All at Sea, called Barnacle Bill in England, is an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness, but there’s a reason you never hear it mentioned in the same breath with Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit, or The Lady Killers—except in the hopeful trailer, which claims it’s the best of them all. It’s a nice, modest, and pleasant little effort that clearly comes from the same sensibilities without being as inspired.
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The Searchers asks one main question: What makes a man to wander?
Steve Pick: We come to the first Western in our series, the John Ford masterpiece The Searchers. I say “masterpiece” because there are few films so tightly focused, so beautifully filmed, and so aware of ambiguities. From that wonderful opening shot through the door of the small home out on the Texas prairie on through the final shot through another door, as John Wayne saunters away from family, friends, and purpose, this is a movie which takes away breath so often it should come with an inhaler. Yet, there are issues to discuss, not the least of which include the treatment of Native Americans, questions of cultural identity, the meaning of the word “family”, and the general concept of the “hero” in American films. The Searchers exists in the context of hundreds of other western films, not to mention thousands of dime novels, pulps, and paperbacks. While delivering the thrills inherent in the genre, it seems to me that The Searchers does not take its tropes for granted, but digs deeper into their meaning than we are used to seeing.
So, Steve, I’ll let you start by asking your take on The Searchers in general, and more specifically your opinion of John Wayne’s character in the context of the film.
During a Master Class at the Bari International Film Festival this past week, Sir Alan Parker, one of the most interesting directors of the ‘80s and ‘90s, dropped a bombshell on fans worldwide. “I won’t direct another film,” the 71-year-old Oscar nominee stated, adding, “Directors do not improve with age: they repeat themselves, and while there are exceptions, their work generally does not get any better. This is the reason why I have decided not to make any more films.”
And with that, one of the most intriguing creative canons of the late 20th century comes to an end. Parker came out of commercials, counting fellow ad men Ridley Scott, his brother Tony, and Adrian Lynne as up and coming visionaries who brought the Madison Avenue mindset to the big screen. Instead of attending university, he went right to work, climbing from the mailroom to marketing, finally finding a place behind the lens.
For a spaghetti western, Twice a Judas (1969) develops slowly; its plot is as meandering as a monk walking in the moonlight. The film begins by showing what looks like two bodies laying dead atop a desolate desert mountain, but when a frenzied flock of vultures begin pecking away at them, one of the the bodies jumps up and unloads several rounds from a shotgun into the flying scavengers. This shotgun-wielding body is Luke Barrett (Antonio Sabato). Although he is alive, he has an extreme case of amnesia. “It’s inside my head,” he says at one point. “This blackness. I can’t remember anything. I don’t even know who I am.”
Vice and Virtue is a perfect example of how Roger Vadim applied the concept of “seduction” to aesthetics as well as story, providing an operatic exercise in the transgressive and kinky with a veneer of literary cachet. He’d already done this with his modernised Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1960), which is possibly the best of several films from that novel (Milos Forman’s Valmont is also excellent). In the resoundingly artificial and allegorical Vice and Virtue, the high concept is to update the Marquis de Sade’s Justine to Nazi-occupied France at the end of WWII.