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Burt Reynolds as Lewis in Deliverance (c) Warner Bros

“Sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can find anything” – Lewis, Deliverance 

Burt Reynolds (who for quite some time I mistook for my Dad on account of their similarly then-impressive side burns) stars together with Jon Voight, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox in John Boorman’s multi-award nominated Deliverance based on the 1970 novel by James Dickey who also wrote the screenplay (and appears in the film as the Sheriff)).

This is a raw and brutal story about the delicacy of the male – particularly the white male – psyche and the seething discord between liberal suburbia and redneck ‘merica.

Four well-heeled men leave Atlanta on a canoeing trip down the Cahulawassee River before the surrounding countryside is flooded as a dam is built – as Lewis (Reynolds’ character) says “… to push a little more power into Atlanta, a little more air-conditioners for your smug little suburb and you know what’s gonna happen? We’re gonna rape this whole god-damned landscape. We’re gonna rape it.”

Lewis, together with his fellow self-styled woodsman Ed (Voight) and two novices Bobby (Beatty) and Drew (Cox) encounter the locals at their first stop on their way to the river. As Cox tunes his guitar, we hear the same chords being strummed on a nearby banjo: is this a duet between a polished guitar playing suburbanite and a country boy with dirty feet and a talent for the banjo, or is it a challenge? As they continue to perform what will become known as the eerie bluegrass instrumental Dueling Banjos that reached No. 2 on the Billboard pop charts in 1972, we suspect that our protagonists have likely misread this encounter. The increasingly frenzied playing eventually defeats Cox who declares “I’m lost” and smiling, the boy continues to a triumphant finale and afterwards refuses to shake Cox’s outstretched hand, turning his head away from it.

Duelin’ Banjos meanders like the river throughout Deliverance, its underlying menace clear as riffs from Yankee Doodle meander through the track and eventually fade to a slow staccato at various key points throughout the film. Interestingly, the off-screen story behind this track is similarly confrontational as Arthur Smith who originated the track Feudin’ Banjos upon which Duelin’ Banjos was based, successfully sued Warners for the latter’s use without permission or a credit in the film. Smith later received a film credit and a share of the film’s royalties in settlement.

The night before the canoeing trip, tensions between the men surface and we see four stereotypical male traits emerge in each of them. Lewis declares to the group that “that’s the game: to survive”. However when the remaining three gossip behind his back: “does he think he’s Tarzan, or what?” doubting that Lewis can “hack it”, we’re left wondering whether the game that is being played is back in the city or here in the wilderness. Ed competes hotly with his friend Lewis for the ultimate survivalist mantle. Bobby shows entitlement and superiority, referring to the locals encountered earlier that day as “genetic deficiencies” and later that night, to his air mattress as an “instant broad…and if you fellas will excuse me, I’m gonna go be mean to my air mattress”.   And finally we have Cox, the most reserved and sensitive who his friends agree, is “the best” of them. When the four (two to a canoe) are separated as they take on the rapids down the river, Bobby and Ed encounter two locals in a wood in a brutal and violent exchange that changes the course of the film and their journey. At that point, Cox serves as the moral compass as his friends shed their city trappings and descend in to a more feral state of being in order to survive Lewis’ game.

The parallels between America then and now are striking, particularly given that Deliverance was released in the same year that five “plumbers” broke in to the DNC’s HQ at Watergate during Nixon’s presidency: an event that would lead to Nixon’s resignation to avoid almost certain impeachment and likely imprisonment.

Things weren’t much better politically or socially across the pond.

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Bloody Sunday rang in my second year and saw Northern Ireland’s “descent in to terror” making 1972, with 479 deaths, best known locally as the year that recorded the highest ever number of casualties during the Troubles. It also served to widen the divide between communities as Edward Daly, a retired priest and featured in the above image says in his autobiography, Mister, are You a Priest?

“Countless young people were motivated by the events of that day to become actively involved in armed struggle and, as a direct result, joined the Provisional IRA,”

Ironic then and now, that such division and violence occurred in the same year that the UK embraced globalisation, with Parliament voting to join the EU (then, the European Common Market) with Edward Heath then Prime Minister declaring in Brussels just days before Bloody Sunday:

“I am not thinking today of the Age of Imperialism, now past: but of the lasting and creative effects of the spread of language and of culture, of commerce and of administration by people from Europe across land and sea to the other continents of the world.

These are the essential ties which today bind Europe in friendship with the rest of mankind.

What design should we seek for the New Europe?

A Europe in which we shall be working for the progressive relaxation and elimination of east/west tensions.

A Europe conscious of the interests of its friends and partners.

A Europe alive to its great responsibilities in the common struggle of humanity for a better life.

Thus this ceremony marks an end and a beginning.

An end to divisions which have stricken Europe for centuries.

A beginning of another stage in the construction of a new and greater Europe.

This is the task for our generation in Europe.”

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My Mum and Dad, the latter evidencing “those” side burns in and around 1972

Featured Blog image: “Scorpios at the Helm” (c) Emma Topping
(c) Warner Bros

The first and arguably the best of a five-film franchise spanning some seventeen years, Clint Eastwood reunites with director Don Siegel in Dirty Harry (1971), their fifth film together. The success of this pairing and the mutual respect between Eastwood and Siegel is clear to see – including the tongue in cheek Easter Eggs: Siegel as a pedestrian in Dirty Harry and also as a bartender in Eastwood’s equally good Play Misty For Me, out earlier that year. Extra points for those who spot a reference to Play Misty in Dirty Harry.

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Eastwood and Siegel on set

Eastwood plays Inspector Harry Callahan who is, in the villain Scorpio’s words: a “big cop, works homicide” for San Francisco Police Department. This description barely scratches the surface to define who Harry Callahan is, but when Eastwood, all Ray-Ban Baloramas and nonchalantly chewing gum, saunters coolly over to Scorpio’s first victim at a roof top pool bathed in the heat of the late afternoon San Francisco sun, my immediate impression echoed Dirty Harry’s opening word: “Jesus!”

It’s been said that Dirty Harry was loosely based on the true crime and still open 1960s case of the US serial killer Zodiac. If this is true, then Eastwood’s Dirty Harry likely referenced that investigation’s lead detective Dave Toschi who died earlier this year, also portrayed by Mark Ruffalo in the 2007 film Zodiac and by Steve McQueen as the titular cop in his 1968 Bullitt.

Toschi has been described as “a colorful San Francisco police detective” and that certainly describes Inspector Callahan whose sheer stature and blatant disdain for authority dominates from his first frame. Dirty Harry is an authority figure with no respect for authority, a rule breaker with no time for those who break rules. A sure-footed, Magnum 44-wielding contradiction, until he encounters Scorpio, the latter brilliantly played by Andy Robinson. Of his experience on set, Robinson says: “A collaboration began…It was probably the most important and the most complete collaboration that I have ever had as an actor in film”[1]

Before Scorpio, Inspector Callahan is entirely confident of his righteousness and it’s initially compelling. When challenged by the Mayor and his superiors about how he can establish a rapist’s intent, for instance, Inspector Callahan’s casually blunt explanation remains one of my favourite deliveries of all time: “When a naked man is chasing a woman through an alley with a butcher knife and a hard-on, I figure he isn’t out collecting for the Red Cross”.

But Inspector Callahan also cuts a self-isolating figure, devoid of empathy and attachment after a string of failed work partnerships and the death of his wife, killed by a drunk driver. As one of Inspector Callahan’s cheery cohorts (that he unkindly nicknames “Fatso”) says: “That’s one thing about our Harry, he doesn’t play any favourites. Harry hates everybody”. When Scorpio, a serial killer who on the face of it shares our inspector’s disdain for the underbelly of San Francisco, directly challenges Inspector Callahan to a game of cat and mouse, the line between the protector and sociopath, hunted and hunter starts to blur. What results is a deliciously pacey and searing drama, punctuated superbly by composer Lalo Schifrin’s thumpingly bassy Scorpio’s View and Scorpio Takes the Bait and the oh-so-70s siren wailing in Prologue, all coming together in the climactic The School Bus. After you watch the film, you’ll want to get the soundtrack. Do it. You won’t regret it.

Dirty Harry ignited my love affair for the franchise, Clint Eastwood and the cop/serial killer genre. Years after its release, in our early teens my sister and I would sit for hours, watching this franchise open mouthed with pencils poised, whilst balancing wooden boards on our knees upon which sat our A3 sketch books: art class homework neglected as we watched transfixed until the VHS tape crackled in protest, or Mom summoned us for supper.

Dirty Harry showed us a visceral, dangerous, seedy, intolerant and divided America that sharply contrasted with those saccharine PG versions that Dynasty, Dallas and Knot’s Landing served us. The man didn’t even eat a hot dog with his mouth closed and spoke with his mouth full, for goodness’ sake!

Of the franchise, Robert Urich says[2]: “These weren’t fairy tales, these were depictions of gritty, ugly reality…In truth, Harry spoke to a rising anger out there.”

Dirty Harry exploded on to the big screen in December 1971, just eight days after I was born. Of course, although I would only come to understand this later, the country where I lived was also no stranger to violence. Internment was introduced in Northern Ireland just four months prior to Dirty Harry’s release with Brian Faulkner, then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, stating in so doing that we were: “quite simply, at war with the terrorist”. Operation Demetrius as it was known, involved in its first phase the arrest and imprisonment without trial of 342 detainees. The fact that internment was implemented by a government sympathetic to its Protestant majority and only two Protestants were detained in that first sweep did little to counter claims of arbitrariness. Division, resentment and anger intensified and atrocities were committed on all sides that year, including the Ballymurphy Massacre and the Balmoral Showroom Bombing.

And so in 1971 I set sail and the Baby Daze began. Lolloping and lurching with the sheer weight of attacks and counter attacks, my ship Belfast would carry me for the next eighteen years, with various deranged Scorpios at the helm maniacally singing “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream!”

It was inevitable, then, that I would dream of new unconquered shores and each weekend I would rush to our local cinema or switch on the VCR and TV at home (having collected my new release tapes from Xtra-Vision) and lose myself for hours in the countless possibilities.

 

 

 

[1] Jerry Hogrewe’s 2001 retrospective documentary on the Dirty Harry franchise: Dirty Harry: The Original hosted by Robert Urich, a bad cop in the second Dirty Harry film: Magnum Force (and remember detective TV series, Vega$?)

[2] Dirty Harry: The Original (2001) (see above for more detail)

As well as recently painted black wooden stairs and a highly pleasing new molten metal effect grey herringbone stair runner, my soon to be completed hallway design will also feature framed black and whites of my favourite films, some of which recently featured here.

That design project sparked another enterprise that I’m going to develop concurrently as a progressive blog post and screenplay.  Over the next few months right here I will be reviewing those films and TV series that influenced me growing up, shaping my choices and contextualising then-current private and public events.

I’m really excited about this and think that it will be a unique way of looking at films and TV.  As this project evolves in to a body of work, I think it will be fascinating to see whether there are any particular genres or talent that I gravitated towards through the years.

I am hoping to get my first review to you in the next couple of weeks as I will be on a retreat in Cornwall with little else to do except watch movies and write.

But for now, I will tease with some predictions:

1970s – Baby Daze: back to where it all began.  Whilst some memories fade, The Red Hand Gang and Battle of the Planets burned bright like the Phoenix. Cherished Christmases in Ireland watching The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music after a seasonal feast pierce the misty recollections; as later towards the end of the decade, memories of quaking behind a cushion watching the likes of Alien, The Shining, Hallowe’en and Jaws still make me shudder deliciously.

1980s – Teenage Kicks: the Brat Pack generally and Rob Lowe particularly.  Tom Cruise in a shirt and little else, Richard Gere making us Breathless in An Officer and a Gentleman, with Debra Winger in Terms of Endearment and Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey in Beaches making me cry truly ugly tears.  At night, that cushion returned with more horror fare: a lusty Kiefer Sutherland in The Lost Boys, Terminator, The Fog, The Thing and Christine.  Meanwhile in TV: big hair, big shoulder pads and lots of Dynasty, Dallas, The Colbys and Knots Landing with a sprinkling of the UK comedic grit of The Young Ones indulging my rebellious side.

1990s – Adulting and Change:  visceral gangster and police crime thrillers prevailed, from the discovery of Clint Eastwood and his Dirty Harry franchise to The Untouchables, The Usual Suspects,  Once Upon a Time in America, Goodfellas and Internal Affairs.  Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, True Romance and Pulp Fiction sliced through and packed a punch with a razor blade, shoot-outs and a Royale with cheese.  On TV, an unlikely US power couple emerged and I got to thinking about Sex and the City and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, rubbing shoulders with the wonderful Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect.

2000s – The Difficult Decade: coinciding with the popularity of mass-streaming services like YouTube and Netflix, serious talent followed the money from big to small screen and binge-watching was born: 24, The Wire, Spooks, The Good Wife, The Shield, Mad Men, Dexter, Six Feet Under, The West Wing – and Glee.  Studios also started to ramp up and roll out franchises, so although we saw diverse one-offs like Walk the Line, Amelie, Brokeback and a Single Man – we also heard of the Marvel Universe, The Twilight Saga, The Star Wars Story, Kill Bill Volumes 1, 2 and (possibly now 3) and the altogether scarier Final Destination and Paranormal Activity Franchises.

2010s – Kidulting and Hygge: it’s my remote and I’ll watch it if I want to, watch it if I want to, watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, The Real Housewives franchise, Project Runway, Made in Chelsea and TOWIE, if I want to.  Elevated series offerings such as The Good Fight, Doctor Foster, Luther and Sherlock cleanse the cerebral palate and continue to delight. Big budget superhero film franchises dominate, captialising on the new normal of IMAX, 3D, 4D and 4K technology.  But in my new normal, it’s film  and TV with retro appeal such as Gone Girl, The Departed, The Town, Girl on a Train, Truth or Dare, It Follows and the marvellous Stranger Things that currently turn my world Upside Down.

For this month’s blog and inspired by a home interiors project that I’m working on over the Easter Break, I bring to you something a little different: a pictorial blog.

The images in this slideshow show filmmakers, films, television shows and actors, all of whom have played a significant part in igniting, shaping and sustaining my passion for film and television.

Can you identify them all?