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Castle Keep (1969) | Burt Lancaster leads the charge in Sydney Pollack’s underrated anti-war satire

Castle Keep (1969)

Oh my Lordy, Sydney Pollack’s Castle Keep is a revelation. First thing is the magical Michel Legrand score; second is the gorgeous winter imagery – shot with Panavision perfection by French New Wave legend Henri Decaë; and thirdly, the sterling cast of Hollywood heavyweights, including Burt Lancaster, Peter Falk, Patrick O’Neal and a very nutty Bruce Dern.

Shot in Novi Sab, Serbia using a Disney-like castle (supposedly made out of Styrofoam) as its centrepiece, this dreamlike anti-war satire takes a brave stab at adapting William Eastlake’s offbeat 1965 novel of the same name, which drew on the author’s experiences at the Battle of Bulge.

Castle Keep (1969)

Burt Lancaster heads the cast as the mercurial one-eyed Major Falcone billeting his remaining soldiers at the Ardennes castle of the Count and Countess of Maldorais (Jean-Pierre Aumont and Astrid Heeren).

With the castle’s position in the direct line of the German advance, Falcone prepares the castle for an assault; much to the concern of Captain Beckman (Patrick O’Neal), an art historian who is using the long waiting time to do an inventory of the castle’s art treasures which he wants saved.

Castle Keep (1969)

While Beckman and Falcone debate the castle’s fate, the war-weary ragtag squad consisting of a ‘22-gold carat Indian’, cowboy, cook, baker, and minister occupy their free time at a local whorehouse, which is being picketed by Bruce Dern’s band of hymn-singing conscientious objectors.

Although Castle Keep preceded Robert Altman’s groundbreaking M*A*S*H* by a mere five months, it bears much the same style of black comedy, albeit with a strong dose surrealism added in. And this comes from the fact that the film is being told from the perspective of Private Benjamin (Al Freeman Jr), whose wartime experiences have been turned into a book called – yep, you guessed it! Castle Keep.

Castle Keep (1969)

Among the visual highlights is the Red Queen brothel which, under Altman and Decaë’s visual eye, is turned into a dazzling jewel box hued in Bava-esque colours, and a comical scene in which a Volkswagen racing Beetle seems to have a mind of its own (ala Herbie The Love Bug) and refuses to sink after two soldiers try to shoot holes in it.

Castle Keep (1969)

Altman peppers the film with imagery that really bangs home his nihilistic anti-war message – best represented in a sequence in which Dern’s fundamentalist Lieutenant leads shell-shocked soldiers Pied Piper-liked through a street under attack – and an underlying theme about class: which bubbles through a sub-plot involving the castle’s aristocratic owners wanting to continue their bloodline by getting the young Countess (symbolising old Europe) to mate with the Major (aka the New World).

Castle Keep (1969)

Unlike M*A*S*H* however, Castle Keep was a flop on its release – probably on account of the film’s surreal, arthouse approach, and the dialogue – which comes off a little pretentious at times – penned by Daniel Taradash (From Here to Eternity) and Altman’s frequent collaborator David Rayfiel.

Thankfully, however, Powerhouse Films have dragged Castle Keep out the shadows to present a region-free Dual Format Edition as part of the Indicator series so that cult film fans can reappraise this underrated cinematic gem. Now, if only I can find that score….

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SPECIAL FEATURES:
• High Definition re-master
• Original mono audio
• Alternative 4.0 Surround sound track
• The John Player Lecture with Burt Lancaster (1972, 100 mins): audio recording of an interview conducted by Joan Bakewell at the National Film Theatre, London
• The Lullaby of War (2017, 18 mins): a new interview with actor Tony Bill, who played Lieutenant Amberjack, about his experiences making Castle Keep
• Eastlake at USD (1968, 29 mins): an archival, videotaped interview with author William Eastlake
• Original theatrical trailer
• New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
• Limited edition booklet with a new essay by Brad Stevens, archival interviews with Sydney Pollack and Burt Lancaster, and original pressbook material

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Il Generale Della Rovere (1959) | Vittorio De Sica seeks redemption in Roberto Rossellini’s haunting wartime drama

Il Generale Della Rovere (1959)

Roberto Rossellini’s deeply affecting 1959 drama, Il Generale Della Rovere, screens at the BFI on Wednesday 26 and Friday 28 August as part of the Vittorio De Sica season.

When it comes to the really great Italian film directors, many were profoundly touched by neorealism – the cinematic style that dominated Italian filmmaking immediately after the Second World War. Breaking out of the confines of the Cinecittà studios (built by Mussolini in 1937 to create propaganda films) directors such Rossellini, Fellini and De Sica, followed closely by Pasolini and Antonioni, took to the streets between the years 1943 and 1952 to capture everyday life, creating cinematic masterpieces that, over a half a century later, still pack a punch.

Leading the charge was Roberto Rossellini, whose groundbreaking Rome, Open City, starring Anna Magnani, elevated neorealism – and the director – onto the international stage in 1944; while his vitriolic Umberto D in 1952 would signal the movement’s end. Rossellini returned to the themes he explored during his neo-realist period when he made Il Generale Della Rovere in 1959.

Il Generale Della Rovere (1959)

Winner of the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion award, Il Generale Della Rovere was a huge box office success on its initial release. Vittorio De Sica is the film’s star and he commands nearly scene as a charming former General who ‘helps’ the citizens of Nazi-occupied Genoa get their loved-ones released from custody. But De Sica’s character is in reality a gambler and a con man called Bardone, who is later arrested by the SS then given the chance to save himself from execution by impersonating a partisan leader in order to expose a major resistance organiser.

Sound grim? Well it ain’t. In fact, this is one of the most engaging, gripping and heartfelt wartime dramas ever made. It is also a powerful story about courage as Bardone wrestles with his conscience while locked up in prison. For Bardone, it’s a one-way ticket to redemption.

Il Generale Della Rovere (1959)

In 2011, Arrow Academy released Rossellini’s drama with new transfer of the Venice Film Festival version of the film; optional English subtitle translation; original mono audio; and interviews with composer Renzo Rossellini and director Roberto Rossellini.

 

 

 

Venom (1971) | This British horror obscurity weaves a tangled web indeed

Venom (1971)

Taking Bram Stoker’s Dracula legend and fusing it with a surreal Carnival of Souls waking nightmare, a dash of Euro-sleaze and a Blood Beast Terror creature feature, this British obscurity from future Hammer horror director Peter Sykes weaves a tangled web indeed.

Venom (1971)

The only thing Paul Greville wanted was a quiet and peaceful time – instead all he found was…VENOM!
Whilst travelling through Bavaria in his yellow Citroën 2CV, photographer Paul Greville (Simon Brent), encounters the enigmatic Anna (Neda Arneric), who sports a strange spider mark on her shoulder, but she runs off when he tries to takes pictures of her.

Checking into a local tavern (where a jukebox continually blasts out Hammond organ tunes), Paul discovers the superstitious Tyrolean villagers live in fear of a phantom called the Spider Goddess that is said to haunt the forest.

Obsessed by the elusive Anna, Paul is soon drawn into a complex web of intrigue involving those pictures he took of her and a priceless Hieronymus Bosch triptych found in the hands of man killed by the venomous phantom.

After being seduced by the mill owner’s daughter (Bouquet of Barbed Wired‘s Sheila Allen) and almost killed by a vicious hunter (City Under the Sea‘s Derek Newark), Paul ends up taking refuge at the home of Anna’s guardian, Frau Kessler (Bette Vivian), where he uncovers a startling truth: Anna is being used as cover for her Nazi scientist dad’s secret nerve drug experiments…

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Shelved for nearly five years after completion (reputedly for tax reasons) in 1971, Venom (aka The Legend of Spider Forest) was the directorial debut of Peter Sykes, who went onto helm Demons in the Mind and To the Devil a Daughter.

The script by Donald and Derek Ford, based on an idea by the film’s editor Stephen Collins, is full of holes and even Christopher Wicking (fresh from making sense of three Vincent Price horrors for American International Pictures) has trouble filling them; but the visuals and direction are imaginative enough to help paper over the wide cracks in the story.

Venom (1971)

The green-tinted nude bathing opening, the red-tinted cobwebbed nightmare sequence and the atmospheric lighting creating spidery shadows lend an arthouse look to the film, while the full-frontal nudity and eroticism border on Euro-sleaze (the scene in which a bound Paul is sexually molested as pigeons flap about is quite something, while Johann’s bare back whipping seems to excite the female characters).

Venom (1971)

The film’s 11-minute climax is totally bonkers, as all the film’s disjointed plots finally come together – sort of – and everything goes up in flames. But as for Anna’s Nazi scientist dad going all Norman Bates after being paralyzed by his own nerve drug – what the hell was that about?

Why Pinewood chose to restore this is anyone’s guess, but it’s still a curious find for genre fans to seek out.

Venom is released on DVD in the UK through Fabulous Films

 

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