New Titles from Network, Arrow, Medium Rare & Eureka

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ROBBERY Peter Yates, director/Network Blu-Ray Network’s commitment to reissuing classic British movies in superb Blu-ray transfers is bearing some very tempting fruit, particularly in the crime genre – and a notable coup for the company is this exemplary reissue of the classic British crime movie Robbery. Born into an army family in Aldershot, Hampshire, director Peter Yates sampled a variety of careers, but it was his time in the theatre that led to his decision to attempt films, and he began work as an editor, before assuming assistant director duties with such filmmakers as J Lee Thompson and Mark Robson. Yates’ predilection for the crime/thriller field was demonstrated in some sharp and economical episodes of the Patrick McGoohan television series Danger Man. But then came his first major break. There are those who say they can discern elements of Peter Yates’ already considerable skills in the anodyne Cliff Richard musical Summer Holiday, which was his debut film feature in 1963, and the director’s admirers may find themselves inclined to watch it again for a re-evaluation. But it was with the taut Robbery in 1967, a sober fictionalised version of the great train robbery, with which Peter Yates was really able to demonstrate his credentials. The film (with its economical characterisation of the large cadre of thieves – all slightly under-developed, to keep lawsuits at bay) is best remembered for its career-defining (and tire-burning) car chase, the most exhilaratingly edited the cinema had – up to that point – witnessed; in fact, the film – and that sequence – led directly to Yates’ hiring by Hollywood for the Steve McQueen thriller Bullitt, which even managed to top the car chase of the earlier British film.

80,000 SUSPECTS Val Guest, director/Network Blu-Ray Also from Network (in another splendid Blu-ray transfer) is Val Guest’s ambitious, large-scale 80,000 Suspects, focussing on a smallpox epidemic which begins in Bath. (The latter city is photographed with particular vividness, a speciality of the director). The much-employed and urbane Val Guest may be regarded as one of the most versatile journeyman directors to have worked steadily in the British film industry – or (less charitably) as a jack of all trades who delivered professional work without often being really engaged with his subject. The former, however, is probably the more accurate assessment. Like many directors, Guest began his career as an actor and even had a period in journalism (an experience that was to stand him in good stead for the pungent, persuasive realisation of the journalistic world in such films as The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)). Born in Maida Vale, Guest was brought up in India before coming to London. His first films involved venerable music hall comedians of the day such as Will Hay, but, as a director with an early grasp of commercial imperatives, he began to make his mark with such studios as Hammer, for whom he created the ground-breaking (and still impressive) The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), the film which inaugurated the studio’s long and profitable association with the fantasy/horror field, even before Hammer reinvigorated the Dracula and Frankenstein myths. Perhaps drawing on the long journalistic fascination with crime that clearly engaged his own interest, Guest demonstrated a marked sympathy with and enthusiasm for the crime genre, although his best work in the 1960s may be found in The Day the Earth Caught Fire, which is one of the great British doomsday movies. However, the ambitious Hell is a City (1960) and Jigsaw (1962) showed his considerable expertise with crime-related subjects (as did, to a lesser extent the subject of this reissue, 80,000 Suspects (1963)). Later films such as The Diamond Mercenaries (1976) showed a notable falling-off of Guest’s economical and highly professional film-making skills, but his career in the cinema was a long and distinguished one.

REQUIESCANT Carlo Lizzani, director/ Arrow Blu-ray & DVD An interesting (if only fitfully successful) spaghetti western, Carlo Lizzani’s Requiescant is now available in a new transfer released on Blu-ray and DVD by Arrow. In a new transfer taken directly from the original camera negative, the disc features bonus content including an all-new interview with Lou Castel, recorded for this release and an archival interview with director Carlo Lizzani. With a score by Riz Ortolani (Day of Anger, Cannibal Holocaust), Requiescant – Latin for ‘Rest in Peace’ – has Castel playing a rather boring ‘holy fool’ raised to be a pacifist by a travelling preacher after Confederates massacred his family. But when his step-sister runs away to a life of prostitution, the pursuit reveals a supernatural talent as a sharp-shooter (and a gun which never requires more bullets) as well as a shocking encounter with his past. Joining Castel are an impressive array of performers, including a scenery-chewing but highly watchable Mark Damon as the sadistic aristocratic villain, Franco Citti as his henchman, and the great Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini in a rare acting role as a secondary character.

1992 Stefano Accorsi, director/Criminale Italian As Italian crime fiction makes considerable inroads into the current domination of the genre by Scandinavian noir, here is a powerful and astringent drama which will add impetus to the new invasion. Starting with the arrest of an Italian politician on charges of corruption, what follows is a drama that grips by the throat (not least for its graphic scenes of sexuality) and as a rival for the similarly tough Romanzo Criminale and Gomorrah.

ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS Byron Haskin, director/Eureka Blu-Ray With the success of Matt Damon in The Martian, this is a timely release Byron Haskin’s celebrated SF movie (of which the Ridley Scott movie often looks like a remake), detailing the adventures of a lone astronaut’s spaceship-wrecked on the red planet. A futuristic retelling of Daniel Defoe’s classic story, Robinson Crusoe on Mars has gained a beloved cult reputation ever since its debut in the years leading up to the space race. As a mingling of speculative science-fiction with an extraordinary visual design, it proved to have a significant influence on fantasy filmmaking on both the big and small screen. Paul Mantee plays American astronaut Kit Draper, stranded (with his pet monkey in tow) on the Red Planet after an emergency crash landing. Now he must find ways to adapt and survive, physically and emotionally, in the alien landscape — but he may not be as alone as he thought…

THE LADY VANISHES Alfred Hitchcock, director/Network Blu-Ray In his pre-Hollywood days in Britain, Alfred Hitchcock, yet to cultivate his creepily avuncular public image was (even as a young man) a filmmaker whose work quickly established itself as first rate. He was the first ‘star’ director of the British cinema, fully cognisant of the marketability of his image. Viewers whose acquaintance with the works of the Leytonstone Master is confined to his American films – should certainly look at his most celebrated British films such as The 39 Steps and the subject of this splendid Network Blu-Ray reissue, The Lady Vanishes. The sheer pleasure afforded by this comedy thriller is undimmed. Network has also made available another Hitchcock classic from this period, his original version of The Man who Knew Too Much.

CALLAN: THIS MAN ALONE Various Directors/Network For admirers of Callan this three-disc set – with its various documentaries (and such cherishable items as the first appearance of the assassin/spy in A Magnum for Schneider) will be catnip. For the truly genned-up aficionado of the vintage British thriller, the name James Mitchell is guaranteed to provide a warm glow. Writing under this name and as James Munro, he produced some of the most solid and adroitly written contributions to the genre in an era when good writing was the norm rather than the exception. His signature character, of course, was the surly anti-establishment spy Callan – so memorably incarnated by Edward Woodward in the fondly remembered television series. We have here a new feature-length documentary about one of television’s most highly regarded series, featuring a remarkable central performance from Edward Woodward. The show grew from a cult favourite into one of Britain’s favourite shows. Nearly ten years in the making, this documentary tells the story of the iconic series’ creation and development, its success on television and extended life in film and books. Narrated by Edward Woodward’s son Peter, This Man Alone features contributions from Peter Mitchell (the son of Callan creator James Mitchell), Reginald Collin (producer), Mike Vardy (director), James Goddard (director), Piers Haggard (director), Patrick Mower (actor), Trevor Preston (writer) and more.

THE KILLING Various directors/MediumRare When The Times commissioned me to write a piece about the late Stieg Larsson (who was just beginning to create the seismic rumble that developed into the volcanic sales he subsequently enjoyed), it was clear that a distinctive genre – with its own parameters now visible – had arrived. However, this remained a literary phenomenon, and in the various pieces I was asked to pen I examined it simply in those terms. But then the second wave appeared, courtesy of film and television: the Swedish film of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and – on television – the amazing success of the Danish series The Killing. The latter went from cult phenomenon to minor British obsession (not least for its unsmiling heroine Sarah Lund, played by Sofie Gråbøl). And when in 2012 I found myself interviewing the modest writer of the series, Søren Sveistrup, in front of an audience enthralled by this talented (but hitherto unseen) creator, it seemed that the Scandinavian invasion was complete. Now, courtesy of Medium Rae, we have a chance to re-view the entire series in this handsome box.

BECK Various directors/Arrow It has been late in coming. In this country, we have seem various incarnations of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander and now – thanks to both television and welcome box sets such as this — we have a chance to see Martin Beck, Wallander’s influential predecessor, as written for TV by Cilla and Rolf Börjlind. The Nordic method of telling crime stories is over fifty years old. The novelists Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, with their policeman Martin Beck, created a unique genre in the mid-sixties that marked the start of a global literary fairy tale. Their books broke with the established norms of delivering pure entertainment. Social criticism and existential dilemmas were interwoven into the crime format, and the genre distanced itself from other mass-produced formula literature. The distinction between so-called ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ forms of literature became more diffuse, and the crime novel gained admittance to the same market as other serious literary fiction. This TV series has moved on from the original novels to create fresh outings for Beck.

HOLDING ON Adrian Shergold, director/Simply Media This taut series gleaned several awards (including the 1990 Bafta Award for Best Drama serial), and it’s not hard to see why. A beautiful young woman is discovered savagely murdered, and the diverse collection of Londoners connected to her in some fashion are obliged to examine every aspect of their lives. The top-notch cast includes David Morrisey, Phil Daniels and Leslie Manville.

RICHARD III Laurence Olivier director; THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD Michael Powell et al, directors; ROME EXPRESS Walter Forde, director /Network Blu-ray In their very welcome Blu-ray initiative of reissues, some classic of the cinema are reappearing in definitive editions: Olivier’s celebrated film of Shakespeare’s Richard III (with its matchless Walton score) and Michael Powell’s enchanting Thief of Bagdad (again it is worth noting the film’s durable score, this time by Miklos Rózsa). Conrad Veidt is typically memorable in the vintage thriller Rome Express.

Celebrating the Unacceptable: British Trash Cinema by I.Q. Hunter

image-service.aspAs befits the BFI Palgrave Macmillan imprint in the cinema arena, the reader can customarily be assured of provocative and unorthodox film reading – which is very much the case with I.Q, Hunter’s concise but penetrating British Trash Cinema. The optimistic claim that this is the ‘first overview of the wilder shores of British exploitation and cult paracinema from the 1950s onwards’ is probably accurate (although several excavations already been made into this territory), and there are intriguing insights aplenty into everything from Hammer’s largely neglected fantasy films (far less well-regarded than the company’s more famous Gothic horrors, on which has now settled the virtue of classical respectability) to the sex film industry of the 1970s (which this writer also covered in Sex and Film for Palgrave Macmillan). If Hunter’s unfashionable case for Ken Russell’s later camp extravaganzas is less persuasive, at least there is not the conventional dismissal of Russell’s work after his Delius and Elgar films for the BBC (and the odd honourable cinema outing, such as Altered States or Crimes of Passion). If there is one caveat about the book, it is the fact that in its brief 200 pages it has been impossible to cover all the deserving material which would have benefited from Hunter’s lively examination.

 

British Trash Cinema by I.Q. Hunter is published by BFI Palgrave