WolfmanOz at the Movies #69

Good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now

Based on the 1844 novel The Luck Of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray, Barry Lyndon (released in 1975) recounts the exploits and later unravelling of an 18th-century Irish rogue and social climber who marries a beautiful rich widow to assume her late husband’s aristocratic position.

Now regulars here would gather I am huge fan of Stanley Kubrick – IMO he’s one of the very few genuine artistic geniuses of cinema, but I will be the first to admit that Barry Lyndon is not for everyone given its deliberate slow-pacing but for those prepared to immerse themselves into the film and it’s setting it’s an unforgettably rewarding experience.

In terms of story this is on the surface at least, the simplest thing Kubrick ever made. However in terms of its’ technical aspect, it was one of his most challenging. The plot is basically about how greed, arrogance and ignorance can easily become the ruin of a man. The story itself is superbly told, but mostly quite straight forward. The humour keeps us interested in the story, as does its undeniable visual beauty. It is not a stretch to say that this must be among the most beautiful looking films ever made. Every scene is filmed in all natural light, whether it be by sun or fire, and the landscapes and architecture handpicked by Kubrick himself are amazing. As in all Kubrick films, so much attention to small details equates to a great result in the end. Steven Spielberg called this film “possibly the most beautifully shot film in history.”.

In terms of the film’s technical achievement, it is a landmark movie. Even for all the story’s simplicity, there is a startling statement in the film that certainly can give the viewer real pause and thought. The finality of this world, the equality of all things in the end. It is certainly an interesting, powerful and very humbling down to earth observation. It is the kind of worldly observation that could perhaps lead some people to ruin, and yet lead others to strive for perfection. Perhaps that is part of Kubrick’s thinking here, a Kubrickian challenge if you will, as he certainly was always an artist that was challenging his viewers.

The beauty, the depth, and the mystery of this film are unsurpassable – what Kubrick was doing with light is just a miracle. Special lenses were designed to shoot interiors and exteriors in natural light; and no scene better encapsulates this where at the gambling table Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) and Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) stare at each other in the candlelight. The beauty of the cinematography, the music (Schubert’s Piano Trio 2nd movement), the costumes, the furtive looks of the characters and the humorous narration at the end which punctuates it makes it one of the most memorable scenes in cinema history and one of my all-time favourites.

Scene after scene is perfection and harmony. Costumes and sets were crafted in the era’s design, where the Age of Enlightenment with its gallantry, wars, and duels, was recreated in the film with the precision of the celebrated landscape and portrait masters of the period such as Thomas Gainsborough; Sir Joshua Reynolds; George Romney to name just a few. If nothing else, watching Barry Lyndon is an aesthetic delight in its purest form.

I feel sure (without having read Thackeray), that this was the proper way to adapt a long story from novel to screen. Each scene is either allowed as much time as it needs to make its point and its impact, or it’s cut altogether – you won’t catch Kubrick skating too quickly over his material for no better reason than to fit it all in. The third-person narration (consisting of witty, beautifully crafted sentences superbly spoken by Michael Hordern) almost performs a kind of dance with the images, gliding in just when we need it, taking a step back when we don’t (so rarely is a third-person narration used so well).

Barry Lyndon is the most compelling and compassionate realisation of the inevitable finality of everything in this world which was presented by the visionary director with elegant sensual melancholy. Stanley Kubrick known for his detached, seemingly remote and non-sentimental style chose to reach out to his viewer directly during the epilogue, “It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personalities lived and quarreled, good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now”. I don’t recall any other movie that would illustrate the old wisdom, “everything will pass” in such sublime and deeply moving way.

For me Barry Lyndon is one of the great films of cinema – it’s in my top 20 favourite films of all-time; and it’s the first of 3 great films from 1975 I will be reviewing in the coming weeks.


and the tease for next weeks post . . . A Tale of the Christ.

WolfmanOz at the Movies #67

Those who about to die salute you

With the introduction of cinemascope/widescreen in 1953 starting with The Robe, cinema saw a growing popularity of Biblical/historical epics throughout the 1950s and 1960s. One of the best, and, certainly one of the most discussed was Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film Spartacus.

The film was inspired by the life story of Spartacus the leader of a gladiator and slave revolt against the Roman Empire in 73-71BC. It starred Kirk Douglas in the title role, Laurence Olivier as the Roman general and politician Marcus Licinius Crassus, Charles Laughton as Senator Gracchus, Peter Ustinov as a slave trader, John Gavin as a young Julius Caesar, Jean Simmons as Spartacus’ love interest, and Tony Curtis as a runaway slave..

Spartacus was also one of those films where the back-story of it’s making was almost as interesting as the story told on the screen. With star and producer Kirk Douglas providing doctored scripts to each major cast member emphasising their role to be greater than it actually was. The intense dislike that Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton had for each other. The script which was written (and ultimately credited to) by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo which Douglas triumphed in breaking the Hollywood blacklist; and the firing of director Anthony Mann after one weeks filming (the opening mining pit scene was filmed by him). Mann was replaced by a very young and inexperienced Stanley Kubrick who had impressed Douglas immensely with their working together on Paths Of Glory (1957) and which Douglas assumed he would be able to manage him – this did not transpire.

Kubrick quickly fell out with veteran cinematographer Russell Metty who complained about Kubrick’s unusually precise and detailed instructions for the film’s camerawork, whilst also disagreeing with Kubrick’s use of light. On one occasion, he threatened to quit, to which Kubrick told him: “You can do your job by sitting in your chair and shutting up. I’ll be the director of photography.” Metty won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for this film !

Kubrick also antagonised Douglas by removing most of his dialogue in the first 40 minutes where Spartacus was being trained in the gladiator school. Douglas was considering firing Kubrick but the rushes being produced were of an exceptional quality although Douglas did remark that Kubrick was “a talented shit”.

Kubrick would later distance himself from the film. Although his personal mark is distinct in the final picture, his contract did not give him complete control over the filming, the only occasion he did not exercise such control over any of his films.

But despite all this, the end result was a historical epic that ranks with the best of them in its telling of an inspiring story.

The film does have its weaknesses ie. the romance between Spartacus and Varinia is very cliched in a very typical Hollywood fashion and the character of Spartacus is almost saintly in its depiction. But the production and cinematography is magnificent and the political manoeuvrings of the Roman senators Crassus and Gracchus (no doubt helped by the actors antipathy towards each other) is endlessly fascinating.

I do not know, in the climatic battle scene, if this is how the Roman legions were deployed when on advancement, but the depiction here is superbly staged.

Following Spartacus’s utter defeat by the legions of Crassus the surviving slaves are given the offer of pardon (and a return to enslavement) if they identify Spartacus, living or dead. Every surviving man responds by shouting “I’m Spartacus !”. 

As a result, Crassus has them all sentenced to death by cruxifixction along the way between Capua and Rome, including Spartacus as the last slave to be crucified.

Over the years, the strength of some of the performances – especially Olivier’s fire, Douglas’ strength, and Laughton’s mild amusement at the foibles of humankind continue to stand out. Plus there’s a delightful supporting performance by Peter Ustinov, who upstages everybody when he is onscreen (he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor).

Kubrick in a sense out-DeMilled, the old master in spectacle, without ever permitting the story or the people who are at the core of the drama to become lost in the epic narrative.


and the tease for next weeks post . . . Hope is a good thing.

WolfmanOz at the Movies #66

Star of stage, screen and alimony

Was the epitaph suggested for himself by actor and comedian Peter Sellers. Sellers was a prodigious talent, touching on genius at times, although almost all of his best work had been completed by the mid 1960s.

Born Richard Henry Sellers in 1925. He began accompanying his parents in a variety act that toured the provincial theatres. He first worked as a drummer and toured around England as a member of the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA). He developed his mimicry and improvisational skills during a spell in a wartime Gang Show entertainment troupe, which toured Britain and the Far East.

After the war, Sellers became a regular performer on various BBC radio shows. During the early 1950s, Sellers, along with Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine took part in the enormously successful radio series The Goon Show, which ended in 1960.

He made his film debut in the 1951 comedy Penny Points To Paradise featuring his Goon Show colleagues Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan. His breakout role was in The Ladykillers (1955) as the the slow-witted and punch drunk ex-boxer which lead to a string of notable performances in the mid-to-late 50s in films such as The Smallest Show On Earth, The Naked Truth, Up The Creek, Carlton-Browne Of The F.O. and The Mouse That Roared (where he played three distinct leading roles).

Then in 1959 he starred as union official Fred Kite in I’m All Right Jack which became the highest-grossing film at the British box office in 1960. In preparation for his role, Sellers watched footage of union officials. His superb performance earned him a BAFTA Best Actor award and stardom now beckoned.

Other notable films Sellers starred in the early 1960s were the comedy The Battle Of The Sexes; the crime thriller Never Let Go as a vicious criminal; the romantic comedy The Millionairess with Sophia Loren; the comedy The Wrong Arm Of The Law as an incompetent crime boss; the satirical comedy Heavens Above ! as a naive prison chaplain and the comedy Waltz Of The Toreadors as a retiring general.

Then in 1962 he accepted a supporting role in Stanley Kubrick’s polarising adaption of Lolita. Kubrick allowed Sellers to adopt a variety of disguises throughout the film which enabled Sellers to adapt a range of accents and personalities. It was another outstanding performance.

In 1963 he accepted another supporting role, in which Peter Ustinov was originally cast for, as the incompetent and bumbling Inspector Clouseau in the comedy classic The Pink Panther. Director and co-writer Blake Edwards seeing what Sellers was delivering expanded the role where he became, by accident, the leading player.

A sequel A Shot In The Dark was released in 1964 which focused entirely on the character of Inspector Clouseau.

But also in 1964 Sellers delivered one (or is it three) of the great film performances in cinema history in Stanley Kubrick’s nightmare black comedy masterpiece Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb which satirises the Cold War fears of a nuclear conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States. 

Sellers was unforgettable and absolutely brilliant in three roles as the RAF Group Captain Mandrake, the ineffective US President Merkin Muffley and, of course, as the title character, the ex-Nazi Dr. Strangelove. He was to have played a fourth role as Major T. J. “King” Kong, the B-52 bomber’s commander and pilot but a sprained ankle precluded him from playing it. It was played hilariously by Slim Pickens.

It is alleged that Sellers improvised much of his dialogue, with Kubrick incorporating the ad-libs into the written screenplay so that the improvised lines became part of the canonical screenplay, a practice known as retroscripting.

Unfortunately after Dr. Strangelove, Sellers output in terms of quality rarely approached what he delivered from the mid-50s to the mid-60s. He appeared in mediocre after mediocre film which are almost all forgettable, except for a couple of minor exceptions, for example, The Party released in 1968, directed by Blake Edwards. It was like Sellers was paying a Faustian price for his earlier successes.

He even reprised his Inspector Clouseau character in three Pink Panther films in the 70s, and, although they were financially successful, they were generally uneven and not to the same quality as the two films from the 60s.

He did have one final success in 1979 as Chance the simple-minded gardener addicted to watching TV who is regarded as a wise sage by the rich and powerful in the black comedy Being There. Sellers had wanted to play the role for many years, and during filming, remained in character. It was a superb performance, but, alas, it was to be his final great role.

On 21 July 1980 Sellers arrived in London from Geneva. He checked into the Dorchester Hotel  He had plans to attend a reunion dinner with his Goon Show partners Milligan and Secombe, scheduled for the evening of 22 July. On the day of the dinner, Sellers took lunch in his hotel suite and shortly afterwards collapsed from a heart attack. He was taken to the hospital, and died just after midnight on 24 July 1980, aged only 54.

As a comedian and actor Sellers, could at times touch the levels of a genius and because of his retained dignity, Sellers was a the master of playing men who had no idea how ridiculous they are.

However, it would appear as a person he was a very vain, unsympathetic and neurotic individual who treated his four wives and children appallingly. A very good TV biography The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers was made about him in 2004 starring an excellent Geoffrey Rush as Sellers. It’s well worth a look.


and the tease for next weeks post . . . Those who about to die salute you.

WolfmanOz at the Movies #3

We have certainly been living in strange times at present.

I’m sure that most of us would say that what we are seeing now would be in the realm of dsyoptia; something unimaginable only 5 years ago.

So this weeks theme is looking at dsyoptian movies which mostly relate to an imagined state or society where there is great suffering or injustice, something which we are seeing so very much of today.

Probably the first such film was Fritz Lang’s silent classic Metropolis released way back in 1927.

This highly influential German science-fiction film presented a highly stylised futuristic city where a beautiful and cultured utopia exists above a bleak underworld populated by mistreated workers.

But it was largely an outliner and it really wasn’t until the 1960s that we saw the rise of dsyoptian films populating mainstream cinema. This came in parallel with the increased quality and interest in the science fiction genre, in which the two often go hand-in-hand.

Films in this genre to note IMO:

Blade Runner (1982), Brazil (1985), Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Gattaca (1997), Idiocracy (2006), Minority Report (2002), Planet Of The Apes (1968), Seconds (1966), Soylent Green (1973), The Truman Show (1998) and Twelve Monkeys (1995).

But the film that I wish to highlight is one which was first released just over 50 years ago and which caused huge controversy at the time. It still remains a brilliant but deeply disturbing portrayal of society. Of course, I’m referring to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.

Based on the 1962 novel by Anthony Burgess, which it follows very closely, it tells the tale of a violent young man named Alex who is eventually imprisoned for murder and then experimentally brainwashed via the Ludovic Technique where he is impelled towards good as he is subject to being physically sick at the suggestion or thought of committing a crime or an evil act.

This shattering political allegory is loaded with fascinating cinematic images and boosts an amazing soundtrack which is a mix of Beethoven, moog synthesiser and other classical pieces. The use of Beethoven is particularly pointed as Alex has an obsession with the composer in general and his 9th Symphony in particular.

It is also distinguished by a superb performance by Malcolm McDowell as the pathological thug; the role of a lifetime which McDowell delivers with relish that almost makes his appalling character sympathetic. Something akin to the affect of watching Richard III and having sympathy with the evil crooked-back Duke of Gloucester.

The film is a memorable experience with an appalling message of free will that is impossible to forget.

Kubrick made only 13 movies over a 46 year period of which, IMO, at least half are genuine masterpieces. This movie is one of them. He tackled many themes and genres and often made the defining film for that genre. I’ll be posting more reviews/analysis of some of his films over the coming weeks and months.

Interestingly, The Spectator had an article a few weeks ago about the the parallels between vaccine mandates and the infamous Ludovic Technique from the film and book.

Enjoy and discuss.