Horror Express (1972)

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Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee made a remarkable 22 films together over the course of four decades – the first being one where they never even appeared in the same scene, as the pair actually appeared in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet in 1948. More often than not they were antagonists, pitted against one another in a series of Dracula films from Hammer Studios and as Victor Frankenstein and his Monster. It’s a pleasure to come across a film where the two friends share the screen and are (mostly) friendly with one another.

Horror Express is not a Hammer film, but it certainly looks and sounds like one.  The film features Lee as Sir Alexander Saxton, an archaeologist and scientist who discovers a “missing link” in a cave in Manchuria. Returning to England with the specimen via the Trans-Siberian Express, Saxton hopes to change the face of science with his mummified creature. They’re joined Saxton’s friendly rival Dr. Wells (Cushing), his assistant Miss Jones (Alice Reinhea), and a whole gang of suspicious characters that include a Polish Countess and her husband, a lovely stowaway, and a mad monk.  Also on board is Inspector Mirov (Jose Pena), a police officer following Saxton around after the sudden and inexplicable death of a thief in close proximity to Saxton’s mummy.  As soon as the train starts moving, people start dying. It rapidly becomes clear that the thing Saxton has in that case is not quite as dead as it appears, and is capable of murdering with one glance of its shimmering red eyes.

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Horror Express is something like The Mummy meets Murder on the Orient Express with a healthy overtone of Italian giallo. The influence of the latter becomes obvious during the murder sequences, a bit more violent and disturbingly realistic than your usual horror fare of the time period. The violence is not overdone, however, and the film relies more cleanly on the slow realization of who, and what, is doing the killing. An abrupt shift halfway through the film makes for some excellent tension, while Saxton and Wells join forces to stop the creature and protect as many people as they can.

Cushing and Lee are enjoying themselves here, as perhaps the only English speakers in a Spanish/British horror film with a primarily Spanish cast. They begin initially as rivals and quickly become buddies, facing the monstrous horror with two very stiff upper lips. The pair are always fun to watch together; their chemistry tends to leap off the screen, even when the surrounding events might make lesser actors into hams. The rest of the cast is quite impressive on the whole, with no one standing out as a poor performer among the rest. You have to be willing to enter into the madhouse spirit of a film like this to get any enjoyment out of it, but at least the cast seem game, taking their parts seriously without overacting.

There’s really not much to complain about with Horror Express, so long as you accept the initial and rather silly premise. The denouement does feel rushed, however, and raises a number of questions of plotting that are never satisfactorily answered. The sudden introduction of Telly Savalas as a Cossack commander is jarring, not least because Savalas does not even attempt to sound like a Cossack. The final showdown comes off as perfunctory, especially after some strong tension building over the rest of the film.

I would not put Horror Express forward as the best film Cushing and Lee made together, but it is very far from the worst. It’s a solid, enjoyable hour and a half spent in the company of one nasty monster, and two of the finest horror actors to ever haunt the screen. As we mourn Lee’s passing, we can find a bright spot in the idea that he’s still stalking monsters with Cushing, on the screen and, perhaps, elsewhere as well.

A Woman’s Face (1941)

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Over the course of a long career, George Cukor made any number of excellent films. While he delved into melodrama (and made some great pre-Code films like The Animal Kingdom), he was primarily known as a director of light drama and even lighter comedy like Dinner at Eight and The Philadelphia Story. A Woman’s Face is an anomaly in Cukor’s career: a noir-ish thriller with undercurrents of psycho-sexual tension, mental trauma, and physical abuse.

The film begins with witnesses coming forward at the murder trial of Anna Holm (Joan Crawford). As each character tells their version of the story, the film develops a strikingly serious and personal narrative. Following a childhood trauma that left the side of her face horribly scarred, Anna becomes a blackmailer and the leader of a criminal ring. She meets Torsten Barring (Conrad Veidt), the first man to look at her with no horror and no pity, seeing a woman as outwardly and inwardly corrupt as himself. After falling in love with him and becoming his partner in crime, Anna comes across a doctor (Melvyn Douglas) who believes that he can repair the damage done to her face. Her physical transformation begins to transform Anna’s psychology and she finds herself torn between her desire for a normal life, and her continued attraction to the criminal world.

While the film largely follows a linear narrative, despite the numerous narrators, it cannily avoids revealing too much at a time. Who it was that Anna actually killed – there are at least two candidates for murder as the film proceeds – and whether she is guilty of the crime plays second fiddle to the development of Anna’s psychological state. Her scar covers several symbolic layers: at first an apparent indication of evil, then a tragic example of violated innocence, and finally a physical manifestation of the world’s cruelty. Its removal does not really change the person that Anna is, but the way that the world treats her, as she finds the tenderness and acceptance she always craved. Yet one wonders if the scar was used more as a guard against emotional understanding and involvement, an excuse for evil rather than the cause of evil in itself.

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The cast of A Woman’s Face are a combination of 1940s character actors and stars. I’ve never been a big fan of Joan Crawford, but she plays Anna with a mixture of pathos and defiance that made me side with her even when she was doing awful things. Her anger at the world is understandable, as is her underlying desperation to simply be loved. She has a perfect counterpart in Conrad Veidt as Torsten Barring, a man for whom cruelty and sadism is an expression of love. Veidt is as terribly fascinating as a sleek jungle cat, slinking across the screen and offering one hell of an argument for the dark side. Set against him, physically and morally, is Melvyn Douglas, as earnest and likable a lead actor as you can come by. The three form a moral triangle with Anna at the apex; it’s anyone’s guess which side she’ll finally belong to.

There are missteps in A Woman’s Face, however. Several comic moments feel out of place, as though Cukor was trying to inject some lightness into a very serious script. The film is occasionally predictable – I could tell you the ending halfway through, though not necessarily the exact form it would take. Cukor seems a trifle uncertain how to handle the subject matter – the most intense example of chiaroscuro taking place during an extended conversation between Barring and Anna, as the former finally expresses his nascent madness and fascist tendencies. Barring’s implied fascism might not surprise (this is 1941, after all), but it does rather puncture some of the intense psychological sparring that the film took such pains to set up. It smacks of an attempt to bring current historical concerns into the film, but comes off feeling a bit clumsy and a little too pat.

Mild flaws aside, A Woman’s Face is a fascinating film, by turns surprising and curiously satisfying. I left the film with a sense of having seen something unique, something unexpected from a Hollywood of 1941. There are some films that have you saying that they don’t make ’em like this anymore. A Woman’s Face had me wishing that they made more of ’em.

Man with Two Shadows (Episode 3-03, October 1963).

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Man with Two Shadows represents the first Avengers attempt at a “doppelgänger” episode – they will repeat the performance in Season 4’s Two’s a Crowd, Season 6’s They Keep Killing Steed, and The New Avengers’ Faces. But Man with Two Shadows stands as the best use of the often-overused trope, and also the most disturbing.

The episode opens with the interrogation of Peter Borowski (Terence Lodge), an agent who has apparently been brainwashed and implanted with multiple personalities. In a disturbing sequence, Steed effectively beats and tortures Borowski, finally discovering the existence of a plot to replace certain key members of the British government with doppelgängers. Tracing some of Borowski’s movements, as well as the disappearance of Gordon, an eminent government scientist, Steed and Cathy stumble onto a holiday camp where the villains have been funneling their doppelgängers into regular life. As they delve deeper into the investigation, they also discover that one of the replacements might be Steed himself.

There are any number of excellent elements to this uneven episode. Terence Lodge gives a brief but virtuosic performance as the mad Borowski, his mania both terrifying and pathetic in a scene that deeply complicates the audience’s feelings about Steed (his own superior can’t stand to watch the agent beating Borowski). Paul Whitsun-Jones is equally bizarre as Steed’s superior Charles, a rather disgusting and morally questionable member of the Ministry. But the doppelgänger plot itself is somewhat thin: much time is spent on proving whether or not Gordon is the “real” Gordon, something of which the audience is already aware. Sections of the plot are elided over, giving the episode a disconnected feeling, as though some needed details and character development have been left out. It’s hard to feel sympathy for Judy, the girl whom the doppelgänger Gordon finds himself involved with, when her character is so single-note.

Man with Two Shadows does manage to twist the Steed and Cathy relationship to a degree that we might wonder if they ever manage to trust each other again. Steed reveals that he has in fact been captured and interrogated by the very people who drove Borowski mad; later, his very personality will come into question when his doppelgänger arrives to kill and replace him. Cathy remains in the dark, uncertain about whether to trust Steed, uncertain if he even IS Steed. The results are disconcerting, made more so if one notes that this episode aired right before The Nutshell, where Steed might (or might not) be a traitor. The partners have never been divided so deeply as they are here, and there is a distressing sense that not only do they fail to trust each other, they don’t even know each other.

The levels of moral ambiguity fail to resolve in Man with Two Shadows, leaving us with a sense of violation at a rather unsatisfying conclusion. While everyone in the cast give remarkable performances, there is something deeply unpleasant at the core of this episode. Sympathies are divided and remain divided, loyalties are drawn into question without resolution. While far better in tone and script than the later doppelgänger attempts, Man with Two Shadows still mostly succeeds in making you dislike everyone involved. In a show that typically trades on the charm and interplay between its leads, there is very little to enjoy here.

Le Samourai (1967)

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There are two actors who represent the epitome of “Gallic cool” in the 1960s: one is Jean-Paul Belmondo, and the other Alain Delon. Belmondo was the French Bogart: a true tough guy (or at least one who thought he was tough), cigarette poised in the corner of his mouth, rumpled and just slightly the worse for wear. Delon was the Alan Ladd of the French New Wave: cold, calculating, beautiful, and psychotic.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai has Delon at his ice-cold best. He’s Jef Costello, a hitman who dresses (and kills) as befits a Japanese warrior. Hired by an unknown organization to kill the owner of a Parisian nightclub, the film follows Jef as he prepares for and completes his assignment. A chance encounter with pianist Valerie (Cathy Rosier) following the murder places Jef in danger, and the police are soon on his trail. Determined to prove Jef guilty, the investigating officer (Francois Pelier) goes to all lengths, threatening witnesses, trailing suspects, and bugging Jef’s flat.

Le Samourai is part crime thriller, part police procedural, and occupies that curious position of 1960s films with few, if any, sympathetic characters. Jef is a detached, unsmiling figure, his methodical killing abilities hinting at that edge of sociopathy that Delon played with great aplomb in Purple Noon. Yet the world that surrounds him permits no attachment, even if he was capable of one: his girlfriend Jane (Nathalie Delon) is a “kept woman” who gives him his alibi and with whom he never even manages to take off his coat. Each character fits their surroundings like pieces of furniture: Jef in his spartan apartment, Jane in her more opulent flat, Valerie in her black and white art deco apartment and night club.

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The key here is style: Jef’s clothing and physicality are precise and a perfect match to the surroundings in which we first encounter him. His apartment is spartan to an almost absurd degree, the only point of color or activity occupied by the small bird in a cage that provides Jef with his most poignant relationship. As he rises and dresses to go out, fixing his hat and coat in the mirror as though fitting himself for battle, the film has established its argument without a line of dialogue. This is about style and style is about fate: each character moves along their established lines and either cannot or will not deviate from the future set out for them.

Le Samourai might almost be termed a nihilistic film; it’s certainly a cold one. Human connection does not exist, nor is the viewer asked to sympathize with Jef beyond the fact that he is our central character. No one else is even likable, least of all the investigating officer who pursues Jef with a mania bordering on obsession. This could be read as an indictment of France’s surveillance society, if the film made any move to establish a political argument. But that is not Melville’s project; the bugging of Jef’s apartment and relentless pursuit by the police is simply another form of fate.

Le Samourai is not a lovable film, but it is a great one. It offers no explanation for its events and barely any character motivation, yet it is not therefore inexplicable or dull. Delon conjures a fascinating character without making him sympathetic. As the film proceeds to its inevitable conclusion, the viewer is drawn into rooting for Jef without being allied to him. We know how this is going to end, though, because there is no other ending.

Dressed to Kill (Episode 03-14, December 1963)

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Dressed to Kill is The Avengers meet Agatha Christie, with some very mixed results. The plot revolves around a train trip on New Year’s Eve, with numerous guests, one of whom is a nefarious villain. The episode begins with Steed explaining to Cathy that World War III very nearly broke out the night before, when all the country’s early warning stations received word of a nuclear attack. The alarm proved false, but the government needs to know how and why the signal was sent. To solve the mystery, Steed joins a New Year’s fancy dress party on board a train. The guests share one thing in common: they all have options on plots of land in Cornwall, coincidentally close to the only early warning station that did not receive the false signal. When the train is diverted to an abandoned station and the guests begin dying off, Steed has to grapple with suspicions against him while trying to ferret out the killer.

Dressed to Kill has much to recommend it. The majority of the episode is occupied with the train journey and the guests at the party, all of whom do a credible job at appearing villainous and innocent in equal measure. The plot itself is sinister and the cinematography atmospheric and among the best The Avengers ever accomplished, with hardly a misstep in sight. Things pick up even more when stowaway Cathy pops up on the scene, providing one very entertaining scene as our heroes try to pick a pair of handcuffs.

Dressed to Kill has its problems, though. It is difficult to imagine a more annoying set of secondary characters, such that it’s almost a relief when they begin dying off. Among the worst are William Cavendish (Leonard Rossiter), dressed as Robin Hood, who makes it a point to be loud, venal, and insulting to everyone; and Jane/”Pussy Cat” (Anneke Wills), an insipid model character there to give the writers an excuse to make bad pussy and dumb blonde jokes. Her character in particular reinforces the fact that while The Avengers might have been very ahead of the times in female representation, it could still do sexism with the best of them.

The plot of Dressed to Kill likewise has a number of holes if considered for too long, with a denouement that feels both speedy and bit too pat. I could think of at least two other solutions to the mystery that would have been far more interesting, but alas, it was not to be. What is more, some of the early sequences on the train have so much dialogue going on at once – not to mention ambient noise – that it’s virtually impossible to catch what individual characters are saying, or if it’s even important.

Dressed to Kill rests very squarely on Macnee’s shoulders, and luckily he’s more than happy to oblige, playing his “gentleman of leisure” character to the hilt and evidently enjoying sporting a cowboy hat and six-shooter (In fact, Macnee played a few cowboys in his short Hollywood career). When Blackman reappears dressed as a Highwaywoman, events pick up and the episode saves itself.

Dressed to Kill would later be remade as the vastly inferior The Superlative Seven in Season 5. The original, for all its difficulties, is the better episode and remains one of the best examples of what The Avengers could do with limited budget and only three cameras.

Seven Days in May (1964)

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Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas had a friendship that spanned decades, during which they made seven films together, playing heroes, villains, friends, and enemies. They were among that generation of actors that started their careers in the midst of the Studio System and managed to find their way out of it again, producing some truly remarkable films under their own production banners. Among these is 1964’s Seven Days in May, a political thriller about the near-overthrow of the United States by a military coup.

Lancaster is General James Mattoon Scott, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who is in direct disagreement with President Jordan Lyman (Frederic March) over a missile treaty recently signed with Russia. The U.S. and Russia have agreed to disarm their nuclear warheads, effectively bringing the Cold War standoff to an end and avoiding any future nuclear war. The decision is unpopular with America at large, but none more so than General Scott, who believes that the President is setting the U.S. up for an attack when the Russians fail to honor the agreement. What few realize, and what Scott’s aide ‘Jiggs’ Casey (Kirk Douglas) soon discovers, is that Scott and several other high-ranking commanders of the Army, Navy, and Marines have been setting up a military coup aimed at killing the President and taking over the U.S. government. When Casey stumbles across information about the coup, he’s placed in a position of defying his commanding officer, whom he greatly admires, in order to stop it.

The film is directed by John Frankenheimer (Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate) and scripted by Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) for Kirk Douglas’s own production company. The script is taut and topical, dealing with the Cold War and arms race to immediate and chilling effect.  The first half of the film is primarily concerned with the discovery of the coup and Jiggs’s crisis of conscience. He has to do the right thing and report his suspicions, but he doesn’t particularly want to. The mis-en-scene in this section is all lights and darks, as the chiaroscuro mirrors Jiggs’s increasing suspicions and divided loyalties. As we head into the second half of the film, occupied with proving and preventing the coup, the pacing picks up significantly, moving away from the conflict between Jiggs and Scott and into the attempts of various members of the President’s staff to find something concrete on Scott.

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Seven Days in May is chock full of excellent performances: everyone from Lancaster and Douglas to Martin Balsam and Ava Gardner, who plays Scott’s former lover with more on the General than she realizes. It becomes increasingly clear that Scott is a self-obsessed sociopath who believes that what he’s doing is not for personal aggrandizement but the good of the United States. Few actors can portray the intensity of the fanatic and still remain firmly grounded, but Lancaster pulls it off. His General Scott is a true-believer, logical and totally terrifying.

If Seven Days in May has a flaw it is in the few speeches handed to its characters, particularly Frederic March’s President Lyman. While March’s performance is a strong one, he has at least two speeches intended to provide the film’s already obvious message about the dangers of Cold War rhetoric and nuclear armament. The speeches are largely unnecessary and do somewhat date an otherwise topical film.

Far more chilling are the moments that hammer home how prescient this film is. Scott gives a speech about patriotism and freedom that eerily reminds one of some pundits we typically hear on Fox News…and in Congress. The coup relies on a belief that Scott and his compatriots know the will of the people, and will force that will on the country irrespective of democracy. The continuous refrain of jingoistic patriotism is as recognizable today as it was in 1964. Seven Days in May is frightening because it is so believable.

While firmly embedded in Cold War mentality, Seven Days in May should be an iconic film because it is still so universal. Strong performances and script keep things moving along, though really the whole film is held on two sets of very broad shoulders. Lancaster and Douglas would make other films together, but none perhaps quite so prescient.

The Grandeur That Was Rome (Episode 03-10, November 1963).

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The Avengers typically conjures up some impressive plots: diabolical masterminds with delusions of grandeur abound, some of them with a pretty good idea and a desire to rule the world. The Grandeur That Was Rome and its villain Sir Bruno Luca (Hugh Burden) should be among the finest examples of early insanity in a show that would eventually feature man-eating plants from the Moon. It’s unfortunate, therefore, that a good idea turns out to be so poorly done.

The basic plot is this: Sir Bruno, a feed manufacturer with an obsessive love for Ancient Rome, decides that he’s going to take over the world and turn it into a new Roman Empire, with himself as Caesar. To accomplish this, he enlists the help of Marcus (John Flint) to drum up trouble abroad when the grain he manufactures begins killing off livestock and tainting crops. But Bruno’s plans run even deeper and more diabolical than that, as Steed and Cathy step into the picture to stop the madman and save the world.

This has all the hallmarks of a really great episode: an obsessive madman, a credible and deadly plot, and plenty of togas. How, then, does it manage to fall so precariously short? For starters, the episode spends far too much time on the sneering villains and far too little time with our intrepid heroes. While Hugh Burden’s Sir Bruno is an excellent bad guy, it eventually becomes difficult to stomach his obvious delusions. His right-hand man Marcus and consort Octavia (Colette Wilde) are even less interesting, posturing to a degree that is boring rather than chilling.

When Steed and Cathy do put in an appearance, things begin to pick up. While we have precious little of Cathy’s judo to enjoy, there are some charming scenes of repartee between the pair. One might have hoped for some even greater excitement with the final act Bacchanalia at Sir Bruno’s house, but (as with the later Emma Peel episode A Touch of Brimstone) the censorship requirements of 1960s television put a damper on things. There is the joy of seeing Steed in a toga – not to mention Cathy’s reaction – but unfortunately that does not make for more than a few seconds of justifiable fun.

The Grandeur That Was Rome is an episode that I earnestly wish had been remade later in the series, when money and a better crew of writers might have been able to turn it into something truly weird and delightful. As it is, there are only a few scenes to really justify its existence.