A horrific historical: Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, 1968)

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By 1968, Vincent Price’s roles in Roger Corman’s various Edgar Allen Poe adaptations had brought him great success. To capitalise on this, Witchfinder General was renamed The Conqueror Worm, after the Poe poem, for its US release. That Price’s performance as Matthew Hopkins should be entirely camp-free will not be surprising to anyone who knows he had an extensive and diverse acting career before becoming a horror icon. What may surprise, even shock, is just how grim and pitilessly violent this film can be. Price himself was disturbed by Witchfinder General upon seeing it in the final cut, which serves as some indication that the film stands out from his usual fare.

Hopkins is based on the real “Witchfinder” from 17th century England. While the Roundheads and Royalists do battle up and down the country, Hopkins travels from village to village, accepting payments in return for testing, condemning and killing people singled out as witches. When Sara Lowes (Hilary Dwyer) tries to save herself and her uncle John (Rupert Davies) by offering favours to Hopkins, the Witchfinder has made an enemy in her fiancée, Roundhead soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy).

Witchfinder General succeeds as a historical film. The sets and costumes are not extravagant, but have an authentic feel. The cinematography and score are often beautiful, which is no doubt a commentary on the concealed cruelty that exists within these villages. The film is at its best when depicting this social climate of greed and gleeful malice. It manages to suggest enough that I wonder how much more interesting still the film could have been if it had spent more time on its setting, story and characters.

When people talk about Witchfinder General, I think they don’t put enough emphasis on how unclear Pierce’s motives initially are. On first viewing, we don’t know if Pierce believes in what he’s doing, or just how much he enjoys it. There’s some great ambiguity to the character; when Sara tries to seduce Hopkins, he gives little away and her plan seems on the verge of backfiring. Price is so restrained that he doesn’t make Hopkins’ pleasure in his work obvious – which is, perhaps, why the character is truly horrific.

The film’s other actors also give notable performances. Dwyer is so good as the wholesome and brave Sara that it’s hard to believe that this was her first film role. Ogilvy does well as the decent hero who descends into bloodlust. Davies makes John, a priest who prays for Hopkins even while facing torture and death, sympathetically tragic. Meanwhile, Robert Russell as Hopkins’ assistant John Stearne acts as a contrast to Price by portraying open sadism.

This film underwent some censorship, and in the unrated and restored version I watched, it’s easy to see which portions had been cut from the film. The quality changes drastically; if the entire film looked like this, it would be unwatchable. It is helpful, however, to see unequivocally what was censored. In my opinion, these frames are actually, with a few exceptions, not necessary. It’s usually clear what the characters are doing or intend to do, which causes a visceral enough reaction that we don’t need to see it. It is a little ridiculous that one segment seems to have been cut simply because a woman is screaming offscreen. However, so much of this film is full of women (and the occasional man) screaming, not to mention being hit, tied, drowned, stabbed, and burned, that it becomes hard to take.

This is just my personal opinion, however. Reactions to onscreen violence vary from viewer to viewer. I find that I like Witchfinder General enough as a well-made and well-acted historical film that I wish it was less horrific. Of course, the real witch hunts were more violent and terrible than what we see here, but this film is just too much for me. It’s best watched by horror fans, but there’s enough talent involved, and enough substance to it, to make it worth enduring at least once.

Never mind Clint: The Unforgiven (John Huston, 1960)

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The Unforgiven is darker than most psychological westerns of the 50s, yet less explicit than the Revisionist westerns of the coming decades. This makes it a distinctive film in the genre. It’s the story of the Zacharys, a family that has grown prosperous even though the patriarch was killed by Kiowa Indians some years previously. When mysterious old Abe Kelsey (Joseph Wiseman) reappears and claims that the Zacharys’ adoptive daughter, Rachel (Audrey Hepburn) is herself a Kiowa, the Zacharys find themselves friendless and under threat from the Indians.

The Unforgiven does not actually show much violence, but it feels like a violent film. Peckinpah could have done much with the last half hour, in which the Zacharys are besieged within their home, but the extreme emotional turbulence the characters experience is more important than showing blood and gore. The story is full of dark themes, from racism to mental trauma to borderline incest.

If The Unforgiven were made in the 70s, it would push all of its material further, but it certainly doesn’t feel like the 50s either. The film does not operate through Hays Code-conscious inferences. Even a moment of innuendo is something so blatant that it probably wouldn’t have flown a few years previously: an Indian man tells a horse he’s breaking in that it won’t hurt much after the first time, before telling Rachel (who’s often dressed in white, symbolic in more ways than one) that she has a burr in her hair.

The film is more impactful because it feels grounded in reality. In addition to its landscapes, which are not Ford-ian in their grandeur but are shot with an eye for natural beauty, the people’s lives are depicted in ways that show how they are shaped by the circumstances of time and place. The Zacharys’ house is set into a hill, something that becomes first a strength and later a weakness as the film progresses. When the family has visitors, once of them, a young woman, asks her parents to stop their carriage so that she can run into the bushes and change into a dress that she hopes will impress Cash Zachary. The convivial gathering involves songs and entertainment that are certainly not modern. The film creates its world through small details, unfamiliar to us but not to its happy characters, so that it can tear it down by the story’s end.

The Unforgiven has a curious mix of onscreen talent. Lillian Gish is a fine choice for the mother of the family, Mattilda, who makes every effort to hide her secret for her daughter’s sake. Burt Lancaster brings an appropriate anguish to Ben Zachary, who has long been in love with his adopted sister, and Wiseman is genuinely unnerving as mad Kelsey. Most surprisingly, Audie Murphy, unrecognisable beneath a moustache, gives one of his best dramatic turns as racist, increasingly unhinged Cash.

The film’s biggest flaw was probably inevitable in 1960, but remains a glaring one nonetheless. The Unforgiven delves into Rachel’s sense of self and of her place in the world, and the ways in which she is accepted or rejected. Much of the power of these issues is undercut by the fact that Rachel is being played by Audrey Hepburn, and not an Indian actor. Hepburn is fine in the role, exhibiting an effortless radiance that makes it easy to believe that Rachel is dearly loved by some, and that makes the injustice of her persecution by others more obvious. It’s doubtless, however, than an Indian actor could have connected better with the character and added weight to her troubles, and done more to challenge the audience.

Though The Unforgiven is not so resonant as it would like to be, it is a western not easily categorised, and one that’s full of tension and powerful emotions. Most of all, it’s a film undeserving of its relative obscurity.

Pre-CGI spectacle over substance: Fantastic Voyage (Richard Fleischer, 1966)

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Fantastic Voyage has been parodied and imitated a multitude of times over the decades, and after seeing it, I can understand why. It’s not just because the premise –a craft and its occupants are miniaturised and injected into a human body so that they can perform life-saving brain surgery– is, well, fantastic, but because its characters are so thin that replacing them is not just easy, but makes the story more enjoyable.

The movie has a decent cast, even if leading man Stephen Boyd as tough guy Grant is dull as all heck. Donald Pleasance and Arthur Kennedy are capable of handling much more than they are given here, and do manage to make their characters the most interesting. Kennedy’s suspicious surgeon Duval is prone to off-kilter philosophising about inner space and outer space, viewing humankind as existing between two infinities. Pleasance’s Michaels is crazy because he’s been claustrophobic since being trapped during bombing raids on London during WWII, and also because he’s played by Donald Pleasance. The ever-reliable Edmund O’Brien and Arthur O’Connell, waiting topside, get nothing notable other than a nice moment in which one of them considers squashing an insect, but finds his perspective on doing such things has changed.

In the midst of all this, it seems natural that the film’s sole named female character, Cora Peterson (Raquel Welch), should be so inattentively written that she becomes little more than a damsel in distress. At least she does this in a novel way: falling into the patient’s inner ear hairs and getting smothered by antibodies. It should be noted that her wetsuit, much remarked upon by people who’ve seen the film, is not too different to the ones the men wear; Welch just has a different body to Pleasance, that’s all.

Cora isn’t so far off being a decent character. She does start out promisingly; she joins the mission at Duval’s insistence, and gets to show off with a laser, putting an end to Grant sizing up her abilities as a housewife. Imagine if the script played up on the fact that Grant likes her but doesn’t trust Duval, while Duval trusts her inplicitly, or if Duval became incapacitated and she had to perform the surgery instead of him. There’s a few of my ideas for a remake; just don’t let J. J. Abrams anywhere near it.

By showing the complexity of the human body, Fantastic Voyage aims to create a sense of wonder and give the viewer themselves a change of perspective. It’s quite charming in this. However, it’s so focused on the special effects that it becomes somewhat dull, even if some of the effects still look impressive. Despite being an influential movie, it’s not terribly enjoyable to watch.

There’s plenty of alternate takes on Fantastic Voyage out there. At the lower end of the range is the Doctor Who story The Invisible Enemy, which is far too ambitious for that show’s budget and enters so-bad-it’s-good territory. Since The Doctor isn’t human, the story often doesn’t even try to make the interior of his body look recognisable, or even organic. Joe Dante’s Innerspace from 1987, however, had a far, far bigger budget, and manages to be a fun movie that draws inspiration from Fantastic Voyage while having enough originality to be more than a remake or a parody. Martin Short and Dennis Quaid give strong performances, but Robert Picardo steals the movie out from under them. Both The Invisible Enemy and Innerspace are more entertaining, in their own ways, than Fantastic Voyage.

Playing the game and paying the price: The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961)

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My three favourite things about The Hustler (by no means a comprehensive list):

1. The cast. Paul Newman shows his star power as protagonist Fast Eddie, sure, but it’s the three major supporting players who truly make the film. Jackie Gleason tells you everything you need to know about Minnesota Fats with only a little dialogue. A great dramatic turn from a comedian. Piper Laurie gives Sarah self-awareness and fierce intelligence that make her weaknesses, and Eddie’s manipulation and mishandling of them, all the more tragic. George C. Scott is cold and powerful as Bert. When he screams “You owe me MONEY!” at Eddie, it sounds like the shattering of something expensive. But Scott can be threatening without raising his voice (and without Eddie realising it, either).

2. The structure. We open with a five minute sequence that shows us how Eddie hustles. (The best part is that we don’t even need to see him make the winning shot.) It’s not necessary to the rest of the story but, if I recall correctly, Rossen hung onto it to keep this from seeming like a gangster movie. After the credits, we have a sequence of about twenty minutes in which Eddie takes on Fats for the first time. It’s an amazing bit of storytelling all on its own, showing how the game progresses over the course of more than a day, and how Eddie defeats himself.

Things get looser after that as Eddie latches onto Sarah and their romance develops. This section does feel too long, but what I like about it is that on first watching I didn’t know where it would go. The premise of the movie alone suggests that Eddie will take on Fats again, but it doesn’t happen. When the plot picks up again, it’s because Eddie is working for Bert now, and the next big game is against someone else entirely. Eddie doesn’t play Fats until the last part of the film, after he’s undergone character development that we know has decided the outcome of the game before it even starts.

3. The bleakness of the ending. I don’t just mean what happens to Sarah – I mean what’s revealed about Bert after the final pool game. We already know he’s a bad guy, yes (though surprisingly, he may not be not rotten through and through: look at his reaction to Sarah’s death, and the clear guilt in the way he says to Eddie, “We’re going to make a lot of money together,” knowing that won’t be enough and that, as recompense goes, it’s pathetic).

But Bert is also inescapable. He had Eddie’s thumbs broken, and he can make sure Eddie is kept out of the big time for good. If you want to be the best and use your talent, you need him to back you. You need to work for him. And Minnesota Fats’ silent expression through that final argument shows what it’s like to have made the compromise and to have Bert on your side.

Maybe Eddie now has enough character that he can lay down his talent and stay out of the game. Maybe that’s better than putting it to use in a world of twisted, perverted and crippled people like Bert, Fats and Findley. But with his skill, with how well he can use it, that’s a sad path to have to take.

I haven’t watched The Color of Money yet. I have an inkling that it won’t live up to the feeling I get from The Hustler’s ending.

Contrived but gripping: Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967)

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In Wait Until Dark, three crims search for a heroin-stuffed doll in a blind woman’s apartment while trying not to alert her to what they’re doing. The premise needs some contrivances to get going, and the story’s origin as a stageplay is obvious, but the film is still a tense and affecting thriller.

Audrey Hepburn immediately establishes Susy as an endearingly sweet and kind woman. She has a couple of moments of hysteria as she grows to understand what is happening around her, and I would have much preferred to see these underplayed. Her moments of terror when being cruelly menaced, however, are totally convincing. But don’t think Susy is weak; her survival depends on her recognition of her own strengths, and her relationship with the strange girl who lives upstairs.

As Roat, the most deadly of the three baddies, Alan Arkin chews little scenery, betraying little emotion except when he is endangered. His apparent lack of enjoyment (or any other feeling) while toying with Susy makes these moments all the more chilling. All three crims are interesting for the ways that they play into Susy’s blindness, acting with their voices but not their faces when around her. Roat most monstrously devises ways of tormenting her in ways that she cannot anticipate because she cannot see him.

Most memorably, the film’s climax plays on the viewer’s own visual perception. I’d very much like to see it at a cinema or on a stage, because this would be the best way of experiencing it, I think, with a more immediate and inescapable effect.