David & Lisa (1962)

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The first work by husband and wife team writer Eleanor and director Frank Perry.  David doesn’t like to be touched;  Lisa has a dissociative personality with two distinct personae. Somehow, in a mental hospital, this couple finds each other after both escape the centre and then return, making breakthroughs under the care of psychiatrist Howard Da Silva. Keir Dullea and Janet Margolin are impressive in their roles but it’s an enervating watch and difficult if you don’t like disturbed people acting out. Dullea had made his debut the previous year in Hoodlum Priest but remains best known for 2001: A Space Odyssey. This was Margolin’s debut and she died aged 50 in 1993. The Perrys were probably best known for The Swimmer and Diary of a Mad Housewife, further films distinguished by a careful, social sensibility with particularly modern concerns. Eleanor Perry was especially interested in women in film and despised their representation by directors such as Fellini, whose posters for Roma she defaced at the Cannes Film Festival in 1972.

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Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)

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The only time my parents expressed any concern about my childhood viewing habits was when they found me watching comedy double act Abbott and Costello – because Bud Abbott was such a bully. This reminds me of those halcyon summer mornings before tearing off to play with my friends then whiling away afternoons at the tennis club before a night of Christopher Lee acting all Fu Manchu. Sigh! Here, no sooner have our bumbling duo graduated from private detective school than a boxer on the run from the cops requires their services. He’s alleged to have killed his manager. His girlfriend’s father injects him with invisibility serum to help him find the gangster who framed him and all hell breaks loose when everyone thinks Costello is a great boxer. A classic match ensues. The special effects by Stanley Horsley are fantastic, the jokes funny (I especially like the one about a Whole Nelson) and it’s fast and furious. If you don’t like it, chances are you had better check your pulse.

 

San Demetrio London (1943)

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“I’ll do my best to steer her in the right direction but it’ll be by a guess and by God.” So says the captain of a downed merchant tanker which the crew reclaims from their lifeboat after U-boats have torpedoed it and they find it floating and on fire in the Atlantic. There are no star performances here – it’s not In Which We Serve either, a dissection of class – just a group of ordinary men, including a Yank, coming to the aid of this entity afloat. It of course serves as a metaphor for little island Britain and pluck and Allied cooperation. Robert Hamer came to the rescue of Charles Frend when he became very ill during production and they both wrote the screenplay. One of a number of propaganda films made by Ealing Studios and it makes excellent use of stock footage.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965)

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With a screenplay by Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper from the groundbreaking realist espionage novel of 1963 by the man known as John Le Carre, this is just as complex – in terms of narrative and morals – as the source material. Richard Burton is the British agent unwillingly retired who plays a role to entice an operation run by Control (Cyril Cusack) that will bring him back in the game. Along the way he falls in love with naive Communist Party member Nan (Claire Bloom, a real-life former lover) and we meet George Smiley for the first time on screen (played here by Rupert Davies). The stakes are high and agent Fiedler (Oskar Werner) is running a very dangerous line of enquiry which ends up in a trial at the East German’s presidium. Lives are exchanged with a brutal ending. Shot on location for the most part in Dublin which brought glamour to the dear old dirty place in the form of Burton and Taylor at the height of their fame. Berlin never looked like this – did it?! Grim but repays at the very least a second viewing for unbelievers. Burton is great.

The Glass Mountain (1948)

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This is a sentimental favourite of mine, ever since I first saw it one rainy afternoon on Channel 4 many years ago. And now there’s snow and sleet in the air it’s time to break it out again. Broke composer Richard Wilder (Michael Denison) writes a hit song in collaboration with poet Bruce McLeod (Sebastian Shaw) which enables himself and his wife Anne (real-life Mrs Denison, Dulcie Gray) to move out of their garret and into their dream home. WW2 breaks out and they both enlist, he as pilot.  His plane crashes in the Dolomites where he is nursed back to health by Alida (Valentina Cortese) and she tells him the legend of the Glass Mountain which he promises to write as an opera to star fellow rescuer Tito (the great baritone Tito Gobbi). Back home in England he realises his heart is torn between wife and lover as he composes the opera. The plane carrying Anne to Italy where the opera is being performed crashes and he must choose …  A finely tuned story co-written by legendary British producer Joseph Janni, lovely performances and of course the magnificent Gobbi’s voice singing to music composed by Nino Rota. Mountains, music, romance. Fabulous.

Forces of Nature (1999)

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A hapless man on the eve of marriage meets a female accident waiting to happen. Sound familiar? It’s a recipe for two great screwballs – Bringing Up Baby and its homage, What’s Up, Doc? two of my personal fave raves. Here we have Ben Affleck as Ben Holmes, blurb writer, about to marry Maura Tierney, when a gull flies into the fuselage of his plane from NYC to Savannah and with flights grounded due to a hurricane he hitches a ride with quirky Sarah Lewis (Sandra Bullock). Calamity follows disaster as the trip gets progressively more complicated meanwhile fiancee Tierney as Bridget is stuck with her parents who she finds living apart and rediscovers a childhood boyfriend has grown into a romantic hunk with a penchant for terrible 80s songs. There’s a night in jail, a bus ride with old folk en route to Miami, the best man turns up with the maid of honour and all manner of misunderstandings and social faux pas occur. Are you one of those who think every road trip is a psychological journey?! Yup, a bit of that runs through this … But! There’s some very sharp dialogue and Bullock and Affleck are both so young and appealing:  when did everyone get so old?! Written by romcom maestro Marc Lawrence, who would team up again with Bullock for the Miss Congeniality films and Two Weeks Notice, this is directed by Bronwen Hughes who had made the wonderful kids’ film Harriet the Spy but hasn’t done enough feature work since (and we do like Stander!) What’s not to like?

The History Boys (2006)

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Nicholas Hytner directed Alan Bennett’s play at the National Theatre where it was a critical and popular hit. He took it to the big screen with some of the stage cast. It’s the story of a group of sixth formers at grammar school who need coaching to get through their Oxbridge exams. A new Cambridge grad Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) said to be based on Niall Ferguson is brought in to enhance their chances. He has a style that clashes with that of camp eccentric Richard Griffiths, who has them learn endlessly quotable poems and perform songs and movie scenes; and traditional Frances de la Tour. The boys are a racial and sexual mix. They include a range of young acting talent, Dominic Cooper, Russell Tovey and James Corden among them. Their path to success is paved with difficulty and includes a day trip to a monastery burned out by Henry VIII who Irwin likens to Stalin and Thatcher. An interesting sojourn, definitely, but not cinematically great.

The Cimarron Kid (1952)

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This is the first western Audie Murphy shot after working with John Huston and here he’s directed by Budd Boetticher, himself an accomplished filmmaker who would make several classics in the genre, particularly in his Randolph Scott cycle. We have a story by Louis Stevens and Kay Lenard (one of those admirable women who wrote for the screen) about the Dalton Gang. One of their sidekicks is released from jail after serving time on trumped up charges and he is led to returning to the gang after being framed again. He gets involved in a double bank raid that goes tragically wrong with three of the brothers killed and is on the run, chased by a dozen posses in the Five Nation territory. He falls for Carrie, daughter of a former sympathiser, rancher Pat, and the two remaining gang members and himself need to get money to get free. There are deceits, betrayals and eventual entrapment. What has a man got to do after he’s made so many mistakes? Murphy’s acting was improving and his screen persona as a simple guy trying to do the right thing was finessed here and sent up rather sympathetically by the Coen Bros in their last outing, Hail Caesar!

High Fidelity (2000)

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Nick Hornby’s book had a zeitgeist quality for thirtysomethings reluctantly on the verge of Gen X adulthood, settling down and letting go of childish things – like humongous vinyl collections. It struck a chord everywhere which is why relocating it from North London to Wicker Park Chicago wasn’t such a stretch. Touchstone optioned it and figured the team behind Grosse Pointe Blank had the right sensibility for it. When director Stephen Frears came on board he restored the 4th wall aspect to the screenplay that star/producer John Cusack thought wouldn’t work – it does, beautifully. They had worked together  very well on The Grifters years earlier. Cusack is a kind of talisman for that age – The Sure Thing, Say Anything, Grosse Pointe Blank and now this – a collection of films from an actor who meant a lot to a lot of people but has never really burnished his career since then with the kinds of roles we might have expected. And if this doesn’t soar to the romantic heights, well, hey, that’s real life, isn’t it?! Settling for what you can get.

French Quarter (1978)

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We love N’Oleans, cher. And we love odd films. So this curiosity from the late 70s drive-in circuit is just the ticket. Directed by Dennis Kane from his screenplay with Barney Cohen. Bereaved drifter Alisha Fontaine (a newcomer of 17 going on 35 who had done a biker flick and a drugs movie some years earlier…) turns up on the Greyhound bus and doesn’t like life as a stripper. By some voodoo trick she winds up in the same bed 100 years earlier, in a brothel. Pretty Baby X French Lieutenant’s Woman, as one wag has it, this has okay production values, narrative stretch (with a VO to keep us in the loop) and some serious strangeness. Bizarrely, the soundtrack is composed by the great Dick Hyman and there are tracks by Jelly Roll Morton (who shows up 100 years ago!!!). Virginia Mayo’s late career appearance is a welcome addition. And there’s Barry Sullivan too!  (And spot a Playboy Bunny). Was it all just an especially piquant dream?