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Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

This infra-black comedy by Stanley Kubrick is widely considered to be one of the best film comedies of all time, if not one of the best films of all time. I’d seen parts of it in the past and agreed that it was indeed good. However – it was in this viewing that I discovered that it was good enough to overcome childhood trauma.

I will explain in a bit. Hang in there.

This razor-sharp satire of the Cold War kicks off when an Air Force General, Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), implements “Wing Attack Plan R” – an immediate air assault on the Soviet Union. Part of the order involves a total shutdown of the base and the confiscation of all personal radios, a task he leaves up to his executive officer Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers), a visiting RAF officer. Mandrake happens to turn on one such radio and is surprised to hear not a breaking news bulletin, but a routine music broadcast. Alarmed, he rushes to Ripper’s office – only to discover that Ripper has had a psychotic break and has called for the attack in response to some half-baked conspiracy theories about fluoridation in water.

But Ripper’s plan is underway, and dozens of Air Force bombers are now speeding toward their various targets. Word very quickly reaches the Pentagon, where General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) breaks it to President Merkin Muffley (also Peter Sellers) that “Plan R” was only intended to be a last-ditch retaliatory attack, granting senior officers the power of command only if all other superior officers had been killed in earlier missile strikes. And, as such, part of the plan involves the bombers screening out all further communication unless it carried a three-letter code, one known only to the officer issuing the order. So President Muffley can’t override Ripper’s order. Muffley immediately orders the Army to storm the base and arrest Ripper, when they will force him to share the code. But just in case, after a brief consultation with Soviet ambassador Alexei de Sadeski (Peter Bull), Muffley also calls the Soviet Premier to break the news and offers him a list of the targets – authorizing the USSR to shoot down the bombers if the Pentagon is unable to sort things out in time.

But Sadeski brings up another complication – the USSR has just finished building a “doomsday device” which will automatically detonate if even just one U.S. missile reaches its target. The resulting nuclear fallout would contaminate the entire Earth for 93 years. Muffley and Turgidson are dubious – they haven’t heard anything about it – but Muffley’s science officer, the enigmatic Dr. Strangelove (also Peter Sellers), confirms that such a thing is indeed possible; in fact, he had been working on a similar plan for the United States. Muffley re-iterates to the Soviet Premier that the USSR can go ahead and shoot down any of the U.S. Bombers, since four of them are starting to get kinda close to their targets. The Soviets manage to shoot down three – the fourth is only damaged.

However – during the chaos, Mandrake has managed to figure out Ripper’s three-letter code and alerts the Pentagon. And it works! All bombers start returning to their base – except for the damaged plane, which suffered a radio short. So Major T. J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) is still heading towards a Siberian ICBM site, prepared to complete his mission.

…So, everything about this film is ridiculous in the best possible way, and some of the best parts were nearly accidental. Sellers’ triple-casting was actually a studio idea – he’d played multiple roles in Kubrick’s Lolita, and the executives at Columbia Pictures felt this was a major part of that film’s success. I admit it’s an odd conclusion, but somehow the suits were on to something; Kubrick had already told Sellers he could ad-lib some lines, and three roles just gave him three chances to ad-lib.

Incredibly, Sellers was supposed to play four roles – along with Strangelove, Mandrake and Muffley, he was also supposed to play Major Kong, pilot of the rogue bomber. But Sellers injured his ankle before they were to shoot all the scenes with Kong and had to drop out. The part was written as a sort of “John Wayne type”, so Kubrick first offered the role to Wayne, and then to Bonanza star Dan Blocker – both of whom said no (Blocker’s agent said he thought the script was “too pinko“). Slim Pickens was hired on such short notice that they had to pause while Pickens secured his U.S. Passport (filming was taking place in England, and Pickens had never left the US).

Kubrick also stacked the deck a bit for Pickens – he only gave Pickens the script to Kong’s scenes, and never told him that the film was a comedy, so Pickens played everything absolutely straight – even the moment when Kong trades his pilot’s helmet for a cowboy hat was 100% serious. James Earl Jones, who made his film debut as Kong’s bombadier, recalled later that Pickens turned up on set with a cowboy hat and fringed jacket, prompting one stagehand to remark that “he’s arrived in costume!” unaware that this was how Pickens dressed all the time. Kubrick also played a similar trick on George C. Scott – asking him to do some larger-than-life takes of each scene “for practice”, as a warm-up before the more restrained takes Scott preferred. But – to Scott’s chagrin, Kubrick used the “warmup” takes in the film. Scott was angry enough to swear never to work with Kubrick again – but honestly, Kubrick was right. Turgidson’s bluster and bravado absolutely makes his scenes.

And that’s just the casting. Everything else about this film just works – the ridiculous trigger for Ripper’s breakdown, the inane standoff Mandrake has with a skeptical Army colonel, the one-sided conversation Muffley has with a clearly inebriated Soviet Premier, Turgidson’s drive to outdo the Soviets at every possible turn, Kong’s monomaniacal commitment to his mission. Even the music is spot-on – the recurring use of the Battle Hymn Of The Republic scoring Kong’s scenes, or the whole film ending with the sentimental Vera Lynn hit “We’ll Meet Again”, set to footage of nuclear explosions.

And that’s what I meant by the childhood trauma. Back when I reviewed Animal Farm, I mentioned that one characteristic of “Generation X” was a childhood spent fully aware of the looming threat of nuclear war. I first learned about the nuclear threat by accident at the age of nine – too young to understand the politics involved. The only bit I understood was that there were these really big bombs somewhere that could blow up everyone in the whole world, and they could go off any minute. I was still young enough to be slightly scared of the dark, and for a full year, instead of imagining that the monster under the bed was a big scaley beast, I thought a mushroom cloud was lurking there. Getting older only made things worse, especially after the broadcast of some made-for-TV specials in the 1980s about “what dropping the Bomb would be like”. For a good ten years, from the mid-1980s up until the late 1990s, I had unbelievably vivid recurring nightmares about nuclear war.

Those kinds of “what-ifs” actually started in the 1960s, and I’ve been wondering how I would handle revisiting images that scared me so when I was nine. But the rest of Strangelove was so funny, the satire so pointed and the performances so perfect, that I found myself laughing more than cringing, my childhood trauma averted.

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Marnie (1964)

So, this has some parts that didn’t age well.

Tippi Hedren is our lead as “Marnie”, a con artist and corporate criminal. Her M.O. is clever enough – disguise herself, move to a small city and apply for a boring secretarial/bookkeeping job. Explain away the lack of references with a sob story about being a recent widow who’s got to fend for herself. Land the job, and fade into the wallpaper along with the rest of the secretarial pool. Linger around long enough to learn how to access the company safe – then stay late one night, empty the safe out, and skip town.

It’s been working out okay for her – she’s able to care for an elderly mother in Baltimore (Louise Latham), and it keeps her solvent. She’s a loner by default, but she’s got an aversion to sex anyway, so it works out. But then she lands a job in Philadelphia, working for a publishing company owned by one Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), and Rutland takes a romantic shine to her. And when Marnie finally hits the Rutland Co. safe, Mark catches her red-handed; but instead of turning her in, he blackmails her into marrying him in exchange for keeping her secret. And at one point in their “honeymoon”, Mark gets sick of her protestations that she “doesn’t like to be touched” and forces himself on her.

Now, there’s actually a decent mystery the film goes on to solve; why Marnie is compelled to steal, why her mother seems distant towards her, why Marnie has aversions to sex as well as to the color red or to thunder. But that moment of marital rape is where Hitchcock lost me, especially when Mark doesn’t really seem to regret his actions. Marnie even tries to kill herself afterward, but Mark saves her in the nick of time; even that doesn’t seem to cause him any remorse. Instead, he treats the whole thing as proof that Marnie needs some kind of psychological help to “overcome” her “sexual problem”.

That honeymoon rape is a mighty big thing for Hitchcock to just hand-wave away, even if you play the “but times were different then” card. It’s traumatizing enough for Marnie that she tries to kill herself, but by the end of the film she is clinging to Mark and asking him to help support her while she “recovers”. Even more troubling – one of the film’s screenwriters, when adapting it from the novel on which it was based, told Hitchcock that this particular scene should be cut; but Hitchcock disagreed, asserting that this scene “was the whole point”. He then went on to fire that particular screenwriter for even raising such a complaint.

…Yikes.

I’ll admit I was already disinclined towards this film, since there are allegations that Hitchcock sexually harassed Hedren while filming this and The Birds. Hitchcock’s actions might sound eerily familiar to anyone following Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault trials – Hitchcock persistently pestered Hedren to go out with him, tried to corner her alone a lot, and a couple times even tried to force her. When she continued to refuse him, Hitchcock finally blacklisted her – he even stopped the studio from putting Hedren’s name in for an Oscar consideration – and her career took a major hit as a result. I nevertheless tried giving it a fair shot – only to see that Hitchcock actually went a bit further than Weinstein, and depicted a sexual assault in the film itself, saying that “it was the whole point”.

Yeah, I’ll bet it was, Hitch.

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The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

I need to begin this review with an apologetic first: I swear to you all, I am not a cynic. I have been in love, I have also been in the kind of swept-off-your-feet love where the world is bedecked with stardust and where unlikely coincidences seem to point to your partner being fated for you. Those loves didn’t last, but often they ended with my beloveds and I growing into solid friendships instead.

I say all that because from the look of things, I’m going to be one of the very few people in the world who isn’t going to swoon over this as a beloved and poignant movie about First Love And Its Tragic End, and am instead going to grump about how it’s taken a run-of-the-mill plot and dressed it up in music and pretty colors in an effort to distract me. And I don’t like that.

The run-of-the-mill plot here is that of young lovers who pledge eternal fidelity before parting, only for life to intrude, alas. Catherine Deneuve is “Genevieve”, daughter of a widowed shopkeeper in the quiet French town of Cherbourg; her sweetie is Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), an auto mechanic living with his sickly aunt. They sneak out together whenever Guy can get away from his aunt or Genevieve can get free of her mother’s umbrella shop; but right when Guy proposes and Genevieve finally gets the nerve to tell her mother about him, Guy is drafted into serving in the war in Algeria. They postpone things until Guy comes back, pledging earnestly to write every day and to wait for each other – and then, big surprise, Guy doesn’t write often and Genevieve meets someone else and then so does Guy when he gets home and they go on to marry other people, the end.

Now you see why I was so defensive about sounding cynical. But try as I might, I simply could not get past the fact that I have seen this story a good many times before – once even here on this list, with Splendor In The Grass. This story has its own trope over on the TV Tropes web site, for pity’s sake. And while the music is empirically lovely, and the world of Genevieve and Guy brightly-colored, I kept feeling like it was there to distract me from the run-of-the-mill plot, and that just made things worse. Not that I hated the film, mind you – more like, I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about and why this retelling of this old chestnut was so different from all the other times.

One moment did get a chuckle out of me – the fellow Genevieve ultimately does marry is Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), whom we last saw in the film Lola – and he even tells Genevieve about his unrequited love for Lola in one scene, confirming that it is indeed the same character.

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Red Desert (1964)

I’m starting to think I’m not really into Antonioni. I acknowledge his skill just fine, and sometimes he’s captured some amazing things with subtext; but then there are times when he seems to get caught up in how things look, to the detriment of the rest of the film.

Like this film, for instance. Red Desert was Antonioni’s first foray into color film – and the look of things is gorgeous. Most of the action takes place in and around a petrochemical plant run by Ugo (Carlo Chianetti), with much of the landscape bathed in dull shades of grey punctuated by the shocking red of gas pipes, the sickly green of polluted waste water, and the acid yellow of toxic smoke. Most of the workers in the plant are also in greys and browns, and Ugo himself is in a conservative suit most of the time. Not so his wife Giuliana (Monica Vitti), a nervous woman who dresses in vivid colors in an effort to shake herself out of a weirdly persistent depressive state.

Giuliana catches the eye of Ugo’s friend Corrado (Richard Harris), visiting to recruit men for a business venture of his own. Ugo explains that Giuliana recently was in a car crash, that’s why she’s still a bit skittish. But as Corrado gets to know Giuliana – the pair bonding over a mutual dissatisfaction with modern life – he comes to suspect whether that “car crash” was the accident Ugo says it was.

And nothing else really…happens.

Now, for Antonioni this kind of existential ennui is usually kind of the point. Giuliana feels out of touch with modern life, the way that Lidia did in La Notte or Claudia did in L’Avventura. But in those earlier films, I had more of a sense where that disconnect came from, whereas here….not so much. I certainly see its effects – there’s a stunning shot partway through the film, as Giuliana gets spooked on an outing with Ugo and some other friends and starts for the car, urging the others to join her and head home. But when she looks back at them, they’re all standing still, looking at her with bafflement, as a thick fog from the nearby ocean rolls in and obscures them all one by one.

Antonioni clearly took great care with how this film would look. But I am afraid that the story itself suffered a bit, and so the whole film didn’t really gel for me.

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The Masque Of The Red Death (1964)

The first time I saw Alec Guinness in something, I went through a disconnect; he’d been so cemented in my head as “Obi-Wan Kenobi” that seeing him in something else threw me a little. Seeing Vincent Price in this film had a similar effect, albeit for a campier reason: as soon as I heard his voice, I expected him to intone, “Darkness falls across the land, the midnight hour is close at hand….” To be fair, it was Price’s work in films like this that lead to his to cameo in the song “Thriller” in the first place.

This film is indeed based on Edgar Allen Poe’s classic short story about a medieval Italian nobleman (“Prince Prospero”, the role played by Price) attempting to hide from a plague by shutting himself and several friends up in his castle, distracting them with a wild party. Director Roger Corman, apparently a huge Poe fan, had already adapted The Fall of The House Of Usher a couple years previously, and had already resolved to follow it up with this, his other favorite Poe story. But he was especially intrigued by a script from Charles Beaumont, a frequent Twilight Zone screenwriter. Beaumont made Prospero a Satanist in his draft, which suited Corman’s quick-and-dirty Grand Guignol camp style perfectly, as well as giving Corman an excuse to work in the plot from another lesser-known Poe story called “Hop-Frog”.

It also provided an excuse for some cheesecake – mainly in the form of Jane Asher as “Francesca”, a poor peasant lass who catches the eye of the evil Prospero and inspires him to corrupt her innocent Christian soul. Asher is…okay as Francesca, but unfortunately doesn’t really have much to do aside from look pretty in a gown and occasional react to how eeeeeeevil Price is. Prospero’s former mistress Juliana (Hazel Court) has a bit more to do – she was Prospero’s previous student, but has taken to Satanism with much enthusiasm and gets two scenes with “rituals” meant to cement her allegiance to Lucifer. Juliana’s role is a bit meatier – and, simultaneously, a bit cheesier, as these Satanic rituals usually involve her being in low-cut dresses for some reason.

I realize that last comment makes this sound corny as all hell. And it is. But – it is corny as all hell in a way that I like. Corman, Price, Asher and Court all know that they’re not making a film that is in any way realistic – and they don’t care, they’re having too much fun with the hammy dialogue and the eerie music and the eye-popping visuals (some lifted direct from Poe). The film is corny, but it embraces that corniness and has a blast with it.

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Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965)

I’m not entirely sure whether this Ukranian film was meant to be experimental, but it sure as hell was fascinatingly odd.

Based on an early 20th-Century novel, this starts out as a sort of Romeo-and-Juliet doomed love story between Ivan (Ivan Mykolaichuk) and Marichka (Larisa Kadochnikova), two youngsters in the Carpathian mountains of Ukraine. They’re just kids when Marichka’s father kills Ivan’s father, so they innocently strike up a friendship when they meet in the hills while tending goats. But when they’re older and fallen in love they’ve figured out they need to stay on the down-low, and hatch a plan to elope. Ivan just needs to head out to the next town over to make some money first. But – while he’s away, and Marichka is still faithfully tending to her papa’s goats, she loses her footing while chasing a stray kid and drowns in the local river.

A heartbroken Ivan spends the rest of the movie just sort of going through the motions in mourning. He does in time marry another local girl named Palahna (Tatyana Bestayeva), but is still so hung up on Marichka that he can’t consummate their marriage. A frustrated Palahna soon starts an affair with another dude in town, Yurko (Spartak Bagashvili); Yurko is a sort of folk magician she’s hoping will help her get pregnant, either with magic or….more conventional means. But Ivan is apparently also pursuing his own magic goal to somehow reunite with Marichka – either in this world, or the next.

Strangely, I kept thinking of last year’s The Green Knight as I watched this. The story of Gawain and the Green Knight is from a period when Christianity was so new to England that it hadn’t completely wiped pre-Christian Celtic lore, which made for some strange and eerie mashups of Christian and folkloric imagery; The Green Knight really leaned into the resulting weirdness, with talking foxes and a Green Man figure and huge bald giants talking in garbled feedback and howling like wolves. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors has a similar sort of folkloric weirdness – Christianity is very much a Thing in Ivan’s world, but so are potions and spells, ghosts in the woods, costumed ritual dancing and a wedding custom involving blindfolds and an ox yoke. Things are a riot of color and symbol for much of the film – save for the section immediately following Marichka’s death, when director Sergei Parajanov switches everything to a moody black and white, echoing Ivan’s sorrow.

And honestly, it’s the look of things that saved this for me. The performances are the one weak spot here; this was a film debut for Mykolaichuk and one of the only films for Kadochnikova. Bestayeva is one of the only veterans in the cast, and even here she’d only had six other films under her belt before getting cast as Palahna. Fortunately the story was simple enough for me to follow and grasp what was happening, but I could have done with the acting being a tiny bit better. Happily, the sheer weirdness of Ivan and Marichka’s world kept me interested all the same.

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Scorpio Rising (1964)

So this was interesting. This avant-garde short uses much of the same technique as did the earlier film Limite the 1931 Brazilian experimental film which I really didn’t get; it doesn’t really tell a story in the conventional way so much as it presents a sort of slice-of-life window into a thing. We are introduced to characters by seeing things they own, or things they read, or things they do. There’s no clear “plot” – stuff just sort of happens. But for whatever reason, I found this much more comprehensible; maybe it was shorter, or maybe director Kenneth Anger was a better editor. Or – maybe the references he was dropping in 1964 were still accessible to someone in 2021.

Anger is notorious for playing a little fast-and-loose with the truth, so the history of this film’s production is murky. Most accounts agree that Anger made this film after befriending some Hells’ Angels members in a neighborhood near Coney Island; he convinced them to let him follow them around with a camera for a while, filming them repairing their bikes and hanging around at home and dressing for nights out on the town and having a party in their clubhouse. He might have specifically set up a couple shots or encouraged a couple of actions – there are a couple of blink-and-you-miss-them shots of exposed genitals or buttocks during the party scene, and one man has an extended sequence where he’s at the lecturn of an abandoned church, passionately declaiming an unheard speech while a Nazi flag hangs behind him.

But then Anger assembled the clips in such a way that played up a homoerotic subtext, scoring the whole thing with pop songs – saccharine ballads by Ricky Nelson or Bobby Vinton, or candyfloss songs by girl groups like The Crystals or Martha and the Vandellas – that further pushed his point. A sequence where we jump between three men painstakingly donning blue jeans and leather jackets and adjusting their hats just so is set to the dreamy song “Blue Velvet”, and one sequence where a man is repairing his bike is scored by a singer named Little Peggy March singing her song “Wind-Up Doll”. “You can see what makes me tick, little springs and gears,” she sings, as we watch the man lovingly checking the gears of his motorcycle.

Sometimes Anger really draws a line under the subtext, interspersing his work with clips of Marlon Brando in The Wild One or scenes from a low-budget Bible film Anger found. This latter bit gets put to especial use in the scene in the church – clips of our purported lead, a man named Bruce Byron, speechifying in front of a Nazi banner are mixed in with still images of Hitler and clips from the Bible film depicting Jesus – and all of it scored with Peggy March’s song “I Will Follow Him” (“I love him! I love him! I love him! And where he goes I’ll follow! I’ll follow! I’ll follow….”)

The Hells’ Angels were reportedly not pleased by Anger’s final work. And, amusingly, so were members of the American Nazi Party. Both were outraged at the implication that there was any hint of homoeroticism in their cultures – why, all the bikers Anger filmed were straight! Their girlfriends were even at the party where Anger was filming – the bikers just wanted to keep their girls off camera, that was all! ….And those clips he got of guys with their dicks out? That was just guys screwing around, of course….! Personally, I believe the bikers – but I’m also surprised they didn’t know that their look was being embraced by a second subculture. I also don’t think that the bikers honestly embraced Naziism – it’s possible Anger just threw that in there to play up the transgression, or if it was something the bikers did, it was likely more of a transgressive symbol they were doing themselves. It’s like the kids in the 1980s who would wear pentagrams and spraypaint “Satan Lives!” on the side of a building – they only did it because they knew it would freak people out.

Anger did several more films after this, but these days is better known for his gossipy book Hollywood Babylon (although much of his claims in it have since been disproven). But he is still alive, and still making films; many of them have this same theme of playing up the homoeroticism lurking just below the surface of conventional society. While watching this, I kept thinking of a song from 1982 by the singer Joe Jackson, “Real Men”, which also plays with this tension:

“See the nice boys, dancing in pairs
Golden earring, golden tan, blow wave in their hair
Sure, they’re all straight, straight as a line
All the gays are macho, can’t you see the leather shine?”

If Anger were making Scorpio Rising in 1982, I imagine he would have considered including it – but may also have rejected it for being a little too on-the-nose.

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Goldfinger (1964)

So, I have always been lukewarm on the James Bond film franchise. Several of the Roger Moore-era Bond films turned up on TV when I was a kid, and they always seemed a little formulaic and corny; there was always a scene where Bond was getting some fancy spy gadget, there were always scenes where he bedded various women within mere minutes of meeting them, the bad guy always had some kind of Byzantine scheme and was always backed up by some henchman who used brute force. I chalked the corniness up to Moore; people were already talking about Sean Connery’s superiority in the role even then, and in the early 80s Connery even returned to the role one last time and caused a huge fuss. So I thought that with Connery I’d be seeing more of a “proper” Bond film.

But no. Roommate Russ tried to warn me before I watched, and he was right – Connery wasn’t the “superior” Bond, he was the ur-Bond. And all the tropes I rolled my eyes at? They all began here.

Ironically, one of the Bond tropes I’d been used to wasn’t here – the bad guys weren’t Russians, and the big plot wasn’t about international politics. Rather, it was about international banking. Connery/Bond is asked to check up on the wealthy and eccentric Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe), a dealer in antiques and gold bullion. Bond catches him cheating at a game of cards – an assistant, Jill (Shirley Eaton), spies on the game and gives him tips through an earpiece – and puts a stop to things by seducing Jill away from her duties. Well, that was easy, and pleasant. But Goldfinger makes it clear he’s got bigger plans – and issues Bond an equally big warning, killing Jill by covering her in gold paint so she dies of “skin suffocation.” (Incidentally, this is one of five plot points the old science show Mythbusters investigated – they proved this isn’t real.) Bond stays on the case, however, ultimately discovering how Goldfinger smuggles his gold out of the UK (disguising it as other things), who he’s allied with (everyone from the Mafia to a circus troupe to the Chinese Communists), and what his ultimate goal is (blow up a tactical nuke inside the Fort Knox gold reserve, irradiating the United States’ coffers for 50 years and making his own stash of gold even more valuable).

It’s…ridiculous. I mean, it hangs together plotwise, and there’s enough action to distract you, but if you think about the plot for about two minutes it’s pretty ridiculous. And that is precisely why they throw so many gadgets into the mix, like a car fitted with an ejection seat (this was the one thing Mythbusters proved actually does work); and it’s why they throw in a creepy henchman named “Odd Job” (Harold Sakata) for a one-on-one fight with Bond; and it’s why they throw three women in to distract Bond, most notably Goldfinger’s pilot Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman). It’s a riot of color and flashy scenery and pretty women and cool toys and explosions and action sequences, the more far-fetched the better; and it was always meant to be that way, regardless who played James Bond.

Some of the Bond tropes have been scaled back in recent years – especially the casual womanizing, with the director of the most recent Bond film dismissing Connery’s Bond as “basically a rapist“. But seeing them as they were, it was hard to take them too seriously anyway – simply because they were so ridiculous.

Incidentally: other tropes the Mythbusters investigated from this film include airplane depressurization, OddJob’s weaponized bowler hat, and Bond wearing a tuxedo under a wetsuit and having it stay impeccably dry. All of them were “busted.”

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Black God, White Devil (1964)

Like the earlier Barren Lives, this is another film about the poor underclass in Brazil’s desert region. But this particular film is way headier.

Ranch hand Manuel (Geraldo del Rey) is on his way to work one day when he runs into Sebastião (Lidio Silvia), a self-styled prophet, and his followers. After curiously lingering to listen a while, Manuel goes on to work, after briefly stopping home to tell his wife Rosa (Yoná Magalhães) about him. Rosa is pretty uninterested, though – she’s got too much housekeeping to do, and Manuel’s supposed to be at work anyway. But Rosa’s indifference turns to alarm when Manuel returns home from work early, saying that there was a problem at work and he thinks he accidentally killed his boss and they have to get out of there pronto, and hey, maybe we can go find that Sebastião dude?

Sebastião and his crew are easy enough to find, and Manuel is soon all in on his teaching – a vaguely Christian-leaning gospel of labor and sacrifice, with a “promised land” close by. Rosa’s a little skeptical though, especially when Sebastião starts claiming the “promised land” can be reached through mystic means – including blood sacrifice. When Manuel offers Rosa herself as a likely sacrifice (she’s a non-believer, after all), she is understandably alarmed. Luckily for Rosa, the ceremony is interrupted by a vigilante (Maurício do Valle) who’s been tracking the couple down. The rest of the congregation leaps to their defense, Manuel snaps out of his trance, and they secretly slip off while the vigilante does battle with the others.

After trying their luck with the sacred, Manuel opts for the profane when they meet Corsico (Othon Bastos), a gun-slinging rabble-rousing revolutionary who quickly takes Manuel into his violent fold, rechristening him “Satanas” to boot; Rosa is a bit more comfortable here, befriending Corsico’s ladyfriend “Dadá” (Sonia dos Humildes). But the vigilante catches up with them here too, spurring Manuel and Rosa to once again try to flee, and leaving Manuel to wonder whether he can count on either God or the Devil, or whether he should rely only on himself.

I was fortunate enough to see this in a theater; it’s just been recently restored, and New York’s Film Festival has included it in the schedule this year. It does look lovely – rife with symbolism and striking imagery. One of the most arresting sequences comes when Manuel is walking up a hillside with Sebastião – or, rather, Sebastião is walking. Manuel is instead walking on his knees while trying to balance a boulder on his own head, in an extreme form of penance. (Apparently, Del Ray insisted on doing this for real, with a 40 pound stone; it was so taxing that he had to beg off filming for the next two days because of fatigue.)

However, I attended a rather late screening, and I’m afraid this was a bit too heady and mystical to compete with the fatigue. I may have fared better if it were earlier, but I had a hard time following the story itself, pretty as it looked. And, arguably, if it had been a bit clearer that would have penetrated the fatigue a bit better.

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The Haunting (1963)

I mentioned having just seen this to a co-worker last week, and we both discussed how it measured up against the 1999 remake and the weird copycat miniseries Stephen King did; I’d seen both of those already, but I think I liked this best.

Based on a novel by Shirley Jackson, this is the story of a group of paranormal researchers investigating a supposedly haunted house. Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), a university professor, is leading the search; but the film more closely follows Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), an emotionally fragile woman who supposedly had experienced some poltergeist activity when she was a child. Eleanor is now grown, and has spent the past ten years caring for an emotionally abusive mother in frail health. Mother has since died, though, and her sister is now urging her to move out of the family house into her own apartment. So the lonely Eleanor is eager to find a place where she can belong and people she can call her friends.

The other researchers seem friendly at first – the kind Dr. Markway, the suave and lively psychic Theodora (Claire Bloom) and the mercenary Luke (Russ Tamblyn), who stands to inherit the house and is conducting a more practical investigation. But the group starts to pick up definite evidence of some bad energy in the house – ghostly noises, doors opening and shutting on their own, cryptic messages scrawled on walls – and are uneasy when a lot of it seems to be targeting Eleanor specifically. So Eleanor’s new friends soon start avoiding her; but Eleanor senses the house itself wants her somehow. Which is ridiculous of course…unless ghosts are actually real. And if they were….would that really be such a bad thing, having a place to belong to?

I may prefer this version to others, but it’s got some flaws. It takes entirely too long to meet Eleanor; she doesn’t turn up until about 20 minutes in, after we’ve seen an exhaustive review of the house’s cursed history and endured a lengthy scene of Dr. Markway convincing the house’s owners to let him conduct his study. Meanwhile, poor neglected Eleanor gets only a single three-minute scene with her sister and a handful of “inner-thoughts” voiceovers to tell her own story. I would much rather if it were the other way around; we’d learn more about Eleanor, and the house would have been more of a mystery.

And we would have gotten to see more of Julie Harris. Prior to this I’d only seen her once; I had the great privilege of seeing her live, alongside Charles Durning in a revival of the play The Gin Game. She played her role in Gin Game similar to Eleanor here; a little nervous, easily frightened when others are upset, and just barely holding herself together. But here in The Haunting, she also lets herself give way to the house trying to seduce her, and after seeing her upset by some earlier haunted hijinks, it somehow makes things all the more chilling.

It’s a bit unclear – by design – whether Eleanor really is succumbing to possession, or to to madness. Shirley Jackson played up the paranormal in her novel – but director Robert Wise played up the possibility of mental illness and suggestion. Both theories end up being equally plausible by the film’s end – leaving the whole thing still just as much of a mystery.