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The Dark Knight

The second instalment of the Christopher Nolan version of the ultra-gloomy side of the early solo career of the first of the dynamic duo.

With much hoopla this movie struts boldly onto the screen, grabs the viewer by the hair and drags him unresisting (at first) though an unrelentingly ugly Gotham, for a couple of hours.

We'll come to the last 30 minutes later - one reviewer dubbed this The Long Dark Knight of the Soul...

Historial Background

As a child I loved those tv shows starring Burt West as eponymous hero (kapoww!) & Adam Ward as Robin (boooof!), complete with tilted camera angles, intrusive voice-overs, unlikely escapes from the cliff-hanger episode-endings and dynamic graphics whenever anyone punched a hoodlum (should that be an hoodlum?).

No-one spoke of cheese in those days and it all seemed pretty harmless crime fiction. I preferred Batman to other super-heroes, because Bruce Wayne was just a man with a mission, plenty of money and lots of intelligence. I didn’t appreciate that he also had a scriptwriter who crowbarred a dozen lucky co-incidences into each and every episode. But I liked the fact that Batman couldn’t fly or see through buildings at a single glance or turn into the Hulk or the Thing or create a wall of fire or spin a web. He was a refreshing change from many other hidden-identity crimebusters.

Anyway, Caesar Romero played the Joker, with his characteristic painted grin, and cackled insanely. He was a baddie in the old fashioned sense of the word; he committed crimes of theft and naughtiness, but seemed otherwise just slightly cracked. Similarly, Frank Gorshin’s Riddler was a puzzle-setting nuisance, who seemed to want to be captured, or at least that’s how he came across to me. I was a naïve schoolboy, and received the programme at face value. I responded with similar gullibility to the fabulous 1966 movie, which I saw at the Embassy in West Street, Brighton (now a slot-machine emporium) with my long-suffering – although I didn’t realise it at the time – Dad. Give me break, okay, I was 8 years old at the time. I knew enough, however, to recognise that Lee Werriwether was a good-looking girl.

Latterly, of course, I have recognised that I was hoodwinked by the tongue-in-cheek style of the show, the ludicrous set-ups and wooden dialogue – holy mahogany!

Second Attempt

Then I sat in the ABC on East Street one depressing evening in 1989 to watch the new Tim Burton Batman movie, where all was gloom and darkness (apart from Kim Bassinger’s appearances) as Michael Keaton trampled all over my treasured memories and turned the innocent fun into lonely, painful, vengeful and uninspiring anti-hero. Despite the great soundtrack and the classic line ‘This town needs an enema!’, I couldn’t cope, and kept away from the sequels. Any series that couldn’t hold onto its main star (Val Kilmer took the title role in the threequel and George Clooney donned the cape for the fourquel) was going to struggle to hold onto this audience member, I thought, rather pompously.

Then came Nolan's Batman Begins, and I thought there was hope for a fresh start. It was nice to think about the fact that we were now enjoying th era of the Nolan Brothers, having endured the too-lengthy careers of the Nolan sisters. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Momento and reckoned Christopher Nolan might do justice to my boyhood hero. He somehow convinced me that there could be flying (actually it’s gliding and only used to make a sudden entrance and then to disappear again, so that’s okay). The story stayed true in essence to the Bob Kane theme of crimefighting and the acting was good.

Up to Date, then

So I was braced and ready for The Dark Knight. Or so I thought.

It’s an ensemble piece, like Hi-Di-Hi, but without the laughs or the standout performance by Su Pollard. Heath Ledger stole very little, as his dangerously mad performance was utterly convincing, and I started to feel sorry for him in his derangement, rather than horrified at his villainy. Perhaps I need to see a two-dimensional crook in my comic-book films. Aaron Eckhart is the featured black-hat, it turns out, as his character gets twisted into the Two-Face villain; a thoroughly sleazy good guy becomes a two-dimensional (almost literally) baddie with a heart of gold. Christian Bale and his voice-altering gismo reprise his role as the Caped Crusader, and Michael Caine is once again the stalwart and wise Alfred the Butler. Commissioner Gordon is the best turn in the piece, with Gary Oldman underplaying the straight cop with great restraint. Maggie Gyllenhaal isn’t a patch on Katie Holmes, in my view.

Beyond the Hype

There may be several problems with the film. Not the least is the length of time it takes to tell the preliminary story (as it turns out) of the Joker. It’s about two hours in before he two-face tale takes shape as Eckhart lies in a pool of burning petrol having the left side of his face re-sculpted. I was already preparing myself to leve when the final half-hour was sprung upon me. No, the movie isn't about the madness of the Joker, it's about the madness of Two-Face. Oh, that'll make a nice change, then.

In the end, Batman feels he has to take the blame for the crimes of Two-Face, and walks away with only Gordon knowing the truth. So the hero has become the Dark Knight, fighting for truth, justice and the American Way (as Superman would have put it) but through shadows and using means that look almost as wicked as the bad guys. The movie is about madness (did I mention that?) and left me feeling unexhilarated, despite the thrills and spills; it left me weary, since it’s not only long – it’s also quite hard work with several sub-sub plots which seemed superfluous (I agree with Kermode about the boats sequence); and it left me disappointed because I’d foolishly believed some of the hype. That last issue isn’t the film’s fault, but the fault of the media.

Yes, yes, the Batmobile becomes the Batbike, but there is still no hint of Aunt Harriet or the young Dick Grayson. Which was disappointing. No one wore blue or red, and no-one re-enacted the famous scene where Del & Rodney race through the smoke to the fancy dress party… oh no, that’s something else, isn’t it?

So, high-quality pulp, but when a director is as talented as Nolan, shouldn’t he be out there working on original material (such as he has done so well on The Prestige and Memento)?

Highlights (not exhaustive) of early cinema-going

for the young Andy Back (born 1958)

1962   How the West was Won

I was four, and found this cowboys-and-indibums epic over-long and overwhelming, and suffered greatly from identifying too strongly with the little boy whose family was destroyed by the stampede of buffalo.

But I was there at the Brighton presentation of Cinerama, achieved by using three cameras, three synch-up projectors and a curved screen. Of course you can see the joins and the image gave you an almighty headache, but this was cutting-edge and you really believed you were there.

1964  Mary Poppins

That's more like it. Fantasy jolliness. Feed the Birds, Just a Spoonful of Sugar, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! Mad non-English accent, fabulous effects

1964   633 Squadron

RAF devises a way to beat the Nazis. Hoorah!

1966   Grand Prix

Hugely involving widescreen feast of speed, danger and ultimate victory for the good guy

1967   Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs

Heigh-Ho for the re-release. I think I cold have coped with this sooner, but there was no way of seeing films in those days except in the cinema.Yes, you got excerpts on Disney Time on BBC1 at the Bank Holidays, but they were in black-and-white in our house and always the same two or three little bits: Whistle While you Work, Heigh Ho or When you Wish Upon a Star. I bought the single of this particular hit - very sad. Other singles I bought early on included Alternate Title (Randy Scouse Git) by the Monkees and Baby Jump by Mungo Jerry)

1969   The Battle of Britain

Epic war movie recently at the centre of racism accusations, thanks to bizarre misunderstanding from some quarters

1970   Love Story

Can't imagine why I went to see this tosh. Going to the cinema means never having to say you're bored and changing channel

1974   The Towering Inferno

Action adventure, vertigo, fire, acting, stellar cast, special effects. And the book was even better

1976   The Lady Sings the Blues

My first X-cert movie (on account of the drug use by the central character Billie Holliday). You had to be 18 to get in, and I was (you can check by a combination of the count-back system, simple arithmetic, and trust in my unimpeachable honesty). This was in a double-bill – they used to show two movies in one 'programme', complete with a news reel, adverts (including the one about the curry house 'just three minutes from this cinema') and you really got your money's worth – with Mahogany, also starring Diana Ross, and also a biopic about a singer who was seeking to discover her identity. A great evening out

1978    The Stud

My second X-rated movie. Oh, the shame. Alexis Carrington (Joa Collins, looking fine at a cetain age) sans kit, sans script, sans taste.

But I really liked Sue Lloyd (that Barbara Hunter out of Crossroads), and she was in this too. She'd also been in The Ipcress File, so there was some pedigree

1978   Star Wars

I'm pretty sure I saw this during its first release. I am certain it was my school-friend Mark Newman who recommended it, as he'd taken a girl he really liked, and then been so mesmerised by the film that he'd failed to pay her any attention at all. And we all know what cinemas are supposed to be for at that age. He says he forgot to hold her hand, let alone engage in lip-action. (She married him anyway.)

Amazing effects, goodies who were good and believable characters, too; mentors worth following; gorgeous love interest, despite the strap-on danish pastry ear muffs; hugely evil two-dimensional baddie, appropriately in black, with smoke and voice-altering gismo. Sadly, slightly underwritten dialogue. But a nice big explosion at the end where the baddies get their come-uppance.

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