Tag: Max von Sydow

The Magician (1958)

The Magician (1958)

Illusion, faith and rationalism are all explored in Bergman’s fascinating musing on performance

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Cast: Max von Sydow (Albert Emanuel Vogler), Ingrid Thulin (Aman/Manda Vogler), Gunnar Björnstrand (Dr. Vergerus), Naima Wifstrand (Granny Vogler), Bengt Ekerot (Johan Spegel), Bibi Andersson (Sara), Birgitta Pettersson (Sanna), Gertrud Fridh (Ottilia Egerman), Lars Ekborg (Simson), Toivo Pawlo (Police Superintendent Starbeck), Erland Josephson (Consul Egerman), Åke Fridell (Tubal), Sif Ruud (Sofia Garp), Oscar Ljung (Antonsson), Ulla Sjöblom (Henrietta Starbeck), Axel Düberg (Rustan)

He who tells the truth may be the greatest liar. So thinks Mr Aman (Ingrid Thulin), in the carriage carrying him and the rest of Albert Emmanuel Volger’s Magnetic Health Theatre to a performance in a village in nineteenth-century Sweden. It’s fitting for Aman to thinking about it, since he’s actually Vogler’s wife Manda. The mute Vogler (Max von Sydow) claims powers of healing and mesmerism. But perhaps he’s making it up? If we peek behind the curtain, what is the truth?

Peeking behind the curtain is exactly what their clients want to do. The troupe is due to perform before a trio of rationalists, practically falling over themselves to debunk every step Vogler takes. Dr Vergerus (Gunnar Björnstrand) is a chilly health official who only believes what his own hands touch. Consul Egerman (Erland Josephson) wants to prove it’s rubbish to his wife Ottila (Gertrude Fridh), while Police Superintendent Starbeck (Tovio Pawlo) is a swaggering bully who just likes making people feel small. But can the imperious Vogler turn the tables on these would-be myth busters?

Bergman first struck upon the idea for The Magician after observing how much audiences at the theatre wanted to go backstage and meet the actors – and how they were invariably disappointed when they did at how everyday it was. Based on a GK Chesterton play, The Magician is a multi-layered musing on the relationship between performance and viewing, and the conflict between rationalism and faith. At heart it sympathises with the plight of the performer, presenting their work to an unsympathetic, uninterested, unengaged and unimpressed audience.

The theatre troupe look all sorts of glamourous, with the eccentric costumes and their intriguingly unknowable personae. They offer a carnival of the weird and wonderful that fascinates the rationalists, in spite of how much they want to debunk it. But, as they strip down the acts, they find plainer, simpler, less mysterious people below. Despite their eagerness to know how the trick is done, they are disappointed to find out. They barely watch the acts, or listen to the skill of the performers, because they are focused on unpicking the minutia and detail (Bergman having a pop at pretentious critical writing like the material here perhaps?).

Our rationalists are, to a man, an unpleasant, smug and often insufferable bunch. They have a clear world view and anything unscientific doesn’t fit in it: even God is “totally out of date”. Tovio Pawlo’s Starbeck is a crude, jumped-up bully, who feels barely more than a step or two higher up the social pyramid than Vogler. Egerman (a wonderfully nervy and insecure Erland Josephson) is so in awe of facts and statistics he can barely think for himself. Really controlling things is Dr Vergerus, a masterful performance of arrogance and self-satisfaction masquerading as open-minded scientific enquiry from Gunnar Björnstrand.

Far from inquiring, Vergeus’ mind is rigidly closed to anything outside of his world view. People are categorised and little more than objects of curiosity – he even speaks (ominously it turns out) of an eagerness to dissect Vogler. Flashes of the supernatural or inexplicable are met with blank terror which Vergeus swiftly covers with cold impassivity. He has made up his mind well before Vogler arrives. Like the rest of the rationalists, he preaches absolute truth but only on his own terms.

And perhaps he’s right to, in a way. The troupe are liars – but at least they are honest about it. They claim magical skills of healing and love potions (“what the bottle looks like and the colour” is far more important than the contents) which they merrily flog to the credulous. Their magic tricks are dressed up in elaborate costumes and quasi-mystical business. Their promoter Tubal (another impressive, bombastic performance for Bergman from Åke Fridell) shamelessly peddles exaggerated stories of their mastery. They may be a glamourous, but they are also cheap.

And then of course there is Vogler, who has practically dressed himself as a prop. Coated in pale make-up, Fu Manchu facial hair and a flowing black wig, von Sydow presents Vogler as an enigmatic showman. Bergman makes fabulous use of his riveting stare – surely he doesn’t need any flim-flam to hypnotise when he can glare at you like that. There is a sadness to Vogler though: his faith in himself has gone. Encountering a dying actor on the road (a neat cameo from Bengt Ekerot – and a nice call-back to his and von Sydow’s Seventh Seal team-up), Vogler’s face leans forward in fascination, curiosity and a strange longing as the actor faces death, as if he is longing to touch powers beyond once more. Manda is adamant his powers used to be real, but behind the contemptuous and defiant stare it’s unclear if Vogler knows where he is going.

Not that it matters. He’s still got the star quality to leave Mrs Egerman weak at the knees, desperate to seduce him to touch a part of his magic. And the powers are still there – even in their first meeting, Vegeus feels a flash of discomfort as Vogler’s fixed stare causes his mind to drift (a fear he dismisses in seconds). Its only as Bergman’s film strips down the performance qualities of Vogler – his costume, his make-up, his stage persona – and leaves an off-duty actor, that the dark fascination of his clients finally snaps all together into smug, rationalist contempt.

But that’s not before Vogler turns the table on Vergeus with an unsettling confrontation in a locked loft, after a performance seems to have gone disastrously wrong. It’s Vogler’s intimidating “real performance” to prove he and his troupe can still engross and deceive their audiences. This horror-tinged, mesmeric sequence of reflections, shadows, distant sounds and small movements is another reminder of what a master of the cinema of terror Bergman could have been (imagine he had joined von Sydow for The Exorcist!). It’s a superb sequence that almost shakes Vergeus’ faith in his certainty, before becoming another confirmation of how dismissive audiences are when they find out how the trick was done (no matter the impact it had on them at the time).

The Magician isn’t perfect. The middle of the film spends a little too long with the servants in the belly of the house (a Bergman trope of delight for the love of simple, everyday pleasures among the working classes). But its exploration of rationalism and artistry is fascinating. There are masterful performances (in addition to the earlier named, Ingrid Thulin is outstanding). But there is a lingering sense underneath that perhaps Bergman is gently accusing us of being little better than the rationalists, eager to know how cinema works but then talking it down when we find out. Which I suppose means a review of it rather makes his point.

Wild Strawberries (1957)

Wild Strawberries (1957)

An aged doctor reflects on his past regrets and failures, in Bergman’s strangely optimistic masterpiece

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Cast: Victor Sjöström (Professor Isak Borg), Bibi Andersson (Sara/Sara Borg), Ingrid Thulin (Marianne Borg), Gunnar Björnstrand (Evald Borg), Jullan Kindahl (Mrs Agda), Folke Sundquist (Anders), Björn Bjelfvenstam (Viktor), Naima Wifstrand (Isak’s Mother), Gunnel Broström (Berit Alman), Gunnar Sjöberg (Sten Alman/Examiner), Max von Sydow (Henrik Åkerman), Ann-Marie Wiman (Eva Åkerman), Gertrud Fridh (Karin Borg), Åke Fridell (Karin’s lover), Per Sjöstrand (Sigfrid Borg)

Is anything in life more painful than regret? When we look back at our past mistakes, the things we wish had played out differently, the roads not taken, it’s difficult to accept there is nothing we can do about it. It’s the theme of Bergman’s beautiful, strangely optimistic Wild Strawberries (his third consecutive masterpiece, cementing him as one of the most distinctive, visionary directors in the world). Wild Strawberries is filmed with a virtuoso assurance, that still finds a genuine sense of optimism, despite the pain of the past.

It’s about a long, single-day, road trip taken by famed, retired, medic Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström, Sweden’s legendary father of cinema and Bergman’s idol) and his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin). Isak is receiving an honorary doctorate in Lund but, after a bad dream, spontaneously decides to drive there. They drop by places with huge personal significance: the country chalet where he loved and lost his cousin Sara (Bibi Andersson) and the home of his mother (Naima Wifstand), who perhaps never really wanted him. Along they way they pick up a trio of young hitchhikers, one of whom, Sara (Bibi Andersson again), reminds him of his lost love. Will Isak come to terms with his regrets and failures?

The Wild Strawberries were collected by Sara on the birthday of her and Isak’s uncle. They are touch points in Isak’s memories, a reminder of the summer when Sara broke off her engagement with him to marry his more fun brother Sigfrid (Per Sjöstrand). Did that moment set Isak on the path of distant, judgmental coolness that defined his whole life? Or was he always bound to become who was, especially since his mother matches him for chilly distance? Is the cycle destined to continue, as Isak’s son Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand, full of cold nihilism) is just as austere as his father?

Bergman‘s radiant memory piece, explores all this without casting judgment. Wild Strawberries profoundly studies the regrets that come with facing your mortality. Isak becomes so lost in his memories, he literally becomes a silent witness in them. Sjöström’s beautifully expressive face lights up with a mixture of powerless pleasure, sadness and longing as he sees Sara once more – its implied the only woman (or indeed person) he has allowed himself to purely love.

What’s striking though, is that Isak’s memory of her – flirting with Sigfrid and then tearfully telling another cousin that Isak is so nice but… – is not a memory he can possibly have. He was never there: it can only be his supposition. It’s the same with the birthday party of his uncle (Bergman fills this with some great comedy, not least two gossipy pre-teens who talk simultaneously), an event he was not present at. Isak clings to these as memories, but they are imaginings. It’s not a card the film plays heavily: but Isak is, essentially, an unreliable narrator showing us his version of the past. It makes you wonder: are we all unreliable narrators of our own memories?

Is Wild Strawberries actually a dream piece? These recollections are daydreams, helping Isak accept his choices, and begin to find peace. The film opens with a striking surreal – and chillingly horror tinged – dream sequence that inspired hundreds of imitators: Isak walks an abandoned street, clocks lack hands, a faceless man collapses into water, a hearse overturns and when Isak investigates his own hand emerges to pull him in. (The unsettling artifice of this sequence is so masterful, it makes you realise Bergman could have become the king of terror if he’s wanted to).

A series of sequences take place halfway between dream and memory. In one he’s challenged by a cold and formal Examiner (a mirror of Isak himself?) with unanswerable questions, diagnosed with guilt and loneliness and then taken to witness his most vivid memory – watching his wife in the throws of passion with another man. The memory changes from reality to dream as Isak’s wife (an unsettling Gertrud Fridh) – who loathes him – sits up and dispassionately recounts their conversation later when she confessed/rubbed-his-face-in her infidelity. These aren’t straight memories.

Isak’s reminiscence creep up on him. It’s started by his daughter-in-law Marianne flatly telling him she can’t stand his aloofness and self-satisfied smugness. He seems unmoved: but does it prompt him to take her to the chalet of his childhood, to try and prove her wrong? Surely it can’t be a complete coincidence he awakes from a dream of Sara, by another Sara (Bibi Andersson brilliantly distinguishes between these two very different women, who both speak to repressed romantic yearnings in Isak) or asks for a lift? My private theory: I think Bergman is implying only Isak sees these two people as identical in appearance, like he plops past-Sara’s face on hitch-hiker-Sara’s body. It’s another walking semi-memory-dream.

Sara is one of several people prompting Isak’s reflection and changing our perceptions. Why did he become a man so detached he barely bats an eyelid when his daughter-in-law rubbishes him? A feuding couple the group pick up after a road accident – whose abuse of each other gets so personal and cruel, Marianne throws them out of the car – could almost be past versions of Isak and his wife. How miserable must his marriage have been? When Isak is feted as a doctor at a small village (a neat Max von Sydow cameo), how much does his sad observation that perhaps he should never have left further trigger his softening character?  As hiker-Sara talks about romance and opportunity, how much does this make Isak think about the staid, loveless respectability of his own life?

Our understanding of Isak is also partly filtered through Marianne’s perception of him. Ingrid Thulin is glorious as a woman whose marriage (to a knock-off prototype of his father) is on the rocks due to her husband’s callous loathing of the world. When she meets Isak’s mother, Thulin’s face radiates understanding of how this woman shaped Isak, who in turn shaped his son. As Isak begins to talk about his past and his fears, it prompts her own willingness to confide in him – something she would never have considered at the film’s start. As Marianne changes her perceptions, so do we.

Wild Strawberries benefits most of all from the wonderfully valedictory performance of Victor Sjöström. Bergman begged his mentor to take the role on, and it produces a cinematic wonder. Sjöström is in every scene and his face fills with such powerful emotion – from distraught regret to wistfulness to confusion to a peaceful radiance – that Bergman allows it to dominate the frame at key points. Its an unforced, gentle and underplayed performance with real emotional force.

Not least because, at heart, this is an optimistic film that tells us its never too late. Sure, we can regret mistakes and lost opportunities: but it shouldn’t close our hearts. Isak learns he has been wrong in closing his heart: there is life, warmth and happiness out there for the taking. It comes together in a final dream/memory, as Isak rediscovers a happy memory of his parents (all the more powerful for how few and far these must be) and Bergman’s camera (shot with majesty by Gunnar Fischer) trains one final time on Sjöström’s face and we understand that he has, at last, come to terms with his life. For a director famed as the master of misery, Wild Strawberries shows he could also frame a story of optimism, growth and understanding, making Wild Strawberries one of his most affecting movies.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

Greatest Story Ever Told header
Max von Sydow carries a heavy burden in Steven’s far-from The Greatest Story Ever Told

Director: George Stevens

Cast: Max von Sydow (Jesus), Dorothy McGuire (The Virgin Mary), Charlton Heston (John the Baptist), Claude Rains (Herod the Great), José Ferrer (Herod Antipas), Telly Savalas (Pontius Pilate), Martin Landau (Caiaphas), David McCallum (Judas Iscariot), Donald Pleasance (“The Dark Hermit”), Michael Anderson Jnr (James the Less), Roddy McDowell (Matthew), Gary Raymond (Peter), Joanna Dunham (Mary Magdalene), Ed Wynn (Old Aram), Angela Lansbury (Claudia), Sal Mineo (Uriah), Sidney Poitier (Simon of Cyrene), John Wayne (Centurion)

You could make a case to prosecute The Greatest Story Ever Told under the Trade Descriptions Act. In a world where we are blessed (cursed?) with a plethora of Biblical epics, few are as long, worthy, turgid or dull as George Stevens’ misguided epic. Just like Jesus in the film is plagued by a Dark Hermit representing Satan, did Stevens have a wicked angel whispering in his ear “More wide shots George, and even more Handel’s Messiah. And yes, The Duke is natural casting for a Roman Centurion…”. The Greatest Story Ever Told has some of the worst reviews Christianity has ever had – and it’s had some bad ones.

The plot covers the whole life of the Saviour so should be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Gideon’s Bible. It was a passion project for Stevens, who spent almost five years raising the cash to bring it to the screen. When he started, the fad for self-important Biblical epics was starting to teeter. When it hit the screen, it had flat-lined. It didn’t help that The Greatest Story Ever Told was first released as an over four-hour snooze fest, laboriously paced, that managed to drain any fire or passion from one of (no matter what you believe) the most tumultuous and significant lives anyone on the planet has ever led. The film was cut down to about two hours (making it incomprehensible) and today exists as a little over three-hour epic that genuinely still feels like it’s four hours long.

Stevens gets almost nothing right here whatsoever. Self-importance permeates the entire project. The film cost $20million, double the largest amount the studio had ever spent. Ordinary storyboards were not good enough: Stevens commissioned 350 oil paintings (that’s right, an entire art gallery’s worth) to plan the picture (which probably explains why the film feels at times like a slide show of second-rate devotional imagery). The Pope was consulted on the script (wisely he didn’t take a screen credit). Stevens decided the American West made a better Holy Land than the actual Holy Land, so shot it all in Arizona, Nevada and California. It took so long to film, Joseph Schildkraut and original cinematographer William C Mellor both died while making it, while Joanna Durham (playing Mary Magdalene!) became pregnant and gave birth. Stevens shot 1,136 miles of film, enough to wrap around the Moon.

There’s something a little sad about all that effort so completely wasted. But the film is a complete dud. It’s terminally slow, not helped by its stately shooting style where the influence of all those paintings can be seen. Everything is treated with crushing import – Jesus can’t draw breath without a heavenly choir kicking in to add spiritual import to whatever he is about to say. Stevens equates grandeur with long shots so a lot of stuff happens in the widest framing possible, most ridiculously the resurrection of Lazarus which takes place in a small part of a screen consumed with a vast cliff panorama. Bizarrely, most of the miracles take place off-screen, as if Stevens worried that seeing a man walk on water, feed the five thousand or turn water into wine would stretch credulity (which surely can’t be the case for a film as genuflecting as this one).

What we get instead is Ed Wynn, Sal Mineo and Van Heflin euphorically running up a hilltop and shouting out loud the various miracles the Lamb of God has bashfully performed off-screen. Everything takes a very long time to happen and a large portion of the film is given over to a lot of Christ walking, talking at people but not really doing anything. For all the vast length, no real idea is given at all about what people were drawn to or found magnetic about Him. It’s as if Stevens is so concerned to show He was better than this world, that the film forgets to show that He was actually part of this world. Instead, we have to kept being told what a charismatic guy He is and how profound His message is: we never get to see or hear these qualities from His own lips.

For a film designed to celebrate the Greatest, the film strips out much of the awe and wonder in Him. It’s not helped by the chronic miscasting of Max von Sydow. Selected because he was a great actor who would be unfamiliar to the mid-West masses (presumably considered to be unlikely to be au fait with the work of Ingmar Bergman), von Sydow is just plain wrong for the role. His sonorous seriousness and restrained internal firmness help make the Son of God a crushing, distant bore. He’s not helped by his dialogue being entirely made-up of Bible quotes or the fact that Stevens directs him to be so stationary and granite, with much middle-distance staring, he could have been replaced with an Orthodox Icon with very little noticeable difference.

Around von Sydow, Stevens followed the norm by hiring as many star actors as possible, some of whom pop up for a few seconds. The most famous of these is of course John Wayne as the Centurion who crucifies Jesus. This cameo has entered the realms of Filmic Myth (the legendary “More Awe!”exchange). Actually, Stevens shoots Wayne with embarrassment, as if knowing getting this Western legend in is ridiculous – you can hardly spot Wayne (if you didn’t know it was him, you wouldn’t) and his line is clearly a voiceover. In a way just as egregious is Sidney Poitier’s wordless super-star appearance as Simon, distracting you from feeling the pain of Jesus’ sacrifice by saying “Oh look that’s Sidney Poitier” as he dips into frame to help carry the cross.

Of the actors who are in it long enough to make an impression, they fall into three camps: the OTT, the “staring with reverence” and the genuinely good. Of the OTT crowd, Rains and Ferrer set the bar early as various Herods but Heston steals the film as a rug-chested, manly John the Baptist, ducking heads under water in a Nevada lake, bellowing scripture to the heavens. Of the reverent, McDowell does some hard thinking as Matthew, although I have a certain fondness for Gary Raymond’s decent but chronically unreliable Peter (the scene where he bitches endlessly about a stolen cloak is possibly the only chuckle in the movie).

It’s a sad state of affairs that the Genuinely Good actors all play the Genuinely Bad characters – poor old Jesus, even in the story of his life the Devil gets all the best scenes. That’s literally true here as Donald Pleasence is head-and-shoulders best-in-show as a softly spoken, insinuating but deeply sinister “Dark Hermit” who tempts Jesus in the wilderness and then follows Him throughout the Holy Land, turning others against Him. Also good are David McCallum as a conflicted Judas, Telly Savalas as weary Pilate (he shaved his head for the role, loved the look and never went back) and Martin Landau, good value as a corrupt Caiaphas (“This will all be forgotten in a week” he signs the film off with saying).

That’s about all there is to enjoy about a film that probably did more to reduce attendance at Sunday School than the introduction of Sunday opening hours and football being played all day. A passion project from Stevens where he forgot to put any of that passion on the screen, it really is as long and boring as you heard, a film made with such reverent skill that no one seemed to have thought about stopping and saying “well, yes, but is it good?”. I doubt anyone is watching it up in Heaven.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest are Hannah and Her Sisters one of Allen’s finest films

Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Woody Allen (Mickey), Michael Caine (Elliot), Mia Farrow (Hannah), Carrie Fisher (April), Barbara Hershey (Lee), Lloyd Nolan (Evan), Maureen O’Sullivan (Norman), Daniel Stern (Dusty), Max von Sydow (Frederick), Dianne Wiest (Holly), Sam Waterston (David)

Hannah (Mia Farrow) is divorced from Mickey (Woody Allen) and happily married to Elliot (Michael Caine). Eliot is in love with Lee (Barbara Hershey). Lee is Hannah’s sister. Holly (Dianne Wiest) is considering dating Mickey. Holly is also Hannah’s sister. This whirligig of relationships is the heart of Hannah and Her Sisters, one of Woody Allen’s finest and certainly most humane films. Witty and heartfelt, it’s one of his sharpest scripts, crammed with acute observation and fine gags and is directed with a coolly introspective eye.

Allen splits the film into multiple sections, each opening (like the chapter of a novel) with a quote from the scene we are about to watch. Music plucked from Allen’s beloved classics (most often, and fittingly considering its romance theme, Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered) frequently bridge scenes. Internal monologues is used often to allow us to explore the inner lives of the characters (the actors do a marvellous job reacting on screen to this internal thought process we are hearing).

The film uses a host of inspirations carefully mixed into Allen’s Manhattan Metropolitan middle-class milieu. The entire film has an autumnal Chekovian feel to it, with a rich sense of lives continuing ‘off stage’ as much as on. While the title obviously echoes Three Sisters, it’s study of romantic and intellectual entanglements overlaps with Chekov, as does the film’s love of wordplay. There are also, of course, echoes of Bergman (with gags) both in the film’s episodic structure but also its framing device of three Thanksgivings dinners, reflecting Bergman’s triumphant Fanny and Alexander.

The most effective thing about the film, in addition to its wit, is the surprising warmth it feels for the characters. Not always in an Allen film does one find the sympathy and empathy so widely spread – there is usually at least one character who is the target for the writer’s scorn. But here, no major character is presented as either the butt of snide humour or sneers. Even von Sydow’s pretentious artist is capable of searing emotional pain, and its hard not to sympathise with him as clients enquire whether his art will fit with their home décor. Each scene carefully balances the perspectives of multiple characters to allow us to relate to what each of them is going through. It’s possibly the largest cast of fully-rounded characters in an Allen film, and his most generous film.

It’s a film that avoids judgement over its characters, despite the frequently terrible and morally troubling things they do. It’s a film that understands the heart is an uncontrollable but resilient muscle, which doesn’t always guide us to the right or the easy things. Of course today, with Allen, you think it’s probably not a surprise he had sympathy with a group of people engaged in relationships that often involve profoundly betraying others. But at least her understands the irresistible urge people have to continue doing things they shouldn’t.

It’s hard not to overlook that the film’s least explored character (despite her multi-layered performance) is Mia Farrow’s Hannah. Poor Hannah, the still, moral centre of the film, is betrayed by both her husband and her sister (to their mutual guilt). Allen leaves her in ignorance – even though she knows something is wrong – and while Allen acknowledges what Elliot and Lee is doing is wrong, he mitigates things by making clear Hannah’s decency and generosity makes her overwhelming. While we see the impact a sudden distance from her husband has on Hannah (in a great shot she talks to him while he is off camera in another room, making her look like she is talking to a wall), Hannah is one of the few characters we don’t get the insight of an internal monologue for, and that feels like an easier way for Allen to maintain our sympathies for others.

The person whose internal monologue we hear the most is her conflicted husband Elliot. Hannah and Her Sisters may be unique in that it has two characters who are clear Allen substitutes. While Allen plays one, Caine is the husband (who looks alarmingly like a prediction of future developments in the Allen-Farrow relationship). Caine is superb, not least because he turns lines you can hear could be delivered with an Allenesque twitchiness, into ones crammed with utter emotional genuineness.

For all that he is a cheat, Elliot is strangely guileless and rather sweet, plagued with guilt and also giddy as a schoolboy, begging Lee to read an ee cummings poem that carries special meaning for him. Caine makes Elliot a genuine human character, a flawed man trying to avoid hurting people (but causing pain everywhere). If Branagh in Celebrity (with his distracting Allen imitation) showed how much of a slave to Allenesque delivery you can become, Caine shows how heartfelt simplicity and underplaying can bring out deeper emotion from Allen’s dialogue. Allen also rather brilliantly directs this abashed dance of attraction: from Caine’s internal monologue telling him to play it cool, moments before he kisses Lee, to the camera framing Frederick’s sketches of a naked Lee directly in Elliot’s line of sight while he tries to think of literally anything else.

Caine also matches superbly with Barbara Hershey, excellent as a woman who feels trapped in her life and drawn to Elliot despite herself. Lee’s current relationship is with Frederick, wittily played in a near parody of Bergmanesque brooding by Max von Sydow, who takes a late lurch into real vulnerability, a pretentious artist who is part-lover-part-tutor and is disconnected from the real world, Lee is virtually his only link left with it. Frederick is clearly a tutor and surrogate parent, as much as a lover to Lee – and that attraction to a figure who can take responsibility in her life is clearly something she’s attracted in Elliot. The slow, guilt-ridden coming together of Elliot and Lee – and the slow deflation of this fling – is the emotional heart of the movie.

The film’s other two arcs provide more of the gags. Woody Allen gifts himself some of his finest comic moments as Hannah’s hypochondriac ex-husband (the second Allen stand-in) undergoing an existential crisis after he discovers he is in fact not dying of a terminal disease. Dianne Wiest is similarly excellent (and also Oscar winning) as Hannah’s unsuccessful sister Holly, a would-be actress too insecure to find success. Wiest is not only funny, but also vulnerable and affecting, as she tries to find her place in the world. In many ways Wiest plays a third version of Allen here, as she becomes a neurotic writer channelling her real life into writing (to the consternation of her sister).

Changing reality into scripts is the only thing awkward about Hannah and Her Sisters today. Hannah and her extended family (and many children) are a thinly veiled portrait of Farrow’s own family (Hannah’s mother is even played by Farrow’s real life mother Maureen O’Sullivan). Like Allen and Farrow, Mickey and Hannah needed to adopt and foster children. And of course Eliot’s affair with Hannah’s sister eerily mirrors Allen’s own affair with Farrow’s adopted daughter, and the film’s sympathy for Elliot sometimes seems like an unsettling excusing of Allen’s future conduct. That’s not even mentioning one of the film’s earliest jokes is Allen’s character complaining about the cutting of a child molestation skit from his Saturday Night Live-ish show (“what’s the problem half the country’s doing it” quips Allen, a joke that doesn’t work today for so many reasons).

But put that aside because, whatever your opinion of Allen, Hannah and Her Sisters is one of his finest films. It’s expertly shot and directed with a real unobtrusive ease (Allen’s innate understanding of this Manhattan world contrasts sharply with how at sea he is in his European movies). The acting is spot on. As well as being very funny, the moral conundrums the film explores are sympathetic and witty, as are the flawed human beings behind them. Possibly his best film.

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Death plays chess in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Cast: Max von Sydow (Antonius Block), Bengt Ekerot (Death), Gunnar Björnstrand (Jöns), Bibi Andersson (Mia), Nils Poppe (Jof), Erik Strandmark (Jonas Skat), Åke Fridell (Plog), Inga Gill (Lisa), Bertil Anderberg (Raval), Gunnel Lindblom (Mute girl), Inga Landgré (Karin)

Is there a more famous arthouse film than The Seventh Seal? Winning the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, the film turned Ingmar Bergman into the doyen of the Arthouse across the world and many of its actors into major figures of world cinema. The film so captured the imagination it became one of those films that falls slightly in and out of fashion, largely because it’s almost impossible to come to it fresh. Its style, images and concepts have been so echoed, parodied and teased ever since that it’s become a corner stone. But it should stay in fashion, because it’s a well-made and intriguing film.

In the fourteenth century, a knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), washes up on the shores of Denmark with his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand). Death (Bengt Ekerot) comes for them, but Block challenges him to a game of chess. If Block wins, Death will leave him be if Death wins Block will go with him. Death accepts, and Block seizes the time this will give him to try and understand more about faith, destiny and man’s place in God’s plans. As the game stops and starts, Block and Jöns travel to Block’s estate, encountering and befriending along the way Jof (Nils Poppe) and Mia (Bibi Andersson) a pair of travelling actors, just trying to make their way in the world.

Bergman’s film is shot in a luscious but very simple black-and-white and juggles profound issues about mankind and faith with an imagination-capturing central concept of man playing chess with death. Bergman based the film on a woodcut from the famous Swedish artist Albertus Pictor (who appears in the film, decorating a church with images of death and plague – themes that run throughout the film) and used it as a jumping off point for a meditations on the inevitable end.

It makes sense then to set the film in the medieval era, where death indeed may well feel like a constant companion. Bergman’s medieval world is a smorgasbord of medieval tropes – some have criticised the historical accuracy of Crusades, plague, flagellants, Pictur, witch trials etc. all happening at the same time, which seems bizarre criticism for a film that features a white faced Death prowling the countryside with a chess board. It works very well though for creating a sense of a parable around the whole film.

Death is a continual in the film. A crowd of flagellants marches through a village at one point, a monk stopping only to harangue the crowd on the fury of God, before a mist descends and seems to pick off most of the crowd, several flagellants disappearing as they walk, leaving a mostly empty field. It’s a visual picture of death, Plague carries off one and all, an active representation of mortality. It leaves a world in which man either contemplates, gets angry or decides to just live day-to-day – reactions that we see in all the film’s characters.

Of course, Block takes the contemplative route, vainly asking what it is all about – what is God’s plan and what meaning does life have? Perfectly using von Sydow’s imperious chill, Bergman makes Block an intellectual straining for understanding, an aesthete who wants to believe his time on earth has all been part of some plan and that he himself has done (or will do) something that matters. Von Sydow is particularly fine in the role, not least in his agonising confessional scene where he slowly but with an increasing world-weariness unburdens his soul to a priest he cannot see – but who we see is of course Death himself.

But that’s just another low blow from Death, a fascinating figure. Played with a benign politeness by Bengt Ekerot, Bergman presents a Death who is cunning, intrudes on world events and doesn’t play fair. He cons Block into telling him a winning chess stratagem, cuts down a tree to claim the soul of the man hiding it and reveals himself to be the leader of a group intent on burning witches. He may be polite but he’s ruthless. No wonder he inspires such fear, and Ekerot may smile but it’s the smile of a man who knows he will win no matter what and everyone will come with him eventually. 

So what is the secret to what life is all about? In Bergman’s medieval world, God seems silent. We see two religious figures: one the haranguing Monk, the other the fallen Priest Ravel – a thief, a liar and a bully. The priest in the Church they visit turns out to be Death. The countryside is vast, unfriendly and bleak. Block’s quest to understand something of what man’s role in creation is seemingly doomed. Perhaps his squire – an excellent Gunnar Björnstrand – already understands what Block needs to learn: there is no grand secret, we must simply enjoy the moments we have been given. His squire is a simple, decent (for his time), unpretentious man with some sense of justice. And maybe that’s the trick.

It certainly seems to be the case with Jof and Mia, the more homespun actors who take pleasure in their family, their lives and the outside and welcome strangers with open arms. Extremely well played by a naïvely sweet Nils Poppe and a radiantly kind Bibi Andersson, these two (with their baby son) are the only people happy. And that happiness even spreads to Block, who starts to forget his concerns with finding a secret to life in the simple happiness of an honest meal, kindly shared. Even Death comments that Block’s interest in the game seems to fade from here.

Block’s struggle to understand why we are here, his straining for some sign and his belief (perhaps) that with this he can escape Death slowly melts under his understanding that life is what is around us and the people we share it with, perhaps not some sort of cryptic puzzle for him to untangle. And that’s Bergman’s message as well perhaps, that among our concerns to understand and control our destiny, the most truth (and pleasure) can be found in not thinking about these things. Jof sees early on a vision of the Holy Mary (we do not see it only his face). His wife laughs it off, but later only Jof can see Death – if one vision is true, why not the other? Is Jof’s innocence and decency perhaps the key?

And that is why perhaps Jof and Mia are the only two to escape Death’s grasp. Block finds his moment of purpose – and the quiet smile von Sydow gives here is perhaps the finest moment of his performance – distracting an unknowning Death to let the family escape in the forest. Death relentlessly comes for the rest of the characters at Block’s estate – to be met with anger, begging, resignation, bitterness and a strange, beatific acceptance from the mute housekeeper, who Bergman slowly tracks in on until her face fills the frame.

Death then takes them all – giving us the film’s final enduring image, a recreation of Pictur’s painting of Death leading the dead souls in a grim dance to eternity across the hills, each of them flowing in a line behind them seen only by Jof. 

What is Bergman’s marvellously assembled – and it is perfectly filmed and edited – film about exactly? Finding peace and acceptance with what is around us and our place in the world perhaps, but it’s such a rich and rewarding film that it unravels other meanings and messages throughout every frame. It deserves to remain in fashion for as long as there are films.

Minority Report (2002)

Tom Cruise messes with fate and the future in Minority Report

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Tom Cruise (Chief John Anderton), Max von Sydow (Director Lamar Burgess), Samantha Morton (Agatha), Colin Farrell (Danny Witwer), Neal McDonough (Detective Fletcher), Steve Harris (Jad), Patrick Kilpatrick (Knott), Jessica Capshaw (Evanna), Lois Smith (Dr Iris Hineman), Kathryn Morris (Lara Anderton), Peter Stormare (Dr Solomon P Eddie), Tim Blake Nelson (Gideon)

If you could see what lies ahead for you in your future would you change it? Or would you accept what fate has clearly already decided? It’s one of many questions that Minority Report, Spielberg’s bulky, brainy sci-fi chase movie slash film noir, tackles. And the answer it suggests is: everybody runs.

It’s the year 2054, and murder in the District of Columbia is a thing of the past thanks to the Pre-Crime Division. Using three psychics, known as “pre-cogs”, permanently hooked-up to a machine that can visualise their visions of violent deaths and murders that will occur, the Pre-Crime team led by Chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise) arrest and imprison murderers hours, minutes and seconds before they even commit their crimes. Anderton believes passionately in the system – but his belief is shaken when the next murderer to be identified is none other than himself. Anderton is due to kill in a complete stranger in 36 hours – and immediately goes on the run to work out who this man is, why he would wish to kill him, and if there is any truth in the rumour that the pre-cogs don’t always agree, and that the most powerful pre-cog Agatha (Samantha Morton) can produce a “minority report”: an alternative vision that shows a different future.

Spielberg’s film is one that mixes searching discussion on fate, choice and destiny with the pumping, fast-moving action of a chase movie and the gritty, hard-boiled cynicism and intrigue of a classic film-noir. He frames all this in a brilliantly constructed, dystopian future where adverts and government surveillance can read our eyes wherever we go and identify us immediately (throwing personalised ads in the faces of people everywhere they step) and, in the interests of safety, people who have technically not done anything yet are imprisoned for life on the basis of things it has been determined they will do.

It makes for a pretty heady cocktail, and one which will have you questioning how much of what we decide is our choice and how much is destiny. If Anderton knows his destiny, can he change his fate? Will he have the willpower or the ability to avert his destiny? Or does knowing what will happen and where it will take place only drive him towards his fate? Put simply, does knowing the future in advance give you a chance to change or it or does it make that future even more likely (or perhaps even inevitable)? Spielberg’s film delves intelligently into these questions, throwing paradoxes and causality loops at the viewer with a genuine lightness of touch.

This works because the film balances these more philosophical questions with plenty of adventure and excitement. Several chase sequences – which make imaginative use of various pieces of future tech like driverless cars and jet packs – keep you on the edge of your seat. Spielberg tentpoles the film throughout with some brilliant set pieces, from Alderton’s race against the clock to stop a killer at the start to his own escape from the clutches of his former colleagues. 

These set pieces also differ in styles. These more conventional action sequences are sandwiched between others that are a mix of darkness, comedy, horror and slapstick. In one sequence, Alderton must attempt to hide in a bath of icy water (Cruise holding his breath of course for a prolonged period on camera) to evade a series of body-heat seeking metallic spiders, with Alderton desperate to protect his freshly replaced eyes from being exposed too soon to daylight. Later, Alderton will evade the cops thanks to the advice of pre-cog Agatha whose simple instructions (Grab an umbrella! Stand still for five seconds behind the balloons! Drop coins for the tramp!) wittily use her fore-knowledge of events to guide Alderton through a gauntlet of perils.

The horror is in there as well from those creepy spiders, not to mention the ickyness of Cruise carrying out an operation to replace his eyes to evade that all-intrusive retinal scanning. The sequence – with Peter Storemare as a sinister doctor who delights in leaving unpleasant tricks for the temporarily blinded Alderton (rotten food and sour milk being the most gross) – is a brilliantly vile, uncomfortable piece of kooky surrealism in the middle of a wild chase. And also tees up the bizarre dark comedy of Cruise – attempting to use his old eyes to break back into his former office – dropping his eyes and desperately chasing them as they roll down a corridor towards a drain. 

There are also darker themes in Alderton’s tragic background. Saddled with a drug addiction and a broken home, we learn Alderton is still struggling with the grief of losing a son to kidnappers – a loss he clearly holds himself personally responsible for. Getting tanked up at home and interacting with old home movies of his lost son, Alderton carries within a deep sadness and grief. It’s a challenge that Cruise rises to really well, his ability to bring commitment and depth to pulpy characters perfect for making Alderton a character you really invest in.

It also gives Alderton the tragic backstory and self-destructive problems so beloved of grimy, gumshoe cops of old noir films. That’s certainly also the inspiration for the drained out, greying look of the film that Spielberg shoots, with colours bleached and the future looking a confusing mix of clean, sleek machines and dirty, rain sodden streets. Alderton’s hunting down of his future victim has all the shoe leather and bitterness of classic Chandler. Meanwhile Federal Agent Witwer (a decent performance from Colin Farrell) chases him down with the determination of an obsessed cop, while also showing more than a few of the quirks of the maverick PI himself.

Minority Report is so good in so many places, it’s a shame that the final act so flies off the rails from the tone of what we have seen before, eventually stapling a happy ending onto a film that tonally has been building towards something very different. On a re-watch, there is just enough in the film to allow you to interpret this ending as a sort of fantasy or dream, but you’ll want the film to end the first time it crashes to black (you’ll know the point I mean). I prefer to believe the ending is a sort of dream – although Spielberg drops no hints to this effect in the film visually at all, in the way something like Inception does so well, to leave you questioning reality – because with that thought that final act betrays everything you have seen before in its simplicity and embracing of binary rights and wrongs.

But with that massive caveat, Minority Report is a very impressive film – and for at least the first hour and fifty minutes probably one of Spielberg’s best. It gets lost in the final act – and I know I said this but please let that be a fantasy – but until then this is a brilliant mix of genres and intelligence and Hollywood thrills with Cruise at his best. It’s exciting and its emotionally involving. Ignore that ending and it’s great. When you re-watch it, pretend you can’t see that future.

Robin Hood (2010)

Russell Crowe takes aim as Robin Hood

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Russell Crowe (Robin Longstride), Cate Blanchett (Marian Locksley), William Hurt (William Marshal), Mark Strong (Sir Godfrey), Mark Addy (Friar Tuck), Oscar Isaac (Prince John), Danny Huston (King Richard), Eileen Atkins (Eleanor of Aquitaine), Max von Sydow (Sir Walter Locksley), Kevin Durand (Little John), Scott Grimes (Will Scarlet), Alan Doyle (Allan A’Dale), Matthew Macfadyen (Sheriff of Nottingham), Lea Seydoux (Isabella), Douglas Hodge (Sir Robert Locksley)

When this film was developed, it was a CSI style medieval romp called Nottingham. Russell Crowe was cast as the film’s hero – an ahead-of-his-time Sheriff of Nottingham, busting crimes in Olde England and dealing with rogue thief (with good press) Robin Hood. Yes that really was the original idea. Mind you, it would at least have been more original than what we ended up with after Scott and Crowe had a bit of a rethink.

So here we are: Robin Hood: Origins (as it might as well have been called). Russell Crowe is Robin Longstride, on his way back from the crusades as an archer in the army of King Richard (Danny Huston) army. When Richard is killed at a siege in France (it was one last siege before home – what are the odds!), the messengers carrying the news back to France are ambushed and killed by wicked Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong). Robin finds the bodies and assumes the identity of Sir Robert Locksley, travelling to England to tell Prince John (Oscar Isaac) the news of his succession – then returning to Nottingham with his friends, where Robert’s father Sir Walter (Max von Sydow) asks him to continue pretending to be Robin for dull tax reasons – and soon feelings develop between Robin and Sir Robert’s widow Marian (Cate Blanchett). But John is intent on farming the land for taxes, and Sir Godfrey is in cahoots with the French to conquer England.

Robin Hood is a semi-decent, watchable enough retread of a story so totally and utterly familiar that even the things it rejigs end up feeling familiar. In fact, to be honest you sit watching it and wondering why on earth anyone really wanted to make it. Scott brings nothing original and different to it, and the film looks like a less visually interesting retread of Kingdom of Heaven. Plot wise it’s empty. What’s the point of it all? It slowly shows us all the pieces of the Robin Hood myth coming together, so best guess is that it was intended to be the first of a series (there seems to have been no interest or demand for a sequel of any sort). 

And then we’ve got Russell Crowe. Leaving aside everything else, Crowe looks about 10 years too old for the part. He delivers some sort of regional accent that meanders from Ireland to Yorkshire in its broadness, a laughable stumble around the country. Crowe does his slightly intense, sub-Gladiator mumbles and stares at the camera and attempts to suggest a deep rooted nobility, but actually comes across a bit more like a snoozing actor awaiting a pay-cheque.

Cate Blanchett does her best, lending her prestige to the whole thing in an attempt to make it land with some dignity (she of course does the opening and closing narration, which struggles to add some sort of grandeur to the whole flimsy thing). She’s saddled with a Maid Marian who is granted various “action” moments, but still has to be saved by Robin and face possible rape from a leering Frenchman (at least she saves herself from that one). 

It also doesn’t help either actor that their romance plays out in the dull middle third of the film, where the plot grinds to a halt as we deal with Sir Walter (Max von Sydow almost literally acting blindfolded) using Robin as some sort of tax dodge scheme. The film is overloaded with characters, all of whom are separated at this point and struggling manfully to make their disconnected plotlines interesting: so we get John dealing with the pressures of office, Sir Godfrey scheming and looting, William Marshal trying to find a middle ground, Robin and Marian falling in love – it’s a mess. On top of this a get a ludicrous reworking of the Magna Carta as some Medieval version of the Communist Manifesto (it’s written by Robin’s executed dad no less, giving him a bizarre “painful backstory” to overcome). None of these plots really come together, and so little time is spent with each of them that they all end up getting quite boring.

The film culminates in a totally ridiculous battle scene on a beach, as Sir Godfrey’s French allies arrive on the shores of medieval England in some sort Saving Private Ryan landing craft. The tactics of this landing and the battle that ensues are complete nonsense. Every single character rocks up at this battle, which should feel like all the plot threads coming together but instead feels like poor script-writing. When Marian turns up, disguised as a man (how very Eowyn), leading a group of warrior children (I’m not joking) who feel yanked from the pages of Lord of the Flies, it’s just the crowning turd on this nonsense.

And all this fuss to defeat Sir Godfrey? Why cast Mark Strong and give him such a nothing part? Sir Godfrey is a deeply unintimidating villain. Everything he does goes wrong. He is bested in combat no less than three times in the film (once by a flipping blind man!). His motivations are never even slightly touched upon. He has less than one scene with John, the man who he is supposed to be manipulating. He runs away at the drop of a hat and Robin gets the drop on him twice on the film. He’s neither interesting, scary or feels like a challenging adversary or worthy opponent.

But then nothing in this film is particularly interesting. The set-up of the merry men around Robin (they seem more like an ageing band of mates on tour by the way than folk looking to rob from the rich and give to the poor) is painfully similar to dozens of other film, particularly in the Little-John-and-Robin-fight-then-become-brothers routine. Crikey even Prince of Thieves shook up the formula by making Will Scarlet Robin’s brother. Scott is going through the motions, like it was one he was committed to so needed to see through to the end despite having long-since lost interest. It’s not a terrible movie really, just a really, really, really average one with a completely miscast lead and nothing you haven’t seen before.

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Robert Redford goes on the run in conspiracy thriller Three Days of the Condor

Director: Sydney Pollack

Cast: Robert Redford (Joseph Turner), Faye Dunaway (Kathy Hale), Cliff Robertson (Director Higgins), Max von Sydow (Joubert), John Houseman (Wabash), Addison Powell (Leonard Atwood), Walter McGinn (Sam Barber), Tina Chen (Janice), Michael Kane (SW Wicks), Don McHenry (Dr Lappe)

Three Days of the Condor never leaves you in any doubt that the real villains are those in power – and the possibility of escaping the reach of organisations like the CIA is beyond all of us. Condor is damn well-made though – Pollack’s direction is nearly faultless in its taut claustrophobia – even if the film itself gets a bit lost in its confusing obliqueness.

Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) is a quiet, boyish, Robert-Redfordish academic whose job is to read books published all over the world and report back to the CIA any familiarities with any secret operations past or present, or any good ideas from operations. One day, while out fetching lunch for his colleagues, he returns to find they have all been murdered by a hit-team led by a shadowy foreigner (Max von Sydow). Calling in the CIA, he finds he can’t trust anyone – and is forced to hide out by kidnapping a woman, Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway), whom he bumps into in a shop.

Three Days of the Condor opens with an electric pace. The build-up to the assassination of Turner’s co-workers is extremely tense, while the immediate after effects – and Turner’s lost, confused terror – is brilliantly involving. The stream of conspiracy-laced events, and the unsettling lack of security about who to trust creates a terrific mood of paranoia. Pollack’s editing is tight, and the photography keeps the action naturalistic and eerily involving. It creates an unsettling drama where no one can be trusted. 

It taps perfectly into that 1970s vibe of the state being omniscient and inhumane – Turner’s CIA contact will only talk to him using his code name, shows no human interest in his deceased comrades and only asks if Condor himself is “damaged”. Later Turner chippily asks why a senior agent is addressed by his name, while he is only called Condor. 

Redford is very good as Turner – perfectly convincing as the bookish man thrust into circumstances where he is out of his depth, but whose innate abilities to think fast and adapt allow him to believably keep one step ahead of those pursuing him. The film has a love for the grimy Le Carre-ish detail of espionage, which it mixes well with its James Bondish elements of hitmen, violence and sex. The script has good lines, and several excellent set-pieces that trade in that queasy feeling of being out-of-depth.

The momentum of the first half however eventually gets bogged down in the “working out” of the conspiracy. This is a bit hampered by the early acts of the movie being focused more on atmosphere than on plot build-up. With the exact purpose and function of Redford’s CIA role only really being loosely explained quite late on – and the various inter-relationships of the assorted CIA bigwigs we see also not really being that clear – the final reveal of the wrong uns is murky and doesn’t quite justify the build-up. 

Part of this is the film’s 1970s vibe – its sense that the resolution is, in a way, less important than the downer atmosphere and conspiracy tension – but it’s also a bit of a narrative flaw. It’s hard to invest in a story that never really gets put together or explained properly, and doesn’t really give us a sense of the major stakes at play or the reasons why various characters do what they do. 

Other factors also have dated the film, principally the relationship of Faye Dunaway’s Kathy and Redford’s Turner. Now there is an odd Stockholm syndrome relationship if ever I saw one. From Kathy tearfully fearing rape and assault for most of the first ten minutes of their screen time together – and with no reason to believe the story Turner is peddling – sure enough within a few hours of knowing each other this pair end up in bed together. The film attempts to suggest Turner’s ability to understand her personality (in a way no-one else ever has naturally) through her photographs brings them together –but nevertheless it’s basically a hostage falling into bed with her kidnapper, about 20 seconds after she stopped crying, after he has just released her from being tied up and gagged in her own bathroom. 

I guess it helps when your kidnapper looks like Robert Redford – and the film uses Redford’s innate trustability well – but it’s a little unsettling. Kathy swiftly becomes Turner’s little helper – but you never really get a sense that the she is an actual character, or that the film even really needs her that much. Dunaway is a good actress and plays the part very well – but there is an unsettling submissiveness and even exploitation to her character that dates the movie (not that we have moved past films where female character’s principal role is to have sex with the hero to ease his pain). The best you can say for this character is that she has “pluck”.

It’s dumping Turner down into Kathy’s home where the momentum leaks out of the film slightly. It’s a film that feels like it’s going to be set-up as a chase movie with a spy tinge, but it never really turns into that. On top of which, it takes time away from properly developing Turner’s enemies. His possible CIA opponents, led by Cliff Robertson and John Houseman, don’t really come into focus as characters. The performer who does stand out – largely because of the wry world-weariness he brings to the role – is Max von Sydow as the hitman Joubert, a character I’d happily see more of (where was his spin off?). 

Three Days of the Condor is a well-made triumph of atmosphere – but the later sections of the film don’t quite live up to the build-up, and the film doesn’t quite snap together as much as you would like in the second half. It gets lost in its labyrinthine schemes and then doesn’t have a resolution that seems interesting enough to make satisfying narrative sense.  It’s got some great moments in it, but it’s a flawed film.

Flash Gordon (1980)


Flash Gordon: Sometimes words fail you

Director: Mike Hodges

Cast: Sam J Jones (Flash Gordon), Melody Anderson (Dale Arden), Max von Sydow (Ming the Merciless), Topol (Hans Zarkov), Ornella Muti (Princess Aura), Timothy Dalton (Prince Barin), Brian Blessed (Prince Vultan), Peter Wyngarde (General Klytus), Mariangela Melato (General Kala), Richard O’Brien (Fico), John Osborne (Arborian Priest), Philip Stone (High Priest Zogo), John Hallam (General Luro)

Well. If almost 40 years on, Flash Gordon is a cult favourite and beloved by millions, then there is hope yet for Jupiter Ascending. By any objective standards, Flash Gordon is a terrible film. But it gets a pass from millions because it’s one people have grown up with. I dread the same reaction to The Phantom Menace from those people whose first exposure to Star Wars was through that film.

Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) rules the planet Mongo and decides to destroy the Earth for his own amusement. Disgraced ex-NASA scientist Hans Zharkov (Topol) is the only man on Earth who believes a series of natural disasters are the actions of invaders from space. Zharkov flies a rocket into space to find them – accompanied, for strange reasons, by professional football star “Flash” Gordon (Sam J Jones) and travel agent Dale Arden (Melody Anderson). Arriving at Mongo, they encourage its citizens – especially the forest people led by Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) and the hawkmen led by Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed) – to unite and rise up against Ming.

Yup you read that right. It’s all as barmy as you might expect. Any film that asks to believe Brian Blessed can fly is always going to be odd. Flash Gordon does at least have its tongue firmly in its cheek. The whole thing is as camp as Christmas. In an age where science fiction and comic books are treated like holy texts, it is at least interesting to see a film that treats its source material with such a breezy lack of respect. The entire film is an exercise in high camp, cheaply put together, that refuses to take anything seriously and actively encourages the respected actors in its cast to take the piss.

So what is Flash Gordon? Is it a big old joke? Yes it probably is. No one is taking it seriously. The actors clearly think it’s a pile of campy rubbish. The producers seem determined to throw as much technicolour cartoon colours at everything as possible. The film is so cartoonish it all but has “Pow!” and “Thwack!” appear on screen as punches land. At a time when Star Wars (and it’s hard to believe it, but George Lucas only made Star Wars because he couldn’t get the rights for this) took its space opera roots rather seriously, this seemed to miss the point completely. It’s a would-be Star Wars rip off that has nothing in common with the tone of the thing its ripping off. Usually that would be a good thing: here I’m not sure it is.

So the dialogue is terrible, the plot line makes no real sense, the film barrels around telling jokes against itself as inopportune moments. Characters shrug off events with no problems at all – at one point a character undergoes brainwashing torture: two scenes later he’s fine (“I just didn’t think about it” he gleefully tells someone. It’s never mentioned again.) The special effects, even for the time, are shockingly bad (the backdrops are sub-Doctor Who. The costumes and design are ludicrously overblown, like an explosion in a campy dressing-up box. It’s a terrible display of excess married with a complete lack of understanding about what made the things it’s trying to rip off successful in the first place. But yet, and yet, and yet it’s still in a terrible, terrible, terrible way quite good fun.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about its campy rubbishness, is how much odd sexual stuff creeps in under the radar. There are also lashings of sadomasochism, incest, orgasms, sex dens, threesomes, swinging, voyeurism – acres of cheeky sexual humour. Ming has a ring that can induce orgasms (it’s so effective on Dale Arden that it’s even commented only Ming’s daughter has had such a response). Ming has a harem, full of opiates to encourage “performance”. There are references to pleasure planets and sex toys. Ming’s daughter is whipped while tied to a bed by Ming’s henchmen (while Ming watches eating some popcorn). The arborians have a bizarre ritual which seems laced with wanking references. It never stops. At least they had some fun.

Some of the actors are also clearly enjoying themselves. Of course Brian Blessed throws himself into it: an actor who never knowingly underplays, Blessed rips through a bizarre role that sees him perform in a jockstrap with some unconvincing wings. Timothy Dalton channels Errol Flynn. Max von Sydow chews the scenery and virtually everything else in sight as a campy, moustachio-twirling Ming. Peter Wyngarde has a great voice and uses it to marvellous effect as pervy security chief Klytus, while Mariangela Melato plays his dominatrix assistant. There are bizarre, eclectic casting choices: so we get Look Back in Anger author John Osborne playing a high priest, Blue Peter’s Peter Duncan as an initiate, and Richard O’Brien (of course!) playing – well to be honest himself.

Sam J Jones is of course simply awful as Flash (wooden, dull and confused). Melody Anderson isn’t a lot better as Dale Arden, while Ornella Muti gets some awful dialogue which she does at least deliver with some conviction (sometimes too much: “Not the BORE WORMS!” sticks in the mind as a bizarre moment of over such over conviction that it simply becomes funny). It’s a bizarre mix of acting styles and overblown, fourth-wall leaning. It’s so bad, I suppose, that to many people it’s good. But actually it gets a little overbearing.

Because nothing is taken seriously at all, the film actually becomes a bit wearing after a while. The writer later regretted playing everything for laughs: it removes any stakes from this ridiculous film. It says a lot that Brian Blessed – the most overblown actor in it – is the only one who really emerges with dignity intact. Blessed at least knows it’s utter crap and plays it like he’s taking the piss in every scene. He commits so fully to the scenery chewing that it sort of works. The rest of the cast can only aspire to his levels of camp. Flash Gordon is a terrible film. But age and fondness have been kind to it, and made it remembered as something better than it is. It’s a misfiring gag with some great Queen songs. It goes on forever, it looks awful but it fails utterly as anything but a joke. But hell maybe that’s enough.

Solomon Kane (2009)


James Purefoy excels in cult-classic in the making Solomon Kane

Director: Michael J Bassett

Cast: James Purefoy (Solomon Kane), Max von Sydow (Josiah Kane), Pete Postlethwaite (William Crowthorn), Alice Krige (Katherine Crowthorn), Rachel Hurd-Wood (Meredith Crowthorn), Jason Flemyng (Malachi), Mackenzie Crook (Father Michael)

Solomon Kane was a pulp-magazine character from the 1920s. I’d never heard of him before – I imagine many others haven’t either – so bringing a film about him to the screen was always going to be a labour of love. That’s certainly what this film is. 

In 1600, Solomon Kane (James Purefoy) is a ruthless mercenary, but is confronted by a demon who tells him his soul is forfeit to the Devil. Horrified, Kane flees to sanctuary in a monastery, forsaking violence and devoting himself to God. After being expelled because the abbot has a dream, he encounters a Puritan family, the Crowthorns, and travels with them. Kane is deeply drawn to the Crowthorns – and when they are ambushed, the family killed, and daughter Meredith (Rachael Hurd-Wood) kidnapped by the servants of the sorcerer Malachi (Jason Flemyng), Kane swears to revenge the Crowthorns and rescue Meredith.

There’s something quite sweet and charming about Solomon Kane. It’s an old fashioned B-movie with a winning style. Is it going to rock any worlds? Probably not, but it’s got plenty of swagger and it makes a small budget go a long way. Bassett’s influences are pretty clear – everything from Witchfinder General to Lord of the Rings – but he shoots the film with a commendable energy. The visual flair is impressive, and successfully creates the feel of an England halfway between civilisation and the middle ages. Bassett also knows how to shoot an action scene, and the film is stuffed with fantastic sword fights that hit the right balance between brutality and dynamism.

Bassett also finds a fair amount of emotional heft in the story. The decision to focus a large chunk of the opening 45 minutes on Kane’s guilt and his attempts to make amends, make him a character we end up caring about. The “good family that wins our hero’s heart” cliché is exactly that, but it works very well here as Bassett takes his time and lets Kane’s bond with the Crowthorn family grow organically. All this patient establishment of Kane’s personality really pays off during the action of the second half.

It’s also helped a great deal by James Purefoy’s committed performance in the lead role. Purefoy has long since been a favourite of mine, who never really got the breaks to become a bigger star. His performance has the physicality and charisma, but Purefoy also adds in a Shakespearean depth to create a man desperate for redemption, carrying a pained heart very close to the surface. He dominates the whole film, setting the tone; and I suspect his dedicated performance encouraged fine work from the actors around him, despite almost all the other roles being little more than cameos. There are blockbusters whose leading actors are incapable of holding the screen as well as Purefoy does here.

Bassett’s B-movie spectacle is not perfect. The eventual explanation of why the Devil wants Kane’s soul is inexcusably garbled. Jason Flemyng is miscast as the demonic sorcerer Malachi, and his final confrontation with Kane lacks real impact (largely because Malachi has so little presence throughout the film) and devolves into a face-off with a dull special effects monster that looks rather like Megatron in the live-action Transformers films. There is a smaller-scale, personal ending in this film, but it gets crushed under the foot of the special effects. It’s a shame that a large portion of this film’s budget probably went on this.

Solomon Kane is structured, and plays, like a B-movie – but it’s proud of that. Its low budget demanded inventiveness and dedication from the cast and crew, all of whom delivered. The grimy design of the world is perfect, the story creates a good combination of action and emotion. Its story may be pretty clichéd, but it’s presented with great gusto – and has a terrific leading performance from a heavily under-rated actor in James Purefoy. More people deserve to see this – if this isn’t a cult classic in the making, I’m not sure what is.