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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.

American International Pictures and Teen Films

Friday, January 27th, 2017

High School Caesar was one of the many AIP teen films of the 1950s – with a neat twist.

High School Caesar – a great title, by the way – was one of the many teen exploitation films released through American International Pictures in the mid to late 1950s, and represented the first time that a film production company directly targeted a teenage audience.

While the majors dithered and tried to return to the past, AIP – headed by co-founders James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff – stepped in to fill the gap the studios wouldn’t; films aimed at teenagers, which were as up to date as could possibly be.

In many ways, AIP changed the film business entirely in its most influential period from roughly 1955 through 1967, working closely with house director Roger Corman, who directed most of AIP’s output. But AIP also did a brisk business in “pick up” films, which were made by smaller companies and then distributed through AIP. High School Caesar belongs in the latter category.

Shot in Chillicothe, Missouri by the small company Marathon Productions, and directed by O’Dale Ireland, the film stars smooth-talking, baby faced John Ashley as Matt Stevens, who, unbeknownst to the teachers and principal at the local high school, runs a protection racket and other assorted graft schemes, terrorizing the students with impunity.

Made in a few weeks for roughly $100,000, the film was shot on actual locations, featured local residents in bit parts, and represents a kind of home-brew egalitarian filmmaking from an era in which anyone with a minimal budget and a good idea could get a theatrical release for their film – impossible today.

And if you can lift a great plot from William Shakespeare while keeping things contemporary – hey, why not? It also worked because the film spoke directly to its intended audience – not down to it. In general, AIP flourished because:

*AIP realized that no one was making films teenagers really wanted to see. AIP churned out one teen film after another, in a variety of genres, from horror to comedy to science-fiction to musicals, usually shot in a week, in black and white, on budgets in the $100,000 range – no more.

*AIP realized the importance of advertising, and would often spend more on promoting a film than actually making it. In addition to garish posters and “sensational” trailers, AIP’s sales staff would speak directly to teenagers, theater owners, and keep up on the latest trends, to deliver product that would find a ready audience.

*AIP invented saturation booking. Saturation booking, which has now become the standard for major film releases, opens a film everywhere at once so that it makes as much money up front as possible, before negative word of mouth sets in.

*AIP realized they had to control both halves of the double-bill. From the 1930s though the end of the 1970s, movies usually weren’t “stand alone” releases as they are today. Films were paired in a double bill, with an “A” on the top half, and a “B” or re-released film as the second part of the program. The second feature was often rented for a flat rate, rather than a percentage of the box office, so —

*AIP made double-bill combo pictures and sold them only as a double-bill, thus retaining all the box-office revenue, rather than splitting the box office receipts with another, larger company.

*AIP made their films available to drive-ins and distributors on a much more favorable financial basis. Where the majors would often insist on a 90/10 split of box office revenues for the first week of a film – which is why concession stand prices are so high – AIP would deal directly with theater chains and drive-ins (then a major factor in distribution) on a 50/50 basis, thus undercutting the majors.

*And finally, and amazingly, AIP was the first company to realize that summer was a great time to release a film. Until AIP came along, the majors thought that in the summer, everyone was on vacation, and didn’t want to see any movies until the Fall and/or Winter. AIP immediately swept in with summertime double-bills that caught teen audience attention, and pretty much created the summer movie season as we know it today.

So, back to High School Caesar. The film was a solid hit when released by AIP, and director O’Dale Ireland made a few other films, but nothing with as much box-office impact, a film that even spawned a hit single with the same title. But the residents of Chillicothe, where the film premiered at the local theater to record crowds, never forgot the film – which is run on TCM from time to time – or the impact it had on the community.

So in 2014, the local high school drama group decided rather than staging a traditional play for the year, they would do a video remake of High School Caesar, using a completely non-professional cast. Shot in a matter of weeks, with many of the local residents from the original film returning to the cast – now as mothers, fathers, grandfathers and grandmothers, in supporting roles – the new version was warmly received by the community. You can read the whole story of the 2014 remake by clicking here.

A remake of a local “classic” – a fitting tribute to the film, and to AIP.

Ricardo Darín: “I’m Fine Filming in Spanish, Thank You”

Saturday, January 21st, 2017

Ricardo Darín, the brilliant Argentinian actor, has no plans to obey Hollywood’s demands.

As Elaine Guerini writes in Screen Daily, “Should every actor’s dream be to conquer Hollywood? Ricardo Darín, the Argentinian national treasure, has often asked himself this question following the umpteenth insinuation that success in a non-English language market is somehow not as valid.

‘I am fine filming in Spanish, thank you,’ reflects the 59-year-old actor who was in Uruguay last weekend to receive this year’s Platino Honor Award in recognition of his outstanding contributions to Ibero-American cinema. ‘Bombita Darín’, as he is known, is more than fine. For almost two decades, he has been the face of Argentinian cinema and among the most recognized on the Spanish-language film scene.

The actor is best known for roles in Juan José Campanella’s Oscar-winner The Secret In Their Eyes and Damián Szifrón’s most-seen Argentinina film ever Wild Tales (2014). But Darín’s career in cinema, theatre and TV stretches back to the 1960s.

He soared at home and abroad in Fabián Bielinsky’s Nine Queens (2000) and The Aura (2005), as well as Juan José Campanella’s Son Of The Bride (2001). He is particularly good in films which delve into the dark corners of human nature and Argentinian culture, preferably through taciturn characters whose expressions speak volumes.

‘I’m just lucky to find well-written scripts, which work with an economy of words,’ he says modestly. ‘A lot of explanation in the text is usually an attempt to compensate for the fragility of story or the lack of a good director on set.’

‘We shouldn’t feel inferior,’ says Darín about the separation between US studio and foreign independent films. ‘Facing the subjugation of US blockbusters, with disproportionate budgets, we must respond with talent, creativity, imagination, effort, enthusiasm and daring. That is the way to address the lack of money. We have talent so we just need to have confidence in ourselves,’ he adds.

The actor is known for having turned down several Hollywood offers, including a role opposite Denzel Washington in Tony Scott’s Man On Fire (2004). Darín didn’t see the point in starring in another US film which stereotyped Latin Americans as corrupt [the Mexican drug dealer has been another stock character in mainstream scripts].

‘It is not a matter of being anti-Hollywood per se. The screenplay needs to touch me somehow and I am not moved by surnames.’ Despite his misgivings, there are two US directors who could make him change his mind, ‘for their filmography and way of thinking. The only ones I would really want to work with are Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. If one of their films were suitable for me, it would be like touching the sky with my hand.'”

Darin is a stunningly good actor; I first encountered him in The Aura, one of this finest performances. His attitude here is a perfect example of how to deal with the temptations and blandishments of Hollywood’s film factory; just say no. Eventually, the right role will come around for you, and as a result, he’s never appeared in junk – today, that’s a major accomplishment.

Ricardo Darín – one of the most effective and individual actors working today.

Jean Renoir: A Biography by Pascal Mérigeau

Friday, January 20th, 2017

Now we have the definitive book on Jean Renoir, in a superb English translation.

As the Running Press, which has published Jean Renoir: A Biography in the United States notes of this excellent volume – clocking in at nearly 1,000 pages, but absolutely page-turning in its intensity and incredibly detailed research – “originally published in France in 2012, Pascal Mérigeau’s definitive biography of legendary film director Jean Renoir is a landmark work—the winner of a Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary achievement. Now available in the English language for the first time, Jean Renoir: A Biography, is the definitive study of one of the most fascinating and creative artistic figures of the twentieth century.

The French filmmaker made more than forty films from the silent era to the late ’60s and today he is revered by filmmakers and seen by many as one of the greatest of all time. Renoir made acclaimed movies in France, America, India, and Italy and became a writer during the last part of his life. Drawing from unpublished or little known sources, this biography is a completely fresh approach to the maker of Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, redefining the very function of the movie director and simultaneously recounting the history of a century.”

Renoir was indeed one of the greatest of all filmmakers, noted for his humanism and his ability to move smoothly from one genre to another without a pause, as well as having a career not only in France, but in the United States in the 1940s at the now defunct studio RKO Radio Pictures, then journeying to India to make the first color film there, The River (1951), before returning to France in the 1950s to make a final group of masterpieces, and eventually settling in California before his death.

Mérigeau’s magisterial biography clearly surpasses all existing writing on Renoir, and it’s amazing that we had to wait four years for this remarkably deft translation by Bruce Benderson – and that the book is only available in paperback. Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) is routinely included in nearly every “ten best films of all time” list, but his other work, especially his work in America, clearly deserves more attention, which Mérigeau ably supplies.

While the publicity materials tout that fact that the book is supposedly the first to examine Renoir’s unfinished Hollywood film The Amazing Mrs. Holiday (1943) – which isn’t true; this has been common knowledge for quite some time – and also makes much of Renoir’s leftist work in France in the mid 1930s, for me the most intriguing sections came on such films as his American noir The Woman on the Beach (1947), which has long been known to have a troubled production history – yet Mérigeau has additional material on this film as well.

I had known that the finished film was sneak previewed to a teenage audience expecting an RKO musical or screwball comedy, and that the resultant debacle led to a savage recut of the film, but Mérigeau has unearthed the fact that the film was actually shot twice to appease both audiences and the censors – the original version, now lost; and the final version, with a different actor in a key role.

So, 2016 ended with a landmark volume on Robert Bresson, another giant of the cinema; now, in the opening days of 2017, we are given a superb – and smoothly translated – life of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, exploring not only his films, but also his life, and the way in which he viewed the human condition with both the greatest sympathy, as well as a sharply clinical eye.

This book is a must for anyone interested in the cinema – a major accomplishment.

Glenn Kenny: “Is Watching a Movie on a Phone Really So Bad?”

Sunday, January 15th, 2017

Glenn Kenny of The New York Times has an interesting take on cellphone film viewing.

As he writes, “‘People who watch movies on phones (especially if they think they can leave valid critical comments on imdb) should be shot,” the critic Anne Billson declared on Twitter in mid-December. I quote her not to scold her, or to hold her to her word, but to underscore that passions in the format-platform controversies run high.

I’ve already cited, in my first installment of this column, David Lynch’s condemnation — more than a decade old — of The Very Idea of Watching a Movie on a Phone. Over the century-plus of cinema, new ways of watching movies have made film folk antsy. In a sense, it’s the one thing that the money guys and the creatives have fretted over in more or less equal measure. Steven Spielberg was initially wary of having his works put on home video, grumbling about movie theaters being sacred spaces and such.

Martin Scorsese had more optimism, writing in 1989: ‘[H]aving instant access to movies, being able to pick something up and show it at the drop of a hat, is great.’ Much of the work of his nonprofit restoration and preservation concern the Film Foundation is made available on home video, with high-definition formats preferred.

Still, smartphone movie-watching is for many a kind of line in the sand, albeit one that streaming services are obliged to ignore. The whole point of a streaming service is that it makes content available to watch on a panoply of devices, from a big-screen display to a tablet or Nook or Kindle or Galaxy or iPhone. I recently got my first iPhone, largely to put a bunch of streaming services on it (also because I was getting sick of everybody asking me ‘Why do you still have a BlackBerry?’), and dove in.

I thought it would be interesting to watch some 100-year-old Charlie Chaplin pictures on the device. After all, when Chaplin was making his shorts for Keystone and Essanay in the early 20th century, they were not necessarily projected in the cathedrals Mr. Spielberg once spoke of but in intimate, barely appointed nickelodeon theaters and in shortened versions made for penny-in-the-slot single-viewer Mutoscope machines . . .

The Criterion Channel, a part of the new streaming service FilmStruck, offers Chaplin shorts in batches, each a feature-length compilation from a particular period, and nicely restored. They look great on an iPhone — their black-and-white and sometimes sepia tones are nice and crisp, and the action is more than coherent. At 14 or so minutes a short, they’re well-suited to the contracted attention span that holding an iPhone in one’s hand tends to encourage.”

It’s an interesting hypothesis, but I have to disagree, simply quoting the director Roy Ward Baker, who summed up the issue for me, and I think for many others, when he told me in an interview at his London home late one afternoon, shortly before his death, that “one can inspect a film on DVD, but you can’t experience it.” Baker, of course, directed the best movie about the Titanic disaster, A Night to Remember (1958), and had just come from a theatrical screening of the film, as part of a retrospective of his work.

“It just hit me with such impact” he told me. “I’ve seen it many times on television, and thought to myself, ‘that’s a good movie,’ but it didn’t really hit me with same impact as when I first made it until I saw it again in its proper aspect ratio, on a large screen, with an appreciative audience [another thing – and not a small matter either – that’s missing with the cellphone experience].” Of course, our conversation took place long before the advent of the cellphone and video streaming, but the basic concept is still the same – small screen vs. the real thing.

Want a quick viewing of a film? By all means, use a cellphone or whatever else is handy. Want to really see the film? There’s only one way; in a proper theatrical setting, with an audience, in the proper aspect ratio, on a big screen – the format that the movies were designed for. Thomas Edison, as Kenny points out elsewhere in his article, was against theatrical motion picture projection, but since the inception of the cinema, films have been made to be screened in large, theatrical format.

On a cellphone, you’re just getting a fraction of the actual experience.

New Book: A Brief History of Comic Book Movies

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

New Book: A Brief History of Comic Book Movies

Wheeler Winston Dixon and Richard Graham have published a new book, A Brief History of Comic Book Movies (Palgrave Macmillan). These films trace their origins back to the early 1940s, when the first Batman and Superman serials were made. The serials, and later television shows in the 1950s and 60s, were for the most part designed for children.

But today, with the continuing rise of Comic-Con, they seem to be more a part of the mainstream than ever, appealing to adults as well as younger fans. This book examines comic book movies from the past and present, exploring how these films shaped American culture from the post-World War II era to the present day, and how they adapted to the changing tastes and mores of succeeding generations.

Organized in rough chronological order, the book’s five chapters cover Origins, The DC Universe, The Marvel Universe, Animé Films, and Indies and Outliers, examining not only Hollywood films, but European, Asian, and French animated films as well. Literally hundreds of films, directors, and comic book characters are examined in the book, making this a one-stop source for information on this emerging genre.

Cynthia J. Miller calls the volume “engaging and very accessible…its value to readers will continue even as many more films enter into production and distribution,” while David Sterritt adds that “this history of an under-studied field is original, enlightening, and exemplary. I recommend it highly.”

The book is available right now as an e-book or pdf, and will be published in hardcover on February 5, 2017. It’s a solid, comprehensive overview of this new and emerging genre, so check it out if you can. Whether you like it or not, comic book movies rule the world right now, and yet they emerged from the margins of mainstream cinema – read all about it here.

My thanks to Richard Graham for his unstinting help and expertise in this project.

Twin Peaks is Coming Back – Lynch to Direct Entire Series

Monday, January 9th, 2017

David Lynch’s cult series Twin Peaks is coming back for a full season on Showtime.

As James Hibberd wrote in Entertainment Weekly just a few hours ago, “Showtime just surprised the Television Critics Association with a David Lynch press conference for its upcoming revival of Twin Peaks. The reclusive Lynch is directing all 18 hours of the limited series.

The resulting 15-minute Q&A was a rapid-fire flinging of questions from the ballroom of reporters who received Lynch’s maddeningly vague, occasionally illuminating, and sometimes hilariously brief responses.

How does this compare to your other projects, and what should fans expect?

First, it was just the same as all the others. I see it as a film. A film in parts is what people will experience. It was a joyful, fantastic trip with this great crew and cast . . . This word ‘expect’ is a magical word. People expect things, and their expectations are met when they hopefully see the thing.

What’s your process of working with co-writer Mark Frost?

Well, in the beginning, many years ago, Mark and I were as if lost in the wilderness, as it always is in the beginning. Then we seemed to find a mountain and began to climb, and when we rounded the mountain, we entered a deep forest, and going through the forest for a time the trees began to thin, and then coming out of the forest we discovered a small town of Twin Peaks. We got to know the people of Twin Peaks and got to know this mystery. … We discovered this world. And within this world there are other worlds. That’s how it started.

What makes Mark a good co-writer for you?

Mark is very smart. We’re both strong, but both different. We bring to the table different things, but we each understand the other thing. It’s just a good combo for Twin Peaks.

So what’s your process then?

We work together on Skype. Mark lives in Ohio. I live in Hollywood, and we Skype and write together.

What have you been thinking about Twin Peaks over the years?

I’ve often wondered about this beautiful world and characters. Mark asked if I wanted to go back to this world. That’s what got us going again for this one.

What did you appreciate about the original series?

I’ll tell you what I loved: The pilot of Twin Peaks. That for me set the tone. That made the world and the characters for me. I felt really good about that. I just fell into deep, deep love…

You can read the entire interview here – the series premieres this coming May, 2017.

The Four Just Men – Classic British Television

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

Long before the current era of superheroes, The Four Just Men were way ahead of the curve.

The Marvel and DC Universe films may be ruling the box office right now, but more than half a century ago, The Four Just Men ruled British television, constantly criss-crossing the globe to right wrongs, and mete out justice to those who deserved it, without the benefit of superpowers or enormous wealth – just using their wits, and their skills, in the service of humanity.

As Wikipedia accurately notes, “The Four Just Men was a 1959 Sapphire Films production for ITC Entertainment. It ran for one season of 39 half-hour monochrome episodes. The series, loosely based on a series of novels by Edgar Wallace, presents the adventures of four men who first meet while fighting in Italy during the Second World War. The men later reassemble, and decide to fight for justice and against tyranny, using money set aside for the purpose by their late commanding officer.

They operate from different countries: Jeff Ryder (Richard Conte) is a professor of law at Columbia University in New York, Tim Collier (Dan Dailey) is an American reporter based in Paris, Ben Manfred (Jack Hawkins) is a crusading independent MP who works from London and Ricco Poccari (Vittorio De Sica) is an Italian hotelier based in Rome.

The series is unusual in having the four lead actors appear in turn other than in the first episode; one or occasionally two makes a brief appearance in each other’s episode, usually on the phone. Guest stars included Judi Dench, Alan Bates, Leonard Sachs, Patrick Troughton, Donald Pleasence, Richard Johnson, Ronald Howard, Basil Dignam, Roger Delgado, Charles Gray, and Frank Thornton.

At the time Four Just Men was the most ambitious film series yet made for British TV. It was produced by Sapphire Films at Walton Studios, and on location in Britain, France and Italy. None of its four stars had been cast as regulars in a TV series before. Filming on the 39 episodes, each 25 minutes long, began in January 1959, and lasted for five months, using up to seven units in the studio or on location, and producing two or three episodes simultaneously. [Future director] John Schlesinger was credited as exterior unit or second unit director on a number of episodes.”

This, of course, was back when a season of a television series amounted to something – 39 episodes, in fact. All the actors involved were certifiable stars at the time in their respective countries, particularly Jack Hawkins in England and the esteemed director/actor Vittorio De Sica in Italy, thus giving the series an international commercial appeal. But most central to the series’ success – and its recent release on Region 2 DVD – is the sense that someone was out there, watching out for the everyday person, who had no authority or influence.

Thus, in a way, not only do The Four Just Men prefigure the current craze for superheroes, offering hope in an uncertain world, but they also work their will through the actual channels of government and the law, without taking matters into their own hands, or using extra-terrestrial powers. This makes the series all the more relatable. From the opening title sequence – seen above – to the end of each episode, The Four Just Men act on the side of right against the forces of corruption and evil, winning on a human scale, rather than one of exaggerated influence.

As the series’ announcer intones at the start of each episode, “throughout time, there have been men to whom justice is more important than life itself. From these ranks come four men, prepared to fight valiantly on the side of justice wherever the need may be. Joined together in this cause, they are The Four Just Men.” It’s a nice dream- if only they were with us now.

See the intro to the series, as well as some episodes, by clicking here, or on the image above.

Restoring Sir Laurence Olivier’s “Richard III” (1955)

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

Film restoration is one of the essential tasks for the cinema in the 21st century.

In this brief video, Martin Scorsese takes the viewer through the restoration of Oliver’s classic film Richard III in 2013 for release as a Blu-ray disc from Criterion, one of the masterpieces of cinema, shot in gorgeous Technicolor in the VistaVision process in 1955.

As Scorsese demonstrates in the video, the process to bring the film back to its original splendor was long and painstaking, and not helped by the fact that the film was extensively cut during various re-releases from its original running time. This was all the more problematic since in the film, Olivier used a “long take” strategy that meant that any one shot excised from the film also cut significant sections of Shakespeare’s play.

Then, too, the film was shot on various color stocks, and processed at different labs during its initial production, making the task of restoration all the more difficult, and in the places were segments were cut, whole frames of the original negative were destroyed, and had to be recreated digitally during the scanning process.

One thinks – or at least some people think – that film has a sort of permanence, but nothing could be further from the truth. Without assiduous care and attention, films – even relatively recent films such as this – soon fade and eventually cease to exist.

The task was made easier by the fact that the British Film Institute was involved; as someone who has been to the BFI Film Archive, and had the privilege of seeing some of the classic films of there 20th century in their original 35mm format there, including some shot on nitrate film, I can only applaud both the BFI’s efforts to keep restoring “film forever” – that’s now their official motto – and Martin Scorsese, for having such a significant hand in the process.

You can see the video by clicking here, or on the image above; fascinating viewing.

Peter Cushing Resurrected for “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

Saturday, December 17th, 2016

Peter Cushing, the renowned British actor who appeared in the first Star Wars, is back on the screen.

As Kristopher Tapley and Peter Debruge report in Variety, “when audiences flock to multiplexes this weekend to see Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, they’re in for a blast from the past.

The film, which takes place just before the events of George Lucas’ 1977 original installment, brings actor Peter Cushing back to cinematic life through the use of state-of-the-art visual effects wizardry to reprise the role of Grand Moff Tarkin.

A British actor — Guy Henry, star of BBC series Holby City — was employed to portray the character physically on set, while in post-production, his work was replaced with a rather impressive Cushing performance by the artists of Industrial Light & Magic.

It was so impressive, in fact, that Cushing’s former secretary — Joyce Broughton, who oversees his estate and attended the film’s London premiere with her grandchildren — was taken aback emotionally when she saw the creation on screen.

‘When you’re with somebody for 35 years, what do you expect?’ Broughton says. ‘I can’t say any more because I get very upset about it. He was the most beautiful man. He had his own private way of living.’ Broughton, who was bequeathed Cushing’s estate when he died without an heir in 1994, was reticent to go into details about the situation due to a confidentiality agreement she signed with Disney and Lucasfilm. But despite the emotions, she said she was dazzled by the experience of the new film.

‘I have to say, I’m not a Star Wars fanatic, but I did think whoever put it together were absolutely fantastic,’ she says. ‘It’s not just a silly sort of thing. It’s really good!’ Cushing’s digital resurrection was first reported in August of 2015.

A Lucasfilm rep tells Variety that the filmmakers will not be discussing the nuts and bolts of what went into the actor’s reprise until January, in order for audiences to see the film and enjoy it without being spoiled by those details. But the implications raised by the bold achievement, and others like it, are another thing entirely — and they’ve been ringing throughout the industry for decades.

Films like Zelig, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, and Forrest Gump traded in re-creating personalities of yesteryear. On the heels of Gump in 1995, director Robert Zemeckis resurrected Humphrey Bogart with the help of ILM artists for an episode of HBO’s Tales From the Crypt . . .

More recently, in 2012, hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur was brought back to life via hologram for a performance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif. And just last year, Weta effects artists had to manifest much of actor Paul Walker’s performance in Furious 7 after the actor died midway through production in a fatal car accident.

‘We’ve been making photoreal people for quite some time in films,’ says Richard W. Taylor II, a Directors Guild member and former vice-chair of the Visual Effects Society . . . ‘There’s a whole new phenomenon where famous actors are getting themselves scanned in order to provide for their family and their family’s trust in perpetuity, so that they can be recreated in films in the future,’ Taylor says. ‘Or as insurance, if they were injured or if anything happened while they were in a production.’

This technology raises all sorts of fascinating questions for the industry: If an actor declines to appear in a sequel or project, can the filmmakers now find a way to include him or her anyway (the way Dawn of the Planet of the Apes brought back James Franco by recycling deleted scenes from Rise of the Planet of the Apes)? If an actress’ contract protects her from having to shoot a nude scene, could one be created virtually using virtual body doubles?

As for the deceased, California has led the way in protecting the right to control how an actor’s image is used after his or her death. The legislature passed a law in 1984 establishing the postmortem right of publicity and timing them out 50 years after the individual’s death.

The law was a response to a court ruling finding that Bela Lugosi’s heirs had no power to prevent the use of his image in Dracula merchandise. At the urging of the Screen Actors Guild, the legislature has since extended the right to 70 years.”

But as Tapley and Debruge point out, the use of “synthespians” opens up a whole host of ancillary issues. While it’s nice to see Cushing “back” on the screen – and a number of reviewers have noted that it’s odd that one of the best actors in the film died in 1994 – one has to say that despite the general enthusiasm, the technique still really doesn’t work – you can tell that the performer isn’t really there during the shooting, and that the entire performance is being created after the fact.

That said, the publicity factor here can’t be ignored, and of course the estates of actors will certainly welcome these developments, as scanned versions of deceased thespians become more and more prevalent in films. There are numerous other cases not cited in the Variety article; for one example, Oliver Reed being resurrected from the dead to complete Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), when the actor died halfway through shooting from a heart attack. And the technology can only improve.

But still, there’s something chilling here, as the dead walk among us again, seemingly alive, yet actually no longer with us. Nostalgia fans will have a field day with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and the film is already a resounding commercial success, bringing in $140 million in its opening weekend. But what it portends for the future, we’ll have to wait and see. Technology is, of course, transforming everything.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is in theaters now, so see for yourself.

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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