Author Archives: Jonathan Melville

The First Renown Pictures Festival Of Film 2015

I’ve long been a fan of the output of Renown Films, a UK DVD label releasing some long-forgotten and under-appreciated British films.

Forget the likes of Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling; actors such as William Hartnell and Jack Warner are Renown’s leading men in titles such as 1950’s Double Confession or 1962’s Jigsaw.

renown_ticketThe company recently announced that they’re branching out from the DVD business into the world of the film festival, with the announcement of the The First Renown Pictures Festival Of Film 2015, which takes place on Sunday 8th February in Rickmansworth’s Watersmeet Theatre.

The day will be introduced by actor Brian Murphy (George & Mildred) and devoted to screenings of previously thought-lost British B-movies including 1951’s London Entertains, 1956’s Tons of Trouble (featuring William Hartnell) and 1969’s Hole Lot of Trouble (none of which appear to be available on DVD) alongside guest appearances from the likes of Jess Conrad and experts from the world of film.

There’s also due to be a talk from a friend of mine, writer and broadcaster Robert Ross, who’ll be discussing his forthcoming book, Forgotten Heroes of Comedy.

Elsewhere there’ll be a dealers table, film memorabilia, book signings and a 16mm Bring and Buy table.

It should be a great day and I’m planning on heading along to enjoy a cup of tea and a slice of cake while soaking up the atmosphere with some fellow classic film fans – tickets are on sale now from just £5.

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January 2015 at Edinburgh Filmhouse


It’s probably a sign of old age that one of the most enjoyable ways for me to spend an hour or so each month is to pick the new Filmhouse programme off the mat, rip open the envelope and to browse the forthcoming films I want to head along to in the coming weeks – the more classics and reissues I can see, the better.

January 2015 programme

Wake in Fright

In 2014, 1971’s Wake in Fright proved to be my discovery of the year. This hard-going Australian classic stars Gary Bond as John Grant, a straight-laced Sydney teacher working in the outback who takes a detour to the town of Bundanyabba on his way back to the city for Christmas.

Grant enjoys the hospitality of The Yabba a bit too much, ending up hitting rock bottom in the company of Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence) and other assorted characters. It’s gritty, gripping and repulsive, a film that draws the viewer in and forces them to be a part of Grant’s downfall.

Filmhouse are giving us another chance to see Wake in Fright on Tuesday 13 January at 18.05, and I’d recommend everyone get themselves along (it really needs to be seen on the big screen) or buys the Blu-ray if they can’t make it.

Wake in Fright is screening as part of the cinema’s annual January spotlight on films from the previous year that deserve to be seen before they find a home on DVD. Other titles I hope to see include Interstellar (showing from 70mm), IdaLeviathan and Willow and Wind.

The Marx Brothers

Elsewhere, I’m looking forward to Duck Soup and Animal Crackers: The Best of the Marx Brothers season, seven films designed to brighten up the winter months. Fans of 35mm will be able to see A Day at the Races, A Night in Casablanca and A Night at the Opera in the format, while other titles include Duck Soup, Horse Feathers, Monkey Business, Animal Crackers and The Cocoanuts.

I’ll admit that my Marx Brothers knowledge is limited to what I’ve seen on TV so I’ll try to get along to as many of these as possible (feel free to leave suggestions below as to which ones I can’t miss).

Ed Wood

A film that’s definitely in the diary is Tim Burton’s 1995 biopic, Ed Wood, which I have vague memories of seeing at the cinema on its original release. I certainly owned the VHS back in the day, and was discussing it recently with a friend after seeing clips from Plan 9 from Outer Space on TV. Filmhouse will be showing Ed Wood on Thursday 22 January at 20.25, along with a Pink Panther short from 1966.

Also showing

Abel Gance’s 1919 epic, J’accuse, comes to Filmhouse on Thursday 5 February at 8pm as part of The First World War in Cinema series hosted by Pasquale Iannone. The film chronicles the decimation of a Provençal village as the sons of France go off to fight, either dying on the front or returning as shell-shocked, hollow men, and it’s another film that I’ve wanted to see for a long time. This one will be shown on Screen One.

There’s a special screening of Luis Bunuel’s 1930 surrealist drama, L’Age d’Or, on Friday 23 January at 9pm, with live musical accompaniment from Sink and Noize Choir; The Introduction to European Cinema programme continues with Rome, Open City, Germany Year Zero and Bande à part; Schindler’s List will be shown on Tuesday 27 January at 7pm as part of Holocaust Memorial Day; and 1976’s A Sunday in Hell is a must-see for cyclists as it follows participants in the Paris-Roubaix bike race (I saw it on BBC Four a few months back and loved it).

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Filmhouse announces Jack Nicholson season

We’re about to be spoiled with another fantastic classic film season in Edinburgh, this one devoted to Jack Nicholson’s lengthy career.

The retrospective season will run through November and December and showcase films that explore the depths of Nicholson’s career spanning over five decades, including Chinatown, Easy Rider, The Shining, The Crossing Guard, The Last Detail, Reds, The Passenger and The King of Marvin Gardens.

Out of that little lot I’ve yet to see The Crossing Guard, The Last Detail or Reds, so hopefully I’ll make it along for the one-off screenings. I’d like to have seen 1989’s Batman in there, but you can’t have it all.

As for the others, there’s not a duffer among them, and I was particularly impressed by The King of Marvin Gardens when I saw it at Filmhouse earlier this year, even if I did miss most of the visual references noted in this Guardian article.

I was also lucky enough to watch Chinatown in Los Angeles in 2012 as part of the TCM Classic Film Festival, where I recorded this short introduction to the film with its writer, Robert Towne, and producer, Robert Evans. They spent around fifteen minutes discussing the evolution of the film with TCM host, Robert Osborne at the Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.

Full details of the Jack Nicholson season are now up on the Filmhouse website.

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Vilmos Zsigmond season at Filmhouse

The UK film media appears to have gone Heaven’s Gate-mad recently, delighting in the fact that the 1980 flop has been re-released by Park Circus Films in a shiny new print.

Having never seen the film, partly due to its reputation but mainly due to nobody making it easy to watch it, I can’t make any comments on the quality, though I will be able to rectify that when the film comes to Edinburgh’s Filmhouse on Friday 30 August.

Michael Cimino’s epic stars Kris Kristofferson as a lawyer trying to help immigrants on the Western frontier, and the story surrounding its production is almost as epic as the one in the script.

I’m a sucker for Westerns, whether that’s Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), Sidney Lanfield’s Station West (1948) or the knockabout They Call Me Trinity (1970), all of which I’ve enjoyed over the last few months. I’ll give the three and a half hour Heaven’s Gate a chance, fingers crossed it’s been worth the wait – I’ll also have another read of Tim Robey’s gushing article in the meantime.

Watch the Heaven’s Gate trailer

Heaven’s Gate is part of a short season celebrating the work of Hungarian cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond. There’s a chance to watch John Boorman’s 1972 drama, Deliverance, and the recently re-released Scarecrow (1973), starring Gene Hackman and Al Pacino. The latter title has been shown at a few Scottish cinemas this year and I’ve missed it each time, hopefully in September I’ll get along to see it.

Watch the Scarecrow trailer

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Video: Warner Archive Collection and the Killer Bs

One of the best parts of my two visits to the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2011 and 2012 was the chance to catch up with the team from the Warner Archive Collection, who make old movies their business.

For the last few years Warner Archive have been releasing obscure films and TV series on demand, printing DVDs one at a time as people order them. For some reason that hasn’t caught on in the UK, meaning fans outside America have to order these titles on Amazon rather than straight from the publisher.

I suspect there’s some distrust of the market for these rarer titles on the part of Warner UK, who would rather spend their marketing budget on promoting a guaranteed hit on DVD than a title which may only sell a few hundred/dozen copies. Personally, I think they’re underestimating the audience over here, certainly if my Twitter feed is anything to judge by. There are numerous titles mention on there every day which would sell well if Warner UK took a chance on us.

Online streaming may be on the rise in the UK, but over in the US they yet again have it down to a fine art, with sites such as Hulu and Netflix dominating. A newcomer to the growing market is Warner Archive Instant, which allows film fans to pay a monthly subscription and watch as many titles as they want during the month.

Again, there’s no sign of this coming to the UK, even though there’s a lot of profit to be made.

All of this preamble is to introduce a short video of a panel which took place at the 2013 San Diego Comic Con, featuring Warner Archive, screenwriter Josh Olson and film historian, Leonard Maltin (who I also met at TCM 2012). The guys have a chat about the type of films they release and make me want to watch all them.

Maltin also makes some interesting points about the supposed disposability of films.

Forget modern blockbusters, 1950s B-movies are where I want to spend my hard earned cash these days.

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Daleks’ Invasion Edinburgh: 2013 AD

Daleks Invasion of Earth

Having been a Doctor Who fan for many years, it seems something has now seeped into my DNA, a “fan gene” as it were, which means I have to go and see anything Who related when it’s nearby. Whether that’s a Doctor Who Roadshow, Doctor Who Live or screenings of TV episodes in Edinburgh and Glasgow, I’m usually there.

In the last few weeks that’s meant taking myself along to two screenings of the 1960s Doctor Who (sorry, Dr. Who?) films at Filmhouse, with the second screened this weekend to an appreciative audience.

William Hartnell was still the Doctor in blurry black and white on BBC One in 1965, but it was decided that a bigger name was required for the transition to cinema screens. Peter Cushing, already a household name from his work in the Hammer horrors, was drafted in as scientist Dr. Who, along with granddaughters Susan (Roberta Tovey) and Barbara Who (Jennie Linden).

No longer a crotchety alien, this version of the Doctor is an old buffer who has built Tardis (it’s not the Tardis anymore) in his back garden and has little grasp of the complexities of space and time travel. When Barbara’s new boyfriend, Ian (Roy Castle) pops round to visit, he’s soon whisked off to the planet Skaro so that Dr. Who can have a wander.

What must have appealed to fans at the time was a chance to see the Daleks in colour, their evil schemes played out upon a more visually exciting canvas than a BBC budget could ever hope for. This reworking of the very first Dalek TV adventure from 1963 retains many of its plot points and as such isn’t a particularly rewarding watch.

That’s not to say director Gordon Flemyng fails, it just might have been better if writer Milton Subotsky had made the rather dull Thals, whom Dr. Who spends quite a bit of time helping, more, well, cinematic.

Things righted themselves somewhat for 1966’s sequel, Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 AD, based on the 1964 TV serial, The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Immediately there’s a feeling that everyone involved has more confidence in what they’re doing and that they simply want to give the audience a bit of a romp.

Sadly, Dr. Who hasn’t learned from his antics of the first film and he’s once again happy to send his time machine into the unknown, this time with Susan, niece Louise (Jill Curzon) and hapless policeman, Tom Cameron (Bernard Cribbins) aboard.

Tardis lands in, you’ve guessed it, 2150 AD, where the time team soon find themselves caught up in (you’ve guessed it) a Dalek invasion. In typical Doctor Who fashion, the Tardis crew are split up, captured and rescued multiple times, all the while trying to get themselves to the most important place on Earth, a mine in Bedford.

Daleks’ Invasion holds up well almost 50 years down the line. Bernard Cribbins’ Tom is an improvement on the first film’s Ian character; Andrew Keir makes a strong impression as Wyler, though a bit of back story might have been nice; some welcome moral ambiguity is introduced in the shape of Philip Madoc’s Brockley and Sheila Steafel’s spinster; and the whole thing looks like a few quid has been spent on it, with dozens of Daleks and a shiny new spaceship interior on show.

Gordon Flemyng adds some lovely flourishes to the picture, particularly in the scene where the Doctor is imprisoned and the camera circles him within a confined space. There’s also a longer sequence in the Dalek control room where Flemyng takes the camera behind various girders and handrails, lifting what would otherwise be a fairly bog standard scene into something more interesting.

It’s actually Cushing who comes out worst here. He does the job fine but is rarely the focus of the script, with so many characters vying for attention around him. I’m still not sure how I actually feel towards his Doctor, whether his casual attitude to time travel and the safety of his companions is something to be celebrated. OK, so he’s willing to do what he can to save them once they’re in trouble, but if he’d just settled down to a quiet retirement back in 1960s Earth they would have been fine.

Overall, it was a treat to see both films at the cinema in newly restored DCPs, meaning I probably won’t be buying the new Blu-ray sets that are out in the next few weeks. These aren’t films I can watch regularly, but perhaps in another 10 years there’ll be a chance to see them at the pictures again and I’ll be there.

Maybe I’ll feel differently towards Dr. Who and his ways by then.

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Going Mad for 3D

The Mad Magician

I’ve never been a fan of 3D. It doesn’t do anything for me, no matter how much Martin Scorsese claims Hugo is better in the format or James Cameron trumpets advances in the technology for Avatar and its sequels.

The fact that I found Avatar about as exciting as being poked in the eye with one of those vines in Cameron’s CGI rainforests probably didn’t help. If the story isn’t up to much then having to effectively wear sunglasses to dull the image isn’t going to impress me.

All that changed in March (yes, it’s taken me a while to get around to this post) when I sat down to enjoy a 3D spectacular from 1954 at my local indie cinema, Edinburgh’s Filmhouse. It was a film which had the audience laughing at the ridiculousness of the plot and the perfectly pitched performance of its leading man.

The Mad Magician stars Vincent Price as Gallico the Great, the inventor of elaborate stage tricks for magicians who decides he wants to become a performer himself. Gallico is about to debut his new buzz saw act when he’s forced to stop by Ross Ormond (Donald Randolph), who Gallico has an unfortunate agreement with regarding ownership of his tricks.

Gallico isn’t too fond of Ormond for other reasons, mainly that he stole his wife from him, so this latest slight tips him over the edge and our “hero” ends up using the saw on Ormond.

From here, Gallico is forced to cover his tracks in various gruesome ways as he attempts to forge a stage career for himself.

The plot may be pretty thin but Crane Wilbur’s witty script is brought to life by Price, who once again manages to walk the fine line between sanity and lunacy where many of his characters seem to dwell. Admittedly most of those characters end up in the latter camp, but it’s always a joy watching Price teeter on the brink.

This newly restored version of the film looked sharp in black and white, with the 3D reduced to some gimmicky moments of water being sprayed at the audience, a saw spinning towards the screen and other “terrifying” moments which caused more laughter than scares.

Still, it’s the best use of 3D I’ve seen in a long time – 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon is perhaps the only time I’ve really found the 3D actually effective – and I’d happily sit and watch classic movies like this with specs on. It also helps that it’s in black and white, meaning the dull nature of 3D is offset somewhat.

I see there’s now a restored version of Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954) returning to cinemas in 3D. I’ll be looking out for this at Filmhouse.

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Revisiting Ealing with new book and DVDs

George Nader as Paul Gregory in Nowhere to Go

George Nader as Paul Gregory in Nowhere to Go

It’s buildings may still be in use, housing productions such as Downton Abbey and the upcoming Bridget Jones’ Baby, but it’s fair to say that Ealing Studios heyday was back in the 1940s, when its output included titles such as Whisky Galore! (1949) and Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Man in the White Suit (1951).

Numerous films from the Ealing archive have found there way to DVD and Blu-ray in recent years, with rarer titles finally being awarded pride of place on collectors’ shelves, while a major celebration at London’s BFI in 2012 raised awareness of its output even more.

Ealing RevisitedOver the last few months I’ve been trying to brush up on my Ealing, starting with one piece of lasting evidence from the BFI season, Ealing Revisited. The book aims to reassess the studio, its films and its people through a number of essays curated by editor Mark Duguid.

Beginning with George Formby and Gracie Fields’ films which were made at Ealing but which could hardly be called “Ealing films”, the book takes us through the studio’s formative years as Michael Balcon took over as studio head and things started to take shape behind and in front of the cameras.

Whether you’re interested in the people behind Ealing’s promotional material, costumes, scripts or actors, Ealing Revisited wends its way through the years offering insight into the success and failures of each.

Joseph Botting’s take on Ealing’s more fantastical films and Andrew Moor’s look at “queerness” in films such as Kind Hearts and Coronets widens the discussion from the standard topics, though there’s still much to find of interest in chapters such as Catherine A Surowiec’s look at Anthony Mendelson’s costume designs.

Surowiec notes that expensive ballgowns were just as likely to feature in an Ealing film as a Cockney spiv’s wide lapelled suit or a working man’s bunnet.

Don’t expect an exhaustive encyclopaedia of Ealing as some films receive a sentence or two if they’re lucky. While the regular change in contributor between essays does mean there’s little continuity in style, the end result is still a fascinating overview of the inner working of Ealing which may lead readers to head off in search of more in-depth books on the subject, or at the very least some of the films themselves.

Two such titles recently made it to DVD from StudioCanal, namely Nowhere to Go (1958) and Dance Hall (1950), the former set in a London of low morals and high crime rates while the latter looks at the love lives of young people shortly after the war.

Nowhere to GoAdapted from Donald Mackenzie’s novel and scripted by film critic Kenneth Tynan, Nowhere to Go stars George Nader as Paul Gregory, a smarter-than-most thief who has back-up plans for back-up plans but who one day finds his luck running out.

When he’s broken out of prison by accomplice Sloane (Bernard Lee), Gregory sets about retrieving the cash he hid from the police a few years earlier, only for his world to spin out of control.

Eschewing the perceived characteristics of a typical Ealing – a cosy community, the little man against the odds – Nowhere to Go instead borrows heavily from film noir as Gregory attempts to see his plan to the bitter end.

With fine support from Lee and a young Maggie Smith as his potential love interest, Nowhere to Go may not quite be a classic British thriller but it’s a welcome return for a film which has been, like Gregory, out in the cold for too long.

Another exhumation from the vaults is Dance Hall, director Charles Crichton’s diversion from the Ealing norm which focussed on the relationships of a group of young woman whose main link is their love of the local Palais.

The cast includes Natasha Parry and Petula Clark as Eve and Georgie, two dance hall regulars with personal issues that affect their leisure time. While Eve’s husband (Donald Houston) doesn’t want his wife dancing with other men (namely Bonar Colleano’s Alec), Georgie must try to convince her parents that she can triumph in a dance competition.

Though some other stories are weaved into the story, including that of Diana Dors who shines in a smaller role, it’s not a film which encourages much emotional investment from the viewer. Dance Hall does depict the era well, a time when women were about to be given more opportunities in the workplace, meaning it’s a valuable snapshot of a Britain fast disappearing.

ealing-rarities-collection-the-volume-1More lesser-known Ealing films are about to be released into the world with the release of Network’s Ealing Rarities Collection Volume 1, a collection of four titles on two discs which are rarely discussed in overviews of the studios output.

Basil Dean’s Escape! (1930) is the tale of a toff (Gerald du Maurier) who is imprisoned in Dartmoor following the death of a policeman, only to find himself on the run across the moors when the opportunity arises. Harry Watt’s West of Zanzibar (1954) finds the white man interfering in the lives of native Africans as Bob Payton (Anthony Steel) doles out advice to anyone who’ll listen.

A young Betty Driver, many years away from The Rover’s Return, stars in 1938’s Penny Paradise from director Carol Reed, a slight tale of tugboat captain Joe Higgins (Edmund Gwenn) who believes he’s won the pools and the reaction from those around him to his news. Finally, 1936’s Cheer Up! is from director Leo Mittler and finds two hapless composers trying to drum up support for their work, with hilarious consequences.

Of the four films, Penny Paradise is perhaps the most Ealing-like, with typical working class folk muddling through and helping each other when the going gets tough. Escape! is very much of its time, a slow and stagey production which is nevertheless an important example of post-silent era filmmaking as actors and crew find their feet.

With its location filming giving it a much needed gloss, West of Zanzibar stands out on this set as the only colour production. It also stands out because it’s the film that says the most about the time it was made, with Bob Payton seemingly a saviour of the black man in their own country. The problems caused by colonialism were never likely to be overtly stated by a British film of the era, meaning there’s something rather uncomfortable about the whole thing, even if one does try to take it as simply an adventure film.

Finally, Cheer Up! takes Ealing off into another direction entirely, with song and dance routines liberally sprinkled through the film, coming across like a kind of extended Morecambe and Wise sketch at times.

These four releases have been bundled together into a low-cost package designed to appeal to the completist and Network should be applauded for their efforts. While it’s only fair that Ealing’s higher quality ventures are remembered fondly, it’s difficult to put them into their proper context without books such as Ealing Revisited or titles such as these.

Look out for future volumes in the Ealing Rarities series, with sets two and three now listed on the Network site.

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Chinatown Q&A at TCM Classic Film Festival 2012

Robert Evans, Robert Towne, and Robert Osborne discussing Chinatown on Friday at the 2012 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, California

Robert Evans, Robert Towne, and Robert Osborne discussing Chinatown on Friday at the 2012 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, California

In another post on this site I mentioned that Edinburgh’s Filmhouse cinema is about to embark on a season of Roman Polanski films, featuring around a dozen of his films including 1974’s Chinatown.

I also mentioned that I was fortunate to attend a screening of Chinatown in Hollywood in April 2012 as part of the TCM Classic Film Festival. In attendance were the film’s writer, Robert Towne, and producer, Robert Evans, who spent around fifteen minutes discussing the evolution of the film with TCM host, Robert Osborne.

Towne explained that Evans had originally requested he adapt F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for the screen, but that he didn’t want to do it. “We were having dinner at Dominick’s on Beverly Boulevard and Evans was trying to figure out why I didn’t want to do Gatsby,” noted Towne. “I told him [about Chinatown]. Bob said ‘I don’t understand a goddamned thing but I do like the title’. He got all of us in there who knew each other and cared about each other so that we could fight and have a good time.”

I captured the audio on my iPhone from a number of rows back in Grauman’s Chinese Theatre before settling back to enjoy the film. The file has been sitting gathering virtual dust on my phone since then.

As far as I know there was no ban on recording audio and no intention has been made to infringe any sort of copyright, so hopefully the lovely team at TCM won’t mind me publishing it here for Polanski/Chinatown fans to listen to….

Listen to the Q&A on Audioboo

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Roman Polanski season at Filmhouse

Last year I attended a screening of Roman Polanski’s 1974 crime classic, Chinatown, at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre, an event which found an audience of a thousand or so film lovers enraptured by Jack Nicholson’s performance and a suitably complex plot.

Set in the Los Angeles of 1937, Chinatown centres on Jake Gittes’ (Nicholson) investigation into the extra-marital affair of Evelyn Mulwray’s (Faye Dunaway) husband. The investigation soon spirals into other directions involving corruption and family issues involving Mulwray’s father, played by the towering John Huston.

At the time I decided to see more Polanski films at the cinema but the opportunity hasn’t arisen until now, with Edinburgh’s Filmhouse about to screen a number of them from this weekend.

Filmhouse begins its Polanski season tomorrow with eight of his short films before going on to show Knife in the Water (1962), Cul-de-sac (1966), Macbeth (1971), Repulsion (1965) and Dance of the Vampires (1967).

That’s only the start however, with the print programme noting that next month we’re getting Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Tenant (1976), Death and the Maiden (1994), Chinatown (1974), Tess (1979), The Pianist (2002), Oliver Twist (2005), The Ghost (2010) and Carnage (2011).

Hopefully I’ll be able to make it along to a few of these and I’d recommend watching out for Chinatown if nothing else – full details can be found on the Filmhouse website.

Watch the Chinatown trailer on YouTube

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