Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Dorian Gray (Great Britain, 2009)

"The only way to get rid of a temptation, is to yield to it."
Lord Henry Wotton (Colin Firth)

Trailer to
Dorian Gray:
Obviously enough based Oscar Wilde's only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, this 2009 feature-film version of the tale is but one in a long line of cinema undertakings that go back as early as 1910, with the Dane Axel Strøm's lost short Dorian Grays Portræt, and that include versions such as the lost Hungarian feature film Az élet királya (1918), with Bela Lugosi as Lord Harry Watton [sic]; Albert Lewin's "classic" B&W version from 1945 (trailer), with the famous painting by the American painter Ivan (Le Lorraine) Albright (above) now hanging at the Art Institute of Chicago; Massimo Dallamano's intriguing Eurotrash version, Il dio chiamato Doria (1970 / trailer — see Maria Rohm), which sets the events in the then contemporary 1970s; the forgotten porn version by the graphic artist Armand Weston (26 Dec 1931 – 26 May 1988), Take Off (1978 / scenes / full NSFW film), German poster directly below, starring one of a wasted life's favorite male pornsters, Wade Nichols,* as the titular hedonist, now named Darrin Blue (the Golden Age production swept the 1979 awards at AFAA); and Wash Westmoreland's totally obscure D2V big-tooled and muscular The Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony [2001], featuring the pleasant whopper of Eric Hanson at his prime as that of Dorian.
* Normally when we refer to Wade Nichols (28 Oct 1946 – 28 Jan 1985), a.k.a. Dennis Parker, in a post, we embed his disco song Like an Eagle (see: Uschi Pt X: 1977, Gigi Darlene Pt III & Harry H. Novak Pt VIII), but for a change we'll embed his second disco single, which reached #11 on the charts in South Africa in 1980:
Wade Nichols/Dennis Parker singing
New York by Night:
But this version of The Picture of Dorian Gray here is hardly obscure and is definitely not porn. No, this one is a rather upscale British production, a period piece shot at Ealing Studios and on location in London; it's also the third Oscar Wilde adaptation directed by former actor (e.g., Nightbreed [1990 / trailer]) turned director Oliver Parker, his earlier two Wilde movie adaptations being the comedies An Ideal Husband (1999 / trailer) and The Importance of Being Earnest (2002 / trailer), both of which are more interesting and entertaining than this polished but oddly uninvolving horror movie.
"You shouldn't believe every word Harry says. He doesn't."
Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin)
Not that Parker's Dorian Gray is really a terrible film, it is just that for all its upscale production values and nifty period setting, it suffers from an amazingly weak lead, some questionable CGI townscapes and a tacky CGI painting of Dorian Gray, one too many dream sequences, and a general tameness that sorely undermines the interest of the viewer — and that despite the addition a few truly modern-feeling sequences of violence and blood.

The narrative is probably known well enough: upon seeing the portrait painting by his artist friend Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin of Lost Souls [2000] and Twixt [2011 / trailer]), the attractive Dorian Gray (Ben Barnes), an innocent of captivating attractiveness, glibly states that he would trade his soul to stay young forever. And thus it transpires: he remains ageless and unchanged while his portrait, which he soon hides from the public, shows the true ravages upon his soul and appearance as he, taking the libertine and egocentrically amoral admonishments of Lord Henry Wotton (Colin Firth of Apartment Zero [1988 / trailer] and Kingsman: The Secret Service [2014 / trailer]) as words of wisdom by which to live, spirals into a licentious life of wanton and intentional decadence and evil...
Scriptwriter Toby Finlay does tweak the narrative of the book here there, but for the addition of the dream sequences and Dorian's past as an abused child one would be hard placed to say that some of the changes don't work. Having Dorian get rid of the Hallward's body, and the method he chooses, does work better than how it occurs in the book, for example, and the demise of James Vane (Johnny Harris of Black Death [2010 / trailer] and RocknRolla [2008 / trailer]) is definitely better — as well as more in line with the cinematic tastes of today — than his rather ignoble accidental death in Wilde's novel.
Perhaps the most inspired change, however, is the replacement of the book's rather stock character of Hetty Merton — Wilde, whose opinion of women was rather low, was not exactly gifted with an ability to make them well-rounded characters — with Emily (Rebecca Hall of The Night House [2020 / trailer], The Gift [2015 / trailer] and The Awakening [2011 / trailer]), the suffragette daughter of the now aged Lord Wotton. The change adds an appealing level of irony in that a man who basically molded the subsequent decadent character of the young and impressionable Gray through the witty espousal of self-indulgence and hedonism should experience his unwitting creation coming back to rob him of his greatest treasure, his daughter.
Unluckily, though Rebecca Hall is pleasant enough and not a bad actor, the budding love between her character, Emily, and Dorian, fails to achieve any level of verisimilitude or true believability. The same can be said of Hallward's pre-decay portrait of Dorian, which, though continually referred to as a masterpiece and his best work, is a rather generic and unimpressive portrait that in no way exudes "masterpiece"*. Likewise, the later CGI version of the portrait reflecting Dorian's morally bankrupt soul is, for all the dropping maggots, less terrifying than unconvincing and ridiculous.

* For an example of a portrait that truly exudes masterpiece that was painted around the time in which the narrative of Dorian Gray transpires, take a gander at John Singer Sargent's Portrait of Madame X (1884)... Hell's Bells, even the average Norman Rockwell or Margaret Keane painting has more presence than Hallward's portrait of Dorian does.
Furthermore, the movie in general remains rather uninteresting and uninvolving, and more than one character is miscast. Rachel Hurd-Wood (of Perfume [2006 / trailer] and Soloman Kane [2009 / trailer]), for example, who plays Dorian's first love interest Sibyl Vane, whom he soon drives to suicide, remains as oddly vapid as she is attractive. And as the titular lead Dorian, Ben Barnes (of Killing Bono [2011 / trailer] and By the Gun [2014 / trailer]) is dreadful. When he first arrives in London, he comes across less innocent and babe-in-the-woods than he does slightly intellectually challenged, and throughout the movie he never once manages to successfully convey the allure that supposedly makes him so irresistible to everyone around him. For that matter, he never really comes across as evil, even when he's trying to convey evil — all of which is surprising, when one takes into account how he so successfully conveys allure, "goodness" and unadulterated evil in the watchable Netfux series Shadow and Bone (2021-23 / trailer).
A twinky Ben Barnes in
the British boy group Hyrise singing
Leading Me On:
All in all, Dorian Gray is watchable but unmemorable. The impressionable might find it mildly scary in places, and perhaps even a bit "decadent", but there are really so many better horror movies out there that it seems a shame to bother with one as lackluster as this. The witticisms are the best thing about the movie, but though witty dialogue is indeed a specialty and integral part of Oscar Wilde's work, nice dialogue without convincing fear or terror does not translate into a good scary movie.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

The Swiss Conspiracy (Germany/USA, 1976)

Sometimes there are movies that are so terrible, you don't want to waste your time on them. We hit a film like that last night, when, enraptured by the DVD cover image of mid-1970s Raquel Welch, we popped Stuntwoman a.k.a. L'Animal (French trailer) into our out-dated media player and, after enduring around 20 minutes, decided life is too short for crap like that movie. Luckily, our Dollar Tree double-feature DVD from long-defunct cheapsters EastWestDvd had a second movie as an option, an obscure action flick from 1976 titled The Swiss Conspiracy. (A name we know from an obscure European elktro-band that no one knows — guess they took their name from this film.) 
Trailer to
The Swiss Conspiracy:
We knew with the opening killing that the film would probably be good: the pleasing shot, set in an expensive 70s-style restaurant, starts with a camera panning from some unappetizing food being put on a plate over to a serving cart being rolled to a table in the room, only for the "serving chef" (former boxer "Wilhelm von Homburg" [25 Aug 1940 – 10 Mar 2004]) to pull out a sawed-off shotgun and send the coffee-sipping customer blasting through an interior window.
"I'll change into something less comfortable." 
Denise Abbott (Senta Berber)

The subsequent credit sequence, done like a collection of holiday postcards from Switzerland set to oompah-pah music that segues into a pan of Swiss mountains underscored with synth-heavy funky grooves, composed by Klaus Doldinger, was pretty groovy too, but it was the names on the credit that had us salivating.
Credit sequence (after the shooting) to
The Swiss Conspiracy:
We knew David Janssen ([27 Mar 1931 – 13 Feb 1980] of Cult of the Cobra [1955 / trailer] and Moon of the Wolf [1972]) was the star, but low and behold, there is also: Senta Berger (of Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace [1962] and Don Sharp's Bang! Bang! You're Dead! [1966 / trailer]) and Elke Sommer (Hotel der toten Gäste [1965], Mario Bava's Baron Blood [1972 / trailer] and Lisa and the Devil [1973 / trailer], and Flashback [2000]), both in the prime of their MILF years; an aged John "The Buldge" Ireland* (30 Jan 1914 – 10 Sept 1996 of Salon Kitty [1976] and so much more) as a rich, corrupt Texan businessman; an ancient Ray Milland ([3 Jan 1907 – 10 Mar 1986) of Frogs [1972 / trailer], The House in Nightmare Park [1973 / trailer] and so much more) as a bank director; the fun German character actor Anton Diffring ([20 Oct 1916 – 19 May 1989] of Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye [1973], The Beast Must Die [1974] and so much more) as the bank's vice-president; John Saxon ([5 Aug 1936 – 25 July 2020] of Shalimar [1978] and so much more, more, more), below not from the movie but as a young stud, as a hot-headed lowlife gangster; and David Hess (19 Sept 1936 – 7 Oct 2011) as one of a duo of hitmen. (The other half being the generally unnoticed but reliable German character actor Arthur Brauss of movies like Carmen, Baby [1967 / trailer], the Jerry Cotton films Tip Not Included [1965 / German trailer] and Dead Body on Broadway [1969 / German trailer], Triangle of Venus [1978 / cosmic soundtrack], Happy Weekend [1983 / trailer], and the obscure, sorry-ass South African late-stage Blaxploitation flick Mister Deathman [1983 / full fiasco]). Lastly, there is the familiar-faced but relatively forgotten character actor Curt Lowens** ([17 Nov 1925 – 8 May 2017) of Werewolf in a Girls' Dormitory [1961], The Entity [1982 / trailer] and Mandroid [1993 / trailer]) as one of the extorted clients of the bank who suffers a rather inglorious end. What a cast! 
* "According to forgotten actress Joanne Dru (31 Jan 1922 – 10 Sept 1996), Ireland's "staunch Republican" wife from 1949 to '57, Ireland was hung like a horse: 'I got John, and he ruined me for all other men. [...] John, I'm sure, had more than Monty [Clift], Marlon [Brando] and Jimmy [Dean] put together (Brando Unzipped, by Darwin Porter).' [R.I.P. Umberto Lenzi, Part II]"
Curt Lowens is always worth mentioning, not necessarily because he was good actor, but because of his life story: "Curt Lowens was born in 1925 in East Prussia (now Poland) [...]. His father, once a respected lawyer, lost all his clients with the rise of Hitler. The family moved to Berlin in 1936, hoping to find safety in the large Jewish community there, but eventually decided to immigrate to the United States. The day before they were to depart on the SS Veendam from Rotterdam, the Germans invaded Holland, preventing the departure. In June 1943, the family was sent to Westerbork, a transit camp, and then to Auschwitz. However, they were released and immediately went underground. Curt received a false identity and became an active and valiant member of the resistance, under the name 'Ben Joosten'. After the war, in 1947, Curt, his father and stepmother immigrated to the United States; he became an actor, and met Katherine Guilford at the famous Berhoff Studio. He is a respected character actor, working onstage on Broadway and in film and television. [Jewish Journal]"
Not from the film —
David Hess as "David Hill" sings Two Brothers:
The Swiss Conspiracy, possibly in the public domain, is on YouTube, in a cropped version obviously cut (like our Eastwestdvd) from a pan-and-scanned VHS but (unlike our DVD) shorn of occasional features like the introductory text, which reads:

"Switzerland — a country internationally famous for its fine watches, its great skiing and its luxurious resorts...
But Switzerland's biggest industry is banking. Because Swiss banks are unique in all the world. They have secret numbered accounts and the owner's name is always held in the strictest of confidence. This secrecy is protected by the Swiss government. No individual, no corporation, not even the power of a government can discover the name of a depositor.
For this reason, anyone with a great deal of money to hide knows that Switzerland is the safest sanctuary. Criminals, tax evaders and political agents all find Swiss banks the perfect place to conceal their dirty money and their dirty secrets. The system is considered foolproof. Or at least it was...

The narrative concerns the Hurtil Bank in Zurich, headed by Johan Hurtil (Milland) and Franz Benninger (Differing), which has been getting anonymous letters threatening to expose the secret accounts to the world. When five clients get similar letters demanding a million Swiss francs each, and one is killed (the shooting that opens the movie), the bank hires a former US Treasury official living in Geneva, David Christopher (Janssen), two get to the bottom of things. One of the remaining four clients, Hayes (Saxon), a Chicago gangster, has an old score to settle with Christopher and tries to kill him, but fails — but before he try again, the killers Korsak (Brauss) and Sando (Hess) show up and, as Christopher begins getting cozy with another extortion victim, the beautiful Denise Abbott (Berger), they kill the gangster. All clues lead to Benninger and his girlfriend Rita (Sommer), but... 
Well, watch the movie if you wanna know what happens: it is a pretty good non-grindhouse action flick with neo-noir tendencies that seems far more convoluted than it actually is, as revealed at its resolution.
A version of a song played in the movie:
The cast is fun, though not always perfect. It is sometimes a bit hard to take Janssen — "a heavy drinker who smoked up to four packs of cigarettes a day" in real life, who always walks around with bad posture, looks older than his actual 45 years of age and almost always has the same grumpy facial expression — all that seriously as a hard-punching ladies man, but his natural presence goes a long way on film. He does, however, fare a bit better than Diffring and Sommer: true, their English is perfect, but their German accents are so strong that it is impossible to buy them talking English to each other, which makes their scenes together a bit shaky at best. (They fare better in scenes they don't share.) But Sommer and Berger are beautiful, and Berger is suitably convincing as a kept woman jet-setter with a passion for the good things in life, which includes a luxury apartment and a fast car.
The love of fast cars she shares with Christopher — she has a silver 1972 Ferrari 365 GTS to Christopher's older but flashier red 1971 Ferrari 365 GTS — results in a hilarious but well-shot speeding car scene that is far less a car chase than driving-fast-as-foreplay. (Indeed, the next scene has the two in bed together.) And as Christopher stumbles his way from her bed to solving the case, he ends up working to a limited extent with to Zurich special investigators, Capt. Frey (Inigo Gallo [2 Nov 1932 – 15 Dec 2000] of The Strangler of the Tower [1966 / German trailer]) and Sgt. Schwand (Hansjörg Bahl of The Black Spider [1983 / full film in German]), who are the kind of cops that meet in go-go dancer-filled discos to talk plot points, but Christopher is basically the one who breaks the case in the end.
Since The Swiss Conspiracy was shot for the most part on location, the movie has some pretty fabulous scenery and feels very European despite its American director and international cast. The resolution on the mountain top sees the relevant members of the cast all amazingly underdressed for the location, and the journey up there is almost comic (even if you keep and mind there were no mobile phones back then), but the final reveal is sound... And, as is the way of noirs, neo or otherwise, it is plausible (but not truly addressed in the film) that at least one person involved in the extortion attempt might never see a jail cell.

The Swiss Conspiracy, the last feature film release to be directed by the great Jack Arnold (14 Oct 1916 – 17 Mar 1992), is probably also one of his least-known films in a long and illustrious career that includes early film noirs (e.g., The Glass Web [1953 / trailer] and Girls in the Night [1953 / full movie]), whacked-out teenager exploitation (e.g., the masterpiece that is High School Confidential [1958 / trailer]),* Blaxploitation (e.g., Black Eye [1974 / trailer] and the egregiously titled Boss Nigger [1975 / trailer]), science-fiction films ranging from true classics (e.g., It Came from Outer Space [1953 / trailer], Creature from the Black Lagoon [1954 / trailer], Revenge of the Creature [1955 / trailer] and The Incredible Shrinking Man [1957 / trailer]) to trash classics (e.g., Tarantula [1955 / trailer]) to simple fun trash (e.g., Monster on Campus [1958 / trailer] and The Space Children [1958 / trailer]), and so much more. His directorial style will feel a bit odd, if not slow and stodgy, for modern viewers raised on MTV and/or Michael Bay films: Arnold has a penchant for long-lasting shots and pans as well as unobtrusive edits, which sometimes gives the movie a slight TV movie vibe (a feeling heightened, naturally, by the pan and scanned VHS rip on the DVD we watched). That said, he knows well how give an exciting edge to shootouts or a long chase through the Zurich streets, and he never lets the movie drag.
We here at a wasted life cannot mention this trash masterpiece without sharing the great beat poetry recital by the unknown Phillipa Fallon...
Phillipa Fallon recites poetry in
High School Confidential:
The Swiss Conspiracy is not, of course, a masterpiece of originality; indeed, much of what occurs in the movie occurs in other, similar movies. Still, it deserves some respect: the narrative is not lazy and there are clues along the way that allow an intrepid viewer to put together the twist. (Way too often, twists in movies are simply twists; this one can at least be logically reconstructed in one's head.) 
Likewise, the absolutely fabulous cast, regardless of whatever weaknesses that might raise their pinky, also add a level of fun to the movie, admittedly a level that has ripened with the film's age. It is arguable that The Swiss Conspiracy has slipped into obscurity less due to its overall quality than to the fact the film never really had much of a release — in the US, for example, it never even reached NYC — and was never given all that much attention in the first place. A shame, for it is surely one of Jack Arnold's better late-career films... And as it is also his last feature film project, The Swiss Conspiracy simply deserves more respect.* Give it a go if you have the chance.
Other people think that, too:
Trailer to the recent remastered DVD release: