Review- The Black Panther (1977)

Review- The Black Panther (1977)

I remember one summer when my family was on holiday at my aunt’s house in Stoke on Trent my father took us to what appeared to be a disused reservoir within a park. He explained that under the grate he showed us a young woman was once held for ransom. Her name was Lesley Whittle and Donald Neilson, her abductor had left her tied up in this underground hell completely naked except for a hood over her head and a noose made of wire around her neck which would kill her if she tried to escape. She wasn’t found in time and so died after Neilson didn’t get the ransom he demanded. Yes, this was just an average day out for my family.

The criminal who carried out this was nicknamed in the press ‘The Black Panther’. After carrying out a series of armed robberies at post offices, he set about the abduction of Whittle so that he could demand a hefty ransom and reap more lucrative rewards.

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A couple of years after this kidnapping happened a film was made of these events. It was felt in the media that this was too soon and certain censorious channels sought to prevent the film being shown at cinemas throughout the UK. How this was achieved was by pressure being placed on local authorities who in those days had a lot of power regarding films being shown. The BBFC could make a decision on a film and whether it should be left uncut, censored and banned outright but then the film was at the mercy of local authorities and councils as to whether the film would be aired in their respective boroughs.

This is what happened with The Black Panther and why it was as good as suppressed in the UK. The TV show Tonight were part of this campaign to prevent the film playing with the show’s host Sue Lawley dubbing it a ‘sick film’ even though she hadn’t seen it.

The film resurfaced in the 80’s on VHS but aside from that remained buried as it were (pun not intended). That’s until the BFI restored the film a few years ago and issued it on Blu ray.

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So is this film really some kind of hidden gem worthy of rediscovery? In a word- YES! It’s a bleak account of a psychopathic man embarking a life using his lack of conscience to try to get rich quick after leaving the forces. In fact his time in the army is looked back on by Neilson through rose tinted spectacles as he reminisces about it but also brings that past into his present as he struts around in his attic in his old uniform reliving his glory days. He even lives in the wild as if on an army retreat for days at a time whilst he plans his crimes- firstly, the robbery of the post office substations and then the kidnapping of Whittle. We see him use his training at home also again in his attic/office to plan these projects with military precision.

The Black Panther is just like it’s main character in that it’s completely cold, emotionless and detached. This may sound like some kind of criticism but it works brilliantly well. This is the film equivalent of the objective and fact based kind of crime reportage used with no editorialising whatsoever. Even the screen captions to denote dates and places is done so by utilising the font of a typewriter to denote the fact-based reporting of facts. In fact the film brings to mind the reconstructions that were part of the true crime TV show Crimewatch UK, especially the ones featured in the earlier series that were shot on film.

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It’s also interesting to see an emotionless character like Neilson operating in the real world and with other people who possess the empathy chip even though he doesn’t. The scenes of him at home with his wife and family are darkly entertaining and sometimes downright shocking. He expects his wife to be little more than a hausfrau who serves him and him alone. He barks his disapproval at every turn and over the most mundane things that can’t be controlled (we see throughout the film that Neilson wants control over everything in his life but life doesn’t work like that. Each of his robberies are besieged and altered from running smoothly by factors that are beyond his control). One example is when he doesn’t even look at his wife but raises his tea mug to let her now that he wants it to be filled again. After she dutifully does this he then takes a sip and screams that the tea is ‘too hot!’

There also another very perceptive insight into his home life as we see his teenaged daughter ask if she can go out to see friends. He says no and explains that she will spend money whilst she’s out and that it’s better to save instead for a rainy day. His daughter then whispers to her mother that her father has said no and they both look dejected. This doesn’t last long through. Neilson announces that he will be away for two weeks on another job (he says he’s going away to work on projects like house renovations when he is in fact embarking on his army style manoeuvres). We see a sly smile spread across his daughter’s face at the news as she exchanges very knowing glances with her mother as if to say ‘Hooray! He’s out of our hair for a while!’

The film also acts as a snapshot of what life was really like in 1977. The red phone boxes the killer uses, the thoroughly ugly headboards and brown pyjama sets worn by the sub postmasters when they are rudely awoken in the middle of the night by Neilson robbing their business. The film also shows how terrifying it must have been to be woken up by a man in a blood hood brandishing a sown off shotgun in your face.

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The BFI have done a great job with the Blu ray for the film as it looks and sounds amazing. There are also exhaustive liner notes from director Ian Merrick as to the curious history of the film, it’s unwarranted suppression and it’s re-emergence on Blu ray. There are also a wealth of extras such as short films and raw footage shot when locations were being sought for the film.

The Black Panther can now be seen for what it always was- an outstanding true crime film that was ahead of it’s time.

***** out of *****

Review- Despair (1978)

Review- Despair (1978)

Dirk Bogarde stars in this 1978 Fassbinder film as Hermann, a chocolate factory owner living in Berlin during the Weimar Republic who suffers from dissociation. He dreams of escape. On his travels he meets a homeless man who he thinks can imitate him in a scam. This will involve his faked murder so that he can escape his life. His wife will then receive a substantial insurance pay out because of his supposed death. In reality Hermann will vanish to Switzerland, live below the radar and start a new life. Will Hermann’s plan go without a hitch?

I love the mystery of this film. It really is a puzzle of a film and sweeps us along on it’s gorgeous journey. Twist follows turn and back again. 

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The whole cast are perfect with Dirk Bogarde being perfect as Hermann. The screenplay is brilliantly adopted from a Nabokov novel by Tom Stoppard with snappy and wicked dialogue that positively crackles.

The look of the film is muted and also beautiful because of it. It lends massively to why the film works so well as it’s visually and uniformly a treat for the eyes. Enjoy the ride which will keep you guessing until the final frame.

**** out of *****

 

 

 

 

Review- The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978)

Review- The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978)

This 1978 Fassbinder movie starts with the film’s eponymous hero Maria getting married to her husband Hermann in Germany during World War II just as a bomb being dropped threatens to curtail proceedings. Thankfully the couple’s union is officially sealed and Hermann then goes off to fight in the war himself.

After learning later that her new husband has been tragically killed Maria starts to go to a local bar frequented by American soldiers to work as a waitress. She meets a black US soldier called Bill who she then starts a relationship with. They are just getting it on one day when…to tell you anymore would be to reveal a huge plot detail that I’m not going to spoil for you!

I first heard about this film when at university studying Film Studies as one of my tutors had the poster for the movie on her office wall.

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Whilst it’s interesting to see a character doing what needs to be done to survive and indeed prosper within challenging circumstances, I found this film to be a bit, erm, flat. I’ve read great reviews regarding it with many critics and casual viewers stating the opinion that this is one of Fassbinder’s best movies. When it was originally released it not only wowed the critics but also performed very well at the box office. But I think that this is maybe because many of the more radical and idiosyncratic aspects of Fassbinder’s films aren’t present here hence making it more palatable for cinemagoers used to more mainstream and linear films.

I think that if you have a lead character who can become so detached and cold as to exploit those around her for her own gain even if it’s done in exceptionally destitute circumstances, you don’t have an especially likeable character who audiences can engage with. At least that’s what I felt. Plenty of critics and moviegoing audiences disagree though.

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Not a complete disaster by any stretch of the imagination with great acting and fantastic cinematography as ever by Michael Ballhaus who would go on to work with Scorsese after his tenure with Fassbinder was over.

**and a half out of *****

Review- Beware of a Holy Whore (1971)

Review- Beware of a Holy Whore (1971)

Fassbinder’s 1971 film concerns a German film crew waiting for a production to start whilst on set in a Spanish hotel lobby.

The film starts with the verbal recanting of a Goofy cartoon. This is possibly the most linear and conventional part of the entire film’s narrative but that’s not an insult. The rest of the film shows fragments of how the characters interact with each other on many different levels. The movie also shows the power relations and how these shift throughout the film’s duration.

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The film crew resemble a Germanic version of the trope of superstars Warhol used to use. With waiting comes emotions ranging from an utter lack of enthusiasm through to explosive rage about proceedings not starting when they should or crew members not doing what they should when filming does actually begin.

This film was based on Fassbinder’s experiences of making the film Whity. It must have been hell for him judging by the events depicted here.

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If you’re looking for a film with a linear narrative, a ‘start, middle and end’, if you will, this isn’t for you. But if you’re looking to be swept away by Fassbinder into a film that is more of an experience, then you’ll love this.

Review- Katzelmacher (1969)

Review- Katzelmacher (1969)

This early Fassbinder film concerns a group of dissatisfied and directionless young people who turn their attentions away from themselves and the relationships within their inner circle when a young Greek man arrives looking for work and lodging. Soon the group rumour mill goes into overdrive as they perceive the young man as an outsider and so demonise and persecute him.

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Another great character driven piece by the German maestro with the ugliest facets of human nature being explored as the members of the insular and narrow minded group start to spread rumours and make their prejudices known towards young Jorgos. After an innocuous chance meeting in the street with one of the women from the gang, the group’s Chinese Whispers soon snowball to him having tried to rape her as well as other crimes such as him being a Communist.

The men of the group then seize their opportunity to beat him up for crimes he isn’t guilty of.

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Conformity, group hysteria and mobbing by the gang are all explored perceptively within Katzelmacher which makes it, unfortunately, ring all too true.

Beautifully acted, perfectly framed and directed and with a gorgeous late 60’s black and white which is icy cool and absolutely gorgeous.

Look out for the scene of the young woman dancing.

Highly recommended.

**** out of *****

Review- Martha (1974)

Review- Martha (1974)

More Fassbinder goodness with this 1974 film as we see the central character start out as a happy go lucky woman who feels pressurised to find a man, settle down and adjust to married life. Her own parents are revealed to be in a loveless marriage until Martha’s father collapses and dies when he is with his daughter on holiday in Italy.

I’m not going to give away too much about the plot and what happens during the course of the movie as I don’t want to blunt the impact of the film but all I’ll say is that this is a dark piece of cinema! And I mean DARK!

As the concept of coercive control is just starting to be spoken about in the popular media, Fassbinder had made a film about it 1974. And gaslighting. And marital sadism.

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A special mention needs to go to Margit Carstensen in the lead role whose performance is nothing short of astonishing as we see her character’s spirit and very existence being destroyed and disintegrating before our very eyes.

I also didn’t know that Karlheinz Bohm had ever depicted a darker character than his star turn in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. I was sooo wrong! His character here is a sadistic psychopath/narcissist and acted to grimy and reptilian perfection.

I remember when I saw the movie Threads for the first time. I thought to myself that it couldn’t get any darker but then saw that that it was only halfway through it’s running time. I then saw that it could get MUCH darker! The same happened when I watched Martha.

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This does for marriage and societal expectations for women what Jaws did for sharks. When I watched this I kept thinking to myself ‘I’m so glad that I’m gay. And that I’m happily single!’

****and a half out of *****

Review- Ali- Fear Eats The Soul (1974)

Review- Ali- Fear Eats The Soul (1974)

Emmi, a 60 year old widowed cleaner decides to enter a bar that is playing Arabic music to shield from the rain. She sits at a table on her own far from the regulars who are at the other side of the bar. They dare one of their entourage, Ali to go and ask her to dance. Whilst they think he will refuse instead he calls their bluff and complies.

With this Emmi and Ali get to know each other and this develops into a relationship. But with this the couple come face to face with societal prejudices regarding inter-racial relationships and their age gap.

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Masterfully directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ali- Fear Eats The Soul shows how the love between Ali and Emmi is met with others hatred, ignorance and bigotries.

The couple are quickly ostracised and find themselves all alone which is depicted by the couple being depicted in long shots in many of the film’s scenes. One such is the heartbreaking scene in which they both sit in the rain outside a restaurant where there are no other diners. The couple sitting at the middle table of a huge and empty seating area emphasises their ostracised status within the restaurant and society in general. In fact the only others there are the restaurant’s staff who have decided to stand outside openly gawping at the couple in wide eyed disbelief that they would dare to be in a loving relationship whilst transgressing so many norms of what is acceptable and what isn’t.

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The scope of these extreme long shots which emphasise their isolation and separation is huge with Emmi and Ali being shown to be tiny within them. This emphasises just how cut off from everyone else they are whether that be the people around them or society as a whole. Another example is when they go to a restaurant just after they get married. The couple even seemingly break the fourth wall and look into the camera as they are shown to be the only figures in the frame and dwarfed by how far away the camera is and how small their figures are in the frame. Fassbinder holds this shot for seconds but it feels like hours with the audience being made to purposely feel a little uncomfortable at having the characters dwarfed in their surroundings whilst they look us in the eye.

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Emmi is shown to be shunned by her family who took her for granted anyway and then by her work colleagues, her neighbours and even the owner of the small convenience store she used close to her apartment.

The issue of their relationship being built on love but without sex also poses a problem within the film with Ali going to the female owner of the bar for almost functional sexual fulfilment which Emmi finds out about. Again, we get another shot to depict Ali’s loneliness and isolation, this time in another long shot but this time on his own sat on the bar owner’s bed, completely alone and without Emmi just as she was alone when sat at the table in the bar at which they met.

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The film shows that Emmi’s family and friends only start to speak to her again and seemingly accept her new marriage when they need something- her babysitting duties when it comes to her son who had previously kicked in the screen of her TV on hearing the news of her marriage (a reference to Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows which was an inspiration for this film), her storage space when a neighbours’s son needs to store his belongings in a hurry, her custom and hence money when she is accepted again by the owner of the local shop.

The film also explores how powerful the need to fit in with societal norms really is with Emmi’s narrow minded friends deciding to come to her apartment to meet Ali but which then leads to a scene in which Ali storms out to leave after being objectified by the women as a powerful, exotic object of their lust resplendent with big muscles. They express surprise when they find out that he even washes everyday just like any other civilised human being. Ali feels dehumanised by this and rightly leaves hastily. Even when he leaves, Emmi voices the opinion that it is down to his ‘foreigner mentality’ and ‘others’ him even further.

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Emmi is received back into her gang of co-workers and by doing so ostracises a new woman who has joined her team just because she is an immigrant just like Ali. Toxic behaviour is evidently highly contagious.

During the film, Emmi goes to Ali’s workplace to see him after he had left. She is then humiliated because of her age by his workmates who he laughs along with whilst pretending not to know who Emmi is. The pull of conformity and not wanting to be seen as ‘other’ or ‘different’ is a powerful one and affects both Ali and Emmi in different circumstances.

But nothing brings people together quicker than when adversity strikes and puts everything else into it’s true perspective. And that’s all I’m saying as I don’t want to ruin the conclusion of this extraordinary film.

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There are amazing performances all round but especially from Brigitte Mira as Emmi and the unbearably handsome El Hedi ben Salem as Ali. There’s even an uncredited cameo by Fassbinder himself as Emmi’s vile son in law.

Fassbinder’s film is so well observed that it aches with the love between the two lead characters but also with the hatred and wilful lack of understanding from others that makes it so poignant and heartbreaking.

We also get a peek into the beauty of 70’s Germany which acts as a fantastic backdrop to this extraordinary film.

Ali- Fear Eats The Soul is a masterpiece. It is so poignant that if it doesn’t pluck at your heartstrings and stir your soul then you possibly don’t possess either. It will stay with you long after the film has finished.

Ali-Fear Eats The Soul is beautiful and brutal and just as relevant today as it’s ever been. Every now and again I watch a film that makes me think that my life is better for having seen it. Ali- Fear Eats The Soul is one such film.

***** out of *****

Review- Children of the Corn (1984)

Review- Children of the Corn (1984)

I first saw Children of the Corn when it was first shown on UK TV in the mid 80’s. The following day it would appear that most of my school friends had seen the movie too as we all recalled the events of the film in grisly and lurid detail.

On watching the film again recently I can say that it holds up very well indeed. The plot involves two characters called Vicky and Burt taking a roadtrip and happening upon a small Nebraska town called Gatlin. A major red flag goes up when the couple notice that on approaching the town the radio now only plays content that appears to be Baptist ‘fire and brimstone’ style sermons.

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What Burt and Vicky don’t know is that three years earlier the town’s adultfolk had been slaughtered on the wishes of 13 year old Isaac who has set up his own religious sect with ‘He Who Walks Behind The Rows’ as their god, the rows being the huge cornfield which is central to Gatlin. A failed harvest had prompted the uprising with Isaac asserting that his new god needs human sacrifices to be appeased and so that there are bountiful harvests as a result. Young child Job wasn’t involved as his father didn’t like Isaac and so wasn’t allowed to go to a gathering organised by Isaac for all of the town’s children. Job’s sister Sarah also wasn’t there as she was severely ill with a fever. She is shown to have some kind of psychic powers and depicts what she sees from the future in the pictures she draws.

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Things go from bad to worse for the adult couple who have now stumbled across the town which has been run by Isaac and his henchman deputy Malachi for three years now. When they hear about the adult trespassers they demand for them to be captured and then sacrificed to their cornrows deity. Poor Burt and Vicky. They discover Job and his sister who assist them in not becoming human sacrifices.

This film has a great premise which is based on a short story by Master of Horror Stephen King. The film also taps into one of the last taboos especially in film which is that of the killer child. And here we have scores of them. The milleu of the religious sect and the small details connected to this like the children being made to change their names to more biblical monikers also adds to the utterly sinister tone of the film. It also shows what can go wrong when a setback or downturn of fortunes can be taken as an opportunity by a charismatic person with sinister motives to come to prominence and give the downtrodden and disillusioned someone to believe in even though he/she is up to no good.

The opening scene takes place in a diner in which the children present (after being given the nod by Isaac) poison and violently slaughter the adults in attendance. I remember being utterly shocked by this scene in particular when I first saw the film and I can reliably report that it’s hasn’t lost any of it’s power to shock decades later.

But this isn’t the only sequence which has the power not just to shock but also to worm it’s way inside your head. The sequence in which Vicky is placed on a cross with it then being hoisted up, the shot showing the weapons hanging from the hands of the children as they descent on a house which has one of the couple in it and the gruesome scene in the church as we see what happens to the children who come of age are such examples.

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The casting of the movie is also excellent with Sarah Hamilton as Vicky and Peter Horton as Burt. But the attention to detail regarding the casting of the children is just as impressive. The casting of the freakishly sinister Isaac and his horrifyingly hillbilly deputy Malachi are inspired. In fact, it seems they cast every child with unconventional and unique looks.

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Another great quality that the film possesses is whether He Who Walks Behind The Rows is actually a real supernatural force or just completely fabricated by Isaac.

There are also some 80’s visual effects in the film which are still extremely pleasing to the eye and have aged very well indeed.

In fact the same can be said about the whole film. In lesser hands, this could have aged terribly and been forgotten about. Instead we get a film where thought and innovation were used to fully bring to life King’s great plot idea and which still has it’s own rabid fanbase. However the film still doesn’t get enough praise or recognition when films are talked about which were adapted from King’s novels. This is a real shame. Maybe this will change.

***and a half out of *****