Saturday, 22 March 2014

The Wicker Man – The Final Cut

The Wicker Man - The Final Cut
Like Psycho and The Planet of the Apes, The Wicker Man is a film for which I cannot remember not knowing the twist.

In the case of those two it’s conceivable that there really never was such a time; the films are so well entrenched in popular culture that I may have known what happens at the end even before I saw them. I doubt the same is true of The Wicker Man. I’d never even heard of it before I first saw it. I must simply have forgotten the experience of discovering for the first time the climax of Sergeant Howie’s visit to Summerisle. That’s a shame, because it’s quite a surprise … and for the benefit of the handful of people who’ve not seen the film I won’t reveal it here.

I first saw The Wicker Man late at night on the BBC sometime in the late 70s or early 80s. This version would have been the theatrical release. By all accounts it was a rushed edit done by a production company that had little confidence in the success of the movie. That said it’s still an extraordinary film and is the version that has primarily given The Wicker Man its reputation and following.
Robin Hardy
In 2002 The Director’s Cut was released; director Robin Hardy made use of unused footage to produce something closer to his original vision. It’s a full fifteen minutes longer. I think I’ve only ever watched this DVD once for the tangential reason that it has no subtitles. My girlfriend is deaf and so our frequent viewings (and believe me, we watch it a lot) have been confined to a DVD of the theatrical release that came free with The Guardian one weekend – but which did have subtitles.

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the film and saw the release of a new DVD containing three versions of the movie - the theatrical release, the director’s cut and a new ‘final’ cut – along with some documentaries, a CD of Paul Giovanni’s amazing music and even a flyer urging us to get the sheet music for the soundtrack (duly acquired). And it has subtitles.

Recently we watched all three versions back-to-back, and so I thought I’d share my thoughts on the differences.
The Wicker Tree
The director’s cut is the longest at 99 minutes. While one might have an instinct to regard any director’s cut as definitive that’s certainly not the same as saying it’s the best. On the one hand Robin Hardy is clearly a great director because he directed The Wicker Man . On the other hand he wrote and directed The Wicker Tree, which I found to be actually worse than the US remake of The Wicker Man starring Nicholas Cage – harsh words I know, but I stand by them.

One gets the impression that the director’s cut has tried to use every inch of footage that could be found. In many cases just a few seconds are added to the beginning or end of a scene. I’d have to question whether there really was any benefit in putting these back in, but equally I can see no reason for taking them out in the first place. In terms of the director’s cut as a film in its own right, however, there is the problem that the quality of the inserted clips is much lower than that of the theatrical release, so they do rather stand out. In a sense that’s an advantage in that it makes it easier to spot the differences. The final cut doesn’t obsess quite so much on restoring every last second and also has better quality restoration, so the extra material is less obvious – but not invisible.

The two major differences between the various versions come in the film’s opening and in the events of the two nights that Howie stays at the Green Man Inn.

The theatrical release opens with the titles showing over Sergeant Howie’s flight from the mainland to Summerisle, accompanied by Paul Giovanni’s eerie adaptation of The Highland Widow’s Lament, seguing into Corn Rigs . The director’s cut begins with quite a long section on the mainland revealing Howie’s religiosity and virginity and presenting the story of the arrival of the letter summoning him to Summerisle. The final cut has a very short sequence showing Howie in church, before going into the titles. One gets the feeling that both the later cuts are somewhat restricted by the fact that the only print available has the titles over the flight to Summerisle and that the option of completely putting them elsewhere is not available.

With regards to the opening I have to say that the theatrical release wins hands down. This is a film about a clash of cultures and therefore it should begin with the point at which those cultures meet. We know as little about Howie (aside for our preconceptions based on his uniform) as we do about the islanders. Placing all the action on Summerisle conforms to the idea of Aristotelian unity of place.  Almost all of what is covered in the director’s cut (which reminded me of a dull episode of Z-Cars) is dealt with in seconds by Howie saying he is looking for Rowan Morrison and showing the islanders the letter and the photograph. His religious life is dealt with neatly in flashback.

Islanders

The final cut appreciates that most of the setup is unnecessary, but still puts in a very brief sequence of Howie in church on the mainland before going into the standard titles. It’s a compromise and an unnecessary one. The theatrical release gets it right: it hits us straight away with the visual spectacle of the view from the seaplane, the sound of the traditional folksong and the concept of a policeman going somewhere to do something. Anything before that is mere distraction.

The nights at the Green Man change quite substantially. In the theatrical release Willow tempts Howie on his first night at the inn and nothing much happens on the second night. In the other two versions the temptation occurs on the second night. The first night covers probably the biggest cut from the theatrical release. Lord Summerisle stands outside the inn and presents a young man to Willow to achieve his manhood with her. While they are together Lord Summerisle outside recites a speech beginning ‘I think I could turn and live with animals’, based on a poem by Walt Whitman, and there are strange, symbolic shots of a snail on a leaf.
Willow
Clearly this is an important scene, both in establishing the sexual permissiveness of the island in general and of Willow in particular, and of showing Lord Summerisle as completely integrated with that aspect of the island’s life. However, I think its inclusion is a mistake.

In the theatrical release Howie (and the audience) first meets Lord Summerisle after this first night. Summerisle seems modern, affable and tolerant. In contrast with Howie he appears to be by far the more reasonable man. This doesn’t work if we the audience already know just how weird he really is. As the film progresses Summerisle still stands out as a beacon of sanity – as someone who indulges the island’s religion to just the extent that on the mainland he might indulge Christianity without having any real conviction for it. It’s only at the end, after Howie appeals to him, that we discover that he genuinely believes.

A compromise might have been to swap the events of the two nights, so that we still get to initially see Lord Summerisle as a reasonable man. I can’t say whether that was considered, but I doubt whether it would have been achievable with the available footage. Even so, it would spoil the track of our appreciation of Summerisle’s character as the film progresses.

One minor scene is interesting. Only in the director’s cut does Howie seek out the island’s doctor and ask about the death of Rowan Morrison. It is the doctor who refers him to the Public Records Office. It’s a very short scene, but it makes sense in that the doctor is the person a police sergeant would ask. I’m surprised it wasn’t included in the final cut.
Christopher Lee
There’s one area in which I’ve always expected to see more footage and never have in any version. On the morning of Mayday Howie conducts a house-to-house search for Rowan. This has always seemed a little rushed to me and looks as though it’s been cut down from a longer (quite conceivably too long) sequence. To site a particular event, there is a point where Howie goes into a bedroom, pulls back a curtain and reveals a stone spiral staircase leading down. It seems obvious he will go down there to continue his search, but in the theatrical release he does not. It’s always bothered me and so when I first saw the director’s cut I expected to see what was down there, but the scene is just the same, as it is in the final cut. I can only presume that footage of him going down the steps is unavailable, but I’d have to question why none of the versions have thought to cut the spiral staircase completely and not leave this issue hanging.

That said I do think the search sequence (with only very slight differences across the versions) works and needs to be as pacey as it is – it just does have the feeling that it was cut down from something less slick rather than having originally been written and directed in its current form.

In the end the only significant differences across the three edits are the pre-title sequence and Lord Summerisle’s speech outside the Green Man. The story is that British Lion was not keen to release the film at all and did the edit for the theatrical release simply to have something that they could distribute. That may be true, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they made a bad job of it.

The opening of the film seems to me unquestionably best in the theatrical release. The scene on the first night is more debatable, but overall I think the story flows better without it.

I’ve watched The Wicker Man many times and I will again in future. And for variety I will probably watch all the versions. But the one I’ll watch most – the one I’d recommend – is the theatrical release.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Review: The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper

The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper by James Carnac.
Bantam Press 2012.

This review contains spoilers.


When I'm chatting to religious types, as I'm prone to do, one question which often comes up is why they believe that the Bible (or whatever their tome of choice may be) is the unadulterated word of God. There are many answers, but a lot of them boil down to the simple logic: it is the word of God because it claims to be the word of God. Now while it may be easy to see the circularity of such an argument, it does act as a reminder of just how many books are out there that claim to be something that they are not. My favourite is Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, in the foreword of which the author recounts the story of his discovery of a manuscript by the Benedictine monk, Adso of Melk. Eco, so he claims, is merely the story's translator. (As Paul Begg points out in his notes on The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper, George MacDonald Fraser made a not dissimilar claim when introducing Flashman.)

And so James Carnac's 'autobiography' comes with its own foreword, describing how it fell into the hands of its discoverer, Sydney George Hulme Beaman (famous not least as the creator – I kid you not – of Larry the Lamb).

If the subject were not the Whitechapel Murderer, I doubt whether the question 'is it genuine' would ever come to mind. Had it not been for the emergence, two decades ago, of James Maybrick's supposed diary, would the world of Ripperology spend any of its valuable time considering if James Carnac (of whom no historical trace has been found) were actually the Ripper? To be honest, not too much valuable time has been spent. The noted Ripper expert Paul Begg gives us 30 odd pages of quite reasonable analysis, but leaves many potential lines of enquiry unexplored (or at least his exploration unreported). Even if the name of every character in the book had been changed, it would still not be too hard to find reports of the inquest of a doctor (Carnac's father) in Tottenham who cut his wife's throat and then his own, nor of the road accident in which Carnac lost a leg, nor of his death in a gas explosion near Russell Square. But such enquiries would take time and effort, and although Begg has in the past shown his skill and willingness to put these into an investigation, it must be hard to find inspiration when one knows that all clues will come to nothing. Carnac's work screams from every page that it is a work of fiction.

Which is not to say that it is a fake. People often say that the Turin Shroud is a fake, but what they really mean is that they are now convinced that it is not something that they once suspected it might be. To be a fake, it must be proved not to be what its creator intended people to believe it to be. If the Turin Shroud turns out to have been a cover for the tortured body of Jaques de Molay, or an early experiment in photography by Leonardo da Vinci, then it will genuinely be that thing, and not be a fake anything else. The fakery is only in the minds of those who want to believe.

Thus The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper is no fake. It is merely a work of fiction with a forward that is intended to add verisimilitude, much like The Name of the Rose or Flashman. As a work of fiction, how does it stand up?

To be clich├ęd, it's something of a curate's egg. The story is divided into three parts – Carnac's early life, the Ripper murders, and the events leading to his death. Of these, the first part is by far the best. Despite the author's repeated (and perhaps telling) insistence that he has no skill in writing, there is good pacing and some nice turns of phrase. The story covers the gruesome death of his parents, his own growing bloodlust, his conversations with the mysterious 'Voice', his discovery of his family's macabre history and his encounter with the embodiment of the evil that has haunted every generation of his ancestors.

Great stuff! And whilst not approaching the quality of H.P. Lovecraft or M.R. James, it's of the same kidney. Part two, covering the Ripper murders themselves, disappoints. Here one might almost suspect that the author genuinely is trying to convince us that he is the Ripper. As a writer of historical fiction, I know that is better to add invented detail to make a scene more convincing and that I will get little comeback for minor inaccuracies. However, the cursory coverage of the murders in Whitechapel suggests an author who fears getting caught out in his mistakes. Even then, as Paul Begg points out, he does make many mistakes – often ones that would have been easy to check.

But the real problem of part two is its failure to deliver on Carnac's motivation. Part one has convincingly told us of his growing desire to see and feel a knife cutting into living human flesh, and told us that this was to be the reason for his becoming the Ripper. But once he does kill, we hear nothing of his reaction to finally committing the act to which he has so long been drawn. Nor is there anything to explain how a desire simply to cut a human throat spirals into the squalid, uncontrolled evisceration to which the Ripper descended at Miller's Court. In his foreword, Hulme Beaman tells us that he has 'removed and destroyed portions of the manuscript which contained details particularly revolting to me.' It should be noted, that there is no trace of any such censorship of the typescript (which, I add in passing, is irritatingly referred to as a manuscript throughout the book). This sounds to me more like an author's pretended excuse for not going into a level of detail that he guesses would be unacceptable to his readership, but in reading part two it almost seems that the author has forgotten the groundwork he laid in part one, or that part two was written first, or perhaps even by a different author.

Part three is different again. It is a short tale of a murderer hoist on his own petard, for which there is no real requirement that the murderer be Jack the Ripper. The events take place forty years after the Ripper murders – close to the time the document seems to have been written. This section begins like the rest as a first person narrative, but the twist in the tail is delivered as a separate coroner's report, thus neatly avoiding the necessity for Carnac, like Moses, to be the narrator his own death. The problem here though is that this seems to defeat the conception of the entire work as being an autobiography. One would at least expect a further note from Hulme Beaman explaining his later discovery of the coroner's report. Perhaps that would be just too pat. What is confusing though is that the coroner's report was written out using the same typewriter as the last part of Carnac's autobiography.

Ultimately my guess would be that the autobiography is in fact an amalgamation of three short stories – or perhaps even two, with the middle Ripper section added rather cursorily to link them and to increase public interest. While this does still leave questions, many of which Begg raises, over numerous inconsistencies even this is taken as a work of fiction, I don't see any of them as particularly serious. We all from time to time (or is it just me?) send half-baked ramblings to our editors in the knowledge that we'll have the chance to iron out the wrinkles later on. Moreover, there's nothing to suggest that this was the final revision of the work. Hulme Beaman died in 1932, only a few years after the document's presumed date, so it may have been a work in progress.

In the end, I think that this is a book that may appeal more to the aficionado of early twentieth century horror than to the Ripperologist. Luckily, those are two groups between which there is a substantial overlap, which includes myself. The biggest question that remains for me is whether Hulme Beaman really is the author of this work of fiction, or whether he added his foreword to the work of another.

Personally, I like to think that Hulme Beaman wrote it himself. It's a heck of a lot better than Larry the Lamb.

Twelve

Jasper Kent