given a much bigger role.
How to describe the film? It’s a romantic comedy of sorts and also a fairytale, a ‘big house’ story with a tiny bit of social commentary/class consciousness – played as an ensemble piece. The set-up is a familiar ‘Americans in Paris’ story. Anne (Toni Collette) and Bob (Harvey Keitel) are a (supposedly) very wealthy couple spicing up their faltering marriage by taking over a grand house and gardens – somewhere still in the city but also exclusive. Anne has organised a dinner party for some distinguished guests but at the last moment her stepson, Steven (Tom Hughes) has turned up and invited himself. There are 13 for dinner and an extra guest must be found at the last moment. Anne decides to transform her maid Maria (Rossy de Palma) into a mysterious Spanish noblewoman – and instructs her to say little and be aloof. But a nervous Maria can’t disguise her real personality and she makes an unlikely conquest in the form of David (Michael Smiley), an art consultant who is there to attest to the provenance of a painting Bob wishes to sell. You can probably guess much of the rest of the plot of this riff on Cinderella.
From the cast list, you will have worked out that this is one of those wholly French films that are made in English for the international market. Writer-director Amanda Sthers joins the likes of Luc Besson and Mathieu Kassovitz in this kind of production. Sthers (real name Amanda Queffélec-Maruani) is a celebrated novelist, playwright and screenwriter in France and this is her second directorial venture. Some of Luc Besson’s English-language films such as Lucy (France 2014) have succeeded and similarly, other EuropaCorp (Besson’s company) productions such as the Taken and Transporter franchises have made money despite poor reviews. These films explore universal genres that appeal directly to audiences. I feel that Madame, though mainstream and accessible, won’t have the same appeal and so far its critical reception has not been great. The film was presented by StudioCanal at GFF and I fear that it may suffer the fate of several other ‘popular’ French films in the UK. StudioCanal tends to open them on a few screens and then rush out a DVD a couple of weeks later. Part of the problem is that the ageing, and therefore shrinking, UK audience for French films will ignore this English-language romcom as being ‘too frivolous’ and the general audience will find the French context slightly too different to their usual Anglo-American fare. Having said that, I noticed that the film has done reasonable business (over $US400,000) in Australia. Is that because of Toni Collette?
If you’d like to read a sympathetic review, I recommend ‘Eye for Film‘. I enjoyed the early part of the film and I did find some scenes genuinely funny. I’m always happy to watch Rossy de Palma. The narrative does depend on a sense of class difference but I’m not sure how well that works. Michael Smiley is a fine actor but I wasn’t convinced that he was as upper middle-class as the narrative suggested and overall the narrative doesn’t seem to be able to sustain itself across 90 minutes and lost its way towards the end.
On Wednesday 28th February Scotland was given a Red warning of heavy snow. I was due to go home but found all the trains cancelled. Most of the Film Festival venues closed as Glasgow went into lock-down. But even snow storms can have a silver lining and next day, aware I couldn’t get home, I turned up at GFT to discover that the afternoon shows were on and that I would be able to see more of Ida Lupino’s in the festival’s centenary retrospective.
Ida Lupino was always frustrated under contract at Warner Brothers and in 1948 she set up her own production company, ‘Emerald Productions’ (referring to her mother’s stage name) with partners including producer Collier Young who she married in 1948. Later the company was renamed as ‘The Filmakers’ (sic). During suspensions by Warner Bros for refusing parts, she had learned as much as she could about directing and become an admirer of the tough guy directors like Raoul Walsh and William Wellman. The Hitch-Hiker is one of the seven films that Lupino directed (two of them uncredited) between 1949 and 1954. Her later directing career took her into television, apart from one more film in 1966. Ida Lupino became known as a director who belonged to a modernist school of pre-New Wave auteurs. On a practical level her independent films were all short (70-80 minutes) and made quickly on low budgets of less than $200,000. The Hitch-Hiker lasts just 71 minutes – none of them wasted. It’s a cracker! Made as a co-production with RKO, the film benefits from some well-known RKO department heads including Nicholas Musuraca as cinematographer (one of the great film noir creatives) and C. Bakaleinikoff as music director (again a noir expert). Lupino and Young (now divorced) wrote the screenplay, though IMDb also lists Daniel Mainwaring (writer of Out of the Past and many more noirs) as an uncredited writer. The original story came from Robert Joseph. Mainwaring was one of the writers to suffer from the blacklist – which Lupino didn’t recognise.
The short running time for a film with so much creative talent working on the production is partly attributable to the difficulties Lupino faced with the subject matter. She decided to make a film based on a ‘true crime’ story about the serial killer Billy Cook who was in San Quentin awaiting execution. Lupino visited him there and arranged the rights to his story, planning a film which sounds something like In Cold Blood (1967), the film based on Truman Capote’s ‘faction’ novel. For various reasons, including problems with the production code, the final screenplay changed names and story elements but under Lupino’s direction still retained a documentary, or at least a ‘procedural’ feel. The killer, renamed Emmett Myers, is first seen in California, killing a couple who had offered him a lift and then similarly despatching a travelling salesman and taking his car. When that breaks down he again hitches a ride but this time doesn’t immediately kill the two men on a fishing trip but, holding them at gun-point, forces them to drive him down through Mexico. At some point they know he will kill again. Lupino shows only the killer’s feet and very brief shots of the victims in a swift opening to the narrative before we settle in to the psychological play between the three central characters.
As the killer, Lupino and Young cast William Talman (who later became well-known as the DA always defeated in court by Perry Mason on TV). Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy were cast as the two hostages. O’Brien was an excellent character actor who appeared again for Lupino in The Bigamist later in 1953. Lovejoy is best known to me as the police officer in Nick Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950). Lupino had a leading acting role in On Dangerous Ground (1950) for Nick Ray and claims have been made that she directed some scenes of that film when Ray was unwell. I imagine Lupino was very well-known in Hollywood and must have had a large network of people she had worked with and could rely on. She was an independent, but needed a studio like RKO to distribute her films so she still had to compromise on certain issues.
The Hitch-Hiker is usually described as a film noir and Lupino is often described as the first woman to make a noir – as well as being one of the great femmes fatales in several noirs. I understand why this has happened and it’s true that there are distinctly ‘noirish’ sequences in the film. However, I think it is more useful to consider the film as being in the ‘mode’ of a film noir but drawing on several other genres. Lupino herself was generally interested in films about ‘ordinary people’ – the bewildered folk who find themselves in difficult positions. She looked for that documentary feel. In The Hitch-Hiker there are conventional montages showing newspaper headlines, but also important procedural touches such as the co-operation between the US and Mexican police agencies, the use of radio transmissions to deceive Myers and coverage of the search techniques. I was also struck by how much the narrative resembled a Western, especially in the journey through the desert, the night-time camping and the encounters with small Mexican communities and travellers. It isn’t difficult to imagine the car replaced by horses or a buggy. But the prime generic ‘mover’ of the action is the psychological thriller. Collins (O’Brien) and Bowen (Lovejoy) are ‘ordinary guys’ on a fishing trip. They may well have been in the Second World War (and Bowen is a skilled rifleman) but now they live comfortable lives in the suburbs with wives and families (incidentally this is a very male story – there are no female characters). Myers knows that they can only act together. Neither will risk escaping alone as the other would certainly be killed. He plays games with them and unsettles them at every opportunity. Myers also has a damaged eye that will not close, so it’s almost impossible to tell if he’s sleeping with his staring eye clearly visible.
There are no real surprises in how the story ends but we don’t care because we are taken up with the tension and suspense. We know Myers will be caught but we are still concerned about the two hostages – who are different in their behaviour. I’ve rarely got so involved in a short feature like this.
The film was presented on a 35mm print from the National Film Archive in good condition. Since the railways showed no sign of re-opening, I knew I would have the chance to see The Bigamist the next day – post to follow.
Many of the films I saw at Glasgow this year were ‘picks’ from Cannes, Toronto or other festivals that have already secured UK distribution deals. Lucky is listed as having been acquired by ‘UK Film and TV’, a company I know nothing about but, going by the enthusiastic reception at the screening we attended, it has a good opportunity here to create a ‘sleeper’ or a cult classic. I hope the film will get into cinemas, but I fear it might not. Its USP is that it is a final lead actor appearance for Harry Dean Stanton, one of the best-loved character stars of the last fifty years. Harry Dean died aged 91 last September and, although there is one more supporting role to come in a proposed 2018 release, Lucky will stand as his epitaph, especially as its script incorporates several aspects of Harry Dean’s own life story.
Ironically, the screening we watched took place in Screen 1 of the 18-screen Cineworld complex a few streets away from the Glasgow Film Theatre. Harry Dean made his name first in popular genre features. His role in Alien (1979) is possibly what made him a name to remember, but before that he had featured in a long string of Westerns, war combat and other action genre films since the mid 1950s, often ‘uncredited’. I think it was in films by Sam Peckinpah, Monte Hellman and Walter Hill that I first noticed him. In 1984 he had two major leading roles in Repo Man by Alex Cox and Paris, Texas by Wim Wenders. Later he became associated with David Lynch and his later career was again down the cast list, often in independent productions, often for ‘name’ directors. Seen on a large multiplex screen, Lucky is unusual as a ‘slow’ film with few young characters and very little action. But it has a great cast, a beautifully-written script by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja and direction by another great supporting player John Carroll Lynch (last seen by me as Lyndon B. Johnson in Jackie) on his first film behind the camera. Photographed by the veteran Tim Suhrstedt, the film is stately in its movements – matching its 90 year-old leading man.
Although this is clearly a low-budget film, it looked great on a big screen. Most of the film was shot in Piru, Ventura County, California. IMDb lists 132 features filmed in this small community since the late 1940s. Shots of the surrounding desert were actually captured in Arizona. The film’s ‘action’ mainly follows Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton) from the time he gets up each day through his exercise regime, his visits to the diner and the store and finally each night to a small bar. The ‘rebel’ of the film is ‘President Roosevelt’, the 100 year-old tortoise belonging to Howard (played with great delicacy by David Lynch) who goes walkabout and nearly steals the film. What’s it about? Well, I guess it’s about growing old and keeping your dignity without accepting the bullshit that comes with lazy assumptions about old age. It’s also great that Lucky is an atheist facing his end – which seems all too rare in American cinema.
Lucky has three facets of Harry Dean Stanton’s own life. He comes from Kentucky, he has had experience of musical performance and during the Pacific War he was a cook aboard an ‘LST’ (Landing Ship, Tank). The one slight mistep in the film for me is when Lucky meets another veteran in the diner one day. Fred, the veteran is played by Tom Skerritt (who appeared alongside Harry Dean in Alien). Skerritt was a sprightly 83 when he appeared in Lucky, but even so he looks too young to have been in Okinawa in 1945 (when he would have been 12 years old). This might seem to be nit-picking but Lucky‘s focus on Harry Dean Stanton’s 90 year-old body is relentless (and refreshing). The scene between the two veterans could still work with Lucky talking about the Pacific War and Fred replying with memories of Vietnam or even Korea.
Lucky also has music, including an amazing version of ‘Volver, Volver’ (written by Fernando Maldonado) which Lucky sings in Spanish at a birthday party (the title translates as ‘Return’ or ‘Come back’. This is a showstopper and the film ends with Johnny Cash over the credits singing ‘I See a Darkness’. Lucky is a film that represents a world many of us would like to live in. Here is a community where people care about each other. Where it doesn’t matter if you are black or white, anglo or hispanic. It’s a film without violence or unnecessary swearing. But it’s also a world where you can argue, regret and be human in many different ways. It’s certainly worth spending 86 minutes of your time exploring, so I urge you to seek it out.