I’m not excited by the prospect of Man of Steel. I wasn’t excited by the prospect or finished product of Superman Returns. To me, Superman is a character stuck in the past or in comic books. The character would require radical reinterpretation to make it relevant. Superman represents the ideals and aspirations of an America long gone. It’s as laughable and dated as a Norman Rockwell painting. We don’t live in innocent times now. People are cynical and greedy. The current crop of Marvel films have dealt with this concept excellently – a couple of decades back, Iron Man wouldn’t have worked as a film but right now he’s the most credible superhero for our age. A millionaire arms industrialist with questionable motives. Captain America was cleverly reinvented and Thor’s costume is for special occasions. Even Wolverine, a Fox property, has never come close to the banana yellow suit of his comic incarnation on the cinema screen. Yet, Zak Snyder’s modern interpretation of Superman is, surprise surprise, a man in lycra with a big logo on his chest wearing a cape. A fucking cape. If there’s one thing Zak Snyder is incapable of it is reinterpretation. The man’s body of work barely stretches beyond using established graphic novels as storyboards and reaping the kudos. I’m not going to pay good money to see it. And if you are, you should check your stupid head and read David Mamet’s book Bambi vs Godzilla or Mark Kermode’s The Good, The Bad and The Mulitplex.
All that said, I adore the original Superman movies. The first one is an amazing, thoughtful and artistic piece of mainstream cinema. It’s a tour-de-force from director Richard Donner who has the curious position in Hollywood of having directed some of the great genre-defining movies (The Omen, Lethal Weapon, The Goonies) without ever being singled out as the brilliant filmmaker-of-the-people he so clearly is. Superman 2 was taken away from Donner midway and completed by Richard Lester (director of Robin and Marian – one of my favourite films of all time – and A Hard Day’s Night) – it’s still a great film, owned by Terence Stamp – but differs slightly. Maybe a little too much humour. Superman 3 embraced the humour fully and presented a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek hamfest with Robert Vaughan centre stage and Richard Pryor providing the comedic spine. The less said about Superman 4 the best but it at least deserves kudos for being a contributing factor to the failure of Cannon, a film studio of glorious ill-repute.
The lynchpin of the franchise was, of course, Christopher Reeve’s central performance. I often wonder if people realise just how precise a performance the role demanded and really just how good Reeve was. Superman, as a character, is ludicrous – a garish po-faced do-gooder in pants and tights with a kiss curl. The movie was sold on the tag line ‘You’ll believe a man can fly’ – a claim they delivered on. But I can’t help think it might have just as well been ‘You’ll believe Superman is not just a massive, massive twat’. Reeve imbued the role with gravitas where a knowing wink would seem the only credible option. Athletic without looking like a ‘roided up eyeball roller and intelligent whilst still fostering an other-worldly enthusiasm and slight confusion. His real achievement, however is the multi-levelled personification of Clark Kent. He effortlessly channels Harold Lloyd with a clumsy yet graceful air showing Kent’s deep-rooted decency and stuttering deference but continually lifts the curtain to show the true intelligence, isolation and frustration of the character.
So while everyone is yukking on about this new beardy Supertwat, I think it’s about time we looked at the tragically short body of work that Reeve left us…. out of tights.
SOMEWHERE IN TIME (1980)
Somewhere In Time is a curious offering. It doesn’t so much fit into a cinematic genre as that of a 1970’s Mills & Boon paperback found at the back of the bottom rack of a charity shop display spinner. It has that weird soft-focus lavender and lace chaste passion that doubtless set many a repressed spinster heart a flutter 40-odd years ago. The story tells of a modern-day playwright who finds himself on a course of action which dictates he use self-hypnosis to travel back in time to fulfill his own destiny and experience the love of his life. It sounds a bit Christopher Nolan put like that but it’s worth remembering that the director’s most significant credits have been Jaws 2 and Santa Claus The Movie, so this is not highbrow stuff. It is rather compulsive viewing, though. The time travel angle is somewhat underplayed, although when it features is far more interestingly presented than the standard ‘time machine’ angle. Instead, the focus is on the building of an old-timey 1912 romance with the painfully lovely Jane Seymour. It’s a little clunky and the film, rather than being timeless, hasn’t aged well but it retains a striking intensity and lack of humour which sets it apart from other old romance flicks. Fans of cheese will not be disappointed – this is a big, stinky stilton of a film but Reeve gives it his all. His performance, the first in a line of WASPy, slightly naive guys guided by an arrogant self-belief that would define his non-lycra career, is well-pitched. Rather than playing it as Mr Darcy, it is entirely Reeve’s skittish weirdness that renders him heroic. The film rests on his shoulders and he supports it admirably.
Deathtrap is almost impossible to talk about without revealing spoilers that would genuinely mar your enjoyment of the film, which is intensely worth seeing. The leaking of one key plot point, a very controversial one for mainstream cinema in 1982, was generally held responsible for the film’s poor box office and subsequent undeserved obscurity. The film is, essentially a two-hander between Reeve as a talented aspiring playwright and Michael Caine as his washed-up tutor who, desperately in need of a hit lures Reeve out to his rural home with ill-intent. Genre-wise, it’s a hard film to place. It’s incredibly dark and unsettling but is in some ways played for laughs. It’s based on a stage play, so I suppose the broader moments touch upon farce but the intensity of film shades it darker. It’s one of Caine’s better performances, cold and harsh, but Reeve steals the show. His character changes dramatically according to certain situations and revelations, to the degree that he almost seems to be playing two completely separate roles (could it be Superman that got him this gig?). The film offers both actors scope to be the hunter and the hunted, to swing from terrified to terrifying and Reeve’s performance in particular is just perfectly honed. Moment to moment, beat to beat, he’s doing something interesting and is always on the money. What’s particularly odd about this film’s obscurity is that, not only is it based on a successful Broadway play, but it’s directed by Sidney Lumet. You’d think it would be better remembered. It doesn’t seem to have ever had a UK DVD release and it’s currently out of print in the US. I was sure I had the US DVD but it doesn’t seem to be on my shelves, which is somehow apt for a film which flummoxes you at every turn.
SWITCHING CHANNELS (1988)
This is a gem of a comedy and I’m disappointed it’s not more fondly remembered. Fast-paced, intelligent, witty and warm, it feels like a bridge between those old 50s screwball movies and the quick and smart action that Aaron Sorkin ended up doing on TV. The story mainly concerns a hectic day in a TV news room. Burt Reynolds rules the roost as head honcho Sully who, with great swagger attempts to manipulate ace-reporter and ex-wife Kathleen Turner away from her new beau and dreams of an easier life to cover the news story of the year. Reeve relishes the role of Turner’s romance, a thinly veiled yuppy narcissist of the highest order with highlights in his hair who goes by the name of Blaine Bingham. Reynolds wonderfully dismisses him as a ‘dildo’ and that about sums him up. Reeve surfs the tone of the film, which impressively goes from the very broadest of comedy (Reeve’s stand-out moment being his glass-lift vertigo induced panic attack which sees him lying on the floor calling for his mummy) to a touching sub-story involving the always reliable Henry Gibson as a good man on Death Row who only Reynolds and Turner can save. This is Reynolds’ film. A shade above his usual sexy Southern man schtick, this film truly allows him to show the range and sheer quality of his comedic talents. Turner brings gusto and sweetness to the mix but it is, surprisingly, Reeve who puts aside ego to play the perfect foil. This is supportive acting of the highest order and his final meltdown, in which he expresses his anger by stating that he owns an apartment opposite the UN building, is priceless.
STREET SMART (1987):
There are many reasons why it blows my mind that this film is as obscure as it is. The first is, of course, Reeve. I think this represents his greatest screen performance and best exemplifies that defining quality he has as a screen actor to show several distinctly contradictory, yet coherent, sides to a single character. In this film he plays print journalist Jonathan Fisher, a WASPY, preppy, hubristic oaf who, frustrated at his inability to write a sensational, hard-hitting piece, decides to just fabricate one. It works. His story in which he spends a day on the streets of New York with a pimp as his guide becomes the toast of the town. The problem is, it’s too on-the-money. Although the pimp is a complete work of fiction, the police quickly recognise him as the dangerous criminal they’re trying to nail for murder. They start pushing Jonathan for his notes and he quickly finds himself in a position where he could either end his career or end up in jail. things go up a notch when the suspect himself realises what Jonathan has done and that Jonathan is now in a position to provide him the perfect alibi. Reeve’s character is loathsome and arrogant, yet he plays it deftly enough that the audience is always on his side. The suspect, the pimp, is played by a young Morgan Freeman. Freeman got an Oscar nomination for this role, yet the film remains forgotten. Freeman is incredible. At first, likeable and charismatic but quickly he reveals himself to be dangerous and unpredictable. Every bit as commanding a performance as Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. All of the performances in this film are top-notch and the story plays out like a spider’s web in which all of the characters are caught and the more they struggle, the worse it gets for them. It’s a gritty, sleazy, 1980s Times Square kind of film. The film was directed by Jerry Schatzberg, who has the dubious honour of having directed probably the most inexplicably obscure classic of the 1970s – the Hackman/Pacino vehicle Scarecrow which has NEVER been available in the UK on any format! Street Smart probably suffered by being a Golan-Globus production, the bizarre genius-idiots behind Cannon Films. The film was a pet project of Reeve’s and it was funded as bait to get him to sign on to Superman 4 for that company. There’s a great piece of footage in a documentary the BBC made about Cannon in which producer Menahem Golan, fresh off the phone discussing this very film, explains that Reeve just doesn’t understand that if he’s not dressed as Superman, he’s not worth shit. Sadly, this seems to have been a pervasive view in Hollywood and the riding accident that rendered him paralysed denied him the chance to ever conclusively shake this assumption off.