This week is Indy Week at The Picture Palace. Part 2: Temple of Doom.
Okay, prepare for incoming controversial opinion. I think Temple of Doom is the finest of the four Indiana Jones movies.
For me, it is the purest distillation of the B-movie spirit that inspired the character. It is an intoxicating fusion of David Lean's grandeur, old school B-movie pulp, and goofy, cornball humour. In other words, it is the best of all worlds.
The dramatic cinematography and sense of wonder are artfully purloined from David Lean. The grammar, phrasing and construction of scenes are all borrowed from Lawrence of Arabia.
Look at these snapshots from a single fluid shot in Lawrence of Arabia:
Now look at these snapshots from a similar single take in Temple of Doom:
There is a similar style at work here. Both shots unfold in a single take, but the turn of a head or the move of an eye shifts the focus of the frame. The camera moves or the focus shifts in perfectly choreographed moments that bring captivating changes in tone and emphasis.
Through subtle inflections in blocking, focus and composition the eye is drawn to different parts of the frame and the meaning of the scene shifts. Steven Spielberg is borrowing heavily from Lean in these scenes, but he is no petty thief. You can tell there is a master at work here. You can relax in the comfortable knowledge that you are in the hands of someone who knows what they are doing.
You also know you are watching a Spielberg movie. There are echoes of past triumphs with this deep focus shot:
Echoing this one from Jaws:
Then there is the B-movie spirit of Indiana Jones, never shown with more gusto than in Temple of Doom. For a start, there is this line:
"I've followed you on many adventures...but into the great unknown mystery, I go first, Indy."
That is a gloriously pulpy line that leaves you in no doubt about the celebration of B-movie greatness about to unfold.
Temple of Doom is a world of canny street urchins and sassy showgirls - Willie Scott seems to be a character who has accidentally strayed out of Gold Diggers of 1933, complete with her own magnificent musical number that defies narrative logic, time and space in the best possible way.
The movie also has an old-school take on foreigners and foreign food. The infamous "chilled monkey brains" and "snake surprise" scene is a slightly xenophobic caricature of foreign food, but it's very funny. It's clearly directed by someone who likes his American home comforts and has experienced the culture shock of visiting a strange country.
This old-fashioned flavour also extends to the immaculate effects work. There are beautiful, old-fashioned matte paintings and model shots. Check out this great clip from an old TV documentary about how they did the matte paintings.
It is also chock full of fantastic action sequences like the rope bridge, the coal carts, the opening scramble for the antidote and the fight to save Willie from human sacrifice.
Yet, despite all this, Temple of Doom has a rotten reputation. Even Spielberg has virtually disowned it, calling the film his "least favourite'' of the original trilogy.
"I wasn't happy with Temple of Doom at all. It was too dark, too subterranean, and much too horrific. I thought it out-poltered Poltergeist. There's not an ounce of my own personal feeling in Temple of Doom.''
The darkness is the thing that most people refer to when they criticise Temple of Doom. Sure there are human sacrifices, Indy turns bad for a bit and children are being whipped left, right and centre. But is it any darker than Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which has a similar plot about children being stolen to toil in underground mines? OK, it's a lot darker than Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but the real darkness is all contained in about 25 minutes in the centre of the film - the rest is all action and goofy fun.
My affection for Temple of Doom is probably coloured by the fact I saw it at the cinema at an impressionable age. Temple of Doom blew my eight-year-old mind. I still remember the elation as I left the Odeon with my mum, dad and sister. It was a rare family trip to the pictures and we all had fun. That was all I wanted as a child - the family happy and together. So, emotionally the film means something to me.
But, intellectually, I think you can argue that Temple of Doom does what George Lucas and Spielberg set out to do with Indy. It brings alive the pulp spirit of 1930s and 40s serials, but makes them more intense and exciting for a new generation. All the films in the trilogy achieve that goal, but none more so than the second instalment.
But, what do you think of Temple of Doom? Post below.
Indy Week continues on Friday with the Last Crusade.
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