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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.

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.

Robert Day’s She (1965)

Sunday, December 4th, 2016

Ursala Andress and John Richardson in the climactic scene of Robert Day’s version of She (1965).

As Susan Doll writes on TCM.com, “She, H. Rider Haggard’s novel of a lost world in the jungles of Africa, was destined for cinema almost from the beginning. Haggard published his novel in 1887, and by 1908, a one-reeler of the story had been directed by Edwin S. Porter for Thomas Edison’s company.

In 1917, a longer interpretation was released by Fox Film starring forgotten actress Valeska Suratt, promoted in publicity materials as the Vampire Woman. Eight years later, an English version surfaced with Betty Blythe as the title character. Prior to Hammer’s production, the most well-known interpretation of She was produced by Merian C. Cooper for RKO in 1935. Cooper changed the setting to the frozen north and cast Helen Gahagan as She in her only film role. The material was ripe for an update when Hammer took on the project in 1963.

[Day's] film opens in Palestine just after World War I. Three adventure-loving war buddies, Leo Vincey, Holly, and Holly’s valet, Job, are enjoying themselves in a bar when a sultry local named Ustane [Rosenda Monteros] approaches them. Hammer stalwart Peter Cushing plays Holly with his typical charisma and charm, while Bernard Cribbins complements him as his right-hand man Job–a fitting name for a character who is defined by his devotion to his employer.

John Richardson costars as leading man Leo Vincey, though he lacks the magnetism of Cushing. Unknown to the men, Ustane secretly serves She, called Ayesha, and the young maiden recognizes Vincey as the reincarnation of her queen’s long-dead lover, Kallikrates. Ayesha had murdered Kallikrates 2,000 years earlier for being unfaithful to her, but she pines for him regardless.

Based on Ustane’s story, the trio is lured by the idea of a quest for a lost civilization and set out on a journey across the desert. They soon discover they are lost, though they are not without the creature comforts of the upper-crust adventurer. Job the valet, who never forgets his place, serves Holly and Leo their whiskey despite the dire circumstances. The trio reunites with Ustane in her desert village, where her father rules a lost tribe who guard the entrance to Kuma, Ayesha’s kingdom.

The three adventurers enter Kuma, which had been the scheming queen’s long-term plan all along. Ustane has fallen in love with Leo, but Leo has become entranced by Ayesha, known variously as She Who Waits and She Who Must Be Obeyed. Ayesha wants Leo to step into her eternal flame so the two can be united for all eternity, but her priest, Billali, played by Hammer legend Christopher Lee, is jealous of the newcomer. A beautiful but selfish despot, Ayesha does not care about her subjects, including Ustane. She foolishly executes several of her subjects, causing an uprising and complicating the situation for the adventurers.

She was the first film from Hammer to be built around a female star. Tall and statuesque, Ursula Andress was a perfect choice to play Ayesha, though in retrospect she claims to have disliked the role. Andress has been criticized by reviewers for her icy demeanor and aloof detachment, but these characteristics proved beneficial for playing the steely-eyed Ayesha. Costumed in a selection of warm-colored, Grecian-styled gowns and gold jewelry, she glows onscreen, partly due to the flattering, high-key lighting of cinematographer Harry Waxman.

Born in Switzerland to German parents, the exotic-looking beauty spoke with an accent, which Hammer’s producers found too distracting. Andress’s entire role was then re-voiced and dubbed over by an actress named Monica Van Der Syl, who mimicked a slight Swiss accent so audiences did not suspect the truth. John Richardson’s lines were also dubbed in post-production by the actor himself, perhaps to give his line readings an added emphasis, since he tended to be overshadowed by Cushing and Lee.”

All of which is true, but one should also consider James Bernard’s stunningly beautiful score, as well as Harry Waxman’s superb cinematography. As is usual, Cushing and Lee deliver entirely convincing and authoritative performances, and though the film is a colonialist relic of the highest order, its vision of the risks and allure of potential immortality are sinuously effective. Though She has been remade several times since, the 1965 version remains the definitive rendition of Haggard’s novel.

If you haven’t seen it, seek it out – compelling, brutal, and fascinating.

Terence Fisher and Peter Cushing On The Set

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

Peter Cushing and director Terence Fisher on the set of Frankenstein Created Woman in 1966.

This completely silent, unedited, straight-from-the-camera newsreel footage from British Pathé News documents a day’s work on one of the last first-rate Hammer horror films, and one of the last Hammer films shot at Bray Studios, Windsor, Berkshire, where the company created some of their greatest Gothic thrillers in the late 1950s up to the mid 1960s. There’s really little more to say; we see Cushing in the beginning posing for the camera, ostensibly going over his script; greeting actor Susan Denberg; and then on set with Thorley Walters and director Fisher (above, right) during shooting.

Fisher, as was always his habit, kept a very low profile on the set, gently coaxing the actors through the script while at the same time quietly and efficiently fighting the clock to comply with Hammer’s legendarily frugal shooting schedules. I wish there was more of this material, but at least we have this – there’s a commercial in front of it, it seems, but there’s nothing I can do about that. Nice to see Fisher and Cushing in color, working on one of their last truly successful films, though even here, it was spoiled by producer interference when a plot element was added that didn’t fit in with the overall material – but that’s another story.

Click here, or on the image above, to see this short silent newsreel.

The Skull

Saturday, September 3rd, 2011

Patrick Wymark and Peter Cushing contemplate The Skull

Those who are in the mood for an atmospheric and intelligent horror film could do much worse than checking out The Skull, a 1965 horror film directed by Freddie Francis from a script by Robert Bloch, based on his short story “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade.” Recently released in an immaculate DVD in both regular and Blu-ray formats, in its original Techniscope / Technicolor aspect ratio, and boasting a cast that includes Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Patrick Magee, Patrick Wymark, Nigel Green and Jill Bennett, with music by avant-garde symphonic composer Elisabeth Lutyens, The Skull is perhaps Francis’ masterpiece as a director, and if you haven’t seen it — well, what are you waiting for?

Those who are looking for gore will be disappointed, but those who can appreciate an intelligent and superbly photographed film — the last 30 minutes are absolutely wordless, consisting only of a series of ever more ominous images as the skull takes possession of those who would trifle with it — recall the best of Val Lewton’s 1940s films, and remain as arresting and evocative as when they were first presented on the screen. Francis also photographed numerous films for other directors, including David Lynch’s Elephant Man, Dune, and The Straight Story – this is the work of a master craftsman, who won two Academy Awards for his cinematography on Sons and Lovers and Glory. As a director, his work is hard-edged, brutal, and always stylish.

Here’s the trailer for the film – now get the DVD before they’re all gone.

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.

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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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