Archive for the ‘Films’ Category

My unfortunate partiality for “colonising texts”

When I first came under the spell of Shakespeare some forty and more years ago, I failed to realise that I was siding with a tool of colonial oppression. And now, it’s too late to do anything about it: I am too stuck in my ways.

I suppose it has much to do with my family background. One never escapes the cultural ambience one grows up in; even those elements we reject define us: they define us by the very fact that we have rejected them. And there are other elements that one rejects, but later comes back to. And, finally, there are those elements in one’s family background that, consciously or unconsciously, become integral parts of one’s very being. My love of Shakespeare belongs, I think, to the third category.

Not that my parents read Shakespeare: my late father, who loved and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Bengali literature, often lamented to me that his English wasn’t good enough for him to read and appreciate Shakespeare’s plays. I think he was wrong in this: his English most certainly was good enough to enable appreciation to a significantly high degree, but, given the level to which he understood and appreciated Bengali poetry, the standards he set himself were high. He did love watching the plays though, and never spoke of Shakespeare with anything other than respect. As a man steeped in Bengali culture, and who had lived the first twenty-one years of his life under British rule, if there was any resentment to be felt about “cultural imperialism”, he was well placed to feel it: but he didn’t. Yes, it did distress him that the Bengali culture he loved and valued so much was so little known outside the Bengali-speaking world; but the idea that Shakespeare was a colonial imposition was something that never even had occurred to him.

And this, I think, is only to be expected from someone who was so steeped in Tagorean ethos as was my father. In the first decade of the twentieth century, when Indian nationalist sentiment, though in its infancy, was establishing itself as a potent force, Tagore wrote possibly the most startling of all patriotic poems. (It is No. 106 in the Bengali Gitanjali, for those who have access to it.) He does not here proclaim the greatness of India; and nor does he speak, as he was fully entitled to do, of India’s violation by foreign powers. Instead, he calls for people from all around the world, of all cultures and all backgrounds – even, quite explicitly, the imperialist rulers, the British – to bring to India their cultural riches, and thereby enrich the Indian mind and the Indian soul. The very concept of “cultural imperialism” was to Tagore utterly alien.

Looking back, that was the ethos in the household in which I grew up. My parents obviously thought it important that I, a five-year-old newly arrived in the country and unable to speak a word of English, should learn the language, but their motives were by no means purely utilitarian: even before I knew who Shakespeare was, I knew that this strange language I was to learn was “the language of Shakespeare”; and that if I learnt it well, I would have the privilege of being able to read the original works. This reverence – which, contrary to popular belief, does not preclude critical engagement – that was inculcated into me remains with me still. And, somewhat absurdly I suppose (since it reflects no credit on me personally), I find myself rather proud of this: my love of Shakespeare, far from being a foreign cultural imposition, is an aspect of my Bengali, Tagorean heritage.

And so, when I see an article in the arts pages of a prestigious newspapers that tells us, with obvious disapproval, that “in India and countries in Africa, Shakespeare’s works were made compulsory in schools, as they were seen as a mark of civilisation”, I struggle to understand what there can be in any of that that the author finds objectionable: does the author think these plays aren’t a mark of civilisation? And when the author then goes on to refer to these plays as “the master’s colonising texts”, something inside me, I confess, dies a little.

There are many other aspects of that article that I find – to put it politely – puzzling. The author, Preti Taneja, says of a recent Catalan film, Otel.lo, that it is “genuinely far more entertaining, political and provocative than many contemporary productions of Shakespeare in the UK”. Presumably, she is stating her own personal opinion here, and if so, that’s fair enough. There’s no arguing with personal opinion: de gustibus, and all that. But I can’t help wondering what the point of this comparison is. For one thing, comparing a Shakespeare play with a film in which a Shakespeare play is used as the basis for a new work of art is not a like-for-like comparison. And secondly, while I am sure that there are indeed productions of Shakespeare in the UK that are mediocre or worse – quality, after all, varies in all areas of human activity – the standard of Shakespearean performances in British theatres remains, despite the often desperate state of theatre finances, very high. Preti Taneja’s slur seems to me frankly gratuitous and churlish.

And there’s more. “It’s time to break this national monopoly on Shakespeare,” the headline proclaims. What “national monopoly”? The article itself tells us of the various productions and adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays from all around the world. Translating Shakespeare into other languages, adapting Shakespeare, seeing Shakespeare through different cultural prisms to arrive at new levels of meaning – this has all been going on for a few centuries now, and none of it requires special pleading. From Verdi’s Otello to Kurosawa’s Ran (Italy and Japan both countries in which Shakespeare looms large, despite the rather inconvenient fact that neither has ever been colonised by the British), the plays of Shakespeare have formed the basis of new works; and often (as is certainly the case with the works of Verdi and Kurosawa), these new works themselves are widely acclaimed as masterpieces in their own right. So, once again – what national monopoly? What, in short, is Ms Taneja complaining about?

Personally, I welcome new adaptations of Shakespeare. I can’t imagine any lover of Shakespeare who doesn’t. Otel.lo may no doubt be a very fine film, and I would be keen to see it. But it remains somewhat dispiriting that in order to praise new adaptations of Shakespeare’s work, Preti Taneja feels the need to disparage the very fine work that is going on in theatres all around Britain. And it is equally dispiriting to see these endlessly enriching works characterised as tools of colonial oppression.

As for me, I shall go on revering the plays of Shakespeare. I owe it to my Bengali heritage, after all.

Shakespeare just got more beautiful

Another new adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, I see. Well, why not. That play is not going to go out of fashion any time soon, and no number of tired, routine productions will spoil it. But this one has a novel selling point: it has been adapted by Julian Fellowes, creator of the phenomenally successful Downton Abbey.

Of course, there are the usual criticisms: Fellowes has received some flak from those pantomime villains, the Purists (boo! hiss!), for “rewriting certain passages and altering the language used in the Bard’s work”. And these usual criticisms have been countered by the usual reply: it “was never intended to be a straight adaptation of the original”.

So far, so predictable. But it doesn’t stop here. Fellowes goes on to say:

…to see the original [Shakespeare play] in its absolutely unchanged form, you require a kind of Shakespearian scholarship and you need to understand the language and analyse it and so on. I can do that because I had a very expensive education, I went to Cambridge. Not everyone did that and there are plenty of perfectly intelligent people out there who have not been trained in Shakespeare’s language choices.

I haven’t been keeping up with the Downton Abbey phenomenon, but I can only assume that Fellowes has a certain public image that is lucrative for him to maintain. It is hard to imagine otherwise how anyone with more than two brain cells to rub together could say such a thing in public. Even if they thought it. The idea that Shakespeare must be beyond those who haven’t had an expensive education, or who haven’t studied at a prestigious university, would indeed be offensive, were it not so damn funny.

In an idle hour, I put all this up on my Facebook page, with a few choice expletives aimed and this Fellowes chappie (which I then took out for fear of causing offence to any maiden aunt who may be reading). Within minutes, there was a targeted ad on to my Facebook page for this new Romeo and Juliet film:

Romeo & Juliet. We all know the ending to this love story, but it just got more beautiful.

No, seriously – that’s what it says, word for word! Thanks to Fellowes, Shakespeare just got “more beautiful”.

Ah – the wonders of an expensive education!

The Peter Cushing centenary

As a keen fan of Hammer horror films, I could not let the opportunity pass to pay a tribute to Peter Cushing on his centenary. Actually, his centenary was yesterday, and I should have written something last night, but I decided instead to pour myself a good whisky, sit back, and watch the great man in The Gorgon.

Peter Cushing and Barbara Shelley in "The Gorgon"

Peter Cushing and Barbara Shelley in “The Gorgon”

Curious film, The Gorgon. Obviously, they were looking for a horror theme a bit different from the usual fare of Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy and the Werewolf, and, perhaps rather bizarrely, hit upon the Greek myth of the Gorgon, the creature who had live snakes instead of hair, and the sight of whom turned people into stone. Not too terrifying a premise, admittedly, but director Terence Fisher, cameraman Michael Reed, set designer Bernard Robinson and composer James Bernard all combined their considerable talents to give the film a gorgeous romantic gloss. Lyricism is not a quality we tend to associate with horror films –a t least, not nowadays – but there is a haunting dreamlike lyricism to this (as some of the screen-shots here will testify) that really is quite unlike anything I have seen in any other film.

Peter Cushing’s role – as the guilt-ridden doctor in love with his assistant Carla, and trying desperately to protect her – is badly under-written (screenwriter John Gilling complained about the changes made to his original script, claiming that but for these changes, it “might have been a very good movie”), but, as ever, Cushing makes more out of the role that one could think possible. But he had a habit of doing that. Because he made most of his career in horror films, non-aficionados of the genre often seem not to realise what a truly fine actor he was. In film after film, he projected elements that, judging from the script alone, simply weren’t there. And the range too is surprising: from the kindly but authoritative presence as van Helsing, to the cold and austere Sherlock Holmes, to the gentle and persecuted old man in Tales From the Crypt, to the murdering religious fanatic in Twins of Evil. Putting my personal taste aside, it is doubtful that any of these films would be ranked alongside La Grande Illusion or Citizen Kane, but that does not detract from the quality of the performances. In Twins of Evil, for instance, he actually makes the religious fanatic Gustav Weil appear, ultimately, a sympathetic figure, as the realisation of the true nature of his acts begins to dawn upon him. Cushing projects here a depth of character that one had no right to expect given the premise and the script.

Perhaps the centrepiece of Cushing’s performances are the five Frankenstein films he made with director Terence Fisher –

Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein

Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein

The Curse of Frankenstein, The Revenge of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Created Woman (a personal favourite of Martin Scorsese’s, apparently), Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (surely amongst the finest of all gothic films) and Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell. (The Evil of Frankenstein was directed by Freddie Francis, and is not really part of this series.) These films are no mere series of worn-out sequels in a tired franchise; each of these films re-thinks the premise of the original, and provides new and intelligent variations. Taken together, I really do think they are among the finest achievements of British cinema, irrespective of genre. And at the centre of these films are the performances of Peter Cushing: his depiction of the increasingly monomaniac and unhinged Frankenstein is breathtaking.

And yet, from all accounts, this stalwart of horror films was in real life the warmest and kindest of people. We all speak well of the dead – especially on their centenary – but those who knew him and worked with him all invariably break into a loving smile when remembering the man. He was a much-loved resident of the seaside town of Whitstable, which has been warmly celebrating his centenary. There is even a beauty spot on the beach that has been named Cushing’s View.

There’s not much to be said about the man that hasn’t been said already. He was a part of my childhood, and of my growing up, and now, for that reason (though not only for that reason), I would like to offer my own tribute and thanks to one of the finest of all screen actors.

( I should like to point out that, it just so happens, today is the birthday of that other great stalwart of hammer Horror films, Christopher Lee. Happy birthday, Sir Chris – but I’m afraid you’ll have to wait another nine years for your centenary celebrations!)

On adaptations

I see there’s yet another film adaptation of Great Expectations doing the rounds. And the question “What’s the point?” does come to mind. There seems to be a new adaptation of this novel either for the big or the small screen every other year – I’ve frankly lost track of them all. I suppose it shouldn’t really come as a surprise: so powerful a story with such a gallery of memorable characters is bound to attract adaptations. But perhaps it raises a wider question of why one should choose to adapt books in the first place. After all, we have the novel: is that not enough?

An obvious answer to this, I suppose, is that far more people watch films than read novels, and so, by adapting it, one could reach a far wider audience. This is undoubtedly true, but it would be wrong to infer from this that watching a film adaptation, no matter how faithful, is a comparable and equivalent experience to reading the novel. Even when the film-makers set out to be faithful, they are translating a literary experience into a cinematic experience; and the two are essentially different. There are certain things that the written word can communicate better than cinematic images; and, of course, vice versa.

Of course, this is but one type of adaptation: there is, it seems to me, another type – where the intention is not so much fidelity to the original, but to take the original as a starting point to create something that is new.  If the former category includes such works as, say, John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, David Lean’s Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, and – my own personal favourite – The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, then the latter would include Kurasawa’s Shakespeare-inspired Samurai films (Throne of Blood based on Macbeth, Ran based on King Lear), Bresson’s Pickpocket (which takes Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment as its starting point), and Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (based on the novels of Bibhuthibhushan Banerji). Indeed, if we were to widen our scope to include adaptations other than cinematic, then we could also include Verdi’s great Shakespeare operas Otello and Falstaff. Or indeed, Shakespeare’s own plays, which almost invariably are derived from other sources. In this type of adaptation, fidelity to the original is not a serious consideration: we do not judge Shakespeare’s history plays on how closely they reflect the chronicles of Holinshed. But in the adaptation that sets out to be a translation of the original work into a different medium, then, as with any other type of translation, fidelity to the original is inevitably a major consideration.

However, when translating from a literary to a cinematic medium, some things are bound to differ. Most obviously, one cannot squeeze so much into a two hour film as one can in a novel of several hundred pages. This is why even as strongly plotted a novel as Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo is not really good material for cinematic adaptation: over its thousand and more pages, Dumas delights in introducing new plot strands at every possible opportunity, and, with all the finesse and exuberance of a master showman, allows these various strands to overlay each other to quite exhilarating effect; but in any film adaptation of reasonable length, this dense narrative texture has to be thinned out considerably, thus robbing the work of the very feature that makes it so wonderful a reading experience.

There is another problem: cinema isn’t as effective as is the written word in depicting the inner lives. What goes on in a character’s mind can at best be communicated in voice-overs. But even voice-overs can be clumsy, and cannot be used at all when, as is often the case, the characters themselves are but vaguely aware of their own selves. Of course, skilful film-making can overcome even this (The Innocents once again comes to mind), but usually, complex psychologies that we often find in novels go missing in film adaptations –  even in the finest: David Lean’s version of Great Expectations, for instance – a landmark film in its own right – conveys very little, I think, of Pip’s complex psychological development.

But of course, other aspects of literature can translate very well into film: it is hard now to read the atmospheric opening of Great Expectations now without conjuring up in one’s mind the images of David Lean’s film. (This is even more true of David Lean’s film of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago: whatever criticism one may have of the film version, Freddie Young’s cinematic images, once seen, haunt the mind insistently.)

And sometimes, a film adaptation can add to the original: Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon is a wonderful little thriller, but how much richer is its effect when enhanced by the directorial skills of John Huston, and by the now iconic performances by Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre et al!

One may say, of course, all that matters is whether or not the film is good – as a film. That there’s no point in complaining that the latest version of Great Expectations or of Anna Karenina is not true to the book; the question is – did it make a good film? But I am really not so sure on this point. If one does know the original; and if the adaptation falls far short of the standard of the original (as is virtually unavoidable when the original is of the quality of Great Expectations or of Anna Karenina); then comparisons, odious though they may be, are inevitable. The latest Great Expectations may or may not be a fine film – I don’t know: but if it isn’t, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to ponder of the size of the gap between what it is based on, and what it is.

And finally, there’s the argument that at least it may encourage people to read the book. This is undoubtedly true: I was about 12 or so when I found myself enthralled by the BBC production of War and Peace. (The production values of this adaptation look very primitive by modern standards, but the quality of Jack Pulman’s script, and of the acting in general – a then relatively unknown young actor called Antony Hopkins gives a quite sensational performance as Pierre Bezuhov – are exceptional.) It was this adaptation that encouraged me to tackle the novel itself, and now, some 40 years on, I’m still hooked. Would I have tried to read Tolstoy had I not been taken by this adaptation? I don’t know. But I am certainly grateful to have seen it at so impressionable an age

But there’s a possible downside to that as well: a poor adaptation may convince readers that the book is not worth reading. Or it may project the wrong impression: nowadays, it seems virtually de rigeur for television adaptations to use fast-editing techniques, and not allow any single scene to go on for more than, say, a couple of minutes at most; and this really does not lend itself to communicating much of the complexity or the intricacy of literature of any quality. Or film-makers may decide that the novel may have been good enough for its own times, but we moderns are so much more sophisticated now that we can’t do without a few sex scenes. Now, why we sophisticated moderns should require sex scenes in adaptations of classic novels when pornography is so easily available on the net for one and all, I really do not know – but there it is.

So will I be rushing out to see this new Great Expectations? No, I don’t think I will. I did not rush out to see the recent Anna Karenina either. But it is possible for a great work of literature to be translated successfully into a great work of cinema: unlikely, perhaps, especially given current cinematic fashions, but nonetheless possible. So I suppose there’s no reason why they shouldn’t keep on trying. And if they happen to be somewhat less than masterpieces – well, we still have the books, don’t we?

The canons of cinema

Canons to right of them,
Canons to left of them,
Canons in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d …

If a canon may be defined as a consensus of the cognoscenti – and I really don’t know how else it may be defined – then the BFI (British Film Institute) poll of film critics and of directors, carried out every decade, and the latest of which was published only last week, has a greater claim than most of being definitive.

There are those, of course, who question why we should need a canon anyway: aren’t our own tastes sufficient? Well, yes, up to a point: no canon, after all, is going to alter our individual tastes. I am not going to start liking Vertigo – a film that I have long disliked – just because it now tops this latest list; and neither am I going to stop loving those favourite films of mine that didn’t make it. But nonetheless, a concept of a canon is, I think, important in any field of activity in which we value excellence, for the simple reason that only those titles that belong to the canon have any chance of surviving into the future. Far too many films have been made over the years for them all to be available; and even if they were all to be available, it is not reasonable to expect even the most devoted of cineastes to view every one of them. What we choose to view from the past is determined by their canonical status: I am, after all, unlikely to see some forgotten film from the 1930s, for the very reason that is forgotten. Our personal canons are, inevitably, subsets of a wider canon.

For that matter, this BFI list too is a subset of a wider canon: most of us, I imagine, can think of films of the highest quality that didn’t make this Top 50 list. Fifty really is too small a number: cinema is a relatively new art form – it has been around now for only slightly over a century – yet, already, the number of films made over these hundred or so years that are of the highest artistic quality really is quite staggering. Yes, it is true that there is also much – possibly the vast majority – that is utter rubbish; but even after applying the most stringent of filters, I find myself quite astonished by the sheer number of films that, for a bewildering diversity of reasons, seem to me to bear the mark of greatness.

Inevitably, when speaking of excellence – whether with films or with anything else –  we hear the glib comment that “it’s all a matter of personal opinion”. Well, our personal opinion is a matter of personal opinion, certainly, but that’s mere tautology: excellence, if we are to believe in that concept at all, seems to me not a matter of personal opinion at all, but of considered judgement. While it is true that judgement, even considered judgement, may vary, it varies considerably less erratically or unpredictably than does personal opinion. That a consensus exists at all, and that such a consensus proves to be quite stable over time, indicate a certain stability in critical judgement; and whether or not my personal judgement corresponds with the consensus is frankly irrelevant: whether we agree or not with the choices – and there are certainly many that I personally would take issue with – the BFI lists over the decades embody what we collectively understand as “excellence”.

But with that out of the way, I do find the current list to be rather curious. That’s personally speaking, of course. After some five decades, Citizen Kane – a film I picked as one of my personal top ten – is no longer at the top of the list: it has been replaced by Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a film whose reputation frankly puzzles me. It’s not that I dislike Hitchcock: indeed, he has made some of my favourite films – The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt, and that dazzlingly inventive and influential addition to the horror genrePsycho. But, while he was unquestionably masterly with individual sequences, he all too often, I feel, misjudged the pacing, or long-term effects. I cannot, for instance, see any reason to introduce that scene in North by North-West after the United Nations murder in which a gathering of senior FBI agents assures us that they are aware of the innocence of the Cary Grant character: up to that point, the film has been superb, deftly balancing suspense with comedy, but this scene, quite apart from introducing into the proceedings a disruptive shift in narrative perspective, helps dissipate tension at the very point where there should ideally have been a few more turns of the screw. The reasoning behind this directorial decision to include this scene seems to me quite incomprehensible. And neither do I understand why Hitchcock then proceeds to slow the pace down in the sequence on the train, largely substituting glamour and romance for menace or suspense. Of course, there are fine sequences afterwards – the famous scene with the crop duster, for instance – but the tension built up so beautifully in the earlier part of the film seems to me, to a great extent, to have disappeared. And this can only be put down to poor long-term planning.

Similarly with Vertigo. Admirers of the film tell me it is an incisive study of obsession, but, despite several viewings, I really cannot see it as such: merely to show the protagonist (played by James Stewart) as obsessed does not amount to an exploration of the nature of obsession. But maybe I am missing something on that front, so I’ll let that pass: what is more serious, though, is Hitchcock’s poor long-term planning. As is well-known, the twist in the plot is given away considerably before the end of the film: this has been justified to me on the grounds that by doing so, Hitchcock shifts the focus of interest from “what happens next” to “why it happens next”; but if this had indeed been Hitchcock’s intention, why set it up as a mystery in the first place? Shifting the audience’s focus of attention so radically at so late a stage in the proceedings merely disrupts the narrative momentum; and, further, it requires a sudden change in narrative perspective (from Jimmy Stewart’s perspective to Kim Novak’s) that, no matter how often I see the film, merely jars. And as for the ending – well, I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but really, there is nothing to spoil: far from resolving anything, it is merely arbitrary, and, frankly, rather silly.

Well, my opinion on this matter is clearly out of step with the “consensus of the cognoscenti” I had mentioned earlier, but there it is: Hitchcock, at his best, certainly made very entertaining films, but I do not see in any of them the substance or the depth that his admirers seem to see. Substance and depth are not always required for cinematic excellence, of course: there is little of either in Singin’ in the Rain, say, or in Casablanca, to name but two films that are rarely far from my own personal Top Ten: but when admirers cite such qualities in his films, and, further, put forward the presence of these qualities as reasons for rating these films so highly, then my own failure to find these qualities inevitably affects my own critical judgement.

The film that Vertigo has replaced, Citizen Kane, is rarely included nowadays in personal Top Ten choices for the rather curious reason that it is too predictable a choice, and, hence, rather boring. Well, I include it in mine, because, predictable though the choice may be, I personally love it. All too often, it is regarded merely as a bag of cinematic tricks: it is conceded that it has contributed much to cinematic technique, but it is, I often hear, dramatically uninteresting, and even shallow. I do not understand such criticism at all. It is a film that depicts and explores personal failure: a rich man dies at the start of the film, surrounded by vast wealth, but the only people who are near him at the point of death are those who are paid to be there: this is a failure by any human standard. The rest of the film then explores the nature of this failure. First of all, a brilliant pastiche of a newsreel footage tells us “what happens next”, thus removing from the very start any curiosity on the audience’s part on this issue; and it proceeds then to focus, from a multiplicity of overlapping viewpoints and with a narrative and dramatic panache that still leaves me breathless with excitement, the reasons behind the human failure. That so potent a theme, explored with such intelligence and insight, can be seen as dramatically uninteresting or even “shallow”, leaves me as puzzled as does the often uninhibited praise awarded to Vertigo.  But at least I’m in step with critical consensus on this film: second place in the list is hardly a fall from grace.

Looking through the other films in the Top Fifty, there are several individual observations I could offer: I’ll refrain from commenting on 2001 – A Space Odyssey, since, as I have said often enough, I find it difficult to connect with the science fiction genre; I find myself disappointed that John Ford, one of my favourite directors, should be best known for what seems to me one of his least successful films (The Searchers); and so on. And as ever, there are many films I love deeply that aren’t in here. But one shouldn’t complain too much: while this list may, as I think, embody what we collectively understand to be cinematic excellence, it would be foolish to imagine that a list so short can in any way be exhaustive. After all, if you don’t like any particular list, you could always make up your own!

No – don’t worry! – I am not going to compile a boring list of my favourite films. But if I did, I suspect that a sizable chunk of it would consist of classic Hollywood films – films from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. The Maltese Falcon, Singin’ in the Rain, Frankenstein, The Lost Weekend, My Darling Clementine, To Be Or Not To Be, Casablanca, The Big Heat, Shane, Sullivan’s Travels, screwball comedies, Jimmy Cagney gangster movies, the Marx Brothers, Laurel  & Hardy … These were the films I grew up with, and it seems to me that, for a while at least, cinema was a form that was both extremely popular, and also of considerable artistic merit – a rare and possibly unique combination. Hollywood in these decades really did produce a popular art. There was, I think, a resurgence in Hollywood films in the late 60s and early-to-mid 70s, with films such as The Wild Bunch, the two Godfather films, The Last Detail, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Chinatown, etc. In a sense, this was my era: if the classic Hollywood films were the ones I grew up watched on television, these were the films I used to go to see in the cinema. But this resurgence didn’t last long: some time in the mid-to-late 70s, Steven Spielberg realised that there was a vast potential audience out there which wasn’t interested in serious drama, but wanted spectacle: and so, he gave them spectacle – essentially children’s movies given the big budget treatment. The phenomenal success of the Star Wars films sealed the trend, and cinema became juvenilised; some may even say “infantilised”. And I don’t think there’s any recovery in sight yet. Of course, once in a while an intelligent and absorbing drama does get made (I particularly enjoyed About Schmidt, for instance), but one has to do an awful lot of hunting around to come across these; and, more importantly, such films are not widely distributed: About Schmidt, for instance, certainly did not make it to my local cinemas.

How many of those treasured films from the past, if made today (assuming that they could be made today) would receive widespread release? Not too many, I suspect.

Recently, my wife and I watched on DVD Sunday, Bloody Sunday, a British film from 1971 directed by John Schlesinger, starring Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch, and boasting a script by Penelope Gilliatt of tremendous intelligence and subtlety: it is a challenging and intricate adult drama (by “adult drama”, I mean a drama for grown-ups, and not pornography: isn’t it strange what “adult” has come to mean these days?), and I couldn’t help thinking that this film, at the time, was released into the mainstream: it wasn’t just an art-house feature. For such a film to be released so widely now would be unthinkable: we have yet to recover from the juvenilisation of cinema that came with Spielberg & co. And yet, the very fact that a film as demanding as this was, once upon a time, made for a mainstream audience is indicative of how ambitious, at least in artistic terms, cinema was not so very long ago.

Perhaps list such as the BFI’s – whatever one’s personal view of the choices – could help rekindle interest in cinema as an art form. For that it what it is. For what else could one call a form that could deliver works such as The Third Man, Wild Strawberries, La Grande Illusion, Sunset Boulevard? Are works of this stature really inferior in terms of artistic quality to, say, the major plays and novels of the 20th century? The decline that I perceive in cinema is indeed sad, but, as someone-or-other once said, though much is taken, much remains. And if cinema is once again to attain the artistic levels that it had once attained, then consideration of its past glories – the canon, in other words – may not be a bad place to start.

Even though picking Vertigo as the best film ever is damn odd!

Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence.

– from “Sailing to Byzantium” by William Butler Yeats

“The Woman in Black”: the new Hammer horror

Ghost stories are incredibly difficult to pull off. One must maintain throughout a judicious balance between telling too little, and telling too much: tell too little, and the reader feels cheated; tell too much and the sense of mystery, of the unexplained – that sense which is the essence of any good ghost story – dissipates. And the pacing has to be just right: any slight misjudgement in pacing that may pass unnoticed by most readers in other types of fiction can sink a ghost story. I know: I speak as one who has tried his hand at writing ghost stories, but who has been so embarrassed by the results that he has not even kept them tucked away on his hard drive.

None of this prevents there being an entire library of great ghost stories. For many aficionados of the genre (including myself), M. R. James was the acknowledged master: he got it just right, time after time. And, at the risk of being seen merely to be repeating received wisdom, it is hard to think of a better ghost story than The Turn of the Screw by that other James – Henry. And the most renowned ghost story of our own times is, I think indisputably, The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. For here, she gets everything just right: it is an enthralling read. Sadly, her subsequent efforts have not maintained this standard: I keep reading them in the hope that she could once again capture the brilliance of her first novel in the genre, but the melancholy truth is that The Mist in the Mirror is not as good as The Woman in Black (although it is still very fine without odorous comparisons); that The Man in the Picture is not as good as The Mist in the Mirror; and that her latest, The Small Hand, is not as good as The Man in the Picture. Indeed, The Small Hand is a prime example of the ghost story that fails because it over-explains: it spends far too much on the reasons behind the haunting – the mere mechanics of the plot – rather than focusing on the haunting itself. It is curious that the author of something so consummately fine as The Woman in Black should fall into such a trap. But no matter. The Woman in Black remains a masterpiece of the genre, and one can only be thankful.

So far, The Woman in Black has formed the basis of a superb stage adaptation; a less well-known but sporadically effective television version from the late 1980s; and now, to much publicity, a film version from a newly revamped (if “revamped” is the word I’m looking for) Hammer Films. In some ways, this is a strange choice, since the Hammer films of old that we all know and love (or, at least, that I, personally, know and love) did not specialise in ghost stories as such: however, as a fan both of Hammer films and of ghost stories, this was a film for which I had to break the habit of half a lifetime, and go to the cinema to see.

Image copyright  Hammer Films

Cinema hasn’t really produced too many ghost stories either, once one comes to think of it. Horror stories, yes, but good ghost story films are actually quite rare. Off the top of my head, I can think of The Innocents (which to my mind is as great a cinematic masterpiece as The Turn of the Screw, on which it was based, was a literary one); the original version of The Haunting; and a rather little-known film called The Changeling. No doubt there are a few more I am forgetting now, but really, that isn’t much. For a good ghost film is just as difficult as a good ghost story: the terror must come not from what one sees, but from what one thinks one may see in the next frame. To achieve this, what one sees must be rationed. (Indeed, in The Haunting, one sees nothing at all!) The trick is to plant seeds of suggestion in the viewer’s mind. And that is difficult. That requires far more imagination than mere recourse to special effects.

This film started promisingly. Indeed, some half way through the film I found myself thinking that this is very good indeed. The situation had been well set up; the design of the interior of the haunted house was superb – cluttered, dark and menacing; and the brief glimpses of the supernatural – seen, as M. R. James once put it, in the corner of the retina – were effective and creepy. This, I felt, is how a ghost story should be filmed. But the film didn’t seem to have the courage of its convictions. There’s nothing wrong with moments that make you jump: if well handled, they can be very good indeed. But if you overdo those jumpy moments, it becomes a matter of diminishing returns: once you have already jumped a few times, you become less inclined to jump yet again. The climactic sequence of Susan Hill’s story – as it was in the theatrical adaptation – is an extended sequence where the protagonist finds himself alone in the isolated Eel Marsh House overnight: here, that sequence started off very well, but ended, rather disappointingly, merely in a passage of “jumpy moments” piled on top of each other. As a result, the terror is no longer in what you think you may see next: rather, it is in what you see – and what you see, frankly, is nowhere near as frightening as what you think you might.

Then, afterwards, the pacing goes all to pot. After the long sequence in Eel Marsh House, we needed the tension to come down for a while, and the temperature to settle, if only for a while. But instead, we were taken straight to a house fire, the suicide of a child, and another quite gratuitously unnecessary appearance of the Woman in Black. It was dreadfully misjudged. After the events at Eel Marsh House, the fire and the suicide did not make much impact; and the director seemed to have forgotten how important it is to ration the appearance of the ghost.

Throwing out at this stage all considerations of pacing, the film then continues rather aimlessly. The sequence in which the drowned carriage is pulled out of the marsh is, once again, ill-judged, as the threat in this sequence comes not from the supernatural, but from the marsh itself: in ghost stories, the source of the menace should be kept unchanged, as any sense of menace other than that of the supernatural tends not to register in its own right, and, worse, distracts from what should be at the centre of the story. To compound it all, the film-makers seemed to think that if one ghost is frightening, then ten ghosts must be ten times as frightening: this really isn’t the case. The scene in which the ghosts of all the dead children appear, and in which Dailly sees the ghost of his own dead child (an obvious nod to the story “They” by Rudyard Kipling) may have been effective in a different dramatic context, but here, it merely serves to dissipate the viewer’s attention from the principal point.

And as for the very ending, without giving too much away, it introduces a strain of sentimentality which is out of keeping with the material of the rest of the film. And by this stage, the appearance of the Woman in Black is no longer frightening: we have seen her too often by then, and have become too familiar with her presence. And inevitably, familiarity breeds comfort.

So, it’s a big disappointment after all, I fear – especially after that very fine first half. If only the latter half of the film had the courage of the convictions displayed in the first.

The many lives of Holmes & Watson

Certain characters, once they are created, are no longer merely the author’s creations: each age reinvents them, finds new possibilities. Don Quixote has been interpreted both as visionary and as fool; Prince Hamlet has been portrayed as everything from sweet prince to psychotic thug. There are those who would hesitate to place Holmes and Watson in such illustrious company, but I say “Bah!”

I’ll say it again: “Bah!”

For if the Holmes & Watson stories don’t constitute great literature, what does?

There have been many interpretations of Holmes and Watson – on screen from the days of silent films to modern times; on radio; on stage; on television; on audio recordings, in retellings, in new stories… They are no longer merely the characters Conan Doyle had created. I am not even close to having seen (or heard, or read) all the countless interpretations of these two characters, but even in the small sample I know, the variety of interpretations is breathtaking.

The earliest Holmes-Watson partnership to make a mark – on me, at any rate – was the pairing of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Let us get the obvious observation out of the way: they have very little in common with Conan Doyle’s creations. But there is no reason to see this as a drawback: these performances have a charm all of their own. And, no matter how insistently we fans of the original stories keep insisting that Watson, far from being the buffoon portrayed by Nigel Bruce, is actually an intelligent man, it is this image of the stupid assistant to the intellectually brilliant sleuth that has, to a great extent, eclipsed the original characterisations.

But there’s no need to regret this. Nigel Bruce’s performance in these films is as fine a comic performance as one could hope to see. Indeed, to accommodate this wonderfully eccentric portrayal, it is Basil Rathbone as Holmes who ends up being the straight man. As a consequence, Holmes appears a pillar of strength – reliable, authoritative, reassuring. And for those of us who imprinted on these performances – and whose identification of Rathbone with the original Holmes was enhanced by his extraordinary resemblance to Holmes in Sidney Paget’s illustrations – these are all qualities that define the great detective.

There have been other interpretations as well, and, while each actor put his own individual stamp on the roles, these qualities of reliability, authority, and reassurance remained intact: Peter Cushing, Ian Richardson, Clive Merrison (in the excellent BBC radio adaptations) all projected these qualities.

So, for those of used to seeing Holmes played in this way, it was a bit of a shock when Jeremy Brett’s interpretation (for Granada TV) first hit the screens in the early 80s. This performance is regarded nowadays in many quarters as “definitive”, but, to be honest, I must admit that I have never quite taken to it. The shock of a first encounter with a Holmes so very different from what I had been expecting has now worn off, and, on repeated viewings, I find myself becoming more accustomed to his interpretation; but it’s still fair to say that this is not quite the Holmes I imagine when I read the stories. But it’s only to be expected that a performance as idiosyncratic as this will sharply divide opinions; and one that is so far removed from what we had till then been the norm is bound to remain controversial.

I think I had been – and probably still am – too accustomed to thinking of Holmes as a sort of reassuring authority figure. Like many other readers, I first encountered these stories as a child, and this man with almost preternatural intellectual gifts (not to mention his skills in pugilism and in martial arts) struck me as someone to be unreservedly admired. His very presence was reassuring. I remember for instance when I first read The Hound of the Baskervilles: as soon as Holmes appeared in Dartmoor after his presumed absence, I felt a sense of reassurance – I felt that now, at last, things will be put right. Of course, as one gets older one becomes less starry-eyed, and one begins to see the very serious flaws in Holmes’ character – the drug addiction, the edginess, the sense of danger, the lack of sensitivity, and so on. But first impressions do tend to be strong ones. And Brett’s very edgy performance challenged all preconceptions I had about the character.

I can now see why Brett played Holmes in this way: he wanted to move away in no uncertain terms from the Basil Rathbone approach to the character. For all their merits, the performances of Rathbone, Cushing et al did not convey the darker, edgier aspects of Holmes that are undeniably present in the stories. But I still can’t help wondering whether Brett may perhaps have tipped the balance too far to the other side. I wonder, for instance, whether Holmes really is so insensitive to the feelings of others: Conan Doyle often tells us for instance that Holmes was very good at putting his clients and his witnesses at ease so they could tell their stories more coherently; but Brett’s Holmes never puts anyone at their ease. There are also many instances in the Conan Doyle stories where Holmes shows great consideration for other peoples’ feelings. For instance, towards the end of “The Blue Carbuncle”, when the criminal, tracked down by Holmes, begs for mercy, Holmes angrily reminds him that he himself had shown not the slightest feeling for the innocent man languishing in prison, or for that innocent man’s family. Holmes is not only sensitive to the feelings of the innocent man and of his family: he is furious that this person now begging for mercy had lacked this sensitivity. None of this seems to me suggested by Brett’s portrayal, in which Holmes’ utter lack of sensitivity for anyone’s feelings makes him seem almost autistic.

However, it is certainly a most striking performance, and there are many who are fans at least as fervent as myself of the Conan Doyle stories who reckon Jeremy Brett’s performances to be hwell-nigh definitive. Brett himself took the Conan Doyle stories very seriously, apparently bringing the books to the shooting, and frequently referring to them to ensure fidelity to the originals.

Recently, of course, we had the BBC series Sherlock, created by the self-confessed Sherlock Holmes nuts Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat. The conceit is such a good one, one wonders why no-one had done this before: it considers what Holmes and Watson might have been like had they lived in contemporary London, and had access to modern technology. The stories are far more convoluted than Conan Doyle’s, and, where the original stories moved at the pace of Watson’s thinking, this series moves at the frenetic pace of Holmes’s. But the results – with frequent and affectionate references not only to the original stories, but also to the various adaptations – are wonderfully entertaining. The entire internet now seems to be buzzing now with theories on how exactly Holmes faked his death in the last episode of the second series: it seems to have made as great an impact as “The Final Problem” did in Conan Doyle’s time.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes, like that of Jeremy Brett (though in a different way), is far more edgy than reassuring. Perhaps this is a reflection of our age that doesn’t believe in reassuring figures of authority; or, at least, is reluctant to see such figures as heroes.

Of course, one should not write about Holmes without writing about Watson: it is the relationship – perhaps the most unlikely friendship in all literature – between the two that is at the heart of these wonderful stories. We have long, I think – I hope – stopped seeing Watson as a buffoon, but it is still not generally appreciated, I think, that Watson is, in his own way, an intelligent character. Holmes, after all, is unlikely to have put up with anyone who isn’t; and throughout the stories, Holmes consistently displays complete confidence in Watson’s medical expertise. Of course, in Holmes’ own area of speciality, Watson is no match for him – but who is? Watson in recent adaptations – Michael Williams with Clive Merrison, David Burke and Edward Hardwicke with Jeremy Brett, and, most recently, Martin Freeman with Benedict Cumberbatch – have all been remarkably successful not merely in depicting the character that – to my mind at least – is closer to Conan Doyle’s Watson than previous incarnations had been, but equally successful in convincing us that two such different people could indeed be close friends, and have so warm a regard for each other.

I am sure we will go on re-inventing Holmes & Watson in ages to come. I don’t know that there are any other fictional characters whose immortality is more guaranteed.

My favourite films

Some time ago, I posted a list of my favourite novels. And, ever since, I know that many of you have been waiting with bated breath to find out my favourite ten films. I have, indeed, been inundated – inundated – with e-mails to that effect: “Now that you have let us know your favourite novels, please, please,” they plead, “please let us know your favourite films.”

Well, actually, no. I lie. But since it is Christmas, let us indulge ourselves.  Here they are, the Argumentative Old Git’s top ten favourite films:

City Lights (1931):

People keep telling me that Chaplin wasn’t funny. If that is so, I don’t know what the audience was laughing at when I saw this film in the cinema: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cinema audience laugh so much.

The film itself is pure alchemy. Chaplin takes a hackneyed tale, and, by some magic beyond analysis, turns it into pure gold. That ending shouldn’t work, but it does. Like Dickens (with whom he shares much in terms of moral and artistic values), Chaplin is often accused of sentimentality; but, again like Dickens, if he hadn’t risked being sentimental , he wouldn’t have been able to create scenes as ineffably beautiful and moving as the finale of City Lights.

Sons of the Desert  (1933):

It’s hard to believe that entire generations have grown up now without having seen a single Laurel & Hardy film. There has been no end of analysis into just what it is about these characters that makeS them so funny, and so appealing, but as with all things wonderful, there are aspects that are beyond any analysis. Ollie is so very pompous and self-important, and yet we love him. Why? Who knows! Stan is completely and utterly vacant, and yet we don’t look down upon him, or regard him in a patronising manner, or feel ourselves superior in any way. Why? Again – who knows!

The boys were generally at their best in the short films, but occasionally, as in Way Out West and in this, their magic remained intact for feature films also. The story is simple, but what they make out of it is, for me, a lasting joy. No matter how down I may happen to feel, Stan and Ollie cheer me up. I don’t think I feel such deep affection for any other fictional character, either in cinema or in any other medium.

A Night at the Opera (1935)

Alongside Chaplin and Stan & Ollie, the Marx Brothers form the third of that select group that, for me, defineS the gold standard in comedy.

The general consensus of opinion amongst Marxists is that the boys were at their undiluted best in the Paramount films, and that after they moved to MGM, their anarchic comedy was watered down by romantic subplots, musical interludes, etc. There is certainly a great deal of truth in this, but it is also true that the first two films they made for MGM, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races,  not only have better production values than the Paramount films, but also contain much of their finest material.

Yes, the romantic and musical interludes do slow things down a bit, but speaking personally, I do find a certain period charm to them. Most importantly, they do not get in the way of the comedy. Right from the opening scene in the restaurant, to the evergreen contract-signing scene and the equally evergreen cabin scene, right up to the finale  – one of the very best, involving the sabotage of Il Trovatore – just thinking back on this makes me break out into a broad grin.

Citizen Kane(1941)

Sometimes, something can be very great even though everyone says so. Except, perhaps, no-one says so any more about Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane: that’s one of those pieces of received wisdom that we, eager to be thought of as independent in our thought, steer away from.

This film is sometimes criticised for being merely a bag of tricks. But the word “merely” is misapplied. It is a bag of tricks, certainly, but the tricks are almost invariably there to serve a purpose: frequently, they aid the narrative flow rather than otherwise. Take, for instance, that passage where Kane signs up all the top journalists from a rival newspaper: we close in on a group photograph, see a flash on the screen, and then, with one of the most daring cuts I have seen, we pull back out of the picture as the picture comes to life – that cut covering two whole years. Flashy? Yes. But could the story have been told more economically, and with such clarity?

And it’s like this throughout – the tricks serving the narrative and the drama rather than getting in their way. And the drama is engrossing: it is about the betrayal of promise; of youthful idealism and dynamism overtaken by a profound sense of futility; and of the loneliness of old age, and a yearning for something that has been lost. Citizen Kane has all the complexity of a great novel.

Double Indemnity (1944)

I often think of Billy Wilder’s Double indemnity, The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard as a sort of unofficial trilogy – three extremely dark films, each featuring at the centre a self-destructive protagonist. How did the Factory of Dreams ever produce films such as these? Double Indemnity, in particular, is a great favourite: it’s the archetypal film noir, and virtually defines that genre all by itself. There’s nothing I can say about this film that hasn’t been said a million times before: the script, the performances, the direction, the lighting – it is all absolute perfection, and even though I know virtually every shot and every line by heart, I still get a kick watching it, just to enter that world again. So let us just move on.

They Were Expendable(1945)

Lyricism isn’t often associated with action films. And yet, John Ford, known for action films – especially Westerns – was a poet of the cinema. Only he could make a film about the gunfight at the OK Corral and call it My Darling Clementine.

They Were Expendable was intended as a wartime flag-waver, and depicts thus marines in the early stages of the war against Japan. How typical of Ford that even when making a flag-waver, it is a defeat he focuses on. Among the stars of the film is John Wayne (although he essentially plays second fiddle here to Robert Montgomery). But there are no gung-ho heroics, or boys’ own adventure. Indeed, the focus isn’t even on the plotline as such: often, Ford is happy not to explain all the details of the plot. The focus is on people, all people, even those who appear fleetingly: the camera still lingers on their faces, on their expressions. When the radio announces that US are at war with Japan, Ford’s camera focuses not on the men, but on the faces of the female Japanese singers at the bar. Later, a young marine is shivering with fear, and when asked by his officer if he is cold, lets slip out that he is afraid: the commanding officer, Robert Montgomery, pauses for a while and tells the lad that he has no monopoly on fear before moving on. The boy never re-appears, but once again, the camera focuses on his face, and lingers.

What Ford depicts is heroism – not the sort of macho heroism we tend to associate with John Wayne films, but the everyday heroism of ordinary everyday people, people who know that they are expendable and who yet sacrifice themselves in the name of duty, of service. Time after time the camera captures haunting images that only a true poet can conjure up – an old man refuses to leave his house in the face of invasion, and sits quietly on his own on his front steps; a troop of ragged soldiers march into no destination in particular amidst the swirling dust. And, as surely as Renoir did in La Grande Illusion (which I may well have picked in my Top Ten on another day), Ford depicts the essential nobility and dignity of the human race, even in the face of the unthinkable. It is easy to be cynical of such a vision, but it is a vision we need to hold on to.

Seven Samurai (1954)

This is a heroic, tragic tale of epic dimensions – perhaps the closest cinema has come to the Homeric. The individual actions scenes, especially that final battle in the rain and the mud, are rightly legendary: they have been much imitated, but never equalled. The pacing of the narrative over three and a half hours is immaculate: Kurasawa knows exactly when and how and to what extent to raise or lower the tempo. Each individual scene is engrossing, and the shape of the broad narrative arc is nothing short of breathtaking.

Apu Trilogy (1955-59)

Three films, I know, but should be counted as one. This trilogy, directed by Satyajit Ray, are works of profound humanity, and I never fail to find them moving. I’ve written about these films quite recently on this blog, so let’s move on.

The Innocents(1961)

Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw can claim to be the finest example of the genre of the ghost story, and it has inspired not one, but two masterpieces – Benjamin Britten’s opera, and this film, directed by Jack Clayton. Once again, I have written about this recently on this blog, so let us move on to my final choice.

Fanny and Alexander (1982)

Ingmar Bergman had already announced that this was to be his last film, and he was determined to go out on a high – to put into a single work the best of himself, to create, as it were, a summary of all past achievements. The result could have been a hodge-podge, but it isn’t: it is magical, right from that hushed opening as the boy Alexander plays with his toy theatre, right through to that deeply enigmatic ending some five hours or so later. (And incidentally, I would recommend anyone watching this to get hold of the full television film – this film was intended specifically for television – rather than the abridged version released for cinema). The warmth of the Christmas party scenes, the sheer terror evoked at the death of the father, the austerity and bleaknesss of the scenes at the bishop’s house, the magic and fantasy that invades the film towards the end … all the disparate elements is handled with the skill and artistry of an absolute master. A worthy finale to one of the most brilliant of cinematic careers.

Was Heathcliff black?

The latest film adaptation of Wuthering Heights casts a black actor as Heathcliff, and I, for one, can’t help wondering why this hasn’t been tried out before.

In the novel, Heathcliff’s racial origins are not specified, but the indications that he is different, possibly racially different, can hardly be missed. He is referred to throughout as “dark”: admittedly, that does not tell us much, as many white Anglo-Saxons can also be described as having a “dark” complexion, but Mr Earnshaw’s description of him – “as dark almost as if it came from the devil” – does suggest that his skin colour was conspicuously different from that of the others.  When the child is first brought into Wuthering Heights, he is described as speaking “gibberish”. This could, indeed, be Romany (Heathcliff is taken by many readers to be of gypsy origin), or it could be a foreign language: we cannot be sure. But, rather interestingly, the child is initially referred to as “it”: Nelly only starts referring to Heathcliff by the pronoun “he” after he, it, is christened. That Heathcliff, right from the start, was seen very much as an “other”, as “not one of our kind”, seems inescapable.

Later in the novel, Nelly Dean says to him: “Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen?” Nelly may not have known how Chinese people differ from Indian people physically: if she had, she would not have suggested that Heathcliff could be of Chinese or of Indian descent. But her speculation does seem to suggest that she saw Heathcliff as physically different, very different, from the others.

Of course, it may be objected that if Emily Brontë had intended Heathcliff to be black, she would have told us so openly, but I don’t think this holds. In the first place, Emily Brontë tells the story through voices other than her own; and in the second place, this is a novel in which large gaps are quite deliberately left in the narrative: if Emily Brontë is happy to leave unspecified even so important an aspect of the plot as the source of Heathcliff’s wealth, why should we expect her to be specific about such matters as Heathcliff’s race?

We shouldn’t really be surprised that Heathcliff’s racial origins are not made specific in the novel. The characters living in this isolated part of the country, and in that age, would not have been familiar with anyone outside their own racial stock, and would have been unlikely to have had the vocabulary to describe people of different races to any degree of accuracy. I don’t know that we can expect even Mr Lockwood to describe racial differences accurately. But in any case, Heathcliff’s exact racial origin – gypsy, Indian, or black – isn’t really so important: what is important is that he should be different from the others, and be seen as such, both physically and in other respects.

In a film, of course, there is no room for vagueness in the matter of Heathcliff’s race: some decision must be made on this point, and casting him as black seems to me a perfectly reasonable decision, and quite consistent with what’s in the text. Why shouldn’t Heathcliff be black? He was, after all, picked up in Liverpool, which was at the time a major centre of the slave trade: there were many black people in Liverpool at the time. He could have been of Indian origin as well, for that matter, given that Liverpool was a major port, and given further the large number of Lascars working on the ships. (Heathcliff is, indeed, referred to at one point quite specifically as a “little Lascar” – i.e. an Indian, or, more generally, someone from South-East Asia: once again, we shouldn’t expect precision on this point.)

I haven’t yet seen the latest film. Of all the classic 19th century English novels, Wuthering Heights has, perhaps, fared the worst in adaptations: even the famous William Wyler film featuring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, fine though it is in its own right, hardly reflects the intensely violent and disturbing nature of Emily Brontë’s work. Whether this latest version will succeed better than its predecessors, I do not know. What worries me is not that a black actor has been cast as Heathcliff, but that they’d make too much of the racial difference, and make it a drama specifically about race: but I hope I’m wrong. For, despite the countless adaptations that have been made to date, there is a good film – perhaps even a great film – still to be made from Wuthering Heights. But such a film will have to forgo romance; be brave enough to allow its leading lady to die half way through; and look unblinkingly into the dark, demented heart of this extraordinary work.

In praise of Dracula: a belated Halloween post

It was in Blackpool I first encountered Dracula. Not in the flesh, of course, because as we all know vampires don’t really exist. But no matter how insistently I kept saying that to myself, I couldn’t dispel the terror behind that nagging thought: “But what if they did?”

I was nine years old at the time, which may count perhaps as something of a mitigating factor. And it was in the Chamber of Horrors of a deliciously tacky waxwork exhibition on Blackpool Pleasure Beach that used to call itself Louis Tussauds.

To keep myself on the safe side of libel laws, I think I should point out that Louis Tussauds have now been taken over by Madame Tussauds, and, although I have not been to this place since the takeover, I have no reason whatever to believe that any element of tack attaches itself to this waxwork exhibition nowadays. No, indeed. No element of tack whatever.

I can’t help feeling, however, that waxworks should be a bit tacky, a bit seedy. And that the highlight of a visit to a wax museum should be a gloriously lurid Chamber of Horrors. That’s certainly the way Louis Tussauds used to be, and if the establishment has now become nobler, exhibiting likenesses of the latest wholesome showbiz celebrities rather than exciting the visitors’ baser instincts with vulgar and gratuitous displays of horror, then, alongside the undoubted gains, there may perhaps also be a certain loss. For I find it hard to imagine how even the most edifying likenesses of Posh & Becks & co could make the sort of impact that tableau of Dracula had made on me that day.

Memory can, as we all know, play the most outrageous tricks, but what I seem to remember of that tableau was a woman lying in bed, her skin a ghastly green, and with two lurid punctures in her neck dripping crimson. And next to her stood the Count himself, sated with blood, his face marked with a frown and a wrinkle and a sneer of cold command. I was horrified, in a way I never could be now in my middle age. And I was fascinated.

What perversity is it in our natures that makes us seek after that which horrifies and repels? The rational reaction to my terror in Blackpool that day would have been to avoid such things altogether. But no – the effect it had on me was quite the opposite. In those days, Scottish Television used to show Hammer Horror films on late nights on Fridays, and my parents, who took their parenting responsibilities somewhat more seriously than I might have wished, would not allow me to stay up for them. (Indeed, I don’t think they’d have allowed me into Louis Tussauds had they known at the time what it contained.) So I used to read the blurbs in TV Times, and roll those marvellous titles around my tongue – The Curse of Frankenstein, The Gorgon, Brides of Dracula… I used to envy my good friend Terence: his parents, unlike mine, let him stay up for these films, and every Monday morning, at playtime, he used to tell me what he had seen the previous Friday night. It may not seem like much now, but it was then: what Terence told me, coupled with what I had seen in Louis Tussauds in Blackpool, fired my imagination. At night, I would lie awake in my bed in the dark, imagining every creak of the floorboards and every gurgle in the water pipes to betoken the imminent approach of Count Dracula himself, whose deadly bite would drain my blood, and turn my skin ghastly green. Yes, my parents were in the next room, I knew, but what could even parents do against the power of the Count?

Of course, with the passing of the years, for better or for worse, our imaginations learn not to be frightened of vampires. We are frightened instead of more realistic matters – paying our bills, holding on to our jobs, maintaining our health, and so on. All very mundane, sadly. But the imagination is a fine thing, and the more beset we are by real everyday worries, the more attractive seems that flight of imagination that takes us back to our childhood fears. And, for me anyway, it doesn’t take too great an exercise of the imagination to return to that world in which Count Dracula really was a figure to inspire terror. Although I cannot return to feeling as I did when I was nine, even the act of remembering the fears I once had felt is strangely pleasurable.

But enough of this psychobabble. I don’t know why it is I still enjoy reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or why I enjoy watching those splendid Hammer Horror films. That I enjoy them is reason enough for my continuing to enjoy them. The opening section of Stoker’s novel, especially, remains terrifying for reasons I am not prepared to speculate upon. That entire section in which Jonathan Harker travels through Borgo pass into Castle Dracula, and then effectively finds himself a prisoner in that fearsome place, still sends up the spine shivers of supernatural terror, and reminds me that I am perhaps not too far removed from that boy who used to be terrified by the gurgles in the water pipes. Admittedly, the level of intensity of the early section of the novel is not maintained throughout, but there are, nonetheless, splendidly terrifying passages, not least the superbly staged finale where we return once again to Castle Dracula.

No adaptation has, to my mind, quite captured the atmosphere of the novel. I suppose the closest is the BBC adaptation from the 1970s: the casting of Louis Jourdain as the Count was certainly unexpected, but it paid off handsomely. The old Universal films with Bela Lugosi seem hopelessly stiff and stagey these days: they certainly haven’t lasted as well as the wonderful Frankenstein films from the same studio, with Boris Karloff as the monster giving one of cinema’s finest performances.

But the finest screen Dracula, certainly for me and, I suspect, for many others as well, is surely Christopher Lee. It was 1958 when the Hammer Dracula (US title: Horror of Dracula) first hit the screens, and while it was quite different from the novel on which it was based, it was, and remains still, a considerable achievement in its own right. Above all, it fixed for ever our mental picture of Dracula: from now on, Dracula is the suave, aristocratic and darkly menacing figure presented by Christopher Lee. There have been many other actors since who have played the Count, but none has supplanted Lee in this role.

The surprise is not that sequels followed, but that it took so long for the first one to turn up: it was the mid-60s by the time Dracula, Prince of Darkness appeared, and, for my money at any rate, it is even finer than its predecessor. The sequence in the first half of the film where the four travellers find themselves in Dracula’s castle is still weird and eerie, and retains its ability to frighten, and to cause unease. There are many other splendid scenes as well –  not least the scene taken straight from Chapter 3 of Wuthering Heights in which Helen (Barbara Shelley), now undead, appears at the window, begging to be let in. Add to that the finest staking scene of any vampire film, and we have what, for me at least, is among the great classics of horror cinema.

The following sequels (five more featuring Christopher Lee as Dracula) did not quite maintain this standard, although there remains even in the least of them much that I find enjoyable. But then again, I am a diehard aficionado. Ah – those waxworks in Louis Tussauds have much to answer for!