Sir James Bond at Casino Royale

The art of not writing stories

I’ve got to be honest. I must come clean. it’s not a crime. But…

I’m not a big fan of stories. 

I know. It’s sacrilege. It’s crazy. Everyone likes stories, right? Everyone wants to know the who and the why and the what happened next and the happily ever after.

I could rephrase it another way; a more palatable way. But it remains the case that, after fifty odd years of watching, reading and even writing I just don’t care about stories. I much prefer a meandering piece of directionless prose (and meandering directionless films) to a perfectly organised story that begins as stories are supposed to begin and ends as stories are supposed to end. Such pieces fill my heart with joy while endings carry within them the inevitability of disappointment. The looming final page or final scene is like a policeman sealing the scene off with tape. This story is over, done, leave it, go away, nothing more to see here. Go on, clear off! Get out of the cinema! Take the book back to the library! Turn the radio off! You’ve had your ending. That’s your lot… Are you still here? What do you want, a sequel? Go on… Sling your hook. Buzz off. Take a hike. Etc.

Endings seem so uncivilized.

The joy of a great book or film is that they don’t end. You can dip into them at your leisure. You don’t want to take them back to the library because you read the final page. You want to own the book so you can read chapter three again. And then chapter two. The order doesn’t matter.

And just as the joy of a book, for me, isn’t in being told a story, the joy of a film, for me, is in moments, meetings, scenes, set-pieces, funny dialogue, the sublime. It’s always disappointing to see that a character has become little more than a chess piece whose destiny has been organised by the player/writer to move the film towards its inevitable conclusion.

‘The enemy has penetrated our most secret inner circles’

Ian Fleming was the consummate novelist. Nobody could really accuse him of not writing stories. He knew how to immediately engage the reader throwing them into the middle of the action: “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.” The opening chapter of Casino Royale starts halfway through the narrative with James Bond facing his adversary Le Chiffre across the gambling table. This, his first novel, can be read virtually in one sitting. Bond doesn’t come across as a particularly likeable or smart character. He doesn’t yet know which way is up and can be fooled by the split loyalties of a woman he thinks he can trust with his life. Over the relatively brief length of the novel, however, we walk in Bond’s shoes for a while. We see the world from inside his head and when we put the book down, we may feel closer to him.

It was once said of Ian Fleming that he did not know how to write a boring sentence. This is why he is always worth reading. This is why his travel book Thrilling Cities is just as exciting as any of his fiction. He just writes of the world, intoxicated with the flavours of life. While reading Fleming, you are breathing the same air, smelling the same smells, tasting the food, feeling the pain and the pleasure. But, while Fleming always made sure that he had villains who would be taken care of by the end of each book (I hope that’s not a spoiler for anyone), James Bond never changes. Bond is, in that sense, the ultimate picaresque character, a roguish sensualist who gets by through ingenuity in the heat of the moment. It is hard to read Ian Fleming without feeling immediately in the heart of life. 

It might be a mistake to reference Fleming’s book and character when talking about the 1967 film, Casino Royale because although part of the film is based upon events in Fleming’s book, they don’t happen to James Bond. Stylistically the film deviates in every imaginable way from the character created on the page. And yet… There is, in Casino Royale something of a flavour of the world, a sensuality of a different type.

Everything Or Nothing

When EON Productions, the company started by Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, developed their successful series of films based on the James Bond books, Casino Royale was the one book they couldn’t get the rights to. Those rights belonged already to someone else. Harry Saltzman had acquired everything else but Casino Royale, which had already been adapted for television (with the British James Bond being an American called Jimmy Bond) and by the time EON started their roster of films, it belonged to the producer and agent Charles K. Feldman (one of Cubby Broccoli’s closest friends).

In addition to setting Bond across that table from Le Chiffre, the book Casino Royale also establishes his cynicism after an unfortunate encounter with the book’s heroine, Vesper Lynd, and an even more unfortunate encounter with a carpet beater. The film series, lacking the rights to this novel, however, started with Bond as a well-established agent in an adaptation of the sixth Bond novel, Dr No. This film not only introduced the world to the working-class-and-hiding-it-well performance of Sean Connery moving like a panther across the frame but also to Ursula Andress emerging from the sea like Venus on a Half Shell with a white bikini and dagger. The film was an instant hit.

Dr No had exoticism and colour of the West Indies setting in a plot whose violence was gripping enough for the most jaded viewers. For British audiences in 1962, that colour must have felt like the final nail in the coffin of the austerity of the post-war years. Rationing had only ended in 1954, a year after Casino Royale had first appeared in bookshops. Holidays to the West Indies or anywhere with beaches and a bit of sun would have been an impossibility for the average denizen of these rainy isles. Seeing the azure sky gleaming over aquamarine seas, the island life pulsing with a calypso beat, sophisticated gambling clubs, beautiful women with treacherous natures and Sean Connery’s permanent-looking tan (impressive for someone coming from Edinburgh), must have been intoxicating. Within a few years, the Bond films along with The Beatles and a number of other pop culture marvels would make Britain seem colourful for a little while, but at the beginning, it seemed almost impossible that Dr No was a film that came from here. Britain wasn’t supposed to be colorful or sexy or exciting so it was odd to think of James Bond being a fundamentally British character.

All the EON Bond films had plots. But the plot barely ever mattered. Nobody ever came out of a James Bond film saying what a great story it had. The key to Bond was in the intensity and exoticism of its moments. A ruthless seduction here and there. A man killed in a cold-blooded way. A stunt that risked life and limb for some poor chap. And then there were the cars which growled along winding roads with hairpin turns on mountainside roads taken way too fast. Life, for James Bond seemed like life would be for us all if only we lived it perfectly and with absolute courage and confidence. That he occasionally got hit or tortured or that so many of his girlfriends got killed was neither here nor there. Bond was living the life.

This was the key to EON’s success in the 60s. Moments that you wanted to see again and again. Moments that sold a movie and moments that you came back to see again just because you enjoyed living them so much. Once a story is done, if the story is all that there is, you have no need to go back to that book or that film. James Bond films were the kind of films that got seen over and over. And it had nothing whatsoever to do with telling great stories. That they’re still being shown today and selling blu-rays 50 years letter is testament to this.

What’s New

But Charles K. Feldman couldn’t just replicate what EON were doing. The story of how the movie came to the screen is extremely well chronicled in Michael Richardson’s The Making of Casino Royale and I won’t go over the ground covered in that book (although I might resort to the odd reference here and there). Suffice to say that the difficulty of having such a hot property lay in just how hot a property it was and what was and was not possible to do. Money was spent with what might seem a kind of reckless abandon. Indecision hovering over what the film was intended to be causing even more money to be spent. Treatment followed treatment. Screenplay followed screenplay. There’s almost a decade between the first treatment and the final version of the film arriving on the screen (just a a couple of months ahead of the fifth EON film You Only Live Twice). Feldman decided, in the end, to make his Bond film a kind of anti-Bond Bond film. Producer, Harry Saltzman had also produced an anti-Bond film in the adaptation of Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File. But where the Harry Palmer films were anti-Bond by eschewing the fast cars, glamorous locations and high life of Fleming’s hero, Feldman’s film would be a James Bond film based on the first James Bond book and it would be a big lavish film in every way except, maybe, having James Bond in it.  

Feldman had been one of the biggest talent agents in the world; a beloved figure in the industry who could get hold of just about any of the world’s biggest stars at a moment’s notice. By the mid-sixties he was flying high as a producer due to the massive successes of the 1965 film What’s New Pussycat? Starring Peter O’Toole, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen. This was a comedy about a man who had so many girlfriends that, however much he might try, he just couldn’t remain faithful to one woman (shades of Bond already). The story of that film begins absurdly enough, escalating from semi-sophisticated farce into a riotous romp with a lot of bed-hopping and ending with its characters chasing around France in go-karts. Sellers’ role in the film was as a psychiatrist who has to listen to the confessions of O’Toole suffering from the fact that women seem to find him handsome when the light hits him in a certain way. Sellers’ psychiatrist had the opposite problem being completely in love with a woman (not his wife) who had no interest in him at all. The rising levels of insanity to the point of absurdity in Pussycat would be mirrored in Casino Royale. Feldman saw Sellers as someone who would make a great anti-Bond. Sellers had other ideas. The confusion of the first and second and third and fourth drafts led Feldman to decide, at some point, that the best way to make Casino Royale a success would be by making it a film of many parts with many stories. He was going to sew all the pieces together somehow. There were other films which had been made with a group of directors coming together on the same project (especially in Europe with films like RoGoPaG and The Oldest Profession)… What could possibly go wrong? He had different directors working on different scenes with different actors at the same time. He had half the cast playing versions of James Bond and maybe, just maybe, he lost control of the film a little bit. Maybe it wasn’t what it was initially intended to be. But the result, critically derided at the time, is not only a watchable movie. It’s one of the most glorious and dreamlike experiences in cinematic history.

For many people, not just critics but also hardcore Bond fans who expect their Bond to be a plausibly tough hero, Feldman’s film is an aberration. And it is the pinnacle of cinematic excess. Intended as a comedy, only some of the comic scenes are funny, but it’s so beautiful. An almost textbook example of why sometimes it’s good not to have the faintest idea what’s going on. Directed by John Huston, Val Guest, Ken Hughes, Joe McGrath, Robert Parrish and Uncle Tom Cobbly and all, Casino Royale is often spoken of as one of those bloated studio films that lost millions and opened the way for the wonderful downbeat and realistic films of the 70s. In fact, Casino Royale was a huge box office hit that did a lot to revive the fortunes of Columbia studios. Critically lambasted as a misfire and an over-indulgence, was one of the biggest hits of its time and remains the 19th most successful of the 26 James Bond films having made more money, when adjusted for inflation than Dr No, Never Say Never Again, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, A View to a Kill, The Living Daylights, The Man with the Golden Gun or Licence to Kill. It is almost certainly the most financially successful surrealist movie ever made. 

‘These are my credentials’

The pre-credits sequence of the film is already odd. Taken from quite a late point in the film with Peter Sellers’ character Evelyn Tremble already standing in for Bond. The camera pans across the exterior of a pissoir. There is a chalk-like graffiti image of a naked woman with torpedo breasts pointing at “Les Beatles”. The Bowler hatted face of Mathis (played by the comic Scottish actor Duncan Macrae) bobs sideways from behind the worn iron and he says, “Bond?”. Peter Sellers sharing the pissoir and looking insouciant in his crisp grey suit and black tie says, “Yes?”

“I’m Lieutenant Mathis of the Special Police,” says Mathis walking around the central pillar. 

Behind Sellers is a poster advertising “Le Monde Sans Soleil”, a Jacques Cousteau film which won the Oscar for best documentary in 1964. There is also a poster for the Perrier based soft drink, Pschit, the name of which (intended as onomatopoeia for the sound made by the opening of the bottle) used to make me laugh hysterically when I was a child. On the outside of the pissoir, more graffiti, including the classic “Kilroy woz ere”.

“These are my credentials,” Says Mathis showing something hidden by the outer wall of the pissoir. 

Sellers looks down in the direction of Mathis’s crotch giving the impression of a cottage pick up and says, “They appear to be in order.”

“Come with me!” Says Mathis. 

And then with a blast of horns Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass plays Burt Bacharach’s theme. According to Richardson’s book, it probably wasn’t really the Tijuana Brass but, whoever it was, the sound is sublime in its joyfulness.

Sellers’ character shall not return for another 40 minutes or so. That he is heralded in the opening titles as the star of the film we don’t see a lot of him. There are many reasons for this, some of it can be laid at the feet of the well-publicised difficulty of Sellers who may have inflated the budget of the film by almost 10% by phoning in sick and taking days off here and there. But much of the episodic flavour was due to Feldman’s choices. This is a film whose tone shifts every few minutes creating the impression of watched dozens of films instead of just one.

Richard Williams’ animated titles give us a much more accurate sense of the patchwork film that follows. Williams was one of the giants of animation at the time. He had produced the animation for the beginning of What’s New Pussycat and he would go on to work on the titles for Return of the Pink Panther and the animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Thief and the Cobbler. Here, however, the look is reminiscent of the kind of animation which would soon be seen in the film Yellow Submarine. Each illuminated capital letter decorated with baroque golden figures with large breasts and guns and arrows and wings. There is even an early spoiler in having Woody Allen’s giant W decorated with sinister faces. There is something wonderful in the number of films made in the 60s that had animated titles. Before the film starts we are already enjoying it. And Bacharach’s jaunty comic opening theme played by Alpert sets the film up for the tone of all that follows. It could be said that Bacharach’s score gives the film greater continuity than the script.

‘Vocationally devoted, sublimely disinterested’

After the titles, there is another thrilling piece of music which combines the underscore of threat with the lightness of Bacharach’s tone. M and the heads of the various secret services from around the world are shown in sleek black chauffeur driven cars arriving in a sheep-filled field. The light gleaming as John Le Mesurier waits for them. The vista is spectacular and the actors have that touch of Hollywood royalty. John Huston, director of much of this opening sequence of the film, plays M (although the role was initially offered to Robert Morley) and William Holden as a CIA executive and Charles Boyer representing Le Duexieme Bureau. They join together in a single vehicle and drive through the lions of Longleat to get to the mansion belonging to Sir James Bond. M talks of how a good spy is a pure spy, the man they are going to see plays Debussy every day until it is too dark to read the music. “He stands on his head a lot and eats royal jelly. Lets his intestines down and washes them by hand, something he learned in his sojourn in Tibet.” This is a man who is closer, in many respects, to Derek Flint (played as a master of esoteric self control by James Coburn in the films Our Man Flint and In Like Flint)

Sir James Bond, dressed in an olive smoking jacket with a silk turban, does his exercises while his ancient retainer walks by with a rattling tray. The four heads of the secret service point out the threat that the world is now facing but Bond, again like Flint, wants no more to do with espionage. He has turned his back on the vulgarity of the modern world having no interest in erotic liaisons or the gadgets which now characterise the game. He has particular contempt for the sexual indulgence of the man who has taken his name. The real Bond loves his life and has been training a rose with exquisitely black petals in his garden. As he shows the joined chiefs this rose, he has undergone a costume change, now wearing a cream suit with cravat and trilby. Boyer reveals that the reason he has set aside the world of espionage is due to the love of his life, Mata Hari for whose James himself was responsible. After playing Debussy, now dressed in a black velvet frock coat Bond declines even a personal request from Her Majesty the Queen. So, on M’s signal, Bond’s mansion is destroyed. The comfortable life that Bond has made for himself must be destroyed if Bond is going to be lured back into service. 

Sir James Bond, as played by Niven, is a man of high culture. He doesn’t just offer his guests tea. He offers them tea in golden cups even while he knows full well he is going to turn them away. But they can use no other means to persuade him than to destroy the world he has made for himself. It is not clear whether they intend to fool him into thinking that this destruction is the work of Smersh or if they feel that destroying his mansion is enough. It is also not clear that M is killed in the blast even though the next section of the story assumes that he has been. The disappearance of a character with the claim that he has been killed in a bomb attack when we have seen him survive the same bomb attack is typical of the cryptic nature of Casino Royale. This kind of thing will happen throughout the film.

Without any linking sequence, other than Dr Noah (voiced by Man-in-Black Valentine Dyall in his sonorous tones) telling us that Bond is back with his morals, his vows and his celibate image. An image that must be destroyed for reasons that are not altogether clear. Bond is under observation by spies, most of whom seem to be very beautiful women. Wherever he goes there will be someone communicating his progress and direction into a radio transmitter. Under such observation Bond drives his green Bentley, the very same make and model that Bond is said to have driven in the first books, through an idyllic village beside a lake and then to a castle where men in red hair, red beards and bagpipes guard all. This is Scotland… Actually, it’s Ireland but Ireland is standing in for Scotland.

Lady Fiona McTarry (who is in reality a Smersh spy called Agent Mimi played by Deborah Kerr) is mourning her husband’s death. Agent Mimi has been picked to impersonate Lady Fiona for no other reason than that she has the best Scottish accent. And during this sequence Scottish-isms abound. So much so that you may find yourself fancying a tappit-hen of usquebaugh. 

When Bond presents the fake Lady Fiona with M’s red wig he is uncertain whether it should be regarded as an anatomical feature or an article of apparel. Lady Fiona replies that it can only be regarded as a “hairloom”. There’s nothing like a pun. A struggling goat, tied to a stick and being carried by some young women passes by the doorway. Lady Fiona tells Bond that when a McTarry dies a black he-goat must be taken alive off Ben Tarry by six barefoot virgins. Then Lady Fiona must slaughter it herself. The daughters, of whom there are many, must wrest the stomach out and stuff it with entrails. The resulting feast must be taken with whisky that adds fire to the blood for dancing. Bond takes all this at face value. After all, the vision of this castle with its red and blonde-haired virgin daughters of M has a nice folk horror feel to it. That Bond trying to maintain his sexual purity while beautiful young girls flirt with him from half-open doorways while others take his trousers off causing him some indelicate moments foreshadows Edward Woodward desperate to maintain his own purity in The Wicker Man before being part of a wicker man. It’s a significant contrast to the sequence where George Lazenby, as Bond, immediately blows his cover by seducing all the young girls in a specialist clinic that he can in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The contrast with that later Bond film is made all the more acute when the girl that Bond finds himself being bathed by is Angela Scoular, who would later play one of the main girls seduced by Lazenby.

Bond maintains his purity despite all the obvious temptation. The entire castle is decorated with erotic art of one kind or another. Deborah Kerr, the grieving widow, breaks character in an effort to seduce Bond who seemed to be having a very comfortable time sitting in bed with a nightshirt. Having failed to tempt him, Smersh opts for the second best thing, to kill him. This is prefigured by the idea of dishonouring Bond in the book of From Russia With Love. It’s not enough just to kill an agent. He must be made to seem an absolute cad as well.

The scenes of Niven’s Bond (Niven being in his late-fifties at the time of filming) avoiding the various attempts at seduction may not be laugh out loud funny but it’s an interesting reversal of the Bond character. It’s maintained to an extent but when, after a couple of attempted assassinations, Bond returns to M’s office in London (tasked with taking over from M) he immediately launches into a clinch with the woman he believes to be Miss Moneypenny but who is actually Moneypenny’s daughter. Barbara Bouchet, the actress who would become one of the key faces of the Italian Gialli as the 70s progressed, plays Moneypenny as a wide-eyed fun-loving character who isn’t just relegated to a few flirtatious exchanges with Bond as Lois Maxwell’s character had been in the EON films. She gets to play a role in the action of the film. At this stage, however, she is busy changing the union jack flags on a map of the world to black pins. Derek Nimmo’s Hadley informs Bond that the agents have either disappeared or been killed. One has been ‘burnt in a blazing bordello’, another ‘garotted in a geisha house’. Worst of all, his namesake, the Bond of the ‘other’ movies, has had to be taken off the board as he is now doing television. One of the main reasons for this high body count is that Smersh has been using mainly female agents who the mostly male agents of MI5 have proved particularly susceptible to. The answer to this is to start using more female agents and male agents trained to resist them (while themselves being irresistible to women).

Moneypenny Is tasked with the testing of candidates for the kind of man all women want as all the other wantable agents of MI5 have disappeared. Cue Moneypenny in a transparent lilac nightdress kissing a line-up of male candidates to see which one sets her senses tingling. It’s a wonderful game to her and yet she is never portrayed in a negative light for enjoying this task. In it’s own unique way Casino Royale is very positive in the way it depicts the women in central roles. Not that it makes a point of this. It’s just keying into the emerging spirit of the time. The one candidate who makes the world tingle and the lighting scheme to turn scarlet for Moneypenny is Terence Cooper, whose character is named, rather unimaginatively, Cooper. Cooper was an actor who had been on contract with Feldman to play the role of Bond when there was still a chance that Casino Royale might have been a straight James Bond film. He’s solid enough but isn’t really given enough screen time for us to see if he would have been a good choice. It is to Cooper that Sir James Bond reveals that from now on, all agents will be known by the name of James Bond. 

“Won’t that be rather confusing, Sir?” 

“Exactly. The enemy won’t know which way to turn.”

And neither will the audience. And maybe this was the point. Casino Royale is all about confusion. The production was confusing. Multiple directors shooting multiple scenes in multiple styles. Few of the crew were allowed to see a version of the screenplay in its entirety. The problem being that Feldman admitted that he often lost track of what scenes were supposed to go where. It is from this point in the film that these different storylines emerge and splinter off. After a short encounter with some girls and Daliah Lavi who looks like she is going to become a major character in the film and then doesn’t, Coop’s Bond disappears from the film for a while. The effect of this on some viewers, myself included, simply makes the world and the plot of Casino Royale feel richly populated with incident. The fact that around this time, in a small cutaway scene, we are also introduced to James Bond’s nephew, Jimmy Bond (played by Woody Allen who wrote most of his own dialogue), as he cunningly escapes from a central American firing squad only to find himself, almost immediately, in front of another firing squad. Woody Allen is billed as one of the major stars of the film and, at this point, was emerging as one of the most famous comics in the world, but like Cooper, he then disappears from the film for a good hour or so.

The Look of Love

The next sequence introduces Ursula Andress as Vesper Lynd in an office with reel to reel computers and operatives looking very industrious as she wanders among them. She is dressed, in a quite astounding jewelled pink outfit with an ostrich feathered turban as she rules over her multi-million dollar business. In the novel Vesper Lynd was a woman used by Smersh. Here she is nobody’s fool but a businesswoman who buys Nelson’s column for her personal collection of objet d’art. She is only persuaded by the loveable Sir James to undertake a mission for MI5 after he promises to help with her $5 million in tax arrears. As if having Bond preferring Lapsang Souchong to Martini’s weren’t enough, now he’s working in cahoots with Inland Revenue. 

The camera always loves Andress. She has an indefinable glamour about her. Her almond eyes always catching a glint of light, always looking like she’s about to smile or laugh but never quite doing it. Some of her appeal here has to be laid at the lighting. Cinematographer Jack Hildyard is one of those sure hands who knew how to exploit an actor’s looks by perfectly highlighting them, but Andress, even without this help, knew how to illuminate the screen. As the first woman to have their career given a stratospheric boost by being a ‘Bond girl’ she is a natural here. Few can forget her in Dr No stepping out of the sea in a white bikini to collect rare and valuable shells on Crab Key Island pulling a knife on Bond as he sings to her; which he really has coming. Having played the ageless Ayesha (She who must be obeyed) in Hammer’s 1965 adaptation of Rider Haggard’s She and in that same year appearing in Feldman’s own What’s New Pussycat as “a personal friend of James Bond” she will forever be linked to that period of European glamour that had that little touch of sophistication no matter what she was playing. She had been dubbed in many of her other films (including Dr No) to cover her Swiss accent but in Casino Royale she gets to deliver her own lines and the effect is notable. Sir James using the aforementioned IR blackmail enlists her help to seduce Evelyn Tremble, the writer of a book on how to win at Baccarat, into becoming another James Bond and playing to win against Smersh operative Le Chiffre at Casino Royale. 

The scenes that follow introduce Peter Sellers, the famously difficult star of the movie who had been paid a million dollars for his role, as Tremble. We see him playing the fruit machines in a small gambling club in a dinner jacket and bow tie. Only his glasses set him apart from being a Bond-like figure. Andress approaches him, her dress and diamond earrings sparkling under the lights, her white-gloved fingers caressing the ball tip of the arm on one of the other fruit machines close to him. Quite close to him she says, “Mr Evelyn Tremble?”

Sellers turns and faces her, their faces are inches apart. Softly he says, “Yes, that’s right.” This is not the Sellers of Clousseau or Strangelove. Suave and understanded he is alive in this place and this part.

Lynd tells us that she has studied his book very closely, at night, in her bed. The words trip from her lips, her tongue tripping and caressing each syllable. She would like him to explain some of the passes in his book on baccarat but she doesn’t have it with her. They would have to study it together. It is in her bed. As she says this she pulls the arm of the fruit machine and, as they look in each other’s eyes as if in the middle of some unstoppable intimacy, we hear the tinkling of coins like a climax between them. She doesn’t gather her winnings, she has money enough. She simply walks away and tells him she’ll send her car for him. Sellers’ eyes follow her as if he cannot believe his luck.  

The scene might be easy to overlook lasting just a few seconds but it’s a minor masterpiece of eroticism. A few lightly spoken words, just spoken more closely and intimately than they would ever be in reality. The moment is perfect. It’s a dream of what could never happen. Of course, being that this is a spy thriller, it isn’t all that it seems.

The following scene has Lynd disposing of the body of one of her previous victims. In an earlier version of the film, this had been Agent 006 and it would have shown that while working for Bond and MI5 in recruiting Tremble, Lynd was already an independent agent working just as much for the enemy. Tremble appears on the intercom and she tells him to wait a minute, pressing a button that ejects the body from her room into her deep freeze. She will have it emptied the following morning.

As Tremble enters, she welcomes him into her opulent apartment. Dusty Springfield’s sweet voice sings “The Look of Love” as the camera views the couple in slow motion through a fish tank, multicoloured fish swimming between us and the stars moving languidly as if they too were underwater. The long white feathers on Lynd’s sleeves flow upwards in the air like the fins of an angelfish as she beckons Tremble to follow her more closely. He stares at the fish as if trying to slow his desire.

The camera pans around the artworks of the room eventually resting on the recently acquired statue of Lord Nelson through her window. Lynd signals to Sellers with a silk handkerchief from a sunken lounge. Even though his character has just been introduced, it is hard not to feel for Sellers in the domain of this temptress who we have just seen disposing of the body of another agent. This is, after all, Peter Sellers and even if this Peter Sellers is playing it straight and has acquired a veneer of self-confidence and sophistication, it is still Peter Sellers. We don’t want to see him eaten for breakfast by piranhas but she is in complete control of him. She tells him, quoting Nelson, that England expects every man to do his duty and his duty is to be with her right now. Tremble is never really a particularly interesting character. In this seduction scene, he looks like a man trying to pretend that he does this kind of thing all the time whereas this is a one-off. The thing is that, while we might complain that Sellers isn’t too interesting unless he is playing a funny or interesting character but his being so out of his depth that he could never really keep up with it is the point of these scenes.

Sellers had lost a great deal of weight to play the role of Bond. After a while, however, he decided that he would not be comfortable playing James Bond per se and might be better suited to the part of a man forced to impersonate Bond. Sellers is one of the greatest actors who ever lived, although at this point in his life and career he was not the most professional. As a chameleon who could become almost anyone by getting under their skin, he was almost insanely gifted. He could find the funny in anything (and there are countless out-takes of him being unable to complete scenes because he found them too funny and collapsed into giggles) and there is some wit in his portrayal of Tremble. It’s just several layers too deep at times. It is tempting to see the role of Tremble as one quite close to Sellers in reality but despite speaking more in Sellers’ natural voice he is just as much an impersonation as Clousseau, Fred Kite or Dr Strangelove. The discomfort that emerges in some of these scenes with Andress and those later on in the film with Jacqueline Bisset emerges from the very fact that Tremble is a gambling nerd who is trying to convincingly play the kind of man who can take these kinds of amorous encounters in his stride.

As Tremble joins Lynd, the sunken lounge sinks even further into a basement area. The image fades into Lynd in a pink chiffon nightgown twirling and jumping up and down in slow motion as pink feathers float through the air. This is intercut with Tremble in striped underwear doing awkward-looking press-ups in a kind of parody of the sex that has already taken place. She invites him to try on several different costumes, something that will help her see what kind of man he is. She’s already had her way with him and made him putty in her hands. Now she will see how he looks in the characters of Toulouse Lautrec, Napoleon and Hitler. Having seen him in these different facets convinces her that he is the man who can beat Le Chiffre… Although, given what we know about her, she probably doesn’t want him to beat Le Chiffre… Or Maybe she does. The true intentions of Lynd will always remain a mystery to us.

There follows a scene with Q which is only a little broader in its comedy than similar scenes in the EON films. Q, here, is played by Geoffrey Bayldon, best known to people of my generation for playing Catweazle (a medieval wizard who found himself escaping from persecutors into the 1970s). The sequence has a karate expert accidentally knocking himself out when saluting an officer and a man with an exploding bowler hat who, when his hat explodes, hears birds sing. In the background, while Q is briefing Tremble about a video watch, a man is being brutally interrogated up by two officers using a baton. At the tea break, they all take tea together because it doesn’t matter what side of the beating you are on when it’s time for tea. In Britain, tea breaks are sacred; something often complained about by American directors working with British crews.

The film then takes a break from Tremble and Lynd to enter another storyline. Sir James Bond decides that someone really reliable is needed to infiltrate an organisation training female spies (used by Smersh) so he takes off into the deepest jungles of Borneo or Thailand to re-establish contact with his daughter, Mata Bond (the love child of himself and Mata Hari) who, for reasons that remain a little vague, he hasn’t seen since she was a baby. She will be vital in infiltrating a spy school in Berlin.

We are then treated to a musical number in what looks like a mock Buddhist temple complete with temple dancers. The scene feels transported from an MGM musical with bold colours and the screen filled with dancing.

Huge bronze doors open onto other huge bronze doors and then other huge bronze doors with a huge bronze guard. A giant Buddha sits against a glowing red wall at the end of a vast ornate hall with a reflective floor. Sir James sits, white-suited and resplendent on a golden stool and watches as a huge production number unfolds in front of him. Temple dancers in matching Thai-style golden costumes emerge as Bacharach’s sumptuous music seduces the audience. Vast sheets of silk float into the air, held at each corner by the dancers, as confetti fills the air. The dancers disappear behind the sheet of silk leaving one solitary figure silhouetted against the Buddha, a gold head-dress shaped like flames on her head. She moves, jingling, toward the camera and we catch sight of her face. Mata Bond, as played by Joanna Pettet, golden blonde, demure spinning around and joined by the other dancers. The heart breaking key changes in Bacharach’s music combined with the colour and dancing is a striking way of introducing a character in a spy film.

All Bond films have an element of tableaux about them. You aren’t so much watching a movie as watching a circus with stunts and set-pieces, familiar moments, beautiful women, handsome men, stunning locations etc.. Casino Royale, abandoning even the normal semblance of adherence to structure, dials its set pieces to a different level. It’s odd, also, to keep talking about sets and costumes but this is a film where Julie Harris and Anna Duse, who designed the costumes, often take centre stage.  Michael Stringer’s production design is also one of the film’s biggest bonuses. While this is one of the most extravagantly costly films in the history of cinema, it looks the part. While there is some location work, so much of the film was shot on standing sets and every one of them is impressive in different ways. the temple sets feel very old Hollywood.

After the fantasy dance sequence, Mata Bond gets to meet her dad and her dialogue is down-to-earth giving the film its major of-the-time feel youthful angle. As the Celestial Virgin of the Sacred Altar, she gets to tell her more obsequious underlings to “hop it” before offering Bond a cup of tea made from poppy seeds. “Two cups of this and you’re stoned out of your mind.” That her accent shifts between finishing school perfection and London (but not cockney) colloquialisms gives the film that unmistakeable sense of Carnaby Street Swinging London. Pettet, like many of the other actresses in the film, owns her scenes. She is never playing second fiddle or arm candy. She breathes an optimistic air.

The Berlin sequence, which she is like a spin-off movie within the movie, is the one that is most uniquely surprising to find in the middle of a James Bond film. Even more unique and surprising than the musical production number preceding it. 

When she asks Derek Nimmo’s Hadley how she is going to get to Berlin he stops a taxi driven by Bernard Cribbins (who’d only just been one of the leads in another spy spoof, Carry On Spying). When asked to take her to Berlin he simply asks, “East or West?” as if there could be no other possible problem. In two shakes of a lambs tail, the taxi pulls up in a Berlin full of sin and music and laughter. Naturally the wall is to one side, a massive studio set used for mere moments of screen time. West of the wall we can see Der Blauer Angel and numerous other striptease bars and brasseries. There is the constant sound of laughter. Women dance on tables. Prostitutes line the streets being chatted up by GIs. At the end of the street, ahead of us, is the allied checkpoint. A red jeep drives through the checkpoint and emerges into a red world. The buildings are red, the street lights are red, only a couple of guards in green prevent the whole thing looking like an optical effect. Nobody is out on the street on the red side. The West may be full of decadence and frivolity and exploitation but the East is austere and miserable. That’s about as far as the film comes to a political statement. It sees both sides of the ideology as equally corrupt but nobody is trying to get over the Berlin Wall in that direction.

Mata’s taxi fare from London to Berlin is “Four hundred and eighty-two pounds, Fifteen and Ninepence” £482 15s and 9d (ah… How I miss old money). She tells him she can’t pay him right now as she doesn’t have any change. We will discover, later on, that this cabby is no ordinary cabby. He is Carleton Towers of the FO. Lucky thing that this is just a cover. Few cabbies would take someone skipping out on such a massive fare with such a half hearted complaint.

Mata, in a headscarf and trenchcoat, slips on a pair of sunglasses, eyeing a couple of prostitutes in a half interested manner before taking a step into the school for spies.

One inside we are in a vastly different kind of set. The door is at a peculiar angle to the floor. Paintbrush marks drag along the wall. A sinister accordion tune plays as we see the twisted horror film interior of the school. All blacks and whites and greys with similarly monochrome paintings on the walls. The angles intersect each other in an impossible geometry for a building. The windows lean one way. The staircase leans another. The paintings are not set in rectangular frames but trapezoids. The set is straight from the kind of expressionist world of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. The pink of Mata’s headscarf makes her stand out like a creature from another world. We see her framed through the bars of the balustrade investigating the paintings: A two necked woman, a man with a gas mask for a face, a man with a suit whose beard and glasses are read items stuck on to the canvas. 

Opening another door, she is confronted with a painting of her mother, Mata Hari, in a revealing pink outfit fringed with gold with a gold headdress. The room is completely black other than the small spotlight picking out the portrait. Mata seems hypnotised by the picture and following the eye line of Hari’s vision sees Frau Hoffner (played by Anna Quayle) and Polo (played by Ronnie Corbett) picked out from their black background in blue and red lights. “Who are you? What do you want?” barks Hoffner in a piercing accent. The background lightens as Mata tells them that she is the daughter of Mata Hari and that she is there to enrol as a student. The blue-tinted Hoffner is suddenly thrown into an extreme close-up with Polo tiny in the background as her eyes widen and she calls Mata a “liar” dragging the word out deliciously. To prove that she is not a liar Mata removes her trench-coat and scarf to show herself looking exactly as Mata Hari does in her portrait. Polo starts whimpering and laughing in a manner more creepy than funny “My little Mata Hari… I told you she’d come back.”

“Silence!” says Hoffner “Or I will switch you off.”

Polo is only alive due to being attached to a stuttering battery. 

Hoffner caresses a scar on her face and says, “you’re even more fascinating than your mother.”

They give her a tour of the house as they are passed by numerous girls with identically styled black hair and identical black skin-tight uniforms (like the female spies of Dr Crow in Carry On Spying). 

“The Mara Hari School of Dancing is the only international school of espionage in the world. There is no political prejudice here. We train Russian spies for America und American spies for Russia. Some of the greatest spies in the world have graduated from this institution. Von Grudendorf, Malenvosky.”

Polo adds, “Peter Lorre, Bela Lugosi.”

She shows Mata the decoding and cypher class. The door opens and the room is entirely red with identically styled blonde-haired spies in red, waving semaphore bats, typing, talking on the telephone, crossing and uncrossing their legs in fast motion. 

The light spills out illuminating Mata, Polo and Hoffner in red as if they had strayed into a Dario Argento film. 

Polo takes her aside and says, “We are even training animals as espionage agents. At this moment, we have in the Kremlin a Russian speaking parrot in constant radio communication with the pentagon.”

After some trouble on the uneven stairway due to a battery that needs recharging, Polo shows Mata to her room, a baroque looking bedroom, which has a four-poster patchwork bed as its centrepiece. Murky pictures from World War One on the walls, candelabras draped with cobwebs. Mata picks up a sky-blue feather boa and walks coquettishly towards Polo whose weakness for her she senses. She asks him about the conference that Hoffner has headed off to.

His face half-buried in the feathers, Polo tells her that a representative of Le Chiffre is coming. 

“Who is Le Chiffre?” asks Mata. 

“Nobody knows,” replies Polo. “Not even Le Chiffre knows.”

“What’s the conference about then?”

“Le Chiffre is trying to raise money by selling his unique art collection.” 

Here we get a little backstory that ties into Fleming’s book. Le Chiffre is a compulsive gambler who has been using organisation funds for his gambling. If he doesn’t pay off his debts, he will be liquidated. 

Once alone, Mata wipes the cobwebs from her hands and throws the tissue she has used down the toilet in the en-suite bathroom. Pulling the chain causes the wall to spin around thrusting and she finds herself in another monochromatic Caligari corridor which leads to the auction room where Vladek Sheybal, of just about every spy film ever made in the UK, plays the auctioneer selling compromising photographs of generals from various countries caught with their pants down and bras over their heads. It’s quite pleasant to see that in the brothels, Americans and Russians have nothing dividing them. Maybe the worst that Le Chiffre would actually have done is to embarrass all heads of government equally.

The German sequence is a masterpiece of design with Anna Quayle and Ronnie Corbett playing their eccentric characters to the max. Directed by Ken Hughes, the world created is somewhere between the gothic fun of Charles Addams and the German Expressionists such as Robert Wiene, Fritz Lang and Murnau. The quick fire comic dialogue is beautifully judged. This is really about the modern Mata in conflict with the image of her mother in that strange cobwebbed and dusty world of the past. Mata Bond is often dwarfed by these huge and beautiful sets but her mockery of everything she sees establishes her as belonging to a better world. The optimism and freshness of the 1960s seem to thrive in Pettet who can play the seductress when she needs to but would sooner fight off her enemies with a fire extinguisher. Nevertheless, there are moments of strange nightmarish distortion. The tipping of the sets to one side or the other making the characters struggle to stand up. This sequence in the film seems a stroll through the subconscious; symbols and myths from an earlier age like the image of Mata Hari play more of a role here than do the symbols of Ian Fleming’s decidedly post-war hero.

As Feldman only owned the rights to Casino Royale, he couldn’t use SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion) even though that had played such a major role in the EON series. Instead, he returns Smersh to the centre of his story but this Smersh has little in common with the one referenced by Fleming. Smersh in Fleming is the real life Soviet anti-spy network with Le Chiffre as a fundraiser keeping brothels all over Europe. The script of Casino Royale plays with the cold war as a dream demon lurking in the background but Le Chiffre isn’t a part of it (that he’s working for an organisation that will render all men under a certain height and all women beautiful doesn’t make much sense given that Orson Welles, who plays Le Chiffre was not a small man). The idea of various generals arriving at an auction in West Germany to bid on candid snaps of the embarrassing peccadilloes of their superiors rather than doing the business that generals are supposed to be occupied with maintains the idea that East or West, all are equally self-serving and corrupt.

Miss Goodthighs

Meanwhile in another part of the movie, Bond, sorry, Evelyn Tremble playing the part of Bond enters France, knocks out a passport official, meets Mathis and goes through a carwash where women dressed in black PVC drape themselves for no discernible reason across his car. Back in his hotel, Tremble is greeted by a young Jacqueline Bisset dressed in nothing but a rainbow striped shirt and holding a bottle of champagne.

“I’m Miss Goodthighs,” she says.

He needs her to hold out the bottle of Champagne and put his glasses on to be able to shoot the cork out from the bottle.

“The management of the Hotel Tropicale present their compliments. I hope you will enjoy your stay with us.” She pours him a glass of champagne and places the bottle next to the open suitcase with a hundred thousand pounds inside before lying on the bed in front of him and talks flatteringly about his sexy trousers. As the two embrace, in that manner of instant gratification that is a hallmark of Bond films, she drops a fizzing pill into his champagne (which is next to a book called “How to Speak Japanese”, a reference to EON’s upcoming You Only Live Twice perhaps). Bond/Tremble drops another pill, the antidote, into the glass. All will be well. But it is not all well. He goes to the bathroom telling Goodthighs that if he is not back in five minutes she should start without him. As soon as he closes the door we hear a great thud of him hitting the floor.

After a short journey into Tremble’s psyche in which we see playing cards flying through the air and him playing Vesper Lynd’s corseted body like a piano, we see him waking up with Lynd there. As she pushes him into the shower, he asks what happened to Miss Goodthighs.

“Don’t worry,” says Lynd, “I took care of her.”

And we know that he should be worried.

‘Look me in the eyes’

Orson Welles had a face that somehow held all the wisdom and the intelligence of the world. His ability to tell a story by putting exactly the right cadence in the right place, dropping the right names at the right times and carrying behind each tale he told, such easy laughter made him one of the greatest raconteurs to have graced a chat show or documentary. It also made him a fascinating actor to watch and listen to. His size rooted in his appetite for fine living did nothing to diminish his attractiveness on screen and as soon as he appears on screen as Le Chiffre, his presence dominates his scenes. It’s hardly surprising that Peter Sellers, a great admirer of Welles, was concerned about appearing in scenes together with him. Imagined slights and anxieties plagued Sellers at the best of times. There are shots with both Welles and Sellers together but the majority of their dialogue was shot separately giving the conversation between before the card game them a slightly unreal flavour. 

Welles’ introduction involves him bewitching not just the audience at home but the audience at the Casino. He levitates a woman. Flanked by his beautiful operatives he enjoys playing the conjurer. When Tremble arrives, Le Chiffre continues this act, and the resulting exchanges between the two characters and the two actors feel like two giant egos playing their particular games of one-upmanship. 

Before their meeting at the Casino, Tremble is taken to a room where the game can be observed by the owners of the Casino. Lynd, affronted at the idea of Le Chiffre cheating suddenly seems very eager to see Tremble win. With enthusiasm in her voice, she says, “You win and Le Chiffre will almost certainly be killed by his organisation.”

Tremble responds, “But he’d try and avoid that wouldn’t he?”

“If you win, yes.”

“How?”

“By trying to kill you.”

“As in dead?”

“Yes,” says Lynd. “But don’t worry about that now. Let’s go down there and you play the game of your life.”

“Yes.” Says Tremble filled with anxiety. “I better had. There may not be too much more of it left.”

“Vesper,” he starts nervously. 

“Don’t worry,” she says, with a consoling soft confidence in her voice. “I’ll take care of you.” And when she says this, it is hard not to recall that those are the words she chose to refer to getting rid of Miss Goodthighs.

Sellers shows the fear and conflicted nature of Tremble. This is a character who is not particularly well drawn. We don’t have any story about his past other than that he wrote a book about winning at baccarat. That Sellers makes us feel what he feels in this and later scenes is testament to his abilities. His trust in Vesper is based on nothing more than her beauty and the time they have spent together. We know that Vesper is not to be trusted and yet how can he resist her. He allows himself to be encouraged by her.  

When Tremble arrives at the baccarat table he murmurs the name “Bond, James Bond,” and has to repeat it to be heard. The exchanges between Bond and Le Chiffre occasionally seem awkward and unreal but when the card game begins and Tremble is coming up to the killing hand, the tension, for all the shenanigans that have led up to this moment, is palpable. Each glance, each subtle gesture, each concealment of emotion rises to a crescendo. This is what Casino Royale does so well. However weak the overall pacing of the story might be, in the traditional sense, individual scenes such as this one sparkle.

Torture of the Mind

A few minutes later, the film drifts back into the world of dream when, after Lynd is kidnapped (as in the book and the later film), Tremble suddenly dressed as a racing driver, gets into a lotus and drives after her. 

Cut to him as a prisoner of Le Chiffre in an ornate and strangely leafy cell while being overseen by Le Chiffre in a control room filled with monitors and electronic equipment of one kind or another. This sequence, being made in 1967, was never going to be as explicit about testicular trauma as Fleming’s book or Martin Campbell’s later film but it does have Tremble sitting in a hollow seated chair with a carpet beater visible just behind him as a reference to the book that a good proportion of the audience have probably read. Le Chiffre remarks, with an agreeable chuckle, “don’t worry about that chair with the hole in the middle. It’s merely waiting to be reupholstered. My methods are much more subtle. They have to be.” (because of the censors perhaps). 

“What are you going to do?”

“Physically, I’m not going to do anything.”

“Oh. You’re going to nothing me to death.”

“Torture of the mind. The most exquisite torture is all in the mind.”

Le Chiffre throws a switch and suddenly the film shifts gear once more. Using the psychedelic visuals popular at the time, the sequence, as directed by Joe McGrath takes Tremble and us into a different world. Quick flashing multicoloured images of Sellers, his face divided and kaleidoscopic, negative and multiplied, superimposed over itself as the repeated sounds of a question a snatch of laughter and a disturbing unidentifiable sound fill the soundtrack. Looking back to the torture sequence of The Ipcress File and forward to the many mind manipulations of The Prisoner it may not be clear what Le Chiffre has done to achieve these effects but it’s hard not to see it as the result of some kind of psychotropic compound that he was drugged with. Something that made him see himself as a racing driver perhaps. We have dizzying sequences of Tremble’s brain divided into sections occupied by laughing images of Le Chiffre. Flashing images. Sellers’s face in sections imposed upon a scene of beautiful women in bikinis becoming soulless dolls. It feels like a huge budgeted version of a Peter Tscherkassky short. 

Then another button is pressed and we hear the sound of Highland Pipers on the soundtrack. Tremble tries to shut the sound out but he is now dressed in the regalia of a highlander. He looks through the bars of his cell to see nothing but mist. Then the mist clears enough for us to see a highland pipe regiment marching through. From his cell, he sees another version of himself among the pipers yelling for help (although we cannot hear anything above the sound of the pipers so we simply see the animated words “help” appearing on the screen as he screams). No longer the man in the cell but out there among the pipers. He meets Peter O’Toole for a fourth-wall-breaking in-joke and then the pipers start to beat him with drumsticks. Vesper Lynd appears among the pipers as if she has been able to infiltrate the dream and ruthlessly shoots all the pipers with her bagpipe machine gun. 

“Mr Tremble,” Lynd shouts across the mists. “Never trust a rich spy!” And then, she shoots him, the star of the film, dead.

The fact that the star of the film ends up being killed by the one person he trusts the most and is then gone from the film has always struck me as a memorable and unusual moment. The kind of moment that seems most common in those films destined to be demolished by the critics who just don’t get the way films leave lasting impressions. That this scene would have played differently if Sellers had finished filming all his scenes before leaving the film, doesn’t mean much to the viewer. Sellers has won the game. As in the book, his winning of the game compels his enemy to try, by whatever means possible to get his money back, but unlike the book, this Bond, or Bond impersonator, is killed by Lynd.

Le Chiffre is then killed because he has failed to get the money back. The way he is killed fits the nightmarish quality of the sequence. A man on his monitor breaks through the monitor to shoot him like a strange 60s antecedent of Sadako. 

Anyway, the film suggests, never mind all that. Another director is going to come along and end the film on a lighter note… Kind of. 

‘What is it, a film?’ ‘Must be a commercial.’

Back in a blue-skied London with horse guards and green parks and Bacharach’s jauntiest notes, Bond’s green Bentley drives up Whitehall and into Downing Street, where Bond is due to drop in for tea with the PM. Mata is with him, now sporting a Mary Quant style dress and short hair. There is a sense of a lot of time having passed since we last saw the two of them. This is another episode in their lives. Le Chiffre out of the picture, Bond sends his daughter off to watch the changing of the guard refusing to take her in to see the Prime Minister even though she so longs to meet him because he turns her on. This would be Harold Wilson; the man with the mac and pipe. Harold Wilson turns her on.

We then see her being watched by the same red-haired and red-bearded men who were at the McTarry Castle in the first section of the film. One in a workman’s hut phones another on a crane and as she is taking pictures like a tourist one of the horse-guards breaks rank and gallops towards her, picking her up and taking her down the mall through Admiralty Arch and into a UFO that has landed in Trafalgar Square where Nelson’s column used to be before Vesper Lynd bought it for her personal collection. A passer-by witnessing Mata’s kidnapping suggests that it must be for a commercial. They probably think the same about the gigantic Thunderbirds type object that after taking off from Trafalgar Square flies across the Thames. 

Moneypenny is watching the object flying across the sky as Bond marches into his office and tells her that Mata’s been kidnapped. Deborah Kerr makes another appearance as a nun collecting for needy girls and leaves Bond with the information that his daughter is being taken to Casino Royale.

Back to Casino Royale

After a quick word with the PM to let him know what’s what, Bond and Moneypenny arrive at the casino. He’s elegantly kitted out in an evening coat and cravat while she is wearing a sparkling lilac dress so flimsy that it looks like someone one might sleep in. Taking in the room Bond tells her that the place looks like a “Smersh convention”. Sinister looking men watch them and step up as if about to manhandle them before one of the staff approaches them and informs them that they are expected in Le directeur’s office. As soon as they set foot in the office they are set upon by the usual red-bearded Scots guards. One presses a tiger’s eye and the room starts to descend like Lynd’s sunken lounge. There’s a bit of argy-bargy but Bond and Moneypenny end up being marched through a Ken Adam-esque shiny corridor. They escape their captors through the cunning plan of tripping them up and running for it. Alarms go off as Bond and Moneypenny run run through one beautifully creative set after another. Swirling spiral floors, corridors with alternating colour schemes, a green room that looks like a massive fingerprint and then variations on the theme of a human eye.

Bond is greeted during this by Valentine Dyall’s voice again. Dr Noah, behind an eye-like window, watches the two. “A historic day in our saga. The day Smersh finally eliminated the original James Bond. His world will soon follow.” After a mishap with one of the many stunt doubles, Sir James gets hold of a machine gun, shoots the window and the truth behind the lie remains. Like the Wizard of Oz, Dr Noah is just an impressive smokescreen behind which a less impressive reality lies. Dr Noah, Smersh and the whole operation is the brainchild of none other than Sir James Bond’s nephew, Jimmy.

The whole story has been one of a son-like figure being so intimidated by his uncle, a perfect figure, that he needs to rise up, destroy him and take over the world. Here, taking over the world seems almost secondary to taking care of Uncle James. Jimmy cannot even speak in Sir James’s presence and is reduced to miming his threats. He will release a bacillus, germ warfare, that will make all women beautiful and destroy all men over four foot six. 

“All this trouble just to make up for your sexual inferiority,” says Sir James.

‘I’m beginning to think you’re a trifle neurotic’

After Bond and Moneypenny are marched away by the usual machine gun toting fashion models, we see Jimmy dealing with his greatest prize and obvious downfall, Israeli actress Daliah Lavi who he has tied, naked to what looks uncomfortably like a dentist’s chair. Lavi was in the earlier scene with Cooper but we haven’t seen her since. She asks him why she is there.

Jimmy replies, “Because of all Uncle James’s 007s, you are the most beautiful and the most desirable.”

“Do you treat all the girls you desire this way?” she asks.

“Yes. Oh yes. I undress them and tie them up. I learned that in the boy scouts. “

After a few minutes of insanity where Jimmy tries to show how he is better than his uncle at bronco riding and piano playing, and failing miserably, Lavi says, “You’re crazy. You’re absolutely crazy.”

“They called Einstein crazy,” says Jimmy.

“That’s not true. Nobody ever called Einstein crazy.”

“Well… They would have if he carried on like this.”

In order to show her how superior he is, not only to Sir James but also to Einstein, he shows her a capsule that if swallowed, erupts four hundred times before finally going off turning the person who has taken it into a walking atom bomb.

Seeing an opportunity, she pretends to suddenly be in love with him. He immediately releases her telling her that they will rule together and run amok. If she’s too tired they’ll walk amok.

Having been released, Noah shows Lavi his plans to replace all the world leaders with doubles so he can put his plan into action. She somewhat foolishly tricks him into taking his own pill thus, putting into effect, one of the strangest endings for any film ever made.

‘Have a real bomb of an evening’

It might be worth noting that, prior to this scene Bond, Moneypenny, Mata and Cooper had just been tinkering with a device filled with highly explosive vaporised Lysurgic acid. They use this device to blow the door of the area, strangely lined with cushions, where Jimmy had been holding them. I mention this because it might offer an alternative reading of the film’s ending. Maybe everything that happens after that point is a mass acid trip hallucinatory dream. That might make more sense than anything that we see. Dave Prowse, as the Frankenstein Monster, indicates the way they could get back into the casino. Guards are running manically around (which, to be fair, is what happened in the last scenes of every other James Bond film from Dr No onwards).

Cooper asks Sir James what the strategy is.

“Get out of the bloody place before it blows up.”

He’s about to call for back up when Vesper stops him pointing a gun at his heart claiming that she isn’t doing this for money but for love. We don’t find out who she loves because, before we have time to process anything, American aid arrives in the form of cowboys riding into the casino on horseback.

From this point, the film becomes a complete free for all fight with myriad incarnations of James Bond fighting myriad agents of Smersh in a world filled with bubbles, laughing gas and guest stars ranging from Jean-Paul Belmondo to George Raft. The Casino Royale turns from an elegant gambling club into a major slapstick set-piece. William Holden comes back to help with the fighting. There’s a chimpanzee in a tuxedo with a red wig. There are a group of gold-painted naked women. Belmondo says “merde” a lot showing that it hurts almost as much to punch someone as it does to get punched before Jackie Chan made this one of his trademarks. Native Americans skydive into the casino all painted with 007 insignia but they find it impossible to resist a bit of disco dancing. The keystone cops get involved. Sea lions get involved. George Raft accidentally shoots himself with a gun that fires backwards. And, Woody Allen walks around hiccoughing animated clouds counting down before he gets to one and the entire casino blows up.

Everybody dies. 

In most Bond films, there is a scene in which the enemy base is set to self destruction but Bond and the girl and some of the good guys will escape. Here, everyone is blown to smithereens only to end up playing their harps in heaven.

Nobody gets out of there alive. Nobody at all… Unless they are all just lying on the ground stricken into imagining this absurdity due to all that lysurgic acid. 

And yet, the feeling at the end, isn’t frustrating. After all, even if they do all end up dead, what a great time they all had getting here.

Conclusion

According to Michael Richardson’s book, Charles K. Feldman’s initial cut of the film had been around 3 hours long. He was forced to cut it back to 131 minutes by Columbia and while it is altogether possible that the film might have made more sense in the longer 3-hour version, it is unlikely that it would have pleased the critics any better or pleased the public any less.

Casino Royale was a huge success. The critics didn’t like it much but if I’ve learned anything in my 58 years on this planet, film critics really don’t have a clue about large scale movies. I have read so many times that this film was a huge box office failure that until looking at the facts for this blog, I believed it myself. Casino Royale is a confusing film to watch for anyone who expects their films to behave in a neat and orderly way. It was almost as confusing and disastrous for the people involved in it. The major stars involved in the film avoided the premiere. But, precisely because it doesn’t make neat and orderly sense, it is a film which is never boring and which people can enjoy however they want to.

Casino Royale is a work of surprising beauty. Colours swirl. Sets amaze the eye. There are scenes that are exciting and funny and sexy. The whole film is suffused with a feeling of freedom and innovation. Even where the jokes fall flat (and they often do) I laugh and feel happy simply because the whole thing is so good natured.

Niven looks like a man from the (mythical) time where men wore a white cravat for breakfast and drank tea from golden tea sets. There is more tea drunk in Casino Royale than Martini. Fleming would have hated this, feeling as he did that tea was responsible for the downfall of the British Empire but this is not a film extolling the virtues of empire but the virtues of beauty, fun and elegance. 

Is it picaresque? No… Not really. It could be seen as such but I don’t want to stretch the meaning. Mata Bond, smoking what is probably hashish in her temple sojourn while playing the role of celestial virgin, could be a picaresque character. It would have been nice to see more of her.

Vesper, too, could be seen as a picaresque character. A financial wizard having played both sides for her own gain. Her telling Tremble that she’ll take care of him showing her absolute disregard for anyone but herself… But who is it that she loves?

In the end, I suppose, how much one loves or is bothered by Casino Royale might depend on how seriously one sees the world. if one likes those stories with clear beginnings, middles and ends. There’s no right or wrong way. But for me, a couple of hours of colourful joy with a soundtrack by Burt Bacharach. Splendidly constructed sequences that rarely last more than a few minutes. The characters that I love in this film go on forever. They have little in common with characters created by Ian Fleming. What interests me, however, is how close in tone the film You Only Live Twice feels to Casino Royale. Maybe it’s the whole mid-sixties thing of not taking any of this stuff too seriously. After all, that was the Bond film with Ninjas abseiling into a volcano to stop a spaceship from eating more spaceships.

As for Charles K. Feldman, the man who was really behind all of this, he didn’t live to make another film. His health declined over the next year, perhaps impacted by the stresses of this production. He died of Pancreatic cancer in May 1968. It is a shame his final legacy couldn’t have been better received by the in-crowd and critics but… I think of this:

What’s New Pussycat and Casino Royale are two of the most joy-filled films ever made. They’re the kind of films that many associated with them feel the need to dismiss. And maybe if I was taking myself seriously as an actor or writer etc. I would feel the same. But how many lives have been cheered up by seeing them playing on TV late at night. When I think of Casino Royale, in particular, I feel happy. Looking at that last scene, before the world blows up, on a colourful set surrounded by bubbles, the extras laughing and, in that moment, the world seems to be full of laughter and happiness. And even if that bomb that Woody Allen has so foolishly swallowed is about to go off then, in this moment, how great it is to have been alive.

Credits

As usual, all images belong to the copyright holders of the film.

I deeply recommend Michael Richardson’s book The Making of Casino Royale whether you like the film or not. It’s available here The Making of Casino Royale (1967): Amazon.co.uk: Richardson, Michael: Books

And the information about the box office placement of Casino Royale among the other James Bond films comes from here:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbean/2020/04/18/all-26-james-bond-films-ranked-at-the-box-office/

The Philosopher in the Café

Anna Karina and Brice Parain in Jean Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie

The early films of Jean Luc Godard exist, for me, in their own world. They evoke a time outside of time. That world is linked, in my mind if nowhere else, with the repertory cinema where I saw them. Some repertory cinemas, great ones like The Scala, played horror films, exploitation films and the murkier end of international cinema. The Everyman, where I first saw Jean Luc Godard’s films, was different. It had that lived in well used feeling that public libraries used to have. With the constant smell of freshly brewing coffee and homemade cakes, people would talk about the films during the breaks between. Nobody cheered or laughed unless the films were supposed to be funny. During the movies, the audiences at The Everyman sat in silence as if they were in a church, which, in a way, they were.  

The Everyman was a special place; a famous place. One of the oldest cinemas in London, it gets a mention in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, which I saw for the first time there. And you could sense the duffle-coated would-be directors flocking there to see the finest that world cinema could offer. Taking it all in as if every film were a lesson. The screen was smallish. The seats, like those of most rep houses at the time, squeaked when you moved, so you didn’t move. Almost nobody moved. Watching films and drinking coffee could be done without too much shifting. It felt like you belonged to the same world as the people who had created the films on that screen. Hell, I know I did. The tickets were cheap too. You could watch a Pasolini triple bill for about the same price as a pint. The prints they were able to get hold of might not have looked as pristine as the blu rays we now take for granted and they didn’t have the funds to source the very best prints as the NFT might have done. But those scratches on the screen and the bumps on the soundtrack added to the atmosphere like the crackles on vinyl. Of course, all of this is empty nostalgia but, for me, the films felt more alive then than when I watch them in perfect quality on my TV or computer today. Or, maybe it was just because I was young and encountering them for the first time.

The Everyman was especially suited to the films of the nouvelle vague (the French New Wave).  Cinema made by cinephiles for cinephiles. The directors and writers had emerged from the world of film criticism writing for the famous Cahiers du Cinéma. They made films happen by sheer force of will. They lived and breathed Celluloid. It flowed through their blood. They wrote about auteurs and idolised Hitchcock and Welles (not to mention Samuel Fuller and Edgar G. Ulmer) while making films that reinvented cinematic style. Godard, more than most, felt like the brain behind the movement. His first film, À Bout de Souffle (Breathless) had reinvented cinematography and editing. And he was one of those few directors who was instantly recognisable. He had tight tense looking hair that got wilder as the sixties went on. With his high forehead and glasses, smoking and drinking coffee, making casual comments that seemed effortlessly profound, he was every inch the auteur. Even more so than Truffaut. An intellectual in every sense he got carried away, in the late 60s with the spirit of the times and his work became more overtly political and much less engaging. Having said that, Godard, at his worst, was still more interesting than most. Even in his Maoist agitprop mood, there is always something playful about him, his sense of humour always comes through. But way before travelling down that particular road, he tore up the rules of what cinema could be and wrote a bunch of new ones that are still being used today. 

I am almost loathe to talk about Godard because so much has been written about him over the years. A few months ago, Sight and Sound brought out an edition dedicated solely to Godard, reprinting reviews and interviews from the past 60 years, Histoires du Cineaste. I wondered, as I read, if there was anything to be said that hadn’t been said already. But then, that’s almost a ridiculous question. In common with more fringe film-makers like Jean Rollin and Jess Franco, every time you go back and watch a Godard movie you think you know you find you are watching a different movie. They seem to move to accommodate the time in you life you see them.

The first half dozen films he made are not too challenging. They did well and made money. Blessed with the crisp elegance of Raoul Coutard’s photography, they look effortlessly cool. The ones set in Paris and shot in black and white, especially so. And it really helps with that look that everyone is smoking. Not to advocate the habit, but smoking looks great in Godard’s films. Cigarettes as necessary extensions of the hands that hold them. Tendrils of smoke curling elegantly through each scene and dissipating like souls becoming part of the ether. Each pause in dialogue punctuated by one more inhalation. In early Godard, everyone looks cool. And that’s perhaps why, in their day, they weren’t just loved by the cinephiles but by young people who sought out that world and wanted to feel a part of it.

Godard worked with many of the key French actors of the 1960s, including Belmondo (whose career was kickstarted by À Bout de Souffle), Eddie Constantine, Jean Pierre Léaud. But there’s only one actor linked forever with Godard. Anna Karina, born in Denmark, was his muse in those early films and became the focal point in film after film. She also became his wife.

In Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, ‘The Oval Portrait’, the narrator talks of being disturbed by a picture finding in it, “an absolute life-likeness of expresion, which at first startling, finally confounded, subdued and appalled me.” When reading an account of how the portrait was made he sees why. With each brush stroke, the artist steals the soul from his living model and imparts it into the canvas. In the end, when the portrait is finished, the artist cries in a loud voice, “This is indeed Life itself!” Only when he turns and sees his beloved does he see that she is dead and he has killed her by stealing every part of her for his art.

Godard quotes from the story towards the end of Vivre Sa Vie. Karina, in character as Nana, is listening to the man she has fallen in love with reading the story (translated into French by Baudelaire). On hearing him read the story she feels that she can love this man. The voice is not that of the young actor playing the young man but is the voice of Godard himself. Life and art closely somehow mingled together. The disturbing aspect of this is that it implies Godard could allow Karina to pass into her image on film, ceasing to exist in the real world. But this kind of thing is typical of the kind of games he loves to play with his audiences. Teasing reality in a work of fiction. Karina is not Nana. But there are times when her performances in her films with Godard seem to be so much of her that it is hard to know where one stops and the other begins. This might be typical of a lot of actors in their work. We don’t go to see a film in which a film star becomes invisible. We go to see a film in which we see our favourite film star. Karina in this sense, is the movie star who lifts so many of Godard’s early films into the realm of the mainstream hit.

Vivre Sa Vie follows many of the beats of a typical exploitation movie. Nana, a woman who first leaves her husband and child, wants to be an actress. Something is agitating her soul. As the story progresses, it takes on the form of a morality tale. She is slowly but inevitably punished for the choices she made at the beginning of the film. She falls and falls until, after a moment of hope, she is finally destroyed. We could ask questions of the plot. Why does she leave her husband and child? What is it about her that feels so constricted that she must be free? And what the hell does that mean anyway. We can enjoy glimpsing into her sordid life and, at the same time, judge her questionable decisions and lack of direction just as we might in any of the fallen woman genre. The audience can have their cake and eat it. Nana can never really be free because she has no money and no means of keeping what she earns. In the end, whatever freedom she had is obliterated. She becomes a commodity to be bought and sold against her will. 

But Vivre Sa Vie never feels like an exploitation movie. Godard might admire the B movies of Monogram but he doesn’t make movies that way. Nana isn’t just a victim of external forces. She has some agency. She chooses the life she lives knowing she has alternatives. At the beginning of the film, she calls her husband terrible when he is just sad. She only thinks about what her decision means to her and not what it means to him or her son. She is a selfish character, telling him what she needs and what she wants. It is only as an after-thought that she asks if their son is eating well. She has exchanged the traditional role of a wife and mother for another kind of life. And she never expresses any regret about it. She has no moral attachment to family. When she sees the pictures of her son, she seems uninterested. “He looks more like you than like me,” she says to the father as if that fact removes her from any parental duty.

After this she wanders through life little more than the sum of her dreams and appetites. She wants to be an actress so the life she actually lives doesn’t matter as much as that one she is aiming for. Working in a record shop, when asked for a particular record by a customer, she saunters as if she has absolutely no engagement with her job. There is plenty of time. The customer can wait. Maybe, she even feels the customer is enjoying her insouciant stride. She looks for a record he has asked for with no more urgency than someone taking a saunter in the park on a sunny day. Later, when the same customer leaves some records he has been looking at in a haphazard pile, she does not look at them and replace them in order. She simply straightens them and shoves them back in as if it couldn’t possibly matter which way the records face. A co-worker reads aloud from a book and, though Nana is listening, the camera drifts away to look through the window at the people passing by. We drift away from her job because, to her, the job is dull. She wants something else. It is her life to live. She wants to live it.  She wants to be out there, a part of the world.

Later, after being unable to pay her rent and made homeless, she tries to steal some money that a customer has dropped. Demoralised while sitting in a police station, she knows she has reached a nadir and that it no longer matters what she does to make some money. So when a stranger propositions her taking her for a prostitute, she goes along with him. She has nothing to lose. She goes along with the exchange looking disinterested in what happens to her body until he attempts to kiss her on the lips. Only there does she resist. But money is money. Soon enough she has a pimp and is sleeping with a whole series of men. They are all different but she treats them all the same. She doesn’t care about them. They are interchangeable. The small abuses and degradation, she will take in her stride. Meaningless encounters in an unremarkable room. 

Escape is a pipe dream

Her friend, Yvette, complains about their lot. External factors have led her to this. She is a victim. And, unlike Nana, it does seem that Yvette has had a difficult time. Nana showing some self-awareness if lacking sympathy for her friend, says: 

“I think we’re always responsible for our actions. We’re free. I raise my hand. I’m responsible. I turn my head to the right – I’m responsible. I’m unhappy – I’m responsible. I smoke a cigarette – I’m responsible. I shut my eyes – I’m responsible. I forget that I’m responsible, but I am. After all, everything is beautiful. You only have to take an interest in things, see their beauty. It’s true. After all, things are just what they are. A face is a face. Plates are plates. Men are men and life… is life.” 

Godard and Coutard capture a Paris that is never idealised but remains constantly poetic. There are driving shots of the streets. Women stand waiting, bored. In dialogue scenes the camera watches people viewed from their backs, their faces obscured or hidden. Sometimes Anna Karina’s face fills the screen for minutes. Sometimes, in a scene with two people, both will walk out of shot leaving us with the sight of just a wardrobe or a sink while the conversation continues. In the scenes dealing with the act of prostitution, we see shoulders, backs, soap on a table, windows looking on to the pavement, and hands grasping for money in loose pockets. Nana smokes while men embrace her. In moments we see her blank reaction to being fucked but we don’t see anything of the act itself. She is far away. Dreaming of that lie about making a film with Eddie Constantine.

When Nana has made money, she makes a show of it. She buys wine and then leaves it after a single sip to show that she can afford it. The film, at such times, treats her coldly. Her beauty makes her more expensive but she has no other value. And, cinema criticising itself perhaps, being beautiful and expensive, in the end makes her more of a thing. An object of other people’s commerce rather than her own enterprise. But because Karina brings her soul to the piece, we can’t judge Nana. She isn’t a thing. She’s unique and filled with the fire of life. When the music plays, she dances. She dances to flirt but she dances because the music fills her body with joy. In one of Godard’s many spontaneous seeming dance scenes she playfully distracts her intended conquest from his snooker game by becoming a musical star as Karina was in Godard’s earlier Une Femme et Une Femme. This man with clean features and blond hair is the same man who will be seen reading ‘The Oval Portrait’ with Godard’s voice. He is the kind of man she has been looking for but by then it is already too late. She can find happiness only in moments.

Near the end of the film, she has the encounter that elevates this film, for me, to being the Godard film I have returned to most frequently. It’s the scene that made me think about this film on and off ever since I first saw it. Sometimes I forget that it is a film about prostitution at all. It’s a film about a young woman who meets a philosopher in a café. Brice Parain was quite well-known in France. There’s a video of him on youtube discussing Pascal with a priest. He has a face that shows all of his 60 years. Smoking and reading, drinking coffee, he feels like a stand-in for Godard himself. 

The scene begins with Nana, wearing a coat with a white fur collar and cuffs, sitting down, opening her purse and taking out a packet of cigarettes. She looks briefly across to where Parain is sitting before fumbling in the same purse for a disposable lighter. Her make up is immaculately applied as if she has just left a salon. Her lips are perfectly painted, looking deep grey, in the black and white world. Her eyelashes, thick and black, helped by thick eyeliner. Her Louise Brooks fringe framing her, she takes a mouthful of smoke and looks back again at Parain, this time holding her gaze on him a little bit longer. We hear the natural sounds of the cafe around her; clattering plates, distant conversations, footsteps. She leans on the divide. Her eyelids flutter, lips suggesting a smile. Her glance is almost predatory. She takes him in the way a prostitute might take in a world of men who can be seduced or drained of every penny they have. She has become used to owning her environment. 

“Do you mind me looking?” she asks as if she means it. 

“No,” he says, off-screen. 

“You look bored.”

“Not at all.”

She looks down for a moment as the smoke curls around her face. “What are you doing?” she tries again.

“Reading.”

She stops leaning on the divide, looks away and takes another lungful from her cigarette. She is the one who looks bored. She looks around the café once more and then leans once again on the divide between their booths. “Will you buy me a drink?”

“If you like.”

She smiles broadly, beautifully, naturally and then gets up from where she was sitting.

The shot cuts. We see Parain looking down. His face is unique. Lined, beaten perhaps by scarring of one kind or another. His eyes are heavily lidded. His forehead curving lines echoing the shape of his brow. He looks up at her.

“Do you come here often?” she asks as if not able to think of anything else to say.

“Occasionally,” he says, his face kind and open to her. “Today I just happened by.”

“Why are you reading?”

Parain shows no change of expression. With a small shrug says, “It’s my job.” Never breaking away from looking at her, he takes a drag on his cigarette, almost burned out now. Then, he looks down and takes a sip of coffee. A philosopher, in a Parisian cafe, smoking and drinking coffee.

“It’s funny,” says Nana leaning into the back of her hand that holds a cigarette. “Suddenly I don’t know what to say. It happens to me a lot. I don’t know what to say. I think first about whether they’re the right words. But when the moment comes to speak, I can’t say it.” She smiles, laughing at herself.

“Yes of course,” says Parain but we only watch Nana smiling as if relieved she has been able to be so open and honest about herself. “Have you ever read ‘The Three Musketeers’?”

“No. But I saw the movie. Why?”

Parain leans forward a little, becoming engaged in telling the story. “Because in it, Porthos – Actually this is from ‘Twenty Years Later’. Porthos is tall, strong and a little dense. He’s never had a thought in his life. He has to place a bomb in a cellar to blow it up. He does it. He places the bomb, lights the fuse and starts to run away. But just then he begins to think. About what? How it’s possible to put one foot in front of the other. I’m sure that’s happened to you. So he stops running. He can’t move forward. The bomb explodes and the cellar caves in around him. He holds it up with his strong shoulders. But, after a day or two, he’s crushed to death. So the first time he thought, it killed him.”

Nana looks at Parain, taking in all he has said but troubled. “Why do you tell me things like that?”

“No reason. Just to talk.”

“Why must one always talk? I think one should often just keep quiet, live in silence. The more one talks, the less the words mean.”

“Perhaps,” says Parain, off-screen again. “But can one do that?”

Nana leans her head on the wall looking sad, defeated. “I don’t know.”

Parain is now leaning on his hand as if unconsciously mirroring her stance. “It’s always struck me, the fact that we cannot live without speaking.” His head juts forward lightly.

“But it would be nice.”

“Yes, it would be nice wouldn’t it?” He sits up straight again and gestures with his hands, “Sort of like we loved each other more. But it’s impossible. No one’s been able to.”

“But why? Words should express just what one wants to say. Do they betray us?”

“Yes,” nods Parain, “but we betray them too. One should be able to express oneself. We manage to write things quite well. It’s extraordinary that someone like Plato can still be understood. People really do understand him. Yet he wrote in Greek 2,500 years ago. No-one really knows the language, not exactly. Yet something seems to get through, so we should be able to express ourselves. And we have to.”

“Why do we have to? To understand each other?”

“We must think and for thought we need words. There’s no other way to think. To communicate, one must speak. That’s our life.”

“Yes. But at the same time, it’s very hard.” Her cigarette is now nearing its end. She looks down. Then looking up as if seizing an idea in the sky she says, “Whereas I think life should be easy.” She looks down again with a half-smile. “Your tale about the musketeers may be a very nice story, but it’s terrible.”

“Yes. It’s terrible but it’s an indication. I believe…” Now he is looking up for words. “one learns to speak well only when one has renounced life for a while. That’s the price.”

“So to speak is fatal?”

“Speaking is almost a resurrection in relation to life. Speaking is a different life from when one does not speak. So to live speaking, one must pass through the death of life not speaking. I don’t know if I’m being clear… but there’s a kind of ascetic rule which stops one from speaking well until one sees life with detachment.”

“But one can’t live everyday life with… I don’t know -”

“Detachment?” Parain smiles. “We go back and forth. That’s why we pass from silence to words. We swing between the two because that’s the movement of life. From everyday life one rises to a life – Let’s call it superior – Why not? It’s the thinking life. But the thinking life presupposes that one has killed off a life that’s too mundane, too rudimentary.”

“Then speaking and thinking are the same thing?”

“I believe so. It’s in Plato, you know. It’s an old idea. I don’t think one can distinguish a thought from the words that express it. A moment of thought can only be grasped through words.”

“So to speak is to risk lying.”

“Lies too are part of our quest. There’s little difference between an error and a lie.” Nana tries to say something but Parain wants to finish his point. “I don’t mean ordinary lies, like promising, ‘I’ll be here tomorrow at 5:00’ and then not turning up. Those are just ploys. But a subtle lie often differs little from an error. One’s searching for something and can’t find the right word. That’s why you didn’t know what to say before. I think you were afraid of not finding the right word.”

Nana almost frowns and says, “How can one be sure of having found the right word?”

“One must work at it. It only comes with effort.”

We cut between two expressions on Nana’s face. She’s looking away from Parain, and then, suddenly, surprisingly, she looks directly at the camera. She looks at us.

Parain continues as Nana keeps looking our way. “To say what must be said in the appropriate way, that is, that doesn’t hurt…”

She looks down and then looks back up at us as if we are part of this conversation now. We are involved in it. We are engaged.

“…that says what must be said, does what must be done without hurting or wounding anyone. We must try to act in good faith.”

Back on Nana, she takes on a more determined expression, “Someone once told me, ‘There’s truth in everything. Even in error.’”

Parain exhales a cloud of smoke and says, “It’s true. That’s what France didn’t see in the 17th Century. They thought one could avoid errors and lies, that one could live directly in the truth. I don’t think it’s possible. Hence Kant, Hegel, German philosophy to bring us back to life and make us see that we must pass through error to arrive at truth.”

Nana smiles. She is now enjoying herself. She is in a better world discussing philosophy and she likes it. “What do you think about love?”

Legrand’s theme starts to play on the soundtrack, the first non-diegetic sound in the scene. The word love has inspired the emotional core of Nana.

“The body had to come into it, and indeed, Leibniz introduced the contingent. Contingent truths and necessary truths make up life. German philosophy showed us that in life, one thinks with the constraints and errors of life. One must manage with that. It’s true.”

“Shouldn’t love be the only truth?”

“But for that, love would always have to be true. Do you know anyone who knows, right off, what he loves? No. When you’re 20 you don’t know. All you know are bits and pieces. You grasp at experience. At that age, ‘I love’ is a mixture of many things. To be completely at one with what you love takes maturity. That means searching. That’s the truth of life.” He nods. “That’s why love is a solution, but on the condition that it be true.”

The scene fades to black, this chapter is done.

The sequence has always been one I remembered. Not for anything that was said, in particular, but for the tone of the scene. Two worlds meeting. Nana’s fate in the film is determined. She cannot escape it because she has set something in motion that has no happy ending for her. In this sequence, however, she is alive in the world of the mind. The thoughtless vanities that set her off on a collision with self-destruction have decided it for her but in this scene her vanity ebbs and she becomes herself. She may have been intending something more banal in starting the conversation with Parain but by the end, she has gained something. It might not save her but it liberates her. She cannot return to being a whore. She has found that part of herself that she couldn’t find as a mother or a wannabe movie star. Her life is her own. Before this scene, one could imagine her meeting her own death with the same indifference with which she meets each new client. After this scene, she is actually capable of loving someone other than herself and for that reason, perhaps, she screams and cries for life itself.

Credits

As always, the images belong to the original copyright holders and the version of the film discussed is the BFI edition. Below is the interview with Brice Parain on Pascal available, for now, on Youtube.

Stay Strong! Life is surreal. Don’t let it consume you!

The following contains many detailed descriptions of scenes from Tag. If spoilers bother you, watch the movie before reading.

Who thinks pillow fights make a good school trip?

Leaves flutter briefly through blackness. Daylight gradually emerges. Floating across an evergreen forest on a wintry day, we soar far above everything, like a spirit, like a god. The wind is beneath us. We are being carried by it over a deep green landscape. The music of freedom surrounds us but it is underscored with something ominous, thrilling and exciting. Something else is here; Something in the wind. 

Two coaches turn the corner looking far below us. They are so distant and small they could almost be toys in a miniature world.

Our view changes to a lower level. Most of the trees beside the road have lost their leaves. Only the conifers survive. We are in the middle of a sunny winter’s day.

Inside the second of the two coaches, a group of schoolgirls, all dressed in their neatly pressed identical uniforms, are laughing and chatting as if they were in the middle of summer. Sunlight dappling through the trees illuminates their faces in flashes as the coach moves deeper and deeper into the forest.

One girl is not chatting; she is sitting, half smiling with a gentleness in her expression reminiscent of da Vinci’s ‘Virgin on the Rocks’. She is writing thoughtfully in her notebook as sunlight caresses her face. This girl is Mitsuko and she is at the centre of this world. 

The other girls are talking about gelato and movie stars. They are not lost in their own thoughts and reflections as Mitsuko is. They seem more real, less pure. On seeing some boys walking on the side of the road, one girl leans out the open window with a big smile and calls to them flirtatiously. “Hi guys, we’ll be at the hotel by the lake.” She is joking and sits back down in her seat laughing wildly. We don’t see any reaction from the boys. We don’t see any boys for at least another hour. Everything is light and easy. This is the time of their lives.

The same girl who yelled out the window stands up and, barely able to contain her excitement at the idea, yells to the whole bus, “Who thinks pillow fights make a good school trip?” Everyone cheers and waves. That same girl produces a pillow, seemingly from nowhere and, within moments, pillows are flying across the bus bursting with feathers that fill the air with a downy beauty. 

Mitsuko continues to write. A gentle smile crosses her face. This is a world she feels she belongs to even though she isn’t like the other girls. A single feather lands in her hand. She examines it for a moment, never losing that sweet smile, writing as if this is another subject for her words. 

The teacher at the front of the bus shouts at the girls yells at the girls to put the pillows away. But her eyes are bright and she doesn’t seem to mean it. She lacks authority because she loves seeing the girls having so much fun. The driver, with a broad smile on her face, mentions what a lovely day it is. The teacher agrees. It is lovely weather. It’s a lovely day.

From the driver’s point of view, we see the bus in front of this one. The girls on that bus are sitting in the back window waving happily back. They are also smiling and laughing. The teacher waves back at them. They are having fun too. Everyone is having fun. 

The girl who started the pillow fight, with a pretty girlish grin, teases Mitsuko. Is she writing poems again?

“Can I see?” asks another girl not waiting for an answer and just grabbing the notebook. In the momentary playful scuffle, the pen falls to the floor. She looks down to where it has fallen as girls at the back of the bus are still grabbing feathers from the air and laughing. 

Mitsuko bends down and picks up the pen lying amidst the remaining feathers on the ground. One of the feathers has attached itself to her pen. She which is now attached to one of the feathers. She examines it closely and curiously. Everything she does seeming just a little slow.

We see the teacher watching the bus in front. Her eyes perfectly placid. There is nothing unusual in her expression.

Suddenly, we the top of the bus in front ripped away. Shattered glass and body parts come flying towards us as the bus ahead is sliced completely in two.

The eyes of the pillow-fight girl widen as she looks ahead in terror. “What’s that?”

The roof of the bus is torn away. All the girls who were laughing and playing seconds earlier are cut in two. Blood fountains from the parts of their bodies still sitting. Mitsoku, for a second or two, remains unaware of the gore around her, picking up her pen. She looks up dreamily still not registering what has happened. Her face now framed against the blue of the sky.

The roof of the bus crashes into the road behind her. Mitsuko slowly stands up on the deck of the roofless bus. Blood from the sitting halves of bodies splatters her face. At first she looks drugged, uncomprehending. There is no precedent for this. It is impossible. Terrible.

The bus slows and then stops in the road. Mitsuko is standing in the middle of the bus. She is the only one standing. The unbelievable terror of what has happened registers on her face, She looks up and around her, snapped out of her previous life of writing poems. Her uniform is now drenched in the blood of her schoolfriends. Her mind is working now. Awake to this horror. What could have caused this carnage?

Throughout this sequence the music has been complementing the action. A sweet child-like melody playing right up until the bus was disaster whereupon the melody turns to violins shrieking in the upper register, as in Psycho. Flutes wade in wildly trilling before a drum rolls us into the disaster theme. This theme recurs again and again throughout the movie highlight dramatic impossibility. But it’s a beautiful theme. A churning underscore under a plaintiff minor key sigh played with a full orchestra.

The underscore switches key as the view switches to the Evil Dead inspired high speed tracking shot with leaves blowing across the forest floor. Then the orchestral sound is joined by a choir a adding a surreal majesty to what might, in another film, have settled for sound effect or synthesiser induced discomfort. The disaster theme rises beautifully as the point of view changes back to that of the spirit floating over the tips of the trees.

Above the world, the horror of what has happened on the road seems far away. Nature is vast and beautiful. It is strange to have wandered, even momentarily, from the point of view of Mitsuko. But here we are, flying. Leaves scattering in the sky ahead of us.

We speed back toward Mitsuko, now complicit in the force that is terrorising her. She ducks to avoid being sliced in two by whatever it is that we, the audience, have become. 

She looks into the trees and with parts of the forest shifting focus there is a sound like a heartbeat. The sounds of crows and the squeals of something else can be heard in those trees. The trees, the forest, the wind, the air, the entire world around Mitsuko is alive. Nature itself is playing with her. The wind swoops towards her Once more. She crouches down as a wisp of her hair is severed and floats away.

Telegraph poles are cut down evenly and precisely as she watches them. She becomes aware of how the razor wind seems to work. She runs to the door and gets out of the bus, running for her life on the road. Her thin legs pounding against the tarmac as she strains to breathe. She runs past the severed bodies of her friends as leaves brought by the wind rise around her. 

We rise again through the air. Now the world is white. Treetops are dusted with snow. The wind that killed everyone continues pursuing her as she encounters some hikers.

“Look out!” she shouts. “Get down!”

All four turn around, not having seen anything unusual, not understanding what this girl running chaotically toward them is saying. Unable to convince them that something impossible is happening, she grabs one of the hikers and throws her to the ground. The other three are cut in two by the wind like her friends on the bus, the remaining lower halves of their bodies standing stupidly as arcs of blood hurtle into the air.

“What’s happening?” The remaining hiker is instantly alert to the horror of her friends’ sudden death. 

“It’s after us.”

Seeing some cyclists approaching, singing as they go, the remaining hiker runs towards them, yelling at them to stop. Each cyclist is cut in two. So is the hiker, leaving Mitsuko alone once more. Why is she still alive? 

The camera pulls further and further away from Mitsuko as she runs off from the road and into the forest. She becomes smaller and smaller to our eyes raised so high.

She runs through the forest through the same kind of trees that were one of the hallmarks to the opening sequence in Dario Argento’s Suspiria. The sound also captures the sound of the trunks as we move past them recapturing, once more, those elements from Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. We rise up into the air above the trees once more.

The music stops. The silence, as we float through the air, feels like the end.

We see a shot of the aftermath of the bus attack. The partial bodies sprawled bloodily over the chrome.

Then another aftermath. Another place. Bodies strewn about a forest like the aftermath of a plane crash.

Mitsuko arrives in another place, a flowing river strewn with yet more bodies torn in half, parts of bloodied school uniforms hanging from the trees like laundry day in hell. She walks through the waist-deep water, finds one of the uniforms hanging from the branches and because it has less blood on it than hers, changes. She washes away the bloodstains and the memory of the last few minutes which have changed her life. And, something strange happens, wearing the new uniform, she has become another Mitsuko. A Mitsuko with different friends in a different school living a different life. 

Sion Sono’s Chasing World

Tag is one of five films made by the director, Sion Sono, in 2015. This would not be so surprising if they were small scale films or films utilising the same elements but it is quite a feat for any director to make so many films that are so diverse. The other films are The Virgin PsychicsThe Whispering Star (the making of which is also the topic of the documentary film The Sion Sono directed by Arata Oshima), Love and Peace and Shinjuku Swan. The Virgin Psychics was a feature-length adaptation of Sono’s TV series from a couple of years earlier. A science fiction sex comedy, The Virgin Psychics (Minna! ESPer Dayo!) has some exceptionally broad sexual humour. It makes the later Carry On films look restrained and subtle. But the production values were pretty high. Love and Peace is a child-friendly film about the love of a pet turtle for his master (the pet turtle ends up becoming as large as Godzilla), The Whispering Star is a low key science-fiction film shot around Fukushima, a region still suffering from the nuclear disaster of 2011. Shinjuku Swan is a yakuza movie set in the famous district of Tokyo. Tag, for Sono, was just one of these films.

Tag is, at least nominally, an adaptation of the 2004 self-published bestseller Real Oni Gokko (which translates, somewhat awkwardly to Real Demon Pretend) by Yusuke Yamada. The story of the book is about a game in which everyone with the surname of Sato is hunted by a million demons. In the first film adaptation of the novel, known in English as The Chasing World, Tsubasa Sato finds himself transported to an alternate world where this game of Demon Tag is well known to the entire population. All people named Sato are marked for death, including him. If they survive that week they can ask the emperor of that world for anything. The killers are criminals, liberated from prison to do the job. They wear masks that make them look as though they are perennially grinning and use, among other things, razor wire weapons that can cut their victims in two. In its way, or its genre, it is not that strange a story. It is seen as a kind of Battle Royale type piece (although, for me, Battle Royale is much more straightforward). 

Sono claims not to have read the book before starting his film using just the title and the basic idea of his characters having to run from something trying to kill them. It is hard to see much in common between The Chasing World and Tag so it seems entirely likely that Sono was more interested in the concept of being chased and killed as part of a game and had no interest in the plot.

Sion Sono is a director who came to prominence, both in Japan and in the West, with his film Suicide Club and its infamous opening scene of a chain of girls happily jumping to their bloody death in the path of a train. While controversial, this is probably his biggest box office hit in Japan. The horror film Exte: Hair Extensions and Strange Circus were also given DVD releases outside of Japan. The first film to establish a cult around the director was Love Exposure, a four-hour epic that was one of the most talked-about films of the late 2000s. In the documentary The Sion Sono, Sono discusses his paintings with the film-maker:

Sion Sono: Is this good?

“Life isn’t about good or bad. Paint, express and live! That’s good.”

He seems unconcerned about how his films are perceived in his native Japan. He knows he will always find himself at odds with conservative critics. It is as an international director that he can have the greatest impact.

Having made far more of an impact than the more stately tasteful films of many of his contemporary Japanese directors he might quote Picasso, who once said, “the chief enemy of creativity is good taste.” Sono’s films drenched with blood, sex and otherwise transgressive elements. It is surprising when he makes a restrained film. The protagonist of Love Exposure becomes the world champion at taking up-skirt photos so he can have sins to confess to his Roman Catholic Priest father. He then dresses as the female character Scorpion, (played in the 1970s by Meiko Kaji in a series of women-in-prison films) to win the heart of a young woman who believes she could never love a man. 

As for his influences; Rainer Werner’s Fassbinder’s prolificacy has been influential on his belief that making more films is better than making fewer. Kinji Fukusaku’s kinetic camerawork can be seen influencing so many of Sono’s films. Nobuhiko Obayashi, best known outside Japan for directing the musical fairy tale horror, House has also been cited by the director as one of the people who made him want to get into the business. Speculating, and taking some cues from his references in a making-of documentary for Love Exposure, Dario Argento also seems to be a significant influence. The opening sequence of Tag is in many ways reminiscent of the opening of Suspiria, an unseen force that seems carried with the wind, chasing young girls through the forest. Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films also seem to have been an influence on some of the visuals where the camera is racing through the forest towards a victim. 

Second Life

Staggering past a rusted car, Mitsuko arrives in another world. In this new world, the short skirts of schoolgirls are even shorter. Not that this is a concern for her after the devastation she has been through. She stomps, her legs barely sustaining her, through a group of those schoolgirls who are gaily chatting away as if they could not be less aware of the devastation that has been taking place less than a mile from where they are walking. They seem to be ignoring the newcomer in their midst. Then three laughing girls turn to face her. 

“Good morning, Mitsuko.”

More turn to face her and wave looking so happy to see her. Are these her friends? One girl suddenly stops by her with particular interest and notices that her hair is wet. Why is her hair wet? Why is she acting weird? 

None of these girls looks school age. Most are in their early twenties. This is part of that venerable international tradition of casting 25-year-olds as teenagers with 35-year-olds as their parents. 

This girl, Aki, is deeply concerned about Mitsuko and, after a few seconds, Mitsuko recognises her friend. Maybe this is her reality. This is her world. All that business with the killer wind was some hallucination of an imaginary world. That world is gone now. Now she is in this world with her friend.

Aki: Let’s get to school. 

Mitsuko: Do we go to the same school? Am I crazy?

Aki: You’re shaking. What’s wrong?

Mitsuko seems almost more alarmed at this situation in which her sanity is in doubt than she was by the horrors of a few minutes earlier. 

Some other students run up beside the two. Aki tells that Mitsuko has amnesia. They laugh at this. Does that mean she’ll fail the test that’s coming? Who will Aki copy from?

Suddenly a gust of wind comes along and blows every skirt up to reveal their underwear. 

Why? 

Suddenly the wind is less of a killer wind than a slightly perverted wind, exposing schoolgirls in their underwear. The girls fight to retain their dignity holding their skirts down. Mitsuko dives down to avoid the killer wind. She is afraid that, once more, her friends will be bisected. But this is a different world now. A different game. “This wind’s weird. It peeked at my panties.”

Not that Mitsuko realises that the rules have changed. Hunched on the ground in a state of panic while her friends are laughing at the vulgarity of the wind, she is far from okay. They can jabber about their status as virgins or sluts (because there is nothing in between in this world) because they are normal schoolgirls. They don’t know what she knows.

As they regain their composure and continue the walk to school, one of the girls asks if Mitsuko has a boyfriend.

Aki: No way. She has me.

The wind rises again having another peek at underwear. Mitsuko freaks out and races for the school pursued by Aki. The two stop just inside the glass doors. Aki embraces her saying that everything is okay. Everything will be okay.

Reflected in the windows we see the trees moving gently with the wind. We hear the wind rustling gently through the leaves. The wind is always there. Mitsuko looks up at the trees even while in Aki’s arms. She knows she will never be safe.

Two teachers blandly discussing their teaching hours that day walk into Mitsuko and Aki. The teachers don’t look much older than the students, their faces appear kind and pretty.

One asks what is the matter with Mitsuko today.

Aki: She’s just having a bad day. (although the phrase used in Japanese is more like a very strange day)

The teachers then talk to each other.

Teacher 1: A bad day. That’s weird.

Teacher 2: Don’t you remember when you were at school. You often had bad days?

Teacher 1: Did I have bad days? I guess all teenage girls do.

Teacher 2: They all have bad days.

The teachers then walk past them, laughing about those strange bad days that all teenage girls have. Mitsuko looks unconvince by this new reality.

Aki walks her into an empty classroom leading her by the hand.

Mitsuko: Aki. Have I always been at this school. I had a very strange dream today. This morning, I had a dream that a whole lot of girls got killed. It was the wind. The wind killed everyone on the bus. The wind was so powerful that it sliced everyone in half. I washed off the blood in the river and got this uniform off one of the dead girls. All the girls around me were, one after another, cut in half and died.

She walks to the window, crying, having expressed everything

Mitsuko: Look. It’s the wind.

But the wind gently blowing the two conifers outside doesn’t look threatening. This isn’t even the perverted wind blowing short skirts up. This is just the lightest and gentlest of breezes. As if to show Mitsuko that the wind is nothing to be afraid of, Aki opens the window. The sun falls on her face and she feels the light breeze.

Aki: It feels nice. (Kimochi ii)

The breeze feels nice. The wind is pleasurable, like the sun. This is a sensual world for Aki. She is here with Mitsuko who seems so frail and fragile that she needs someone strong to take care of her. Someone like her. 

Aki forces Mitsuko to put her hand out of the window to feel the warm breeze.

Aki: Feel it.

We become the wind again and swoop gently towards the two of them standing in the window. This wind may be vulgar, but it is harmless.

This scene has echoes of another scene in Argento’s Suspiria. In Argento’s film, whatever is outside the window is far from harmless. And, as here, the second women, who may be more than just a friend, cannot see any threat in the world. The camera swooping closer to Mitsuko looks very similar to Argento’s swooping closer to Pat Hingle.

Aki: Let’s skip class!

Leaving the class, they go and recruit two friends from another class, Taeko and Sur (so named because she believes life is surreal). Aki behaves strangely when she meets Taeko, staring at and caressing her face.

Taeko: You two look like you are in love.

Aki: Because we are. Right Mitsuko?

Taeko: Mitsuko smiled. You are in love. I knew something was going on. What’s wrong? Mitsuko is acting strange.

Aki: Mitsuko has been reborn.

Taeko: Mitsuko was reborn so you forgot your classmate.

Aki: Every girl is reborn and gets to live twice.

Taeko: It’s a bit deep for me but I’d like to be reborn.

This exchange carries a lot more weight later in the film. This is a world where being reborn is not uncommon. Living again, changing identities and the reliability of what appears to be real and what is not are ideas woven into Tag.

The four girls start off in the direction of the exit they run into the second teacher who asks them what they are doing. They all say nothing. The teacher fixes her eye on Mitsuko; the good girl. She can’t trust the others to give her an honest answer but Mitsuko wouldn’t lie.

Teacher 2: Mitsuko. What are you girls plotting?

Aki: We were discussing today’s nice breeze, right.

Mitsuko nods unconvincingly. The teacher playfully asks if this is so. Aki grabs hold of Mitsuko’s hand again and, seizing the moment starts to run past the teacher who, without too much commitment, tries to stop them.

And they run. Running through the hallways of the school, laughing, crazy with the joy of disobedience. They run out of the school. From a high point of view we see them running away from the school building as our vantage point draws further and further back making the space around them seem vast. The dimension of freedom immense. They are free because they have done something spontaneous. They run through the streets and into the woods. Their laughter as they run granting them true power. It does not matter that their legs are carrying them away wildly. They can’t fall because that forward momentum is so strong. They run for the sheer joy of it. Their arms are flailing around. They mention ditching the teacher but the teacher is nowhere behind them.They are running through the woods, the leaves being kicked up not by the wind but by their footfalls. Sunlight shimmering upon them through the trees. Their laughter is uncontrollable; pure joy. No longer the objects of gaze (although, technically, they are) but beyond caring about what anyone in the world could ever think about them; living fully in this moment. 

This new world is one of freedom and abandon. The figures of the girls blurring through each shot, laughing, moving from the restrictions and regulations of school into nature. This is the kind of moment which might have inspired Mitsuko to write as she was sitting on the bus flecked by bright sunlight. Being out here with friends and fully alive in the illicit escape. These three friends shall be her friends forever because of this one moment.

Music and Actors

The sensation of freedom in this scene is palpable. It might not be so were it not for the music of Mono. The guitars rise as the girls run. The music pounds a life-affirming rhythm and tempo as we see the girls chasing each other into the forest. Life has a soundtrack. Here that soundtrack has a propulsive joy. Later in the film, the tracks ‘Pure as Snow’ and ‘The Land Between Tides and Glory’ are used to deepen the emotional power of scenes in a manner that is hard to forget. Sono commonly uses found music in his films. His use of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and Mahler’s Fifth echoing other western films that used the same. Using Mono for Tag lends the film a different flavour to his other work. Tag has a unique soundscape, whether it is the music written for the film by Susumi Akizuki and Hiroaki Kanai, the music of Mono, or the overall sound design.

Reina Triendl’s performance carries the emotional core of the film. Her slim frame seems almost impossibly vulnerable and her sensitivity is always close to the surface. For her character, the film is a rollercoaster ride from one extreme to the other and back again. There is, however, a strength within her frail-seeming form, which emerges as the film comes close to its conclusion which is able to be quite surprising. She has a touch of a young Jenny Agutter which probably owes something to being half Austrian. Her child-like qualities and the innocence of her smile are almost tangible. Her natural vulnerability making what is happening to her seem more sadistic and terrible.

At the other end of the spectrum, in the early stages of this film, and moments throughout the film is Yuki Sakurai as the maternal Aki. Although the relationship hinted at is a sexual one, it feels far more protective than sexual. Mitsuko seems like a child while Aki mother. Ami Tomite plays the small but pivotal role of Sur whose character we shall look at in a moment. Tomite, a former member of the massive singing ensemble AKB48, went on to work with Sono in the emotionally gruelling Antiporno

Life is Surreal 

By the lake, the girls sit on fallen logs in a beach of fallen leaves. Aki tells Taeko and Sur about Mitsuko’s ‘dream’. Wind slicing through buses, her wading through the bloody bodies, her uniform being one from a dead girl. 

Looking up into the sky Sur says, “It’s possible.” She runs up to a piece of land, thick with roots from trees, overhanging the lakeside and stands like an actress on a stage. 

Sur: It comes down to probability. She was in another universe. The number of alternative realities is infinite. There’s an infinite number of us in multiple universes. Let me show you what I mean.

Sur runs down to the lakeside, picks up a large rock and throws it in the lake. 

Sur: I threw a rock. It disturbs the surface. But another me in another universe didn’t throw a rock.

Taeko: So you threw a rock in one universe and you didn’t in another. What does it matter?

Sur (brimming with excitement): Even a ripple can expand and affect our lives. Watch the ripple.

At the point where the rock splashed into the lake, a ripple expands further and seems to bubble. A film of mist appearing on the surface. Sur beckons the others over and they look at the point where the rock disappeared. Suddenly a crocodile appears and bloodily attacks Taeko. Fountains of blood spurt into the air as the jaws of the beast clamp down on her again and again. Taeko screams as the monster bloodily devours her. Mitsuko and Aki are splattered with blood. Death metal roars on the soundtrack combining with the sound of buzz saw-like chomping. 

Suddenly we are back in the peaceful, crocodile free universe we were in a few moments ago. Sur has a big smile on her face.

Sur: That could happen.

Taeko (laughing): Why me?

And then something almost as bizarre happens. Where there was nothing but leaves before, there is now a futon with two virgin-white pillows. Sur strides up to it but Taeko runs ahead of her picking up a pillow and throwing it at her. A pillow fight ensues in slow motion. The world becomes even more idyllic as the four girls have a pillow fight. Feathers erupt from the pillows filling the air, with that same downy snow that recurs throughout the film. 

During the pillow fight, Mitsuko pricks her finger on one of the feathers. She looks down at the tiny drop of blood on her finger. When she looks up, she sees two figures from another world, another dimension, one in a bridal dress and the other in a school uniform, they smile at her. They know something about her and what is happening. When she looks a second time, the two have disappeared like phantoms, like an accidental shift from another time and another place. The cut to the finger is reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty cutting her finger on a spindle or the scene (referencing Dario Argento again) where Sarah (played by Eleonora Giorgi) pricks her finger on a nail sticking out from the door of her taxi. In both those films, the pricking of the finger presages death reminding us of Macbeth.

By the pricking of my thumbs something wicked this way comes.

Time slowed down, each of the girls look directly into the camera. It is an idyllic moment. There eyes seem filled with love.Who are they seeing? Are we seeing them from Mitsuko’s point of view or are we seeing them from our own? They have become an idealised version of adolescence. The dream vision of teenage boys. This is a world without bad skin or awkwardness. In this sequence, they have become the embodiment of youth perfected. But it only works because none of these actresses is the age they are playing. 

Sur: If you really want to change your reality, do something strange and unexpected like me.

To show what she means, Sur shows the other girls her underwear. Most of the time, in this film, the sight of underwear is the result of the perverted wind or the ridiculously short skirts revealing something as they run up or down stairs. Sur is showing that it is possible for young women to take control. They can have sexual agency. They can be playful. They can be silly without becoming a passive thing. 

Sur: Maybe our destiny is decided. Maybe we’re trapped in it.

Sur picks one of the feathers from the ground and drops it.

Sur: The time required for this to reach the ground and where it falls is decided.

Mitsuko (showing a dawning awareness): And you can’t change it?

Sur: Exactly.

Mitsuko: Nothing I will do will change it.

Sur: But you can trick fate. Do something spontaneously that you would never do.

Mitsuko: That changes fate?

Sur: Sure.

Mitsuko: Spontaneously?

Sur: Do something unexpected without awareness. For example, suddenly knock down the desk in your room. Scream your head off during a class, ‘Fuuuuuck’ or…

Sur runs to the edge of the lake as if she is about to dive in and then just stops at the edge, wavering a little as she holds back the force she has built up in running.

Sur: If I jumped in it would have changed something.

The other girls realise that they will be late for their second class if they do not run back now and they start running again, full of the same youthful excitement with which they came to this place. Sur, suddenly outside the film, watches them.

Sur: Stay strong! Life is surreal. Don’t let it consume you!

Sion Sono and Spontaneity 

This entire sequence starting from the girls escaping the school to their return to the school is about ten minutes long. It is the one sequence of the film in which the characters are happy and unthreatened (unless you count the imaginary crocodile). It is the sequence that voices the philosophy of the film. Sion Sono’s attitude to the art of painting is that it can only be spontaneous. In a sequence from the documentary The Sion Sono, Sono illustrates by taking an expensive canvas and randomly marking it with paint (equating the blank canvas to the life of a woman who is at first virginal). As an artist, he thinks little about what he does because the more one thinks about a thing, the further it gets from anything original. Maybe it becomes predigested. 

Watching movies that are beautifully made but have no real surprises and nothing unseen in a million other movies can be a tiresome thing. Critics tend to hold movies as worthy or worthless according to whether they meet a specific set of criteria. Does this film have a message? Does it have the beats of good drama? Do the characters speak in a way that moves the plot forward? It often feels that the only purpose of movies is to satisfy criteria that we must see met time after time. It is not the purpose of a film to do anything new or spontaneous (unless within the same framework employed by a million other movies). The punk sensibility that exists within Sono’s work might not always produce the best movies. There is a lot to be said for some of those formal rules. But do we watch movies or encounter any kind of art to simply see the same ideas that we already hold regurgitated in front of us? If a film is about the Holocaust or slavery we shall expect to walk away from that film aware that these things were terrible. But then did we go into the cinema thinking they were great? Watching a thriller we shall expect every scene to move us closer to the resolution. A romantic comedy will always follow the same route (disguised in different ways). All of these movies may be well made and beautifully acted and have the best intentions behind them. But they maintain a very firm divide between what is on that screen and what might exist within our lives. Few directors who want to keep working can break those rules. The critics who judge according to set criteria will hang those directors out to dry (unless they have already been established as great artists, in which case they might look at the film differently). Audiences will fail to show up because they always want more of the same.

Sono, however, approaches film in much the same way he approaches that blank canvas and making the first mark almost randomly. Some of his films are more formal than others, but even amid the more commercial films, like Suicide Club or Exte, he has always made films that carry that sense of experimentalism from his early work. 

Tag, by appearing to be an adaptation of a popular science fiction novel, looks like a mainstream film. That it is anything but a mainstream film probably played a role in its negative reception from many quarters within Japan. The Chasing World, to which many believed this would be yet another sequel, had a parallel world but the audience was not going to be challenged or left confused by its plot. Sono always challenges his audience. In addition to shots that break the fourth wall and a plot that seems more picaresque than linear, Tag has a character who is mouthing the same punk aesthetic as Sono himself. 

Education First

Back at school, as her class is about to begin, Mitsuko sees a pillow on the floor, bends over to pick it up and throws it to Aki as the teacher watches. Everyone in the class, except Mitsuko is cut-down in a hail of bullets. For some reason, the bullets avoid her entirely. She cannot be damaged, just traumatised. 

The music from the opening sequence returns. After our time away, we are back in the land of the extreme horror film. The teachers are trying to kill the students. There is no time to think about why this is happening. The key thing is simply to escape again, not, this time, from the benign lessons, but from the wrath of teachers whose entire role is the sustaining of order. School might ostensibly be about educating and preparing children for the world, but on a deeper level, it’s about making sure that the young start on a course of compliance to the way things are and the way they should be. 

Taeko and Sur rescue Mitsuko and drag her traumatised soul through the corridors towards some escape. The first teacher, now armed with a shotgun and machine gun, one in each hand, kills both of them. As a flower of blood appears on Sur’s chest, the soundtrack borrows a bar from Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack to Psycho. Falling strings accompany Sur’s fall to the ground. Sur reiterates to Mitsuko as she is dying, with a smile on her face, her life has been surreal. Life is surreal. She has to beat it and not be consumed by it. 

There follows much running and screaming, bazookas and bombs. Schoolgirls fall dead or blow up. Running from the school, one yells, “Mitsuko, you have to do something. Think about why this is happening.”

The girls who leave the school with Mitsuko are immediately cut in two by the razor wind, their arms flailing in the air. 

Leaves blow. The unseen force cuts telegraph lines. 

We are flying once more. 

The sound of the wind is tangible, like fingernails down a blackboard. 

She finds herself in a town. People ignore her as she runs past them. She goes into a police station, crying, in a panic. The policewoman is surprised that she is in such a state. The streets seem normal enough. But even while people are walking through the town as though it is a normal Saturday afternoon, the sounds of people screaming and dying are on the soundtrack. 

Suddenly the policewoman recognises Mitsuko as Keiko. It’s Keiko. The sounds of the screams cease. The policewoman sits Mitsuko/Keiko down. 

“What’s with that school uniform?”

Laughing, she shows Mitsuko a mirror. She is not Mitsuko any more. She has another face.

Blood Wedding

Shifting identities, the shifting of one face to another, is reminiscent of Luis Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire. In this film, Bunuel avoids anyone mentioning that the female lead is played, in alternate scenes by different actresses. Tag, however, is not a film marketed as a surrealist movie. The reason here is vaguer. The poster shows the three actresses playing the same character with three different names but one continuity. Each of the other actresses only has a few minutes of screen time before reverting to Reina Triendl. There is a clue to the thought process behind this when, at a later point in the film, we see the three actresses face’s in the lower left-hand corner of the screen just as the three playable characters in the game Grand Theft Auto Five appear. 

The section involving Keiko seems so tonally divorced from the first half of the movie that it could almost be looked at as a short movie in its own right were it not for the resurrection of the character of Aki. 

It’s Keiko’s wedding day. She is surrounded by friends telling her how handsome her husband is and how lucky she is to be the first one among them to marry. But Keiko is there, blowdrying her hair and, for a moment, she has a vision of herself as Mitsuko on the torn in half bus surrounded by blood. Leaves blowing in the wind. 

When she comes to, Aki clears the room and tells her that she is both Mitsuko and Keiko. This is a wedding ceremony. She tells her just to do what she says. 

Aki kills all the friends helping to dress her for the ceremony, cracking necks and hurling them across the room. When they are all dead, Aki gives her a broken green bottle. 

Then Keiko/Mitsuko goes alone into the chapel. At first, the whole wedding seems joyful with well-wishers and everyone throwing confetti. As she gets halfway up the aisle, something goes wrong. The guests start taunting her and taking their clothes off, clawing at her. The organist reveals the groom to be in a coffin. When the coffin door opens a grotesque human/pig hybrid is there as the groom, saliva viscously slipping from its hideous tongue. Wheeling in a gigantic wedding cake, the guests all chant, “Kiss him. Kiss Him.” Some of them tear at her wedding dress as if preparing her for the consummation of the wedding vow. In a moment of screaming, trembling horror, Keiko/Mitsuko drives the jagged edge of the bottle into the throat of the pig. The jugular opens and sprays the guests with jets of wine-red gore. The wet sound effects heighten the sheer repulsive horror of the moment. Guests who had been chanting are now screaming. The guests scream in terror as Keiko/Mitsuko fights anyone in her way, gouging at their stomachs and necks with the bottle. Most are too horrified by what has happened to go anywhere near her. 

Aki arrives and has to stop Keiko/Mitsuko from repeatedly stabbing one of the guests. It is hard to believe the other Mitsuko could have done this. She tells her that they have to go, but then the teachers arrive, dressed in black leather. Another fight with kicking, punching and gouging takes place accompanied by 70s style kung-fu kicking sound effects. Keiko/Mitsuko brutally stabs one of the teachers and finishes her off with a roundhouse kick. They escape into the street. Aki lures the people following her another way. 

Running, another runner with a number on her shirt greets Keiko/Mitsuko thinking she is a fellow runner called Izumi. Seeing her face in the mirror, Keiko/Mitsuko sees that her appearance has changed once more. She is Izumi and she looks like she’s running a marathon. Izumi has separate childhood memories. Her fellow runners remind her of how they always ran together as children. She then remembers running with them as an older child in their high-school uniforms.

Soon, Aki, Sur and Taeko are running beside Izumi. The pig from the wedding and the teachers are chasing them. The teachers casually kick at and knock out other runners who get in their way. The three friends distract the teachers leaving Izumi to run alone, to escape this world. Encouraged by the cheering crowds, she keeps running until she reaches a cave. Once inside the cave, she meets a girl who beckons her inside. 

Deep Inside 

It’s not easy to define Tag. It’s not a horror film despite having many horror film elements that might put off anyone who can’t watch scary stuff. It’s not a science fiction film despite having elements of mind-altering social satire and casual references to cloning and the psychological manipulation of human beings. It’s certainly not a schoolgirl drama despite the moments which are. As with so many of Sono’s films, Tag defies genre. 

On Japanese websites where people comment on the film, fans of the novel felt cheated by the film not adapting the novel in any way, shape or form. Fans of extreme horror love the first ten minutes (which might remind them of the joyful excesses of Tokyo Gore Police and the films that followed in its wake) but then feel let down when the film morphs into a a surrealist feminist drama.

Despite being one of many films he made in 2015, Tag feels too big a film to be an exercise in surrealist punk spontaneity. It never settles down long enough to be overly reflective. Mitsuko never really knows what is going on. Is she responsible for what is going on around her? Does she even have enough agency to change her fate (as suggested by Sur)? She seems to spend a lot of time being told what to do by the people around her and blindly following them. When Aki asks Mitsuko as Keiko to follow her lead, she joins in and becomes a killer. She can kill the guests at the wedding simply because the script has changed. Would she have done this as Mitsuko in school if Aki had asked her? 

In the third part of the film we get some partial answers. Viewers who saw the final episode of The Prisoner in 1968 jammed the ITV switchboard with complaints. So many people had been following the drama expecting a a neat resolution with clear explanations. What they got left them more confused than anything else in the series.

For anyone who doesn’t know, The Prisoner was a 1967-8 TV series starring Patrick McGoohan as a man who may or may not be a spy, kidnapped and taken to a beatific little village. Here, he is subjected to various attempts to break his spirits and make him accept the village and its rules as well as revealing whatever secrets he may or may not have known. I won’t talk about the series here but there are definite similarities to Tag. Mitsuko doesn’t know where she is or why what is happening is happening. Unlike the character played by McGoohan, she doesn’t have a strong idea about resisting what is happening to her but her position, like that of No.6 is an exalted one. She might feel she is about to be killed but she is simply too important to meet the fate met by her friends.

The other actresses playing Mitsuko’s alter-egos, Keiko and Izumi, couldn’t be more different to the original character played by Reina Triendl. They don’t have the same innocent appearance. Mariko Shinoda as Keiko is completely convincing in the scenes where she launches into full fight mode. She doesn’t get much screen time moving from perplexed victim to crazed killer in ten minutes. Erino Mano as Izumi has a bit more screen time but spend so much of it running that we never get a sense of her. That both of these characters are Mitsuko is an interesting twist to what is already a very twisty yarn. What is the nature of identity. They feel they are Mitsuko and yet they seem much equipped to live in their worlds. Can they look back upon their time in that other body the way that we look back on our time as children? And are any of them responsible for what happens in their stories?

Can You Die Please?

The girl in the cave shows Izumi to a large group of girls. These girls with their heads hanging down, hair covering their faces like Japanese ghosts, look like they might have wandered in from a zombie film. But they are wearing the school uniforms of the numerous girls killed earlier in the film. They have no life in them.

The girl plays with a butterfly knife and goes to attack Izumi who is struck dumb by yet another horrific situation.

Shin de

Girl in Cave: Can you die, please? Die bitch. Say something in your own words for once! Do you know what kind of world this is? Everybody dies because of you. Can’t you remember? You coward. Try to remember. We die because of you.

Aki appears and kills the girl with a crunching twist of her neck. She takes Izumi by the hand and runs with her through the dead girls. Once in a deeper part of the cave, she asks her to repeat “I’m Mitsuko” to reclaim her true identity. As she does this the third or fourth time she is suddenly transformed back into her original incarnation of Mitsuko. Aki then asks Mitsuko to look at her arms. From her wrists emerge one red wire and one blue wire. She tells Mitsuko to pull these wires and destroy her. When Mitsuko says that she can’t, Aki slaps her savagely across the face. 

Aki: Say it again… ‘I am Mitsuko. Watashi wa Mitsuko da.

Mitsuko: Watashi wa Mitsuko da!

Aki: Again.

Mitsuko: Watashi wa Mitsuko da!

I AM MITSUKO

She repeats it and repeats it. As if gaining strength from confirming her identity over and over. 

Aki: Now listen to me. The world we’re in is fictional. Someone dragged us all into this world. Only you can stop them in this world. You are the main character. It’s the only way to escape. They’ll keep chasing you and killing you forever. Only you can get us out.

Mitsuko stares at Aki, tears on her face, traumatised beyond belief. 

Aki shakes her again.

Aki: You’ll have to destroy me to make the exit. Rip the cables out so you can go through. Do it! Do it! Do it!

Tentatively, Mitsuko takes the wires sticking from Aki’s wrist. 

Aki: Do it!

Mitsuko pulls the wires and, slowly, painfully, as if giving birth, Aki splits apart, the wires from her arms connecting through her feet to wires in the ground. As the wires grow taut, a white doorway appears between the two halves of what was once Aki. 

Aki, using the wires as a guide walks towards the white light; towards the world of men. 

Men’s World

For the first hour of Tag, there are no men. Not unless we count the pig that Keiko was due to marry. It’s been a world of women written by a male director. While we have never seen a man in that opening hour, we have felt the presence of one. The women we have seen are very much women from various male points of view. The innocent and pure Mitsuko constantly being taunted and tortured by the world around her. The sapphic and quasi maternal relationship between Aki and Mitsuko having the sweetness of a classic male fantasy of women together. The pillow fights between schoolgirls whose skirts are just a little too short so that every time a woman runs or does anything physical, her underwear is on show. Only when we get into the cave does the girl, who intends Mitsuko to die, tell her to say something in her own words for once. 

Whose words has she been using up until then? 

But, and this is an important aspect of cinema that is misunderstood by those who love cinema the most, the director cannot control the direction of the film. While it is undoubtedly true that cinema is a director’s medium rather than a writer’s medium it can never be completely so. When we read a book, we are reading the words of a writer and completing that vision in our minds using our imagination and our experiences. With a film, it is tempting to believe that the director has an even greater control. It is certainly true that the editing process can lead us very closely after the event. But, when we watch a film, unless that film is an animation of some sort, we are not watching the director’s hands guiding events like a puppeteer. We are watching the actors. The actors might be mouthing words written in a screenplay but the characters they bring to the screen are ultimately what makes the difference between a film we want to see and one that we do not. But what if a director tried to have as much control over every movement and every facial expression that an actor made? Would that actor rebel or follow?

There are numerous ways to interpret a film whose rules and storyline have an element of dream reality. There is always something a little reductive about someone saying, “this part here is a clear allegory for X”. If an allegory is clear then it might as well not be an allegory, especially if the film-makers are working in a free country. It is up to the viewer to read a film in their own way. It could be said, for example, that Aki’s being torn in half for Mitsoku to be able to enter another world, is an allegory of childbirth. But it could also be an allegory for adolescent awareness on the death of a parental figure or, it could be that Aki is an agent of the power that has its own reason to get Mitsuko, the original Mitsuko, to enter the real world. Aki seems the maternal, girlish lover. Aki, the saviour who helps Mitsuko to fight painful illusions. Aki, the mother. Aki, who is autumn. Mitsuko, the shining child. But maybe there is another way of looking at this scene. What we have had up until this point is a man looking at women. In the wedding scene, we were plunged for a few moments into a nightmare scene that could have come from Fellini’s City of Women. Women tearing off their clothes and becoming vulgar haranguing mocking creatures, not the sweetly mischievous schoolgirls who slip away from the first lesson to spend an hour or so by the lake having pillow fights and speculating over reality. But in stepping away from diverse male fantasies or nightmares about women, what happens when we find ourselves in the world of men?

Mitsoku now knows she needs to speak for herself and leave this fictional world. She is responsible. She has to find the spontaneity that Sur was referring to. She has to live. She is the main character. The kind of story this is can be her responsibility. 

But, given that she only knows these fictions of herself, how can she find her true self?

I never thought you’d come this far

Mitsuko steps into a kitchen. Men are frying meat and flames are leaping from pans. She looks dazed but not entirely surprised to be in a world where there are men. Men have been referred to earlier in the film but never seen. Now, in this hot and busy kitchen, there is nothing but men. 

Leaving the kitchen, she steps out into an alley, where men stand as if waiting for something. The three closest to us are shirtless imbeciles sniggering in anticipation of some perverted joy to come. One of them is wearing a disco ball on a gold chain around his neck. These are strange men. There is a “Manly Shop” and a “Masculine Shop” as if in this world of men only there could be anything else. You can almost smell the testosterone. 

Mitsuko stares at them, her pupils dilated, for the first time in extreme close up. 

She turns and sees two men, one in leopard skin briefs squeezing his muscular buttocks and a leather waistcoat, the other wearing leopard skin shorts and nothing else, his hair coming to a point like a character in a manga or an anime series. These two men are staring at a poster on the wall. 

Another man, wearing a pendant around his neck, breathes smoke out into the air, bicycles stacked vertically behind him. He looks like a cool guy who could have slipped through from a gang film.

But now, Mitsuko is less interested in the men than in the poster on the wall. It is a poster of her flanked by Keiko and Izumi.

The classic 20th Century Game, now available in 3D – Real Oni Gokko!

This poster is the first thing to shock Mitsuko. She realises that Aki was telling the truth. The world she was in was fictional. She was the main character. But it was a game. Just a game. And men were lining up to play this same game; using her, abusing her and all those other girls. As the star of the game, she is guilty. She is responsible. 

A handsome young man steps out of the line and talks to her. The other men seem unable to see her as if they are already playing their own virtual game oblivious to their surroundings.

Young Man: Are you okay?

She stares at him in shock.

Young Man: I’m glad you remember me. But not my name. I guess not. I never thought you’d come this far.

He takes her by the hand, much as Aki had, and she stumbles after him, as she did with Aki. 

Mitsuko: It’s you.

Young Man: Mitsuko. You’re actually in the future.

On hearing this, she immediately passes out. 

A feather falls

Mitsuko emerges from the darkness with her eyes closed. 

You died a long time ago

When we watch a film, any film, we have a choice. We can become the passive recipients of easy entertainment that leaves us with something like the cinematic equivalent of a Big Mac and Fries. There is nothing wrong with this at all. Sometimes, after a hard day or a hard week, that’s what we need. It’s nice to be able to kick back and enjoy that all the work has been done for us by a team of master craftsmen. There is nothing here to think about. I have loved this form of entertainment since being a small child. 

But it’s not the only way to enjoy a film. Sometimes the film-maker might deliberately allow us to veer off the path and see things for ourselves with our own eyes. I doubt that many seeing Hitchcock’s Vertigo in 1958 felt they were watching a queasily necrophilic film about control, but some might have and this at-the-time poorly performing and critically undervalued film now tops the Sight and Sound critic’s list as the number one film of all time. Perceptions are not just affected by fashion. They also depend on what the viewer sees. 

There is more than an element of necrophilia in the last section of Tag. A man in love with a woman who might be long dead; a genetic reconstruction whose real self might not be as interesting to men as the fiction she has become. 

Mitsuko walks through the cave and finds herself the only living creature amid walls and walls of lifelike dolls, eyes open but in every other sense lifeless. Among these dolls are the two women that Mitsuko saw watching the pillow fight by the lake. As she passes them, they now have the glazed appearance of the embalmed. 

Amid the dolls, she sees a bed, like the bed that appeared by the lake. And beside the bed is a glass case with more figures that, at this point, she cannot identify. A man sits by an old CRT TV, his wizened Davros-like hands hitting a control panel as he switches characters in the game Mitsuko has been the star of. He switches between her escaping from the teachers, Keiko fighting the teachers at the wedding ceremony and Izumi running. When he becomes aware of Mitsuko he turns off the television. The picture disappears in a white dot (one for the oldies). 

Wearing a red velvet jacket over a smart suit with long white hair reaching his elbows, he looks about two hundred years old. “Good morning,” he says to Mitsuko and we realise that this is the same handsome young man she met in the men’s world only minutes earlier. He stumbles towards her using a cane to keep his balance. 

She is transfixed by his appearance.

Old Man: You see. You died a long time ago. It was the Spring of 2034. I got hold of a sample of your DNA. And your friends’ too. There, look at that.

He points to the case of his ‘stars’. 

In the case, we see his favourites: Mitsuko, Keiko, Izuma, Taeko, Sur and the two teachers. All stand there as lifelessly as the dolls lining the cave. Mitsuko stares at herself, trapped with a single lightly smiling expression behind the condensation of the glass cage. She seems particularly distressed to see Aki’s mannequin there no longer torn in half but looking like she was never alive.

Old Man: I bet you could have never guessed that your DNA would be used for our entertainment.

He laughs a twistedly juvenile decayed laugh. Her life is just sport to him. Entertainment. A wonderful playful dream. She has been through so many scenarios like those we have witnessed before. But now, she has somehow emerged beyond the world of the game to this world full of old-men and living death. 

The young man appears. He is an avatar of the older man; his younger self.

Young Man: The game’s character is here. Amazing.

He walks with a spring in his step, already shirtless as if anticipating something more. He takes off his trousers to show he is wearing tidy white briefs just like the schoolgirls running through the corridors. His body is slim and tanned. He jumps on the bed and pats the empty patch beside him; “Here”. 

Old Man (almost drooling at the prospect of what will happen next) My last wish will come true now. An unrealised dream of 150 years ago. Go ahead. Surrender to your destiny!

She goes to the bed and lies down next to the young man, the avatar of the old man. 

While lying there, she suddenly gets a vision of Sur by the lake as they had been when she had almost jumped into the water but stopped herself. Only now, Sur is soaking wet and is in the lake. 

Sur (shouting): Only something unexpected will change your destiny.

Sur throws herself back into the water with a splash. A different destiny. A different fate. 

Mitsuko stands watching as feathers fall around her. She looks down at her pricked finger. A feather lands upon the blood, The barbs and barbules of the feather delicately transform from white to red. The stain on her virgin character. 

She is back in the bed. The avatar man leans over her ominously, eager to make love. But she doesn’t want him to make love to her. He is less real than she is. She pushes him away and gets on top of him and, for the first time in the film, shows anger.

She puts her hands around the young man’s neck and squeezes as his eyes widen with fear. The old-man looks on incredulously. How could this happen? How could a woman he had brought back from the dead and led to this place be resisting his handsome younger self? 

Mitsuko: Stop this! Don’t play with us like toys! Stop it!

Letting go of the man’s neck she tears open the pillow. White feathers fly in every direction showering the scene like snowflakes. 

A shower of scarlet feathers fall by the lake.

Back in the bedroom, the white feathers are now blood red. The avatar man is gone. 

Mitsuko storms up to the old-man, takes his cane as red feathers fall all around them and drives the cane into her own chest. Instead of blood, more and more red feathers fill the air flowing from her wound as she collapses to the floor. 

Mitsuko is suddenly back on the bus and seems to be aware of herself; completely aware of everything that has happened and everything that will happen. 

Then she is Keiko walking up the aisle of the wedding, this time there are no demon women, just well-wishers (including some who were killed by Aki earlier). Keiko has that same sudden awareness of everything. 

Mitsuko, on the bus, picks up the pen and stabs herself in the chest before the buses can be sliced in two by the wind. 

Keiko stabs herself in the chest before the pig-groom can appear. 

Izumi is also lying dead on the ground, presumably for similar reasons. 

They have all seen their lives as stuck on a loop of being played in games in which women, brought back from death, become disposable non-playable-characters. NPCs in this game of death played by men who have no conception of the unique qualities each one of them would have. 

Mitsuko, no longer lying in the cave, no longer dead, but somewhere else… maybe… lies in the snow. As the camera moves closer to her, she gets up and starts to run again, only now, she is not in a game… Maybe. 

Don’t play with us like toys!

The action of Tag suggests a critique of the way certain games invite the player to see NPCs as subjects for destruction. Human-like creatures who, because they are not human, allow us to indulge our darkest whims. Grand Theft Auto is probably the target because it famously allows the player to kill with impunity. But there is a huge difference between video games and real-life; a difference that even the dullest child can immediately identify. 

The story could also be seen as a critique of the same type of cinema that it is an exponent of. Many critiques of the film focus on the way suggesting Sono might be having his cake and eating it by seeming to criticise the exploitation of beautiful young women while exploiting beautiful young women. It seems unlikely to me that this film is a moral critique of anything.

The voice in the film which speaks the most convincingly is that of Sur. She is the one guiding Mitsuko away from doing what the script is telling her to do. Forget the script. Just shout “fuck” at the top of the voice if that’s something that occurs to you to do. Do that which breaks the script. 

In The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan as No.6 (all prisoners are known not by names but by numbers) is told that his file says he does not take sugar. No.6, therefore, puts two sugars in his tea. In another prison story, Porridge, Norman Stanley Fletcher (Ronnie Barker), tells his young cellmate Godbar (played by Richard Beckinsale) that the key to surviving while incarcerated is to “never let the bastards grind you down”. In Tag, Mitsuko breaks character and ceases to be easy or compliant. The old-man feels that she will be too timorous to say no to his young avatar. But she kills the avatar and then herself to save everyone. The control is broken. She is not an NPC. She cannot be so easily abused in this way. She does the unexpected thing. But in doing that unexpected thing, she must face being alone and away from the worlds created by the engineers of the future. Where is the snowscape that she runs through? Is it a world beyond the world? 

We don’t know… 

And it’s good not knowing. By not knowing we can keep coming back and see different possibilities every time. 

The key to Tag is not in unravelling what it means. The key is in enjoying its sheer beauty as a piece of film-making. Great horror alternates with great beauty. The music by Mono and by the film’s original composers, Susumi Akizuki and Hiroaki Kanai, the elegant muted photography of Maki Ito come together with Sono’s spontaneity and, most importantly the actresses the performances of the many actresses. All the NPCs who, by nature of their unique characteristics and choices, make every role distinct.

Credits

The version of the film discussed was the Eureka blu-ray. All images from Tag, Suspiria, Inferno The Chasing World, GTAV and The Sion Sono are subject to copyright and will be withdrawn on request. The link to the music video for the film is courtesy of JG Pro Studios.

The Final Programme

The Book

He was very tall, and the pale face, framed by the hair, resembled the young Swinburne’s. His black eyes didn’t seem at all kindly. He was about twenty-seven and had been, so they said, a Jesuit. He had something of a Church intellectual’s decadent ascetic appearance. He had possibilities. 

Reading Michael Moorcock’s work is like stepping into a world much like our own but with everything screwed in a different way. He may not be writing in a precise way about the world that we live in, where we work, and interact with those around us and yet his streets are the same streets and the people who populate his work are recognisably real. Sometimes, especially in the books and stories he wrote during the late sixties and early seventies, the stories could be perplexing in that experimental manner of any artist trying to create in a new way with a new voice, but at their worst, those stories are always saved by those characters and Moorcock’s humour. Even where, as is the case of A Cure for Cancer or parts of The English Assassin, we are not absolutely sure what’s going on there’ll always be a moment, a description or an exchange guaranteed to raise a smile. The Final Programme is the novel that marked a diversion from the more clear cut and easy-to-follow fantasy and science fiction narratives of his earlier work. It’s not as likely to confuse the reader as The Cure for Cancer or The English Assassin but it has its moments. Sometimes Moorcock feels like William Burroughs in Ladbroke Grove writing cut up spy thrillers in collaboration with PG Wodehouse.

The Final Programme has a main plot that could have been transplanted from a much more mainstream science fiction novel. Still full of humour, obscenity and satire, it comes close, at times, to being an apocalyptic spoof of James Bond set in a bewildering version of the present, with its central character a pan-sexual Dr Who skipping between alternate realities. And every attempt made to describe in terms of any other work is bound to fall a little flat. Ultimately, the success of the story rests with its picaro hero; Jerry Cornelius.

Fashion-conscious, consumed by his love of music and, much like Caligula, deeply in love with his sister, Jerry Cornelius enjoys the finer things in life. The version of London he inhabits (although he enjoys a bit of globe-trotting now and then) is not the London that exists (or which existed in 196-) but one that might exist in the way the city and that decade have become imprinted in our imagination by rock music. Something of a dandy, Jerry Cornelius enjoys making a theatrical entrance or exit knowing he is the star of his own show and must keep the people entertained. He cries more than most heroes cry and is prone to sentimental musings but he doesn’t have a lot of empathy for those who fall by the wayside. His sexual tastes extend about as far as sexual tastes can. At the right time he might share his bed with a transsexual pop singer or a Hindu physicist with owl-like eyes. Nothing is prohibited except bad taste in music. Not a reliable friend, he will think nothing of betraying or murdering his closest companions if it suits his needs. He was, at some point in the past, a theoretical physicist writing books with titles such as Time Search Through the Declining WestTowards the Ultimate Paradox and The Ethical Solution. He now wishes to erase that embarrassing phase of his life by destroying any copy of any of those books he happens upon. He drives a Duesenberg, probably for the same reason he dresses like a fashion model, through the streets of London always with the car stereo blaring the hits of the time. He flaunts his sexually fluid dandyism which never attracts any criticism from those he’s flaunting it to because, well, because he’s the hero. The star of the novel. He never has to worry about money or anyone stealing his thunder.

At the time of creating Cornelius, Moorcock was the editor of New Worlds magazine, a science fiction magazine which had widened the spectrum of science fiction to include alternative and speculative fiction. It was, later in the sixties, to run into censorship problems that saw the magazine removed from the shelves of WH Smiths and John Menzies, the leading newsagents in the country. The first version of The Final Programme, emerged in pieces on the pages of New Worlds and Moorcock invited other writers use Cornelius as “a sort of crystal ball for others to see their own visions in”¹ Some have remarked that this made Cornelius the first open source protagonist. Moorcock, himself, returned to Cornelius frequently, not just in novels but in short stories and even a comic strip. Maybe, he too wanted to use him as that crystal ball to see a reflection of the age he was living through. After all, an amoral oversexed anti-hero is perhaps better placed to reflect the world than some lantern jawed superman determined to do the right thing.

Not that any of the Jerry Cornelius books or stories ever feel worthy or dull. They never lecture or reveal their political bias. However amoral Cornelius might be, Moorcock is able to make him good company and keep his world as enticing as any in fiction:

It was a world ruled by the gun, the guitar and the needle, sexier than sex, where the good right hand had become the male’s primary sexual organ, which was just as well considering that the world population had been due to double before the year 2000.

Moorcock, like his New Worlds contemporary, Ballard, used the medium of science fiction as a springboard and, like Ballard his work was later embraced by critics winning him literary prizes and being seen as a ‘serious writer’. Genre writers, especially those associated with science fiction, were rarely given that much respect. It probably helped that Moorcock was (and is) a tireless fighter not just in promoting his own work but in rescuing his fellow writers from becoming ghettoized. The fact he kept publishing New Worlds even when, thanks to the ban, he had to put his own money into keeping it going, reveals much about him as a person. Not an advocate of staying in one lane, he defended the way science fiction could be a much broader church in mirroring current society rather than simply chronicling adventures in spaceships and time machines. That he was able, much like Ballard to jump into other genres no doubt helped him cross over the divide that some writers were never able to broach. His Colonel Pyat novels, in being historical fiction by a troublesome narrator garnered respect that might not have been so forthcoming if he hadn’t spread his wings so wide. Whether writing sword and sorcery, satire or historical fiction, the humour is always there. The Wodehouse connection flows through his prose and it is unsurprising to read that he counts Wodehouse among his chief literary inspirations.

The Final Programme, The Cure for Cancer, The English Assassin and The Condition of Muzak (which won The Guardian Fiction Prize in 1977) each look at the character or the world of Jerry Cornelius through different prisms. Some feel that the final novel The Condition of Muzak contains the real world coda for what the character really is. It seems just as likely, however, that this is just one of a variety of equally viable fictions. Throughout each book, the same characters return again and again. Characters once dead come back to life. Familiar places become unfamiliar places. Familiar characters become, similarly, unfamiliar. In The Cure for Cancer, for example, Jerry Cornelius has black skin and white hair inverting the version of himself in The Final Programme. In The English Assassin he spends much of the novel dead or out of the game making him an occasional guest star rather than the central character. In 1979, two years after the publication of the final novel in the series, Moorcock revised the text of The Final Programme and included an introduction by John Clute which is in all later editions. That introduction suggests, pretty heavily, that every novel is a variation on a theme but that the real tune is in The Condition of Muzak. But then, the whole point of variations is that each of them is or none of them are the real tune. I once had an earlier edition of the book but it seems to have gone walkies so comparisons are out. It is, however, The Final Programme that remains the most vivid of all the Cornelius books and perhaps, along with Behold the Man, the most memorable of all Moorcock’s work.

The story of The Final Programme follows, among other things, the recruitment of Jerry Cornelius by Miss Brunner and her associates in a plot to retrieve some microfilm from the fake Le Corbusier château built by Jerry’s father and currently occupied by his brother Frank and his sister Catherine. Jerry’s motives in helping Brunner are that he wants to see Frank dead so that he can save his sister and continue his incestuous love affair with her. The microfilm, aside from being a handy maguffin to get the plot going, is a key to writing a computer programme that will be able to combine all ideas and knowledge into a single consciousness. Along the way, there are assassinations, murders, orgies, six month long parties, psychedelic confusion and vampirism.

Miss Brunner who drives the action of the plot is described as “a sharp-faced attractive young woman with the look of a predator.” She is the computer scientist who is driven to accomplish the final programme of the title that will see humanity or some form of intelligence through the oncoming apocalypse. It is suggested, at a point quite late on in the book, that she is quite a lot older than she appears and has only been able to retain her youth through vampirism. Her acts of vampirism are very tidy and don’t involve anything so uncouth as drinking blood. She simply absorbs people. Characters she has been with disappear to be replaced by nothing more than small piles of neatly folded clothes. She exerts a strange effect upon all who meet her. Jerry naturally cannot help disliking her. “Her hair was red and long, curving outward at the ends. It was nice hair but not on her.” He can sense, perhaps, that she is a vampire and has her eye trained on him. He can spot a vampire primarily because he’s a bit of a vampire himself:

He found that he didn’t need to eat much, because he could live off other people’s energy just as well. It was exhausting for them, of course. He didn’t keep many acquaintances long, and Catherine was the only person off whom he hadn’t fed. Indeed, it had been his delight to feed her with some of his stolen vitality.

The first section of the book, Phase One, is perhaps the most straightforward, the gang, with the help of some particularly unpleasant seeming mercenaries, must break through the defences of the château, rescue Catherine, get the microfilm and kill Frank. It does not go well with most of the characters ending up dead. The deaths are never pleasant but, despite that, it’s all told in a spirit of fun. Frank is described as being the polar opposite of Jerry, his “skin was grey, drawn over his near fleshless skeleton like a lifeless film of plastic”. While engaged in a needlegun fight with Frank, Jerry yells, “Throw in your needle and come out with your veins clear,” really getting into the spirit of the thing. After being shot in the arm with one of Frank’s drugged needles, Jerry accidentally shoots the one person he was trying to protect (which is kind of her fault because she gets in his way). As the drug from the needle works into Jerry’s bloodstream, Moorcock’s prose conjures Jerry’s confused state while tripping into a swirling nightmare:

Jerry sat himself down on the edge of the bed. 

He was riding a black Ferris wheel of emotions. His brain and his body exploded in a torrent of mingled ecstasy and pain. Regret. Guilt. Relief. Waves of pale light. He fell down a never-ending slope of obsidian rock surrounded by clouds of green, purple, yellow, black. The rock vanished, but he continued to fall. World of phosphorescence drifting like golden spheres into the black night. Green, blue, red explosions. Flickering world of phosphorescent tears falling into timeless, spaceless wastes. World of Guilt. Guilt-guilt- guilt… Another wave flowed up his spine. No-mind, no-body, no-where. Dying waves of light danced out of his eyes and away through the dark world. Everything was dying. Cells, sinews, nerves, sinapses – all crumbling. Tears of light, fading, fading. Brilliant rockets streaking into the sky and exploding all together and sending their multicoloured globes of light – balls on a Xmas tree – x-mass – drifting slowly. Black mist swirled across a bleak, horizonless nightscape. Catherine. As he approached her she fell away, fell down like a cardboard dummy. Just before his mind cleared, he thought he saw a creature bending over them both – a creature without a navel, hermaphrodite and sweetly smiling…

He felt weaker as his head cleared, and he realised that some time must have passed. Catherine lay on the bed in much the same position in which he’d seen her earlier. There was a spot of blood on her white dress, over the left breast. 

He put his hand on it and noticed that the heart wasn’t beating. 

He had killed her. 

In agony, he began to caress her stiff. 

The death of Catherine is the event that marks the book’s emotional core (not that it’s an emotional book). The event reverberates even through the other books where Catherine is still very much alive. Yet, despite this being the moment of Jerry’s greatest loss, or greatest guilt… Life goes on. Jerry may be a character filled with self pity and given to crying when things go badly but, after a spell in a nursing home, he just gets up and moves along with life. The guilt which comes from having accidentally killed his one great love is just another sensation which shall be replaced by other sensations as soon as Jerry is returns to his beloved London.

As soon as he is back in his collapsing city where he can enjoy a meal where every ingredient is guaranteed vitamin-free he will be himself again. He never feels comfortable without “at least fifteen miles of build-up area on all sides.” He is only really happy between the Blue Boar Tavern and Leicester Square, enjoying the various pleasures that London has to offer someone like himself.

The sexual fluidity is an important aspect of The Final Programme and the character of Jerry Cornelius and it is worth, for a moment, looking at the context of that. Homosexuality had been illegal in one way or another in the UK since the Buggery Act of 1533 had been introduced by King Henry VIII. It wasn’t until after The Sexual Offences act of 1967, which decriminalised homosexual acts between two men over the age of 21, that things began to change in earnest. Society still saw homosexuality of any kind as a kind of mental illness. Cornelius, while perhaps not a great example of mental stability, routinely jumps into bed with whomever he sees fit at the time without any concern. It’s a novel which is almost blind to any distinction between heterosexuality and homosexuality (or any other kind of sexuality for that matter). It’s not an issue. The novel also dips lightly into transsexualism:

Little Miss Dazzle was quite naked and did not appear on stage like that, if for no other reason than that the public would see that she was equipped with the daintiest masculine genitals.

After his grief and guilt has subsided a tad, Jerry consoles himself with a series of escapades which include getting involved with a Swedish girl named Ulla. The plot can wait. In fact Jerry seems to be largely concerned with putting a distance between himself and the main plot of the novel. In this sense the novel often feels like a Jonah-esque game of hide and seek with destiny; destiny coming in the austere vampiric form of Miss Brunner. Ulla (whose name, at some point, changes to Una Persson – the heroine of later novels including The Adventures of Una Persson and Catherine Cornelius in the Twentieth Century and novels completely unrelated to Jerry Cornelius’s world) becomes Jerry’s wife offering him a nice, ordinary and pleasant life which we know cannot last long. Before his marriage and the resumption of the main story Jerry also throws a party in his opulent home which drags on for months. Moorcock seems to have great fun listing the guests:

There were Turkis and Persian lesbians with huge houri eyes like those of sad neutered cats; French tailors, German musicians: Jewish Martyrs; a fire eater from Suffolk; a barber-shop quartet from Britain’s remaining American base — The Columbia Club, in Leicester Gate; two fat prudes; Hans Smith of Hampstead, Last of the Left-Wing Intellectuals — the Microfilm Mind; Shades; fourteen dealers in the same antique from Portobello Road, their faces sagging under the weight of their own self-deception; a jobless Polish french-polisher brought by one of the dealers etc.

Moorcock is always at his best when he is at his most playful. At one point during the party, the fourteen antique dealers enjoy a gang bang with the Polish french-polisher while being watched by Turkish and Persian lesbians sitting straight-backed on cushions. The Bohemian world of well indulged decadence seems entirely suited to Jerry’s persona. It doesn’t hurt that, as described by Moorcock, it’s a world which feels tangible. This is the imagined world of the 1960s London where everything was swinging and a better time was being had by all. It’s the world that comes through in the music of the time. Music that Moorcock was a part of creating. In his recent book, The Whispering Swarm, Moorcock dives into his autobiographical past and recreates his own experience of that age. The Final Programme, for all its violent interludes and moments of science fiction and entropy, so often echo that spirit.

“Guests died or left and new ones came. Spring arrived, green and lovely, and the guests oozed into the garden.” They didn’t stroll or saunter or dance or float, they oozed. Only Moorcock could have a party ending with people oozing into a garden. In a single verb he captures a sensation. A tangible expression of how a six month party; an orgy of sex, booze, music and drugs might end. His linguistic playfulness and creativity seems effortless. That many of his novels were written in days might strike many of us as representing an almost superhuman talent.

When he describes Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill, the alternative reality of Jerry Cornelius, it feels so clear that he is also describing Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill, the alternative reality of Michael Moorcock as he floats through it, seeing and hearing and feeling all. In The Whispering Swarm, Moorcock suggests that there is a gate through which one can access a timeless place somewhere between the here and now and the days of the English Civil War. As so much of that book is written like an autobiography, I found myself wondering for a while if it were true. It’s so easy to find oneself slipping into Moorcock’s worlds. Similarly, in the books of Jerry Cornelius, numerous realities are simultaneously present, characters could be versions of characters in other books. The Multiverse is everywhere in Moorcock’s work and as recently as a few years ago, Jerry Cornelius (or, at least, the space pirate Captain Cornelius) turned up in Moorcock’s Dr Who novel, The Coming of the Terraphiles. It’s easy for one world to slip into another.

While Jerry is enjoying his seemingly endless party, the plot of the book is advancing and the world is changing, devolving; falling into a state of entropy. Humanity is entering something like the end times. All things must gravitate towards a natural state of disarray and something is very wrong. The arrival of Miss Brunner with another of her soon-to-be-absorbed lovers at the party inspires Jerry to step out into the world again. He expects to find his usual haunts suffused by their normal sexier than sex atmosphere but during his orgy time, things have changed. What he experiences in the outside world is something akin to a bad trip: 

He heard the music at the entrance where the dead neon sign had drooped. It was slowed-down music, dragging, monotonous, introspective. Tentatively he descended the stairs. The spotlights had been turned onto the stage and there sat the heavy-eyed musicians, moulded onto or around their instruments. The pianotron played deep sonorous, over-sustained chords. In the centre of the place stood a tired pyramid of flesh that moved to the slow rhythm, near quiescent, and the temperature of the place seemed sub-zero. 

Miss Brunner arrives, as she always does as inevitably as death but a little sexier.

He turned and looked at her standing at the top of the stairs, her legs as widely spaced as the tight skirt would allow, her long red hair drawn back behind the ears of her pointed face, her small, sharp teeth exposed. 

And thus, he is drawn back into her world of supercomputers and futuristic messiahs. He follows her back to Lapland. Instead of absorbing him, she gets him to play assassin. One man has access to the last piece of information she needs, Dr Baxter. She persuades Jerry, that despite Baxter’s age and him having been a colleague of Jerry’s father, that Baxter is her son. This is probably so he will feel more inclined to kill him.

Baxter has been working with mind altering substances:

Our research into hallucinogens and hallucimats is reaching a conclusion. We shall soon be ready.”

Useful in what way?”

They will reproduce mass-conditioning effects, Mr Cornelius. Mass-conditioning that will make people sane again – saner, in fact than they have ever been before. Our machines and drugs can do this – or be able to within a few months. We are, in fact, largely beyond the research stage and are producing several models that are absolutely workable. They will help to turn the world onto a sane track. We’ll be able to restore order, salvage the nation’s resources…”

It’s got a familiar ring. Don’t you realise it’s a waste of time?” Jerry’s hand stroked the butt of his S&W .41.”It’s over – Europe only points the course of the rest of the world. Entropy’s setting in. Or so they say.”

Why should that be true?”

It’s time – it’s all used up.”

And Cornelius is as fatalistic and cynical and uninterested in the fate of humanity as that. Is time used up? If so, never mind. Go with the flow. The end point of the book has the police arriving to break up Miss Brunner’s final programme because she hasn’t got clearance to be there in Lapland. Jerry is shot and forced to take part in Miss Brunner’s goal; the ultimate end of humanity encapsulated in something new, something better:

We have been working, ladies and gentleman, to produce an all-purpose human being1 A human being equipped with total knowledge, hermaphrodite in every respect – self-fertilising and thus self-regenerating – and thus immortal, re-creating itself over and over again, retaining its knowledge and adding to it. In short, ladies and gentlemen, we are creating a being that our ancestors would have called a god!”

This ending, as it plays out, seems the culmination of all that has gone before. But, like so much in the book, it could be a kind of joke on all of us; Moorcock’s satire of the kind of Star-Child ending of the Arthur C. Clarke school. There are other interpretations. I never thought of The Final Programme as satirical when I first read it. But then, when I first read it, I was pretty young. I thought it was just a new kind of genre of mind bending hip science fiction that happened right here within our actual world. This new genre did emerge in its own right and would creep through into the culture through comics and movies. Aspects of it were not always to Moorcock’s liking and not what he had intended in putting Cornelius out there in the first place. In fact, the open source nature of Jerry Cornelius came to a kind of end when some of those writing Jerry Cornerlius stories were seen by Moorcock as using him as a quipping James Bond type who wasn’t reflecting anything at all. Not that Moorcock ever took the character back completely. While not happy with the liberties some had taken in ripping off his ideas without adding anything he wasn’t going to call his lawyers. He wasn’t Harlan Ellison. In the next part of this blog, I want to focus on the film adaptation of The Final Programme, not loved by Moorcock, and how it emerged from the different mood of an only slightly later time.

¹Mike Coombes.“An Interview with Michael Moorcock”. The Internet Review of Science Fiction. 22 November 2005.

The Film

Shades: Mr Jerry Cornelius. A legend in his own lifetime.

There is a point, somewhere around the mid-sixties, probably largely due to the impact of Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, where the kitchen sink got tossed out and a spirit of playfulness prevailed in British movies. The gritty drama of life so prominent in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Look Back in Anger, A Taste of Honey and Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner gave way to a sense of freedom from the restrictions of post war living. This was the age of The Beatles looking exactly like the Goons from The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film. it was James Bond leaving even a hing of reality behind by emerging from the water with a duck on his head in Goldfinger or escaping villains by using a jetpack in Thuncderball.  Even a film like Alfie, often remembered for its harrowing scenes of illegal abortion, had Michael Caine chatting to the audience, breaking the fourth wall and having jokes with us at the expense of the other characters. Films got made in a spirit of anything being possible. Not all these films were successful. Joseph Losey’s attempt to dive into the superspy genre with Modesty Blaise failed to set the world alight. Ken Russell’s lighter than air French Dressing also failed to make a mark sending the director back to the BBC for a couple of years before his big breakthrough. Most of the time, however, the lighter the movie and the less serious it’s intent, the more it fit with the spirit of the age. 

The Director

Into this world, for which much of the credit can be laid at the feet of Richard Lester, came Robert Fuest. After working with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore on the scripts of  Not Only… But Also… Robert Fuest made his first film as director, Just Like a Woman. Starring Wendy Craig as a woman with a lot of hair who, generally fed up with the way her marriage is going, decides to see what it would be like going it alone again. It was a film very much of its time. But the film’s style and pace caught the eye of Brian Clemens and Fuest was invited to direct several episodes of The Avengers. The Avengers was the very epitome of how lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek techniques had supplanted realism. The series had started as a quite straight-faced procedural drama shot on video. But when it was reinvented to a degree and shot on film it was turned into something as light as a summer breeze. Steed and Mrs Peele and, later, Tara King exchanged niceties over copious fountains of champagne or tea and scones and the villains weren’t nearly as villainous as they were psychotically eccentric. Due to his relationship with Clemens on The Avengers, Fuest was hired to direct And Soon the Darkness (scripted by Clemens and Terry Nation). After this he directed an adaptation of Wuthering Heights for AIP with Timothy Dalton as Heathcliff. The film was cut down from its original running time to be more marketable length but it made more money for AIP than almost anything else they had produced so the director was hired to make The Abominable Dr Phibes. Phibes is the film Fuest is best known for and was also a huge success. The plot of the film has Anton Phibes, a deformed organist seeking vengeance on the surgeons who he holds responsible for his wife’s death on the operating table. With Vincent Price playing the role as ripely as was possible considering he could only speak through a hole in his neck, and a number of popular actors meeting their horrible demises in the manner of the plagues of Egypt. The mood of The Abominable Dr Phibes was enhanced by the art-deco set design, with a fully automated clockwork orchestra and the strangely romantic themes of Hull’s greatest avant-garde jazz composer, Basil Kirchin.

The second Phibes film was not as successful as the first and Fuest found that AIP had short memories not calling on him for any further productions. It was then, looking for another film that would suit his abilities that he found Michael Moorcock’s book The Final Programme. Stories diverge however. Other sources suggest that he was approached after another writer had already written a script. Either way, it was Fuest’s script that ended up being made, along with Fuest’s production design. It remains one of the few films with the title credit: “Written, designed and directed by…”

At this time, British films had moved on somewhat. Frothy pop-art, goon-inspired comedy was no longer the order of the day. The Beatles had long since broken up. Pessimism was creeping back into movies made in the UK. Films like O Lucky Man!, Performance (which, with its Notting Hill setting and its burnt-out sexually androgynous rock star living with two pretty girls encountering a Kray underling on felt, at times, like it took a few tips from Moorcock), and A Clockwork Orange must have made the idea of an anti-hero like Cornelius seem like he might play.

Michael Moorcock chose not to contribute a script or even a draft of a script for a novel that required a lot of streamlining to become a 90 minute movie, but nevertheless felt that what Fuest was doing was completely wrong. He had been an advocate of the production and had something to do (again accounts differ) with the choice of Jon Finch to play Cornelius. This must have put Fuest in an uncomfortable situation. But then there is a question of how often authors are ever likely to be satisfied with adaptations of their work. While Fuest’s film is very different to the book, it maintains more of the book than any adaptation of Dracula. In many interviews and in his commentary on the Anchor Bay DVD release, however, Fuest says that he completely understands why Moorcock was so opposed to the film. Some of Moorcock’s statements, such as suggesting the Fuest was incompetent, seem to show a strength of feeling that is perhaps at odds with the facts. Fuest was clearly more than a competent director. He was one of the most interesting and stylistic directors to have come from Britain since the war. But it is clear that his idea of what the film of The Final Programme should be was very far from the ideas of the book’s author. In my opinion, the book and the film complement each other well. They aren’t the same but they are closely related works. Fuest uses a lot of Moorcock’s dialogue and a lot of his own but as a visual artist, he does something with the film very similar to what Moorcock does with language.

Cornelius: How about Napalm?

Shades: Napalm. Are you buying or selling?

Cornelius: Asking.

Shades: Who wants it? You?

Cornelius: Uh huh.

Shades: Give me a couple of days.

Cornelius: Too long.

Shades: Shit Jerry. Come on.

Cornelius: Tomorrow.

Shades: Tomorrow is Sunday.

Cornelius: So?

Shades: All the shops are shut.

A film is primarily a mood. Some people look at the content of film and like to examine what a film is saying as if films are primarily a medium of education. But, maybe a good many great films, are made by producers, writers and directors who have a specific take on the world and what is right and what is wrong but if they let those views get in the way of the film as a work of art and entertainment, the film will have no real value at all. Films exist as creations, like paintings and music, to bring us pleasure or not. There is an argument, and I’m not saying that this argument is wrong, that great art, which includes film, is the pinnacle of human achievement and even if it brings nothing but misery, it still has an innate quality that raises the soul. Fellini put it best when he said, “art takes our anxieties and turns them into a celebration.” With The Final Programme, Fuest created a film that has a definite mood. But, like Moorcock, he also satirises. Fuest has nuns on fruit machines (we used to call them one-armed-bandits), a mud-wresting themed restaurant where customers are treated to glasses of industrial waste from the Beaujolais district of France. Disco dancers are trapped in polythene balls (I’m surprised that nobody has thought of introducing these to have socially distanced nightclubs). He also has Trafalgar Square, that iconic image of London’s neo-classical grandeur, turned into a giant car scrapyard. How I stopped worrying and learned to love the end of days.

Miss Brunner: Come on, Mr Cornelius. You can’t manipulate the inevitable.

Cornelius: No. But I’ll have a bloody good try.

Jerry Cornelius, driving his Duesenberg while knocking back cheap Scotch, popping pills and eating digestive biscuits has a certain glory. An embracing of what should not be embraced because it is still beautiful. Everyone in the film is constantly aware of death. It whispers over their shoulders as they keep popping those pills and knocking back bottles of wine. No point in fighting the inevitable Mr Cornelius. The constant addiction and the persistent exploitation of conflict is always there. Is there a war on? How much can we make from it? Cornelius here is no longer exceptionally ruthless. He is simply aware of how little one can do about matters outside oneself.

Miss Brunner: What are you going to do now?

Cornelius: Well, for a start, I’m going to sit here and get smashed out of my mind. And I also have it on very good authority that the world is coming to an end and I thought I’d go home and watch it on television.

The Actors

The one thing that not even Moorcock disliked about the film was the cast. It is a very interesting cast filled with great character actors; the kind of actors who rarely, if ever, played the lead in movies but whose faces are automatically recognisable. Key among those actors is Graham Crowden who playes Mr Smiles. In the book, this is a relatively small role but the film expands his life and his role so that he becomes the third main character after Cornelius and Brunner. Sporting a wide brimmed fedora and always in black, it is Smiles who recruits Cornelius into the plot to steal the microfilm. Crowden was an actor who always raised the quality of whatever he was in. His face twisting from aghast anxiety to comic exasperation in the blink of an eye. His displeasure at having to work with Miss Brunner is always bubbling below the surface. Towards the end of the film where he decides to go ahead with the programme despite last minute changes he says: “We must go through with this. What’s the alternative? Another year with Miss Brunner.” Crowden was also a mainstay of the films of Lindsey Anderson, most notably playing the role of Professor Millar in both Brittania Hospital and O Lucky Man! Millar, in those films, was a mad scientist sewing human heads on the bodies of sheep or creating his own Frankenstein monster and his own supercomputer. His role in The Final Programme is really quite similar.

Among the other actors is Sterling Hayden who had a single day on set as Major Wrongway Lindbergh “the wrongway is the right way.” Chewing a cigar, scratching his head and sporting a quite phenomenally impressive beard, Hayden is in his element as an arms trader lamenting the flattening of Amsterdam. “28 miles of white ash”. Patrick Magee adds his unique brand of heightened theatrical insanity to the role of Dr Baxter, now another of Miss Brunner’s little conquests. Ronald Lacey as Shades, obsessively playing pinball machines while believing them to be fixed in a scene much of which is exactly as written by Moorcock. Julie Ege pops up lending her trademark glamour to the role of Miss Dazzle (no reference to her genitalia here). Sarah Douglas looks the part in her small but vital role of Catherine shouting at her brothers to stop like an infuriated parents whose boys won’t stop squabbling. And then there is Harry Andrews as John Gnatbeesley (a name that sounds like a character from The Goons) but not here played as a Scotsman as written by Moorcock but as a blisteringly loyal London butler sporting a bowler hat bringing a kind of military underling charm to his role. Andrews is another of those actors who somehow grew a face better than most faces, so filled with character whether playing a loveably vulnerable character as he does here or, as in his role in The Internecine Project as a truly misogynistic assassin, quite chillingly comic.

John: I think I’m dying Sir.

Cornelius: Well what happened?

John: The alarm went off Sir. And Mr Frank, he came running in and saw us standing there on the stairs and so I put Miss Catherine down and then he shot me, Sir. I’m terribly sorry Sir.

Cornelius: So you bloody well should be.

The Norwegian actress and model, Julie Ege, should also be mentioned here. She was one of the faces of the time and her role in the film was used in all the advertising of the time. Ege had been in the prehistoric Hammer epic Creatures the World Forgot and, more importantly, the film version of Up Pompeii with Frankie Howerd. She plays Miss Dazzle quite nicely although Fuest obviously decided not to make anything of the original character’s transgender persona.

The casting of Jon Finch as Jerry Cornelius may or may not have been due to Moorcock’s influence. Either way, it is an inspired casting. Finch does not look much like a young Swinburne. Although the make-up makes him look suitably decadent, he isn’t the Jerry Cornelius of the book. He never plays him like the character in the book either. Finch is one of those actors whose feelings are always visible. The Cornelius of the book always views the suffering of others dispassionately. It’s nothing to do with him. But sympathy or empathy always registers in Finch’s eyes. Not that the Cornelius of the books is sadistic; just indifferent. The Cornelius of the film is never indifferent. Even the scene after which he has killed his greatest enemy, there is no sense of relief; just pain and more guilt that he has had to do this terrible thing. This was a quality Finch brought to everything he was in.

Finch had become one of the bright new hopes of British cinema when, after a decade of acting in television dramas, he was cast in two Hammer films, The Vampire Lovers and The Horror of Frankenstein. These led to him playing the lead in Polanski’s extremely violent adaptation of Macbeth which in turn led to him playing the lead in Hitchcock’s Frenzy. In these films he has the same presence that made him such a popular choice with directors at the time. In Frenzy the character he played was brusque and not particularly likeable. As another in a long line of wrongly accused suspects in Hitchcock movies, you can see people lining up to find him guilty. But as charmless as the character was, you automatically side with him because Finch was just that kind of actor. He was one of those being seriously considered to take over the role of James Bond for Live and Let Die before Simon Templar stepped in. Seeing him in The Final Programme with his clipped dialogue and abrasive manner, haunted by his actions but always covering his feelings with a quip, it’s not difficult to imagine him as Bond. In fact, it is easy to imagine him playing Fleming’s original version of the character giving precise orders to waiters on how he would like his eggs on toast prepared.

Runacre and Fuest both suggest, on the Anchor Bay commentary, that Finch was very quiet and not particularly sociable between shots but that he was always pleasant, professional and courteous. He had the fortune of being extremely photogenic. He knew where the camera was and does just enough to keep you interested in him. Often using props while looking lost in thought adding to that haunted persona. After The Final Programme he played in a number of Shakespeare adaptations for television and even had a starring role in the first episode of Hammer House of Horror where his on-screen relationship with Patricia Quinn as a powerful time travelling 17th century witch has a lot in common with his on-screen relationship with Runacre’s Miss Brunner.

Runacre, who went on to work with Pasolini in Canterbury Tales, Antonioni in The Passenger and John Huston in The Mackintosh Man, brings an immediate authority to her role as Brunner. She came to the film having recently worked with the director John Cassavettes in Husbands, an experience she talks of as being particularly intense. With her red hair and expressive eyes, she captivates completely. The interplay between her and Finch captures that same sense of repulsion and attraction in constant flux as their relationship of Brunner and Cornelius in the book, her manner often feeling like that of the schoolteacher dealing with an errant pupil who must then push back to gain some foothold on reality.

Cornelius: What are you, Miss Brunner?

Miss Brunner: What?

Cornelius: All right then. Who, if you prefer it.

Miss Brunner: I liked ‘what’ better.

Cornelius: Yeah, I thought you would.

Runacre’s Miss Brunner is always a step ahead of everyone around her. Her confidence is absolute and her vampirism somehow made more plausible by the seductiveness of that confidence. When she seduces Patrick Magee’s Dr Baxter we see the vital and powerful actor withdrawing into becoming a little boy or lover being wrapped up in her reptilian embrace. He is reduced to talking about how he watches the women from the village coming up to wash as she gently caresses his face imagining how well he’ll fit within her skin. Similarly, her plaything Dimitri (played by Gilles Millinaire), is so casually disposed of as to be almost a tragic lover. As she is playfully writing “goodbye” backwards on the transparent walls of his glass tank, she looks at him like a cat watching a canary. She smiles without the slightest remorse as she turns the dial on his oxygen supply with the intention of suffocating and killing him. The look in her eyes is that his time is up and he may as accept it because, for all his devotion, he’s never been anything but a thing to her. It’s a particularly brutal moment and yet, oddly, it only makes her sexier and more attractive.

Fuest uses a strange technique to convey her vampirising. After drawing her completely willing victims into her body, her hand rises into the air making a fist and then releasing that fist into a shadowy descent as if she is still grasping the remnants of the soul in the air. As she does this, there is a momentary heavenly choir singing creating the impression of some angelic orgasm. After such acts of vampirism, there’s a definite spring in her step. A Sunday morning joyfulness. There’s nothing quite like absorbing the entirety of another human being to add a lift to the day. “It’s a way I have of getting the best out of people.”

The Opening Scenes

Somewhere on the plains of Lapland (actually somewhere in Spain but, shhh), tiny figures arrive on the landscape carrying wood for a funeral pyre. Their faces are grizzled, weather worn, deeply lined. Following them, carrying nothing and striding across the land as if it belongs to him comes Jerry Cornelius, in dark glasses with a heavy fur covering his stylish (circa 197-) black suit over an ornately ruffled shirt. His fingernails are black and he’s definitely wearing a bit of make-up as is befitting a Prince attending the funeral of a King.

Mr Smiles is at the gathering, along with a cowled priest reading from some religious tome. As Jerry arrives, Smiles proffers a hand which is blithely ignored. He knows Smiles and knows civility is a sign of avaricious need. Jerry removes his glasses and stares at the spark igniting the flames with an audible woosh. He glances at the coffin containing the body of a man who he hasn’t spoken to for some time. His eyes are emotionally exhausted. This is death. This is how it always ends. The other faces illuminated by the heat of this fire are dispassionate. To them, this is just another event, another death, nothing out of the ordinary. Flames dance and a pillar of black smoke curls into the deep blue sky. His image distorted by the heat of the flames, Jerry puts his dark glasses back on as if wary of exposing any of his feelings to these people. It is as though he wants to be the genuinely untouchable Cornelius of the stories, the English assassin. The only thing that could make an assassin sad is having nobody left to kill. But, here, he is not that character. He is something else.

His mind takes him, and us, back to that time at Angkor Wat… Maybe, as in the novel, somewhere in the Angkor Hilton “towering over the huge statues and ziggurats of Angkor”. Professor Hira (here played by Welsh actor Hugh Griffith with remarkable eyebrows) explains the great ages or yugas of Hinduism. The current age, Kali Yuga; the great dark age, is about to end. There might be a year or two left before the end of the world, or this current world, depending on the speed of the collapse.

Snapping us back into the present moment, Jerry walks away from the burning pyre, not responding to any of the attempts of Mr Smiles to engage with him. It’s about some microfilm. It’s always about something like that with people like Smiles. For Jerry, its about vengeance, vengeance for having been kept away from his sister by his brother, Frank. Vengeance for having been cut off from his family for his incestuous love. When Jerry eventually responds, getting into his waiting one-seater helicopter, he reveals that he is thinking of getting rid of the house, blowing it up, probably using napalm.

As the helicopter rises into the air we see this world from his point of view, flying into that column of black smoke now curling, the figures of the Laps walking away from the burning pyre like stick-men; mere dots on a landscape growing smaller and smaller. The copter takes a turn as Gerry Mulligan’s baritone saxophone breaks through on the soundtrack with the heartbreaking mournful theme that will punctuate the entire movie. While the music plays the shot transitions from the blue skies of Lapland (Spain) to a dilapidated looking part of London. Jerry’s sleek antique Duesenberg careens across a piece of land under a flyover seemingly oblivious to the caravans and bins and slow decay. The contrast between the wild rugged expanse of Lapland (or Spain) and this tiny piece of London sliding into entropy is as notable as the contrast between the old-world elegance of Jerry’s Duesenberg and that same worn-out world. The interior of the elegant is car strewn with pills and crumbs and half eaten chocolate digestives. Jerry pours Bell’s whisky into one of many plastic cups and knocks it back while driving. There’s no point in worrying about drink-driving if the world is coming to an end. In place of the rear-vew mirror is a picture of his sister, Catherine. In a bleak and beautiful part of the countryside Jerry parks his car in a clearing by a lake and fires a flare into the sky to let his old retainer, John, know that he is there.

John: Sorry, I didn’t get to the funeral, Sir.

Cornelius: Well, you didn’t miss much. Very flat, Lapland.

The scene by the lake is shrouded by mist. Jerry was expecting John to have brought Catherine with him but she’s been kept away, in her room for seven weeks in one of Frank’s chemically induced sleeps. As for Frank, he too has been drugged up to the eyeballs. “All he eats now is bars of chocolate and strawberry jam. Well that’s no good for anyone is it?” Jerry’s plan is that John get Catherine out of the house the next day. There’ll be some small confusion to distract the guards.

Jerry plans to use Miss Brunner and Mr Smiles plot to break into the house to get the same piece of microfilm from the book, as a distraction to get Catherine away from Frank and then, with a bit of luck destroy the house. To facilitate his life with Catherine, he gets a jet from Major Wrongway Lindbergh and some napalm from Shades. In Cornelius’s world, you can never have too much napalm.

Fuest, having worked in British television, was able to accomplish quite a lot on his low budget. It was only by proving to his producers that he would be able to achieve all the sets that the screenplay required within that budget that the film was green-lit on the proviso that he be the film’s designer. It had not, he said, been his intention to design or to write the film. Both of these jobs landed in his lap by being aware of what that budgetary limit was. To those who have become used to computer compositing and CGI backgrounds, Fuest’s accomplishments on this film may not be so striking but every single set had to be built from the ground up. Fuest worked closely with other designers to get the effects he needed but the overall impact of the film, for a British financed film in 1973 is surprising. Very few British-made films that have mid or upper range budgets are financed here at all. One of the sets toward the end of the film, has a German U-boat in a hollow Earth bunker and this set rivals anything being done in a James Bond film at the time. Even those sets which could be described as looking cheap, the plastic labyrinth or the nursing home, have a quality which belies their cheapness adding a surrealistic edge to those scenes.

The Music

One of Moorcock’s strongest objections to the film was the music. Moorcock, being a musician as well as a writer, had a very definite feel for how he wanted the book to sound in the reader’s heads. He constantly makes reference to the music being listened to in The Final Programme and in other Jerry Cornelius books. Having such a precise idea of the musical backdrop to his work, quite unusually so, it is perhaps not surprising that this should be one of his biggest arguments with the film. However his dismissing the soundtrack as “jazzy” makes one wonder if he ever listened to it. Obviously, it isn’t Hawkwind or The Beatles, but aside from that one theme played by Mulligan, it isn’t very jazzy at all.

Whether one likes or dislikes the soundtrack to The Final Programme is bound to be a matter of taste. the soundtrack composed by Paul Beaver and Bernard Krause, is, like most of their music, extremely eclectic. Beaver and Krause were the kind of musicians probably better known by other musicians than the general public. They were at the forefront of popularising the use of the Moog synthesiser working with, and selling to, musicians as diverse as The Monkees, Simon and Garfunkel and George Harrison. They also composed a number of albums as ‘Beaver and Krause’, most significantly, as far as the music for The Final Programme is concerned, Gandharva, which was marketed as a score to a non-existing film. It was this album, which also had Gerry Mulligan on sax, that was what brought them to the attention of Robert Fuest. Moorcock might have preferred to have had someone else scoring the first (and, to date, the last) Jerry Cornelius film but Fuest’s choice of Beaver and Krause was one that suited his vision and his intended style for the film. It’s not a score which has ever been made available as a recording distinct from the film but a youtube contributor called James Stuart has put up a version of the closing theme.

Paul Beaver died in 1975 but Krause carried on working and is still working today. He played synths on the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now, scored by Carmine Coppola (Francis’s dad).

The Predator

Miss Brunner who takes Jerry to dinner on his release from the nursing home. It’s an interesting spot. Columns everywhere and mud-wrestlers on stage. It’s the kind of place where, on a good night, one can get a nice glass of ‘château dehydrated’. It is here that he is introduced to Miss Brunner’s latest paramour/prey, Jenny (played by Sandy Ratcliff).

Brunner: Sit down, dear, and don’t fidget!

Cornelius (to Jenny): Is she a friend of yours?

Jenny: I don’t know. Hard to tell.

Cornelius: Yes. I know exactly what you mean.

The line between friendship and predator/prey relationships are ever present here. Jerry seems to be one of the few who finds it troublesome to be in her sights. Maybe that is his strength. In being aware of Miss Brunner’s power over people, that revulsion just about saves him.

The three of them return to Jerry’s apartment. It’s a nice place but for all the empty bottles. Jenny, a homely sort of girl, immediately gets to work in the kitchen. “Oh goody,” says Jerry without much sincerity. “You’ve cleared up.” She opens the freezer door and inside sitsa great mound of chocolate digestives. One is given to wonder whether McVities paid for all the product placement.

As the evening wears on, he is disappointed to discover that his charm cannot work on Jenny who has already fallen into the grip of Miss Brunner and sneaks a quick peak at Jenny playing the piano in the nude shortly before being absorbed. On awakening Jerry hears the same piano music now being played by Miss Brunner who looks positively full of beans and ready for their next assignment in Turkey.

The Visual Style

Fuest’s compositions are never dull. He shoots many dialogue scenes in long shot that many directors would shoot in a constant sequence of reverse shots. He also has a tendency to use foreground objects in his framing, giving many shots three planes. While he doesn’t quite go as far as a director like Mario Bava having foreground objects moved between the camera and the actor, his use of objects such as trees or glass boxes with human brains inside keeps the film visually striking. Early on in The Final Programme, he has a minute and a half tracking shot through an aircraft hanger most with four actors in a tight medium shot walking towards the camera.

The ultimate fight scene between Frank and Jerry takes place almost entirely in long shot from a distance. If Fuest sees an interesting visual possibility, he’ll jump on it. This was not uncommon in the 60s where visual experiment was all the rage even in mainstream reasonably budgeted films like Sidney J. Furie’s The Ipcress File to Norman Jewison’s Thomas Crown Affair but by the 70s most film-makers were playing it very safe. While Ken Russell and Nic Roeg were honourable exceptions, Fuest was quite rare. That he also plays with eccentric ideas like having Cornelius and Brunner leaving Turkey to get to Lapland in a hot air balloon is a characteristic example of practicality taking second place to beauty.

The Happy Couple

That Finch and Runacre make a really likeable couple isn’t surprising. His resistance to her, the powerfully ruthless sexualised vampiric schoolteacher type is understandable, but we all know, whether we have read Moorcock’s book or not, where this must end. In a way that might seem bizarre, their spats are reminiscent of the screwball romantic comedies where men don’t stand a chance in resisting Katherine Hepburn if she has her sights set on them. In Moorcock’s Final Programme there is little qualitative between these two psychopaths. In Fuest’s film, Cornelius is still a self-pitying character but despite all his failed attempts to chat up Jenny, he doesn’t win her or anyone else. Jerry is weary, sad, cynical and lost. His addiction to pills, whisky and chocolate digestives are how he gets through each day. It is Miss Brunner and not Jerry who always gets the girl or the guy (depending on her mood). He doesn’t win his fights. He doesn’t get the girl. He just keeps living as long as he can before the world comes crashing to an end, with him or without him.

Cornelius: Help! Miss Brunner. I’m losting.

The Final Programme, now a cult movie with quite a following, was not a success at the box office upon its release. In America, it was bought and renamed The Last Days of Man on Earth. The name change didn’t help (in fact it probably gave prospective audiences entirely the wrong idea about the film). It is impossible to speculate on what draws audiences to a film but I am prone to feel that the most popular movies tend to be those with the simplest plots. If The Final Programme had simplified its plot to the level of an episode of Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers or even Barbarella, it might have done better. Maybe it was just too dEnglish, even for English audiences. Maybe if, as in so many of the films of Nic Roeg, it had cast a pop star in the lead, audiences would have made that extra effort. I, for one, am quite happy that Mick Jagger turned down the role because then we wouldn’t have this film as it is and as it is, it’s a stand alone movie, unlike anything else I can think of. Robert Fuest went on to make The Devil’s Rain (which was, apparently, not a happy experience), some episodes of The New Avengers and some American TV movies. He ended his career by teaching at the London International Film School and being a guest at conventions, happily doing interviews and answering questions about his career.

The Conclusion

This has been another long blog, so well done to anyone who has read this far. If I have a point it is only that both the book and the film are distinct in their own ways. If Moorcock’s books were the type to be continually used by the film industry we could have seen how another film-maker might have approached the same work. I doubt they would have worked. It’s a very difficult work to make into a film. Especially given that Moorcock doesn’t tend to write low budget. It’s always tempting to side with an author who one admires but this is a film that bears constant rewatching. It’s tone and it’s music and visual style are from a time but they still bring just as much pleasure today.

Cornelius went on, in literature, to enjoy many adventures. A true picaresque character; never arriving at anything that might resemble an ending. In the film of The Final Programme, he is the lost and confused, slightly less amoral soul. His ending is not anywhere near as satisfying as the hermaphrodite of the book but, if divorced from that other ending, it remains a satisfying conclusion. And, despite it all, Finch doing the best Bogart that a trogladyte make-up can allow and heading off to live more in that very tasty world has a beauty of its own. Not Moorcock’s world maybe, but Fuest’s.

The Credits

This blog used the Anchor Bay DVD (no blu ray in the UK) of the film and the commentary on that disc from Runacre and Fuest moderated by Jonathan Sothcott. All images from the film or the book covers are also subject to copyright and will be withdrawn from this blog on request. All quotes from The Final Programme (novel) are subject to copyright laws © Michael and Linda Moorcock, 2016, and Multiverse Inc.


Federico Fellini’s City of Women

The Set Up

It begins on a train. It’s not a real train. No. This is one of those trains that shakes and judders like a train, that has all the furnishings and the appearance of a train. But this is a train built on a sound stage. A set. A fiction controlled with rolling backgrounds and rain sprayed against the window by technicians and stage hands.

In the dark of the tunnel the train has just thundered into, a woman sits opposite a good looking but bedraggled middle-aged man. The woman is glamour and confidence personified. Her hair is perfectly coiffured under a sable hat and she wears a tailored pin-stripe skirt suit with brown leather boots. She watches the man like a panther. We know she is looking at him because we can see him dozing and bumping along reflected in her perfectly mirrored sunglasses. Children lines up in the corridor outside the carriage watch them. The children are jumping up and down, pulling faces, enjoying the movement of this artificial train. They know they are watching a game.

The train emerges from the tunnel and artificial daylight fills the compartment. The man awakens, sees the woman opposite him and the children in the corridor outside. The children point the woman out to him as though he is too dim and old and tired to see her for himself. She pretends to be looking through the rain flecked windows of the train but she knows he is looking at her and she can feel her power increasing as if she is fed by his admiration.

He becomes aware of his dishevelled looks. He tucks his shirt collar under his jacket. He straightens his tie. As he has corrected himself she turns away from the window, ever so slowly and looks directly at him again. Her eyes close and she smiles as if imagining something wonderful.

He runs his fingers through his hair. The children watch him, their eyes gleaming at what is unfolding before them. The woman’s eyes open and she subtly raises her eyebrows as if inviting him to make his move. He fixes her with the stare of a would-be seducer. This is the look which has worked for him so well for him in the past. After all, he is a handsome man. It’s just that, now, he’s a handsome 55-year-old man. She is younger than him butold enough to know how much power she has in situations like this. She enjoys his attempt at being seductive, her large eyes drinking him in. The train lurches. The bottle of water on the table between them topples. He grabs for it to stop it falling and her hand settles warmly over his for a second to help.

This was the foreplay.

Never taking her eyes from him she stands up and gathers her things. His eyes follow her as she leaves the compartment. This is an opportunity that doesn’t come along so often. The children are now jumping up and down even more as if cheering him on in his pursuit of her. He squeezes his way through a corridor occupied with heavy smokers waiting for their station. He sees the bathroom door opening and then closing with the lurching of the train. It has been left deliberately unlocked. Approaching the bathroom, he looks cautiously around the carriage to see that no-one is watching. He smiles to himself and knocks on the door.

The door swings open again and he sees the woman looking in the bathroom mirror.

The camera zooms into her face as her eyes catch him. She then turns her attention back to her reflection and starts reapplying lipstick that doesn’t need reapplying.

In a very Italian style, the man starts pouring forth superlatives about how gorgeous she is, how amazing she is, how she is the woman he has always… She is too much. Behind her, his hands feel their way up her body as she continues to apply the lipstick as if oblivious to his words and his caresses.

While holding her breasts through her suit, he asks her if she is married.

No, she says, twice divorced.

“Couldn’t your husband’s satisfy you?”

She turns, faces him with an amused look in her eyes and says “Can you?”

“I’d be ready in a moment.”

She locks the door and says, “We’ll see.”

“Just keep still!” she says and then kisses him deeply and passionately, knowing that now, he will never be able to forget her. But then, the kiss over, she asks him, as if it were the blandest of questions, “You want to do it here?”

She smiles as if she knows exactly how this is going to end. As the noise of the train increases, drowning out what they say, they are enveloped in flashing colours, maybe something from a tunnel they are passing through. Flashing, aquamarine, red, yellow and then blacking out in fractions of seconds. She looks down at him as he fumbles with her clothing and tries to change position so they can have sex in this tiny enclosed room.

As if to bring this sexual fantasy to its conclusion, the train screeches to a halt and the man’s head bangs into an overhead cupboard.

The woman stands up and grabs her bags saying that this is her stop. Caught out the man asks her for her telephone number. She simply leaves the bathroom glancing back at him briefly and offers only a brief “bionjorno”. He decides to go after her offering himself a little kiss in the bathroom mirror as if he needs that little piece of self-assurance.

He looks out through the open door. There is no platform and she is not walking towards any station but out into an open field.

Speaking encouraging words to himself, he steps awkwardly down from the train, and he calls out to her, pleads with her to wait. She turns around and takes his picture. Having left the world of the train, we are no longer studio-bound. This is the real world where middle-aged men who chase after young women are apt to be humiliated. He tells himself that she needs him. Then the train leaves and all possibility of getting safely home to his normal life, whatever that may be, leaves with it. Having no other option he heads off after the woman and will soon find himself falling down the rabbit hole. Except that he is not Alice falling into Wonderland. He is more like Dante; midway through the journey of his life, wandering off the straight path and into a dark wood. He thinks he is still the man he used to be when he was thirty. But the world that he knew has gone. He will find himself, again like Dante, in a bitter place. A place where death could not be bitterer. It is not truly a bitter world, not completely anyway. But it will seem that way because all the psychological safety nets have been removed.

The man, Snaporaz, will be taking a journey that will show him a dark mirror of everything that he is. Like a Felliniesque episode of The Twilight Zone, City of Women takes its deeply flawed male character into a world of women who will show him exactly who he is.

Dreams

Sometimes I dream that I am in a city. It is a city that I have come to know very well because it is always the same. Its streets run precisely the same way. The side streets have the same bars and the same buildings. In this city it is always twilight. It is comprised of many other cities. Cities I have lived in. Cities I have known. I often meet and spend time with old friends when I am there, some dead and some still alive. The things that happen in this city seem normal to me at the time. It is as though this dream city exists outside of time and that all that ever was or ever could be is there.

Dante Ferretti, the production designer of City of Women, mentioned in an interview that while he was working on his designs for the sets, Fellini would ask him about his dreams of the night before. Ferretti said that he often couldn’t remember his dreams of the night before so he would simply make something up to please Fellini. It didn’t matter. He felt Fellini knew that he was inventing dreams but if he was inventing dreams then he was creating. And that was the most important thing in the world.

While many filmmakers of the late sixties and seventies, especially those in America, were striving for authenticity and realism, Fellini had moved on from realism and into more psychologically and spiritually complex works. Films that often alienated those members of the audience who had very precise ideas about what the cinema should be. A world that looked like their own with lots of location work and naturalistic acting. Early in his career, he had worked with Rosellini on the screenplays for Rome Open City and Paisan. the films that were the vanguard of Italian neorealism. In his directing career he had also made films that felt very naturalistic, most notably I Vitelloni which, with its story of aimless young men wandering around Rimini and getting into trouble, was very close to the real experiences of his audiences.

It was that changed everything. , in telling the story of a stressed out director who doesn’t know what his movie is about and is having trouble with the wife he has been cheating on, peppered the story with dreams, daydreams and memories. This interweaving of the real and the present with the imagined or remembered stayed with Fellini in film after film. His work became so unique that it needed its own adjective. Juliet of the Spirits was his ode to the inner life of a woman neglected by her husband; by using the comic gifts of his wife, Giulietta Masina, he made a film which showed the miraculous qualities he saw within women.

He went on to make a brilliant short horror film, Toby Dammit, he found the alien and the chaotic nature of history in Satyricon and Casanova. He dug deep into nostalgia in Roma and Amarcord. Each film had its own unique qualities. The above mentioned films couldn’t be more different but they were all recognisably Fellini. Fellini films had an air of theatricality which came from his staging. Artificial seas made from plastic sheets. Backdrops that look like backdrops. Actors post synced with voices that rarely sounded like the actors speaking. Fellini liked to give directions over scenes and, aside from a few sequences, nearly all of his films were shot on Stage Five of Cinecitta studios near Rome. Fellini enjoyed the sense of being able to control the elements of his films. His films are as controlled as Golden Age Hollywood films. But these constructed theatrical worlds are so beautifully lit and designed that it is tempting to feel while watching any Fellini films, that this is how all films should be made.

Many of those films after divided critics. Some came to see him as a film-maker who was impersonating himself rather than making original work. They felt he was exaggerating and copying the elements that had made his work so distinctive. While could win an Oscar by playing fast and loose with reality, memories and imagination, it seemed that most wanted him to stop there and go back to the heady days of La Strada and Cabiria; heartbreaking works filled with humour and pain but taking place in a recognisable modern world. Amarcord won another Oscar for Fellini (the fourth) and he was still treated with great seriousness because nobody would deny his contribution to the cinema, but it is notable that when Woody Allen wanted to put a cinema-queue know-it-all critic in Annie Hall that the film-maker being attacked was Fellini. “the key word is indulgent”. Of all the film-makers recognised as great artists, none was so abjured by the critical establishment as Fellini and City of Women, the film that devoted the entirety of its running time to a dream, got the worst reception of any film up until that point. That one of his “targets” appeared to be feminism and the feminist movement, probably did him no favours at all in 1980 when people were first starting to get scared of having the “wrong” opinion. I don’t think the film is particularly critical of the feminist movement. It is merely honest about how perplexing it is for a middle-aged man to encounter some of the views held by the feminist movement.

In an interview with Lietta Tournabuoni for La Stampa (quoted in the book La Citta Delle Donne that comes with the Masters of Cinema release of the film), Fellini said, “I have the feeling that all my films are about women. I am totally at their mercy, they are the only people I feel really at ease with. They represent myth, mystery, diversity, fascination, the thirst for knowledge and the search for one’s own identity. Women are everything. I even see the cinema itself as a woman, with its alternation of light and darkness, of appearing and disappearing images. Going to the cinema is like returning to the womb, you sit there still and meditative in the darkness, waiting for life to appear on the screen.”

Nightmares

Snaporaz finds himself in a hotel staging a convention for feminists. It’s his own fault. He walked in, uninvited. That he has been led there by the woman on the train who seems to wish him nothing but ill is neither here nor there. At first, things don’t seem so bad. A bit of shouting, some strange games and stranger dancing. Attacks on marriage and patriarchal structures may be commonplace but nothing too scary. If anything, many of the feminists seem to be making arguments for a better and more harmonious way of living. Instead of violence and anger, gentleness and emotional intelligence. It’s only as he goes deeper into this spiralling world full of smoke and lights and projections that he starts to encounter the jokes about castration and the casual berating of all that men are. Men should be arrested for penetration. Fellatio should be a crime. Women don’t need men for anything other than hardship. Even here, Snaporaz feels, despite the warnings to get out and some savage looks, that he can’t really come to any harm in this place, after all they are women; the gentler sex. That changes when the woman from the train points him out to the other women there and identifies him as being a bit like some of the feminists might have seen Fellini:

“We were generous and hospitable. Understanding, we spoke. We discussed. We sang. We performed our rites without reserve, or feminine modesty in the futile hope of making known to one who cannot, nor wishes to know how much freedom, how much authenticity and love, and life has been denied us. Our efforts here have been useless sisters. The eyes of that man, presently among us with that look of feigned respectability, of one who desires to know us, understand us because he insists it can better our relationship. We are only a pretext for another of his crude animalistic fables. Another neurotic song and dance act. We’re his chorus, his hula hula girls, his fiends. We enhance his show with our passion, with our suffering.”

The cold stares become colder. Snaporaz finds himself on trial with every glance and he looks less and less comfortable. This isn’t supposed to happen. He loves women and women love him. Why is he suddenly being identified as the focus of all that rage. Soon he finds himself being yelled at and berated. He decides to beat a hasty retreat.

It is at this point that he first encounters a young woman who he will run into again and again. She leads him towards a lift and invites him to put on roller skates to fake his way as a roller skating teacher. This woman has the kind of figure that is most identified with the women in Fellini films (although Giulietta Masina couldn’t be less like this woman). She says that she cannot avoid helping him because she is maternal and thanks to her, he does escape a hall full of women, many of whom are being trained how better to kick a man in the balls most effectively. Unfortunately, in escaping these women, who aren’t honestly posing that much of a threat to him, he winds up going through a small door on his roller skates and tumbles down a flight of stairs with a lot of crashing, banging and walloping. After a bit of swearing he realises that he is now in the bowels of the hotel.

On the wall is the shadow of a cowled figure that could be Death or a demon from Hell. It is neither. In fact, it is the greased and fully formed figure of a benefactor. Calling him a young cub, the stoker, after poking at the flames of the stove joking lewdly with Snaporaz with fire in her eyes offers him a lift to the station on her motorbike. Such kindness does have a condition. As she stops by her family farm, she tells him he must come and help her gather seeds for the stationmaster. Once he is inside her polythene grow tunnel she tells him to forget the seeds and attempts to seduce him by showing him her breasts and getting him to feel them. She then tells him, with a fierce passionate desire, “I’ve got a cat down here that’s purring.”

I’ve got a cat down here that’s purring

He pleads with her to get dressed but she She will not take no for an answer and jumps him pulling him on top of her and trying to rape him. He only escapes with the help of her mother who is deeply ashamed of her daughter’s wanton behaviour. “Forgive us,” she says. “We’re poor people. Long live Italy!”

Gathering seeds

A young teenage girl, the stoker’s daughter, is called upon to take him to the station. Unfortunately, she is no better and he finds himself riding with a car load of bored and, in his opinion, drugged teenage girls. It is here that the film descends into the territory of almost Bavaesque horror.

At first, he is driven through a realistic vision of the countryside but as day turns to night, the car enters a studio night-time given rich texture by Giuseppe Rotunno’s expressionistic lighting.

Headlights and torches cut through the smoky night as the single car is joined by two more. The girls, some of whom seem very young, dance while driving as if they are manic creatures, barely human. Little attention is paid to the road or the steering wheel. As they dance one of the girls tells him to, “Relax. There’s nothing better to do. Come on. Dance.”

When they drive close to an airport with an aeroplane flying over their heads, one of the girls, the closest to Snaporaz who has been making half stoned advances to him, pulls out a handgun and aims it at the aeroplane. Snaporaz grapples with her and throws the gun away. Suddenly their tone towards him shifts. They are staring at him like the women at the feminist convention. All three cars pursue him when his back his turned, the girls making rhythmic grunting noises. When he turns to face them, all the cars stop and the girls simply stare at him. He tells them that they can’t frighten him but soon he is running for his life, dropping his coat and diving into a misty garden. He hides from their headlights and is only rescued by the firing of blanks from Kazzone’s shotgun.

Kazzone is a strange kind of man. His mansion houses a collection of weapons, kitsch art and sex aids. His shirt is wide open revealing his golden-haired chest adorned with an impressive array of golden medallions. Kazzone’s home is a temple to his ego, with special regard to his sexual conquests. He takes a liking to Snaporaz. He sees a fellow soul oppressed and disgusted by this new age of feminism and lesbians. They are going to demolish his home soon as they are in control now. His museum of himself, including his hallway of female orgasms and the giant mosaic of his face on the floor will all be destroyed.

Troubles

For the role of Kazzone, Fellini chose an actor who had made his name playing rugged heroes, especially in spaghetti westerns and the kind of historical action films where he might not be required to wear a shirt. His look, in City of Women, is like that of a fading god of the screen and that’s exactly what he was. What happened to Manni during the making of the film was one of many catastrophe’s to dog the production that led Fellini to remark, as quoted by Tullio Kezich in his book on Fellini, “Not since Melies has there been so much trouble over one movie.” These catastrophes caused the films shoot to stretch to 8 months and the budget to stretch to 7 billion lira.

The first, and most painful catastrophe for Fellini, was the sudden death of Nino Rota. Rota had been the composer of all Fellini’s films since The White Sheik in 1952 and his scores for Fellini’s films had become one of their signature elements. He was also a close friend and one of the close knit group of collaborators with whom Fellini felt a complete affinity. On April 10th 1979, just before they were due to start working together on music for the film, Rota had a fatal heart attack. Rota had often spoken to Fellini about the Argentinian born composer Luis Bacalov and Fellini chose him to replace Rota. Listening to the score, it is easy to detect how much Bacalov wanted to please Fellini by giving him cues that feel almost like Rota is there. This is especially true of the main theme of the film which has many of the melancholic, haunting and sentimental qualities of Rota’s scores. Bacalov also brought out the chaotic elements of the film in a manner very close to how Rota scored the orgiastic scenes in Casanova; a hurdy gurdy quality of the world spinning out of control. Bacalov also brings something uniquely interesting to the final scenes of the film. But it would be impossible for Fellini to ever replace Rota and he never really did. This loss might have made it feel, to some, that Orchestra Rehearsal might have been the last film to feel completely Felliniesque.

The death of Manni was, however, the most bizarre of the disasters to beset the film and sounds like something invented for the tabloids. Fellini had had a lot of problems with Manni who he found disagreeable. Manni might have been a little too close to the character of the spoiled chauvinist celebrating his 10,000th sexual conquest and the two clashed frequently. Fellini had made it known that he felt Manni’s acting was terrible and that he intended to dub him with another actor (although, given the way Fellini post-synced his international and partly amateur casts, most actors would be dubbed anyway). One day, the arguments between Manni and Fellini became so heated that Fellini, stressed and angry, shut down the production to recover. It is likely that Manni, himself feeling the end of his career and suddenly working with the most highly regarded director in Italy, was just as stressed and acting out because he felt out of his depth. Whatever the cause, Manni accidentally or on purpose shot himself in the penis with a .38 Caliber Smith and Wesson and ruptured an artery in his leg causing him to bleed to death. Due to losing one of its main actors, the film was forced to shut down for six weeks while they found a solution to the hole that this left in the production. It was impossible to go back and shoot the scenes with another actor as the sets had been struck so a rewrite was necessary. A rewrite where Manni’s role finished with the end of the party scene, and his peculiar goodnight to the bust of his mother. Scenes that were supposed to have had Mastroianni and Manni together were rewritten for Mastroianni alone.

Other problems which occurred on the production leading some to believe the entire project was cursed included family deaths among the cast and crew. It is inevitable that during an 8 month shoot deaths are going to occur but Fellini, himself, was a superstitious man. He had ceased work on the film The Journey of G. Mastorna, a film about death, after a handful of deaths and his own sickness, convinced him that the film was jinxed and might be the last he ever made were he to make it. Elements of the script for Mastorna had found their ways into other films but City of Women in addition to using Fellini’s dream diaries also plundered he ideas laid out for Mastorna and this may have added to the impression that the catastrophes dogging the film were not pure accidents and coincidences. Filming had to be stopped twice more after Mastroianni developed a cyst on his eye and when Fellini himself broke his right arm.

Women

Fellini’s attitude to casting was always eccentric. He would often hire actors and actresses simply because their faces fit. That may have been why he chose Manni. Who better to play an ageing man who boasts of having slept with 10,000 women than an ageing heartthrob with attitudes to women just as outdated as the character he was playing.

Bernice Stegers, who plays “Woman on train”, was a phenomenal piece of casting. She has an unusual kind of beauty and strength in the film. Perhaps best known for her later work, she had an unusual career in the early 80s first playing the lead in Lamberto Bava’s Macabre which was an updated horror film version of The Pot of Basil Fellini and carries her part, which could almost be said to be that of the principal antagnoistThat she has no character name is Stegers, who went on to play the lead in Lamberto Bava’s updating of ‘The Pot of Basil’, (also adapted as one of the tales in Pasolini’s version of The Decameron). She also played the lead role in the cult British sci-fi, horror, often banned Xtro. With her large brown eyes and full face, Fellini brings out, or allows her to bring out, a powerful performance that dominates the film.

Jole Silvani as the amorous stoker billed in the credits as “La Motociclista” or “Woman on Motorbike”. She had worked with Fellini before early in his career on The White Sheik and she is one of the great comic forces in the film and is a great foil to Mastroianni’s exhausted Snaporaz. but her ability as a comedienne comes through in this film.

The poster girl for the film, however, was Donatella Damiani, not an actress but a student in economics. Fellini claims, in his interview with Tournabuoni, to have cast her before he was aware of her huge breasts because of her face which “resembled that of a wooden puppet or a figure on a Tarot card and her bright, dark eyes which looked almost sightless.” He goes on to say that “she was a typical postcard image of an Italian woman, with her petite stature, her slim figure, and her sharp little teeth.” Damiani is a significant presence in the film. But in addition to her body, which is very much on display in the later part of the film, she has a brightness and a warmth to her smile. Even though her role in the film is mercurial. Despite her youth and her avowed feminism, she is completely credible as someone who can’t stop herself from sewing on one of Snaporaz’s loose buttons. If hers is the image of the ideal woman, it is mainly because, she is able to give the impression of always being with him, treating him, playfully as a mother might play with a naughty child.

The Polish singer and actress Anna Pucnal brings a very plausible chill to the character of Snaporaz’s neglected wife. Pucnal had been banned from returning to Poland after starring in Dusan Makajev’s controversial Sweet Movie, which was perceived to be not only obscene but anti-communist. Her blonde hair is dyed red as if to resemble the look of Giulietta Masina’s character in Juliet of the Spirits. Her performance in this film is incredibly raw and in a film full of nightmarish imagery, there is little more nightmarish than her mocking of matrimonial sex. Interestingly, Fellini had initially wanted to cast Anouk Aimee who had played the same character of disgruntled and neglected wife in . if she had done so, City of Women would have looked even more like a sequel to Fellini’s most celebrated film. Snaporaz, being played by Mastroianni, could quite easily be Guido Anselmi played by the same actor 27 years earlier.

It would be madness to go through the entire female cast of this film but it is worth mentioning but in the very short scenes showing her as The Fishwoman of St. Leo handling a table full of eels, her eyes flashing lasciviously at the viewer, Gabriella Giorgelli makes a huge impact. She strikes the viewer in that same flashing eyed lustful manner that La Saranghina did in . She is such a familiar face from so many Crimi and Gialli films from the 70s that it seems bizarre to see her among Fellini’s ‘faces’ but this would not have mattered to him.

The Trial

Snaporaz meets his wife at Kazzone’s party. At first she seems calm and playful but the more she drinks the more the gripes she has about her life spill out. Her life, as the wife of a popular and admired man, has been miserable. Now things are coming to an end between them and she wants to be out, drinking, dancing and enjoying life. He has always seemed so amiable and witty to everyone else but not to her. He cannot make her laugh. Was he ever in love with her, when he left notes under her pillow, was that part of his façade of being a husband. She doesn’t want to grow old with him and wind up cleaning his bedpans. He was never a friend to her. He never listened to her:

“Do you realise how empty my life is? Has it ever dawned on you? Was I ever able to talk about myself without you making a face?”

He skulks with a similar expression to the one he had when caught out at the feminist convention. A child being told off and taking it while waiting for the discomfort to end. He still doesn’t really listen to her and tries to talk her into leaving the party so they can go back to their normal comfortable life together. But it is not a comfortable life for her. That night, after he has been sexually aroused by the two dancers in their skimpy, almost non-existent costumes (one of them being Donatella Damiani), he is unable to have sex with her. In her curlers and facemask as a nightmare parody of marital sex, she tries to force herself upon him but, for him, the effect is an inability to want her or perform his role. As she cries on the bed feeling rejected, he instead finds his way under the bed and slides onto a Disneyworld fairylit rollercoaster ride through the world of the memories that so excite him.

He sees and feels the memories of a housemaid who coddled him as a child, a nurse who massaged him with mudpacks, some sexy motorbike stunt riders, a woman on a beach (spied on by four children calling back to a similar scene in ), the aforementioned Fishwoman of St. Leo and the various prostitutes and movie stars who represented those moments of his greatest sexual intoxication. This is all played along to jaunty nostalgic music with each woman introduced by three elderly song and dance men in top hat and tails.

As the rollercoaster ride comes to an end, the music goes, the song and dance men go home to their wives, and the familiar howl of the wind accompanies the re-emergence of the feminists from the convention led by the women from the train and carrying torches. Snaporaz slides into a cage attached to a cart and blinded to the outside world as he is taken to another place.

He soon finds Kafkaesque version of “Backstage at the Coliseum”. Pictures of macho men and heroes line the walls (including Donald Sutherland as Casanova) as enervated looking male victims are dragged off only to return broken and limp. One of them, preparing for a bout with whatever lies in the arena beyond is Nello Pazzafini, one of the most familiar faces in Italian cinema from Peplum, Crimi, Spaghetti Westerns and Gialli.

“Why did you choose to be born a man?”

“Have you ever explored your feminine side?”

“Describe your orgasm?”

Snaporaz’s expression is beleagured. He doesn’t know how to respond. He feels that he hasn’t done anything to cause him to belong in this place. It’s hard not to think of Joseph K in The Trial: “he admits that he doesn’t know the law and yet at the same time he claims he’s innocent”. Seeing the men being brought back on stretchers, he asks what happened to them.

“They go there to meet the ideal woman. The woman of your dreams. The undiscovered lady.”

This is what is dangerous. Not the tribunal with their ridiculous questions but the drive that these men have to meet the ideal woman which, in each of their cases is enough to destroy them. As the shadow of the praying mantis that later appears before Snaporaz reminds us, they desire most that which will destroy them. That is the ideal woman; Death herself.

Snaporaz faces his female judges, knitting and laughing radicals in balaclavas in cahoots with sexy looking fascists with riding crops, as they read the charges against him. He has failed to answer all the questions. He feels sorry for himself. He can’t find a way out. He’s afraid of making decisions. He’s guilty of feeling guilty. He takes himself too seriously. He’s obsessed with arses. He cannot commit himself to one woman. He deceives himself by imagining an ideal woman. He believes that women are mentally inferior. He considers them superior beings. He prefers the dark side of the moon. He can’t justify his aggressiveness, his vulgarity, his arrogance towards women. He feels lonely…He can’t cook. He pees standing up… After a pause, he is then told he is free to go home. But… he is like the others. Once he knows he is free he will only go on to imperil himself again. He wants to take a look. He wants to see what is there. He wants to know what or who his ideal woman is.

Style and Content

City of Women opened in London in 1981. I saw it at a small and cozy cinema called The Screen on the Hill. I had been in the thrall of Italian cinema since, almost accidentally seeing a Dario Argento film called Inferno. At the time, and still today, I couldn’t escape a profound sense of the best Italian cinema having a particular sensuality and a tone that was lacking in nearly all American and British films. As Sergio Leone had made me love Westerns with his incredible silences punctuated by the sound of howling wind, so did Argento and so did Fellini. It is impossible, for me, to watch a Fellini film without feeling it. I know that much of the credit for this is to do with the team who were able to facilitate those sensations. A simple scene, in Kazzone’s mansion, has the wind blowing through the room loudly. The curtains bellow before a maid runs across the room in a kind of frenzy. It’s a moment that would have been forgettable in a mainstream movie but here it seems so vivid that it lives within me. I know that this feeling of the sensuality of cinema is shared by millions but it seems to be something that most critics, at the time at least, were indifferent to. As if not feeling that the content of a film accords to their idea of a good message damns any artistry. I can’t recall how the London papers reviewed City of Women but one French critic called it a “mountain of pretension and boredom”.

I don’t really know how most people would take the content of this film today. Fellini makes his feminists into a bit of a baying mob at the end and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is perceived as a judgement. In his interviews, Fellini goes to a lot of trouble to suggest that he enjoyed the contributions of feminist to the film even if some of those feminists who took part felt that they were misrepresented by it. On hearing what his film was about, Germaine Greer remarked to Fellini, “But Federico, what do you know about women?” From the same interview with Lietta Tournabuoni from which I have already quoted, Fellini said, “certain exaggerated parts of the film, bordering on parody, express the point of view of an ageing man who cannot help regarding feminism with fear and bewilderment.” That seems fair enough, especially in a film about the dream of a middle aged man.

Credits

The recent Eureka! Masters of Cinema blu-ray of the film gave me my first opportunity to see the film in a beautiful quality print since that first viewing. It’s a beautiful print packed with extra features including the interview with Dante Ferretti and a contemporary documentary about the making of the film, Notes on City of Women. There’s an interesting and gossipy interview with Tinto Brass of Salon Kitty and Caligula fame. The booklet included with the film as well as Tullio Kezich’s Federico Fellini His Life and Work have been invaluable aids to this overlong blog post and I recommend them to anyone interested in Fellini or his work.

Picaresque

Introduction

The sun rises. The sun falls. The night fills the sky with stars. Life comes to us not in stories but in moments, encounters, dreams. There are no missions, no daring bank jobs, no spates of hideous murders to be solved. Each day brings fresh dangers, fresh opportunities and fresh adventures. One day the story ends but it doesn’t end with a finale or a climax. It just ends. The climaxes and finales occur along the way. After our story ends, there is no resolution to all those remaining cliff-hangers. We don’t get to see how the world turns out after our story is done. We don’t see if the predicted catastrophes come to pass or if our grandchildren are smart enough to prevent them all only to be faced with further catastrophes and cliff hangers.

So the story goes on… endlessly… unless life itself ends never to occur again. We might make stories of our lives. We might adjust the world to fit the neat narratives we’ve all grown up reading and watching but, in fact, we are just tourists in the world only ever seeing it in moments, unaware of how stories really began and never knowing how they might one day end.

That stories exist with beginnings, middles and ends might have something to do with a natural dissatisfaction with real life throwing us into the midst of dramas that don’t come to neat conclusions. That life has no three act structure. That unlike the comedy, there is no nice resolved ending where everyone gets what they want. That unlike the tragedy, vengeance is never resolved with a stage littered with bloody corpses. There are moments of great happiness and there are terrible tragedies but those stories with happy and unhappy endings have little to do with our experience of the world.

Early novels and epic poems were much closer to the way we experienced the world even if some of the things that happened in them were far from the events in most people’s lives. The Satyricon of Petronius. The Odyssey of Homer, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Chaucer’s Canturbury Tales may have been filled with moral tales and mythic archetypes but things just happened. They were rolling episodic narratives filled with incident but lacking that ending that wrapped the world into a tidy knot. Later books, Don Quixote, Candide, Justine, Ulyssess, Remembrance of Things Past made the novel into something that felt like life in various different ways. It might be controversial to say this but you can dip into these books and enjoy a chapter or two coming back to it days, weeks, months or years later or maybe never.

Not that this is the way of the modern bestselling novel. The novels of Dan Brown, for example, take their cues from the films of Hitchcock. They propel the reader through a narrative which will have a very clear endpoint. When all the conspiracies are laid open, the blame cast upon the hero cleared, the bad guys dead everything can go back to normal and we can put the book down and never look at it again in our lives. Along the way, we may be privy to the odd esoteric revelation but when it’s done it’s done.

Most cinema follows similar conventions. There should be a flawed hero or heroine who, ideally, we should come to care about. They must encounter an obstacle or a problem, preferably a big one; they want to find love but can’t, someone is trying to kill them and they don’t know who or why, there’s a meteor headed toward the Earth. The problem or threat gets worse as they try to solve it; they find someone but they’re crazy, the killer turns out to be invisible, the meteor has been hurtled at the Earth by an alien race bent on our destruction. Then, at the climax, just as it is as bad as it could possibly get, the problem is resolved. Sometimes it is resolved happily. Sometimes everyone dies (though that can damage the box office potential).

There are shelves of books on screenwriting which suggest following some basic rules will give the writer the chance of selling his screenplay and becoming rich and famous. These excellent books means that writers know how to plot their scripts to suit the needs of their audience. It also means that if you watch two or three Hollywood films in a row you can’t shake the feeling that they’re just a little too similar as if the writers have read the same books on how to write movies. I’m not suggesting here that those movies are bad. Quite the contrary, the formula has been proved to be a successful one in film after film, many of them classics. But a diet consisting only of such films (and the critically acclaimed award winning ones with important social messages are usually following exactly the same formula) might leave some of us with a hollow sensation. That sensation tells us we should watch fewer films. Maybe, however, we should simply hunt down those films that don’t follow that formula. It is my hope, in this blog, to help lead the reader to films and books and other works that break that convention.

The picaresque, as I see it, is the best word we have to describe those novels, plays and films that eschew the three act structure. The word was originally used to describe those works that were inspired by the style of an anonymous authored Spanish novel, La Vida de Lazarillode Tormes y de sus fortunas y adversidades (The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Misadventures). Published in 1554 and banned by the Spanish Crown it was nevertheless a cause celebre that established a literary genre. First defined as the rambling adventures of a roguish character (the picaro) and containing elements of social realism and satire, the word is now most often used to describe any narrative where a character or characters have a series of adventures or encounters that do not have anything to connect them other than that our protagonists experience them. It is often used, by those critics who like tight plotting, as a derogatory term. Maybe such critics feel that authors who choose to create a picaresque narrative lack discipline or can’t think of a way to resolve their narrative.

Over the coming weeks I shall be looking at works as diverse as The Great Adventure by Milo Manara, The Final Programme by Michael Moorcock (and the film by Robert Fuest), City of Women by Federico Fellini and Bernardino Zapponi and Tag by Sion Sono. To get things started, hoewever, I shall be looking at David Butler’s 1942 film, Road to Morocco.

Sometimes, when I see how silly people behave, I’m glad I’m a camel

Comedies, on the whole, are not taken very seriously. There’s a very good reason for this; they’re not supposed to be. Once you start taking a comedy seriously, it stops being a comedy and becomes something else. The people who make comedies don’t want us to scratch our chins considering the implications of what they mean. They just want us to laugh. Steve Martin once said, “The art of comedy is to make people laugh without making them puke” and this seems a fair enough assessment. Some comedies might take aim at satirical targets but some comedies are content just to make us a little happier.

I hear this country’s where they do the dance of the seven veils
We’d tell you more but we would have the censor on our tails

The opening bars of the song, Ain’t got a dime to my name segues into the first bar of Moonlight Becomes You over the titles set against views of the desert with minarets and palaces in the background. The notes swing up and down the scales in a way that sets the tone for the whole film and this opening taste of Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusan’s songs is enough, in itself to raise the spirits. Watching Road to Morocco is like getting a visit from an old friend who always makes us laugh. That by the time of this, the third of the Road movies, Hope and Crosby had established a kind of comedy jazz gives, a rapport that makes it feel they are always riffing off one another, lends the whole film a mood of easy confidence. It looks so easy but the fact that so many have tried to replicate the formular and failed miserably should be enough to prove to us all that it wasn’t. Scripted by Frank Butler and Don Hartman and rumoured to have been subject to a lot of ad-libbing and improvisation from its stars, it is hard not to look at the film as being about as jaunty and life-affirming as movies get. But, looked at from another angle, this is a film that goes to some very dark places indeed.

Wait til they find out who was smoking in the powder room

Bob Hope plays Orville an easy-going coward and good for nothing who sounds a lot like Bob Hope, while Bing Crosby plays Jeff, a philandering and childlike crooner who sounds a lot like Bing Crosby. The film breaks the fourth wall continually, the song Road to Morocco itself tells the audience “For any villain we may meet we haven’t any fears. Paramount will protect us ’cause we’re signed for five more years”. Just as well because the villains here are kind of dangerous and so, in many ways, are the heroes.

Do it some more! Do it some more!

The adventures begin with a boat blowing up in the most spectacular way. Surely nobody could survive such an explosion. We soon learn that Orville (who with Jeff had been stowing the boat – the two being perennially broke despite that contract with Paramount) had popped into the Powder Room for a quick smoke causing this instant combustion. Luckily the crew and passengers survived the explosion. And only those two stowaways are unaccounted for. So there they are adrift at sea on a raft that could barely sustain a trip across a paddling pond, Jeff and Orville planning to eat each other if they don’t spot dry land soon. “You mean you’d eat me? Without vegetables?” What’s a little cannibalism between friends? But cannibalism, or proposed cannibalism, is only the first instance of casual treachery that these two closest-of-friends visit upon one another. After a little singing and dancing, Jeff sells Orville to a sinister looking slave trader so he can pay his restaurant bill and enjoy a fine cigar. If not for the ghost of Aunt Lucy (also played by Hope) haunting his dreams, Jeff might have let his friend languish in servitude for the rest of his life. Ghosts being annoying nags, however, Jeff goes off on a search singing, like a troubadour in search of him. As he goes from house to house singing and dancing to find Orville he is naturally distracted from saving his friend by beautiful girls leaning out of windows giving come-get-me looks to the blue eyed crooner. Thankfully Aunt Lucy also has the gift of lightning bolts. He’s almost disappointed to discover that he hasn’t sold his best friend into slavery and has instead delivered him to the slipper straightening kisses of Dorothy Lamour as Princess Shalamar.

And what a night to go dreaming. Mind if I tag along?

Not that Orville is Shalamar’s first choice. She’s just been told by the court astrologer that her first husband will die a horrible death before they can consume their marriage. The life of a good-for-nothing American vagabond and ne’er-do well is cheap to Moroccan Princesses. Who will miss Orville when he meets his terrible fate? Only Jeff, and half an hour earlier, he was planning to eat him.

Misadventure follows misadventure. Sexual rivalry over Shalamar is eventually quashed when her beautiful handmaiden, Mihirmah, tells Orville that in her heart there is a great love for him and invites him to flea with her to escape the curse. Naturally, Orville decides that Jeff, his best pal in the world, deserves to be the one who should wed Shalamar and face certain doom. Orville doesn’t hold a grudge about being sold but if you can lead a friend to a near-certain death, why not?

Mihirmah is played by Dona Drake, a black actress, singer and dancer who, earlier in her career had gone by the name of Rita Rio passing herself off as Mexican to land more roles.

Jeff and Orville eventually team up and together face the wrath Anthony Quinn’s Mullar Kasim who means to turn both of them into shish-kebab with his scimitar. It’s worth facing certain death at the hands of the odd psychotic sheikh if it means remaining free. It beats an office job. Bing sings

“Ain’t got a dime to my name what a terrible shame.
Ho Hum. Ho ho hum.
Just found a hole in my shoe where my stocking pokes through.
Ho hum. Ho ho ho ho hum.
I know that when you’re as free as a bird in a tree, life is a wonderful whim.
Look at the crank with his dough in the bank,
Don’t you feel sorry for him?
Rolling along at a loss never gathering moss,
Ho Hum, ho ho ho ho Hum.”

There’s nothing quite as grotesque as a man at a desk looking outside at the sun. Shirts made of silk and a diet of milk. Maybe he thinks he has fun

This idea of freedom, of every day being an unknown, with no particular aim in mind other than to drift around the world singing and dancing and falling in love with various women who look a bit like Dorothy Lamour is one of the great undercurrents of the entire Road series. There is nothing worse than being trapped into a marriage with the boss’s daughter and living in a big comfortable mansion or just living in a nice semi with the wife and kids. Life should be full of adventure. Bob and Bing may not be particularly useful or courageous but it doesn’t matter because they’re funny.

Jeff: What’s the matter with you? You got red blood ain’t you?
Orville: Yeah… But I don’t want to get it all over strangers.

Here we have a proverb: “A goose is beautiful until it stands next to a peacock.”

It’s interesting to note that Road to Morocco was first released in November 1942. The same month as Casablanca which had Humphrey Bogart as the world weary and decadent womaniser and profiteer, Rick Blaine, supported by Claude Rains as the more corrupt and womanising Captain Louis Renault. There might not be that much similarity between the almost-medieval feel of Road to Morocco‘s Morocco and the international hub that is Rick’s Café Américain but both share the romantic Hollywood view of North Africa. Life is cheap but full of music and temptation. It’s probably no coincidence that November 1942 was also the month that allied forces landed in Morocco and Algeria to fight the good fight.

Foreign policy

In many picaresque novels, there is a disdain for seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses. In Candide, for example, the title character suffers endless indignities and humiliations while believing that all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds. In the Marquis de Sade’s similarly ironic, Justine, the title character’s belief in remaining virtuous and good, causes her nothing but pain and subjugation to the will of others, while her sister Juliette, who accepts the evil nature of the world and acts accordingly, does rather better. The Road movies may be about as far from the picaresque novels of the 17th and 18th century as it is possible to be, but there is no doubting that the characters played by Hope and Crosby in Road to Morocco, have accepted their low natures. Their optimism is not based on the dream that everything will be fine or that this is the best of all possible worlds. It is more that they feel everything is fine except when it isn’t and when it isn’t you do whatever is necessary to survive even if that means eating or selling your best friend.

This is the screwiest picture I’ve been in.

Road to Morocco stays well clear of any kind of realism. This is a world where mirages throw hot dogs and camels can talk, passing judgement on both humanity and the film they have found themselves starring in. Jeff and Orville after hiding behind their goosepimples a while, bring the fight to Mullar Kasim by inciting a war between two rival tribes sewing distrust during a banquet intended to ensure peace and harmony. That they do so through the use of exploding cigars and whoopee cushions is neither here nor there. This is a strange insight into foreign policy at its most cynical. But do we care? No… We just delight in the glorious chaos. And Bob should have won an Academy Award.

No food! No water! And it’s all my fault!


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