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You Only Live Twice
Pierrot Le Fou
The GPO Film Unit
YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE
(programme note commissioned by Chapter arts centre, Cardiff, 2016)
“One life for yourself - and one for your dreams” - Nancy Sinatra, 1967
“You forget, Scott, that we’re inside a volcanoooo… we’re surrounded by liquid hot magma!” - Dr. Evil, AUSTIN POWERS: THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME, 1999.
“Stop getting Bond wrong!” - Alan Partridge, 2002.
Waylay any passer-by in the street and ask them to respond to the phrase ‘Bond villain’, and you’ll likely receive a mixture of replies. Oddjob’s hat, Jaws’ steel gnashers, Scaramanga’s nipple, Blofeld’s pussy. There’s every chance, though, that the first three words you’ll hear from most will be “hollowed-out volcano”.
With the Carry Ons, Hammer horror, and now the Beatles all hitting box-office peaks, the mid 1960s for once saw something of a boom in commercial British film fortunes. Of course there are always doom merchants hovering, and doubtless those craving ‘art’, respectability, significance from cinema were up in arms about the success of our low-class franchises. So the international attention grabbed by Cubby Broccoli’s ‘James Bond’ productions, not to mention their global influence, can’t have met with joy in certain quarters. Eager paying punters the world over couldn’t wait for the next instalment, though, and in 1966 with the World Cup safely in the bag and ‘Sunny Afternoon’ jauntily spinning on everybody’s turntable, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE was already underway.
The pressure was on, however. This was to be the most ambitious, vast Bond to date, with a Far Eastern location, beyond-ginormous Ken Adam sets, and a plan to go out of this world. And it was already booked into U.K. cinemas for June 13th 1967. The clock was ticking and nobody could cut the wires at the last second. Adding to the expanding list of problems (time-consuming aerial exploratory ‘recces’ seeking non-existent Japanese coastal castles, inability of cast members to speak English, Jan Werich being fired after five days as an ineffectual Blofeld, all of the major production heads avoiding death when their flight plans were hastily changed and news later arrived that their scheduled plane had crashed 25 minutes after take-off), dependable and talented regular scriptwriter Richard Maibaum was, for the first time, unavailable to participate in a Bond series entry. American TV scribe Harold Jack Bloom was called in as replacement, but his screenplay was rejected and Broccoli turned to Roald Dahl.
At this point Dahl was already a noted ace in the field of short fiction, and had seen many of his tales adapted for the small screen, but he had little experience as a movie scriptwriter. Dahl had penned THE BELLS OF HELL GO TING-A-LING-A-LING for director David Miller, but uncustomary out-of-season snowfall in Switzerland caused that movie, about an air raid on the Zeppelin dirigible factory at Friedrichshafen, to be abandoned. Roald, coincidentally a friend of Bond’s creator Ian Fleming, delivered a completed script to Broccoli’s satisfaction.
On hearing the reminiscences of those involved, it’s difficult to judge the precise influence Roald Dahl may have exerted over the finished YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. Take the villain’s volcanic lair, for instance - production designer Ken Adam claims that he and Cubby hit upon the idea during their abortive three-week helicopter location scout, after failing to find a suitable castle from which Blofeld could operate but then experiencing a ‘lightbulb’ moment as their intrepid pilot flew over a cratered mountainous region. So it seems likely that Adam suggested that the hero’s nemesis should plot his evil schemes from within an extinct hollow rock formation, with Roald as the recipient of and respondent to this demand. Or how about the famous scene where a car is lifted hundreds of feet into the air by a huge magnet suspended beneath a pursuing chopper? Cubby’s wife Dana claimed that she devised that one. Not to mention the spectacular airborne autogyro gadget, seemingly included after its inventor Wing Commander Ken Wallis had been spotted piloting the contraption on television.
Dahl gets somewhat short shrift during the YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE Blu-ray release - hastily namechecked just twice, in passing, on the commentary, and rather glossed over or ignored entirely in the remainder of the disc. This seems a disproportionate and unbalanced representation of his contribution, however. Maibaum’s Bonds had attempted to follow Fleming’s plotlines where possible, so Dahl’s was the first screenplay to dare to throw out much of the original author’s work. Additionally, only certain key characters were retained and many new ones added. Also making his Bond debut, director Lewis Gilbert (ALFIE, EDUCATING RITA) had requested that the occasional risqué cheekiness of the dialogue be extended this time around, and that the opening pre-credits sequence ought to offer something different - Dahl seems to have taken him at his word. He shockingly kills off Sean Connery before the titles, later sees the revived spy married in a multi-racial coupling, and even turns him Asian before the close! With the real-life American/Russian space race hotting up, and - perhaps more pertinently - with Stanley Kubrick forging ahead on his film 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY at MGM over at Borehamwood, Dahl takes the action into outer space (he’d realised James had done everything possible on land, sea, and air by now and so sought new opportunities, though Bond wouldn’t exit the Earth’s atmosphere himself until 1979’s ill-fated MOONRAKER). Other innovations include the inclusion of ninja/martial arts scenes, something exotically alien to western audiences at the time; and surely the sinister side of Dahl himself was responsible for creating the deadly piranha pool that flows ominously through Blofeld’s office, and the chilling scene where poison is dripped down a taut vertical thread in an assassination attempt on a sleeping Bond?
It’s perhaps a shame that Ken Adam couldn’t locate a suitable citadel - Fleming’s novel has the chief villain tucked away in such a fortress, the grounds of which are rife with a selection of toxic and lethal plant-life, near-perfect territory for Dahl to conjure up mischief and doom. But perhaps the experience on this assignment offers parallels with his other works - the dinner-jacketed, martini-sipping refinement of Fleming and/or Maibaum’s characters equates neatly to Dahl’s own literary environment of bored playboys and mink-clad minxes causing mild havoc. As for the extravagances of Blofeld in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, why, you could almost substitute Willy Wonka for Donald Pleasence and barely notice any difference…
(from 'Unsung Horrors', published 2016)
The importance of bric-a-brac to the horror genre has gone largely unnoticed, at least on a conscious level - and yet, just stop for a second and ponder precisely how many short stories, television episodes, comic books, novels, and movies you've encountered where the plot revolves around the spooky or satanic qualities to be found within some otherwise ordinary looking item of furniture, piece of silverware, gloomy painting, or weird objet d'art. Where would the Amicus anthologies be without their possessed pianos, mystical shears, supernaturally-infused cloaks and suits, exotic wish-granting figurines, weird canvases - so vital were such physical props and desirable bits of jumble to the Amicus films that their 1973 entry From Beyond the Grave was entirely devoted to the odds and sods found in a little tucked-away treasure trove named 'Temptations Ltd.', where flat-capped Peter Cushing puts on a winningly atrocious northern accent and flogs haunted mirrors, military medals, snuff tins, and ornate portals to the beyond to his unwitting customers, whose attitudes and dishonesty pre-determine their ultimate fates.
As seasoned horror fans I'm certain you can all recall many more instances of a fright-flick plot being triggered by the handling or purchase of a vintage find tucked away at the back of a junk shop or fought over by enthusiastic bidders at a tightly-contested auction. One of the most notable arrived via an unexpected source. When the TV show Friday the 13th - the Series was announced in the late 80s, slasher buffs the world over vocally expressed disappointment that this new arrival wouldn't depict the continuing slaughter-saga of hockey-masked nutjob Jason Voorhees; to the chagrin of many, the small screen Friday focused upon Vendredi's, a store whose owner has brokered - and broken - a deal with the Devil, leading to his demise, the claiming of his soul, and the placing of a curse on all of the sale stock. Relatives assume control of the business and begin to offload the store's contents, until an expert in the occult advises of their terrible error, setting the scene for three seasons of surprisingly high-quality dramas in which they must hunt down the cursed bits and pieces one by one.
And so to Infernal Idol. No, nothing to do with Simon Cowell and the hellish depths of 21st century Saturday night gogglebox 'entertainment', but a quickie 1967 potboiler by Henry Seymour, subtitled "A Novel of Witchcraft and Ritual Murder". Seymour's yarn told of Neal Mottram, a trader in ornaments, figurines and the like who is bequeathed a ghastly carved wooden African statue by a deceased explorer acquaintance; no sooner has this happened than Mottram is improbably approached by a witch cult who identify the idol as 'Chuku' and request use of the totem as a centrepiece for a session of frenzied naked writhing. Being quite a fan of frenzied naked writhing, Neal agrees - on the proviso that a) they stage their bacchanal in his basement and b) that he can watch... before long, an ex-customer threatening blackmail over some dodgy vase trips and gorily impales herself on the prongs of the
trident Chuku wields as an accessory, and this inadvertent 'human sacrifice' seems to lead to good fortune for Mottram when he discovers a cache of gold sovereigns hidden away inside a secret desk drawer. Naturally, he links the two equally ludicrous events and embarks on a murder spree in the belief that Chuku will exchange additional rewards for blood.
This rubbish wasn't exactly crying out for a screen adaptation, but the demand of the British public (and, more pertinently, movie distributors and cinema chains) for sleazy fare of this type had achieved some sort of peak by 1973. Lo and behold, before they knew it unsuspecting audiences were confronted with Craze, based (with a few weird tweaks) on the outpourings from Seymour's typewriter and resembling those overheated, outrageous contemporary imports from the Spanish or Italian horror conveyor belts as opposed to anything local rivals Hammer, Amicus or even the occasionally sex-crazed/violence-minded Tigon were currently offering.
Actors found film work in short supply in the U.K. during the seventies, which explains why our sex comedies, pop music frivolities, and shockers were so frequently populated by stellar names slumming it for a day or two. Sometimes this resulted in the entire topline cast of a movie being made up of familiar folk who really ought not to have shown their faces within several miles of the studio. Check your reference books or the IMDb to note the bizarre array of famous stars appearing in Theatre of Blood, The Comeback, Vampira, The Legacy and the like for choice examples. Craze benefited more than most, seemingly attracting the award-laden cream of Brit-based talent during a presumably collective period of what those in the biz term "resting". A Ben-Hur Oscar winner, legends from the likes of Brief Encounter and Shane, the crazed nun from Black Narcissus, the stars of Satyricon and Nicholas and Alexandra, a renowned character player from countless war pictures of the 50s and 60s, Britain's own blonde bombshell response to the platinum triple threat posed by Marilyn/Jayne/Mamie, Dudley Moore's ex-wife, even the dowager Dame who transformed the phrase "a handbag" into a multi-syllabled classic comedy quip in The Importance of Being Earnest. For Chuku's sake, what on earth was this bunch doing in this heap of old tat?
Hollywood royalty, although perhaps of the minor or disreputable variety, was at the heart of Craze in the craggy, rugged form of Jack Palance. If this appeared to be something of an unlikely casting coup, bear in mind that Palance had previously worked for Amicus in Torture Garden (impressively locking horns with Peter Cushing in a refined version of Robert Bloch's 'The Man Who Collected Poe') and was to move on from Craze to gruffly portray Dracula in Dan Curtis' daring stab at Stoker. At one point Craze went on circuit release in Britain in an intriguing double-bill with Cat and Mouse, a horror-tinged Pinewood-lensed psychothriller featuring Kirk Douglas and Jean Seberg, further evidence that our home productions were curiously capable of luring in the cream of American megastardom around this time. Although Mottram is intended to be English through and through, Palance essays him in his patented lizard-eyed, weatherbeaten, cheroot-toking manner, underplaying for all he's worth and never emoting or projecting when a raspy whisper will suffice. Tellingly, his one concession to the character's nationality arrives when the script forces Jack into a corner - picking up eternal Euro-dollybird Julie Ege in a shady den of iniquity, he has to deliver a line about "British hospitality" and so foregoes the Palance-isms just for two seconds, to instead attempt a parody of an imitation of a spoof of a typical jolly-hockey-sticks gent. It makes Dick Van Dyke sound like Olivier.
Palance is a riot throughout, clad in a succession of sensational patterned shirts and at one point sporting a neon-ultramarine polo neck sweater eye-popping enough to convince you that someone somewhere has managed to create a new shade of blue. After Jack has vigorously rammed a pointed stake through Dame Edith Evans (memo to all other members of the acting profession, alive or dead - Jack P did this, you never will. Bow down in worship...), marvel at the way in which he nonchalantly flings the bloodied wooden murder implement out of a train carriage window! He's a veritable babe magnet throughout, too - it takes him mere micro-seconds to get the fragrant Ms. Ege romping between the sheets, he pays a red-blooded visit to fright-wigged tart-with-a-heart (not to mention matching cupboards packed to the gunnels with erotic vibrating massage equipment and S&M/bondage accoutrements) Suzy Kendall, and liaises with a lusty, one-cherry-brandy-and-she's-anybody's guesthouse landlady played by the estimable Diana Dors - this latter episode forming part of an astoundingly elaborate ruse on Mottram's part to establish an alibi involving hand delivery of some "Indian brasswork" to a client, spurious repairs to his motor vehicle and the pretend bedding of an old flame. Dors is typically terrific here, with the faintest echoing traces of her days as our very own glamour queen all laced in with a rather sad, desperate portrayal of a beauty gone to seed and clinging on to former sexual glories. It's a brilliant, detailed cameo, brimful with faded dreams and haggard weariness, and also helps to make some sense out of one of the film's more outré sections (that's certainly saying something in this picture!)
In his quality to-camera visual essay on Craze, forming part of the extensive extras package on Nucleus' DVD remaster issued in April 2016, ever-informative expert researcher/commentator Jonathan Rigby talks at length about producer Herman Cohen, a man with a notable pedigree of sorts when it comes to attention-grabbing fright flicks. In particular Rigby points out Cohen's regular employment of scriptwriter Aben Kandel, and the way in which this team constantly created an odd relationship at the core of many of their scripts - that of a domineering older man influencing/puppeteering a younger male companion (this can be witnessed in Konga, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, How to Make a Monster, Horrors of the Black Museum, Black Zoo and other trashy Cohen titles, with the teen vampire cheapie Blood of Dracula perhaps even offering a distaff twist on the theme, while 1967's Berserk! provides a welcome variation via its own disturbing mother-daughter conflict). Maybe the time was right for a gay spin on the concept, since a dainty Martin Potter assumes the pliant, submissive role to Palance's increasingly raving and tyrannical obsessive here. Although Mottram pursues the opposite sex, it's always a case of expediency, either with murderous/'sacrificial' intent or (in the case of Dors) as a means to an end - note that he manages to avoid actually sleeping with her (Michael Jayston's jobbing copper makes some rather crude and unfeeling remark about the landlady - "one would have to be pretty desperate to sail into that port" - but the chemistry between Dors and Palance is so potent that it comes as a bit of a surprise when the latter steals away without taking advantage, having used his ex in a more subtle way merely to establish/fake his 'innocence' pertaining to the killings he's compelled to commit). With Potter, however, there's definitely a homosexual undercurrent, never made explicit but heavily hinted-at - notably in two dialogue scenes, one where Palance reminds Potter that he lifted him out of the gutter where his protégé was found turning rent-boy tricks ("sleeping in Hyde Park, hustling old queens"), the other where some younger acquaintances in a trendy bar jokily rib Martin that Jayston might be trying to pick him up across a crowded room.
The set design, both interior and studio/exterior, is excellent. Mottram's premises feel like the type of place where you'd love to idle away a summer Sunday afternoon, and possibly pick up a bargain or a chance of a quick eBay profit. On the Nucleus DVD Rigby theorises that the street of shop fronts may be leftover sets or flats from the smash hit musical Oliver! (others have pointed out that Mottram's shop could also previously be glimpsed as the theatrical costumiers in The House That Dripped Blood's entertaining comedy relief instalment 'The Cloak'). However visually pleasing all the olde-worlde ambience may be, however, the absurdity of this juxtaposition of retail outlets can't be ignored! Should you happen to be in the market for a pair of carved Victorian bookends, a bunch of gladioli, and a takeaway chow mein, you're laughing...
Craze provided yet more helming chores for the by-now increasingly fed up Freddie Francis, a master cinematographer who had somehow almost accidentally built a parallel career as a director of what he must surely have regarded as substandard fluff. His horror output itself seemed equally schizophrenic, split between accessible titles for Hammer/Amicus and just plain weird, difficult to see productions that rarely if ever found a home on television - even our ravenous, eager 1970s 'monster kid' generation had to wait decades to grab a first look at the likes of The Vampire Happening, The Brain, Son of Dracula, or Mumsy Nanny Sonny & Girly. Craze did get isolated screenings on ITV every so often but remained one of the more obscure of Freddie's directorial outings. It's fairly perfunctory, with no discernible style and little to distinguish it from the competition. One innovation for Francis is the use of zooms and close-ups, but employing this technique for would-be ominous/frightening shots of Chuku himself has the slightly unfortunate effect of making the film's grimacing, goggle-eyed monstrosity somewhat reminiscent of that campy old favourite The Giant Claw! (Or as one on-line wag recently put it, "Homer Simpson with a fork"!!)
These antique antics aren't a complete travesty, however. Craze is best approached in the same way that you might visit a place like the one run by Neal Mottram - it might be dull and musty, it might whiff a little, but just when you begin to think that the experience is a waste of your time, you may stumble upon a valuable treasure or uncover something worth your while. Hugh Griffith's insane pop-eyed and gurning cameo, the frequent sight of Trevor Howard's clearly-bandaged left arm (never explained), the utterly incongruous presence of Edith Evans, the obligatory-but-fun opening robed cultists/nude ritual shimmy sequence, the extraordinary Di Dors, and of course Palance wheezing away gamely while possibly glancing off camera and glowering at his agent - all combine to keep Craze immensely watchable, incredulous though you may well find yourself by the time the credits roll.
PIERROT LE FOU
(prepared notes for live introduction to movie screening at Derby QUAD arts centre, 2009)
Good evening, and welcome to QUAD for tonight’s screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 classic, PIERROT LE FOU.
PIERROT LE FOU is one of the key films of the sixties and a product of the new wave of French cinema, a wave which emerged from the pages of influential film magazine ‘Cahiers Du Cinema’. ‘Cahiers’ was edited by Eric Rohmer, and included among its contributors the likes of Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, and Godard himself - all of whom were to establish lengthy careers as moviemakers in their own right. ‘Cahiers Du Cinema’, or ‘notebooks on cinema’, is usually credited as being the birthplace of the controversial ‘auteur theory’, in which a film’s director is held up as the key artistic voice on a movie production and the director’s body of work is examined for regular and repeated themes and concepts. Godard’s startling directorial debut, with A BOUT DE SOUFFLE, or BREATHLESS, in 1959, itself offered an appropriately modern take on cinema, with hip characters, much hand-held camerawork, and movie and pop culture references galore, and the director became one of the most prolific and watchable filmmakers of the times.
French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo had risen to global fame following his star turn as the cool, iconic, Bogart-worshipping desperado of BREATHLESS, and reteamed with Jean-Luc Godard for PIERROT LE FOU six years later - this time playing a rather different character, a young intellectual named ‘Ferdinand’ who says he is “in television” and who deserts his rich Italian wife and baby daughter for hectic adventures with the free-wheeling Marianne, played by Godard’s then-wife and muse Anna Karina. PIERROT has met comparison with later ‘couples on the run’ movies, most notably Arthur Penn’s BONNIE AND CLYDE and Terence Malick’s BADLANDS, but the central core of the story may have been inspired by Godard’s beloved Hollywood crime dramas, perhaps Fritz Lang’s YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE or Nicholas Ray’s THEY LIVE BY NIGHT.
Godard had primarily been known for his stark black-and-white style up until now, typified by his documentary-style debut BREATHLESS and his 1965 science-fiction/ film noir combo ALPHAVILLE. PIERROT LE FOU, however, is markedly different, a film that positively explodes with colour - shot by cinematographer Raoul Coutard, one of the key figures of the French new wave and also cameraman on Truffaut’s JULES ET JIM and TIREZ SUR LA PIANISTE, PIERROT features copious use of primary hues. Several critics have suggested that Godard is purposely focusing upon the red, white and blue of the French Tricolor, while the film’s occasional references to America’s presence in Vietnam has made some ponder whether the director’s concentration on the colours found in the Stars and Stripes may be of significance. All such arguments seem to be shot to pieces by the equally vivid yellows found in the palette, however, so it’s perhaps just as acceptable for you to appreciate this as a stylistic exercise in Technicolor rather than anything more meaningful.
Look out for a cameo by American director Sam Fuller, who gives a terrific speech in which he claims that “film is like a battleground”; also of note is a scene in which Belmondo is tortured in a bathtub via the waterboarding technique, favoured by French paratroopers during the Algerian War and believed to be a method also employed by the U.S. military in Vietnam. And Godard’s treatment of motor vehicles seems to not only pre-figure the later prose of J.G. Ballard, but also possibly gives an early glimpse of the nightmarish auto landscapes of the director’s own 1967 movie, WEEK END.
Godard once famously stated that “all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun”. A flippant and throwaway comment, maybe, but one that PIERROT LE FOU does its damnedest to live up to. Please enjoy the vibrant, colourful, and lively next couple of hours in the company of Belmondo, Anna Karina, and one of the major filmmaking talents and auteurs of the 1960s.
THE GPO FILM UNIT
(programme note commissioned June 2018 by Chapter, Cardiff, for the 'Anim18' animation festival)
The GPO Film Unit was set up in 1933, arising from the work of the earlier Empire Marketing Board. The EMB itself had been formed as a tool to advertise and publicise ‘Empire produce’, in an attempt to encourage British consumers to purchase goods from territories as far afield as Trinidad and New Zealand, amongst other British colonies and dominions. Government cuts resulted in the closure of the EMB by 1933, and the film wing of the organisation was transferred to the General Post Office.
With British filmmaking going through a period of experimentation, with sound now available to accompany screen images, and with overseas artists finding a home within the English arts scene, it’s no surprise that the output of the GPO Film Unit, bold, striking, and modern, should have had a lasting impact far beyond its own brief seven-year existence. It was subsumed by the Crown Film Unit in 1940, with a broader remit incorporating wartime propaganda in addition to promotional
and public information material.
The majority of the work produced by the GPO unit was live action documentary, though with
writers and directors toying with the form and helping to develop what we now recognise as ‘docu-drama’. Major figures such as Humphrey Jennings (‘London Can Take It!’, 1940) gained attention and respect, and a number of GPO shorts were helmed by Alberto Cavalcanti, the talented Brazilian filmmaker who would progress to direct the Ealing masterpieces ‘Went the Day Well?’ (1942) and ‘Dead of Night’ (1945, contributing the classic ‘Christmas Party’ and ‘Ventriloquist’s Dummy’ episodes to that spooky portmanteau chiller).
A trio of key figures in the history of animation found employment within the GPO unit during the 1930s. Only one was British-born, and even in that instance the Scot Norman McLaren was to attain his greatest acclaim as one of the pillars of the celebrated National Film Board of Canada. At the GPO, McLaren was accompanied by New Zealander Len Lye and German Lotte Reiniger; between them, they directed several animated shorts, altogether comprising about a fifth of the unit’s total output prior to 1940.
Lye’s work is extraordinary. Abstract, loaded with colour, movement, dancing figures, imagination beyond the realm of almost all his contemporaries and probably of most people involved in British cinema since. Given that the purpose of his presence was to inform and to advertise the services of the Post Office, Lye trampled all over that notion, paying perfunctory lip service to the product and
going his own defiant way. ‘A Colour Box’ (1935) is a riot of hues and patterns, painted directly on to the film strip itself; the rows and lines of fleetingly-glimpsed squares and circles carrying perhaps only the vaguest suggestion of sheets of stamps, the grace and sweep of the curved or squiggly images conveying the merest hint of a journey from point A to point B; even when called upon to actually present factual information about revised postal charges, Lye does so in such a fleeting,
kinetic way that he reclaims the job in hand as part of his own electric vision. Breathtaking.
The following year’s ‘Rainbow Dance’ simply tacks a tinted shot of a Post Office savings account book on to the end of a decidedly non-commercial (in more ways than one!) offering - the silhouette of a male dancer, all Gene Kelly muscle-tone and grace and even briefly pre-empting Kelly’s signature ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ role, moves and sways about the screen, a mountaineer one moment, a tennis player the next - Lye depicts the ball court as a receding, converging angular construct, while the
use of multiple image and freeze-frame during one sequence reduces cinema back to its primitive pre-zoetrope state of stasis. ‘Trade Tattoo’ is almost punk in its melange of bright clashing hues, sloganeering (“THE POWER OF CORRES-PON-DENCE”) and solarised imagery; its film content includes rather more traditional footage of postal workers going about their business than usual, but this being Lye, even these shots resemble the sort of treated, manipulated scene you might have found on a record sleeve in 1979!
Like many of the film community in Germany, Lotte Reiniger fled during the Nazi era, making her way to England. Already a successful and acclaimed ‘silhouette animator’ in her native country, her techniques were ideal for the GPO Unit and she directed two 1938 pieces for them; ‘The Tocher’ and ‘The HPO’, the latter standing for ‘Heavenly Post Office’ and depicting winged cherubs sending greetings (in the jolly form of the word ‘Greetings’!) to various worthy recipients ranging from an
expectant couple to a boxer and even a fox hiding from the hunt in the branches of a tree. ‘The Tocher’ is perhaps more recognisable as Reiniger’s work, ditching the pastel shades of ‘The HPO’ for a more familiar black and white look, justifying itself by including the receipt of a letter early on but then leaving aside all pretence (at least until the very end) to depict a delightful fairy ballet set to Benjamin Britten’s arrangements of themes by Rossini. Two lovers seem doomed to be separated forever, but the male suitor is handed a casket by the fairies and takes it to the father of his beloved.
Any doubts the management of the GPO may have expressed about Reiniger’s commitment to the cause are assuaged in a gloriously funny finale when the contents of the box are revealed!
Norman McLaren made several live-action documentary shorts alongside Cavalcanti, none of them particularly attention-grabbing, but his 1938 ‘Love on the Wing’ was much more of an artistic success, with thick white-lined morphing figures doing their ever-changing thing before a rolling panoramic backdrop. A la Len Lye, McLaren opted to apply Indian ink directly to the 35mm film itself, resulting in the broad white outline that so defines this particular item. The ‘plot’? Well, an envelope opens and then closes again before transforming into various objects, humanoid
characters, body parts, animals, insects, and things indescribable. The Postmaster-General
apparently regarded it all as being ‘too erotic and too Freudian’ – if that doesn’t recommend it to you, I don't know what will!
(programme note commissioned June 2018 by Chapter, Cardiff, for the 'Anim18' animation festival)
“Animation provided a focus, a centre point, but just as important were the landscape and the
people who populated those forgotten lands. Special effects on their own are not enough” – Ray Harryhausen, from the preface to ‘An Animated Life’ (Aurum Press 2003)
A typically self-effacing, inclusive comment from Ray Harryhausen, a man regarded by many – particularly those in the know, in the industry – as the king of movie animation, though Ray himself would have pooh-poohed any such suggestion. Harryhausen’s work in what was promoted as ‘Dynamation’ developed the pioneering achievements of his mentor Willis O’Brien (whose ‘King Kong’ had stunned a pre-teen Ray and changed the course of his life back in 1933), and in turn influenced a generation. If you’ve seen ‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’ (2018) and its often flawless computer effects, take a moment to bear in mind that productions of that type share a lineage going right back to Harryhausen and to O’Brien. Today’s dinosaur, creature, and galactic epics are all crewed by wide-eyed devotees of old-fashioned stop motion, some of whom would have seen Ray’s work in cinemas as far back as the 1950s, others who have caught up on their film education via rereleases, television reruns, or home viewing media.
The time-consuming processes used by Harryhausen and other contemporaries (Jim Danforth, David Allen etc.) may have been superseded by pixels and laptop screens – though Aardman have kept the flag flying for vintage stop-motion – but the lasting legacy of Ray’s career is that he instilled a love of fantasy, of impossible beasts and incredible situations, to a devoted fanbase, many of whom have tried to follow in his gigantic footsteps.
Inspired by ‘Kong’, Ray began making his own short home movies, exhibiting such prowess that he gained employment on George Pal’s ‘Puppetoons’ series. He also got to meet his idol, Willis O’Brien, who offered advice over the years and eventually asked Ray to assist on giant gorilla movie ‘Mighty Joe Young’ (1949). A dream come true! Harryhausen’s career went from strength to strength; the 1950s showcased his work on monster rampages ‘The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms’ (giant rhedosaurus), ‘It Came From Beneath the Sea’ (giant octopus) and ’20 Million Miles to Earth’ (giant Ymir, a creature from Venus), as well as the self-explanatory ‘Earth vs. the Flying Saucers’. He sidestepped into heroic adventure fantasy with 1958’s ‘The 7th Voyage of Sinbad’; an exciting set piece here, with Kerwin Mathews battling a skeletal adversary, was a promise of things to come…
Ray decamped to England in 1960, setting up home in London and taking dual British/American citizenship. He was about to embark on ‘The 3 Worlds of Gulliver’ and had noted that the Mediterranean region offered a choice of perfect backdrop locations for this and for future visions-in-mind; and all mere hours from London by plane. Harryhausen remained here for the remainder of his life, much to the benefit of UK studios, movie companies, and actors!
His undoubted masterpiece is of course ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ (1963), a thrilling mish-mash of mythology pitting Todd Armstrong and his ship’s crew against grasping harpies, the multi-headed Hydra, the mighty creaking bronze statue Talos, and a whole mob of sword-wielding warrior skeletons. Actor Andrew Faulds plays companion Phaelus, who is killed during the skirmish – Faulds later became a long-serving Labour M.P., which always led Ray to comment wryly that his bony assassin “must have been a Conservative skeleton”!
Harryhausen’s fantastic imagination also took us to the remote ‘Mysterious Island’ and beyond Earth with ‘The First Men in the Moon’ (courtesy of source material by, respectively, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells); the former offering particular delights such as a threatening outsize bee and an enormous crab. Dinosaurs were back on the agenda when Ray went prehistoric for Hammer Films’ exotic ‘One Million Years B.C.’ with Raquel Welch, and Harryhausen stayed in monster territory for the cowboys-versus-Allosaurus mash-up ‘The Valley of Gwangi’, reviving a planned but never-realised project of Willis O’Brien’s. Those school half-term cinema hits (and perennial Bank Holiday schedule fillers on television ever since), ‘The Golden Voyage of Sinbad’, ‘Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger’, and ‘Clash of the Titans’ followed, to the delight of juvenile audiences. Ray never worked on a feature production after 1981, but kept himself busy sculpting robust bronze renditions of his favourite characters, overseeing and contributing to various coffee-table books covering his career, and showing up regularly as an always-welcome guest at film festivals and special events. During his personal appearances Ray would often haul along huge cases containing several of the surviving original armatured figures used in his productions, with no qualms whatsoever about permitting even the smallest children to handle and examine these treasures close up.
His importance in the world of animation is second to none. To this day, Ray is cited as a key influence by hordes of special effects supervisors and crewmembers, not to mention major producers and directors (“Ray Harryhausen is a true giant of the cinema” – John Landis). Medusa, the Kraken, and the scorpions from ‘Clash of the Titans’, the sabre-toothed tiger and troglodyte from ‘Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger’, the six-armed goddess Kali from ‘Golden Voyage of Sinbad’, the titanic battle in the Coliseum between the Ymir and an elephant from ’20 Million Miles to Earth’, that ominous slow turn of Talos’ head or the shriek of the bloodthirsty skeleton army in ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ are all etched on the memories of countless viewing generations, and it’s likely to be that way for generations to come.
Ray Harryhausen filmography:
THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953)
IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955)
EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956)
20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957)
THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958)
THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER (1960)
MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961)
JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963)
FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (1964)
ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966)
THE VALLEY OF GWANGI (1969)
THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1973)
SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER (1977)
CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981)
Ray also worked on MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949) and THE ANIMAL WORLD (1956), as well as a
number of short films during the 1940s and early 1950s. His long-planned adaptation of Aesop’s fable, THE STORY OF THE TORTOISE & THE HARE, was revived by a team of young animators fifty years after Ray had commenced the project; with his blessing, and indeed assistance, the film was completed in 2002, thereby proving the tale’s own moral, ‘slow and steady wins the race’. A comment that could equally be applied to Mr. Harryhausen’s entire working method and career.