It’s hard to beat the thrill of outdoor cinema in the summer time. Unless it rains. Film4 has been running its Sumer Screen programme at Somerset House for a decade now and it has proven phenomenally successful. As with previous years, tickets sold out extremely quickly. Luckily for me, I was able to procure a couple for the Saturday double bill of A Fistful of Dollars and Mad Max 2. What better way to watch Clint and Mel. That is if the rain holds off of course.
That had certainly been a problem for the previous night’s screening of Rosemary’s Baby. A steady downpour led to countless photos on social media of a sea of umbrellas spread across the square at the centre of Somerset House. Credit to the very wet audience for sticking it out. I needn’t have worried as summer reasserted itself for a pleasantly warm evening sat on a pile of remarkably comfortable blankets. With a gentle breeze, the sun slowly disappearing out of sight and a DJ spinning classic songs and film tracks, what’s not to like? And that’s before the films even started.
Not everyone seemed quite as interested in the films it must be said. The gentleman next to me lasted all of ten minutes into A Fistful of Dollars before rolling over and falling asleep. Just in case there was any doubt about his state of consciousness, the loud snoring made it pretty clear. For everyone else though, there was the opportunity to enjoy the first in the classic spaghetti western Dollars trilogy complete with operatic close-ups, sudden violence, a Morricone score and an enigmatically taciturn Clint Eastwood as the man with no name.
The plot is straightforward. Clint rolls into a small town south of the US/Mexico border controlled by two warring families. He proceeds to work in the middle playing them off against each other while pocketing a sack full of cash and restoring an imprisoned woman to her family. If much of that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same plot as the Kurosawa classic Yojimbo. So familiar in fact that a successful lawsuit was brought by Yojimbo’s Japanese distribution company.
Playing slightly lighter than the following entries in the trilogy, it contains all Leone’s trademarks albeit it in rawer form. The camera heads in close to any face it can find and the action sequences are a sustained burst of thrilling energy. The final showdown, while lacking the music box and three way antics of the second and third films, is still a highly satisfying conclusion. There’s even an irresistible charm in the slightly out of sync dubbed dialogue. A Fistful of Dollars lacks a truly outstanding villain but that aside, its undeniably good fun.
With a brief interval that allows just enough time to make it to the bar, I’m left wondering how a burst of Sergio Leone can be topped. A tricky proposition for sure but if anyone can do it, it’s Mad Max Rockatansky. The first Mad Max, an entertaining but uneven affair, launched Mel Gibson into the world as the post-apocalyptic law enforcement officer out to avenge his family. It was a visually arresting but flawed slice of pulp entertainment. The sequel doesn’t so much raise the bar as kick it aside to climb a mountain instead. Right from the opening narration, George Miller’s film can’t help but be cool.
Just like Clint, Max lives in the kind of world where you have to be a person no one wants to mess with to survive. And the road warrior is surely that. Desperate for petrol, the shortage of which brought about the collapse of the world in the first place, he discovers a small community that has managed to drill and refine enough to fill a tanker. Which would be fine if a gang of leather clad lunatics led by The Humungus wasn’t trying to steal the oil and kill them all. Initially in it for a full tank of petrol, Max ends up coming to the aid of the settlers. It’s brutal and utterly preposterous but it’s also the benchmark for post-apocalyptic action. And the final extended chase sequence is one of the finest ever committed to film.
When the credits role on Mad Max 2, it’s a shame to have to crawl out from under the blanket and head home. Although it’s almost worth it to watch the confusion on the faces of late night bystanders as a crowd of people clutching picnic gear and bin bags full of bedding emerge from the entrance to Somerset House. Even the guy who chose to spend his evening napping seemed to have a good time. It’s hard to beat outdoor cinema. And no one does it better than the Film4 Summer Screen.