Sunday, 26 October 2008
In which Malcolm McDowell reprises the role of Mick Travis, the unlikely revolutionary schoolboy of if…
It’s four years later and Travis is now a trainee coffee salesman with the knack of always landing on his feet. Presumably this natural jamminess is the reason why he is not banged up for mass murder, but all is not what it seems, as we shall see. So, we follow our hero through a series of increasingly surreal picaresque adventures and mishaps from which Travis, however he may be humiliated or tortured, invariably emerges better off than he was before. Until, eventually, he pushes his luck once too often and ends up in prison. But then, as Ralph Richardson remarks at one point, the gap between the House of Lords and Pentonville Prison is very small indeed.
It might easily have been from an original idea by Fielding or Smollet. I believe that the true inspiration was Voltaire’s Candide, and that fits for it is a powerful political satire of its time and one which – thinking of Osborne and Mandelson on the yacht – is just as applicable today even if it dates from the days of Tiny Rowland’s Lonrho and the unacceptable face of capitalism. It’s also hard not to see a parallel with Evelyn Waugh. Travis’s decline and fall is not at all unlike that of Paul Pennyfeather.
This is a big film – over three hours long – and it’s baggy and sprawling, but it’s never dull. Its scale only serves to underline the monstrosity of the corruption and exploitation that it satirizes. There’s also a fabulous soundtrack by Alan Price to hold the attention. Price and his ensemble appear initially as a kind of Greek chorus, stopping the flow to give a detached musical commentary. In a typically surreal touch though, Price and his band become an integral part of the action. (And if that weren’t enough, we find in the closing scenes Lindsay Anderson auditioniong Mick Travis for the lead role in his film if… and at this point we’ve left the realms of Voltaire and Waugh and plunged into the bizarre world of Flann O’Brien.
It’s all quite bonkers, of course, and quite magnificent. A wonderful film.
Sunday, 12 October 2008
Despite what we might want to believe, social revolutions are seldom if ever triggered by a single event, instigated by a single individual, or completed within the space of a single year. Western society had been turning itself inside out since at least 1945, possibly since 1918. But looking back, one might recognise 1968 as the year when western society had to acknowledge that it could never be the same again. Event after event underlined the crisis – the Paris uprisings, Grosvenor Square, the Prague Spring and its brutal suppression, the Chicago Democratic Convention, all with Vietnam providing the soundtrack. And before any of these events happened, Lindsay Anderson was filming if…
It looks like a school story, right up to the shocking climax, but it is transparently allegorical. A boys public school as a microcosm of British culture, of the old order that must now fall. And in two parallel stories we follow two of the boys who are formed by their environment. First there is Jute, a naive new boy, gradually being assimilated and accepted into the culture. And then there’s Mick Travis, a sixth-former whose non-comforming instincts begin with growing a moustache over the summer (but keeping it well hidden from authority until he can shave it off), and are pushed by oppression and persection into taking a bloody revenge on the school and the establishment figures who run it.
Something was certainly in the air in that turbulent year. It was something inextricably linked with youth: a generation no longer prepared to sit and watch the follies of its elders being continued into perpetuity and which actively rose against it. It was futile, of course, if total revolution was its aim, but nothing would ever be the same again.
This is a quite magnificent film, one that captures the 1968 mood perfectly, and it should be ranked up there with the very best. The biggest disgrace is that only very recently has it been available on DVD.
Sunday, 5 October 2008
Long before there was James Bond, in an age when the cinema was still a novelty and the enemy was Kaiser Bill, there was Richard Hannay, suave hero of John Buchan’s riproaring yarns. Buchan may or may not have realised that his brand of muscular adventure was perfect fodder for the film industry but she sure scored a bullseye. All that was needed to make it memorable was the budding talent of Alfred Hitchcock. Now why would somebody want to make a film with slippery Germans in 1935 of all years? Just as the year before Robert Graves had written a Roman epic also full of slippery Germans? Was something going on that not everybody was seeing properly? It’s even updated to the 1930s.
So, a mysterious and very frightened woman takes refuge in Hannay’s flat. Before the sun rises she’s dead with Hannay’s breadknife in her back, and there the fun begins. There are spies and there are establishment figures of decidedly fuzzy loyalty. There’s a dramatic escape by train including an episode in a compartment with an unknown woman, and there’s a dramatic confrontation in a wild and lonely place. A quarter of a century on, Hitchcock will do much the same thing again, in colour and with the inimitable Cary Grant in the lead, as North by North West. It will be a great film but it won’t be half as charming as this one.