Cross of Iron (1977)

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When I was growing up one of my favourite novels was The Willing Flesh by Willi Heinrich. The story of a German platoon abandoned behind Russian lines in World War Two is thrilling.  I loved it so much I wrote a sequel to it – in French! (For a high school writing assignment. It was read out to a no doubt enthralled throng on a day I chose … not to attend!) So it came as rather a shock to find that it had been adapted as a film years earlier under this title. Julius Epstein, Walter Kelley and James Hamilton are the writers responsible. I acquired my copy from a video outlet in Belfast (along with Big Wednesday, a favourite) and someone called Mervyn complimented me on my choice. In truth James Coburn was never my idea of Sergeant Steiner and while it receives typically robust treatment by director Sam Peckinpah, for me, it is a hard film to love despite it being a great anti-war tract.  I recommend the book wholeheartedly.

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The Vault of Horror (1973)

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Amicus (Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg) was the only other production company attempting to give Hammer a run for their money in the 60s and early 70s and this was another in their series of portmanteau films, adapted from stories by William Gaines. Five men are trapped in the basement of an office building and share their recurring nightmares. My favourite is the one with Terry-Thomas and Glynis Johns and their fabulous bungalow filled with vinyl wallpaper, anglepoise lamps and a mod kitchen. There’s also fun to be had in seeing Robin Nedwell (from TV’s Doctor in the House) and Arthur Mullard – and then finding out who’s really top dog at the end. Not really terrifying, more of a mood piece about male anxiety.

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972)

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Philip Kaufman has always made interesting films that have a unique premise and are executed in unexpected ways. His career was horribly damaged by the experience with Clint Eastwood on The Outlaw Josey Wales, which he should have directed, but his innate talent has always won out. He is basically a writer and he tends to make adaptations and this interpretation of the last, disastrous outing of the James and Younger brother is a case in point, made at the height of the revisionist era in the western genre. It is gritty and realistic and yet has a sort of hallucinatory tone which brings it back to the mind after viewing. Cliff Robertson and Robert Duvall are excellent in the lead roles. I’ve never seen Kaufman’s first films, Goldstein and Fearless Frank but would be delighted to know how to get hold of them.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976)

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This was hardly what a mainstream audience expected of a western released in the year of the Bicentennial, but then Robert Altman’s certain tendency towards revisionism was an altogether acknowledged thread throughout his work and this film co-written with Alan Rudolph (adapted from a play by Arthur Kopit) was no exception. Essentially a deconstruction of the myth of the making of the west, it declares itself in the title sequence, with Paul Newman credited as ‘The Star’ and Burt Lancaster as ‘Legend Maker.’ There are nice supporting performances from Altman regulars like Shelley Duvall and Geraldine Chaplin (who would star in Rudolph’s own Remember My Name) as well as Kevin McCarthy and Harvey Keitel but sometimes you yearn for the clear(er) lines of Shane because this is, sometimes, fatally dull.

 

T-Men (1947)

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The semi-documentary approach was in vogue in the immediate post-World War 2 era. Partly due to the war itself, the economics and the fashion for Italian neo-realist approaches. Director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton revelled in this pacy story about treasury agents going after a counterfeiting ring. What is lacking in star power and what irritates about the ‘official’ voiceover narration is made up for in action and tension. It’s also good to see Los Angeles in full flow in 1947. Alton’s work was truly extraordinary here and his book Painting With Light appeared two years later, explaining his aesthetic.  He and Mann made the beautiful The Black Book/Reign of Terror in 1949, a political allegory set around the French Revolution: that’s a film you simply have to see. They also collaborated on Raw Deal (again with Dennis O’Keeffe) in 1948 and Mann also worked uncredited that year with Alton on He Walked By Night, with some of the best cinematography you will ever see:  truly these men achieved great visuals together. Alton would move onto colour with An American In Paris; Mann would of course go on to direct some of the best westerns of the 1950s and he spent most of the 1960s working on epics like El Cid before dying aged just 60 in 1967.

Once Upon a Crime … (1992)

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Eugene Levy is best known as Jim’s Dad in the American Pie series but the comedian has a sideline as a director and this was his theatrical debut after some TV movies. He got Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers to rewrite an Italian film from 1964. They had used him to play a small role in Father of the Bride and he would have a larger supporting role in I Love Trouble a few years later. (Steve Kluger also gets a writing credit – it looks like they rewrote his adaptation). One of the great luxuries of watching movies is visiting places you now have exceeding difficulty in reaching because you have to strip off and wait for 2 hours at every airport you enter. The travelogue film really took off in the 60s but the title sequence is misleading: that and the first 5 minutes of this take place in Rome and the remainder of the story in its entirety takes place in Monte Carlo. So far, so good, but it’s shot kind of flatly and the meet-cute over a lost dachshund between Richard Lewis (you will know him from TV’s Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Sean Young never really materialises in the antic humour you might expect. There’s a murder, compulsive gambling and some serious eye candy in the form of Ornella Muti. There are Levy’s colleagues from SCTV – Jim Belushi and the late, great John Candy – Cybill Shepherd, George Hamilton. Giancarlo Gianinni and even the wondrous Elsa Martinelli in the opening sequence – but it’s just not the comedy you want it to be, even in that fabulous setting, despite the efforts of a very game cast. When Patrick McGilligan asked Meyers what she recalled of the script, she claimed it was a rewrite she couldn’t remember. I have written a book about Meyers, the most successful woman filmmaker in American history. You can get it on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Pathways-Desire-Emotional-Architecture-Meyers-ebook/dp/B01BYFC4QW/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1481117503&sr=1-1&keywords=elaine+lennon.

Oklahoma! (1955)

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Rodgers and Hammerstein revolutionised the stage musical with this when it hit Broadway in the 1940s- a properly integrated production with serious drama as the basis. After making the huge hit From Here to Eternity, director Fred Zinnemann, previously (and subsequently) known for quite serious films, could probably have had his choice of films – and he made this, shot in both Todd AO and Cinemascope, from different takes! fact fans. The score is rousing, the songs are amazing classic tunes and the staging is flawless, if a little lifeless. However the performances are winning – who can resist? Perfect entertainment for a windy rainy Sunday – or any day, come to think of it.

You’ve Got Mail (1998)

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I once asked an extremely famous screenwriter why he thought it might be that I have certain films (including one he wrote) on constant rotation chez moi, even if my head is telling me that some of them (not the ones he wrote) weren’t really for an intelligent woman. He said very simply – Because it makes you feel good. And that’s it, isn’t it, no matter how we might elect to rationalise our film choices. On the face of it, this seems like a film that no sensible female should like much less love. (Such as: Trainwreck, which was loathsome, is the least feminist movie you could imagine even with its foulmouthed female writer/star and if Kate Hudson had made it ten years ago with Owen Wilson/Matthew McConaughey she would have been hung out to dry. A woman who knows zip about sport and gives up her job to make her boyfriend feel better?? Really?! Reader, I wanted to vomit.) Here, Meg Ryan’s fabulous children’s bookstore (oh how I covet it) is ruined by a large book conglomerate which is shutting down independents everywhere (just go to Charing Cross Road in London and see if you recognise it from, oh, twenty years ago. The godless Hitlerites are everywhere). She gets some hope from the romance conjured up online (how clever was Ephron in ways to tell stories? She really uses the internet brilliantly here) and then finds out who her Romeo is … She’s Meg Ryan (Nora Ephron’s avatar – and a brilliant, underrated actress), he’s Tom Hanks. The emails that they communicate through may fall as they will. And of course because it’s an adaptation of the warmly remembered The Shop Around the Corner it’s readymade for criticism. Critic Hannah McGill wrote a superb essay on the issue of Ephron’s contradictory, inconsistent output which goes a way to explain the paradox of her treatment of love/mystifying cliches, in January’s Sight & Sound (a journal becoming bigger and more auteurist by the year!). So – despite everything, I love it. Because it makes me feel good. Sigh.