Rollerball Revisited

I first watched Rollerball (Jewison, 1975) on VHS at a friend’s house in the early 1980s and naturally, at that age, was struck most by the spectacular gladiatorial game sequences. Although I have seen a few snippets here and there over the years, for various reasons I never managed to find an opportunity to sit down and watch the film again in its entirety. Last year would have been ideal, given that the film is set in 2018, but ideals are rarely realised and it was only a few weeks ago when I succeeded in returning to Rollerball, this time on the Blu-Ray released in 2014 by Twilight Time.

A quick summary of the plot may be in order for those unfamiliar with the film. The screenplay was written by William Harrison – adapted from his own short story, ‘Roller Ball Murder’, published in Esquire magazine in September 1973 – and a portrays a futuristic world in which nation-states have been replaced by six global corporations: Energy, Food, Transport, Communications, Housing and Luxury. The world has been transformed in the wake of what is referred to as ‘the corporate wars’, although no-one seems able to recall precise details. There are no more conflicts being fought in the world – except for Rollerball, a violent sport in which two teams on roller skates and motorbikes battle it out in vast circular arenas. The game is filmed and broadcast weekly, providing a distraction for the masses as well as a vicarious means by which social tensions, aggression and potential protests are safely channelled away from the corporations.

The futuristic ‘computer centre’ where Jonathan goes to seek information about the history of the Corporate wars is actually one of the BMW buildings in Munich built for the 1972 Olympics.

There are many echoes here – the cynical ‘bread-and-circuses’ of the Roman elite, the use of recreational drugs to control the populace in Brave New World, the anti-capitalist critiques of Marx and others, although the actual details of how this all came about, and how it functions, are (perhaps wisely) left vague and unclear.

Returning to the film after some thirty five years – a period in which my own world has been transformed considerably – it was only natural that this historic sense of world-building would draw my interest. Although the film’s reputation has been built upon the violent action of the game sections, these only comprise a small proportion of the film’s running time, and what really struck me on rewatching Rollerball is how much of it is subdued and restrained. Take the opening shots: instead of jumping headlong into the action, the film begins with scenes of preparation in the stadium as engineers and technicians prepare the stage. Then we see the bikes, but they are almost totally hidden in shadow as they run through the tunnel. A great deal of the film is dialogue, and in between the game sequences the pacing is slow – almost too slow at times, it must be said.

The narrative follows Jonathan (James Caan) the leading Rollerball player, whose skill in the game has made him a fan favourite, earning the disapproval of the head of the energy corporation, Mr Bartholomew (John Houseman). Pressure is put on Jonathan to retire, but his refusal leads to the Rollerball games becoming more dangerous as the rules are adjusted to make death or serious injury inevitable. Jonathan’s increasing unease with the situation leads to him carrying out his own investigations into the history of the ‘corporate wars’ as well as some of the circumstances surrounding the departure of his ex-wife.

Following his role as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), Caan was a major star, but his break-out came playing Randall O’Connell in Lady in a Cage. According to Hedda Hopper in the Los Angeles Times (25 March 1963), Olivia de Havilland admired Caan’s performance and sought to get him the leading role in Youngblood Hawke after Warren Beatty dropped out – although it was in fact James Franciscus who got the part. Caan’s skill at playing volatile mavericks fitted well with the role of Jonathan in Rollerball, although the film’s air of restraint meant that the actor rarely found opportunity to show much in the way of real emotional depth or range in his character.

And perhaps it’s that aura of quietness and uneasy languor that made the most impression on me this time round. When I first watched Rollerball I was barely in my teens and, naturally, my attention was drawn chiefly to the exciting game sequences. While these attracted controversy at the time and produced the film’s most famous and abiding images, they comprise only a tiny proportion of its content: less than xx minutes out of a total running time of xx. As one grows older

My enjoyment of the film was much enhanced by reading Andrew Nette’s excellent study of Rollerball, written for the Constellation series. As well as providing an excellent guide to the film’s production, structure and narrative, the book places the story within the wider context of contemporary science fiction cinema and political anxieties, draws fascinating parallels with contemporary issues over ‘fake news’ and reality TV, and – especially welcome – includes an interview with Norman Jewison as well as many insights drawn from the William Harrison archive.

Janus: looking forward, looking back

AW was born in Vienna on this day 123 years ago. It is my sincere hope that by the time this anniversary comes around again next year, his biography Anton Walbrook: a life of masks and mirrors – will have been published. As this decade-long project nears its end, there is a sense of impending closure: there will come a point when the draft chapters and back-up files can be discarded, when the envelopes stuffed full of handwritten notes can be sealed up and sent for recycling, and the computer files of drafts, plans and synopses can safely be deleted. Perhaps this is why I have chosen to illustrate this post with the latest photograph of AW that I have in my collection. This was taken in 1967, during the production of A Song at Twilight, and therefore just a few weeks or months before his death.

Nonetheless, the appearance of the biography should not mean the end of my blogging about AW, his life and films – quite the reverse in fact: few biographers would consider their work to be the final word on their subject, and I see A LIfe of Masks and Mirrors as the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one. There will no doubt be feedback, amendments, revisions and corrections, and hopefully the publication of the biography will encourage others to start talking about, and looking into, those areas in AW’s story that need to be further explored. A new phase of my Walbrook research will start, so this year marks a beginning as well as an end, a time for looking forward as much as looking back.

As part of this process of retrospective reflection, I will be giving a talk at the University of Exeter next February entitled Paper trails, masks and mirrors: the archival quest for an elusive biographical subject – Anton Walbrook which will look at the role played by archives in my research: from the first archival encounter that started me off on AW’s trail, through the time spent searching through various archives while writing the biography, to the cumulative creation of my own personal archive of AW papers and memorabilia. This talk will be part of the Stardom on the Archive symposium, being held to mark the end of the 20-month Reframing Vivien Leigh project that has been exploring how how the legacies of Vivien Leigh are archived and curated by different archival institutions. Readers of this blog may remember that AW and Leigh met on many occasions, both at theatrical events and at the actor’s home in Hampstead. Those familiar with Leigh will know that she was more widely known for her screen roles but really saw herself primarily as a stage actress. One of the topics I look at in the biography is the relationship between AW’s stage and screen work, tracing his approach to acting back to his childhood and the significance of his theatrical ancestry – and of course the importance of Vienna, where he was born on 19 November 1896: and not 1900, which was the year erroneously circulated by the media for much of his career – although that’s a story for another day….

Saint Joan


Tradition has it that Joan of Arc was born on this day, 6 January, around 1412, so it seemed apt to pen a quick post about the film Saint Joan (Preminger, 1957) in which AW played Pierre Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais who played an active role in Joan’s trial and execution.

Saint Joan (Jean Seberg) and Bishop Cauchon (AW)

The film was the first screen adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play, which was published in 1923, three after Joan was canonised by the Catholic Church. Shaw had died in 1950 and the screenplay was written by Grahame Greene, who had converted to Catholicism in 1926 and explored religious themes in many of his novels.

Although the part of Joan was given to newcomer Jean Seberg, the rest of the cast was drawn from a conventional roster of established actors, including experienced Shavian performers such as Felix Aylmer (in his firth of six screen appearances alongside AW) and Harry Andrews. The part of the effeminate Dauphin, Charles VII, went to Richard Widmark, who cinemagoers were more used to seeing as a rough action hero. Richard Todd played Joan’s field commander Dunois, while John Gielgud was cast as Warwick ‘the king-maker’. Margot Grahame – with whom AW had last appeared in Michael Strogoff twenty years previously – played the Duchesse de la Tremouille, and the part of the Archbishop of Rheims was given to Finlay Currie, who had also appeared with AW in 49th Parallel.

Rehearsals started on 17 December 1956. At the first reading at Shepperton studios, the actors all sat all sat round the table ‘like monks at a refectory’, with the bald headed Preminger taking the place of the abbot. Shooting began on 9 January 1957. Although the film was shot in black and white, the cinematographer was Georges Perinal, who had excelled in the glorious technicolour of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) . The imagery is generally restrained, however, and the entire film has a somewhat austere appearance that emphasises its resemblance to a stage play. Despite a number of cuts, Greene’s screenplay remained faithful to Shaw’s text. The epilogue to the play – in which characters appear in a dream to discuss Joan’s fate – was split into two to form a framing device at the beginning and end of the film. 

AW and Richard Todd

Shooting was completed in three months, and Preminger returned to America at the beginning of May to make preparations for the gala French premiere in Orleans and Paris at the Theatre National de l’Opera on 12 May, the Feast of Saint Joan. Preminger seems to have enjoyed his time in England, and was full of praise for the skill and professionalism of the Shepperton studio workers. The British premiere took place in Leicester Square Theatre on Thursday 20 June, with Walbrook among the many stars attending. It was a charity events, Preminger showing his admiration by donating the profits to British Studio Workers Benevolent funds for the unions ACTT, ETU and NATKE.

Although the premiere had been highly anticipated, with seats sold out a week in advance, the film did not prove popular with the general public. I will be rewatching it this evening, but it is fair to say that combination of heavy dialogue and lengthy camera takes gives large parts of the film a static, stagey feel that dampens the visual sparkle that one might have expected from such a star-studded cast.

The performances are excellent nonetheless and AW’s portrayal of Bishop Cauchon conveys the ‘self-disciplined and conscientious’ character that Shaw was keen to emphasise. In the backlash against Joan’s execution, Cauchon was excommunicated and regarded as something of a villain who had allowed his pro-English politics to intrude upon his handling of religious matters. Both Shaw and Greene understood that his position was much more complex and AW captures the sense of a pious and conscientious man who is struggling to find the right course within a web of conflicting principles and motives. As he admits to Joan in the closing dream sequence, ‘I was faithful to my light, I could do no other than I did.’ Even if he failed to protect Joan, whose innocence he sensed, he behaves with calmness and dignity, rising above the threats and bullying of the different factions around him.

Shaw stated Cauchon’s age to be ‘about 60’ and production began just a few weeks after AW’s sixtieth birthday, although he was still allowing people to believe him to be four years younger. He once stated that he had thought about becoming a priest when he was younger, and he brings to the role of Bishop Cauchon a convincing episcopal gravitas, complete with dry wit and a sense of world-weariness. He was almost cast as a priest ten years earlier in a proposed biopic about another canonised saint, Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, and it would have been interesting to have known what he might have done with the role. While many of his pre-war German films saw him portraying a stylish bon-vivant character, Cauchon was one of the long series of grand historical figures, soldiers and aristocracy that seem to dominate his post-emigration career.

Anna Massey, ‘Hollywood Beyond the Screen: Design and Material Culture’ (Oxford: Berg, 2000)

Anna Massey’s book takes a very different approach to that of Mary Ann Doane, although there is some overlap in their concern with how women engaged with the content of movies during the first half of the 20th century. Rather than using psychoanalytic theory as her starting point, Massey focuses on ‘edifices and artefacts…object-based material culture’ in order to explore the impact of American movies on British popular culture and design style. Her scope is far ranging, tracing the relationship between films and design by looking at the architecture of shops, cinemas and factories, interior room design, fashion, cigarette brands, advertisements, beauty products and family photographs. Unlike Doane’s work – which she cites – her writing is firmly rooted in real personal experiences, as is brought to life vividly by the inclusion of photographs of her mother and grandmother, with their own anecdotes about how their lives were affected by Hollywood movies.In her introduction to this book, entitled ‘Reclaiming the Personal and the Popular’, Anna Massey argues for the importance of embracing two strands that are often neglected in academic writing: a deliberate choice, spurred by the realisation that in much academic literature ‘affirmation of my own history and experience seems to be missing.’ (p.4)

 Joan Crawford and Dorothy Sebastian in Our Dancing Daughters (Beaumont, 1928) 

Using evidence drawn from these diverse sources and family anecdotes, Massey demonstrates the extent to which British popular and material culture was influenced at all levels by American style, as mediated through Hollywood, noting also how British intellectuals and establishment figures were determined to resist this Americanization which they associated with loose morals and subversive social mobility. There are four chapters, divided into rough chronological periods. The first of these, The Jazz Age, discusses developments between 1918 and 1929 when Hollywood eclipsed Paris in terms of influence on design, leading consumers in Britain to start looking towards America for the lead in matters of taste and style. A large chunk of this section looks at the films Our Dancing Daughters (Beaumont, 1928) and its sequel Our Modern Maidens (Conway, 1929) which propelled Joan Crawford to leading lady status and showcased Cedric Gibbons stunning art deco sets as well as Adrian’s daring costumes – which are discussed at length by Caroline Young’s book. Great concern was felt, both in America and Britain, about the dangers of young women trying to copy the behaviour exhibited in these films, and Massey quotes from women’s personal accounts of how they adopted the short skirts and flapper hairstyles worn on screen. A more specific expression of British resistance to Hollywood’s encroachment was the Cinematograph Film Act of 1927, although as the author makes clear, most of these attempts to hold back the American tide soon gave way in the face of popular and commercial demand – indicative of the tensions between elitist distaste for American culture and its mass popularity.  In Chapter Two, Bright Style in Dark Days, – the largest section of the book – the author traces how art deco evolved into the more streamlined art moderne style and the impact this had on British culture during the early 1930s, particularly in the form of architectural design in the south of England. Films discussed include Grand Hotel (Goulding, 1932,) Dinner at Eight (Cukor, 1933) and Top Hat (Sandrich, 1935).

Joan Crawford’s home in Our Dancing Daughters

The third chapter on Cold War Cultures covers the period during and just after the Second World War, including the impact of Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ fashion line launched in 1947, and postwar British resistance to American influence in the shape of British design fairs and the moral concern over the influence of rock ‘n’ roll, recalling how the film Rock Around the Clock (Sears, 1956) was banned by councils in Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol and Belfast. She discusses Bette Davis in Now Voyager, the ‘Americanized left-bank glamour of Hepburn’ (p.160), Hollywood actresses’ endorsement of beauty products and the short-lived British magazine Film and Fashion. A concluding section,  Post-modern glamour. A postscript, brings in some of the author’s own personal experiences of relating filmgoing to choices in dress and cultural attitudes, noting how the 1970s saw a revival of 1930s fashion, for instance through Mia Farrow’s stylish outfits in The Great Gatsby (Clayton, 1974).

The book should encourage readers to think more broadly about the cultural significance of classic films and the complex intersections that occur between the movies, avant-garde design, high fashion, popular culture and mass market commodities. The diverse and nuanced interplay between personal, popular, architectural and cinematic topics makes for a stimulating read, but it does create some problems for the author in trying to impose some order on the material and draw the various strands of her analysis together into a strong conclusion.

This will be the final post for the #ClassicFilmReading summer challenge this year, and for anyone who hasn’t done so, I’d recommend you check out the Out of the Past website for other reviews in the challenge as well as a wealth of material on all aspects of classic cinema

Mary Ann Doane, ‘The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s’ (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987)

The existence of the genre of the ‘woman’s film’ is a challenging one for feminist critics such as Doane, for while these films portray women in stereotypical feminised roles – mothers, lovers, hysterics, invalids or victims – they were hugely popular with female cinema-goers, who evidently enjoyed the films and identified (in some way) with the onscreen depictions of women’s experience. As a feminist, theoretical critic and psychoanalyst, Doane seeks to explain the anxieties underpinning these films and the ways in which filmmakers tried to get audiences to identify with the psychological behaviour of the screen characters.

 ‘‘before she dies she becomes pure gaze’ (p.122)

Vivien Leigh in Waterloo Bridge (LeRoy, 1940)

Inevitably she is building on Laura Mulvey’s groundbreaking essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ which was published in Screen journal in 1975. (It was later revised for Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford UP, 1999) pp. 833-44, which would provide a good background read for anyone approaching this topic.) Mulvey coined the term ‘male gaze’ to discuss the concept of ‘scopophilia’, the pleasure taken in gazing at the passive female as an object – a notion she pursued using the language of voyeurism and fetishization. These are also terms employed throughout Doane’s book, for even though the idea of the women’s film might suggest a ‘female gaze’ – women in the audience watching women on screen – it is important to grasp that Mulvey’s male gaze had three perspectives – that of the filmmaker, the screen character and the viewer – and was never intended to suggest binary distinctions between biological gender. As Doane makes clear, most of these ‘women’s films’ were made by men and reflect typically masculine anxieties about female agency during the wartime period; the way in which women were portrayed onscreen – she argues – was in keeping with a particular agenda that sought to increase female identification with passivity, suffering and neurosis.

Cat People Cats In Film Cinema Women And

‘the compatibility and substitutability of feline and female’ (p.51)

Simone Simon in Cat People (Lewton, 1942)

By choosing to focus on woman’s films in the 1940s Doane lines up a marvellous array of classics movies with some of the era’s greatest actresses. We have Bette Davis in The Letter (Wyler, 1940) and Beyond the Forest (Vidor, 1949), Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (Curtiz, 1945), The Locket (Brahm, 1946), Humoresque (Negulesco, 1946) and Possessed (Bernhardt, 1947),Olivia de Havilland in To Each His Own (Leisen, 1946), Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (Vidor, 1937) and so on. Several of Max Ophuls’ films, including Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Deception (also 1948) and The Reckless Moment (1949) are included, as is Gaslight (the Cukor 1944 adaptation, rather than the Walbrook one, alas) Secret Beyond the Door (Lang, 1947), Suspicion (Hitchcock, 1941) and many, many others – including Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (Stahl, 1946) just to prove the Forties weren’t entirely monochrome. So what does the author have to say about these films?

‘her daydream of happiness turns into a nightmare when she is unable to say “I do”‘ (p.148)

Dorothy McGuire in The Spiral Staircase (Siodmak, 1946)

At times, frankly, what the author wishes to say is not immediately clear, which is (sadly) perhaps what one should expect from a psychoanalytical theorist. Viewers who have watched these films many times and learned to relish Ophuls’ gorgeous cinematography, appreciate Tourneur’s masterly use of sound – or thrill to the soaring beauty of the music scores composed by Waxman for Rebecca or Newman for Leave Her to Heaven – may well feel disappointed by the downright ugliness of sentences such as ‘It is as though the historical threat of a potential feminization of the spectatorial position required an elaborate work of generic containment olation’ (p.2) that form much of the prose here. This is a shame, as the author has a great deal of perceptions observations to make, and readers who manage to persevere with the difficult language may find the author’s insights valuable in reshaping  attitudes towards this ‘golden age’ of movies.

For Doane, popular terms for women’s films such as ‘weepies’ and ‘tearjerkers’ indicate the narcissistic nature of female spectatorship and its over-identification with the emotional states portrayed onscreen. In most of these movies, women are only allowed to feel a passive form of sexual desire, and those who express – or worse still, act upon – an active desire are generally punished.  The author makes a forceful argument not only about the extent to which these films rely upon, and exploit, a range of psychical conditions associated with stereotypical femininity, but also the ways in which the actual visual imagery of these films and its effects are deployed in enforcing these constructs, and just how deeply these symbols are ingrained within the subconscious of both the watchers and the watched.

Related image

‘the victim of desires which exceed her social status’ (p.75)

Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (Vidor, 1937) 

One trouble with the author’s emphasis on conceptual theorizing is that it seems to treat both the women in the cinema audience and those on the screen as ciphers of ideological concepts rather than real human beings. To me, the language of this sort of critical discourse is so far removed from everyday experience that it comes across almost as dehumanizing – achieving precisely the opposite effect of that intended by the author. Those seeking to learn more about women’s experience of cinema-going around this time might find Lisa Stead’s Off to the Pictures: Women’s Writing, Cinemagoing and Movie Culture in Interwar Britain (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2016) far more engaging and convincing, because it is so deeply rooted in real voices and material ephemera.

This is the penultimate post in this summer’s #ClassicFilmReading challenge