Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema – from Oscar-winning strategies to 007’s debt to Hitchcock

·14-min read

Despite the title, there’s no “secret” to Secrets of Cinema, a new three-part BBC4 series of which begins this week. Instead the programme is about the things we recognise, but perhaps haven’t acknowledged, in cinema; the recurrent stories, themes and tropes that underlie the movies we love.

From the outset, Kim Newman’s involvement as lead writer on Secrets of Cinema was crucial. His knowledge of movies is encyclopaedic. I met him when I was first working as a film critic in London in the 1980s, and we have a shared interest in narrative – in the way movies tell stories.

Along with director Nick Freand Jones, producer John Das and archivist Jane Long, we’d sit in Newman’s London flat brainstorming each programme, and the scripts came out of the notes of those fantastically enjoyable meetings. I think it was that sense of excitement that spurred the positive response to the first series, which covered romcoms, heist movies, sci-fi, horror and coming-of-age pictures. Since then we’ve made three one-off specials, and now the new series, which covers superheroes, British history and spies. Here’s some of our favourite “secrets”, culled from those programmes… MK

Monster movies can be romcoms too

Film genres are slippery, with cross-pollination and mutation the order of the day. A film can look like one thing from the outside – be it a drama, thriller, horror or comedy – but delve beneath the surface and you’ll find a rich cocktail of movie-genre DNA. Take The Shape of Water, which won the Oscar for best picture in 2018. On the surface, it looks like a science-fiction/horror hybrid in the style of Creature from the Black Lagoon – the 3D monster-movie from 1954. Yet The Shape of Water also features a musical fantasy sequence, inspired by the monochrome designs and dances of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film Follow the Fleet (1936). And with its central tale of a love affair between a woman and what it basically a merman, it bears an uncanny similarity to Ron Howard’s Splash (1984), a classic romcom posing as a fairytale fantasy.

You can find the romcom gene in a host of movie genres, from Bollywood musical melodramas to Hollywood superhero spectaculars (see below). Japanese director Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999), adapted from the novel by Ryu Murakami, starts out like an off-kilter romcom before mutating into a terrifying symphony of pain and piano wire. As for David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of the 1958 shocker The Fly, its plot is essentially a twisted variation on an old romcom favourite: boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy has accident with a teleporter and splices himself with an insect before getting girl to shoot him in the head. Ah, sweet!

How to win an Oscar

The most often repeated canard about the Oscars is that the easiest path to an acting statuette is to play a character with mental health issues (see Tropic Thunder). Best-picture winners focusing on mental-health issues include The Lost Weekend, Rain Man, Forrest Gump and A Beautiful Mind. Even One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs, which won several awards (including gongs for both leading actors), are about patients under psychiatric care. This year, Joaquin Phoenix took best actor for Joker, playing a supervillain with a range of complexes and compulsions.

But Oscar also loves British royalty, all the way back to Charles Laughton’s Henry VIII, with crowned-head awards on the shelves of Helen Mirren (The Queen), Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love), Katharine Hepburn (The Lion in Winter) and more. The glow of privilege even falls upon common prime ministers, with George Arliss, Meryl Streep and Gary Oldman taking top acting honours as Disraeli, Thatcher and Churchill respectively.

Thus, the most obvious Oscar lock-in in cinema history was Colin Firth in The King’s Speech, playing a royal underdog struggling against hidebound courtiers (award-winning screen royals all have to be rebellious) while simultaneously overcoming a handicap (his stutter). Firth had the statuette on his mantelpiece from the first time he opened the script – it’s a wonder the other nominees even bothered to show up.

British history is best seen from a distance

History is the quintessential British film genre. America may have the great outdoors for westerns and road movies, and teeming cities for cop and crime sagas. But Britain has seen off the Romans, been ruled by Tudors and Stuarts, built and then lost an empire, and fought all the way through two world wars. Unsurprisingly, British history films have proved a highly exportable film commodity – yet it’s notable that many of the best movies in this genre were made by film-makers from other countries.

The first British talkie to make significant inroads into the American market was The Private Life of Henry VIII in 1933. Charles Laughton won a best actor Oscar for his portrayal of the gluttonous monarch, famously tearing into chicken with his bare hands, and running through wives the way he ran through numerous multi-course feasts. Fast forward to 2019, and Olivia Colman won a best actress Oscar for her portrayal of the emotionally damaged Queen Anne in The Favourite.

Both of these films (which are fondly imagined as very “British” triumphs) had “foreign” directors; the Hungarian Alexander Korda and the Greek Yorgos Lanthimos respectively. Both also play fast and loose with history (as does everything from Hammer’s oft-forgotten 1967 romp The Viking Queen, which is actually set in Roman times, to Mel Gibson’s 1996 best picture winner Braveheart, an American production, set in Scotland, shot in Ireland, directed by and starring an Irish-American-Australian). Meanwhile, despite its bizarre mashup of glam-rock costumes and 1970s sex comedy tropes, Italian Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Canterbury Tales (1972) evoked Chaucer with zest and earthiness, making it one of the few films about medieval Britain that an actual medieval audience might recognise. Perhaps true Britishness – or at least the version of it that sells to an international audience – can only really be observed from the outside.

Bond movies owe a huge debt to Alfred Hitchcock

The spy genre has its roots in such 1920s Fritz Lang movies as the Dr Mabuse series and Spies (1928), which drew on the earlier French thriller serials of Louis Feuillade. But Alfred Hitchcock dominated the origins of the “spy film” with such prewar British thrillers as The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). A succession of sophisticated Hollywood movies established Hitchcock as the maestro of mistrust and suspense, reaching its apotheosis in North By Northwest (1959) in which Cary Grant’s ad man Roger Thornhill is mistaken for a government agent. Hitchcock’s influence on the look and feel of the action is critical; Sean Connery said that the early Bond films would have looked very different without North By Northwest. The famous crop-duster scene clearly influenced the helicopter attack in From Russia With Love – and Eva Marie Saint’s role as the villain’s girlfriend who defects to side with Grant prefigures Pussy Galore from Goldfinger and many another Bond girl.

Before disaster movies, we had disaster theatre

Since the days of the earliest biblical epics, audiences have revelled in seeing temples crumble, worlds shake, ships sink and towers fall. From the fire-and-brimstone biblical epics of early cinema to the boom years of the 1970s in which the US producer Irwin Allen became the “master of disaster”, spectacular destruction has been a saleable movie mainstay. Like horror films, disaster movies often work as modern morality tales; reminding us of the natural order of things by terrifying us with visions of chaos and apocalypse. But although the visceral thrills of disaster epics such as James Cameron’s Titanic (one of the most successful movies of all time) may seem unique to cinema, they are in fact rooted in a popular form of Victorian theatre which featured sunken ships, onstage pyrotechnics and drowning extras aplenty.

Indeed, one of the earliest surviving fragments of film, shot at the London Hippodrome in 1902, captured the finale of Bandits – an action-packed theatre show in which a mill explodes into flames and, in the ensuing flood, a bridge collapses and speeding horses plunge into a millpond. This kind of theatrical spectacle was a sensational crowd-pleasing draw, along with re-enactments of famous sea battles and infamous wrecks – the more realistic the better. You can draw a direct line from these stage productions to such silent-era films as Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923) and Fred Niblo’s Ben-Hur (1925), the latter having been staged in London and New York in the late 19th century, complete with chariots pulled by live horses, charging on treadmills!

The secret of a successful superhero movie is to make one that women will want to see

Comic-book-derived superhero films are the reigning genre of spectacular cinema. But decades-old Marvel or DC properties can’t click as big-screen franchises unless they can manage crossover appeal beyond 13-year-old male comics fans. This core constituency might be vocal online about whether Spider-Man’s webs should squirt from wrist-gadgets or be organic secretions, but there aren’t enough of them to record box-office numbers in the billions. As far back as Superman (1978), film-makers have balanced super-heroics with elements calculated to appeal to female viewers – casting male eye-candy leads from Christopher Reeve and Chris Hemsworth to Chadwick Boseman and Jason Momoa in costumes every bit as objectifying as a Bond girl’s negligee.

They’ve also baked romcom (or soap opera) elements into most broad-appeal super-sagas, from the 1940s-style newsroom banter between Reeve’s Clark Kent and Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane, through the kinkier 30 Shades of Black Leather sparks between Michael Keaton’s Batman and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, to the sweet teen romances that all three big-screen incarnations of Peter Parker have with appealing, distinctive relatable female leads (Kirsten Dunst, Emma Stone, Zendaya). Avengers: Endgame features a huge battle in the climax, but sent audiences home with an unashamed (if bittersweet) romantic happy ending.

For a perfect example of not understanding the rules, consider Zack Snyder’s run of DC films – Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, Justice League – which drown in earnest, fan-servicing bombast, but flare into life only when Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman forces her way on screen and demands attention.

Charles Dickens invented the Christmas movie

There’s a theory, dramatised in the 2017 biopic The Man Who Invented Christmas, that Charles Dickens – inspired perhaps by Prince Albert, who imported many German Yuletide traditions to Victorian Britain – is more responsible than anyone else for the way we still celebrate Christmas. A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, has been filmed more often than almost any other novel, including modern-dress takes like Hammer’s enormously underrated 1961 Cash on Demand (Peter Cushing’s Scrooge-like bank manager mends his ways after he’s tormented by genial hold-up man André Morell) and pantomime charades like The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992). Its storyline, characters and underlying message have seeped into a wealth of apparently unrelated films set over the holidays.

If there is such a genre as the Christmas film, then they’re all essentially adaptations of A Christmas Carol, in which a despairing, Christmas-hating grouch (or Grinch) suffers amid jollity (the contrast of misery with tinsel and carols is always poignant) and finally comes to appreciate hearth and home (stressed far more often in Christmas films than Christianity – Santa Claus is a bigger presence than baby Jesus in these movies). Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), in which George Bailey (James Stewart) is visited by an angel rather than three ghosts and (yes) John McTiernan’s Die Hard (1988), in which John McClane (Bruce Willis) literally fights terrorists in order to get his wife Holly (!) home for present‑opening and eggnog, both fit the pattern set down by Ebeneezer Scrooge, the spectral visitors, and the happy-despite-all-their-woes Cratchits.

Horror movies only scare if we care

To a casual observer, a horror film just needs the scariest monster imaginable. Fans debate whether Dracula is more evil than Michael Myers (the masked killer from Halloween) or who ought to win in King Kong vs Godzilla (Kong controversially won the 1964 bout on points, but a new version is being made). Studios hire makeup-effects geniuses to transform character actors, stunt men or masses of pixels into supernatural killing machines. But that’s not enough. The job of a horror film is to be frightening, and to be frightened an audience has to enter the world of the movie – invest emotionally in people who will be (at the very least) seriously inconvenienced when werewolves besiege the ranch or an X from Outer Space eats the police station. The crucial segments of great horror films are the “normal” scenes that come before the monster attacks – the rapport between the teenagers in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), the dynamics of the struggling family in Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (2006), the all-too-credible escape from the controlling boyfriend who isn’t yet a full-on movie monster at the beginning of the latest reboot of The Invisible Man (2020). Genre aficionado Rob Zombie, who remade Halloween in 2007, is an imaginative film-maker who has never had a mainstream hit because he’s obsessed with monsters who can be merchandised as action figures, but has zero interest in (and, in fact, contempt for) the people they kill.

In coming-of-age movies, pop music is a memory

When director Richard Brooks slapped the Bill Haley B-side Rock Around the Clock over the opening credits of Blackboard Jungle (1955) to give his film a contemporary edge, the result was incendiary. Teen audiences were reported to be dancing in the aisles and even slashing cinema seats, overcome by the excitement of hearing such up-to-the-minute sounds blaring out of the large speakers of their local cinemas. Yet by the time that same song reappeared – again over the opening credits – in George Lucas’s coming-of-age classic American Graffiti (1973), it had entirely lost its element of edgy threat. Instead, it had become an integral part of a nostalgic patchwork of jukebox hits used to evoke a lost age of innocence – a musical time-machine transporting the viewer back to a bygone era.

While pop music is still used to lend a cutting edge to some teen-oriented releases, its main function in contemporary coming-of-age movies is more likely to have a retrospective edge. Think about the 2017 best picture winner Moonlight: in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, director Barry Jenkins very specifically places Barbara Lewis’s melancholy hit Hello Stranger on a diner jukebox in a scene that could have come straight out of American Graffiti. Through the sound of that song, our protagonists are returned to their younger selves, rekindling the love they had before adulthood changed everything. As film producer Steve Woolley once observed: “Pop music in movies is like a knife – you twist it and nostalgia comes pouring out.”

In a heist movie, after the meticulously worked-out plan is put into action, there has to be a hiccup at the end of the second act...

This also works for putting-on-a-show musicals, men-on-a-mission war films and losers-turn-it-around movies – suggesting a mythic template underlies apparently disparate genres. The pleasure of these stories is that a problem is posed – a bank that can’t be robbed, a jewel behind the most elaborate security system in the world, a casino run by gangsters who’ll kill anyone who tries to rob them – that can only be solved by a range of specialists who might not naturally work together. A key scene – paralleled by the first rehearsal, mission briefing or locker room strategising in the related genres – has the master planner (producer, commanding officer, coach) explain on a blackboard, or using a model, exactly how the trick will be pulled off.

As the military maxim has it, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. At a crucial point, usually toward the end of the second act, a random factor has to be thrown-in – a changed password, an unexpected double-cross, a star who breaks her ankle so an understudy has to step up – forcing our heroes to ditch some element of their meticulous pre-planning and just wing it. Heist movies sub-divide into breezy romps and gritty noirs. In the former, Danny Ocean or some similar suave modern-day Robin Hood improvises his way out of trouble and dances off with the loot. In the latter, thieves fall out, or deadly fate gets in the way, and the joke’s on the dead guys who dreamed they could get away with it.

Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema begins at 9pm on Thursday 19 March on BBC4

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