Arsenic & Ambiguity in David Lean’s Madeleine (1950)

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I planned on writing about a completely different film this week but something unexpected happened that caught me by surprise. I watched David Lean’s magnificent MADELEINE (1950) yesterday for the first time and I was so moved by this vastly underrated and utterly brilliant true crime drama that I just had to share a few of my thoughts about it with you. Proceed with caution because I indulge in spoilers that may lessen the film’s impact if you haven’t had the opportunity to see it for yourself.

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The Children Are Watching

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The term ‘auteur’ is rarely associated with Jack Clayton. When critics and film scholars refer to the British director by name they usually describe him as being a “talented craftsman” or “skilled technician.” Credit for the extraordinary look and feel of Clayton’s best work is too often attributed to the skilled cinematographers (Freddie Francis, Oswald Morris, Douglas Slocombe, etc.) or screenwriters (Truman Copote, Harold Pinter, Francis Ford Coppola, etc.) that he teamed-up with but the director’s own vision is paramount. Andrew Sarris famously said that, “The only Clayton constant is impersonality.” But with only a handful of films in Clayton’s oeuvre I find it easy to link them together through their literary ambitions, parallel themes and stylistic directing choices. And of course there’s the remarkable performances he was able to extract from his actors. Clayton was particularly adept at directing women. Under his watchful eye renowned talents like Simone Signoret, Deborah Kerr, Anne Bancroft, Mia Farrow and Maggie Smith gifted us with some of their most memorable roles.

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Hammer’s Enduring Legacy: An Interview with Marcus Hearn

Last week I included Marcus Hearn’s latest book, The Hammer Vault: Treasures From the Archive of Hammer Films, in my two part list of Favorite Film Related Books of 2011. This week I got the opportunity to ask the author a few questions about his new book as well as discuss Hammer’s enduring legacy. The studio best known for its gothic horror films has continued to gain new fans and produce new movies including THE WOMAN IN BLACK, which is scheduled to be released in February of 2012.

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Ken Russell: In His Own Words

Controversial film director Ken Russell passed away suddenly this week at the age of 84. Russell has long been considered the bad boy of British cinema or the original ‘enfant terrible’ of the empire, but for almost as long as I can remember he’s been one of my favorite filmmakers.

I was introduced to his work as a young pre-teen after stumbling across TOMMY (1971) playing on television one balmy afternoon. His visionary rock opera based on the music of The Who rocked my world and I was immediately drawn to his work, which I found imaginative, thoughtful, incredibly creative and just damn fun to watch. Russell was unconventional, indebted to romanticism and a true British visionary in every sense of the word. During his long career behind the camera he was also a punching bag for film critics. Many of them didn’t appreciate the subversive nature of his work and often regarded his films as confusing uncouth spectacles that were unworthy of recognition and financial support. But you might not know that if you’ve read all the critical praise Russell’s received since his death. Film critics, much like art critics, often ignore their greatest talents until they leave this world so we’re left embracing ghosts. And the shimmering spectre of Ken Russell will be haunting us for a very long time. He was an incomparable presence and his death has left a gapping hole in the cinematic landscape that can’t be filled. Instead of writing one more obituary detailing the man’s fascinating life and making note of his extraordinary body of work, I thought I’d let Russell speak for himself. The following are some of the director’s best quotes borrowed from Altered States: The Autobiography of Ken Russell, which was originally published in 1989.

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“The Voices of Terror – Twisting Two Minds!”

On the surface, Kevin Billington’s VOICES (1973) is an unusual supernatural thriller involving ghosts and a haunted house but if you take the time to look beyond its spooky exterior you might be surprised by what you find there. This fascinating horror film has a rich history that first took shape in 1953.

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Something Is Always Left Behind

“Though I wait for thee a thousand years, through waiting will I love thee yet the more. And though I fill an ocean with my tears, my joy will thus be greater than before. And this my prayer for evermore will be, that in the end thou will come back to me.”

- from A PLACE OF ONE’S OWN (1945)

Autumn officially arrives tomorrow. It’s my favorite time of year and I eagerly look forward to cooler temperatures and longer nights. As summer gives way to fall my appetite for things that go bump in the night becomes almost insatiable and nothing’s quite as satisfying as a good ghost story. I’ve been reading a lot of spooky Victorian tales lately, which inspired me to revisit Bernard Knowles’ supernatural thriller, A PLACE OF ONE’S OWN (1945).

When I first watched A PLACE OF ONE’S OWN a few months ago I wasn’t fully engaged with the film and it didn’t leave much of an impression on me. I knew I had to watch it again before I shared my thoughts on it and I’m so glad I took the time to reconsider this fascinating little British movie.

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Authority Is the Child of Obedience

Are human beings inherently cruel or do we learn cruelty by example? Does our genetic makeup dictate our personalities at birth or are we shaped by numerous circumstances including our environments and upbringing? To borrow the title of a current popular song, are we “born this way” or are we more complex creatures than our personal DNA map might suggest? The nature vs. nurture debate has been going on for centuries and many films have attempted to tackle it head on. One of the best examples of this is Peter Brooks’ extraordinary film adaptation of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1963), which argues that people are savages at heart and in the right circumstances we’re all likely to turn on one another. Another film, which I recently had the opportunity to watch, champions the other side of the argument. John Mackenzie’s haunting film adaptation of Giles Cooper’s radio play UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO (1971) questions the example set by Lord of the Flies and suggests that we’re taught savage behaviors, which could manifest in acts of violence.

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Some Favorite DVD Releases of 2010

Every year I try to compile a list of my favorite new DVD releases. These lists tend to focus on films from the ’60s and ’70s since they’re my favorite film eras. This year I decided to expand my view a little and disregard limitations so I could share a varied list of all my favorite DVD releases with Movie Morlock readers. This list is far from complete since I haven’t had the opportunity to see every new DVD that was released but I hope it will encourage a few people to seek out these films. Many of the movies on my list were released on DVD for the first time last year so they’ve been hard to see unless you own them on video or caught them playing on television. So without further ado, here’s some of my favorite DVD releases from 2010 listed alphabetically for easy reference.

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From the Archive of Hammer Films

During the holiday months I like to browse the shelves at my local bookstore to see what film related books publishers have released in anticipation of the “season of sharing.” This year I spotted many of the usual suspects; a couple of oversized glamour photo books featuring glossy pictures of Hollywood legends from the ‘40s and ‘50s as well as biographies of some highly acclaimed directors and celebrities. What I didn’t expect to see was Marcus Hearn’s latest book, The Art of Hammer: The Official Poster Collection From the Archive of Hammer Films. Recently I’ve been mourning the loss of Hammer starlet Ingrid Pitt and director Roy Ward Baker who helmed some of the studios best productions including Quatermass and the Pit (1967) and Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971). Coming across Hearn’s book was a much-welcomed surprise and an unexpected treat for this Hammer fan and movie poster admirer.

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Clive Donner’s Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1967)

In an unfortunate coincidence I watched Clive Donner’s coming of age sex farce Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush for the first time last week and a few days later I learned that Clive Donner had passed away on September 6th due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease. The British director was 84 years old at the time of his death and he hadn’t worked for some time but his early films are fondly remembered by many for their sense of humor and abundant style. Clive Donner helped usher in the swinging sixties with movies like the hugely successful adult comedy What’s New Pussycat? (1965), the music-fueled drama Some People (1962), the class-conscious comedy Nothing But the Best (1964) as well as the colorful social satire Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1967).

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