The Duellists

Feraud and d'Hubert duel

The Duellists is Ridley Scott’s feature debut and premiered in 1977, four years after his famous advert for Hovis bread (voted the UK’s favourite TV advert in a 2006 poll). Both are picturesque evocations of a world long gone – pre-War England, in the 45-second advert’s case, the world of post-Revolutionary France in the case of the solid 100 minutes of The Duellists.

The story is a true one – about two men in Napoleon’s army who fought a series of around 30 grudge duels over 19 years. Joseph Conrad had used the facts as the basis for a novella, and Scott’s screenwriter, Gerald Vaughan-Hughes, adapts them further with his screenplay, reducing the time frame to 16 years and the number of duels to five.

Scott had little money to make the film. No one would back an ad man. And so he made it on the cheap, shooting the film as a series of chapters, using real locations, exterior and interior, since he couldn’t afford costly set builds. He turned to Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, made two years before, for visual inspiration, with the extra bonus that shooting things this way – with as little artificial light as possible – meant fewer lights to hire in and fewer lighting techies to employ. Those two decisions – no sets, Barry Lyndon lighting – yoked to Scott’s eye for a visual are the making of the film, which is gloriously beautiful to look at.

The stars are Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel, both well cast since Carradine is playing the tall and patrician Armand d’Hubert, Keitel the stockier Gabriel Feraud. D’Hubert and Feraud are both soldiers in Napoleon’s army, the difference being that the former is a “natural” officer, the latter a man who has risen through the ranks and who carries a grudge against d’Hubert and “his kind”. Feraud is also a fanatical dueller who, once slighted by d’Hubert, simply will not let it lie.

A man stares out over a river
The film’s closing shot



The arc is similar to that of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – man of reason locked in a struggle with a man of emotion, the superego versus the id – which is ironic since Keitel was only available for this film because he’d been fired from Apocalypse Now (based on Heart of Darkness), where he was meant to have been playing the entirely reasonable Captain Willard.

In the same way that Marlon Brando’s Captain Kurtz acts as an offstage instigator, so does Harvey Keitel’s Gabriel Feraud in The Duellists, reappearing every now and again to demand another duel but largely existing as a troubling off-screen presence. The focus is squarely on d’Hubert.

The duels themselves are excellently fought, staged and shot. The men are limber. The sabres are real and look lethal. And the fight choreography is believeable. It’s by William Hobbs, who’d much later do similar great work on Game of Thrones.

Along with Howard Blake’s stirring score – halfway between Nyman and Morricone – and a supporting cast of the likes of Albert Finney, Edward Fox, Diana Quick and Robert Stephens, the total effect is of a massive over-reach, a go-for-broke gamble… that’s paid off.

“Advertising taught me everything I know,” Scott said when the Hovis ad was being remastered in 2019. It’s also been his go-to over the years, sometimes to his detriment. The picturesqueness of poverty is fine if you’re trying to generate a nostalgic glow to sell a loaf of bread, but gentle side lighting, warm-up filtration and a hint of soft on the lens doesn’t always work if you’re trying to convey brutal times as they actually were. Scott’s “ad man’s” eye does sometimes get the better of him in The Duellists, to put it another way. But at least he has an eye. The Duellists has got to be up there with his best looking films.



The Duellists – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



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© Steve Morrissey 2021









A Good Year

Marion Cotillard and Russell Crowe in A Good Year

 

In 1989 former adman Peter Mayle wrote a book about how he left the rat race behind and started a new life in France. A Year in Provence was its name and this humorous memoir set the tone for the TV series that followed, starring John Thaw as the escapee to the good life. Though director Alan Parker had been at the Ogilvy agency where Mayle was the UK’s creative head, it was another UK former commercials director, Ridley Scott, who decided to turn Mayle’s novel, about a stockbroker who gets fired and then inherits a vineyard from his uncle, into a film. And Scott stays true to type, laying on the warm amber filtration reminiscent of advertisements for reassuringly expensive French lager (Stella Artois is in fact Belgian, but that never seems to bother advertisers), while drafting in Russell Crowe to play the London City brute who learns of his bequest and heads off to Provence, which he hasn’t visited since he was a child. Once there, he continues his career as an utter bastard and prepares to sell the vineyard off, against the objections of his uncle’s loyal retainers. Surprisingly, things don’t pan out the way Crowe’s Max planned. Of course they don’t – surprises are the last thing Scott, Crowe and Mayle are serving up in this soufflé of stereotypes. Judged against Scott classics such as Alien or Blade Runner, A Good Year is never going to make the cut. But seen as a “holiday” movie for all concerned – Scott, it turns out, is Mayle’s near neighbour in Provence – it’s a pleasant piece of duvet viewing spiked with performances by the likes of Albert Finney (Max’s much loved uncle), Abbie Cornish (as Max’s long-lost cousin, who might want a slice of the estate) and Marion Cotillard (the local waitress Max falls for) which make it more than it might have been.

 

 

A Good Year – Watch it now at Amazon

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

American Gangster

Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in American Gangster

 

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

 

 

11 June

 

John F Kennedy proposes the Civil Rights Act, 1963

On this day in 1963, the US president, John F Kennedy addressed the nation. In his speech he called for legislation with would give all Americans “the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public – hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores and similar establishments”. He also called for equality before the law when it came to voting. His proposals would outlaw discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex or national origin and effectively sounded the death knell for racial segregation – in buses, diners, schools, wherever. The US Constitution’s 14th Amendment, adopted in 1868, guaranteeing equal protection under the law, had ventured into the same territory but it took the Civil Rights Act to finally make the change which made it illegal to treat African Americans (which is what both the 14th Amendment and Civil Rights Act were really all about) as second class citizens. The bill was written up and sent to Congress on 19 June, where it was reinforced. It then got bogged down on a procedural technicality in October in the House of Representatives, where the intention of some delegates was to keep it on ice indefinitely. The assassination of the president on 22 November 1963 made this blocking strategy untenable after the astute new president, Lyndon Johnson, in his first speech to a joint session of Congress, said “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honour President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.” Johnson had his way, though there were still compromises before the bill was finally, tortuously signed into law on 2 July 1964.

 

 

 

American Gangster (2007, dir.: Ridley Scott)

What do Civil Rights mean for a black man? In director Ridley Scott’s slightly cheeky hands they mean the liberty to do just what everyone else has been doing, and that includes becoming a drugs kingpin. And the more you think of it, there has been a dearth of black drug lords on the screens – two-bit hustlers on street corners, plenty. That’s not the only thing going on in this fascinating drama starring Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas, the Harlem heroin dealer importing drugs into the country on planes coming back from Vietnam, a smart guy on the rise; Russell Crowe as Richie Roberts, the honest (and therefore reviled by his fellows) cop on his case, the two men locked together in a dance towards the volcano’s edge. If that sounds entirely like your standard-issue cops’n’mobsters set-up, that’s exactly what American Gangster is, an exercise in stylistic pastiche. But it is a hell of an exercise. Running its twin-track stories in parallel – the gentleman gangster who’s good to his mother; the troubled cop who’s good to nobody, not even his “it’s me or the job” woman (Carla Gugino) – Ridley carefully builds the story, holding off a meeting of the two key players until near the end. This is one of those big finale showdowns, in which Washington and Crowe have one of those tense, long, actorly scenes that writers like, stars love and audiences tolerate. On the way to it, Scott gives Scorsese a soft pedal, though Frank Lucas’s mob-boss mom is a lift straight out of Goodfellas (is it any surprise to discover that Goodfellas writer Nicholas Pileggi is one of the executive producers?). Scott goes a bit harder on The French Connection  – that soft hazy, 60s/70s visual style is accurately captured, there’s a soundtrack straight from the Lalo Schifrin/Curtis Mayfield school of funky jazzy cool. You say derivative, I say homage. Whichever it is, Scott does it right, his actors and technicians do him proud and an intriguing story is told – a true one too – of a nobody who became a somebody by running a drugs empire the way you might run a department store (keep the staff and the customers happy). In the America of the Civil Rights era, the idea is, for the black man who wants a piece of the American Dream, this is one of the few ways to make that happen.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Steve Zaillian’s smart, incident-rich screenplay
  • The period look of Harris Savides’s cinematography
  • Marc Streitenfeld’s score
  • The muscular Washington/Crowe pairing

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

American Gangster – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Alien

Sigourney Weaver and cat in Alien

 

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

 

 

6 June

 

Alexis St Martin shot in the stomach, 1822

On this day in the 1822, a 20-year-old Canadian called Alexis Bidagan St Martin was shot in the stomach at close range at a fur trading post on Mackinac Island, Canada. He survived the musket blast and the wound healed, leaving a hole, a fistula, in his side which led right into his stomach. The man treating him, US army sergeant William Beaumont, noticed that all the food that St Martin ate was re-appearing from the fistula. Matters improved, St Martin’s digestion returned to normal though the wound healed to form a perfect conduit from the stomach to the outside world – the hole in the stomach had attached itself to the edge of the hole in the skin. Beaumont realised he had a window onto digestion itself, very poorly understood at the time, and set about a series of experiments which essentially entailed attaching bits of food to a string and dropping them in through the fistula into St Martin’s stomach. St Martin was a poor man and Beaumont had employed him as his servant, one of his duties being to put up with these experiments. They went on for the next 11 years. Beaumont published his findings, Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice, and the Physiology of Digestion, which was a groundbreaking work on the digestive system. Once out of Beaumont’s employ, St Martin moved to Quebec and refused to take part in any more experiments, though Beaumont frequently suggested it. Beaumont died in 1853; St Martin lived to be 78, dying in 1880.

 

 

 

Alien (1979, dir: Ridley Scott)

Is Alien the most important sci-fi film of the 1970s? No, that’s Star Wars, obviously. But, like Star Wars, Alien is trying to break free of the shiny new world of sci-fi that had been dominant until then, in which clean-limbed astronauts in pristine space gear had adventures in aseptic spaces, while computers whirred diligently in the background, doing the hard work. Star Wars did it by returning sci-fi to the world of 1930s serials – Flash Gordon being a prime reference – while Alien did it by going even further back, to the gothic haunted house horror. The modern iteration of the gothic haunted house horror is the “kids in the woods” movie. And what we’re watching in Alien is an absolutely standard crew of isolated individuals – jockish guys (one of them speccy and scientific) and a couple of girls (one of them feisty and hot) being slaughtered one after the other. The sort of thing you can see in a thousand permutation on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (from 1974).

Except Alien really is a film that’s more than the sum of its parts. Dan O’Bannon wrote the original story with Ronald Shusett, but the uncredited work of Walter Hill and David Giler is also significant, adding extra grunt where required – we’re in the world of “hard sci-fi”. The work of the artist HR Giger is key, his organic, knobbly, dirty designs for the alien inspiring the grungy ethos of the film. As for the actors, most of them could be swapped about – it doesn’t have to be John Hurt whose stomach is the incubator for the first alien we see, nor does it really have to be Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright or even Tom Skerrit doing what they do. They’re there, and so is much of their dialogue, to add a blue-collar atmosphere to a genre that, until then, tried to maintain that class disappeared on lift-off. But Ian Holm, as the methodical, company-droid no one knows is even a droid, his way with cool superciliousness makes him key. And so is Sigourney Weaver, who laid down the template for tough action heroines who also look good in their underwear. As for Ridley Scott’s direction, it’s a masterclass, first in character set-up, then in mood manipulation and shock management (the cat), and finally in misdirection – if we realise early on we’re watching a horror movie then of course it’s going to be Weaver who’s the “final girl” and of course she’s going to end up in a white T shirt, uniform of all “final girls”. But we don’t realise that.

In a world before DVD or even widespread VHS, Scott understands that his audience is in a big dark room together and that the only impression that matters is the one they leave with. So he’s got the licence to take it slow – no death-before-the-opening-credits stuff here. Alien is horror pastiche polished till it shines, then hidden beneath a sci-fi overcoat, then dirtied up. Along with other 1970s sci-fi films such as Dark Star and Silent Running, it marked the arrival of a new era in scuffed sci-fi. And let’s not forget that this crew of innocents – some much more innocent than others – are on a ship called the Nostromo, named after Joseph Conrad’s book. Another of Conrad’s books, Heart of Darkness, about another ship with a variously innocent crew, was being turned by Francis Ford Coppola into Apocalypse Now just as Scott was doing his thing with Nostromo. What would Conrad have thought about that?

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • One of the key sci-fi movies
  • The film that made Sigourney Weaver
  • HR Giger’s design work
  • Ridley Scott’s cool careful direction

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Alien – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Hannibal

Julianne Moore and Anthony Hopkins in Hannibal

This may not be the best film out this week, but it is the one that is shouting loudest. Who doesn’t want to see Anthony Hopkins return to the role of Hannibal the Cannibal after several years of haggling over his fee, which includes an agreement to make one more film featuring everyone’s favourite cultured cannibal?

Hannibal’s plot sees Hopkins’s Dr Lecter returning to the USA, having been lured back from Italy by an elaborate hoax cooked up by Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), a former victim of Lecter’s, who has survived a fiendish munching and is now using Agent Clarice Starling as bait to get payback.

The plot is familiar cat v mouse stuff, but the big question is what sort of sequel do we have here – the useful continuation of a story that left us all dangling last time out, or something that’s been contrived by the back office?

Hopkins, one of the world’s most compelling screen presences, gives a strong hint early on, megaphoning in a performance of utter self-parody, suggesting that this is a smash-and-grab job. Everyone else follows suit with the overacting, there being no such thing as the Silence of the Hams. Indeed Gary Oldman’s performances is so ridiculous that he’s taken out an insurance policy – he’s disguised beyond recognisability. And taking over from the very wise Jodie Foster as Clarice-s-s-s-s is Julianne Moore, who is required via facial gesture to suggest that she is simultaneously attracted to and disgusted by a man who eats people.

In the director’s chair, Ridley Scott has nothing new to say and so instead lays on all the clichés he can remember from his days directing adverts – slo-mo fans, rooms full of mist, cars gracefully swooshing across bridges.

On the upside, it does all look pretty nice thanks to DP John Mathieson, particularly in Italy where the Florentine plazas and likes of Giancarlo Giannini and Francesca Neri remind us how timelessly cool Italy is. And butchery fans will be delighted with the variety of viscera, organs and offal on offer, all of it served up with an insouciant grin and a raised eyebrow. Ray Liotta, ooh dear. I’ll say no more.

© Steve Morrissey 2001

 

 Hannibal – at Amazon

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