Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... until your screen shines transparent

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Fuest's Places: THE FINAL PROGRAMME (1973) aka THE LAST DAYS OF MAN ON EARTH

 
What to do about Jon Finch? He can look as wan and bloated as any British drinker but when the dialogue and co-star is right, boy oh boy, he's like a prime era Peter O'Toole (in richly Shakeseparean, commanding voice crossed with a delightfully dissolute feyness) possessing a young Jim Morrison's dandy jaw line and heroic drug intake. Robert Fuest's dark, freewheeling, and--for a long time--hard to find British sci-fi satire from 1973, THE FINAL PROGRAMME (distributed stateside by Corman's New World Pictures as The Last Days of Man on Earth) is finally here in a stunning new transfer. Now we may marvel and swoon over Fuest's beguilingly surreal production design (he's the man behind the Phibeses), Finch's alcohol-enriched roaring, literate energy, and a roster of sublimely-etched side characters. Marred only by the occasional groan-worthy satiric jabs at consumerism's future ouroboros vanishing point (the world's supposed to be ending, but the budget can't afford crowd scenes or anything too dystopian, so we have to take Finch's word for it) and a kind of disappointing resolution, it's worth checking out for the game and hearty. 

Taking leaps of adaptive liberty (I'm told) with Michael Moorcock's countercultural touchstone (in Britain) novel, it's the tale of dissolute hard-drinking bad boy billionaire super-genius scientist military hardware collector and helicopter and (off-camera) jet pilot Jerry Cornelius (Finch). After a native funeral up in Lapland for his genius billionaire father,  Jerry plans to take resolve his family differences by dropping napalm on the ancestral mansion and jetting off with his (implied incestuous) sister. But first things first, he has to get the napalm, that means running around London meeting eccentric arms dealers. As some bizarre passive-aggressive urge, he teams up with sexy androgynous computer programmer Miss Brunner (Jenny Runacre) who has some (off-camera) habit of absorbing her lovers and/or anyone whose knowledge she seeks to possess (like arms secret peddler Patrick Magee). Cornelius finds this dimly interesting as he sets about helping her and her three Quentin Crisp-ish scientist cronies find the 'last program' that his master computer genius father was working on before he died. He doesn't know what it is, but it involves some Italian pretty boy waiting in the car, and it's supposed to bring about the savior of the new dawn, a self-replicating perfect hermaphrodite human: the best of all man and woman has to offer - a fusion of two brains, two genders, into one, a being that can finally formulate and answer the ulitmate question.... why?


Sure, in its mad bid to be drolly satiric, and painfully hip, the result has not aged as well as one would hope: superfluous cameos like an ineffectually mugging Sterling Hayden as eccentric arms dealer Wrongway Lindbergh ("the Wrong way. is the right way," is his motto) reek of that late-60s 'older stars trying to fit into the counterculture via eccentric cameos' desperation.. There's also that bit where the ride up to Lapland in a balloon (which is I guess, kept handy for films that can't afford a Phantom F4, which Jerry supposedly pilots). But the whimsy and twee touches are kept at a distance. I do like the three wise men scientists (Basil Henson, George Coulouris, and Graham Crowden) who follow Ms, Brunner around; they more than make up for all the elements that seem to be missing. For example, Jerry's quest for napalm (he pronounces it "Nepal-m") and the rescue of his strung-out sister from his junky brother Frank's druggy clutches. We never really see the sister until much later so any inkling of what kind of strange incestuous reason he has for this is left unexplained. This is a film that blithely skips over vast and possibly interesting mythic arcs that may be in Moorcock's novel in favor of hit and miss (but at least it swings for the fences). Futuristic satire like a restaurant where wine and alcohol comes in dehydrated cubes (Jerry orders French toxic river sludge, demanding to know 'which bank' it was culled from.) or a pinball arcade where Jerry meets his stoned connection (Ronald "Why don't you tell me where the Ark is... right now?" Lacey) are well executed but may induce groans in those who by then have higher hopes for this strange, otherwise very hip movie. 

He is... nefarious

Perhaps the only film that comes close in its style is 1971's Hammer film Blood from the Mummy's Tomb. In that film too, a strident dominatrix-y intellectual badass female (Valerie Leon) runs roughshod over trios of stumbling old men scientists (George Coulouris and Aubrey Morris appear in both) while teaming up with a fey amoral aristocratic hipster (James Villers instead of Finch) to bring about some earth-shattering prophecy by ushering in a new kind of woman. Here, Runacre handles her carnivorous authority with cool throaty confidence and instantly establishes a deep in-the-moment sultry rapport with Finch's Jerry, one cool young super genius sexy cool titan to another. One can't help but wonder as to what a great Lady Macbeth she would have made opposite Finch in Polanski's 1971 film (instead of Francesca Annis, though she was fine enough). It's their scenes together--and her beating up Jerry's brother, the manipulative junky Frank (Derrick O'Connor)--that really crackle. 

Luckily most of the film involves the pair of them, with the three scientists making the perfect back-up band. Far from the usual stuffy bowler-and-brolly types we'd expect to be harumphing in the background or the dreaded reverse (that Richard Lester-ish style of conservative faux-hipness), these three-four older scientists manage the hitherto impossible - each being cool and individual while functioning as a cool ultra-dry comedy team. Aging scientists unconcerned with the surface flash, they're in pursuit of completing--with the straight facedness required to convey now-or-never urgency--a complicated experiment that's beyond mad/daft and that needs to be executed at a certain, looming time. 

Overall it's a film free of villains, unless you count Frank, who's taken over the family estate, setting all the futuristic alarms and traps --including psychedelic light attacks ("designed to cause pseudo-epilepsy:), elaborate inflatable tunnels (a mix of a carnival bouncy castle and Corman's Masque of the Red Death), poisoned gas, and poisoned needles shooting out of walls while the siblings shoot at each other in weird homemade futuristic air guns (just to be extra weird and save on blood expenses).

But all of that is fine with me because of the cocky actorly rapport with Runacre and Finch as these kind of super-cool amoral hedonist next-gen scientific wits in fabulous clothes and --in his case--a kind of foppish arrogant feminine elegance; hers, a Bowie-esque androgyne sexy-cool. With her tousled orange hair and natty slacks and his too-tight black velvet blazer and black nail polish, they're a superb-looking team, like they've spent a lot of time improv --they're destined to entwine! 

Hint: Fans of Hammer films (and their ilk) might recall Runacre as playing a great insane red-dress wearing schizophrenic Folies Bergère dancer in the same year's The Creeping Flesh.


There's a great climax set in an abandoned Nazi submarine pen deep under Lapland, where "the best brains in Europe" are kept in jars (groan-worthy but still interesting), working overtime to answer the "ultimate question", and sunlight is harnessed and accumulated during the midnight sun period of summer to power the special device Jerry's dad was working on before he died. It ends just how you'd think, though I shan't spoil it. Anyway, I recommend it. Take it for what it is, and just enjoy Fuest's wicked sense of design style (the submarine pen and other futuristic sets evoke fond memories of Fuest's Avengers episodes and Dr. Phibes Rises Again's ancient Egyptian tomb). I kept thinking I wanted to live down there, and get drunk with these people ("The classic sanctuary fixation" notes Ms. Brunner) to wind up safe and sound after the Fall, ready for the new dawn.


Note the empties behind them while brainstorming in Jerry's flat. His freezer is empty except for hundreds of McVities' Dark
Chocolate Digestives. I can really relate

Navigating the family mansion's "defences"

1 comment:

  1. What I wouldn't give for that BABE RAINBOW print on the wall.

    ReplyDelete

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