Archive for September, 2008

September 30, 2008

Hotel Du Pud (part one): Harry Alan Towers and “Ten Little Indians” (1974)

by Dean Brandum

Following on from my post providing a brief history of the international co-production comes the first in a series turning the spotlight on the films tainted with this unsavoury brush. First up, the third version of Ten Little Indians (1974). Never even released on video in this country and long-unavailable on the tape format in either Britain or the United States, it has yet to appear anywhere on DVD (officially, at least) and remains a most difficult film to see. Having lingered (festered?) in my memory since a TV screening around 30 years ago, it became one of many films I have been determined to track down over the years in an obsession to place some order on the collected fragments cluttering my subconscious.

Original avertising admat for the film.

Original avertising admat for the film.

I finally found a copy and upon viewing Ten Little Indians, I was immediately gripped.  No, not for reasons artistic as it is an inept and shoddy production, lacking credibility and logic and devoid of even the most basic of thrills. Instead, the film captures most beautifully the entire euro-pudding movement, not only in its production method, but (no doubt unintentionally) as its own subtext.

“”Ten Little Indians,” the latest remake of the Agatha Christie story, looks less like a movie than a movie deal…an international movie mess of the sort that damages the reputations of everyone connected with it” – (Vincent Canby – New York Times)

Before we get to that we have to trace the history of this forgotten, minor landmark. It is a long tale – too long for one post. What I must do is introduce you to the inimitable Mr. Harry Alan Towers…

“I can step off a plane in any country in the world and within 24 hours have a film in pre-production” – Harry Alan Towers.

The son of a theatrical agent, Harry Alan Towers was born in London in 1920. By his early twenties Towers was becoming known to the public as a radio personality and within the industry as a producer of scripted dramatic series for that medium (many of which he wrote himself). By the age of thirty he had established offices in several countries (including Australia and the United States) distributing these series. His success in radio and ability to produce vast quantities of high quality programming saw him drafted into television by Lew Grade at the ATV network. Towers’ commission was to produce television programs with the same efficiency as his radio business and he accomplished the task with relish. Although he was creating strong profits for the network, Towers was asked to resign due to conflict of interest concerns. In what acts as an indicator of his future unorthodox business practices, Towers was asked to create a nightly chat show and given a substantial production budget, Towers decided to host the show himself, be thrifty with the other costs and keep the rest of the allocated budget for himself, as a hosting fee.

After a brief foray into feature film production with a pair of B-films produced by his Towers of London banner, in 1963 Harry Alan Towers was on the run and hiding out in South Africa. Two years earlier, he had skipped bail after being arrested in New York on the charge of running a call-girl ring. Naturally, that ruled out any return to the United States, but due to a number of previous deceitful dealings in his native Britain, his creditors were eagerly awaiting his arrival home, meaning setting up a production base in Britain was also out of the question.

Undaunted, Towers teamed up with Oliver A. Unger, a producer who had made his name and fortune in the 1950s – the early years of television syndication – most notably through purchasing old cartoons from the major studios, editing them into half-hour programs and selling the packages to television networks and individual stations. Hoping to extend into theatrical film production and distribution he hooked up with the experienced Towers in 1963 and they planned a number of projects that contained exciting action, colourful backdrops and could be cheaply filmed. With Towers’ showmanship, Unger’s U.S. experience and the conditional agreement of several fading screen stars willing to perform in these productions, they managed to sell the North American distribution rights to the Canadian based Seven Arts Pictures (this was the company that pounced upon the troubled Warner Brothers Corporation in 1967 when they bought out founder Jack Warner’s controlling interest. However, Warner Brothers-Seven Arts lasted a mere two years before a financially disastrous 1969 saw that Seven Arts stake bought out by the Kinney Corporation).

With the Seven Arts distribution deal in place and the resultant funds from the rights’ sale in pocket, by 1965 they had completed an impressive slate of six feature films which they unveiled in the market section of that year’s Cannes film festival. Operating under the banner of UPI (Unger Productions Incorporated) a full page advertisement in Variety immodestly announced that these were pictures of “Major Importance”. With no mention of Towers’ involvement whatsoever (Unger was listed as sole producer of each film) the suspicions of creditors and law enforcers either side of the Atlantic would not be raised.

Four of the titles were filmed in Africa. Mozambique was an adventure tale of diamond smugglers, 24 Hours to Kill fell into the espionage and intrigue genre that was highly popular in the wake of the successful James Bond franchise, Coast of Skeletons was a remake of the colonial drama Sanders of the River (1938) and Sandy the Seal hoped to capture the family audience. With the likes of Mickey Rooney, Steve Cochran, Dale Robertson and Richard Todd there was enough (fading) star wattage to fill out the lower half of double features in the English language markets. However the savvy Towers also peppered his cast with a number of actors popular in Germany, where Towers would later base many of his operations. The American sales had financed most of the productions but it was a silent partnership with the Munich-based Terra Filmkundst that completed the budgets. Their financing was conditional on the casting of German actors in each of the productions in order to increase their appeal in those markets. This accounts for the likes of Hildegarde Neff, Paul Hubschmid, Elga Anderson, Walter Slezak and Lex Barker in the films. The venture was a successful one with all of these titles having all territories sold by the end of the festival. However, although the rights to these titles were available individually, they were generally sold as a complete package at discounted rates when buyers paid the higher fees for the two gems in UPI’s slate – The Face of Fu Manchu and Ten Little Indians.

Towers had always known the value of a good story, especially one with an inbuilt audience familiarity. The Scarlet Pimpernel series was one of his early television productions and in the early 1970s he was to film versions of Black Beauty and White Fang. More recently he has produced Blood of the Mummy, a version of Phantom of the Opera and a series of Edgar Alan Poe adaptations. Apart from their marketability as known literary commodities, these properties were also public domain titles, meaning Towers did not have to pay screen rights to the authors, much less any later royalties. But the downside to this ploy was that these titles were overly familiar to audiences, having been filmed many times, both for the cinema and television. Towers needed exclusivity with some prize material so he purchased, for £25,000, the rights to a number of novelist Sax Rohmer’s books, including thirteen that featured Oriental criminal mastermind, Fu Manchu (although Towers also produced two films based on Rohmer’s less known other arch-villain, Sumuru).

The Face of Fu Manchu was the first of five Towers films to feature the character (played by Christopher Lee), with the first entries resembling Hammer Studios productions, but the final pair (as directed by Jess Franco in 1970) delving deeper into the territory of sleaze and sadism that would characterize many of Tower’s productions in the coming decade.

Ten Little Indians was the final film on UPI’s 1965 Cannes slate and the one with the most mainstream potential. Agatha Christie had written the novel Ten Little Niggers in 1939 and upon its release was hailed her masterwork and remained her personal favourite of all her writings. The novel tells the story of ten strangers who are invited to a weekend on ‘Indian Island’ as the guest of a Mr. and Mrs. U.N. Owen. Never having met their host the guests are under the impression they have been invited due to their fame and expertise in their various professions (judge, doctor, detective, entertainer etc).

Yet they never meet their host who only makes his presence felt via a gramophone recording in which he accuses each of the guests of being guilty of a serious crime (each involving the death of innocents) for which they have (so far) gone unpunished. Furious at the allegations but unable to leave the island, the guests endure a horror evening in which their party is reduced in number as one by one they are victims of an unseen killer. Central to the décor of the dining room is an ornate piece of china depicting ten Indians and with each death one is mysteriously broken from the display. The children’s nursery rhyme (from which the novel takes its title) in framed in each room, which each line seemingly foretelling the circumstances of each of the guests’ deaths. The invited party (who have admitted their guilt for the crimes of which they were accused) soon realize that, having searched the house and its grounds in vain,   Mr. U.N. Owen does not exist and the killer is indeed one of them, implementing this elaborate plan in order to fulfill his or her insane scheme of social justice. Suspicions are raised and tempers flare but the killings continue. Eventually Vera Claythorne kills the last suspect, her love interest Phillip Lombard. She appears to be the only survivor but the judge – already believed killed – reappears to admit he is the mastermind of the scheme. Stating he is terminally ill, he drinks poison, leaving Vera alone with a noose hanging from the ceiling. Realising that the police will believe her the killer and seeing no way out of her predicament, she hangs herself – the final piece of the judge’s plan now complete and following the exact last lines of the nursery rhyme:

One little Indian left alone alone.

He went and  hanged himself

And then there were none.

Ten Little Niggers differs from many of Christie’s more celebrated work in that it does not feature a sleuth (professional or amateur) solving the crime and detecting the identity of the villain. Yet it still remains a archetypal example of classical British crime fiction. Featuring prototypical aristocratic and upper-middle class gentlemen and ladies hiding dark pasts of violence and improper behavior, the plot convolutions throw up numerous red herrings until the dénouement unmasks the real criminal, an unexpected character with a once seemingly foolproof alibi. With its settings rarely straying from the confines of the mansion (a subsidiary character itself), Ten Little Niggers conforms to the ‘drawing room’ characteristic of the form, as does its preoccupation with manners and conduct (un)becoming.

The novel may have been a hit in Britain but its title caused obvious discomfort American publishers. She agreed for it to be released there as And Then There Were None and subsequent edition in Britain and the Commonwealth were retitled Ten Little Indians. Christie also had the problem that the novel’s downbeat conclusion proved problematic for adaptations into other media. Christie herself rectified the situation by writing a version for the stage, with a reworked ending that had not only Vera and Lombard surviving, but actually innocent of their supposed crimes. The judge was not as infallible as he (and the audience) believed, realizing the last act of his grand plan was in ruins only after he had sipped his fatal drop of poison. Certainly this adhered to the most popular aspect of melodrama in which villainy is quashed in the final moments by the virtuous, restoring a moral order to the universe and offering a catharsis for the audience (with the promise of a romantic future thrown in for good measure). However, it could be argued that for those with a more cynical bent, the original narrative restored its own order, with the judge’s virtue and sense of righteousness (albeit with a brutal bluntness) righting the moral unbalance that social norms have been unable to correct. For the needs of a potentially wide audience though, the proposal that society’s conventions of law and justice are inherently flawed was a notion too impalpable to contemplate.

Christie was correct. Her stage adaptation opened in November 1943 to capacity crowds London and replicated that success in New York the following year. The film industry was immediately interested and independent producer Leo V. Popkin purchased the screen rights from Christie and the resultant 20th Century Fox production marked the first time a Christie property had been filmed by Hollywood (five previous Christie works had been filmed in her native Britain and another in Germany). Directed by Frenchman Rene Clair with celebrated screenwriter Dudley Nicholls opening it up for the cinematic approach, And Then There Were None was cast with a gallery of fine character actors including the likes of Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, Louis Hayward, C. Aubrey Smith and Dame Judith Anderson. Released in 1947 the film was expectedly acclaimed as an outstanding mystery-thriller but was tellingly praised for its casting, period atmosphere, stylish design and musical score – the hallmarks of a well budgeted studio system production of the day. It is the care (or lack thereof) taken with the material that would mark the versions filmed by Harry Alan Towers in the decades to come.

Towers’ purchased the screen rights from Harry M. Popkin in the early 1960s, with Popkin believing that the story’s surprise ending was too well-known by audiences for another film version to succeed. However, although he sold the property for a low sum he took a production credit on the film and a cut of any profits as part of the deal. The reason Towers was interested in the material was due to the success MGM had enjoyed with a series of Miss Marple adaptations filmed at their Borehamwood Studios in Britain. Starring the inimitable Margaret Rutherford as the amateur village sleuth, dotted with a cast of eccentric English stereotypes and a bright comedic sensibility, these inexpensive productions were very popular as mainstream releases in Britain and on the American arthouse circuit. However, after four films in as many years MGM discontinued the series as they were hoping for more than a cult following in the United States. MGM owned the rights to a large proportion of Christie’s other work, except for those stories that featured Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. A notoriously difficult person to deal with, Towers never considered negotiating for her unsold stories and instead sought out this one, already purchased property. In order to replicate the feel of the MGM Marple films he hired George Pollock, the director of that series to film his version of Ten Little Indians and filled the cast with a number of well-known English Character actors such as Leo Genn, Stanley Holloway, Dennis Price and Wilfred Hyde-White. The leads were Shirley Eaton who had memorably been a victim of ‘Goldfinger’ in the James Bond film of 1964 and the imported American actor Hugh O’Brian who had starred as television’s Wyatt Earp for six successful seasons and was now attempting a career as a leading man in the cinema. As with the rest of the Terra Filmkundst financed films, three roles were given to German actors – Daliah Lavi, Mario Adorf and Marianne Hoppe which also enabled the film to be eligible for German subsidies and tax concessions.  Finally, in casting calculated for the youth market, American pop singer Fabian played the first of the murder victims.

Set in a Scandinavian chateau, but filmed at one of Ireland’s stately homes (some footage shot in the Austrian mountains was spliced in for establishing shots), the 1965 version of Ten Little Indians was one of several British-German co-productions during the 1960s. Apart from the German subsidies available to Towers (via his ‘Tenlit’ company, established just for this film and delisted shortly afterwards) the film’s quotient of British talent allowed it to be eligible to take advantage of the Eady Levy. Instigated in 1949, this was a tax placed on all cinema tickets sold in Britain for foreign films. The pooled revenue was then shared amongst the British films screened that year, proportional to their box office (a percentage also went to the National Film Finance Corporation and the Children’s Film Foundation). The more a British film earned, the more it could claim. This fund rewarded successful films and promoted further filmmaking ventures. However, not matter how well intentioned, the system was ripe for exploitation. American films shot in British studios were often eligible, no matter if that was the extent of their ‘Britishness’. In the late 1970s the worst abuse of the system occurred when distributors of the American blockbuster Grease purchased a £25,000 20 minute British short film about skateboarding and paired it on programs with Travolta musical. This provided enough British content for not only Grease being able to avoid paying the Eady Levy, but qualifying for £200,000 of the Eady share and virtually draining the pool in a very quiet year for the British film industry. The system was finally abandoned in 1985 in favour subsidies granted on individual proposals.

When it played it cinemas during 1965, Ten Little Indians was targeted towards a youth audience. Taking a cue from American producer-director William Castle who marketed his films with various gimmicks, Towers included a 60-second ‘Fright Break’. This entailed the screen turning black shortly before the dénouement and a narrator explaining to the audience they have one minute to guess the twist ending. Each murder is replayed on screen as a clock ticks by in the corner. The minute over, the film resumes. Receiving mixed reviews but healthy boxoffice, the major release of UPI’s slate was its most successful. Towers and Unger parted ways and the Englishman entered the second period of his international co-production, known as his ‘blue phase’, teaming with Spanish director Jess Francofor a series of sex and sadism shockers aimed at the growing adult film market.

After Eugenie…The Story of Her Journey into Perversion (1970), Harry Alan Towers realised that the darker environs of the sadistic sex film were losing their boxoffice appeal as they became increasingly ghettoised into grind-house cinemas and smaller drive-in chains. He and Jess Franco parted ways, with the Spanish director happily prospering in that field for several further decades.  In late 1969 Towers arrived in London trying to gain financial backing for a version of Anne Sewell’s “Black Beauty”. Unfortunately he arrived too late. A couple of years earlier the British-based Hollywood companies would have shown strong interest in a children’s film set in the English countryside but as the decade closed they were moving their investments out of Britain. With the respectable production companies interested in neither Towers nor the oft-filmed story, he found unlikely backing through Tigon, a company associated with low budget horror and erotic films. They had previously distributed his Sandy the Seal and were intrigued by the idea of a foray into the family market. Tigon supplied part of the budget and Towers spent the next few months raising the rest of the funds in Spain and Germany. Shot in Ireland and Spain and featuring the usual assortment of international stars, Black Beauty (1970: James Hill) was well received by critics but failed to make much of an impression with audiences. Undeterred (and having made a nice personal profit from presales), he embarked on a series of further family films, each based on established, public domain, classics.

Although the Spanish-French-Italian White Fang (1973: Lucio Fulci) was a well-reviewed success, two other productions were beset by difficulties. Treasure Island (1972: John Hough) starring Orson Welles as Long John Silver and using the star’s own, pseudonymous screenplay (with other names also attached for the purpose of national contribution) ran short on finances and filming was shut down on several occasions. Tower’s showmanship had lured Charlton Heston to star in Call of the Wild (1972: Ken Annakin) but the star detested the experience, describing Towers as ‘shadowy’ and ‘untrustworthy’. Once again finances did not flow smoothly and Heston has said that working with a West German, French, Italian and Spanish crew was just like ‘the United Nations’ with lots of yelling, no-one understanding each other and nothing getting done. Heston was so incensed at the quality of the finished product that he persuaded Paramount, who owned the U.S. distribution rights, to not release the film. It eventually received a few brief screenings in 1975, after it was on-sold by Paramount to the exploitation distributor Intercontinental Releasing Corporation for a pittance. Costly and requiring much arduous location work for a market offering only slim returns, Towers never truly conquered the family film market. In 1973 he was looking for a new opportunity the on that would arise was a return to an old success, but relaunched with a decade of new skills acquired on in the fierce market of international film finance.

And now, an intermission….

September 16, 2008

Pan(ned) Atlantic – The dreaded international co-production.

by Dean Brandum

To any self-respecting, serious film-buff, the term ‘international co-production’ is cause for instant derision and immediate dismissal. Conjuring up memories of turgid and incomprehensible narratives set in far-flung corners of the earth and populated with a gallery of disinterested, fading performers delivering depressingly dreadful dialouge. Once a staple of 1960s-1970s cinema (and later filling many a late night TV schedule), such Europuddings are still concocted, but their multi-national pedigrees are somewhat better disguised.  Indeed, if you follow the production histories of many recent Hollywood blockbusters you will find they are a complex web of financial necessities are considerations, with input from a consortium of international backers. Tax concessions, currency exchange rates, available production facilities, appeal to foreign markets are all woven into the getting a film off the ground. Today’s international co-production may appear more seamless than those earlier forays into a true, global cinema, yet such smoothing of the edges has robbed the mode of its jet-setting soul.

There is little love lost for the original euro-pudding (or ‘runaway production’ as the trade more kindly described it), however, in a regular series, I would like to delve into this rather forgotten past and pay some tribute to the films, their makers and how (and why) they came into being.

For those unfamiliar and those just trying to forget, perhaps a very brief and potted explanation is in order…

“In the age of political integration, co-productions are inevitable and necessary. Indeed, they provide the only strategy to boost the cinema economically and to secure a film’s success at the boxoffice. Worries that artistic input might suffer in purely economic considerations might be justified. But much more important is to find the foundations for workable joint productions with any country in the world which is willing to co-operate…” – Horst Axtmann in 1967

Following the Second World War the European Cinema was in a state of crisis. Individual nations were deep in debt, talent had been decimated and infrastructure destroyed. Assistance to the European countries from the United States arrived swiftly to both wartime allies and enemies in the form of loans and rebuilding programs. A number of American films also arrived on the continent, provided free for educational, inspirational and entertainment purposes.

During the war, Hollywood lost its once lucrative European markets. Apart from Britain, the studios were only importing (and deriving income from) the British Empire, Latin America and a handful of neutral countries of negligible value. With a number of markets now again available, the studios leapt into the void created by the war and the dearth of local product by flooding European cinemas with the backlog of films accumulated over several years. The American industry was also aided by the loss, during the war period, of the many practices such as quotas and tariffs imposed by governments that had restricted the import of foreign (especially American) films. With the approval by the US government for a legal cartel formed by the studios to enhance export opportunities, these factors allowed for a concerted effort by Hollywood to gain a position of power in a vulnerable European film market. That it was detrimental to the European industries was an inevitable consequence.

Yet, the European nations fought back. Apart from the damage to European industry and culture, the American studios were draining currency from desperately poor nations with little tangible in return. Restrictions on film imports were implemented and, in an attempt to stem the currency loss, new regulations were imposed whereby the American companies could only use such funds (or percentages of them) if they were used for purposes of production or investment within the European countries. In 1946 Italy and France signed an ‘experimental’ co-production agreement, ratifying it in 1949. Of the many bi-lateral and more expansive agreements made in the decade after the war, this was the most successful, producing over 230 films by 1957. Germany signed with France in 1951, France with Argentina and Spain in 1953, then with Yugoslavia and Austria two years later. Eventually nearly all of the filmmaking countries (including smaller nations such as Holland, Hungary, Sweden and Denmark) of Europe had passed agreements, often with overlap. Each of these agreements had a complex set of criteria for each participating company to fulfil in order that the production met the requirements of national representation within the pact. This process was often tied in with government initiatives that supported film production, such as subsidies and tax rebates. Various categories were established (often markedly different over each agreement) in which the percentage of investment could be evaluated. This would determine such details as how many performers and crew would be required from that country and, how many scenes would need to be shot there. Indeed, in many cases, having a compatriot fulfil a certain high profile position, such as director, would be regarded highly by the regulators at the expense of some other, otherwise mandatory, requirements.

When quantified in numbers of pure production, the co-production method was highly successful. Between 1949-1964 there were 1091 films made involving at least two national partners. Mostly genre films, the filmmakers adapted quickly to ever-changing market tastes. In the process some genres such as the German ‘Heimatfilme’ (domestic melodramas of the ‘homeland’) which were very popular in the 1950s had vanished by the end of the decade. Action became the key ingredient of the co-production, a selling point that appealed to audiences across all national boundaries. The concentration of spectacle also alleviated the reliance upon dialogue, relegating it to general conversation and exposition. This also strengthened the films’ claims to being truly pan-European, with post-synchronising (dubbing) of the soundtrack made easier. Importantly, action-based genre films, especially those featuring Europe’s most cinematic natural and urban landscapes, could be exported outside of the continent, including to the lucrative US market. Although not within the scope of this discussion, it must be noted that many well received films that played well in the international arthouse market were the product of co-production details. Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) was an Italian-French co-production, as was Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973). Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976) was financed through Italian, German, French and American partners. The system did allow an auteur-cinema to flourish, as long as the directors were willing to bend to certain pan-national conditions.

Hollywood was suffering its own crises at home during this period. Forced to divest itself of its theatre chains they also faced a post-war slump in the audiences who were now finding their entertainment in other sources, especially television. The various measures set up in Europe to negate a perceived attempt at American domination actually proved a blessing in disguise for the Hollywood studios. After attempting a number of underhanded schemes to access boxoffice funds frozen on the continent, the studios finally relented and began investing in European films. Believing that spectacle would lure audiences back to cinemas, they found Europe offered the scenery required for such exotic epics and that production crews were not only capable but comparatively inexpensive. For a time the giant Cinecitta studios in Rome were known as ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’ due to the number of what would be referred to as ‘runaway’ American productions shooting there. The Hollywood studios also carefully met any requirement for such films to be declared ‘French’, ‘Italian’, ‘British’ or wherever they were shooting in order to receive the due government inducements such as tax minimisations and subsidies offered by that particular country. Although Britain was reluctant to join any pan-European co-production agreements, they also benefited from American involvement, with Hollywood investment paving the way for a number of successful films in the 1960s that were ostensibly British but backed with American finance. In fact, American involvement was so important in Britain that when it was withdrawn late in that decade the British industry ground to a halt, subsisting through much of the 1970s on low budget exploitation product. The success of European genre films in the 1960s also allowed for a number of small distributors in the United States to expand rapidly by importing these films at low cost to an appreciative American youth market, who had become the most important audience for the Hollywood studios. A company such as AIP made a fortune by cheaply acquiring the distribution rights to Goliath and the Barbarians (1959: Carlo Campogallianni) and after similar successes then began financing European productions.

Even within the confines of the action genre the co-produced film would move through various cycles and forms, mimicking successful Hollywood hits or even finding variations on their own profitable formulas. From peplums to gothic thrillers, westerns to detective thrillers, espionage adventures to softcore pornography, it became a business of gambles and speculations, whether a producer could jump aboard a particular genre when it was popular with audiences and if they knew it was time to move on before the audience tired of that particular formula.

From the early 1960s, there was a surge in the number of films co-produced by companies in two or more countries, particularly within Europe. Although their initial aim was for Continental success, many found their way to the United States, often through the distribution arms of the major Hollywood studios, who found them to be ideal product for cheaply buffering their release schedules. The derision for the international co-production from critics in the United States and Britain stemmed from a number of factors. A New York Times review of The Viscount (1970: Maurice Cloche), a West German-French-Spanish co-produced espionage thriller partly set in the USA was typical in relaying several of the prejudices which could be expressed in a short-hand fashion in many reviews for such productions:

“[The Viscount] pretends to the title and the class of a high-born Bond-type picture and all it is is a low-grade gangster film-so low that it thinks Jersey City was the height of elegance as a center of crime in years gone by. Charge that up to the fact that it is one of those European sausage films – ground out by a group of co-producers representing West Germany, France and Spain-and you know what usually happens when the Europeans try to show how wise they are about America….it is the sort of picture they’d be strongly inclined to brush under the rug in Hollywood-or quickly sell to television for burial on the late night shows.” (Crowther).

Within this review is the belief that the film is attempting to defraud the audience, by modeling itself on a genre created, refined and perfected by British and American filmmakers (in this case, the high-class spy thriller). It tries to present a familiarity with the American milieu, yet its background reveals it an imposter in Hollywood guise. The reviewer displays a possible xenophobic streak in his distrust of European comment of American issues (and seems to feel that the newspaper’s readership agrees). The film’s international pedigree is described in a manner that implies financial considerations over artistic ambition (referring to producers rather than a director), with no singular national vision. That it was ‘ground out’ demeans the film as a low-grade factory created product, but one without any class, skill or even pretence to art. The inclusion of “one of those” indicates a pre-supposed knowledge on behalf of the readership in that that they are well-aware of this type of film and its inherent traits. Finally, in a direct comparison with Hollywood product, The Viscount is assessed as being so inferior as to being worthy of the then lowest and last rung of mainstream exhibition – late night television.

Yet, for all the invective they suffered, the internationally co-produced genre film flourished for many years, particularly in Europe and through various channels still found distribution in English language markets.

Even when the budgets were substantial and the aims highbrow, the critics rarely let up –

The Red Tent (1969: Mikhail K. Kalatozov), an Italian-Soviet aviation drama featuring a cast of mixed nationalities including Sean Connery, Claudia Cardinale and Hardy Kruger “Soon succumbs to that spectre of modern movie-making, International Co-Production….one is left with a niggling doubt about the wisdom of spreading creative co-operation over so many boundaries” – Monthly Film Bulletin.

Such critical invective may be explained by the refusal to accept the notion of a trans-national cinema. This stubborn attitude was borne of a belief in the inherent ‘purity’ of a singular national voice which – through the work of a filmmaking collective from that particular country – will impart a sincere representation of the issues, concerns and art of that nation and its people. The by-product of a transnational cinema which utilizes cast, crew, finances and locations from several nations is an inevitable dilution of such a voice. The transnational film it was believed, was one created by filmmakers thrown together for funding purposes rather than any true desire to work together, creating a narrative with the intent of appealing to as many nationalities as possible and in the process, thought many critics, pleasing very few. These were the sentiments of Sidney Cole in 1962. Within his concerns for the future of European film was an anxiety for the future of his own industry. As founder of the British Film Technicians Union, he feared that, in order to compete with a flourishing pan-European market, Britain film companies would be forced to integrate, losing their cultural identity in the process.

Cole had other things to worry about – namely Hollywood pulling up stumps by the end of the decade and leaving the British industry in ruins, taking nearly two decades to return to a near-viable concern. In that time, Hollywood reconsolidated its position as of world dominance and, streamlining their release slates, fewer overtly international co-productions were included in their schedules. Instead, the major studios adapted the mode to their own benefit – securing their own international finance, taking advantage of available concessions, shooting where cheapest and, with varying degrees of discretion, slotting international stars into their casts, for maximum global boxoffice potential.

The true euro-pudding was left to the continental market and when they found American distribution, it was generally in the lower tiers of the art and grind markets, eventually ghettoing in films direct to video or the wasteland of cable television. Oh yes, in these single continental currency days the highbrow euro-pudding is still around and can be found on display at various notable festivals. Check out The Barber of Siberia (1998: Nikita Mikhalkov), Vatel (2000: Roland Joffe) and Luther (2003: Eric Till). The bewildering world of pre-sales usually ensures the films make profits, even if few actually perform well at the box office.

Films seemingly from nowhere, trying to appeal to as wide an audience as possible by pleasing few in the process. Yet there are pleasures to be found as I hope this ongoing series of Europudding pieces will illustrate.

September 14, 2008

Bricked Vermeer: Subversive Frames and Fulci’s “Sette Note in Nero” (1977)

Note: The post that was once here has now been refereed and can be found as the essay “Subversive Frames: Vermeer and Lucio Fulci’s Sette note in nero” at Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media (Issue 17, 2010).

September 5, 2008

Life in the Old Girl Yet: ‘Carrie’ (1976) and the Unbearable Lightness of De Palma Bashing

by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Crudely boiled down to the barest of narrative and thematic bones, horror more often than not is predicated upon a world of villains – Michael Myers, Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees – and, in turn, the heroes who fight them to restore order. Even when delineations are not that clear cut, it still often exhibits (and may be  defined through) a perverse delight in manipulating and challenging the binaries of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ for its own macabre, sometimes even subversive, purposes. For its critical history alone, it is on these terms that director Brian De Palma’s 1976 film Carrie is of some note. Neatly fitting into this binary system, responses to Carrie can be divided into two schools. The film’s brazen technical excesses and references to Alfred Hitchcock are considered by some critics to be the films greatest virtues, while for others these same elements are Carrie‘s downfall and reveal De Palma as naught more than an artless hack. Even more violently opposed are the many critics that have taken part in the most heated debate concerning the film (and “De Palma studies” in general): is he a misogynist? The debate has reached the point of such repetition that over 30 years after its release, the question itself is problematic if only by virtue of its overwhelming dominance of critical treatment of the film. But not all criticism has entered into the invitingly Manichean world that horror frequently encourages. Despite the bulk of material to the contrary, there still appears to be critical life for Carrie outside of the traditional hackneyed debates.

To suggest that De Palma’s technical style – in Carrie at least – is anything less than overt would not only be untrue, it misses De Palma’s painstaking (although perhaps zeitgeist-drunk) formal construction of the film. Critics have employed startlingly polarised language in response to these stylistic issues, Richard Combs embarking upon the clearest mode of attack when he accuses De Palma of “leading his audience on with the gushy lyricism of a shampoo commercial before kicking them in the pants with the knife-wielding hysterics of the crudest Hammer horror” (1977: 4). Serafina Kent Bathrick is equally hostile, employing terms such as “fatuous”, “overstuffed” and “flashy”, describing the prom scene sequence as “the ultimate-moment of self-congratulation”. Eye-of-the-beholder critical evaluations come to the fore, however, when this same sequence is described by David Rosen as “De Palma’s stylistic high point” (38: 1977), and that the film’s excessive style is, as a whole, “lush” (37). Those who defend the films excesses do so by crediting the very significance of that excess: “Carrie…experiences everything with excessive intensity, and the film takes its purply style from her feelings”, says David Pirie (22: 1977), while for Kenneth MacKinnon, the issues are one of authorship; “De Palma’s announcement of his hand in the organisation and execution of the film may be resented by the spectator wishing to stay lodged in the security normally available to the viewer of dominant cinema” (132: 1990).

Then there’s the old “Hitchcock Knock-off” chestnut. Pirie describes Carrie‘s shower scene as “an odd and fruitful progression from De Palma’s acknowledged mentor” (22), while Rosen notes a shared thematic concern between the two directors, suggesting De Palma “quite effectively exploits [shared themes]…satirizing them with a menacing Hitchcockian touch” (37). Robin Wood and Keith Ulhich dismiss accusations of plagiarism as ultimately irrelevant, Wood suggesting a high-brow hypocrisy active within this claims core: “When De Palma works his variations of Psycho (1960), this is imitation or plagiarism, whereas when Bob Fosse or Woody Allen imitates Fellini or Bergman this is somehow, mysteriously, evidence of his originality” (125: 2003). Ulhich is more diplomatic; “I like to view [it]…as a conversation between two filmmakers – one who has been absorbed into history and memory, and another who uses certain of the elder filmmaker’s techniques and themes as a prism through which he filters his own sensibilities”. On the flip side, we find Bathrick’s attack encased in a continuing tone of dismissive indirectness; “Carrie is a senior at Bates (ugh) High” (Bathrick), the style of Carrie’s house is “another clunky comment on Norman Bates’…more massive mausoleum”. Shelley Stamp Lindsay gives her concerns about the connection between the two directors a somewhat more serious tone, suggesting that De Palma’s attempts to mimic Hitchcock fundamentally fail on an ideological level. Again referencing Carrie‘s shower scene; “Violence and sexuality are further confused in this sequence through overt parallels to Psycho‘s shower scene … whereas the violence in Psycho is split between victim and attacker, between Marion and Norman Bates, here no such division exists” (282: 1996).

It is these ideological concerns that dominate discussion about Carrie. Bathrick’s attack on the film is not alone in its fundamental claims that De Palma “has developed his own brand of sexism”. She claims, “there is an urgency in his desire to prove the impossibility of community amongst women”, and that ultimately, “like all the women in the film…[Carrie] is punished for being a woman”. Lindsay shares a similarly negative view of the film in terms of its gender politics; “In charting Carrie’s path to mature womanhood, the film presents female sexuality as monstrous and constructs femininity as a subject position impossible to occupy” (281). Barbara Creed focused on this notion in The Monstrous-Feminine, approaching Carrie as, you guessed it, an example of the monstrous-feminine; “a particularly interesting representation of woman as witch and menstrual monster” (77: 1993) (with no Ginger Snaps around to take the now gratingly orthodox critical “flogging a menstrual horror horse”, many critics of this era had to make do with Carrie to fit the bill). Michelle Citron’s comparison of Carrie to The Marathon Man (1976) is also based on the connection between Carrie’s introduction to biological womanhood with her supernatural abilities; “To be a man is to become moral and courageous, to rise up victorious out of the evil of the world. To be a woman is to become that evil: uncontrolled and destructive” (1977). Michael Bliss shares this belief that Carrie’s telekinesis that “first manifests itself along with ‘the curse’ suggests that the power itself is a curse, a view supported by the film’s subsequent events” (53: 1983). For these two events – the onset of her first period and the awakening of her supernatural powers – to be fundamentally linked to De Palma’s misogyny is, again, dependent upon the critics subjective intent. De Palma himself defends the depiction of Carries’ “out of control” body simply: “I wanted to use it as an extension of her emotions”.

Misogyny arguments are primarily based on the assumption that because it is Carrie’s supernatural abilities that ultimately are a destructive force, it is this relationship between the onset of menstruation and those telekinetic powers that indicate that her womanhood is also a destructive force. But as Bruce Babington radically points out, the film never indicates that her telekinesis – and by association, her womanhood (gained through menstruation) – is a negative force as such in its own right. In fact, this is where the power of the film lies: our fundamental positioning as spectators with Carrie. The simplistic reading of her classmates violent attack in the opening shower scene where “period=abject/bad/ evil” are challenged by Babbington. The attack, he claims, stems from a larger social awkwardness at their own femaleness “their own self-hatred, of their own unconscious, culturally-developed fear of the female in themselves” (11). Their attack on Carrie is an attack on their own discomfort with their own response to their socially taboo menstruation. But to suggest that by virtue of exposing the other girls’ socially-conditioned and aggressive discomfort with their own menstruation, De Palma is himself responsible for creating the patriarchal attitudes that are responsible for such a phenomenon seems quite a leap, but one that is made by many of his detractors. This is the similar kind of rhetoric that surrounds much writing on rape-revenge film: does even the depiction of rape as a violent itself count as a symbolic act of violence , or is there a way that, by showing the horror of rape, some kind of message or lesson can be imparted? Does this act of “showing” in effect neutralise intent?

A further complication in the misogyny debate is from Carol J. Clover, who uses the film as an example of her notion of cross-gender identification in the horror genre. “With its prom queens, menstrual periods, tampons, worries about clothes and makeup, Carrie would seem on the face of it the most feminine of stories” (3: 1993). But, she argues, this is clearly not the case: ‘If Carrie, whose story begins and ends with menstrual imagery and seems in general so painfully girlish… and if her target audience is any high school boy who has been pantsed or had his glasses messed with, then we are truly in a universe in which the sex of a character is no object” (20).

What is unendingly fascinating is the very insistence of so many critics to take such extreme, polarised positions within the misogyny and style debates themselves. This raises significant questions about the critical landscape upon which De Palma criticism takes place. It could be argued that critics have followed habit when attempting to read Carrie on the plane of polarised heroes and villains that the horror genre so frequently evokes, but in the process ironically reducing critical debates on Carrie to one that mirrors the very same divisions: De Palma is a villain/ De Palma is a hero. What is more curious is the often-blatant disregard for evidence provided by the film itself to support or deny these claims. As Babbington points out, “in order to sustain the views that Carrie is misogynistic and incoherent, it is necessary to cut off discussion that might be embarrassing” (16). Babbington offers the example of the minor but significant character Frieda – her position is vital, but he is the only critic I have found who even mentions her. And for Bliss to comment on what he describes as “the polarized world of Carrie, in which a Manichean struggle continually exists between good and evil” (15), he relies upon a deeply concerning dismissal of the many debates concerning the moral classification of characters such as Sue and Miss Collins.

There are alternate ways of reading Carrie: these either/or readings are not the only positions possible. William Paul’s examination of the film in his brilliant book Laughing, Screaming takes the dominant binaries of the horror film into account in his reading to dramatically enlightening effect, taking the daring step towards a moral reading of the film and stepping away from the done-and-re-done debates of mysoginy and Hitchcockism. He’s worth quoting at length:

Horror films generally operate in a Manichean universe to the extent that the monstrous and the human inscribe a world of polar opposites. Carrie seems to take over the Manichaeism of the horror film, but it ultimately challenges it as well… Carrie offers a radical shift by invoking this familiar opposition in order to collapse it. The human and the monstrous are not polar states in this film precisely because the human is the monstrous (366) … Carrie earns a sympathy that seems to confuse our willingness to designate her as monstrous. Yet since the film does finally insist on her monstrousness, it invokes a scheme of opposing monsters only to collapse it as much as it collapses its other oppositions. (367: 1994)

Paul’s book – amongst other things – is the closest to attempt what Vivian Sobchack invites in a footnote to her seminal essay, “Bringing It All Back Home: Family Economy and Generic Exchange” (1987), noting that critical attention needs to be given to connections between horror films like Carrie and “the contemporary teen revenge comedy” such as Revenge Of The Nerds (1984). Sobchack’s article also refuses to participate in the traditionally dominant either/or debates around Carrie, locating the film as a significant example in her analysis of the “problem child” figure in horror and other genres. And curiously, despite being referenced by both Creed and Lindsay in their positions on Carrie as fundamentally misogynistic, Sobchack has little interest in gender in regards to De Palma’s work, and instead weighs Carrie up against the far more problematic male protagonist in De Palma’s following film The Fury (1978).

Other interesting readings of Carrie do exist even if they hold less immediate appeal than the ready-made positions provided by traditional De Palma debates concerning style (Hitchcock!) and gender (pig!). Pauline Kael reads the film as “a satiric homage to exploitation film” (211: 1981), while MacKinnon views it as “a satire on fundamentalism” (136). Rosen agrees (39) also widening his critical scope to include in its thematic concerns “some very real and recognisable horrors of contemporary American life, chiefly and centrally the trauma of female adolescence when subjected to the… terrors of the anxiously conformist ambience of high school” (37). Dmetri Kakmi‘s analysis of the film is noteworthy if only for its refreshing absence of any reference to Hitchcock at all, replacing it instead with comparisons to everything from William Blake to Jean-August Dominique Ingres to Hieronymus Bosch. While these arguments may be debated in their own right, their very value stems from their refusal to enter into the more pedestrian misogyny/Hitchcock debates. And there are still areas as yet untouched – while virtually all critics comment in one way or another is to the sympathetic character of Carrie, not enough attention has been given to the powerful and specific role of pathos in the film.

Few other directors so immediately polarise opinion like Brian De Palma, and a history of the critical treatment of Carrie suggests that this film is no exception. But regardless of your take on the film – even if just on an initial subjective, gut level – it seems only fitting that this film, so intent on collapsing the binary framework of heroes/villains and good/evil, has even critics themselves caught up in the inviting honeytrap of the Manichean in horror.