The Haunting (1963)

Eleanor “Nell” Lance (Julie Harris) is a meek, tormented woman who spent the entirety of the past eleven years caring for her invalid mother until her recent passing. Left with seemingly no real purpose in life, barely anywhere to stay and only half a car to her name, Nell jumps at the chance to partake in a study focusing on people with histories of paranormal occurrences staying at the notoriously haunted Hill House. The only other candidate is the far more free-spirited Theo (Claire Bloom), and the two are joined by the scientist running the experiment, Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) and the sceptical future heir to the building, Luke (Russ Tamblyn). Upon arriving at the house, however, it becomes clear to Nell that she is meant for more than just an experiment, and the house itself may have other plans for her.
the haunting theo nell
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The Sand Pebbles

The year is 1926, just before one of the many Chinese revolutions. Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) is a ship’s engineer who has been transferred to a small run-down gunship named the San Pablo, or the Sand Pebble to her crew. Aboard the Pebble, Holman causes tension amongst the already tight-knit yet divided crew, which doesn’t help when the Chinese public attempt to instigate a war with the US. Continue reading

The Day The Earth Stood Still

An alien ship lands in Washington D.C., and from it emerges Klaatu (Michael Rennie), a humanoid from a neighbouring planet, who brings with him a message he wishes to convey to the various leaders of Earth. When they squabble pettily over where the meeting should be held, Klaatu instead decides to meet with the general public, so he rents a room in a boarding house, under the name Mr. Carpenter. There he meets the other lodgers, including Helen (Patricia Neal) and her young space-obsessed son Bobby (Billy Gray), and eventually he meets with Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), a learned scientist, in the hopes of discovering something worthwhile about Earth and mankind. Oh, and one other thing. Klaatu has a giant, omnipotent robot guardian called Gort, who has an eye-laser capable of disintegrating anything.

As a nerd, I like my science fiction, but I’ve never obsessed over it. I’m a fan of Star Wars, but I’m not a super fan, and the only Star Trek-related media I’ve seen is J. J. Abrams recent film. To be honest, Firefly has always been more my cup of tea, and that’s only science fiction in that its set in space, and that’s a similar situation here. The actual science fiction elements of The Day The Earth Stood Still are mere background details for a large section of the film, as it becomes almost a fish out of water tale of a man unfamiliar with his new surroundings, learning about a new culture, its eccentricities and foibles. Obviously there is still a great deal of the otherworldy – Klaatu is an alien after all, and there’s the robot capable of destroying worlds who is controlled by words and flashing lights – but the more memorable aspect is the social indictment; the message that we, as a civilisation, need to get our act together or suffer the consequences. It comes as no surprise that the film was remade in 2008 (though I’ve not yet seen it), as clearly had the events of this film actually taken place in 1951, then we certainly didn’t listen, as can be seen by the state of the world today. But I don’t want to get too political, so I’ll just say that message from the film back in the 50s, just six years after the end of the Second World War, is possibly just as relevant today.

Anyway, the film. Seeing as it was made over 60 years ago, its no real shock to find that the special effects for the most part don’t really stand up. Gort is quite blatantly a man in a suit (Lock Martin, of whose nine screen roles six were uncredited and one was deleted), wires are fairly visible in some scenes and footage is clearly sped up to indicate people running away. The laser and disintegration scenes are ropey at best, but I was thoroughly captivated by the shots of the spacecraft opening, with a doorway appearing on its seamless surface, and disappearing again just as effortlessly. 

Michael Rennie seems perfectly cast as a creature not off this world, with his angular features, harsh cheekbones and a deliberate, considered approach to movement and speech making him seem passable for a human, but one who’s definitely a little… off. Which makes it something of a surprise when Helen has no qualms about leaving her son Bobby with this strange man she’s known for only a matter of hours as she goes gallanting off with her beau.  There was a very high possibility of the kid becoming excruciatingly annoying – my girlfriend certainly thought he was – but I found his naivety endearing, even if he seemed far too respectful of his elders, in a manner unheard of today.

The film’s cinematography was brilliant, especially the use of shadows and silhouettes, and the imagery of Gort carrying the figure of Helen, as made famous by the poster. Bernard Herrmann’s score is also suitable sweeping and atmospheric. It’s no surprise that this film has become an integral part of classic science fiction, with the phrase “Klaatu, barada, nichto” (or is it necktie?) going down in history as one of the greatest quotes in cinema. I’m intrigued to now see the remake (if only for John Cleese, an idol of mine), but public opinion has left it not very high on my to-watch list.

Choose film 8/10

Somebody Up There Likes Me

After a couple of small TV roles and an uncredited appearance in 1953’s Girl On the Run (I haven’t found it yet, but I will) Steve McQueen’s second film role, again uncredited, was in this Paul Newman boxing film that I’d previously never heard of and can kind of understand why. It’s not that it’s a terrible film, it’s just thoroughly underwhelming, and tells a familiar story in a genre that has since far superseded it. To start with, it’s a boxing movie where the lead character is Italian and called Rocky Barbella (Newman). If that’s not a coincidence I’ll be shocked.

Rocko ‘Rocky’ Barbella (later Braziano) is a street hoodlum son of a former boxer. As a kid, his Dad Mick (Harold J. Stone) embarrassed Rocky in front of his friends whilst he tried to teach him how to box, and ten years later his layabout father has clearly had a prominent effect on Rocky, as he’s on the lam from the cops, and refuses to either get a job or an education. Things don’t work out too well for the lad, and he gets himself in trouble and locked away for a few years and, upon his release, is immediately conscripted to fight in World War 2. During this time, he discovers an aptitude for fighting, and is able to mould it into a boxing career, which comes in useful when he needs to raise a little money later on.
I can’t really pick out much that was terrible about this film, but nor can I find many reasons to recommend it. Newman was good (other than sounding like Jackie Gleason), but had yet to reach his shining greatness (he is definitely a front-running candidate for a future Film-Makers run, even if I have to watch Cars again) and there were some shots that I loved, particularly a receding tracking shot as Rocky makes his way through a busy market, but this happens near the start of the film, and I kept my hopes up for more cinematography of this calibre but sadly was left wanting. As well as being reminiscent of many boxing films that have been released since (not a fault of this film, but certainly not a reason to watch it either) there were some plot points eerily similar to another Newman classic, Cool Hand Luke, most noticeably his incarceration into a chain gang, during which he has a life-changing fist fight.
There were a couple of obvious gaffs – at one point a man knocks on a very wooden-sounding tent – but otherwise the script was generally entertaining (when offered a cup for a boxing match, Rocky declines and says he’ll drink out of the bottle). Some beats seemed a little extreme – a prison guard pulling a gun when an inmate doesn’t move his towel, a judge awarding Rocky with a prison sentence of indeterminate length – but these could be a product of the time the film was made and set. I loved the scene where Rocky’s manager (Everett Sloane) was telling him his love life (with his sister’s friend Adrian, sorry Norma, Pier Angeli) was making him too happy and healthy to be a boxer.
McQueen plays one of Rocky’s gang early on in the film, and his trademark doing-something-in-the-background-eve-when-he’s-not-supposed-to-be is evident even here. I was expecting him to show up again later in the film, when Rocky revisits his old town and meets up with other ruffian Romolo (Sal Mineo), but alas he only got a few scenes at the start, and didn’t have too much to do in them, but it’s only his second film so it’s OK.
I felt the film seemed to drag near the end, even though it skipped through the dense plot pretty quickly and remained under two hours long. I definitely felt like they couldn’t think of a name (or last line) for the film, and someone saw the title of Perry Como’s song, which coincidentally plays over the credits, and thought they may as well use it for this. It didn’t really fit, going by the amount of bad luck Rocky endured throughout most of his life, but it didn’t jar too much either. For all I could tell Newman was convincing in his boxing scenes, and fans of his won’t be disappointed, but unless you’re a completist like me, or have a particular fixation with boxing movies, there’s not much else here to keep you engaged.
Choose life 6/10

The Sound of Music

Unbelievably, not only had I reached the grand old age of 24 without seeing this film, I also had little idea as to the plot, with the only detail I could quote is that at some point Julie Andrews prances around the greenest fields in all the world. It turns out this happens almost immediately, and moments later I was asleep, for a good half an hour no less, so after several chapters were skipped back I tried again, but I stick to my guns when I say that this 3 hour musical about a singing nun looking after the seven children of a strict retired navy captain is really quite boring. Yes, the songs are catchy and have had a good run outside of the film – I know most of them and have never seen an episode of How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria? – but Andrews and the children are unbearably chirpy, Christopher Plummer’s Capt. Von Trapp too extreme in his before and after being Maria’d states and Charmian Carr as the terribly named eldest daughter Liesl is a long way from even passing for 16. Add to this the predictability of the plot, the inevitable mellowing of both the children to Maria and the stony Captain to everyone – through song of course – and the aforementioned nauseating level of happy everyone is, all you get at the end is a headache. Damn good nap though.

Choose life 5/10

West Side Story

It’s easy to mock West Side Story, and incredibly hard not to let out a start of incredulity, disbelief and hilarity when the Jets, a New York street gang, begin clicking, walking and turning in sync, but this 60s retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has a lot going for it. Yes, the two leads – Jet old hand Tony (Richard Beymer) and rival Shark’s head honcho’s sister Maria (Natalie Wood, not even close to being Puerto Rican) are lifeless, charisma free and unforgivably dubbed for their singing. And yes, the dialogue has not aged well in places, but the toe-tapping tunes, particularly I Feel Pretty, America and Gee, Officer Krupke and outstanding choreography, with dances staged as fights and fights staged as dances more than make up for its faults. Supporting players perform admirably, notably Russ Tamblyn as Jets leader Riff and George Chakiris as Shark leader Bernardo, making this a musical for people who don’t like musicals – people like me then.
Choose film 7/10