Tag Archives: 1960

329. THE TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS (1960)

Weirdest!

Le testament d’Orphée, ou ne me demandez pas pourquoi!

“Man seeks to escape himself in myth, and does so by any means at his disposal. Drugs, alcohol, or lies. Unable to withdraw into himself, he disguises himself. Lies and inaccuracy give him a few moments of comfort.”–Jean Cocteau, Diary of an Unknown

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jean Cocteau, , ,

PLOT: Time-traveling poet Jean Cocteau visits a professor and asks to be shot with his faster-than-light bullets in hopes of escaping the condition of timelessness. After the bullet frees him from his 19th century garb, he wanders outside, witnesses a strange gypsy ritual, and unknowingly summons Cégeste, a character from his movie and play Orpheus. Cégeste orders him to travel to the goddess Minerva with an offering, but along the way they are detained and interrogated by Death and her chauffeur Heurtebise (two other characters from Orpheus), among other surreal encounters.

Still from The Testament of Orpheus (1960)

BACKGROUND:

  • Testament is the third part of Jean Cocteau’s “Orphic trilogy,” which begins with The Blood of a Poet (1930) and peaked with its second entry, Orpheus (1950). Since characters from Orpheus play a role in Testament, this film will be much more meaningful to those who saw the second installment. Blood of a Poet has no narrative connection to the others, only a thematic one, and can be viewed in any order.
  • Cocteau was 71 when he made this film, which he intended to be his final statement in cinema. He wrote that the title Testament of Orpheus “has no direct connection to my film. It meant that I was bequeathing this last visual poem to all the young people who have believed in me, despite the total incomprehension with which I am surrounded on the part of my contemporaries.” Cocteau died three years after Testament was released.
  • Reportedly, when the production was short on funds, François Truffaut invested some of his profits from his recent hit The 400 Blows so Cocteau could complete his Testament.
  • The film’s French subtitle (or alternate title), “ne me demandez pas pourquoi,” translates to “do not ask me why.”
  • Besides Cocteau, the cast is uncredited. At the end, Cocteau says that “Any celebrities who you may see along the way appear not because they are famous, but because they fit the roles they play and because they are my friends.” Among the cameo appearances: musician Charles Aznavour, Brigitte Bardot, Yul Brynner, Pablo Picasso, and director . Former Orpheus appears briefly as Oedipus.
  • Edouard Dermithe, who plays the key role of Cégeste, was Cocteau’s adopted son, a fact alluded to in the script.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Cocteau stages his own funeral. His pallbearers are lanky black horse-men. The mourners are gypsies. His corpse exhales smoke. He doesn’t stay dead long.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: The Poet as time-traveling fop; pantomime horse boy toys; Athena’s jet javelin

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In his final film, a giant of the avant-garde unapologetically indulges himself in a surrealistic journey through a misty netherworld bordered by dreams, imagination, and narcissism.

Brief clip from The Testament of Orpheus

COMMENTS: The Testament of Orpheus is, beyond question, a self-indulgent film. “Testament” has a dual meaning: it is a statement of Continue reading 329. THE TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS (1960)

1960 DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE: HORROR HOTEL AND THE HEAD

Coming Attractions:

“Hitch your goose pimples to The Horrible Dr. Hichcock … and away you’ll go, screaming your head off! The good doctor is more than a little strange. He’s a lot loony, and he gets more so with every cute corpse he chops up and every beautiful bride he boxes in. Scary ghosts, black cats, secret doors. What more do you want? But there is more, even more horrible hanky panky than you can imagine in The Horrible Dr. Hichcock. In blood red, ghost green turned blue, and gold fright color.”

“Welcome to the mad, mad world of The Awful Dr. Orloff, in funeral black and white. Such carryings on and such carrying out you’ve ever seen. The Doctor’s dilemma has to do with an impossible cure he’s blood-bent on effecting, no matter how many beautiful girls are tortured and killed in the process. If you like to shiver and shake, quiver and quake, there’s mayhem on a monstrous scale in the most unlawful, really awful, awful Dr. Orloff.”

And now, our Feature Presentation.

Horror Hotel (AKA City of the Dead, directed by John Moxey) is the premier production from Milton Subotsky (who also wrote the story) and Max J. Rosenberg. Subotsky and Rosenberg are primarily known for forming Amicus Productions and popularizing the horror anthology format. Although Horror Hotel might be seen as a precursor of Italian Gothic cinema, it really is a case of style over substance, albeit an entertaining one. Its pedestrian writing keeps it from attaining a classic status. However, the film belongs to art director John Blezard and cinematographer Desmond Dickinson (who had previously won the award for best photography for Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet at the 1948 Venice Film Festival). Together, the two create a haunting milieu.

The film opens in the village of Whitewood, Massachusetts with the burning of witch Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) in 1692. Naturally, she puts a curse on the villagers torching her and vows to return for revenge as the bride of Lucifer. Equally predictable, we have little sympathy for the puritans, and are almost inclined to wish her well.

Circa 1960, Professor Alan Driscoll () teaches a course on witchcraft and has zeal for his subject, and little patience for his skeptical students, with the exception of Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson). It helps that she’s serious, even volunteering to continue her research in Whitewood. It helps even more that she’s a looker.

Still from Horror Hotel [AKA The City of the Dead] (1960)Although Horror Hotel is an early entry in the witchcraft genre, the plot’s bullet points are paint-by-number. Driscoll’s sinister motives are blatantly obvious from his introduction, as is the identity of the reincarnated Selwyn Continue reading 1960 DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE: HORROR HOTEL AND THE HEAD

BORIS KARLOFF’S THRILLER (1960-1962): EPISODE GUIDE AND REVIEWS, PART ONE

The reputation of ‘s “Thriller,” which ran from 1960-1962, is such that it was one of the most highly anticipated DVDs until its 2010 release. Despite its somewhat hefty price tag, it became a best seller (and was followed by a ‘greatest hits’  top ten release in 2012). Author Steven King’s proclaiming it the “best horror series of all time” (in his 1981 book, ‘Danse Macabre’) certainly enhanced its eminence. Of course, a statement that absolute is going to be argued, and it was (with naysayers pointing to the earliest crime oriented episodes as evidence against King’s boast ). Naturally, like all series, “Thriller” is uneven. Still, the positives outweigh the negatives enough to justify its cult status.

Karloff hosted each episode, and acted in a few. This was his second horror anthology series. His first,  the ten episode “The Veil,” from 1958, never actually aired; after its DVD release in 2001 , was dubbed by some critics as “the best television series never seen.” A later DVD release, under the title of “Tales of the Unexplained from the Veil,” featured two additional “lost” episodes. “The Veil” has also been referred to as a precursor to “Thriller,” although it’s not quite as good and the flavor is different. Hopefully, we’ll get around to reviewing the earlier series by next Halloween.

“Thriller” premiered on September 13th, 1960 with the episode “The Twisted Image” (directed by Arthur Hiller), which starred Leslie Nielsen and Natalie Trundy. “Her possessive eyes… Alan Patterson was aware of her eyes at the newsstand, at the lunch counter, in the elevator. He was aware of them for almost a month and they were to lead him into guilt, and terror, and murder as sure as my name is Boris Karloff. ”

Title from Boris Karloff's Thriller: The Twisted ImageAs we watch, Karloff informs us that this a tale of watching and being watched, assuring that a shattering effect lies within the “Twisted Image.” Nielsen, as Patterson, a married, successful business man, is watched by four psychotic eyes belonging to Lily (Trundy) and Merle (George Gizzard). Lily lusts after him and, at least on the surface, Merle is insanely jealous. Although director Hiller denied it, as it was written (by James P. Cavanagh adapting William O’ Farrell’s novel) and played by Grizzard, there is sexual longing in Merle’s voyeurism as well. Still, we’re not entirely convinced he deserves all the attention, as the very young Nielsen has none of his later charisma. Grizzard walks away with the episode playing a scheming, destructive looney tune coworker. Competent, but unimaginative with no surprises, this debut waddles its way to a lackluster finale.

“Child’s Play” (also directed by Hiller and written by Robert Dozier): Continue reading BORIS KARLOFF’S THRILLER (1960-1962): EPISODE GUIDE AND REVIEWS, PART ONE

1960 EXLPOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: BEAT GIRL, HIGH SCHOOL CEASAR & DATE BAIT (1960)

America in the 1960s and 1970s hardly had exclusive rights to juvenile delinquent exploitation trash films. With Beat Girl (1960), the U.K. delivered the goods in one of the sleaziest examples of the genre. Having a cast including Christopher Lee and certainly helps, as does a John Barry score (his first).

“This could be your daughter,” screamed the ads; rather hypocritically, one might add, since the movie’s ambition is to titillate and to exploit its Beat Girl Jennifer (Gillian Hills, who would show up later in Blow-up and A Clockwork Orange). Or, perhaps the ad was meant for Donald “If she wasn’t my daughter, perhaps I might…” Trump.

Ignored by constipated architect daddy Paul (David Farrar) and hating his twenty-something French floozy wife Nicole (Noelle Adam), Beat Girl decides to get revenge by going to the local coffee shop to cruise for beatnik-styled man meat. She sucks on a popsicle, dances to jazz music (!), smokes cigarettes, and gets drawn into the dark side of caffeinated pheromones by Daddy-O J.D. (a young Reed, in full ham mode) and a strip club manager with sordid eyebrows ( Lee, of course).

Still from Beat Girl (1960)We learn that our favorite Hammer Horror Count, being the perpetual predator that he is, had previously sampled Nicole, turned her into a stripper, and now plans to repeat his pattern of debauchery on poor Beat Girl. Chris’ Dracula comparatively seems like a misunderstood, chaste monk.

Beat Girl is dank and grimy enough to have originally earned an X certification. Predictably, the family melodrama and obligatory reformation scene are secondary to Hills and Adam strutting their stuff and shaking their go-go assets. Although tame today, it’s still an entertaining hoot, stylishly directed by veteran Edmond T. Greville.

As close to a “star” as the drive-in circuit had, John Ashley shows suitable angst as Matt Stevens, the High School Caesar, which means (as it should) that he’s the bad guy. Helpful hint for next time you’re watching Bill Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”: Brutus and Cassius are the protagonists. Director O’ Dale Ireland gets it right. Channeling the old Bard himself, his High School Caesar is a bit of a soap opera: it’s more about rise-to-power than fast cars, fisticuffs, or shootouts (although this being trash cinema, there are, of course ingredients of all the above).

Still from High School Caesar (1960)Unlike most of cinema’s juvenile delinquents, Matt comes from a well-to-do family, albeit a dysfunctional one that paves the path for some spoiled rich kid thuggery. (No, it’s not about Trump). High School Caesar rules the student body through fear, intimidation, and demonization of every person and demographic that he imagines his enemy. (No, it’s not about Trump).

After a rigged class election and plenty of strong-arming, things begin to go south as we head to Matt’s comeuppance. Ashley, giving a suave performance, makes it work, as well in his own tacky way as Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte (AKA “Scarface”).

Still from Date Bait (1960)If there wasn’t enough premarital sex and drugs in Caesar, Ireland more than makes up for it in his Date Bait, which could just as easily been titled Date Rape. This one’s the epitome of JD flicks, opening with the rock-n-roll lyrics “she’s my date bait baby, and I don’t mean maybe.” When the local dopehead Danny (Gary Clarke) gets outta rehab and hooks up with date bait Sue (Marlo Ryan), you know that switchblade-wielding beatniks, drag racing, testosterone-overdosed males clashing over breasts (squeezed into tight white sweaters), and run-ins with the law are not far behind. Of these three features, only Date Bait keeps intact all the trash genre stereotypes, which unsurprisingly means it was also the most successful of the trio on the drive-in circuit.

It’s not as well acted as Caesar (Sue’s parents, reading their lines, never rise above lethargy, even when lecturing her about her white trash boyfriend), and (per the norm) all the teens are played by twenty-somethings (it shows). On a pure entertainment level it’s probably more accessible to those who prefer their JD diet to be campy and cheap.

In the next week’s triple feature, we’ll zoom ahead a full year to… choppers, psychos, and damaged goods.

Bring your own pizza.

PEEPING TOM (1960)

We Westerners hate and resist having our hypocrisy exposed. We get that trait honestly and through tradition, having inherited it from both our Puritan forefathers and Mother England. Both sides of the political and ideological spectrum sow vilification when someone, especially an insider, turns the lens on our own hypocrisy. That is true horror; and when an artist does so in film, purportedly the most accessible of mediums, the backlash can be catastrophic. Case in point: Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960). Released the same year as Psycho, Peeping Tom, which is not as overtly violent as ‘s classic, nevertheless opened to furiously scathing reviews from American and British critics: “It is the sickest and filthiest film I can remember seeing” (The Spectator). “The only satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it down the nearest sewer. Even then, the stench would remain” (Derek Hill, writing in The Tribune). Audiences reacted with even more hostility, and it took the French to set the record straight a few years later when Peeping Tom was received there to widespread acclaim and enthusiasm.

Peeping Tom committed an unforgivable sin in lensing the hypocritical voyeurism of both filmmakers and film goers (that Powell condemned even himself in the film did not earn him a pardon). Before 1960, Powell’s career was notable, extensive, and esteemed, which included numerous wartime and post-war collaborations with Emeric Pressburger: 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad49th Parallel, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, Stairway To Heaven, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, Hour Of Glory, to 1951’s The Tales Of Hoffman. Backlash to Peeping Tom was cataclysmic, resulting in Powell being permanently blacklisted by both British and American film industries. He was reduced to working (sporadically) for television and producing only three feature films over the next twenty years. That work included a television treatment of Bela Bartok’s opera “BlueBeard’s Castle” in 1963 and 1969’s bitter, semi-autobiographical Age of Consent.

Predictably, the West eventually came around, and Peeping Tom has now been posthumously recognized here with a reappraisal led by , who famously championed it as one of the great achievements for both Powell and for cinema.

Still from Peeping Tom (1960)Peeping Tom opens with the first person perspective of Mark Lewis (the eerily blank and blonde Austrian Karlheinz Böhm, son of Fascist conductor Karl Böhm) covertly approaching a prostitute with a rolling 16MM camera hidden under his pervert’s trenchcoat. He throws an empty Kodak box into a trash receptacle , follows the courtasan up to a seedy hotel room, and films her undressing. Lewis zooms in for the extreme close-up on her face, twisted and frozen in fear, as he lunges toward her for the kill. Cut to Continue reading PEEPING TOM (1960)

217. ZAZIE DANS LE METRO (1960)

“The fact that the film is a failure means nothing. Didn’t God create a failure, too?”–Jonas Mekas on Zazie dans le Metro

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Catherine Demongeot, , Vittorio Caprioli, Carla Marlier, Annie Fratellini, Yvonne Clech, Antoine Roblot, Jacques Dufilho, Hubert Deschamps

PLOT: When 10-year-old Zazie’s mother leaves her in the care of her exotic dancer uncle for the weekend , the only thing the sassy little girl wants to see is the Metro, but it’s closed due to a strike.  So she sneaks out of her uncle’s apartment and encounters a dirty old man, who is also a policeman, among her many adventures. Her weekend ends when the many friends and adversaries she’s accumulated—including a cobbler, an amorous widow, and a polar bear—find themselves involved in a drunken food fight while the worn-out tyke nods off into dreamland.

Still from Zazie dans le Metro (1970)

BACKGROUND:

  • Zazie dans le Metro is based on the hit 1959 comic novel of the same title by Raymond Queneau (a repentant former member of the Surrealist circle). The book relied heavily on wordplay and was widely thought to be unadaptable to film.
  • Although the film generated a small cult in France, Zazie was Louis Malle’s first flop after beginning his career with two hits (Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers).
  • Some parents were angry at Malle’s film, believing that the sexuality made it inappropriate for children. Zazie originally received an “X” rating (16 and over) from the British Board of Film Classification.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Surely, it must be Zazie’s impish, gap-toothed smile, which she breaks into whenever she imagines growing up to be a schoolteacher who torments her students by making them eat chalk.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Eiffel Tower polar bear; wet dog in a parrot cage; high-heeled six shoe-ter

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: As Zazie’s transvestite uncle says, “Paris is a dream, Zazie is a reverie, and all this is a reverie within a dream!” If a mad scientist found a way to cross-breed and , Zazie dans le Metro is the movie the mutant hybrid would direct.


The Criterion Collection’s “3 Reasons” video for Zazie dans le Metro

COMMENTS: There’s nothing in Louis Malle’s oeuvre that’s remotely like Zazie dans le Metro. There’s nothing else in the rest of the Continue reading 217. ZAZIE DANS LE METRO (1960)

BEAUTIFUL FILMS: BLACK SUNDAY (1960)

This is the first entry in 366 Weird Movies’ List of “Beautiful Films.” Consider this a sub-category; one that takes neither beautiful nor weird at face value, but openly views these two descriptions as genres which often go hand-in-hand—far more than one might imagine.

I will continue this list throughout the new year, and am open to suggestions from readers or peers in adding titles.

Black Sunday (1960), AKA Mask of Satan, marked Mario Bava’s directorial debut after twenty years as a cinematographer and uncredited assistant director. This Gothic fairy tale, (loosely) inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s short story The Vij (faithfully adapted as Viy), proved the ideal launch for a director who began life as a painter and son of a cinematographer. Additionally, Black Sunday was the first true starring vehicle for , making her the first (and, to date, the only) authentic female horror icon. Although both Bava and Steele had long careers following this, neither would ever make as good a film.

Bava’s painterly credentials serve his cinematography well: the forests, crypts, and castles are drenched in lush black and white. Mists, cobwebs, and rotting trees, filtered through Bava’s lens, compose a sensuous ruin. Setting a pattern that he would follow for the rest of his career, Bava’s visual storytelling is far more innovative than is the narrative, which is solid, but routine and simplistic enough to have spawned a plethora of imitators. Contemporary audiences will likely find the story less appealing than 1960 audiences did, in part due to its many offspring, and in part due to its its status as a homage to the  classics. Black Sunday is put over with such distinctive vigor that few will be concerned by its familiarity.

The casting of Steele is primarily a visual choice. Pauline Kael describes her as “looking like Jacqueline Kennedy in a trance, playing both roles in such a deadpan manner that makes evil and good all but indistinguishable.”

Still from Black Sunday (1960)Although never given a role which proved her actor’s mettle, Steele stood apart from cinematic “scream queens” in using her physicality to both seduce and frighten audiences, perhaps best summarized in Bava’s extreme closeup of her acupunctured face during an erotic resurrection, which is quite possibly the most pronounced scene of its kind.

Georgio Giovanni’s art direction cannot be underestimated in making the film a highly influential cult hit that gave birth to an entire school of European filmmaking.

Kino’s uncut Blu-ray edition boasts a sumptuous transfer that finally does justice to Bava’s chiaroscuro lighting. It also, thankfully, restores Roberto Nicolosi’s original, intensely innovative score, along with several minutes  of deleted scenes. The AIP version (buy) (which has different dubbing and Les Baxter’s vastly inferior score) features an interview with Steele,  commentary from Bava biographer Tim Lucas, and trailers.