Down From the Shelf ~ Scrooge (1970)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A musical retelling of Charles Dickens’ classic novel about an old bitter miser taken on a journey of self-redemption, courtesy of several mysterious Christmas apparitions.

Stars: Albert Finney, Alec Guinness, Edith Evans, Kenneth More, Laurence Naismith, Michael Medwin, David Collings, Anton Rodgers, Suzanne Neve, Frances Cuka

Director: Ronald Neame

Rated: G

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Asking someone what their favorite Christmas (or holiday adjacent) film is a risky endeavor because it can often draw some distinct lines in the sand between friends.  Are you a Love, Actually fan or do you gravitate more toward The Holiday?  Would you choose National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation over Home Alone? What if you had to decide between It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street? Then there’s the all-important question of them all…is Die Hard a Christmas film or is it just a convenient holiday the action revolves around? 

Myself, I’m hard to pin down on any of the questions above (except for Die Hard, which I DO believe is a Christmas movie, and the sequel is absolutely not) but there is one thing that happens every year…a version of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens must be watched and there’s no compromise on that.  You could go classic (1951’s much loved telling with Alastair Sim), animated (Christmas Carol: The Movie from 2001 is underseen but is better than you’d think and has Kate Winslet singing!), Muppet-ed (1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol), modern (1988’s Scrooged), or revamped (Ebbie, the 1995 TV movie with Susan Lucci as a female Scrooge) but it’s got to be recognizably Dickens.

The one I find myself drawn to more than any is 1970’s Scrooge, a musical version adapted by Leslie Bricusse who also wrote the music and lyrics to a dozen songs plus the score.  Not only is it remarkably faithful to the original story by Dickens, but the lavish production also has some of the best performances that set a high bar for any future interpretation you’ll see.  Aside from a few outdoor shots set in the springtime (a quibble I’ll pick on later), the entirety of the movie was shot inside studios lots on massive Victorian-style sets that are convincing in their size and scale.

Like my recent review of The Tragedy of Macbeth, I’m not going to simply assume everyone knows the story of A Christmas Carol and provide a brief refresher if you’re new or if it’s been a while.

Miserly Ebenezer Scrooge sees the pending Christmas holiday as little more than a nuisance to endure while giving his one employee, Bob Cratchit, the day off to spend with his humble family and sicky son, Tiny Tim.  A curmudgeonly skinflint, Scrooge loans money to townspeople and then charges rates of interest too high for them to pay back, eventually either seizing their property or using their pending debt to extricate services (or maybe just simple human interaction?) from them.

On Christmas Eve, seven years to the day after his business partner Jacob Marley died, Scrooge is visited by Marley’s Ghost, a chained and pained specter who tells Scrooge his fate will be just like his…but worse.  A visit from three ghosts has been set and Scrooge will need to pay heed to the information they provide if he has any hope of fixing his future.  Looking into the past, present, and future with the trio of phantoms, Scrooge is given the opportunity to see himself as he was and how he’s thought of now when no one knows he’s there.  At the same time, Scrooge learns more about himself and his own wrong choices that could be made right…if given the chance.

I have a long history with A Christmas Carol, having acted it in onstage professionally on and off for nearly a decade and seeing it as an audience member in theaters across the country so I feel as if I’m a good judge of how the story can be told well and where it can falter.  It needs to begin with a certain bit of dark turmoil, an uncomfortable place many American companies and productions don’t like to operate in, before it can achieve a transformation in its central character.  That’s why the British-made Scrooge works as such a bright representation of the story, because it understands these beats and hits them with just enough force for the audience to register the necessary emotional intent.

The performances and music do a great deal of help with that as well.  As the title character, the late Albert Finney (Skyfall) is fairly magnificent and not just because he was 34 years old and more than believably playing a man in his 60s.  Finney also plays Scrooge when he’s younger during the always lengthy Ghost of Christmas Past section.  There’s a bit of strangeness in this telling when older Scrooge is watching a younger Scrooge who in turn is having a memory of another time when it is summer – so the film gets away with some snow-free and sunny outdoor location filming…sneaky!  Personally, I always like the Ghost of Christmas Past the way Dame Edith Evans plays it, with a bit of a hard school marm snap to show Scrooge who is boss right off the bat.  It’s in nice contrast to Kenneth Moore’s gregarious Christmas Present.  Though it’s rumored he didn’t care for working on the film, Sir Alec Guinness (Murder by Death) is a brilliant Marley and while his song is likely the weakest in the film (and heavily cut in the final edit, to be fair), his acting choices are top notch.

Speaking of the music, Bricusse opens the film with a booming chorus proclaiming “Sing a song of gladness and cheer, for the time of Christmas is here. Look around about you and see, what a world of wonder this world can be!”  This credit sequence, played over hand-painted pictures from British illustrator Ronald Searle is a grand, nostalgic way to begin and previews the entirety of the action so close your eyes if you want to avoid spoilers!  Though esteemed critic Pauline Kael (in my opinion, wrongly) thought the music was “forgettable”, Bricusse wound up with an Oscar nomination for his work and truly has a way with an earworm so don’t be shocked if you’re humming a note or four in the days following.  It’s especially hard to rid yourself of the Oscar-nominated “Thank You Very Much”, used twice in the film to good effect.  (The other two Oscar nominations Scrooge received were for Costume Design and Art Direction.)

Whatever your holiday movie of choice is, don’t let anyone tell you it’s “not Christmas-y enough” or “not the right version” because this is the time to choose experiences that gives us comfort and joy more than anything else.  For me, Scrooge, directed by Ronald Neame (two years before he made The Poseidon Adventure) brings a lot of those feelings to the surface and as I grow older, I find myself responding more to smaller flashes near the end when you see the magnitude of not just what Scrooge is doing in the moment but what he recognizes as how his life will change for the better because of these kind gestures.  That’s part of the lesson Dickens has cleverly hidden in his text and the most enduring productions, like Scrooge, have captured so well.

31 Days to Scare ~ Mute Witness (1995)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A mute makeup artist working on a slasher film in Moscow is locked in the studio after hours. Witnessing a brutal murder, she must escape capture before convincing authorities of what she’s seen.

Stars: Marina Zudina, Fay Ripley, Evan Richards, Igor Volkov, Sergei Karlenkov, Alec Guinness, Aleksandr Pyatkov

Director: Anthony Waller

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Hanging out at the local Mr. Movies as much as I did during my teen years, before I started working there the manager took pity on me and let me browse through his catalog of films all franchise owners were sent.  This is what studios would use to advertise their films in the pre-internet days when some of the more indie titles would need that extra push to get smaller hubs to order a copy or two of their film.  That’s how I first saw the arresting VHS box art for Mute Witness, which differs greatly from the movie poster featured above.  I’ll include it below, but you can see why it was an eye-catcher and how it practically marketed itself without needing to explain much of the plot.  People would rent the movie based on the visual alone, and I know this to be true because our store ordered one copy (I’d like to think my persistence had something to do with it) that was frequently checked out.

I saw this British funded thriller made in Moscow when it was first released and didn’t remember much about it and when I found a random DVD copy recently, I took it as a sign that Mute Witness came back into my life during October for a reason.  Firing it up again didn’t jog any old memories from the VHS era but the rewatch did create some positive new ones. While writer/director Anthony Waller’s suspenseful potboiler doesn’t set out to reinvent the often-utilized genre trope of a central character that saw something they shouldn’t having to evade grievous bodily harm, it does deliver genuine thrills with over-the-top gusto.

American movie director Andy (Evan Richards, Society) has come to Moscow to film a low budget slasher film, bringing along his girlfriend Karen (Fay Ripley) and her mute sister Billy (Marina Zudina) to work on the crew. Communications are already strained between the Russian-speaking cast and their English-speaking director and the working conditions in the rundown studio in an isolated part of town aren’t that much better.  On this day, an actress is performing a death scene, one she turns into a curtain yanking, desk flipping, dish breaking, three act-play.  Make-up artist Billy barely has time to whip up another batch of fake blood before it’s time to call it a day.  Realizing she forgot something as she’s leaving, Billy returns to the studio alone and winds up locked in by a hard of hearing night watchman.

Up until this point, Waller has presented Mute Witness with some stylistic flourishes and allowed it to rumble slowly to life. The movie within a movie beginning is cheeky fun and while the language barrier is used for laughter at first, it will soon become a hinderance for our unlucky title character.  While trying to find a way out, Billy gets back to the soundstage and sees a horrifically brutal murder…or does she?  At first, we believe she does and the way she gets chased around the abandoned building by two men you certainly don’t think they’re looking for her opinion on their lighting of the scene.  For a time, there’s a big question mark Waller attempts to place over the event, leading the film down the wrong fork in the road that only unnecessarily pads the running time. 

It becomes a long night not just for Billy but for Karen and Andy too as they get involved with the crime and a growing band of criminals and authorities that have a stake in either getting Billy to talk or silencing her for good.  Waller has obviously seen a good deal of Alfred Hitchcock and even more Dario Argento and Brian De Palma films because there are references to all of the above throughout the film. Mute Witness almost plays like a souped-up attempt to recreate De Palma’s feverish filmmaking with Argento’s grand orchestration for scenic composition.  The most effective scenes are the ones that are the most compact, giving the players little room to move around and forcing them to get resourceful in finding their way out of danger.  Elevator shafts, bathrooms, exposed hallways…all are free for Waller to place a person in peril.

The often unevenness in tone spills over into performance.  As Billy, Zudina carries the movie easily, even when she’s going far bigger than she needs to. A trained theater actress, Zudina often plays to the back row of the theater in her reactions and with Waller’s tendency to slow things down it can come across a bit comical instead of terror-filled.  Also, you have to give her credit for making it through one scene where she gets a little too creative with trying to get a person’s attention in an apartment across the street.  All of the Russians feel like they were dubbed later on (maybe by the same person) so there’s a one-note to most of them.  Then there’s Sir Alec Guinness (yes, THAT Sir Alec Guinness from Star Wars and Murder by Death) appearing in a cameo that he filmed TEN YEARS before the movie was made.  You can go here and read all about it but it’s truly a…unique story.

I do think Mute Witness is worth your time if you can find a copy.  Largely unavailable on streaming and rarely (if ever) shown on TV, your best bet might be to suck it up and buy a copy on eBay or see if your local library has it.  It’s a showy bit of horror that knows exactly what buttons to push and keeps jabbing at them right up until the end, not willing to let the audience rest a single moment until the credits roll.  Greedy on the part of the filmmakers?  Maybe.  That’s way better than not giving you anything to scream about, though!

Here’s that VHS Cover, as promised!