Nineteen forty-seven is frequently cited as the year that saw the release of some of film noir’s most outstanding offerings, including Out of the Past, Brute Force, Crossfire, Nightmare Alley, Nora Prentiss, Body and Soul, Kiss of Death, and The Unsuspected. But 1947 was known for more than Tyrone Power turning into a geek or Hume Cronyn getting tossed into a sea of angry convicts.
As a belated Christmas present to myself, I invested in a copy of ITV’s David Lean Collection, a boxset that contains the great director’s British output (before he became a global commodity). Most of its ten titles I’ve seen before. A few – Blithe Spirit, Brief Encounter, Great Expectations – are firm favourites and a real pleasure to own in such beautifully restored formats. Not even the best film makers get away without the occasional lesser piece; Lean always walked a fine line between magnificent spectacle and over-indulgence and for my first Tuesday’s Forgotten Film entry, I’ve picked a title from this collection that spills into the latter.
The Sound Barrier was one of those rarest of Lean experiences – a first time viewing. I can kind of see why. All the film’s credentials are present and correct – Terence Rattigan screenplay, Ralph Richardson and Ann Todd on the bill, access to some of the top aircraft of the day – but the end result doesn’t quite succeed. There are two basic reasons for this.
The first is that it’s hogwash. Absolute tripe. Attempts to break the sound barrier were the stuff of Cold War secrecy, meaning few people going to see this film in Britain would have known that it had already been breached in America five years previously. At the film’s première in America, Chuck Yeagar – the pilot credited with achieving supersonic speeds in the Bell X-1 – put in a public appearance, undermining The Sound Barrier’s credibility and turning a ‘worst kept secret’ into public knowledge. Yeagar went further, pointing out that the film’s method of successfully breaking the sound barrier would never have worked out in reality, leading only to another pilot’s death. And indeed, to a twenty first century viewer’s eyes, even one whose knowledge of aerospace engineering extends to the occasional episode of Horizon, it does seem fanciful.
Rattigan’s screenplay was based on newspaper articles of the time and followed loosely the story of the de Havilland Aircraft Company. Its founder and designer, Geoffrey de Havilland, was famous for his cutting edge, experimental innovations, one of which led to the tragic death of his son. A couple of de Havilland’s creations appear in the film, as does the family loss, though the film’s victim – Denholm Elliott’s callow Christopher – who dies from inexperience and nerves appears to be a far cry from the real Captain de Havilland (his death came a year after he’d been awarded the OBE). Rattigan’s work led to an Oscar nomination, in particular for its ‘semi-documentary’ style. A pity that its premise rested on factual inaccuracies, not to mention the expense for the approach he took, which was a surprisingly boring and mostly tension free film (Reason Number Two).
Some critics have blamed Nigel Patrick, the actor playing hotshot pilot Tony Garthwaite. Tony’s wartime adventures end in marriage to Susan (Todd) and a job in the family business as a test pilot for her father, aerospace innovator John Ridgefield (Richardson). Intended to be the very epitome of flying derring-do, thus living up the film’s fantastic tagline ‘They lived and loved, like the jets they flew – fast and dangerous!’, Tony turns out to be a bit of a charisma-free zone. So stiff is his upper lip that we never really learn what he feels about taking off in his father in-law’s increasingly experimental flying machines. In doing so, Patrick hands the emotional core to Todd, whilst Richardson walks off with the acting chops as the driven, apparently detached Ridgefield.
The Sound Barrier’s first half passes largely without incident. Signs of the tension between Susan and her father are teased at, whilst Ridgefield and Tony look at engines, marvelling at the loud noises they make as the latter becomes the kind of son he clearly doesn’t believe has much much of in Christopher. It’s only following Christopher’s inevitable death that the narrative begins to show any sign of flagging into life. Whilst Susan grieves, the utter lack of emotional involvement shown by Ridgefield is astonishing. The deaths don’t seem to matter, even now. All that does is the science, pushing the limits. In a couple of symbolically obvious but neat scenes, Ridgefield can be found late at night in his home observatory, his telescope fixed on distant galaxies as a reflection of his restless, limitless imagination.
Elsewhere, we get to see why several planes earned credits of their own in the title sequence. Lean and cinematographer Jack Hildyard were clearly briefed to turn their shoot into a love affair with air travel. Shots linger over fuselage in a way they rarely do for Todd, the director’s wife at the time. Far more impressive is the in-air shooting, some of which includes archive footage but from which it’s possible to get a sense of the speed even those pre-supersonic jets possessed. Loveliest of all are the distance shots of planes rising, gliding and diving through the clouds, the perspective making them appear to be the tiny bugs fighting nature that they no doubt in reality were.
The Academy recognised The Sound Barrier’s sound recording achievement, handing over the Oscar for a series of engine roars that hint at the raw power being dealt with. The sonic boom, when it comes, is a moment of real triumph. By this stage, however, it feels like the reward at the end of an endurance test. Perhaps there was something here for lovers of air technology, the camera’s fetish with all the body work and power that – whilst not as obvious as Top Gun – detracts from the plot. Not that there is much of a story, such elements playing distinct second fiddle to the planes, which are clearly the real stars here. A shame also that none of comes close to the truth.
Author: Patricia Highsmith
Year of Publication: 1950
Guardian 1,000 Novels Category: Crime
Over the weekend, I discovered and spent many happy hours reading The Criterion Contraption, one blogger’s attempt to review each and every film released as part of the Criterion Collection. To my shame, I own only a single Criterion disc (Hoop Dreams, which as you know is excellent), though the number of titles on the list that I covet pretty much covers the entire spectrum of their range. ‘Must do better,’ I said to myself as I worked through the site’s history, leaping from the French arthouse to Michael Bay’s Armageddon and then coming across The Most Dangerous Game, a 1932 RKO release that I didn’t know a lot about, but from the stills looked right up my street.
As it happens, the film in its entirety is available (legally, I might add) on Youtube. Instead of doing the right thing and ordering the Criterion, I put my rubbish Broadband connection (too far from the exchange, etc) to the test and watched it, immersed in just over an hour of action-adventure by the people who brought us King Kong. Historians will know that The Most Dangerous Game was filmed in the same studio, using the same sets, the same crew and double-billing a number of the actors. Intended to be a support quickie to the tale of a fifty-foot gorilla, it cost just over $200k and turned a massive profit for its studio.
Even given its slender running time, The Most Dangerous Game had to pad out its source material to feature film length. It’s based on a celebrated short story by Harvard graduate, Richard Connell, whose 8,000 word yarn was originally published in 1924 and remains a fine example of the form (I should know; as soon as I watched the film I paid the princely sum of 77p for the Kindle edition and read it in a single evening). To add an extra dimension to Connell’s text, the film shoehorned in a couple of members from the King Kong cast, most notably Fay Wray, who plays your damsel in distress, and as in her more famous role proved that few damsels were indeed so good at being distressed. With the story’s hero now having to save his woman as well as himself, the tension in the adaptation was cranked up that extra notch and turned out, in every way, to be a success.
All of which calls to mind another translation of book to screen, Strangers on a Train, and the changes script writers have to effect in order to make it work. In 1950, Alfred Hitchcock was dogged by recent failure and in need of some love, both critically and by the public. He bought the rights to Patricia Highsmith’s debut novel, Strangers on a Train, for $7,500 and employed Raymond Chandler – and later Czenzi Ormonde - to turn the text into a workable thriller. As with many of Hitchcock’s adaptations, little remains from the novel, save the central hook. A new character is introduced (Anne’s sister, Barbara, played by the director’s own daughter) thanks to her resemblance to an early murder victim. Guy Haines’s occupation changes from architect to amateur tennis star, which could be for several reasons, though I would love to think it’s for the moment when the people in the stand become a sea of heads turning left and right with the direction of the ball, apart from the perfectly still Bruno, whose attention is fixed on Guy. The biggest differences come in the second half. In the film, Guy emerges as the wronged hero, fighting against time to clear his name and stop the psychotic Bruno from framing him for murder. The guilt-laden later chapters of the book – and the events therein – are more or less excised, and the gay subtext (even on the ‘British’ version that I watched last night) is altered to become a one-way fixation.
Not that any of this makes Strangers on a Train a poor film. Hitch got exactly what he wanted from it, turning out a taut thriller that was loved by pretty much everyone. The shorter running time is an exercise in dramatic tension, certainly in the later scenes when Guy’s tennis match intercut with Bruno’s fevered efforts to retrieve his lighter from a drain remains a masterclass in the art. Hitchcock may be better remembered for his late 50s/early 60s films, but if someone ever wants to know why he was called the ‘Master of Suspense’ you could do a lot worse than sit them down, fill up the popcorn bowls and play the movie.
It is, however, a very different animal from Highsmith’s novel, one that was kicked about by a series of writers who were openly scornful of a first timer’s piece of work. Chandler called it a ‘silly little story’, whilst Whitfield Cook, who Hitchcock employed to produce a first treatment, fundamentally altered Bruno’s character, making him a much more charming beast than in the book. Cook’s work also teased out much of the narrative’s gay subtext. This was only hinted at in the novel, but on the screen it becomes the focus of Bruno’s motivation. Cleverly brought to the fore too was the theme of opposites, made more oblique in the film, whereas the book makes readers work to the end of the story to appreciate how Guy and Bruno begin as completely different sides of the coin, only to become the same by its close.
The homosexual elements of the novel are completely understandable as an undertone. After all, Highsmith was a gay writer working at a time when homosexuality was one rung higher on the American acceptability measure than being a Communist or Nazi war criminal. And yet it’s a key factor in Strangers on a Train. There’s little doubt to 21st century eyes that Bruno, the pathetic, alcoholic mother’s boy, is fixated on Guy, but questions must be asked of Mr Haines. It’s clear that the breakdown of his marriage with Miriam has much to do with a lack of passion, whilst his courtship with Anne appears to be all about being involved with a woman who has the right connections and status, indeed Anne’s own interest seems to depend on Guy’s rising star in the architectural world. Once Bruno kills Miriam, fulfilling his side of the ‘exchange murders’ bargain, Guy doesn’t do what any normal citizen might and instantly shop him, instead falling into a stupor of guilt, the pressure rising to such an extent that he ultimately goes after Bruno’s father.
The book’s first few chapters are all told from Guy’s perspective, but later resumes the tale as seen in Bruno’s eyes. From him, we realise that not only is he psychotic with a completely skewed idea of reality, but that Guy isn’t an especially nice guy either. Superior and snobbish, the architect snubs Bruno at every opportunity and practically pushes him into exerting his obsession by murdering Miriam. There’s very little about Bruno – whose chapters are told through a fog of booze – that’s likeable, but similarly there’s a pathetic and yearning streak to his character. He just wants to be loved, by Guy, and the other stranger refuses to help from the start.
But Bruno does get his revenge, and not in making Haines kill his father in one of the book’s most thrilling scenes – the other, Miriam’s murder, is just as taut – that resolves nothing from either character’s perspective. Over time, Guy finds that he’s becoming Bruno, just as inadequate and needy, to such an extent that he tries to save Bruno when he falls overboard during a sailing cruise. By then, Bruno has gifted Guy with another curse – the detective Gerard, who’s been trailing him since his father’s murder. At first, Gerard’s investigations are routine, but as he finds – through his pursuit – Bruno chasing Guy more and more and comes across the latter’s connection with Miriam, he pieces together the possibility that each has committed the other’s crime. Incidentally, with his scruffy, hangdog manner as beautifully described by the author, Gerard might very well have been the template for TV detective, Columbo, the words ‘Just one more thing’ hanging from his lips as he methodically unravels the so-called perfect crime.
The Hitchcock film aside, a further adaptation of Strangers on a Train was produced for the radio. While it followed the book’s plot much more closely, it again fell short of making Guy anything but the story’s hero, troubled by Bruno but essentially decent. The novel’s brilliance lies in the fact that Guy is no hero, that he’s just one of the narrative’s succession of ultimately unlikeable people destined for an unhappy end.
TSPDT Ranking: 2012 (#998) 2011 (#999), 2010 (#961)
Strangers when we Meet is a melodrama that invites us into a forgotten world – the middle class American suburbia of 1960, a realm of flat-topped kids, working dads and stay-at-home domestic goddesses. It’s been recreated with an almost aching faithfulness by AMC’s Mad Men, and while the action in both takes place in separate cities (Los Angeles and New York), it would be easy to believe that Matthew Weiner derived much inspiration from this film. Even the pivotal marital relationship between Don and Betty Draper riffs on the lives of Larry and Eve Coe, with its frustrations and secrets leading to unbearable tension that spills beyond the family home.
As Mad Men viewers know, Don and Betty’s problems belong in a much darker pool than the troubles experienced by Kirk Douglas and Barbara Rush. The latter’s marriage nearly breaks down as a consequence of his affair with Maggie Gault (Kim Novak), a beautiful neighbour who first meets Larry via the ritual dismissal of their children onto the school bus. He’s a self-employed architect, so unlike most of the suburb’s married men can easily afford the time to drive his child to the stop. At the film’s start, he’s accepting a commission from Roger Altar (Ernie Kovacs), an up and coming novelist who wants him to design and build his dream home. Larry’s imaginative schematics and his attempt to create something unique persuades Altar to make his next book the novel he really wishes to write rather than produce to order, and in turn Larry realises his creative spirit is being suppressed by Eve, who needles him to keep putting the bread on the table and accept uninspiring jobs. Unfulfilled and bored, Larry sees in Maggie someone who can fire his imagination. She feeds off his vision for Altar’s house, whilst in her own home she suffers from a lack of passion at the remote hands of her nice but dull husband.
Roger’s house goes from a hillside plot to a vision in timber, and Larry embarks on a steamy affair with Maggie that leads to clandestine meetings, whispered telephone calls and longing looks. Another neighbour, the assiduous Felix (Walter Matthau) figures out what’s happening, lets on to Larry that he knows and uses this knowledge as a pretext to move in on Eve.
So far, so soap opera. Several elements elevate Strangers when we Meet into something more than its plot summary, beginning with the quality of the actors. Douglas is absolutely convincing as Larry and does fine in a role that contains little action but heaps of tension. The chemistry between him and Novak is there from the start – note how little physical contact he has with Barbara Rush, and Novak with Ken (John Bryant), yet together they appear ready to tear each other’s clothes off. Kovacs is surprisingly sympathetic as Altar, and Matthau excels in a lecherous turn as the supposedly decent neighbour with the darkest imagination of them all.
For the era in which it was made, the film’s central affair is treated with little judgement, indeed one is encouraged to feel for the pair, trapped in their compartmentalised existences and with only each other for release. Their story is given the full widescreen treatment and shot superbly, stuffing the screen with such lovely images as waves crashing outside the bar where Larry and Maggie are about to begin their relationship, and the sight of Maggie and Ken entering the Coes’ residence to join a party, shown at a distance while Larry watches from the picture’s foreground, revellers between them as though to emphasise the obstacles – physical, social and moral – in their way. George Duning’s romantic score is as lavish as their world, one crammed with material possessions yet empty.
But if the film belongs to anyone, it’s Kim Novak. Director Richard Quine had worked with her the year before and seemed to ‘get her’ as well as anybody, indeed they were engaged at one stage. In Strangers when we Meet, every scene she’s in is a treat, a vision that has this writer losing all sense of decorum and typing sweaty platitudes like ‘Maggie – the ice blonde beauty whose remote exterior masked a passionate core!’ before returning dizzily to reality. In a key, pre-affair scene, she dresses provocatively for her husband and tries to seduce him, an effort that, if returned, may stop her from falling into Larry’s arms. Unfortunately Ken is too dull (or possibly a closet gay, as other critics have suggested) to fall for any such sordidness and the moment fades, presumably to the contemporary soundtrack of a theatre of viewers screaming at him to stop being so flipping stupid and do his husbandly duty.
Sure enough, the steam between Larry and Maggie rises, but one feels with very different levels of enthusiasm. Larry wants her from the start and makes all the early moves, yet once they’ve been seeing each other for a time and she begins to open up emotionally, the attachment she’s prepared to offer and what he’s willing to take starts to jar. Maggie tells him she’s effectively damaged goods, referring to a previous incident involving another man and he’s disgusted, despite demanding the story, not to mention his business with her. When the affair ends, it’s at Altar’s completed house. Larry gets the closure on his terms, resolving the affair with his wife and jetting off to Hawaii, and one gets the impression that it’s Maggie – still in love and left behind – who’s going to suffer. The closing shot is of her driving away, in tears, her gorgeousness having started the affair and even opening another door as one of the building site’s construction workers gives her a cheeky smile. In Maggie’s case, it turns out the beauty for which she’s complimented is a curse. Ultimately, it only caused her pain, in this man’s world where Larry gets a chance to start afresh.
Author: John Steinbeck
Year of Publication: 1939
Guardian 1,000 Novels Category: State of the Nation
The first novel I took on as part of my attempt to complete the 1,000 novels challenge is one of the 110 I’ve actually read beforehand. My original journey west with the Joads took place in my early twenties, a pre-Internet age of constant poring through books. I knew about The Grapes of Wrath, of course. Most people do, even if the book isn’t as prominent in British curriculi as it is in the States (GCSE English Literature students are often hit with Of Mice and Men, however, to their varied levels of pleasure – I’m told it’s more or less a purpose-built course text). Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize following its publication; the 1940 film, directed by John Ford, took a number of awards, including an Oscar for Ford himself.
I remember struggling a little with the ‘Okie’ dialect on my first reading, but found the novel to be fairly easy-going. I also got the feeling of anger that fuelled the book’s writing, a rage that compelled Steinbeck to complete the work in just five months. A number of passages read as though he was pummelling the typewriter in righteous indignation. This came through clearly in every other chapter, the shorter passages that left the central family to focus on a general narrative of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and the thousands of affected families who migrated to California in search of work, in fact Steinbeck referred to these parts as his ‘generals.’ Each slice of ‘general’ offered an overview of the story before returning to the Joads and describing their related experiences. It was tough going, not least because I was reading about events that happened sixty years before in the world’s most advanced and richest nation.
My second attempt was no less harrowing. The Grapes of Wrath focuses on a single family from Oklahoma at the time when the Dust Bowl made a desert of their farmland. Driven off their farm by landowners who realise that it’s more economical to use tractors with single drivers than support entire communities, and driven by handbills offering the promise of well paid work in California, the Joads set off in their beaten jalopy, the truck piled high with possessions and people. These are simple folk, rounded and imperfect. The novel’s hero is Tom, just released from prison for homicide and catching up with his family the day before they’re due to set off. He’s joined by former preacher, Jim Casy, a man who’s lost his faith after sleeping with members of his church and now seeks to learn from life. There’s Ma and Pa (we never find out Ma’s real name – she’s just Ma), Granpa and Granma, the self-loathing drunk Uncle John, and Rose of Sharon, Tom’s married and pregnant sister.
That the family is ill equipped for a long journey becomes clear from the start. They have no choice, naturally, and there are various warnings along the stops on Route 66 that California isn’t the land of milk and honey for which they hope. Both grandparents die en route, unable to live when they’re prised from the land where they’ve spent all their years. The older brother leaves them along the way also, rather than face what awaits them in the west. They struggle through the desert, their antique car barely able to cope with both the trek and the weight of its many occupants, and sure enough, California is far, far, far from the end of their troubles.
The book’s second half covers the Joads’ arrival in California and their eventual unravelling. At its heart, The Grapes of Wrath is about greed. The family soon learn that their ‘ticket’ to a better life – the handbill requesting 800 people to work – is nothing more than a trap. Thousands of leaflets have been printed, luring many more willing workers than required, which means the corporate farmers can drive down wages and turn free people into starving slaves. Drifting to where the work is, finding a slew of short-term jobs along the way and surviving hand to mouth, the Joads slowly fall apart. Even Ma, the matriarch of the family, can’t stop the process. The novel ends with our protagonists as desperate as ever, yet capable of life-saving acts of kindness and sacrifice, as revealed in its devastating close.
The film adaptation sticks closely to the events within the book during its first half, only to climax on a more upbeat, chest-thumping note. Ma has kept the family together; in a rousing speech she tells of their status as the People, indomitable and unlickable. Tom, played in the film by Henry Fonda, leaves the Joads with a similarly noble monologue. There is a claim that the ending of the book was too controversial to be adapted, yet the rearranging of the California-based plot to give the film a more optimistic close suggests an effort not to repeat Steinbeck’s downbeat conclusion. One knows the celluloid Joads will be okay, that they’ve been given reasons to live and even thrive. But this doesn’t happen in the book. Through no fault of their own and in a world where bad things happen to good people all the time, the family faces defeat. It’s a note that’s as relevant now as when The Grapes of Wrath was written.
TSPDT Ranking: 2011 (#1000), 2010 (#976)
The first half of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill was released six years after his previous directorial offering, Jackie Brown. In the intervening years, he’d been planning a war film that would eventually turn out to be Inglourious Basterds, and spent an age putting tother his vengeance fantasy that also consumed the life of its star, Uma Thurman. Conceived as a single entity, the bloated running time of Kill Bill led to meetings with Miramax chief, Harvey Weinstein, which would split it into two segments. Accusations of maximising the return from a project that was running considerably over budget whilst struggling to keep its R rating were obvious, yet the decision probably helped. Tarantino now didn’t have to lose so much footage to the cutting process as he could release two two-hour films, whilst the individual volumes developed distinct identities that helped consistency. Volume 2 would be the more introspective piece that answered all the questions raised by its first part, allowing Volume 1 to concentrate fully on the over-arching revenge theme and action set-pieces.
The two volumes were also distinct in terms of their influences. Both parts referenced western and eastern cinema, yet the second, largely America-based film lent on Leone and Morricone whilst Volume One features a raft of homages to and riffs on Japanese cinema. Indeed, this is either a good or bad thing, depending on one’s overall feeling for Kill Bill. Those who like it dig the various homages laden within its reels, from Bruce Lee’s yellow and black tracksuit from Game of Death that the Bride wears, to the presence of Sonny Chiba, snatches of music and dialogue from various bits of movie arcania, and entire themes and plotlines lifted from elsewhere. The naysayers have it that the film is nothing more than a grab-bag of the latter, as though Kill Bill is the dramatic equivalent of those worthless Epic/Scary/Date Movie comedies that don’t so much satirise other films as ape them, so the only humour involved is based on recognition of the original.
The claim is that Volume 1 has no dramatic weight. It’s a series of scenes and set pieces, cobbled together by a film maker in love with cinema and wanting nothing more than to recreate his favourite moments. That argument has some resonance for viewers who see the Bride as devoid of substance because she’s simply a vengeance machine, or who rail against the untraditional pacing of Kill Bill, which starts on a high with the Vernita Green fight, dips into the lengthy Hattori Hanzo sequence with its philosophical, low tension mood, only to climb sharply into the thrilling Blue Leaves showdown. I imagine that hardcore fans of eastern cinema, who’ve grown up on many of the same films that Tarantino watched and was inspired by, may very well be underwhelmed, yet to suggest that Kill Bill is little more than a lazy compilation of reference points without worth as a free-standing piece is surely harsh in the extreme. That said, the film marked the last, overwhelming critical height enjoyed by its director. The cracks were beginning to show in his mutual love-in with the reviewing classes, with some suggesting that the gap between referencing and outright pastiche was becoming narrow, let alone criticism of his ‘indulgences.’ It wasn’t quite time for the backlash. This would come several years later with Death Proof, but the signs of discontent started here.
In Kill Bill’s opening instalment, Thurman’s character is known simply as the Bride. Instances when she or others say her name are conspicuously bleeped out, as though there’s some great secret to be uncovered in revealing her identity. Of course, anonymous protagonists in the movies are nothing new and in the Bride’s case add layers of intrigue. By the end of the film, we know (i) she was the subject of a vicious assassination attempt (ii) whilst wearing a wedding dress and being heavily pregnant. Who she was marrying, what happened to her child and why anyone would want to kill her is kept hidden. What matters is the revenge story it provokes, and how much you care about any of this depends on the emotional investment you’re willing to place in this killing machine, this yellow haired warrior. By the time she’s dispatched an army of trained sword fighters in Japan, for no other reason than the chance to take out O-Ren Ishii, it seems clear that she’ll never give up, but it’s Uma Thurman’s performance that really counts. An actor whose career is littered with frankly poor choices, she’s electrifying in Kill Bill. She needs to be, given the camera is on her such a lot (apart from several interludes, in fact), yet she’s worth the trouble. All the pain of her lost child, the minor triumph when she discovers the Pussy Wagon, her fatigue during the Blue Leaves fight, all of it is etched on her face. If we didn’t believe in her quest, the film would simply fall apart under the weight of its own silliness, and Uma’s thankfully up to the job.
The film’s notorious anime sequence was commissioned to keep the censors onside. Personally, I hoped the reasons would be stylistic, because it certainly works, employing an ingrained Japanese method to tell O-Ren Ishii’s back-story, one that involves the character almost literally being baptised in blood. But apparently not. Scenes depicting the eight-year old O-Ren quivering under the bed and stifling a whimper as her parents are gorily killed before herself dispatching their murderer several years later, straddling him whilst sticking him with a sword and only able to gain access in the first place because he’s a paedophile, are strong stuff; very little is left to the imagination. The sight of Boss Matsumoto, penetrated and clenching his teeth so violently that they snap off in his mouth, is a lingering image. More impressive is the grown-up O-Ren assassinating a visiting diplomat, shooting him from long range and we follow the bullet as it enters his cranium and leaves a bloody cavity. It would be virtually impossible to make this moment look better if it had been shot in real-life, let alone the special effect costs it would have incurred, and anime was made for this kind of inventive filming.
The same motivation applied to the lengthy showdown at the House of Blue Leaves segment, when the film, for no apparent stylistic reason, turns monochrome. Too much blood, especially of the rich, flowing red kind, and lose your R rating, was the guidance, which also did for Sofie Fatale’s other arm. In the uncut Japanese version, poor Sofie has her right arm dismembered as well as her left while the Bride tortures her for information. Most editions – including my own – don’t show this, but the loss of both arms is implied in the scene where Sofie is unceremoniously hurled down a snowy bank towards the hospital.
Other moments in Kill Bill simply stand as movie magic, little stylistic hints that there’s a bigger world beyond the frames of the film itself. These include the shot of Earl McGraw’s dashboard, with its row of sunglasses (presumably a pair for every occasion), the use of the theme tune from Ironside, the way passengers in Japanese airspace can keep yakuza swords by their seats as their planes descend through blood-red sunsets toward Tokyo. And those are just some of mine. Vol. 1 might not be the best Tarantino film. It may not even be the better of the Kill Bill halves. If there’s a lingering sense of disappointment that surrounds it, especially within critical circles, it’s possibly the feeling that such a talented director chose to blow years of his ability on a film that purports to be nothing more than a blast. But what a blast.
In 2009, the Guardian published its list of 1,000 novels that must be read. As a confirmed northerner, it’s only taken me three years to discover this list and decide I want to ‘do’ it – besides, to a philistine like me reading is a football club playing in the Championship. Not really. I can and do read, though I was a little disappointed to realise that I had in fact pored through just 105 books on the list. That means I have denied myself around 90% of the world’s finest fiction. All those years of reading Doctor Who novelisations, A Song of Ice and Fire and James Herbert’s moribund ghost stories (not to mention the fist-in-mouth awfulness of his sex scenes) were for naught.
Only joking. Apart from the bit about Herbert’s toe-curling attempts at erotica, but lists are ultimately subjective and I’ve little doubt there are volumes missing from the Guardian’s that are many people’s favourite reads. That said, it occurs to me that I could do a lot worse than tackle the list and get some culture into the bargain. Scrolling through the titles, there are some sitting on my bookshelf unread, others I’ve tried and failed to get into, many more of which I haven’t heard a thing, and several that I have ingested, loved and recommended to others. Within the latter category, I’m delighted to find Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up! present and correct. The same goes for The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, and indeed plenty others that I enjoyed in my twenties, pre-marriage/mortgage/nappies, etc, when finding time to read was something I could do without consequence, and keeping up with literature was important. Off the top of my head, a shame there’s no space for Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which gave me a lot of pleasure in the mid-nineties and has left a residual desire to holiday in Kefalonia (as though it’s going to be anything like the sun-dripped paradise conjured by Louis de Bernieres).
My biggest reason for tackling the 1,000 is that I remember those industrial reading periods well, and I can recall why I was able to do it. Back then, I lived and worked in Manchester. My working day involved getting a bus from Didsbury into the city, a journey that could take anything from thirty minutes to the best part of an hour and dependent on the academic cycle. During the holidays, Fallowfield was a ghost town. From September, it became a mess of students, freshers obvious from their naïve determination to get on the 42 with a £20 note. They didn‘t know about the unspoken ‘no change’ rule, neither had they experienced the happy joy of dealing with Stagecoach’s drivers – middle-aged, grumpy, grunting, and they were they articulate ones (the hardcore bus drivers worked for Bullocks or Fingland). I didn’t mind the delays. Bus journeys were almost golden reading times, the return journey guaranteeing an hour’s literature per day, and that’s before I factored in the 45-minute lunch breaks.
Perhaps the best job I ever had was with one of Manchester’s universities. My role was to sit in the server room, which was sealed off, maintained at a constant temperature and could only be accessed by those who knew the combination lock. If one of the programs went down, I had to restart it. The finance package was flaky enough to freeze at least twice per day, so I waited around for the call before rebooting the system. Otherwise, I ran back-ups, a task that involved typing in some command code and then waiting. And waiting. The rest of the time was mine. It was in that era just before the internet really caught on, so instead of wasting my spare hours online, I read. There were several good bookshops in the area, and it was possible to finish a volume in the morning, while away my lunch break at Blackwells, or if I was less flush at the second-hand place near the BBC, and find something for the afternoon. I got through War and Peace whilst sitting in that endlessly humming and cool room. It seemed like the right time to do it.
When I moved away from Manchester, I still worked there so got a train into ‘town’ from the satanic Northern Rail station that is Smithy Bridge. I’d like to report this as a similarly cheerful experience, but the daily delays, stuffed carriages and ancient seats held little charm. Reading took away the worst of it. If I was lucky, I got a seat. Otherwise, I’d have to stand, my nose buried in a book as the weight of bodies closed in from all directions. Everyone on the train was pissed off, pissed off with being late, with being a sardine, with being here at all, I imagine. The ones who had been on before the train became busy got annoyed with other people who asked them to move their bags so they could sit down. It was worse because the train was a lot more expensive than bus travel. I paid around £60 per month for the pleasure of crushing myself into a two-carriage service that had only an outside chance of meeting its promised 25-minute journey time. The bus was around £8 for a Megarider (weekly pass), or a fiver if I wanted to patronise the services that stopped for ages in Owens Park for the fresh-faced 18-year olds. There were loads of buses; so frequent were they that I didn’t even have to be at the stop for a certain time. If I waited they would come, normally within five minutes. It wasn’t like that at Smithy Bridge, with its rain, dark mornings, and the handwritten notices at the entrance left by the level crossing staff that apologised for the day’s delays and cancellations.
I could still read on the train, and indeed the escapism offered by literature made all the difference. But I was also learning to drive and ultimately got a job closer to home that was more accessible by car. Driving to work was nice, but it also cut short my book reading adventures. Now, I could only do it during lunch or outside work, and at one point I effectively stopped altogether. I believe there’s a sense of momentum to reading, that desire to keep up with literature. There was a time when I would keep a list of new releases, which I’d never buy new from Waterstones but waited for the second-hand appearances. Added to that was an ill-defined quest to take in the classics, the works that had inspired my favourite authors (I completed Don Quixote because Paul Auster was a fan). I wouldn’t say there was any real logic to the stuff I read. I don’t recall any themes or trends, or even much in the way of preferring certain publishers (I used to believe Faber & Faber was a sign of quality, but it turns out they were as capable of churning out tack as anyone). It was a love of reading for its own sake, the sheer pleasure of coming across an unexpected page-turner or even a delicious phrase. It’s still there, but now I have to make room for it. My journey time is currently a 30-minute drive, which has cut the working day (including travelling, I used to allow between ten and eleven hours for work; it’s less than nine now) but I don’t fill in those recovered minutes with reading. I could argue it’s because I have more to do, but it would be a fib.
Until now, at any rate. As anyone planning to write a book already knows, reading is important. Hell, it’s important even if it’s just for pleasure, right? Inspired recently by a number of books that dragged me into their pages and wouldn’t spit me back out until I’d finished them, I am determined to reconnect with those reading years and the Guardian’s 1,000 looks as good a place to start as any.
The plan is simple – one week = one book + one review. By ‘review’ I don’t expect to offer any kind of in-depth analysis of themes, what I feel about the human condition since finishing it, etc. Well, I might do those things, but only if I want to or feel it’s provoked that sort of response. I’m no literary critic, but like you I have an opinion and I’m not afraid to wield it. What I promise is an honest and subjective reaction, from gushing praise to the odd occasion when I’m sure I just couldn’t get any further than page ‘x’ and will use this space to say so. The latter takes me back to those horrible days when I happened to take a new book onto the bus/train, only to find I couldn’t get into it. This didn’t happen very often, thankfully, partly because I would invariably think it was my fault that I couldn’t connect with whatever classic tome was sending me to sleep and ploughed on heroically. Such was Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, an acknowledged seminal text that failed to move me and completing it was an endurance test. At least I got to the end; I remember making it to halfway down page five of Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie before admitting defeat, KO’d in the first. And this is a novel considered by many to be the ultimate Booker Prize winner! My bad perhaps, especially as there are many ‘Booker Bunch’ novels – The Remains of the Day, Sacred Hunger, Last Orders, etc – that I’ve really enjoyed.
Every volume mentioned in the above paragraph features in the 1,000, which means at some point I will have to tackle Salman once again, along with those books that were so achingly cool at University – Camus’s L’Etranger and The Unbearable Lightness by Kundera spring to mind here – yet I read them as an intellectual challenge rather than because I wanted to. I look forward to thinking differently about all of them this time around, and hey, I’ve set myself a project that will run for twenty years. Who knows what might happen in that time?