The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 12 – The Superlative Seven

Charlotte Rampling and Diana Rigg

 

Charlotte Rampling, Donald Sutherland and Brian Blessed are the standout names in The Superlative Seven, a title suggesting this episode is going to borrow heavily from The Magnificent Seven of seven years before. In fact it’s more a reworking of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, with a bit of Hunger Games thrown in (appropriately, since a five-decades-older Sutherland would be prominent in that).

 

Blessed was probably the best known of the three at the time, having been a key cast member of the hit UK show Z Cars, though Rampling was close behind, Georgy Girl having made her a name the year before. Sutherland? More a familiar face than a big name, TV shows on both sides of the Atlantic making up much of his CV.

 

The Superlative Seven has cinematic ambition, though, and director Sidney Hayers does as much as he can in the confines of a studio to suggest scale, movement and the passing of time in a plot that sees the action move from a fancy-dress party on a plane to a big old house where the seven invitees are set against each other, six oven-ready coffins indicating the ultimate destination for most of them.

 

The introductions are done swiftly – Sutherland on a technicolor red set as the dojo of a martial arts school, Steed in an admiral’s uniform, full red (again) jacket and cockaigne hat, Rampling one of the other guests Steed meets when he first gets on the plane where the party is taking place.

 

“I’m Wild,” she purrs. “Hana Wild.” Rampling looks anything but, a slip of a girl at 19, she looks half afraid of the camera, but it’s a decent enough attempt at corny humour by writer Brian Clemens.

 

John Steed in admiral costume
Admiral John Steed is piped aboard

 

Last man on the plane is Blessed, dressed as an executioner, complete with big chopper – a gag Clemens leaves in his box. This rum gang – a pretend bullfighter and big game hunter among the generally not-very-PC partygoers – soon learn that each has been invited to this party by a different host. When they go to ask the pilot what’s going on… there is no pilot. The plane is being flown automatically. Hi-tech whizzbangery to impress the 1967 viewer.

 

Soon the plane has touched down on a mystery island, where Steed and fellow invitees have to kill each other in order to avoid death themselves – that’s the Hunger Games bit. Sutherland, he’s the bad hat controlling the “game”, and watching everything play out via CCTV (more whizzbangery).

 

Diana Rigg has clearly been given the week off, with Mrs Peel only turning up right at the end, in the nick of time as luck would have it, to save the day. She’s also dressed in red actionwear (athleisure, we’d probably call it today), this being the key colour of the episode.

 

This is the sort of plot that Clemens could churn out in his sleep – eccentric characters in a half-borrowed scenario with a sprinkling of paranoia to add spice.

 

That it works so well is largely down to director Hayers, who’s determined to keep things moving, helped by art and costumes departments who are all pushing in the same cinematic direction.

 

That’s reinforced when you watch the episode on the Canal Plus restored discs I’ve got. The colours zing, the image is pin sharp. Too sharp at times – Patrick Macnee is replaced by a stunt double every time the action gets going. It’s something you wouldn’t have noticed on TV at the time, but 50+ years on, on a big high-resolution TV, it’s glaringly obvious.

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

  

Don’t Look Now

Julie Christie in Don't Look Now

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

25 March

 

The founding of Venice, AD421

On this day in the year AD421, Venice was founded. Sited on 118 islands in a lagoon between the mouths of the rivers Po and Piave, Venice derives its name from the Veneti people who lived in the region in the 10th century BC, though the people who actually founded the city were more likely refugees fleeing the Germanic and Hun invaders who were flooding into Italy as the Roman empire fell apart. Today is traditionally taken as the day of the city’s founding because on this day in 421 the church of San Giacomo was dedicated. It still stands, though it was substantially rebuilt by order of the doge Marino Grimani after a fire destroyed much of the area.

 

 

 

Don’t Look Now (1973, dir: Nicolas Roeg)

It’s often remembered as the film in which Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie have sex for real for the camera, though that story smacks of brilliant PR rather than Perez Hilton-style tittle-tattle. But Don’t Look Now’s most talked about scene is important for another, more structural reason. It’s the way that in the editing of the scene the action keeps cutting between the present and the future. The story of John and Laura Baxter, a young married couple whose daughter has died in a drowning accident, Don’t Look Now has already shifted location from misty England to Venice where, as some sort of sublime joke, the Baxters are meant to be recovering from their loss in the world’s most watery city. He’s restoring a cathedral as part of his work; she’s quietly going nuts.
And it’s in the cutting that Roeg and editor Graeme Clifford signal Laura’s disintegration, the way they collage together images of the here and now with suggestions of what’s to come, or of this world of solid mass with an alternative world which is just out of reach. Enter two sisters, one of whom can “see” the Baxters’ dead daughter. Enter a priest, too worldly by half. Exit Laura, to sort out some problem back home. And here, after much suggestion and foreshadowing, the film goes into its most famous sequence, as the entirely rational John starts chasing around the spookily empty Venice after a hooded figure in a red coat just like the one his daughter was wearing the day she died. There’s nothing overtly “horror” about this film; it doesn’t do “boo” scares or feature mad axe-wielding psychopaths. It works on the senses in a different way, insidiously, by suggestion, the film built shot by shot like some baroque fugue – themes are stated, restated with embellishment, echoed, reversed, until (ta daa) we reach the final reveal. Plot junkies won’t like the ending. It’s too abrupt, seems like too sudden a change of direction. Yet as Laura glides away with the two mysterious sisters on boat across the water – allusion to Greek mythology surely deliberate – surely it’s the best ending possible for a film that’s been about the boundary between the solid and the ethereal.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Nicolas Roeg’s best film
  • Probably the most subtle gothic horror ever made
  • Perfect Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie
  • A masterclass in cinematography and editing

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Don’t Look Now – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Mash

Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould

An on-screen statement, put there at the behest of a nervous film studio, claims this film is about the goings-on at a field hospital during the Korean War. That statement apart, this is obviously a film about Vietnam, a war the Americans had already lost at home, if not yet out on the field of battle.

Now, decades later, from the other end of the countercultural telescope, Mash’s relentless portrayal of the military hierarchy as being overrun by charlatans and buffoons seems a bit old hat.

But the director making it had earned the right to his opinion. Robert Altman was a veteran of the Second World War who’d gone on to become a maker of industrial films, exploitation films and TV dramas. Unlike the other hotshot countercultural guys of the early 1970s – Lucas, Spielberg, Bogdanovich etc – Altman was no long-hair. He was 45 when he made Mash and, by the by, he had very little hair at all.

This was his breakout movie and it sent its anti-authoritarian heroes – Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland as the two brilliant army surgeons with specialisms in skirt and the cocktail olive – straight to the A list.

Made in the now-customary but then revolutionary style of laying story upon story, dialogue overlapping all over the place, it drops the audience right into the thick of the action and then lets them work out for themselves what’s going on.

It looks only a touch less naturalistic now than it did in 1970 – very few people are as witty as scriptwriter Ring Lardner Jr makes these guys look – but the brilliance of Altman’s film-making holds up.

Mash – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013


Don’t Look Now

Donald Sutherland in Don't Look Now

 

 

 

 

It seems an odd thing to say, but most films aren’t really that cinematic. Most films, you could close your eyes and follow them. Not so with Nicolas Roeg’s “arthouse horror”. Close your eyes and you’re lost. In fact, even with your eyes open, all is not as it appears. Take the infamous love-making scene played out between grieving parents Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. It’s not the “were they doing it for real” question that marks it out as significant but the fact that Roeg keeps intercutting this ultimate example of living in the now with scenes from a few minutes later – when the duo are absent-mindedly getting dressed, ready to go out. This scene is emblematic of the film, which hovers between the here and the not-here, the what-they-are and the what-they’re-not. Look at what’s on offer – a loving couple whose marriage seems to be on the rocks; a recently dead daughter who appears to be popping up all over Venice, itself a city hanging between two states, the water and the sky. Then there’s the two weird sisters, one who sees (she’s clairvoyant) but doesn’t see (she’s blind); the crumbling church Sutherland is restoring, which hovers between existence and extinction; a man of the cloth who seems more worldly than any other character in the film – the examples go on and on. And they all add up to one of the most psychologically complex, visually distinctive horror movies ever made. Do look now.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

Don’t Look Now – at Amazon