Category Archives: Great Lost Movies

Thirty years in the dark

Sure enough, the news that the Azaria Chamberlain death case has been resolved after more than thirty years brought out all the “a dingo ate my baby!” jokes, or at least references to them. Like most people living outside Australia, I knew nothing about the case before I saw A Cry in the Dark, the film version of John Bryson’s 1985 study, Evil Angels. The infant girl, just over eight weeks old, disappeared in August 1980 from a campsite near Ayers Rock. Though there was every reason to believe the child had been taken and killed by a dingo, a vortex of tabloid hysteria built around rumors that she had actually been murdered by her parents, Lindy and Michael Chamberlain. The Chamberlains were Seventh-day Adventists, and their obscure religious beliefs, combined with Lindy’s thorny personality — she refused to bare her feelings for exploitation — fueled preposterous stories about “Azaria” meaning “sacrifice in the wilderness.” There was also a lot of nonsense to the effect that dingoes, wild dogs often sentimentalized as symbols of Australia’s scruffy independence, were harmless to humans. An initial inquest cleared the Chamberlains of wrongdoing but left enough wiggle room for the law to take another run at the couple. Lindy Chamberlain was found guilty of murder in 1982; Michael was convicted of being an accessory. The two were finally cleared of the charges in 1988, following the belated discovery of physical evidence corroborating Lindy’s account.

A Cry in the Dark was a knockout, an unflinching look at how two people who should have been allowed to heal after suffering a terrible loss were instead tortured by the legal system (Australian prosecutors, like their American counterparts, apparently never admit to being wrong) and ghoulish tabloid reporters. The film was directed by Fred Schepisi, who along with Gilliam  Armstrong (My Brilliant Career), George Miller (The Road Warrior), Peter Weir (The Last Wave), and Bruce Beresford (“Breaker” Morant) was part of the initial wave of Australian filmmakers who made movies worth seeing in the Eighties, while American filmmaking was at a very low ebb. Schepisi had gone to Hollywood after making a splash with The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, and coming up from Down Under seemed to have given him the bends. A Cry in the Dark was a return to hard-edged form.

Unfortunately, A Cry in the Dark starred Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain, and coming a year after the disastrous prestige picture Ironweed it mainly served as an excuse to make jokes about Streep’s use of accents. Streep’s performance was superb, but a mangled version of a line of dialogue from the film became the pat reaction to any mention of the film. The joke is now firmly nested in pop culture, referenced in Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and even those “Caution: Baby on Board” signs that used to clutter the windows of cars. “Caution: Dingo and Baby On Board” was the line, as I recall. As Roger Ebert noted at the time, Streep’s performance was very risky for a big-ticket Hollywood actress: in playing a woman who refused to be ingratiating, and thereby became the victim of hostile public opinion, Streep herself evoked hostility because she stayed true to her character. She was being knocked for doing her job well.

Maybe the word for Lindy Chamberlain’s behavior wasn’t “thorny” so much as “dignified.” She had the temerity to consider her family’s grief a private matter, but in the mass-media age a woman in her position is expected to play a role and satisfy television’s appetite for victim porn. For her offense, Lindy Chamberlain was the target of suspicion and mockery instead of sympathy. Maybe it would have been different if Azaria had been eaten by a wolf or a great white shark, but you know, dingoes. Funny name, right? It’s even funnier when you try it out with a nasal Oz accent. Put another shrimp on the barbie. A dingo ate my baby. Nyuck nyuck.

Lindy Chamberlain’s been on television a lot since the new finding was announced, and it’s clear she’s learned to present herself to the lenses in a conventional, acceptable way. It’s a lesson she never should have had to learn. I don’t know how a mother can live with the knowledge that her baby died in uncomprehending pain and terror, waiting for her mommy to rescue her from a terrifying monster. No parent should have to live with that.  

I like bad-taste jokes as much as the next bozo, and my love of black comedy and gallows humor is a matter of record. But whenever I come across one of those “a dingo ate my baby” jokes, I am reminded that popular culture, like popular opinion, is capable of bottomless cruelty.

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Ire land

There’s an old joke to the effect that when an Irishman gets Alzheimer’s Disease, he forgets everything except his grudges. No Surrender, a pitch-black U.K. comedy from the late Eighties that’s crying out for a DVD release on this side of the pond, is tailor-made to illustrate that line. The story takes place in the Thatcher era, while the Troubles were still tearing Northern Ireland apart, but the mood and tone are strangely prophetic of the Good Friday Agreement that was still more than a decade off.

The script — the first and so far only film written by playwright and television scenarist Alan Bleasdale — centers on a nightclub that rises like a penitentiary cellblock in a particularly grotty part of Liverpool. The new manager (Michael Angelis) arrives to find that his predecessor has skipped out after booking a New Year’s Eve party for two feuding groups of Irish emigres, one devoutly Catholic and the other hardline Protestant, as well as a busload of pensioners with senile dementia, a punk band whose members can barely finish a song without getting into fistfights onstage, and an inept stage magician (Elvis Costello, in his first movie role) whose rabbit is on its last legs. Meanwhile, the club’s gangster owner is giving somebody the back-room treatment, and police are busting down so many doors in their search for terrorists that carpenters are kept on standby for repairs.

The new manager’s only allies are Bernard, a bouncer whose mental energy is used up in the maintenance of his pompadour (Bernard Hill in his pre-Theoden days, and hilarious), and Cheryl, the club’s sole waitress, played by Joanne Whalley, whose status as the thinking-man’s bombshell would be cemented with her roles in Scandal and The Singing Detective. It all builds to a gratifyingly chaotic conclusion, and a line of dialogue — “I’m know I’m a nobody, but I’m nobody else’s nobody” — that could serve as the motto of beleaguered commen men everywhere.

“Auld Lang Syne” provides an ironic background for the movie’s other plotline, which follows Bill McRacken (Ray McAnally), a onetime Unionist thug known as “Billy the Beast,” who has turned away from his violent past and found a measure of peace as a Liverpool businessman, though he still refuses even to speak to his Catholic son-in-law. On this night, looking for nothing more than a night out with his friends, he finds himself with too many auld acquaintances to deal with. One, a gun-runner from the old days, is threatening reprisals against McRacken’s family unless he gets help hiding from the police. Another, Paddy Burke (James Ellis), is a Catholic bruiser spoiling for one last round with Billy the Beast. Though blind, Paddy is an ex-boxer still tough enough to beat the daylights out of a pair of would-be muggers, and he has a nasty surprise planned for McRacken.

Bleasdale is known for what used to be called kitchen-sink realism: he made his name in 1980 with The Black Stuff, a television play about some Liverpudlian workmen who land a choice job laying tarmac at a new housing development, only to lose their savings and their jobs after trying to do a little business on the side. The show aired on BBC One and proved popular enough to spawn a sequel, The Boys from the Black Stuff. The cast of No Surrender is studded with Black Stuff alumni, notably Angelis and Hill, and the story showcases the deft blending of politics and gallows humor that remain Bleasdale’s trademark as a writer. No Surrender is angry but not despairing: the diehard fighters on both sides are viewed as bloody minded clowns, and when Cheryl, a Catholic, defuses a situation by singing a hymn and getting the others to join in, there’s a sense that both sides can find a way past the violence if they use a little ingenuity.

For me and a lot of other American viewers, the biggest revelation in No Surrender was  Ray McAnally, an Irish actor well known for his stage and television work in the U.K. After No Surrender, McAnally enjoyed a late explosion of high-profile roles in big ticket films like The Mission, We’re No Angels, and especially My Left Foot, in which he played Christie Brown’s roughneck father. When death took him too early in 1989, McAnally was set to play Bull McCabe in Jim Sheridan’s film version of The Field. The role went instead to Richard Harris, a gluttonous scenery chewer, and one can only imagine how much better the movie would have played with McAnally’s more reserved approach at the center. His Billy McRacken is outwardly easygoing and ready to laugh things off — when his old gunrunning buddy shouts “No surrender! No foooking surrender!” McRacken shrugs and says, “I surrender. In fact, I give up.” But the old steel is still there, not too far from the surface, and when McRacken gets pushed too far the results are pretty spectacular.

There was a time back in the late Eighties when American filmmaking had become effectively brain dead, and it seemed the theaters had nothing to offer that wasn’t big, loud, and stupid: Stallone movies, each one worse than the last; John Hughes teen-worship flicks; formulaic fodder from the Jim Cash-Jack Epps hack stack (Top Gun, Legal Eagles, etc.); special effects extravaganzas from the Spielberg-Lucas production plant.

What saved the latter half of the decade was the appearance of a string of low budget, high talent films from the U.K., most of them black comedies with terrific character actors and scripts that were, if not overtly political, then certainly politically aware. At the time it was simply a relief to be able to see a movie that was about something real, instead of the umpteenth retread of the go-for-it formula. My Beautiful Laundrette is probably the best known of these semi-cult films: it helped launch the career of Daniel Day-Lewis, just as Withnail and I turned Richard E. Grant into a cult hero. Among the others were Letter to Brezhnev, A Private Function, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, and How to Get Ahead in Advertising. Not all of them were great, but most of them were at the least very good, and now that I’ve been able to find a VHS copy of No Surrender, I can confirm it’s one of the best of the bunch. Won’t the nice people at Criterion give this one a little buffing up (the soundtrack desperately needs remixing) and put it back into the spotlight?

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Put the clock on ’em

The death of Bobby Fischer gives me the perfect excuse to talk about Fresh, one of the great lost movies of the 1990s. The hero, Michael (Sean Nelson), is a young drug courier whose calm attitude and watchful intelligence are appreciated by the local drug lords, who want to bring him into their operations. What he does instead is start playing them off against each other, applying a gift for strategy honed through games of Blitz with his father, Sam (Samuel L. Jackson), a hustler who makes money playing speed chess on the street. One of the few times Sam attempts to be fatherly toward Michael leads to the monologue shown above.

The title refers to the hero’s street name, but it also describes writer-director Boaz Yakin’s approach, which upended the Boyz N the Hood formula (already stale after only three years) by dispensing with the obligatory hip hop soundtrack for a fully orchestrated score. Yakin, a screenwriter making his debut as a director, is equally at home with action and with quiet, character revealing moments. The performances are flawless: Sean Nelson’s turn as Michael is almost frighteningly assured, and the film also showcases stellar work from Giancarlo Esposito, Ron Brice and N’Bushe Wright.

The film watches Michael as closely as he watches the rest of the world, and Yakin lets us hear the gears quietly humming inside his head as he plots to get revenge and spring himself and his sister from the ghetto. Chess strategies are used in subtle ways, but Michael’s chief advantage is that none of the bad guys believe a mere kid could pose a threat. And just as the viewer starts to balk at the thought of a boy working with such icy control, Yakin — and Nelson — give us a glimpse of the damaged soul behind the impassive face, in a closing scene that will break your heart.