Jack Nicholson: 1982

What’s the first image that comes to mind when we think of 1980s Jack?

Leering through the bathroom door in ‘The Shining’, or tearing up the furniture in ‘Batman’ and ‘The Witches Of Eastwick’?

We probably wouldn’t think of a sober, suited-and-booted man about the arts, but that’s exactly what we get in a recently-discovered BBC interview.

It took place on 18th January 1982 during his ‘year off’ after an intensive period of work on ‘Reds’, ‘The Shining’, ‘The Border’ and ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’, and makes for fascinating viewing.

There’s certainly an element of him being on his ‘best BBC behaviour’, aided by Ian Johnstone’s austere interviewing style, but it demonstrates how Jack could so convincingly pull off the brilliant but troubled classical piano prodigy Bobby Dupea in ‘Five Easy Pieces’ (a part written for him by Carole Eastman, whom he discusses below).

It also shows how brilliantly he can ‘dial down’ his IQ to conjure hellraising characters like McMurphy in ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’. And, frankly, reveals why someone of Anjelica Huston’s calibre would enjoy his company so much. Next up was his Oscar-winning turn in ‘Terms Of Endearment’ – the year off certainly paid dividends.

The Cult Movie Club: John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’ 40 Years On

What with ‘The Lighthouse’ and ‘Bait’, you can’t move for nautically-themed movies at the moment. But it’s arguable whether either are as effective as John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’, released 40 years ago today.

But then I’m biased: aside from Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ and ‘American Werewolf In London’, it was one of the first scary movies I was allowed to watch in my teenage years, and subsequently inspired a dodgy short horror novel of my own (‘The Ghost Of The Drowned Sailor’…).

Revisiting it this week for the first time in ages, it delivered all sorts of treats though these days is scarcely mentioned alongside ‘Halloween’, ‘Assault On Precinct 13’ and ‘The Thing’ in the list of bona fide Carpenter classics.

Shot mainly in coastal California around Point Reyes, Bodega Bay and Inverness, ‘The Fog’ was a brave move on Carpenter and producer/co-writer Debra Hill’s part, following up ‘Halloween’ by mostly eschewing the slasher format (it’s interesting to note that both ‘The Shining’ and ‘Friday The 13th’ were released two months later, in May 1980) in favour of a seemingly old-fashioned ghost story inspired by a trip to Stonehenge and the writings of Edgar Allan Poe.

This attempt at a different kind of movie caused problems when Carpenter’s original cut was deemed too moody and not supplying the requisite scares for post-‘Halloween’ sensibilities. Many scenes were re-shot and some new ones added just a few months before release, including the opening ghost story, ‘Close Encounters’-style scene-setting and top-of-the-lighthouse finale. The music and sound effects were also reworked.

Watching the 2002 DVD edition, the first thing I noticed is the gorgeous lighting and camerawork. Its sharp, crisp colours and composition are a great testament to the lab technicians (heralded by Carpenter on his DVD commentary) and director of photographer Dean Cundey, who has since gone on to be one of the premier DPs in Hollywood. Also the impressive miniature/model work, widescreen lenses and evocative coastal locations give a lot of bang for relatively little buck (‘The Fog’ was eventually brought in at just over $1 million).

‘The Fog’ also benefits from an excellent central performance from Adrienne Barbeau as the Hawksian, Bacall-voiced DJ Stevie Wayne (and spinner of Steely Dan-approved big-band and light jazz/fusion tunes). She and co-writer Debra Hill manage to root the hokum in a credible, sympathetic, rounded character. It’s also great fun to see Janet Leigh appearing in the same movie as her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis, and Nancy Loomis delivers her usual amusingly insouciant line readings.

Effects man extraordinaire Rob Bottin features as head ghost Blake, heading up a very rock’n’roll-looking bunch of ghouls, though arguably the movie would have benefitted from a little less ‘show’ and a little more ‘tell’ in the last 20 minutes. Seeing Blake in plain sight at the end is always a bit of a disappointment, despite the glowing red eyes. But editors Charles Bornstein and Tommy Lee Wallace deserve much credit for building tension in the last third with shrewd, snappy cutting (sometimes seamlessly between studio/location shots).

Carpenter’s excellent soundtrack cribs a little from Michel Legrand’s famous score for ‘The Go-Between’ but has some marvellous sections, particularly during Barbeau’s ‘look for the fog’ closing speech (obviously very influenced by a similar ending to Howard Hawks’ ‘The Thing’).

‘The Fog’ was a hit (despite Siskel and Ebert’s stinking review, see below), earning around $20 million against its $1 million budget. It was a lot of fun to revisit it again, and looks like just the low-budget horror classic I always remembered it to be, with more imagination and storytelling elan than 99% of other genre offerings.

Happy birthday to a true cult classic. Now, who’s that rapping on my door? At this hour? And what’s that fog seeping under the door…?

The Cult Movie Club: Diner (1982)

I knew it was good, but, revisiting it again last week, I’d forgotten quite how good ‘Diner’ was.

Barry Levinson’s directorial debut was the very definition of a sleeper movie when it first came out in March 1982. MGM virtually buried it on its initial release (and their appalling trailer didn’t help – see below), disappointed that it scrimped on the ‘Porky’s’/’Animal House’-style hijinks.

It took a private screening set up by Levinson and executive producer Mark Johnson and subsequent rave review from one attendee – legendary film critic and movingtheriver.com favourite Pauline Kael – to secure it an audience.

Some have made bold claims that ‘Diner’ is the most influential film of the 1980s, pointing forward to ‘This Is Spinal Tap’, Tarantino, ‘Seinfeld’, ‘The Sopranos’, Judd Apatow and beyond.

Set in Baltimore during December 1959 (it definitely counts as a Christmas movie), it focuses on a group of friends in their early 20s, trying to negotiate relationships and get through their working lives, but always finishing off the night at the Fells Point Diner (based on the real Hilltop Diner in northwest Baltimore) for a chin-wag about Sinatra and a fill of French fries with gravy (or a roast beef sandwich, fought over in one of the film’s most famous scenes).

Daly, Rourke, Stern, Bacon, Guttenberg and Reiser in ‘Diner’

Though there are shades of ‘American Graffiti’, ‘Animal House’ and even ‘Porky’s’ (Kael rather evoked Fellini’s ‘I Vittelloni’), the protagonists in ‘Diner’ seem older than in those movies, though you wouldn’t always know it – they seem totally at ease with themselves but struggle with members of the opposite ‘camp’. In fact, sadly, the sexual politics in ‘Diner’ ensure that it would probably struggle to get a green light these days.

The movie features almost of a who’s-who of ’80s talent: Mickey Rourke, Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Paul Reiser, Kevin Bacon, Timothy Daly, Ellen Barkin, all acting as if their lives depended on it. Arguably, none have done better work than ‘Diner’. One wonders how much rehearsal and/or ‘team-building’ Levinson was able to secure for them (quite a lot according to this excellent documentary), because they’re absolutely at ease with each other.

And, though almost entirely scripted (Levinson’s screenplay was nominated for an Oscar), the movie has a loose, dreamy feel. These guys feel just like your – my – mates, from that golden era when everyone was rooted in the same spot and going through the same stuff.

Levinson packs the action with memorable secondary characters – the local screwball obsessed with ‘Sweet Smell Of Success’, Carol Heathrow (who unfortunately locates Rourke’s ‘pecker’ in her popcorn), the kindly pool-hall owner, Big Earl (who eats the whole left side of the menu), the picky TV-store customer, Bagel, Kevin Bacon’s smarmy brother, and many more.

He also creates a totally believable environment on a budget, replete with classic cars and almost-deserted suburban streets, and an impressive opening one-take shot introducing us to the main characters. He also brings in interesting period details like the glimpse of Kind Of Blue in Shrevie’s sacred vinyl collection, and the soundtrack is also brilliant, from R’n’B to doo-wop (though the only bum note is the very ’80s-sounding ‘live’ track played in the go-go bar towards the end of the movie).

‘Diner’ also has an almost ‘Withnail’esque finale, looking uncertainly into the next decade with its famous freeze-frame ending. And, like all the best coming-of-age movies, it has you wondering what the hell happened to these characters. Did Boogie make a go of it in the home improvement trade, and stay with Jane Chisholm? Did Modell ever get himself a car? How did Shrevie and Beth’s marriage turn out, not to mention Eddie’s?

So, Barry – any chance of a sequel?

(Postscript: A musical version of ‘Diner’ made a brief appearance a few years ago…and Sheryl Crow wrote the songs. No comment…)

Book Review: High Concept (Don Simpson And The Hollywood Culture Of Excess) by Charles Fleming

Director Robert Altman once said of his classic 1992 satire ‘The Player’: ‘What we show is a very, very soft indictment of Hollywood’.

Revisiting Charles Fleming’s excellent, coruscating ‘High Concept’, one can easily believe it. It is to the ’80s and ’90s movie scene what Peter Biskind’s ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ was to the ’60s and ’70s.

The main focus of the book is Don Simpson, producer of ‘An Officer And A Gentleman’, ‘Flashdance’, ‘Beverly Hills Cop’, ‘Top Gun’ and ‘Days Of Thunder’. He died in 1996 at the age of just 52.

‘High Concept’ explores this fascinating, contradictory character; an egotistical monster who was also inordinately generous to friends and relatives; a rampant egomaniac and alleged sex pest who was nonetheless haunted by his God-fearing Alaskan upbringing; a producer best known for lowest-common-denominator fodder but described by various people as a creative genius whose 30-page memos to screenwriters became legendary. Many also heralded his uncanny ability to find a screenplay’s crucial flaw.

Both the Simpson character and this book feel incredibly prescient. He comes across as half Trump, half Weinstein. There are endless stories that could have sparked a #MeToo moment had Twitter been around in the late ’80s.

He flourished at a time when corporate skullduggery in the movie business was a given. You could get away with anything as long as the studio was profitable. As Fleming puts it, ‘As long as he didn’t kill anyone he was always going to be welcomed back. If he did kill someone, well, arrangements could be made’ (indeed Stephen Ammerman, a doctor, was found dead at Simpson’s pool house in 1995).

Other people very much in Simpson’s orbit included Heidi Fleiss, OJ Simpson and Kato Kaelin. He was ahead of his time but always went too far. Or, to put it in Simpson-speak, ‘Anything worth doing is worth overdoing. It’s not enough until it’s too much. Because how do you know it’s enough until it’s too much?’ Fad dieting, plastic surgery, Scientology, junk food, kinky sex, prescription drugs, cocaine – they were all meat and drink to him.

Simpson was also always super-competitive, in the classic ‘Wall Street’ style, from day one. Late in his career, he said: ‘Anytime I see someone come into the business who is smart and talented…and likes to go to lunch and dinner…I know he was failed already. He hasn’t got a prayer. Because someone like me is going to run all over him…’

But ‘High Concept’ opens out intriguingly to look beyond Simpson and explore the rampant egos of the entire Planet Hollywood generation, outlining staggering tales of excess involving Demi Moore, Bruce Willis, John Travolta, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Robert Downey Jr., Julia Roberts and Charlie Sheen. Only Eddie Murphy and Tom Cruise emerge with anything approaching dignity.

Fleming – an experienced, respected movie writer who has contributed to Vanity Fair, LA Times, Variety and Newsweek – writes superbly, with natural elan and a swinging turn of phrase. Along with ‘Indecent Exposure’ and ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’, ‘High Concept’ is the best book I’ve read about the darker side of modern Hollywood.

The Cult Movie Club: ‘Psycho’ Revisited

My dad was a huge Alfred Hitchcock fan. He liked the ‘minor’ Hitch as much as the ‘major’ Hitch.

As a war baby, maybe he relished the director’s trademark mixture of dread and humour. Dad certainly didn’t sneer at ‘Psycho’; in fact, he would have put it firmly in the ‘major’ category.

We probably first watched the film together sometime around 1989. Revisiting it again recently, it struck me as a curiously – and defiantly – ‘modern’ movie. Even as the ghastliness of America’s modern serial killers was becoming public knowledge towards the end of the 1950s, the kind of seediness ‘Psycho’ portrayed had still not been shown on screen (though David Thomson’s superb book ‘The Moment Of Psycho’ notes that a few figures – James Dean, Jerry Lewis, Elvis, Brando and Jack Nicholson, by way of Roger Corman, were ushering in a new, youthful edginess. Thomson also asks us to imagine Elvis as Norman Bates…).

Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano really decided to let American audiences have it with their fairly loyal interpretation of Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel. Thomson describes the film as Hitch’s ‘revenge’ on Hollywood, a Hollywood that had never granted the director an Oscar and whose mixture of humour and dread had never been fully accepted.

These factors also particularly struck me when revisiting ‘Psycho’ recently:

7. Hitchcock/Stefano’s skewering of America’s sacred cows

The family unit, marriage, the home, sanity, the bathroom (never before in an American film had there been the shot of a toilet flushing), heterosexuality, the shower stall. And the way he gleefully starts the movie tracking into a fairly seedy motel room to eavesdrop on a post-coital tryst. It all seems run-of-the-mill now but all of this must have been an incredible shock for contemporary audiences. Hitch wanted to show how modern, urban people were living their lives.

 

6. Joseph Stefano’s dialogue

Speed-reading Robert Bloch’s novel again, it struck me that screenwriter Stefano deserves huge praise for reworking the dialogue. He puts some pep in its step, fashions some brilliant lines for Norman (the whole mental illness speech during dinner with Marion in his den) and turns the scenes between Norman/Sam Loomis (John Gavin) and Norman/Arbogast (Martin Balsam) into mini masterpieces. He also adds some good, hip stuff featuring the traffic cop (who doesn’t feature in the novel) and car salesman.

5. The shower murder

Hitchcock’s ‘pride’ at the slickness of the first murder scene belies its brutality. If there’s a more shocking death in the movies, I haven’t seen it. A troubling thought: to what extent does Hitchcock/Norman/’Mother’/Bloch/the audience ‘punish’ Marion for stealing (even though at the time of her murder she has made the decision to return the money)? But of course modern audiences would be primed for Janet Leigh’s early exit, since the opening credits say ‘…And Janet Leigh as Marion Crane’. It’s clear now she’s not going to last the whole movie, but audiences in 1960 wouldn’t have twigged.

 

4. The sexual politics of the first 40 minutes

Marion strikes us as an incredibly ‘modern’ character, strong, determined, troubled, independent, defiantly single (though willing to give Sam a try… Or is she? Why doesn’t she ring him to tell him she’s on her way with the money?). She passes through the first half of the film encountering men in scenes that somehow ‘mirror’ each other – her lover, the creepy, predatory client at work, traffic cop, car salesman, and finally Norman.

3. The concept of ‘doubles’

Of course, Norman ‘is’ Norma Bates, mother and son combined. Then there are the – on first viewing – strange matching shots of characters leaving rooms; first Marion, then ‘Mother’. Then there’s the remarkable physical likeness between Sam Loomis (John Gavin) and Norman (who, of course, in many ways seems far more pleasantly disposed towards Marion than Sam ever is).

 

2. The brilliance of Anthony Perkins’ performance

Hitchcock apparently instructed Stefano to write for Perkins once the teen heart-throb had signed on very early in proceedings. The novel has Norman as an overweight, alcoholic, 40-year-old schlub, but Perkins’ leading-man looks, disarming smile and gentleness are the movie’s masterstrokes. He delivers a classic performance, possibly influenced by Dennis Weaver’s panic-stricken ‘night man’ in Orson Welles’s ‘Touch Of Evil’.

1. The flatness of the second half

Hitchcock barely seems interested in any characters other than Marion and Norman, fatally unhinging the second half of the movie. It’s pretty boring apart from the above terrific scene between Norman and Arbogast (which apparently earned lengthy applause from the crew), the Arbogast murder, the ‘Mother’ reveal in the basement and the closing Norman/Mother ‘monologue’, featuring more fantastic work from Perkins.

The Cult Movie Club: All The Vermeers In New York (1990)

A major trope of ’80s or ’80s-set films, books, plays and – dammit – life itself (plus ça change) was the bonkers – or, at the very least, morally unsound – banker, broker or trader. ‘Wall Street’, ‘American Psycho’, ‘9 1/2 Weeks’, ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’, ‘Bonfire Of The Vanities’, ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’. You get the picture.

But in Jon Jost’s movie ‘All The Vermeers In New York’, actor Stephen Lack, best known for his unique performance in David Cronenberg’s cult classic ‘Scanners’, delivered a nuanced, highly original take on the character.

His middle-aged broker Mark is lonely, strange, poetic, neurotic and in possession of a serious death wish. He’s kind of a Zen Patrick Bateman, without the mass murder. So it’s just his bad luck when he becomes obsessed with French acting student Anna (Emmanuelle Chalet), whom he believes looks just like the woman in Vermeer’s painting ‘Study Of A Young Girl’.

Stephen Lack in ‘All The Vermeers In New York’

The film – which I managed to record onto VHS during its one and only showing on Channel Four in the mid-1990s – is kind of ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ meets Mike Leigh, a classic New York art-house movie with its quiet bars, art galleries (Mark finds Anna in the Met, in a scene reminiscent of Brian De Palma’s ‘Dressed To Kill’) and plush interiors, but one that also relies on ‘naturalistic’ performances and mostly improvised dialogue. Jon English’s avant-jazz score is also superb, with more than a hint of Charles Mingus about it.

‘All The Vermeers In New York’ is also weirdly au courant, about the commodification of art and sex, and the all-powerful money-mind. We only see fragments of the characters’ troubled, conflicted lives – the teenager who worries about the unethical companies her rich daddy is putting her name to, the heroin-addicted artist refused money by his gallery-owning friend, Mark wearily intoning about his lonely apartment looking out on a building that could be ‘street-level Europe’.

Roger Ebert gave ‘All The Vermeers In New York’ a decent review on its release. To some, the film will seem like pretentious twaddle, to others a refreshing voyage into a dream world à la ‘Blow Up’, ‘Dead Ringers’, ‘The Music Of Chance’. All I know is that I revisit it about every three years and take something new from it each time.

Director Jost seems to have a very sketchy rep, described online variously as an indie movie pioneer and pretentious waste of space. Yes, ‘All The Vermeers In New York’ probably belongs in an art gallery rather than a movie theatre, but it’s still a fascinating ride.