Saturday, 26 May 2018

Can’t Buy You Love… The Magic Christian (1969)

Released just at the last gasp of the Sixties, this adaptation of Terry Southern’s 1959 novel fares a little better than the earlier adaptation of Candy (written in 1958 and filmed in 1968). If Candy was broadly about sex (and respect) then The Magic Christian is all about money and the idea that every man has his price.

Produced by Denis O’Dell (who gets name-checked as Denis O’Bell in eccentric Beatles B-side “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)”) and directed by Joseph McGrath, the film stars Ringo Starr and features Come and Get It as a theme tune written by old mucker Paul McCartney, performed by protégés Badfinger. As that tune plays over the opening credits you feel that perhaps the film will be better than you remember but, in truth, whilst it is, a little, overall, it’s not quite the sum of it’s talented parts. As with Candy and others of the period, it’s almost as if making the political/philosophical point, is all that really matters and so it is repeated without ever being progressed with no solution offered.

Ringo and Peter
What’s the thing that money can’t buy, Beatles fans…? The answer was given in 1964. But with this film, in 1969, it was Money (That’s What I Want) this time without the irony.

But I’m being too hard because this film has dozens of period faces, a couple of Pythons, Harry Carpenter commentating. Laurence Harvey stripping along to Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, Yul Brynner as a surprisingly convincing cross-dressed cabaret singer, Christopher Lee, Richard Attenborough and Raquel Welch in leather bikini and a whip. The narrative may lack purpose, but you can’t say it’s without incident!

Peter Sellers, getting down with the kids, plays Sir Guy Grand KG, KC, CBE a man with money and sense who decides to adopt a down and out, Youngman (Ringo Starr) after finding him sleeping rough. To the consternation of his advisors, he had Youngman declared as his son and inheritor and proceeds to show him how the World works. Youngman keeps on calling him “Dad” and it’s all very arch.

Isabel Jeans, Peter Sellars and Caroline Blakiston
Youngman joins his new Dad at the theatre along with other members of his new family, Dame Agnes Grand (played by Isabel Jeans who had begun acting in the silent era) and the Hon. Esther Grand (Caroline Blakiston). They’re astonished watching Laurence Harvey as mid-soliloquy he starts to strip… the first of many jokes enabled by Grand’s wallet. Fair to play to Lauro though it is funny!

Next a grocer’s shop full of classic sixties brand names all of which are sold off at ridiculous prices… “Ha-ha Mr Wilson, Ha-ha, Mr Heath…” Then we’re in a boardroom on a train where Guy introduces his new son and a new concept car, The Zeus which is a gigantic wealth-expressing car that will crush all others. The promotional film is very like a Terry Gilliam spoof mixed with Yellow Submarine.

The pace is relentless as others on the train – Hattie Jacques and a businessman – are pranked and a hot dog vendor (Victor Maddern) is left holding far too much change as the train pulls away – one of Grand’s favourite tricks in the book. At least the vendor was trying to give the billionaire his money back!

Onto a hunting party using tanks and big guns rather than shotguns and why not? There’s a parade of soldiers and a banner declaring it’s Grand to be Grand as the inedible hunted by the distasteful is presented by the finest chefs.

Back to Westminster and meeting the servants at Grand’s pied a Terre then, as the family reads and plays the cello, there’s actual news footage showing marches and distress across the world none of it impinging on the Grand living room; or does it?

John Le Mesurier , Ringo Starr and Peter Sellars at the Boat Race
They watch as a wrestling bout turns into a love match – all courtesy of Grand’s grands – and then go out for expensive Kellogg’s’ Corn Flakes as Guy makes like Mr Creosote in Monty Python’s later Meaning of Life (or indeed, the earlier mountain of beans feast in Magical Mystery Tour) and has an entire restaurant humiliate itself.

The film climaxes with the sailing of the Magic Christian cruise ship which features a wealthy clientele terrorised by Christopher Lee as the ship’s vampire, Raquel Welch in sadistic charge of the engine room – dozens of naked women rowing – homo-erotic cabaret disturbing some of the straight-laced audience (chiefly Terrance Alexander), Yul chatting up Roman Polanski in his blonde wig and Wilfred Hyde White as the sloshed skipper. All descends into anarchy… before the secret is revealed.

Raquel Welch
Then, a last coda with hundreds of city workers diving into a vat of steaming sewage on the Southbank in order to fish out the money thrown in by Sir Guy… Thunderclap Newman’s "Something in the Air" plays as his point is proven despite the smell. It feels like a pop video and it feels heavy-handed but nowadays we have found new depths to plumb and maybe we take it too much for granted.

The film falters partly because of this dissonance but also because it is perpetually cynical, as Candy was, although the central character there was innocent. Here it feels more like Sir Guy and Youngman are just being cruel and we could have done with at least one person to stand up and say no thanks or one scenario that doesn’t rely on the assumption that all of us are in it for the money.

Dusty verdict: Worth watching for the style and the music as well as spotting a host of character actors and the pre-Pythons. Don’t expect to be uplifted or even converted… now, more than ever, we’re greedy bastards.

There are some genuinely funny parts – strip Hamlet and Spike’s parking ticket munching – and it does work when there are targets in genuine need of being taken down. Another imperfect psychedelic production; perhaps too over-ground to hang onto it’s arguments… undermined by the money men, man.

Peter Sellars and Spike Milligan
The Magic Christian is available on DVD and even Blu-ray – perfect for the Raquel fans who want to see the all-female slave scene in clearer detail. Slavery as sexual exploitation is surely not cool.

Monday, 30 April 2018

Crime and punishment... House of Whipcord (1974)

Ah, now… this is one of those films that sounds worse than it is; it’s a clumsy title and even the opening dedication "… to those who are disturbed by today's lax moral codes and who eagerly await the return of corporal and capital punishment"… doesn’t necessarily give the game away, at least for some over-earnest reviewers. Director and story writer Peter Walker was deeply opposed to the misuse of authority and what he saw as an ever-widening gap between the establishment and most of (permissive) society. Like many of his films, House of Whipcord was very successful and its more sensational elements – frequent nudity, sometimes excruciating cruelty and pretty women in prison – all but obscured its message.

The version I saw was probably an edited version and it seems odd for a film featuring such actorly talent as Ray Brooks, Patrick Barr and Barbara Markham in such sensationalist fare. Both Brooks and Barr were to feature in Walker’s The Flesh and Blood Show (which has far more of the former than the latter) and his films are well made overall in spite of clear budget constraints. He creates real atmosphere and tension with stories that are indeed more “terror” (his preferred descriptor) than horror and more sin-full than sinning (just about). They’re engaging and characterful even if not all of the performers are of the quality of the aforementioned.

Sheila Keith
 The film’s structure is also quite unusual beginning not quite with the end but with a pivotal moment in the narrative that we assume could be the end – for good or bad. An exhausted young woman is running through woods in a desperate search for someone to help her. She’s covered in bruises and is wearing a thin blue dress… she’s picked up by a lorry driver (Ivor Salter) who takes her in his cab and finding her almost unable to communicate, heads off to get her help.

Then the story really starts as we find a group of young adults who are enjoying a “permissive” existence. Julia (Ann Michelle – Vicky’s sister) is having an affair with a man, Tony (Brooks) who is either married or in a long-term relationship; he is weighing up leaving his partner for Julia. Her flatmate, Ann-Marie (Penny Irving, famous for several Top of the Pops/Hot Hits LP covers as well as Are You Being Served) is French and a model who is not averse to nude work (Irving herself made numerous appearances on page three of the Sun and Mirror…).

Permissive society in action
At a party to celebrate something, there’s a large black and white shot of Ann-Marie topless being arrested by a policeman at a protest. The others agree it’s a great bit of agitation but the model herself is less impressed by their celebrations. She slinks off for some introspective browsing and meets an intense young fellow called Mark (the unblinking Robert Tayman) who appears attentive and agrees with her unease about the protest shots.

She agrees to see Mark again and whilst they have an agreeable meal he plays a trick on her by getting her to close her eyes whilst he pretends that an ice cube is the cold cutting edge of a knife. He laughs at her horrified reaction but charms her over at the end… we’re not convinced.

Ann Michelle and Penny Irving
 The story focuses a lot more on Ann-Marie and Mark at this point with Julia and Tony very much in the background – also atypical working from Walker. Mark whisks Ann-Marie off in his smart sporty Aston Martin to stay with his parents somewhere out West; he drives too fast and is pretty mean and even when Ann-Marie spots a ring with the name Mark E. Desade on it, she dismisses it… but we know. Well, we’ve read the film’s title for a start.

Eventually they arrive at Mark’s family pile and an imposing pile of granite grey it is too. He leads his girl into the building and leaves her with two officious women: Walker (Sheila Keith) and Bates (Dorothy Gordon) quickly change the atmosphere for Ann-Marie and a few slaps and being forced to strip soon make her realise that this is not quite the weekend she’d been expecting… She’s locked up in a cell with another girl, Claire (Judy Robinson) who is too terrified to speak and very weak.

An ice "slice" from Robert Tayman
Next Ann-Marie is hauled up in front of the establishment’s head Mrs. Wakehurst (Barbara Markham) and an old blind judge Justice Bailey (Patrick Barr): this is a private prison and they have decided to punish her for her crimes of lax morality. She’s quickly sentenced and told that she will have three chances with punishment getting more severe each time.

It’s pretty horrible stuff and not at all titillating: Walker’s lustful glances at her new young prey are unsettling and the punishment beatings are grotesque all the more so for being heard more than seen… it’s the atmosphere that Walker builds that creates the tension and this film is more disturbing than many a more graphic modern horror.

Naturally Ann-Marie tries to escape and she, naturally, gets punished for it. Mark re-appears and her last hope disappears as this is no misunderstanding; he is part of it, sent out to lure “amoral” young things into mummy’s deranged world. Still… she makes plans with the other girls (including a young Celia Imrie) to escape the place for good.

Barbara Markham and Patrick Barr
Meanwhile, Julia has finally realised something’s wrong – despite Tony’s re-assurances and sets out to track down her friend… and that’s when things start to ramp up and the pace changes more into action and some quite shocking scenes.

Dusty verdict: House of Whipcord is certainly no generic “women in prison” film and has a lot to say about intolerance, man’s inhumanity to woman and the hypocrisy of those who enjoy their vengeance on young wrong-doers. The punishment just does not fit the crime and that’s the point; today we see this more and more with social media junkies baying for blood and relishing every twist and turn…

It's atmospheric and the unusual narrative keeps you anxious especially given strong perfromances from the jailors and captives - Penny Irving in particular.

The film is now available on Bluray after long years in the VHS dungeon. Available from Amazon of course.