Le Fantôme de la Liberté (The Phantom of Liberty)

Production year 1974
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Written by Luis Buñuel and Jean Claude Carriere
Starring Michel Piccoli, Jean Rochefort, Adriana Asti, Monica Vitti

The Phantom of Liberty is one of the final films by Luis Buñuel – one of Spain’s greatest filmmakers and the master of surreal comedy.

In Buñuel’s early career he collaborated with the artist Salvador Dali – in particular on the infamous Un Chien Andalou. The imagery of this 1929 short film is still shocking and surprising and set the tone for the films he would make throughout his life.

His targets were more often than not the middle classes and their mores and hypocrisies, which he lampooned and mocked in a series of mischievous and witty fables. The films were often funny, sexy satires that were both outrageous and perplexing – none more so than his 1967 picture Belle De Jour in which Catherine Deneuve plays a wealthy housewife who secretly becomes a prostitute to fulfill her sexual fantasies…

The Phantom of Liberty was Buñuel’s penultimate film and came after The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie – for which he won an Oscar. It is less well known than many of his movies but was a personal favourite of the director himself. Phantom has no straightforward narrative and is made up of a series of loosely connected scenes and sequences – each with a different theme and characters.

"Chance governs all things; necessity, which is far from having the same purity, comes only later. If I have a soft spot for any one of my movies, it would be for The Phantom of Liberty, because it tries to work out just this theme."

Buñuel refused to explain his films preferring the audience to take their own meaning from his work.

"We so often find ourselves at complicated crossroads which lead to other crossroads, to ever more fantastic labyrinths. Somehow we must choose a path."

Easy Rider

Production year 1969
Directed by Dennis Hopper
Written by Terry Southern, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper
Starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson and Karen Black

Very few films can be said to have changed the course of cinema – Easy Rider is one of them. This pioneering road movie about two bikers on a journey across America  was shot in 1968 - a year of protests and revolution in many countries across the world. It was the first major American film to portray the drugs, motorcycles and counterculture lifestyle of the times and along with ‘The Graduate’ and ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ Easy Rider signaled the death of old Hollywood and the beginning of a new movement in cinema.

This movement would flower in a group of filmmakers including Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola and result in some of the great American films of the 1970s and 80s.

Easy Rider was written by Terry Southern – one of the key writers of his generation whose novels included Candy and The Magic Christian and among whose other screenplays are numbered ‘Dr Strangelove’ and ‘Barbarella’. It was produced by Peter Fonda and directed by Dennis Hopper - both of who had strong links to old Hollywood – Fonda being from one of tinsel town’s most famous dynasties and Hopper a bit part actor in such landmark movies as ‘Rebel Without a Cause’. Easy Rider would give Jack Nicholson a scene-stealing turn as a drunken lawyer and set him on the road to lifelong stardom.

Technically Easy Rider broke new ground –European cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs photographed much of the film using natural light so that it has a naturalistic documentary feel. The picture also used existing rock music in a way that was completely new at the time – editor Donn Cambern chose tracks by Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendrix and The Band  from his own record collection - initially as a temporary soundtrack, but they so enhanced the movie that they were retained for the final cut.

In spite of a chaotic shoot and a greatly prolonged period of post production Easy Rider was an enormous box office hit relative to its low budget and sent Hollywood executives scurrying to find the next new counterculture hit. Dennis Hopper’s subsequent film ‘The Last Movie’ was so disastrous that he would not direct again for 10 years…

Les Diaboliques

Production year 1954
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
Written by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac
Starring Simone Signoret, Vera Clouzot and Paul Meurisse

This dark and atmospheric black and white thriller, full of unexpected twists and turns, remains one of the most suspenseful and scariest films ever to come out of France.

The film’s director Henri-Georges Clouzot had a chequered and often controversial career and was found guilty of collaborating with the Germans in WW2. He was banned from making films as a result and was only reinstated after a powerful group of fellow artists including Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre appealed on his behalf.

He made a handful of pictures in his career but Les Diaboliques, along with his other masterpiece of suspense - Le Salaire de la Peur (The Wages of Fear) - guarantee him a place in film history.

Les Diaboliques (The Fiends) is based on the novel Celle qui n’etait plus by Boileau and Narcejac. It is rumoured that Hitchcock wanted to make the film and missed out on buying the rights by only a few hours. The writers would go on to collaborate with Hitchcock two years later on one of his greatest and strangest movies – Vertigo.

The film is set in a boy’s school run by Michel Delasalle - the tyrannical head teacher played by Paul Meurisse. Delasalle is having an affair with one of the teachers - Nicole Horner and taunts his frail wife Christina with this fact. He is abusive to both women and when they form a pact and decide to kill him a weird and terrifying mystery begins.

Clouzot’s wife Vera stars in Les Diaboliques as the tormented wife with a heart condition.

In a strange twist of fate Vera Clouzot died only a few years after the film was made of a sudden heart attack!

The Conversation

Production year 1974
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Written by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Frederic Forrest, Cindy Williams

In between his two definitive gangster epics The Godfather and The Godfather Part II Coppola wrote and directed this fascinating conspiracy thriller. It is one of the very best American films of the 1970s whose legacy can be clearly seen in the highly praised TV series The Wire. It was also a direct inspiration for Tony Scott’s 1998 thriller Enemy of the State.

Gene Hackman leads a fine cast as Harry Caul - a surveillance expert known as the best “bugger” on the west coast. Using hi-tech microphones and recording equipment he can listen in on a conversation anywhere it takes place. Caul prides himself on being the ultimate professional and claims that what his clients do with the information is not his responsibility.  But in reality he is racked by guilt over the deaths of three people involved in a past wire tap job and as a result becomes obsessed by the fate of a couple whose conversation he is hired to record.

It is one of the finest performances in Hackman’s long career. In sharp contrast to the crazy extrovert he played in The French Connection he portrays Harry Caul as an eccentric loner whose strange profession has rendered him paranoid and fearful.

Although The Conversation was written in the mid 60s it was released just as the Watergate scandal hit the headlines and reflected perfectly the deep suspicion and mistrust that tainted the Nixon administration and others at that time. It seems no less relevant today in today’s world with CCTV on every corner and government surveillance running wild…

The film won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival of that year.  Walter Murch, who won two BAFTAs for his work as the supervising editor and sound designer, is largely responsible for the distinctive style of this unsettling and complex movie.

Blade Runner

Production year 1982
Directed by Ridley Scott

Written by Hampton Fancher
and David Webb Peoples
Starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer,
Sean Young, Daryl Hannah

One of the most imitated and influential movies of the last 30 years, Blade Runner's dense visual style and baroque art direction have been mimicked in so many commercials and pop videos since that it is possible to forget how original and startling this film was on release. The 'retro future' depicted by Blade Runner; in which astonishing modern technology sits alongside decaying architecture, in a Los Angeles where it rains all the time, now seems strangely prescient of our current fears about climate change and the environment.

Blade Runner is a science fiction film noir, which tells the story of a world-weary detective, a 'Blade Runner', charged with tracking down a group of rogue ‘replicants’  - artificial humans who have escaped from an off-world colony and are looking for their creator on earth.

The film is based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick, one of America’s most original and gifted science fiction writers. A number of his stories have been made into films including Minority Report, Total Recall and A Scanner Darkly. The title ‘Blade Runner’ is actually taken from a William Burroughs novella about a future healthcare apocalypse – a Blade Runner is a smuggler of scalpels in Burroughs story.

The film had a deeply troubled production history and has subsequently been released in a number of different versions - including not one but two directors cuts. These re-versions changed the happy ending of the original (insisted on by the studio at the time of production), took out the narration and restored a lost scene featuring a unicorn.

The film’s atmospheric electronic score was written by the Greek composer Vangelis – hot from his worldwide success with the famous soundtrack for Chariots of Fire.

Blade Runner confirmed the star power of Harrison Ford in the lead role of Deckard. However the role was originally intended for Dustin Hoffman who could not be contracted because of other commitments. Other actors considered included Gene Hackman, Sean Connery, Jack Nicholson, Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Pacino, and Burt Reynolds.

Blade Runner briefly made a leading man of the Dutch actor Rutger Hauer whose mesmerizing turn as the replicant Roy Batty was the standout performance of the film.

Batty’s final speech in the film is one of the most memorable in modern cinema.

‘I've seen things you wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain….’

The Apartment

Production year 1960
Written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L Diamond
Starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray
Running time 125 minutes

The Apartment (1960) is producer/director Billy Wilder's bittersweet, heart-rending tragi-comedy/drama of a compliant insurance clerk (Lemmon) who secretly lends out his apartment to other company executives for adulterous sexual affairs and liaisons. The plot thickens when the clerk realizes that his building's elevator operator (MacLaine) is being taken for trysts by his married boss (MacMurray) to his apartment. The sophisticated yet cynical film of the early 60s is a bleak assessment of corporate America, big business and capitalism, success, and the work ethic, when a lowly but ambitious accountant enables his climb up the corporate ladder by ingratiating himself to his superiors - he literally prostitutes his own standards and moral integrity and allows himself to be exploited.

It won five major Academy Awards out of ten nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay (co-written by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond), Best B/W Art Direction/Set Decoration, and Best Film Editing. Three acting awards were passed over: Jack Lemmon for Best Actor, Shirley MacLaine for Best Actress and Jack Kruschen for Best Supporting Actor. It was a triple win for Wilder as Director (Wilder's second directing Oscar), Producer, and Screenplay author.