This is perhaps an unusual film to be discussed on this blog but, apart from providing some light relief as an ‘entertainment film’, it does exemplify several trends in British and international cinema in the 1960s. The production team of Basil Dearden and Michael Relph developed mainly at Ealing Studios in the 1940s and early 1950s. They then sometimes worked separately but later re-united for several successful ‘social melodramas’ interspersed with various forms of comedy films. Dearden was nearly always the director with Relph the writer, producer and sometimes art/production designer. He performed all three roles on Assassination Bureau. By the late 1960s the pair were generally able to command bigger budgets, in this case producing at Pinewood with support from Paramount. They were also able to attract top talent such as Geoffrey Unsworth as DoP and Ron Grainer as music composer. The involvement of Paramount marks this as one of the productions to benefit from the significant investment in the UK industry by Hollywood studios in the second half of the 1960s.
The budget and Dearden-Relph’s track record also helped to attract a distinguished cast led by Diana Rigg and Oliver Reed. Diana Rigg, who died in September 2020 was never really a ‘film star’ as such, though she was undoubtedly a star (Shakespearian) actor on the stage and a very popular TV performer, mainly because of her stint as ‘Mrs Peel’ in The Avengers (51 episodes, 1965-68). That series sold well abroad so she developed the international appeal of a film star through TV. I would argue that the late 1960s through to the mid 1970s was an important period in her film appearances. Besides this film, the two I remember were The Hospital (1971) and Theatre of Blood (1973), both, like The Avengers and The Assassination Bureau, mixing comedy with other genres.
Oliver Reed was, by contrast, primarily an actor on film. IMDb lists 122 roles in a career lasting 45 years. He began as an uncredited youth in the 1950s and broke through in the 1960s in Hammer films, especially Joe Losey’s The Damned in 1962. By the late 1960s he was a leading man and appearing in some noteworthy films including Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969) and The Devils (1971) and Michael Apted’s The Triple Echo (1972). These titles cast him opposite Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave. Mr Reed was a lucky boy in the casting process and the roles continued through the 1970s before his heavy drinking and wild behaviour made him well-known as a ‘celebrity’ rather than the talented star actor he could be. The film roles declined in importance – some were simply smaller roles, others were in not very good films. Some reviewers of The Assassination Bureau are not impressed by Rigg and Reed but they both seemed fine to me and I think they carry the film’s comedic tone very well.
The film’s plot is fairly simple. It is based on an incomplete book by Jack London that was finished in 1963 by another writer, Robert L. Fish (writer of the novel used for Bullitt in 1968), and adapted by Michael Relph. Sonya Winter (Diana Rigg) is a feminist in London a few years before the Great War in 1914. She discovers the existence of ‘The Assassination Bureau Ltd.’, a secret organisation that will accept commissions to assassinate public figures. Originally intended to target corrupt or morally reprehensible leaders, the Bureau now seems to kill anyone for a fee. Alarmed by the threat such a group poses for the general well-being, Sonya has the idea of commissioning an assassination, selecting the head of the Bureau himself, Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed) as the target. Amused, he accepts the commission and challenges the other members of The Bureau to attempt to kill him, thinking that it will enable him to re-organise the Bureau’s membership. He sets off across Europe to pre-empt his erstwhile colleagues, killing them before they can kill him. Ms Winter goes along to record the events for a newspaper she has convinced to take a punt on a female journalist but soon gets more involved than she expected. Some of the assassinations are quite clever but they all borrow genre elements from other films, some reminded me of scenes from Hammer films.
The original novel belongs to a cycle of Gothic fictions/espionage/anarchist novel set in the 1890s or early twentieth century. The most obvious example is Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) but similar elements are found in Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories. The Holmes links remind us also that recent Holmes films and have re-visited the era and the meta genre as well as being re-worked as ‘steampunk’ narratives.
Finally, this kind of production is typical of the ‘international’ films of the period. Ostensibly a British film based at Pinewood, the funding is American and the third credit on the film is for Telly Savalas, who plays the newspaper owner prepared to hire Ms Winter – he later turns out to fulfil a rather different role. Although a familiar face in American film and TV, Savalas wasn’t a ‘star’ in the UK at this point. By the mid 1970s he would become much better known for the Kojak TV series. The international casting really refers to the various European stars who play the members of the Bureau. These include Philippe Noiret and Curd Jürgens. The less well-known Annabella Incontrera perhaps steals the picture as the wife of the Italian member of the Bureau. The locations used included Paris, Vienna and Venice – something that British productions had managed fairly consistently since the early 1950s.
The Assassination Bureau has appeared on Talking Pictures TV a few times and it reminds us of the period when the British cinema could still make and release films of this scale on a regular basis. But it was almost the end of the British studio system, especially with the withdrawal of Hollywood investment in the next few years. If you enjoy a good romp with a strong cast I think the film is quite entertaining.
The Lighthouse has received rave reviews and a smaller number of groans and dismissals. I can understand that, but I find myself somewhere in the middle. The film’s strength is its about technical virtuosity and I certainly applaud the cinematography, the set design, the sound design, the effects work and the central performances. It’s worth going to see the film for these achievements alone. Unfortunately, I don’t think the script works quite as well. It’s not so much the ‘content’ of the script but more the choice of structure and the pacing and the handling of genre elements. It’s a clever and learned script, but I did find it tedious at times.
The film is written and directed by Robert Eggers. His brother Max had the original idea for a film inspired by ‘The Light-House’, a two page ‘fragment’ and the last thing written by Edgar Allen Poe in 1849. The Eggers’ script moves away from Poe and in its use of language and the history of myths and legends told by sailors and coastal peoples it evokes Herman Melville. The narrative is set in the 1890s on the New England coast (though it was shot on the South-West tip of Nova Scotia near Yarmouth). Two lighthouse keepers arrive on an island to replace a pair who leave on the same tender. The new men are the experienced Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and the younger new ‘wickie’ Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson). The younger man is given all the menial (and dirty, heavy) jobs. Wake concentrates on the lamp at the top of the tower.
The two men speak little and Winslow tries to avoid drinking alcohol as the rulebook decrees. Wake drinks every evening and eventually Winslow gives in and the two men relax a little. But the work and the weather and the isolation prey on Winslow who begins to have nightmares and strange experiences around the island. On the night before the pair are due to be relieved, a violent storm blows in and the men get very drunk. No boat arrives and the terrifying waves and winds lash the island. There are even darker times ahead.
All of this is delivered on screen in images composed for the 1.19:1 aspect ratio sometimes termed ‘Movietone’ but also used in German and British cinema at the end of the 1920s and early 1930s during the transition to sound on film. To complement the format, Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke chose to shoot on film using filmstock and lenses which recreated the look of the 1920s/30s. However, they also chose to manipulate the images using stronger artificial lights than would have been available at that time. All of this seemingly made the actual shooting process quite difficult for the actors. According to Robert Pattinson in the Sight&Sound special on the film (February 2020), he and Willem Dafoe were often very close together to fit in the narrow frame. Certainly at the beginning of the film the qualities of the image are very noticeable as the lighthouse and the ship bringing the new ‘wickies’ gradually appear in the fog. Some of the early compositions making striking use of the vertical axis, peering up at the lighthouse and then placing the characters at the top of the screen. Gradually, however, I found myself getting used to the shape and texture of the images. The only noticeable difference from watching an Academy Ratio print was that the masking curtains in the Cubby Broccoli cinema at the National Media Museum didn’t close to the edge of the frame – presumably there is only a selectable position for Academy from the projection box?
The visual qualities of the image and the sound design (the wind, rain, the foghorn, the steam engine) are terrific. The problems come, partly I think because there are too many allusions to other films, paintings and literary narratives. This in turn suggests a wide range of genres, defined by iconography and generic characters as well as visual/aural style. IMDB suggests ‘Drama’ and ‘Fantasy’. Graham Fuller in Sight&Sound suggests a “gothic maritime horror film depicting a psychosexual power struggle”. He also, tellingly, suggests the film is “less a text than a trove [of visual and literary influences].”
If we take Fuller’s analysis as a starting point, we might argue that there is a core genre repertoire here which comprises a specific location (the North Atlantic or more specifically the North East seaboard of the US/Canada), a specific period (in this case the late 19th century) and specific characters (sailors, whalers, lighthouse keepers and others whose lives depend on the sea) and environmental factors (sea, wind, rain, fog). By extending one or more of these elemental categories we can soon find a whole range of films and other narratives. We can then merge this repertoire with the ‘psychosexual power struggle’ – the drama of two men locked into a destructive relationship. Eggers’ narrative does provide us with a kind of ‘key’ to the narrative when ‘Winslow’ reveals that he has changed his name because he fled another job in Canada, feeling ‘guilty’ for something he did. On this basis, the horror elements in the film could be manifestations of his breakdown exacerbated by the behaviour of Wake. The iconography of his nightmares could conceivably be drawn from his own experiences, if he had heard the tales or read the stories. But as the audience we have seen and read much more. For example, Winslow seems to be terrorised by a gull. It’s impossible not to think of Hitchcock and the birds of Bodega Bay as well as the birds of Greek mythology. The other images that may be nightmares offer similar kinds of references. I’m making this reading in retrospect. During the screening I reached a point where I began to lose interest and I’m not sure why. I can only think that I became overwhelmed by the ‘trove’ of references and lost my way through the narrative.
Fuller’s account of references includes Michael Powell’s 1935 ‘quota quickie’ The Phantom Light, a comedy thriller about murder and sabotage at a remote Welsh lighthouse which I watched a couple of years ago. It’s not a great film but it’s entertaining and I might go back and watch it again. Powell is a good example of a filmmaker who was ultimately a successful ‘artist’ because he made films for himself and for audiences – large audiences who respected wit and intelligence. Eggers is an artist who seems to make films for himself and a much smaller audience. If you are part of that audience you may enjoy the film’s narrative as much as the technical virtuosity and the performances.
This year celebrating women in cinema has many anniversaries to promote. One of the most important is the 200th anniversary of the writing of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstencraft Shelley. This film was surely conceived as a celebration of the bi-centenary. I’m a little surprised that there hasn’t been more of a promotional push for it. Or perhaps there has – perhaps in women’s magazines and websites/social media? It’s certainly an interesting second feature for director Haifaa Al-Mansour, following Wadjda in 2013, especially as 2018 is the year in which Saudi women have got the legal right to apply for a driving licence for the first time and cinemas are finally being opened in the Kingdom. Next year is the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, which is commemorated in Mike Leigh’s new film and which brings us to Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary’s husband and a radical poet who wrote a long poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ after hearing about the massacre. His inspirational words “Ye are many – they are few”, are still quoted today. Unfortunately, Peterloo and other events such as the Napoleonic Wars are not mentioned in the film, but it’s necessary to be aware of Percy’s radicalism alongside Mary’s amazing creativity. Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women), died a few days after her daughter was born and her story hangs heavy over Mary.
This is an independent film with funding from three countries. In practical terms, some of location work was in Luxembourg and much of the studio work and post-production was in Ireland. The BFI had a lesser role I suppose but the cast is primarily British apart from Elle Fanning as Mary. The history of the production begins with debutant Australian screenwriter Emma Jensen who received funding support from Screen NSW and Screen Australia and whose agent sold the project to an American producer, who in turn attached Al-Mansour (who had studied in Sydney). Elle Fanning was cast early and then HanWay (the UK company led by Jeremy Thomas) took over as producer and international sales agent.
What kind of costume/heritage/historical biopic (as well as ‘romance’) does Mary Shelley turn out to be? It could be one of those traditional Hollywood studio biopics – except this isn’t a studio pic as such. Could it be one of those BBC-style costume pics or something more radical and modernist? For me, Elle Fanning does rather push it towards Hollywood, though the overall look and feel of the film make it appear more realist in the mode of BBC adaptations of 19th century novels. As Mary, Fanning is perhaps too tall, too healthy and too attractive. There is nothing wrong with her performance, but she stands out as a ‘star actor’. I’m assuming that the initial producer thought getting her on board would make finding financial backing easier and that’s probably correct. I am not criticising Ms Fanning who is undoubtedly a talented actor, but there are many young British actors – Florence Pugh for instance – who might have been considered. As it is, Pugh’s co-star in The Falling (UK 2014), Maisie Williams, is rather wasted in a minor role in Mary Shelley – her status as a star of Game of Thrones came too late perhaps? I think that one possible pointer to what kind of film Mary Shelley might have become is offered by Jane Campion’s film Bright Star (France-Australia-UK 2009) about the young John Keats and Fanny Brawne, a similar pairing of two ‘creative’ young lovers at roughly the same ‘moment’ in history as Mary and Percy. It’s an unfair comparison because Jane Campion, Ben Whishart and Abbie Cornish have more experience. It’s interesting though because both films originated in Australia. Campion chose a title that didn’t immediately suggest the costume biopic and Mary Shelley in fact began with the title A Storm In the Stars – there are at least two scenes in the film in which gazing at the night sky features prominently.
If Bright Star was set in rural Hampstead with flowers and butterflies and cottage gardens, Mary Shelley is signed as ‘gothic romance’ from the get-go. The beginnings of the industrial age are in the background (and so is the not-mentioned war). The key London locations are dark and gloomy St. Pancras and upper-class Bloomsbury, the former partly a studio construction, the latter a Dublin street? The film’s plot gives no indication of specific dates. I found this odd since these were two ‘real lives’ lived at a time when sudden death was not unusual. But perhaps it is just me who wants the clear historical context? As far as I can work out, the narrative begins in 1813, Mary meets Percy in 1814. In 1816 they spend the summer by Lake Geneva with Byron and Polidori and the short story idea for Frankenstein is first developed. The novel is published in 1818 and the narrative ends around 1819.
The film is presented as a romance and as an introduction to the origins of the Frankenstein story – thus the gothic romance. It should be a very dark and passionate story – and a very sexy one. I’m trying to imagine the production meetings and the arguments about how much to ‘push’ the more salacious possibilities of the story and how important a sense of repression/restraint might be. Although I enjoyed the film I do think it feels rather stifled in its attempts to reach its potential. The script is in tune with the current campaigns around ‘MeToo’ and sexual abuse and with the suppression of the true authors (Mary and Polidori) of stories passed off as the work of Shelley and Byron. That’s all fine but it loses some of its impact when Shelley (Douglas Booth) and Byron (Tom Sturridge) are poorly developed characters with no real substance. They came across to me like a pair of public school boys – privileged and cruel but not displaying any real talent. (By contrast, Stephen Dillane as Godwin, Mary’s father, seems just right.) The whole Lake Geneva sequence cried out for something like the appearance of Elsa Lanchester as Mary in the 1935 Bride of Frankenstein. 1816 was the ‘The Year Without a Summer’ in which crops failed and the skies were dark with rain – I don’t think enough of this is made in the film. I’m guessing that the budget limitations were partly to blame. Overall though I think the narrative just doesn’t have enough ‘passion’ and ‘wildness’, the key features of Romanticism.
Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak is a companion piece for his early films The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo, Spain-Mexico 2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno, Spain-Mexico-US 2006) and the film he helped to produce, El orfanato (The Orphanage 2007). But whereas these films combined the ‘gothic romance’ with a Spanish Civil War story via various rich metaphors, del Toro’s new film is essentially a re-working of a classic gothic romance narrative set in the early Edwardian period. Compared to the earlier films Crimson Peak is even more beautifully conceived and designed but unfortunately does not carry the same powerful political message. It does, however, offer a worthwhile commentary on the gothic romance and the presentation of ‘phantasms’.
The narrative involves an English ‘gentleman’ and his sister, Thomas and Lucille Sharpe (played by Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain), who visit Buffalo NY where Thomas seeks investment funds from the banker Carter Cushing. Thomas wants to build a mechanical extractor for the deposits of red clay on which his family property sits in the wilds of Cumberland. The blood-red clay is valuable for firing high-quality tiles but is also threatening the foundations of the great old house and seeping through the ground like blood. Thomas and Lucille leave America without investment funds but with Cushing’s daughter Edith (Mia Wasikowska) as the new Mrs Sharpe. They return to the great gothic mansion where the rest of the narrative plays out.
Once in the UK, Crimson Peak becomes more focused on a three-way power struggle in the classic gothic house with strict colour coding of costumes and fantastic attention to mise en scène, lighting and cinematography. The background to the production suggests that del Toro had been trying to make the film for a long time, but that he hung on until he found backers prepared to let him have the $50 million that he knew would be needed to create the spectacle that he wanted to create. This passion for the project is evident in the number of promotional videos that accompanied the film’s release, including one in which del Toro himself takes us through aspects of set design and the SFX needed to create his ‘phantasms’ – creations that are part digital effect and part traditional effects work (see the clip below).
I went to see Crimson Peak on a large multiplex screen, primarily to immerse myself in the production design and the richness of del Toro’s imagination. I wasn’t sure what kind of narrative to expect and I’m still not sure why I didn’t enjoy it more. Everything about the production is first class, including the three central performances. Del Toro’s ideas are gloriously realised in the set and I enjoyed the presentation of the phantasms. The film was shot in Canada and the one feature that didn’t work for me was the presentation of landscape. The mystery is why del Toro and his co-writer Matthew Robbins chose ‘Cumberland’ as the location for the house – and then presented it as an isolated house on a featureless snow-covered moor, so that it could really have been anywhere. There is a strong sense of landscape in British gothic stories set in the late 19th and into the 20th century. Think of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Hitchcock’s Rebecca or the more recent The Woman in Black. The landscape doesn’t have to be ‘factually correct’ but it should resonate with the story in some way. I seem to remember that del Toro shot in Northern Ireland on the Devil’s Causeway for Hellboy 2, so he has had some experience of the possibilities. Perhaps I’m just complaining because I want to see Cumbrian landscapes – I don’t worry about the Spanish locations in the earlier films, but that’s because they do seem to be part of the overall presentation of the Civil War.
Crimson Peak didn’t find the large audience that might have justified its production spend. I think that’s partly because gothic melodrama/romance is currently out of favour and is only acceptable as part of a package in which the potential horror story is strong enough on its own. By mixing the two in the way it is done here – appealing to two different audiences – del Toro has not really satisfied either. I suspect that the focus on the production design has meant that the script received less attention than it should have done. Thinking back, the ingredients are there for a great melodrama – there are narrative elements about childhood and parenting that might have come from a Wilkie Collins novel – but somehow they don’t cohere.
Perhaps Crimson Peak will become a cult film through theatrical revivals – I’m glad I saw it on a big screen.
Guillermo del Toro introduces one feature of his elaborate studio set:
. . . and here’s another:
Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish-set films are discussed in Chapter 4 of The Global Film Book.
Apart from co-productions, I think I’ve only seen one other Venezuelan film and that was at a festival. All credit then to Matchbox films, the distributor of the UK DVD released today, 27th April. In some ways very familiar, this is actually quite a complex and unusual film. Ostensibly a distinctly Hispanic Gothic ‘haunted house’ story, the title reveals that there is also a ‘time’ dimension which adds a further element to the mix.
The central character is Dulce (played by Ruddy Rodriguez), a mother with two young boys living with a man who is the father of the younger child. The narrative begins in 1981 when Dulce is arrested for the murder of her partner in circumstances she doesn’t really understand. Thirty years later she is released from prison but held under house arrest in the same old house. Where are her two sons? By constantly moving between 1981 and 2011 the story is gradually revealed. This ‘reveal’ also requires an ‘investigator’, here a young priest. Added to the Catholic discourse is a visit from a medium and a spirit guide drawn from Venezuela’s African and indigenous cultural mix. The priest will discover that the house has a history and that previous families who lived there also had problems.
At the beginning of the film I felt that there was something odd about the aesthetics of the film and for the first few minutes I wasn’t sure if this was meant to be Spain or Latin America (I hadn’t checked before sticking the DVD in the player). The haunted house and the female-centred family melodrama have been explored in several high profile Spanish films including El orfanato (2007) but I sensed rather than saw directly links to Mexican horror films like Kilómetro 31 (2006) or in the case of the spirit guide, aspects of Cuban cinema and Santería (a religious tradition found across Cuba and Venezuela). Another Cuban link and the first indication that confirmed Latin American cinema for me was the importance of baseball.
I can’t imagine that first time producer-writer-director Alejandro Hidalgo had much of a budget to play with but he handles the complex shifts in time and the repetition of sequences from different perspectives very well. The house itself is a great setting and although the pacing and use of music teeters on the edge of constant portentousness, he manages to keep control and deliver. Looking at the comments from various horror fansites the film has gone down well with its intended audiences. If I have a criticism it’s that I would like to have found out more about the early history of the house, but really the story is complex enough and the closing sequences spring some surprises and twists. I hope the film finds its audience in the UK.
Official trailer (US?):
‘Hammer horror’ is back, which will probably only be meaningful to the older reader. The Woman in Black is a welcome return for this purveyor of British horror movies that has been defunct for 25 years; interestingly it’s only got a 12A certificate whereas the original Hammer benefited from salacious marketing emphasising the films’ ‘adult’ credentials.
In Britain the X-certificate (adults only) had replaced the H (for ‘horror’) certificate in 1951. In an attempt to differentiate itself from the new mass medium, television, film companies began using the X certificate as a way of branding their product as risqué and/or violent:
The number of films awarded an ‘X’ certificate by the British censor rose remorselessly from 1954 onward and especially at the end of the 1950s, when it quadrupled . . . (David Pirie, 1980, part 3, Hammer Horror Teaching Pack)
Indeed Hammer used the X in its marketing for The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and this move launched the production company on a successful series of Gothic horror movies including both ‘Universal’s’ 1930s monsters in Curse of Frankenstein (1956) and Dracula (1957). Using lurid colour, combined with the British theatrical tradition of acting (best exemplified by Peter Cushing), Hammer’s films were condemned by most critics and loved by audiences. Like the Victorian Gothic of its source material, Hammer movies sublimated the sexual into the violence of the monster. As censorship shackles lessened the sex became less sublimated and in the 1970s, when Hammer was struggling to survive economically, it produced exploitation films such as The Vampire Lovers (1970).
Sensibly, as the studio wouldn’t be advised to compete with the ‘gorenography’ of the Saw series (US, 2004-10), it’s chosen a modern ghost story, by Susan Hill, for its comeback. Clever casting of Daniel Radcliffe, in his first post-Potter role, ensured plenty of publicity for the $17m budgeted feature and it’s taken a healthy $35m after 10 days in North America. Despite its ‘lowly’ certificate for a horror film, there are plenty of spine-tingling-twitching-in-the-seat moments.
The film fits happily into the Hammer oeuvre with its Gothic house and suspicious ‘peasants’ though I wasn’t clear where it was set. Sight & Sound suggests the Fens, which makes sense, but the Settle-Carlisle railway is advertised on the train Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) travels on (our resident trainspotter – Roy – tells me the train’s all wrong). We even get the ‘classic’ scene when our hero enters the pub to glaring from the locals. However, there’s also more than enough to suggest the makers have learned from J-horror of how to make little details in the background as scary as big ones in the foreground.
I enjoyed the film even though I felt Radcliffe was little more than a lump of wood. I didn’t get a sense of the protagonist being reluctant to stay the night in the house that most of us wouldn’t enter in broad daylight. Hopefully the film will do well to continue a box-office renaissance for British cinema over the last 12 months. BAFTA, however, aren’t helping by claiming The Artist is the best film from last year.