Thursday, April 30, 2020

Commando (Mark L. Lester, 1985)

Imagine being Arnold Schwarzenegger circa 1985. You’ve won the Mr. Universe bodybuilding competition five times and Mr. Olympia seven times. Moving to the US in 1968 with dreams of becoming a movie star, you made your first film appearance within two years (the best-forgotten Hercules In New York) and managed to land a Golden Globe for your turn in Bob Rafelson’s Stay Hungry (1976).

By the mid-80s, you’d landed two massive hits at the box-office: Conan the Barbarian in 1982 and The Terminator in 1984. Okay, so you’ve had a few missteps along the way (Red Sonja didn’t exactly set the world on fire, and the less said about Conan the Destroyer, the better), but let’s face it: you’re still only 38, you’re built like a Greek statue, and you’re a star. The world’s at your feet.

Directed by Mark Lester (Class Of 1984, Firestarter), 1985’s Commando is steeped in the swagger of Schwarzenegger in his pomp. Arnie plays retired elite soldier Colonel John Matrix, who wants nothing from life than to live in a quiet cabin with his daughter Jenny (Alyssa Milano) and occasionally carry some tree trunks around his backyard. But then a group of evil mercenaries kidnap Matrix’s beloved daughter – their thinking being that this aggressive move will cow Matrix into offing the leader of the South American country of Val Verde, thus allowing lead villain Arius (Dan Hedaya) to seize power.

Big mistake.

Instead of doing as he’s told, Matrix takes a flying leap from a jumbo jet in mid take-off and starts murdering his way towards the villains’ lair – a heavily-defended mansion on a remote island. Along for the ride is air stewardess Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong) who flies Matrix around in a plane and says what the audience is thinking (“I can’t believe this macho bullshit!”). 

Those without an appreciation of ’80s action cinema might write Commando off as one more example of late Cold War jingoism, and it’s fair to say that it probably wouldn’t have existed without the likes of First Blood to pave the way for it. But Commando is well aware of how crazy it is; the early scene where Matrix and his daughter feed a deer is beyond parody precisely because it’s served up with such a knowing flourish. Commando isn’t meant to reflect reality; it’s about a hulking brute of an ex-soldier who can rip up a telephone booth and hold it aloft with a bad guy still rattling around inside it.

Strangely, Commando wasn’t written as a larger-than-life Schwarzenegger vehicle, but as a film about a weary soldier forced into battle following the kidnap of his daughter. The original screenplay was co-written by Jeph Loeb, who’s best known these days for his comic book writing – Batman: The Long Halloween and Hush – and being the head of Marvel TV.

Along with a draft of Teen Wolf, Commandowas among the first things Loeb ever wrote – at the time, he was still in his 20s and trying to break into the movie business. Loeb and his writing partner Matthew Weisman originally envisioned Matrix as an older, more out-of-condition character – Nick Nolte and former Kiss rock star Gene Simmons were considered – but when Commando was picked up as a Schwarzenegger movie by producer Joel Silver, the tone began to change. Screenwriter Steven E. De Souza (who’d later write, among other things, the classic Die Hard) shifted the tone to suit Schwarzenegger’s heroically buff image, with some zinging one-liners to match – not least the superb quip, “Remember, Sully, when I promised to kill you last? I lied.” 

The marketing for Commando was one of the great teases of the mid-1980s. I can still remember the poster and video sleeve, which offered nothing more than an image of Schwarzenegger, dressed in combat fatigues and armed to the teeth, staring straight down the lens with cool resolve. 

All of this strongly implied that Arnold would spend pretty much the whole film running around dressed as a soldier, probably killing bad guys in a forest somewhere. In reality, the greater share of the movie sees Matrix at large in a fantastical version of Los Angeles, where mall cops can be thrown down escalators and shots fired in a shopping precinct without an armed response team being called, and where local gun shops have missile launchers and colossal military-grade machine guns secured out back.

It takes absolutely forever for Matrix to finally don the fatigues and get down to business, and I can still recall the frustration of myself and my friends as we lay in front of the television, fists balled under our chins, watching Commando on VHS in the early ’90s. “This is good and everything,” we said, “but when’s he going to get a machine gun and grenades and stuff?”

It’s around the 60 minute mark before Matrix finally puts the war paint on, and boy is the wait worthwhile. Mark Lester isn’t what you’d call a director with a singular vision or even much in the way of finesse. But in Commando’s clumsiness lies its charm; there’s something cute about the production’s ragged edges, where you can see mannequins standing stock still in the midst of an explosion, or the air rams designed to launch extras into the air when a grenade explodes.

There’s a sense, too, that actor Vernon Wells, who came to America to make his fortune after tearing up the screen in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, knows what he’s gotten himself into here. He cackles and sneers his way through the role of Bennett, a mercenary with an axe to grind with John Matrix. 

As Rae Dawn Chong points out in one of the Commando disc’s extra features, it feels uncannily like Matrix and Bennett are ex-lovers going through a messy break-up, their pent-up sexual fury manifesting itself as a string of steamy homoerotic knife-fights. Nominal villain Arius barely gets a look-in, probably because Lester realized that the Matrix-Bennett smackdown is where the gold lies. Their climactic fight, I’d argue, is the closest ’80s action cinema got to the fireside wrestling scene from Women in Love. You can sense the sexual tension in the air when Bennett screeches the golden line, “I’m not going to shoot you between the eyes, John! I’m going to shoot you between the balls!”

Lester himself later said that he regarded Commando as an intentionally over-the-top piece of Warholian pop-art. I’m not sure if that’s true or whether he’s rewriting history for himself; when he shot Commando 30 years ago, could he or anyone else have guessed that people would actually be talking about it in the 21st century – let alone releasing pristine home versions of it where you can see the joins in the special effects? Then again, Lester may have a point; in his own way, Schwarzenegger cuts an archetypal figure in Commando that’s almost up there with Warhol’s multiple prints of Elvis dressed as a cowboy.

Sylvester Stallone may have thought he’d cornered the market in the super soldier stakes with Rambo, but Schwarzenegger cuts his own furrow as Matrix. Stallone was always the hangdog soldier scarred by his experiences as a killing machine; Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, is more like a god who’s arrived on Earth and quite enjoys gunning down all these puny goons who keep getting in the way of his massive machine gun. 

The level of violence in Commando resulted in several scenes being trimmed on its UK release. The most significant edits were made to the scene where Schwarzenegger uses a garden shed full of tools – rakes, axes, circular saw blades – to murder a bunch of unsuspecting soldiers. Those scenes are now back in their gory glory in Commando: Director’s Cut, which also adds about two minutes of dialogue and alternate takes that were absent from the original theatrical edit.

Commando didn’t make as much money as First Blood Part II, released earlier in 1985, but the image of Schwarzenegger getting tooled up before his assault on Arius’s house had its own cultural impact. That sequence was lifted wholesale and recreated with pixel graphics for the classic arcade shooting game Operation Wolf, released in 1986. The soldier you play in that game also appears to be modelled on Matrix, and even shares the dangerous habit of hanging grenades from his fatigues by their pins.

Looking again at those dangling grenades on Commando’s cover, and it strikes me that it’s the perfect summary of the film’s charm. For all its bloodthirsty violence, there’s an innocence to the film. Schwarzenegger gets away with doing all kinds of horrifying things because he inhabits the same role we do as a viewer – he’s acting out the fantasy of a soldier and enjoying every minute of it. Sure, he gets stuff wrong, like hanging grenades by their pins, meaning tripping over could set one off, but that’s okay – we’d probably make the same mistake in that situation.

Before the first-person shooter existed, Commando was the closest we could get to being a cast-iron super soldier. For those 100 glorious minutes, we get an inkling of what it must have felt like to be Schwarzenegger in his ’80s prime. And boy does it feel good. --Den of Geek

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Kansas City Confidential (Phil Karlson, 1952)

When a bitter former police captain, Timothy Foster (played by Preston Foster), engineers a bank robbery, he enlists three felons to assist him. The robbery goes according to plan, but an ex-con, Joe Rolfe (John Payne), is picked up as a suspect. Rolfe is eventually cleared, but he decides to track down the actual robbers. The trail leads Rolfe to Guatemala where he learns Foster is behind the robbery and is planning to turn in the other three men to receive the reward money.

Kansas City Confidential (1952) depicts a violent criminal underworld. The New York Times criticized the film for its excess use of violence: "An uncommon lot of face slapping, stomach punching, and kicking in the groin, the standard manifestations of the virulence of mobsters and criminals on the screen." The New York Times also criticized the film for its implication that there are corrupt police officers, a theme that would later become common in motion pictures. Director Phil Karlson says, "This was so far ahead of itself that I say these pictures have been copied and recopied so many times. Unfortunately Phil Karlson never got the credit for it because I've never been a publicity hound. I come from the school where what we want to be judged by is up on the screen, not by how well I know so-and-so or so-and-so."

Karlson filmed Kansas City Confidential in a semi-documentary style and this added a sense of realism and immediacy to the picture. Film critic Leonard Maltin commented, "Looking at Kansas City Confidential, Scandal Sheet (both 1952), and especially the breakneck-paced The Phenix City Story (1955), one gets the impression that Karlson could have been a noir master." Unfortunately, Karlson never graduated to the A-picture level. His biggest commercial success was 1973's Walking Tall.

Jack Elam, Neville Brand, and Lee Van Cleef play the three criminals who take part in the armed robbery in Kansas City Confidential. All three men were well known for playing heavies in films and on television. Lee Van Cleef's career took off in the mid-1960s when he appeared in several "Spaghetti Westerns" with Clint Eastwood, including For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). --TCM

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Ferat Vampire (Juraj Herz, 1982)

Doctor Marek (Jiří Menzel) is shocked to lose his ambulance driver, Mima (Dagmar Veškrnová), to a job working as a rally driver for foreign car manufacturer Ferat, and even more shocked when he hears whispers that Ferat cars use human blood for their fuel. Beset by censors, Ferat Vampire emerged with its blood-bathed dream sequence intact, as well as with a disturbing industrial soundtrack and a piquant performance by Zdenka Procházková as Madame Ferat, a kind of Countess Elizabeth Báthory- as industrialist. A satire on consumerism, a potent piece of anti-automobile propaganda, and perhaps the purest horror exercise that Herz produced. --Metrograph

Monday, April 27, 2020

Sambizanga (Sarah Maldoror, 1972)

Today BAMcinématek runs a 16mm print of Sarah Maldoror's essential Sambizanga (1972), a landmark of militant Third World liberation cinema, and likely the first feature film directed by a woman in Sub-Saharan Africa. It's based on a novel by Portuguese-Angolan author and activist Luandino Vieira, who finished his book mere days before his incarceration. Vieira had been wanted in the wake of assaults on prisons and police stations by the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in the capital city Luanda in February 1961. At this moment, centuries of occupation erupted into a guerilla war for independence – and set in the weeks precipitating these events, Sambizanga is a riveting neorealist dramatization of the struggle. It's pitched against the personal story of a woman who, with her child in tow, searches high and low for her husband, who has been arrested, beaten, and imprisoned by the Portuguese secret police as a suspected member of the MPLA. Increasingly hardened and determined, she navigates a web of colonial bureaucracy, military occupation, racism, sexism, class hierarchy, and underground resistance amid a climate of revolutionary ferment.

The film's singularly urgent veracity is inspired by Maldoror's unique background: born Sarah Ducas in Guadeloupe, Maldoror's early theater work led her to Moscow to study film with Ousmane Sembène and eventually to Angola, where she married the Angolan poet and MPLA co-founder and inaugural president Mário Coelho Pinto de Andrade. (de Andrade also created the French translation of Vieira's novel and co-authored the film script.) The film's echoes of The Battle of Algiers are not coincidental: a few years earlier, Maldoror had worked as Gillo Pontecorvo's assistant on the very same film. And yet the Italian aristocrat's affinity for revolutionary struggle, relayed after-the-fact, can hardly match Maldoror's own passionate and immediate response as an MPLA leader documenting the struggle from within, in media res. As a result, the film was shot in the Congo and was not publicly shown in Angola until the country's emancipation two years later. Indeed, Sambizanga was not necessarily aimed at audiences in Angola, but rather to gain international support for the MPLA's cause. It is furthermore unique — and doubles down on the source material, to which it is highly faithful — in its portrayal of women as doubly oppressed by sexism and colonial occupation.

Although curiously "rare" at present — there's a 16mm print at the NYPL but not much else, and if any movie has ever begged for a major rerelease, this is it — Maldoror has said, with assured dismissiveness, that the film was initially often criticized by those on the left for being "too beautiful." That's stunning. Few films are so innately, integrally and consummately revolutionary. Once seen, never forgotten: as cinema and politics, Sambizanga is unimpeachable. Don't miss it. 

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Night of the Demon aka Curse of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957)

“Some of my best friends are ghosts,” says Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews). He is being sarcastic (and Dana Andrews was one of the best serious men at reading a dry line); Holden, a “prominent psychologist” invited to London for an international convention, is an outspoken sceptic who holds the very idea of the supernatural in contempt. He spends most of the film trying to convince others with his reason, although by the opening scene the demon has already been revealed, emerging from a rapidly advancing cloud formation in the night sky to take Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham) as his victim. Despite this, it’s easy to understand Holden’s protestations of rationality, and to believe there’s a logical explanation for everything. As with many ghost stories, it is key that doubt is as unclear as certainty when it comes to the presence of the supernatural.

After more than three decades in the industry – longer, if you count his association with his father, director Maurice Tourneur – Jacques Tourneur was approaching the end of his time as a film director. Along with Nightfall (1956), a Columbia noir that embedded the North American urban/rural divide with an inescapable sense of claustrophobia, Night of the Demon would be one of his last great films made before the tail end of his career, which he spent in television. A lot of his television work over the following decade was terrific and fairly high-profile, too, perhaps due to Tourneur’s practice of directing scripts into tight finished products.

Tourneur was clearly experienced at creating a sense of terror. In Night of the Demon, he draws on common tropes of the horror and gothic modes, some of which he helped to develop in his earlier work. One of those called on in Night of the Demon is the subversion of nature’s calm. This trope manifests as, for instance, infernal energy sparking out above the trees, and as escalating winds becoming an environmental sign of chaos, of ill will, a harbinger of horror – amongst other writers, Gaston Bachelard often accuses wind of possessing a particular violent intent. At a children’s party in the gardens of a mansion owned by Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) – a man with an almost comically villainous beard – a maniacal wind attacks furniture and play equipment, causing chaos, in a scene that could have influenced Alfred Hitchcock when making The Birds (1963). The attention to detail, with the camera focusing on disturbances in trees and the sound effects of sharp gusts of wind, makes this all the more frightening. Later, phantom footsteps leave impressions in the ground, and a haunting cloud chases Holden through darkened trees before inexplicably disappearing.

It is evident here – as it is in many other Tourneur films – that, much like Mark Robson and Robert Wise (as demonstrated in the psychological horror The Haunting [1963]), the director developed and enhanced his talents working with Val Lewton at RKO. Other visual and aural elements contribute to the film’s sense of terror, like shadows in deserted hallways, apparitions in empty houses and cold homes in sparse rural environments – all of which may fall under the umbrella of Tourneur’s expressionism by “the image of a pursuing, threatening light." In their own way these are all tropes with certain generic affiliations, but compiled in this film they are given a unique strength, a sensory richness. Sound matches are memorable too, like an ambulance vehicle with a screeching alarm that cuts to a telephone ringing in Joanna Harrington’s (Peggy Cummins) dark house. Helen Hanson describes a particularly well-regarded scene in Tourneur’s Cat People (1942) as being a sound sequence that provides an intense rendering of place and character – in effect, a moment of “sound affect." Tourneur works with similar designs here, and sound is as evocative as image. With all the film’s use of cinematic techniques, the urgent pace of the investigation gives Night of the Demon an almost clinical sense of the real. Holden, as the eternal sceptic, sternly protests that “It’s easy to see a demon in every dark corner,” while the wind howls spookily outside. And in a way, it is the moments not tinged with the supernatural, like when a man who has been driven mad by the cult throws himself out a glass window to the ground several floors below, that are given the most brutal weight.

It may be that Cummins’ last line – “Maybe it’s better not to know” – is representative of the entire film, and of Tourneur’s intentions as a filmmaker. He had never wanted the demon to be shown in its entirely, but frames were added after he left production and the film became something else in his absence. Talking of his general approach to his filmmaking, he told Présence du cinéma, “The real horror is to show that we all live unconsciously in fear.” While Cat People, for instance, is a pure psychological horror in which the monster is never shown, the visual revelation in Night of the Demon changes its tone from psychological to supernatural. However, a number of the deaths are still explained away with rational thinking by bystanders, and, in the end, a chill remains as the existence of supernatural forces continues to be doubted. Holden repeats Joanna Harrington’s words as the final line of the film; no longer a sceptic, he opts for denial. There’s a harsh comfort in pretending you don’t know what goes on in the shadows. --Senses of Cinema

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Saturday, April 25, 2020

The 10th Victim (Elio Petri, 1965)

Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress star in this half mod, half madcap ‘60s lollapalooza about a government-sponsored game that pits volunteer hunters against victims in mortal combat. Based on a Robert Sheckley sci-fi short story, Elio Petri’s trenchant social satire, co-written by the director and frequent Antonioni collaborator Tonino Guerra, takes aim at consumer capitalism and the society of the spectacle, five years before Guy Debord popularized the term in his Situationist manifesto. Among its preferred targets, the script draws a bead on ageism (Marcello’s vengeful wife threatens to turn in his elderly parents), corporate-media domination (both Mastroianni and Andress arrange to have their kills sponsored and broadcast on live TV), and New Age cultism (Marcello presides as high priest of the Sunsetters, a bikini-clad wild bunch, half in love with easeful death, who gather every evening to worship the westering sun). The Sunsetters are opposed by “vulgar neo-realists,” who blow raspberries at them, and it’s just one of many of the film’s referential cine-gags: Marcello’s torturous love life (termagant wife, materialistic lover) refers to his role in Pietro Germi’s Divorce, Italian Style, and a vacuous press-junket interview owes a debt to Mastroianni’s frequent director Federico Fellini, namedropped jokingly as a street address, while Andress’s flaxen-maned vixen recalls her Bond-girl turn as Honey Ryder in Dr. No. The staccato electric voice issuing from computers that pair hunters and victims for the Big Game seems to parody Alpha 60 in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, which came out earlier that year; another character speaks through an electronic larynx, the same method Godard used to achieve Alpha 60’s uncanny vocal patterns.

Visually speaking, The 10th Victim is, at bottom, a pop-art melting pot. Every scene is filled with eye-catching eye candy, whether bright primary tones or optical-illusion backdrops; the film employs a sort of bric-a-brac bricolage (plaster statues and “winking eye” paintings used for home decorations), championing its comic-strip sensibilities (Marcello’s confiscated literary “classics” are shelves of comic books) at the same time that it decries mass culture’s “bread and circuses,” lowest-common-denominator appeal. The in-media-res opening scene sets the pace and tone, very much in vérité style: A man and a woman chase each other around downtown Manhattan, exchanging potshots, while, in a series of crosscuts, an MC introduces the rules of the game known as the Big Hunt to an unseen audience. The chase concludes inside the austere, glaring white Masoch Club, strewn with sleek ultramodern décor, where the MC introduces a masked dancer. As she strips down to a glass shard-festooned bikini, she whips the audience with her cast-off clothing and now and then slaps a patron across the face. The joint obviously lives up to its name. The unmasked dancer, revealed to be nine-time Big Hunt winner Caroline Meredith (Andress), shoots down one of the patrons, the Chinese man involved in the chase, with two guns mounted in her bikini top. Just maybe this reminds you of the Austin Powers Fembots, baby?

After successfully bagging his own prey, a German aristo he takes out with explosives hidden in his clicking heels, Marcello Poletti (Mastroianni) visits the Big Hunt Ministry building, a squat Orwellian nightmare, where a professorial type lectures on “Big Hunt theory,” essentially Freud’s theory of the death-drive declared with tongue firmly in cheek: It’s a safety valve, the professor opines, state-sanctioned mayhem that allows humanity to vent its violent instincts. Or, as a loudspeaker informs passersby outside, “An enemy a day keeps the doctor away. Why control the birth rate when we can increase the death rate?” Why, indeed?

Later, Meredith and Marcello meet cute at a rooftop eatery. The scene’s jazzy score turns out, in a clever meta bit, to be diegetic, as the panning camera picks out two black-clad saxophonists blatting away from atop black cubes, while nearby Marcello pages through a comic book. Passing herself off as an American journalist, Caroline says she wants to interview him, as a typical “difficult man,” about his love life, staging the event at the Temple of Venus near the Coliseum. In actuality, she’s arranged, along with her sponsor, Ming Tea, a telegenic tableau mort for Marcello, complete with dancing teacups and crane-mounted cameras.

The climactic four-way shootout at the Coliseum pitting Marcello and Caroline against his wife and lover gets a little too antic, tipping the balance in favor of the madcap. But the acid-edged epilogue, Petri’s modernist take on a shotgun wedding, posits marriage as the Most Dangerous Game of them all. Indeed, Marcello’s erotic imbroglio, torn between wife, lover, and (potential) wife, points to a recurrent theme in commedia all’italiana: Italy’s then-lack of divorce laws, which wouldn’t be instituted until the early ‘70s. Petri visualizes Marcello’s prospective future, the future of the future, if you will, as a sight-gag gun blasting out a bouquet of flowers rather than the usual “BANG!” --Slant

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Friday, April 24, 2020

PFLP: Declaration Of World War (Masao Adachi & Kōji Wakamatsu, 1971)

On their way back from Cannes Film Festival in 1971, filmmakers Wakamatsu Koji and Adachi Masao visited Lebanon to meet the Japan's Red Army faction and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine to shoot a propaganda newsreel film promoting the Palestinian resistance. Conceived as a ‘declaration of world war’ that implicates us all, the co-directors capture the everyday banality of military training and preparation exercises for imminent battle. The juxtaposition of the slow-paced ‘landscape theory’-infused style with the militant language of the declaration expresses the charged tension that revolutionary struggle brings about. Before leaving Japan to participate full-time in the Palestinian resistance, Adachi and his collaborators independently distributed the film across Japan on a Red Bus, bringing together cinema and revolution. -IFFR

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Z (Costa-Gavras, 1969)

Costa-Gavras’s 1969 political assassination thriller Z appeared at the end of a decade of burgeoning cultural change and rampant paranoia. In the United States, this Algerian-French coproduction sparked a sensation, not just relaying the European political crisis but perfectly capturing a global mood of apprehension at a moment when America was at its most vulnerable, our domestic security seemingly breached by the consecutive concussive shocks of our own political assassinations (John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy). Based on true events, the film vividly imagined and uncovered the machinations behind the May 22, 1963, killing of the Greek social democrat and pacifist Gregoris Lambrakis in Thessaloníki. It made the fact of political murder cinematically real, as no Hollywood film at that time could dare. And by borrowing Hollywood action techniques, the Greek-born Constantinos Gavras raised the genre to a new level—one that he would define as his own.

This type of filmmaking, of course, was familiar to American moviegoers from the work of such post–World War II Hollywood directors as Elia Kazan, John Huston, Robert Siodmak, and Jules Dassin, who all combined startling social observation with narratives powered by violence and suspense. The activist-aesthete’s genre was not part of the peaceable 1960s counterculture, however. Not even John Frankenheimer’s now-vaunted The Manchurian Candidate was a box-office success. It took a European with one foot in a family political legacy and the other in cinematic craft to update the political thriller in terms both commercial and vital.

Costa-Gavras’s father had fought against the Nazis in the left-wing Greek resistance movement, but after World War II was labeled a Communist by the country’s new government and imprisoned. This political blacklisting of his father precluded education in Greece for Costa-Gavras and even caused him to be denied permission to study film in the United States. So instead he moved to Paris, where he enrolled at IDHEC. Working as an assistant to René Clair, René Clément, Henri Verneuil, Jean Becker, Jean Giono, and Jacques Demy gave him a grounding in form and innovation that became instantly apparent in the stylish assurance of his 1965 debut feature, The Sleeping Car Murders, a murder mystery on a moving train in the tradition of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes but suffused with contemporary immediacy and starring politically conscious actors Yves Montand and Simone Signoret.

Carrying on the tradition of the politically informed films of Francesco Rosi (Salvatore Giuliano, Hands over the City, and The Moment of Truth), which turned recent politics into complex, engrossing cinematic myths, Costa-Gavras would proceed to advance the political thriller toward a popular mode. His work paralleled that of Gillo Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers) and Elio Petri (The Tenth Victim, We Still Kill the Old Way, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion), whose political exposés were also accessible as action films. This trend was distinct from such earnest, earlier cultural movements as Italian neorealism and Russian formalism in that it permitted socially conscious, politically motivated artists to pursue personal causes, infected with the excitement of the era’s post–New Wave aesthetic. Costa-Gavras was inspired to make his next leap forward in 1966, when his brother, still living in Greece, sent him the new Vassilis Vassilikos novel, Z, a fictional account of the Lambrakis assassination. (Its title, from the ancient Greek verb zei, meaning “he lives,” had become a rallying cry for Lambrakis’s supporters.)

With this material, Costa-Gavras could do his part to address the troubles of his homeland. Since World War II, power struggles between Communists, the conservative government, the military, and King Constantine II had kept Greece in turmoil, which included Lambrakis’s assassination and a 1967 military coup. In Z, Costa-Gavras responded to dictator George Papadopoulos and his colonels—albeit from afar, with this Francophone production that used only one Greek actor, Irene Papas (as Lambrakis’s wife)—symbolically addressing the Lambrakis murder and subsequent coup, and endorsing the restoration of democracy, which ultimately did happen when Konstantinos Karamanlis was elected prime minister in 1974. The pulsating score by Mikis Theodorakis, who was under house arrest in Greece but defiantly gave Costa-Gavras permission to use his previously recorded music, helped define the film’s rebellious spirit. Costa-Gavras illuminated all that real-world drama while exercising his skills with newfound purpose.

Z is not a tract setting out the ideological differences that made Lambrakis a target of the conservatives seizing power in Greece. Rather, Costa-Gavras and screenwriter Jorge Semprún use Lambrakis’s murder to ring the alarm on a corrupt and murderous seizure of power. Their means are sincere and emotional more than propagandistic, appealing to leftist sympathies while offering a simpler understanding of the morality behind power struggle, in a way that recalls the righteousness of those late-forties Hollywood political thrillers. To dramatize how human rights are under literal threat, Costa-Gavras and Semprún craftily, without naming names, set up the scene of the crime: a Lambrakis-like speaker, played by Montand, opposes the obstacles that local authorities raise to holding a small rally. This tense night has noirish parameters, with Montand’s heroic deputy, diffident officials, executive military officers, the rally planners, and a ragtag group of hired thugs with anti-Communist sympathies. Once the rally is forced into a less accommodating hall, the stakes for calamity rise. Chaos erupts out of this tension, and Costa-Gavras, with cinematographer Raoul Coutard, exposes the tragedy with depth and lucidity. The clarity is almost surreal—it feels as inevitable as prophecy and as familiar as history, instantaneously mythic. When replayed in slow motion, the scene recalls the experience of reprocessing an unbelievable truth.

Costa-Gavras learned crime-movie procedurals from Clément and Verneuil, but Z adds new dimensions: outrage and fear. The breakdown of social order is implicit in scenes of the assassins’ brutal escape and the bureaucracy’s remorseless cover-ups. Z isn’t a whodunit, it’s a how-was-it-done. Its fascination comes from blunt confrontation with the treacherous behavior of political adversaries. It has visceral impact, such as when a henchman (Marcel Bozzufi) fights an organizer (Bernard Fresson) on the back of a truck. Adept at the mechanics of the thriller, Costa-Gavras sharpens the viewer’s social consciousness with both political exactitude about the stress of fascist oppression—demonstrated through the fearful military and the defensive organizers—and journalistic outspokenness, embodied in the reporter (Jacques Perrin) who witnesses the assassination and uses a camera to document his own investigation. This sixties muckraking spirit is consonant with Rosi, Petri, Pontecorvo, even Godard’s political allegory Made in U.S.A, where the movie’s dynamics convey the tension and pressure of political awareness. Because Z is as exciting as it is enlightening, the movie brings home the weight of political activism besieged by intractable conservative forces.

By answering that traumatized period’s bafflement about political subterfuge, Costa-Gavras crafts a near-perfect allegory for the perils of political insurrection. The assassination and investigation are relayed through tersely structured mystery, suspense, shock, and the relief of resolution through jurisprudence. It remains Costa-Gavras’s most fast-paced film, manipulating time as Rosi did in Salvatore Giuliano, but constantly pushing inexorably forward toward a shocking ending of political repression and resistance to come. In his subsequent political works, The Confession, State of Siege, Special Section, and Missing, Costa-Gavras chronicled the process of putsches, coups, and rebellion in Czechoslovakia, Uruguay, occupied France, and Chile—all distilled into dramas about the historic struggles of risk takers and power mongers.

As The Sleeping Car Murders first showed, Costa-Gavras makes political commentary through the expert deployment of politically identified stars. His multinational casts of well-known progressives embody types: in Z, Montand’s deputy, a dignified, philandering pol; Papas as the distraught, betrayed widow; a supporting cast of leftist and rightist characters portrayed by Charles Denner, François Périer, Pierre Dux, Georges Géret, Fresson, Renato Salvatori, Magali Noël, and Jean Dasté—all familiar from the history of European liberal cinema (evoking the films of Vigo, Renoir, Visconti, Pontecorvo, Fellini), and all contributing to Costa-Gavras’s effort to enlighten.

Jean-Louis Trintignant’s examining magistrate, the ethically minded prosecutor who brings the assassination conspirators to conviction, spurred a new phase in the actor’s estimable career. Trintignant won Cannes’ best actor prize for his characterization of the man, Christos Sartzetakis, who prosecuted the real Lambrakis assassins. The Trintignant magistrate’s unyielding pursuit of the facts provides a steady, sobering counterweight to Costa-Gavras’s violent, melodramatic action scenes: the staccato montage of police roundups that rapidly lead to scenes of military interrogations where Trintignant demands, “Nom, prénom, profession,” a phrase soon to become a meme of revolutionary, restorative justice. It’s a significant aspect of Costa-Gavras’s agitprop method to implant in viewers notions of civic integrity by simultaneously informing and entertaining them.

Ending with a provocative, unorthodox tally of fascist clampdowns on freedom of expression and the arts, Costa-Gavras angles his exposé with a frightening coda that encapsulates the on-going political struggle. He avoids hippie optimism and foresees contemporary cynicism with a basic thriller device: a warning. Z carries the reverberations of that cultural shift from enlightenment to paranoia in each of its shrewdly devised tropes from common genres. Costa-Gavras expresses the tension and terror of political conspiracy that haunted the democratic and anti-war movements of the sixties—and still does. --Criterion

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Mill of the Stone Women (Giorgio Ferroni, 1960)

Following the release of Riccardo Freda's I Vampiri in 1956, the Golden Age of Italian horror cinema exploded onto the international scene. Over the course of the next twelve years, several films, which are now considered classics, were released within the genre. From monochrome masterpieces such as Black Sunday, Castle of Blood, and Nightmare Castle to kaleidoscopes of stunning color like The Whip and the Body and The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, the stream of creativity seemed endless. With the wealth of quality features that hit the screens during this time, some exceptional films are bound to be somewhat overlooked by fans of this glorious era. One such film is Giorgio Ferroni's Mill of the Stone Women. This neglected gem is a masterwork of gothic terror that deserves to be ranked among the highlights of a decade filled with macabre Italian delights.

The story takes place in the Netherlands where a young researcher by the name of Hans Von Arnim (Pierre Brice) travels to the village of Veeze in order to collect information for an article based around a local tourist attraction known as the Carousel of Stone Women. After first meeting the attraction's eccentric owner, Professor Gregorius Wahl (Herbert Bohme), Hans soon happens upon the professor's beautiful daughter Elfie (Scilla Gabel). He learns Elfie is under the care of the mysterious Dr. Bohlem (Wolfgang Preiss) for a dire medical condition. Unable to resist Elfie's seductive charms, Hans is soon led down a dark path filled with horrifying secrets and nightmarish visions.

During the opening title sequence, the film is said to be based on a short story taken from Pieter Van Weigen's Flemish Tales. However, in the production notes, provided by Pete Tombs of Mondo Macabro on the company's superlative DVD release, this was in all probability an attempt by the films promotions department to tie Mill of the Stone Women to a classic (albeit fictional) literary figure since this had become quite the rage at the time. In actuality, the story that was filmed was a joint effort by Ferroni, Remigio Del Grosso, Ugo Liberatore, and Giorgio Stegani.
Professor Wahl (Herbert Boehme) and his creations in Mill of the Stone Women

Two major influences help form the backbone of the tale conceived by this collaborative approach. First, the film imitates Freda's I Vampiri through the use of its restoration of life and beauty plot line. In Freda's film the Duchess Du Grand retains her youth and beauty by being administered a potion made from the blood of young girls which is supplied by a mad doctor who harbors a deep affection for her. The writers behind Mill of the Stone Women make only one alteration to this by switching the potion for a blood transfer. Every other detail of this plot strand is identical. The second influence is that of Andre De Toth's House of Wax.1 In De Toth's classic, Professor Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price) encases the bodies of those he has killed in wax, and then puts them on display in his exhibit which features murderers and martyrs from throughout history. Once again, this idea remains intact in Ferroni's feature.

Although these two plot points make up a bulk of the film's narrative, the writers do an excellent job of introducing secondary plots into the story which help provide a certain degree of originality. One of these sub-plots concerns Elfie's obsessive relationship with Hans, and is laced with a deep sense of tragic romanticism that helps differentiate the film from its inspirations. *Those who have yet to see Mill Of The Stone Women should be warned that the following synopsis contains spoilers* Having been locked away in her father's mill for countless years, Elfie longs to share her love with another. Her desperation for this feeling is evident as she falls for Hans the instant that they meet. After seducing him and promising that their affair will be for only one night, she discovers that Hans is in love with another woman. Jealousy soon takes over, and Elfie begins to exhibit the irrational traits of a spurned lover. This situation is compounded for Hans as Professor Wahl informs him that, due to Elfie's affliction, any sign of emotional duress could kill her. As Elfie's obsession grows out of control Hans confronts her and explains that they can never be together again. Outraged, she suffers an attack and dies. Death however holds no reprieve for Elfie as Dr. Bohlem reanimates her as he has done after every failed romance throughout her life. She is forever cursed to live life in an undead state, harboring a passionate desire for a love that she can never obtain.

The film's complexities are not limited to its screenplay alone as the story's tone and mood are set through the use of striking visuals. The exteriors, which were shot in Belgium2, provide cinematographer Pier Ludivico Pavoni's lens with beautiful canals, and tranquil village scenery which matches the time frame of the film's narrative to perfection. However, it is within the confines of the studio that Pavoni's talent shines the most. The sets drip with a dark, ominous atmosphere, which he accentuates with vibrant off-setting colors. For example there is simple scene in which the mysterious Elfie emerges from the darkness to descend a stairwell that's bathed in the films dominant color scheme of blues, grays, and browns. She is wearing a yellow dress, and holding two red roses which creates an arresting image for the viewer that stands in stark contrast to the character's surroundings. This evocative use of color is consistent throughout Mill of the Stone Women and provides the feature with a deep, rich, visual aesthetic.

Set design is key to creating the film's unsettling atmosphere. The interior of the titular mill features an overwhelming, expressionistic feel that relies on odd structural designs and slants. Stairways stand at crooked angles, and doors hang off center creating a nightmarish landscape. In the middle of this gloom-filled structure sits the carousel, a motorized diorama which depicts the fates of women accused as criminals in gory detail. This sophisticated piece of machinery operates through the use of a series of gears which cause its morbid wax caricatures to be propelled forward in a terrifying series of lurching motions. It's a ghastly set piece that will be remembered by the viewer long after the film's finale.

Juxtaposing the film's distinct, eerie visuals is the work of composer Carlo Innocenzi. Although he is best known for his work on Italian peplum's and action movies, Innocenzi offers up something different here with a dark, sinister score that blends to perfection with the haunted environment created by Pavoni. His piano driven arrangements enhance the films sequences of terror by piling on layers of percussion, and strings as the scene intensifies turning such moments into tension filled climaxes. It's a shame Innocenzi didn't contribute more to the horror genre, because as the score here attests, he displays a natural talent for the required dynamics.

These aforementioned artistic elements work in layers to create the films overall sense of mood with Hans's hallucination sequence being a primary example. After receiving a sedative from Dr. Bohlem, Hans begins to stumble from one room to the next, putting the mill's bizarre architecture on full display. Pavoni, in turn, fills these rooms with shadows and occasional flashes of red or blue light which adds to the chilling atmosphere. Underlying this is Innocenzi's score which uses its central motif to build tension, and piercing high pitched arrangements to punctuate terror, as Hans begins to unravel the mystery of the Mill through a series of spectral visions. In these scenes, like many others throughout the film, the combination of visuals and sound allow the film to take on a dreamlike quality that is both ominous as well as frightening.

Fans of 1960s Euro-horror will find a lot to like in director Giorgio Ferroni's Mill of the Stone Women. All of the decade's brilliance, beauty, and sense of the fantastique are prevalent within this underrated chiller which deserves to be seen by a much wider audience as it epitomizes everything you hope to find in a forgotten classic. --Classic Horror


Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Eros + Massacre (Yoshishige Yoshida, 1969)

Compared to filmmakers like Nagisa Oshima or Shohei Imamura, Kiju Yoshida remains a lesser-known light of the Japanese New Wave, a lamentable state of affairs that this new box set from Arrow Video should go a long way toward rectifying. The three films included in Love + Anarchism form a loose-knit trilogy on political themes, investigating the ramifications of different political ideologies—anarchism, communism, and a particularly virulent strain of nationalism—on key moments in 20th-century Japanese history. What’s more, Yoshida proves himself to be a master visual stylist, consistently employing deliriously off-center framing and fluidly roving camera movement as a means to catch viewers off guard and keep them ruminating on the postmodern complexities of his narrative form.

Widely considered Yoshida’s masterpiece, Eros + Massacre brings an epic scale to its intimate portrayal of Sakae Osugi (Toshiyuki Hosokawa), a free-love-espousing anarchist who, along with his lover, Noe Ito (Mariko Okada), was murdered by a right-wing militarist faction within the Japanese government in 1923. Over the course of the film, Yoshida gives us a firm grounding in Osugi and Ito’s shibboleths concerning personal freedom and emancipated feminism. But this is just about the complete antithesis of a conventional biopic: Rather than offering a stable, seemingly authoritative narrative, the film keeps alternating unpredictably between episodes from Osugi’s life and modern-day events involving two students, Eiko (Toshiko Ii) and Wada (Daijiro Harada), who are researching Osugi’s philosophical tenets.

At first these timelines remain discreetly separate, delineated by two very different editing rhythms and styles of acting. The Taisho-era storyline is deliberately paced and at times features overtly theatrical performances. The present-day material, on the other hand, embraces the avant-garde abstractions of a Godard film, full of deliberate spatiotemporal discontinuities and fourth-wall-shattering “roleplaying,” with Eiko and Wada periodically amusing themselves by stepping into the shoes of various revolutionary heroes and other martyrs to the cause.

As Eros + Massacre unfolds, the time periods begin to bleed together. Characters from the 1910s suddenly show up in 1969. Eiko has the opportunity to interview Noe Ito in person, but she remains elusive and enigmatic. If, as David Desser points out in his commentary, the film is about constructing a “usable past,” it remains unclear at the end what use preceding events can possibly be to Eiko and Wada. The film’s centerpiece—a Rashomon-style restaging in triplicate of the 1916 attempt on Osugi’s life by jealous lover Itsuko Masaoka (Yuko Kusunoki)—seems intended to demonstrate the unreliable pliability of the past. With each repetition, the motivation for, and even the perpetrator of, Osugi’s stabbing changes.

Eros + Massacre foregrounds the idea that history remains a battlefield open to the countervailing forces of interpretation with a surreal early scene depicting a rugby scrimmage where Osugi’s burial urn takes the place of the football. His legacy is, quite literally, up for grabs. And, as far as the instrumentality of the past goes, the film ends on a suitably ironic note: Eiko and Wada gather the entire dramatis personae of the Taisho-era storyline for a group photo. “This will make a marvelous monument for the future,” Wada predicts. The past as scrupulous recreation, fantasia of possibilities, picture-postcard souvenir—Eros + Massacre operates on all these registers. In the film’s final image, a soundstage door in the bottom right of the frame clangs shut on one of Wada’s bad jokes. Maybe, after all, that’s what history is.

The most abstract and borderline impenetrable of the trilogy, Heroic Purgatory plays like an aleatory Alain Robbe-Grillet film organized around themes of espionage and betrayal that were only briefly touched on in Eros + Massacre. What plotline there is to be construed keeps circling around events in 1952 and 1960—years that saw intense, often violent left-wing protests over the ratification and renewal of the Mutual Security Act that ensured the continuing presence in Japan of the U.S. Army—and their lasting impact on events in 1970. Yoshida intensifies the technique he pioneered in Eros + Massacre: There’s little discernible difference between the various time periods, and characters seem to move from year to year with the apparent ease of stepping through a door, sometimes quite literally so.

Events are kick-started when Kanako (Mariko Okada) brings home a young woman, Ayu (Kazumi Tsutsui), who somehow miraculously survived a seemingly fatal fall that Kanako witnessed. Kanako and her husband, Shoda (Kaizo Kamoda), turn out to be members of a communist cell currently involved in an intrigue against an American ambassador that echoes a past “action” in 1960. What follows are inscrutably staged show trials, clandestine meetings amid industrial wastelands, and at least two assassination attempts.

Like Robbe-Grillet’s works, the film follows an obscure dream logic that must be submitted to before you can begin to work out the implications and ramifications of the onscreen actions. As a rumination on the increasing paranoia and brutality of a revolutionary cell, Heroic Purgatory seems clear enough. In the last shot, Kanako and Ayu stand on a train platform discussing their plans for the future, before a sudden rack focus picks up a sign over their heads that reads DEAD END.

Coup d’Etat is far more straightforward in its depiction of Ikki Kita (Rentaro Mikuni), a notorious public intellectual who was secretly executed by the government for his role in the failed coup of February 1936. Yoshida’s innovation here is to mix together the real-life history of Kita and the fictitious travails of an anonymous young soldier (Yasuo Miyake) who’s fallen under the sway of Kita’s virulent nationalism. The narrative plays out according to the distanced aesthetic of a docudrama, but Yoshida’s critique of Kita shines through in Mikuni’s performance. Kita comes across as a bundle of barely controlled mania, often seen kneeling before his domestic shrine, rattling off Buddhist sutras while the consequences of his machinations are relayed through phone calls and the sudden arrival of breathless messengers.

Wada, the impotent pyromaniac of Eros + Massacre, rejected out of hand the reductionist tendencies of psychoanalysis, but both that film and Coup d’Etat explore the intricacies and contradictions of character motivation with the scalpel-sharp skill of a trained analyst. Kita’s obsession with the emperor is an obvious case of father fixation: Witness Kita’s masochistic acts of mortification, performed with an almost religious fervor, in front of a portrait of the Meiji emperor. It’s a supreme irony, then, that Kita’s execution was ordered by the Showa emperor, in whose name he sought to abolish Japan’s recently instituted system of parliament. Playing up Kita’s fascination with religious imagery, Yoshida films his execution as an act of martyrdom, with Kita strapped to a cross before facing the firing squad. --Slant

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Monday, April 20, 2020

Cockfighter (Monte Hellman, 1974)

Had Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop received the attention it deserved upon its 1971 release, creating a tagline for his 1974 film Cockfighter would have been simple: "It's Two-Lane Blacktop with cockfighting!" Just as Blacktop offered total immersion in the subculture of illegal hot-rodding, the recently reissued Cockfighter—which, like Blacktop, was kept out of circulation for years—does the same for the unpleasant, widely illegal sport of its title. But Hellman chooses to overlook the familiarity of his themes, producing a film every bit as committed to its dangerous corner of the world as its predecessor. In one of the best performances of his career, Warren Oates plays a seasoned cockfighter who, because unwise words once cost him a chance at a championship, has taken a vow of silence until he can correct the mistake. After apparently bottoming out following a devastating loss to friendly rival Harry Dean Stanton in the opening sequence, Oates renews ties with an old lover (Patricia Pearcy) who has kept herself removed from the sport, then begins to rebuild his cockfighting career. The plot never thickens much beyond that, but it never needs to. Oates' portrayal of a backwater existential hero slowly reveals a state of mind in which money, houses, and (most) women are valuable only as stakes in his game. Beautifully shot by Néstor Almendros and unmistakably filmed on location using real participants in the cockfighting underground, Hellman's not-always-simulated fight scenes will make the film rough going for anyone who likes animals, but it's tough to deny Cockfighter's effectiveness. What it lacks in Blacktop's dreamlike atmosphere, it matches in grit and a similarly resigned tone. One of the great character actors, Oates wrings more from his silent performance than many actors could manage from a sheaf of Shaw and Wilde, and in addition to Hellman's insightful commentary, the DVD pays tribute with the revealing, if clip-intensive, documentary Warren Oates: Across The Border. Producer Roger Corman chose to bring pulp master Charles Willeford's novel Cockfighter to the screen because it exploited a sport whose worldwide popularity nearly matched its notoriety. What he got instead (as happened remarkably often with directors used to working the margins) was an off-kilter, unforgettable art film created from equal parts celluloid, philosophy, and blood. --AV Club

*Be warned, this movie (regrettably) contains tons of unsimulated cruelty to animals. 

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Sunday, April 19, 2020

Jason and the Argonauts (Don Chaffey, 1963) + Essay by Ray Harryhausen

Greek and Roman mythology had never been my favourite subject at school, but as I grew older I began to appreciate the legends and to realise that they contained a vivid world of adventure with wonderful heroes, villains and, most importantly, lots of fantastic creatures. In the late 1950s, the producer Charles H Schneer and I discussed filming a Greek legend. Between us we read all of them and decided on Jason and his search for the Golden Fleece. This would allow us the most flexibility for high adventure and fantasy. So it was that what would be known as Jason and the Argonauts was born, and of all the films that I have been connected with, it continues to please me most.

When it came to locations, it was only natural that our first choice would be Greece, but I found it to be very bleak and grey. At that time, the ancient ruins, other than the Parthenon, were mostly unrestored and too decayed for the project - even for the Phineas and the Harpies sequence, which required a ruined temple. So we turned to Italy, where I found perfect Greek ruins (Italy had been colonised by Greeks before the rise of Rome) and an abundance of coastal locations against which we could sail Jason's ship, the Argo.

It turned out, however, that we were not the only crew filming in Italy at that time. On one occasion, we were shooting a scene in which the Argo was to appear from around a rocky bluff. Everything was ready, the camera was rolling and we radioed the ship to start off. But what should come around the bluff but the Golden Hinde. The tension was broken when Schneer was heard to shout, "Get that ship out of here! You're in the wrong century." It transpired that another British film crew was shooting some footage for the TV series Sir Francis Drake, and their vessel, with its more powerful engines, beat ours around the cove.

In November 1961, I sent my father the designs for the model armatures: one Talos, one Talos foot and hand, one Talos arm and hand, one Hydra, two flying harpies, six fighting skeletons, one Jason and one Acastus. They arrived in February 1962, allowing me four months to make and paint the bodies before beginning the animation.

The first Dynamation sequence in the film is Talos, the massive bronze statue that comes to life on the Isle of Bronze. Talos did appear in the Jason legend: he was seven or eight feet tall and, when he came across strangers, would heat his body in a fire until red hot and embrace the unfortunate intruders. We had to alter this image: we did away with the hot embrace, and I made him a 100ft-high adversary, based on the Colossus of Rhodes. There are no remnants of the Colossus, but we know that it straddled the harbour of ancient Rhodes facing the open sea. Our Talos straddled a natural harbour, preventing the exit of the Argo. A Colossus in reverse.

The model of Talos is approximately 12in high. When it came to animating it, I was faced with a whole new set of rules. It seems ironic that, for most of my career, I have been trying to perfect smooth and lifelike animation action, but for Talos it was necessary to create a deliberately stiff and mechanical movement in keeping with a bronze statue sprung to life.

After Talos has apparently destroyed the Argo, the men struggle back to the beach where Talos pursues them. His massive form appears from behind a tall, jagged promontory and he turns his body to look down at the puny men on the beach. This was designed to be as impressive as possible. Like all good stories, hope is at hand when Hera tells Jason that Talos's weak point is his heel. He has to remove a cover to allow the giant's ichor (the life blood of the gods) to drain out. To enable Todd Armstrong to attack Talos's heel, we had a full-size plaster foot and ankle built in Italy. After much experimentation, the props department came up with a concoction for the ichor consisting of oatmeal and coloured water. As the ichor drains away, Talos totters, then falls towards the camera and on to the beach. I didn't use the main model for this, but a fibreglass one that I cut into cracked sections, filling the cracks with clay. During the animation, I shot a frame and gouged out a little of the clay, then shot another frame, slowly creating the appearance of cracks opening up on the body.

The next Dynamation scene was the torment of Phineas by the harpies. In the legend, they are described as having the face of a woman and the body of a vulture, with their feet and fingers armed with sharp claws. As always, I had to take some liberties with this description, making them bat-like to give a more practical and menacing appearance.

Following the encounter with the harpies, the story moves on to the clashing rocks and the god Triton. We searched for months to find an actor to play Triton. The part required one special qualification, long arms, because he had to be able to reach across miniature cliffs to prevent the destruction of the miniature Argo. Even on the miniature, the gap was quite considerable. We eventually chose an actor who was also a swimmer and thus able to submerge himself.

It was not an easy role. The poor man had to wear an uncomfortable rubber fish-tail corset and avoid all the complex mechanisms that controlled the tail. In addition, his wig was heavily lacquered to prevent the water making it look like wet noodles. After the first take of him emerging from the water, he looked a little ordinary, so I told him to stick his lower lip out, like the Royal Hapsburgs. This would give him a majestic and sinister appearance.

The whole sequence was shot in about a week on a small stage at Shepperton studios where we had built a special tank that included a wave device. When we built the set, we made the falling sections of rocks out of Styrofoam covered with plaster. Nobody, including myself, had considered any problems with this until we came to the first day of the shoot and found, on attempting to "clash" the rocks, that they merely floated in the water. Overnight, the construction shop made replacement solid-plaster rocks. The cinematographer Wilkie Cooper and I shot the sequence using high-speed photography, which exaggerated the splashes, giving the scene a dreamlike quality that perfectly reflects the surrealistic subject matter of a huge god holding back rocks.

Following the clashing rocks, Jason and his Argonauts finally arrive at Colchis, where they locate the fabled Golden Fleece. In the original legend, the guardian of the Fleece is a dragon that never sleeps. I felt that dragons were seen as medieval beasts, so, for our version, I searched through the Greek legends and came up with the seven-headed Hydra, which Hercules slays as one of his labours. The original creature had more heads than I could have coped with (100 according to Diodorus; 50 according to Simonides), and as soon as Hercules cut off one head, two grew in its place. The hero finally kills it with the help of Iolaus, who applies a burning iron to the wounds. For our film, this was too complicated, so I gave the Hydra seven heads and killed him with a sword through the heart.

As with Talos, the basic design of the creature came from classical vase paintings, although it went through many changes before I finally came up with the idea of making it serpent-like with a distinctive tail ending like a forked snake tongue. The seven heads were designed to resemble a dinosaur-like bird with curved beaks and two ear-like crests curving backwards, an image that would suggest prehistoric times.

The climax of the film is the battle with the children of the Hydra's teeth. When Acetes catches up with Jason he scatters the teeth while calling on the forces of darkness to avenge him of the crime. From out of the ground appear armed skeletons. In the legend it is rotting corpses, but we thought this would give the film a certificate that might have barred children, so we decided on seven skeletons.

Each of the model skeletons was about eight to 10 inches high, and six of the seven were made for the sequence. The remaining one was a veteran from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, slightly repainted to match the new members of the family. When all the skeletons have manifested themselves to Jason and his men, they are commanded by Acetes to "Kill, kill, kill them all", and we hear an unearthly scream. What follows is a sequence of which I am very proud. I had three men fighting seven skeletons, and each skeleton had five appendages to move in each separate frame of film. This meant at least 35 animation movements, each synchronised to the actors' movements. Some days I was producing less than one second of screen time; in the end the whole sequence took a record four and a half months.

How do you kill skeletons? We puzzled over this for some time and, in the end, opted for simplicity by having Jason jump off the cliff into the sea, followed by the skeletons. It was the only way to kill off something that was already dead, and besides, we assumed that they couldn't swim. After filming a stuntman jump into the sea, the prop men threw seven plaster skeletons off the cliff, which had to be done correctly on the first take as we couldn't retrieve them. To this day there are, somewhere in the sea near that hotel on the cliff edge, the plaster bones of seven skeletons.

Jason and the Argonauts took nearly two years to complete and cost an unprecedented (for us) $3m. Although we had made the film under the title of Jason and the Golden Fleece, Columbia discovered that there had been an Italian sword and sandal movie starring Steve Reeves with the same title. So the publicity department came up with a fist of alternatives. Eventually we decided on Jason and the Argonauts.

When the film was released, it generally received good reviews, although Time magazine said that "they have dreamed up monsters Jason never saw, including a steam-powered King Kong, built of bronze, with a drain plug in his heel". Well yes, we do take "liberties" - because the film has to appeal to general audiences, and you can't do that if you stick to every detail. It was also unfortunate that the film opened in the US at the same time as the public was becoming tired of the Italian muscle epics that we had desperately tried to avoid being associated with.

As almost a footnote, Columbia submitted the picture to the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for consideration as a special effects contender. We expected it to earn at least a nomination for visual effects, but it was ignored. The picture that won was Cleopatra. I am told by certain Academy members that my film was seen then as nothing very extraordinary, but how could that be, when at the time nothing like it had ever been done for the screen? --Ray Harryhausen, The Guardian