Friday, November 29, 2013

The Dawn Patrol (1930)

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The original 1930 version of The Dawn Patrol is one of those movies that has been almost completely overshadowed by its remake. The 1938 version (with the same title) starring Errol Flynn will be familiar to most classic movie fans while the 1930 version has been lost in obscurity. This is a great pity since the original is not only a Howard Hawks film, it’s also a fascinating glimpse of Hawks the film-maker at a stage in his career when he had not quite perfected his mature style but he was getting pretty close to it. The themes that would obsess Hawks are already apparent, and we can see in embryo the ways in which he would tackle those themes again and again.

It is late 1915 the 59th Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps has been taking a pounding. Their commander, Major Brand (Neil Hamilton), finds himself having to send inexperienced  young pilots straight into the thick of the fighting and inevitably many do not survive even their first mission. The stress is made worse for Major Brand since he himself, as the commanding officer, cannot fly combat missions. As a result he feels like an executioner sending men to their deaths.

Major Brand clashes repeatedly with his subordinate Captain Courtney (Richard Barthelmess). Supposedly there has been bad blood between them since an incident involving a woman in Paris, but as the kindly old squadron adjutant points out to one of the pilots the reality is that they are very close friends. They simply find it easier to deal with a difficult situation by blowing off steam at each other. This is a theme that will be echoed later in the movie, one of the many example’s of the movie’s interesting cyclical structure.

The squadron’s two veteran pilots are Captain Courtney and Lieutenant Scott (Douglas Fairbanks Jr). Their job is to keep the green pilots alive while also carrying out their missions.

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The war progresses and Major Brand is promoted to a headquarters job. Captain Courtney, who has always been derisive of desk-bound officers who send men into combat, now finds himself playing exactly that role.

The cyclical structure is the key to the movie. Crucial scenes are played out in exactly the same way on three separate occasions, each time with different characters, and each time with even greater emotional impact. A simplistic interpretation would be that this is a commentary on the futility of war but that would be quite uncharacteristic of Hawks, and in any case the film itself makes it fairly clear that this is not the intention. In fact the intention is to emphasise that danger and death are always the enemies and they are always with us. The movie is very sympathetic to the Germans who are portrayed as honourable and heroic foes and this is another indication that the enemy is not the soldier on the opposing side, the enemy is death itself. In one scene a captured German flyer is brought in. He is immediately asked if he would like a drink and he is soon carousing merrily with the British flyers. He is not an enemy; he is a comrade since he faces the same dangers the British pilots face and he faces those dangers with the same courage and cheerfulness.

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Hawks was always fascinated by the behaviour of men confronted with the imminent danger of violent death. He was fascinated not just by the way men dealt with this situation, but the ways in which groups of men dealt with it. This early Hawks movie offers us the kind of setup he would use again and again. As in his later masterpiece Only Angel Have Wings the men of the 59th Squadron in The Dawn Patrol seem strangely isolated. We never see the superior officers who issue the orders to the squadron’s commander. We get only brief glimpses of events elsewhere. Virtually the entire movie takes place in the squadron’s commander’s office, the squadron’s recreation room, and in the air. By effectively cutting this group of men off from the outside world Hawks is able to focus on the men themselves and the way to relate to each other.

The men of the 59th Squadron have learnt, in classic Hawksian style, that the only way to face death is to laugh in his face. It might be sheer bravado but it works.

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This movie suffers from many of the typical weaknesses of very early talkies. It’s slightly clunky in places and the supporting players in particular overact in silent movie style. This was also one of Hawks’ first talkies and his comparative inexperience shows at times. This gives the movie a rather ragged and raw feel that actually works in its favour. Hawks would later learn to tackle similar themes in a more polished manner but what matters is that the emotional impact is there.

The flying scenes were good enough to be re-used in the 1938 remake. The Hawks signature is apparent here as well. What matters to Hawks is not the action but the way men react to it and on several occasions Hawks simply shows the aircraft of “A” Flight taking off then cuts immediately to the squadron commander waiting anxiously at his desk for the sound of the returning aircraft. We don’t need to see the fighting; it is the emotional cost that matters. When the aerial fighting scenes are shown they are spectacular enough however and they stand up very well indeed today.

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Richard Barthelmess gives a brooding low-key performance that captures the spirit of the dogged and indomitable Hawksian hero perfectly. Douglas Fairbanks Jr is somewhat histrionic but he gets way with it. We accept that a man in his position might well find that being slightly histrionic is the best way to deal with his situation.

The print used on the Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD release is far from perfect but its flaws are nowhere near serious enough to detract from the enjoyment of the movie.

Without taking anything away from the 1938 remake this 1930 Hawks’ version ofThe Dawn Patrol has more emotional punch and is overall the better movie. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Nightfall (1957)

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Nightfall was released by Columbia in 1957, a time when many authoritative books on film noir tell us that film noir was virtually dead. It has to be admitted that many of the late 50s movies included in film noir boxed sets are at best marginally noir. It therefore comes as a pleasant surprise that Nightfall is both genuine noir and also an extremely good movie.

This movie was directed by Jacques Tourneur, written by Stirling Silliphant and based on a novel by David Goodis so maybe we shouldn’t really be surprised by its quality. Tourneur after all did direct possibly the greatest noir of them all, Out of the Past. Goodis was one of the best of the American hardboiled writing school, while Silliphant would go on to write The Lineup in 1958, another somewhat neglected but superb noir.

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Nightfall starts off in classic noir territory. It’s night time in LA and insurance investigator Ben Fraser (James Gregory) is shadowing a man named Vanning (Aldo Ray). Fraser’s job is to recover $350,000 stolen from a bank in Wyoming. He knows Vanning was involved in some way but he can’t help having a nagging doubt about Vanning’s actual guilt. He’s been shadowing Vanning so closely that he feels like he really knows the man, and it is after all his job to recognise the signs of guilt in those suspected of crime. Somehow Vanning doesn’t quite fit. He’s obviously on the run and obviously scared but he doesn’t seem scared the way a guilty man would be scared.

Vanning has much the same effect on model Marie Gardner (Anne Bancroft) when he picks her up in a bar. Being a model Marie has heard just about every phony line in the book from men but Vanning really does seem to be a pretty decent guy. When he tells her his story, even though the story might seem far-fetched to most people, she’s inclined to believe him. Pretty soon she finds she has little choice - she will have to trust him if she wants to stay alive.

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Vanning’s story is told in a series of flashbacks. He was on a hunting trip in Wyoming with a doctor friend when they had a very unlucky encounter with a couple of very nasty bank robbers. It was the kind of encounter that could plunge a very ordinary law-abiding citizen straight into the worst kind of noir nightmare world, a world of casual violence and murder.

The nightmare is far from over. By a series of mischances the two bank robbers no longer have the money they stole from the bank, and they’re pretty sure Vanning either has the money or knows where it is. In a memorable and very noir night scene by a deserted oil derrick they try to convince Vanning to tell them where the money is. Their methods are convincing to say the least but things don’t turn out quite the way they planned.

From the very noir world of LA at night the scene switches to the magnificent natural beauties of Wyoming, but Tourneur has no trouble maintaining the atmosphere of fear and menace.

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Aldo Ray is perfect as Vanning. He is a man with something to hide, something dangerous, something that haunts him, but at the same time Ray makes us feel that Vanning really is a very nice guy who doesn’t deserve his fate.

James Gregory was a reliable character actor and handles his role with ease. Ben Fraser is a man who doesn’t give up but he isn’t interested merely in getting a result. It has to be the right result. He’s a sympathetic character but a strong one as well.

The two bank robbers are Red (Rudy Bond) and John (Brian Keith) and they’re as dangerous a pair as you’re ever likely to come cross. Red is crazy, and it’s a bad craziness. Red likes hurting people and he likes killing people even more. John isn’t crazy and he doesn’t enjoy violence but he accepts violence as part of the package when you’re on the wrong side of the law. He won’t enjoy it but John will kill you with sublime indifference if he feels he has to. Either of these men on their own would be dangerous enough but together they’re a time-bomb waiting to go off. They would kill each other without a second’s hesitation and they will certainly kill anyone who gets in their way.

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Red is your basic movie psycho, but Rudy Bond makes him memorable. Brian Keith gives one of his best-ever performances as John. There’s a touch of black humour in his performance but at the same time we’re never allowed to forget that he’s a cold-blooded killer, which makes the black humour quite disturbing. Which is of course the intention of both the actor and the director.

If there’s a weakness in the film it’s perhaps that Anne Bancroft’s character doesn’t have the necessary depth to make her a truly interesting film noir female lead. Bancroft does nothing wrong but she isn’t given quite enough to work with.

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You expect some good visual set-pieces from Tourneur, and you get them. The oil derrick scene mentioned earlier and the later snow-plough scene are executed with the director’s usual skill. Burnett Guffey’s black-and-white cinematography is of the quality you’d expect from a cinematographer of his high reputation. The sudden switch from LA to Wyoming works well, nicely emphasising the lead character’s position, caught between the worlds of light and darkness.

This movie is part of the Columbia Film Noir Classics II boxed set. The lack of extras for this particular movie is disappointing but the 16x9 enhanced transfer is excellent.

Compared to his best work, to movies like Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and Out of the Past, Nightfall is perhaps lesser Tourneur but it’s still a superbly crafted and very entertaining film noir. Recommended.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Blue Max (1966)

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The Blue Max is perhaps the most underrated of all movies dealing with aerial combat in the First World War. In fact this 1966 British production is very underrated in general.

Unusually this movie looks at things from the German side. This is more than a mere novelty approach. Apart from the usefulness of showing us that the stresses of war are the same regardless of which side you’re on the class issue which is at the heart of the plot works more effectively this way, the gulf between the old Prussian nobility who dominated the officer corps in Imperial Germany being even more extreme than in other countries.

Bruno Stachel (George Peppard) is an infantryman who finally, in 1918, gets the chance to serve in the air services as a fighter pilot. This also means promotion. Corporal Stachel is now an officer. Stachel is of relatively humble birth and he soon comes to realise that this will be an issue. The pilots are all officers, and they are drawn more or less exclusively from the upper classes. It’s not that they treat him badly as such. In general they don’t. The difficulty is that they have a set of shared cultural values and ideas about honour, and he does not share those values. His behaviour is misinterpreted simply because his way of approaching life, and more importantly his way of fighting a war, is different.

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It is immediately obvious that Stachel is a very good pilot. Very good indeed. No-one doubts his skill or his courage. The question is over his honour. And these are men who take honour very seriously indeed. If Stachel had proved himself to be dishonourable there would have been no problem. They would simply have got rid of him. The big problem is that Stachel’s actions are ambiguous, and could be interpreted either way. The unease of the squadron’s commanding officer Colonel Otto Heidemann (Karl Michael Vogler) steadily grows even as Stachel proves himself more and more to be a a very successful fighter pilot.

Willi von Klugermann (Jeremy Kemp) is the squadron’s leading ace and his twentieth aerial victory has won him the coveted Pour le Mérite (popularly known as the Blue Max), the highest German decoration for skill and bravery. Stachel is determined to win the Blue Max as well. He sees it as the only way he can truly prove himself.

There is a certain tension between the aristocratic von Klugermann and Stachel, a tension that develops into a fierce rivalry. It is not just that Stachel shows himself to be a formidable rival in the air; they will also become rivals for the affections of the beautiful Countess Kaeti von Klugermann (Ursula Andress), the wife of General Count von Klugermann (James Mason). The General also happens to be Willi’s uncle. The rivalry between the two flyers is the key to the plot, directly or indirectly influencing every major plot point.

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The plot might sound conventional and predictable but the way it is worked out is anything about. The movie manages to avoid all the obvious pitfalls. It avoids any kind of obviousness or clumsiness by making the characters complex, and the relationships between them even more complex.

Stachel is an outsider but the screenplay does not make the mistake of making him working class, which would be too obvious. He is middle class, but only just. He might not be as cultured as the other officers but he’s certainly not an uneducated yokel. What matters is that he is outside the upper classes. How far outside doesn’t matter.


Stachel and Willi von Klugermann are rivals but it is a rivalry tempered by a certain mutual respect. Stachel is a worthy and very formidable rival and von Klugermann finds the competition stimulating. He enjoys the competition. He is even amused by Stachel’s temerity in actually daring to pursue von Klugermann’s aunt, and when Stachel succeeds in his pursuit Willi is more irritated at being beaten than actually upset. After all it’s not as if Willi and Kaeti were in love. Their relationship was purely sexual, just another aristocratic amusement. Jeremy Kemp’s superb performance help the film considerably. For all his aristocratic manners and his sophisticated disdain for conventional sexual morality he is much more than a mere stereotype.

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Colonel Heidemann strongly disapproves of Stachel but even in this case there is a grudging respect, and Heidemann is too much of a gentleman to condemn a man unless or until he has actual proof that the man has behaved dishonourably. Heidemann is a man who follows a very strict moral code but again the actor involved (in this case Karl Michael Vogler) gives him some depth.

Ursula Andress for once gets not only a good role but a challenging one. The Countess’s actions could easily lead the audience to view her as the scheming femme fatale but Andress makes her human. It’s by far the best performance I’ve ever sen her give.

That James Mason is good is no surprise at all. What is surprising is that even though the General is the least sympathetic of all the characters we understand why he does certain things even when we’re horrified by them.

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The key of course is George Peppard’s performance, which has come in for a good deal of  criticism. I’m perplexed by this, but then I’m perplexed by the extent to which this actor is routinely under-appreciated. In this film he faces one of his biggest acting challenges. He has to avoid making Stachel a conventional hero but he also has to avoid making him an antihero. For the movie to work the audience has to continue to care about Stachel’s fate even when he really does cross the line and commit a clearly dishonourable and reprehensible act. Stachel is arrogant but it has to be a different sort of arrogance to von Klugermann’s effortless aristocratic arrogance. He has to be arrogant but without being obnoxious. Stachel’s problem is not that he is generally speaking a bad man, or even a weak man. He simply fails to understand the unwritten rules which are second nature to the other officers. He decides to play by his own rules, but he is going to play to win. The audience has to see his fall from grace as being genuinely tragic, a mistake he cannot undo, and a mistake that can be seen as an understandable response to an implied insult that no German officer (regardless of class) could fail to be provoked by.

Peppard’s problem seems to have been that he was an unfashionable actor. At a time when the exaggerated and somewhat histrionic Method style was all the rage Peppard clearly belonged to a much more understated less-is-more school of acting. If in doubt Peppard would always underplay rather than overplay. In truth he was a fine actor and his performance in this film is subtle but entirely effective. He captures all the nuances of Stachel’s character and he makes him a living breathing human being. There’s not much more an actor can do.

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The aerial sequences are stunning and this is a movie that does not stint on the action scenes. Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography is superb. A lot of money was spent on this film, and it was well spent.

The Blue Max does not take the obvious anti-war stance that you generally expect in films of this sort. This is a movie about old-fashioned virtues like courage and honour, although it explores them with a fair amount of complexity. This movie also avoids obviousness in its treatment of class. Some of the upper class characters behave badly while others display bravery and honour of a very high order. Whether their views are better or worse than Stachel’s isn’t the issue; the issue is that they see things differently.

The Blue Max delivers intelligent and spectacular entertainment. It’s a movie that really needs to be seen on the big screen, or at least on a big widescreen TV. The DVD release is barebones but the transfer is excellent. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

No Limit (1931)

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For Clara Bow the transition from silent movies to talkies was an uneasy period to say the least. By 1933 she had decided to call it a day. Countless explanations have been offered for this premature end to a glittering career, from chronic weight problems to nervousness in front of the microphone to mental illness. In fact her career fadeout had a great deal to do with the sound films she was offered. No Limit is a movie that could kill any star’s career.

Bow plays Helen O’Day (known to all as Bunny), a theatre usherette who is asked by a casual acquaintance to look after after his apartment while he’s at sea working in the merchant marine. Much to Bunny’s surprise the apartment turns out to be more like a palace than an apartment. There’s an even bigger surprise in store for her - the apartment is simply a front for a very high-stakes illegal gambling club. Bunny soon finds herself with a great deal of money but of course there are complications. For one thing, her handsome new boyfriend  Doug Thayer (Norman Foster) is really a gangster.

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The basic setup could have provided the basis for a breezy romantic comedy but No Limit suffers from a problem that afflicts so many movies of the pre-code era - no-one involved in the project seemed to have the least idea what kind of picture they were trying to make. The movie shuttles back and forth between its romantic comedy plot and its gangster subplot. The sudden changes in mood occur without explanation and without any discernible reason. The problem is made considerably worse by lengthy and totally irrelevant comic relief interludes.

Even worse, the comedy parts of the movie are sadly lacking in laughs while the dramatic sections are equally lacking in drama. It gives the impression of several bad movies spliced together quite randomly.

The only member of the cast with any noticeable comedic skills is Bow herself. In fact she’s the only member of the cast with any acting ability of any variety. Had the movie remained focused on her it might have been bearable but the focus keeps shifting away from her.

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Bow gives her rôle everything she’s got but given that her talents lay mostly in the area of comedy she’s far too often left high and dry by the overwhelming dullness of the script. She manages to make Bunny likeable enough but it’s not enough to keep an audience interested.

Director Frank Tuttle’s approach is competent but pedestrian and the pacing is far too slow. The 72-minute running time seems like an eternity.

The art deco sets are fabulous but they are really the only high points in the movie.

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Like most of Bow’s talkies No Limit has never been given a decent DVD release. Perhaps that’s understandable in this case in view of the movie’s complete lack of  appeal.

Apart from the occasional mildly risque line there’s not much to distinguish this film as an example of pre-code cinema.

Clara Bow completists might be able to endure this movie but anyone else would be well advised to give it a big miss.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Prince Valiant (1954)

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Prince Valiant is a spectacular adventure based on the popular comic strip of the same name. 20th Century-Fox clearly spared no expense in this 1954 production and the results are richly rewarding.

Prince Valiant (Robert Wagner) is the son of a Christian Viking king, King Aguar (Donald Crisp), whose throne has been usurped by the traitorous Sligon. The king and his family are living in exile in a remote monastery under the protection of the King of the Britons, Arthur. Prince Valiant is sent to Camelot to become a knight. He finds it’s much harder work than he expected. A chance encounter with one of Arthur’s bravest knights, Sir Gawain (Sterling Hayden), proves to be a lucky one for the young Viking prince. Valiant becomes Sir Gawain’s squire.

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On his way to Camelot Valiant had encountered the mysterious Black Knight. The Black Knight is rumoured to be a ghost although Gawain is inclined to believe he is a man, and a villain.

Sir Brack (James Mason) is one of Arthur’s most trusted knights although he and Valiant seem suspicious of each other. When Sir Brack sets off to find the Black Knight Valiant tags along. This almost costs him his life. Grievously wounded by brigands he is nursed back to health by Aleta (Janet Leigh), the daughter of a minor king. Valiant and Aleta fall in love. Aleta’s sister Ilene (Debra Paget) is in love with Sir Gawain. This should all work out neatly but a series of misunderstandings threatens to wreck the happiness of Valiant and Aleta. There is a further complication - Aleta’s father is determined that his daughter should wed the knight who wins the upcoming tournament at Camelot. And to add a further complication, Sir Brack is determined to be the one who wins Aleta’s hand.

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Prince Valiant soon lands himself in strife, but there is even bigger trouble brewing for him. He must break his word to King Arthur in order to save his father’s kingdom.

The script by Dudley Nichols is serviceable enough but the real attractions here are the pageantry and some spectacular action scenes. Director Henry Hathaway pulls off some impressive set-pieces. The climactic sequences at King Aguar’s castle are a major highlight.

There are some problems here though. You won’t have any trouble guessing who the villain is. Robert Wagner lacks the charisma needed for a swashbuckling hero and Sterling Hayden is ludicrously miscast. Janet Leigh and Debra Paget are fine but they get very little to do and the supporting players in general are a little on the dull side although Victor McLaglen livens things up somewhat as a Viking faithful to the rightful king. Fortunately James Mason is on hand to rescue the movie with a delightfully over-the-top performance.

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Franz Waxman’s score helps keep the excitement bubbling along. Location shots and matte paintings are integrated quite well to create the settings. The costumes and sets are as you’d expect in a major studio release.

Of course the movie makes absolutely no sense historically with some of the anachronisms being enough to give a history buff apoplexy. But it’s based on  a comic strip and the producers, quite correctly, were more concerned in remaining faithful to the spirit of the comic strip rather than to history. If the armour is nearly a thousand years too late for King Arthur’s time I’m prepared to overlook that. After all King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table have a much stronger basis in legend than in historical fact.

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Sadly the Region 4 DVD is rather sub-standard. This is a movie that relies a great deal on its visual impact, being shot in Cinemascope and Technicolor. The transfer is anamorphic but the colours are slightly faded and fluctuate quite a bit which can be irritating and distracting. The colour balance just seems to be slightly wrong. The picture could also be a bit sharper. These same flaws are apparently present in other region releases and even in the UK Blu-Ray release.

If you tried to take this movie seriously you could find plenty of flaws here but why would you want to take a movie based on a comic strip seriously? Treat it as harmless fun and you’ll enjoy it.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Party's Over (1965)

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The Party's Over has been released as a dual-format Blu-Ray and DVD edition by the British Film Institute in their Flipside series. The series presents odd and offbeat British movies of the 60s and is interesting in giving us a look at some completely forgotten moments in British cinema. Sadly some of these moments really are best forgotten, including this film.

The movie had a troubled history and the first thing that needs to be noted is that despite its 1965 release date it was in fact made in 1962. That’s important because if you view it as a 1965 film it looks hopelessly dated, as indeed it was by the time it finally reached cinema screens in 1965.

The subject matter here is the beatnik sub-culture, a forerunner of the hippies and other counter-culture movements of the 60s and 70s. The beatniks were every bit as self-righteous and irritating as the sub-cultures that followed them.

A clean-cut and very conventional young American businessman named Carson (Clifford David) arrives in London. He’s looking for his fiancée who has joined a beatnik crowd and is enjoying the hedonistic lifestyle of this sub-culture. Or rather she’s not enjoying it since it consists mostly of pompous would-be artists and poets getting drunk and getting stoned and jumping in and out of bed with each other and making their lives as wretched as they can. They’re rejecting the materialism of their parents and protesting the wickedness of the system so it’s obviously important to be as miserable and self-destructive as possible.

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The leader of this annoying bunch of half-wits is a prize half-wit named Moise (Oliver Reed).

Carson finds that his fiancée, Melina, is avoiding him. Moise has been trying to get her into bed, without success. He’s become obsessed with her. Almost as obsessed with her as he is with himself. One of the other losers among this crowd, Phil, thinks he’s in love with her. Carson finds an ally of sorts in Nina (Catherine Woodville). Nina has started to tire of the infantile lifestyle of the beatniks and decides that maybe a man who is not a pathetic loser might be a better bet than any of her erstwhile companions. She’s ready to leave the kindergarten and join the grown-up world.

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But tragedy is about to strike the beatniks, confronting those who still have a few brain cells left with the possibility that maybe it’s time all of them stopped playing in the sandpit and grew up. Maybe the party’s over, and not before time.

The movie had endless problems with the British censor which delayed its release for several years and caused director Guy Hamilton and the producers to remove their names from the credits in protest at the censor’s cuts. Not having his name attached to this turkey was probably a lucky break for Hamilton. OK, I can see what he was trying to say. His view of the movie is that the message was that if you’re going to reject society’s values then you’d better have something workable to replace them with, which of course the beatniks don’t have. It’s a valid message that does come across fairly well. The problem is the clumsy script, the cringe-inducing dialogue, the listless directing, the repellant nature of the characters and the generally poor acting. Even Oliver Reed is bad, and I’m a huge Oliver Reed fan.

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At one point the chief censor suggested a new ending be added which would see the entire beatnik crew run over by a bus. To me that idea had considerable merit but I’d have put it at the beginning. That way we’d have had a tedious three-minute film instead of a tedious 95-minute film.

As a look at beatnik culture it’s as depressing as beatnik culture really was. Overgrown children thinking they’d discovered the answer to all of society’s ills by wallowing in their own vomit while spouting excruciatingly bad poetry.

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You can almost enjoy this movie if you approach it as a so-bad-it’s-good movie, except that it’s too long and too dull. If you want a more entertaining British look at this sorry sub-culture you’re better off with Beat Girl (1960). The Party's Over just takes itself too seriously.

I compared the DVD and Blu-Ray transfer and to me they look identical, so I have no idea why the BFI bothered with the Blu-Ray. Both transfers are good although there’s quite a bit of print damage. There’s an informative booklet that takes this dreadful movie almost as seriously as it takes itself.