When I say “The Seventies was the best decade for crime films,” your answer should be “No shit, Sherlock.” The French Connection, Dirty Harry, The Godfather, The Taking of Pelham One-Two-Three, Night Moves, The Gauntlet, pretty much anything with Michael Caine… speaking of whom, was in a classic of crime cinematography on the border year of 1969. That would be The Italian Job, a heist flick known for its classic car chases.
So, The Italian Job. After an intro scene where the Mob bumps off some guy in Italy, dapper gentleman gangster Charlie Croker (Michael Caine) is released from prison, and immediately sets off on a new job. This time, a heist in Italy, finishing the job planned by the guy killed in the opening sequence: making off with $4 million in gold bars the Chinese are delivering. With the aid of Mr. Bridger (Noël Coward), still living in a luxuriant prison cell, and his girlfriend Lorna (Margaret Blye), Croker assembles a team to pull off this heist. It includes a number of screwballs, such as Professor Peach (Benny Hill), a computer whiz with a thing for large ladies. They’re walking a fine line, avoiding both the police and the Mafia; with the roaring of engines and crashing of the Italian transit system’s mainframe, they’re off.
What strikes me most is how you can’t make a movie like this any more. Never mind the costumes and so-very-’60s music, I’m talking about the plot and setup: the entire movie is so-very-’60s. Everything is set up, through perfect planning and careful legwork, so that the heist goes in the Brits’ favor. And while there are some surprises for them, it ends up with madcap chase sequences going in favor of Caine’s crew, the Italians stumbling around confusedly, crashing into walls, wrecking their cars, and so on.
There’s no sense that the robbers are in any kind of trouble; the Mafia thread purports to some trick ending, something related to Caine’s girlfriend, but that never appears; and up until the literal cliffhanger, there’s no sense that these guys aren’t going to make off with four million in gold bricks. Part of the problem is that a proposed sequel never appeared, but I was struck by how short the film was—making it shallow in both plot and character development, and its lack of emotion detracts from its attempts to build tension or drama.
Of course, that’s not why you’re watching this movie. You’re watching to see a well-coordinated planning sequence turn into Mini Coopers driving up, through, and over buildings—down into a subterranean mall, into a church, through a sewer system, on a roof, etc. And it’s a fine chase sequence, even if it’s pure Mini glorification, something that the remake latched onto to the point where it was the best two-hour ad for Minis ever made.
And because of that well-executed heist—and chase—the film is deservedly a classic. It’s nice to see an old-fashioned heist go well for the heroes, and the chase scenes are entertaining for their madcap nature, blazing through every kind of location imaginable. But I guess the dark old film noir and gritter late ’60s/early ’70s flicks are more my cup of tea; while I liked The Italian Job as an enjoyable lighthearted romp, with good characterization and fantastic car chases, I thought it was too straightforward, with a feeble plot lacking in suspense or depth. To each their own.
Since I managed to get ahead of myself on the 15 Days of Horror thing, time to do something different. Since I just read Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife, I thought I’d do a tie-in between blogs and popped on Netflix to see which of the three movies based on the book were on streaming. The answer would be 1962′s Burn, Witch, Burn!, released as Night of the Eagle in its native land of England.
A quick rundown if you’re too lazy to read a review of the novel: Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) is a psychology professor at a small England college who lectures on beliefs and the supernatural right before he discovers his wife Tansy (Janet Blair) is a practicing witch. Being a man fueled by logic and reason, he has her burn all of her charms and occult paraphernalia. Wrong move; it turns out she was practicing white witchcraft to aid her husband’s career, and now the disbelieving Norman finds his once easy life is now fraught with peril (and large stone eagles).
There are a number of changes between the book and film, but most of them are marginal. Hempnell College was in New England in the book; because of its location the film dropped replaced the “New” with “Jolly Old.” Tansy no longer has her own dressing room to store her witch stuff in; instead, she keeps them in the drawer above where Norman keeps his pyjamas (British spelling, wot wot!). The stone dragon was replaced with a stone eagle, hence the schlocky original title, and comes complete with a transformation and Hilarious Superimposed Normal Hawk Footage (you can see the strings!). That’s pretty much it; the film is very accurate to its source material.
The biggest changes were with the characters. In the book, Norman was kind of a dick to his colleagues, considering himself better than them, but a loving husband devoted to Tansy; in the film, he’s a dick to everyone. In the book, you get a strong sense that Tansy is calm, collected, and working her butt off to save Norman even though she’s renounced witchcraft (see: the storm scene with the dragon); in the same scene in the film, along with most of her scenes, Tansy is an overemotional neurotic who spends a lot of time screaming. There’s also a bad run of trite dialogue early in the film, but other than that (and the screaming), the acting was fine.
I think the book was much better for handling suspense and tension, though the movie still gave its all. The film is pure budget British (or, British budget) from the early ’60s, so don’t expect a lot, even though Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont were the screenwriters. I think it’s a passable film, not a great movie or lost classic, but it covered the plot of the book without compromising.
As for whether it was scary or not… I’m not the best judge of that, having went into the movie knowing what was going to happen. The film follows the same pattern of strange events to build tension, but it does have some twists that made things interesting—most of them occurring near the end. I thought it was solid, if not outstanding.
I think it says a lot about me when the first fifteen horror movies I can come up with include a lot of hybrids—a couple of thriller crime/horror hybrids, a bunch of SF/horror hybrids, and a pair of comedy/horror hybrids. Like this one.
“You’ve got red on you.”
Shaun of the Dead isn’t a true horror movie; it’s a romantic comedy, but one that stays within the constraints of a zombie movie. Simon Pegg is an office zombie, going through his day to day life, hanging out with his slacker friend (Nick Frost) and trying to win back his girlfriend (Kate Ashfield), which just so happens to occur during a zombie apocalypse. That’s where a lot of the humor comes from: Pegg’s Shaun doesn’t even notice the zombies at first, too caught up in his thoughts.
The fact that it’s also a checklist for zombie film components is also a plus: escape scenes, gruesome walking dead, the slow and eventual deaths of the less-important group members, one group member getting bit, the climactic hold-0ut scene… it’s all there. Only neatly subverted into comedy: instead of holding out in an office building or mall, they hold out in a pub; the person who’s infected by the zombies is Shaun’s girlfriend’s mother; the escape scene involves the survivors zombie-walking through a group of undead.
Why is it scary?
It’s not; not in the slightest bit. It is, however, pretty funny, and the zombie special effects are terrific. As a horror rom-com hybrid, I think it does what it set out to do damn well: be a comedy movie set within the boundaries of a zombie film. All the classic zombie film bits are there, making it an authentic zombie film, which it uses to its advantage: the movie takes a serious-but-comedic approach to panning the genre.
I think it holds up a lot better than the other serious zombie comedy (zom-com?), Zombieland, which had a lot going for it but was too short and too shallow and was largely powered by hype. Shaun came out of left field—being British helped, nobody in the States pays any attention to foreign films being developed, which is a shame—and I think being a pleasant surprise, with its distinctly British wry humor, made the film stick out in my mind.
At the end of the day, it may not be a real horror film, but it is one of the best zombie movies ever made.