EIFF 2009 - Roger Corman
He may be called the king of the B-movies but Roger Corman’s influence on cinema is incomparable, just ask Robert De Niro or Martin Scorsese. Miles Fielder traces the director’s roots
The Hollywood legend Roger Corman is guest of honour at the 63rd EIFF, which is this year hosting a very welcome retrospective dedicated to the man they rightly call the king of the Bs. Given the 83-year-old auteur has written, directed and/or produced upwards of 400 films since making his debut with the 1954 B-movie noir Highway Dragnet, the retrospective is a best of rather than exhaustive review. However, the 11 titles confirm that Corman gave us quality as well as quantity. They also remind us that his contribution to cinema is incalculable.
Corman’s hefty filmography is almost completely comprised of low-budget exploitation flicks. Getting them made required a combination of creative invention and business savvy. As the joke goes, Corman could negotiate the production of a film on the phone, shoot it in the phone booth and finance it with the coins from the change slot. The results of his efforts can be judged from the self-explanatory title of his memoir, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime.
In doing just that, Corman pioneered or reinvented just about every exploitation film genre – from Gothic horror to true crime, biker movie to delinquent drama, science fiction thriller to psychedelic trip – and he gave some of the big Hollywood names their first break, among them Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda and directors Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron and Joe Dante (who is also coming to Edinburgh this year). Corman’s films betray their sometimes virtually non-existent budgets, but that doesn’t mean they’re not well crafted.
His most widely celebrated films remain the series of eight Edgar Allan Poe adaptations he directed in the early-1960s. Those showing in Edinburgh – The Masque of the Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum, The House of Usher, The Raven and The Tomb of Ligeia – exemplify the cinematic, literate and, yes, even political nature of his filmmaking.
As Corman himself has said, ‘I’ve always wanted to make films that were well-crafted, intelligent and had something going on beneath the surface – all of my films have a political subtext. All of my films have been concerned simply with man as a social animal.’
The centrepiece of the retrospective is the In Person event with Corman. In the flesh, Corman is thoughtful, gracious, candid and very funny, pleasant attributes one might not immediately associate with the man who made the gruesome true crime dramas Bloody Mama and The St Valentine’s Day Massacre. Less surprisingly, perhaps, is that he’s great with the anecdotes.
By the late 1960s he had made the biker movie The Wild Angels (a Golden Lion nominee at the 1966 Venice Film Festival) with Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra and the psychedelic flick The Trip with Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper, and as Corman himself has admitted, ‘I was turned on in the 60s; I tried a lot of things.’
Corman’s got the stories, and he knows how to tell them. A year ago he was in London to pick up a lifetime achievement award presented to him by a small film festival dedicated to all things extreme in cinema. Asked then by a member of the admiring audience how the real Hell’s Angels had reacted to appearing in The Wild Angels, Corman recounted an anecdote about a run-in with the Angels’ infamous leader Sonny Barger. ‘The film having wrapped without incident,’ Corman said, ‘I was watching a television interview with Sonny Barger during which this known felon made a death threat to me. Later, he called me up and said he was unhappy with the negative way he and the Angels had been represented in the movie and he repeated his threat to kill me. So I said to Sonny, “You threatened to kill me live on television. Who do you think the cops are going to go to if I’m found dead? I think you should forget about murdering me and instead, if you’re really unhappy about the film, take legal action against me.” So,’ Corman recalled with a grin, ‘Sonny said, “Yeah, I think you’re right about that, Roger.”’
Corman’s ongoing influence can be felt throughout this year’s EIFF programme, but it’s worth checking out the 11 of his own that have inspired at least two generations of filmmakers. In addition to those mentioned above, the retrospective includes the rarely seen The Secret Invasion, Corman’s WWII men-on-a-mission movie that pre-empted Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen by three years and preceded Quentin Tarantino’s forthcoming Inglourious Basterds by three decades. Best of all, though, is an even rarer screening of Corman’s personal favourite, The Intruder, his 1962 race-relations pot-boiler starring a young William Shatner.
Of it, Corman said, ‘There is always a political undercurrent in my films. With the exception of The Intruder, I tried not to put it on the surface. And when I did with my picture about race relations in a Southern States town, it turned out to be the only film I made that didn’t make a profit. But I’m still very proud of that film.’
Roger Corman Season starts with House of Usher, Filmhouse, Thu 18 Jun, 1pm, £6.50 (£5.50); Roger Corman: In Person, Cineworld, Wed 24 Jun, 6pm, £15 (£12).