This is a letter written by AW to a young fan, Miss Beatrice Claire, in response to the script of a play she had sent him. It was written from the Aldwych Theatre on 6 October 1943, where AW had been playing the role of Kurt Müller in Lilian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine since the previous April. It would run until December 1943, although the role was taken over by Ferdy Mayne. The title of the play suggested by Miss Claire is unknown, but Walbrook thanked her for the kind thought, adding: ‘It is a fine play but does not interest me as an actor – or shall I say as a [?] Viennese?’
Although I have many signed items in my collection, and numerous copies of AW’s letters from the 1920s through to the 1960s, this is the only original handwritten letter that I possess and one that I treasure.
For previous posts in the series of ‘Anton Artefacts’, see here and here. More should follow very soon!
What could be more distressing than the sudden and
mysterious disappearance of a loved one or family member? Probably being
confronted with evidence that they never existed, and having both one’s memory
and sanity thrown into doubt. This has been the disturbing premise of a number
of films, which I began thinking about last weekend while watching the latest
addition to this series – Fractured (2019)– which had just been streamed on
Netflix. In this film, Ray Monroe (Jack Worthington) takes his daughter Perry to
hospital after they both fall on a building site, and sits in the waiting room
while Peri and her mother go off to get a scan. After some hours pass and they
do not reappear, his questions about their whereabouts are met with a mixture
of confusion, sympathy and increasingly belligerent impatience from different
staff members, as the sign-in register, CCTV footage and doctors’ statements
all indicate he arrived alone. Is his head injury to blame? Or is there
something more sinister going on?
Fractured is a well-executed and fairly enjoyable movie, although anyone attempting to push this scenario in a contemporary setting has to find a way around the ubiquity of mobile phones and surveillance cameras which can easily be produced to prove or disprove basic facts such as these. It is notable for a film apparently set in the present day that no-one is seen using a mobile phone, and the hospital is still using VHS tapes for their CCTV recording in the emergency waiting room. Barnsley Hospital in South Yorkshire, for example, has over 160 surveillance cameras monitoring almost every public area including car parks, entrances, corridors, treatment rooms, offices and wards, and you can be fairly certain that they’re not recording everything on tape! Such disappearance films are more likely to convince if they are either made or set in the past, which is largely true of those listed below:
Unheimliche Geschichten [Uncanny Tales]is a German silent film in which five short tales are linked together by a framing story set in an antiquarian bookshop at midnight, in which the figures of Death, the Devil and the Harlot emerge from paintings to tell the stories – similar to the devices used in the great portmanteau films made by Amicus in the 1970s. The first story is based on Anselma Heine’s novel Die Erscheinung [The Apparition], published in Berlin in 1912, which lays out the basic template for most of the films discussed below.
A young couple, played by two great Weimar figures – Conrad Veidt and Anita Berber – arrive at a hotel and check in for the night. He leaves her to spend the evening with friends, returning late – and drunk – to find his hotel room empty with bare walls, but puts this down to his drunken disorientation and sleeps elsewhere. In the morning, however, the woman is nowhere to be seen and his enquiries at the reception are meant with the firm insistence that he arrived alone: which is confirmed by the hotel register. The staff all deny having seen the woman. Who is telling the truth, and if they are lying, what could their reason be?
Midnight Warning (Spencer Bennett, 1932)
A similar scenario forms the setting for this Pre-Code Hollywood film in which Bill Cornish (William Boyd) – a private investigator – arrives at a Chicago hotel, the Clarendon Arms, to see old friend Dr Walcott, who is mysteriously shot through the open window. The hotel management seem very cagey about discussing the matter – and why is there a human ear bone in the fireplace of Walcott’s room? The trail leads Cornish to the apartment of Erich and his fiancee Enid van Buren (Claudia Dell), who checked into the hotel with her brother Ralph two months earlier. The next morning Enid travelled to Salt Lake City to sign some papers relating to an estate she had inherited, but when she returned to the hotel the staff denied all knowledge of their stay, the hotel register is blank and the room is not as she remembers. Distressed and disorientated, Enid is taken to the ‘psychopathic ward’ of the local hospital – is she mad, or is there some truth in her story?
In comparison with the other films discussed below, Midnight Warning (aka Eyes of Mystery) is a very masculine tale, dominated by burly men standing around talking, and the casual misogyny of their attitudes is exemplified in the way that the unpleasant attempts at ‘gaslighting’ are brushed off at the end ‘for the greater good.’ Indeed, one feature that many of these films have in common is the ease with which a lone woman’s voice can be dismissed by powerful men as hysteria, over-imagination, a bump on the head or too many drinks. Sadly, this remains as true today as it did in the nineteenth century setting of the earlier films.
The story for Murder Mystery was written by Norman Battle but – like Unheimliche Geschichten above – it is based on the urban legend of ‘The Vanishing Lady’, also known as ‘The Vanishing Hotel Room’, which seems to have begun circulating in various forms in the late 19th century. It featured in Belloc Lowndes’ novel The End of Her Honeymoon (1913).
The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938)
Probably the best known version of these stories is Hitchcock’s hugely popular mystery thriller, The Lady Vanishes, which won him an Oscar for Best Director. In this film Iris (Margaret Lockwood) tries to convince fellow traveller Gilbert (Michael Redgrave in his screen debut) of the existence of an elderly woman Miss Froy (May Whitty) who has vanished from the train as they journey through Nazi Germany. No-one believes her, and the only piece of evidence that she was ever there – the trace of her name on the coach window – mysteriously disappears as they pass through a tunnel before Iris can show it to Gilbert – a typical Hitchcockian touch, but one that was retained in the 1979 remake starring Cybil Shepherd and Elliot Gould, which turns the tale into more of a screwball comedy. The BBC 2013 adaptation is perhaps more faithful to the original source material, Ethel White’s novel The Wheel Spins (1936), on which all these versions are based.
So Long at the Fair ( Terence Fisher, 1950)
The plot of So Long at the Fair is rather similar, although the reasons for the disappearance and subsequent cover-up are different, hearking back to the template used in Lowndes’ novel. This film was adapted from Anthony Thorne’s 1947 novel of the same name – the screenplay was co-written by Hugh Mills and Anthony Thorne – and tells the story of Johnny (David Tomlinson) and his sister Vicky (Jean Simmons, above) who have travelled to Paris for the World Fair of 1889. Overnight, Johnny disappears without a trace – to the extent that even his hotel room number is erased. Again, no-one believes the distraught girl until artist George Hathaway (Dirk Bogarde) is drawn into the mystery, and the two begin to investigate (falling in love as they do so.) Jean Simmons is as sweet and delightful as ever, and the film benefits from some wonderful period detail – just look at the costumes and hairstyles! – as well as a fine supporting cast that includes Felix Aylmer, Honor Blackman and Cathleen Nesbitt.
Into Thin Air (Don Medford, 1955) – Alfred Hitchcock Presents
Hitchcock returned to this theme again in 1955 for an early episode in the first run of the anthology series ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’. The script was written by Marian Cockerell, based on Thorne’s novel, although in this version British visitors to the 1889 Exposition Universelle Mrs. Winthrop (Mary Forbes) and her daughter Diana (played by Pat Hitchcock, the daughter of Alma and Alfred) check into a Paris hotel on their way home. After Mrs. Winthrop falls ill, hotel doctor (John Mylong) sends Diana to his home for medicine, but when she returns there is no trace of her mother and all the staff deny that she was ever there…. The only person who believes Diana is an Englishman from the embassy, Basil Farnham (played by the wonderful Geoffrey Toone).
Bunny Lake is Missing (Otto Preminger, 1965)
Uniquely among the films here, Bunny Lake is Missing is set in contemporary Britain, although it was based on Merriam Modell’s 1957 novel of the same name, which is set in New York. Preminger’s film moves the location to London, where American single mother Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) has recently settled after moving from New York. When she goes to collect her four year old daughter ‘Bunny’ from the local children’s nursery, the child is not there, and the supervisor has no recollection of seeing her. As the police begin to investigate, they discover that there is no ‘Bunny Lake’ on the register, no children’s clothes, photographs or toy at Ann’s house, and that ‘Bunny’ was the name of Ann’s childhood imaginary friend. Unsurprisingly, Ann’s claims seem hard to believe, and she finds herself – like several other distraught females in this post – sedated and taken away for psychiatric assessment.
But she is fortunate in having diligent detective Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) on the case, who persists in his investigations despite his scepticism about Ann’s story. Olivier is just one of numerous fine actors in the film, which is populated with an assortment of strange characters – an eccentric schoolmistress who claims to collect children’s nightmares (Martita Hunt) , a doll-repairer (Finlay Currie), Ann’s brother Steven (Keir Dullea) and her lasvicious landlord Horatio (Noel Coward), not to mention Anna Massey, Adrienne Corri and Lucie Mannheim.
The Forgotten (Joseph Ruben, 2004)
This film differs a little from the others in that it contains a strong science fiction element, but the same basic strands are all here – the lone woman whose insistence that her child has disappeared is denied by friends and colleagues, leading to her being treated by a psychiatrist: only for the ‘conspiracy’ to fall apart and for the victim to be vindicated – although the film offers further twists after this. It’s all rather far-fetched, but worth watching for Julianne Moore’s performance as Telly Paretta, who is convinced that her son died in a plane crash – despite the denials by her husband and best friend – and the absence of any physical evidence – that she ever had a son. While her psychiatrist continues to treat her for what he sees as an obsessive delusion, she finds support from another man (Dominic West) experiencing the same thing with regard to his daughter. What is going on?
Flightplan (Schwentke, 2005)
Following the recent death of her husband David, an aviation engineer, Kyle Pratt (Jodie Foster) is travelling on a plane from Berlin to New York with her daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston) and David’s body in the hold. After she dozes off during the flight, she wakes to find that her daughter is no longer in her seat. Other passenger deny having seen her daughter – unsurprising perhaps, given the size of the plane and many of them sleeping during the night flight. But when the flight attendants try and persuade Kyle that she was travelling alone, the passenger manifest has no record of Julia, and a doctor in Berlin informs the captain that Kyle lost both her husband and daughter in an accident, the young widow begins to question her sanity….but could there be another explanation?
Following the same pattern as the earlier films mentioned above, with one explicit borrowing from The Lady Vanishes, Flightplan begins well as the suspense builds up and Jodie Foster – like Julianne Moore – puts in a convincing performance as a mother struggling to balance her maternal instincts and memories against the overwhelming weight of contradictory evidence. As the film progresses, however, the elaborate plot strains credibility somewhat, but the confined space of the plane makes Flightplan even more claustrophobic and tense than the hotel and train settings of other adaptations of the story.
The Changeling (Eastwood, 2008)
Although the premise is slightly different, there is a case for at least mentioning Clint Eastwood’s film The Changeling (2008) which starred Angeline Jolie and John Malkovich. Following the disappearance in Los Angeles in 1928 of Walter, the nine year old son of single mother Christine Collins (Angeline Jolie), the LA police carry out an investigation and claim to have found him. At the public reunion laid on to generate much-needed positive publicity for the corrupt and inefficient police force, Collins realises that the boy being returned to her is not Walter. The more she protests, the more evidence is produced to disprove her claims, leading to doubts about her sanity and fitness to look after her son. Although she is incarcerated in a state hospital for assessment, her case is taken up by a pastor (John Malkovich) and gradually the truth is revealed. The film is based on real events that took place in California in 1928.
A Dandy in Aspic marked a turning point in Mia Farrow’s career, for although her name was widely known through her role (1964-66) as Allison Mackenzie in US soap opera Peyton Place, this 1968 spy film was her first major screen role and within months, she had followed it up with the starring role in Rosemary’s Baby. However, the film merits a closer look for many reasons, not the east of which is the magnificent array of fine couture on display.
The film’s production and Mia’s career
Mia left Peyton Place abruptly in order to marry Frank Sinatra in July 1966, after which it soon became clear to her that he was not happy with her pursuing a full-time film career. However, it was soon equally clear to Sinatra that his young wife had a mind of her own and was not afraid to stand up to him. Eventually a compromise was reached, and it was agreed that she could appear in one film a year. When casting for A Dandy in Aspic took place in January 1967 it seemed ideal: the schedule would involve Mia in ten days filming in London followed by three days in Berlin, so the couple wouldn’t be apart for long. Also, her co-star would be Laurence Harvey, who had been a friend of Sinatra’s since they worked together in The Manchurian Candidate (Frankenheimer, 1962). She said her goodbyes, and left Los Angeles for London in the middle of February.
As a matter of fact, Mia had not been the first choice for the character of Caroline: the part was offered to Julie Christie, who turned it down. She had already worked with the two males stars, having played opposite Laurence Harvey in Darling (1965) and Tom Courtenay in Billy Liar (1963), films that positioned her as the incarnation of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ girl. However, Dandy in Aspic would have been a very different film had she accepted the role. Christie’s sultry intensity was not what the film needed: Mia was an inspired choice.
A Dandy for Aspic is a cold war thriller, adapted by Derek Marlowe from his own 1966 novel of the same name. Harvey plays Alexander Eberlin, a.k.a. Krasnevin, a Russian double agent working for the British intelligence service. Homesick and weary, he wishes to return to Russia but finds himself in a desperate position after he is despatched to Berlin – to track down and catch Krasnevin. His British colleagues include the imposing intelligence chief Fraser (Harry Andrews, from Saint Joan), his partner for the Berlin trip, Gatiss (Tom Courtenay) – who is openly hostile towards Eberlin from the first moment they meet – and the suave and lecherous Prentiss (played with relish by Peter Cook). Unfortunately Eberlin’s KGB bosses aren’t any friendlier, making it clear that they have no use for him back in Russia and the door to the east is closed…
As this brief synopsis indicates, this is very much a man’s world, bleak, dour and humourless, populated by men whose duplicitous lives have made them cold and cynical. Mia brought to the film not only a much-needed feminine presence in the character of Caroline, but also warmth, colour, humour and charm which would otherwise be conspicuous by its absence.
After her arrival in London, she flew out to Paris with Laurence Harvey where they were both fitted out with costumes by the legendary designer Pierre Cardin.
Although Harvey was already an experienced star with over forty films to his credit, the red carpet was rolled out for Mia, whose unique charisma and striking looks was already recognised: she was welcomed by the French ambassador’s wife, Madame Alphand, who Cardin deployed to deal with his most prestigious clients. As part of her contract, Mia was allowed to keep the Cardin outfits, some of which will be discussed below. After leaving Paris, Mia unexpectedly flew back to New York before travelling onto Miami where Sinatra was performing at the Fontainebleu Hotel. However she soon rejoined director Anthony Mann and the rest of the cast in London, and filming began.
Mia’s character, Caroline, is a London socialite and photographer, the daughter of Lady Hetherington, who first meets Eberlin at the Café Royale in Regent Street. Clearly intrigued, she asks if he is married, and engineers a meeting in the lobby as he prepares to leave. While most of the diners are in formal evening wear and finery, Caroline stands out in a short, sleeveless floral dress, over which she later slips a white fur-lined cape. Eberlin’s lack of interest in her reverses when he realises he is being followed, and he accepts her invitation to return to her flat, which doubles as a photographic studio.
It should be noted that there is no reference to her being a photographer in Marlowe’s novel, and it seems likely that the decision to introduce this theme into the film was inspired by the recent Blow Up (Antonioni, 1966), in which David Hemmings played a fashion photographer in ‘Swinging’ London. Caroline’s neat studio and her references to portraits of writers and actors positions her among the same sort of glamorous circles as Hemmings’ character Thomas, who was clearly based on David Bailey. The photography theme is not tossed aside, as it provides the motive for Caroline’s journey to Berlin – where she bumps into Eberlin again, apparently by coincidence – and she continues to carry and use her camera throughout the film. For those who are interested, she uses a 1965 Nikon F camera, with a Nikkor-S 50mm f / 1.4 lens, and fitted with a Photomic T viewfinder.
Caroline asks if she can take a photograph of Eberlin who refuses, prompting her to admit that she already has one of him that she took when he was on holiday in Tunis. (In the book, she glimpsed him in Tripoli and there was no photograph.) He asks if he can have it for reasons of vanity, but then destroys it when he leaves, without – as we suspect Caroline wished – having spent the night. Their encounter raises some intriguing questions about their motives. Firstly, it is suggested that Eberlin felt no romantic attraction to Caroline and only accepted her invitation to get away from the intelligence agents who wished to speak to him, while his pretended interest in her photographs was only a ruse to destroy evidence that he was in Tunis, where he actually carried out the assassination of a British agent. (A futile act, given that a) Caroline almost certainly retained the negatives of her work and b) his colleagues were already aware that he was in Tunis.) Regarding Caroline, however, few viewers are likely to believe that her repeated meetings with Eberlin are coincidence – and she must be fairly adept at clandestine photography if she can take a close-up portrait of a spy without him noticing. Is she in fact deliberately stalking him as part of another operation? This is something that is left open throughout the film. Evidence suggests otherwise, but the romance that develops between them is always underpinned by a vague sense that at least one of them is pursuing a secret agenda.
Despite the bleakness at the heart of the story, Mann did not follow the well-trod path of other cinematographers who convey this coldness through draining their films of colour. Both in London and Berlin the locations positively pop with vibrant tones, acting as a counterpoint to Eberlin’s increasing ennui and exhaustion.
Caroline is (apparently) over in Berlin for a photo-shoot, and manages to bump into Eberlin several times in different places across the city. She is accompanied by her photographic assistant Nevil, played by a young Richard O’Sullivan, a former child actor who would soon gain fame in TV sitcoms such as Man About the House and Robin’s Nest.
She goes along willingly with Eberlin’s new identity of ‘George Dancer’ but falls foul of Gatiss, who disapproves of her being around and is determined to keep Eberlin focussed on his task of finding Krasnevin. The double agent’s sojourn in Berlin is a bizarre sequence of furtive meetings, violent murders and grim conversations alternating regularly with romantic encounters with Caroline, some of which border on the surreal. He leaves her in bed during the night to despatch another agent in the bathroom along the corridor, while on another occasion he wanders off and finds her dressed in a cloth cap and fisherman’s sweater, sitting in a tree by a lake. No explanation is given either for her outfit or her presence there.
One has the sense that Eberlin knows there is no way out, and finds solace in Caroline’s quirky and unpredictable behaviour. It is clear too that there are genuine affections on both sides, although by this time it seems unlikely that there will be a happy ending. In one telling scene, they are interrupted in bed by Gatiss, who forces Eberlin to leave before telling Caroline: ‘I do believe you two would have got on well together. You haven’t got a past, and he doesn’t have a future. None at all.’
Their final meeting takes place at the AVUS race track just outside Berlin – which was also used in Anton Walbrook’s film Allotria (1936). These scenes blend real footage of races with a specially-filmed crash that appears to have been caused deliberately – and which will have fatal consequences for one of the party.
Sadly, there was another fatality in Berlin, as director Anthony Mann died of a heart attack on 29th July 1967, midway through filming. When Mia and the others heard he had taken ill, they all raced up to his hotel room but it was too late. In her memoir What Falls Away (1997) Mia describes her reaction to seeing her first dead body. It was decided that Harvey would direct the rest of the film – he also oversaw the final edit – with some assistance from Mann’s widow. This was uncredited at the time, and it is hard to know exactly which parts were filmed by Mann and which were the work of Harvey.
When Eberlin and Caroline part, there is sadness on both sides, although perhaps for different reasons. Some commentators have suggested that Harvey’s cold and emotionless performance presents Eberlin as someone who is unable to feel anything for anyone – obviously sentimentality being a drawback for those working in espionage. Yet to me there is a sense of sadness, not only over his fate but also because his short time with Caroline has revealed to him what he has lost – both in her and within himself. A Dandy in Aspic is a film about identity rather than espionage – about the struggle to find one’s real self and the dangers of not being true to who you are. As Caroline remarks when she first meets Eberlin: ‘I’d say you’re definitely a Gemini. You know, two people in one.’ The fact that both Mia and Harvey were dressed in Pierre Cardin creations marks them out as a pair, two halves, and sets them apart from their friends and colleagues – Eberlin’s sartorial elegance (such as polo necks and lined collars) distinguishing him from the regulation suits worn by the other British agents. But I also feel that Mia’s performance brings out particular qualities of Caroline – colour, warmth, spontaneity, humour, charm, candour and vulnerability – that represent the humanity that Eberlin has denied or repressed. He sees in her what he might have been, another life he might have had – by which time, of course, it is too late…
The end of Caroline and Eberlin’s relationship was a portent for the demise of her real-life marriage, with Sinatra’s increasing irritation about her extended absence fuelling his resentment about her decision to pursue an independent film career. As the production ran over schedule, he rang her on set every day to ask when she was returning to the States. Other film work was to follow, with Secret Ceremony also being filmed in 1967. Ira Levin’s bestselling novel Rosemary’s Baby was published on 12 March 1967 and Mia was offered the lead role in the production, filming of which began in Hollywood that autumn.
A Dandy in Aspic received its premiere at the Columbia Cinema (now the Curzon Soho) in Shaftesbury Avenue, London, on 4 April 1968. In Arthur Marwick’s book The Sixties (OUP, 1968) he draws a distinction between the colour and optimism of the ‘High Sixties’ and the increasing pessimism and radical fragmentation of the ‘Late Sixties.’ A Dandy in Aspic offers a perfect example of a film that occupies a transition point between these two, with Mia’s innocent sense of fun and vibrant fashion sense giving way to the world-weary despair and disorientation of Laurence Harvey’s identity crisis. This is a film that really deserves to be better known. It occupies an important part in Mia Farrow’s career, both in terms of her breakout role in a major film and for its formative role in establishing her as a style icon.
This was part of the Mia Farrow Blogathon hosted by Gabriela at Pale Writer. Check out the rest of the entries here!
As most readers of this blog will know, for over a decade I have been working on a biography of the émigré actor Adolf Wohlbrück /Anton Walbrook (1896-1967), but this weekend provided a wonderful opportunity to talk about this work as part of the Stardom and the Archive conference held at the University of Exeter, 8-9 February 2020. The conference was organised as part of the Reframing Vivien Leigh research project – I have written about the relationship between Walbrook and Leigh elsewhere on these pages – and its aims are summarised here:
Conventional critical discourse focuses overwhelmingly on the findings of archival research rather than the process with scholarship telling ‘a story about what you found, but not about how you found it.’ (Kaplan 1990: 103) The Stardom and the Archive symposium seeks to challenge this convention by centralising archival process and curatorial histories in researching stardom.
The conference has seen film scholars from all over the UK and beyond, including Australia and Turkey, come together to discuss diverse aspects of archival research, curatorial practice and fan collecting in relation to stardom. The range and quality of the papers so far has been fantastic, with an imaginative scope that includes gravesites and multi-media artefacts as well as the more traditional paper-based archives.
It was a great delight, as ever, to talk about Walbrook in the presence of such distinguished and appreciative company. My presentation was entitled Paper Trails, Masks and Mirrors: the archival quest for an elusive biographical subject and discussed the different phases of archival engagement involved in writing my biography, including the challenges of dealing with gaps in the archive, the complex relationship between Walbrook’s onscreen persona, his life as a private individual and the archival record of both his life and career. It was also an opportunity to discuss the creation of my own Walbrook collection – an archive of my research as much as a fan collection – and share some of its treasures.
My collection includes original letters, postcards, film posters, vinyl, glass slides, lobby cards, cinema magazines, theatre programmes from the 1920s to the 1960s, copies of documentation from state archives and theatre museums, photographs, film stills, presscutting files and 16mm film reels, as well as some of the original costumes worn by Walbrook in his films, and I raised the issue of how the agenda of the collector relates to that of the biographer or researcher.
This offered a chance to revist the exhibition Anton Walbrook: Star and Enigma, which I curated at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum back in 2013. Anyone wishing to know more about this should watch the excellent short film made by Olivia Luder and available to watch here. As another aspect of archival engagement, I also discussed the brilliant artwork by Matt Horan (Matt Mclaren), which he created by painting scenes from Walbrook’s films, cutting out the images and then reassembling them in 3-D scenarios which were then photographed and turned into prints. My paper ended with a call for more collaborations like these, in which scholars, archivists, curators, artists and fans can learn from one another through sharing their different passions and fields of expertise.
Now it’s time to return for Day Two of the conference, which will close with the launch of the new Reframing Vivien Leigh exhibition!
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.
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.