The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

If you're a certain age you'll remember The Flight of the Phoenix as one of those TV staples which would screen regularly on BBC2 at six o'clock on weeknights, along with Viva Max and Five Fingers and any number of other films which are classics by wistful association. In some alternate universe FOTP might have inspired me to become an engineer, but in the universe that was a secondary modern in West Belfast, such trades were reserved for those who routinely failed at all academic subjects. Sadly I was one of those schoolboys who made a habit of scraping a pass and so was deemed academically inclined and therefore doomed to an arts degree (Politics & English) and a lifetime of penury. This was not my choice. I can't watch the film now without a compelling sense of regret.

Flight of the Phoenix was adapted from a novel by Elleston Trevor. I came to the novel after seeing the film, and it proved to be a disappointing and trying read. I think this is one instance where the film is a marked improvement over the original source material. The plot is almost the same: Almost. Having crashed their plane in the middle of the Sahara desert, pilot, navigator and passengers are driven to build a new plane from the wreckage of the old by a German engineer, who it turns out knows nothing very much about real aeroplanes. Along the way their party is whittled down by tragedy and violence to as many as their fledgling craft will carry. The cast is an international one - a mixed bag of American stars at the tail-end of their careers (James Stewart, Dan Duryea and Ernest Borgnine), British stalwarts (Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Ronald Fraser), and Hardy Kruger as the German. The difference between book and film is that Kruger's character is missing from the book; there is no officious German winning the war after the event; no German economic miracle in the desert. So the book does not have the ironies which make the film work so well in the hands of Hardy Kruger, who is something of a revelation in the role of Dorfmann. As thirst overtakes the party his reflective spectacles and jerky, mechanical gait seem to be redolent of a determinism not to be found on a film set but rather in a school-room. Which is no doubt why I found his performance so winning. I was duped too - and the final reveal of his qualifications did not have me laugh maniacally like Attenborough, but frown gently into the past at what might not have been.

The film still screens on British TV to this day, most recently on Film Four. This should be neither here nor there as I have long since bought the DVD, but there is something about a broadcast version of Flight of the Phoenix (no matter how badly edited) that makes me sit down to watch it again and again: it's one of those real-time events which is always for the first time. And I admit to having fallen for the love theme from the film, a mid-60s song that returns me to the mid-80s, which is perhaps typical of a plane that goes down in the desert. I never did get to where I was going.

Kill! aka Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! (1971)

Of all the crazy fucked-up Euro potboilers of the 70s, Kill! aka Kill! Kill! Kill Kill!! is surely the only one that approaches a high art of jerk-off instruction. It's a sick, nasty film with a stellar cast - Stephen Boyd, Jean Seberg and James Mason - who give it their all. Directed by Romain Gary, it is ostensibly a drugs bust thriller with a good deal of violence and nudity thrown in; in fact it is Gary's treatise on just how short and brutal human life can be. Gary was a Holocaust survivor: the title of his book of horror stories Hissing Tales refers allegedly to the dialogue of gases which escapes from piles of human cadavers.

Stephen Boyd, wearing his death-mask ahead of time, storms through the film as Brad Killian, psychopathic rogue cop committed to the extermination of drug dealers - not the little guys, but major narcotics producers and distributors. To make his point he single-handedly invades Af-Pak leaving a trail of corpses that infuriates local law enforcement, and in the process embarrassing his police bosses. James Mason, Interpol's best agent according to Curd Jurgens, is despatched to confront the cartels in a more conventional fashion, and to lure Boyd back into the fold; his beautiful and unhappy wife Jean Seberg proves to be the bait. She follows Mason to Pakistan, gets promptly lost, and falls over some corpses left lying around by Boyd. They embark on a violent affair, based mostly around interrogation techniques. However, Boyd's bad guy costume is a little too convincing, and as Seberg begins to deconstruct him it becomes apparent that he is a much straighter man than her husband, who has in fact gone over to the other side. Wounded and exhausted, Mason is presented with a very straight choice by Boyd - die killing or be killed - Mason opts for the former, resulting in climactic scenes which must surely be among the most unique in the annals of Franco-Spanish-Wherever co-productions. The only possible reason to sit through Kill! is to put these scenes in context - to see how many bullets can be pumped into a human body before it falls down; or to find out how slow-motion may actually be an anti-gravity device. But this fails the start-up imagination - I suspect one must go back to the director's wartime experiences for a true context. Or forward to his death - because, unsurprisingly, Romain Gary shot himself in 1980. And yet again, even this fails - because Romain Gary, whose real name was Roman Kacew, existed inside a myriad of pseudonyms and lives and marriages. It is perhaps only possible to say that Kill! is the product of a refugee turned diplomat, a pilot turned author, a husband turned agent, love turned sex, despair turned human, human turned inhuman. As he wrote of himself - Since I knew I was fictional, I thought I might have a talent for fiction.

Whoever he was, Gary is well-served by the cast and crew assembled for Kill! Boyd allows himself to be made up as a jungle beast and his middle age is suitably wild. Oddly, his original Northern Ireland accent is on display, and its sibilance is used to good effect. Seberg overcomes her usual problems with diction to present a pleasing incomprehension at the events overtaking her. James Mason adopts a cod transatlantic accent and delivers a perplexed and perplexing performance - for once he does not seem to be attuned to the material. This film is often cited as one of the low points in his career; but this was during the wandering period of the actor's life, when he was apt to accept any job that offered him a decent pay-cheque and an opportunity to travel. I suspect he was along for the ride. There are some problems with the film's continuity - the editing could be sharper. And, of course, the dubbed supporting roles are always grating on the ear. But they give the film much of its period charm. Lastly, a good deal of praise must be reserved for an often striking soundtrack by Berto Pisano and Jacques Beaumont.

All of this is of course bunkum compared to the film's final scenes, which can be watched as a stand-alone fantasia.

Raise the Titanic (1980)

Lew Grade's much denigrated adaptation of Clive Cussler's novel is that most satisfying of movie beasts - an experience that turns a bad read into a cinematic guilty pleasure. The film has rather a lot going for it now, though it's easy to see why it was panned on release - the plotting is poor, some of the model work is underwhelming, and the film has a curious atmosphere of reverence towards a ship "that never learned to do anything except sink."

American scientists attempting to build an anti-nuclear shield require copious amounts of a little-known mineral called Byzanium. After discovering a large quantity of said mineral had been transported in the hold of the Titanic, the US Navy makes arrangements to raise the infamous liner - but the Soviets have other ideas. That's it really.

Though the novel is not written in the manner of a Saturday morning serial (and Cussler would have been the first to object were it reviewed as such) the author allegedly cited "Dirk Pitt" as an Indiana Jones style character, an opinion he appears to have formed only after he had watched Raiders of the Lost Ark. If it is a matter of casting - Harrison Ford v Richard Jordan - there's no doubt Ford wins hands down. Not on acting plaudits - Jordan and Ford are equally matched there - but because Ford was carrying the dash of Han Solo with him into Spielberg's film, as well as significant box office clout; whereas Jordan was simply too ambivalent an actor to care about stardom or box office. In fact Jordan is perfect casting for the film's continued afterlife as a guilty pleasure - an acclaimed stage actor, his persistent, almost perverse, appearances in such car crashes as Solarbabies (Hello, is this your ball?) and Timebomb, guarantee the film a cult infamy; after all, this was a man who spent his evenings away from the movie set doing Havel and Shakespeare off-Broadway. The truth is that "Dirk Pitt" is one of those generic macho creations so beloved of hack authors, and Jordan excises every trace of this from the character, much to Cussler's chagrin no doubt, and to my own delight. No, the casting is fine, superb even, from Jordan to Robards and Alec Guinness.

Another problem with the Indiana Jones flannel is that Mr Cussler's unobtainium doesn't have the same religious or mystical properties as the Ark of the Covenant, nor the ability to burn up Soviets the way the Ark burns up Nazis. Unobtainium is fissionable material and its destructive potential is placed at the theoretical remove of Mutually Assured Destruction rather than the more dramatic immediacy of lightning bolts from God. Which is a pity because, while the plot of Raise the Titanic is botched, the idea of writing a cold war scenario into Titanic lore is an interesting one, and a clever acknowledgement that the only way to meet the expense of raising something like the Titanic is through defence expenditure. Indiana Jones doesn't have these resources - Dirt Pitt does. I think we can safely set aside any ideas of Raise the Titanic as a missed opportunity for an action romp as delusion. Instead we have a fairly serious film which relies on the historical and novelty value of the Titanic to do justice to an incredible plot. The fact that the Titanic story is incredible in itself goes some way towards making it work.

As director Jerry Jameson is a quirky choice - he helmed several interesting television movies during the 70s - The Deadly Tower and A Fire in the Sky among them, and Raise the Titanic appears to have been his one shot at a big-budget film. He doesn't fail, but it is obvious that he locates the heart of the film on the ship, rather than with the accompanying cold war thriller. It's a deliberate choice that he devotes almost as much time to allowing Jordan to poignantly wander the Titanic's wrecked ballroom as he does to the inevitable confrontation with the Soviets. The Soviets, sadly, are portrayed as one-dimensional characters whose apparent obsession with unobtainium closes their eyes and ears even to the alleged majesty of John Barry's score.

And therein lies the point - the real unobtainium of Raise the Titanic is the ship; not the model, not its cargo or its physical aspect, but the wistful real world ship, which is already raised daily by the imagination.