Tuesday 30 December 2014

Eric Rohmer at the BFI 2015

Eric Rohmer: everyday miracles of a New Wave master
Meeting for drinks. Going to the beach. Family dinners. Eric Rohmer was a visionary who dealt in the down-to-earth, argues Michael Newton, as the BFI prepares to celebrate the French director

Michael Newton
Friday 26 December 2014

It's Christmas Eve, and a warm, beautiful woman asks a man to join her in bed. They met for the first time that evening. While they have been talking in her room, the snow has fallen. In another room, her young daughter sleeps. Only days ago, the man has decided that he will marry a young woman he has seen at mass, a complete stranger to him. He won’t weaken now, won’t complicate things. But there they are snowed in together; he cannot get home. He says “No”, and attempts to sleep in the armchair across from her bed. Realising his silliness, he compromises; he pads across the space between them, and lies down beside her, chastely on the outside of her white fur blanket. At the turning of the year, at the height of the 1960s, and Performance and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, in France, this is how they spend the night.
My Night at Maud's (1969)

“Idiot,” the woman murmurs, drowsily. And we both completely agree with her, and yet cannot help but admire the man’s clumsy, life-denying rigour; but most of all we’re lost in that moment, in that room, with those lives, in that midwinter stillness of snow.
My Night at Maud's (1969)

About 25 years ago when I first saw this scene in Eric Rohmer’s My Night with Maud (Ma Nuit Chez Maud) (1969), I knew that I had found (along with Hitchcock, Lubitsch and Michael Powell) the film-maker for me. Not everyone shares this enthusiasm. In Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975), Susan Clark invites her private-eye husband Gene Hackman to watch a Rohmer film with her.
My Night at Maud's (1969)

“I don’t think so,” Hackman drawls. “I saw a Rohmer film once; it was kind of like watching paint dry.” It may not be the most fresh-minted putdown, but for many it was a sentiment to which their bosoms returned an echo. Most people know that Rohmer is very French, very chilly, very flat and very static. However, what most people know is entirely wrong. He explores situations of universal interest with warmth, an openness to visual beauty and, at times, a feel for suspense that shows his debt to Hitchcock. The accusation that he’s “literary” and that his films are “talky” is truer – but to me, the passion, the observational intelligence, the humour of those conversations is bliss. Rohmer comprehends the beauty of the almost.
Claire's Knee (1970)

Eric Rohmer was actually named Maurice Schérer; he took his pseudonymous first name from the silent movie director Stroheim and his surname from the creator of Fu-Manchu. After working as a teacher and in a university, Rohmer’s passion for film led, around the beginning of the 1950s, to a stint as a film critic, working at the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma alongside his cinéphile friends – Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. For all of them, the real aim was to make movies. Together they transformed film criticism, and, from around 1959, as the directors of the French New Wave rejuvenated French – and indeed world – cinema. Over the next 50 years, Rohmer produced around 26 feature films, many of them part of three series: the Six Moral Tales; in the 1980s, six Comedies and Proverbs; and through the 1990s, Tales of the Four Seasons. His last film appeared in 2007; he was then 87 years old.
Perceval (1978)

His first great success was those Six Moral Tales, which possibly remain his best work. There’s a tendency in British life to confuse “moral” with “moralistic”. Rohmer’s later use of the word “proverbs”, too, might carry a bad odour, suggesting words of wisdom that merely settle everything. But watching Rohmer’s films is never like that. The light is clear, but we’re still bewildered, amazed; they refuse neatness, solutions elude us, and we slip past the definitive things. What is perhaps really meant by “moral” in these six wonderful films is that they explore how their characters engage with life, respond to experiences, relate to others, love, desire and believe. The fault of the sometimes maddeningly irritating central male figures is that they do so according to a scheme.
The Collector (1967)

Rohmer asserted: “Truth isn’t found in assertions.” In The Collector (La Collectionneuse) (1967), having been apparently derailed by events the hero pronounces: “I come back to my theory.” In that line is the key to all the moral tales, to many other of Rohmer’s films, and (this British writer suspects) to much of French culture. In these films, everyone has their theory of love, and if they believe that one cannot have a theory of love, well, then that’s their theory. According to their theories, all the various heroes have decided on the woman they want; they then immediately face distraction from another woman they might, if they let themselves, want more. They are forced to face the chasm in their own policy; these are films that often end with a man fleeing.
The Collector (1967)

For all its vein of dandiacal puritanism, with its crop-topped heroine and its mop-topped young men, Rohmer’s first success La Collectionneuse looks hip, even groovy, and might have misled audiences into believing that Rohmer would be a modish film-maker. Sixties scenester Zouzou as Chloé in Love in the Afternoon (L’Amour l’après-midi) (1972) cannot help but look anything but stylish. But after that movie, his characters never look ahead of fashion again; one nagging, though minor weakness of the Comedies and Proverbs films is how they force us to revisit the horrors of 80s fashion.
Love in the Afternoon (1972)

The best of the series are probably The Aviator’s Wife (La Femme de l’aviateur) (1981) and The Green Ray (Le Rayon Vert) (1986). The first is a film in the vein of Hitchcock (and Rohmer even makes a Hitchcock-style cameo appearance in it). Its premise is that as films require plot, so people similarly need a purpose, something on their mind, an end that they really want to achieve. As one character says, “Personally, I like life when it’s most like a novel.” Graced with such purpose, the middle of the film proceeds like an off-beat detective thriller, a sweet centre of flirtation and intention, but it is bracketed by dissonance, dispute and aimlessness. Described like that, it may sound like an essay, but it’s a delight, Rohmer’s cousin to Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery.
The Aviator's Wife (1981)

The fun in The Aviator’s Wife is a quality not often associated with Rohmer. In her elegy for Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop wrote, “‘Fun’ – it always seemed to leave you at a loss.’ Rohmer’s films are full of people similarly left at such a loss. For them, a holiday is an existential crisis. This can be seen most clearly in The Green Ray, in the case of lonely singleton Delphine (played brilliantly by Marie Rivière), a woman desperate to find someone with whom she can go on holiday. While it is tempting to say The Green Ray is Bridget Jones’s Diary without the jokes (or the calories), actually Rohmer’s movie is, on occasion, horribly funny. (In the course of events Delphine encounters an assortment of the least attractive men ever to be immortalised on film – Rohmer was as interested in pick-ups as Andy Warhol.) The film moves seamlessly between documentary-like scenes (a cab driver discusses his lifetime of holidays), aching comedy, and moments of a strangely yearning symbolism.
The Aviator's Wife (1981)

People persist in asking Delphine, “Why are you crying?” She spends much of the film running from people. She’s a difficult person, perhaps – one of dozens in Rohmer’s films. They are all engaged in defining themselves, but are also constantly being defined by others. They know, or seek to know, how they love, who they love. Delphine is less articulate than Rohmer’s other central characters. She cannot express what makes her different, but nor can she help being so. It’s not easy being green. (We even see her having one of those self-justifying conversations that vegetarians regularly had to endure at dinner parties in the 1980s.)
The Green Ray (1986)

What’s most interesting about The Green Ray is that an easily-missed tendency in all his contemporary films suddenly becomes manifest. Early in his career, Rohmer had said, “Everything is a miracle”. Like A Winter’s Tale (Conte d’Hiver) (1992) after it, The Green Ray offers the viewer marvels that stretch our ability to credit them. His films – and particularly these two films – affirm coincidence, just as Rohmer himself liked to leave room for happy accident in the making of his films. They allow a space for correspondences, for a magic of the everyday; they are seeing things.
The Green Ray (1986)

What’s so striking is that this visionary sense occurs in the most down-to-earth, mundane environment. With the exception of his fine historical films, Rohmer’s movies are rooted in the lives we all live, which most films ignore: sitting on buses, waiting for trains, meeting friends for drinks, family dinners, going to work. He’s the Balzac of cinema, constructing a large, human comedy based on rootedness in a social realm and designed to explore experiences and conflicts that are as old as the human race itself. Balzac wrote novels, where Rohmer fabricated tales – small fables of life, limited but suggestive of farther visions.
The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007)

After making films exploring the France of his lifetime, as well as works set in Romantic Germany, revolutionary Paris and Arthurian legend, Rohmer closed his career with a work set in Arcadia. If there was ever a “late work” in cinema, akin to Verdi’s Falstaff or Shakespeare’s last plays, then it’s Rohmer’s The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (Les Amours d’Astrée et de Céladon) (2007). Based on Honoré d’Urfé’s early 17th-century pastoral romance, it should be absurd. The style falls between an Oxbridge fresher’s production of Milton’s Comus, a New Age nativity play and an eisteddfod. It is also an extraordinary film, high among Rohmer’s achievements.
The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007)

A tale of a prohibition against seeing someone is apt for a film, necessarily dedicated to the visual. More than this, this last great movie seems to me to have offered this century’s best response so far to a culture saturated with porn. Rohmer’s film is undoubtedly erotic, but by some miracle of art is naturally so. Porn exists as taboo’s parasite, but when it comes to desire and the body, Astrée et Céladon is too pure to recognise taboo’s necessity. It was a fitting end to a quietly magnificent career. Eric Rohmer’s films are miracles of art.

• The Eric Rohmer season is at the BFI, London, SE1 8XT, from 4 January - 18 March. See http://www.bfi.org.uk/


Sunday 28 December 2014

Noir of the Week #2: The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Felix Feist, 1947)

The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Felix Feist, 1947)

This is a fast-paced B-movie film noir, lasting barely more than an hour, starring Lawrence Tierney (who some people, sadly, may only remember from his turn in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs) as a small time crook who hitches a ride to Los Angeles after he has murdered a movie theatre cashier.

His driver is the happy-go-lucky soused salesman, Jimmy Ferguson (Ted North) and like any good film noir, chance meetings like this can only lead to more trouble.

While family-man Jimmy is on the pay phone reassuring his wife, Morgan insults the young daughter of the gas station attendant (“With those ears she’ll probably fly before she can walk.”) and invites two young women along for the ride, during which, the three become inextricably caught up in his ever-more complicated plan of escape, Characters and audience both are lured or forced along the numerous narrative detours associated with the genre and, indeed, it is this narrative aspect that classifies the film as borderline noir because many of the standard generic conventions are absent – the femme fatale (though hitchhiker Agnes Smith (Betty Lawford) is certainly conniving and self-serving), the nuanced use of expressionistic shadow and light cinematography, flashbacks and first person-narration, which, admittedly, is something that tends to be associated with the novels more than the movies.

Eventually, it dawns on Jimmy that the police posse led by the entertainingly smart-mouthed Detective Owens (Harry Shannon) and including the afore-mentioned gas station attendant, riled, the audience is led to believe, by the comments made about his child) are after Morgan, but by that time, the quartet are hiding out at a beach house in Newport and the enclosed space only serves to escalate the tension, à la Archie Mayo’s The Petrified Forest (1936) or William Wyler’s The Desperate Hours (1955), until its denouement. The ending – and I make no apologies for the spoiler – was apparently forced on director Feist by RKO. As Morgan is cut down by police bullets, there is a transition to Jimmy in his car, but this time with his wife, who announces she is pregnant: the American nightmare is over and family life and middle-class respectability conquers all.

Although sharing some similarities to two superior movies, Edgar G, Ulmer’s Detour (1945) and Ida Lupino’s excellent The Hitch-Hiker (1953), this is by no means a major example of the genre, but it’s still a riveting film, hinging on the brilliantly unhinged performance of Tierney, one moment charismatic; the next, brutal and predatory with a crazed touch of Lady Macbeth, as he bends down on his knees to clean a spot off a rug after he has trashed a house.

Wednesday 24 December 2014

Jeremy Lloyd RIP

Jeremy Lloyd obituary
Actor and screenwriter who was co-creator of popular TV comedies such as Are You Being Served? and ’Allo ’Allo

Stuart Jeffries
Tuesday 23 December 2014

Jeremy Lloyd, who has died aged 84, is best remembered for co-creating with his fellow comedy writer David Croft the television shows Are You Being Served? and ’Allo ’Allo. Both were innuendo-laden, populated with pantomime grotesques and were accused by sniffier critics of being sexist, racist, misogynist and homophobic. The former ran on the BBC from 1972 to 1985 and was set in the ladies’ and gents’ clothing departments of Grace Brothers department store, a kind of dilapidated retailing equivalent of British Leyland. It starred Mollie Sugden as a stereotypical battleaxe, Mrs Slocombe, John Inman as a gay (in both senses) assistant, Mr Humphries, and Wendy Richard as Miss Brahms, the focus of heterosexual male interest.

’Allo ’Allo was set in a wartime cafe in occupied France, run by a proprietor ostensibly trying to help the allied war effort but really more concerned with groping his waitresses in the broom cupboard. It starred Gorden Kaye as René Artois, Carmen Silvera as his long-suffering wife, Edith, and Vicki Michelle as Yvette Carte-Blanche, one of the objects of his weekly thwarted lust. ’Allo ’Allo was accused of trivialising war, but that did not mar its popularity nor prevent it running, again on the BBC, for a decade, from 1982 to 1992.

But Lloyd easily might not have lived long enough to co-write these enduring and politically incorrect British sitcoms. In the 1950s, while working as a paint salesman, he was sent to investigate a buoy bobbing in the Thames estuary at Dead Man’s Reach. He stepped off the boat and stood on the buoy to study its anti-rust coating at close quarters. The buoy started to roll very slowly under his feet, so he started to walk to keep pace with it. At that moment, the boat due to return him to Greenwich disappeared over the horizon. Gangly, 6ft 4in, dressed in bowler hat and suit, with an umbrella hooked over his arm, Lloyd doubtless looked as though he was walking on water – or like an especially natty pelican.

As Lloyd recalled in his memoir, Listen Very Carefully, I Shall Say This Only Once (1993), a German cargo vessel’s crew reported seeing a bowler-hatted English gent walking very slowly for his life. Lloyd called across the waves: “I say, hello there.” British comedy would have been the poorer if they had not rescued him.

After eluding a watery grave, the salesman resolved to take up writing. “As a result of my life on the road and the increasing number of rainy afternoons in cinemas, I began to get the idea that I might write a film,” he recalled. He started a film script about the Loch Ness monster called What a Whopper! Two weeks later, he drove up to the gate of Pinewood Studios, Buckinghamshire, with the finished manuscript, demanded to see its executive producer, Earl St John, and convinced him to buy the script. The film was made, even though it was not that good and a team of writers was needed to turn it into a vehicle for Adam Faith in 1961. Lloyd parlayed its existence into a gag-writing career, first for Jon Pertwee and then for many other BBC light entertainment funnymen, such as Dickie Henderson and Morecambe and Wise.

He combined acting and writing for popular BBC light entertainment shows. “I knew I had arrived,” wrote Lloyd, “when taxi drivers would say, ‘You’re that twit on the Billy Cotton Show, aren’t you?’” That was an understatement: he was also that twit in School for Scoundrels (1960), Doctor in Clover (1966), and two Beatles films, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). What’s more, he was a transatlantic twit: he was lured to Hollywood to write for Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.

His career could have been different had he listened to the director Joseph Losey. When Losey was looking for an aristocrat to play opposite Dirk Bogarde in the Harold Pinter-scripted movie The Servant (1963), he sought Lloyd, who was playing a twit opposite Kenneth More in a film called We Joined the Navy (1963). “Ever played a homosexual?” asked Losey. “You’d be good.” Lloyd declined and James Fox got the part.

Lloyd once suggested he might never have been fortunate enough to have become a writer had he not been lucky enough to be such a failure at everything else. He was born in Danbury, Essex, son of an army colonel, Eric Lloyd. and a dancing Tiller Girl, Margaret (nee Lees). “My first failure was to be born a child not wanted by his father or mother, as they parted shortly after I was born.” He was packed off to boarding school (“quite the unhappiest days of my life”) where, underweight and puny, wearing spectacles with one glass blacked out and with a nose so prominent he was nicknamed Beaky, he became bully fodder.

He was raised by his grandmother in Didsbury, Manchester. Now and again, granny would point out his elusive mother as she passed by on a Manchester bus – her image was used in bus advertisements for Craven A cigarettes. After the second world war, Lloyd Sr invited his 15-year-old son to live in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, where he was in the habit of introducing Jeremy to friends as “Dead Loss, the son of dance-band leader Joe Loss”.

He became a plumber’s mate, then a light-bulb inspector. He then made the historically significant decision to apply for the post of, as he put it, “junior slave in the Gents’ Natty Suiting department” at Simpsons in Piccadilly, London. It was there he first heard the future catchphrases “I’m free!” and “Are you being served?” His father visited and, even though Lloyd got him a discount on some trousers, told his son it was not a proper job. Which is why he became a paint salesman. During this time, he married a model, Dawn Bailey; the couple divorced in 1962.

Once embarked upon his writing career, velvet-suited and happy, Lloyd swung through the 60s. He was briefly engaged to the actor Charlotte Rampling. He drove a Rolls-Royce and a Lotus. He wrote a Dracula movie for David Niven (typical scene: Niven holds up a Playboy centrefold and says: “My word, what a splendid pair of jugulars!”). Lloyd was friendly with Terence Stamp, Roger Moore, Twiggy, Peter Sellers, Diana Rigg and other 60s stars. In Hollywood, he became friends with Sharon Tate and her husband Roman Polanski. In his memoir, he recalls that Tate invited him for tea one Saturday, but he – fortunately – forgot to go. On that evening, 9 August 1969, she and four guests were murdered at her Los Angeles home by followers of Charles Manson.

In 1970 he married the actor Joanna Lumley (their marriage lasted from May to September). She suggested he write a sitcom based on his experiences at Simpsons. And he dropped a line to Croft – co-creator with Jimmy Perry of Dad’s Army, then running on the BBC – suggesting writing what turned out to be Are You Being Served?, the sitcom that ran for 69 episodes. It was so global in its bawdy reach that, legend has it, the opening of the Israel’s parliament once had to be delayed as it clashed with the show Knesset members loved.

Lloyd also wrote a detective series called Whodunnit? (1973-74), the sitcoms Oh Happy Band (1980) and Come Back Mrs Noah (1977-78), and a sequel to Are You Being Served? Grace and Favour (1992-93), as well as a Mittyesque novel, The Adventures of Captain Dangerfield (1973). Lloyd was, though, most proud of creating Captain Beaky and his band of animal adventurers (including Hissing Sid, Batty Bat and Timid Toad). He wrote poems and lyrics for the stage show and books, with illustrations by Keith Michell (the actor best known for his portrayal of Henry VIII) and music by Jim Parker. Thanks to being played incessantly on Radio 1 by Lloyd’s friend Noel Edmonds, the song Captain Beaky peaked at No 5 in the UK singles chart in 1980, and the stage show was a great popular, if not critical, success.

But it was another Croft-Lloyd collaboration, ’Allo ’Allo, that would prove even more successful than Are You Being Served? Some disliked its jaunty attitude to Hitlerian occupation and racial and sexual stereotyping; others enjoyed its unremittingly daffy characters, such as the tall gendarme who, for reasons that don’t bear an instant’s scrutiny, spoke to everybody in scarcely comprehensible Franglais, offering apercus such as: “It’s a gid loof, if you don’t wicken.”

Lloyd had such fun on the show that he became briefly engaged to Carole Ashby, who played the demented Louise of the Communist Resistance. Her catchphrase supplied the title of his memoir, which, strictly speaking, should have been spelled Leesten Vairy Carefully, I Shall Say Zees Arnly Wernce. ’Allo ’Allo was such a triumph that it ran to nearly 90 episodes. The BBC managed to sell the show to the Germans, who may have liked how its Nazis were depicted as harmlessly pervy and bumbling.

In 2011 Lloyd’s lineup for a Royal Albert Hall revival of Captain Beaky included Lumley and Roger Moore. The following year he was appointed OBE for services to comedy.

In 1992, Lloyd was married the actor Collette Northrop. Earlier this year he got married again, to the interior designer Lizzy Moberly, who survives him.

• Jeremy Lloyd, writer, born 22 July 1930; died 22 December 2014


Monday 22 December 2014

Joe Cocker RIP

Second FNB post in a day! What the hell. Did you know You Are Beautiful was at least co-written by Dennis Wilson? The more I hear it, the more it has unfinished DW all over it. The foolish fellow writing this obit can talk about the "schlocky power ballad Up Where We Belong," all he likes, but - and let's be entirely honest for once -  for a lot of people, that, You Are So Beautiful, be it by Dennis Wilson or Billy Preston, and his Beatles' cover are pretty much the whole show.

Not to take anything away from the guy's suffering. To paraphrase the great philosopher, Spine Millington, I didn't know he was ill.

Can we have a break on the deaths over Christmas/New Year, please? Just sayin'. Too much death. I'm through with it. As Donald Fagen, that great American commentator on social mores, has pointed out, "Fuck the fella in the bight nightgown."

Joe Cocker obituary
Sheffield-born rock star with a raucous vocal style whose 1968 version of With a Little Help from My Friends became his unofficial theme tune

Adam Sweeting
Monday 22 December 2014

In a musical career lasting more than 50 years, Joe Cocker, who has died of lung cancer aged 70, bounced between the euphoria of chart-topping success and the misery of drug and alcohol abuse. In the latter part of his life, the singer had re-established himself as a soulful interpreter of material from a broad range of songwriters.

Cocker’s background and upbringing in Sheffield, where he was born, son of Harold and Marjorie, established his credentials as a ballsy, salt-of-the-earth performer cut from stalwart working-class stock. At first it seemed as if the young Joe was destined for an unglamorous future working as a fitter for the East Midlands Gas Board. As his mother commented: “When Joe left school at 16, I thought he was going to take up gas fitting as a career. I even got him a lot of books on the subject, and he was interested in gas for a time, but there was always the music. He told me he didn’t want a job where he worked for years and years and then got presented with a gold watch at the end.”

Cocker gained his first toehold in music with the aid of his brother, Victor. He sang with Victor’s band the Headliners at a local youth club, then later played drums in Victor’s skiffle group, the Cavaliers. By 1963, they were transformed into Vance Arnold & the Avengers. He took the opportunity to reinvent himself as the vocalist Cowboy Joe, as the Avengers played warm-up gigs for better known names such as the Hollies. He also made guest appearances with other local artists including Dave Berry and the Cruisers.

Cocker was already beginning to develop the intense, raucous vocal style which would make him an international name, and he was spotted by the record producer Mike Leander, who helped him to make a demo recording. This earned him a contract with Decca records in 1964, for whom he made his debut on disc with a version of the Beatles tune I’ll Cry Instead. Despite Cocker’s convincing performance, the single failed to chart and the Decca contract lapsed.

After touring as an opening act for Manfred Mann and the Hollies, Cocker reverted to his gas board job, persevering with music in his free time. He struck up a songwriting partnership with the bass player Chris Stainton and, in 1965, the pair put together the first incarnation of the Grease Band, which included the guitarists Henry McCullough and Alan Spenner. Two years of club and pub dates, mainly in northern England, earned the band a committed following.

In 1968, EMI’s Regal Zonophone label released the Stainton/Cocker composition Marjorine – the performing credit read merely “Joe Cocker” – and it reached No 48 on the UK singles chart. Much more spectacular was his version of the Lennon/McCartney song With a Little Help from My Friends – Cocker’s friends on the recording session included the future Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page – which topped the UK charts that November. An enthusiastic public endorsement from the Fab Four themselves did Cocker no harm at all, and the song would become his unofficial theme tune.

With the British public converted to his cause, Cocker set about wooing the American market. A string of concert dates and TV appearances climaxed with his appearance at the Woodstock festival in August 1969, where his extraordinary performance of With a Little Help from My Friends, complete with unearthly screams, hideous grimaces and apparently uncontrollable bodily gyrations, became one of the most unforgettable sequences from the ensuing movie of the event.

The following year was another momentous one for Cocker. His album Joe Cocker!, produced by Leon Russell and Denny Cordell, earned critical raves and raced up the American charts. It also gave Cocker another hit, with a Beatles cover, She Came in Through the Bathroom Window. Then the Grease Band split up after Cocker cancelled an American tour, but the singer was warned by the US Immigration Department that his failure to fulfil the dates could jeopardise his future ability to work in the US. Cocker duly assembled the 21-piece collective known as Mad Dogs and Englishmen and undertook a punishing 65-date campaign packed into only 57 days. It spawned a bestselling double live album and accompanying feature film, but the sprawling and chaotic project left Cocker exhausted and facing a crippling pile of bills.

He lapsed into a long period of hard drinking and heroin addiction, and it was not until 1972 that he returned to the stage as part of the 12-piece line up known as Joe Cocker and the Chris Stainton Band. However, he was having difficulty keeping control, and was drinking so heavily that often he was barely capable of performing. That October, he was fined $1,200 in Australia following his arrest for possession of marijuana, then had to make a rapid exit from the country to avoid a list of further charges, including assault.

Cocker stumbled through the rest of the 1970s as a shadow of his former self, still touring and knocking out uneven albums, including Jamaica Say You Will (1975), Stingray (1976) and Live in Los Angeles (1976). However, he did manage to notch up a big hit in 1975 with You Are So Beautiful (which enjoyed a renaissance when it featured prominently in Brian De Palma’s 1993 film, Carlito’s Way), while a switch to Asylum Records in 1978 spurred the singer to raise his game with Luxury You Can Afford. Better still was his 1982 release on Island records, Sheffield Steel, which featured powerful performances of songs by Jimmy Webb, Bob Dylan and Steve Winwood and remains arguably the definitive Joe Cocker album.

Cocker confirmed his resurgence with his duet with Jennifer Warnes on the schlocky power ballad Up Where We Belong, from the hit movie An Officer and a Gentleman (1982). The song won a Grammy and an Oscar.

Subsequently, his career saw him coasting along comfortably, enjoying respect from his peers and loyalty from a broad international audience, though somewhat lacking in further artistic landmarks. In his determination to stay on the wagon, he received unstinting support from his wife Pam, whom he married in 1987. As a diversion from the music industry, the couple joined the trend for celebs to get into the catering business by opening the Mad Dog Ranch café in Colorado.

Through the 80s and 90s, Cocker released a string of albums including Unchain My Heart (1987), One Night of Sin (1989) and Night Calls (1991), all of which sold respectably if unspectacularly. More convincing was Have a Little Faith (1994), which was well received internationally and generated a couple of minor UK hit singles with Take Me Home and Let the Healing Begin. A&M seized the moment to release a four-disc box set entitled The Long Voyage Home (1995), a thorough survey of his career, which helped to remind anybody who had not been listening closely of the breadth and longevity of Cocker’s catalogue.

Not that Cocker’s accomplishments had been overlooked by music industry insiders. He had become a regular guest at assorted big-ticket rockbiz shindigs such as the Prince’s Trust Rock Gala and Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday Tribute, both in 1988. In 1989 he appeared at an inauguration party for the new US president, George HW Bush. He popped up at Rock In Rio II in 1991 and at the Montreux jazz festival in 1992, and came full circle by joining the bill for Woodstock II in 1994.

In 2002, he joined Phil Collins on drums and the Queen guitarist Brian May to perform With a Little Help from My Friends at the Party at the Palace concert held for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. He was appointed OBE in 2007 and played concerts in London and Sheffield to mark the event.

In the same year, his 20th studio album Hymn for My Soul, a collection of songs by such greats as Stevie Wonder, Dylan, John Fogerty and the Beatles, took him back into the UK top 10. Hard Knocks (2010) topped Billboard’s independent albums chart.

In March 2011 Cocker performed at a benefit concert for the R&B guitarist Cornell Dupree, who had played with him live and on record, at BB King’s Blues Club in New York, and who died a few weeks later. During a concert at Madison Square Garden in September this year, Billy Joel paused to pay tribute to Cocker, surprising listeners by commenting that he was “not very well right now” and proposing him for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Cocker will be remembered as one of the most soulful white rock singers to have emerged from Britain – the only homegrown performers comparable to him might be Free’s Paul Rodgers or Family’s Roger Chapman.

Perhaps more importantly, he showed enough character to fight his way back after being written off as another casualty of 70s rock’n’roll excess.

He is survived by Pam.

• Joe Cocker (John Robert Cocker), singer, born 20 May 1944; died 22 December 2014


Billie Whitelaw RIP

Billie Whitelaw obituary
Actor whose compelling presence inspired new works by Samuel Beckett and made her a chilling nanny in The Omen

Michael Coveney
Monday 22 December 2014

“I could have easily have become a nun, or a prostitute, or both,” said Billie Whitelaw, who has died aged 82. Instead, she claimed that acting had allowed her to use both these sides of herself in a career that included theatre, films, television – and a special place in the affection and inspiration of Samuel Beckett.

By the time the playwright died in 1989, Whitelaw had established herself not only as one of his favourite interpreters, if not the favourite, but also as one of his trusted confidantes.

Her voice had as big an effect on Beckett as that of the Irish actor Patrick Magee. When he saw her in his work Play in a National Theatre production at the Old Vic in 1964 – occupying one of three urns alongside Rosemary Harris and Robert Stephens – he determined to write especially for her.

The result was Not I, a 16-minute monologue for a jabbering mouth picked out in a dark void. Although Jessica Tandy played the first performances in New York in 1972, Whitelaw’s pell-mell, pent-up words of a lifetime were a sensation at the Royal Court theatre in London the following year. She called the experience “the most telling event of my professional life”.

Beckett then directed her in the premiere of Footfalls (1976), a rapt dialogue for a woman and her unseen mother; also in a revival of Happy Days (1979) – in which the post-nuclear Winnie is seen buried up to her waist, then her neck – both at the Royal Court. When Winnie sang her love song to the waltz of The Merry Widow, she did so just as Beckett had sung it to her, in a frail and quavering voice.

Rockaby, which Whitelaw first performed in New York in 1981, and in the following year at the National in London, was an entirely submerged Winnie, a gaunt human relic in a black dress covered in jet sequins, rocking herself to oblivion while listening to a recording of her own voice.

One of the attractions of Whitelaw for Beckett was her intellectual innocence. There was no attempt to justify the work. She performed what he wrote and became, much to her own surprise, a lecturer on the American college circuit, though she only ever talked about the plays she knew and had appeared in. “Like many men,” she said, “the older he got the more attractive he became – at least as seen through a woman’s eyes.”

Billie Whitelaw was born in Coventry, on a housing estate owned by the General Electric Company, to Perceval, an electrician, and Frances (nee Williams). A shadowy “Uncle Len” lived in the same house, with Billie’s mother and her elder sister, Constance. In her autobiography, Billie Whitelaw...Who He? (1995), Whitelaw said that she always had two men in her life: two fathers, then husband and lover, later husband and son.

Her parents came from Liverpool, where Billie lived at the start of the second world war before the family moved to Bradford in 1941. There she went to Thornton grammar school and the Grange grammar school for girls.

In 1943 she was sent to the Bradford Civic Playhouse, then run by JB Priestley and the formidable Esme Church, in an attempt to rectify her stutter. She was soon playing children’s roles on the radio, and met Joan Littlewood and Ewan MacColl at the BBC in Manchester.

When Billie was 16, Littlewood asked her to join her acting group, but her parents would not let her. Instead, she joined Harry Hanson’s company in Leeds in 1948 and played in repertory theatres in Dewsbury, New Brighton and Oxford, where she worked with Peter Hall and Maggie Smith. She became one of the most familiar faces on television drama in the next two decades, usually cast as a battling working-class figure in either kitchen-sink dramas or what she called “trouble up at t’mill” plays.

Through John Dexter, who directed her in England, Our England (1962), a West End revue by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, she came to the attention of Laurence Olivier, and she joined his illustrious first company at the National in 1963, sharing a dressing room with Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith and Geraldine McEwan. Her time there included playing Desdemona to Olivier’s Othello.

Kenneth Tynan dubbed her “a female version of Albert Finney” (with whom she had a brief affair and longer friendship), and she had all those qualities of freshness, vitality and sensuality typical of the new postwar, beyond-London generation of actors on stage and screen. An unforced, gritty realism was complemented, in her case, with a natural voluptuousness.

For the Royal Shakespeare Company she appeared in John Barton’s 1980 epic ten-play cycle The Greeks as a grieving Andromache and the goddess Athene, sliding down on a cloud of dry ice, and in Peter Nichols’s mordantly brilliant Passion Play (1981) – a favourite project – in which her adulterous alter ego was Eileen Atkins. In 1983, she returned to the National as Hetty Mann, dipsomaniac wife of the novelist Heinrich Mann, in Christopher Hampton’s brilliant account of wartime European literary émigrés in Tinsel Town, Tales from Hollywood; the cast list included the movie stars Johnny Weissmuller, Chico and Harpo Marx, Greta Garbo, and dramatists Ödön von Horváth and Bertolt Brecht, but Whitelaw upstaged them all by entering a party bearing a birthday cake and wearing just a white mini-pinny.

Her last stage appearance – apart from her unceasing cycle of Beckett solo shows and readings – came in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Young Vic (1986), where she was a full-on slatternly Martha opposite Patrick Stewart’s intimidated, bespectacled George. In her autobiography she recounts how she was mysteriously struck by stage fright and struggled to complete the run.

She married the actor Peter Vaughan, nine years her senior, in 1952, and started a relationship with the writer and critic Robert Muller as the marriage failed; it ended in divorce in 1966. The following year she married Muller, and they had a son, Matthew.

Whitelaw’s film career was patchy; she made a more consistent mark on television, starting as a maid in an adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1952) and as Mary Dixon, daughter of the police constable played by Jack Warner in the first series of Dixon of Dock Green (1955). She took the role of Countess Ilona in two episodes of Supernatural (1977), written by Muller, and her TV work continued until the start of the new century.

Film appearances included Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972); The Omen (1976), as the chilling nanny Mrs Baylock; The Krays (1990), as Violet, the mother of the East End gangster brothers; and the police comedy Hot Fuzz (2007). She was at her vibrant, blowzy best in two early films with Finney, Charlie Bubbles (1967) and Gumshoe (1971). In 1991 she was appointed CBE.

Whitelaw divided her time between a flat in Hampstead and a cottage in Suffolk, and never quite believed her luck: “When I wake up at dawn, and that grey cloud of work anxiety is there, I only have to get up and open the window to feel so free and happy that I think I’m going to go off pop.”

She is survived by Matthew.

• Billie Honor Whitelaw, actor, born 6 June 1932; died 21 December 2014


Sunday 21 December 2014

Noir of the Week #1 Robert Siodmak and The Killers (1946)

Globe-Hopping With a Fatalistic Lens
Robert Siodmak Retrospective at Film Forum

J. Hoberman
6 July 2012

A HOLLYWOOD director once bracketed with Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak (1900-73) is credited by some scholars with developing the German-French-American synthesis known as film noir and dismissed by others as an impersonal technician whose greatest talent was successively adapting himself to three national movie industries and whose trademark on-set joke was “It stinks — print it!”

Cynical chameleon or rootless cosmopolite? Siodmak (pronounced See-ODD-mak) is, as the film historian Jean-Paul Coursodon put it, “one of the puzzling paradoxes of the American cinema.” He’s also the subject of a rare, nine-film retrospective as part of Film Forum’s celebration of Universal Pictures that starts Friday and runs through Aug. 9. Universal is where, having made movies in Weimar Berlin and pre-World War II Paris, Siodmak reinvented himself in the 1940s as an American director, and the retrospective includes films like “The Killers,” “Cobra Woman” and “Phantom Lady.”

Along with the other mainly Jewish, Central European émigrés who found refuge in Hollywood, Siodmak infused American crime thrillers with a mix of Expressionist brio and existential fatalism. The critic Andrew Sarris once joked that Siodmak’s “American films were more Germanic than his German ones.” It could also be said that the director’s low-budget debut, the insouciant plein-aire comedy “People on Sunday” (1930), made in Berlin’s public parks with a youthful group of future exiles (including Siodmak’s then flat-mate Billy Wilder and younger brother Curt) was more French than his French productions.

Looking to escape Paris for the United States, Siodmak would claim to have been born in Memphis and subsequently taken by his parents to Germany. The New York Times, which profiled the director at the height of his success, called him “the only native-born American with a foreign accent in Hollywood.” German sources give Siodmak’s actual birthplace as Leipzig or Dresden. In any case, it was Dresden where he grew up and defied his wealthy father to find work in the movies.

Universal’s main wartime attraction was the comedy team of Abbott and Costello, but the studio had a history of hiring German talent and a tradition of atmospheric horror films. Siodmak’s first Universal releases have a marked German subtext. The eponymous vampire in the grimly flavorsome “Son of Dracula” (1943), written by his brother Curt, brings a European contagion to America. More stylish than necessary, “Son of Dracula,” which is also part of the retrospective, secured Siodmak a seven-year contract. It also demonstrated that he could take fantasy seriously.

His next assignment, the flamboyantly Technicolor “Cobra Woman” (1944), with Maria Montez playing good and evil twins, gave this notoriously limited actress a surprisingly resonant vehicle. If there is a Siodmak touch, it is the sinister dance that the sarong-wrapped dictator of Cobra Island performs for her ecstatic subjects, who greet her writhing with an unmistakable version of the Nazi salute.

There’s another sort of reference to Hitler — and an equally delirious musical interlude — in Siodmak’s next movie. The killer in “Phantom Lady” (1944) is a megalomaniacal artist who links himself with the great criminals of history. Produced by the Hitchcock assistant Joan Harrison, “Phantom Lady” associated Siodmak with one of Hollywood’s leading filmmakers. “Something was bound to happen when a former Alfred Hitchcock protégée and a former director of German horror films were teamed on the Universal lot,” Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times, “something severe and unrelenting, drenched in creeping morbidity and gloom.”

And it did happen: “Phantom Lady,” in which spunky Ella Raines assigns herself to save a man framed for the murder of his wife, has a nightmarish quality and dreamlike flow that transcends the banality of its script. The movie’s chiaroscuro soundstage Manhattan often resembles the demonic Berlin of a Weimar silent film, but Siodmak was also alert to the possibilities of musical montage, most emphatically in the feverishly erotic jam session Raines attends in an after-hours jazz club.

“Christmas Holiday” (1944) — in which Siodmak was tasked with providing Universal’s stellar ingénue, Deanna Durbin, an adult role, namely a chanteuse in a New Orleans bordello — is a noir as odd as its title. It’s an intricately lighted gothic romance that casts Gene Kelly as a neurotic tough guy and makes near-surreal use of Wagner’s “Liebestod.” Siodmak was next given a pair of overly genteel films that, if not noir, were predicated on the noirish situation of a respectable man — Charles Laughton in “The Suspect” (1944) and George Sanders in “The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry” (1945) — driven by love to domestic homicide.

Then Siodmak was on loan to RKO for the lurid thriller “The Spiral Staircase” (1946). A week after this hit shocker opened, The New York Times reported that Siodmak was “disturbed by the many recently published references to him as ‘a second Alfred Hitchcock.’ ” His next Universal film, “The Dark Mirror” (1946), a doppelgänger mystery starring a twinned Olivia de Havilland, only reinforced that idea of Siodmak as a director of clever psychological thrillers. But Siodmak’s third release of 1946 was something else.
The luxuriantly bleak epitome of mid-’40s pessimism, “The Killers” confirmed the visual primacy of Siodmak’s style (particularly as realized by the cinematographer Elwood Bredell, who shot both “Christmas Holiday” and “Phantom Lady”) while revealing a new harshness of tone. Elaborating through flashbacks on the laconic Ernest Hemingway story of a doomed ex-boxer and the hit men sent to dispatch him, “The Killers” is a sort of deadly bolero in which the newcomer Burt Lancaster alternately awaits death and desperately pursues an elusive femme fatale (Ava Gardner in her first leading role).

Siodmak received an Oscar nomination for directing “The Killers,” which also garnered nominations for screenplay, score and editing — “The Spiral Staircase” and “The Dark Mirror” got nominations as well — and contemporary reviews of “The Killers” rarely fail to cite the director’s touch. The connoisseurs James Agee and Manny Farber were both impressed. Agee praised Siodmak’s “journalistic feeling for tension, noise, sentiment and jazzed-up realism.” Farber credited Siodmak with the movie’s “stolid documentary style” and “gaudy melodramatic flavor” while noting “the artiness (most noticeable in the way scenes are sculpted in dark and light).”

Siodmak was on loan to 20th Century Fox for “Cry of the City” (1948), then returned to Universal to surpass “The Killers” with an even more predetermined tale of a naïve chump, a faithless dame and a caper gone wrong. “Criss Cross” (1949), again starring Lancaster, now opposite Yvonne DeCarlo, includes several of the director’s great set pieces. The prolonged rumba in which the sultry DeCarlo dances with a pompadoured lounge lizard (an uncredited Tony Curtis, spotted by Siodmak among the extras) is as powerful as the jam session in “Phantom Lady”; an armored car heist pulled off in a miasma of tear gas appears as a battle of corpses; a hospital rub-out anticipates one of the most famous scenes in “The Godfather.”

With its quasi-documentary use of Bunker Hill in Los Angeles and the flat expanse of the San Fernando Valley, as well as the novelist Daniel Fuchs’s slangy script, “Criss Cross” is Siodmak’s most American film. It also signaled a thwarted shift in his interests. The director made an unsuccessful movie with Hollywood’s resident naturalist, the producer Louis De Rochemont, and worked with Budd Schulberg on what would become “On the Waterfront.” (Dumped from the project, Siodmak successfully sued the producer Sam Spiegel for $100,000.)

Having gone abroad to direct Lancaster in “The Crimson Pirate” (1952), Siodmak jumped ship to remain in Europe, making movies in Britain, West Germany and France. Cosmopolitan to the end, he capped his career with a pair of West German-Italian epics: “Pyramid of the Sun God” (1965), adapted from a novel by Karl May, and “The Last Roman” (1968). In between, he directed “Custer of the West” (1967) in Cinerama and Spain, from a script by two blacklisted Hollywood writers.

Severely re-edited for release in the United States, “Custer” appeared as the director’s final puzzlement. Reviewing it in The New York Times, Renata Adler saw signs that “somebody meant to try something fairly ambitious.” Custer appeared as “a thoroughly modern man who would have liked Camus” — an enigmatic fatalist, not unlike Siodmak.

The Killers (1946)
Bosley Crowther
29 August 29, 1946

Back in the gangster-glutted Twenties, Ernest Hemingway wrote a morbid tale about two gunmen waiting in a lunchroom for a man they were hired to kill. And while they relentlessly waited, the victim lay sweating in his room, knowing the gunmen were after him but too weary and resigned to move. That's all the story told you—that a man was going to be killed. What for was deliberately unstated. Quite a fearful and fatalistic tale.

Now, in a film called "The Killers," which was the title of the Hemingway piece, Mark Hellinger and Anthony Veiller are filling out the plot. That is, they are cleverly explaining, through a flashback reconstruction of the life of that man who lay sweating in his bedroom, why the gunmen were after him. And although it may not be precisely what Hemingway had in mind, it makes a taut and absorbing explanation as unreeled on the Winter Garden's screen.

For the producer and writer have concocted a pretty cruel and complicated plot in which a youthful but broken-down prize-fighter treds a perilous path to ruin. Mobsters and big-time stick-up workers get a hold on him, and a siren of no mean proportions completely befouls his career. In the end, we perceive that the poor fellow—who is bumped off in the first reel, by the way—was the victim of love misdirected and a beautiful double-cross.

This doesn't prove very much, obviously, and it certainly does not enhance the literary distinction of Hemingway's classic bit. But, as mere movie melodrama, pieced out as a mystery which is patiently unfolded by a sleuthing insurance man, it makes a diverting picture—diverting, that is, if you enjoy the unraveling of crime enigmas involving pernicious folks.

With Robert Siodmak's restrained direction, a new actor, Burt Lancaster, gives a lanky and wistful imitation of a nice guy who's wooed to his ruin. And Ava Gardner is sultry and sardonic as the lady who crosses him up. Edmond O'Brien plays the shrewd investigator in the usual cool and clipped detective style, Sam Levene is very good as a policeman and Albert Dekker makes a thoroughly nasty thug. Several other characters are sharply and colorfully played. The tempo is slow and metronomic, which makes for less excitement than suspense.


The Killers review – Philip French on Robert Siodmak’s first-rate Hemingway adaptation
(Robert Siodmak, 1946; Arrow, PG)

Philip French
Sunday 14 December 2014

Published in 1927, Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers is one of the great short stories of the 20th century. In a taut 3,000 words it recounts a visit to a small town outside Chicago by two laconic, wisecracking hit men, Max and Al, who take over a local diner one late afternoon to kill a regular patron, a down-and-out ex-boxer known as the Swede. When he doesn’t turn up they leave. Hemingway’s fictive alter ego, Nick Adams, is in the diner, and he goes to warn the Swede, who lies passive in his rooming house, making no effort to escape. Edward Hopper wrote to the publishers in 1927 to say he found it “refreshing to come upon such an honest piece of writing in an American magazine”, and it inspired his painting Nighthawks. The story’s influence ranges from Pinter’s The Birthday Party to Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, and there have been three film versions – this 1946 noir classic by Robert Siodmak, a 1956 film school exercise by Andrei Tarkovsky and a 1964 TV film by Don Siegel – which are compared in a visual essay accompanying this Blu-ray disc.

The original story never explains who wants the Swede killed or why he waits fatalistically for death, and the first 20 minutes of Siodmak’s film are a near perfect adaptation of the tale and Hemingway’s idea of grace under pressure. The screenplay (written by John Huston but credited to Anthony Veiller) cleverly weaves together a variety of familiar crime plots to answer the questions Hemingway left unanswered, most obviously how a decent man was lured from the straight and narrow by a femme fatale.

At the centre, in his first screen appearance, is Burt Lancaster as the Swede, a vulnerable, doomed loser of the sort he was often to play, with Ava Gardner in her first starring role as the alluring, duplicitous Kitty. Their chemistry is incendiary, and virtually everything round them is first-rate – Woody Bredell’s high contrast, low key black-and-white photography, a supporting cast led by Albert Dekker, Edmond O’Brien and Sam Levine, and music by the prolific Miklós Rózsa, who also composed the score for the Siodmak-Lancaster noir masterpiece Criss Cross (1949).