Festive Films 8 – Eyes Wide Shut

My mind was on other things in 1983 and I missed Nicole Kidman’s breakout performance as Judy in BMX Bandits. I’m sure it was very good. Her subsequent body of work has certainly been diverse enough to impress. She’s often fabulously accessible, but there is occasionally a glassy impenetrability to her that is utterly alienating.

 

Tom Cruise however has always been a bit enigmatic for me. There’s a surface plausibility in a lot of his work, but the more I see of his real life persona the more convinced I become that he is nothing but surfaces. The complex three-dimensional stuff of personality seems completely absent from him. Check out his hard-eyed stare. Listen to that bizarre pulsing honk that passes for laughter. It’s like his sinister Thetan overlords described laughter to him verbally, but never actually got around to playing him a recording. I get the impression every time I see him interviewed that he might crack at any minute, his human-form disintegrating into a mass of thrashing scientological tentacles.

 

How odd then it seemed for the cultured, aesthetically minded Stanley Kubrick to cast them in what would be his final film Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

 

 

Cruise plays Dr. Harford (not to be confused with Steve Martin’s character Dr. Hfuhruhurr in The Man With Two Brains, tempting though it may be), a secure NYC doctor with a beautiful wife, winsome child and apartment of vast Kubrickian space. He and the missus (Kidman) attend a Christmas party thrown by one of his patients. During the party Harford is called discreetly upstairs to attend to a naked woman who has overdosed on drugs. Whilst he is dealing with the practicalities of this and being sworn to absolute secrecy his wife is downstairs being wooed by an exotic stranger.

 

Later at home she talks to him about this and about an earlier sexual fantasy involving infidelity. This sets off a train of thoughts in Harford which leads to him seeing things he has been previously blind to and experimenting with things he has never even considered before. One of the set pieces is an eerie masked orgy at a country house, the password for entry being Fidelio. Geddit?

 

 

This is all closely based (in a script by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael) on Arthur Schnitzler’s story Traumnovelle, or Dream Story and, though I am surprised to see myself type this, it is exceptionally good.

 

Kubrick was a hard-working director (the shoot for Eyes Wide Shut was a record-breaking 400 days), but his insistence on having everything just so, this meticulous attention to detail which, to the outsider looking in, resembled nothing so much as an Ahab-like monomania, was in fact a mighty artistic strength. Whatever you think of any of Kubrick’s oeuvre you have to admire the constancy of vision. There is no happenstance or compromise in his movies. Just Kubrick.

 

Stephen King was not impressed with Kubrick’s film adaptation of The Shining. Unsurprisingly. King’s original, and excellent, book is all about confinement whereas the Kubrickian interpretation of it is as much an exploration of physical and temporal space as 2001 was. It’s a complete inversion of the story. Jack Nicholson’s character Torrance doesn’t slowly go mad. He’s mad from the outset, but the four-dimensional sepulchral volume of The Overlook Hotel gives him the means, finally, of expressing it.

 

That wasn’t what King was exploring in his novel at all. He loves narratives where the physical constraints are tight (Cujo, Gerald’s Game, Misery). But when you (and by “you”, I mean “I”) look at the King-sanctioned mini-series remake of The Shining directed by Mick Garris you realise that Kubrick had apprehended the deeper truth in the story.

 

Kubrick died after completing the edit on Eyes Wide Shut, but before its release. The perception at the time was that the film, regarded as an atypical folly in an otherwise estimable body of art, had killed him. The few supporters the film had said that this was untrue. That Kubrick had willed himself to live until the film was finished to his satisfaction.

 

It took time, a decade at least for me, for the film to find its place.

 

We, the consuming hoard, were not helped at the time of its initial release by the way the film was sold to us. An erotic thriller? Je crois que non.

 

Erotic thrillers are called things like Lethal Instinct 3 and Basic Obsession 4. They feature hemispherically-chested ladies called Misty or Amber being investigated by Captain Detective Police Lootenant Brick Pistol (almost always played by Randy Spears). That is emphatically not what this is.

 

This is the work of a man at the end of his career (and not in a borderline senile way like the ghastly boob-fixated late novels of Robert A. Heinlein). It is the work of a man who knows by now that people in relationships are strangers to each other ninety percent of the time (which, incidentally, is why Cruise and Kidman comprise such a casting coup). It is also, in a similar way to Scorsese’s neglected gem After Hours, a celebration of just how much detail there is in life that we miss just because we are not looking for it. A world in a grain of sand, eternity in an hour and all that.

 

The things that seem at first viewing like handicaps (the glacial pacing, the stilted repetitive dialogue, Cruise and Kidman’s brittleness) are all strengths once you buy in to the film’s oneiric lack of rhythm and to the theme that we are, each of us, sleep-walking through life with only brief moments of wakefulness.

 

After Kubrick’s death Steven Spielberg assembled A.I. from various notes and drafts of scripts that Kubrick had left behind. I’m quite fond of A.I. but Eyes Wide Shut is a far more fitting epitaph.

 

 

 

Festive Films 6 & 7 – It’s A Wonderful Life & Meet John Doe

In the wise words of Mr. David “Dave” Bowie: Ch-ch-ch-chaaanges. Dur di dur di dur. Changes. Tum ti um. Something or other like time can change me, but I can’t trace time. Dooby dooby doo. Hunky Dory.

Change is awful.

And that’s not just me saying that, it is also the Managing Director of the last UK High Street bookshop chain standing, Waterstone’s. His name is James Daunt, which would be pretty good if he was a dragon-fucking Nord in Skyrim (“I used to be an adventurer like you. Then I took an arrow to the knee.”) but is positively ace given that he’s just a peevish man who works in a shop.

Daunt is reported to have said of his most high profile online competitor Amazon, “They never struck me as being a sort of business in the consumer’s interest. They’re a ruthless, money-making devil.” Defending the high street model of retail he elaborated, “The computer screen is a terrible environment in which to select books. All that ‘If you read this, you’ll like that’ – it’s a dismal way to recommend books. A physical bookshop in which you browse, see, hold, touch and feel books is the environment you want.”

My two issues with that last statement are firstly that a computer screen is actually quite a convenient and cosy way of shopping (and the coffee is way cheaper), and secondly, please don’t fucking tell me what I fucking want, you patronising prick.

And no lollygagging.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/james-daunt-amazon-are-a-ruthless-moneymaking-devil-the-consumers-enemy-6272351.html

I was a bookseller for Waterstone’s from 1993 to 2008 and it was a great job. During that period however retail changed drastically, and by the time my branch closed down, largely a victim of a vast branch of Borders teleporting into town, the notion that a building made of bricks with a bunch of speculative stock in it was somehow better than the whole of the internet was already looking a bit Last Millennium.

The big branch of Borders also closed down not long after to my chagrin. Competitors they may have been, but they were good and a lot of their staff were fine, knowledgeable booksellers.

So my home city has, effectively, one bookshop now. It’s a branch of Waterstone’s that used to be an Ottakar’s. It’s a lovely branch in fact with a phenomenal set of booksellers. If you’re ever in town tell them Feexby sent you and Toby and Terry might put on their special show for you.

Anyway I happily buy all my books there when possible, but there are times (like two o’clock in the morning) when this just isn’t going to happen. And at times like that it’s hard to have a bad word to say about Amazon.

I don’t find Amazon ruthless. If anything I think they are quite service-orientated. I once had to return a damaged DVD out of a huge box set and their returns procedure was magnificent. I’m sure they are out to make money, but they do it in a way that suits me just fine. Also their recommendations aren’t dismal. They are pretty well executed. They are certainly better than any of the staff recommends cards I ever wrote in my bookselling days.

The internet isn’t going to get switched off any time soon. This change has happened. Sorry you don’t like it Daunty but shouting at a tidal wave is just going to get you soggy.

What was that for? Oh yeah. The creeping horribleness of change.

It turns out you can’t buy It’s A Wonderful Life anymore without getting both the original proper version and the “colorized” version too. This happened also with my bewilderingly comprehensive Laurel and Hardy collection and to be absolutely straight with you, I don’t like it.

Colourisation isn’t quite painting bunny ears on to the Mona Lisa, but it ain’t far off. Can we not just leave stuff the way it was made? This isn’t good change. This is bad change. I don’t know anyone who prefers the colourised versions. And whilst I’m astride this hobby-horse: Filmmakers, please don’t digitally remove cigarettes from cartoons; please don’t get all coy about racial attitudes in films made eighty years ago; and pretty-please stop trying to shoe-horn an extra dimension in to movies that were previously quite happy being flat.

What is left to be said about Frank Capra’s enduring Christmas classic It’s A Wonderful Life, the black and white version? Well not too much by me, though it surprised me once again this time round that, for a film whose reputation is that of the ultimate feelgood flick, you have to get through a lot of misery for a pretty perfunctory ascension.

Jimmy is happy

Jimmy is unhappy

The movie is over two hours long but it isn’t until the 100 minute mark that George Bailey, played with awkward amiability by James Stewart, finally gets round to attempting the suicide that is alluded to in the opening scenes. He has gone through a lot by this stage, but is dissuaded from the final sanction by a bumbling learner angel who shows him how wretched the world would have been if he’d never been born.

Bailey repents. Reality reasserts itself. There is a Christmas miracle of overwhelming neighbourliness, and it’s all rather wonderful if a little rushed at the end. The fromage factor is high, but the sincerity of everyone involved carries it with grace and dignity. The lesson we learn is that the best things in life aren’t things.

I’m not sure about the theological aspects of the story though. Heaven seems to allocate its agents with an appalling disregard for their ability or otherwise to do the job. Also the angels in discussion at the film’s outset are depicted as spiral galaxies and everyone knows that spiral galaxies are just made up things used to inculcate obedient behaviour in children.

Five years prior to It’s A Wonderful Life Frank Capra had directed another seasonal heart-tweaker, Meet John Doe (1941). This has Gary Cooper as its lead, and (personal opinion klaxon) I have to admit that I find him quite a deadening presence in a film. To counterbalance this though the female star is the magnificent Barbara Stanwyck. You know me and my taste in women, mad and beaky.

Mad as you like. Beaky too.

Stanwyck plays Ann Mitchell a columnist facing the chop from her newspaper in the name of progress. Many of the film’s themes have an amazing contemporary resonance like this. The opening shots of the movie are of the old paper’s sign “A free press means a free people” literally being drilled to bits and replaced with one saying “A streamlined newspaper for a streamlined era.”

Pissed off at her redundancy Mitchell writes one last column, a faked letter from “John Doe” in which this fictional character threatens to commit suicide by throwing himself off City Hall on Christmas Eve as a protest against the social injustices in the country.

The editor becomes convinced that there is profitable mileage in this. He retains Stanwyck and together they recruit a bum from the streets, down on his luck baseball player Long John Willoughby (Cooper), to play the part of John Doe.

As a result of his ghost written columns and radio appearances John Doe becomes a legend. Grassroots John Doe groups espousing neighbourliness (a consistent Capra theme) spring up. Willoughby starts to believe his own legend and Mitchell falls in love with the character they have both created. The rational Jiminy Cricket-like conscience character played by the lovely grizzled Walter Brennan is increasingly sidelined.

Things take a turn towards the dark though when it turns out that the newspaper’s proprietor is planning to take the John Doe movement and turn it into a political third party. Willoughby can’t stand the thought of this idealistic movement being prostituted thus and tries to thwart the scheme by exposing himself as a fraud. He fails and, alone on Christmas Eve, decides to commit suicide. This act (prevented by Ann who genuinely loves him now) convinces the people that the principles of the John Doe movement are worth preserving even though they sprang initially from fraudulence and greed.

The manipulative newspaper proprietor is left powerless at the hands of the people. Apart from a single lurching, unwelcome allusion to the death of Christ this is rousing stuff. A sparky depiction of how the juggernaut of political ambition can fail before the apparently feeble forces of moral correctness. I love this. It’s not that far away from the denouement of Capra’s 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, or the Stackhouse Filibuster episode of The West Wing. Or the ideologies of Wolfie in Citizen Smith. (Not really that last one.)

I don’t see this on many lists of Christmas films, but there should clearly be a place for it in the pantheon.

Right message. Right time of year. And, like Die Hard, it ends with Beethoven’s Ode To Joy from the end of the ninth symphony.

Freude, schoener Goetterfunken!

Festive Films 5 – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

At the very end of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, just before they switch us off, detectives “Gay” Perry van Shrike and Harry Lockhart (Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. respectively) address us, the audience, directly exhorting us to stay for the end credits. “If you want to know who the Best Boy is, it’s someone’s nephew.” They also apologise to all the good people of the Midwest for having said “fuck” so much.

It’s that kind of film. But, whilst meta-fiction, self-awareness and fourth wall fiddling can be a bit annoying if you aren’t in the hands of a Calvino or a Diderot or even a Grant Morrison on a good day, the writer/director of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang pulls it off with aplomb. Several plombs in fact.

"Don't forget to validate your parking"

And whose hands are we in here? Shane Black whose previous Christmas form as scriptwriter includes the finely tuned action movies Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout (the second of which has been splendidly blogged by my pal Andygeddon here http://andygeddon.com).

Whilst doing a bit of Christmas shoplifting for his nephew’s present petty crook Harry Lockhart is rumbled and pursued by the police. Seeking a hiding place behind the nearest open door he blunders into a casting call for a movie. The film-makers mistake his over-wrought demeanour for genius-level acting and he is flown to LA. Here he is buddied up with P.I. Perry van Shrike for “detective lessons”, and in the course of a routine bit of surveillance the two get tangled up in a murder case of mind-mangling complexity: The Case Of The Dead People In Los Angeles.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was Black’s first film as director. His second will apparently be Iron Man 3, due for release in 2013. Hooray, say I. This Marvel tendency to recruit celebrity directors for their superhero event movies is paying off incredibly well for them. Kenneth Branagh’s Thor has established a very healthy precedent.

Black has acted too, most noticeably with the cartoonish muscleman ensemble in Predator (1987). But it is as a sharp, cynically inclined writer that we know him best. He can structure a plot elegantly, and he has a great ear for wise guy dialogue.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is way smarter than your average thriller. And it is comfortable enough with itself that it can wear its homages lightly. The beginning of the film (“My name’s Harry Lockhart. I’ll be your narrator.”) is a shot of Robert Downey Jr. filmed up through a pool in an impertinent nod to the start of Sunset Boulevard. The film is also aware enough of its genre predecessors to specifically acknowledge its literary antecedents: the story is divided into chapters called Trouble Is My Business, Lady In The Lake, Little Sister, The Simple Art of Murder and Farewell My Lovely.

At the same time as swanking his erudition around though, Black isn’t afraid to get stuck into base gags about bodily functions. At one point Harry becomes disorientatingly aware of a body in his bathroom whilst he is (ahem) mid-flow. In an impeccable bit of slapstick comedy business Downey Jr. manages to piss accidentally all over the corpse and then fret about whether or not the authorities will be able to identify him through his urine.

He has similar detection issues later in the film when a dog makes off with his recently severed finger.

There is also a running gag about adverbs, and one of cinema’s better “spider in the bra” routines.

Spider in the bra! Spider in the bra!

It’s a tight, sarcastic, funny affair, densely written and played wickedly by Downey Jr. and Kilmer who, at the time, were two of Hollywood’s badder bad boys. Michelle Monaghan’s character is far more than the usual desultorily written pretty-girl. Her role has real substance and she’s got the stones to keep the boys in their place.

Wit, warmth, action, a well thought out plot and an obvious affection for writers, writing and the written. I commend this festive treat to you without qualification.

Festive Films 3 & 4 – Silent Night, Deadly Night & Black Christmas

Where do you stand on the controversy controversy? Do you pronounce it controversy or controversy? I mix it up about 70/30. Well, more accurately 69/29 because occasionally I take it off-road Mexican style and make the final vowel sound last as long as I can. Controverseeee.

Right. Do we all have our entrenched “controversy” positions sorted out? Excellent. Then let’s start an angry dialogue on all available broadcast and social media with weapons-grade invective. Well I say dialogue, but that’s not really the right word because we won’t be listening to anyone else’s point of view and adjusting our own according to what we hear. Nah, we’ll just be shouting out our own opinions with all the sanctimony and self-righteousness we can muster until our faces turn a festive shade of red and the veins in our temples are throbbing to the tempo of The Little Drummer Boy.

Anger is such a cheap commodity.

On an entirely related matter I think Jeremy Clarkson is a gormless boor with a rhetorical arsenal of about three tricks. But that’s just my opinion. Others are available.

His employers (the Beeb, The Sun, The Sunday Times and Penguin) pay him to be a contrarian and a controversialist, so is it a massive surprise when he says something incredibly offensive about striking public sector workers on live telly? No, I’d have thought. And happily we are all grown-ups here. We roll our eyes and we move on, surely.

Not really.

As I type we are 48 hours past the actual remarks themselves but they are still fermenting away in the UK news bucket. Thousands of people are spouting off. Many of the ones most vocally involved have had to go to the trouble of looking the clip up on the internet to find out exactly what it is that they are so offended by. Did he go too far? Have we all lost our senses of humour? Who is it OK to shoot again? I lost track during all the shouting.

I have worked in both the public and private sectors and I am currently self-employed. I have three separate and mutually contradictory opinions on the matter of public sector pensions. That’s a lot of opinions for a small brain and it has become quite confusing. Perhaps I’ll just shoot everybody and then get about the more serious business of cramming mince pies into the food hole in the front of my head.

This keeps happening. Frankie Boyle alluding to kids with Down’s syndrome in the course of what was admittedly a very dark comedy routine. The depressingly basic debate between the fans of Richard Herring and those of Ricky Gervais about the rightness or wrongness of the use of the word mong as a term of abuse.

Somebody says something. Someone takes exception to it. And so degraded are the processes of discourse currently that before you know it you have vast armies standing on hills shouting at each other, comparing each other to Hitler and seriously talking about people getting shot.

Enough with the bipolar flight to the extremities. There’s a whole fertile middle ground of non-judgmental personal responsibility just waiting to be explored here.

For instance.

I blocked someone on Bookface once because they posted a string of jokes using the racially charged P-word. I don’t think it was necessarily wrong of them to use the word but it would definitely have been wrong of me to tolerate it.

Antithetical points of view. A parting of the ways. Number of people shot: zero.

I remember Charlie Brooker once writing very perceptively about his own involvement in a similar situation. As I recall it he’d written a piece about the televised US Presidential debates in 2004 which ended with an invitation to, I think, either John Wilkes Booth or Lee Harvey Oswald to involve themselves. Unfortunately this article was published with a flourish on the Guardian’s internationally accessible website. The result was that Brooker was bombarded with a shocking quantity of hate-filled and murderously angry transatlantic emails some of which he published.

I sided then, and side now, with Brooker on this one, though I can see how offence was there to be taken. But once I’ve done that how can I then complain about Clarkson crassly doing the same thing albeit from the other end of the political spectrum? I can’t really.

Sometimes silly people say silly things and that’s all that’s happened.

Peace on Earth, good will to men.

Before moving on entirely from controversy let us tarry just a little while to gawp at the rank, festering, open wound of a film that is Charles Sellier’s Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984).

The plot is this: traumatised as a child by the murder of his father and rape and murder of his mother at the hands of a criminal in a Santa suit young Billy grows up to be a psycho killer triggered by the sight of people having sex at Christmas.

The movie has some lingering notoriety based on the hostility that greeted its original release. The outcry was centred on the unacceptability of having a psycho dressed as Santa, though the outcriers seem to have been entirely unfussed by the release of Lewis Jackson’s Christmas Evil four years earlier.

Silent Night, Deadly Night wasn’t even put forward for BBFC certification until its eventual 2009 DVD release, nevertheless it has a reputation for being a video nasty. As with so many of the movies that were on the Nasty list it’s hard to see now why people were so exercised by it. Tasteless it may be, but its capacity to pervert is minuscule.

Tastelessness isn’t the worst of SNDN’s shortcomings. It is pedestrian, drab and disastrously unthrilling. Bearing in mind that it culminates in an axe-wielding Santa confronting a nun in a wheelchair in an orphanage full of kids the movie is surprisingly light on jeopardy. The acting is poor. The tone is uncertain. The moments of competence, like John Wayne’s knees, are few and far between. In fact it was only when I tried finding a few shots to screen grab that I realised just how badly mounted the whole exercise is.

Best I could do is the not very legendary snowman decapitation sequence. Try not to have nightmares.

Naughty!

Mindbogglingly there were four sequels, none of which I have seen. I am led to believe that SNDN 3: Better Watch Out! stars Richard Beymer and Eric Da Re from out of off of Twin Peaks and was directed, heart-breakingly, by Monte Hellman who made the awesome Two-Lane Blacktop in 1971. Can this be true?

Several orders of magnitude better, but still not awfully good, is Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974). Clark would go on to direct Murder By Decree with Christopher Plummer and James Mason as Holmes and Watson investigating the Jack the Ripper murders. I remember it fondly, but it is several decades since I last saw it. He also directed Porky’s in 1982 which wiser men than me have found merit in. I found its bawdiness a bit wearing however.

Black Christmas has a couple of ticks in the credit column. It’s an early entry, possibly the first, in the calendar horror sub-genre which would really take off after Halloween four years later. It also has a fine cast including the sultry Margot Kidder (soon to be Lois Lane in the Superman movies and sole good reason for watching The Amityville Horror), and Keir Dullea star of not only 2001 but also of Noel Coward’s brutal “Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow” put down.

The story is a slender bit of urban mythologizing: girls disappear one at a time in a sorority house over the festive period. There are anonymous phone calls which may or may not have something to do with it. It’s a bit twistier than you might expect but dull to look at and shrill to listen to.

There was a remake in 2006 about which I cannot speak with any authority at all.

Festive Films 2 – The Apartment

Get a thing all back-asswards elbow-wise, bang on and on about it, change my mind and then have to start all over again. That’s my métier.

I just, as a young man, did not “get” Shirley MacLaine. At the time I was getting into cinema she had just starred in the transcendent Being There which I loved, but in the same decade she was in the easily resistible Terms of Endearment, Steel Magnolias and Cannonball Run II.

It was hard to see what all the fuss was about. And let’s not even start on the occultism and spirituality.

But as with Elizabeth Taylor, whose appeal also initially passed me by, I eventually had to execute a clumsy, public volte-face.

Liz I had written off as a gaudy, pie-damaging barrage balloon. Then I saw her in Giant and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and things began to make more sense.

(And at this point I really must recommend a Google image search for Giant. What a lot of big things there are in the world!)

As with Liz, so with Shirley. The kooky dame in the bad films became somebody else entirely to me once I saw her throbbing bruise of a performance as the elfin, vulnerable, scrappy Miss Kubelik in The Apartment.

Scales. Eyes. Damascus. All of that.

The Apartment was Billy Wilder’s first film after the box office behemoth Some Like It Hot and expectations must have been pretty high. The Apartment certainly performed very respectably in financial terms and won a fair few Oscars as well. Nerds will already know that it was the last black and white film to win the best picture award until Schindler’s List thirty-three years later.

So it packed them in OK, but I wonder what contemporary audiences made of it. As this image of the poster shows the movie was sold as a comedy, but the bleakness of some of the story’s content must have induced at least a bit of dissonance in the people watching it. In this respect it reminds me of the bludgeoning campaign a few years ago for Slumdog Millionaire in which the film promoters enticed would-be ticket-buyers with the promise of a feelgood, singalong, family romp. The car-battery torture sequences were under-emphasised.

Wilder was never deterred by the seamier side of life. The Lost Weekend is as excoriating a depiction of alcoholism as you could wish for. Ace In The Hole still has a lot to teach us about the nature of the relationship between reporters and the reported. And Double Indemnity remains a spectacular illumination of the weakness of men in the presence of beauty.

Even high-concept comedy Some Like It Hot starts with what appears to be the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

There is certainly an underlying sardonic wit to a lot of The Apartment, but the actual events depicted in the plot (sexual harassment, workplace bullying, attempted suicide) are not themselves that funny. It’s a bit of a stretch to call it a comedy.

Jack Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter (C for Clarence, C for Clifford) better known as Buddy Boy, an insurance company worker who allows his apartment to be used by his office superiors for extramarital liaisons. The downside is that he frequently can’t use his own home and that his neighbours regard him as an indefatigable party monster. The upside is that the favour he has curried with his bosses secures him professional advancement.

This all changes when Baxter realises that the lift girl (MacLaine) he is infatuated with is being ruthlessly strung along by his boss Mr. Sheldrake (played with sinister, avuncular brilliance by Fred MacMurray).

How much are we prepared to sell ourselves for? This seems to be the question that the film (scripted by Wilder himself and long term writing partner I.A.L. Diamond) is asking. Baxter’s own personal enlightenment and subsequent Scrooge-like conversion follow as a result of seeing Miss Kubelik’s unshakable moral rigidity in action.

It’s dead good like, and I am always an emotional wreck by the time the movie’s justly famous last line rolls up.

That this works so well is secondarily dependent on the scalpel-sharp writing and the eminence of the supporting cast, but the principal strength, the axis about which all else revolves, is the utterly brilliant performance Jack Lemmon turns in.

The guy was a genius. I still can’t believe we lost him over ten years ago.

Lemmon’s reputation is chiefly as a comic actor, and this is understandable. His lightness of touch in this, Some Like It Hot, The Odd Couple and countless others is the stuff of master-classes, but I’m convinced he only had that comic authority because of the magisterial straight acting ability he possessed.

His performances in The China Syndrome, Days of Wine and Roses, Missing and Glengarry Glen Ross showcase this pretty convincingly. Hell, he’s even the standout in Airport 77 (sharks on a plane) as far as I’m concerned.

It’s crucial to the success of The Apartment that we love Baxter unconditionally despite being able to see how much of a supine twit he is being. Nobody could carry this off the way Lemmon does. Neither could anyone else be quite so accomplished doing the business with the hat: “it’s what they call the Junior Executive model”.

The Apartment was made a short five years before I was born but, Canaveral and Castro references notwithstanding, this feels like an artefact from another era. Seven years after The Apartment was made Bonnie and Clyde was released and Hollywood power shifted to a younger cadre, generally less concerned with narrative complexity and ambiguity of character.

Lord knows I love the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls generation, but this kind of film is where my main allegiance lies.

If you are emotionally tough enough for the pummelling you have to take to get to the end titles you will find the pay off well worth your time.

A fabulous film, Christmas-wise and otherwise-wise.

Festive Films 1 – Trading Places

There are things lovelier about Trading Places than Jamie Lee Curtis’s breasts, but if they, the breasts, aren’t acknowledged right here at the beginning of paragraph one then they are just going to hang there, these breasts, on everyone’s mind.

“That’s fine him going on about the plot and the performances and all that malarkey”, you kind, enabling folk who read this might say. “But when is he going to mention the boobs? Because that’s what everyone remembers about this film. It’s the one where Jamie Lee got them out.”

Merry Christmas by the way.

We will leave her chest, with some regret on my part, entirely behind shortly, but before we do it is worth pointing out that Jamie Lee Curtis does not even appear in the film until the three-quarter hour mark and, grand and stately though her bosom may be, her breasts are merely the seventh and eighth to appear unclad in the film.

Their total screen time in two separate scenes (timecodes 00:58:15 and 01:07:32 embonpoint fans) is slightly under four seconds.

Here are some pictures.

Now can we please move on and consider the film’s other aspects? Crikey you people are obsessed! Get some help. And delete your browser history.

Trading Places is a film that has grown on me enormously over time. When it came out in 1983 I dismissed it rather pompously as being crass and unmannered. There was a grubby witlessness about it I thought, and a broadness that didn’t appeal to as refined a mind as mine.

I was eighteen and I was, evidently, a bit of a tool.

Several re-watchings over the years have left me very well-disposed to the film indeed though, and the more I see of the current generation of comedy movies the more I respect Trading Places for its warmth, intelligence, bonhomie and preparedness to engage with its own central concept.

Remember central concepts? They are what we used to find funny before sneering and ejectamenta were invented.

The principal concern of the movie’s story is nature versus nurture. Two elderly stockbroker brothers, played with considerable élan by Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche, cause one of their privileged employees (Dan Aykroyd) to lose his career, his fortune, his good name and his fiancée all in one day. They replace him with a jive-talking, rascally, homeless chancer (Eddie Murphy) to see whether or not breeding will assert itself.

The answer the writers come up with is not especially profound (something along the lines of be true to yourself whatever the circumstances and things will work out OK), but we aren’t here for the Platonic dimly-perceived ideals. We’re here to be entertained.

And the breasts. Some of us are here for those too.

So, is it entertaining? Hell, yes.

Director John Landis can be a puzzle. You never quite know what you are going to get. I am not personally a fan of the Rabelaisian excesses of National Lampoon’s Animal House, but I am permanently in thrall to the sheer ebullience and love of life on display in The Blues Brothers. I don’t find Burke & Hare to be the cultural atrocity some make it out to be, but I can’t bear the torpid smugness of Spies Like Us. In fact the only reason Spies Like Us is in my frontline library at all is that it has cameo appearances by Ray Harryhausen, Derek Meddings, Sam Raimi and Joel Coen.

What, surely, we can all agree on however is that An American Werewolf In London is something a bit special: funny and frightening, touching and fiercely accurate in its outsider’s view of what was good and bad about Britain in the early eighties.

Trading Places is one of Landis’s best anyway, and you know it right from the opening montage of a pre-Christmas Philadelphia set to Mozart’s overture from The Marriage of Figaro.

(Yes you do. It goes diddle-iddle-oo, diddle-iddle-iddle-iddle-iddle-iddle-oo.)

Structurally it is very pleasing, taking time to establish that Aykroyd’s and Murphy’s characters are both weaselly enough that they deserve what’s coming, but also that they are both genuinely nice enough that the inevitable redemptive outcome is welcome.

Writers Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod, whose subsequent oeuvre is less glorious than one might have hoped (Twins? Kindergarten Cop?), have here nailed a dramaturgical necessity: that your characters must descend very deeply indeed for their eventual triumph to have an emotional effect.

The set-up is most clearly indebted to Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, but the overall feel is more Dickensian (as befits what is basically a Christmas movie). There is a swagger to the main characters, an almost hyper-reality to them that makes them completely stand out from the scenery and supporting ensemble. There is also a good-naturedness and belief in humanity that comes from the school of Dickens rather than the more sardonic Clemens college.

Landis was fortunate or skilful enough to catch all of his actors at pretty much the top of their game. It’s hard to remember that Eddie Murphy was ever as engaging and lovable as he is here. Aykroyd must just have been coming out of that post-Belushi quagmire but displays here a range I’ve never seen from him since. Curtis is a comic revelation (still five years away from A Fish Called Wanda, and best known at that time for her Halloween, Prom Night, Terror Train imperilled damsel routine). And the sainted Denholm Elliott takes the snooty butler role John Gielgud pioneered in Arthur and adds a beguiling, twinkly dimension to it.

I’m glad I took the time to watch this again. It is a film which celebrates all that is good about Christmas but which also acknowledges the darkness and venality in us just enough to cut through the schmaltz.

God willing and weather permitting I’ll be looking at a few more festive fillums over the next two weeks or so. I’m planning The Apartment, Gremlins, It’s A Wonderful Life, Elf, Bad Santa, Die Hard and A Muppet Christmas Carol (which famously has no undraped breasts in it). Please feel free to join in or recommend any movies I could usefully add to the list.