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A Letter from John Carpenter on “The Thing” – January 2, 1983

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

In 1983, shortly after the release of his film The Thing, I got a letter from John Carpenter about the film.

John Carpenter‘s 1982 version of The Thing is now considered a masterpiece, something I’ve always thought, but when it first came out in the Summer of 1982, roughly at the same time as Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, audiences opted for the cute little Reese’s pieces eating alien over Carpenter’s relentlessly nihilistic vision of a visitor from outer space, and the film was almost universally reviled by critics – proving, once again, that when a work is ahead of its time, it can almost be assured of an uncomprehending, hostile reception.

Carpenter had argued with Universal, who produced both films, that pitting them against each other would have disastrous results, suggesting that the release be delayed to Halloween, which of course is the title of Carpenter’s iconic 1978 indie film, which was shot for roughly $300,000, and went on to gross more than $70 million worldwide. But Universal insisted on putting the two films out within weeks of each other, and Spielberg’s film took off, while Carpenter’s film languished.

As Carpenter told one interviewer about the film’s initial reception, “I take every failure hard. The one I took the hardest was The Thing. My career would have been different if that had been a big hit. I don’t think the studio knew what kind of movie they were getting. I think they wanted Alien, a crowd-pleaser. And it was way too ferocious for them. They were upset by the ending—too dark. But that’s what I wanted: Who goes there? Who are we? Which one of you is real? The movie was hated. Even by science-fiction fans. They thought that I had betrayed some kind of trust, and the piling on was insane.”

In the Fall of 1982, I was teaching film at Rutgers University, and as part of my fall class schedule, I wanted to run The Thing in 16mm CinemaScope format, but figured it was out of my budget range. Nevertheless, I called up Universal’s non-theatrical booking agency in Manhattan, chatted with a young woman there who was as enthused about the film as I was, and eventually negotiated a rental price of $100 – a fraction of the going rate – for the class screening.

At the same time, I mentioned to her how disappointed I was in the poor critical reception the film was receiving, and asked if I could have John Carpenter’s address so that I could write a letter to him in support of the film. In those much more egalitarian times, this was no problem, and she gave me Carpenter’s production company address, and I dispatched a letter to him giving my thoughts about the film, and various related topics, on December 15, 1982.

On January 2, 1983, I received a lengthy response from Carpenter, which I’ll quote most of here – with the note that for many years, I considered this letter lost, until it surfaced only a few days ago at the home of a friend in New Jersey, where apparently I had left it one evening. (Parenthetically, I’m a terrible archivist; I once had a signed letter from Orson Welles, no less, and lost that, too!)

But in any event, here is what Carpenter had to say to about the film, and horror films in general: “My favorite Gothic directors are Roman Polanski, Mario Bava (simply for style alone), George Romero, Terence Fisher and James Whale. Each of these directors brought a personality and a style to the horror film. I’ve always thought that Freddie Francis was a better Director of Photography. William Castle was more a producer / entrepreneur.

You asked me about the issue of cinematic violence, which is really, I feel, the issue of stylistic realism. Sam Peckinpah popularized the ‘too real effect’ in The Wild Bunch [1969]. Human beings don’t really die with little blood bag explosions popping out all over the place, but the effect soon became a kind of realism used widely in movies and even television; you shoot someone, you pop a couple of blood bags here and there.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and even Halloween didn’t use this stylistic realism. The brutal, sadistic killings were suggested, sparing us any enjoyment of the sadism. We’re voyeurs, true, but there’s a point to which we want to be thrashed around in that dark corner of our minds.

The Thing was a monster movie, meaning simply that the protagonist was ‘an other,’ non-human alien. I felt that in order to convince the audience that The Thing was real, stylistic realism was in order. [Special effects artist] Rob Bottin came in to me with a concept of the actual visual manifestations that seemed to coincide with the amorphous, non-evil-acting ‘otherness’ reality that had to be a part of The Thing.

Systematic inclusion of graphic violence or sex or whatever may enhance a film, or may destroy it, or simply relegate it to pornography or exploitation. [That being said], there should be no restrictions, other than the intentions of the director.

Your idea of the ‘the icon’ is a sound one. Movies carry our mythology now [emphasis added]. Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster is as much as legend now as Prometheus. Perhaps The Thing could be seen as an examination of exactly what constitutes ‘humanness.’ The creature itself is just simply non-human, but like a cancer, it grows and takes us over, distorts, ravages. It isn’t gory, at least not to me.”

Carpenter closed with the thoughts that he was especially fond of the films of director Luis Buñuel, and the films The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, Invisible Invaders, The Big Sleep (the 1946 version, please) and Los Olvidados. I’ve always been grateful that Carpenter took the time and effort to type such a long letter in response to a total stranger at the time, and that he so carefully and perceptively articulated precisely what he was up to with The Thing, which was based on John W. Campbell Jr.’s novella Who Goes There?, and first brought to the screen by Howard Hawks as The Thing from Another World (1951).

Carpenter, of course, is a big fan of Howard Hawks, with excellent reason, and his first real feature, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) has distinct debts to Hawks which Carpenter readily acknowledges. Hawks’ version of The Thing is a brilliant film, but it has an upbeat, optimistic ending – as all Hawks films do – as a ragtag group of dedicated survivors pull together to defeat the threat of a hostile invasion from outer space. Carpenter’s film offers no such assurances, and as such is more in tune with the noirish temper of the present day era, in which “every person for themselves first” seems to be the governing principle.

So, if you haven’t seen The Thing, do so now, but only in the proper CinemaScope ratio; in addition to Bottin’s astounding and thankfully pre-digital special effects, the actors Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart and Keith David – superb performers all – have seldom had better roles. Then, too, Bill Lancaster‘s astonishingly bleak screenplay and dialogue for the film make a distinct contribution to the proceedings. The production of the film was by all accounts grueling, but the end result is more than worth it. And so it’s nice to see this letter again after some thirty years (!!) and have a chance to share it with the readers of this blog.

A special thanks goes out to David Dutcher, who found this letter, and sent it on – thanks, Dutch!

Typical Script Detail at Universal in the 1940s

Saturday, April 1st, 2017

Even on the most minor projects, Universal in the 1940s paid attention to the smallest details.

Weird Woman was a modest 1944 release from Universal in their “Inner Sanctum” series, all starring Lon Chaney Jr. – here as Professor Norman Reed – many of which were directed by Reginald Le Borg, including this film. It’s about an hour long, and had a very short shooting schedule – but Le Borg manages to squeeze the most atmosphere possible out of the proceedings, even if Chaney Jr. seems a rather unlikely college professor (much of his dialogue is delivered in voice over, to heighten the claustrophobic feel of the film). But as even a cursory glance at the script page above demonstrates, on the most overtly commercial offerings from the studio during this period, a great deal of care was taken to make the film as precise and detailed as possible.

For an average shooting script, there’s a great deal of description – and even camera movements – spelled out in minute detail, so that the entire film is carefully pre-planned, and can be shot with maximum efficiency, without sacrificing quality. The budget for the film was somewhere in the $100,000 range, and Chaney Jr. at this point in his career was being used as the studio’s “clean up” man, tackling any role they threw at him – even in a western – with only a few complaints. Above all, during the 1940s, Universal was a factory, operating in a nation at war, delivering a product to audiences that satisfied genre expectations. The shooting schedule was at the most a few weeks, if that.

But even though the film is resolutely a program picture, it’s also enlivened by the skill of a gallery of gifted supporting actors, including Anne Gwynne, Evelyn Ankers, the always reliable Ralph Morgan, Elisabeth Risdon, and the ever-alarming Elizabeth Russell. Based on a novel by the gifted Fritz LieberConjure Wife – which was remade in 1962 as Night of the Eagle – this is a solid entry in the “Inner Sanctum” series, which everyone involved took seriously, even if the end result is somewhat threadbare, if only because of the circumstances of budgetary constraints, lack of time, and the ever present need for a “happy ending.” Still, it’s very much worth watching, and you can now see the whole film online.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the entire film.

Dorothy Arzner Retrospective in Melbourne – Interview

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

Recently, I was interviewed on the Dorothy Arzner Retrospective at the Melbourne Cinematheque.

Click here, or on the image above to hear the podcast, and as the site notes, “the Melbourne Cinémathèque hosts a season dedicated to the zesty, irreverent films of Dorothy Arzner, a pioneer female filmmaker whose career spanned the silent era into the 1940s.

Wheeler Winston Dixon is a film critic who has written an essay accompanying the season for the Senses of Cinema online journal on her 1932 film, Merrily We Go to Hell. He places Arzner in the pantheon of early women whose role as pioneers is still under appreciated.”

The interview was conducted by Jason Di Rosso, for his show The Final Cut, and he did a superb job with the editing – cutting in sound bites from several of Arzner’s films to really drive the point home – and the entire event was a distinct pleasure – with a sound link via telephone to Melbourne that was as clear as a bell.

I’m thrilled that Arzner is finally getting some measure of the international respect she so clearly deserves; my thanks to Jason, to Senses of Cinema, and of course, hats off to the Melbourne Cinematheque for making the retrospective an event not to be missed. Now, how about a box set of her work on DVD?

Here’s a chance to see a classic film on the big screen, the way it was meant to be shown.

Leslie Reed on The New Book Series “Quick Takes”

Monday, March 13th, 2017

Our new Quick Takes series is taking off!

As Leslie Reed writes of our new book series in UNL Today, ” Quick Takes, a new series of short books on popular culture topics edited by University of Nebraska-Lincoln professors Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and Wheeler Winston Dixon, launches March 17 with the publication of Disney Culture by John Wills and Zombie Cinema by Ian Olney. Foster and Dixon . . .will oversee at least 12 books in the series, to be published by Rutgers University Press over the next three years.

‘Gwendolyn and I think about interesting topics that people might want to know about, and then we find the top experts in the field to write about it,’ Dixon said. ‘It’s a bleeding-edge, major book series on pop culture.’

The Quick Takes books have been in the works for about two years. Loosely patterned after the British Film Institute’s Film Classics series, the Quick Takes books will range from 30,000 to 40,000 words, making them pocket-sized and readable in one sitting. Paperbacks and E-books will cost $17.95; cloth copies are priced at $65.

‘They’re free of jargon, direct and accessible,’ Dixon said. ‘We’re aiming at college kids, pop culture fiends and the general public.’ ‘These are topics that are really important in the 21st century,’ Foster said. ‘The series is designed to introduce them to the widest possible audience.’

The first two books have been well received by critics. In Disney Culture, Wills, director of American Studies at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England, explores how Disney grew from a small animation studio to a global media giant. Critic Blair Davis describes Disney Culture as a ‘well written and thoroughly engaging overview’ of the Disney Empire.

Olney is an associate professor of English at York College of Pennsylvania, who received his doctoral degree in English and Film Studies from Nebraska. In Zombie Cinema, he explores why the genre has captured the imagination of 21st century audiences. Critic Stephen Prince said Zombie Cinema is a ‘zesty tour through an amazingly prolific and popular contemporary film cycle.’

Future volumes will feature rock-and-roll movies, action movies and comic-book movies, among other topics. Digital Music Videos by Steven Shaviro of Wayne State University in Detroit, and New African Cinema by Valérie K. Orlando of the University of Maryland are due to be released in April. The book series will be showcased at the Society for Cinema & Media Studies March 22-26 in Chicago.”

Thanks, Leslie, for an excellent overview of the series, which promises to be quite exciting.

Sweet and Lowdown: Woody Allen’s Cinema of Regret

Sunday, March 5th, 2017

Lloyd Michaels has an excellent new book out on the cinema of Woody Allen.

As the publisher, Wallflower Press / Columbia UP note on their website, “Over a career that has spanned more than six decades, Woody Allen has explored the emotion of regret as a response to the existentialist dilemma of not being someone else.

Tracing this recurrent theme from his stand-up comedy routines and apprentice work through classics like Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Bullets Over Broadway as well as less esteemed accomplishments (Another Woman, Sweet and Lowdown, Cassandra’s Dream), this volume argues that it is ultimately the shallowness of his protagonists’ regret—their lack of deeply felt, sustained remorse—that defines Allen’s pervasive view of human experience.

Drawing on insights from philosophy, theology, psychology, and literature, the book discusses nearly every Woody Allen film, with extended analyses of the relationship films (including Alice and Husbands and Wives), the murder tetralogy (including Match Point and Irrational Man), the self-reflexive films (including Stardust Memories and Deconstructing Harry), and the movies about nostalgia (including Radio Days and Midnight in Paris).

The book concludes by considering Allen’s most affirmative resolution of regret (Broadway Danny Rose) and speculating about the relevance of this through-line for understanding Allen’s personal life and prospects as an octogenarian auteur.”

Lloyd Michaels edited the journal Film Criticism from 1977 through 2015 and has published four previous books on cinema, and this is one of his most ambitious and transcendent works – absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in American cinema, and the fate of the individual talent in contemporary Hollywood. It’s also nice to see that the book is named after Sweet and Lowdown – one of my favorite Woody Allen films, and arguably Sean Penn’s finest performance.

Available now from your local bookseller; a book not to be missed.

Denis Côté’s Joy of Man’s Desiring and Bestiare on DVD

Friday, February 24th, 2017

Denis Côté’s superb films Bestiaire and Joy of Man’s Desiring are finally available on DVD.

As I wrote of Côté’s work in conjunction with an interview I did with him for Senses of Cinema in June, 2015, “Denis Côté is a young Canadian filmmaker who has burst onto the international film scene with a group of challenging and innovative movies in the past few years. Born 16 November, 1973 in New Brunswick, Canada, Côté began his career with a group of short films, and made his first feature in 2005, Drifting States (Les états Nordiques), which won the Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival.

Since then, Côté has worked a number of commercial and/or personal projects, most notably Curling (2010), a father/daughter family drama that was exceptionally well received by audiences and critics alike; Bestiaire (2012), a “docufiction” – that’s my own term – film centering on the animals who populate a tourist destination zoo in Canada; and Vic+Flo Saw A Bear (Vic+Flo ont vu un ours, 2013), a harrowing tale of two women trying to make it on the outside after a stint in prison, and how the world conspires against them to make redemption – at least in life – almost impossible. Vic+Flo Saw A Bear was probably Côté’s most successful film to date, and was screened at more than 90 festivals around the world.

Côté’s Joy of Man’s Desiring (aka Que ta joie demeure, 2014), which documents, after a fashion, daily life on the factory floor, as workers methodically partner with their machines to create the staples of daily existence, is one of his most individual works. In all these projects, Côté offers his own unique take on concepts of narrative in his fiction films, and reportage in his documentaries, to create a series of films that are at once open-ended, mysterious, and subtly disturbing.”

Since them, Côté has completed Boris sans Béatrice, a typically uncompromising film centering on a marriage falling apart, which was selected to compete for the Golden Bear at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival –  now available on DVD from K Films. I saw Boris sans Béatrice on streaming video, but of course the chance to own a hard copy of the film can’t be passed up. Côté is a one-of-a-kind filmmaker, who is only now getting some measure of the attention he deserves; his work increases in depth and resonance with the passage of time, and he’s clearly a major talent.

I want to especially thank Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for introducing me to Côté’s work – it’s magical.

New Book Series: “Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture”

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and Wheeler Winston Dixon announce their new book series.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and Wheeler Winston Dixon are proud to announce the publication of the first two volumes in their new book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture from Rutgers University Press – Disney Culture by John Wills, and Zombie Cinema by Ian Olney.

Disney Culture explores the Walt Disney Company, which has grown into a diversified global media giant. But is it still possible to identify a coherent Disney ethos? Examining everything from theme parks to merchandising to animation to live-action films, Disney Culture proposes that they all follow a core corporate philosophy dating back to the 1920s.

Zombie Cinema notes that the living dead have been lurking in popular culture since the 1930s, but they are now ubiquitous. Presenting a historical overview of zombies in film and on television, Zombie Cinema also explores this globalized phenomenon, examining why the dead have captured the imagination of twenty-first-century audiences worldwide.

Early reviews are excellent: Blair Davis, author of Movie Comics: Page to Screen/Screen to Page writes that in Disney Culture, “Wills makes a strong contribution to both the fields of media studies as well as Disney scholarship with this concise, well written and thoroughly engaging overview of how the cultural, artistic, and economic factors surrounding the Disney corporation intersect.”

Janet Wasko, author of Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy adds that “Disney Culture is a notable addition to the growing critical work on Disney and its cultural significance. Wills skillfully dissects the Disney ethos and even challenges the multimedia giant to ‘mean something beyond merchandise’ in the twenty-first century.”

Of Zombie Cinema, Stephen Prince, author of Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality writes,”Zombie Cinema is a brisk, informative read that gives us a zesty tour through an amazingly prolific and popular contemporary film cycle. He’s clearly done his homework in excavating – or disinterring, as the case may be – zombie movies from disparate cultural and historical contexts.”

Rick Worland, author of The Horror Film: An Introduction notes that “what the vampire was to the 1980s and 90s, the zombie has become for early twenty-first century audiences, the monster of choice, spreading through a multitude of media texts. [In Zombie Cinema] Ian Olney organizes the history of the zombie in popular culture from Haitian voodoo practice to the present, providing clear analysis of its evolution and development. Theoretically informed, the writing is engaging and accessible throughout.”

New African Cinema by Valérie K. Orlando, and Digital Music Videos by Steven Shaviro are forthcoming soon.

Click here for more information on the new series.

New Article: “Service Providers” : Genre Cinema in the 21st Century

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

I’ve just published a new article in QRFV on 21st century genre filmmaking.

As I write in the article, Harrison Ford in 2013 noted that “‘I think the success of Comic-Con is based on the partnership between the fans and the service providers, the entities—I won’t necessarily call them filmmakers —that supply the film product that supports their particular interest, whether it’s vampires or science-fiction fantasies of Transformers or whatever is going on . . .’

When Harrison Ford made these comments to Adam Sternbergh, a reporter for The New York Times, no particular controversy ensued. Ford was simply stating a fact: Directors today, most of whom work within rigid genre formats, are indeed little more than ‘service providers,’ who create long, loud, open-ended and ultimately unsatisfying “epic” films for an ever more indiscriminate audience.

Yet, it’s really not the fault of the viewers who flock to see the endless interactions of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Star Trek and other franchise films; they simply don’t know any better. There is nothing else on offer at the multiplex, and with everything online — behind a pay wall, usually with a subscription attached —any impulse to be adventurous in one’s viewing habits died long ago. It’s like McDonald’s: It is what it is, nothing more or less, and it’s reliably available, and always the same.

As Derek Thompson wrote in 2014, ‘The reason why Hollywood makes so many boring superhero movies [is because] studios were better at making great movies when they were worse at figuring out what we wanted to see,’ adding that ‘Hollywood has become sensational at predicting what its audiences want to see. And, ironically, for that very reason, it’s become better at making relentlessly average movies …

In 1950, movies were the third-largest retail business in America, after grocery stores and cars …Watching films approached the ubiquity of a bodily function: Every week, 90 million Americans—60 percent of the country—went to the cinema, creating an audience share that’s bigger than today’s Super Bowl.

The six major studios (MGM, Warner Bros., Paramount, Twentieth Century-Fox, and RKO) could basically do whatever they wanted and be sure to make money. Owning their own theater chains (which accounted for half their total revenue), they controlled the means and distribution of a product that was as essential to mid-century life as grilled chicken. Surprise, surprise: Virtually all their films made money.'” Not so today.


Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet (1952)

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet, based on a novel by director Samuel Fuller, is brilliant filmmaking.

So let’s get this out of the way right off the bat; I admire Samuel Fuller‘s work immensely, especially Underworld U.S.A. (1961), but in the final analysis, I think that Phil Karlson is a better filmmaker. Fuller was enormously talented, and a superb self-promoter, but while Fuller was making a name for himself, Karlson was simply hammering out one excellent film after another, without bothering too much to toot his own horn.

One result of this is that Scandal Sheet (1952), which is one of the toughest noirs ever made, never really got the attention it deserved, nor did it get Karlson a place in the pantheon of first-rate hardboiled filmmakers, an honor he clearly deserves. I never got the chance to speak with Karlson, who passed away before I could get in touch with him, but I did correspond with his late wife, Dixie, who confirmed that Karlson felt that he’d never really gotten the respect that he deserved – in part because Fuller, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, The Dark Page, went out of his way to slam Karlson’s work.

Somehow I think this says more about Fuller than Karlson, for Scandal Sheet is a remarkable film – one that really stands up today. As critic Michael Atkinson astutely observed, “Phil Karlson and Samuel Fuller’s Scandal Sheet (1952) exemplifies a certain strand of noir not the sweaty wrong-man-tripped-up-by-fate noirs (think Detour [1945], Somewhere in the Night [1946], Where Danger Lives [1950]), but the life-in-the-jungle noirs, dark elegies wherein citizens had to tough up to survive in modern urban sewers rife with impulse killing, squalor, crazed greed and moral desolation. Here, the systems themselves industry, community, the law, the mob, the press were rotten from the inside.

Karlson and Fuller were reigning warriors in this vein: director Karlson was a no-nonsense journeyman who with Scandal Sheet, Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953) and The Phenix City Story (1955) perfected a confrontational, violent, subtlety-immune noir style in which the world, not merely the individuals stuck in it, seemed to be on the edge of social upheaval.

Fuller was, of course, Fuller, the most notorious idiosyncratic-pulpster of the postwar age, an unstoppable creative force whose particular view of the world was a vulgar, cynical mashup between first-hand realism (no American filmmaker knew the actualities of tabloid journalism, ground warfare and the criminal sector as well) and outrageous pop-cinema hyperbole.

Scandal Sheet, in any case, was not Fuller’s film. It was based on his hot-property novel The Dark Page, published in 1944 after Fuller had already defected from being a reporter to being a screenwriter, and while the young Fuller was fighting in Europe with the Big Red One. Still, it boils over with his storytelling energy and his signature reflex, the urge to discover, expressionistically, the painful, hard-boiled reality as he knew it within the movie universe of Golden Age Hollywood.

The set-up itself is nearly autobiographical: Fuller used to work on the New York Graphic, a screaming-mimi, truth-manipulating exploitative tabloid on Park Row that makes the contemporary New York Post look like The London Review of Books. (Fuller has described its editorial principle to be one of ‘creative exaggeration.’) It’s easy to see how Fuller’s own distinctive tale-telling style, visual and narrative, was formed by the daily creation of howling headlines, sensational fabrication and punchy, don’t-lose-the-reader prose.

In the film, Broderick Crawford‘s Mark Chapman is the New York Express‘s bulldog editor, pulling the daily out of its economic doldrums with lurid front pages and invented news; John Derek’s Steve McCleary is his amoral star reporter, the two of them heading a newsroom that has only Donna Reed’s Julie Allison to recommend it in the way of moral compunction and compassion. The thorny patter and amoral brio proceeds apace until Chapman is confronted at a publicity event by a middle-aged woman (Rosemary DeCamp), who immediately pegs him as ‘George,’ and summons an entire unwanted past that places Chapman’s present success in mysterious jeopardy.

Soon it’s made clear: she’s the unstable wife he abandoned years before, and now she will not be ignored – an ultimatum that leads, somewhat predictably, to a scuffle and her accidental death. From there, Chapman is all about covering his tracks, which as we all know simply creates more tracks, more corpses and more bad fortune.

Scandal Sheet is a fast-gabbing, meat-eating show [and is] expertly fashioned; Fuller was careful to make the tabloid mercenariness turn in on itself: McCleary is hot on the story, and despite his neck being in the noose Chapman must bait him on, because if he relents one iota from the Rupert Murdochian ethos that made him and the Express a hit, suspicion will fall on him like a safe from a window . . . [the film] scans today like a prescient indictment of media sensationalism, Murdoch’s and otherwise. ‘Thinking people,’ it is suggested, like Allison’s humane feature stories, ‘even if there aren’t many of them reading the Express anymore.’

Perhaps things haven’t changed in the American mediascape, we may speculate, but perhaps things have grown many times worse. The very idea of courting a ‘thinking’ newspaper reader today is ludicrous, as monopoly regulations have all but vanished, and only six corporations . . . own the vast majority of media outlets in the U.S., as compared to over 50 in 1983, and many hundreds in the 1950s. Fuller and Karlson had their ears to the ground in the mid-century, and however relevant it was in 1952, their movie feels like a prophecy come true.”

Atkinson is right on target. Seeing the film on a big screen in class today with a deeply enthusiastic group of students confirmed my high opinion of the film; Karlson’s camerawork, aided by DP Burnett Guffey, glides smoothly through the entirely amoral universe of Mark Chapman’s world.

The film absolutely brims with appropriately lurid details: a fast closeup of a would-be suicide’s wrists; a gallows-humored functionary who informs us that business at the local morgue is “dead, just dead,” a harrowing trip through the depths of the Bowery’s worst saloons; the endless tick of the clocks on the walls of the drab, grey newsrooms; an editing style that breathlessly propels the narrative to its doom-laden conclusion; and a gallery of first rate performances not only from Crawford, but also such old pros as Henry O’Neill, Harry Morgan, Rosemary De Camp, Cliff Work, and Pierre Watkin – to name just a few.

When it was made, Scandal Sheet was thrown away on double bills as just another piece of product from Harry Cohn’s prolific film factory, Columbia Pictures, even if it did have Academy Award winner Crawford (for All The King’s Men, 1949) in the leading role – but today, we can see it is much more than that. It’s a sharp, economical film, without an ounce of fat on it; indeed, Jerome Thomas’s editing is so sharp that one would be hard pressed to even remove a frame from the finished work.

It’s available on DVD as part of a box set of Samuel Fuller’s films (!!) – but no such set exists for Karlson, of course. That’s a shame, and it also isn’t right – towards the end of his life, Karlson made some junk, like the appalling Matt Helm films, but when the fever was upon him, he hit the mark every time.

Click here to read a great interview with Phil Karlson – then see the film.

The 1956 Film Version of George Orwell’s 1984

Saturday, January 28th, 2017

Lately, 1984 has been a very popular novel – but the best movie version was made in 1956.

When George Orwell (real name Eric Arthur Blair) finished his novel 1984 in 1948, after thinking about it since 1944, he was trying to warn his audience that unchecked totalitarianism could easily destroy democracy. Since then, there have been several film and television versions; the 1954 BBC version starring Peter Cushing; the 1956 version starring Edmond O’Brien and Jan Sterling; and the 1984 version – yes, that’s right – starring the late John Hurt as the hapless Winston Smith, and Richard Burton as his nemesis O’Brien, in what would prove to be his final screen role.

All the various versions have their adherents, but for me, the 1956 version comes closest to the mark. The 1954 version survives only on a battered Kinescope, and as much as I am fond of Peter Cushing as an actor (as readers of this blog no doubt know), he makes a very indifferent Winston Smith, one of the “proles” singled out for punishment and “rehabilitation” by the minions of Big Brother. He would have been much more effective in the O’Brien role, just as he’s superlatively evil as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original Star Wars (1977).

The 1984 version has strong performances by both Burton and Hurt, but is ruined – really ruined – by a terrible pop score by The Eurythmics. There was one 2003 US DVD release with the original symphonic score by Dominic Muldowney, but most versions have the Eurythmics track, which so offended Michael Radford, the director of the film, that he publicly disowned the film. So . . .

That leaves the 1956 version, which although it has its flaws, is easily the most effective version of the novel, at least for me. Yes, one of the central problems is the casting of Edmond O’Brien and Jan Sterling in the leading roles of Winston Smith and Julia. Both were put in the film to increase the chances at the box-office in the United States – which didn’t work, despite a sensationalistic advertising campaign – and while O’Brien is much better than Sterling, they’re not ideally cast for the film.

But as General O’Connor (O’Brien in the book; the name change was to avoid confusion with the Edmond O’Brien’s credit), Sir Michael Redgave is absolutely immaculate – savage, smooth, duplicitous and unforgiving. The film’s narrative, which the title credits admit was “freely adapted” from Orwell’s novel, nevertheless touches all the important bases – cultural repression, institutionalized misinformation, social inequity, and a ruling class that cares nothing about the “proles” below.

Unfortunately, the film has existed in limbo for quite some time, and never got a real DVD release, except in England, and of course, being shot in 1956, it’s in black and white, modestly budgeted at a mere £80,073, or roughly $200,000 US dollars at the time. It’s yet another one of the many films that could use a proper DVD release.

The sets are minimal and coolly stylized, the effects are resolutely pre-digital, and there is even an alternate “happy ending” – thankfully, I have never seen it – tacked on to some prints. But in most surviving versions, the film ends with Smith, brutally tortured and now brainwashed into blindly accepting authority, leading a mob of citizens in a chant of “long live Big Brother” – the anonymous, and perhaps non-existent dictator of the future totalitarian state.

The director of the film was Michael Anderson, who directed Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) the same year – a much more crowd pleasing film – and would later go on to direct the almost equally Dystopian Logan’s Run (1976). The 1956 version of 1984, then, is certainly worth a look, if you can find it – and see how a group of talented people almost got it right.

You can see the entire film online by clicking here, or on the image above.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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