Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Andy Milligan's 'Nightbirds' is a gem

By Doug Gibson

I'd been meaning to write something about "Nightbirds," a 1970 Andy Milligan film, helmed in Britain for the owner of a "cinema club," that apparently had virtually no showings. According to Milligan biographer Jimmy McDonough, the cult director had a 16-millimeter print of "Nightbirds" that passed to the writer after Milligan's death. Eventually, McDonough (read an interview here) sold "Nightbirds" and other Milligan film memorabilia to filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, who had the cash to get Nightbirds a Region 2 release courtesy of the BFI's Flip Side label. (Read) Living n America, I bought the film and watched it on my laptop.

First, it's pure Milligan, a dysfunctional love affair where a weak man, Dink, played by oft-used Milligan player Berwick Kaler, meets a striking manipulative blonde, Dee, played by Julie Shaw. They begin an idyllic affair in Dee's rummage-filled upstairs flat making love often (this is one of the more erotic Milligan films) and talking, although it's mostly Dink revealing his feelings. Despite Dee's interest in Dink, there's a remoteness to her. Eventually, the pair develop conflicts. One involves Dee's mysterious relationship with her male landlord. The other involves Dink's friendship with a flirty, very middle-aged friend named Mabel. In a scene that is pure Milligan, the queenish Mabel physically flutters around Dee, appearing both maternal and sexually interested.

The film is similar to "The Servant," in that Dee slowly grows more calculating and manipulative toward her lover, so much so that the viewer realizes she's playing a sadistic game with a much-weaker, more vulnerable prey. All of Milligan's routine misogyny is on display, although Dee is more multi-dimensional, and harder to read, than the average Milligan antagonist. Whether this is due to Milligan, who made his unique films quickly and in slapdash fashion, or the superb performance by the beautiful, "vulnerable-looking" Shaw, is worthy of debate. Most of the cast is adequate, Kaler pretty good, but Shaw is simply marvelous in her role. Had independant film been more popular 40-plus years ago, she may have become a star. As it is, she disappeared after this non-release, never making another film.

I won't reveal more of the threadbare, dysfunctional but haunting "Nightbirds." Go see the film, readers. Buy the DVD, and take advantage of the trailer above. I have a challenge for TCM Underground, or IFC's more disappointing Grindhouse nights. Get a Milligan film. Although my preferred choice would be "Torture Dungeon," I'm sure that "Nighbirds," one of Milligan's top 5 films, and more like "Fleshpot on 42nd Street" than "The Ghastly Ones," would be an easy grab for either network. Readers should send emails to TCM and IFC and get Milligan on. If "Nightbirds" makes it TCM Underground, the director's early gay short, "Vapors," (read) would be perfect for a TCM Underground short.

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